During week three of the Mongol Rally, our team continued to convoy with our favorite “Just Might Make It” in and out of Russia and Kazakhstan quickly and onto Uzbekistan. We had a ball convoying together (or at least I did) and have some fab stories from this week.
Big Bad Russia?!
Starting off with a bang, I drove the morning leg into Russia after a very painful border crossing. We had pulled an all-nighter and the length of time and inefficiency just about made my teammate Mike crazy. Nevertheless, he persevered on and got the questionable insurance Russia may or may not require at the flea bag hut by the border crossing. “Just Might Make It” opted to worry with it later after a frustrated Russian woman suddenly decided she wasn’t open for insurance business that morning at 5am. Since we’d driven all night, it seemed logical that our first order of business was to get something to eat. Only problem was we had no rubles. Thankfully some local Russian man would exchange US dollars and I was able to buy myself and the boys something to eat at a roadside stand. Even though the woman working there didn’t seem to understand us, and vice versa, she had a ball watching us have fun and laugh together.
Will we be bribed by the Russian Police?
Quickly after crossing into Russia we learned that the local enforcement liked Lola. At a military check point, we had to show all our papers and passports. BUT I had to show mine not only to the woman working the checkpoint but also the man present in uniform. All he said after checking it out was ‘nice passport’. OKKKKK. Our next run-in with the authorities was late at night (we had decided to drive straight through Russia due to the tensions with the Ukraine – in retrospect this may not have been necessary. Where we were in Russia was safe and people were very helpful). I was asleep in the backseat when I realized we’d been pulled over along with our convoying team and 2 other rally cars. The police wanted to see that ‘insurance’ we bought at the crossing that “Just Might Make It” hadn’t. The 2 other rally cars were in our exact same situation. One paid a $200 bribe. “Just Might Make It” somehow convinced the police to accept a carton of cigarettes they bought at the duty-free for $30. I think it had to do with my affiliation with the team. Once I woke up and hopped out the car the police suddenly got quite interested in Lola. Wanted me to smoke their cigarettes and know where I was from. Wanted to know which of the guys was my boyfriend. When I replied none, the police then asked if they might be gay. In the end, everyone paid their bribes and I was given a bag of fruit and candy from the police. Surely just another bribe they’d collected earlier that evening!
Should I give Nikolai my number?
Driving through the night, we finally made it to the Kazakhstan border. But not before clearing customs and border control again in Russia. Honestly, it was no big deal. I only mention it because it was HILARIOUS. One by one, we went up to the window for our exit stamp from Russia. When it was my turn, the border guard, Nikolai, became quite flirtatious with me – asking for my phone number and where I was going. He was disappointed to learn we had driven through his town, Astrakhan, and were heading to Mongolia. He made sure to say goodbye to Lola several times. No border crossings were ever that fun or eventful before or after despite flirting guards attempts. Entering Kazakhstan after our second all-nighter in a row, we hit the dreaded roads we’d heard about. Somehow I was driving again and I actually loved dodging the potholes although I’m pretty sure my teammates and our car didn’t appreciate it AT ALL.
Who knew Kazakhs hate queues?
Our hope was to get to Atyrau, Kazakhstan for the night and then push on to Uzbekistan. It was definitely time for a shower for one and all as well as a proper meal. I took the time to re-dye my hair and put on a dress. I had 5 adorable dinner dates that evening and we finished our night playing pool on the bottom floor of the hotel. Wifi was getting more and more scarce and I definitely could see my future of no communication with the outside world coming. The people in Atyrau were very nice but as we made our way to the border we found more unwieldy Kazakhs. Let’s just say we learned the hard way that 1) Kazakhs don’t believe in lines what.so.ever. 2) Kazakhs don’t seem to like tourists and in particular possibly Americans. After at least 45 minutes of waiting at an ATM and starting arguments with pushy Kazakhs, 2 of the boys were able to make a little human wall around me and then vice versa. It was a good lesson for future passport control situations we would encounter later.
Will we get busted for camping illegally?
As we left Kazakhstan, we discussed how it’s illegal to camp in Uzbekistan and that if you are there longer than 3 days you need proof of where you stayed. IE. a proper piece of paperwork from a hotel. (Thank god for Andrew and his Lonely Planet book) This really isn’t a big deal except there’s not a hell of a lot of hotels in lots of Uzbekistan. We crossed the border just after midnight buying ourselves an ‘extra day’ not to prove where we slept and then we pulled off the road and camped just good little lawbreakers do. Although there are many undesirable things about Uzbekistan, ironically, it was one of my more favorite places we traveled through. It’s very poor, there’s virtually no gasoline to be found (you buy it on the black market), it was hotter than Hades, there’s no cold bottled water (try shower warm every time), no cell service, no wifi, checkpoints constantly (Uzbek people aren’t allowed to easily move about) and corrupt police.
BUT the people were just a delight. I loved the children we encountered – curious and full of wonder. So many people were lovely to us. And I found it very pretty beyond the desert. One of my most favorites spots was Khiva where we took a short break from the road to find petrol and see the beautiful walled-in city that was a part of the Silk Road. Khiva was the city the Disney story Aladdin was modeled after and you certainly could imagine taking a carpet ride while there. It was surprising, too, how many folks spoke some English in Uzbekistan, given that their lives are fairly restricted by the government.
Will we shower or have wifi ever again?
Besides the 2 nights of illegal camping, (we luckily didn’t get caught) I could tell you about the truck stop we stayed in. Mike negotiated a room for all 6 of us to sleep in. It may have been the grossest place I’ve ever stayed. No, I’m sure it is. Camping in the dusty desert seemed cleaner. It was an experience and a half but I’d rather focus on the lovely hotel we found in Samarkand. After 3 days of dirty, almost anything would be welcome but Hotel Emirhan was a breath of fresh air for Uzbekistan. So beautifully decorated, fresh and clean, and the staff was amazingly helpful. Oh, and let’s not forget the almighty wifi we’d been starved of all that time in Uzbekistan. Finally, we could have contact with the outside world! After getting cleaned up, we decided to go out on the town (if it was possible) because it was our last night convoying with “Just Might Make It”. Somehow we managed with the help of the hotel to find an underground club that was still open at midnight on a Thursday. Remember Uzbekistan is a restrictive country! We had a blast after our crazy cab ride just trying to find the place. (another funny story) The club wasn’t very crowded but of the patrons who were there it was perfect little glimpse of Uzbek social life. It seemed liked a bachelorette party with all the ladies “whooping” on the dance floor. We just enjoyed our beers, shots, hookah & people watching as we laughed about our journey so far. Sadly, the next morning we were to go our separate ways and hopefully meet up again near Mongolia.