#LolasMRJourney – Week Three

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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.

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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.

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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. :P 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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Filed under central asia, kazakhstan, mongol rally, russia, travel, uzbekistan

#LolasMRJourney – Week Two

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Moving on in my Mongol Rally adventures, our team went from Europe to Asia this week. Turkey & Georgia were the two countries we passed through. I really enjoyed Turkey and will definitely spend more time there in the future. We decided to take a couple of days to regroup, do laundry and let loose in Istanbul. It was a fantastic small taste of a fabulous city. I enjoyed a quick tour of the Old City while getting our laundry done. Of course, if you don’t already know, this is where I met the infamous Adam, who was quite smitten with me. He was one cute, fun and funny guy! In the evenings, we spent our time discovering little gems in Taksim. I was so surprised by how late that area stayed open and also how many children were up well past midnight.

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From Istanbul we spent our time in Turkey making our way toward Georgia. We stopped off in Cappadocia seeing the cool caves and other rock formations. It was beautiful and we had a lovely day there. We had some fun camping adventures here too. One morning waking up to a sheep drive. The second camping experience found us by a picturesque reservoir where our convoying team got stuck in the mud only to be towed out by a kind Turkish family who then invited us all to have tea. We enjoyed an evening making a campfire, drinking & dancing and I slept under the stars. The next morning the friendly Turkish family returned to fish for the day but sent us off with blessings.

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Our final night in Turkey, we stayed in Trabzon, a decent sized city where we were able to get some parts/work done on our vehicles. We also managed to find a couple of bars, which isn’t an easy feat in Turkey. Drinking alcohol isn’t popular there. Of course, the only late night beer joint, literally called ‘Beer House’ was a brothel of some sort with karaoke. Very interesting experience!

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From there we moved on to Georgia and met our first crazy border crossing experience. Hours later we were on the other side and easily drinking beers right at the crossing waiting for the other teams to get through. Talk about a night and day alcohol experience! Georgia wasn’t my favorite. It’s poor and very dirty.  Granted, we only camped one evening and drove straight through the second. We never made it to Tbilisi, which I’m sure was a worthwhile stop. Our nicest Georgian food experience was McDonalds. Had we stayed longer, I’m sure we could have found a better option. As we made our way to Russia, we stopped off at a police station to pick up another rallier’s wallet, who was already well ahead. It got turned in after being left at a bar. If you can believe, ALL the money was still in it! So perhaps, even if Georgia is dirty, maybe it’s full of honest people. How refreshing!

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#IcelandStopover Best of the West

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I had the good fortune of visiting Iceland for a second time this year. I just love that country & cannot get enough. This trip, I took advantage of the Icelandair Stopover Program that’s simply brilliant. (I’ll be using that travel strategy again for sure) I had a few extra days before I needed to get to London and so I visited my lovely friend Inga, of Tiny Iceland, and we went on a road trip to the West of Iceland. A part of the country I didn’t see in March. I’m sure all of Iceland is gorgeous in the summertime but WOW, West Iceland is out of this world.

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What you can expect to see in West Iceland are fantastic views of mountains, glaciers, rivers and lakes as well as fjords and picturesque bays. In the summer, the animals are left to roam freely only to be collected again in the fall. It makes for interesting driving with the random sheep crossing but it’s really fun too. West Iceland is also known as Sagaland because most of the Icelandic Sagas were written there. So you can imagine West Iceland is full of wonderful folklore and tales of adventure!

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Here’s some of the eye candy that West Iceland offers!

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Beautiful fjords

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Sheep roaming free in the fields AND roads

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Gorgeous mountains

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PUFFINS!!

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Erik the Red’s hideout island

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Beloved Icelandic horses

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Majestic waterfalls

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Amazing vistas

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Precious ancient Icelandic goats

This visit was sponsored by Sixt Iceland, Icelandair, Icelandair Hotels, Hotel Edda, Fontana Spa BUT as you know, I love Iceland and no sponsorship in the world will change that!

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#LolasMRJourney – Week One

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Mix a bit of chaos with things that are familiar and that’s the Mongol Rally journey through western Europe into eastern Europe. Seeing the countryside is really great and not something you often do when you fly in and out of big cities. Revisiting some of the major cities and capitals has also been lovely albeit very brief.

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Driving is a hoot especially going into small town restaurants and gas stations. Surprisingly, so many people have spoken English and are so friendly. It helps to be nice to them too. Smiling or offering a compliment has definitely won me a few new friends.

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Spending long periods of time in a car is easy for me and very difficult at the same time. I don’t mind the idle time but it’s stressful on teammates and can cause snippy remarks, me included. One thing I would stress is how important it is to take into consideration everyone’s wishes. I just conceded to missing out on the beach party on the Black Sea and am very disappointed but it isn’t just me to consider here. Hopefully, down the road, whether it’s this roadtrip or another, teammates will concede to something that is important to me.

photo 1-10So to all you current and future ralliers, be good to your teammates. There’s gonna be lots of days and nights ahead where it’s just you and your team. And when anyone starts to bug you, remember some thoughtful gesture or concession they made on your behalf. Try to stay positive. That’s exactly what I’m doing right now to get on my OM.

Sending light and love to all making this journey. Safe travels. LOLA

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Discovering Istanbul

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Istanbul, the bridge between Europe and Asia, can be considered as one of the best cities to visit worldwide. From the beautiful mosques perched over the Bosphorus strait to the incredible Grand Bazaar, Istanbul has a mix of cultures all coming together in one place. There is no lack of awe inspiring sites to see, the only problem is seeing them all if you a have a limited time in the city. Here are some tips on how to get the best of the old Byzantine and Ottoman Empire capital.

There are many great areas to stay in Istanbul, but one of the best is around the Galata tower or in the Karakoy neighborhood. Should you be searching for accommodation in these areas of Istanbul, you can do it online, because booking providers such as Venere.com do a search by city zone possible. After you have found your place to stay, these two areas are a must see before you hit the landmarks on the other side of the strait. The Galata tower is a Romanesque 14th century tower that has an incredible view of the city and houses a great restaurant and night club at the top. It was once used to spot fires for the Ottomans but now is used to get a stunning look at the Blue Mosque and Topkapi palace from the other side of the strait. From there you can make your way down the winding streets to the bridge that takes you across. It is called the Galata Bridge, and here you can dine underneath the structure. Here they literally catch fish and put it directly from the line onto the grill, be sure to go here for a truly unique experience and amazing seafood.

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Photo credit: Istanbul Spice Market by Jason Persse (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Across the strait you can first visit the Topkapi palace that used to house the Ottoman sultans. Sitting on top of a beautiful park, the palace has incredible gardens and museums where you can see the ancient treasures of the once mighty empire. Next, go to Aya Sofia or Hagia Sofia, the enormous church turned mosque that was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. It has some beautiful mosaics, but honestly not much else. It is even better to see from the outside. The best site of the city is easily the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque. It stands out on the skyline of Istanbul because of its blue colored stone work and immense dome accompanied by six minarets. Inside with its hanging lights, is truly a religious experience because of its tranquility. It is also still used as a mosque today, so watching the prayer is something you might want to see.

Lastly, the Grand Bazaar and Istanbul Spice Market are great places to wander around. The bazaar has gorgeous tiles and artwork, as it was the main market during Ottoman times. However, the actual shops are a bit touristy. The Spice Market has a more authentic experience and you can try endless types of Turkish delights from the many vendors making it fresh! Be careful in these areas though, because pickpockets target tourists in large crowds. But other than that Istanbul is a safe and incredible city to visit.

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Filed under istanbul, travel, turkey