The Dirty Truth about Kazakhstan – Mongol Rally Week 4

Floating road between Russia & Kazakhstan

Floating road between Russia & Kazakhstan

The Roads are HORRIFIC. The road from Astrikhan, Russia to Atyrau, Kazakhstan was like driving on the moon with one pothole after another. (I drove a decent amount of it – OUCH) Our team got ALL 3 of our flat tires in Kazakhstan on the road to Semey. Thankfully, we met some helpful Kazakhs that sorted out patching our only drivable spare in approximately 30 minutes at 11:30 at night!!

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There’s a major road project going on in Kazakhstan with the most beautiful roads being built, too bad they weren’t ready to be driven on this summer. (Except we did drive on one being paved in Atyrau. We saw no alternative route and we were looked at like we were crazy. It was nicer than most roads despite being wet.)

Sitting on One of the "New Roads" paying off Police

Sitting on One of the New Roads paying off Police

They are opening up their borders like never before. US Citizens no longer need a tourist visa upon entry as part of a test period for up to 15 days in Kazakhstan. This change applied to 10 countries in total and will last up to July 15, 2015.

5 Year Visa into Kazakhstan

5 Year Visa Entry into Kazakhstan

Despite their obvious push toward growth in tourism and otherwise, Kazakhs, in general, don’t seem too keen on tourists.

There are some seriously civilized cities in Kazakhstan such as Almaty.

Almaty had Anything You Might Need!

Almaty had Anything You Might Need!

There is no such thing as orderly lines, by in large, so be prepared to push your way forward and stand your ground. In fact, people are impatient in general.

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Our Rally Cars Took a Beating in Kazakhstan

It’s cheap but not as cheap as you’d think or expect.

Negotiating a "fine" equalled $200

Negotiating a “Fine” Equaled $200 USD

The police are corrupt and not just to foreigners.  We were pulled over in Kazakhstan 4 times in one day. However, over a period of time, we realized we could blatantly ignore the police, which felt odd as it’s not in our nature.

Dirty Windows Help Police Solicit Us as Free Money

Dirty Windows Help Police Solicit Us as “Free Money”

Kazakhstan is dusty and dirty. It wasn’t easy to keep our car or ourselves clean.

Kazakh Gals Drink Beer with Straws

Kazakh Gals Drink Beer with Straws

There is NO Borat and Kazakhs DO NOT appreciate Borat references. Fine Kazakh ladies do, however, have some odd customs.

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Filed under kazakhstan, mongol rally, travel

One Bucket List Item for 2015

I’ve never been into making a Travel Bucket List really but I am into setting travel goals and dreaming BIG of far-flung destinations. Whether you have a Travel Bucket List or not, let’s all try complete one travel goal or dream in 2015:

The travel blogging world lost Anita Mac, who took her own life, in 2013. Those of us involved in this post want to pick up the torch where Anita left off (her blog focused on bucket list travel) and pledge to accomplish one item from our own bucket lists during 2015.

We hope the posts reminds our readership, just like our 2014 One Bucket List item post did, how wonderful the world is and how we all can experience it.

Lola from Lola’s Travels

thailand new years celebration, the lantern

Well 2014 didn’t see me complete my one bucket list item for Anita but it sure as hell saw me complete a whole host of places I never imagined traveling to in 2014 or possibly ever in my lifetime. Capping off an epic year of travel, I spent the New Years holiday in Thailand and that was a bucket list item I didn’t plan on for 2014. The sweet happy smiles of Thai people is infectious and I was reminded how imperative beach time and sunshine are to my soul. Setting off floating lanterns saying farewell to 2014 felt right here. Anita would have approved.

For 2015, I wouldn’t mind my bucket list wish from 2014, Croatia, but somehow I think I’m destined for bigger travels. First stop of 2015 is a little taste of India. I’m thinking 2015 may be my Australia year as well, which I know Anita would love. And Asia, well Asia is my latest addiction. Happy New Year and here’s hoping you travel somewhere you’ve been dreaming of this year and remain open to the unknown possibilities of places you didn’t plan to visit.

Craig Zabransky of Stay Adventurous

surfing heals the mind, spirit and body

I remain grateful for all the adventures and experiences each year brings me and 2014 was certainly special. Amazing actually.  I am very fortunate to see and do so much in this wonderful world.

One thing I miss (and crave) is the opportunity to surf daily. My resolution is simple, to be able walk to the beach with a surfboard under my arm and paddle out for a daily surf session.  And then follow each day with the opportunity to soak up a sunset on the beach with my journal, and maybe a cerveza too. Then repeat and repeat again; repeat for a week.

In 2015  I plan to make a one-week surf holiday happen. It will be the perfect holiday for physical, mental and spiritual health too. I know it will help me focus on what is important, and that is such a critical aspect to travel and the adventure we call “our life.”

Erin Marie Musich of The World Wanderer

yoga heals the wandering soul

India is a country I have longed to visit for some time, and in 2014, I vowed to make that dream a reality. Tickets were booked, accommodations and plans were made, but after CKGS lost my passport, that dream eventually fell apart. What upset me most was that I vowed to visit the subcontinent in Anita’s honor. Still, I am a believer that all things happen for a reason and know that I will get to India when I am supposed to be there.

Of course, I’m hoping that 2015 is the year that I can finally make this dream a reality.  My hope is to spend some time volunteering with children, as was my original plan, but I would also love to work on getting my certification to teach yoga. This year, yoga has had a profound effect on my well-being and I would love to take my practice deeper.  India is a place of deep spirituality and I know that it is the ideal country for this journey. Nothing is set in stone, but I would love for this to be my bucket list destination for Anita once more in 2015.

Ted Nelson of Traveling Ted

traveling ted races the birkie, skiing

Each year in February, I ski the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski Marathon in Hayward, Wisconsin. The Worldloppet Federation lists this race as the marquee Nordic competition in the United States. The number one race across the border in Canada is the Gatineau Loppet in Ottawa, Quebec.

The race takes place each year in February one week before the Birkie in Wisconsin. I have for many years now wanted to do both races in the same year. It has also been a bucket list item of mine to compete in other Worldloppet races. This year I am finally going make both of these goals a reality.

This bucket list has a very personal tie with Anita. When I met Anita at the TBEX in Toronto she mentioned that she lived in Ottawa. I told her about my desire to ski the Gatineau, and she invited me to stay with her as she lives not too far where the race takes place. I am really excited to make this trip, but it will be with a heavy heart knowing that Anita will not be there.

Join Us and Also Reach Out to People to Share Some Love

We encourage you to join us in this quest and take on at least One Bucket List item in 2015, but more importantly, we also hope you take the opportunity to (re)connect with friends and loved ones during this holiday season.

The purpose for writing this post is not only to inspire others to travel the world and explore, but as a way for us to remind all of you who are reading this post to look around you, see who you can reach out to and possibly help reach their goals and feel supported and loved. Our friend and fellow traveler, Anita took her life because she didn’t see any other options. We don’t want anyone else to feel that way.

XO – Lola

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10 Stocking Stuffers For Your Traveler

santa

Looking for last-minute ideas for your traveler this holiday season? Lola is here to help! Here are 10 stocking stuffers all priced under $30 and all Lola Approved!

universal-travel-adapter

Universal adapter in fun bright colors from CB2. This all in one adapter is just $22.95. Let me tell you, your traveler can NEVER have too many of these! As a frequent “loser” of adapters, this is one gift I’d truly appreciate.

buff

The original Buff is something that I have found to really come in handy. Your traveler can use it for a headband, scarf, toboggan hat, dust buff, hairband and more! With over 12 ways to wear it, this colorful accessory can make any repeat outfit seem a bit different. Starting at $20.

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You tell me who couldn’t use a festive flask? Liquid Courage Flasks make amazing ready-made flasks for $20. You can also custom create ones for a more personal touch. I always like to travel with a flask. You never know when you might not be able to find your favorite poison.

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OK. This may seem like a silly thing but Tiger Balm was one of the most useful things I brought on the Mongol Rally this summer. It’s a cure-all for many things including rashes, mosquito bites, chest colds & aches and pains. You can find it on Amazon for $10-$12.

loloblue

Lolo Bags are perfect for carrying around the Blue Lagoon in Iceland to keeping your valuables safe on the beach in Miami to the Mongol Rally. Only $28 this cute little pouch features a zip top closure and works perfectly as a coin case or mini make-up case. Toss in a lip gloss and a credit card and this little bag is ready to go. I cannot live without mine now! As you can see, it can also be personalized.

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For your practical travelers out there…Tide travel size pouches are less than a dollar and available at Target in their travel toiletry section. AND it’s not easy to wash your unmentionables on the road without a travel clothesline $7.50 at REI. I cannot stress how much I’ve used these two items on my various travel experiences.

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DIY carry on cocktail! Ummm YES PLEASE. I love this idea so much. For $25 you get everything you might need to make a stiff drink on your flight: bitters, cane sugar, a linen coaster and a muddler. The tin is small enough to slide into your carry-on, and it’s TSA/FAA approved.  Currently The Old Fashioned is their only flavor but additional recipes are coming soon. All you need to add is a nip of bourbon.

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OK, yes. Another practical gift. But tell me, when has travel-sized baby wipes ever not been appreciated?! Uses are cleans hands, TP when there is none plus cleans stains on clothes. Around $3 at CVS.

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One of my most used Christmas gifts from last year is this handy-dandy travel scale from Amazon. Best $13 you can spend on your favorite traveler. This scale can weigh luggage up to 70 pounds and comes with a tape measure to boot!

photobooth

Another tried and true Lola necessity! Photo booth party props from Amazon are only $9 and perfect to get any party started. Talk about the *easiest* way to break the ice and make new friends. Plus, you never know when you might need to be incognito ;)

OK go forth and travel, my friends, and a VERY MERRY HOLIDAY SEASON to you all!

XO – Lola

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#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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Filed under central asia, europe, mongol rally, travel