Uzbekistan Part 1

Just like in Mission Impossible, our day also had room for a high-speed car chase. Sweating, salt-encrusted and hoarse, we screeched across the border at around 3mph, pushing the overlong heap of metal and fake luxury wood. Then we pushed the extravagantly inconvenient ex-funeral accessory to border guards who searched it. Then we pushed the crippled container of superfluous leg-room through a further two passport checks. Then we pushed it into Uzbekistan.

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In between these exhilarating happenings, we also managed to snap a tow eye off another car; the Suzuki Jimney that had decided to stick with us (seemingly out of equal parts of abject pity and good character). They got what was coming to them. The bastards.

In retrospect, it is hard to believe that the following events also occurred on that same day, but the day did actually continue to happen to us.

After driving past an Uzbeki necropolis (and mistaking it for an ornate village for small subterranean people) we swam in a dirty pool of water. At the time, it was a literal oasis at the end of a literal desert. Seven teams celebrating not having had their balls twisted slowly in hydroxidised vices in a Turkmen prison, running for the cool caress of that pungent liquid pit. Someone brought out shampoo and it got weird. But it also got dandruff free! The locals; skinny, underwear-clad teens, seemed perplexed at our joyous reunion with fluid.

Arguably less filthy, we pulled into an Uzbek village. It took only a few seconds for us to get stuck, swarmed by drunk, generous men offering us places to stay (all later to be contradicted by furious wives unseen). It was a step up from the mob upon entry to Turkmenistan, putting the Uzbeks in first place for spontaneous mobbing. We drank cold beers before moving on in search of a place to camp.

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For reasons unknown at the time of writing, the Ford Escort team decided at this point that they did not want to tow us any further that night. So they heartlessly left Jack and Dom to defend the defunct death-stalker through the night beside a mosquito-infested, lorry-frequented marsh by a roundabout with a police checkpoint on it. They took Steve and Ollie with them and subjected them to a meatless lentil concoction. The bastards.

12/08
In the morning, they awoke Dom and Jack, who had writhed into twisted, cramped wrecks within the hull of the lifeless limo carcass, by driving directly into the side of it.

Keen to fix our beloved Rover we made an early start and headed towards Nukus. Being towed 20km to the outskirts felt like a dream: the inertia switch did not trip, the tow rope didn’t snap and the undercarriage did not bottom-out once. The search was on to find a trusty garage capable of returning our car to its former glory. Or, more realistically, to turn it into a rattling, tattered, dusty box capable, at the very least, of movement under its own power. Fortunately the first back road we took lead us directly to a complex of 20 garages; unbelievable right!? As we pulled into the complex, our tow rope snapped for the last time of trip (touch wood! Though in amongst the faux mahogany of the limo you’d be hard-pressed) and a mob quickly gathered around us.

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The shit roads in Turkmenistan had also taken their toll on the other rally cars in the convoy. The Ford Escort had leaked power steering fluid all over the power steering belt, which consequently meant their steering was a bit on the heavy side; making their towing skills the previous day even more admirable. The Skoda Felicia had a knocking sound coming from a loose rear wheel bearing. The Suzuki Jimny’s rear shock absorber had become detached due to a bracket shearing. And finally the BMW R80 had a bit of a birthday with an oil change. Luckily there were plenty of garages for everyone.

One mechanic took an immediate shine to the Rover and ushered us towards his pad. The space in the garage was occupied with a modern car undergoing an engine rebuild, suspended in the air on a large hydraulic car jack. This boosted our confidence in the mechanic’s technical ability somewhat, although, at the same time the distinct lack of tools, his arsenal consisting of only a few spanners and a variety of different sized hammers, left us pondering whether the Rover would make it out alive. No one ever likes talking about Health & Safety, especially with the ridiculously strict regulations that govern in the UK, but it is probably worth a mention in this instance. Firstly, the Health part: every mechanic was seen with a cigarette constantly burning in their mouth, which to begin with off is not good for you anyway, but also meant that their visibility was impaired with smoke; not ideal when considering the Safety part. Additionally they all had what appeared to be tea leafs under their tongue to give them a further nicotine hit, therefore, considering the hot weather, it was no surprise these guys were fairly chilled out. Now the safety part. The car was jacked up in order to take the front driver’s side wheel off to fix the driveshaft, which is perfectly reasonable. However, the fact that the car was on a slope, with a vintage trolley jack, jacked so high that one rear wheel was off the ground and the car was put in neutral, was not safe at all.

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With a dodgy handbrake and the herds of people leaning on the car (and the jack), there was no chance any of us were going underneath the 2 ton car, even with Ollie’s eagerness to get involved. Last but not least, putting your whole head into any area that has been thoroughly doused in petrol while your bottom lip supports a lit cigarette is probably, for reasons inexplicable in even our excellent Russian, ill-advised.

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Our Rover 827 Haynes Service and Repair Manual outlined that driveshaft removal was a 3 out of 5 spanner difficulty rating, which detailed that it was “fairly difficult – suitable for a competent DIY mechanic”.

Although useless to the mechanics it enabled us to gain a bit of knowledge and supervise their every move. Surprisingly, the three mechanics worked on the car following each step flawlessly; it was as if they had an Uzbek copy in the back or had worked on Rover’s for years. The ABS speed sensor didn’t faze them, they didn’t even require specialist tools such as a ball joint splitting tool; these guys were obviously pro’s. Using a combination of pin-point accuracy and sheer power, the hammering skills of these Uzbek mechanics dismantled the complex mechanisms responsible for steering, breaking and suspending the car; who needs all the tools huh! It was like Ollie had travelled to meet the wizened Central Asian Shaolin master mechanic, the man who forces you to look within the car and cast away all of the extraneous distractions.

In no time at all, the driveshaft was removed and laid out on the floor. The three of us studying Mechanical Engineering had already thought about how to fix the driveshaft and it required a welder, an example of which was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately at this point the mechanic’s son, Karalpak, turned up and despite only being 14 years old was able to translate our thoughts to his father. It was unclear whether or not the father fully understood, or took any notice of us at all, but he began searching for a solution. After a short walk around the garage kicking bits of scrap metal, he picked up a rusty old tube, quickly checked that it fit over the driveshaft and turned to us to give a nod of approval. Once he had instructed another mechanic on the master plan, the boss went for a well-deserved lie down in the back. The other chap scuttled away and soon returned with a grinder to cut a section of the tube off to be used to couple the two parts of the driveshaft back together.

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Despite it appearing as if the complex of garages were all in competition with one another, it turned out that they did in fact all work in union, like a symbiotic mechanical hive of hives. Each owned a specialised tool or piece of equipment that they could offer to each other to complete the huge variety of challenges they faced on aggregate. Our guy had a suspension clamping tool that allowed us to dismantle the driver’s side front suspension strut (that we had replaced on the side of the road in Turkmenistan) and insert the aluminium spacer above the spring to raise the car back up. A job Ollie couldn’t do without crawling underneath the 2 ton human trap.

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Meanwhile the mechanic had scuttled off again to a mate’s garage with the driveshaft and the tube to get it welded together. Half an hour later he returned and the driveshaft was in one piece. The two beaded welds were questionable! Nevertheless the mechanics reassembled the front of the car around the bandaged shaft and she was back to her former glory. It was as if she had just rolled off the Rover production line back in 1994… This might be a slight exaggeration but at the time our hallucinations were most likely caused by severe dehydration. Anyhow, after all of the pain, after hours of waiting in the draining sunlight, the car was fixed. Thumbs up were given and Ollie stepped up to test drive the car. He made it 10 feet before stopping. The bloody driveshaft had snapped!
Round 2 – the speed fix. The mechanics stepped up their game ten-fold. Miraculously, the driveshaft was out in a record time of 5 minutes; setting a new PB compared to his debut run of 50 minutes. Keen to restore his street credit amongst his fellow mechanics the boss dealt with the fix himself this time.

A quick visit to his mates and the driveshaft once again returned in one piece. However, this time the welds have extra beef added and two countersunk holes either side of the fracture had been drilled in order to add reinforcement pins. Not a bad idea and it looked far more promising this time round. Two random bolts were painstakingly selected from the floor somewhere nearby where the mechanic was squatting and tapped into place. BUT rather than returning to his mate’s place to weld the bolts into place (a sensible option), he decided to create his own rivets. It was as if he was a psychopathic serial killer hitting his victim (in this case our driveshaft) with a hammer to weaken them (or in this case to weaken the welds) and continuing to hit them an abnormal number of times well beyond the required limit (further weakening the welds).

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That was the sole piece of metal that stood between us and motion, and here were two mechanics taking it in turns to hit it with homemade hammers with all their strength. Anyhow, after spectating (what felt like) the exaggerated fury-killing of a motionless innocent, the driveshaft repair was finished and once again the car was reassembled back to former glory.

Standing over the gleaming (read: filthy) machine, the mechanic stared Ollie confidently in the eyes as if to say “go on then asshole, try your best to break it now”. So he did. Ollie jumped in the car, reversed her out and then throttled it, spinning the wheels on the spot and racing off into the distance. The logic here was that we didn’t want to drive 20km down the road and have it snap on us, so best to rev the bollocks off it now to see whether the repair holds. It seemed to be ok. The mechanic also had a drive and drove her hard; this eagerness to use all the horses was probably fuelled by his frustration of us bragging to him and all of his mates for the last 5 hours about how quick it could go. The car returned to the garage still in a driveable state. Even though we were still feeling fairly sceptical about the fix, we were very thankful to Karalpak, his father and team of mechanics for giving it their best in fixing our steed.

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The Rover was back on the road! Great success!

Turkmenistan Part 2

11/08
The day started with flies delicately alighting on our faces in the room that some 15 Mongol Ralliers shared the floor of. Our car alarm had woken us twice in the night, like a new-born child signalling oncoming sickness. Weary, sighing, we had risen to settle it back down and prevent further unexplained wailing. They say that the wise man listens to the omens of the desert, but western cynicism had closed our minds to the language of the earth. And to the language of the Rover 827si Limousine.

Starting the car as the sun rose, we set out on the 250km drive to the Turkmen border with Uzbekistan. It was the final day of our visas – we had to leave the country before the border closed at 6pm. I suppose the consequences of failing to do so were kept from our thoughts by a cousin of the curtain of self-deception that had adorned the decade long dictatorship in Turkmenistan. Curtains like these can fall with the snap of a rod.

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Ahead of us was a single straight road through yellow sands, heaped perfectly carelessly, endlessly. The air bakes the back of your throat at midday. The Rover started with the baritone explosions it had so faithfully contained for 20 years. It had showed no noticeable difference in performance from the humid, fragrant pines of Austria to the hostility of the ‘stans. A convoy of 7 teams of ralliers, sandwiched the limousine like a protective battalion. We were filled with the kind of unobtrusive optimism that had buoyed us all along.

It was probably no single pothole that brought about the challenges that we faced that day. It was probably not the speed we were travelling at that particular moment, nor the angle at which we struck that final tarmac lesion.

Camels, unencumbered, browsed the resilient foliage that had at great pains prospered in those harsh sands, infrequent rains. I have heard that even a very marginal change in burden could cause a fracture in the vertebrae of their spinal columns, snapping that (suddenly obviously) fragile rod; ending communication between the mind of the animal and the legs that carry them forward, ending their careers as devices for transportation, rendering them into meaningless, useless weight.

The pothole that broke the limo’s drive shaft occurred after only 30 minutes of driving. It struck us hundreds of kilometres (in every direction) from any city, in the harshest desert of one of the harshest regions of the northern hemisphere. It broke one of the few parts of the car we could not repair or replace. It left us with 8 hours to transport our immobile, 2 ton limousine 200km to the border. The rare lorries that passed along that road carried gravel; there was no chance of a tow-truck or empty flatbed lorry. The rally cars we convoyed with were all crap. Mongol Rally cars being, by definition, inappropriate to cross such terrain even under their own power.

It began with an occasional scraping noise, as though the sump was dragging along the road. Jack and Dom, sitting in the front, strained to make out the source of the noise. They were tense but not overly worried. It was not until dense white clouds billowed out from under the car that they realised something was very wrong; we would later discover that these opaque woollen emissions were created as suspension fluid gushed onto the heated components in and around the brake disc. The car lost power instantaneously, went limp and silent and coasted to the side of the road.

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“The suspension casing has cracked. The shock absorber itself has cracked too”. The revelations came slowly. Ollie spoke from inside the wheel arch, his manner reminiscent of a sombre, fastidious dentist. “We have a spare, but it is very difficult to replace. And it will be a different height because of the adjustments we made. We can do it though. We have no choice, really.”

At this point, we had merely encountered a minor set-back. Then;

“The drive shaft has snapped”

Steve turned to Dom “that’s Game Over”.

“We cannot even tow it like this, even if we do replace the suspension.”

The suspension had snapped on the driver’s side, dropping the weight of the car onto the drive shaft, which connects the driving force of the motor to the wheels. This solid, inch-thick metal rod was in turn, after a brief resistance, shorn into two parts. And not in a way that duct tape and cable ties could help.

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During the inspection and subsequent attempted repair, the limo broke our jack, an axel stand and one further jack. The repair was hindered also by the fact that the driver’s side wheel was almost impossible to remove. Even if the wheel came off and the suspension was fixed, the drive shaft would wreak havoc if left unattached whilst the car was moving.

Relentlessly practical, Sam (who was part of the convoy, on a motorcycle) and Ollie guessed that if the shaft could be cradled in place, the car could be towed. They used seldom pieces of scrap wire to create a mesh-like cage. The success of a tow depended on those few pieces of wire holding for the rest of the journey. The success of a tow also depended on someone being willing to latch a motionless funeral escort to the rear of their car.

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It was at this point that a saviour stepped up. A team with wrecking balls for testicles and carbon fibre nerves. They didn’t just have grit, they had diamond dust. A team with such minor disregard for their car that they would take sharp, angular pieces of metal and smash their vehicle’s body work, would ram their car into anything, would offer to tow a broken limousine through 200km of 47 C desolation across roads so poor you could only really have found them leading from the door to hell: all in one day. A team willing to risk the wrath of the state of Turkmenistan.

They were using a mosquito net to catch dragonflies through their sun roof, driving at speed up and down the road when we asked for the ‘favour’. Once we were ready to go, our Blue Peter bodge holding together both the car and our sanity, they discarded the captured dragonflies and hooked us up.

Meanwhile, the VW polo team surfed one of the Rover’s discarded middle chairs, dragged behind their car, along a parallel dirt track. We had taken out carpets, chairs and other debris to lighten the hulking Rover. We also removed the heaviest team member: Dom was to ride out the escape from Turkmenistan in the middle seat of Just Add Water’s Skoda Felicia.

The death toll of damaged items spiralled upwards as we travelled. Tow ropes were incapable of holding the weight of the car. We broke three ropes, snapping them in new and interesting ways a total of 12 times. Additionally, we learnt on that day that tow eyes are incapable of pulling great weights over roads that introduce huge resistance; half of our tow eye was ripped off and the Ford Escort’s tow eye suffered a similar fate. It was their rear axle that bore the limousine’s bucking weight for the majority of the trip.

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We also had to stop every time the inertia switch was triggered, we leapt from the car in a synchronised routine evocative of a pit stop crew. That switch was triggered more than 15 times, each time signalling an impact that the car believed to be equivalent to a crash. The rending, booming collisions, the suspension completely compressing and punching the entire chassis with each new undulation in the road surface, the orchestral crescendo of whining parts, vibrating and juddering. All of these agreed with the frequent sermon of the inertia switch (“this is probably bad for the car”).

And the road truly was catastrophic. At one point the limo was completely submerged in a pothole. At another point, we stopped to boil a kettle using the geothermal energy of the Earth’s core, which could be glimpsed through one sizeable crack. Ruptured wheels lined the road like some nightmare parody of a grand prix circuit. Every subsequent setback counted against our chances of making it to the border. Every ten minutes we experienced that scene from Mission Impossible where, sweat in his eyes, the protagonist does something difficult against the clock and only just succeeds. It was like that for a WHOLE DAY.

The road was more often than not accompanied by a dirt track, providing a reasonable alternative to the road itself, which was a cross between the predictable pattern of the surface of a golf ball and a nuclear test site for toy warheads. The road was little bit like the habitat of a colony of infrastructurally ambitious, giant road-dwelling moles, or the still-life artwork of an enormous toddler who had folded and pummelled the putty surface until it resembled the wrinkled skin of fruit left in the sun (far) too long. Locals in ordinary sedan cars breezed past as though they had suspension built into their very bodies, like the bobble head dogs you could sometimes see manically agreeing on their rear sills.

Basil the Basil plant lay knocked unconscious in the footwell, whilst Terry the bonsai had leapt from his pot (most likely attempting to find solid ground) and rolled back and forth, roots akimbo, in the awkward vicinity of the gear stick and the handbrake. The glove compartment was shaken loose and hung like a dislocated jaw, as if in awe of the situation. The jarring vibrations was so severe that panels popped off of the middle doors and dashboard, the radio dislodged itself and slid in a wash of detritus that had gathered around Jack’s feet. Everything was coming unstuck; we were to see that day exactly what the Rover was made of (in most cases, it appeared to be a fake mahogany veneer glued directly onto the metal frame of the car with a greenish gunk). After a few hours, a loud rubbing noise started up under the driver’s side. With a cheer, the passengers celebrated the departure of the entire plastic wheel arch, which rolled out from under them and was left tumbling in our dust.

Over in the Skoda, the excitement literally knocked out Dom, who, whilst the other three were tying knots in tow lines like sailors in a squall, fell asleep for some 20 minutes.

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Driving along a straight road was not the only challenge we faced that day. We also had to drive through a small village. Reaching the border town, Konye-Urgench, we found a fortified gravel citadel guarding the final stretch of road to the crossing. We arrived at Konye-Urgench, 15km from the border, at 5.30pm. That’s 30 minutes standing between success and 8 deportations, 8 parent-bankrupting fines, 8 cases of ‘ahhh crap’. The roads were obstructed by everything but Turkmenistan’s long-deceased dictator himself, risen from the dead to claw at our wheel nuts and stick rotting fingers into the exhaust. In the right lane, a conscientiously deserted fleet of heavy machinery. In the left, a steady queue of oncoming traffic approaching an open manhole that jutted inexplicably 4 feet from the ground in a cube of solid concrete. In between the two lanes, a ridge of gravel 5 feet high. And the road was gravel too.

We chose the right lane. Then we changed our minds. Dom ran ahead to try to find the owners of the poorly positioned excavation machines. When he turned around, he saw the limousine teeter like a decidedly unsafe, yet nevertheless luxurious, seesaw on the gravel dividing bank. Steve effortlessly commanded a useless swarm of local children, who unquestioningly put their feeble little hands against the limo and did almost nothing. More or less without their help, we heaved the car over the precipice to slide on its belly, with a rasping gasp, into the wrong lane. We were lucky to have an exhaust system and fuel lines to guard the underside of the car.

Meanwhile, Jack had run ahead down the left lane. He charged towards (somehow unflustered) locals, making fart noises with his mouth (means: “please reverse, our car is broken”) chopping his hands together and shouting “TURKMENISTAN VISA” (means: “if we do not get past you, our visa will run out and we will be arrested, deported and fined thousands of pounds”). The locals, bemused, gingerly backed up a few metres at a time, until Jack ran at them again. The prospect of a bright red 6ft 5 Scottish man blowing raspberries through their car windows was eventually sufficient to clear a route. After an incredibly strenuous effort, both cars successfully negotiated the manhole-come-turret and were clear of Konye-Urgench’s stony clutches with 20 minutes until the border closed.

The road was mercifully smooth to the border. With almost no time left on the clock, we approached the graceful white columns of the border. Those tall, smooth cylinders flanked the threshold of fate, the thin line between wallets ravaged and skin roughed by the cold cement of a Turkmenistani jail cell.
With 12 feet between us and those secular minarets, the final tow rope snapped. The limo rolled tentatively to a heart-rending stop.

Next time on “The LMLS; a blog”:

“They’ve got a petrol bottle’s chance in the Door to Hell of getting out alive, nevermind with an entire limo!” Will the limo escape from Turkmenistan?

“A frog on the face is worth two in the throat.” Will the face-frog return to Dom’s face?

“How are they writing this blog if they never even had a dictator-ship?” Discover the secret to the LMLS’s incredible ability to write long blog posts without *any* dictation equipment.

Turkmenistan Part 1

09/08
As we woke, Ollie innocently enquired as to the whereabouts of his bag. Dominic had helpfully removed the article from the car and had surreptitiously left it in a dark corner of the customs office at the port. Like a wide-eyed sleepwalker hell-bent on minor inconvenience, he then completely forgot about the entire episode. Luckily, the bag only contained things that Ollie needed in order to see and all of our remaining sun cream. Driving through Central Asia’s hottest desert, we assured Ollie that protection from the sun and clear vision were extraneous luxuries.

Nevertheless, (to humour Ollie), we went back to the port to investigate. The bag had been taken by the only team that was taking a different route from us. Lucky for us, Turkmenistan is not just a geographical desert. It is a desert in terms of communication technology infrastructure too. No mobile signal or WiFi. Getting the bag back was going to be simpler than bartering for an above average-sized melon when you only have a single unit of the local currency.

That day, we entered the (geographical) desert. Basil the Basil plant and Terry the Bonsai steeled themselves for a true test of their mettle.

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In much the same way that Georgia has cows, Turkmenistan has camels. It has real sand forming real sand dunes like in those movies you have seen and those postcards we did not send you. There are dust devils and cobras and scorpions, black widows and cunning entrepreneurial youths. The Ford Escort team informed us that the Caspian cobra is the most poisonous cobra in the world. It is 2m long, can swim, climb trees and drill like a corkscrew directly into the earth. It can mate asexually by splitting in two. By biting the back of your head, the Caspian Cobra is able to hijack your brain stem and animate your body, walking you back to its lair so that it can utilise your handy opposable thumb to craft charming snake furniture before it devours you as you lie in a fully conscious state of total paralysis. Moreover, the Caspian cobra is rife in Turkmenistan. Rife!

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Also, the roads in Turkmenistan are not very good. They have several key characteristics. The first is craters. There are also ridges parallel to the road direction, ridges perpendicular to the road direction, ruts, volcano-like points, sand, surfaces that alternate violently in quality, sudden bouts of rough gravel, roads that end suddenly, wormholes and flaming collapsed gas mines. More detail on this in the next instalment of the MRLS blog. The Rover 827 funeral limousine, designed to crawl at a constant speed of 15mph along England’s fine tarmac roads behind a hearse in the days of the Spice Girls and baggy jeans, was probably out of its comfort zone in the Khartoum Desert in the age of Gangnam Style and twerking.

Top fact: a little-known fact is that there are actually no Rover dealerships in Turkmenistan. People think you are saying “Volvo” when you say “Rover”. They are fully, 100% convinced that you are saying “Volvo”. Just think about that for a second. They think you are saying Volvo when you say Rover. Volvo. Rover. We come to their country and they can’t even learn our language.

That day, we had our first scare with the car. Hitting a pothole the size of a meteor crater, the size of an adult African elephant, the size of the average Erdogan poster in Turkey (see earlier post for details) the Rover suddenly lost power. A red light glowed on the dash. The engine refused to even turn over. It seemed to have died suddenly; mid-step. The crash had triggered the inertia switch on the car, meaning that the car had suffered a shock it thought capable of flipping it over and had cut the engine to prevent damage. Clever Rover. Pressing a button returned to us the purr we were so used to.

That drive was the first time that closing the windows was actually cooler than having them open. This was what we came to term “the hairdryer effect”. Having the windows open was literally like having hairdryers positioned inside the car pointing directly at your face.

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We saw a lot of police on the drive. They drove unmarked vehicles. We were flagged down twice, but were saved by the limo’s poor stopping power, pulling over more than a short walk from baton-wielding, whistle-blowing, floppy-hat-toting totalitarian officers, who consequently just waved us on again. The law was an ever-present, comically impotent force. Like an unhappy clown trapped in a mimed glass box of their own creation. There are such laws as: you may not drive after 11pm, you may only smoke indoors and you may not lip sync (#MongolRallyRumour).

Reaching Ashgabat, we lost the Ford Escort. We proceeded to drive until we found a heavily air-conditioned café (with more AC machines than customers), which became our base of operations for the evening. From there we struck out to an internet café to email the team with Ollie’s bag (using the internet required handing in our passports and lead to the discovery that Youtube, Twitter and Facebook are banned in Turkmenistan), to supermarkets and to relieve ourselves illicitly in alleyways and restaurants we had not eaten in (#FuckIt #MongolRally). After the meal, Steve went for a stroll in the park. Bending over to spew vomit into a gutter in front of a group of horrified adolescent Turkmen girls, Steve unwisely rested his hand on an electrified cage containing municipal water equipment. He was on his way shortly after having been electrocuted.

It is worth noting that Steve had been pretty much only eating fruit for the entire duration of the trip so far. He would alternate between “Stop” and “Go” pills. At this time, Steve did not have the shits.

I would also like to take this time to make two observations about Turkmenistan, and indeed, many of the places we passed through beyond Istanbul. No bins and no public toilets. That’s a recipe for a shitty rubbishy town full of piss and coke cans. What’s up with that?

Dom took a stroll to see a little bit more of the capital of Turkmenistan. He passed floodlit astroturfs, a bar with a very active dance-floor, a free rollercoaster and merry-go-round and generally felt that the city had a very positive, communal atmosphere. We also received this impression from the owner of the café in which we had barracked, who plied us with free tea and popcorn well after it was clear we would spend no more money with him. It was like a thriving suburb of a European city. On the other hand, almost everyone we met who had strayed into the centre had the opposite impression. It was a ghost town of gargantuan public works; a ramshackle assembly of glory projects; the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz; North Korea.

Once we were reunited with Harry, Beth, Elsie and Sam of the ford Escort team, we left Ashgabat. We drove beyond the city limits and set up our mosquito nets in a hollow we found in a vineyard. Jack, for some reason, was one of the two people who slept in the limousine.

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The only remaining story of note is the curious incident of the frog in the night-time. The mosquito net structure we set up has been called “hermetically sealed”. I think we mentioned that we were in the desert. This makes it all the more surprising that Dom should have been woken with a frog on his face. Fixating it with a torch beam, he roused Steve. Steve had done this before. Wrapping his hand in a t shirt, he grabbed the frog and threw it from the tent. It was a close escape – one of the desert’s many tests of human will.

First crabs, miles from the sea. Then frogs in the wilderness. Biblical.

10/08
We rose early, breakfasted and moved out. Today we headed to the Door to Hell. The roads from Ashgabat to Darwasa were better than expected and we made very good time. We stopped off in a desert oasis town that we thought we had ‘discovered’ but that we later learnt that Lonely Planet had described as “being slowly swallowed by the sand”. It was there that we took selfies with camels.

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It was also there that Sam, our accompanying motorcyclist, lent his machine to locals to spin off across the dirt tracks, who revved the bike hard, skidded and slid across the sand for effect. We also stood in the village’s only shop for a very long time, just to take advantage of their air conditioning. It was a little bit awkward.

Driving on, we quickly came across the track that lead to the Door to Hell. In the blinding mid-afternoon sun, we attempted to drive the Rover up the track. Long after it was obvious that neither the limo nor the Ford Escort would make it up the track, we persisted in climbing the first hill from various angles. The track became deep, soft sand at one fairly steep section, beyond which we could not advance. In the meantime, Sam biked ahead to see if the track improved further on. We tried in reverse, pushing the car, getting a run up, getting a run up in reverse and so on. Inevitably, we got the car stuck. And then we got it stuck even further by spinning the wheels. The end result was that the Rover was beached, its undercarriage resting on the sand, front wheels sunk ¾ of the way in.

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The angle was such that it was very tricky to position the Escort to push or pull without risking getting the Escort stuck too. Then we got the Escort stuck too.

There were a few moments of dismay while we considered the absurdity and mild hopelessness of the situation. We were all covered in dust, the sand was too hot to touch and any physical exertion was hugely draining in the intense heat. Every second we passed standing in the sun sapped our energy. Ollie took control of the situation and devised a plan. We dug the two tonne limousine out of the sand dune using a pizza tray and a porcelain plate. We pushed the Escort back out of the sand and decided as a group to take a risk – to nudge the limo down a fairly steep hill of questionable sand density. After a few seconds of tense uncertainty, the limousine rolled down the hill and roamed free across the desert once again. There was something incredibly bizarre about watching the limousine go down that hill, each wheel moving up and down as if it was the leg of slick black sand-dwelling mammal.

It was around that time that we realised that Sam had been gone for a very long time. Harry (of team Ford Escort) set off walking to find him. They returned 20 minutes later in a truck. Sam had got stuck and over-exerted himself attempting to free the motorcycle. Close to passing out, he had been rescued by a passing truck driver. Pretty lucky really.

With both cars unstuck, it was early in the day still and we wanted to see the door to hell by night. We planned to rest in Darwasa, which was marked on the map as a small village nearby. With Sam still a bit out of it Ollie had the chance to ride the BMW R80. After a few hundred meters he found that wearing flip flops was not the best idea with the twin exhausts passing closely to the foot brake and gears. An upgrade to shoes sorted the problem and we went on our way.

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Darwasa actually does not exist. We searched dirt tracks and side roads in the area and found nothing. We discovered later that the town had been completely razed, its inhabitants relocated, at the whim of Turkmenistan’s whimsical dictator, Turkmenbashi. He had found Darwasa to be unfavourably dilapidated.
We spent the rest of the evening lounging in a truck stop a few kilometres down the road. It was the first time we had eaten in a place with low tables and no chairs. As we negotiated the etiquette there was a bit of shoes-on, shoes-off confusion. For the record: shoes off in the restaurant, shoes on in the kitchen. The meal was a delicious mix of stuffed peppers, potato-based stew and dumplings, served with the solid rounds of bread, each stamped with ornate patterns, which had become characteristic of recent weeks. We were entertained by a precocious teen who spoke no English, though he could count to two. And did so incessantly. We sat enjoying the Russian music channel that their 6ft satellite dish was funneling into the building before the first of 3 additional Mongol Rally teams arrived unexpectedly. We were joined by Ulan Bantor in their white VW Polo, Just Add Water in their boat-loaded Skoda and The Irish in their trusty Clio. We were to see a further 3 Mongol Rally teams that night, bringing the collective to a total of 8 teams.

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We bartered steadily through the day and negotiated a fee of $10 each to be transported by 4×4 to the Door to Hell. Ollie had been talking about throwing a bottle of petrol into the hole for some time. It was easy to imagine a small explosion taking place, but unexpected things happen at the boundary between the realm of mere mortals and the underworld. On the drive (that felt for every single party as though the driver were working it out for the first time) the anticipation grew. We could see the glow brightening on the horizon as we approached. First, the petrol bottle would heat. Its contents would expand and pressurise the container until some facet melted. The petrol would piss out through that narrow, jagged crack and ignite instantaneously: the half litre would be consumed in a small ball of flame. We imagined the fallout would be no bigger than a metre in diameter. But what happened next shocked all who witnessed it.

The Door to Hell is a collapsed gas mine set ablaze. It is a pleasantly symmetrical, truly stereotypical crater, a semi-sphere blasted into rock. It is filled with small clusters of orange-yellow flames and looks, at its centre, like an over-sized Bunsen burner. Around its edges you can see small caves filled with fire. The heat is incredible – it is a soft punch of heat like a long, hot exhalation that picks at the follicles of your eyebrows. There are no guard rails around the Door to Hell, no ticket booths, no staff, few visitors. You may, if you so wish, tee up a golf ball and hit it into the incandescent maw (as many ralliers did). You may stand on its edge and piss into the tongues that lick up around its edges. You may drop your trousers and expose your pale arse cheeks to the scorn of Lucifer. And so we did. The joy of the Door to Hell is the freedom to abuse a first class safety hazard; it has the power to incinerate a man and yet no one will stop you from dangling your legs into whilst you enjoy a chilled beverage.

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We may have misunderstood something about the Door to Hell, however, when we opted to throw an explosive object into it. We lined around the edge to watch Ollie take aim and hurl his cherished bottle of petrol across the central burning effusion. As the bottle hit the ground, we watched in horror as it super-inflated. At its biggest, the bottle was a 4m bubble of plastic that rose, shimmering and shivering, above the flames. We never anticipated the plastic itself catching fire, but just as the bottle floated to ground level, it became a skin of blue liquid light that sucked back inwards in a moment, collapsing to a point, condensing the petrol vapour into an impossibly small space and bellowing outwards with a subterranean, mythic scream of rage. The implosion was a colourless expression of energy and noise. Awed, we spoke little on the journey home and slept without comment.

Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan

05/08
Perhaps not unexpectedly we were woken by the police. This is what happens when you drive a limousine onto someone’s farm in full view of the road and set up a fairly elaborate campsite. Campsites including funeral vehicles are by their nature elaborate. After some bemused nodding to our broken Russian, he took his unmarked Lada away in a plume of sand. We left very soon after, fearing back up.

We had camped not far from Baku and made our way towards the port. From here, the plan was to finalise our Turkmenistani visas and buy ferry tickets over to Turkmenbashi. What we understood was that the process was an arcane, opaque system of shady little parts that somehow conspired to convey travelers across the Caspian every year. For instance, if it wasn’t for the collage of Rally stickers on the door to the ticket office, we would never distinguished it from any other anonymous port building.

We waited with several other teams for the office to open at “around 12pm, could be as late as 3pm”. Once it opened, we were all waved away without explanation, despite the fastidiously straight queue we had taken pains to form. Looking at the queue, we could have been in any post office in England. Looking at the result, it was clear we were in Azerbaijan. Unsure whether we would be ushered back at some point, we joined the minor encampment that had formed in the dusty parking lot around the little concrete building, occasionally making pilgrimage to the left-hand corner of the blue Mercedes – the exact spot at which free WI-FI could be obtained. Little did we know, but those weak beams of signal would be the last WI-FI we would access for over two weeks.

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In the midst of the resultant minor befuddlement, Jack became violently ill. He became an incontinent tube capable of retaining neither solid nor fluid. His features became drawn and gaunt like a man drained of his essential force, his strength, his resolve. His usually erect posture collapsed into a broken huddle, like a dying spider. We think it may have been the watermelon – the bad watermelon. The one that had been a dark day for the peoples of the world and that represented the spurning of the most effective known bartering techniques. Steve, as usual, also had the shits.

Ollie and Dom went off in search of the equally well-hidden Turkmenistani embassy. Baku is a maze of one-way roads. Occasionally these will break out into roads with as many as 7 lanes – especially at the sea front. If you take a wrong-turn, you must follow Baku’s inevitable circulation in whichever way it wills you. Taxi drivers in London Cabs plough from one side to the other picking up and delivering fares, holding down their horns in place of indicating as they slice across traffic. Telepathic Bakuvians will beep you even before lights have changed, will walk across roads staring directly in front of them, will edge between two waiting cars to create a third lane at stop signs. After we had driven past the turning twice, we found it. It is literally located down an alleyway. The road is not even paved, which may seem a pretentious westernised observation, but this is in the middle of the intolerable mass of tarmac that is Baku. They would tarmac homeless people while they slept if they could.

Once you’re in the alleyway, look out for other ralliers waiting. That’s how you know the shuttered door in the side of a non-descript building is the sole embassy for the Republic of Turkmenistan in Azerbaijan. Inside is a man in a short sleeved shirt with three PCs from 1994. One of the PCs will play relaxing elevator music. One is connected to the dot matrix printer alongside the sole clerk. The other is a relic of a long-dead colleague who requested in his will that his place in the office be preserved and that he himself never be replaced. The darkened room is not a stressful place to be. It is just more like the IT office in your Dad’s first company than the sole power capable of granting legal passage through a sovereign and highly guarded nation.

You will be told to drive 4km to pay for the visa. This payment is on top of whatever you paid for a letter of invitation and is in addition to the charges you will be held account for once you arrive in Turkmenbashi. Upon your return to the embassy, you will receive the visa. The maximum number of days on a Turkmenistani transit visa is 5. You must pick the dates ahead of your arrival, which means guessing when the ferry will get you into port. Given the total lack of assurances (or words of any kind) from the ticket office, this is a risky business. We guessed we would leave the next day and arrive the day after that.

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The location of the embassy should you ever need to know.

Whilst we waited, a team of Australian ralliers told us more about Turkmenistan. We learnt that the vessel that would take us there would be fully equipped for all of our blogging needs. This was somehow tied up with the strictly enforced whims of a single man, but we didn’t quite understand how.

Steve and Jack were in need of a shot of Wi-Fi, a shower and AC so they were packed off to a hotel, whilst Dom and Ollie re-joined the port-side troupe. After a quick meal cooked in the parking lot and a power shower supplied by a cracked pipe they found by some railway tracks, Dom and Ollie were ready to see some more of Baku. Following a pint in one of Baku’s more up-market establishments (bow ties on the waiters ‘n all!) they decided to find something cheaper with one of the other rally teams. They began descending staircases to knock on the doors of underground pubs. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

At the second place they tried, they came upon one man on a stool playing Spanish guitar, being watched by 5-6 other men. No-one behind the bar. After a brief consultation they were invited in and filed nervously into what was obviously someone else’s party. Three camcorders swung round to watch their descent. A round of shots was poured, unbidden, for them and for which they were assured they would not have to pay. What followed is difficult to describe. It was an awkward youtube dance party. It was two cultures confusedly meeting in a bar and really committing to a fleeting, inexplicable encounter. At times it looked like the beginning of cheap slasher horror after the manner of the Blair Witch Project. At others, it looked like a crew of 14 year old’s sneaking alcohol into their basement and playing at DJs. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Baku, following a return to good health Jack visited the world’s largest KFC.

And then the night.

06/08
Rendezvous at the Empire Hotel. We realised suddenly that this was our fourth day in Azerbaijan. This meant that we had to register in order to validate our visa. We spent a very long time trying to register at the hotel. The result of the first round of negotiations was that Steve and Jack had bought another night at the hotel, which was not at all what they had wanted. The result of the second was that we had a fairly uncertain assurance that we were registered. With that, after stocking up for the ferry journey (and witnessing in a supermarket that Gherkins could cost £10 / jar) we drove back down to the ticket office.

We arrived just 30 minutes after it had closed. We were slightly panicked – we had to leave today in order to get to Turkmenistan on the date we had guessed. On a hunch, we got the address of the “other” port. The other port was down a long road full of pipes, concrete blocks, the rusted carcasses of several Ladas and magnificent official buildings. On the tarmac, we found 11 other teams. None of the other teams had tickets. None of the other teams knew when the ferry would depart, when it would arrive or what it would cost. Nevertheless, we felt an overwhelming sense of elation. We had found the correct port. We were in the same mire of total confusion and uncertainty as everyone else. In that sense, we were secure and on our way.

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Every step in the process was somehow delayed. We wiled away the time drinking red wine mixed with hot earl grey tea. After several hours we had our vehicles measured. The 6 metre limousine came in at 5.5 metres after some creative measuring tape artistry by Ollie, but somehow when it came to paying, we were only charged for 3.5 metres, saving $150.

The proceedings were interspersed with appearances by Ishmael. Ishmael is a “fixer”. We think this means: he has networked into both the Mongol Rally and whatever corrupt operation leads to the passage of passengers on freight ships from Baku to Turkmenbashi. We paid him $50 out of fear that not doing so would cause us problems in getting on the boat.

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With all of the events that had occurred, we were nervous to not have written down anything for our blog. We knew, though, that the solution to this quandary floated just 100m away, moored at the port.

07/08
Customs was completed at 3am without a hitch, right there, at the port.
The port was an interesting spectacle. Dormant “Dagistan” class tankers rested, empty and sparsely lit, in the thick, oily water. We were free to wander around whilst the security guards drank or played football with some of the ralliers. The Mongol Rally cars formed an idiosyncratic, untidy jumble of eclectic vehicles on one side, whilst on the other, lorries were formed into endless, orderly rows.

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We boarded the ferry 10 hours after arriving, at 5am in the morning. You drive directly into the darkened hull of the boat and then down a ramp into its red-brown undercarriage. Once we were down there, three men began demanding passports from everyone. They were highly irritable, shouting and gesticulating violently. They offered little explanation and appeared, despite all of the precedent waiting, to be under intense time constraints. Everyone was reluctant to oblige, but after several frenzied minutes, they had the majority of the documents.

The group of sleepy ralliers dispersed throughout the ship looking for places to sleep, eventually congregating on the deck and in a lounge. In the morning, we were allocated 4 person cabins (with sinks!) Everything was clean, comfortable convenient. The toilets (often) worked and you could buy tea and a greasy fry up from the portly chef (“Is he boiling the sausages in oil!?”)

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When we woke, we were disappointed to discover the boat had not moved. Moreover, our gravest fear had been realised. Prior to boarding, we had imagined the perfect opportunity to transcribe the unwritten mental notes we have for our blog. Between the four of us, we were sure we could put together something spectacular, but there are certain difficulties involved in conveying thoughts into written words. We needed to be able to concisely express and capture our thoughts. These difficulties were sure to be overcome once we left Baku for Turkmenistan. From what we had been told about this point in the Mongol Rally, about Turkmenistan and what it would be like to arrive there, we imagined a boat rife with every kind of ergonomic keyboard, of inkwells, Dictaphones, of specialised software. Somewhere we could speak and have our thoughts captured immediately.

We imagined what we were promised – a dictator-ship across the Caspian Sea. The only apparatus we were to find in Turkmenistan were those controlled by the all-pervasive state. Oh no!

It did not move until 5pm that day: departure was 26 hours after ‘check-in’. In the meantime we got merrily drunk, playing card games in the lounge.

The boat did crash into the port before getting away, but we all doubted that anything could bring down our ship, the mighty “Professor Gȕl” (pronounced “ghoul”). Legend has it that the Prof has carved out this same route for 40 years. It has been told that old Ghouly has suffered more than 5 mutinies, and that captured mutineers are minced into sausages and served for breakfast for years to come. Some say the boat was named after a crazed Azerbaijani alchemist who believed that the purification of iron could only occur through immersion in the sea for tens of years. It is from the wreckage of his monumental, deep-sea iron laboratory that the “Professor Gȕl” was constructed. His body was never found. Others say that the ship is crewed eternally by passengers who had the misfortune to have a shower with the stewardess of the boat – a woman whose name begins with an X.

The stewardess was a very abrupt Iranian-born Azerbaijani woman. She called everyone “Francis”. She roughly fondled passengers’ hair with a sort of threatening affection. She changed her outfit multiple times into very slightly varied versions of stripy nylon. She despaired of smoking inside, feet on tables and spilt milk (even though we advised her not to cry about these things). She insisted that people shower at 2am, but that they stand outside of the cubicle whilst doing so. She refused to give several people blowjobs. She ruined our board game by using the pieces to tell us her life story, even though we really just wanted to finish the game. She was 51, had 2 children and 3 grandchildren in Georgia. She didn’t really speak English.

Card games inevitably gave way to yoga on the ship’s top deck, British Bulldog and later, salty chicken kebabs for dinner.

08/08
And so it was that three days after arriving at the port, we pulled into Turkmenistan on the morning of the 8th August, just one day after the start of our visas. We had four days to explore and traverse the mysterious country. There was a sense of excitement to be in such a large convoy.

We were sent down to our cars. Rebelling, two hours later we came back up on deck to watch the lorries start leaving. We were sent back under deck once more, and waited another two hours in the sweltering, petrol-fume choked hull before we could leave.

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As we stood gazing into the mushrooms clouds of mud thrown up by the Professor, we saw a shadow. A snake-like shadow, squiggling effortlessly through the sea. Three of us witnessed the black shape wind through the waves.

Out of the boat and into the paper basket, as they say. We ran a gauntlet of superfluous bureaucracy for the remainder of the day. There are 17 discrete stages to the process once you have arrived in Turkmenistan. You must pay $200 dollars in cash throughout the 7 hour ordeal, but no ATMs in Turkmenbashi contain dollars. At one stage, you must pay in Turkmenistan Manat, but there are no currency exchanges nearby. At another stage, you must indicate your route on a map, but no map is provided. At one more stage, you must wait for 6 other people to have reached that same stage before you can progress. There was a stage where an employee indicated that she was going to bed, before locking up her office and leaving (she was, eventually replaced). By the end, you have a stack of paper, each containing multiple stamps, with no two pieces of paper being the same size. There was even an instance where Dom had a biscuit stolen by a trucker who stared directly into his eyes while he chewed. The staff were, however, very friendly. We were cheerfully punted along an endless corridor. It might be what Purgatory is like.

It was 10.30pm before we got out. Most of the teams had planned to be in Ashgabat that evening and to the Gates of Hell by the day after that. We resolved to eat something and camp nearby, pairing up with the stripy Ford escort for company. The first time we stopped the car, we were immediately mobbed by young children. You couldn’t open the door because the road was so thick with them. Little did we know, they probably collectively owned a medium-to-large business empire. We pushed on and reached a café.

Outside the café lounged a non-descript 17 year old with a Bieber-esque semblance. He spoke perfect English. He owned a telecom company and two houses. As we chatted, a 14 year old in a brand new 4×4 drove by, throwing a can out the window. That night, we ate camel before we saw one, at his guidance. Next, he found us a fully-equipped house to sleep in, for free, with AC, with a sit down toilet. On the way, he picked up a melon you could open up and sleep in for each car. The house we stayed in was owned by a 25 year old who had started a car wash and now owned five houses. We had landed in Turkmenistan, the dusty desert dictatorship of toddler business moguls, where water flows free and gas flows like water (also free – subsidised by the government. Long live the government.)

We slept in and missed the convoy, content to take our time on the road to Ashgabat and to see the Door to Hell the following day.

Georgia to Azerbaijan

02/08
We all woke unexpectedly late. Jack and Ollie discovered a pile of carefully folded clothes by their door; the wind had blown our clothes all over the car park and our host had gone to the effort of chasing down and returning them. We left for Tbilisi, a little ashamed of ourselves, towards an address in the Old Town that Eddies’ Ice Cream had sent us.

We found the address with only minor hassle. On the other side of the cast iron door, we stood blinking in the sudden gloom of the hallway. The phrase “derelict hovel came to mind. “Taste the history” the sign had said. You could taste something in the musty air for sure. Cracked paint hung like drapes from the ceiling. They had preserved the history of the place by leaving it untouched by redecorators or cleaning products since before the Ottoman Empire. They had thrown in a rusty stepladder for effect. On the first floor: a locked door. On the second, a balcony precariously supporting a menagerie of old children’s toys.

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Another passageway took us into the lounge of 75 year old cat lady (minus cats) where we found someone (who was more like 30 years old). We proceeded to mime the appearance of the team members from Eddies’ Ice Creams. Something clicked and she led us upstairs past an empty dorm into a corridor with a low (5ft high) ceiling. Opening the first door and ducking inside, Ollie shouted “Harry”. Harry was not in that shower. “Harry?” neither was in any of the consecutive toilets or bathrooms that followed. Either the boys had flushed themselves to avoid the bill or there had been some kind of misunderstanding.
We retired to McDonalds for air conditioning and free WiFi, sending them a text. They did show up after a while. We checked into the hostel, which contrary to our description was actually fairly pleasant, and drank a pint at a local bar. Our plan to head straight onto Baku died with that pint and we decided to drink a couple more to commiserate. We wandered to another bar before finding a brewery which served bacon flavoured beer.

It was on the way to the first bar that someone tried to sell us a limousine. It was outside the second that we found 5 more limousines (it is unlikely we will ever be able to reply “no thanks, we’ve already got one” truthfully to an offer to buy a limousine again). It turns out that Tbilisi is the birth place of the modern limousine. The history of the limousine started when a local mechanic attempted to sell his car to tailor. Whilst bartering, they drank. Even after they had settled on a price, they continued to negotiate, slipping seamlessly onto the amount of car that the tailor would buy for that price, just as one might haggle for fabric. The final price was 500 Gel for 1.33 cars. The first limousine was made that evening of a Lada 1207 series sawn in half with a third of another Lada welded in the middle. Because the Georgian word for tailor is “Limoshgif”, and the Georgian word for car is “Machina” or “Shina” for short, cars of this kind were called “Limo’s Shina” and eventually, “Limousine”. Tbilisi now produces only a few hundred limousines per year, but the Lada limousine is certainly the most commonly seen car on the road. It is a classic case of the Western world believing it has invented something that existed prior that Georgia is not known for this gift to mankind.

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Following a “Mongol Rally Rumour” we walked the entire breadth of Tbilisi in search of other Mongol Ralliers who were at a vague address in that general direction. Pulling away members of the expedition who were periodically waylaid by canny marketeers at strip bars we crossed into the part of Tbilisi that is clearly intended to be its showpiece. A huge bridge lit by invisible LEDs, a fountain that changes its arrangement to classical music, music, tourists the like. A gargantuan tube also appears to be under construction – cannot wait till it is done.

Once we reached the other side, we found no-one. We walked back to the brewery and resumed drinking. This being our second time in the bar (that same evening) we were treated as regulars, which meant having our drinks spiked with Georgian homebrew known as “Jha Jha” or something similar. It came out of an unlabelled 10L white container. It tasted awful. Several of us got halfway through our pints before the bartender manage to top them up for us with more Jha Jha. As Harry Thompson downed a quadruple shot of the stuff, all of us had a sinking feeling that consisted of more than our digestive tracts grappling with Georgia’s finest spirit. Some say Jha Jha includes the hair of the brewer to add personality. Some say it includes some of their skin to give it body. All shake their heads and say “Jha Jha” under their breath the following morning.

Following one more tip-off, we again made our way to the other side of town. The walk was much more colourful this time, including piggy back jousting, wheelbarrow racing and arm wrestling. A veritable festival of sporting activity. The bar was called “Cannabis Bar”. It was actually called “Canudus Bar” but was the Tbilisi hotspot for purchasing cannabis; Steve was asked several times by locals if he was the bar’s resident dealer. Upon arrival, Harry was sick and fell asleep. It was at this point that he became a hit with the locals, who prodded him, poured water over his head and tried to stand him up repeatedly. He spent much of the rest of the night in a back room dosing before Laurence and Dom took him home.

The night wasn’t over yet though and Otto, Jack’s school friend met us to continue the party shenanigans. He took a few of us to what seemed to a hip underground club (halfway between warehouse and mansion), we did a bit of disco dancing and much fun was had. It ended with the third McDonalds in 12 hours, Alex being temporarily lost in the night and us easing into our firm bunk beds at 5 am.

03/08
We woke to find everyone in the dorm with us, even though Eddies’ Ice Creams had rented a private room. Alex was curled up on the floorboards. As people came to (and Harry, with only a slight wobble, sprung fairly cheerfully from his bed) we pieced together what had happened to Alex, though gaping holes remain. He had wandered from the club and walked for a very long time. Roused somewhere he did not at all recognise, by a policeman who slapped him repeatedly in the face, he walked for a further two hours until he reached the hostel at 9am.

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Dom took the Ice Cream Team to see their van. They had been hoping to move on that day but it was not to be. So we wished them the best and set off towards Baku and our ferry to Turkmenistan. We were halfway there before we realised we had forgotten to collect our cutlery.
We reached Azerbaijan border without incident in just 45 minutes. The queue looked roughly as long as the queue at Georgia, so we settled in for a short wait. The queue moved forwards by about 4 cars every half an hour. It was incredibly slow. As we waited, we read and wrote up notes. We looked forward to the ferry from Baku which we were told combined the joys of both…

The only entertainment was a minor soap opera that emerged when two sleek 4x4s managed to nip in front of us, jumping the queue, as we pushed the limo. A mob of irritated Azerbaijani men quickly formed. Several brought their children either to witness how grown men sort out problems or to neutralise any potential violence. As entertainment, it could have been improved by subtitles. Dom occasionally lingered on the edge of the mob nodding and frowning to show support in evicting the interlopers, but to little avail. In common with much of modern script-writing, they really dragged it out. It was difficult to discern what the line of the discussion could have been beyond

“You pushed in!”,
“Yeh, so what?”

…but it went on for at least an hour.

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Unlike your usual soap opera, ours lost interest in its own plot and latched onto its audience for plot continuation. We watched as the mob backed down and tangibly rotated towards the limousine, like a flock of carrion birds wheeling about in search of new prey. It was possible that we were at fault for having not simply driven and closed the gap as everyone else was doing. We tried our meek smiles. If all else fails, wave them over to the map on the boot of the car and show them the route. They were just genuinely curious. After we had exhausted that, there followed the customary saying of the names of British football teams and players. Football: a universal language.

Three of us went through security on foot, leaving Ollie to take the car through. As we waited on the other side for several hours we had premonitions of anal cavity searches, issues with the lock box for which we had the key, a thorough strip down of the car. We fended off the men with decks of Azerbaijani currency and wowed the security guard with the powerball to pass the time.

It was 6 and a half hours before Ollie found his way through. Of the time spent at the border, only 10 minutes was spent on any kind of administrative process, the rest Ollie spent talking to the driver behind him, though neither spoke the other’s language.

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Once across we spotted a bulge in the tire and swiftly changed it. During the change we were approached by an English speaking Azerbaijani. Friendly, eloquent, confessional, he seemed like a good guy and found us places to sleep and eat after dissuading us from continuing in the dark towards Baku. The beds were made of wire fences and fairly large cockroaches stalked the corners of the room, but we were exhausted and grateful.

04/08
We faced the twin challenges of buying a new tire and finding the right fuel. It took 5 petrol stations and 6 tires places before we were ready to go.

We had been warned that the police were “extremely proactive” in Azerbaijan (we had also heard something about the fact that they would take you out to sea and read you your rights, asking you to write them down – this was somehow tied up with the ferry from Baku…) and the former proved accurate as we were pulled over despite driving at the speed limit and having the full contingent of necessary paperwork. Steve was instructed to take his passport into the police station where he was asked to pay a $300 fine for speeding. Feigning confusion and repeatedly saying “money for the embassy, yes?” Steve artfully negotiated the price down to $0 and we drove on.

After sighing with longing at the countless watermelon stalls by the side of the road we finally capitulated and pulled over to indulge. Jack stepped up to the plate with our only manat to buy us the biggest watermelon conceivable. Even offering the service of his voluptuous body, trying the “walk away” trick and remonstrating with emphatic gestures (lanky arms extended wide), we received only a modest watermelon. A dark day for mankind.

Heavy with defeat we almost gave up on the rally on the spot. We probably could have made it to Baku but we could barely bring ourselves to progress, so hopeless seemed our desolate plight. The watermelon was barely larger than a human head. We closed our eyes and pictured the ferry. It was there that they would tell us how to live. They would impart words of wisdom and courage and we would scribble down every single word.

From then on, Azerbaijan was flat, arid plains. We drove for a while towards a promising looking mountain range but it evaded our enfeebled approach. Much of the motorway was limited to 60km/h, dropping to 30km/h to pass police stations and junctions. It was slow going.

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Bored, we took a turning and drove towards the horizon through the dust in search of a place to camp. We were sure we were several hundred metres from any kind of civilisation by the time we set up the tents. In the following 20 minutes, we had spotted over 30 Ladas and 20 trucks 100m from us driving on the main off-road track linking the outskirt towns to Baku. Going over 60 mph, a Lada and Truck flanked us from the right and left. “Paruski?”. “English”, “Tourist”. They laughed and drove off.

That night, we used the mosquito net for first time and slept out in the open.

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Georgia

01/08/14
Rising early we found time to bathe in the stream. It was fast flowing and the water reached about halfway up the shin. By lying down naked you could both get clean and fully expose yourself to unsuspecting labourers simultaneously.

Most of us were still damp and partially unclothed by the time our third wave of visitors arrived (there never seems to be a good time). This time they were armed. They sent a scout ahead; a hundred year old man with rheumatic eyes, an hourglass face, cheeks meeting almost in the middle, and two substantial knives, halfway between machetes and meat cleavers, clutched one in each withered hand. Like an arthritic ninja. We doubted whether he could see very much through his drowning eyes, but the way he seemed to have sucked both of his lips into his mouth made it clear he meant business. He was the shrunken Clint Eastwood of the Turkish Hazelnut-picking world. Badass to the core, he gestured for a cigarette, which we hurriedly supplied, fingers fumbling over the packet.

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He spat out a string of Turkish. A death sentence. He then rubbed his fingers together and took a coin out of his pocket. After several minutes of us watching him smoke, he walked off. We’re still not sure whether he wanted money or was trying to pay us for the cigarette. Maybe he decided we were too boring to massacre. Either way, this episode proves that smoking save lives.

With a strong sense of the absurd hanging over us, we headed towards Georgia. The two hour queue in 35C+ heat was improved by the beach adjacent. This was the first instance of us pushing the limousine to save fuel. At one point we reached a slight decline. The limousine is quite difficult to slow down once it gets going and Jack, who is at least three times the height of the car doorway, running beside the driver-side door, struggled to leap into the seat in order to brake. A lorry was close on the left, a wall of rough rock on the right, and a queue of cars in front. All four of us ran pulling with little effect to slow the limo down. With a few centimetres to spare on either side we heaved the car to a stop in contact with the vehicle in front.

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It is worth mentioning how queuing works for people at the Georgian border. Whilst cars form an orderly line, people contrive to tessellate in the space delineated for queuing. This means; people shoving boxes into your ankles and rolling their suitcases ahead of you in order to make space for them to follow. This means; herds of small, spherical women bowling their way through legs like wild boar trampling through undergrowth. This means; using your child to cleave a pathway to a slightly advanced position. This means; three white men standing like trapped branches in a stream of hurried Georgians, Turkish and Azerbaijanis.

Once across the border and in the car, we attempted to follow the familiar pattern. Find a surly woman to buy a vignette (road tax) from. Find a moustachioed man to buy car insurance from. Drive across country. Repeat. We were under a degree of time pressure. For the past few days we had been doing our best to catch up with the Ice Cream Truck (Eddies’ Delicious Ice Creams) who were stranded outside of Tbilisi with a blown head gasket, in need of a tow. We knew we were a couple of days behind them.

We found no English speakers beyond the border nor any booths from which to purchase the requisite documentation. We drove around Batumi for some time before being directed to a police station. Reluctantly, we handed ourselves into the police. They in turn, in moderate bafflement, phoned a translator who directed us to a medical clinic who directed us to an insurance company who gave us a further address. We had spoken to a Rally veteran who had warned us to buy “the maximum possible tax” or else face “astronomical bribes”.

Batumi is a very odd city. As you enter it, you will see half-completed cinder-block skeletons propped up with wood standing next to rickety shop fronts. You will drive for a short while and witness a glass and steel hotel with a Ferris wheel mounted halfway up it and what you will presume is a palace, unseen at the end of an interminable, tree-lined road. The police stations are huge, flashy affairs. Often made of glass and well-tended, they unfailingly sit amidst ruined buildings for maximum contrast. The police themselves are everywhere, carrying semi-automatic guns and driving beautiful cars.

We left Batumi without tax or insurance. It didn’t seem that important. Besides, you only need insurance if the roads are dangerous, right?

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A note on driving in Georgia. There are two undivided lanes, but they are treated as three. There are cars and plenty of lorries, but there are also untended herds of cows browsing along most of the roads. There are also goats. There are also chickens. Sometimes, there are cars using the hard shoulder to drive in the opposite direction to traffic. Sometimes people park up in the middle of the road. On hills. Even though there are lorries behind them. The horn is now as important as your mirrors and speaks its own stuttering language.

This all serves as an elaborate backdrop to the main feature of Georgian driving: the overtake into oncoming traffic. Step 1: tailgate the car you would like to overtake. Step 2: overtake the car, regardless of what is coming in the opposite direction. This may, for example, involve taking your people carrier, packed with all of your children and your mother and your aunt, in between two lorries going in opposite directions, simply so that you can sit behind several more lorries. Apply horn liberally throughout. Advanced tip: Should you need to move completely into the opposite lane (for example to overtake 6 or 7 cars) simply flash your high beams repeatedly and force oncoming traffic onto their hard shoulder: it is expected. The police do nothing to interfere with the process; indeed, this is how they drive too. We witnessed these lessons in action the whole way through Georgia. After a while, we all started to enjoy it.

We stopped to eat as the light started failing. Cheese pasties are apparently a big hit in Georgia. This was the first time that we were ushered into a kitchen to see food rather than being given a menu.

Not wanting to drive in the dark and resigned to leaving the Ice Cream Truck to fend for itself for another night, we set out looking for places to stay. We set a budget of 100 Gel (£35) for the night and drove towards a promising dot on our map. It was a theatrical white building set amongst dying trees and yellowed grass. There was no sign from the road and the car park was completely deserted. What looked like a rusting soviet tank lay dormant in the field that bordered one wall of the building. The ‘hotel’ had the high ceilings and the protruding porch of a Victorian villa; it was clearly once an upmarket place. We could see through the grand, ground floor window that the entire, polished bottom floor was deserted but for a man crammed into one corner with a bed and a PC. As we pulled up, we were greeted by a slight woman with dark, cropped hair. We were showed around fully-furnished, en suite rooms and were without provocation or direction offered a price of 100 Gel for two twin rooms. In the echoing corridors of the deserted hotel, we realised it was the second night in a row on which we had found ourselves on the set of a horror film.

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Having only eaten a cheese pasty each all day, we fetched a watermelon from the car. It was as Dom stood, naked down to the waist, gloriously suspending the watermelon above his head, that our host walked into the bedroom through the door we had carelessly left ajar. She returned with a large platter and cutlery a few moments later with down-turned eyes and an expression that had soured from welcome to disapproval.

That evening, we made good our spare time by washing several batches of clothes, which we diligently left to dry on the balcony, and turned in for an early night.

Turkey Part Three

31/07

Once again we wake up at around 7:30am sweating profusely; as the sun rises the tent turns into an unbearable sauna. Luckily a watermelon from Romania remains in the limo and we butcher it up to refresh ourselves: ready for a long days driving.

The Rover’s off-road capability was once again tested up a steep inclination in order to get back to the roadside. Jack takes to the wheel and with the help of traction control the limo sails up with ease. The Rover will have to wait for Turkmenistan to be truly challenged!

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Throughout Turkey we all tried our best to ‘eco-drive’ as the fuel prices were ridiculous, as in more than UK prices! So back home you pay about £1.30/ltr and here it is 5.16 turkish lira/ltr, which is approximately equivalent to £1.55/ltr. Despite our best efforts to maximise our fuel economy the day involved over 200km of mountain driving. This included continuously driving with the pedal to the metal for 20km up a mountain around steep meandering bends, many of which were gravel, and then coasting down the other side. Not the best for the MPG’s or for feeling slightly queasy with the limo’s boat like action, but at this point we did not care: the views were spectacular! Another plus side was that as we ascended more, the air temperature decreased to a point whereby we felt a bit chilly, a feeling we had not experienced for a while.

After about 100km of not seeing anything on the roadside, as soon as we spotted a roadside food stall we stopped to get some snacks. In the bare wilderness that we were in it was amazing that they had anything, but it was even more surprising that they sold Doritos and even the heat wave flavour, what a find! We also bought what looked like a homemade fig and nut roll of goodness. However, once the local stall owner ripped us off we returned to the limo only to find that in fact it was tasteless that can only be described as eating soft rubber.

Eventually we hit the Black Sea and this was the road we stayed on all the way to Georgia. Here the horn usage was definitely increased as the quality of other drivers on the road noticeably deteriorated. Indicating is a thing of the past, and the hard shoulder is now the de-facto mini-bus lane.

With some Turkish lira still to use up we stop off at a supermarket to stock up on supplies, a watermelon, pasta and beer. Returning back to the car we hear the roar of a 169bhp v6 24 valve Honda engine as Steve, who had been keeping the car company, revs the Rover in front of a crowd of mechanics from the local garage. It turns out that they had never seen a Rover before, unbelievable right! Steve had made friends with a fat Turkish kid and given him a Union Jack flag as he kept pointing to our prestige limo flags. Then one of the mechanics pointed down the side alley to a pair of homemade car ramps and gestured that we should drive the limo up. So after inspecting the welds we did. Once up we flicked the neons on, inspected the under carriage and showed them the mods we had made and they were happy, we were happy, everything was good!

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Continuing along the coast, the sun had begun to set. With the (beachless) sea to our left and tropical mountain ranges to our right, we were unsure of our chances of finding a good spot to camp. Jack, human divining rod for perfect camping spots, led us off the map into the foothills. The winding road was populated by souped up transit vans (complete with bodykits and spoilers) shipping sombre children up hidden side lanes that went directly up the mountainside; overtaking us at speed on blind corners. A mystery of Turkey’s North coast.

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With thick trees pressing in on one side and a steep drop to a stream hemming us in, we were struggling to imagine the scene opening up to allow space for two tents and a limousine. At the point of going back, we spotted a narrow, rutted footpath curling away towards the water. Jack reconnoitred and reported that it was an overgrown tarmacked road to a bridge that lead to an orchard of Hazelnut trees. In the hollow in the trees just before the bridge was space for two tents and a 21ft executive vehicle. There were also 5 bags of freshly picked hazelnuts…

We stood in indecision for some 10 minutes, tents half unpacked, as we discussed how likely it was that the group of people we had seen walking in the opposite direction were workers here, whether they would return for the bags, whether they would mind us sleeping on their stretch of road. We were not left speculating for long. An off-road vehicle reversed into the mouth of the path. Headlights silhouetted its passengers in the dark. We stood awkwardly, mired in an almost inexplicable situation: however well we get across our intentions, there’s always a limousine in the room.

We moved forward to take the initiative. Reaching them halfway down the slope, Dom muttered off his pre-learned Turkish…..”Hello-how-are-you-can-we-camp-here?” Even though it is dark, we all hoped they could make out the white of our teeth as friendly grins rather than threatening grimaces. A scrawny, bearded man in his mid-to-late 20s is the recipient of this uncertain barrage. I don’t know how I would have reacted either: he avoided eye contact and managed a sheepish chuckle, which I think captures the social abnormality of the encounter. Through a series of gestures we were able to rope ourselves into carrying the hazelnuts up to his car. For all we know, we were accessories to a rapid, highly efficient nut-heist.

Relaxed, we ate and played Settlers of Catan on the road, backlit by the car’s headlights. Midway through the game we heard a shout and saw a flash of lights from the road, a huddle of shadows appearing at the turning. Topless, sweating and midway through the game, which involves brightly coloured hexagonal tiles and twelve different sets of cards, we were not set up to receive guests. A moment of turmoil passed among us as we considered how long it would take to explain the rules of Settlers of Catan to a group of Turkish hazelnut pickers. It might not have been a problem, but we were embroiled in the more sophisticated expansion, Cities and Knights. Complete with flipcharts, it would take at least an hour to explain.

Dom rose wearily and moved to intercept the newcomers.

From the campsite, the others heard a halting exchange. Then: a long pause. Then “Ahhh…..Tourists….camping….”
The game resumed. The highlight of the game so far had been a freshwater crab climbing onto Dom’s foot and scaring the living crap out of him and a small almost fluorescent green spider making us aware of Steve’s phobia.

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Turkey continued

29/07/14
We woke with the expense of the hotel, the immanence of Team Eddies’ visa dates and piss-in-parking-lot-gate hanging over us. The only solace was the promise of a good breakfast to make up for having missed dinner.

The hotel dining room was sumptuously decorated; clean white linen swaddled every table and the patio windows overlooked a distant, turquoise swimming pool, glistening alluringly in the middle-distance, set in well-watered, manicured grass.

The breakfast itself, on the other hand, was shit. A single carton of milk for stale coco-rocks. It was sort of an odd combination of left-over entrees and marmalade. To his credit, Ollie took the brave step of risking a date. He was rewarded for his heroism with fly larvae saluting him from the top of the fruit. Not to be beaten, we ate pretty much everything they put out anyway; more or less out of spite.
With the sour taste of stale coffee on our lips, we parted ways with the pink ice cream van. They had just three days to make it into Russia before their visa ran out. We had thoroughly enjoyed the absurdity of the pairing and the guys’ company and it was a real shame to see them drive off. Especially as they took off with all of our useful cutlery. The bastards left us with three spoons and a fork. They even took our good cooking knife.

With no real plan for the day, Jack made use of Google Translate to help us find the nearest hospital. Jack’s legs looked like they may well be good for firewood but not much else besides, but we thought it was worth trying to save the withered stumps with a 2km detour into Dȕzce proper. Once in the hospital, the dramatic sight of what used to be Jack’s legs meant he was seen straight away. In honesty, Jack’s legs looked like they lost a fight with a pack of kittens wielding knuckle dusters dipped in malaria and rabies and plague. They looked like he had smeared a mixture of blackcurrant jam and oats over them and not done a very even job of it. They looked like someone had inflated them with a bicycle pump in several places and hit them repeatedly with a jagged crowbar covered in broken glass and killer ants. They looked like mosquitos had actually nested inside of them, creating a kingdom under his skin, putting up tent poles and giving them a new lick of paint using other people’s blood. They looked fairly bad.

Jacks putrid leg stumps

In the queue, another patron asked Jack something in Turkish. “English” Jack replied. The man laughed and skipped ahead of him.

Miraculously, blood tests showed Jack to be just fine. Betraying all expectations, he didn’t even need to have a skin graft from his backside to fix the damage. Antibiotics and some stronger antihistamines were prescribed. Because it was still the post-Ramadan holiday, finding a pharmacy was again problematic. The sheer number of pharmacies was surprising in itself – we saw at least 7 or 8 before we found one that was open.

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Fears allayed, we set off towards Cappadoccia. The trip had now just become a challenge to keep moving in order to maintain the breeze in the limo, any stop of over 10 minutes caused the temperature in the limo to soar into the 40s.

Steve took us all the way past Ankara down crazy undulating roads into a village in the middle of nowhere during end of Ramadan celebrations. The village was another example of what seemed to be a systematic inconsistency in maintaining the appearance of a town. Carefully tiled roads and houses falling down next to them. Carefully maintained central verges and pavements that were crumbling into the dusty ground. The limo was some kind of new specimen in this place and we nodded and smiled out the window as though this was what everyone in the UK drove.

We wound our way down dirt tracks in search of a free spot to camp. Somewhere away from people, with room to securely park a limousine. Preferably with air conditioning. We followed a rutted track that curved away out of sight. This was our first off-road experience, our first sign that the Rover 827 was designed to explore the Earth forever, that the reincarnation of the Rover marque was a categorical imperative. Eventually the track faded onto a deserted hillside, completely shielded from the village by trees and a valley. Traction control, soft air suspension and power steering made the rocky ascent almost too easy. The light was just starting to grey as we pulled up.

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30/07/2014
We woke early with the heat and drove the remaining 200km to Nevsehir, the closest city to Cappadoccia, where we ate.

Driving to Cappadoccia is almost as stunning as arriving. People infest the bizarre stone structures that crop up around this area as though they were your garden variety geological structure, like hills or something. Instead, giant stone phalluses erupt from the ground and tower up to 15 stories. “Cappa”, means ‘pine cone’ and “Doccia” means ‘town’ in the Turkish aborigine language. The structures were ordered built all over the country on the command of the mad king Atafurkah I in celebration of the way pine cones seemed to resemble a woman’s breast once she has reached the age of 60. Although some several hundred of the structures were built, as legend has it, the king choked on a watermelon seed whilst juggling pine cones in the night and was not discovered until the morning. In memorial of the incident, on the anniversary of the king’s death, and 6 months either side of it, the Turkish people sell as many watermelons as they possibly can by every roadside in the country.

We did try and get hot air balloon rides to see the stone pillars from the sky, as we are told that men experience something of a revelatory familiarity when they see them from above, but we were far too cheap to shell out the £75 each required.

Despite the fact that we had taken a several hundred kilometre detour to see Cappadoccia, we stayed only an hour or so there. It was just so hot. It was a desert.

We headed towards the border. On a lucky streak with free camping spots, we took another plunge down an unmarked road to find somewhere innocuous to sleep. Whereas the previous night, the ground had been inhabited by the world’s prickliest plants, the world’s angriest looking ants and had been truly impervious to pegs, the place we found on this side road had more amenable shrubbery and only a lone circling vulture in terms of hostile fauna.

We took the opportunity to modify the limousine. The roof got painted white with some counterfeit “Fulux” house paint we picked up on the way. The tires went white too. We hoped that the result was just amateur enough to convince people that the machine was not worth nicking.

Another night under a clear sky.

Istanbul to Cappadocia

28/07/14
After our late night in the city, we woke from a good night’s sleep to arctic rooms with the A/C cranked to the max. Steve managed to wash all of his clothes in the sink. Somehow, these clothes, which he generously decorated the inside of the limo with, did not dry even in 37 degree heat due to the humidity.
Jacks legs have changed colour again to a dark maroon tinge; the dark patches have joined up across his calves. We start to doubt his chances.

We set off to look around Istanbul for a pharmacy, breakfast kebabs and the sights. In the Blue Mosque area we spent a long time trying to find an open pharmacy (most were closed because of the national holiday), asking various shop owners who begin to point in the same direction, towards an ‘Eczane’ specialising in skin ointments and Viagra.

Jack applied his cream and we walked through the never-ending heat. Why did nobody warn us about this??!! At 2pm, we enjoyed breakfast at “the most cheaper” Turkish kebab restaurant in the area. The owner did us a great deal by giving us free bread and yogurt.

In search of fake merchandise and A/C, we walked to the Gran Bazaar. Unfortunately, it turned out all of the Bazaars were closed due to the holiday. The Blue Mosque however was open but we only lasted 10 minutes inside because even in the shade, the sun’s reflection from the marble burns the skin. We eventually found a street merchant and acquired 5 pairs of ‘faybans’ after some amateur haggling.

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By then, it was getting late in the day and we left Istanbul after an hour of driving towards Ankara and Cappadoccia for the ballooning and sights.

Jacks legs have deteriorated further in the heat with more swelling and larger red patches. We begin drawing straws to see who will push his wheelchair.

All of the possible free camping spots looked dodgy in the dark. We were made aware that we were still on the outskirts of Istanbul by the plethora of activity, including (but not limited to) packs of stray dogs, rubbish littered everywhere and people frolicking on the main roads in the pitch black.

After a few near head on collisions from crazy drivers who only veered out of the way at the last possible moment, we decided to cut our losses and find the cheapest motorway Otel in the area. The first one was more expensive than central Istanbul and the receptionist wouldn’t negotiate even though everything inside appeared to be under serious renovation.

We moved on to a similar Otel and Ollie and Jack tried out their haggling skills again and manage to take 30 Turkish lira off the price in 20 minutes (not very impressive). In the meantime, due to the copious amounts of tea drunk throughout the day, the ice cream guys decided to take a leak in the car park of said hotel and were caught by security. We will never forget the eerie giggling and bow-legged, hand-on-fly jig Cosmo and Laurence danced before they dived through the Ice Cream Van windows shouting “Drive!”

While they escaped to slyly hide around the corner, we used the hotel’s WiFi to book what we thought was a nearby hotel. All the while, the guard continued to circle the limousine in an ovular fashion. Eventually he approached us with back up: “Problem. Police”. We eventually left, en route to our booked hotel.

We were a few hundred metres down the road before we discovered that there is more than one Dȕzce in Turkey. The non-refundable hotel was actually 200km away! During this debacle, the ice cream guys had discovered that they only have 3 days to get into Russia otherwise their visas will not be valid.

With few options left, we decided to stay at the first hotel, the only bonus being the free WI-FI. We slept on empty stomachs once again.

Basil report: Some dying leaves, severe heat stress.
Basil report: Some dying leaves, severe heat stress.

Bulgaria to Istanbul

Waking up at the Bulgarian beach camp site we became aware that Jack had at least 12 insect bites. We were sure he’d live.

Once you reach the Bulgarian-Turkish border, the speed limit starts to count down; 70, 50, 40, 10, 8. We went through about four Stop signs before we reached what looked like an elaborate petrol station with no barriers or security guards, just a couple of cheery looking strays and a few people wandering around confusedly. The process was fairly long with a lot of gesturing, stamps and queuing but by the end we had insurance and permission to drive through Turkey. At one point we did get a little mixed up. Seeing a sign about meat and dairy we hurriedly and unwillingly consumed most of the over-heated meat and cheese in the two cars. Including two big pieces of brie. Folks – the Turkish don’t hate brie, just take it right in there, no worries! Cheese-smeared and bloated, the customs official simply smiled at the car from a few metres away and gave us a couple more stamps. There was absolutely no reason for Steve to have packed his rectal cavity with our only vacuum sealed cheese.

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Jack took the wheel for the first time and we departed from border security, insurance only costs 35 euro for anyone to drive the car. As Steve took the helm on the outskirts of Istanbul (also for the first time) we noticed how perfectly kept the banks by the highway were, with attractive botanic inlays and very healthy grass. In fact, the grass was significantly healthier than the 8-12 year old children who first begged us for change and later helped get us away from traffic lights by running behind the car pushing. We may well have been perfectly fine without their help.

It is also around this point that we notice that Jack’s legs are lumpier than usual. He will probably live.

Ploughing on, Steve helpfully (read: probably accidentally) took us to the airport in search of wifi. Overtaking a queue of enraged taxis that culminated with police (who, by the sounds of their voices on the megaphones, were also less than content) we promptly left and headed “towards the centre” of the 200km wide mega-metropolis.

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“Church with a Starbucks in it in Cevahir” came the instruction from our contact in Istanbul. Once you get away from the highways into Istanbul, it quickly looks less like Hyde Park and more like steep cobbled hills packed with every resident of every house and all of their watermelons and some of the cats they let loose once they stopped being kittens, now mangy, followed by those puppies they once had that are now bigger and hungrier and have more obvious ribs, and old men who are so unfazed by death that they will walk headlong in front of a limousine, waving their hands distractedly at you. And mopeds. See also: old women. See also: taxis and their drivers and their drivers’ friends.

Hand-waving and scraps of paper with unpronounceable plane-names got us to Starbucks, A/C and frappuccinos, where Alper, our Istanbul saviour and Brock, his friendly friend, met us and helped us book a hotel for around £10 /person. It was always unlikely that we would find a campsite in amidst the urban sprawl.

Our fixers got in the limo and sherpa’d us through the main streets to our hotel. The one way system is exacerbated by the total lack of lane discipline, the dead-ends that once lived and the requirement to U-turn to correct mistakes. One highlight was having to drive directly through a packed main street that looked shop-for shop, neon snow-flake for superfluous, inexplicable Christmas decoration like Oxford Circus. The received advice is “show [pedestrians] no respect. Use your horn.” This got us to the tiny side lane which had our car park wedged in it. It might once have been a building. Driving past the entrance down a 30 degree decline, Ollie revved the limo backwards into the lot whilst onlookers shouted in Turkish and a Dom flailed his arms just out of sight.

Throughout these meanderings, Jack’s legs continued to swell and change colour. Prognosis: uncertain.
Eventually we found the hotel. It was just 2 minutes from the car park and every room was en suite. All of the door numbers were wrong on the keys, but luckily it turned out that all of the keys worked for all of the rooms.

Once showered we headed out into Istanbul on foot. Have to use those appendages occasionally. Without a stiff breeze rushing in through tinted windows, it was an incredibly warm evening. The kind of heat that makes you want to curl up on the cool stone of shady doorways. That’s where we found Turkey’s fattest dog: lazily wagging its tail at us, it was adorable even in spite of the fact that it could very well have been the subject of a gritty channel 4 documentary. There is some speculation as to whether this dog was already famous for some reason. For sure, it had done significantly better than the majority of Istanbul’s roving canine population.

Alper had booked us a table on the roof top of a traditional Turkish restaurant. Alper then told us what to order, ordered it for us, negotiated when the wrong drinks came and got us the cheque. I think we would still have been aimlessly driving around Istanbul’s polished labyrinth of ring-roads if it wasn’t for Alper.

It was during this meal that we were all reminded of Harry Thompson’s unique ability to ingest. It is the speed that is stunning. Unhooking his jaw and flattening his oesophagus, the adult Harry Thompson can consume up to one and a half king-size meals by simply upending the plates above his face. The application of sleight of hand to the process adds the shock and awe factor. Look once: full kebab + salad bigger than your head. Look twice, a plate that only barely shows any sign of having born food, and Harry casually chewing on a couple of chips from a side plate.

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The food was delicious. Spiced meat bathed in tomato-rich, yoghurt-laden sauce with fresh diced veg to follow.

Two more stops on the evening tour. First, to smoke sheesha on a balcony overlooking what looked like an entire district of Istanbul dedicated to smoking sheesha. The air was thick with every flavour of fruit. It was like cocktails for your lungs. Whether you liked it or not. But who wouldn’t like a good, fruity lung cocktail? Alper got us the very best flavours available: Watermelon, Lemon, Orange + mint. Dom was nevertheless adamant that you could obtain a similar effect by filling your mouth with fruit and standing up too quickly. But that doesn’t quite generate the same ambience as sitting back, puffing, with sweet Turkish tea in hand. Lots of people standing up too quickly is just stressful. And trickier to hold onto your tea.

We topped the day off by heading out for a round of beers. I think all of us were surprised that it was 2.30am by the time were ready to leave; the whole area was buzzing. It must have been a combination of Istanbul’s rapturous energy and jet lag that moves forward by an hour every time you’ve caught up with it.