Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria

We pulled up to the Hungarian-Romanian border at around 11:50 and proceeded to the vignette office. Our tentative knock on the window was met with a squawk from within and a gesture to a sign stating that they were closed from 11:45-12:15, seemingly so that the tax lady could watch the Romanian equivalent of Hollyoaks.

Passing through border security was fairly easy, switching the neons on seemed to make everything go smoothly. The main border guard, with the biggest gun, seemed to take a liking to Terry the bonsai tree and Basil the Basil plant. True to the word of the Daily Mail the queue to get out of Romania was orders of magnitude larger than the queue to get in (us, the ice cream truck and a pair of stray dogs).
Ten minutes into Romania we saw our first horse and cart, transporting what looked to be potatoes along the dual carriage way.

There seem to be people hanging around everywhere. In the roads. With children. In prostitute outfits.
We went through central Arad to search for a camp site at 01:30am and after being scared by several large dogs we decided to stay at a motel.

hotel in arad city romania motel mongol rally 2014 limo blog

25/07/14

We started the 9 and a half hour drive towards Vama Veche, the Romanian Mongol Rally beach party. Blinded by visions of neons, strobes and naked women gyrating in the sea everything seemed worth it as we set out.

Romania is definitely up there with Bavaria in the running for most roadside trees (AKA ‘scenic beauty’). A large proportion of the roads were single carriageway, winding through gargantuan forested mountains, jutting out over the muddy river suspended by rusted soviet era infrastructure and curling around into corners you could pin your hair back with. Perfect limo cruising conditions. Cross dual carriageways with freight transport and impatient Romanians and you get lane-splitting, hard-shoulder-utilising madness, with up to three cars overtaking swathes of traffic at a time.

On one of the steepest corners we saw the Liverpool team parked up in an unmarked, non-rally vehicle waving for help. We drove straight past them intending to pull over or turn around, but the limo just isn’t cut out for such antics – the only roads you can u-turn on are 5 lanes wide. This triggered one of the first serious crisis talks of the rally so far, and we drove on in guilty silence.

We will remember Bucharest for its traffic and for being a place we got slightly lost. There’s probably more to it, but the limo drove on.

Past the city, we encountered the legendary Mongol Rally Ferrari. Like a monster cat fish, the Loch Ness monster or Mewtwo, if you see the Ferrari, you are compelled to engage in pursuit. Half a tank of petrol later, we’re not even sure he noticed a 21 ft limousine with blacked out windows cruising at 100 mph close behind him for half an hour.

By the time we were close to Vama Veche it was pitch black. This didn’t stop cyclists with no lights popping into the middle of the dual carriage for a gentle jaunt and some frantic arm-waving, or disincentivise men from urgently carrying their rugs to and from wherever they store their rugs.
We did make it to Vama Veche. Driving along sand tracks we found a television scrap-yard/car park guarded by a man who clearly passed most of his waking moments furiously beckoning cars into unmarked bays and pacing, nodding. Beckoning at its finest.

To book into the campsite we first had to join an hour long queue of approximately 8 people to talk to two sexy Romanians with obvious boob jobs. This was the process: fill out 1 piece of paper per tent, crowd everyone you know into the boob-filled office to receive wristbands, pay separately for every single tent with different debit cards (4 transactions) and leave. Then, return and queue for a further 20 minutes with a new form in order to receive permission to park in the TV graveyard. To confuse things, a man dressed as Captain Morgan (of Rum fame) ridicules you in broken English (he asked Dom to wash his face in exchange for alcohol) flanked by more fake-chested Romanians and occasionally gives away lukewarm coke and trinkets. Then, drink and find your way quickly into the sea.
Notable events of the night: Ollie beat a Romanian in an arm wrestle both right and left handed and won their respect. Ollie tried some backflips with some scouts and landed on his head. People on the tables, glass on the floor, naked bodies in the water, and pasta pesto at 6am back at the tents.

26/07

One day later. We packed down the tents, washed the shame and euphoria away into the sea, ate our roadside watermelon, relaxed under a grand piano and eventually left at 2pm to set off in the vague direction of Bulgaria.

The entry to Bulgaria was straightforward. Yet another border through which we could have smuggled a small family stuffed with drugs and weapons. Thank god for our choice of an inconspicuous car.
For the third time in the trip we resorted to using our mobile app, ‘Maps With Me’ to find somewhere to stay. The first two attempts had lead us to a guarded compound and an un-signposted, swirling pool of mud/road, so we were pessimistic. Pessimists are always rewarded – we were lead to a free campsite directly on the beach with room for (even ridiculously shaped) cars. The sun set over us as we cooked curry on gas stoves on a beach dotted by families with full dining tables and neon strips to light their meals.

To this point, the trip has been more about us driving, eating and sleeping (mostly driving) than it has been about the countries we have travelled through. Bulgaria and Romania blur together as the hills and styles of driving we saw through the tinted windows as we pushed through them. It has been about the double-takes of remote villagers who have never seen a limousine (let alone one tailed by a pink, 30 year old ice cream van crammed full of stuff and 20 year olds), negotiating pot holes and keeping a pair of house plants alive. It has been about comparing bowel movements, dealing with slightly above average heat and making half-assed decisions with whatever scraps of information we have left over from the last time we had wifi. It’s been pretty fun!

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Bulgarian beach curry mongol rally limo service

Europe Part 2

At 7:00am it was time to put on the chauffeur’s hat and get to business, shuttling two loads of kids to the bus station in a neighbouring town for them to start a 3 day hike in a national park. Once back at the camp we said our goodbyes to the remaining people, signed the guestbook and left them an ‘I love Wales’ mug. In return Joe gave us a basil plant and bonsai tree to make us feel more at home in the limo, what a nice guy!

Having stayed in Klinovice the previous night we had only a short 30km drive to arrive at Klenova castle, the location of the Czechout party. However, having discovered that our amateur wiring had caused some issues with the radiator fans we needed to find an auto-parts store on route.
After searching down several side roads we were eventually approached by a portly Czech man who was intrigued by the limo, he knew several words in English and gave us a tour around the town showing us to the auto-moto store. After a significant amount of hand waving and drawing of circuit diagrams we were able to get all of the parts necessary as well as 4 Danish pastries and continued to Klenova Castle where we would stop to fix the problem.

We arrived at the Czechout party at around three, and as we pulled into the team’s area our engine immediately began overheating, spewing steam from the bonnet. A crowd quickly formed to celebrate our misfortune.

In preparation for the rally we had installed a manual override for the radiator fans, in the process we had to move them onto a separate electrical circuit, as our other modifications progressed this circuit was also used to wire in our CB radio, the undercar neons and a 300W inverter. This proved to be a little too much for the single circuit and our inline fuses would occasionally blow disabling the radiator fans and more importantly turning off our neons. To get the problem under control for the time being we wired in a separate ring exclusively for the cooling system, this seems to work OK so far.

We set up the tents and then chilled out, drank some beers whilst watching all the other teams filter in. At around 6 o’clock an announcement was made to say that a freak show was to kick off the party, which was set up in an old aircraft hanger. It definitely had to be seen to be believed. Before long, Ollie was accurately throwing 5 frisbees at the hand-standing freak-man’s testicular area. There was also a strongman show with inhuman displays of brutish force.

After the freak show, the real party began with spectacles of unbelievable dance manoeuvres and an expedition onto the roof. The festivities ended at close to 5 am and Steve slept his 3rd night out of 4 in the limo.

The following morning we set off late in convoy with Eddie’s Ice Cream Van and entered what we thought was Austria, later finding out we were in Bavaria after crossing the actual border.

After a quick curry wurst at a German truck stop, we managed to get the CB Radios working and came up with apt calling names for both of our teams.

Not understanding that Wien = Vienna we took a wrong turn into a small Austrain town where we paraded down the small streets trying to rejoin the motorway. Austria was another country for which the maps had not been downloaded.

Our bad luck continued and we got signalled to ‘Halt’ by Austrian traffic police. “Passports, Licence and tax”. The British road tax disc was not what they wanted to inspect. No vignette = 120 euro fine! We protested and they replied, “4 grown men should have known better” and then breathalysed Ollie.
Lucking by this point, the Ice cream truck had stopped after making weird noises from its gearbox so missed out on the fine and bought a vignette for €6 after a quick message down the CB.

By this time it was getting late so we peeled off the motorway to ask a local the directions to the nearest campsite, we followed the general direction to where he pointed and saw a green sign leading us down an off-road track. Full speed ahead to what we assume means Camp site. It was only when we had no luck and returned to the sign to discover it actually reads “Kromping Grasse” and not “Kamping Platz”. We then gave up and splurged the £1.99 required to use Google maps and made it to an actual campsite 10 km away on the outskirts of Vienna.

We woke at 10am next day and leisurely set off to find the nearest hospital to remedy Alex’s difficulty to breathe. After discovering that the 1st was closed, we set off for Vienna and had equally no luck with the second; no doctors in the hospital. They kindly directed us to the next one and after getting the all clear we drove through Wein traffic, eventually leaving the hell hole which was Austria at 4pm with our first hitchhiker heading towards Budapest.

At the Hungarian border, we decided to actually buy the road tax rather than trying the ‘gunning it through the country as fast as you can’ method. This is what the road tax office looks like (pic)
Hungary was very straight forward and it seemed that the whole country is just wind turbines. Nothing else happened in Hungary we drove straight through.

Departure

WE ARE IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC. Specifically, in a converted farmhouse near Klinovice. We are staying with 20 teenagers who were invited to join a camp here; they come from all over the world (USA, West and East coast, Georgia in Central Asia, Italy, Spain…) to stay here for just under a month. On our first day we were sucked into Chinese character painting, sing-alongs and dynamite manufacture (cereal); it made for a mind-boggling transition from the day and a half we had spent in the car. It has been thunder, lightning and torrential rain since we arrived here, which we take to be an excellent omen.

The rally begun at 7.30am on Sunday morning at Battersea Park. The charge was led by our friends, team ‘Eddies’ Delicious Ice Creams’ in the 1988, pink Ice Cream Van; check them out here. Each car passes through a massive ramp to leave the park and begin the adventure. We eyed it up suspiciously. With its aberrant length and supercar ground clearance we couldn’t see the limo making it. “Just go around it to the left” said the official fairly insistently. We stared mutely at him as if we didn’t understand. “We won’t get to Mongolia if we don’t go over the ramp” we replied. As we climbed the ramp, there was a slightly jubilant atmosphere in the car; we’d make it even in spite of the fact that we definitely couldn’t make it. I think that catches a lot of the feeling of the Rally. We reversed back down a few seconds later.

tower bridge london mongol rally launch

Reactions to the limo so far have been very mixed, with highly varying degrees of forgiveness for the inconvenience of sharing the road with an amateur-driven stretch limo; the Belgians are the least impressed (by the looks on their faces, or they might just look like that on Sunday afternoons; it’s hard to tell through all of the moustaches that seem to be in fashion here).

The route has been entirely made up on the fly, with directions sleuthed from patchily downloaded maps (“No, I don’t think we have France… Or Luxembourg) and so far this method has only lead us slightly astray. I suppose a pretty good example is our ill-fated attempt to get to the racetrack at “Nurberg”. We were convinced by another team we met on the ferry that it would be wicked fun to drive our car around the world-renowned raced track with its sharp corners and cambered turns. But wires were crossed and we headed stoically towards Nuremberg, which turns out to be a very substantial distance from the Nurburgring. Even a day later, writing out this blog post, we were split between whether it was actually “Nuremberg Green”, “The Nurburg Ring” or “Nurburg Green”; none of which turned out to be correct. Word of mouth, eh?

We managed to get fuel consumption down to 29mpg using a variety of techniques which we have labelled “Eco Driving”. The first rule of eco driving is to find a really good lorry. One famous example is the Skynet.be logistics lorry of Day 1. The second rule is to get close to the lorry and hover just under 60mph. This did lead to a near miss as I took a wrong turn and swerved to correct it, not seeing a line of bollards obscured by our unsuspecting convoy.

We have also come up with a way of parking anywhere. You just pull up (for example, in the middle of the road in Heidleberg’s town centre next to a tram line) and whack up the hood. At least one person must pace worriedly nearby, but everyone else is free to get on with their business.

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Tomorrow we shall continue to the ‘Czechout Party’, the official European start of the rally. More updates to come!

The Notorious L.I.M.O.

Dom was recently asked to take part in a quick interview for BBC Radio Devon, drive-time. Eager to make use of his 5 minutes of fame he prepared the following rap/beat-poem. Unfortunately Devon is still not quite ready for hip-hop and the producers quickly put an end to Dom’s fledgling rap career. Not wanting his work to go to waste the full text is posted verbatim below. It should be sung to the tune of The Wu Tang Clan’s breakthrough single “Protect ya’ neck”.

I’m all geared up
This is my big brake
Clutching sweaty palms
Putin can wait no need to accelerate

We’re chauffeur of ourselves
We’ve got limo-tless ambition
In our decision to drive to Mongolia, cross the Gobi,
We’re limo la vida loca

In a car replete with seven seats
Drenched in the fetid reek of feet, deet, kebab meat
The floor would be littered
If only bribes came with receipts

We’ve Czech’d our visas
It’s Istanbul to Constantinople,
Weather’s not looking so hopeful in Mosul
And just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind
Let’s hope we find Azerbaijan, Tashkent get enough
of those somewhat substantive Stans, understandably,
Borat are you calling me man?

And then Mongolia’s stepping up, Khan’t com-plane,
Pulling in Baatar late than never, Baatar we there yet?
Hit the road Yak, Khan touch this, bit of a Khanundrum,

And then Russian away,
Putin our car through its paces,
Never Stalin, Moscow fast like wacky races
Speeding through Soviet military bases
And then not quite back the way Ukraine,
Warsaw from sitting too long

But it’s for doctors without borders
Treating soldiers, civilians and people getting older
They’ve got the world’s disorders on their shoulders

But don’t worry if you’re wishing
You could end this rendition
The limo’s got an electric partition
Allowing judicious intermission.