Day 8 (For Dave): Batumi – Tbilisi, Georgia

I woke up feeling pretty good, Alan on the other hand, not so much, he had a pretty bad headache and was sick numerous times before we were able to leave the hotel this morning. Today was a sad day, I would be leaving the guys in Tbilisi as they continued on to Baku in Azerbaijan. The visa issue had not been resolved and so it was impossible for me to enter the country without waiting for my Azeri visa. I am gutted, this was not how the rally was supposed to be, I was looking forward to getting to Baku as for me, that is where the rally really begins, that’s where we were all supposed to meet Gilbey and thats where we were all supposed to get the ferry to Turkmenistan to see the Gates of Hell etc. This was now not going to happen and unfortunately, though I have been dreaming of visiting the Gates of Hell for quite a few years now, it would seem that this is not going to happen, not for now anyway.

I offered up my services as lead driver for the day knowing the Al and Don were planning on doing an overnighter so that they could be in Baku with time to meet Gilbey before going to the Turkmenistan embassy first thing tomorrow morning. It was a long, hot and very sweaty drive up and over the mountains avoiding crazy Georgian drivers and trying not to A) over heat the engine and B) not set the brakes on fire like we almost did in Germany! I soon adapted my style of driving to fit with the locals when I over took two trucks whilst driving around a blind bend based solely on the fact that I hadn’t seen anything coming in the distance when I did have a view, Don turned to me and said “Well Dave, you’re a Georgian driver now man!” yes, yes I am!

Arriving in Tbilisi some 8hrs later the guys dropped me off on Rustaveli, the main street in Tbilisi before I signed the roof rack wishing them luck and we had a little goodbye for now moment. I turned my back on them and walked off up the street, I didn’t look back, I couldn’t, I was gutted to be leaving them. I managed to find myself a room at Boombully hostel just up the road from where the guys left me, dropped my bags, and went straight out for a beer! Found a bar that sold beers for 65p and so had a few of those before returning to the hostel to scrub myself up a bit and go out for the night. I figured I’d make the most of my time here if I was going to be stranded here for a few days!

Day 7: Trabzon, Turkey – Batumi, Georgia

After a pretty crap night in Trabzon we were all a little slow at getting ready and leaving this morning, you could tell that the bad news and lack of beers had knocked some of the enthusiasm out of us all and so eventually we all got our shit together loaded the car up and got the hell out of Trabzon, todays plan was to enter Georgia and drive to Tbilisi.

It was a relatively short drive to the Georgian border and as we came out of the tunnel we could see Georgian immigration right in front of us, great! The police quickly pissed all over our parade as they used their PA system to shout at us in Turkish to join the back of the queue. We turned the corner and saw that the queue doubled back and went on for miles, we knew then we were in for a long one! Things could have been worse though, we were parked right next to the Black Sea, the sun was shining and there was the prospect of beers on the other side of the border!! Slowly but steadily we moved up the queue with the Turks shouting “Yanesh, Yanesh” which we understood to mean “Closer, Closer” – we got pretty close to the car in front but the friendly Turk in the car behind wasn’t happy until his car was physically touching ours, only then was he happy he was close enough, he didn’t damage either car though and we just kept laughing at him and he seemed to think it was pretty funny too. Whilst in the queue, Don befriended a local Turk who for $100 said he could get us straight to the front of the queue as his uncle was in charge of the border, we politely declined the offer and chose to wait it out like the rest of the people. We also met Jalal, a nice guy from Baku in Azerbaijan who was on his way back there to meet his family, he spoke really good english so we asked him about Baku and asked if he knew anything about getting visas at the border to which he said, sadly not. Bugger, thats Plan B out the window! I got bored of the queuing and went for a swim, Al got bored of the driving and so we left Rob in charge of the car and just took the handbrake off and pushed it every time we heard the shout of “Yanesh, Yanesh”.

Eventually we made it to the front of the queue and were told that only one person could take the car over the border, the other two would have to cross on foot. Never happy to leave one man alone in a situation that could involve extortion, rape and the potential refusal of entry Don and I made the decision to leave Alan to it and got out, he was the sacrificial lamb in this instance. Luckily there were no issues and Alan, Don and I all entered Georgia without anyone entering us!

We had spent so much time at the border queuing that by now it had gotten pretty late so we took the decision to get a room in Batumi, so that we could have these beers we missed out on the previous day and boy did we have some beers!! Beers, beers, Don’s donkey rides, more beers, even more beers, befriending a Greek ambassador and his Serbian girlfriend, vodkas, further beers, dancing in fountains and then finally a bit of vomit from Alan before we all hit the hay having well and truly made up for the lack of beer the day before. We loved Batumi!

Day 6: Cappadocia – Trabzon, Turkey

I’m not a fan of getting up at 4am usually unless I’m going on holiday, but today we made an exception and were up early from our cave beds excited about the prospect of a sunrise balloon flight over Cappadocia. We were taken for a rather early breakfast at the balloon place before being driven out into the middle of nowhere where our balloon was waiting. The excitement was building with every blast of the gas and as the sun was slowly crept over the horizon we were told to load up.

Without further-ado there were one or two more blasts of the gas burner and we were off the ground, I don’t really know what I expected but it was all so smooth and peaceful, we gained altitude and floated with the thermals over the different valleys and other balloons as our pilot expertly guided us around Cappadocia. There were times when we thought he’d screwed up as we came really low over things and dropped into valleys as though we were going to collide with the rock face. There was nothing to worry about though, the pilot was a pro and he would fly us really low over things so that he could point out an eagles nest or a bird of some kind – “not bad for my first time” he kept saying, he was quite the joker!

After around an hour of floating around we began our descent back down to the ground, a smooth landing was followed by the pilot expertly landing the basket straight onto the back of the trailer before we all jumped out and trampled on the balloon to help deflate it. Whilst we had been busy doing all this the guys from the balloon company had arrived and had set up a table with champagne for us all and a birthday cake. It transpired that today was the companies 1st anniversary so we were all treated to a piece of cake and a glass of bubbly before being given a free ticket each for another balloon ride there to be used within the next 12 months, it was a nice touch and a great ending to a perfect morning.

We were driven back to “Paradise” where we were treated to yet more food from the hotel owner as we sat enjoying the morning sun from his rooftop garden. We were also shown a shorter, more direct route to Trabzon (todays destination) which would take us up and over a beautiful mountain road which was once part of the famous Silk Road. Saying our goodbyes we packed the car up and headed out of Paradise the easy way, not the way Alan had chosen to fly up the day before when we arrived. Don did his token 10 minutes of driving before I took over and drove for a few hours whilst he slept in the back of the car, turns out the old boy isn’t too good with early mornings!

The mood then took a slight turn for the worse as today was the last day for my Azeri visa to come through – the others already had theirs and although I had applied for mine at the same time, mine had still not returned from the depths of the Azeri Ministry. Atop of a mountain somewhere in north eastern Turkey I called the Visa Machine, the company we had all used to get our visas through, I was offered nothing more than a “All you can do is wait”, I explained that we needed the visa for sunday as on sunday we were planning on driving to Baku in Azerbaijan however was given the reply of “Sorry, we have done all we can do, we can’t chase them up” – so that was it, I wasn’t going to be getting my visa in time and therefore was going to have to leave the guys and let them continue without me – not something you want to do when you have spent thousands of pounds organising this trip! I handed the keys over as I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to drive and sat in the back of the car for the next few hours mulling over all the possible plans I could think of to avoid me having to fly home. There were numerous but they all were littered with various problems, its not looking good. Apparently the road was pretty epic, although sadly I wasn’t paying any attention to it.

Arriving in Trabzon, thoroughly pissed off and in need of a beer we quickly realised that we had arrived in a highly religious part of town in the middle of Ramadan with no beer for sale and no food other than biscuits available to buy for food. We returned to the hotel, dug out my emergency hip flask and some MOD ration packs we had in the car – we hadn’t planned on needing these so soon! A wonderful morning had been completely ruined by the bad news and the lack of beer availability – we went to bed as grumpy bears and I spent most of the night awake trying to work out what the hell I was going to do!

Day 5: Istanbul – Cappadocia, Turkey

Having had a great nights sleep and a good shower we had a slow morning chatting to the staff at the hotel whilst Don taught them how to use the coffee machine. In the end we mustered up some enthusiasm and traded the comforts of our hotel for the sweaty confines of our lovely little Skoda. We were heading for Cappadocia, Turkey, a place famous for its national park, Goreme.

It was a very hot drive towards Ankara, up and over the mountains and across a plateau where we followed the shoreline of a huge salt lake. From here to Cappadocia was only a short distance and a little while later we came over the ridge line and out in front of us was Cappadocia, it was incredible, if I’d been asleep and just woken up to see that I could easily have mistaken it for another world, there were cave houses made within these huge sandstone pillars and they were everywhere! Al, Don and I had a little drive around before making a decision to stay in a little cave hotel called “Paradise”, I wouldn’t quite go that far but it was really nice and the guy who ran it was really helpful. Alan was left to park the car whilst Don and I stood laughing as he flew up the steep hill to the hotel bottoming out the vehicle as he took a run up at the really steep incline – turns out there was a much easier way up to the area to park cars but still, the Skoda made it, just.
We spoke with the owner about doing a balloon ride, something which the area of Cappadocia is famous for and eventually we settled for a good price €130 with a company called Turkey Balloons. Excited about the prospect of a sunrise balloon flight but slightly concerned about the 4am get up we went out for some beers to Antalya, a little restaurant up the road for Turkish pizza and the obligatory beers. As we sat and drank beers whilst listening to the call to prayer from the minarets dotted all around town. At this point Don came up with a translation of what they were saying to clarify things for Alan and I, it goes something like this “aaaahh-I-aaaahh, I’m really hungry, aaaahh-I-aaaahh, I could do with a beer, aaaah-I-aaaahh the sun is almost down, aaaah-I-aaaah it’s almost the end of Ramadan, aaaa-I-aaaah the sun is down, aaaah-I-aaaah let’s party!”. I am unsure of Don’s translation but it did provide us with a laugh.

Day 3 & 4: Zadar, Croatia – Istanbul, Turkey

Our little detour down to the Croatian Coast had taken us a little off track in terms of a direct route to Asia, meaning we had to cut back north into the mountains and over the border into Bosnia. Upon leaving Croatia the customs officers asked if we perhaps might have a gift for them, alcohol? Cigarettes? We politely declined to indulge them. Fortunately our detour meant we were able to drop into Mostar on the way, which despite a deluge of rain as we arrived had a lovely old town and ancient bridge. We weren’t able to stay long though as we had a lot of miles to cover so like Japarazzi we snapped some photos and hopped back into our chariot. The mountain roads were pretty dicey in places and the standard of driving had dropped off considerably since crossing the border from Croatia. We might have been more tempted to pull over and stop for a bit were it not for the sporadic red land mine warning signs dotted in the woods at the side of the road. We did meet Irhad, a Bosnian lad who was a big fan of the Mongol rally and who spun his car round to come in for a closer look after he spotted as stopped at a petrol station. It was also strangely reassuring to see convoys of British troops rolling through Sarajevo. On a “training exercise” presumably.

With night falling and an epic electrical storm overhead, we headed back into the mountains toward the Serbian border. As the roads grew narrower and the signs less helpful, we started to wonder whether the border crossing would be open to international traffic or whether we’d be forced to head back hundreds of kilometres out of our way to a more major border (something Al had experienced once too many already on a previous trip). Fortunately Saint Christopher was smiling and we crossed the border without incident, the Bosnian official even wishing us an ominous “good luck”.

Serbia passed by with the night, the only other vehicles on the road a seemingly endless stream of high value GB and Dutch plated cars driven at high speed by suspiciously Albanian looking single drivers. Never has the expression “drive it like you stole it” been better illustrated. When dawn broke we were still driving; Dave and Al coaxing each other along the pothole riddled stretch of soviet era asphalt that passes for a motorway in Bulgaria. Pushing on we reached the Turkish border. Even this was passed with relative ease – some later teams apparently had a considerably different experience.

It was at this point we made our worst call of the trip so far: “let’s book a hotel in Central Istanbul and have a nice chilled out night, Turkish bath, massage, kebab and a few beers to soothe us after our epic drive”. Sounds like a great plan right?

Wrong. After four hours in standing traffic we reached the area where our hotel purported to be, in a maze of tiny streets you’d struggle to drive a motorbike down, with inclines you’d think twice apart walking up. After yan hour or so of Don valiantly guiding the Skoda through the narrowest of cobbled streets, we finally reached Turan Caddesi. But the street was blocked by a cement mixer. Thinking we could cut left and then rejoin the street we once again we plunged into the maze, unable to get back where we wanted. Eventually we pulled over, exhausted, and Al went into the maze on foot to try to find the best way to drive in.

The maze was no less confusing on foot, and took on a distinctly more threatening atmosphere outside the safety of the car. Even when Al finally found the street, the hotel was nowhere to be found upon it. Asking more help brought more problems, as Al found himself being asked to follow down a dark side street which seemed highly unlikely to be the location of the hotel, especially given his guide had now been joined by two more “friends”. It was at this point Al decided that being mugged, stabbed or gangraped would not improve the chances of finding the hotel and beat a hasty retreat back to the car, where Don and Dave had been enjoying a nice ice cream.

Pressing on through istanbul’s seemingly never ending (and barely moving for that matter) rush hour, the lads crossed the bridge to Asia and crawled out of the city. Finding an out of town hotel didn’t prove much easier until a chance wrong turn brought them to a newly built, plush Best Western. Totally broken by their epic drive, and still unsure it wasn’t a mirage we stumbled into the reception and checked in, thirty-six hours after they left Zadar.