Welcome to the Mongol Rally: the greatest motoring adventure on the planet.

The Mongol Rally thunders 10,000 miles across the mountains, desert and steppe of Europe and Asia each summer. There’s no backup, no support and no set route; just you, your fellow adventurists and a tiny car you bought from a scrapyard for £11.50.

If nothing goes wrong, everything has gone wrong.

Bollocks to tarmac, ABS and gadgets that help you find your navel. The Mongol Rally is about getting lost, using your long neglected wits, raising shedloads of cash for charity and scraping into the finish line with your vehicle in tatters and a wild grin smeared across your grubby face.

Neither your car, nor your life, will ever be the same again.

The rules of the Rally are gloriously simple…

  1. You can only take a farcically small vehicle
  2. You’re completely on your own
  3. You've got to raise a £1000 for charity

Day 19 – Tehran Day Tour

Walking down to breakfast this morning, Oli met several rally teams- arriving late in the previous night, this was part of the major contingent heading due Eat towards Mashaad and the Turkmenistan border over 5 days. The first impressions of these teams was not optimistic; they all looked severely warn out and numbed by the journey so far – felt a sense of relief that we, Alpha Squad, were still by comparison very active, talking and cooperating within the team.

Saying our good-byes and wishing the teams good luck in reaching the border and the finish, we set out into Tehran for a tour of Iran’s capital and the highlights of the central district. First up, v the Iran National Museum, looking over various artefacts dating back to pre-history, up to the pre-Islamic period. Large examples of Persepolis’ ruins were also on display, along with some of the largest pottery we had ever seen, especially considering the age (5-7000 years old). It was an eye-opener to see such a collection dating back well before humans even ventured into England, and how advanced the Persians had become after a relatively short period in time. It was also intriguing to see such a display on public offering, surround by the spotlights of the Iranian Islamic Republic. I asked Reza about how this was reflected in the public eye, and in similar fashion to the UK of the early 20th Century, he described it as a balance. People accept in a balance, the teachings of Islam in varying degrees (Reza himself being very light and non-practising), and the history of where they had come from, and how humans had evolved.

Heading across the city, we quickly ventured into the Tehran subway – a 4 -line, 7-hub run of dual-line, air conditioned rail system raising the bar against the TFL London underground system. Admittedly the Chinese had put a lot of resources into providing such a system for Tehran, including comparatively large trains and a very intuitive train approach map, allowing anyone to see where the trains were at nearby stations.

We then took in the sites of the UNESCO heritage site of Golestan Palace – masterpiece of the Qatar era. Decorative buildings both inside and out surrounded a large garden square with water features throughout. We ventured into the Wind Palace – glass and crystals adorned every wall and ceiling, with widows allowing for cool drafts to flow through in the high summer. The main palace building was one of marble and crystal again; a throne room with gifts to the Shah (Qatar-Era King), and half domes that gave an impression of a room many times larger. We stopped in at the café in the palace gardens for a quick lunch; much confusion was made of who owed whom for the bill. Note to future teams – itemise bills per person!

Our final site of the day was the Tehran Bazaar – a sprawl square 20km-square, with approximately 200’000 independent sellers. This was but a brief visit; we happened upon a shrine, the Zadeh Zid Mosque in a similar style inside to that of the Shah-e Cheragh Mosque in Shiraz. We took the time to take in the sights of the inner-sanctum – it’s crystal-lined dome and walls were a sight to behold, akin to looking up into a perfectly clear night sky.

Reza guided us back out to the outer edge of the Bazaar and bought us all an ice cream or fruit smoothie – a popular stall around the Iranian town/city centres we had so far seen. Quite by accident we witnessed our first case of the so-called Morality Police – officers instructed to arrest anyone violating Iran’s strict dress code. Women were pointed out for having too little head cover, bundled into a police minibus, and hauled off. It was surreal to see this scene actually unfolding in front of us. Reza was insistent we should not take take photos of any law enforcement – implications of taking photo of government building and representatives were quite severe. We headed back to the hotel, taking in what we had seen in Iranian daily life and its many forms.

 

Day 18 – Tabriz to Tehran

We started out refreshed and with a renewed sense of adventure – Reza being a very welcome change of pace and character for our 11-day tour. For Rhys’ sake we left a little later than planned from the hotel as he was feeling a little under the weather. At our request, Reza guided us to an exchange company in Tabriz’s central district – Tarla Exchange – for a good rate on US Dollars into Rials (or Tomans – a division of 10 from Rials).

We headed across to a fuel station before exiting Tabriz completely; Reza very kindly offered to fill up for us but didn’t take into account the air lock in the petrol filler neck – spraying petrol all over himself. Car mannerisms were beginning to mount up for Mickey – the engine light had been on since before Turkey, there was inconsistency in one of the rear brake lights, working when it felt like it, and the offside tyre seemed to have a very slow leak. The brake light caught the attention of an Iranian police officer who, just before one of the toll gates, pulled us over for a quick check over on the usual 5 questions, and to point out the brake light should be looked at. We continued South-East, pulling into for lunch at a service station next to Zanjan – a city made famous for its copper-wear and knives. Lunch was simple – a mixed meat kebab with rice, and continuing the trend of Iranian food thus far, little, if any spice. The roads became more challenging as we got closer to Tehran; the traffic became more aggressive and thicker to the road, and obstacles became more prevalent, including a fist-sized stone getting kicked up by a car in front of us. An inadvertent bit of speeding up by Oli allowed for a softer landing against the roof rack and the windscreen, with no damage caused, besides a few paint scuffs. We pass through the final toll gate having to pay this time, where all the others had welcomed us through as “guests of the country”.

After a few smaller cities passed by we finally made it to Tehran – a sprawling populace of 11 million people that stretched for miles. It took us the best part of an hour to cross into the central and tourist districts, hitting the centre in late rush hour. This would have been frustrating had it not been for the many cars and passers-by who beeped, waved, smiled and welcomed us into Iran, scenes resembling a celebrity driving through. One woman in particular rolled down the window of her car, and perfect English asked us where we were from. Something rather odd about asking someone in perfect English where they are from!

We pulled into the side just a few hundred metres from Freedom Arch, an iconic Iranian monument built just before the 1979 revolution, designed by the wife of the former Shah –  taking photos stood up on a small toll office roof so as to be above the rush hour traffic. The local traffic found it hilarious, a few stopping next to our car asking if we wanted to visit their house and exchanging phone numbers. After half an hour of more traffic and passing by a motorbike accident, we made it to the tourist district and our hotel – set within a secure compound and gated parking – saving us the hassle of unpacking the roof again. The hotel was also surrounded by car spares and repair shops – perfect for anything Mongol Rally cars required or may have lost on the journey so far.

In the hotel lobby we came across Will Bazelly of Team Highly Unlikely – a solo attempt at the Mongol Rally in a 1957 3-wheeler roadster, driving by a 500cc air-cooled engine. We took time to catch up with Will and his ordeals; he had averaged 14 hour days and a cruising speed shy of 50MPH, which had severely hampered his ETAs at all major stops, on top of a failed differential that had to be rebuilt in Turkey. His LOI for Turkmenistan had only just been cleared, and he was 2 days away from his border crossing – meaning 2 days ahead of sheer determination and driving long distances to make it in time before his tour guide contract expired.

Wishing him all the best and exchanging contact details, Reza took us for a short walk through the city to see the Tehran Public Library and Government buildings and visiting a large restaurant next to the hotel. The manager spoken broken English and was happy to offer English menus and a vegetarian dish for Rhys. Other dishes were following a similar trait of a stew with beans and lentils in a herb or tomato based sauce, with small diced beef, served separately to a plate of rice.

Satisfied and ready for a full day of sight-seeing ahead, we returned to the hotel, ready for an early kick off to see Tehran’s larger museums and sites in the morning.

How to Turkey / Iran border.

Following on from other guides on facebook and previous rally teams, this is the Alpha Squad how-to on getting across the Turkish-Iranian border at Dogubayazit, without a Carnet de Passage pre-purchased, and as British Citizens.

  1. Arrive at the Turkish side of the border and drive passed all the lorries on the right hand lanes – cars are dealt with separately through a different gate.
  2. Keep driving passed the lorries- there’s a lot of them, we estimated a 3km queue and roughly 800 lorries parked up in total.
  3. Arrive at the car lane and gate, you’ll be waved through when the gate opens and into the first holding cell. This is where (if you choose to start the Iranian processing first thing in the morning) you can camp overnight, without any hassle from the guards or security patrols. Watch out for the stray dogs – they will try to sneak up grab any food you have. There is a café and duty free shop in the building to the left of the roadway (facing the Iranian gate). If you head around the outer edge and turn right, you’ll see it. They serve Turkish great tost (toasties) and a selection of snacks and drinks. Worth keeping some Turkish Lira with you for this if you’re staying a while.
  4. Passengers should enter into the main building at the entrance you stop beside to have their passports stamped for Turkish exit. Drivers should take their V5 or car documentation to the office on the right side of the road. Leave the V5 with the security guard and join your team members in the min building to have your passport stamped.
  5. Return to the car and collect your V5 from the security guard – make sure he says its ok to exit, and ask about stamping your passport – he should confirm this is fine and usher you up to the Iranian gate.
  6. Passengers can walk through a fenced walkway into Iran from the Turkish side – they will be directed through to a reception area in the main Iranian customs building. This is a large office with large photos of buildings and areas of natural beauty in Iran.
  7. Drivers should now be ushered through the Iranian gate. 2 Soldiers will ask for your passport and simple details – who you are, where you’re going and so on. They shouldn’t be hostile to you in anyway; we were greeted with smiles and handshakes, and directed to the customs office where the passengers waited.
  8. In this first office you will then be processed in and your details checked. Contact details and your fingerprints will also be taken (note – British citizens). You are then asked to hand your passport across to the guard in the next office- a small windowed kiosk with red and silver seats outside. He may take a little while to check your passport. This is then handed back to you and you are pointed towards the next room – a large hall with luggage scales and baggage searching tables. Don’t worry – they’re not for you.
  9. Congratulations, you (human) can now enter Iran. Your car cannot. There is a small shop at the end of the hallway selling snacks and drinks – buy yourself some mango juice and celebrate the easy bit – the hard part begins.
  10. Fixers will now approach you for 2 things – Carnets and money exchange, from either USD, Turkish Lira or Euros. It’s entirely up to you how you go about the money exchange – it’s worth giving yourself a small amount of buying power for the immediate area, and seeking beter exchange rates when you drive to larger towns, or Tabriz. You won’t get a good rate at the boarder- the fixers are there to make money, and they don’t care that you’re the nicest well-meaning westerner.
  11. The Carnet fixers represent private car clearance and insurance companies. They tend to work in a pack, so as to avoid being caught out by a knowledgeable tourist. NOTE WELL – if a rally car has gone ahead of you at a higher price, or had pre-purchased at a higher price than you intend on paying, the fixers will cling onto this point for hours – they will not budge, knowing that the same car type and similar engine size got through, regardless of what you think is the right price. Time your haggling well, and early to avoid disappointment.
  12. Start at a low price and work up slowly and do not give in. Fixers will be determined to wear you out and simply leave you cooking in the sun. Work hard for the price you want, and make sure you insist on 1 currency the whole time. Continually repeat said currency as well, or they will at the last moment switch if it provides them a greater profit.
  13. After several hours you should have a settled price – accept it and wait for the paperwork to proceed – the Carnet executive – another man you would not yet have met – will need your passport and V5/car documentation to write up the insurance and Carnet. This process will take 3 hours give or take.
  14. Relax – the hard work is done. If you have a tour guide meeting you, he should be at the gate ahead of you, if not already introducing him/herself. Take the 3 hours to be patient with any guards around you and other ralliers. Some guards may ask in broken English who you are and where you’re going. They may also open the car doors or inspect around the vehicle in curiosity – leave them me but keep a watchful eye on your belongings.
  15. Your Carnet should arrive completed – you will need to sign off a small form and have your right index finger print taken for verification. Your chosen Carnet issuer will then drive down to the next gate. Follow them in your car – the road goes downhill passed a cement works and gravel pit. At this final gate, the Carnet is photocopied and handed to you with a half piece of A4 paper attached.
  16. DO NOT LOSE THIS, OR THE CARNET. This is your car’s passport and without it you cannot exit Iran with your car.
  17. Congratulations! You can now drive into Iran.

Notes:

  • Total time on the Iranian side of the border: 8 hours.
  • Total time on complete border crossing (0.5km): 21 hours.
  • Total cost: $420 (€400) for the carnet (haggled from €500).

Day 17 – Tabriz Iran day tour

At our request from last night, we asked the tour guide that we have a much later start, given how tired we were. So 9 hours of sleep passed by – the sort of sleep you would have under anaesthetic. Waking up to a fresher brighter Tabriz, we made our way down for breakfast, met by Jager Battalion who were waiting in reception for their tour to continue to Tehran. Breakfast at Hotel Sahand  had shifted paradigms again to something resembling lunch – cucumbers and tomatoes, cottage cheeses, carrot and sweetcorn jams, a flat bread resembling a cross between a pancake and a flat bread. Cay was now Cayai (Chai-ee), orange and cherry juices had been replaced with a very sweet orange squash. Fried eggs were kept warmed in a chafing dish close by. We were getting pretty accustomed (see bored out of minds) with cucumbers and tomatoes to start the day off.

We met our new tour guide today; the email sent in a fuzzy fit of tiredness and anger had resulted in a quick replacement with Reza – an older man who greeted us warmly and looked forward to taking us around Tabriz and the remainder of the tour. His personality was far more positive and he appeared in first impressions to be very approachable. We were optimistic today would be far better than the people-herding experiences of the border.

Our first stop was the Arg Citadel, a palace-come-mosque-come-ruin that was directly opposite our hotel. The very uniform brick design and structure predated classic “red-brick” buildings in the UK by some 400 years. Next up was the former town hall for Tabriz – now a museum displaying local history for public services such as fire-fighting and famous local professions – shoe making and Persian carpets. Gifts received by the Tabriz Municipality were also on display from bordering cities and countries.  We moved on to take a break from the heat in the Blue Mosque, taking in the mosaics that adorned the walls and ceilings, and the architecture designs with inner and outer halls. We had arrived just before the high-noon prayer, and found Reza was happy to represent a more open side to Iranian culture. He escorted a Taiwanese lady across the Mosque so that a few men and a cleric could start praying. The cleric took exception to the way Reza greeted her as equal – a point Reza defended in representing a polite and open culture. We were left to tour the mosque by ourselves while the duo talked out their different opinions – it was refreshing to see the religious site through our own eyes.

The Azerbaijan Museum was next – a cultural tie between Iran and its northerly neighbour.  Various artefacts were on display including hand tools, pottery, jewellery and coins/stamps, dating from pre-history, through to the Islamic and pre-modern eras. We stopped in for lunch at the Bath House restaurant – its name literally taken from it being a former bath-house, now a dining area and coffee house with traditional carpeted, and table/chair seating. Much to Rhys’ delght, salad was off the menu, and we were served with beans wrapped in vine leaves, a meatball with a berry filling and a mixed vegetable soup. In conversation, we brought up the British style of tea making – adding milk and dipping biscuits – Reza laughed hysterically, completely confused as to why you’d ever drink tea like this.

Meeting Reza’s best friend’s son – a budding student hoping to become a doctor – on the way across Tabriz, we continued to our final stop of the day, via purchasing Rhys a mouth guard and buying a new hammer, where the tent mallet had fallen so short in Dogubayazit. The Constitution House was the centre of the Iranian Constitution Revolution in the early 20th Century, culminating in major overhauls in Iranian political systems and lifestyles. All the key figure heads of this revolution were given large scale busts, and various portraits through the house, incuding an American school teacher – who in the revolution, protected his class as best he could but was gunned down. A ceremonial carpet was made and sent to his mother who unfortunately did not receive it.

We ended our day with Reza on very good terms, happy that our new tour guide was a good fit to the team. He let us take the road back to the hotel by ourselves, and we took the time to see Tabrizian life with our own perspective. People openly welcomed us in the street, either looking with curiousity or with smiles and a handshake. The was a feeling of pseudo-pioneering in the air – it wasn’t that we are the first English people to visit Iran, and the histories between our countries had been long and in some cases very difficult. The feeling was perhaps one of bravery; despite all the tensions and rough relations, despite all the news and public option we had received, we were still – here – in Iran, and staying for nearly 2 weeks. We rested well, with an early night to make sure we had an early start for the road to Tehran.

Day 16 – Buffer Day 1 to Iranian Border, Tabriz, Iran.

We awoke in the car at roughly 6am Turkish time (4am GMT) in the car from our overnight stand at the Turkish-Iranian no-mans land; Jäger Battalion were already up and moving by this point, and almost ready to leave – we had to move fast. No more than 30 minutes later, and we were up and about, ready to move the car from one country to the next. Sounds like a feat of distance which amounts to 30 metres, through 1 gate.

We had passports stamped for drivers and passengers separately, moving thorough to the Iran holding section without too much hassle, after our V5 car documentation was verified. Technically, we were no in Iran, and the fun began. We entered the main offices for passport and visa control, and provided finger prints and contact details. That was the easy bit, without really any hassle at all – we as people had passed successfully into Iran, but the cars had not. So our days truly began with the requirement of a Carnet de Passage.

Exiting the main building we discovered 2 other rally teams had been stuck there overnight as well, just 50 metres from where we camped. They had remained overnight in the determination they could find a cheaper price for their Carnets, not the €500 some of the private companies were trying to offer. We were in the same boat at this point, and the thought of remaining overnight simply for a better price had crossed our minds, but not at the expense of so much time at the border. One of the fixers turned out to be an agent for the tour guide’s carnet management- Hosein. Hosein tried haggling through his agent for our custom, but failed to come to a good deal – quoting Euros not dollars as per email communications, and citing a hefty mark-up against the other fixers. We declined in hope of a better deal.

The fixers worked in a pack, and we wrestled back and forth for 8 hours on the insistence of cheaper than €500. It was sheer bad luck that Jäger Battalion had already purchased their Carnet at a higher price; the fixers took this as a yard stick by which to measure everyone else.  In amongst this arguing, fixers shoving each other in determination of finding a price to make a profit from. The defending and strong, repeated Persian persuasions burned Oli out, tired from a restless night in the car, and the heat. Exhausted from the last 24 hours, he lost his cool with our tour guide who had arrived amongst this long standing battle of patience, and ended up following the carnet hagglers who had took off with his passport and V5C Documentation to ensure they were returned. After over 8 hours of waiting, paper pushing, haggling, almost to the point of dizziness, we were the last car to cross the border, from being the 2nd car of the day to enter, totalling 21 hours to drive less than half a mile.

We crawled down the hill to exchange Carnet papers and have our final paperwork issued. The fixer who finally sealed the $420 deal took all the apparent time in the world over this process, and there was little we could do. Gholamreza Shahmoradi, our tour guide, was a tall late-20’s Iranian man who was seemingly uninterested in who we were and the tour of his country ahead of us. After we crossed the border, he remained in our car and directed us to Maku – a nearby town for a late lunch /early dinner. It didn’t feel like we were in Iran at all. We had been stuck for so long in bureaucracy and lack of rest that the idea of actually being in a country we were determined to explore was completely expelled from our minds.

We drove into Tabriz, exhausted from the day’s ordeals. Gholamreza gave very last minute directions and was not impressed with our suggestion of splitting the team up between 2 locations (hotel and a restaurant) upon reaching Tabriz – it turned out we all wanted to make it to the hotel anyhow, but this sense of hand holding without autonomy was not a pleasing one. We ended the day finally checked into the Hotel Sahand, crashed out and completely devoid of energy or enthusiasm. A strongly worded email was sent to the tour guide operator insisting improvements were made, especially given the cost of our tour.

 

Day 15 – Dogubayazit to the Iranian Border, Gurbulak

The sound of a JCB dumping boulders the size of your head into a roadside, just downhill from the campsite you booked deliberately away from the city… is probably not what you expect as a morning alarm, still this was our opening scene for Day 15, a.k.a. “Buffer Day 1” – a day we had deliberately planned minimal driving more so as to guarantee a convenient border entry time for passing into Iran.

The campsite’s toilet facilities by night, did not improve by day, and the team decision was unanimous in going for a flannel bath instead of the very daring shower of questionable hygiene. We had a whole day ahead to make it into the border, so formed a strategic plan:

  • Visit the Ishak Pasa Palace we had camped underneath
  • Carefully venture into Dogubayzit to send off 2 parcels to free up room in the Micra, and to purchase a sun reflector screen (we had lost somewhere between Erzincan and Murat Camping) and a hammer – our lump hammer suffered from a broken handle the night before, having forced the tent pegs into what might as well have been a marble slab.

News reached us quickly from other teams that this day of ticking a few boxes for the road ahead was a waste of time. Iran had suffered computer failures for its Customs department and border crossings were averaging 18-24 hours. A heads up came from Team Jager Battalion – 2 Brits and an Austrian sporting a 2004 Vauxhall Aglia as their carriage of glory. The rendezvous was set for 6pm Turkish time at the last petrol station before the Iranian border.

With a few hours to spare, we toured the palace – Ishak Pasa was a later addition to the Ottoman Empire, built in the 1700’s. It’s size form the outside didn’t allow you to take in the scale and the efficient use of space inside – large courtyards and beautifully chiselled sandstone decoration covered every pillar and entrance portal, with views from the windows and terrace looking to the Dogubayazit vale. A solar reflective roof had also been installed on various sections of the palace so as to protect the recent restoration works; this offered a much cooler and refreshing gust of wind through the hallways, away from the morning heat.

We headed back to the car and returned to the Dogub. centre in search of a post office before our rendezvous. Being out of touch with the day of the week didn’t not help us in this task – Sunday does not make for good Post Office hours. A final meal in a restaurant away from the dust and noise of the high street, we made for the edge of town through the security checkpoint and met up with Team Jager Battalion at the last petrol station before the border. Their team collectively sported wonderful personalities and a real welcome with tea, and snacks shared all round. We held fast in the Turkisk passport checkpoint ready or the morning, hoping our visas and purchases of Carnets would go smoothly and without stress.

Next post will be in 2 parts -what happened through the day, and how (or not how) to pass through the Turkey-Iranian border crossing.

Day 14 – Erzincan to Dogubayazit

We awoke up in the Semay Hotel to the sight of glorious mountain ranges surrounding the city. This was the second-take for Erzincan; the 1939 earthquake they suffered destroyed the original settlement so severely, it was relocated 50km to the North. Asking the staff for some panoramic shots out of the top floor windows, Rhys was escorted up to the top floor of the hotel while Thomas and I prepped the car for departure. Unfortunately, a fully loaded Micra doesn’t make for good torque off the mark; Mickey wasn’t agreeable to exiting up a steep gradient out of the hotel parking. Ditching passengers and taking a short run up saw us up and into daylight one again, and off on the way to Dogubayazit.

Filling up early in the day to make up for a good run, we soldiered through the few cities on the E80 hghway until we were pulled over at a security checkpoint at Agri. Passports were requested and various details pulled; we were more than happily obliging – you don’t argue with plain-clothes security forces sporting MP5s, and 2 armoured anti-personnel vehicles. The atmosphere became more tense as we continued further East. Jandarmer bases were in almost every town or hillside, and one such base had poured forces out into the roadside to assist a jack-knifed lorry that spilt its load of energy drinks across the highway. Not every day that someone waves you through a highway accident with an automatic weapon holstered.

We crawled through endless plains around Saticilar – endless fields of crops and small villages dotting the landscape. While the scene was pretty and gave a sense of vastness to Eastern Turkey, after several hours of driving, you need to see something different. We got that, and more, when we eventually entered Dogubayazit after sunset. Dogubayazit (commonly known to the Ralliers as “Doggybiscuit” or some may argue more aptly, “Doggybigshit”). Spoken French jokes aside, the town was run down, almost war torn; Jandarmer and armoured police vehicles at every corner, and stares of suspicion from all the locals could not be ignored as we made our best efforts to drive through the town on its rubble filled, mud-covered road. For the first time in the rally we locked the doors and secured any potentially attractive electronic equipment. Straight faced and knowing exactly where we needed to be, we crawled through without route deviation, ending underneath the Ishak Pasa Palace, at the Murat Camping site.

The owner was pleased to receive our custom, and we set up the tent on the hillside, overlooking Dogubayazit, heading into the campsite main building for a quick evening meal and water supplies. It was early in the evening, and it was refreshing to have a few hours to relax, albeit in the dark with a few LED torches to illuminate the surrounding area.

Day 13 – Goreme to Ezrincan

The extra night in Goreme served us well, with a log-like 9 hours of slumber we all felt refreshed and ready for a proactive day ahead to continue on to the Iranian border. This was more a functional day than sight-seeing; Turkey still had sighs to be seen, but with 2 days to get to the Iranian border, it was best to make up for the mileage and make sure we had plenty of time. So onwards to Erzincan. After another great breakfast from Jasmine House, we packed up Mickey the Micra, now considerably lighter due to the departure of the documentary cameraman, Omeed. Took the time to pack the car properly so as to free up room in the back for sleeping, and the Iranian tour guide to-be.

Heading out, we passed the remnants of a lake; now slated around the outskirts and quickly diminishing, this vast body of water North East of Kayseri looked like a giant painted eye on the landscape with a deep blue iris. The road in this section was surprisingly smooth with few if any hills to climb; a welcome relief from the mountain ranges we had been ascending in previous days. With less kit weighing the car down we were also able to pull away that much quicker for passing lorries and tractors on the road.

We stopped in at a service station just passed Sivas and pulled in the WiFi for researching and booking a hotel. A team slightly ahead of us had recommended Otel Berlin – cheap accommodation just shy of Erzincan’s central square, but on digging through the Internet, nothing could be found for contact details or a website. We decided it best to carry on and make it in good time to book in before the hotel lobby shut for the night.

Erzincan welcomed us in with bright lights, big hotels and you guessed it – police blockades. A live Turkish government broadcast in the square that evening had prompted more security than we had seen in Istanbul – each major crossroad heading into the town was cordoned off with 2 police cars and road cones. We weighed in our options; was Otel Berlin safe enough with such an event? We headed back to the larger hotel and asked in about secure parking and room availability. The Grand Semay Hotel came to the rescue, with a 3 bed room and secure parking on hand at a reasonable price. We booked in, dumped the necessaries into the room and headed into the town for food and drink, taking care to avoid the crowds from the public broadcast. We also resupplied with nuts and snacks via a supermarket on the way back to the hotel.

Day 12 – Goreme to Nevishir to Goreme

Not 3 hours after putting our heads down for the night, we woke up to several alarms reminding us to get up ready for our hot air balloon flight. If the Jasmine House warden looked sleepy and a little dizzy last night when we woke him, we were well into the complete lack of sleep league. Short and abrupt sentences were exchanged on what we were doing and checking we were ready to head out. Rhys described his mood as being “about ready to cave someone’s head in”. We took this as a subtle hint to press ahead and just get to the rendezvous point for the balloon ride mini bus and the other Mongol ralliers as quickly as possible. Our organisation within the team, giving rise to the nickname “Team Pootle” did make us a little later than others, but with profuse apologies, we climbed aboard the minibus. We’d made it… or at least that’s what we thought for all of 2 minutes, as the Australian girl who had organised the trip turned around to Rhys and exclaimed,

“You have paid, right?”

We explained that this should have been prearranged last night, and we in fact owed another team – to be settled up later that morning. This was lost in translation and we had to amass TL600 for the 4 of us (Alpha Squad and Omeed) on the spot, much to the dismay of the rest of the party. Comments were made by 2 Canadians – also ralliers, about how going via a cash machine would make us very late, and how we as a team were unorganised. Rhys, already simmering from a lack of sleep, took to the passive-aggressive complaint like a bulldog with a bone and gave both travellers a piece of his mind, happy to put on in only the best Essex-English how he felt about their comments. With that, and the bus journey largely uneventful thereafter, we made it to the balloon launch site, where name tags were issued and a small breakfast was provided. We took in the scene, as the sun was shedding first light across the sandstone peaks; the balloons filled gracefully and peaked over the nearby hills – we were certainly not going to be alone in the sky this morning. With propane jets lighting up the darkened valley, and the balloons fully inflated, we boarded and took gracefully to the sky. Yes, that was pretty much it – no signing of documents, no checking of passports, no liability insurance and the briefest of safety instructions.

The balloon took a 2 stage ascent into the sky so as to adjust temperature and pressure for the larger climb up to 6000ft. The views brought on a hushed silence to the basket – they were breath-taking. Goreme became a birds-eye view, then an almost satellite-down view, with a magnificent sandstone mesa sitting prominently in the distance. Sunrise was a deep orange, not unlike a British sun set where dust particles darkened the first portion of the atmosphere. Cutting through pigeon valley, scraping over trees and with barely a hand’s width between the basket and some of the sandstone pillars, we touched back down after an hour in the sky, and were greeted with a sweet wine (champagne that tasted of Red Bull) to celebrate a successful flight.

We returned to the hostel and rested up for a few hours to refresh before a proper breakfast –  this was still 7am (5am GMT). Oli updated blogs and ran through a full back up of camera cards and the laptop, and researched into crossing the Iranian border, producing some good tips from last year’s rally, as well as keeping track of the first few teams that had made it through into Tabriz. During a lovely breakfast, we talked to the hostel owner about the rally and subject of our sump guard to be came up. They recommended we try Neveshir – a large town South-West of Goreme which offered a thriving industrial zone with a large number of car repair garages. After 3 tries and a few phone calls to the hostel owner for mediation, we came across a very helpful garage who as more than happy to try. While we got stuck in to a game of charades and pictures on smartphones. The garage owner was keen for the business and had his youngest son bring forward 2 laptops – 1 running Turkish to English, the other vice versa through Google Translate. This got so far, but grammar across languages doesn’t span all that well, “mekezrin” for example was a key phrase that doesn’t translate directly into English. Suddenly there were raised voices behind and Oli turned round to face a laid back Turkish man with a very American smile.

“Hi, how can I help you?” – words of pure gold; and we’d never been happier to meet someone new on this journey. We explained our situation and Osman, as we were later introduced, was happy to mediate the finer points of making the sump guard removable and the possibility of a rear guard for the fuel tank as well. The job was agreed and we were told to return in 3 hours, and Osman recommended we removed any valuables. Osman just happened to be returning to his home down from studying in Indiana – a PhD professor in Education Management. We were very grateful for his time and exchanged contact details to keep him informed of the journey ahead. Heading into Nevishir, Rhys saw a barber shop and considered a shave and shape up. We popped in and were sat down by Muhammad – the younger Kurdish barber. Conversation varied from where we were going, and where we were from. Once the mention of “tour by driving” was mentioned, Rhys’ barber’s mannerisms changed from curiosity to opportunity. He whispered in broken English if we could take him to the Syrian border for TL700. Rhys, slightly sharper and more settled than earlier played dumb, laughed, and said we could take him to London instead. The cutthroat razor to his throat may have had something to do with the humoured diversion. Catching lunch at a Turkish shack-come-café of “Tost” – a white bread loaf filled with cheese, tomatoes and jalapenos, Ayran yoghurt drinks and yes, more cay, we planned ahead for kit configuration, and how best to avoid any risk zones for the remainder of Turkey.

Back to the garage—the operation was a complete success and the mechanic was proud to show us the work – a full engine bay length 2mm thick sump guard, complete with ventilation holes and capped bolts up in to engine subframe. We were happy with the job and passed over the TL300, and brought up the possibility of trading 2 of our jerry cans for a few extra Lira. Unfortunately, possibly for supplier reasons, the garage owner wasn’t agreeable, but there were no hard feelings – he had made a few hundred out of some travelling tourists, and we had saved ourselves over £150 and 6 weeks’ notice for the UK equivalent.  We returned to Goreme, and secured a second night at Jasmine House, so as to relax through the evening with a couple of drinks and have a restful night’s sleep for a productive Day 13, and the road to Tercan/Erzincan.

Day 11 – Sinop to Goreme, Turkey

We awoke to Sinop – a jut of land sticking out from the Turkish coast, with an airport and local amenities. Leaving the campsite in blistering sunshine after taking it in turns to use the only working shower cubicle on the campsite, we paid the campsite managers and headed out; driving around the outer road, taking in the endless sea and clear skies, unfortunately losing a GoPro action camera on the way – somewhere between taking a panoramic shot, and getting back in the back of the car, the camera was lost. Feeling sleep deprived, panic set in that the £400 kit was lost to the world, thankfully Rhys was on hand to settle the air, and to find breakfast. We found a cool white-washed courtyard with a small marketplace, where a simple café served up a selection of Turkish traditional foods and of course, cay. We decided upon a selection of rice wrapped in vine leaf, a sort of ravioli in a white wine sauce, and a sweet bread similar to a very large Chelsea bun sans icing.

Leaving Sinop it became clear that fuel would be problematic. – petrol stations on the stretch of northern highway were few and far between, and having run to the red line twice in the same stretch of road, we decided to fill up on of the jerry cans, to provide a contingency fuel supply. We’ve tried very hard to avoid this up till this point, given the additional weight in Mickey eating into the economy of each tank of fuel.  This may well have to be reconfigured again once we start taking on water as well, bringing down weight from the roof to drop the centre of gravity. We had already found a number of tights bends had Mickey understeering and almost brushing the wheel arches with the tyres.

We continued on via Alaca, and again stopped in the town square for dinner. Locals watching for the upstairs veranda clicked fingers and pointed to where the entrance was – around the corner and up the stairwell. Trying to keep a tight purse string we went for smaller options from the very low cost menu, and took in the evening sprawl of the town. Talk came through on the message groups of cheap hot air balloon flights – something we hadn’t really considered at this stage, while the decision was made in the midst of a sleeping and driving shift on the way into Goreme, Omeed booked us in through one of the campsite organisers.

With sight set on balloons and cave-houses, we pushed ahead on the night time drive – keeping a close look at the horizon for anything remotely sandstone-peek looking. Our final challenge was the last stretch of closed highway – taking a temporary flattened section of field; akin to driving on an ice rink, to the iconic town. On recommendations of other ralliers, we had booked into Jasmine House – a highly rated hostel on the edge of town. We had to wake the overnight warden, who while a little discombobulated from who we were, was happy to show us to our room and make sure we had everything we need. Unpacking the essentials and locking down the petrol cans and tyres onto the roof rack, we settled down for a very quick sleep –  hot air balloons were just 3 hours away.