Welcome to the “Mongol Rally Diaries” series by Benny D. These blog posts showcase Benny D’s journey from London to Mongolia as part of the legendary Mongol Rally.
After racing at breakneck speed across Western Europe and the Balkans its time to enter Asia. A quick lunch in Greece and it’s time to cross the border into Turkey.
At the duty-free shop halfway across, we encounter two young Russian hitchhikers who need someone to give them a lift across the border as you can only cross by car.
To the amusement of the border guards they are crammed into the back seat with all of our luggage and theirs. It’s relatively easy to get into Turkey apart from the €85 we need to pay for car insurance.
We drop the boys at the turn off for Istanbul and head south crossing the Marmara straight on the Gelibolu coast, close to Anzac Cove. By nightfall we find a packed campground in the small village of Erdek.
Our first night in Turkey is spent under the stars waking by the seaside for 30 Turkish Lira. Second day’s destination is the town of the Denizli where we have organised to stay with a couch surfing host.
After driving around in circles for a couple of hours, Ugur meets us at a local mall which we only manage to find with the assistance of a local who leads us there by making us follow his car for 10 minutes.
Ugur is the ultimate host and cooks us dinner and shares beers with us before inviting some friends over who are also part of a Turkish couch surfing community of sorts. Together we discuss the political situation in Turkey and they ask me how it looks from the outside.
I tell them, to be honest it doesn’t look good, but assure them that I feel very safe. The Turkish people have been nothing less than gracious hosts.
The reason we chose Denizli is that it is close to Pamukkale which is where we head the very next morning. After checking out the amazing calcite baths we hit the highway and make very good time towards the village of Goreme and the man made houses built into rock formations around Cappadocia.
We instantly find somewhere to camp right in the middle of town and talking to the locals it’s apparent that foreign visitors are avoiding the country due to the recent negative news reports, and this in turn affects all the local tourism operators.
The locals however are still enjoying their summer and we sit with them under a myriad of stars at a local restaurant and enjoy a feast like something straight out of an Arabian fairytale listening to the sounds of the call to prayer echo through the streets.
Turkey is a big country but we cross in less than four days. It’s dual highway almost everywhere until we reach Trabzon in the north. The border crossing at Batumi will eventually take us three hours, mostly lined up to exit Turkey as opposed to being held up by Georgian customs.
Throughout this trip I have been constantly amazed by the geographical changes that take place as you cross from one country into another but nothing could compare to the physical differences I noticed as soon as we left Turkey and entered Georgia.
There were roadside stalls with old ladies selling soup under the shade of eucalyptus trees, people walking around the streets in bathing suits drinking beer and all manner of livestock wandering out from the lush countryside.
For me it was just such a stark contrast to the Lego style apartment buildings seemingly transplanted in the middle of the desert and hijab covered women of eastern Turkey.
The plan had been to head to the mountains of Georgia but instead we end up in the town of the Kudasi and camp on someone’s lawn at a homestay in a small village.
We’re fed like kings and warm to the beautiful simplicity of this country instantly. The capital Tbilisi would have to be one of the world’s most underrated destinations. Along its leafy green avenues there are beautifully restored Soviet-era buildings beside crumbling apartment blocks and a grungy authenticity unlike any other place I’ve been.
With its unique language and culture, spectacular cathedrals, its own alphabet and style, Georgia really is a remarkable destination. Two nights was certainly not enough. But we must push on to Azerbaijan and the capital Baku where we have read that the ferry to cross the Caspian Sea will be quite a difficult proposition.
The border control guards here are very thorough and the process to get through is slow. The vehicle and all our luggage are searched by uniformed guards and although the Visa in our passport states that we can stay for up to 15 days, we’re told the vehicle can only remain in the country for three days.
Not far over the border the engine light of our little red Ford comes on and we lose a significant amount of power. The drive to Baku is slow and we arrive late into the night. Despite the problems with the car we rise early to drive to the port and try to get a ticket to cross from Baku to Aktau in Kazakhstan.
At one port we’re told to drive back to the city to go to another port. At this port we’re told we must drive 60 kilometres southeast of Baku to another port where a ferry leaves for Aktau. The problem is that there is no regular ferry and you must purchase your ticket on the day the ferry is due to depart because there are only so many berths on each boat.
Eventually we’re let through the gates to the port of Alat where we find other Ralliers camped out waiting for the next boat. Apparently most of them got here yesterday and they had only just missed the boat the day before but I’ve been told that there will be another one soon.
No one has a ticket and no one can really ascertain any concrete information. I’d like to go back to Baku and get some work done on the car but we decide to wait at the port and hopefully get some repairs done when we eventually make it to Aktau, Kazakhstan.
Enjoying the story? Stay tuned for Benny’s adventures in the third week of the Mongol Rally as he travels with Penny from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan