4.500km of the exact same thing… One might call it Insanity, we call it the CCCP Rally!
Our first and only of the Super-Mega variety, as it’s probably gonna be our longest by a mile, so buckle up! Launch Day +24 to Launch Day +33! Before we start though, as always, roll the tape!
So yea it’s been quite a while since we got home and actually got this post out. When you’re spending countless hours on the road everyday and you’re basically forced to sit in a chair non-stop while not driving, pumping out blogs comes so much easier. Who would’ve thought. Let’s just say I’ve been a bit distracted since I came back and probably did a bit too much of “celebrating” our return, and probably am not in any better physical state now than when we got back. Ah well. In our initial planning we wouldn’t have returned till a handful of days ago anyway, so I guess these days were ours to lose.
But yea, obviously, the big news. No Mongolia. Quick impression of our reaction when we were two days from the Mongolian border and got the news of their new car deposit law.
In short, here is the whole saga in a nutshell. On August the 8th the Mongolian government introduced a law where people entering the country with a foreign car (except those from regional or neighboring countries) were forced to pay a money deposit to ensure that the car would not be left behind undocumented or sold on the black market. The deposit had to be in Mongolian currency, and for a worthless car like ours it would already amount to the equivalent of roughly €5.000… which we would have to get in local currency. Which would mean we would have to park the car at the border, take a taxi to the nearest town and empty their ATM’s up to our international withdrawing limits. We had about 4 cards between us, so we’d be nowhere close to get all the cash in one day due to said withdrawing limits. Then we’d have to go back to the border, pay it all in cash, hope that our car would survive all of the off-road stuff, and then, someway somehow, expect the Mongolian customs to give us back our deposit in cash (if our car made it out alive and in one piece), which equals roughly one average Mongolian yearly salary, at ANOTHER border crossing….
Yeaaaaahhhh that ain’t gonna happen.
We heard it all on August the 9th; the day the news started spreading among all the Mongol Rally teams. On that day we had just arrived in Semey, Northeast Kazakhstan, some 50km from the Russian border, from where it would be a 10-12 hour drive to the Mongolian border, which we planned to do in two days. Great timing.
As soon as we got the news, it sounded like a total FU by the Mongolian government to the Mongol Rally. Who in their right mind implements these sweeping laws on any dates other than the 1st of January, or to a lesser extent, any other 1st day of a month? But implementing it on the 8th? What in the actual f*ck. Basically, it seems like the Mongolians waited until the moment when Mongol Rally cars started to come up on the border, and then pissed right in our faces.
To us, it also hinted that The Adventurists (the Mongol Rally organization) probably did not uphold their diplomatic ties with Mongolia all that well; why else would the Mongolian government come up with such an unexpected (they didn’t inform The Adventurists beforehand), anti-tourist, and just all around law trying to deter cars to come into the country at any cost?
A day later we just proceeded to Russia nonetheless, and just after the border we bumped into our Italian and British friends, and decided to play some roadside football in some farmer’s field to take our mind of things. Italy versus the world, obviously the world won. Then again I was wearing my Vladimir Putin shirt, so clearly that helped. Make Putin lose in sports and the day later your family probably gets kidnapped. So yea, no pressure on me. I mean this one time Putin played an ice-hockey game with former NHL players and miraculously scored 8 goals in a 18-6 victory. Must have been his athletic prowess right? Or probably just threats of disenfranchisement and sending your family to a gulag if you laid a bodycheck on him. Probably that.
And then to think those Italians were so confident pre-game. They even had 4 guys while we played just 3, but then again, when you just park the bus and don’t play offense it doesn’t matter all too much if you have more players. Boom roasted. No need to thank us rest of the world.
In all seriousness though it was good fun. Let’s hope we didn’t ruin that field too badly with our escapades.
We got into Barnaul, Siberia, on Wednesday August the 10th, and decided we’d wait till Friday to see if anything would change. If not, on Friday we’d leave and go for a plan B. Nothing did change, and since we figured nothing would happen over the weekend anyway, we decided to just gun it west through Russia instead. We also had the option of still going to the finish line in Ulan Ude, some 2.500km east of us, by driving all the way through Russia, but at this point we could care less about the Mongol Rally and their finish line. So we decided to voluntarily skip the finish in Ulan Ude, and we set off west instead! We didn’t really feel like repping the Mongol Rally after this debacle, so we just called it the CCCP Rally!
Which I guess is true, since we basically drove through the entirety of the former Soviet Union and its corrupt satellites, from the ‘Stans in Central Asia, up through Kazakhstan, all the way west through Russia, and finishing in Berlin!
Our Italian friends from Pandiamoaquelpaese decided to drive to Ulan Ude through Russia instead, and enter into Mongolia from there without their car. So unfortunately no more convoying with our fellow Panda!
Since we took the Thursday off to wait for some more news, we used the time to have our car checked up at a Fiat Dealer. They fixed quite some stuff, changed the oil, we bought new tyres, and they wanted to do a photo of us. Couldn’t say no could we?
Oh and we also bought this awesome new mascot for our roofdeck! It’s meant for kids bikes, but alas.
A Panda on top of the Panda. It even made a high pitched sound if you squeaked it. Sweet.
As you may have read on our website, we initially planned to drop off the car in Ulan Ude, have it shipped/trained back, while we would fly back, but we ended up deciding to drive it all the way home instead! And we added some 4.000km in the process! 4.500km in overly similar Russian landscapes, what a treat… So Barnaul just became our easternmost part of the entire rally, which called for a speech by George Michael. Well actually it’s Søren, but he auctioned off his hairstyle for charity. Not a bad look!
Funny story. I knew Mads, the tall guy in the middle in the white shirt from the Danish team, from studying a semester in the United States. He just so happened to be there on exchange in the exact same semester, in Fall 2013. A couple of months ago we found out both of us were stupid enough to do the Mongol Rally, so we tried to go for a meet-up. So after 2.5 years of not really knowing what we both had been up to, we bumped into each other in Barnaul, Siberia, and subsequently convoyed all the way to Moscow. Not to get all too sentimental but that is both really random and really awesome at the same time.
We went out with the Danes the night before, so on Thursday, to celebrate my birthday, and we happened to bump into Tom and Saskia from Lock Stock and One Smoking Gasket in a bar called XXXX Karaoke. They’re also Dutch, from Nijmegen, and I had never met them before. Funny stuff. To finish off introducing everyone in the pic: on the far left we have Søren (yes he is also called Søren), and that rounds out the crew!
XXXX Karaoke though? One of the funniest places I’ve ever been. Like 30 people inside, dancefloor empty, Russians just singing Russian karaoke songs and just loving every second of it. Oh and let’s say we liked the dress code in Siberia. Wink wink. Just check the video up top!
I’m not gonna give you all the in’s and out’s of that night, but let’s just say that the next day we didn’t drive off till 1:30…. that should be enough of a measure to tell you that we had a good night and a not so good morning. Before we left though, time for Russian SIM cards!
Unlimited internet for our entire stay in Russia for just over €2. Not a bad deal. EU please take note and lower those rates.
It sucks that we didn’t get to go into Mongolia though. We wanted to get you as our followers lame souvenirs, postcards and whatnot, from Mongolia. As, you know, we were doing the Mongol Rally. Sending a card from Kazakhstan wouldn’t feel as cool, clearly. And it’d be super ironic to send a card from somewhere other then Mongolia, telling you all how good we’re doing, only to have the car break down before we got to the finish. Ah well. Some other time I guess!
That day we just drove as far west as we could get, and settled for a little place called Tatarsk where we arrived around 1am. Road footage!
Tatarsk was really one of those middle-of-nowhere transit towns, so we just left straight away early next morning.
We were kind of expecting proper east-west highways in Russia connecting all the major cities in the South. I mean, Barnaul for one would be like the second city in the Netherlands based on inhabitants, Novosibirsk has more than a million, Omsk just a bit less, Kazan has over a million… But nope. Except for like 100km stretches on both sides of Kazan and Moscow the roads just had one lane per side and a ton of trucks. With our lousy acceleration that meant we could only do averages of like 70-75 an hour including stops. And then there were the road works. Which meant you had to wait for the other side to pass since just one lane was open. For kilometers on end. Even Belgian infrastructure looks good in comparison. I kinda like these traffic jams though as you can just get out of the car and chill.. Søren got us some Love Tea and we just played some roadside American football! (see video up top)
The roof of a car is also a pretty comfortable seat for those of you who didn’t know yet.
But yea we wanted to get to Kazan. Which was roughly 2.100km from Tatarsk. And our average wasn’t good, the roads weren’t great, and not to mention the road works. So we decided to just drive through the night and do Tatarsk to Kazan in one leg!
Just to give you an impression of how far that actually is.
Took us 33 hours. Yikes. We left Tatarsk at 8:30 in the morning and got to Kazan at 3 in the afternoon on the next day. Oh and we passed three time zones on the way, so it felt like 6 in the afternoon for us when we got there. Some nighttime convoy footage!
Kazan was really cool though, so it was totally worth it! As soon as we got to Kazan, the first thing we did
was to rest up, catch some sleep, and recover was to grab some burgers and a beer or two at a restaurant nearby. Sleep is overrated anyway.
They call Kazan the third city in Russia, and some nice guy called Tsar Ivan the Terrible conquered it in the 16th century and built a ton of cool buildings. And killed a billion of people.* But the dead people are long gone and the cool buildings are still there. So hurray for Ivan and cool buildings. Like the Kremlin. Yes, Kazan also has a Kremlin. I didn’t know either until I googled it the day before we drove over.
Some more buildings. No clue if this Ivan guy had them built or not, but they’re good on the eyes nonetheless.
Then we got some bad news. Luca had lost his registration slip that we got when we entered the country and which we needed to exit. The hostel notified him, as they by law needed the document for check-in. We got to Kazan on the 14th of August and were planning to leave for Moscow early on the 15th. We were on a pretty tight schedule as well, as Luca wanted to be in Italy on the 22nd (so ideally be there on the night of the 21st), which meant we had to be back in Groningen somewhere on the 19th, and the Danes also had to be in Copenhagen on the night of the 20th. Luca went to a bunch of offices in Kazan during the day with a Kazakh guy who spoke Russian and was willing to help him. The other teams left in the morning, and I just hung out in the hostel since I wasn’t much added value at Russian bureaucracy processes anyway.
At first, he would go to an office at 9. That turned out not to open till 12. Then it turned out he had to go to another that had a lunch break till 2. They couldn’t help him, and he had to return the next day at 2pm at another office with a copy of his passport. His embassy informed him that it could take a couple of days in Moscow, and leaving Kazan could also get him in legal trouble as he technically could not go to hotels without the document. The hostel in Kazan was nice enough to let him stay. If you want to read up on the entire story, just check Luca’s Facebook post about it!
Since we were on such a tight schedule already and since neither of us had any idea how much longer this would take, I decided to grab a domestic flight to Moscow that night and do some sightseeing while waiting out the whole bureaucratic process. I mean, after a whole day of going from office to office, all Luca had was basically a “just try that office tomorrow afternoon”. No guarantee whatsoever it was actually the right place and that he could get it done right there on the spot. We had already booked an Airbnb with the other teams in Moscow, which was about 700km away, and with our schedule it would mean losing out on the city if we both stuck around in Kazan waiting for Russian bureaucracy to play itself out. And it probably wouldn’t have been good for morale if I just sat there waiting with him, unable to do anything, and being sad for missing out on Moscow. Eventually he got it fixed late afternoon on the 16th, although he may or may not have had to spice up his handshake with a little something. Wink wink.
So that was the note he lost. Just a piece of paper with your name, and in the bottom left I had the exact same stamp they also put in my passport. The exact same. Seems like a pretty pointless piece of paper, but it cost him 1.5 days nonetheless. Soviet bureaucracy, man. Then again, Russia seemed pretty streamlined compared to some of those miserable places in Central Asia. If he lost something like this there he’d probably be in jail still. Maybe even some torture in the mix. Who knows. They’d probably do that in Uzbekistan. Pretty sure.
Speaking of Uzbekistan, I got some unpleasant memories forced down my throat at the airport.
Luckily I didn’t fly with them. Probably would’ve made me show my passport on 7 seven occasions mid-flight and would’ve asked for car documents even though I was traveling on foot. Man, Uzbekistan. At least their dictator is finally dying apparently. Can’t say I’m too sorry for him.
Back to fun stuff. Moscow! Our Airbnb “Penthouse”. Not bad!
Had to start at the Red Square. Obviously. Quick subway shot of the ride over! Apparently waiting for a metro is much more comfortable on a Sitpack.
Quick photo of the Danes having a photoshoot while chilling on their Sitpacks in front of the St. Basil.
Why am I plugging a sponsor who didn’t even sponsor us? I really don’t know. I guess I shouldn’t. Maybe I should tell you one of those Sitpacks broke on the subway as Mads was leaning on it (as you should, by the way). Bad bad Sitpack. Bad product. Bad.
We were running really late on time though, as friends of friends of Søren (the George Michael one) had invited us over to a Russian bani/banya, which is basically like a bath house. Søren had never met the two guys who were inviting us either, as they were friends of one of his colleagues. But they told us to come over this bath house, and asked to bring a towel (makes sense), flip flops (uhh ok), and a bed sheet (???!!!!).
As I was saying though, we were late on time. Not really familiar yet with the metro. So we came up with the fantastic idea to just grab a taxi quickly to our apartment, as it was quite far. Yikes. Not the best decision we ever made. Snapchat kinda sums it up.
Ah well. We were so dumbfounded and surprised that we couldn’t help but laugh afterwards. We obviously asked for meter details, turns out this guy charges more than €2 a minute. And that’s without the costs for the distance covered. “You took a Red Square Taxi,” he said. We sure did. And never will again. And neither should you.
Back to the bath house. It’s divided in men and women only bath houses, and as Saskia didn’t really feel like going on her own, she just went out to explore more of Moscow.
Basically, you just sit around in a lounge area, have a non-alcoholic drink and some food, and then every now and then the steam room is prepared properly, some guy rings a bell, and all the men wearing their bed sheet as a robe just rush into the room. Then you all lay down naked in a circle and on your bedsheets, feet towards the middle. Alex and Max, our Russian friends, told us beforehand that this was a pretty hardcore banya and that it’d get really hot. When we got in though, it was very very doable and thought those Russians simply weren’t used to heat like we northern Europeans (ahem) were.
Then this old guy comes in and just throws 2 to 3 huge buckets of herbal water into a huge oven, and there comes the steam. He then took out a stool, sat down in the middle of the circle of naked dudes, and started waving this huge bunch of branches close to your bodies so you’d get the feeling that your body was on fire. I proceeded to cover my overly sensitive parts as that kinda hurt, although that in turn really made my forearms burn. Quite the dilemma. In the third session we had to quickly run out at some point, as I honestly felt like I was burning alive. My nose area felt burned for a good 30 minutes after. Later on, Max and Alex decided that all of us had to at least get massaged once with branches, which we happily accepted. Getting massaged is way better than doing the massaging anyway.
All in all a really cool and relaxing experience, and we even got this cool hat to protect your hair from the heat as a souvenir. We didn’t really take photos in the banya, as there was a lot and I mean a lot of male nudity going around, so all you get this is dumb Snapchat selfie instead.
We’d meet up again at a Russian restaurant, although Max unfortunately couldn’t make it. Alex and Ksenia (another one of Søren’s common contacts) had a reservation at one of their favorite places which serves a lot of Russian food and invited us over. It also marked our last night together as a convoy (the Danes would head to St. Petersburg after, the Dutch team would leave Moscow early morning, and I had to wait for Luca still), so champagne time!
Probably not a great idea with the amounts of vodka we were about to consume at dinner. The vodka shots were of a quite reasonable size.
Just like home, right? In the back right we have a sneak peak of Alex describing the starter dishes to us (don’t worry we have a photo with his face on this blog as well coming up). As you can see in the video, they just eat small fish in its entirety there. Don’t know if I really liked it, super salty, but it was an experience I guess. But yea, more vodka. And then some.
Quite smart though. Beer at dinner fills you up, vodka basically burns the food. I think. So the more you drink, the more you can eat. At least that’s the excuse we were using.
Naturally we went out after, and Alex and Ksenia made sure we went to all the right places. Not a lot of photos from all the nightlife stuff, except for this group photo. I have no real recollection when or where we took it though, but it still features all of us.
Phone conversation with my mom the next day:
“Yea we went out in Moscow last night, I only had like one or two drinks though…”
“Don’t want to drink too much when you’re in other places, sightseeing and driving and all that…”
Hair is looking pretty fly there though, have to call a spade a spade.
A huge thanks to Alex, Ksenia and Max for having us over and properly touristing us around Moscow. We all had a blast!
Luca got in around noon the next day, Tom and Saskia had already set out for the Netherlands (they’d drive over in one haul), and we bid our goodbyes to the Danes after lunch. Luca did a super sped-up sightseeing tour for like 2 to 3 hours in Moscow, and then we set out for Europe. Yet another session of driving through the night. Lovely.
We left Moscow at around 5 in the afternoon, got to the Latvia border around 1 am, and had a short break for breakfast in some town in Lithuania called Kaunas. Which was pretty neat by the way!
Meanwhile, the Danes sent us a picture or two of their night in St. Petersburg.
How about that place Lithuania though?! So happy we decided to go there! I mean, St. Petersburg sounds so big and so overcrowded! Don’t know if I’d want to go there anyway!
After breakfast we drove off to Warsaw. Lame roads and all. We thought being in the EU meant you basically had to built super awesome highways or Iron Angela Merkel would come over with a big stick and tell you how to act as a proper state. Guess it hasn’t happened in Poland yet. Soon, though, I hope. Go Merkel Go. Tell them how to infrastructure!
Mandatory pics of buildings in Warsaw.
In all honesty Warsaw seemed like a genuinely cool place to go out in, it’s just that we had just done our second full all nighter in a week (three for Luca even) so we really couldn’t be bothered. The morning after we set out for Groningen, but not before we properly finished the CCCP Rally in style at its once westernmost border, Berlin!
We set out from Berlin late afternoon, and hit Groningen around midnight. After some proper sleep Luca set out south with the Panda, but not before we did a last group pic!
We did a thank-you post on our Facebook, and since I don’t feel like retyping all that after this already thesis-long piece, I’ll just drop you the link.
I’m not gonna rank Russia on the Shakira scale, as it’s not that much of an obscure vacation destination anyway (which is why we brought it to life in the first place). I mean, Moscow is a day and a half drive away and flying is probably just an hour or two. And honestly I don’t feel like writing one after these 4.000+ words. And you probably don’t feel like reading one.
All I can say though, is that XXXX Karaoke in Barnaul is the place to be, don’t take taxi’s from the Red Square in Moscow, and if you can don’t drive through Russia like we did. Just fly places. It’s probably cheaper anyway, and the landscapes really don’t change for a full 4.500km. Really drives you crazy after a while! Moscow was fun, but if I were you I’d combine it with a day or two or more in St. Petersburg and maybe even a day or two in Kazan if you have time to kill.
That’s it for now, maybe there’s more to come in the near future? Who knows, if so you’ll be the first to hear it.
A huge thank you once again to everyone involved, and we sincerely hope to be following crazy travel stories from some of you in the near future!
Luca & Abel