The Third Week: this one is real long.
Monday, August 1st: The trade off of staying in Tbilisi was getting up at 0’dark-thirty to drive the rest of Georgie, and ALL of Armenia to the Iranian border for our August 2nd entry. Ugh. Brutal, man. Brutal. The Georgia to Armenia border is just plain ugly and dirty, but it was also quick without incident (or toilets) so YAY it’s wonderful! Armenia, while a BEAUTIFUL country, is a tragically sad country covered in evidences of a rough 150 years. Our experience here is minimal, but the impact is still great. Also, the most terrifying experiences of the Mongol Rally happened in Armenia. Allow me to divulge…
Armenia: where we didn't die. Photo: Blackstone Photography.
First near death experience. We’re driving along and a tunnel announces itself ominously by not announcing itself at all. No mountains, just BAM TUNNEL. We have no idea what is in store for us. Team #WeLive enters the tunnel in convoy with Fordnando the Fiesta leading Babs the Yaris. This tunnel is no usual tunnel. 1) It’s entirely unlit. 2) It’s leaking fluids in an extremely worrisome manner. 3) SUDDENLY there is construction (hopefully to fix the worrisome leaking?) that is COMPLETELY unmarked. 4) There are workers hidden by the almost total dark. 5) The fumes alone could take out a Yak. 6) There is oncoming traffic that also has no warning about the construction and of course there is no one directing traffic.
Death is imminent as we hurtle through the fumes and unmarked workers toward what appears to be a very large delivery truck that probably doesn’t know we’re in their lane yet. Somehow we survive. No one talks about the tunnel incident for several hours. Later, at dinner, one of us says, “I think I’m ready to talk about the tunnel now.”
Second near death experience. We’re driving through YET ANOTHER EFFING MOUNTAIN PASS. Our engines are very small. Fordnando is stronger than Babs, but the struggle for both is real. Suddenly, as we’ve crested and can see snow patches on a nearby peak, a thunder and lightning storm drops on us unleashing fury. The road is tiny and extremely rough. The hairpin turns are sloped towards hundred foot drops, and there are no railings. We are absolutely about to plunge to our death. The fact that I’m here to write this is inexplicable. Yeah, I know this is over-dramatic, but seriously, it was insane. Side note: we were dipping in and out of Azerbaijan through this part of the “highway”. Super sketchy and unmarked/un-manned. (We were not supposed to be in Azerbaijan because of visas.)
We finally make it to the Armenian border town. This is our first taste of the Russian mob. There was DEFINITELY some kind of border smuggling going on at this hotel. A policeman came, there was exchange of money, and some back room meeting. Suzy works at the front desk. She speaks a little English. She’s 28, lives and works in this town, and is definitely always looking for an angle to make money. You wouldn't fault her if you had seen this place. But, tomorrow is Iran and we don’t have time to think about this.
Tuesday, August 2nd: IRAN. This is where we start to convoy with other ralliers for the first time! 101 Damnations, So Good It Yurt, Mud Sweat and Gears, and Ill Khans enter stage left and change our rally experience forever. The border crossing was long and boring. The only thing to report is the failed attempt at playing Cards Against Humanity - which in retrospect was a pretty dumb idea. The extremely stern man who told us we could go to jail for cards made the whole “watch yourself in Iran” thing real. All of us ladies are also in headscarves now because that’s the law.
They see us rollin'. Photo: Tabitha.
This is also where I have to split the experience into two very different themes. I’m going to first tell you all the wonderful things about Iran. Then I’m going to give you the dirt.
Traveling with the teams was SO GREAT! We fall in love with all of them. A huge thank you to all of you guys for making our Iranian experience fun!
The very first day we drive pretty far and end up in YET ANOTHER mountain pass at a traditional nomadic camp where we get to sleep in YURTS!! It’s so interesting and incredibly comfortable! It’s also a break from the heat for those who prefer a chillier experience. The traditional food that’s provided for us is wonderful and our guide, Rasheed, is just the sweetest. He reminds us slightly of Ross from Friends, but not obnoxious. What happens the next day is surreal.
101 Damnations from England. Photo: Blackstone Photography.
Wednesday, August 3rd: the day from hell. We drive for 18 hours. And if you’ve not driven in Iran you have no idea what OUTRAGEOUSLY INSANE drivers they are. They are lawless, but layer the fact that every person in their country wants to take pictures of us while we’re driving and it’s a recipe for disaster.
But, the people. The people of Iran are kind, welcoming, generous, beautiful people. They managed to make us feel welcomed even though we spent no time actually stopped anywhere. “Welcome!” “Hello!” “Where are you from?” is yelled at us from every car window.
At one point a car with two teenage girl passengers came very close to Babs (the Yaris) waving and pointing at something inside our car. Tabitha realized they were pointing at the flower crown and handed it to Megan who passed it to them through our car windows while driving 45 mph. They handed us a Nike cap in return. They were elated! Then they passed us their social media information. Turns out they’re 17 and adorable. We are in love! Girls like that melt our hearts. We will remember them forever.
Their smiles still melt us. Photo: Blackstone Photography.
There’s a lot of glitter bombing and water gun fighting between the cars. Instigated by Megan, finished by Charlie. This isn’t over, Damnations.
Fellow mischief makers, 101 Damnations. Photo: Blackstone Photography.
Thursday, August 4th: We’re up and out by 8 for another long day. We do stop at a waterfall. Which is just another waterfall, but we get to at least see something, enjoy the people, and move our legs that are practically frozen in the seated position. The waterfall is icy and refreshing in the heat and humidity. We get in with our clothes on because we are not allowed to show any skin.
I for one was not prepared for the way that people responded to me (Tabitha). The first girl to ask us for a picture spoke excellent English. She’s 15 and studies English in School. It started the onslaught of cameras. The ladies of #WeLive ended up MOBBED by women and girls wanting photos with us! It took our guide prying us out of their grip to get away. Everyone was talking to us like we understood them, laughing, making jokes, and genuinely so excited and happy that we are Americans visiting their country. They’re surprised and delighted because they know that the American impression of Iran is bad. They are so happy we are experiencing their country and the people. Soon it’s back to the cars for us to make our last hotel and border exit.
Right before the full mobbing. Photo: some random Iranian person.
We pull over once for I don’t know what and make friends with a young woman named Anis. She’s lovely! We give her a flower crown and she gives us figs. I wish we had more time with her as we drive away. MY WISH IS GRANTED!! When we arrive at the hotel she is there! Turns out she was driving the same route back to Shirvahn because she lives there! The gentlemen she was driving with knew a little more English and we find out that they’re all teachers! They followed us because they wanted to invite us to have breakfast with them. We are heartbroken that we can’t go with them because of our border crossing. We exchange contact information and take pictures together.
This lady is going in our book for sure. Photo: another random guy.
We are at the hotel very late, and dinner is odd. The rooms are interesting; ours looks like Delores Umbridge’s Hogwarts office, mines the kitten plates. We know we have to get up early again to beat all the other teams through the Turkmenistan border. Le sigh.
Ok, the dirt on our Iran experience has nothing to do with Iran and everything to do with the tour company, Iran2Iran. We as Americans are required to have a guide through the country. The same applies to citizens of the UK and CA. Here’s our list of issues with Irun2Iran:
They should NEVER EVER have had us to do a 2.5 day crossing. It was a death march. It was absolutely unsafe the amount of hours we had to drive on very little sleep. Our coordinator Laleh says she tried to discourage this but that Paula insisted. This is an outright lie. I know because the the team was CC’d on all e-mails.
The night in the Yurts was cool, but it was a last minute change to our itinerary that should never have been allowed as it added almost 3 hours to our drive time.
The hotels were not good situations. The bungalows would have been alright except they were not prepared for our team of women when we arrive at 2am. They scrambled for a bungalow to accommodate the 5 of us which we ended up with Brianna sleeping on a couch, and the entire floor was covered in ants. The final hotel was terrible. The room I (Tabitha) shared with Megan had a hole in the wall to the hallway, the shower was broken, and there were cigarette holes in the blankets.
Because of late arrival dinner was pre-arranged at the hotel. There was confusion with our meals and they simply never fixed the issue which meant that we had one entree to split 5 ways. Once the guys were happy the staff disappeared.
Tabitha challenged the coordinator, Lalah, at Irun2Iran. I got on the phone with her in the morning before we left for the border and told her that we were not happy and did not want to pay the remaining balance for our tour until details about our trip had been discussed. She actually threatened me, yelling that she would drop all business with all rally teams if I didn’t pay. She also yelled something about providing the very best for us and our passports which makes me nervous.. The phone cut out and she called me back slightly calmer asking me to explain which I very calmly did, but she got just as angry again and when the phone cut out I handed it back to our tour guide, Rasheed.
After Rasheed talked with Laleh we discovered several interesting points. First, Rasheed is a contractor and doesn’t even know this company. He was put in a very challenging situation and tried to make the best of us and we LOVE him for it! Second, Lalah threatened his pay if he did not collect 100% of our balance due.
We paid in full because we adore Rasheed. He stayed close to us until the moment he couldn’t see us any longer at the Turkmen border. We will always love him. Final thoughts: don’t piss off a group of travelers that with a professional travel blogger boasting a massive following. Teacake Travels will have loads to say about Laleh and Irun2Iran, but in the meantime please make sure that you never support this company. Spread the word. Irun2Iran = terrible. Enough of that though.
Friday, August 5th: The bizarre Turkmenistan border that takes an entire day. There are workers painting the walls and ceilings around and over us. There are 5 rooms of document validations, bribes to pay, and no bathrooms. We will all agree the best part of the Turkmen border was taking off our headscarves. It was pure freedom. We exit the border and enter Ashgabat, the weirdest city in all the land.
Iran to Turkmenistan took forever, yes, but HOW is he sleeping like this? Photo: Blackstone Photography.
It’s a front. Totally. It’s a shiny, sparkling lie about what Turkmenistan is. It’s a whole city full of grandiose facade buildings with no one in them. Majestic motorways with no one driving on them. The only people we see are gardening, working on streets, or cleaning. There are many police, but there are no regular people. “Did we just step into a dystopian novel?” The answer is yes. Did we also mention that our Skyroam doesn’t work here as there’s no data available to visitors’ phones? We stay at the Grand Turkmen Hotel along with all the other ralliers because there’s no where else tourists are allowed to stay. There’s a pool which is totally the selling point because we’re hot and dusty all of the time. The desert is upon us. Literally.
After a refreshing dip we head to the “British Pub” for a beer and food. The Mongol Rally officially drank the pub out of beer and they started bringing in beer from the shops to supplement! Paula is tipsy, relaxed, and laughing. Bri is happy with her beer plus we picked up a wonderful hitchhiker named Pim and they’re already good friends. Megan is having a super chatty social night with all the other teams. Alice is blissful with Anthony from Team Keystone (yes, inter-team romance, folks). Tabitha is so tired she goes to bed by 11pm. It’s a good night in SIM city.
Saturday, August 6th: Sleeping in? Breakfast? What are these luxuries?? We can barely recall which makes them all the sweeter at the Grand Turkmen Hotel. We don’t get on the road until almost 2! Crazy. Where are we heading? The Door to Hell! It’s a gas crater in the middle of the desert! Some Soviet scientists accidentally opened the crater and in order to stop the off-gassing they set it on fire. That was in 1971. It’s still burning. Obviously we have to go have a party there and camp in the desert. OBVIOUSLY. Sadly, the organizers of the 2016 Mongol Rally Door to Hell Tea Party were unable to make it due to unforeseen chaos! We missed you dearly, Where The Hell Are We Now!!!
Ok, getting to the door to hell was also hell because of desert heat and the lack of proper roads. The roads are like cheese graters. When we arrive at the "road" to the Door to Hell we decide NOT to subject our creaking suspension to off-roading through sand dunes, and get a ride with Mischa, a local guy making a killing off ralliers needing a ride to the gas crater.
Nothing could prepare us for the initial “WOAH” of cresting the final dune and seeing the pit glowing below us. It’s bizarrely beautiful. It’s a huge pit of fire; that’s not normal! And it’s hot. I mean, of course it’s hot because it’s on fire, but you don’t realize before you get there exactly HOW hot it’s going to be.
Linda of Team Keystone summarized perfectly, “Thanks for the breeze, Satan.” Photo: Blackstone Photography.
Soviet Scientists: "Maybe we should just burn it?" - 1971. Photo: Blackstone Photography.
Such an incredible experience to be next to the biggest bonfire you’ve ever seen while on the adventure of a lifetime. Everyone’s night was an experience not soon to be forgotten. Brianna and Pim ended up sleeping on the desert floor while Paula was found curled up next to a bush in her sleeping bag.
Sunday, August 7th, 2016: Important life lesson, the desert gets really hot by 8am. Should have asked Mischa for a 7am pick up instead.
We hammer across more insanely terrible roads despite 3/5 of the team being hung over. This is also the part of the story where Fordnando's springs have pretty much given out. Paula has decided that at the next major city stop in Uzbekistan we MUST get the suspension checked out. Hang in there, Fordnando!
Team Keystone is nearby again so we trade an Alica for a Linda and have a great day socializing! When we get to the border town in preparation for going to Uzbekistan the next morning, Alice, Paula, and half of Team Keystone decide they need a proper night's sleep in a hotel while Brianna, Megan, Tabitha, Pim, and the other half of Keystone opt for wild camping.
The milky way, our Tentsile Stingray, and what was about to be a glorious night of wild camping. Photo: Blackstone Photography.
Just when the tents were up, sleeping bags out, and water for noodles was boiling a car pulls up and we all brace ourselves. We definitely expected to be kicked off the corner of field we were squatting on, but instead it was a lovely family who insisted that the ground was too hard and there were too many mosquitos and we MUST come stay with them! So we pack up and follow them to their home. Keep in mind that it's very dark and for a few minutes we kind of wonder what we've gotten ourselves into as the road gets smaller and creepier.
Living room goals.
This night ends up being the most incredible experience. This family is warm and generous! Their niece knows english so while we settled in to the tea and food they shared with us they call her over to translate. Her name is Gilnoza and she's lovely. Her story will definitely be available int he book for you all to read. We are inspired by her!
Keep in mind this is about 12:30am. They just kept showing up.
Every time we looked up there were more people there in the living room! Their entire extended family and their neighbors all showed up to meet these Americans. We learned that they are an Uzbek family living in Turkmenistan and that the mother is a nurse. They have two teenage daughters, a son about 8, and an adorable 4 year old daughter.
Conversation focused on where we live, how old we are, if we're married, do we have children, where are we going, and do we like Turkmenistan? Once again there's confusion and slight disapproval of the unmarried women and concern for those of us (ahem, Tabitha) who are married but without children. There's also genuine confusion as to why I'm traveling without my husband. This is a theme the entire rally. Finally, they notice that we're trying to keep our eyes open and set us up for the night in their living room. Good-night Turkmenistan.
Linda and Tabitha with the daughter's of our hosts in yellow and a cousin in blue.
Summary: So much happened this week! Wow. Writing this just put into perspective how far we’ve come and how much we’ve experienced. One of the highlights is having our hitchhiker friend Pim with us! He’s awesome and super helpful! While not a girl, we will let him be on our team for a bit.
Our team has come together in a new way. We’ve gotten into a way of being and doing that works. From here on out we can slow this insane pace and actually sleep. Technically the hardest parts are yet to come, but we feel relieved to be leaving dates and deadlines behind as we meander through “the ‘stans” (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan). Let the real Mongol Rally adventures begin as we head into the wild!
Thoughts about Iran: You should ask us each our thoughts about the headscarves and ankle to wrist rules. The genuine sweetness of the people is what impressed us all deeply and most importantly though.
Suppositions of the Persian people are not accurate and we are happy to be able to say that.
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