We got up the next day bright and early in order to head to the Kazakh Embassy to reclaim my passport, with or without the promised visa.
Having arrived early, we positioned ourselves in front of the gate to be the first ones in once they opened. Sure enough, we were the first ones beelining for the visa counter at 9 am sharp. At the counter I found the same gentleman who had accepted my application 10 days earlier. He recognized me, handed me my passport without a word, and then passed the DHL envelope I had provided him to post my documents back with a cheeky smile. I toyed with the idea of lecturing him on the merits of a courier service. Or asking why he promised to send it back by courier, had provided no updates on my application despite my frantic calls or why the visa application took longer than promised. I held my tongue. I seized the passport, checked that the dates were in order and headed for the exit.
Our plan had been to drive to Berlin the same day and get my passport stamped for the Mongolian visa, then drive to Prague for the rally pitstop. Before driving off we wisely decided to call ahead and check whether the visa was even ready. In the meantime we stopped at a mall to grab some breakfast, purchased some white ink to fill in our rally stickers which mysteriously came back from the print shop entirely in transparent sheets instead of the white we ordered and got to work on filling in the stickers. On a scale of 1 to 10 of the most problematic issues we were dealing with, the visas were a resounding 10.5 and the transparent-hard-to-see-stickers a measly 2.
The trusty Facebook page that teams were posting updates on regarding their whereabouts let us know that quite a few teams were in the vicinity of Frankfurt and were also headed towards Prague that same evening. We called the Mongolian embassy in Berlin again and found that the visa was, in fact, not ready. But they promised us that we could pick it up in one of their other embassies along our route. Bishkek, perhaps?
So with that decision made we jumped into our Kangoo and sped off towards Dresden. Why Dresden? Because while simultaneously sorting out my Mongolian visa issues on the phone, Moritz made plans with his childhood best friend and former partner-in-crime Samuel the Scientist that we’d pick him up in Dresden and take him partying with us in Prague at the old abandoned railway station where The Adventurists had organized the pitstop for all the rally teams. The plan sounded sketchy, but I’ve learnt not to question the two guys who think driving through Siberia in -40 degrees Celsius in a dodgy Ural motorcycle is a good idea.
We picked up Samuel the Scientist from Dresden in the late afternoon, and like a good travel companion, he came armed with drinks and snacks for the ride. Mika drove the 1 hour trip to Prague, while the boys squealed in the back. Apparently, they had not seen in each other for awhile.
We met a few teams on the border to Czech Republic, where all of us were trying to buy the vignette, i.e. a small sticker signifying that you’ve paid your road tax. The ralliers looked awfully young. Soon we were on our way to the abandoned railway station where the Czech-out Party was being held. This would be our only opportunity to get to know some teams and find people that had a similar route as ours. We arrived at Žižkov – nákladové nádraží a little after 5pm. Some of the teams had started to roll in already, and we were asked to line up our car and park in a corner. We soon realized that in our current parking location we would be stuck behind at least 70 other cars once everyone arrived. This meant that our quick getaway the next morning would be impossible. So despite already having pitched our tent halfway, we loaded it up on top of the car and found ourselves a spot near the exit.
A few things need to be said about The Adventurists, a company that organizes the rally, and the way the rally is held. When The Adventurists say they provide no support at all in your endeavor to drive a shitty car to Mongolia, they’re not kidding. They’ve been doing this rally for over 10 years now and one would think they have acquired enough experience and insights about the process itself to be shared generously with the ralliers each year. If that’s what you thought when you paid your 550 GBP registration, then you would be sorely mistaken. It sounds all cute and adorable when you are told that you are on your own in your magical quest to drive halfway across the world, but it’s quite a different matter when you’re asking critical questions (no, not that one about how many duct tapes to take) to the rally organizers and your frantic need for information is met with a deafening silence. The one thing that The Adventurists, however, will provide is a couple of parties and a bunch of stickers proclaiming your commitment to enacting ‘Motoring Stupidity on a Global Scale’.
Having said that, the Czech-out Party was well put together with plenty of good music and chock-full of entertainment, including fire-spinners and belly-dancers. There were too many teams on the ground to make meaningful conversations with anyone, but if you had been corresponding with certain teams over the aforementioned Facebook page it was good time to seek them out in person.
Being tired, Mika and I headed to bed by 2:30am, hoping to catch some sleep before the very long drive to Serbia the next day. Little did we know that we’d stay up all night. It’s not easy to sleep when you’re at a congregation of 450 ralliers. Most people stayed up past dawn.
Once we did manage to get up that Tuesday morning, we found a group of folks playing cricket between the cars and a handful of people milling about. We met a couple of colorful characters too. We ran into a woman in the bathroom who had not slept since leaving Brussels on the Sunday night. She told us that her brother, whom she has had a rocky relationship with for the past 6 years, has confiscated the car papers. He was the owner of the car and her teammate for the rally, but he had changed his mind and, according to her, was demonstrating how he could control her life. She planned to drive without the papers for as long the border guards didn’t check. Throughout the journey we would meet a number of people who had chosen this extremely stressful event in the hope that it would act as a catalyst and bring them closer together again.
In the morning light we were able to get a better sense of the outrageous cars taking part in the rally this year. There were some real beauties, some classics and some tried-and-tested-can-survive-the-Mongol-Rally cars. We took a few snaps, bundled into the car, dropped Samuel the Scientist off at the train station (after lending him money, because who’d have thought that Czech train tickets require money to purchase?) and started our drive through Central Europe.
This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.