After dropping Samuel the Scientist off at the train station, we weaved through rush hour traffic and made attempts to leave the city. A little outside of Prague, we found a gas station to buy breakfast, set our tired brains straight and recalibrate our driving schedule for the day. The aim was to get to Niš, Serbia, which was a daunting 10.5 hour drive without stops. We agreed that we’d be happy if we made it to Belgrade as well. Given that we wanted to drop off Mika in Sofia the following day, we wanted to drive as far as possible today.
After a greasy breakfast of fried pastries and coffee at the gas station, where we also met a couple of other Mongol Rally teams, we started off. Based on the conversations we had with some of the other teams, nobody was planning to drive as far as Niš, but we took it as a challenge.
The temperature soon climbed to over 30 degrees Celsius, and given that we had no air conditioning in the car, we were boiling by midday. We took turns to change drivers every 1h 15 mins, but the heat really beat us down. We also managed to take naps in between to recover from some of the sleeplessness from the previous night.
Every summer, nearly 300 Mongol Rally cars are unleashed upon the world. The cars themselves are a source of amusement to many, and we noticed with surprise that some people took photos of our car (and us!) when we stopped at rest stops for a bathroom break or to buy vignettes.
There was a great deal of road construction on the way to Slovakia, but we reached Bratislava shortly after 1:30pm in the afternoon. In the early days of the rally, we were driven by adrenaline and therefore chose to eat lunches and snacks in the car without stopping for a proper break. Nevertheless, we found a quiet neighborhood in Bratislava for a short break and to check on the car. Moritz had been hearing some strange rattling from underneath the car and suspected it might’ve been the exhaust, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. This was worrying. The rattling continued the rest of the day, but there was no discernible reason for the sound. We hoped our car wouldn’t start giving us trouble so early on in the trip.
After a full day of driving, we rolled into Belgrade quite close to 8pm that evening. We were starving. We parked our car near the Temple of Saint Sava, a Serbian Orthodox church. It is also one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. After a quick walk around the church, we tried to find a restaurant where we could find a vegetarian meal.
We found one that looked good on Tripadvisor, but it proved impossible to find. After asking a few friendly pedestrians for directions we found the location, but the restaurant had either moved or had ceased to exist. In the meantime, we saw a traffic police patrolling and doling out tickets to cars that were parked without a valid parking ticket. So we had to sneak away from our parking location, as we suspected that the spot we had chosen was not for free as we hoped it would be. Eventually after a couple of circles, we stumbled upon a restaurant that was willing to accept Visa cards as payment and we decided to eat whatever we could find there.
The restaurant had a wide selection of vegetarian starters, and we ordered around 5 or 6 dishes to share. The guy taking our orders spoke little English, but made every effort to understand us and make himself understood. What came eventually was a pleasant surprise of fresh cheese, grilled vegetables, shopska salad and warm bread. While we ate, we agreed that we still had energy to drive to Niš that evening. So we found a hotel on booking.com, booked online directly and called the hotel to ask if it was alright to arrive late in the evening. We couldn’t reach the hotel by phone, and were growing nervous. What if they were shut close when we arrived close to midnight?
We left a voicemail, and to my great surprise, they called us back and assured us that it was no problem to arrive late. We were further energized by the thought of a warm bed and possibly even a shower after not having showered in the past two days.
The drive from Belgrade to Niš is about 2h 20 mins but it wasn’t until midnight, as we rightly foresaw, that we reached the hotel. The last stretch was incredibly tiring, but once we arrived at our accommodation, we were blown away. La Belle Epoch charged us a measly 34 euros for a proper room with three beds, air conditioning and shower ensuite. The owner of the hotel was incredibly excited to see us and was genuinely welcoming. It was the best possible end to an exhausting day. It felt like the height of luxury after spending the previous night not getting any sleep and washing ourselves in portable toilets.
Tomorrow we’ll push towards Istanbul.
This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.