Mongolian Rally Turkey to Iraq

Hey there again!

I just wanted to mention a couple of things and maybe explain a few things a little better for you:

I’m not a lonely planet kind of guide. So you may find my blog a little short of detail sometimes. But I have to tell you that I’m trying to give you a snippet of my journey.

I think I’ll sit down a little later, when the Mongol Rally is over, and fill in some detail on all the countries I have visited. But I have to admit I’m a bit like a kid trying to tell Grandma a story – and then this dog came down the road! And then and he was wearing a hat! And there was this clown! LOL. So bear with me and I’ll give you a small glimpse of some of these amazing countries and then fill in the blanks a little later. Ill also add some pictures later as my words cannot come close to describing the grandeur of these amazing countries. From waterfalls to watermelons, beers to bears, mountains to mosques this is so much fun, but in the limited time I have online I just can’t get it all down! Lucky I have my trusty laptop to take notes.

And on to Turkey!

Just before the Turkish border we found mile after mile of truly shit roads. Insane drivers (as I have mentioned) and really nothing much else to mention. The border into Turkey has armed guards, struggling to stay awake and really is a very simple affair. A couple of hours and a Frisbee is all you need to get by and we amused the locals for a little while as we played. Then it was time to go. The last guard was friendly enough and bored “Long day and no toilets! Welcome to Turkey”.

And onto some of the best roads I have ever seen in my life! Open, wide and perfect. No elephant sized potholes, apparently one of the Rally smartcars may be stuck in a pothole in Germany, but this is just a rumour. We did meet a couple of teams on the way into Turkey and enjoyed the drive up to Istanbul. It appears that Outlet Malls, Water Oasis, Petrol stations and mosques are very much in demand in this country. Apparently the law states you can never be more than 500 meters from any one of these. The water oasis are a godsend and appear as if by mirage at very frequent intervals along the roads throughout Turkey, and almost all petrol stations have free cold water for travellers. Now we had been warned about the water, but drank it without issue from one end of Turkey to the other. Some of them are even guarded, and we have even been stopped by a family or two and guided to them to have some water and a chat. One man showed us how to say goodbye in Turkey, touching his cheeks to ours on both sides. The hospitality of the Turkish people is amazing and they are truly happy to show travellers their home towns and offer us food and water!

Istanbul is a massive city and joins with many others before and after the actual city. This makes up some 60 miles of city! Its big and brash, full of colour, lights, sounds and smells. We travelled to the old section and stayed in a small hotel. Cobblestone narrow streets, shops of all types, beautiful lamps, rugs and clothes. And then a walk around the Blue Mosque, a massive, well lit structure commanding attention in the parkway, tall spires, domed ceilings. The area was alive with people, even at such a late hour, talking, laughing, taking photos, holding hands. The colourful water fountain drawing people to it amongst the water-melon sellers, markets and kids selling bits and pieces. They even had LED flying toys soaring into the air and drifting back to the ground. A common scam is that a couple of guys will befriend you, start telling you about the city and then offer to show you around, then a couple of girls turn up… As soon as this started with me I walked away, and got some water-melon of course. The other guys had some shisha and I went to bed exhausted.

The next day was another walk through the town: bartering with the sellers is fun, you pay about a quarter of what they asked and you know they are still making a massive profit. I bought an Aladdin hat and spinning toy for about $3 all up. The guy were pestered by one charming seller and he eventually conceded to what seemed a great deal. I bet he still came on top! The inside of the Blue Mosque is truly something else. A huge mosaiced ceiling, columns and candlelights. Fairly inspiring to think about when it was actually built. The people must have thought it the most wonderous thing they had ever seen and there truly had to be a god.

But we eventually had to leave and headed from the city onto the motorway. No -one mentioned we needed a pass to go onto the freeway! We went across this massive bridge and came to a sudden stop at the toll gate, blocking traffic for about 20 minutes while we looked to find this pass. Some Swedish ralliers turned up and saved our ass! Letting us use their pass. Thanks guys! 15 minutes later we came to another toll gate and had to get the pass. From here we headed for Safram Bolu, past the biggest roadhouse we had ever seen and into the night. An amazing large shopping centre attached to a petrol station, with over 100 stores! A while later we needed petrol and met Mohammid Ali, offering us food and a drink with him. The people in Turkey have been so welcoming and friendly, marvelling at our journey and our countries, excited by the random meeting of our people in such faraway lands.

Before Safram Bolu was the town of Karabuk, a massive refinery of some sort greeted us on arrival, a huge alien set piece for some forgotten sci-fi movie. Pipes and wires, a million sparkling lights, unknown building holding their secrets. The whole town was lit up: the buildings, streets and even the grass in the parks had green lights. And peppered with dozens of tall green minarets wailing into the night. Even our destination of Safran Bolu was lit up. Ramadan was in full swing and the city shone with a golden crown as yellow lights revealed a circular cliff face around the old city. We camped by a cemetery, amongst other travellers as the golden city slept.

Camel tow?

We had a good look around town and found the ancient Aquaduct with the help of a very friendly local who took us to the turn off, and met another local who let us have a look without paying! Reaching out over a huge ravine, the aquaduct kinked its way across the creek 70 meters below. After a little shopping we made our way to Cappadocia, the incredible spired houses built on the inside of huge sand castles, windows littering the tall mounds, termite like in the darkness and lit up. We stayed the night at the top of the hill looking down and took many shots of the strangest city I have ever seen. A scooter stopped while we sat and a familiar accent asked me the way to Goreme, the Aussie and his girlfriend not sure of the way. We really are everywhere. The next morning we headed to the small markets and met a crazy seller who told us ‘everything free… ramadan… ramadan…. no money”. Classic. Having a bit of a look around, one random camel giving me a bit of a start, and then into some of the carved out homes in the rocks. Up 6 floors into one extremely comfortable room and then we decided to head off for the day. Onto Goreme and the strangely beautiful landscape of sandstone and cliffs, built into them mosques and other buildings. Here we met a bike riding EMT, the bike being his ambulance. Very friendly and curious about our trip and he happily posed for us before we left.

The Turkish roads are pretty much perfect as we headed for Iraq, getting so close to the Syrian border you could see the blackened and burned no-mans land, darkened by fire as if etching the border into the ground. It wasn’t until after this we learned of the recent massacre there. The town of Silopi was our last stop before the Iraq border so we got the best damn pide ever, some fruit and water and headed on. The kids in this town pestered us constantly, asking for food, money and everything they could. The man in the pide shop got pretty pissed at them, and although I couldn’t understand what he was saying it went something like this “Go away, leave these people alone, if you don’t go away Ill throw this fucking glass at you…” and so on…I don’t understand Turkish but i know this is what he said because that’s exactly what he did next. He didn’t actually hit any of them but then chased them down the street. Legend.

Just before the border we were accosted by some more kids who, after giving them some food, wouldn’t leave us alone. So we went on and for $20 was helped through the Turkish side of the border. The scariest thing about the border was the bridge through no-mans land, huge, metal and scary, surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire, and you know what? This was one of the easiest borders to get through: helpful locals inside the immigration area showed us what to do and where to go, another checkpoint and the car was briefly searched, surrounded by locals asking where we were from. “Australia! I have a sister in Melbourne…” And after some hand shaking with the local militia we were through.

This is where we get a little interesting. But I want you to do me a favour. Forget everything you have seen on the news and read in the paper about this country. Just for a second. There is a weird prejudgement you all make when Iraq is mentioned. Where did you get all your information about this country? Its not that easy to hold back on what you think you know? Just give me a chance:

So. Many. Trucks. On coming through the border we were astounded at the number of trucks waiting to cross and also waiting at the petrol stations. It was dusty, hot and hazy. Surreal because of where we were. A high five between me and Josh as we had made it into one of the scariest countries in the world. We were tired and pulled into a petrol station and stopped around back. Straight away we were approached by a short man in huge pants and by his tone we could tell he wanted to know what we were doing. The Mongol Rally pantomime played out and so did his huge smile! We were welcome to stay! The next thing you know there were nearly twenty guys all around us, and after a brief phone call, one who spoke English very well, he did live in the UK of course! These guys all owned the company whose petrol stations, car wash, and hairdressers were huge. We were treated like kings and offered anything we wanted. Their best days would take 1000 trucks as their prices were so much cheaper then Turkey so the trucks lined up and waited for hours. This is about $1000000 a day! We talked football, our countries and our trip til midnight and were considered their guests for the night, thanks to Hussein and the boys. And we had been in this scary country for maybe 30 minutes. 48 degrees today.

In the morning we were given a simple breakfast and some water and ice for our new esky. We said goodbye to our new Iraq corporate sponsors and laughing drove off into Kurdistan, people waving and smiling at our ambulance, extremely happy to meet people from so far away. Even the border guards at the first checkpoint took me into their office to meet everyone and even got me on the phone to someone who asked me a few questions about the trip. Greetings, smiles and handshakes all round I was allowed on my way. What an extraordinary country.

Day 2 was a trip to Amedeh, a cliff-top town a few hours away. The Iraq countryside is dry and dusty, browns and greys, splashed with sometimes green valleys. The dirt track to Amedeh twists and turns through the stone mountain landscape, up and down through valleys, and very lonely. People stopping us to say hi, helping us, and offering food and water. How are these people the bad guys? From here we drove through a lush valley, by a turquoise river that was just too inviting. We stopped by our little paradise and just leapt and played in the water. Cold and refreshing and then a quick lunch. The landscape looked like the giant skeleton of some ancient dragon slumbering, drying in the dusty sun, with peak and plates, jagged in the air. Through these awesome mountain passes we watched the moon rise over a distant observatory and past the waterfall where the top gear boy had some tea.

50 degrees and a swim? I think so!

Now this is one of the best bits of the trip so far: we were stopped at a check point by some Kurdish soldiers, Brown, black and grey uniforms and guns loosely around them, maybe 20km from the border. They took photos and invited us in. More than a dozen armed men, including two generals, gave us tea and offered us their protection for the night. They wore no insignia and only one spoke some English, but after a meal of nectarines and tea we were all having a great time joking about football and other events. Except for the uniforms and guns carelessly laying around, this was just bunch of guys getting to know each other and talking shit. Unbelievable experience having an armed guard walking around your ambulance all night. Slept like a baby.

We said goodbye to our new found friends, offering my card to the general with thanks and an offer for him to come to Australia. His face lit up! We both knew it wouldn’t happen but that’s really not the point is it?

Then we headed for the Iranian Border…