We’ve quickly zipped through 2500+km in a matter of days, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria all went by in a flash. The Mongol Rally is not really traveling per say. Sure, this is not a finish first rally and we’ve given ourselves 6 weeks to do complete our journey from Prague to Ulaan Baatar but the further east we move, the more uncertainty there are. Once you get in the car, there is this compulsion to just keep on driving. Lets get as many good miles down, on paved roads, where I can drive in 5th gear for kilometers on end before all bets are out of the window and we are trying to decipher which donkey track we should follow.
When you fly through 6 countries in 4 days in a car, you start to see each place a little differently. You move from rolling hills of rural country into suburbia (Eastern European version of it at least, I have yet to see Agrestic but there are good imitations) into major cities and their historic centers.
When people think of a city, it is usually the historic center that comes to mind. The Charles Bridge in Prague, or the Danbu dividing Buda from Pest with all the bridges and castles bathed in the orange glow of twinkle lights. The subdivisions outside of each major city historic center are never really what you think of. You never go there. You barely think they exist. I was surprised to discover that each of the major cities we drove through was rimmed with giant international box stores, Carrefour, IKEA, and mega mall complex. There were moments when I thought I could be in Fresno California, or Houston Texas. The only difference is Eastern European Highways don’t have as many lanes as they do in the US and the names for the stores, malls and etc are not one I understand.
Then I beg the question. What is the REAL Czech Republic, or Hungary or…(fill in the country of your choice here).
An authentic experience is always high on any travelers’ list. However, when the historic center that we gravitate towards makes up maybe 5 % of the entire country, how does one really find the real Slavonia? Can we really get the true essence for any one place when we stick to the historic center, the points of interest and by pass the subdivisions where a good percentage of the real citizens live and dream and skip to the idyllic country side for an excursion?
I don’t particularly love subdivisions and the outer skirts of major cities but I do find them fascinating. They are like the loose threads on a tapestry; you get to see all the different color threads that are part of the overall picture. Maybe the REAL (insert your country / town of choice) is not complete without stepping back a little, take in the outer fringes so you can see the bigger picture. All the subdivisions and big box stores in all of these countries put the concept of globalization on a different level, Westernization on a different frame work.
All big philosophical contemplation aside, I have learned quiet a few important lessons from this past week of driving across Eastern Europe on The Mongol Rally:
Lesson #1: Learn European road signs. They look somewhat different than their North American counter part. One could be a master code breaker but the split seconds you hesitate to try to figure out what the sign means could mean that you miss the turn off or end up driving one way down the wrong way!
Lesson #2: When the police officer wants to give you a ticket, they tend to name a price that is quiet high and you negotiate your way down from there. We negotiated our 10,000kc ticket for driving wrong way on a one way down to 500kc. Another team also got pulled over for traffic violation and negotiate their fines down as well.
Lesson #3: Google Map is inaccurate in its time estimate. It does not factor in road conditions, traffic and the size of the road (a country road is frequently listed as a highway). All of which effects the speed in which you can drive at. We have been multiplying the estimated time by 1.5 and that actually gets us pretty close to how long it takes us to get from one town to another.
Lesson #4: GPS, Google Maps and all are fantastic tools. I love them and wouldn’t want to live without them. However, once upon a time, in a far away kingdom, I learned how to drive through Los Angeles traffic and all the different streets by streets signs alone! (shocking I know) and occasionally I would consult the Thomas Guide when I didn’t know where I was going. When you find yourself ignoring clearly marked traffic signs because that is not the way the blue line is going….its time to stop and think. Don’t give up your intuition, common sense, logic and ability to read street signs just because the mechanical voice tells you to turn right! (It will realize that it is wrong and recalculate course! Then you are just mad!)
1 week in, 2500km completed, 6 countries down, 1 traffic ticket scored for SM Stowaway. Now that was the easy part….We are about to leave Europe for Asia which means the uncertainly factor just went up!
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