Published: September 3rd 2011August 12th 2011
The Caucasion Challenge 2011
A car rally that will take Mike and Shelly across Eastern Europe from Budapest to Yerevan. Geo caching for 6500 kms.
I am writing 11 days into our challenge. Tough to catch up but will capture the trip and its highlites the best that we can. We are finding it quite difficult to get to our destination on time, in fact, we are quite frequently, last in so to open up the laptop and write, we just dont have the time or energy. The days are long, the roads are trecherous, windy and our little Lada can't quite make it up the hills as quickly as the rest of the gang. A car rally such as this requires patience, accuracy and a lot of optimisim and we have already found ourselves in a funk, almost wondering why the hell we're doing this. We've been through 8 countries in 11 days. Have a look at the web site for the Challenge -www.caucasianchallege.com
Aug 12 - Toronto - Budapest
Mike and I are finally sitting in our seats...waiting for this big bird to take off. We have both been so extremely busy
with life and work up to this point, it seems almost surreal we are actually here. We'll settle in...read up on where the hell we're going and actually appreciate the moment. Life has been crazy. We know we are on our way to an adventure of a lifetime and we can only be thankful that we have the spirit and confidence to go at it with open minds and open hearts...
Aug13 - Budapest
We arrive to Budapest safely and quickly grab a taxi. It's a short ride to the hotel and we are completely exhausted. The hotel is central and very clean. We have two nights booked so we have a chance to get our internal clocks adjusted, to get our bearings and get to the Chennai Management office at some point.
The city is very beautiful. It is divided by the Danube River so it is in fact Buda and Pest. It's touristy and alive with outdoor cafe's. We wander about and find a side alley to have dinner. Of course Hungarian Ghoulosh is the best and obvious choice. The next morning, Sunday, we're up and out to explore the city. The
Problems - Day 1
Hop on Hop off bus is the best way to get around any city to get the feel if you have a short amount of time and not that expensive.
We're anxious to get to the Chennai office as we're not confident our GPS has successfully uploaded the maps. We arrive to meet Atilla, Aravind and one of the other teams The Canadian Cougars, Sheila and Suzanne from Stittsville, Ontario. It takes close to 2 hours to fiddle around with the GPS and upload what we thought, were all the maps. From that day forward, we relied primarily on dead reckoning to find our way and the paper maps Mike had purchased. Finally we leave the office, get our cool Lada Neva and head back to the hotel to go for dinner at another popular outdoor cafe/restaurant area and get home for a good nights sleep.
August 15 - Budapest to Szekszard to Mohacs to Osijek to Doboj to Zenica to Sarajevo - 567 km
Monday morning and we're up early anxious to get on the road. We need to get to the start line by 8:30. Already, we cant find the spot and end up
backtracking! We arrive just before 9 to see many of the other teams getting ready. What a site! We're both really excited to be part of something so unique and so cool. We get our car ready to go with the numbers and official event deckles. There are people and teams from all over the world including Hungary, Serbia, Poland, the U.S., Australia, the Netherlands, England...We even have our own traveling band The Durgas Band (www.thedurgas.com). You can feel the excitement and an instant bond as people make their introductions. We first meet the two brothers from The Netherlands, Wallter and Dolf ....They are the only team to be travelling by motorbike(BMW 1200s), the rest of the vehicles are a combination of Volvos, Ladas, SUV's of various makes, vans...some in good shape, most not. Our Lada is a 1993 and sits high. We already know it's going to be slow, hot and noisy...but compared to last years Rickshaw, we're going in style!
Atilla and Aravind perform the opening ceremonies. It's very laid back and very unofficial but it allows all the teams to be introduced. One by one, the wheels get in motion just after 9.
will travel 567km to Sarajevo. As the itinerary states, we are squirming in our seats and slowly getting use to our car but most importantly we are mentally preparing ourselves for a very long trip ahead of us...
It's an easy, get comfortable in your seat, figure out your GPS day...only 5 challenges. Mike and I are learning on the fly how to create waypoints and how to read them. It will take at least 2 1/2 days to get the basics sorted out. We never did get all the maps uploaded so up to the point that I'm writing this (6 days in), we are relying heavily on the dead reckoning. In some parts of Kosovo for instance, you could not pick up any roads.
Amazing, but we travel through 4 countries in one day...Hungary, Bosnia, Crotia and then into Kosovo.
We meet up at the City Pub for our welcoming party and our band playing.
Tuesday, August 16 - Sarajevo to Foca to Hum to Trsa to Zabljak to Mojkovac to Berane to Rozaje Pec (Peje in Kosovo)
Both Mike and I sleep in and get on the road 2 hours late...we were
so upset and frazzled. Our days are to begin at around 7 everyday and to sleep in just isn't an option. We have a total of 15 challenges today and 400 km to cover. We drive through Bosnia to Montenegro. What a beautiful magestic country with its lush rolling hills and windy roads. Montenegro seems to be a very adventurous and out-going country with traveling cyclists and many rafting companies that line the river. Half way into our journey and barely any sightings of any other people, we stop at one of the river crossings and go swimming. The water was so refreshing.
Wednesday, August 17 - Peje (Kosovo) to Decani to Gjakove to Qafa e Prushit to Krume to Kukes to Peshkopi to Librazhd to Camp Albania (N41 31.002, E20 26.364)
Today will prove to be one of the most memorable drives. Very technical, very windy, very beautiful. We are driving through the Drinit Valley where the region is almost deserted and there's only the nature and us. We see a few cyclists traveling with full gear probably to the remote cabins we see nestled in the valleys with the option of pitching
a tent as well. The valleys are massive, green and uninhabited. It's odd to see a person walking, clearly a local, when you haven't seen a village, a house or anything for hours. Before heading into the valley, our caravan is stopped for an hour while they clear the road of debris brought down from the cliff's above. The area is seeing a lot of development, road improvements and optimism in the villages. There is constant signs of renovations and newness.
We're excited to get to our destination as it's our first night out camping! The road to Camp Albania is barely passable and here we are driving it, in the dark. We arrive after 9:30 to have Annie (from England)waves us in by flashlight to the most amazing site. We're at 1300 meters above sea level with nothing around us but massive, lush green mountains. The fire is blazing and people have settled in. We rented simple camp gear so we were all set up in a matter 15 minutes.
Thursday, August 18 - Camp Albania to Librazhd to Pogradec to Korce to Bilisht to Kastoria (Greece)
Today was a relatively easy
day of driving. Only 220 kms. We have reconnected with our band and run into them along the shores of Lake Ohrid at a side cafe. Most of the gang were swimming, we just wanted to get going. Our hotel is really nice, very central. Most of us head out for dinner to the Lake Promenade and enjoy our first authentic Greek meal.
Friday, August 19 - Kastoria to Lechovo to Amyntaio to Edessa to Thessaloniki to Kavala (Karvali)
The day began easy until we blew a tire on the highway. We slowly pull off to a side street where a passerby helped us out. His wife called us in from the balcony for water, coffee and treats. How could we resist! Up to this point we have not had much interaction with the locals as we've been on the road from early in the morning to late at night and driving through. Up to this point, there have been a few car issues, the major one being the Arabian Knights rolling their vehicle. Luckily nobody was hurt, only a few stitches and a sprained hand. As of writing this a week later, they
are back in the rally with a new rented vehicle.
Tonight we'll be camping right by the Mediterranean sea where the campsite is clean and it has a nice, open restaurant bar. Again, we are fortunate to have our own live concert with the Durguis! The support team has taken over Sheila and Suzanne’s steak dinner to create a community meal for all over the fire. We’re quickly realizing that we really can’t rely on the promise of a meal with these guys. They like to drink.
Day 6 – Saturday, August 20
Kavala to Xanthi to Komotini to Tekirdag to Istanbul – 437 kms.
A longer distance but on good roads today. This is our big adventure with the ridiculous toll road and the KGS card…we find out the hard way that you MUST have this card. And, this happens to be one of those days where we are struggling with the challenges, right to the end. So we cross the border into Turkey , and again, we get our Visa and get our car registered with the country. The next challenge is to get the correct currency. The Geo-caching is one thing, but
getting across all these borders and finding an ATM, then doing the conversion properly so you don’t accidentally clear out your account is probably the biggest challenges we’re finding.
We get through the day with very little incident and start heading into Istanbul …during rush hour. This is a city that will topple the 17 million mark for population and the only city in the world that straddles Bosphorus, situated in two continents, Europe and Asia . We witness a fender bender right in f ron t of us where we could have easily been involved. The car that’s hit is jammed with faces, no seatbelts. The driver that made impact takes off.
We get in late, around 7:30 – 8 and we are beat and we know we have to get up at 7 the next morning. Shelly can’t find the energy to venture into the city by subway with some of the group to visit the Blue Mosque. There may be some regrets later in life but the rest of the trip delivers.
Day 7 – Sunday, August 21
Istanbul to Izmit to Duzce to Gered to Kursunlu To Ilgaz to Kastamonu to Taskopru
to Sniop – 734 kms.
Armenia bunker in background
There were 700,000 bunkers built during the war
This is the almost the biggest distance we’ll do the entire trip…we need to get across Turkey so we can spend more time in the beautiful Caucasus Mountains . We’re really looking forward to getting to our campsite tonight in Sinop which happens to be the most Northern point in Turkey . This is the leg of the trip where we take a break and camp right on the Black Sea beach!
The drive seems to go by quickly, mostly all highway and we take it steady with our little Lada. We stop at the Derbent Otel that’s 1700 m above sea level for tea and a snack. Our host is a slick dude that seems so out of place here. We arrive at camp at 9:30 at night to find everybody is there except the Cougars and the Portugese but they roll in shortly after us. Rachel is so sweet and feeds us with their leftovers and we’re already seeing the group really starting to blend and become great friends.
Day 8 – Monday, August 22
Sinop Beach – rest day
We’ve already covered close to
3000 kms. and thankful for the break today. What a beautiful surprise coming out of the tent this morning. We had no idea how close we were to the sea. We had a slow morning which we were quite okay with. We had breakfast at the camps restaurant then wondered down the beach where we swam and enjoyed the Black Sea (btw..it’s not Black). It has signs warning of the undertow so we stay close to shore.
For us, we last for about an hour then it’s time to do something productive so of course we go shopping in town! The town is really buzzing with the locals shopping and it’s a little difficult to figure out the best shop to get what we need. The waterf ron t walk is quite nice and we find a cute little café for lunch. This is the day we have our Country them party so we gather what we’ll need i.e ICE…that should have been a challenge alone but we manage. When we get back to the campground we get the party rolling. We set up the Crazy Canucks table with the help of the Canadian Cougars, with all our treats
and red and white paraphernalia. The rest of the gang quickly get their tables set up and we enjoy each others spirits and foods from the various countries. The highlight of the party was definitely the Twister game Michael had brought. It was also a good way to break the tie with our little Canadiana challenge!
The party got moved to the beach where we had “our band” waiting for us on the sandbar to perform under the stars. It was magical!
Day 9 – Tuesday, August 23
Sinop to Samsun to Trabzon to Rize to Hopa to Batumi – 768 kms.
This is the longest stage of the rally, but the road is running near the sea and makes it a pleasant drive. Today we cross into Georgia where we again, they have their process. They photograph us and they make us buy car insurance which we’re convinced is a racket. We hook up with Gregory and Agnes for lunch and get our Kebaps fix and Turkish coffee. The Turkish coffee is a thick, chalky liquid that comes with a glass of cold water to get it down.
Up to this
point we have only had one flat. By the time we hit the Georgia border at around 8:30 our car is overheating and wont start. Thankfully our group has managed to hit the border at the same time and thankfully, we have some pretty talented car enthusiasts around us! We nurse the car over the border and pull off to wait for Will and Miguel do their magic. They cut the thingy and re-move the other thingy to join to the main thingy…amazing.
We make it to the hotel in a short amount of time and head right out for dinner with Will. The city is such a contract to what we’ve seen up to this point. Its streets are lined with neon palm trees and illuminated buildings and it even has a leaning tower of “pizza”. Of course, that’s our selection for dinner.
Day 10 – Wednesday, August 24
Today we’ll take the 4x4 route: Batumi to Abastumani to Baghdati to Kutaisi and drive through the Borjomi-Kharaguli National Park . Short distance, 356 km, but a long day on very rough terrain. Today we travelled through the Caucasus . Road was not suitable for vehicle
and thankfully, again, the Portugese team stayed with us. They have been the most enthusiastic team so far and look forward to any challenge that comes their way. The road seems to never end. The Cougars drowned their car once as did we and we seem to be losing our minds a bit as everything seems to be quite comical including one of the Miguel’s laugh…it’s cracking Shelly up.
When you enter Borjomi-Kharaguli Park , you’re stopped at a gate to sign in…an indication of what was to come. Not entirely sure if that list makes it to the other end though! It took 6 hours to travel only a short distance and our geo-caching challenges were not a priority. The Zekari pass is 2200 meters above sea level and the scenery is awesome. We wanted to stay together as a group to ensure we all get out. Tonight we finally arrive at Hotel Beka, a charming home stay with a view over Kutaisi
Day 11 – Thursday, August 25
Kutaisi – Samtredia – Senaki – Zugdidi – Jvari – Mestia (Georgia) – 253 km
We drive with the two Mike’s most of
the way today, and amazingly, we drive into town during daylight! We’ve been traveling through some of the most remote areas of Western Europe . We wonder why and how the locals are able to sustain a living. It’s such a contrast. You can drive for hours on the most impassable terrain then come across a village. Every home looks abandoned with only a few panes of glass. We stay in a guest house in Mestia, the heart of the Caucasus , where very building in this town is being restored after an earthquake that occurred there 2 years ago. It’s clear this town is going to be quite the tourist attraction when done as there is a lot of government money being contributed. The town has these amazing ‘watchtowers’ peppered throughout the valley and we hear some have been converted into home stays.
Again, we are lucky to have ‘our band’ land a gig at the Lila Bar in town. They managed to recruit a girl, who they happen to find by passing by her window, to play with them that night. Amazing talent.
We expect a long difficult day so we manage to be the first ones on the road with the Arabian Knights behind us. About a quarter of the drive was quite challenging and rough and again, amazing to see people living in these conditions. The organizers state that the roads can be quite unpredictable and realize this road is nothing more than a mountain path. We drive through Ushguli where the road runs in the Higher-Svaneti region near the Russian border long 5000 meter-high peaks. Snow covered peaks, medieval villages, glaciers and a pass above 2600 meters...beautiful. Ushguli happens to be Europe ’s highest permanently inhabited place!
We’re beginning to experience real car problems…stalling if it idles too low for instance.
We’re 2nd in today to the hotel. Very nice, clean and modern hotel in the heart of wine country. Not like our Niagara region at all and the wine is comparable to Welch’s…however, we enjoy a bottle over dinner then head across the street to take in some live theatre. Only Mike and I go and it turns out to be their version of
Mike, Suzanne, Dolf< Sheila, Cochy, Shelly, Chuby
Yuk Yuk’s. Not understanding a word they’re saying and taking the cue to laugh with the crowd does, we leave mid-show and retire early that night.
Day 13 – Saturday, August 27
Ambrolauri – Nikortsminda – Tkibuli – Zestafoni – Khashuri – (Gori) to Tbilisi Distance: 244 km
20 challenges today! An easy day of driving by too many waypoints. Today, we go through Gori, birthplace of Stalin, inventor of Communism. We take in a tour of the museum that was quite interesting and also see the house where he was born. Gori was the center of the conflict between Russia and Georgia in only 2008.
We drive by many abandoned and rusted out factories, once employing and serving the communism. We arrive into Tbilisi at 5 p.m., but have many challenges to complete in the city, which gets us to the hotel by 8 p.m.. We take advantage of the outdoor cafes during our hunt and did some gift shopping (the only time we had for the entire trip!). Tbilisi is really beautiful because they have lit up all their significant buildings. It’s a very beautiful, clean city where modernism meets history. While
we were desperately hunting for clues, we make our way into a quaint church where there is a ceremony taking place. It’s a magical place and we almost forgot about the challenges.
We make our way to the hotel and head out the watch our band play at a local pub.
Day 14 – Sunday, August 28
Tbilisi – Marneuli – Sadakhlo – Noyemberyan – Ijevan – (Berd) to Itsakar – Chambarak – Lake Sevan Distance: 351km
The Canadian Cougars are out; their car almost starts on fire and they have to abandon the car. Our car is continually stalling.
Today we enter into Armenia . Crossing the border was no problem, but what a process. The paperwork is ridiculous! They told us it would take 20 hours, but we manage to get through in about an hour. Once you’re through, there are a half dozen insurance companies waiting for you after the border. You have to buy it. We stop in Berd for lunch in the outdoor market and continue on looking for a 4-letter sign that suppose to get us on the road to Chambarak. We
get on the right road and are heading towards Lake Sevan where we’ll be camping in a field on the lake on the Artenish Peninsula . On one of our last challenges, we run into Gregory and Agnes…they are having major car problems and you can see it taking it’s toll on them. They have to replace their spark plugs, clean them, replace them and so on every day!
Day 15 – Monday, August 29
Camp Sevan – Vardeniz – Sotk – Dadivank – Drmbon – Vank
We start driving South-East in the morning, along Lake Sevan and officially leave Armenia after Vardeniz, through the Sotk pass. There’s no real border and could be easily missed. We run into massive land movers at the border which is also a Gold mine. We are on Azeri territories (officially), in reality this land is occupied by Armenia , part of the cease fire zone. We are on no man’s land. The landscape is beautiful and very diverse, canyons, mountain streams are around us and of course the leftover of the war; burn out tanks are at the edge of the road.
Later on we officially
reach the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh , this is marked by a barrier and a small hut for the border guards who have no idea what the hell we are doing here. We were prepared for stamping and the usual formalities and they only take a look at your passport and register you in the Big Book. It’s understandable, they never see tourists around.
The quality of the road varied with barely any asphalt. Potholes on potholes, water ditches, landslides our usual ‘partners’ in the mountains. Surprisingly the last 40 kms before Vank is a brand new asphalt road. We hit a way-point at the Dadivank Monatery then head into town to check into our hotel. It’s hilarious. It’s the shape of the titanic! What a strange contrast from where we have just come from and the entire country. Tourism at it’s best. I whisper in Mike’s ear…”wanna crash a wedding” and head to the stern of the hotel to join a party that is celebrating a young boys Birthday and Baptism. We have a blast dancing with the grandparents (who invited us back to their home).
Day 16 – Tuesday, August 30 Vank – Stepanakert
– Aghdam – Martuni – Fizuli – Jabrail – Minijavan – (Meghri) – Kapan Distance: 342 km
Sheila, Mike, Shelly, Michael, Suzanne
Today we are driving through of the most remote places on the earth and one of the most interesting: the demilitarized zone between Karabakh and Azerbaidjan. Because we’ll be traveling through the NKR, we have to register with the officials which places we’ll go through. This day we find is the most stressful as we do not want to cross the border by mistake. This deserted land has inhabitants that have randomly and in a sense, moved in de facto to areas that seem barely liveable. The area’s is neither Armenia nor Karabakh but Azerbaijan in reality it’s a demilitarized zone. It’s safe and okay to drive around without incident. Although, the organizers are clear on the rules today: don’t drive in a convoy, don’t make too much noise attracting too much attention and lastly if you take photos and video, be discreet.
We arrive in Stepanakert and head to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get our Visa. We spend some time in the town while we wait and get provisions for the long trip ahead of
us. It take approximately 1.5 hours to get the Visa done, then we’re on the road again to Aghdam – the forbidden zone. The city used to have 100,000 inhabitants before the war. And now there’s nothing else but ruins except right in the middle of the city is the ONLY building which survived: the mosque. Unfortunately not in the best condition but we were still able to walk up the minarets. Very steep and such a strange sight. The view from the top is breathtaking and at the same time, sad. It was once a bustling city, only 18 years ago!
We carry on towards Martuni, the last inhabited place we’ll visit before we hit Meghri. From here there is nothing. We are somewhat concerned we are on not on the right road, but seem to be heading in the right direction. We see Iran across the valley. We’re convinced me messed up somewhere along the way when we run into a military post and are detained for close to an hour while they look over our passports. It’s dark now and it’s the first time we look at each other with concern. Fortunately, we’re okay
and are escorted by two soldiers to the head of the right road. This is a brand new road all the way to Kapan. We find Gregory and Agnieszka…broken down and negotiating with a local on how they can leave the car there…they’ve given up and we don’t blame them. They also have Suzanne on-board and they’re waiting for a taxi.
We arrive at Hotel Darist where there is a party in full-swing and the vodka is running…again. We have the routine down after 16 days and realize, every day has been a celebration of life and we’re all very happy to have arrived safely.
Day 17 – Wednesday, August 31 – THE FINISH LINE!! Kapan – Goris – Tatev – Ararat – Yerevan Distance: 366 km
Leaving Kapan we drive North on the Yerevan main road. Not far from Goris, we hit a waypoint at one of the most famous monastery complexes, Tatev. It was totally worth the extra time and effort. The road to the monastery is very windy, very steep. They also have built they claim, is the World’s longest aerial cable car. We gather our waypoints and head back down and
get on the main road towards are next waypoint at the Sisian Waterfalls. The Hedonistic Hikers (Mike and Mike) have pranked us by leaving the treasure nicely perched on a rock. Of course we grab it and we’re claiming as ours! A few minutes later we all meet for lunch at a road side BBQ and they are quite pleased with themselves…we’re still going to try to get the points!
It’s an even long road to Yerevan . Our little Lada is doing some kind of funky jig now and we have to be very careful and just nurse it to the finish line. The car is grubby and tired and so are we and they have booked us into a very nice hotel in central Yerevan , Hotel Metropol. There we were, last day, last km., and we are last but happy to be safe. We hug each other and quickly get booked in. The gang are all in the lobby and we hand in our final game sheet along with no other, the last treasure. Attila is a little confused.
This is Shelly’s last night and we unsuccessfully attempt to get a
couple extra days from the airline. This is the big celebration night at a pub they appropriately call “That Place”, a treasure in itself and perfect for our event hidden in an underground parking lot. What a night. We are all so happy to be together, safe and egos back in place. To spend 17 days with complete strangers from all over the world we thought would have been interesting but we also found that we made special friends and kinder spirits in some. It’s our opinion; The Caucasian Challenge will no doubt go down as one of our most memorable adventures. It was mind numbing, physically challenging, emotionally challenging, intellectually challenging and most of all, it tested our patience.
There are more photos below