Bucharest, Romania was not a stop on our Mongol Rally team’s itinerary.
But when we found ourself amidst a honking, screeching orgy of cars with a clutch that suddenly wouldn’t budge from its resting place on the floor, we decided to pull over and find a mechanic. Hilton was driving — somehow managing to shift while yanking the clutch up with his hand and simultaneously maneuvering our Fiat Panda through roundabouts and traffic jams. I don’t know how he got us to that mechanic alive.
We were alive, but slightly miserable, when we pulled into SC Silma Auto Service and were greeted by a stern faced mechanic, dressed in Mario blue overalls and an orange collared shirt. A cigarette sat precariously on his lower lip as he turned to greet our filthy vehicle and somber faces.
Danny (our mechanic) spoke some English and began inspecting our car with a genuine confidence that I think we all struggled with trusting at first. Its easy enough to be ripped off by a mechanic in your own country but when you’re a desperate foreigner, you’re basically screwed. Add the very formal nature that we’ve found inherent in much of Eastern Europe, and our guards were up.
Lucky for us, Danny’s service was spot on. He recognized our problem immediately, showed us the worn down pieces of our clutch, and laid out the costs for us in a manner that couldn’t be argued. He sealed the deal of trust by offering to find us a hotel… and then a ride to our hotel… and then acted as personal translator and bell boy when dropping us off. Danny was the most genuine person we’ve come across on this trip and we were so relieved to have stumbled upon his shop.
We broke out some Quesada cigars to thank him for all his help and the stern face was gone. A broad smile broke out across Danny’s face and any misconceptions we had about our mechanic at first glance were gone as well.
(If you’re planning to participate in next year’s Mongol Rally and you happen to roll through Bucharest with a struggling steed, look up SC. Silma Service — seriously, Danny is a life saver.)
A beach party on the black sea had been in our future that day. We were all looking forward to meeting up with other ralliers, letting loose, and waking up on the beach for a swim before heading to the Ukraine. That dream died with our clutch, but we decided to make the most of the day and were thankful the problem hadn’t crept up on us in the middle of nowhere, without a Danny to help.
We spent the following afternoon touring the People’s Palace — the only building in the world, other than the Pentagon, that’s visible from space — and our little Panda was all patched up by lunch time. We were feeling good about our updated route, opting to head straight for Odessa, Ukraine now that the Black Sea Party was a thing of the past. We’d need to cross Moldova to get there, but Google Maps told us it would only take about 10 hours so we prepared for a reasonably late night and bid our new friend farewell.
Eight hours later found us watching the third border control official, stalk a circle around our car, eyeing it suspiciously.
“No! of course not.”
“No, no! no guns.”
We’re still not very good at this whole bribery game that anyone with a badge likes to play with us, but the clueless looks on our faces have afforded us two cartons of barely touched Marlboros that we purchased for this very reason. Officials just haven’t had the patience to squeeze them out of us yet, although I’d gladly take the extra luggage space.
Eventually, we were out of Romania, sans bribery, and into Moldova — a place that Romanians had warned us about profusely. “Don’t drive at night!” and “watch out for bandits!” were repeated warnings. (Every country we visit seems to warn us about the next. I’m not sure if this is a ploy to get us to spend more time and money within their borders or genuine concern, but we were a little skittish about this place, regardless.)
The roads were pitch black. No traffic lights. No other cars. Just a winding, bumping trail into blackness.
But as soon as we entered the black hole with our doors locked and defenses ready for roadside bandits, another checkpoint was lighting our way. We pulled in, just ten minutes after entering the Moldovan border. At first we assumed it was just another police check point. These things are EVERYWHERE in Eastern Europe.
“Green card!” demanded the camouflaged official with a voice that said he’d probably enjoy our cigarettes.
We showed him the green card (some sort of insurance we keep buying at these borders) and he waved it off, looking at us as if we had just spit on his flag.
The Ukraine? Already? It couldn’t be… but it was. Somehow, our time in Europe’s least visited country was over in ten minutes of blind driving and here we were in the Ukraine! After sorting out this confusion, we paid for our Ukraine green card and were on our way.
Little did we know that confusing border crossings would soon be the least of our problems.
The roads in the Ukraine were somehow even darker and less predictable than Moldova. One minute we were on a main artery of traffic (and by main, I mean we occasionally saw other cars) the next, we’re winding down an alley of a nearly deserted town where the only sign of life is a blinking hotel sign (or is it a brothel?) and some inebriated men outside a bar who watch our car with beers firmly clenched.
We drove around that town for nearly an hour, spoke to three different gas station attendants (who all gave us more detailed directions after receivng cigarettes — one man even drew a map in the sand) and retraced our steps so many times that I began waving to the angry bar men like old friends.
When we finally found a road that directed us straight enough in the right direction to gamble on, I decided it was way past my bedtime and began dozing off in the back seat.
When I awoke, it was with a start. We had pulled over on the side of the dark road.
Hilton and Brent’s voices came to me slowly as I crawled out of a drowsy dream.
“He’s in a uniform, we should stop.”
“Yeah, he looks legit.”
I sat up and looked around. A man in a uniform? I didn’t see anyone out there.
Then I saw someone but he was no military man. Or police offiicer. He was in civilian clothes and he was sprinting towards our car.
Simultaneously, Brent and I were shouting, “Go, go, GO, GO!!!!” as the man reached for the back door with an outstretched arm and reeling legs.
He was inches from my side in the back when the tires squealed, we all started shouting nonsense, and the little Panda that could, shot off into the deepening darkness, away from the camouflaged figure and his civilian counterpart.
Our car was filled with three voices that sounded like thirteen in our sudden state of panic.
“That was NOT a police officer.”
“That was NOT someone in the military.”
“Did you see the other guy?”
“What police offer?”
“There was no police officer.”
“There was a guy in normal clothes!”
“Why’d you stop??”
“I stopped for the army guy!”
“There was no army guy!!”
After our cacophony of confusion died down, we were able to put together the three perspectives into one, ten second scene. A man dressed in army fatigues had been standing at the side of the road. He waved us down. As we pulled over, he backed away as another man appeared out of the field of tall grass behind us, dressed in civilian clothes.
And the conclusion we came to… the man in fatigues was a fake, and him and his buddy were trying to rob us.
We’d been warned about this — the common ocurrance of roadside bandits dressed in military or police uniforms. But after an exhausting day and a late night with no sleep, the warnings were easily forgotten.
Turns out, it isn’t the mechanics you should be worried about. Its the crazy people in fields that pounce on your car in the middle of the night that are of real concern.
Our panic slowly subsided into the nervous retelling of the story — over and over and over, until we could wrap our heads around what had just happened. That eventually turned into laughter, which bordered on hysteria as we continued to get lost and eventually had to backtrack to the same spot of the incident — holding our breaths and ready to gun the gas.
We pressed on through the darkness for four more hours until the sun rose, transforming our surroundings from spooky to serene.
At 10am, we had made it to Odessa, Ukraine — only eight hours after we had hoped to arrive. I collapsed into bed while the boys somehow summoned the energy to hit the beach and sleep there.
By morning, the night felt like a bad dream, and a strangely funny story. We were really rallying now, and ready for whatever the road had in store for us next…
You can also follow team Yes We Khan!’s Mongol Rally adventure on our team page, and we’re still collecting donations for our team charities, Cool Earth and Lt. Dougie Dalzell Memorial Trust Fund. Thanks to everyone who has supported our adventure so far, and stay tuned for more stories from the road!