31 August 2015

Prague or Bust

MJ and I flew back to Istanbul from Boston mid-August. We departed Logan airport late at night, spent most of the flight arguing loudly and annoying the flight crew and other passengers. Changed planes early the next morning at LHR and arrived at IST late the same morning.

A short taxi ride brought us back to the Hyatt Regency Ataköy, where we spent most of the rest of the day sleeping. I of course went to check out El Guapo and found him to be in sound, but dirty, condition.

Next day of course the priority was to sort out the tyre problem El Guapo had suffered weeks earlier in Zara, and to get the other mechanical issues looked at. The Land Rover dealer was close to our hotel and I found it easily enough the following morning. The place was modern and professional looking, but unfortunately the service staff there informed me that the Land Rover Defender was not available for civilian use in Turkey and hence they could not service it. But they directed me to a workshop they said could assist.

I got there with the help of GPS – as usual, Istanbul's network of highways and motorways did not make this quick or straightforward. Next door to the recommended workshop was a Michelin dealer, so I decided to try to get the tyre problem sorted there. They didn't have my size (750 R16), but directed me to call the Michelin importer for Turkey. Tried to call but my phone was out of money, so had to walk 800 meters to a nearby commercial district to find a Turkcell refill point. Called several times before I managed to speak to anyone, but he was helpful and promised to revert to me ASAP.

In the meantime, the guys at the workshop told me they couldn't help, but they knew someone who could. I should explain that all these workshops were located in an industrial district with street after street of mechanical, tyre, electrical, muffler and other automotive workshops. We drove together to a workshop a few streets away that I immediately knew was the right place. At least four Land Rover Defenders sat out front in varying degrees of mobility. The owner, wearing a baseball cap and grey ponytail reeked of mechanical oneness with the Land Rovers that surrounded him.

He looked at my tyres. He donned a stethoscope and listened for the odd whining sound I had been hearing in various engine components. We went for a short ride. He told me he could fix the whine – which was originating from the brake vacuum pump – for 1100 Turkish pounds, but it really wasn't a problem. He could also get me four new BF Goodrich off-road tyres for around 1200 Turkish pounds, but I would have to return the following day. I agreed to do so.

I returned early the next morning and followed him to a nearby tyre workshop, which efficiently replaced all four tyres. I went to a nearby ATM and got the cash to pay him. Before I left, he had noticed that my parking brake light annoyingly stayed illuminated even when it was released, so he open up the brake handle boot and bent the switch contacts into place.

Getting ready for the next 30 000 kilometers

I returned to the Hyatt – after another confusing diversion in the same neighbourhood I had been in weeks earlier to find a petrol station and refill my tank which – dejá vu! – was empty again. MJ was waiting by the pool in her bikini, drink in hand.

The Hyatt we were staying at (the Hyatt Regency) was the newest of the three Istanbul Hyatts, and amongst the small number of kinks they still hadn't fully worked out was the air con. After two days of being promised that something would be done, we decided to change hotels; and it would be better to be in the centre in any event. I was going to bookd the Grand Hyatt, but the front desk staffer who was assisting us had transferred from the Park Hyatt, and he urged me to go there instead. It of course wasn't cheap, but at his urging I decided to go for it.

We checked out, loaded up El Guapo and headed back east into central Istanbul. Google maps got us to the Park Hyatt without any problems, and we were thrilled to find our room included its own private Turkish bath, with steam room, wash tub and bath. With all the vehicle issues finally out of the way, we were free to spend a couple of days sightseeing, which MJ wanted to start with a visit to the UFO museum.

Up early the next morning, excellent breakfast in the hotel lobby. Back to the room to freshen up a bit before heading out for the days' sightseeing. MJ said she wanted to lie down for a minute. Ten minutes later she was in almost unbearable pain. I called the front desk, they sent a nurse. The nurse summoned a doctor, and the doctor advised us to go to the nearby American hospital. A five minute taxi ride got us there, and after a bit of paperwork and a rather modest payment, MJ was hooked up to a morphine IV. A couple hours later and she was back to her usual bubbly self.

We finally made it to the location marked for the UFO museum the next day, only to learn from a neighbour that it had moved to an unknown location (the Vega system?) a year or so previously. So we wandered around some back streets before emerging fortuitously onto Tarlabaşi Boulevard, one of Istanbul's main retail shopping streets. We spent a couple hours shopping for bargains there before eventually finding ourselves at Taksim Square, where MJ scored a couple final retail finds before we took the metro back to our hotel.

Next day, it was finally time to hit the road and start the final leg of this journey. It didn't start terribly smoothly. Nearly all of my experiences with Istanbul traffic had not been good – four and five lane highways slowing to walking speed was a frequent experience. After more than an hour of driving west, we hadn't made much progress, crawling along in stop and start traffic. Hundreds of enterprising Turks lined the route – most of them children. They ran alongside El Guapo, or jumped on the sidesteps, banging on the window trying to persuade us to buy water, snacks, and other items. The kids in particular took troubling risks in traffic in an effort to try to sell us things – I would be surprised if there was not at least one fatality every day as a result of their desperate efforts to make a living. No doubt many of them were refugees or others without legal status.

Slowly, the traffic thinned out and we started to move a little faster, and we finally reached the Bulgarian border around 19:00. Immigration and customs formalities were quite efficient, and the Bulgarians friendly and welcoming. Everything was done except one thing – I needed to obtain mandatory third-party liability insurance. The customs agent took our passports and directed us to the typical border insurance shack, explaining we could have our passports as soon as we showed proof of insurance. I parked to one side as we watched border guards dump dozens of cartons of contraband cigarettes discovered in the boot of another vehicle on the ground.

MJ waited in the vehicle while I walked over to the insurance office, staffed by a single young woman. She took all my vehicle info and entered it into her computer. After 20 minutes or so, her task was complete and she tried to finalise issuing me the policy. Problem. System wouldn't respond. She looked at her watch. "Ah, it's 19:30 on Saturday evening. That's when they take the system down for maintenance and updates every week." She told me to expect it to be off-line until 21:00. I returned to the vehicle. MJ and I talked. We did our fortunes with tarot cards. We whitened our teeth with whitening strips. I went back at 21:00. System still not up. I smoked a cigarette with the insurance girl and her colleague, who had come to replace her. I went back to the vehicle. It started raining. MJ and I talked about UFOs and aliens. I went back to the insurance office again. Back to the vehicle again. Lather, rinse, repeat. A Bulgurian guy walked by, carrying groceries in a "Billa" bag. The handle broke, and the litre bottle of vodka he had inside smashed on the ground. I found him a new plastic bag from the vehicle. Finally, near midnight, I returned to the insurance office for the fourth or fifth time and the system was back up. I got my insurance document, retrieved our passports, and we finally headed down the road towards Sofia.

We knew there was no way we would reach Sofia – on the other side of the country – that evening. We decided to make for Plovdiv instead. We got there well after midnight, famished. The McDonalds had a drive-through open, but we had no Bulgarian Lev, and had no clue how to order in Bulgarian. With the help of the internet, I found us a hotel, arriving past 3:00. A wedding party was in full swing, but the hotel was full. The helpful front desk clerk directed us to another hotel. We found it on Google maps, but drove back and forth past the location shown several times before I pulled over and searched on foot. It was right where it was supposed to be, but the sign was difficult to see. We dragged our luggage into the smoky lobby, staffed by surly looking, tattooed young men and checked in. Our room was on the 4th floor. No lift. MJ made a point of demonstrating her independence by lugging all of our heavy bags up four flights of stairs while I found a parking spot.

It was an inauspicious start to our stay in Plovdiv, but the town turned out to be a highlight of our trip. Across the street was the Plovdiv mall, a smallish shopping mall featuring all the usual mall tenants and a surprisingly good restaurant where we had a late breakfast the next morning. The weather was absolutely flawless – sunny, maybe 23 degrees. We took a taxi into the old town and wandered its picturesque cobbled streets. We visited an Orthodox church before finding ourselves at the intimiate Roman amphitheatre that had been discovered and excavated a couple decades previously.

From there, we wandered further uphill towards the historic citadel, stopping at another Orthodox church, where a service was underway, at the town museum, and a number of gift shops and galleries. After stopping for some obligatory photos in the ruins of the citadel, we wandered a few meters back down hill to a casual outdoor restaurant overlooking the river for beer and food.

That evening, we sat in the hotel bar and decided to try to figure out where to go after Prague. We had thought about settling in a number of countries, but had basically narrowed it down to Ecuador, Guatemala and Oaxaca. I decided to try using some of the million+ air miles I've accumulated over the years. We tried for Mexico first, but connections and availability were bad. Same with Guatemala. Finally, Ecuador. Immediately found a business class fare, with one change in Amsterdam for a reduced mileage award. Booked a flight for both of us to Guayaquil out of Prague for the 31st.

Next morning we continued west to Rila National Park. The park is most popular in the winter as a ski resort, but it is popular with hikers in the summer time as well. We checked into a massive, communist-era hotel. I can't remember what we paid, but it wasn't much. The hotel featured an indoor swimming pool, fitness centre, sauna, spa, game room, bowling alley, shops, cafés and restaurants. MJ went to the spa and got what she described as one of the best massages she ever experienced for about $15.

After finding a secure parking space for El Guapo near a power supply where I could charge the batteries, we had a wander around town and found a friendly place for dinner. Next morning, we drove to the entrance to the park itself, first across a flat, open plain, but then ascending an increasingly windy road before arriving at the park gate. The car park was jammed full, but we managed to find a space at the very end.

Our goal was the "Seven Lakes" hike, which took in views of seven pristine apline lakes. We bought tickets and took the gondola to the start of the hike.

Hiker's reward

The landscape was open and the views spectacular. Eventually we made our way to the shores of one of the lakes, which MJ discovered was populated by a species of fish that had a taste for cashew nuts. We stopped there for a snack and a bit of rest ourselves before heading back to the gondola.

Resting up for the return hike

On returning to the car park, I found that El Guapo's right front tyre was completely flat. I had first noticed it leaking around the valve-stem back in Plovdiv, and had "repaired" it by wedging a piece of folded-up paper between the valve-stem and the rim. Fortunately, I carried an air compressor and re-inflated it, but on our way to the resort I kept an eye out for tyre shops. MJ spotted one, and after a short wait I was able to get the rubber washer at the base of the valve-stem replaced for all of €10.

Next morning, we carried on towards the Serbian border. My easiest crossing on the entire trip. The insurance I bought entering Bulgaria is valid throughout the remaining countries on our drive, so no need to stop at the insurance booth. The only minor hitch was that I had neglected to purchase a road-tax vignette on entering Bulgaria, which the Bulgarian customs agents pointed out but did nothing but sternly remind me to buy one next time I visited. Immigration was quick and perfunctory. We had a bit of lunch on the Serbian side before continuing on towards Belgrade.

Most of the rest of the drive was event-free, although the rear tyre continued to leak slowly, so we stopped after a couple hundred kilometres to re-inflate. Before too long, we were approaching the outskirts of Belgrade when suddenly traffic came to dead stop. We inched forward in three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic for well over an hour before we were even able to discern the cause – it was just the routine back-up at the toll plaza; apparently, Serbia has yet to implement an electronic toll system. Slowly, we approached the front of the queue. We exchanged helloes and brief stories with other overland vehicles, with registrations from the UK, Germany and elsewhere. Finally, we were through and a short drive took us to the Radisson Blu hotel, which I booked earlier in the day. Google maps, as usual, got us reliably to the hotel entrance, but then found that the final 100 metres of that route led through the hotel underground car park, which was too low for El Guapo. A friendly hotel employee told us how to drive around, which involved driving a couple hundred metres down the tram tracks. We managed to arrive at the hotel entrance and check in.

After unloading the luggage, I found a place in the above-ground car park where I could run a power cord inside to charge up the batteries. The next day was my birthday, so we began celebrating with a couple of cocktails and some excellent food on the terrace outside the hotel.

This hotel (The Raddison Blu Old Mill Hotel), which as it name suggests is housed inside a re-purposed 19th century textile mill, is one of the best I've ever experienced. Architecturally, they did an excellent job of maintaining the integrity of the orignal building, and enhancing it with sleek, minimalist decor. Our room was huge, and the bathroom almost as large. Large, strategically placed mirrors near the bed and the shower led MJ to remark that it had been designed by a guy with a heathily dirty mind. Service was even better. Not only was the staff friendly, helpful and without exception possessing a strong people and service-oriented attitude, service was at times almost inconveniently fast. In the morning, I ordered coffee from room service but was still in my underwear when they knocked on the door to deliver it less than 5 minutes later.

We both would have loved to have lingered in this beautiful river-side city, but we were on a bit of deadline to be in Prague in time to catch our flight to Ecuador. So we did the now-familiar pack up, load up, check out, book next hotel (Budapest) and punch the address into Google maps. Our next border crossing (into Hungary) would be the last to require us even to stop. I expected it to go smoothly, but fittingly, there was a small hiccup. I kept all the car papers in an accordian folder which in turn was put into a secure lock-box in the rear of the vehicle. The dozens of keys I needed for the vehicle were on a ring secured to a lanyard on my belt, and the lock-box key was about the largest on the ring. At some point the previous day, on getting back in the vehicle I remembered trying to slam my door shut but encountering some resistence. It closed on the second attempt and I didn't give it another thought until I was asked by the Serbian border officials to produce my car papers, and I found the lock-box key badly bent. It must have been dangling down onto the door seal when I attempted to slam it shut. As I feared and expected, when I tried to bend the key back into shape, the end just snapped off. The spare was back in Doha (I left a full set of spares with a friend just in case something happened along the way – note to future self – you need three sets: one for use, one in a safe place with a friend, and a third hidden in the vehicle, preferably not in your lock-box).

"Don't worry" the customs agents said,"we will get your box open." I was a little worried. But he just dropped the broken end of the key into the lock, inserted the stub, and the lock turned and opened. We were soon on our way into Hungary. After driving across the Hungarian plain, again stopping to re-inflate my leaking right rear tyre, Google maps got us into central Budapest and within a couple hundred metres of our hotel without difficulty. However, the near-final turn indicated was down a narrow street blocked by a retractable bollard. Traffic was heavy, so circling around the area trying to find an alternative route took the better part of an hour. On the second trip around I asked someone and was told that only residents of that area possessed electronic keys that caused the bollards blocking the entrance to retract into the ground. I took their advice, waited at one of the entrances, and tailgated behind another vehicle to get inside.

Our hotel was another favourite of our trip – but completely different than the one in Belgrade. This was a small, cozy family-run hotel, beautifully restored with vintage furnishings and fixtures to look like a typical Central European hotel from early in the last century. After the usual check-in and unload routine, we took a seat outdoors at the hotel's charming bistro, which also featured the same 'fin de siècle' atmosphere as the hotel itself. The charming hotel owner introduced himself, and on learning it was my birthday, brought us drinks on the house. The food, unfortunately, was a little disappointing, but we had a very nice evening nonetheless, and after dinner, went for a stroll and more birthday drinks at a bar on Deák Ferenc.

Birthday in Budapest

Next morning, of course, the challenge was now getting back out past the bollards blocking the entrance to this restricted area. Actually, that was the second challenge – the first was that (not unexpectedly) El Guapo's right rear tyre was now entirely deflated. I re-inflated, re-incorporated my folded-up piece of paper repair, loaded the vehicle, and checked out. The hotel receptionist informed me that I was lucky not to have been ticketed, as parking enforcement was quite strict in the area. The restrictions did thankfully mean that I had no problem finding a place to park within view of the hotel – there were relatively few other vehicles.

Soon we were crossing the Danube into Buda and on our way to our final destination – actually not Prague, but a friend of mine, J's, cottage in a Bohemian village called Velké Heřmanice. My friend had arranged for a local 4x4 garage to store and care for El Guapo for a while. After a few hours (and another re-inflation stop – WHY didn't I have that garage in Bulgaria check all four tyres?) we reached a point where the road signs said go straight (the route through Austria) and Google maps said take the exit (the route through Slovakia). I went with Google maps. Only a very brief stop at this border, to buy a road vignette, which was good that we did because the Slovak traffic police were waiting 100 metres down the road ticketing people without them. The border still featured a shuttered border post; we slowed but didn't stop. In fact, we didn't stop at all during the couple hours we were in Slovakia, passing near Bratislava but continuing on towards Brno and Bohemia. I couldn't find the hamlet of Velké Heřmanice on Google maps, but I did locate the next larger town, Heřmaničky, and after exiting the motorway and driving the last hour through postcard-perfect Bohemian countryside on a beautiful summer afternoon, we arrived there without difficulty. I asked a passing couple the way to Velké Heřmanice; the guy just gave me a blank look (it's about 4 km away, for fuck's sake), but his girl just repeated "Velké Heřmanice, Velké Heřmanice" back to me and indicated I should continue in the direction I was heading.

I found J's house with no further difficulties about 10 minutes later, but he was nowhere to be found. As I didn't have a local SIM card, I had been in contact with him by text message when we had the opportunities to connect to WiFi on our re-fueling and re-inflation stops. His last message had said something about heading to the "fun fair," which I guessed to be back in Heřmaničky, where in any event I hoped to find a WiFi connection I could use to contact him.

We parked and found the "fun fair" – a collection of decrepit-looking rides – near the centre of town where the pubs are. I went into one I knew that J frequented. He wasn't there, and neither was the pub owner who apparently was the only one who knew the WiFi password. We went to the pub next door, and were in the process of getting more flustered responses to my inquiry about WiFi when J, appearing reasonably intoxicated, returned to the common room from a trip to the toilet. We all squeezed in to El Guapo and drove a few kilometres to a neighbouring town for some beer and Czech food.

On arriving at the restaurant, we discovered that El Guapo's left front tyre also had a problem, as it was nearly entirely flat. Nothing you can't postpone dealing with until after some food and some good Bohemian lager. Despite the slow service and problems with our order, the food was excellent and afterwards we just dug out the air compressor again and headed back to the cottage.

Next day, it was finally time to say good-bye to El Guapo, at least for a while. I unloaded the vehicle and put most of the contents in J's attic. Packed up our remaining things and followed J to the 4x4 mechanic's house in a nearby village – he wasn't at the shop as it was Sunday. He wasn't at his house either, but his wife met us there and with J's help, I gave her a list of things that needed seeing to – besides two leaky valve stems, I had another leaking hub seal (left side, this time), funky ignition switch, undiagnosed problem with the transfer case, and a battery that wouldn't hold a charge.

J dropped MJ and I off at the rail station in Heřmaničky, where we bought tickets into Prague. We arrived that afternoon and got a taxi to our hotel. After 9480 kilometres of driving, and a 1 1/2 hour train ride, I had arrived at my destination.

Prague at last


31 August 2015


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