Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Eight

Getting out of Bulgaria was no trouble at all. It really is amazing how interested each country had been so far in getting rid of us. Never a question about where we had come from or where we were going. The official we dealth with seemed more thrilled by the journey the Colonel had made more than anything. "This car? From Azerbaijan?...wooow," just about summed up his disbelief.

The scene on the Serbian side of the Bulgarian-Serbian border was as you would expect for the easiest transit route for anyone looking to go to Hungary and beyond (you bypass the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Alps by going this way). Four or five lines of cars, most with German license plates and filled with nationals ostensibly of Turkish origin. We had faith in the Colonel so we decided to turn it off and just push the ol' boy whenever the line moved. Others quickly followed suit.

At last our turn came and I handed over all the requisite documents. The female officer wasn't particularly fazed by the situation at hand and seemed to have no problem with the insurance we purchased in Bulgaria. By this time, we were getting pretty cocky at borders. Did anyone really have the balls (or lady balls) to stop us? After some incredibly light passport stamps, she waved us on to the next step: customs.

An older man came out to greet me. The first words out of his mouth, "Zhiguli? From Ukraine?" I told him where we actually had come from and his jaw dropped. "You came all this way?!?!" Then the woman who had stamped our passports came running out of her booth and said in rapid-fire Serbian something along the lines of, "Get a load of these guys. A Canadian and two Americans driving an Azerbaijani-registered Zhiguli to Croatia. What do you think we should do with them?"

The man thought it over for a few seconds and then asked to see the trunk. He seemed positively taken aback by this relic from his younger days. "So you're going to Croatia, are you?" he said with a big smile on his face. "Safe travels." And that was that. Welcome to Serbia!

It took us a while, but we eventually rolled into Belgrade. We had no real plan for accommodation, so we figured we would just find a parking spot and start walking around. Little did we know that in that fine city, one must pay for parking with his/her mobile phone or at a booth. How much you pay depends on what zone you're in. Ignorance being as blissful as it is, we walked away and began our search. Not forty-five minutes later, we came back to collect the car and found a parking ticket on our windshield. Note that if this hadn't been after an incredibly smooth Serbian wheat beer, I may have been more irate.

We moved the car up by our hostel and parked it in a spot the owner of the place said would be totally fine. The next morning when we woke up and walked out the front door, guess what was sitting on our windshield. How is it possible that in less than twenty-four hours we would get two parking tickets and, better yet, not get towed? Remarkable stuff. We learned our lesson pretty quickly and moved the Colonel to a parking garage down the street. No more of this parking ticket nonsense.

A couple of days later we left Belgrade and headed southwest to Bosnia. Some of the side roads we took were magnificent. Tight corners, lush scenery, up and down mountain passes. That must've been why we completely missed the turn to the Bosnian border. Eventually Sarah said to me, "Umm...I think we passed the place where we were supposed to turn." I had pulled over to give us a chance to check the map by this time, but it was hard to focus with the mountain lake on the other side of the road. A guy also parked at the pull-off sensed out confusion and sauntered over. "Do you need help?" I told him we were going to Bosnia, so he just pointed down the road and told us to turn right at a specific city.

His directions turned out to be flawless. We turned right and continued along this beautiful road that skirted a lake. This brought us to a border town that we weren't really sure was a border town until we came upon the border post. It took us by complete surprise. First, because we just weren't expecting it, but second, because it was a couple of small shacks on the side of the road. The border guards sat on chairs by the side of the road and just lifted the barrier everytime someone wanted to pass. Things seemed totally relaxed.

We surmised that this probably was a good thing. More relaxed meant less likely to abide by the strict Bosnian temporary auto import rules, right?

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Seven

There are worse places to be stranded than in a city whose name always reminds me of rice and CSS code (Plovdiv, for those keeping track). On the side of the six-lane freeway around Istanbul, in the middle of nowhere Bulgaria, at any of the borders we crossed to this point. All would have been much more frustrating and time consuming.

Your options are fairly limited when your car is down for the count in a town you've been in for an hour. Amy and Sarah went back to the restaurant to see if the waiter knew what we could do. I decided to walk down an alley that housed a car wash place and, as I hoped, a car repair garage. Sadly, the latter was closed. I returned from the alley to find the girls sitting in the shade next to the car. It was a hot day. Thirty-eight degrees hot. Not exactly a day to be running around looking for a mechanic.

Now I'm not claiming divine intervention or anything like that, but what are the chances that a car parts shop would be located just around the corner (the opposite direction from the alley I had gone down). I didn't see any "Lada" or "VAZ" logos on the sign out front, but they would at least know where to start.

Unexpectedly, out of the three employees (two of which were in their 20s), it was the middle-aged man who spoke a few words of English. I attempted to explain what was going on and he attempted to understand my hand motions. He then went over to the computer, opened up Skype, and dialled a mechanic (ostensibly, at least). They chatted for a while in rapid-fire Bulgarian and when it was all over, the guy asked me to show him the car.

We weren't communicating very well at this point, so as he was examining the car, he asked, "Do you speak Russian?" I nodded and then he replied, "Ok, good. Then you speak Russian and I'll speak slow Bulgarian." Right, okay. He sat down in the driver's seat and depressed the flaccid clutch. "Aha," he said, "it's your clutch pump." Now we had to figure out a way to get the car to the Skyping mechanic's, which was apparently not far away.

His idea was to start the Colonel and then ram the gearshift into first. The sound was horrible. Gears grinding ranks right up there with nails on a chalkboard. But he managed to get it off to a clunking start. Getting into second was a similar exercise in bone-chilling noises. At one point, he approached a light that was just about to turn yellow. I told him to go, figuring it would be a good idea to not have to grind the gears again, but he decided to stop. So once again, he rammed the shifter into first, got moving, and then barely managed to get it into second. Poor Colonel.

The mechanic's garage was one of many in a yard specializing in older cars. He came out to greet us, but immediately delegated the work to his assistant (he was busy with what looked like a compressor). The guy from the parts shop took off, leaving me with the assistant who spoke even less-decipherable Bulgarian. He fiddled around under the hood for awhile and eventually emerged with a filthy clutch pump and hose. It was so caked with grime that you could hardly recognize it. He told me, "See that "Lada" parts shop across the street? Go over there and ask for Bulgarian word and Bulgarian word."

Over there, I had to talk to three people before an older guy mentioned that he spoke decent Russian because he was a Colonel in the army. That made life easier, mostly because it turned out the part he sold me didn't quite fit our car. The intake valve, it was explained, was perfectly perpendicular to the cylindrical pump. Instead, it should be slightly angled. The car parts Colonel, when I returned, claimed that the part we needed could not be found in the city. That isn't news you want to hear.

When the assistant heard about this, he looked on in disbelief. "Get in," he said and motioned to his car. It was a short drive, but we eventually found ourselves in another car yard outside a Lada parts shop. The guy inside heard what we had to say and then said, "You're in luck. I have the original part from the Soviet Union." That was exactly what we needed. As it turns out, the part I originally purchased was the modern Fiat version. The Colonel, being as ancient as he is, was entirely of Soviet design and manufacture, and thus needed Soviet parts.

Armed with the correct part, the assistant had the Colonel running smoothly again within an hour. I tested it out a few times and was impressed with the difference. We thanked him for everything he did and continued on our way, knowing full-well that we avoided a potential disaster. I don't think any of us will forget that day.

We arrived in Sofia a few hours later. We'd spend a couple of days there (one of which included a small jaunt to the a monastery by Amy and Sarah, and an oil change) before heading to the Serbian border. More on that in Part Eight.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Six

We awoke on the doorstep of the European Union. It wasn't quite the Schengen Zone, but one could assume that if you were let into the EU, you could probably make it all the way to Great Britain. The thought of this scared one of our friends, in particular.

The big question of the morning was: would the clutch work as it had been the last year and a half? We really had no idea what could be wrong with it, so the best we could do was give it a try. Amazingly, it seemed to be working fine when we started the Colonel up. It was one of those "shoulder shrug" moments as we backed out of the parking spot and moved into the narrow Edirne traffic.

Our goal was to get to the border as early as possible to avoid the crowds and heat. Mission accomplished, I would say. We pulled into the Turkish border area and were confronted with a line of about six cars. Not bad, except for the fact that our line wasn't moving, while the other one was. Why do I always pick the wrong line?

As we waited, I couldn't help but notice the needle of the water temperature gauge creeping up. It was one of those situations where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Turn the car off and the engine will actually get hotter because there is no fan to cool it. Keep the car on and everytime you rev the engine to inch forward, the engine gets a little bit hotter. Hard to imagine this situation turning out for the better. At least Turkey would be happy to see us go, regardless of the state of our car.

The line finally started to move consistently, but the needle was now approaching dangerous levels. We reached the booth just as the car started to vapour lock and stall out. I tried to keep it going while explaining to the border guard that there weren't in fact three Turkish visas on one page in my passport. Alas, there was nothing more I could do. The Colonel stalled out and refused to start again. None of this seemed to faze the border guard, who handed me back the documents and watched incredulously as I got out of the driver's seat (Amy got in) and started pushing the car forward (with Sarah's help). You really haven't lived until you've pushed a car into or out of a country.

We found a shady spot out of the way of traffic to put the Colonel while we put our plan into action. It was based on some wisdom we had learned. You see, Nation, months ago while Amy was on her way to the mountains in Azerbaijan, the car vapour-locked on a hill. Our Amy was seemingly stranded until a man stopped and asked what the problem was. She explained her plight, to which he quickly and cooly replied, "The solution is easy. Just wrap a piece of cloth around the fuel pump and pour water on it. That will keep the fuel pump cool and prevent it from vapour-locking." It worked so well that we left the cloth on the fuel pump for the next four or five months.

Back to the story...

That man truly has no idea how much he helped us on that one fine July morning at the Turkish-Bulgarian border. Without that knowledge, we probably would've been left for dead in no man's land. We got the fuel pump wrapped up and soaked pretty quickly, so Amy and Sarah headed to the shopping centre at the border complex to see if there was anything interesting going on. While I was waiting with the car, a man came up to me and asked what was wrong in some sort of Turko-Bulgarian dialect. I told him the car was simply overheated and pointed at the fuel pump. He peered at it and and this amazed look came onto his face. I hope whatever he said next was his Turko-Bulgarian dialect's word for "ingenuity".

The Colonel started without fail. I moved forward to collect the girls and then we were ready to face Bulgaria. First up was the passport control booth. There were a couple of officers sitting in there and they were a bit surprised to see us. They asked if we had insurance, which we did not, so they pointed us over to the insurance office. Giggling inside the booth had begun by this time. Surprisingly, they seemed to have nothing against letting our car into the country.

Getting insurance was fairly straighforward. $188 for month-long, EU-wide coverage. We took the document back to the booth, where the officers were more than happy to stamp our passports and wish us well. Could it be that easy? Next stop was customs, but they just waved us along. The final stop was to pay a small disinfection fee. We were now in Bulgaria! Next stop: England.

We meandered through the Bulgarian countryside until we reached the city of Plovdiv. During the left turn off the highway, I noticed that the clutch pedal was sticking again. Not a good sign. We found a restaurant quickly and settled into a delicious lunch. The waiter was pretty thrilled with the Colonel. He remarked that his father had once owned a similar car and had given it to him when he was old enough to drive. After lunch and back in the car, Amy couldn't help but notice that the clutch pedal was flaccid and not working at all. We weren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Five

The question we dared not ask at the Turkish border was whether or not I could leave the country without the car. And why would you? It probably would've got us turned around and headed back to Georgia. Instead we had faith in the ol' Colonel and hoped he would get us at least out of the country--two and a half solid days of driving.

We stopped for the night in Rize, one of the many tea plantation cities along the northeast coast of Turkey. Our poor car had struggled with the heat most of the day and started threatening to stall out while idling at a stop sign or light. It was tough going on the narrow streets of the city, but we managed to navigate our way to the Hotel Tibet and park the car in an alleyway. We made it to our hotel rooms dirty, sunburnt, and exhausted. What a day.

The next morning we went outside to start the car after breakfast. No dice. Nothing we did would make the Colonel come to life. Of course, this drew the attention of the hotel staff who, due to their ages, knew exactly what to do to start an old Zhiguli (after all, the Turkish Tofaş was based off the Italian Fiat...same as the Zhiguli). It was time to do the old "start the car my popping the clutch" trick. Fortunately for us, there was a short, but steep, incline in the alley perpendicular to the one we were in. It must've been quite the sight. Three guys and two girl pushing an old car up the incline. We then pushed it as hard as we could down the hill hoping to get it started. It took a couple of tries, but eventually the Colonel coughed and sputtered to life.

"Where is there a mechanic?" asked Amy.

"It's on the other side of town, but you'll never find it. Follow me and I'll show you," replied the owner of the hotel.

He was absolutely right. We would never have found it. One nice thing about medium-sized Turkish cities is that all of the automotive stuff is consolidated in one area. If you know where that area is, you can get almost anything done. The hotel owner took us to a guy that had the "Lada" logo hanging above his garage door. When the mechanic came out and saw our car, we knew he was the right guy for the job. Dirty hands, an old Niva in the garage being rebuilt, no fancy computers or other such technology. We told him what the problem was and without even looking, he knew exactly what to do. Within minutes he had the car starting perfectly and the carburetor tuned as well. No more stalling out while idling, he informed us. We paid, thanked him, and continued on our way.

We had no idea how far we would get, so we just started to drive. The Turkish roads are beautifully done; divided highway all the way to the Bulgarian border. This doesn't make for the most exciting driving, but luckily the Colonel's serious pull to the right keeps you awake. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful spot on the sea where we watched dolphins gliding through the water. This is what makes driving cross-country so enjoyable.

One of the coolest things about driving an old car with Azerbaijani plates in Turkey is that you get a lot of stares, honks, gestures of solidarity, waves, and photos. The roads were not particularly busy, so most cars that overtook us would rubberneck as they went by. A couple of cars followed us for a few kilometres just to get a better look at the Colonel. He was definitely turning heads!

Perhaps the worst part about driving in Turkey is the price of gas. More than two euros/litre across the whole country. It was tough going from a $28 full tank to a $90 full tank. Makes you wonder why Turkish trucking and bussing are so popular.

We stopped in a sleepy village of about a thousand inhabitants for the night. A great little town that probably had witnessed its first-ever Soviet car sighting. The old men milling about were practically ogling the old boy.

The car started fine the next morning and we took off down the freeway hoping to get to a town called Edirne on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. It was a long day that involved getting on the 6-lane toll road and driving at 110km/h for about two hours. Eventually Istanbul was within reach. I had been there a couple of times, but only realized the extent to which is sprawls while driving from one side to the other. The suburbs went on and on and on. A sign at the edge of the city limits states the population at twelve million and change. With the suburbs, it's probably more like twenty.

As cool as it would've been to park the Colonel down by the Bosphorous, we figured taking the freeway around the city was probably the best idea. It was eight lanes of madness travelling at 100km/h. All I could think was, "Ok, Colonel, now is not the time to breakdown. Please, please, please get us out of Istanbul." At last we came to one of the famous bridges towering over the water. It was a defining moment of the trip. Out of Asia and into Europe!

Edirne has a wonderful city to visit should you happen to be in the area. It's almost like a miniature version of old Istanbul. Not in the sense that it sits on any body of water, but because it has old, narrow streets lined by old buildings. Little markets are woven right into the streets, so it all feels very natural. And of course there are the beautifully-architected mosques that rise up from the centre of town.

As we pulled into the Karvansaray hotel (an old building from the Silk Road era that housed merchants) parking lot, I couldn't help but notice that the clutch wasn't working properly. Uh oh. Would this be it for the Colonel--so close to the Bulgarian frontier? All we could do was wait until tomorrow and see what happened.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Four

The description of the events about to be detailed differ depending on which of us three you ask. I will try my best to combine all three accounts.

We emerged from the Georgian border area into a small no man's land (less than fifty metres). Three lines of traffic, including buses, cars, and vans, had converge into one lane to pass through the first Turkish checkpoint. It was a mess. Eventually we got through and I handed my passport along with the car documents to the border officer. He smiled, remarked at the Azerbaijani registration, and asked me what I was doing there. I said, "IT," to which he responded, "Google or YouTube?" His English wasn't great, but he managed a laugh and waved us on.

Cautious optimism. That sums up how we felt after the first checkpoint. We surmised that if our car was too old, that guy probably would've said something. Not that we would have been able to just turn around and go back the other way, mind you. And because we really didn't have any idea what was going on, we pull over into a space between the line we were in and the empty lane to our right.

We knew beforehand that we would have to get visas at the border. Amy volunteered to venture forth in search of them, while Sarah and I guarded the car. We waited. Waited some more. Warded off random people who came up to us asking if we needed help or insurance. Amy, for her part, went from window to window trying to figure out where to go. She learned that before we could get visas, insurance was needed for the car. So off she went looking for that.

Eventually, we succumbed to one guy who offered to help us. He was Georgian, but apparently knew the border process well. I told him that our friend was getting us visas, so he said, "Follow me!". We found Amy at the insurance place with a document insuring our car for third-party liability. Once again, no comment about the Colonel's age. She had also found a helper, and so all five of us proceeded to the visa window. Getting the visas turned out to be the easiest thing we did at the border.

Next step was getting exit stamps. On our walk back to that window, the Amy's helper started telling me that for the price of a one litre bottle of Johnnie Walker, the Georgian guy could facilitate the entire process and get us into Turkey. I thanked him for the offer and told him we would take care of it on our own. Once we got our exit stamps, Amy and Sarah took the documents and went to another window while I went to move the car back into line.

The Colonel was hot and was not interested in starting. I cranked and cranked the ignitition, but to no avail. The Georgian helper noticed this and started pushing the car forward. As I neared the car in front of me, the ol' boy miraculously came to life! However since we had no idea how much more bureaucracy was involved, we turned the car off. Let's hope it would start again when we needed it to.

I then went off to find Amy and Sarah, who had been standing in a slow-moving line. They explained to me that we needed to give our documents to the "computer" guy. This is where being taller and having longer arms than everyone else comes in handy (I was also aided by the fact that cutting the line is completely acceptable in these parts). I took the documents, moved towards the window where the computer guy sat, and thrust them into his face from above everyone else. He was working on one set of documents, but once he was finished, he just grabbed the next closest ones. Those happened to be mine. He then mindlessly entered everything in the computer, stamped something, and then handed everything back. Once again, nobody said anything about the car being thirty.

Back to the car we went. Again it wouldn't start, so Amy and Sarah pushed it forward. And again it magically started. This time we knew we had only two more checks to go through so we kept it running. We could not afford to have the Colonel fail when we were trying to prove its credibility to the one guy that made all the decisions.

The line inched forward and we eventually made it to the customs inspection guy. He took a cursory glance at the trunk, stamped my passport with another stamp, and waved us on. Could we really be that close to victory?

Ten metres away stood the booth where the decision maker sat (or so we figured). He and Amy and communicated a bit earlier. When we passed, he came running out of the booth and up to my window. In Turkish, he exclaimed something along the lines of, "You can't go into Turkey with this car!". Amy cooly played the hero with her Azerbaijani skills (the languages are similar enough, especially the Turkish spoken in eastern Turkey). She coaxed him into letting us pass by pretending she didn't understanding what he was saying and saying the words "But the car works so well." It was like watching a Jedi mind trick in action. As Amy spoke, the smile on his face grew wider and wider to the point where he was giggling away like a schoolgirl. He then wished us well and waved us on.

The last checkpoint was a simple glance at our passports. It took a few moments to fully comprehend, but once we saw the "Welcome to Turkey" signs, we realized what had just happened. We had done the impossible and made it into Turkey!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Three

Georgia went by in a flash. By mid-afternoon we had already reached the Black Sea and a took a hard left towards Batumi (southwest corner of Georgia). The road meandered its way through resort towns, up hills, and across valleys. It was rather picturesque. Eventually Batumi appeared in the distance. Our date with the Turkish border patrol was upon us.

Being relative greenhorns in the temporary vehicle import profession, our plan was to ask around to find out if we could get our car into Turkey. The first two men we came across proffered contrasting opinions:

"No way are you going to be able to get a thirty-year-old car into Turkey. They have rules!"

"I think they could do it. You can go down there and ask."

It all sounded so wonderful. We could knock on the door of the Turkish border complex, sit down for tea, and go through an evaluation of our car. Eventually, pleasantries would be exchanged, hands shook, and perhaps some crisp bills passed. Everyone would leave the room happy.

The Sarp border complex is set amongst stunning scenery. A backdrop of lush, forested mountains drop sharply towards the sea. Why anyone would want to build a busy border crossing there is beyond me. As you can see in the picture below, there isn't a lot of room to work with.

Our plan was to pull up to the complex, park, go on a fact-finding mission, and then decide what to do. As we pulled up, we realized just how busy the place was (although it was hard to determine who was there to cross into Turkey and who just to go to the beach that happened to be right there). Parking wasn't so much the problem; it was weaving your way through the snaking lines of cars.

What happened next was bizarre. I walked up to the one of the Georgian border guard booths and started asking questions. Here is how the conversation went down:

"Hi. I was wondering if I could take a 1980 Zhiguli 011 into Turkey?"

"Ya, sure. Passport please. Where is your car?" Hand the guy my passport.

"It's over there." I point. He stamps my passport and hands it back.

"Are these your friends? Give me their passports."

"Whoa. Easy there, pal. We have to go get gas. We'll be back.

Why he was so keen to stamp my passport, I will never know. Now I was officially checked out of Georgia, but driving back towards Batumi looking for gas.

We get back to the border crossing and just ahead there is a cop motioning us to pull up next to him. We do so, and he blurts out "Canada?" "Yes." "Come with us!" Apprently news of our arrival had spread like wildfire. Then this border guard comes cruising up on a segway. He asks again if we're from Canada. I nod. He tells us to follow him and takes us right to the front of the line. Everyone in the line starts honking and shouting, but then they see our car, and us, and back off--eventually resorting to laughter to deal with the situation.

Within seconds, four border guards surrounded us and shot rapid fair questions at me. Then the statements came. Most were along the lines of, "You're not going to be able to get this car into Turkey, so you should just turn around and go back the other way." On the contrarty, our iron resolve would have none of this crazy talk. We insisted that we be allowed to at least try. One of the guards said something along the lines of, "Be me guest," and motioned us forward. Another guard stamped the girls' passports and we were officially out of Georgia.

I will save the details of the Turkish border crossing for the next part. It is a story in and of itself.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Two

I must preface the rest of this story with the following fact: throughout the entire time the car was in motion, a steady stream of heat blasted the feet of both the driver and the passenger in the front seat. We joked at one time that the only way to drive in sandals was to put an oven mitt over your right foot.

I should also mention that the Colonel is NOT equipped with any of the following luxuries:
  • Proper seatbelts (there are none in the back seat)
  • Radio/CD player
  • Air conditioning
  • Side mirrors
  • Low beams
  • Cup holders
  • Front doors that opened properly from the inside
It is, however, equipped with a ton of street cred. We hoped that would be enough to get us across borders.

I'll pick up the story in the morning of the 16th. We had just spent the night with Amy's former host family in a regional town two hours outside Baku. Dinner was marked by a feast fit for a former guest who is leaving the country for good, morning by an all-out assault on six chickens running around the yard. There is nothing quite like watching four older ladies plucking fresh killed chickens while gossiping about the goings-on in the neighbourhood.

Alas, the time came for us to depart. It was an emotional farewell for all involved, and no doubt a few thoughts of, "I still can't believe you're trying to get to Croatia in that thing." The Colonel, as if sensing the importance of the situation, started without a problem. It was time to settle in, roll down the windows, and do what the Colonel does best: drive.

Our goal for the day was the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. About 450km away across the hot Azerbaijani plain. Other than a stop in Ganja for lunch, nothing eventful happened. Well, there was that one time when an oncoming bus decided to overtake a car forcing Amy to swerve onto the shoulder, but that's to be expected. We all the excitement would begin at the border.

The Red Bridge. A 17th century red-tinted stone bridge. It is the site of the Azerbaijani-Georgian border crossing. As we pulled up, the fortress-like Azerbaijani complex towered over the huge line that had formed. Twenty or thirty cars, at least ten trucks, and a middle lane that was completely empty. This being the country it is, there was no reason why that middle lane should be empty. It didn't take long for a couple of cars to try their luck, so I followed suit. And why not? We could always claim to be helpless foreigners.

Unfortunately, we soon realized that we were not supposed to be in the middle lane. Amy had ventured forth to see what was going on. She even tried dropping a couple of names at the Embassy (who had apparently called ahead and notified the border of our arrival). No luck. The guard started waving everyone back and told us to join the ever-increasing line to our left. Then someone miraculous happened. We were the third car in line and as we were backing up, the guard inexplicably let the first car through the gate (into the area where the cars are actually checked). Once I saw this, I put the car back into first and moved ahead. Within five minutes I was through the gate and onto the next phase. Amy and Sarah had to go through the walking border.

The inspection/customs/immigration area allowed space for six or seven cars. Each had to go through the following process:
  1. Give your documents to a guy at the first window and receive a bar code sticker
  2. Get your passport stamped at the second window
  3. Move your car forward to the actual inspection area
  4. Have your car inspected
  5. Drop off a small piece of paper at the exit gate
Sounds simple enough. Instead, you end up running back and forth between the window and the line because the cars ahead of you keep moving forward. I must've done so five times. People kept yelling at me to move my car. Eventually, I made it to a point where I could get in line and not have anyone yell at me.

The guard at the first window found it all rather amusing. A foreigner, a thirty-year-old Zhiguli, a trip outside the country. Surprisingly, he processed everything without any fuss, handed me my barcode, and told me to go to the second window. That passed without any problems as well. Things were looking good. The inspection consisted of a wave of the hand and a "Yaxşı yol" (have a nice trip). I was halfway to Georgia.

Amy and Sarah had made it through to no man's land successfully and were waiting for me. We marvelled at the Red Bridge and then continued to the Georgian complex, where they once again disembarked and went through the pedestrian section. Things on the Georgian side were much calmer for vehicles. There was no line, so I pulled up to one of the booths (the Georgian complex had the standard border complex system). I handed over the documents to the young lady. She looked incredulous at first, then smiled, and finished with a giggle. She was thrilled to be able to speak English, so she started asking questions. Where are you going? Is that car going to make it? What is it like in Canda? Then other border patrol people approached and asked the same questions. Everyone was laughing, including me. The customs lady then stamped my passport, returned my documents, and wished me well. Then I asked the all-important question answered. The answer: yes, I could leave Georgia without the car. I thanked her profusely and moved to the inspection area.

One of the guys that had been laughing turned out to be the head of inspections. He complimented the car once more, looked briefly in the trunk, and wished me a good trip. The last hurdle of our first ever border crossing had been crossed. The adrenalin was pumping, my heart racing. We had made it to Georgia!

At dinner in Tbilisi later that night, feasting on all that Georgia has to offer, we decided to continue on and try to get into Turkey. If it was half as exciting as today's action, it would all be worth it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part One

There comes a time in every great Soviet car owner's life when he/she wants to test the limits of Soviet automotive engineering. You see it to some degree everyday on the streets and roads of the former Soviet Union. Volgas and Ladas packed to the hilt with apples, rolling on inwardly-slanted wheels and blowing black smoke. 4x4 Nivas being taken where no car has the right to go. Pobedas and Zils loaded with more people than was recommended by the State Committee on Automative Safety (may not have actually existed). The fact that any of the aforementioned cars are still on the road is a testament not only to the Soviet auto industry but to the mechanics that keep them chugging along.

It is a strange phenomenon the world over. You start with that first hundred kilometres, thinking it to be a great achievement (after your engine seizes, any forward progress is a great achievement). By the time you pass the thousand-kilometre mark on your first roadtrip, you start asking yourself: just how far could one drive a thirty-year-old Zhiguli? Gather three travellers around a map to discuss such a question leaves them all salivating at the potential destinations.

Like most cities, there are four major directions one could go from Baku. North to Russia, South to Iran, east to Kazakhstan/Turkmenistan, and west to Georgia and beyond. The first two were cancelled out almost immediately. Both countries would be much happier to see our car than the foreign nationals held within. Heading east was ruled out due to time constraints (although a trip through Central Asia is not only be epic, but required at some point in my life). And thus we settled on a journey westward. Destination: Split, Croatia.

Our proposed route would take us across Azerbaijan and through Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and finally Croatia (that's seven countries, if you are keeping track at home). And we had ten days to do it in.

As the July 15th departure date approached, a moment of horror. Most of the countries we planned to go to had temporary vehicle import rules stating that cars older than twenty years would not be allowed to enter. Turkey appeared the most strict, with Serbia coming in a distant second. There was yet another issue. If the Colonel happened to breakdown along the way, could I leave the country without the car (your vehicle is usually connected to your passport upon entry into a country)? This trip was becoming less about "will the Colonel make it to Croatia" and more about "how many borders would we actually be able to cross?" We settled on the idea that crossing at least one border would be a fitting end to the Colonel's legend.

At last, the date arrived. We packed up the newly repaired, painted, and washed Colonel and set out on the trip of a lifetime. The next six or seven parts to this series will detail just how it all went down, from border crossings to breakdowns, freeways to film festivals.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Food Carts Hit Calgary...

...and I'm quoted on TV calling it a "food revolution."