It started out as another typical morning on the Mongol Rally; the Drama of Llama woke up in their car, in an empty parking lot, beside a gas station. The night before we had a laugh with the Georgian-Russian border guards as we crossed and today we were starting the 3 day grueling drive to Moscow. I wiped the drool from my face, readjusted my neck pillow, and quickly fell back to sleep as Alex started driving through one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Suddenly I was awaken by the sound of brakes squealing and my body lunging forward. My eyes burst opened just in time to see an oversize truck crashing into my side of the car. Suddenly my ears were ringing and my eyes were burning from the white smoke of the airbags that filled the car. Alex, Norbert, and I immediately glanced at each other to make sure that everything on our bodies that was supposed to be there, was in fact, still there.
Behind us, stood a Turkish truck driver screaming at us in Russian. We slowly exited our car for what would become, the last time. Our hearts sank as we saw our home for the last 18 days. Lizzy, our 2005 Hyundai Getz, was dying before our eyes. The front passenger’s side of the hood was peeled back to the edge of the door where just moments before, I had been sitting. The wheel was bent in, the clutch was busted, and a puddle of leaking fluid was starting to form on the asphalt. The Turkish-Russian kept screaming until he realized that we had no clue what he was saying. Upon this discovery, his attitude quickly changed from being pissed off to being extremely friendly.
The wreck was already starting to attract attention and soon a crowd was surrounding us. Little did we know, we were on the path to becoming local celebrities. People quickly gathered around us looking into our car, asking us questions that we couldn’t understand, and offering us watermelon slices. It certainly wasn’t a typical Mongol Rally day anymore.
One person, who spoke a little English, looked at our car and said “Fly home. Fly home.”
Now we had to wait for the local authorities.
Honestly, if there was one country that I didn’t want to have interactions with the police, it was Russia. We were all very nervous. Since we had entered Russia at night, we hadn’t had a chance to buy car insurance. Actually, nervous is an understatement. We were worried – very worried. My imagination flew through a hundred scenarios that all involved me spending the next few days in a Russian prison cell or thoughts of me missing my flight to Morocco. An hour later, the Russian officers finally showed up.
The first guy, nicknamed Cobra, was a middle-aged man who always had a serious look about him. His partner was Cheese, a gigantic, overweight man who fit his name well. Cheese always had a smirk on his face as if he was thinking something amusing. My heart pounded through my chest as Alex informed them of what happened and as they promptly informed us that they had 2 AK 47’s in their car. Through a couple of words of English and a lot of charade playing, we realized that we were not on the road to Moscow at all, but instead, on the way to Chechnya!
Norbert explained that we had been following the route that Google maps gave us. The chief officer immediately gave us a thumbs down and said F$#% Google map.
Because our natural wit and charm the Officers took a liking to us and allowed us to settle the accident with the driver, as well as, called a truck to tow our car to the police impound. Then they told us to hop in the back of the police car, a place I never envisioned I would be.
Cobra and Cheese promptly hung up their AK’s on the door and gestured to us to take a few smokes as they whisked us away. We had no idea what would happen next as we sped towards the Russian police station. Were they letting us have a few smokes before they locked us up, or were they guileful being compassionate. Our fingers crossed in hopes that it would be the latter.
At the impound, Cobra took Alex to look at the car. This left Cheese, Norbert, and I in the car. Cheese tried to make conversation by pointing and speaking in Russian. He pointed to a car, which I can only assume was his. He pointed to a lady officer with a smirk on his face extended his arms from his chest to signal big breasts. I smiled nervously, not sure if that was his wife or girlfriend and not waiting to offend him, so I gave a thumbs up. Cheese just smiled and pointed to his oversized stomach and started forking imaginary food to his mouth. This I understood. “Yes”, Norbert and I replied, “We are hungry”.
A couple of minutes later, Cobra and Alex came back to the car and we were whisked away again, but this time to a hole in the wall restaurant. There we were greeted by the local English teacher who explained that for the rest of the day, he would be our translator. Now came the moment of truth. Exactly, what were they going to do to us.
The cops set their AK’s on the table and ordered us a fantastic lunch which consisted of Russian pasta covered in beef, pear juice, and salad. The meal was excellent, and I made sure to eat every bit just in case the worst of my imagined scenarios played out. During the whole meal, the translator asked us questions.
They were mostly curious about how or why anyone would drive from London to Mongolia as well as what we were going to do now that we had no car. As we left, the officers refused to let us pay. “So this is what is going to happen to you”, the translator said. Suddenly, my throat was sandpaper and my heart went still. “Usually they have to keep you here, impound your car, and charge you a fine, but they understand that you all are foreign and don’t know the rules, so they aren’t going to do that, instead you will go to the police station and fill out paperwork and then you are free to go”.
I felt my lungs working again. The next stop was the police station. Our translator was reading the local paper. He noticed me eyeing it and said, “No big news, nothing ever happens here.”
We were then pulled into a conference room where we were greeted by an overzealous drunk man who was a relative of one of the officers. The drunken guy just couldn’t believe we were foreigners and kept trying to communicate through fist bumps and cigarettes. This made Cheese unhappy. A good rule of thumb: never make anyone unhappy who has a nickname after a high fat dairy product. Cheese started yelling in Russian and forced the man back into his seat with a wicked combination of kicking, screaming, and pushing. Frightened, Norbert and I looked at each other. The last thing we needed was for our Russian officers, who we had tried to keep happy all day, to get in a sour mood and change their mind about going easy on us.
The drunkard then decided that the best way to deal with being manhandled by Cheese was to strip down to his underwear and offer Norbert a fist bump. I looked at Cheese nervously. He looked at me with his sly smirk, and a wave of relief rushed over me. After a few hours of paperwork, they let us clean out the car. We made a gift to Cheese, Cobra, and our translator of everything that we couldn’t possible carry on our bodies.
Next the translator took us to the hotel where we slept peacefully throughout the night. But my story doesn’t end there. In the morning, the translator showed up again and this time with a bottle of vodka and two journalists from the newspaper. Apparently they had decided to write an article on us.
We were officially the biggest news in town. After the interview, another local stopped by our room with two more bottles or vodka, before we set off to the train station and on to finishing the Mongol Rally by hitch hiking.
It was a crazy 30 hours, but I learned a lot. I was nervous about being in Russia, but in the end the Russians were the kindest, most helpful people I had met on the rally. They were beyond hospitable and took us in when we needed help the most. It is a lesson I’ve learned a million times while traveling, but one I sometimes need to be reminded of – Most people out there want to help you, want you to experience their country, and are out to disprove how foreigners perceive them. I am beyond grateful to Cheese, Cobra, and our Translator for their kindness and their help and for reminding me again of a lesson so valuable.