#SubaruOfftrax Week Nine Highlights

September 18th-24th MONGOLIA!
By noon we had successfully crossed into Mongolia! Naturally we had to celebrate our achievement of making it here with local beers and buuz (dumplings). Back on the road, and our first surprised is that its paved! Where’s the shitty roads we were promised?!?!  …Oh they came, first a rough gravel, then as muddy river crossings. Now this was the Mongolian lack of roads we had expected. The countryside was dotted with massive yaks and Mongol horses-beautiful. We made it to Khovd, small city in Western Mongolia, but to our surprise all places were booked up. Going our separate ways each car found a room, but no showers. Aha & of course! Locals all use the local bath/showers. There are rarely any showers in hotels/homes except in Ulanbataar.
The next day started as a tease with 75km of pavement which ended abruptly. Back to the dirt and dusty roads with some many tracks to follow… With it being a decent temperature out we kept the windows, but only to get dustier.
Lunch was a mystery to all of us as no one spoke English. So we each ordered something different off the limited menu. Elly got stuck with pink wieners and rice-hahaha! Back on the superhighway as we preferred to call it for and 130km of bliss and then bam back to the endless dirt tracks leading in all directions. By chance we just so happened to pick tracks that lead us around a salt lake, but the potholes were so deep we didn’t even register on the speedometer.
Eventually we made it to a ger village where we decided to spend the night with the family. Corinne gave their 5yr old son a ball to play with, which he didn’t put down and had all of us playing with him over many hours. The outhouse was classic Mongol style, just smaller to get into and with really worn floor boards..wouldn’t want to slip! Another beautiful sunset.
We were on the road at 7:45am and came upon our first river crossing within an hour. No problems whatsoever. The next crossing however was DEEP!!!  Andy drove the Outback through first and the river came right up over the hood!!!! Corinne (shaking at the wheel) drove the XV through and was AWESOME! The thermostat started to climb on the Outback…turns out two fan blades had broken off and punctured a hole in the rad. Thankfully though two “big rigs” stopped to help us out. They took out the fan and patched the rad with goat fur and “goo”.  A couple more big rigs pulled up as well as a motorbike. We were SO THANKFUL for the Mongolians that stopped. Now two hours Corinne & Jess, Michael smelt the rad and had to stop again. The hose had popped and most of the water had leaked out. We refilled it with our drinking water and managed to clamp it down. Whew! After catching up to the XV we all pushed to Arvaikheer. Much to our amusement, upon arriving we realized that we had stayed in this town three years ago after coming out of the Gobi Desert. To add to that the bar we stopped in for a beverage was the actual place we went to before. Cheers to that! What a coincidence!
We woke especially early today to make it to Ulanbataar aka the Finish Line. It must have been -2 degrees out with the windchill, just 10km in and the Outback blew a flat. In the cold the guys managed to replace the tire with the spare only to discover that the front spring had broke and had shredded the tire! Andy and Corinne drove back to town and returned with a coil spring compressor. A rock was wrapped with Gorilla tape and acted as a spring to allow us to “limp” back into town. The Outback “crawled” back at 10km/hr. At a mechanic’s shop they took out the entire strut and Michael went to the car graveyard and then a parts shop and picked up a pair of new springs. The mechanic had to “smash” the cup to fit the new spring. It was now, that we also discovered that the rear end suspension was in bad shape. With just 440km to the finish line, we all finally left again at 1:40pm. For the most part the road was good, but with the Outback we had to take it slow. It was now dark when we spotted a bunch of cars on the side of the road flashing their lights; it was the Ulanbataar Subaru Club! They met us 50km outside of the city and escorted us in convoy style. It all came to an end behind our favourite store, The State Dept Store. Here Corinne popped the bubbly and we all celebrated with fellow Subaru owners. 63 days on the road and our dream had been accomplished!!!!  Now to find a place to stay….
We looked into the hostel we stayed at three years prior, The Khongor, but it was full. However one of their guides, who we later found out had picked us up at the airport three years ago, led us to the Seoul Hotel just off the main drag. While we were at the downstairs bar an ambulance and police arrived. Turned out someone got stabbed in their hotel room. Playing ‘Dexter’ Jess & Corinne investigated the scene of the crime (the hotel room door was open….).  What a day!
The next morning, a day off for us all and a chance to figure out the next step of our journey was started with a serious cleaning and unpacking of the cars, oh and finding a new place to stay. Elly & Jess went to the poshest hospital they had ever been in; Family United Intermed Private Hospital. The private hospital was having its grand opening that day and so it was getting all prepped up when we arrived in our not-so-clean clothes. All the equipment in the place was brand spanking new and so damn clean, you could eat off the floor. Before getting a proper X-ray Jess got to finally take her cast off. There was so much dead skin going on, and a well needed scrub was in order. The new X-ray showed the bone had not completely healed and so a “tomato splint’ was shaped to her arm and back in a sling. Total cost for the quickest, cleanest hospital, under $70.
Back at the hotel the Outback was creating a lot of buzz since the boys had put the word out that it was for sale. We all moved down the street to Zaya’s Hostel for a more personable stay.

The Go Help Charity team showed up the following morning presenting us with our trophies and the official Finish Line banner. From there we travelled 45min outside of UB to a town of 200,000 that had been big in coal mining until an underground explosion back in the 90’s had shut the mine down and unemployment was at a staggering 70%!!  The Go Help Book House was well equipped with books in both English & Mongolian. Here we presented one of their shiny star students with prizes as he had read 16 books in 3 months!

After visiting with the charity we headed towards the 40m high Genghis Khan monument when we came upon a couple of Mongolians with some BIG BIRDS. Naturally we had to stop for photos holding the birds. Elly chose a 20 kg vulture which the woman had to lift Elly’s arm up with the bird on it as it weighed a ton. Jess held a 10 kg eagle and Corinne hesitantly but then willingly held another eagle. We even put one of the eagles on Bugzilla the XV.  Onwards to the Khan monument in the middle of nowhere; the location where Genghis found his ‘golden’ whip. Back in the city we all hit up the State Department Store  where we tried on all the crazy looking traditional hats, picked up vodka and horse stew. An exact repeat of the previous trip.
Before Jess & Corinne left for Russia the Mongolian Subaru Club stopped by to give a heartfelt “goodbye” and presented us with gers, keychains and Mongolian vodka. In exchange we gave them Cdn maple syrup, a flag and a set of TREDS, as we knew they would be appreciated and needed in their country.
After being on the road for 63 days the group of five split with Jess and Corinne heading north for Russian Mongolian border now, Andy flying back home to Las Vegas in a few days and Elly & Michael spending a few more days in UB till selling the Outback and flying to Moscow.
Driving Mongolia has definitely proved to be a challenge, with the lack of direction, ruts, tracks to nowhere, dust, and massive potholes. That said, since being there three years ago, we believe much more of the country has been paved and though there were awful awful areas, there was a lot less than expected. So with the rate things are being built up in both the city and countryside I can only imagine there will be more roads next year, thus making it easier and easier.
**Stay tuned for Jess & Corinne’s misadventures on the long way home: starting with Mother Russia


#SubaruOfftrax The Long Way Back….Russia – Week 10 & 11

#SubaruOfftrax  The Long Way Back….Russia

September 24th- October 7th

Getting out of Ulanbaataar was where it first went wrong, going an hour North, only to find out the road turned into another non-existent road. Back on track and on the main road heading towards Ulan Ude, we were met with the usual patches of offloading we’ve become so familiar with. Just short of an hour or so to the border we decided to call it suits for the night and camp as it was dusk.
We set up camp just off the main road, in between to ger families. As expected they all came to inquire, so we traded cigarettes and jerky for a bag of hard goat’s cheese. We tried to say no, but they wouldn’t have it. Great, now we were stuck with nasty-ass cheese that we concisely couldn’t throw away. As expected, we froze that night and actually woke late, as we had buried our heads in our sleeping bags, trying to keep warm, thus not seeing the sunrise.
The Mongolian/Russian border practically killed us, waiting over 6 hours. It was mainly the Mongolian side that was so damn slack and worse, for no reason at all. It wasn’t very busy, they were just so inefficient. With most of our day shot we had to sleep in the one city we didn’t want to stay in, Ulan Ude. The nightmare returned, but even worse now, as we realized we actually knew how to get around and didn’t need the map. Like before, the room rates were ridiculously high, even for a few hours sleep at the train station was close to $80! Though more expensive than our former hotel, we decided to spite them and stay at another just across the parking lot for an extra $15. (We couldn’t stay at the same hole of a hotel we stayed last time). To top things off, we had a overpriced, disappointing dinner at Modern Nomads, which in UB had been so good. Ulan Ude got us again!!!!!!
The drive along Lake Baikal, though pretty as it was with the autumn colours, etc was slower than expected and the outside temperature was a steady 6c with white caps on the lake. So much for going swimming…! We did however finally celebrate Bugzilla’s 20,000th kilometre lakeside with our Austrian cake-in-a-can from Subaru Salzberg. So there after the inevitable happened-snow! Awesome, Sept 27th and we got flurries….   We managed to find a roadside motel around 8pm run by two grump-ass women that refused to smile. After seeing the room, without windows in some Siberian town full of gas stations we understood why they were so down in the dumps.
Up at 6am and on the road for 630am. Hell the sun didn’t rise till 8am. 999km was the goal today, making it to Krasnoyarsk. Over more flurries, icy roads, dirt roads and passing a lot of trucks we made it, all before dark to boot! The hotel we got downtown must have been an old convent or something as the showers for the whole building (5 stories tall) were group showers in the basement. Creepy! The next day was another long one, near 1000km. By dusk we gave in at some roadside wooden chalet-like place with a lot of poor taxidermy aligning the walls.  Up well before the sun rose, over 14.5hrs we travelled 1124km, making it to the town of Kurgan well past sunset. It was a brutally long and frustrating day as we got caught in construction traffic throughout.
Our food options have been limited, as most places are written in Russian and don’t come with pictures. However after numerous occasions we’ve mastered a few items/words. Same with ordering gas, as you pay before you pump. So guessing the amount of litres required and communicating that is a simple routine now for Jess, sometimes met begrudgingly, sometimes with laughter.
One bonus about covering so many kilometres each day, was were would travel back in time through timezones, thus gaining an extra hour of driving time each timezone we crossed.
With just over 2000km to go to get to Moscow, we really pushed extra hard to get to Kazan, a 1200+km drive. However due to the construction and the number of trucks on single lane highways we were cut short by 100km when Corinne had to give in for the night at the first place see saw. What was weird about the timezone crossing today was we went behind by 2hrs instead of the normal one hour. Must be a Russian thing….
The extra sleep didn’t have much effect on us, except we were on the road earlier and met with constant rain. What is it with rain that just makes you wanna go back to bed…? Upon arriving in Kazan it was a downpour-so much for sightseeing! Instead we hit up the local mall and grocery shopped, testing out mystery dough pockets filled with questionable items. Back on the road, and only 600km to go till Moscow! Well that 600km, turned out to be the longest 600km to date. More construction on single lane roads with even more trucks! By 5pm we knew we weren’t gonna make it to Moscow today. Longest drive ever!
The last ten kilometres were the longest ten kilometres-over an hour in Moscow traffic. It felt like it would never end. But when it did we were right outside of our hostel with a parking spot. Score! The street parking rules are a bit odd. We were told to simply cover our license plate and we’d have no problem parking on the street. To our amusement we noticed many other cars were using the suggested method, so when in Moscow, follow the locals, cover your plate and have free parking!
Walking into the Red Square was quite something. Having seen the square in news reports over the years we would have never guessed it was so big with four very opposite sides. The security at the Lenin mausoleum was over the top; guards everywhere, even in the dark corners of where he sleeps!
To mark our accomplishment of driving over 6000km to get to Moscow we talked ourselves into a deserving banya experience, the most luxurious in Moscow at the famous Sanduny Baths. From to steam room to splashes of ice cold water, back and forth, hot and cold. After seeing the whacking of the oak leaves on someone in the stream room, we decided to go balls out and sign up the same. After 10min of an intense oak leaf beating with leaves flying everywhere we were ‘awoken’ from the steam with massive buckets of lukewarm & frigid water poured over us. LOVED IT! A definite highlight.
Our next adventure was to tackle the world’s largest subway system. Upon suggestion we rode the ‘circle line’ getting off then on at each station. Kinda like a hop on, hop off bus tour. Each station was remarkably unique depicting typical scenes in Russian life, Lenin (of course!), history, military heroes, etc. Every station was like a museum or art gallery with chandeliers to boot! Hell, the subway even offered free wifi on its trains. Though difficult to figure out stations, due to the cyrillic writing, the Moscow Metro is a must see and puts our local subway system back home to shame.
Our final night, we had the pleasure of going out with Sergi & Svetlana, family of our dear friend Elena back home. Through many hand gestures and google translate, we got the inside scoop on Moscow and Russia in general. Plus we got escorted to the 25m metallic man and woman carrying a hammer and sickle.
As expected the drive to St. Petersburg was long and painful with many trucks and traffic. We gave in with only 100km to go in the small town of Veliky Novgorod. Traveling Russia at this time of year, despite to cool temperatures is very beautiful with the leaves changing colours and simply the amount of trees.
WOW St. Petersburg! The bridges, the canals and the architecture! Immediately both Corinne and I knew we preferred this over Moscow. People seemed to have bounce in their step and actual genuine smiles. Besides countless hours of wandering the streets and getting a true feel for the city over a couple days, we took in a few musts: the renowned Hermitage was breathtaking with its maze like interior and variety of art. The Winter Palace and Square in itself was grand; St. Issac’s Cathedral, now a museum was massive and featured one of the largest mosaics, which we’re both fascinated by; and the Saviour of Spilled Blood church was like a a mini St. Basil’s. we also made the discovery that craft beer in Russia is available, but only for those that seek it out. Twice we went to a bar, aptly named ‘Craft’ to sample and savour good beer (at last!)
To our surprise the 210km drive to the Finnish border was smooth. Getting out of St. Petersburg actually had a proper paid, modern highway. And the rest of the way was scenically full of pine and birch trees. This was most definitely a good way to go out on a happy note from Russia. The drive from the Mongolian border, just 12 days earlier and over 7000km started to feel like is was long past. Goodbye Russia, you’ve been large and in charge for too long now, its time to get back to the alphabet we know…Finland its all on you now!
And for those wandering, no we don’t suggest driving back from Mongolia unless you’ve got a real appreciation for all things Russia, and A LOT of time on your hands.

#SubaruOfftrax conquers Finland & the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania)

October 7th – 14th

Crossing into Finland was easier than crossing into Canada, except we had to get out of the car. Zero questions asked about us or the car. WOW! Besides the simplicity of crossing the border, we knew we were back in Europe with the selection of liquorice candies and beers at the gas station. Love it! The drive down to Helsinki was a breeze being actual highway with minimum trucks. Helsinki felt like a dream, so clean with choice architecture and salad! Yes, we had salad bar for lunch. Lovely. We spent the afternoon wandering around till making our way to our hostel, a little far our of the downtown area. It was a cool place, but with codes to all doors, including the washroom! Being in the land of reindeer and elk, and after hearing Anthony Bourdain had checked out the place, Corinne treated us to a dinner of red wine and game meats at restaurant Lappi. So good.
We were met with a lot of rain the next day that dampened our plans of going to some of the nearby islands. However we had a wonderful lunch and interview with the Subaru Helsinki & Laakkonen team who provided us with a much needed oil change, just the third of the trip and fixed our punctured tire. Upon their suggestion we hit up Stockmann, the local dept store for a selection of game meats for the road. Thinking the Finn’s could rival the Mongols in hospitals, it was time to another X-ray checkup. Much to my disappointment the private hospital was just okay and the floors I would not eat off of. The doctor laughed that I was given calcium in Tajikistan to help with the healing and said I was all good to go and to start some sort of physio exercises, but suggested none. Yeah, he was that good.  Back at the hostel, we had the unfortunate experience of first being locked out of our room, then being locked in our room. Damn door codes!
On the ferry to Tallinn the next morning was an eye opener. At 9am the bars on the boat were packed with people having beers, bottles of bubbly and liquor! We later learned that this is the norm for Finns, as the booze on the boat is cheaper then Finland and Estonia is much cheaper. So they simply go over to get their drink on, in the morning!  All checked in at our hostel by noon, we had the afternoon to check out this cute town. Since Elly & Michael had skipped through a few days earlier, we had the inside scoop and had elk soup and meat pies, medieval style for lunch. Wondering around we discovered two odd things amongst the rest: a market by the train station that sold antique CCCP relics including old passports from the USSR and a Depeche Mode bar, with cocktails named after DM songs. Random indeed!
Before heading to Riga, Latvia we read of the small town of Sigulda where in a day you could bunny jump, bobsled and experience an aerodome. Sold, we took our time driving down the beautiful coastline of Estonia and into Latvia. With beaches en route we could only imagine how choice it would be in the warmer months. In the picturesque town of Sigulda the colours of autumn were in their fullest, as too were their accommodation choices being a weekend. Thankfully however we did find a central spot to spend the night and marvel in the small village like setting. Next day our dreams of bobsledding, bungy and aerodoming were crushed, as either was closed or under repair, etc. Boo!!!!! However we did get to check out the actual bobsled track were the Olympic team train. Damn it looked choice!
Riga, Latvia’s capital was another picturesque town with a section devoted to art nouveau – imagine living in those buildings!?!? Beautiful. The old town itself was a bit of a maze on foot, and I’m sure we walked needless kilometres over and over, but it was worth so it. Overnight we had a ton of rain, so much to our amusement the following morning we splashed big time in the massive puddles before meeting with Andres & Kristina of Subaru Riga.
Driving between destinations of under 500km has now become a joke to us, especially after driving all of Russia. Getting to Vilnius, our next place of sleep was a wimpy few hundred kilometres, so we decided to stretch it out a bit and see more of the country. In Lithuania this included seeing the quaint island castle town of Trakai and the incredibly creepy, ‘Hill of Crosses.’ Having seen photos of this place online before embarking on the trip I immediately added it to the ‘Must See’ list. And like others on the list (Door to Hell, Pamir Hwy, Aral Sea, etc) it did not disappoint. They say there are approximately 200,000 crosses on site, we say there’s a hell of a lot more. No longer just a hill of of crosses, the variety in colours and sizes is now turning into a field of crosses branching out in all directions from all over the world. Stunningly creepy and a must see for anyone passing through Lithuania.
Not knowing what to expect of Vilnius, except we were there to meet one of our sponsors, Aivaras from The Meat Makers and the local Subaru dealership & fan club, we found a decent restaurant and excellent beer bar specializing in craft beer. Beaver stew and venison for dinner followed by a fare sampling of local beers and an introduction to the local specialty, mead, alongside 3 other travellers proved to be a perfect combination night out (and hangover the next day).
We started the morning at Subaru Vilnius meeting Vykintas & Laura for photos and shared stories of our adventures. They were excellent enough to take us for a bit of a tour of the town and lunch. Next up, we came full circle with Aivaras, whom we had first met in London so many months ago. Overlooking the cityscape we were humbled to meet the local Subaru club and its Subaru-loving members. Through much translation and photos we exchanged many stories and gifts. That evening we had the pleasure to eat local zeppelins with Aivaras and his wife Sandra. Such a whirlwind of a day and we had not properly explored the town as we had liked. Tomorrow…
Waking to pouring rain is never a good thing when visiting foreign cities and so we decided to push on to the next country, Poland. Again, it was under 500km on an actual hwy, so this was gonna be a piece of cake kinda drive.

#SubaruOfftrax “First we take Warsaw, then we take Berlin”

Oct 15th – Oct 21st
Having extended our adventure by 6 days, a whole new window of opportunities presented themselves. Unfortunately however, when we woke in Vilnius it was raining, so time to move on. The drive to Warsaw turned out to be one of the most boring and slowest with no actual highway. Ah back to spending a full day in Bugzilla, just like old times… In Warsaw, as expected parking was a nightmare, but soon enough we did find some indoor parking as the str eets weren’t safe, or so we were told. Not having any local currency, (Polish zloty) we decided to have a few beers next to  the car in the lot. That didn’t last too long as we were firmly escorted out, back to the street. Hmm…With just credit cards to go on our dining options were limited, an our brains must have been too. Who the hell goes for Egyptian food in Poland?!?! I ordered lentils and chick peas thinking I’d be healthy only to get a few lentils on top of a mound of mixed rice and two types of pasta. Talk about carb overload!
We must have walked all of central Warsaw the next day and the consistent theme was tons of sushi and Indian restaurants with no shops to be had. Where do locals shop? The one time we’re in the shopping mood and its all restaurants… We however  did take in the Warsaw Uprising Museum, a worthy educational experience and some of the best pierogi’s in the city, or so we read. In addition we discovered an excellent craft beer bar downstairs from our hostel. Overall though we both felt Warsaw didn’t offer much for us and so time to move onto to the city I’ve been waiting for, Berlin.
Like the drive to Warsaw, the drive to Berlin was just 500km or so, easy. Our hotel, yes, hotel, as it was surprisingly cheaper than a hostel, may have been located a wee bit out, but it did have free parking and we were right on the Ubahn. Plus having your own bathroom is kinda luxurious now and then.
For three days we gave Bugzilla a rest and rode the efficient and remarkably cheap transit, exploring many different neighbourhoods, including taking an alternative walking tour of the city. Within 24hr I knew I wanted to move here. Everything is so open minded and somewhat lawless. 24hr transit, postering is legal (hello street art!) the history, no laws around alcohol… I mean, how liberating is it that you can buy a beer in the subway & ride the train?!?! Plus the amount of cyclists and outdoor spaces, oh and no Sunday shopping…  We did however notice two downfalls: no craft beer in a city full of beer & indoor smoking, meant we had to drink outside to avoid having stinky clothes. Don’t know what it’d be like in the winter, but I’d be ready to find out! During our time in the city the Festival of Lights was on. Coming from Toronto, where the CN Tower has light shows on the hour every night, made Berlin’s TV Tower look like chump change. Guess this is something new and appealing for the older generation, or at least that’s what the massive crowds suggested. Admittedly we didn’t check out any of the real historical sites or museums as we didn’t have time, nor was it the priority. Our priority was exploring the city, and that’s we did. Some of our highlights included: the Neu West Gallery, where various street artists were given old pieces of the wall to mark their sign; the Raw Temple flea market; seeing the fans of the local hockey team get even more decked out in team wear than Maple Leaf fans; having beers at convenience store picnic tables; the buzz of the city at night just on the streets, and seeing Bjork’s Biophilia film at a local tiny, tiny cinema with Corinne (who hates Bjork).
Berlin, you are most definitely to be continued this lifetime.

#SubaruOfftrax Unexpected detours or how to draw out the end our of adventures

Oct 22nd – Oct 29th

Dedicated to #BugZilla

 Visiting Copenhagen was always on our minds, but never a for sure thing. With our extra few days now, it became a welcomed reality. Plus having friends living there, gave us all the more reason to visit.

To save on time we took the 2hr ferry from Rostock, Germany to Denmark. The best thing about the overpriced ferry was we were permitted to drink our duty-free purchases-hello cold, cheap beers!  As feared it was pouring rain in Denmark upon arrival, thus taking awhile to get into the city. Finding free parking in a city where nothing comes cheap, let alone free was a challenge, but when we did we were greeted with ice cold Carlsberg courtesy of Daniel and Alex.

The next day we got lucky and the sun actually came out. For about 9hrs we explored the city, taking in places like Noma, the spiral cathedral, Christiana and the stunning modern architecture. The downtown seems to be on a real building boom as it was difficult to get a photo without a crane in it. To my surprise Copenhagen is even more bike crazy than Amsterdam. Everywhere, everyone was riding bikes, even in the rain. On top of that, there seems to be a lot of trust going on, as most bikes were barely locked up and for the record, bikes aren’t cheap, even here in a city with thousands.

In the most expensive city we’ve been to this trip, rumours became truths walking into McDonalds. $6 for two regular coffees! Imagine had we gone to Starbucks?!?! You can only guess the price of a Big Mac or something similar. Yep, it was over $10. Despite the high prices of everything, what did make us feel good about Danish money was the actual money. The silver coins had holes in them and had hearts on them-how choice!

The next day it didn’t take much to convince us to drive 50km out of our way and over to Sweden. Hell, we spent the day there, in the low key city of Malmo. The first thing we saw in Sweden was the iconic yellow and royal blue storefront of monsterous Ikea. Though we didn’t sample their famous Swedish meatballs, we did discover Ikea makes their own beer. Malmo wasn’t much to write home about and unfortunately Stockholm was a day’s drive away. What we did learn though was, groceries are cheaper in Sweden, whereas alcohol isn’t, that you go to Denmark for. Back in Copenhagen we spent our final evening out sampling some of the best (and priciest) oysters we’ve ever had.

Our next true destination was Brussels, over 1000km. We broke up the drive in two days, driving down through Denmark to Germany. damn Germany is big! We called it a night, just a few kilometres from the Netherlands border at a highway service station, where we camped for the first time since Mongolia amongst the trucks. It felt so good to be back in our tent and back into our original routine of camping: picnic, beers and soon enough rain and lots of it. It didn’t matter though we were warm and dry in close comforts of tent.

With just 500km or so to Brussels we decided to make some more detours and see the countryside of the Netherlands. (We’d been to Amsterdam before). Having the freedom of our car gave us the opportunity to visit and have lunch in the cute town of Gouda, known for obviously for it cheese, but also for its stroopwaffels. You know, the little cookie-like waffles with syrup or carmel inside. Being Saturday, the local market was on and the amount of cheese was mind-blowing. We must have tried over 20 different types of Gouda. From gouda with truffles, to gouda with wasabi, to lavender, making the cheese an actual blue colour, to pesto, to fenugreek, every possible concoction was available for tasting and so good!

On a cheese overload we drove to the nearby town of Kinderdjck, a world heritage site home to 19 original windmills from the 1700s. This detour was so worth it. Getting the opportunity just to see all the windmills was enough for me, but to actually go inside of one and see how people to this day live and operate one was beyond belief. To add to that we got to stand in front of an actual working mill while the blades came swooshing around in front of us. Amazing! Next up on the plan was to camp once again just before Bruges, Belgium. Unfortunately that didn’t happen as the highway turned into back roads leaving the only camping options wet fields with cows. Corinne thought perhaps behind a church of sorts we could conceal the car and stay there…till we rolled up to a church in the middle of nowhere with a cemetery on its grounds. Ha! Imagine sleeping amongst the graves?!?!  The only actual highway that made sense for us was to head towards Brussels, a mere 50km away and our destination for the following night. We found the only service station 20km outside of the city and happily set up camp for the last time amongst the parked cars and truckers.

With a minimal amount of driving to do the next day and knowing parking in Brussels would be a challenge, we started extra slow that morning.

Upon getting our minuscule hotel room we spent the better part of the afternoon organizing what was coming home and what we were donating to Go Help / Charity Rallies. Afterwards we met up with Joanna, from the rally to hand over many items that future teams / charity would use. Now time to sample Belgium beer! Hello Cafe Delirium! Known to produce one of the world’s best beers and have over 3000 different beers. For me this was heaven. There is actually a catalogue of all the beers they sell, from Greenland to the Dominican Republic, its all there. But being in Belgium we stuck to the local suds. In between beer sampling we gave into what Belgium is also known for, frites. Not being a ‘fry girl’, I was quickly turned into one and honestly couldn’t get enough (gulp)! Add to the frites, all the different types of sauces to dip them into and it was french fry heaven: mustard, curry ketchup, blue cheese, etc.. Wowza!

The following morning was another slow start, with nothing on the agenda besides handing over the car at 3pm. So we did took our time and continued to pack it all up. Its crazy how much you accumulate over four months in a car. Hell, we found stuff hidden under the seats that was meant to go home!

When the time came around we made our final travels in Bugzilla, all the way back to her original home, Subaru Europe, just a 30 minute drive. We were greeted by the Subaru staff with much applause, photos and interviews. It was hard to imagine that the car, Bugzilla, had been our home away from home over the past four months. Not only did we spend countless hours driving 33,497km (total) in her, we returned to her, even when we weren’t driving, just to have dinner in, to have cocktails, or simply to hang out in, she was indeed our home. And she will be missed.

To say our trip was amazing is an understatement. It was life changing and will never be forgotten.

Thank you to everyone who supported our dream both before and during the journey-we couldn’t have done it without you.

Now onto the brainstorming of the next adventure….

Planning & Visas

There are officially 197 days to the start of the Rally ( July 19, 2014), and with that our route planning is on full force.

We’re concentrating the initial efforts towards central Asia, to see what’s worth a 300km detour or not, in the middle of some of the hottest deserts on earth….Let alone some of the worst roads we’ll likely be ever on!!

Today is a particular cold day in Toronto, something in the -32C range. I’m sure, I’ll think of this, once the temperatures we’ll be +40C in the middle of nowhere.





Thanks to all our supporters, both corporate sponsors & individuals.

With your help over $87,000 Cdn was raised for water projects in India.

Having access to clean water is truly life changing.

To read more about our charity FrankWater please visit their site at www.frankwater.com

& for a quick read of Jess’s personal thoughts on why clean water is so important check out this blog

Its not everyday that the Afghan embassy calls you. Is it?!


As we’re planning the route, we had the crazy idea to check out if we could go into Afghanistan. Now, you might now know this, but its not exactly a piece of cake planning a route, visas, cars and so on. None the less, we like to ‘explore options’ as Jess likes to say.

So, I contacted the Afghan embassy in Ottawa with simple questions:

Can we enter with our own car? Will we be allowed to drive? Are women allowed to drive? How safe is it? Will they let us drive out?

Then yesterday I get a call from the Afghan embassy in Ottawa. The guy was extremely nice and friendly, he even suggested I move to Afghanistan and work there to help rebuild the country!

More on this as time goes by. Next step is going to pay a little  visit at the consulate here in Toronto to check the real possibility.

If any of you are planning this route, here’s a couple things you’ll need:

– Carnet the passage (You can get that in Tehran if you’re going through Iran)

– Visa ($ 200)

– A LOT of luck

– Your blood type and nationality (English and Farsi) under your boots, on a chain, ideally even tattooed on your skin

Its gonna be a ball!


ElRulio aka “One Hot Mess” Wrap’s it up!

Elly Thirsty on beach

ElRulio at sunrise with Lil Jigg

In the beginning, it was an idea, a plan, a thought and it all began in Ulanbataar Mongolia a couple of years ago.  The 3 of us were travelling around Mongolia and when we arrived at our hostel we spotted the banner that would eventually lead us to a decision to enter the Rickshaw Run in India 2013.  At the time this banner was the Finish Line for the gruelling Mongol rally (16000 kms from the UK to Mongolia).  The 3 of us thought WOW what a cool idea!  Then after some serious thinking, we decided to try something a little less dangerous, less costly and lesstime.   The Rickshaw Run…Little did we know about “less dangerous”.

My first response when I was asked to join the Offtrax team was “YEAH, but give me a week to think about it! “  During that week I told some close friends about the Rickshaw Run.  A few thought I was INSANE and others said “Go for It!”  My husband did some reading on the event and offered his support as long as HE didn’t have to enter it.  A week later, Jess and Corker called me and asked for my decision.  I said YES.  I hung up the phone and then asked myself  “Am I nuts?”

This decision was made in October 2012 and Team Offtrax embarked on a massive fundraising project to help out Frank Water in India.  I had been to India in 2004 assisting in a water project with 100 schools north of Mumbai and I had realized how important fresh, pure water was to India.  I was excited to be able to once again help out with a water project in a different part of India.

And then on April 7, 2013 the Rickshaw Run began.  70 pimped up rickshaws left Cochi and within 3 hours our rickshaw was run off the road by a massive bus!  This nearly did me in.  I was ready to hop on a plane back to Canada or put the rickshaw on a train, along with us and get to the finish line that way.  And then the next day, after I was talked into continuing the adventure over numerous rums and superb Indian cuisine, we drove at night which was one of, if not the scariest things I have ever done in my life!  The Indians either drive with full beams or no beams at all.  I am pretty blind at night, but I still could make out numerous vehicles, bicycles and animals with no lights…Again I was a blubbery mess, which is not me.

Our adventure continued for another 14 days with a couple of scary night drives thrown in for fun.  When we did our final climb to Shillong, it was magical and most beautiful as Shillong is known as the Scotland of India.  The air was crisp and clean.  And we did it – 4,130 kms in a Rickshaw that did 35 kms/hr average speed.

ER sippin tea

Sipping tea in Darjeeling

When I returned home, this journey seemed surreal.  I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.  I have never felt so vulnerable yet so safe and fulfilled.
I had survived this journey with my daughter Jess and her girlfriend Corker.  Travelling with 2 thirty something’s and me being a 60 something was definitely a trip to heaven and hell and back!   Tempers reached some pretty high peaks!  And yet we all looked forward to each day when we finished up and chilled with some Kingfisher beers and delicious Indian food. Some of the small towns we ended up in, I swear no tourist has been to.

I do not regret a minute of the Rickshaw Run, well, maybe the first 2 nights.

Would I do it again?  No way!  But bring on the Mongol Rally, because I am ready!

Major FADWAD in the mud!

Major FADWAD in the mud!

How was it? “I still can’t get my head around it” – Corker tells us her view on the Rickshaw Run

Corker coromandelSince I’ve been back I’ve been asked a lot of questions from friends and colleagues. I won’t lie : being back sucks! Spending my 9 to 5 day in front of a computer working: sucks! The Rickshaw Run has changed me. It has changed the way I look at life; the way I look at my water consumption; the way I bike around the city.

One thing is for sure: it is a life changing experience and I’d do it all over again.

So, to answer a few questions:

How was it? It was the most grueling, exhausting, nerve wrecking, adrenaline packed adventure I have ever been on. To better express this and quote a fellow rickshaw runner : I had some of the best times of my life and some of the worst, often within moments of one another. To say “ we survived”, it’s an understatement. There were moments were death by a truck came too close for comfort and where driving into a ditch became the only option.

And although this happened, we also had the most amazing moments : like playing an impromptu game of Simon says with the village kids; dipping our feet in the Gange; watching the sun rise above the Bay of Bengal;  spot elephants in the wild or sipping tea in Darjeeling.

We met amazing people that helped us get out of trouble, and made friends for life. We managed to get lost even with a GPS ( a free downloaded version). We got stock in mud (GPS said: “turn left”); drove on a one way street going against the traffic (GPS said: “turn right”); we broke down in the middle of nowhere; drove without brakes; drove at night with barely any lights. We laughed hysterically and cried too. We had moments where we just wanted to put that piece of metal on the back of a truck, and moments  where we were on a beach watching the sun go down on the Coromandel Coast.

How was it, you ask? I still can’t get my head around it.  4,130km of adrenaline pumped days, are still hard to assimilate.

How did you guys plan where to stay? Did you book hotels? This is one question that makes me laugh….  If there is one thing we learned quickly, is that ALL plans get shattered at the lightning speed of 35km/h (the average speed we we’re driving, with a recorded peak 57 km/h downhill!).

Like Elly said and reminded me every couple of hours: This is an hour by hour adventure. Its about the journey, not the destination (Although, we did have to make it to the finish line!)

There is no such thing as planning, as there is no way to predict what’s ahead of you. Things can change so quickly along the way, that your dream of “We’ll have beers on the beach tonight” will likely resolve into you sleeping in the crappiest minus 5 non-star hotel you never even though existed. That’s why, you don’t plan. You wish, but you don’t plan!

So no, we didn’t book a thing. We ended up in random “hotels”, in villages that I cannot even pronounce the name of.

How were the roads? How fast were you guys going? The following are a guarantee on  Indian roads:

1: awful roads or  ‘Highways’ (calling them highways is sometimes a real over statement). Indian roads are known to be some of the ‘shittiest’ (pardon my language) roads in the world. Potholes so big they could swallow a truck, and dust so thick it would make a foggy London day look like its a clear day. Put the following with the most daring and devilish drivers in the world and you start getting the picture.

Yes, this is # 2 : Indian drivers. They are fearless. They drive like maniacs at full speed, carrying loads so big you start wondering how they even packed their trucks! They love to play chicken, and they love to win at this game too. The problem is , when you are driving a rickshaw, size matters. Their size, not yours. In India this is how the  road order  goes:  cows ( they are holy, therefore can do anything that pleases them); buses (especially the pink one, blaring its horn that’s drove us in a ditch on day one); trucks (colorful, dreadful, loaded beasts); SUV’s; tractors or any agricultural related vehicle; cars; rickshaws; motorcycles; self-made vehicles; bicycles;  pedestrians and animals.

Now put all these together and you get number #3: Traffic.  To get the picture put all of # 1 and # 2 together, jam them into a 1.2 billion population country and see what happens. Yes, you got it: a symphony of loud horns, vehicles, animals, humans all coming and going in every sense and direction feasibly possible and all trying to either get there first, or avoid potholes. To this day, I’m still surprised that a motorbike didn’t drive on top of our rickshaw. We came really close to losing our rearview mirrors and my only road kill was a toad and a cactus ( this last one was just sitting there, having a peaceful day in the sun when I decided to maneuver the rickshaw back and forth on it…. Long story. If you ask I might tell!)

And no, we weren’t going “fast”.

Would you do it again? No. Yes.  Maybe. Ya, I would!

Any words of wisdom? Yes:  don’t do it!  This is NOT a vacation by any means. So if you’re  ideal is to sit down, relax, sip a drink and enjoy life passing by, this is not for you. If your ideal is to see India (like the Taj Mahal): don’t do it. You will have no time for anything you want to and you’ll be at the mercy of a “glorified lawnmower” that will dictate every minute of your day .  Remember : it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Oh, and if you’re going to do it: get driving gloves and extra lights.