A Message To Our Sponsors

Hello!

First of all thank you very much for your sponsorship, it was much appreciated by Kai and I as it allowed us to get off on our little jaunt, and I'm sure it will be appreciated almost as much by our two charities, Amnesty International and the Christina Noble Children's Foundation in Mongolia. The current total is £1570, though since we've finished we've had a small flurry of donations.

Now on to what you have all been waiting for, the results! We arrived at the finish line at approximately 4:57pm Mongolia time on Thursday 8th September, which I make 6 weeks, 4 days, 18 hours and 57 minutes, having done 12,566 miles, or 20,223 km.

In the distance guess Rachel gets a special mention, as the only person to overestimate, however we didn't quite hit the 30,000 mile mark I'm afraid Rachel. Claudio's guess of 8425 miles was just pipped by Sara and Rob's guess of 8454.4 miles. As Claudio said, we certainly did more miles than planned.

In the time guess Larry and Gez both predicted 4th September, just four days off, but my sister Maddy (Sara and Rob's niece, keeping it in the family) managed a guess just 16 hours out!

Prizes will be distributed to those two lucky, or skilled, winners, but if the rest of you would like to send me your address I will post you a (very small) token of our appreciation.

The rally itself went pretty well for us, if you haven't been keeping up our blog is at http://geekout.org.uk/ and a map of our trip is here: http://geekout.org.uk/map/

Back to work for me tomorrow.

Thanks again, Jamie

If you've enjoyed our updates, and haven't already, maybe it's time to think about donating.

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Unofficial Payments

ie, Bribes. The best technique seems to be waiting for a) official boredom, b) more money making opportunities to turn up, eg, tourists c) somebody higher up in the chain to come along, eg, military vs police.

Country Asked for Paid Description
Ukraine €100 €30 Supposedly doing 80kph in a 50kph zone. Possibly true.
Ukraine €40 €20 Not stopping at a stop sign. The trouble was there was a massive truck in the way of the sign, if there was a sign.
Iran Multiool (€30) T-shirt and tea Official at the border kept asking for gifts. Wished we hadn't given him anything after below.
Iran €20 €10 Burly man at the border who we didn't want to piss off too much.
Iran $0 $0 Caught speeding, but let off with a warning :)
Turkmenistan ? $10? Caught speeding as the police put up temporary speed limit signs, in this case 30kph, which was honestly difficult to read.
Uzbekistan $8 $8 This was actually official, I even got a receipt! But it was still ridiculous. I was fined for driving too quickly through the "disinfectant" at the border. There was no way I caused all the puddles that they were pointing at, tbh, I think the team that went before me might have done it, but we both got fined. We didn't stop at the stop sign, a recurring theme.
Uzbekistan ? £1 Kai caught speeding. Let off after trying out speed gun and a misunderstanding about a "gift", Kai insisted on going back and giving him a souvenir pound coin. The policeman did not look impressed.
Tajikistan $10 $10 Passport officials. Stupidly paid without thinking.
Tajikistan $45 $25 Car insurance, or possibly customs. I think $25 was the proper sum, but we were asked for $45.
Tajikistan ? ? Have a feeling that the last two guys that dealt with us wanted something?
Tajikistan $10 $0 Police check at the border. I was going to the car to get some money but they got bored and we just left.
Tajikistan Up to €100 down to $20 $10 Police check point just looking for a reason to take money from us. First they made something up about our visas. We were patient and explained again and again that our visas were ok. When they got bored of that they let Mud-Lab go and started on me and my invalid passport. They were just insisting on $20 when a military guy walked passed outside and they suddenly took our $10 and let us go. I kind of wished I'd snatched the $10, run outside and waved it in their face from the window. But I didn't.
Tajikistan $25 x 2 $10 for both cars. Customs leaving Tajikistan. This seemed to be a tried and trusted scam, telling us that we were missing the customs receipt from entering (see above). It may even be that customs delierately didn't give us a receipt when we entered. We were let off for $10 only when two more teams arrived and were subjected to the same treatment.
Kyrgyzstan $0 $0 Thought I'd mention this as I was very pleased not to be asked at the border as the guards were looking very serious and very dubious about the visa in my old, invalid passport.
Kyrgyzstan ? $10 + 100 Somme ($3?) Kai caught speeding early in the morning, apparently still within the limits of a town.
Kyrgyzstan ? All our old Uzbek money, about $20 Caught speeding again, same day.
Kyrgyzstan ? $10 between two cars Same day. Not stopping at a stop sign, just before the Kazakh border.
Kazakhstan $10 $0 Accidentally left border into Kazakhstan and needed to get back in to Kai and the car. Was brazenly asked for $10 but didn't pay and met Kai outside.
Russia 100 Rubles I think, about $3 0 Immigration officer just asked as we were leaving, we acted confused and after a few minutes let us go.
Mongolia $5 100 Rubles, about $3 For disinfecting the car. Other teams said they had to pay $1 and got a receipt.
Mongolia $10 $10 The guy who searched our car (with a very cute dog in a very cute coat) just asked, and we just gave.
Total About $310 About $180

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Altay to Bayankhongor, Mongolia

We travelled for most of the day in convoy with the five other teams, having fun with the driving, sliding around and racing each other. Micras are definitely well suited to Mongolian roads, Mud Lab's 1.6L Peugeot 306 the only one able to keep up with the two Micras.

After lunch Kai and I and Mud Lab broke away from the four other teams and made it into Altay, Mud Lab running low on both fuel and money. We milled around in the town for a bit, picking up some supplies & money, Mud Lab making some more repairs. This time, worryingly, to their brakes, having already had to fix a fuel leak on the way.

I decided I was tired of noodles and fancied eating in a restaurant. A helpful gentleman said, through a translator on the phone, that he would show us a place. He got in our car and we literally drove around the block. He showed us a restaurant. The guy on the phone then said we should give him 15,000 of the local currency. Reluctantly I did. He refused asking for 20,000. By this time Kai was still sitting in the drivers seat, but I was out of the car and the guy was blocking my way. Eventually Kai started to drive off, I jumped in the front seat and we sped off back to Mud Lab. Considering that it was just around the corner we were concerned that we might have an angry Mongolian or two on our tail and were rather put off Altay.

Kai and I decided to go ahead and scout out potential camp sites, but when we found how cold and windy it was went back into town to have a look at hotels. We weren't impressed and together with Mud Lab and their newly working brakes headed out. We aimed for what we thought could be a natural wind break over a hill, but managed to end up in a natural wind tunnel. It started to rain.

The next day was slow going, partially due to the bad roads, but mostly due to Mud Lab's bad luck. (Or perhaps poor planing in choosing a Peugeot ;).) After a couple of hours driving they sailed over a ridge and hit the other side, blew both airbags, dislodging their front grill and fan. As they couldn't reattach the fan their car started to overheat at regular intervals and they would have to stop and point their car straight into the wind for a while. Moments after one of these stops they discovered one of their tyres had split.

Towards evening the wind was really getting up, causing something like a dust storm, as we approached a gher camp and large river. Looking at our maps it seemed that the road was on the other side of the river. Several locals pointed us in the direction of the river and one offered to tow us across in his tractor for $30 each. We were dubious and waited. After a while a mini bus approached and we followed it, watching as it crossed the river, from one island to another. We followed in its footsteps. It was pretty nerve racking to be honest, especially as there were about four crossings in total, two of which we hadn't seen the mini bus cross, but we made it. I really regret not taking a picture of what greeted us, a desolate, apocalyptic even, vision of dust caught by the sun blowing across several ghers and virtually nothing else for as far as the eye could see.

By this time there was only an hour or two of sunlight left, and we'd only done about 250km of 400km, but we decided to press on. The roads got even worse and our speed slowed and slowed as night drew in, and the wind got colder. About 40km from Bayankhongor the road started to get quite wet and muddy. About 10km from town Mud Lab looked like they got stuck in mud. Their car sounded like it wasn't quite in gear. Ale reckons they might have a broken Axel. We managed to tow them out of the worst of the mud they were in, but didn't think we'd make it the 10km due to the mud, we were having difficulty getting just ourselves out of some of it. So we left them there and went to get help. Practically over the next hill we were able to see the lights of the town and had mobile signal and were able to call the Adventurists hot line, but by the time we got back to Mud Lab to give them the good news they'd already managed to get a tow from a Mongolian mining magnate.

Kai and I visited several hotels before picking one we liked and were just checking in when who should turn up but Mud Lab!

That was last night. We woke this morning, opened the curtains and thanked our lucky stars.

It's snowing!

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Khovd to Altay, Mongolia

Driving in Mongolia is a lot of fun. The roads tend to be very wide, usually gravelly, or if you're really lucky very sandy and often splitting off into 2, 3 or even six different paths. There are often obstacles, some of them moving, including camels, stones and various types of holes, dips and ridges.

We spent our second night in Mongolia in a gher camp setup by one of the Mongolians actually doing the rally in Khovd. It was to be the last night of his camp and he had already taken down most of the ghers.

The next day we started the long drive to Altay, apparently the worst bit of the Southern route across Mongolia. I may be tempting fate here, but it really hasn't been that bad so far, more of the above. The worst is the small, regular ridges, possibly caused by tracked vehicles in the winter. The cars vibrate painfully, until you reach the Sweet Spot. Usually at about 90kph.

To our great pleasure We'd met the Icelandic team, Mud Lab, yet again, in Khovd and left with them in the morning, east. In the evening we came across two other teams, Modern Nomads (Kit from Norway) and Hit the Road Yak (George and Matt) and then another two teams that they'd been in convoy with, Fear and Alexes in Mongolia (Alex, whose team mate had had to fly to Ulan bater to get a rabies jab after being bitten by a dog in Khovd) and Banana Hammock (Heather and Justin), which made six teams in total, the largest convoy we've travelled with.

(I would like to to treat the next bit like an episode of Casualty, what could possibly go wrong in the following situation?)

The four teams we'd met had this game they played, called rocky rock, where they would all throw stones at a specific rock, trying to hit it. A little while after starting this game, someone, George I think, Alex aimed a small rock at Kit's car, hitting the back window and shattering it. Like all good geeks, he fixed it with duct tape. Taping up the whole window.

We moved on. We were one of the last cars. Just after a particular sandy section of road we found Kit and his car, pointing in the wrong direction. He'd spun and both left tyres had deflated, he decided due to the seal being broken rather than punctures. Luckily he had two spares, changed them with us watching and we were on our way. The other teams had stopped up ahead to camp and we formed a bit of a circle with our wagons. Kit was determined to make a fire and started chopping up a bit of wood he had with an axe. We joked that with the luck he'd had he shouldn't be wielding an axe. Kit gathered some dung and asked for some petrol. Being as my mum has always drummed into me not to use petrol on fires I didn't volunteer our petrol and hoped he could find something a little less flammable. The next thing we knew he was opening a very large jerry can in the middle of the circle. For some reason the can was pressurised and very full and sprayed petrol as it was opened. Unfortunately one team had already started cooking and in the moment that we all stood, staring in disbelief the petrol ignited. Now Hollywood (and Casualty) may have lead you to believe that the petrol on the ground will burn in a nice line until it reaches the full can at which point the can will explode and everyone dies. Let me tell you from experience that this is not what happens. The spilt petrol all ignited simultaneously, everyone ran for their lives and then there was a calm moment as everything just burned. Luckily none of the petrol had reached the car. Unfortunately Kit had been sprayed and was now on fire. Someone, George I believe Alex, redeeming himself from breaking Kit's back windscreen managed to put Kit out and the rest of us stood in shock. Kai was the first to remember that we actually had a fire extinguisher and handed it to me, later saying that he didn't want to be the one caught in any explosion. Kit's burns didn't seem too bad, though obviously relatively serious and apparently very painful. Kit happened to have set his video camera up on a tripod and filmed the whole thing. Several of us wondered if he'd done the whole thing on purpose ;)

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Kazakhstan Into Russia

We just made the Kazakhstan/Russia border by night fall. It was a little windy and some of the coldest weather we've experienced since Europe. The Kazakh guards were all very friendly, and unusually thorough. Our car got its first semi-decent search, they got us to take everything out of the boot and even had a look at the spare, though not really checking the rest of the car. As ever they asked beforehand if we were carrying any heroin. We proceeded to passport control where my two passports were given even more attention than normal. Slowly more and more senior officials were called, until a small huddle formed, all looking at my passports in puzzled silence, as if they were trying to crack a particularly hard maths problem or crossword clue. The trouble is, once they've decided there's a problem they can't really just let you through without loosing face, you have to come up with some new piece of evidence for them to go "Aaaah, that's ok then." Eventually I pointed out, for the second time, that upon entering the country I'd had both my visa (in my old passport) stamped and my new passport stamped, and we were on our way.

Russia is a serious country and I was expecting a serious border, but it was actually one of the easiest entries we've had. The easiest I would say, very quick and straight forward.

By this time it was 9pm and very dark. We'd always planned to camp the other side of the border as Novosibirsk was quite a drive away, and we'd had to leave Kazakhstan as you have to register after five days and we were on our fifth day. So we drove a little way into Russia, turned into a side road, drove enough of a distance to be hidden from the road (so we thought) setup camp and had noodles with egg for dinner. Again.

We were awoken by the sound of a vehicle. It was definitely coming towards us. I knew it was going to stop at our tent. It stopped at our tent. There was a shout. Probably in Russian. I reluctantly unzipped the door. There were three Russian soldiers with guns standing around their Lada 4x4. Kai got up and I started to pack away our things. We didn't share much in the way of language, but once they'd seen our passports they left. We weren't sure if they wanted us to leave or not, but three guys with guns worked pretty well as an alarm clock and it was past 7am so we decided to leave, without even the cup of tea we'd offered the soldiers.

Astana

The drive to Astana was very long but fairly uneventful. If you have a look at the map you can see we drove around a very large lake in the south of the country, which was an absolutely beautiful perfect turquoise colour, not unlike the Kazakh flag, maybe that's where it comes from.

Darkness fell between 7 and 8 when we still had a considerable distance to go. By that point we'd driven for about 12 hours and covered about 3/4 of the 1100km (passing our 10,000th mile on the way). Passing through Karagandy there were a couple of signed detours along surprisingly bad roads, considering that we were travelling from Kazakhstan's biggest city to its capital. At one point I was following a couple of cars along a flyover when they drove around a small road block. I followed, not thinking much of it. Then we came to another road block and both cars turned off the road. I followed. The road got smaller and smaller until it was barely a dusty track. We crossed several railway tracks. Kai started to freak out. Just as I was beginning to wonder if we should turn around we found tarmac again, and eventually met the main road again.

Incredible. Relief.

Reaching Astana at midnight we managed to find a hotel very quickly, and went straight to bed. We'd been driving for 16 hours.

The stories of Astana we'd heard in Almaty led me to imagine something along the lines of Ashgabat, lots of new but empty and useless/already fading buildings. But actually it was pretty normal as things go. Kai and I went to see the Norman Foster "tent" this morning. It looked disappointedly small from the outside, but it does manage to contain a six story shopping mall. As a measure of how bright it is here, I took a picture inside the shopping mall at ISO 100.

We're now rushin' to Russia. We'll probably camp tonight, hopefully inside Russia, and make Novosibirsk tomorrow.

Norman Foster's Astana Tent

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Kyrgyzstan

So after waking up in the yurt after an uncomfortable night's sleep we packed up early for a dash to Murghab where we should have been that morning and onto the border. We met An American Team Bruce Almaty and a South African solo team named Guy there, which was nice. We also took on an Israeli hitchhiker called Dal who was desperate to get to Bishkek by the 26th for a flight to India, which was the matched our itinerary.

DSC_9992

We were a bit nervous as we heard a couple of reports of challenging roads once we set off. We went through one after another fearing that was worse to come, and we were all surprised when we unexpectedly hit the border. The border was just a shack where it looked like a checkpoint that we've seen time and time again.

We struggled to pay the least possible bribe and eventually settled on $10 for both teams.

At this point we had a flat and another tyre had a bulge in the side the size of a golf ball, so we did the Pamirs with some scars to prove it. As usual we completed a major leg of the journey and it was an anti-climax. It is difficult to celebrate when you're exhausted and there is no champagne. ;)

We pushed onto Osh and after some insane night driving where there was far too many animals and other dangers on the road. We checked into a LP recommendation Hotel Altai and it was absolutely abysmal. Nothing worked, not even in the taps in the room.

The next day we wanted to deal with the two tyres before setting off on the 10hr drive to Bishkek. We found the "Car (Machina) Bizaare" with the help of Team Bruce Almaty and we hoped we could get everything sorted in a bit more than an hour, in order to leave by midday.

Two hours later, blood, sweat, tears and ~30USD lighter we managed to get both done. What was silly was that the power for the block was out, so I to search out a place with a generator. It also didn't help the first second hand tyre we were sold had a massive hole in it. The next one was the wrong size, slightly bigger. We didn't notice until we drove off with it. So now when we hit a bump on the back right side, we can hear it hitting the wheel arch!

Nonetheless we moved on with Dal still in the back. It soon transpired we could not close on Bishkek, though we managed to find a pleasant hotel in Totagul on the way. Early next morning we aimed for Almaty.

Jamie's Day

Jamie fixes a punctureAfter spending most of the night weeing out of my bottom in the absolutely disgusting, but thankfully en suite and functional (unlike the "shower" or basin) toilet of our room at Hotel Altai (I must appologise to the four other people sharing the room) I wasn't exactly feeling great. As I didn't think stopping every five mintutes for a toilet break was really an option I decided to take something to stop the diarrhea, and then we went out for a hearty breakfast, one of the heariest breakfasts we've had. Taking Imodium and then eating a large meal is not something that I recommend. As we looked around the tyre market in the heat and checked out a few prospective tyres I felt sicker and sicker. Really like the food in my stomach had nowhere to go. I just prayed that it wouldn't go upwards. Kai took the bulging tyre off to be changed and left me with the car. I got the punctured spare out and started the process of fixing it using the Crafty Plugger kit I'd brought from London, battling with a kid from one of the tyre places who thought, wrongly, that he knew how to use it better than I did. The sun beat down. I got a bowl out of the car and prepared for the worse.

Two days later and I have finally recovered. I swear I will never drink that fizzy yak's milk again. Though having said that no one else was fool enough to drink it, and they all came down with the same symptoms, at some point.

The Mongol Rally is actually a bit of a jolly

We had a really good day today, despite some really depressing news last night. As Kai wrote, yesterday we crossed into Uzbekistan, which was probably one of the least pleasant border crossings yet, but still the hardest bit is remaining patient. However last night I happened to check my emails, the first time in a while as internet was really hard to come by in Turmenistan, and Team America had emailed warning that the Uzbek border guards had been wondering where we were as we had "missed a step", and needed to go back to get our "yellow form". As we'd left I did wonder how come we still had both copies of our customs declaration forms.

So we made the decision this morning to go back. I was in more of a mind to risk it, but Kai has become risk-averse of late. Good thing too. It was also lucky that we hadn't gone all the way to Samarqant as I had suggested as there would have been no way we would have wanted to drive back the 700 odd km to the border. (To be honest Buxoro was nicer to visit than Samarqant anyway.)

So after a few last trips to the toilet in our water-less hostel, we left at about 8:30am and made good progress, getting back to the border at about 9:30am. In contrast to the day before the border was very quiet and we got back to the customs office easily. There the two male and female guards recognised us, pretended to be cross with us, told us that we must thank the friends who notified us as we would now be able to leave the country, and sent us on our way. The guards outside were a bit annoyed when I played with their attack dog, it was so cute, but still didn't have any water.

We then made quick time back to Buxoro for a very good lunch (I opted for beef shashlik again, as it was so good last night. Kai's plov was very good too, which I was surprised at) stopping only to see if we could get some fuel from one of the very few open petrol stations which all have very long queues outside. I walked down to check that they had 95 octane "benzene" and we were waved in, past all the locals (sorry locals).

We made it to Samarqand for about 6, stopping once so that Kai could take a dip in a very grey/brown fast flowing river, which we had a job getting him out of.

Hopefully tomorrow we will make it to and through the Tajik border, stay the night and start the Pamir Highway on Monday.

Before we started this trip I was a bit concerned as Kai was always talking about two months, while my work had given me 6-7 weeks. Once we started however it was me who was suggesting we spend a bit more time in, for instance, Iran, and Kai was then getting nervous about being left behind by the rest of the ralliers. When we left Iran I was quite happy with our progress as we'd done about 6500 miles in three and a bit weeks and only had about 2000 left to go. However, one day into Turkmenistan, driving to Mary, and I realised how a bad road can turn your 800km days into 200km days and so many small countries means the border crossings start to eat up time and I began to get nervous. Since Mary the roads have been much better, hopefully they won't get too bad, else I might have to leave Kai to finish the rally on his own ;)

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Hell Mouth, Turkmenistan

IMG_0460

About 40 years ago, 300 odd kilometers north of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan some noxtious gases were seeping out of the ground at a drilling site. It was decided to burn off the gases and so they were lit. The ground collapsed, the rig fell into the hole, and the fire has been burning ever since. It's quite a sight, and tourists have been going to have a look ever since. Now apparently the Turkmen authorities don't like tourists, and I imagine the whole episode was a bit of an embarrassment, so they took the logical step and raised the local village, Darvaza, to the ground (leaving the bread oven standing due to religious reverance) to desaude visitors. It is against this backdrop that Kai and I left Ashgabat yesterday afternoon and headed north.

Driving 300km through desert is a thirsty business and by the time we got to what I assume had once been Darvaza, complete with lone bread oven and a handy wall to hide the car behind, we'd already drunk about half of the water we had with us. We also hadn't seen a petrol station since just outside Ashgabat.

Just before Darvaza, suspiciously close infact, had been a police check point. This panicked us a bit, hence the hiding of the car, and we decided to wait until dark and then walk the last three miles through the desert to the "hell mouth". Not quite as crazy as it sounds as Kai had already put the coordinates into his GPS device.

Walking through the desert was a little spooky. Kai claims he saw a snake, but it could have just been a moving stick ;) Gradually in the distance we started to see a slight glow on the horizon, and after climbing yet anouther ridge we saw... the moon. But all was not lost, there was definitely something else glowing out there. After a total of about an hour and a half we did eventually reach the great fire pit. It was nice, very peaceful and we scaled an overlooking hill and sat for a while.

While it was nice to see, and walking through the desert was an experience, I'm not sure I'd recommend it, or at least not the way that we did it. There is apparently a track that leads to it if you can find it, or you can try to find a guide, and you can camp nearby. As we returned and were getting close to the car we heard a motorbike behind us, which by the time we got to the car had caught up with is, and at just the same, as if on schedule, two other motorbikes drew up, from opposite directions. The riders seemed to want to take us on a tour of the flame pit. We tried to explain that we'd already been. They stayed and chatted and gave us some chewing tobbacco, which was a bit strong, and asked for gifts. Luckily we had some cigarettes and a pen and they left eventually.

The Iranian Border

As that Queen song goes, it started off so well. We had made it out of Turkey without paying anyone to carry our documents from our car 10 meters to the check point, it was calm and relaxed and we hadn't seen any beards or even guns. We'd had to be a bit patient while they checked our passports, and then took our finger prints. Kai's for the second time as he'd already given them at the Consulate in the UK, I'd thought I'd gotten away with it after their machine broke, at the border we were back to old fashioned, reliable ink and paper. We then gave them the carnet, our car's passport, and waited some more.

We chatted with the officials, they seemed very interested in us, we showed them our Persian guide book on my Kindle (I'd previously removed Salmon Rushdie and made sure not to show them that it could still access Twitter and Facebook), they loved my tattoos, if laughing and pointing can be described as "loved".

One guard in particular became quite interested in our car, pointing at stuff and asking what it was. The first thing that sparked his interest was Kai's Gerber multitool. He pointed at it and said "Gift?" I explained that it wasn't mine. He then went to the back of the car and asked what the long red and blue bags were. I explained that they were chairs (£5 from ASDA), and he got one out, and sat on it, asking if it was made in England. He called Kai over and repeated the multitool-gift trick.

Kai searched for anything else that he might be happy with, trying to fob him off with some "expensive" Cafe Direct tea, the guard asked if it was made in England. Eventually Kai gave him one of his Geekout "KitKai" T-shirts, and he was very happy, asking again if it was made in England. A little while later our documents were ready, and we were asked for 20 Euros. This made me quite cross. I thought we probably could have driven off, but Kai didn't want to piss them off so I offered them 10, which was accepted. We were directed to customs, which we missed and were turned back from the exit gates. We went to a small green cabin, where we were given another slip of paper. We went to a manic building with one small kiosk window and absolutely no form of queuing system and worried that our documents had been lost somewhere. We went back to the green cabin and were asked how much we'd paid at the border. I was honest and we were asked for another 10 Euros. We handed over 10 Turkish Lira, about 5 Euros and were finally allowed to leave.

Iranian Border

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