Charlie Grosso reflects on her Eastern Europe experience as she embarks on the first leg of the Mongol Rally.




Mongol Rally_Eastern Europe

We’ve quickly zipped through 2500+km in a matter of days. Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria all went by in a flash. When you drive through six countries in four days, you start to see each place a little differently. You move from rolling hills of rural country into suburbia into major cities and their historic centers. When people think of a city, it is usually the historic center that comes to mind. The Charles Bridge in Prague, or the Danbu dividing Buda from Pest with all the bridges and castles bathed in the orange glow of twinkling lights. The subdivisions outside of each major city’s historic center are never really what you think of. You never go there. You barely realize they exist. I was surprised to discover that each of the major cities we drove through was rimmed with giant international box stores, Carrefour, IKEA, and mega mall complexes. There were moments when I thought I could be in Fresno, California, or Houston, Texas. The only difference is that Eastern European Highways don’t have as many lanes as they do in the U.S. and the names of the stores and malls are in langauges that I don’t understand.

An authentic experience is always high on any traveler’s list, but when the historic center that we gravitate towards makes up maybe 5 percent of the entire country, how does one really find the fabric of a country? I don’t particularly love subdivisions or the outskirts of major cities but I do find them fascinating. They are like the loose threads on a tapestry; you get to see all the different color threads that are part of the overall picture giving you perhaps the truest representation of a country. Driving through Eastern Europe and its diverse subdivisions these past week, I’ve learned several lessons:

Lesson #1: Learn European road signs. They look somewhat different than their North American counter part. One could be a master code breaker but the split seconds you hesitate to try to figure out what the sign means could mean that you miss the turn off or end up driving one way down the wrong way!

Lesson #2: When the police officer wants to give you a ticket, they tend to name a price that is quiet high and you negotiate your way down from there. We negotiated our 10,000kc ticket for driving wrong way on a one way down to 500kc. Another team also got pulled over for traffic violation and negotiate their fines down as well.

Lesson #3: Google Map is inaccurate in its time estimate. It does not factor in road conditions, traffic and the size of the road (a country road is frequently listed as a highway). All of which affects the speed in which you can drive at. We have been multiplying the estimated time by 1.5 and that actually gets us pretty close to how long it takes us to get from one town to another.

Lesson #4: GPS, Google Maps and all are fantastic tools. I love them and wouldn’t want to live without them. However, once upon a time, in a far away kingdom, I learned how to drive through Los Angeles traffic and all the different streets by streets signs alone! (shocking I know) and occasionally I would consult the Thomas Guide when I didn’t know where I was going. When you find yourself ignoring clearly marked traffic signs because that is not the way the blue line is going….its time to stop and think. Don’t give up your intuition, common sense, logic and ability to read street signs just because the mechanical voice tells you to turn right! (It will realize that it is wrong and recalculate course! Then you are just mad!)

One week in, 2500km completed, six countries down, one traffic ticket scored for SM Stowaway. Now that was the easy part. We are about to leave Europe for Asia which means the uncertainly factor just went up!