American school buses were not made withIstanbulstreets in mind. Our Wednesday morning departure was delayed a few hours by our collective inability to navigate through streets wide enough to get us out of the city. We passed under and around theBosporusBridgemany times and it stood there stoically – smirking at our inability to find our way onto its tarmac. Through a combination of process of elimination and pure random chance, we eventually found ourselves winding up an Ortokoy street that miraculously deposited us on the bridge, putting us face to face withAsia, our final frontier.
The following few days have seemed like a race. Not against the calendar, the other teams, or the longevity of our bus, but a race against development. The minor routes and country roads we had plotted out for our trip betweenAnkaraandBakuwere being categorically widened, straightened, and flattened, and much of our journey seemed like a competition against the steam roller. Old roads would weave into 6 lane freeways for a few kilometers, and then revert back to small, pothole ridden fields as highway teams worked alongside us. Nearly open tunnels that will surely cut down on time betweenBatumiandTbilisiwill also render one of the more beautiful mountain pass roads I’ve ever been on obsolete. Almost perpetually from during our1,200 milejourney through easternTurkeyand the Caucus was a highway construction team within site. The rate at which development has occurred in these areas renders two year old guidebooks nearly useless and creates the odd appearance on our satellite tracker that we have driven straight through the desert, as these roads of tomorrow have yet to be added to the database. InBatumi,Georgia, entire neighborhoods and multiple acre developments were displayed only as empty lots on the most recent of maps. What will become of the Mongol Rally in a few years’ time when one can drive straight fromHyde Parkto Ulanbaatar on freshly laid concrete with sterile service stations positioned every50 milesalong the way? What will be the joy of driving around the world when the highways are continuously lined by half-finished high rises and gas stations? The Earth-bound frontier is being pushed to smaller and smaller corners of the globe, and with that it becomes harder to understand and appreciate the civilizations we are driving through.
Another point that keeps coming back to me, as it does often when I travel, is how people around the world are truly so similar. All we ever want is a place by the sea and to be surrounded by loved ones. Government and media and personal prejudices can do such a good job of building up arbitrary walls in our minds, but to actually get out there and see what makes people laugh and what makes people cry…it’s the same everywhere. Nowhere was this more true that at a carnival inBakulast night. There I am sitting on the bumper cars with my team and a dozen Azeris I had never met. Sure we grew up very differently and appear to be very different people. But when you cut that all away, when you are just two people laughing as we drive around in a neon lit circle, our fundamental similarities as human beings shine through. Whether it be a carnival in Baku, a festival in Budapest, or a fair in Beijing, I think that this is a universal truth that people often deny or forget.
We’ve come a long way since the Balkan forests and Greek beaches of a week ago. We’ve camped on the Black Sea coast ofTurkey, ducked into Trebzon’s hamams for a scrub on the way toGeorgia, and spent a Friday evening inTbilisirunning into Mongol Ralliers and throwing impromptu dance parties in the street. Within half an hour of enteringAzerbaijanon Saturday, we were pulled over for “incorrectly overtaking another vehicle” and politely asked for $250 in exchange for our freedom. Ten minutes of stalling had the fine reduced to $25 + 1 pair of sunglasses. The future promises to be far more uncertain and we are awaiting the next leg of the trip with great anticipation. We’ll be camped out inBakuuntil we can hitch a ride on the cargo ship that makes the 18 hour crossing toTurkmenbashi,Turkmenistan. Stories of 60 hour journeys, drunk sailors, cockroaches, and no facilities ensure that this will certainly be a unique leg of the journey. Very much looking forward to submitting the next post fromTurkmenistan.