Stalingrad to the Urals

It took our cars most of the day and half the night to get through the Russian border. With our Utah license plates and complete lack of Russian skills, it could have been worse.

Just across, we settled into an odd, run-down hotel, its parking lot doubling as a zoo. In the morning light we spotted exotic animals cramped in the tiny cages outside before speeding along to Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad.

The battle fought here in 1942-43 may have been the bloodiest in all of human history: by the end, there were roughly one and a half million dead. We paid our respects at the Motherland Calls monument, a gargantuan woman pointing a sword over the sky. Just down the hill, dirge music played on a loop in the cavernous memorial hall, where statuesque soldiers broke from position only to keep smiling tourists and their cameras and peace signs from posing on tombs covered with flowers. Tens of thousands of tiny names, probably signifying an entire platoon each, were stacked high on the walls.

Moving on, some radical last-minute changes were made to the trip. Although Kazakh and Uzbek visas had been painstakingly prepared, and much of the team had looked forward to passing the Aral Sea, Samarkand, Bishkek and Almaty, it was decided that we'd avoid unnecessary borders the rest of the drive: we'd now head for almost 3,000 miles along the southern edge of Russia.

Through dozens of cities I'd never heard of, we plowed on along the Volga, the landscape shifting about as much as in the Midwest. A few days in we crossed the Urals, the terrain turning briefly Appalachian before shifting back to Nebraska again. But this time, with the old mountains behind us, we'd entered the remote outskirts of Asia. 





Eastern Europe in a Flash


Setting out from Budapest, we raced across Eastern Europe, stopping off only for Bran Castle (of Dracula fame), a backwoods Romanian village--where we escaped a marauding band of gypsy children--and the Ukrainian border. There, the friendly officers laughed at our vehicles and warned us that some terrible roads lay ahead along our route through Ukraine. About this they were right.


Mongol Rally Day One: Budapest

Early Monday morning, I wandered over from my Budapest hostel for a meeting at Le Meridien. I was an hour early through the revolving doors, and the receptionists, scanning me up and down with sneers, quickly pointed me back outside. Through the glass they smiled in my direction, chuckling about this meeting I'd probably made up. From a bus stop across the street, I eventually saw the massive expedition-equipped SUVs pull up to the valet parking, dozens of sponsor logos dotting the doors and windows. I walked over to meet the gang of five, an unofficial Mongol Rally team organized by CharityVision, and then joined them for a buffet breakfast, smiling at the staff as I passed back through the lavish reception hall.

Then we headed east through the city. Over the next few weeks we'll try to ride all the way to Ulan Bator, almost 8000km away.