The patrons at the schnitzel house in Altdorf, near Nuremberg, were keen to show us the little cards propped on each table. They'd been made by the owner to encourage people to try a coffee after their meals. They featured images of various world leaders and a 'funny' caption underneath. The patrons were particularly taken by one featuring President Obama. It showed the President drinking a coffee and the caption read: “Coffee makes Obama happy. And tired people too!”
“Good, yah?” said one of the Frau, expectantly. I laughed uncomfortably. Who says Germans don't have a sense of humour?
When The Adventurists asked me if I'd like to be embedded with one of their Mongol Rally teams from the UK to Prague I wasn't really sure what to expect. The starting party at Goodwood racecourse, The Festival of Slow, was a lot of fun, with Mongol wrestlers wrestling and mock Russian border officials asking for all the necessary paperwork. And it was a real thrill to do a lap of the famous old race course before heading east to Dover and the ferry to the continent. But surely those first few days through safe and bland western Europe would be the most boring of the trip?
It is a testament to the magic of the Mongol Rally that I was wrong. The team I was embedded with, Genghis Carnage, had been overly optimistic in booking a 5.30 pm ferry. Getting to Dover became an adventure in itself. It took every ounce of the Suzuki Alto's inconsiderable resources to get us there on time. We arrived at Dover with minutes to spare, and only made it on board when customs waved us through after we assured them that the Gerry cans on the roof rack were empty.
I had also underestimated how people, even in Western Europe, would react to a ridiculously overloaded 1-litre car, making it's way to Mongolia. Even on the autobahns of France, Belgium and Germany, motorists spotted the Mongol Rally stickers and hooted and waved, wishing us the best.
Adventure, even in Western Europe, was always just around the corner. On our first night, we camped in a field in Belgium. We just pulled off the road, went down a couple of dark lanes and found ourselves a spot amongst the rows of corn. The farmer came and checked us out about 4 am in the morning, shone his torch across our tents and left. He obviously felt that people driving a car with a picture of fire-breathing Genghis Khan on the side weren't to be messed with.
Incredible hospitality was never far away either. In the schnitzel house in Altdorf, a biker couple, wearing matching leather waistcoats, the husband with the mandatory Lenny-from-Motorhead moustache, recommended we camped at a castle nearby. They'd watched Ritchie Blackmore play there only the week before and were disappointed that he'd played Medieval and Renaissance folk music. Peter and Leon looked bewildered, having never heard of Ritchie Blackmore.
'You know,' said the Germans, gruffly humming the riff of Smoke On the Water, 'Deep Purple.'
I was only go as far as Klenova Castle, a spectacular 13th century battlement in the rolling hills of Bohemia. Me and the boys from Team Genghis Carnage had intended to enter the Czech Republic from the west, but we got lost and entered from the south, through the spectacular Bayerischer Wald National Park, where alpine bands play and rogue cows terrorise farmers, and across a deserted border and into a Czech village lined with hobos selling concrete garden ornaments and huge billboards advertising Gentleman's clubs.
At Klenova Castle, teams from all over Europe gathered for Czech Out, the huge party organised by The Adventurists to send the teams off with a bang. The gathering had an Arabian Nights theme. There were barbeques and absinthe and more men dressed as harem girls than any person should see in their lives. I cradled a beer, watched a bunch of guys dressed as horses watching a Czech incarnation of Transvision Vamp, and felt a pang of envy.
Actually, it was more than a pang. It was a deep-seated gnawing at my soul. My adventure was over but theirs had just begun. I had but a taster in western Europe. Imagine the adventures that lay ahead in places like Turkey, Iran and the various 'Stans.
I'd live it it vicariously through the team websites on The Adventurists. But I also knew that one day I'd have to do it myself.
258 of the 300 teams that started the Mongol Rally made it to Mongolia, raising £449,753 for charity. Genghis Carnage were the 164th team to cross the line, travelling 9989 miles through 16 countries and only having to change one wheel. Applications for the 2012 Rally are now open. Visit the The Adventurists website for more details.
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