Breaking into Europe, at last.
We’ve successfully completed Stage 2 of our journey (China to Turkey), and are now embarking on the 3rd and final stage bringing Oxford and the team home to the UK. Just over 2,250km to go!
After leaving the mind-blowing architecture of Samarkand behind, we travelled on through Uzbekistan and into our 11th country, Turkmenistan.
When asked which country they were most curious about, the team overwhelmingly chose this reclusive former Soviet Republic, which lets in fewer tourists each year than North Korea.
After crossing the border we were excited to get to the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat (‘The City of Love’). Sadly, Oxford had different ideas. Just a few kilometres into the country, travelling at 70km/h, Alex and Nat heard a loud crunch in Oxford’s rear after heading over a minor bump.
30 seconds later, Oxford lurched to the left, and the rear-left wheel and axle went sailing past the passenger door. Alex tried to slam on the brakes, only to discover they’d also left the building.
Thankfully the road was wide, flat and most importantly – empty. (Turkmenistan is 80% desert, and has less then 6 million people in an area roughly the size of France.) Oxford eventually ground to a halt in the layby.
We only realised afterwards how lucky we’d been. If the same had happened in the mountains of Nepal or China, Nat and Alex might not have been able to walk away unscathed, or at all.
Another stroke of luck was breaking down not far from Mary, the heart of Turkmenistan’s auto-industry. Although no one had seen a Series One Land Rover before, the local mechanics were quick to get to work under the watchful eye of The Doc and Larry, TLO’s unstoppable mechanical tag-team.
After dismantling Adam Bennett’s pride and joy, the problem was identified as a broken wheel bearing, which thankfully they were able to machine on the spot and patch Oxford up. What could have been an expedition-ender was overcome by some local Turkmen ingenuity.
Driving a little more carefully from there on out, the team finally made it to the white-marble madness of Ashgabat.
The media, like most aspects of life in Turkmenistan, is tightly controlled, but The Last Overland’s arrival was deemed worthy of headline news.
We were invited on to state television to talk about our adventures, accompanied by newly arrived British Ambassador HE Hugh Philpott OBE (who earlier that day had kindly treated the team to their first full-English breakfast in a long while!)
After the trials and tribulations of the last few days we were glad to be moving on to country number 12, Azerbaijan. To get there meant crossing the Caspian Sea, a 17 hour journey by ferry. This crossing had been forced on us by a late-notice route change cutting out Iran.
Due to the escalating tensions there in recent months, it was deemed too dangerous at this moment in time to try and retrace the First Overland route. It was a strange feeling to be moving under someone else’s steam for the first time in almost 3 months!
From Azerbaijan we crossed into Georgia, country number 13. It was a particularly emotional moment for our expedition filmmaker David Israeli. David’s parents were born and raised in Georgia when the country was part of the Soviet Union, but just before the latter’s collapse David’s extended family had relocated to New York in 1990.
David had been raised in the US on tales of Tblisi and incredible Georgian cuisine, but he’d never had the chance to see where generations of his family had called home. It was a privilege (and a gastronomical delight!) for all of us to be a little part of this reunion – many of us are already planning our return to this wonderful corner of the world.
Saying goodbye (for now) to Georgia, we crossed into Turkey (Country No. 14) and at long last back on to the same roads the First Overlanders had crossed 64 years earlier.
Oxford’s triumphant return to Turkey hadn’t gone unnoticed by the local Land Rover community – one diehard First Overland fan, Servet, drove over 1,000km from Istanbul to meet us at the border. He’d be our guide for the next 7 wonderful days, as we endured (!) our most pampered stint yet on our long journey home.
Fed, homed and entertained by Land Rover enthusiasts from across Turkey, the team quickly fell in love with this land bridge between Asia – our home for the last 80+ days – and Europe. We were even given free fuel for our entire stay by the team at Aytemiz.
On our way towards the capital, it turned out the Land Rover fans had one more surprise for us – a visit to the Istanbul Formula 1 Circuit!
There we weren’t only treated to a tour of the incredible facilities and fascinating museum; we were also given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to put Oxford through her paces on the circuit.
When we arrived in Istanbul, things only got better as we continued in the tyre-tracks of Tim and his friends. 64 years earlier, The First Overlanders had arrived in Istanbul almost on the same day as the opening of the first Hilton Hotel outside of America – an iconic building that more than six decades still dominates Istanbul’s skyline. There they were treated to dinner, a rare treat.
Tim noted in his diary at the time: “Without any doubt, the most impressive hotel I have seen anywhere. American thru and thru.”
The Hilton Istanbul Bosphorus team, celebrating Hilton’s 100th birthday this year, were delighted to see history repeating itself! They gave Oxford and the team the most wonderful welcome, and homed these grubby overlanders for a long weekend.
It was a wrench to leave the luxury, incredible hospitality (and in Nat’s case the breakfast buffet), but Europe and the third and final stage of our journey lay ahead.
Crossing into Bulgaria (Country No. 15) the terrain began to change to be ever more familiar to the Western Europeans in the team, and minds began to turn to home at last.
From the border we headed into the Bulgarian Alps, where we were joined by some familiar faces from our friends at Opihr Gin – one of TLO’s Key Supporters who’ve made this whole journey possible.
Cruising Oxford through the autumnal wonderland surrounding Plovdiv, we shot a little film celebrating the local cuisine and flavours to mark the launch of Opihr’s delicious new European edition.
The next country on our list was Serbia (No.16), a country which for centuries has marked the hinterland of the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian empire, and a country whose politicians are still deciding whether to look East or West.
Moving at speed now with our 14th December deadline pressing, we crossed into Hungary – Country No.17 – and back once again into the EU. This time it was the turn of our Expedition Manager, Marcus Allender, to trace some family history.
Marcus’s dad is Hungarian, so this was a true homecoming – and what a homecoming! At the Serbia-Hungary border the expedition was waved through by the guards and then, after having been greeted by Land Rover fans, officials from the Hungarian Motoring Association and Allender family members, the team were led 180km by a fleet of police cars in a convoy of over 60 Land Rovers, the most we’ve had alongside us since Singapore. On-ramps were blocked off and red lights duly ignored!
Following this incredible welcome, the weather duly did its part and caked beautiful Budapest in a wonderfully festive layer of snow – and the team stuffed themselves at the city’s wonderful Christmas markets.
Although this is our last ‘Tales from Road’ for 2019, we hope you’ll stay with us.
And perhaps, just perhaps, this won’t be Oxford’s final adventure after all…
Until then, keep on rolling,
Team TLO x