Checking Out Prague…then Czeching Out

We spent our third day on the road in Prague: simply beautiful. We did our best impression of tourists and walked among this gorgeous city before heading to the “Czech Out” party. We recommend stopping to see Prague’s “Bridge Band” if you ever visit yourself. The band is comprised of what appears to be old, drunk men just having a great time!

Dressed up in our yellow Rubber Duckies helmets at the Czech Out Party

Then it was off to the Czech Out Party, the European launch of the Mongol Rally, and the only big gathering of all the teams before the rally begins. It’s held at the bohemian Klenova Castle in Klatovy, Czech Republic (built in 1281). After pitching our tent on a sloping field behind the castle and chatting with other teams, we dressed up as Rubber Ducky construction workers and made our way to the castle.

What better way to celebrate Pete and Jeff’s 26th birthday than by “Czeching Out” with hundreds of other Mongol Rally teams. This was a great opportunity to meet the other teams and toast (way too many times) our upcoming adventure. After experiencing absinthe, dancing at a rave in castle, playing the international version of “Dynamite”, offending some Aussies by calling them Kiwis, riding a bull (which Burt doesn’t remember), and forcing the entire party to sing “Happy Birthday”, we thought it was time to call it a night.

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Long Haulin’ from France to the Czech Republic

To save money on the Rally, we’ll be camping most nights…and sometimes our accommodations will not be so luxurious.

Our first night on the road, we chose to stay at what appears to be the remnants of a zombie apocalypse in France. It was terrifying when we pitched our tent and even scarier when we listened to howling all night…hours of pounding wind perfectly simulating the undead clawing at our tent flaps. We woke up surrounded by French truck drivers rubbernecking at our Ducky-Mobile.

The abandoned (and possibly zombie-infested) truckstop we camped at near Dunkerque, France

Our second day on the Rally, we had one mission: to book it to Prague to explore the city before the Czech Out Party. The Rally has a very tight timeline, so we have to be selective about where we spend our precious time…so France, Belgium and Germany only received a passing-through.

We fell fast in love with Brussels within the first 10 minutes of driving around this city, but like most foreign flings we needed to end the love affair once we found outselves lost within its winding city streets. We managed our way along the Autobahn all the way to rainy Frankfurt, Germany, where we had some dinner (and accidentally parked in the red light district)…then we continued toward the Czech Border.

We arrived on the outskirts of Prague at three in the morning. With all hostels and campgrounds closed, we found a long, dead-end street to camp on thinking that no one would mind our brief night there. Little did we know that the next morning we would wake up to an 18 wheeler semi almost running us over as he tried to maneuver his truck back up the dead end street after making a wrong turn. Alas– onto Prague!

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Sailing Across the Channel with DFDS

We made it out of England and are now off to Belgium courtesy of DFDS Ferries. We were afraid we wouldn’t make the ferry since we had pick up Jeff’s luggage at Heathrow and then head to Dover. But we did, and it was a breeze getting on the ferry. Once parked, we headed up to the back deck to see the White Cliffs of Dover, right before we started moving across the channel. Two hours later, we were off, and on to the “Czech Out” party.

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The Mongol Rally Is ON!

After decorating our car at a police detour stop, we journeyed toward the Festival of Slow. Mind you, this did not come without complications. As many of you heard via facebook and twitter, Jeff’s flight was delayed in Rochester, which made him miss his connection flight in Philadelphia. 21 hours later and an argument with US Airlines, Jeff was routed to London via British Airlines. This seemed as though everything was sorted out…except his bag with all his team equipment, including the necessary tent, which we would call home for the next five weeks. Jeff arrived at Heathrow with no bags and journeyed to the Festival of Slow, the starting line of the Mongol Rally.

The Festival of Slow proved to be a perfect example of how ridiculous this trip will be. With each vehicle decked out in their own depiction of their odd personas, we saw everything from the Baywatch cast atop a Fire Engine, a decapitated dummy mounted to a car roof, a van completely covered in purple fur, and a South Korean team with more video equipment than NBC. What surprised us the most was our rival team, “The Rubber Ducks” from the UK. But we showed all teams by blaring our patriotic music, waving our American flag and tossing duckies to our adoring fans.

With help from a caring British couple at this event, named Liz and Will, Jeff battled US Airways in retrieving the bag they lost. After a few choice words and Jeff charming a lovely air baggage woman named Varna, he was able to set up a secret meeting via a coffee shop phone and a back entrance into Terminal 1 at Heathrow. Now the Rubber Duckies AND their gear is on route to the Dover Ferry! With a quick stop to a British pub for some fish, chips and a conversation with some Cockney gents and lasses, we are on our way!

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Pimping Our Fiat (or how to make a crappy car slightly less bad at offroading in the desert)

The Fiat Seicento is one of the worst possible vehicles we could choose to drive to Mongolia, let alone to the corner grocery store. As such, we decided to make a few modifications in hopes that we’ll have a better chance of getting it across 3 deserts and 5 mountain ranges.

Here’s a timelapse video of all the work we did on the car (I had a little fun with my new GoPro camera while we were working):

We did this work last week while staying with the Weigel family in Warendorf-Milte, Germany, and thanks to their expertise, gracious help, and tools, we were able to soop up our little car so that it might just make it! Nothing like a little German auto engineering.

The metal parts we installed were designed by us, and then cut, bent and welded by a metalworker in Milte. We then made the final bolting and fitting of the pieces. A huge thank-you goes to the Weigels for donating their time, tools, as well as quite a few old parts they had around the house — skis, roof racks, bits of metal, etc. We spent two and a half days working on the car, and without all the help, I would have never been able to do all this.

Here’s a little video walkthrough of all of our handiwork:

All in all, we added:

  • Roof Rack – The Fiat came with absolutely no good way to attach anything to the roof, so we built a very sturdy roof rack from scratch, consisting of two rugged horizontal bars. We also have a pair of skis and a few drain pipes that we can use to make crossbars when we strap our gear to the top.
  • Sump Guard – Bolted a big piece of 1.5mm steel sheet metal to the undercarriage of the Seicento. This will keep rocks, bumps, stumps, grass and bushes from tearing apart the sensitive mechanical pieces, accidentally cutting the brake line, etc. We expect to be driving through a lot of this stuff, so this could save our ass.
  • Front Bumper Reinforcement – The Fiat Seicento has a 1 out of 5 star crash test rating, so we reinforced the front bumper with a solid steel plate in the center, and also a strong metal bar on the lower rim (which should help if we drive into a boulder of some sort).
  • Radiator Grate – The radiator on the Seicento is, inexplicably, completely unprotected aside from a few flimsy pieces of plastic on the front of the car. (I think it’s Fiat’s way of selling extra radiators.) We put a piece of wire grating in front of the radiator to protect it from pebbles, sand, plants and debris).
  • Ducky Hood Ornament – A little yellow duck to add some more pizazz to our car. (Thanks Paul for making this!)

This is all really strong and sturdy, and must I say, pretty impressive. I can’t thank my dad Bob Berg, as well as Uli and Paul for all of their brilliant design work and manpower. My sister Sara and mother Cheryll as well as Jutta Weigel also played crucial roles.

Stay tuned to this post for photos — once I get to a place with a decent Internet connection, I will upload the stills I took while we were working so you can get a better look.

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We have our car!

After weeks of language barriers, missed deadlines, 3AM phone calls, technical hurdles, confusion and frustration, we’ve got it!

Behold, our Fiat Seicento:

I picked it up today in Bielefeld, Germany, from a little used car shop called ALKIS Automotive. The Alkis brothers are Turks who emigrated to Germany a few years ago and got into the used car business on arrival. In fact, it seems everybody in the used car business in Germany is a Turk. When Mr. Alkis brought me to the auto registration depot in Bielefeld, he knew every other guy who walked in and greeted most of them in Turkish. (These guys, also dealers, also had customers in tow.)

“He is my brother,” Mr. Alkis told me, as each auto dealer trailed in. There are a lot of Alkis brothers, it seems. When we first arrived at the used car lot, we discovered that the Mr. Alkis who was in today was not the Mr. Alkis we had been in communication with for several weeks, but actually his brother.

This Alkis wore a black leather coat, had his hair slicked back, and had dark and angular features. He walked with swagger — a smooth walk, slightly slumped shoulders, but with an extra bounce in his step. This walk was not unfamiliar to me. Our family’s exchange student from Georgia, Turkey’s neighbor to the North, walked almost the same way. I found out later that Alkis came from a small town just a stone’s throw from the Georgia border and 150km from Tbilisi, where our exchange student friend had come from.

Waiting for our number to come up at this German version of the DMV, my father and I chatted with Mr. Alkis. I expressed my concern that we were only getting temporary German “export” license plates — the only type allowed by a foreigner — because they have an imprinted expiration date on them. Our one month temp registration puts our expiration date smack dab in the middle of the Mongol Rally, when we will be crossing border after border, and our fate will be determined by a bunch of corrupt Central Asian border guards who are on the lookout for any sort of technicality to nail you on…or at least, elicit a bribe.

“So what happens if some border guard in Uzbekistan sees that our plates are expired?” I asked.

“Cover it with a piece of tape. Black tape. No problem.” said Alkis.

I guess he knows a little bit more about how things work in Central Asia than I do.

Alkis led us around Bielefeld for two hours a German car registration scavenger hunt. When Alkis was running off to grab a number and schmooze his way to the front of the registration line, his jolly assistant who spoke about three words of English and ten of German, would find us parking spots of questionable legality. After driving in what seemed like circles, and making stops at the German “DMV,” some tax agency, and a little shop that printed our license plates into sheet metal, Alkis brought us back to his car lot and — finally — handed me the keys.

It was time to roll. But not quite yet. As he relinquished ownership of the Fiat’s little blue key, he explained to my father in German that sometimes on the Fiat Seicento, it would not start on the first turn of the key…it usually started on the third try. Sometimes the fourth. “Don’t worry, it works fine. It’s a common problem for Fiats.”

As we turned the key for the first time, I could tell that Mr. Alkis was holding his breath. Luckily for him, the engine roared to a start on the *first* key turn. Since then, it’s never happened sooner than the third try. The following day, the starter would just emit a pathetic click four out of five times that I turned it, before begrudgingly starting up.

Alkis offered me some parting advice as we left his dealership with our new 1200cc beast. In rough English, he told me when I drive through Turkey or Georgia or Azerbaijan, or anywhere in the neighborhood for that matter, police will stop me for bribes. “You be stupid. Police after minutes get bored, go away. Be very stupid. You have no problem.”

I’ll take his word for it. He knows a little bit more about how things work in Central Asia than I do.

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Now… We Are All Business

With help from Color Images, The Rubber Duckies now have 2500 Double Sided Gloss Finished Business Cards. Don’t know who we are yet? How about you take a business card. Thank You Color Images (and Thank You to The Mongol Rally Guys for the idea)! I didn’t realize how many cards we ordered until I picked them up. I am now going to be flying from LA to London with a lot of rubber ducks and a lot of business cards…

Check out our cards, and then head on over to Color Images. You can upload your documents to their website, and they will help you out right away. They are located at 2320 West Olive Ave., Burbank, CA 91506.

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Floating Across the English Channel with DFDS Seaways

DFDS Seaways is supporting the The Rubber Duckies by donating ferry tickets for travel across the English Channel. On July 23rd, we will be departing from Dover, UK and arriving in Dunkerque, FR. When traveling on the brand new fleet of DFDS Seaways cross channel ferries, it takes just 2 hours to make the crossing.

With DFDS Seaways being the only ferry company sailing from Dover to Dunkerque, traffic will be a breeze to the ferry. And, hopefully we won’t scare too many people when we forget that in the UK, they drive on the opposite side of the road…

On July 23rd, begin the rally at the Goodwood Motor Circuit, head to Dover, cross to Dunkerque, and then we are off to Ulaanbaatar.

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New on our itinerary: The SOS Children’s Village in Tbilisi, Georgia

One of the charities we’re supporting, SOS Children’s Villages, has graciously invited us to visit one of their villages (orphanages) on our Mongol Rally route!

When we are in Tbilisi, Georgia in the second week of the rally, we will stop by the local SOS village and see first hand what all of the donations we are collecting goes to support.

The SOS Children’s Village Tbilisi comprises twelve family houses with a capacity for up to 84 children, and also includes an SOS Kindergarten, an SOS Social Centre and an SOS Youth Facility which are open to children in the neighborhood. We will get a chance to meet the children, and meet the SOS mothers and aunts who care for them and raise them in a caring and loving environment.

Many thanks go out to Cory Strischek of SOS Children’s Villages for coordinating this visit for us. Cory’s Team Shadowboat did the Mongol Rally in 2007, and he now works for the U.S. branch of SOS Villages in Washington DC.

Also, Cory sent us a package with all of this nifty stuff in it… an SOS sticker for us to put on our car, t-shirts, amazing scarves, key chains, flash drives, and much-needed brochures:

We’d also like to thank our friend Irakli Qarqashadze, who will be hosting us and translating for us when we get to Georgia. Irakli was an exchange student who lived with Pete’s family for a year in Candor, NY in 2005, and he will also be accompanying us on our village visit.

We are very excited to visit the SOS Village in Tbilisi, and we are sure our visit to Georgia will be unforgettable!

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Charity Flip Cup Tournament raises over $1000

This past Saturday, we held a Mongol Rally Charity Flip Cup Tournament in Los Angeles, and it was a huge success!

We had fifty friends (in ten teams of five) come to compete, and support our two Mongol Rally charities. After expenses, we raised over $1000! We are repeatedly amazed and humbled by the generosity of our friends, and we thank them all for their support.

Each flip cup team competed in a round robin, followed by a tournament. The teams competed for the chance to have their team name painted on our Mongol Rally car, and for the coveted golden pig trophy we made for the event.

In the end, the winning team was The Flipsters — Chris Cucci, Kimmy Pitkin, Justin Walter, Shaun Smith and Brianne Trosie — with their plaid hipster outfits.

Each team also got to adopt one of our rubber duckies, which will be going along with us on the rally.

Thanks again to everyone for coming out. We had a great time, and we couldn’t think of a better way to have fun with our friends and also raise money for charity.

Below are photos of all the teams who competed. THANKS again to all of you for coming out!:

1. Plaid / The Flipsters / Captain: Chris Cucci
2. Purple / The Zesty Zimbabweans / Captain: Jess Lemmon
3. Silver / Team LotsofMoneyandPassportsinCarPleaseDon’tHurtUsWe’llGiveFreeHugsandWorkforNothingDemocracyRocksUSANumberOne / Captain: Anthony Bisalti
4. USA / Team Bad Decisions / Captain: Ram Calley
5. Tie-Dye / Strangers With Candy / Captain: Casey Buss
6. White / Spring Break ’97 / Captain: Chris Burt
7. Black / Pizza and the Huts / Captain: Pete Berg
8. Green / Loose Flips Sink Ships / Captain: Alex Colby
9. Red / The Flipducks / Captain: Amanda Ahmad
10. Orange / Team We Thought This Was Beer Pong / Captain: Paul Ferguson

Thanks again, and we hope you had a FLIPPIN’ GOOD TIME!

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