“Are you in Germany? Our wedding is July 10" my friend David texted me only 12 days before The Big Day in Istanbul, Turkey. He then followed up on July 7: “Crashhh the wedding.” I, a man incapable of turning down a road trip, looked outside at my 250,000 mile diesel manual Chrysler Voyager and responded: “I’m gonna try for it.” I had three days to get to Turkey. They would prove to be rough.
Plane tickets from my parents’ house near Nürnberg, Germany to Istanbul, Turkey cost about $450. Driving to Istanbul would be a 1,200 mile one-way ordeal, and with my van scoring 33 MPG (the thing is a beast at the fuel pump) and diesel costing $5 per gallon, that meant almost $400 in fuel alone. Add tolls, and it would actually cost more to risk ending up stranded on a rural Bulgarian highway next to a broken 1994 Chrysler minivan. So naturally, I chose that route.
“What could possibly fail?” I pondered. I’d crawled all over that van when preparing it for Germany’s ridiculously strict “TÜV” mandatory vehicle safety inspection last year. I’d overhauled the brakes, replaced axle shaft CV joints, swapped in new suspension bushings, ran tests on the cooling system — I’d put all of my mechanical knowledge and wrenching skill into turning the van into an unkillable European road-trip king. Why do all of that work and not put it to the test?
As it turns out, the answer to that question is simple: Driving through essentially the entire length of Eastern Europe is absolute hell.
I left on the afternoon of July 8. I figured that a full day on the 9th, plus two half days on the 8th and 10th would get me to the wedding by 7 P.M. Per Google Maps, it was only a 20 hour drive.
My goal on day one was to get to Budapest to meet with my friend and Jalop alumnus Máté Petrány. The city is only seven hours from my parents’ house, so I figured I’d arrive around nine or 10 P.M.
I had to stop to buy Vignettes (basically, toll payments needed to enter countries) to get into both Austria and Hungary; that and the stops I took to rest my eyes brought me to Hungary’s beautiful capital city around 11 P.M.
Máté — who’s now working to establish Hungary’s new transportation museum (Edit: I previously wrote that Máté was working on Budapest’s first ever transportation museum. Turns out, Hungary built such a museum over a century ago. One of the world’s first!)— had a cold beer waiting for me, along with a balcony whose chill-factor is easily 10/10. My friend even let me crash in his living room.
It was hot in Hungary. Sweltering. My van’s lack of air conditioning would have bothered me had I not spent the previous decade driving AC-less automobiles; my toughness in this area, however, would soon be tested.
After breakfast with Máté the following morning, I hit the road. I’d traveled to Austria and Hungary before, but I was still amazed by just how vast and how empty the spaces between the cities are. It’s not like Germany, where wide open fields run out in short order. No, in Austria and Hungary, you can drive hundreds of miles and see very little other than fuel stops and gigantic plains that fall out of sight below the curvature of the earth.
Before long, though, this calm serenity — cruising through the open country with one arm draped over my Chrysler minivan’s steering wheel and the other hanging from the driver’s side window sill — gave way to utter chaos.
This may just look like a run-of-the-mill traffic jam. It is not. It is the beginning of a hell that would ultimately bring me to Istanbul as a shell of the man I was when I started the trip — mentally broken, physically fatigued, and soaked in sweat.
Families traveling back to Eastern Europe from the west shut their cars down and relaxed on the roadside, some sitting on the center barrier. Locals sold trinkets and cleaned windshields to make a few bucks. Heat waves emanated from the tarmac below as the sweltering sun radiated from above.
Fearing heat-soak (a hard-start condition that often occurs when one tries re-starting a hot engine after shutting it down), and aiming to preserve my battery and starter motor, I chose to keep my vehicle idling, though I understood the risks. With no ram-air entering the grille, my engine relied almost entirely on the Voyager’s electric fan to suck in fluid to carry away the engine’s heat.
The Voyager got warm, causing the engine to shake more than it normally does. I’m not entirely sure what was going on, but it seemed like the slightly elevated temperature caused some minor combustion issues. Oddly, I looked down, and saw that, though the temperature needle read above half, the van wasn’t overheating.
Over the next two hours, the cooling system held strong, and so did I, sitting in my vehicle-oven, hiding from the death rays being thrown from above at absurd speeds by a yellow ball of fire.
After three hours in hell, proceeding at well under a half a mile an hour on average, I arrived at the second of two checkpoints, where I simply handed over my German passport for the guard to briefly glance at before handing it back. I’m guessing other travelers didn’t have it as easy given how slowly the line was moving.
On the back side of this and every subsequent checkpoint was a large parking area for weary travelers to rest after their grueling ordeal. I slid my side-door open and enjoyed a Serbian sandwich and an unfamiliar but delicious cherry drink on the step. After 15 minutes of rest, I carried on.
I don’t have much to say about my outbound drive through Serbia, since I was so focused on arriving on time for the wedding. I didn’t stop anywhere, I just booked it down the nicely-maintained two-lane highway, averaging around 120 km/h, roughly 75 mph.
The Italian-designed-and-built VM Motori 2.5-liter turbodiesel sat at around 2,600 RPM, confidently groaning away underhood, sending torque through the heavy-duty five-speed manual transmission commonly found in turbocharged Chrysler K-cars.
The ride was fantastic. Smooth, reasonably quiet (despite the rattly engine), and absurdly comfortable thanks to the couch-like driver’s seat. The Voyager puts my H-point (the location of the hip relative to the car) at about the same height above the road as it would be if I were standing on the tarmac. With the big windshield, small A-pillars, and short front overhang, the Voyager makes me feel like I’m sprinting down the highway. It’s an odd sensation at first, but I grew to love it.
But before long, I was back in hell.
Actually “back in” suggests that this experience was somehow of the same magnitude as the previous checkpoint, but oh no. It was worse:
Red brake lights stretched into infinity. A nearby road merged with the one I was on, exacerbating the chaos. Then big trucks tried snaking through, and since they are supposed get their own lane — which was occupied — the big-rig drivers had to get out of their cabs and ask drivers (including me) to get the hell out of the way. (Actually, the lorry driver was quite nice to me, I’m assuming because he couldn’t help but respect the glorious Chrysler minivan in which I sat. Okay maybe not).
Eventually I arrived at the checkpoint, handed over my passport, took my passport back, and proceeded onward.
But this wasn’t “the checkpoint,” it was “the first checkpoint.” The second was a mile down the road, and as you might imagine, the space between the two checkpoints was completely filled with rubber, steel, aluminum, and plastic, all wrapped around seated humans.
See the white Audi on the left side in the image below? A woman sat in the driver’s seat as three men pushed it for over half a mile towards this second checkpoint. I don’t know what happened to the car, but if I had to guess, the stifling heat and endless stop-and-go traffic had caused something to get too hot.
The section between the two checkpoints was madness. Though there were some white painted lines near the second set of booths, nobody abided by them. Cars changed lanes, people got pissed at each other — there was no order whatsoever.
Every now and then, though, something magical happened. Everyone began honking their horns in unison. At first, I was alarmed, thinking people were upset, but actually, it was just a sign of solidarity. “We’ve all been sweating our asses off for three straight hours, let’s just honk our horns and be silly for a bit to pass the time.” It was fun.
When I finally arrived at the passport check, things got weird. The man in the booth took my passport, closed the window, grabbed his backpack, and seemingly went home. “Uhh...” I thought. “Surely he’s coming back, right?” He did not return.
I sat there at the front of a 1.5-mile long line for at least 20 minutes wondering what had just happened. Cars behind me shut off their motors, and occupants got out and waved their hands at me. I responded with a confused look.
Eventually, another officer walked into the booth, but she just sat there and did absolutely nothing. Some angry Serbians (I think) in the line behind me couldn’t take it anymore. They walked up to the window and motioned to the officer to actually do something, anything.
Nonchalantly, with the most “I don’t want to be here” look I’ve ever seen on an employee’s face, she asked: “Are you traveling alone?” I responded with an affirmative. Then she handed me my passport, and I continued on.
Once through those three hours of madness, I took a rest, bought a Vignette, and drove through some of the worst roads I’d ever seen. “Damn, Bulgaria is rough!” was my initial thought until I realized this was just an enormous construction zone.
Incidentally, despite it being late at night and despite my fatigue from the Serbia-Bulgaria border ordeal, I still couldn’t contain my excitement for this:
It’s a UAZ 452, a four-wheel drive, cab-forward Russian minivan. It’s incredibly soulful; you can learn more about it from our friends at TFL Truck, who actually bought one recently:
I left the construction zone and headed down some nicely-paved highways before pulling over at a gas station for some sleep. I had booked a cheap hotel, but I had missed check-in thanks to the checkpoint. Was there even a point in checking into a hotel at 3:30 only to leave at seven? I didn’t think so.
I probably only managed three hours of sleep before waking up around 6 A.M. I still had six hours of driving ahead, and with the wedding at seven and my desire for at least some rest prior to the shindig, I really needed the Bulgaria-Turkey checkpoint to show some mercy.
I drove along a beautiful Balkan mountain range and gazed in awe at acres of sunflower seeds that feed Bulgaria’s large sunflower oil industry:
In time, I arrived at the Turkish border crossing, which — as I’m sure you might have predicted — rejected my prayers and showed little mercy.
On the plus side, there were cones that generally kept folks in their lanes. These were a godsend, and really made the Turkish crossing feel a lot less chaotic than the previous two. But the heat was unbearable, and the lines moved more slowly than cold 20W-50 motor oil.
I sat at the border crossing for 2.5 hours in 100 degree weather, sweat dripping from my balding head into my eyes, and my shirt soaked in fluids from my dad bod. I knew I was taking a beating, yet my resolve never wavered. This wasn’t the most uncomfortable drive I’d ever experienced; after all, I once sat on a pillow-stuffed trash can atop a gas tank for 1,000 miles in a 1948 Willys Jeep.
Pulling into Istanbul took me over beautiful hills that actually caused my brakes to fade quite a bit. I should have downshifted to avoid this, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the gorgeous Bosphorus Strait. I eventually arrived at my hotel, whose bill the groom was generously footing and which was being used as the backdrop to another wedding party’s photos:
I’d landed at the hotel roughly three hours before the wedding ceremony. I set my alarm, napped, showered off the sweat and grime I had accrued over the past two days of driving without AC (and for nearly six hours, driving without any forced convection), and then threw on my suit.
At 6:10, I walked 45 minutes down the Bosphorus Strait to the wedding venue, which looked utterly breathtaking:
I didn’t know many people at the ceremony — just the groom. Luckily, his friends took me in and introduced me to people they knew. Everyone I met was happy to make my acquaintance; that’s the beauty of weddings — people are usually thrilled to be there.
The language barrier was no big deal, and the many young folks at the wedding who worked in the medical field spoke excellent English. We talked about sports, politics, relationships, and then we all watched as these two human gems tied the knot in a fairy tale setting:
Drinks flowed; excellent food filled stomachs; and deep and funny conversation abounded. I met fascinating people and drank enough to get me poppin’, lockin’, and droppin’ by the end of the night, even if I had no idea what the song lyrics meant. (Actually, I’m a terrible dancer, but I have no shame).
If I understood correctly, COVID restrictions limited how late the dancing could go (I think we finished around midnight), but plenty of groovin’ occured on that magical night. I learned that not only can the Turks make rugs, but they can cut them, too.
A little tipsy, I walked 45 minutes down the Bosphorus back to my hotel. It was a warm night, and crowds of people hung out on the walkway along the coastline, many picnicking, some playing games, others fishing. It was my first day in the country, and I didn’t speak the language, but I felt comfortable already. Subsequent days would reinforce this view that Turkey truly is a global treasure.
The wedding made the 30 hour (yes, that’s 10 hours longer than Google Maps had estimated) drive completely worthwhile, though the trek remains the most miserably boring I’ve ever endured.
Yes folks, I discovered driving hell, and it is at the border checkpoints of Eastern Europe.
If, after everything you’ve read thus far, you’re still unconvinced, allow me to show you some imagery of my return journey. Look at this poor bastard:
Behold all that sweat on my shirt:
And have a gander at these astonishingly long queues:
It was hell, but I made it, and I can thank the greatest minivan on earth for helping me through: Project Krassler. Still, the journey was far from over, as the groom invited me to Kapadokya (a city with some of the tightest, steepest streets I’d ever seen) 500 miles east. I had to get there, then 500 miles back to Istanbul, and oh yeah, I had to drive all the way back through Driving Hell, where I’d be pulled over twice. More on that soon.