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Caucasus Challenge: Day 3

Sep 17, 2012

17 September | Route: Vank - Drmbon - Dadivank - Sotk- Vardeniz - Tsapatagh | Distance: 195 km

Today was to be a rough but pretty straightforward day of finding way-points and answering challenge questions. Well, it was for those who chose to accept the challenge. Some, or I should say many, chose the road less traveled and a lot more challenging, which is saying a lot in this instance.

Somehow, Traveling with the Stars managed to come in last for a third straight day! They seem to work at it, have gelled extremely well as a team and succeeded at rolling in well after dark everyday. Often at 22:00 or 23:00.

Today they started by confusing the other teams, especially those who had imbibed a bit the night before, by switching the names on their vehicles. These poor folks woke up staggering around the parking area thinking someone stole their car. In some cases, however, folks were trying to understand how on earth the frequency on their key fob got switched and was unlocking the wrong car. Please don't ask. I know the answer would seem obvious to most of us.

Next, Mark and Eric embarked on their journey by ignoring a large sign and driving 40 kms back to Stepanakart (you should understand 40 kms is a very long distance on these roads), before realizing their mistake. All the way on their return to the junction they were cursing the instructions as wrong and were going to take a photo of the sign to prove it. They laughed uproariously when they finally got back 1.5 hours after leaving the hotel to a sign that clearly indicated "it is this way you idiots".

That well accomplished, they chose to ignore all the way-points and head for the hot springs they read about at the Foreign Affairs Ministry the day before. These hot springs were 25 kms off the path on extremely difficult roads. They finally hailed down an oncoming car who reassured them they were almost there. They proceeded to have a fantastic time smearing themselves with mud, and soaking in the various pools of varying degrees of very hot water.

Eric and Mark wandered into dinner at 10 pm bubbling with energy over their exploits. And like the rest of us they slept extremely well that night at a great hotel along the shores of Lake Sevan. It was the first decent night sleep for all the teams.

Caucasian Invasion and Wreck and Roll, also decided to visit the hot springs but did so hours before Mark and Eric. A little after arriving at the hot springs, a portly man walked up from some nearby tents where they were shooting guns. He started up a conversation, and welcomed our friends by shooting an AK-47 in the air. This was followed by Shelley, John, Alan and Jim having a turn. Seems the gentleman was a retired general and loved hearing about the teams' visit to the NKR.

Given that the objective for the day was really for everyone to traverse safely back into Armenia, I am surprised at how many people have started to become so comfortable with their partners, other teams and the rather rough roads. Comfortable enough to simply explore and interact with the locals on a level far exceeding the challenges meant to facilitate such interaction.

This is more impressive given the lack of commonality of our respective languages. In our group, we could communicate with 75% of the world's population, but had absolutely no understanding of spoken Armenian. Luckily hand gestures and facial expressions are relatively universal.

Masters of communication have turned out to be Charles and Alonso of Midnight Express. This is expected of Charles, but I am impressed at Alonso's new found talent. Their having duly listened to the expectations of the day, combined with not having a proper NKR visa, they headed straight for the border knocking off the challenges as they went. We were told that morning the border is essentially open with the barrier arm up, and to simply drive through. Midnight Express figured if a bunch of other vehicles with bears on them passed through before them, they were more likely to be stopped. Good thinking and planning. It didn't work.

The barrier was opened, and Alonso sailed right through only to see the guard come out in his rear view mirror waving him down. Seems Alonso is getting experienced at this as he was waved down for speeding on Day 1. The Day 1 experience is one in which Charles and Alonso used all sorts of gestures and useless documents to try to get out of the speeding issue. The increasingly frustrated and angry officer finally gave up with gestures of "60" not "80" and let them go. Even in letting them go, the officer that day was not happy.

With that in the back of his mind, Alonso was frantically flipping through photos of friends and family on his iPhone in front of the very confused border guard. What did this endless parade of photos have to do with not having a visa in his passport? As the guard was getting more agitated, Alonso finally landed on the photo of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Alonso was indicating it was closed and he could not get a visa. As both sides were preparing to argue, a soldier wandered over. Lots of gestures later, it dawned on Alonso and Charles the soldier wanted a ride over the mountain. They immediately opened the door and welcomed him in. The border guard was pleased with this turn of events and simply waved them on.

The ride over the mountain is absolutely beautiful with very long switchbacks. After dropping off the soldier at Vardeniz near Lake Sevan, they headed straight for the hotel at Tsapatagh to relax. They were first to arrive by hours. Later followed by James Thorpe-Kingsley and Kevin Wang of Virus Enforcer. Driving Miss Daisy arrived in third to find the prior teams relaxing by the pool or playing tennis. By the way, Paul and Kim of Driving Miss Daisy did not have NKR visas either and did simply sail through the border crossing.

Day 3 was a day of incredible variation of experiences. From getting hopelessly lost, invited into a local's home for coffee, trading for a tank shell, riding a donkey, to endless other stories. It was also a day where the teams as individuals and the whole group came together in what are really long and hard days on very rough roads.