Opel’s Rekord Run. What better way to celebrate the arrival of your first child than an epic transcontinental journey across some of the world’s toughest roads? Words Alastair Clements. Photography Vladimir Harizanov.
A humble Opel’s cross-country mission
As road trips go, 9823km in just over two months isn’t bad going. Add in a 40-yearold car and only a small tent for accommodation and it sounds more impressive. But with a partner who is seven months pregnant? Surely madness! For Bulgarian Vladimir Harizanov and his wife Sabina Zafirova-Harizanova, however, it seemed like a perfectly sensible idea.
After all, Vladimir’s 1979 Opel Rekord 2.0 S was running sweetly, and they were both desperate that their first child would be born in India. “Why did we do it?” he ponders. “Because of love. Because of a passion for adventure. Because of friends we hadn’t seen in more than 10 years. One does many crazy things in life, and this was ours.”
For Harizanov, it was a dream return to the country he loves: “I wanted Sabina to experience the change, the shift, the melting point between the countries we would go through.” As for what car to do it in, the decision was obvious… in fact, there wasn’t any choice: “This is my only car! The Opel is a pure classic. There are only a few left on the road in Bulgaria, but after 40 years of service I still drive the car on a regular basis.”
If the Rekord looks familiar to British eyes, that’s because the 1977-’1986 Series E was also sold in the UK as the Vauxhall Carlton/Viscount (and in Australia as the first-generation Holden Commodore), although the smooth-snouted anglicised version of the mass-produced saloon was never offered in two-door form.
With its MacPherson strut front suspension, live-axle rear and single-carb, cam-in-head 1979cc ‘four’ – which musters 99bhp in ‘S’ spec – the Rüsselsheim saloon is hardly the last word in elegance, but it’s certainly tough. And it needed to be, because the couple packed the boot and back seat with clothing, tent, bedding, pots and pans – even boxes of nuts, honey and a huge bag of spuds. “We were sure we wouldn’t use 80% of our kit,” says Harizanov, “but we were planning for our adventure to last a year.”
With the car loaded to the gunwales, they left Harizanov’s home town of Kardzhali, Bulgaria, on 27 October 2016 – first stop: the Greek border. Most of the route was at more than 1000m above sea level, so at that time of year there was the constant threat of snowfall and the roads were predictably rough, though this was more than made up for by the picturesque scenery and sunny weather, and in no time the Opel was across its first border at the Ivaylovgrad checkpoint: “The Greek official checked part of our luggage, saw our bag of potatoes and asked us where we were going. He kept silent for a while after hearing ‘India’, then let us go.”
Disaster struck 40km later, however, as the duo attempted the crossing into Turkey at Kastanies, only to be turned away because the officials didn’t have time to check their luggage. There was nothing for it but to turn around, head back into Bulgaria and cross at the main border in Kapitan Andreevo. Fortunately, the 10km queue applied only to trucks; the little Opel skipped past and, after another check of the potato stash, they were into Turkey, finally reaching Edirne by dusk and gratefully clambering into their sleeping bags after pitching the tent in a field. “In the morning, an old woman approached us talking in Turkish, motioning with her hands as if they were tied together and suggesting she would call the police,” recalls Harizanov. “The porridge was ready, so we decided to have breakfast in the car!”
The drive through Istanbul was a soul-destroying 50km in five hours but, once finally across the Bosphorus strait, the pair struck out across the mountains through the drizzle, then the clouds, as the D100 climbed to the border with Iran at Do˘ gubeyazıt: “The weather changes very quickly in this area. Sometimes it rains hard, then moments later it is sunny with a rainbow spanning the mountains. Many of the passes topped 2000m, and we passed narrow canyons, wide river valleys, cottonwood along the riverbeds and a sprinkling of yellow falling leaves.”
Five days after entering Turkey, the Rekord suffered its first mechanical malady: “Waiting at a traffic light in Pasinler, the car began to idle unevenly. Then it died and wouldn’t restart, with no sign of life from the starter motor.”
Having pushed the Opel into a side street with Sabina at the wheel, Harizanov was under the bonnet when two men ambled over, smoking cigarettes: “Using sign language, I showed them the problem. One asked for a hammer and gently tapped the hull of the starter; I turned the key and it fired, but by now it was idling very badly.” The roadside saviours directed them to a local mechanic, who quickly had it idling sweetly and the Rekord set off into the sunset.
The remainder of the journey through Turkey passed largely without incident. The couple mainly camped in fields or cattle yards peppered with stacks of dried cow-dung cakes, but as the weather drew in, they were fortunate enough to be invited indoors to escape the cold as the guests of Kurd Haji Emin and his family: “In the morning Yarbog˘az was white, with 10cm of fresh snow on the ground. We had been in a hurry to get ahead of the weather, but it had caught up with us and the final miles to the Iranian border would be through freezing conditions.”
Even on winter tyres the rear-drive Rekord struggled for traction, but fortunately the heater worked and the pair made dogged progress, following in the tracks of lorries over the passes and occasionally making use of the hammer to free the sticking starter: “At the highest point even the trucks stopped to put on chains, but the Opel was stable, our tyres sticking to the road as we passed many stranded and struggling cars.”
After some confusion on the border at Do˘gubeyazıt – aided by the exchange of €20 – the Rekord was cleared to pass through and made Maku by dusk, picking its way through wild traffic and dodging the pedestrians who crossed the road whenever suited them: “An Iranian friend told us that driving in Iran is 100 times more dangerous than in Italy, and 10 times more dangerous than inTurkey, so we decided to park up and spend our first night in a hotel.”
Daylight made life easier, and Harizanov soon adapted to the local driving habits – which mostly involved a lot of speed: “We camped, slept in people’s houses, and discovered that Iran is an extremely hospitable land. ‘Iran hube’ is the mantra we repeated to ourselves – ‘Iran is beautiful’. We will definitely be back.”
Upon arrival in Karaj, Harizanov took the opportunity to get the starter motor repaired: “The mechanic took it apart, cleaned it and concluded that there are no parts of such quality available today. He was right – after its clean-up, the starter never showed any sign of malfunction and I never needed the hammer again.”
Less promising was the radiator springing a leak in the deserts of Shahdad. An improvised repair with epoxy putty was good enough to last another 200km until Bam, with passage aided by local police acting as guides through the remote and tricky mountain terrain. After camping in the desert just above the city, the couple headed in to find someone to fix the incontinent Opel: “People gave us the wrong directions and we kept returning to where we started. Eventually, I spotted a motorbike shop and asked for help. They pointed to a slender guy with glasses, who gently disassembled the radiator – without losing the antifreeze – then very professionally repaired the crack in his workshop before pressure- testing to check for other leaks. He then invited us for lunch at his home afterwards!”
With car and occupants refreshed, the final 340km stretch to Zahedan awaited along perfect asphalt roads, dotted with the occasional camel carcass: “We reached Zahedan – a city of crime, drugs and money – at dusk, under a giant floating full moon. We have friends there so took the opportunity to replenish our supplies for the journey ahead through Pakistan.”
First, though, there was another border to cross. After a trouble-free run through Iranian red tape, the Pakistani police proved more challenging, with a trio of checkpoints to pass through before the Opel could even approach the border: “About 5km away we received an escort. We followed a military vehicle with a machine gun until the border, where the soldiers took control of our documents and we crossed into Pakistan. A man with a Kalashnikov on his shoulder took us to a shack with two lines – one for men and another for women – snaking out of the door, and we waited patiently for a clerk to process our passports. Next we were passed on to another shack, where two soldiers were struggling to enter data into a malfunctioning laptop. More questions, more photographs, then finally an entry stamp to import my car into Pakistan.”
Back in the Opel, the couple moved on, this time behind a ’bike, and in less than a kilometre were signalled to stop beside a military compound surrounded by high brick walls topped with barbed wire. Here they were told they would be staying the night, and would not be permitted to carry on through Balochistan without an escort: “The chief invited us to stay in his office – better than the prison cells next door – so we pitched our tent inside and listened to the sounds of illegal immigrants being processed before deportation back from Turkey and Iran. We went to sleep feeling sad and confused: people from the west and east both roam in opposite directions, but one group travels in luxury and the other in misery.” The following morning the convoy continued from Taftan to Dalbandin, with the Opel accompanied at all times by a police vehicle organised by the Pakistan government: “Our security escort changed every 30-50km, with a lengthy wait at every swap-over. We were losing a lot of time, and at the end of each day were put in a hotel and not allowed to go outside.”
Finally arriving at the state capital Quetta, by then hungry, thirsty and tired, the couple were offered cakes while their passports were checked one more time, then they could strike out into the dark in search of the Non Objection Certificate (NOC) they needed to exit Balochistan.
With NOC in hand, and on their minders’ advice, the intrepid duo set off towards Karachi via Kudzar, followed at a distance by an escort that eventually seemed to disappear… until they stopped to camp. As soon as the tent was pitched beside a dry river and the stove was on for rice and lentils, the shadowing jeep reappeared and soldiers surrounded them, demanding that they return to Kudzar. Anger quickly turned to joy, however, when the rest house they were ordered to stay in turned out to be better than any of the hotels they had so far enjoyed on the route. Having exited Balochistan at last, the Opel was free to continue via Sindh and Karachi – the largest city in the country, with a population of 13 million – then on to the Wagah border. For the final two nights in Pakistan they camped in Punjabi villages and schoolyards, roamed fields of roses and sugarcane, explored the mango farms and made new friends.
Finally, having lost their way trying to circumvent Lahore, the Opel arrived an hour before the border closed and they were waved through to India at last. The first target was Amritsar and the mesmerising Golden Temple, before a final journey to friends in Navsari where, on 10 January, baby Samira was born. It was also here that their faithful steed, having made it nearly 10,000km without incident, was run into by a local lorry: “For the whole trip, we’d never had an accident, nor did the car suffer a major malfunction. It was a wild ride through countries you’d never usually visit, and along the way we adjusted to the local driving habits and made many lifelong friends among the people who had given us shelter across four countries.”
To mark the Opel’s 40th birthday, Harizanov is now planning a trip along India’s Kardung La pass. To get involved, email [email protected] or visit opelrekordadventures.wordpress.com
Punjab is lush and green, offering plenty of shade to keep the long-suffering Opel cool. Above: after finally arriving in Navsari, the couple welcome baby Samira into the world (and introduce her to their trusty Rekord).
Clockwise: Pakistan’s lavishly decorated and usually overloaded trucks; rear suspension check and service in Karachi; battling Tuk-Tuks in India; armed escort in Balochistan.
Clockwise from above left: mechanic in Bam brazes leaking radiator; dodging camels on Zahedan road; Agha Bozorg mosque in Kashan; the road to Maku.
The Rekord pauses in the stifling heat of the Kalut desert to pose beside one of the region’s famous sandstone formations. Fortunately, at this stage the radiator was still doing its job properly…
Clockwise from above: ready to leave Kardzhali, Bulgaria; Turkish hill town; snowy departure from Yarboˇgaz; above Su˛sehri, Erzerum bound; farewell to Bulgaria before crossing the first border.
“A friend told us that driving in Iran is 100 times more dangerous than in Italy, and 10 times more dangerous than in Turkey”