You know the section of any adventure movie where everyone gets demoralized and does not believe they will make it through. We are currently at that stage of the adventure.
We dropped off James and Neil at the train station in Aktobe. As usual it took longer than expected to motivate and move one. A gentleman in the parking lot offered to show us to the road. When asked about the quality of the road, he replied Ah good, president drive, good. We were all very pleased with this news and eager to get to Aral. The convoy rolled on, minus two.
About 100 km down the road, we stopped to fill up on gas. The Fiat blew a radiator hose while stopped, nearly burning Andy badly. Alas, his hand was a bit heated but okay. The Fiat, however, would require some time to fix. While waiting, a Mercedes Benz wagon came to a screeching halt on the road. This car had seen better days, the left window was taped over with duct tape and the entire left side was scraped off and rusted. From the right side, a bearded lanky fellow stumbled with a map in hand. James and I were not at all eager to talk directions with this raggedy looking fool. He came straight at us, albeit leaning heavily to the right. Upon final approach, he stated, "Right then, you are on the rally, yes." It turned out that he and his friends had created their own rally called the "Russian Roulette Rust Bucket Rally" and were heading for the far end of Siberia. Somehow he was tied in with the Mongol Rally and had decent information that the road we were on ended quite bluntly. We pressed on. Sure enough shortly down the road things went dramatically pear shaped as the road turned into rumble and we were once again forced into the dirt track. Patrick was at the wheel of the Fiestavus and later described the incident as, "The road ended, we were in the air for a second, then there (lots of hand motions indicating swerving), I thought we would get rear ended for sure." Our dreams of Aral were crushed and we were forced to camp in the desert for a fourth straight night.
This was by far the most remote location we had camped to date. The closest civilization was 200 miles away in either direction over shody roads and dusty paths. The landscape was as flat as can be and no signs of human influence could be seen in any direction. It was simply amazing. I slept under the stars for a third straight night, the best night's sleep to date.
We awoke early and started our push to Aral. I had the wheel, but definitely was off my game. The under carriage paid the price as I continuously misread the terrain smacking the biggest potholes I have ever seen. The General got buried and required the Seat's assistance to get out. At the same time, Andy was performing a new jerry rigging job, using a condom to mend their tired and beat radiator hose. Patrick, Dominic, and I relaxed with a cup of Awake coffee on the side of the road in the desert. Soon the road changed to beautiful, smooth tarmac and we made good time to Aral.
We sorted out a dodgy hotel with hoses for showers and an old lady that told me to pull up my shorts. Nothing changes dude. After 4 days in the desert and at a price of $10, no one complained. I was waiting in the lobby for the others, when a French guy introduced himself. He had just pulled in on his bicycle, HIS BICYCLE. He had been on the road by himself for 110 days and was heading for China. When asked why he stated plainly, "I needed a little sport." And they called us nuts.
There were loads of children swarming the cars and we figured it would be best to get something to eat before dealing with the poor cars. After a feast of kebabs, Dominic, Andy, and I headed back to the cars and the others headed to the club. Within seconds of setting up, we had acquired two young helpers. These two girls followed us around the cars holding flashlights and tools, pumping the foot pump, and keeping the multitudes of drunk locals away.
Its an absolute miracle that the cars are in the shape that they are. The Fiat still has issues with the radiator hose, but it was patched with another condom and is doing well. Another hose is being shipped to Bishkek. The Fiesta's front rims are beat up and the tread is wearing heavy due to the strut issues. I rotated the tires to distribute the wear. I may have located the clutch issue, whenever we drive hard in the sand the clutch pedal starts sticking. With a little lubricant on the pivot point at the engine, she seems to be fine. The Seat has some moaning sort of noise coming from the front end that appears to be related to the steering.
On to Shymkent...
We all awoke on our private salt flat in the desert, well rested and anxious to hit the road. It has been the first evening in a long time that we were not bothered by drunk locals.
By 6:30 am were on our way. The roads were absolute crap and we had it on good information that they would be for 200 km. Its difficult to convey how bad these roads are, it was basically a series of 3-4 foot wide holes. These holes dropped straight off and were generally a solid foot in depth.
The Fiesta had taken a few good shots the day before and was now having difficulties with finding gears. In a stroke of genius Ford put the linkage arm between the shifter and the gearbox as low as the muffler, unprotected.
After an half hour of navigating the crater laced road, The General scooted off the side road and starting railing down a dirt path parrelleling the main road. The convoy followed. When the roads get trashed enough, the Kazaks start making their own. I felt right at home on the dirt and the Fiesta was chewing it up. To be perfectly honest, we are driving the worst possible vehicles for this style of driving. That did not stop us from beating the living snot out of the cars and having a blast. For a day, it truly felt like we were rally drivers.
We had been making decent time, averaging 30 = 40 mph, when the Scamp went down with its first ailment in days. Something in the electrical system was faulting and blowing the fuse for the fuel pump. Some hasty and regretful wiring was performed and the Scamp fired back up albeit without lights and a few other essentials. About 30 minutes later, we were bombing down a dirt path with the Scamp skidded to a halt. We pulled up alongside, you could see the faint hint of smoke, the look of James and Neil face told the story. Game Over was all James said. After all the mechanical jerry rigging exercises, it was an electrical fire that ended the Scamp's run.
It was a somber moment as we scavenged through the contents and divided amongst the remaining vehicles. Once loaded, we pushed on until dusk, miraculously finding a secure campsite. The cars were all still running but definitely needed some TLC.
We are now in Aktobe to drop James and Neil off at the train station. I am a bit worried the Fiesta may be the next to go. She took a couple of good shots yesterday and I am worried the Tranny is suspect.
We push on...
Welcome to the desert, its 109F, sand storms, torn up roads, and crappy one litre cars, just delightful.
This has been our first full day in Kazakhstan and the game has changed. There is nothing for miles and miles. The main roadway has potholes the size of small villages. We are now loaded up with gas and water, effectively giving the Fiesta a nice low ride. While a hit with the kids, it means we are scraping the muffler and under carriage fairly often. We have been forced off road a few times and sand is absolutely everywhere. We have covered our intake with panty hose to minimialize the filter clogging.
There are loads of animals roaming about the country side. We have been delayed by the crossing of 10 - 20 horses at a time, goats, sheep, camels, and cows. Seeing these herds of camels meandering about is amazing.
All the cars are feeling the effects of the roads, sand, and crap gas. The Fiesta has started to idle rough and still has a blown strut on the front end.
We are now sitting in the desert, literally with no lights in sight. The whole convoy is currently sitting on the salt flats trading stories of the rally over a couple of beers. This really is what its all about, middle of nowhere, bunch of new friends, and a load of good tales. We have a hard long push tomorrow hopefully the cars will hold up. We finally decided to not go through Uzbekistan due to danger level, so its on to Aktobe and then Aral.
We successfully entered into Asia via the Russian-Kaza border near Astrakan. As is our fashion, it was not without incident. There were three sketchy river crossings, first on top of a rickety floating metal contraption, then on a tiny little barge, and finally over a bombfield of an asphalt covering.
The border crossing was less eventful than previous crossings but not without its moments. Dominic was sent through the mother of all bureaucratic messes, basically walking back and forth from the insurance salesman to the customs official trying to get all the entries to match.
I gave the drug sniffing German Shephard, "OneOne", a wiffle ball and instantly became fast friends with his owner, a border guard whose name I couldn't pronounce and can't remember. He invited me to sit with him through his break. We traded stories about our families, work, and life in general. This included him telling me that the customs guys are real assholes and just bitch bitch bitch. Of course this happened while the customs guy was sitting on the other side of me trying to get a souvenir. (Cliche Time) Its amazing, I am sitting at a border crossing in Western Kaza and there is not any great difference between the guard and myself. He even liked hip hop music.
Once across, we drove for awhile and found a typically sketchy campsite. As expected, we were confronted by drunk, techno playing Kazak teenagers around 1 in the morning. It took quite a bit to get the little jerks to leave us alone. The best part was that after blaring techno from their crap Lada, the battery was dead and they had to push start to leave. Everyone gets a bit spooked by these incidents, unfortunately we attract a bit of attention everywhere we go. From now on, we will put a bit more thought into our camping spots as the chance of bandit incidents will rise.
current location: Between Volgograd and Astrakan
price of gas: 15 Rb/litre
We are a few hours from Asia and the most challenging section of the trip thus far. We are getting stopped at every other police checkpoint. Our general policy of dumbfounding them with idiocy has proven to work very well. We now give them our international driver's licenses and answer every question flatly with, "Kazakhstan" while pointing in some random direction. This seems to irritate them enough that they will let us through with no hassles.
The Scamp continues to have issues. Dom and I have taken the lead on the Jerry Rigging exercises. I was convinced we had utilized every possible technique. I mean we had rebuilt their rear suspension with tie-wraps, hose clamps, silicon, all thread, and two part epoxy while their alternator is held to the frame with tie wraps. I truly thought that was about as far as we would go. Then their main belt pooped its pants just outside of a police checkpoint at 11 pm in the rain. Dom and I proceeded to replace it with a pair of panty hose we bought in Germany. She ran well for about 40 or so clicks until it started to fray and fell apart. Apparently we did not wind it tight enough, I was amazed it worked at all.
7:00 pm Astrakan
We pushed through the 450 km trip to Astrakan with no major mishaps. In our world of junk automobiles this constitutes a minor miracle. The Ford has a subpar right front shock. We are trying to source one in the UK to have shipped to Uzbekistan along with the slew of parts that the Scamp
Our cell phone is starting to have issues, it may be difficult to post over the next couple of days.
Into the desert...
We rolled into Astrakan in our typical" oh crap we are hopelessly lost" battle formation. Having flawlessly executed the "spend 3 hours hitting every pothole in town" formula many times prior, we decided to pull over and formulate a new hopeless plan. Whilst milling about, two young ladies that spoke English rolled up and graciously offered to escort our sorry caravan to the local supermarket. We filled up on supplies for the desert and purchased a guitar, which may prove essential while sucking sand for 4 days.
While at the supermarket I had the opportunity to teach some young kids the ins and outs of wiffle ball. The looks in their eyes as they made contact for the first time was priceless. This was, by far, the highlight of the trip to date for me.
We quickly found a hotel and were out for some food by 10:30 pm, a minor miracle for this crew. There was some local difficulties obtaining beer, as in the waitresses making a "x" with their arms whenever we asked for beer. Patrick and I decided to source some outside and were looking adequately pathetic. A policeman pulled us aside and inquired if we were looking for beer. He gladly gave us directions, "You go down street, left at big man, 15 meters, door with hole in it, you get beer there." I asked if it was okay to bring into the restaurant place we were in. He replied, "Its okay, here, there, everywhere, its okay."
It sounds as if many teams are skipping Uzbek due to a raised threat level and bandit activity in the Northern corner. We debated it a lot last night and decided to keep it in KAZA as long as possible. All may change depending upon the state of the KAZA roads.
Off to the border - seth
We began the morning with a much needed cup 'o joe, and a sigh of relief at not being harassed during the night.
Setting out for the route to Volgograd, we soon found it necessary to swallow our pride and ask for directions after driving past the same statue thrice. Dom and I found a Russian officer, who found a bystander to translate and helped us on our way. This would be the first act of kindness on a memorable day.
With the bad colonies duet in the lead, the five car expedition blazed a trail toward V-town alongside endless fields of sunflowers (an odd site). Seth and I compared our crew to a sort of poorly funded UN convoy(United Numbskulls). Heat, hunger, and increasingly poor jokes led us to a truck stop/flea market for much needed sustenance. Soon enough, we were sittin round a table of fried meat, salad, bread, & coffee... a "fiesta" if you will?
With the Scamp's troubles still a concern, we scanned the market for someone selling car parts. James and Neil went about with their snapped suspension rod, in hopes someone could match the part. A jolly, portly old Russian took an interest in their quest. We all helped, using our best mumbled russian and hand gestures, and actually got the man to understand what we needed amidst endless laughter on both ends. He took to machining a piece of all-thread, hollowing it out in a shower of sparks (no small feat)! He went on to make a whole new suspension rig for the Scamp, the whole time inviting us to join him in yet another feast of some sort of meat mush, bread, and vodka (in the end about 3 bottles worth).
Amazingly enough, he refused payment, simply asking us to sit on a bit longer eating pastries and drinking more vodka, laughing at our inability to communicate yet still enjoying our company. Each cars' driver for today bowed out of the drinking and went off to fix the Scamp, while the rest joined in to polish off a 4th bottle. Vaughn, James, & James#2 took the brunt of the vodka onslaught more in an effort to be polite than anything else, and are all now paying the price as we are back on the bumpy roads. In the end, it was one of those chance encounters that defines a trip like this and reinforces the idea that what matters most is not your destination, but your experiences along the way.
As we said our goodbyes and began to pull away, we ran into yet another rally team. So at least until we get to the next city, our convoy is up to 6. My third day on the rally will not be one I soon forget.
At the moment, we appear to keeping with the same group, it seems apprpriate to give a little bit more background on the teams we are traveling with.
Team: The Last and the Ludricrous
Drivers: James and Neil
Car: 1970 something Mini Scamp
These guys are bonafide nuts to be driving this car. It looks like a minature Humvee and breaks down once a day or so. The lads are great and the rig adds some true rally flavor. Take the time to google this car, it is absolutely hilarious.
Team: Wheeler's Garage or something like that.
Drivers: James and Andy
Car: Fiat Cinquecento
These guys are class acts, both either at university or just finishing. James is pertrified that wolves are going to get him and Andy is a crack mechanic. Their car was black originally. They took it to school to have it signed by the kids and apparently left with so much inappropriate drawings that they had to paint the center white. Their spotlights on the roofrack have blue LEDs. The combination with the paint job makes them look like cops.
Team: The Dukes of Harlow
Drivers: Barry and Charlie
Car: Nissan Micra painted like the General Lee
These gents joined us just before the Russia-Ukraine border. I am not too sure how long they are going to stay with the convoy but they seem to be good guys. Adding the General Lee to the convoy has escalated our visiblity and increased the number of people lurking about at every stop.
Upon reaching Russia, we were surprised to have entered what at first appeared to be civilization. Gorgeous gas stations, smooth roads, and well lit streets were in abundance. The convoy currently consists of five vehicles, the newest member being a Nissan Micra painted exactly like the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard complete with the horn.
The bulk of the gas stations in Russia appear to be 24 hour for the sole reason that the owner lives there. At one station, the Scamp was scouting a place to park when we hear over the radio,"Oh shit, they've got wolves, oh shit they are trying to eat us" The Scamp sits extremely low and as they rounded the far side of the building we could see this enormous German Shepard trying to jump through the window.
We were rejected from two stations and opted to keep moving. Soon the convoy had pulled over at what appeared to be a safe quiet spot. Within seconds people came out of the shadows and engulfed the General. Mind you, this is Russia, on a Saturday night past midnight, needless to say these guys were wasted. Somehow it was decided that we would follow the drunks in their Lada to a hotel. Everyone in the convoy was pretty sketched out by the prospects. We figured so long as we were on a main street we would be fine. When the Lada turned down an ominous looking dark alley, we halted. The Lada came screaming back us in reverse and the tinted black windows were rolled down about 4 inches. One of the Russians had his hand out of the window frantically trying to get us to follow. I was sure that some sort of weapon would be brandished shortly. They all hopped from the car and surrounded Dom and I. We politely thank them continuously until they left us alone.
We drove around the city for another hour lost as you could ever be. Every time we would stopped, people would appear from nowhere and lurk about as we discussed our plan. On a couple of occasions cars purposely followed us around. Finally we were clear of anyone and found a farmer's field to sleep in.
We are currently on our way to the Kazakhstan border, if the roads are solid we should be there by late tonight.
The convoy pulled out of Kiev around 1 pm or so. We are currently on our way to the Russian border in the southeast corner of the Ukraine. We are keeping with the two other British teams, The Last and The Ludicrous and the lads with the Fiat. Other teams have had a very difficult time with the corrupt police and we are hoping that we are a safer with numbers.
This whole fiasco with the car registration has been stressful and still is not completely solved. We are going to give it a try with our current paperwork plus a scanned letter. In addition, the British embassy is trying to lend a helping hand.
So far today driving might be described as dangerous or insane depending upon your point of view. Along the main road from Kiev to Charkov the road drops to two lanes. There are a lot of slow moving vehicles and the Ukrainians cannot be bothered. They will pass a any moment and completely disregard any oncoming vehicles. As has been our general rule for Eastern Europe, we have chose the join the fun and not resist. Its quite a frightening experience to just make it into your lane with one of those big ass Euro trucks coming straight for you.
The cars are not in the best of shape, the Festival is idling like crap and the Seat has a metallic sound coming from the driver side rear tire. Rally on.
I dropped Jen off at the airport in Kiev today and she successfully purchased a ticket to Moscow. She is currently in route with a day lay-over in Stockholm. In typical rally fashion, we over slept, got lost, and nearly ran out of gas on the way to the airport. As can be imagined we were both saddened by her departure. She honestly wanted to finish the rally, which is a real testament to her will and resolve considering the troubles we have had. She definitely understands, appreciates, and enjoys what this rally is all about and I cannot say that for many. I cannot express enough how much it meant to have her along to experience this.
Patrick is somewhere in route to Kiev, I got an email to him very last minute instructing him to change his final destination. Hopefully he arrives today and we get our paperwork tomorrow. Then its on to Ruskie land.