It has been an entire month since I made my triumphant return from Ulan Batar and I just barely went through the miniature mountain of video. I was creatively drawn after the website retweak and was less than optimistic about the quality of the footage we pulled. Its tough, when you are caught in the moment the last thing you want to do is stick a camera in someone's face. For a large portion of the trip, the cameras kicked around in the dust, grime, and trash at our feet in the Fiestavus. Its a miracle they survived, let alone captured a significant quantity of tape. Three days ago, I finally felt up to sifting through the 15 hours of Mongol Rally. I found a trail of evidence reminding me just how out there and unique the trip was. I pulled 6 minutes from the mini mountain into the below video. The meat of it is made up of 3-4 second clips loosely hobbled together in no particuliar order. Most of you are American, so this style will work well with your TV inspired attention spans. Its a quick representation of the rally in my mind, complete with an adequate amount of disorder. All the tapes are getting shipped to Harbinger Productions tomorrow so this will be it for new vids for awhile.
The video is set to "I will be home soon" by Sven Curth. This song, beyond all others, became the theme song for the Fiestavus. We chose to listen to it at the worst of times and the best. If you have not already, please check out Sven's CD me and JIM....
I am heading off to Italy on Saturday for a quick trip and will report back on the journey. Remember Hank III on Oct. 6th in Boston, we'll see you there. - ciao ciao Seth
Check out all the currently uploaded videos from the rally here
Losing the Seat was a tough blow to take. I felt really bad that after surviving the hand clutch for so many miles, a relatively silly electrical issue landed her in the woods (NOTE - it is a fact that all electrical issues are silly). By this point in the trip, I was really wrapped up in getting both cars to UB and probably spent longer than I should have trying to revive the Seat (another NOTE - it is a fact the the Seat would have made it had Dominic and Vaughn not picked up all the tools before she was running).
It was nearing 9 pm on Aug. 20th when the three remaining BCMC members piled in to the one remaining car. We assumed the border closed at 8 pm, giving us under 23 hours to cover the 700 or so miles. We could not afford a single mishap and would have to push the poor Fiestavus as hard as she could handle. All of us were working on very few hours of sleep since leaving the Kaza border, very safe, very rally.
I took the first driving shift, secretly hoping that the roads would get better soon. Unfortunately, I ended up with a continuous trail of broken dirt roads and I can attest that swerving through potholes while dozing off is not fun. Of course at this point we had no choice but to carry on and I did my best to keep the pace up without destroying to blue beast. Finally in the early hours of the morning, I threw in the towel after sleep driving for more time than I would like to readily admit. Dominic took the reins and the roads became paved if not better. It wasn't all positive for Dominic as the dirt roads were replaced by a thick engulfing fog. We pressed on as I drifted off to sleep in a tight ball in the tightness of the backseat. Over the next few hours, I awoke occasionally to the same fog and the same muttering of frustration from the driver. Dom had his fill and retired to the backseat as the fog broke and the sun rose near Irkutsk. I moved into navigator position and Vaughn took the Captain's seat.
We negotiated our way around Irkutsk and quickly started our first mountain climb of the journey. The road was a beautiful trek through the Siberian woods with tight corners and smooth pavement. I suspect it would be a blast to drive in a car that was not falling apart, undersized, and filled with three stinky ralliers and stuff for three stinky ralliers. I could feel the car groan on the uphills and moan as the momentum wanted to carry her straight through the corners. Alas ole Fiestavus descended down the mountain pass and the beauty of Lake Baikal in the wee hours of the morning over took us.
Lake Baikal in the morning, try to find where the lake ends and the clouds begin.
About 300 km from the border, we stopped for gas and a driver switch feeling pretty confident that we were in the clear. After 8000 miles, why were we so naive I will never know. As I returned from a nature break, I saw Vaughn peering under the car and heard him say take a look at this. The smell hit me first then I saw the rapidly growing puddle of precious petrol forming below the car. Dominic and I went to work trying to diagnose and remedy the source of our spill. At some point, a man in a suit wandered over and started lending advice. He disappeared for awhile, returning with some rubber, screws, and a bit of metal plate. Then he pointed out a nice pit to drive the car over for easier access. Once in place we had a good view of the 1 inch crack that had formed in the tank. I took the finger in the dyke position and Dominic worked with the suited Russian to find a fix. A bit of caution, when gasoline reaches your armpit it really burns, a really really deep burn. Finally the guy in the suit had enough of our feeble attempts and jumped in the pit. He packed the crack with soap, put the rubber over it, the metal over that, and screwed the whole assembly into the tank. The leak stopped, we thank him profusely, and departed.
After only being stopped by the cops once and an otherwise uneventful trip, we pulled up to the border at 5:15 pm on the day our Russian visas expired. There was a chaotic sprawl extending from the gates, a mix of log trucks, Ladas, and folks of foot. No one seemed be going anywhere, other than the mobs of people trying to negotiate a ride across the border in the Fiestavus. Vaughn went to the border to try to expedite our transfer across and I continued to fight off the lurkers from forcefully getting into the car. Soon Vaughn returned with instructions to go to the front, keep the windows up, and not talk to anyone. We inched the car to the front as the border guard yelled at the other vehicles to move back. The Fiesta actually bumped off a few cars, but no one seemed to care. We crossed through the gate at 5:45 pm, the last car to leave Russia. We had made it out with 15 minutes to spare as the border closed at 6 pm. We later found out that most teams waited between 12 and 20 hours to cross, Vaughn's negotiating saved us from Russian prison.
While waiting in line for passport control, we noticed a white Fiesta a couple of cars ahead of us. On further inspection, we realized not only was it a rally car but also the very same rallier that we purchased the Fiesta from back in England. Unreal. The lads in the Fiesta had been at the border all day, got bored and drank a bottle of vodka. Needless to say, they were happy to see us.
We made it through the border in fairly decent time, easily attributable to the fact it was end of shift. After a call to Jen, we were off to Ulan Bataar. While zipping down relatively decent roads, we walloped a pothole caving in the rear driver side suspension. Not to long thereafter, Vaughn started complaining that the brakes were going soft. A quick inspection revealed that the fluid reservoir had cracked and would no longer hold fluid or pressure. This essentially equaled no brakes. We opted to stay in Darkhaan and finished the trip the following day.
I was more than happy to take the final driving duties of the trip. At this point, we were braking utilizing the hand brake. Of course after the disappearing wheel incident the Fiesta was down to just one drum brake. You should know that one drum brake operated by hand is a poor method of stopping a vehicle loaded with three stinky ralliers and the stuff of three stinky ralliers.
The Mongolian countryside was absolutely amazing and really made me regret the decision to travel through Siberia instead of across Mongolia.
A remote Ger with solar power and a satellite dish.
The Fiestavus in the Mongolian countryside, at this point she leaked gas like mad, had no brakes, no suspension in the right rear, and a wheel that could fall off at any moment. Just the way to finish the rally.
We reached UB in timely fashion and played in traffic. In true Asian form, the traffic was utter chaos with plenty of horns being utilized. I subscribe to the crappiest vehicle has the right of way. Luckily in most cases, the Fiesta won this distinction with little troubles. Handy since quick stops were impossible at this point. Finally we located Dave's, parked the Fiesta, and ended the longest road trip of my life. Reflections of the rally to come soon... Seth
None of us were feeling very good about the situation, we had no official confirmation on Patrick's location and were staring down a deadline with serious repercussions. Our Russian visas expired on Aug 21st and the US Consolate had stated in no uncertain terms that we should be out of the country. Jail was the likely option. It was 2 in the afternoon on Aug. 18th when we finally decided we could not wait any longer.
We had 76 hours to leave Russia and three choices;
1. Drive through Siberia and enter Mongolia through the Northern border.
2. Enter the Western border of Mongolia.
3. Fly home from Barnaul, Russia.
It was decided that the Western border would be too difficult with the Seat's hand clutch and there was a significant chance that a car would be lost along with the $3500 deposit. Flying home was never really an option and chances of getting a flight on time were questionable. That left driving through Siberia, 76 hours to go 3000 km. In order to be successful, we needed to drive long days and have minimal problems. Luckily we were driving highly dependable one liter cars that had withstood 2 weeks of constant abuse in Kazakhstan. I, for one, was worried.
We rolled away from the border, missing one driver and all feeling the sadness that comes with leaving one of your team. I had the reins of the Fiesta, Dominic had the driving portion of the Seat while Vaughn was holding down the clutch duties. We no longer could switch off driving duties when the hours grew long. About two hours into the journey, we got word from Anne at the embassy that Patrick was in Kazakhstan getting a train to Astana and then a flight out. We were all relieved and now could concentrate on getting out of Russia.
Dusk in Western Siberia
We had made good time and were well into the Trans Siberian highway by 2:30 am. As I descended a hill, I felt a bit of a twitch from the back end of the Fiesta followed by some strange noises. And then while traveling at 60 MPH, the wheel fell off of our trip literally. The back end dropped and the car was engulfed in a flurry of sparks. I fought the strong pull that comes from metal to tarmac contact, keeping the car on the road and out of the surrounding marsh. Finally the car came to a rest on the side of the road while I tried to flash down the Seat. I stepped out of the car shaken and sure the Fiesta's rally days were through. The left rear tire had pulled off with the hub and was now resting on the brake drum and the strut support. We started searching for the tire. It was around 40 F and I was in flip flops. We fianlly decided to get some sleep and continue the search in the morning. I fell asleep in my hobbled Fiesta, knowing the prospects were slim.
My slumber was broken by the dull thud of a tire landing on the hood of the car. Upon inspection, we knew it was not something that we could fix ourselves. The bearings were shot and the drum was badly damaged. Dominic and Vaughn headed off to the next town for a mechanic and I stayed to prep the car for ditching. Given the time constraints that we were under, it was agreed that we would move on if a mechanic was not found by 11 am.
Fiestavus post disappearing wheel incident
What was left after the hub and wheel disappeared, notice the wear on the lower part of the drum where the car skidded from 60 mph to 0
This is a self shot video of me beside Fiestavus recounting the tire falling off.
I stripped the incriminating stickers, cleaned out the car, and prepared my gear for departure. I was about ready to knock the vin plates off when the cavalry came over the hill, the Seat and a very impressive looking tow truck.
Before I knew it the car was aboard the truck and I was crammed in cab with three mechanics. The level of English and the nature of the conversation led me to believe that these were not our typical mechanics. My suspicions were confirmed when we pulled into a Mercedes Benz dealership. As the Fiesta rolled into the shop amongst a host of high priced cars, I actually started to believe that the Fiesta would drive again. It was also obvious that they fully understood our time constraints. The lead guy proceeded with destructive disassembly while the rest of the crew gathered and continuously let us know how crazy we were. Shortly, Vaughn was off to the shop to pick up parts.
Vaughn returned with parts in hand. The lead mechanic moaned and groaned like a proper rally mechanic and in about two hours had the Fiesta lowered and running like a dream. They were adamant that the wheel would only make it another 1000 km. We had close to 2500 to do yet. They were so worried they made us promise to email them from UB. When asked how much, they refused to take any money. Instead Vaughn gave them the shirt off his back literally.
The Benz mechanics with Dom and I. Lead mechanic holding up the shirt. Notice how red I am from weeks in the desert.
It difficult to describe what these complete strangers did for us, they saved the Fiestavus from being abandoned and kept us on schedule to make the border. It was one of the most amazing parts of whole trip and I will always remember how great these Russians were. On the side of the Fiesta, earlier in the trip I had written a quote from a former Lakers' player, "Life like basketball, all round." The mechanics at the Benzo dealership have some good karma working for them and it seemed our luck was up. 48 hours to make the border - Seth
''But right now it seems the world's turned upside down, I got to hope that better times will come around, not going to stop and let the hard times drag me down, you know I'll be home soon'' - Sven Curth
For the bulk of the trip, we have utilized the Lily Tomlin quote, ''Its Going To Get A lot Worse Before It Gets Worse'' whenever the times were tough. Sadly, it has proved incredibly accurate in summing up our situation, we just did not know how bad it could get.
We awoke to another miserable day, but it wasn't raining. We all went to work trying to refit the clutch cable. After a few hours, it was brutally evident that our efforts were futile. We set the hand clutch up again with a few modifications to ease use.
The Dukes had left the night prior with our map and phrase book in tow. Luckily we are highly trained rally professionals with an amazing sense of direction. We turned left and started driving. For the first time in quite awhile we made decent time, reaching the Russian border outside of Semey just after dusk. Everyone was well worn so we decided to camp and hit the border first thing in the morning.
The wind blew and the rain fell and I got very little sleep.
Patrick breaking camp on the Russian border
We rose early and were to the border by 730, just in time for a shift change. One hour wait the guard announced. Par for course, we waited. Amazingly, he was relatively accurate in his prediction. We entered the border fiasco in good spirits, joking our way through the Kazakh side. They had already seen quite a number of rally teams and the novelty of the US passports seemed to quicken the pace. We arrived on the Russian side in good time and we were optmistic about reaching Barnaul shortly.
Things were going well, Dominic was playing the insurance game, Vaughn was closing out his stamps, and I was admiring the class decor of the Russian customs booth. Unfortunately, the remaining BCMC member was not faring quite as well. Patrick was starting to draw a crowd of border guards, including the obligatory angry female guard. The attention was not completely unexpected. When Patrick flew to Kiev, he utilized one of his entries on his visa. Due to cost and time, we had purchased double entry visas for Russia and Kazakhstan. Basically, this means that when Kazakh stamped Patrick his visa was void and he had already entered Russia twice, voiding that visa as well. Kazakhstan should never have let Patrick out with his visa situation and now he couldn't get into Russia or Kazakhstan leaving him in limbo. We all felt that given the remote location of the border and our ability to dumbfound practically anyone with idiocy that we would be able to weasel across. However the more guards became involved the more bleak the situation became.
We took another shot with the female guard utilizing an unheard of number of hand gestures and trying to look as sad as possible. She finally put her hat on and gestured for us to follow. I thought we were in the clear but then she walked straight by our cars and on towards the Kaza border. We quickly realized she was escorting Patrick off of Russian soil. With a bit of pleading, we were able to get some more time and let Patrick grab his gear. We were all a bit shocked and dumbfounded by the situation. Since we did not have an operational cellphone, there was very little that we could do at the border. We made sure Patrick had cash and all the important phone numbers, said our good byes and headed for the next town, not knowing if we would see Patrick again on this trip.
Luckily it was a short trip to the next city. Dom and I went to sort a phone and Vaughn went to work on the hand clutch. Things change upon crossing the Kz border, the people are less Asian, the towns are a bit more developed, and there are half a thousand cell phone stores. Luckily we chose the one with two young ladies that would bypass all the paperwork and hook two very raggedy looking Americans with a phone. I think we got extra points for wearing winter hats, which everyone seemed to enjoy laughing at. Listen, 50 F feels whole lot colder when you've sweltered away in 100 F in the desert for two weeks.
With phone in hand, we battled through the flock of street children that seemed intent on getting money from the extremely dirty fellows driving a broken Fiesta. They kept touching our feet and blessing themselves, one even hobbled after us for nearly half a mile. Dom was desparately trying to get help from someone at the US Embassy in Moscow to no avail. He got pointed toward the embassy in Kaza and finally reached someone who cared about Patrick's plight. Anne from the Embassy said, "So you don't speak Russian, you don't know where you are going, and your cars barely run, what are you doing?" Dom responds, "We're on the Mongol Rally." "Ahhh, ralliers." was the answer from Anne. She promised to go to work on the situation immediately. We found a sketchy roadhouse within 10 km of the border and I headed to update Patrick on our progress.
Its sort of like a Patrick Swayze movie - The Roadhouse
Not expecting to be able to make face to face contact, I wrote a note for Patrick. To try to get his spirits up, I tagged the end with a "PS Russian women are still beautiful." I entered through the main entrance of the border with little hassles, just some random hand gestures and the typical dumbfounding idiocy. The angry female border guard found me near instanteously, I handed her the note to deliver to Patrick. She scanned it, apparently showing her deft grasp of the written English language. Of course the only part she picked up on was the last line and she repeated, "Russian waaaameeen?" I figured I was in deep enough, no reason to hide, and read out the line. She turned as red as the Soviet flag and walked away towards Patrick. About a half hour later, I spotted Patrick talking on a cell phone with a border guard nearby. It seems Patrick had stumbled upon two young ladies on the rally and had garnered their cell phone for use. He had then made contact with Anne at the US Embassy. Things didn't appear to be as bad as expected for Patrick, the Kazaks were taking good care of him and he was in good spirits. I headed back to the roadhouse feeling much better about the situation.
The girls and two other rally teams ended up at the roadhouse and things got a bit messy. It was late in the night when the drunk Russian Slava challenged me to the old handshake contest, in between bouts of heavily hitting on the girls. I stared him in the eyes and squeezed as hard as possible, luckily he relented stating, "You stronger, we arm wrestle." I quickly negiotated my way out, knowing that no good could possibly come of this.
We woke up with hurting heads and the ring of our new cellie. Anne was on the other end with good news that a Russian visa was in the works and we should wait at the border for the official word. We all headed to the border and set up camp just outside the fence where Patrick could occasionally get access. Dom and I worked on the cars tweaking and cleaning while Vaughn refitted the hand clutch to near perfection. The day went on and on with no good news.
In McLaughlistan everything is wonderful, the insurance will cost you though
This video was shot through the fence at the border the last time we saw Patrick, its not about the visual but instead the audio
Finally at the end, Anne stated that the Russians could care less and our only chance was with a Colonel in Barnaul whose phone was busy all day. She also indicated that something had to happen on Friday because nothing would happen over the weekend. To further complicate matters, our Russian visas expired in 4 days and we were starting to push whether or not we could make it out of Russia on time. When asked what the repercussions would be, it was plainly stated that we should get out. We reluctantly left Patrick at 10:30 pm, formulating a plan to drive to Barnaul the following day to get the visa in person.
I arrived back at the border early the next morning while Dom and Vaughn sorted cash and more minutes for the phone. The Russian border guard hustled right over to me and stated coldly, "Patrick gone, you leave now." I couldn't get much more out of him, but did decipher that Patrick was in Kaza. I moved my rig a bit away from the border and waited for the others. When they arrived, Dom got Anne on the phone and she talked directly to the guards. The news was not positive, one said Patrick was in Kaza, one said he was in Russia, and one didn't say a thing. We decided we were waiting on the border until we knew exactly where Patrick was.
The Dukes graciously offered to give Andy and James a lift to Mongolia. With an happier air about the convoy, we motored on making good time through-out the day. We were fairly optimistic about our chances.
Fiestavus enjoying some down time in Central Kaz, all rejoice in her glory
Then with near perfect dramatic timing, the Seat went down with a broken clutch cable. Amazingly, it broke directly in front of a garage and predictably 4-5 Kazakhs were soon huddled over the car smoking and wildly suggesting ideas that none of us could understand. Unfortunately, what we needed was a new clutch cable and that was 120 km away.
After trying unsuccessfully to fit up an accelerator cable, I started looking at something a bit extreme, a passenger operated hand clutch. These cars are right hand drive but have an engine designed for left hand drive cars. As such the clutch is located on the left side on the engine, making a perfectly straight pull for the passenger. We found a near perfectly placed penetration to the interior to run the cable through. We used a piece of rebar, that Patrick had picked up a week earlier, for the lever.
Vaughn was designated ''Clutch Boy'' and the Seat was ready for its first go. To the amazement and enjoyment of all, the car lurched forward and off into the distance after only a couple of tries.
We drove until we reached Karragandy. A hasty campsite was located on the outskirts of town. We ate a feast of Kaza pasta gumbo and quickly drifted off to sleep beneath a sea stars.
I awoke in the morning to a bitter chill and a distinct lack of sunshine. For the first time in weeks, the sky was clouded over and the temperature was hovering in the high 50s. After spending two weeks in daily temperatures exceeding 100F, this cold snap was brutal for all of us.
We drove into town and located a garage. The mechanics were less than helpful but did point us towards the town bazaar where a clutch cable could be purchased. A few hours later, Dominic returned with two VW Golf clutch cables in hand. Another couple hours of fitting and testing and we were ready to roll. The clutch was stiff and had a much different feel but it worked.
Dominic doing the clutch cable fiasco dance
The Dukes had to be in Russia as soon as possible and were blazing a fairly fast trail. Our cars were taking a beating as a result. After one stop, we walloped a massive rock and snapped an exhaust support. Patrick and I quickly rigged the exhaust back in place but it rattled with vigor as we drove.
On the road with Mrs. Tigglywinks
It started raining and grew mercilessly dark. It was then, in the worst weather of the trip in the dark of night, that the Seat's clutch went again. The actual clutch pedal was bending under the necessary foot pressure. We gave the Seat a tow to the nearest garage.
We were down, dirty, and sick of working on cars. The Dukes were eager to push on and it became evident that the convoy was on its last legs. In the driving rain, we said our final good byes and parted ways, the end of a good long partnership.
For the first time in three weeks, the bad colonies' cars were on their own. We settled the cars in along side a big truck. Dominic declared that he was drinking beer and not thinking about cars, all I could do was wholeheartedly agree.
There was a really dodgy looking concrete cafe next to the gas station that looked rather warm. We walked in and had a seat by a bunch of truck drivers drinking vodka. It felt incredible to be out of the cold and the rain, however frightening the reality of the situation was. We feasted on anything we could negiotate with hand signals. At a bit past midnight we settled into the cars for the evening.
After a solid couple days of R&R in Bishkek, the cars and crew were recharged and ready for another trip through Kazakhstan. On the way out of town, we hit the main bazaar which is aptly named. It is basically a whole lot of shipping containers filled with just about everything, from stereos to apples to funny looking elf slippers. Patrick and I purchased the latter. The border was only 10 or 20 miles away and in that time the first signs of a stomach bug began to propagate. Both James and I were hit at the same time and were forced into the worst imaginable position, using a gas station ''bathroom''. This is beyond bad and you are lucky enough that I will tell you all about it. Every time we stop, we eagerly search the premise in hopes of finding a Western style bathroom. Instead, we typically find the infamous ''hole in the ground''. This fine facility is generally contained in a shack with a tin roof and no windows. This means that you can't see a damn thing and its hot as hell, all complimenting the worst stench you could ever imagine. Its the ultimate insult to injury, first the food makes you sick, then the toilet elevates it.
We made it to the border and settled in for the anticipated fiasco on the Kazakh side. We quickly obtained stampy stampy (their own words) from the Krazystan guard and pulled forward to the Kazakh side. The guards were flying random hand gestures like they were in a Puffy video. After some further pointing and mumbling, it was deicphered that we were being sent to the exit door. We wander in and find the obligatory angry female border guard ushering us to the front of an enormous and agitated line of locals. In what may be a world record time, we zipped out of the border and forward to Almaty. Two emergency stomach flu stops later and we were thoroughly lost in Almaty in search of the Fiat dealership. Andy and James drove off and returned an hour or so later unsuccessful. We left Almaty, slowly, very slowly. Rush hour traffic in the Stans is painful at best. Luckily we have a car that doesn't idle, luckily Patrick had to deal with it. The mountains around Almaty are spectacular, absolutely massive. Just like Bishkek, there was still a touch of snow atop the peaks. I would love to snowboard here.
We played the gas gauge game shortly outside of Almaty, with three of four cars on E for a half hour or more. Finally a dodgy gas station was located and those without raging stomach issues negiotated a decent exchange rate. With light fading quickly, we deftly located a fantastic camp site in the middle of the Steppe.
The Fiat drives into the sunset
In the morning, all were feeling better and quite confident that progress would be made. We were performing our morning car checks, when Andy declared he may have bigger issues. There were water droplets on the oil pan dipstick indicating a possible head gasket issue. No one, especially Andy was all that excited about a mid desert head gasket change. Unfortunately, upon attempting to start the Fiat it became obvious that something was definitely wrong. Amid looks of despair, the tools came out of the cars and the work began. Andy worked away as we played a little wiffle ball. Things were progressing well until he ran into the rocker cover bolts. Apparently, the Italians do things differently, this is when the state of shock sets in. Not one single allen wrench between all of our cars would fit the bolts, forcing Andy to remove with smaller wrench thus rounding the heads. A couple rounded completely so we beveled the heads with a file and hammered a socket over the top. Hey its the desert and its by any means necessary. Andy was able to negiotate the rest of the disassembly without any real issues.
Andy at work on the head gasket
With the new head gasket in place, it was time to rebuild. I went to work rotating the tires on the Fiesta to minimize the uneven wear propagating from the front left tire. Soon the murmur of new problems started making its way across the camp. Andy had snapped a head bolt while applying normal pressure. No words were spoke other than, ''Well all we can do is keep going.'' The assembly continued. Upon the first fire, things looked pretty bleak, the car sounded the same as before the minor operation. The inevitable discussions started about how Andy and James were going to make it home. Before anything hasty was done we decided to throw everything at it possible. After some new sparks and rearranging of random wires, the Fiat sputtered to life. We all rejoiced and hit the road. Things were looking up for the convoy.
A montage of the time spent replacing the head gasket on the Fiat in the desert
About 30 minutes down the road, Andy and James had to stop for some radiator water. Nothing too alarming as this had become a common practice. As the day wore on and the stops became more frequent, we started to suspect the worst. One last engine rebuild was decided upon and a semi suitable campsite was located. Shortly into disassembly, we ran into a insurmountable obstacle. The allen bolts on the backside of the rocker cover were going nowhere. The towel was thrown in.
The car scavenging ceremony was performed in the morning as the remaining cars vied for differing goods. Andy and James decided to push on until the car completely died. We were leading the pack down the dirt track and managed to take the one possible wrong turn, only Andy and James were dumb enough to follow. It was upon the turnaround that the Fiat gasped its last breath. Andy and James grabbed their essentials and started the long walk to the road.
The Long Walk - Final Resting Place of the Fiat
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.