Mongol Rally 2004 & 2005 Blogs & Photos
Part 3 - Gaffa Tape and Cable Ties (Samarkand to the Mongolian Border)
I think last contact was made from Samarkand, which we hardly seemed to see at all despite spending a night there.  It seemed a lovely city, although perhaps without the same old worldliness of Bukhara.  We managed to drive into the centre, having followed a local who we had asked for directions, and who said don’t worry I’m going that way, follow me.  We were just wondering what to do next when somebody came up and said “Ah, mongol rally!”  it turned out that he was working for a guesthouse and thgey alreasy had some ralliers staying there.  This was great luck, for we hadn’t seen another rallier since leaving Prague.  It turned out to be Team Roshambo, 3 Americans all squeezed into a Fiat Panda who we had briefly met at the launch party.  They were a little the worse for wear after the night before, but happily surprised to see us.  We then had an excellent extended brunch with lots of fruit and pancakes, and lots of exchanging of war stories.  After a marathon email writing session, and some isolated pockets of excitement about the news of the cricket, it was getting dark.  We now managed to acquire another team, What Could Possibly Go Wrongolia (Wrongolia), who had been down into Iran and had a what sounded like a fantastic time, and all sat down for a couple of beers and another meal.  By this stage sight seeing had rather fallen by the wayside, which was a pity but we saw some of the main attractions.  My impressions of the city were most favourable all told, partly I guess because it offered us our first Europeanised creature comforts since leaving Baku. We left at the crack of dawn, after the minor embarrassment of running out of petrol just as we were pulling away from our guesthouse, and blocking the rather narrow street as a result.
From Samarkand it was a mostly uneventful charge to the border with Kazakhstan, and the gradual dawning on us that we had a serious amount of driving to do to have a chance of the finish party, then set for the 24th August.  Once in Kazakhstan we had a quick detour into Shymkent to try and find a replacement CD player for the one that was filched in no mans land and I had to go into at least 35 mobile phone shops before finding one that sold anything else electrical.  The world moves on apace.  We then pushed on to try and find the Buzzwagon, from whom we had become separated on the road, and make as much time as possible.  We paused only briefly, set off again at dawn, and were delighted to finally be making steady progress after the frustrations of the previous week.  Then there was a huge crash, and everything went black.  The bonnet had flown up as we were driving along.  Luckily no cars or corners got in the way before I managed to stop, but it was not much fun.  The result of this act of self-mutilation by the car was a badly cracked windscreen, and the revelation that the bit that held the bonnet down had broken off.  The immediate repairs included quantities of gaffa tape, cable ties and, rather optimistically, clingfilm.  Thankfully the Buzzwagon, who we thought were ahead of us, pulled up minutes after it had occurred.  It is always nice to have someone else around when your car starts to die.  We then had a rather concerned few hours drive to Almaty, with the cracks seeming to widen with every kilometre.  Once there the inevitable quest for a new windscreen began.  Luckily it was fairly easy to demonstrate the problem, we just pointed.  Eventually we were directed to the main Toyota dealer, who of course told us that no, they did not supply Suzuki parts.  We told them about the rally however, and they were determined to help.  After discovering that the only Suzuki dealer in town didn’t have the right part they just gave us one of their employees, who then drove around with us for the rest of the day, translating and taking us to likely places.  These included one particularly strange underground network of tunnels, each of which appeared to have a small garage specialising in a bit of car bodywork in it.  It was like we had just descended into some slightly dystopian science fiction film.  Sadly they couldn’t help, but they did point us to someone who could.  Four hours, $120, a very bad Russian cafe and a shiny new windscreen later it was time to escape Almaty.  Almaty, of course, had other ideas.  It took 2 hours, at least 2 complete circuits of the ring road and over 50 miles of driving before we managed to find a way out of the city.  When we did, following an earnestly excitable Kazakh Jew we had met in a petrol station, it turned out that we should have taken an unmarked, unlit, very unlikely looking side road, that had previously eluded us and everyone we had asked.
Later that night the Buzzwagon's lights decided to stop working, but they decided to push on anyway, following our brake lights, as it really made very little difference to how much they could see.  By this stage it seemed like a perfectly normal sort of thing to do.  Kazakhstan is vast and flat; once the hills behind Almaty were out of sight we could look in every direction and see no more than the occasional undulation.  It was also once again extremely hot.  This was actually perfect, and we rejoiced in the feeling of eating up the miles and making constant progress in a way we had not done since leaving turkey.  It was definitely one of those Mongol rally moments, where we just drove along grinning for no obvious reason.  It was also strange to be on a track already flattened by a variety of ralliers, it made the checkpoints particularly easy as they would take one look at us, say "ah, Mongolia!" and wave us on.  Having been through Turkmenistan it is difficult to describe how much of a pleasure this was.
The border presented no problems, but our lack of both roubles and petrol did once we reached the other side.  We eventually had to do a deal with the girl in the petrol station to get somebody to change our tchenge (sp?) under the table in the local cafe.  It is illegal to take them out of Kazakhstan.  Then on we trundled, this time to Barnaul (barn owl), where we finally procured some roubles and directions and headed for the Altai Mountains.  These are stunning, one of the very few places of genuine natural beauty in the whole of Russia, and more than a little like Georgia.  We decided to stop and camp for the night, and found a nice little spot in the middle of a combine harvester track, which just happened to be the only flat bit of ground in the area.  Thankfully we weren’t mown down by a midnight harvester; instead we were awoken at 5am by the sound of whispering outside the tent.  Harry opened the flap to see a woman standing there, who promptly screamed and ran away.  Most surreal.  Next up the car refused to start, and we had to roll it to the side of the road.  As we were tinkering Harry noticed a police car stop by our former campsite, but thankfully he spared us any further investigations.  As ever our burgeoning mechanical knowledge was not sufficient to get the car going, and we had to be rescued by a local.  He was a very nice chap, looked like a German with a large bushy moustache that he stopped the car to curl at one point, and had the peculiar ability to make himself perfectly understood, despite not speaking a word of English.  He dropped us off with some local mechanics, who then spent the next few hours playing in our engine.  They pulled various bits apart, spent a lot of time blowing into the carburettor, took the top off the cylinder block, looked at it ruefully, put it back on again, continued to look bemused, took it off again and had another look then screwed it back on again.  It was a little bit like giving the car a vigorous massage, but we were not filled with great confidence that everything had been put back in the right place again. Anyway they got it running, for which we were greatly grateful, although not in quite the manner to which we had become accustomed.  At top speed we were struggling to make 40mph, and we had to plod up the hills in 1st gear, at about 10mph.
At this point we re-met the buzzwagon, who we had left behind in Kazakhstan, and after buzzing ahead for a bit we made them stop and turn round, as we were very close to needing a tow.  In the act of turning round they managed to get their electrics tangled in the steering column, which pulled them all out, and their car immediately died.  The next 2 hours were a deeply sociable experience.  We had not seen another rally car on the road since leaving Prague, then 3 pulled up almost in succession, said hello, swapped a few war stories, and then set off again.  It was great fun, particularly some of the tales of getting chased by bandits and the fantastic one about taking a wrong turn into a militarized zone between the Ukraine and Russia, getting forced out of their vehicles at gunpoint by the Ukranians, accused of being spies, released and then stopped by the Russians on the same charges 10 minutes later.  Dave had gone in search of yet another mechanic, but we thought we might as well have a tinker anyway.  After sticking a few likely looking loose ends together in a properly haphazard manner we managed to get the engine running.  We had 1 headlight on full beam all the time, regardless of whether the keys were in the ignition, and the other on and dipped, again all the time, when the car was turned on.  Neither of the front indicators worked, one of the back ones was constantly on and the other just made a strange buzzing sound whenever you tried to use it.  Dave was very disappointed when he got back to find that we didn’t need his English speaking electrical engineer.  I also managed to get ours running much better too, the Russian mechanics had played with our spark plugs so many times they had broken another one of our HT leads.  Sadly it was our one and only Lada part, thankfully we had a spare.  Strange that our car should suddenly run better now it was no longer part Lada.
After a night spent at the border we were ready to hop across our final frontier, into our 17th country, and be in Mongolia by lunchtime.  Fat chance. There were 5 rally cars trying to cross, and we all made it out of Russia without problems.  Then we had to drive 20 miles to get to the Mongolian border post, increasingly wondering if we had in fact entered the country illegally somehow.  The first 3 cars got through fine, and then they decided to stop for lunch, and closed the border for 2 hours.  Once they reopened it we got our passports stamped, and gave them the car documents, which they took off round the corner, and were told to wait, which we did for the next 5 hours.   This gave us a chance to test our makeshift roof, made out of a tarpaulin, some bike locks, bungees and cable ties in a heavy storm.  It was mostly waterproof.  The original roof disappeared somewhere between Turkey and Turkmenistan, no idea how and no idea where.  Anyway, back to the point, we got rather bored of waiting, and after much discussion they admitted that the only reason they were not letting us through was because the photocopier had broken, and they wanted to copy our passports.  This admitted they duly just wrote down our details and waived us on our way. MONGOLIA!  At last....!
The 2005 Mongol Rally - The Escapades