Mongol Rally 2004 & 2005 Blogs & Photos

Potholes and smelly socks

Think this might be a slightly shorter missive than the last marathon. We made it to Almaty! I think that’s about 2/3 of the way, which is a bit of a miracle really considering how hard we found it getting out of Latvia. In typically hapless style just after writing the last email art and I sat down to get something to eat in a restaurant in Riga, and began admiring the rather fetching pink clamp on a car just down the street. Looked again and realised it was the Micra, we had actually forgotten where it was parked so perhaps a blessing. We had of course parked it right outside the offices of the traffic police. Anyway, got that sorted, finally got the right papers together and set off for the border full of hope. After a delightful 9 hour wait through the middle of the night and much waving of our freshly translated and much cherished power of attorney they relented and actually let us through. The result of our little pause was that we were now 3 days behind the others so sadly had to miss out Moscow and begin the mad dash to catch up. Thankfully they had been dawdling a bit, and the fiat breaks down at least twice a day (I think they are up to 25 breakdowns now!), so they were not quite out of sight but the word was that they were just about at the Kazakh border. Managed to drive right across Russia to the border (near samara) in 36 hours straight, virtually without stopping. As a result our Russian experience was mostly punctuated by overtaking lorries at night. Our diet consisted solely of gherkins and bananas, although we did discover if you put gherkin, ketchup and mustard together in a sandwich it tastes remarkably like a big mac, which is worth remembering. Just to test this we did actually stop at McDonalds in samara, purely in the name of research obviously. 

The Kazakh border did not prove too complicated, and we were by now less than a days drive behind the others. Only now did it feel like the adventure was beginning in earnest, particularly as the paved roads ran out almost immediately, and driving became much more fun. The first town we got to was called oral and it set the benchmark the rest of Kazakhstan seems to be trying to reach when it came to flashing lights. They are a nation obsessed. It did appear to be just like a mini Las Vegas. There was one amazing bridge on the way out that was lit up with alternate green and blue lights, which were shining on thousands and thousands of moths which formed what looked like a solid multi coloured mass above us as we drove across. It was quite something. 

We managed to catch up with the others in the middle of the next day, having already knocked the exhaust off, something we have continued doing on an almost daily basis, and have been moving in convoy ever since. It has been much more sedate, mostly due to the wonders of Italian engineering, and much more fun doing it this way, particularly as our fellow ralliers are an amusing bunch. To say some of the roads were bad would be a spectacular understatement, there are potholes big enough to hide a car in and it was only on very rare occasions that we got above 15mph. I don’t think I have ever had so much fun driving, particularly at night. The 'tarmaced' bits were often the worst, although there were dirt tracks following the road on either side for a lot of the way, something of a mixed blessing. This continued for something like 1000km and took us about 5 days. Typically we were driving along one of the few flat bits of road we came across when art managed to run over a boulder and make a hole in the bottom of the gear box, managed to patch it up and limp to nearest village, thankfully very close, where despite seemingly possessing no tools at all, apart from a blow torch, they managed to mend it. Got about another 10 km when the front suspension of the fiat snapped, so back to the village again where with the aid of the trusty blow torch, an old Lada and several hours a brand new suspension was created. Considering where we were this was an incredible feat. 

Kazakhstan is an extraordinary country, incredibly flat grasslands most of the way down, filled with absolutely nothing. In a funny sort of way being in the cars cuts us off from it a bit, it actually seemed a little dull at times despite the scale of it. The people on the other hand have been fantastic, immediately interested and friendly, particularly in the more remote areas, they ask us where we are going and then seem deeply bemused when we tell them and ask why. I’m not sure its an exclusively Kazakh thing. The exceptions to this are the old women who remain entirely stony faced throughout the whole thing. There have been regular stops at road side cafes, generally peoples houses with a table outside, for cups of tea and whatever food they happen to have, the highlight was perhaps being given 4 eggs each in one place, although a bit farther along the line we stayed in a hotel where they gave us the same bowl of pasta and meat soup 3 meals in a row, including breakfast. It got spicier each time, not quite sure what that signified. Another strange quirk is the appearance of the cemeteries at regular intervals at the side of the road; some of the tombs are amazingly ornate, like mini palaces, and far more impressive than any of the buildings inhabited by the living along the way. We have also discovered that you are far less likely to be stopped by the police if you are driving a broken car, the strong little Micra had to tow the panda for about 200km at one point and got waved through every check point, where previously they would have stopped us at every one. The fiat took it one step further by driving for 2 days with a very badly broken windscreen and didn’t get stopped once, unlike the healthy cars behind it. It is currently getting fixed so they will soon be reacquainted with the vagaries of the militzia. 

Next news may not be until Ulaan Baatar by which time we will have finished!! Setting off in search of the next border tonight, assuming they let us out of the hotel, I was woken up this morning by two mad cleaning ladies who charged into our room speaking very quickly in Russian, grabbed a pair of my dirty socks, started waving them at me and gesturing, then decided I understood, smiled, and left with my socks. A little bemusing. I think they were actually worried about the odd number, and complete lack of pairs, of socks I had given them in my laundry. 

Next - Part 3 We Made It!

The 2004 Escapades Part 2