Disclaimer: Hans takes no responsibility for the viewpoints or actions seen in this blog. They are purely written by Shane and do not represent the feelings or opinions of everyone on the team.
Watching the Thunder Yaks pack their van fills me with a bit of dread. When the white and black Renault is carrying its full load it comes dangerously close to sitting on its back tires. They carry two teams worth of supplies and people, having rescued the Drama Llamas after their wreck in Russia. The reason for their low riding style would turn out to be something a bit more nefarious than just adding weight to their vehicle, but we would only learn about it at 2 am on a Kazakh “road”.
A grand game of Tetris occured while fitting their camp supplies back in their vehicle. Added to the general ADHD nature of 14 or so young men, we only set off well into the afternoon. The drive back to Aralsk took hours, and then we set off down a well paved road towards our destination. As evening set in we were told, “Let’s push on toward the city instead of camping, we’ll be there in a couple hours, no later than midnight.”
At about 11pm the smooth running highway ended and we were on a Kazakh construction road. This is a very strange method of building a road because it means you weave onto dirt roads that cris-cross the remnants of a destroyed highway that is being reclaimed and rebuilt.
Sand was prevalent in these roads and having spent some time in such foul terrain most of the convoy slowed way down. The Marabby was having none of that and dodged and skirted these pits with skill. There were a fair few bumps that reinforced our appreciation for our armored undercarriage of course and perhaps sometimes our front wheels reached for the stars, but most was solid going.
The Thunder Yak had a decidedly different experience. The Yak had just passed us by when through the dark I saw it launch into the air, tail lights bouncing up and down. The Yak was no longer bovine but rather a Bucking Bronco disappearing into a mushroom cloud of dust.
The Marabby stopped and we waited as the dust settled down, revealing the a motionless Yak. Pav, the lead driver opened his door. I think he might have been a bit stunned but with British aplomb said, “That was massive!”
Indeed, just behind the car was a bump that could only be described as a hidden car catapult. Only the weight of the van had kept it from becoming a plane.
The four occupants, brave souls, recovered and tried to continue driving. Alas, the Yak, already low was now sitting on its tires. The suspension or some such mechanical contraption had given out. Examining the damage they decided to keep calm and carry on, very British indeed.
With rubbing tires we followed them as they ventured into the night. The convoy limped into our destination at 4AM in the morning. You may notice that I have no clue what this city was called, having perhaps blocked it from memory.
Getting a hotel was a fight. The first attempt was denied outright, “The hotel is full” we were told at the gates. We didn’t ask why the hotel was full but the parking lot empty, we weren’t wanted.
The next place came at the guidance of a lone taxi driver. Getting into the hotel alone was quite a trick in and of itself but I eventually found the proper unmarked entrance and fell into a reception area filled with a stern devil and a reluctant angel. The first was adamant they couldn’t host us at all, the second hesitant. I begged and pleaded in my limited Russian, “We have long drive. Beds no necessary. Any number of cats good. This last statement confused them until I clarirooms that we wanted rooms (komnata) not cats (koshka). “Big please, big big please” I repeated.
The devil hesitated for a moment and I jumped, “How much?”
She wrote down a number and before she could withdraw the pen I had put a wad of cash down, paying for eleven guests.
She sighed and Pav and Alex asked to see the rooms. “I think we are past that point,” I said, when what I meant was “I’m terrified of this woman, I think she will break a bottle of vodka on my head if I ask.”
We related the good news to our compatriots and drove our cars around to the proper area of the hotel. Adding insult to injury the security guard guided the Thunder Yak into a dark ditch.
On the other hand we found the Great Danes has a flat tire they had been riding on for about 100 km. Although I don’t know the Danes well, but they are so kind I’m certain that they drove for so long in order to avoid imposing on the convoy.
That was good enough for the convoy and we unpacked our gear and went to see our mystery rooms.
They were ancient and yet amazing. Everything was clean, there were huge golden drapes and massive beds. It was as if a dark, disused building from the 1950’s had snuck its way into the care of a Kazak family. I thought I had purchased three rooms but we ended up with five or more, one of which was a honeymoon suite with couches and room to spare.
Roberta and I crashed in our own room. There was only one problem as I turned out the lights. Without power one of the lamp bulbs stayed lit and started strobing turning our room into a living horror movie. It wouldn’t stop.
“I think we have a ghost Roberta.”
“Well, that’s scary.” she said, pulling on her eye mask and rolling over and falling asleep.
The night was uneventful for ghost and human alike and we woke relatively rested if still a bit weary. The same didn’t go for our mates in the convoy (and Hans) and I would later discover they had decided to order some vodka and have a few beers before bedding down.
Morning came finding the convoy with three ruined tires in need of repair or replacement. The Yaks upon removing their wheel found why their steed was dragging his bottom. Their mechanic in England had implemented their request of a stiffer suspension by removing most of it.
This certainly did the trick, but was akin to making a plane fly faster by removing the windows and doors to lighten it. Not ideal. Now that it was completely broken all that was available to them and the Kazak mechanics was to hammer the wheel wells out so that the tires had more room.
The Danes also had a ruined suspension which required repairing at the mechanics.
This meant two of three remaining cars were out of commission and wouldn’t be driving until evening. This was also the time that I learned that crossing the Mongolian border was taking up to 3 days for teams. With two weeks left until the end of the rally, a 3 day delay meant we had 11 days to cross two of the largest landlocked countries in the world and a stretch of Russian Siberia to boot.
Longer day drives were required it was decided. The convoy would drive to 10pm then stop and camp, rising early to take advantage of the improving road conditions. With luck we would hit the Kyrgyzstan border in time to cross and reach Bishkek. The following day we would hop back into Kazakhstan and continue to the capital Almaty.
Ten o’clock came and went and the convoy decided that camping in the Kazakh swamplands wasn’t ideal. We stopped at a restaurant/house for some delicious mystery meat. Vertebrae, heart, and liver were included gratis. Most of these I did not partake of, maybe, it was hard to tell what was what.
There was some motions to ask if we could pitch our tents in the shrug lands around the house, but for some reasons we decided to move on.
There was a feeling among the convoy that if we reached the city of Turkestan we would be free of the wet and marshy areas. There was a feeling among myself that if we got to Turkestan we might get a hotel.
We did arrive in the outskirts of Turkestan but the convoy was still intent on camping. I watched as the Yak trundled off into the Kazakh suburbs.
The Marabby told me that this was the wrong way. I had to agree, with most of Kazakhstan being stark and empty, aiming towards houses wasn’t the Marabby method. We ended up going around in a circle after a Off-duty policeman directed us back towards the city. We ended up crossing over the highway past a gas station I recognized and dove towards houses on the far side.
The Marabby suddenly did a u-turn. “The car is finding a hotel, you better invite the convoy.” I told Hans because he is the only one with a cellphone. A friendly if mediocre establishment was found soon after. Raj from the Yaks called having not received our text. I think they planned to join us but Hans’s cellphone cut out.
He’d run out of funds.
With that we’d lost contact with the mothership.