From Peking to Paris on a Mototri Contal Threewheeler Part 6
Sunday 16th of June 2019
Day 15 in the rally, Kazakhstan
The consciousness of a P2P competitor is divided in two parts. There is the Mongolian part and the post-Mongolian part. The Mongolian part is restrained, fearful and cautious. The post-Mongolian part is exuberant, eagerly and sanguine. For Herman and I this was not much different, but on the other hand it was very different. To explain this, let me first take you back to Mongolia…
When we left China with an injured axle and ‘the highway debacle’ deeply engraved in our minds we entered Mongolia with mixed feelings, reservedly. Driving out of Erenhot, China, over the border into Mongolia was nothing less than a shock and the first driving day in Mongolia to camp 1 proved to be an unexpected physical ordeal. Thereafter came the first rest day in Ulan Bator where I hesitated but decided to take up the ultimate glove to drive every kilometer of the roadbook and hence every kilometer off road. Every single day that followed was a fight to the camp. Every single kilometer needed to be vanquished. Nothing was given for free. On day 6 to the second camp Untiin Brigarde, the 220 kilometre of tarmac could only be started after a useless ceremony on the main square of Ulan Bator where we needed to wait for the mayor’s speech, that never came. The 150 kilometer of gravel and stones that followed the tarmac were, again, much more difficult than expected.
In the eighteen months of preparation before the rally, I often wondered how tough the off road sections would be. Never, not in my worst dreams, the mix of soft sand, completed slopes, potholes and stones were so hard to handle. Of course I knew in advance that the handling of the Contal would not be evident. The weird long handlebar, with the handles straight towards me instead of pointing to the outsides, made both my wrists to be bended in an unusual angle all the time, where turning the throttle, braking and pulling the clutch made it all even worse. There was not only the intense trembling of the handlebar but every change in direction had to be done with great effort where both the front wheels, heavy from Herman’s weight, had to be pointed into position by pushing on one side of the handlebar and pulling on the other. The Contal simply didn’t want to turn so I had to force it, every time I wanted to change direction. On tarmac, this was not such an ordeal because it was mostly straight forward… but the off road sections demanded a constant swinging from left to right, trying to stay in or out the tracks, avoiding rocks, ditches and potholes.
Arriving in Untiin Brigarde I was exhausted. My arm muscles felt like gum and both wrists gave the impression to be dislocated. Next day was no different. After 250 kilometre of tarmac the ‘mere’ 130 kilometer of gravel and stones seemed even more difficult to handle than the day before. After arriving in camp 3 in Tsagaan Uul, on the seventh day of the rally, my brain realized that this physical punishment was to continue. My body was sending signals that the beatings had to stop but the mind didn’t listen. There was just no other way. This is the moment where a rally driver’s consciousness changes, where an acceptance of the situation settles in. But as I described in Part 1, the arrival in Tsagaan Uul also reveiled the broken axle, again. There is no doubt that this was the deepest moment in the rally, mechanically and physically. At that moment I could not know how relieved I would be at the arrival of camp 4 the next day, and how the welding of the second axle under the original broken axle would change the whole perspective. Day nine in the rally took us from Undur Khangai to Achiit Lake. I would love to say that this day was different from the other Mongolian days but no… it wasn’t. Mechanically my biggest worries were solved but physically the sense of loss of control became more and more present. On the easier tarmac part of the day, all 240 kilometre, I kept wondering if my body was going to accept the continuous pounding. Once on the off road, this question lost its relevance since there was no other way… Nevertheless, after arrival at the lake there was no way Herman and I would not swim in the lake. So, we got into our undies and entered the very cold Mongolian water hesitantly. It is then that I discovered that some relieve for my sore hands could be found by holding them in cold water. It is also in that lake that I think that I have caught the most minute but disrupting bug in my intestines, but later more about that interesting fact. Herman and I had left the campsite that morning at 6:45 in the early morning. The sun was already out making long shadows in the short grass and the sky was deep blue. That morning, one thing was different though… slowly but surely one mental eye was looking at the far horizon where the Mongolian-Russian border was vaguely appearing. On the tenth day of the rally, on the 11thof June of the year 2019… the Russian border signified nothing less for Herman and I than what the first glimpse of land means for the shipwrecked. Heading that morning for the last camp for a while, spirits were up. Border day also means less kilometer because the organization anticipates a long wait, twice. Leaving Mongolia wasn’t without a fight though! Nobody believes us, but we nearly spent the day in jail. Leaving the campsite as the first competitor in the early morning again, we hurried forward. After the first 40 kilometer or so, a single policeman vaguely waving to us on the side could not stop our swift pace to the border, until I perceived a heavily waving motorcyclist trying to catch up with us a while later. There was no way I intended to stop for this guy until I understood him shouting the words ‘passport’ and ‘stamp’. Apparently were had to stop at that waving policeman and get a stamp in our passports before we could go on to the border. So, we went back and on our arrival there some angry looking officials tried to make it clear to us we made a grave violation of some unwritten rule. The stamp was indispensable to get us over the border and passing the policeman apparently had to be punished. Meanwhile the other competitors started to arrive and, since we indicated they had to stop and get a stamp, that is what they did. As soon as they had their stamp they left, leaving Herman and I stone cold on the spot. We were not to leave. It became soon clear why. In the small office we were asked how many Mongolian Tugriks we had, what made immediately clear to us that the whole charade was a money thing! Since they had our passports seized, we had no choice but to pay. By coincidence, the fine appeared to be exactly the amount of Tugriks we had on us and after the handover of the cash the atmosphere in the office changed completely. The gloomy looking policemen became cool guys and I was even allowed to pose for a selfie in their jail, adjacent to the little office.
The two border crossings that day were typical border crossings as they go in totalitarian states: suspicious and unfriendly. But nothing could ruin our good moods… we crossed Mongolia, that chapter was finally behind us. We did it! Now we were in Russia where there would also be potholes and all kinds of other ambushes but no more off road… we thought. Arriving from the Russian Kochevnik camp into the Park Hotel in Aya on the 11thrally day gave us the first chance to sleep in a real bed again after 5 days and enjoy the benefits of running water and soap. The advantage of an early start before all other competitors brought us there quite early in the afternoon and allowed Herman and I to take an afternoon nap. In the evening, after dinner, a huge thunderstorm swept over the Altai region, with spectacular lightning effects in the sky. The sheer beauty of this spectacle concealed the fact that from now on, we would have to take bad weather into the equation of all elements that could keep us from getting to Paris. The next day was the last driving day before the second rest day which made our spirits happy. On arrival there was a huge arch with the word ‘Finish’ written on it and lots of friendly people to welcome us in Novokuznetsk. In a way… it felt a bit like a finish, although there were still 24 days to run. Only one third of the route was traveled, being the most difficult third… we thought. On Friday the 14thof June, Herman and I drove into Novosibirsk at three in the afternoon, like Napoleon entered Berlin in 1806: “Berlin, 27 October, 1806. H.M. the Emperor of the French and King of Italy entered this capital today, at three in the afternoon under the finest weather in the world. The emperor was preceded by his horse and foot guards, and was followed by a superb regiment of cuirassiers. All the inhabitants went before His Majesty; hats were thrown in the air on all sides; cries of Vive l’Empereur ! filled the air. This evening the entire town was illuminated; the streets were filled with people”
After the rest day in Novosibirsk we got back on the road with a reinforced axle (last surgical procedure of the rally, it still holds!), new oil and all the little inconveniences on the Contal looked after, nursed and solved carefully. The next goal on our agenda was the Republic of Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country and the ninth largest country in the world with an area of 2.724.900 square kilometers. Kazakhstan was a sort of ‘second Mongolia’ to some competitors, as a matter of fact the country inspired unrest to some. Not so much to Herman and me, we were confident that now that we had conquered Mongolia, we would cut through the other miseries like a hot knife through butter… God, how wrong we were! The gamechanger in play was to be the weather. Who would have thought that?
So, we left the Marriot in Novosibirsk in high spirit, waved out by Rudy and Didier, our Belgian friends. Little did we know that the drizzly morning would turn in a bitter cold, soaking wet horror afternoon. First it started to rain unnoticeable. Just a few little drops on the goggles. No need to stop and take out the rainsuit, nonooo… let us just drive on… the border is close… Twenty minutes later it was pouring. Buckets of water came down on us. On top of that, a very strong wind swirled across the Kazakh plains. The rain came horizontally toward us, like needles. Almost immediately my goggles fogged up. It was no use at all to try to clean them, they fogged up again. I had to take them off. Bare eyed I had to lower the speed of the Contal. The road ahead was almost not visible any more. I drove on instinct more than on sight. Then, there was a severe temperature drop. The soaked clothes, soaked gloves and soaked boots became ice blocks. I could not resist the heavy trembling of my complete body. Herman sat shaking all the way forward in his seat, as if he tried to address the attack fiercely. The roadbook was put in a plastic bag under his bottom, Kazakhstan is one straight line anyway. Since the speed of the Contal was reduced to 45 to 50 kilometers an hour big trucks started to catch up and pass us. The fountain of water that was repeatedly sprayed over us as a result only reinforced the total desperation that came over me in those horrible two hours. It felt like forever, like there was no end to the suffering. At the height of all that violence suddenly the Russian-Kazakh border appeared on the lead-grey horizon. We were the only crew arriving in the compound, no competitors in sight. A soaked Russian soldier with a Kalasjnikov machinegun held up gestured us to direct the Contal forward, to park and to enter a small, grey building. Shaking and shivering we obliged. Once inside two heads of young soldiers stuck above a counter signaling us to come forward and produce our passports… Herman as well as I tried to open our rainsuit to get to our passport, but we both failed. The soldiers were looking at us as if we were aliens. Under us the large puddle of water only became larger. Once I liberated myself from the soaking gloves I tried to get feeling in my fingers again to search for the documents. After a few useless minutes the soldiers looked at each other and gestured their heads that we could move on, without showing our passports. We moved passed the counters and started to take every piece of clothing off. The weight of the gloves and boots were like dead animals. Herman looked at me and with a big smile he said laconic: “I guarantee you one thing, we will remember this for the rest of our lives!”
On we went, ready to face the storm again. But somehow the wind subsided a bit and the rain still came down in huge quantities, but we had a problem extra. The cold became almost unbearable. Everything was soaking wet and the freezing cold crept in our bones. Herman and I decided we would not take the turnoff to ‘the German Village’ to do the special stage. It was only 5 kilometer of gravel, nothing to gain, we decided to get to the hotel as soon as possible. At that point Herman made his one and only mistake of the whole rally. Of the 1300 waypoint that were in the three roadbooks he missed the one that would keep us on the main road. Still bothered by the pouring rain and stone cold to the bone we suddenly drove at low speed into the German Village, to our own surprise. The scene we saw there was one straight out of Apocalypse Now. The competitor’s cars were scattered all over the little town. Everywhere people stood protecting themselves against the rain and the road stood under 20 centimeter of water, blank. I advanced the Contal by passing everybody and drove up to the marchall, John Spiller. Why is he always around when there is trouble in the air? There was no way to avoid this test so we maneuvered us into starting position.
John looked at us in disbelief. “What the f*** are you guys doing here”, he asked. But when he looked in my eyes and saw that I was ready to kill something, so he just said this: “Guys, this is not going to be nice… the gravel turned into thick mud and there is no way around it… just put the throttle on max and keep on going, whatever you do, don’t stop”. He counted us down and there we went. The Contal slipslided from the first meters away and the only thing I could do was correct it, all the time. Slowly we made some speed but in doing so the back wheel kept on trying to get from under the vehicle. My arms were numb after the first kilometer. But the speed was on and I went from one side of the large road to the other. Cars were standing all over the road and trying to get back rolling. We passed some of them by centimeters. This was ridiculous. I must have been swearing the whole time. This circus seemed to continue forever again, although it was only five kilometer.
Herman and I thought we had the worst behind us but on this cursed Sunday, the 16thof June, that felt as if we never got out of Mongolia. Only eight hours after we left the sanctity of the Novosibirsk rest day we were in the worst possible situation again. By the time we were out of the German Village chaos and back on the road to Pavlodar the warm body sweat turned biting cold again and shivering we aimed for the Irtysh Hotel. Our post-Mongolian state of mind had to wait until things got better. That evening I discovered that the little bug from Achiit Lake that I seemed to carry in my intestines decided to make the 21 days that separated us from Paris would turn into a battle that I never expected to fight. Sitting on the toilet of our little hotel room (I would be seeing every toilet from Kazakhstan to France) I saw the foot mat with a picture of the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, Paris. It made me smile.