From Peking to Paris on a Mototri Contal Threewheeler
Monday 17th of June 2019
Day 16 in the rally, Kazakhstan
The arrival in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan was not a festive one. Herman and I were soaked, cold and moody. Yes, we made it to the hotel another day, so that was one more down… but while we had imagined a smooth post-Mongolian, post rest day trajectory, with hard and flat surfaces, sunshine and early afternoon aperitifs the reality appeared to be the opposite. The barman in the small hotel in Pavlodar had no clue what a Gin and Tonic was, the weather was worse than one could imagine and the road was… well, read part 6 again and you will know… shit! The life of a rally person is not as glorious as depicted in many heroic stories, on the contrary. More than often it is just keeping it together, counting the hours and hoping for better circumstances. Those are the hours that one wonders why on earth the running defiance was chosen, prepared at great length and brought to execution against all alarming warnings.
What the hell was I thinking when I had the Contal made up for these 14.000 kilometer, 36 days, 12 countries, 114 longitudes, 8 time zones and 1.300 waypoints? Was it courage? If so… what is courage? Marc Twain said that courage is the resistance to fear, the mastery of fear, not the absence of fear. There are so many ways to be brave in this world. Sometimes bravery involves laying down your life for something bigger than yourself, or for someone else. Sometimes it involves giving up everything you have ever known, or everyone you have ever loved, for the sake of something greater. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it is nothing more than gritting your teeth through pain, and the work of every day, the slow walk toward a better life. But that is not the sort of bravery I needed for this adventure. Tolkien said that courage is found in unlikely places. And that was what I was doing. I was trying to do something that was greater than me, that surpassed me. I believe that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage. I set out on the road from Peking to Paris on a tricycle in ignorance and therefore also intrepid, honoring the proverb that on some occasions the most sensible people would have committed great follies if fools had not preceded them. This huge undertaking was born out of an unfinished story, written by August Pons and Oscar Foucault. Their courage, their defiance of the impossible was certainly an enormous inspiration. They showed me the path to my defiance of the absolute impossible, to do what 112 years ago, they failed to finish. The whole context was breathtaking. I was in love with that idea before anything else. And my love was partially blind. I could have imagined the difficulties, the bad weather, the lonesome hours, the pain in my hands… but I didn’t. So, sitting on that toilet in the little hotel room in Pavlodar brought me an insight. There I was, on the other side of the world, sitting uncomfortably, still shivering from the cold, with intestines that started a guerilla war inside me… realizing that I was profoundly happy doing what I was doing. I was living my life to the fullest. This was the bottom of the bucket. I could jump of the highest bridge in Nepal (did that!), drive on an endure bike through rebel area in Eastern Congo with a military convoy behind me (did that!) or even drive for 48 hours straight in the Cambodian jungle (did that too!)… nothing was as profoundly intense as this adventure: on three wheels from Peking to Paris. Nothing compares to that. The magnitude of this concept just transcends every other idea. Doing this guaranteed me that I was living my life, not someone else’s! And doing this guaranteed me also that I was living it in its maximum dimension. Nothing of my life was waisted, every molecule of it was consumed. That feeling, this sudden insight on that little toilet in Kazakhstan, is incomparable to any other feeling I ever had in my fifty-nine year old life. Today, knowing we made it to Paris, I think back to that moment in a different context, of course. Today I have the sweet reassurance that Herman and I brought the Contal home, safe and sound. I am sure that I idealize this ‘toilet insight’. But admit, it sounds good, no?
Anyway, the Marriot in Nur-Sultan was waiting for us. So after leaving Pavlodar and my philosophical toilet another chapter of the rally seemed to present itself.
That day we entered the capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan. Akmola (from 1998 Astana and from 2019 Nur-Sultan) became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, and since then has developed economically into one of the most modernized cities in Central Asia. During the last two hours of driving, approaching the city, we seemed to drive around it… The roadbook treated us on 565 kilometers that day and my brain seemed to have melted during this lengthy drive. The skyline of the city appeared from a distance as a fata morgana after the monotone landscape during the day. Nur Sultan looked like New York without traffic. The large blue glassed buildings in the broad, empty avenues stood silently witnessing that Kazakhstan was wealthy. Wealthy but boring. Nevertheless, for me this American architecture guaranteed a proper sanitarian installation in our hotel room where my tortured intestines could be handed over to their sheer uncontrollable functions.
Indeed, I cannot longer avoid the subject… Diarrhea hit me like a plane hits the ground when it crashes. I looked it up and the phenomenon is described as the frequent passage of loose, watery, soft stools with or without abdominal bloating, pressure, and cramps commonly referred to as gas or flatulance. I can guarantee you now, it was with the whole fireworks that one can expect in its worst dreams. At that point I did not know that it was going to stay with me for the rest of the rally. So, I visited the doctors in the hotel and they asked me a lot of questions about the colour, the smoothness and the frequency. But they gave me no pills. It will pass they said. It didn’t. My daily structure changed in the sense that I needed to calculate all the time if there was a toilet about or not. I tried to conceal it for Herman but succeeded poorly. He saw me running at every marchal-stops, at café’s, hotels and petrol stations. I had to take every opportunity to relieve myself. And when I say ‘every’ I mean ‘every’! The worst thing about this was not the ridiculousness but the cramps. It wore me out like the Mongolian tracks, and even more. It took no long time before I was exhausted… but that is not now, now it was something annoying, nothing more.
The focus was now 100% on the Contal. Herman and I found a livable way to get through the long days where we mostly left first, about an hour before everybody else, and drove continuously, without stopping, as long as we could. The road was not the biggest problem any more. Of course there were still potholes and unexpected situations but nothing like Mongolia. And since Herman’s navigation was near to flawless our whole attention went to the machine. And yes, it showed signs of ‘Post Mongolian Stress’, PMD as we called it. After the muddy track we had our worries every day. The biggest was the oil spill. Suddenly the ground plate was wet with oil. Where did it come from, is this a problem? We discovered that the little oil container behind the handlebar was leaking. It was an aluminium container with a fissure at one of the attachment points. The continuous thumps had resulted in a tear at the welding and the oil came out of there while driving. How could we solve this? This was a PMD problem that we would not be able to manage till Paris because welding aluminium was a problem. Shit!