episode 12: the uzbek engine fizzle

August 13, 2016

Read next: Episode 13

When I first announced I was going to take part in the Rally, I announced it like this: “If you want to be the first to know when we break down in the middle of Uzbekistan and I start crying, follow along on this website.” And now I can’t help wondering, did I jinx us by saying that?

We got going late out of Khiva. Wifi and unlimited access to social media after a week of deprivation will do that. We weren’t too worried since Bukhara wasn’t that far away and the word on the street, quite literally, was that the roads were pretty good.

50 km after we’d reached the main road it turned into the smoothest, nicest thing we’d rolled over since the best roads in Turkey. We were cruising. Perhaps we were cruising a little too fast. Perhaps the temperature gauge was not being paid enough attention. It’s a needy thing. 

Perhaps the needle had skyrocketed into the red zone, unnoticed. Oops. When we pulled over and lifted the hood the engine was smoking. It was desert in all directions, minimal traffic and blaring hot sun. There was another leak in the radiator hose (the first happened in Baku, Azerbaijan) – cause or effect of the engine overheating, we’re not too sure. Nick and Lane fixed up the leak in about 45 minutes and we all loaded into the car like, meh not such a big deal, let’s get this show on the road. 

The key turned. The starter chirped. And chirped and chirped… no bueno. There was no compression, the engine would not turn on. Now the desert looked a lot less friendly. I thought of the spider at the Door to Hell. This looked a lot more like a big deal. In due time our friends, Team French in Normandy, showed up and asked what was up. These people are the best. When we figured there was no fixing the car on the spot, they offered to tow us. But do you think we had a tow rope? Nah. French to the rescue once again: clothesline and bungee cords. Whatever it takes. Leave no Rallier behind.

We began the 200km tow job at about 4:00PM. The rope snapped. The knots snapped. The bungees snapped. They snapped once, twice, thrice… nine times. I tied bowline after bowline, reef knot after reef knot. I never would have never guessed that my sailing skills would ever be put to use in Uzbekistan. We pressed on into the night. We rolled the windows up so they wouldn’t be stuck down when the battery died. 

The hazard lights started to flicker. The radio lights looked sickly dim and shut off when we hit the brakes. Headlights off, dash lights off and finally, everything died and we rolled on in the dark. We made makeshift rear lights with flashlights and duct tape and when I saw car headlights in the rear view, I flashed a headlight out the window. More than a few trucks flicked their high beams on like, what the hell am I looking at?

By midnight Lane was falling asleep at the wheel and the rope was snapping every kilometre due to the potholes. We were 40-something kilometres out of Bukhara but at 10 kph, this seemed like an insurmountable distance. We pulled over and set up camp for the night. The stars over here are brighter than anywhere I’ve ever seen. Brighter than in the mountains in New Zealand. You can see the entire Milky Way from horizon to horizon. Our tow buddies treated us to dinner and peach schnapps and we all passed out amidst the dust and the trucks flying by.

In the morning our tow rope didn’t work any better. It snapped next to a truck stop and the locals decided our string, for lack of a better word, looked ridiculous. They went to work removing the passenger seatbelt in one of their trucks and then tying our two vehicles together. They wouldn’t take our money. They did take a lot of selfies with Julia and I though. The seatbelt was a world of improvement over the line we’d been using, the only downside being the distance between the two vehicles had shrunk to about 6 feet. We bumped along at 35kph and finally made it into Bukhara to find an auto shop.

I love going to mechanics in Asia because I always have full confidence that if there is any way to fix a problem, they can do it. In North America, safety standards and all sorts of regulations stand in the way of a mechanic saying, “Well, I don’t really have this part but I’ve got a little disc of metal, a grinder and a drill so I think I can make this work. Just give me two hours!” But here, no one wants to throw things away. If it can be fixed, it gets fixed. It took about 3 minutes for the mechanic to announce our engine was “finished”. Water was the culprit. But after about 30 minutes of what-ifs and can-we’s and can-you’s, and holy-shit-we’re-screwed’s he changed his mind. The mechanics here are no strangers to the Mongol Rally cars and it seems like they are pretty into it. When we said that if the car was dead, the only options we now had were to import it (thousands of dollars) and scrap it, or try to find a new engine (difficult and thousands of dollars) they all seemed to get a little more determined to find a way to make it work. Just get this car to run for another 2,000km. That’s it, we’ll push it onto the train at the end. For $400 USD and 4 days, he said it would be fixed. For sure.

The boys invested and the car was then towed to another auto shop. By the time we’d got back from lunch, maximum 40 minutes, the engine had already been dropped out of the car and 3 people were fiddling with it. The mechanic we had talked to said he was going to drive to Tashkent that day to pick up the parts he needed (400 miles, 8 hours, one way). He was sad he had to go, because if he wasn’t driving there he wanted us to stay at his house with him.

It would appear that many Mongol Rally cars are having serious problems just after Turkmenistan. Engines overheating, axles bending, head gaskets warping, oil leaking madly…there are more than a few teams held up in Bukhara because of major car problems. People have started hitching rides with the cars that are still going: car space is getting tighter. There are Facebook messages flying: “Hey guys, I will be on the Tajik-side of the Uzbek/Denau border tomorrow around 12:00PM. I have a ride there but I don’t have a ride after (car’s out for a bit, Mark’s fixing her). Headed to Dushanbe, let me know if you have space for one. Can pay in beers, gas and dad jokes!”

There is also a new twist that affects all teams on the Rally: Mongolia doesn’t want us. At all. Mongolia hasn’t wanted us for years. The finish line used to be in Mongolia, but I suppose dealing with 300 shitty vehicles and trying to load them on trains is exhausting and they hated it, so the finish line was moved north into Russia. Now, without any warning, Mongolia’s border control is demanding a cash deposit equal to the amount of money it would take to import the vehicle into the country. You supposedly get it back when you exit the country. This only applies to Rally cars as they are “a special case”. The amount of money it takes to import a car into Mongolia depends on the car model and the year, however is usually between $3,000-6,000 USD. What team has that kind of cash? Better question: who would carry that much in US Dollars on them? Even better question: is less than a week in Mongolia worth that? My vote would be no, and this is exactly what most other teams are thinking. The Adventurists are working hard to find a solution, but so far they have gotten… nowhere.

Right now the Mongol Rally doesn’t seem like it will include Mongolia. People have looked at other options – you can take trains and buses in without taking the car. Maybe they should start calling it the Russian Rally.

My Uzbek visa expires on August 17th, a remnant of my former team’s schedule. In four days it would be August 16th and it would take a day to drive to the border. It becomes apparent that I am now an official hitchhiker since I cannot afford to wait for 4 days for the car fix. Did I think the Rally would turn out this way? Nope. But that’s the nature of the Rally: you press on until there are no other options. You keep going, no matter what. Or in my case, you keep going until you make it to Almaty. I don’t really know how to get there yet.

Whether I see these four boys again before I fly out of Kazakhstan is not certain. Nothing is certain. I would like to thank them profusely for taking me in without question in a completely awkward situation, for enduring all my whining and general exasperation in Turkmenistan (there is actually a list written on the ceiling of the car of things that I managed to complain about. It’s right next to the “Shit Aaron Does” list) and for allowing me to squeeze into their already overflowing vehicle. Without them I’m not sure I would have made it into the Stans at all. Without them my repertoire of poop jokes would be far smaller. It’s usually not easy to spend all day every day with anyone, even your closest of friends, so the fact that these guys did not leave me on the side of the road is frankly astonishing –a  demonstration of pure Canadian spirit. There are Rally teams who have left teammates on the side of the road without a glance back, so don’t think this wasn’t an acceptable option.

May the Agila rise again. May your beers be cold and plentiful and your doners cheap and delicious. May you get out of this desert heat and return to Canada’s glorious temperatures in one piece and with many unforgettable stories. And when you tell this story don’t forget to mention this old woman in the backseat, along for the pothole-ridden ride. I’ll be sure to tell the grandkids all about you when I get home… whenever that is. Stay greasy, my friends. Stay greasy.

Cheers from Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Read next: Episode 13

Using Format