episode 13: the vauxhall encore

August 24, 2016

Hold on, that is not quite all she wrote.

The Vauxhall was resurrected 28 hours after she was pronounced deceased. She coughed for air, gulped for oil and roared (possible hyperbole) to life with the sound that only an Agila is capable of. I had forgotten the magnitude of genius that resides in the mechanics in Asia. I had written her off. It took at least 17 of those precious 28 hours just to get the parts from Tashkent, which some guy drove all the way there and back to get for us. They then tried to charge $750USD instead of the agreed $400USD, so Lane and Nick spent a few hours just sitting in the car at the shop with the keys in the ignition until the mechanic was forced to accept the $400USD because otherwise, he couldn’t close the shop and none of his employees could go home. 

The rollercoaster we’d been riding began to climb from the rock bottom low that our dead engine let it slide to, and it kept climbing until the air got thin, the oxygen got low, the altitude cracked 4,655m and Lane vomited. That’s what happens on rollercoasters. More on that later.

We left Bukhara with our friends, Team French in Normandy (those saints that towed us 200km) to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The mosques are covered in patterned tiles, all blue and beige. We walked for what seemed like an eternity fuelled only by Cokes and ice cream, the boys sniffing about for a McDonald’s I knew wouldn’t exist. It was easy to tell they missed home. Every conversation in the car revolved around home: what's the first thing you're going to eat when you get home. What's the first thing you're going to do when you get home. When I get home I'm... 

If either Abby or Kelsey reads this, please know your boyfriends missed you very much. They missed food nearly as much as they missed you. I got to hear exactly what they were going to buy from Perry's (wtf is Perry's?!) about sixty thousand times. 

Our goal for the next day was Dushanbe, Tajikistan, which should have been fairly straight forward, but there’s always something. We wasted a few too many hours trying to find US Dollars (unsuccessful) –a task that seems much more difficult over here than it should be- and finally got the cars rolling out of Samarkand at 11:30AM. Our two cars rolled along through desert-like hills through all the checkpoints in Uzbekistan. Check points are these incredibly inefficient time-killing shacks where we need to stop and have our passport information manually logged into a big book that I doubt anyone ever looks at again. I might as well have signed, “Steph was here” on each of them and had the same effect.

The sky seemed to cloud up as we approached Tajikistan, an early warning sign that mountains are coming. The soft hills turned into rolling foothills and the colours shifted away from the flat beige of the desert. Mud shacks covered the hills in the small villages and donkeys, horses and goats speckled the empty landscape. French in Normandy’s engine began to get a bit hot, which led us to a shuddering halt every half hour or so to douse everything in water.

When we arrived at the border of Tajikistan it was 11:30PM, dark and quiet. We weren’t sure if the border was open at that time and the line up of zero cars didn’t look promising. The gate was closed and there were no lights save for a few naked lightbulbs dangling on wires from a few men playing cards and drinking chai. Nevertheless, we had to try. We approached the padlocked gate with caution and in turn, the men playing cards approached us. It was a tricky little game they played. They understood just enough English to know what we wanted, but not enough that we could tell if they truly were avoiding answering our direct questions on purpose or because they were confused by them.

“Border. Tajikistan. Open?”
Yes, yes!
“OK… we go through the gate?”
Puzzled stares, confused shrugs. 
“You can open the gate?”
Yes, yes!
“OK… we go through the gate?” we all mimicked driving motions heading Tajikistan-direction.
Passport! Passport!

And none of us would give up our passports to men in casual clothes that were drinking chai and playing cards by the gate on the Uzbek side of the border, shockingly enough. I held out mine without letting go so they could inspect it, and they didn’t seem that interested in the information on it or even trying to hold it. They just looked at the colours and asked, “Swiss?” over and over again before nodding in approval. They wanted us to drink chai with them. Always chai. There’s always something. We had to get that gate open: we were tired, we’d been driving all day, and Dushanbe was only 70km away on the other side and we knew the road there was smooth. So close, so far. After a few more rounds of charades we finally got them to open the gate for us. I still don’t understand if they were employees or were just trolling this gate with a padlock for entertainment value.

It turns out that exiting Uzbekistan is a lot harder than entering Uzbekistan. Upon entering, our bags were not searched and the car search was uneventful. Just a dog that sniffed around and looked bored. Exiting Uzbekistan was a whole other ballgame: your electronic files were searched along with your bags, along with the car, in fine detail. Did we guess that our iPhones, cameras and laptops would be filtered through? Probably not, considering that the boys definitely had some questionable photos on theirs, the kind that most boys do. I have three external hard drives and my laptop, none of which they found or looked through. They all went through the scanner. The boys weren’t as lucky. The guards had a grand old time looking at screenshots of Snapchats. The boys had a few drunk videos on there too – I believe the Uzbeks’ favourite was one where they decided that putting a slice of pizza on a treadmill and having it roll right into their mouths on the other side was a fantastically intelligent idea. But all those things on their phones were harmless – if those questionable photos were sent to you by someone, that’s perfectly OK in Uzbekistan.

The things you really, really wanted to avoid having electronic evidence of is pornography (especially gay pornography) and photos of anything military or government associated. The whole process took a long time. They found my mishmash of over-the-counter unlabeled drugs in my First Aid Kit and I got to try to explain what each colour of tablet was meant for. That took another 15 minutes. By the end they knew I was telling it true but kept insisting it was all Viagra, giggling to themselves. The lack of cars meant we were the only thing keeping them busy instead of waiting out the long hours of the night. We exited Uzbekistan with French in Normandy still having their van searched and drove to the Tajik entry gates. Our passports were stamped momentarily and we actually had to search for the customs guys to let our car through. No searches, no questions, welcome to Tajikistan! We figured it might be 20 minutes maximum before French in Normandy showed up. It was 1:00AM. All five of us were strapped into our seats, ready to roll. We fell asleep like that, covered in a mess of sleeping bags and seatbelts. I woke up at 2:40AM. French in Normandy had still not cleared the border. We made a guess: either the border had closed, or somehow they had been caught in No Man’s Land until the next day, or they had run into a visa issue. We drove into Dushanbe in a stupor, feeling like the worst convoy team for ditching, rang a hostel bell at 3:40AM and were snoring by 4:00AM, still with no news of what had become of our friends.

The next day we got a message from French in Normandy: they had cleared the border at 10:00AM. The Uzbek officials had found pornography on a laptop which almost sent one team member to jail. These three are some of the nicest people on this planet, and the story they told wasn’t one they deserved. Arguing at a border for 15 hours about pornography to get out of a country seemed unfair, but that’s what it took. They got through with no fines and no jail time, thankfully. The Green House Hostel in Dushanbe was inhabited by Ralliers. The entire lobby was full of people waiting for their cars to be fixed. It seems like all the cars started having major problems once everyone hit Turkmenistan. That’s where the roads really started going to shit. Everyone had a story. One team had left their vehicle on the side of the road in Turkmenistan, with the Mongol Rally stickers still on it. Their visas didn’t have enough time to get the car fixed, so they left it behind. 

 I’m not sure why they didn’t tow it out of the country, or put it on a truck. They didn’t even remove the license plates. They left behind everything they couldn’t carry. Another team was driving one of those antique cars and hit one deathly pothole and that was the end: it hit so hard, the headlights fell right off. They got towed over the shittiest roads in Turkmenistan to the Uzbek border for 7 hours to get their car and themselves out. More teams had the same issue that we did: blown head gasket.

But the best story I heard was this one:

Challenge to win 250GBP. Right all you cheating GPS scumbags. We had no map for Kyrgyz. We Maps.Me’d it [the free app that everyone uses, including us]. We ended up in a fucking mountain range with no fuel to turn back. We burnt our clutch out and Wilson would trudge forward no more. We’re out. After a 25 mile, 36 hour hike to 10,000 feet and back to 4,000 feet, sleeping in a rocky ditch in 5 degree mountain air with nothing but jackets, walking 8 miles through a desert and only avoiding utter dehydration thanks for our filter bottles… we made it to a farmer with a car to drive us to a taxi. Only time in our lives we thought we might not get out of something… as we hobble through the airport like two anal virgins, learn our lesson: Don’t use GPS. Ever. Listen to locals. Get lost. And to make things interesting, we donated our car to a nomad in the mountains. If you find the car, we forgot 19,300 rubles under the cup holder. Get the car. Get the rubles.

So you see? Our issues were child’s play. In comparison, we were running smoothly as it gets. Beaver Buddies were peachy. We departed Dushanbe alone (Team French in Normandy had left earlier in the day) toward the Pamir Highway. 

The Pamir Highway has been used for thousands of years as a supply route through Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Calling it a highway is generous; the terrain it navigates is rough. Understatement of the trip. Parts are paved, but a large portion isn’t. A large portion is more pothole, washboard and washed out bridges than actual road. The Pamirs are the little brothers of the Himalayas. I say that like they’re small… but relative to the Himalayas, all mountains are small. The Pamir Highway is the second highest road in the world, topping out at 4,655m. It is a mecca for ballsy cycle tourists and adventure motorcyclists. If you were a smart, prepared person, you’d do it on a dirt bike, a touring motorcycle, a touring bicycle, or a 4x4 vehicle. If you’re a moron, you take a Vauxhall Agila loaded with 5 people and all their belongings. 

The roads climbed and then degraded to rough gravel and construction zones. We flew by massive trucks on skinny roads. By the time night fell we were so close to Afghanistan that we could throw a rock and it would land in another country. The only thing that separates Afghanistan from Tajikistan is an angry looking gray river. We went through a checkpoint to be met with an Afghan general who was very excited to tell us that Afghanistan was right across the river. He kept on miming shooting RPGs and big guns. He had shrapnel dangling on a rope around his neck. I don’t want to know what that man has seen. It’s not recommended that you drive the Pamir Highway in the dark, but there were Tajik army men patrolling the road so we didn’t want to wild camp. Parts of the road got so sketchy I couldn’t look out the window, and much to the annoyance of everyone else in the vehicle, I’d just sit in the middle and cling on for dear life and make small little gasps every time the vehicle tilted toward the river. The road was narrow enough that only one vehicle could fit down it. The road was a straight drop into the river and the other side was a dirt cliff. Civil engineer that I am, I can tell everyone with the highest confidence that those slopes were not engineered. I would not sign off on those slopes. No sir. Trench inspectionfailed. I could see tension cracks all over the place, just waiting for an opportune moment to break free. Nick said cheerily, “At least it’s a soft landing!”

Drowning in the river between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is not the way I envision going. I thought about all the things I still wanted to do whenever I finally get home. Kind of like that flash of light before you die, but my flash of light was everything I had left undone.  

We arrived at a guesthouse to find French in Normandy, appalled that we had already caught up to them. The next day we all convoyed along the road, which seemed a lot better now that it was light out. French in Normandy’s springs were completely busted, so they were having a rough ride. Our rear right spring also gave in to the potholes, snapping and making horrendous noises every time we hit a bump. The backseat was a riot. Still we pushed on, waving to all the locals, Tajik and Afghani alike. Kids fell over themselves running toward the side of the road. Soccer games were halted mid-kick as they all headed towards the edge of the road, yelling and screaming in excitement. They all want high fives and candy. Tajik children take their high fives very seriously. One of them nearly took my entire arm off at 40 km/hr. The parallel road on the Afghanistan side of the river was far worse than the one we were on. I never saw a car on it, just donkeys and motorcycles. It was etched into the side of the cliff. 

They were blowing it up while we drove by. We were so close that a rock flew up and hit another team’s car, snapping the hold of their roof rack. But despite the crazy nature of the road, the views are out of this world. We climbed and climbed and climbed until we reached Khorog and tucked in for the night between the ground, a hammock and the cars.

From Khorog the road climbs into altitude-sickness area. It’s hard to know if you’re out of breath because you’re hanging out at 4,000m without acclimatizing, or if it has something to do with what you’re surrounded with: pure rugged nature. This area feels so remote and untouched that it’s truly a world away from home. We made our way up the first big pass and ended the day in Murghab, a cluster of shack-like buildings in what looked like an alpine plateau. Murghab is actually in a valley at about 3,800m (no rest for the oxygen deprived). Everyone seemed like they were doing alright – a few headaches, some achy stomachs and general fatigue. No one had thrown up yet, so I figured we were going to be fine.

At 6:00AM, Lane wandered into our room. I thought he was sleepwalking, because I am always the first one awake. The boys never wake up voluntarily before 8:00AM, and they certainly do not walk around at 6:00AM. But I was too asleep to find out why the sky must be falling. Lane was out of the room again before I’d become fully awake. Turns out Lane had been puking all night. We all frantically looked at the elevation profiles to see if we could go down. 

But valleys aren’t designed like that: we had to go up and we were going to go over the big one. We tentatively started driving and Lane did perfectly fine. The water bottles hissed air every time we opened them, pop fizzing far more than usual. My shampoo bottle exploded. The air cooled down to freezing. The Canadians got a little chilly. The toques were busted out. The fleece jackets were zipped up. It started hailing. It snowed lightly. It was difficult to wrap our heads around the fact that nearly four kilometres below us, the desert heat raged on. 

The Vauxhall did her job fine. More than fine, actually. She didn’t overheat once, and besides the broken spring, she had no hiccups. We had to get a couple running starts up the steeper slopes, but that was all. She spun the tires a few times, the brakes got smelly a few times, but she made it up to 4,655m in stellar fashion. 

Before long we were approaching the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan seems pretty slack about what they let into their country. The search was not a search. No bags were searched. No one needed visas. One team brought in a couple of mutt puppies they decided to temporarily adopt off the streets of Dushanbe. Kyrgyzstan didn't care. We exited Tajikistan and were stamped out and entered the biggest, longest, but most beautiful No Man’s Land I’ve ever seen. The mountains were red and green.

Shortly after we’d entered Kyrgyzstan and left the biggest of the Pamirs that we would see, we descended toward Sary-Tash as the light turned gold. Golden hour. I made the car stop at least 5 times. Yurts and horses were lit up yellow with a backdrop of pink, snow-covered mountains. While we were stopped, a girl ran up to our vehicle asking for gifts, so we gave her a Canada hackey sack. She didn’t seem to impressed with that and went to grab the bright yellow beach ball from the back. This beach ball’s name is Wally. Don’t ask me why the boys are so attached to it, but it came everywhere with us. I’ve got more than enough photos of “Wally” and the boys. Needless to say this Kyrgyz girl was shut down hard in her attempt at Wally and the car drove away from her quite quickly. All eight of us slept in a single room on mats and a few beds in Sary-Tash. To get to the "washroom" you had to exit the "hotel", cross the driveway, go through a squeaky metal gate, down a staircase made of rubber tires into the cow pen, pass the cows and enter the shack with the typical hole in the ground. Sary-Tash is tiny. Lots of horses, lots of sheep. And children run the gas pumps. 

From Sary-Tash it was an easy drive to Osh on smooth roads. The biggest speed bump was navigating through the herds of horses, cows and sheep that were being escorted down the road by Kyrgyz boys on horses. The boys probably weren’t older than 10 years old. Go take that herd of sheep across the mountains, kid. And they do. “Normal” is a stupid term. We’ descended to just over 1,000m in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, so everyone had adequate oxygen. The roads to Bishkek were well maintained but still went winding over mountains big enough to cause a few problems for anyone with a stuffed nose.

Bishkek was the end of the road for the boys and the Vauxhall. The car was imported legally into Kyrgyzstan (the cheapest place in Central Asia to do so) and they flew home. So no one actually made it to Mongolia, but the attempt was pretty valiant. Mongolia came to an agreement with The Adventurists that removed the requirement for the crazy cash deposit at the border, but by the time they’d come up with this solution, the boys were pretty tight on their schedule to make it there before their visas started pressing them to get out of Russia. But all that aside, it was obvious they were ready to go home. 

The Mongol Rally is not a “normal” (there’s that terrible word again) way to travel. It is not a normal way of backpacking. It was tiring for me, someone who is used to going full-travel-throttle all the time. This was the most exhausting thing I’ve done. The Mongol Rally is not for sissies. If you can’t handle the fact that you will sleep in your car, you will be hungry, you will be thirsty, you will get lost and you will be helpless at some point (probably all at the same time), the Rally is not for you. If you are not ready for long hours on crappy roads, if you’re not ready to be stuck in the dark in a country you only heard of a few months ago, completely illiterate with no phone and no way to contact anyone, the Rally is not for you. The stories that come out of this thing are ones you can tell over and over again. They are unique: how many of your friends can tell a story that begins, “So this one time, in Turkmenistan…”. Probably not very many. But those stories were earned; living these stories was no walk in the park. They are wonderful in hindsight, but while you’re stuck in no man’s land between borders it’s nothing but stressful.

At some point, all you’re going to want is pizza from your favourite joint, your own bed and fast wifi. At some point you will ask yourself: what were you thinking, signing up for this? That’s the whole point of the Rally –you sign up to suffer for amazing stories. Why else would you take a car that is sure to bust on some of the roughest, highest, most remote roads in the world? You do it because you know this isn’t going to be a story to forget. You remember that guy driving the 1959 rebuilt 3-wheeled vehicle with the 400cc motorcycle, no reverse? He made it to Mongolia – and he didn’t even cheat. He drove through Iran instead of ferrying across the Caspian. Never say a car can’t make it. You don’t know until you try it.

Good luck to the boys back in Canada. I hope your 48-56 hour flight schemes end in all the Perry’s and girlfriends and food you dreamt and yammered on and on about. Sleepinginairports.com might save you some pain. And to the Vauxhall: may she find loving new owners. She has no rear bumper and everything on it has been busted or bent, but she runs. May her new driver take her far and wide, and never doubt that that little Agila is capable of hitting Mongolia, if it ever did want to.

Cheers from a rooftop in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

that's a wrap, folks! find my other adventures here.

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