So last we spoke AJ and Zack had sank several gins, had a lovely day doing the tourist thing in the mountain backed Almaty and were revelling in having the necessaries to fix the car ahead of the last leg of the trip.
Fast forward 4 days and 3 of them have been spent not moving. About 100km out of Almaty, and after taking a fist sized boulder to the windscreen causing a huge crack, Sarah had a hot flush that came on so rapidly the engine had seized before we had time to realise and pull over. We let it cool down and spoke to 2 other Rallyers who had stopped to help, emptying a bottle of Kseal into the coolant tank and filling it back up with water in the process. This did not fix the problem and after coasting down a hill, avoiding several crash sites and a massive oil slick, we staggered into a small town called Kirovski and mercifully found a mechanic immediately.
He was stumped, but was able to communicate to us the engine was buggered. As the problem would take a few days to repair, the mechanic, who later introduced himself as Ira beckoned us to follow him to the hotel across the road. However there was no room at the inn. Eventually he acquiesced that we could pitch the tent in the garages compound, weighing the guy ropes down with bits of old bumper under the watchful glare of a mangy mutt lying amongst the oil spills and broken pieces of engine.
This, we must admit, was a desperate moment. We wouldn’t know what was wrong with the car until the morning. There was no wifi in the entire town and no one who could speak any English. It was roasting hot and immediately adjacent to a freight train track – a busy freight train track.
The morning of the 14th greeted us with a glimpse of hope. AJ’s dad had managed to put us in contact with a Russian speaker, Innokenty, and after letting Ira and him shoot the breeze, two choices faced the MMC. One – we go back to Almaty, specifically to the VW garage and wait 2 weeks for it to be fixed. This would definitely mean the end of the trip. Work and university commitments aside- our Russian Visas run out on the 21st of August. Number two was we give Ira a shot at replacing the engine from scratch. It would be $500 but would be our best shot at getting to Mongolia. It was an easy decision in the end.
Checking into the worst hotel of the trip for 2 nights Ira took us for lunch (on us) and told us the engine would be delivered by 5 o’clock that day.
We arrived back at the designated time to Ira happily exclaiming the problem wasn’t as bad as first thought. We needed new pistons and a new head gasket that we could go and buy the next day. It would take slightly longer (another 24 hours) to be back on the road but it would be significantly cheaper and less risky. We headed back to the hotel in high spirits, had some dinner, watched long way down and fell asleep yet again to the sounds of traffic and freight trains.
The next day was spent going from car shop to car shop looking for piston heads for a VW Polo. A Golf would have been fine, but The Polo question was greeted with sad eyes and head shakes. Eventually in the 7th shop we tried with Ira and his mate we asked to see what the Golf Piston heads looked like. They were remarkably similar, the right diameter but too long. This wasn’t a problem however because Ira had another friend who ran a metal shop. We visited him and he was able to shear them down to size, much to our mechanics delight.
We left Ira to it, hoping he would be done in the next 24 hours and went off to get drunk and fed. Upon leaving this particular kebab house we were accosted by the entire management team and waitering staff each wanting a photo with us on their phone. Not so much red carpet as brown stained walls, but it was a laugh and they didn’t require the tedious act of an autograph, which we know to be a terrible bore…
We watched the Avengers in the hotel, keen to stay downstairs next to the ongoing wedding reception and away from the noises upstairs. Ira had informed us our hotel was a regular haunt for the truckers passing through to take their prostitutes. Sadly we had to save our money for fixing the car…
The next day dawned with a sense of optimism, quickly dampened when we spent the entire time waiting for Ira to finish. At 6 o’clock in the evening Ira eventually, in a cry of mixed fury and triumph, screamed POLO and spat viscously on the ground, downing tools in the process.
We didn’t hang about, whisky, money and hugs exchanged and we hit the road, eager to put any distance between us and there – a largely symbolic gesture considering the light was quickly fading. We pulled off the road into pitch black scrubby moorland around midnight and pitched the tent under the glare of the battery sapping headlights – falling asleep to the sounds of yelping dogs that thankfully did not appear to be getting any nearer.
We awoke to the sound of goats. Goats and dogs. Goats and dogs and a crying human child. Odd. Opening the tent door we realised that had we driven 50 metres further we’d have intruded on a Kazakh croft, the minder of which seemed highly confused as he watched us hastily pack up the tent.
After around an hour we pulled into a petrol station and were joined by the lads that we had shared a great evening with in Buchara. It was fantastic to see them again and to be part of a Mongol Rally convey after 3 days of enforced inactivity. The scenery moved from dusty fields and moorland and turned into green(ish) flats, snow peaked mountains on the horizon and a million miles of impossibly blue sky. Unfortunately it was all too good to last for poor, poor Sarah.
Turning onto the road to Semey (we know) sharp gravel that collected in banks at the side of the trail faced us, as did dust clouds from the cars in front that made the terrain impossible to negotiate with the faculty of sight. Pulling out to drive and make sense of where we were heading we hit one of the aforementioned gravel bank with a horrible scraping, crunching sound – immediately feeling like something should be wrong.
The damage took about half an hour the materialise, and dreadfully it was in the form of the engine temperature spiking again. We crawled into Semey, having covered 450 miles that day, had a horrible pizza and found somewhere to stay, praying that all we needed to do was flush the radiator out.
The following morning we did just that, paying a gardner fae the cooncil to borrow his hosepipe. We continued on the road to the Russian border around 50km away. Alas with a heavy heart the gauge flirted between unacceptable and stop the car now and cover yourself in asbestos. We stuttered into the first garage we could find where a blown head gasket was diagnosed. It would take at least 3 days to fix. We didn’t have the money and, most debilitating of all, our Russian visas expired in 2 days.
It is funny to face the trip of a lifetime ending in a week long funeral procession rather than a blaze of glory and novelty photographs.
We were happy with the pragmatism of our decision but absolutely gutted with its consequence. We shook hands, had a beer at a nearby cafe and vowed solemnly that we will be back before we are 30.
We felt okay until, in the cruellest twist so far, Sarah transported us back to Semey without incident. The mechanic, alarmed at our intention to drive back had given us his personal number for when we broke down, not it and it was an absolute wrench to let cooler heads prevail and not make a last gasp sprint for Mongolia.
So here we are now in Astana- a capital built for that purpose. Convenient, modern and soulless. We decluttered and destickered the car yesterday leaving it to a friend we met along the way outside an abandoned cinema and proceeded to get drunk and watch Harry Potter. With great difficulty we booked a flight to Astana with an airline “blacklisted” by the EU for its poor safety record as it was our only option and managed to book another flight home. It all feels very surreal and we’re struggling to shake off the feeling of disappointment.
We have had such a good time it is largely impossible to articulate. That feeling will return soon we are sure, however right now- as we sit in our 4 star hotel in white robes deliberating the mini bar- hollowness prevails.
We would like to thank everyone for their kind words and keen reception of our updates. Also on behalf on CHAS we would like to thank everyone who has donated and urge all generosity to an unbelievably worthy cause.
Rest assured, this Mongol Rally attempt represents trip 1 of many for MMC.
To be continued…