We worked on the car all morning. We had misfiring yesterday and found it had only been running on four pistons instead of six. We still managed to stay third overall and second in our class and we caught up by a minute - pretty good for four cylinders. We cleaned out the car, sorted out the piston problem - although I don’t know quite how - and changed the distributor. It seems to be running quite well now. I burnt my arm on the inlet manifold while adjusting the carbs. It has blistered badly. If it was hotter it would have burnt and a scab formed almost immediately. But a blister will take time to heal - not good.
We ate squid and fish at a restaurant down on the harbour-side. Donna looked twice before eating hers, but enjoyed it all the same. After lunch we visited a huge market where everybody seemed to be selling something, but nicely, not aggressively. It was great to be in the middle of all the hustle and bustle. Everywhere here is incredibly busy and the people drive like a bunch of lunatics, overtaking all over the place, but they all seem very nice and they are very friendly.
Ronald and I went for our massages at 4.00 pm to get the knots out. We stopped at the car park on the way back to clean and adjust the plugs because the gaps needed closing and we hadn’t done them. There were stacks of people working frantically on their cars, with help from various workshops and Turkey’s Classic Car Club. The Irish Mercedes went one better though and had a gearbox flown in from Ireland.
We heard that ‘Yellow Rolls’ Julie made a successful escape bid from Thessaloniki yesterday. Whether she gets back to some peace and quiet or ends up being flavour of the month with the media remains to be seen. I think the Rolls is going home too but Terry Maxon apparently plans to carry on even without a car!
We went down for the London to Istanbul poolside prize-giving. Belly dancers gyrated and wine flowed. It was a great atmosphere and good fun (with just a little encouragement I think Roma would have been up there with the best of them). We saw video highlights from the first seven days and watched the prizes being awarded. The bright yellow Aston Martin DB6 took first prize, which puts quite a bit of pressure on us (or one of the other Astons) to win the Round the World Challenge. It’s a daunting prospect but what an achievement it would be - definitely something to tell the grandchildren.
Roma and Donna are flying back in the morning. It’s been great to have them around, even for such a short time. We don’t have to leave until about 10.30 am tomorrow so we can have a lie in, just like home, only of course it’s nothing like home - and then we won’t see each other again for ages.
Istanbul to Bolu - 310 km
The sun was already high in the sky as we packed the car and made last minute adjustments for our departure. Stalls were springing up on the pavements around us and people were busily dashing about, chattering and shouting all at the same time, but we had already disconnected from the romance and excitement of Istanbul. The next stage of the journey was calling and we were eager to be on our way.
It was getting hotter by the minute and cars, taxis and buses, were churning out a now familiar cacophony of noise and pollution. Our late start meant that we missed the worst traffic of the day so getting out of the city was much easier than our tortuous arrival. We were soon leaving the West behind, heading out over the spectacular Bosphorous Suspension Bridge and on down the motorway towards a very different continent.
About 95 kilometres beyond Istanbul the route took a much quieter turn, passing through faded bare countryside and contrasting deep green forests. The road, at first a lovely smooth tarmac, changed to a rougher gravel track for a timed section, and it was at this point that we nearly came a cropper when the problem we thought we’d just fixed came back with a vengeance. We were pootling along an awful potholed track quite happily when some of the pistons started misfiring again and the engine began running really badly. I couldn’t get higher than second gear without the car stalling. We crawled through the last section like that, up and down the hills. At one stage it was actually quicker to get out and walk. Somehow, I have no idea how I managed it, I got to the end with no penalty points.
We took out the distributor and saw that instead of the gap on the points being the same, they varied between 10 and 25 thou, and the whole rotor cam was wobbling - the bearings must have gone. We switched to our spare distributor. Tim will have to send out another to carry as a spare later on. We’ll send the busted one back to him some time to take a look at and repair.
It now appears to be running extremely well but we’ll have to see how it copes with a really long day, like tomorrow, 600 km. The shock absorbers are bearing up well considering the potholes, ruts and God knows what else they’ve had to put up with today. Ronald and I are getting on very well. I have not heard of any accidents today.
Bolu to Samsun - 600 km
After the distributor problems I was a little uncertain how the car would cope with the long day’s drive to Samsun, but it held up well and the journey was actually very enjoyable. In contrast with the sometimes stark landscape of the past few days, the route across the Anatolian Plateau and along the edges of the Pontic Mountains took us through rolling countryside and fertile farmland.
But boy was it hot, a very hot ‘tarmac-melting day’ today. We averaged about 120 kph on the timed hill climb section - which took us right up into the mountains - and overtook 11 cars. I felt great, but it didn’t make a difference to the overall ranking because the competitors above us didn’t make any mistakes. The only way we can progress now is by their mistakes, not by catching them up.
Ronald has got our packed lunches down to a fine art. He takes two ladies sanitary towel bags from the hotel bathroom, and at breakfast he stuffs three rolls into each, cannot get any more in, before making a discreet exit. Everything here is absolutely filthy. We have dust in our hair and clothes and the car is covered in it. It’s no good for my breathing and I end up coughing all the time.
The window frame has cracked so one of the hotel security guards and I went off to a place that has hundreds of little lock up shops repairing cars. Eventually on the fifth attempt we found a guy who could repair it. It meant dismantling the window frame and removing it from the car. However, if it needs fixing it needs fixing. I got it out, it was then repaired, and I put it back in, Simple? You have to be joking. It took forever. I have never done this before. It’s not quite finished so I will have to complete it tomorrow morning. I will be up about 5.00 am to get that done before we go. We are leaving here about 8.00 am.
Samsun to Trabzon - 400 km
With the car back in one piece and the engine running well we looked forward to a successful day. Our short run incorporated a hill test along a narrow, tightly winding gravel track and I looked forward with gusto to meeting the challenge, but when it actually came to the point, it was me, and not the car, that wasn’t really firing on all cylinders.
It was absolutely baking hot - you have no idea. I don’t know if it was the heat or the altitude, but by the time we reached the hill climb I felt quite sick. Actually it might have had more to do with my sunburnt right arm, which is so brown and wrinkled it looks like a barbecued chicken leg, and two other sores from the earlier burns that have started turning septic. I will definitely get these looked at when I get the time.
It was a pretty narrow track with some vicious hairpin bends. We had 13 minutes to complete the run, which meant one hell of a belt up there and I didn’t much fancy doing it, but we went ahead anyway. We lost one minute which, considering I didn’t feel well and the car was dancing all over the place, doesn’t seem too bad. I don’t know where it puts us on the leader board but I do know that if we had stayed on the coast road and taken the easy route we would have collected 60 minutes in penalties.
One of the most annoying things about these packed lunches we have are these rolls. Like today for example, they came with sesame seeds on top. You are driving along left hand on the steering wheel and the right hand, er, well two of the fingers any way, are holding the roll, and every time you go over a bump it shakes the seeds off and they go flying everywhere, and bits of food drop out, and everything else. You can’t help it, the steering wheel moves so violently as the wheels go over the poor roads, and you end up eating a third of a roll when you start out with a whole one. The rest is spread over the car.
Turkey is great and the people are lovely, but it really is a grubby old place. We cleaned the car last night and came down this morning to find it covered in dust again, and that’s just what fell from the air overnight.
Drivers here are a law unto themselves. Trucks and lorries do whatever they feel like, pulling out to overtake when there are cars coming towards them, overtaking when you’re overtaking, and all with no signals at all. Pippa and Christine (the Rover 80) seem to be following the maxim ‘When in Rome’. Yesterday, they nearly took our front wing off. After overtaking they had to cut in as the corner was approaching quicker than they had anticipated. After our near-death experience we decided to christen them the ‘Black Widows’. Ronald is not overly impressed with them.
Lots of the cars have taken a pounding today. There was talk last night of two or three cars pulling out and several having trouble with the suspension. David Laing had to change the wheel bearings on his DB2. One of his shock absorbers left the body of the car and shredded his back tyres. He missed three time controls and earned himself three hours worth of penalty points.
Ronald and I are OK; we’ve just got some nuts, water and museli bars for tomorrow. We’ve also decided to take it easy from now on. We may end up getting more points but at least we will make it through, whereas if we keep pushing too hard we’ll blow ourselves out. I’ll start tonight, taking it easy that is. In this hotel, with marble halls and waterfalls, enormous beds, thighdeep carpets and room service, it shouldn’t prove too difficult!
Trabzon to Sarphi/Batumi, Georgia - 175 km
Our last day in Turkey was a short one and very hot. By midday we had reached Sarphi on the Turkish border. From there it was just a short hop to Batumi, our destination for the night. We were told to expect to collect penalties of between four to five hours as we headed east through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan - all the ‘stans’ - because the roads were so bad. I wasn’t too concerned as we were still third overall and second in our class and the gap between the top few and the rest of the cars was widening.
Only seven years ago Georgia was the centre of an armed struggle so perhaps the bullet holes and poverty shouldn’t have surprised me. But it was still something of a culture shock. Georgia isn’t part of Russia any more and the local view is that the Black Sea port of Batumi is not really part of Georgia, but of the semi-autonomous state of Adjara.
The contrast with Turkey is just amazing. This place is a real eye-opener. I mean at one end of the scale you have the people in top-ranking Mercedes (probably the Mafia), then there’s a huge gap. At the other end is the bulk of the population who are absolutely ‘skint’ - it’s amazing. There are beggars, hookers and God knows what else around. People here are friendly and very curious. Maybe I’m being naïve but they seem happy.
I certainly knew I wasn’t in Europe when I went to the toilet. Still a hole in the floor, but this time there was just a running tap and a little bowl of water. No paper, just wash and forget about drying. The culture’s changing, what people do is changing; I’d better get used to it.
We got to the hotel at about 12.30 pm. It looked all right at first, a bit basic and very plain décor. But the place is incredible. Constant running water in the toilets, and only cold water for washing. You bloody freeze to death! Everyone has been drinking bottled water; no one is taking any chances. To think that this morning I was complaining about having to use pink sanitary towel bags to carry my lunch rolls!
A lot of the cars have got penalty points now, which they didn’t have before. A Mercedes had its petrol tank peppered with stones, and had to spend most of the day before in Trabzon while they repaired the petrol tank, and then drove through the night to catch us up. Other cars have had shock absorber mounting points going - really major stuff.
Drank a couple of beers this afternoon and they went straight to my head. What no one told me is that beer here is 12.5 - 15% by volume. I decided a ‘kip’ before dinner was in order.
The reception this evening was attended by the President of Adjara, His Excellency Aslan Abashidze (second in command of Georgia, so I am told) and hordes of bodyguards. The entertainment was incredible. Cossack-style dancers and singers, all children, put on a fantastic performance, and a bunch of scruffy old men on the balcony behind us, that I took to be not very fit bodyguards, turned out to be a male-voice choir, and they were brilliant. The talent they have in this place is out of this world.
It’s 10.30 pm and bed is calling. Ronald is down in the bar drinking vodka with Pippa (of the Black Widows). What they put on for us tonight was quite stunning, but in-between every act they had a toast with a full glass of wine each time. It was all just a bit much for me.
I have just pulled the sheets back on the bed to find half a dozen woodlice crawling about the mattress. I flicked them onto the floor and spent the next half hour watching them race up the wall past all the bullet holes. I may not sleep too well tonight.
Batumi to Tbilisi - 400 km
Surprisingly, I did get a good night’s sleep and although I probably should have been a bit hung over, I felt fine. I discovered that ‘Mr Second in Command of Georgia’, was actually regarded by many as just a local mobster who controls the border area with Turkey with a rod of iron. Central government in Tbilisi hadn’t received any customs or tax money from goods entering the town in years. And I’d been so easily impressed!
All is going well, I’m getting on well with Ronald, except he stepped out of bed this morning and twisted his ankle, so he is hobbling around moaning because he is in agony. It’s a good job he doesn’t have to drive!
Leaving Batumi our route passed ruined villas and long-abandoned factories, all that is left of the town’s prosperous past, before crossing the lush green coastal mountains to the central plains of the Trans Caucasus. Everyone has taken a hammering today. It’s really wild out there. We were meant to be on a main road but animals kept wandering onto it, and there were corpses all over the place where they had been hit by cars and just left where they fell. The road surface was awful, with loads of great potholes where storms must have washed away whole chunks.
On our way through one section we were escorted through a town by the police with flashing lights at 120 kph in a 40 kph limit. I think they were just quite chuffed to be escorting an Aston Martin through the village.
People certainly don’t take any notice of speed limits, road signs, or traffic lights; in fact most of the traffic lights we have seen don’t work. At a time control today, I went to the toilet. It was filthy and full up with human excrement. To put it another way, no running water, no paper, nothing, and it was all over the walls, big piles of it - you wouldn’t believe it, the stench. This is normal now for toilets. Very little hygiene.
I do wish to make it noted that I didn’t have any lunch today because of travelling so fast and so far. At one instance we were doing about 140 kph and hit a railway track. A big mistake because the road dipped down six inches at either side of the railway line, which stuck up in the middle.
The front wheels dropped down leaving our rears hovering in mid-air, then they came up and we were thrown backwards. Down again, and this time we banged our heads on the roof, and finally back up as we hit the far side of the railway track and the car became completely airborne, travelling about eight feet before landing safely back on the road. Amazing!
We have been bombing along today and were the first ones to the hotel in Tbilisi - a wonderful hotel. We got in and started doing some work on the car as it has got a little bit of a leak on the front axle. I wonder why? I am a little bit concerned that my back springs are starting to collapse. I will have a word with Tim about this. People have been great, but the cars have really taken a hammering today. There are cars in the hotel garage being welded up, gearboxes being done, suspensions, and new exhausts fitted. It really was quite gruelling today. It is a race, without a doubt.
We are driving between 100-140 kph which is about 70-90 mph, all the time for hours on end over appalling roads. This is no sightseeing tour! We have got a day off tomorrow which is quite good, so we will tidy up the car. Looking out of the window I can see a medieval castle on a hill. Wherever we are, Tbilisi is an absolutely amazing place.
Tbilisi (Rest Day)
It is now a rest day and we have been going two weeks. There is not a lot to report in this diary apart from the driving, the road conditions and what happens to the other cars. In the evenings we do mix with the other competitors but at the moment they spend most of their time repairing cars. The hotels have been good up until last night, the first hotel in Georgia, which was rough to say the least - all the others have been very good. We are in Tbilisi now, which is an amazing little city. I went out into town this morning to get some bits. It’s full of smog and dust, so I was constantly choking and coughing. Not a nice place to be in at all, it is really run down and dirty. It is so sad. The people are quite friendly around here, although I must say when you go into these places they are full of men, loads of them just sitting around talking, but hardly any women around at all. Some are younger men - 18 to 20 year olds, who just stare at you, which is quite intimidating. You don’t know if they are Mafia or what.
The car seems to be running very well. We have sorted out all our major and minor problems. We did have an oil leak on the front axle. I solved the problem by filling the axle with grease. I am going to have a word with Tim about bringing a new seal out to Alaska and changing the damaged one there. I’ve burnt my left hand. I noticed a rattle coming from the exhaust and grabbed it, forgetting that Ronald had already been running the engine. The metal was scorching. Now my hand is swelling up so the Rally doctor has given me some extremely strong painkillers and anti-inflammatory tablets to bring the swelling down. The skin is going tight and I think I will have trouble later on with blisters.
The ‘rev’ counter stopped the day before yesterday but I cleaned it up, oiled it and changed the cable. Now it’s back in the car and flying away merrily. I found a problem with the brake adjustment on the near-side front wheel where the brake adjuster was loose. I drilled a hole in the back plate to wire it up, so hopefully it won’t come undone again. I repaired the switch for the Barantz reset that we knocked when we were playing around with the car and fixed the indicators which had also stopped working.
I have just come back from the town centre of Tbilisi. I decided to go and get another sponge. You might well wonder what the hell I would want a sponge for. Well, I had a sponge that had a smooth and coarse side. The course bit was great for getting grease off my hands after working on the car. Last night in a vain attempt to get the grease and grime off my hands the sponge got away from me and disappeared down the toilet! So I went looking for another one this morning, which was a bit stupid really looking for one in Tbilisi. I ended up going to three chemists, none of which sold sponges so as a last resort it was the market on the other side of town. They sell everything there - lots of it is recycled. Well they had some sponges, beauty sponges for the bath they called them. I ended up getting a sponge but it cost me an arm and a leg, something in the region of £8 by the time I paid for the taxi fare out there and back and the cost of the sponge and the time - about £8 for a sponge - unbelievable!
It is still day 14 and I have just come back from having a massage. One of those where they plaster you in baby oil. The massage wasn’t bad actually. It was very relaxing. But the lady that was doing it - oh yes, it was a lady - was telling me that the revolutionary split from Russia occurred in about 1992. Up until about three years ago everyone was fairly optimistic that things would get better but they knew times would get harder before they got better etc. But then about two or three years ago it all changed, don’t quite know why, whether or not the goods didn’t materialise or whatever, but now almost everyone in Georgia wishes they were linked back to Russia. The Mafia apparently runs Georgia. You also have a Mafia that runs Russia. It is not run by the politicians or the people, and she was now quite worried about the future for herself and her family. It was not good. They could move but they didn’t really want to. “The future is not good here,” she explained. You can see why, the roads are really potholed, the drainage system has gone, the electricity pylons have not been painted for years - they are all rusty. In about another four years they will start collapsing because the rust will destroy them. The whole country is grinding to a halt and it is not improving, which is really worrying the local people. I tried to get hold of Tim Butcher about getting new springs made for the back of the car, but his answering machine wasn’t on so I’ve asked Tom to organise it. The rear springs are locking up and not working. It’s destroying the rear suspension.
The lesson I’ve belatedly learned is that if there is a little something wrong before you set off, fix it, because it will definitely get worse further down the line. A little rattle in London ends up with bits falling off in Turkey. Earlier, while lying in bed I turned over and caught my arm (which, I burnt on the manifold a few days ago) on a very, very sharp corner on the bedside cabinet. Apart from the fact that it hurt like hell, I thought nothing of it. It’s now 12.45 am, I’ve just woken up and there is blood all over the sheet. I am leaking! Ah disastrous - it is all going wrong!
How I will ever manage to nurse the Aston all the way round the world when I can’t even look after myself is anybody’s guess. This is just pathetic.
Tbilisi to Baku, Azerbaijan - 580 km
Despite the night-time drama, nothing looked quite so bad in the morning. I managed to patch myself up well enough to cope with the driving, which was horrendous.
We arrived at the border crossing with Azerbaijan, and because we were working on the car we were sent into another lane. The next thing I knew we were on the other side of the border. Members of the Rally crew were muttering under their breath about queue jumpers, and Philip Young came up saying we were upsetting people. I was surprised anyone would think we would be so petty. Amazing - a few bad nights’ sleep and all this aggression comes out. I had a problem with one of the Rally mechanics a couple of days ago when I was using a ramp to fix the car, and they wanted me to move so that they could use it. Bloody cheek! And now again this morning.
Loads of people got penalty points today. The roads were horrendous and lots of cars finished the day with suspension problems. Fortunately the Aston was fine and we didn’t drop any points. One of the Mercedes collided with a cow head on. The cow apparently got up and walked away but the front of the car is badly crumpled.
My wiper mechanism broke when it was raining. The bit at the end has come adrift. So I enlisted a local who took me to a while-you-wait welding shop on a roundabout. People just pull in, have their bits welded and then drive off again. So that’s what I did. Apart from that the car is holding together quite well and we are gradually closing the gap at the top. The roads to the Caspian seaport of Baku were the worst so far. The further east we went the bigger the potholes seemed to get, sending the car all over the road. I tried not to think too much about my burns, concentrating instead on getting through the day without collecting any penalty points.
The old hulk that carried us across to Turkmenbashi from Baku was at first glance quite disappointing after the comforts of the Igoumenitsa ferry, but the company had done the best they could with the ship. It had been repainted and there was new crockery, furniture and bedding. I shared a four-berth cabin with another man’s wife. Sounds great, but Ronald and Johanna’s husband, Do Meeus, were there also. The cabin was actually quite pleasant but the cupboard doors were falling off and the window was so well greased it kept flying open and shut in the breeze. We got a waft of cold air every time it opened and had trouble breathing when it shut.
The Gents toilets are bunged up and there’s water (giving it the benefit of the doubt) swilling around on the floor in each little compartment. Unfortunately you have to wade your way through the toilets to get to the showers. I don’t know what the ladies’ toilets are like - haven’t been in there. I did actually take a shower, cold water from the cold tap and cold water from the hot tap, but refreshing all the same.
I am sitting here tonight, in the cabin on my own having a Twix bar, I didn’t fancy salami, the food on offer, so I bought a Twix bar and am now devouring it on my own with a glass of water. Nothing like a gourmet meal! It really smells when you step out of the bedroom into the hallway. It is now mid morning and we are docking in about one to one and a half hours time. The toilets still haven’t been sorted out. They have been out with a mop, trying to mop up the water that is swilling around on the floor - quite grotesque really. Anyway there is nowhere to go to the loo now, you either pee in the shower or over the side, and if you want to do something else you have got really bad problems!
Things are looking up, one of the toilets now works, but there are about three or four people waiting to use it - quite funny really.
Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, to Ashgabad - 575 km
Its now midday. I have been wandering round the boat for a while and actually spotted land, so we must be getting somewhere. The paint on the boat has started to melt, and sticks to your shoes, so as you walk across the lino, you creak.
Biscuits and Fanta are about the only safe things to eat, unless you want the same as breakfast, which was cheese and salami - which I don’t fancy at all. It was mid-afternoon by the time we set off on the long drive to Ashgabad. The route took us along some very rough roads away from the lush greenery we had become familiar with and into a new and totally barren desert landscape.
We drove through vast flatlands that seemed to stretch on forever. Huge white patches dotted the surface: sterile salt plains left behind by the receding Caspian Sea. The sea level is dropping here all the time, as water is pumped out for irrigation. It increases crop yields but takes a heavy toll on the indigenous animal and plant life.
Less than an hour down the road we had to stop and queue for ages to clear customs into Turkmenistan. We sat eating yesterday’s sandwiches until it was our turn to go into a little wooden hut to get our passports stamped. No fast track here then. Mobile phones don’t work here either.
We knew that we were coming into desert country when we saw the camels walking down the middle of the road. The roads were really rough and the further we drove the browner everything became. We were warned to fill up with petrol before the ferry and I’m glad we didn’t forget. The desert would not be a pleasant place to break down.
We blew the front ‘oil seal’ - smoke everywhere, behind us, in the car, clouds of it. As we pulled into a petrol station to fill up, the gathered crowds ran for cover. They thought that we were going to ignite. We topped up with oil to keep us going. Eventually we got in to the reserved parking area by a sports stadium, a short walk from the hotel, just before midnight.
Unfortunately we missed the garden party and belly dancers, but at least we’ve got the most important bit, a room and a bed for the night.
Ashgabad (Rest Day)
The city of Ashgabad is an oasis, a place of modern architecture and fountains, and knowing we would be here for 24 hours was a relief after the drive through the desert, although it did feel a little unreal, especially knowing what lay all around us.
This morning at 7.30 am I went back to the stadium car park to sort the car out - a bloody great big oil leak - which was bad news. Anyhow, it was a question of looking at and repairing the car or coming home, so I decided to get on with it. Loads of people came to see what was going on. They were very friendly but the sheer numbers made it pretty intimidating and a bit claustrophobic, especially in 40oC heat. Lots of people were working on their cars or having repairs done, but they all left about mid-afternoon. Ronald and I were there for the duration.
The problem was that the front oil seal in the timing case cover was leaking oil badly. To replace it meant dismantling the front of the car, then the engine. Having never done it before, it took all day and well into the evening. Off came the bonnet of the car first, then out came the radiator. We stripped the whole car down completely apart from one nut that holds the pulley on, and we needed to get that off to replace the front oil seal. Nobody had a socket big enough; one 7/8th of an inch. So we hunted around various garages, and local people were driving all over the place trying to get this socket. Ronald went off for about two or three hours. He claimed he went nearly to the Iran border to find this socket. Anyway he came back with this socket, plonked it on, and undid the nut. I also noticed that one of the steady feet on the front of the engine timing case had cracked. It was an aluminium casing and an old weld had actually cracked and given way, so it had to come off to be re-welded.
There was one firm in Ashgabad that handled aluminium. Ronald went off with the broken front timing case. The guy fixed it within five minutes, a complete brand new weld and back it came. We fitted the new oil seal - don’t know why the other one leaked oil, and put it all back. It took us 14 hours all told. Anyhow it was all done. We gave it a test drive - no problem at all, it ran beautifully. Ronald and I worked well as a team. However, I found Ronald was getting quite tired as time went on and a little bit irritable, so I had to give him a morale boost by saying ‘we have done this bit, we are nearly finished not much left now. We will be there at the start tomorrow’, to keep him going.
We’ve been feeling pretty pleased with ourselves tonight, but then we should be - we virtually took the car apart and rebuilt it. There wasn’t much the backup mechanics could do to help - they were busy fixing other cars, so it was ‘do it yourself ’ again. They were very impressed with the way we got on with it and dealt with the problems that came up. The rear-trailing arm had cracked and it also needed welding. When all the repairs were done I left and went and got some petrol with a local policeman, as a guide. He took me to the cheapest place to get fuel. When we got there he asked if we could go and see his parents. I agreed as I had a bit of spare time. I didn’t pay for the petrol, yes I got free petrol. I drove him round the local district where he lives and actually saw how the local people live. They live in blocks of flats surrounded by gardens with fountains everywhere. They were all out picnicking because it is very hot; it is 40oC+ out here. You actually see them living their normal lives, not the ‘touristy’ bit where we are in the hotel. I went in and met his parents who were absolutely chuffed that his son was riding in an Aston Martin around town - just amazing.
I returned to the car park where Ronald was waiting. We left for the hotel with Ronald navigating. We ended up walking down this road for about half an hour. Eventually I asked a local woman who turned round to us and said, “you have come in the wrong direction”, so we had to walk back again. I am a bit dubious about Ronald’s navigating now. However, we eventually got a welcome gin and tonic, said hello to everybody who was still up and alive and then went off to bed.
The restaurants are closed now. I have had nothing to eat today - just a cup of coffee this morning and gallons and gallons of water, so I have just ordered a chicken sandwich from room service for a late night feast. Tomorrow we are on our way again. I don’t know for sure but I think we are supposed to be staying in a sanatorium - camping. They have described it as ‘a bit basic’.
The car is back in running order. Tim Butcher is sending new springs out to Tashkent. Apparently they will take four days to get to us - guaranteed to get to the hotel, so we will see if they arrive or not. This is really a fight for survival. We have still got about 9,300 kilometres to go to Beijing. We have only done about 6,400 kilometres, so Christ knows what state the car will be in when we have finished. The roads are getting better, fewer hill climbs and special stages. So if that is the case hopefully we should make it.
Ashgabad to Chardzhou - 640 km
Another hot bright sunny day and an early start. As we drove on, the plains petered out, gradually turning to scrubland with low sand dunes to our right. Some miles in the distance were the mountains; not mountains as one usually imagines them, with sloping sides leading to high peaks, but great vertical cliffs standing guard along the border of Iran. We were coming into real desert land and, unsurprisingly, it was very hot and very dusty. It was hot in the car today - radiant heat from the sand was burning my arm so I drove with the window closed - much cooler. Tarmac was melting all along the road and we had to drive on a sticky film of black goo - not at all pleasant.
Home for the night was the Sanitoriy Profilaktika and it looked quite nice even if it sounded distinctly dodgy. But this was the first time they had ever had people staying, as opposed to inmates, and dinner was an experience not to be repeated. There was no running water and no showers. You can imagine what we smelt like after a long day in this heat.
Dinner at the sanatorium was al fresco and self-service, although not intentionally. We sat and watched the crockery being washed under a tap in the garden and then waited for the food. I got tired of waiting so I went to the kitchen to see what was going on.
A huge metal bowl about a metre across, full of hot, cooked chips, was covered with wet tea towels in a vain attempt to keep the flies off, and there was a huge cauldron boiling up stew, but having got that far no one seemed to have given any thought to how the food would get to the tables. But I wanted my dinner. A woman, ‘the chip queen’, who was cooking the chips, peeled the potatoes and then plonked them in a bedpan to take them to the chip fryer. Now I needed that bedpan. The woman wouldn’t let go of it without some sort of replacement. World war three nearly followed. Eventually I got a tray and swapped with her, then ladled the stew into the bedpan and loaded another tray with chips, carrying both out to our table. Other people followed suit, piling food high on bits of bread, plates or whatever they could find.
I don’t know why I bothered. It was just foul from beginning to end. I will not be having breakfast.
Chardzhou, Uzbekistan to Samarkand - 400 km
An unpleasant evening was followed by a restless night at the sanatorium and I was glad that the drive to Samarkand was shorter than some of our recent journeys, although, as it turned out, shorter doesn’t always mean easier. First thing we had to do today was cross the Amu Darya on a rickety old pontoon bridge made of steel boxes that moved, creaked and rattled in turn. It was a bit ‘iffy’ to say the least and there were more than a few concerns about whether we would all make it. There was a chance the water level might not be high enough for the bridge to cope with so many vehicles but we all got there in the end. We left Turkmenistan and entered Uzbekistan. The roads were a great improvement, although the soaring temperatures were very wearing. There were policemen everywhere. Overland travel through Uzbekistan is normally banned and special clearance had been given for the rally. The uniformed presence came in handy for navigation though, we didn’t need a route book, we just had to follow the trail of policemen and we couldn’t go wrong.
With all the police around we couldn’t go fast at the best of times but we came to a complete standstill on the outskirts of Samarkand. The Russian President was visiting and there was a police curfew all around the city until he left. They wouldn’t let us through. Then the Minister of Tourism turned up and actually made things worse by standing up for us and arguing with them about freedom of passage. We were allowed through eventually, but boy was it slow.
Uzbekistan seems more developed and prosperous than Turkmenistan. We went out for a meal and it just feels better here, as if it’s ‘going somewhere’. The people are great, once you get used to their glittering smiles. Everyone who can afford it shows off their wealth by having their front teeth capped in gold!
Two guys in a Healey were desperate for a bit of privacy, running around like headless chickens trying to get single rooms to get a bit of peace and quiet away from the Rally and each other.
Samarkand (Rest Day)
Saturday has not been a good day for me. I felt absolutely disgusting all day - diarrhoea, sickness, septic cuts and scratches. While Ronald and most of the other competitors got in a spot of sightseeing in Samarkand, I languished in bed, feeling about as bad as I have ever felt. While they braved the searing heat to visit the mosques and mausoleums of this ancient and historic city at the crossroads of the Silk Road, I spent most of the day staggering between bedroom and bathroom.
It was a pity I felt so awful as I am sure I would have enjoyed experiencing all that history and culture, as well as sampling some of the local delicacies. As it was, I had a serious bout of the runs and wasn’t in a fit state to eat anything.
I dragged myself out to get plasters and antiseptic wash for my burnt hand and arm at lunchtime. Ronald had already been, but came back with cotton wool - what was that all about, Dr Brons? Cotton wool for open wounds. By the time I got back I felt awful, especially when I knew everyone else was out enjoying themselves. Ronald had gone to the Mosque. There was probably nothing the doctor or anyone could have done, but sitting on the toilet hunched over the basin I felt like I was the only one left in the hotel and it would have been nice to know someone else was around. I just wanted to be back home in bed, with Roma mopping my fevered brow. However, I am much better this evening. Sleep, flat lemonade and rehydration drink seems to have done the trick, although the muesli bar this afternoon was a bit of a mistake. The Rally doctor Matt said it was e-coli, probably from the sanatorium and others have gone down with it too, some a lot worse than me. He said that temperatures out here are ideal for breeding bacteria, so I am now on a course of very strong antibiotics and a high dose of anti-diarrhoea tablets to try and sort myself out before we set off tomorrow for Tashkent. A long trip.
Tomorrow is going to be quite a gruelling day. It was very hot all day today and it’s going to get worse as we go on. Already some of Matt’s patients are ‘cases of heat exhaustion’, except for us with e-coli that is. I’ve had one and I could definitely do without the other, so I’m going to take it easy for the next few days. The car is running hot at 90oC as there is no more “water wetter” left. That’s the stuff that provides extra cooling for the radiator. The Healey guys have had a split in the petrol tank and are desperate to get it sorted.
Now apparently Christine, as in the Christine and Pippa duo, fell asleep at the wheel and nearly ploughed into a group of school children next to the road. Pippa is now very concerned for her safety in case it happens again. I think that cracks are appearing and things are starting to go a little bit wrong.
Samarkand to Tashkent - 400 km
Ronald took over the driving for the day, allowing me to sleep as much as I could to try to regain my equilibrium. The sheer magnificence of the scale of the landscape on the vast Asian Plateau, its bare brown fields stretching on for hundreds of miles and huge borderless green fields infested with poppies, was largely wasted on me. I had neither the energy nor the enthusiasm to appreciate anything around me. Just getting from A to B without feeling like I was dying was about as much as I could contend with.
I kept my head down during the timed trial as we shot around hairpin bends on our way up to the top of a mountain and down the other side, largely unaware of the waves and cheers of the local people who had turned out to watch. But I was ‘with it’ enough to realise that it had been a really good day for the Rally and that Ronald must have made extremely good time because at the end of the day we got in early and had to wait to go to the checkpoint.
We are in Tashkent now, and the people here are very affluent compared with the other areas that we have been through. They actually grow crops in the fields and it is a lot greener, with trees. Tashkent itself is quite a pleasant city.
By evening I was exhausted and fell into bed expecting to sleep round the clock. But although I had managed the 400 kilometres to Tashkent without incident, my bug had not departed. It was merely taking a break, quietly lurking, building up a false sense of security so that I would eat again, and I did.
Tashkent to Bishkek, Kyrgystan - 600 km
A really rough night. The bug returned with a vengeance, the muesli bar, a roll, and half an omelette I had before bed must have given it something to work on because I was up again and again. Matt told me things could go on like this for a week so I may be going home a shadow of my former self. Roma sounded pretty worried when I told her but I think I managed to reassure her - just wish I could do the same for myself. Ronald took the driving again today. I slouched ‘invalid-like’ in the passenger seat for most of the day. The sun shone brilliantly, though to my jaded mind that just meant hot sticky car, hot sticky me. But even I could tell that we were driving along roads that were the best so far, through some beautiful countryside with incredible contrasts, from pastoral green valleys to stark, snow-capped mountains that ran along the right-hand side of the road for hundreds of kilometres.
We have decided that from now on we will take it easy on the car. With my illness over the last day or so and the trailing arms getting twisted due to the springs collapsing, we’ve realised that getting round in one piece is more important than continually pushing for first place, even if we do pick up time penalties along the way. It would do us no good at all to get stuck halfway round the world with a car that is completely knackered, even if we were first to get there! Our strategy is embarrassingly simple; let the Hillman Hunter and the Porsche fight it out for first and second place. Hopefully they’ll drive like mad things and by halfway through the American leg their cars will be total right-offs and we will win by default. Hope springs eternal.
Three border crossings today, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan - that’s a ‘transit section’ in rally speak. Curiously the total time for getting through all three lots of border formalities was probably less than any one of our recent ‘fast track’ episodes.
We have got into Tashkent quite easily but thought the springs in the car had started to collapse, so we took it down to the garage and checked it out. The front aluminium support on the timing case cover has gone again, so we had to make a new support bracket for it. While checking out the back of the car, the trailing arms, instead of being straight were bent like a banana. Half way along the trailing arms you have got the springs and because the road had been so hard they have collapsed and become ‘coil bound.’ This means the car is actually collapsing on its own suspension - I have never known this to happen before.
After the repair work on the trailing arms the Aston ran like a dream most of the way - oil pressure 65, temperature a little on the cold side at about 70oC, but generally great, and then just before Bishkek, things started banging and rattling. It wasn’t anything drastic though, just the shock absorbers, so down in the hotel car park we fitted new springs with a bit more give. The rattling stopped and the ride improved no end. This was the spares package Tim had sent from England and yes it did arrive on time. I had a little time before dinner so I went for a potter and found a stunning oil on canvas painting of a horse by a local artist I thought Charlotte, my daughter, might like for her 21st birthday. I Fedexed it off straightaway so hopefully she’ll get it in time for 25th May.
I booked a restaurant for 7.00 pm and then turned up at 8.00 pm - all these changing time zones are enough to confuse anyone. All the same I wasn’t happy to find that our table had been given to someone else, and by the time the food finally arrived I was so tired I could only manage some bread before heading off to bed. Dinner probably wasn’t a good idea anyway and I’m surprised I lasted as long as I did. Hopefully it’s a good sign and I’ll have a better night tonight.
Today saw the Mercedes rip its oil sump off - a lot of cars had problems, The Peugeot came in with its back wheel hanging off.
Bishkek to Naryn - 340 km
After an uninterrupted night’s sleep and a couple of days in the passenger seat I was starting to feel a lot better. As we emerged from the hotel into the morning sunshine the sight of the green alpine hills set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains was enough to lift anyone’s spirits, including mine. Kyrgystan is a definite hit with me. This place is simply stunning and the people are lovely.
The day started with a blast round a mile-long go-kart track, watched by a crowd of 5,000. They had us signing autographs afterwards - we’re famous! The short drive to Naryn took us through some breathtakingly beautiful scenery. Up in the mountains the views were incredible; gorgeous is the only way to describe it. The rich colours were truly theatrical, light yellowy sand changing suddenly to dark red, on vertical rock faces, and as you looked from one side to the other the changing light made everything look completely different.
Much of the journey was through uninhabited countryside, but coming through the pass we saw people out riding in the fields and the landscape was dotted with yurts, the domed white tents that a lot of people call home. All in all it was a super day and I couldn’t help but feel rejuvenated. Ronald was back in his role as navigator today. He turned over two pages in the route book rather than the usual one this morning and couldn’t find his way out of the hotel car park but after a decent night’s sleep I was feeling magnanimous and let him off.
Pippa and Christine very kindly came over to see how I was doing and I was able to reassure them that reports of my near demise had been greatly exaggerated. It’s nice to know people care.
On the car front, we heard that Freddie Giles in the Hillman Hunter left the hotel in Tashkent, went down a one-way street the wrong way and got hit by a bus. Apparently he stopped, pulled out his dented roo-bar, paid the bus driver a few dollars to cover his costs, turned round and drove off again. He also damaged his front wing pretty badly, so it probably wasn’t that funny for him, but it made us smile.
We are off for the timed section now, down the pass and up the other side. Ronald has just gone to the loo; you have never seen anything like it. You can smell the toilets about 100 yards away. It is disgusting; just a bit of concrete that takes the urine away and a hole for the rest of it and nobody ever cleans it from one year to the next. The toilets have been like it for days. If you have a weak constitution then you don’t want to come on one of these rallies.
Today’s downhill section had stunning views over a large green lake and this was followed by a timed trial over a remote mountain pass. Only 25 kilometres in the timed section today compared with 75 kilometres yesterday, but still long enough for us to get into an argument. Ronald got really uptight because we went five seconds over time, which lost us a whole minute, but when I was trying to zip round he kept telling me to slow down because of the shock absorbers. You can’t have your cake and eat it. We couldn’t slow down and still not get any penalty points. So we had to take the minute penalty. He’s back to his usual relaxed self again now. Coming through the Dolan Pass (3,038 m), we had rain, more rain and then sleet. We’d seen snow on the mountains all day and now we had an idea how it got there. It took everyone by surprise because this was the first time it had rained since we left London. It was bloody cold, especially for the cars that had their tops down, but once we got through, the sun came back out and the soggy folk had a chance to dry off and warm up. One of the best things we brought out with us was a bottle of Windolene. The windscreen turns into an insect graveyard and you get greasy paw prints all over the glass from curious people looking in whenever you stop. I don’t know how we would manage without it.
Petrol and parking for tonight is at the village airfield. With one petrol pump and dozens of cars queuing to use it there was a long wait. It would have been good to use the time to repair or clean the car. But Ronald took the opportunity to get in a spot of socialising.
I had a look at the shock absorbers because the springs were bouncing up and down, and the banging noise was back. I found out the shock absorbers weren’t adjusted tightly enough. When the radius arms got bent a few days ago, the doughnut bump stops were ripped off, which shouldn’t really have been a problem but all day long the car was hitting on the original bump stops making a hell of a noise, and now I know why. The shock absorbers were doing absolutely nothing. Fortunately after a bit of tweaking they were much better.
Camping tonight was supposed to be four to six to a yurt, but we were reliably informed that they have proper beds with thick blankets so we won’t be totally roughing it. Oh, the sophistication of around the world rallying!
As things turned out, the rustic charm of the yurts was not to be. Severe storms before we arrived meant that the ground was too wet to sleep on in tents and there were only a limited number of yurts. Instead we had to make do with the equally rustic charms of an old Russian Air Force camp that was now a school. Some of the other competitors complained, saying,“it is appalling, it’s horrible” and they were never going back there, so we didn’t quite know what we were going to get.They had somehow expected to drive out into the back of beyond, through countries the names of which I couldn’t even spell, let alone find on a map, and still be accommodated in five-star hotels at a moment’s notice. Ronald and I were quite prepared to treat the whole thing as a big adventure and have a good time. No matter what. But when we actually got there, yes, it was appalling and horrible and you really didn’t want to go back there! No it wasn’t that bad, they had actually made quite a good attempt, we had new sheets on the bed which were sort of like quilts. The food was quite nice, we had a meat stew. Obviously the people had bent over backwards to give us the best they could. But there were still a number of competitors that were complaining.
Accommodation was either four or eight to a room. We ended up sharing a four-bed room with Pippa and Christine, the idea of which they found highly amusing - funnier than we did for some reason. The beds, which had originally been intended for children, creaked abominably. They were about two foot wide and sagged in the middle so much that when one of the Japanese team, Aoki, climbed onto his he couldn’t get out - he was trapped. Beds were set end to end and just as everyone was dozing off I had a long stretch. Swinging my arms up over my head I encountered a pair of feet, which for no justifiable reason I grabbed. The feet belonged to Christine and she jumped like hell. I don’t know when I have seen someone move so fast. Now we know that with the right motivation it is possible to escape even the saggiest of beds. It was probably the earliest that Ronald had ever been to bed in his life, well there is nothing else to do apart from go to sleep - not with me there anyhow - I’ll keep an eye on him Margo!
Naryn to Kashgar, China - 360 km (194 km test section)
Breakfast was at 4.30 am and power, which had managed to remain on throughout the night, decided to cut out at 4.05 am. We stumbled through the dark, chilly hallways to eat a hearty cold breakfast: cold omelette, cold pancakes, hot coffee and toast, by candlelight. Surprisingly it was quite nice, and the company was good.
Oral thrush. It gets worse! The anti-bacteria pills the Rally doctor had given to me for my diarrhoea had worked well - too well. Apparently in your mouth you have bacteria and fungus, quite normal but the pills had killed the bacteria in my mouth leaving me with just fungus ‘ORAL THRUSH’ - everything burnt and hurt like hell - drinking water, eating, all was agony. No treatment was available except creams, for external use only. I must find a Pharmacy that sells a pill version. No one knows that I have this problem, not even Ronald.
The Alvis Grey Lady broke its half shaft yesterday and the Healey broke its shock absorber mountings over the rough section. So the cars are really starting to take a bit of a hammering now.
Things weren’t so good on the road for us either; we had a horrendous run on the timed trial. At 190 kilometres, it was the longest section the Classic Rally Association has ever organised and we made good time but it was murder on the car. So much for taking it easy! We cracked the rear trailing arm again from where it joins the chassis back to where we had it welded in Ashgabad, so the rear suspension has collapsed yet again. The new springs have also collapsed. Not hard enough.
On the main route we were pootling along at about 60 kph when we hit a bumpy patch and BANG! Dust everywhere, and the car was shaking like mad. We stopped. We had snapped the trailing arm completely. It had wedged itself into the road and we were going nowhere until we could get help. We were in ‘no-mans-land’, not quite in China, desolate and empty, nothing for miles and miles. We were alone. All we had was a couple of stale rolls and a bottle of coke.
As we sat by the side of the road enjoying our lunch, the other Rally cars started to catch us up and pass us. A Jaguar passed, dribbling petrol from a big hole in his petrol tank and then the Japanese who were nearly out of petrol. If they were quick enough they might be able to catch a few drops. It felt good to relax for a while, after all there wasn’t anything we could do, and I took the opportunity to have a really good look around at what must be almost the roof of the world - God’s Kingdom. Absolutely desolate but spectacularly beautiful. A local arrived and I showed him the problem, all with sign language only. He disappeared looking confident.
It took about 20 minutes for a blue lorry to arrive with 15 men and also a yellow crane.
Then another 20 minutes to load the car up and secure it. They tied steel wires around the wheel spinners and then up to a central lifting point above the car. As it was lifted up the steel wire cut into the aluminium of the Aston’s Concours body. Roma’s not going to be too happy.
We then had a long slow journey to the Chinese border, me in the car on top of the lorry, with my foot on the brake just to be on the safe side, and Ronald in the cab with a couple of other guys. The cost of such a quick recovery was the fart machine and one eyeball. I could not find the second eyeball and they would take no money for their help.
I had a terrific vantage point. Each village we passed in this harsh volcanic countryside had its own little police garrison, with high walls onto a courtyard and what looked like silver birch trees planted all around.
The flat-roofed buildings were made of mud briquettes and were somehow impervious to the rain, snow and sleet that fall in these climes. The scenery boosted my flagging confidence. I was totally depressed but did not want to let Ronald know. What would happen now? I had tried to put a relaxed, confident face on it but I had had enough. Especially after the engine rebuild a few days earlier.
At the border, we were informed that we had committed a criminal offence by loading the car onto a lorry without a permit. An hour and a half and several reports later we finally got our permit. A little man with two flags, one red and one green, waved his green flag and we moved off. It was like something from Thomas the Tank Engine. As I was being driven into China on the back of the lorry the driver sounded his horn at every opportunity. It was a great honour to be chosen to carry this car and he was letting everyone know it was him. For me it was a most embarrassing experience. Arriving in China on the back of a lorry.
We arrived in Kashgar and searched for a garage. The mechanics couldn’t get the car off our blue lorry so they had to get another lorry with a flat bed, then winch the car from the first lorry to the second one, and then reverse this lorry in between the car lift. The arms of the car lift were placed under the Aston and raised. The lorry was then driven away leaving the car suspended in the air ready to be worked on. Quite amazing and ingenious. The mechanics worked through the night making two new trailing arms from the chassis of an old lorry. I threw away the rear shock absorbers because they had stripped the splines, and fitted two telescopic ones as a temporary measure. The car was back in working order but it bounces around like a kangaroo because the shocks at the front aren’t working at all. During the night the body shop panel-beat and filled in the damaged body of the Aston, finally respraying the repaired area just before dawn. We showed the mechanics what to do but could not help them, loss of face for the mechanics if we did.
We collected a few time penalties. Over one hour for the breakdown. Tomorrow is a rest day so we’ll give the car a good service and do our best to sort it all out then.
Kashgar (Rest Day)
We were greeted at breakfast by a change in the route. All the best parts of the China route had been torn up by the Chinese Public Security Bureau as the police did not want us to travel south of the Taklimaken Desert. Instead, we had to go north and a new route, which nobody had seen. It had to be drawn up at incredibly short notice, with all the red tape that entailed.
There were also grumbles about the standard of the hotel. Locally classed as two stars, some competitors felt they had good cause to question the grading. In many rooms small piles of rice were strategically placed behind bathroom doors to lure mice and rats away from the beds in the middle of the night.
Mid morning and it was off to check on the car. Then at lunch we were invited to the works canteen. Here we were given the usual chicken stew and noodles (no rice in this part of China) and shown past 30 or so workers to the managers’ dining room. White formica tables with blue plastic chairs. We were getting the red carpet treatment. No wooden trestles and benches for us. Another ‘mouth burning’ meal!
The car is now finally finished. Even the wet paint looks great. Roma will never know. I hope!
Back at the hotel car park it was very hot. People were touching, poking and climbing all over the cars, but the security guards just looked on. At one point a bus load of tourists turned up to have their pictures taken with their favourite model. Lots of the cars needed work and it all got a bit tense with more than a few harsh words being bandied about.
Our journey into and out of Kashgar was amazingly easy. Police lined all the roads and the traffic in the town was stopped to allow us in and out. There were no other lorries or cars - nothing on the roads at all. It was extremely quiet and we were in no danger of getting lost.
Kashgar is amazing, with incredibly friendly people who will make or find you anything you could possibly need. Food here is just fantastic, really marvellous, and there’s plenty of it. In the market the air is filled with the scent of spices.
As regards my ailment, the pharmacies, however, only had a cream, not to be taken orally. So the burning continues. I’ve been drinking and eating very little because of the pain.
Outside town I saw a shingle beach about three miles long flattening out to a sandy base. It must be a long time since waves lapped on it but it looked as though the tide went out yesterday and just forgot to come back in - rather eerie really.
Kashgar to Aksu (re-route Day 1) - 470 km
After our piggyback ride into China on Wednesday, we dropped down to 13th place in the Around the World rankings, but I was confident we would make up some of the penalty time, and we were still third in our class so it wasn’t all bad news. The three day re-route meant that for the time being there were no timed trials, which was something of a relief after the recent work on the car. Without the temptation to push things to the limit we would have the chance to consolidate, or even improve, our position. The master plan was back in action.
We had a pretty good run today, down a narrow ribbon of tarmac with flat dusty desert to the left and right. The pace was more sedate too, and it would have been boring except that every so often we passed through a village where we were greeted like royalty. Thousands turned out to cheer and Red Guard soldiers stood to attention in the boiling sun, saluting at every passing rally car.
Before the rally we were told we would be running on 70-octane fuel all the way but we’ve actually been on 90-octane - couldn’t even get 70-octane if we tried - and the water filter has been a waste of time so far; all of the petrol has been clean, not a drop of water in it.
Tomorrow we start the special sections again. We thought they were cancelled but apparently they are back on - God knows what is going to happen! Ronald and I are in very good spirits, we are enjoying the trip and seeing the different people. It really is quite good now. The pace has slowed a bit and there are four more special stages after tomorrow, before we get to Beijing in 10 days time. So we are quite full of beans.
My clothes are absolutely filthy. All the trousers I brought were light colours so I wouldn’t get too hot, but they get so dirty and covered in oil and grease stains that I wish I had brought some dark pairs. My clothes are also disappearing. I have been sending dirty clothes to the hotel laundry and only three-quarters of them come back. No they’re not quite that bad! I am in very good form, mentally and physically and so is Ronald, all my burns and cuts and scars have all healed up. The burn on my hand is slowly disappearing, so that is quite good.
I couldn’t call Roma today, outbound calls are barred for some reason, but people can ring in. It seems a bit of a waste having a world phone when you can’t use it in some parts of the world - not the phone’s fault though. My credit card company phoned Roma because money had been drawn out in Turkey and China and they thought the card might have been stolen. I was impressed. I explained what was going on to their fraud office and they marked my account with my mobile number so they could call me direct if there were any transactions that looked really odd.
Being out of contact with home was already having a depressing effect on me and the soaring temperatures and an extended confrontation with the language barrier did nothing to improve my mood.
Yesterday was Charlotte’s 21st and I don’t know how it went yet or if her present arrived in time.
My calls to Roma are the glue that holds all of this together. The different days, different countries, car falling apart, me falling apart and unreality of it all is held in check by my contact with home, knowing that Roma and the girls are there and that normal life is still going on. I hope that barring calls won’t become the norm in China because it will take us nearly two weeks to get to Beijing. Being able to phone out gives me some control over my circumstances and I didn’t realise how reliant I had become on it.
Beijing also means, I hope, treatment for my oral thrush.
Aksu to Kuch (re-route Day 2) - 255 km
Although our second day’s journey around the northern fringes of the Taklimaken Desert was much shorter than the first, it was also a lot tougher. An hour-long diversion to our route took us off the main road into desert scrubland, with roads and tracks going in all directions. Cars and competitors rocked and rolled their way through the sandy maze trying to find the right track to get back to the road, and many cars including the Aston were damaged in the process.
We snapped off the rear shock absorber mounting bracket driving through the desert - we finally get decent shocks and then this! But our troubles were small compared to some of the other competitors. The Dutch Porsche (currently in second place) cracked an oil pipe and oil was pouring from the back of the car. Some other drivers were able to signal to the backup crew and they got a tow in, so they still clocked in on time, which I think was a bit jammy. David Laing had major problems with the suspension on his Aston DB2 so I think that brought a premature end to his day, and because people were getting tired and irritable there were lots of rows going on, particularly between couples.
Ronald and I are in very good shape and very good spirits, I have no idea why, by all things right and wrong we should be on our knees crying with all the repairs and works and everything else that has gone wrong on the car, but we are not, we are quite cheerful and looking forward to Canada. We got in about 3.00 pm and my priority was sorting out the car. I got through three interpreters trying to persuade a man to weld a new bracket that I knew would be strong enough to mount the shock absorber on. Each time he would nod and then do his own thing, which was wrong. I could have done with a bit of moral support from Ronald but he was tied up chatting with Pippa all afternoon, 20 metres from where the car mechanic and I were struggling to create what was needed as opposed to what the mechanic thought I should have. After the third attempt I was so annoyed I just had to get away for a while so I went back to the hotel for a shower. By the time I got to my fourth-floor bedroom (no lifts), I needed a lie down as well as a shower - I was absolutely knackered.
I waited ages for the murky brown water to clear until I realised it was never going to happen and got on with the shower anyway. Then I found another interpreter and went back into the fray. This time the interpreter explained to the man that he was incompetent and he had lost honour through his poor performance. He was then replaced by another man, who actually bothered to listen to what I was saying, and I got the job done - but it took six bloody hours! And of course by then I was hot, sticky and dirty again, so I went for another brown shower.
The whole thing can just go to hell and I wouldn’t care. I’ve had enough of throwing up in brown dingy bathrooms and barbecuing myself in the hot sun. One can only take so much, spending every free moment working on endless damned repairs. Today was another case in point - hours wasted just to get a man to make a stupid little bracket. I’ve not done any sightseeing since I started this rally and I feel trapped in this crummy hotel. Roma called at about 9.30 pm I wished she would call back, I was feeling very depressed, but she must have been off doing other things, so I wouldn’t speak to her until tomorrow night. So, after a few tears I eventually fell asleep.
Kuch to Korla (Last day of re-route) - 404 km
Last night was the first really bad night I’d had. I felt isolated, cut off from everyone who mattered, and my hotel room was the worst place in the world to be. I lay awake for a long time waiting for the phone to ring, but of course it didn’t. When I had spoken to Roma, I’d had the opportunity to tell her exactly what I was going through - but I didn’t, it had only been business as usual. She had no idea I was feeling so low.
This morning, however, I’ve got together a more positive outlook. After all, the car was working well now and by tonight we would be back on our original route and Ronald would be back telling me where to go.
I found out why Ronald spent so much of the last couple of days sitting around talking with Pippa. It was stress/pressure/depression, same as me, just a different reaction. His way of dealing with things when it all gets too much is to not deal with things - he tunes out completely. He was feeling really low with everything that had been going wrong lately and the business with the bracket was the last straw. He says that he’s a lot better now, more his normal perky self. So we’ll see.
I’m glad he’s feeling better but I wish he’d told me sooner; it would have made my life a lot easier. I had a word and said I can cope with him feeling lousy and I don’t mind him going off for coffee and chats with Pippa for as long as he wants, but I need to know what’s going on so there are no misunderstandings. I would say I’d do the same but I think it’s pretty obvious when I’m fed up.
An easy run today, straight desert roads, mountains off in one direction, great twisting sand dunes in the other, kilometre after kilometre of desert. The temperatures were in the high 40’s, and even allowing for a stop to buy lunch and a bottle of shampoo (I ran out), we were in Korla by early afternoon. The car was absolutely brilliant, so good that we decided to leave everything alone after we checked in. Ronald and I were ecstatic - the upside of the down I suppose. It felt like we carried half the desert into the hotel with us so we headed straight to our rooms to get cleaned up. The hotel was fantastic, air-conditioned rooms overlooking the pool, with views to the mountains in the distance. By 3.30 pm in the afternoon we were lounging around with nothing, absolutely nothing, to do - heaven. It was breakfast time in the UK, so I decided to give Roma a call. Even the thought that I could made me feel much better.
Back on the original route tomorrow would mean a return to the special stages and word is that tomorrow is a real ‘toughie’. Our destination is Turfan, the hottest place in China, where temperatures are expected to rocket to 48-50oC. We are still running on three shock absorbers so it looks like penalty points for us, but on the plus side running slower should also keep the engine cooler so we might actually gain points in the long run if other people overheat.
Right now we are tenth in the Round the World, with one hour 40 minutes’ penalties. Apart from Freddie Giles and his Hillman Hunter and the Dutch Porsche team the other leading cars all have over an hour, so one or two breakdowns could shoot us up the list quite nicely. No 50, the ‘Black Widows’, have no brakes and suspension problems are plaguing many cars.
Korla to Turfan - 350 km
We left the air-conditioned luxury of the hotel in Korla with regret and drove out into the desert - 40oC+. The morning was spent climbing through a steep-sided canyon to nearly 2,000 m and a strange but striking moonscape. After that it was, quite literally, downhill all the way, with temperatures rising all the time, until we reached the oasis town of Turfan, lying at about 150 m below sea level.
It was a hot and dusty journey. After the novelty of the morning’s drive, the scenery for the rest of the day was drab and unappealing and the ongoing difficulties with the suspension made the ride very uncomfortable. By the time we arrived I was extremely tired and ached all over.
I was quite concerned about one of the rear springs and as soon as we had checked in to our hotel I took the car to a nearby Volkswagen garage, where I suggested cutting a Volkswagen camper spring in half and fitting it on top of the axle to support and act as backup to the existing spring. If it worked it should get us comfortably as far as Alaska. Without it I didn’t think we would get there at all.
I will return in the morning to see how things are progressing.
Turfan (Rest Day)
I checked on the car and was amazed to find the mechanic had worked through the night to fit the new springs. They were longer than the originals though, and the extra clearance above the wheel arch turned the car into a hot rod!
I spotted that the shock absorber was too short, preventing the spring from working properly, so the mechanic went off and found a couple of Monroe gas-filled ones which have a longer reach than standard shocks - the man was a gem. After his kind attentions the suspension is much improved, although with one front shock absorber not working it may still get a bit hairy at times.
We off-loaded all sorts of non-essential bits and pieces. I gave away all my rally pens, and a tube of factor 25 sun cream went to the receptionist. An interpreter told me it’s a status thing here to be white. Workers in the field get brown, but not higher up the social strata thank you very much! Some other bits, including the smoke pellets, went to the mechanic at the garage. He was chuffed to bits - says he’ll use them as flares if he gets stuck in the desert. The owner took us out to a place where they served chicken stew with the whole chicken in it, head, feet, the lot. We ate what we could, and did our best to avoid the bits we couldn’t, without offence. Mouth was still burning but I was starving. I managed the best meal in days.
Turfan to Hami - 415 km
The drive to Hami was billed as the longest day yet, but it wasn’t. It was also expected to be the hottest so far, but clouds saved us from that torture. We were in the Gobi Desert, and driving through mile after mile of unchanging brown flatness was very tiring. A real pig of a day. Much of the day was real desert driving. The tedium of the desert just wears you out. No wildlife, no birds, no snakes, no trees, not even any sand dunes, just flat, dust and shingle. Massive roadworks sent us hurtling along almost unidentifiable sand tracks on a 200 km-plus detour. The main roads, when we were able to drive on them, had vicious flinty gravel surfaces that shook the cars around and cut into the tyres. It may not have been the longest or the hottest day but it was arguably the toughest so far on vehicles and drivers. We dropped one minute on the timed section because we got caught behind David Laing. It wasn’t his fault - he just couldn’t move over and we couldn’t get past him. The heavy going in the sand meant that most of the other cars lost time too.
Nothing but dust, lorries, boulders (6-8in) and huge potholes. The tracks were narrow and difficult to spot and a big green Bentley got completely bogged down and had to be hauled out by a police team in a 4x4. We crossed onto a stretch of brand-new road only to find it petered out a few kilometres further along, and we had to make our way back across the sand to rejoin the detour, losing about half an hour in the process. It didn’t matter in the end though because they allowed us 15 hours for this journey and most of us did it in six or seven. That was to cover 400 km - I am so tired. Pippa and Christine lost their brakes again and Ronald leapt to their rescue saying they could drive ahead of us and we would keep an eye on them. They set off in front. I didn’t fancy eating their dust for four or five hours. Then the next thing I knew they shot off and left us. Just goes to show what happens when you start doing good deeds. I had a serious chat with Ronald about looking after number one, and to stop helping our competitors.
Finally we got to the hotel and the car park was a truly gruesome sight - loads of cars broken down all over the place with springs, punctures and other casualties of that nasty road. I had a shower and went to clean out the car - but where the hell was Ronald? He’d fallen asleep in his room and turned up three-quarters of an hour later still rubbing his eyes. He was a weary traveller who’d had a long day so I let him off this time.
The springs were great, at last no more problems. But both us and the car were covered in dust and sand from the special stage. There were always crowds of children around so I enlisted their help. They did a fantastic job of cleaning the desert off the car. This time I insisted that they were paid. We spruced up the inside and got rid of a few more things, a spare tow rope and the sleeping bags, neither of which we need, then greased the car and went for coffee and dinner.
Roma telephoned, she is coping fine at home and loving the challenge of looking after the business. We’re also doing all right, I suppose, but when we get the spares out from England to sort the car out I’ll be a lot happier. That’s in Alaska.
I’ve definitely reached saturation point with China. I just want to be somewhere else, and I’m not the only one. There are more arguments now, mostly from sheer tiredness, and I know everyone will be glad when we get to Beijing and this section is over. We’re all fed up with the dirt, dust, the smell and the toilets. You can only take so much culture.
The toilets are nothing more than a hole in the ground. No water, no paper, just a smell you would recognise anywhere. Anyhow, off to bed now I feel very tired, it’s been a long day. Bye!
Hami to Dunhuang - 420 km
Thursday was a simple if bumpy transit day, which was good news for the car. The knowledge that a few days would see us to the end of the London to Beijing leg made me feel more positive.
The car, and the new springs, had coped extremely well with the drive to Hami, and this journey, although not the smoothest so far, was a much easier day’s drive.
Again, much of the journey was through featureless desert, but as we drew closer to Dunhuang the landscape changed to scrubby vegetation and the small mounds of green injected a little colour into the monochrome composition. The town itself was once an important staging post on the Silk Road and is now seeing something of a resurgence. The most striking thing about Dunhuang, apart from our enormous pagoda-style hotel, was the giant sand dunes close by. They looked at first like a small mountain range and in fact the highest dune, known as Signing Sand Mountain, is 1,500m high. We shared the driving today, with myself taking the wheel in the morning and Ronald this afternoon. I got the smoother roads and we bombed along at 120-135 kph. Ronald wasn’t so lucky; he got the really bumpy bits and kept drinking his water up his left nostril or baptising the car and windscreen. We are also going to have to arrange for a steam cleaner to come and sort the car out because every single bump we go over, clouds of dust, fall from the roof lining and come up from the seats and everywhere else. You just sit there in a cloud of dust, trying to see where the road goes, you can’t see a bloody thing - it’s that bad. It gets in your throat, your clothes, everywhere and it’s horrible. They really must have suffered on the old Silk Road, trying to get through on a camel. It would have taken months to travel what we have covered in just a few weeks.
Lunch was some awful rice, bean and vegetable thing in a tatty little restaurant up a dirt track. The sight of people going round the back of the kitchen to relieve themselves should have been some sort of warning. I wouldn’t eat much even if I could.
We stopped later to tighten a loose nut on the carburettor and hundreds of people appeared out of nowhere giving advice in unintelligible Chinese. I never cease to be amazed at the interest we attract wherever we go. This afternoon we went to a garage with a mechanic and an interpreter to look over the car. The bolts on the new trailing arms were soft steel, resulting in the threads being stripped. So I had to replace them both. Everything else looked fine.
I found out how Pippa and Christine manage never to get dirty. Apparently one of the guys on the organisation team, Paul, is a Rover enthusiast. They go and tell him what’s wrong with the car and he works on it while they go and have a meal or coffee or go to bed, and in the morning it’s all done. Chivalry isn’t restricted solely to Ronald then. I believe Paul prepared the car for the girls so is sort of committed to them.
There have been lots of comments flying around about the service crew spending too long on some cars and not having time to help other members of the Rally. Also there might be an investigation about people getting towed in to the checkpoints and signing in without losing any penalty points, even though they didn’t make it under their own steam. The gossip is that it happened twice with the Dutch Porsche, but we don’t know if there were any officials there at the time. It’s not really a big problem, but it will be interesting to see what happens.
Good news from yesterday is that the Dutch Porsche team lost their sump guard and are really fed up. They are quite high on the leader board, so it should help us out a bit. Maybe playing it safe really is the way to go and if we just wait it out we will improve our position during the American leg.
Dunhuang to Zhangye - 650 km
Another transport day saw us through our final section in the Gobi Desert. Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more of China’s never-ending desert we emerged into an explosion of green paddy fields, trees and lush vegetation, and with the change in the landscape the temperature dropped a few degrees. It was amazing how cool 30+ degrees felt after the suffocating heat of the past few days.
The pace of the rally slowed considerably with a police ‘sweeper’ car leading the pack at a very sedate pace and the threat of an automatic fine for anyone seen driving at more than 80 kph. In the built-up areas there were more police at every junction, stopping traffic and letting us through. We didn’t need the route book; we just went wherever they told us. Overall it was an easy-going day, although it didn’t rank as one of Ronald’s most enjoyable so far.
There was a major confrontation between Ronald and a petrol attendant this morning when he tried to pay for some petrol with a ten-yen note and the guy thought it was counterfeit. They stood arguing for several minutes before Ronald finally gave him a different note. It seemed like a major waste of time to me - I would have given him what he wanted and spent the other note somewhere else. Ronald has to make a point, and it took him a while to cool down.
We had an awful heart-stopping moment when a little tractor towing a truck full of wheat pulled out in front of us right on a bend. Ronald had one of those ‘everything-going-into-slow-motion’ experiences and was convinced our number was up, but fortunately only our nerves were shredded. Sighs of relief all round.
We had nothing to eat all day but a packet of biscuits between us. I was so hungry I resorted to dreaming about a sachet of dehydrated coq au vin in the back of the car.
The town of Zhangye is quite upmarket but the hotel is dark, damp and distinctly downmarket. The bath in my room doesn’t work and I had to wash in the sink. The restaurant is no better. Food is delivered lukewarm for you to reheat in a microwave at the top of the table - not terribly appetising. I spoke to Roma tonight and she says she is missing me, but I don’t think she is really. Between work and our daughters I’m sure she’s having a marvellous time.
Tomorrow has a load of time checks. I think five in total. So a really hard day, 100 km plus per hour speed average, a really hard drive. And then after that it is straight into Beijing, just getting from A to B travelling days. And then into Alaska and we fix the car and we are off again, that will be great.
Zhangye to Lanzhou - 510 km
By now we knew almost everyone on the rally and they were a really nice bunch. Nearly every day we overtook Victor and Hugh in their Morris Minor, and they didn’t seem to mind at all. They were doing the London to Beijing and they plodded along, happy just to be taking part. They were driving a completely different kind of race to us and it showed. I don’t think they had a single mechanical problem all the way, but they were not in contention for a trophy.
The monotony of driving for long hours day after day was beginning to tell. Landscapes, towns, whole countries were blurring into wallpaper that decorated my tiny mobile ‘home’. I was longing for a decent break and the opportunity to be in one place for more than a few hours.
Today’s schedule was typical. Up before 7.00 am, drive all day, constant dust. Work on the car, shower, eat, bed. So far the trip had been anything but a joy ride and keeping a sense of proportion and sense of humour was a challenge in itself. Little things that I can now look back and laugh at were often far from funny at the time. Bloody typical! The first real heavy rain in weeks and we have no windscreen wipers. I got absolutely soaked.
We had taken the wipers off because the mechanism was caked in dust and they wouldn’t work at all. About 3.00 pm there was torrential rain and I had to drive along with my arm out of the window holding a wiper blade and moving it up and down to clear the windscreen, while steering and changing gear at the same time. I carried on for about 45 minutes by which time my arm was frozen, tired and the cramp had set in.
The rain stopped, and then we started passing bee colonies. It was like going through a hailstorm. We had to keep pulling over to scrape bees off the windscreen. They seemed to use the road as a runway, hundreds at a time thudding kamikaze-style into the windscreen.
We stopped for petrol and greased up the kingpins. The ones on the left have worn and if I don’t grease them every day it makes the steering column very heavy. I forgot to do them yesterday.
We queued for two hours getting into Lanzhou and it started raining again, and just to add to the fun, the indicators decided to pack up too. We took the car to the garage and now everything’s hunky dory. On the way back Ronald asked if I had any regrets about things so far. I said that other than sometimes feeling that he was in the Rally with Pippa and not me, everything was fine and no, I had no regrets.
Lanzhou (Rest Day)
Our day in Lanzhou really was a ‘rest day’. Other than checking the car over and planning the next stage of the journey, physical exertion was kept to a minimum. Our ultra-modern skyscraper hotel came with all mod cons and few people ventured into the bustling, smog-shrouded city centre. The results of the inquiry into the towing incidents were made public. Dave Whittock, Clerk of the Course declared that the Dutch Porsche team got in within the time limit so they would not be penalised.
Rule 42 of the official rules stated that ‘if you had outside help or were towed for more than two-thirds of the stage you would incur penalties,’ but ‘only if you get caught’, had now been added to that rule. This caused some confusion and so the position was later clarified. Competitors could be towed for up to one-third of the day without being penalised but anything beyond that would incur a 12-hour ‘fine’. It was good to know where we all stood. Despite, or perhaps because of, the leisurely day, the physical and emotional toll of the past few days caught up with me in the form of an allout panic attack at bedtime. There I was 22 floors up, pacing the floor, only too aware that it would take me at least 36 hours to get home, shaking all over and wanting desperately to run somewhere - anywhere. Eventually I phoned Ronald who came over in his medical capacity, administering a couple of sleeping pills and assuring me I would feel much better in the morning. He was right, but it was a thoroughly unpleasant way to end the day.
Lanzhou to Yinchuan - 480 km
The start of our sixth week on the road brought the calm after the storm - although ‘calm’ was probably a bit of an overstatement as I was still operating on rather a short fuse.
Much to my disgust we were back in the desert again. Dust clogged up vents and blew into the driving compartment, getting into our eyes and mouths and making us choke. I hated it. We start and drive until we finish whatever the time is. We eat when we are hungry, no set times. So I have removed my watch, as time has no meaning anymore.
Three more days and we are out of China, thank God! I am fed up with Chinese food and Chinese heat and Chinese dust and my burning oral thrush - no pharmacy has any treatment that I have yet found. The drive from Lanzhou was hot and sweaty, through towns that looked just the same as all the others we have seen in the last few days. I feel filthy and I keep on coughing. The Chinese seem to spend their time coughing and spitting up phlegm - it’s probably all the dust in their lungs.
Ronald tinkered with the car yesterday, checked the points and plugs and everything sounded quite all right, but this morning it was terrible and we limped our way through the stage on four pistons. I changed the distributor and HT leads, en route, but it made no difference - God knows how I managed to get through with no penalties.
Although the Aston ran the section with a serious misfire, a combination of good luck and extremely hard work meant we managed to scrape in on time with no penalties. A spot of automotive TLC will be given at the end of the day.
We set to work stripping the fuel line, assembly, anything we could lay our hands on. Tim Butcher had carefully fitted things - looks great until you need to get to them. We had to remove layers of fittings and nuts and bolts to get to the bits to service/clean them. The air was blue with my opinions of his nice tidy ways, especially when I finally found that all we had was a couple of faulty spark plugs. A complete waste of time!
The ‘Black Widows’ had a black Monday! They got the wrong start time and thought they were going to be late, so they hammered it to the first time control checking in 10 minutes early, which meant they got a 20 minute penalty. Then they recalculated incorrectly and were late at the next time control. They blew it! I shouldn’t enjoy it too much because they were really demoralised. I think Pippa had even been crying. The daft thing about Ronald being so pally with her is that he probably doesn’t even realise he’s doing it. It’s just Ronald being Ronald. We’re actually getting on very well.
I decided to take a couple of sleeping tablets again tonight to make sure I get a good night’s sleep. I’m feeling much better but another night should get me back on top form. I definitely don’t want another panic attack. All I’ve got to do is hold the car together for three more days and then I can get it sorted in Alaska. Even people in the lead are starting to get faults now, so it’s getting quite interesting. I’m sure that first position will change several times during the next five weeks.
Yinchuan to Baotou - 550 km
Hundreds of thousands of cheering spectators lined the roads for our journey to the inner Mongolian city of Baotou. On the whole, they were friendly, although in one town they seemed to take great pleasure in kicking the cars as they came through. By far the biggest crowds we had experienced so far spilled out onto the middle of the roads and the whitegloved, green-uniformed police lining the streets had their work cut out holding them back.
At one point we pulled in for petrol and hundreds of people descended on us, staring and smiling, their great wide grins revealing yellowy-green rotten teeth - it was just a little unnerving.
Our journey was slightly longer than the published 550 km because of a re-route that took us away from the main desert road. The new route went right through another desert area, passing close by the tomb of Genghis Khan. The people here have to live with sandstorms and dunes that gradually invade their villages as the desert relentlessly marches on. Today was totally ridiculous. First it rained and the stupid windscreen wipers wouldn’t work. We had to tie them together with a piece of string, which Ronald pulled backwards and forwards to clear the windscreen, I’m surprised he hasn’t put his back out. Then it was the bloody shock absorbers all over again. How many times am I going to go through this? Just after the first time control there was a great scraping sound. The rear shock absorber mounting had peeled itself off the rear axle and the shock absorber was just dangling on the ground. This car constantly seems to have problems, you fix one thing and something else goes wrong, it’s disastrous.
We still had 296 kilometres to go but we couldn’t go faster than 95 kph in case the axle catch straps snapped or the rear axle broke, and even that was pushing it.
When the rain stopped Ronald was finally able to let go of the string and stop waving his arms around. We’d run out of drinks and it would have been nice to stop for something to eat or to buy some biscuits, but we didn’t know what the road ahead was like so we thought we should at least wait until we got to the next time control before we stopped.
Things just got worse and worse. At the next time control we discovered that both axle catch straps had disappeared, which meant the back axle was now bouncing up and down to its heart’s content so we really had to slow down. It took us two hours to do the last 95 kilometres to Baotou! No penalty points though. Free time to arrive at Baotou.
Going to get the shock absorber mounting fixed, Ronald went in a taxi, with me following in the car, and I definitely got the raw end of the deal. It was raining again and there I was, driving along, the piece of string round my neck, occasionally pulling on it so I could clear the rain off the windscreen, at the same time trying to change gear, negotiate the roads and talk to the local police who kept telling me I was going in the wrong direction. Not surprising really, since I couldn’t see where I was going half the time. It was an absolute farce.
In need of funds we stopped at a bank en route, but they claimed not to take Visa. I was sure they must do, so eventually they phoned through to the Bank of China who confirmed that Visa was quite acceptable. Getting the money was going to take half an hour, so I left Ronald at the bank while I followed the taxi to the garage and I eventually got the bracket welded. Trundling down the road, all the windows open, string round my neck, hair or what I have of it, blowing in the breeze, was really quite pleasant and I actually started to enjoy myself. All through China people had stopped and looked, probably wondering what the hell we were doing - they must think we’re all quite mad.
It’s been a hell of a day and I’m absolutely knackered. People were throwing melons and doing the conga around the restaurant and the next table were really letting their hair down - unlike us they obviously hadn’t been having trouble with their car. They were singing and dancing and somebody climbed onto the lazy Susan in the middle of the table and spun around on it. The waiters looked on totally flabbergasted - I don’t think they had ever seen anything like it. Obviously there was no hope of a quiet dinner tonight with all the revelling that was going on. I don’t mean to be a killjoy - I had a good time, and there was a really good buffet - but I’m just so tired. It’s now midnight and they’re still going strong, but I’ve had enough.
Baotou to Zhangliakou - 480 km
Wednesday dawned bright and sunny, which meant we would not need the windscreen wipers, so, no more string pulling! The car was working, albeit with two shock absorbers at the back and only half of one at the front, and we had only two more days left in China. The crowds outside the hotel were extremely friendly and I found myself giving little lectures on where we had come from and where we were going, and learning a bit of Chinese into the bargain.
Last night was the first time I’d really socialised on the whole rally and I really enjoyed it, even if I did jack it in early. Yesterday’s hotel was supposed to be the worst we’ve stayed in yet, but it was actually superb. The restaurant had an incredible range of fish and seafood. It was all still swimming round in tanks by the entrance.
I began to feel quite hopeful about our chances of getting back to the top of the leader board and at the very least, completing the Rally with a respectable time. I was on a definite high.
Our journey took us away from the desert for good this time, and the rich greens and browns of the trees, paddy fields and distant volcanic mountains were a welcome change. The contrasting shades and tones of the landscape were quite a shock to the system after the drab monotony of the desert, and they served to increase my sense of ‘closure’ on this, my least favourite part of the Challenge so far.
The one thing we’ve had no trouble with so far is the clock, largely because the ticking was driving me nuts so I disconnected it. Ronald went and wired it up last night and today I had to listen to the bloody thing tick, ticking all day. As soon as he’s not looking I shall disconnect it again. The rear shock absorber mounting on the driver’s side went this morning, so there we were bouncing along at 80 kph again and I was getting a definite feeling of ‘déjà vu’. We stopped at a workshop and the bloke took off the wheel and the bracket, did the welding, put it all back together again and waved us off in 20 minutes - brilliant!
A police car pulled in with it’s sirens going and lights flashing. We decided to ignore them and raced off. They followed at about 135 kph and eventually, after a few kilometres, gave up. Good call. Much worse than this minor drama was when we realised that we had run out of chocolate biscuits, but we bore that well too.
The front right shock absorber started to leak a little oil, but we decided not to look too closely, and everything else held up for the rest of the day. In the parking area of the hotel one of the Rally cars would not start so it was being towed, with the bonnet up. The towing vehicle stopped and the rally car ran into the back of it. Made a bit of a mess. We had a chuckle. There’s only one way to drive around the world and that is in an old Aston Martin. This really is very good fun! Even though it keeps breaking down, when it goes, it goes very well. People see the car and let you get away with murder. Wherever you are, even at traffic lights, it’s irrelevant - they stop, they look, they wonder ‘what the hell you are doing’, mad Englishman and his old car. It really is quite good fun, yes I’m in good spirits.
I took a mouth full of water to have a drink as we went over a bump. It went down the wrong way so I coughed and spluttered and spat it out all over the window and nearly died.
It’s been five and a half weeks and Ronald and I are now thoroughly enjoying it. So far it’s been an adventure, but it’s hardly been exotic. The car has seen the inside of more workshops than you could shake a stick at. Virtually every stop between London and Beijing has involved servicing or maintenance or some sort of major rebuild, and the majority of the time the most I’ve seen is the view from the back of a taxi as we’ve made our way from hotel to garage.
So far this hasn’t been the dignified, leisurely rally I was sort of expecting - it’s been an out and out race around the world. I’m glad that we’re nearly finished in China and I’m looking forward to the North American stint, but it will be a shame to say goodbye to so many new friends in Beijing.
Zhangliakou to Beijing - 230 km
What an anti-climax today turned out to be! Most of the drive into Beijing was spent in convoy on very busy roads with a police escort. There was little or no chance to let the clutch out and we just trailed along behind the ‘Pekingers’ all the way to the finish line. Our best speed was about 65 kph and the stops and delays we also had to put up with made the whole trip quite frustrating.
The route ran through a broad valley until we reached the Great Wall at Badaling, the official finish line for the London to Peking rally. As we went through the archway into town, crowds cheered, corks popped and Chinese champagne sprayed up into the air. While the winning teams, Kenji Ishida and Takatsugo Aoki in a 1965 Datsun 410 in the Classics, and Richard and Elizabeth Brown in a 1939 Bentley MX Park Ward in the Vintageants, sat on the roofs of their cars being interviewed by various television crews, the rest of us wandered off to have a look around.
Some of the Wall at Badaling was very new and I was terribly disappointed at how tacky and overdone the whole place was, with its gift shops and tourist bazaars. I couldn’t wait to get back on the road again for the last couple of hours into Beijing.
My whistle came in handy today; I haven’t used it since Tower Bridge. We were due to set off again at 2.30 pm but nothing happened so I got my whistle out and blew it as hard as I could. A few guys joined in tooting their horns and for a moment it was absolute chaos, and then lo and behold we were on the move. I found out that only the police use whistles here so it’s no wonder it was effective. Wish I’d known about it sooner!
Beijing is a real letdown. It’s a busy, bustling place but it’s also dirty and drab and I’ve been coughing again because of all the dust. I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t this. There is nothing oriental-looking about this place; we could be almost anywhere. The temperature is 30+ - very hot. All the traffic has been cleared from the roads so that we have a smooth run to the hotel.
It was a great relief to reach this halfway stage in our around the world attempt, but the hiatus between the end of the London - Beijing rally and the official prize giving the next day was only partially filled by a reception hosted by the English ambassador. To my mind it was a very unsatisfactory end to the proceedings.
Freddie Giles is still first overall by seven minutes and Hans le Noble is still second in the Porsche. We are way down the list, but we have ambitions of global domination!
Margo and the children arrived to spend a couple of days with Ronald. I gave Ronald and Margo my bedroom because Ronald’s bedroom turned out to be a single and I thought they would be a bit more comfortable in mine. I hope they have a good time. It’s difficult being away from each other for so long.I won’t be seeing Roma until Niagara in July.
I have found out we were the first Aston Martin ever to drive from London to Beijing. It was a pretty good feeling, even if it was short-lived - we were followed almost immediately by the Laings and the Jones’s in theirs. The interpreter who I had asked to find a pill, not cream, for my oral thrush has found nothing. Another night of pain and hunger.
Beijing (Rest Day)
Today was an absolute farce. What could have been a pleasant day sightseeing was instead a real headache, as whatever organisational arrangements had been put in place fell apart around us.
I took the car out to the airport. The convoy seemed to go on forever. We parked in one part of the airport, only to be moved to another. We had to confirm what type of fuel we were using, wash under the wheel arches to make sure there was no mud on the car, get it weighed, and then park in yet another part of the car park, or better still what about shifting it to one of the hangars? I think they were making it up as they went along. There were no food or drink facilities and very little shelter from the scorching sun. So I organised some tables and chairs inside a hanger, out of the sun. Donna called me on the mobile and told me I had a parcel waiting for me at the UPS depot. The hotel wouldn’t accept it because they said I wasn’t ‘in residence’. I rang the hotel and gave the receptionist a bullet. They decided I was in residence after all and the parcel would be delivered later tonight. It had better be.
The wait for the return coach was hours and a bunch of us got fed up waiting so we found a mini-van. It cost about 50 yen, not a lot in real money, and it got us back to the hotel while the others were still at the airport. Most of the day was a write-off but at least the car was on the plane, and hopefully on its way to Anchorage, and unlike the poor souls who waited for the coach I had plenty of time to get ready for the prize-giving.
My parcel had arrived. It was a supply of goodies - crisps and some Werthers Originals, my favourites. The only problem was my sore mouth. I couldn’t eat them. I would keep them for later.
Tim would be setting off shortly for Alaska and some of the spares had arrived there. Already it looks like things are actually pulling together and we’ll manage to get the car sorted, which will be brilliant. Before I left for the airport I managed to get to a pharmacy who had some elusive pills. Take one and three hours later bacteria and fungus are in harmony. No more oral thrush. Heaven!
Beijing (Rest day)
While the London to Beijing competitors were preparing for their journey home we and the other 41 ‘Around the World’ cars made our way to Beijing airport destined for Seoul in Korea and then for the flight to Anchorage. We arrived at Seoul and had a three hour stop over. In the club lounge I got talking to a Jewish lady. She was in her 60’s, very good looking, and had just had a make over from top to bottom, apparently tucks and everything else, quite proud of that. She made the trip from Seoul to Toronto going via Anchorage every six weeks and said it was a good flight and we should be OK. Her husband ran strip joints in Toronto and invited me to go along to one if I had time. I should be so lucky, but it does sound like fun. I might even take Roma along if she promises to behave herself.
Our journey took us across the International Date Line, so we managed to arrive on the same day we left. I had managed to pick up a stomach bug that Margo had so I wasn’t feeling too great, but thanks to the first class seats I had booked I was able to sleep most of the way. The advantage of having two Saturdays was that having spent the first sleeping, I was able to make the most of the second.
Anchorage is beautiful but remote. The peace and quiet belies the fact that it is home to a quarter of a million people - almost half the population of Alaska. At this time of the year it exists in almost permanent daylight, the sun only setting for a brief time each day. The blue skies, snow-capped mountains, and rich, green woodland form a striking backdrop to the wooden houses, chalets and log cabins that make up the town.
We were supposed to wear our Aston Martin team gear for the flights but when we left Ronald was wearing a cream shirt and beige trousers - no team logos in sight. It’s his choice I suppose. I assumed he would wear the team outfits when we travelled to create an air of professionalism but he obviously decided otherwise.
Ronald said something about going to Anchorage and having a look round and that he would be back as arranged by 6.00 pm to meet our guests. George Richcreek (our spares supplier in the USA) and a friend, Joel, had flown up from Duluth to meet us at my Hotel at 6.15 pm along with Mike Williams (helper, guide and good cook). Ronald hadn’t turned up at the hotel by 6.30 pm so we left for the barbeque due to start at 6.30 pm at the Aviation Museum, a five minute drive away. We had a good look round the museum with Mike acting as guide. He’s got quite involved in the museum. Part of the entertainment was a couple of Scottish pipers and a drummer, who were very good. The food was amazing and of course there was a silent raffle to raise funds for the museum.
Eventually Ronald turned up with Pippa. I have no idea where they had been but he wasn’t around to welcome our visitors who had flown in from Middle America just to meet us and Mike, who had our spares and arranged a garage for us to work in!
Later in the evening Mike arranged with Customs to go and see the Antonov that had flown the cars from China. I told Ronald and assumed he would go with George Richcreek and Joel as a private guest of Mike’s. But Ronald had other plans - he invited Pippa as well. The plane was late unloading the cars so George returned to the hotel with Joel, Ronald and Pippa. Mike and I waited.
I decided months ago that the best way of getting the car fixed up here was to book a private garage, and Mike had arranged it for me for tomorrow, but another mechanic had been telling people to come along to the same place to get their cars done. The garage owner had only booked to do our car and said he would lock the doors once we were in. Late evening I drove the Aston to the garage and got it all ready for tomorrow. Then back to the hotel.
And what did I find? There’s Ronald and Pippa waiting for us. I told them that the Aston was in the garage and I’d see him at 7.00 am, I would have an early night and get some rest. To which Ronald said to Pippa, “Well what about your car?”’ and Pippa said, “I’ll go and get it now,” so Ronald said, “I’ll go along to keep you company.” What! I’m going for a drink.
Anchorage (Rest Day)
God I was annoyed. Several cars, including two Rovers, turned up at the garage the next morning. The vehicles were driven in and mechanics set to work, aided or filmed by the driving crews.
There were bodies everywhere leaving little room for us to get on with our essential repairs and I felt both powerless and extremely angry. I had a growing sense of panic as I began to wonder if we would make it any further or if this was the end of the road. Mike made sure that they knew they should stay outside so we could have plenty of room to work, but they just came inside anyway. I thought we’d never get anything done. Mike went out again to speak to the owner and after that the Rovers went outside to be worked on, but later on they came back in again. It was ridiculous and really embarrassing.
I went to get some new glasses because mine are badly scratched, from all the sand and dust in China, and the last couple of weeks have been like walking around in a permanent cloud. I found a shopping mall and the optician there was brilliant. He gave me an eye test straight away and I went back later to collect two pairs of vari-focal glasses. I also picked up a dozen Macdonald’s meals to feed the hungry hoards.
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