The day started with flies delicately alighting on our faces in the room that some 15 Mongol Ralliers shared the floor of. Our car alarm had woken us twice in the night, like a new-born child signalling oncoming sickness. Weary, sighing, we had risen to settle it back down and prevent further unexplained wailing. They say that the wise man listens to the omens of the desert, but western cynicism had closed our minds to the language of the earth. And to the language of the Rover 827si Limousine.
Starting the car as the sun rose, we set out on the 250km drive to the Turkmen border with Uzbekistan. It was the final day of our visas – we had to leave the country before the border closed at 6pm. I suppose the consequences of failing to do so were kept from our thoughts by a cousin of the curtain of self-deception that had adorned the decade long dictatorship in Turkmenistan. Curtains like these can fall with the snap of a rod.
Ahead of us was a single straight road through yellow sands, heaped perfectly carelessly, endlessly. The air bakes the back of your throat at midday. The Rover started with the baritone explosions it had so faithfully contained for 20 years. It had showed no noticeable difference in performance from the humid, fragrant pines of Austria to the hostility of the ‘stans. A convoy of 7 teams of ralliers, sandwiched the limousine like a protective battalion. We were filled with the kind of unobtrusive optimism that had buoyed us all along.
It was probably no single pothole that brought about the challenges that we faced that day. It was probably not the speed we were travelling at that particular moment, nor the angle at which we struck that final tarmac lesion.
Camels, unencumbered, browsed the resilient foliage that had at great pains prospered in those harsh sands, infrequent rains. I have heard that even a very marginal change in burden could cause a fracture in the vertebrae of their spinal columns, snapping that (suddenly obviously) fragile rod; ending communication between the mind of the animal and the legs that carry them forward, ending their careers as devices for transportation, rendering them into meaningless, useless weight.
The pothole that broke the limo’s drive shaft occurred after only 30 minutes of driving. It struck us hundreds of kilometres (in every direction) from any city, in the harshest desert of one of the harshest regions of the northern hemisphere. It broke one of the few parts of the car we could not repair or replace. It left us with 8 hours to transport our immobile, 2 ton limousine 200km to the border. The rare lorries that passed along that road carried gravel; there was no chance of a tow-truck or empty flatbed lorry. The rally cars we convoyed with were all crap. Mongol Rally cars being, by definition, inappropriate to cross such terrain even under their own power.
It began with an occasional scraping noise, as though the sump was dragging along the road. Jack and Dom, sitting in the front, strained to make out the source of the noise. They were tense but not overly worried. It was not until dense white clouds billowed out from under the car that they realised something was very wrong; we would later discover that these opaque woollen emissions were created as suspension fluid gushed onto the heated components in and around the brake disc. The car lost power instantaneously, went limp and silent and coasted to the side of the road.
“The suspension casing has cracked. The shock absorber itself has cracked too”. The revelations came slowly. Ollie spoke from inside the wheel arch, his manner reminiscent of a sombre, fastidious dentist. “We have a spare, but it is very difficult to replace. And it will be a different height because of the adjustments we made. We can do it though. We have no choice, really.”
At this point, we had merely encountered a minor set-back. Then;
“The drive shaft has snapped”
Steve turned to Dom “that’s Game Over”.
“We cannot even tow it like this, even if we do replace the suspension.”
The suspension had snapped on the driver’s side, dropping the weight of the car onto the drive shaft, which connects the driving force of the motor to the wheels. This solid, inch-thick metal rod was in turn, after a brief resistance, shorn into two parts. And not in a way that duct tape and cable ties could help.
During the inspection and subsequent attempted repair, the limo broke our jack, an axel stand and one further jack. The repair was hindered also by the fact that the driver’s side wheel was almost impossible to remove. Even if the wheel came off and the suspension was fixed, the drive shaft would wreak havoc if left unattached whilst the car was moving.
Relentlessly practical, Sam (who was part of the convoy, on a motorcycle) and Ollie guessed that if the shaft could be cradled in place, the car could be towed. They used seldom pieces of scrap wire to create a mesh-like cage. The success of a tow depended on those few pieces of wire holding for the rest of the journey. The success of a tow also depended on someone being willing to latch a motionless funeral escort to the rear of their car.
It was at this point that a saviour stepped up. A team with wrecking balls for testicles and carbon fibre nerves. They didn’t just have grit, they had diamond dust. A team with such minor disregard for their car that they would take sharp, angular pieces of metal and smash their vehicle’s body work, would ram their car into anything, would offer to tow a broken limousine through 200km of 47 C desolation across roads so poor you could only really have found them leading from the door to hell: all in one day. A team willing to risk the wrath of the state of Turkmenistan.
They were using a mosquito net to catch dragonflies through their sun roof, driving at speed up and down the road when we asked for the ‘favour’. Once we were ready to go, our Blue Peter bodge holding together both the car and our sanity, they discarded the captured dragonflies and hooked us up.
Meanwhile, the VW polo team surfed one of the Rover’s discarded middle chairs, dragged behind their car, along a parallel dirt track. We had taken out carpets, chairs and other debris to lighten the hulking Rover. We also removed the heaviest team member: Dom was to ride out the escape from Turkmenistan in the middle seat of Just Add Water’s Skoda Felicia.
The death toll of damaged items spiralled upwards as we travelled. Tow ropes were incapable of holding the weight of the car. We broke three ropes, snapping them in new and interesting ways a total of 12 times. Additionally, we learnt on that day that tow eyes are incapable of pulling great weights over roads that introduce huge resistance; half of our tow eye was ripped off and the Ford Escort’s tow eye suffered a similar fate. It was their rear axle that bore the limousine’s bucking weight for the majority of the trip.
We also had to stop every time the inertia switch was triggered, we leapt from the car in a synchronised routine evocative of a pit stop crew. That switch was triggered more than 15 times, each time signalling an impact that the car believed to be equivalent to a crash. The rending, booming collisions, the suspension completely compressing and punching the entire chassis with each new undulation in the road surface, the orchestral crescendo of whining parts, vibrating and juddering. All of these agreed with the frequent sermon of the inertia switch (“this is probably bad for the car”).
And the road truly was catastrophic. At one point the limo was completely submerged in a pothole. At another point, we stopped to boil a kettle using the geothermal energy of the Earth’s core, which could be glimpsed through one sizeable crack. Ruptured wheels lined the road like some nightmare parody of a grand prix circuit. Every subsequent setback counted against our chances of making it to the border. Every ten minutes we experienced that scene from Mission Impossible where, sweat in his eyes, the protagonist does something difficult against the clock and only just succeeds. It was like that for a WHOLE DAY.
The road was more often than not accompanied by a dirt track, providing a reasonable alternative to the road itself, which was a cross between the predictable pattern of the surface of a golf ball and a nuclear test site for toy warheads. The road was little bit like the habitat of a colony of infrastructurally ambitious, giant road-dwelling moles, or the still-life artwork of an enormous toddler who had folded and pummelled the putty surface until it resembled the wrinkled skin of fruit left in the sun (far) too long. Locals in ordinary sedan cars breezed past as though they had suspension built into their very bodies, like the bobble head dogs you could sometimes see manically agreeing on their rear sills.
Basil the Basil plant lay knocked unconscious in the footwell, whilst Terry the bonsai had leapt from his pot (most likely attempting to find solid ground) and rolled back and forth, roots akimbo, in the awkward vicinity of the gear stick and the handbrake. The glove compartment was shaken loose and hung like a dislocated jaw, as if in awe of the situation. The jarring vibrations was so severe that panels popped off of the middle doors and dashboard, the radio dislodged itself and slid in a wash of detritus that had gathered around Jack’s feet. Everything was coming unstuck; we were to see that day exactly what the Rover was made of (in most cases, it appeared to be a fake mahogany veneer glued directly onto the metal frame of the car with a greenish gunk). After a few hours, a loud rubbing noise started up under the driver’s side. With a cheer, the passengers celebrated the departure of the entire plastic wheel arch, which rolled out from under them and was left tumbling in our dust.
Over in the Skoda, the excitement literally knocked out Dom, who, whilst the other three were tying knots in tow lines like sailors in a squall, fell asleep for some 20 minutes.
Driving along a straight road was not the only challenge we faced that day. We also had to drive through a small village. Reaching the border town, Konye-Urgench, we found a fortified gravel citadel guarding the final stretch of road to the crossing. We arrived at Konye-Urgench, 15km from the border, at 5.30pm. That’s 30 minutes standing between success and 8 deportations, 8 parent-bankrupting fines, 8 cases of ‘ahhh crap’. The roads were obstructed by everything but Turkmenistan’s long-deceased dictator himself, risen from the dead to claw at our wheel nuts and stick rotting fingers into the exhaust. In the right lane, a conscientiously deserted fleet of heavy machinery. In the left, a steady queue of oncoming traffic approaching an open manhole that jutted inexplicably 4 feet from the ground in a cube of solid concrete. In between the two lanes, a ridge of gravel 5 feet high. And the road was gravel too.
We chose the right lane. Then we changed our minds. Dom ran ahead to try to find the owners of the poorly positioned excavation machines. When he turned around, he saw the limousine teeter like a decidedly unsafe, yet nevertheless luxurious, seesaw on the gravel dividing bank. Steve effortlessly commanded a useless swarm of local children, who unquestioningly put their feeble little hands against the limo and did almost nothing. More or less without their help, we heaved the car over the precipice to slide on its belly, with a rasping gasp, into the wrong lane. We were lucky to have an exhaust system and fuel lines to guard the underside of the car.
Meanwhile, Jack had run ahead down the left lane. He charged towards (somehow unflustered) locals, making fart noises with his mouth (means: “please reverse, our car is broken”) chopping his hands together and shouting “TURKMENISTAN VISA” (means: “if we do not get past you, our visa will run out and we will be arrested, deported and fined thousands of pounds”). The locals, bemused, gingerly backed up a few metres at a time, until Jack ran at them again. The prospect of a bright red 6ft 5 Scottish man blowing raspberries through their car windows was eventually sufficient to clear a route. After an incredibly strenuous effort, both cars successfully negotiated the manhole-come-turret and were clear of Konye-Urgench’s stony clutches with 20 minutes until the border closed.
The road was mercifully smooth to the border. With almost no time left on the clock, we approached the graceful white columns of the border. Those tall, smooth cylinders flanked the threshold of fate, the thin line between wallets ravaged and skin roughed by the cold cement of a Turkmenistani jail cell.
With 12 feet between us and those secular minarets, the final tow rope snapped. The limo rolled tentatively to a heart-rending stop.
Next time on “The LMLS; a blog”:
“They’ve got a petrol bottle’s chance in the Door to Hell of getting out alive, nevermind with an entire limo!” Will the limo escape from Turkmenistan?
“A frog on the face is worth two in the throat.” Will the face-frog return to Dom’s face?
“How are they writing this blog if they never even had a dictator-ship?” Discover the secret to the LMLS’s incredible ability to write long blog posts without *any* dictation equipment.