At some point the next day, we arrived in Pavlodar. It was to be a day of unexpected, inescapable urges to poo, car repairs and walking around in intense heat attempting to get on to trams.
The suspension was hanging so low that any flaw in the road caused the entire mechanism around the wheel to ram into the chassis. After attempting to find a replacement spring proved truly hopeless, Ollie and Steve resolved to replace the driver’s side suspension with the spring that they had extracted from the Rover when we had broken down in Turkmenistan, when our suspension collapsed, breaking our drive shaft. This spring was not a fantastic replacement. In addition, it is really quite complex to replace, involving, among other difficult operations, the transplantation of the home-made spacer, a blood transfusion and an extended period of dialysis.
Dom and Jack, meanwhile, made tea. And then when their usefulness was expended like the tired teabags that we were by this point re-using, they went to the shop to look for Bluetooth speakers. The sound quality of the two front speakers had been steadily deteriorating to the point where it was comparable to the sound your grandma might make, wedged deep inside your sock drawer. Except, it was probably slightly less endearing than your grandma (unless your grandma swears anywhere near as much as Biggy Smalls: we were going through a hip hop phase).
Ollie and Steve, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to do the repairs nowhere in particular near the Bluetooth-mobile-phone-speaker-shop. It was in this way that Jack and Dom begun trying to get onto trams. On their first attempt, they were told they needed to walk the other way. On their second attempt, Dom had an unexpected, inescapable urge to poo and so they hobbled to a hardware store across the road just as their tram was arriving. After painfully browsing faucets and fireplaces, Dom found a toilet. Unfortunately, it was not plumbed in to anything. After a hurried exit, Jack and Dom walked back to the car, empty-handed, one hour having been wasted on guerrilla diarrhoea and mounting trams headed in the wrong direction.
Gauging that they had more time by the fact that the car was still missing its driver side suspension, Dom and Jack made a third attempt. Steve was deep under the car, pouring toxic coolant directly onto his own face. Ollie was locked in battle with a greasy spring, feet pushing one end, arms pulling the other, amused Kazakh men staring on confusedly.
Waiting on the “platform”, an invisible, slight broadening of the dirt tracks that run alongside the tram line, Jack was hit by an unexpected, inescapable urge to poo. Bent at the hip, knees pointing in opposite directions, arms wrapped around his midriff, he soldiered on until finally were able to clamber onto a tram. It was still heading in the wrong direction. Frustrated and confused, hot and upset, we decided to walk.
As we walked, we improvised a song called “English Man in Kazakhstan” documenting the traumas of being a man of our nationality in this country of backwards trams.
English man in Kazakhstan,
Cannot catch Kazakh tram,
So he talks to Kazakh man,
Whose Kazakh name is ‘Kazakh Stan’,
“Kazakh Stan, how to catch a Kazakh tram?”
“You must talk to Kazakh Zack.
He will supply you what you lack”
English Man in Kazakhstan,
Cannot catch Kazakh tram,
So he talk to Kazakh Zack,
Who simply turns his Kazakh back
“The Kazakh tram cannot be caught
And Kazakh trust cannot be bought”
Said Kazakh Stan from Kazakhstan’s Kazakh man friend,
English Man in Kazakhstan,
Cannot catch Kazakh tram…
….and so on. Luckily, there were not many people to overhear us, because the route we chose, and pursued for so long that we were irrevocably committed to it, took us across a bridge that was deep in the stages of being reconstructed. These comprehensive renovations probably explain the backwardness of the trams, which with sensible unanimity headed in the opposite direction. The fifty foot high concrete structure was propped up with poorly welded metal struts at one end and a sweating, terrified looking fat man at the other.
Having avoided death by exposed electrical wire, giant-hole-in-the-ground and carelessly-wielded-high-power-equipment, Jack and Dom reached a row of shops selling household electronics equipment, conveniently located at the other side of the monumental death trap. They felt a mixture between euphoria and intense abdominal cramps as they walked into the white, brightly lit interior of the first shop and gazed in wonder at an entire wall of speakers. None of which were Bluetooth, USB powered or rechargeable. Three shops later and still speakerless, they began searching for a tram, which, with the assistance of a pitying ticket-person they caught.
Soon we were on the road again. With delays having stymied our progress we made a decision that would change the entire nature of the journey. We would drive for 24 hours a day until we reached Mongolia. This was our escape from Kazakhstan; after having been here for two weeks, in three cities, in desert, mountain, lakeside and steppe. After breaking down and regaining our sanity and our momentum, we were on the final stretch to Mongolia, land of horses and horse meat and horse milk.
As we got closer to the Russian border the road began to deteriorate visibly, reaching the consistency of pork crackling, of thick, gnarled bark, of ossified cabbage. It was sort of unbelievable how much they had let the road go for the last 100m of Kazakhstan. There were moments, with the recoil from potholes racking the car, almost reminiscent of our escape from Turkmenistan.
The Kazakh border guard looking over our car spoke perfect English. He just wanted chat about our trip. The Russian border guards were more numerous, had dogs and seemed unwilling to write on our roof. They required that we disinfect our car. All buildings seemed temporary and everything was either on wheels or was very obviously a moveable structure: traffic cones, portakabins, guards on roller blades, dogs on skateboards, birds with wings. In the long grass at the other side of the crossing, we noticed a rusting gate: as if the entire border had been steadily encroaching into Kazakh territory. Those crafty Russians. They had even evidently made the traffic cones themselves.
There was one particularly hairy moment where guards, looking at our route map, pointed out that Crimea (still possessed by Ukraine when the map was printed) was now Russian. We had worried that this happened and awkwardly cajoled the conversation forward. After a light beating, we offered them eggs.
At the point at which we had to pay for things, such as tax and insurance, we realised that we had no currency. Relishing the opportunity to rescue a group of foolish young Englishmen, a group of Russians headed towards Novosibirsk stepped in and paid for everything for us. It just proves that even international hostility at the level of continent-scale diplomatic warfare can be overlooked if you drive a Rover and have a cheeky grin as loveable as Jack’s.
There was a reason for Jack’s sweet-cheeked serenity at that particular moment. For approximately 8 days he had been attempting to complete Tetris on its hardest setting. Steve had brought along the game seemingly in order to demonstrate the superiority of his thumb-based dexterity. The trip so far had been punctuated by exclamations such as “I just completed Tetris three times in a row” and “I don’t think any of you will complete Tetris during this trip” and “SLOT RIGHT IN THERE. OH YEH. OHH YEHHH.” Whilst Dom and Steve were wrangling insurance and stubbornly trying to pay in Euros some thousands of miles from Europe, Jack successfully did it. He put those pixelated little blocks on top of one another, over and over, filling in the gaps and making complete lines. He did that until he had made 25 lines. It was a positive omen, a high point of the trip.
And then we continued driving.
1/09 – 3/9
The days blurred together; scratchy-eyed gravel stints breaking into lakes that hit the edges of the view like seas, and mountains swathed in trees but cut through by ski runs and rivers, interrupted by toy towns with rainbow-coloured, corrugated iron roofs that cluster around petrol stations run by families whose children bike around, as though there were no schools out that far into Siberia. Then there were gridded cities with grand motorways rammed through racks and racks of identical apartment buildings that crowded like ghettos that someone had pumped with concrete and jacked up to thirty stories, the scarred road separated from their incredulous windows by red and gold, pretentiously ornate fences.
The cardinal rule in Russia is that the next thing is always just over three hours away. And that those three hours are always tripled by road-works; climbing mountain passes on mountains of dirt and stones that they lay down to replace the tarmac. Lorries floodlight the crawling duel carriageways, deep pools of too-bright light in amidst total black, queuing indefinitely and being overtaken and overtaking and pulling over unexpectedly, and pulled over in the middle of nowhere in villages of vehicles.
We ate eggs in the mornings and pasta with tomato sauce in the evenings. Sometimes we ate sandwiches, in laybys, on the wall outside of supermarkets, with one hand whilst driving. We had a daily row over who would do the night shift, about a “new system” for the length of each shift, about the fact that, for a potentially life-altering period of approximately three seconds, we were all asleep simultaneously. The car rolled along, enjoying a sudden bout of free well and discerningly decided to use this freedom to pull us over onto the hard should and wait patiently for Jack to regain consciousness. All of our biological signs were reading “less than ideal”; hungry with heavy bowels, thirsty and sleep-deprived. We dosed in the back of the car, swaddled in a waist-deep pond of sleeping bags and blankets and jumpers and towels, lulled to sleep by the rattling syncopation of the car’s failed suspension.
We were pulled over twice on the way to Russia. Once early in the morning, by a policeman who simply wanted to laugh at our car from close up. Another time for overtaking a lorry at a junction. The second time, Dom was made to sit in a police car with an unemphatic, grey-faced man who asked repeatedly for payment, growing increasingly bewildered by Dom’s unerringly smiling, gormless face. Hysterical from having been in a car for 48 hours, Dom asked questions completely unrelated to the matter at hand, murdering half-learned Russian small-talk-phrases to his host’s dismay. “I see you in my dreams” was his closer: we were soon on our way, our pockets no lighter.
The car was beginning to appear tired. We suffered a terrifying moment at 3am with Jack behind the wheel, with the car suddenly jerking to the right and dropping a couple of inches in height. Haplessly bleary, Dom hopped out of the car to investigate. “I doooonnnn’t knowwww. Something is Wronggggg. Olllliiiiiiie. Oh, wait, yeh, it’s just a flat tyre.” The tyres were both worn disproportionately on the inside: they were leaning inwards due to the damage to the suspension, and we guessed that we would need to change them every couple of days from this point onwards. We put in place serious measures to stem the damage. We agreed to stop driving at over 85mph, bought new tyres and had the camber adjusted at a garage the next day.
As if to exacerbate the pain of being so far behind other Ralliers and of not doing the Western route, we saw multiple Mongol Rally cars coming the other way, returning from Mongolia and reminding us that we too would be heading back this way. We found solace in one description of Western Mongolia by a returning Rallier as “just really frustratingly bumpy for just a really long time”. He happened to be a friend of Laurence’s (of the Ice Cream Truck) brother and to live in Devon.
And then something unexpected happened. We arrived at the Mongolian border.