25 Aug, 2009
Posted by: Scott In: The Rally
The next morning we awoke early and set off towards the east. We traveled through ever increasing heights, as we entered the western reaches of what is technically the Himalayan mountain range. Our goal was to reach the city of Khalaikum by nightfall, and then continue on from there to Khorog the next day.
As often happens though, we were delayed by numerous events beyond our control. The first was the disappearance of a bridge that we needed to cross the river with. Instead, traffic was being diverted down the banks and through the river itself. This was fine for the usual truck and 4X4 traffic–for us it presented a bit more of a problem. The lead car, a Skoda driven by the Brits, made its way down the slope, gaining speed, went through the first channel, back to the land, and scraped its underside on a huge rut in the middle. It became stuck, and a few locals came down to help un-seat it and get it through the second channel. Once it passed through the second part it became evident that it didn’t have the speed to get up the very steep slope that appeared after the crossing. It started slipping backwards, and they left it at the bottom of the hill as the rest of us tried our luck.
The second car made it through much easier thanks to lessons learned by watching the first car’s trial. Our car did even better, keeping to the left of the middle ‘island’ and clearing the entire crossing without hitting the bottom of the car at all. We had a bit of difficulty making it up the final slope, but eventually made it up with the help of a few teammates pushing from behind. We waited as the first car was again helped by others in its journey up the slope, as a queue of trucks appeared, each eager to make its way across but not wanting to wait for the rest of the traffic to clear from the one-car-width path. One truck, im@patiently wanting to pass, tried going around another truck that was waiting for a vehicle ahead to restart from a stall. It found that there wasnt enough room a bit too late, and ended up shearing a mirror off of the waiting vehicle. A lot of shouting and pointing thus ensued. We had another problem trying to make our way up the final stretch of the hill, as we were digging our tires into the gravel trying to get enough power to get through. A few people tried to push our car out with little success. I finally solved the problem when I realized that I had left the emergency brake engaged. Oops.
We drove a few more hours until midday when we stopped at a small village for some food and drink. We ended up eating at a small chaikhana, a local eatery with a set menu of meat, soup, yoghurt, nan (flatbread), and tea. All of the local children in the area were hawking their wares, from juice, tea and water to local honey, toilet paper, and other substances of unknown origin. The girls were particularly enamored by the one female member of our convoy, Sam, whom they crowded around and practiced their English on. While eating we spotted another Mongol Rally team passing through the town and invited them to join us. They were a group of three young guys from England driving quite speedily in a Nissan Micra.
We left the small village and passed a few more police checkpoints before one of the convoy spotted a trail of fluid leaking from the Skoda. We all pulled over to check the damage. It seems that the sound we hear when it crossed the river was a rock cracking the gearbox and transmission fluid was dripping steadily from the crack. Not good. Sam, whose car it was, called up her father to seek advice on what to do. They proceeded to cut up some plastic bottled to catch the fluid that was leaking out, and we offered our tube of silicone to help stop the flow. Just then a team of two older guys that we had passed earlier came towards us on the opposite road. It turns out that they had gone the wrong way and needed to cross the bridge we were stopped at in order to proceed onwards. They knew a thing or two about cars and had the proper tools and so they offered to assist the owners of the ailing vehicle.
We waited around for a bit longer before it became apparent that they would have to camp overnight on the spot in order to give the crack time to seal. We decided to press on alone and said goodbye to the nine others. The sun was setting, and we were anxious to get to Khalaikum and set up for the night. We had a large mountain pass to cross ahead of us, and we ended up crossing some very bad roads and making the summit right as night descended (where, of course, there was yet another police checkpoint). We sped down the other side, crossing back and forth the redoubts lining the side of the almost 10,000 foot mountain. Our brakes seemed to be heating up from overuse (from the amount of weight in the car and use on steeply descending mountain roads) about halfway through and we stopped by the side of the road to let them rest for a bit.
It was roughly and hour or so later that we reached the final police checkpoint before Khalaikum. We stopped behind some semis and awaited our turn to hand over our passports and car documents. A couple of young guys saw our car and came over to the window, talking to us in Russian. They were smoking cigarettes and gesticulating wildly and we didn’t really understand what they were talking about, so we smiled, laughed, and said ‘da, da, da’. This usually gets you through every conversation in Central Asia. The one guy points to his cigarette and asks something, and I reply with a thumbs up and a smile (although I don’t smoke). He then gives me his cigarette with a big smile, shakes our hand, and proceeds to go back to their vehicle (presumably). It ended up being a joint. Yes, they were smoking a joint at a police checkpoint. Interesting.
We passed through the checkpoint with no problems and continued on our way. We had driven a short ways before I noticed that our engine temperature had suddenly soared. I pulled over and opened up the hood to find a hissing engine and a dried up radiator. We had just checked the radiator fluid level the day before, so we figured that we either had a coolant leak somewhere or the radiator was bad. We filled up and gave the engine time to cool down before driving the last few miles to the city. Crossing the bridge over the river running through Khalaikum we stopped a passing local to ask where the gastiniza (hotel/guesthouse) was. He offered to let us stay at his house for $5 per person–he was located only 100 feet from where we were at the moment. We accepted his offer and proceeded to park the car and offload our baggage. We ate dinner at a diner across the street that bordered the river. Although they only had three of the items listed on the menu at the time the food was great (we hadn’t eaten a substantial meal in thirty hours). We were a bit miffed however about how everyone, our waiter included, just threw their bottles and other trash over the wall and into the rapidly flowing river. Our waiter directed us to do the same with any trash, but we left it as is on the table. We knew that it was going to be done anyway, but we didn’t want to be any part of it. Seems that the ‘Green Movement’ hasn’t made it to this part of the world yet.
Pictures have been posted in the gallery.