Bangers And Cash
If the Hungary-Ukraine border is the first hurdle of the inaugural Central Asian Rally, then we have collided with the top and landed on our chins. The Ukrainians are asking for €10,000 per car to let us in, citing a highly dubious claim about our Hungarian registration plates. The idea behind the rally is simple: buy a load of old bangers in Budapest with the help of the Travel Scientists, the rally’s organisers, drive them east for 18 days and finally sell them again in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan.
However, the border guards aren’t impressed by the export plates which are fitted to the majority of the 10 vehicles taking part. The extraordinary “deposit” will get us through this red tape, but there’s a suspicion within the group that in this part of the world corruption is the only thing more widespread than bureaucracy. We aren’t going to hand over a cent.
Earlier this morning, just as we were about to leave the Hungarian capital, tour coordinator Attila Berenyi gave an impassioned speech to the rally’s 30 participants. “There will be problems,” he said, “we will face challenges, but one way or another – with your car or without it – you will make it to Dushanbe.”
Now people are cursing his prescience. The rally is managed with “minimum assistance” from the Travel Scientists, with individual problem solving encouraged. Even so, people didn’t expect such calamity so early. The group splits to try and find a route eastward, agreeing to meet up again in Kazakhstan. A Portuguese team decides to take their chances with the Serbian officials in the hopes of getting on their smooth highway. A Hungarian team, driving a 20-year-old Austrian fire truck, perseveres with Ukraine but goes through Moldova where no one knows anything about Hungarian export plates, and even if they did, a €200 backhander eases their passing.
And me? Along with Attila and fellow route coordinator Gabor Ondruss, I will be in Pace Car One, a tragically slow Nissan Vanette. We will drive through Romania and Bulgaria, pass through Turkey along the south side of the Black Sea, head quickly through Georgia and Russia, around the Caspian Sea, and into Kazakhstan. I write those sentences as though I’m spreading soft butter on warm toast, but the result of covering such a distance when we’ve lost a day, yet added 900 miles to our route, is some of the most sustained, brutal travelling I’ve ever done.
At one point, between Tblisi in Georgia and Khiva in Uzbekistan, we drive for 60 hours, only stopping for food and water, napping in shifts when the biting, banging potholes allow us. It’s far from ideal, but to make up the ground, we must become objects of perpetual motion.
In the face of such adversity, camaraderie is essential, and luckily I’m well compensated with my travelling partners. Attila has been suffering for his love of travel for years. As part of the Travel Scientists he and Gabor mapped this route together last October with only a GPS and a vague idea of the direction they wanted to take. Attila also pioneered the Caucasian Challenge, one of the group’s other tours, which takes 17 hectic days to dash through 11 Eastern European states before finishing in Armenia. This after years of masochistic travelling for his own ends; he once went to Egypt with just $150 and managed to string it out for five weeks. “I was haggling for cigarettes, for third class train fares,” he says. “In the end, I lost 10% of my bodyweight, but I saw everything I wanted to see.”
Meanwhile, Gabor lived in Africa on and off for almost a decade. A polyglot, he enjoys the endless complications of language, but he also knows what it’s like to sit on a bus without air conditioning for 30 hours. Combined, we’ve been to almost 200 countries, but even with all that travelling experience the amended Central Asian Rally route is an exhausting test.
It’s not all misery: Turkey’s coastal route along the Black Sea is spectacular, as it the drive out of Georgia, through the looming beauty of the Caucus Mountains. Chechnya, on the other side of the Russian border, was never part of the original plan but even redeveloped Grozny – which, with luxury apartments and a gaudy new mosque now looks like a mini-version of Dubai – is strangely attractive.
But there are low points, and the nadir is our 22 hours in Russia. Every few miles, corrupt cops flag us down, barking “registratziya” in the window, before inventing a series of traffic infractions that can all be waved away for a fee, typically around £6. It’s depressing to see these men in uniform, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, essentially saying: “Spare some change.” And it’s especially galling having paid £125 for a visa to be in their unhappy country.
We’re stopped 10 times, and asked for baksheesh on at least half of those. Speaking Russian or English in those circumstances can be as much of a hindrance as a help. In both languages, these joyless shysters are adept at extortion, but if faced with an unknown language, like Hungarian, or rapid lowland Scots (“Ah’m scunnered wae this pish, ya bawbag”) they sometimes decide we’re more hassle than we’re worth.
Yet making yourself indecipherable is in contrary to the spirit of the rest of the rally. While Russian is ubiquitous in most of the countries we visit, the majority of teams don’t speak it, so everything from car repairs to finding restaurants is achieved through games of charades. Handily, a permanent layer of scum on the vehicles provides a dirty slate on which to draw diagrams and write numbers.
The rally is a test of the participants luck, patience and endurance, and for the first week ours are respectively non-existent, frayed and kaput. Others have similar travails as they swap Europe for Asia, including a couple of minor crashes and several breakdowns. In their own ways, each border crossing is a squalid nightmare – a man with a gun can be intimidating, but a man with a rubber stamp really has you by the balls. At one point Gabor hands over a €2.50 bottle of “Hungarian champagne” to a Kazakh guard who is trying to delay us. “He thinks he’s won,” says my co-driver, “but he hasn’t tasted that stuff yet.”
But, as time goes by I realise that it’s these problems and the constant dance with disaster which makes the rally special. Every night, the hotels and guesthouses are full of drivers relaxing with a local beer, regaling other teams with tales of their bizarre days in these little-visited parts of the world. Good or bad, everything becomes a story.
Mercifully, things start to slow down a little when we get to strange, sprawling Uzbekistan. Their currency, the som, doesn’t carry much value – 1,000 soms are only worth 22p, but the 1,000 is also the biggest note they print, so to walk around with a tenner is to walk around like a Vegas high-roller. Given the fat wedges of money that change hands, bribing officials here would look genuinely impressive but to their unending credit, during the four days we’re in their country the Uzbeks never ask for a thing. Not even when we deserve a fine.
One day I ride in Car Six, with Miguel Almas and Miguel Esteves from Portugal. In another world they are a vet and a psychiatrist; in this one they’re a pair of hard-drinking, hard-driving (though not always at the same time) desperados on a mission to experience everything they possibly can, and to have a bloody good laugh while doing so. Their motto “Why not?” is perplexingly difficult to contradict, even when I really want to. Our drive in their red 20-year-old VW Passat estate (185,000 miles on the clock) is supposed to be simple, but a few deliberate wrong turns, and a bit of off-roading later (“Why not?”) we find ourselves detained by the Uzbek military. After an hour of shared confusion, they send us on our way, but even though we are clearly in the wrong – we had strayed into a military zone – they never ask for money.
The Central Asian Rally is in its infancy, but it approximately follows the old silk route, through Uzbekistan’s market towns of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. We spend a night in each, visiting markets that sell much the same as they have always done: fabrics, dried fruits and ludicrous hats. From there, we continue along the ancient route into Tajikistan, where we will spend a week.
This lofty little nation also borders Afghanistan, to which many of the teams plan to make an excursion. I opt out. With my British passport, I feel that by essentially holidaying there, I’d be on a Venn Diagram of A. cruise ship passengers who frolicked on Haitian beaches immediately after its 2010 earthquake and B. a marine posing over an Afghani corpse. Go in and I’ll be between those two, on an intersection marked: wanker.
Besides, Tajikistan offers plenty in its own right. Snow-capped peaks, glaciers, ravines, gorges, turquoise lakes, geysers, hot-springs, waterfalls, the endangered Marco Polo sheep, bears, snow leopards… Tajikistan has it all, except other tourists. When we drive over the 3,200m above-sea-level Summer Route from Tavildara to Khorog we don’t see another vehicle for two hours. The locals are also warm and welcoming, and a great many of them have the same intense green eyes as National Geographic poster-girl Sharbat Gula.
All the mountain scrabbling presents plenty more challenges for our old beaters: at one point four of them have to form a chain with tow ropes to get our increasingly useless Nissan out of a river. Yet somehow we all make through the Pamir Mountains and over the 4,300m Ko-I-Tezek pass, all the way to Murghab, just 30 miles from the Chinese border. Out here in the GBAO autonomous region, the people have been largely abandoned by their government. A separate ethnic group, the Pamiris picked the losing rebel side during Tajikistan’s bloody civil war and the army were not gracious in victory.
As a result, Murghab gets only a little power from solar panels and generators, its water from wells. There is a constant smell of burning. A handful of determined NGOs struggle against the odds to keep the town afloat and they need all the help they can get. The rally teams do what they can by donating wheelchairs, clothes and stationery, all of which have been driven over 5,200 miles from Budapest and beyond.
Murghab is as far east as we will go – from here it’s three days drive back to Dushanbe, hugging the Afghan border along a bucking dusty road. After 200 hours of driving, it proves too much for our Nissan, which gives out on a mountain pass at 1am when something vital pops in the engine. After much fretting and failed attempts at towing, we decide to abandon it and to give the keys to a local in Dushanbe.
Thankfully the Miguels are on hand to give us a lift to the nearest town, from where we take a 10 hour taxi ride to the capital. That the Portuguese are there at all is extremely fortunate. Only two hours previously, in one of the most surreal moments of the rally, a mechanic who was repairing their wheel offered them a bag of rubies for their battered Passat, despite both its bumpers having been shorn off and the windscreen cracked. Even if the jewels had really been glass, they’d likely have made profit but with 400 miles still to go, they had to decline.
Somehow we finally make it to Dushanbe. A hairy viaduct of raised eyebrows greets me as I limp into the perfumed lobby of the Grand Hyatt, dusty and deranged, my filthy hair set hard like a rubbish action figure. I grin through the grime and check-in. The bed beckons me like a buxom siren, but there’s a celebratory finish party to attend.
The rally has been incredibly hard work, almost three weeks of unending challenges in pursuit of genuine adventure. It represents an old-fashioned, organic kind of travel: to wander off with only a loose plan, take your chances with the great unknown, and trade your ride for a sack of jewels. “But of course it’s tough,” laughed Gabor during one 10-hour stretch along an annihilated Uzbek highway. “We just didn’t say exactly how tough.”
A version of this piece was published in the Guardian in August 2012.