Mongol Rally: Stranded in Kazakhstan
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We hit our 17th straight hour in the car as the clock rolled over to 10 p.m. I took a drink and rattled the Red Bull can to make sure there was still some left before setting it down.
Red Bull is one of the four Mongol Rally food groups. The others are croissants, pasta and a weird vanilla wafer that every single shop and gas station in central Asia has in stocked at all times.
Tonight we were pressing hard to cross the border from Kazakhstan and then back into Russia. I just hoped this time we wouldn’t crash our car on the other side. My team, the Cads and Bounders, were excited about this for two reasons.
1-The roads in Kazakhstan suck. One Mongol rally team wrote, “The roads of Kazakhstan are paved with the souls of disappointed tourists.”
No lie; there are gigantic man-sized potholes everywhere. Plus, there is nothing but flat fields for landscape, which only show their true beauty at sunset, and when you spend all day riding in a car with three other smelly guys, over man-size potholes, sunset doesn’t come soon enough.
I swear every time we bounced over a pothole, a puff of dust would rise from all of us just like Pigpen from Charlie Brown.
2- My visa would expire in 24 hours, and although I was concerned, my situation wasn’t nearly as dire as others. Another team, the Great Danes, a team from Denmark, raced ahead of us. They had less than three hours to get out of the country. They also had one of my former teammates Alex with them.
That morning we packed up our camp, rolled up our lightweight sleeping bags, and start the final leg of the country. We were only 100 kilometers from the border when we heard a POP. I groaned knowing straight away it was flat. Our fourth in just a few days. We were out of spare tires, and the Great Danes had already given us theirs a couple of days earlier.
We spent the next couple of hours trying to flag down cars but to no avail. With a heavy sigh, we decided that help was not coming that night. Tired and stressed, I tried to get comfortable, mentally ignoring the fact that I was in an upright seated position and the fact I could see my breath.
Only worry met me when I closed my eyes. Early the next morning, I slowly opened my half-rested eyes. Ash, George, and Kevin were already awake, drinking from food group one and discussing our predicament.
Cars passed, ignoring our distress signals until a policeman pulled up.
The Kazakh police officer peered out his window and asked us if we had a problem.
“Flat, no spare,” George said, in broken Russian/ English, as the rest of us flailed our arms around to signal a problem.
“Who is your leader?”, asked the cop, whose name we found out later was Aslan.
We all sat silent until he looked at George and said, “You, get in the car.”
“Right, brilliant!” said George was happier to get into the back of a cop car than anyone I’ve ever seen. He closed the door and the cop took off.
We stood looking at one another and then began to slowly walked back to the car, unsure where George was going or what was happening.
Twenty minutes later Ash’s phone rang and George told us that Aslan had taken him to a tire shop that was closed. He then started yelling at the people in the shop next door to find the tire shop owner, which didn’t work.
So now what? Unbelievably, Aslan flagged down a passing car and used his magic to turn it into George’s personal cab to the next town. Now that is service!
The only problem was you can’t really have a personal cab when you don’t speak the same language.
So George was sitting in the backseat of a stranger’s car in a strange country and had no idea where he was headed and no way to tell the “cab driver” where he needed to go. It was at this point that George thought to call us. We decided to come to the rescue. A Cad was lost!
On a mission, we started walking in the direction that the cab drove George. Don’t ask me how I thought this was actually going to help, but sometimes, just doing something is better than nothing, right? hmmm, well not exactly.
As we proceeded walking down the highway avoiding the man-size potholes as well as the cars that were bouncing in and out of them, Aslan pulled up beside us.
“You go back; go back,” he said. “George is lost,” we pleaded. But, he gave us a look that told us in big capital letters, No one argues with Aslan, so without any further delay, we went back. Hunched against the bumper, we waited for George as Aslan set up a police checkpoint nearby for passing cars and to keep an eye on us.
Within an hour, an old Lauder, a kind of Russian car, pulled up and out stepped George, explaining that all the tires were way too big for our car. My visa was running out fast, and we were clueless.
After a quick debate on what to do next, we went to George’s personal driver and asked if he had a spare. He reached into the truck and pulled out a dusty, worn-out, piece of shit that could barely pass for rubber let alone a tire.
Rolling the tire to the car we realized that it was two sizes two big for our car. but it was our only option.
We paid him a ton ($30) for the tire, thanked Aslan for his generosity, and began the process of making our car fit the huge tire.
We pushed started the car and jumped in, but immediately stopped because the tire was rubbing the side of the wheel well. If we kept going it’d be flat within two miles. We pulled over once again clueless about what to do.
Ash rooted around in the truck and pulled out a few tools and started bending and beating out the underside of the tire well to create extra space. Like a can opener, we peeled the metal back and retrofitted our wheel well to adapt to the new size. It worked.
The only problem was now we had a jagged tuna-can edge on the side of the car. This might not bother most ordinary people who drive regular cars, but remember, our car was no regular car.
We had no working transmission, so we often had to push-start it since it would die every time we dropped the RPMs below 1,500. Now, when you’re driving a car that you have to push 40% of the time and then jump into it while it is moving, a jagged tuna-can wheel well tends to be a problem. After the first day, all our legs were bruised and scratched.
Little trickles of blood dried to our legs. That was a day I don’t want to relive, but I am happy to report that I made it out of the country with four hours to spare. Heavy sigh, but this time one that ended with a smile.
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