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If the Hungary-Ukraine border is the first hurdle of the inaugural Central Asia Rally, we have collided with the top of it and landed on our chins. The Ukrainians are asking for €10,000 per car to let us through, 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, drive them east for 18 days and finally sell them again in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan. The customs officers, though, aren’t impressed by the export plates which are fitted to most of the 10 vehicles taking part. The extraordinary “deposit” will get us through this red tape, but there’s a sense 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 organisers – individual problem-solving is encouraged – but people didn’t expect such calamity so early. The group splits to try to find their own route eastward, agreeing to aim to meet up again in Kazakhstan. A Portuguese team decide to take their chances with officials in Serbia in the hope of getting on their smooth highway. A Hungarian team, driving a 20-year-old Austrian fire truck, persevere with Ukraine but take a route 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 coast of the Black Sea, head quickly through Georgia and Russia, north around the Caspian Sea, and finally rejoin the planned route in 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.
It takes 27 hours to drive to Istanbul along sluggish Romanian roads and through the darkness of rain-lashed Bulgaria. After five hours of fitful sleep in Istanbul, we follow that with a 29-hour drive to Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, where we manage another four hours in bed. 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. In the early 1990s, he 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 body weight, but I saw everything I wanted to see.” The 42-year-old pauses for a second. “I don’t think I could do it again.”
Gabor, meanwhile, 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. Between us we’ve been to almost 200 countries, but even with all that travelling experience the amended Central Asia Rally route is an exhausting test. At one point, between Tbilisi and Khiva in Uzbekistan, we drive for 60 hours, only stopping for food and water, napping in shifts when the biting, banging potholes allow.
It’s not all misery: Turkey’s coastal route along the Black Sea is spectacular, as is the drive out of Georgia, through the looming beauty of the Caucasus 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 Dubai – is strangely attractive.
There are low points too, and the nadir is our 22 hours in Russia. Every few miles, corrupt cops flag us down, barking “registratziya” through 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 knowing that we have paid £125 for a visa to be in their bleak country.
We’re stopped 10 times, and asked for baksheesh on at least half of these. 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 contrary to the spirit of the rest of the rally. While Russian is spoken in most of the countries we visit, the majority of teams don’t know any, so everything from car repairs to finding a guesthouse 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 nonexistent, 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 that make the rally special. Every night, our hotels and guesthouses are full of drivers regaling others 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. Its currency, the som, doesn’t carry much value – 1,000 som is the biggest note in circulation, but it’s only worth about 35p, so to walk around with a tenner is to feel like a Vegas high-roller. Bribing officials here would look genuinely impressive given the fat wedges of money that would change hands, but to their unending credit, over 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 strayed into a military zone – they never hint at a bribe.
The Central Asia Rally is in its infancy, but it approximately follows the ancient silk route, through Uzbekistan’s market towns of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, up into the mountains of Tajikistan. We spend a week in this lofty little nation, which also borders Afghanistan. Many of the teams plan to make an excursion there but I opt out. With my British passport, I feel that by essentially holidaying there, I’d be on a Venn diagram comprising the cruise ship passengers who frolicked on Haitian beaches immediately after the 2010 earthquake, and a marine posing over an Afghan corpse. I’d 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, snow leopards, bears, the endangered Marco Polo sheep … Tajikistan has it all, except for other tourists. When we drive over the 3,200m-high summer route from Tavildara to Khorog we don’t see another vehicle for two hours. The people are warm and welcoming, and a great many of them have the same intense green eyes as National Geographic poster-girl Sharbat Gula.
Scrabbling around in these mountains presents more challenges for our old bangers: at one point four vehicles have to form a chain with tow ropes to get our increasingly useless Nissan out of a river. Yet, somehow, we all make it through the Pamir mountains, over the 4,272m Koi-Tezek pass, and all the way to Murghob, just 30 miles from the Chinese border. Out here in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO), 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 in the 1990s, and the army were not gracious in victory.
As a result, Murghob has minimal electricity (from solar panels and generators) and gets 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, which we have brought over 5,200 miles from Budapest and beyond.
Murghob 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 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 offered them a bag of rubies for their beaten-up Passat, despite the fact that both its bumpers have been shorn off and the windscreen is cracked. Even if the jewels had really been glass, they would probably have made a profit, but with 400 miles still to go they had to decline.
When we finally get to the end, a hairy viaduct of raised eyebrows greets me as I limp into the perfumed lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Dushanbe dusty and deranged, my filthy hair set hard like a rubbish action figure. I try to ignore their dismay, check in and just sleep, sleep, sleep.
The rally has been incredibly hard work, almost three weeks of unending challenges and no small amount of anguish in pursuit of adventure. It represents a much more old-fashioned, organic kind of travel: wandering off with only a vague plan and taking your chances with the great unknown.
“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.”
Follow Jamie on Twitter @megaheid