MAY 1, 2000
Not only will words be inadequate to describe today, but cameras as well! We drove onto Tower Bridge this morning in full sunshine with the top of the car down. We were astounded at the group of people already assembled nearly two hours before we will start. Suddenly we know this will be truly memorable. Kate, Tess, Michael, Craig, Liz, Dale, Karen, Phil, Alice, Tuckie, Lee, Dick, Ann, Bert, Cheryl, Neil, Doug, all are not only here but we can talk to them and hug them and take pictures and get them in the car and be with them just a little longer! In addition, we are suddenly greeted by Margaret, a London resident whom we met in Sicily last year and who said she would come to Tower Bridge and she did!!!! Robin Bidgood from the Royal Thames brought his wife and two year old son. It was so festive and so wonderful that for the rest of our lives we will pinch ourselves to be sure it was real!! Craig and Liz brought special jackets for us and for them and the rest of the family: black microfiber, embroidered on the front with Mercedes 1957 220S on one side and Team Suhrbier Spirit of 2000 on the other. On the back, however, is the best: www.bevedlondontopeking.com clear across the back of the jacket on one line!!! We really did all look like a racing team with our matching jackets and shirts. All of our friends were in Team Suhrbier shirts.
The throat lumps became boulders when it was time to drive to the end of the bridge where Sir Stirling Moss was waiting to give us the checkered flag. We looked at each other and knew it was really going to happen, and it did. There was an announcer announcing each car and driver but we cannot remember a word he said. All we know is that Sir Stirling Moss said a few kind words, dropped the flag, and off we went. The sun was so warm and the crowds even warmer. We felt an exhilaration that was beyond description. The balloons, flags, crowds cheering - we felt such celebrities. Both of us were interviewed by the BBC at some length, so perhaps our Brit friends even saw us on the evening news. The press coverage was incredible. Hope that if any of you see any articles, pictures, or other data, you will save them for us. Our friend Kevin was giving his interview to the NPR on the bridge, so perhaps we will hear a tape of that, too.
We keep hearing that everyone makes navigation errors. I was chagrined that my first was on the way to Lenham when I did not give Ed enough warning to get in the left lane. Fortunately, it was only a six kilometer error which was made up without problem. When we entered the picturesesque village of Lenham, the crowd was so thick and the cheering so loud that Ed said he felt as he was a returning war veteran with medals! The road was narrow and curved through the village and the crowd was six or seven deep all along the way. We are astounded with our reception! In addition, the people with whom we are traveling are friendly, optimistic,, and interesting!
Uneventful drive to Dover and boarding the ferry. We filmed the white cliffs as we sailed toward Calais. Our first night in Chantilly found us still exhilarated and still absolutely flabbergasted by the pageantry and pomp and circumstance of our first day on the road.
MAY 2nd or 3rd, 2000
Everything is superb, no time to hook up computer as yet.Two full days - zero penalties. Great weather. Superb send off.
Special Hellos to Kate & Tess and the 3rd & 4th grade at Sacred Heart and all our friends and family. More later.
We are in Aix le Bains, France on our way to Italy.
THURSDAY, MAY 4th, 2000
No computer hook-up yet, but the trip is going well. We are on our way to Greece tonight. Longer and more difficult roads than anyone anticipated. Unforgettable route and scenery. Fabulous traveling companions and staff. Details later.
Ed & Bev.
MAY 6, 2000
Meanwhile, back at the Rally! Our good intentions to give you a daily update have fallen by the wayside. We hope to get back them! For now, a brief summary, and we do hope that you have been able to read the short bulletins we transmitted by phone. The past five days have been far more demanding than any of us had expected. We are here, we are headed for Istanbul tomorrow, so that is the good news. As you will read in the daily updates below which will cover each of the days we have missed (clear back to London), our departure from London was so spectacular that the memories are carved into our hearts and brains so deeply that we refer to them each day! There have been moments the past three days when we have needed those memories. Our first two days on the rally were completely without penalties! It was glorious to see the daily bulletin which stated quite clearly that we were Number One overall and Number One in our class. We were quite confident that we would make every time check and passage on time at least through Europe. The car was performing perfectly, navigation efficient, and the driver showed all the skill and daring he did when he was seventeen! On Wednesday, we were brought back to earth rather abruptly after a "special section" loop road that left us with burned out left rear brake. We limped and groaned into Santa Margherita to the Imperial Palace Hotel after sunset. The front of the elegant old hotel resembled a body repair shop as many cars had severe problems from the day. We spent the evening with Ed jacking up the car and finally with the trip mechanic Peter under the car and wife Betty bleeding the brakes. The lining of the left rear brake, which had been bonded, had simply disappeared! For a while, we were concerned that we would not be able to make it to Ancona, Italy, in time for the ferry to Greece. Peter assured us that the front brakes would be sufficient, but we were skeptical.
We knew we would have to skip the roads through Tuscany. Having driven them all last May, we knew we had not a prayer without brakes. We drove to Pisa in the early morning, certain that a large Mercedes dealer would be able to help us. That was not to be. In addition, Florence and Rome said that it would be several days before any could be obtained. Our options were decreasing as quickly as the hours before ferry departure. None of the roads across the mountains looked promising. Finally, our good old well-used map of Italy which served us well last spring, came to the rescue. We realized that there was an autostrada all the way north to Bologna and then south along the sea into Ancona, so we decided to go for it! Hooray, we did it!
We had hoped that the rally mechanics would be able to find some brakes or that one of the other participants might be willing to lend their extras until we could find new ones because Peter had planned to do the work while the ferry was under way. No luck, but at the very last minute, just as the ferry was about to dock in Igoumenitsa, our friend Kevin Clemens and Ed determined that we could at least clamp the rear left brake so that the fluid could not escape and so that we would at least have three good brakes for the mountain route across Greece. When we reached the car deck with our bags, Peter was already under the car, clamped the hose, and we drove off the ferry.
Yesterday is perhaps best described by the fax which Ed sent Joe in Los Angeles this afternoon:
"Rear left brake melted completely off in Italy on a special section loop road. Made it to the ferry in Ancona. Emergency repair by clamping hose to left rear brake. Drove on three brakes across Greece for twelve hours -- included Meteora and a dirt road over the mountains in the dark to Thessalonaki! Front suspension rod bushing torn off, rotor burned, Terratrip computer failed. Rear shock absorber sheared off and Lucas water/fuel separator broke apart and disappeared. Arrived here at 12:30a.m Repaired everything today on our "day off" in Thessalonaki by a local mechanic. Back to 100%. This is grueling. Still in the race."
The fax says it all. Our priorities have changed immensely in the past seventy-two hours. We have watched one car go off the road completely; fortunately, the driver and navigator sustained only cuts and bruises, but the car was totaled. Our friends Keven and Mark sustained fairly heavy damage to the front left of their car when it was hit by another car in last night's dirve over the mountain (see yesterday's summary), but they, too are able to continue. Our Swiss neurosurgeon friend Hans and his wife Annique have already decided to skip time controls and passage controls and just hope to complete the trip. We too have decided that that is the right course. However, yesterday found us again thrilled when we made all but one of the controls right on time. One of the Scots says that competitive genes are an inescapable part of being an American. Frankly, after last night we are happy to be alive!!!
Today was an unbelievable expression of Greek hospitality, surprising indeed after last year's experience in Athens and after the past few months' publicity. The local Historic and Vintage Automobile Club brought representatives to the esplanade in front of our hotel where all of our cars are parked. It is quite a sight to see them there with the Aegean Sea just behind the cars! Anyway, a man appeared at our car as we were determining our course of action for the day. He announced that he could obtain the brakes we need (even though several Mercedes sources in Germany, Italy, and so forth said they needed a more specific Chassis number for our car than the one which is under our hood). After several calls on his cell phone, he pronounced the problem solved. His colleague escorted us in his red Fiat Spyder convertible to a local Greek mechanic who spent over four hours working on our car. WE ARE READY TO GO TO ISTANBUL TOMORROW!!!!
We again spent the day "sorting out" car problems, but when we see what some others are going through, we feel fortunate. Ed has turned our room into a full laundry service this afternoon, but we were able to sit in the sun on the hotel terrace for a late afternoon snack, watching the sea and all of our cars and all of the local residents who have beeen inspecting the cars all day and to marvel again that we are really here. We are awaiting a technician now who is to bring the proper adapters so that we can send this by e-mail. In a separate "sending", we are finally doing the update of our final days in London, because they were fantastic.!!!
p.s. We are no longer leaders and have amassed penalty points because we were forced to change our route for a whole day, but in a way, it is probably for the best, as we have all seen the results of a difficult route on older cars! Tomorrow is another day!!!!
MAY 8, 2000
This morning was classic rallying and truly enjoyable! We left with bright sunshine and warm air, top down, cruising along well paved highways, with the Mediterranean Sea just to our right the entire way, its magnificent blue making us wonder why we do not come to this part of the world more often. Parts of the terrain reminded us of the drive into Cashmere and Wenatchee. We shared the road at times with a few cows and more than a few dogs, but we were able to go at full cruising speed and reminded ourselves that such a morning was why we had come in the first place. Car problems and other extraneous matters vanished, we were "on the road again". We stopped for lunch at the lovely small quayside town of Porto Lagos. The small local seafood restaurant was run by a woman who must have been the source for the disparaging term of screaming like a "fishwife". She made Seinfeld's soup kitchen "Nazi" seem like a teddybear but her food was phenomenal - deep fried local fish, shrimp, and the best salad in Greece. We sat in the sun, actually waited for our time to have our roadbook signed at the time control desk, and were on our way again, absolutely sure that we would be in Istanbul hours ahead of time.
The afternoon had almost nothing in common with the morning. The narrow dirt roads to the next time check led us through small towns which probably had not seen as many cars in the past five years as there were yesterday. There was no way to know what was a driveway and what was a road. The distance between turns as designated in the route book ranged from .10 kilometers to .25 or .35 or .75. One of the more humorous sights every day is the number of rally cars one meets going the opposite way - U-turns, backups, etc. are routine as drivers and navigators cope not only with the directions but with the frequent errors contained in the roadbook. In the small town of Skiporachi today, the directions were so difficult that we were just about to give up and ask directions when we saw the bright orange arrow signs which had been placed there by the Classic Rally Organization in the knowledge that no one would be able to find the correct route. On to our next checkpoint, on time in spite of some u-turns in various farmer's driveways.
The next section of the afternoon was a special section of 14.5 kilometers for which 12 minutes were allowed. Because over six kilometers of the loop was on a "forest track" of hard dirt with large rocks and potholes all along the way, this was not a generous time allowance. We ate a lot of dust with the top down, but we did the entire section with only a four minute penalty, the ONLY penalty of the day, so we were well satisfied. Had we been able to get our four position racing seatbelts on just a bit faster and if I had been able to run back to the car just a bit faster from the previous timecheck at the beginning of the loop, we would have been right on time. It was only our "takeoff" that slowed us. Watching Ed drive makes me think he is seventeen again ( he seems to think he is, too). We were quite pleased with ourselves, but then again, a bit concerned that again our priorities may be skewed.
We continue to be astounded at the reception we are receiving from local residents. They stand along the sidewalks of each small town, waving and cheering. Some of the farmers just stand there as if they cannot believe what they are seeing speeding through their normally silent environment.
Again the feeling of relaxation was the calm before the storm. As we left Greece, the armed border agents waved us through without incident. As we entered Turkey, we were asked for our passports and waved through immediately. That was too easy. Hundreds of meters ahead, we faced another customs office. We waited patiently in the hot line and left with our stamp, got in our car, and drove to the gate where the guard informed us we needed two more stamps. Two hours and six lines later, we finally had our stamps and drove on an excellent highway toward Istanbul. By then, we were grateful for American efficiency.
We were still sure that we would be in Istanbul early. That was before we met with the Sunday evening traffic on the motorway which was bumper to bumper 5 kph for more than two hours. Several of the rally cars overheated; one had a fire and had to be towed to the hotel. Many people in the group got lost on the way into the city. Driving without our terratrip computer has left us without the accurate to the tenth interval distance ability that we had enjoyed, and we, too missed the important turn after the Golden Horn Bridge and found ourselves crossing the Bosporus Bridge as well. Welcome to Asia a little too early. By now it was nearly midnight. Ed had the brillliant idea of the day. Totally lost in an Asian area of the City, he flagged a cab and we followed it to the Hilton. Brilliant!!! We found that several others in our group had resorted to the same method of arrival.
We checked into the hotel exhausted, and followed the Hilton employee directions to park in front of the hotel. We assumed the parking lot for our group was full, so we followed the directions of three Hilton employees, assured our car would be safe. At 2:45 a.m. we were awakened by a phone call from the front desk that our car had been hit by a bus and would we please come down to move it!! At least they assumed it was driveable, but the phone call was insane at that hour. We told them they had told us to park there and it would be there until morning. Imagine the visions that went through our heads - would we be able to continue with the trip???
This will be rushed; details will follow. The Hilton left us sitting in the lobby for three hours in the morning while they tried to "sort out" who would pay for the damage. We suggested that they should do that later and just get us a body shop man to do the repairs immediately. Finally, a whole story later, a mechanic arrived, he and Ed drove clear across the city followed by me in a cab. Our cab driver ended up spending the entire day with us. The Turkish mechanics and body repair people are the BEST!!! They spent the whole day on our car and it is perfect. The entire right front fender had been damaged and the rim of the fender was just near the tire and would have prevented proper turning. Throughout the day, we searched for shock absorbers to take as extras. Still none to be found. We did find extra brake shoes to take along. An old man with a 220S sedan tried to sell us his car. He spoke no English, but we were able to ask him if we could buy his front brakes. He disappeared for several moments, then came back smiling. Our cab driver and he engaged in an animated conversation and it became apparent he had found us some brakes clear back in Taksim, the area in the center of Istanbul where we are staying. Back in the cab, but success. Ed says the gentleman who sold us the original brakes from a 220s had spent several years in the UK and spoke perfect English. Ed has been invited back to visit him. All of the conversations during the day were by telephone to Ahmet, the suave head of the local Vintage Sports Club which has helping provide mechanics and body shop repairs for all of our group who needed them (most). All of us leave Istanbul without having savored the tourist sights, but with a lasting gratitude and utter respect for the abilities of the Turkish to take care of cars!
We managed to get back to the hotel in time for the big dinner although we missed the awards ceremony and the video of the past week. Ed still believes Conrad Hilton is turning over in his grave at the inability of the hotel manager to take care of his guests, but we are in perfect shape and ready to go and hope we get off all of these messages this morning before we head east to Bolu. Both of us are looking forward to telling you about the fantastic reception given us bythe Turkish people on the motorway as we entered the city in the big traffic jam described above. We decided to give out pens to the children in the cars next to us, since we were stopped so often. Suddenly, people were letting their kids out of their cars to run to our car to get a pen. Then the traffic would move a few yards, and we were sure a child was going to be hit by a moving car. We feared being held responsible for endangerment! We were in turn given a small bouquet by one local and a pen by another. They love us here and the feelings are returned. I am going to miss my checkin if I go on. More later. Greetings to you all from both of us.
Here we are, well into Asia already. We left Istanbul with great success in navigating onto the Bosporus Bridge. Several cars in front of us went straight; my driver actually trusted me enough to turn right when I said it rather loudly and authoritatively. Then I said silent prayers that I had read the sign right. There was the tollbooth at exactly the right moment, a man waving us through, and a loud sigh of relief from the navigator. One of our friends who had gone straight said later in the day that they had a "three day adventure" that morning getting back to the route. Our trip across Turkey has been remarkable. We spent a lovely evening on the shores of a lake at Bolu. We felt it could be any of the lakes in Canada where we have fished for so many years. The Turkish people must be the most hospitable in all of the world. We had a good rest there. Yesterday, the road was lined for nearly three hundred miles with Turkish soldiers, stationed about every hundred yards. Their assignment was evidently to make sure we stayed on the right roads. They are so young! Every young Turk must serve a compulsory two years. We continue to receive blinking lights from approaching cars and trucks, honks of support from nearly every passenger car, and waves and cheers from everyone. At one timecheck yesterday morning, a young teacher brought her entire class of beautiful young high school girls to visit us. She is their English teacher, and she wanted them to practice. She must be very good. The girls had polished grammar, enthusiasm, and we were able to communicate easily. Their enthusiasm for the United States is heartening.
We had hours of high mountain roads yesterday. One of the special "track" sections was a 12.65 kilometer gravel road up the pass to the summit. We were given eight minutes to do it. We were doing so well; then a local white van passed us, slowed down in front of us, and there was no room to pass. Nevertheless, the three minute penalty did not seem too bad.
Yesterday was enjoyable except that we are so worried about our friends Kevin and Mark, our "buddies". Their Mercedes was loaded on a flatbed truck yesterday morning along with a Saab which also has sserious mechanical problems. Kevin and Mark's car had been overheating. They had worked on it for several hours, but the cam was cracked and it became apparent they must go back. We have promised them our prayers (yours, too, please) that the mechanics in Istanbul can work their magic and that Kevin and Mark will come roaring back to meet us at the ferry across the Caspian Sea. They have worked so hard and deserve to be able to continue the trip. Survival of the cars is the major topic of conversation. Those who did the Beijing to Paris keep saying we have seen nothing yet. Except for the dirt road across the mountains last Sunday. That was the single most frightening event of our entire life. I was told at breakfast this morning we were lucky it was night and that we could not see over the cliffs. Evidently that was much worse!!
Turkey is becoming progressively more Asian and definitely more Moslem. There are mosques in every town, the women are covered completely, but the young women, especially the nurses near the hospitals we pass, are dressed in western clothing. Our next update will contain more data of the scenery. The tree covered mountains are breathtaking. We saw snow yesterday, and have had our first view of the Black Sea. It is a mix of turquoise and Mediterranean Blue, but it is far larger than we had imagined. Our hotel here in Samsun has a view of the sea. The hotels even here in the east of Turkey continue to be surprisingly modern and lovely. The staff is hospitable and warm. The food is excellent. We all take rolls and meat and cheese from the morning breakfast buffet because there has not been one day with time enough to stop for lunch! Must go now - we have over six hundred kilometers to reach Trabzon, this evening's stop. We are hoping for some days with no car problems at all. As I write, Ed is out at the car, checking and hoping that we do not have another shock absorber problem. The news came yesterday that rear shock absorbefrs are not available even from Stuttgard for three to four weeks. We will be in Beijing by then!
Please send your prayers and good wishes to Kevin and Mark. We hope that they are already back on the road, catching up with us. We are getting e-mail, so please continue to send it. We look forward to hearing from you!! Happy Birthday, Aunt Billie. To know you are still driving your own car at age 92 is impressive.!! Perhaps you should have come on the trip with us. CIAO!
GREAT NEWS11111111 Ed just came into the room and said that Mark and Kevin are back already. They have not slept at all, but the car is repaired and they are coming with us!!!!!!! We told you the Istanbul mechanics are geniuses. They are waiting to tell us all about their adventure. Off we go; it is just past 7:00 a.m. here.
p.s. As our website alert says, we are still using our regular msn.com e-mail. Gordon and Rita, our website people, are fabulous!! The alert message and photo album were their idea, and we think they are terrific. They post our updates almost as soon as I send them. THANKS, THANKS, THANKS, Gordon and Rita.!!!
MAY 11, 2000
WOW!! Today was an almost perfect day. We were so relieved and thankful to see Kevin and Mark rejoin us so soon. They found in Istanbul that they would be able to repair the car once parts were found. As Kevin explained it, a faulty thermostat blew their head gasket. When Kevin repaired it, there was one vital step which was not in the shop manual, and the parts that hold the cam shaft in place were damaged, and there were cracks. After the flatbed truck ride back to Istanbul sitting inside their car on the flatbed, they found that, fortunately, there was no problem inside the engine. The Istanbul mechanics finally found the necessary parts at 8:00 p.m. last night, the Mercedes Benz people stayed late, fixed the problem, and Kevin and Mark were on their way back to Samsun at 10:30 p.m. last night. They drove through the night and arrived before 7:00 a.m. this morning. That alone made our day, but the best was yet to come.
Yesterday's drive was beautiful. The Black Sea is described by Ed as one huge flat mirror. Barely a ripple even on such a large body of water. Villages too small to be on most maps were charming. Exotic. Names such as Yakatent and Sagukan are next to Venice (Turkey), each just a postage stamp size. As we said, the area continues to become more Islam - the calls to prayers late yesterday could be heard as we sped along. The reception of the Turkish people is so enthusiastic that we fear hitting a pedestrian. One of our group actually did bump a young high school girl who jumped into the street. Fortunately, he was going less than 8 mph. Still scary. We share the roads with tractors, cows, fairly fancy petrol stations, and drivers who think if the road is two lane, they can make it four to six. All of the trucks are driven at least twenty miles an hour faster than is safe. The size of the stones and marble in them makes weight on the road a true problem. Last night's hotel in Bolu was the Buyuk Samsun Hotel, a lovely, gracious building with a fine restaurant, excellent rooms and amenities. The only problem was the charge for last night's phone calls to connect to the internet. They could not grasp the concept that I did not believe I should have to pay for the calls which did not go through and which did not connect. It finally became easier just not to argue. They are so disarmingly pleasant and polite that I was almost happy to pay the exorbitant amount rather than upset them.
Back to this morning! We actually did not leave until 9:05 a.m. which gave us time to get the top down and ready to take off immediately when our time control signed our card. Five and a half hours time to our next check and only 347 km seemed easy to accomplish. That was before we ran into more trucks than I-10 or I-90 or I-5 could possibly accommodate, and ours was only a "dual carriageway" which means one lane each way! Curving just next to the Black Sea, the scenery was splendid, that is, what we dared look at when glancing away from the trucks on the road. The "horn" greetings from buses, trucks, and cars, are constant. Well-uniformed, spotlessly clean school children line the highways waving to us and cheering. We are perfecting the "royal wave". The soldiers with guns line the highways - they are called the Gendarma, and we are still unclear whether they are indeed Army or local police, but the "poliz" wear navy blue, and the young men on the road are in full camoflauge! We had our first experience of hesitation about the rifles they hold proudly in their arms. The yellow Morgan in our group is a fast car with a fast driver. Soon after he bombed through a small village fairly early this morning, we found ourselves behind a white van loaded with six or seven young men with the blue lights flashing and their arms waving madly through the rear window that we must not pass them. We decided that discretion is still the better part of valor. The fading memories of Midnight Express are still in our minds. Each time we tried to pass, they pulled into the left lane and waved at us to get behind them. Soon there was a line of our group's cars behind us, obviously impatient and sure that we were dawdling. The "gulls", the girls from Australia and New Zealand who are the only all-woman team on our rally, passed us and tried to pass the van. They too were motioned to get back in line. On and on it went, for over an hour, with an increasing number of our cars made to stay in line. Finally, the brightly painted 48 Pontiac convertible, simply ignored them and went past. Finally, we were able to go more than thirty miles an hour!
A convertible is perfect for today's sun and temperature. Ed is wearing the hat given to him by Ray Carr, a great gentleman of 75 who is driving the 39 Ford Convertible on our trip. He is in the Guinness Book of World Records for some previous driving trips he has done, and he is a great guy. The hat he gave Ed has a picture of the 39 Ford on it. I of course have the Tilly hat which reminds me of sailing days. The biggest difference between this trip and our days on Moonshadow is that we always longed for the moment when we would turn off the engine and hear only the silence. In this race, the lack of engine sound is dreaded by all. The Black Sea was pure turquoise today. The seaside town of Unye was the first of many resort towns along the way. Turkey has left little beach when building its main highways through this area. The road is literally right by the sea. The small cove of fishing boats in Unye is a photographer's dream. We had our video camera mounted on the roll bar as we drove along, but the spectators along the highway were taking morepictures of us than we were of them. The resort towns of Persembe, Ordu, and Pirazaz went by quickly, and we entered Giresun and Tirebolu before making our important right turn to Dogankent and our next time control. We made it with minutes to spare and waited patiently to make sure we did not check in early and incur double penalties. We did go through some new tunnels under construction along the way. Never have we seen such dark tunnels, and one turned sharply to the right just after we entered it. We were all lucky no one crashed.
We are in the mountains again! The steep slopes and villages remind us of Switzerland, and there is still snow on the peaks. Karacukur was beautiful, but our favorite has to be Kirazlik. Green terraced steep hillsides, a swift green river at the bottom of the deep gorge with plenty of white water visible. Today has to be the biggest geographical surprise of our lives. We had no idea this would be such a splendid mountain area. We are in the Black Sea Mountains. We drive up to nearly 6000 feet, again on steep grades with no guard rails. In some ways, it reminds us of Kerala in southern India. The steep hillsides and the green and the lush vegetation are similar. There are tea plantations, hazelnuts, corn, tobacco, and anchovy from the sea in this part of Turkey.
Back to the race. For today's special section from Dogankent to Zigani Gecidi, we are given ten minutes to do 16.6 kilometers. The road turns out to be dirt, gravel, hairpin turns, steep, first and second gear all the way. At the hairpin turn marked in the roadbook as "DO NOT MISS" , we find not only an impossible turn but an entire group of village schoolchildren wildly cheering us on, but standing right in the way where a turn would have been at least a little easier. This is early retirement, folks. We arrived at the checkpoint eight minutes late, still worrying that the road may have done in another shock absorber (I am learning to hate those two words), but were elated to be told that ours was the second fastest time. Of course, those "Slow Blokes to China", Chris and Ron, had done it with only seven minutes penalty. Nevertheless, those were our only penalties of the day, and everything was so beautiful, and we drove to Trabzon, tonight's stay, sure that we would be there in plenty of time. Momentary lapse of concentration as we navigated the last half kilometer to the hotel in the middle of downtown traffic - suddenly Ed saw Ron jump out of the car in front of us with his roadbook in hand, just .15 from the hotel and parking garage. A quick look at our stopwatch and I too jumped out of the car with book in hand and literally ran the half block to the hotel and up the marble staircase to the control desk and slapped down the book. We were in time! The stares of the well dressed guests on more proper tours have ceased to embarrass us.
The dust and dirt today amazed us. Fortunately, the Zorlu Grand Hotel is lovely - marble, stained glass, excellent buffet restaurant. grand marble staircase. The city of Trabzon has only been in existence since 1924 when Turkey become a modern nation under Ataturk. His photo hangs everywhere! We went for a long walk before dinner, then came up early to savor the memories of a glorious day. The car is running well and we know this will be the last real comfortable hotel we will see for some time. Ed's arms are tired from driving such steep roads with such tortuous turns. You may think we are exaggerating - wait until you see the videos. We have proof.
Our roadbook for tomorrow is brief: "The beginning of a transit day to the border of Georgia. This section follows the coast road all they way. You will have assistance with your border crossing - be patient". Of course, that is "our" strong suit, isn't it? If you don't hear from us for a couple of days, do not worry. We behave very patiently at borders, especially near the famous Georgia Military Highway and Stalin's birthplace. Our adventure is just that, and the bonus is getting to know all the people who travel with us. They are fabulous.....
THURSDAY EVENING, MAY 11, 2000
Our arrival in town was highly visible. We were stuck in a monumental traffic jam and I was busy navigating the final right turn; Ed saw Ron jump out of his car in front of us with his book in hand; I realized we had just three minutes to be on time, so I jumped out too, ran to the hotel, up the curving marble stair case and threw down my book just in time. I may be repeating the last update, but it was one of my better runs, and I want credit.. Ed managed to get into the tight quarters of the auto-park across from the hotel which is the secure parking for our rally cars for tonight. We are staying in the Zorlu Grand Hotel, and it is indeed rather grand. The marble and the architecture are both intricate and simple at once, and the curving marble staircase is superb! Signage from the garage to the lobby was lacking, and there were many dazed eyes as people finally made it to the registration desk.
The first order of business after checkin is always a shower. The dust and dirt pour off in unbelievable amounts. Even after a shower, a towel (washcloths are non-existent) rub will take off even more dirt. Clean and reasonably well dressed, we took a walk before sunset. Trabzon is a young city, the streets crowded with a young, enthusiastic, fast-moving group of citizens in thoroughly westernized clothing. Even the Muslim women in their traditional covered clothing often have blazer and skirt combinations which, despite the loose fit and long length, are quite fashionable. Trabzon is the transportation hub of northeast Turkey and is quite attractive and prosperous. Evidently it is most often full of Russian tourists who account for the buying at the fairly fashionable boutiques which line the street and arcade near our hotel. Just blocks away from the hotel, the atmosphere changes considerabl to a much lower economic level. Trabzon is a new city, created only in 1924 when Ataturk brought Turkey to its independence. He is the George Washington of Turkey and his picture still hangs everywhere. Near the hotel, however, are LaCoste, Polo, Cacheret, Sony and other recognizable big city boutiques.
Excellent dinner in the hotel and a comfortable room. We keep on going and appreciating each good room before the comfort ends. Our 8 minute run on the special section left us in good position today! Few cars did as well. We even had two minutes on Kevin and Mark (sorry, guys - now I know you will be gunning for us on the next special section), but I had to mention it for Kate and Tess and Michael to know their grandparents are still trying hard!) Our dinner conversation each evening touches upon the moment when we will have to make the decision to keep the car going at all costs and penalties, but the roads of the special sections are so beautiful, and we hate to miss them, so we continue for now to try to avoid all penalties. By the way, one update was incorrect. Hans and Annique, our Swiss neurosurgeon friend and his wife, are still checking in at each time control. They are saving their Overland Willys but are continuing to make all the checkpoints even if late. By the way, Ralph and Jody, if you are happening to read our updates, Hans Reinhardt is evidently also the developer and manufacturere of equipment used for micro-surgery, so Ralph may have used his inventions!
Tomorrow is our border crossing into Georgia.
FRIDAY, MAY 12, 2000
TRABZON, TURKEY TO BATUMI, GEORGIA
By the time we got out of the garage this morning, we were wearing the bicycle masks we purchased in London to keep from being overcome by the carbon monoxide. The drivers had been instructed to remain in the cars and leave in order from Car 1 on, as soon as the navigator came down with the timecheck book stamped and ready to go. The problem was that with all the engines running and drivers jockeying for position in spite of the request of numerical departure, the fumes were dreadful. In addition, the ramp up to the street was so steep that some cars were dragging and had to back down and try again.
Finally, we are on our way, and we are on the same straight road for over one hundred kilometres. Never mind the heavy road construction and overloaded construction trucks. We go straight on the same road toward Rize and beyond for over a hundred kilometres, and it is a joy to sightsee and take video photographs instead of reading tulip directions and hairpin turns every five kilometers. The overloaded trucks are ruining the highways even as they build them, but the newly finished sections are excellent and the entire area is full of progress. We go from excellent new concrete to dust and potholes every few sections, and the dust is thick enough to thoroughly obscure vision, much the same as bad fog!
The Black Sea continues to amaze us by its sheer size! The highway is so close to it that it leaves little room for recreationable beaches, but the coves in some of the resort towns are charming, soft sand and colorful fishing boats, and a photographer's dream.
The Rally organization has been busy issuing warnings today. Matt Smith, M.D., the rally doctor, went from table to table at breakfast this morning, reminding us all that from now on, tap water should not be used even on a toothbrush; nothing but peeled fruit that we peel ourselves, no salads, all of the same warnings we have used in Mexico and India and South America, but sterner! The other warning, in all capital letters, warns of possible delays at the Georgian border at which we must be very patient!
The schoolchildren have all been given notice of our arrival, because they and their teachers line the roads, cheering and waving. They are in spotless uniforms and are absolutely beautiful. They are all calling greetings in English, and we give them pens whenever we are close enough. We are shocked at the number of adults who ask for pens, too. We have not yet needed to give away the extra tee shirts which Craig had made and sent along with us as "solid gold" gifts. For one reason, Ed seems to need a clean one each day, so we are pleased that many of them are 2XL. We are honking our horn all day long in response to the horn greetings from about every third car. Even the truck drivers flash their lights at us as they drive past and scare the hell out of us with their airhorns as we fear we are running into someone.
Finally we are at the Turkish border, ready for departure. Passports and car documents in hand, I head confidently and swiftly toward the short line, as Ed's excellent driving has led to our arrival with perhaps the first ten cars of the day. We are sure we will be at the hotel very early. Next come the six longest minutes of my trip. I who can find a ten year old piece of paper in the office or at home in a few seconds, suddenly cannot locate the exit documents for the car without which we will probably not be allowed to go into Georgia. Going through everything, my heart is pounding - I have given up my place in line rather than admit to the officials that I am without the papers. My driver is quite calm although he does suggest that I do not say a word while I search. Ed saves me by pulling the papers out of the Insurance Documents Envelope which I had carefully placed in the pouch behind my passenger seat because they did not fit it in the smaller passport document folder nor in the title and registration document folder. (When we had finished the two and a half hour, hot,dusty, smoky procedure at customs when we entered Turkey last week, I had carefully placed the exit documents in the insurance document envelope on the back of the seat just so that I would not forget where they were!) "Border Anxiety" is not a joke. We have been so thoroughly warned that I think most of us are not acting as calm as we normally do.
We leave Turkey with an "OMATAI" , our term for a place we hope to return. It was taught us by Minerva, a grand old San Francisco lady we met on our trip to the Straits of Magellan. We have used it ever since, and Turkey deserves it! The people, the food, the history, and, surprising to us, even Turkey is scenic beyond belief even to the Eastern border. We had no idea the Black Sea Mountains were so vast, nor that we would go up and down them so much. There is so much to be explored, and we felt safe and secure. Northern California, Switzerland, Canada, all wrapped up together in one country!
On into Georgia and our biggest border surprise ever. At first, we thought we were in for the long haul. Heavy gates allowed just five or six cars into the next area at a time. However, instead of the bureaucratic nonsense we had expected, we were greeted with smiles and waves of welcome. An English speaking young man explained we would have just two windows to check in, I was presented a fresh red long-stemmed rose, we were through customs in less than ten minutes. Nevertheless, "Border Anxiety" was evident. One usually unflappable driver was asked for his car number and dropped several pieces of paper as he looked for something he thought they wanted. All they wanted was the rally number painted on the side of the car, but until he understood that, he was far from calm. The man in front of me in line left his passport at the window in his haste to return to his car and be on the road again. During all this, Ed is able to sit in our car and have a few minutes peace and quiet from all the concentration and muscle strength that driving these roads takes. In addition, he was interviewed at length by the local television crew and was able to express his admiration for Edvard Shevernadze and his gratitude toward the latter's efforts for world peace. We wish we could have watched the local news, because they were with Ed for at least ten minutes and were sincerely interested in what he was saying. Actually, he looked really cool as they asked him question after question. He may be the new star of Georgian television. Surely there will be scores of young boys with our pens who will see Ed on the news and tell their parents, "That is the American who gave me the pen". The Georgians are showing us an unexpectedly generous welcome!
Georgia is the home of the Golden Fleece, of Jason and the Argonauts. It is an ancient Christian kingdom. It is full of history, and is incredibly beautiful. The locals tell the story that when God created the world and gave out the nations, he was not yet omniscient. The Georgians were out drinking and did not get their allocation of land. They flattered God that they had been drinking to his health, and he rewarded them with the land he had been keeping for himself, the most beautiful spot of all, Georgia. (Apologies to religious education - this is legend and myth). By the way, the name Georgia was given to the nation by one of its conquerors who noted that they were excellent farmers and thus gave the country its name for the word farmer in that language. If I had free internet access from here, I would check which conqueror.
Our drive into Georgia is filled with mixed emotions. The years of Communism and the Cold War have left their mark on our consciousness. Surely we never expected we would actually visit. Irony of ironies, the rally headquarters hotel at Batumi is full when we arrive, so we are assigned to the SPUTNIK HOTEL. Rather than being located along the rather beautiful promenade along the Black Sea, we are driven by van about four miles straight up the hill to an isolated location. The entire area is evidence that all of the Soviet money for decades went to the military and to space programs rather than to maintenance and construction of infrastructure for its citizens. The area around the hotel and the exterior of the hotel itself force us to remind ourselves we are here for adventure, not for luxury. Inside is not quite as bad, although the first room we were to be in cannot be used because it is being redone and there is not even drywall inside. Our room is spartan, but there is hot water! Most of the hotels do not have that. In addition, most of them are filled with refugees from the Abkhazian conflict (southern Georgia area which is trying for independence). Our Hotel Sputnik does have a small restaurant and bar, and we find many of our friends have also been assigned here. We have just "lost" another two hours, so we have two hours before our bus arrives at the hotel to take us back down to town for tonight's festive dinner which is to feature the President of Adjaria, a region of Georgia which also maintains it is an autonomous republic. Evidently this leader is widely respected in Batumi, so we have all been asked to stand in respect when he arrives. Somehow we manage to be presentable in clean clothes. Ed chooses this event to reinforce his California presence. He wears the Tommy Bahama shirt which Liz gave him for his birthday, and he looks great. We are able to wander through town before the banquet, and sit on a bench in front of the Black Sea. This could be a truly splendid city. The Georgian architecture in some spots is lovely if faded. The vines covering the terraces are beautiful. The Intourist Hotel itself has lovely chandeliers and ceilings, but the atmosphere is cold and faded. The tables are set in a lovely ballroom, and it is immediately apparent that the Georgians have pulled out all the stops to give us a memorable evening in this room.
We will skip the food of the evening. There were good sized portions and the service was lovely. The arrival of the President was memorable. Accompanied by a fairly large entourage, he walked along the length of the ballroom, past our tables to the head table, smiling and waving and obviously happy to see us all there. The toasts were long and involved; both he and another official whose title escapes me, toasted their rich Adjarian heritage, the children of the future, peace, their guests, and many others. Each of the speeches and toasts was then translated by a young man with excellent English. Then the program began. A young girl, only fourteen, sang in English, "A Time for Us" from West Side Story. Next came a young, beautiful edition of Edith Piaf. She was followed by a young beauty who was the object of much male admiration and comment. She sang, (surprise) , "My Heart Will Go One" from Titanic. The sound system was loud enough that all could hear easily. A young twelve year old boy resplendent in white tie and tails sang "La Bamba" - shades of Mario Lanza and Caruso. Young dancers did traditional Georgian folk dances, and a group of ten year olds did the Cha Cha Cha and had people cheering. They are so young and so intent on pleasing us. Throughout the program, we watched a group of Georgian men on the balcony above, sitting at tables, and obviously strong, sturdy men. A few people remarked they were fairly "rough looking" characters, but we were interested in what on earth they were doing there.
Suddenly, after a few more speeches and toasts, the men on the upper balcony stood up from their tables, stood in line, and began to sing. Our spines literally tingled. The sound went straight to the soul. The power and strength and harmony dazzled every single one of us. At the end of what was a long and evidently traditional Georgian piece, we gave them a cheering, standing ovation, and shouts for "more", many "bravo's", and a few German "ja-wohls" Clearly pleased, they continued with several more songs, and were eventually joined by one of our rally members, an Italian who is traveling with the man from the Emirates, and who himself has a splendid voice. There is a mournful depth to the emotion as these men sing. No one who heard them will ever forget them.
It was getting late, and the toasts continued. In addition, we knew we could not be polite and leave before "His Excellency", the President, departed. So we sat, smiling and thinking of our early morning departure. Philip Young, our rally director, was introduced as Paul Young, so he went forward to cheers for "Paul, Paul" from all of us. He was resplendent in a blue blazer and tie hastily borrowed from Richard at our table. It might have been seen as a sign of disrespect had Philip appeared at the head table in a sport shirt and slacks. The photographers and journalists were everywhere! Believe it or not, this is apparently a major event for Batumi. We have been given a reception worthy of royalty. One observation of the evening - how do they manage to recruit "secret service" agents all around the world who look and move exactly alike. They must have a world-wide training video or something. Ed says they all seem to grow the same little white thing out of their ear! After we discussed this phenomenon at length during the evening, Victor, sitting next to me at dinner, leaned down and said "...and politicians the world over, as well....." Absolutely! Hugh and Victor are driving a Morris Minor. They are polished, well mannered and extremely cordial travel mates. They have told us that as we pass them each morning, they say when they see us coming in the rear view mirrow, "Here comes the California Cabriolet". Victor is well traveled, tall, handsome, and sophisticated. He is a native Nigerian and was head of Johnson Wax in Africa, Europe, and India, and now divides his time betweven England and Nigeria. Victor and Hugh are neighbors, and his middle child and Hugh's daughter are good friends, and it was Victor who invited Hugh on this trip. Hugh accepted immediately but when Victor saw the look on Hugh's wife's face, Victor suggested that perhaps Hugh should take the weekend to consider. Here they are and the entire rally is the better for their presence. Richard and Elizabeth, our other dinner mates, are driving a vintage Bentley and are wonderful! She is a classic English beauty and a childhood friend of Hugh. Chris and Ron, the "Slow Blokes to China" added wit to the evening, and Chris was the one to take the initiative to offer a toast from all of us to the Georgians. They had asked earlier that we do so, but there seemed to be an uncertainty among us, so we were pleased that Chris did it! Philip Young asked that we all be in our cars in the parking lot at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow. We do not know if he was serious or if he was at least trying to bring the evening to an earlier conclusion. because the first car is not scheduled to depart until 8. Even though we were all enjoying every moment, tomorrow is a long day. Some people left, but we knew we must wait for the President's departure. Finally, he took leave after a few more sincere remarks to us, and we followed him out. Our van ride back to the hotel was full of one way streets and dead ends. One Brit quipped from the rear of the van at one particularly remote dead end, ..."My wife has all the money..." Actually, we felt safe and secure. One of our van drivers is a Professor of Pharmacology who drives the van on the side. Apparently, monthly incomes here hover around $ 40 (US) per month, and jobs are scarce. We become increasingly aware of what privileged lives we Americans lead, not only monetarily, but in terms of opportunity and freedom. What an evening! We are more aware than ever before of the ridiculousness of war! The fervence of the toast to peace was remarkable. The President was absolutely correct when he toasted the children, whom he referred to as Adjaria's future! Batumi deserves accolades for its hospitality.
Good day all around - no penalty points at all!
SATURDAY, MAY 13, 2000
BATUMI TO TBILISI
We realized when we checked into the Sheraton Matechi Palace Hotel that we have been so concentrated on the rally that we truly were not sure what day of the week it is today. We will remember today as the Day of the Potholes. Gigantic and often crossing half the width of the road, The road book for today advises "Care for your Tyres". with exclamation points. That is impossible if one expects to drive on the roads! One of the highlights of today's drive was the River Dzvrilla. The village of Khureve between the hills was exquisite.
Our drive past the village of Gori brought us a feeling of disbelief that we were actually viewing the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. We learned that was not his original name, but Stalin meant "man of steel" in Russian, and that became the name the world would know him by. Of all the despots of history, he seems to us one of the worst. He purged and slaughtered his own countrymen for no other reason than that they opposed him. "Uncle Joe" was an ally in WWII, but he was a villain, nonetheless. Roosevelt and then Truman and Churchill of course knew better than to trust him.
Tbilisi itself is a city of over a million. A river runs through it, trees line the main roads, and the architecture is worthy of much study. Beautiful traditional buildings, some which reflect both the Muslim and Mongol invasions of past centuries, many Roman influences, and of course, large massive buildings ordered built by Stalin in the early years of this century. We arrived mid-afternoon, just two minutes ahead of our required timecheck. Whew!! An unexpected "detour" into a neighborhood by the hotel had threatened our penalty free day. Hooray for us. The Sheraton Matechti Palace Hotel sits high on a hillside just about ten minutes walk from the center of town, but eons away in luxury. Less than two years old, it is the only new building in the city, and it was built by an American company. Shades of John Portman Atlanta architecture, the rooms face a five story open lobby. Marble, open elevators, rooms facing an elegant lobby, piano player playing American music throughout the day and at formal afternoon tea time, this is not what we expected in this part of the world!! We are savoring the comfort and room service and easy internet access because we received a three page summary of what we may expect in the next few days, especially on the ferry on the fourteen hour crossing of the Caspian Sea. We have been advised to take our own sheets or sleeping bags, our own food, toilet paper, liquids, and we have also been advised we will not be able to stay in our cars, which is what we had planned to do. It will be a unique adventure. We hope for good weather!!
We decided to take a good long afternoon nap and luxuriated in the uncommon time off. We doubt we will ever take such naps for granted! We had a late dinner downstairs, an excellent buffet. Each day we meet new members of our traveling group. There are no visible cliques, everyone is uniformly interesting and amazingly well behaved considering all the highway passing and jostling for position that occurs. There are some serious racers here.
SUNDAY, MAY 14, 2000
What an unusual Mother's Day. I realize how blessed I have been, first with a truly outstanding mother, then with two loving, truly outstanding, healthy and happy children who have made me very proud from the day each was born. We may be a world apart today but we are together! Our day has definitely not been a Sunday brunch. The luxury Sheraton Hotel has a full garage with hoists and everything for car repairs. Cars from our rally group were in the "queue" even before opening time. We were fortunate! The rear schock absorbers which came from Stuttgart turned out to be for the rear of our car, even though we had been told they would not be available for three to four weeks. Thanks to Tom and Maria Noor's courier, they arrived early this morning. Ed had already gone down to work on the car before tomorrow's 5:30 a.m. departure, so I was carrying two heavy shock absorbers through the Sheraton lobby - I told people they were my weight-lifting items. The smile on Ed's face when he saw them was joyful. The only problem was that no mechanic was available, so he installed his own shock absorbers. He says he has not done that for 45 years! I have great video of the car in the air and a grease-covered husband working too hard, but we are thrilled to have the job done. He had help at the very last moment to compress the springs, and the car is ready to go tomorrow. Peter Benham, the rally mechanic, and our friend from the Eurobell photo team were both helping him. We have been bouncing over the big potholes! It is amazing to watch trial lawyers, dentists, neurosurgeons, Oxford and Cambridge graduates, lying under their cars working as mechanics. There is a camaraderie and cooperation that is making this rally memorable. It is "one for all and all for one" until it comes to passing to get to a time control on time. Then the competitive spirit blossoms. Ed spent an additional three hours doing maintenance, cleaning the interior, and making sure the car is perfect for the next difficult days. We are still trying to lighten the car.
This afternoon we did take time off to take a bus tour of the city of Tbilisi, although the scope of the tour was limited to just the central section of the city. The results of the Civil War from the beginning of this decade are all too apparent. Small boutiques are often in buildings that are otherwise empty and unrepaired since the war. The former President who was in office after Georgia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991 was wildly popular at first, a University professor from a widely respected Georgian family. He was however a bad manager and even his friends evenually came to oppose him. He left Georgia, and eventually committed suicide. It was then that Edvard Shevernadze returned to Georgia and has managed to stop the fighting and is restoring a semblance of economic stability. Even so, the current unemployment rate of men in Georgia is forty per cent, the average wage $40 U.S. per month. I know I am repeating myself, but as we heard the guide reinforce what we had already learned, it hit us again how government can fail its own people.
We toured churches dating back to the fourth century. In one twelfth century church, a baby was being baptized. There is a heavy emphasis on Christianity here in Tbilisi. The Communist years are visible only in the decaying condition of the beautiful buildings! There is a heavy influence of culture here; one in two, according to our guide, has some University experience. Poets, writers, artists, musicians, are held in high esteem.Tbilisi has several "pantheons" in the city, graveyard memorialsto the nations' poets, artists, etc. We love the Georgian people, but there are some pretty sad cases sitting outside the tourist stops, especially the churches, begging and hoping to be paid for being photographed. In one church, a nun came up to us and asked if we could help a child who was sitting on a bench in the chapel with her mother and grandmother. The child was ghostly white and limp, without expression in her sad eyes. I asked the nun if we could get a doctor; she indicated no, that money would help. We gave enough that we hope can help and said prayers for the child. At least we know they can eat for a while and perhaps get medical care as well. Ed passed out dozens of 5lira notes to old lady pensioners who blessed him. That amount of money can easily feed each one for a month. All of these donations are infinitesimal in relation to their needs. The pensioners have not been paid for years, but they have recently installed a new commissioner with good credentials to resolve their tax revenue source problems. The young Mafia with their cell phones and their big German cars irritate us as much as they did in Vladivostock.
They too are stealing from their own people. One of the requirements of education in Tbilisi is the learning of a foreign language. Our guide said that a language is taught if the country is a neighbor, an ally, or an enemy. Russian is required because Russia is, at one time or another, always one of the three, but never sure which one. The Georgians all go out of their way to make sure we do not view them as Russians. The effects of all the invasions over the centuries are visible in their language. Their word for hello contains a reference to war and their word for goodbye translates to "Victory".
There is a "Georgian Evening" banquet tonight, but many of us are opting to pack our cars and be ready for tomorrow's long day. We will do our next website whenever we find a hotel with access. Meanwhile, we keep you all in our hearts and minds as we travel. Your messages and encouragement mean more than you know. By the way, thanks for all the Mother's Day good wishes. Jessie, a special greeting to you. Karen said your party was superb. We had planned to call during the party, but the timing was impossible. We will see the pictures when we return, and we will show you ours. "Mother Brice," this is your day, too!!!!
The brilliant sunshine of the morning has given way to wind and rain, which accounts for the length of this update. We will not see internet access for a while, so we send you our love. Time to pack.
MONDAY, MAY 15, 2000
"....Swiftly fly the days....." We are up early this morning. Car Number 1 leaves at 5:31 a.m. Although we are Car 48, because of the cars which left us in Istanbul and because a few others have dropped out because of problems, our "starting position" is now 35, meaning that every morning we start 35 minutes after hypothetical Car 0. We are grateful that we had the good sense to stay "home" last night, pack the car, check out, and do all the mundane preparations that we sometimes wish could be done by elves! The luxury of the Sheraton Hotel here is particularly hard to square with the fact that most Tbilisi residents have electricity for only two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Georgia is such a perplexing country. Naturally beautiful, there is nevertheless a feeling that the neglect of buildings, public welfare, and so forth is simply inexpicable. Ed reminded me that at the rally headquarters hotel, the Intourist, ours was the first breakfast which had been served in the hotel since 1991! We did not even bother to walk up all the stairs to see if there was breakfast served in our Sputnik Hotel. We knew there would not be any. At least we had hot water. All in all, except for location, we were probably lucky to be in the Sputnik.
Our first glance at today's total kilometres left us aghast - 1161.45. Closer examination showed that the total was for two days, both the trip to the Caspian Sea ferry and the 575 km from the ferry to our hotel for the following night. The schedule was evidently made because of the legendary unpredictability of the ferry schedule. Everyone was prompt this morning. In fact, several of the older cars took penalty minutes and left early just to be sure to make the ferry. It is not quite light at our departure. There are many tired eyes, as the mechanics dealt with car problems in the garage until nearly midnight. The weather is gray and rain is falling lightly. The roads are so full of potholes that our Terratrip zeroes out constantly and is of little use. We have found that the most accurate measurement we have is the forty-three year old dashboard speedometer and tripmeter, both of which are in miles. A nightly task is converting the entire left column of the roadbook, the total distance at each interval, so that the column reads miles as well as kilometres. We share the road this morning with carts, cows, geese, and classic peasants. Ed observes that much of what we are seeing this morning must be similar to life in the U.S. in the 1750's. The faces, the hats, the carts, how we long to stop to photgraph them properly. Instead, we drive as fast as possible, which is not very fast because of the roads, because our Road Book says clearly: "Please be aware if you are not on the ferry this evening the rally moves on without you". Surprising how that makes all of us "behave".
Although we are still getting honks and thumbs up and waves, this morning the people seem less and less able to comprehend what is happening as the rally comes through their villages. We see faces almost with comprehension, miles of few smiles, an air of almost total resignation. The old people especially seem out of another century, and the clothing, posture, and expression are classic peasant. Miles of men sitting along a road which could be improved by themselves with a few shovelfuls of dirt. There seems no entrepeneurial spirit in this section of Georgia at all. The natural beauty of the area continues to capture our attention, but we are somehow sad for the people here. The centuries of invasions and bloodshed seem to have taken a toll upon the citizens which is sad. There is an apparent sense of resignation in the citizenry in this area which is sad.
Suddenly the border is approaching. We will be in Azerbaijan before noon! The first thing we notice at the border is that only one car comes from Azerbaijan into Georgia the whole time we are waiting, and zero trucks. People are apparently not flocking to Georgia from the east. The entire atmosphere changes once we are easily through Customs with smiles, welcomes, and a warm atmosphere. We see our first enthusiastic response of the day from the local residents. The road is an actual highway, and perhaps we will not be battered around as we were coming out of Georgia. The lush green of the trees which canopy over the highway is the green of Ireland and New Zealand, and of course the Brits are reminded of England. We see our first highway sign to Baku, although the alphabet here makes it recognizable only by the fact there are four letters and there is a B and a K. The trees continue to dominate the landscape for many miles. There is little big development here. No buildings, just undeveloped land and trees. An amazing phenomenon after a border crossing. Here we are, seventy-one cars (down from 101 by attrition and by those who left the rally in Istanbul), all together at the border, then, after the crossing, we are so spread out that we are often relieved to see one another if for no other reason than a feeling that indeed we are on the correct road.
Azerbaijan is full of activity. These citizens do not sit and stand along the road looking lost. They are doing things! It is still misty and cold, there are water buffalo and other animals along the road, but there is despondent attitude here. Fields are properly maintained; clean, painted bridges show good maintenance, attractive people greet us enthusiastically; we see the first golf club we have seen on the trip in the hand of a boy on the side of the road. All signs say to Baku, so we are able to enjoy the scenery for a while. Three hundred sixty-seven km. from the hotel to the first time control - a long haul this morning. What a pleasant surprise awaits us at Cokchai. The time control desk is in an AZ petrol station and cafe. There are real toilets instead of the holes in the floor which were in the stations in Georgia. They are spotless. The station attendants are dressed in suits, several English speaking Azerbaijanis help us not only with the fuel but with changing some dollars to "manats", the local currency. Snacks are plentiful, and the control desk has been set up for us with a lovely tablecloth and fresh flowers! Unfortunately, we have just a few minutes here to check in and drive on. We are taking no chances on missing the ferry. The next time control is in Baku, the city from which the ferry will depart and the city which was featured on the Discovery channel a few months ago and which was described by them and by Asia Overland as an "elegant" city. Our entrance into the city and our first several hours there leave us wondering what is elegant about it.
We go to the "Motodrom" where we must wait for two hours before we are led by police convoy to the port to board the ferry. The two hours would have been pleasant at the AZ petrol station. Here at the abandoned go-cart dirt "motodrom" we have ice cream bars and beverages for sale, but the wait is less than enjoyable. Many are still working out last minute car problems! Waiting in the parking area for our mandatory police escorts to the port and the ferry, I am finally able to meet the two young Swiss men who are driving a 1965 Mustang Convertible on the rally! We have an excellent conversation discussing all of the considerable advantages of the car, but I am glad that mine is safely at home in the garage at Indian Wells. Time to refect on Azerbaijan.
Until now, it was just another CNN news spot about which we knew very little except that Christiane Amanpour had a delightful way of saying her name and Azerbaijan at the end of her reports of the battles there seven or eight years ago. It is a country wrapped in the poetry, culture, and hospitality of the Caucausus. Oil boom and oil money has transformed Baku into a thriving port city although we never did see any of the good spots. The terrible earthquake of 1988 left battered ruins, but there are beautiful, unspoiled forests, mountains, deserts, and mud volcanoes. There are "chimera", flames leaping spontaneously from the ground. There is a town called Neftyany Kamni, which is built on stilts in the Caspian Sea (and which we are determined to see from the ferry before it gets dark). There are sturgeon farms, and the caviar is reported to be excellent. There is an oil rig building plant just off of Baku at Gobustan. Supposedly there are "massive steel silhouettes which make modern art of the skyline", but we have not seen them yet. Azerbaijan has 7.8 million people, oil, gas, silk, and caviar as major exports. Azeris form 90% of the population, Dagestanis 3.2%, Russian 25% and Armenians 2%. The "blood fued" is with Armenia, which is mainly Christian while Azerbaijan is 83% Muslim, mostly Shi'ite. It has been invaded by Arab caliphs in the 7th century, by Persia (Iran) in the 16th century when it then became a province of Persia. Independence in 1918, then in 1920 invaded by the Red Army when it then became a member of the USSR. In 1990, the Soviets massacred hundreds of people in Baku. In 1991 Azerbaijan gained formal independence.
The police escort to the port is a welcome addition to me! There were four pages of instructions just for the 11.7 kms from the motrodome to the port. the busy 5:00 traffic would have been bad enough but the drivers here are crazy. They did not even pay attention to the "convoy" and broke in several times before realizing what was happening. The 11.7 kms expanded to 17 as the escort took us a roundabout way which included the Russian embassy but not the downtown area. We have been told so many scare stories about the dreadful condition of the ferry that we are all apprehensive. At first, we are pleasantly surprised. The decks look fairly well maintained and the crew friendly and efficient. We are loaded without too much delay and climb the three steep staircases to find our cabin assignments. Not all of us will have cabins. Some will have airline style seats, others just space on the floor. We see our names assigned to Cabin 20. Good start. Then Ron, one of our "Slow Blokes to China" mentions something about how I am going to feel about sleeping with him and Chris tonight. Since he is always joshing about something, I pay little attention until we realize that indeed we have been assigned four to a cabin, with only group shower rooms and toilets. We laugh, say we are adaptable, and all four of us put our gear into Cabin 20. I decide Scarlett O'Hara was right - I will think about it tomorrow. The experience will be good for the website.
We are able to go clear up to the top deck of the ferry and film the departure. The turquoise of the Caspian Sea and the mountains are lovely, and we think this may not be as bad a trip as we have been warned. The crew is so friendly and we have the entire boat just for our rally. There is a restaurant and bar, and the cabins have linens on them which are plain but look clean. Even the toilets don't look too bad until we find out they do not flush. Oh, well! The food being prepared for our dinner looks acceptable, and soon the restaurant is full. We decide to park ourselves in the airline style chairs with a window and are already thinking we may end up sleeping in them instead of with our friends. Then comes Ron, asking if I want the good news or the bad news first. Of course, I want the good news - he says they have managed to buy an empty cabin and that we will have Cabin 20 to ourselves. Afraid they are just being polite, I insist of seeing the room they have managed to purchase (by the way, the bad news is that I owe them $12.50). Up one deck and lo and behold, they are telling the truth. In fact, they have bought the Captain's cabin, so they have their own toilet and basin and two beds in separate areas as well as a huge chart table. These blokes are crafty fellows. They are so pleased with their accommodations that they do not even want the $ 12.50!
We are invited to a birthday party in the area of the airline sitting. Claude Picasso turns 53 today. As he rightfully points out, this is a much more memorable atmosphere than a similar party in a stuffy hotel. His co-driver and navigator Sylvie is a charming and thoughtful french woman who took good care of everyone there. The story of the evening (unverified but such a good story that I must include it) is that Claude overslept in the Sheraton in Tbilisi this morning and went down to the time control desk with only a towel and his pink book in order to avoid penalties. Supposedly he told the staff member at the desk that it was his birthday and the staff member remarked that he was appropriately dressed in his birthday suit. Such stories and rumors are simply that. I intend to find out if this is true.
MAY 15, 2000 (FERRY FROM BAKU TO TURKMENBASHI)
The dire warnings about the condition of the ferry were exaggerated except for the condition of the bathrooms. They do not seem to have people in this part of the world who know how to fix toilets, so they leave them alone for years. None of them on the entire ferry flushed! Oh well, the cabin was comfortable and we had it to ourselves for a very long, very needed sleep. We awoke to sunshine and smooth water, but the ferry was running on just one engine. The rumor was that the captain was running on one engine to save fuel. It was surprising that when it was time to dock, both engines were fully operable. The crossing was uneventful, and of course we enjoyed being on the water! The speed was just about that of Moonshadow.During the entire crossing, we were thinking about the oil below the Caspian Sea, the potential for the future. A recurring argument in the region is if the Caspian Sea is a sea or a lake. If it is deemed to be a lake, then ALL bordering countries share revenue from oil, gas, etc. That would have damaging economic effects on Azerbaijan. They are counting on big income from the $ 7.4 billion dollar "deal of the century" signed by the consortium of western oil companies. Many believe Azerbaijan will benefit by USA aid as the oil deal outweighs our loyalty to Armenia (and its strong lobby in DC).
Azerbaijan's economy depends upon oil, gas, silk, and caviar. The whole country is wrapped in the poetry, culture, and hospitality of the Caucausus. There are earthquake battered ruins, beautiful forests, mountains, deserts, and mud volcanoes, and "chimera" (flames leaping spontaneously from the ground). We had hoped to see Neftyamy Kamni, the town of 6000 people built on stilts in the Caspian Sea. We are sure that we saw the lights! There are many sturgeon farms, a huge oil rig building plant off Baku at Gobustan. We did not see them, but they are supposedly "massive steel silhouettes which make modern art of the skyline".
The Azerbaijanis made us most welcome on the ferry. This is traditional hospitality of the country. There are 7.8 million here. Of those, 90% are Azerveri, 3.2$ Dagestani, 2.5% Russian and 2% Armenian. There is still a blood feud with Armenia, and the borders between the countries are closed. 83% of Azerbaijanis are Shi'ite Muslim. (Armenia is Christian). Before we came here to visit, our knowledge of the country was limited to CNN. We can still hear Christiane Amanpour reporting from there about eight years ago and hearing her beautiful ending to her reports: "Christiane Amanpour, Azerbaijan". Now here we are! The country has an amazing history: in the 7th century, it was invaded by the Arab caliphs. In the 16th century, it was invaded by Persia and became a Persian province. In 1918 it became independent, but was then invaded by the Red Army and became a Soviet republic of the USSR. In 1990 the Soviets massacred hundreds of people in Baku, but in 1991 Azerbaijan finally gained its formal independence. Don't know the details of the war with Armenia, but we are told that 20% of Azerbaijan is still controlled by Armenia today, and the borders are "firmly shut".
The fourteen hour ferry crossing has been accomplished in about sixteen hours, which is quite good, and the weather was excellent. We rather enjoyed the journey. Then we arrived in port and began the customs process in Turkmenistan.
MAY 16, 2000 TURKMENBASHI TO ASHKABAD
We were all hoping for a swift customs process at the dock so that we could be on our way - the drive today is 575.70 kilometres, about 351 miles. That was not to be. We waited on the ferry dock (patiently, I might add; we have been told about the police here). We knew there was to be a "spraying process" of the cars during customs. We did not know the lady in charge of the process was out to lunch. Seventy-one cars waited until she returned, donned her white uniform and came on to the dock with a small sprayer which she used slowly on all four wheels of each car, ten at a time. The rest of us cooled our heels in our cars; one thoughtful rally participant was playing a good Beatles album, which at least helped a little.
We do not know why, but Car 74, a couple from Argentina, were waved back on to the dock instead of out the gate. The front end of their car, a Mercedes, is covered with duct tape to hold on the front grill, etc. They have had bad luck! They are the ones who hit Kevin and Mark in the Sunday night debacle across the mountain at night in Greece. The Argentines had extensive damage to their front end which was perfectly repaired in Istanbul. This time they hit a calf (not a car, the driver points out). The damage will not be prepared as quickly this time. We heard this is their third "encounter" on this trip. One of our fellow travelers is chuckling about the old Tom Lehrer song about the hunters, and game wardens, and the purebred Guernsey cows.
We were finally on our way about 5:30 local time, for what we hoped would be only a five hour drive. We expected little oncoming traffic but were greeted with 5:00 traffic of buses and trucks trying to outdo each other in belching black smoke. We did see a Marathon bus, one of the ones made along Highway 5 in Oregon! We are out of the port town quickly and as we drive, we are amazed at the similarities to the Palm Springs area before and without golf courses. The mountains resemble the Little San Bernandinos, the desert plants are similar shapes and sizes. There the similarities end. These roads have no true edge on the right side of the road. No matter, the drive is quite enjoyable. Just at twilight, I have my arm out the window and am hit by what at first seems like rain. Then we realize it is not rain, it is a horde of black bugs which leave a mud like covering on the windshield (and my bare arm). The covering is so thick that we cannot see through the windshield. All of us had to stop at least once to clean the windshield because the windshield wipers were useless. As darkness increased, we learned something about Turkmenistan drivers. There is no gentlemen's agreement to dim lights as one approaches. We expected little traffic going the opposite way, but we were wrong! There were hundreds of trucks and cars which used full beams all the way. No lights on the two lane highway (No "dual carriageways" here. The right edge of the highway was not clearly defined, and Ed found the drive difficult just to see! Again, there were no other rally cars in sight, and since there were no town names or highway numbers, everyone was hoping the left fork they had taken was the correct one. We were positive we were on the right road, but just in case, we did stop along the road and ask two Turkmen: "Ashkabad??? pointing in the direction we were going. They smiled broadly and said yes. We did not smile broadly but at least breathed easier. Our uncertainty was increased by the fact that a city name and an archway we were to pass under simply were not on our route. They had been removed since the roadbook was prepared. A daytime drive to Ashkabad would have been a piece of cake - after a sixteen hour ferry trip and the customs delays, a night drive was more difficult.When we passed the "Turkmenistan Jean Company at 568.55 total kms. we knew we were close to shower and bed. We were fortunate!! A new roundabout made all the final roadbook instructions unusable. The orange arrows put up by the rally organization as aids because of the new layout of the roundabout were removed by local kids. We found the sports stadium and parking lot on our first try but several others took as much as an hour driving all over town until they found us. Tonight was one of the nights when we did not park at the hotel. Instead, we had secure parking at a type of "Kingdome" and took buses to the hotel. Again, we were lucky. We were in the rally headquarters hotel close to the parking, so we would be able to go to and from our car easily. By the time we entered our hotel, we were ready for a shower and bed immediately.
May 17, 2000 ASHKABAD, TURKMENISTAN
Up early the next morning - what a surprise we have had. Ashkabad, the capital of Turkmenistan, is full of architectural surprises. The president, "elected" by over ninety per cent of the people "for life" is not what we would call modest. His picture is everywhere, on the money, in every public place, store, wherever you are. In some of the portraits, his hair is gray, in others, a dark brown or black. We assumed the gray haired pictures were the most recent. Not so. Whatever one's feeling about his dictatorship, one must admire the buildings he has added to the skyline of this city. There is a huge statue in the center of town near the presidential palace and Congress. On the top is a gold statue of guess who -- the statue revolves so that the president is always facing the sun! We consider that real attention to detail. In addition, there is a gold statue on the top of a memorial adjacent - that is of the president as a boy! He has been on a building program which boggles the mind. The presidential palace is splendid, the gardents extensive and formal; the compound covers several blocks. The library, the largest in the country, is nearby and is truly beautiful. The highlight of the architecture in this area is the tower. It makes the Space Needle seem drab indeed. Marble, brass, beautiful observation decks over the whole city, it was built in a short time but is stunning! When we thought we could not be impressed any further, our driver took us to the newest shopping center in town, built for the year 2000, with a five or six story exterior waterfall which is one of the most impressive architectural elements we have ever seen. Inside the shopping center are a large supermarket as well as the traditional type stores. On the upper level are cafes and a real bowling alley with human pinsetters. We had lunch there with our driver and Steve and Chris, two neat Brits who are driving a vintage Rolls Royce. The others at lunch were fashionably dressed, and the kids were eating pizza! We will never forget that in the middle of a desert country with a serious water problem, and where bread was rationed as little as two years ago, the splendor of the buildings is a little difficult to understand. In spite of this, we must admit we really were impressed. People who have been in Dubai found certain similarities. The lush trees all over Ashkabad added to its beauty.
The Sheraton Hotel did not win friends and influence people. Water was six dollars a bottle and wine about $40. We were good citizens and changed our money at the local bank. Other more daring friends used the black market exchangers and received as much as 17,000 manat per US. dollar.!! We have found everyone wants American dollars. After I paid for a quickly purchased long loose skirt in American dollars, our guide informed me I could have been arrested and so could the clerks. In fact, he said he could report the transaction and the clerks would be heavily fined. I don't know if he was trying to be important, but I didn't use dollars for the rest of the day. No use finding out how these thousands of police keep busy.
No big car maintenance today, just some general cleanup. We had one of our best photo shoot of the entire trip when we walked from the hotel to the parking lot. Ed found an old bearded man in a jacket loaded with Soviet war medals who was proud to pose for him. Several Muslim women were having an elaborate tea ceremoney on a large platform bedlike "couch" just off the sidewalk. The girls and the women here are absolutely gorgeous. Tall, long legged, and slender beyond belief. We have not seen such a concentration of beauty in any other country. It will be interesting to see how many rolls of film Ed uses here.
Tonight was a dinner given by Philip Young for all the participants of the rally. Local entertainment and traditional dinner. We were seated mext to the British Ambassador to Turkmenistan, Fraser Jones and his wife Janet who were the honored guests. They were delightful dinner companions. Both are extremely attractive, bright, well-mannered, interesting, and just plain nice people. He was by far the most down to earth and sensible diplomat we have come across. Britain is most fortunate to have them in the foreign service. None of us had known this was to be a special dinner, so all of our dress was very casual. Fraser was impeccably dressed in blue blazer, shirt and tie (and trousers, of course). When he was announced as honored guest and speaker for the evening, he showed great class. He quickly and invisibly removed his jacket and headed for the stage. Consideration of others is the hallmark not only of a diplomat but a gentleman, and he is both. Even after staying at the dinner quite late, he and Janet came down to the parking lot to bid all of us a safe trip. We hope we will see them again one day. They did admit that when they heard our group was coming and what we were doing, they thought we might all be a bit mad (the British term for insane, not angry, 2nd and 4th graders).
We will remember Ashkabad as a city of contrasts, but of great beauty and friendly people. We are still being cheered as we arrive and as we leave.
MAY 18, 2000
ASHKABAD TO CHARDZOU. TURKMENISTAN
We have been warned that we will be "camping" tonight. Nevertheless, we begin the day rested and eager to begin. Ed installs a slick new expansion tank for the radiator. It is simply an empty two liter oil can.and piece of hose. (Good "surgical nurse" that I am, I even helped by threading the hose up for him while he was lying under the car. New skills each day.) The purpose is to recycle the overflow water from the radiator when the radiator is low. There is a vacuum created by the hose on the bottom. It makes our radiator just like new modern ones. Ed did this in just fifteen minutes. Starting early, we are quite proud of ourselves getting out of town. The rally cars making u-turns and going different directions resembles the Keystone cops. Where we are to turn right, there is gravel, and a work crew has installed plastic ribbon "barricades". Nearly everyone gives up and goes straight. Literal people that we are, Mary and David Laing in their Aston Martin and the Suhrbiers insist on turning right. The young man finally lowers the barricade, and we are rewarded with being on the correct road to Mary. You have to be here to know the good feeling that gives us.
We breeze down the highway past Yaslyk to a petrol station which we have carefully marked, since they will be few and far between today. We do not care for the grubby appearance of the station but have been told the petrol is the same at all stations, so we fill up. We breeze down the highway, confident this day will be one of the easier ones. The false feeling of security lasted about five miles. The steady and ominous backfire brought a look of disbelief to both our faces. Oh, no. Bad fuel. We limped to the side of the road with barely any power. Ed lay under the car draining fuel into an empty water bottle. Sure enough, a few drops of water. We drained more of the "bad fuel" out, and started up again. Two miles perfect, thank goodness. Then again that ominous backfire and stopped again. This time Ed decided it must be a fuel pump, so again he is a mechanic, installing the spare fuel pump that we carry. Again, we are on our way at full power. Then there is no power and the look on his face is enough for me to know we have a serious problem. This time, nothing works. He is on his back in the hot sun. As I study the maps, I see we are broken down on the highway at the exact point where the highway is the closest to the Iranian border. This is not the best of locations for American citizens. Ed wonders aloud about the possibility of mustard gas.
We have several offers of help from passing Turkmenistan people, but the language barrier is too much of a deterrent to allow mechanical aid here. Kevin and Mark come by, stop, offer moral support, but we send them on because there is nothing they can do. Finally, the nice guys in the 65 Mustang stop and tell us that Tony and the "sweep car" are less than ten minutes behind them. This at least gives encouragement. By now, Ed is looking for a leak in the fuel line. Tony, our excellent mechanic who used to race Mercedes, finally arrives. He and Ed analyze the problem while the sun gets hotter and hotter. The bad fuel, the backfiring, the new fuel pump had all exacerbated a leak which had started as a result of a twisted and finally broken fuel line. We needed a fuel line splice, which was accomplished by Ed and Tony. The entire ordeal was about an hour and a half. By the way, we did need and use the 14 Allen Key which took us so much effort to find! We were on our way again. One scary "chug, chug" , then pure smooth driving and some quick calculations which showed that even with the delay we might reach the time control in time.
The camels on the road are becoming so commonplace that we do not even stop to photograph them any longer. There is something so wonderful about seeing them in their natural environment. We have been careful not to hit any of them, because they wander across the road at will. Many of them are in fairly large groups, and are tended by a local nomad or farmer, we do not know which.
We are a long way from Ashkabad in more ways than one. There are twenty to thirty miles of desert in all directions. The majority of checks in our roadbook today say "police check". We do not have to stop, but there must be thousands of police "stations" along the way.We finally reach Mary (a story of the city later) and know that after a brief petrol stop, we will be at the checkpoint on time. We have passed hundred of chiildren along the roads today and every day, cheering and waving and smiling. Today we notice that in the heat many of them are naked along the road, in fairly large groups, but all there to greet us. We get petrol and are surrounded by a large group of interested local men who want to get in close to see the interior of the car. I finally roll up my window which has been down for the whole trip just so that no one can reach inside. Then again we are on our way, just one final "fork right before the bridge" to our time control. We are congratulating ourselves when an indescribable noise occurs at the same time our windshield is broken and my passenger window completely shattered by two rocks thrown by those beautiful children. We know they have been throwing them at various cars, but the young boy who hit our car was just about six feet away and had the bullseye of the day. The pieces of glass which came in were too small to cut, but for about two hours, I was afraid one of them was in my eye. I was relieved that it turned out to be a small bug. We arrived at our time control on time, but we were a bit unnerved. The passenger window was a goner. Ed finally decided it was too dangerous to leave in as it might fall in on me, so he will take it out completely tonight. I have said several thankful prayers this afternoon that my window was up. Even my head is not hard enough to have withstood that missile. Several other cars have had rocks thrown, but ours was the most direct hit. We will need to "sort out" a new window for security purposes. There are no "glass doctors" in this part of the world.
No food at the time control, so we are on our way again. The next event of the day is in the middle of a scenic area of huge sand dunes and camels and great photo ops. We pass one of the film crew vans, and it looks as if it is being pulled out of a deep sand pile by about four other cars. Then ahead of us is the white Volvo which is usually close to us on the highway. The Swedish couple who own it are charming. They have stopped to take a photo and are stuck in sand about 18 inches deep. Ed's next adventure of the day: he hooks up a tow rope to our car and pulls out the Volve while the owner and two ralliers from another car stop and push the Volvo from behind while Ed attempts to pull it out.. Ed's tow is successful the first time, but we are now wondering what will be next today.
We soon find out. We arrive in Chardzhou and are pleased that police are stationed about every hundred yards to guide us to tonight's "Sanatoriy Profilaktorisi", our hotel for the evening. Even though we have been warned we will be "camping" tonight because this is not a deluxe facility, we are unprepared by just how undeluxe it is. For starters, our room has what looks as if it might have had a bathroom but the door is bolted shut. We learn there are two bathrooms for nearly two hundred people. The setting of the hotel is so beautiful that we cannot understand just how the condition of the building can be so bad. The people are trying hard to please us. There is live entertainment, a bar, and dinner which we will describe later. First, Ed makes the best discovery of this or any other evening. He alone finds a hot shower about three hundred yards away from the main building. It does not matter how delapidated it is. There is hot water and we are both clean within a few minutes. We tell Maria Noor of our discovery and she is next to breathe a sigh of relief and of thanks. We had been told about Maria before we began this adventure. Her beauty and generosity of spirit became legendary on the Beijing to Paris trip. She and Tom drive a blue Mercedes convertible which is perfectly outfitted. They got our shock absorbers for us and have helped many people on the trip. At least Ed found her a shower! She and Tom actually set up camp outside on the terrace this evening. I was in bed in our room before I realized that in addition to being out under the moonlight, they had managed to be near the bathrooms. Smart people. Actually, we didn't mind it here - we had a terrace from our room and were able to leave the door open all night.
Mary Laing had a perfect observation at dinner. She said that if we behave, they may let us out of the sanitorium tomorrow morning. One can see this place as more of a hospital than a hotel. Dinner was a new experience. The people had such good intentions, but they are not used to large groups. We ended up in the kitchen with the cooks, helping them load the food onto plates which were almost impossible to come by. They were laughing and giggling and we all made the best of it. The evening was really enjoyable. I was thankful again that my window had been up when the rock hit. Maria said that Tom was hit in the head by a thrown rock on their trip through Morocco and the injury was serious enough he had to fly home to Germany. We looked at each other before bed tonight and agreed that today was perhaps more adventure than we had bargained for. Somehow, though, the whole thing is exhilarating, if exhausting. We slept well!!! Needless to say, there was no internet. There probably isn't a phone within three miles.
MAY 19 CHARDZHOU TO SAMARKAND
How to do justice to Uzbekistan and Samarkand in particular when it is after midnight and we must leave early tomorrow morning. We love the country and the people. Having had so many problems getting the visas to come here, we were more than pleasantly surprised at our reception at the border. It was slow, but the people were so kind and polite and so happy to see us. We could almost forget we were in a police state, except that those of us who had wished to leave the prescribed rally route in order to see Bukhara were told in no uncertain terms that it "was not possible". Vladmir Putin, the Russian leader, was in town and was to be on the Samarkand Highway bound for the Samarkand airport and we were not to deviate from the rally route at all, period. We did what we were told. In fact, by the end of the day, we laughed that the most powerful man in the whole country was one local policeman who refused to allow any of us to turn right at an intersection where our rally roadbook said to turn right. He waved his baton straight, and seventy-one cars and one hundred forty-two independently minded. sttrong willed people did exactly as told. Of course, then all of our roadbook instructions could not be used. Not to worry - the police are again stationed about every hundred yards. They are friendly and smiling and we continue to feel like royalty. Ed says that he won't know how to behave if people don't cheer for him and make other cars stop in order for us to pass.
Uzbekistan is immediately different when one enters the country. It could be Bakersfield, California. The farms are well tended, the people working hard, everything looks more prosperous here. We will telll you more later. We have had a "rest day" which was hard work. Ed had the front brakes checked this morning, intending to put on the new ones, but thought better of it when the local mechanics who came to our airport parking lot did not have the proper tools. He left on our existing ones. He also managed to find a piece of plastic (this is why I trust him to solve every problem) which can be used for a side window and provide security at night and protection against any more rocks. Some local workers fitted it and cut it and Ed and they installed it after removing the entire passenger door panel. It even goes up and down. We are sp fortunate! Adjusted the brakes and Peter lubed the front end and we filled up with petrol from the lorry which came to our parking lot. Then we took off on a tour of the city with a young man who offered his services as a guide while we were busy working on the car. He was so helpful. We toured the old mosque from the 11th century and then went to the market, which is vibrant and so colorful and so amazing. The women are dressed in bright colors, the bins of fruits and nuts and local vegetables are gigantic, and all of one's senses are assaulted at once. Fabulous. Ed came back for a nap, the driver took me back to Registan Square where there was a local festival tonight. Children from all over Uzbekistan had come to perform in the huge square surrounded by a brightly tiled, arched, domed former ancient University. Remarkable evening as we came back to get Ed and take him there to see it. The driver stayed with us from shortly after noon to 8 this evening. Our photos and videos will show you the warmth and beauty of the o\people of this country. There is a huge entrepeneurial spirit here. Last night we had dinner at a restaurant in a local park with Mary and Pat Brooks from Iowa and Chick Kleptz (founder of the Ponderosa Restaurants who owns 15 Marmon automobiles) and Bob O'Hara, his navigator. from Naples, Florida. One of our only all-American dinners. We ordered from pictures on the menu, and finally the young Russian waitress got into the spirit of things. Pat had been trying to find out if the meat was beef and had said "moo". At first we did not think she got it, but minutes later in answer to another question about another picture, she said "moo" and laughed and laughed. These are truly happy people. We have found them eager to speak English and the children are especially appealing.
More about Samarkand later. We had a group dinner this evening, again with those wonderful "slow blokes to China". Ron and Chris and just such "good eggs" through and through. We know many of you will meet them one day. They must come to the casita. We are on to Tashkent tomorrow. I hope I can send these messages to you tomorrow morning. The phone situations here are not state of the art.
Wendelll and Lynn - HAPPY ANNIVERSARY. WE MISS YOU. We will try to e-mail you. KATE AND TESS - THERE IS A FULL MOON TONIGHT - WE LOOKED AT IT AND THOUGHT OF YOU. MICHAEL - GIVE TY A HUG FOR US. CRAIG, LIZ, KAREN, DALE, LOVE YOU WILL TRY TO CALL TOMORROW. CHERYL AND NEIL HAPPY ANNIVERSARY. (Cheryl, flowers to Acacia, please)
MAY 21, 2000
We were so excited to have almost caught up with our adventures and tried from six this morning to send our e-mail. FRUSTRATING. There has been a "crash" of the phone systems here in Tashkent. Our computer tells us that e-mails were sent, but then the message says that the transmission failed. Also, the screen said we have twenty-three e-mails but they will not come through. We want you to know we are trying. We are not the only ones grumbling. The "business center" in this hotel does not have a clue! The phone in our room appears to be dialing the U.S. MSN access numbers, but then there is no answer on the other end, which is apparently the fault of the phone lines here, as everyone is having the same problem.
Off to a rainy start this morning, but confident of the condition of our car. Then, just 16.40 kilometres out of Samarkand, the loud noise from the front left wheel. The absolute agony in Ed's voice was worse than his words: "This is terminal. We are out of the race". He is never that negative, and it took enormous effort not to burst into tears, which would only have increased the stress. We pulled over to the side of the road. Ed was sure the wheel bearing had gone out, and we both were thinking of the Uzbekistan mechanic who did not have the proper tools yesterday. Immediately our car was surrounded by nearly twenty local citizens, ready and willing to offer assistance or who were just plain curious. Ed tried politely to ask them to move back. He jacked up the car and was lying under it with about twelve pairs of shoes within inches of his nose. I named them his "kitchen cabinet". After several minutes, the relief in his voice was a welcome sound. He had discovered that the mechanic had manhandled the spring assembly in the brake and cracked the smallest pin. Ed said he could repair it and we could be on our way within ten minutes. By then, I was holding the book with the OK sign so that all of our rally cars would not bother to stop. If we need help, we turn on the Help red cross page. I was capturing the event on video when two policemen stopped and tried to get the local residents to move back and to be quiet. Then they rather forcefully suggested I should not take their pictures. Gambling a bit, I kept the camera on, then beckoned them to come see what I had taken. The LCD screen is a big hit here. They beamed when they saw themselves and then were quite willing to allow me to continue.
On our way again, thinking of what decision we would make about today's "special sections". The routes have been described as steep and gravelly and are through some high mountains. Many cars have decided to skip them, stay on the highway, take the two hour penalty for missing the time controls, and keep the car from being battered. After about seven minutes, I inform the driver that he has ten miles to make the decision about what car 48 will do. Believe it or not, I do not offer an opinion although I am saying some very silent prayers. I tell him the special sections are 170 kilometres. I can literally feel the wheels turning in his head as he weighs the risk/rewards of the day. The rain is an added concern, because the narrow mountain roads are notoriously slippery after a long dry period when the first rain comes. In addition, we are not too sure about the brakes considering what has just happened. Then he says, "we will stay on this highway". His prudence is part of his strength. Now we both know what is important. We will continue to make time controls when it is safe and when they will not batter the car, but from now on Peking is our true goal. We realize we may spend a few hours this afternoon listening to others come in and say the roads were easy, but we will not risk it. We have seen too many others already! My replacement plastic passenger window is working well. It even goes up and down. A few new rattles and squeaks which Ed wishes I could figure out a little faster. The lever which controls the canvas top on my side was open and I didn't notice. I also forgot to turn off the emergency flashers once we were under way, but these only seem like capital offenses for a short time. At least I try not to make the same mistakes twice. There seem to be enough to make just once.
On to Tashkent. The median is made of concrete dividers which are used as balance beams by the people throughout Uzbekistan. Children sit on them,sometimes for hours, and occasionally, the age appears to be three or four! It is disconcerting to be driving along with people running along the top of the narrow ledge of the median which is about three or four feet high. We wonder what the life expectancy is.
The farms continue for miles, but we do not see many farmhouses at all. Somehow the fields and farms look deserted. Then we come to Saykan, a small town with a concrete and asphalt plant which Ed observes looks temporary. It may even move from town to town. Again, there are only huge fields of grain, no buildings anywhere. There is great similarity to the dry land wheat areas around Quincy and Ephrata.
Gradually the concrete median is replaced by a median of trees, giving the highway the appearance of a boulevard. Still the farms continue,but now we see a few workers, no farm equipment except that in their hands! The police checks are really our only highway checkpoints for miles and miles. Interesting border crossings this morning. We cross the border into Kazakhstan without customs. We are in the country for just 23 kilometres before returning into Uzbekistan, again without customs. In Kazakstan, there is a noticeable difference in the people's appearance. They are far more Asian. Shades of Genghis Khan. Then we have the usual hundreds of policement with baton pointing the way to our hotel. A few of them were confused, because we and a few other cars were pointed toward the Sheraton Hotel when our destination was the Uzbekistan Hotel. Luckily, the hotels are just blocks apart. Our room is lovely, but a few floors above us, the rooms are still the bombed out look of Soviet days. Since independence, this country is rebuiliding at a rapid rate.
Independence is important to these people. The huge monument in Tashkent that is the symbol of independence has a big ball on top and is surrounded by fountains. It is located on Mustaqillik Square. The guide book in our hotel says "Tashkent is the guarantor of stability and our belief in the future". Much has changed lately. Monuments and museums are being built as are new roads. Old buildings have been torn down. Ed observed this morning that the abandoned factories which dot the country are redundant and obsolete, much as the old fabric factories in New England were. They have simply outlived their usefulness. President Karimov is devoted to building a modern Tashkent.
Our afternoon walk today ended up a walk to the car parking lot, the petrol lorry there, and Ed as a mechanic yet again. He greased the wheel bearings in the front of our car with thick purple high temperature grease. The vaseline which had been used as an emergency lubricant would not have withstood the temperatures of China. I was not thrilled to see him in the dirt and grease again. He cut his finger rather badly yesterday and every time it is bent too much, it begins to bleed again. Lots of peroxide and sterile bandages, but my fear of infection is high. Finally, he does ask the rally M.D. about the possibile need for stitches. Matt insists Ed must take Cipro for at least 48 hours before stitches to avoid the possibility of infection. Ed is reluctant, but the navigator can insist when necessary. So he had his first pill this afternoon.
Our decision to skip the special sections was wise. Henning's Mercedes has a rip in the oil pan. Evidently the potholes for the first several kilometres had been filled, and the drivers gained a false sense of security. Then at the top of a hill with limited visibility, the potholes on the other side were in some cases a foot or two deep and wide as well. To add insult to injury, while Henning's car was being repaired, someone stole a large amount of cash from his car. Several other drivers came in with problems caused by the rough roads. Philip Young was supposedly heard to say that anyone who did the time controls in the prescribed time was a "bloody idiot" but we did not hear him say it. There were some very tired people arriving at the hotel. One car's gas tank was ripped. Another car's front end suspension was pretty well destroyed when he hit an especially large pothole. The entire parking lot was filled with ralliers making repairs.. In addition, "tourista" has hit a large number of people, especially one big table of people who dined together at the sanitorium.
Quiet nice dinner with Hugh and Victor and John and a fellow whose name has just left my brain, but it was most enjoyable conversation, war stories of the day of course. A child in the road was hit; first reports mentioned hospitalization, later ones just bumps and bruises. The rumor circuit is just as described by Jenny in her book about the Beijing to Paris, but it is quite interesting to "sort out" the fact from the fiction. The fact is that today was another example of roads much rougher on the cars than one would think wise.
We leave early tomorrow morning for Bishtek. The first car is out at 6:30 which means 7:05 for us. I'm going to try one last time to get this off. Our car is in fine shape again. Ed was interviewed at length again this afternoon by the local media who visited the parking lot. I took video of the interview which amused the news staff. I doubt that Jean Enersen would have been amused' on the other hand, she does have a good sense of humor! We have lost another car. The Argentines in the gray Mercedes flew home from Ashkabad. They could not get a needed head gasket for ten days. In light of the accidents they had already endured, their decision was to withdraw. We wish them well. All of us hate to see anyone have to leave.
This is reading like the Perils of Pauline, isn't it? Believe it or not, it is kind of exciting. Better than rocking chairs!
MAY 22, 2000 BISHKEK, KYRGYSTAN
We have had such a beautiful day today. We crossed the border from Uzbekistan, admiring the country and the people we have just visited. There is a spirit of progress and they were so hospitable. They also love Americans. One of the biggest hits is the LCD screen of our video camera. The children love to call "Hey Missus", have their pictures taken, and then view themselves on our screen. The giggles are overwhelming. We have also been asked for our autographs all over the country. You did not know you were reading the website of international celebrities, did you?
Our entrance into Kazakhstan brought almost immediate differences in both landscape and appearance of the people.The faces are much more Asian here than in any country thus far. High cheek bones, darker skin, these are the lone horsemen and farm men and women of postcards and National Geographical. The hats are different as well, taller and with a triangular appearance, ivory with embroidery. It is difficult not to buy some of the goods which we are seeing, just for souvenir value. So far, our small Uzbekistan plates are the time we have weakened in our resolve not to add weight to the car.
The scenery this morning is magnificent. Much flat land gives way to rolling hills; no trees, but mountains to both the north and the east. The farmhouses are prettier, closer together, and there are more side roads along the highway. This countryside lulls us into relaxation. We agree this is what we thought most of our rally would be like. We even have a "dual carriageway' for a good portion of the morning, the British term for our "divided highway". It is most welcome after yesterday's tough special section. There were at least four serious breakdowns yesterday. On our car, the bumper guard which was tightened only four days ago is already loose. We cannot think of any U.S. roads we could give you as a comparison. Even today, on the major highway, the potholes are deep enough that we have seen birds in the middle of the lane using a pothole as a birdbath.
They are harvesting apples here in May. What happened to September and October as harvest time? We are surprised that the Muslim influence here is not as great as we have seen the past few days. Even the old women who are usually the most conservative are in more westernized clothing. We find that people along the roads wave only if we wave first. These people are not used to more than seventy cars blazing through their villages.Some of the ones in the most rural areas seem almost afraid of us. Perhaps they are the wise ones. The horses are small, usually ridden by one lonely rider. There are also small bands of what appear to be wild horses. As we go toward Chimkent and Almaty we are always grateful when there is a road sign in English. Those do not appear frequently. There is much less of a police appearance this morning. These people seem to be going about their lives much the same as they have for centuries. The carts with donkeys, the trucks loaded with grass, all are enhanced by the background of snowcovered, high mountains. We see our first red poppy fields of this trip. In general, We are also aware that this trip has been so relatively insect- free that we are surprised.
Lake Tepis is along our highway. We suddenly realize how few lakes we have seen along the way. This is small and unremarkable, but it is a lake! The potholes get larger and larger. Our speed goes down, but the car takes them well. We are able to avoid the biggest ones. At one village, we see two children seated on a horse at the side of the road, posed for a "photo op". Their adult "agent" stands next to them, ready to "collect" for the picture one takes, we assume. They look too staged for our album. Actually, their "occupation" is probably easier than working in the fields. The farmers use tools which look the same as those which would have been used centuries ago. Old, battered tractors do exist here. Most of them seem to be on the road in front of us rather than in the fields.
Ed has accomplised another of his "brilliant" adjustments to the car. His feet have been murderously hot from the heat coming onto the driver's side. The air intake from the heater was coming up onto the driver's side. He has taken the cotton lining from an old jacket which he found and has plugged it with the fabric. Now the heater is on and can help cool the engine as we cross the Taklimakan desert in China, but his feet will be cooler! Our only "flaw" this morning is that the fuel gauge has decided to quit working. We filled up yesterday afternoon but the gauge is showing empty. Oh, well. Igor, one of our fellow ralliers, is most helpful at today's fuel stop. His fluent Russian quickly negotiates price and requested amount of liters of fuel and we are able to pay in dollars, fortunate for us as we did not stop for local currency. We pay fifteen dollars for fifty liters, good by European price standards. We will leave you to figure out the gallons., but we got 250 miles out of that amount.
As we leave Kazakhstan and cross into Kyrgystan, we are held at the border for just a few moments and are welcomed heartily. Pretty young girls throw rose petals at us from the huge fresh bouquets they hold in their arms. Again, the children of all ages are along the roads waving at us, although in fewer numbers than in Uzbekistan. Western clothing - lots of New York Yankee caps on the small boys. We see Russian Orthodox spires on the churches. No mosques, but there are several old mausoleums along the roads today which speak of the Muslim background.
One huge change here in Kyrgystan. Huge statues of Lenin still stand in many towns. We stop for fuel and there is a big ESSO on the pump. We are surprised that Bishkek is such a large city. Huge embassies, tall buildings, all against the breathtaking green hills and snow-covered mountains. We will describe more later, but we are leaving in less than an hour to begin our journey across the mountains. Our pass today will be at 9,000 feet. We have been told there will not be snow on the road, so we hope that is correct. We will send more at our next available connection tothe internet. Our hotel here has been fabulous. Good room, good view, lovely balcony, good food. This was a welcome surprise and we head for the mountains in good health and good spirits. (More than forty-five percent of the group has been hit by a particularly virulent "tourista" but so far we have been fortunate.) We are being VERY careful about what and where we eat.
Again, we thank your for your messages of encouragement. You cannot possibly imagine how we love e-mails. Please do not send pictures, however. At seven to twelve dollars per minute, the slow download is a killer. The messages are worth every penny!!!!! More tonight. Tomorrow we go over 12,000 feet high and then descent to 450 feet below sea level and into China. This morning we do a go-cart race of one kilometer before we begin the day. These drivers are still kids.!
MAY 23, 2000
BISHKEK TO NARYN, KYRGYSTAN
Good afternoon! For once I am not doing this in the middle of the night! We are so hoping you are receiving these. The hours spent in the hotels trying to "sort out" their phone systems are, or will be if our efforts were successful, hilarious.
This morning was another Keystone Cops beginning. The checkout line at the hotel was over forty-five minutes, and there were only two people in front of me! Ed was repacking the car but was surrounded by about a hundred gawking local citizens. It was an effort to keep his eye on everything. Then the time control desk in the parking lot was so surrounded by local citizens that it was almost invisible. I managed to check in on time, but by then Ed had driven the car across the airfield to the beginning of the Go-Kart circuit race of one kilometer. My run across the airport may not have been graceful, but I was there in the car ready for our "Three-two-one-go" countdown. I barged through so many local citizens. I was relieved that they knew why I was so rude when they saw me put on my seatbelts and we took off. The cheering crowds and flags and everything were our own small LeMans. We did it in one minute 24 seconds, which was really good, and we didn't hit one of the black tires which marked the sharp-curved circle. Both driver and navigator thought that was highly respectable. Times on this morning's go-cart circuit will be used only as tie-breakers in Peking.
The people here in Bishkek are lovely. They are so friendly, they speak beautiful English, the hotel was comfortable and the staff helpful beyong belief. The people who came to view the cars were dressed as if for a special event. They surrounded the cars and were excited to see them. There were thousands of them, much the same as after a Husky football game. We are finding a new way of communicating here. They expect us to wave or smile first. Then they are so friendly but not until we make the first effort.
A word about the standings in the race. We described the hours we lost because we had to miss time controls in Italy because of our brake problem. If we could eliminate that day, we would be in the running, probably in the top fifteen.! However, since then, we have had only the few minutes of penalties which we have described to you. We are number 40 at the moment, about half-way in the "pack" and, as each day goes by; Our main goal is more solid: reach Peking in good shape, and savor the moments of some of the most beautiful remote spots we will ever see and to which we know we will not return. There are so many near ties among the leaders that each day the rally organization shortens the time allowed for at least one section in order to try to establish firm leaders. A few of them have been so "tight" that no one has done it without penalty.
A word about repairs. One good friend worried in an e-mail that he doesn't understand why we have had so many problems. Actually, the seriousness of our repairs puts us in the group of LEAST serious problems. Some cars need new springs, others are fabricating spring mounting pads, pulling gear boxes, welding frames, and other equally big jobs. The roads are taking the toll on the cars. None of the cars the age of ours and older were designed to handle the torment of the "special sections" of this rally.Ours was well prepared; Joe and crew did everything right.
We head for Naryn where we will spend the night in yurts and tents at about 9000 feet. We are looking forward to it! We go through Kok Moynok Eki this morning. The scenery is so beautiful! We are gradually leaving Western civilization as we know it far behind. There are more bicycles this morning and the people look more Asian than ever. There is even fish for sale on the road: one small boy holding two fish on his line!
We are over an hour early for our time control at Kok Moynok Eki. We discuss at length whether we will do the special section, than decide we really must. We were to have been given 19 minutes to do it according to our official roadbook. 25.8 km from the bridge up to 7000 feet, then back down to the highway. When we checked into the time control before the start of the special section, we were given an official bulletin that the time was reduced to 17 minutes. Off we went, going as fast as safety would allow. The road was steep and full of sharp curves, but the reward was an aquamarine colored lake and awe-inspiring scenery. We did it in 19 minutes, which was excellent. The two minute penalty was one of the smallest of the day. At the time we handed our book to the control, only one car was faster than Ed. The competitive spirit is rekindled so easily. If they had left the time allowed as orginially published, we would have been right on the money.
One cause for concern this afternoon is Car 47, those dear "Slow Blokes to China" who have become such good friends. They and their Alvis Grey Lady started to take off on the special section just ahead of us. The car made a terrible noise as it would not go into gear or take off. We left them at the time control with what appears to be a gear box problem which could be terminal. We hope not. They would be sorely missed!
This afternoon we joined a gravel road and went up the hill to Dolan Pass, at 3,038 meters. That is over 9000 feet. Ed had taken his altitutde pills, so he is fine with it. The road is demanding but the scenery so spectacular that we will never forget it. We cannot help thinking of George Tsutakawa as we drive. The tall peaks, misty clouds, quite mystical atmosphere similar to Nepal and Tibet.
We are finding that a smile is universal. These people do not wave or smile until we make the first gesture. Then they are wonderful. Finally after a very long day made easier by unsurpassed beauty, we arrive at Naryn. Naryn is located in a bowl, surrounded by high snow=capped mountains which are green right up to the snow. The air is clean. We have passed through only a few small towns and villages this afternoon, and we are parked at the airport six kilometers out of town from which buses are to transport us to the yurts and tents for this evening. Yurts are circular dome topped tents. We have seen some along the highway. Our petrol lorry arrives and we queue up with many others, but our tank is full for tomorrow.
Then we wait for the bus, actually for the bus driver. We are sitting in an old delapidated school bus which is at least forty years old. It is dusty, the seats are nearly gone, but finally a driver comes, and, armed with sleeping bags, Gore=tex jackets, sleeping bags and toothbrushes only, we bump our way down the road to our accomodations for the evening. There are no springs in the bus. our giggles show the good sports who travel with us.
We were all in for a gigantic surprise tonight. Only a few yurts were available and we were not on the list. We and many of our friends were assigned to an old abandoned school. No running water, no indoor plumbing. The only outside toilet facilities were two "outhouses" with holes in the ground! We like to rough it, but this was a shock. The next shock was that the rooms would hold from four to eight people in each room. The beds were many years old, the mattresses worse than sagging; they had never been good even when new. However, a little enterprise soon found us on the first floor. There were a few rooms for two and we quickly moved our sleeping bags out of the dormitory and into our own room which did have the very best view any room could have of the valley and the mountains. There was a general feeling of disbelief that we were really going to stay there, and a disappointment that we were not going to have our long-awaited night in a yurt, but we were adaptable. Our predinner cocktail party on the concrete stairs outside the rooms was made quite festive by some canned braunschweig which Henning brought from Braunschweig, Germany where he lives. Served by Swiss Army knife and accompanied by the bread from the kitchen of our "hotel", we did fine. The cold meal the cooks had prepared went uneaten by all of us. We felt rude, but the eggs and mayonnaise without refrigeration for hours gave us all pause. Good manners versus good health at this point is a no contest. The hot dinner was acceptable, and we went to bed early. There was no electric switch, and the bare bulb which lit the room was too high for me to turn off. Ed had fallen asleep, but I heard Bill Sechrist in the hallway talking and saying that he had a towel and was turning off people's lights for them by unscrewing them. So he did the Suhrbier's room too.
p.s. Ron and Chris in Car 47 made it to the airport! They had a broken half shaft (zxle) but had carried an extra with them!!!!! With brilliant Peter's help, they fixed the axle in 55 minutes. They were in the special "Ritz" wing tonight, too. I think they will be arriving in Beijing on a wing and a prayer, but I bet they make it. The penalties today have taken them out of the lead, but as everyone keeps reminding us, there is a long road ahead.
We had to get up at 4:30 a.m. in order to be ready for our departure. A quick cup of coffee and we are on the first bus out. Ed told everyone we could stay at 50% off for another night, but there were no takers. Ed told everyone that if this were in California, there would be a freeway, a destination ski resort and thousands of condominiums. That would be almost sacreligious.
Last night showed once again we travel with two types of people, those for whom the scenery and the knowlege we were in a paradise few have ever seen, and those who need and demand luxury. We both agreed the view and the atmosphere were more than worth the lack of comfort. Anyway, just think of the pictures we took.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 24
NARYN TO KASHGAR
We will remember today as the most difficult road we have ever been on! We had been warned today would be tough, but few foresaw how rough! The roadbook described the road as "fast and testing". Fast only for the foolish, testing for all of us. We decided the photographic opportunities were more important than getting to the first time control on time, and the road was rough enough that damage would probably have occurred if we did try to do it. Kevin and Mark passed us this morning on the road. Since they leave 28 minutes after us, that had not happened before. They decided to try to pick up some minutes and move up a few positions today. Ed withstood his temptation to chase them. The road was too awful and the scenery too magnificent. Even with our beautiful Cascades and Olympics, we were totally unprepared for the grandeur of the mountains shared by Kyrgystan and China. This entire morning was spent in a paradise on earth. The road conditions were more like Hades on earth. "We may never pass this way again"........Ed says we will not pass this way again. To have done it once is a spiritual experience. I cannot believe one could be here and not believe in God. His wonders are beyond imagination!
The potholes were so numerous that it was difficult to pick a safe lane. The gravel was so thick with jagged rocks that we did not think any tires could make it. At one point the road book said there was a ditch across the road. Recent storms and floods have made the ditch into a cavern so deep that the road is gone, and we made a last minute left swoop which was not visible until the last possible moment. Then we began the climb to the highest point of our trip, Tuz'Bel Pass. We went up to 3574 meters. White knuckle all the way. Finally we reached Torugart and were at 3900 meters, the absolute highest point of the trip (or any trip, probably). The scenery is still unbelievable, but we are finally to the border of China. The departure from Kyrgystan takes nearly two hours. Just to leave the country, they ask for the passports four times, as well as many other forms.
WE ARE IN CHINA. The dust today has forced Ed to wear his mask. This thick dust covers everything. In addition, the toll on the cars along the way can be told by the number of cars along the road, all jacked up. There have been at least six or seven punctured tires. We are not sure how much more of this we or the car can take. Then we have our first adventure into a river bed. The regular road was completely gone. We made a sharp right turn, then a left, and proceeded along heavy rocks, through some of the river water, more rocks, more rocks, and then back onto the main "highway" where we passed Barry Weir's Aston Martin, surrounded by a crane and lorry and several Chinese. We could not stop on the curve to see what was happening, but we knew he was either being pulled back onto the road or being lifted onto the lorry because of a mechanical problem. The French green and white car and the Swedish Volvo of the Wulfs are also in trouble. The Wolfs have been within the top three until today. In fact, the number of cars along the side of the road is beginning to feel ominous.
The border crossing at China is fairly well organized but we are absolutely amazed at the military presence. A long line of soldiers stands at attention to welcome us. There is a huge archway into a huge courtyard where the documentation occurs. There is a huge long table manned by at least twenty Chinese. Our reception is incredible. All the Chinese are snapping pictures wildly. We know we will find film and Sony shops all over China. Ed allows a beautiful young Chinese girl to sit in our driver's seat. Several soldiers insist on a picture with me. We change money, go to the loo (again outside concrete multi-person, no door type) and we are on our way to Kashgar, fabled city of the Silk Road. Whole villages are out to greet us, waving, cheering, colorfully dressed; the feeling of celebrity is with us on a daily basis. We never expected receptions like this. Thousands of people everywhere, all of the schools again out for us, with their neatly dressed uniformed children.
The warm welcome continues as we enter China. There is also an overwhelming military presence, polite but efficient. They stand at the roadside much more seriously here. Poplar trees line the highway, everything seems cool and green. The poplars have bare trunks and soar into the sky. This is lovely! All of the automobile traffic along the highway had been diverted in order that we could enter Kashgar without delay. Soldiers at attention saluted us all along the way. At village after village, we honked and waved for over an hour. Finally we are guided into the parking lot of the hotel. No need for roadbook directions today. The police do it for us.
As if we have not had enough surprises today, the hotel we were to stay in in Kashgar has been closed because of a financial dispute with the Pakistani owners who were with China in a joint venture. So we go to the Seman hotel. It has a great location, but only part of the hotel has been renovated. Luckily, we are in that part. The hotel was the Russian consulate in 1908. Hours after checking in, we found an elaborate front lobby that is unused today but is elegan, with chandeliers, hand painted, tiled, somewhat garish but fairly impressive Asian design.
The driver of Car 48 has had a long and taxing day. Even the hardy and experienced are weary today. Our car has made it without incident, except that we are again without a fuel gauge, so we calculate miles carefully!
We cannot believe the amount of dust and dirt in our car, but we are fortunate. We are parked in the regular parking lot. The garage lot across the street is packed with rally cars which have major problems. Differentials gone, suspension systems, shock absorbers, engine mountings gone, etc. But we are all here. A few cars may not be ready to go on, but the mechanics are working overnight! Barry Weir and Ronald (Aston Martin DB24) arrived with body damage to that gorgeous car which happened when they were being loaded on the lorry. They were fortunate to find a lorry in a small village nearby the road where their chassis is seriously coming apart, especially by the left back wheel well. It has been welded before on this trip, but they are doing repairs again here in Kashgar. Barry says to wait until we see it. The body repairs will be made and it will be repainted before we depart tomorrow. They have been in contention as winners since the beginning; they will have some hours to makeup.
We have been pleasantly surprised by the Chinese welcome, but we are painfully aware that we are free to do what we want only within limits. We were advised that we could go for petrol if a Chinese representative accompanied us. Tours were allowed, but the guides were a necessity. We were issued special Chinese driver's licenses with photographs which we had sent a year in advance. We also had to bolt on special Chinese license plates to both the front and back of our car.
We toured the City this afternoon. The bazaar is considered one of the best in China. The sights, smells, and vast number of people reminded us of Fez but the whole feeling is much more orderly. Sharwei (excuse the spelling), our Chinese guide, ordered lunch for us in a local restaurant, and it was spicy and good, but we ate too quickly to really enjoy. She is sweet, intelligent, was born in Southwest China, but has lived in the United States. Imagine our surprise when we found that she has lived in Seattle and Burlington!Toured the outdoor Mosque. The Muslim influence here is substantial. We even rode in a cart led by a donkey, and then one led by a horse. Then our guide put us in a cab back to the hotel. We shared the tour with Henry and Mark who are driving the oldest car in the race, a 1914 Rolls Royce which looks like a taxi but evidently was a hearse many years ago.! They are having a major welding job done.
More about the competitors' meetings and our stay here in Kashgar later. There is only one place in town which has internet access, John's Cafe across the street from the hotel. We had a divine Szechwan dinner there tonight after the competitor's meeting. It was the first real meal we have had in four days. Mark took Kevin and us to dinner there tonight. He has already used the internet, I have to go now because it is 11:30p.m. We have had a major disappointment (or relief) tonight. Our route through the dreaded Taklimakan desert has been changed at the eleventh hour. Our guide said recent sand storms have left nearly two feet of sand on the roads, deep sand which is nearly impossible to drive through and nearly impossible to get out of once stuck. The official version is that the police have said we cannot go through it and we cannot argue with the police. We will be safer but we will miss seeing the very southern portion of the old Silk Road. We will instead do the northern portion. You may not hear from us for a few days
By the way, we washed our car inside and out this morning and are spiffy again. Ed found little damage to our car other than a crushed exhaust pipe, our rock guard to our resonator was ripped off, the door closures were vibrated loose, and the hose coming out of the fuel cell that is used to pump to the main tank literally vibrated off. Peter, the mechanic, while we were inspecting our car, came by and asked to take a look underneath. He found four bolts which hold the wishbone section which holds the entire front left wheel, shocks, and steering, had vibrated loose. It took six ratchet turns on each bolt to tighten them. It was a potential disaster if we had not found the loose bolts. Peter's last comment as he left our car was that it is in "bloody good condition". That is music to our ears, especially as we hear more and more horror stories of what has gone wrong with our friends' cars. Mary and David Laing's Aston Martin had to be jacked up three times along the highway yesterday, and they limped in here at almost 10:00 last night, nearly seven hours after us. They are such good sports and take all these setbacks with such good grace. They are ready to go tomorrow! Ralph Jones and his wife in their DB5 also came in the evening, exhausted but without major problems. The Aston Martins seem to be showing signs of wear, but they do look good on the road!!!!! On the other hand, the LaGonda has, shockingly, made this trip with nothing but a few electrical and maintenance problems.
If I am able to get these off at John's Cafe, we will go to bed happy campers!
FRIDAY, MAY 26, 2000
KASHGAR, CHINA TO AKSU
Midnight at John's Cafe in Kashgar was quite social. We expected that it would be less crowded, but all of John's own computers were in use by other members of our rally group. The two young men of the Busch team, German by birth, bright, personable, interesting young men, were there with their Apple Computers. Somehow I was not surprised - they are high tech young men as well as favorites of ours. Classic Apple devotees. They and their dad are in a Mercedes 190 and are doing extremely well in the race. Back to John's. Think we told you yesterday there really is a John - tall, Chinese, and a charmer. He let me use his own phone which connected immediately to the internet so that we were able to send our messages to you. We have a glitch in receiving our e-mail though. We were told we had 45 new messages and were really excited. However, the transmission stopped at message 27 and we found that all of the 27 were duplicates of those we received before. We will try to "sort it out" later this evening but please do not think we are ignoring you if you do not have a reply from us. Eventually! John's prices were reasonable, and we are grateful to him. All the while his back room was filled with computer users, both their own and John's, he was busy serving meals and drinks on his outdoor patio. He is the source of all information here, and he gave us a sticker which shows that there are John's Cafes in several other towns and cities in China as well.
Up early this morning to begin our new route. The Chinese government has refused to allow us to use the south portion of the Silk Road and so, instead of our roadbook, we will follow "Official Bulletin Number 17" for the day. We head for Sanchakou and Aksu, both also in Xinjiang Province, neither of which we have ever heard of before. A long day, allowed time totals eight and half hours from hotel to hotel with only one time control in between (YIPPEE).
Xinjiang Province is huge. It is an autonomous province of China and there is a fairly strong independence movement. When we asked Xia Wei (correct spelling for our guide and new friend) if she thought China would allow independence, her answer was short and no nonsense: "Of course not. China has ruled here for over two thousand years".
The Mongol Uigurs or Uygurs, spelling depends on what book you are in, are the largest ethnic group in this melting pot province. They number over four million and are distinguished in many cases by the small square hats the men wear on their heads. The rest of the groups include Russians, Tartars, Turkic, Kazakhs, and others, and also the large numbers of Han Chinese who were sent here in the Mao days and who have stayed and the Han who have come recently to take advantage of the new economic opportunities. In addition, there are Pakistani and Indian traders, and their presence is evident in the local bazaar, which reminds us of Fez. Our Guidebook says the locals here have some strange ideas about Hitler and that he has quite a large following even today. Perhaps then I should not have been so offended when a local saluted us with a Heil Hitler, but we were horrified!!
In the north of the province are the waterless sand dunes known as the Land of Death. To the south is the dreaded Taklimakan Desert, the 308,800 square mile inferno with 67 foot high shifting dunes and fierce sandstorms. Those sandstorms are the official reason we will not be allowed to drive the south route. China, justifiably, doesn't want the international publicity which might occur if disaster hit over seventy cars from twenty-five nations. So we will follow the police batons as carefully as our tulip directions and will do the northern portion of the Taklimaken and the Silk Road.
Our initial disappointment about our route change is being replaced by a reluctant admission that we are a tiny bit relieved. As we look to our right as we head east, we see the huge clouds of dust and sand. Even on our highway this morning, there is limited visibility, and all our cleaning efforts are down the drain. Everything is again covered with dust. The scenery along this route is far superior to what we would have had; that is a decided bonus. Also, the Chinese road crews have been working day and night and some of the larger potholes have been filled!
The mountains along the way are magnificent. They have been eroded for centuries by wind, rain, and snow, and have the resultant deep ruts and peaks. Just out of Kashgar, the landscape becomes desolate. Still, the people along the road come to cheer us as we pass. Some must have walked ten miles or so, because there are no signs of houses for miles. The gravel desert this morning is a moonscape. We are back on a gravel road. Frustrating, the highway will be quite good, then suddenly, without warning, there will be rectangular cutouts in the highway, seven or eight holes about 5feet by 3 feet and 7 to 8 inches deep. If one of our cars hits any of these at a high speed, we will have more punctures today. Ed has decided that he should replace the Michelin man and the baby in the ads. We are still driving on the same 4 steel reinforced high profile tires we purchased for this event. There have been between a hundred and two hundred punctures in fellow rally cars since we began the trip.
There is too much sand blowing this morning to get good video. The desert is much like the California desert. There was one patch of road where we could have been on Highway 10 in California heading east to Chiriaco Summit. We are following the railroad all the way this morning. There is a good lesson in erosion all the way, but nothing to distinguish the area as China. At one point, Ed pointed out while I was filming that we were right at Mount Eisenhower and would soon be at the entrance to the El Dorado Country Club. There are so many similarities between these mountains and the Santa Rosas. Certain huge differences. At big intersections, we see four or five brand new miliary SUVs, and the police are taking video pictures of us!
Our bulletin warns of "possible diversion" from the highway. Yes, there it is. Dirt and gravel road and dust so thick that on go the bicycle masks we bought in Kensington. They are turning out to be much needed. We seem to have seen the last of the good paved road for today. We are wondering how many cars will "go down" on this patch. Everyone is going much much slower these days after seeing the damage done on the way to Kashgar.
A first for us today. A man along the highway actually bowed to us. Non-eventful drive to the time control. We are early and wait with everyone else, eager to drive on to Aksu. Showers are the prize of the day. By the time we reach Aksu, we are disappointed to find that we are not in the rally headquarters hotel, but will have to take a bus to our rooms. The natives (fellow ralliers) are restless. Val Harris, a terrific British compatriot, is always polite and sweet. She tells the rally desk very quietly that she has not complained yet. She need go no further. The implication is there. One of the Portugeuse team is more blunt about his attitude toward this satellite hotel. If the rooms tonight are bad, there will be complaints from many of those of us shuttled down the road. At first glance, the hotel looks fine, and the location is great. Right in the middle of town, it is actually better than the headquarters hotel. We are briefly encouraged. Then our usual good fortune deserts. Our room has no window, instead, there is a huge piece of plastic in front of it with Chinese letters obscuring all light. The window does not open, obviously. The lights in the room do not work, only the bathroom, which we will not trouble you by describing. This is worse than the abandoned school. We take a cab back to rally headquarters for dinner without incident. Then we get our own cab to return to our hotel. The driver cannot understand our pronunciation of the hotel, so we finally put our heads to our closed palms as if we are sleeping, and, after a brief driver stop while he asked a policeman a couple of questions, we were safely delivered to our hotel. Our key did not have the name of the hotel on it and we had nothing in writing with its name. New lesson for China.
A word about hotel keys. Hotel personnel are fanatical about key return. At the border crossing out of Kyrgystan, a travel agency employee was going car to car with a list of keys which had not been returned at the previous hotels. When Ed left our hotel room this morning, I was still in the shower, but a maid in the hallway practically accosted him trying to get the key. The fabled Chinese polite manners which we admire do not extend to hotel keys. The saving grace of Aksu is the modern feel of the streets. Good boutiques, well dressed citizens, and a large group of local women doing aerobic dancing in front of a large building just across from our hotel. They were fabulous last night, all ages, and eager for us to photgraph them. We walked and walked after dinner. It is light here until well after ten o'clock. Speaking of the independence of this province extends to their time zone. The entire nation of China operates on Beijing time, even though the country is nearly five thousand miles across. That is, the whole country except Xianjing Province. They operate on XT, two hours behind Beijing. That is to avoid sunrise at 9:30 a.m.
We say goodbye to Aksu with fond memories of its residents and the warm welcome they have given us. This is a city which was built by the Communists, but the feeling of the entrepeneur is here. We felt quite free to wander wherever we liked. Kevin found an internet access up five flights a few blocks from the hotel, a small room with eight computers in it. He was led there by a local citiizen from whom he had asked directions. The other internet access "cafe" had already closed by the time we tried to use it.
SATURDAY, MAY 27, 2000
AKSU TO KUCHE, CHINA (XIANJING PROVINCE)
Today actually resembles a vacation. There are no time controls except out at the hotel this morning and in at the hotel this afternoon. In addition, there are so many police along the highway with batons that we could not "deviate" even if we wanted to see something off the prescribed route. The Tianshen Mountains are magnificent. The poplar trees along the highway add coolness and a tranquil atmosphere. The mountains are covered with snow and the sand hills go right up to them. The desert gradually gives way to carefully tended green fields. Carts and trucks filled with farm workers share the road with us. Agriculture here continues much the same as it has for centuries. There is a curious reassurance about life here. The people are poor by our standards, yet there is no feeling of desperation at all. The women wear brightly colored clothing, smiles are broad (and mouths filled with gold), and the friendliness is overwhelming. The giggles as they watch themselves on video, some for the first time ever seeing themselves on camera, will remain with us forever.
Our car horns are going to wear out. The air horn is a source of great glee as we honk our way through the throngs of people which line the road at each village and in between as well. The word "diversion" will take on new meaning for us today. One might think of a crossword puzzle or a game of tennis as a "diversion". Our "official bulletin" today listed "diversion" six times. Six dusty, gravel and dirt roads which twisted and turned and shook us and the car and covered us again with a thick dust and dirt. The overloaded construction trucks coming right at us added to the fun. At least we can make no mistakes. Even on the diversions, police with batons point the way. We cannot imagine how they can spend the day like this, especially since it is hot here in the desert. A word about heat - we have no airconditioner, but so far (other than Ed's feet last week) we have not been uncomfortably warm. We have kept the top up both yesterday and today because of the uncertainty about the route, the roads, the heat, and the DUST. Only 254 kilometers total today, so we were at the hotel early, and ensconced in the rally headquarters hotel in time for an afternoon siesta before embarking on one of our most adventursome outings.
We knew some famous Buddhist caves were nearby. The best ones were 74 kilometers away, and we didn't need any more long drives today. We were fortunate to hire Xia Wei, our guide from Kashgar. She is an employee of Exodus, the British company which has done all the planning for the China portion of our trip. She speaks English so well that we thought she must have lived for a long while in the United States, but she has only been there in the past year. She is coming to Bellingham, Washington, and Burlington again in the fall and has said she will come cook good spicy Chinese food for us. Anyway, we hired her to take us on a side trip. Our friends Hugh and Victor about whom you have already heard, decided to come with us. Their personal English-speaking guide who was to accompany them in the cab is named Fred Smith. He too is an Exodus employee. The small world continues. Fred grew up in Mount Vernon, Washington; his father is an orthopedic surgeon there who has just retired. He lives on Lake Samish!!!
Off we went in two red cabs with Uigur drivers, one of whom could not understand Mandarin Chinese language, which is what both Xia Wei and Fred speak. We listened, astonished, as they negotiated price with the drivers and told them where we wanted to go. Soon we were off to the ancient ruins of Shubasi, an important city on the old Silk Road. It was our good fortune that the driver had misunderstood where he was to take us, according to Xia Wei, but now there was to be a renegotiation of price between her and the drivers. They wanted three times the agreed upon price. We were content to leave the negotiations to Xia Wei and Fred, and we just looked in awe at the beauty of the surroundings. Twenty kilometers out of Kuche, the silence and the ruins brought images of the caravans which passed through here on the way to Rome, laden with silks, and of caravans which preceded and those which followed the days when Rome coveted silk so much that the empire's entire economy was threatened! We climbed to the top of the ruins and sat looking out over the vast desert. Once upon a time, there was a huge West Mosque and a huge East Mosque here. The Muslim influence continues even today, as most of the people here practice Islam.
Back into the cabs for a drive to the K'zilgahana rampart, a large stone monolith which Ed likened to Ayers Rock or Stonehenge as a tourist attraction. Then the wrong road fun began. We were looking for the "Torch Tower", another tower which was part of the defense of ancient China. From the east to the west, torches were lit at the top of these towers all the way from the Great Wall to the hinterlands. We went up and down several dirt roads, because of "diversions" and finally we saw that attraction too. One of the highlights of this afternoon was a type of Grand Canyon dry river bed. We asked if there is ever water in it and were told everytime it rains. Then Fred looked at the mountain and said that it might be very soon as there was a purple cloud above the mountain which meant rain soon. We left the site for a quick trip to the Buddhist caves across the desert which we had been viewing from our previous stop. This time we were glad there were two cabs. We were sure we would be stuck in the heavy sand and dirt on what can only loosely be called the "road" we were using. Soon however we were at the caves taking quite a good walk to reach them when we knew the cabs could go no further. We were just beginning to listen to the history and learn more about them when we were suddenly in the first Taklimaken sand storm we had encountered. The wind blew and the sand stung, and Fred and Xia Wei and the drivers "suggested" we leave immediately. We did, but the soft golden tones of the stone ruins and the caves came with us in our memories. The small caves were evidently a big part of the Silk Road traffic. A monk would sit inside and, for a fee according to Fred, would pray for the safe voyage of the members of the Silk Road caravans.
There is so much more to learn about this area. A car rally does not allow time for scholarship! As part of our tour, we did see the old parts of Kuche, also spelled Kuqa on the lovely colored travel brochure given to us. The donkey carts, the people, the mud houses hidden by gates from the street, all seem of another time as well as of another place. Again, overwhelming friendliness from the locals. Our tour took four hours, and we were again dusty, but reached the hotel wishing we had more details of what we had seen but happy that we had gone. We will see the art filled Buddhist caves in Dunhuong, we hope!! Quick dinner, fourth shower of the day, and an evening watching the throngs of local citizens who surround the cars taking pictures. Mr. Kodak and Mr Fuji are big here!
SUNDAY, MAY 28, 2000
KUCHE TO KORLA, CHINA Still in Xianjing Province The only adjective which seems appropriate around here is "vast". Don't know the actual size, but just the Taklimaken Desert is 308,000 square miles, an inferno with 67 foot high shifting dunes and fierce sandstorms. Today was almost like being on vacation. We left the hotel at 9:35 a.m. When we went to bed last night the official starting time of Car 0 was 9:30, which would have meant our checkout would be at 10:05. After breakfast, we heard that the official time had been changed about 11;00 p.m. last night. The late departure was courtesy of the Chinese government. They were moving an oil rig on our highway and did not even want us to travel today. Fortunately, the rally organization convinced them that we must in order to keep hotel rooms, etc. One does not negotiate with the police.. We do what we are told. As long as we do, they are impressively cordial and cooperative.
We start the morning on a perfect highway and relax and prepare for an easy day. Only 142 km. to the first time control. The sun is out, the scenery is superb, the mountains so like our Olympics that we feel at home. We are grateful to Joe and his crew in Los Angeles and Manjeet and Parminder and Danny in London because, without them, we would be like many others, working day and night to keep their cars going. We are rolling right along in good shape because of good preparation. We even take the bumps and twists of the diversions well. We arrive at the first time check almost an hour early. This is a time for good socializing, but we would all rather be on our way instead of gathered together in a dusty parking lot. At least there are loos with doors on them, even if inside the door is a hole in the floor. We are careful to take a least six bottles of water with us each day. The heat is intense. During this "pit stop" (literally in this part of the world), we put the top down for the rest of the drive.
Glorious afternoon with the top down. However, we find almost immediately why they have given us five hours and fifteen minutes to go just 261 km. Dips, bumps, gravel, and huge potholes most of the way. The villages still cheer for us. Our afternoon petrol stop is a highlight of this or any day. Surrounded by locals who clamor for pictures, we find they want us to pose with them for their cameras. The petrol station gives us two bottles of water as a gift, everyone tries to speak English, it is quite moving. Prince Borghese said it well during the 1907 Peking to Paris race: " We experience all kind of astonishment. We all feel a sense of unreality, because of the strange thing this all is...the running of a race in such a country!
" Modern road into town, good hotel, excellent Szechwan food, and outdoor Mongolian dancing and singing entertainment tonight. We are seated in rows in straight chairs at what almost look like long table desks. The bar is open, and drinks are served at our seats. There is a large crowd, both locals and our group, although all the locals are standing. Evidently the seats have been reserved solely for our group. Ed has just had the car washed; it is still light at 9:30 p.m. Clear sky, almost still sunny. Perfect evening. The show is about to begin when a murmur moves through the crowd. Over the mountain behind the hotel and entertainment area, a huge cloud has formed and the first true dust storm we have ever encountered is about to begin. Suddenly the darkness begins. The cloud moves toward us as the dancers begin their lovely program. They are clad all in red, the music is appealing, but we wonder how they will handle the dust and the wind that are swooping down on us. Suddenly the high rise buildings just a block away are no longer visible. The sand and the dust are covering everything and everyone. Suddenly we are no longer disappointed that the Chinese government refused to allow us to drive the southern Silk Road straight through the Taklimaken Desert. We have been told they knew about these storms coming; we cannot imagine trying to drive all the way through an already dreaded desert with anything like this going on. We have said some prayers of thanks to God tonight as well. Sounds overly dramatic as I read this, but it was startling to us to see the skies darken and the air fill with dust and sand so quickly! The dancers went on gallantly, but the audience did get a bit smaller rather quickly.
Tomorrow will be exciting. We head up to the mountains to 1830 meters, then on a continuous descent into a narrow gorge which will take us to the Turfan depression, 492 feet below sea level (second lowest place in the world, second only to the Dead Sea). On the "recce" last year, the staff drivers were stopped on this section of road for twenty minutes with a sand storm. We hope it will not strike in the same place twice. We will probably opt for the top up. Fortunately, we have a choice. Some of he cars in the rally do not even have a top!
p.s. All the Aston Martins in the race are up and running at the moment. We are all happy to be in China, because now if something horrid happens, the lorry tows the car to Beijing! Hope we are able to get these sent!
TUESDAY, MAY 30, 2000
TURFAN, CHINA (XINJIANG PROVINCE)
We are comfortably ensconced in the Oasis Hotel in Turfan, China. The temperature is posted in the lobby. The high today is 104 Fahrenheit, the low will be 86F. You will not believe this, but Ed is wrapped in a comforter and blanket as I write because the Chinese do not really understand the difference between airconditioning and refrigeration. There is no control in our room so it is quite cool. No complaints - the food in the restaurants is so good that we will make up in two days what we have not had for several! There is hot and cold water with good pressure, the lights work, and the toilet flushes. Who could ask for anything more, especially when we are in one of the world's most unusual places.
Our friend Victor decided that the organized tour was too long, too pricey, and was not going where we wanted to go. He told us yesterday he would try to organize a separate tour and we said to count on us. He thought there might be as many as ten who wanted to go. This morning we found that he had assembed 25 and had somehow managed to find us a bus and a local English-speaking guide as well. We drove to the ancient city of Jiaohe, 20km from here. Thousands of years old, it became a powerful Tang Dynasty (618 to 906 A.D.) garrison in the wars against the Turkics. The mud-brick and rammed earth architecture of the ruins give a clear impression of the architecture of that age. We walked the thoroughfares, official halls, homes and courtyards and walked through the underground passages and looked into the small caves. Underground chambers were dug below each dwelling to give shelter from the fierce daytime heat. This is the hottest spot in all of China.
Across a small vallley from the ruins, there are concrete block drying houses for the grapes for which this region is famous. The grapes are dried in the open air block houses and provide the United Kingdom with the majority of its raisins. We bought some, as well as almonds, pistachios, dried apricots and prunes. These snacks will be welcome as we continue across the desert.
We were told there should be no videos used, but we didn't want to leave the camera unattended on the bus. Three or four others took theirs along, too. The temptation was great to do a wee bit of rule-breaking and the little red dots that show the cameras are on just happened to appear now and then. For once the driver was carrying our Sony. Suddenly a man and a woman guard approached rapidly, nearly shouted in obviously agitated manner. They talked earnestly with our Chinese guide and she was quite upset. They took the batteries from the three other people, but Ed refused to give them ours as he was afraid it would not be reurned and it is our six hour, expensive battery. After a long discussion with the guards that our camera is also a still camera, Ed convinced the guards that he could prove it to them by taking a still picture of them. A few brief words between driver and navigator to insure proper positioning to take the still photo, and Ed took the picture of me with the two guards. Thank goodness there was the definite click which convinced them!!! At the time, we were nervous and so was the rest of the group. The others were forced to delete the video they had taken and then were allowed to board the bus with their cameras and the batteries were returned. We sat quietly on the bus, changed tapes quickly and hoped we would be on our way. We never did hear from the guards again, and we leave with a great picture of them! The others exchanged apologies, handshakes, we were all vastly relieved. We all asked Victor is his public liability insurance was in place, but the laughs were tinged with anxiety because we thought these were official police. Later this afternoon we were told they were probably employees of the concession who want to sell their own videotapes of the ruins and who were just protecting themselves economically. It is a measure of the group's uncertainty about personal freedom here that we assumed the guards were political or military.
Speaking of that, as we write this from our hotel room, it is nearly 8:00 in the evening and still sunny. At what appears to be a high school across from us, a large group of students have been sitting in a u shape pattern several rows deep and have not moved for an hour and a half as they listen over a loud speaker system to one man whose voice sounds like he is indoctrinating them in something! It seems like the Mao days. His tone is commanding, and not one of the students is moving from a straight-back sitting position. One can hardly imagine this happening in the U.S. We have never seen teenagers sit still and polite for that length of time. Interestingly, just a few hundred feet away is an elementary school where small children are still playing. It is no wonder we cannot compete in soccer. They play day and night!
We have spent the rest of the afternoon making changes to the roadbook for tomorrow. Reading the special bulletin board each day is more necessary than we had been led to believe. For instance, tomorrow'sspecial test in the Gobi desert was to be 10.85 kilometers to be done in seven minutes. Now it is to be 4.95 km to be done in 3 minutes, choosing one's own route because supposedly they all lead back to the main road. Who knows what we will do? The following time control is just 384 kilometers or approximately 230 miles. That should be a cinch, but they are giving us fifteen hours to do it. Apparently the road is really awful. Fifteen hours to do 230 miles means an average speed of 15 miles per hour. There is a certain amount of fear that the time allowed is because of severe "diversions" or large amounts of sand on the road. Whatever, you will be the first to know what we find!
It is now nearly 8:30 p.m. which means it is 4:15a.m. on the west coast of the United States. The loudspeaker man has finally finished his harangue, so there are several hundred relieved teenagers here in Turfan. We will go to bed early tonight because the wakeup calls will come at 4:30a.m.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 31, 2000
Roosevelt said Pearl Harbor was a day that would live in infamy. This is a day that will live in our memories as one of the most ghastly days of our lives. It began rather well.The Gobi Test start of 4.5 kilometers was full of holes and curves and sand, but Ed did fantastically and we nearly "cleaned" it. We hesitated when the "Clerk of the Course" waved to us from a table at the last turn and we thought for an instant that it was the time control desk so we hesitated, slowed down, then picked up speed again for the last couple of hundred yards and whizzed into the actual time control desk just one minute 10 seconds late, but the 10 seconds were counted as a whole minute so our penalty was two minutes. That was more than respectable. Even the powerful 65 and 68 models had two minutes or more. Just a couple had one minute and we have not heard of a single car which "cleaned" it with no penalty. We were exhilarated and pleased the car did so well.
The next hundred kilometers were uneventful, decent road, moderate traffic, we thought we would be at the hotel hours early. We thought the warnings for the day must be exaggerated: "Many roadworks. No suitable alternative. Take your time. Be safe." The potholes were not bad, and though we had the undulating up and down dips which were rather fun, we thought the efficient Chinese had probably finished the new sections of road in the year since the "recce" had been done by the rally organization staff. We were sailing along, and Richard Brown, in his beautiful vintage Blue 1939 Bentley MX Park Ward went cruising on by, passing about six of us. Ed remarked that cars that age do well on the roads such as we were on. I remarked that Richard is not usually that aggressive a driver, but we admired the way he looked as he shot down the highway. Then without warning, a policeman's baton made us all turn sharp right. It happened so fast that it is hard to describe, but instead of road, we had thick desert sand to drive on and the sand was flying everywhere and cars were driving in every which direction. That is, everyone was driving except Richard and Elizabeth. They and the Bentley were stuck deep in the sand at the softest portion. The Portuguese team of Joseph Capistrano and Jorge Pimentel were stopped and out of their car with a tow rope. Ed was out of our car to help, and so were Mary and Pat Brooks and several others. As we walked toward the Bentley, another rally car squealed, did wheelies, and was on its way out of the area, but by then it was chaotic. Then a Chinese SUV appeared with red lights flashing and we knew that it would be the proper tow for the Browns, so we were back in our car and, thank goodness, out of that particular sand mess. At that point, we hoped the "diversion" was to be just a few minutes. About six of us saw a good patch of asphalt highway and headed onto it, thankful to be out of the mess. After less than a kilometer, we were turned around and back we went to the dirt road and the dust and the bumps and the overloaded blue construction trucks that were a bigger threat to all of us than all the bad roads in China.
The last instruction in the roadbook that we checked off according to plan was at 162.10 kilometers total out from the hotel. After that, we were on dirt that was so thick that if the wind had not been blowing from left to right, there would have been no visibility at all for the driver. We had on our bicycle masks, but we watched as the reddish, thick dust covered us and everything in the car. (Keep in mind we had just washed and cleaned the car thoroughly!) The frustration mounts. Then comes the real decision. We come to a crossroads of sorts,; to the left, more dirt and construction trucks, to the right, an apparent short road to a new asphalt highway. We hesitate'; Tom and Maria Noor in their handsome marine blue 1966 250SE Cabriolet head right; the blokes in the Alvis Gray Lady head left into more dirt and more trucks. We opt for the dirt, too. We figure the trucks know what they are doing. When we see several other cars behind us opt for the asphalt and zoom down the highway, we think maybe they were right, but still we plunge on in the dirt, confident that the G312 signs we see (the highway we know we must take to Hami) are correct and that the dirt road is our only choice. The roadbook speaks of petrol on the right and of signs to Hami. Not a chance. This is no ordinary dirt road. The potholes are enormous, the road goes up and down in dips so deep that the oncoming blue trucks are not even visible. In addition, this region of China must be receiving thousands of new cars and sports utility vehicles today, because the "carriers" (same kind that deliver twenty or so cars in the U.S.0 are with us on this "road" as well. By now, our skin is so dark and our eyes so filled with sand that we are unrecognizable. We keep thinking that in a mile or so this will be over.
We began driving this morning at 6:35. At 2:00 we are still in the dirt, knowing now why they have given us fifteen hours to do this section. We have not only dirt, we have sharp rocks in the road which are mini-Gibraltars. Thank goodness we stopped for petrol. There is NOTHING out here with us except the hundreds of blue construction trucks which seem not even to recognize we are on the road with them as they chug past. FIVE HOURS of this non-road has taken out several cars with punctures, etc. We know with each passing hour the true meaning of "tantalize" because within a hundred yards of us throughout most of the afternoon are large patches of brand new highway which seem easily accessible by short gravel roads of less than a hundred feet. They are empty, though. We stay with the trucks and the infrequent red and white G312 signs and wonder why we are here. Ed looks over and says, "This is fun, isnt it?" Do you need a better explanation of irony?
Ed's driving was inspired. I am not exaggerating, it was absolutely amazing to see him avoid the deep, soft sand patches and the potholes, usually all at once, and avoid the blue trucks as well. We kept drinking water, but we could not take time to eat because the road was so awful. We must admit we had some very uncharitable thoughts about our fellow ralliers who had taken the asphalt, almost hoping they were going to be turned back. It did not seem fair that those of who stayed on the dirt could be arriving at the hotel (hopefully) to see some cool, serene friends who had arrived unscathed. For a while, I truly thought the mileage tripmeter on the dashboard upon which I depend had broken under the bumping we were going through. It did not seem to move from mile to mile. That is how slow we were going, and the desert heat was well over 100 degrees.
We had taken so many twists and turns that we were about to give up hope that we would ever see another rallier. Up to this point we had seen an occasional car, and at some points someone we had passed, notably Hans and Annick Reinhardt, would appear in front of us. Hans said later he had taken a very short shortcut off the dirt highway onto another patch of dirt highway but came right back in on our raod. Finally, for about twenty miles, we saw no other cars, just trucks and those little stomach butterflies returned. Then we saw Gwen and Janet and their red #27 1940 Chev coupe, parked in a gravel lot with the Portuguese car, and we stopped, knowing Gwen's fluent Chinese would have the answer on how far we were from Hami. We were not only on the right road, we were on the ONLY road. Those who had taken the asphalt were turned back and they too had to do the torture road; they arrived long after we did, and were even more tired and exhausted, if that is possible. Gwen asked the police how we would get to the town, as our roadbooks were useless at this point. The police pointed down the road and said straight on 312 and that the police would be there all the way. Sure enough, we were back to a real road, an excellent highway and we reached the hotel in Hami. We were one of the first ten or twelve cars to arrive and were in line for a car wash within minutes. That saved us, but the cleaning of the interior took another two hours for the navigator while the driver was outside in the heat doing his own job. When we finally arrived at the hotel, we had driven only 240 miles total for the day, yet it had taken from 6:35 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. There was no other alternative road from Turfan to Hami on the way to Beijing.
After the tortuous drive, Ed was not through. In spite of the heat and the fatigue, he installed new spark plugs and essentially did his own tuneup. By the time we climbed to the fourth floor of the less than sterling hotel, and found our simple room, we were so hot and tired that we just looked at each other. Usually, a shower restores us immediately. Not today. To a person, all of us had kind of a glazed-over eye look. Miracle of miracles, every car made it to the hotel eventually, even though many had serious problems. The garage was busy all night. One French car had burned out most of his electrical system in addition to several other problems. Mark in the Green Rolls Royce 1914 Silver Ghost was shaken. He told us to look at the "puncture" tire blowout they had suffered. Never have we seen such a huge hole in a tire. It was about six or seven inches across. Again, we feel most fortunate our car is doing well. The ultimate indignity of the day was that there was no saving grace of good scenery. There was simply nothing except dirt and gravel and dust, dust, dust, dust.
Dinner conversation centered on the horror stories of the day. No one had ever been so dirty. We ate with Abdul Assiz el Accad, his daughter Mairam, and their mechanic/co-driver David of the United Arab Emirates. They agreed the dust was the worst. After a really bad-tasting dinner, we went searching for ice-cream bars which are not blizzard or breeze quality but are safe to eat if packaged since they are pasteurized. We were approached by two young ladies from the local "middle" school which must be what we call high school as they are fifteen. They are taking English in school and speak very well. They asked if we would pose for a photograph, which we did. Then they came inside and brought us their address and we talked some more. We finally said that we were going to bed and said goodnight to them and again went up the stairs to the fourth floor. We literally fell into bed, knowing today was more than we had bargained for. After about forty minutes, we were in a light sleep but heard a knock on the door. Ed went first and I could hear a girl's voice speaking Chinese. Still in bed, I heard Ed say "NO" then I heard her say, Remember me - photograph and I knew it was our new young friend. I went to the door (both of us holding the door open so only our heads showed) and she said "May I come in?" I explained we were in bed and she said "Oh, you are very tired" and I said yes, thinking it an understatement of all time. She has brought us a photograph of herself and also a gift of some lovely postcards from Uganda with pictures of elephants. She is so sweet, and so trusting. We hated to send her away, but...... We did go to bed again thinking that these experiences sound more like fiction!