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THREE WEEKS OF CHALLENGES

| 22/11/2012 | 0 Comments

The first Rally Central Asia was a very successful event, specially designed for 4×4 lovers who are longing for unusual and exotic destinations, fully packed with unforgettable cultural and natural sceneries as well as social adventures and for those who can’t be intimidated by three weeks of challenges and hardship.

Despite the scouting trip, which took place a few months earlier, and the fact that we believed we were prepared for any eventuality, the first Central Asia Rally bore fruit in terms of surprises. The conditions were optimal at the kick-off of the rally in Budapest, and only three teams were missing at the starting line. The Dutch bikers, a Canadian-Russian couple residing in Spain and two happy Portuguese guys who often caused nervous laughter to many of us by their simple way of life. These cheerful lads joined us a few hours after the official start.

As usual, the teams never start simultaneously at the events organized by “Travel Scientists,” but what happened at the Ukrainian border was anything but ordinary. A few teams had some arguments with the Ukrainian authorities that refused to let those pass who drove cars with special customs plates, unless they are willing to leave a deposit as a guaranty that the vehicles would not be sold in Ukraine. Given that the deposit was determined as high as ten times the price of each car involved, our brave adventurers turned back. At an impromptu meeting the teams unanimously decided to continue the journey, but each in its own way.

Some teams speculated to cross Romania and Moldova to join the group in Ukraine. They gambled heavily by assuming that Ukrainian customers will not recognize the same plates at the other end of the country. And they were right! Border guards have never heard of “CPD carnet”, and the gamblers went on as if nothing had happened. Among those who did not want to take any risks, a few groups chose to enjoy a quick start provided by the motorways in Hungary and a large part of Serbia, and then they went to Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia, to arrive finally to Russia.

Some other teams have also opted for bypassing the Black Sea and crossing the Caucasus, but they approached Asia Minor through Transylvania before arriving to Bulgaria in the Balkans. Those who entered Ukraine by passing through Moldova, managed to catch up with their mates before these latter could reach the one-time battlefield of Stalingrad, today Volgograd, while the teams that went for “the Balkans – Asia Minor – the Caucasus” itinerary added 1,500 km to the planned route. These participants were rewarded with the diversity of the landscape and the richness of the natural sites. Leaving behind the tea plantations in Turkey, the subtropical forests and the snowy peaks of Georgia, they arrived to the Russian territory, to North Ossetia, Ingushetia, and Chechnya to be more precise.

Those who maintained a stereotypical view of the region with a bombed Grozny, slaughters and burnt tanks, well, they had to be “disappointed”, since nowadays the Chechen capital looks much more like Dubai or Abu Dhabi than the horrors described in the news dated back ten years. After having left the green parks, the fountains, the marble palaces and the gilded domes of the Chechen capital, the teams of the “south wing” route continued their way through the autonomous republics of Dagestan and Kalmykia, whose size does not exceed that of Rhode Island.

In Kalmykia, the only Buddhist republic in Europe (leaving Turkey we reach again the European soil), our riders had to cross a desert by taking tracks that were not listed on the maps. The only creatures to keep them company in this nearly uninhabited country were a few gerbils that were enjoying the cool night air. Having arrived to the world capital of the caviar, Astrakhan, the rally participants were able to take a break in the picturesque Kremlin erected in the delta of the Volga River.

The last teams finally joined the planned route and faced the same hardships as their companions in the lead, namely the abuse of power and the arrogance of a corrupt police and the authorities, a phenomenon commonly encountered in the former Soviet republics, where students surpass their teachers in this respect. The road between Atyrau and Astrakhan goes along the Caspian Sea, however the two-three kilometres that separated us from the water were enough to give us the impression that we were in full Kazakh steppe. The landscape became increasingly hostile and soon we realized why the Soviets had chosen this place to establish their abhorrent gulags. Before reaching the border we crossed a floating bridge that spanned a tributary of the Volga.

The first culture shock we encountered was at the gate that separated us from our first country in Central Asia. Bureaucracy, total confusion, a huge plague of midges, piles of garbage, the thick dust in our lungs and the warm style of the customs’ officers. If you do not stop the car, which action serves absolutely no traffic or security purpose, at 100 m from the border, you’ll get a whopping fine. Sometimes a little present or a bottle of spirit could get you out of the mess.

All the way to Atyrau, a new metropolis and the centre of the gas industry, we have not seen too many living being, if only a few camels in search of vegetation and fresh water. When crossing the Ural River, in geographical terms, we went back to Asia. Those who had a cruise control could relax from that point on to the border town of Beyneu. Further on, before reaching the Uzbek border, we could enjoy a 70 km trail that served perfectly as a ground of acclimatization. Broken asphalt with thousands of pot-holes, then the loose sand, and finally the corrugated iron.

The jewel of border crossings was the one that separated us from Uzbekistan. Above all we had to prepare ourselves psychologically and had to keep calm. What awaited us on the other side was well worth to endure these little mishaps that over time turn into great stories to tell our friends and our family. Once on the Uzbek side we embarked on a business activity. For € 30 we got a bundle of 100.000 Soms in 1.000 bills. After some thrilling off-roading in the dried up sea bed of the Aral, we spent the night next to the ghost vessels that were part of the ’60s fishing fleet.

We strung up the fabulous cities of antiquity in the wake of the Silk Road. Their cultural and architectural richness, the bazaars that remained living spaces, and for the most part didn’t become tourist traps, gave us a memorable experience that we’ll always remember with joy. To enhance the sense of challenge we made a detour through the crimson-coloured dunes of the Kyzyl-Kum desert, next to the gas wells that arise everywhere, a few short paces away from Turkmenistan. Gas is the main wealth and the primary fuel of the country that knows very little about asphalt roads.

Instead of leaving Samarkand by the road that would lead straight to the Tajik capital, due to tensions between the two countries, we had to take a significant detour to Termez, the only place today in Uzbekistan where you can cross the Afghan border. The “Friendship Bridge” spanning the Amu Darya River was reopened in 2001, when the region around Mazar-i-Sharif was still 100% in the grip of the Taliban. One participant attempted the crossing, he has made it and has returned safely from the empire of the bearded ones.

Others have continued to Tajikistan. We quickly crossed then left the capital behind us in order to reach the highest dam in the world where we spent our first Tajik night. The next day we passed by the dam that will soon claim the first place, once completed. The 335 m high Rogun Dam police control points, called “reghistratziyas” got very frequent on the Tajik side. Looks like it’s a favourite pastime among police officers. “Small gifts” are welcome.

As we were approaching Tavildara we gained altitude and the risk of getting stuck in the snow increased, as the road became bit by bit more 4×4. Streams flowing everywhere caused devastating damage to roads already barely passable. Our van carrying our charity donations almost overturned by a river and we needed 3 tow ropes to get it out. A  Sangyong 2.5 l, a 3.0 litre Land Cruiser and a Ford Explorer 4.0 l came to our rescue at a time. After extensive police checks we arrived at the border of the Pamir.

To gain access to those lands you need a visa, an invitation letter, an entry permit valid for the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan and a permit to the border with China, but there are even more special districts. To describe the highlights of the circuit on the “Roof of the World” and the “Pamir Highway” a whole chapter wouldn’t be enough. Passes, that  sometimes verge on the 4,700 m, bottomless ravines, 7,500 m peaks, multi-coloured salt lakes, isolated tribes who live as during the time of Marco Polo, thermal baths, geysers, petroglyphs, the Afghan borderline, which is a breathtaking scenery, just steps away.

The trip ended in the capital Dushanbe where teams celebrated their achievement and sold their cars. In the words of the co-organizer Gabor Ondruss: “The first Rally Central Asia was a very successful event, specially designed for 4×4 lovers who are longing for unusual and exotic destinations, fully packed with unforgettable cultural and natural sceneries as well as social adventures and for those who can’t be intimidated by three weeks of challenges and hardship. This is pure adventure where you may stand up to the starting line with a jalopy and finish with a bag of rubies in the Pamir. The raid will be repeated in June 2013, with an extension to Kyrgyzstan.

Informations about Central Asia Rally 2013

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