Driving a 1954 Austin-Healey 100/4 from Peking to Paris in the June 2019 ERA Rally.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

0130 Kazakhstan. Days 15-18

0130  Kazakhstan  Days 15-18
June 16-19 2019
Rain, mud, clutch repairs, horsemen, and more big crowds !

Clouds and rain ahead
Day 15.  Novosibirsk to Pavlodar Kazakhstan.  630 kms.    Distance wise, today was the longest of the rally, with a border crossing thrown in for good measure.  But at least, being a Sunday morning, the city roads were pretty empty and we found our way out of town no problem.  But before long, the temperature started dropping and the black clouds rolled in - Time to put the roof on !  And it was a good job we did because it was going to get wetter, colder, and even muddier, as the day progressed.

In the rain at German village
By lunch time we arrived at a "German" Village, and the town had turned out in style - they were celebrating the start of summer - Ironically in the cold and pouring rain. The locals were rugged up for it, and seemingly immune to it, but for us P2Pers in the cars, there was very little incentive to get out of a (relatively) dry interior !  However it was a Time Control, so we had about an
Miss Vicky pushes her way through !
hour or so before we could clock out and be on our way.  So there was a little time to rug up and wander around, but such a shame for the locals as it could have been a wonderful stop. As usual, lots of photos were being taken, but it was all really rather sad - Better weather would have made it a much more enjoyable stop, for both competitors and spectators alike.

(Note of interest :-  There are many people of German origin living in Kazakhstan.  Their history is too extensive to detail here, but, if you are interested, more details can be found here :- Kazakh Germans )

Mud, mud and more mud
Half an hour after leaving the TC in the German Village, we had a competitive stage on gravel. Well, it used to be gravel, but due to the rain that had been (and continued to be) falling, it was now "slightly muddy", and we were advised by John Spiller who was manning the STC that we should "take care".  With those words of advice, we set off - Sideways !!  The mud was both thick and liquid, and VERY slippery.  Within 100 metres we were trying to
This stage was to cause us problems later
work out how to wash the windscreen so we could see out.  Within about 500 metres the engine died - The mud and water flying up into the engine bay had drowned the electrics.  Poor Ashton leapt out and opened the bonnet while I fished for WD40 in the bag at my feet, and after copious spraying of it into the distributor, Gidget fired up.  By now Ashton was not only wet, but also muddy after being sprayed by a passing car.   We got maybe one kilometer, and she died again.  Repeat treatment, with Ashton now wetter and muddier still.  I think it even happened a 3rd time, but my recollection is somewhat blurred due to the hell of this section. We eventually finished the stage, but it was not fun.  And, although we didn't know it at the time, the effects were going to be felt for several days to come, and not only by us, but also by a number of other competitors.

The border crossing shortly after that was relatively simple compared to some of the previous ones. although standing around in the biting wind while our clothes were wet and muddy was not much fun. Today was turning into a bit of a bummer.

Gidget in Kazakhstan
Some 4 hours later we made it to Pavlodar, to be welcomed by enormous
In Pavoldar car park
crowds of well wishers. These receptions really have to be seen to be believed, and seem even more impressive when you are arriving tired and muddy after driving over 600 kms in rain and wind in a not very waterproof car.   Isn't life fun ?!  The hotel was a little way from the central car park so a small shuttle bus was provided for us.  Ashton serviced the car while I took all the luggage up and checked in, and, as usual, once we had eaten some supper it was pretty much straight to bed, in order to be ready for yet another long day on the road !

Bridge over Irtysh River, outside Pavoldar
Lunch time TC stop
Day 16.  Pavlodar to Nur Sultan (formerly Astana).  565 kms.  At least the sun was out this morning, so it was already a better day than yesterday.  However it was another long distance today, and ended up over 10 hours of driving.
The off road sections were OK, but there was one in particular that sticks in my mind, for
Waiting for a Timed section
a couple of reasons.  We had wound through a small town to get to the start, which was a wide open grassy field disappearing into the distance.  While we were waiting, I suddenly noticed that the
LH side light glass had decided to fall off, and the bulb was just sitting out there, waiting to be hit and broken, or suffer from water ingress, or whatever.  After checking to make sure it still worked, I tried to find something to protect the bulb - And turned to the nearest thing to hand - a small plastic water bottle I was drinking from. I cut the
The Beetle heads off on the track
bottom off the bottle, and was stunned to find that the diameter was exactly correct, with the plastic edges of the bottle actually fitting perfectly into the rubber housing of the light !   It just needed a bit of tape to hold it in place !   And was to stay in place, and waterproof, until Paris.
The second memorable part for me was that we were sent off at 60 second intervals, and the Beetle went off, 60 seconds later the Hong Kong boys in their Merc, and then us.  I was head down calling the turns, measuring them on the Monit because there sure weren't any sign posts out there, even though there were a LOT of tracks going off in every direction.  Suddenly Ashton said "Are you sure we are going the right way ?"  "Yes of course we are, keep going"   "But Giles, there is a car coming towards us !!  Are you SURE we are right ?".  "Yes, KEEP GOING - And turn left in 100 metres - 80 metres.....70 metres", at which point the Mercedes, which was still heading towards us, suddenly turned to his right (our left), up the track we wanted.  He had missed the turn and had come back.    Now we were right behind the Mercedes, which was a problem as no where to over take.  "Turn right in 30 m" I called, "20....10" - The Mercedes went straight on !  "Are you sure ? Says Ashton.  "YES".   We turned right, and suddenly we are going side by side with the Mercedes - He had again missed the turning, realised
Arch of Triumph, Nur Sultan
his error, and was now going parallel to us, on another track !  "Go, Go, Go," I urged.  I could see the two trails converging, and if we didn't get ahead before they joined, we would be stuck behind the Merc ! Ashton kept his foot in, and we just got there first !  From there, and buoyed by our success, we continued at great speed, and over a couple more hills, we suddenly came up behind the Beetle !  That was now 2 minutes we had made up !   Luckily Ashton was able to force his way past on the side of the track, and we shot off past the Beetle, and on to the finish.  We really nailed that section, and although we lost a few seconds in penalties, it was a great feeling to call a quite tricky section correctly, and make up so much time over other competitors.

Coming into Astana / Nur Sultan is quite a sight - Some incredible buildings, quite a few of them left
Khan Shatyr, Nur Sultan
over from the 2017 World Expo which was held there.   In the middle of the road as we came in was a large archway, known as the Arch of Triumph, or locally as Mangilik El.  It symbolizes the history of development and achievements of the Kazakh people, and was built to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the country's independence.   Further along is the Khan Shatyr, which looks like an enormous lop sided tent.   Under the tent, an area larger than 10 football stadiums, is an urban-scale park, shopping and entertainment venue with squares and cobbled streets, a boating river, shopping centre, minigolf and indoor beach resort.  It was finished in 2010, in time to celebrate the 70th birthday of Kazakhstan's President, with a concert by Andrea Bocelli !

Marriott hotel car park
And in the niddle of all this futuristic and marble faced architecture, was our Marriott hotel, where we drove up a ramp to park on the second floor.  In the evening Ashton took Gidget down for a wash, but I understand the guy got a bit carried away so she wouldn't start.  Given that we also had suffered moisture
Patented moisture barrier !
problems during the earlier mud stage, as well as on a couple of high-splash water crossings, it was finally time to install our rubber glove that I had so secretly acquired from a kitchen hand a couple of days earlier.  Its an old Mini trick, and is very effective - Should have done it a couple of days earlier !!

Goat damage on E Type !
P2P cakes for desert !
There was a lot of work going on in the car park that night, with the Bristol having a new head gasket fitted, and I saw
a large dent on the front of the E Type - It turned out that they had had a "close encounter" with a sheep or goat or similar a couple of days ago !   And when we went in for dinner, we found even the deserts had been hand made into the P2P logo !  Shame to eat them really !!

Gidget on a roadside ramp
Day 17.  Nur Sultan to Balkashino Camp 7.   461 kms.   A bit wet and cold again this morning, so we decided to put the roof back on, and after the normal session queuing up for our time stamp while Ashton slowly worked his way to the head of the car line up, we eventually headed off.  Once out of the city, Ashton quickly became aware that there was a clutch issue, and it was hoped we could fix it easily - Maybe the mechanism was just rubbing on the (very bent) skid plate, which just needed straightening ?  Or it needed adjusting ?  Either way, we needed to
Sweeps inspect the clutch
take the skid plate off - Which meant we needed a ramp.    Coincidentally, a lot of the laybys over here have concrete ramps in the layby - Maybe vehicles breakdown frequently, so they provide ramps ?  Whatever the reason, we soon spotted one on our side of the highway, and went in to inspect the car.   Obviously the ramps were made for trucks, as the width of the ramps was on the "large" side - Fortunately Gidget just fitted on the ramp, but she needed to be straight so she didn't fall into the middle !

Entering Balkashino camp
With the undertray off, a LOT of mud left over from the special stage a couple of days earlier was still caked on there, despite the washing the night before.  After making a few adjustments, Ashton drove around the car park to test, and although the clutch was operating, it was not good.  Eventually we put the undertray back on, and headed on up the road, but it was now almost impossible to release the clutch, so when we saw the mechanic sweep car in a fuel station beside the road, we went in, took the undertray off, and had them inspect it.  Unfortunately the news was not good - They confirmed the lack of a clutch, or the thrust bearing problem, and we had no
Locals at Balkashino
River crossing entering Balkashino Camp
choice but to put the undertray on and continue as best we could.   Not very enjoyable for Ashton, especially when we came to towns or traffic lights.

We then soldiered on towards the Balkashino Camp - Our 7th and last camp site.  One dirt stage had to be cancelled due to rain making the conditions virtually impassable, so much of the day was spent on the very smooth freeway, which considering our problems, wasn't a "bad thing".   Entering the camp site was a fairly major water crossing, but, while we may have had no clutch, our yellow rubber glove waterproofing did its job and Gidget didn't miss a beat.
Horseman at Balkashino
The camp site itself was perhaps the least well prepared of them all, but in the end it turned out to be one of the best.  Even people who had done the event previously said it was one of their best ever, and was the night when everyone finally bonded.

Ashton had a busy evening on the phone trying to locate spares. We carry a clutch plate, but everything in the mechanism was new  so we weren't carrying any other spares.  He was therefore trying to find a way to import a repair kit into Ufa, our next rest day, 3 days up the road.  Importing items into Russia ?  Not so easy, and it turned out to be a major nightmare that was to keep Ashton (and others who were also desperately in need of spares) busy on the phone for the next couple of days.

Party time in the rain
Amongst all the tents, there were a couple of yurts in the camp site, stages set up, swings for the kids,
Cooking dinner
and behind all this were a couple of locals on horseback giving a great display.  Lots of the locals were in National costume, and soon there was music and dancing on the stages, while later on an enormous bonfire was lit.  Even a torrential downpour didn't dampen everyone's spirits, and everyone was
In the mess tent
sitting around
Camp site restaurant !
enjoying the evening.  Chefs were cooking out in the open, with just an awning over their heads, and the smells soon got everyone hungry.  And back among the tents, people were putting their tarpaulins to good use by erecting make shift shelters to they could
Our last camp site
continue with their parties.  In the end, the food was as
good as the entertainment, and everyone turned in, in some ways sad that this was to be the last camp.  Somehow the camp sites just have so much more atmosphere than sitting in a concrete hotel in another big city.   Ah well..............

Ashton waits for the start time
Day 18.  Balkashino to Kostanay.  591 kms.   Ashton started off the day sitting on a bench in the sunshine !  With no clutch, we had to be inventive, so he parked on the side of a slope and while I went down and got our start time entered, Ashton got ready to roll down the hill to get us under way.  Once we had got through the river crossing and out of town, we went straight to a funny little stage, on tarmac, but very narrow and tight, through the trees.  We made it to the end - I think Ashton left it in 2nd gear the whole way round !
A later dirt stage we elected to miss, but we did the 3rd one on tracks through grass that was relatively smooth and great fun, and
Big crowds at Kostanay
we did reasonably well.  From there it was in to Kostanay, which was amazing, but no fun for Ashton in the traffic.  When we finally reached the car park, we were mobbed by hundreds of people, and had to force our way through the crowd, with iPhone cameras being stuck in our faces all the way !!   Our parking spot was directly in front of a very "soviet" style building - The Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, I understand !  Getting much done to the car, other than a regular spanner check, was next to impossible.  The hotel, which for once was not too close by, left a bit to be desired, especially when compared to some of the ones we had stayed in previously
Gidget in front of Government Building
wandering around trying to find some acceptable oil - We weren't desperate but Gidget was finally requiring a bit of a top up.  I eventually found a big car dealership, which appreaded closed, but when I banged on the door, a guy came out, and I explained what I needed, and was taken inside.  There I found Daniel and his Citroen having a "full service", and also Kurt from the green Porsche picking up some tires !  I sat around for quite a time, until eventually the guy came back with 4 litres of Renault oil that was close to our specs, and when I tried to pay, he wouldn't hear of it, which was kind of him.  I then made my way back to the car with the oil, before heading to the hotel for dinner, and to bed.

Some people towed out of Kostanay
Day 19.  Kostanay, Kazakhstan to Bannoe Lake, Russia.  469 kms.   Last night we had another time zone change, so should have had an extra hour in bed, but since it was to be yet another long day, with a border crossing into Russia included, we were made to get up early and hit the road.  There were a number of clutchless cars that elected to be towed out of town through the traffic, but Ashton felt we could make it, so we set off - And soon got quite lost in some roadworks.    We tried using our maps to get us out, but kept ending up in the roadworks - And we weren't the only ones, as we spied a number of cars having the same problem.  Eventually Ashton took the bull by the horns and actually drive straight through the roadworks, along some pavements, and over a couple of earth mounds, and once past the somewhat astonished workmen, found our way back on the road out of town !!

Crossing into Russia - Again !
We crossed into Russia with relative ease and minimal delay, for a change.  In fact the biggest issue was with a certain Volvo
driver who decided he wanted to tell us how to cross the border, and where we should put our car !  Needless to say, he went onto our "bad" list, and ironically held us up all day !!

Photo time on the freeway !

Once in  Russia, the two stages we had on grass went quite well, and although we were allowed to leave 2 minutes behind the (offending) Volvo, we still caught him, and pushed past in the long and bumpy grass beside the track.   On the next stage, we also caught them up, but again managed to overtake them, and deliver respectable times in the end.  These grassy open stages and much more to my liking as a navigator, and find that as the event goes on, I am managing to master them better, and find them incredibly satisfying.

Magnitigorsk finish
On the clutch front, Ashton finally managed to link up with Adrian and Owen who were getting spare parts from the same source
as our clutch (Their Austin is effectively a 3 litre 6 cylinder Healey, except it has 4 doors !) actually hand carried in to Ufa, which is great news as the clutch really is becoming difficult to live with for poor Ashton.

During the day, we had our usual fair share of passing cars slowing and rolling down their
Military reception
My turn with the girls !
windows as several iPhones poke out to take our photo and wave !!  Prior to reaching our overnight stop at Bannoe Lake, we came to Magnitigorsk, where  special parking had been arranged at the MTC.  We passed under the customary big blow up archway, and we were then welcomed by someone in military uniform with an "army"
motorcycle and sidecar !  It was then my turn to have a
McDonalds and a sign !
pretty local girl want to have her photo taken with our car - Ashton was away checking on something !!   It was then on for about another hour to Bannoe Lake, passing a McDonalds sitting right underneath a Soviet style hammer and sickle sign - most odd !!

Bannoe Lake is a resort, with several large residential blocks dotted around in woodlands.  We parked up, with the usual crowds, although this time we had pretty girls telling us where to park !  While doing a spanner check, I was able to negotiate over a fence to buy a few beers from some beer tent, so we were able to have a cold beer while we unpacked and sorted everything out.   Finding our accomodation in the complex was not simple, but eventually made it.

Dinner at Bannoe Lake
Being shown to our parking
Dinner was about a 20 minute walk away through the resort,where they
had set up a big marquee for us, and served us a great dinner.  Unfortunately, after queuing up for about half an hour at the drinks stall, we were told they had run out of wine, so we had to drink beer for the rest of the evening.  A very pleasant evening down beside the scenic lake.  This is a big ski area in the winter, and given that it is only about 500 m ASL, it gives you an idea of what the temperatures must drop to out here !!  A pleasant welcome back to Russia.

Rest of the photos are here :-  https://photos.app.goo.gl/8W6JpKuN8mqFmZF79

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Ashton & Giles welcome any visitors, support, and comments as we prepare for our Adventure !