India Insight

The Mongol Rally: Siberia

August 21, 2010

The Mongol Rally: SiberiaThe morning brought good news. We were closer to Semey, a large town near the Russian border than we thought. There was still the issue of how to get our half-broken-down car there.

(To read earlier posts from Mongol Rally, click here)

It was time to put our knowledge of off-road driving to the test and manoeuvre the car as lightly and gently as possible over the potholes to the safety of a garage.

The sight of a gaggle of sunburnt, shirtless mechanics smoking on a garage driveway was a relief. It took the combined intelligence of the three members of my rally team and four Kazakh mechanics to communicate, mostly using sign language, what was wrong with the car.

The dusty back windscreen of the car became a handy blackboard as we agreed a price. We were ushered into a roadside café to wait while the repair work was done and snacked on savoury doughnut/dumplings stuffed with ground meat. Evidently it was a local favourite as we had been eating it for lunch and dinner ever since we arrived in Kazakhstan.

About an hour later, we were back on the road with a new set of suspension springs and a new spare tyre. The car felt good and we crossed the border into Russia later that afternoon without incident.

Remarkably, the landscape changed at the border. The endless, grassy plains of Kazakhstan slammed into dense woodland as we entered Russia. The Siberian pine forests were silent, dark and eerily beautiful.

Though the land is mostly flat, as we drove over the occasional hill we could see the forest sweeping away towards the horizon. We were told that in the remote parts of the forest, bears and wolves are still wild. The sun shone a weaker, watery yellow and soon we could feel the air was sharper and chillier than before.

The Mongol Rally: SiberiaThe roads were lined with low, quaint log cottages. Sometimes the cottages were painted in bright shades of blue or green with white accents and almost all the small homes had ornately carved window frames.

The cities of Siberia that we passed through — Barnaul, Novosibirsk, Kemerovo and Krasnoyarsk — were sprawling and pleasant, a mix of well- planned parks and avenues lined with grand public buildings of the Soviet era and the severe concrete look of pre-fabricated residential construction.

Some older timber mansions had been well preserved, freshly painted in a rainbow of pastel shades.

We were delighted that the roads in Siberia were wide and smooth because the driving in Kazakhstan had been tedious and required an enormous amount of concentration.

We were running behind schedule and took advantage of the good roads to make up distance. In the end, we had fallen too far behind schedule to catch up fully and it was necessary for me to leave the rally a few days early.

As I write from Moscow airport, en route to Mumbai, the rest of my rally team is taking the car on towards the finish line and hope to reach Ulaanbataar, Mongolia within the week.

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Top-notch reporting!

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