Hi guys, I'm back again, though a bit later than anticipated. It’s rather like riding two horses, one being the book I'm writing, the other, the episodes for the blog relating to the journey. The book being spicy and full of detail requires a lot of my time to get it onto paper so to speak, any spare time I have, I write the articles for the blog and deal with any other business I need to attend to, so please bear with me. To continue .........
During that day I received an email from Vi to tell me that the guys at home were concerned they hadn't heard from me. I didn't understand what the problem was, at meetings we had before departure day it was agreed that I would meet Graham and Mike at Novosibirsk Airport on the 9th May, day 40. All they had to do was monitor my progress on our web site through the Yellow Brick tracking page. Provided my blip on the screen didn’t suddenly disappear, they hop on a plane as planned and I would be waiting for them when they arrive at Novosibirsk on the 9th. As for me, dicing with death every day driving through Europe, Russia and Kazakhstan, to make sure that I was there when they emerged from arrivals, was something I was doing as part of my normal daily routine. They needn't have worried though, I was there waiting when they arrived. I was lucky to have Vi working with me, being my eyes and ears at home, keeping me informed of what was going on so that I could focus on what I was doing.
Wednesday 1st May day 32. We were blessed with another sunny day, the short 157 mile 4 hour drive to Slatoust took us through the southernmost tip of the Ural Mountains, presenting us with a panoramic view of the countryside and stunning scenery. As we made our way along tree lined, but bumpy roads, I remember that afternoon very well. I had started the day feeling run down, partly due to the continuous driving for long hours and the lack of proper sleep, causing me to feel a bit lethargic . It was midday when we came across a sort of road side café, so we stopped for a bite to eat. I ate something that didn't quite agree with me and my stomach couldn't decide whether the food was going down or coming back up again. When I left the café I wasn't feeling too good. We got rolling again and I settled down into my comfortable driving seat not too interested what was going on around me as I was leading the way along a narrow twisting, one lane each way, mountainous road that eventually straightened out for quite a long way. I closed up to a lorry ahead of me but decided not to overtake, I was content to stay behind it and be sucked along at 55 mph. I checked my mirror to see where 03 was and saw that they were some way back behind two other cars. I eventually got fed up sitting behind the lorry and decided to overtake. I eased off the power to let the lorry move forward then inched over to the left so that I could have a look down the outside of the lorry to see if I could overtake. Looking ahead I could see in the distance a slow on-coming white van allowing me sufficient time to overtake. Already travelling at 55 mph, I changed down to 4th gear, hit the floor with the peddle squeezing more power from the little 1328cc engine and slowly clawed my way along the side of the lorry. As I looked ahead to check on the white van I saw for the first time that it was not one but two lorries nose to tail! Starting to feel uneasy, I still thought that I could make it so I continued to overtake. Sweat had formed on my forehead and my tongue had turned into a coarse file that attached itself to the roof of my mouth making swallowing difficult. The van was closer now. Make a decision, I said to myself, but as I looked in the rear-view mirror I was shocked to see a car close up behind me blocking my retreat.
At the same time, I noticed I was no longer overtaking the lorry, simply maintaining a speed that kept me level with the lorry cab. That’s when I panicked. Scanning the instruments to find out why, with the pedal to the floor, that I was not overtaking. I suddenly realised it wasn't the engine losing power, I was going up an incline. Changing down to 3rd gear the little engine was screaming, but I started to inch forward once more. I looked to see where the white van was and received a second gut wrenching shock. It wasn't a white van, it was a fast moving white Toyota truck, lights flashing and horn blaring as it raced towards me.
The seconds passed as I stared at the oncoming vehicle. There was nowhere to go and nothing I could do other than brace myself ready for impact. The driver of the lorry high up in his cab watched the incident unfold as I looked up momentarily and made eye contact. He applied his brakes to create a gap between his lorry and the one in front and I heard the lorry tyres skidding and saw the gap appear, not knowing if I would make it or not, I yanked the wheel to the right somehow missing both lorries, as the Toyota flashed past horn still blaring. I carried on through the gap and out the other side coming to a stop on a strip of rough ground at the side of the road marginally wider than 02. I switched off the engine and just sat there thinking what a bloody fool I was. It was a simple overtaking manoeuvre that went seriously wrong, no one’s fault but my own. The guys in 03 stopped beside me to ask if I was OK. I said I was, but to be truthful it frightened the life out of me. We continued our journey to Slatoust, our overnight stop and border crossing the following day.
Thursday 2nd May day 33. It was a short journey to Troitsk the Russian border town and crossing into Kazakhstan. The crossing itself took an hour and a half, it was pretty straight forward apart from the usual paperwork queries then we were driving on Kazakhstan roads by 10 o'clock. I felt much better after my near miss the day before. After the incident I had given considerable thought as to what happened and gave myself a serious telling off and decided not to be too clever in future and pay more attention to my driving. The roads were pitted with potholes and cracks, but the sun was shining. The target we had for set ourselves for that day was to reach Qostanay a 256 mile 8 hour drive. Around 11 o'clock that morning I was expecting a phone call from Julian Clegg, BBC Radio Solent, for our weekly radio interview and update for the folks at home who were following our progress. The interview was on time and went without a hitch. The rest of that day was uneventful but there seemed to be police everywhere. We rolled into the outskirts of Qostanay at 6.30pm and booked ourselves into a small clean family hotel. It had been another long day and we were feeling tired after the journey so we decided to eat at the small restaurant attached to the hotel and maybe have a beer or two, then bed, so we were properly rested for an early start the following morning.
Friday 3rd May day 34. I met Mariusz for breakfast at 7am and Tom our cameraman joined us a few minutes later. We had a long way to go that day, the 420 mile 10 hour journey to Astana would be demanding and take us all day, so we needed to get rolling as soon as possible. Over breakfast I mentioned to Mariusz that I had heard the traffic police had been stopping foreign drivers for speeding and asking for cash payments at the roadside, I had also been told that what usually happens is the traffic police lay in wait at cross roads at the top of a hill. When the unsuspecting driver approaches the hill top he is confronted with a 70, 50, and 30 kilometre speed limit signs all within a distance of 100 metres, making it difficult to slow down in time. As you approach the hilltop your forward line of sight focuses on an oversized wide brimmed hat with a radar speed camera underneath it, pointing at you. As you progress to the top the policeman becomes visible, by that time it's too late, so please be careful. We ate as much as we could, loaded and checked the vehicles and we were on our way by 7.30am. We drove for a while using the remaining fuel in the tanks, filling up when we stopped for a break later that morning. The weather was overcast and windy, rain was expected throughout the day. During the morning Mariusz and Tom in 03 led the way and I followed in 02, being forewarned about the police and before we left the hotel, I decided to hide the money I was carrying, but I put $75 in my right hand top pocket and $50 in my left hand top pocket, just as a precaution in case one of us was stopped for speeding. An hour or so into the journey the police signalled for Mariusz to stop, I slipped past undetected, grinning like a Cheshire cat while Mariusz was in conversation with one of the policeman. I carried on further along the road then stopped and waited. A few minutes later 03 stopped alongside, I asked what happened and Mariusz said that they wanted to check our papers. You were lucky I replied, be careful that you don't get caught speeding, I will lead the way. We drove for another hour, I sat comfortably driving along thinking about everything other than what I should be thinking about, not noticing that I was driving up a hill with a cross road at the top and before I realized it I had already passed the 70 and was sliding past the 50 sign when I applied the brakes, looking forward hoping that I had got away with it. No such luck. The large brimmed hat and speed camera was there. Oooh s**t, I thought to myself as I was directed to stop. I did so as Mariusz and Tom cruised by in 03 laughing their heads off.
The policeman was a bit on the short side but he had a huge backside. He indicated to me to get out of 02 and go to the police Lada where there was a second policeman who must have been 6’6’’ tall, sitting bent double in the back of the Lada. He beckoned me to sit beside him in the back. I opened the back door of the Lada, dropped onto the unoccupied seat that was still warm and closed the door. Sitting in silence our shoulders touching we occupied the whole of the back seat waiting for something to happen. The door I had just closed, opened and short legs positioned himself to reverse his elephant size bum through the rear door cavity one cheek at a time. Remembering the warm seat and that he had managed this manoeuvre many times, the thought of him dropping onto my lap was too much. I jumped up and lent over the front seats as he slid past and relocated to the seat he had previously occupied.The policeman then turned sideways and pulled me back onto the space created. The big man spoke to me and the only word I recognised was speeding, he re-ran the video to show me but as I went to look he switched it off. He indicated that I had to pay a fine, I asked how much by sign language and he wrote on paper something like 23000 Tenge, I nearly wet myself when I saw all those zeros! When I said I could pay by card at the police station they just looked at me then said with a look that could kill, you have Dollars? With my mouth as dry as sandpaper, I said, no, I have no Dollars. I repeated this, while at the same time patting my pockets from the bottom up until I reached the top right. Looking surprised, I patted it again then withdrew its contents of assorted bits of paper. As I turned the papers over the $75 appeared and it was immediately snatched up by the big guy. You have more dollars he asked, no I said shaking my head from side to side. They conversed between themselves then turned to me and said I could go. The big guy looked me in the eye and said in a menacing tone, you say nothing, holding his finger on his lips.
Those two frightened the hell out of me when I was sitting in the back of that Lada. I was really glad to get away from them and relieved to be driving east once more. The guys in 03 were waiting for me, they were still laughing when I stopped. I could see the funny side of it and couldn't help laughing and talking at the same time, reminding them once again to be careful. I led as we drove towards Astana, unconcerned about speed cameras as the road was flat as far as I could see.
Cruising along at 55 mph I cautiously approached a cross road, I couldn't see any police so I accelerated. As I did, a policeman with an extra wide brimmed hat and camera pointing in my direction stepped out from behind a parked lorry indicating to me to stop, I felt sick. The procedure was the same except that this time they only got $50 and I was on my way again within 15 minutes. I guess the police who stopped me the first time told their pals down the road we were coming and that I had the money in my top left-hand pocket. When I caught up with 03 nobody said a word, I really wasn't having a good day.
Feeling p***ed off I called Mariusz to say that we would stop for a short break at the next opportunity and at the same time I wanted to investigate a rattle coming from somewhere at the front of 02. When we stopped at the service area I noticed that 02 had lost a bolt from the front, right hand side suspension bracket. We had a sandwich, coffee and a short break then drove to a small workshop we passed before arriving at the service area. The owner couldn't have been more helpful, a real nice man. He sorted through his stock of bolts until he found what he wanted then he fitted it and we were back on the road in next to no time. We finally arrived at our destination totally drained and exhausted after such an eventful day, but surprised to find Astana such a vibrant and modern city. The road to the city centre was three lanes each way and a smooth as a snooker table. Being a bit reluctant to spend a long time looking for reasonably priced accommodation, we stopped at the first hotel we saw. The whole place was clad on the outside with gold panels and red paintwork and chandeliers throughout. I sighed, thinking it had an expensive look about it, but when I asked for three single rooms and the receptionist told me the price it brought a smile to my face. We arranged to meet in 30 minutes at the hotel Restaurant. Mariusz and I arrived together and ordered a beer, while we were waiting for Tom to join us, I asked Mariusz if Tom had managed to film my encounters with the police, he replied, I'm not sure but I think he did. Did he seem OK to you, I continued, I don't know, he was awake when you were stopped by the police but the rest of the time he was asleep, he replied. I looked at my watch and saw that we had been waiting for another 30 minutes for Tom to appear. I said I had better go to his room, he has probably fallen asleep. I knocked on the door and getting no response, I knocked again. Still no response, I turned to walk away, then I heard a slight sound coming from within, I banged on the door much harder and waited for a response, a few moments later the door opened, Tom just stood there motionless clothed ready for traveling, his bag packed and hanging on his shoulder, his face had that grey pained expression once more, his eyes and mouth looked red as though he had been sick, and his tongue protruded slightly from the centre of his mouth. He looked a mess. I said “we've been waiting for you what’s the problem?” “I want to go home” he said. I stared at him for a moment then said, gritting my teeth “what do you mean you want to go home?”
More soon Les