Tom just stood there motionless, clothed ready for travelling his bag packed and hanging over his shoulder. His face had that grey pained expression once more and his eyes and mouth looked red as though he had been sick and his tongue protruded slightly from the center of his mouth, he looked a mess. I said to him, 'we have been waiting for you what’s the problem? 'I want to go home' he said.
I stared at him for a moment, then through gritted teeth I said 'What do you mean you want to go home, you're in the middle of Kazakhstan!! The nearest major airport is at Novosibirsk and we will be there in 5 days as you know. Looking at the state you are in, you should stay with us so we can look after you'. Tom remained motionless for a moment then repeated that he wanted to go home. By this point I had had enough. 'Look' I said, 'I have had it up to here with you' raising my out stretched fingers across my throat. 'I’m fed up with your day to day hot and cold Jekyll and Hyde attitude. I asked you when we spoke for the first time if there was anything I should know. You said no nothing, but you failed to tell me that you were suffering from depression and needed daily medication. I have bent over backwards to accommodate your problems so now pull yourself together put your gear back in your room and I will meet you downstairs in 5 minutes. Mariusz and I are waiting to eat'.
Tom eventually joined us in the hotel restaurant, but by the time he turned up we had lost our appetite, we paid for our beers and decided to find a family run bistro somewhere less formal. A few minutes chat with the hall porter revealed that what we were looking for was a 10 minute walk along the road. Tom seemed to have got himself back together but to be on the safe side I didn’t say anything likely to antagonise him. We managed to get a meal and a couple of local beers and we discussed some of the details of the route the following morning then decided to get as much sleep as we could.
Saturday 4th May day 35. We met for breakfast at 7.30, we had a long way to go so we ate as much as we could just in case we weren’t able to get anything on the road. Ahead of us was a 308 mile 8 hour journey mainly through open country passing Ekibastuz at about 2pm that afternoon then arriving at Pavlodar our destination at around 4.30pm. The weather was overcast as we filled our tanks with fuel and pointed ourselves in the direction we wanted to go. The road surface was as expected plenty of holes and cracks to dodge once we left the modern capital Astana. We were soon driving through the old rundown suburbs amongst horse drawn carts and the old way of life. As I drove I couldn’t help thinking how far we had driven, at a rough guess by the end of the day it would be something like 2,600 miles. We were in the middle of Kazakhstan, 300 miles to the north is the Russian city of Omsk, to the south west the Caspian Sea. If we carried on in an easterly direction for another 400 miles we would reach the Chinese border at Tacheng. Thinking about where you are like that gives you an eerie feeling of isolation. The weather remained overcast and a strong wind persisted throughout the day as we travelled along mile after mile of bumpy roads, passing huge wheat farms on either side. Although the landscape in that area was mainly flat it facilitated large scale farming although we did pass some scenic areas of lakes and rivers. During the afternoon I heard and felt a knocking sound coming from somewhere around the foot well of the driving position. I called 03 using the hand held radio to let them know I was stopping. The examination revealed that the front right bottom suspension bolt had come loose and dropped off at some point, although still safe to drive I needed to get a replacement. We continued until we found a petrol station and asked if there was anywhere we could get a replacement bolt and was directed to a village back the way we had come. We located the workshop, the door was open but nobody was there. We waited for a while and eventually a well-dressed man appeared, Mariusz explained what the problem was and the man in his immaculate suit wriggled his way between the wheel and the car body to get a better look, then indicated for us to wait while he went inside the workshop. He returned with two boxes of assorted nuts and bolts and tipped one of them onto a patch of concrete and started to sift through. Finding what he was looking for and still in his clean suit he dived under the front of 02 to replace the missing bolt. Within a few minutes the job was done although I felt uneasy about the man getting his clothes messed but up humbled and privileged to have an opportunity to meet someone so helpful but also concerned when Mariusz asked about payment. He refusing anything. I stood there watching the kind man collecting the scattered nuts and bolts and when he wasn’t looking I placed a $20 bill on his work bench just before we left. The remainder of the journey was thankfully uneventful arriving at Pavlodar at 5.00pm. The city was a contrast to Astana, Pavlodar is an industrial city with the surrounding area comprising of flat country, the city itself is sited on the bank of the River Irtysh and was originally a Russian military outpost dating back to the early 1700’s and has grown from there. The limited time we had for sightseeing quickly revealed Pavlodar to have a lingering Russian influence yet the old traditions of Kazakhstan seemed to embrace the contrasting modern parts of the city’s commercial westernised look.
Sunday 5th May day 36. Another day, another journey. Driving alone you have to think before deciding what day it is. Of course I can look in my diary to see but it doesn’t happen automatically when you say to yourself, what day is it? Every day seems to be the same. We were getting closer to the Russian border and our aim was to reach Semey (Semipalatinsk) our stopover by nightfall, a 216 mile 7 hour journey, not far as distances go but the roads have been getting progressively worse the farther east we travelled so I allowed more time. My over-loaded 02 is feeling the strain, the rear left shock absorber bolt that sheared and had to be welded now seems OK. Replacing the lost bolt on the front right shock absorber has caused no problems either but I did worry about anything happening in Mongolia, if it did would I be able to get it fixed. To make sure that 02 and 03 were in tip top condition to take on Mongolia I had arranged to visit the Suzuki dealership at Novosibirsk to thoroughly check and service both vehicles ready for that stage. I assumed when 02 was up on the ramp I would have an opportunity to have a look underneath myself to see what was happening. Although I had given some thought about the possibility of breaking down or have some sort of problem, deep down I was confident that we would make it to the Russian border.
It was a pity we had to keep to a strict time schedule, I would have liked more time to visit some of the places of interest recommended to me and to meet and talk to the people more than we did. The people were friendly and helpful and didn’t pass an opportunity to have a close look at the vehicles and converse with us. Unfortunately come what may I had to be at Novosibirsk, Russia no later than the following Wednesday (the 8th) in two days time, to meet Graham Higgins and Mike Bailey arriving from the UK on Thursday the 9th.
Monday 6th day 37. We managed to find decent accommodation and a sort of bistro close by, not feeling energetic enough to walk around the town we decided have an extra beer or two and get to bed early. Tom managed to get himself sorted out and contributed to the evening conversation. I thought at the time, I hoped he could keep on top of his predicament until we got to Novosibirsk and boarded his flight home on the 10th. Refreshed from a good night’s sleep and a wholesome breakfast we took to the road once more facing a 272 mile 9 hour journey to Barnaul in Russia. On the way we expected to pass through Rubtsovsk the Kazakhstan Russian border crossing at mid-day. When we arrived at the border we were kept waiting for some time. While we were waiting different groups of Kazakhstan border guards marched from the office to inspect us until eventually we were called forward to go through the documentation process and the vehicle checked then handed over to the Russians. They didn’t seem too interested but went through the motions that lasted 30 minutes, finally we were let loose on Russian soil for the second time. We arrived at the town of Barnaul at 6pm as predicted and checked into a small hotel in the town centre. I put my kit into mine and Tom’s room then went to the car park to have another look at the running gear of 02 as during the day there was a knocking sound and a slight vibration coming up the steering. I wanted to have a look to see if I could spot anything. I had a poke around underneath and noticed that the torsion bar had a little movement in it but safe enough to get me to the dealer at Novosibirsk the following day.
Tuesday 7th day 38. We started later than usual as a result of the journey being fairly short but relieved to be at Novosibirsk to meet the guys as planned. It would be a 170 mile 6 hour drive allowing for the bad road conditions. 02 and 03 were refuelled and checked the previous night, so on this occasion we could sit back and enjoy the ride. The Sun was shining and the sky cloudless, it was a perfect day. We had been driving for best part of 2 hours, Mariusz and Tom in 03 were leading the way as we came to a small town. Slowing so as not to get stopped for speeding, the road led us through the centre. On the left hand side there was a large service area and positioned at either side of the entrance to the cafeteria building was what I called bigboy Lada cars. These vehicles were huge, you know the sort of thing 4 feet high wheels V8 engines, they were massive. As we drove past I expected Tom to call on the hand held to say to stop so that he can take some film of our little Suzuki Jimny’s dwarfed by the Lada’s but nothing happened. It was an opportunity not to be missed so I called Tom, but Mariusz answered. 'Can I speak to Tom' I said. 'He’s asleep' Mariusz replied. I then asked if he could turn around and go back to the service area. 'Did you see those Lada cars?' I asked. We were able to position 02 and 03 either side of the Ladas and to film the little Jimnys over shadowed by the monsters. We got the film we wanted so I was happy but annoyed with Tom for missing the filming opportunity. Not wanting to rock the boat so close to him finishing his part of the journey I decided not to raise the issue. We arrived at Novosibirsk at about 3.30pm driving along the main three lane highway that lead to the city centre, the traffic was horrendous. As luck would have it after driving a few miles I saw the Suzuki dealership on the opposite side of the road. Being a duel carriageway we had to drive some way before we could turn and go in the opposite direction but we made it in the end. We parked in front of the car showroom and immediately created interest, sales people were milling around as I went to the reception and asked to see the Manager. The pretty girls behind the counter just stared at me, nobody including the manager spoke English. We had to wait until they produced someone to act as interpreter, eventually everyone was sat around a table and in full discussion through the interpreter. We were warmly welcomed by the Manager and given the VIP treatment. They were expecting us and suggested we leave the vehicles with them so they could check and repair, if necessary, the running gear service and clean both cars to be ready for collection 12pm the next morning. They did ask however, that when we arrive the next day would we make ourselves available to meet the press.
Merry Xmas everyone ...... till next time, Les