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Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 4 – Ordos to Dengkou – 528km

Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 4 – Ordos to Dengkou – 528km

One of the unquestionable highlights of Peking to Paris is the desert driving, for some it is the entire reason for coming, people like Kev and Cole Bradburn, whose car was built – by Cole – for exactly that sort of environment. There’s no hiding from the disappointment of not being able to take the traditional route of this rally through Mongolia, unavoidable, but, when one door closes another will open, and today was the Middle Kingdoms opportunity to give us a first glimpse of what it had to offer.

We would travel into the desert today, giving the competitors their first opportunity to enjoy a DTC, or Desert Time Control section, which is about the closest anyone will get to full on stage rally action away from the closed roads tests. First though, there was an early morning regularity on a road that climbed through the canyons and eventually onto a ridge, before dropping down into the dust and industry, in a scene that looked like something from a dystopian disaster film.

Tall railway bridges spanned the sandy track, casting long shadows as the cars negotiated a narrow path alongside a railway yard with old rolling stock rusting into nothingness. I daresay for the P2P veterans Mongolia felt a long way away, but the upcoming DTC would soon put smiles on faces, as who doesn’t love playing in the sand?

The navigation on this section wasn’t too tricky, so it was over to the drivers to complete each section within the allotted time. There were deep gulley’s, tricky climbs and rough sections. The first real challenge was a sandy section through trees that looked something akin to the Safari Rally, with deep grooves worn into the track, certainly deep enough to swallow a Mini, a fact not lost on the Henshall brothers as they balanced their Cooper S between the central ridge and the verge. If they make it to Paris, they will become only the second Mini to ever complete the P2P, and they weren’t prepared to be swallowed by the sand at this early stage.

Others hit the gulley and the subsequent bumps flat out, Alex Vassbotten in the Alvis Fire Fly was, well, flying, as were both of the Dreelan brothers, but, as CoC Guy Woodcock had warned, you can’t win it on the first STC, but you can lose it. Further into the section there was a choice of tracks, high and left which was smooth but slow, or low and right which was the opposite and, at a certain speed, a launch pad into outer space. The first pilot to get their wings was Florian Lissmann in his Porsche, an achievement equaled later by Lars Rolner in his Porsche.

The Aussies were in on the act as well, John Henderson and Lui Maclennan put their Volvo into the sky and then Matt Bryson did his best to level the bumps entirely in the big Leyland P76. I’m not sure what instructions Mike Pink was giving him, but if in doubt go flat out and Flat Matt duly obliged.

It was breathless stuff, and we were 60 or so km into the 528km day. Plenty of time to regain composure then, on the long drive that made up the rest of the day. This was more interesting than it reads though, this wasn’t a drive up the M6 from Birmingham to Carlisle after all, and whilst there was some highway needed to cover the vast distance, there were still plenty of backroads. These were a challenge as well, with more dirt roads, including one that the locals had covered with branches and sticks in an effort to dissuade the rally. I suppose there will always be those that dislike what we are doing, but elsewhere we were still being greeted with great enthusiasm.

The scenery was beginning to change now, as we encroached upon the Gobi Desert for the first time, sand dunes billowed up in the distance, and we picked a course past the great salt lakes of the Ordos Plateau, near Bayinwusu Town. Later, as we descended closer to sea level, there were vast swathes of Paddy Fields, adjacent to the substantial waters of the Yellow River, whose water is vital to the submergence of the fields and then, desert again as the evening’s destination closed in.

China is doing its best to reclaim these areas of the desert, with huge banners on the highways announcing as much, attempting to exact its control on nature, attempting to drive back the sand. Control was also being exacted upon the rally, with a last-minute authority enforced change to the original campsite that had promised to be a remote utopia and exactly the sort of thing one would expect from this event. Instead, we were shoehorned into a small area of desert, under the gaze of a purpose-built camp site complete with glamping pods, and the world and its wife had turned out to film us.

No matter, there was cold beer at least and we were all in. Well, almost all in. Tomas and Ben in the LaFrance were still out on the trail, after losing a bag that contained a passport, and needing to complete a return loop to retrieve the luggage, which thank fully they managed. There was also some mechanical trouble for the Excluded Escorts, rendered ineligible in the results due to some reprehensible revisions to their original specifications in the form of modern fuel injection and other illegal adaptations. The rally God’s rule by the law of proportionality, which means for every tit, there must be a tat, and in this case the tats for the tits took the form of an ECU failure for car 102 and high-pressure fuel pump failure for 103, both parts that neither should have. Oh, the irony.

It had been quite the day, and the results reflected the terrain of the competition sections. In first place now were Richard Walker and Faith Douglas, in the bright red Chevy Coupe, followed by another Chevy, the Fangio of Tommy Dreelan and George Barrack, with previous leaders Andy Buchan and Mike Sinclair now in third. The DTC sections will always suit the Fangio’s, but a wise man once said let the Fangio’s race each other into the ground, by the time we get to Paris they will have smashed each other to bits and the Bentley’s will still be rolling. Perhaps the Tortoise and the Hare should be prescribed bedtime reading for all of those in Chevrolets…


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