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Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 14 – Khorgas to Almaty – 343km

Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 14 – Khorgas to Almaty – 343km

There is nothing quite like a border crossing to strike fear into the heart of the Clerk of the Course, and concern in competitors. It’s incredible really, a stamp out here, a stamp in there and it ought to be done. It’s all in the mind, surely, like standing on the edge of a cliff and feeling like you’re going to fall. There’s no reason you will, you’ve managed to stay on your feet on the walk to the edge, but, somehow, as you stare into the precipice it feels like you might.

Thankfully, the crossing from China into Kazakhstan on day 14 of our 37-day adventure, was relatively simple, and whilst in the queue to begin the process we could hear birdsong, a sound I have not heard for weeks. Each countries border customs have their own idiosyncrasies, taking all of the luggage out of the cars for the passengers to ‘walk through’ the border and then putting it all back in and driving it through was a little odd, but apart from a bit of time it was pretty good. The officials in Kazak had a sense of humour as well, which isn’t usually part of the job description, at least I laughed anyway when the large gentleman with the pistol asked me where the drugs, guns and knives were.

No such contraband existed, of course, but there was a moment when the Chinese officials got a bit antsy about a large cardboard box carried by travelling marshals Graham and Sue Parkinson. The box generated lots of excitement and noise amongst the officials, with fingers pointing and gruff instructions being issued. The cause of the consternation? A box of takeaway coffee cups, really. Thank goodness they didn’t find the box of powdered milk…

Border dispatched and we could get on with rallying again, after a short run along Kazakhstan’s empty highway and then through some of its less than smooth backroads. They weren’t rough as such, they just sort of had a random oscillation about the road surface, like being strapped into one of those mid-century exercise belt machines. It wasn’t long before we were onto dirt again though, for the day’s regularity, and a surface that was actually better than the tar! The regularity was a simple one, with most people in the field only dropping a matter of seconds. Nobody cleaned it, but three cars only lost a second, including our leaders Richard Walker and Faith Douglas, and further back newcomers Steve and Charlie Gray and Joe and Chris Dillier in the Chrysler 70 Roadster.

The scenery had changed completely, with wonderful grasslands, and a visit to a time control at Charyn Canyon with its 12-million-year-old rock formations. There were still mountains in the distance, but everything felt fresh after so much time in the Gobi. There were far more insects in the air as well, and thus far more spread across the windscreens of the cars as they made their way through the meadowland post time control. Indeed, there were great swathes of one particular flying insect careering out of the fields on one part of the journey, and no doubt those in open top cars are still picking them out of their teeth, except for those in the LaFrance of course, as this travels so slowly the bugs are actually more prone to detonating on the back of the vehicle as they catch it up.

There was a little bit of main road driving, but then we were off into the rural backroads again, which were the usual mix of good and broken tarmac. Some of the potholes would have happily doubled as sailing lakes had they contained water, and one of these almost swallowed the Mini of the Henshall brothers. Thankfully it made it out of the belly of the fissure, but not without sustaining a day ending suspension failure.

Fortuitous then, that we have the second non-transit day of the rally in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city that is nestled in the foothills of the Trans-Lli Alatau, part of the northernmost part of the Tian Shan range. The Henshall’s are now part of a number of participants that will be restoring the health of their vehicles here, with some receiving their first part shipments, including Hans-Ulrich Wartenweiler and Verena Simmen, who’s Mercury was dragged over the border on Dollie jacks with a seized gearbox. It isn’t just the competitors who need to caress their machines either, the crew trucks need some love as well. The truck being piloted by a pair of the trips Doctors is on the waiting list for a small procedure this morning, after they attempted to use it as a wrecking ball when parking at the hotel last night, which wouldn’t have been half as bad, but they weren’t even parking at the right hotel! I hope when treating patients, they are a little less heavy handed, but if the medicine doesn’t work out, they could always go into demolition.

Even without major repairs to make, the field will be busy fettling and preening their machines during the ‘day off’ in Almaty, as we get stuck into Kazakhstan properly over the next week, including our final two nights of camping. If the first day was anything to go by, we will be in for a treat, and I can’t wait to get back on the trail again.


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