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Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 19 – Aksepe to Beyneu Camp – 481km

Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 19 – Aksepe to Beyneu Camp – 481km

If you had to use one adjective to describe days 18 and 19 of the Peking to Paris, then contrasting might be it. Day 18 was a long transit day of highway, travelling through mostly nothing and day 19 was a long competition day on anything but highway. By all accounts the route contained just 2 km of tarmac road on its 411km distance, but I can’t remember anything other than dirt, on what was perhaps the most challenging day of driving so far.

Indeed, the only constants were the sheer vastness of the landscape and the sparsity of people. There was more civilisation on day 18, naturally, but on day 19 the most densely populated any of the route got was one seemingly uninhabited village and later on a gathering of Camels, who I daresay hadn’t seen such excitement since the casting director for Lawrence of Arabia was in town.

It was a hard day, tough on vehicles and on crew as we drove in largely straight lines on a pipeline service road that stretched through what was once the Aral Sea. The former governors of this vast steppe messed that up, and now the tracks that we were following ran right through what was once seabed, a sad legacy of what had gone before. Some in our travelling party may have wished that it was all still underwater so we couldn’t have passed through it at all, it would certainly have been less dusty, a problem that remained for the entire day. Great clouds of sand were thrown into the air as the cars travelled along the tracks, but with little to no breeze to shift the veil of dust it seemed to hang in the air and it was difficult to see and to breath, a problem that would compound itself on the last 80km or so into camp.

There had been three STC sections prescribed for the day, but sadly we lost two of them. One was cancelled after the camping location for day 18 was changed at the last minute by the authorities, leaving the field with an extra 70 km to cover on what was not just a long day, but a day where there were no fuel stations. STC 3, scheduled as the final act of competition for the leg, was converted into a regularity, when after suffering a puncture the trips Doctors were unable to make it to the opening control in time, and so safety prevailed, but at least the section remained competitive.

Right from the start of the day the roads took no prisoners. They weren’t the roughest I have driven, but in places they certainly bit back at those that pushed too hard, or just those that were caught out by some of the tracks more belligerent bumps. The Jaguar XK of Jan Hutchings and Andrew Clutterbuck was one of those to suffer early doors, breaking a front damper on the run out. They pushed on regardless though, and, when they arrived at camp covered in almost all the dust in the Aral three hours after everyone else, they received a hero’s welcome.

Theirs had been a problem that occurred even before the first time control, a control that was located in the only village for hundreds of miles. The settlement had largely unpaved roads and a larger population of Camels than people, but it had its own Police and, naturally, they turned out to see us. They were largely just interested in the strange caravan of cars travelling through though, so enthusiastic were they, that they stayed for every car, but then also treated Tony Jones and Bob Harrod, who had been manning the control, to lunch. I can’t imagine the MET doing the same thing on a busy Wednesday in Charring Cross!

This is but one example of the small kindnesses experienced on the road though, and one of the reasons that travelling through these remote communities is so vital, for the locals and for us and it is always a privilege to be made so welcome during our travels.

Back to the competition though, and the remaining STC of the day was set to provide some fabulous entertainment, even if it was only experienced by the Marshals on one of the controls. It was a reasonably straightforward affair, in terms of directions at least. However, one bit did catch a few competitors out, when three options were tabled for tracks, tracks that ran parallel to each other. I must point out that this was arrowed, but regardless a number of competitors picked the incorrect routes, leading to some incredible improvisation when approaching the control. Navigators ran, route cards were thrown and a few even attempted to hurdle the earth walls between the tracks, leading to one or two hair raising moments for Graham and Sue Parkinson who were manning the control.

The long transit section post STC continued the challenging driving theme that had been prevalent during the day so far, on a swift but technically challenging track that ran largely straight but would throw in the odd deviation just to keep everyone on their toes. Perhaps most entertaining was the inverted crown of the road, or, as I would prefer to describe it, the ditch that ran between the tracks, threatening to suck in anyone who strayed from the well-worn path. This was made worse by the often-sudden widening off the fissure, offering up a few twitchy moments for those with narrower wheelbases on their chariots.

The days regularity began in the very basin of what was the Aral Sea and was flanked by salt deposits on the former seabed. There wasn’t anything too challenging about it, and those who were nursing cars were probably glad of being able to take these tracks with a little less speed than what would have been required for an STC. There were still cars suffering suspension woes, though. The most notable of these was car 86, the Porsche 911 of Tobias Koenig, that made it through the reg, but limped to a stop further down the road with a broken rear cross strut, a problem Tobias is hopeful of getting repaired in Baku.

With the cancelled competition, there haven’t been too many opportunities to affect the leaderboard in the past 48 hours. However, Richard Walker and Faith Douglas have continued their fightback, posting just a second of penalty on the day and are now just 14 seconds adrift of Andy Buchan and Mike Sinclair in first place – unthinkable after their issues just a few days before. In the battle for Classic category honours, the biggest news has been the fall from grace of car 75, the Mustang of Katarina Kyvalova and Jon Minshaw, who missed a control on the transit day of day 18 and therefore incurred a penalty of five minutes, depositing them to 11th overall.

It has been quite the day, and as we spend our last night camping on this trip the competitors will no doubt have plenty to contemplate when considering the last three weeks. We head to the docks tomorrow, and on the following day the cars will be loaded onto the slow boat bound for Baku, and a large part of the adventure will be complete. There is the small matter of 532km of Kazakhstan still to cross before that though, and our final DTC in this distinctive environment.


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