Monday, June 4, 2007

Where Are You,Car Number Twelve?

Calling car 12, wherever you are!

The first 9 days of the Peking to Paris Race

by Charlie Leck [4 June 2007]

Daily I go to the Internet a few times with a single objective in mind; that is to find out about car 12 and where it is and whether it is still rolling. Day 9 has rolled by and the cars in the Great Peking to Paris Race have finished less than a third of their journey. They are camped out now in the community of Altay, a bit more than half way across Mongolia and nearly 1,800 miles from their starting point in Beijing. Car 12 is in the camp. There are 6,100 miles yet to Paris.

We hear nothing from one of its drivers, our son-in-law, Warner Bruntjen. We check his web site and travel journal daily. We can only assume that his time is consumed with urging and cajoling their 88 year old automobile across some of the roughest driving terrain of which we’ve ever heard. It would be a challenge for a modern SUV. Image how the old Essex is struggling. I have bribed one of the other drivers, who is managing to keep up his blog, to give me occasional bits of information about car 12 and the passenger in it about whom we are so worried.

It appears the old Essex has taken a beating in the Gobi Desert and struggled with inferior and very low octane gasoline. Warner and Andrew Fulton have had to rig up some kind of a device that manually pumps air into the fuel line and helps prevent clogging and choking. It sounds like one of the fellows is driving and the other is pumping. We’ll get a more accurate description of this later on sometime, when we are again able to communicate with Warner.

Naturally, we hope fervently that the way will smooth out when the cars leave Mongolia and head up into Siberia and great Russia. The cars will arrive at the western border of Mongolia at the end of the 11th day and then they’ll camp in Bijsk, in Siberia, after the drive of the 12th day.

I’ve followed carefully the reports of the first week and the journey through Mongolia. I’m going to summarize it for you here, trying my very best to paint a picture of the great difficulty the cars have had to handle. If you want to read through these daily reports, go the Peking to Paris web site and click on the ‘Running Report’ section. Then you can read the description of each day’s drive.

Day 1
Everything must have seemed glorious and rather simple on the first day. The cars paraded out of Beijing and headed toward the Great Wall. The press of photographers as the cars started out were the biggest danger they encountered, though several cars experienced fuel problems and it was discovered that they had purchased rather dirty and nasty petrol. We think car 12 was one of those and it limped its way along to view one of the Great Wonders of the World – the Great Wall of China. We wonder if the military band was still playing in Datong when the Essex arrived at the hotel there. Syd Stelvio, who writes excellent daily descriptions on the official web site, described the colorful band.
“Cars arriving into the large concrete hotel overlooking the compound just off the main street are being greeted by the pomp of a military brass band, where every player seems to be competing to see who can make the loudest noise. This, it seems, is proving just a touch more competitive than rallying out of Peking – and in this heat almost as exhausting.”

The picnic ends here. From this point on the way gets very challenging.

Day 2
No one seems to know what went wrong on this leg of the drive, but a group of the cars suddenly came upon a non-English speaking policeman, directing traffic, who insisted the cars turn and head out in a direction that was not shown on their maps. Everyone began to fear they were hopelessly lost, but they kept plugging on. To everyone’s surprise, they ended up on the ring road of Hohot and, with great luck, come upon the cafĂ© where the race’s passage control was waiting.

Penny and Geoff, driving car #40, described the accommodations they found at the end of day 2:

“The Yurt camp is a bit rubbish. Our 'traditional' yurt is concrete and has a shower and toilet, neither of which work. The food was truly dreadful it is bitterly cold. We will sleep indoors in our sleeping bags tonight. We had a superior yurt, others had yurts without a loo.”

A few cars are struggling. I think car 12 is among them, but we don’t know for sure, but its recorded times are very slow. We do know that Mongolia still lies ahead.

Day 3
The cars crossed into Mongolia on this day. Mongolia! The land of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. It is six times the size of France and has hardly any paved surfaces. Penny and Geoff write that they have never seen horizons so big. The cars are chasing the horizon. There are no birds or animals to see -- just long, long miles pursuing the horizon. The formal border crossing won’t happen until Day 4, but this is indeed the mysterious and awesome Mongolia.

Though this was the easiest day of driving the rally had experienced, a full 10 percent of the cars are still experiencing problems. Poor fuel quality appears to be the main cause. The daily running report mentions that “Car 12, Andrew Fulton and Warner Bruntjen, in the big Essex running in the Pioneer Category, recurring problems to vacuum pump, eventually fitted foot-pump to pressurize the fuel system and use a hand-pump…”

The group stayed in hotels on this night in the town of Erenhot. There was entertainment around a campfire. There were also some fireworks.

Gerry Archer (car 43) includes a note to me in his blog, letting me know that Warner and Andrew have made it into the camp. He includes a photograph of them in his day’s blog. Gratefully, I go to the charity that Gerry is driving for and donate 100 pounds.

Day 4
The cars head out of Erenhot and head for Sainshand and the official border of Mongolia. This is the longest distance traveled on any single day so far. Syd Stelvio calls it the “roughest, toughest, longest day of the event.” He goes to to say, “Rocky outcrops, loose sandy stretches, hard gravel, corrugations, constant ruts, all now came up thick and fast.”

Navigation is very difficult in the blowing sand of the Gobi Desert. For awhile the drivers can count on some power poles that line the route; however, eventually they disappear and the use of GPS devices is very important. Gerry Archer described the day this way…

“Today has been a car breaker with many cars experiencing major difficulties and in some cases they have been terminal but for most not. The last 200 miles have been horrendous - this is real bone shaking endurance rallying. The Radiator cap bounced off at one point but it was found and put back. The door lock on one side worked itself loose and has disappeared! The engine mounting broke loose from the engine - this caused us to stop and make immediate repairs with the help of other competitors, especially car 63 and the recovery crews. Our progress was halted by a vicious sand storm that left us covering our eyes and noses until we got goggles on - even then you could not see your hand! We managed to get it sorted and back on the road before nightfall. We made good progress until nightfall but had stop as navigation became impossible. We have stopped tonight with another group of about 15 competitors in an encampment of tents in the middle of the Gobi under a beautiful clear moon.We have heard reports of cars having broken chassis, half shafts, broken clutches and suspension. There appears to be one particular bump in the road which has been mentioned a number of times as a car breaker! At the moment we are all sat down inside our corale of cars enjoying a Bacardi and coke ready to turn in for 5 hrs sleep before we get going early tomorrow morning.This is what endurance rallying is all about. Wish us and everyone else luck in the 'breaker's yard'! We'll get going in the morning by hook or by crook and continue our journey Northwards.”

All parties would camp out on this night and it became challenging to set up tents in the high wind. A local tour organization set up an acceptable dinner of hot vegetable soup and salads that were also tossed about by the wind. Everything was getting sand blasted and visibility was down to about 10 meters. Many of the cars came in very late and a total of 30 never made it in at all.

This was the first day that we really began to worry about Warner and Andrew and we had to rely on other bloggers to find out what was going on. Penny, one of the drivers in Car 40, described the day this way…

“Our first Gobi Desert dust storm started to blow up. Imagine standing in a grit blasting booth and you wouldn't be far away. You can't see, your nose gets clogged almost at once, and exposed skin begins feel like it has been sunburnt. The sand is as fine as talcum powder and gets into everything. Once through [the border check], we drove on to a 'muster point' on a patch of scrub behind a filling station. From here, we were told that our schedule times for the day had all been moved on one hour and that at the end of the day penalty free time in after the last time control has been extended to a full hour with a three hour maximum permitted lateness.. We were allowed to start, drove through the town and out the other side and straight into desert. After a while, we decided that this was easy and following the GPS waypoints was no problem but gradually it got rougher. We didn't try to keep up with those who either could drive quickly over what we thought was rough terrain (more about that later), or who had more convictions about their route. You see, we had observed several cars about a mile away to the west and we gradually made our way in that direction. The route generally followed the telegraph poles for miles and miles veering away a bit and coming back. The tracks to follow our [sic] numerous and you just have to hope the one you pick is the better one, at least for a while. The day's route was only 222 kms long but boy did it take a long time. It was mainly done in third or second gear and sometimes at crawling space [sic]. Some of the tracks are like corrugated iron, others soft sand and some hard sand where you can get a bit of speed up only to brake suddenly because of a gully or a rocky bit. It was very tiring constantly scanning the road ahead for pitfalls. No time to stop for much other than a comfort break as quick as possible before another car appears. Absolutely no trees or convenient bushes.”

Day 5
The start of day 5 got delayed somewhat because so many crews and cars were missing and off course. Search parties went out looking for them. Naturally, this report made our heart-beat quicken; however, all were found within a couple of hours and the drive set out again toward Ulaan Bataar. The drive would be 155 miles, but only the first third of it would be over rutted desert tracks. The wind went down on this day and the cars moved through the desert under bright blue skies. The cars found tarmac about 100 miles from Mongolia’s capitol city. That made for smooth sailing.

Day 6
would be a rest day and the cars could be tended to and so could other tasks such as laundering and shopping. The reports on times on Day 5 assured us that Andrew and Warner had made it into the city and could look forward to the rest day. Our hopes that Warner could get to his blogging were disappointed. Syd Silvo, writing the daily report for Day 6, gave a long accounting of the carnage suffered by many of the cars. He reported on the most horrible cases. We read carefully and found nothing about Car 12. We thought that might be assuring. Many of the reports were on serious fuel problems – both dirty fuel and low octane problems. Lots of things were rattling loose from cars, too, and things like shock-absorbers, engine blocks, axel mounts, door mounts and hinges, cooling fans and radiators had to be reaffixed and attached firmly. Silvo also reports that a few cars are not in the car park. One driver suggests not sending out a search party since the missing may well have just found an “all night disco.” We wish we had solid, specific information about the condition of Car 12 but we do not.

Day 7
Khakorin, 225 miles away, was the goal of the day. In the center of Ulaan Bataar, thousands of citizens gathered to see the rally drive off. A military band played loudly and with great spirit. The mayor insisted on riding through the town in Car 1 and Karen Arye was forced to walk the distance. A couple of cars were left behind, stilling waiting for parts to be flown in. The cars were on tarmac most of the day and that made the going easy.

At their arrival point a sudden sand storm kicked up and ruined some of the pleasantness of dinner – hot vegetable soup, salads, roasted potatoes and hot roast beef. One of the drivers arranged for some Moet to be flown in so there was enough for everyone. So, there in the middle of the world, 1275 miles from Beijing and still 6600 miles from Paris, the drivers sipped on chilled champagne. We imagine Warner’s giant sized smile and gain some comfort from the web page account.

Day 8
will see another 250 miles removed from the immense distance remaining before the parade into Paris. The rally is on its way to Bayankhongor, not a very promising place. The southern slopes of the Khangai Mountains are to the north. Between the community and those mountain slopes are several large salt lakes. The land is very similar to the Gobi and it is just as meagerly populated. To the south some of the drivers were actually able to see snow topping some of the mountain ranges.

The going to Bayankhongor was rugged. A difficult winter left behind a gashed and damaged terrain. Cars without good clearance struggle to make it. We wonder about the clearance of the Essex and can’t remember. The day’s report indicates that a number of cars suffered chassis and suspension problems. Some of the wounded are listed. There is no mention of Car 12, but the competition results show that it is in and has completed the day’s requirements.

The night was very cold. The parties spent the night in tents and felt the chill.

Day 9
On Monday, June 4, the cars drove to Altay, 240 miles away. The day began with a hearty breakfast. At daybreak, the campers could hear geese gathering along a nearby river and a grey wolf came up from the water and got near enough to the campsite to study the strange gathering of men and machine.

The cars had to accomplish a river crossing on this day. Some were prepared and some were not.

The day’s report shows that Car 12 has completed the journey. Its time was slow and it is way back in the pack, but this has never been a race as far as we are concerned. The goal is to complete the route and that will be more than a significant accomplishment. Our biggest worry about the extraordinary amount of time our fellows are taking out on the road is a concern for their stamina and how they are holding up. The effort to accomplish this goal is far greater than we ever believed it would be.

At this point, they are two more days of driving away from Russia. We wonder if the going will get any easier there. Or, will Siberia be just as rugged?

Now we are addicted to the web reports about this great race across the world. We’ll turn to a number of web sites everyday and we will try to summarize for you here, on this blog, what is happening.

As I write this and prepare to publish it to my blog, the cars are making their way, on day 10, toward the western province of Khovd and its capitol city of Khovd. As a writer on Wikipedia says, " is remote even for Mongolian standards." Ethnically it is diverse, with over 16 unique and identifiable tribal groups still recognizable. It is also hot and dry and the rally is likely to experience some very high temperatures. The drivers may get to taste cool watermellon on this night, because Khovd is famous for its watermelon crops. However, we won't know for several hours yet -- until the bloggers start reporting in and Syd Stelvio files his daily report.

No comments:

Post a Comment