If getting to Dakar, Naples or Chernobyl seems a little on the easy side, you could always drive to Tashkent. Oh, and make sure you do it in a superannuated Austin Allegro…
Karl Parsons fresh from his Plymouth-Dakar adventure comes back for more punishment…
The mother of all adventures…
FOLLOWING on from the runaway success of the Plymouth-Dakar Challenge, Julian Nowill, stockbroker and crap-car svengali, set a new target for the banger driving world…
The London-Tashkent Challenge proposed a three week trip to Central Asia, passing through Europe, Turkey, and a number of former Soviet Republics. After some thought, I decided to enter this Challenge. An old friend, Nick, was easily persuaded to join me.
Persuading him that an Allegro was the logical weapon of choice however took much more effort. In the end a yellow Allegro 1.3HL was found, appropriately, in Leyland. A test drive seemed to indicate that the car ran well, but on the drive back to Plymouth an apparent cooling fault lead to much of the journey being courtesy of the RAC.
This fault turned out to be merely a faulty temperature gauge sender. The car did seem quite thirsty for oil, but my local garage felt it was running reasonably well and should cope with the distance. Essential modifications of a black bonnet, spotlights, extra horns and musical air horns (on a separate switch) followed, and the car was christened Ethel.
On March 17th 2005, I left Plymouth to head east to pick up Nick. All was well until a horrible banging began to emanate from the front end. Had I destroyed the engine somehow? No, I hadn’t tightened the wheel nuts properly. Drama over, I continued on my way, met up with Nick, and proceeded to Dover the next day. The rendezvous and unofficial start for the trip was a Formule1 hotel at Coquelles near Calais. The morning of 19th March saw 18 cars heading east.
The only one of similar vintage to Ethel was a much modified Ford Fiesta, and most teams had opted for larger newer faster cars. We covered over 1400 miles in the first two days alone, ending up at the end of this mammoth drive in an extremely cold Serbian motel. Ethel seemed to be using quite a lot of oil, as was the Astra of Team 6Pees, and we felt sorry for whichever car was stuck behind our two-car mobile smokescreen!
Our exhaust had fallen off in Croatia, and the mother of all bodges was created by Chris (out of the Astra) which amazingly lasted us until the end of Turkey.
We reached the end of Europe without further incident, but in Istanbul (2103 miles from Plymouth) my team mate misplaced his jacket, which was where he had safely put the car keys. A Turkish locksmith demolished the steering lock, took away the ignition, and returned with a handmade key. Their efforts however damaged the main beam stalk switch, which I ended up repairing two days later with a piece of coat hanger wire.
Turkey now has, as we found out whilst traversing it, the most expensive petrol in Europe. A huge country, we worked our way towards Georgia, with an enjoyable interlude in Cappadocia, only a week after leaving Plymouth. As we progressed east the scenery changed and the temperature dropped as we went. As snow was blocking the Posof pass we were forced to take the lowland route into Georgia, and at dusk as we neared the border the exhaust repair finally failed (exhaust gasses had burnt away the tin can).
As you cross the Georgian border you are plunged into darkness, as there are frequent power cuts, and the smell of woodsmoke and the sound of generators permeate the air. Eastern bloc cars fill the roads. I was quite taken with the big old Volgas which seemed to be everywhere.
We stopped in Batumi on the Black Sea coast, and in the morning found a repair yard to get the exhaust fixed. The sight of a yellow Allegro and Pink Volvo on ramps was rather memorable. One of the mechanics kept on bouncing the Allegro up and down to try and see how the suspension worked. A superb job done on the exhaust, the mechanics refused to take any money off us, the type of friendliness which typified Georgia for me.
Some Vodka and cigarettes did change hands to cement international relations…
Georgian roads are appalling, and one section of the main road to Tiblisi is literally just mud and potholes. We reached Tiblisi without any problems, and ended up parking in the Trolley-Bus terminal. Next day, trying to leave Tiblisi proved a challenge as there are no road signs. Unfortunately Nick ended up crashing into the taxi which was helping us to leave the city.
This was Bad.
If you crash in Georgia you get locked up in jail if the Police catch you. With smashed spotlights, bonnet pushed up and coolant leaking onto the floor, we were an obvious accident participant. A fraught few hours saw us getting the radiator soldered and finally exiting the city without being arrested, thanks to the long suffering taxi driver and a very helpful student who spoke English.
After a mind numbing drive with knackered headlights we reached Baku at dawn on March 30th, where after a much needed rest we crossed the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, on the world’s most disgusting ferry. Really.
It is that bad.
A whole day was spent wrestling Turkmen bureaucracy, some 4,240 miles from home (and sanity) and that night we slept in our car after finding that the only available rooms in the town we reached were even worse than the ferry. Turkmenistan has to be visited to be believed, due to the unique style and unquestionable lunacy of the leader, Turkmenbashi.
Checkpoints and secret Police punctuated our journeys through the country, and the crazy Sim-City in real life rebuild of the capital drew comments from all of us. Crossing the Karakum desert proved a very wet and cold experience, and following a night spent under canvas at roughly minus 15 degrees, I ended up copying Nick by crashing into a Lada, this one driven by Toby and Truski our fellow travellers. In my defence they had just hit a hole so big that the car stopped dead. I nearly missed them.
Ethel was by now looking somewhat worse for wear but she had carried us over 5,000 miles so far.
After our Turkmen experience we somehow felt safer in Uzbekistan, although the BBC have since been evicted from the country, and the way in which the Andajan uprising was dealt with show the true colours of the regime. Nonetheless we enjoyed a drive in glorious sunshine through the desert region, seeing an abandoned Soviet ICBM Launch vehicle on the way, but however the Mercedes of team Angry suffered a dramatic suspension failure (but as ever bodging saved the day).
At one point Ethel started running on 3 cylinders, and when we opened the bonnet oil was leaking out of opened seams and smoke plumed into the air. Even so, with an oiled up spark plug cleaned it fired up fine, the seams closed up, and we carried on. Samarkand was a welcome rest for us all, coming after the incredible video-game like experience of cattle, unlit vehicles, pedestrians and other hazards on a fast dual carriageway.
Finally, we drove the last section of our journey to Tashkent, having decided to avoid Kyrgystan due to their civil war.
With only a few hours until our flights, and unsure of the legality of selling our battered vehicles, the Lada and Allegro ended up being given as a tip to two waitresses on the evening of Friday 8th April. We had covered 5,735 miles in the Allegro, having crashed twice and used a quite frightening 45 litres of engine oil. But, Ethel the Allegro took all we could throw at her and survived.