With a sense of anticipation, tinged with an element of foreboding given that the end was in sight, we hit the Mongolian/Russian border at 8:00 on our way to Ulan Ude (our final destination). Having pulled a driving all-nighter, we were greeted at the border crossing by a selection of haggling merchants/odds and sods acquirers, who took a particular interest in our Jerry cans. After negotiating a very generous deal with one trader, we were to discover that another (masquerading as his partner) had commandeered/pilfered the requisite funnel for making the can a fully functioning fuel delivery system. This threatened to undermine the entire commercial arrangement, only for Rach to step in and requisition said funnel (succeeding where others had consistently failed) using all of her powers of persuasion.
Marginally ruble enriched, we started the traditional, non-sensical, Central Asian border crossing saga... culminating in several stamps, numerous scraps of paper, unpacking and repacking the car, and 5 hours of elapsed time. But as seasoned adventurers, this actually seemed a relatively slick process.
With evident wear on our tyres, no spare, and a slow puncture on the rear right of Bluey, it’s safe to say we weren’t feeling confident of limping to the finish line without at least one more trip to a mechanics. Luckily for us, after bumping into another group of travellers, we were able to borrow an electric wheel pump - lifting both our spirits and our ground clearance! Now all that stood between us and some well-earned celebratory beers was three hours of immaculately tarmaced Russian roads.
In a departure from our usual rally experience, this leg of the journey went without a hitch (ignoring the fact that our dashboard now displayed more flashing lights than Blackpool Tower). We arrived in the surprisingly attractive city of Ulan Ude at around 16:00, to reunite with some old friends from the road, perhaps most notably Marcus (of Azerbaijan ferry and and Turkmeni convoy fame).
The sense of achievement as we approached the finish line was all encompassing. It had been hard going at times: with long days, some very long nights, countless challenges, breakdowns, punctures, good roads, bad roads, off-roads and no roads.
But there had been even more amazing moments: incredible cultural diversity, sights, experiences, insights into different ways of living, new friends, new knowledge, new experiences, and new accomplishments. But if I, and my fellow teammates, were to take one thing away from the rally it would be the incredible kindness of strangers and the abundance of well-wishers and good Samaritans that occupy every part of the inhabited world. People who took time out of their days to get us back on the road, people who worked into the early hours to make sure we could continue on our journey, who invited us into their homes, who fed us, welcomed us, showered us with gifts, hospitality, and good company. Our little road trip had restored, or reinforced, our collective faith in humanity; and reminded us that whilst the world may seem a startlingly varied and diverse place, there is (to steal a Mauricio Macri quote) far more that unites us than divides us.
And it was with this sense of positive enlightenment that we crossed (or, rather, mounted, as you’ll see from the pics) the finish line - beer in hand, Rach on the roof, and half a tonne of rubble trapped in Bluey’s bumper (which explosively revealed itself as we hit Bluey’s undercarriage on the steep incline on the finish ramp). What a trip, what a team, and what an experience.
All that was left was for us to celebrate with our fellow ralliers into the early hours, exchange stories and anecdotes, and mull over what our next adventure would be.
To be continued (perhaps)...