Overview | Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four | Week Five | Week Six | Week Seven | Week Eight | Week Nine | Week Ten | Week Eleven | Week Twelve | Week Thirteen | Week Fourteen | Week Fifteen
3 January 1994
Breakfast, with Roger and Karen, and Kees and Richard, was spent trying to sort out an issue that was to blow up as we approached the Bering Straits. Kees and Richard, with my full support, were determined that the Beta crew led by Mike Lomas was seen as a second unit not the primary one. They wanted exclusivity with the team leaving Mike to shoot other items. Under the emotional pressure of the circumstances Roger, who wanted the Beta crew to objectively film any conflicts that arose between me and the team, reluctantly agreed to Kees and Richard’s demands.
All the housekeeping that had to be done in Moscow took my mind off the ball, because I almost missed meeting with truck driver Nicolai, who had always wanted to drive from Moscow all the way across Russia and the Bering Straits. He was one of only a handful of Russians who had driven all the way to Mys Shmidta, no one had ever gone further. He wanted to join the team. It was a conversation that should have taken 5 minutes, of course he could join us. But it took two hours and with so many last minute things to do it seemed absurdly, annoyingly long. Roger wanted to do some filming with me and Stepan, I couldn't get through to London, and was feeling guilty about not being at the Ford garage with the rest of the team sorting out the cars. Two months later Nicolai would turn out to be the saviour of the expedition and no two hours could have been better spent.
Eventually I gave up trying to catch up and went filming in a breadshop with Roger, Karen, Jeni and Peter. It was a very special breadshop. Privately owned and launched with the help of Britain's Overseas Development Association (ODA) who had sponsored a schools pack about the expedition. The resulting ODA map proved to be worth all the bread in Moscow. But it wasn't all escape. As we crossed Moscow's awe-inspiring Red Square Peter dropped the first hint that the team don't take kindly to Gerry and Peter's military style leadership. They wanted me to lead from the front and that's not my style. That turned out to be my first glimpse of the isolation that leadership brings. Especially when there's nowhere, not even a bread shop, to escape to.
4 January 1994
Moscow - Penza (Russia)
Not the best of starts from the Ford Depot in Moscow, a dilapidated building that demonstrated why Ford Motor Company weren't jumping up and down at the marketing opportunities our expedition would create in Russia. Theirs was a foot in the water policy in Russia, and the water was still full of algae! No not the best start: nearly everyone was hung over.
Most from the grand reception we'd had at the Metropole: Chamber orchestra, caviar on silver platters, champagne and vodka and speeches - notably one by the famous Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky. For the team what we soon thought of as death by reception started here. For the Moscovites, who were incredulously wishing well to this intrepid team that planned to drive to the far north, where the cold ate through your bones, it was an excuse for a late night. Some of people there knew what they were talking about. Vadim Tumanov had come. If it hadn't been for him Overland would never have moved from a dream to a reality. Others, I don't who, must have got drunk on the screen wash, an item that hit the headlines in the UK!
And to add to the woeful start, Peter Duncan was returning to London for a couple of weeks. He was in a pantomime which he couldn’t get out of. In theory he’d only miss the lead up part of the journey. We’d soon see if that proved to be the case.
My Temper Frayed
My temper finally frayed when David Hunt announced that he'd expected the two journalists, Eugene and Peter McSean, to always be just two up in the Mondeos which kiboshed my seating plans. One half of the first solution was for me to free a seat by heaving myself up into the cabin of the six wheel drive winterised Ural bus that had come to escort us to UralAz where were would pick up 7 more of these mighty army machines. To hell with Ford. It was an unfair thought. They caused infinitely less trouble than they had a right too, partly I suspect because they never really thought we'd make it, but backed us just in case.
And so I left Moscow at the back, not the front, of the convoy and a month later I found that my style of leadership suited the high, see everything, sweep position of the back marker and I'd travel most of the way in a Ural truck bouncing over Russia's frozen roads, tracks and rivers.
At Penzer Intourist Hotel the food was accompanied by vodka, a cookoo clock - that sadly fell to pieces on the rough roads ahead - and a giant teddy lion accompanied the speeches from the top table where Victor, Vera and I were always seated. But the routine wasn't yet established and this night was good, fun, and we felt well deserved - we were now East of Moscow - on or way to the Deepfreeze of Siberia - our next challenge.
5 January 1994
Penza - Samara (Russia)
At last I feel as if we've started our trek along the foothills. In a few days time we'll pick up the Ural Trucks at Miass. UralAZ Trucks was based at Miass where Europe meets Asia in the Ural mountains when Stalin moved his war factories East - out of reach of the Germans. And there he put the military truck factory. UralAZ was charged with making the wheeled "platform" for any and every need: Cargo of bodies or bombs. All the rockets we in the West have seen rolling through the mighty Red Square have been on a Ural Truck chassis. And they had to be able to go anywhere so they were the meanest off-road vehicles in the world. As soon as the Ford money was secure I'd ordered three new, and five second hand winterised Ural Truck to escort the Fords on the a journey no one had ever achieved even though UralAz (Ural Factory) said they'd been everywhere.
That was on my mind when we stayed overnight in Penzer's military sanatorium - which turned out to be a fitting place to stay ...
6 January 1994
Samara - Ufa (Russia)
... because the next day began with a sightseeing tour of Stalin's bunker. It was built as a command post for Stalin if the German’s overran Moscow and he had to flee East. In fact Stalin never visited this bizarre underground fortress and, as the clocked ticked by, I wished we hadn't too.
On the way to Ufa Peter told me that the team is feeling uninformed about where we were going and stopping. But very good food at the Ufa hotel, mixed with champagne to toast Sasha's birthday, put right most ill feelings. Mine were running high - we were on schedule and going well. I'd leave things as they are.
7 January 1994
Ufa - Miass (The Urals, Siberia, Russia)
Ufa is the Muslim capital of European Russia. Ufa is also a notorious example of The Soviet Union's assault on the environment. The Overland team came across it by chance. Stepan had laid on an icy early morning tour to the statue of Salavit Ulayev which overlooks the mighty frozen River Belaya called locally White River - certainly I could never imagine it not be frozen! Raisa, the always smiling, local Ufa guide was soon persuaded by Jeff and me to let go the history of Ufa and talk about the 20 kilometer human chain made up of people holding hands from this spot, through the city to the gates of the chemical plants that pumped poison into the White River. That was back in 1990 now as Raisa said - "I have cancer? Of course. We are all ill. We are doomed. But what can we do?" She said still smiling. Raisa is one of those millions of Russians that make me like the country so much and go back time and time again.
During the drive from Ufa to Miass, from Europe to Asia, Victor and I were together in what was fast becoming "his" Mondeo. It was a glorious day on a glorious stretch of winding road that took us up and up the Ural mountains past an immense forest of birch trees that shone with quiet serenity in the still sunlight. A glorious time for Victor to tell me how be became a General and hero of the Soviet Union.
The Major General's Story
Back in 1979 Andropov, ex boss of the KGB and pretty astute, albeit short lived, leader of the Massive Soviet Union realised that guerrilla warfare was every bit as possible in his quarter of the world as in Europe. So he decided to set up Alpha - a select para military anti guerrilla force. Victor was the Captain, not the highest, but one of the most exposed posts. Ten years later in the West Caucuses town of Sochi on the Black Sea a dozen deathrow prisoners escaped, raided the armoury, took some school children as hostages and demanded a bus and money. Death Row prisoners have nothing to lose by taking the lives of the hostages so the local police and militia called in Alpha. Victor took command. Much to the astonishment of all he agreed to the prisoners request for a bus. The Soviet authorities just don't do that kind of thing. However Victor booby trapped the bus and the prison entrance. In the haste and delight the armed prisoners demanded curtains but missed the hidden explosives when they inspected the bus. Then they brought out the hostages and set off with the hostages and a bag full of money. At a narrow stretch of road Victor triggered his explosives in the bus. It was all over in 4 seconds, with all the prisoners dead. Victor was made a Major General within two weeks He was 34.
Crossing into Asia
We were a couple of hours late, when haven't we been! But the crossing from Europe to Asia, all fixed by UralAz was extraordinary. There in the middle of nowhere stands a lonely Soviet style obelisk, but today it is surrounded by dozens of people baring bread and salt, Russian champagne – no worries about calling it sparkling wine here - blue tape and a pair of scissors. And my "great to be here" speech, I'm getting better at those, is busily recorded by three camera crews and a host of journalists and stills photographers for the local media. And for their benefit we ended it with a short off-road detour before being escorted into the mighty UralAz factory.
Miass is the fourth of our seven starts! Mad I know, but there was the ceremonial start in London. The Channel Tunnel felt more real, but once done our start moved to Moscow, and now Miass. It was certainly the Vodka drinking start of the journey set off perhaps by the surprise at seeing our nine giant six wheel drive back up trucks that kicked the reality of the expedition into sharp focus for all the English speaking team. What the hell were we getting into if this lot were needed to help us get through?
So that night a mixture of anxiety and anticipation mixed with a lot of food, music and vodka would have had all of us failing the breath test, especially Doc Paul who fell off the stage, with a bad bang on his head and cracked tooth, I carried him up to his room.
8 January 1994
Miass (The Urals, Siberia, Russia)
Day 13 and I went fishing! It turned out to be one of those great days despite my initial foot stamping fury at having to join the Chairman of UralAz on what was clearly a jolly while my team was working.
I tried as hard as I knew how to get out of it, but was firmly told by Stepan that this was Russian etiquette. A leaders day out. And I had to go.
What a great decision. David, Victor and Vera came too. The only pity was that Kees and Richard were busy, checking, maintaining and packing their camera kit too, leaving with me an instamatic, which I was too busy enjoying myself to click much. Enjoying is the wrong thoughtline, emptying my tense and tangled mind is a better one, as holes were drilled in 3 foot of ice on one of the most beautiful lakes that the Ural mountains can offer. We then just dangled a line on the end of a foot long rod until there was a nibble from a near freezing fish. In all 32 nibblers ended up on top of the ice. Catching them didn't seem to be relevant until I heard that a tables were being laid and fires lit for a banquet on the lake shore.
We had fish soup and dumplings, all in five degrees below zero but it was one of life’s greatest meals as we sat in our warm clothes under a glorious sundrenched sky. David, Victor and I were each presented with a magnificent knife and I toasted a thank you for dragging me kicking and screaming silently to the forest.
Ural Office. Brugerman and Uri had a go at me about Sasha going across the Bering Straits, about lack of publicity and about wanting a Maverick. Stepan had been playing games.
Reception at the Town Hall. A really lavish affair put on by UralAZ in the grand patronage tradition of looking after the workers by bringing in prestigious guests. Dancing girls, singers, folk singers, the lot and I am, of course, very much on the top table at one remove from 'the gang'.
By now though I was starting a cold and I did my best to get away early.
9 January 1994
Miass - Kustanay (Siberia, Russia)
Miass. Richard and Kees recommended that he line up the cars outside the deserted Ural HQ headquarters for a pristine-snow convoy shot of all the Urals and Mavericks, together for the first time. Half an hour later, there were thousands of people in the square plus a band and Mr Surikov from Ostankino Workers, Mum's and Dads. It was extremely emotional as the Chairman of the factory addressed his team before they set off with us on the most difficult stage of the Ford London-New York Overland Challenge. There was no doubt that backing us and simply being there meant an enormous amount to the UralAZ management, workers and families (27,000 employees at the heart of a 250,000 strong town where the buses are free and transport, outings and holidays are all arranged). Three years later it would all crumble as free enterprise rolled its way across from Moscow.
In the meantime we left late (again) after four television interviews feeling as if the spirit of Miass would carry us all the way to the Bering Straits and over it. I left in the front car with Victor driving. It was the obvious place.
Sumptuous Boarder Arrival
Kasakhstan. At first sight the border was something of a symbolic nothing. A detour road which made you bypass the ramshackle concrete customs and immigration post.
But just the other side was bread and salt carried by costumed girls, a singer welcoming us with over a hundred people and, as we should have known, more television cameras. And there was a magnificent urta with its fantastically carpeted curtained-off side sleeping rooms and old photographs and food. A seemingly endless supply of lamb kebab from the barbecue outside.
And I was presented with a sheep's head. According to tradition I had to cut off an ear and given it to a trusted friend. I gave it to Marielle who somehow nibbled at it, the other, by tradition, I kept to myself and eat. Once outside, I was presented with a Kasakh gown and hat before setting off - past an environmentally disastrous line of factories puffing out black from their chimneys like a chronic chain smoker.
Kustenai. Victor was aware there was another reception waiting for us. He'd helped fix it as Consultant to the president of Kasakhstan. And there was. This time a full-blown press conference in an auditorium in what must have been the region's party HQ, stiffly presented until the gown and the Ukilaili were given to me; the team cheered me on.
We parked the cars and the trucks at a Ural engine factory that'd been set up in Kustenai. This was followed by a short contretemps about splitting up the two teams into two hotels, one for the Russians another for the rest of us. Valery was very against this but Ural said there wasn't a hotel big enough for both, and that we were being bussed to the same restaurant for dinner and breakfast – so what was the problem? I called a meeting, Valery agreed to go along with Yuri and we were off.
One of the most pleasant hostel-like hotels I'd stayed in the CIS. From the outside I thought it looked like part of a block of flats but, to be fair, I only saw it in the dark and the snow so it may have been homely on the outside too. The bus came at 7.40 to take us off to a reception dinner where there were yet more dancers and singers, another sheep's head and I was taken off to the top table to make toasts and speeches again. By now I felt really lousy because of my cold and almost forced the whole team to leave for bed before we'd been given the essential traditional tea at 11. Vera saved the day by apologising for our lack of knowledge of their traditions and face was just about saved.Overview | Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four | Week Five | Week Six | Week Seven | Week Eight | Week Nine | Week Ten | Week Eleven | Week Twelve | Week Thirteen | Week Fourteen | Week Fifteen