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Overland Challenge - Week Six

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31 January 1994

Village Landscape

Oymyakon to Susuman (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

The heating in Truck 5 had failed. I pulled on my thermals with the intention of being an early riser but quickly jumped straight back into my bag to warm up.

When I did get out, we discovered that Deiter's Mondeo L2 had stalled during the night. A stalagmite had grown from the exhaust and blocked it off, suffocating the engine.

In minus 58, the car had then frozen solid. Paul and Mark couldn't even turn the steering wheel, move the gear stick, or depress the clutch when they came to it in the morning.

However after a four kilometre tow-start behind a Ural Mondeo 2 was filmed coming alive back from the dead after "freezing to death".

Oymyakon was soon to become the coldest filmset on earth. Peter Duncan took over proceedings realising that this was one of those moments that works on television.

My main memory is of my hands freezing/burning on the three of four occasions that I took off my gloves to get out my camera.

By now I've taken to wearing my balaclava over my nose the whole time. It soon went white with frozen condensation and my eye lashes went white with condensation too.

In the midst of this, I had fleeting memories of the local inhabitants coming up to us or walking on by: The regional village chief who came up, his scarf wrapped loosely round his neck and his right hand hot to the grasp when he took off an apparently ordinary pair of leather gloves to shake hands. The woman I saw in a fur coat and cosmopolitan city-type fur hat and her handbag slung over her shoulder.

The valley we passed through that day was staggering and uplifting. I couldn't help thinking of it as a high altitude Death Valley.

A desert of snow.

Kees and Richard took plenty of convoy shots and as tailend Charlie in Ural No 5, we always stopped when they did. This way I saw one of the most memorable sunsets I've seen. Kees filmed it right to the end.

The day finished sadly though. Dieter's Mondeo eventually gave up the ghost and had to be towed the last 100 kilometres into Susuman to the safety of a warm garage.

1 February 1994

Susuman (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

I had decided on a meeting primarily to let people know the Mondeos would be going down to Magadan with Peter and Neil but also to follow up on the discussion about "discipline" – still Valery's pet subject.

On my way out to it I was lobbied by Victor Karputchin and Volodya, both of whom argued that the Mondeos should go further, Volodya saying he was sure there was nothing really wrong with them, Victor frightened of losing "his" Mondeo.

By the time I arrived filming was in full swing and I could make out the first grumblings of a team that was getting more and more fed up with what they primarily were: passengers at worst, television personalities in the making at best. That was unfair on some as ever; Peter Duncan was there specifically for his experience in television and Doc Ford had no option but to be a passenger; Jeff and Victor were clearly much more capable than I was of justifying a place on this kind of expedition; Peter George was doing his best.

But all of them wanted to do more now and were feeling immensely frustrated at the cotton wool approach of The Association. I wondered if they knew how much of that was of my doing. I was afterall the Chairman of the Association and hugely supportive of Stepan's team.

The time had definitely arrived, though, for more oil to be poured on troubled waters. I began the meeting with 'The end of the Russian roads, the beginning of the expedition'. Two Mondeos would be going off to Magadan with Peter and Neil. Two security and the two food guys would be leaving with them. There was a need for the team to take over those jobs and the time had come for them to help Paul and Mark much more as well.

On their minds was lack of information. They should know much more about the plans. Deon suggested the English speakers should have a spokesman who spoke with Valery representing The Association and Volodya, the Ural drivers.

Valery said there was too much talking, we needed action and decisions. Jeff was quickly chosen as the spokesman before the meeting split up. The team went down to the cars and for the first time properly set to work.

2 February 1994

Susuman to Seymchan (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

February 2nd

On the way down the apartment block stairs to the bus that was to take us to the cars, Peter told me that Paul was horrified both Mondeos were going. Especially now that he had repaired L2. I was clearly not popular.

However L2 lost all power on the way to breakfast so we found another warm garage for Paul, Mark and Neil to work in and set off late on the last 300 kilometres of maintained roads.

As we were to about to depart, I discovered Victor was already pretty drunk - no doubt to drown his sorrows for the loss of his car.

Vera offered to go in L1 with him. I 'banned' that on the grounds of an accident and stopped Rupert from going in it too. Victor led at the head of the convoy by himself. But I felt I was learning to understand him. Within 20 minutes he was asking for company so I volunteered myself.

We went along the road that was built by the Zeks and past Stralka which was mentioned in Gulag Archipelago as a place where bodies were piled six high in winter for burying in the summer.

This place had an horrific history and, as if in acknowledgement of it, L2 gave up the ghost on the mountain pass to Seymchan.

By the time we reached the warm garage, Paul was preparing to stay all night to repair L2. If he could, he felt he deserved to take it on further.

I told him the decision for both Mondeos to be flown on had been taken by the cars themselves but even if it hadn't been, it would have been taken by me. I also persuaded him to come back from the garage for the dinner as it was Volodya's birthday. I'd make sure he had until 2 tomorrow at the earliest to get both Mondeos ready for going to Magadan. He looked really and truly depressed.

That was sad because, except for that, I felt more elated than on any other day since getting through the Channel Tunnel.

Vera organised champagne for every table at dinner. Volodya had brought some brandy from Miass, Sasha gave the birthday toast, Peter gave him a cigarette lighter that said HAPPY BIRTHDAY and Kees gave him a box of Danish cigars. I made a toast about Yin and Yang for Paul, the swings and roundabouts of life. Ending with a good omen - Volodya's birthday. I know I didn't bring Paul out of his feelings of failure and when I returned to the hostel immediately resolved to write a fax to David Hunt.

End of the Road for the Sedan Cars

DAVID HUNT - We've reached Seymchan and the two Mondeos have come to the end of their televised journey through Russia.

Seymchan is where we've always "promised" they'd get to, although I know we were hoping they might get further. And have no doubt they've done astonishingly well.

A Mondeo has been driven from one end of the Russian road system to the other. Since you left us most of that has been driving on a skid pan surface and over 2000 kilometres have been on off road conditions where we saw no other road car. We've had day after day of minus 50 degrees temperature in what even Siberians call a cold winter, and stayed overnight in minus 58 at Oymyakon - Cold Pole - the coldest place on earth. That should make a really good television sequence.

However, as always, good news is mixed with bad: at Oymyakon, Mondeo L2 stalled during the night. A stalagmite grew from the exhaust and blocked it off so suffocating the engine. In that temperature, the car then froze solid. Paul W couldn't turn the steering wheel or move the gear stick when he came to it in the morning. (He should have been woken by the security guards when it stopped. That's what they have been told to do. But none of them drive or have any knowledge of cars and they didn't.) Despite "freezing to death" Paul and Mark managed to get L2 going after a four kilometre tow start behind a Ural. It kept going for 150 kilometres before eventually losing all power and having to be towed the last 100 kilometres into Susuman where the temperature rose, thankfully, to minus 45. There they got it going again so that Dieter could drove all but 15 kilometres to Seymchan.

The cold has also terminally harmed L1. Two weeks ago, during the 2,000 kilometre off road section between Ust Kut and Mirnyy, drifting snow froze around the radiator. The engine boiled over. We know the intense heat damaged the water pump and head gasket - we don't know what other harm it did. But ever since then, L1 has had to be cajoled along.

So the Mondeos have been stopped by an invisible factor - the intense cold, instead of a visible one - snow. Both cars need new engines - which have been ordered for Fairbanks.

Being behind L2 as it was towed here was of course a disappointment, but by far the biggest disappointment for me is watching the feeling of failure and despair I see in Paul and Dieter.

The reality is that Paul - who has gained enormous respect from every member of the team, Russians and English speakers alike - and Dieter should be feeling overwhelmingly elated.

They're not because of the pressure they've been put under by Ford to have the Mondeos driven (or towed) to the Bering Straits.

On film and in reality The Mondeos will leave Russia on a high. The team feel that very strongly, the Ural drivers, on their CB radios, have moved from talking about the Fords in very dismissive ways, to really liking them and Volodya (Ural's chief test driver) said on film yesterday the Mondeo is the best car he's ever driven.

The Mavericks are also finding the cold very difficult. Whenever the temperature drops below 40 - that's the real cut off - they lose all power. On hills they often stop. But Paul has found a way of tricking their engine management system into believing everything is fine by switching the ignition on and off while on the move.

So this afternoon, much against the advice of most Russians, we'll go north with all four Mavericks. I don't know how far we'll get them, but as I promised we'll do our best.

In the meantime, if you can find a way of letting Paul and Dieter know the truth, which is that the Mondeos have succeeded beyond all rational expectations, it would be good. Having been here in the intense cold where we've seen no other road cars for days on end I realise how irrational it was to think they'd get this far.

We'd made it to base camp.

3 February 1994

Seymchan (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

This day had been chock-a-block with emotions. The team, by their yardsticks, was a couple of minutes late at most for the midday brunch. But by the Ural drivers' book they were fifteen minutes late. As a competition about being on time had erupted, Valery had assigned Vera as chaser and screamed volcanically at her when everyone was not down. Vera didn't like being screamed at by anyone nor did she see herself as a nanny.

That row, which was clearly so unnecessary, although I could see both sides, put me in a sombre mood as we went to the restaurant.

But there the district chief, confused by my expression, made a lovely "welcome here, good road" speech so I did a thanks about "tension, black moods, and how people like him so quickly lift us out of them".

Kees wasn't ready to leave - he'd have preferred another day. This wasn't what Victor and I wanted - we wanted to push north while the weather allowed it. Already Victor had heard of one winter road devastated by a local whirlwind. Our stable weather was due a change.

However, we did need to leave Seymchan prepared so I agreed to the extra day.

This triggered two emotional moments. We brought forward the "Goodbye Mondeo" sequence so we could leave quickly the following morning. And we were given the opportunity to visit a Gulag: Factory No 3.

When I arrived at the garage, Paul had tears in his eyes.

He couldn't find the fault with the car and it was that more than anything which hurt so much. What if the Mondeo wasn't to go north because of some minor problem he hadn't found?

He really didn't want to be interviewed either: "I'll just get all emotional again and I've nothing to say".

I didn't push it. Dieter came to the car to remove some things and left, without saying a word. Ford Germany had told him to get it to the Bering Straits. Like Paul, Dieter also felt he'd failed.

Halfway through an interview Peter (Duncan) and I, were doing Mark who thought the cars had done really well (which wouldn't work at all on television), Paul came out of the garage. Kees zoomed in and Paul came over to the camera.

Peter was terrific and brought Paul into the conversation. It was to become one of the most talked of sequences in the television series.

Paul explained that he had been beaten by the climate.

At the end of the television chat he agreed to visit the Gulag on a rickety old bus. It was an hour and a half away.

First Visit to a Gulag

Factory 3. The bus stopped and we trudged through a kilometre of deep snow to what was left of a women's gulag. As I stood there in the snow, listening to the absolute stillness and silence and looking at the mountains with their contradictory startling beauty and brutal starkness I still found myself caught up in its dreadful past.

It's so easy to say you're in the middle of nowhere but there in the far East of Siberia, the Russian Orient, you really were in the middle of nowhere.

We were in a womans' camp so Peter thought it appropriate to ask Vera how it made her feel.

"How do you think I feel ? The women who came here were just like Jeni, Marielle and me. Like us they came from a warm, protected world but we've been looked after and cuddled through the last couple of weeks while they came here straight from the emotional turmoil of being torn away from their families. And their families had no way of knowing what had happened to them. And anything could have happened to them. Raped - anything, and most of them had to become prostitutes to survive."

On the way back to the bus I saw a barbed wire fence. The barbed wire fence which had been put round this gulag to keep women in although there was nowhere to escape to.

I cut of a piece to take home as a reminder of what I'd seen and then we got into the bus which dropped us off for another walk. This time across a river and a climb up to Factory No 3: a mine with an overpowering concentration-camp like structure and sheds with beds stacked three deep still there.

And the light was going down and I hated it. That's not a word I like using. But I did.

There are some things on days when I felt as fragile as I did on this expedition that I found so difficult to accept. I came here in part to demonstrate how the world can work together and this day I saw how much people can hate each other.

But life, for the time being, does goes on.

4 February 1994

Seymchan to Zyryanka (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

A bang on the door at 7.00. Telephone!

It was Richard Brooke of 'The Observer' and we had a long talk and I found myself saying I was not really enjoying it although I was no more keen to return to civilisation; in factg there were thousands of miles of off-road travel ahead and that felt good.

And the Swedish radio phoned and then 'The Mail On Sunday', all in the badly-lit foyer, too posh a word, of the hostel where we were staying.

And then local radio with a small cassette recorder, the local paper with a stills photographer and the District Chief came crowding in.

By now it was eight in the morning. I hadn't even cleaned my teeth but the District Chief was there, so I felt I ought to say something.

And then I realised that I had told 'The Observer' and 'The Mail on Sunday' that even the locals had commented that it was colder than usual this winter. I wondered if the District Chief would confirm it.

'It's certainly been milder in previous winters' was his way of putting it.

As we talked be became blunter:

The Population Want Out

He also told me that the whole place was an environmental catastrophe - this was the district chief speaking - and that the population was falling rapidly. In 1988, there were 17,000 people living and working in Seymchan; in 1994, only 7,000. And one of the reasons for that was that they could no longer provide the power to keep the houses and schools warm.

In Canada where they are similar climatic conditions and mineral riches people come out in shifts, without their families, so that the cold wasn't as debilitating. Russia's logic of permanent residence sprang from the 1930s and 1940s when Stalin sent people to the gulags and made it nearly impossible for the zeks (prisoners) to return home after their long sentences. Then after Stalin's death the gulag inmates were gradually replaced by ordinary citizens who came for a larger flat and higher salaries. They were the pioneers of Russia, but unlike the West Coast of the USA the conditions were brutal.

Add to this terrible mix Russian's short term view on the environment which had led to terrible construction which in turn had simply disintegrated in the cold. And it was clear that now almost nothing worked and what did was hopelessly polluting and environmentally catastrophic.

We were about to get a tiny taste of what being a pioneer was all about. As the Mondeos left and we went north with four Mavericks on the first day of the real non-state-maintained winter roads - a 250 kilometre drive over some magnificent terrain in the middle of nowhere.

A camp fire was built and round it Dieter confirmed that the Mondeos would have found the going very difficult.

"They could have done it for one day - perhaps - but it would have taken much longer. And they couldn't stand it for three weeks. Too tough".

Victor had been hiding in a shell since the loss of his Mondeo but this afternoon he was driving Sasha's Ural 3 and joined us round the fire.

5 February 1994

Seymchan to Zyryanka (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

Jeff and Jeni were in Ural truck 5, my command post that doubled as the canteen truck and my sleeping cabin, by six thirty, heating up water for the boil-in-the-bags. Bacon and beans, or sausage and beans.

I shared a bacon and beans with Vera and then brushed my teeth outside in the minus 30 temperature. And didn't even feel cold.

My driving day started in Kees and Richard's Maverick, Studio 8, and it was good to be back behind the steering wheel again especially on the winter roads. And they were rough. In Truck 5, it was more difficult to gauge how bad a road actually was.

In the Maverick, it was headbashingly bad.

The Strong Drivers

By our first stretch-break, Marielle had slid off the road twice and Jeff was asking me worriedly if we shouldn't have had the strong drivers on.

'Yes. We should'.

'It's difficult', he said and as he did, Marielle drove into sight with Doc Paul sound asleep beside her.

That gave me a thought; it'd be better to have at least one strong driver in every car.

'It's difficult', repeated Jeff, the team spokesman, and I took that to mean it was time for me to put my leadership hat back on.

I went to collect Paul Wilson who had my seat in Truck 5 and asked whether he thought we had the right drivers on today. Vera told me that many of the Russian truck drivers thought that some of the English speaking drivers would hold things up if we went on much longer like this.

So I hastily convened a meeting. It was time to go back to what I'd said after Ust-Kut. We needed a strong driver in each car so that it could instantly be taken over when a particularly bad stretch was hit.

'Who are the strong drivers ?' asked Doc pointedly.

Dieter, Paul W, Victor, Mark and Jeff, I answered. Then Deon, Richard and Kees, and me. Then Peter and Doc. Looking back I realise this was a untenable position – Dieter, Paul W and Mark were in a league of their own because of their rally car experiences and Jeff and Victor lived in ice bound countries. But there really was no difference in the strengths of the rest of us. Doc and Peter were justifiably upset.

Living Ghost Town

However those thoughts didn't worry me that afternoon, back in Truck 5, which I didn't get to drive, I was massively compensated by virtue of its view. And what a view. I spent the afternoon remembering how incredibly privileged I was just to be there.

No roads meant no tourists, indeed no foreigner had ever been here, and the scenery looked like Narnia in waiting for her snow queen.

By night, it assumed an underwater feel. I hoped I'd never forget it. But it is impossible to forget this was gulag country which so many other people must have seen in an appallingly different light. That point was brought home when we arrived in Glukhrinoe at about seven.

We were in a village that felt like a ghost town.

The place was deserted; it had been built for the gulags as a mining town. It was hard to believe that some people had actually settled here after their sentence had been completed.

As we went through it, the mess was also hard to believe - like a set straight out of one of the worst scifi B movies. You could see a few houses now with lights on and smoke rising out of the chimneys; some people did live here but over 95% had left.

Kees was the only person sorry to leave. It would have made a terrific filming sequence.

Forty minutes later, we stopped for the night. The Urals cleared a place for the Mavericks to park in the now two-foot-deep snow. Food was prepared and a birthday celebration had in Truck 4. Sergei Pitelin was thirty one.

By now the Russians and English-speakers were all jumbled up together with vodka, gherkins and boils-in-the-bag. Sergei Nosochov recommended that Sergei Pitelin marry Marielle.

'But how do you choose between Marielle and Jeni?' 'Marry them both and have Vera for a third wife to interpret?'

As Paul Wilson said, 'This is what it's all about.'

And he meant it. The journey had changed Paul more than anyone else. Just two words 'Bering Straits' jumped out into the room and Paul commented that getting there would be the saddest day of his life, because he knew he wouldn't be involved in the crossing.

And he meant that too.

6 February 1994

Seymchan to Zyryanka (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

I woke to find we'd stayed overnight in the middle of a plain with some of the roundest hills I'd ever seen on the horizon. You could feel how they'd been worn down by the climate and the cold.

The roads were very slow, snowy and rough. This track had been created by Urals for Urals. There were no articulated lorries or trailers here. The Mavericks got stuck twice.

The surrounding scenery was spectacular, however, and the temperature rose to minus 27. Just before a stop for lunch in twenty minutes was announced, I saw a helicopter. Seconds later "helicopter" came on all the radios, like "ship ahoy".

It's for us, I told Vera, not really believing it, but who else could it be for? An oil prospector?

It was for us. Dan, one of the fixers, and the local Yakutia chiefs had flown to intercept us to see if we'd like to go to a gulag that was only 20 Klicks away - nothing by helicopter though impossible by car. With a full MI8 helicopter, we lifted into the blue and sunlit sky and straight into misery.

Second Visit to a Gulag

The contrast between the reality of the past and the beauty of the present was, as ever, all too apparent.

These were huts not barracks and we arrived at the wash house. Wash house, that seemed a luxury, went my fleeting thought, cast aside by the obvious need and smashed asunder by Jeff as he looked at the cracks in between the wooden timbers which were pathetically stuffed by nylon stockings to try and keep in what heat they could in this awful cold.

Russia will forever be haunted by the quantity of cruelty in its recent past but then, though it's no comfort, she's not alone - Germany, Chile, China and Cambodia followed along similar lines all in my lifetime.

We flew back to the convoy, boils-in-the-bag and five more hours' drive, mostly now through the darkness, to the Kolymar River. The only stop was for refuelling, two hundred miles sooner than expected because the Mavericks were guzzling the gas which could present a major problem in the future.

And over the Kolymar and into Zyryanka where hundreds of people were waiting with somewhat muted cheering and clapping but only because of the cold to watch us have our bread and salt and listen to speeches from the District Chief, who we'd been with on the helicopter, two women poets and myself. Mine was a repetition of thank yous.

Looking back, it reminded me of a powerful floodlight which was visibly dimmed by the cold.

I was expecting to leave the next afternoon but on the radio Volodya informed us all that tomorrow would be a day off. We'd caught up a day in reaching here and were about to lose it again immediately.

But what the hell ? We'd done well and the weather had still held.

That night, after endless delays at the fuel depot where the Urals needed more fuel and also the Ural tanker because the Mavericks had been refuelling from it for the past two days, we made it to a warm garage where there was an argument with Dan the fixer about parking all the Mavericks together. It is the little things that get so many people down here, especially Rupert.

And that's where we had dinner and where Dan came to the table urgently saying my son Simon was on the phone. All was fine at home.

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

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