We entered Russia for the second time at 1:30am on Day 35 of our trip. It was Friday the 21st of August. Somehow we managed to make up enough time from previous delays by driving for ridiculous lengths of time every day in order to make the penultimate finish line party. On reaching the party we learned from our comrades that many had driven through the night on occasion, thankfully it never got to that for Gas Craic.
I’m still not so sure why there was such a delay at the border (about 14hours) but apparently it was always like that and it was accepted! The race was on to get to Ulan-Ude and attempt to get some sleep before handing over the car the following morning. The roads had many dangerous bends and unexpected potholes along the way and it was a tough drive as we were all so tired after baking in the heat for the day. As our fuel tank was now only taking half the amount we stupidly nearly ran out of petrol for what felt like the tenth time, lucky our prayers to St. Anthony generally followed through and they did one last time.
We finally reached Lenin Square at 4:30am having gained an hour coming out of Mongolia which worked in a lot of teams favours if they had flights to catch. We would have driven past the square completely if it wasn’t for Nelly waking from his slumber to point out rally cars parked along the road!
There was no point in booking a hotel at that stage so Feargal and I slept in the car in the square while Nelly checked out the surroundings as he couldn’t spend any more time in Cha Cha. We woke up at roughly half 8 and Nelly was sitting on a bench across the road speaking to the Danes - Frederick and Lassie who we met first in Turkmenistan. It was still too early to check in so we headed for breakfast with Papu and Elena who arrived shortly after we woke up. We last saw them in a desert in Mongolia so we had some catching up to do.
We took our finish line photos at about 10.30am and somehow Nelly ended up catching ChaCha on the podium ramp by going of the edge and we had to lift her off! We checked into a hotel just off the square and unloaded the car simultaneously placing items we wanted to sell in a neat fashion behind the car. The ChaCha Car Boot Sale was open! We had many potential buyers but somehow something turned them off last minute each time. We had an hour and a half to get rid of all of the gear before we handed over the keys so Feargal and I decided that if the customers weren’t going to come to us we may as well drive door to door while Nelly organised the room, showered and took a nap.
We had no idea where we were going or what we were looking for so we just drove around the city. First to mechanics who weren’t interested and then up dirt tracks behind houses up beside sheds. We came across an old man fixing his car up in one of said sheds and began the long road of communicating what we wanted to achieve. We both had to interpret the best we could as needed to ensure we didn’t end up selling the car or ourselves! It took longer than we hoped as the man quickly enlisted another man to help give us directions to the airport — we may have possibly over complicated the situation a tad… An older gentleman waved as he was driving past and before we knew it he was he heckled to stop and come see the visitors. We managed to sell him our petrol to the correct value and gave him the jerry can and motor oil in the process. Winning.
At that stage we had about 45mins to get back and we still had to offload the majority of the bulky gear (tent, camping chairs, tyres, cooking equipment). We would have happily drove around all day as it was good fun trying to barter with people on the street but we wanted to get the car signed off to save us attempting to do it all hungover on Saturday.
We finally stroke luck when we pulled up to a tyre place with three men inside. We offloaded the tyres, tent, cooking gear, jump leads, chairs etc. As we took out more gear the men kept on taking out more money from their wallets. We may not have made our money back but it was better than getting nothing. It was an experience to say the least!
We got back just in time to join the convoy to the station and we were delighted with ourselves, beaming with confidence and satisfaction. It took about an hour to go through the paperwork and then ChaCha was out of our hands, she would get the train from Ulan-Ude to Estonia and then be scrapped on arrival.
We returned to the hotel to freshen up, the showers in the hotel were beautiful, especially after trekking through dust in the searing heat over the last week of the trip (I even thought I had managed to get a tan but it was all dirt…). We popped down to Churchill Pub, the Rally HQ to join in the celebrations of the penultimate finishing party. Beer and vodka were flowing all night and many teams we had met along the way turned up as the night went on. We shared our ups and downs and revelled in the sense of accomplishment of surviving the trials and tribulations of driving a tiny crappy car to this far East.
We were a little fuzzy waking up the next morning to leave the hotel an hour after the agreed check out time. Having missed breakfast we headed to Churchill to get some burgers which we had been craving over the previous two weeks, they did not disappoint. Nelly then headed to the train station in the hope to purchase our Trans Siberian rail tickets.
Feargal and I had made it halfway to the station by the time we received a text to tell us to stay where we were — the train tickets were sold out and the next train with space wasn’t until Tuesday. This news completely threw our plans up in the air as to a certain extent we had based the last half of the trip around making the 5pm train on Saturday.
The next few hours were spent in Churchill regrouping and thoroughly discussing plans B through E. We even contemplated crossing back into Mongolia at one stage! The train would cost a third of what the internal flights would cost to get to Moscow and we were too young to rent a car. Before the party we had booked flights to Dublin for Thursday morning after the train but it would cost €1000 to change those and it would be a waste not to keep them. In the end we booked three internal flights (nearly 9hours in the sky) to Moscow which meant we would be travelling all day Monday even with the time differences. We booked an AirBnB apartment in Moscow city centre (business district) for two nights and we would connect with our original flight to be in Dublin by lunchtime on Thursday. We were finally back on track and felt a little better until we heard that Jack, another rallier, had turned up to the train station an hour after Nelly — got a ticket and got on the train. We still don’t know how that happened but hope he had fun!
A plan to travel to Lake Baikal, the largest lake in the world was hatched that night and we would go for a day trip on Sunday to make the most of our last day. Feargal decided to have a wind down day in the hotel whilst Nelly and I went off with some other ralliers on another adventure! The crew for the day consisted of Alex from Team Anserimates who still had his car to drive, Alec from the Sussex Rum Runners, Lilit from Team Renewables, Julian a backpacker from England travelling from the Philippines back home and Nelly and I. After the guys had purchased their train Trans-Siberian tickets for Tuesday and we stopped in the supermarket for snacks and booze we managed to get on the road for half eleven. It all seemed pretty straight forward until we couldn’t find a bridge to cross the quick flowing river which linked to the lake. This was where Lilit’s fluency in Russian began to shine as she asked locals who then pointed us to a rickety ferry. Thinking back now, everything would have been much less complicated if we could speak Russian! Arguably not as interesting though.
When it was time to drive off the ferry Lilit had disappeared to the back and when we turned around she was shouting exclaiming how she would be allowed to drive a digger up the road when we got off (she had been disallowed to drive by her team mates since something went wrong with their car early on in Kazakhstan). We enjoyed white russians, sing songs and the company of other personalities on the drive up.
After driving for about another hour into the hazy air filled with heavy dust from the wildfires we pulled up in a clearing and set up a fire before deciding what to do next. The lake was absolutely massive and on looking out it resembled a calmer version of the Atlantic and all we could see was water. It was too rocky where we were to swim so we’d have to go further north to find a beach before heading to the hot springs.
Time began to get away from us very quickly and after a quick dip in the cold Baikal we enjoyed fresh smoked fish from the back of a van (how hygienic) which was so so tasty. It was getting dark as we got to the springs and this wasn’t helped by the dark sky from the soot of the fires, unfortunately we required a doctors note to go in fully but we could dip our feet in no problem. The path down to the springs was eerie to say the least, we even thought the scenery helped it resemble something which could be deemed post apocalyptic.
I’d be lying if I told you we knew exactly what to do when we got up to the hut by the hot springs but we tried our best to blend in by washing our faces and hands before standing in the hot springs which were very calming once it wasn’t too hot (temperature varied drastically)! Our feet were much softer afterwards and we happily headed back to to Ulan-Ude landing at the pub just after eleven to grab some food and pints before our goodbyes. Three of the lads even got tied into a game of darts with a Russian group of vodka drinkers and ended up winning with a bullseye from Lilit!
We headed for the hills then with the hope of getting at least four hours sleep before we had to get a taxi to the airport. We were so nervous we’d miss the flight we got their at least two hours early and this is the only picture that could begin to describe how I felt regarding the situation.
When we left Churchill Pub it had almost felt like we left the Rally bubble, an unavoidable fate. It was all over. Something which we had plotted and planned for months for was over. What would we do next? What was next on the agenda….