The actual racing began only in Kazakhstan. The 500 miles between Astana and Lake Balkhash is real hell even for powerful trucks. Photo: Astana - Balkhash stage of the Silk Way rally. Source: Press photo
The Silk Way rally, a race for trucks and off-road vehicles from Moscow to Beijing, has crossed the half-way point. Rallyists have crossed six legs they traversed along the off-roads and steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan. The drivers themselves have called the first half of the competition just a warm-up – the real battle will be in China.
It was impossible for drivers to race to their heart's desire during the first stretches. Right from the beginning in Moscow, the caravan of off-roads and trucks was battered by rain. In such conditions, roads become impassable even for race cars, leading the organizers to keep reducing the length of the high-speed sections.
The actual race began only in Kazakhstan. The 500 miles between Astana and Lake Balkhash is hell even for powerful trucks.
The local steppe is extremely deceptive and affords the drivers no relaxation, despite the apparent good visibility: Even the most experienced can get stuck in a ravine or a salt marsh. And branches of the local Haloxylon shrubs are so hard they can rip even the sturdiest tires.
The unbearable heat deadens attentiveness – the temperature in the cars can crawl up to 50 degrees Celsius. The drivers reach the finish line totally drained, with their suits drenched.
While the rally drivers were prepared for the extreme heat and the terrain, the bird attacks caught them completely by surprise.
A flock of sparrows crashed into the KAMAZ-master truck driven by Eduard Nikolayev on the way to Balkhash. Judging by the number of feathers stuck to the hood, the birds were not very lucky. But Nikolayev was fortunate and made it to the finish line as overall leader.
Others were not as lucky. The crew of Han Wei's Geely Boyue SMG Team from China was left without a windscreen after their encounter with the birds.
Nikolayev is driving a new test truck in the Silk Way rally. It can easily be distinguished by its black colour and the hood, unusual for a KAMAZ. Nikolayev, for now, is unstoppable: He is flying ahead of everyone, leaving behind him a cloud of dust. He has not had any accidents or breakages, something that cannot be said for French driver Stephane Peterhansel.
The 16-time Dakar champion, who is driving the Team Peugeot Total off-road vehicle, has already been through many unpleasant moments. Although he leaped into first place and was leading during the first legs of the rally, Peterhansel got into a serious accident that deprived him of any chance of winning: His vehicle turned over three times after hitting an obstacle.
Fortunately, the crew was not injured, but it took three hours for Peterhansel to start the engine and slowly drive to the finish line. His car was assembled anew during the night. In the morning, as if nothing had happened, the racer stormed through the steppe. Despite being a long way behind, the legendary driver will make it to the end of the Silk Way.
The drivers had to forget about sleep right from the start of the rally. Because of the long 700-800-kilometre hauls, the competitors and accompanying journalists reach the end point of each stage at night, before getting up again around 3 or 4 in the morning.
Rest has to be sacrificed because of the time difference between Moscow and Kazakhstan (+3 hours) and China (+5 hours). The lights are on all night in the bivouac as the mechanics prepare the cars for the start. Anyone wishing to get a couple hours of sleep must get used to the sound of generators and engines and the projector light hitting their eyes.
If it was not for the lack of sleep, the halts at the intermediate points between the special stages could be called comfortable. The bivouac looks like a small temporary town, with "blocks" for the teams where they can place their machines. It also has a restaurant where you can eat and take something to go. There is a field shower with men’s and women's sections. Since men make up the majority of competitors, they have to wait in line.
Most participants live comfortably – in portable houses. The rest sleep in tents. Everyone complains about the rain, the cold, the heat or the mosquitoes. But soon they forget all that. The farther the caravan goes, the deeper is the sleep.
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