24. May 2000, Naryn to Kashgar
Today is a mixed day: On the one hand we will see some of the nicest mountain scenery, on the other we have to race up to the Torugart Pass (3752m) for more than two hours. As on every test section, we decide to make the best of it, trying to drive as fast as possible without running high risks of breaking something on the car. On the first bit we are making good time and we manage to overtake most of the cars in front of us. On the second bit, with less civilisation, the quality of the roads deteriorates drastically. Torugart is one of the few passes to China but it seems to be sparsely used and we rarely see any car or truck. The main problem with the road is that they are driven-out gravel: Small heavy trucks are ploughing a track into the road, leaving a rail of gravel in the middle. So we are scratching the floor every minute or so. We do have a sump guard to protect us from any damage but it has not seen a test like this before: The gravel consists of large stones and potholes in the track let us bounce onto the middle rail which is pretty close to the bottom of our car anyway. The vibration caused by the gravel is another problem and we end up losing our right back mirror and our license plate as well as a screw on our sump guard. Hitting the floor at the speed we are driving causes psychological stress, of course, and so we probably drive the second section slightly slower than we could have but we still end up with a respectable 24 minutes. Most cars get similar or worse results but some manage to do the section with impressive zero penalty. When I ask one of them, Nr. 81, a Dutch Porsche currently ranked second, if he did not have problems scratching the floor he says "yes" but he just speeded over it anyway, ploughing the gravel with his sump guard. Others have no problems with the ground, having adjusted their vehicles for this kind of terrain. The Porsche sump guard came lose, though, and crashed off when it hit a bump in the driveway into the hotel, but that was relatively easy fixed and did not cause time penalties. Many were not so lucky concerning damage to their car: ripped tanks, ripped exhaust manifolds, punctures, broken or ripped-off dampers, one Volvo drove into a vintage car when the vintage stopped for a pothole and the Volvo skidded on the gravel. Breakdowns result in time penalties and so even though we lose 24 minutes, we only drop from overall rank six to rank nine.
Kyrgyzstan is also painful on the administrative side. The Kyrgyz border
posts ask for our passports five times at different points, pseudo-search
our car and pretend to do an important job. This is in contrast to our
crossing into Kyrgyzstan but was to be expected on such a remote outpost.
China gives us a totally new impression. After Torugart, about twenty
Chinese men and women await us in perfect new uniforms, giving us a present
of a printed shawl with a map of Xinjiang and a pack of raisins. Then
we drive through small villages where everyone is out looking for us including
the local policeman in full uniform, saluting. After 120 km we reach the
customs point where a row of uniformed people stand guard for us and everything
is perfectly organized and we are let off after few minutes. The roads
until now have been bad but after the customs point they seem almost perfect.
The Chinese have built many new roads for their jubilee last year and
having not been spoiled by road quality recently we feel like driving
on a flat mirror. The landscape is desert with many oasis towns. The streets
are full of people watching us but policemen are making sure that they
keep off the street.
Overall 1 hour 08 minutes penalty