December 3, 2013
Yap’s helmet. Title image: the Porsche Cayenne that valiantly gave its life to preserve those of Laurance Yap and Kees Nierop. Click image to enlarge
Originally published September 4, 2007
2007 Rallye Transsyberia, or “How I crashed big in the middle of Mongolia and lived to tell the tale”
Article and photos by Laurance Yap
Somewhere-in-Mongolia – Dirt. There’s dirt everywhere.
There’s dirt in my stuff. In between the keys of my laptop, gumming up the zoom lens of my camera. There’s dirt, still, in all of my clothes. There’s dirt in my dreams. In images of dried-out plains where we drove for what seemed like hours. In memories of unzipping the tent every morning to see another perfect, yet absolutely different from last night, landscape. Dirt in my nightmares, too. Of the ground rushing up to meet us as our car tumbled end over end three times, finally coming to rest on my side of the car. There was dirt all over the inside of the car; dirt mixed with some of the blood that had started to flow when my crash helmet smacked the roll bar hard enough to cause a compression wound on my head.
It was, until that point, all going quite well. Kelowna-based ex-Porsche factory driver Kees Nierop and I were running in the top 10 and had just stamped our time card at the last checkpoint and were cruising across a grassy plain, the GPS device telling us the next waypoint was straight ahead, about five kilometres up. Across the plain, rally cars were going in a dozen different directions, following a dozen different ways to the same point. After having finally broken into the top ten after a good run on the previous stage, we’d talked last night about how we were going to take things easy, maintain a steady pace and stay safe. As we drove toward the crest of the hill, Kees eased onto the Cayenne’s brakes in order to slow the car down – I’m not sure how fast we were going – not knowing what was on the other side.
We expected to drive down the other side; we did not expect the ground to drop out from underneath us. All four wheels left the ground and we paused to hold on in midair before the front-left corner dug into the ground and tipped us forward. There was a moment when Kees looked over from the driver’s seat to ask if I was okay, only to be cut off by the final impact, which shattered the windshield into a million pieces, which sent my watch flying from my tensed arm and also detached the engine from the car, skittering off to a landing spot many metres away. There were car parts everywhere – the front wheel and headlight had detached at the first impact and off in the distance, a planetary gear set was still rolling away when I climbed out of the driver’s-side window.
The crash was a pretty horrific end to a rally that, in all honesty, had long since turned into a gong show. Since the start in Moscow, the Transsyberia organizers had added 1,000 km of transit stages, cancelled several special stages and had shortened or rerouted others. For Schalber Events, the company that had bought the rights to the rally in December and had done scouting for the route just a few months ago, things weren’t going according to plan. The jagged rocks on some of the special stages were cutting up many competitors’ tires, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere, having already gone through their spares. Mud bogs had snagged several trucks, including an Italian team that waited overnight until five the next morning before someone came to rescue them. Hastily planned rerouting didn’t have road books for reference, just GPS waypoints.
And the Mongolian sand and mud was proving to be a real challenge, even for the eight-wheel-drive service truck that Porsche had brought along; it got stuck for five hours on one particularly tough stretch of track.
One of Porsche’s eight-wheel drive service trucks & Camping, Siberian-style. Click image to enlarge
It would be easy, then, to dismiss the three weeks I spent in Russia and Mongolia doing the Rallye Transsyberia as a waste of time, as a rally that turned into a road trip that turned back into a rally at random times with (for us) unfortunate consequences. But the truth is that despite all the organizational mishaps and even despite the massive crash, it was one of the best motoring experiences in my life.
One of the best experiences in my life, full stop.
From Moscow to Tyumen to Novosibirsk, Olgy, Mankhan and Ulaanbaatar, I got to see and appreciate parts of the world I never thought I’d ever see. We’d driven some of Russia and Mongolia’s most challenging routes (sometimes, these are the major freeways) and met some fantastic people along the way. For me, it was the experience of a lifetime, three weeks when I experienced a series of firsts.
To count but a few: the Transsyberia was my first time in both Russia and Mongolia, countries I found both challenging and fascinating – enough that I’d want to go back again sometime soon. It was the first time I’d ever been camping; the first time I’d ever pitched a tent on the bank of a river, the first time I’d slept in a sleeping bag, the first time I’d dug my own hole to use as a toilet.
It was the first time I’d ever been up close and personal with a camel. It was my first crack at off-road navigation, my first time being part of a factory-backed racing team, my first really big crash. At the end of it all, after spending a night in camp with my head in a bandage, it was my first experience riding in a Russian-made UAZ, a four-wheel-drive Volkswagen Microbus-like thing that carried me for 14 rough hours from camp to the end of the rally in Ulaanbaatar (indeed, I’m not entirely sure the pounding I took in it wasn’t worse than the crash itself).