The Cowboy Cayennes – Riding the Wind of the Transsyberia Rallye
I attended my first Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nevada in 2004.
Expecting to see some of my favorite poets, folk singers and country acts,
what I was not anticipating was to find some of these entertainers to be from
Never having even heard of a horse head fiddle, a “long song” or of throat
singing, the idea of becoming completely enchanted with the ambassadors of
such a foreign, distant and exotic land was never entertained.
Mongolia, from that point on, became a destination that seemed a far off
goal, but a goal just the same. Riding sturdy Mongolian horses and staying
in a ‘ger’ was a travel experience that I just wanted to have. A few adventure
agencies offered tours that included days of riding with the nomadic
horsemen. I read them all and filed the information away under “someday”. I
firmly believe that envisioning something can draw it closer and if one is
open, these visions can become reality. Through a series of events, a visit to
Mongolia was pushed in my direction by, of all things, Porsche Motorsport.
The chance to see and ride and experience the nomadic horses and lifestyle,
even for a short time, was brought about, once again, by horses of another
kind. The horsepower type.
The Transsyberia Rally, sponsored this year by Sony Erickson, enters its
fifth year as a rally event. Teams consisting of a driver and navigator begin
their journey from Red Square in Moscow and the event culminates in
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Competitors travel almost 4,500 miles from former
Soviet capital to former Soviet capital. I was to be a guest of Porsche to
witness the final river crossing in Ulaanbaatar and to attend the awards party
at the Hotel Mongolia. Dreams do come true in ways that cannot always be
Traveling alone to Mongolia was an adventure in itself. A layover and plane
change in the Beijing Airport’s new Olympic Terminal began the feeling of
being a traveler. Flying over China and finally the huge expanse of Gobi
Desert I couldn’t help but imagine what rally drivers were seeing from their
perspective. It is a huge, inhospitable place with few roads and mostly
populated by scorpions, snakes and wild things. There are even Gobi bears
although they are few and rarely sighted.
But the reason for this trip was the rally. The Transsyberia entrants make
their way across Siberia, a land of swamps and rocky terrain, cross the Ural
Mountains and then the Altai Mountains and finally enter Mongolia and the
forbidding Gobi. It really qualifies as a cross-country marathon. The rules and
regulations are clear, it has checkpoints, and competitors are subject to late
penalties, as with any major rally. It is the perfect venue to showcase the
Porsche Cayenne. A chance to show the often-maligned ( it’s not a sports
car ) vehicle off and to reinforce its capabilities beyond a trip to the Saturday
Although the bulk of the entrants were using the Cayenne, and even with it’s
victories already notched in the Transsyberia, Porsche believes this event
continues to demonstrate the Cayenne’s true mettle. Modifications are
limited to basically safety items and all entries have to be road licensed in
their country of origin. Some of the modifications included special BF
Goodrich tires that increased overall height, new shocks to complement the
Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control and an upgrade to dual roll bars. The 385
hp, 4.8 liter V8 was unchanged but the six-speed Tiptonic gearbox was
modified with components from the Cayenne GTS. An unmuffled exhaust
system provided a nice low rumble. The wiring was routed higher to keep it
as dry as possible for the water stages. The Cayenne looked the same
except for the additional roof rack, winch, high intensity off road lights, and
the removable plastic snorkel. Should Porsche bring a Transsyberia version
to the U.S. market, it would make for a popular weekend river rat.
Porsche was well represented with 25 Cayennes entered. The teams came
from 24 countries, included Italy, France, Germany, China, Singapore and
Bosnia Herzegovina. While the Porsche Cayenne was the main presence in
the race it was not the only manufacturer in attendance. The Bosnia
Herzegovina duo drove a Land Rover Defender 110. Uta Baier and Mario
Steinbring of Germany were Teambuctou in a Toyota HZJ 80. Team Lybia-
Rally-Raid chose a Toyota Landcruiser J9. Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Suzuki
were also in the starting line-up.
So here I was! Upon arrival in the very small Chinggis Khaan International
Airport, with it’s two gates and a fleet of old Soviet helicopters lining the
runway, after mystery meat sandwiches on the plane (no business class
from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar) the most noticeable first impression was that
most of the signage in the airport was in English. Whew! I hadn’t changed
any of my money, so I was basically penniless in a foreign country. If the
signs were in English, well, shouldn’t be too hard find out where to get some
Tugriks. As I made my way to baggage claim I saw no liveried driver with a
sign bearing my name. Oh well, I’ll just exchange some money and take a
cab. I could not, however, find anyone who spoke English. I did a charade of
“money exchange” and was directed to an elevator and (I think) told to go to
the third floor. That floor was deserted and then the elevator ceased to
function. I always sucked at charades. Schlepping two suitcases down three
flights of stairs in a humid climate left me in a cheery mood. My humor
brightened when the Hotel Mongolia representative appeared out of nowhere
and whisked me into a ‘cab’. For some reason she was able to recognize
me. It might have been the sweat or the American curse words.
We headed out on our own airport to hotel rally. A navigational hell of
pedestrians, potholes, oncoming cars, cows, horses and dogs. Queen
blasted over the radio-they love our music there-and the driver was yelling at
someone over his cell phone while carrying on a conversation with our
representative. One hand on the horn, one on the cell phone. I loved it.
Ulaanbaatar is a city of approximately one million people with all the energy
of a typical big city but I longed to see the countryside.
Once again Porsche Motorsport came to the rescue with a second stage to
our little rally. To make sure that the traveling experience was complete, the
press was treated to a full sightseeing excursion. And “full” in the fullest
sense. A visit to a ‘ger’ and snacks with a nomadic family. A hike to a
Buddhist temple, complete with suspension bridge crossing and steep
staircase to the front doors. Over an hour’s worth of horseback riding.
“European” lunch in a “Tyrolian-ish” restaurant that overlooked ‘gers’ while
cattle, yaks and horses grazed in the meadows below. Listening to Otis
Redding and James Brown crooning in the background certainly set the
mood during the meal. Did I mention that they love our music in Mongolia?
Our guide was fluent in English and well versed in everything Mongolian
including Otis Redding. She proved to be an absolutely charming emissary.
Stage three of our “personal poser” rally was stage fourteen for the true
adventurer-traveler-marathoners. The drivers and navigators were approaching
the final river crossing and the finish line. The first hint of an arrival was two
helicopters that circled, followed by a small herd of confused cattle, heralding
the arrival of the first car. Each car entered the river in it’s own style. Some
cannonballed, some stuck their toes in first. “You learn to read the water,”
explained Paul Watson of Team Oz – Unfinished Business, Australia.
The French team of Christian Lavielle and Francois Borsotto crossed the
finish line in first place for the overall win. This marked the team’s first victory
in the five-year-old event. The team from France exhibited an enthusiasm that
was just plain infectious, as they made crossing after crossing of the river
with guests in celebration of their win. At one point the front bumper of their
Cayenne detached in the water. With the assistance of a Mongolian family
in a mini-van crossing directly behind the jubilant winners, albeit at a much
more sedate pace, the piece was hoisted on the roof of the Cayenne and
reattached on dry ground.
Last year American Rod Millen, with Ryan Kelsey in the co-seat, won the
Transsyberia Rally. This year Millen’s son Ryan stepped in as the American
representative along with Colin Godby, who served as navigator. Ryan and
Colin knew the key to success, as with any marathon event, was to be
sensible, keep a steady pace and take care of their car. The plan worked and
Ryan and Colin held steady, in spite of an unusual ditch landing, among
other trials. In Ulanbataar however, after a long wait at the final river crossing
for the American team, it became apparent that there was a problem. They
didn’t arrive…why? Transmission problems. After towing another team for
approximately 40 miles, their Cayenne transmission gave out. A quote
overheard by another contestant later, “We are taking cars out on this rally
and asking them to do things they were never meant to do and they hold up
remarkably well considering the punishment”. Was Millen able to consult with
his father along the way? “Every day”.
The awards party, complete with entertainment that included throat singers,
musicians, dancers and acrobats, provided a chance to listen to stories of
the race. Stories of hardships – cars that burnt to the ground and major
injuries. Tales of navigational boo-boos, of ditch landings that became
comical, of vultures that almost rivaled the Cayenne in size, of Russian police
and how to deal with them (wave to the nice man!). Team Oz with it’s
amazing bungee cord drive belt…along with other innovative methods of
surviving adversity and taking care of unfinished business. Stories of big bugs
and special bug repellent and where was that helicopter going every morning
at 5 a.m.? I felt a bit voyeuristic as I listened to the accounts and the laughter
and the good-natured teasing that went on throughout dinner. Ryan Millen,
when asked if he would race next year, summed up the overall attitude at the
“If we are invited back, we will be here”.