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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 Mongolia.
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 predicted.

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 soccer game.

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 awards dinner.

“If we are invited back, we will be here”.

                                                                    Lizett Bond
                                                                  October 2008

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