If the 1800km drive from Murmansk to Veliky Novgorod on sheet ice and pot-holes wasn't hard enough on its own crews also had to find points scattered along the route. Each was worth 15 points and each is valuable as after each stage the two lowest scoring teams get dropped out. But even with a crazy 50 hour time limit it was so tight that teams had to choose which ones to go for.
So 2 days after I'd seen them last tired and slightly bewildered looking people lined up at the regroup at the edge of a frozen lake and I wondered around seeing who had some stories to tell. The start-line blessing the giant bunny received didn't seem to do it too much good as it was looking very sorry for itself with its once shiny pink fur all matted with ice and grime. But its team were in good spirits as they took on the hallowed Golden Envelope, a task so hard that many talk about it with dread. The points available if you can complete it mean that you will get a guaranteed entry in the grand final in Vladivostok. The challenge was to detour south to Kazakhstan and look for crashed satellites in the snowy wastes. Don't find them though and you are out! Incredible! But the bunny still had a grin on its face as it headed out.
I found a seat with Team NEC, a friendly group of Belarusians and Muscovites and few kilometres later we pulled into a cafe called Bummer to sit down and try and work out a plan... but it wasn't too long before the time-table was in pieces on the table. “Forget it! We go to Ekaterinburg the nice way, on the back roads” Igor said. But talk of back roads in a cafe with such a name was doomed to trouble and an unsuccessful hunt for a tyre shop with a big enough machine to balance the 37' tyres and then a closed road that confused the GPS systems enough that we were driving through the night around dead-end villages and roads that hadn't been ploughed for a long time. Tensions rose in proportion to the new Russian vocabulary I learned... although it is funny to know that the word for pancake is a curse!
The moon was almost full and cast eerie shadows through the constant birch and pine forests, while the snow-covered fields gleamed a strange silver but the dawn didn't bring any colour to the sleeping land. We started the stage with 2300km on the GPS and to remind me just how big this country is at one point it said Turn Left in 247km... But stopping in a place that translated into 'The essence of spirit' the next afternoon it still said 1300km to go.
There is an interactive CD-ROM in Russia called 'How to Drive' that gives instructions on how you should drive. In the rest of the world it's called Grand Theft Auto 4! Progress was painfully slow we had to force our way around labouring trucks with wonky wheels, dodge the kamikaze Lada drivers coming the other way on the wrong side of the road and thread through the wreckage of recent accidents. And then a storm came that white-washed the way ahead and we crawled along with the road indistinguishable from fields and sky. It was impossible to overtake as visibility was down to just a few metres... and wasn't helped by the windscreen wipers icing up until they just scraped a few useless lines across the glass. From my back seat vantage point it seemed that only Russians could carry on like this. 4 days of constant driving, only sleeping in fits and starts on the back seat before being ruffled awake again to take the wheel and they could still manage to handle an overloaded 4x4.
Finally, more than two full days since we'd left Veliky Novgorod, we got into Ekaterinburg and gratefully checked into a hotel... but only for a painfully short few hours for a team briefing and the instructions for the next stage... No one did too well in getting the stamps from the trains, the best team got 4 stamps out of a possible 19 and my friends in Team Yeti were in the last two. If they didn't manage to win the next task they'd have to face the daunting Golden Envelope or go home.
But some good news. The Oleni team with the pink bunny in tow somehow managed to find the crashed satellite in the Kazakhstani countryside.
The next stage is to a camp site near the city of Tomsk, a place according to Wikipedia is famous for its chemical and oil industries. Only 1800km away and we have two days to get there.