Silk Way rally’s venture into China strengthens Moscow-Beijing relations

Competitors are racing 6,695 miles across Russia, Kazakhstan and northern China in a test of skill, stamina and planning

Aidyn Rakhimbayev, a Kazakh multimillionaire, was roaring through the grass between a hill and a birch forest in the Chelyabinsk region of Russia when his highly customised Mini Countryman suddenly swerved off to the side with a popped tyre, setting the grass underneath on fire. A minute later, Harry Hunt, a British driver, careened around the hill from the other side, scattering surprised picnickers and onlookers, before making it back on to the trail carved by other racers.

Longer than even the Dakar rally, just finishing the Silk Way rally from Moscow to Beijing is a feat. From 9 to 24 July, competitors are racing 6,695 miles across the forests and grasslands of Russia, the dusty steppe of Kazakhstan, and what drivers call the dunes of no return in the deserts of northern China.

They say the rally is won not by the one who goes fast but by the one who doesnt break down, said the Silk Way director, Vladimir Chagin, nicknamed the Tsar of Dakar for winning that rallys truck category seven times. Its an extreme sport stretched out over time, over two weeks, not a jump or flight that lasts minutes or seconds.


This years Silk Way rally is also a geopolitical achievement, strengthening Russias political and economic relations with its eastern neighbour. Having previously held the event in Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Chagin said the idea to head east was rooted in how the mutual relations of Russia and China are developing. The rally is sponsored by the Russian state gas giant Gazprom and the Chinese state car manufacturer BAIC.

Harry Hunt and co-driver Andreas Schulz driving through the Gobi desert. Photograph: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Modern rally racing of this kind began with the inaugural Paris-Dakar rally through the Sahara desert in 1979, an event that became legendary for its brutal terrain and infamous for dozens of fatalities and close calls, such as the six-day search for competitor Mark Thatcher, son of Margaret, in 1982. But the Dakar rally lost some of its lustre for drivers after a move to South America in 2009. This years Silk Way has managed to attract competitors from 40 countries with its less-travelled terrain and an entry fee starting at 6000 (5000), less than half of Dakars.

The stages so far havent been quite as tricky as Dakar but I think as we cross over into China theyll get more difficult, said Hunt, 27, the son of a real estate magnate, who finished 10th at Dakar this year.

Harry Hunt. Photograph: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

The rally tests physical stamina and logistics planning just as much as driving skill. John Purshouse, the owner of a car parts recycling business in Perth, Australia, who is paying his own way, nearly missed the race after the shipping container carrying his modified Ford Ranger T1 mistakenly arrived in Italy rather than Russia. After receiving the truck in Moscow at 2.30am on the start day, he drove to Kazan and spent the next night replacing the fuel cell.

You get in and youre tired but you just have to push through, said Adrian Di Lallo, another Australian driver. A lot of us only get to do this a few times a year. Its like a drug, except you can go to rehab for drugs.

Gazprom is sponsoring a Russian-built Kamaz truck crewed by two Chinese drivers and a Russian mechanic. The side of the truck is emblazoned with the two countries flags and the words one belt, one road the name of the Chinese president Xi Jinpings initiative to develop infrastructure, trade and political and humanitarian ties with Eurasian countries.

Vladimir Putin meets Xi Jinping on an official visit to China last month. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/Tass

Russias pivot to Asia, which was announced by Vladimir Putin in 2012 and strengthened by a $400bn (240bn) gas deal in 2014, has not attracted as much Chinese investment to Russia as hoped. But the two countries have found common ground politically, most recently with their vehement opposition to a US agreement with South Korea this month to install an advanced missile defence system there.

Yang Shuan, the deputy head of Chinas general administration of sports, said the rally would create a sustainable bridge of friendship between Russia and China, and Russias sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, promised it would strengthen humanitarian ties with its neighbour.

Like China, Russia is a big country in the political and territorial sense, said the Gazprom driver Hongning Hou. China has friendly relations with Russia and we want to get closer.

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