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Feature Story August 23, 2001
 
2001: A Zap Odyssey
By Kevin McElwee Browse author
 
Page 2 of 2
 
The Top Ten Quotes from the eXile Zap Rally

1. "Please, please walk into the sunlight!"

-- Rally contestant Michael Ross, on a young girl wearing a translucent, barely ass-length dress approaching a column of parked Zaps in Nizhni Novgorod

2. "When we have night, you have day."

-- Race organizer Yuri Tulpanov, intentionally mistranslating a speech given at the start by American driver Robert Hamill. The actual line from the speech was, "Ten years after the coup, you Russians are now free to enjoy yourselves."

3. "I've got a long horn, baby."

-- The abovementioned Hamill, at a nightclub in Arzamas, to a girl who'd just been informed he was from Texas

4. "It doesn't count as a fight, because he's his brother."

-- Unidentified Zap contestant the morning after one of the chase drivers had knocked out his drunken ex-boxer brother

5. "It is forbidden to frighten the officers of the police."

-- Unnamed GIBDD traffic policeman in the Vladimir region, as he accepted a 100 ruble bribe from a Zap rally chase car driver who had blown through a traffic post at over 100 miles an hour

6. "If he's a clown, why is it that all he does is depress me all the time?"

-- Ross on oft-belligerent rally organizer Alexei Dyndykin

7. "I can see her pussy."

-- Kevin McElwee, on a girl in Nizhni Novgorod

8. "I can see her pussy."

-- Matt Taibbi, on the same girl

8a. "Wait, I didn't see it!"

-- Race contestant Jonas Bernstein, on the same girl

9. "Take your money back."

-- Two 300-ruble whores in Arzamas summoned by three drunken Zap rally contestants to a sauna on the territory of a local bread factory, upon seeing their clients

10. "Blah blah blah blah blah!"

-- Crucial yet unintelligible traffic directions, shouted by megaphone at Zap drivers by their police escorts as they approached city intersections

And why were we all there? Put simply, the eXile Zaporozhets Road Rally was to be "a futile, stupid gesture" in the tradition of Animal House's triumphant conclusion. While the rest of Moscow's journalist corps was busy churning out story after platitude-filled story on the 10th anniversary of the failed August 1991 coup attempt, we were some 500 kilometers from the capital preparing to participate in what we felt was a far more apropos tribute to the event that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A truly international group of some 30 individuals, with Americans, Irish, Scots, Jews, and even women represented, we were about to pilot a fleet of 10 ZAZ-965s from the former heart of the Soviet military-industrial complex (Arzamas was a closed city when it was known by its Soviet-era name of Arzamas-2; nearby Sarov (formerly Arzamas-16), hometown of several rally participants, remains a closed city to this day) to the very center of Moscow. Laughably tiny (it weighs just 600 kilograms and sports a 30 hp engine) and notoriously unreliable, the so-called "gorbaty" (humpbacked) Zaporozhets of the mid-to-late 1960s is perhaps the perfect symbol of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union that the '91 coup plotters were so incompetently trying to preserve.

But enough about the supposed historical resonance of this event. It was expected that the Zap Rally would involve not only repeated breakdowns (for which the team of expert mechanics which had lovingly restored the derelict fleet to some semblance of operability would be driving several of the cars), but also some very hardcore drinking. On this last count, I don't think anyone was disappointed. Even now, more than 72 hours after the rally's end, my urine still carries the faint ammonia scent of a serious hangover.

Speaking of hard drink, even before we got to the rally proper, there was Friday night in Arzamas to contend with. It should be noted that by 9 p.m., there was a total of six Westerners (with two more scheduled to arrive on the 4:30 a.m. train) in this sleepy provincial city of 100,000 -- almost certainly an all-time Arzamas record. It was to be expected that something unusual would come of this unlikely convergence.

Flag-waving Irishman and Scot, just moments before the donning of the dick hat

Upon arrival in town, we headed straight for the outdoor garage complex on the outskirts that housed the Zap fleet. Here we saw most of the remainder of the cars, including the Stringer car with its attractive rope-on-red design, an aqua-colored vehicle with pointing Lenin in silhouette and the cryptic slogan "Kommunism eto yest" along one side, and even one car advertising a local candy shop. But still absent was the Night Flight Zap, which we had been told was literally "a work of art." It arrived a few minutes later, and we were not disappointed. Decorated in a Swedish blue and yellow checked pattern with the legendary nightclub's Air Jordan-esque logo on the hood and a voluptuous pinkish-orange naked chick ("Sveta") painted on the driver-side door, this was definitely the most beautiful of all the cars. We were introduced to the artist responsible for all the paintjobs and heartily congratulated him on his fine work.

After a quick test drive for myself and the other first-time Zap drivers, we returned to town for supper. Knowing full well that the meal would be immediately followed by a police-accompanied test run around town in column formation, the five of us at our table washed down the meal with two bottles of lukewarm vodka. Along with Taibbi and myself, this was "Sex Machine" Jake Rudnitsky, Stringer deputy editor Alexei Fomin, and Robert Hamill (a mysterious Texan who was a last-minute entrant in the rally). Buzzed or not, we headed back to the garage promptly at 8 p.m. to meet up with our police escort.

It was this 15-minute cruise that gave us the first true glimpse of what the next two days would be like. With one squad car leading the way with sirens blaring and a second at the rear, we drove the 10 cars in a single file at a leisurely pace around the center of town. The Arzamas residents of all ages who lined the streets along our route were more than suitably impressed by this bizarre scene. Most greeted us with laughter or mile-wide smiles, with many waving or giving a hearty thumbs up. Still others responded with classic slapstick double takes, clearly not knowing what to make of the event. Children in particular would stare intently with looks of bemused wonder. This brief drive and the joyous response it engendered alone made the months of preparation seem worthwhile. Whatever was to come tomorrow, the rally was already a success in my eyes. The cars, for their part, performed admirably, with no discernable mechanical problems.

The day's work done, we returned to the "hotel" (actually just a pair of flats rented out by some local factory) to wash up and prepare ourselves mentally for the night ahead. We started at the Kangaroo club (cover charge: 10 rubles) just across the street, which had come highly recommended. Unfortunately, we were a bit early and so were the joint's only customers as we polished off a bottle of vodka with unpleasant carrot-apple juice chasers. Heading back to the street to regroup, we noticed an inviting-looking cafe just upstairs from the club. This was more like it. At the very least, there were actual people inside.

We were joined inside by a quartet of recently arrived rally participants -- Irish timeshare salesman Paul Lynch and his Scottish cohort Colin, along with their driver and translator. They had pulled into town in a well-stocked black Range Rover just as the procession was getting under way. Most of us set about getting reasonably shit-faced, but Robert the mysterious Texan was hungry again, demanding meat of some kind. This would prove to be an oft-repeated scenario over the next two days. In fact, some of us began to suspect that he was actually some kind of mutant alien with a hyperactive metabolism. These suspicions were only heightened by the mystery surrounding his background. Robert talked a lot, but still managed not to reveal very much about himself beyond vague details. For instance, we knew that he had studied at USC and now divided his time between New Mexico and East Berlin, but we had no idea what he actually did. Nor did we have any clear idea what he was doing in Russia. And Robert was certainly in no hurry to clarify these questions.

Max (far left) was dropped with a single punch by his brother the night before

Still, he was possessed of a healthy unabashed initiative and even before his order of meat had arrived he was off to pester a table of three young girls with his Texas-American English and heavily accented 10 or so words of Russian. While the rest of us were continuing with the drinking process and gradually making the unfortunate decision to switch to beer, really bad whisky, and god knows what else, Robert was busy making some progress with the girls and finding out where the real hotspot was. He returned to the table with two of the girls just long enough polish off his meat course, after which we all departed for a place called Yudzhin (as in Eugene, presumably).

This turned out to be a large wooden barn-like structure resembling the Porky's bordello in the Canadian film of the same name. A long porch extended along the front facade and was filled with teenagers. Inside was a cheesily decorated bar area on the ground floor with a medium-sized, high-ceilinged disco on the second. There was plenty of young talent (some of it illegally so) on both levels, but those of us who had been up all night were in no mood to actually talk to girls. Thus, it was decided to visit a sauna for some paid companionship. A pair of locals who had attached themselves to our party knew of a suitable location, and so we were off.

The longish cab ride led us to a desolate, industrial-looking part of town and the metal gates of what I'm told was a bread factory. After a few words with the guard the gates opened, and we drove inside along a dirt road lined on both sides by tall, swamp-like vegetation. After a good half a mile, we came to a smallish structure from which no light escaped. This was the place, and it looked like nothing so much as the site of a ritual multiple homicide. One of our local guides disappeared inside to inquire about availability, and returned with some disappointing news. Only three girls could be provided (we were something like 8), and even these would involve a wait of about an hour.

Taibbi was obviously feeling a little bit apprehensive and looking for an out. It didn't take him long to find it: he was supposed to be at the train station in two and a half hours to meet two late-arriving participants: metals trader Mike Ross and respected commentator on the Russian scene and eventual 2 Zap Crue guitarist Jonas Bernstein. Having no particular desire to stick around either, I tagged along as well, not least of all to witness firsthand Jonas's arrival at the Arzamas train station at 4:20 in the morning. So Taibbi and I returned to the "hotel," then picked up some beers en route to the central square, where we pondered Arzamas's fate as the "zhopa zhopy" (ass of the ass) of Russia at the base of the diminutive Lenin statue.

 

Meanwhile, the guys back at the alleged sauna were having their own kind of adventure. Jake Rudnitsky reports:

"After Matt's paranoid retreat, myself, Robert, Alexei, the two guys from Arzamas, and someone's hot girlfriend Lena were left. We all start chasing vodka with vobla and planning our next move. The building wasn't exactly conducive to whoring -- apart from two common rooms connected by a large window, there was only a small sauna and a room with a pool. Only homoerotic Russians interested in seeing some sweaty guy slam a girl doggy-style could even dream of sex in this place. Robert had other things to dream about; after eating several of the fish himself, he fell asleep on couch. The guy with the girlfriend took the initiative and ordered three whores for the group. I started futilely macking on Lena. Then we started boiling ourselves in the sauna to kill time while we waited."

"After a couple of rounds in the sauna and of vodka, the girls showed up. The terms were 300 rubles per chick per hour, payable up front. One of them was worth several times that, while the other two were too fat to be worth a free fuck. But the guy who ordered them gathered the money and paid all three for an hour, while Lena listened and said unconvincingly that it was the first time she had witnessed her boyfriend act like that."

"There was that long awkward moment when nobody knew where to start, which was finally broken only when Alexei decided to wake up Robert. The longhorn came out, looked at the girls, and left the room. Then the girls had a sudden change of heart. We may never know whether it was related to Robert's appearance or not. But it was definitive. The cute one, who had also worked as an accountant, said, 'We don't want your money.'"

"At first we thought that meant it was na khalyava, but the illusion quickly ended. The whores started their retreat. They wouldn't listen to our pleading: 'You can't do that, you're whores,' I said Jake. 'Don't you have a family to feed?' asked one anonymous guy. 'Why?' begged Alexei. But they went back to their driver and left us alone."

"So we drank a condolence round and went back to the hotel to get ready for the start of the rally, four hours later."

 

As for Taibbi and myself, two hours and at least as many beers later we could be seen stumbling (but still walking upright at least) our way onto the train station platform. The Moscow-Sergach train arrived right on time, and Mike and Jonas soon appeared -- looking surprisingly fresh, under the circumstances. We made our way back to the "hotel," where both Taibbi and I were pleased to discover that Mike had prepared an assortment of mix CDs especially for the rally. Clearly, here was a participant with the right stuff. We shot the shit for awhile, recounting stories from the day just passed, before eventually settling down at 7 a.m., leaving time for maybe 90 minutes of rest before the start of the rally.

 

Day 1: Arzamas-Nizhni Novgorod-Vladimir

Rise and shine at 8:30 a.m. with the day's intense heat already palpable. There are severe headaches all around, but adrenaline keeps the real pain at bay for the time being. Those who want them take cold showers. By 9:30 we're all on our way to the central square for the rally kickoff.

Alexei Dyndykin addresses the good people of Arzamas

The cars are already lined up in a neat column just behind the Lenin statue, a truly impressive sight. A 20-piece brass band stands near the head car playing swingy versions of standards and Beatles numbers. The town is all abuzz. Small boys and teenage girls pose for pictures before the various cars. Middle-aged men are inspecting some of the engines. Colin the Scotsman can be seen wearing one of those baseball caps with a foam cock and balls on the brim that I've only ever seen for sale at low-rent beach resorts. Oddly, the pubic hair is under the head of the penis rather than the balls. I'd always wondered what kind of person wears a hat like that in public.

A rumor is circulating that Original Georgian had 7 girls the night before. "They only cost 300 rubles apiece," is his rationale. When I run into him just before the race he asks what we did last night. "We drank," I say. "That's all?" he asks with a look of amused disdain. Whatever. The man doesn't drink, so he has to find something to pass the time.

Before long, the official festivities are under way. Alexei Dyndykin climbs atop the hood of the eXile car for an introductory speech. The crowd appears to hang on his every word. This is followed by a speech from Robert. Yura, a local singer of some renown who looks like a cross between Luzhkov and Krushchev, translates. Except the joke is that Yura knows about as much English as Robert does Russian. So Robert's psychotic gibberish along the lines of "You here in Arzamas were the first to claim the freedom of democracy, and now you're free to have fun!" comes out in Russian as "You have many beautiful girls in Arzamas!" Close enough, I guess.

The call of "Gentlemen: to your cars!" rings out as the police cars hit their sirens. Engines are revved, and with the occasional sputter we are off. We travel the same circular route through the center of town as the night before. We're greeted with the same smiles, laughter, and even occasional cheers. And just like that, we're leaving town, not without a little regret.

The procession comes to a stop just after the GIBDD post outside of town, where Dyndykin advises all drivers that we are under the supervision of the fine policemen of Nizhegorodskaya oblast and that we are to maintain a strict single-file formation at all times. Further instructions regarding stopping procedures in case of breakdown are given out. The day is already quite a scorcher, so there is understandably some concern about the Zaps overheating.

Soon enough, we're off again. Taibbi is at the wheel, so I'm on radio and sausage slicing duty. After a few choice cuts from N.W.A., I put on Led Zeppelin IV and don the rubber Mike Tyson mask, which I keep in place until the opening few bars of "When the Levee Breaks." By this time, we've already stopped once for a minor repair on the Stringer car and to give all the cars a chance to cool down.

There being no way to really describe what it is like to ride in a gorbaty Zaporozhets on a hot summer day while suffering from a massive hangover and severe sleep deprivation -- and while wearing a rubber Mike Tyson mask -- I think I'll just jump ahead here three hours or so to our entry into Nizhni Novogorod. We're making the long climb up Prospekt Gagarina toward the center of town when, ironically, it is one of the late-model Volga police cars that overheats. I think it is during this brief stop that Mike Ross begins to wonder aloud about Dyndykin, "If he's a clown, how come he depresses me so much?" Dyndykin, who is not doing any driving, has by now begun to take his familiar pinkish skin tone. Apparently, the stress of organizing the event is beginning to get to him.

As the procession begins moving again, Taibbi and I start to notice that Nizhni seems to have a shockingly large population of sluttily dressed young girls roaming its streets. Suffice it to say that a fellow who still wants to be sexually active in this country could do a whole lot worse than Nizhni Novgorod on a hot August day. When we stop at the central square overlooking the Volga, Robert does his best to get photographed in front of his car (he's in the aqua Lenin-mobile with one of the mechanics, whom he inexplicably refers to as "Jim") with every young hotty who passes by, including one girl in black whose nipples instantly stand at attention when she borrows my eXile propeller cap for a few moments. The sexual dismay of aging Westerners hangs in the air like the rancid sweat of a speed freak. There is some relief, although not without regret, when once again we are off.

The scene as we drive through town is, as it has been all day, much the same as the evening before in Arzamas. Whether the response from onlookers is one of surprise, dismay, or unrestrained laughter, there is the impossible-to-deny feeling that this whole silly procession is actually making people happy, ourselves included. It sounds banal to put it in so many words, but that's how it was.

Yura (l) looks on in deisbelief as Robert delivers his psychotic speech

As we're making our way out of Nizhni, I'm behind the wheel of the eXile car for the first time. My first impression is that the car handles like a watermelon, whatever that's supposed to mean. A more prosaic description would put it somewhere between a go-cart and a bumper car. On the way out of town, the Stringer car suffers another breakdown, this time a carburetor problem of some kind. Within moments, the various mechanics are gathering around the downed machine like a swarm of highly organized insects in order to take care of the rally's first really serious mechanical failure. The carburetor is disassembled and reassembled in short order and we're on our way again, but as the hour approaches 5 p.m., there is growing concern about reaching the evening's planned stopping point just shy of Vladimir -- still some 200 km away (we'd traveled only about 100 km so far).

Fortunately, we start making some good time at this point, and it's another 100 km or so before we stop again for to refill a car that has run out of gas (the Stringer car once again, if memory serves). The stopping point is a roadside shashlychnaya, where O.G. informs the crew that he will drive ahead to the night's stopping point and gather the makings for a shashlyk feast. Nevertheless, Robert insists on ordering some 500g of shashlyk at this roadside stand, once again giving rise to suspicions that he is some kind of mutant alien. Miscommunication between Dyndykin and the police escort now leads to a number of stops for cars that have run out of gas (including the eXile car, in one case), but the communication problem is eventually resolved and we make it to the stopping point at around 11 p.m.

Here begins one of the journey's truly surreal interludes, as the fleet pulls off the highway and drives along a dirt road to the center of a field that, at the time, seems to be miles from the highway. The scene feels like one of alien vessels returning to the mothership, or else some Zap-based cult heading out to an isolated clearing for some kind of animal and/or human sacrifice. As we're all parking, one of the Gazelle chase cars loses its bumper on a rock, but otherwise the procession comes to a halt unscathed.

Yura the semi-famous singer and O.G. have a fire started for the making of some kind of stew, while another fellow is already busy tearing apart and defeathering some ducks. Clearly, it would be some time before any kind of food was ready. Thus, the drinking begins in earnest -- mostly vodka, along with a limited supply of beer (including the case of Doctor Diesel beer we were supposed to present personally to the mayor of Arzamas). The Irish and Scot contingent ruffle a few feathers by hanging apart from the rest of the crowd with their well-stocked Range Rover.

Marshmallows (provided by Mike Ross) are roasted, before finally the duck stew and pork shashlyk are ready. All track of time is lost. It is about 4:30 when I stumble over to the eXile car and climb into the back seat in order to find the most suitable sleeping position (sprawled diagonally with one of the front seats pushed forward). As I fade off to sleep it occurs to me that it feels like we've been on the road for something like a week rather than just two days.

Day 2: Vladimir-Moscow

I'm awakened at about 8:30 by one of the police officers tapping on my window. "Time to get up," he says. The camp is already semi-abuzz. Despite the cramped sleeping quarters and what ought to be another hangover, I feel surprisingly well-rested and free of head pain.

It seems there had been a fight during the night between Maxim (one of the mechanics) and his brother. Specifically, Max -- a former boxer who had apparently taken too many shots to the head and can no longer handle his drink -- had gotten completely out of hand talking shit and whatnot and so his brother had knocked him out cold with a single punch. As Yura the singer put it, it wasn't a real fight because they're brothers. Still, the scene was enough to freak out Robert, who started run around raving in German before attempting to get involved. Jake wisely advised him to stay out of it and "go to his fucking car" to get some sleep -- which he eventually did.

The greedy pig who demanded an extra $100 to take us to the Manezh

By 9:30, a number of people are swimming in the stream alongside which we had parked. The night before, it had looked as silvery and foreboding as mercury in the moonlight, but by the light of day it looks like just another stream. Things take a turn toward the surreal again when the cops take to the water. Before long, these preternaturally spherical guys are all frolicking about playing some kind of arcane tag game in the water and shrieking, quite literally, like schoolgirls. Neither Taibbi nor myself knows quite what to make of that.

There's just time for a bowl of duck and pig entrail hash, a large pot of which had been cooking overnight, before it's time to get moving. This is as fine a hangover remedy as you'll ever see, but I don't think you're supposed to eat three heaping bowls of the stuff, as Robert did.

Anyway, day two's journey went surprisingly smoothly. At times, the lead cars even reached speeds of up to 100 kph for a few minutes at a time (for most of the trip, we had been maxing out at around 50-60 kph). All went well, in fact, until we were less than five kilometers from the gates of Moscow. The Irish-Scot vehicle, which had been having brake problems from the very outset of the rally, finally lost all stopping capability whatsoever. This resulted in a stop of about an hour.

But the real problem came when we reached the Moscow GAI post. Predictably, our assigned escort wanted an extra $100 to take us to Manezhnaya ploshchad, since the papers we had received only specified our final destination outside the Tsirk club on Tsvetnoi bulvar. But then this should surprise no one who has been in Russia longer than a week. You pay $200 for a 2-day 2-car police escort traversing 500 km, but then you have to pay $300 just for a single car to take you that last 30 km into the capital. The greedy bastards -- where's their sense of nostalgia?

Still, once the money was paid, the officer obligingly took us for a triumphant crawl down Tverskaya to the Manezh, where we parked for 15 minutes of photo ops and celebratory banter. I'm pretty sure the Sunday afternoon crowd had no idea what to make of the 10 Zaps parked on the square in a semi-circular formation. The 15 minutes of fame passed quickly, and we were soon on our way again back up Tverskaya and over to Tsvetnoi bulvar, where a final payment/bribe of 200 rubles to the parking attendant was required in order to have the cars park on the street in front of the circus.

Some chicks will do anything for a t-shirt...

After such an odyssey, the after-party couldn't help but be something of a letdown. Nevertheless, all involved did their share of drinking and there were more than a few bizarre occurrences to round out the evening. For one thing, there was 2 Zap Crue's completely unrehearsed rendition of "My Zaparozhets," with Jonas Bernstein on lead guitar. Things took a turn for the worse when the ever-increasing stress levels and ever-growing amounts of boozed consumed led the two organizers, Taibbi and Dyndykin, to come to blows inside the club over -- of all things -- the alleged theft of an eXile hat.

But perhaps the evening's strangest sight came when the chubby American girl who had only recently been trying to dry hump our web designer against a fence was seen -- with both pants and panties removed -- dry humping the left rear tire of the Night Flight car out in the parking lot. If Jake had not seen it as well, I would have assumed that the vision of that pale white flabby thigh flesh slapping mercilessly against the asphalt was just a hallucination borne of sleep deprivation and alcohol poisoning.

As repulsive as this sight was, I can't help but note that it was somehow an appropriately futile and stupid gesture to end what can only be described as a futile, stupid gesture of epic proportions.

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