Trans-Siberian “Highway”

27 Aug 2010, by Brian in Uncategorized

When we first signed up for the Mongol Rally I never pictured myself riding a ski lift to the top of a mountain resort… not exactly the rally milieu. Then again many of my expectations for this trip have had to acquire flexibility enough to bend along the changing course of events. Despite these expectations, standing on a cool Siberian mountain top looking down on a beautiful European looking city is exactly where I found myself yesterday afternoon.

An early morning followed our previous Siberian camp, and we made quick work of the road, past Barnaul and into Novosibirsk. Our good time was obliterated by traffic in Novosibirsk, and without cool air flowing into the front of the engine, our fanless radiator overheated and bubbled over… the temp sensor wouldn’t allow us to restart the car until it cooled down. As long as we could stay on the main motor way moving quickly, we could suck enough air to keep the engine cool… but these Russian “freeway” systems do not bypass cities, they drive you right through them, turning the motor way into the main drag through town, clogged by traffic. This was a showstopper if we couldn’t get it fixed… especially when we hit Mongolia and have to drive slowly over unpaved roads.

After escaping Novosibirsk we got stuck in another of these traffic jams in Kemerova, and pulled off into a Toyota dealership to let the engine cool down again. We figured where better to ask for help… maybe they had a fan for a Toyota Yaris or something that we could rig into the car… or a spare shock? They were extremely helpful, pulled our fan apart and showed us the melted electrical bits that prevented it from spinning. One of the girls who worked there, Irina, spoke pretty good English and helped translate between us and the service manager who was telling us there wasn’t much they could do. So she looked up Fiat services in Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk for us to visit at our next stops. They were really nice there, allowing us to use their hot water to make some of our camp food, and clean up a bit before getting back onto the motorway. We can’t thank Toyota enough! Even though we ended up driving Fiat’s, both Toyota of Seattle and Toyota of Kemerova have been so helpful!!

We pressed on, driving late into the night to try to make Krasnoyarsk, but had to stop just a few hundred klicks short and sleep in the cars at a rest area until morning.

Many of these rest areas have ramps, so Tom & I took the opportunity to get under the car and discover that our brilliant exhaust patch had come undone, and our repaired strut was leaking hydraulic fluid once again. We took another stab at patching the exhaust and got back on the road with the girls, but apparently exhaust pipes are a lot hotter than the 500 degrees that Rescue Tape can withstand, and by the time we pulled into Krasnoyarsk our exhaust was loud as ever. Not only that, but car #201 had pretty much no brake pads left. These cars were about to be stopped in their tracks.

We confidently drove down Karl Marx ave with map in hand, heading towards a hotel that would give us our visa registration, when a white Ford Focus pulled along side, occupants waiving and saying “Hi.”. This is really not an uncommon occurrence that we’ve gotten used to. Usually we just waive back and they keep driving, but these guys were persistent at getting our attention, and wanted to know where we were going. They offered to help us find it, and even though we felt pretty good about getting there, who were we to turn our noses up at expert navigation? Upon arrival, Nikolay and Alexey peppered us with questions, keen to practice their English. We explained we were in Krasnoyarsk to register our visas and visit the Fiat service that the Toyota dealership in Kemerova had written down for us. They generously offered to take us to the Fiat service so we wouldn’t get lost! A little incredulous, we asked them how they could afford to stop what they were doing and help us out… apparently they have their own business operating mobile phone payment kiosks, which offers them very flexible schedules, and they did not even pause to help out total strangers visiting their city. What could have been a few phone calls and a drive to a service station for them turned out to be almost two days of getting our cars sorted and back on the road.

First, the Fiat “service” apparently only worked on busses and trucks. So they took us to a dealership that used to be the official Fiat dealer in town, but now was only for Kia, Renault and Citroen. That dealership wasn’t much help, so Nikolay and Alexey hopped on their mobile phones and called about 8 different parts stores! We found one that supposedly had the brake pads we needed, but when we got there the pads didn’t quite fit. No worries, our new Russian friends knew a service that could grind away the bits that didn’t fit and MAKE them fit our brake calipers… no joke. They also knew a master electrician who could repair our fan. We dropped the fan off with their friend and made our way to the garage to reshape the brake pads. While there, we found out they could also fix our exhaust and repair our botched strut patch. Now, none of this came out to be very cheap… and we were skeptical about the cost, but after some probing I felt pretty confident that we were getting the straight deal. Apparently parts are hard to find in Krasnoyarsk, especially something that will fit a Fiat Punto (even if it does have to be custom machined). Brake pads ended up costing 4x what they did in England. Our strut repair was 5x what we paid in Rubtsovsk, but this time they actually straightened it out and replaced the hydraulic cartridge altogether… it was actually like new when all was said and done.

The only real downside was the time this all took. It was hard to fault Nikolay and Alexey for this, and they knew we were in a hurry to get to UB… but rigging this all together was just a time consuming exercise, and as we had hit the shops and garages near closing, we had to wait for the following day for most of the work to actually be done. In the meantime, they were determined to entertain us and show us their city. Alexey’s wife, Olga, and their son, Ilyesnae, had joined us by now, and after getting the new brake pads fitted and dropping off the other car at the garage, we cleaned up at the hotel, picked up Jean, Amy and Yasmin, and joined the four Russians at a banya on the outskirts of town. It was so hidden our taxi driver got lost finding it, calling Nikolay on the phone a couple times for directions, but we eventually arrived at this really nice hotel & bath. Our banya’s room, named Mexica, had a large-ish pool of cold water, a steam sauna, a lounge like seating area, and a kitchen/dining area where we were served smoked salmon, chips, wine and beer! Nikolay took Tom & I into the sauna and beat us down with Vyenik, branches of what I think is a Birch tree, before plunging us into the cold bath. We repeated this a few times until we were solidly relaxed, and Olga treated the girls to the same (although we hear it was substantially more gentle) treatment.

We couldn’t believe after such a long day of parts hunting, in the middle of their work week, that they’d take us out until 3am, but they were genuinely happy to do so, despite our protesting too much hospitality. The late night did not impede our progress the next morning too much because it took several hours for the fan to be repaired, and for the strut to be driven 40k outside of town to the repair service and back. This took substantially enough time that rather than wait it out at the garage, Nikolay, Alexey and Olga drove Tom & I ten minutes to the outskirts of town where this ski resort overlooks the city, and I surreally found myself in the most unexpected of rally environments. I looked down and was able to see all of Krasnoyarsk spread out before me. Our hotel, which sits just behind the famous bridge of Krasnoyarsk featuerd on the 10 ruble note, was easily visible, thanks to it’s ugly blue exterior. The fancy new downtown area where Nikolay & Alexey had their office was just beyond that to the north. And the whole waterfront along the river cut across it all like an artery feeding the city.

They drove us back to the garage as all the parts where arriving, and we looked on as the pieces all went back in to make our cars whole. Our new exhaust silencer was welded into place Uri, whose wide smile was filled with an entirely silver grill, using a CO2 welder named Sputnik. We joked that our car could be shot into space (although I grimace to think it would meet the same end as the original Sputnik), and they noticed our TerraPass CO2 offset sticker… wondering if the welder’s carbon output would be included in that calculation. Uri took an interest in my tattoo, and pulled his shirt off for some photos together with his tattoos. His less colorful green ink bore the classic sign of prison tattoos, and some of the designs clearly related to prison gangs (confirmed later by Nikolay). But he also had some fantastical graphics for such rough work, cats with bowties over each side of his chest… and despite a former life in a prison gang, he was the nicest guy at the garage, making sure we were taken care of and our car put back together right. After posing for some more post-repair photos, Nikolay took us back to our hotel and we swapped photos on the laptop before saying thanks for all their generosity and goodbye as we finally made our way out of Krasnoyarsk at about 10pm.

Rotating drivers and sleeping, we power drove through the night to Irkutsk, making our best attempt to reach the Mongolian border ASAP. We had heard the borders were closed for the weekend, and were worried we’d be stuck all day Saturday and Sunday if we couldn’t cross before closing on Friday. Fortunately, with the massive help of friends and family, we received several text messages confirming that the weekend border closing only affects other crossings, and that the northern crossing we are taking is OPEN on the weekends!  I even got a text & voice mail from the Mercy Corps Mongolia country director, Domonic Graham, who reassured me it was open and to take our time and enjoy the drive.  I say fortunately because it turned out to be impossible for us to make the nearly 1800 kilometers to the border anywhere close to the 6pm closing time on Friday. We were making excellent time along the M53 out of Krasnoyarsk… but about half way through the night, as Nikolay had actually predicted for us, the road turned into complete and utter trash. Our expectations of perfectly paved blacktop all the way through Siberia were dashed as we bounded across what turned out to be the worst roads of the entire trip. Big gaping holes opened up on either side of us, threatening to swallow the cars whole. Dirt turned into mud, kicking up on the sides of the car and caking every door crevice and even the gas cap. We knew for certain after this road that we never would have made it without the repaired fan motor and front right strut, so the nearly two days spent in Krasnoyarsk was indeed not optional.

It took nearly 20 hours for us to reach Irkutsk, but we ran into the ambulance team of the Magical Mongolian Mystery Tour yet again, after having last seen them in Azerbaijan. Their route took them to Aktau, Kazakhstan and across the north end of that country into Russia where we have reunited with them. We all stopped for dinner at this little cafe just inside Irkutsk, where we were again mobbed by local hospitality and treated to wine & vodka… just a small sip with dinner since we had to get back on the road 90 minutes later.

We made another effort to lay down some more kilometers towards the border which we’d still like to try to make before lunch tomorrow morning, but succumbing to exhaustion we have stopped to camp again along the shore of Lake Baikal. The single largest body of fresh water in the world, containing 20% of the non-frozen fresh water in the world, and 80% of Russia’s supply, Baikal is also the deepest lake in the world and getting deeper as the continental plates that converge at its bottom are separating. Eventually Baikal will split Asia in half and become the world’s next ocean, but until then it will continue to be the most massive lake, larger in volume and area than all of the Great Lakes combined. I had hoped to be able to make a day trip out to Olkhon Island to see some of the 80% of life that is indigenous only to this region, and stare into the clear blue deep water which has 40 meter visibility. I think now we will stop along the way tomorrow just for some quick photos.

Ulaan Baatar is our destination now. Kim is there and waiting to re-join the team, so tomorrow we make haste for UB and then if our cars can hold together we’ll tour the Mongolian country side. So until then, da zaftara, and Da Svidonya!

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