Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bye bye, mini!


Well, not really - or at least I hope it's not really good bye, anyway! All I do know for the moment, is that after almost four months of owning the car, I have chosen to abandon it for an extended period of time for the second time - the first was at the Bratislava airport in order to fly back to Paris and get the registration documents corrected. The second is here in Chita, where after a protracred struggle against Russian roads, Russian weather, and the Russian people, I had finally decided to simplify my life just a bit and ship the car the final 3,000km from Chita to the Pacific coast in Vladivostok via a truck. Fortunately, there's absolutely no shortage of trucks ready to travel this route as Russia has become a booming export market for both new and used Japanese cars, which get shipped to Vladivostok, then either driven over the barely-existing roads as far as they need to go in Russia (I ran into a guy that had bought a car as a present for his daughter and was driving it all the way to Saint Petersbugh! I quietly concluded he was insane...) or, if the new owner cares enough to afford it, get shipped by truck of train. (An interesting side effect of all this is that most of the cars and trucks in this part of Russia have the steering wheels on the right side. In fact, the truck that's shipping my car, is a Volvo, built in Sweden. But built for the Japanese market, so the steering wheel is on the right. Of course, it has since been brought over from Japan to Russia, where we still drive on the right side of the road...) The trucks heading back East are generally empty, so shipping the car in that direction is a relatively affordable process - I'm being charged 7000 Rubles (~$275 USD), which is, ironically enough, barely more than it costs to park the car for a week at the Bratislava airport... and also not much more than I'd estimate gasoline would cost me to drive the remaining 3,000km (repairs would be a whole different matter...).

And now, since I have felt like posting anything in a rather long while, a bit of a quick recap of the mini and I have been up to the last couple of weeks, leading to our temporary (I hope) parting of the ways this past Saturday... It has now been over two weeks since I left Ulan-Ude and was pleased to learn that the car could still cover over 700km in a single day when I arrived in Chita.


A sign indicating the end of Siberia... Ok, it was just a village named Siberia... Later, I did, however, learn that I am, in fact, no longer in Siberia - Chita is in the middle of the TransBaikal region, and Siberia ends somewhere west of here... Who knew!?

The mini on the road in Siberia... erm, TransBaikal region. I like calling it Siberia better!


After spending a couple of days taking in all the sites that Chita has to offer



The new Chita cathedral. I'll go ahead and guess that the old one used to look a lot like the new one, but had the misfortune of offending the Bolshevik sensibilities of some Soviet leader 80 or so years ago...

Speaking of Soviet leaders... The Lenin statue, in the middle of the Lenin square here in Chita. The Communist memorabilia may have all been torn down in Moscow and Saint Petersburgh, but it's still proudly on display here in Chita.


and finding a mechanic here to do a bit more welding on the mini suspension (side note: the two most effective and commonly used tools needed to fix the mini turn out to be a hammer and a welding torch), I packed up and headed out further East towards Vladivostok. The road from Chita is paved, reasonably well, for the first 130km. Then, you get about 20km of sputtering stretches of brand new asphalt, interspersed with construction sites and your basic, Mongolian-style roadlessness. Finally, the asphalt gives up and turns into the, by now well-familiar, dirt and rock trek for the next 1500km. After about 150km of roadlessness, I had reached the town of Chernyshevsk, which boasted both a 'hotel' (some guy was renting out beds in his house) and a mechanic - as the rear left tire was once again making contact with the body of the car and it was already 3 in the afternoon, I figured it was a perfectly good place to spend the night. The next morning, I woke up to discover that the car was now covered in ice:



then proceeded to explore a bit of Chernyshevsk... it's not what I would call a remarkable town:


Remember the 1980 Olympics in Moscow? Well, probably not, most of the West did boycott them... but Chernyshevsk remembers!

I don't have a witty caption for this one - this is just what a small town in the middle of nowhere, Russia looks like...


Finally settling on a mechanic who adjusted the suspension a little more - enough so that the wheel was no longer making contact with the fender (most of the time).




CTO does not mean Chief Technical Officer in Russian - it's a service station sign. The car in the fence is clearly a failed repair job...

The cat seemed rather fond of the mini...


At this point, I took stock of the state of the mini, and found that having had a little more free time here in Russia, I'd been able to get it into a remarkably decent shape (I call it the mini Renaissance):

Ulan Ude:
- bent rim on the spare tire fixed: first time since Western Kazakhstan spare is fully functional
- battery replaced: first time since Western Kazakhstan car starts consistently (knock on wood). To be entirely honest, most of the time, the car wouldn't start because there was a wire loose on the ignition coil, which we fixed back in Altai, Mongolia... But the battery gave up only a few days later, and I was right back to recruiting people on the street to help push start

Chita:
- gas gauge fixed (sender unit replaced): first time since Romania I have a functional fuel gauge
- horn replaced: first time since Mongolia (Bayanhogor-Arvaiheer?) my horn works. And by 'works,' I mean exists as it had actually fallen out somewhere in the Mongolian steppe...
- emergency singals fixed (blinkers still don't work): first time since France, I think?
- fuel fitler installed: first time ever... even though I'd tried back near Krasnodar, Russia, but that installation failed.
- Daisy Cutters sticker replaced: 1st time since Crimea, Ukraine it looks good (spares stolen in Krakow). Turns out you can get proper stickers made here in Chita quite cheaply...


That would be this sticker, the logo from one of my hockey teams back in Seattle. I didn't have the time to make a proper sticker out of it, instead having only basic paper stickers. Getting the car washed in Ukraine, finally destroyed the original - I had planned ahead by making a few spare paper stickers, but those were stolen when the car was broken into in Krakow...


Chernyshevsk:
- bought stereo in Chita, installed it here: 1st time since Krakow, the mini has a stereo! 1st time ever it has a functioning AUX input (for those who recall the fancy $30 stereo we purchased in Olgiy, Mongolia, I can report that the AUX input on it wasn't actually connected to anything)
- fix driver side lock: first time since Hovd(?), Mongolia both doors can be locked from outside
- fix glove compartment: first time since Eastern Kazakhstan/Western Mongolia it actually closes. This one probably won't last...
- re-install passenger side fan vent (using duct tape of couse): 1st time since Western Kazakhstan it's in place
- install fog lights (purchased prior to leaving Ulaan Baatar): 1st time, period... But this is really just accessorizing...



So, of course, I was feeling reasonably good about things at this point, and was all set to tackle the next ugly stretch of road East the following morning (I'd been told it would be even worse than the stretch I'd covered to get there), when fates intervened rather bluntly by virtue of having my wallet stolen that evening... I recall Cyrus complaining that when he left his wallet at a gas station back in Greece, his major regret was losing the wallet itself... I had no such aesthetic qualms - I was now stuck in the middle of Russian Far East without my ATM card (or my credit cards for that matter... not that, say, Chernyshevsk accepted those). So after spending (wasting?) an entire day talking to the local police, where a perfectly nice lady named Svetlana assured me that it was just a matter of time until they found all of my things, I figured I had no choice but to head back to the relative metropolis of Chita, where I could wait in the, once again, relative comfort of Hotel Arcadia for my cards to get replaced and shipped out here. Just as an aside, over a week later, I haven't heard anything from Svetlana or anyone else at the Chernyshevsk police station... I ain't holding my breath, as the saying goes...

The road back to Chita was fairly unremarkable until I was less than 30km away from the city, and apparently my subconscious chose to remind me that I really had noone but myself to blaim for getting stuck out here: as I was futzing with my iPod, now plugged into the newly installed Lada-brand stereo, I looked away from the road just long enough to have my right tires go onto the shoulder... Not quite sure if the following was a result of hitting one of the rocks strewn across the shoulder, or just swerving back onto the pavemenet, but the next thing I heard was a rather tragic snap, and the next discovery I made was that the rear right tire was now wedged right up against the fender and really in no mood whatsoever to spin... After briefly reviewing my options (no cell phone coverage, 30km away from Chita, 7PM, so getting dark and cold rather quickly), I figured I needed some help, so the third car I had flagged down turned out to be a guy in a pickup truck who did plenty of repairs himself - in fairly short order, we had found the piece that had snapped, had the wheel marginally closer to being back in place, and had wedged a piece of wood into the suspension to try and keep it there (a good Russian mechanic, of course, has an axe in his toolkit, and is happy to chop down a small sappling by the side of the road to make a suspension wedge out of). So I went on to spend the next two hours limping back into town (good thing, my emergency lights had been fixed)... and finalizing the plan for shipping the car to Vladivostok instead of driving it.

One last thing of interest about the trip - back in Ulaan Baatar, I'd been warned that the Chita police were known to be difficult to deal with... So far, I'm pleased to report that I have not had any trouble (knock on wood some more...) - in fact I've been pulled over twice so far: on the way to Ulan Ude, the cop asked me where I was going to and from, then sent me on my way wishing me good luck. The police checkpoint on the way out of Chita had also stopped me - this guy, I talked with for a few minutes, he then pulled out his cellphone, took a picture of the car, gave me a full scouting report on the upcoming road, and wished me luck on the way. Coming back to Chita, the same guy was there again (with two friends this time), so, this time, I stopped to chat for a few minutes... Upon hearing that I was planning to ship the car to Vladivostok, they suggested that a truck would be far cheaper than a train and offered to pull a truck over and arrange everything for me if I wanted to just come back by their checkpoint when I was ready to head out of town... All in all, so far so good with the Chita police forces!

Since being back in Chita, I haven't had a whole lot to do. The car's gone back to the same mechanic - they were excited to see me again. Replaced the axle that I had snapped in the rear suspension (after removing the supporting wooden wedge!) and recommended a company that could take care of the shipping. In fact, they're a good bunch of guys, so we've since gone out for a few drinks, been to one of their mother's birthday party, and have gone fishing at a nearby lake (where no fish was caught, but I rather thoroughly enjoyed spending an afternoon out by the lake). I've also been invited to dinner by one of the guys working for the shipping company, so that's in the plans for a few days from now.


The guys at this repair station, also like the mini. Much like every other repair station along the way so far. Well except for Zoran back in London, perhaps... but he's since come around upon hearing that I've actually managed to make it to Mongolia.

Seems like about the right size car for the kid, doesn't it?

At the birthday party...


I really ought to have pictures of the lake too... but, sadly, I forgot to charge my camera the night before. So, let's just say it was a beautiful, sunny autumn day by a lake in the Russian countryside, surrounded by trees with their leaves turning bright yellow and red colors, a few cows roaming around, and an occasional Moskvitch (old Soviet car, no longer in production) carcass sitting in the middle of the field, just to remind you that this is still Russia! In fact, here's a couple of good pictures of a different lake and countryside on the way from Ulan Ude to Chita:





All in all, I've been finding ways to keep myself entertained while stuck out here, but it really is time to get moving again. My replacement cards are now at the Moscow DHL station, so hopefully, they'll be arriving in Chita before the end of the week, at which point, I'll be getting on a train to head towards Vladivostok and be re-united with the mini. The trucks should be arriving there by this Friday. I've recently learned to not put any particularly excessive amount of trust into the people I deal with out here, but the fact that I have not yet paid for the shipping, makes me think that I am likely to see the car again, as collecting the 7,000 Rubles from me will be much easier than trying to deal with the Russian customs to get the car even semi-legally imported into Russia in the name of somebody other than myself...

And before we leave you, a few rather amusing sites I've found in Chita:

The Lonely Planet, Russia actually notes the 'Huge Green Pipe' on its Chita map... so, I guess it must be an attraction.

Go Vegan? In Chita? In English? One of the odder signs I've seen anywhere I've been in the past year...

This is a store that purports to sells consumer appliances. Those familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, however, will not that the name of the store spells out 'STALKER.' I guess you'll be seeing a lot more of the store employees if you decide to purchase one of their appliances?

4 comments:

b mathew said...

Great story! Btw, how did your wallet get stolen, was it a pickpocket?

Jimi said...

Hi Alex keep on going mate..

Jimi said...

Mate i'm really excited of whats going on with your rear suspension. The rear suspension is very simple whats going on with yours?? please send me a couple of fotos from underneath the car to see whats going on and in big resolution if possible..

Alex said...

I'm pretty sure the part you're really like to see is what happened to the rear right on the way back to Chita... but that's been fixed and I didn't get a picture. The problem that's left (rear left rubs against the body a little) is really not at all spectacular.

I'll eventually send you a photo of the front left - you'll really enjoy that one!