Wednesday, June 27, 2007
done well in advance of us starting our Tour Europa on Tuesday, has
allowed us to relax and enjoy the countryside.
We headed from Hamburg to the German West Coast and spent one night in
Busum, and the next night in Husum, both seaside resort/port towns and
very pretty. In Busum we borrowed some bikes and spent the morning
peddling around the town. Everyone seems to own a bike, as the countryside
is so flat it is the ideal way to get around.
From there we headed into Denmark and spent a few days with the Toft's in
Hojmark. We first met Jens and Karin Toft in 2000 when Lang was on his
Churchill Scholarship trip, looking at Aviation Museums throughout Europe.
Since then Jen's son Povl has visited us in Brisbane when he was
organising the ferrying a Shorts 360 aircraft back to Denmark. The whole
family are keen pilots and Jens is a collector of all things mechanical.
Lang is in his element here checking out the fabulous collection of cars,
motorbikes, aircraft and weapons.
Jens was a founding member of the Denmark "Flying" Museum at nearby
Stauning which has a newly established building also containing much of
the Danish Airforce Museum collection. It is a very impressive collection
of gliders, vintage aircraft, jet fighters and helicopters dating from
1911 to 2000.
On Saturday night, we went with Jens and Karin and their two
granddaughters Victoria and Claire, to a midsummer celebration. All over
the countryside on the 23rd June they light huge bonfires after the sun
has set and burn the witch. This festivity has pagan origins, and the
bonfire we went to was on the site of a Viking fortress.
On Sunday night we had a very pleasant evening at Povl's home with his
wife Deidre and their two daughters.
After an interview with the local newspaper we left Toft's late on Monday
morning and drove to their cousins farm near Odense. Vgan Rasmussen has a
small private museum with displays of cars, aircraft, motor bikes and
scooters. In 1968, he rode a Vespa motor scooter around the world. It took
him 14 months, 4 of which were spent driving a Mr Whippy van in Australia.
A local TV channel did an interview with us while we were at Jens and
Karin's place. The link to this is
Something I forgot to mention about Poland were the storks nesting on top
of light poles. It seems unique to Poland and the nests are very big and
very symmetrical. Most of the chicks we saw seemed as if they were fairly
mature and not far off flying.
While we were crossing Siberia I was always on the lookout for the
migratory birds that fly from there each year to the river area close to
our house at Dohles Rocks. I am continually amazed by their ability to do
such a trip, I think by comparison it leaves ours looking very tame.
Today we met up with nine Fiat 500's from Denmark, just outside Kolding.
We came in convoy in the pouring rain, to Kiel and we have opted for a
hotel tonight rather than set up a tent in the rain. So much for the tough
Australians! (We have just noticed a couple of the Danish Fiats coming in
to the hotel car park also)
Saturday, June 23, 2007
As Bev has already mentioned we decided to do a run directly to Hamburg to
have all the necessary work completed on the car before TourEuropa from
Kiel to Garlenda commences on the 27th June. Quite a number of people
suggested Torsten Hanenkamp and he quickly replied to my email that he
could fit the Bambino into his schedule.
We arrived at Torsten's new workshop about 0830 and were met by a display
of about 40 FIAT 500 engines neatly arranged on pallets. Strangely,
although Torsten is a FIAT enthusiast and carries tons of spares
(particularly for 500 and 600 models) this is not his main business. He is
a specialist automotive engineer and I was surprised to see engines that I
recognized from Australia. Torsten is world renowned for his crankshaft
and camshaft expertise and there on the bench were crankshafts from
Australian Holden (GM) Commodore V8 Racing teams.
Torsten, assisted by his Italian mechanic, Francesco, and I set to work to
undo all the Russian road damage to the little car. The engine and gearbox
were pulled out (a 10 minute job on a Fiat 500). Francesco removed the welded axle then, after
thoroughly checking and adjusting the combined differential/gearbox unit,
fitted new axles to both sides. The left side was badly worn and would
soon have followed the right side in failure.
Everything we looked at seemed to be added to the list as bent, misaligned
and damaged items were discovered. The front end was particularly bad with
all the new rubber bushes fitted in Australia almost flogged out. The
right front axle unit with the Russian replacement kingpin fitted was
found to be bent and had to be replaced in total. I had become so used to
the car as it was I did not realize it drove like a badly set up
supermarket shopping trolley. It now steers as well as a Formula One
Ferrari – well almost!
I patched the hole in the floor under the driver's seat. It was big enough
to put your fist through and was the result of coming down hard on a large
rock hidden at the bottom of a mud hole on the Vladivostok "Highway".
As you can imagine, Torsten does not accept second best and everything was
measured, checked and tested. No nuts were used a second time and every
bolt removed had new locking nuts fitted. Work continued almost non-stop
from 0830 to 1100 that night. There was a short break while the workshop
was tidied up for the arrival of a classic car magazine journalist then,
after photos and interviews, back to work. Torsten's wife, Natasha, in
between running kids to school and working full-time at her job at the
local Porsche dealer kept up the coffee supply.
Early the next day we began again and had just about finished when a
second group of car magazine journalists and photographers arrived. The 90
minute shoot turned into 5 hours much of it with me in the Bambino and
Natasha in her Gardineira (Bambino station wagon) driving wildly side by
side down narrow tree-lined roadways behind the cameraman standing in the
sun-roof of a Mini taking "action shots".
We finally got away in pouring rain about 6.00pm. I nearly fell over when
I asked Torsten for the bill, expecting that 30 man-hours in a
world-renowned engineering shop would involve many zeros. He said "It is a
great project and I am happy to be involved, consider it my contribution!"
All I can say is that if you want top quality work on ANYTHING from
Bambinos to first-class racing machines by someone who will listen to what
you want and work quickly and accurately you can not go past Torsten
Hanenkamp at IL MOTORE in Hamburg.
There was no wasteful work carried out on the car and as we went over
every nut and bolt Torsten and I discussed its condition and made a
decision based on "Will it get the car another 20,000km on good roads or
not?" There was no thought of doing any sort of restoration or
just-in-case replacement. If it is working and not making strange noises
it stays. Most of the FIAT is still as it originally left Australia and
this tough little car should carry us through OK.
The front tyres are getting worn from the misaligned front end but it was
decided to press on with them all the way to Italy to finish them off and
new tyres would be fitted with new wheels. The wheels are bent beyond
repair by rocks and potholes and although they are a little 'lumpy' on
really smooth road they are safe enough for another 1,500km.
In conclusion, although the car has minor body problems from excessive
abuse it is now probably in better mechanical condition than it was at the
start. We have a few weeks of driving in FIAT country to confirm all the
work that has been done before launching off into the "FIAT Desert" of
North America where Bambino experts and parts are hard to find.
I still think the Bambino is an amazing little car and the FIAT AUSTRALIA
writing across the front and map of the world on the bonnet (hood) creates
constant inquiry about a tiny machine doing something fairly unusual.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
picturesque lake area in Poland we headed for Gdansk, a beautiful old city
on the Baltic Sea. Along the way we called into Fiat Service centres, and
in Gdansk they rang everywhere and were only able to come up with a
Lang made a request to the Fiat 500 contacts we had in Europe and a flood
of help came back. As a consequence we are now in Rellingen, a suburb of
Hamburg at the workshop of Torsten Hanekamp, and judging by the Fiats in
his yard and the stacks of spare parts we are in the best place possible.
Enroute we had another night in Poland at a rather crass seaside resort
town, Mielno. I would have loved to spend more time in Poland as it is a
fascinating country with the most incredible history. For hundreds of
years the whole country was non-existent, and now it appears as a thriving
very modern country. We crossed the border with no hassle into Germany at
Szczecin, and then straight down the wonderfully smooth autobahn into
Hamburg. The autobahns are pretty boring but a very efficient way to cross
the country quickly.
The work was started on the car first thing Wednesday morning and unlike
its two elderly owners our little bambino (now we are in Europe I can only
think of it as our "Bambino") has had a full going over with nothing left
to chance. I will leave it to Lang to detail the work done but I know we
will depart here with the car in the best condition possible for the rest
of the trip.
I know Lang feels we have got over our biggest hurdle so far, if not the
biggest of the whole trip. Having made it to Germany under our own power
we now have a car that will be more reliable and he understands better.
After the pounding through Russia we knew anything could break at any
At Torsten's workshop there are a number of people preparing their 500's
for he trip to Italy, and the festivities in Milan and Garlenda.
Yesterday while the work was underway I took the opportunity to go into
Hamburg on the train. I did the tourist thing and did a two hour double
decker bus tour of the city. In a short space of time it is the best way
to see and get he feel of a city. The city is shaped by water. Three
rivers – the Elbe, the Alster and the Bille, traverse it, as does a grid
of narrow canals called Fleete. The port is huge –one of the largest in
Every Sunday since 1703 in St Pauli on the banks of the Elbe there has
been a Fish Market where you can buy not only all types of fish but
flowers, fruit and vegetables. Hamburg's Reeperbahn is a world famous red
light district that the Lonely Planet describes as becoming gentrified. It
is a mixture of restaurants, pubs, cafes, bars, sex clubs and variety
acts, something for everyone.
We will be leaving Hamburg this afternoon and as we have until the 27th to
be in Kiel, which at present is only 77kms up the road, we have decided to
detour into Denmark to visit some friends. The Danish 500 club have
invited us to join them to start the tour on the 26th.
We are getting lots of well wishes from clubs and individuals around
Europe, so are really looking forward to the trip into Italy next week,
and the opportunity of meeting up with everyone.
Monday, June 18, 2007
The speedo on the Bambino just clicked over 11,000 kilometres in less than
3 weeks. This has been nearly all in Russia on pretty terrible roads for
most of the way. Cruise speed on the up-until-now rare smooth roads is
80kph and maximum speed for passing is 85kph so there have been a LOT of
hours on the road.
As previously mentioned, the FIAT 500 has been fighting seriously above
its weight class and has been treated brutally. The atrocious Russian
roads have given the suspension and drive-train a very hard time.
Apart from the broken kingpin, the front transverse spring has been
flattened and the front wheels now sit sloping in at the top instead of
out as normal. It took me quite a number of gradual adjustments, using
trial and error, to the tie-rods to get the toe-in set up to cater for the
weird camber. I have become expert in detecting the slightest uneven wear
on the front tyres and think they can be saved until Garlenda in Italy
before replacement for the American section. Of course the rear tyres are
our Russian replacements for the two destroyed during the broken kingpin
drama on the Vladivostok road. Despite the Russians turning their noses up
at their own product they seem to be soldiering on valiantly with no sign
Amazingly the hardest worked items- the shock absorbers – are still
working perfectly. I have to remind myself constantly that the Bambino is
loaded far in excess of manufacturer's limits and all warranties are null
and void. There was probably something in the original warranty about
excessive abuse of the vehicle and off-road driving.
The hard work put in once again by Angelo in Brisbane, assisted by his
young apprentice Damien, has certainly paid off in the heart of the car.
Hours spent fitting metal lock tabs to every conceivable nut and bolt,
adding nylock nuts and even drilling and lock-wiring a number has resulted
in NOT ONE nut or bolt needing tightening after hundreds of miles of
corrugations (washboard) and constant violent pounding through pot-holes.
For those familiar with Bambinos this is a miracle.
The engine is just amazing. It has not missed a beat (apart from a fuel
line coming off the pump and a rock jammed in the fan pulley). I did
engine and gearbox oil changes in Chita after about 5,000km on the rough
road and will do one again in Poland after another 6,500km. Despite
recommendations I decided not to touch the engine – "If it ain't broke
don't fix it!" It is still operating on its original points, plugs and
condenser and tappet settings. It starts instantly hot or cold and is
still producing 20 massive horsepower. I will do all the changes at our
major service in Poland.
The oil is still like honey after well over 5,000km since Chita and I have
just used the last of a 1-litre oil bottle. I would say, by any standards,
that is amazing reliability and performance out of a seriously overworked
baby engine. The engine was not new or totally overhauled to start with.
Despite the steering geometry being "modified' from original by
circumstances, the car drives very well indeed. On rough surfaces the
short wheelbase tends to make it steer like a go-cart but we have never
had any serious situations and after 10 or 12 hours on the road we arrive
still in reasonably good humour.
An excellent decision was the fitting of oil temperature, oil pressure and
ammeter gauges. The original lights give you notice that the priest should
be called for the last rites. The gauges give lots of information on
impending failure and there is an opportunity to do something before major
damage. It is interesting how outside air temperature affects the oil
temperature and how quickly it rises and falls after a climb up a long
hill. Of course the oil pressure moves up and down with the temperature
(multi-grade oils are a bit of an over rated item and don't seem to
compensate for temperature much better than the old single grade). The
enlarged aluminium oil pan with extra capacity and cooling relieves much
of the temperature extremes that must exist with the original small oil
When I refueled this morning it was of a brand I had not used before
(there are many in Russia). I filled with 96 octane. We have been using
95-98 octane fuel all the way where available just to allow a bit of
leeway with the timing and maybe help the engine a little. There is no
discernable performance difference over the usual 92 octane found
everywhere. Fuel prices are around 65 US cents a litre.
I noticed the colour to be a strange yellow but did not think anything of
it. Within a few minutes the oil temperature had climbed to around 100 deg
C, way above the normal 70-80 deg. I tried to think of all the reasons
(timing, valves, leaking head gasket, blocked air filter) but kept coming
back to the far too coincidental refuel.
As soon as half a tank had been used I refueled again and the temperature
dropped to 90 deg. Obviously the fuel was the problem as the contaminated
(probably with diesel) tank dropped its effect when diluted. I ran this
second tank almost dry then, after refueling again, I saw temperatures
back at their old mark. It would have been impossible to even know
temperatures were high and that there was a problem with warning lights
A few small jobs need doing in Poland. Every wheel rim is slightly bent
from hitting pot holes or rocks. Both door locks have broken (they were
cracked when the car was purchased and then welded but the constant
pounding has caused them to fall apart). The previously mentioned axle
drive flange, temporarily welded, will have to be replaced. Unfortunately
the axle will have to be cut to get it out now so that will be new also.
General impression at this stage – an amazing little car!
the world. We left Russia after 23 days. Crossing the border into the EU
frees us up from a lot of constraints with visas and car insurance, both
of which will expire after one month and would not be renewed easily. This
was our own doing but longer is always more costly.
We have found Russia is a country bound by rules and regulations leaving
no room for any initiative or flexibility. On the other hand it is a
country of very friendly, generous people, and we leave it having had
some very wonderful experiences.
During our drive east to west we have crossed 7 time zones so I guess that
in itself shows the distance traveled. The changes in time have worked to
our advantage, as at the end of a long day you suddenly realise you can
put your watch back an hour. Also the long daylight hours are great when
you are travelling. During summer in St Petersburg the White Night Arts
Festival lasts the whole of June.
It has been very worthwhile taking the time to learn the Cyrillic
alphabet. There are six letters that are the same as ours, others that are
familiar, for example r is g, h is n, p is r and then they use symbols
that are unfamiliar to us, rather like the Greek alphabet.
The food is great at the truck stops along the roadside, and again to
learn how to say a few of the basic dishes means you are not faced with an
Since being here two years ago inflation is very noticeable, as everything
seems to have doubled in price. Even across Siberia the prices of hotels
were more expensive than we would pay at home. Everywhere we have been has
been clean even if it has been pretty dilapidated. Not the same can be
said for the toilets, which are basic to say the least, but as you dare not touch anything are probably more hygienic than our western style. A few tips are to wear enclosed
shoes, not to take anything loose in your hand and wet wipes are
definitely a travel necessity.
From Kazan we did a 500+ day and spent the night in Vladimir. Here we
started to see for the first time tour buses. From there it was only 170
kms to the outskirts of Moscow on a four lane divided road. We had
decided to not visit Moscow but drive around the ring road. The 43 kms
took one and half hours on a clogged twelve lane divided road.
That night we stayed in Velikye Luki a town 162kms before the border.
Driving off the highway we thought it was just going into a small village
but it was quite large town and they had just hosted a hot air balloon
festival with entrants from all over Europe.
On Saturday we arrived at the border at 10am in pouring rain and proceeded
from one booth to the next. I have no idea what takes the time but it was
two and a half hours later that we found ourselves in Latvia. I don't
know how the truck drivers cope as on the Latvian side we drove for at
least four kms past a line of stationary trucks waiting to be processed,
and then we turned and still did not see the end of the line.
The road surface improves immediately, and the whole countryside takes on
a more European look. We drove to the next border with Lithuania in two
and three quarter hours and although at each crossing you are required to
show your passports and the car's papers there was no hold up. All these
Baltic countries have been members of the EU since 2004 but they still
operate with their own currency.
On Saturday night we stayed in Kaunus the second largest city in Lithuania
and from there did a short run into Poland. We made a beeline for a resort
town, Gizycko that we stayed in two years ago. It is on large lake and has
a real holiday atmosphere. It was a beautiful sunny day so we bought the
makings of a picnic and sat on the side of the canal to eat lunch and
watch the locals sail by in their yachts.
From here we are definitely going to take things a little easier. Lang
spent a few hours replacing spark plugs, fan belts etc on the car but we
now must look for somewhere to do the major work of repairing the
temporary fix on the axle.
Friday, June 15, 2007
for shorter days, but Lang is a concerned about our temporary fix on the
car and wants to get to Poland where they have Niki parts and a better
understanding of Fiats. We should cross the border into Latvia on
I am trying to type this on my knee as we drive along as so far today the
roads are a little better. From Ekaterinaburg you get sections of road
where you think things are going to improve and then it all turns to worms
We have now left the Urals and have come into the Volga region which
extends from the Urals to Moscow. Just out of Ekaterinaburg we crossed
from the continent of Asia into Europe. This is identified by an
impressive roadside border marker, as well as the ancient league marker on
a black and white striped pole.
Kazan, where we were last night, is situated on the Volga and we drove
over this majestic river going into the city and out again this morning.
Kazan has quite a different atmosphere to the other Russian cities we have
already traveled through. It has a more European look, and sadly the first
McDonalds we have encountered, but also a strong Asian link because of the
The Tartars were Mongolian invaders dating back to the days of Genghis
Khan, and even today they have their own language and flag, which flies
beside the Russian flag on most buildings. The town is famous for the
historic kremlin situated on the banks of the Volga with spectacular blue
and white painted churches with gold domes all surrounded by a high white
wall. Throughout the town there are also many beautiful mosques.
It was a cold rainy afternoon when we got to the hotel in Perm. While Lang
was unpacking the car a young girl who could speak English was asking
about our trip and offered to come back in the evening to show us around.
The whole town was in party mode as not only was it a holiday for Russian
Independence Day but also the town's birthday.
Perm is known as an industrial town that not many foreigners visit.
Svetlana, Mikhail, and their friend Rosa showed us the river Kama and
some lovely buildings and parks and the inevitable imposing Lenin statue.
Later they took us to a Tartar restaurant where we reclined on cushions
under silk drapes. They explained the town was only very young, a few
centuries old, which makes you laugh when you come from Australia. Perm,
along with other Eastern Russian cities, was a closed city during
communism as most had sensitive military installations and were kept
While in Perm we caught up with Kip and Carmen, Annabelle and Sebastian
the English people who are doing the Peking Paris route in their Austin
7's. We envied their "huge" 750cc engines but not their exposed driving
positions. They had had a miserable few days in their open vehicles but as
we left them in our wake the weather has improved.
Lang has been doing most of the driving while we are on these terrible
roads. He prefers to drive and I am a happy passenger. I believe, after
years of experience, it is better to be sympathetic rather than guilty if
something happens to Malysh while we are so isolated. Actually the
passenger does have the job of indicating if we can pass and yes, we do
really pass many vehicles. Driving a right-hand-drive car has its
drawbacks, although it is not uncommon here in Russia with so many
imported cars from Japan.
We are an obvious target for the police at the regular roadside stations,
and get pulled up many times a day. Sometimes they go through all our
paperwork minutely or just read the explanation of our trip we have
written in Russian and wave us on. Twice Lang has been stopped and a radar
gun waved in his face with animated Russian accusations. Each time after
politely saying we do not speak Russian they have got frustrated and told
us to go.
We have only had one attempt at police extortion when, at one of the many
checkpoints Lang was taken from the car for the first time into the police
building. He was told he had a headlight out (they actually were both out
as they were not turned on!) and there was a "serious" offence. When asked
if he wanted money the policeman wrote down 50 rubles ($2.50). Lang told him – in
front of 3 of his mates – that he was a crook and shyster and came out to
the car to get the money. Soon the cop also came out laughing and back slapping
saying he had just read the Russian translation of our trip details and it
was all just a joke (and please don't put it in the book).
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
be the last of our marathon drives. We have left Siberia and entered the
Urals, which are a low range of mountains stretching north south for
2,000kms. For centuries they have been vital to Russia as a source of
metals and minerals and have given rise to a number of industrial cities
such as Ekateringburg and Perm, which will be our next overnight stop.
Ekateringburg is probably most famous as the place where Tsar Nicholas 11
and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. In the city there
are many magnificent statues, museums and variety of architecture. The
Church of Blood dominates and has been built to honour the Romanov family,
now elevated to the status of saints.
Last Saturday in Omsk we had another nice encounter. On Friday I had been
talking to a young Russian, Dimitry, who had seen the car and wanted to
know about our travels. He had been learning English for only 8 months and
we were able to have quite a passable conversation together. Before
leaving he told me he was a chef and would we like to come to the
restaurant where he worked for lunch the next day, to try some Russian
cuisine. In the morning he rang the hotel to make sure we were still
coming. Dimitry was at the door to greet us and ushered us into a small
side room with lovely décor and a beautifully set table for two. In the
main part of the restaurant there was a wedding reception in progress so
we were able to peek at the proceedings.
We left it to Dimitry to decide the ordering and after four courses and a
bottle of wine we were very well sated. He waited on us very attentively
and we found out during the meal that this was actually his day off, and
he was doing this as a special favor. The meal was not overly expensive,
nothing compared to the experience
Less than half an hour after leaving Omsk early on Sunday morning they
was a loud CRUNCH and we stopped with Lang saying this is serious ******!
He thought we had broken an axle, or done something to the gearbox. We
pushed the car off the road onto the footpath and he jacked it up and when
he pulled it apart found it was the splines on the axle drive shaft
completely worn down. A taxi driver pulled up and Lang went off with him
to try to find a workshop. Firstly one that was open on a Sunday, and
secondly understood what was needed.
I stayed with the car and over the next five hours encountered all types of people trying to help. Most
seemed incredulous that a woman was on her own and obviously there was a
serious problem. One chap who had had his fair share of vodka kept patting
me and then presented me with some wildflowers. Lang arrived back in the
same taxi, a tow truck had been organised and off we all went to a Toyota
repair shop. When I say all, it was a whole convoy of adopted protectors
who had been on their mobile phones finding some English speaking friends
to join in.
At the workshop tools were downed and we got preferential treatment, going
straight up on a hoist for a quick repair. So we could stay mobile and not
sit waiting days for a new part, they welded the axle directly to the
drive flange on the wheel. Lang decided that was acceptable to get us to
Poland where repairs and parts are available. We are hoping the rubber
drive blocks take up the movement originally provided by the now welded
spines and do not put too much strain on the gearbox.
We had a noisy farewell with lots of cheering and photos when at 2pm and
we were on the road again and made the 320kms to Ishim for an over night
stop before today's run into Ekaterinaberg.
Tonight we are meeting up with Sergey and Dasha Starkov. They are a young
local couple who we met by chance at a restaurant in Ekateringburg in
2005. They both speak excellent english and became our guides through the
city while the ABC did their filming for the Peking Paris documentary.
Also today we passed the two Austin 7's from the UK doing Peking Paris and
tonight we are staying in the same hotel. It was raining most of today and
we were snug in our little Malysh while they were freezing in their small
Saturday, June 9, 2007
making good time. Omsk is such a pretty place here on the river Irysh, that
we have decided to have our first lay-day since being on the road.
I am looking out our hotel window at barges going down the river, Lang in
the carpark doing a few things on the car and over the road, a stream of
limousines arriving almost every 10 minutes to what I presume must be a
registry office with bridal parties in all their finery. So far in a few
hours I have seen about twenty brides.
The weather is cool but fine, much like we have experienced most days since getting
Since starting our trip the scenery has been lovely. Siberia's taiga is the
worlds largest forest, made up of fir, pine, larch and spruce trees. This
gives way to the steppe where everything looks green and lush.We are
seeing it in spring with all the new green growth.
Two little squirrels are the only native animals we have seen so far, but
plenty of domestic animals. Most families in the villages own a cow that
they milk each day. Olga milked their cow both night and morning while we
were there and there were also some hens in the barn.
We are having a discussion on the car's name. Since it has been so
faithful, the name Red Rodent does not seem endearing enough. Everyone
here in Russia comes up and says "malenkiy" which means little or "malysh"
which is the Russian "little one" equivilent to Bambino. So while in Russia we have
adopted these names.
On the trip we have our mascot Bertie the Brooklands Bear with us. Bertie
was given to Lang and Peter by Prince Michael of Kent at the start of the
Vimy trip. Bertie has been on every trip since. At one stage Prince
Michael asked for him back to go on one of his trips but we decided Bertie
was ours and we applied to Brooklands and we now have his official
adoption papers. He still wears his flying suit that was made by Gieve and
Hawke of 1 Saville Row, London.
500kms for the day. When we arrived we saw an Austin 7 in the car park of
the hotel, and another rolled in a few hours later. These cars belong to
two British couples who are doing the Peking Paris route. Also at the
hotel are the British organisers for the 120 car strong Peking Paris
Rally. They are due in to town late today. Our Itala is part of the group,
doing the trip for the second time. It will be probably wise to stay ahead
of this gaggle as they will book out the towns as they come through.
The last few days have been very special. Firstly, we had a lovely night
at Sergey's apartment in Irkutsk. We met with his wife Olga their two
young daughters, Sergey's mother and Nadia who was also on our Peking
Paris trip. Both Sergey and Nadia speak perfect English so we had a great catch up
and thank them very much for their hospitality.
From Irkutsk we actually were on better roads and did a long 800km day to
Kansk. Lang had been worried that since our front end trouble the front
tyres had been scrubbed down and he had been rotating them. Next morning
we went into Krasnoyarsk and started looking for tyre places. After many
hours and not much luck we found a place that sold us two a little wider
than the originals. On every little bump there was awful graunching as they
hit the mudguards, but we seemed to have no alternative. On driving out of
town we saw a tyre flea market with dozens of stalls with piles of tyres.
Amongst all of these we managed to get two the same as our originals, so
we abandoned our newly bought ones and had the new Russian tyres fitted
and away we zoomed.
Since doing the trip two years ago I have remained in touch with a number
of the wonderful people we met along the way. Any of you who have seen the
ABC Peking Paris documentary will remember Roman and his mother Olga who,
while we were camped one night, came out to our campsite with loads of
food and stayed with us around the camp fire laughing and singing, eating
and drinking. We had arranged to again call into their village on our way
As we were coming down the road in the afternoon there were two Fiat cars
on the roadside and we were flagged down by Leonid, Olga's husband
waving a Russian flag. We were escorted into the village where Olga was
waiting with a traditional cake that we had to break a piece off and eat
immediately. We were ushered inside and there was a table stacked with a
huge feast of home cooked goodies. For the next many hours we laughed and
sang and ate and drank.. As none of them speak English, Olga had invited
the English teacher from the local school and Valya was our interpreter,
during our stay. She was kept very busy but it made the whole visit so
much easier. Also present were their daughter Anna, and son Dimitry, a
neighbour Lena and Leonid's father. Unfortunately Roman was in the middle
of his exams at university in Krasnoyarsk and we missed seeing him.
Before we went to bed we went to Lena's house where we had the full-on
banya. Lang and Leonid went first and then Olga and Lena took me. I was
told to strip and given a robe then we entered the steam room where there
is a furnace heating rocks. As there is no running water there are urns
containing hot and cold water and with long handled ladles with which you
put warm water in a large basin. I shed the robe and commence washing.
They took over and I had my hair washed and was rubbed down with a looffa.
I was then instructed to lay on the wooden bench that had been cooled
with cold water and Olga took the bunch of birch leaves and hit me all
over with them. She would throw water on the rocks and make the leaves hot
in the steam and then repeat the process with cooler leaves. The heat was
like a sauna and I can see when it gets to –40 in the winter how wonderful
this ritual would be. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and after the
customary beer (I opted for tea) we were than more than ready for bed.
Again in the morning we had a huge breakfast and were sent off with bags
of food and drink for the road.
We were given loads of presents. Leonid who is a professional hunter
gave Lang a hunting knife and a mounted deers head. The mayor of the
village, Olga, visited us and gave us a traditional birch bark basket with
pine cones and pine nuts in it, and some local flags.
We were completely overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity we
received and this is a memory we will always treasure. Thank you very much
to the Khvidzevich family for such a wonderful experience.
A Fiat 500 is probably not the ideal vehicle to take on the 4,000km trip
from Vladivostok to Irkutsk along the new Trans-Siberian Highway. As an
indication it provides proof that if you have 4 wheels (or 2) of any
description the journey is possible.
The little Fiat was collected from the dock in Vladivostok after its
arrival from Australia with surprisingly little in the way of bureaucratic
drama. It was packed beyond any possible weight limit envisaged by Fiat
back in 1957. Short of Bev removing her G-string (which had already
replaced panties as a weight-saving measure) and the crew undergoing daily
laxative purging there was little we could do to lighten further.
Russian roads generally have excellent signs, much better than many
western countries, but unfortunately Vladivostok was the exception. On the
way out of town we detoured via the gates of a Mental Institution and the
car park of a chicken-plucking factory before finding the road to
I slipped up by not realizing the Asian influence on Far Eastern Russia
and the question "Is this the road to Khabarovsk?" will ALWAYS get a "yes"
response from someone wanting to tell you what you want to hear. The
correct method is to choose a group of 3 people and ask "Which way to
Khabarovsk?". You then select the direction from the three possible
offered solutions of the person with the most reliable appearance.
The 700-odd kilometres leading north to the large city of Khabarovsk was
quite a busy narrow highway. The sealed surface was mostly reasonable but
the usual pot-holed sections were ever present. About 50 kilometres of the
road were under repair. This is a defining feature of Russian roads as
there is absolutely no compunction by the road builders to facilitate
traffic flow past the work site.
A detour is built with one pass of a bulldozer – often many kilometres
long – and nothing further is done even if say, the bridge construction is
to take a year. The grader driver working 30 metres away from the detour
on the new works would absolutely not consider it his duty to run his
blade occasionally over the main traffic route. The result is lines of
cars grinding away in first gear at walking pace and quite large trucks
disappearing into pot-holes, never to be seen again!
We found the little Fiat to have some advantages in this rough going with
the wheels only a metre apart and good suspension travel. Unfortunately
the weight caused regular bottoming on the spring bump-stops despite our
most cautious efforts. A plus to the low speed was a fuel consumption of
around 20k/l or 60mpg. The little car with its Australian numberplates was
the constant subject of tooting and waving. It always draws a crowd at any
We have found that the roads often have many kilometres of no-passing
lines on dead straight sections. The reasons for this are known only to
God and Russian road engineers! After being caught on a stream of traffic
behind a slow moving truck you finally get a break just in time to be
pulled over in a random check of car papers by one of the regular police
posts. Of course they see our strange little car coming down the road and
we are 100% unlucky to be "randomly" pulled over.
The farce goes on for about 5 minutes while they look at your
International Driver's Licence upside down (not one as yet has found the
folding back page which has photo and identification details – they just
study the Chinese, French, German and Arabic explanation pages and hand it
back). A further couple of minutes are wasted while all traffic is stopped
so the entire police unit can gather around the car for a group photo.
Meanwhile the truck you fought so hard to pass has wandered through the
checkpoint and you have to start all over again.
Anyhow we finally arrived in Khabarovsk after a fairly easy 12 or 13 hour
700km drive. It is a pretty tree-lined city on the huge Amur River (which
also forms the border with China). The Fiat went very well and we have
every confidence it will continue to do so. I am trying to keep it
conservative and 80kph seems a good easy speed and few roads will allow
more than this as the short wheelbase makes the car like a bucking bronco
on the undulating highway surfaces.
We are extremely pleased that an effort was made to replace the original
kindergarten chair perches provided by FIAT with second-hand Holden Barina
seats. Although cramped, both Bev and I are very comfortable for long
Leaving Khabarovsk over the 3 kilometre long Amur Bridge we now were
officially on "The Road". Amazingly there was not officially or
practically a road across Russia until 1994. Only a few years prior to
that only four wheel drives could make the crossing and then only during
very small weather periods of the year. Of course there were the gallant
few who had taken every description of vehicle and motorcycle through but
many finished up being towed to the nearest Trans-Siberian Railway stop
and placed on a train (that is if the vehicle was not just abandoned).
President Putin declared the road open in 2004 then hopped on his
helicopter and flew home. The road could not be considered "open" even 3
years later. It is just under 2,400km from Khabarovsk to Chita where the
main sealed road all the way to Moscow really begins. Of this distance,
around 1,800 km is still gravel, dirt and indeed, farm track.
Billions of dollars are being spent on the construction of the road. The
standard of alignment is very impressive and is being done to full western
freeway standards. Vast amounts of earth have been moved, tops of hills
shifted into valleys, hundreds of bridges constructed and work continues.
The seemingly small amount of machinery undertaking this work has
impressed me. But, on the other hand, there are no unions in Russia and
work goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week in 12 hour shifts. The
construction workers live in pretty basic conditions in small camps
alongside the road.
Having said the alignment impresses me, the same can not be said for the
completion. The base road sweeps through the countryside but the surface
is huge rocks, bulldozer tracks and holes a metre deep for hundreds of
kilometres at a time. Why they do not finish sections progressively has me
The surface creates problems for vehicles on a scale not seen before. For
hour after hour you crawl along in first or second gear, bouncing from
rock to rock, hole to hole. The noises coming from underneath our little
car were horrendous. One day we started at 5.00am and continued until
11.30pm (with an hour gained from a time change). During 18 hours actual
driving time the little Fiat covered 600km at an average speed of around
During the second-last day before Chita I noticed the steering becoming
very heavy (on those 50 metre sections smooth enough to get any feel). A
quick check revealed the right-hand front wheel leaning at an angle of
about 20 degrees. Jacking the car up I found the wheel could be rocked
75mm side to side at the top. I diagnosed that the bronze king-pin bushes had
completely collapsed but guessed that if we took it easy we could make it
into Chita. This is what we did but, after only a few hundred kilometres,
the new front tyres were totally scrubbed out from the gross wheel
The world's best bush mechanics, the Russians, removed the front wheel and
I took a deep breath! The kingpin itself had actually snapped in half.
Assuming the rigid pin was just flopping around in a large hole I had
pressed on, thinking that although loose, the wheel was totally secure to
the car. Once the pin had separated into two halves the possibility that
the front wheel would depart the vehicle was very real. We were very
Anyhow the boys found a suitable high-tensile bolt (of course no 1969 Fiat
500 parts are available in Chita) placed it on the lathe and produced a
new king-pin the equal of anything which has born a Fiat label. With a new
wheel alignment and the nearly bald front tyres placed on the rear until I
can find some new ones closer to Europe we are again sailing along.
The only other problems encountered were the fuel outlet from the fuel
pump coming adrift, a rock being caught in the fan belt, the spot-lights
falling off, the oil-temperature sender being smashed off the sump by a
rock and our fabulous AUS-500 number plate being crushed in a bottomless
Obviously this is written from a Fiat 500 point of view. Quite frankly I
could not think of a less suitable vehicle to be doing a trip over the
Siberian Highway unless it was a low-slung sports car. The care and
constant attention required while driving up to 18 hours a day made this
journey something of a marathon. Although we nursed our baby it was not
possible to avoid constant pounding and I am amazed that this little car
gave us such a good ride and came out as unscathed as it has. Now we are
back on "good" Russian highway it is driving as well as it was when we
The road is open to anyone willing to batter his or her vehicle. The
constant stream of late-model Japanese cars being driven from Vladivostok
to Moscow demonstrate this. Although these delivery drivers cover the cars
with tape, fasten extension boards to the mud-flaps to stop stone damage
and drive amazingly slowly on rough road their machines take a serious
battering. There has been a huge turn-around with the drivers in the two
years since we last drove in Russia. In 2005 the Vladivostok cars were
being driven at insane speeds, being involved in many, often fatal,
accidents and arriving in Moscow ready for sale as complete wrecks.
The solution was easy. The dealers who employ the drivers to pick up the
cars for the 2-week trip across Russia now take ALL damage out of the
driver's $500 wage. If the damage exceeds his wage the driver must pay the
difference to the dealer out of his own pocket. No wonder they now drive
them like their own car!
Anyone considering taking what is still one of the great adventure drives
of the world should not be put off by the conditions. The countryside is
beautiful, ranging from rolling grassland, to high hills, forests, rivers
and subsistence farming villages. Most of the country is similar to
NorthWest USA and Eastern Australia.
Fuel is available at regular intervals with 92 and 95 octane everywhere
and 98 octane at most spots. Of course diesel is available everywhere. As
the road improves small fuel stops are springing up and no vehicle
requires long-range tanks or extra fuel cans. The little huts which make
up the "truck stops" dot the road and fabulous blinnies (light pancakes)
are the breakfast highlight. Tasty soups, shashlicks and other food is on
hand no more than 50 kilometres apart.
A word should be said about the greatest highlight of Russian roads – the
fuel stop outdoor toilets. Enough description of these hellholes is
probably suggested by the thought that if you had a 5-kilogram bar of gold
in your back pocket and it dropped out while you were in the toilet, you
would not bother to retrieve it!
More will be written as the trip progresses.
Lang 4 June 2007
Monday, June 4, 2007
I left you last time in Chita, and Lang is at present doing a report on the car and roads so I will skip that only to say, I waited patiently at the hotel until 8pm thinking he was having all sorts of problem with the car which was true to some extent but when the work was finished the owner of the garage put on a meal for his staff and Lang was invited.
While I was at the internet dutifully doing a report and hence not contactable ( Lang had tried !) I ran into a fellow Queenslander - Ken Taylor who we first met in Vladivostok. Ken lives at Maleny and he is riding a motorbike across Russia and Europe to Ireland to visit his family. Needless to say he and I went out and had a meal, to celebrate surviving THE road.
From Chita on Sunday and on sealed roads again, but still of dubious condition in sections, we did 800kms, bypassing Ulan Ude and made it to a resort hotel on the edge of Lake Baikal. We had stayed in this particular place last time we came through.
Today we spent the first few hours taking everything out of the car and did a big repack. At Vladivostok we just jammed everything in, as it was cold and wet on our first day and we just went. Hence for the last week we have been living in the same clothes and rinsing out the essentials as need be.
Our main aim is to make as much headway as we can. Lang always said Irkutsk was our first big hurdle as from now on everything is a little more accessible. So having made it here puts us more than a third of the way across Russia. The two week delay with the shipping left time fairly tight and as we only have a tourist visa so now have until the 21st to get to the Latvian border.
We will post some photos when we get a chance. Today the scenery around the lake was beautiful with snow covered mountains in the background.
Saturday, June 2, 2007
remotest country on earth and enduring the worst road conditions I have
In 2004 President Putin declared open the section of road we have just
travelled from Vladivostok to Chita, so vehicles could drive with ease the
10,000kms from East to West. I will confirm that there is a road, with
hundreds of cars on it at any one time. The condition is unbelievable,
less than 20% is sealed and much of the unsealed parts are not maintained
The first day to Khabarovsk we covered 750kms in 13 hours and were quite
pleased with ourselves. We then did two more 13 hour days to Belogorsk and
then Skovorodino covering 650 then 550kms respectively. Next day we
decided to do a gut buster and were on the road for 18 hours - thank
heavens for long day light hours, and we covered 625km! This was a
section where we were back on the original unmaintained road? plus many kilometres under
construction with regular detours off into the shrubbery.
The whole road works program is the most massive undertaking and it will be many
more years until there is a beautiful sealed road the whole way. The
volume of traffic is huge as all the new trucks, buses and cars shipped
from Japan to Vladivostok use the roadway. The drivers put tape all over the cars for
protection and then travel in groups all the way through Chita or on to
Unfortunately the conditions took their toll on our bambino and we limped
into Chita at midday today and straight to a mechanic's workshop. I left
Lang and the car there after they discovered the front springs bent and a
Lang said he will elaborate in mechanics speak when he has some free time.
That part of the trip was not pleasent but incidents along the way make up
for so much and make travelling worthwhile.
At one place we were filling with fuel and asked a bystander where to get
some food. It was a case of follow me and we ended up at a little cake
shop and were served coffee and cake and the owner refused to take any
The third night we went into an small town where there was one gastinitsa
(hotel) but for some reason we had to wait until 9pm to see if a one-bed
room was available. While we waited Lang was doing some maintenance on the
car and we attracted the usual crowd. A young man had a little English
and a guest at the hotel who could speak perfect English took it upon
themselves to organise a twin room at a local apartment building, as well
as for the car to be parked at the local police satation. These multi
storey soviet era apartment buildings look almost derelict from the outsde
but are made very comfortable inside.
Last night we came into the village at 11pm just after dark and started
asking if there was a hotel. Two men out walking indicated nyet (no) but
then had a discussion, and again it was follow me. We were then handed
over to another man and he opened the gates to a yard, took us inside and
indicated two beds in what was the kitchen area of a very simple house.
We were then shown the banya ( sauna) at the back of the
house and handed two towels. The banya is very much part of Russian
culture and there is quite a ritual involved with them. I will describe it
more at a later date This time we just used it to clean off the dust from
a long day's drive. I will descibe it more at a later date. Needless to say
was lovely to clean up, have our cups of tea and fall exhausted into bed,
and the best part was to experience at first hand the lives of the local
I will give more detail after we reach Irkutsk in two day's time. I now
must away to find out the fate of the Bambino