Saturday, June 9, 2007

Vladivostok Road

Driving the Vladivostok Road – May 2007

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
left Brisbane.

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