Monday, July 23, 2012

Road experience and Lada-Volkswagen fusion

The general impression of road traffic after crossing the border from Estonia to the European part of Russia is striking. Although Eastern European countries still know the concept of former used-to-be highway prototypes including left-turns across opposite lanes, red lights and even zebra crossings at any time on only one and a half lanes in each direction, the Russians take this to the state-of-the-art and push the experience to the max.

On a first glimpse, everything that might be done within the physical limits of time, space and speed will be done deliberately and with hardly any pre-warning such as turning indicators, headlights or horns. This includes passing a slower vehicle without being able to finish the maneuver before opposite traffic arrives, putting temporarily ones life into the hands of the others hoping they will somehow arrange it all to fit. If for any reason traffic stops on a number N of lanes going one direction, after a couple seconds you immediately find yourself in a flow of N+2 lanes, including opposite lanes and unstable dust/stone/grass lanes on your very right. Surprisingly, this all goes without any mayor emotional explosions, the additional lanes are somehow accepted by everyone (including officials) and all merges together as required to the number of N lanes hardly before any major damage occurs. Again, most of this completely without any indications or audible feedback by anyone. Traffic gets stuck very frequently for no obvious reasons, for instance due to zebra crossings which seem to be untouchable as even grand mothers throw themselves onto the road without hesitation and even the largest road train slams the brakes at excessive speed of up to 120 km/h. The newbie also struggles to understand why sometimes traffic slows down due to a slower vehicle as the law of N+2 would not allow this scenario. The explanation for this is a wide-spread warning custody of simple headlight signals to signal other traffic participants the presence of officials, formerly also practiced in France. Changing lanes (for any maneuver including passing slower vehicles) however seems to follow a highly elaborated procedure. In general again, everything within physical limits is allowed, turning signals are considered optional, the behavior and the placement and speed of the vehicle is as much signalization that one could expect. As long as there is no other possibility than changing lane, anything is allowed and everyone else adopts. However, changing lane early because of some distant upcoming obstacle is not generally accepted and responded with horns, which shall not be understood as emotional expression but rather a signal to communicate its presence. Finally speed limits are specified somewhere in the traffic laws but not respected by anyone, inner city driving downtown Moscow or St. Petersburg is frequently at more than 100 km/h, being generally accepted even by officials. There are hardly any stationary speed traps and we have never seen a mobile one flashing or a vehicle with excessive speed being pulled over by the police. The friendly officials only seem to insist on strict obedience of “do not overtake” signals and infrequent drivers license check, which they usually gave up quickly if you talk to them in anything else than Russian.

The road conditions can not be generalized, we have seen anything from excellent driveways like newly built French private highways, most frequently older streets with varying damage from surface bladders down to collapsed foundation with tremendous holes and deep lane grooves and finally also non-existing unpaved dirt/mud/gravel/dust streets instead of the promised highway (giving the creative drivers even a higher degree of liberty when it comes to lane definition. This is valid for urban and rural areas, the road condition may change at any time at no defined city or oblast border.

A couple days ago, we were just to exit the national park in the mountains where we passed the night on lake Zaratkul, diving in the endless void of Western Siberia when Karossi decided to stop operating at once. We rolled out, trying to reach a spot that would give us at least a minimal level of protection against the burning sun and the blasting trucks passing by, getting the head under the hood immediately. Some quick checks showed that spark and gas seemed OK and that there is no easy way to figure out the root cause of the issue and we would need professional assistance. In a country without AAA, TCS, ADAC or whatever the automobile association in your country is called, this is a rather challenging job. Obviously it is possible to find a good mechanic in pretty much any agglomeration, but where to look for one if you sit in the middle of nowhere (N55 19.727 E63 25.519)?

We decide to hitch-hike with Karossi, attached to our towing rope and hope someone would let us attach. We decide to try into our heading direction, saving us a dangerous U-turn by foot, although the next village in the opposite direction would have been a little closer. Quiet surprised that one of the first trucks stops by and pulls us the 30km with something about 60-80km/h into the next village, called Mischkino. Getting towed has never been a good experience, but doing it with an 8m long elastic rope (planned rather for pulling us out of the mud than on a street) behind a colossus of steel on a really unpredictable road pavement stressed me out quiet a bit. Arriving in Mischkino would not relax me for long as we were to find out that there is not any mechanic around before Kurgan, another 100km further east. The incredibly friendly truck driver decided to give it a quick try and grabbed my tools and started working on the engine for a couple minutes, unfortunately coming to the same conclusion as I did: we need professional assistance. He did not hesitate a moment to jump into his truck and wait for me to give him sign that we are ready to be towed for another 100km. In the meanwhile he must have done some logistics with his local contacts as we were hooked off somewhere on the peripheral drive of the city and handed over to the person of all our hope from PitStop, who towed us somewhere in the backyards of his garage. Hardly any tools were used, but a lot of trial-and-error tests were done, including calling in another expert for “old German vehicles”, until the judgment was done: There is an ignition spark, but it is too weak. Cause of the disaster is a defect Bosch ignition coil. And obviously, there is no Bosch service in the surrounding of a couple hundred kilometers. What to do? Theoretically, ignition coils should do pretty much the same all around the world, transfer the 12 volts of the car battery up to a couple thousand volts in order to create the ignition sparks. So why no try with a Russian model out of the Lada of one of the apprentices? Quickly brainstormed whether something would blow up and concluded that this should be done at least once during the existence of human mankind and – it worked! Until today. And quiet honest, Karossi never started that quickly since we got it about a year ago. We called it the Russian experiment and I feel proud to drive along with at least some parts of this proud nation (sometimes really considering to buy a Lada 2107 for my next projects).

Other than that, our Karossi is performing rather well in all the above traffic situations, the suspension compensates all uneven streets well, the roof-top turning lights helped to make the other traffic participants understand the intentions of the “inexperienced” driver during the first days. The interior and the roof mounts disassemble partially from time to time due to the constant vibrations on gravel roads but are tightened at all occasions. The exterior mirrors, the sliding door and the wheel caps need some love from time to time to stiffen them to mitigate noise development but are all still in place. A rather big gravel stone was polite enough to slam our left headlight rather than our windshield because the latter would be rather hard to organize replacement for in Russia.

We will keep you posted about the quiet probable upcoming German-Russian symbiosis experiments.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. hahahha. I love all the Russian absurd. Missing them hugely. When I read your stories it's like yesterday to me. You should be glad not to be a passenger - you have to move quickly even on the crossing and the pavement might not necessarily be for non-mobile people only and so on...:) keep your eyes open, don't stop thinking and accept:)xxx