All Good to Moscow! Then Disaster Strikes...
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
...But the show must go on! Really it must go on, or else we'd still be stranded in Russia!! Our journey was largely trouble-free to this point, and one might think that with the hot, rough and dusty sections now completed we were largely home-free. But never be too complacent, as difficulties can arise when least expected.
Coming up in this Blog Post:
We travel up the west side of Kazakhstan and Russia, pausing to explore the magnificent city of Moscow.
West Kazakhstan and Russia as far as Moscow
Back in Uzbekistan, we could have visited the Russian Embassy in Tashkent to seek transit visas for Russia. But we were put off by the very long wait for an appointment, which needed to be booked online at least a couple of weeks ahead. Another Russian Consulate exists in Kazakhstan's 'Uralsk'; a town just south of the Russian border and on our route. We hoped this would be a much quieter Consulate to visit, and fortunately it was. The Russian diplomat we dealt with there was unusually helpful, and even more unusually cheerful! I presumed he was on drugs, but it turned out that quite simply his last posting had been in Australia, which he'd really enjoyed and by the sounds of things may have opened his eyes to the wider World. This in turn may have assisted in softening his approach relative to the normal level of rules and bureaucracy experienced in Russia. Ordinarily Consulate staff assess how many miles you need to cover in Russia and then divide that by the 500 kilometres you're expected to cover daily - that's how many days your transit visa will be given for. But we really wanted to have a few days pause in Moscow, and so went in equipped with a plethora of reasons why a longer period than the bare minimum was justified. To my surprise this proved unnecessary, as the friendly diplomat was happy to just give us the maximum 10 day transit time.
Once across the Russian border we had a further 1,300 kilometres to Moscow. These were slower roads, with many trucks, but there were some sights of interest along the way too.
We spent our first night whilst headed up Russia in the city of Samara, which we discovered had been of importance to the soviet space programme, particularly in the area of building rockets. This one is permanently on display outside the space museum.
Ice fishing on a frozen river.
We had an awesome four days in Moscow. It's a truly wonderful city to explore and we could have enjoyed a much longer stay here - perhaps in summer though next time. I don't know if it's climate change, or just a warm winter, but you'll see no snow in our photos from Moscow. Indeed the same can be said of photos yet to come from the European winter. A couple of photos below come from the Kremlin Armoury - taken before I was informed it was not permitted to take photos. It's a shame I couldn't take more photos, because it is simply the most impressive museum I've visited anywhere.
A major highlight of our winter exploration of Moscow, in the run up to the festive season, was night ice skating in Gorky Park. This is no ordinary rectangular ice rink that has you going around in circles! Set outside in Gorky Park, there are numerous ice pathways to choose from in all directions - spectacular!
On Friday 13th December we departed Moscow bound for St Petersburg, feeling fortunate to be among the first motorists to use Russia's new 130km/hr M11 Motorway. This would make reaching St Petersburg the same day relatively easy, or so we thought. We nearly made it, but then...
Some Background First
I knew to anticipate that not everything would go to plan, this based on past experiences with these sorts of trips. Looking way back on our initially troubled 2014 expedition to Morocco (North Africa), this being at a time when I was a considerably less experienced player at this game, there it wasn’t the Pajero that let us down so much as local mechanics.
I employed one simply to replace a wheel bearing, but his surprisingly poorly equipped team managed to break almost everything around the wheel bearing in the process, thus requiring another mechanic at the next town to attend to the newly acquired damage.
They too performed generally awful work and, for reasons unfathomable, chiselled off a pair of expensive wheel speed sensors! Those now historic events marked an important turning point in my development as a 4wd overland adventurer, chiefly because from that time forward, I learned to do all my own mechanical work. (Our old Morocco stories can be found here, with some awesome photos!)
Preventing a mechanical catastrophe is a far better proposition than finding yourself in the position of having to work out what the heck you’re going to do to resolve a very tricky situation, somewhere remote… bearing in mind that our idea of ‘remote’ can include places like the Gobi Desert. Understand that by ‘mechanical catastrophe’ I’m not talking about things like failed wheel bearings, driveshafts or suspension components etc. Whilst these sorts of things may constitute a ‘breakdown’ in the eyes of many motorists, I believe the suitably equipped overland adventurer should be capable of attending to most repairs ordinarily. To this end we travel with quite a selection of spare parts and comprehensive tools. So, by ‘catastrophe’, I mean the big things; I can’t bring a spare engine or gearbox.
So how do you keep the big ticket items always running reliably on a vehicle that’s mostly operating in challenging conditions? First off you start with a vehicle with known reliability and durability - the Pajero is a well proven choice for us - and you keep it perfectly (and preventatively) maintained. No 4wd comes off the showroom floor ready for what we do, hence the fitment of reinforced tyres, upgraded suspension, underbody protection plates, snorkel, winch, extra fuel tank… and much more. Catastrophe prevention is key. To give an example, as we travel a pair of progressively finer filters removes any damaging contaminants from the poor quality fuel sometimes found in less developed countries, while a sensor inserted into the primary filter constantly monitors for the presence of water in the diesel – if detected an alarm hard wired and glued to the dashboard goes off. This is because even a small amount of water in the diesel could cause the fuel injection components to literally blow up – not a roadside repair… a catastrophe!
Also in an effort to ensure reliability, I stream data wirelessly from the engine computer to software running on a tablet, with alarms set to sound if key parameters go outside normal specification. The most important parameters to monitor are temperatures at the engine, gearbox and exhaust. An extreme overheat event will destroy an engine or gearbox, yet just as with the ‘water in the diesel alarm’, being alerted early enables you to stop and repair whatever is the cause before major damage occurs.
So, it should be clear that I’m not your typical motorist and have a pretty good handle on all aspects vehicle related… what could possibly go wrong!?
What Went Wrong
If you’re going to clock up as many miles as we do, there’s ample opportunity for an unusual event to eventually occur. We had the misfortune to have an engine coolant line somehow pop off, or rupture, unnoticed. It would only have taken a minute for all the engine coolant to pump out onto the ground, and only another minute or so for the engine to begin to dangerously overheat… also unnoticed! It turns out my software-based monitoring system, which had until then always operated reliably, had shutdown at a most inconvenient time! (That said, these events have caused me to reconsider whether that system would have detected a total coolant loss scenario). Whilst I have now formed very different ideas about how to set up an early warning system that would dependably trigger in all possible scenarios, it will only assist me in future. As things stood on that dark, cold and snowy night, stranded at the side of a lonely Russian highway with a blown engine, what had happened had happened and there was simply no changing it!
A Reality Check and the Bigger Picture
Thoughts of the looming major repair bill, the significant setback to our trip, and kicking myself for how I especially could/should have been capable of avoiding this, were soon outweighed by a more pressing concern. Our most recent entry into Russia had been on 10-day transit visas and we now had just 72 hours remaining to comply with our obligation to leave Russia, with the dead Pajero. I must admit that I began this trip with the misconception that in such a scenario Russian Immigration Police would be understanding of our predicament and thus display leniency. I believe this is what would happen in similar circumstances for a visitor to New Zealand, however I’ve since learned it’s not how things are in Russia, Central Asia, and many other countries. A motorbike adventurer I followed when researching for this trip was held in detention in Russia and threatened with a lengthy prison sentence. All this for a two day overstay, which arose because he cracked his motorbike chassis and needed to find an aluminium welder.
Don’t underestimate the amount of trouble a foreigner can get into for failing to exit some countries by their visa expiry! Russia, along with many other countries in Central Asia and elsewhere, has an essentially zero tolerance policy. Not even a single day of overstay is tolerated, regardless of circumstances. There are almost no exceptions to this rule and disproportionate penalties can be applied.
Long term readers of my blog may recall that way back in Mongolia, when a suspension spring broke, we wrongly assumed Mongolian Immigration Police would be accommodating. After all, we needed to await replacement parts to be express freighted from Australia. There I approached the Immigration Police ahead of our visas expiring, and after the Mongolian Consulate in New Zealand had written a letter to them on our behalf, urging them to be accommodating in our circumstances. Mongolian Immigration Police were not at all swayed by their own Consulate desiring to support us and robustly refused to extend our visas. We were fined - fortunately the fine was modest, though we were warned that a further breach would have far more serious consequences. Some readers may recall that the Police then immediately imposed a new deadline to exit Mongolia, set for one day earlier than they knew our Russian visas permitted us to enter Russia! Russia strictly never permits early entry, and thus it was immediately apparent to both me and staff at the Immigration Police office in Ulaanbaatar that we had been set on a course that would require us to be arrested and deported in a few days time. Fortunately, this outcome was narrowly avoided because (as luck would have it!) the newly imposed exit deadline fell on a Sunday, when the agreed border we would exit at was closed. This is the only circumstance where Mongolian Immigration Police permit foreigners to exit the country the following day without consequence.
Russia is much stricter than Mongolia. Just as with Mongolia, Russia is most unlikely to consider any severity of vehicle mechanical breakdown to constitute a reason to overstay. You would need to be extremely ill in a hospital bed before you’d be likely to receive any form of leniency on your immigration status in Russia. Unlike Mongolia, where the first offence penalty was modest, in Russia you are likely to be detained, or restricted to the city nearest the border you attempted to exit at until your court case is prepared… yes, court case! This alone could take weeks. Much can depend on the individual you strike at the border, as for very minor breaches they may have scope to vary the rules, if they’re feeling so inclined.
Advice for Kiwi’s abroad given on the New Zealand Government's travel website isn’t encouraging either. It correctly points out that the NZ Government has no sway in what a foreign Government does with you on their soil, and much of the advice they give online concerns making yourself a model prisoner. Suggestions include: 'adapt to conditions in the local prison as quickly as possible and consider taking up any educational, work, or counselling opportunities that might be available'. Who knows, perhaps with good behaviour you’ll qualify for early release, and those prison courses might boost your CV too!
So, back to us at the side of that remote stretch of Russian motorway, on a cold dark snowy Friday night, with a cooked engine and just 72 hours to get out of Russia. By the time a helpful motorist came past, sometime around midnight, and stopped to check if we were ok, we were able to tell him that we’d used our extremely weak cell reception to call the motorway assistance phone number and had been assured a tow truck was coming. (Sylwia's Russian language skills proving their worth again!) Actually, we’d twice repeated that process and twice been told a truck was just minutes away… yet one never arrived?! The helpful Russian motorist confidently proclaimed that no truck was coming. I enquired how he could be so sure? “It’s Russia!” came his answer. And he was right – no one came for us other than his mechanic friend, who lived about 45 kilometres away in a historic town called Veliky Novgorod. Sergei the mechanic turned up in his old Lada and kept us all warm until a truck that he had privately arranged arrived on the scene. It was a long, sleepless night, and nearly 6am when Sergei dropped us at a hotel. We agreed that the following day I would come to his very basic workshop so that we could inspect the Pajero’s engine together.
When we met at his workshop on the Saturday afternoon there was some brief excitement on my part when we determined the engine was not totally seized, as I had feared it would be. Nonetheless, the lack of compression indicated that serious internal damage had occurred. Sergei was eager to open the engine up and play around with piston rings etc, but I said no. It would have been a waste of time and would only have served to eat further into our rapidly approaching deadline to get out of Russia. It was now a Saturday night – we had just over 48 hours remaining and were still nearly 400km from the border. We did so much brainstorming trying to assess our options. Rightly or wrongly, one option that I decided to rule out early on was approaching Russian Immigration Police for assistance. As above, this approach had not worked out well in Mongolia and in Russia carried the risk that by alerting the authorities to our predicament may severely limit my options. My preferred way forward at this juncture was to consider temporarily leaving my Pajero in Russia in order for the family to exit on time without it. Sergei was happy for the Pajero to be left in the yard outside his workshop. If this worked out then I could later re-enter Russia on a longer tourist class visa, which would hopefully give me sufficient time to properly resolve the issue and get the Pajero out.
With a way forward seemingly settled on, we were free to take up an offer from a lovely young local Russian couple who spoke reasonably good English. Andrey and Yulia are friends of Sergei the mechanic and they insisted on taking us on a local tour of historic Veliky Novgorod on the Sunday morning. They proved excellent hosts and took us around the local sights pictured below. The wooden buildings are now part of an open air museum and all date from the 1600’s through late 1800’s, including churches and examples of traditional homes. Despite the uncertainty and stress, I somehow managed to have a really enjoyable day. We all did. The kids enjoyed the snow more than the museum itself.
In a situation like this, where the best course of action to take is unclear and seems to be in a constantly evolving state of flux, we made a crucial last-minute decision on the Sunday afternoon, with just over 24 hours to our exit deadline. Rather than leave the Pajero behind in Sergei’s yard in Veliky Novgorod, while we moved north to St Petersburg, we would bring it with us on a truck that Sergei was able to arrange at short notice. Perhaps we didn’t need to leave it in Russia at all! It seemed stretching, but if we could quickly find a company in St Petersburg on the Monday to ship it back to New Zealand, then I wouldn’t have to contemplate returning to Russia. I certainly preferred to avoid returning alone, given my Russian language skills... or lack thereof! But would we be able to arrange vehicle shipping in a single day and still get the family across the border before midnight? Ambitious certainly, but worth a try.
As we were taxied in a private car towards St Petersburg, I busily searched online for a hotel with a big yard to receive my Pajero on the truck. I got very lucky indeed with my choice of hotel, because the English-speaking Russian manageress proved incredibly helpful and on the Monday morning took it upon herself to call around local shipping companies. It seemed that all was going very well, only to suffer a shell shock late in the day. I was required to be present during customs clearance of my vehicle shipment, and this couldn’t be arranged within the next 2 to 3 weeks, especially with Christmas close. She was also advised that our ‘Plan B’, whereby I would leave the Pajero in storage in hotel’s secure yard, was in jeopardy. The local advice was that if I was noted at the border as having arrived with a private vehicle, and now attempting to leave without it, this would be reason enough to detain at least me in Russia. Possibly the rest of the family would be allowed passage – perhaps even required without option to go ahead, while I was detained. Precisely what would have happened at the border remains untested and unknown. At the time we had to work with what we thought we knew, and the last thing we wanted was to risk any of us being removed from a bus at the border near midnight.
There was a further option that had been offered to the hotel manageress, which involved putting the Pajero on another truck and taking it and me out of Russia across the border with Finland. With only a few hours remaining to our deadline, I would have to be ready to depart almost immediately. This would be expensive too, but they had a driver willing and able to take me over the border right away, with the rest of the family to follow on a regular mini bus service. In contrast to the many Russian people whom we found so helpful, this truck option was priced rather extortionately, as no doubt they recognised our predicament with just hours to go to meet our exit deadline.
Not only that, but when the truck arrived the driver seemed decidedly unfriendly and unilaterally (1) raised the agreed price even further - allegedly to compensate for my Pajero being heavier than he expected; and (2) announced that he would only take me to a port just across the border, and not to the agreed destination slightly further on, where we had now booked a non-refundable hotel. I got really agitated by this point, but with assistance from the hotel manageress acting as an interpreter (and mediator!) it was agreed that the driver would take me all the way to the originally agreed destination… but at a further increased price. I.e. price increases for both the 'heavy' Pajero and an increase merely to go to the originally agreed destination. In other words I was getting shafted.
It was a peculiar drive out of Russia that night, headed for the Finnish border. I lamented that we had briefly been in St Petersburg but not had opportunity to see any of it. Another time I suppose. Although the driver and I couldn't converse due to the language barrier anyway, there would have been no conversation regardless, as I had nothing to say to this unpleasant man. And so I was very surprised when we stopped at a roadside service station a couple of hours into the journey and he bought me a coffee!? Well, he could certainly afford it out of what I'd paid him!!
Meanwhile, Sylwia and the kids boarded a mini bus a couple of hours after I departed. We knew that the bus wouldn't reach the border until right around midnight and I had presumed that if they were just a few minutes past midnight this wouldn't cause an issue. However, Sylwia later told me that the woman she bought the bus tickets from wasn't confident that 'any' minutes past midnight would be acceptable to Russian Immigration and she told the driver of the mini bus to speed.
The truck driver and I crossed the border without issue and we dropped the Pajero close to the port of Hamina. The truck driver took photos - I figured I should do likewise. A couple of hours after I arrived at our hotel in Kotka the rest of the family turned up. We had managed to get ourselves, and the crippled Pajero, out of Russia within 72 hours of blowing the engine on that lonely motorway. An achievement in itself, even if there was still much to do.
We still had a seriously broken vehicle to contend with, but simply being out of Russia in these circumstances took the stress levels down a notch; we had time to work things out now without the added pressure of potentially falling foul of very strict Russian Immigration laws.
Ultimately It All Builds Experience!
These events were stressful at the time. But I knew then that sooner or later we'd find our way out of this mess and in time I would be able to look back with clarity. I've spent time since analysing what went wrong and how it might have been avoided. I won't ever blow an engine like this again - I have vastly improved my early warning system... but actually, that's not really the point here. Because whilst it is no doubt a worthy endeavour to perfect the early warning system that could have prevented this, it will never be possible to 100% rule out the risk of vehicle issues occurring. Sometimes things like this will just unavoidably happen - that's life. You just have to roll with it to find the best way out you can, with the resources you have available to you at the time. Ultimately this is another experience that further builds my capability to handle difficult situations in the future.
Coming up Next
Whilst the Pajero entered Finland with the intention of shipping it home from there, we were to discover this wasn't going to be practical. There were further major obstacles to overcome... but in the end we managed to rebuild the Pajero's broken engine! This is fantastic, because it means the trip, including the mighty resurrected Pajero, continues on to the originally planned end point for this trip in London, England.