Driving a 1954 Austin-Healey 100/4 from Peking to Paris in the June 2019 ERA Rally.

Friday, 23 August 2019

0129 - Russia 1, Days 11-15

0129 - Russia 1, Days 10-15
June 11th - 16th June
Surely this is too scenic to be Russia ?

The Russian border
Day 10.   Achit Lake to Kochevnik Camp  6.  371 kms.      Having battled our way through the Mongolian side of the Russian border crossing, we drove 10 kms through no mans land to the Russian border.   A large sign as we drove up said RUSSIA, so we knew we were in the right place, and then the tall guard, wearing his typically oversized military hat, came over and said, in perfect English, "Good afternoon.  Welcome to Russia.  Where are you from?"   you could have knocked us over with a feather - After the almost rude abruptmess on the Mongolian side, here was this young officially being pleasant, smiling, and speaking English !   After a quick show of our passports, we were off and away - The clock on my photos
Confirming we have crossed the border
shows me it took a total of 3 minutes to get through the border !  Brilliant.   A big sign confirmed that we had now crossed the border into Russia, and we were off and away.  It was about 160 kms more to Kochevnik Camp #6.  The first part of the road was good, and, weaving on through the Altai mountains, very scenic.  Compared with the Russia I knew up in Siberia when I worked there, this was so different - Good quality roads (ie very few potholes !), picturesque, clean ?   Could this really be Russia ? I was stunned.

Heading through the Altai
However, not too far out from the camp, ERA's devious "route master" Chris Elkins had other plans, and took us off road again, on a very rough, bumpy, and rocky dirt stage.  We hadn't gone more than a couple of kms into it when we heard those horrible noises from the rear again - And on inspection found we had broken yet another rear leaf spring.  Unsurprisingly it was on the same side as previously, the right, and it was one of the old leafs that had broken.   When rebuilding Gidget, the springs on it turned out to not be the original Healey springs, but some American hybrid version.  We had replaced these with new 8 leaf "up-rated" springs, that were
Still passing broken down cars
apparently (in the words of the supplier) "Strongly recommended for road and rally cars" and had "an extra leaf making it approx 12% stiffer, and were made to a higher standard than ever before."   It was the upper leaf of one of these that had broken the first time, shearing off right at the end of the leaf, near the eye, and we had then replaced it with one of the American hybrid units which we were carrying as spares, using them in place of the front and rear bumpers,  This time it was this American hybrid spring that had broken, while the  other uprated 8 leaf unit on the LH side was still OK.   This time it broke almost in the centre of the
Delightful Kochevnik camp
leaf, which made it slightly easier for Ashton to use a ratchet strap to pull the two ends together, thus straightening the axle to enable us to limp on.    Once mobile again, Ashton wisely decided to go back to the main road, and then just follow the smooth main road to camp, instead of risking further damage on the dirt section.  Obviously this caused us to incur further time penalties, but with no more spare spring leafs, we couldn't risk any further damage.  So we arrived at the camp, and Ashton drove straight up to the triage area to start repairs while I went off with luggage to find our accomodation.  When we removed the damaged spring, it turned out the thin ratchet strap we had used to support it was almost worn through - It was a good job we had come on the smooth road !

"Our" yurt
Back in Ulaan Baatar, I had been in the hotel reading the ERA notice board in order to keep up with any last minute bulletins, when a new notice was put up while I stood there.  This notice advised that if anyone wanted accomodation in Kochevnik camp (instead of pitching their tent), they should fill in their names on a first come first served basis. 
Inside our yurt
There were only 4 or 5 yurts - The rest were all apartments.  David Gainer was standing beside me and we quickly agreed that since one rarely gets the opportunity to sleep in a yurt, that was the way to go, and we put our names down for one of the only 4 bed yurts for the 4 of us.  In hindsight this was very fortuitous because once word was out, the other spots filled up very quickly, while some late comers missed out and had to pitch their tents again !   So I took our stuff down to our "Yurt #1", and it was magnificent !  Gaily coloured inside, with a central table and heater blasting out warm air, and 4 individual beds around
Roof struts of our yurt
the walls.  So we were able to just unroll our sleeping bags on the beds, and we were ready to go !  And seeing the inside of our yurt and how the wooden supports fitted together, it showed that the real "yurt on the move" that we had seen back at Khyargas Lake 4 days ago was essentially exactly the same construction, with the roof poles radiating out from the central circular piece, and then slotting into the outer frame.  Very simple, and easy to dismantle and move - As seen by the van with the yurt on top !

Dinner outside the galley
The camp itself was excellent - And they had somehow "smuggled" in a few of the Mongolian NOMAD team to provide the food and refreshments just for this one night.  They even still wanted Mongolian money at the bar - Which of course was impossible for me (yet again) because I had exchanged all my Mongolian Togrog into Russian roubles at the border !!  Ah well...........

Dave working on Gidget's spring
I grabbed a couple of beers and took them up to the triage area in order to relieve Ashton so he could
go and shower, and to provide sustenance to Dave the mechanic as he worked on replacing Gidget's rear spring !  Keeping these support crews "lubricated" is MOST important, and whether it be
Shiv's Peugeot being worked on
Cokes for Skippy and other non beer people, or a few beers for others, it is just a very small price for us to pay in thanking them for their friendship (they are all great guys) and their invaluable knowledge and help - They truly enable the cars to get to Paris, in spite of all their mechanical issues along the way.
Sunset in Kochevnik
There were a number of other cars undergoing repairs, not the least being Shiv's Peugeot that had been rolled onto its side so they could more easily access the underneath !  

Once the spring was replaced and Gidget ready to roll, it was dark and there was only time for a quick bite before we retired to our yurt for the night !

Ashton doing a Gerard Brown
Day 11.  Kochevnik camp to Aya.  557 kms.    Today was to be one our longer days, and it dawned bright and sunny, as well as chilly - That heater had been most welcome in our yurt last night
Steamer working up its head of steam
!  We grabbed some breakfast and I made up our usual sandwiches etc for lunch, while the Steamer worked up its head of steam - They were still going strong and had made it to camp late last night.

What a way to start a day !
The next 2 hours were one of the most magical drives imaginable - winding through the Altai mountains in warm sunshine, through villages, beside rivers with people white water rafting,  and through passes, all on a brand new road that was as smooth as a baby's bottom.  Just stunning.   A few photos here of the drive.

Drive through the morning sunshine

Along the morning drive

The P76 and others
Suddenly we came round a corner and there was a layby full of 
View from the car park
cars and the Time Control, where we pulled off and found everyone was smiling after the morning drive !   It turned out that not only was the view over the side of the car park pretty stunning, but then up behind the car park was a sizeable market,
with stalls selling all sorts of local handicrafts and bits and pieces.   Fortunately there was also a good (ie not a hole in the ground !) toilet, and right
The markets on the hill
Julie Holroyd tries a Russian hat
opposite was a stall selling not only good coffee, but also very tasty hot doughnut type things.   Since we had about an hour before our check out time, we were able to wander around, enjoy the coffee and all the other things on offer.   Certainly one of the more interesting stops we had had, which just added to the enjoyable morning so far.

After the control, it was a mix of tarmac and dirt as we headed towards Aya, but most importantly our last spring stayed in one piece !   At the end of a long day, we came into Aya and missed a turning. In order to save time, I checked the maps we were using and they showed another bridge over the river towards our hotel just a little further up the road.  However, when we got there, it turned out to be just a footbridge, which was a little too narrow for us to drive across. so we had to find a place to do a U turn and go all the way back - Rather frustrating, especially after such a long day, but it just goes to show that you can't always trust the maps !

Ashton interviewed in Russian
The hotel in Aya was more of a massive resort complex, with
swimming pools and other attractions which were being well used since it was a hot sunny evening.  As usual the crowds decended on us, and Ashton even got interviewed - In Russian, which was interesting for all of us, including Ashton !  Now much of the dirt sections were behind us, we tried to clean air filters, and removed the undertray in order to straighten it out a bit.  Additionally Ashton had spotted a couple of cracks in the rear chassis members, and eventually managed to locate a local welder who could do the job, although it took forever to get the welder in the same place as the car at the same time !  A very heavy rainstorm later in the evening didn't help matters !
Everyone is buying Russian hats !

The swimming Aqua Romeo
I am not sure which day it actually happened, but it was around this time that Matteo and his dad Roberto went swimming in their red nosed Alfa !  They had fallen behind, and took a short cut in order to try to catch up.  They came to a narrow river but did not stop to test the depth before entering, and ended up almost submerging their car !   We had heard of their plight, and when we saw photos of them in their "Aqua Romeo", we assumed that was the end of their P2P.  Later, we were to find out more.......

The storm closes in
The Aya resort was an "interesting" and a rather typically Russian place. To get a drink at the bar, you had to first go to Reception (no where near the bar !), register with them and hand over a large amount of cash, in return for which they gave you a card.   You could then return to the bar which would only accept their in-house card (no cash accepted), order your drinks and then pay for them using the card.  As we didn't expect to drink heavily, using all the money that had been put on the card would be impossible, and although we were told we could get credit when we checked out in the morning, I was somewhat sceptical !  The accomodation was in separate buildings dotted all over the resort - Ours was about a 5 minute walk away from the main building - Which was interesting when the storm came in later !  We eventually had an excellent dinner in the main resort, watched the storm roll in, and then headed back to our rooms for some much needed sleep.

Morning MTC at the start

Day 12.  Aya to Novokuznetsk.  437 kms.    In the morning we moved the cars down to the other
end of the resort complex, and once our start times came up, we went out under the officially Liqui Moly "start" arch, and headed back to the main road.  Gidget was again a bit grumpy as we left, although once out on the open road where she was able to clear her throat, she was much better.

Houses along the way
Fortunately for our ailing springs, the road was relatively smooth most of the time, with some dirt sections there, some of which were just "road under repair" sections, and were also reasonably smooth.  But as we headed through forest sections, the local white
A few butterflies met their end
butterfly population decided it was time for their annual hatching, and the air was thick with them.  They were so bad that some cars were overheating as the radiator intakes slowly got covered, while everyone's windscreens were almost opaque with yellow mess that used to be butterflies !  As for poor Herman on the front of the Contal - I saw no photos but I was told that by the end of the day he himself was covered in squashed butterflies from head to toe !

Interesting T Shirt !
We stopped for a Time Control in a village along the way, and lots of locals were gathered there to admire the cars and take photos - Usually selfies of them standing in front of an admired car !   At one stage a pretty young lady came over to Gidget and started posing, and it wasn't long before Ashton and ERA Nick were chatting and joking with her ! She was a delightful young lady with a beautiful smile, but we are not quite sure about the message on her T shirt - "Girls can do Anstains" ???   I think it was supposed to say "Girls can do anything", but something got lost in the translation.  We saw a lot of T shirts with odd messages during the trip, some of them
                                                                                       totally mystifying us !
Dirt section through the forest

There were several dirt stages during the day that were off to the side of the main road, however we elected to miss them purely to reduce the risk of further damage to our rear springs before we reached the rest day in Novosibirsk, when we hoped to get some new and stronger springs made up.  This cost us a lot of time penalties, but, like many others, we were in conservation mode, with the primary aim of reaching Paris now more important than position.  After all, we had only done 4700 kms so far - There were still almost 10,000 kms to go !!

Chatting up the girls at the lunch stop
After that TC, it was another couple of hours on the usual mixture of dirt and black top roads to our next stop - Lunch time in a small town, where as usual, the local population turned out in force.  A couple of girls wanted to do a video of themselves with our car, which would have involved them climbing into the car, but ever since our first such experience on the second day in China, we have not let people climb in the car.  On my pax side, there were
Ashton signing autographs
was just no footroom at all because I had the large sandwich esky in front of my seat, plus a small tool bag with our frequently used screwdrivers and spanners in it, and then I also had a larger tool bag with all sorts of bits and pieces in it in front of them.  Lastly, up against the firewall, I had a brief case which contained all our important documents and vehicle
Steve chatting the girls up
paperwork, which I used as a footrest.  And on Ashton's side, there wasn't a lot more room, as he often had his Barbour jacket rolled up just in front of his seat, while there were too many other switches and items tucked away down there that would be vulnerable to any one who didn't know they were there.  So we decided against letting people sit in the car, although occasionally we would find people just opening the door and starting to get in, totally without asking !  In this instance we chatted to them for a while (one of them spoke very good English), and handed out some of our Gidget bracelets, before they moved on through the crowd.  Later we saw Mr Partridge deep in conversation with them !!

Janel tries to find her way to her car
As usual, we knew the departure of the cars ahead of us, so once Janel and Mark headed out, and
some of the others, we got ready and were soon on our way.  It was again a mixture of road surfaces as we headed to Novokuznetsk, but once we are arrived in town, and negotiated our way through the traffic and trams, nothing could have
Novokuznetsk finish line
prepared us for the welcome in the car park opposite the hotel.  There were huge crowds out in the warm evening sunshine, and an enormous "Finish" arch over the road for us to drive under, while a commentator with very loud speakers announced every car as they drove past !To start with the
Crowds in the car park
crowds were kept back behind barriers by the Police, and it was possible to do a little work on the cars, but once all the cars had arrived, they opened the barriers and it became bedlam in there, with people squeezing through the smallest spaces in order to get closer to the cars.   If we leant into the engine bay with a spanner to do something, 10 other heads would peer into the engine bay with you !    Interesting, to say the least, but also very hard when it is at the end of a hard day, and one has things to do.
Ashton getting his dinner

The dinner buffet was excellent, and we even had musical entertainment during the meal, but it wasn't long before we were off to bed to get some well earned sleep.  12 days in to the rally, so only a 3rd of the way, but already there were a lot of weary people as well as weary cars.  That is why they call this event an Endurance Rally !

Rally office in the hotel lobby
Day 13.  Novokuznetsk to Novosibirsk.  530 kms.   It was the usual starting procedure in the morning - Have breakfast, make lunch and get hold of lots of bottles of drinking water, get our stuff down to the car and the bags strapped on, and all the lunch stuff packed away in the little esky bag.  Then I would go off to double check our start time and ensure that no new route bulletins had been issued before I entered any existing changes into the route book, highlighted major instructions in the book, calculated distances for fuel stops as well as average speeds and required eta's at Time Controls, and wait around with all the other Navigators for our start time to come around.  Then I would
Getting ready to leave in the morning
quickly get across to the car where Ashton would be ready to go, jump in, and we would take off with Ashton saying "Which way at this junction ?".  Meanwhile, I was trying to get my seat belts done up, zero the Monit, get my feet into the very small space in the foot well, get the maps screen up on my phone together with the all the way points, and of course get the Garmin up and running with the correct day's Waypoints on screen together with the necessary Red Arrow.  Yes, it was always a bit hectic at the start !!   Every navigator agreed that if their drivers would just wait for 60 seconds before taking off, it would make the start much less stressful, and we used to joke about it together when the drivers were not in earshot !

Policeman lets us out in the morning
The brass bands and dancing girls were there to send us off in style in the morning, and at the car park exit a policeman was present to ensure we got out onto the main road safely.  It was a long haul of 530 kms today, and the main objective was to reach the rest day in Novosibirsk safely and in good time so we could arrange a workshop where we could get some new springs made up.  The rest of the car was behaving well, but without good reliable springs, we would have to remain in "preservation" mode.  Mission accomplished and with very little to report during the day, we made it into the big city of Novosibirsk, located the hotel without too much drama, and, after signing off at the MTC, parked up.  Once I had the
Novosibirsk car park
overnight bags off the car, Ashton, who had set everything up beforehand,  drove off behind the fixer's car to find the workshop.  Unfortunately he went during rush hour, and Gidget was not a happy camper in the slow traffic.  But the FIT Service facility were confident they could help us, so an early start was planned in the morning.  A quick bite to eat and it was off to bed.

Day 14.  Novosibirsk Rest Day.  0 kms !
Gidget on the hoist
After a quick breakfast, it was off to FIT Service workshop to start work on Gidget.  We got her up onto the hoist and had a look at everything that was required.  While one guy started work to remove the springs, Ashton got the undertray off and we got it
Straightening out the skid plate
down on the concrete floor where we could get a hammer on to it to flatten everything out almost like new.  Communication was not always easy due to our lack of Russian and their lack of English, but usually we managed to get everything sorted out in the end.

While the undertray was off, Ashton checked everything else under there, and found that one of the two bolts which hold the gearbox retaining strap in place had fallen out.  A search was made to find a bolt with the same thread, to no avail, so the holes in the gearbox were retapped to suit a slightly larger thread, and new bolts installed.

Working on the springs
Once this was done, and the undertray reinstalled, the mechanic came
New springs in progress
back with some Gaz / Lada headlights that were the same size as ours.  He fitted one into the vacant spot on the LH side, and then, since the new units had a black rim and not a chrome one,  removed the other Healey head light so that we had a matching pair.  In fact, with the black rim, it actually looked quite good !  Just needed a set of eyelashes to go with the mascara !  The units plugged straight in, and bingo, we had two working and dippable headlights.  They do say that if you stay in Russia long enough, your car will eventually turn into a Lada as all their parts seem to fit most cars !!  Many other people ended up with Lada wheels, Lada clutches, Lada brakes, etc ! 

One eye in place
Meanwhile the spring guy started work on the springs.  After a lot of searching, they came back with a leaf that was slightly longer, thicker, and wider than the broken leaf, and they then cut it to length.  They then cut the ends of the current springs, and, after drilling two holes at each end, pressed full size rivets in to hold the ends in place.  They then welded along the edges of the join to provide extra support / strength.   We were not sure about the
We have matching headlights again
welding on springs bit, but by now we had little choice.  By this time Nick had arrived with his old Ford, also looking to mend a broken rear spring, and before too long Kurt from the green Porsche arrived with tires to be fitted as well as an undertray to be straightened.  Since it was a Saturday, the mechanic work force was not at full strength, and those that were there started moving between cars, not getting one job completed before they started something else.  As time was passing, we could see this becoming an issue, so at about the time I headed off in a taxi with Kurt and his wheels, Ashton read the riot act to the mechanics and got them to focus on one job at a time - With Gidget being the first !!

Heading out for dinner in Novosibirsk
Ashton eventually got Gidget back to the Hotel, and we joined a number of the other teams and set off on foot to find a restaurant, ending up at an Italian place that was quite acceptable.  Then it was back to the hotel and bed, ready for the longest day of the rally tomorrow, plus a border crossing into Kazakhstan !

As for the springs ?  Gidget was now sitting a good inch or more higher at the back than she ever had been previously, and all the rubbing of the tyres inside the guards every time we went over the smallest bump, was gone.  So it was looking very promising, as long as the join in the springs done by the mechanics stayed
                                                         joined !

She lives to fight another day !

And guess what we found when we got back to the hotel ?   A certain Aqua Romeo, dried out, with new oils and all vital fluids, ship shape (sorry Matteo !) and ready to go !   An amazing recovery, and she kept running all the way to Paris !  

Rest of the photos for Russia 1 can be found here :-  https://photos.app.goo.gl/5Jxpvon3fDQnJkHSA

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Ashton & Giles welcome any visitors, support, and comments as we prepare for our Adventure !