08 January 2019 18:42
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Outside, a snowstorm is running rampage and causing a tremendous noise in the cab. Mike has to concentrate hard at the wheel because he can hardly see anything. But at least we're still moving forward! On the Amur highway in Siberia – in Russia's Transbaikal region to be exact – we are moving east, surrounded by never-ending forest. We need to make up for lost time. Because the stopover in the workshop in Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar, from where we sent our last report, wasn't the only one.
The run of bad luck began when we set off for Russia from the frozen Tuul river close to Ulaanbaatar. We had taken a three-day break to go and see the nearby gigantic statue of Genghis Khan on horseback, and other sights, in radiant sunshine. And now the Axor wouldn't start and it quickly became clear why not: the batteries were empty. Only later did we discover that since the cold snap, a consumer had been using energy at night – since then we have been using the kill switch installed by Leab AG every evening to be on the safe side. At a pinch the truck can be started using the batteries for the living area, but they were also nearly empty after 3 days of not being on the move.
So we set out on foot at minus 20 degrees to search for help. A truck wasn't the right thing to help us start: to get to our truck, it would have had to cross the river and would have broken through the ice itself. So we were more than relieved to reach a yurt with a pickup and a car standing in front of it: lightweight vehicles and sufficient battery power, or so we thought.
First of all the men in the yurt gave us spicy tea. Then we had to push-start the pickup – not so easy with a dead yak on the back. Once we had reached the Axor, we connected the vehicles to the Axor's batteries and made some tea for our helpers. But even after an hour's charging time the truck still wouldn't start.
In the end we managed to somehow reach an English-speaking workshop owner on the phone who was going to organise help for us – even though it was Sunday evening. And sure enough: after two hours we got a call telling us our helpers were nearby. So off to the main road to show them the way! Another hike, but now in the dark and with even icier temperatures.
The men put a petrol blower and a gas torch under our oil pan. The Axor's batteries were connected up to the car and another battery. It was a wait of another half hour before the thermometer for the coolant showed one degree. The truck started at the first attempt. The following night was the first one in which we left the engine running. We wanted to be sure that the batteries were fully charged.
Full speed ahead to Russia! At least that's what we thought. When Mike switched on the auxiliary heating before crossing the border in order to pre-warm the engine – we had switched it off because it was "only" minus 20 degrees – there was a cloud of steam in front of the window. Mike switched off the auxiliary heating and tried to start the engine. When it finally started we discovered that the coolant was leaking!
As quick as a flash I placed three pans, one after another, under the leak. Mike tilted the cab and made a makeshift bypass. I carefully poured the coolant back into the system. Luckily the engine started again and nothing else leaked out. More than enough excitement before the first coffee of the day ...
... and a difficult decision: back to Ulaanbaatar to "our" workshop! The leak was in the auxiliary heating and we wanted to make sure that it wouldn't happen again. However, the workshop personnel didn't have the necessary spare parts. Things will be better in Russia, they told us. So we set off again.
Somehow it was in keeping with this odyssey that it took a whole seven hours to cross the border. It was dark by the time we had all the stamps and documents and the customs officer said in broken English: "Now you go to Russia." We felt as if we were in some kind of film.
Shortly after, there was even a sort of happy ending: we had met Lukas, who is Swiss, via Facebook. He lives in Ulan-Ude, the first large Russian city behind the border where he offers tours with his expedition truck. The day before, he had sent us an email inviting us to visit. During dinner we couldn't believe our luck: as a truck mechanic, Lukas had been working with Mercedes vehicles for years.
From the very beginning we knew: in view of the extreme strain whilst on the road, there was bound to be damage in some form or other. Thanks to Lukas, we now found out that the truck was difficult to start in the cold because a glow plug was defective. After several searches our helper was able to find a replacement.
The melted combustion chamber in the auxiliary heating had caused the leak. But this was knowledge that couldn't help us further: we would have had to import the spare parts from Germany – which would have taken too long! So we decided to carry on without the auxiliary heating – and said our farewells with the intention of meeting up with Lukas again on the return journey.
Along the 600 kilometres to the large city of Chita the cold took its toll on several other occasions too. Once a frozen drain hose caused our washing machine to stop. Instead, the solution was to use a small air heater which we put in the stowage compartment overnight to defrost the hose. The tanks for the AdBlue and washer fluid also froze. Mike was able to defrost the latter with a hairdryer and then fill it with washer fluid which only freezes below temperatures of minus 45 degrees.
Now it's still 2600 kilometres to Oymyakon, an extreme place and the most easterly point of our journey. About 1000 kilometres before that, in Yakutsk, we had the truck inspected in a workshop belonging to Kamaz, a manufacturer in which Daimler has shares. The roads are good and for the most part dry as they use a plough rather than salt here. Even on snow-covered roads our Goodyear winter tyres give us a good grip.
It is only when big trucks come towards us with snow clouds in their wake that Mike has to drive blind for a moment. But despite all the hurdles: we enjoy our winter journey. Just before Ulan-Ude we visited the very exciting Ivolginsky Datsan, a huge Buddhist monastery with its own university. Every now and again we take the opportunity to take a short walk through the powder show at a crisp minus 20 degrees. The forecast for tonight is minus 37 degrees. We will leave the engine running to be on the safe side.
Part 9 of the RoadStars series will be published on 28 January. Stay tuned!
4-Xtremes – the tour of superlatives.