Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Quick Recap

Here is a quick recap of everything that has happened since we left Vladivostok:
  • Car was wrecked in the middle of nowhere between Khabarovsk and Chita.
  • Sold the car to a tow truck driver and crowded the four of us into the back of a police car with all of our stuff.
  • Spent two hours in the station writing our statements, and left on a train at midnight for Chita
  • Spent the next day on the train, arrived at two in the morning in Chita, relieved to find our friend Misha waiting for us.
  • Spent the next two days searching for a new car, settled on a 1996 Lada Niva (Exciting Version).
  • Left on the 18th of July for Ulan Ude, camped underneath the stars.
  • Reached the Mongolian border on the 19th and entered without any problems and drove down to Ulaan Bataar staying at the Irish Pub Karaoke VIP Room Hotel. 
  • Contacted Baagi who showed us pictures about making Eco Toilets and gave directions to the Tributary Fund's current location.
Everything in Mongolia is working out at the moment. The people are nice and willing to help. The food is good. There is kind of a relaxing feeling here compared to that slightly on edge feeling we all experienced during our time in Russia. We head out tomorrow to drive to Northwest Mongolia. The true test of the car will begin tomorrow and hopefully we will arrive back to civilization in the same car with even broader smiles on our faces.
Thanks for all the continued support of our trip, all of your comments motivate us to continue.
-- Ezra & Richard

Sunday, July 17, 2011

чита and Our New Car

The past few days in Chita (чита) have been interesting.  First off, we're staying at Misha's parents' apartment. We met Misha in Vladivostok at the hostel.  He's twenty-two and just finished college in Vlad. We spent a fair amount of time with him in Vladivostok and I think it's safe to say we became friends. He speaks some English but his favorite word (and ours) is "Google." When he says "Google" with a huge smile and pops an invisible bubble with his finger we know that he's talking about Google Translate. Whenever we need to talk about something technical we default to the computer but most of our other communication is just fine. Lots of hand gestures. When Misha heard that we crashed our car he invited us to stay with him in Chita without hesitation. He lives with his parents and sister in a large two bedroom apartment.  His father runs a car repair shop (how fortunate for us!) and his mother runs a clothing store. Misha's fourteen year old sister is an incredible dancer (traditional Russian dance) and has traveled through Europe performing. The whole family is incredible and we owe a great deal to them for taking us in.

Right to left: Me, Misha, Misha's sister Marsha, Richard, some random guy who jumped in the picture.

Each morning we wake up to a new smell from the kitchen.  Misha's mother cooks for us every day.  She is an amazing cook. Yesterday it was balini (thin pancakes/crepes) with jam and some kind of goat (?) cheese spread. For dinner Richard, Ezra, and I head to the grocery store and buy ingredients for Misha's mother to cook for us. This was her idea because when we first arrived she wasn't sure what we ate and wanted us to pick our own ingredients. This changed after one meal of spaghetti noodles, onions, and meatballs. Now she gives Misha a list of ingredients and we go to the store to find them. The results are much better.

At dinner we drink vodka. Everyone has a shot glass and from time to time during the meal the glasses are filled, a toast is made, and everyone drinks. Russians know that Americans think they drink lots of vodka. Misha told us that this isn't true except for KGB / FSB who drink vodka like water. Apparently when we come back to Chita in a month (see below) we will meet Misha's father's FSB friend to prove that he can drink vodka like water. That reminds me: Misha's father was a tank commander in the Russian army. We've been hearing lots of stories about driving tanks around Mongolia and through the Gobi desert. We've also been listening to Misha's father's musings about what country has the best tank and the best rifle and the best fighter planes, etc. In the middle of dinner last night Misha's father asked if we liked guns. He then produced a Makarov pistol and a Saiga semi-automatic shotgun from the closet in the entry way and passed them around the dinner table.


Misha's father.

I had a lot more to add but I don't have time to type it all now.  Misha is driving back home with his car as I type so we have to hit the road soon.  I don't have time to do justice to the story of how we found our new car but here are the cliff notes:  Spent a few hours walking around a used car lot 14km outside of Chita.  The cars in the lot are for sale by owner.  Everyone shows up in the morning, parks in the lot, rolls down the windows, and falls asleep in the back seat.  If you're interested in a car you knock on the window to wake up the owner.  We found four Lada Niva 2121s for sale that we liked.  Years ranged from 1986 to 1998.  Price from $4,000 to $6,000.  After the mechanics at Misha's father's shop looked at all four over the course of two days we chose this one:

Some more cliff notes: 1996 Lada Niva 2121 Exciting Version (whatever that is?!).  Five speed transmission but fourth doesn't work very well.  Unknown mileage (says 000004km on the odometer).  Speedometer doesn't work.  Over 90kph the car eats gas like a Hummer but it's pretty difficult to get the car going that fast anyway.  The good part is that it's built for off-roading.  The car has 4-low and locking differentials.

Hopefully we'll get some internet in UB in three days but who knows.  It might be a month before we have internet again.


Friday, July 15, 2011


Somewhere between Khabarovsk and Chita we rolled the car.  Everyone is okay besides some minor scrapes.  We are all pretty sure that the car rolled three times.  It ended up about fifty feet off the road.  We probably started rolling at about 30 or 40mph.  We sold the car to the tow truck driver for about half of what we paid for it in Japan ($850 or so).  The three of us and our Russian passenger, Max, said rest in peace to our car and a fair amount of our gear and caught a ride in the back seat of a police car to the nearest town. After filling out statements with the police we caught a train at 2am for Chita.  Twenty-four quiet hours later we climbed off the train and saw our good friend Misha waiting for us in the crowd.  It was a very comforting sight.  We're now staying at his house with his parents, sister, and dog.  The friends who we met in Vladivostok (Misha very much included) have been extremely accommodating.

The trip is not over.  We are looking for a Lada 4x4 Niva to buy.  They are the cheapest 4x4 in Russia and they're not cheap.  We are trying to do everything as quickly as possible to make it to Mongolia in time to meet a man on a motorcycle.  Keeping busy is helpful.  The train ride was not fun.  I think that I can safely speak for all of us in saying that each of us spends most of our downtime recounting what happened, what could have been done differently, where we go from here.  In the end, it doesn't matter.  "What happened, happened, and couldn't have happened any other way."  How do I know that?  "Because we are still alive." - Morpheus.  For a few hours after the accident we were all talking about flying home.  That's not an option. We owe it to ourselves and everyone who has supported us to continue.  Enjoy the pictures...

- Jack

Monday, July 11, 2011

Time to Go!

So we got the car.  Yuri’s services cost a touch over $100 and hiring him was the best decision we’ve made thus far.  I don’t like to think that things are impossible but getting the car out of customs in Vladivostok, Russia without Yuri would have been.  Even with Yuri who is friends with everyone at customs and close friends with the head of the main office it took three days of walking and driving from one government building to another and from desk to desk collecting the right stamps for our paperwork. 

Tuesday the 5th of July Ezra, Richard, and I went down to the customs warehouse together and met Yuri.  I left Ezra and Richard outside and followed Yuri into a dark, cramped, damp room where I presented our paperwork.  Fifteen minutes later we were back outside waiting in front of two heavy metal barn doors.  Waiting…  Waiting…  We hear the sound of steel on steel as the latch on the inside of the door slides open.  One door slowly swings out toward us.  Then the other.  We’re all on our toes peering into the warehouse.  It’s too dark to see anything inside then, suddenly, the doors open wide enough to let sunlight fall onto a silver Forester quietly idling, waiting for us. 

Yuri said, “is this your car?”  I had no idea.  It looked like the car, but none of us had seen it outside of pictures before.  We all said “yes” authoritatively and hopped inside. 

Driving a car with a steering wheel on the right is not what I thought it would be.  I was expecting to feel completely foreign, like climbing into the cockpit of the space shuttle and trying to re-enter the atmosphere.  It wasn’t.  It just feels like a car.  There are, however, a few key differences.  When I first pulled out of the customs warehouse I tried to signal a left turn and hit the windshield wipers instead.  The wiper and turn signal levers are opposite a left hand drive (LHD) car.  After driving around the city for a week I still occasionally wash the windshield instead of indicating a turn.  I’ve had a few “phantom shifts” as I now call them.  I’ll reach with my right hand and hit the door trying to grab the shifter.  The other problem (and the most dangerous) is lane positioning.  In the city this isn’t so much an issue.  Because of the traffic you’re constantly on edge trying to avoid an accident which makes you focus on where the four corners of the car are.  On the highway it’s easier to lose track.  And the tendency is to pull left.  We sit on the left side of the car so the driver is on the left side of the lane if they’re trying to drive the car in the middle.  When I found myself not paying attention on the highway I was sitting on the left side of the lane and the car was drifting into the lane next to me.  This only happened a few times but it’s something I need to work on. 

Aside from the LHD – RHD differences, the car is great!  I’ve been driving my Honda for 18 months and getting back into a turbo Subaru feels like coming home.  Every time I step on the gas if feels right.  This car has some torque!  And power!  The last of our car parts arrived yesterday afternoon so I was under the car from 3:30pm to 11:30pm without breaking for food or water or even more than 60 seconds to rest.  But it was worth it.  Looking at the car today, it looks like it’s ready for Mongolia.  For the past week it looked as though we’d have to leave Vlad without some important car parts.  I am so happy that we didn’t.  Two days ago Chimga, our Mongolian contact at the Tributary Fund, was describing the route to the monastery that we’re headed to and asked me if our “Jeep” could cross rivers.  Now I can somewhat confidently say yes it can. Skid plates, front and rear, four fog lights, four driving lights, Yokohoma Geolandar tires with a spare on the roof, 10 gal of spare gas on the roof, High-Lift, and a 2" lift via King Springs and strut top spacers.  We're ready to leave.  Finally!

Outside the hostel packing up the car.

Just learned that the Russian word for pancake is "balini" or at least that's what it sounds like.


Goodbye Vladivostok!  You treated us well!  Kind of...

One more thing.  We picked up a passenger.  Max, who works at the hostel, is accompanying us to Ulan-Ude.  From there we'll turn south and he'll continue on to Moscow.  Not really sure how this happened but maybe he'll chip in for gas.  (Probably not).  

Finger's crossed we'll have some internet in UB, Mongolia before we leave for the countryside.  Should be seven days until we get there.  

- Jack

The Waiting

Our time here in Vladivostok boiled down to one thing, waiting. In the beginning we were waiting for our car. Then we had to wait to figure out visas, and wait some more to find a Russian person to help us with our visas. Then wait while each person who heard our visa story laughed at us and then wait some more while they slowly decided that they could actually help us. We had to wait for packages containing parts for the car. Half of the packages were apparently in some strange limbo land that occupies Russia between Moscow and Vladivostok. No one seemed to be able to help us in English or in Russian, but we continued to persevere even when it seemed like there was no chance. We called numerous numbers and were passed along from one place to another...

Then, seemingly at random, the person on the other line would respond with, "AUSHDO8A3 321J1028 OJKCANKJN A 1IR0PH192 HRL." Thats my attempt at writing Russian, but basically saying "Yeah, the package is right here, come pick it up." Why it took that long to figure out that a package was actually in the city I have no idea but, I now knew that if you keep looking hard enough you can find what you are looking for in Russia, usually.

So that first package contained the skid plates for our car but not the new springs for the suspension which is a little more important to the survival of the car. The springs however were stuck in limbo land and we had no idea when they would arrive. So in the meantime we started going shopping for the car. We bought Soviet style gas cans, off-road tires, a spare wheel, and a fire extinguisher. We attached fog lights and started putting all the vinyl on the car.  However, each night we were spending over our daily budget just by staying in the hostel. We decided that we had to leave no later than July 13th to make it to Mongolia on time. Since we didn't have much else we could do until the other package came we decided to go camping to save money.

We went to Rusky Island, which we were told was pretty and had many good places to camp. However that did not turn out to be the case. We couldn't find anywhere to camp, heck we weren't even sure we were on the right island cause it didn't fit any of the descriptions we were told. We ended up just heading straight off the road into a kind of dense area about 50 feet from the road, but completely hidden. We spend two nights there, the second day of which I spent by myself alone in the tent as Jack and Richard went back to Vlad to check in on the car and get last minute supplies. I stayed because we were pretty sure we were going to have to camp again and we did not want carry our gear to and from the island again. Around midday I received a call from Jack saying that the springs had arrived!!!! So pumped!!!! Anyway, Richard came back and we packed up everything and returned for one last night in the hostel and are about to leave in t-minus two minutes... So stoked to start on the road.
It finally feels like this trip is about to begin.


Visa Slightly Fixed

We knew that there would be obstacles once we got into Russia and while we all mentally prepared for them, we were not expecting trouble with our visas. So while waiting for the car, the car parts, and the car documents we were working very hard to get our visas in order so that our trip could continue as planned.  During our visit to the US consulate we were directed to a Russian company that could help us obtain new Visas while in Russia. They also placed a call to the company asking whether they would have an English translator there the next day for us to talk to, because no one in our group speaks Russian, and the consulate was assured there would be.

All together the next morning, we all journeyed to what we believed was the right street and the right building for our Russian visas, but we ran into a slight inconvenience when all the business signs on the outside were a) in Russian and b) none of the phone numbers on the said business signs matched the one we were given. For help in finding the correct office we called the number we were given, but there was no answer. Then we called the number again... and again... and again but there was never an answer. Perturbed, we called the US consulate in hopes that they would be able to give us better directions than the street name and building number, which they did. This only aided us slightly though as they directed us though a tunnel arch into the back of the building where once again we ran into the same problem of all the descriptive signs being in Russian and no phone number matching the one given to us. 

Aggravated, we resorted to the method of entering each building one by one, trying to gain entry into each door in each building one by one, and showing our passports to the every Russian we saw in hopes that they would be able to direct us to the right office. For our efforts we received a lot of scowling looks (Russians are very good at scowling) and a lot of nyet's (no in Russian). Dejected, we left the building hoping for a miracle. 

The next day that miracle appeared, his name is Oleg and he is a Russian student who goes to school in the United States. We returned to that cursed street with Oleg leading the way. He quickly found the correct building, quickly found the office that created the necessary documents to obtain new visas, and then turned in these documents to the government authorities who would have everything ready for us by next Tuesday (it was Friday). All the while, we were assured that we would be receiving the same double entry business visas that we entered the country with filling us with a great deal of excitement and relief. With that obstacle seemingly surmounted we waited the weekend until we could pick up our new visas. 

On Tuesday we returned to the visa office with Oleg to pick up our new visas and passports. While there Oleg told us the bad news; our new visas were only exit visas. The other officials who said they could get us the same double entry business visas we entered the country with misinformed us. So, we can now leave Russia, but we cannot reenter. Thankfully, Jack was in contact with a company in Ulaan Baatar that will be able to get us Russian visas so we can enter the country again. So, we are once more we will go through an entire Russian visa process when we enter Mongolia and as expected none of us can speak Mongolian. 


Sunday, July 3, 2011

Getting Comfortable in Vladivostok

It's near the end of our sixth day in Vladivostok and we're starting to settle in.  After the Aussies left an Englishman, Tim, showed up at the hostel.  I can't remember who, but someone was telling me that it takes a certain disposition to travel overland to remote places.  I'm discovering that I am very fond of this disposition.  Tim was a couple of years older than us and taught middle and high schoolers at a special needs school in the UK.  When the (conservative) government cut funding for his school he packed up, flew to St. Petersburg, and hopped on a train bound for Vlad.  A few days after Tim arrived, we came back from the city to find a Suzuki V-Strom motorcycle parked in front of the hostel.  Another Englishman, James, had just pulled in from  London.  He is taking our ferry to Japan where he's shipping his bike to L.A.  Then to the East Coast and back to London.  James and I stayed up until 5am Friday night with Tim to see him off for a bus to China.  I think we hit every "big" subject in existence.  Religion, politics, education, philosophy, quantum physics, the big bang, branching universe theory, the likelihood that aliens exist, etc.  Tim and James called it travelers' talk.  I guess it was my first travelers' pow-wow.  I felt like I was on the plains in the wild west, swapping stories with a Texas Ranger and a fur trader around a campfire.  (I just watched True Grit).  The conversation was not normal for me.  In the U.S. a conversation like this one would have been outside of my comfort zone with relative strangers.  Here, in Vladivostok, it wasn't.  I think that there is an instant bond between travelers.  It feels odd to call myself a "traveler."  I'm not sure that I've earned it yet.  Maybe once we make it to St. Petersburg I'll have become a traveler.  



Forgot to mention: James is riding around the world to raise money for War Child, "a family of independent humanitarian organisations which work together to help children and young people affected by armed conflict." 

All the days here are starting to blur together.  Sometime last week, maybe the night after we were toured around the city by Natalia and Liza, one of our hosts at the hostel said "rock bar.  You come?"  We said yes and followed Max, Tim, and a middle-aged Finish guy named Markov to an underground rock and roll bar downtown.  We had a couple rounds of beer then started on the vodka shots.  Finally, vodka in Russia!  I was a little disappointed that Max, the only Russian in our group, stopped taking shots after our second but whatever.  It was stupid of me to think that all Russians loved to drink themselves into the ground every night with vodka.  

The next morning, let's call it Thursday, I called Yuri, the best fixer in Vlad (apparently).  Yuri's English is okay.  He looks and sounds exactly like what you would think a Russian who "fixes" problems at the port would look like.  Chest hair popping out of his too-far-buttoned-down-shirt and a thick gold chain tangled in with the hair.  He doesn't use any pronouns and says every word like he means it.  Our meeting later that afternoon was very concise:  

"Hello, I am Yuri"
..."Do you have documents?"
..."Ship unloads today.  We wait for Monday.  I will go to port with documents.  Tuesday you can leave with car, maybe."
..."I am friends with head officer at customs so shouldn't be problems."  
..."I call you Monday, dosvedanya."  

He spoke forcefully but had an air of trustworthiness and didn't ask for cash upfront for his services.  I liked him.  

Friday morning I got a call out of the blue from Yuri.  I couldn't understand much.  Something about buying insurance with someone else and I should come.  He's pick me up at 2:45 at the hostel.  Richard and Ezra left to track down some of our missing packages at the post office and I waited.  At 2:45 the phone rang at the hostel.  Max answered and I heard "Jack."  It must be Yuri buzzing in from the entrance to our building.  A minute later a girl in her early-twenties walked through the door.  "Hi I'm Svetlana.  Are you Jack...  It's nice to meet you.  I work with Yuri.  Are you ready to leave?"  Perfect English.  

Svetlana is in her second to last year of college and works part time as an English and German translator, usually for Yuri.  We jumped into her late nineties Toyota Corolla and sped off to the city center.  I still didn't know exactly what was going on but I felt like Svetlana expected me to know so I didn't ask.  I also didn't have time to ask on the drive because I was too focused on praying that we wouldn't crash.  There aren't many rules for driving in Vladivostok and Svetlana seemed to ignore those anyway.  We passed cars and busses on the right and left swerving into oncoming traffic during rush hour.  Once when we were passing a bus and were face to face with another car Svetlana decided to pull left into the second lane of oncoming traffic instead of tucking back in behind the bus.  We probably had a closing speed of 55mph with the other car.  But we made it safely.  

Insurance was a relatively simple process.  There were three groups of us meeting with an insurance agent in a hotel lobby.  All clients of Yuri.  There were two 50 - 60 year old English guys riding BMW GS 1200s back to the UK from the U.S. and a family group of five Australians driving two Toyota pickups to the UK.  We sat in a big circle in the lobby and went through the process one-by-one.  I went last and figured out that the premium was derived mostly from the power level of the car.  I bumped ours down from 250hp to 210hp to save some money.  In hindsight I should have undervalued it even more as the insurance broker was extremely surprised that a Forester had that much power.  I don't think it would have been a big deal.  When Ezra, Richard and our Russian friend Oleg were at the post office they had to forge my signature to pick up a package sent to me.  They each practiced a few times in front of the postal worker.  In the end the postal worker decided who could forge it best and had Oleg sign all the necessary documents.  That's the Siberia that I was expecting.  

We now have insurance, half the car parts that were shipped to us, and possibly new visas (more info on Tuesday).  Oh, and Igor (our orthodontist friend) has Ezra's Kindle.  He got it in the mail at the same time as some CDs he ordered from Amazon and thought it was confused.  He thought Amazon sent it to him as a gift!  Sorry Igor...

Long post without many pictures.  Thanks for making it all the way through.  Here's a little treat from a night drinking vodka at the hostel: