Limping along (again)

16th September 2010 by Helen

Thursday 16th September

outside the hunter's lodge where we camped last night

outside the hunter's lodge where we camped last night

After a long cold night we wake to the welcoming rays of the sun warming us through the tent walls.  The scenery is as beautiful as it was yesterday.  The silver birch are shining yellow and gold in the sun.  The occasional gust of wind sends a cascade of leaves down to the forest floor around us like nature’s confetti.  The sky is a pure clear blue, not a cloud in sight for as much as we can see between the treetops.

We’d peeked in last night, but now in daylight we take a closer look at the hunters’ cabin.  Measuring some 15 foot by 12 foot inside, half of the space is taken up by a wooden sleeping platform.  Immediately inside the door on the left is a wood stove, similar to the stoves we had seen in the gers in Mongolia.  To the right a high table and bench in front of a small window.  Outside the front, covering the entrance door, is a porch with another table with bench seats either side.  Simple but clean and warm.  In front of the hut is an open fire with facilities for hanging cooking pots.  A small stream running nearby is undoubtedly the source of water for any occupants of the hut.  I dream a little of how to make it homely, surrounded by the sounds of the brook and the birds in the trees.  From up the hill, somewhere in the distance, come the sounds of a woodpecker.

It was still early and our on-board tap water had frozen somewhere in the pipes or tank, but it soon defrosted in the warming sun and we had breakfast of tea and cream crackers before we had to face the task of moving on again.

Starting with an assessment of the situation, we found the engine started and the winch still worked.  Both good news, although we realised we probably had about 70 kilometres to travel and the winch alone would not get us there in under a month!  Some of the gears seemed to be working intermittently in low range.  That meant we could drive, albeit very slowly.  We set off at between 5 and 15 km an hour, with frequent stops to re-establish drive to the wheels by deselecting and reselecting the centre diff lock.  It was hard driving, the gears kept jumping out.  There were crunches and clangs going on all the time.  Nasty, complaining bangs, and sounds of metal scraping against metal.  Going uphill was a tense nightmare. 

First, we tried heading west again to Babushkin, the nearest reasonably large town on a very main road and by far the best option.  Although the towns here are no further apart than they were in Mongolia this is much more isolated due to the absence of smaller settlements and nomad gers.  We hadn’t seen a soul in 36 hours.

The road going west soon becomes impassable due to dead trees having fallen across the track and the forest having reclaimed the ground.  As we recce’d up ahead, it was clear the rest of the road had obviously not been used for some time.  This is great terrain for off-road clubs with several vehicles, winches and time for fun and games, but not for a lone injured Landy in need of TLC.  We turned back (again).  We were now heading south east on a track that had seen much more regular traffic, back towards the A165 and a town called Gusinoozersk.  All the while Paul was trying to work through in his head the various scenarios of what exactly had broken, fearing expensive and long winded repairs and another long wait for parts.   He would later reveal  how dispirited he felt, struggling not just with how to nurse Landy and ourselves to safety, but  also with realising his ambition to drive the Road of Bones to Magadan was evaporating.  This had become much more than a practical challenge for him.

Paul removing the prop shaft helped us on our way

Paul removing the prop shaft helped us on our way

managed to get same wheel stuck again today - must be something about that side of the car

managed to get same wheel stuck again today - must be something about that side of the car

After dropping a wheel in another deep puddle we carried on.  Soon we were struggling to climb uphill through a pass when Paul realised that Landy would drive in gear better with the hand brake on and takes this as a cue to remove the rear prop shaft.   We now have a three ton Land Rover with only front wheel drive – not good, as we are still in slippery off road conditions.  But by working a combination of the gears that are available to us, along with both the foot and hand brakes, he coaxed Landy up the remainder of the rise through the pass for another couple of kilometres.  Cresting the top of the pass we were relieved to find ourselves going downhill again.  With no engine braking available to us, and no hand brake either, we were now freewheeling downhill in a three ton Land Rover with pointy out wheels over what is a badly potholed and rutted mud track, gouged by deep water run-offs.  I suggested I would feel happier at a slightly slower speed than 47 km per hour and Paul eased Landy back to a more sedate 35.  I suspected this was still a far from safe mode of travel but chose not to ask!

our first sight of the lake as we approached Gusinoozersk

our first sight of the lake as we approached Gusinoozersk

We could see from the map that there is small lake and a railway line between us and the town.  After some 10 km of the off-roader’s equivalent of the Cresta Run, the hills parted before us and the lake came into view.  Never before have I been so relieved to see a lake!  We still had a long way to go but the town was in sight.  Two tall chimneys belched out smoke, surrounded by electricity pylons.  We could already see this town has more than its share of apartment blocks, no doubt housing the workforce for the power plant on the outskirts of town.

We stopped for a rest and a coffee before tackling finding our way across the railway line and round the power plant.  We were unable to find where the road crossed the railway line but instead followed a local driver through a culvert and think we are nearly there, but after finding several dead ends in the power plant we had to stop to ask a worker how to get to the town.  Fortunately at this point a man arrived in a mobile crane at the end of his shift.  He was going home and led us to the town.  Just as well.  With no road signs and 5 km of driving still, we’d never have found our way on our own.  Once again it is now dark (bit of a theme there).  We have explained we have a problem with our vehicle and he drives at our speed, leading us to a garage.  It has already shut for the night and so we headed into the town centre hoping to find a hotel. 

The town centre is really rather small.  The bulk of the town is made up of the apartment blocks we saw from a distance.  Then we saw red and blue flashing lights behind us, followed by the police siren.  What traffic infringement have we committed we wondered?  Before they get a chance to tell us off for doing something wrong we plead for directions to a hotel.  There are no hotels in the direction we are going.  The police officer indicated we should follow him back the way we’ve just come.  He led us to what we think is probably the only hotel in town.  It’s 700 Roubles per night for both of us – that’s about £16.  We confirmed that tomorrow they can register our visas for us.  Secure parking is available – a 10 minute walk away.  While Paul parked Landy I learnt that there is no hot water, at all, even in the shower.  There is no breakfast facility either, although the restaurant on the ground floor does open at 10.00 am.  Still, when we get to our room it is clean, reasonably warm (don’t know how as we can’t find any heat on), with our own toilet and (cold) shower.  And the beds are comfortable, not rock hard like they were in Mongolia (wooden floorboards would have been softer).  The restaurant is open until midnight and so we went straight down for dinner.   We ordered something that sounded like lasagne only to discover it is chopped chicken made into a fritter, topped with a little onion, tomato and cheese and flashed under a grill to melt the cheese.  Not what we thought of when we heard lasagne!!  Served with cold rice (potatoes were on the menu but, like most things on the menu, not available).  Time for some welcome sleep again.

Overnight location: Gusinoozersk

Distance travelled – 70 km

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