Tuk to the Road

The trials and tukulations of Jo, Ants and Ting Tong the tuk tuk and our three-wheeled odyssey from Bangkok to Brighton...in aid of the mental health charity Mind. For more information please see www.tuktotheroad.com

Saturday, July 29, 2006

TT the people magnet

27th July, Yekaterinburg (Russia)

Ting Tong and Russian comrades in Yekaterinburg

It is the beginning of our third full day in Russia and I am writing this blog in our hotel room while I wait for a phone call from one of our new friends. Ivan is a local who we met at about 11pm the night before last as we desperately tried to find our hotel after a very trying day on the road. I will recap.

We left Troitsk two days ago with a special gift from the market. Ants had gone to the local market to get some food and drinks and also to try and find us some warmer clothes. She returned and on entering our room instructed me to put my cigarette outside and close my eyes. I though she had a pink anorak for me, or some other item of warm clothing, but I was confused as to why this may require me to stop smoking. I opened my eyes to a box with a pink towel in it, which I initially thought might have been some clothes. On closer inspection I found a baby hedgehog. Ants had come across a couple of young boys selling him in the market and felt obliged to buy him for 85 roubles (just over a quid). We named him Henry and gave him a saucer of milk to drink. Then, we had to smuggle him out of the hotel without the babushkas catching on to our little animal rescue mission. Henry looked in good condition, but we were very anxious that we didn’t want him to die of stress. As we drove through town Ants popped to the local market again to get Henry some meat; this consisted of a chicken wing, some sausages (which I ate) and some local pate, which looked similar to what we feed our cat in England. We hit the main road and turned off onto a farmer’s track and headed for some woods. Henry, Ants and I waded through a waist high wheat field and found a shady collection of trees far from the road and civilisation. We gave him some more milk and put the pate in his box. Henry wasn’t interested in hanging around to eat his lunch and scuttled off into the undergrowth, hopefully to a free and happy life.

Then began our nightmare drive. The weather was cold and windy and it soon started to piss down with rain. Big trucks and cars were flying past TT, sending torrents of water all over us and her. Anuwat (our tuktuk guru) had warned me that if it is very wet the spark plugs may get wet and cause her problems. Sure enough TT started to misfire, struggle and lose momentum. We pulled over and I had a real ‘oh shit’ moment. We were in the middle of two cities, with nothing really in between, it was pouring with rain and TT had semi-broken down. Some locals we had met earlier had warned us that on the road we might meet mafia and banditos- great. Furthermore, our phone had decided not to let us make outgoing calls and so we had to just hope that the rain would ease off and TT’s sparks would dry out, if indeed that was the problem. I pulled out my faithful “Auto Repair for Dummies” and had a read of all the info relating to spark plugs. I knew that we had about 10 spare spark plugs in the boxes on the roof rack, but I wasn’t too keen to start trying to change them by the side of the road in the pouring rain. Luckily, my dad phoned at that moment and provided much needed moral support. He told us to wait for about 30 minutes and then to try driving again.

It continued to rain, although with less intensity. We had no choice but to keep driving and I prayed that TT would be able to safely take us to our intended destination. She was still having some issues and could only drive at about 35mph, but at least she was moving. We finally arrived on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg at 10pm, but were initially delayed by a police stop, where our documents were checked and we were kept waiting for a good 20 minutes. This was the second time we had been stopped by the police that day and we were cold, stressed, tired and not really in the mood to make small talk.

TT had now started farting i.e. backfiring and Ants and I willed her to just get us to our hotel. We found the right street but could not find our hotel. We pulled up outside a shop that randomly happened to still be open at 10.30pm. Ants went inside to ask for directions and a guy came over to me and started asking about our trip- luckily for me he spoke English. His name was Ivan and he was a presenter for a local radio station. Ants asked him if he would join our search for the elusive hotel, which to our surprise he did. After a couple of phone calls and about 20 minutes we located our hotel down a small road that was well and truly hidden off the road that the hotel was meant to be on. There were no signs or indications that our hotel was a hotel and how anyone manages to find it is quite beyond me. We unloaded our bags and then set off with Ivan to find a secure place to park. After a couple of tries we managed to persuade a security guard to let us park TT outside his hut for 60R a night. Relieved, hungry and tired we then ended up in a Belgian restaurant with Ivan, eating Greek salad and drinking beer at gone midnight. We then returned to our hotel and hit the hay.

The following morning we had a bit of lie in and then headed into town to register our visas (compulsory for tourists in Russia within 3 working days of arrival). We initially went to the wrong place and eventually arrived at the correct office with only 30 minutes to spare. As we tried to register our visas we were informed that it would not be possible because first we had to go to the state bank and pay 1R for each of the days that we planned to be in Yekaterinburg. As the office was soon closing we would have to wait until the Friday to register our visas. This meant that we would be a day late registering and may end up having to pay a $50 fine each- hopefully we can work some TT magic and escape unpunished. Ants and I had no idea that these complicated rules for registering existed and we didn’t where the state bank was. Luckily for us we had got chatting to a lovely couple who offered to take us to the bank and help us. Christina was a local and she was with her Turkish boyfriend, Elich, who needed to get his visa registered. They had been dating for two years and met through an internet chat site. Christina showed us to the bank and helped us to fill out our forms in Russian, before we paid the cashier 6R each- whether this makes sense or is economically profitable for the Russians I will let you be the judge!? We then went out for a drink and had a long and interesting chat with our new friends about Turkey, Russia and life.

We then went to an internet café where a random coincidence occurred. Ivan had written on a local internet site about meeting us and some other people that had seen TT had also posted blogs. Two guys, Rudy and Oleg, had read the posting and decided to try and find us. The first internet place they walked into happened to be where we were doing our blogs and checking emails. They asked us if we were driving a tuktuk back to England, to which we replied that we were. They then told us that we had mechanical problems with TT and we were both thinking ‘how the hell do they know”. Ivan had mentioned that TT had some problems with misfiring. What a small world. Oleg and Rudy both spoke nearly fluent English and we went off for a walk, drink and meal with them. Oleg had spent the last 4 years abroad studying and Rudy had worked in the states. Later that evening they walked us back to our hotel and pointed out some of the local sights. They told us they could help find a mechanic for TT and we swapped numbers.

The following morning Ants went off to try and fix the video camera and I went off to get TT fixed. Ivan came over and said he knew a mechanic but the guy didn’t have a phone number. About 30 minutes later Rudy and Oleg arrived with their friend who was a keen photographer and also knew a good garage that dealt with BMWs. We went to pick up TT and I then discovered that she was missing a bolt from under the housing for the accelerator cable and also that one of the screws that secured the cable was loose. This meant that the accelerator pedal didn’t return to its proper position after being fully depressed.

Alexei (Oleg’s friend) led the way in his BMW and we arrived at a very professional garage full of smart beamers. TT could hardly contain her excitement at being in the company of such attractive, powerful and sleek cars. I explained about the problems with the accelerator, spark plugs and windscreen wiper (which was misbehaving and had developed a mind of its own) and it was translated into Russian. I got out three new spark plugs and the mechanics set to work, promising that they would let me know when it was time to change the spark plugs. Meanwhile I relaxed upstairs on a leather sofa watching National Geographic and playing with a black kitten, which the guys informed me couldn’t understand English!

Alexei and Ting Tong with her BMW friends

I was fetched to see the old spark plugs and watch the new ones being inserted. The old ones were coated in black muck and I was told that they were bad. They thought this was probably caused by the fuel quality we have had during our 12,000km drive from Thailand. They showed me how to insert new ones and I watched carefully, in case the need arises for some DIY on the road mechanics relating to spark plugs. TT started first time with her new plugs and revved happily. Then it was time for a quick photo with all the mechanics, who then refused any payment for their services- what total dudes.

We headed back into town and stopped to get some petrol. Oleg phoned up a local news station and they agreed to come and film us when we arrived back in town. I tried to track down Mr Ant but she was still ferreting around town. After a quick pizza we met the TV crew and they interviewed me, Rudy and Oleg, before filming TT driving around town. They found the bottle of vodka that Ants had been drinking and I had to hold it up to the camera, as well as my mechanics book and a Russian map that I couldn’t read.

Tuk to the Road PR over and we went back to the hotel and met up with Ants, who had been for a jog. After a quick shower we headed out for supper and some drinks and a bit of sightseeing. Apparently we were on the news at 8.30pm, but we were out and I didn’t have to worry about seeing myself on camera. Back in the hotel now and I am sitting in the shower room writing this blog. I need to get to bed as it is 1.30am and we have an early start. We are splitting up again, with Ants off to the British council and me to get our visas registered. Then around midday we are meeting Ivan for a radio interview.

I am very pleasantly surprised by Russia, although I didn’t really know what to expect. It is an interesting place, the food is good, the cities attractive and most importantly the people are great. Goodnight.


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