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July 17, 2012 | Cars can have problems, too

The past week has been a very busy time – just not with SiStour preparations. Instead, we’ve been preoccupied with bringing the Editourmobil to Yekaterinburg in the first place. Lots of minor difficulties have propped up and have taken time to resolve, and we’re just barely still on schedule.

While still near Moscow, during the better part of the last week, we had to get up very early to meet with interview partners for Kay’s Go to Brau project. The interviews happen on production sites, both because these provide much better photo opportunities and because the PET machines themselves often prompt further questioning. Production sites, as one would expect, are located in production zones, and in turn, these are usually located on the outskirts of town. In the case of a megalopolis like Moscow, this often implies a drive of several hours just to get from the morning appointment to the evening one.

Anyone who has ever travelled with a caravan with more than one person on board knows everything tends to take lots of time. The car itself cannot go too fast, or travelling becomes shaky and noisy for the passengers. Acceleration is slow, and deceleration has to be slow as well, or things start to fly around. Fresh water needs to be refilled, waste water to be disposed of, food needs to be bought and then prepared, and dishes need washing. In our case, three people share a bathroom consecutively, so this takes additional time each morning and evening. Finally, Moscow’s road conditions are best described as “under construction”, and its traffic conditions as “jammed”!

The Editourmobil itself has issues, too. The waste-water tank has developed a pretty awful smell, it no longer empties easily, the rear view camera is dead, and the engine control computer displays a warning message each time the engine is started. Back home in Germany, these would be small, simple things: Drive to the next caravan shop, describe the problems, wait for an hour, and leave with a fully functioning vehicle. In Russia, however, there are no caravan specialists, and describing a problem to anyone is really challenging – very few people speak English, and my Russian is still a little too basic for car repairs.

So we have to fix these problems by ourselves – and luckily, Felix is a talented electrician and mechanic! The camera is repaired first: The problem was loose wiring on the back of the display screen. Dismantling it, locating the problem, working out a solution, implementing that solution, and putting the screen back together takes a full evening, but at least we can turn around safely again.

The waste-water tank is next: First, we realize that it does empty under acceleration – we empty the tank by driving forward and backward over the same spot again and again. A more permanent solution is found when Felix unscrews the long waste-water tailpipe while Kay and me are at an interview – now the tank empties fine again! As for the smell, our quick-fix solution is just to put a plug into the shower drain – a few days later, more lasting relief comes through Corega tabs. The tabs clear the tank of the bacteria that had made it their home, and soon the smell is gone.

The engine error message on startup remains, but it causes no further problems and does not come up at every engine start. Since we are already pressed for time, we choose to ignore it for now, and start our big drive East. “Drive”, in this case, is an exaggeration, and “crawl” would be a better word – there seems to be a continuous, never-ending traffic jam towards Siberia. Three days later, we are only 650 km from Red Square!

Near Kazan, we are still driving late on a Saturday evening, when, at around 10 p.m., engine power suddenly drops, and a red warning light starts to blink. We barely manage to reach the next hilltop, then pull over to a nearby petrol station. Consulting the manual and the internet gives some clues: It’s the engine error message the computer indicated earlier and that we’ve not yet taken care of. It can no longer be ignored: The Editourmobil needs professional assistance from an Iveco service partner!

Now, where to find one, in the middle of Russia? According to our service manual, the next service partner is located in Miass – more than one thousand km further east, and not even on our route to Yekaterinburg. That’s pretty far away, yet looks like our best option. We call international Iveco service, but the assistant on the phone tells us there’s no cooperation with local Russian service stations, and he cannot help us. Exhausted and frustrated, we decide to spend the night where we are, and hope for a better Sunday.

On Sunday morning, we call Iveco in Miass, with little hope – it is, after all, a Sunday morning. To our surprise, the phone is answered immediately, and soon the call is forwarded to Vladimir in Moscow. He speaks excellent English, and after we describe the situation, he promises to call back soon. He does, and then takes full ownership of the problem: He’ll help us until it is solved! For now, we are to drive, under our own power, to Kazan, about seventy km away, and meet up with Valery, a local service manager, at road km 806. We are delighted: Kazan is en route, and seventy km is much closer than one thousand km!

Valery is a very friendly guy who doesn’t speak a word of English. Still, with lots of good will on both sides and with my rudimentary Russian, we get along quite well. Soon, the engine is checked by several mechanics. They have trouble locating the problem – fortunately, at a test drive, it shows up in exactly the same driving situation as we had yesterday evening. Now they know where to look, and do so for the next several hours.

After spending all day and night at Valery’s car workshop, it turns out the necessary spare parts are not in Kazan at all. Vladimir will arrange for them to be sent to Yekaterinburg. We can drive there, and whenever engine power drops, we are simply to pull over, switch off the engine, and restart. Sounds a little strange to us, but easy enough – and anyway as the only viable way forward, so we agree and drive off.

As I write this, we’ve managed about half the distance from Kazan to Yekaterinburg – about 600 km. The engine is holding up quite well – the power level went down several times, but a restart always brought full power back immediately. We are hopeful that we can reach Yekaterinburg tomorrow evening, fix the Editourmobil, and then finally start SiStour proper a day or two later, still on schedule. And whenever a problem props up, we are going to remember that travelling by car is by no means worry-free either!