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August 27, 2012 | Half-time

Not far behind Krasnoyarsk, we solved the limitation we had mentioned two posts ago – the charge controller would not charge with full capacity until the batteries were already quite depleted. We adjusted its exit voltage upwards – now it basically thinks the batteries are already quite empty when they are, in fact, still nearly full. The drawback is that it will now happily overcharge them if we don’t prevent it from doing so. To stop this, we simply installed a switch-off button between batteries and charge controller.

This improvement was much needed: Towards Irkutsk, the road gets much, much hillier, and its condition much worse. Several long stretches were just gravel road or were under construction with a temporary gravel road in place. We can only go ten to fifteen km/h on gravel, and it taxes both us and the bikes greatly. We wouldn’t have reached our daily mileage without the change.

Generally, SiStour has a nice in-built progression. The first half, up to Irkutsk, is mostly flat and is – for Siberian standards – reasonably well populated. The days are still long, it’s still warm summer weather, and help is never all that far away. In contrast, the second half, from Irkutsk onwards, is mainly mountainous and very sparsely populated. Since the year is further advanced, the days are a lot shorter, and both due to the approaching autumn and to the altitude, much colder. In addition, the road is, by various accounts, either in bad state or even non-existant, and the wildlife is supposed to become a little fiercer as well. We’ll see how all this is going to effect us, and how much of it is even true.

Anyway, we’ve reached Irkutsk pretty much on plan and were ready to start the second half, when several self-made problems held us up for nearly four days. First, while on a parking space of an inner-city supermarket, we broke the axle linking my overloaded trailer to the bike by lifting the trailer in a slightly haphazered way. Ooops! Luckily, in Russia, someone ready to help never seems too far away: In this case, Alexej, a mechanic from the basement of the supermarket. He didn’t have steel at hand, but an old ladder, and simply sawed off the ladder feet and inserted them as support into our axle. Some drills and screws later – voilà! For now at least, we again had two working axles.

But this was not to remain the only problem: While staying at Sergei’s (of passport fame), we did not have a parking space for the bikes. We took out the batteries and our stuff for the night and hauled it into Sergei’s – quite incredible – appartment, then went without batteries to search for a parking space. At this point, we made a big mistake: Felix’s engine and charge controller were still connected, and the engine works as regenerator when going downhill. Irkutsk is quite a hilly city, so the engine regenerated quite a bit of power – but without batteries, this power had nowhere to go but into his charge controller. No wonder: it promptly got fried. Ooops the second!

Here again, Russian resourcefulness came to the rescue: With the help of Alexej, we had met an electronics “master” – naturally, hidden where we’d never had found him on our own. And a master this was indeed: Not only fixed he the charge controller twice (it had another small problem when we came into town; this is why we originally met him), he also fixed some of our tiny current converters that we use for things like the LEDs and the USB connections. Amazingly, he managed all of this without having ever seen any of this equipment beforehand and without any schematics – basically, just by havnig a seemingly intuitive understanding of all things electric. Wow!

This still didn’t remain the only problem: On our way out of town, late at night, my axle broke again: The ladder wasn’t good enough. We fixed it temporarily with the help of our drill and repair equipment, but it was clear we’d need a more permanent solution very soon. So the next day, we went to the next car repair shop, and got the aluminium rod replaced by a steel rod. By this time, we had spent three full days in Irkutsk, and were pretty low on spirits: It had been raining the whole day, the repairs took way too much time, and we were supposed to start the second, harder leg of our tour both behind schedule and with equipment that seemed to have reached the end of its useful life.

The fourth day, it was pouring down rain until three in the afternoon, when we finally left Irkutsk for good. We only managed about a hundred km that day, on suddenly very, very mountainous roads towards Lake Baikal. Still, it was a great feeling to finally arrive at the famous, immensely beautiful, lake! The night was well below zero, though – certainly far too cold to go for a swim!

But let’s not pretend that there are only problems: In Irkutsk, we met many, many interesting and extremely friendly people – our days were full! Starting with Igor, whom we had met the first evening in town, and at whose place we had spent a great and fun first night talking and drinking with him and his roommate, Egor. Then Sergei and his beautiful girlfriend in his amazing flat, where we were treated with extreme hospitality on our second night in town. Aljeva, a journalist, met us on the street the first day in town, and we had a very nice interview the second. There’s Brian, an American who had been in Irkutsk two or three times already, and with whom we had several very enjoyable meals. Yevgeni, a trucker who was at the repair shop, and who had several cars on his transport – one of which we spent our fourth Irkutsk night in. Plus, of course, the various masters, and many many more people we met in town and had enjoyable exchanges with!

In general, all of our problems have been more than made up by the great and friendly people we’ve met, and the many, many interesting sights and experiences one has when staying in a city like Irkutsk for nearly four days. Really, without the Russians, Russia would be a much less enjoyable place!