Saturday & Sunday, July 2 & 3: Ok. It’s been a couple days. I don’t really remember where we were when I last posted, so I’ll check real quick. Right, so on Friday we found out that the tip about our parts arriving a full 4 days ahead of schedule was more like an alleged rumor started by that gossipy girl that no one likes. Looking at that post now, it seems a bit short and uninteresting, whereas that day was actually long and uninteresting. So let’s move on to more exciting happenings.
As you know, our trusty interpreter Dima became our bureaucratic sherpa and labored tirelessly in an effort to insure that our parts made it from Almaty to Astana by Saturday. Also, according to my sources, a woman associated with MIR actually went to the Almaty airport to make sure that our package got onto a plane. Thanks mystery woman, we are eternally in your debt. The plan was to get the parts in the early morning, put the whole car back together in one day, and then hit the road on Sunday. The young lady that worked at the UPS office counter told us to come by at 10 the next morning to see our package had somehow found its way to the office. So we stopped by at 9. By this time, the plane had just landed at the airport. Also, it should be noted that Jama had rejoined the team the night before; I’m not sure if I mentioned that or not, but his presence was crucial in the days to come. Anyway, when I heard that the plane had landed, I took it as a positive sign. Unfortunately, this was only true from the perspective of my untrained eyes. In reality, the parts still had to get from the airport to the office and then pass through the system before we could get them, meaning at least a couple more hours delay. When this was explained to me, panic began to set in. We couldn’t do anything without those parts! We were going to lose another day! We would never catch up! We would never get out of Astana! That’s when the magic happened. Don’t ask me how he did it (mostly because I couldn’t understand the Russian) but Jama somehow convinced the clerk to let us drive to the airport and pick up our own package. So that’s what we did. It was quite anticlimactic really… we just drove around the side and there was a small UPS van waiting for us. The package itself was just plain cardboard, smaller than a shoebox. But I opened it as one would a buried treasure chest.
Instead of wasting valuable time, we delivered ourselves to the package.
With an intimidating workload not yet addressed, we whisked our treasure – two new sets of rod bearings and one set of main bearings – off to the workplace of our favorite Kazakh mechanic in the world, Erlan. Now if getting this engine out was a test, getting it back in was a true, honest to goodness, authentic, Jesus Christ miracle. First of all, we had parts all over the place in that little garage. The system for much of the reassembly was grab a part, find whoever took it out, and ask them where it goes. In many cases, the person who took out certain parts could not be identified or they couldn’t remember where the part was supposed to go. This was especially common with nuts and bolts. Then there was the issue with Erlan MIA. Our crew rolled up on the shop around 10 30 and only Erlan’s brother was there to let us in. At first no one was worried; Erlan would be a big help, but his absence would not prevent us form getting the job done.
Working inside the engine was a delicate job.
Then we figured out that Erlan had with him one of the rod caps and one of the main caps, without which we couldn’t even fully reassemble the engine let alone put it back in the car. So while Grampa and I set about the tedious task of installing the new bearings and freshly machined crankshaft, Dima and Jama rounded up a posse and went on a good ole fashion man hunt for our missing mechanic. And yet he remained beyond our many frantic, searching eyes. So we did what we could with what we had. My memory fails me at this point but I think Erlan showed up just as we finished with the caps we had (I still don’t know where he was). Unfortunately, he only had the main cap with him and no one knew the whereabouts of the missing rod cap. This was a period of sheer panic for me. Our worst fear had been realized; in the clutter and grime of the garage, one of our most essential parts had been swallowed up forever. Thankfully this was not the case. In the commotion of the search, Erlan remembered he left it somewhere else and soon returned with cap in hand. In short order, we had the engine back together and ready to go back in the car.
Now I don’t know how many of you have had to do this (and by this I mean put an engine back into a car) but it’s not an especially easy process. Right off the bat you’ve got the whole made of metal issue; I’ve been quoted an estimated weight of 300 pounds on our engine, so it’s not like you can just pick it up and set it in the car. And secondly, there isn’t meant to be a lot of extra space in the front of the car, so it’s a pretty snug fit. But the hardest part, the part which took us the better part of an hour to accomplish was aligning the engine up with the transmission.
It took all our minds and all our resources to get the engine in place.
Protruding from the transmission is a metal shaft about the size of a broom handle and on the backside of the engine is the corresponding hole. The trick is to get the 300 pound engine, which is suspended in the air by ropes, lined up with the shaft. And you can’t see it. Needless to say, this part took a while (and lots of cursing), but we finally managed to muscle it in there. Now I’ve thrown a couple twist endings your way recently, so I’m going to level with you on this one and give you some foreshadowing; something went very wrong here (you’ll find out when I tell you later). But the engine was in and it was time to tighten it up. To describe this whole process in detail would take time and battery life that I do not have, so I’ll sum it up for you. In went the alternator, air conditioner, radiator, carburetors, and distributor. There was other stuff as well, but you get the picture I think. After finishing all the assembly that we could address from the tip of the car, we put it on the lift and went at it from below. Here we discovered that a plate that we had neglected to install while the engine was out could not be reattached in the current condition. The plate fit over the flywheel, in-between the oil pan and bell housing, and was the piece upon which the starter was mounted, so we had to get it in somehow. Initially, it looked like we were going to have to detach the exhaust and drop the oil pan (along with 5 liters of fresh oil and new gaskets), but Erlan had a bright idea. Unfortunately, it involved Jama and myself removing the floor for the third time, but we just loosened the bolts holding the engine to the bell housing and gained enough clearance to tighten it up. After putting the exhaust back in place, the car was pretty much mechanically reassembled. We had labored doggedly into the night and even though it was already 8 PM, any remaining tasks seemed trivial when compared to what we had already accomplished.
Unfortunately, this is where that foreshadowing comes into play. I don’t know if you can tell from the pictures, but Erlan isn’t that big of a guy. So when we were trying to get the engine into the car, he was just wrestling that hunk of metal like it was trying to kill him. Eventually this brutal technique prevailed, but at what cost? Upon starting the engine for the first time and hearing that sweet melody my ears had longed for over the past week, my ecstasy was abruptly cut short by the discovery of a rather large oil leak somewhere in the back of the engine. So, Jama and myself removed the floor once again and we discovered that, as a result of much jostling and not so gentle contact while the engine was being put in, the small brass pipe connecting the oil pressure gauge to the engine had been cracked. Our efforts to remove the pipe only caused it to break completely, so we did the only thing we could do; we called it a night and went back to the hotel. Erlan promised that “the masters” (this is really what he said) could fix our problem in one way or another the next morning, so until then there was nothing to do. After a delightful dinner with Jama at the hotel, we finally got to bed sometime between 11 and 12.
Ok. So that was the first of the last two days. This post is getting to be pretty long; I actually started writing it on Sunday, but now it’s Monday and I’m only to this part. An explanation will follow.
We woke up on Sunday with three things in mind: a quick fix, goodbyes, and a drive to the Russian border. The earliest Erlan could take our problem to “the masters” was 10 in the morning, so we headed over to his shop at 9 to finish up the assembly and clean up the tools. All that was left to do was but the floor back in (for what I thought was the last time) and put the grill, lights, and hood in place in the front of the car. We had all this finished in addition to the tool clean up before noon, but Erlan had not yet returned with the replacement pipe for the pressure gauge. Finally, after about 15 games of iPhone solitaire, Erlan drove up with a replacement pipe made out of steel. Grampa looked it over and we were given the all systems are go signal for installation. Now a new problem emerged. As it turns out, the only reason we were able to remove the gauge with the engine in the car was because it broke right off. The space was so small that, with an intact pipe, there was no way to screw the gauge into it’s place on the engine. This was a major problem and a major frustration, but the fight was not lost; Grampa came to the rescue. Just call him McGramper because Grampa managed to construct a working gauge out of spare parts and pure genius. Let me describe it for you. We screwed the new pipe into the engine, then we attached a hose to that pipe and on the other end we attached the old pipe with the unbroken part screwed into the oil pressure gauge. As I type this, I know you can’t picture it, but it was truly magnificent. After we got this set up, we left the car running while we ran back to the hotel to grab our luggage. We returned around an hour and a half later with the car still running fine and ready to go. We said our fond goodbyes to Dima and Erlan and, with Jama leading us in a rented car, we were off for Petropavlovsk at 6 PM.
The drive was one of the more unpleasant we have made so far. Due to delays, we had a very late start and it was more than 300 miles to our destination. Most of the drive was on very nice road; even while taking it easy on our newly reassembled engine, we managed to make the first 200 miles in about 4 and a half hours. Over this period we saw the best roads since we left China; well paved, six lane highways with clearly observable painted lines. Alas this was not to last… I’m not sure when (actually it was when I was starting to write the part about reassembling the engine) but at some point after that we hit pretty bad construction. Honestly, I was in and out of sleep for the last 100 miles, so all I can tell you is that the road was not at all good. In fact, in the dark it was down right awful. While the first 200 had only taken 4 ½ hours, the last 100 took only a few minutes less. In addition to the construction, which we took after dusk in complete darkness, we were stopped by the police four times on our approach to Petropavlovsk. Three out of four of these stops could be attributed to curiosity; the police just wanted a better look at our car and once they got it we were on our way. But the other was a very unfortunate delay of at least half an hour. It seems that while navigating one of Kazakhstan’s very confusing turnabouts, we managed to exit through an entranceway. As luck would have it, the extremely corrupt Kazakh police were waiting just on the other side for unfortunate souls exactly like ourselves. At this point, Jama was driving the taxi in order to spell the driver and he spent a good while in the police car convincing them that no one in the caravan had the money to pay the bribe of the two officers. Just for information’s sake, I think he said they demanded 200 USD before he managed to work them down to 50. Anyway, so we eventually arrived at the hotel around 3 AM and pretty much passed out from there.
In Petropavlovsk we were two days behind the group. The plan is to cross the border into Russia and drive to the nearby city of Kurgan (where the group stopped). From there we will decide based on the roads up to that point whether we want to attempt to catch up by using the route taken by the group or by taking a short cut on unfamiliar roads. Hopefully the hotel we stay at tonight will have internet so I can share all our incredible adventures with you guys. But the good news is we are finally on the move. Hopefully it stays that way.