Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Lada Legend: How a Legend Was Born - A Final Farewell

It seems so long ago that first I saw the yellow Zhiguli that became "The Colonel" parked on the sidewalk near my office. I remember thinking at the time, "I'm going to own that car. I don't know how or when, but I'm going to do it." There was just something about it.

When, on September 15th of this year, I went back to the street in Split, Croatia where we had said our final farewells to the old boy, I have to admit that it was quite sad to not find the Colonel where we left it. Not that this was a big surprise, but to speculate on what had become of it conjured up images of wrecking yards and police impound lots--two places the Colonel was already rather familiar with.

Emotions aside, we had a great run. In its 18 months of operation, the Colonel brought us to more places and got us into more situations than we ever thought possible. From the day we first took ownership and subsequently ran out of gas, to the time the engine seized in a tunnel, to that first hundred kilometre trip, to the video, to the thousand kilometre odyssey with the travelling band of misfits, to the theft, to the four-thousand kilometre epic voyage to Europe. What would we have done without it?

The real point of this piece is to recognize all the people that helped out along the way. Without these people, there is now way we would have been able to have that much fun. I will do my best to name them all.

Ilham - for being there whenever we needed. Without you, I don't think the Colonel would've made it anywhere. You were tireless in your efforts and all of the Lada owners, past and previous, sincerely thank you.

Arif - he is an engine magician. How he kept the Colonel running so smoothly, I will never know. I honestly want to buy another Soviet car just so he can rebuild the engine.

Akif - our mechanic. His work at the beginning really set us on our way. You don't realize how important brakes are until you don't have them.

Sulduz - our electrician. He kept our starter, lights, and windshield wipers functioning.

The Alignment guys - for keeping the car running straight (well, sort of)

Sheki mechanics - for patching up our muffler

The guy that told us to wrap a wet cloth over the fuel pump to prevent vapor look - for providing us with this knowledge so we didn't have to push the car into Bulgaria

Qobustan tire guys - for changing our flat tire

Anyone that ever helped us bump-start the car - After watching you do it numerous times, we finally figured out how to do it on our own

Yasamal Police - for finding the car after it was stolen

Ilham the Welder - for attaching the stylish, black front-right panel

Car wash guys - for making the car look brand new for the few minutes before we made a mess of it

Kyle and Leyla - for asking the Colonel to be their official wedding car

The Haters - for making us want to prove you wrong, time after time

Lil' Henny, Rolls Joyce, Gulshizzle, and Martin - for making the video a reality

The 346 Facebook Fans - for supporting us no matter what state the Colonel was in

Anyone who ever rode in the car - for loving every minute of it (I hope)

The Border Patrol People from here to Croatia - for letting us cross your borders unhindered

The magic usta in Rize, Turkey - for fixing a troublesome starting problem

The mechanics in Plovdiv, Bulgaria - for keeping us going after our slave clutch pump rendered our clutch pedal flacid

The City of Split - for being the world's newest pilgrimage city

and finally...

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics - for building a car with as much street cred and badass-ness as a 1980 VAZ-21011 Zhiguli.

The one we called "The Colonel."

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Twelve

The drive along the Dalmatian coast has to be one of the most picturesque in the world. And thanks to a new freeway that runs inland all the way to Zagreb, you encounter significantly fewer cars. We were lucky to have perfect weather as we skirted the Adriatic, passing small, tile-roofed hamlets. At one point we stopped to take the iconic Lada photo: the three us, next to the car, proving to the world that we made it to the Adriatic Sea.

Our destination on this day was Kastela Stari just outside Split. The next day we'd drive it to downtown Split and then figure out what to do with the Colonel. We had some options:

1. Viking Funeral - put it on a ferry, light the Colonel on fire, scream, and then attempt to push the car off the ferry into the water as a way of saving the ferry from disaster.

2. Drive it off a cliff - pretty self-explanatory, but the key here is that we could video tape it and use it as a great finish to a Lada thriller.

3. Beach send-off - drive it onto the big beach that was used to accommodate the Pope's visit, take tons of pictures, and then just walk away.

4. Leave it on the island - put it on the ferry to the island of Hvar, find a field, park, write a note saying that the car runs well and someone should take it, leave the key, and walk away.

As fun as the first two would have been, the environmentally-concious part of us just couldn't justify the pollution. Number three was attractive, however we figured there might be too many people around. The last option was ideal because it would give us a chance to drive around the island of Hvar and find an adequate resting place for the ol' boy.

They say the best laid plans often go awry. We were all set to go early the next morning except for one small problem: the car wouldn't start. Bump starting didn't work either. There we were pushing the car up and down a narrow street. Everytime a car needed to get by, we'd push the Colonel off to the side, let the car pass, and then push it back out onto the street. We tried this for a while, but all our efforts proved futile. Perhaps it was the Colonel telling us that island desertion was not something he had in mind.

Ok, time for a new plan. Take the license plates and any other identification marks off the car and just walk away. It was perfect until we realized we didn't have a wrench small enough to remove the plates. So off we went looking for the proper wrench. It took a while, but we eventually found one. Back at the car, we removed what we needed, said our silent goodbyes, and then walked off. In many ways it was a fitting end to a car that had treated us so well.

That concludes the story of how we got the Colonel 4000km from Baku to Split, Croatia. The next and final edition of "The Lada Legend" will be an ode to our car and everyone that helped make it what it was.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Eleven

Morning in Sarajevo. The Colonel had spent the previous day attending a film festival and was not interested in getting an early start. It was Rize, Turkey all over again, except this time there was no one around to help. We were on our own.

The car was parallel-parked on a sidewalk with about ten feet on either side to work with. To get it bump started, we needed to push it up close to the car in front and hope that we could generate enough speed over the twenty feet. The road wasn't an option because it was narrow and was pretty busy.

With Amy at the helm and Sarah and I pushing, we managed to get it started on the 3rd try. All those times we watched as somone else bump started our car had finally paid off. It was a triumphant moment in our days with the Colonel.

Our first stop of the day was at a restaurant just outside Jablonica. What was so special about this place was that it had nine, count them, nine lambs roasting on spits at any given time. Beautiful, delicious meat turning slowly in circles tended to by a single meat poet. We couldn't wait to dig in once the kilo of lamb arrived at our table.

Next up was the Bosnian-Croatian border--our last frontier. The drive through Bosnia was gorgeous. At one point we encountered some serious rain while driving through a gorge. So serious that we had to pull over because the windshield wipers weren't fast enough. Earlier that day, the driver-side window became stuck in the permanently open position. Not so good in a rain storm, especially while parked on the side of the highway.

At the border, Bosnia let us out without any problems. The Croatians weren't nearly as friendly at first. After taking our passports and documents, we got a, "Please pull over to the side, sir." When I got out to go see what was going on, the woman snapped, "Please go back to your car, sir." Okay, then.

Eventually, a male border official approached and asked us where we were going. He then said we needed insurance before we could cross. So over to the insurance place I went. It was a quick process, but once again American Dollars was a seemingly unknown currency in these parts. We got our insurance, but I'm pretty sure it cost us more than the stated amount in Croatian Kuna. In addition, the seller wrote "Renault" as the make of our car. What an insult to the Colonel! (the border guards made me go back to the guy to get it changed)

Once I had the insurance document, the people in the customs booth were much more friendly. I asked the all-important question: Can I leave Croatia without the car? "Yes," was the reply. Success! One of the women handed me back our passports and I went back to the car. Sarah just happened to double-check that we got stamps and noticed we had not. Good thing. I took the passports back for the three stamps and we were officially in Croatia. The only thing that could stop us from completing our journey was some sort of paralyzing mechanical failure.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Ten

We were pretty thrilled. Six countries down, only one to go. However given the reception at the border, we weren't even sure if the Bosnians wanted us in the country. It was time to get to Sarajevo as fast as possible.

The Bosnian roads are narrow, but in great repair. We were cruising along at about 65km/h (the speed limit) when all of a sudden a cop was motioning for us to pull over. He had a radar gun setup next to his car. This was obviously some sort of speed trap.

As the officer approached the car, I hoped that his English would be poor and we could, through attrition, weasel our way out of a ticket. The theory being that when a common language does not exist, the person in the position of authority will eventually give up because the effort required is too great.

"Good afternoon. Can I see your license and registration?"

So much for that hope. This guy was a no-nonsense, old school cop. There was absolutely no chance of getting out of this.

He told me that I had been going 65km/h in a school zone where the limit is 50km/h--the history function on the radar gun proved it.

"School zone? What school zone? There wasn't a sign."

"Yes, there was. It's back there," he replied as he pointed back down the road.

"But where is the school? I don't see a school."

"It's right there." Again he pointed, this time at a building that looked nothing like a school (more like a farmhouse).

I was very obviously guilty and he made sure I knew it. "The procedure in situations like this," he said, "is for me to write you a ticket for twenty Euros, which you then have to take to the next major city [about 40km away] and pay at a bank. Once you have the receipt, bring it back here and I will give you your license back."

"Whoa. That is quite the process. And on a sunday. Isn't there any other way we can work this out?" As much as I hate using that sleazy question, sometimes it's the only one that will work.

"Well, you could pay me and I could pay the ticket for you," he mused.

"Is that legal?"

"Not really, but hey, what can you do?"

"Ok, fine. But we only have Dollars."

"Hmm...I don't know what the exchange rate is and I have never done this in Dollars before." Why did that sound familiar?

I gave him whatever I thought was fair and we continued on our way. Could this day get any more eventful?

We stopped for lunch in the beautiful town of Vishegrad. On the way out of town, with Amy at the helm, another cop standing on the side of the road motioned for us to pull over. We knew for sure we had done nothing wrong, and so chalked this one up to being a strange car in a strange place. Thankfully, this guy didn't speak any English.


"I'm sorry I don't speak Bosnian," replied Amy as she handed over her license.


I got out of the car, walked up to the cop and handed the technical passport and registration. He looked at Amy's Washington DC license and the Azerbaijani registration documents, thought for a second, realized that this was going to be way too much work, and begrudingly waved us on.

Closer to Sarajevo, some sort of landslide (or so we assumed) closed part of the road, forcing us to take this crazy, winding detour up over a mountain. The Colonel handled it with class. Within minutes we were rolling through downtown Sarajevo looking for our hostel. That ended up taking a lot longer than hoped for. So did finding food, for that matter. It was already dark by the time we settled into the hostel and ate. What a day. We were now sufficiently scared of the Bosnian highway patrol.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Nine

Of all the reactions we received from various border officials, the one from the young Serbian woman at the Serbian-Bosnian border had to be the best. She took one look at the car, documents, and us, and then threw her hands up in that universal "I don't know what is going on, but I don't want to touch this with a ten-foot pole" gesture. She then burst out laughing and walked back to the little booth to inform her co-workers that an alien automobile was sitting outside. The Colonel, for his part, was eating this stuff up.

We regaled whomever was interested with the tale of how we made it to this spot. The young woman was still, almost frighteningly, in disbelief. That's probably why she forgot to give us exit stamps before telling us to have a good journey. Disappointment was apparent inside the car after that little fact was learned.

Onto the Bosnian side we went. They were not at all thrilled to see us. Most cars just have to show an ID card to get through, whereas we represented work.

"Insurance?" said the customs official after looking at our passports and vehicle registration.

I handed the insurance document that we used for Bulgaria and Serbia (knowing full-well that it wouldn't work for Bosnia).

"Insurance no good."

He then went back into the booth where two other guys were sitting. I followed thinking that he had something else to tell me, but instead he just informed me that it was in my best interest to stand by the car. After about ten minutes, a guy showed up that was apparently going to sell us insurance. It was a Sunday, so he had to be called in from home. I felt bad for the guy. We certainly weren't making any friends.

His English was marginal at best. I believe his favourite word was "not". He'd finish every choppy sentence with it. "Money not," "Insurance not," etc. Oh, this was going to be fun.

I learned pretty quickly that US Dollars weren't going to cut it. Euros or Bosnian Convertible Marks only. We didn't have either of the latter two and really weren't in a position to get them. Sarah tried to go to a store down the street, but to no avail. It was actually quite a tense situation. Our only option was to turn around, go back into Serbia, and find a bank machine in the border town that would give us Euros. I'd say the chances of that were slim to nil.

Our nay-saying friend finally relented and said something along the lines of, "Okay, I'll take the US Dollars just this once." We went back into his small office to discuss terms. Of course neither of us had any idea what the exchange rate was. He kept saying something like, "I have never done this with US Dollars so I don't know how much it should be." Eventually we agreed on a sum and started filling out the insurance document. This was easier said than done.

The first snag was that my name wasn't on the technical passport. He kept looking at it and saying "Who is this? I should put her name, yes?" I wasn't sure what to do so I suggested that he use my name because it was on the power of attorney document. He didn't like that at all and insisted that despite the fact that my name would not be on the insurance document, it would still be valid. "I don't care about your power of attorney document. Only the police care."

Then he started asking me questions about the cubic capacity of the engine (and other things that were supposed to be on the technical passport but weren't). I hadn't the faintest clue, so he just started writing down potential numbers. I pointed at one and acted excited. He seemed to accept it. When it came time to sign, he being the sly one that he is, told me to just scribble something illegible. How much more illegitimate could this document get?

With the insurance document in hand, I headed back to the customs booth. One of the guys inside, a young man, peered at it and then handed our passports back. I took a quick look and said, "Aren't you going to stamp these?" "Ah, yes. You're right." Three stamps later, we were on the road to Sarajevo!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Eight

Getting out of Bulgaria was no trouble at all. It really is amazing how interested each country had been so far in getting rid of us. Never a question about where we had come from or where we were going. The official we dealth with seemed more thrilled by the journey the Colonel had made more than anything. "This car? From Azerbaijan?...wooow," just about summed up his disbelief.

The scene on the Serbian side of the Bulgarian-Serbian border was as you would expect for the easiest transit route for anyone looking to go to Hungary and beyond (you bypass the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Alps by going this way). Four or five lines of cars, most with German license plates and filled with nationals ostensibly of Turkish origin. We had faith in the Colonel so we decided to turn it off and just push the ol' boy whenever the line moved. Others quickly followed suit.

At last our turn came and I handed over all the requisite documents. The female officer wasn't particularly fazed by the situation at hand and seemed to have no problem with the insurance we purchased in Bulgaria. By this time, we were getting pretty cocky at borders. Did anyone really have the balls (or lady balls) to stop us? After some incredibly light passport stamps, she waved us on to the next step: customs.

An older man came out to greet me. The first words out of his mouth, "Zhiguli? From Ukraine?" I told him where we actually had come from and his jaw dropped. "You came all this way?!?!" Then the woman who had stamped our passports came running out of her booth and said in rapid-fire Serbian something along the lines of, "Get a load of these guys. A Canadian and two Americans driving an Azerbaijani-registered Zhiguli to Croatia. What do you think we should do with them?"

The man thought it over for a few seconds and then asked to see the trunk. He seemed positively taken aback by this relic from his younger days. "So you're going to Croatia, are you?" he said with a big smile on his face. "Safe travels." And that was that. Welcome to Serbia!

It took us a while, but we eventually rolled into Belgrade. We had no real plan for accommodation, so we figured we would just find a parking spot and start walking around. Little did we know that in that fine city, one must pay for parking with his/her mobile phone or at a booth. How much you pay depends on what zone you're in. Ignorance being as blissful as it is, we walked away and began our search. Not forty-five minutes later, we came back to collect the car and found a parking ticket on our windshield. Note that if this hadn't been after an incredibly smooth Serbian wheat beer, I may have been more irate.

We moved the car up by our hostel and parked it in a spot the owner of the place said would be totally fine. The next morning when we woke up and walked out the front door, guess what was sitting on our windshield. How is it possible that in less than twenty-four hours we would get two parking tickets and, better yet, not get towed? Remarkable stuff. We learned our lesson pretty quickly and moved the Colonel to a parking garage down the street. No more of this parking ticket nonsense.

A couple of days later we left Belgrade and headed southwest to Bosnia. Some of the side roads we took were magnificent. Tight corners, lush scenery, up and down mountain passes. That must've been why we completely missed the turn to the Bosnian border. Eventually Sarah said to me, "Umm...I think we passed the place where we were supposed to turn." I had pulled over to give us a chance to check the map by this time, but it was hard to focus with the mountain lake on the other side of the road. A guy also parked at the pull-off sensed out confusion and sauntered over. "Do you need help?" I told him we were going to Bosnia, so he just pointed down the road and told us to turn right at a specific city.

His directions turned out to be flawless. We turned right and continued along this beautiful road that skirted a lake. This brought us to a border town that we weren't really sure was a border town until we came upon the border post. It took us by complete surprise. First, because we just weren't expecting it, but second, because it was a couple of small shacks on the side of the road. The border guards sat on chairs by the side of the road and just lifted the barrier everytime someone wanted to pass. Things seemed totally relaxed.

We surmised that this probably was a good thing. More relaxed meant less likely to abide by the strict Bosnian temporary auto import rules, right?

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Lada Legend: The Colonel Goes West - Part Seven

There are worse places to be stranded than in a city whose name always reminds me of rice and CSS code (Plovdiv, for those keeping track). On the side of the six-lane freeway around Istanbul, in the middle of nowhere Bulgaria, at any of the borders we crossed to this point. All would have been much more frustrating and time consuming.

Your options are fairly limited when your car is down for the count in a town you've been in for an hour. Amy and Sarah went back to the restaurant to see if the waiter knew what we could do. I decided to walk down an alley that housed a car wash place and, as I hoped, a car repair garage. Sadly, the latter was closed. I returned from the alley to find the girls sitting in the shade next to the car. It was a hot day. Thirty-eight degrees hot. Not exactly a day to be running around looking for a mechanic.

Now I'm not claiming divine intervention or anything like that, but what are the chances that a car parts shop would be located just around the corner (the opposite direction from the alley I had gone down). I didn't see any "Lada" or "VAZ" logos on the sign out front, but they would at least know where to start.

Unexpectedly, out of the three employees (two of which were in their 20s), it was the middle-aged man who spoke a few words of English. I attempted to explain what was going on and he attempted to understand my hand motions. He then went over to the computer, opened up Skype, and dialled a mechanic (ostensibly, at least). They chatted for a while in rapid-fire Bulgarian and when it was all over, the guy asked me to show him the car.

We weren't communicating very well at this point, so as he was examining the car, he asked, "Do you speak Russian?" I nodded and then he replied, "Ok, good. Then you speak Russian and I'll speak slow Bulgarian." Right, okay. He sat down in the driver's seat and depressed the flaccid clutch. "Aha," he said, "it's your clutch pump." Now we had to figure out a way to get the car to the Skyping mechanic's, which was apparently not far away.

His idea was to start the Colonel and then ram the gearshift into first. The sound was horrible. Gears grinding ranks right up there with nails on a chalkboard. But he managed to get it off to a clunking start. Getting into second was a similar exercise in bone-chilling noises. At one point, he approached a light that was just about to turn yellow. I told him to go, figuring it would be a good idea to not have to grind the gears again, but he decided to stop. So once again, he rammed the shifter into first, got moving, and then barely managed to get it into second. Poor Colonel.

The mechanic's garage was one of many in a yard specializing in older cars. He came out to greet us, but immediately delegated the work to his assistant (he was busy with what looked like a compressor). The guy from the parts shop took off, leaving me with the assistant who spoke even less-decipherable Bulgarian. He fiddled around under the hood for awhile and eventually emerged with a filthy clutch pump and hose. It was so caked with grime that you could hardly recognize it. He told me, "See that "Lada" parts shop across the street? Go over there and ask for Bulgarian word and Bulgarian word."

Over there, I had to talk to three people before an older guy mentioned that he spoke decent Russian because he was a Colonel in the army. That made life easier, mostly because it turned out the part he sold me didn't quite fit our car. The intake valve, it was explained, was perfectly perpendicular to the cylindrical pump. Instead, it should be slightly angled. The car parts Colonel, when I returned, claimed that the part we needed could not be found in the city. That isn't news you want to hear.

When the assistant heard about this, he looked on in disbelief. "Get in," he said and motioned to his car. It was a short drive, but we eventually found ourselves in another car yard outside a Lada parts shop. The guy inside heard what we had to say and then said, "You're in luck. I have the original part from the Soviet Union." That was exactly what we needed. As it turns out, the part I originally purchased was the modern Fiat version. The Colonel, being as ancient as he is, was entirely of Soviet design and manufacture, and thus needed Soviet parts.

Armed with the correct part, the assistant had the Colonel running smoothly again within an hour. I tested it out a few times and was impressed with the difference. We thanked him for everything he did and continued on our way, knowing full-well that we avoided a potential disaster. I don't think any of us will forget that day.

We arrived in Sofia a few hours later. We'd spend a couple of days there (one of which included a small jaunt to the a monastery by Amy and Sarah, and an oil change) before heading to the Serbian border. More on that in Part Eight.