Category Archives: General

::: t+13d // Arkhyz


We hit the road early this morning, way before dawn. Another gloomy day dominated by the thick dark clouds being pressed into Caucasus from the Black Sea by a another depression.

We are using the day to move back to Dombai, which is a day’s journey back to the East in the heart of Caucasus – one of its famous and classic skiing areas. As the forecasts predicts good weather only for the next day, we intend to use the day mainly for driving, another car repair and short visit to the skiing area of Arkhyz, which however is not very promising (but for lacks of alternatives…).


We find a Shinimontaz, one of the uncountable tyre mounting services. The wheels are still shaky at higher speeds, and when the wheels are taken down a severely deformed rim turns out to be the reason. I look at the mechanics and say “Disk kaputt” in (very) rudimentary Russian. The start to laugh: “Nie kaputt!” (or so). Some minutes laterthe rim is being pressed into form again, and re-balanced. The wheel is spinning on another machine: the value are optimal.

Though this was great repair work (4th time we needed to go to a car service on this trip by the way), the car is still not running entirely smooth… we will need to see another repair service one of these days. Arkhyz turns out to be even worse than we thought, although it may have some potential with future extentions. But today this is not yet the case, and the bulldozed slopes and careless infrastructure leave a strange feeling… like a failed attempt to vitalise a somewhat hopeless valley.

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We are finally heading down the valley, and night is falling. There is nothing much to say about this day, so I am keeping it short. Late in the evening we are arriving at Dombay, a highlight of Caucasus and with a good forecast for tomorrow. I am having a mutton soup and mutton schaschlik for dinner – suprise!

::: t+10d // Sotchi

The sound of the rolling waves comes in through the open window. Dark clouds are hanging low, and rain keeps falling. We have checked into a hotel directly at the coast at Adler, south of Sotchi and near the border to Abchasia, the republic of Georgia that declared (a widely unrecognized) indepency in the early 1990s.

The skiing areas are mostly closed due to the heavy snowfalls. Visibility is zero up there and avalanche risk very high. Since yesterday, the wheels of the car have begun to run very unevenly, which concerns us – a tribute to the way less good roads that we have found in Caucasus. Hence we decide to have them checked in Sochi, and to visit the cable-car, which leads up the botanical garden, ending on a large concrete tower and showing clear marks of an in interesting sowjet architectionical style.


Black Sea Cost.



Departure Terminal of the cable-bar – I adore the architecture.


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The arrival terminal in form of high concrete tower, resembling those of coal mines in its shape.


Suspension bridge within the botanical garden.

Later that day we find a smal repair service to balance out the rims. It turns out the one is damages, but still works. With a certain effort the service people manage to stabilize the wheel a bit, but I still have a feeling that we will need to do something about it.

When that is fixed, we are driving south to have a look at the Olympic Parc, which however turns out to be a mostly boring assembly of meaningless pseudo-modern buildings – at least what we see of it, that is.

Before the night we wander the small alleys at the seaside next to our hotel and will have a VERY large mutton shashlik for dinner. Actually, mutton is pretty common in the Caucasus, and I am going to have it on several additional occasions over the following days. Not only do I tend to like the tast – it is also one of the very few things I can order in Russian.


Olympic Parc.

::: t+09d // Pyatigorsk

The weather is still not on our side. Since several days a depression over the Black Sea is pumping wet air into the mountains, which hide in cloulds and snow. We have decided to move on to Sotchi, as the next couple of days will continue to be dominated by bad weather. Sotchi firstly offers some bad weather alternatives, secondly the skiing ares of Krasna Poliana are more suitable for bad weather (both due their infrastructure and due to the fact that they are less interesting than, say, Elbrus or Dombai)). Thirdly, depressions moving eastwards, the western-most skiing areas – which are these around Sotchi – will be the fist to see the sun.

Before we start a long rainy ride to the black sea cost, where we are going to arrive around midnight, we take the cable-car of Pyatigorsk, which is a nice historic monument. Albeit we are not going to see the amazing Caucasus, including the over 5000m high Elbrus, but only venture in an icy storm up there, this is still a nice littel adventure.

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::: t+06d // Wolga

The icy Russian night cloaks the world and keeps it silent. I am standing in the dark, leaning against the large panorama window panes of the suite, glancing at the frozen Wolga. I am reflecting our plans, checking the next legs of the trip on Google Maps: to the border of Kazachstan, then Oral, Aktobe, Aral, Shymkent – probably one of the most fascinating, and certainly the loneliest and most remote part of the trip. 520km to Oral, another 475km to Aktobe and from there another 620km to Aral.  Southwards of Aral settlement will become more frequent, but between Oral and Aral there are parts in which the road passes through the desert without passing any facilities for over 200km. Interestingly enough google maps shows a couple of traffic jams on the roads. Usually this indicates one way operation due to construction sites. Many nights I have spent with preparations, going through options, making estimates, evalauting challenges and chances, trying to minimise risks. Nights and hours of research and consideration. All these theoretical thoughts now add up for the first time with practical experiences with the Russian winter.

First of all, the car. The operational envelope goes down to minus thirty degrees according to Audi, but this is not a quantum leap, not a digital transition from one to zero. Fatigue. Fatigue increases when components are brought close their operational limits, and what may work for 50.000km or more in Central Europe, may malfunction way quicker in the Russian winter – a phenomenon not unheard of. This alone would not concern me, I was expecting that and this was why some of the most exposed parts had been replaced prior to the drive.  And I was prepared to go and seek a garage occasionally for minor repairs. What concerns me slightly more is that I would have expected a more dense network of Audi/Volkswagen Services in Russia based upon the fact that these are among the more popular cars of Western manufacturers in Russia and that I would have expected spare parts to be available more easily than we experienced in Kursk (though it is hard to tell to which extent this was a result of the Russian holidays, which I expect it is). This is, however, not very promising for Kazachstan, in which I should expect an even lower availability of spare parts. Taking into account that being stuck in a remote place would cause several follow-up problems (most of all with the time frames of our visa plus customs issues), I find this thought concerning.

Secondly, we are now going to enter the most exposed part of the road. Northern Kazachstan is already under the influence of the central Russian climate, likely to experience cold surges from Siberian air in winter. It is unusually cold these days, much colder than I expected based upon the available general weather and climate data. Driving the car on its operational limits in a very remote and to us unknown environment does not comfort me.

While I am glancing out at the frozen Wolga, I feel a certain uneasyness. Going into the mountains teaches you certain experiences. Play to your instincts, first of all. But also make rational considerations in an irrational environment, an environment which provides far less information than would be necessary for clear decision-making. This involves risk-evaluation in complex risk environments of different, independent overlapping risks, which by themselves may not trigger a no-go decision, but in combination very well can. Moreover, preventing oneself from seeking for the signs and considerations, which would allow you to go and to not abandon your plans, but instead positively seeking for those which indicate a no-go and hence to be open for the decision not to go, regardless of what you already have invested to this point. Way more difficult than climbing a 4000m plus summit, is getting down safely again. Many mountaineers have died not on the climb, but on the descent – because they had missed the point of no-return. This, by the way, includes the ability not to question your previous decisions subsequently, only because it turned out that against the odds it would have been possible to go. You need to remind yourself that you were deciding under the lack of crucial information, and that therefore your decision remains a right decision, even if the random elements coincidently turn out to have been more positive than you expected, because precisely this was not foreseeable. In other words: what ex-post might have been possible, remains impossible ex-ante, and therefore the ex-ante decision not to go was the right decision.

If you do not follow this maxime, you almost certainly will experience the risk-shift effect, which is known from avalanche risk evaluation. Human nature tends to shift to more and more risky behaviour, whenever a decision involving an unkown risk turns out to be still (apparently) safe. Consequently, skiers are known for tending to decide for more and more risky slopes, because all previous slopes had turned out safe, until they finally cross the invisible limit and trigger the avalanche and possibly pay for this wrong decision with their lives. By sheer logic this triggers another consequence: whenever the limit is unknown, it is impossible to take decisions which remain within the framework of safety, without keeping a safety margin. Any safety margin will always lead to abandoning options, which possibly still would have been safe. As a result, deciding against an option which would have been still safe, therefore does not indicate a wrong decision, but simply must occur whenever taking safe decisions. Subsequent knowledge that a certain discarded option would have been (still) safe, therefore automatically must occur, and so hindsight cannot serve as an evluation tool for previous decisions (at least in most cases).  Really, rather the opposite is the case: if you ever witness a slope that you seriously considered, but against which you decided, being triggered and going-off, you have come dangerously close to that invisible limit. Really, you should not have ever considered this slope in the first place, if your decisions were good. The art of climbing mountains is not as many think based upon continuing until reaching the summit, but on the ability to turn back before crossing  the point of no return, and regardless of previous investments into your undertaking.

All this speaks against this road into the ice desert. Let it be remote, fine. Let the car be more challenged by the Russian winter, fine. But temperatures at the lower limit of what we expected and the car probably being more likely to suffer from fatigue already before the operational limit of -30°C, is a combination I do not like. Approaching limits so far that your last fall-back scenario remains your only option, I do not like either.

And then there are these faint signs, just like in the mountains. In the mountains this can be subtle changes in the sound of the snow, or in the feeling when touching upon it with your skis. It can be the look of icy shapes, or something not even accessible by the rational part of your mind, but rather a feeling of unusuality. I have expierenced this a couple of times, and almost always it had been significant.

Traffic jams in the desert of Kazachstan? I had not seen any such indications on google maps before. This does not make the theory of constructions sites – although this would be a typical explanation in other circumstances – very likely. And I hinder myself from searching for explanations which would reason why this observation was harmless. Rather I try to seek for more sinister explanations, reasons not to go, if there are any. Now, if these traffic jams occur suddenly and in several locations, this only means the cars are slowing down at these spots. Now, this indicates that the road conditions have changed suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly. It therefore rather indicates that weather conditions must be harsh, and that the road has come close to impassable, and that road services are working on their limits to continue to keep it open. I am checking the weather reports; -22°C for Oral, -24°C for Aktobe. This I knew. Then I start to check for the smaller settlements: -26°C, -27°C. Really, that means that on the open road between the settlements temperatures must be about to drop below -30°C – jointly with heavy snowfalls and strong winds, Probably the cold and the snowfalls are about to block the road.

That is the final piece in the puzzle: I have taken my decision. we will not continue to the East. Thjis means that we will miss out one of the most exciting part of the road, and the we will never reach our original destination: Kyrgistan. Instead, we will head for our alternative goal – the majestetic mountains at the Southern Border of Russia: The Caucasus.

The alarm rings early this night at around 4.45 a.m. local time. We discuss the situation, and re-set the GPS: the first way point lies 375km to the south down that famous river; Wolgograd. The city that once was known as… Stalingrad.




::: t-10d // Preparations & Equpiment – Pt. I

For future reference, and for anybody interested, I will be listing some of the preparations we have undertaken, starting with the car.

Roads are to be expected to be of varying conditions, theoretically up to virtually inexistant, but we have tried our best to avoid the latter category through intense research on the web (forums, blogs, youtube videos). Especially in Nothern-Kazachstan we are expecting very remote roads in conjunction with severe cold (theoretically below -30°C) and constant snow. This requires a couple of preparations and considerations (including considering the conditions under which to abort the trip).

Car:  Audi A4 quattro 1.9 TDI Avant.

The four-wheel drive +  generally relatively robust Audi should do for what we are intending.

Fuel: Diesel.

This is an issue, as normal winter diesel may cause issues around -20°C, because paraffins will flocculate and hinder the flow through the filter and/or the fuel lines. The constant fuel circulation in Audi/VW cars combined with the heating through locating the fuel filter very close to the engine results in tests showing that these cars would still run without problems in temperatures aournd -30°C with ordinary winter diesel (the flow of which is guaranteed down to -22°C in Germany/Austria). Other vehicles, as Opel, had shown issues with the cold already at -18°C.

I have been also consulting with an engeneer at Audi’s through an official contact channel. I was advised that that the operational limits for which the car has been desgined are reached with temperatures exceeding -30°C . Fuel additives, if available at all for lower temperatures, are risky, because they – I am told – thin-up the fuel, which, however, also serves as lubricant for the pumps and nozzles in advanced, modern diesel engines. (In addition, some of the better additives require use at temperatures over 0°C, which – obviously – only works, if you dispose over a heated garage). In countries like Russia, Polar Diesel is being offered. This may work at temperatures of -40°C to -50°C. Anyway, Audi advised that this fuel does not meet the standards required for their engines (though it remains unclear, whether this meant “formally” or “substantially”, I interpreted it rather as “it may work, but no guarantee”). Audi advised further that there wasn’t a market for diesel passenger cars in Russia and Scandinavia, implying that these fuels are intended for larger machines such as trucks.

There are no standard heating devices available to overcome this problem, unless one would set-up a highly individual solution. In this case, it might be far more advisable not to use a Diesel car at all. In our case, we will seek to avoid driving in conditions where temperatures will drop below -30°C. We will carry onboard at least 20l of Polar Diesel for emergency cases.

Tyres: Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 studded tyres (205/55 R16)

Tyres are another issue. Firstly, it would be a mistake to believe that “winter tyres” equal “winter tyres”. The rubber composition of each tyre shows optimal perfomance in a certain temperature range. Winter tyres for the central European market need to show best performance in a temperature range which is completely different from those designed for arctic conditions. Consequently, standard winter tyres will perform much worse in low temperatures than arctic tyres. Moreoever, each tyre is a compromise of trying to optimise its performance in different driving conditions, which would require conflicting design concepts. Central Europe knows mild winters, in which snow often becomes watery and a high-risk of aqua planing results from these conditions. Nordic winters involve black ice, hard snow surface and similar conditions. Nokian, one of the most prominent nordic tyre manufacturers, provides an instructive video:

Moreover, road conditions to be expected in Russia, Kazachstan and the other countries are fairly different from those in central Europe. Studying hours of Russian dashcam video footage of road accidents, it becomes quite clear that black ice – occuring unexpectedly even for locals, apparently – is a major threat. Addistionally, hard snow surfaces will be typical rather than exceptional. Therefore, in my assessment, studded tyres are a very good investment. They will significantly reduce the risk of loosing control over your vehicle (albeit this will obviously not prevent other cars from crashing into you, to be honest).

Videos on black ice:

Several indepent crash in safe-looking tunnel:

Standard Black Ice Videos (note that the worse accidents result from over-steering after loosing control, which makes the car then crash into the opposite traffic):

Performance of Studded Tyres on Ice:

Nokian Hakkapelitta 8 is among the top-performing studded winter tyres available on the market, according to my researches. It is also a very robust tyre, which may turn out helpful when trying to cross 3000km of ice desert in Kazachstan. Which in winter can look like this: Road to Astana (KAZ) in Winter.

A final remark concerning the tyre size: While I have no empiric proof, my personal experience is that slimmer winter tyres are NOT preferable, and that small difference are well noteable. Both on my Audi 90 quattro 20V and the A4 quattro 1.9 TDI performance significantly drops when mounting 195/65 winter tyres instead of 205/55 winter tyres. In both cases, my feeling is that a significant drop in control, also in deep snow, is th result. I have since returned to broader winter tyres and find that these have a significantly better handling and a larger security reserve.

For extreme conditions, I have a set of 4 Pewag Brenta snow-chains on-board.


Engine: cambelt (timing belt), all other belts, coolant pump, coolant heat exchanger, coolant temperature control unit, fuel filter replaced. Motor oil checked (also regarding artic temperatures), coolant for temperaturs down to -40°C.

Brakes: checked, brake fluid exchanged (because water included in used brake fluid can freeze).

Lights: checked.

All lubricants: checked (incld. gear box, hydraulics, differentials).

Tools and Materials on board:

  • coolant antifreeze
  • windscreen cleaning antifreeze
  • motor oil
  • hydraulic oil
  • spare fuel filter (if flocculated fuel blocks the fuel filter, exchange will allow for shorter times to restart the engine (probably best in conjunction with admixture of polar diesel fuel)
  • 2 x 20l Diesel
  • 1 x 5l benzin (for emergency cases)
  • torque spanner
  • large set of standard automotive tools
  • car jack
  • 4 x jack stands
  • tape
  • wire
  • tubes/hoses
  • hose clamp set
  • wiring tools and materials + fuses
  • wiring plan
  • spare bulbs
  • assembly plans
  • 4 spare tyres (non-studded winter tyres)
  • 2 snow showels
  • 4 snow-chains
  • tow-rope
  • starter cable set
  • car battery charger unit
  • fire extinguisher
  • air pump (for tyres)




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trinc (a;t)