- 209850 km on the bike
I had a stroll through Helsinki yesterday evening - the first time in three days that it stopped raining sufficiently to do so. The place is nothing really something to write home about, just no nights in summer, long nights in winter and a lot of concrete buildings. The Fins themselves are fairly laid back, but I certainly would miss those long, warm summers we have down south if I would live here.
I also checked on the Internet for the available ferries for Saturday morning to get me out of Finland and into Estonia. I find that they are all without exception fully booked. Why am I not surprised? Because I know that every weekend thousands of thirsty Fins are crossing the Gulf of Finland into Estonia to stock up on booze. But as I have also taken about every ferry boat available in the civilized world in the past (plus a sizeable number outside of the civilized world), I am nevertheless quite convinced that I can get me and my bike out of Scandinavia tomorrow.
So on Saturday morning I bike into Helsinki Harbour on this grey and overcast day to the ferry operator of my choice, Viking Lines. They do not have the largest number of boats, but do operate the biggest ones - alas, for me the best chance to get on board without a reservation.
At the check-in they tell me that the boat is fully booked, but when asked, they offer to put me on the standby waiting list. I put my charming side into overdrive with the female check-in booth attendant, and manage to be given standby number five - quite a piece of magic given the fact that already more than a dozen vehicles are waiting on the standby parking lot.
40 minutes later the first four standby numbers are called up for boarding. Just when I think that my charm has let me down this time, another boarding attendant asks for my number; "Five" I say. "Oh", she says, "you on the motorbike have been cleared for boarding right away, so go ahead...".
I pay 54 Euros for my ticket (including 5 Euros weekend premium) and can bike right onto the boat. I am the last vehicle to board the "Viking XPRS" and behind me they close the hydraulic access doors.
After an uneventful two-hours crossing of the Gulf of Finland the boat arrives at Tallinn, the Estonian capital. My plans are to continue with my southward journey, but just about two miles into the inner city traffic, smoke starts coming off the engine block. I stop at the kerb and have a look at it: gushes of coolant are leaking out of the area near the radiator. They spurt onto the hot pipes, engine and exhaust and are causing that smoke. The water level in the coolant expansion bottle is already nearly gone after those two miles of riding since leaving the ferry.
I stop at a petrol station and have a closer look; it seems that one of the jubilee clips on my fairly new coolant pipes is leaking.
Now here comes the difference between real mechanics like Hans and his crew back in Switzerland and those moron mechanics I have encountered in many other countries; when Hans and his crew did replace all coolant hoses a few month ago, the took care to have all the jubilee clips positioned in such a way, that they are all directly accessible. So all I have to do is to get out my toolkit, fetch the screwdriver and tighten the leaking return feeder pipe clip on the radiator - problem solved.
Had the replacement of the rubber hoses been done by some of those moron mechanics one unfortunately encounters far too often elsewhere in motorbiking, then this would have been a major repair job taking all day at the minimum.
But 5 minutes later after topping up the reservoir at the petrol station, I am back on the road, heading south through Estonia and finally into Latvia, where I finish the day after just over 300 km outside the capital of Riga.
- 210170 km on the bike
It was a very pleasant night at the Baltvilla Four-Star Hotel which I enjoyed immensely. Those thoughts of that comfy place return ever more often during today's ride when it starts to rain just 100 km after leaving that comfy place. Motorcycle equipment has been massively improved over the last twenty years, but a rain suit that can withstand biking for four hours through constant rain has yet to be developed. They all tend to start leaking at that spot where for us boys it is the most unpleasant...
I find it also rather amusing that I have by now biked over 2000 km due south from the Arctic circle, but have as of now not managed to reach any warmer air than all the way up north - it is still just 12 degrees this afternoon.
I do not see much of Lithuania, because the country is drenched in rain. Only when I reach the Polish border does the deluge stop. I can not remember when I last crossed four country borders all within a days worth of biking. Luckily all these tiny countries are now EU member states, so there are no border or customs checkpoints any more - I can just roar through the old, unmanned but still existing control points. Their forbidding design is a good reminder of those dreadful cold-war decades, now long passed into history.
This border at this point is just a few miles wide: to the south lies Belarus and to the north the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. So a lot of freight traffic is funneled through this narrow bottleneck, in fact 70 percent of vehicles up here have more than 30 tons of weight.
My destination for today was supposed to be the town of Białystok, but the place looks pretty grim and also for the first time today the sun has come out. Though I feel a bit wet (and not behind the ears, I can tell you) I decide to bike on and enjoy the great country roads of Eastern Poland for a while longer. There are hardly any more trucks on the road and the surface is mostly good - what else does a biker need?
I am biking parallel to the Russian border, and finish the day in bright sunshine after nearly 700 km at somewhat rather dingy digs in Biała Podlaska. I check out three different hotels, but they are all the same: catering for the traffic coming out of Russia and the Ukraine along the main E30 trunk road leading towards Warsaw. Biala Podlaska is the first sizeable town when coming from the east along that road, and is also at the crossroads for the north-south border route I am travelling on.
While driving around looking for accommodation I notice that hot coolant is splashing onto my left boot. I thought I did fix that problem when I tightened those jubilee clips yesterday. I do some more tightening of those clips before putting Kitty to bed tonight, which means greasing the drive chain and putting the tarpaulin over her.
I have a stroll through the town in the evening. Though it is just after 8 pm here and early June, dusk is already setting in and it is too dark for taking pictures. Alas, this is the easternmost location using CEST time (which is GMT plus two hours), but it is still hard to believe that just a week before I was suffering from those White Nights up north where it was bright daylight at midnight.
Though it is Sunday today, most of the predominantly young people in the streets are already in varying stages of drunkenness at this early hour. Whoever coined the phrase "The Gods invented Whiskey to prevent the Irish from ruling the world" (which I believe was Ed McMahon) has obviously never been out here. The main streets of the town look reasonably presentable and are lined with bars and shops, but just one turn of the corner and one arrives in the grim reality of post-communist Eastern Europe; no street lights, derelict and ramshackle houses, prowling semi-wild dogs and piles of garbage on the streets. Every window has iron gratings and even in England there are less surveillance cameras around than here. Well, I would probably join those gangs of drunken thugs out on the streets if I had to live in this place. Next time you see a polish plumber at work in your posh suburb or affluent village out there in the west, think of it this way; the guy is probably the one that managed to get out of a place like this and rather makes an honest living that way than hanging out drunk in the streets with his cronies here.
- 210850 km on the bike
My room-neighbours are Ukrainians and travel with two little kids and a grandmother. They wake me up at 6 am, so I am quite early on the road at 8.30 am today.
Initially there is no coolant loss from the engine, but as soon as I stop anywhere for a few seconds and the engine is not fully cooled by the wind, water starts pouring out of the engine again, even worse than yesterday. Something is seriously wrong with Kitty and that rate of coolant loss means that my journey today is already over after just 37 km. I am in the small hamlet of Wisznice. I spot a car repair shop which appears to do technical controls (the polish equivalent to MOT, TUV, control technique or whatever they call it in your place), air conditioning, wheel alignment and general servicing and pull in to check them out.
Kitty has let me down only once before like this, and it was due to a botched repair job by some moron mechanic. That was in Spain in 2006 in a forlorn area north of Léon where nobody spoke either English, French or German. Unfortunately I was too lazy to learn any more languages in my youth and I am even lazier nowadays.
The same problem here; at the workshop everyone speaks the two local languages, Polish and Russian, and I have just about 10 Euros worth of the local currency (the Polish złoty) on me. So I have to resort to a mixture of sign language and all those words one picks up when travelling foreign countries and watching subtitled foreign movies. After about an hour the first mechanic, Silvek, is starting to get at the jubilee clips under the tank just like I did yesterday. With the usual difficulties I try to explain to him that this is no good and that the tank has to come off.
He fumbles on but obviously to no avail. I take the tank off myself. Once that thing is out of the way, Silvek has an easy job to properly reset those jubilee clips and clean everything prior to refitting. I put the tank back on and fire up the engine. Once the thermostat opens the water starts pouring out just like before. It most definitely leaks out of that joint where the coolant pipe from the thermostat housing forks off towards the top of the radiator. Now another mechanic, Andrej and the boss man himself have a look at the problem; they come to the conclusion that the connecting joint of the plastic housing of the thermostat has warped due to the excessive and prolonged wear of the overtight jubilee clip. Their solution is outright ingenious; from somewhere they source a piece of stainless steel metal tubing which diameter fits exactly inside that plastic housing extension onto which the rubber hose and the clip have to go.
And they do not do a botch job; they use proper self-hardening sealing compound to seat that metal tube inside the plastic. That connection will definitely never warp again.
After the compound is hardened everything is refitted. One problem we have is that the tank needs to be put back into place and all connections have to be reconnected before we can re-test the work. I find a solution by strapping the tank onto the bike frame without putting it into position over the plumbing of the radiator, but still with both fuel line attached to it, using my baggage straps. This way we can now test-run the engine without having to refit the tank every time.
The new attempt looks more than promising, but fails just as miserably as the one before. The water is still leaking out when the engine is hot. But these Polish mechanics are a tough bunch and will not give up easily. After a close examination of the thermostat housing by Andrej the verdict is this: the spring loaded thermostat has exerted an enormous pressure onto the plastic housing for a very long time. Now the plastic material of the housing has simply failed and the water is seeping out of hair cracks within the plastic unit (N.B.: this actually was exactly the right diagnosis in the end).
That is it, finished with biking, I need to get the spare parts in. Not an easy part; the guys at the workshop check on the Triumph website, and there are dealers in Poland on the list. But a quick call to the Warsaw dealership comes to nothing. Unfortunately my Polish after this one day crash course is still not good enough to understand why...
It is by now after noon, and to my surprise these guys still are light years away from giving up. I have seen mechanics in New Zealand do what down there they call "Kiwi Engineering", but what these mechanics out here in Poland are capable of is incredible: lacking the source for a suitable spare part they just build one on the spot. No folks, I am serious, Andrej welds together a copy of the outer half of the thermostat housing from odd bit he finds throughout the workshop. You think I am kidding? Here is the fitted proof:
Not only has Andrej managed to build a proper seal against the right half of the thermostat housing (which includes the coolant temperature sensor), he has also included a large bolt hole as replacement for the now missing radiator filler cap plus a connector for the expansion bottle.
Once all is in place I fire up the engine again. No leaks! I am more than delighted. The one drawback is that my radiator expansion bottle is now no longer shielded behind the spring pressure of the radiator cap. The water starts bubbling and spurting out of the expansion bottle as the engine heats up, but I am fairly convinced that this will settle itself once the excess has spurted out and should at least in theory pose no problems for my long distance biking.
Next these fellows invite me for a free diner in their employees kitchen. Someone has organized a couple of very tasty sausages, white bread and mustard and the boss man insists that I have my share of it. They even manage to source a decent cup of tea somehow.
I am in excellent mood afterwards and start reassembling the bike bits lying around everywhere. When I put in the petrol feeder pipe it slides upon its mounting on the tank as usual. When I then attach the petrol return pipe, the plastic housing of the connector just snaps off.
I am about as devastated as I ever tend to get when in dire straits. Is Kitty telling me that twohundredandtenthousand kilometers is all I can expect from her? (N.B.: yes, that is what she actually is telling me, but I do not know that yet).
Andrej meanwhile has a closer look; the broken off plastic connector is just bolted into the brass mounting of the fuel pump system within the tank. Andrej signals to me a cool "piece of cake job". Can these guys really fix a broken off piece of plastic? The main problem appears to be the exotic thread used by the Weber carburetor company of Italy who build that fuel pump unit built directly into the tank.
At 7 pm it is clear that this will not get fixed today, so I am told that Andrej will drive me to a nearby hotel and pick me up tomorrow morning for the final fix of that fuel pipe.
Andrej lives in a village about twenty km north of Wisznice and he knows a hotel just two km away from his home. A brief chat with the landlady of that hotel reveals that why she just had one room occupied yesterday, but today she is fully booked.
Andrej tries his own house which is just down the road, but a strict "No" to dodgy foreigners by his wife shuts out that option. It takes a number of phone calls and a lot of miles of driving in Andrejs VW Passat until he finally manages to drop me off at a small local guest house just a mile north from the workshop where Kitty is now spending the night parked in a bay of the workshop usually reserved for MOT testing.
- 210880 km on the bike
Andrej picks me up in the morning and the work on the bike continues. Please do not forget that all this is ongoing using a mixture of Polish and sign language, so it usually takes a bit longer for me to get the gist of what these friendly chaps are telling me rather than to write it down here.
Just after noon Andrej has finished replacing the broken off fuel return feeder pipe with a threaded connector he has taken of an air hose assembly. The rest of the reassembly of the bike runs smoothly.
After all is ready to hit the road again, I talk to the boss and ask what he wants to charge me for over a day of work by Andrej and Silvek. His quote is 100 złoty for the lot. This is ridiculous, even out here in the far east of the country where things tend to be cheaper than in western Poland. But he insists, it is obviously a matter of honour that one does these things for strangers out here for reasons of Polish courtesy and hospitality. I can only hope that none of these great folks out here ever has a mechanical breakdown where I live - they would be extremely lucky to get that kind of hospitality and courtesy out in the west.
I am also told that I am not to tip the mechanics for their efforts - luckily I already sorted that out yesterday, so I do not have to feel guilty on that one, too.
After a great farewell I set out towards Lublin by 1.30 pm in glorious weather. The bike is not leaking petrol, the coolant temperature is very healthy and all is excellent.
90 kilometers further on I hit the town of Lublin. This will be the real test, as I have to go right through the city centre with a lot of stop-and-go traffic. The bike behaves as expected, some water spurts out of the expansion bottle overflow pipe when the coolant heats up, then the electric cooling fan kicks in and the water temperature remains reasonably cool.
I safely reach the far side of the town and continue on my south-westerly course. At another traffic light I notice a slight change in the engine sound, a slight reluctance to accept the throttle lever - and kill the engine immediately. I suspect that the engine did overheat, though the coolant temperature on the gauge is still OK.
I get my spare water bottles out and top up the radiator. Less than one liter is missing, no more than I expected. But the telltale signs are there; the right engine cover has developed a very light oil leak, one of my three cylinder will occasionally misfire at tickover and the engine sounds much rougher than before.
Folks, I used to work in engine rebuilding a lifetime ago, so believe me when I tell you that I know when an engine is "cooked". I allow the motor to cool down, top up the coolant once more and fire it up again. It fires up all right, but it is clear that the compression of at least one my cylinders is practically gone. I obviously had a seized piston or two in downtown Lublin. I suppose a possible reason for me not noticing this is the fact, that the coolant temperature sensor is not really a proper cylinder head temperature gauge, but just a coolant temperature gauge mounted about on the highest point of the coolant circuit. A fall in the coolant level will result in the gauge not being immersed in water any more, so possibly still reporting low temperatures while the top of the cylinder head is no longer properly cooled.
To make a long story short; this problem needs either a replacement engine or a complete engine overhaul and rebuild. A damaged engine like this might make it to the nearest workshop, but certainly won't make it back 1600 km to Switzerland. I can probably have the bike hauled back home, but even then the investment in fixing the problem is rather prohibitive. I think I can not complain about the mileage I got out of Kitty. So here is what I do:
I stop at a hotel 30 km outside Lublin, the first one that offers Internet access, and book myself in for the night. Then I get myself an online crash course in Polish; what do words like "motorcycle breakers", "engine damage" or "scrapyard" mean in Polish. I get the answers to those questions from an online dictionary and note them down carefully.
The task for tomorrow is very straightforward: I need to find a place to get rid of the busted bike and then get me home by train or plane.
I find that flying out of Lublin is too cumbersome and expensive, but I make a note of a number of railway connections back to Switzerland
Next morning I saddle the bike. The sound it makes when I fire it up makes my hair standing up, but alas, it does fire up.
So how does one ditch a motorbike in a country where one does not speak the lingo? Well, I won't give any specific recommendations, but here is how I did it:
In the morning I sort out all my expendable luggage. I ditch all my dirty clothing and not needed kit in the hotel garbage cans. That sure is one way of saving you a lot of washing after your return from a vacation. I end up with a single baggage roll and the laptop.
Next I drive towards Lublin and six kilometers before reaching the town centre (and with it a possible final seizure of the engine) I see a posh Volvo car dealership on my left. I pull into their parking lot and walk into their showroom. There is a young girl at the reception which speaks fluent English. Her name is Magda. I explain my little problem and ask her if she knows any bike breakers in town. She does, and within an hour a ramshackle, filthy Nissan that absolutely does not fit among those posh Volvos pulls into the dealership. Two blokes with oily overalls who do not fit at all among those suit-wearing salesmen of the dealership get out of the Nissan and we start negotiations about the bike. The final agreement is that they can not legally accept taking possession of the bike for free. We agree that they will pay 1000 Zlotys for it - Magda does all the translating work. I take off my Swiss number plate, but give the guys a copy of the vehicle registration, a photocopy of my passport and my address, phone number and e-mail address.
They get out the money, give me a properly stamped sales receipt, happily accept my offer to throw in my biker jacket and helmet for free and drive off with Kitty to their dealership. I am fully aware that I will never see "my" Kitty again - ever. But that is live...
Within 90 minutes of setting out from my hotel this morning I am a pedestrian. Magda calls me cab and 24 Zlotys get me to Lublin's beautiful railway station:
I am already there just after noon, so I can use the earliest railway connection I found on the web last night; at 2.15 pm I leave via Warsaw to Kutno, where I catch the overnight sleeping car train via Poznań, Berlin and Frankfurt to Basel in Switzerland. That 26 hour rail journey would fill another journey diary all by itself, but doesn't really have anything to do with motorbiking. Here is a snapshot I took from the train while heading out westwards:
By 3 pm the following day I am back home in Switzerland and suddenly realize: my 2009 bike vacation may have been shorter than anticipated, but I probably had more fun, met more interesting people and re-charged my batteries much quicker than three weeks at Benidorm could have done...
- 211062 km on the bike - Kitty's final mileage (RIP)
Below is the usual map with my GPS tracklog from Hedemora up to Kitty's final resting place - over 3500 km.
Postscript: Kitty died on Wednesday, 10th of June 2009 aged pretty exactly seven years. But do not despair, instead please welcome Tigger, my new Triumph Tiger which I received today:
She is lighter, stronger and more agile than Kitty. Who would have thought that four days after parting with Kitty far away in Poland I would already be off again on two wheels...
- 268 km on the bike