You know when just the smell of a place is enough to make you nervous. A smell so assaulting and alien that it immediately lets you know that you don’t belong?
Today, we are guests of the Lion MD ★ Hotel on the outskirts of Nis, Serbia. We have been fortunate enough to secure the room for the day, as usually they are rented by the hour.
To explain how we got here, and why we are bound to stay, we will have to venture back 24 hours.
Waking up in the midst of an active building site, and stepping out of the van into a foot of snow, we were a little disheartened by our accommodation in Sarajevo. We were staying in the camp ground, but out of season, with the facilities mostly closed and major landscaping and remedial works in full swing, it was little more than a building site with an electric hookup.
Having been on a southward trajectory, and the weather in the UK being decidedly spring-like when we left, we jettisoned most of our bulky and warm clothes in lieu of a couple of hoodies and some thin rain coats. We neglected to factor in the mountainous terrain of the Balkan countries.
Having endured the bitter cold, wind rain and snow for several days now, we were getting past the point where any enjoyment or appreciation for our surroundings could be gained. So, that morning in the Sarajevo building site, we decided to make a beeline south. Smash the drive for 3 days and reach Istanbul and the more temperate climate of the Mediterranean.
We climbed out of Sarajevo on winding and snowy mountain passes, and continued to snake our way through Bosnian mountain-scapes and toward the Serbian border. One routine van and document check and we were through, to continue our winding and grinding push towards sunnier climates. Seven hours into a tortuously long drive and having only covered 300km, we finally reached a stretch of Serbian motorway, connecting the capital (Belgrade) with the other large Serbian industrial hub; Nis (pron. Ni-che).
As the aim of the venture was to put as many miles under our belts as possible, it was decided that we would drive for as long as it was reasonable to do so, put our heads down in a service station car park, and resume the following morning.
29km from Nis, as the light began to fade and a torrential rainstorm strengthened its grip, our plans were curtailed somewhat.
Cruising along, huge bang, jolt and the scream of tires. Hit breaks, hazard lights, dip clutch, roll, turn, make hard shoulder, stop. Smoke, shaking, jump out, fire, oil everywhere, pouring, panic, fire extinguisher, fire out, oil everywhere, shit.
Shaken and with the implications only beginning to sink in, we sat in the whipping rain on the side of a Serbian motorway, trying to maintain an atmosphere of ‘its all part of the adventure’ while searching the guide books and documents for a Serbian Roadside assistance number. With no avail and really getting stumped as to how we remove ourselves from the motorway, a tow truck happened to pass us in the opposite direction on a small country road. We waved him down and through wild arm gesturing managed to arrange for him to swing back around on the motorway to pick us up.
When he arrived, I went to attach the tow rope, but he gestured me away, instead, lowering the flatbed to his van, and attaching to winch me on. 20 minutes of this, and he finally resigned to the fact that it was too heavy. We attached the rope and, completely at his mercy, set off to “the nearest garage”.
On the worlds shortest tow rope, so close to his back-end that I could only see the glow from his break light, and with my foot poised above the break pedal so that hopefully my reaction time could be good enough to avoid going hurtling into him. He flew down the motorway, not a slow safe gentle tow down the hard shoulder, but a full on, 30km, full speed motorway drive. I began that tow soggy and shivering, I ended it sweating and shaking. My eyes were so glued to the red glow emanating from the back of his truck, awaiting the pulse of light that would indicate that I stamp hard on the break, that I had given little thought to where he would take us.
As the last of the light faded away, we pulled into a mechanics in a small suburb of Nis.
Exhausted and shaken from the long drive and the panic of events that had taken place so far, we were thankful to have reached anywhere that looked like it may be able to get us back on the road.
After many failed attempts to communicate, the mechanic called his friend, who speaks English, and it was translated that, as I had suspected, and as best as they could tell at this point, my engine block had cracked.
I carry many spare parts, and can bush fix most common diesel engine problems, but, this had been my suspicion and worst fear.
Nothing could be done that night, it was agreed that we would go to a hotel, that they would take the engine out and get a further idea of what they were dealing with and I would return in the morning, to take a look myself and ascertain if it is favorable to repair this engine, or to put a whole new one in. I agreed with them that it would likely be €500-600 for labour, plus the cost of the parts, easily the same again if a new engine block was indeed necessary.
Although devastated by this development, it had happened and the important thing in these situations is to stay calm and level headed, deal with the problem and resume the trip. The thought of being able to put my head down in a warm hotel room was enough to allow me to forget about the price and carry on.
It was then made apparent that the stone-faced tow truck driver was still hanging around, that he operated independently, and while certainly on some kind of bonus-incentive programme to bring his rescued vehicles to this garage, still expected a separate bill to be paid.
He then quoted the price. €150. Still shaken and exhausted and in an isolated garage full of large and glaring Serbian men and at this stage, completely at their mercy, we were not in a position to protest more that exclaim our exasperation at the price. Their glaring retort confirmed that this was not to be negotiated.
We jumped in the mechanics car and swung by a bank, paid the tow truck driver, and carried on to the hotel. They made no attempt to hide the fact that they had picked this hotel as it was owned by his mate, but passing several other hotels that were within walking distance of the garage and carrying on, half way across the city made us dubious about the whole process.
Sandwiched, charmingly, between a lumber yard, a bus depot and an amateur Serbian boxing gym, we finally approached the Hotel, both of us thinking ‘please, not this one’, as we did.
Entering, through as fog-thick haze of cigarette smoke and met, as seems to be the norm, by a barrage of stern looks and elbow-nudges. We had reached our destination. A soviet era dilapidated Motel, in the industrial outskirts of an industrial city.
For now, the priority remains to keep our heads down, to pass the time here, while I await my return to the mechanic’s and, hopefully to our van.
In many situations, or times of need, someone comes to your aid. Someone who sees your foreign vulnerability and goes out of their way to assist you. Someone whose main aim is purely to help. In other situations, people see your foreign vulnerability as a chance to make money. They know that you are against the ropes and their minds spiral with all of the conceivable ways they can get money from your pocket to theirs.
I worry that our aid has come in the form of the latter group. Our first experience has been to be ripped off and pay €150 euros for a tow, purely as I was not in a position to argue, and my panicked state and desire to get off the motorway had seen me break the cardinal rule and not negotiate a price in advance. We are now in a horrific hotel, many miles from the garage, at massive inconvenience to ourselves.
I fear not that they will not fix my van, but I wonder about the price, the quality of the work, and the quality of the parts. It is confirmed that I need a new engine, how am I to confirm the mileage of that new engine? I may request and pay for a post 1997, sub 100k 1.9 diesel, but I may get a 300k+ engine from an MOT failure. Something that will propel me 1000 miles from here before exploding and needing replaced again.
I am off now, to visit the mechanic as it opens, to stand over them now that I am in a better frame of mind, to shadow their work and make sure that they know that I am not a laymen, I do know my stuff and that I will not be played for a fool.
I will update this post with the results of this endeavor.
Having spent time with the mechanic now, my fears have been confirmed. Turbo gone. Engine block cracked. The fire has also damaged a few other things.
The quote I have got from the Mechanic here is:
New sub 100km AAZ 1.9 Engine block – €900
New Turbo – €600
Labour – €600
Other small parts – €160
Total Repair Bill: