New Note: Photos updated now – Blogs updated with pics all the way back to Krasnoyarsk.
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The barge took surprisingly long to dock at the earthen jetty at Lensk. Last night at Peledui, in the twilight the barge had docked almost instantly on a makeshift pile of dirt jutting out into the river that made do as a jetty.
We were one of the first vehicles off and waved goodbye to our friends of several days – the truck drivers on board the barge. Many of the drivers had begged me for Sibirsky Extreme stickers … and though I was low on supplies, I felt obliged to give them stickers. The truck drivers had helped us a lot on board, donating food supplies, tea and information freely.
The first stop was a petrol station. It was only 245 km to Mirny but we were now in Yakutia and I think its prudent to fill up at every opportunity in Yakutia. When we were done, a curious local Lensk-ite at the petrol station led us to the start of the Anabar Road – the road that leads north from Lensk thru the diamond mining towns of Mirny, Udachny and continues on as a zimnik (winter road) as far north as Anabar.
The Anabar road was a dusty affair. We had 3 totally dry hot days while on the Lena and it was clear that the weather had been no different here. It was hot and dusty. When meeting oncoming vehicles of passing other vehicles, visibility dropped to 30 metres or less. Not exactly safe at 100 km/h which equates to about 30 metres a second. The further we got from Lensk, the more traffic thinned out and the easier riding became. We had to ride a kilometre apart as the dust made it impossible to ride any closer.
We stopped for food, kitchen cooked food, the first in 4 days, and soon after I stopped to have a crap in the woods, the first in 3 days. Damn mosquitos are fierce up here. My trousers were down for no more than a minute, but it seems my pasty white butt was manna from heaven for the local mosquitos – who feasted gluttonously. I didnt realise how badly I had been bitten until 5 minutes after we rode off when I felt no less than ten itchy stinging bumps rising on my buttocks.
We were passed while stopped by one of the truck drivers from the boat, who tooted loudly. Once on the road after my gentlemans break, we hauled him in and in a cloud of dust burst back past him … to yet more rapturous tooting.
Two hours later and we were on the outskirts of Mirny. I called Ilya, a local Africa Twin rider (recently converted from sports bikes) who zoomed out to meet us as we rode into town. Mirny is a modern decent sized, educated town. Ilya took us to see Mirny’s main attraction, the largest, deepest hole in the world. For almost 50 years diamonds were mined in a giant pit around which the town has grown. The pit closed in 2001 and the diamonds are now mined underground.
Then it was onto a mechanic friend, Andrei. Tony and I still had a couple of bolts to sort out. Andrei would sort it tomorrow. He would store our bikes overnight and he found a friend with a spare apartment to lend us.
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Andrei the mechanic came to collect us at the apartment at midday. First stop was the general store near his workshop where we stocked up on pirozhki and samsas for breakfast, then go to work on what we could fix. Andrei was pretty busy (one of his customers was a drunk guy from Aikhal in a Nissan Pathfinder who had been on the barge with us … he was very excited to see us again and asked us to call him and come round for a party wheen in Aikhal. – I said we would think about it)
Due to all the work, Andrei only managed to get around to our bolt needs by 4pm … but we fixed both bikes, stripped off half the gear (we would be back here in 3 days time) and with Ilya along side we headed off to refuel and hit the Anabar road north.
Ilya rode with us till near Chernyshevsky, 100 km down the road. A big storm cell was in front of us and Ilya was just in jeans, so was prudent for him to head back. It was the furtherest out of Mirny he had ridden. he said there were 7 bikers in Mirny, but all but him were on street bikes. They stick to the asphalt in Mirny. Ilya’s bike had been flown in to Mirny air freight from Moscow less than a month earlier, so he hadnt ridden it here. We were on virgin motorcycling territory heading north from Chernyshevsky.
We stopped in Chernyshevsky to get some dinner and refuel. It was only 3-4 litres each, but we would need it on the 425km ride from here to Udachny. We were a very popular attraction in the town store … not many foreigners up this way we were told. The ladies in the towns store even insisted on giving us a free cup of tea each. Our charm goes a long way up here
Then we crossed the Vilyui river at 7pm and from here to Udachny was pretty much due north. The Vilyui is a pretty big river in itself … we are 1500 km from Yakutsk here and will follow the Vilyui for most of the way to Yakutsk. It is one of the larger tributaries of the Lena, and was pretty big even here – 1500 km before it joins the Lena.
As soon as we crossed the Vilyui, the taiga forest changed. The 20-30 metre high pines and birch trees were smaller and continued shrinking as we sped north. Light would be no problem. We are only 2 weeks from the longest day of the year and we are only a few degrees short of the Arctic Circle, so we could expect “white nights”. We passed the drunk guy’s Nissan Pathfinder … it was parked at an odd angle by the side of the road with no sign of life around … strange. We went on.
About 9pm we exerienced what we experienced on the barge. Up north here there is no huge change in light levels between night and day, just a gradual softening between about 11pm and 3am, but there is a dramatic change in temperature. Daytime temperature (about 20 degrees) lasts till 9pm, then in a 15 minute period drops rapidly to about 8 degrees or less. The sun was still out and shining but the temperature dropped like a stone and we stopped to rug up. Tony poured his 5 litres of spare fuel into his tank and the earphones went back in for another 200 – 250 km of dirt and mud.
At 11pm, now just 65 km from Udachny we reached the turnoff to Aikhal, another diamond mining town. Aikhal was just 10 km off the Anabar road and my fuel light had just come on. I asked Tony how much he had left and he reckoned about 35 miles (55km) … hmmm it was risky. I decided to turn in to Aikhal and refuel. Its the only place between Chernyshevsky and Udachny with fuel. 5km down the road to Aikhal, and I ran out completely. I was shocked. For starters I should have about 500 Km range and had gone only 375 km. Secondly I normally get 70km once the reserve light comes on. I had barely got 5km. had I sprung a leak? I sent Tony onwards to Aikhal to get fuel and waited in the cold and the wind for him to return. 15 mins later and Tony had filled up and got 5 litres for me. 76 octane … the worst of the trip so far, and nothing to dilute it with (no half tank of 92 or 96 octane). I poured it into the tank and fired up the bike … both bikes ran fine on the pure 76. They have an anti-knock sensor that adjusts the timing to suit the grade of fuel you put in. We wont get as much power out of the 76, but the bikes will run with it. Did I tell you how much I love this engine??
I rode into town as Tony led the way to the fuel station. Initially Tony had been rebuffed in his attempt to buy fuel, but reluctantly the lady had relented and sold him enough. Now down at the bowser myself I saw why. There was a sign indication limits and rationing. I decided just to take 10 litres. We would go to Udachny tomorrow and maybe they would have 92 octane.
It had been light drizzle for the last hour or two and we were both pretty cold and wet by now. The lady in the fuel station took pity on us and called the local hotel (run by a friend), who agreed to take us in. It wouldnt be cheap, but beggars cant be choosers. In diamond mining towns like this, the only visitors are accountants or consultants flying in from Moscow or South Africa etc, so the prices for accomodation tend to be very high.
The ladies in the hotel passed us on to one of her friends, a lady at the police station 300 yards aaway, who agreed to store our bikes in the police car park in exchange for a few midnight photos. Once the bikes were parked, Tony went off in search of beer and chips, and I set about cleaning up a bit. I walked into the shower in boots and riding pants and hosed the last few hours of mud off myself.
Tony and I sat up till 3am, still light outside, discussing the strange day we had just had. By now we are at 65 degrees 57 minutes north, and I am confident that we have now travelled further north in Asia on motorbikes than has been done previously. The road of bones only gets as far as 63′ 25″, and the new northern variation via Ust Nera only to 64′ 36″ North. The only riding being done further north in Russia is by locals who have had their bikes flown in.
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I woke several times before our official rise and shine time of midday, but each time I looked outside the window in Aikhal and saw nothing but thick grey clouds and rain. This was a bad day to try and get beyond Udachny. There was a knock on the door. No idea who that could be. It was the drunk guy with the Nissan Pathfinder. He had tracked us down in Aikhal. What a ‘lucky’ co-incidence.
After he left I even stuck my hand out the window. It almost froze instantly. I consulted with Tony … we decided to wait a bit. I went downstairs to see when we had to check out. A bit of debating followed but as we had actually checked in just after midnight (thus todays date) they agreed that we could stay till tomorrow morning. Since we were paying 85 EUR a day for the serviced apartment, getting that extra night in was a real bonus. And it meant we could leave everything in the room and travel extra light up to Udachny, as we would return in the evening.
By 2:30pm the rain had eased to a drizzle, and we walked down to the police station to collect our bikes for the final assault on Udachny. The riding gear had dried a bit, but was in general still wet, and now also cold. Oh what a fun day we were going to have.
The road north was muddy but not too slippery, just like it was yesterday, and we covered the 75km to Udachny in just under an hour. The temperature today was 8 degrees and with the rain and the constant northern wind, we were both freezing by the time we got there. We passed a fuel station of sorts, but on closer inspection it was completely closed. There must be some fuel around I thought to myself as local cars were moving about.
The cold was getting to us and we decided to find a cafe in town where we could (a) warm up (b) get some breakfast – at 4:30pm and (c) get information about petrol and any road that could get us further north. We found our cafe and settled in for a lot of cups of warm lemon tea to accompany our fish, meatballs and sandwich that we ordered.
I spoke with the lady that ran the cafe about permafrost. Here in Udachny its just 10-15 cm below the surface of the ground. In Mirny it was 1.5 – 2m below the surface and Lensk didnt have any at all. With all that frozen earth just below the surface, drainage was a real issue. Any rain just sits around until it evaporates.
One drunk local sang our praises constantly for half an hour but said the road north is impossible this time of year. A couple of more sober younger lads offered to lead us to (a) petrol and (b) the road north that crosses the Arctic Circle. I had heard several distances mentioned by locals regarding how far north you need to go to get to the Arctic Circle, but all were between 15 and 20 km. Some said 16, some 15, some 18, some 20km.
We donned the wet jackets (at least after 2hrs in the cafe they were only wet, rather than cold and wet) and saddled up to follow the boys in their Lada. First stop the petrol station. Similar signs were seen … limits etc. And one that said closed from 6:30 to 8pm for dinner. It was now 6:40pm. Doh !.
Then we drove on following the Lada and saw signs to Anabar … the continuation of the Anabar Road. The road was in decent shape and our spirits rose. Maybe it is possible to get to the Artic Circle in summer (if you can call this cold and rain summer). But our hopes were dashed 6km north of Udachny. The constant recent rain had left an huge amount of water cascading over the road. It was an enormous torrent. The guys in the Lada shrugged their shoulders andd turned round to head back into town. Tony and I just stared forlornly at the sight in front of us.
We were there for half an hour, at 66′ 27″ North wondering if there was any way to cross the river and do the last 10km to the Circle. I had a thought that we could return tomorrow, hire a massive 6WD Zil truck to take us across, and return the same way an hour later.
There was nothing to do but wait for the petrol station to re-open. We rode into to two and waited under the steps of the local post office to shelter from the rain (but we couldnt shelter from the cold and the wind). At 8pm I rode to the station and it was open. I asked the lady there for 15 litres of 92 octane. “No petrol” she repied.
“Please”, I countered, “just 10 litres?, 5 litres?”
“Ok, 10 litres – 330 rubles”
And so a bit of begging, grovelling and looking like a sorry, cold, wet foreigner standing in the rain with a motorcycle that was low on fuel actually helped.
And with my 10 litres of 92 octane fuel we headed back to Aikhal and our warm, dry serviced apartment. However if the cold wet day we had enjoyed so far today was tough, we were about to begin 26 hours of utter motorcycling hell.
15 km out of Udachny, and Tony’s front tyre became flat. We were still just 10 minutes ride from town so we stripped the wheel off and I carried back into town to find a shino-montazh. It took over an hour to find one, but they got to work fixing the split along the seam of Tony’s original tubes. These tubes are too thin for rough dirt roads and Tony has had several similar problems in the past few weeks. Fortunately he has some heavy duty ones coming out in the next Sibirsky Extreme supply shipment.
I would love to have bought an old Boeing 707 and convert it into a Sibirsky Extreme supply plane – something like the Led Zeppelin 707 from the early 70′s … maybe with drying racks and warm beds … flying around Siberia full of spares, Sibirsky Extreme logo emblazoned on the tail. But I am fantasizing again. We are in Udachny, cold and wet, and we have a flat tyre … back to reality.
No patches here in Udachny, so they just cut a bit of rubber from another tube and vulcanise it using heat and pressure for 30 minutes. As soon as that hole was fixed, we tested the tube and another hole was found. So another 30 minutes went by while it was vulcanised. The guys at the Shino-montazh loved the motorcycling up to Udachny story and insisted on coming with me out to Tony to see the second bike. So we went, me riding and they driving 15 km south of Udachny where Tony was waiting in the cold and the rain.
We quickly fitted the front wheel and were about to ride off when we spotted Tony’s rear tyre was now flat. It must be a slow leak as we were able to pump it up, but the thought of a problem developing in the middle of the night half way back to Aikhal made us return to Udachny to have it repaired and so in a convoy of 2 bikes and one jeep, we went back to the Shino-montazh HQ. By now it was almost midnight. Tony and I sat upstairs having tea while the boys went to work on his back wheel. 45 mins or so later it was fixed and Tony and I refitted the wheel to the bike. As he was about to saddle up, we noticed the front wheel was now flat. Well if you are going to have a flat, might as well have it as a tyre repair place. And so more tube repairing went on. One of the first vulcanisations hadnt taken well and was easily ripped off (too easily it seemed to me).
I spoke with the boys about hiring a Zil truck tomorrow for the river crossing, since they were in the automotive business but they said not even Zil’s are going across that river now. Well that was it. If Zil’s aren’t making it over then nothing is crossing that road, at least while the water levels are as they are. The Arctic Cirle would have to wait for someone else at someother time, perhaps with a week of dry weather prior to their arriving in Udachny.
By 2:30am we were done and Tony and I hit the road for our ride back to Aikhal. Only 10 km out of townand the front was flat again. We took the wheel off Tony’s bike and I returned again to the tyre place, saying that I think the tube was dead and they should just fit the spare. In reality I was by now convinced that something was not working in their vulcanising method. Maybe it was the wrong type of rubber, who knows. They fitted the spare and I returned yet again to Tony waiting out in the cold, fitted the front wheel, complete with proper tube now, and rode back to Aikhal. All the way I had been fearing Tony’s rear wheel. If I was right about the dodgy vulcanising, then his rear tube was at risk too, as they had repaired that one once as well. But we made it back ok, about 4:30 am, finally. Nothing has felt better than the warm shower after we had after making it back. We had left Udachny about 8:30pm for a 45 minute ride to Aikhal and made it 8 hours and 4 flat tyres later.
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Our alarms went off at 10:30. We needed to be out of the apartment by midday and there was a fair bit of cleaning and reshuffling of stuff to do. But by midday we were out and had the bikes. First stop was a canteen (stolovaya) as we hadnt eaten thoughout our evening ordeal. Then it was back to the Aikhal petrol station to top up on 76 octane for the 375km to Chernyshevsky, the next fuel.
Two extra days of rain had made the road south worse than when we rode it on the way up. It was muddier, the rain was heavier, the temperature was colder. And we had hours and hours and hours of it. It would be 5 hours on dirt roads in good weather, travelling at 100 km/h, but in the heavy rain and thick mud, we would be lucky to average 70 km/h. Thats almost 8 hours of mud. Any slower than 70 km/h and we wouldnt get out before winter. Tony seemed to sense my desire to get back to relative civilisation as soon as possible and we powered on.
We stopped breifly in the village of Morkoka, (the only inhabited place in the 375 km between Aikhal and Chernyshevsky) as we had been told there might be fuel there. (There was a cafe with limited accomodation there too in case anyone else heads up this way some time). The fuel station was open, but had onnly diesel. If they had petrol, they werent selling it to us, even with puppy dog face and begging.
On and on thru the cold and the rain we went. We had a loose plan to meet Ilya back in Mirny at 6pm and were just on track to make that as we had been making better speed than initially thought. With about 300 km done and about 75 km from Chernyshevsky and the start of civilisation, Tony stopped. My fears had been realised, his rear tyre was flat. It would have been the dodgy vulcanisation from last night.
It was time to do a tube change. In the rain and the mud, and swarms of savage mosquitoes too we took off Tony’s back tyre. Nearby was a stream and in freezing cold water Tony had to wash the wheel, tyre and tube to avoid getting mud into the inside of the tyre. Initially I wanted to patch Tony’s spare with proper self-vulcanising patches, but this was impossible due to the rain … there was no-where to get the tube dry. So Tony’s spare rear was put in, the tyre refitted and pumped up. We had managed to refit the tyre without pinching the tube. All of this had been done in slow motion as both of us had fingers so cold that nothing was happening automatically. We had to force our fingers to do this or that. And so an hour after stopping we were again on our way. The only one piece of satisfaction I got from that exercise is knowing Safran will now cease his complaining that we dont change our flat tyres ourselves.
The last 75 km to Chernyshevsky was the muddiest of the lot. Rear ends were slipping and sliding all over the place and it took an hour and a half, but we had both made it. Neither had resorted to our 5 litres of reserve fuel and we went straight to the fuel station to feed the thirsty bikes on 92 octane juice.
Phone coverage existed there too and I texted Ilya to let him know we would be late. Maybe 8pm. We had planned to get a bite to eat in Chernyshevsky but with Ilya waiting for us 100 km down the road in Mirny, we pressed on after refuelling. This dirt road was in much better shape and I roared along at 100 km/h, defying the rain and the cold. My heated gloves and vest had been on all day, and now my phone was charging up. We would soon be warm and clean.
30km out of Chernyshevsky and Tony’s headlight disappeared from my rear view mirror. I stopped and a few minutes later it re-appeared. ‘come on Tony, this is no time to faff about going slow’ I thought to myself. The light caught up with me and I roared off again only to leave Tony’s headlight trailing far behind. This was not like Tony. Even on the muddy roads he was now pretty comfortabe riding about as fast as I liked to ride. I stopped to wait for him and he pulled up next to me. His engine was overheating. We killed the bikes and checked out Tony’s radiator. It was clogged with baked mud, about an inch thck, that had set like concrete from the heat.
As the mosquitos again began feasting, Tony set about with water form a nearby stream and a wooden stick, trying to clear his radiator. He had actually done tthis several times over the past few days, each time successfully, for a few hours before a few hours more mud clogged it again, but this time it was hard work. 20 minutes later and it was as clean as it was going to get.
We saddled up and fired up the bikes, or tried to. My battery was now flat. I had been riding all day with heated gear. There was nothing for it but to jump start the bike. We had no jumper leads, but Tony had a cable with a DIN plug at one end. I stripped the ends of the cable while Tony took off his battery panels. About a dozen screws need to be undone to get at the battery on his F650, and in the cold, with the mosquitoes, it took an eternity. Finally the batteries were connected and my bike fired up. It took another eternity to put all the panels back on.
Back on the road again and 20 km down the road Tony needed to stop and again squirt as much water as possible over his radiator. My bike stalled as we pulled up and the battery had not charged enough to fire it up. While Tony squirted his radiator, I puched the bike up a nearby hill. The 650 engine is not an easy one to clutch start, due to the compression, so I needed a decent hill. Fortunately unlike 20 km back, there was one available. Clutch starting the 650 needs to be done in 4th gear, as any other gear just results in skidding the back wheel. Amazingly it fired up first time. I had become accustomed to thinking life was meant to be hell and it was nice to know something still worked.
I went back to where Tony was. We were now only 50 km from Mirny. We had different problems with the bikes, Tonys being one that meant he needed to stop regularly, and mine being one that meant I should not stop at all. I told Tony that I was going to ride ahead non-stop to town to get to Andrei’s garage. If I didnt see him in an hour I would send out a car search party. He agreed, meaning he could take his time with his radiator and then hose it out properly when we got to Andrei’s.
I finally made it to Andrei’s about 10:30pm. The day had been tough, but the period from Tony’s flat rear to arriving in Mirny had been utter hell. Cold, wet, muddy and everytime we stopped we were eaten by mosquitos. It was an endurance test par excellence. An SAS style training course for motorcyclists.
I immediately reached for Andrei’s Karcher pressure washer and turned it on myself. From the knees down I was covered in about an inch thick muddy slime, and then I started on the bike. 10 minutes into the process I heard the tell tale sound of a 650 rotax engine, and Tony pulled in. I immediately stopped what I was doing and turned the hose on him and on his radiator (from a safe distance) while he was still riding in. It took several minutes before his radiator was clean and well over 40 minutes before both bikes were acceptably clean.
Andrei turned off the Karcher and there was relief over Tony’s and my faces. We were back in Mirny and we were in the hands of friends … and were were halfway to clean … clean enough to sit in Andrei’s van as he took us to the apartment, via the beer shop of course.
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