We had arrived in the tiny BAM forestry town of Isa late on Friday afternoon. within an hour of arriving we had satiated our thirsts and hungers and met the senior chaps who ran the town’s main private business, a logging company. It seemed to me that in Isa you either worked for the railway or the logging company. There were only 300 people there in the town, and it was a pretty grim looking place.
But the logging guys took us in, and housed us in a cabin. We found out from the loggers that we would be able to take a train to Fevralsk on Monday. That gave us the weekend to consider any alternatives. Fevralsk was only 90 km away … but we had no reliable information on the road and the previous 65 km had taken us 3 days !!!.
The day was rounded off with an intensely hot sauna and wash. Nice to wash our reeking bodies after three days of sweating in the rain.
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Saturday started with the realisation that in the night someone had taken Terry’s and Tony’s GPS units off their bikes. This was ridiculous in a town of 300 people, that effectively had no roads in or out. Someone must have been drunk or completely stupid. Within a few hours Valera, the boss of the logging company, had tracked down and returned the GPS units.
Terry needed to look at his oil. We had ridden a full day since his bike swallowed all that swamp water. We were still entertaining thoughts of riding to Fevralsk as Tony’s spirits had recovered rapidly with a few beers and a the prospect of a days rest and maybe even dry, riding gear by the end of the day.
Sadly, Terry’s water-oil emulsion had not separated. It was still milk both in his sump and his oil tank. There was no oil in Isa. There were barely any general stores. With his oil in such bad shape, the prospect of a ride to Fevralsk was shelved completely and now knowing that we would be in Isa for all of tomorrow as well, we decided to do laundry at the camp’s very basic self serve laundromat. We would have 2 nights and a day to dry the clothes out in the cabin.
In the evening we cooked up a Sibirsky Extreme Stew, from a few ingredients the kitchen had thrown our way and a few bits and pieces we had collected from the towns tiny shops. We had a tin of peas, a tin of corn, a few potatoes, a few cucumbers, some chicken stock and some pelmeni. We boiled up the potatoes then threw the rest in for one of the finest stews any of us can remember. It was a recipe that just worked!
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The logging camp’s number 2 man, Vadim, came around early in the morning. He had arrannged a full train schedule all the way to Tynda, if we wanted it. It would be no less than 5 freight trains, and each train involved us unloading the bikes from one train and loading them onto another. Hmmm… something else to think about
The day was just spent in recovery mode and drying clothes.
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Well after waiting two days, our train to Fevralsk was due today. We packed up the gear and were ready to go by 11am … but had to sit around till 2:30 to head down to the train station with Valera the logging boss. I spoke with Valera and the guys down at the station and it seems the Poles had stayed at the fire station here … a different lodging from us for a change. They had to wait 3 days for a train according to the locals.
By 3pm the local utility train appeared, consisting of a flat bed car and a passenger car. We pushed the bikes up a couple of wooden planks and on to the flat bed and realised we were the only people getting on the train. Surely they hadnt put on this train especially for us?
As the train pulled out of Isa we got a good view of the road to Fevralsk, as it ran alongside the track, no more than 50 yards from the train track.
The train hadnt been exclusively for us, as it stopped to pick up railway maintenance workers a number of times on the way to Fevralsk. By the time we got to Fevralsk the sole train carriage was reasonably full. Our fare for the two hour ride, including bikes, was 80 rubles each … less than 2 EUR.
As for the road from Isa to Fevralsk, for anyone mad enough to get to Isa in the future … the road onwards to Fevralsk is rideable. Its many times better than the road between Isa and Etyrken. All rivers have serviceable bridges. I could see no holes in the road. There were large waterholes covering the whole road, but all looked either navigable or able to be ridden around. As with every road in Siberia, how difficult the road is depends entirely on weather conditions over the past few days. A week of fine weather and that road could be done 2 hours. A week of rain and its a 2 day slog. As it was when we saw it, I would have estimated it as a reasonable days ride.
I had found out a bit more about this stretch of the BAM road from the old hands around Isa while we had waited there. The road appears on every atlas of Russia because once upon a time (soviet times) there was a serviceable road here. In fact it was the first serviceable road across Russia. Now the road is selectively maintained by some regional councils, but many sections such as Etyrken to Isa had seen absolutely no maintenance in 20 years. Stretches like that have deteriorated to the point that no 4WD would be able to drive them. Even my beloved Wazziks / Buhankas cannot drive these roads. They are now exclusively the preserve of the huge 6WD Urals, Zils, Kamaz and Kraz trucks – and the odd eccentrics on motorcycles.
It says something about Russian road attlases too. The better ones are very quick to update when new roads are built, but no-one drives these roads to check as to when they fall below a standard worthy of including in an atlas. It was the same with the ghost city of Kadykchan. New town are quickly added to new atlases, but old ones are not removed … as it is with the roads.
We arrived in Fevralsk, where a contact of Vadim, the number 2 man in Isa, met us at the station and helped us get the bikes down onto the platform. We were led into the office of the main man at the station who listened to us and tried to organise the succession of 4 frieght trains to take us on to Tynda. In the end I just decided it was too hard, checked with the boys to see if they were up for riding to Tynda and then left to find the petrol station, and hotel / cafe type place.
The decision was made. We would ride to Tynda via the Trans-Siberian highway, then resume on the BAM road after Tynda.
At the ‘hotel’, there was an outdoor shower, but it did feature hot water. It was the first shower we had enjoyed since Vanino! mmmm
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Today is my son’s birthday, but no point calling him first thing in the morning, it will be midnight in Europe. I packed up my gear and headed into town to find Terry some oil. We needed to get the ‘milk’ out of his engine ASAP and get some oil in. I found 4 litres of 10W-40 mineral oil, it was for diesel engines, but it would have to do. Terry was happy to get any proper oil in there, at least to get him to Tynda where we should be able to find some good oil.
A quick oil change was done in the yard of the Hotel. Terry noticed even after the oil change and running the engine a few minutes, there were still traces of white emulsion in his engine oil, so this oil could serve as a rinse over the next few days.
We had breakfast and hit the road about 10:30. It was about 300km back to the main Trans-Siberian road. It rained on and off and the temperature was cooler today. We had to stop several times to increase the amount of clothing we were wearing, but we still made the Trans-Siberian about 2:30pm. It was asphalt. Stunning new asphalt that would not be out of place on a new autobahn.
Terry by now had gone 4 hours without food and that was beyond his limit. We pulled over for fuel and food.
It was now 3:30pm and we wanted to get as far as possible while this road surface was so immaculate. We charged on at full speed in on again – off again light rain. The road was incredibly good. Freshly laid and in many areas unpainted. Road workers were putting finishing touches on all over it. There was one section of about 30 km that detoured onto an older asphalt road alongside the Trans-Siberian Railway (full of freight trains), but soon reverted to the immaculate new road. About 7pm, and with about 350km covered on the new road, we were not far from Magdagachi. It had been my most optimistic target for the day. Here the asphalt abruptly ran out and we were on a 50km/h gravelly, potholed roadbed … awaiting asphalt.
We battled on to Magdagachi, passing cars struggling at half our speed on the poor surface. We were all cold and wet and had a team talk about what the next move was. We had enough daylight to probably make it to Never, and the start of the M56 federal road north to Tynda. Terry just wanted to get dry and warm. Tony and I were in favour of pushing on … and so we pushed on. But there had been no fuel stations immediately following Magdagachi, as there had been around many towns the road ran past, and before long all three of us had fuel reserve lights on. We decided to play it safe and return the 20 km back to Magdagachi, via the 5km mud track that linked the town with the new highway. We had done over 725km today, the second biggest day of the whole project. Considering over 350km had been on dirt roads, it is indicative of how good the new asphalt Trans-Siberian road is!. In a year or two, the whole country will be linked by asphalt and a ride across Siberia just wont be the same. People will NEED the BAM road, just to spice up trans Russian journeys
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We awoke in our hotel, the Magdagachi sports club in the centre of town, to the sound of a downpour outside. It wasnt just rain, it was a total deluge of monsoonal proportions. Tynda was less than 400 km away, a day’s ride over dirt roads, but it was impossible to even go outside, let alone contemplate riding in this nightmare. We did the only thing we could … we sat and waited.
By 10:30am there was an easing in the rain and I told the guys that we had to move. We packed up and by the time the bikes were all packed the rain had stopped. By the time we refuelled, the sun was peeking through.
We headed on down the semi asphalted road and stopped at Taldan for Terry’s breakfast.
While the Trans-Siberian road this morning had been almost all gravel, it was in the process of being asphalted. As soon as we turned onto the M56 north, we were on a proper graded gravel road. This was exactly the sort of road that ‘Chopper’ Tony loved as it was reminiscent of his rallying roads. He reads these roads particularly well and tore off at 110 km/h with Terry and I struggling to keep up.
We refuelled at Solovevsk and continued on, tho at a reduced pace. There had been one or two unexpected bumps in the road that had caught us by surprise (and potentially damaged our rims), so it was 80 km/h from Solovyesvsk to Tynda. We reached Tynda, the capital of the BAM system at 4pm and made our way to the Hotel Yunost, which we were told is the finest hotel in town. When we arrived, we were greeted by a tour group of German and Dutch tourists, pausing here on a BAM railway tour.
The Police knocked on my room soon after I checked in and offered to house the bikes just down the road in the Police garage. It was an offer too good to refuse, especially as it had come from the boss man himself. We rode the bikes to the station then returned to settle into a a night in the first proper town we had seen since Komsomolsk and the last we will see till Severobaikalsk. Tynda has about 45,000 people and the town is all about the BAM.
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Terry finally got the eggs sunny-side-up he had been craving for the past week, and we dropped off some clothes and riding boots that needed repairs at repair shops in the hotel building. Next, we hit the local market, just up the hill from the hotel. Tony and I bought new shoes and socks as the others had by now died.
We had some repair work to do on the bikes, tho Terry decided against changing his oil again. He was now happy with his diesel oil. Tony had to shuffle his front tyre around and I had some welding to do on my rear rack. When I stripped the gear off the bike I got a hell of a shock. The rack needed welding in a dozen places. The stresses off the BAM road had really taken a toll on my poor rack. The police decided it was too big a job for their handyman electric welder and took me down to a local argon welder who went nuts for an hour bolstering my rear rack with weld.
I was happy to get that all sorted before we hit the road again tomorrow. The team headed out for a Chinese meal to finish off our one rest and repair day in Tynda.
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After all that welding, I had a fair bit of work to do to put the bike back together, and the police garage didnt open until 9am. By the time I got the back together, we fuelled up, got some auto parts, filled up with enough food to last the day and hit the road it was 11:30.
The first 200 km was pretty uneventful and good graded gravel road. We arrived in Lopcha at the end of that good road about 2pm and stopped for a drink. After Lopcha the road began to get more interesting. The road was far less prepared, and in many places ran upon an embankment built for a second track, when they ever get around to putting in a second track.
Now the road and track were running alongside the Nyukzha River. Before Lopcha, all bridges had been present and serviceable. After Lopcha that was no longer the case. Some bridges were useable by all vehicles, some by light vehicles only and some were unuseable full stop … derelict.
As a result of the varying road conditions there were now often two concurrent roads; one the original BAM auto road built in the era of BAMstroi (BAM building) mostly the 1970s and 80s, and a second less used route on the unused half of the railway embankment. We alternated between the two. The proper road, when it was good was quicker, but the railway embankment was consistent in terms of maintenance.
The other difference in the BAM here compared to East of Tynda (apart from the embankment being built for two tracks) was that the bridges were a little wider and featured a bit more space for a bike to squeeze alongside the track on the walking track.
Our speed slowed down from the 80-100 km/h we had been doing before Lopcha to more like 50 km/h or less. There were a few curious pieces of infrastucture; 3 almost unused new concrete road bridges built across the Nuandzha River.
About 6pm, and getting near Yuktail, our destination for the day and my chain snapped and jammed up in my rear wheel. We were at a river crossing wondering how to get across. Some picnicing (vodkaing) truck drivers on the other side indicated the river was too deep. Tony had walked up to the rail bridge to survey the surrounding countryside, and seen a new concrete road bridge. While Terry and I tackled my chain, Tony went to explore this bridge he had seen.
The drunken truck drivers made it across the river in their trucks, just in time to help us with tools to flare the rivets on the chain joining piece (a hammer and a centre punch). The chain was pretty tired long before it gave up, but I have only one spare to get me home. That dead chain had been on the bike 12,000km, but it had been almost all dirt roads in that time. I was upset that it had died on me, but I guess I should be happy with it considering the circumstances.
Tony returned having found a route across, via an old 2.5 tonne limit bridge and we continued on.
As we got closer to Yuktali, our first scheduled fuel stop, we came to a river crossing that was not going to be fordable. As there was no other option apparent, it seemed an ideal time to try the railway bridge crossing trick. We found a path up to the railway embankment and then shut off the bikes to examine first hand how this could work.
Tony’s survey indicated he needed to remove his side boxes and carry them over. Terry and I were more optimistic with our setups. Tony carried his over while Terry made a run for it. We figured at worst, as we were slightly lower down than train level, even if a train came, we should be OK for clearance. It might be bloody hairy annd frightening to have a siberian freight train clattering along at 60 km/h next to your head, but as long as it was next to your head and bike, then there’s no real problem.
The hardest part was getting onto and off the bridge. Often concrete lips left a bit of a fall down to the bridge walking track level, and a bit of a challenge on the other side.
But we all made it across pretty much uneventfully. I lost a pannier 2/3 of the way across as I clipped a bridge frame. Terry recovered it and while Tony went back for his bike, I re-attached the pannier, securing it with large cable ties.
The sun was still shining, just, when we made it into Yuktali about 8:30pm. We headed for the centre of the new town and pulled up at a cluster of small shops. A group of young chaps clustered around asking about us and the bikes. I countered by asking where can three tired foreigners stay. One of the young chaps was enterprising enough to rent us his apartment. And guy offered a garage. All to be paid for, but we were in no mood to argue.
A lot of faffing about later and about 11pm we finally were in an apartment, wet socks off, checking phones for messages, and boiling up some noodles.
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