14, 15, 16, 17.09.09
While the bike was being sorted, I had a few other things to sort out in Krasnoyarsk. My camera lens needed to be cleaned and a scratch or two removed. I also needed a new customs form … as my stay in Russia had been extended due to my burst up to Udachny and the Arctic Circle. Arnaud decided to sell his bike in Krasnoyarsk rather than ride it back to Irkutsk, where he lives. And so there was a fair bit of assorted running around. We were also able to relax and enjoy proper steak and proper coffee for the first time in months. Krasnoyarsk is really the last place in Siberia where you have a good chance to do that. The city is much bigger tha Irkutsk, Khabarovsk or Vladivostok.
2 days later I saddled up, said farewell to Dima and headed off in the direction of Irkutsk. It was 2pm when I left Krasnoyarsk and rain had been forecast. I dressed in all my warmest gear as the temperature was only about 5 degrees. It seemed winter had arrived a few weeks earier than usual in Siberia. It was cold, overcast and a road I had already done twice in the past 3 months. I stopped only for fuel and for very good shashlik at Uyar. I just put the head down and made it to Alzamai about 9pm.
By 6pm the following day (19th Sep) I was in Irkutsk, with Arnaud. It was snowing and the last few hundred kilometres were wet and very cold. Snow was over the road in higher areas. I had a few days to stop and reflect on this unseasonally rapid advance of winter while in Irkutsk, and decided that there really is not a huge amount of pleasure motorcycling in the freezing rain and snow. If things didnt change for the better then I would be looking at a flight home in the next few weeks at the latest.
Reports I was receiving from Mongolia were that the weather there had changed from balmy and a sunny 20 degrees a few days ago to snow and closed passes now. The winter had really arrived in a big way.
On the 22nd, Arnaud headed for his retreat on the shores of Lake Baikal and I headed for Ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic. the Buryats, like the Kalmyks I met 5 months ago, are Mongolic. Most of the asiatic peoples in Russia are Turkic based. I spent a day in Ulan Ude. The city has changed considerably since I rode thru here 15 years ago. 15 years back the main stop for me in Ulan Ude was to get a photograph next to the largest bust of Lenin in the world. Naturally this time round I needed to return to the central square and update my photo collection of Lenin’s heads.
Sadly my camera is now less than fully functional, and as a result I have taking almost no pictures now. The final element of the lens unscrewed itself thanks to vibrations, and ended up getting quite scratched. Further, some spacer rings that position the element came off and I suspect I dont have the element positioned totally right. It will be back to Nikon when I get back to the UK. For now I can only get focus on wide angle and small aperture.
I left Ulan Ude on the 24th of September, hoping to make Ulaanbaatar for the evening. It was about 600 km, and included a border crossing, my first for about 4 months. Crossing the Russian border was simple and painless and over in about 45 minutes. The Mongolia side was not so simple. I had a typo on my visa such that it said validity was till November 2008. This was a sticking point and the the Mongolian immigration guys were refusing to let me in. Luck came along in the form of the head immigration guy, who had previously worked for an Australian mining company and happened to like Aussies. he made a few phone calls back to head office in UB (Ulaanbaatar) and was able to issue me an all new visa there at the border in about 30 minutes.
By 5pm I was on the road again in Mongolia. It struck me even at the border how things had changed. A busy border post with computers, passport scanners etc was a million miles away from the Altanbulag border I had known 15 years ago. The town of Altanbulag had been a semi abandoned wreck of a place then. Now the roads were lined with banks, cafes and petrol stations.
I rode through Sukhbaatar township 25km down the road. James and I had been holed up in this town for about a week on and off, and there had been nothing commercial there apart from the cafe (for want of a better word) at the Sukhbaatar Hotel. Now it was a bustling town, with no fewer than 7 or 8 petrol stations. Almost unrecognisable from our border base of 15 years ago.
The road from Sukhbaatar to UB was even more different. Mongolia was stunning me with how rapidly and completely it had changed. The highway was littered with hotels, cafes, petrol stations. The road was full of traffic and I was constantly overtaking trucks and cars. In 1994 there had been no cafes, no petrol stations, no hotels and no other vehicles on the road.
But the biggest surprise of all was UB itself. What had once been a quiet, sleepy town with again no traffic and just a state department store and one cafe for commercial premises was now a mini Bangkok. Traffic jammed the streets. Neon lights lit up the main road into town for miles, where there had previously just been quiet suburbs of gers (yurts). Dozens and dozens of hotels, bars and restaurants lined the road into town. I didnt recognise it at all. The handful of old Volgas and Ladas that once ruled the roads here had been replaced with endless thousands of new Toyota Landcruisers and the like. I headed for a guesthouse where Tiff Coates was holed up awaiting spare parts and arrived late in the evening. With the weather now decidedly cold, we must be just about the last two idiots still on motorcycles in this part of the world.