Click on each for a larger resolution:
Click on each for a larger resolution:
We had one final day in Vladivostok before flying North to Magadan to rendezvous with our bikes. It was a last chance to capture some images of this once closed port city. The weather was humid and fog filled the city, as usual, so I decided to shoot people rather than scenery:
Sailors down near the Naval port:
A couple in the central square:
Visiting US and Japanese sailors got into a bidding war for this old Russian Naval uniform.
And down by the Submarine war memorial, another typical local couple.
My final act in Vladivostok – I popped into a badge shop I had found late last week. Lucy, the badgemaker there had whipped for me a new supply of Sibirsky Extreme badges … and had put together for me an all new badge … the Road of Bones badge – for people who have ridden, cycled or driven between Yakutsk and Magadan.
That was enough for Vladivostok. We had been there a long time … and we had seen a lot. But we were long overdue to move on.
Next stop – Magadan.
The last function for us in Vladivostok was to attend the 3rd Birthday party of the Iron Angels Motorcycle Club in Vladivostok (http://www.ironangelsmcc.com/) . Tony and Terry had attended the amazing 2nd birthday party last year, and now it was the turn of Sherri and I. It’s not something that needs too much in the way of words … so I will run with pictures:
Vladivostok is near one of the largest tiger regions in the world, and tigers are the emblem for much that comes from the region:
Posters celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory against the Nazi’s:
The Embankment … in downtown Vladivostok:
I bumped into some legs:
Sherri Jo bumped into some US Naval Officers:
And then we all bumped into an endless stream of wedding parties:
Vladivostok – Part 2
We returned to the bike club, where the guys were preparing for this weekends big feast and drink-a-thon, the 3rd birthday of the Iron Angels bike club. Sherri spoke to the mechanic who had been working on her bike, trying to communicate how much she owed him for changing and balancing her tyres and changing her oil. He however was having none of it. No charge. Just pay the club boss for the oil we used. That was her introduction to the friendliness of Russian bikers.
While she was sorting out Andrei, the club boss, for the oil, I had a Russian biker-ess trying out my bike. “A bit taller than my chopper” was all she said. I wondered to myself did she actually ride her bike with the hot pants and high heels?
A call came in, from one of the shipping agents regarding Magadan. One of the ships was in a day early and needed to be loaded tonight for a tomorrow morning departure. This was good news. The bikes would probably be in Magadan on Tuesday, same as us. We threw stuff onto our bikes and rode them down to the port, stopping briefly for the obligatory Vladivostok foto … in front of the submarine.
The young shipping agent met us there in his new Range Rover and told us we had to wait. We couldn’t ride the bikes onto the dock because its technically a border zone – we needed a Russian citizen … so a biker friend of the agent was coming down to help out. The friend turned up in a souped up Porsche Cayenne. He was about 28. SJ and I looked at each other and raised our eyebrows. Business is booming in Vladivostok I see.
The bikes were ridden away to be loaded on to the boat. We had secured a really good deal. It was unofficial.
A mere 4000 rubles each to ship the bikes to Magadan. Vladivostok to Magadan is a hell of a long way. Its 4 hours in a jet plane. 80 quid to send each bike over 2000 miles (3000km) was a bargain in anyone’s language. Two days earlier we had purchased our air tickets. And as luck would have it, we got an decent deal there too. Tony had paid 24,000 rubles last year from his Magadan to Vlad flight. Sherri and I scored them this year for 16,000 each.
The only thing left on the agenda for Vladivostok is the 3rd Birthday party for the Iron Angels bike club this weekend. Tony and Terry were at the 2nd Birthday party for the club last year … and we all know how that went!
I spoke too soon … for reasons I don’t understand, the boat went to Vladivostok direct, rather than to its usual destination Zarubino. That meant I didn’t get to do any miles yet and Sherri hasn’t yet ridden in Russia. But we are here, in big old Vladivostok. At least we are, but our bikes are not. The bikes you see, are still on the ferry boat. We got in too late for Russian customs to be interested in processing them, and so we have been told to leave the boat, check into a hotel and return tomorrow morning after 9am to unload the bikes.
I called a local biker from the Iron Angels bike club, Ilya, and he met us down at the ferry port, introduced us to his club and then took us to a hotel. It was almost midnight but we were hungry after more than 24 hours on the boat in which we ate none of the onboard food. I took Sherri out to the Gutov Beer House, scene of last years Vladivostok headquarters for the initial Sibirsky Extreme Project, and despite the late hour we had a bang up meal. The first western style meal for Sherri since she left Australia several weeks ago.
We went down to the dock the next day and as promised they were unloading our bikes. But it was a Saturday and despite having the bikes now unloaded, they were destined to sit in customs until the vehicle processing guys returned to work on Monday morning. If we had arrived in Zarubino, the bikes would have been ridden off the boat, been processed by customs as part of the normal arrival procedure and we would be all clear by now.
While down at the docks we saw three bikes waiting to go onto the ferry, and sure enough, we soon met the owners. A trio of guys from Montenegro were on their way around the world (www.theridearound2010.me). They had just come down from Magadan and were making their way to Korea and onwards to North America. They were BIG guys … all about 190cm tall and had big bikes. One on a 1200 GSA and one on an Africa Twin – the other bike was a more sensible F650 Dakar. They asked us what we were riding and we told them we were on a pair of 650s. They nodded – “sensible choices” they said. Even these very big guys said their bikes were too big for the likes of Mongolia and Siberia. We swapped information, part of which was them giving us the address of a nice cheap homestay type place to stay. Then they clicked – “Oh so you are the Sibirsky Extreme guy !!… we have visited your site many times. We already have a link to your site on ours”
“Yes, I am back in Siberia” I replied. I wished them well for their travels ahead. They seemed like nice guys.
We found a café with wi-fi internet and camped there for the afternoon, with laptop keyboards clicking away furiously. Sherri Jo reckons she is a long way behind schedule with her blog. I still like to do my blogging on a daily basis … at least I like to update my draft blog daily. By the time we emerged from the café, the Dong Chun ferry had sailed … they 3 Montenegrins were on their way to Korea.
It was a rainy weekend in Vladivostok and the city was fog bound for most of the time. Humidity accordingly was between 95 and 100%. A walk up the street turned into a sweaty, sticky hike. I never liked humidity. I was always more of a dry air kinda guy.
We got a local sim card for Sherri sorted out, so her Australian iPhone is now fully functional here in Russia. I had told her to make sure it was unlocked (in terms of networks) before she got here, so I am pleased to know foreign iPhones can work perfectly well in Russia with a local sim card – if you ensure your home network unlocks it before you arrive here. I, ironically, struck a problem with my new smartphone. Despite making sure Sherri unlocked her phone, I bought a new locked phone in London a month ago, and forgot to get it unlocked. Now I have a wait of 2-3 weeks to get the unlock code, rendering that phone useless here unless I use my UK sim card. The idea of 50 quid a day on phone bills doesn’t turn me on, and I have two spare unlocked telephones, so they will have to do for now.
Monday began well, after a weekend of solid rain, there was sunshine and patches of blue sky. We hoped to get the bikes out of customs today. We went down to the port and the agents who handle the Dong Chun ferry helped us get the paperwork together. By the time we had the paperwork together, and had driven up to the Customs building that handled vehicle imports (not at the port) they had just about closed for lunch.
I wandered around to get some pictures of the location. By now the cloud had totally cleared and we had a fine hot muggy Vladivostok day.
I spotted some customs girls also taking in the view on their lunch break and wandered over for a chat. They were very friendly and with them onside, the customs documents for the bikes, with “as long as we wanted” timescale (we kept it at 3 months since that was the limit of Sherri Jo’s visa) came soon after lunch. It confirmed my view that it’s always good to make friends with the right people.
Armed with our approved Customs declarations we headed back to the port to get our bikes released. But it wasn’t so simple. Because it was Vladivostok and not Zarubino, there was also a port charge for handling the vehicular cargo, of 2600 rubles (about 55 quid). I made a mental note (and now a written note) … when taking the Dong Chun ferry, avoid the runs to Vladivostok like the plague. Going to Vladivostok by the ferry will cost you in port charges and will be a bit of a pain to get the customs stuff done (nice customs girls excluded). Unloading at Zarubino is a “ride the bike off the boat and straight to customs where you will be fully processed in under 2 hours.” So it’s got to be Zarubino!
By the time all of this was done, it was almost 4pm. Ilya the biker met us again and led us to the clubhouse and workshop of the Iron Angels. Sherri Jo needed an oil change, and the Iron Angels guys had that rarest of lubes, 10w60. We might as well use the guys to change her tyres, since they have a moto wheel balancer too. Sherri Jo had the finest French shoes fitted –a Michelin Desert rear and Michelin T63 front..
As soon as we got to the club, we met a quartet of bikers from Kazakhstan who had just come to Vladivostok and were getting some servicing done.
I chatted to them about where they had been and they had actually ridden part of the BAM road … from Bratsk to Chara. From Chara onwards they had taken the train, but their stretch did include the mighty Vitim River Bridge. Respect. Even more so as they had actually RIDDEN over the bridge. They told me they had taken the train from Chara as there were no bridges on the road further. I told them “it is not quite true. There were some bridges! And the road is rideable to Tynda.”
Sherri tried some Kvas, a traditional Russian drink, while I checked out the bikes from Kazakhstan.
After a day in which Tony’s bike was put back together around midnight, complete with his custom made new shock end piece, emblazoned from the russian workshop with “From Russia with Love” and Terry slept until 5pm; the 8th of August, 1 year anniversary of the opening of the Beijing Olympics, was a day for whhich we had resonably high hopes of (a) getting back on the road and (b) getting away relatively early. We had been marooned 2 days in Komsomolsk without moving and were all a bit restless.
I have to say that the guys in Komsomolsk have really taken Russian biker hospitality to new heights. We had arrived on their doorstep as a trio of hapless adventurers with no contacts in the city and a badly damaged bike (that ought to be taken to a BMW approved technician for a replacement rear shock to be fitted). 48 hours later and Tony’s bike had a remanufactured shock cap, a rebuilt front wheel and numerous other bits and pieces of Komsomolsky ‘tuning’. On top of all that we had been housed for 3 nights in Yegor and Oksana’s flat.
The incredible thing about bikers in Russia is that if you ride a bike, you are as good as family to them. There is no division between sports bike riders, chopper riders, off-road riders …. a motorcyclist is a brother to another motorcyclist. No rivalry between clubs, no fighting over territory etc. A biker is a biker and he is your brother. I have said it before and I will say it again, if you ever see a Russian biker in your own country, treat him like a brother, because I can guarantee he would do the same for you.
So by midday we are down at the garage sorting out the packing. There was a bit of drama re ATMs. Terry had a badly malfunctioning debit card, and his bank refuses to acknowledge there is anything wrong with the card or international settings on the card, when there blatantly is.
Lots and lots of lots of photos followed before we said goodbye to Yegor, Oksana, Kostya, Kolya, Vadim and the gang, then Yegor, Oksana and Kostya rode with us 45km out of town to the edge of the asphalt. The dirt began again and we three, we happy three, were out on our own again on the open dirt roads of Siberia. The first town of any decent size from Komsomolsk was Beryozovy, about 200 km to the North East. As it was 4pm when we left Yegor, Oksana and Kostya, I felt that would be a good first target for Team Sibirsky Extreme today.
Tony’s bike was humming along and the only problem was avoiding dust. We found if we ride as a trio, with two bike forward, on the flanks of the road, and the third bike close behind and riding in the centre of the road, we can all ride in clean air. Its fine until there is oncoming traffic!
With due respect to recent mishaps, we rode at a slightly more sedate pace today. Conserving the bikes, fuel and ourselves would be useful over the BAM road. We made the fuel station at Beryozovy soon after 6pm, then went into town to find a general store. The plan was to camp tonight. Terry is allegedly a camping expert / afficianado and was keen to show us his skills. So we stocked up on camping essentials – beer and chocolate – then headed out of town.
About 25km out of town we found a spot that Terry gave the thumbs up to. The road crossed a nice clean stream flowinig over rocks. Not deep, crystal clear and with enough of a clearing to park the bikes and set up 3 tents.
As soon as we pulled up we were set upon by mosquitoes. Not just mosquitoes but the fiercest most numerous mosquitoes of the whole trip. We had to get a fire going, and fast! A look down at the riding trousers was a frightening experience. There were no less than 100 mosquitoes over each of our trousers.
Slowly but surely, as the fire settled down, the mosquitoes became fewer in number and we had a chance to bathe in the stream. A text came in from Jun (yes we have on and off mobile coverage here amazingly). Jun had made Chita! Good lad. He is on asphalt now. We are all really proud of the guy. He couldnt ride 100 yards on dirt when we met him, now he has done over 1000km on dirt – alone. Tony and I had both noticed that when we gave him advice, he really listened. I mean really listened.
Back at the campsite, the as the beers flowed and the sun set, dinner was prepared and sadly the mosquitoes came back for a final fling. I surrendered and crawled inside the tent, yelling abuse both in english and russian at the little buggers. Terry, the camping afficianado who froze his nuts off bathing in the stream and then had them bitten by mosquitoes as he dressed, now sees the value in cheap russian hotels and scrounged accomodation. This isnt like camping in England!
- – -
Several times in the night, we were gently reminded that we had camped 10 metres from a BAM railway bridge, and boy do the Russians put together a long train.
By 8:30am we were all awake in our tents, talking to each other about getting out. But each of us just sat in our respective tents, staring at the mosquitoes waiting in the tent ‘lobbies’. About 9:30 we finally got enough resolve to decide that mosquitoes would not defeat the Sibirsky Extreme Project, but it was definately a close run thing.
We made good progress on the road until just after 1pm, when we hit a bridge under construction, over the Amgun River. The bridge didnt reach across the river and the river was too deep and too fast to cross. We were going nowhere.
We walked over to the railway bridge where there was an armed guard watching over the rail bridge, but he just barked at us to get away. The road bridge constuction guys, if there were any, were no-where to be seen. I tried to walk across the river but the current was too strong. We had little option but to wait.
An hour or so later, right on 2pm, the construction gang appeared. We met a few of the guys and were introduced to the boss man … head of the construction team. He reckoned a Ural truck, which lives in the first village on the other side of the river, will come over in 2 hours and we should be able to buy a lift with him. And with no other option, we waited.
4pm came and the bridge workers finished up for the day. The boss man walked past us saying the Ural will be here soon. By 4:15 the site was deserted again, just the 3 crazy English motorcyclists waiting.
Terry and I walked over the 3/4 constructed bridge to see if there was any way to survey a route across the river. But it was too deep and the current too strong. We did see the track leading away on the other side of the River though, and it was not at all encouraging. Overgrown, and where no grader had been in decades, the BAM road ahead of us was looking like hard work.
About 5:30pm and some of the construction workers return, in a 6WD grader, towing a trailer. They offered to take us over the river for 4000 rubles (90 EUR). It was a pretty hefty sum, but I understood thats what the Ural truck guy charged, so we had nothing to lose.
All 3 bikes were pushed up some planks onto the trailer and with about 10 construction workers along for the ride, the grader set off across the river. Only it didnt go straight across, it went upstream about 300 metres and crossed there. It was a good crossing spot and the river was not so deep there, but the current was fierce.
By the time all the bikes were unloaded and re-assembled (bags had been taken off to help get them on the trailer) it was 6:30pm. We were across the river and there was no chance to get to any town of any size tonight. The road on this side of the river was a different animal to the road we left behind. It was a track, not much more than that. So far, from Vanino to the Amgun Bridge, the BAM road had been graded gravel (and asphalt from Lidoga to Komsomolsk), now it was taking on a different character entirely. It wasnt a road for 80-110 km/h, it was a track for 20-30 km/h.
We rode for an hour, in which we covered about 25km, when we arrived at the small village of Gerbi. I spoke to the lads and said that sure we have an hour or so of daylight left, but if we go any further, we will be camping with the mosquitoes again, and no-body wanted that. Terry looked at the abandoned buildings by the road and asked aloud if we had just missed World War III. But we did see a couple of new vehicles around, so there must be people around somewhere. We pulled off the main road and found a track into Gerbi and soon realised the village was not quite as deserted as it first looked from the main road.
A lady directed us to the Mayor’s flat and while trying to find the Mayor to ask where a couple of tired Englishmen could rest for the night (all we needed was a mosquito free room), a guy speaking very good english approached us and asked if we need a place to stay for the night. I almost bit his hand off. The guys name was Igor and he directed us back to his house, When we got there we saw a huge red Honda cruiser in his front yard. This was surreal. This was a semi-abandoned village in the middle of the taiga forest, crumbling concrete and mud everywhere, the only roads in and out of town were 4WD tracks and here was a 1000cc Honda cruiser! We had stumbled across the only biker on the BAM for hundreds of kilometres. Or rather he found us. Igor said he was in his house when he heard the distinctive sound of out-of-town motorcycles and went out to identify them.
Immediately Igor chopped up enough wood to fire up his Sauna and heated up some of the tastiest chicken and vegetable soup I have ever had. Terry must had been in agreement because he went back for second and third helpings.
Then Igor’s wife walks in. Noi was Thai and had married Igor and moved to Siberia and the village of Gerbi.
There were about 300 people in Gerbi, and while we were in front of the mayor’s flat one of the villagers mentioned there were a couple of Polish motorcyclists that came thru here last year. I knew of him. A pair of Poles on Africa Twins came to explore the BAM Road last year from Vanino. Thanks to connections in the Polish motorcycling underworld, I had managed to get a copy of the Poles’ GPS notes, where they had marked things like water crossings etc, and had uploaded them to my garmin. Sadly I dont read Polish, but I get the jist of most of the notes. The Poles had made it as far as Isa just before Fevralsk before turning back to the Trans-Siberian Highway. We were still hoping to get further than that. I knew the road west of Tynda was a graded road and no problem, the only problem was getting information on the road between Komsomolsk and Tynda. If we could get to Tynda, the whole BAM road was as good as done!.
Another villager had mentioned an Australian motorcyclist who came through last year. This was one I knew nothing about. I wondered if I had heard wrong and it was a cyclist, rather than a motorcyclist.
Back at Igor’s house, and Noi offered us Thai massages. She works as the village masseuse in Gerbi. This was almost too good to be true. We had been taken in by the motorcyling gods. While Tony and Terry went to the sauna, I received my Thai massage. A full 2 hours later and it was Terry’s turn, and I went into the Sauna to bathe and enjoy a cold beer.
Its really difficult to explain how surreal this was. Again, we were on the receiving end of extraordinary Russian biker hospitality. We had been housed, fed, sauna’ed and massaged after pulling up at a crumbling run down series of buildings that didnt even look inhabited. It was another remarkable end to a Sibirsky Extreme day.
- – -
Igor and Noi had woken before us and fixed breakfast, including some delicious Thai fried rice. The riding gear was slowly drying in the morning sun. The villager who we had met yesterday and who had told us about the Poles dropped by to see if we wanted a lift across the river in his truck. There was a big river crossing just outside of town and apparently the Poles had gone across it on the railway bridge according to this chap. We shouldnt need to do that as the water levels were lower now than then, but he was headed that way anyway so told us he would see us at the river.
We said our farewells to Igor and Noi and hit the road. Sure enough, 2km out of town was a wide river … but not too deep. I crossed it in 3 parts, the latter part the deepest. Terry and Tony had crossed the first 2 sections when the guy with he truck pulled up and offered to ferry them over the last deeper bit. Terry’s thought process was that we can do it ourselves if we need to but if help is being offered, then we should take it, and so Terry and Tony were ferried across the last 3rd of the river.
The road was in bad shape, continuing on in the same form as late yesterday but with a full water crossing every 5 km or so. Progress was slow as we were constantly stopping and wading through thigh deep streams and rivers.
About 2:15pm we came across the first settlement of the day, a logging operation with a few houses around it. Closer inspection revealed all the people in the settlement to be oriental. As we were looking for a shop to buy some soft drink or lunch, I pulled up in front of a building decorated with a red banner and asked where a shop was. 8km down the road was the reply in heavily accented Russian. As I prepared to leave I noted the red banner was decorated with Korean writing. This was a North Korean logging community.
The Russians seem to have granted a few logging concessions to the Chinese and North Koreans … effectively supplying timber to China and North Korea without having to do the harvesting and sawmilling themselves.
Sure enough 8km down the road we got to the town of Suluk, where we did refresh ourselves with ice-cream and soft drink. But we had a long way to go and were back on the road by 3:15pm. Fuel was at Novy Urgal, about 130 km down the road. At the speed we were going that could be 4-5 hours or more. But fortune smiled upon us, and the road from Suluk to Novy Urgal was a good one, a graded road. We relished the chance to ride with more speed and got to Novy Urgal and refuelled by 5pm – the last 15 km was asphalt – pretty bad asphalt, but asphalt never-the-less.
We found the sole cafe in town and sat down for a hot lunch/dinner. Terry liked his escalope so much he ordered the same again. Over dinner we discussed options. It would be 6:30pm by the time we hit the road, and there was no-where to go. No proper towns and no hotels until Fevralsk. Even camping enthusiast Terry was now also of the mindset that camping in Siberia is a last resort only. And so we decided to stay the night in Novy Urgal.
The town has about 7000 people and is the largest town we have seen since Komsomolsk. It has one hotel. We found it and asked for rooms, but alas, the hotel was being renovated and was not taking guests. We had 2 options … ride 30km off our route to Chegdomyn where there was a hotel, or try the railway station, where they have a couple of rooms.
We tried the railway station, and found they would have a triple room free in an hours time. Done!. In the meantime we headed off to find a store to stock up on beers for the night, and paid a visit to the town’s statue of Lenin.
It would be a balmy sticky night and with no ventilation in the tiny triple room, sleep would prove elusive for all of us.
- – -
An early start was called for and delivered via my alarm. We packed up and prepared to leave when I was approached by a guy asking where we were going. We got asked this 100 times a day so I didnt pay too much attention to it. We had planned to get to Fevralsk today and he lived in a town about half way there.
We went back to the cafe from last evening, where the food had been very good, but it didnt open until 11am. It was 9:15 now. We asked around and the only place we could get any prepared food was the hospital store, which sold the likes of piroshki and tea (Russian fast food). So we went there, for a disappointing breakfast, but we needed something solid in the stomachs to power us thru what would probably be a tough day. There were a few Polish GPS notes for this section (implying a problem area) and it seemed the weather too was not going to be as kind to us as it had been in recent days.
By 9:40 we were on the road. The first 50 km was a breeze. Graded gravel road. We passed the village of Alonka by 10:30 and I set my sights on Etyrken for lunch. It was another 90km down the road. But as soon as we passed Alonka the road deteriorated again. Unlike earlier stretches, this section had recently had rain. This road was water hole city! We were carving s-shaped tracks in 1st and 2nd gear to try and get arond the puddles. The puddles became deeper and larger and more frequent – every 5-10 metres. Streams ran down the middle of the track. In many places, the road bed of logs was visible. There were holes in the road where streams ran below the road – when I say holes I mean holes a foot or two across in the middle of the road that went thru the roadbed to a stream a couple of metres below.
It was challenging riding and required full concentration. The first river crossing came up soon after we had passed the first vehicle of the day, a large 4WD GAZ truck. 10 minutes after we arrived at the river crossing, pondering our options, the truck caught us up. We asked for and received a lift over the river. Always with these truck rides, the main issue is to find some sort of loading site, a ramp high enough to push the bikes onto the back of the truck. First I went over, then the other two bikes. It was the only we had seen all day and the only one we would see for many more hours … and it had come along just after we arrived. It was very lucky timing. We offered the guys payment for the lift, but they just laughed and waved it away.
The rain came and the already wet track became wetter. Visibility fell. Terry was leading and took what I suspected was a wrong turn. I hoped he would notice but after a few kilometres he hadnt. I sped up to try to overtake Tony and Terry and turn the team around, but the road didnt like my idea and I caught the steep eroded edge of a stream in the middle of the track and went down. Nowhere near the speed of the fall the other day. This time just at 35-40 km/h. But I looked up and saw Tony and Terry riding away over the crest of a hill.
It had been an exhausting day and I didnt have the energy to pick the bike up. The rain was still falling and without wet weather gear on, I was soaked to the bone. I went to the stream and cleaned myself up a bit and waited for the boys to return. I only had to wait about 10 minutes as Terry did realise we might be on a wrong road and turned round to ask my opinion, only to see I wasnt there. The boys helped me pick up the bike and we went back to the turnoff under the rail bridge that Terry hadnt seen and continued on. This was obviously the right track now, it (a) followed the rail line and (b) had the old roadbed of rotting logs.
After just 3km, the heavens really opened in a full strength tropical downpour. We sheltered under a railway bridge to wait out the rain and ponder how we would make the river crossing beside us. We were now only 20 km from Etyrken village, which by now had become the target for the day. If the rain didnt let up, we would need to make a run for it sooner or later anyway, but after half an hour of sheltering under the BAM the downpour reverted to mere rain, and we decided that was good enough for us.
The river crossing we decided to go for was basically an old log bridge that had collapsed and was now a floating log raft full of holes, jammed in between the banks. The only way across was to walk the bikes over the slippery wet logs. My bike went across OK, but Tony’s got caught and slipped in between two logs. A lot of pushing, lifting, shoving and groaning followed but the bike eventually made it across to the shallows on the other side, from where it splashed down and could be ridden out. Terry’s bike made it across without too much drama and we resumed our drive.
A passing railway maintenance train saw us and watched us struggle through a couple of bogs, tooting wildly with excitement.
There was one more set of Polish notes on my GPS … and it was something to do with a river crossing. We arrived there, now just 14 km form Etyrken and pondered the crossing. I thought we might ask the railway maintenance train (which had a crane) to lift us up and ferry us across on the train bridge, but as we discussed options, yelling was heard coming from the opposite bank. 2 guys were waving their arms and telling us to wait. They got into a big Ural truck and drove across the river. This was an incredible stroke of luck to have a truck arrive just as we needed it. They directed us to a makeshift ramp and loaded all three bikes on board the big Ural for the bumpy rocky river crossing. Once on the other side of the river, all unloaded, we offered the guys cash but they refused.
Then I suddenly realised they were waiting for us. It was something to do with they guy we met at the Railway Station this morning as we departed Novy Urgal. The guy who lived halfway to Fevralsk, the guy that I didnt pay much attention to. I had told him we were going thru Etyrken to Fevralsk and he had scoffed, saying we would not get that far in one day. He was from Etyrken and must have called people there saying watch out for 3 stupid english motorcyclists.
The two guys in the Ural were Nikolai and his son Nikolai. They told us to stop in Etyrken and we would be housed, fed and sauna’d. It was an offer too good for three soaking wet, exhausted riders to pass up. As we are a fair bit faster than the truck, I told them we would wait at the edge of Etyrken for them and we sped off.
Five km from Etyrken and we saw the buildings of the town for the first time. After a full day in the cold and rain, it was like seeing an oasis as you walk through the desert. Sweet, sweet civilisation. We stopped on the edge of town to wait for the two Nicks and a car zoomed up to greet us. The guy introduced himself as Nikolai’s brother. 10 minutes later and the big Ural arrives in town and leads us to the town fire station. Each town in these parts has a fire brigade tasked with monitoring a huge area of forest for forest fires.
We parked up the bikes in the fire station and were led upstairs to a little guest apartment there, complete with kitchen and bathroom. It was now just after 5pm, and the two Nicks said they would be back at 8pm to take us to their banya (sauna).
By now I realised the older Nikolai was the guy who had spoken to me in Novy Urgal. He had taken a train back to Etyrken and then drove out to meet us in the truck. He had been waiting only about 5 minutes when he heard our engines pull up at the river crossing. It was all very lucky, and great timing.
In the banya, we spoke about other foreigners he had met in town. Only motorcyclists and cyclists it seems. He spoke of an Australian cyclist last year – he hadnt met him but had heard about him. And then there was the Polish motorcyclists, (Richard and Richard). They was here for 3 days last year, and consumed a lot of vodka it seems !!! They too stayed in the same guest apartment above the fire station that we were now in according to the locals.
- – -
We awoke about 9am and met Nikolai downstairs. He had bad news on a number of fronts. Firstly, he had called through to guys he knew at a bridge / crossing and water levels were high there after yesterdays rain.
Secondly, he had called ahead to contacts in Fevralsk and Verkhnezeisk to ask about the road beyond Fevralsk. Nikolai himself had driven to Fevralsk in his Ural 2 weeks ago. The 150 km journey had taken 16 hours – such was the road. He briefed me on that road. But the news from both Fevralsk and Verkhnezeisk was that there is no summer road at all. Its only a winter road. Loads of major rivers and no bridges. The road is impassable even in the big 6WD Ural trucks in summer. If even the Urals can only do that stretch in winter, then we had no chance in summer.
The best we could do was to match the efforts of the Polish Africa Twins of last year. But unlike those guys, after Fevralsk, I still wanted to stay and complete all of the BAM that was possible. If the stretch or road from Fevralsk to Tynda is not possible then we would try to do that stretch on the BAM train.
We said fond good-byes to the Nikolai’s and all the guys at the Etyrken fire station and headed off down the road to Fevralsk. It was 150km away and that had been our daily average of the last three days. Yet again (for the third day) I was hoping to be in Fevralsk for dinner.
Incredibly, if it were possible, the road conditions deteriorated even more than the previous day. For about 4 days in a row the track had got progressively worse. Puddles and huge washed away sections dominated the track. Perhaps in keeping with the recent rains, the bottom of the puddles was increasingly sticky mud.
I had by now come to the view that this BAM road between Komsomolsk and Fevralsk is an incredible test of man and machine. It is mind draining, exhausting, endless series of obstacles. If it were a 20-30km weekend run out, it would be tremendous fun and a great challenge, before grabbing a warm pub lunch and a beer on the way home to dry out and relax. But its an endless grind through progressively worse road conditions that goes on for thousands of kilometres.
Technically, doing the Tuva Track earlier in the project was more difficult, but even that was only 150 km. This BAM road is fast becoming, for me, the ultimate test. The road of the past few days has not had any maintenance at least since the soviet times – like the old summer road on the Road of Bones, only the BAM road isnt just 300km long. Its overgrown, eroded, and in very poor shape. If anyone wants a 2 wheel enduro challenge, this road has to considered. Do it from the Vanino / Komsomolsk end though, so as to build up into the gradually deteriorating road through to Fevralsk.
By midday we had reached the big railway bridge over the Ulma. It was the largest water crossing of the day and there were literally zero other vehicles on the road. We had a long chat with the bridge guards.
Major railway bridges are still guarded with Railways Department Troops in case any large countries to the south of Siberia decide to march north and take resource rich Siberia, which would involve cutting off the rail links to the Russian Far East … the Trans Siberian and the BAM. The only reason the BAM even exists is because the Trans Siberian Railway passes much too close to the only country that really covets Siberia and its resources. The Russians needed to build an alternative lest the Trans Siberian fall into other hands.
The bridge guards were very kind, offering us a room in the now abandoned Soviet Army barracks that used to guard the bridge. Apparently one room was furnished with beds and electricity, used by hunters in winter. We said thanks, in case we needed it, and went down to the river to check it out. Tony tried to walk across but it was too deep. We waited by the river for several hours in which time the river level dropped about 10 cm, but we needed about 4 times that. Maybe it would be OK in the morning.
With rain threatening, we returned to the top of hill and the bridge guards. They led us to the small room in the abandoned barracks and we unpacked the bikes. The room was about 2.5 x 2.5 metres, had 2 bunks and a table.
The senior guardsman came up to join us once his shift was finished, as did 2 contractors installing video surveillance equipment on the bridge. They brought vodka, food and good cheer. They mentioned we were the first foreigners this year. In a similar story to other places along the line, these guys reported only being aware of 3 foreigners having been down this road before, the two Poles on motorcycles, who also stayed here, again in the very same room, and the Australian cyclist, all last year.
Amazingly, we were staying in exactly the same room as the Poles a year earlier, for the second night in a row. I have to meet these guys some time – it seems our BAM road journeys are so intertwined its bizarre.
- – -
Our plan for the morning was to defeat the river. I had thought to myself yesterday while staring at the river that the deep bit is only 2-3 metres across and might be able to made shallower with excessive application of rocks. Over vodkas last night in the abandoned military base, the Railway Guard boss man said he thought the Poles last year had made it by throwing rocks into the river as well. That sealed it for me. That was the morning’s plan.
By 10 am we were down by the river. I waded across the fast current twice, in two different places, to find the best place for the rocks to go in. It was freezing cold and chest deep. Then the engineering work began. Two hours later it was finished. Bikes were stripped of bags and Terry’s went across first. All unpowered, pushed only. We learned the hard way that the current was seriously strong and we needed to steer upstream more to stay on track, but we got the bike across.
Sadly the bike didnt fire up on the far bank. Despite jamming rags into the air intake, somehow water had got into the engine. Spark plug was removed and engine blown clean. Then ignition.
Finally it was my bike. The bike made it across but wouldnt fire up. Removing the plugs on the Rotax engine is a bigger job. Airbox needs to come out to get at the plugs. 15 minutes later and the engine was turning over, blowing water out of the plughole. The rag in the air intake was totally dry. Water must have got in to my and Terry’s engine through the exhaust gaskets, and open exhaust valves.
By 1:30 we and all our gear was across the river and all bikes were running. We rode up the steep, deeply rutted road feeling like having overcome that obstacle, we would power ahead to Fevralsk. Its about the 5th day I thought I should get to Fevralsk.
But it wasnt to be. The conditions over the hill were boggy. It began slightly boggy, but soon became a repeat of Tuva … endless bog. We were lucky to do 15 yards on the road before it became the next bog.
Its impossible to put into words how mind draining it is ploughing thru endless bogs, hoping each one is the last, only to reach another 30 yards later. If we got out of first gear, it was never for more than a few seconds.
Rain came and the afternoon soon deteriorated into a farce. We were all soaking wet, and all regularly spending time helping the other bikes out of the bogs. Terry’s bike fell into a hole in one bog, and his air intake, just under his seat, gulped in a mouthful of water. The bike stopped instantly and Terry feared the worst.
In the rain, on a small patch of sand in between bogs Terry released his sump drain. Pure water came out. We drained over a litre from his sump of water and or emulsion. Then his oil tank … also emulsion.
Finally we got to what could pass for oil. I had about 0.8 of a litre of engine oil strapped to the outside of my bike and the lot went into to Terry’s engine to top it up. It wasnt enough, but it would have to do. The engine was still very wet and the starter turned over many many times shooting out water before the plug could go back in. About 45 minutes after he went under, the bike finally fired up again, and we continued.
By 5:30 we had travelled about 9 kilometres from our overnight accomodation and saw, 150 yards away by the railway line, a small empty hut. Camping tonight was out of the question because of the endless bog, not to mention mosquitoes, so the decision was made to abandon play for today and retire to the hut.
The hut was dry inside and had a small wood burning stove, 2 wooden benches and a table. It was 2 x 3 metres. There was no dry wood. A look around outside turned up few blocks of dry wood that Terry and I started splintering for a fire.
The fire was a big success and wet clothes were arranged around the fire to try and dry overnight. Dinner of mash and meat was prepared by Tony using our camp stove and prepacked meals commonly found in general stores. By 7pm it was homely, in a filthy rustic kind of Siberian hardcore way.
A walk along the railway line (brief due to the aggressive mosquitoes) got us thinking about riding on the railway embankment. But that thought could be developed more tomorrow morning.
- – -
We rode up to the edge of the track. A train went past. From that we worked out how far we needed to throw the bikes in case a train came. We rode along the edge of the track along the foot or so of sleeper overhang. It was a killer for the suspension, but after yesterday, in which we did 9 km all day, it was speedy progress. Our first half an hour covered 2 km.
We came to a railway siding and decided to ride down the middle of the siding track. The ballast was much more complete here and we had a much wider track (over 1.5 metres, as opposed to the 30-40cm sleeper overhang on the edge of the track. After another very quick kilometre (barely 5 minutes) we reached a very minor station, Mustakh, … one that served only the siding staff and railway maintenance workers.
Terry and I went inside and asked the lady who was manning the signalling and points control (the only person there) if a cup of tea was out of the question. Tony finally caught up and he too joined us in a cup of tea and chocolate biscuits. We even enquired as to the train situation from here. But the lady firmly told us that no passenger or freight trains stop here. Its just for railway staff only. I didnt think there was much choice anyway, but that confirmed it. We had no option but to leave this island of civilisation in the Siberian wilderness and get going again.
By now I was convinced that we were going to have to do it by road, and not by the edge of the train track. We cut down the embankment and resumed on the road. The first obstacle was a river that seemed to have a ramp built up the other side that could only have been built by motorcyclists. A one wheel ramp was useless to even the big Urals and Zil trucks. It must have been built last year by the Poles. We carefully rode the bikes up the ramp made from 2 old railway sleepers and continued the journey.
The road today was better than yesterday. There were no bogs, but the steep, rocky, eroded inclines were a constant threat to the bikes. By 2pm we were just 10km from Isa and Terry and I were keen to get there as soon as possible. Tony was having a very tough day, and after countless walks back to collect him and right his bike, Terry and I insisted he ride upfront. That would avoid us hiking back up difficult roads time after time. It was the only way for us to ride as a threesome without Terry and I burning out our clutches or starter motors, or riding twice as far as we needed to.
We now had two major problems. Terry’s oil was still looking more like milk after yesterday’s innundation, and there was realistically no way Tony could ride on after Isa on this most difficult track. Our fate would be decided in Isa. By 4pm we had reached Isa, the first town in 3 days. The 65 km from Etyrken had taken us 3 days. We went straight to a general store and consumed everything we could buy; Fruit juice, soft drink, chocolate bars, crisps.
A guy came up to us and chatted about road conditions. I asked about the Poles, and he said “yes, the two Poles, they came here last year and took the train to Fevralsk.” Well that explained why there were no more GPS notes after Isa. I would dearly love to have gone that little bit further than the Poles, to Fevralsk, but with one sick bike and one exhausted rider, and a road that no retail 4WD could even contemplate, it was looking like a bridge too far. It was increasingly apparent, now that we were in Isa (and all almost out of fuel – and with no fuel station in town) that the only sensible thing to do was to take the train from here, as the Poles had done.
The people we spoke to in Isa had only ever seen 5 foreigners come thru here on bikes; The two Poles last year and now the three of us. This part of the BAM road, from Komsomolsk to Isa is truly a Siberian Extreme experience. The 800 km we covered had taken us a week of hard riding. In my mind it is a benchmark road for both rider and machine. To make it to Isa (or beyond) from Komsomolsk is to join a very very small club of riders.
With only a zimnik up ahead beyond Fevralsk, it has to be said that the BAM road is not a viable alternative (at this time) for crossing Russia.
My final verdict on the road? With the Trans-Siberian almost all paved now, and the Rooad of Bones undergoing a load of renewal and upgrading, this is one to the great adventure rides left in Siberia. It’s a truly great challenge for anyone wanting to push the limits of difficult riding in a difficult environment, and I recommend it to the hardcore wholeheartedly.
Two tasks this morning: First to find out why Tony’s right trouser leg was covered in oil and second to get my trousers sewn up, finally. The first was quick and easy … Tony had a leaky fork seal on the RHS and was losing fork oil. As for my trousers, I went for a wander around town and found a general shoe / leather fix-it man and got my trousers restiched together for 60 rubles.
Tecnically the BAM road from Komsomolsk to Vanino includes the stretch we did from Lidoga to Vanino, in reverse, but with the impressive speed of roadbuilding in Russia, we needed to check out if there was any way through following the BAM more closely between Vanino and Komsomolsk. Road atlases were out of date quickly here. Most maps still dont have the road from Lidoga to Vanino in there. The fact that I had no map indicating a road along the BAM certainly didnt mean there was not one.
I asked about the existance of a road in Vanino. No-one knew. The advice I had was to get closer, probably to Orochi, and see what the locals there had to say.
We went up the coast, towards Datta and turned inland a bit to Mongokhto. That was a dead end. Mongokhto was a closed military town. I did however, find out that the road to Orochi was back towards Vanino, and was a turnoff inland. We found the turnoff and headed on down a very dusty track, that for the first mile or two led to a quarry and all the heavy traffic that entailed. The track continued round the edge of the quarry and down a hill, so we followed it. It was a very rough track indeed and the bikes were feeling it. We got to Orochi after an hour on the dirt track and stopped at a shop to refresh ourselves. I asked around about a road forward and was told no. There was an even rougher track to the next town, and then nothing.
Reluctantly, at about 4pm, we decided to head back towards Vanino. As usual, I led the way. But halfway back down the road I noticed I was alone. I found some shade and waited for 10 minutes before I realised I was waiting on a stretch of track that was duplicated. There were countless splits in the road, some times for a few hundred yards, and sometimes for a few kilometres. I was waiting on one track of a split section. The guys had probably gone a different track. I jumped back on the bike and sped ahead, trying to catch them up, while looking for any possible clues to confirm they had been this way in the track.
35km down the track and I saw a 4WD coming the opposite way. I stopped him to ask if he had seen my 2 colleagues ahead, but he hadnt. I was wrong. They must be behind me. I pulled over at a bridge and waited by a river. For 10 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour, 3/4 of an hour … when I reached the hour mark, I decided to turn around and find out whats going on back there. Naturally enough. within 500 metres of turning around I saw Terry … he had had a flat tyre and was now charging back towards Vanino. I turned to follow him and we made it back to the asphalt about 6pm. Only there was no Tony.
‘Terry, when was the last time you saw Tony?’
‘Just before I met you’ he replied.
Bugger … that was 15 km back, maybe more. Neither of us wanted to go back, having made it back to asphalt. We decided to give him 15 minutes. That too came and went. We turned the bikes around and headed back into the dustbowl. Only a mile down the road Tony was marooned on the side of the road, with quarry trucks buzzing past regularly. He had hit a big bump and the bike had died. Ignition cut out. Electrics still worked but ignition wasnt firing.
Manufacturers are obliged to sell motorcycle with a cut out so that the engine cant run when the side stand is down, unless the bike is in neutral. Thats all good and well for road bikes, but if you do a bit of dirt roads or off road, then you really have to short the switch. I had mentioned this to Tony but he hadnt gotten around to it yet. Tony got down in the dust and traced the switch wire. It had been severed by an impact where it was attached to the frame. The ends were trimmed back and we began the trial and error process of identifying which 2 of the 3 wires needed to be shorted.
I spoke to the guys, and amended the plan. When we turned around at Orochi, we had planned to make the cafe and hotel at the halfway mark of the Vanino Road. Now, with Terry’s flat and Tony’s side stand switch, we would be better off just going back to Vanino.
And so we returned to the Hotel, checked in for another night and while we still had some daylight, Terry, who had had a look at Tony’s F650 manual and decided we/he could have a go at changing Tony’s leaking fork seal, started stripping Tony’s front end. While the lads did the fork seak change, I went out and got the team some beers, to work with.
A middle aged woman speaking very bad english tried to talk to us from a window in the hotel, while we worked in the yard. Eventually I worked out she was Flemish and spoke to her in Dutch. She had just taken the BAM train to Vanino and was about to take the Trans-Siberian back from Vladivostok.
I took a run around town in search of hydraulic oil that we could use in the forks. I didnt find any but I did find a local biker. He then turned up at the hotel with a couple of biker colleagues. We had 3 of the 5 bikers in Vanino visiting us now. One of the bikers quizzed us about what we needed and then made some calls to contacts, in search of 10W or 15w hydraulic fluid.
He promised to return in the morning with the stuff.
After the boys had fitted the seal and refitted the fork we showered and went out for a late night pizza and beer session. All we had to do in the morning was top up the fork with fluid and go. The pizza, I should add, was surprisingly good!
- – -
Tony awoke us at 9am. The local bikers had returned as promised with 1.5 litres of hydraulic fluid … and a cameraman from the local paper. With so much fluid Tony decided to drain the other fork and replace both sets of oil. Terry and I went out and bought some fruit from the market. We probably havent eaten enough fruit and veg on the Sibirsky Extreme Project to date.
By 11:30 all was packed and we hit the road back towards Lidoga and then Komsomolsk. We knew the road conditions well – the first 80km from Vanino was asphalt, and had a petrol station at the end of that 80 km stretch. Then the dirt started. Down into big valleys and up the other side. It was very easy on the eyes and the only drag was getting the dust from behind trucks.
Every 20 km or so I would slow down and make sure everyone was still with us. 20 km before the half way cafe, and the boys were no behind me. I retraced 15 km where I found Terry with his second flat front tyre in 2 days.
Traction on the wooden bridge was very different to the gravel. It was much slipperier. The back wheel lost traction on the wood while I was accellerating hard in 3rd gear and flicking the bike to one side to overtake the car as the bridge was ending. The bike fishtailed wildly from one side to another as I hit the gravel and it felt like I was riding a bucking bronco. After the first kick or two I realised I was going to lose it, and it was going to be a bad fall.
I went down on rough gravel at about 60-70 km/h. To my own surprise, I was able to pick myself up straight away and signal to Terry that I was down. The bike was facing backwards, and had a small oil leak from the generator cover. Sliding on the gravel had punctured the engine housing slightly. I looked myself over. My right arm ached around the elbow. The cordura outer of my jacket had been worn through, but the inner protection layer had done its job. Similarly the motocross gloves I was wearing had worn thru but only just. I had nothing to show for it but an aching arm and some very light scratching on my right wrist and elbow.
Terry took out some epoxy metal putty and cleaned up my engine housing while I went back to the bridge and cleaned myself up in the cold stream. 20 minutes after the fall and we were all back on the way to the cafe.
After lunch, the throbbing arm was throbbing more. The elbow had swollen up like a balloon and it was hard gettng it inside the jacket. I told the guys I wont be taking the jacket off again today!. We continued on towards Lidoga as a lesser pace, more like a sedate 80 km/h rather than the 100 – 110 we had been doing. The bikes, and now we ourselves, we taking a pounding on the road. But the Vanino road had not finished with us yet !
As we approached the 60km asphalt section at the Lidoga end of the road, the last 20 km of dirt was the roughest of the road. We slowed right down to take this rugged potholed stretch. Terry had been concerned he needs to make his bike last all the way back to england so I let him set the pace. Every bump was now felt as pain in my arm as the inflamed flesh was jerked about. We made the end of the dirt and waited for Tony.
We waited … and waited … and waited. After 20 minutes, and with neither of us wanting to go back onto that rough stretch, Tony appeared, riding what appeared to be a BMW Dakar chopper. His back suspension had broken off 7-8 km back. The bike was sitting very low, but the spring was resting roughly on a bit of suspension linkage. The bike was rideable. It was almost 5pm and we still had 250 km to go to Komsomolsk.
All three of us had been in the wars today. It was a straight forward road but the bikes had taken a hammering. As for my fall, I can only assume that there was a bit of overconfidence there. It had been several months since I dropped the bike. None of them at any sort of speed more than 5-10 km/hr. I had ridden about 10,000 km on the dirt roads of Siberia, aggressively, without a fall and I suspect that played a big part in the overconfidence. Now my arm was smarting. A little more measured riding was in order.
We hit the main road from Khabarovsk to Komsomolsk and I had a chat with Tony while we refuelled. We could turn back to Khabarovsk where we knew bikers and mechanics, but Tony refused to be beaten. He insisted we push on to Komsomolsk. He would lead the way and set the pace, on his Dakar ‘chopper’.
As we continued north on the asphalt road, we crossed the 50th parallel. The weather in Vladivostok – Khabarovsk region had been very eastern … hot and muggy, but the further north we went, the dryer the air became. Tony was powering on at 100km/h, slowing only when he saw bumps that his badly wounded suspension might not handle.
Around 8:30pm we reached the Amur bridge, just south of Komsomolsk. The river narrowed between some headlands here and was only about 2km wide. it wad been up to 10km wide for much of the time we were tracking it. I stopped to take a picture while Tony and Terry continued on. As I started to take off again, a local biker rode up beside me and flagged me down. This was perfect. We knew no-one in Komsomolsk, and no idea where to get Tony’s shock lugs repaired.
Vadim was the biker and I very quickly ascertained there were bikers and a good mechanic or two in Komsomolsk. We continued across the bridge and met up with Tony and Terry on the other side. Vadim took a look at Tony’s rearr end and got straight on the phone. Then it was a ‘follow me – 10 kilometres to bikers’ instruction and we readily complied.
By 11pm Tony’s bike had the suspension out, Terry’s and my biikes were also safely parked in Yegor’s garage (Yegor and his wife Oksana were the senior motorcycle folk in Komsomolsk) and we were all back at Yegor and Oksana’s flat with a bunch of other bikers being feed dinner!
What a remarkably hospitable end to a very tough day for the three of us.
- – -
Komsomolsk was pretty much a closed town in the good old days. There was and still is a lot of military and hi-tech manufacturing here. Most of the guys we were meeting either worked for Sukhoi aircraft factory, building jet fighters or the submarine factory.
Despite being 500km upstream from the mouth of the Amur, the river is more than big enough to handle ocean going submarines! The new great white hope for Russian civil aviation, the Sukhoi Superjet, is also being built here in Komsomolsk.With all that hi-tech manufacturing, its not surprising that no-one we were meeting was born here. They all moved here because they had specialised skills. So most guys here were skilled metal workers one way or another. And good quality alloy and steel would also not be hard to find, should it be needed to repair Tony’s ill machine.
Spring compressors arrived at the garage and the spring was removed. The broken end piece of the shock was removed and Kostya felt the best solution would be to remake the same part, in steel, for strength. We agreed, if indeed it was possible. And they assured us it was.
While Tony looked after his bike and supervised progress, Terry and I took a ride down to the river, a popular sunning spot in town, and did a little sunbathing of our own.
When we returned to the garage, there was more bad news re Tony’s bike. While the shock piece was off getting repaired, the local lads had taken a look at Tony’s front rim. It was all over the place. The local view was it was unfixable. If the locals think its unfixable, and they can fix almost anything, then its unfixable.
A steel 21 inch rim (quite a bit heavier than Tony’s) was produced. It wasnt new, but was still in good shape. Tony’s wheel was stripped and the local motorcycle wheel builder went about rebuilding the wheel in Yegor’s garage. A couple of hours later and it was basically finished.
We took the gang (Yegor, Oksana, Kostya, the wheel builder and 3 other local bikers) out for shashlik. They were housing us and looking after our bikes (including doing extensive repair work to Tony’s) before heading back to Yegor’s for evening beers.
It was hard to work out how to thank these guys enough.
30.07.09 Birthday Time
The bikes were liberated from the Vladivistok port, conveniently located right behind the main railway station, just a few hundred yards from our hotel. Also located just a few hundred yards from our hotel was the Gutov beer house – which by now had become the unofficial Sibirsky Extreme meeting, eating and drinking place in Vladivostok. Tony and I had told Terry we would meet him there when we got the bikes out. By 5:00pm we three assembled in front of the beer house, got the luggage and were joined by a fourth rider.
Jun was a Korean guy off on his first big adventure on a F650GS. He had met Leon on the docks at Zarubino (where the ferry from South Korea arrives in Russia), and Leon had told him to get in touch with us in Vladik. He had found us in the middle of the night last night and asked if he could ride with us as far as we were riding the same route … which in this case was Khabarovsk. It would be a good chance for us to pass on our wisdoms (or otherwise) about riding in Russia and motorcycle travel in general.
The four of us left the Gutov beer house at 6:30pm. It was about 30 degrees and really humid. The priority was getting airflow thru the clothes and I led the way out of town at a brisk pace. We zoomed in and out of the traffic, slowing down only for the traffic police posts.
About 200 km out of town and we hit the first bit of gravel road – a stretch of roadworks about 800 yards long. A couple of kilometres down the road and Terry and I stopped to wait for Tony and Jun, who had disappeared after we had blasted thru the roadworks. After 2 minutes, we turned round and returned.
Jun was down!. Off the road. The bike was off the embankment and down a yard or two. Jun seemed ok, but the bike was in bad shape. One of his plastic panniers had broken open completely and his stuff was scattered throughout the dust. It was his first few hundred yards off asphalt. I have never been to South Korea but from what I have heard, the roads are immaculate asphalt, similar to Japan. I am not surprised Korean riders have never seen dirt roads before arriving in Russia.
Terry set about sorting out a temporary fix for Jun’s pannier, while I tackled his badly bent gear lever. Tony was helping sort out Jun psychologically – telling him that these things happen and everything is fixable, and giving him tips on dirt riding.
One thing that didnt seem fixable was the clutch lever. It had snapped near the base. Jun came up with the answer himself after Terry had been unable to splint it. He had a pair of multigrips and clamped them round the base of the clutch lever. His clutch now was a pair of multigrips.
Terry, using his years of wild-man enduro riding experience, took Jun’s bike back up the embankment and onto the dirt road. We all chipped in to put the luggage safely back on and rode on to the next town where we found a hotel and settled down for the night.
It was a crazy, surprising 40th birthday … We celebrated by going to the local store (all restaurants were closed by now in the village of Sibirtsovo) and loading me up with my favorite beer, Sibirsky Korona with Lime. But it was a birthday in which Tony and I got our bikes back and on the road and Terry finally got going in Russia.
Think he was getting a little stir crazy in Vladivostok.
- – -
We slept in till 11am before Tony knocked on my door and suggested we make a move. The beers were still wearing off. Soon after leaving we were within 5km of the Chinese border. Tony and I both received texts welcoming us to China. This is the region that is home to the Siberian Tiger, largest cat on earth. Only the Russians dont call it the Siberian Tiger, since they dont consider the far east to be Siberia. Here the big cat is called the Ussuri Tiger or Amur Tiger, after the two big reivers that dominate the region between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.
It was another sweltering day, and I was determined to make it to Khabarovsk. I had texted a contact in Khabarovsk that we would get there this evening and I dont like revising plans if I can help it. Roman, our man in Khabarovsk, also had a set of tyres for me, a set of tyres for Tony and a rear sprocket for Tony.
Jun had clearly listened to the advice the three of us had given him … particularly to relax and dont try to or expect to control the bike as precisely on the dirt as you can on the asphalt. We went thru a few more roadworks sections including some deep gravel, and Jun made it without problems.
We stopped for lunch and I introduced both Jun and Terry to Shashlik, a fine delicacy and a common source of protein for the Sibirsky Extreme Project. As it happens it was the finest shashlik I had eaten since Uzbekistan and the meal made a very positive impression on Jun and Terry.
About 200km from Khabarovsk the sun faded away in about 5 minutes and within a few more minutes the rain was pelting down. As the light faded I had zipped up while riding so headed on into the rain. Tony did the same. Jun had stopped earlier to put on wet weather gear. I saw a covered petrol station and Tony and I dived in there just as the storm picked up intensity. Terry behind us hadnt seen us or the petrol station, but had stopped 200 yards short of it to put on his wet weather gear.
We waved frantically at him so as to encourage him not to bother as we were only 20 seconds ride down the road, but to no avail – Terry wasnt looking up. By the time Terry finally got on the road, saw us sheltered and dry in the petrol station and pulled in there too, Jun pulled up, just where Terry had stopped. Again we waved any tried to catch his eye, but Jun didnt see us. He was on the side of the road 200 yards away, adjusting his wet weather gear in the heart of the tropical downpour.
Finally we all met up in the fuel station and waited for the storm to pass. It was clearly a localised storm cell, and I advised us to button up and ride through it (it was headed roughly the same direction as us). Off we went into the intensifying rain and darkness, and just when it was at its peak, I caught a glimpse of blue sky ahead. 3 minutes after the heart of the storm and we were on totally dry road. I turned round to give the boys the “I told you so” look, but there were only 3 of them. Terry had stopped back in the storm as it was worsening, to put on his waterproofs again. Oh he of little faith!
It was almost 8pm when we got to the outskirts of Khabarovsk. We arrived as a three, as Jun had dropped off the pack somewhere down the road. Tony suggested he go back for Jun while Terry and I push on into the city to find the gps co-ordinates I had been given for Roman (and our tyres).
10 minutes later and we were with Roman. I called Tony to find out the latest on where he was and had he found Jun. Tony had found Jun not far back and they had been met by a Russian biker on a yellow Honda X11. A bit on confusion followed before we realised that the guy on the yellow bike was a mate of Roman’s and 5 minutes later we were all re-united at Roman’s massive garage.
Roman lived onsite at a big automotive service centre in Khabarovsk. He said the plan was we garage the bikes, take just what we need and he will run us into a hotel. We did that, checked into the Amur Hotel, showered and headed around the streets of downtown Khabarovsk to an Irish Bar round the corner for some much needed food and refreshments.
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Saturday began with a plan to get to the bikes and start working on them about 9am. Roman had arranged for a bike mechanic to check the bikes out around 11am and we had a list of things to get done. We hadnt given the bikes any real loving since Mirny, and that was over 4000 km ago.
I needed to change my oil from the temporary mineral oil solution I used in Mirny back to the full synthetic I preferred. Air filter had to be cleaned, new tyres and mousses had to be fitted, both of my rims needed a little bashing, and my front assembly needed straightening up. Also needed to find why one of my headlights hadnt been working since Yakutsk. Tony had a more comprehensive list, and Jun also now had a list of things that needed to be attended to.
We started on the lists while we waited for the mechanic. Terry put on the knobblies he had been carrying since Seoul. That was his list done. The mechanic, Sasha, arrived checked out what had to be done and said he will do stuff tomorrow as he is busy today. We continuted to work away on the lists.
I removed my front assembly, found a blown fuse on my headlight switch so solved that problem. With a bit of heaving I had bent the front assembly straight. With a bit of Jun’s Korean shampoo I cleaned my air filter. My bike went up on a stand and both wheels were removed. The tyres were removed and I took the rims downstairs with a big mallet to sort them out. Later in the afternoon, Slava, the guy on the yellow Honda, ran me down to the Shinomontazh (tyre service centre) with my rims, new tyres and mousses.
I had a set of Michelin Deserts delivered to Roman’s address by a pair of Russian bikers from Moscow who had come out this way a week earlier. They were riding across Sakhalin, or rather Sakhalin top to bottom. It was another rendezvous I had hoped to make, and to join them for their 2 week adventure, but I was still about a week behind the initially planned schedule, so they went ahead to Sakhalin without us, leaving the tyres with Roman.
Also with the tyres were a pair of Michelin bib-mousses. I was tempted to get another set of mousses sent out earlier to Irkutsk so I could have used them on the Irkutsk – Magadan leg, but concerns about fitting the mousses made me err on the side of conservatism. This time I would try the mousses - especially after all the flat tyres we (or rather Tony) had between Irkutsk and Magadan – 14 in all !!!
Down at the shino-montazh, the big burly Russian lads had never even heard of mousse, let alone seen one, or fitted one. Luckily the mousse came with lubricant and diagram instructions for fitting. The boys took to it like kids with a new toy.
Slava lubed up the inside of the tyres while extra tyre levers were called for. They were going to tackle the mousses by hand! The front went first and only needed 3 guys straining and groaning with extra long tyre levers to get it on. The rear took longer … a good 10 minutes, with the tyre being levered onto the rim one inch at a time, this time it took 4 guys. But we got there. Puncture free off road motorcycling. These mousses will last me at least to Irkutsk and maybe beyond. I hadnt ridden with them before so it was a good chance for me to try them out.
Evening came and Slava insisted we head out with him to the Harley Davidson cafe near the river in Khabarovsk. At the time it was suggested, we just wanted to head back to the hotel for a shower – but felt obliged to do whatthe locals asked as they had been so helpful to us. The 30 degree temperatures were still complimented by 90+ percent humidity and we were all a pool of sweat. Tony had been working thru his list all day and Terry had been lending both of us a hand, in between snoozing on the floor.
Once down at the Harley cafe, our mood changed immediately. Cold beers came out and we were being feted as celebrities passing thru by the staff and the band that had just started playing. The band was good, the crowd lively, the beers cold. In between sets, we were entertained with the likes of female arm wrestling. Jun was ecstatic. his first day in Russia had been a bad one, having his wallet stolen. His second saw him come off his bike and he at a very low ebb. Now we had make it to Khabarovsk, his bike was well on the way to getting fixed, and Russian bikers, Slava in particular, had been helping him out all day to get the bits he needed to get, and now he was being treated as a visiting celebrity by local bikers. It was great to see the change in his face over the past 24 hours.
After the Harley cafe we went to Garazh, another bikers bar, for some food before finally making it home for those much needed showers around midnight. A great evening had been had by all.
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Back to the garage where my last remaining task was the oil change. We needed Sasha the mechanic for that, as he had the oil draining machine.
We were leaving a useful stash of used tyres here in Khabarovsk, and anyone passing thru this way who needs them is happy to avail themselves of the tyres. There are 3 x 21 inch tyres there. 2 x 17 inch rears and 1 x 18 inch rear. If anyone needs any of them on their cross Russia travels, get in touch thru the blog.
Sasha founds some bolts Tony needed to complete his suspension linkage problems, before doing the oil changes. Sasha was also a biker and despite it being a Sunday, was happy to work on the bikes. One of the other guys who worked at the Auto centre was having a birthday and the afternoon was punctuated with constantly having to stop for shashlik and vodka!
Jun had been in the workshop with Slava for much of the morning and came out punching the air and screaming how much he loves Russia. Slava had repaired his busted pannier with metal sheeting and no less than 50 rivets. He just needed his alloy clutch lever repaired and he was back on the road, good as new. The welding couldnt happen today as it was a Sunday and the argon welder was back at work on Monday.
By the afternoon, our long extensive list of things to do was all done … except I needed some stitching done on my riding trousers. That too was a Monday morning job, along with Jun’s clutch lever.
The evening was spent down at the Irish pub, giving Jun a list of useful Russian words and phrases. He would be going a different way to us once we left Khabarovsk. He is in better shape to tackle Russia and its roads now than he was when we met him in Vladivostok – and that was a good thing.
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After breakfast, we helped Jun get a mobile phone. South Korea and Japan have different mobile phone systems to the GSM world (everywhere except Japan, South Korea and North America) so he will need to be in contact with family, friends and other travellers like us along the way to Europe.
Then it was off to the bikes. Sasha the mechanic had argon welded Jun’s clutch lever, and everything apart from my riding trousers was in readiness for the road. Sadly Roman, the only guy who new the good place to get the trousers stitched, was out of town. So we packed up and prepared to leave.
Jun rode with us to the main road and the fuel station where we topped up with fluids and fuel. We said farewell to him there at 2pm and wished him well. He was heading west to Birobidzhan, and we were headed north east, to Vanino, and the start of the BAM railway.
It was very much a ferry stage … there was not a lot to see until we turned off the main road. It did feel a little like riding thru the east coast of Australia … lots of forest, long empty roads, sparsely spread out towns. We stopped for a bang up lunch in the town of Mayak.
By 6pm we turned off at Lidoga, the turnoff to Vanino. We had fuelled up for the 333km road, which I assumed would be all dirt. We would have to push the speed to get to Vanino by nightfall. To my (and Terry’s) disappointment, the road was asphalt … at least the first 60 km was. The fun started after the 60 km mark. The road wound thru low hills, following rivers and was a lot more twisty than the dirt roads we had ridden further up north. The first few dozen miles was just getting used to the feel of the new knobblies on the dirt road, but once the comfort factor increased, we cranked up the speed.
“Enduro Terry” saw a chance to speed past a van in some thick mud and ended up in the mud himself. His first hour on dirt roads of the trip and he muddies himself up. Humidity was near 100% all day, and most of the rivers were covered with mist. I guess the water in them is a few degrees cooler than the air.
After the halfway mark, the speed cranked up again to 110 km/h as the roads were a bit straighter. with 70 km to go and darkness not far away, we hit asphalt again. The 200 km of dirt roads were behind us and the bright lights of Vanino came into view just before 10pm. By 10:15 we were showering in a hotel by the Pacific, BAM railway in full voice across the street.
We were now in position to start the next phase of the project, the BAM railway road.