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After four days of river, sun and forest, we arrived at Ust Kut, paid our 4600 ruble fare and rode the bikes off the barge at the front of the disembarking queue. Oddly enough, I bumped into a trucker I knew waiting for the next barge … a familiar face from last years barge ride. I needed to top up credit levels on my internet modem sim card, and SJ needed some water.
The first day back on the road was a short day. By 12:30pm we had reached Magistralny. The last 30 minutes were in rain. Magistralny had been my soft target for the day. It was an easy one, just 165km from Ust Kut. We stopped for lunch and a chance to sit out the rain.
When it was still raining when we came out, I asked SJ what she wanted to do. We still had over 6 hours of daylight, but there was only one small village between here and out next target, Zhigalovo, and it would have neither food nor accommodation. I recommended we stay. She concurred.
– – –
It was still light rain when we awoke. But the thought of staying in Magistralny another night offended my sensibilities. When by 9am the rain had effectively ceased, I turned to Sherri Jo and said “OK, we go now.”
She looked at me and said “Somehow I thought you’d say that.”
And so we hit the road, topped up with fuel and headed down towards the Zhigalovo Road turnoff. The Zhigalovo Road last year was a pretty tame affair, but a lot can change with Siberian roads in a year, as I had seen many times earlier on this ride. The Zhigalovo Road this year was a rocky, potholed, brutal road that had become a real suspension killer. While there was very little rain about, most of the road was above 900 metres in altitude, which seemed to be the cloud base level today … so most of the ride was through saturated fog, on a brutal muddy, rocky, wet road. I didn’t enjoy it at all.
With 200 km down and just 100 to go, we passed two German cyclists coming the other way. The guy walked over to me and asked “Walter?” As it turns out it was a guy who had written to me earlier in the year asking for information about the BAM Road. We chatted for 10 minutes before heading off. I was keen to get warm, dry and clean in Zhigalovo. The last 60-70 km into Zhigalovo was much better than the previous 230, and the last 30km was even dry.
A fast dry gravel road with lots of bends. It was my first chance of the day to have some fun in the dirt and I lapped it up, charging ahead towards Zhigalovo at high speed. I waited just outside Zhigalovo for Sherri Jo and we road together into town to look for either a place to stay, or a trio of riders heading the other way I had half suggested we meet here.
Sure enough on the road into town a KTM 950 Super Enduro was being welded by the side of the road. I stopped and saw a guy in BMW riding pants grinding some subframe bracing piece. “You must be Walter” he said. I guess I had found the guys.
Two Australian guys, Dean and Paul had ridden up through Africa and were now heading towards Magadan. They had hooked up in Mongolia with Barton, a guy I had met in Vienna in May, as I was finishing my last trip and he was starting his Trans-Eurasian ride. The three of them were staying at a truckers hotel just around the corner from the metal shop where I saw Dean.
That evening, over a few beers, all three of the guys, Dean, Paul and Barton all were clearly up for as much challenging riding as the timeframe allowed. All were finishing their trips in Magadan, and had about 2 weeks left. They needed as much action as could be packed into that last two weeks. I told them about various options. Definitely they were up for the Old Summer Road on the Road of Bones. Then I told them about the BAM Road. “Sounds interesting” said Paul. Barton, who had followed last year BAM Road thread on ADVrider told me to show them the fotos. I explained there are two halves to the BAM Road … the western half to Tynda, which is a 6 day ride, and the eastern half, after Tynda, which you need to allow a few weeks for, and want to have a very fresh, properly prepped bike for.
The guys faces lit up on seeing the fotos, and it was agreed. Take the BAM Road from Severobaikalsk to Tynda, then a day or two fast ride north to Yakutsk, and then the Old Road to Magadan. It was a good, challenging way to finish their trips. I will look forward to reading the blog on that one! www.donkeyandthemule.com.au.
– – –
27.08.10 – 28.08.10
We all left Zhigalovo at the same time; Barton on his 640 Adventure and Paul and Dean on their 950 SEs all heading North East, and Sherri Jo and I headed South towards Lake Baikal. As we filled up with fuel, I told SJ that she had ridden her last full day on dirt … at least with me.
130 km down the road we came to the town of Kachug and I gave her the news that it was asphalt from here – with the exception of 40 km of dirt roads on Olkhon Island, the largest island in Lake Baikal and our destination for the day.
We got to ride a highway sitting down for the first time since leaving Magadan, and cruised onto the Olkhon Ferry in good time. I discovered my starter button was jammed. Tapping it made the starter work … it should be enough to get me 40km further to the town of Khuzhir. I can pull it apart and try to fix it there.
The Khuzhir town sign is wearing a few more stickers this year than it did last year, but I am pleased to report that the Sibirsky Extreme sticker is still holding firm.
We pulled into Nikita’s place, a hostel / hotel with wifi internet and popular with Russian travellers and foreign backpackers alike, and were greeted at reception in English. It was quite a shock and announced we were now back in the parts of Russia where you are not the first foreigner locals have ever seen. Sherri Jo noted as we unpacked that it feels like a double edged sword … while conveniences like wifi internet, and other travel conveniences would be really handy, the novelty and the pioneering feel you get travelling in the more remote parts of Siberia, and the unique hospitality locals can afford you because you are so unique, would now be gone. From here on, it would be a different world.
I fixed my starter button … the spring behind it is toast, and would fail again before too long, but I stretched it out to buy a bit more time. Then I went out for a solo ride and explored the island.
Olkhon Island and the Eastern side in particular is mostly cliffs. It made for some spectacular vantage points, looking out over this massive lake.
– – –
The last riding day with Sherri Jo, saw use take off in the afternoon and cruise into Irkutsk.
We went to the Baik-Konur bike club house, but it was closed. Apparently shut down 2 months ago after disputes between the 2 main guys who ran it. I tried some other accommodation options but they were full. In the end we met some bikers on the street and they told us to wait for Petya, one of the former guys behind Baik-Konur.
Apparently the 29th of August is celebrated as the birthday of the motorcycle in Russia, and we spent hours that evening following bikers from one party to another. Eventually at 11pm, more than 6 hours after arriving in Irkutsk, we got to Petya’s garage, which had a couple of beds, and we able to relax and unwind.
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.
I slept in till almost midday in my Udachny hotel room. I had thoughts of riding back to Mirny today, but it was a Saturday. The few things I needed to do in Mirny needed to wait until Monday anyway, and I was still thinking about a potential ride out with the towns bad boys. As it happens the bad boys didnt contact me until 5pm, and I had just jet washed the bike (thanks to the mining company guys) and refilled it with fuel, thinking they wouldnt call. In any case, the lads didnt actually know what lay beyond the river crossing, and their bikes didn’t look like they stood a good chance of going very far.
– – –
I had packed the night before and decided to leave early. I could have waited round until 11:30 when the cafe opened and had a cup of tea and stocked up on some food, but instead hit the road about 8:45am
It was terribly cold, probably about -3 degrees. Light snow had fallen overnight, the second snow of the season. The previous night had seen the first snow but it hadnt stuck. Even with all the gear on including my heated vest and gloves I was struggling with the cold and reduced speed to 75km/h for the first hour to help deal with it.
After a completely uneventful morning I reached Chernyshevsky 430 km and 5 hours later, stopping there to refuel and to get something to eat and drink. I continued on to Mirny, arriving soon after 3pm. When I turned on my phone, a SMS arrived from Arnaud, saying he was making good progress on the Vilyuisky Trakt and should arrive in Mirny tonight. I called Ilya, the biker I knew in Mirny and he was fixing his Africa Twin with the town’s moto-cross guys. I went round there and did a couple of laps of the moto-cross track myself on the XC, before letting a proper motocross rider have a go on my bike.
About 6pm I got a phone call from Arnaud. He had just arrived in Mirny. I told him to meet Ilya and myself in Lenin Square. Five minutes later and we were all there. Arnaud had a contact in Mirny who had a place where we could stay for free, so we waited for the contact to show up and take to our very humble lodgings, before heading out for a dinner of Shashlik and beer before retiring.
– – –
9am and Arnaud woke me up in my freezing unheated room with news that he had just been told there was a boat leaving Lensk at 12:00. We had been worried about when we might get the next boat so this was a boat we needed to try and take. They would hold the boat until 12:30 for us. It was a 3 hour ride. We had 30 minutes to wake up, pack and leave Mirny.
I didnt so much pack as throw all my gear into my bags. I still had stuff at Andrei’s garage and Andrei doesnt usually start until 10am, but I called him and asked him to rush down and open his garage for me. He did.
Arnaud and I sped full throttle down to Lensk, slowing only for the mud created by recent rain, and roadworks. We headed directly for where the boat had dropped me off 5 days earlier, and the same boat was waiting. Luggage was stripped off and our bikes shoved up the nose of the boat to rest on the front deck.
From here it was a 5 day boat ride upstream to Ust Kut, on a twin engined boat that had only one engine working.
– – –
07, 08, 09, 10, 11.09.09
Arnaud was the French guy who had stopped Tony in the streets of Vladivostok after recognising him as one of the Sibirsky Extreme guys. He had been after road condition information on the Road of Bones, as he was about to board a boat to Magadan. I had kept in touch with Arnaud, and a few weeks later (when he was relaxing in Yakutsk) we chatted about the BAM road and Vilyuisky Trakt, and which would be better to get him back to Irkutsk. As my experience of the BAM road unfolded, and with Arnaud travelling solo, it became clear that the only choice was the Vilyuisky Trakt.
Arnaud took the recommended road and was greeted at every ferry,and almost every cafe and fuel stop with “Guess what?! We had two English guys come thru here a few months ago also on motorcycles”.
Arnaud is fluent in Russian and reported to me when we met in Mirny that not only were the two English guys famous on the Vilyuisky Trakt, but Tony and I had made a positive impression everywhere. That is something that money cant buy, an inner satisfaction. These people had been very good to us (apart from one river crossing truck driver) and it was satisfying to hear we had left a positive impression with the Yakuts of the Vilyui valley, as indeed they had with us.
Arnaud has been in Siberia for 15 years, running his own tour firm on Lake Baikal, organising movie sets in Yakutia etc, even running motorcycle tours around the Baikal region. He is riding one of his left over tour bikes, a TTR 250. It’s proved a little underpowered for the more open sections of road, and he said he was full throttle for the whole road to Lensk.
As the boat sailed into the first night, we began talking about some of the expressions of interest I have had in the Sibirsky Extreme Project. Arnaud, with his years of running tours and logistics in Siberia felt there was be a good opportunity to put together a one-off organised motorcycle trip from Magadan to Lake Baikal next year, led by the two of us.
The following days were spent refining the concept. The more we thought and talked about it, the more the idea made sense. So few people ever make it to Magadan on a bike, or get to do the Road of Bones, yet many dream of it. The logistical and language barriers are the primary reasons. Its a hell of a long way away, its very hard to get to, and nobody there speaks English. As for the Vilyuisky Trakt into the attractive heart of Yakutia, its virgin territory for foreigners, let alone motorcyclists. Lake Baikal is a logical, beautiful place to finish and really is Arnaud’s speciality … he knows that region like the back of his hand.
Look for a link on the website in the weeks ahead. It could only ever be a small group, 5-8 people, over 4 weeks. If anyone is interested, drop me a line thru the blog and we will send out more detailed information as we put it together. If we get enough expressions of interest, we will have a serious ride on next summer, Magadan – Baikal.
– – –
Arnaud and I had arrived back in Ust Kut around 10pm last night and arranged to stay on board the boat for one more night. The plan was to leave first thing in the morning. We pushed the bikes off the boat and locked them together next to the boat, set the alarm for 05:30 ! and tried to sleep. Sleeping was near impossible onthe boat, without the drone of the engine in the background and it was an evening of tossing and turning and restlessness.
5:30 came and despite both wanting to sleep in, we headed down to the galley, where the cook from the boat had also woken up early to cook breakfast for us. With full stomachs, we loaded up the bikes and were ready to go by 6:30, only it was still pitch black. I consulted my phone … daylight comes to Ust Kut at 7:20 am on this day of the year. And so we went back to our cabin and had 45 minutes snooze before finally hitting the road about 7:15.
It was cold and foggy and I had dressed in my heated vest. Arnaud on his little 250 had no such luxury. He just had to endure the cold. Bratsk was 350km away, mostly over dirt roads, but the roads were decent and we made it to the sprawling spread out city of Bratsk around lunchtime. The Hydroelectric dam at Bratsk is supposed to be one of the largest in the world, and it certainly was huge. I have never seen one bigger.
I noticed my front end didnt feel right. Tony P has a credo that if something doesnt feel or sound right, its because something isnt right, and you need to stop and sort it out. I knew something wasnt right but just felt like I wanted to get to Krasnoyarsk where the bike would get a full going over by Zhenya and his team of bike mechanics.
Bratsk is spread out over about 50 km and while riding through Bratsk the unease in the front end of the bike felt progressively worse. We stopped and chatted to some Police guys about the road to Taishet, the last 300km of the BAM road. They said if we want to go to Krasnoyarsk from Bratsk, we needed to go on the asphalt road to Tulun and then the Trans Siberian Highway to Krasnoyarsk. With my front end clearly sick, I decided not to argue. It was a longer route, but a safer one with a sick bike.
80 km outside of Bratsk and I was kicking myself for not listening to Tony’s credo. I had seen grease oozing past the right front wheel bearing seal when we had stopped in Bratsk and strongly suspected that bearing was on the way out. I had been obsessed with getting to Krasnoyarsk and should have stopped in Bratsk to see what could be done about the bearing. Now I was out on the empty road and the bearing was dead. It was cold but at least it had temporarily stopped raining. There was nothing for it but to get sore and greasy and sort the problem.
Arnaud rode 500 yards ahead where a truck was parked on the side of the road and borrowed a hammer. I jacked up the bike with a stick and removed the front wheel. I started whacking out the old bearing with the hammer and a screwdriver. Predictably it crumbled and I was left with the problem of trying to remove the outer housing of the old bearing. After 20 minutes and a lot of sore thumbs, I had removed the old bearing completely and searched around in my spare pars bag for new bearings.
5½ months on the road and a lot of water in the side bags had left my spare bearings in poor shape. All my spare parts were covered in sand and rust. I had no option by to clean up one of the bearings as best I could and use it. The truck drivers up the road began to move off and Arnaud went to offer them the hammer back. They said we needed it more th
Tony and I ate a post-midnight dinner in the 24 hour diner / discotheque (called the Ermak) at Ust-Kut’s Hotel Lena. It was a kind of cordon bleu chicken dish that was simply titled “Meat- French Style”. We finally made it to bed about 2am.
I was woken at 9:30 am by a phone call from Andrei the policeman, checking when we wanted to be picked up. I said 11am would be good and went back to sleep. Andrei came round about 11:30. Tony and I had by then visited the bank to stock up on cash for the days ahead and grabbed some food to substitute for breakfast at the local store. Andrei drove us back to the police station where we took out the bikes from the police garage.
While we packed up the bikes a TV crew appeared … arranged by the police I suspect. I had to do an impromptu TV interview in Russian for the Ust-Kut evening news. After that was done, we said farewell to the other police guys and Andrei drove us down to the makeshift loading ramp where a barge was being loaded for Lensk. By the time we got there it was looking pretty full, but since we had the police on our side, we were optimistic of a positive outcome. Andrei spoke to the man in charge of loading and gave us the thumbs up before heading back home to his family. Tony and I decided we should buy him dinner when we again pass thru Ust Kut in 2 months time.
Time passed and a few more cars were jammed onto the barge and then to my shock and horror I saw the barge declared full and the loading bridge pulled up. These barges only run every 3 days or so. I approached the loading man and he told me that another barge will come shortly. We waited and waited and by now it was 3pm. I spoke with many of the waiting lorry drivers. They were confident we would all be getting to Lensk and I relaxed. One guy, after asking how we got to Ust-Kut, asked if we saw bears on our route. This was the same question that the police had asked. Maybe there really are bears on the Zhigalovo Road.
A larger unpowered barge approached, drawn by a tugboat. Before long we were all queueing up to load. The first barge was in the middle of river …. it hadnt gone anywhere and I suddenly realised the barges would somehow be joined together for the journey. Tony and I stocked up on food and water and beer for the journey. By now I had found out it would be two and a half days. We would leave Ust Kut about 6pm and arrive in Lensk about Friday lunchtime.
We were called up and approached the makeshift loading ramp with some caution. It had been awkward for a few of the vehicles before us but we made it on without too much fuss and were allocated a spot on the front right of the barge, just behind the loading winches.
I was unlikely to have anything more than very occasional mobile phone access over the next few days so quickly checked my email and sent a text back to home base. We are now 10-14 days behind the initially planned schedule due to the long stops in Tashkent and Irkutsk (my fault) and that makes some planned rendezvoux dif ficult. I had planned to hook up with Mac Swinarski in Magadan in about a weeks time, but just got news that “Mac is in Moscow, proceding Magadan-wards”. We will miss that rendezvous in Magadan. Good luck with MotoSyberia 2.0 mate.
As the barge pulled out of Ust-Kut we quickly got a feel for the wilderness were were travelling through. I had first developed an interest in visiting the Lena region after reading a book by Moscow based travel writer Jeffrey Tayler, called “River of No Reprieve” – About life, death and exile in the villages along the Lena River. In the book he travels by boat along the Lena from Ust-Kut to Tiksi, where the river meets the Arctic Ocean. That created a thirst to see for myself life on the Lena and beyond, and is the origins of wanting to get specifically to Lensk, Mirny and Udachny.
A lot of the towns on the Lena are related to the exile industry … The prettiest town we passed thru between Kachug and Zhigalovo was Verkholensk … which was the place of exile in Tsarist times for Felix Dzherzhinsky, the founder of the soviet secret police, which later became the KGB. The first village we passed after Zhigalovo, Tutura, was the place of exile several times for Kuibyshev – one of the initial soviet powerbrokers.
Around 10pm, with most of the truck drivers on the boat well and truly drunk, Tony and I decided it was dinner time. Tony’s portable stove and some pot noodles were the solution. I had foolishly brought only 3 bottles of beer onboard for the 3 days and was consuming my second one on the first night. Russian bottles are larger than those in the west – 500 ml rather than 300 or 330ml, but still I was facing beer shortages in the coming nights already. We chatted with some of the truck drivers till after midnight before retiring. It was still only half dark due to the date and the latitude.
– – –
Tony and I had a great nights sleep in Tony’s Khyam tent. (we have one each and sometimes use one and sometimes use both). We had put it up soon after we got on board yesterday as we thought it prudent to do the german thing and “reserve” our own space as soon as possible, before there is none left. There was a small bow deck area and a large part of it was already taken by a river trader taking goods downstream to Vitim. The first thing we saw this morning on the river bank was the number 3500 on a small sign. This point is 3500km upstream from the mouth. Ust Kut is at 3715km, so we had travelled 215km overnight. Only 750 km to go to Lensk.
The day began working on the bikes. We both had a bolt missing from our assorted luggage mounting systems. Mine will need to be fixed with a new threading tool, and Tony’s has a snapped bolt … and will need to be drilled out. Nothing we could fix on deck. Tony changed his air filter and I washed mine.
Yesterday we had been praising the engines on our bikes – these BMW Rotax engines dont consume oil or need anything but the most minor maintenance – and I mentioned to Tony what a blessing that is, as its inevitable that if you carry oil, the container will at some point burst on roads like this. Unknown to me, Tony still had a small container of oil that he was using on the asphalt roads as chain lube … we discovered today that the lid had come off … so half Tony’s morning was spent cleaning out and degreasing his pannier. Luckily we had some petrol with us. I meanwhile had found a bucket on a rope that a truck driver had left by the edge of the barge, and went about washing myself in Lenochka’s waters, hauled up one bucket at a time.
The scenery had not changed from last night. The river carved lazy gentle turns thru the wooded taiga forest … 50 metre hills usually lined each bank. It was both very wild and yet very serene at the same time. Our end of the barge was a long way from the engine … we were right at the front, and there was almost no noise. We just were peacefully gliding north through the Siberian taiga, on the beautiful River Lena.
By midday the sun was out in force, and the obvious thing to do was to slip into shorts, lose the shirt and take the air mattress out on deck. Tony followed and another passenger as well … 3 of us, lounging in the sun on our river cruise, with headphones in our ears. I for one needed the sun. 3 months inside motorcycle riding clothes has left my arms, legs and chest pasty white – with brown patches for my hands and face.
Six hours and a lot of red / pink skin later, Tony tuned in to catch the BBC news on his shortwave before preparing dinner. He has the cooking stove and has assumed the cooking duties. In a couple of weeks we will be joined by Terry, another englishman flying out to take part in the project. Terry is a camping guru, so Tony and I have decided that Terry should be in charge of cookery once he arrives.
Meanwhile, Tony had taken a packet soup and combined it with a couple of potatoes that had fallen out of the traders sacks to make a potato and vegetable soup. This was washed down with some warm beer and our standard chicken flavour noodles. Mmm delicious.
There was less drunkenness on board this second evening as we drifted past Kirensk, the last town of any notable size before Lensk and consequently having sensible conversations with the truck drivers was easier. We got good information about the roads ahead, the places that have food, petrol and even the rare hotel room. Clearly we would be camping a lot more after Lensk (indeed after Ust Kut). The good news was the weather was definately on the improve. It was clear skies as we headed to bed, both suffering for over exposure to the sun.
– – –
The river was wider now. We had begun in Ust Kut and there Lenochka was 150 metres wide. The barge we were on could just turn around in the river. Something this size could not have gone much further upstream. Now, as we drifted past Korshunovo, it was at least 400 metres wide. While a look at the flat surface indicated serenity, the power and speed of the river was apparent only when we passed a navigation buoy. These things were being pummelled by the fast flow.
The morning was spiced up when an elk was spotted drinking by the shore. I reached for my camera, while the crew (100 yards back) reached for the tender dinghy and a rifle. The dinghy sped out to the elk and a single shot was heard.
Its not my cup of tea, but I refuse to pass negative judgement in situations like this. The people in the far north of Siberia dont hunt for sport. They kill for food. There are no cows or sheep or pigs or chickens up here. Its a way of life to hunt wildlife for food.
By midnight we had reached Vitim, where the large Vitim river joins the Lena. At Vitim the river was wider still, between 500 and 800 metres wide, and still flowing just as fast. It was still light at midnight and in reaching Vitim we had passed another timezone. Now 9 hrs ahead of London.
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The whole barge was still awake at 1am when we pulled in for the first stop of the trip, at Peledui. Tony and I were by now running low on supplies. We had not prepared adequately for the 3 day journey so I went ashore at Peledui to search for beer. It was twilight, but as dark as it was going to get. Mosquitoes were out in force. The boat was docked only for 30 minutes we were told, and a few intrepid drivers joined me for the walk along the streets in search of a cafe or shop. We found a cafe-bar place and was shocked by the prices. Its more expensive than Moscow here. I bought 2 bottles of beer, a litre of fruit juice and a large packet of crisps for 500 Rubles (about 12 EUR).
I returned to the barge just in time to see the gangway pulled up behind me. The Lena had been joined by a major tributary, the Vitim, and as we left the town of Peledui the River was notably larger … 1000 metres wide now, flowing just as fast as ever, and still 2900 km to its mouth. Huge ocean going ships could be seen from Vitim onwards, with registration details in latin script as well as the usual cyrillic.
We have been on the barge about 70 hrs now and are both looking pretty extreme ourselves. Tony is considering ways to shave … we could heat some water for shaving purposes. The onboard ‘facilities’ have been pretty grim. We piss overboard and so far have both held off on the need for anything more substantial.
We are over 60 degrees north now – poised for our big push up towards 66.7 degrees … the (arctic) polar circle. There are three continents that cross the polar circle and in 2 of them, Europe and North America, driving / riding to the polar circle is simply a matter of following the main roads north in Norway and Alaska … but in Asia there are no roads that cross the polar circle. We will have to ride across Tundra from the furtherest north we can find a road to … the mining town of Udachny.
I will post this update now, as our barge drifts into Lensk: the mighty Lena now 1500 metres wide.