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I woke up in the Ridder Gostinitsa (hotel) and realised that its time to go home. The daylight was shorter and shorter every day. The cold was always just around the corner. I had planned to end the trip in Goa, India, after crossing from Almaty to China and going over the Khunjerab pass to Pakistan, but some other commitments have come up and the idea of ending on the beach sipping cocktails will have to remain as a future plan rather than just being a month away.
I still do have to get to Almaty as it is my last tyre depo. I have a pair of Mefos waiting for me there – and I do miss my Mefos. They were going to get me to India, but now they will be my ticket back to Europe.
So the plan for today … spend the day in Ridder getting some niggles sorted. I had a couple more minor luggage rack breaks that needed re-welding (predictable aafter Mongolia). I wanted to try and find the air leak in the main fuel tank so that my second tank could be used again. I needed to get a front bracket made up for the front fairing as one had broken after the corrugations in Mongolia. But most importantly I needed a new gasket for the joint between the exhaust header and the Remus silencer (silencer is a funny word to use for a Remus). The gasket had blown out a day or two ago and not only did I have hot exhaust gas blowing all over my leg, but the noise of the bike was horrendously loud. Even with earplugs it was threatening to make me deaf.
I rode round to visit Andrei, the mechanic I had met here 4 months ago. He took one look, and a huge grin spread across his face as he recognised me. I spent a few hours at Andrei’s as he sorted most of the above list (including a gasket made from asbestos threads) and helped me with the others. At the end of the list, he predictably refused payment, so I shoved some cash in his pocket and told him I would surely see him again … sometime.
I got a text from Safran back in Poland. The Polish 4WD guys (www.syberia-mongolia.pl) we met on the BAM Road in Severomuisk (when we were nearly finished and they were just beginning) actually did the first half of the BAM road … they made it to Tynda and said it was the ultimate, the ‘Everest’ of dirt roads. These guys have done a lot of tough roads … they are Poles after all.
To be honest they surprised me. I didnt even think it was possible in a car at all with all the railway bridges etc. They have done incredibly well. I have to say my feelings on doing that road are similar. I have never felt such a sense of achievement as I felt as we pulled into Severobaikalsk. As I said when I wrote up that blog, I think that road is the benchmark, the standard bearer for tough roads. The remoteness, the bogs, the endless river crossings and the length of the thing. Its about 2000km to Tynda and over 4300km if you go all the way to Vanino. The endlessness of it is really morale draining – yet it drives you on – once you start there is no alternative. And the scenery is always fantastic. And the people you meet, perhaps because the environment there is so tough, are really super people – super kind and super generous.
And then of course, there is the Vitim River Bridge …
I will contact those Polish guys and start a Vitim River Bridge club … for those who know first hand what it is to cross that bridge! Even now, 6 weeks later, I am unable to put into words what its like to cross that bridge. Just thinking of it sends shivers up my spine. Thank god I am in simple old Kazakhstan and Mongolia these days.
When I look back at my own thoughts of that day, crossing that bridge, its like the mind had gone into automatic self-protection mode. You see it and the first reaction is ‘ …’ Then within 10-15 seconds the brain stops thinking about it and starts focussing on the tiny point 600 metres away that is the far bank. You start pushing and you never look down. And if you are lucky, like Terry and myself, you dont have a serious violent storm come along when you are halfway across the bridge. If you are less lucky (or have metal boxes on your bike) then hell may well visit you on that bridge.
– – –
I left Ridder with nice clean clothes. Sasha’s girlfriend had washed my stuff in their washing machine overnight. I didnt want to go direct to Almaty by any typical route. The plan was to try and avoid roads I had been on before on previous trips and earlier this trip. I started by heading to the local bookshop and buying their road atlas of Kazakhstan. It was pathetic. When you think how good western and even Russian road atlases are, the scarcity of road information in Kazakhstan is a bit of a joke. Earlier this year I had had Kazakh policemen stunned at the maps I had already of Kazakhstan (mostly Russian road maps published in Moscow that extended to Kazakhstan). They figured with such good maps of their country I must be a spy – until I convinced them I bought the maps at general bookstores in Moscow. For some reason Kazakhs obviously dont do good maps. Their national road atlas only emphasised that. If you want good maps of Kazakhstan, but them in Moscow, or at Stanfords.
Navigating was a real challenge. My half decent maps of Kazakhstan didnt cover this region and I had to rely of Garmin’s world map and the useless Road Atlas of Kazakhstan. I have long since given up on the Smelly Biker maps. They too are pretty much useless. I somehow had the idea that they were collated tracks, but they must instead just be stuff scanned in to a map making program. When i was using the smelly biker maps, not a single road I used was accurately represented. I had millions of rivers, but no more roads than Garmin’s world map – which at least allows different levels of detail and differentiates between towns and cities.
My lack of accurate maps at one point led to say “stuff it” to all sources, since they were all proving inaccurate, and I did 25 km direct across the steppe to pick up the main road again.
Sadly much of the repair work done in Ridder came unstuck. My asbestos gasket blew out after just 70km. The fuel tank air leak is much better, but not perfect. I had late lunch not far from Aksuat and by the time the sun went down I was out on the steppe about 60 km east of Ayagoz and decided that was as good a place as any to spend the night. Kazakhstan is the best country in the world for one thing … sunset pictures. Every sunset I have ever seen here is a photo opportunity. I wasnt going to waste todays sunset and chewed up the last remaining light snapping pics.
It had been a while since I camped, but here the weather was good, no rain threatening and no mosquitos. I went behind a small hill and in the now darkness (it was only just 6pm) erected the underused Khyam tent. I had enough in the laptop battery to keep me going for a couple of hours, but when the battery died, I closed up shop for the night and went to bed.
– – –
I slept poorly between midnight and 3am due to the cold. I knew it would be chilly on the steppe at night but this was freezing cold. Eventually I emerged from my sleeping bag to fumble around for my long socks, fleece jacket and fleece gloves. With these on I slept like a log till the sun streaming in at 7:30am fired me awake.
The bike and the tent were covered in thick frost. It had been well below zero at night. There was no point hanging around. There was no bacon and eggs or coffee headed my way sitting there in the tent so I packed up the gear and the tent, ate a bounty bar for breakfast and got underway.
In an ideal world I would have headed south over the steppe to pick up the next road I wanted to be on, but I was veryy low on fuel and had to head into Ayagoz to fuel up. Getting away from the main roads in KZ was a challenge in terms of fuel. Plenty of little towns every 30-40km or so, but none have fuel. I understand from talking to locals that there is usually someone in town who sells fuel from canisters, but its always expensive and a pain in the butt time wise. You can spend an hour trying to find the guy even in a small town. I tried late last night just before dark and gave up in frustration.
I looked for breakfast in Ayagoz while I was there but saw nothing appealing. It has little going for it – unless you are in the Kazakh Army. I thought of trying again at Shinkosha, the little village where my chain broke on the way up. The local shopkeeper had let me use his garage and tools to do a bodge repair. I might as well pass by and say hello, and grab a bounty or two from his place.
I turned off the main road at Shinkosha and tried my luck navigating in the sticks again. Non-existant road signs, non-existant roads and poor mapping made it tough. Again I reverted to direct cross country when in doubt. Eventually I made it to Makanchi and grabbed some lunch in the market. From there it was south towards the Chinese border and around the big lake Alakol.
I didnt realise what a massive lake it is. I was riding down the side of that lake from Makanchi to near Druzhba for the best part of three hours. When I emerged onto the Druzhba road and what I thought would be a speedy asphalt highway back towards Usharal I was shocked … shocked that this Druzhba road, the road of ‘friendship’ (beside the oil pipeline and train line of the same name) that was built to link the Soviet Union and China, was infact probably the worst piece of asphalt I had seen all trip, and possibly in my life. It took a lot longer than expected to get into Usharal and by the time I arrived it was 6pm and dark. I pulled into a petrol station to fill up and asked a passing cop where I might find a hotel. He directed me to one in the centre of town and I settled in for a night in a proper bed, warm shower and proper food.
– – –
Yesterday had been warm. Low 20s at the peak of the day. I had thought about stopping and stripping off at least two layers of clothes but instead had ridden with three layers (my riding jacket, goretex liner and softshell jacket) completely undone and flapping in the breeze. I would plan ahead today and ride without the goretex liner. It was warm and it hadnt rained on me since the road to Irkutsk.
I left Usharral and found a cafe by the roadside. I stupidly looked at the menu and asked for something from it, only to get the usual reply – ‘we dont have that’. How silly of me, I meant to ask ‘what have you got?’
I settled on a plate of plov and a cup of tea, and began to plan the day. It was 600km from here to Almaty and I decided no diversions today. I would stick to the main road and just get there. In any case, my front tyre was pretty much bald, and proving very unpleasant on the dirt roads. The tyre had just been one I had found in the tyre bin at the Irkutsk bike club. It was a Sahara 3 tyre, a type I am particulalry not fond of. It was 70% worn when I got it and it was clear some other bike traveller passing through had swapped their set of badly worn Sahara 3’s for my same sized slightly worn Mefos that were in the tyre trailer there. My Mefos had 60-70% left on them, and were there waiting for me to collect on my return. Does anyone know who stole my Mefos and left a pair of crappy Saharas? I still had one brand new Michelin Desert rear tyre in Irkutsk so at least I have had a decent rear tyre for the last 7000km, but the front had been problematical since Irkutsk and was now dangerously low.
The day began well and despite it being reasonably early and one layer of clothes down, I was not cold and had no need to plug in any of the heated gear.
Tragedy struck around 10km before Dzhansugir when I rounded a bend at a healthy clip and was met with a police officer waving his money stick at me. He showed me his brand new photo/radar device which had a crystal clear foto of me leaning nicely into the bend at 98 km/h. Hmm so I am 8 km/h over the speed limit I thought … hardly worth zapping me for is it guv? But he took my documents and made me ride back to look at the speed signs. There was a 50km/h sign posted just before the bend. When I returned the senior officer in the back of the car pointed to the section in his book that amounted to a 19250 tenge fine for such a violation … thats about 130 bux! I remembered my wallet was down to 6000 tenge and had been thinking this morning I needed to find an ATM at some stage today. With this lesser amount in my wallet, I decided to flop it out in front of the officer … flicking through my cash, I showed him all I had was 6000 tenge. He sighed and indicated I should leave it on the seat next to him. When I did that, he handed back my documents and I was back on my way.
What kind of country enforces speed signs on highway corners? I wasnt a happy lad as I pulled into Dzhansugir and searched for a ATM. When i finally found one, I put only a few thousand tenge in my wallet (just incase it happens again) and the rest in my pocket.
Fifty kilometres down the road and the engine splutters out and dies, just as I am passing through the town of Kyzylagash. I was out of fuel. I still had 3 litres in my spare canister and poured that into my tank and prepared to ride off. Only the engine wouldnt start. Turned over normally, but no spark. A russian looking young guy and his father approached and watched and listened. “Bad fuel” he said. Hmmm I regualrly rotated the reserve fuel into the main tank and then refilled the reserve fuel canister to avoid issues like that. So I didnt buy the bad fuel story, but there was no firing at all, but the engine kept turning over well on the starter.
The guys introduced themselves; they were Volga Germans, whose families had been exiled to Kazakhstan by Stalin during the war. There was no petrol station in town, but one of the local shops sold petrol in old plastic coke bottles and we had to try some fresh fuel. I pushed the bike to the store and the Volga Germans drove off to get something, saying they would meet me at the store. When I got there they arrives with a hose to syphon the tank out … I could have done that as I had a length of hose. As I was about to start siphoning into my 10 litre canister I had a quick look into the canister and all was suddenly clear. The fuel dregs in the canister (the same canister I just emptied into my fuel tank) clearly had 2 layers, a clear layer and a golden layer (Kazakh petrol is golden in colour). There had been water in the fuel, and now that water was at the bottom of my fuel tank and water going thru the fuel injector … thats why no spark.
How did water get into the canister? Some wise-ass must had done it last night. The bike was parked out the back of the hotel. I leave two side bags on the bike as they contain nothing important to a theif and I left the petrol canister on the bike. Stuff like this is so Kazakhstan. Never have any problems like this in Russia or even Mongolia, but in KZ, someone tries to prove he is better than you by putting water into your fuel canister. I am guessing he actually stole the fuel or most of the fuel (all 3 litres of it) and replaced it with water. I remembered on the Tokyo to London trip, James and I never had anything stolen in China, Mongolia or Russia, but countless times in Kazakhstan we had things pilfered.
I syphoned the tank dry, and discarded all the fuel, loading up the bike with fresh clean fuel from the village store. By now, having turned the bike over so many times, the battery was dead. I pulled out the jumper leads and the Volga Germans positioned their car so I could borrow a few dozen amps. I turned the engine over for a good 30 seconds as the water in the fuel lines was flushed out and finally the bike spluttered into action.
I thanked the Germans and we had a quick chat about my travels. When we came to the subject of traffic police hassles I swore in Russian extensively and mentioned they had stung me for 6000T earlier today. The Germans laughed at me and said ‘a foreigner on a motorcycle … ha you should not even bother stopping for them when they wave you over’. I made a note of that advice.
While I had been stopped sorting out the fuel problems in Kyzylagash there had been a change in the weather. Wind had picked up from nothing to almost gale force. The sky had changed from cloudless, to totally overcast. All in the space of less than an hour. As I pulled away towards Taldy Kurgan, rain was falling on the hills to my left and the temperature had turned notably chilly.
I stopped for a shashlik just south of Taldy Kurgan by a roadside vendor. It was lamb shashlik. Proper shashlik. And the first lamb shashlik I had eaten since leaving central asia. I dont know why it is, but in Russia, shashlik is always pork or chicken. Even when you go to a Kavkaz or Uzbek shashlik place in Russia it will be pork or chicken. Maybe lamb is just hard to come by in Russia.
Thirty km down the road and with me zooming over the hills to get through the light rain to the warmth oof a hotel in Almaty, and lo and behold, in the middle of a windy road a cop strides out wwaving his money stick at me. I dont even know what I am supposed to have done wrong. I began slowing down and remembered the advice the Volga Germans gave me. As I approached the cop waving his red baton, I startled him and made him jump back with a sharp opening of the throttle. I still had no exhaust gasket and a rapid blip of the trottle made a very loud noise indeed. I blasted away over the hills and wondered how accurate the Germans’ advice would prove.
I kept one eye on the rear view mirror, but no-one was following. At the speed I was doing over the wet windy roads, they would have to take some serious risks to catch the zippy X-Challenge. 20km down the road and there was another section bound to have more traffic cops (there were everywhere today and I was now getting good at guessing where they would hide). Sure enough I rounded a bend and there where I expected, was a cop car and a cop with his red money stick. I however was going nice and slow so the only reason he would pull me over was because his buddy down the road called ahead. But he didnt pull me over. They have their own localised revenue raising operations I guess. One towns traffic cop is not going to stop his own revenue collecting so that he can help his competitor in the next town save up for a new car faster than he can. The germans were right. No point stopping for unjust cops just trying to line their pockets.
I got into Almaty and headed straight for a hotel another biker had given me the co-ordinates for. I had been put up at my banker friends expense last time I was in town but didnt want to let them do that again. This time, I will check into a hotel, and then call them to say I have arrived.
The night was spent at a local bar with Marat, a local biker I knew from earlier, who runs Silk Off-Road … running bike tours around Kazakhstan.
– – –
The day began with lunch with Dauren, an old work colleague, who had my last change of tyres … the Mefos. I met with Marat in the afternoon and we went round to visit Volodya, the only guy in Kazakhstan who can balance motorcycle wheels. He fitted and balanced the Mefos, and then did a more thorough exhaust gasket repair, with asbestos cloth this time, rather than the asbestos string shoved in that we had tried in Ridder. I have confidence this repair will be more permanent. Volodya runs one of only two motorcycle shops in Almaty and should be able to sort me out with a new chain on Monday. The chain I have on now has 13000km on it, and was fitted on the BAM road soon after Tynda by the side of the track. I had gotten 19000 and 12000 out of the previous full life chains, so this one was probably on borrowed time. 2/3 of its 13000km have been dirt km. Marat had his tyres changed while we were there too and both rode off happy with the new tyres. The Mefos were like a dream. It felt like I had half the rolling resistance of the old tyres. It felt fast!.
I worked out a route back across KZ. I have crossed Central Asia to / from Almaty a couple of ways in the past and wanted to at least do a different route. I will head up direct from Almaty to the capital Astana and re-enter Russia somewhere near Kustenai.
The night in the cheap hotel in Tosontsengel had been a cold one and I had gone down to the bike to get my sleeping bag to help get through the night. There was no heating, no shower and the toilet was the outside squat. Not surprisingly, when the morning came, I just wanted to hit the road. I would find a shower tonight I guess. It was still below zero when I left the hotel soon after 9am, but the weather was in good form – there was not a cloud in sight.
I switched on my heated jacket and gloves and headed off through Zavhan. I was hoping to get to Uliastay by lunch and Altai by the end of the day – just under 400km. I knew I would be stopping often for photographs as the region had that rare combination of good light, good air, and appealing geography. I seem to have found a way to get vaguely acceptable shots from my non-focussing camera so the amazing opportunities are not completely wasted. But oh how I wish it was fully functional.
I was unlikely to meet any other motorcycle travellers today, unlike the previous 2 days, as I was effectively crossing from the northern to the southern route across Mongolia. I had tried to put together a track that took in the best of each route and left out the boring bits.
The track to Uliastay was not particularly exciting, but it was fast. I was over 100km/h on many sections and made it to Uliastay at midday. I stopped for fuel and a look around the market before hitting the road about 1pm. If I kept up the good pace, I should make Altai about 4pm. I started thinking about doing more miles after Altai and camping in the desert, but the need of a shower tempered that thought. Altai was the capital of its province so would have hotels with showers … and internet.
The part of Zavhan south of Uliastay was indeed the foto paradise I was looking for. The pics seemed not too bad, even if the focus is not 100% there.
The landscape was all set at around 1700-1800 metres with regular passes taking the track up thhrough 2500 metres. At that altitude, temperatures are a good 15-17 degrees colder than sea level. As had been the norm in Mongolia, it was cold in the morning, warmed up about 1-2pm and became cold again after 5-6pm.
It was 200km from Uliastay to Altai and I needed to make it with my 10 litre fuel tank. My super additional 12 litre tank has been un-serviceable since near Krasnoyarsk, through no fault of its own. It needs an airtight main fuel tank to work, as it draws fuel on the basis of the air pressure differential between the tanks. I have an airleak in the main fuel tank and so my reserve fuel does not get drawn through. I blew fuel through for the first few tanks, but it takes a half hour of blowing, and very sore cheeks to empty the reserve tank. I tried sealing it up with silicone, but also to no long lasting result. So instead I bought a spare 10 litre plastic canister on the outskirts of UB for 50p, and I have put 3 litres in that. So far I havent had to use it. So … can I get across Mongolia using just my 10 litre tank? Stay tuned!
Altai city came into view about 4:15 and I headed for the main post office, also home to the towns main internet service. I had planned to google hotels, and see what was popular with foreigners. There were a few that I passed on the way into town. As a general rule, I dont do guidebooks, as they tend to make people lazy and turn travel into a package tour, but I did regret having no information on Mongolian hotels. Fortunately I met a Canadian woman and her guide at the internet centre and she recommended the place she was staying at. Her guide gave me directions and 3 minutes later I had a home for the night.
– – –
I am getting into a routine … wake at 8, pack and try and be on the bike by 9. Add on refuelling and getting some food / water, and that translates to being on the road by about 9:30. And so I left Altai city at 9:30, right on schedule. I wanted to get to Hovd, 430 km away. It would probably be a long boring day. The interesting part of this route would come after Hovd – between Hovd and Olgiy – the Altai mountains, populated largely by Kazakhs. In between the town of Altai and the Altai Mountains near Hovd was the western end of the Gobi desert.
I was still determined to test the accuracy of my Mongolian road map and head off across the desert with just my 10 litres in the tank and a 3 litre reserve.
The road varied from nice graded gravel to miserable corrugations, but I found if you ride the corrugations at 90-100 km/h you seem to skim over the top of them. Ride at 60-70 km/h and the bike threatens to shake to pieces.
Soon after leaving Altai, the road dropped in altitude over 500 meters. I had been riding at 1700-2000 metres for most of the last 2 days, with runs up to 2500 metres for the passes. But as we entered the desert, the road dropped to 1300 metres, and the air became warm. So warm infact that by 10:15 I had switched off the heated vest and gloves. That had been something that had not been happening until about 1-2 pm the previous days.
I made it 215km to the halfway point, Darvi and refuelled (it was the first fuel available since leaving Altai). My fuel consumption was good. 4l/100km. So I would get 250 km out of a 10 litre tank. Hovd was 215 km further. I should make it. I pressed on.
The bottle of water I purchased had fallen off the bike somewhere and when I stopped for drink because my mouth was dry, there was no fluid to be found. I would have to go thirsty until Hovd. Better not break down then I guess.
I began thinking that since I was making such good pace, why not press on to Olgiy. There was supposed to be the annual Kazakh eagle festival there ending today. I might catch some leftovers if I am lucky. Olgiy was another 230 km beyond Hovd, over mountains the whole way. Darkness should come about 7pm … so it all depends on when I get to Hovd.
Hovd came into view as I crossed a pass about 3pm. It looked bigger than all the other regional centres in Mongolia. I was so early that not only could I press onto Olgiy, but I stopped to have some lunch … and a lot to drink.
I left Hovd at 4:15. I had less than 3 hours to do 230km, over rough Mongolian dirt roads and mountains. It was going to be tight. In times like these I treated the bike like a red-headed step-son – I cane the crap out of it. The track was sometimes smooth as silk and sometimes very rough gravel or just plain rocky. The bike took a hell of a beating but as usual, came out grinning. To make matters worse in terms of time, I kept stopping for photos. Along with Zavhan, this Altai mountain region was the other area I particularly wanted to see and photograph in Mongolia.
The town of Tolbo appeared 5-6 km away on the left just over half way to Olgiy. It had fuel. I decided to chance it and ignore Tolbo. I didnt want to commit the time to do an extra 12km and the bike should be fine on this stretch of 230 km. With just 30 km to go to Olgiy the sun dipped below the mountains. I had 30 mins of twilight left so would make it to Olgiy easily. But I couldnt ignore the light. The light was fantastic now that the sun was gone and the scenery worked really well with it. I made countless photos and each time went to all sorts of trouble to create tripods from rocks. I kept stopping all the way to Olgiy, the result being I still had about 12 km to go when I realised it was now totally dark. Well at least there would be no more photos.
With my twin HID50s illuminating the way, I flew across the grasslands at 70 km/h in the dark and as seemed to be the norm with Mongolian towns, you cross a small pass and then the town is lying in the valley floor below you. Olgiy was well lit up, probably for the eagle hunting festival thing.
I found a hotel in town and was about to settle in for the night when I heard english language voices down the corridor. It was a room full of Americans. I asked how was the Eagle festival, and they said it had been postponed a couple of days and started tomorrow. Cool! I am not really a festival guy, so I dont plan on hanging around Olgiy, but I might catch some characters around tomorrow morning as I leave town.
– – –
It was only 105km from Olgiy to the Russian border and I left as usual at 9:30. There was very little stirring in the streets as I rode around looking for action. I guess people wake later in Olgiy. The just on the outskirts of town I saw one. A proud Kazakh on his horse, his right arm weighed down with a massive hunting eagle. In a second I had killed my noisy bike engine and was pulling the Nikon from my tankbag. I rattled off a series of shots hoping there would be something useable in there. Sadly the background was pure “suburban Olgiy” and with the camera only operating on certain settings, the results were less than ideal. But better than nothing I guess.
I headed out across the Altai mountains towards the Russian border and the Altai republic. There are a whole bunch of Altais … the whole Altai region is spread across 4 countries, centred roughly where Kazakhstan, Russia, China and Mongolia meet in a near X shaped corner. I was in the Mongol Altai, heading for the Kazakh Altai, via the Russian Altai. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the Altai region is believed to be the original home of the Turkic peoples, so its not surprising that here in western Mongolia many of the people are not Mongol, but Kazakh and Tuvan, two Turkic nationalities.
I stopped on the outskirts of Olgiy to photograph a yurt suburb (yurt is the turkic word for what mongolic people call a ger – since I am now in Olgiy, where turkic is the predominant language group, I feel obliged to call the round white tent thing a ‘yurt’. As I was photographing the yurts, an old guy approached me with a smile and a ‘salaam aleikum’.
‘Aleikum asalaam’ I replied as it was brought home to me that I am (in theory) not really in Mongolia anymore, but the undefined land of ‘Altai’. I hit the road knowing that in 100km I would not even be in Mongolia – in fact.
At exactly 11am I rolled up to the Mongol border post. It was 4 days to the minute that I had left UB. I had rolled out of UB at 11am on Tuesday and now it was 11am on Saturday. It was time to do the border paperwork shuffle. As I waited there at this crossing between Altais, it occurred to me all 4 Altais have different times. Its 11am in the Mongolian Altai, 10am in the Russian Altai, 9am in the Kazakh Altai and midday in the Chinese Altai.
By 1pm Russian Altai time (2pm Mongolian time) I was through. It had been a 3 hour border crossing. About the longest of the trip to date. I didnt know where I was heading, but was just going to head as far up the M52 as I could get to before dark – about 6:30pm.
I stopped for fuel in Kosh Agach, having picked up the route Tony and I had ridden 4 months earlier. I had looked over to my right on the road into town and seen Korkorya and the valley that leads up to the Buguzin pass and Tuva way in the distance. It brought back a lot of memories – tough gritty memories.
180 km from the border and I stopped again in Aktash. I needed food, money and the bike needed a rinse after 2000 Mongolian kilometres since UB. Aktash was ideal. Tony and I had been marooned here for 36 hours waiting out rain and bad weather 4 months ago so we knew the town well. I knew where the ATM was, the best cafe in town and the only guy in town with a jet wash. I stocked up on cash, grabbed a couple of piroshki and headed over to ‘the presidents’ place, where Dima Medvedev recognised me immediately and shuffled me into his jet wash bay.
As he washed he was full of questions about where we had been the last 4 months. He was aghast at the answers. He looked at the bike and shook his head … “Its a very good motorcycle – a really really good motorcycle” he said in Russian.
I hadnt really thought about it, but since I last saw Dima, the bike had been across the highlands and swamps of Tuva, had gone from Irkutsk north to Udachny, across the Vilyuisky Trakt to Yakutsk, the Road of Bones to Magadan, the 4000 km BAM ‘track’, a second run north to Udachny and now across Mongolia …. 4 months and not a lot of asphalt to show for it. All of the above are dirt roads and tracks. 4 months of dirt roads, back to back, day in, day out. And dont nurse it one bit. I guess Dima was right … the bike had done a remarkable job.
I rode away from Aktash feeling prouder of my bike than I ever have been. Fuck yeah … its done a hell of a job. It was a big call taking a bike that had no pedigree in terms of long distance touring. But I wanted something different. I wanted something light. I wanted something powerful. I was back on asphalt now and apart from small stretches, would probably be on asphalt all the way back to London. The hard yards were done.
This little bike is a solid unit. I have done nothing to the engine but change the oil every 10,000km (full synthetic only for me), the filter every 20,000km, and changed the plugs once. I had the valves checked in Krasnoyarsk 5,000km ago for the first time since picking up the bike (when it had just 600km on the clock) and all the clearances were still within tolerances. Solid ! It doesnt get any lower maintenance than that.
Incredibly I had some sceptics question the engine prior to the trip as it is now made in Taiwan. Probably the same people who sniggered at Japanese engines in the 1980s, just as Honda were putting out the incredibly reliable Africa Twin and TransAlp engines.
My initial concern about front brake pads have disappeared. The first set had worn away in Eastern Europe after less than 7000km. So I stocked up and prepared to go thru dozens. I still have 3 full sets with me. I havent changed them in 3 months. That first set must have just been a dodgy batch.
The torque of the engine and the sandy riding have meant I am on my 4th front sprocket and chain, but then again I am up to 42,000km now on the trip. Incredibly, I am still on the original rear sprocket, and have long since thrown away the spare. Next trip I will try these lifetime guarantee Sidewinder titanium sprockets. I like the idea of a long trip without having to carry spare sprockets, apart from a change of size for the front.
Perhaps the biggest unsung hero on the bike for me, is the seat. I go for weeks on end without thinking about it and then suddenly realise the fact I havent thought about means its perfect. Quite literally perfect. When I get back to Holland I will get Ray to make a plaster mould of this seat because what he has done to this seat is utter perfection. Everyone with an X-Challenge NEEDS to have this seat – exactly like mine – because its absolutely perfect for every kind of riding.
I was on a high filled with this burst of pride in my machine, and the miles rolled by quickly. The scenery was very different from 4 months ago. Then it was green and lush, now without the colour, it seemed more stark. Looking from the opposite direction is always a different view too.
By 6pm the border was almost 500km behind me. I was not far from Gorno Altaisk, where I could probably find a hotel, but there were loads of low key places to stay by the roadside, backing onto the Katun river. I checked out a couple and found one to call home for the night. A family on vacation having a barbeque at the same place insisted on feeding me. Barbequed chicken wings and pork shops done to perfection. After 10 days in Mongolia it was a heavenly change.
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I woke up prepared for a big push on to the Kazakh border. The second border crossing in 2 days. But something stuck in my head. Everyone last night from my fellow guests to the owners of the hotel were telling me I had to see Lake Teletskoye. Its 150 km east of Gorno Altaisk and apparently a real highlight of the region. Bearing in mind how scenic the Altai Republic is in general, a place thats a real highlight here must be really quite nice. I decided to ride up Gorno Altaisk, and see how the weather was holding out. If it was OK, I would go to Lake Teletskoye, but if rain was possible, then I just make a B-line for the KZ border.
I got to Gorno Altaisk and the weather looked ok … So Teletskoye it was. The road left Gorno Altaisk and weaved its asphalted way though dense forests and hills. I can imagine in summer, when the trees are green and have leaves, that this must be a spectacularly beautiful road. It took over 2 hours to do the 150km, but it was pleasant all the way. I got to the village of Artibash on the shores of the lake and after some inital difficulties, found a hotel room for the night. It was a good chance to catch up on writing and sorting fotos, with the pretty lake right outside the window.
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I had to get an early start as I now had to backtrack 2½ hours just to get back to Gorno Altaisk. From there it was 500km and about 6 hours on back roads through the Altai Krai to get to the border near Zmeinogorsk. Sadly, my hopes for an early start didnt plan out well as I discovered I had a flat battery. So, after digging out my jumper leads and flagging down a friendly local, I was underway. I refuelled at Artibash and hit the road about 9am. So far my little 10 litre tank was doing the job. It had got me across Mongolia. Stopping to refuel every 2 hours or so was a pain. The bike and I both were used to riding all day without refuelling. Each fuel stop just chewed up time and miles out of the day.
The route I was taking back was deliberately different to the route I took coming out. The back roads of the Altai are definately worth exploring and there is more than one interesting route. I crossed the Katun river about 10km south of Gorno Altaisk (after refuelling again), at the village of Aya (over a very cool suspension bridge), and headed west.
Once crossing the river I was in the Altai Krai, which in reality is very Russian. On the way out Tony and I had taken back roads through the Altai Republic, through villages that were completely Altai. The roads through the Krai were almost all asphalted, whereas the backroads we had taken through the Republic were largely dirt. The next stop was the town of Petropavlovskoye, where I had met Tony 4 months ago. I refuelled again and continued, now following the route I had taken earlier.
I was making excellent time and was looking like I would hit the border about 5:15pm when a jerk on the motorcycle and a change in the wind noise indicated we had a problem. I looked around and saw one of my Ortlieb side paniers rolling down the road beside me. It had snapped clean off. My first thoughts on seeing the bag bouncing down the asphalt at 80km/h were ‘oh fuck, whats going to be broken in there?’ Calm returned when I realised it was just spare sparts and camping mattress.
I pulled over, retrieved the bag and began my investigation. It appears that a loose strap from the bag had fallen down and got wrapped around the rear axle at 100km/h, resulting in the bag ripping off. Loose straps are a nightmare. That was the second time onthe trip sommething like that had happened. I must learn to cut them rather than try to secure the full length. This strap had been tied in a knot around the luggage rack but I guess given enough time and enough vibrations and …. whats that old maxim of evolutionary science?? … “Its irrelevant how improbable an event is – given enough time, it becomes inevitable.”
So 40 minutes later I was back on the road. My side bags now strapped firm to my luggage rack, rather than resting over it. The only damage to my contents was the breaking off of the nozzle of the chain lube can, and some ‘discharge’ from same in my pannier bag. I could live with that.
I headed off towards Zmeinogorsk at great haste, trying to make up time. It would be dark by 7pm Russian time and I would now only get to the border about 6pm. Then of course there was the border crossing itself. That too would take some hours. On the other side, I would try and get to Ridder (Leninogorsk) where I had some friends from the way out.
I refuelled for the last time in Russia and while zipping through traffic in Zmeinogorsk focussed solely on that border 40km away I was caught out. Overtaking in towns is a big no-no in Russia … especially around pedestrian crossings, and especially overa solid white line in the middle. The GAI (traffic police) pulled me over and this time I had no complaints. I was guilty.
I played my only card … the dumb foreigner look, feigning poor russian. I was pulled into the back of the jeep and told they can take away my licence for 6 months. As it happens, I know they cant to this with foreign licences. Only the British government can cancel a British Driving Licence. So I just kept apologising and otherwise playing dumb. I think in the end the idea of processing the paperwork for a foreigner put them off and I got off with a very stern talking to. As a parting thought, once the stern faces were done with, they smiled and asked if I could offer them any souvenirs by way of apology. As it happens I could. I had some union jack badges in my tankbag and happily fished out three for the good officers of the Zmeinogorsk GAI.
After that let off, I pulled away gingerly and cruised gently through town. They could have detained me for hours, or at the minimum extracted a thousand rubles (or a lot more) out of me, but I had been lucky. Guilty as sin, and just a stern talking to and a 15 minute delay.
I finally made the border at 6:15. The Russians were super friendly and confirmed this is THE spot to cross the Russia – Kazakh border. Literally 10 minutes and I was through the Russian side. No exaggeration … TEN minutes. It was a 5 minute ride across no-mans-land to the Kazakh post and I arrived there at 6:30 – or rather 5:30 Kazakh time. The sun was now setting. I would be riding the 170km to Ridder in the dark.
The Kazakhs were also pretty laid back, but entering a country requires more paperwork than leaving, and one customs guy decided he needed to inspect 3 of my 4 bags. That was a waste of 20 minutes. Still, I was through the Kazakh post in 45 minutes. The whole border done in an hour. Thats a record for me … a proper border crossing down in an hour.
I headed off for Shemonaikha at 6:15 KZ time with headlights blazing. With the sun down it was now cooling rapidly. I pulled in to refuel and dug out some Kazakh Tenge I had stashed away in reserve when I last left the country from the same border point 4 months ago.
By 8:45 I had made it to Ridder, and pulled out my phone to call Sasha and Zhenya, but the phone battery was dead. Damn. I was cold. I pulled into a nearby hotel, plugged the phone into a wall socket and called. Damn again … they were away for a day or two in Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk). So I just unloaded my gear into the hotel and called it a night. I had ridden over 800km today, the biggest day of the trip so far … and that included a border crossing.
It was a tiring way to finish the Altais … Mongolian Altai to Russian Altai and on to the Kazakh Altai. It got me thinking, one of these days I need to ride the Chinese Altai and finish the 4 Altais.
… maybe a project for next year …