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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.
Terry had asked to take a day off to have a bit of a look around Lake Baikal and I was in no mood to disagree. We decided to take a ride down to the seal hunting village of Baikalskoye 40km to the south, sort out anything that needed sorting and generally have a relaxed day. The weather was awesome. Sure it was bloody cold prior to about 11am, but clear blue cloudless skies cheered us up. It was the first cloudless day since meeting Terry … he must be bad luck!
My bike wouldnt start, so Tony went into the centre of Severobaikalsk to sort out breakfast, while Terry and I started the time old process of checking if we are getting spark, if so, are we getting fuel? It turned out we were not getting fuel. A connection was loose to the fuel pump. Once diagnosed, and the connection jiggled around a bit, all was well and the bike reassembled just in time to enjoy a greasy take away breakfast.
We rode about 10km out of town and found a deserted stretch of lakeshore to chill out on. There was plenty of deserted beach, but we chose a nice grassy spot. Mosquito free, midge free, ant free … it was heavenly and the boys both soon drifted off to sleep. Must be an age thing. I began to daydream about everything from changes taking place back at home in London to people we met or crossed paths with on our recent travels.
I have since heard (see feedback in various blogs) from two other bikers I had sought … one was the mystery solo biker that passed through the Kyubeme fuel dump about a week before Tony and me … he indeed was a Pole, as we suspected. Marek Grzywna – his blog is at http://syberianexpress-majopl.blogspot.com.
And of course the two Poles whose route (and accomodation) we echoed from Vanino to Fevralsk with uncanny commonality – even sleeping in the same room (totally unintentional) for about 3 different evenings – I have since heard from Robert ‘Movistar’ Mamzer, who was one of those guys. We had such common experiences that its now my duty to have a beer with him!
I wondered what happened to the American on the red bike (Olyokma River Bridge) … by way of an update on this one, I had also spoken to the security guy at the Kuanda River Bridge. That was another bridge that anyone taking the BAM road must cross. He remembered the Americans (plural … 2 of them he recalled), but they had taken a flatbed train at least as far as Chara. So they hadnt ridden the whole road to Tynda? and maybe he/they had also skipped the mighty Vitim River Bridge – that cradle of manliness! I still need to learn more. Its the only loose end in terms of contacts. Does anyone know who this guy is?
In Baikalskoye, we grabbed an ice-cream each and headed down to the jetty, taking in the cloudless blue sky and crystal clear waters of Lake Baikal. Eventually it was time to head back to Severobaikalsk. I needed to find a place to upload some long overdue pictures for the blog and Tony hadnt checked his email in weeks. Terry is a bit of a luddite, so no problem for him. He just sat out sunning himself in Severobaikalsk’s central square.
When all was done, we stopped off at the market for a huge and tasty dinner of shashlik – long one of my favorites, and now one of Terry’s favorites too, before grabbing a few beers and heading back to the hotel to pack.
With the hard riding all behind us now, we re-arranged the loads. We would soon be parting ways and now as as good a time as any to make sure the right stuff was on the right bike.
- – -
Another nice sleep in and warm shower to start the day. This civilisation stuff can really grow on you – makes us wonder why we ever headed out into the real wilds of Siberia. Today would be a relatively short ride – 340km on prepared roads. A mere 6 hours or so. We left Severobaikalsk around 10:30. By 1pm we were passing the point where the Zhigalovo Road meets the BAM road … a point Tony and I got to exactly 2 months ago to the day, on our way up to Yakutia.
It was strange to ride a road that felt familiar. Almost every point in the road gave me flashbacks to 2 months ago. Its incredible how much data can be stored in the brain … all HD quality video replays from 2 months ago came flooding back. We stopped in at the same railway canteen at Magistralny for lunch.
Tony had been complaining of a soggy rear end … I pointed out he was of pensionable age so it was par for the course. He however wanted to look at his tyre pressures and wheel bearings … before realising his rear wheel axle nut was loose. Phew!, at least thats easy to fix.
Onwards and upwards to Ust Kut … about 3:30pm we passed the spot that was total and utter muddy bog 2 months ago. In the cloudless blue sunny skies of today, riding it now was a doddle. It was almost dry. But it was still easy to imagine how it would look after a days rain!
In the final few dozen kilometres into Ust Kut, Tony had flashbacks to Yakutia and his 15 punctures. He had two rear wheel punctures, to add to one he scored last night. All up he is now up to 18 punctures. I think there is a good chance he can get 20 by the time he gets back to Denham Village in west London. I had already arrived in Ust Kut and sat in front of the hotel eating shashlik in the sun. Eventually the two stragglers arrived and checked into the hotel.
There was only 700km of the 4280km BAM road to go. Just over a days ride to Taishet and the end of the line.
At 7:30 am my alarm went off. We had an agreement to meet the young chaps who rented us the apartment and the garage on the other side of town at 8am. We had a few things to sort out before we hit the road; Tony his battery, and my rear mousse had just died, so I needed to get it out and get a tube in the back wheel.
But 8am came and went… as did 8:30, 9:00 and 9:30. I repeatedly called the only number I had for the guys but the number was not answering. This was a bit wierd, but finally at 9:45 someone came to get us. So much for getting an early start. We grabbed all our things and jumped in the car, which took us back to the garage. We got our bikes out and the driver then took me round the corner to the one guy in town who sold petrol. There is no petrol station in Yuktali, a town of 2500 people, but there is a guy who sells it from his yard.
We went back and packed up the bikes, said goodbye to our lift for the morning and then rode the bikes round to the petrol man, Yura. I had been given his number the previous night and tried to call him but ended up having a difficult conversation so thought I would leave it till the morning. The guy, Yura, remembered me from the strange phone conversation and was very apologetic. He asked what grade of fuel we required and then began pouring fuel into the bikes from 20 litre canisters.
While this was going on, Yura’s lady friend Tatiana took a shine to Terry and was showering him with presents for the road. Tatiana spoke a little english and caome out to the region in the 70s when the BAM was being built. She gave us homemade blueberry jam, and some other little souvenirs. She also bandaged up a raw burn on my finger.
After all the fuelling and fussing, we said farewell to Yura and Tatiana and headed back to the centre of town, as Tony needed to buy water for his battery, and the concrete slabs around there would help me get the bike up and the back wheel off.
Terry gave me a hand and we pulled out the rear mousse. I saw why it was knackered. It was ripped open. I didnt realise it by there is actually a tube of air inside the mousse. I assumed it was a solid aerated rubber mass, but it actually is hollow, though the mousse is an inch thick. The ripped mousse meant there was no air pressure in the central tube and the mousse wasnt functioning properly. We put in a tube and got the show back on the road.
It was 12:30 by the time we left Yuktali … hardly ideal and Terry in particular was keen to get the miles done. Barely an hour out of Yuktali and with 27km done, we ran iinto a brick wall. The path crossed the Olyokma River and the river was huge – 500+ metres wide, deep and fast flowing. There was only one bridge, the rail bridge. There was clearly no option so we backtracked a few hundred yards where a track led up to a signalman’s hut by the side of the track.
To our pleasant surprise, the signalman indicated we should use the bridge, but that he had to get permission from his boss first. He called but the boss wasnt around. It was a saturday and he was probably at his dacha picking potatoes. We had no choice but to wait.
I spoke to the old guy about people who came by and he said that there had been another person across recently by motorcycle: An american guy who spoke ok Russian, but with a thick accent, alone, riding a red motorcycle came over from the other side (riding west to east) a week – week and a half ago.
Who is this man?
Eventually, about 3pm, we got the permission from the boss man and we began to go across … Tony went first. But the rail man was not happy tho. He wanted us across and out of the way as soon as possible. Tony, who had earlier carried his panniers over, was riding cautionsly and slowly and missed seeing the old rail man waving his arms to hurry up. After Tony made it over, the rail man stopped Terry and I, saying we cant be so slow. He made us wait while he called a nearby signaller to check for trains, before telling us to go quickly, as there was a train in 5 minutes or so. Terry and I zoomed over the narrow walkway as fast as we dared, clipping the odd pylons with our soft luggage. Eventually we were all over, Tony put his bike back together and we got on with the riding.
By now we were riding mostly along the rail embankment. Often there was fresh areas of ballast neatly spread over the full width of the embankment and we had to do plenty of ballast riding, sometimes skimming the surface of more compackted ballast, and sinking in like sand on newer ballast. On the newer ballast, there was curiously only one mark in the fresh flat surface … another motorcycle trail. Was this our mysterious solo American on the red bike?
There were two more rail bridges we needed to take today. Each one takes time as we need to work out what side of the bridge we need to cross on to end up on the embankment on the other side. We need to find a path up to the embankment, and Tony needs to remove his metal panniers and carry them across.
On the first of these additional rail bridge crossings, Terry and I had gone over while Tony carried his bags over. Then we waited for Tony. he took 10 minutes to climb onto his bike and wwe were wondering what the hell he was doing over there. When Tony finally crossed on his bike, he got barely a third of the way over when we heard a train coming. Terry and I jumped out and began yelling and waving at Tony that a train was coming. But Tony was 200 yards away, didnt understand us and just waved back. The train came and Terry and I just closed our eyes and hoped Tony would be OK.
It was a big long freight train and made one hell of a noise as it thundered past for several minutes. I didnt hear any crashing or smashing sound so assumed Tony was OK. After the train had passed we saw his headlight peeking out from one of the many parapets along the walkway. He gingerly continued his way over the bridge again and we all expressed countless expletives. Terry and I wondering why he had taken so long to cross. (boot adjustment)
We again hit the road and got barely 15 km more down the road before we needed another rail bridge. We turned round to find a track to the embankment. Tony had been slower turning round and must have missed where we turned off the road to make our way to the embankment. We lost contact and it took over an hour for the threesome to find each other and re-unite. By now it was almost 7pm and we decided to get across this rail bridge and begin looking for a place to spend the night.
We made good time after crossing the bridge and quickly racked up 25 more kilometres on the railway embankment. I stopped at kilometre post 1969 (the year of my birth) for a few fotos and noticed my headstock, the Touratech frame and fairing for the front of the bike that held a lot of my electrics, headlights etc was barely still on. It had cracked through on one side completely and was flapping from side to side on the one small piece of metal still holding it on. Ironically Touratech include a strengthening bracket in the kit for heavy duty use, but I didnt use it as I didnt think my needs were heavy duty enough … apparently they are!.
We did another half a dozen kilometres before spotting an ideal railway hut not far from the 1962 KM post and we decided to call it a night there.
The hut was neater than similar ones we had seen and we settled in for our second evening in a BAM railway maintenance workers hut. The huts near here are every 2 or 3 km apart, have a fireplace and a table in them. This one also had some dry newspaper and a small axe for chopping wood. Dinner was powdered mash potato, Tatiana’s blueberry jam and coffee. It was simple and primitive, but we didnt exactly have a lot of choice. At least with a fire going, it was warm.
- – -
The earliest start since Terry joined the program saw the Sibirsky Extreme Project hit the road by about 8:30. We were in an obstacle overcoming mood (since we were already filthy) and we plunged through the rivers, and freezing fog reaching Olyokma 30km later. The last few kilometres into Olyokma was in reasonable condition and even sported a large, non-rotting road bridge. A rarity in these parts!. We stopped for almost an hour while we stocked up on food, drink, warmth and phone charging sockets. When we emerged from the shop to continue the journey, the sun had just burnt through the cold fog and we could continue in sunshine. It was now 11am.
From Olyokma to Khani the road was a different beast. It had been tamed, civilised. On this 55km stretch, all bridgees were in place and serviceable. Our feet didnt need to get wet – or rather didnt need to get any wetter than they already were.
We had done so many water crossings by now, hundreds in fact – many involving pre wading, that
the boots were now permanently wet. Seal skin socks now had holes in them and Terry was concerned we would soon get ‘trenchfoot’. Tony’s waterproof non-stitched boots had delaminated, and his soles flapped about like slippers. Every rush through water split them further. They were now taped up with duct tape.
Khani came up about 1pm. It was a fresh looking town, compared to others we had seen and we agreed to stop and do some repairs. Incredibly, the bodge on my headstock had lasted, but it was on borrowed time. I needed to fix that with metal, and Terry needed to change his front sprocket. He still had his standard issue one one and kept on putting off changing it on the grounds that things should get easier ahead. It was time to save what was left of the standard sprocket for the asphalt roads on the ride home. For now, he needed the lower gearing.
I set about asking some youngsters gathered in the centre of town where I might find an argon welder to weld the alloy headstock. Sadly there was no argon welder in Khani, but they directed me to a chap doing some steel welding. He took a look at it, refused to listen to me that the headstock was alloy (insisting it was steel) and tried to weld it. 10 unsuccessful minutes later, and now with big pits of metal missing from my alloywork, he shrugged his shoulders and gave up.
A local guy who had come to the centre of town to buy beer agreed with my idea of a solution, a steel bracing piece and told me to follow him to his premises. Rim was a local handyman type guy who lived on a dacha on the edge of town. He had been working there with his son sorting out a second hand car. Both dropped everything to tackle this exciting new project … securing my front fairing and framework.
Rim and his son Slava worked for a good couple of hours, and had almost finished a very comprehensive bandage job by 4pm when it was time to send for Tony and Terry. Rim had obviously by now decided that this foreigner wasnt just an interesting metalwork project, he was also a decent enough guy. Might as well invite him and his mates to stay overnight. Tony and Terry arrived and were greeted with home made Pizza and an offer of a hot shower.
A little space is required here to explain the luxury of a hot shower in extreme Siberia. Rim had cold water at his dacha piped from the towns water supply. Into the shower house went the cold water. A branch of it fed through a home made wood fired boiler, made from a gas cylinder, with a small fire underneath it. It was home made, it was simple and it worked perfectly. You cant even imagine things like this in Europe, where regulations stifle everything, but in Siberia, home-made solutions rule. All three of us showered and came out for beer and pizza, while Rim and Slava finished up the metalwork. Slava had to shoot off to work on the railway, and we spent a lovely evening with a truly lovely family from Khani.
It has become increasingly apparent as this BAM leg of the project continues on, that this leg above all is about the amazing hospitality and interactions we have had with local people. The leg has been almost alternating nights of utter harshness, deserted railway cabins, soaking wet miserable evenings, broken with fantastic hospitality when we reach a town. I think back to the fantastic guys in Komsomolsk, Igor and Noi in Gerbi, the dudes of Etyrken, the forest guys at Isa, and now Rim and family in Khani … people who have not just taken us in, but showered us with food, hospitality, and donated time in abundance to help with motorcycle repairs when necessary.
- – -
We left Khani refreshed, knowing the bikes were as good as they were going to be. My front end was now rock solid and Terry had his smaller gearing on the bike. What we didnt know was the condition of the road to Chara. In typical Russian style, questions about the road ahead are met with very vague answers with lots of swearing and talk that its very very bad. We kinda know its very bad, we have ridden thousands of kilometres of it already. What we need to know is; is it better or worse than the bit we have just done.
Sadly it was worse. The bit we had done had all bridges in tact. Less than an hour and 30km out of Khani and we came a cross a large bridge out. There was only one solution for it, a long trek along a shallow but very rocky river. The boots, socks and pants we had dried out meticulously at Rim’s were all going to get wet.
Riverbeds in Siberia had almost always been rocky. It meant getting bogged was less of an issue, but losing balance and falling into the water was high on the list of probabilities. There is an optimum speed for each size of rocks, but occasionally there are nasty surprises … large boulders punctuating a riverbed of otherwise fist sized stones. Crossing was always a risk of getting wet. Terry and I typically tried to blast through, using momentum and power as allies, while Tony picked his way through stone by stone. Different strokes for different folks.
The road to Chara was about 140km but we knocked it off in three and a half hours … pretty good going considering the state of the bridges in this section. Before heading into New Chara for lunch, we had to fuel up, and the regional fuel depot is at Stary (old) Chara, 17km away by asphalt road.
One thing that had been apparent on the more challenging roads, was the fuel economy of the BMWs. As it was with Tadjikistan, when the going got tough and more and more time was spent in low gears, the more advanced fuel injection on the Beemers stood out a mile. There was probably 5-10% better fuel economy out on normal roads compared with Terry’s Yamaha, but on the miserable stuff, with several days tough riding between fuel stops, the BMWs were using 20% less fuel. When Terry bought 17 litres, we bought 14. When Terry bought 21 litres, we bought 17. Its not a question of the economics of it out here, its a question of range and weight. We were putting in 3-4 kgs less weight into the bike each stop, and could go for 80-100km further, when we all had a total fuel capacity of 22 litres. The Yamaha is also a 650cc ish fuel injected single engine (same as the Tenere) with the same sort of horsepower, and overall including luggage, Terry’s bike is 30-40 kgs lighter than Tony’s, yet the economy of the BMW/Rotax engine comes out as the mutts nuts.
We returned to Novy (new) Chara and found a superb cafe opposite the station. it wasnt the setting of course – they are all dark and dingy – but the food. The best stolovaya (canteen) food I have had in months.
By 2:15 we were ready to move, having eaten our fill. It was too early to pull up stumps for the night so we prepared to head on down the road. Only the next town was Kuanda, 150km down the road. It was a gamble, a risk we would nott make it and get caught in the middle of nowhere, but we had to take it.
The scenery after Chara was particularly easy on the eyes. In fact ever since Khani the scenery had been really spectacular. Here we entered a particularly sandy stretch with impressive mountain ranges on the north side of the road / track. About 75km west of Chara we reached a lake district of sorts. Steep green mountainsides, littered with waterfalls that led down to picturesque lakes was where we found ourselves. the air and water were crystal clean. If this was Europe, the land would be worth squillions, but it was Siberia and was deserted.
Bridges were dodgy and again it was an afternoon of considerable water crossings. Each water crossing added to delays. I have long ago lost count of how many pretty bridges, complete or broken we have crossed or skirted on this BAM road … several hundred. I probably take the time to photograph 1 in 7 or 8. The difficult crossings and bogs never get photographed as I am always totally focussed on just getting through.
Rain began pouring down as we approached the golden spike where the BAM tracks first were joined in 1984. We sheltered in a railway hut for half an hour while the storm blew over, then took off again alongside the railway tracks down a very steep hill. We past a train really huffing and puffing on its way up. Our railside track down was smooth and fast, but at the bottom we hit another mile or so of ballast riding. Tony had not adapted to riding in loose scree and struggled, just as the rain came down. Terry and I ran for shelter in a nearby station (Barvukha) for rail staff only and the rain bucketed down.
Tony finally approached the station as the rains eased, but within sight of the station, veered off the good line and up onto the edge of the track, bobbing up and down as he rode on the edge of the sleepers, ultimately falling onto the track. Terry and I mounted our bikes and zoomed down to help Tony clear his bike from the track before a train cleaned it up and then I returned to talk to the station mistress who had some advice for the road ahead to Kuanda. We needed to take the road rather than the rail embankment she felt and then 8km before Kuanda we get to a river where there is no road crossing … only the rail bridge. The rail bridge has security, so we would need to talk to the security to see if we can get let across.
It was still 40km to Kuanda and was by now slowing getting dark, and of course still raining. I wanted to press on to a Hotel as I was totally saturated through and through, but Tony and Terry did not want to ride in the dark, so we agreed to look for a hut. We rode on down the rail embankment till we saw a suitable crossing point, crossed the tracks and then continued up the potholed road in now near darkness. After 10km or so we came across an abandoned building jammed into the 8 yards between the road and the rail track and in darkness decided that this would be our home for the night.
The building was a concrete place that seemed to have been built for the railway, but had now been trashed. Every square inch of floor was covered in broken bits of timber and plasterboard. We lit up a fire, cleared some space to sleep and cook and feasted while the rain poured down outside, and the BAM freight trains thundered by just 2-3 metres from the building.
We had slept in some dodgy, dirty, tiny buildings on this BAM journey, but this one takes the biscuit. It was the first wreck of a building and had obviously been used by train drivers as a place to take a dump from time to time. Fortunately no time recently. We got to sleep about 1am.
- – -
the day started with a fire. The fire last night had gone some way to drying our saturated clothing, but more was needed. Besides, the siberian nights were beginning to get cold indeed. Daytimes were still fine, but the early mornings were very chilly. The fire helped sort all of the above issues. Thanks to the fire and the need to warm up, (and the difficulty packing up and getting dressed in a shell of a building with broken plasterboard everywhere) we didnt get going until 10:30.
The first stop, and it came up within 20 km, was the Kuanda River Bridge. We had been told by the lady in the station late yesterday that its the onyl way across the river, as the river is too deep, and the road bridge is out. Well we could now see the road bridge was totally out, so all we had to do was get permission from the bridge security guy.
This chap was not a happy camper. He was angry that we had even walked across his bridge to talk to him. I explained our plight and he said he needed to talk to the boss. It was now 11:30.
I waited, and waited and waited ….. and waited and waited … and waited and finally at 14:45, the promised big cheese from Kuanda, had a few words with us and let us cross the bridge in exchange for a present for the bosses wife. It was almost 3pm before we were underway. We had done just 20km so far today. I wanted to get to Taksimo. We had some miles to do. 8km later and we arrived on asphalt. This was the road around the edge of Kuanda. It has asphalt because Kuanda was tarted up for the celebration of the completion of the BAM rail laying in 1984.
We didnt stop in Kuanda, they dont have fuel there anyway and we needed to do the 100 km to Taksimo ASAP … the biggest obstacle ahead was the Vitim River – the biggest river we will have crossed since the Amur. The Vitim was just under 40 km from Kuanda and we made to the beast about 4:10.
I was immediatelly awestruck. The sight before me was enough to make grown men go weak at the knees. The muddy trail we had been following suddenly crested out and ahead of us was a bone chilling sight – the Vitim River Bridge. The Vitim river here was over half a kilometre wide. It was flowing at a ferocious rate of knots. Never in my life have I seen such a huge body of water moving so fast. The water temperature was probably about 2 degrees C. The sight of this awesome river itself could make a man’s jaw drop.
And then there was the bridge … or rather THE bridge. There can be few if any bridges anywhere in the world to compare with this one for terrifying intimidation and fear generation. Fifteen metres (50 feet) above the freezing swirling Vitim was a very narrow strip of roadway made of railway sleepers and odd strips of timber. The roadway was barely 2 metres wide, very uneven, and 15 metres above certain death. There was perhaps one chance in 100 that you would survive a fall into that river, laden down in motorcycle gear.
It was clear that we cant ride it. One slip on the controls, one tyre catching the side of a plank and its curtains. The only option was to push the bikes over. Terry didnt want to think about it and just started walking his bike across the bridge without looking down. I am a hard man to faze, but I was weak at the knees and my whole upper body was tense. I tried not to look at anything but the edge-less roadway and also began pushing. With almost twice the luggage as Terry, my bike was more top heavy, but a similar overall weight due to the lighter basic bike. But Tony had the combined weight of the heaviest bike and the heaviest luggage. This, having to push a bike over half a kilometre over a narrow frightening platform, was the wages of heavy steel boxes.
Terry was flying across. Perhaps 15 minutes was all it took him. I was still only about 60% of the way over when I saw Terry’s bike park off to the side of the embankment. I looked behind me and saw Tony struggling perhaps only 20% of the way across. ‘Those damn boxes could kill him’ I thought. I was in no position to do anything. My upper arms were burning and I was beginning to feel light headed. I stopped for a minute or two. This was no place to feel faint. The uneven sleepers made it impossible to put my sidestand down and even as I rested I needed to balance the bike. I continued on, over a raised expansion hump. I fired the bike up and power walked it over the 30 cm rise. The energy to push it up the hump wasnt there.
I stopped to take in the view and see where I was. I should nt have taken in the view. I was still very high above the icy swirling waters on a rickety platform of wet, oily timber. I was now 80% of the way. I saw Terry smiling 120 metres ahead, and Tony still just a faint dot hundreds and hundreds of metres behind. I wondered if he had even moved since I last looked.
Finally, with triceps about to give up on me, I was just 20 yards from the west bank and Terry came out brandishing a camera to take a few snaps and then help push me the last few yards. I parked up the bike and looked back at the bridge. I felt an amazing sense of achievement just for having made it across that bridge. Anyone who has crossed that bridge is worthy, truly worthy. I want to shake the hand of anyone who has pushed a bike (or ridden) across that bridge. That bridge is truly Sibirsky Extreme.
I was humbled and exhausted by that crossing. The scale and power of the river was so intimidating. I cant put it into words, the sense of relief at having made it over. I almost collapsed with exhaustion, as much from nervous tension as the physical effort I imagine. Before I had much of a chance to take stock of where Tony was, Terry yelled out to grab my clothes, which I had strewn over my bike so I could cool down, as a storm was on the way.
I grabbed my things and we ran under the bridge as the storm moved in at 50 km/h. The rainfront sped across the river and drenched me as I ran to join Terry beneath the bridge. Within 30 seconds we had gone from good light and high cloud to low cloud dumping rain. More of nature humiliating us. The skies were almost black within another minute or so and in the near black skies I saw a huge bolt of lightning smash into the railway bridge. 3 seconds later probably the loudest thunder crash I had ever heard. I hoped Tony was OK up there somewhere half way across the bridge. movement was impossible in this. We could only hope had had laid the bike down and had braced himself. The wind picked up faster and faster until it must have been a 80 – 100 km/h wind. Poor Tony. It was freezing cold and super windy where we were, on the shore under the bridge, he was out there, 10 metres above a 600 metre wide river in and incredible burst of wind that lasted at least 3 minutes. As the wind died down it started hailing. Nature was making us look like idiots and imbeciles. We could hardly have looked smaller. After about 15 minutes the extremes died down and it settled into just a rain storm. No more lighting, no more thunder, no more hail and no more gale force winds – just rain.
Terry and I waited for the rain to die down before we came out to search for Tony but before we could emerge from our meagre shelter, I heard noises coming from the bridge above. Terry ran around and up and there was Tony. Drenched from head to toe, but his bike and himself had made it across the Vitim.
I have seen balls in my time, but never anything like that. That river, that bridge, that storm, and Tony made it across by himself. The guy has nuts of tungsten.
It was now 5pm … we needed to regroup fast and push on. There was no more than 3 hours of daylight and we had over 60km to go to Taksimo. The last 600 metres had taken us almost an hour. the road leading on from the Vitim towards Taksimo was terrible. It was difficult to get out of first gear. I wanted to get up on the rail embankment but Tony was still keen to stay on the road. Terry was neutral. Out of respect for his amazing storm crossing of the Vitim, I stayed with the road. The final straw came 45 minutes after the bridge with just 8 km done when Tony’s back wheel became entangled in wire halfway across a deep water puddle across the whole road. It took us another 45 minutes to get the wire out and I insisted we take the first good chance to get on the embankment.
That chance came after a surprisingly long 30 minutes at a level crossing. I sped off down the embankment at 60km/h and we soon had done as much distance (15km) on the embankment in 20-25 minutes as we had in the previous 2 hours on the road. There was barely an hour of daylight left and we were 30km from Taksimo when we turned back onto the road. Here the road joined a road to nearby Ust Muya and was in much better condition. We kept zooming along at 60 km/h determined to reach Taksimo, me with one hand holding my malfunctioning key.
We arrived in Taksimo just after 8:30. Oh the joy!. Taksimo was a big town ! A lady stopped us on seeing our bikes and asked what we needed. “a hotel” I replied … and she replied that she would lead us there. We followed through the streets of Taksimo, drawn out over 5km between an old town going back hundreds of years, and a new town, built by the Soviets for the BAM.
The hotel was full, and the other one suggested wouldnt take foreigners. By now the traffic police had taken an interest in us, but in a good way. The Policeman knew a small hotel near the station and led us there. With the police opening doors, we got a room. The place was simple but had hot shower, and a cafe … and food was ready and waiting when we emerged from the shower.
Taksimo was being good to us!
- – -
The day started with a small breakfast in the hotel, in which I cheekily asked the staff if getting some laundry done was out of the question. It was definately not. So after breakfast and a wash we left a pile of stinky mildewy clothes in the bathroom and went out to get our bikes. The little lady who had been taking us to hotels yesterday re-appeared and took us searching for what we needed today; oil for Terry, a mechanic for me and a shoe repairer for Tony. We got Terry’s oil and I was shown the repairer and told to return at 2pm. Tony’s boots were unfixable by the local chaps and he was told to buy a new pair!
It began to warm up and we were by now dry after our morning in Taksimo. We went to look at another problem, Tony’s malfunctioning immobiliser. IF this couldnt be fixed it was a ‘stick it on a train to the nearest BMW dealer – Krasnoyarsk’ job. A lot of head scratching was followed by Terry’s suggestion that we check the batteries on both zappers. Neither could operate the immobiliser. On opening the remote transmitters it was clear this wasa probably the problem. Both were wet and showing signs of corrosion inside, particularly round the battery terminals. A couple of new batteries and that problem was solved.
Terry found a fetching new italian style black roll neck sweater, as he is lacking a little in the warm clothes department. Then we fuelled up and went down to the mechanic, Sasha, about 2pm. Tony returned to the hotel to change his rear brake pads, Terry borrowed an oil pan and began changing his oil, and Sasha pulled apart my ignition barrel to try and sort out my ignition switch problem.
The last 30 km into Taksimo last night I had ridden with one hand on the key. The contacts seem to have rotated slightly, so that there was no connection when the key was in the ‘on’ position and I needed to try and balance the key part way between the on and off position….only every time I hit bump, the key jerked off and onto the ‘on’position, which had no contact.
After an hour and a half, all was done. Terry had new oil in his bike and I had a functioning ignition switch. Sasha refused payment for his time, and Terry and I said our farewells and returned to the hotel to see Tony finishing up his bike.
The laundry was all done and dried. Our lazy day of rest and relaxation in Taksimo had been sorely needed but now the bikes were in good shape, we were well fed, clothes were dry for the first time in ages and we settled down to dinner and beer at our little hotel.
- – -
The ladies of the little hotel gave us some extra food to take with us on the road and we packed up the bikes and left Taksimo soon after 9:30am. The main road out of Taksimo heads North to Bodaibo, and the continuation of the BAM road is a small turnoff off the Bodaibo Road (another potential Siberian motorcyling target). From here we were on roads that Artyom (the guy with the Africa Twin, that we met in Irkutsk about 2 months ago) had ridden. Artyom was from the Bodaibo region.
Tony had an off early in the day. We think one of his side boxes worked loose, fell off and dragged him and the bike into the shrubs at the side of the road. A few of the russian guys who helped sort him out told us there was a river ahead we could not cross. Hmm … dont these guys know what we have been thru already! If there is a river, we will cross it.
Halfway to Severomuisk we were stopped by an oncoming 4WD. It was a guy from Bodaibo. He immediately asked us if we knew Artyom. He assumed that if were in this part of the world and had motorcycles on this road, we might know Artyom. As it happens, we did, and passed on our greetings.
The road was very much a continuation of what had been before. I did notice tho that between Taksimo and Severomuisk, the bridges were all serviceable, though several of them had partially collapsed – the road surface of the bridges was still useable, at least by motorcycles.
As we arrived in Severomuisk we were stopped again by the first foreign travellers we had seen on the BAM road since leaving Vanino … a pair of Polish (of course) 4WDs, driving to Tynda as part of an expedition. (www.syberia-mongolia.pl) For some reason, maybe because you need the language to really get off the beaten track in Siberia and its very similar language to Polish, most adventuring down by foreigners in Siberia seems to be by Poles!. I pointed this out to the guys and they countered with, ‘oh do you know about the Motosyberia guys?’ Ah yes indeed. Apparently these guys had met the original Motosyberia project 2 years ago in Kirgizia.
They asked many questions about the road ahead, and told us there was one broken bridge between here and Lake Baikal. One??? I told then there were hundreds behind us. I suspect they thought I was exaggerating, but they will see. We told them to be prepared and have the cameras rolling when you approach the Vitim River Bridge!
It was 2:15pm when we shook hands and continued on our merry way. There was still 130km to Novy Uoyan. That was the start of the official road … a road that is properly maintained and even according to rumour, asphalt as far as Lake Baikal. I wanted to get to Baikal tonight and told the guys to put the heads down and motor!.
Severomuisk is also the location of one of the longest rail tunnels in the world. It took decades to build. While it was being built the BAM used an additional line that runs up and over a pass, and the road follows that old line. The line over the pass is still in place, presumably as a backup. The tunnel passes an earthquake zone so it make sense to have a backup.
The road over the pass was in excellent condition and I really wondered how the Poles in the 4WDs would cope. They had told me the road behind them was bad. Man are they in for a shock as to what lies ahead. I told them that they will need to use a few rail bridges – there is no way around it for at least two of the river crossings – the Kuanda River and the Olyokma River.
The road on to Novy Uoyan continued much like the road had been to Severomuisk. It was poor, but far better than most of the last few weeks and importantly all bridges were serviceable for light vehicles. We found the one broken nbridge the Poles had talked about. It wasnt even broken! Just a little bent. Those boys are in for a tough few weeks. Poles are tough characters, but I bet they resort to the train! Lets see.
About 7pm we pulled into Novy Uoyan, a fuel station and the start of the ‘prepared’ road. We sniffed around for a hotel but were told there is none in town. That sealed it … it was Severobaikalsk or bust tonight. We filled up and hit the asphalt road out of town. Sadly the asphalt only lasted 30km, but the dirt road after that was a graded gravel road. We needed to do as much of it as possible while the daylight allowed. After 75 more kilometres of dirt we were back on asphalt. Soon after the town of Kichera, in the twilight, we saw Baikal, illuminated by a large glowing moon. It was a beautiful sight … something Terry had been talking about … ‘getting to Baikal’ since leaving vanino.
Half an hour hour of beauful lakeside driving later and we had arrived at the big smoke, Severobaikalsk, first little city since Tynda, and found ourself a lakeside hotel with hot showers and comfy beds! The hard road was now over. The remaining 1000km of the BAM road was all prepared road, passing through the small cities of Ust Kut and Bratsk.