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Click on each for a larger resolution:
29, 30 Sept
I left Kazan optimistic that this change of plan would bring me warmth and headed south past Lenin’s home town of Ulyanovsk, then Syzran and by the end of the day found a motel outside of Saratov. By the end of the day I had reached 51 degrees north latitude. Since Novosibirsk I had been travelling across Russia around 55 – 56 degrees north. I was making progress towards warmth. I had thought of stopping a couple of times today … Ulyanovsk has some great Lenin memorabilia, museums and the like, but time and the cold that accompanied it was weighing on me. I decided I would just focus on heading south.
The 30th was another day of heading south. It turned into a day of 2 unexpected features … one was Dutchmen, and the other was traffic fines.
While continuing my march southwards I saw two foreign looking bikers and two bikes saddled down with metal boxes filling up with fuel in a petrol station. I slammed on the brakes and stopped for a chat. Two dutch guys from Eindhoven were heading for Novosibirsk … and were planning to go via Kazakhstan. I explained to them its already very cold up north, and getting colder … then I told them how I was frozen in on the Kazakh steppe not too much later than this last year. It sounded like I was the bearer of gloomy news, and I wished them well, but at the same time, I knew they would have quite a few unpleasant days ahead of them.
As for me, things were looking up. I reached Volgograd by early afternoon and took off one jacket. (I ride with 3 in the cold … a fleece, a Klim windstopper and then the Klim Adventure jacket on top of that). It was warming up. I figured mid teens by now. Watermelon stands lined the highway.
I thought about stopping off at the monumental war memorial, the Rodina Mat (Mother Russia) statue atop the Mamaev Kurgan, for a few fotos. But I had been to Volgograd twice before – significantly for me, I had been there in winter. The memorial has a completely different feel in winter when it is cold and bleak, and you feel how insanely miserable it must have been for the 1.1 million Russian and 400,000 Germans soldiers who died here. The scale of the battle of Stalingrad is insane, add in the civilian casualties and the total toll of the battle is between 1.7 and 2 million lives. The life expectancy of a soldier arriving into Stalingrad to join the battle was less than 24 hours. The Mamaev Kurgan itself is probably the biggest burial ground on earth. Entire divisions were wiped in a morning trying to take or retake it. A visit to the museums and memorials in Volgograd is an intensely moving experience. It’s one thing to visit it on a bike, but to really soak it in, nothing beats a winter visit.
More info here; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Stalingrad
For a deeper perspective, read Beevor’s book “Stalingrad” before you visit. It’s a great primer and the great names that feature in the museums – the Chuikov’s and the Rokossovsky’s etc – really mean something once you have read up on their roles in history.
Taking pictures on a warm autumn day doesn’t do the memorial justice. I will defer to my winter pictures:
I passed a police checkpoint on the southern edge of the stretched out city and was asked where I was headed.
“Sochi” I replied.
“Ah – there are two Dutchmen that went through 20 minutes ago, also headed for Sochi.”
“20 minutes? OK I better head off and try to catch them, Spasibo!”
“Don’t worry, you will catch them, they are on tractors!”
I headed off, still southbound, now thinking to myself …. Tractors? I guess that means they are on 1150GSs or something like that.
100 km south of Volgograd, I caught the Dutch guys … they were on Quads! We stopped and chatted. They were just 1400 km from breaking the world record for longest journey by Quadracycle. From Rotterdam they had driven their quads to Mongolia and were now headed back. I noticed they had also tricked out their quads with Hyperpro suspension.
For more info, see http://silkoffroadsurvival.com/
The dutch guys were headed past Elista tonight to camp somewhere on the open steppe, and I was headed into Elista itself to hook up with Zhenya, the Kalmyk biker I had met last year when passing through Elista. We agreed to meet up somewhere on the road to Sochi tomorrow and I sped off, leaving the guys fielding questions at a Kalmyk police checkpoint.
I went into the Kalmyks in last years posts, so anyone wanting more photos and info on the Kalmyks, see here: http://www.advrider.com/forums/showpost.php?p=9811659&postcount=24
I myself ran into a Kalmyk police officer sometime down the road and was shown a photo of me doing 102 km/h 15 km back down the road. 90 km/h (56mph) is the open road limit in Russia.
“You must pay a fine” the cop scolded.
“Come on mate, it’s only a small bit over the limit.” I pleaded
“Then make it a small fine” he said, exasperated …
I slipped 300 rubles (7.50 EUR) into by driving permit and handed it back to him in the time honoured method. In 3 seconds I had my emptied driving permit back and a “good luck” from the cop.
Just 50 km from Elista I was pulled over again for speeding … more overzealous Kalmyk policery … this time I was apparently doing 55 km/h through a 40 km/h zone for roadworks. Fortunately the head honcho among the 4 cops started chatting to me and asked where I was going. “Elista” I relied. “To see the Grand Hurul.”
His face beamed with pride. The Grand Hurul is a huge landmark in Elista and the biggest Buddhist temple in Europe. Kalmyks are very proud of it. “The Grand Hurul!” he roared with a huge smile across his face. Then he reached out and hi fived me and told the junior officer to give me my documents back and let me go.
I reached Elista and was met on the outskirts by Zhenya. I was now down to just 46 degrees North. Another 5 degrees south today. We parked the bike up and Elista Lada, his workplace, and he gave the bike a good check over. My starter button was non-existant. I had been starting it for the last 24 hours now by touching two wires together. Zhenya said we will get a new button and fix it tomorrow morning. We went back to his apartment that he shared with a room-mate and dinner was prepared by his roommates girlfriend.
- – -
Zhenya woke early and headed into to work at 8am. He works as a mechanic at the local Lada dealers service centre. When I rocked up about 10am he had already been playing with my bike for an hour. The chain had been cleaned and relubed. And we jumped in the car to buy a new starter button. The button was replaced and I eventually was escorted to the outskirts of town by Zhenya about 11:30am. I said farewell and hope we meet again next year, then hit the road south-west, towards Stavropol.
About 70 km out of town I crossed into Stavopol region, via a serious police checkpoint with machine gun toting guards and concrete barriers – a reminder I was now in the North Caucasus, a volatile region on Russia’s southern fringe. I chatted to the cops there and asked about the Dutchmen on quads. They passed through at least 2 hours ago, was the reply. I had some serious chasing to do!
I rode hard into a very strong headwind – I figured I would make good ground on the quads in headwind. Their cross-section must be 3 times that of the bike, and they had a similar size engine to push it all.
3 hours later I passed the city of Stavropol, and decided to stop for some lunch. I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, and it was now 3:30 in the afternoon. I found a good shashlik place on the corner of the Kavkaz highway and ordered a big portion. As I sat and waited for my shashlik to be cooked up, a local came up to me and asked me if I was headed to Maikop. Yes I replied, I am heading through Maikop. He turned around and yelled to his wife “This guy is heading for Maikop too”.
I stopped him … what do you mean “too”?
“2 guys on tractors asked for directions to Maikop not long ago”
“How long ago?” I asked, knowing that was the Dutchmen.
“No more than 20 -30 minutes”
So I was catching them. I set off after feasting on my shashlik, dodging traffic along the Kavkaz highway. 45 minutes later I caught them. They were fixing a flat tyre about 100 km from Maikop.
We all rode into Maikop together and found a nice pizzeria. We were all headed for Sochi, so decided to ride there together … but for today we would just go a short distance outside of Maikop and find some accommodation – I wanted a cheap roadside hotel and the boys were going to camp in the woods. After failing to find a cheap hotel, I decided to join them – for my second camping night of the trip.
- – -
The road to Sochi was a twisty one, and surprisingly took us most of the day to cover the 260 km. The quads are not as quick as the bike on the road and they need to stop often for fuel. Mark looks concerned at this fuel stop. He had a problem with one of the rear seals on his quad.
It was raining when we finally reached the Russian Riviera city of Sochi, and as expected all the hotels in town were expensive. The boys resorted to a tactic that had worked for them several times in the past … go to an expensive hotel, talk to the manager, explain that they are doing their Guinness world record attempt and would like to stay at their hotel – if they can get a super duper rate. A couple of times they had managed to stay at 5 star hotels for 10-15 USD a night. The Radisson in Sochi whose basic room rate is about 250 EUR a night, was the target. They got as far as getting the duty manager to agree to a 10 USD rate for the 3 of us, but he didn’t want to pull the trigger without confirmation from the general manager – who was away until Monday. Close but no cigar.
And so we rode down the road to find a smaller hotel, where I did some sweet talking and got us some rooms for 1000 Rubles (25 EUR) each instead of the normal 1600.
A quick visit to the port told me there was a ferry leaving for Turkey in 48 hours time. We had 48 hours free in Sochi!
But my good progress so far today between Tsengel and the Border came to a halt here. There was a queue of about 20 vehicles and the Russian post was shut. A guy came over in a disinfectors uniform and disinfected my tyres. He said it was lunchtime. Border post will re-open at 2pm. Geez, it was 12:20 now. I had quite a wait ahead of me. It was sunny but it wasn’t particularly warm. The actual border is at a pass between the two posts and is up at 2490 metres, but the Russian post is at the village of Tashanta, down at 2150 metres. I still had a few biscuits left and an energy drink as part of my emergency supplies. I consumed them. I used the time to check over the bike. I basically hadn’t looked at it since arriving in Mongolia. I had oiled the chain once, in Mörön, and I had stuck a Pampers baby nappy packet over my fuel tank to act as a cap when the fuel cap had disappeared on me, but that was it. Apart from that, I hadn’t even looked at the bike. I noticed now I was missing two bolts. One of the two bolts that holds the exhaust heat shield on – no big deal, and one of my luggage rack bolts.
That’s potentially not good. It was the lower bolt on the left side, that holds the rack to the bottom of the subframe. I grabbed the rack and flexed it … it wasn’t flexing. I looked at the bolt hole … despite not having a bolt, and despite having load on it, the holes lined up. Erik had built the rack so strong this year, that even without a bolt, there was no flex and the rack was still in perfect position. I could have replaced the bolt from my bolt supplies in my pannier, but it was too cold. I don’t like working in the cold. It always costs me knuckle skin. It wasn’t flexing at all so I decided to leave it till later.
The rest of the bike looked in great shape – apart from the missing low fender. I checked the radiator … it had a bit of mud in it. The main reason for that extender was that it would keep mud out of the radiator. I would have had to be careful if I was doing a lot more off roading, but now, with asphalt just 3 metres away as I waited in front of the Russian checkpoint, I decided I wont need to worry about it. I should just clean out the radiator properly when I get a chance and leave it at that.
The Russian border post opened about 2:15 and by 3:15 I was back on my way in Russia. Each border crossing currently has me a little nervous. One of my passports (the one with the Russian visa) got slightly wet in Yakutia, and the damp damaged the foto of me in my passport. But so far I have been through 4 border posts (the two entering Mongolia and the two exiting) and while all have raised eyebrows and asked questions about it, none has said they wont accept it.
I refuelled with 95 octane fuel at Kosh Agach … the first since Erdenet about 1500km ago and continued on to Aktash. I found a car wash there, and spent 15 minutes with a washer, getting the last of the Mongolian dirt and bugs off the bike. I normally clean my bike quite regularly. Some people subscribe to the view that the dirt and mud on the bike is a badge of its credibility on an overlanding machine. I don’t. I like a clean machine. I wash it whenever I can.
I have been up and down this road a few times and everytime I ride it, it looks different. This time it was at its finest. I had never seen the M52 look so appealing. There are a million potential photo stops and camping spots.
I got another 150km down the road, a town called Ongudai, and had a bite to eat in a local café. I was going lower, but it was getting colder. Around me was snow on much of the ground. It’s unseasonable to be this cold in the first half of September, but a cold front must have moved in. I stopped as much to warm up as to eat. I wasn’t particularly hungry.
When I moved off, now in the darkness, the local police pulled me over 500 yards down the road to check my docs. On seeing I was a foreigner, they waved me on. Only the bike was dead. Same symptoms as when the bad starter button had shorted the bike out. I rolled the bike out of the way of the cops and began taking off the luggage. If there is one disadvantage to how I have the luggage this year compared to last, it’s that last year I could get the seat off simply by loosening the tank bag straps. This year I have to do that, plus remove all 3 rear bags. Sure enough, a fuse had blown. I replaced it and started the bike up, then loaded it up, and mounted, ready to move off. Then the bike died again. I was about to start stripping it of luggage again, when a local farmer came down from the hill, spoke to the police, and offered me a bed in his shepherds hut, just 100 yards away, saying it will be easier to fix it in the morning when there is daylight. I thought about it for a few minutes and accepted. It was cold and dark, and I would have to unwind a bunch of tape to find where it was shorting. That would be better done tomorrow morning. I still have 650km to cover to get to Novosibirsk tomorrow, but its all on good asphalt roads. We pushed my bike up the hill to the hut and I took my gear inside. It was one room, with a 24v truck battery powering a single lamp. There was a small bed on one side of the room and Tolyan, the Altai shepherd explained it was all mine. He would make me a cup of tea and go to his house 2km away in town. He would be back at 7am to tend to his sheep and cows.
I pulled out my laptop and internet modem (now that I was back in Russia) and began catching up with emails and the like.
- – -
Tolyan the shepherd arrived as promised at 7am. While he brewed up some tea on the fireplace, I went outside and began working on the bike. I replaced the two missing bolts, retaped up some of the dodgy wiring, and replaced the blown fuse. I am running out of those again. They are small and light so I always take bucketloads of fuses of various sizes.
By 8:30 I had loaded up the bike, drank my huge mug of tea and hit the Chuisky Trakt … the road that runs from Novosibirsk to the Mongolian border. The morning was punctuated with two more fuses blowing. I have become very adept at stripping the bike of its luggage now. Practise makes perfect. Now that it was warmer I even attempted a more comprehensive repair of the dodgy wiring. It seemed to work, and I rode on past Gorno Altaisk … the beautiful part of the Chuisky Trakt is the 450 km from Gorno Altaisk to Kosh Agach. After here I would be on the plains.
I stopped at Biysk for a pair of shashlik skewers … one lamb and one pork. It was delicious and I was really enjoying it until the matron of the café scolded me for plugging my laptop into a socket on the wall and “using their electricity”. I was stunned! I wolfed down my shashlik and left. That’s something I haven’t seen in a long time … hostility to a paying customer. She looked right out of the Soviet mold, and obviously acted like it too. I reminded myself that one of the many great things about being on a bike is that it’s so easy to leave unpleasant people behind. And I did.
I arrived in Novosibirsk (NSK) about 6:30pm … I was a day ahead of my schedule. I had earned a free day in NSK tomorrow.
The reason I had ridden so hard to get here over the past 9 days was that I had a flight booked from Novosibirsk back to Holland for a late birthday party for my son. He has just turned 10. I absolutely had to be there for that. I would be back in Novosibirsk 4-5 days later.
I had a contact here, Stas, and gave him a call. He is a good friend of one of the main tyre importers in Moscow. He had arranged for somewhere to store my bike and effect some servicing while I was away in Holland. I met Stas and asked him if there was a cheap hotel he could recommend and he scoffed … “no you stay with me.”
And with that, my mad mission from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk was complete. 5590 (3500 miles) km in 9 days … 621 km a day on average, Including a full East – West crossing of Mongolia. I don’t know where the Russian guy who had also been through the border at Ereentsav had entered Mongolia, but quite possibly it is also the first East-West crossing of Mongolia on a bike. That would be an accidental bonus.
- – -
I woke early to take advantage of the wifi internet in Stas’ apartment in central Novosibirsk. He woke at 10am. I only had 2 tasks for the day … to ride out to the freight company out in the industrial suburbs of Novosibirsk (population about 2.5 million) to collect my next tyre shipment. Dean in Moscow had shipped out a set of Heidenau K60s. They should get me home. The Michelin Desert and T63 on the bike had done an awesome job getting me here from Magadan. And so far my record of never having a flat tyre on a wheel fitted with a Michelin Desert tyre continues. I had no flats, and neither did Sherri Jo.
I heard from Sherri Jo, she is expecting to be back in Russia while I am in Holland. She is a day or two’s ride behind me now (her bike is in Krasnoyarsk), but she will have a couple of days on the road before I get back and start riding myself. So we may just pass each on the road again after all.
Above … David Bowie is alive and well and working as a metal worker / bike mechanic in Novosibirsk.
Finding the tyres was a piece of cake. This year I am using GPS maps from OpenStreetMap (OSM). It’s a open source global mapping project that takes input in the form of tens of thousands of GPS tracks from all over the world and turns them into Garmin compatible maps. I have been contributing to the project for 9 months now, and quite a few of the roads in extreme Siberia and Mongolia are my contributions.
Locals are obviously also big contributors and most Russian cities are immaculately mapped. The Garmin brand Russian maps are nowhere near as detailed or accurate, as Sherri Jo discovered when we arrived in Vladivostok, and she saw only one road in Vladivostok and it was no-where near where it should be. Naturally I loaded her up with the OSM maps.
I left the freight depot, with tyres around my waist, but didn’t get too far before the bike died again. Fuse again. I had no fuses with me. I walked the streets in search of wire, and found a scrap piece of electrical wire 50 yards away. I took one copper strand and wrapped it around the blown fuse. It was primitive, but it should work. And it did. I rode on to Dima’s workshop … allegedly Novosibirsk’s finest motorcycle mechanic. I gave Dima a list of things to sort out … menial tasks like finding and fitting new rear indicators for me … I was missing them now that I was back in urban environments. But first on the list was to sort out my dodgy starter button system.
- – -
I had caught up with Sherri Jo briefly in Novosibirsk. She was headed for Mongolia and I was headed for Europe. I plotted out a track for her over a few beers with local bikers, and loaded it onto her Garmin. That way she should be able to get out of any trouble she gets herself into down there.
I left Novosibirsk happy that a bunch of smaller issues had been sorted on the bike. Dima the mechanic even spun me out a whole new fuel tank filler cap, out of a billet of aluminium. The starter relay had been swapped for a Yamaha one he had lying around, new rear indicators were on the bike, oil and filter had been changed, new chain and front sprocket fitted, new tyres fitted etc.
I said farewell to Stas and Dima and hit the road to Omsk late in the afternoon. It was almost 4pm by the time I passed the outskirts of Novosibirsk and found myself on the open highway.
After my week off the bike, I was unaccustomed to long days in the saddle again, and was pretty tired by 8pm. I pulled over with just 350km done at a roadside motel and called it a day.
- – -
25, 26, 27, 28 sept 10
From Novosibirsk westwards was just a case of doing the miles. I wanted to get to European Russia as soon as possible. It was getting cold now, and I still don’t have any heated clothing. The days were warmed by the sun on my back and the heated grips on the bike. Thank heavens I had fitted those before I left.
The cities went by, Omsk, Ishim, Kurgan, before I arrived in Chelyabinsk on the evening of the 26th. I met a couple of bikers on the outskirts of town and agreed to meet them tomorrow morning to get a small oil leak fixed. It was the invisible crack in the generator cover that Andrei had temporarily fixed with epoxy metal in Mirny. I went and spent the night just outside Chelyabinsk with Valery, a handyman in a nearby village that I had met 6 months earlier.
As planned, I met up with the Chelyabinsk bikers on the morning of the 27th and we headed in to Sasha, a bike mechanic in the centre of town. He was also an alloy welder, and he stripped the cover off and had it all welded up again by midday.
Then it was time to head across the Ural mountains and cross into European Russia. I spent the remainder of the day riding the 500 km to Ufa. I saw a motorcyclist on a yellow BMW (think it was an F800GS) with metal boxes, heading eastwards – that was first foreigner on a bike I had seen since saying farewell to SJ in Irkutsk. At least I think it was a foreigner. What’s he doing heading into Siberia at this time of year?
The road thru the Ural mountains was very slow going due to endless trucks crawling along, very limited overtaking opportunities and very heavy traffic police presence. But I made it to the bright lights of Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, by 9:30pm.
It was after midday Sep 28 when I left Ufa. I had the luxury of getting some clothes washed there and some were not dry enough to depart earlier. Kazan and an old family friend was the target for today. It was another 550 km day. I made Kazan about 8pm, but the last hour and a half were in rain. Cold rain. I spent some time on the internet there and also checked out weather forecasts for a bunch of cities on potential routes. It was cold and if I didn’t leave Kazan tomorrow, I would probably catch some sub zero weather.
I made an executive decision to change course and head south. From Kazan I would head to Sochi on the Black Sea coast. Weather there was +20C and above (68F+). I estimated it was a 3 day ride … 3 x 700 km days.
Whatever clothes that weren’t washed in Ufa were now washed in Kazan. I now had a full clean kit bag. Here is my host, ironing dry my gloves!
- – -
31.08 – 05.09.10
Irkutsk … I had a few missions to achieve: My own bike needed two small oil leaks fixed before I hit Mongolia, and I needed a Mongolian visa. I dropped my passport off at the Mongolian consulate and headed down to the main bike joint in the city and spoke to the mechanic. The oil leaks looked pretty straight forward. One was small seepage from the gear selector shaft … I had that at the start of this trip and had not bothered doing anything about it yet … I had the spare seal with me. The other was a small leak from the camshaft cover gasket. They were minor, and in many cases I would have ignored them. But I was heading into Mongolia and I wanted to get the bike in perfect mechanical condition. He promised to have those things fixed by the end of the 1st September so I could head off on the morning of the 2nd. That co-incided with when my Mongolian visa would be ready.
I did a number of smaller maintenance jobs on the bike and checked as many bolts as I could. A chance meeting with someone flying to London meant I had a quick edit of my entire luggage and found 4 kgs to send home. The bike was in great shape and lighter than ever.
I left Irkutsk early on the morning of the 2nd September and got only 50km down the road when I noticed oil pissing out of the engine and all over my boots. None came out when idling so I crawled back to Irkutsk at 30 km/h. It was the cam cover gasket again.
I found the mechanic and he apologised profusely, promising to fix it straight away. But we also had one other problem. My starter button, had died. Several attempts to fix it with a new spring were just resulting in the spring shorting out and melting the plastic button. Eventually I told the mechanic to stop trying to fix it. Buy a new button and dash mount it.
By the evening of the 3rd, the bike was again ready, new starter button and all. I had spent half a day blasting it with petrol to get it clean again. Over a litre of oil had come out 2 days ago and had got everywhere.
Only the weather forecast for the 4th and 5th September were terrible. Arctic conditions were forecast, night time temperatures below zero and even the possibility of the first snow of the season in Irkutsk. It was due to return to sunshine and slightly warmer temperatures by Monday. I decided to wait. This would really stress my plans. I had to get to Novosibirsk by the 15th of September. But I wasn’t going to go the 2000km route on the highway, and I wasn’t even going to do a 4000km route via Mongolia Ulan Ude and Ulaan Baatar. I had a number of other objectives:
(1) to drink the muddy waters of the Baljuna
(2) to enter Mongolia at the only land border crossing open to foreigners that I had not yet been through – Ereentsav, thus completing a full set of Mongolian crossings.
(3) cross Mongolia not just form Ulaanbaatar to the west, but fully from East to West … via Choibalsan in the east and Olgiy in the west.
This route would be over 5500 km. By leaving on the 6th of September, I knew I would have to average over 600km a day to do it in 9 days. Considering over half that distance would be in Mongolia, it was really squeezing things down to the wire. There would be no possibility to fix anything that went wrong, almost no time for maintenance … I had to wake up, ride hard, sleep – stopping only for fuel and food. There would be no time for camping … takes too much time both in the evenings (you have to stop before it gets dark) and in the morning (you have to pack everything up). Some days would probably require me having to ride into the darkness.
I spent my last day in Irkutsk on a cold ride down to Listvyanka, by Lake Baikal, with a local café waitress. It didn’t get above 6C (43F) all day.
- – -
I woke early at Nina’s place in Irkutsk and headed into the kitchen. Nina made me a cup of tea and told me she just heard on the radio it was -1C at the airport. We looked at the thermometer outside her kitchen window. It was more optimistic. It read +3C. I shivered at the thought, then drank my tea and packed my bags, before wheeling the bike out of the garage. By the time I was all loaded up and moving it was 9am. There was a lot of ground to cover today so I threw caution to the wind and zoomed down a bus street. A policeman in the street saw me but it was too late. I was past him by the time his baton was out. You cant wave down a guy from his rear view mirror. We both knew I had made it past and in my rear view mirror I saw him turn around and focus on the next batch of oncoming vehicles.
In just over an hour I made it to Kultuk, on the Western corner of Lake Baikal, and stopped to refuel. My week in Irkutsk plus the run out to Listvyanka and back had used most of the fuel I had been carrying. I put my headphones in and went into cruise mode … hours passed, as did Lake Baikal, and by 2pm I was on the outskirts of Ulan Ude. I had done 450km so far. I continued on.
30 km beyond UU, I stopped again to refuel and grab some lunch. There was over 600 km still to go to Chita, my target for the day. It was an optimistic target for sure. 1100 km from Irkutsk. It should be the first time I have ridden over 1000km in a day outside of the western world. But I needed to be optimistic and I needed to cover a lot of ground.
My route from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk, via Borzya and Choibalsan, would be somewhere around 5500 km – over 3000 of those in Mongolia. My flight out of Novosibirsk was for the morning of the 16th September. I had just over 9 days to get from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk … I needed to average close to 600 km a day … when you consider over half the distance to be travelled would be in Mongolia, it was a real stretch. But there were things I really wanted to do and see that made this route so compelling for me. I had to go for it.
The sun set about 8:10pm. By 8:40 it was fully dark. I still had 130km to go to Ulan Ude. I don’t have any qualms about riding at night, because my lights are fantastic. The only thing I do worry about is tiredness. I stopped for some dinner at a roadside café. I rode for another hour and 30km short of Ulan Ude I spotted a big truckers motel. I had planned to go into the centre of town but it would be more expensive there. This place looked new and in good condition.
The only reason for me to go into the centre was no longer valid. There was a chance to catch up with Mick and his Compass Expeditions trip. I noted last night they had ridden from Ulan Ude to Chita yesterday. It was a big day by tour standards – well over 600km. I thought they might even have a rest day, but I got a text from a man watching their spot tracker that Mick had hit the road in the morning so was no longer in Chita. Which meant I had no reason to go into the centre. So I took a room in the truckers motel for 600 rubles, grabbed a beer and unwound from my 1065km day.
- – -
By 08:30 I was ready to hit the road. While yesterday was no more than a ferry stage for me, today I started doing things I actually wanted to do. Breakfast at the hotel delayed me. It took 15 minutes – something I normally wouldn’t worry about, but now, for the next 8 days, every minute counted, and I felt frustrated at the slow omelette delivery.
I had a look at the catalogue of waypoints and routes I have been collating and it appears very few western bikers if any have turned right at Chita. The Aginsky Trakt heads south east from Chita towards the Chinese Manchurian border, and the road follows the Trans Manchurian train route.
After breakfast, I rode through the early morning Chita traffic and headed out on the Aginsky Trakt. After an hour I turned off it. I had a little diversion planned. There was something I needed to do before I continued on to the Mongolian border.
Those who are familiar with the Genghis Khan story will know the significance of Baljuna. For those who are not, the story goes something like this:
In 1203, a ‘triumvirate’ of Temujin (aka Genghis Khan), his childhood friend Jamukha and Toghril, the Ong Khan, had won a lot battles and now dominated the Mongolian political landscape. Jamukha and Genghis had gained their power under the sponsorship of the Ong Khan and had risen rapidly to become the top military commanders, with huge followings of their own.
Only one of Jamukha or Temujin could succeed the aging Ong Khan and Jamukha acted to betray his childhood friend. He convinced the Ong Khan that Temujin was plotting a coup, and Jamukha and the Ong Khan planned an ambush of Temujin by using a wedding as a ruse. Temujin attended only accompanied by a small guard of his closest guards and soldiers and was caught off guard by the ambush, his troops routed and he had to flee for his life. He and the other survivors rode north east for several days non stop to escape their pursuers (a mongol warrior on a horse could cover over 200km in a day). Where they finally stopped was at a small lake called Baljuna. It was here at Baljuna that they recovered. The future Genghis Khan was so impressed with the loyalty of the men who stayed with him when all seemed lost that he pledged to share everything with those who had ridden with him to Baljuna. It would have been far simpler for those men to defect to Jamukha, now that he appeared to be the future leader of all Mongolia. Those men who rode to Baljuna with Temujin (said to be 19 assorted military and tribal representatives consisting of Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and the more traditional shamanists) in turn pledged eternal loyalty to Temujin.
The Baljuna Covenant was sealed by drinking the muddy waters of the Baljuna. It bonded the fate of the 20 men together for life.
Those who drank the waters became known as the Baljuntu, and were always considered the exalted ones after that time. The Baljuntu were the equivalent of the 12 apostles.
It was one of the low points in the career of Genghis Khan, but it was also a key turning point. After Baljuna, Temujin was undefeatable. The next year 1204, he had regrouped, roused his scattered supporters, had the Ong Khan murdered, and had defeated Jamukha in battle. In 1206 he was crowned “Genghis Khan”, universal leader, the first man in Mongolian history to lead the entire unified tribal nation. With no more internal battles to be fought he was able to turn his attentions and his men’s fighting skills outwards … and the rest, as they say, is history. But without Baljuna, it would all have been very different. But for the loyalty of his men, he could have been back to nothing. The Baljuna Covenant came to mean everything.
I have only ever read of one credible attempt to locate Baljuna. After considerable effort to make sure names, distances, directions and descriptions correlated, and after visiting many potential sites, the researcher concluded Baljuna is the muddy lake just south of the village of Balzeno, in Aga-Buryatia, about 20 km south of the town of Kurort-Darasun.
I headed for the lake at Balzeno, found it and took the bike down to the shore. The waters were indeed muddy – just as they should be. I spent 15 minutes reflecting on the Baljuna legend, imagining the exhausted men fleeing the ambush back in Mongolia. Then I walked through the sloppy muddy shores into ankle deep water and drank from the Baljuna myself.
As I prepared to go, I spotted a blue silk sash that a local Buryat had tied around a bush by the shore. These are a sign of respect that Buryats and Mongols tie blue material to something to gain the blessings of the blue sky, heaven. The silk was too long and a yard of the material was muddied all over the ground. I took out my pocket knife and cut it, so that it didn’t dangle in the mud. I looked around for another place to tie the yard I had cut, then I hit on the idea of tying it to my bike. Not only will I then have a lucky blue cloth with me, but it will be a special blue cloth, muddied by the Baljuna itself.
I rode off feeling up for a challenge. I had the blue sky with me now. A quick check of my map showed a short cut between Kurort-Darasun and Aginskoye, the capital of Aga-Buryatia. I decided to take it.
I shouldn’t have. While most of the track was a blast, there was one stretch, about 25km long, that took me almost an hour. It was a straight enduro track. Six inche tree roots everywhere, loads of mud, trees fallen across the track. I barely got out of first gear. Clutching loads, engine fan running loads. It’s just not my cup of tea. Not on a bike carrying a spare tyre. I had decided to carry Sherri Jo’s discarded Desert with me to Mongolia. I would fit it in UB. I had new tyres waiting for me in Irkutsk, but they werent Deserts … I had no time for problems in Mongolia so going with 2/3 worn Deserts was a better choice than brand new Korean knobblies.
I swore my way through and reached a village … from then on it was fast double track … and after the next village a full speed graded road. By Aginskoye, I was back on asphalt. Aginskoye struck me as very new modern kind of place. The Buryats have a bunch of regions … They have their own republic just next door, and adjacent to the Buryat Republic are Irkutsk Oblast and Zabaikalsky Krai … both contain autonomous Buryat sections.
Further on down the road, once I have left Aga-Buryatia, I passed the towns of Mirnaya and Bezrechnaya … both were full of crumbling soviet buildings. I was getting close to the Chinese border now, and I assumed they were military facilities built in the 60s and 70s when Soviet relations with China were particularly bad.
I refuelled at Borzya. The locals all asked me if I was going to China. There are two borders available thru Borzya, the Chinese Manchurian border, which is obviously the main game in town, and a quiet little outpost of a border with Mongolia. I turned right soon after refuelling and headed for the Mongolian border, 80 km away.
This border crossing was the other reason I had to make this long winded route eastwards, when I really needed to be heading westwards. The first was spiritual – I needed to drink the muddy waters of the Baljuna, the second was I wanted a full set of Mongolian border crossings.
There are only 5 land borders open to foreigners in Mongolia (at this time); 4 of then road borders and one rail border. They are: Dzamin Uud – Erenhot (China), Altanbulag – Kyakhta (Russia), Tsagaannuur – Tashanta (Russia), Sukhbaatar – Naushki (rail only) and the final one is Ereentsav – Solovyovsk (Russia). I had at various times crossed all of them with my bike … including the rail only crossing, which I crossed in a freight wagon, with my bike, in the middle of a cold September night in 1994 … except for one. It was the one border crossing in the far north east corner of Mongolia that still eluded me; Ereentsav – Solovyovsk.
Halfway between Borzya and Solovyovsk, the asphalt ran out. I reached Solovyevsk but it was nothing like any other Russian border town I have seen …at least not in the last 10 years. Border towns tend to be buzzy places with lots of wheelers and dealers, cafes full of truck drivers etc. This place was a town with no economy. Run down, dilapidated. I cruised thru and reached the tiny border crossing facilities on the other side. They looked firmly shut. This was no 24 hour border. A few minutes later a Wazzik van rushes up to me from the village, checks my documents and tells me the border is closed. Closed? As in closed?
No closed because it’s after 7pm. It will re-open at 10am tomorrow.
Damn … I had hoped to get the border formalities out of the way and camp on the Mongolian side. There was no hotel in town. The border guys in the van told me I should knock on a few doors in town and someone might take me in, before driving back to the village.
In a way I was relieved. This was one tiny border crossing. It looked so disused that it could well have been closed. I had checked the information on the Russian border service website when in Irkutsk a few days back … but websites can be out of date. I was glad it was open, but starting at 10am will chew a big chunk out of the productive part of my day.
I went back into the village, knocked on a few decrepid old doors and had a lot of “no-interests!” … I thought my luck with Russian hospitality must be running out. I found a shop of sorts … actually it was a lady who sold stuff out of her living room … and bought some orange juice and mentally prepared to make camp. I decided to try one last house I hadn’t got a response from earlier one more time. This time a skinny weird looking guy in his mid 50s greeted me. I explained my dilemma and he said sure you can stay … but can you pay me. I offered him too much, 500 rubles, but I didn’t want to be refused. He accepted with glee and fired up the banya.
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.
3 am wake up. Sherri Jo looks up at the sky and says “but it’s pitch black.” I was not impressed … If she was a man I would have replied “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” … In much harsher language … but that wouldn’t have worked in this case in any form. Igor drove us down to the bikes. Big Igor turned up too to send us off.
And then we hit the dirt road to Lensk. Despite upgrading her lights from the piddly stock KTM item, SJs lights still were not worthy. There was no other option, I slowed and rode beside her to share my HID50s. When she fell 10 yards behind, she fell 100 yards behind. As soon as she fell out of the big pool of light in front of my bike, she was blind and slowed from 60 km/h to 30 km/h. There is simply no substitute for first class lighting, and bolt on additional lighting is always subject to breakage in falls. The only acceptable solution I have found is to replace any stock lighting with top quality high power bi-xenon units. This year I am running more powerful 50 watt ballasts and bulbs from HID50, usually reserved for modern light aircraft landing lights, in the Audi A6 projectors I used last year. I had a plan to replace those projectors with newer, better Infinity bi-xenon projectors but time ran out on me. But the A6 projectors are still something to behold. I rode alongside SJ, supplying the light, until the dawn began to break around 6am.
As dawn broke, we were about halfway to Lensk … and both very cold. It wasn’t the temperature, which was about +7C (44F) it was the humidity which was around 100%. We were in and out of fog the whole ride.
We finally made Lensk just before 8am … our required arrival time. A few phone calls were made and we had to report to the barge waiting area. About 9am the dispatcher turned up, looked at the waiting trucks and said “no barge today …. Not enough trucks … we go tomorrow now.”
We made our way to Lensk’s very overpriced hotel, probably used to waiting barge traffic, paid US$100 for a twin room and went back to sleep.
In the evening, as we strolled around looking for dinner, an Uzbek lady selling fruit struck up a conversation in English with Sherri Jo. She was keen for some practice and invited us back to her place for dinner – Uzbek plov. Naturally, we were spoiled … chocolate, fruit, plov, and more fruit for the barge tomorrow. We finally left after midnight. Sherri Jo said its becoming normal that we get spoiled every day. I thought about it … yes we had been spoiled every day in Mirny by Igor and the boys, and by Andrei the electrical handyman. We had been spoiled in Suntar, in VerkhneVilyuisk, and in Vilyuisk. It had been a long time since a stranger had not spoiled us. We have been very lucky indeed to meet such good people on a daily basis.
- – -
21.08.10 – 25.08.10
And so it begins … the 4 day barge ride upriver to Ust Kut. We rode the bikes onto the barge about 9am.
The guy in charge of loading opened up an empty shipping container and offered it for our gear and bikes. They asked where we would sleep, and after a brief conversation in which it became clear that they had a cabin free in the barge tower but it would cost 5000 rubles each (about 125 EUR each) for the ride to Irkutsk, we declined, and said we would sleep in the container, with the bikes.
The barge pulled out of Lensk and we settled into life on board, preparing our steel box for 4 days of eating, sleeping and blogging. Sherri Jo entertained the truck drivers who were already well on the way to being very drunk. Within an hour or two, we were out of mobile phone range of Lensk and the wilderness of the taiga forest and the Lena River was all there was to see.
The crew hosed off the desks and we wheeled the bikes out and scored a free wash.
Around dinner time, Denis, the first mate on the barge, approached us and said the captain had taken pity on us and offered us a cabin free of charge. Yet again we had been spoiled! It was about the 12th day in a row. Must be the luck of the English!
We were taken up to the bridge and given a tour. This was the best kept barge I had seen. It was my fourth boat trip between Lensk and Ust Kut. This barge was immaculate inside the living quarters and up on the bridge.
Overnight, the barge made its only stop – Peledui – and the barge filled up. The acres of space we had previously enjoyed for bike washing was now taken up.
I had enquired about the possibility of getting let off the barge at Kirensk or even Chechuisk. I had the idea that SJ can cruise on the boat to Ust Kut, but perhaps I can get off early and ride down and meet her, from Kirensk or slightly further downstream, but the barge only makes the one stop at Peledui. Almost nothing stops at Kirensk any more. At one time Kirensk was the main and only stop. But now Kirensk is a shadow of its former self. The boat I took twice last year still stops in Kirensk, but the barges don’t. In fact the smaller boat seemed to be flexible enough to stop anywhere. I think next time I am here, I will prearrange with the boat to get let on or off at Chechuisk.
The journey upriver from Lensk to Ust Kut is 1000km long … 1 million metres, at the rate of just under 3 metres per second. We had climbed 130 metres, from 160m amsl at Lensk to 290m amsl at Ust Kut. That’s 13cm every kilometre.
Evening on the barge:
Occasional villages along the Lena:
Morning Mist, River Lena:
Typical view … in 3 parts … the River, the Taiga forest and the blue sky … Its pretty much all we saw for 4 days:
The program for the day was the towns annual off road festival, which saw 4WDs and motocross bikes race around a track
While having a late afternoon lunch, Igor’s phone rang. One of his biking friends had spotted a new bike in town – a KTM 990 Adventure. I knew immediately who it was. I had been in contact with Joe Pichler for some time and had recommended he take the Vilyuisky Trakt via Mirny on his ride to Magadan this year. For those that don’t know him, Joe Pichler is KTM’s Adventure riding guru. The bulk of the promotional material for the Adventure side of KTM’s business comes from Joe and his wife Renate. For more detail see www.josef-pichler.at.
We went straight round to the hotel and sure enough parked in front of it was Joe’s Adventure. When Joe emerged from the shower we took his bike round to Igor’s office parking yard for a wash. Igor’s yard now was housing a Moto Morini, a KTM 990 Adventure R, and KTM 690 Enduro R and a BMW X-Challenge.
A day and half of ‘War Stories’ followed with Joe and I swapping fotos and tales of adventure motorcycling.
- – -
Igor began the afternoon toiling away for several hours on Sherri Jo’s tent. Over 2 hours of toil later in what was described by SJ as ‘surgery’, Igor had fixed a broken valve on the tent. SJ has a tent with inflatable ‘poles’ … if they don’t inflate, then the tent is not a tent. And our one and only night camping on the Old Summer Road had shown us that one of her two inflatable poles did not inflate. Igor of course just volunteered his time to fix this. He did, after all, have a business to run. He deals in home renovation supplies. Business seems to be going well. He has a very modern apartment in the centre of Mirny and a brand new 2010 model Moto Morini Corsaro 1200 – one of the most expensive bikes money can buy. But as is typically Russian, everything else gets put on hold to help a fellow motorcyclist passing through.
My bike also needed the steering head bearings examined … they felt notchy. By now a team of Mirny bikers had gathered to check out the bike show in Igor’s office yard. Joe, Igor and I were also joined by Big Igor, the towns motocross ‘dude’ and Ilya, our Africa Twin equipped main contact in Mirny. Ilya turned up with his new girlfriend, another Masha:
With half a dozen bikers around, the front end of the bike was dropped in no time and an inspection of the bearings showed they were ok. We cleaned them up a bit, added some more grease and re packed them and they felt 95% better.
- – -
I had arranged a day trip for SJ and I to an Evenki village a couple of hours travel away from Mirny. When Joe and Renate arrived in town I invited them to join us, and they decided to stay a couple of days in Mirny and do just that. We left early in the morning. The Evenki are one of the native peoples of Yakutia, traditionally reindeer herders, with relatively little contact with the outside world as most live in remote villages and communities not served by summer roads.
To get there the three bikes had to ride 80km north-east from Mirny to a hydro-electric plant at the town of Svetly, on the Vilyui River. From there we would travel by boat 35km downriver to the Evenki village of Syuldyukar. I had no idea what we would find there – going to Evenki villages was virgin territory for me.
The first thing that struck me about Syuldyukar was how normal it was. There was piped hot water in town, electricity, telephone lines, streetlighting and a post office. I was half expecting to see tee-pees and reindeer everywhere.
The next thing that caught our eye was an amazing home made trike. I quizzed the owner to find out more about it.
It’s used for hunting in Spring and Autumn when the ground is too boggy for anything else. In summer they can use 4WDs and in winter they use snowmobiles … but when its mud city, they fit 4 guys onto the trike and head out with their rifles for a couple of weeks of hunting.
It has a 350cc Izh 2 stroke engine, a UAZ 4WD rear axle and home made bodywork. It was incredibly cool. We loved it.
We were given a tour of the town by the local administration lady, who took us to their Evenki statue. I believe it depicts an Evenki man and woman being blessed by the goddess of the earth.
We were accompanied on our walk around the village by this handsome Siberian Husky:
As we approached the village cultural centre and museum, a group of the towns elders invited us in … blessing us beforehand:
While this community no longer herds reindeer, it was clear that their heritage was all about the reindeer. The clothes in the museum were all reindeer skin, the teepees were reindeer hide and even their modern clothing featured the reindeer emblem.
Once our museum visit was over, we were invited to sign the guestbook. They proudly boasted an Englishman had been here before. I looked up the appropriate entry in the guest book. It was only 7 entries back. The Financial Times Moscow correspondent had been here in 2002.
After lunch we headed back to the waterfront, after stopping to check out a new wooden house being built, completely from materials harvested from forests nearby.
A couple of kids were practising their tepee making techniques:
One of them clearly knew his bikes. Joe had to decline a chance to photograph him!
We headed back to Mirny for more beers and war stories.
- – -
We had a few final things to sort out in Mirny before we departed. Igor had been checking with contacts in Lensk to find out when the next barge left for down south. There was nothing in the next day or so, so we decided to get everything else done in Mirny. SJ had problems with her panniers falling off, so Igor remounted the clamps.
We both had problems with water and dust damaging the heated grips controllers, and this time it was a chance to call another old Mirny contact, the Andrei who had diagnosed and temporarily fixed my electrical starter problems last year.
Andrei also just donated his time, came around and pulled apart both controllers, on both bikes, found the faults, fixed them and sealed everything back up. I am in awe of this guy. He is the ultimate Mr Fixit. And he always has a huge smile on his face. One of these days I am going to do a tour and take him along as support. Probably the most useful and cheerful guy I have ever met.
We even squeezed in a radio and newspaper interview:
- – -
Joe and Renate left town early, headed for Suntar, Nyurba, Vilyuisk and Yakutsk, before their final destination around September 5th – Magadan. I had presented him with a Road of Bones jacket badge in advance. It was contrary to my normal rule of not releasing them ‘in advance’ but Joe is a pro. He will get the job done.
We got the call we had been waiting for … a barge was leaving Lensk for Ust Kut tomorrow morning and we needed to be there about 8am. It meant waking up at 3am and riding thru the early morning cold and darkness for 4 hours or so. But we do what we have to do. We finished up all the loose ends in Mirny, including me visiting mechanic Andrei (another contact from last year) and trying to sort a slight oil leak on my generator cover (turns out to have been a microscopic crack that we had to epoxy weld), and went to sleep early. We slept knowing every little niggly thing with the bikes that had developed on the Road of Bones and Vilyuisky Trakt had been sorted in Mirny. Loads of little jobs that require people more skilled than ourselves to sort out.
We left Lena’s place, having been fed breakfast, and Lena and her family followed us to the ferry across the Vilyui River. Lena spoke to the captain and told him he won’t be charging us for the ride, if he wants to stay in her good books. It was only then I realised she was ‘kind of a big deal around here’ – a big wig in the local city administration.
Underway on the other side and Sherri Jo was riding well. It was like all the previous days experiences really clicked together. Suddenly she was cruising along at 85 km/h (53 mph) on the sandy gravely roads of Yakutia. I rode next to her for a while and she was taking the bumps, the bridges, the sand, the hazards, exactly as she was supposed to.
With SJ in the groove, we made Nyurba in less than 2 hours and stopped for lunch. I had the chance to say hi to the café folks there who had looked after Tony and myself so well last year. Then we pressed on – through Yakutian fields.
I had been telling SJ about this challenging half bridge across a small river for some days now. It was a spot for great video last year, with the bikes needing to ford half a river in half metre deep water and then ride up out of the water up a steep narrow steel ramp to the bridge, which spanned the deeper part of the river. But when we reached the bridge, it was a real anticlimax. Water levels were very low this year. I noted this morning on the ferry across the Vilyui River that the water seemed 3-4 metres lower than last year. Even this tributary was a good 2 metres lower than last year. The half bridge was accordingly a full bridge and we just rode straight over it.
By 3pm the days planned 300 km ride to Suntar was almost over. It was a day in which we would take 4 ferries, 3 across the Vilyui and 1 across the Markha River.
It was also the day in which we rode completely in the Yakut heartland along the Vilyui River. Most of the day villages were only 15 km (10 miles) apart. The scenery was divine, and the people friendly and generous.
And then with just 30 km to go to Suntar, we hit wet roads. Instantly we went from cruising at top speed to struggling along at 45-50 km/h. It was a slippery stressful end to the day. By the time we took the ferry across the river to Suntar, SJ was the walking dead. That stressful last 30 wet kilometres had taken a lot of energy out of both of us.
I stopped at an autoparts shop and asked around for a hotel. For the second day running, the lady chatted to us for 3 minutes and then stepped into her van and said follow me. We were led thru the muddy, swampy, back streets of Suntar to a big new house and were told we would be staying here tonight. It was her house and Lida (our host) ensured we were extremely well looked after. We had lucked out again!. A fantastic big banya, home cooked meat and potatoes, great company, a huge widescreen TV … we keep landing in the lap of the gods somehow.
This Vilyuisky Trakt ride has been incredible from a hospitality and scenery viewpoint. It’s been challenging riding for Sherri Jo in parts but I can see the fruits of the challenging riding paying off … every day on the bike she looks more and more comfortable and accomplished. She is off riding around the world alone once we part ways in Irkutsk, and after this Siberian experience she will be able to tackle any dirt roads with confidence and speed.
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We left Lida and her family around 10am for the final day on the Vilyuisky Trakt. It was 240 km from Suntar to Mirny. The roads were still wet but there had been no more rain overnight. That meant they were dryer than yesterday. Best of all, was that it hadn’t rained at all in Mirny. That meant the roads had to get better somewhere between Suntar and Mirny. But that didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of greasy patches in the first 50 km.
By the time we reached Krestyakh, the last primarily Yakut town on our route, the roads were dry. Krestyakh has the last of the 4 ferries across the Vilyui River, and it’s a ferry service that sometimes runs as little as once every 6 hours. Last time I was here I felt lucky that I only waited 90 minutes for the ferry. This time we took the ferry across the river almost immediately. It was our lucky day.
The next highlight on the track was the crossing of the Vilyuchanka, a small tributary of the Vilyui and the scene of a few cars not making it across last year. Again we had been lucky. The low water levels this year, meant the crossing was a breeze.
Again Sherri Jo was flying along the roads. It was another day when yet again her riding was better, faster, more relaxed and more comfortable than I had seen before. I had the feeling that things had really clicked now.
I passed a GAZ71 full of hunters out on a hunting trip.
The final obstacle was the river at Muad. I saw a Wazzik take the truck over the river, so I lined up and waited for Sherri … I rode the bikes onto the back of the truck and it began to buck and roll its way across the river. Half way across I was kicking myself. We could have forded that river. We had done worse. It was a waste of 1000 rubles.
From there it was a quick 25km ride into Mirny on fast dirt roads. I was going to head into Mirny, get some lunch and then call my friend Ilya to tell him we had arrived. But I didn’t have the chance. A car pulled me over on the edge of town and said he was a friend of Ilya and we should follow him. He took us to his business base, ordered a huge amount of shashlik, and told us to relax. Yet again we had been taken in by people and looked after. Igor, the guy looking after us now, had a jet washer and we cleaned off the bikes, before starting to do maintenance work.
We packed our bags up from the 3 day Yakutian slumber we had enjoyed in Yakutsk and hit the road after saying farewell to Artyom, Katya and Tanya. But not before Katya had fixed up a scrambled eggs breakfast with very tasty “Sibirsky Sauce”:
Sherri Jo impressed with her riding … making good time on some rough roads, but her energy levels were low. Must have been zapped out of her with her 120 C (250F) banya last night. We stopped for lunch at the first village, Mageras and finally called it a day about 3pm at Berdygestyakh, 200km from Yakutsk. It was a short day, but we have the luxury of short days now that the sparsely populated Road of Bones is behind us.
As we checked into a hotel, Sherri Jo was surprised to learn we were the first foreigners to stay here. “Doesn’t everyone who does the Road of Bones come through here?” she asked.
I explained we were now on the Vilyuisky Trakt, a road that continues west across Yakutia rather than south to the main Trans Siberian Highway. Until 2009, parts of this road were winter roads only, and unuseable in Summer. Since 2009 less than half a dozen bikes have been down here. The Vilyuisky Trakt is not exactly a tough road, but it does have its moments, and it is the real heartland of Yakutia. From Berdygestyakh to Krestyakh about 900 km away, we were unlikely to even see many Russians. This is pure Yakut country now.
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40 km into the day we had the moment I had been fearing since hooking up with Sherri Jo. It was a tragedy waiting to happen. I knew it would happen … the only question was when. And here in the middle of Yakutia, it happened. Sherri Jo’s fuel tank / subframe bolts broke.
It’s a major problem with the way the 690 has been designed – there is no metal subframe – the underseat fuel tank doubles as a subframe. All very well for enduro riding, but for luggage carrying adventure riding, it’s a real liability. The bolts and bushes that make up the fuel tank attachments could be considerably stronger. EVERY long trip on a 690E WILL shear the factory tank bolts. I tried to get Sherri to order some custom tougher bolts from an Australian guy (‘Mudguts’) who has developed a solution to this problem, but time was very short before she left. She just had time to get spare factory bolts. These are only a temporary fix – these too will fail.
I sat and looked at Sherri’s bike’s sagging rear end and shook my head. The biting flies were attacking us. This would be a tough miserable place to have to strip the bike down and replace the bolts I thought to myself. Then I thought …. What if I cant remove the sheared bolts? I wont be able to replace them.
I rummaged through my spare parts and tools pannier and dug out a pair of heavy duty straps. I decided we strap the subframe up. I will carry as much of the heavy luggage as possible and Sherri Jo is banned from sitting down – until we get new bolts in. This is my strap rig:
We headed off gingerly towards the next town, in search of a repair facility… with me following closely behind. After 30km of trouble free motoring, I shot off ahead to the next town, “Orto-Surt”, to try and find a repair facility, but there was none. Sherri Jo arrived and I checked the strap rig. It was holding well. “Lets press on” I said, and SJ agreed. We did another 60km, and stopped for lunch. The rig still held firm.
I got the idea that we might try and do the remaining 800km to Mirny with the strap rig, and get Andrei my mechanic friend there to fix it.
We left the lunch stop at Ilbenge and headed for Khampa, the next fuel and food stop. I had told SJ that we might as well set up camp there for the night. 80 km later on one of my regular wait to see SJ stops, I noticed SJ’s tank bag was missing. It was one of the bags I had strapped to my bike to take load of her subframe. (Her tank bag wasn’t used as a tank bag anymore as it was too big and got in the way when standing … so she had it strapped to the back of her bike … and now it was supposed to be strapped to the back of mine.
I figured it must have come off and SJ has probably stopped to pick it up. When she finally appeared, without tank bag, there was only one thing left for me to do. I told SJ to go on ahead to Khampa and wait for me in the café. I had to go back and look for the tank bag. Over 3 hours later I finally met up with SJ at Khampa. I had to go all the way back to the Ilbenge lunch stop before on my return run I spotted the tank bag down an embankment.
When I got to Khampa, the café girls recognised me from last year. SJ and I had dinner.
It was now 7:30pm. We refuelled and I began unpacking the bites in the midge infested area that is Khampa. SJ looked at me with a pained smile and said “How far is the next big town?” …
“80km” I replied …
“And it should have a hotel?” she continued
“Vilyuisk … yep it should have a hotel”
“Let’s go” she demanded.
The insects were a painful nightmare in Khampa for whatever reason, and I am always up for more riding, so I threw my tent back on the bike, and we rode off, reaching Vilyuisk about 90 minutes later. A guy on the edge of town offered to lead me to the town’s hotel and I grabbed it.
Nina was the lady who ran the hotel / restaurant / night club in Vilyuisk. She made sure we were all set for warm showers and food before we settled down for the night.
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In the morning, Nina brought us breakfast. I asked her about a mechanic in town to get Sherri Jo’s tank off. I could probably do it myself there in the yard of Nina’s hotel, but I was more worried about the sheared bolts. We would have to get the ends of the bolts out. Nina made a call and said a mechanic will come to us in 30 minutes. We did other bits and pieces on the bikes. Adjusted tyre pressures / adjusted chain tensions / fixed mirrors etc etc. Sherri Jo fired up her iPhone and did her facebooking.
The mechanic came and I explained the problem and what needed to be done. I helped him take the tank off, and then the airbox out. Once everything was out he got the bolt stubs out without too much difficulty. We put in Sherri Jo’s spare set of bolts and she reassured me she had just PM’d Mudguts, the Aussie guy who makes the hi tensile replacement bolts for some urgent bolt replacements.
By the time the bike was back together Nina insisted we stay for lunch. I spoke to the mechanic and asked him how much for his 2 hours of time … he said nothing … just do we have any souvenirs we could give him. I gave him a Sibirsky Extreme sticker, and a Union Jack lapel pin badge, which distracted him long enough for SJ to slip 500 rubles into his tool kit.
It was now 1pm, and I wanted to hit the road but Nina was very sweet and we accepted her lunch invitation. Lunch was a fantastic affair of an assortment of vegetables, all home grown in Nina’s greenhouses in her yard, of aubergines, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, dill, garlic and chilli … all baked with sour cream. We both thought it tasted like pizza without the dough. It was delicious.
Nina too refused payment for the night and for the meals. We were the first foreigners to stay at her hotel. She also explained the guy who took us here last night was the deputy mayor of Vilyuisk. It was almost sad to go. We had been looked after so well there. But go we must. It was now 4pm.
It was time for SJ to tackle the Vilyuisk Sandpit … a tricky sandy stretch of road that lasts for 10km, from just about where the hotel is on the Western edge of town. So there was no warming up for Sherri Jo; it was sand riding time.
Fortunately for her (and perhaps for me in terms of waiting time) there had been rain last night … the sand had been compacted in stretches, but still with occasional patches of axle deep sand. Last year most of the Vilyuisk Sandpit had been axle deep dry sand and Tony had wallowed in it for 4 hours before finally making it through!
A quick check on the edge of town showed the Sibirsky Extreme sticker from 2009 was still adorning the town sign.
I led the way through the sandpit, stopping every 500 yards or so for SJ to catch up.
It took us a good 45 minutes, but we made it. From here on to Suntar, 400 km down the road, was the heartland of Yakutia … Yakut villages are spaced every 15-30 km.
We made it to VerkhneVilyuisk about 6pm. It was only 75km down the road from the start and I was hoping to rack up another 140km today and get to Nyurba. We pulled into the fuel station to top SJ up, but the pumps were off. A long queue had formed waiting for the electricity to come back on and fire up the pumps. I suggested we use the time to look around town. I needed a foto … Arnaud had told me about a plane wreck in town somewhere and I wanted to find it.
We returned an hour later and rejoined the petrol queue. We queued for another hour before realising … with it now being 8pm, it was too late to begin a 145 km ride, especially when it involved 2 ferry crossings, which can take over an hour each themselves. SJ suggested we find somewhere to stay in town and I agreed. I stopped to ask a lady if there was a hotel in town.
She and her family piled out of the van and said yes … we can take you to it, but can we have some fotos first. I obliged. Then she jumped back in her van and told us to follow. She led us to a huge house in town and then said … this is not a hotel, it is my house. You are my guests. You can eat and sleep and relax. I translated to SJ. She was dumbfounded. All we did was let this woman’s kids take fotos of us, and she takes us in for the night. It was very cool!