Click on each for a larger resolution:
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.