A short collection of clips that were discarded from the Sibirsky Extreme Project film (still almost ready). This is a just a brief look at life on board a northern Siberian barge, as Tony and I “sailed” north from Ust Kut to Lensk over 3 days, in June 2009.
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.
– – –
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.
– – –
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.
– – –
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!