Friday, July 25, 2003  

Yakutsk to Skovoradina

Turning south from Yakutsk on Saturday the 19th of July, we bid a fond farewell to the various friends we had made over the previous week and strove on initially for Neryungri where we hoped to catch a train to Ulan Ude. As it turned out we had to proceed an additional 500 km to Skovoradina.

I had replaced my battery in Yakutsk due to charging issues with the original. The replacement, a Ural battery which is smaller than the stock, provided us with our first issue of the day. The battery moved around so much that the soft lead terminal snapped with ease. This meant a 3 hour pit stop whilst we jury rigged another connection to the battery and provided structural support to minimize vibration (a sock).

The first night left us camping not far from the road, but still close enough to hear the constant drone of Kamaz's throughout the night. A well rested sleep cushioned by the underlying moss set us on the road again for another day of Russian roulette.

This day saw a collective sigh of relief throughout the group as after more than 2000 miles of dirt road, we encountered our first paved section of road outside of a city since we had left Magadan 3 weeks earlier. I can only liken this to any pleasure of life that one takes for granted in the everyday, but when without, the experience was wondrous. It was absolute bliss to lean back on my pack, grip the handlebars with one hand and enjoy the passing scenery around me instead of the grit of teeth when in concentration in avoiding potholes, pieces of metal and other foreign objects.

The road down for the next 1100 km repeating the pattern of paved and unpaved with dirt road still very good enabling us to make good time.

The day passed quickly and without major event apart from a patch on my tire blowing resulting in a quick tube change in the heat of the day.

Stopping late that day, we camped near a side road that looked like it meandered up into the hills to a quarry of sorts, resulting in the distant sounds of machinery throughout the night.

Surprisingly Matt was the first up the next day, with myself and Henning following grudgingly behind. His enthusiasm was however soon dampened by a nail in the tire, what is becoming our constant companion of late.

Unfortunately I was unaware of Matt's issue and by the time Henning had caught up with me to procure the tire irons, concerns about our lack of fuel raised the issue of whether to turn back and run out of fuel, or continue on to get more to go back later. Fortunately we met a fellow biker in the guise of Mika - a German traveling on a small Honda 250. After a brief chat and poring over the map showing each other best routes and roads, Mika agreed to take the tire irons back to Matt. Henning and I continued on for food after being kindly given more fuel from a passing Kamaz towing a Lada in the back. Matt arrived an hour or so later where he gladly accepted a warm beer and some cutlets.

Our next port of stay was Neryungri. A pretty town 800km south of Yakutsk that for some reason I thought was near water but was far from. Our plan to stay only one night was hindered by a rather foolish but serious accident to Matt's bike. This resulted in us staying two extra days while this issue was resolved. In the meantime we all ambled away the time with Schaschlick, vodka and more vodka. Meeting many people such as a Russian Space Engineer, an ex-fighter pilot, Aeroflot pilots, ex-US based students and countless more.

I got more drunk on one evening during this sojourn than I have been for a long time and foolishly wandered away from the pack spending a frivolous evening trying to find my way back to the hotel, sleeping in a forest for a short time, meeting many more people who wanted to help me by buying me more vodka before I found myself back at the original restaurant where unfortunately Matt and Henning had already departed. More vodka and an understanding taxi driver who was able to interpret my bad Russian left me deposited back at the hotel and indisposed for the entire next day. I made a young friend that day of a young Russian boy who was fascinated with the bikes pictured left.

Two days after the Vodka episode and with Matt's bike fixed we waved the crowds with their questions fare well and continued on our merry way.

We were specifically warned not to give any details of the following event
which might be traced back to those responsible.  Therefore, we have
altered the chronology slightly.

Along the roads in Russia there are multiple police barriers where papers are checked and the information duly noted in a log book. At most of these we have been quickly processed or merely waived through. However, on one particular day we were detained for further interrogation at what we had thought would be a routine stop. We were led into a back room and given mind altering substances, shown a force of arms,
stripped down, locked in a small hot and humid room and beaten
. Matt made a break for it before being caught near a river and brought back to the police barracks. [read more]

The next day hurting and dazed we managed to flee our captors and hit the road once more in search of a train at Tynda, our next stop.

Tynda is a rather bustling small city surrounded by also small mountains, which was of particular interest to us as it has a major train station. The reason being is that our road at the moment is rumored to end at Skovoradina where it turns into a reputed path most of the way to Ulan-Ude (north of Mongolia). Due to Matt's rear tire still poised to provide a major problem from the plugged gash from the start of the journey, we have all decided to take the train for this section till we can get the tire replaced in Ulan Baatar.

After buying tickets for the train, we took the bikes down to where we were supposed to load. The carriage to load the bikes on, was a good 8-9 feet above the platform resulting in forlorn looks from ourselves and the return of our tickets. While waiting for Matt to achieve this, we were approached by the local television station which gave us our third and longest interview to date.

We left Tynda around 3pm to persist onwards with the remaining 250km before arriving at Skovoradina- a hub of train travel connecting Vladisvostok with western Russia where we now await the trains departure tomorrow. I think we are all coming down with the flu, so the 17 hour train ride to Ulan-Ude may be a long one.Discuss this post

more photos . . .

posted by Shaun; | 5:51 PM

Thursday, July 24, 2003  

Police and Banya's

Along the roads of Russia as maybe a bit of a hangover from days past, are police stops. They are typically on the outskirts of towns small and big.

Staffed by the young and the old, the bored and the alert, the posts will have a barrier that is lifted or rolled across the roads to stop suspicious or interesting characters.

On our bikes, we typically fall into that second set, almost always resulting in us being stopped for further investigation. Usually, a few documents are produced, a couple of details scribbled down and always some questions asked about the bikes, more out of curiosity than professional interest.

At one stop, however things went further - much further. . . .

I was first around the corner and quickly grasped the brake when I noticed the now familiar check post ahead of me that signaled a police road block. Slowing down I came to an easy stop beside the little hut where ahead of me the barrier was raised clear.

My exhaust loudly announcing my presence, so it was only a matter of seconds before a face appeared in one of the small lopsided windows of the guard house. Surprise registered on the eyes of the unshaved face and the mouth registered words that I could not hear from my position on the bike. Instantly four other faces appeared at all the other windows before a figure appeared at the door and motioned me to the side of the road. With a sigh, I eased my bike over to a small dirt patch out of the traffic and shut off the engine before greeting the approaching uniformed figures with a broad but uneasy smile.

With a few words I was quickly herded into the office while hurriedly grabbing my passport, Russian bike registration and other necessary documents in a place where the more documentation you produce the better. I sat down in the chair in front what appeared to be a Sergeant with his uniform unbuttoned revealing a blue and white striped shirt reminiscent of old films featuring the Russian navy. Greeting me with a expansive smile that seemed friendly and helped relax me, he motioned for the documents which, with a slow, careful and steady hand started to copy out details into an old ruled math book accompanied by the odd question or two.

At this stage both Matt and Henning had arrived on their bikes and had also been ushered into the office with me along with their documentation. Finishing with me, the Sergeant then turned to my comrades and repeated the long exercise with almost surprising patience. Once finished with that task, he sternly turned to me and with a mixture of sign language and pidgin Russian asked me whether I had had anything to drink.

Mindful of the previous four nights of vodka interactions with the locals, I acted surprised and held out my palms in front of me before profusely denying any interaction with alcohol and indignant surprise at how he would think that we would mix liquor and riding a bike together.

Looking deeply in turn into each of our eyes with a gaze that bore into our skulls and make us sweat with nervous anticipation of where this was heading, the frown and set eyes before us suddenly changed.

With a glint in his eyes, and a flash of teeth he indicated that this was not a good thing at all and we must join him and his colleagues for some vodka.

With instant relief we all thanked him profusely and motioned that we must be moving on to make time as we had only come around 50km that day and we were still in reality suffering from hangovers from the night before. With a grin he held his fingers in front of him in an open pinch and whispered with his husky Russian accent "Malinkie (small) Vodka"

Not wishing to refuse such gracious hospitality especially when offered by people with guns we hesitantly accepted and followed the crowd of five uniforms into an adjoining small dacha beside the checkpoint leaving one guard still manning his post.

After the third "small" vodka Matt decided he would step in and firmly refuse any more vodkas, at which point, handcuffs were produced with a playful grin indicating the consequences of his decision.

After the first bottle, the word Banya was supplied into the conversation. Banya is the Russian steam room and is famous throughout and beyond the borders. We were led to a small room out the back of the dacha which in the corner had a large stove with the pipe surrounded by river stones. Our eyes took in the site of manna from heaven to our aching bones and the excitement of finally taking part in the ritual of the Banya. Noticing our interest our host in his typical playful style motioned that if we wanted to take a Banya we would have to stay the night as their guests while showing us the dorm to get the message across.

With resigned sighs we all gave in and signaled our acceptance more out of surrender to the unrelenting insistences than anything else.

What lay before us was a night of debauchery that reminds one of college (university) days. One small vodka turned into an unending supply of bottles that made sure the conversation (with them not speaking English and us with limited Russian!) was kept flowing and the fun chasing closely behind.

Shortly after a meal of cheese and small oily fish which I learnt to fillet with my thumbs, we took the Banya for half an hour sweating out the dirt, dust and exhaustion that we had picked up over the past couple of weeks, whilst being beaten on our naked backs with branches of oak leaves dipped into a sweet smelling mixture. Escaping in pain for 3 minutes at a time we would stand outside in the chilly night air before re-entering the small dark room for another round of beatings.

With mixed relief and a feeling of immense satisfaction, we stood outside after what may have been the 5th round, to smirk at each other saying little and just enjoying the moment.

Shortly after, Matt, with an eagerness and that may have been re-enforced by the vodka announced that he wanted a swim to cool off before slipping on some sandals and making a run for the river which was probably about 1km away. Looking like that image of the sasquatch caught on a shaky home video, he spent a good ten minutes fighting his way through dense undergrowth before being rewarded with what he describes as a fresh and refreshing swim in the clear river. To save him the trip back our host dispatched a car to meet him on the return and bring him back to the safety of the dacha.

I can't remember whether it was after the loud rounds of arm wrestling or before the long quiet periods of chess furtively supported by more rounds of vodka but it didn't seem like a long time before guns were produced, and after being cleared of ammunition were handed round for inspection.

The police station had only one pistol and one AK-47 to be shared by all of them - a fact quickly pointed out by one of the sergeants. This was obviously a Kodak moment, so as Henning went to get his camera from his bike, I asked whether we could complete the scene wearing their uniforms. Our hosts thought this a great idea, and a uniform along with cap and bulletproof vest was quickly produced. The vest interestingly enough was not made of Kevlar but of steel plates all linked together like chain mail covered by light blue cloth.

We had great fun with the photo opportunities, with us dressed as police and the police donning our motorcycle uniforms and pretending to run from us with us acting like we were chasing them. I can't show most of the photos to protect the identity of those involved but can show photos of just us. Towards the end of the night we got to use the pistol when they set up two bottles in the back field gave Henning and I a bullet each which amazingly enough under the circumstances we were able to hit the targets to our hosts surprise (and ours) and congratulations.

As we were participating in this unreal event, our very jokingly host did say something that stuck in my mind. With a mixture of simple Russian and hand movements he said that the Russian police were kind compared to American police. This seemed a bizarre statement considering our media inspired imaged of Russian police physically roughing up the suspects they capture. When we pointed out this viewpoint, he just laughed and brought out one of their rubber truncheons saying that just softens them up anyway and doesn't hurt them much as they were all strong big criminals. He then pointed out that as the American police have so many guns they use them a lot more easily and will shoot somebody where a Russian officer will just beat them up some. It was fascinating seeing this point of view directly from the other side and I couldn't help agreeing with him that it would indeed seem to appear that way.

Around 4am the vodkas started to hit Matt, and he was the first to crash with Henning closely behind. After talking some more with our increasingly drowsy hosts I went into the barracks and grabbed a bunk where I immediately drifted off to a deep vodka induced sleep before being woken up at 8am by Henning who was eager to avoid the rain clouds hanging above.

We were all feeling under the weather but with hearty handshakes and tight beer hugs we fondly bid our hosts adieu before shakily mounting the bikes and carrying on with the journey.

The entire night seems surreal and we still laugh about it now, remembering all the distinct personalities of those involved. When now people ask us if we have had a problem with the Russian police, we all wink knowingly at each other before answering that they are indeed a tough crowd and a group one should be very wary of and you should definitely run for your life if they ever mention the words ""Malinkie Vodka"Discuss this post

more photos . . .

posted by Shaun; | 9:33 AM

Tuesday, July 22, 2003  

Kamaz - The Workhorse of the Russian Far East.

As long as 22 wheels and sometimes as short as only 6 wheels but as tall as a house the Kamaz is a frequent site on the Russian far east roads.

Not only has the Kamaz been helping the economy out here sometimes by brute force by fording rivers where bridges have been out, crossing long dusty stretches of Russian gravel or acting as a bus taking passengers to the remote outpost, but the drivers have also been a boon to ourselves and our trip.

Many times when in need or not the drivers have stopped to offer their help or assistance as needed. Once when almost out of gasoline a group of drivers stopped and radioed behind to another
Kamaz that was towing a Lada behind. Once catching up with us, the driver quickly produced a hose and siphoned the contents from the hapless car into our fuel cans where they were quickly emptied once more into our bikes. The drivers all firmly refused our offer of payment and with a wave and a smile continued on their long trek to wherever they were headed.

Another instance Matt had another encounter with a nail, when henning and I were ahead. Again Kamaz drivers stopped and quickly helped with nary a request for return.

Offering food, showering us with vodka or helping us cross a large river, this has continued throughout our trip, and has helped us quickly build up an affinity for these strong guys, who sometime with their family, spend weeks on the road working as a driver, spending a lot of time working as roadside mechanics constantly keeping their trucks in shape and providing assistance to us whether we are in need or not. We salute and thank them.Discuss this post

photos . . .

posted by Shaun; | 9:31 AM

Monday, July 21, 2003  


Every time we stop we are asked a barrage of questions that have become routine. I don't mean this to sound disrespectful, just as we are interested in the people we meet, so are they interested in us. Its just funny how its gotten to the point that we can almost answer all the questions before they are asked. Occasionally someone will throw us a curveball and ask the questions in a different order, or even come up with a new one, but by and large, people want to know the same things.

The general order is: Where are you from? Where are you going? Where did you come from? What type of bikes are those? Are you going to Magadan? How did you get to Magadan? What size is the engine? How many cylinders? Gasoline or oil-gas mixture? Where are you going? (at which point we show them the map on Shaun's or Henning's bike) What's the top speed? How many liters of gas does it hold? How many liters per 100 km? How much does the bike cost? How many gears? What do you think of the roads?

While we try and be good natured about it, and often enjoy the interaction, as you can imagine we are occasionally in a hurry, or just plain tired. At that point it can be quite frustrating. In addition, we are occasionally accosted by quite drunk people who always seem to stand too close. I'll admit that we sometimes pretend not to understand them just in the hopes of ending the conversation quicker.

I've always liked being the center of attention, but its funny how now that whenever we're on the bikes we are the main focus, I find myself occasionally yearning for anonymity. But, by and large, its fun to talk to new people and part of the bargain of travel.Discuss this post

more photos . . .

posted by matt; | 6:19 PM


Another tiring episode

Earlier in the trip my rear tire was severely gashed and punctured (How to fix a motorcycle tire). A week or so later, Shaun picked up a nail and, since the valve stem on his tube broke, we had to use the tube that had been in my tire. Shortly after leaving Yakutsk, we had to pull over because Shaun's rear tire had a blow out. This immediately drew a crowd of local bikers, eager to help (or at least ask the same questions).

Much to my chagrin, the cause of Shaun's problem was a failure of the patch put on by the same people that had plugged my tire. Over the last few weeks I've been watching the slow expansion of the hole around the plug, dreading the inevitable blowout that will end the ride for at least several days while we figure out how to rent a Kamaz to get the bike to the next stop. So needless to say, seeing the patch unglued from the tube had me a little unglued as well.

We quickly repaired Shaun's tire and proceeded on our way to the train that would take us to the next promised land.

The next day, short on gas, and trying to get as good mileage as possible we wound our way south. At each town we were told that gas was available at the next town down the road. We had just restarted after a quick stop on the side of the road to allow us to regroup (we tend to spread out on dusty roads), when suddenly, and sickeningly, I felt the rear wheel start to weave. To further add to my concern, Shaun had already crested the hill so did not see me pull over. I knew that he had just enough gas to make it to the next town so he couldn't turn around to look for me. Fortunately Henning was right behind me.

You can't imagine how delighted I was to see a nail sticking out of the rear tire. Henning and I quickly got the bike up on one of my panniers and I sent him off to follow Shaun. We only have one set of tire levers, and at the time Shaun had them. Without enough gas for him to turn around and bring them to me, I knew I was in for a long wait until they had fuelled up and could return.

It didn't take long for a trucker to stop to see if I needed help. I waived him on explaining that my two Tovarish (comrades) were returning forthwith. A few minutes later, and another trucker stopped. He refused to abandon me, and quickly the father and young son team were out of the truck and helping me remove the wheel. As they brought out a crowbar and sledgehammer I quickly explained that the rim was aluminum. At this point another truck stopped by to offer further assistance.

They quickly came upon a scheme to break the bead. Essentially the wheel was placed on some blocks and then a jack was placed on the tire and it was jacked against the bumper. The father and son team worked surprisingly well together given that the boy looked to be in his mid-teens. They each listened to the others suggestions and worked without argument and quickly. In no time the tire was off the wheel and the tube ready to be patched.

I produced my patch kit and the truckers from the second truck produced a fancy patching tool. As they expertly patched the tube, I felt the inside of the plug. It was a relief to feel that it was still in securely, but disheartening to realize that the hole had spread towards the edge of the patch.

I quite smugly awaited the opportunity to triumphantly pull out the fancy portable electric compressor that Steve from McKees had lent me and run it off the bike. But instead of the usual foot pump, they had an air hose built into the truck, so much for my moment in the sun. Father and son again working together with minimal instructions had the tire inflated to the proper pressure and back onto the bike

I thanked them but with a simple "nyetazavanio" (sp?) (it's nothing) they took off. I had just about finished packing up the bike and was about to set off when I saw a bike with a headlight on approaching. The locals never run headlights during the day, but as it got closer I realized it wasn't one of us. "Deutscher Hilfe Service" sang out the lone rider and I knew he had run into my compatriots. Mika introduced himself and procured the tire levers given to him by Shaun.

He had already spoken with the truckers who had helped me and knew that everything was all set. We chatted for about 15 minutes or so about his road ahead to Magadan and I gave him one of my 10 liter jerry cans which he gratefully accepted. He seemed a decent guy and had been on the road for about 4 years, just riding around the world. We said our goodbyes and set off in our respective directions.Discuss this post

more photos . . .

posted by matt; | 10:19 AM


Russian Roulette

As we make the progression from Yakutsk southwards we begin the wild game of Russian Roulette.

Due to the dry conditions, and sparse countryside, the road is layered with a film of dust which is readily thrown up by any disturbance. The disturbance at hand is typically a Kamaz.

We ride typically in a single file, sometimes close and sometimes depending on the wariness of each particular rider, spread out beyond eyesight. This enables us to negotiate without undue distraction the ever approaching clouds of dust that signal a large vehicle ahead. Occasionally we are surprised to find that the dust cloud we thought came from the rider ahead suddenly turns out to be caused by a large black rectangle moving slowly up a hill.

As the rider approaches, visibility steadily decreases to the point that the rider is unsure to a certain degree on just how far ahead the 22 wheel Kamaz lies aside from the engine roar mixed in with the sound of gravel from the bike.

At this stage, the rider is probably only 10-20 feet behind the behemoth truck but detection is still not possible, along with the 360 angle view around the bike.

Whilst choking on dust, the decision must be made by the rider on whether to pass the truck, into the unknown or fall back to maintain a much slower pace behind the truck (and ultimately have others quickly come up from behind).

Typically boredom of riding so slow or the desperate need for fresh air and an unrestricted view of the road ahead dictates the decision to proceed.

Inching forward waiting for a change in wind direction, or curvature of the road, the rider impatiently waits for the opportunity to break ahead.

Finally when the barest of chances arrives, the back of the truck is partially in view and the conclusion that no other vehicles are approaching (sometimes guesswork at the best) the resolve is set and the wrist is flicked to thrust the bike past the truck.

This in itself can be termed as Russian Roulette, due to the fact that a truck, or fast car could appear with no notice, or there could be potentially fatal obstacles (especially at speed) in the road to the side of the truck enveloped by the dust. So far we have made it past each time, only to release our aching jaws and loosen our tight grips from the handlebars, however there have been a number of close calls.

Russian roads are dangerous at best with a mixture of rough roads and seemingly careless drivers oblivious to the damage they could cause to a comparatively small bike traveling in the opposite direction. A French biker was reportedly killed last year near Vladivostok when a Kamaz rounded a tight bend on the wrong side ending the rider's life instantly. We have also heard of the case where a local rider drove his Ural off a crumpled bridge into an unknown fate. Once we also saw the wreckage of one car that had tried the above maneuvere obviously to only seriously misjudge their environment.

As this is all part of the journey, we must take this danger in stride doing our best to minimize the risks and hope that lady luck is on our side, and we will continue playing the Motorcycle game of Russian Roulette.Discuss this post

more photos . . .

posted by Shaun; | 9:21 AM








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