Tuesday, August 9, 2005
After about 30 hours of travel I arrived in Vladivostok Monday afternoon (Sunday in the US as I lost a day crossing the international date line), August 8. I left the Twin Falls, Idaho airport late Saturday afternoon, and changed planes in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and Incheon, South Korea. The leg from LA to S. Korea was about 12 hours. Considering that the airplane flew at 550 - 590 mph most of the way, the Pacific is a very large ocean, and this is a very big planet we live on!
I was impressed with the enormous size of Seoul as we flew over it. My first glimpse of Russia was of wooded hills and valleys which seemed trackless, there not being a sign of a road as far as the eye could see (at least not from that altitude).
Vladivostok is a city of about 900,000 people and it's name means "Lord of the East." It has been compared to San Francisco in that it's built on hills surrounding a large bay and harbor, and it's also a bustling seaport. My hotel window has an excellent view of the harbor and it's enjoyable watching the ships come and go. The weather is quite humid and it was quite hot the day I arrived, although not hot since. The vegetation is lush and green, with many trees.
My hotel (Hotel Primorye in the downtown area, overlooking the harbor) is up to western standards, and the food everywhere I have eaten has been excellent.
Since I don't speak Russian, I had engaged a fellow to assist me with the bureaucracies, numerous regulations, etc. related to getting the motorcycle into the country. Roman Glushak, who is fluent in English and Japanese, in addition to his native Russian, picked me up at the airport and drove me into the city as the airport is some distance from the city center. We first went to a bank where I changed part of my USD into Rubles, and then to an insurance company near the docks where I purchase liability insurance (required) for the motorcycle. We then went to my hotel where I checked in. Up to this point everything had gone easily and flawlessly, but that was about to change. A call to the Vladivostok office of STS Logistics revealed that the bike had not yet arrived!! This despite allowing a full 6 weeks for an estimated one month transit time across the pacific in a freighter. We were told the ship would get here in two days, that being today (Wed.), and today we were told today it is here, but we had no access to the motorcycle today and were not able to get the marine bill of lading, which is required to start the customs process for the bike. It's obvious that getting the bike into Russia is going to be considerably more complicated than was getting myself in.
Why the delay I do not know. If I had it to do over again I would have selected air freight despite the 1000 USD higher cost. The advice on the Horizons Unlimited website, which is devoted to international adventure travel by motorcycle, was to always ship a motorcycle by air if it's at all possible for exactly this reason - unreliable delivery dates. I found the Horizons Unlimited (www.horizonsunlimited.com) bulletin boards (HUBB) and other sections invaluable in planning for this trip and highly recommend anyone contemplating an international motorcycle trip visit this website.
Hopefully I will be able to get the bike tomorrow, but I'm not exactly brimming with confidence at this point. Friday I plan to leave for the second annual gathering of international motorcyclists being held this coming weekend on the oceanfront about 200 KM from Vladivostok. Then it's off to the north and west to begin my ride across Russia. See the photos section for some pictures of Vladivostok.
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
The bike is here! Roman and I were thus able obtain the necessary documentation to get the customs clearance for the bike, and that process consumed a good part of the day. We made at least six visits to different offices (one of the offices three times!) but finally had all the paperwork for the shipping company to release the bike to me. Upon uncrating the bike we found that the box containing my helmet, riding jacket and pants, boots, and the bike mirrors was missing. The shipping company supervisor was unable to find it, supposedly because the employee who had dealt with the bike the day before was not at work today and no one else knew where he had stored the box. This man is to be at work tomorrow and we're told the box will be located then. Not wanting the ride the bike even the few blocks from the shipping company to my hotel without a helmet (which are legally required in Russia), we left the bike at the shipping company overnight.
Thursday, August 11, 2005
The missing box was mysteriously found this morning. Roman thinks that the employee in question stole the box, and that the supervisor called him and told him to bring it back. I don't know if this is or is not true, but I'm relieved my gear has been found. I followed Roman back to the hotel on my motorcycle, where we said goodbye. Given my lack of Russian, I don't know how I could have managed the bureaucratic maze associated with getting the motorcycle through the customs process by myself, and for anyone in this situation at some future time, I highly recommend Roman's services. It was well worth every penny I paid him. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Before we parted Roman and I sat down over lunch and he wrote out a number of helpful things on index cards, such as the meanings of traffic signs, the terminology for ordering gasoline, etc. which were helpful to me when on the road. I stored the bike in the gated, guarded, pay parking lot immediately behind the hotel for the night.
Friday, August 12, 2005
This morning I motored out of Vladivostok bound for the Facing the Ocean 2005 Far Eastern International Moto Travlers meeting near Nahodka, north-east of Vladivostok. Although Roman had told me it would be easy to get out of Vladivostok ("just follow the main road," pointing off to the north), it proved to be very difficult to determine which was the main route, many of the streets appearing of equal importance, resulting in many detours, stops to ask directions, etc. I found no one who spoke any English, so their ability to give me directions (after I had showed them where I wanted to go on the map) consisted of pointing in a direction and then indication a right or left turn. Problem was, I couldn't understand if I was to turn in a kilometer, 5 kilometers, 20 kilometers, etc. To compound the problem, my gps isn't working properly. It initially indicated I was somewhere in the middle of the water, and all the software I had downloaded into it from the Garmin World Map CD before leaving home had vanished. So the only help the gps provided was that of a constant read-out compass. It didn't indicate any streets or roads - only international boundaries, large bodies of water, and the direction being traveled. This compounded the difficulty of getting through the city enormously (this situation with the gps continued until I reached Poland, when the mapping data for part of Europe mysteriously appeared). But, using the limited directions I was able to get, and the compass function of the gps, I did eventually get out of the city and on the road to Nahodha. Once I was close enough to Nahodha that signs for that city began appearing along the road, things became much easier.
At a major intersection north-east of Vladivostok I encountered my first police checkpoint. This was a large one, there being about 10 - 12 police and military officers there. The way it works is that one or more officers stands beside the road and points a wand at a vehicle and motions for it to pull over. I was pulled over and asked to produce documents for the bike and myself. The police officer doing this spoke a small amount of english, and seemed to think I was lacking some document allowing me to travel in Russia. However, an older, apparently superior, officer soon came over, spoke briefly with the first officer, and then they told me to proceed down the road. A relatively painless process, although the sight of military officers with assault rifles can be a bit intimidating.
As I neared Nahodka I had no clue at to the location of the meeting, other than it was at Zolotary Bay. Eventually I saw two bikes with three fellows stopped on the shoulder of the highway, so I pulled off and asked them if they knew the location. This was Sergei, who knew some english, his brother, and nephew. They guided me to the meeting location but didn't enter, instead motioning me to go on in. I never saw these three fellows again, but greatly appreiciate their guiding me to the meeting site. There were a large number of people, some on bikes, some not, milling around the entrance, which was gated and attended by a couple of security guards. At that time a rider on an unusually painted bike came along and told me in excellent english to follow him. The gate immediately opened for us, and he had me fill out a registration form. This was "Cash," who I believe is one of the organizers of the meeting. His bike is painted with pictures of currency, obviously because of his name. I've posted a picture of his bike in the photos section.
Very shortly I met several people, some of whom I've had email contact with, such as Shustrik and Daana, both members of the Horizons Unlimited Vladivostok community and active on HUBB. I also met Sinus, who I believe is the chief organizer of the meeting. Sinus has a website, www.sinus.vl.ru, where contact information for individuals across Russia who will assist motorcycle travlers is posted, and a page devoted to the Facing the Ocean meeting, www.sinus.vl.ru/mtravel/ocean2/english/place. And I met many other people whose names I cannot recall, for which I apologize.
There were only two other Americans at the meeting. Liam Egan grew up on Long Island and works as a chef at a restaurant in Vladivostok. Liam and a friend rode to the meeting on his Japanese cruiser, and their picture is in the photo section. The other US resident was born in Russia but has lived the last 12 years in Chicago. He flew to Vladivostok, rented a motorcycle there, and rode to the meeting. His name was Oleg and his picture, with rented bike, is also in the photo section.
I had timed my RTW trip specifically so I could attend this meeting, but had no idea what to expect. I thought perhaps there would be 50 or so motorcycles present. As can be seen from the picture on the photos page of this site, it was far bigger than that, sort of a Russian mini-Sturgis. I was told there were 1500 motorcycles or motorcyclists (don't recall which) in attendance. The location of the meeting was very attractive, being right on the sand only a few feet from the water of a lovely bay on the Sea of Japan. The weather was warm and humid, but not hot. I was told by Cash that unfortunately they may not be able to hold the meeting in this location in the future because of objections of some local politicians to the motorcycles. I told Cash we sometimes have the same problem in the United States. Some attitudes seem to be the same everywhere.
There were all types of motorcycles present, although Japanese cruisers seemed the most common. But, sport bikes, dual sports, standards, etc. were all represented. There was one Harley Davidson, and I was told it's the only Harley in this part of Russia. One of the most interesting (to me) bikes was a Honda Dominator (see the photos page) owned by a gentleman named Alexander Abramov. To my knowledge, Dominators have never been sold in the US but are quite popular with adventure travelers in Europe and elsewhere. Alexander lives on the Kamchatka Peninsula, far north of Vladivostok, and had previously ridden this bike from there completlely across Russia to St. Petersburg, leaving the bike there. Prior to the Facing the Ocean meeting, he flew to St. Petersburg and rode the bike back across Russia to Nahodka. Alexander spoke impeccable english, and gave me some useful information about my route ahead, since he had just ridden it (he commented that the Zilow Gap, the unpaved region between Khabarovosk and Chita, was very dusty, and was he ever right!). His major bike related problem on the trip was a broken shock mounting bolt. His Dominator appeared very well prepared for this type of travel, but he mentioned that it wan't fully up to handling his and his luggage's combined weight since he was a fairly large man.
Saturday, August 13, 2005
After a poor nights sleep (loud music late into the night, just like such a gathering in the USA!), I waited for the small bar-cafe nearby on the beach to open, which was not until 10 AM. While I was sitting in the place's small open air patio, a fellow sat down at my table, took out a small travelers size domino set, and we played a few games of dominoes while waiting, even though we could hardly converse. Also, he showed me pictures of his extensive two wheeled travels in Russia. What was remarkable about these travels is that they were on a motorscooter, not a motorcycle. There's a picture of his scooter posted on the photos page.
I found that, having come all the way from the US and being an American, I was considered somewhat of a minor celebrity, with quite a few people asking to pose with me and my bike for photos. This was certainly not why I attended this meeting, but I will confess that it was a bit flattering. (Such picture taking also occurred occaisonllly in my later travels across Russia. Unfortunately I don't have any of these pictures since they were not taken with my camera). This evening there was an awards ceremony (at least that's what I interpreted it to be) and I was called up on the stage in front of quite a crowd of people. After Sinus said some things, I assume about me, I was generously given several items which were official labeled souvenirs of the Facing the Ocean meeting - a T-shirt, pin, scarf, magnetic pin, decal, and also a nice headlamp and compass. I assume these were for having traveled the longest distance to the meeting, but given the language barrier I'm not sure. Sinus then handed me the microphone! All I could think of to say was "Thank you Russia for allowing me to visit your wonderful country" in English, and "spaciba" (thank you in Russian). Talk about being on the spot!! But, this was also a flattering experience, and I greatly appreciate the gifts.
Sunday, August 14, 2005
After another night of poor sleep (same reason), I got up early, broke camp, and said some goodbyes, the beckoning of the open road being too overwhelming to stay any longer. As I was leaving the gentleman I think of as "Domino" gave me the domino set we had played with the morning before. (I've come to think of this as a symbol representative of the kindness and generosity of the Russian people that I encountered over and over again in my travels across this great country, and I shall always treasure it.) There's a picture of "Domino," along with "Chicago," on my photos page.
Not too far from Nahodka I had breakfast at a very nice cafe right across the road from one of the lovely bays in the area. Once again, my presence attracted quite a bit of attention, a small crowd gathering as I prepared to leave and asking numerous questions (such as my age) being asked as best they could communicate. They seemed surprised a middle aged man such as myself would undertake such an adventure.
In a minor repeat of Vladivostok, I had some difficulty getting lost leaving Nahodka, but eventually found the way. I had to go across the northern edge of Vladivostok to get to the highway north (M60), but fortunately found the way fairly easily by simply using the gps compass to keep traveling west until I encountered Highway M60 (although it's likely this wasn't the most direct or quickest route). Highway M60 was initially two lanes in each direction (although not a limited access road), eventually changing to one lane each way, but all well paved. Somewhere a little north of Vladivostok I encountered a site where the road was being repaired and the entire right two lanes were closed. But, there was no advance warning of this at all - no signs, no flagman, etc. Traffic was supposed to shift to the inside lane of the oncoming two lanes, with oncoming traffic to move over to their right lane, but with no traffic control of any sort. Seemed a bit dangerous since traffic was moving at about 60 mph+ in each direction.
The country I passed through was very green, heavily forested with deciduous trees and open fields or meadows between the forested areas. It was similar to many places in the US, especially in the south and east. I've posted two pictures of typical countryside in the photos section. At one point along this road there were some hills visible to the west which I believe are in China. According to a sign in this area, the Chinese border is only about 12 miles away.
As nightfall neared I began looking for a place to camp and eventually pulled off onto a rough two track dirt road which went into a forested area. I set up camp in the forest and was in my tent and sleeping bag as soon as darkness fell. There were some mosquitoes, but nothing like the hordes of Siberian biting insects I have read about; of course, I wasn't actually in Siberia, but rather the Russian Far East, this being between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way to the latter.
Monday, August 15, 2005
Woke just after dawn (another poor nights sleep - guess I'm having trouble adjusting to sleeping in a tent), broke camp, and headed north again. By mid-day I was in Khabarovsk, a city of about 700,000 population on the banks of the very large Amur River. Once again I had difficulty finding the way through a city, having to ask for directions several times, but finally found the highway west, the route now being more west than north. The road continues to be well paved, and the countryside is largely forested with deciduous trees.
In the late afternoon I reached Birobizhan and began looking for the Hotel Boctok (English spelling approximately Vostok), which was on the list of recommended hotels sent to me by Steve Attwood. Steve lives in England and in 2004 road his KTM from there across Russia to Sakhalin Island, met three friends who had shipped their bikes from the US to the Island, and then, with the other three, rode back across Russia. I had been in email contact with Steve earlier this year and he was an excellent source of information and advice, sending me his trip diaries and a list or recommended (and non-recommeded) hotels where he had stayed. I had difficulty locating the Hotel Boctok, spending about an hour riding around the city streets looking for it, and finding that Birobizhan was quite a pleasant small city of about 220,000 people, with many nicely tree lined steets. While I was pulled off the steet in a parking spot two boys appearing to be about 12 years old, one on a motor scooter and the other on a bicycle, approached me and attempted to start a converation. I was able to ask them to guide me to the hotel, and away went the one on the scooter, zooming through the streets with me in tow, until we reached the hotel in a few blocks. Although he clearly didn't expect any reward for guiding me, I gave him a few Rubles which seemed to please him. I had already passed the hotel twice but hadn't recognized it because of my inability to read Cyrillic.
The Hotel Boctok turned out to be a gem - a pleasant, light and airy, clean facility with a very nice room and good restaurant, all at a very reasonable rate. The parking area was immediately behind the hotel iside a fenced area which was locked at night, and with a securitiy guard in a small building just outside the gate. I left my metal panniers locked on the bike overnight, as I did most nights in Russia, feeling confident about the security. Of course, the bke was also covered, the cover attached with a cable alarm, and the bike had a motion alarm. Motion alarms seem almost universal on vehicles in Russia.
Tuesday August 16, 2005
Although yesterday had been warm and sunny throughout, I woke up to a cool, overcast day that threatened rain. Or so I convinced myself since I decided to stay another day at the Hotel Boctok. Despite sleeping very well last night, I feel quite fatigued this morning, apparently the residual of three consecutive days of very poor sleep while camping. Although I hated to take a day off after only two days of riding, because of the threatening weather, the very pleasant hotel and town, and the desire to do some work on the bike, I persuaded myself to do so (As for the threatended rain, it never amounted to more than a very light sprinkle).
I spent the day installing lowering links on the bike, taking a walk, shopping for a watch at an open air market next to the hotel, reading, and taking a long nap. I have a very short inseam (wearing 27 1/2 to 28 inch trousers) even for my height of about 5' 8", and with the approximately 100 lb. of luggage on the bike I was finding that the tip toe position on the bike when stopped sometimes got a bit tenuous, nearly tipping over a few times. Thus, I had purchased 1 1/2 inch lowering links and a shortened side stand from Dual Star, but after the bike was already on the way to Vladivostok, so I wasn't able to install them before leaving home. I didn't feel the reduction in ground clearance would be an issue since I expected the roads to be at least somewhat maintained and not true off road riding where a lot of ground clearance would be important. However, lowering the bike did make it very difficult to get it on the after market center stand I had installed at home, and impossible with the luggage on the bike. The Timex Expedition dual time zone watch I had purchased specically for this trip had broken in Vladivostok (the crown fell out and wouldn't stay in place), so I had been without a functioning watch since; thus the need to purchase a watch.
After this relaxing day, it was early to bed.
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
And early to rise. I was up before dawn, now feeling very rested, and on the road not long after daylight. After missing a turn and floundering around in a small town trying to find the route for awhile (how I miss a fully functioning gps!), my first encounter with Russian unpaved road occurred just beyond the town (name unknown). This was an area of road under construction, and the majority of it was hard pack, somewhat wash-boarded, with a thin layer of overlying gravel, although one short section was deep, loose gravel what made the bike dance around a bit. Most of it was easy riding as long as sufficient speed (40 - 50 mph) was maintained to skim over most of the wash-board, and I was soon past this 20 - 30 mile section and I was soon back on pavement cruising along at about 60 mph. I saw my first sign for Chita along this unpaved section, and realized what a long, long unpaved route I have to go - it said 1815 Km, or about 1125 miles. Chita is the first city beyond the unpaved Zilow Gap.
Suddenly the bike began oscillating wildly and then started going down the road at a 30 - 45 degree angle. I knew I'd had a blowout, or at least a "rapid deflation" :o) and thought for a moment the bike was going down, but I was able to coast to a stop on the grassy shoulder of the road. The rear tire was totally flat because of a large nail.
After removing all of the luggage and digging out some dirt from under the center stand, I was able to get the bike up on the now too long centerstand, remove the tire, and install my spare rear tube. However, despite my efforts to avoid pinching the tube, the tire wouldn't hold air after being re-installed, and I had pinched the tube despite trying to be careful. So now I had two rear tubes with holes in them, and would have to resort to patching.
At that moment I heard the whine of a two stroke motorcycle engine, and then the pop-pop-pop of the throttle being rolled off as a rider came by me. The rider turned around, dismounted, and asked in very accented english if I wanted any help. Now being thoroughly disgusted with my performance on this tire repair job, I replied "sure."
And so I met Sasha, who is an amazing motorcycle traveler with a great story. Sasha is a 23 year old young woman from St. Petersburg, either a student or teacher (because of the language barrier I'm not sure which) who that summer had ridden solo from St. Petersburg to Magadan, shipped from there to Vladivostok, attended the same Facing the Ocean motorcyclists meeting in Nakhodka I had (although I did not meet her there), and was now riding completely across Russia back to her home. She had camped out for this entire journey, not using hotels at all.
What makes this journey even more amazing is the motorcyle she was riding. It was a ten year old Russian made 350 cc two stroke single cylinder bike that, heavily loaded as it was, had a top speed on the level of around 45 mph, and seriously bogged down on even a gently incline. The rear shock was quite weak as the bike "pogoed" over bumps of any significance, and it apparently ahd a bent frame as it didn't track straight. Regarding the brand or make, the bike has three Cyrillic letters on the tank that are similar to KHH, but not quite that. (I've later learned her bike is a "Izh Planeta-5." I've also later been told that the total length of her trip was over 15,500 miles).
Sasha had obviously had lot's of experience patching tubes and immediately took over, applying a patch using my patch kit. After we reassembled the bike I asked if I could ride with her for a time. She seemed to agree although expressing some reservations about her bike being much slower than mine (language barrier again) and off we went, Sasha in the lead. It was so nice to have someone to ride with I didn't mind the slow speed at all, and the road, although paved, had become fairly rough anyway.
We found a very nice campsite along a good sized river, and were treated to a lovely sunset and then a moonrise. There were no mosquitoes or other biting insects of any significance. (This turned out to be the best campsite of the entire trip, and I was immediately asleep and had my first good nights sleep while camping).
I've posted several pictues of the flat tire scene and campsite on the photos page.
Thursday, August 18, 2005
We awoke this morning to a gorgeous sunrise over the river, which looked liked it had fire on the surface. I found that my rear tire, patched yesterday, had lost about half of its' air pressure overnight, and used my Cycle Pump air compressor to re-inflate it. I purchased the Cycle Pump at the recommendation of Tim Bernard, owner (with his wife) of Happy Trails Products in Boise, and am very glad I did since it seems to be the most durable compact 12V air compressor on the market, at least that I could find. (For this type of travel I don't believe an air compressor is an item where the traveler should attempt to economize, and in retrospect I'm very glad I paid somewhat more for the best since I used the sturdy, metal clad Cycle Pump, with it's optional in-line air pressure gauge, many times over the next few days as the slow leak in the rear tire continued, and also needed it again after flat #2.)
As Sasha and I left the campsite a few raindrops began to fall, and the rain gradually increased in intensity, resulting in a quick stop for me to put on my rain gear. We soon entered a stretch of unpaved road, but it was very hard surfaced with a thin layer of overlying gravel, and never got muddy. The rain only lasted an hour or two, and the remainder of the day consisted of nice weather. (This was the last rain for many days, but when I next encountered rain, in Western Siberia, it rained at least part of the day for about ten straight days).
There were quite a number of convoys of Japanese automobiles on the road now. The story here is that used Japanese cars are purchased in Japan, ferried across the Sea of Japan to Vladivostok, and then driven from there to purchasers in Western Russia. Because of the road conditions the cars are protected, at least to some extent, with layers of tape, and sometimes cardboard, over their vulnerable surfaces. I've posted a picture of some of these vehicles on the photos page for today.
There was a quite long stretch of pavement near Svobodnyi. At least I believe it was near this town but we never actually saw Svobodnyi, the road bypassing it, so I'm not certain. After that we spent the rest of the day on unpaved road. (That was the last significant pavement for about four days).
While stopped along the road somewhere further on a gentleman on a bicycle rode up and stopped to chat. This was Sam (I don't know his last name), who was from England and was riding his Marin mountain bike from London to Vladivostok. He commented that there were far fewer biting insects now than a couple of weeks earlier in his ride (I can confirm there were very few during my entire ride, for which I was both surprised and thankful), and also about the difficulty of maintaining provisions, especially water, since the towns were so far apart is this area of Siberia. Sam's email address is email@example.com, and I hope he made it all the way to Vladivostok. And I thought I was doing a long ride!!
There was a great deal of dust along this portion of the route, stirred up by the fast moving Japanese car convoys and trucks, some also quite fast moving. There was no wind at all so the dust tended to hang over the roadway for a long time, and sometimes created visibility problems.
While on an older appearing stretch of road, adjacent to the Trans Siberian Railway, that had been recently graded, I hit a large, solitary rock stirred up by the road grader and lying loose on the road surface. The rock was about 5 - 6 inches in diameter, and somehow it put the bike into a skid and down on it's left side at about 40 mph. The sturdy Happy Trails pannier surprisingly absorbed very little damage but the mounting rack was bent and cracked around the front pannier mounting bolt, such that the bolt, one of two used to attach the pannier to the frame, was useless. Also the cross brace which runs from one side of the back of the rack to the other, strengthening the rack assembly, was completely ripped on both sides. I was almost completely unscathed, having only very slight soreness in my left arm and shoulder for a couple of days, and my riding jacket and pants showed no effects whatsoever from hitting the ground, although there were a few scratches on my helmet. The only other apparent bike damage was a slight bending of the headlight cowling mounting bracket, such that the headlight didn't quite point straight down the road, and of the Happy Trails engine guard-highway peg setup. (Fortunately this was my only crash on the entire trip, although I did tip the bike over twice while at a standstill).
After picking the bike up (and being thankful for the light weight of a KLR 650, even with luggage), pushing it to the side of the road, and assessing the damage, I got out the Aerostich Quick Release Cargo Straps I had purchased espcially for this trip and secured the left pannier to the rack and bike with two of the straps, the pannier now being canted up at the front. But, it worked and the pannier seemed fairly securely attached to the bike by this means. (These straps are another item I will never go on a trip of any length without. They worked very well for this purpose and could be quickly released and reattached when needed. The buckles were also surprisingly strong - at times I pulled on these straps as hard as I could pull while bracing myself against the bike, and the buckles always held. Ahh, The wonders of modern plastics!).
So off Sasha and I went again, and eventually stopped at a small cafe for tea and lunch - Sasha loved tea, and after finding I did not much like Russian coffee (strong and served in very small cups) I had taken to drinking tea instead. While we were in the cafe a young man walked in and it appeared he and Sasha knew each other. He was riding a Honda VLX 600 cruiser type bike, and the three of us left the cafe together, with me not sure quite what was going on as I hadn't understood a word of their conversation. At the edge of town we met another young man who was riding a Ural Russian made motorcycle. These two were Sergey on the Honda, and Alexander on the Ural. They had also been at the motorcycle gathering in Nahodka and had met Sasha there, and were now on their way home. The two of them were good friends from Tynda. Sergey spoke quite a bit of English, and worked in the computer department of the Trans Siberian Railway in Tynda. Alexander did not speak English, and I don't know his occupation.
So the four of us rode off together that afternoon, widely spaced because of all the dust each bike threw up. At near dusk we found a place to camp off the road in what appeared to be a long abandoned gravel pit. The old man (me) retired for the night early, and as I fell asleep I could still hear the three young people chatting away (especially Sasha, who seemed to appreciate having someone she could converse with in Russian). Except for my crash it had been a very pleasant day, and it was nice to have riding companions. There are a number of pictures of todays events on the photos page.
Friday, August 19, 2005
I took some pictures of my three traveling companions and their bikes in the early morning light before we left the campsite. Again had to pump up the rear tire, but the slow leak doesn't seem to be getting any worse. After breaking camp the four of us continued westward over all unpaved roads. In one of the construction areas the roadbed was still being built up, and the surface we rode over was completely made up of large, slab-like rocks, only semi-packed down, and more difficult to ride over than the what we had previously encountered. However, this only lasted a few hundred yards. At a four way intersection, where one road each went north, south, east, and west, we turned south to a very small village that my traveling companions obviously knew was there, and stopped at a cafe to eat. When we emerged, Sergey found that his rear tire was flat, so he pushed his bike about 100 yards down the road to a tire repair shop. He attempted to remove the tire from the rim (the shop apparently didn'thave any equipment specifically for motorcycle tires), but wasn't able to break the bead, not surprising since this was a large tubeless rear tire. He eventually got the tire off the rim by having a truck drive over the tire to break the bead. The cause of the flat proved to be a nail in the tire, just as I had experienced two days earlier. He had the tire shop apply an internal patch and put everything back together.
Sasha's bike had earlier sustained a severly bent rear rim. While Sergey worked on his flat Sasha borrowed a heavy hammer from the shop, removed her rear wheel, and went to work beating the bent rim back into some semblance of normal shape. The finished job wasn't perfect, but it was an improvement and the tire now seemed much more likely to stay on the rim than it had before.
I considered having the shop put a better patch on my leaking rear tube, but since it seemed stable I decided to leave well enough alone and not risk pinching the tube again. So, while my traveling companions were working hard I sat down in the sun and took a short nap (One of the perogatives of age!!).
Soon everything was back together and we road back north to the intersection mentioned earlier, and at this point, after pictures and goodbyes, Sergey and Alexander headed north to their homes in Tynda. They seemed to be fine young men and I had really enjoyed their company for the two days we rode together, and especially enjoyed having someone I could talk to in English in Sergey. Looking at the map later, I believe this intersection was north of Skovorodino, and the road north was M56.
The road west appeared initially to be nothing more than a high pile of loose rocks, and was marked with a do not enter type of sign. However, Sasha had apparently talked to someone about the roads, or perhaps had ridden this way on her route west to Magadan, and she went directly west. After cresting the initial rock pile the road, while seriously under construction with lots of workers and equipment at various points for awhile, was quite passable. Unfortunately I don't have a picture of this section. Despite the no entry type sign, none of the workers seemed to mind us being on the road, and usually waved to us. We did not see any cars or non-construction related trucks on this section. I believe Sasha said this was a short cut, but am not sure because of our language barrier.
Overall, today was the most difficult off-pavement riding I've encounter so far, with lots of time spent standing on the pegs, still lots of dust, and only 118 miles traveled by 4:30 PM. Of course, part (but not all) of that modest mileage is explained by the time spent while Sergey and Sasha did their repairs.
At near dusk, and after looking for awhile, Sasha and I made camp in a large cleared area on the south side of the highway. It was already fairly cold as we made camp. Last night had been quite cold camping, and tonight promises to be even worse. Unfortunately, my sleeping bag is a very light, summer bag, chosen for compactness rather than warmth, and I'm having to wear layers of clothing inside the bag to stay warm enough. I didn't expect even Siberia to be this cold in August, and I'm in the most southerly part of Siberia.
Saturday, August 20, 2005
As usual, Sasha and I broke camp early and hit the road. Sasha also commented (actually, conveyed by sign language), that she was also cold in her tent last night. In addition to not sleeping well because of the cold, we were very close to the Trans Siberian Railway and the noise from the frequent trains kept waking me up during the night. The road conditions are somewhat better today, although still entirely unpaved. It's interesting that the last thing being constructed on this road are the bridges. A lot of the road appears to be complete except for paving, being very wide (about four lanes wide), with a very hard packed road bed and an overlying layer of thin, loose gravel. The only difficulty in riding this part of the road is a times the gravel gets mounded up by the traffic, and the bike can get a bit squirrly when going over these thicker graveled areas. Otherwise it's easy riding at about 45 mph (as fast as Sasha's bike will go) and could be ridden considerably faster if the rider wished. In some places on these apparently completed sections there are armco type barriers, some road signs, and even new appearing bus stop shelters, even though I haven't seen anything I could identify as a bus anywhere in the Zilow Gap. It appears to me these sections of the road are now completed except for the bridges, and await eventual paving (the Russian government says it plans to have the entire route paved by 2008).
Regarding the bridges, it isn't that vehicles have to ford the streams (I'm referring to the small streams seen repeatedly in this area of Siberia, not large rivers). What has been done is that culverts have been installed adjacent (seems like it's always on the south side) of the road bed, and gravel placed over the culverts such that a temporary road is made around and below the bridge construction site. These short sections bypassing the under construction bridges are quite rough, and even the car convoys are forced to slow to a crawl over them, and the trucks even more so. If I was approaching one of these bypass sections behind a truck, I always tried to get around it since our bikes could negotiate these rough areas faster than any of the trucks (or cars).
These bridge bypasses were repeated many times in this part of the Gap (lots of small streams), sometimes only a few hundred yards apart. At one point I crested a hill and could clearly see the road ahead for at least a mile, and there were at least four of these bypasses visible, one about every two hundred yards, all shaped the same and at uniform intervals, each like a U projecting off the roadway to the south. It almost looked like a work of art by that artist who does landscape art and whose name I can't remember at the moment (?Christo?). Oh well, as the saying goes, "you have to have been there."
In the very late afternoon Sasha and I eventually reached a village east of Chita and gassed up. At that point we separated, Sasha going on ahead and I looking for a campsite. I shall always be grateful to her for helping me in the many ways she did during the four days we traveled together, greatly admire her adventurous spirit, and will always view her accomplishments on a motorcycle with respect and awe. She is truly a remarkable motorcycle adventurer, and it was a privelege to ride with her. I hope we meet again someday.
Eventually I found the second nicest campsite of any on the entire trip (the nicest being the river bank site the first night Sasha and I camped together. This was along a small stream a few miles north of the aforemetioned village. To reach it I had to take a really rough two track, jeep type "road" off the highway and ford the small stream. It was a lovely spot, shielded from the road by small trees and bushes along the stream corridor, and I waded out in the water nearly up to my knees with a bar of soap and took a bath of sorts. I also washed my quick dry undergarments and socks, all selected purposely for this type of use on this trip, and hung them on tree branches to dry overnight. So, if there were any reports in the international news media of a massive fish die-off in a small stream in Siberia while I was away on this trip, now you know why! ;o)
It promised to be even colder tonight that the last two nights, so I put on every layer of clothing I had, and crawled into my tent and sleeping bag. Tomorrow should be an easy day to Chita.
Sunday, August 21, 2005
Upon arising in the early morning I checked the thermometer I had installed on my bike before the trip, and it read 38 degrees F. It was another poor nights sleep because of the cold, and I made a resolution to myself not to camp out again if I didn't have to. (And this was what happened - I never camped again on the entire trip).
The road continued unpaved, but very hard and easy to ride, for a time and then I finally hit good pavement for the first time in several days. This was at 2846 total miles into the trip. My first thought was I was finished with unpaved roads altogether. (Was I ever wrong about that!).
I encountered the first police check point I had seen since leaving Birobidzhan several miles before reaching Chita. They were very friendly but for some reason which was never clear had me enter the office building at the site to see someone, apparently a superior officer. However, he had nothing to say to me (perhaps the others thought he could speak English, but he didn't). At least I was able to get some directions to the unusually named Panama City Hotel in Chita (Essentially they made me understand "go south at the first intersection" despite the language barrier).
The first intersection, which was a the northern edge of the city, was a roundabout, and I did go south for a few miles, but wasn't able to identify the hotel. I stopped and spoke to a taxi driver parked beside the road, and through sign language and showing him the name of the motel in the Lonely Planet guide, had him drive me to the hotel while I followed behind on the motorcycle. It was only a few blocks back to the north as I had ridden right by it. It was well worth the cost of the taxi to find the hotel.
The Panama City Hotel rooms were in attractive duplex bungalows scattered around the nicely landscaped grounds, amid lots of flower gardens (see picture on the photos page). The rooms were comfortable and with lots of hot water - did that first shower for several days ever feel good! To make the hotel seem even better, it was the first place since Vladivostok that accepted credit cards. I washed most of my clothes in the bathroom sink and shower, then went to dinner in the hotel restaurant, which was quite high end. I had not found any decent wine as of yet in Russia, but tried one more time in this restaurant. Unfortunately, it was on the level of three day old Gallo Hearty Burgundy. I enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner, but at that point gave up on wine in Russia and thereafter drank beer (some restaurants, particularly further west, had imported French or Italian wines, but not by the glass and they were quite expensive). The Russian beers were mostly quite good, and I enjoyed almost all of the ones I tried.
After dinner it was off to bed for what I was certain was to be a wonderful, blissful nights sleep.
Monday, August 22, 2005
And it was indeed a blissful nights sleep, the best I've had in many days (since Birobidzhan). After the free breakfast in the hotel restaurant, it was on the road again, bound for Ulan Ude. This time I had no difficulty finding the way to the edge of the city and the main road, simply retracing my route of yesterday to the north and the roundabout on M55.
The road was paved all the way to Ulan Ude, and although there was lots of patching in some areas it seemed like a superhighway after the last five days. As told my wife when I called her this evening using the satellite phone, it felt like I was flying across the earths surface! The countryside in this area of Siberia was, while not spectacularly scenic, very pretty and attractive. It reminded me of parts of Montana but without the high mountains of our American West. There were many valleys surrounded by low hills, the valleys being grassland (lots of hay fields) with an abrupt transition to coniferous forest on the hillsides.
This area was part of the mighty Mongol empire for centuries, and many asian faces are seen among the people here, including horsemen sometimes herding cattle. It is said that Genghis Khan's mother came from a large, beautiful valley north of Ulan Ude and east of Lake Baikal. One also begins to see many houses in this ares with brightly colored shutters, usually light blue in color but occaisonally green or other colors, which I assume are an asian influence. I'll try to get a picture of one of these when I can.
If there are horsemen, there must be horses, right? And indeed, there were considerable numbers of horses in this area, which led to one of the most humerous scenes I encountered during my entire trip. As I approached one of the roofed, three sided roadside bus stop shelters which are common all across Russia (and a great place to put on rain gear during a downpour), I saw one ahead which was almost surrounded by horses. I wondered if the bus driver would allow them to board when the next bus arrived! ;o) I couldn't resist stopping to take a photo of this humerous scene, and it's posted in the Photos section of this website. After I put my camera away and drew abreast of the shelter, I saw that there was one very large horse (the alpha horse??) completely inside the shelter. I didn't stop and pull my camera back out of my handlebar pack to take another photo of this delightfully amusing scene, but afterward I wished I had.
The weather was nice all day and I reached the outskirts of Ulan Ude by late afternoon. The road skirted around the west side of the city from the south and entered it on the northwest side via a broad, well traveled street. I intended to ride into the city proper and find a motel recommended in the Lonely Planet travel guide, but as I motored toward the city center I saw a rather large building set back somewhat from the road on the right side with a sign that clearly indicated it was a motel. (The spelling of the word for motel in Cyrillic is very close to motel in english, only the last two characters being different, whereas the Cyrillic word for hotel is very different and I can't type it in the Latin alphabet - the first four letters look lik roct...) Given all my difficulties in getting around in the cities, I thought "why not" and pulled in. This motel turned out to be quite acceptable, with a good sized room with private bathroom and comfortable bed for 1000 rubles (about $35), a decent restaurant, and perhaps best of all, really secure parking for the motorcycle - a locked garage space with steel door. As close as I can type it in english, the name of this motel is Motel AOHAN (backward N).
Tuesday, August 23, 2005,
It's off for Irkutsk this morning, which means I will finally see Lake Baikal, the largest and deepest lake in the world, and according to the Lonely Planet guide, perhaps the world's most beautiful lake. Lake Baikal contains from 20 to 25% of the total fresh water on earth, more fresh water than the North American Great Lakes combined, and is so large it creates its own weather patterns.
Again the road (M55) is good and the weather fairly nice, although overcast. My first glimpse of Lake Baikal is somewhat disappointing, as the beautiful clear blue color I've read of isn't visible (possibly due to the subdued light) but it certainly is big, the far shore barely able to be seen. The somewhat ugly Trans Siberian Railway line along the shoreline doesn't help the view any either, given the many electrical poles and wires. And, at the south west end of the lake is an ugly industrial complex. However, several streams flowing down to the lake from the mountains (this is the most mountainous, or at least hilly, terrain I've seen so far in Russia) are absolutely crystal clear and quite striking, the clearest streams I've ever seen.
I arrive in Irkutsk, a city of about 650,000 population some distance north of Lake Baikal, and the main road is soon lost in a maze of streets, with no road signs that I can read. Using the gps compass (still no mapping function) I head in the general direction of the road leading south-east of the city toward the Lake. After about a half hour of city traffic and while at a stoplight I am able to communicate with a driver in a car who is able to tell me I am on the right road and which street to take at the upcoming major intersection. This works and I am soon out of the city heading for the Lake. My intention is to stay in the lakeside resort village of Listvyanka which is 46 miles from Irkutsk.
I'm soon in Listvyanka, and the view of the lake is indeed nicer here. Steve Attwood had recommended the Hotel Baikalskie Terema here, saying that, although it's an expensive place, the really cold beer (a rarity in Russia) and English speaking staff made it worth it. Despite Listvyanka being a small village, I had great difficulty finding the hotel, asking multiple times for directions, being sent on the wrong direction, to the wrong hotel, etc. etc. I finally encountered two young fellows who were visiting from Australia, and although they didn't know the location of the hotel, they were able to direct me to the tourist information office. There they spoke come English and I finally got accurate directions to he hotel. Only one more stop to ask directions (the hotel had no sign whatsoever with either directions to it, or on the building itself identifying it, and was somewhat off the main street) I was finally there after at least an hour of flailing around the town.
This hotel would have done justice to a luxury ski resort in the US, being totally constructed of natural wood logs and being very nicely appointed. The price had apparently gone up considerably since Steve Attwood's visit the year before, and I took a big gulp when I heard 3600 Rubles ($126) for the night, but remembering the really cold beer and all the effort spent in finding the place, I paid and stayed. Steve was right, the beer was really cold, the first I've had in Russia that was fully cold by American standards, although most places it was cold enough to be enjoyable. Thankfully, Russian beer is far superior to their wines! The food was also quite good, and the room very comfortable. Bike parking was in a parking lot which was under video surveillance from the front desk, the only place I stayed in Russia where that was the case. (This was also the most expensive hotel I stayed at in either Russia or Europe, by a considerable margin, and for the entire trip was exceeded only by the hotel where I stayed in the Boston area.)
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
The weather was a little brighter this morning and I took some pictures of the lake on the way out. However, in terms of Lake Baikal being possibly the most beautiful lake in the world, the part of it which I saw doesn't compare to some of the mountain lakes in the American West, such as Lake Tahoe or Lake Pend Oreille. But, I believe the most beautiful parts of Lake Baikal are farther north and east, where it is rimmed by high cliffs. If I had it to do over again, I would have skipped this side trip to the Lake and Listvyanka, despite the excellent cold beer! ;o), or taken the time to take a tour boat to the more beautiful area.
When I reached Irkutsk again I quickly realized I had no clue as to how to get to the road (still M55) heading north-west. As in Chita, I approached a cab driver, and using sigh language, asked him to guide me to M55 outside the city. This worked and off he went, with me following. This was quite a complicated route and took 30 - 45 minutes to get to the other side of Irkutsk, at least 20 miles (unless he took me on an indirect, longer route, which I doubt). When we reached that point he indicated a fee of 500 Rubles ($17), which I was delighted to pay as I'm sure it would have taken me hours to get out of Irkutsk on my own. He was a very pleasant, jovial gentleman, and helped me with the translation of the next major town on my route.
By this time the weather had turned dark and foreboding, and soon it began to rain, so on went the raingear for only the second time in the entire trip up to that time (but far from the last!). It rained for part of the day, but eventually stopped in the afternoon. While I was stopped beside the road two Russian built motorcycles with sidecars came by going in the opposite direction, turned around, and three young Russian fellows climbed out. As usual, we couldn't converse at all, but through sign language, a few rudimentary words, and showing them the map of my route that was on the panniers, they clearly understood what I was doing out there in the middle of Siberia. I gave each of them one of my personal cards, as I've been doing all across Russia, that give my name, address, email address, website address, and on the opposite side have a photo of me and the motorcycle leaving my little Idaho ranch at the beginning of the trip. I doubt that many people will be able to access the email or website, but these cards do seem to be working well as small personal gifts to those folks I meet along the way. I also asked them to take a picture of me in my raingear standing by the bike, this being only the second picture taken of myself with my own camera since leaving home (and the last).
Later in the day the road once again became unpaved, being well packed dirt which was fairly easy to ride, and continued that way for about 30 miles. Fortunately it wasn't still raining, so although there were some puddles on the road it wasn't excessively soft and muddy. On this stretch I met a young couple each on a touring type bicycle going the opposite way, and stopped to chat if they spoke English. This they did very well, and it turned out they were bicycling all the way from their home in Germany to Lake Baikal. I've posted a picture of them in the Photos section. She asked me what I thought of Lake Baikal, and I simply replied it was "big." I hope they are able to get to the scenic north east end of the lake. Otherwise I fear they may be disappointed in the Lake, especially after riding all that way from Germany. However, it may be that, as with motorcycle touring, the trip is the actual joy and the destination often secondary. Never having toured by bicycle, I really don't know, but I suspect that is the case. After all, they're both two wheeled vehicles, aren't they? :o)
As evening came I began looking for a place Steve Attwood had described as a "good (and busy)roadhouse" and found it exactly where he said it was. This was a truckstop type complex with fuel, motel, cafe, and probably a repair facility, and the name of the motel is apparently something like "Ne'rpa," as judged by the sign at the roadside. I checked into the motel and the security guard, which I've found to almost always be present at hotels and motels in Russia, directed me to put the bike in a small patio type area which had a locking wrought iron gate. As has become a familiar pattern, I showered, had dinner, and went to bed. The room was clean and comfortable but with a shared bathroom down the hall.
Earlier there was one family I encountered in the parking area which seemed particularly interested in my journey, looking at the route map on the panniers and the wife, who spoke fairly good English, asking me several questions. Then the husband had me pose with the bike (before it was put away for the night), and his wife and daughter for a photograph. I felt like a celebrity again! ;o)
I took a picture, posted in the Photos section, of a type of vehicle I've seen repeatedly across Russia and don't know the maker. They look like overgrown Volkswagen buses (the older type, not the Vanagon), and are very much utility vehicles, used at construction sites to haul workers, as ambulances, etc., and there is a pickup truck type version used to haul all sorts of materials. These are certainly utilitarian vehicles and are ubiquitous in Russia, but they sure are underpowered, slowing down dramatically on upgrades. I'm curious as to who makes them.
I'm between Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, 55 miles west of Nizhneudinsk (?sp).
Thursday, August 25, 2005
Shortly after leaving the motel this morning I see one of the strange looking little earthen mounds with a door I've seen occaisonally all across Siberia (see pictures). I can only guess that these are emergency shelters for travelers during the winter months, but this is purely a guess. If someone who reads this knows, please email me the answer.
Since this route has paralleled the Trans Siberian Railway much of the way across Siberia, there are many rail road crossings to contend with. I say to contend with because they close the gates many minutes before a train arrives and don't reopen them for some time after the train passes (many of these crossings appear to be manned and manually operated). And, not only do the crossings have a gate which comes down across the road, as in the US, but they also have steel gates which come up out of the road surface (similar to a motorcross race starting gate), so there is no cheating to beat the train. At a crossing today there was the usual wait for the train, but then the gates didn't reopen. People were getting out of there cars and trucks, talking, walking around, etc. It turned out there was another train coming and they wouldn't open the gates until it had also passed. After at least 20 minutes between trains the second one finally appeared, so there was over a half hour delay at this one crossing.Since I'm trying to make good time while the roads and weather are gooe, this is a bit frustrating and it seems overly cautious to me, but hey, it's their country and no one else seemed to mind the wait. In fact, it became somewhat of a social event, with groups carrying on converstions while waiting. Some fellows came over and looked at my bike, especially the maps on the panniers showing my route, while chatting, pointing at the route, etc.
It was all good road today and I reached Krasnyorsk in good time (despite the RR crossing). I had planned to stay at a hotel listed in the Lonely Planet guide, the Siberian Safari Club Hotel (With a name like that, who could resist?). Again I was having great difficulty finding a place in a large city, and eventually engaged a taxi driver to guide me to it. This turned out to be a nice, very modern hotel right on the banks of a large river (they even had a boat house) with a great view of the river and the city from my room - see the Photos section. The Safari Club was more expensive than most places I'd stayed (2500 Rubles, $87) but no shared bathroom here and the restaurant was elegant.
But, the price paid was more than made up for by "Surge" (or Serge, but no one said Sergey). He apparently worked for the hotel and they had him drive me all over the city looking for a spare inner tube and padlocks for one Pannier (I had lost one padlock earlier). The padlocks were easy to find, but not so the inner tube. After going to several places, and several phone calls made by Serge, we finally located one that, although not the exact size I needed, I thought would probably fit in an emergency. My patched tube had continued to have a slow leak, and I had no spare tube since the original 4 mm thick ultra heavy duty tube I started the trip with also had a leak and patch, and took up so much space I didn't have room for it in my luggage.I did buy some tube sealant material (similar to Slime) at one shop we visited.
Riding around the city with Serge was quite an experience. As with many Russian drivers, he drove at a madcap pace, weaving in an out of traffic, and creating lanes where there weren't officially any. I had read before starting this trip that seat belt use in Russia is a rarity, and if fact many drivers object to their passenger(s) using a seat belt since they feel it's an insult to their driving. Despite speaking very little English, it was obvious this was the case with Serge so I didn't have a seatbelt on during this hair raising experience, which caused me to be in a sweat for most ot the ride (literally!). But, Serge was a most pleasant fellow who tried really hard to help me out, and when we returned to the hotel he wouldn't accept any money for driving me all over Krasnyorsk.
After a much needed shower (due to riding with Serge! ;o)) and a very nice dinner in the hotel restaurant, it was off to bed for a restful nights sleep.
Friday, August 26, 2005
When ready to leave this morning I spoke with the young man at the hotel front desk (who spoke quite gooe English) about calling me a cab to guide me out of the city. Instead, he suggested a fellow who apparently worked for the hotel and had his own car do it (apparently Serge's replacement for that day). Once again, after a 15 - 20 mile drive over a half hour or so, we reached the outskirts of Krasnyorsk (which has a population of around 1 million), for a fee of 500 Rubles. I've resolved that rather than using hotels inside the larger cities listed in the Lonely Planet guide, for reasons of convenience and economy I'm going to try to stay at roadside motels or hotels as much as possible for the remainder of the trip.
Around mid-day I stopped at one of the roadside truck repair ramps I've seen at intervals across Siberia to make the daily obligatory satellite telephone call to my wife at home when I see the rear tire going flat before my eyes. Only then do I recall reading in the past that tire sealant shouldn't be put into a tube with a patch, and this I had done at the hotel in Krasnyorsk the day before.
So out came my tools and air compressor. At least I had a convenient place to put everything while I worked (on top of the truck ramp). At one point while I was working a truck driver drove his truck part way up the ramp, got under the truck and worked on it, but didn't pull far enough onto the ramp to make me move.
After I pulled the tube it was obvious it now had a major leak around the patch, apparently due to the tire sealant since the previous slow leak had been stable for many days and many miles. Then I found the tube I had purchased the day before wouldn't fit into my wheel because it had a different type of valve stem which wouldn't go through the hole in the rim (I wish I had noticed that yesterday). Now it was out with the patch kit, and after inflating and deflating the tube a few times in an attempt to blow out the sealant, I placed a much larger patch over the previously applied smaller one, hoping that this double patch arrangement would prevent the sealant form contacting the outer patch and ruining the seal. After putting everything back together I was relieved to find that the tube held air just fine, and off I went.
During the midafternoon I could see a very large thunderstorm ahead and considered putting on my rain gear. However, being sn eternal optimist about rain, I convinced myself that the road was going to skirt around the storm to the north. Unfortunately I was wrong, and suddenly was hit by heavy, wind driven rain, and almost immediately soaked. My gloves and jacket have Gore Tex type waterproof liners but my riding pants and boots don't, and I was very rapidly soaked to the skin from the waist down. Fortunately the air temperature wasn't cold so I got only slightly chilled. The downpour was so heavy that standing water was pooling deep enough on the pavement to repeatedly knock my feet off the footpegs as I rode through it. And, with all the rain on my visor, and the fogging, I was having major problems with visibility - not the safest of riding conditions!
Eventually I reached one of the roofed, three sided roadside bus stop shelters (with no horses present this time ;o)) so I pulled the bike into it and hoped to wait out the downpour under shelter. The rain gradually lessened, and after about 45 minutes was not much more than a shower, so I resumed the journey (but now dressed in rain gear).
Ironically, after going north for only about five miles the road and land became totally dry, not having received any rain at all. So, I almost got around that thunderstorm as I had hoped to do. But, the expression "a miss is as good as a mile" is certainly apropos in this situation. I resolve not to be so reluctant to put on my rain gear in the future.
Then, after only another five miles or so I reached one of the motel-cafe type complexes which are becoming more common along the roads, compared to further east in Siberia. Although there are some daylight hours left, being soaked and uncomfortable I decide to stop for the night. Although this was a very modest place, to me it looked like a Hilton Hotel at that point.
The hotel was above the cafe and very small, five or six rooms, and the bathroom was shared. The cafe was under renovation, and had a limited range of food available. But there was hot water in the shower, and I was grateful for having found lodging so quickly when uncomfortably wet. This was one of the few places I stayed in Russia that had no secure parking of any sort, so I removed the Panniers (the only time I did during the entire trip) and stored them in the room. I parked the bike in a very visible spot near the door, put the bike cover over it, a cable lock with alarm through the cover and bike frame, put my disc lock with alarm on the brake rotor, and turned on the moton sensor alarm with remote pager I had installed on the bike before the trip. So, the bike was protected by three separate alarms! It was there with everything intact the next morning.
I don't know the name of this place, or it's exact location, but it is somewhere east of Kemerovo.
Saturday, August 27, 2005
A cold and windy day today. The weather now certainly isn't as pleasant as it was between Vladivostok and Irkutsk. My biggest problem today was getting lost in Novosibirsk, which is the largest city in Siberia with a population of about 1.5 million. The road led directly into the city, and for the first half hour or so the route was well marked with M51 or M53 signs and I was congratulating myself for navigating so well.
However, evntually I came to a major four way intersection with no route signing, and had to guess which way to go. I chose straight through and was soon in a rural area and then back into a city (I don't know if this was still Novosibirsk). At my third stop to ask directions and being told I had come in the wrong direction and needed to backtrack my frustration was obvious, a gentlemen indicated, in sign language, to follow him. He got into his van type vehicle and I followed him for about 20 miles until we came to the road west. He refused to take any money for gas ("benzene" in Russian), and not only that, he gave me a bible (in Cyrillic) so I assume he was a minister or missionary. I don't believe he had any reason to go all that way except to guide me, and here is another example of the friendliness and kindess of the Russian people I have encountered all across Russia, who almost without exception have tried their best to help me when I asked for directions. I shall never forget this kind man.
Other than the delay in getting through Novosibirsk, which caused me once again to vow to avoid going ito cities if I possibly can, I made good time today and found the roads to be good. By the time I exited Novosibirsk it was late afternoon, going on evening, so when I saw an attractive, natural wood structure set behind a cafe and by a small lake I stopped hoping it was a hotel. I couldn't see a sign identifying it, but rode back to it and asked a man who was fishing in the lake with his small son if it was a hotel (largely by sign language). He indicated it was, so I went inside and registered.
It appears that Russians really like flowers, and many of the hotels and motels I stayed at in that country had nice landscaping with flower beds. This one was particularly nice, so much so that I took several photos of the flower beds and little lake (see Photos section for one). The room was pleasant and comfortable, with a sink in the room, shared shower and toilet. There was no secure parking, but I was able to park the motorcycle directly under my room window, covered and with the motion alarms on, and felt comfortable with this arrangement.
I don't know the name of this hotel, but it is approximately 28 miles west of Novosibirsk on the right side of the road. The sign on the cafe, which is nearer the road, says KATE y D3EPA, as closely as I can type it in the Latin alphabet.
Sunday, August 28, 2005
Another cool, cloudy day with rain in the late afternoon and all evening.
At a gas station today I saw a Dodge Ram 2500 4X4, the first (and, it eventually turned out, the only) US built pickup truck I've seen in Russia. It was accompanied by two Toyota 4X4 pickups and all had serious looking metal camper type shells on the beds. In chatting with two of the drivers (who spoke english very well), I found that they were Germans on an overland expedition that had traversed Mongolia and Siberia, and were now returning to Germany. This was organized by the company (I believe it's a commercial venture but am not certain) Expeditions-fahrzeuge and according to the card they gave me their website is www.innovation-campers.de. Surprisingly, it came out in our conversation that they had encountered Sasha and her motorcycle a couple of days before. They said she was behind them, which surprised me since that puts her behind the schedule she was planning to follow to get to her home in Saint Petersburg by the date she planned. I had a particularly nice chat with one of them named Ludwig Schmulling, who gave me his card and invited me to visit his home in Germany when I got there. I would very much like to do that (Unfortunately, my eventual route didn't make this possible).
I was able to bypass the large city of Omsk to the south by simply staying on Route M51. At that point I decided to continue on M51 toward Kazakhstan rather than taking the more direct route northwest, although I had no plans to enter Kazakhstan (and didn't have a visa to do so).
This turned out to be quite an empty route, with few towns or services being visible from the road, but all paved. Eventually I reached the crossroads at the last town before Kazakhstan, only 10 miles from the border. It was raining by this time, cold, and near dark. At this intersection there was a new appearing, modern gas station - store - cafe complex of the sort which are now occaisonally appearing along the highways. Unfortunately they did not have a motel, but indicated by sign lanuage there was a hotel in the town to the south. I road a couple of miles into this town but couldn't identify a hotel. I stopped at a building where I saw some people going in and out, and asked if it was a hotel, with the reply being "nyet." They attempted to give me directions, but then two men indicated I should follow their car to the hotel, which turned out to be only a mile away, or less. Another example of that Russian kindness I so much appreciate.
This hotel was different than any other I experienced in Russia, being a fairly large (especially for a small town) old brick structure, and I would guess it's a holdover from the days of the Soviet Union. The room was good sized and had a private sink and toilet, but no shower. I asked the lady who checked me in if there was a shower (approximately "douche" in Russian) anywhere, and she indicated there wasn't one in the building. She may not have understood that I was asking if there was a shared shower anywhere in the building, but I didn't pursue the matter further. This hotel had no restaurant or cafe (also different), so I bought some snack food at a little market next door and that had to suffice for dinner.
The room rate was only 162 Rubles, or $5, so I certainly wasn't going to complain about the lack of a shower or cafe! This also assuaged my guilt about paying $126 for the room at Lake Baikal. :o)
When I registered I was short of enough Russian currency in my main wallet, so I took some from the small amount I had in my second, dummy wallet that I carry in case I had to surrender my wallet to robbers (I did have more currency stashed in other places but it wasn't easily accessible). After I was in my room I couldn't find the second wallet anywhere, even after searching the lobby and outside. An hour or so later there was a knock on the door and two ladies were there with the wallet, and indicated they wanted a reward for it's return. I gave them the equivalent of a few dollars and they went away happy. The wallet was soaked (still raining outside) and all the remaining currency (which wasn't much) was gone, but the inactive credit cards and copy of my drivers license, etc. were there. I'm guessing that I hadn't rezipped my jacket pocket after putting the wallet back inside, and it had obviously fallen out as I was unloading and putting away the bike for the night.
There was no security guard or secure parking at this hotel, so I parked the bike under the lobby window, covered it, and activated the three alarms. No one bothered it that night (however, the fact that it rained all night may have also helped).
I can't type the name of this town in Cyrillic, but I believe it's English translation is Isulkur (but am not sure). I have no clue as to the name of the hotel, which had no sign identifying it. It's on the right side of the street that leads south from the intersection mentioned above.
Monday, August 29, 2005
It apparently rained all night and there was a large pool of standing water between the front of the hotel and the road this morning. I packed up and left the hotel in the rain and stopped at the new, modern complex at the intersection north of town mentioned above, this being the intersection of M51 ten miles from Kazakhstan, and had breakfast.
The road north was in considerably worse condition than M51, paved but with many potholes and stretches of broken asphalt. This improved after I rejoined the more major route, E30. Since I was circling Kazakhstan to the north, I now wished to go south again, and turned onto P403 at a town with a untypable name in the Latin alphabet, but four characters in Cyrillic, ending in M. Eventually I turned southwest on a road marked in yellow in my atlas. This was the first time I had strayed off a more main road, which were marked in solid red in the atlas, and I had some concern what it's condition would be like, given how poor it was on the road north of Isilkur. I needn't have worried - this turned out to be one of the more pleasant paved stretches or road I encountered in Russia. The pavement was in excellent condition and the road was almost completely empty of traffic; sometimes I went miles between any vehicles and did not have to contend with the frequent need to pass trucks, as had gradually become more frequent on the main route. It also helped that the rain had stopped (temporarily).
I rejoined E30, and before long also M51, this being 16 miles from the border of the northly projection of Kazakhstan I had been circumnavigating. So, only ten miles from the border on one side, sixteen miles on the other. It would have been much shorter to stay on M51 across this small part of that country, but it would have meant two border crossing, and as already mentioned, I had no visa for Kazakhstan.
That afternoon I encountered a section of very bad unpaved road (see picture the in Photos section) which was very muddy and potholed, with standing water in the holes. This was the first dirt road I had encountered since before Chita. Fortunately, this was not a greasy, extremely slippery type of mud so it wan't difficult to ride. Unfortunately it had started to rain again. As best I can tell, this was still M51, the main east - west route through this part of Russia.
After 20 or 30 miles I was back on Pavement and still in the rain. Around 3:00 - 4:00 PM I saw a brick hotel on the right side of the road, and being very tired of rain and cold, decided to stop early for the day. About a half hour after I registered and paid 200 Rubles for a room, the rain stopped and the sun appeared, making me then wish I had kept riding, especially since I don't like this hotel much - the parking lot is a big mud hole (see picture), the cafe is very fly infested, the water supply to the shared bathroom is off and on, and the room is spartan and not very clean. This is the worst place I"ve stayed at in Russia. It's one saving feature is excellent, locked inside parking for the bike, although they did charge me 100 Rubles ($3.50) for that, whereas at other hotels with this feature it was free.
I'm going to wear my "Buzz Off" Permethrin inpregnated shirt and pants to bed, hoping to ward off any bedbugs and fleas which may be lurking. I originally bought a complete set of this natural insecticide impregnated clothing because of the reports of huge numbers of biting insects in Siberia, but never needed the clothing for that purpose. However, I have worn it as night clothes occaisonally where I suspected bedbugs and fleas might be present, with 100% success so far, and I'm certainly going to do that tonight.
Oh well, at least I'm out of the rain and cold.
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
My impression of last nights hotel only worsened late last night and this morning, and I now think of it as the "Hotel from Hell" since I don't know it's actual name. I suppose there has to be at least one of these on any long trip.
At 11:15 PM last night, when I was sound asleep, there a loud pounding on my door began until I answered the door. The lady who checked me in earlier was there with a gentleman, and indicated (by sign language since she spoke no English) she wanted to put him in the second bed in the room. It took me awhile to comprehend this, and when I did I certainly didn't want to share the room with a second, unknown person, especially since I had my apparel, etc. all over the second bed since there wan't any place to hang anything. I solved the problem by paying another 200 Rubles for the room, and she when went away, apparently happy, with the gentleman in tow, presumably to lodge him with someone else.
Next, when I wanted to retrieve my bike from the locked storage at 7:15 AM, I was told I couldn't get it until 8:00, despite the fact that the sign on the door gave hours beginning at 6:30. So, I decided to have breakfast in the hotel cafe, described yesterday, since I had to kill 45 minutes somehow. Guess what - no breakfast available yet, despite the same staff being present as yesterday evening (perhaps they went off duty at 8:00?). One of the younger female staff members, not the grouchy one who pounded on my door last night, took pity on me and got me some tea, bread, and a slice of cheese, so that was breakfast.
At 8:00 there was no sign of the fellow who told me I had to wait to retrieve my bike, so I asked in the kitchen to get the bike (by sign language). A lady used the phone and the same fellow reappeared and opened the door, so I could finally escape this dreadful place. I wonder if he told me I had to wait to get the bike in the hope I would pay extra to get it right away - after all, I had paid extra to Mrs. Grouchy last night to have a room to myself, hadn't I? And, as is well known, giving in to one form of extortion creates further extortion. I suspect, but don't know, that he and Mrs. Grouchy were man and wife.
Of course, it isn't their fault that my Russian is so non-existent that I couldn't understand the room rental arrangement in advance, and to be fair, I do believe she tried to tell me when she showed me the room. So, I'm considering this unpleasant episode a learning experience, and, after all it's the only unpleasant experience related to lodging I've had in all of Russia, all other hotel and motel personnel having been extremely nice and helpful. From now on, anywhere I stay where there are two beds in the room I shall somehow make certain that I am renting the entire room and both beds.
To make me even more chagrined about this experience, as I motored away from the Hotel from Hell, about 100 yards further down the road on the left side there was what appeared to be a much more modern, nicer hotel where I could have stayed if I had just gone a little further yesterday. Oh well, as I said earlier, a learning experience, and if everything went perfectly all the time it wouldn't be much of an adventure, would it?
I would strongly recommend that anyone reading this who may be following the same route in the future avoid this place at all costs. Unfortunately I can't give a name or even a precise location, but it's on M51 between Omsk and Celyabinsk, much closer to the latter. I believe if one draws a line in a southwesterly direction from the further north major city of Tyumen to M51, the Hotel from Hell is in that area. It's on the right side of the road (going west) and is a two or three story brick building, with a (locked) balcony off the front of the second story, It consists of a repair shop below (like in a partial basement), cafe on the first floor, and hotel rooms on the second floor. I hope this helps another traveler identify it. The picture of the large, muddy parking lot in the Photos section may also help.
My bad luck of the past 24 or so hours continued when, only about 20 minutes after leaving the Hotel from Hell, I heard a loud clank and totally lost power. I found my chain had broken, the first broken chain I've had in 37 years of motorcycle riding (perhaps the Hotel from Hell has put a curse on me!!!). Amazingly, it was still in place on the bike and hadn't damaged any part of the bike at all. The master link had broken in half, the side plates being sheared in their middles. For chain repair I had brought with me a compact Motion Pro chain breaker, two lengths of chain about 5-6 links each, and a half dozen master links.
Despite the fact it was the master link that had broken, the pins were so bent I had to use the chain breaker to remove the link. Replacement was easy and I was ready to resume travel in about half an hour. Fortunately I had glided to a stop at the location of a small, paved pull out off the road, because elsewhere the shoulder of the road was deep mud after all the recent rain.
I'm especially surprised this chain broke as it was a new (at the beginning of the trip) Sidewinder Ti-Moly chain that, as far as I know, is the strongest made, rated at 14,000 lb. tensile strength. I've used one of these chains in the past, on a different bike, over some very rough terrain with no problems. But, this chain was exposed to some brutal treatment, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.
At least it wasn't raining during the repair, but was cold and windy in the morning. Later in the day the weather improves and there is actually enough sun at one point to make a beautiful rainbow (see picture), which lifts my spirits enormously. Earlier while I was stopped alongside the road a young man with a sidecar rig came along and stopped. We can't converse, but I go through my now familiar routine of showing him my route on the pannier maps, give him one of my cards, and take his picture with his motorcycle. I also attempted to ask him if there was a welding shop in the nearby village he had ridden from, but wasn't able to make myself understood, as usual.
I'm nearing Celyabinsk, which is just on the east side of the Ural mountain range that officially separates Europe from Asia, here Asia being Siberia. After consulting the map, I decide to take a rather long, circuitous route around Celyabinsk to the north, since it is a large city (over one million population) and I've had my fill of floundering around in cities and getting lost.
At the easily identifiable junction of M51 and the road going north, I stop at a cafe for lunch, and am immediately approached by a small group of men. Assuming they are interested in me and the bike, I go through the usual routine, described earlier, and prepare to go inside. However, these men begin attempting to sell me a heavy sheep skin coat, and become very aggressive in their attempts, talking loudly and rapidly (which of course I can't understand), touching me, etc. One keeps leaning against the motorcycle despite my attempt to tell him to stop, to the point I am concerned he will tip it over. Despite my repeated "Nyet" they refuse to give up (and I do believe I can at least say that word well enough for it to be understood ;o)). At last I put my helmet and gloves back on and ride away to escape. I find a nice little cafe a few miles north and have lunch there.
I believe these men may have been gypsies (there was also at least one woman and a child with them). They were of darker complexion than the typical Russian, and their behavior was consistent with what I've read about the sales tactics of gypsies. However, I'd never before encountered gypsies, so I really don't know.
The bike has been running hotter than usual today - not outside the normal range on the temperature gauge, but a higher reading than usual. The fan is also running more often and for longer periods than before. I check the radiator, and find a great deal of its front surface is covered with mud, explaining this. It has rained lightly this afternoon, and I try riding through some mud puddles, hoping that splashing water will partially clear the mud from radiator (of course, this didn't work). The road has been all paved today.
As I road this circular route around Celyabinsk there was a good view of the distant city from the north, and it did indeed look very large, with numerous smokestacks pouring out some sort of smoky substances into the air. Eventually I reached the west side of the city and saw a truck stop type complex on the right side of the road, with a hotel. It was nearing darkness so I stopped for the night, with fingers crossed that this hotel would be an improvement over last nights.
And it was an enormous improvement, with a clean, modern room (although with shared bathroom and shower down the hall), at a reasonable rate. The security guard, or whatever his official role may have been, was especially helpful, arranging for me to use the repair facilities air compressor to blow dirt out of the radiator, and rigging up a makeshift hose so I could spray it out with water (I have yet to see anything like a garden hose in Russia, and I'd looked earlier for one at a couple of gas stations). He also showed me where to park the bike in a location it would be visible from the facilities guard station.
I'm not sure if this man was a security guard because there was also another man on the premises who obviously was one. At least he was if being dressed in military type fatigues (but not official colors) and carrying an assault rifle makes one a security guard. I've previously seen army personel at roadside check points carrying assault rifles in Russia, but not someone who appeared to be a private guard (although I have seen this in Costa Rica).
My bike was not disturbed at this location, and I slept really well, feeling very secure :o).
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
It's raining again this morning when I depart, although it stops temporarily in a hour or two. The pavement is good and I'm soon ascending the eastern slope of the Ural Mountains. The Urals are not high mountains with any major peaks (that I could see) but more like high, forested hills. This is a very well traveled highway and there are many roadside vendors along the route, many with large booths and racks displaying their wares.
Before long I'm over the crest of the Urals and now officially in Europe. I've done it! I've traversed completely across the Asian Continent and Siberia, which, if it were an independent nation would be the fourth largest country in the world.
There is a stretch of road today that is the roughest, most brutal road, at least for any sustained distance, that I've encountered in Russia - worse than any but some very short stretches in the Zilow Gap. All traffic, even the convoys of Japanese cars (which I'm still seeing from time to time), is moving at barely above a walking pace, 5 - 10 mph. I don't understand quite why this road surface is the way it is - it isn't gravel or dirt, but rather a very hard, extremely rough, craggy surface. It may be that it's paved road that has simply deteriorated very, very badly from heavy traffic, but it also may be that the surface layer of a paved road has been removed in preparation for repaving. It continues to rain off an on, making for a slippery surface in places.
After 10 or 15 miles of this I notice my left pannier is moving about on it's broken rack more than before, and pull off on a paved side road near a small village so I can evaluate the situation. The Happy Trails pannier rack is mounted with three bolts on each side, plus there is a cross brace that connects the two sides, passing behind the rear wheel. Two of these fasteners bolt to the stock luggage rack above and the other bolts to the passenger footpeg bracket in the lower front. One of the two bolts above and the front bolt have both sheared, and of course the cross brace was torn off in the crash several thousand miles and days before. So all that is currently holding the left pannier in place is one bolt and the two straps I've been using since the crash.
I didn't bring any extra pannier mounting bolts (I wish I had and recommend anyone going on a long adventure motorcycle tour do so if their bike has panniers), and can't find any I can scavenge from elsewhere on the bike - they have to be Allen head bolts because they fit recessed into the rack. One of the sheared bolts does have a small amount of thread remaining, and I am able to use it in the lower front mounting position, although I can only thread it in a short way because it cross-threads as damaged bolts usually do. I add a piece of wire from my electrical kit to this location, hoping to keep the bracket tighter against the mounting point and less likely to shear again, which I am very concerned it will in short order. I then attach every bungie cord I have to the panniers, some connecting the two panniers together, some going between each pannier and the bike luggage rack. So now my left pannier is held on by two bolts, one very damaged and tenuous, two straps, and about seven bungie cords (see picture).
I'm also very concerned about the right side of the pannier rack, as I've transferred all the heavy items from the left pannier to the right, and I supect that of the total of approximately 100 lb. of luggage, including the weights of the panniers and top box, about 70 lb. is in the right pannier, suspended from a rack which no longer has any cross bracing and bounces a great deal with every bump. Can the right side rack, which is so far undamaged except for missing the cross brace, hold up long under those conditions? And how long can the severely compromised left rack hold with such a damaged mounting system? There is no end in sight to the brutal road conditionss and I watch the traffic going by at a literal crawl. This is the biggest problem and difficulty I've faced so far on the trip, and I'm very concerned.
All during my attempts at repairs there are intermittant gusts of rain driven by a strong wind. What a day!
I'm sure the above description isn't very clear as it's difficult to describe the situation with words alone, and I was in no mood to stop and take pictures at that point. I apologize for being so long winded about this, but I really am in rather dire straits at this point (This was the lowest and most discouraged I felt in this entire journey).
I ponder on what to do if the left rack completely gives way and is no longer usable (I believe the left will go before the right). I decide that if this happens I will sacrifice the top box, mount the left pannier on the luggage rack in place of the top box with the two straps and the bungies, and put as much of the luggage as possible into the pannier, leaving the less important items behind. Since all three luggage pieces are packed entirely full, that will mean leaving a considerable amount of stuff. But, I can see no other option, and the need to either replace the damaged pannier rack or get it welded is now urgent.
I called my wife on the satellite phone and asked her to investigate urgent shipping from the USA via FedEx, UPS, or similar, and also to call Tim Bernard at Happy Trails about the availabiltiy of a replacement rack. This was all to no avail as it would take over a week for the shipping, and it could only be delivered to a few large cities in Russia, none of them anywhere near my location. So, I would have to make do with what I had unless I could find a welder to do repairs, and all attempts at that have been unsuccessful up to this point.
The horrible section of pavement ended a few miles beyond my stopping point, and the weather did improve for awhile. The main road, M5, bypassed the rather large city (population 1.1 million) of Ufa to the south, and there was a nice view of the downtown area from a distance (see photos).
Tired, discouraged, depressed, wet and cold, in the late afternoon I saw a hotel on the right side of the road and was very tempted to stop, but it looked too similar to the Hotel from Hell (similar architecture), so I resisted the urge and kept going. Sometime later, in the early evening, I came to a fairly modern looking truck stop type compex on the left side of the road. There appeared to be a hotel as part of the complex, and I attempted to ask a young man if it was indeed a hotel. He answered in perfect English (the first English I had heard in days!) and replied in the affirmative. We had a nice chat, and I showed him my damaged bike. His name is Wecherkovskiy Roman Borisovich, and he is pastor of the Church of Hope in a nearby city (even his card is in both English and Cyrillic). He learned such excellent English from having spent time in the US on church related activities.
There was also another young man who appeared, and he assisted me in finding the hotel registration desk, and with carrying my luggage. In the meantime Pastor Borisovich and his wife had layed out a meal on a cloth on the hood of their car, and, with their two or three children, were about to eat. They invited me to share their meal, which I greatly appreciated, but declined since I wanted to shower and get into dry clothing ASAP. At some point they left and I never saw them again, but I shall never forget the Pastor's help and kindness.
Somewhat later in the evening I was out by the bike, with several people milling about, one teenager asking to sit on the bike (and was very joyful when I allowed it) , when two men walked up and one said "What is the problem?" I showed him the broken rack, and he indicated he could fix it tomorrow. He spoke quite good English, only a little accented, and said he had worked as a mechanic in Toronto for ten years. He had me put the bike in their shop for the night and said they would open at 9:00 the next morning. The other man, who was nicely dressed and didn't appear to be a mechanic, apparently did not speak English, saying nothing during this time but being very observant.
Someone had obviously told them I had a motorcycle in need of repair and I'm not sure who it was, but it must have been either the Pastor or the young man who assisted me earlier. How fortuitous!! When my need was most desparate and I felt the lowest, help somehow appeared. I went to bed feeling deeply thankful and grateful.
Thursday, September 1, 2005
At 9:00 sharp I was outside the shop but no one was there. At about 9:20 a young man I had not seen before arrived and began inspecting the bike. By sign language he asked me to remove the panniers, and then he removed the damaged left side of the pannier rack and took it away somewhere. After a bit one of the two men I had seen the evening before, the nicely dressed one who didn't speak English, appeared and gave some directions to the younger man. I never saw the mechanic who spoke English again, the younger man apparently having taken his place that day.
These two were Ruslan, the younger, and Phanis (or Fanis?), the older man (but not old). It is my impression that Phanis is the owner of the shop and that Ruslan is his employee, although I'm not certain of this. In any case he directed Ruslan what to do, and helped him with the mechanical work at times, although he wasn't dressed for such work. Phanis didn't speak English, but he was able to understand some of it, and between that and sign language we made do fairly well.
The pannier rack was soon returned with the break reinforced and welded, although still bent as before. Phanis recognized that there had been a cross brace between the two sides of the rack, and sent for the welder; quite a discussion about what to do then occurred. We moved the bike over to his welding shop and the welder went to work fabricating and welding in place a new cross brace. I never got the welder's name, but this fellow was really good at his work. This place was definitely a truck stop, and he obviously spent most of the time welding broken truck parts, so he had lots of practice.
I took advantage of this opportunity and had them do several things to the bike, the list being: 1. Repair of the pannier rack 2. Shortening, by cutting and rewelding, the center stand (which had been too long since I installed the lowering links in Birobidzhan) 3.Straightening of the muffler bracket (bent in the crash) and tightening of the muffler - headpipe clamp 4. Shortening of the fork spring spacers to 2 inches (The spacers, at 2 5/8 inches, were too long, creating too much preload and a somewhat uncomfortable, overly stiff ride in front). 5. Changing the motor oil and cleaning the reusable oil filter. There are several pictures in the Photos section for today of these fellows at work.
Accomplishing all of this required one or two trips by Ruslan into the nearby town to buy bolts, some of which then had to be taken to a machine shop to be shortened and re-threaded since exact matches to the originals could not be found. Phanis took me to the two small parts stores in the truck stop complex and helped me select a motor oil for the bike. No motorcycle specific oils were available, the best available being Shell full synthetic Hytrex 5-40. According to the label, this is the oil used by the Ferrari Formula 1 racing team, so I figured if it was good enough for that "other" Michael, it was good enough for me! ;o)
Ruslan and Phanis spent most of the day from about 9:30 AM to 6:00 PM on the bike, and the welder spent two to three hours. As the day wore on I was getting concerned about how much this would all cost me, envisioning several thousand Rubles, or hundreds of dollars. I needn't have worried - the total for everything was 1800 Rubles, or $63! What a bargain!
After everything was back together and the panniers back on the bike, they realized for the first time that the left rack was bent and the pannier thus sat at an odd angle compared to the other. They then wanted to straighten the bent rack by cutting and rewelding it.I insisted they not do this, explaining as best I could that I was very happy with it as it was, that it was now very strong which was all that mattered to me, and I didn't care that the pannier was at an angle. It took a great deal of discussion to persuade them to leave the rack as is. They had even welded a treaded insert into the broken area of the rack so I could not attach the pannier to the rack normally with two bolts, instead of having to use straps for the front attachment (the original threaded piece for the front attachment point had fallen out at the time of the crash).
It was obvious that these men took pride in their work, further demonstrated by the fact that they insisted on painting the damaged pannier rack black to match the other side, even though I couldn't have cared less at this point if it was painted or not. It was very nice to seek such pride in workmanship. (And, their repairs lasted for the entire remainder of my journey and I had no further problems whatsoever with my pannier setup, thanks to their excellent work.)
Since the repairs took all day I stayed two nights at this location, and it was a comfortable, pleasant place to stay. The hotel had three types of rooms and I selected the largest. It was a very nice room with a modern, private bathroom for 800 Rubles ($28) per night (The other rooms were less expensive). The entire complex consisted of the hotel, two cafes. two motor vehicle parts stores, two repair shops, and the welding shop. As best I can type the name of the nearby town, or small city, as it appears on the map, it is OKTR6PbCKNN, but with the R and the two Ns being backward. A translation into the Latin alphabet is Oktyabrskiy. Phanis told me the name of the hotel in Russian but I can't type it in Cyrillic; it translates to Poles'e in English. He said the cafe was the Madryt in Russian, translation Masgut in English. The truck stop complex is due south of the city, on the beltway type road bypassing the city to the south (according to my map, M5 goes into the city proper). As best I can tell from my map (I don't have a speedometer reading), this place is about 115 miles west of UFA and 163 miles east of Samara. I highly recommend it to any traveler needing lodging or repairs.
Before setting out on this journey I had read accounts of Russians forcefully insisting that travelers share vodka with them, and had some concerns about this as I don't like distilled alcoholic beverages. I needn't have been concerned as this never happened anywhere in Russia. The only time vodka was even mentioned was at this location. During the course of the day there were several onlookers who watched the bike repairs being done, and at one point a couple of these men suggested we go to what appeared to be a cafe across the road where vodka and ladies for hire were available. I was able to politely decline and there was no pressure associated with this offer, it having been done in a friendly manner. After I indicated I couldn't drink vodka ("bad liver") but could beer, some bottles of beer were produced and I was given one (at the worksite, not across the road! ;o)), which I enjoyed drinking with these men. I actually saw a lot more beer being consumed in Russia than I did vodka.
It was a good day to take a break from riding as it rained off and on all day. This was only my second day without riding since I left Nahodka (and the last until I reached Heidelberg, Germany).
Friday, September 2, 2005
It does feel good to be on the road again. At least it isn't raining this morning when I leave the hotel. Thankfully, this turns out to be a very uneventful day as I've had enough problems for awhile. It's nice not to have to remove the two straps everytime I need to get something form my left pannier. The motorcycle is running flawlessly, and the double patched rear tube is 100% holding air - I've not had to add any since doing the second patch. And, the front suspension is now definitely more compliant and pleasant because of the lessened preload.
Even though it's only the second day of September there already is some fall color in the foliage in this part of European Russia. The road (M5)is all good pavement today, some of the best I've seen in Russia. There is more traffic on the road now than there was further east, but I am no longer seeing the convoys of used Japanese cars that were so common in Siberia.
It's interesting how the heavy, commercial trucks on the road have changed. In eastern and central Siberia the large trucks were mostly the Russian built Kamaz brand, but as I've gotten further west, very large European built trucks have become more and more common. I am now seeing Mercedes, Volvo, Man, Scandia (?sp), etc. more than Kamaz's. These European trucks are somewhat different in design than the typical "semi" we have in the USA, being cabover designs with the engine underneath or behind the driver/passenger compartment, the tractor thus being very tall. They have a very modern, powerful look about them.
The cars seen on the highways have also changed since the beginning of my trip across Russia. In the Russian Far East they were overwhelmingly of Japanese manufacture, and all of these were right hand drive. In Vladivostok Roman Glushak told me that only about one car in a thousand there was left hand drive. Since in Russia (unlike Japan) the cars travel on the right side of the road, having right hand drive cars makes for an interesting situation. However, as I traveled across Siberia the percentage of left hand drive, Russian built cars gradually and progressively increased, and now are considerabely more common than Japanese cars. I am also now occaisonally seing European built cars, such as Volkswagens, and very occaisonally high end German cars such as Mercedes, BMW, and Audi.
A few miles west of Penza I find a Motel (approximate name ropn3OHT) and stop for the night. This is a good sized, free standing roadside motel (no associated truck stop) which is quite modern and attractive and with a nice restaurant (not a cafe). It cost 850 Rubles ($30) with private bath and breakfast, and secure motorcycle storage in a locked garage area in the hotel basement at no extra cost, with a security guard on duty outside. I thought this place was a good deal.
Saturday, September 3, 2005
I've altered my original projected route somewhat, having decided to stay on M5 until I reach the outer ring around Moscow, rather than turning east further south. At least I think of it as the outer ring. The map shows three circular roads in and around the city of Moscow, and I'm hoping the outermost one will not involve city-like driving conditions as I've had my fill of that and have no desire to enter Moscow proper. But, this seems a straighter route that involves fewer small cities and towns and it appears it would be faster as long as that outer ring isn't in congested areas.
Not too long after I reach the junction of M5 and that outer ring road, perhaps more properly called A108, I once again hear a clank and lose power. My chain has broken for the second time! This time it has come off the bike and is laying in the traffic lane. When I retrieve it I find that, identical to before, the master link side plates have completely sheared in half, but this time there is also a second area of damage, one other link being partially destroyed. I believe this is most likely from the chain being run over by a truck as it lay on the road.
I replace these two damaged links with two master links and bridge the distance between them with one of the two small sections of chain I have with me (it requires five links to bridge the gap). I have a great deal of difficulty installing the second master link clip this time, for no apparent reason, and it takes several minutes just to get the clip in place. Eventually I'm on the road again, but this repair has taken quite a bit of time, and darkness is now not too far off.
My plan is to continue on this outer ring road until I reach M9, which leads directly to Latvia, stopping along M9 somewhere for the night. I am fortunate that this road does remain rural in character, there being very little in the way of towns or population along the way (also no hotels and very few services). In fact, there is much less traffic on this road than there had been earlier on M5, not surprising since M5 is a major route to and from Moscow.
In fact, this stretch of the M5 route had been somewhat scary as I was dealing with very aggressive drivers while in the rain. Drivers all across Russia were aggressive by US standards, but became more so as I neared Moscow. The two lane stretches of this part of M5 were fairly wide, and the drivers would make three lanes out of two, pulling out in the face of oncoming traffic to pass, with the expectation that the oncoming vehicle (me) would pull to the right far enough to allow them through. This seemed to worked ok except for my getting sprayed with water as they went by, but it was a bit nerve-wracking to have a car coming directly at me straddling the center line at 70 mph, in the rain, when I only had three or four feet to pull to the right before I would hit the soft shoulder.
Another thing about the way Russian drivers pass that is particularly maddening is that they don't pull fully into the left lane to pass, escpecially if passing a motorcyle, going by at two or three feet to the left of the bike, and then pulling back into the right lane very quickly and abruptly in front of the vehicle being passed. This results in a motorcyclist being heavily sprayed with water if the road is wet, both as the car goes by so closely and when it pulls back in a few feet in front of the motorcycles front wheel. This happened to me repeatedly on this stretch of road. I don't believe there is anything malicious about this pattern of driving, but rather it's just routine, the way they are accustomed to passing, and they don't think anything of it. However, it sure would be nice if they at least gave the motorcyclist a little consideration when it's raining.
It's after dark when I eventually reach the junction of A108 and M1, M1 being the route from Moscow to Belarus, the rain now having stopped. It isn't apparent if A108 continues north immediately across M1, or if I need to go a distance on M1 to find it. There is a large, permanent police check point, with about 10 - 12 officers at work, at this junction and I attempt to ask them for directions. None of them spoke English, but they seem to indicate I should turn left (west) on M1. I do this, ride for a time, but can't identify any major road heading north (the situation here isn't helped by my not having a map of this area, having omitted it from the atlas pages I brought on the trip as I didn't expect to be in this area). And, the mapping function of my gps still isn't working.
So I turn around, return to the above described intersection, and turn on what seems to be a minor road going north. In a very few kilometers this road seems to end in a village. Once again I backtrack to the intersection, all this time being in darkness, turn west again on M1, and this time keep going. My plan is to find a hotel along M1 asap, and find a road north to M9 in the morning. At least I'm going largely west on M1, the direction I need to go to get to Latvia in any case. I can't pass through Belarus because that county requires a visa, which I don't have.
I ride and ride on M1, which has become a very dark road, without finding a hotel. Given the driving patterns of Russian drivers, I had not planned to ride after dark at all in Russia unless there was no way to avoid it, and this is the first time I have done so. It seems now there is no way to avoid it.
Finally, at about 10PM, I see a truck stop type complex with a hotel on the left side of M1 and stop for the night. I believe the name of this hotel is approximately TABEPHA, as best I can type it in Cyrillic, but I don't know what town it's in or near. Except for the water having a bad odor this hotel is quite satisfactory, as is the attached restaurant, and there is a place to park the bike in a guarded area behind the hotel, the guard having me park it right beside the guard house.
It's been a very long, trying day and I'm quite tired. I sleep like a baby, probably a big snoring baby. Just before I go to sleep I think that, if all goes well tomorrow I shall exit Russia, perhaps never to return. That thought saddens me.
Sunday, September 4, 2005
Before leaving the hotel this morning I asked the receptionist, as best I could using a map, the location of a road going north to M9. She indicated there is one very close to the east. Only a couple of hundred yards east of the hotel I do see a well paved road going north. There is a police checkpoint at this intersection, with two officers pulling over vehicles, and I ask one of them for directions, again using the map, as I want to confirm what the receptionist said. If she was wrong and sent me on the wrong route it wouldn't be the first time in Russia. I think that sometimes a Russian wants so badly to help they guess on directions instead of saying they don't know.
The officer seemed unclear as to the route I was inquiring about, but eventually waved me down the road to the north. Btw, one thing I won't miss in Russia are the police checkpoints, although I've only been pulled over at these 6 - 8 times in my entire journey across Russia, far fewer than some travelers have reported, and I have never been fined or asked for money. (And this was the last checkpoint I encountered until I got to the border).
Although I'm not sure which road this is on the map, it's excellent, being well paved and very low in traffic. I encountered towns of some size (but stil towns, not cities) a few miles from M1, just before M9, and one about midway between the two main highways.
Yesterday and today I took a few pictures of things I wanted to record before leaving Russia, and these are in the Photos section of this website. One is of some typical roadside vendors, seen all across Siberia and European Russia (although I don't recall seeing any in the Russian Far East). These vary from a single person with one bucket of some vegetables or fruit, to elaborate displays on racks or in booths. The items being sold vary greatly from place to place, but in a given area will often be the same or similar items. Sometimes they are food items, sometime clothing or other things. For example, I recall one area where there were many vendors selling nothing but what appeared to be jars of some sort of colored juice or other beverage. In another town there were about a half dozen vendors, all spaced 50 - 100 yards apart along the road and all displaying gloves on racks (perhaps there was a nearby glove factory?). Some of the vendors were in cities and towns, but others were in what seemed to be quite remote locations, no sign of human habitation being apparent along the road for some distance.
I had also been struck by how well every stream or river is signed in Russia, and took a picture of one of these signs. All such signs show a "p" with a period, apparently an abbreviation, followed by a name. Even dry streams are usually so marked. If only the Russians marked their roads with signs as well as they do their streams!
I kept seeing signs with a word (or words) with a slash mark across the word. It took me a while to figure out that these were all at the edge of a city or town, and apparently meant "leaving" the municipality indicated on the sign. Then there were a variety of watch for animal signs - cattle, deer, etc. which were of a different design that we see in North American - more abstract in design, perhaps (see example of cattle).
Speaking of deer, I was struck by the absence of wildlife sightings in my travels across Russia. Despite occaisonally seeing a watch for deer sign in the more rural areas, I neve actually saw one, not even the carcass of a dead deer along the highway such as is so common in parts of Western Canada and the US. The only wild animals I saw in Russia were some raptors, a few ducks, one ermine or weasel type animal, and small birds of various types. Not even any rabbits. I don't know why I saw so little wildlife, especially since many areas I traveled through were very rural and there was lots of forest land, but, for whatever reason, it was very different than in North America.
My final picture in Russia (Taking pictures at the border crossing in either Russia or Latvia wasn't allowed)was of a scene I found somewhat amusing, and represented to me the changes going on as Russia moves from a communist to a capitalist economy. In the town midway between M1 and M9 I saw one of the large, blocklike apartment buildings typical of those I've often seen across Russia that were built during the Soviet Union days. These are usually run down in appearance and obviously not very well maintained. Immediately adjacent to this building was what looked like a small subdivision, with about 20 fairly small single family dwellings that were A frame log cabin in style. I found this to be a striking juxtapostion.
Getting back to todays travel, M9 also didn't have heavy traffic - much less than M5 or M1. Initially there was some commercial truck traffic, but for the last 50 miles or so from the border there were not trucks whatsowever, and only and occaisonal car.
Eventually I arrived at the border, not knowing what to expect. There were very few cars visible in either direction, only two or three leaving Russia. The first stop was a little guard house. The officer there checked my passport and wrote the motorcycle license number on a small form and waved me ahead. The next stop was at a booth under a roofed area just outside what appeared to be the main building. There were several lanes and several booths, but only one seemed to be manned. Here they took all my papers and worked at a computer for awhile, apparently having difficulty finding something they wanted in the computer. I also had to fill out a customs declaration form for anything I had bought in Russia and was taking with me (nothing except the watch, which I had dropped and broken and didn't declare). Eventually they kept the vehicle registration form I had been issued in Vladivostok and waved me to the next (and final) booth. Here a woman officer looked at my documents and had someone take me to an office inside the building.
In this office a man and woman who spoke essentially no English looked at my documents and tried to ask me questions. I could tell there was some problem but didn't know what it might be. They made a telephone call and shortly a woman appeared who did speak some English. She said the problem was with my migration permit (sometimes call a migration card), which had been issued at customs in the Vladivostok airport. The problem was that the last hotel stamp on it was for the hotel in either Vladivostok or Birobidzhan, and they wanted to know where I had been the past three weeks. I said I had been traveling across Russia by motorcyle and camping part of the time. Either they didn't understand this or it was not an acceptable answer as they continued to question me. I don't understand quite what they expected as the migration permit is a very small form, not much larger than a 3 X 5 inch index card, and it was competely covered by stamps, there not being room for any more.
It occurred to me that some of the hotel recipts, and I had kept them all, had stamps on them (these are stamps in ink, not stick on stamps), so I retrieved the four or five of these that were readily accessible in my luggage and gave these to the male officer. This seemed to satisfy him, and I was released to leave Russia. I wonder what they would have done if I hadn't been able to produce any documentation of my travels except the migration permit (which they kept along with the receipts). Surely they couldn't have refused to allow me to leave the country (could they??). So, if you are traveling overland across Russia, be sure not ro lose your migration permit and save all your hotel receipts. The two agents came outside and waved goodbye as I rode west away from the border post.
I can see the Latvian border crossing about 200 yards ahead. According to my speedometer I have traveled 6,904 miles since leaving Vladivostok, and this is my 28th day in Russia. I have spent 21 of those days actually riding. It has been a very memorable adventure that I will never forget, creating many memories I shall always treasure. I leave Russia with highly mixed emotions.