Well, we have been having, how does one say, an “interesting time” since we last wrote.
We are now in Chita, central Siberia, about 2,200km from Khabarovsk and still some 1,200 km away from Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. We have ridden over 1,200 km of dirt roads, which at times more resembled a gravel pit rather than a road, encountered some amazingly friendly people, been unwittingly smuggled into a army barracks, enjoyed some astonishing scenery of pristine forests stretching on for what seems to be forever, one of us has fallen and hurt themselves, we have been invited into peoples homes, meet friendly armed men in the Taiga, had our photos taken more times than you could poke a stick at, been very depressed at the state of the road, enjoyed the camaraderie of other long distance travellers all sharing the joys of the rough conditions, had a midnight call from what was described to us as the “hidden police” (we’re just referring to them as the KGB), one of the bikes has developed a major power problem and we finished the week off with a 22 hour train trip.
Since we have so much to share we are going to split this e-mail into two parts so you can spread the reading of it out over a couple of days.
Lights down curtain up.
To return to the beginning.
We had changed our tyres in Khabarovsk, spending three nights in the city. The morning we left it was lightly raining creating a thin oily slick over the roads, this combined with the new tyres made the morning peak hour traffic somewhat hair-raising. We slipped out of the city, the first 200 km was on sealed roads passing broad open agricultural areas before entering into the deep forests. Our lunch stop was a small remote roadside café set in a clearing in the forest, constructed in log cabin style, with a small verandah. It was a family run business with Dad and the hired hands working on the finishing touches to the exterior and Mum and the daughters taking care of the café meals . With the Russian new age Enya style music echoing off the trees, giving the whole scene a peaceful surreal feel. We were given a free shashlyk (a popular road side snack like a huge Kabab cooked over a open charcoal fire) to compliment our meal and the cheeriest of farewells.
Soon after lunch the dirt started and would continue for another 1,900 km ranging from an average Australia country road, through to construction sites . Basically 100 km’s of deep gravel beds.
The first night we found ourselves in a stretch of road that was slightly elevated, with no side roads or secluded camping spots for about the last 30 km. The riding was exhausting us and we had to make the decision to pull over and hide as best we could at the side of the road to camp for the night.
The traffic was not heavy, but constant. It was almost exclusively comprised of “new” second Japanese vehicles being driven at speed in convoys of up to 6 vehicles bound for the new owners in central and western Russia. Occasionally there is a single owner driver taking more care and poking along at about the same speed as us.
We really wondered at the toll that the road was extracting from these cars, often just small 4 cylinder sedans, designed for the carefully maintained Japanese city roads rather than for this sort of cross continental odyssey. Over the next few days we would see two sumps ripped out, numerous flat tyres and at least three vehicles that just gave up and had to be towed. If ‘Ivan’ from Russia’s Quality Second Hand Japanese Caryard offers you a great deal on a nice little Toyota Echo, take a very long look at the suspension and check the sub-frame for fatigue. We reckon that at the speeds they travel, the road would take at least five years off the vehicles life.
Ah now back to The spot we choose to camp that night. It was not too dusty and well hidden from traffic approaching from the west, but exposed to the east. Even so we ended up with visitors, one fellow was concerned for us about the mossies (which were Russian thick as usual) and the other fellow was a local transport operator who spied us when he was coming up the hill and had to continue along the road for what we think was another five km to find a place to turn around and come back. It was around 9 pm now, just starting to get a little less light. The truck stops and out jumped the driver and his side kick , we noticed that the driver was packing a handgun in a shoulder holster (as per Miami Vice) He start chatting happily away in rapid Russian.
Q. Now what does one do when faced with an armed Russian on the side of the road with darkness approaching?
A. Well smile and be as friendly as possible.
In the end it turns out that he has a collection of photos of “different” travellers he has meet along that stretch of road (an English Lord riding a bicycle, a Japanese runner and other assorted odd bods) and all he wanted to do was add another photo to his collection. Phew!!!
After the photo shoot it was handshakes all round, we refused the offers of a drink of vodka and we settled down for a quiet, but a little uneasy night sleeping with one eye open. So to speak.
The next day the road became progressively worse (from a bike riders point of view). It was often elevated at times as high as 10 to 15 meters above swampy ground level. If the plan was not to seal the road it was covered with deep gravel as a form of weather proofing. Great if you had four wheels as the deep gravel smoothed out the potholes and provided a rough, but drivable weather proof road. Not so great if you only have two wheels. We stuck to the wheel ruts where the gravel was thinnest, but occasional we ran into the thick patches , six inches deep or more.
It was one of these deeper patches that Brett came to grief in. Dave was travelling about 50m ahead and would radio back if he encountered any deep patches to give Brett some warning. This time Brett’s front tyre struck a large stone forcing him out of the rut into the deepest gravel and down the bike went. Accidents are suppose to happen in slow motion, but not this one, one instant Brett was upright, the next he was pinned with his leg bent backwards trapped under the right hand pannier, the engine still running. First things first, turn off the motor, next review the pain in the leg trapped under the bike which did not appear as bad a broken leg, an attempt to move the leg was greeted with shooting pains in the knee and ankle, so that was considered a bad idea, next radio Dave to say that was all OK, but trapped and could he come back and lift the bike, then some slow breaths, take the sunnies, helmet and gloves off and convince oneself that the pain did not exist and wait. Dave on the other hand was only aware of looking back and seeing the bike down and no movement (Brett’s comm system was damaged in the fall), He ran back and was relived to see Brett remove his helmet. A couple of attempts to lift the bike to release Brett’s leg, a check to see if the ankle could take weight (yes) and then bring the bike back upright. No real damage that could not be fixed other than a badly sprained knee and ankle. Now move the bike out of the gravel and out of the way of other next hurtling convoy. While we rested and caught our breath a huge Kamaz Truck came through at about 60km/ hr and started to drift in the gravel so we decided to move off the road altogether and get out of harms way.
We pushed on more slowly after that and thankfully did not find any more patches of gravel quite as deep or willing to devour a motorcycle wheel again. Some times the road opened up into a loam covered surface pitted with potholes. A bummer for the cars, but great on the bikes as we could weave our way around them. Other times we hit corrugation for what seems to be 100’s km at a time and we slowed down as much as possible to be gentle on the bikes. About this stage Dave’s right hand mirror gave up and fell off. Hmmmm just like riding on a giant wash board.
Over the next four nights we would find a mixture of cheap railway hotel accommodation or be offered over night stays in peoples houses.
That’s were we might leave you with this report and will continue later.
Brett and Dave