Tom and I hung out on the roof top and caught up while enjoying the beer. It WAS warm in Bishkek and there were stories about limited snowfall over the past 2 years (actually the Pamir’s have received about 25% less snow than normal for the past 50 years) and that summer temps had shattered ancient records.
Irrigation “boom” town
We’d last met in Ulan Ude (an experience that did not make the blog entries of 2013′s BAM ride). I needed another day to chase visas so we prepared to depart on Wednesday.
Everything went well at the Tajik Embassy. I arrived LATE (9:30) to a short queue of one American and a Kyrgyz tour leader to “they’re not answering the door”. At that moment we were rung in. The website stated “document collection from 9-11, document pickup from 10-12.” “Come back between three and 5 PM today.” Sure.
The Uzbek visit went “missing”. Met folks in Osh who suggested that they were being ALL rejected due to harvest time (Uzbekistan can be VERY hard to find gas (benzine) in and apparently, so the rumor went, all the farm machinery runs on benzine. It seems the real story is that the woman in charge of the Consular services in Bishkek is rather power mad.
On Wednesday we headed for . . . Osh but with an expectation of going off-road on some tracks that Walter Colebatch had provided. (For the record, his tracks were NEARLY identical to the ones I’d guessed which means . . . my guesses were lucky.)
We stayed at a resort on Tortogul Reservoir after riding about 350km (210 miles) in considerable heat.
But before that . . . we were nearly the DESERVING subjects of an international incident. Why ? Oh, pounded by heat, a lack of rest and a fantabulous lack of judgement and apparent disdain for cultural & religious sensitivity.
Tunnel & Road along Toktogul Reservoir outlet
At a chaikhana with EXCELLENT mince kabobs and a fantastic view of the nearly 20000′ granite crags next to the road we headed off for the loo. The signs were in Cyrillic but not difficult to follow. However, even Tom, who is fluent in Russian found it rather ambiguous. First we found ourselves in a prayer room. “Uh, we have to get out of here.” Then . . . a man gesticulated for us . . . and we were in another room which, at least for me, provoked memories of the GIGANTIC loos in China in the 90′s when a man could enter a room with a gutter running at the foot of the 4 walls which comprised it to see up to a 1000 chinese men squatting doing their business. (Of course, they would STARE unabashedly at a foreigner which often precipitated some performance anxiety.)
I noticed water pitchers, small stools with carpet patches on them and . . . prepared to relieve myself. Utter shock at my own inconceivable ignorance and complete lack or respect or regard . . . well, 100 lashes would have been fair. Hamd’Allah (thank God), a man stopped us. We finally found the outhouses (which were fairly ripe given the heat) but nonetheless rode away in shame.
The resort was easily reachable from the chaikhanna and while it did appear to be uninhabited we eventually were shown a (relatively) pricey room facing the reservoir. Dinner was excellent – the pelmeni was AMAZING and the local trout sublime. The room may not have been all-out budget but the a/c worked, the shower was great, and the kitchen excellent and a tremendous value.
In the AM we tried one of Walter’s off-road tracks or at least tried. We had a brief interruption by a Kyrgyz driver who was determined to show us that he could spray our bikes with his rear wheels sending gravel and stones at our helmets/windscreens BUT was not terribly happy when I decided to pre-emptively return the favor.
Eventually we ended up at a seeming gap in the hills and a steep, short, loose run up to a blind corner. I went up first and it WAS loose. I waited for Tom who struggled not a little because his throttle response was a bit indirect and the engine’s complete absence of bottom-end torque was most unforgiving.
At the “top” we realized that we’d chosen the wrong path ! I found this somewhat more amusing than Tom and rode both bikes down with minimal drama but not none. So we re-examined our GPS and I decided to scout a ravine. This quickly proved unprofitable while the sun and heat continued to soar.
Eventually we retreated to the ‘Pelmeni Pavilion’, tails between our legs and re-collected our religious infraction of the prior day over a beer or three. The next day we rode to Osh.
So many nations/ethnics claim Genghis (er, Chinghis) . . . what’s another
Well . . . there’s that issue with the oil sender leaking.
So . . . after arriving I didn’t exactly RUSH to the bike because I knew that if things were bad . . . it was the end.
In spite of some solid input from Scuderia West (San Francisco), one of the better KTM dealers on planet earth, there was NOT sufficient threading beyond the purchase the OEM sender used to simply put a new 10×1 metric fine thread in and Loctite it in.
For absolute confirmation I asked Nicolai, Patrik’s excellent mechanic for a opinion. And opine he did, via a bit of translation – “No, the new bolt and Loctite will not hold. But if you tap the hole . . . you’ll get metal in the engine.”
The proverbial ‘rock and a hard place’ positioning. After showing the taps and driving tools that John Katics had built for me he like that option AFTER I showed him I could block the oil passage hole with a bit of old rag. Nicolai said, “you must make new hole. Good luck. We go to lunch (!)”
This really is a task better left to a skilled machinist and DEFINITELY rates as “don’t try this at home – (non) professional at work.” But there are no decent machine shops within 1000 miles and so . . . it’s defibrillation time – either I kill the patient outright or I don’t.
With considerable anxiety but committed (in)competence I bore into the old hole SLOWLY. In fact, it took six full goes for me to tap the new threading going slowly each time. Was the bore orthogonal to mating surface ? No. Was it close ? Gut genug.
This will hurt me worse than it hurts you . . . maybe.
The rag worked to keep the (soft) aluminum parts out of the engine. I applied some standard blue Loctite and let it sit for about 20 hours before starting it. That left time for other sundry tasks including mounting my new (Montana) GPS mount.
A bit of gas was still in the tank and with the enrichment lever JUST cracked she fired in a moment and settled into a steady idle. (Yippee !).
Now would the seal hold ? Yes. Was the new carburetion (jetting and air filter) working ? YES !
In fact, it’s like she added another cylinder in terms of power. The new air filter represents a ginormous increase of intake surface area and the new jets pass considerably more fuel.
Good & clean but . . . good (enough) ?
The sound from the intake wasn’t a roar but a ‘BRRAAAPPPP’ – it sounded more like a high-revving multi-valve, multi-cylinder car engine . . . and EASILY lofted the front wheel. This may be an old (10 years !) Duckling whose been nicked by riding remotely and suffered from some cooling abuse (Mongolian Gobi coolant, anyone . . .) but it’s still a KTM LC8 and sounds and runs fantastic. Nicolai’s face was palpably jealous of the exhaust note AND the intake aural attack.
Now after arriving on early AM on Saturday I prepared to ride to Bishkek to meet Tom Reiter on his BMW X-Challenge for a tour of the Kyrgyz Republic on Monday morning.
Leaving after 2PM I still managed to get to the hotel by just after 9PM.
On 12 August 2015 I’ll fly from Bangkok to Dubai on the way to Osh via Dubai and Istanbul. Given some small amount of good fortune the fix to the oil sender unit in the KTM should be fairly straightforward.
Yes, I’ve not made an update regarding the ride from Tynda to Ulan Ude, where an American living in Moscow for the past 20+ years was a fantastic host, nor an interesting ride across Mongolia on the central and northern routes with an Englishman hell-bent to get back to the UK on a MASSIVELY overloaded KLX 250, sense or sensibility or appreciation for the journey be damned.
But the important thing, at least as far as I’m concerned, is the opportunity to ride in the Pamirs and then get the Duckling back to Europe and to north America.
Road construction for road construction vehicles – pretty much all we saw
The ride out of Chara meant a “slight” (17km) deviation to get fuel in “Old Chara”. Another late start with progress further interrupted by a out-of-the-way fuel depot. The day was warm and sunny and we “raced” a train for a while on fast, round stone “gravel”. There was some construction that was intriguing to ride around/through as the way wound through valleys with snow and over large passes.
The loneliest road in Siberia ?
Big empty landscapes with potential snow on the mountain tops and large alpine lakes. Some time before Khani we rode through a narrow track just wide enough for a smaller truck in forested mountains. Beautiful and fun. Certainly BamBam and I had increased levels of confidence. Not sure what was the origin of his but after riding off nearly two years of rust . . . the Duckling felt ready, willing and able and I was eager to serve.
Yes, it’s late August and that’s snow.
We were riding across bridges with significantly less hesitation. But near the river crossing before Khani I met Kim who was in a dark mood. Eventually BamBam appeared after picking up some food at a magazin. Kim’s mood did not lighten. “What did you say to him ?” “Kim’s confidence is low and I told him he just needed to ride through it.” Nice. And sensitive.
Well, with two of us at least with sky-high confidence we approached the river. It didn’t look high nor necessarily that fast. BamBam was eager to “go for it”. I had a funny feeling and suggested that perhaps our confidence was blinding us a bit and we should inspect things, first.
It was a great day of riding the BAM
Yep – it would have been a potential disaster. The current was deeper than it looked, well above the knee, moving VERY fast and there were large, loose rocks underneath. It was a considerable for the three of us to move the bikes across one-at-a-time.
BAM travelers memorial
Just as we’d cleared all the bikes with BamBam’s last . . . he mounted it in the dry riverbed but chose to do so along the spine of a small rock pile. Kim and I stood frozen as we watched BamBam move left, then right, then left on his saddle finding his balance. “What the hell are you doing ?”, I said. “I dunno,” was the reply. “Well stop it.” The 690 finally caught and moved forward and another potentially messy fall was avoided. Kim looked at me with a face that had become already very familiar. If I’d had said anything it would have been, “what exactly do you think I could do or should do ?”
Kim, the superspy fishing on the BAM
As we neared Khani there was another railway bridge crossing . . . we met a Russian on a Minsk who “showed us the way”.
Hani – here our confidence diverged
We camped under the bridge that nite . . . it wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounded. The trains were not that common and inspite of the ground shaking . . . we all slept well.
The camera is NOT tilted.
The next day was another warm, sunny one with more riding along the river, along the railway tracks and into the forested mountain tracks. I REALLY liked the forested mountain tracks, going up or down. At one point, well ahead of BamBam and Kim I stopped to put up a piece of wood that would warn of the large hole that was nearly impossible to see until you were on it. At a stop, Kim said “Thanks for the warning.” BamBam claimed he hadn’t seen anything. Sure.
BamBam’s bike, our lightest by far, was 2.5 times his Minsk’s weight.
Given the water levels we were re-directed by either broken bridges, flooded crossings and at least once, a Kamaz driver who assured us the way forward was impassable, possibly even for him.
A gentlemen in sartorial splendor
There were a few instances of fixing Kim’s bent shifter or foot brake lever. BamBam was nearly expert at servicing the endless sores and scabs on Kim’s “Dakar”. One incident caused BamBam and I to wait for some time for sign of Kim. As we walked down a narrow forested track we saw, finally, some sign of large mammals – two small piles of bear scat, one relatively fresh.
Ah, it’s easy when your motorbike is only heavy in comparison to a (non-Russian) bicycle.
We continued to ride in what I felt was good fun. A great enduro track approaching the final, large challenge – Olykema Bridge. We could see it on our GPSs but . . . the meandering paths we were forced to ride were indirect, slow, if fun.
That Minsk is almost certainly older than BamBam.
Olykema Bridge meant our crossing to Yuktali. We had to approach the bridge on the south side of the tracks and pass under it to get to the north side where access to the bridge was possible. The water levels were so high the bog beneath the bridge was both challenging and a little anxiety inducing.
A teeny bike in mighty Sibir !
As we climbed up to the north side we saw the family we’d met at Kuanda a few days previously. Their SUV had been flooded and they were in the process of drying out clothes, cameras, computers, etc. They were VERY generous serving us really tasty food (BamBam ate more than Kim and I together and with the gusto of a man returning from the wilderness).
Siberian speed bump
We spoke to the railway bridgeman and he agreed to let us cross. First we had to clear the approach. From our current spot it was a short, steep approach toward a locked, vertically swinging gate.
Kim went first, carrying Barbie. He tried to go under the gate but his windscreen was too tall. Suddenly we were trying to hold the bike from going forward or backward to avoid damaging his windscreen. Then, it happened, Barbie was broken off her scooter. I did not like this sign.
BamBam went next and decided to go to the right of the gate where there was an opening for a pedestrian. It was a tough turn after mounting a steep, loose rock pile. He made it to the opening and dismounted without too much drama. (For all the short-legged readers, BamBam rode and is riding a bike where he can BARELY touch the ground with one extended leg and foot on one side by sliding over on the saddle. If nothing else, he’s a committed rider !)
“All the timbers are creaking”
I had already decided to try to make it to the pedestrian opening. My bike is much taller than Kim’s. Somewhat incredibly I made the opening and just drove through. BamBam claimed it was because he’d tilted the barrier pole. BamBam’s geometry skills are every bit as impressive as his cooking, equal parts enthusiasm and pure imagination.
Then I proceeded on past the metal spikes meant to dissuade, apparently, motorbikes. There was a 4″ gap between them and it was threaded without any drama. Kim suggested I was crazy for riding a 4″ gap.
The bridgeman told us he’d come to Yuktali in 1968 expecting it to be just two years. He never left. He also told us that this year he’d seen less traffic than ever before. In Russian – “Normally, there are 10-15 (four-wheel) vehicles a year. This year, just two.”
Olykoma bridge – this would be interesting
An inspection of the bridge revealed an interesting problem. It was too narrow to put the bike, even without luggage, in the walkway between the guardrails and the tracks. Nope. We’d have to ride on something that was less than 30cm (12″) wide for . . . 530 meters (nearly 600 yards). If you fell to the left, it was a good fall into the guardrail, where there was some broken, sharp metal. To the right, you went into the track. It would be possible to avoid getting run over by a train but lifting the bike up would probably be beyond any single rider.
It was without any difficulty that I voiced, “I have a bad feeling about this.”
BamBam went first. Going next, I watched him clear the far side and then so did I. As I pulled up BamBam said, “What the hell is Kim doing ?” He hadn’t seem to have made much progress and his bike appeared to be leaning.
BamBam started for toward Kim. Then he broke into a run. Eventually, he got to Kim and then I watched him ride, without a helmet, Kim’s bike across.
Kim had fallen in the first 6′ (2 meters) and pinched/smashed his hand against the guardrail, initially fearing that he’d broken his hand. He’d nearly severed his fingers. The other near injury was BamBam riding without a helmet. The first rule of rescue – don’t add to the victim list. IGNORED !
Kim started to lament his effort . . . BamBam and I were having none of it.
Our first vehicle in 3 days, drying out from a flash flood
We rode in to Yuktali late, as usual, searching for a magazine to pick up some food. We were surrounded by kids which was unsusual enough in Siberia. As I watched the bikes while Kim and BamBam shopped the kids starting writing on BamBam’s bike.
BamBam fixing the shifter, again, on Kim’s “Dakar”
As twilight faded we went looking for a campsite. Eventually, nearly 12km outside of town, which we had to return to for fuel . . . I protested. The track was not fast, not terribly smart to ride in the dark. Kim and BamBam remained fearful of camping anywhere “in sight”. Finally, we capitulated on a construction turnaround near a river crossing. I don’t think a single vehicle passed us in the nite . . .
Vitim Bridge was a comparable piece of cake
In the morning we rode back to Yuktali in search of fuel. It can be surprising, with a GPS coordinate in a small village, how little help that is locating something. Kim waited, with low fuel, while BamBam and I searched. The “gas station” was in a yard with an indirect entry. The cost was far beyond the normal 25% BAM surcharge but it was written down and we didn’t hesitate.
Yuktali, the first, and only village, with a surplus of children
Our largest riding challenges behind us the goal was to avoid “post summit” letdown. (In mountaineering it’s a truism that most serious issues occur AFTER summiting – folks are tired, they’re less focussed, and frankly, it’s harder walking down.) The terrain continued much as the previous days – runs through swamp (balota) punctuated by narrow tracks into forested highlands.
The Soviets OWNED “block” apartment design.
We did seem to find ourselves next to the railway more, either riding on the gravel bed or immediately alongside on a “service road” that was often partially or wholly inundated. One large puddle was notable for swallowing front tires, easily.
What, no HBO HD ?
At a very robust and modern bridge we stopped for lunch. BamBam had been complaining about his fork’s lack of travel. In Irkutsk he’d replaced the fork oil but hadn’t really gone through the steps to make sure all the old oil was emptied. And he’d “guesstimated” how much oil was necessary. The forks were moving no more than 6″ and were harsh. He’d considerably overfilled the forks and with the high(er) speed ruts now more commonly appearing had grown weary of the beating.
Incredibly (for anyone else) he removed the top cap on the fork and tried inserting an 8″ length of hose to remove excess oil. I tried pointing out that the oil was closer to the level of the dust seal . . . perhaps 20-24″ below. He was wasting his time. Eventually he gave up . . . but his OCD was unsatisfied.
So the fuel was 33% more expensive – the customer service was great at this hidden depot
Lopcha was our goal for food and then a campsite somewhere in the balota. We just made it to Lopcha in time. Several drunks offered “help”. Another waved me away . . . it was typical of our Siberian village greetings.
After crossing 100′s of bridges like this . . . you can become a little “eager” to just “go for it”
Lopcha was also typical in many or all other ways. It’s raison d’etre was far from clear. Housing ranged from abandoned to derelict to ramshackle. There was a single magazine, it was the size of a small walk-in closet. What commerce or transfer payments supported life there was unclear. It had the look of a welfare village, as many others in Siberia did, too.
BamBam fearlessly scouted water Siberian puddle-ponds !
We set camp a few kilometers from the road and hastily made a fire. The evening was cool, relatively mosquito free, and the sense of relief of Tynda’s proximity was palpable. By now, my Thermarest sleeping pad had developed a pregnant bulge. Initially it was a small annoyance but the cancerous air pocket seemed to view me as the invader. Sleep was getting more difficult to achieve without sublime exhaustion.
Hmmn, it’s getting deeper still and he’s not half-way across
The 120 miles into Tynda were pretty anti-climatic, “post-summit” letdown, notwithstanding. The road was relatively fast, punctuated by very loose corners, the odd abrupt drainage ravine, and on several occasions a drifting Kamaz truck coming the other way. My helmet shield was now quite scratched up and with the large amount of dust I tried to stay well behind Kim & BamBam as it was very difficult to see.
The big rains had washed away this bridge
Of course, this was unacceptable for BamBam . . . ironically, if you’ve just joined, or unsurprisingly if you’ve been following . . . I noticed BamBam’s rear rack oscillating rather wildly. What do you know . . . he’d broken it again. This time at the subframe mounts and across the top on one of the wrapping rails. Amazing what happens when you ride an aggressive line at high-speed . . . you break stuff . . . and cause delays . . . which is the fault of the bike (KTM) and rack manufacturer (Rally Raid), OBVIOUSLY !
A bit later . . . we came upon BamBam after he’d put the 690 sideways and just managed not to send himself into a drainage rut. Huh ? Why would that be there . . . we know the biggest rains in centuries have been around us . . . what a “surprise”. K-reist !
I grabbed a fistful of brake when he just turned in across me . . .
Then, just 55km from Tynda . . . another stop. BamBam’s low-voltage coil connection has come undone. “Too fast, can’t last . . . ” This is allegedly the fifth time he’s encountered this issue. It re-precipitates our VOM discussion – bring or leave. A minor disassembly of the 690 is required to SEE the offending connection. BamBam offers some nonsensical analysis/verdict – “this wire might be good enough for digital signals but it’s too thin for analog ones”. That makes no sense except on Planet BamBam. But that’s the beauty of Planet BamBam – that’s where BamBam lives and where he likes to think the rest of us “walk”. “Can we just get into Tynda without any more ‘incidents’ ?”
This is actually a Siberian “welcome” sign. No.
Just a few KM before Tynda a Lada overtakes us . . . we were going no faster than 70kmph (indicated). The Lada was drifting about, sometimes with 3-wheels in the air. Stopped on tarmac BamBam exclaimed – “we got passed by a Lada !”. And I should care, why ? BamBam is a guy who really believes in the importance of achievements that are rightfully un-noticed by the whole of humanity.
We raced one train for the better part of a day. They always had better bridges to cross.
We found a decent place in Tynda and settled into re-grouping and preparing for tomorrow’s departure. BamBam was off toward Vladivostok to see Sveta. He confided that it could be a VERY big re-union. Kim was interested in possibly pursuing his trip a bit further. BamBam did not encourage him to follow – “Oh well, now that I’m alone I’ll be driving really fast. So you can come, if you can keep up. And I’ll be leaving REALLY early in the morning, before 7AM.”
For the record – BamBam and Kim departed approximately 9:30AM.
Dew on the last morning.
We exchanged media from our ride and made small reviews of particular photos or video. Kim’s “hellrider” explosion and dump drew lots of laughs although at the time, he cried in pain and BamBam just sat laughing while I ran toward Kim.
Tynda, at last.
We had dinner at an Uzbek restaurant that wasn’t bad. Two Russian men, one with a cat-scratch haircut decided to “converse” with us. Actually, he’d laugh at us, mock our choices of drink (beer ! not vodka), offer us drink and . . . mention Obama . . . “chornee – nigger”.
A great way to end the final nite on the BAM . . .
After a satisfying meal (German pasta that boiled up al dente in about 3 minutes) and a good fire we rested nicely with our view of the river below. BamBam provided his normal nightly entertainment. Hunched over his stove grinning and carrying on like a dwarf witch with little squeaks of glee. His typical flavor recipe was offered – everything in nearly equal measures, chili, powdered cheese, salt & pepper. The salt & pepper was genius (ask him !), as he’d mixed them together in the same container. Really.
Where humble meals are prepared with glee and fanfare . . .
In the morning the mosquitoes woke a little later than normal but the nighttime breeze had vanished and allowed them to search for prey. Hair nets were the order of the AM and we probably looked like three guys in various stages of preparation for robbing a 7-11. Even if there were no 7-11s for several thousand miles.
Evel Knievel fancied us wimps for not jumping it !
We knew that crossing the bridge at Kuanda would be non-trivial. The old bridge had been washed away long ago and the railway bridge was semi-guarded by un-armed folks. So another late start and then “hurry up and wait” as we figured a way across. Railway workers on the far side of the bridge broke for lunch and spoke with the signalman to let us pass. But he was unmoved. We called the number we’d been given in a semi-abandoned village and waited for the Kamaz to show up, roll our bikes on and be driven across.
Kuanda bridge – the toll was $100 (in Rubles) in the back of an ancient Kamaz which forded the river
The signal man was eager to share some tea and the relative comfort of his shack so we joined him inside out of the sun. The normal small talk about family, ages, etc began. BamBam had noticed his Garmin Montana was not behaving properly. It seemed the lithium battery might have failed. He thought aloud about disassembly which I recommended against – “It’s all SMT and if there’s a chip bad – you throw away the whole board. So if you only have a bad battery you’re risking killing the unit and/or compromising the waterproofness.” BamBam, of course, proceeded. He very quickly was to the mainboard and then, like a kid picking at a scab. broke off a piece from the main power connector. This sobered him to a degree and he put it back together. BamBam is not interested nor familiar with the Hippocratic Oath.
Green technology abounds in Siberia !
The wait to cross required several hours, all told. When the Kamaz finally appeared it was clearly VERY old and the driver and his son quite experienced. We loaded the bikes on while the driver’s son photographed and videoed us with his compact PhD camera. The ride across was short and fun and at the deepest the river was a smooth, swift current of about 5′. On the other side we met a Russian couple and their young son driving a well-equipped SUV. Mutual photography proceeded as well as a brief exchange of email addresses.
Hostel (the movie) meets Vegas in Chara
Finally underway in warm sun and clear skies the riding was very good. Limited large challenges and lots of rolling terrain at speed. It seemed we might actually make some progress. But we didn’t. Even though we bypassed the “Golden Spike” of the BAM by accident, stopped for a really nice lunch spot where we again saw no wildlife but DID see a Russian in a strange inflatable kayak battling the current furiously to cross to our side.
Which is superior – design or workmanship ?
The ride into Chara was near twilight, when twilight was well after 10PM permitting us to miss any chance of eating at a local cafe. The one hotel was a sight that made eyes sore. An ulcerous, rotten, cartoonish building with staff that were long on bureaucratic requirements as they were short on offering refuge. We nearly had to argue that we wanted to stay in the hotel. She seemed incredulous and started inventing all sorts of requirements – passport copies, etc knowing full well that none of this was possible at that hour, if ever, in Chara. Kim looked nearly despondent. I thought she was hilarious – memories of being behind the Iron Curtain came flooding back – interesting, YES, welcoming, not in this lifetime.
Finally, an attractive young woman, who apparently owned the place, interceded and made things right. This permitted us to stay in a room with no hot water, no shower, no toilet on the entire floor (!) and a design motif that could only be described as “alien to earth”.
The thing about the “only place in town” is, it is . . .
As we unpacked the bikes a group of about ten very, VERY drunk men staggered about. They seemed to be a mixed socio economic blend but the BAC was well above any legal limit on earth in each. Repeated introductions from the same fellow would proceed similarly, “Hello !!! I’m am Sergey.” Again, and again and again. Kim and BamBam looked terrified for the bikes. I don’t like drunks and crowds of drunks even less but these guys were much more likely to hurt themselves. Barely removed from “blind” drunk I voted to leave the Duckling in front of the hotel. Kim and BamBam took their bikes to a refuge in a garage.
Not bad for ONE line track
We ate the remains of some canned fish and bread. Going to bed, again, late, tired, and very hungry.
Shaker architecture comes to a Soviet-era Siberian train station
In the morning Kim and BamBam tried to update their emails/blogs/social media. I went for a walk to investigate the train station, museum and town as a whole. The train station was a corrugated steel monument to Soviet “inspiration” decorated inside with socialist wood murals that displayed the great ethnic diversity of it’s “brotherhood”. It was huge and a little like some Frank Lloyd Wright architecture – mostly empty (wasted ?) space.
Her initial greeting ? “What you want to STAY here ?”
There was an ATM in the train station and a small crowd of rather anxious travelers. All of the cars in Chara clearly were like the motorbikes in Severobayalsk. Delivered on the train and trapped in the aquarium of the village’s tarmac, never to venture very far from town on the BAM road.
The good news – they have rooms. The bad news – they have rooms.
Our final gift was entering the hotel’s restaurant. We were quite early for lunch – breakfast was not served. The staff would not even acknowledge our presence. We proceeded out of town for the gas station where Kim ran dry and BamBam returned to supplement from his 690 tanker. At the fuel station BamBam started to suggest that he was owed something and would start charging Kim for petrol. “I’ll sell it to you for 1/2 of what he charges”. This stifled BamBam but his obliviousness was un-bowed.
By Taksimo we’d enjoyed the regular cycle of old wooden bridges, lots of water crossings, a few railway bridge crossings, mud, sand, embedded sharp edged rocks and potholed gravel. From the perspective of a washing machine cycle it seemed more like: always cold water, often muddy, sometimes clear, gentle to nearly violent agitation, endless spin cycles, and virtually no warm drying, particularly the boots and the feet inside them. Scenery was muted, aside from the fascinating rot of manmade structures, wildlife aside from a few birds and some very small fish . . . unobserved.
Where all too many Russian men spend their bank . . .
I hate cold water. Always have. BamBam was seemingly untroubled by it and have no doubt that both Kim and I very much appreciated his sorties into the cold, often fast moving Siberian “ponds” that continually interrupted our path. Actually, sometimes it seemed that it would have been better to have a boat that could also cross the odd terra firma patch.
Late in the day we arrived at Taksimo with anticipation of a dry bed, warm shower and perhaps something a bit interesting to eat. We set about finding a room, eagerly. Unfortunately . . . Taksimo was apparently full ! ? ! Low on fuel, blood sugar falling in sync with ambient air temperature . . . we finally located a place with local assistance. Next door was a cafe hosting some sort of party which certainly peaked BamBam’s interest. By the time we’d finally gotten into our room, with windows but only one that would partially open, both the party and the cafe had closed. So . . . back to camp food – tinned meat, bread, some tea and one beer BamBam had wisely procured.
Mid-sized Siberian puddle
The length of the previous day’s long run into Taksimo had certainly taken it’s toll. Going to bed VERY hungry compounded the sense of foggy-fatigue. The smell of our gear, particularly our boots was . . . overpowering. Surely, we were encroaching on Geneva Convention territory regarding WMD and ethically at risk for suicidal behavior. Think of an OLD high school locker room with decades of sweat and dirt etched into every pore of the floor, walls, ceiling. Splash some “fresh” sweat on that and then permit just enough air circulation to stimulate the rot bacteria. L’Air du ‘oh’. It was so foul . . . it was a stunning relief to go out of the room into air that had rightfully resembled the atmosphere of an aging, poorly maintained, Siberian roadhouse when we came IN !
Buddhist Lama in Taksimo (his blessings were powerless against our boots odors)
At our first place, which we thought couldn’t be worse . . . hah (!), there was a Buddhist Lama providing some sort of ordination services for over two dozen white Russians. And it would get worse ! We couldn’t stay in our current place. We moved to the second place that had been full the previous nite. They had a room that had to violate several safety codes in most countries. For one, no windows. Enter pure gallows humor. As our gear became less wet . . . it was like meat roasting – the nearer it came to “done” the more powerful the gassing. We straddled a line, even in Siberia, where leaving our room’s door open to assist in the airing risked fumigation of the hotel’s other guests, who thankfully, were Siberian !
A master fisherman shows his prey who is boss . . .
Our bunker, er room, in the second hotel provided opportunities for meeting other travelers who were largely workers on the railway or in the natural resources industry. Generally speaking the interactions were very friendly, even warm. But one conversation was notable for something else.
The Duckling was dropped into that modest puddle in the background necessitating the removal of the exhaust mid-pipe and annoying BamBam.
A young Russian was eager to speak with Kim regarding the trip. How long ? How was it paid for ? What did your family think ? What “are” you ? (Kim has a Vietnamese father and French mother and speaks, at least, French, German, English and Russian.) At one point, the young man even suggested going along WITH Kim. (Kim just wanted to go to sleep in our Siberian version of the Black Hole of Calcutta.)
You had to be there – stretches like this seemed like a mirage . .
So when I came in he eventually turned to me and with his limited English and Kim’s russian translation started to ask me questions but not about travel. “Oh, American. Obama. Chornee. Nigger.” ‘Chornee’ (черный) is the Russian word for dark. Dark bread, dark beer – dark. But it would be the first, not last time we’d here Obama referred to as both ‘chornee’ and ‘nigger’.
Don’t look where you don’t want to go . . . simple.
He wanted to know how we could deny our decline with a ‘chornee’ president. I first asked about the revolving door of Putin and Medvedev to which he laughed. And then returned to US decline as “proved” by Obama. My explanation that I didn’t care about the skin color of the President nor his religion but was interested in his character was wholly unsatisfactory. He looked at me incredulously as Kim translated. For the next 18 hours, whenever we’d meet in the hallways or outside . . . he averted his eyes from me.
“This one looks excellent.”
The ride out to the Vitim Bridge, about 70km, was done with anticipation and a bit of anxiety given reports. Weather was excellent, sunny, dry and warm. Puddles appeared, some in places where the road punctuated endless saturated swamp (balota) briefly. Now the intervals between broken or rotted bridges decreased. 70km isn’t very far, but it wasn’t going to happen in under an hour.
Not exactly the Taj Mahal . . . craftmanship only a grandmother could love.
At one bridge crossing we met two Russian men in a Sabaru Forrester that had Chevrolet badges. They told us, in Russian, that a German had ridden off the bridge two weeks previously and perished. We presumed they were talking about ‘Joe Dakar’ who’d we met in Ulaan Bator. At the second bridge crossing Kim had come VERY close to riding off one of the ties and this additional information did not assist his confidence. So, off to the bridge !
Oh look, a transition jump from horizontal to vertical ties. What a carnival l
I’d previously joked that no one would care nor remember who rode the bridge the fastest (Iker, the Basque MX rider had the current record @ 37s) BUT the rider who would be remembered would be the first one to ride off . . . so, if you go off – go BIG ! This was no longer useful nor appropriate.
Those gaps are larger than they appear but were actually “fast”.
Less than 2km from the bridge we needed to cross a pretty modest puddle. Of course, this was probably the several dozenth puddle/water crossing/rotten bridge in the day’s ride and it was both close to the bridge and surrounded by inundated swamp. It also, it turned out, was very near a BAM railway maintenance station. If we’d had noticed that the repair depot had it’s rest area chair oriented exactly toward the “puddle” we all might have taken a bit more care.
Hmnnn. There were at least 3 sections like this.
I rode in and quickly lost the front end as the bike turned to the upside of the puddle and then . . . timber, fell over. My thumb on the kill switch made ensured no water would enter the engine and do damage. The bike would not start and it was clear there was water in the exhaust. We tried lifting the bike up on it’s rear wheel to clear the water to no avail.
We’d ridden along way to repair a bridge almost no one uses. Men !
So, close to the bridge with clouds gathering and the mood souring given news (rumors) of dead Germans I set about removing the exhaust to facilitate water expulsion. BamBam decided to try some fishing as we also noticed that the BAM railway workers were fishing in the swamp. A Russian on an ancient Ural with sidecar and his woman (you do NOT see alot of women in the Siberian outback – less even than in Alaska) came by and realized he couldn’t make the puddle that had taken me. His woman got out of the side car and sat behind him and he turned the Ural leaning over heavily to lift the sidecar into the air so that he could turn the bike around in a one vehicle track.
This is the angle to view it most appreciatively – the “I’m finished side”.
Yours truly acknowledged his superior skills and grace on an poorly implemented, ancient copy, of a German motorbike and sidecar.
The hapless pilot of the Duckling.
BamBam, of course, consistently oblivious to his own CONSIDERABLE schedule intrusions complained “if YOUR dumping causes us to miss the sun at the bridge I’ll be pissed.” Duly noted and filed deeply within a Siberian latrine.
“Hey, this tea is sugar AND alcohol free.”
At the bridge we . . . were surprised to see a few people who were clearly NOT railway workers. We decided to walk across the bridge to inspect it’s condition. We were also surprised to see MANY places where timbers were not just badly rotted exposing large holes but at least two spots where fires had been lit ON THE BRIDGE. The water was high and flowing very fast while making considerable noise. On the western third of the bridge we noticed that the gaps between the ties was alot larger than we’d expected (or it appears on video). The gaps ranged from 15cm to 25cm (6 to 10″) with two nearly 45cm (18″). The bridge was dry though not exactly the kind of thing one would choose to walk in the best of conditions. It seemed on the one hand, wider than expected and yet on the other . . . was actually narrower than claimed. The ties were 2.5 meters but staggered so rather than a bit over 8′ wide it was a bit less than 7′ wide. Tie plates were all loose and clanked even when walked upon by an under 200-pound human. BamBam correctly announced we’d be removing the sidestand on Kim’s bike which had already shown an ability to collect debris. On the bridge, catching would have launched Kim from his “Dakar”.
Why would anyone “scout” the bridge before crossing ?
There was a Russian woman on the bridge with a group all from Moscow. Why ? No idea.
But she was seemingly fascinated by “us” and her father had taught at Berkeley 30 years ago and REALLY like the Bay Area.
“What is the purpose of your trip ?”
“Purpose ?”, I said.
I don’t know how familiar you are with men on Earth but they do alot of things that are utterly lacking in purpose. The crossing of this bridge and the BAM in general definitely fits into “purposelessness”.
She seemed, incredibly, disappointed.
It seemed appropriate to shield Barbie’s view. :)
So we set about clearing the old wood, buttressing some sections and replacing ties with a stack of new ones on the west end of the bridge. Repairs completed we enjoyed the company of the Russians who’d traveled along the BAM as a holiday ! The Vitim Bridge was their final stop and . . . perhaps they wanted to see something interesting. Several of the Russians refused to walk the bridge. They were from Moscow and offered us assistance and tea. They also offered us vodka BEFORE we crossed which we declined politely, but without regret.
Not long after the Vitim Bridge was Kuanda and another challenge . . . the old bridge had been destroyed and the railway bridge was not open to motorcyclists. Earlier we’d been told that crossing aboard a Kamaz would be required. We rode to Kuanda and then turned back to a very nice campsite above a river that had a breeze that kept most of the mosquitoes at bay until the temps dropped. Cigars & single malt were the order of the evening.
In the morning the mosquitoes had us all in the head-fashions of someone who’s considering robbing a 7-11. If one had existed we would have used it but gladly paid.
I don’t remember when she appeared nor when it was deemed that she would represent a “Barbie” (some un-specific rating of tipovers, crashes, poor judgment, or inscrutable behavior) but . . . for sure BamBam introduced her and the basic idea of a “Barbie”.
Yours truly escaped a Barbie when I had my 1 kph tipover on the first day apparently because we simply hadn’t discussed it yet. So BamBam held Barbie for quite a while . . . well into the BAM after two astonishingly poor judgment/inscrutable behavior incidents (driving into a pipe on Olkhon Island and then throttling toward a lonely parked auto after departing Severobayalsk).
Looking back on the smoky haze obscuring the Transbaikal mountains just before entering Novy Uoyan
But what about “our” BAM voyage ? Walter Colebatch owns ‘Sibirski Extreme’ and had done the BAM back in 2009. Walter has provided ALOT of information, guidance and inspiration for eccentric motorcyclists . . . so a bit tongue-in-cheek, prompted by the pointlessness of such a venture . . . we opted for ‘Barbiski Extreme’. This helped focus our attention and not dwell too much on the impending challenges on the BAM including the Vitim Bridge, the crossing at Kuanda, and perhaps most worrying, Olyokma bridge.
25,000km (15,000 miles) on a 500+ pound dirt bike plus gear and rider . . . a tough tire that would have been a beast in the upcoming mud . . .
BamBam returned from Novy Uoyan with some makeshift parts to at least get Kim’s bike into the village. The three were busy filing parts, checking fit and re-assembling the linkage. We arrived in late afternoon feeling a mixture of relief and dejection. Progress had started well enough, if late, but now Kim’s trip was at risk. BamBam took great effort to re-install the needle bearings into the destroyed race but my contention was that a bushing was the only real answer given all the water crossings and harsh conditions we were likely to face on the way to Tynda, nearly 1500km (1000 miles) away. (It’s possible that Kim’s rather aggressive speeds had caught up with the Dakar’s overmatched suspension. He’d arrived in UB with a broken shock mount and shock bolt. Neither KTM suffered any suspension issues though BamBam had his rear racks re-welded and broke them again before Tynda. Clearly, calling a bike a ‘Dakar’ and having any capability to ride rough roads loaded at speed is not a given. I’d warned Kim, given his experience till UB, that riding so aggressively was unlikely to be rewarded with trouble free travel.)
Fast, packed sand out of Novy Uoyan . . . it was great while it lasted
We found a place to stay and secure the bikes and set about looking for dinner. A cafe offered the only choice for a meal and there we were met with grumbling locals who seemed to think we’d not understand any of their rather unfriendly comments about us in Russian.
Not so fast, grasshopper . . . the Duckling caromed between puddles, oozing mud holes and shrubbery . . .
The next day we decided to change some tires on my KTM and Kim’s bike while BamBam searched for a machinist who could fashion a bushing. The owner of the “guesthouse” helped me mount a ridiculously stiff Mitas E09 that BamBam and I had purchased from Joe Dakar in UB. Kim upgraded his front tire to a proper knobby while I left the used TKC80 on the front of mine.
BamBam’s handmade (hand bent) KTM tool comes to Kim’s rescue. Arguably the finest part on the GS 650 Dakar.
Unfortunately BamBam and Kim did not take a camera to the machinist shop. The machinist nicely fashioned a piece of solid brass, and then, rather than pressing it into the shock link with a vise . . . he smashed it in with a maul ! Crazy. He could have easily have broken the shock link and then the game for Kim would have been up.
The first “broken” bridge – wet & slippery, we walked the bikes across . . .
Aside from the essential generosity of the Siberian mechanics the other noteworthy characteristic is doing work that’s “good enough to get you to the next village”. The cost of his work was, nevertheless, a gift. BamBam and I both felt that the bushing, along with the zerk (grease) fitting were actually considerably better than the OEM BMW work. (The OEM link rattled more than a 1/2″ side-to-side !)
BamBam wanted to ride it but the impaling reinforcing rod on the left and the naked drop into the river to the right forced his “discretion is the better part of valor” . . . along with the pleading of Kim & I
Given our habitually late starts . . . we faced a small dilemma once Kim’s bike had been sorted. We were fairly far north so the sun would set late but weather was clearly in the near offing. Ride out, get wet and camp wet ? Or hunker down and (try again) to leave early, dry and rested ?
Very nearly my ultimate Barbie spectacular . . . the front end of the Duckling hung up on the “railing” to the right just before exiting the far side, a Barbiski Extreme pucker moment
We opted for departure, leaving at 4PM, which didn’t seem a great idea and clearly surprised the guesthouse owner but ultimately worked out alright. After fueling outside the village we rode on wet, packed sand in a very light drip-drop rain. The track was fast and VERY easy to make speed on. Not so sure how it’d been if conditions had been perfectly dry. It seems both BamBam and I thought (very foolishly) that Taksimo wasn’t impossible.
Testimony to the workers who built the “road” and then the BAM railway
Just as we began speeding along . . . a stop by Kim revealed another issue on his “Dakar” BMW GS. The rear axle adjusters had either come loose or been insufficiently tightened after re-installing his rear wheel following the machinists work on his rear shock link. One was bent, the drive-side one was destroyed. (I have to comment on their absolutely pathetic quality – they were extremely fragile due to the lightness of the metal . . . an irony not lost on a bike that would be graciously described as “tubby”.) Kim mentioned that they were a well-known failure point on the Dakars . . . unsurprising but hardly comforting far from nothing.
The village gateway erected the year I graduated HS . . . the locals were extremely friendly and we had a great lunch
BamBam fashioned a rescue using one of his KTM tools !
A kid’s school even though we saw almost no kids and very few people . . .
Abruptly, large puddles began to appear that reached dimensions where puddle is insufficient as a description but pond is rather dramatic. And then the mud. For BamBam and Kim on his aggressive knobbies it wasn’t too bad. But on the Duckling, with a TKC80 front . . . the front-end just PLOWED. Purely a prisoner of physics I managed to gather all sorts of shrubbery in my helment, handlebars, forks as I slid from side-to-side on the track. Generally avoiding the deeper parts of the puddles and full on tree trunks, there were nevertheless scores of times when falling seemed inevitable. It must have been great fun for BamBam and Kim to watch. I could only laugh and did often.
Relics from the subsidized past of the USSR
Now the rain picked up and eventually dreams of Taksimo were suitably washed away. The mud became more intermittent and I could “skip” from wet sand, spot to spot, over the mud mines.
At one stop BamBam rolled up with his consistently ‘Yosemite Sam’ look holding on to my bike’s rain cover. Somehow a strap had been . . . cut . . . and he’d picked it up after it came off my bike. He was very annoyed at having retrieved my flotsam. Later that nite he realized he’d lost his MSR Dromedary bag . . . but this was not a Barbie, for him.
Siberian rot overtakes a more glorious past . . .
BamBam found a very nice campsite after I’d complained of being both wet and getting cold. Access to the river was excellent and Kim offered to let me sleep in his tent along with him. We set camp and ate some pasta, tinned fish and bread and went to sleep in heavy rain.
Heavy rains caused regular inundation of the way . . . obscuring bowling ball sized river rocks that meant our feet were continually wet and cold
The rain fell all nite and in the morning as we broke camp. Very quickly we came to our first “bridge crossing”, one that had a broken back and slippery with old oil and water we walked the bikes across. These sort of interruptions came to define the next 7+ days as we would make good progress for 10 minutes to an hour and then . . . a gauntlet of broken bridges, huge puddles, rail bridge crossings and rutted tight singletrack in the hills would slow us.
It was easy to find the line you DID NOT want to ride
The last notable thing as we finally approached Taksimo was the “broken bridge”. While we sized it up in the failing light and fog a Russian vehicle approached from the other side and slid (!) down. They stopped on our side and asked us if we wanted a some vodka. BamBam was a little anxious to get to Taksimo before it was too dark knowing that our fuel was tight for both Kim and I and so he declined their offer as politely as possible. BamBam had to give Kim some fuel once and to me twice on the ride in. He was understandably frustrated but . . . again, the amnesia about the DAYS we’d lost waiting for him to sort things out . . . but it was no doubt annoying and a bit unpleasant as temps fell hard as we approached Taksimo and the 690 “supertanker” didn’t want to be stranded, either.
The next day, he replied “I hate you,” when I told him that I hadn’t been out of fuel. (The KTM was apparently getting the worst mileage EVER by a wide margin – 10-12km/liter (23.5-28 MPG)). The bike had sat for nearly two years . . . I’d been working long hours on a startup . . . the valve controlling the fuel from the 9L (2.3 gallon) reserve had been left closed . . . Oops.
The pavement would end at Kachug and then did so, again, in a rather dramatic fashion outside Severobayalsk. We rode fairly fast on pavement and it was nice to have a few hundred km under our wheels by lunch. Crossing the Lena was significant, at least to me, even if it was relatively modest when we did it. The Lena is a truly colossal river, even for Siberia, and in places is nearly 7 miles (11km) across.
The mighty Lena eases past ruins of the formerly mighty USSR
Villages were small, often VERY rustic – limited power, all wood buildings, many dating from the early 1600s. Horses and livestock lined the dirt road as we followed the marshy Lena river valley north. Then began a long stretch of rather perfunctory dirt through taiga – long stretches through large rolling terrain punctuated by sandy washes, loose dirt, lots of potholes, dried and semi-dried mud tracks. We passed a number of solid fishing opportunities but too early in the day or not private enough in Kim & BamBam’s view. Eventually the sun began to set and we were far from water but always well within the proximity of lots of swarming mosquitoes. A few searches always seemed to turn up rather unfriendly campers that BamBam felt bordered on the nearly threatening. So we ended up camping off the road, out of sight, in a dirt clearing that was also an apparent maintenance depot. We made a fire to control (?) the mosquitoes, ate dinner and slept.
Russia’s “Wild West” – towns with origins contemporaneous with Jamestown
The next day was more of the same, which wasn’t too bad as though it was really dry and dusty it wasn’t muddy which would have been quite a challenge. The day was themed by me generally following well behind to avoid the dust on my face shield. My open-face helmet might have many advantages for greeting locals, but it was a nightmare to keep clear. I often couldn’t see and that, along with the preload on the rear shock being far too low and my lack of riding the KTM for two years prompted me to pick a careful line which was, apparently, too slow for BamBam’s taste.
We had a nice lunch near the “3 bears” sign. There’s not alot of differences in the menus but there can be considerable differences in the quality (and cost) of the food. There is little correlation between cost and quality . . . or portion size. Portion size and cost might often be inversely related . . . Anyway, right after lunch we re-mounted and BamBam had a spasm and sent the 690 hurdling toward a parked car (the only one for 100′s if not 1000′s of meters) and was able to fall over before hitting it. BamBam was not going to give up Barbie anytime soon, it seemed.
Beautiful, in ruin, Russian Orthodox museums.
The other semi-regular occurrence was rounding a bend to find Kim explaining how BamBam had entered a turn or approach to a washout at mach and nearly crashed, badly. Speed kills . . . I can ride boring dirt roads in Norcal but the risks are far less as help isn’t remote. We gassed up a final time before the run to Severobayalsk and at that juncture I noticed a large oil run on the engine between the cylinders. The bike ran fine but the oil leak was not re-assuring. (It turned out to be the oil sender which is a well-known issue on the 950/990s that I was NOT aware of – it caused some anxiety but is harmless and I rode with it for another 8,000km (5000 miles).) At least it wasn’t a 690-type show stopper !
I’d already grown weary of BamBam’s ideas of progress (and his rather astonishing discounting of the 8 days we’d SAT in Irkutsk for him to get his bike running . . . ). So . . . as we neared Severobayalsk I caught the boys waiting at a ski run ruin. We had a brief chat about the tourist economics of Siberia – BamBam thought he’d be happy to snowboard there. I thought that the tourists who could come – Korea and Japan, had much better options much closer to home. Eventually I suggested that we move on as there was a large trailer truck barreling on behind me and that we didn’t want to get caught. No sooner had I mentioned this than we could hear it coming, fast.
I took off and decided to have some fun, in front, with a bike (if not current practiced rider), that could make very good time. Very quickly I confronted a dust cloud in front of me, as was often the case on the Zhigavalo Trakt, and had to overtake it on “faith”. This happened three times on this final leg into Severobayalsk. The first two were relatively straightforward. But on the third cloud to overtake, the cloud was moving quite briskly. It was a Lada Nova (think small 4-wheel drive hatchback built with perhaps 60′s technology) that I chased for some time to find a passing opportunity. When I finally did get around it a brief check of the speedo showed 140kph (86mph) indicated, probably actually closer to 80mph on a nice film of dirt over hardpack. Easy place to go down at speed. I blasted past and upped speed. I waited nearly 10 minutes for BamBam and Kim in Severobayalsk. BamBam explained that he’d only gotten around the Lada on a steep uphill, where it’s speed dropped precipitously.
Not alot of scenery but alot of this . . .
We made for a hotel waypoint and were extremely lucky to find a room, for just one nite. We walked for a while to find dinner from our room and eventually a taxi drove us to a restaurant where we were later joined by a group of young Russians. At dinner BamBam commented about the sportbikes we saw in town and how crazy it was. They were essentially limited to riding around in a small aquarium of tarmac surrounded by dirt tracks, bordered by Lake Baikal. This reality did not damp their gusto when employing the throttle. Again, lots of Soviet era apartment buildings and little evidence of any real economy.
Watch tower or art project ?
The next morning we ate breakfast in the common room and here BamBam made himself a memory with some european tourists. He was describing a superficial injury when he stood up and pulled his workout shorts up quite high to reveal not a small fraction of his gluteus maximus. The gasp of “mon dieu” behind me was deafening . . . we were hardly able to “deny” we knew him but Kim’s head sank and I just wished BamBam would sit back down. Then, after our breakfast moment we returned to our rooms to finish packing up and prepare for departure. A woman from the hotel went around checking for the provided laundry. BamBam had apparently left his somewhere and she was going to ensure that nothing left with us. When he found it he offered it to her on bent knee in a rather obsequious posture that she clearly did not appreciate.
BamBam defers to discetion . . . after a while
Ah, the charm offensive continued, un-mitigated by clear rejection(s) . . . Whenever we met with an uncooperative or uninterested person (not difficult in Russia . . . customer service is still something of an odd concept there), BamBam always asserted it was because “you didn’t let me take care of things.” This went on and on . . . In Irkutsk we’d moved rooms in the place Michelle had found us and BamBam had “taken care of it”. It turned out that there was quite a misunderstanding and BamBam simply avoided the follow up conversation, nearly forcing Kim to clear it up. The obliviousness continued . . .
ANY marketing is appreciated in the middle of nowhere . . .
We rode out, eventually, never early, and figured Novy Uoyan was entirely reachable. The ride was fairly scenic, even with the slowly dissipating fire smoke haze. Weather was great and the ride along Baikal was invigorating twisty tarmac. We made great progress and then suddenly, on a sharp left-hand turn the tarmac simply ended while all of us were rather tightly grouped and moving quite fast. A minor moment of pucker-factor and then a quick decision as to which was the correct track to take.
A happy snack . . .
At a bridge (they were dust free !) we stopped and lunched. We were all feeling good about progress and the ease of reaching something distant. Weather was clearly in the offing but not for at least a few more hours or even the next day. Two vehicles stopped to chat with us and then a lone Ural motorbike with sidecar stopped and shared his sugar-coffee and had a smoke, while examining our bikes. BamBam really enjoyed showing him his 690 and all the markings from already previously visited countries.
That bike was closer to my age than not . . . he was as tough as a Siberian bridge
Just as we prepared to carry on, Kim announced that he had a flat. We learned that it was due to the sloppy work of the shinomontazh just the mainline side of the Olkhon Island ferry. But there was worse . . . the bearing race on the upper link was effectively destroyed. Kim’s trip was suddenly very much in danger. At least we were only about 20km outside of Novy Uoyan.
Uh oh . . . calling BMW (Bavarian Milk Wagon) Roadside Assistance – “you near the Starbucks ?”
On closer inspection . . . neither BamBam nor I recommend this bike
What are the odds ? Three electrical engineers meet and ride together. Kim, a Frenchman living in Switzerland of mixed Vietnamese origin who speaks French, Russian, German, English (with virtually no accent and similar amounts of idiomatic American english) . . . if ever a guy should have been a spy ! Noah, who went to the same university as Kim in the US (Kim was a transfer student for a year from France) and is also, like a Kim, a fisherman. For reasons that will become obvious I’ll refer to him as ‘BamBam’ (apologies to the Flintstones).
Kim & Noah
We finally departed UB for the Russian border late on 27 July . . . and ended up camping about 75km from the border so the boys could fish. Kim caught two perch and a trout which they cleaned, cooked and shared with me generously. On the first day out I dumped the KTM unceremoniously at about 1 kph, clearly more excited about riding than wisely acknowledging my still dubious sense of Dengue balance.
Kim made most things look easy.
The trout was nice. The perch was wonderful.
The following day we crossed the border at Altanburg and were quickly showered in a long, cold rain. Streets were completely inundated, some to over a foot (30cm) hiding lovely potholes. A decision to NOT ride on was made easily. The boys passed the time talking to a pair of female teenagers.
Russian teens eager to help Kim practice his Russian . . .
. . . The following morning I packed my pair of spare tires in a ‘pyramid’ much to the annoyance of BamBam. It was ridiculous looking. (Voile straps are pretty amazing.) Larger bumps caused the tires to slap the back of my helmet. The price of “fashion”.
BamBam no likey.
The next day we rode north with the intention of using one of Walter Colebatch’s tracks to do an off-run shortcut (in distance, not in time) that was both a good warmup for me (having not ridden much for 2 years) and great fun with mud holes as deep as 30″ (75cm) and meandering single and doubletrack through fields, valleys and hilly forests before stopping at a truly disgusting campsite on Lake Baikal.
The only rock garden in a day of mud holes, wet clay and cut sapling tracks.
“Shit hole” is overused. In this case, it was a description of the defecation chamber all too close to our tents.
A bleak site after a very good day.
Lake Baikal even improved BamBam’s looks.
Next it was Irkutsk where we would stay for 7 days while Noah sorted out his “like a clock” KTM 690. The rub was a small piece that supported the automatic decompression actuator on one of the exhaust cams. While we waited . . . and waited . . . and waited . . . Michelle found us a great place to stay from Thailand, via the internet.
Off to gather a Princess . . .
The weather, or rather the sky, changed while we were in Irkutsk from brilliant blue to supremely turbid. It was, we came to know, caused by a huge forest fire in far northern Siberia due to drought, there. Views would be obscured until we had entered the BAM almost 1000km (620 miles) north.
Wood, paint, severe weather – repeat for decades.
A rare maintained timber house.
Irkustsk had some pleasant surprises – a great outdoors store where we bought climbing webbing for tow rope, bear line (to make a perimeter around our campsites), picturesque timber houses, a place to supplement BamBam’s homeless wardrobe, and a restaurant we frequented for the decent food and excellent beer and no shortage of the eye candy that Walter Colebatch has often commented about in EVERY Russian city.
Dignified poverty is still poverty.
Urban Siberia – a Tim Burton set . . .
We also managed to spend 2 nites, the first and the last, at Nina’s a guesthouse which is essentially shared rooms in a Russian home. The hosts were incredibly gracious and provided us with a place to leave our bikes (including the scattered remains of BamBam’s 690 over the yard) and various refreshments and snacks. On departure the lady of the house gave us a bottle of confit of local cranberries that we from then on referred to as ‘Bam Jam’.
Nina’s would be impossible to over hype !
The “middle ground” of ruin in Irkutsk.
Chinese money is funding alot of new construction, and some jobs, and endangering many old structures.
BamBam likes sugar and caffeine but . . . struggles to control their impact(s).
From Irkutsk we rode to Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal. A lovely campsite provided fishing but no fish and a great view of the Lake. In the morning we saw the head of a Lake Baikal seal, the only fresh water seal in the world.
We were only interrupted by a solitary Baikal seal.
Riding on Olkhon Island was a bit like a mini-Mongolia with singletrack wandering between big hills, forests, bogs and rock and sand gardens. Earlier in the day BamBam decided to ride his 690 into the only man made structure within kilometers and succeeded in crashing, putting a pinhole in his exhaust header and generally lowering doubt about his lack of stability (or balance) AND maintaining an early hold on ‘La Barbie’. The good news is that he managed not to seriously hurt himself.
Olkhon Island – a mini Mongolia with lots of forest fire haze.
BamBam considers driving the 690 into another totem.
It was here that I realized that the pin on my steering damper was not making contact with the damper. I left it unconnected until well across the Northern Route in Mongolia for no particular reason.
We exited Olkon late after Kim discovered he had a flat on the ferry. The local shino-montazh was a clown and my recommendation to use him was a complete bust. He couldn’t break the tire bead, then put a patch on the tube that failed several days later. Bam Bam was not impressed.
Seconds later it had warmed up enough to have the air swarming with buzzing, biting insects.
We camped off the road in a field along a small forest before, for us, a relatively early departure. Getting the pilot of the “like a clock 690″ up and on the move reminded me it was not an alarm clock – at least not in the local time zone.
On the way to Ka’Chug – the capital of Siberian guzzle fests. Or not.
The beauty of an overly ambitious goal is the speed with which events will be summoned to crush it.
And that they did.
The good news, at least for followers of this hapless, pointless ride, is that almost all the bad news is front loaded.
Arriving in UB on 10 July I quickly got to the Oasis and retrieved the KTM from the basement with some help from fellow travelers. Since last visiting, the Oasis had abandoned the recycled sawdust pellet stove/oven to heat hot water and resorted to a conventional, far sootier fuel. The thickness of the dust film on the bike, even with the cover, was a bit shocking.
I got right to preparing for departure on the 13th with Chris, a school teacher from the UK who is also a moderator on the HUBB. Things proceeded well and largely according to plan until I started the bike. Almost as soon as operating temperature was reached a very noticeable water leak could be detected.
A determined light man (no) on a (light – no) bike lightly packed (no)
Apparently the Mongolian Gobi Coolant or perhaps the rinsing of the white vinegar flush had played corrosive havoc. A small aluminum pipe that connected the water pump and radiator had corroded through. The only good news was that it didn’t bare witness halfway across the BAM !
Who says only 4-wheelers can be overloaded ?
So that scuttled my departure and set in motion a search for the rotten part’s replacement. An Austrian (Michael Fritz) on an Africa Twin called his German buddy who owns a KTM shop and secured one. Michelle found another (it seems the ONLY one) in North America (Canada, for the record) and a race was on to see which $25 part with $80 shipping would get to UB, first.
$25 part stops trip . . . it’s always the little stuff. Well, not always.
This left considerable time for . . . overhearing other tales of adventure, plans and woes. The normal invasion of rather huge overlanders circulated with vehicles that were between 2 and 12 metric tonnes and had tires which were up to nearly a meter (40″) high that cost over $500. Unsurprisingly, I’ve never seen any vehicles like this on my rides – they have to stick to busier, better maintained roads and for that there is a cost.
A young Dutch couple rode this side hack that he’d built himself.
Several pairs of riders showed up targeting the BAM. Jon & Andrew on KTM 690s (Jabamundus) and Felix and Phil on BMW X-Challenge’s. Peter and Ben were a mixed pair of a DR650 and an X-Challenge. Three young Brits made there way out on XR400s where Matthew’s suffered a blown shock. Later one of them would make it to Magadan and another would suffer a very bad crash about 200km north of UB. There was the normal mix of near rookie through veteran travelers, on ancient side-car to gigantic 6-wheel conveyance. Newbies could be largely correlated to newer vehicles carrying larger amounts of gear, but not always. I’m no longer amazed by motorbike travelers who insist on carrying proper chairs or raised bedding (!).
Lots of broken bikes – like this BMW with a broken swingarm link.
Ed March – full time C90 pilot. Who wouldn’t follow this man ?
Without a doubt the most intriguing group of riders were led (?) without map nor GPS on a flock of Honda C90s. The “Super Cub” is the VW Beetle of the motorcycle world having surpassed 60-million produced since 1958, is STILL in production (though woefully lower quality out of China). A group of under 25-year olds and over 55 year olds with a single 40-year old translator. My first motorbike was a Super 90 !
Pimp your ride !
The Chonda Challenge aimed to ride the C90s about 11,000km (7,000 miles) across Mongolia, a bit of Kazakhstan and then Russia onto Europe finishing in London. The first guy to show for the Challenge was a 19-year old from the UK. A long bow to his parents . . .
The ‘L’ is for ‘Learner’ – he does not have a full-fledged license and is just 19 ! (The color of the bike tells you where his heart is.)
At some point Ed and a mate returned following a “problem” with one of the C90s. This required a 24-hour ride in a Russian “Wazzik” (UAZ-452), a vehicle of surpassing abilities and scant comfort (if it’s not the woodburning stove inside it’s the dense hydrocarbon fumes which surely the wood stove will trigger . . . the “suspension”) . . . looking more relieved to have survived than exhausted. They went to the market, returned with a Chinese C90 and stripped the engine and wiring harness in about 15 minutes with a few hand tools. (It takes a MotoGP team 90 minutes to remove the engine in the F1 of motorcycles !) And off they went, back toward the Gobi.
ATGATT – All The Gear, All The Time or not. London, this way in 11,000km
During the next . . . 17 days (UGH !) I tweaked little things on the KTM, re-organized my gear countless times . . . moved from Ger to inside room back to Ger . . . and became a bit of a joke to Oasis staff and no doubt others. Having arrived “off the couch”, without riding the KTM in any meaningful way for almost 2 years and with little other riding in the previous two years . . . not a little exhausted from a rather intense 19 months on a startup . . . my attachments to a ride were strong but not unbreakable. If the part couldn’t be secured – fine. I’ll come back.
One of the most enjoyable guests was Michael Kratochwill. An Austrian who regularly admonished several us with “I’m am NOT a German !” To this I would respond, “Ok, speak Austrian to me.” Michael rode a KTM 950 SE from his home in Austria to Mongolia followed by two friends in a small car. Once in Ulaan Bator, they sold the car and flew back. Michael rode his KTM back via a visit to Lake Baikal.
“What, you have Dengue Fever ?”
Once the $25 aluminum pipe arrived it was installed, following another “special” charge from UB DHL ($25 part, $200 in shipping and “customs” fee). As soon as the bike came up to operating temperature there was unmistakable evidence of pinhole leaks in the radiator. I wasn’t shocked, but I was a bit shaken. This looked like the final curtain on 2013. Working at a startup for 19 months is not exactly ideal prep for the planned ride . . . but I REALLY needed that ride.
Rene and Sibylle of the Oasis suggested contacting the local “KTM” dealer who . . . said he’d take the radiator off a new 990 in his showroom and sell it to me for $500. Done. Michael Kratochwill was departing in another day for a “Biker Party” on Lake Baikal and the plan was I’d join him.
Arriving “off the couch” I’d assumed that my need for so much sleep was just simple fatigue. And in some way, perhaps the down time had been restorative. But a phone call with Michelle alerted me – “Uh, Chris and I have Dengue and he quite badly. Your fatigue might just be a symptom.” Ya’ gotta be kidding me.
The next 3 nights I had very bad chills and difficulty breathing. I staggered to the loo with compromised balance and . . . watched as other guests greeted my “dengue” response with disbelief. Seriously, this is quite a test and I’ve not ridden 50 miles !