17 June, 2008

Russia - all in one!

Oh boy, what a story to tell - sorry for being out of contact folks but a combination of Russian road conditions, Russian people and limited Internet/phone access have conspired to have me offline for much longer than I anticipated.

First, 5th June - Day 1. Vladivostok to Khabarovsk (800km).

I left the Hotel Primorye at 9am after an excellent breakfast (best food I have eaten yet in Russia) and made my way out of Vladivostock through peak hour traffic.

A smooth run North up the M60, it took me approx 10 hours to cover the distance. Roads were overall good and smooth with a few rough patches of 5-10km of dirt, and the odd assortment of roadworks. The M60 runs fairly close to the Chinese border for most of its length and it was interesting to see just how near I actually was at times.

The ride gave me the opportunity to sample how Russian services operate such as food and petrol stops.

A few incidents on road:

1. Me overtaking a truck coming into town. All Russian towns have police check points where they randomly pull over drivers to check your vehicle and confirm all documents are in order - in most cases this is simply a ruse to find something wrong to alow the police to "supplement their income".
I saw the policeman run out into the road and ducked 1 metre behind a truck in front of me. He just saw me, blew his whistle but it was too late, I was already gone before he could flag me down and lighten my wallet.

2. Shortly after this, I rode through the next town, avoiding the cows and goats on the road, but before I knew it I saw a black and white cat dart from the side of the road right in front of me. I held the bars tightly, bounced and felt the front wheel going side to side, and survived without dropping the bike. The cat alas, was not so lucky.

3. Later in the day, at another checkpoint I was stopped by the police who showed me their radar and alleged I had been speeding. I feigned ignorance of any Russian and they eventually let me go with out relieving me of my hard earned assets - a close call.

Everywhere I stopped there was always interest in the Burgie from truck drivers and the like.

I arrived in Khabarovsk to a most impressive site. It's a beautiful city and far prettier than Vladivostok. It was also a lot warmer being inland. I checked into the Turist hotel to experience my worst example yet of Russian bureacracy. The receptionist (in Russian, Administrator) was not impressed with my lack of visa registration (which I had supposedly had performed at the Hotel Primorye). Fortunately I had friendly hotel security guard who went out of his way to translate for me and explain to the receptionist that it was not my fault that my paperwork was not in order. A number of phone calls, faxes and hours later and I was allowed to check into a room, but told I had to stick around till 1.30pm the following day to have my paperwork properly completed.

By the time this little farce was completed it was getting close to midnight and all the cafes and restaurants were shut so I ended up finding a 24 hour minimarket where I could buy some biscuits, drinks and canned sardines for the evening's meal.

6th June - Day 2. Khabarovsk enroute to Chita (500km).

The morning started with me collecting the Burgie from the hotel's secure parking (complete with vicious dogs and an armed guard) and ensuring all was mechanically in order prior to tackling the 2,200km stretch of bitument and dirt road to Chita. 2.00pm and I was on my way after spending the rest of the morning exploring Khabarovsk (and the beaches alongside the HUGE river Amur).

Khabarovsk is a very pleasant city (much cleaner and tidier than Vladivostok), only 25km from China and a major tourist resort for Japanese tourists of all people (it has the best sushi in Russia!).

As today was Friday there were many wedding parties (Friday is the preferred day for Russians to marry) and I managed to get myself caught up in some of the proceedings.

I left Khabarovsk by crossing the Amur river on a 2km long bridge and following the route of the Trans Siberian Express.

The first 200km were brilliant bitumen.

At km 203 I noticed all the other road traffic was stopped by the side of the road affixing cardboard and tape to their body panels, in preparation for the dirt roads ahead (these vehicles were used cars shipped from either Korea or Japan to Vladivistok and being driven by mostly professional couriers across to Western Siberia where they would be sold for double their purchase price).

150 metres down the road and the dirt began.....,

and then stopped 3km later ..... to begin, stop, begin intermittently as road construction took place in a seemingly random fashion.

11pm that night, having ridden for 9 hours and travelled 500km, and still in broad daylight, I pulled over on the dirt to find a bus shelter for the night. I figured this was an easier option than putting up the tent and simply slept on the ground in my sleeping bag (all other nights I tented, as the Siberian mosquitoes are particularly voracious).

7th June - Day 3. Khabarovsk enroute to Chita (300km).

I woke up this morning with my sleeping bag covered in a dusting of dirt from all the vehicles that had passed in night - yes, the couriers drive non-stop and in their bleary eyed state can be a real menace on the road.

I stopped around 75kms down the road for breakfast at a roadside cafe, only to have my reading glasses stolen by a truck driver.

The dirt roads were getting worse and I had a few problems. First I had tried to "cheat a little" by riding on some of the newly laid road (instead of the dirt). The roadworkers had covered this with rocks and I ended up hitting a number, causing the Burgie underbelly to crack and causing the radiator fan to jam against the radiator. The bike was overheating at the low speeds I was travelling (20-35km per hour mostly) and I had to use the manual gearbox option on the Burgie to lower the revs to stop it boiling. This caused further problems as the dust on the roads was blocking the CVT filter and with manual gear selection the CVT was overheating too!

8-9-10 June - Days 4, 5 and 6.

This whole section became a blur of bad corrugated roads, limited fuel and food, camping, no mobile reception and lots of birch trees and dust.

From Vladivstok to Omsk the majority of vehicles on the road are imported Japanese used cars driven by professional drivers planning on selling the vehicles for a profit in their chosen destination.

They tape the bodywork of the cars to prevent stone chips, drive fast, stop for no-one and all carry guns. This causes the bad roads to be even worse, as kilometre dust clouds are formed by convoys of cars, passing you on both left and right whilst you are simply struggling to stay upright in the loose corrugated dirt sections - never mind not being able to see where you are going! In a couple of instances, cars couldn't see me either and there were a few near misses.

Memorable events on this section of road include losing a few bits and pieces from the bike (horn, brake lever, handlebar vibration damper, camel back (water container), givi lights and reflector) which were simply shaken off. The corrugations were indescribably bad and I was riding at crawling pace (10-15km/h) for extended periods.

Whilst the Burgie has survived relatively intact - I haven't dropped it yet! - it's definitely looking a little worse for wear and the cast alloy wheels are a little square in parts. Overall it performed very well, even during occasional rain and the consequent mud.

My daily food intake was limited to one bowl of Borsch (Russian soup) with bread, two cups of coffee, lots of fresh water and a Mars bar for supper.

On average every 150km or so there was a fuel stop cum cafe, although the quality of these establishments could vary dramatically.

Along these roads, fuel is also in short supply and most petrol stations will only allow you to fill up with 5, or sometimes 10, litres.

On day 4 I was running low on fuel, only to arrive in a town and find the petrol station was empty. I managed to beg a VERY kind local Russian and his family to give me two litres (he refused my offer of payment), which together with the 1/2 litre I had left should get me 50km on the bad roads

I headed off on a wing and a prayer, nursing the throttle whilst all the time realising that my fuel consumption was way up riding on such bad surfaces. At 50km, no petrol station in sight, finally at 53km I saw the sign - fuel 500 metres ahead. I accelerated slightly, thinking I had made it, and pulled in to the service station only for the engine to die on the forecourt 20 metres away from the pumps.

I was happy to push the Burgie those final 20 metres and fill up.

During these days I came across a Swede and his father, driving a diesel Skoda round the world on under 800 euros of fuel, and 2 French couples on Ducati outfits (Cagiva elephants) travelling round the world.

I also met Pavel "the Black Russian" bicyclist riding from East of Vladivstok to Moscow.

On what I thought was my last day on the dirt road, I stopped the bike 150km from Chita on a bridge to fill up my water bottle with fresh freezing water (some of these little rivers are still frozen).

I walked back to the bike, only to switch on the ignition and watch the gauges go blank as I hit the starter button. I figured I had a recurrence of my ignition switch problem and inwardly cursed Suzuki, but it was not to be. The battery cells had been destroyed from the constant vibration.

Pavel arrived 1/2 an hour later and helped me push the Burgie off the road into the birch tree forest (Siberia is ONE massive birch tree forest) and we set up our tents. Pavel lit a fire, most generously shared his food and we spent a most enjoyable evening on the Taega.

11th June - Day 7 and 150km from Chita.

After a very pleasant night camped with the "Black Russian", we flagged down a couple of vehicles and 6 of us pushed the Burgie back on tthe road. We then had to find a vehicle with jumper leads to start the bike. Two hours later and we found one! I covered the final 50km of dirt in around 2 hours and was 20km along the bitumen when the engine check light came on and the Burgie died - the battery had completely given up the ghost and would not provide sufficient sparks for the FI to operate . I pulled over and 2 hours later was saved by my white knight - Dmitri the "white Russian".

Dmitri was piloting a Kia Sorento back to Krasnoyarsk with a Yamaha FZR 400 in the back. After an hour and a half unsuccesfully trying to resurrect the Burgie battery, we found the FZR battery was a perfect fit and before we knew it the Burgie was back on the road. This was just incredible luck and I honestly don't what I would have done otherwise.

Unfortunately this meant I could not stay in Chita with the black Russian, as Dmitri wanted his battery back and quite correctly, insisted I travel to Irkhutsk with him. This was overall a good idea as I had no idea whether I could find a replacement in Chita or elsewhere.

12th June - Just past Chita to Ulan Ude - 500km.

What started out as a warm day, quickly degenerated as we climbed into the mountains and I had to stop to change into my full riding gear (including face mask) . Temperatures dropped to 2 degrees and the rain fell - I was freezing and riding blind.

Despite a number of very hairy moments on wet slippery roads, we made it without incident, but needed to regularly stop at a roadside cafes for sustenance.

This area is the home of the Batyar people (Russian Mongolians) and the geography is very much like Northern Mongolia (treeless mountains and grass plains).

13th June - my Birthday!, and Ulan Ude to Irkhutsk (500km).

Warm sunny weather.
After visiting the giant bust of Lenin in downtown Ulan ude, the day started with a ride along the bottom of Lake Baikal, absolutely gorgeous scenery (like the Canadian rockies).
Mainly good roads made for a very pleasant riding day.

Highlights included stopping off at local markets to purchase fish,

being stopped by traffic police and invited in for coffee, meeting fellow motorcyclists,

passing cardboard cutout police cars strategically located alongside the road,

crossing the trans-siberian again at level crossings

and beautiful views across lake Baikal.

After arriving in Irkhutsk I was very kindly hosted by Dmitri and his friends for the night - lots of vodka and good fun.

14th June (Irkhutsk).

Sunny day, riding with the Irkhutsk bikers (Blackbird/Hayabusa) and looking (unsuccessfully) for a battery. Visited Irkhutsk beaches and dam on the Angara river where an old icebreaker (built in Newcastle UK) has been restored.

Afterwards, they all took me around to vist the sights and sounds of Irkhutsk, which is quite a pretty city and has many old churches which are now being restored.

To cap off the days activities we stocked up on local beer and retured to a local park, along with many other Irkhutskites to enjoy the mild evening.

15th June (Irkutsk to Listvyanka (on the shore of Lake Baikhal) - 100km.

Dmitri got lost in Irkhutsk and coincidentally whilst asking for directions found a shop that had the correct new battery for me - all is well with the world!

Another rainy day, visited the Nerparium in Listvyanka (Nerpas are freshwater seals which live in Lake Baikhal) and looked around the lakeside with Dmitri and Marina.

16th June Irkhutsk.
Bike serviced, oil changed etc., set to go for the 1,100km ride to Krosynarsk.

The photo below shows a typical Russian kiosk selling a range of small goods, but mainly alcohol. These little magasins are extremely popular and are open till midnight, long after other establishments have closed their doors for the evening. This one was just around the corner from my hostel in Irkhutsk and I had to pass by it enroute to the secure parking where I left the Burgie each evening.

17th June Irkhutsk to Krosnyarsk.

I left Irkhutsk late morning to start the 1,100km ride to Krosynarsk.

Even though this was the main highway between Moscow and Vladivostok there were times that one felt like you were on a run down disused track between two small towns.

I was hoping that I had left behind all the unmade roads once I had reached Chita, however, I discovered there was another 2-300 kms of offroading on this section of road.

I covered around 600km on the first day riding till close to midnight before camping for the evening in a birch forest.......

....... and completed the journey the following day arriving in Krasnoyarsk around 9.30pm.

Along the way I passed an airforce base and spotted my second set of mystery humps. These were grass mounds were concealed military aircraft had been hidden away from prying eyes.