Mongolia I

[I realise this blog hasn’t been updated for a solid year now; I’m currently alive and in London but very bad at writing blogs. Don’t hate me]

Before I’d left Irkutsk to retrieve my bike from the horrors of Olkhon Island, I promised – possibly under the influence of cheap Russian alcohol – to do some traditional Australian cooking for the hostel on my return. I know, haha, “Australian cooking”. In any case, I arrived back on a working (!) motorbike after a day of dodging Russian drivers to an expectant staff and a hostel kitchen.

For those not up on the facilities of a Russian hostel kitchen in 2014, here’s what you get:

  • Four mismatched mugs, one cracked
  • Two forks
  • Six teaspoons
  • An indescribable utensil, presumably used in soviet times to do indecent things to potatoes
  • A frypan
  • A gas cooktop. Two of the three burners are broken.

I had volunteered to cook a Pavlova. Because of the Russian connection, obviously, and also how it’s one of the few unique New Zealand^W^WAustralian foods.

Before leaving a couple of days prior I had made the staff promise that they would supplement the available facilities with such innovations as an electric mixer. These were not immediately apparent, so I enquired. “Oh, I couldn’t find one at home. Can you not just use a fork?”

I looked at the forks. One was bent, like a spoon bender with poor eyesight had been using it for practice. I carefully explained that I would prefer not to whip enough eggwhites for a large meringue in this manner; after some negotiation the hostel manager said she would investigate other options at the cafe next door.

[incidentally – if you’re reading this blog for motorcycle adventuring stories, or stories at least tangentially involving motorbikes, you may want to hit the pagedown key several times because I’m about to write enthusiastically about baking]

Five minutes later she returned, battling through the door under the weight of a KitchenAid mixer. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The KitchenAid is the ultimate in cooking appliances: it makes cooking (even more!?) fun, because you can pretend you’re one of those TV chefs as you throw things into the bowl then walk away casually while it does all the hard work. It’s also made entirely from steel and chrome. Just like motorbikes.

So, several litres of cream, two dozen eggs and a couple of hours later we had a passable Pavlova (todo: work out how to not make it fall in the middle) and – for some reason – a large amount of very unAustralian eggnog, which someone improved with most of a bottle of whiskey. This was an excellent party.

A fairly late and blurry start the next morning and I was finally on the road back to Ulan-Ude with Mongolia in my sights. My faint hopes that the traffic would ease up and the weather would be fine – the road, circling Lake Baikal, is spectacular in fine weather – were dashed when it started bucketing down. I spent the day sitting behind trucks trying to both keep warm and avoid the Audis doing ridiculous overtakes into oncoming traffic.

Trucks on the Mongolian side of the border. Plenty o' rain in them clouds...

Trucks on the Mongolian side of the border. Plenty o’ rain in them clouds…

Back at the wonderfully dry hostel in Ulan-Ude, I was again the only person in the place and threw together a leisurely dinner involving eggs, beer and Pushkin (no KitchenAid this time, gutted); then it was back on the road heading for the Mongolian border: despite the clutch fiasco, only a few days behind schedule. As usual at the border crossing I was the lone crazy foreigner, and as usual I broke the well-oiled bureaucratic machine (“machine”) that is the Russian side. They made me walk back and forward between buildings collecting stamps from officials in the sudden torrential rain. It was some consolation when the lovely lady in the Quarantine office took pity on me and let me stand inside and drip water all over her carpet.

In-Mongolia-at-last-selfie. Got a bit of a haircut in Irkutsk

In-Mongolia-at-last-selfie. Got a bit of a haircut in Irkutsk, possibly under the influnce of cheap Russian alcohol

And then the rain stopped as suddenly as it started, and I was in Mongolia. It was weird: with my pidgin Russian I’d grown accustomed to having a rough idea of what shops sold, and being able to ask for what I wanted in cafes, but all of a sudden I was once again in a foreign culture unable to communicate outside of gestures.

The culture around the bike changed, too. The Russians were always pretty polite and/or shy – they would bombard you with questions but wouldn’t touch the bike. In Mongolia it was a different story: every time I stopped I would be surrounded by a crowd of guys who immediately started feeling the tyres, poking the engine, wiggling the numberplate. Once on that first day I emerged from a cafe to find someone sitting on the bike, while his friend took a photo. I started parking closer to cafe windows (and away from expensive cars) so I could watch and intervene if it looked like someone was going to knock my heavily-laden bike off the sidestand.

The other thing that changed was the driving. There is a perception that Russian drivers are somehow bad, which is absolutely not the case. Russian drivers are highly skilled, because driving on Russian roads is a terribly Darwinian process: the slow and weak are forced aside/killed in the great mission to get to Where You Need To Be As Fast As Possible. The principal rule is to overtake continuously and without regard for other (read: inferior) vehicles; if you’re driving an Audi, this means you should sit on 150km/h and overtake directly into oncoming traffic, the Audi and the oncoming car/horse/motorcycle staring each other down in some sort of lethal yet utterly commonplace game of chicken. Forget Russian Roulette, this is the real thing: the skill seems to be knowing when to dodge over to the soft shoulder to go for a three-way overtake and avoid a 250km/hour crash, without ever giving the impression that you’re going to blink first.

As a motorbike, I’m small and vulnerable and so immediately bottom of the ladder in the great Overtaking Game. What I had to do was find a powerful protector: a bright orange tanker filled with 40,000 litres of inflammable petrol works well. The tanker drivers, confident in their ability to crush oncoming Audis without even feeling the bump do not slow down for anything, so it’s really comfortable to sit just behind in the bubble of moving air and watch terrified drivers shoot back to their side of the road right at the last minute, when they realise that playing chicken with a fuel tanker is going to end in fiery death.

In contrast, the roads of Mongolia are a gentle maelstrom of cars, people, motorbikes and bicycles mixing together in a friendly but slightly terrifying vortex of inefficient transportation. The gridlock is legendary; I took two hours to travel a kilometre through the centre of the capital, Ulaanbaator, on a motorbike – whereas in Russia this kind of inefficiency would have people taking to the footpath and/or firearms.

In any case, I entered Mongolia and spent the next hour wondering why no-one was overtaking me anymore. It took a while to realise that it was no longer necessary to drive … quite so aggressively. My adrenalin levels dropped, slightly, along with those of the people around me.

I’d also forgotten about the scenery… Mongolia is a pretty freaking beautiful place:

View from my campsite on the first night out of Ulaanbaator

This is a photo I took in Mongolia back in 2011, but things haven’t changed too much: sandy tracks branching to the horizon across the rolling steppe

My guidebook for Mongolia, an ageing copy of Lonely Planet, recommended the Amarbayasgalant Monastery as something absolutely worth visiting, so seeing as it was getting late I figured I’d stop in a hotel in Dharkan – the nearest large city – and hit up the monastery first thing in the morning. The road towards Dharkan is dead-straight and, being Mongolia, visibility is about 50km in every direction across the steppe. You get plenty of time to contemplate the storm cells drifting across the plain, and wondering whether your trajectory will mean getting wet.

The rain is cominggggggg!

The rain is cominggggggg! I tested it and it turns out motorbikes go faster than storm cells

I arrived in Dharkan about four hours before dark, paid some sort of mysterious and seemingly arbitrary road tax at a tollbooth, picked up a bloody fantastic meal for $3 then found a very classy hotel. It was empty, so I ruthlessly bargained with the slightly desperate manager to get my bike a free garage for the night. It spent the evening warm, cosy and secure next to some … ferret skins that someone was drying. Mongolia, I guess.

Here's a food photo

Here’s a food photo. Man-sized portions, none of this dainty Russian-cafe business

The enormous but eerily empty supermarket down the road sold beer and icecream, so that was dessert. A productive day.

Irkutsk II

I had laughed at the suckers waiting in line for the ferry off Olkhon Island: an unbelievable queue of cars that I had scooted past on my motorbike on the way in. Now karma was catching up with me, with a busted motorbike clutch, and I was stuck on a minibus in the very same queue. Waiting to leave the island. And waiting. And waiting.

The Olkhon Island Ferry sets new records for inefficient ferries; we waited for four hours in the queue. I passed the time taking occasional photos – of people waiting, what else – and chatting to friends I had made in my few days on the island. One guy, Alex, was riding a Suzuki Safari Twin and I watched jealously as he skipped past the queue and got on the next boat.

Waiting in the queue

Five hour wait? Why not go for a swim

I had also spent an evening drinking with minibus drivers back at the guesthouse in Khuzir, and I met some of them doing the run back to Irkutsk. We spent time conversing about minibuses, predictably. One nearby was open to derision; the luggage rack had punched through the roof. Amateurs, I was told.

Finally the ferry arrived, our minibus loaded on, and we rocketed back to Irkutsk. Riding a motorbike, the minibuses are the worst for tailgating and terrifying overtakes. Now I was in one, and it was better to just not look as the driver pulled crazy moves on the single-lane tarmac road. Some of my Russian fellow passengers had put their seatbelts on; Russians never, ever wear seatbelts.

Back at the hostel in Irkutsk, I was straight on the Internet organising some new clutch plates. Amazon had a set, which I ordered, but they wouldn’t arrive for three weeks. However! One of the people following my ride report on had said was based in Moscow, so I sent him a PM asking if he knew any motorbike part stores that would stock DR650-compatible clutch plates.

Monty did better than that: he found a shop, went and picked up the plates, and organised for them to be couriered to me over the weekend – all within a ridiculously short space of time and for someone he’d only briefly talked with over the Internet. I was a little flabbergasted. Monty, thankyou. You are a scholar and a gentleman.

I therefore had a few days to spend chilling out in Irkutsk, waiting for the courier to arrive. I’d like to say I spent them engaging in a cultural and artistic exploration of the city, but in fact I rarely left the hostel except to hit up the markets for fresh blueberries and beer and replace a couple of rolltop bags that had been destroyed in the previous 20,000km of ridibg. Pavel – a friend from my last stay – was back in the hostel and wanted to improve his English, and I wanted to improve my Russian, so we spent most of the weekend swapping stories in our respective broken language (to the hilarity of the bilingual hostel staff. thanks for the support, guys ;)

Here's a photo of some pianos

Here’s a photo of some pianos

Monday evening, parts in hand, it was agreed that I would cook some Australian food when I returned from Olkhon, which on reflection may have been a small mistake. In any case another minibus was booked and I was back on the road Tuesday for the terrifying ride back to the island.

The trip back was much the same as as before, with the exception of one Australian who managed to encapsulate all the reasons I avoid my countrymen when I travel. Back in Khuzir, the clutch was swapped out to the fascination of a couple of nearby kids and I was ready to – finally – make it off the island the next day. A couple of beers at a nearby cafe went down very well with the sunset.

The ride back went well: despite my apprehension about potential rain, ridiculous bike-destroying mud etc it was a lovely warm, sunny day. I scooted past the queue – suckers! – almost got run over by an UAZ van trying to also push in front, made it on the ferry, and powered back towards Irkutsk dodging minibuses.

Return of the tracking

Just a quick update to say that my SPOT tracker tragically bounced off my handlebars last week, courtesy of some terrible, terrible corrugations on a road in Mongolia.

I’ve finally gotten around to updating my tracking page manually, so you can once again see where I am. Phew.

What, you haven’t been following my every movement? I’m very disappointed.

All the haps are over at (which weirdly doesn’t work in Chrome for me, sigh). If you forget about this link, you can find it again allllll the way down the bottom of this page: labelled ‘Tracking’ in big blue letters.

Yours from nearly-Ukraine,


The mud

I awoke to the sound of rain gently falling on my tent. A soothing sound, like the noise of the breakers I had heard all night, camped as I was right on the pictureshore shoreline of Lake Baikal.

Wait, rain? Oh no. Getting away from the picturesque shoreline of Lake Baikal involved a steep hill climb back up to the main track. The previous day in hot, dry weather it hadn’t even crossed my mind that I might have trouble getting out. Now, every falling raindrop was making the path more muddy. I had to get the campsite packed up: it was a race against time.

No breakfast, and I had everything on the bike in record time and was only slightly wet and slightly miserable. But it was good to be going. I rolled forward two metres, and the bike promptly fell over in the mud. Oh god.

Because of the steep slope, I couldn’t pick the bike up without taking large amounts of luggage off. It took me an hour to move the 200m up that hill on the steeply cambered, muddy track: after the bike slid sideways and fell over the third time I took everything off, walked the bike up, then did three trips in my boots, in the mud, in the rain to get my stuff. Without breakfast, or more to the point, coffee. After three idyllic days camping, this was a shock.

Packed again and ready to go at the top of the hill, the next challenge was the 15km back to Khuzir – the main town on Olkhon Island. I knew the road was a bit muddy, and worse – there were two huge gulleys to traverse: you get a 30 degree slope down, followed by some sand at the bottom and then the same back up. The depth is perhaps 20 metres. I’d done them a number of times in the dry; a lot of fun on a dirtbike. In the mud, though, with a loaded bike and my limited off-road experience? I was apprehensive. But it was all of 15km to town, so I figured I would take it carefully. I had my eyes set on breakfast, the ferry, and the lovely tarmac all the way back to a hot shower in Irkutsk.

The first one, the smaller one, went ok. I didn’t trust the front brakes to have any effect whatsoever in the mud, but as it turned out engine-braking the rear didn’t do much either except slide me sideways, so halfway down it ended up being a pull-the-clutch-and-hope-for-the-best kind of affair. But I made it up the other side, pleased with myself, and hey it was pretty fun once the panic wore off.

The next gully was the big one… this time I got off and walked to the edge. It was deeper than I remembered, incredibly steep, and the track was pure extra-slippery mud. There was no way I was going to keep the bike upright without brakes.

But lo! Off to the left was a track along the side of the hill, clearly used in exactly this scenario. Still steep, but covered in large rocks and washouts which were perfect for my requirement: provide a bit of grip so I could use the brakes. I negotiated my way down, sliding from rock to rock, and zoomed back up the other side. Obstacle negotiated! I gave myself a pat on the back.

The third challenge was about 9km out of town, where the road looked like it got a bit muddy in the wet. In the dry it was ok if you took it slow, and I figured it hadn’t been raining that long, so it couldn’t be that bad.

Oh boy. I’d never seen mud that bad; not in Australia, not on the Kolyma Highway, nowhere. It was deep and thick and sticky, and built up a solid layer on things it came into contact with, so my tyres turned into smooth wheels of mud, and my boots had around 10cm of extra height from the platform of mud that stuck to them. It was baaaad. Bad bad bad. Did I mention that I hate mud?

Platform shoes

Platform shoes

I walked the bike along slowly, stopping every 50m or so to take a break from pushing and knock the couple of kilos of mud off my boots. I only had about 400m of mud, and then I knew the road improved back to “waterlogged sand track”. The bike was running hot from the lack of airflow, with a powerful smell of baking mud as the exhaust manifold gently cooked everything it came into contact with. I told it to hang in there, not much longer to go.

And then my rear wheel got stuck; I revved the engine but the bike wasn’t going anywhere. I looked back to see just how deep a hole I’d dug myself into and saw that the wheel wasn’t even turning when I let the clutch out. Uh oh.

My clutch had gone.

I spent a few seconds just sitting on the bike in disbelief. Perhaps in a moment I would wake up in my tent and this would all be a bad dream. But no, I opened my eyes and I was still sitting on the very real, very broken bike, and the very wet rain was still falling gently on the very, very sticky mud.

I slowly repacked my valuables into a few small bags. I would need to hitch a lift into town and organise some sort of truck to pick up the bike. I had no idea how to do either; unlike certain professional-hitchhiker friends of mine I have never hitched a ride in my life. However, the bike was conveniently stopped right in the middle of the track, and there was no way it was going anywhere without a team of people to push it out of the mud, so all the cars – people returning from weekend camping holidays – were having to slow down and slide dangerously around me. I sort of flailed at the first one to pass.

The driver looked at me, a foreigner smiling nervously and covered in black mud from helmet to boots. “I’m sorry, the car is full,” he said, pointing at the three small items on his front seat. I didn’t bother arguing, I wouldn’t pick me up either.

I skipped the next few cars and flailed more firmly at a Lada minivan. The two guys in the front didn’t quite seem to follow, but I was more insistent about wanting to go to Khuzir, and how it was only 9km away and all that, and so they eventually said yes. Score. I jumped in the back on one of the bench seats, slammed the ancient sliding door, we took off, and 200m down the road I realised I’d left the keys on the bike. But they weren’t stopping, so I figured that if someone was going to nick the bike in the mud with a broken clutch they probably deserved it.

Dropped off at the supermarket in Khuzir, I grabbed breakfast and then walked back to the guesthouse run by the lovely Alia. She was surprised to see me, but upon understanding that my bike was stuck told – or rather, instructed – me to go and rest, and began dealing with the matter with a certain ruthless Russian efficiency. Inside of 30 minutes a man named Slava had rocked up in an ancient Soviet truck, Alia-the-charming-grandmother calmly handed me her enormous chainsaw – I’m not entirely sure why, perhaps in case we needed to fell some trees and build a log cabin – and we bounced off back down the road.

By the time we arrived back at the bike the mud had claimed another victim; a Kia trying to take a shortcut to the south of the road was stuck in a big way, with the family in the back seat. Noone was particularly upset; my experiences getting bogged in Australia have generally involved a lot of swearing, but in Russia it’s more “oh-well-let’s-hang-out-and-wait-for-a-truck”. The Kia driver came and enthusiastically helped with the bike, on the understanding that he would get a free tow from Slava in return. We contemplated the problem in the light rain: three people, 150kg bike on the ground, truck tray a decent 1.5m above.

I knew from painful experience in Japan that getting my bike on and off even small trucks was a mission. Slava optimistically put a plank down, which promptly broke in half as soon as the bike was rolled on. So we ended up using a combination of rope, pushing, pulling and a little bit of what I assume was Russian swearing to get it on the back. Slava anxiously handed me my front-right indicator, broken in the scramble to slide the bike on board. I didn’t mind at all: the bike was on a truck less than two hours after I had gotten stuck. This, in my opinion, was a win.

Sad motorbike :'(

Sad motorbike :'(

We rolled over to the Kia and I tried to be helpful (I wasn’t) as the driver hooked up a tow rope to the truck, then we set off together on what was possibly the most terrifying short journey of my trip to date.

For some insane reason, the Kia driver wished to be taken further away from Khuzir and good roads: a little deep mud wasn’t going to put a damper on his family camping trip. In their two-wheel-drive-sedan. We therefore needed to cross the two enormous gulleys again, in a large truck, towing a Kia.

Slava didn’t seem too concerned, and didn’t let the conditions prevent him from seeing just how fast his truck could go. I may have started swearing in sheer terror when we began sliding sideways down the deepest gully – Kia in tow – which prompted some light joshing when we delivered the car, driver and family to the other side as agreed. Sideways is apparently just as good as any other direction, as long as you’re going the right way.

Back in Khuzir, bystanders helped pull the bike off the back of the truck and I wheeled it into a corner of the yard to rest for a few days. Alia got me booked on a minibus back to Irkutsk the next morning, and I spent the evening washing the bike and taking some photos in the dusk. Somehow, it had still been a good day, despite the mud and the rain and the setbacks.

This is technically an unsupported trip, but I couldn’t do it without the support of the random people I meet along the way. It is they who make this awesome.

Making my way west

My job in Chita was to get myself a new rear tyre: with the state of the current one this was 100% top priority. Bright and early I was at a tyre supermarket, found on Google: a warehouse with stacks of motorbike tyres. Promising! But no 17″. My second option for tyre shops was closed, and noone knew when it would open. I was beginning to despair.

But in any case it was getting close to 12pm, and I needed to leave if I was going to comfortably make the few hundred kilometres west to the next city, Ulan-Ude.

So I pushed on, hoping for the best. The rear tyre seemed ok so far, and had survived the 700km to Chita without complaint. So… it’d be fine, right? I recalled the last time I thought this, back when I got three punctures in one day.

The tyre was fine. But unfortunately the bike developed another issue: the engine was cutting out under acceleration. When this happened in Australia cleaning the fuel filter fixed it, so I stopped and cleaned it out. But no improvement. The problem got so bad that when I pulled up to overtake a truck the engine stalled, and with the bald rear tyre I stacked it into the gravel by the side of the road. Thankfully, at relatively low speed.

After that little incident, it was time to go really slow; I couldn’t trust the bike to pull me out of corners, which made tight sweeping turns a bit risky.

I was also a little confused by the road signs: 650km to Ulan-Ude?? That can’t be right! Turns out I must have read the map wrong back in Chita, and I was discovering it was a loong way from Chita to Ulan-Ude – almost 700km. But I worked out I could just make it before sunset at 10pm, even at the reduced speed.

Russian lunch

Russian lunch

The road was bad. Great asphalt but narrow; one lane each way. The main problem was that there was plenty of trucks in the oncoming traffic, and trucks overtaking those trucks, and cars overtaking those trucks, with noone bothering to pull back to the correct side of the road because hey it’s only a motorbike. The result was me staring down 50-ton instruments of high speed death several times an hour. This was stressful.

On top of this, in Russia everyone cuts corners, and tailgates so they can overtake you at the slightest opportunity. And after being spoiled by the Kolyma, the scenery wasn’t great – scrubby trees and farmland. Between nursing the bike up hills trying not to be thrown off as the engine spluttered, trying not to think about the rear tyre too much, the terrifying trucks and the scenery I wasn’t having much fun. Oh, and then it started raining.

With about 100km to go I was wrecked. I stopped for food, fuel and coffee before the final run in, trying to remember how to put the food in my mouth rather than smearing it over my face. I braced myself, got back on the bike, and pushed on.

The final 100km turned out to be really beautiful. So close to Mongolia, it was like a little bit of steppe in Russia, with the sunset lighting up the road across the plain. The road wound through a beautiful river valley with the last light reflecting off the water. The trucks mostly stopped for the night around 9pm, so there was just crazy Landcruiser drivers to contend with. And cows, standing on the road in the dark. After almost hitting one that afternoon in good daylight – it was sand-coloured, I almost died of fright – I solved both problems by sitting behind a Landcruiser, so at least they could plow into any potential cows first and give me some warning.

I got into Ulan-Ude just after dark, violating my super-ironclad golden rule to never ever ride after sunset. Navigating the terrifying unlit road into town – there’s no cats eyes or road markers, just oncoming traffic to tell you where the road ends and the sand begins – I found my hostel, manned by a lovely couple and their son. It was amazing.

Awesome veggie garden out the back of the hostel. Potatos, tomatos, beans, eggplant, um ... other things I forget. A lot of stuff.

Awesome veggie garden out the back of the hostel. Potatos, tomatos, beans, eggplant, um … other things I forget. A lot of stuff.

Ulan-Ude has a Mongolian embassy, so my plan was to stay a couple of nights, pick up my visa and finally find a freaking new rear tyre. I ended up staying four days – my first attempt on the embassy, bright and early on a Tuesday morning, resulted in a shouted instruction to come back tomorrow: visas are only issued Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Embassies.

This was not entirely a bad thing. I figured I needed a day off from riding like a maniac, so I spent the rest of Tuesday enjoying the beautiful town. I had tea in the main square, overlooking a very complex fountain that gives displays synchronised to Beethoven; I explored the Bookcrossing stall outside the public library; I checked out the largest stone head of Lenin in the world (it is indeed rather large); I found a secondhand bookshop and picked up some neat Soviet books before buying a bottle of kvass from a street vendor and heading back to the hostel. Basically, I was a proper tourist for the first time in a while.

Bookcrossing in regional Russia? Whut?

Bookcrossing in regional Russia, whut?

Dinner, kvass and Pushkin. Not too shabby

Dinner, kvass and Pushkin. Not too shabby

The next day was spent getting my visa – involving a lot waiting in line, being bizzarely told to come back with photocopies of my passport, providing IT support to the public library’s friendly staff to get the copies I wanted. I spent some time searching for tyres but again nothing except a lot of friendly sales staff; I also cleaned my air filter which after 12,000km had become a bit… dusty. Turns out, you’re supposed to clean it every 3000km, more often in dusty conditions. Engine problems fixed ;) Some oil on the chain and I had a new bike again.

Can haz visa?

Can haz visa?

On Thursday morning as I was packing the bike the dude running the hostel said he had managed to find a shop with 17″ tyres for bikes. This seemed promising even if I was a little skeptical, so he kindly drove me in his car – I may have jammed the passenger window in the down position, which he was remarkably cool about – to this enormous warehouse selling parts for every Russian and dodgy Chinese motorbike brand imaginable. Half of the bikes I had never heard of, and some of the cheaper ones looked like the chrome coating was already falling off. We waited, and waited, and waited for the dude he spoke to on the phone to turn up: 9am is a pretty ambitious time for Russians to wake up.

I headed next door to look through a similarly-enormous hardware store in the meantime before he shot me an SMS to say what I had suspected – no tyres. I had to go to Irkutsk, the next large city along the highway. There would definitely be tyres there!

This was getting a bit ridiculous. The shops way back in Neryungri said “Chita? Oh absolutely, they have all the tyres there!” 400km later, Chita said “hmm, 17″? Best to try Ulan-Ude.” Now Ulan-Ude was saying to looking in Irkutsk.

Standard rubbish tyre selection

Standard rubbish tyre selection

However! I had a good feeling about Irkutsk – it’s a largish capital city, so if there was going to be tyres anywhere it would be there. There was also – according to Google Maps – a Suzuki dealer. I envisioned being able to buy brand new air filter elements, oil filters, genuine Suzuki brake pads. It would be like heaven.

The ride from Ulan-Ude to Irkutsk was really nice: 450km of pretty, sealed road. The trucks were still a problem, but it wasn’t a 700km-long problem like the last time; I made the 450km trip in a leisurely 9 hours and checked myself into a nice hostel. Along the way I got my first view of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world; I can confirm there is indeed a lot of water there. Lots and lots of water.

After three cities, I had my tyre-searching routine down. I was up bright and early and headed straight to the Suzuki dealer, who turned out to be a slightly confused Kawasaki dealer. No Suzuki parts for me, and Kawasaki bikes apparently don’t have 17″ rear wheels. It certainly seems like I lucked out as far as bike models go – if I had a Yamaha, I could have picked up spare parts in Yakutsk. If I had a Kawasaki, I would have been sorted in Irkutsk. What, you ride a Suzuki? Lol ‘sif.

I continued hunting through my prepared list of tyre shops and huge “trade centres” in the light rain, getting less and less optimistic with each rejection. If I couldn’t find a tyre, I would need to get one freighted in from Moscow or Novosibirsk, which would be expensive and slow. There was no way I was making another 1000km on the tyre I had, I could see it falling apart.

The last shop on my list was called “Drive”, and had been independently recommended by a few places. From the name, I assumed it was some sort of car-parts superstore, so I wasn’t too optimistic.

I pulled up out the front of the most amazing motorbike parts shop I’ve come across in Russia. I asked the owner if they had 17″ tyres and there was actually more than one option; “This one is made in Czech,” he said proudly, pointing at the Mitas 70/30 enduro tyre I was considering. At that point I would have paid good money for anything 17″ in diameter with knobbly bits on it. A brand-name enduro tyre? I had to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

There are so many tyres, they need a ladder to get at them all. A ladder.

There are so many tyres, they need a ladder to get at them all. A ladder.

Amazingly, they also had brake pads and oil filters to fit my bike. This I was not expecting, so I loaded up for the long parts-free leg to come in Mongolia.

As I went to start my bike outside the shop, it stopped abruptly. The main fuse had gone. After all the problems the previous week, I was beginning to feel like I was holding the damn thing together with spit and wire. Pulled it apart in the rain, installed a new fuse from a friendly shopkeeper and I was away.

Back at the hostel I fixed up a few long-overdue things, changed the spark plugs (fouled by the air filter I neglected to clean), swapped out the tyre – discovering I had accidentally purchased a tubeless type, which is going to be fun to change when I next get a puncture – and admired my slightly-classier bike. Fixed, finally.

The next day (Sunday) was forecast to be rainy, and Monday was supposed to be sunny, so I spent Sunday walking around Irkutsk with Yuri, an eager tour guide arranged through the hostel. Irkutsk is a pretty city, old and beautiful. And squarely aimed at tourists; for the first time since leaving Vladivostok I felt very much back on the beaten track. And the rain didn’t appear either: it was a hot, sunny day. I would learn that for whatever reason, weather forecasts in this part of the world aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

I was about a week too early to enter Mongolia, for complex visa reasons. So I decided to ride a 1000km/four day loop incorporating a brief stop in Khuzir, a pretty, sleepy fishing village on an island in Lake Baikal. “Don’t be silly,” said the helpful, English-speaking hostel manager. “Just ride to Khuzir and spend a few days there instead! Can I book you a hostel? Do you need a minibus out there?”

15 seconds later I had a hostel booked for me in Khuzir, and feeling slightly like I’d been railroaded into supporting a friend’s business I headed north to the famous Lake. Inevitably, the forecast for fine weather was bollocks and it started raining. But I only had 200km to go, so I took it slow and sampled the selection of baked delicacies in the many, many cafes along the route.

I was expecting the road to turn to sand once I left Irkutsk, but it was amazing-if-narrow tarmac all the way. And a crazy amount of oncoming traffic. Where were all these cars coming from?

Photo ops with fellow tourists

Photo ops with fellow tourists

After a quick ferry ride, I discovered that my impression of Khuzir as an undiscovered wilderness was half-wrong. It has been well and truly discovered: the locals of the sleeping fishing village have worked out that it’s a whole lot easier flogging overpriced fish and scenic jeep tours to the tourists than actually, say, fishing. The town was nice though: as a traditional centre of shamanism you do have to beat your way through the crowds of hippies – so many hippies – but it is really beautiful, with sandy roads and great swimming. And when you leave town and head north along the sandy track on the western side of the island? My word.

The land opens up into sweeping steppe-like grassland, with occasional patches of sunlit forest. You can camp anywhere – free, if you avoid the protected park area in the north of the island – and enjoy a beer as the sunset lights up the beach you have all to yourself. Farmhouses will sell you (fairly expensive) milk, and did I mention the landscape is spec-tac-u-lar? I’m running out of adjectives, so here’s some photos:

Crappy phone photo, near Khuzir

Crappy phone photo, near Khuzir

The "rock of love", apparently, as translated from Russian to German to English by a tour guide and English-speaking German tourist, respectively...

The “rock of love”, apparently, as translated from Russian to German to English by a tour guide and English-speaking German tourist, respectively…

Campfires on the hillside near my camping spot

Campfires on the hillside near my camping spot

Some more pretty rocks

Some more pretty rocks

Not too shabby, eh?

Not too shabby, eh?

Aila, the awesome lady running the gustinista I stayed in the first night

Aila, the awesome lady running the gustinista I stayed in the first night

Milk yo

Milk, yo. Expensive at $2 /litre, but delicious. So delicious

I spent an amazing two nights camping, some of the best camping of the trip. Perfect weather, enough riding each day to be fun, and the main road has some nice interesting technical bits (for a noob like me, anyway). I headed north to check out the northern tip of the island, met up with busloads of Chinese, Russian and German tourists with their tour guides, and took a million photos.

My last night on the island I did a quick run into Khuzir to help out a dude I met who had punctures in all his tyres. In thanks he gave me fish soup and firewood, so I capped off a perfect day camping on the beach with a fire and the sunset.

Dude I helped lives in a American teepee. Which is a thing apparently

Dude I helped lives in a (American) teepee. Which is a thing apparently

With the bike running well, good weather forecast for the next few days and a leisurely run down to Mongolia I was looking forward to getting moving again. And excited for a month of Mongolian culture.

But my luck was about to change…

The end of the Lena Highway

I spent two nights in Yakutsk – I wanted to check out the frozen mammoth head I missed on the way over, plus replace both my tyres. After almost 10,000km since Australia they were both looking very bald. Also, replace my $10 mirrors which had finally both exploded on the final run in, as the three cents of glue holding them together gave way.

The friendly Yamaha dealer I visited last time continued to be helpful, providing me with a new 21″ front tyre at a reasonable price. The rear tyre was harder, though – everyone seemed to own Yamaha bikes with 18″ rears. My Suzuki has a 17″ rear tyre. I figured it would probably be ok for a while. Hoped, anyway.

In any case with a new front tyre and a good night’s sleep, the 100km of hellish roadworks south of Yakutsk flew by. And after that, it was smooth sailing on good road. Made it to Aldan again in good time, and found a cheaper gustinitsa than the last time, plus free secure parking. They had photos of biker expeditions on the wall above the reception desk; again I was reminded this was a road well travelled.

This place was clearly decorated in the 80s. Obviously, the furniture still works so why change it?

This place was clearly decorated … some time ago. The furniture still works, so why change it?

Biker expedition photos

Biker expedition photos

Given how fast I’d made it to Aldan, I figured there was no need to stop in Sveredbodny Bor as on the way in – I could push on straight to Tynda, only 400km away. I rolled under the locked gate at the back of the hotel, retrieved my bike, loaded up and was trying to work out why it was so hard to push the bike down the slight slope when I spotted my rear tyre: flat. Crap. But thanks to Francis, I was now a tire changing expert.

I unloaded everything off the bike again and changed the tube for my spare. What concerned me was the cause of the flat – there was a crack on the inside of the extremely worn rear tyre, and it had rubbed on the tube until it burst. Replacing the tube, I hoped everything would hold together until I got to a city where I could replace the tyre. I figured (and I have this on video) that if it lasted the 2000km from Magadan, it would last until Tynda. I slowed down a bit just in case, but otherwise things were good.

Changing tyres

Changing tyres

100km down the road it went flat again. Same cause. Hmm. I looked at the crack inside the tyre, as I sheltered from the sun in the shade of a broken-down truck by the side of the road. I wondered if it would make the problem better or worse to put something in there to protect the tube. I decided to be conservative, take it slow, and see if I could make it the 150km to the closest town, Sveredbodny Bor where I knew there was a cheap hostel.

70km down the road the tyre went flat again. I was getting really sick of unloading and repacking the bike, but what could I do? I waved down a passing truck and borrowed their compressed air line, so at least I didn’t have to pump the damn thing up for 20 minutes with my tiny bicycle pump.

It was 70km to Sveredbodny Bor, and so I decided to reach for the engineer’s secret weapon: gaffa tape. A few pieces applied to the inside of the tyre covered the crack, and – I hoped – would shield the tube from the constant rubbing. I also hoped there wouldn’t be some odd dynamic effect at 60km/h that would cause the whole thing to violently rupture, but at this point I was at the “…and to hell with the consequences! Hand me the gaffa tape!” stage of problem solving.

Tyre fixing spot #3. A bit more scenic this time.

Tyre fixing spot #3. A bit more scenic this time.

I went even slower. As I had pulled out from the side of the road, the wind had picked up as if a front was coming through, but my forecast that morning hadn’t shown any rain. Odd. I rode through pretty scenery until right in front of me a huge lightning bolt lit up a hillside, with the thunder following right behind. Close… I wondered if old maxim “it’s ok to be in a car in a lighting storm, it has rubber tyres” also applied to motorbikes. You get a lot of time to think about things like this when you’re riding.

I kept going anyway, enjoying the skyshow, until the first few drops of rain hit my helmet. Ruh-roh. With the forecast for no-problems-no-sir dry weather my rainproof jacket liner was safely packed away.

The rain got heavier, and heavier, until it was actually painful on exposed skin. I stopped to transfer my wallet and phone from my jacket into my luggage so they wouldn’t get soaked. The rain picked up _more_ – it was like being hit with a pressure-washer – until I couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of me. The wind was bending trees sideways by the side of the road, and for the first time riding this highway I started to really fear for my safety. I considered my options, which were unattractive: stop, and perhaps try and put the tent up, in the middle of a storm; keep riding; or try and turn the bike around on a major highway with zero visibility between me and oncoming traffic. My hope was that this was just a localised storm cell – why it didn’t appear on my forecast.

Oncoming traffic started to try and execute u-turns on the highway. I hoped I wouldn’t drive at 30km/h into the side of an ageing Lada mid-u-turn, it would be a terrible way to die.

And then as suddenly as it started, the rain stopped. Behind me was an enormous storm cell towering in the sky; in front sunshine. I was soaking, soaking wet.

I made it to the hostel in Sveredbodny Bor with no more flats – I was counting down the last few km – picked up a room for 600/night and watched the sunset from the porch out the front. Just as with last time I stayed, the place was filled with drunk, ageing miners – this is a Russian hostel, which is very different to a western youth hostel – and I engaged in witty repartee as I repaired my spare tube. One guy started belting out Russian classics on a guitar.

Photos ops with hostel ladies

Photos ops with hostel ladies

Sveredbodny Bor is a tiny village right on the highway; there’s a largish town – ie. the place where normal people stay in hotels – called Neryungri about 8km on the other side of the main road. My friend Slavik from Yakutsk lived there, so Friday morning I headed over, figuring I would look desperately for a new tyre and say hi to Slavik while I was in town.

Slavik – inevitably, because he is an amazing person – invited me to stay. And even more inevitably, invited me to drink. Once again I found myself being snuck into a police station, this time for after-work drinks with his colleagues. Slavik put on a spread, we finished off a bottle of cognac using confidential memos as napkins (“shit! you shouldn’t read that, quick, give it to me”) before heading to the local park for photo ops with enormous construction machinery.

Drinking snacks

Drinking snacks

This is a cold soup Slavik introduced me to - you take a sort of potato salad, then fill up the remainder of the bowl with kvass (a non-alcoholic sweet beer). Fizzy and delicious

This is a great cold soup Slavik introduced me to – you take a sort of potato salad, then fill up the remainder of the bowl with kvass (a non-alcoholic sweet beer). Fizzy and delicious

That morning Slavik had, amazingly, driven me across the entire town – I got the feeling he had left work to do so – but we were unable to find anyone with a 17″ tire. Plenty of 18″ and 19″, as usual. I was getting a little desperate by this point – after three flats the previous day, this was starting to become a real problem. Finally, Slavik took me to a tyre repair shop he knew, who reckoned they would be able to fix it. They pulled off my gaffa-tape fix (which had seemed to work ok! no wear) and put a proper patch on the inside of the tyre. It seemed to me though that I would need to get a new tyre in the next large city, Chita.


That ain’t good

Tyre fixer working his magic

Tyre fixer working his magic. I actually got my proper camera out for this photo, so you miss out on my phone’s terrible purple tinting! Oh no!

The next morning was forecast for rain, but according to my prediction there was a break in the weather that would move south which could catch if I could leave early enough. So I was up at six, packed the bike, said a sad goodbye to a bleary Slavik and powered south. My plan was to stop in Tynda – about 300km south – if the weather got wet or if my tyre failed again.

Tynda came and went without incident, and the dry weather had moved with me just as predicted. Science! Seeing as it was only 2pm, I figured I would try and finish the last 100km – which I remembered as being terrible construction work – of the Lena highway and stop in the town at the end.

But the road was ok! Evidently the intervening three weeks had been enough time to compact all the pointy rocks into smooth-ish highway, and about two hours later I had reached the end. 3118km to Magadan, and the same back. I was feeling pretty happy. Except for the bit where I didn’t see a single bear, I was feeling pretty sad about that. But you know, happy about the highway thing.

...and finally: it is complete. All of the kilometres, Magadan and back. Here's me not being able to work my phone - "what does this button do?"

“It is done, Yuri.” Here’s me not being able to work my phone – “what does this button do?”

It was only 3:30pm, so I decided to see how far I could get before dinnertime. The highway was excellent interstate and I cruised on 110. Boring, really. I almost wished for the Lena highway back. Almost.

250km later and I found a campsite up a disused track, only about 550km from Chita. The next day I was able to push on early and powered through 550km in a succession of increasingly fancy cafes and made it to Chita by late afternoon. I picked myself up a decent hotel in the city centre for 800rub, got some secure parking for the bike and had a celebratory beer.

The Kolyma Highway: round two

There were a lot of bikers in the lobby, and the receptionist looked at me as if asking if she should quietly call the police. But on the contrary, we all loaded into a car – everyone seemed to be called either Aleksey or Sergei – and headed to the local biker hangout, a “trash bar” called Leningrad.

The local bike club is called the Polar Owls, and they have a few hundred members. Aleksey, the president and all-round awesome dude, showed me some photos of huge events they run with hundreds of bikes, which is really impressive if you consider that a) Magadan has a population of 100,000 and b) except for about three months of the year, it is ridiculously, ridiculously cold.

From the sign out the front – “trash bar” with a skull symbol – I figured Leningrad was a dive bar, but instead it turned out to be a “hipster bar trying really hard to be a dive bar”. The custom cocktails, good food, excellent bar staff, trendy skating videos on the projector and artful exposed brick were a bit of a giveaway. The bikers talked about manly things like fighting as they sipped their craft beers or chai tea with lemon, sugar and extra cinnamon, according to preference; it was a really, really nice spot.

Unfortunately, after a 4am start that morning I wasn’t feeling so great. Around midnight Aleksey noticed me swaying slightly and suggested we head back to the hotel. I crashed into bed, still shaking, and finally noticed I was running a fever.

Aleksey's bikes

My bike on the left, Aleksey’s three enormous bikes and Sergei’s on the right

I then spent the next week being sicker than I have been in a long, long, time. With the help of Aleksey and Sergei – a fellow network admin, photographer and biker – I moved from the expensive hotel to a cheaper apartment they rented for me. I huddled in bed, fending off requests to socialise with the friendly bikers as politely as possible and reconsidering all my plans. I had originally intended to do the return trip down the Kolyma and Lena highways, but the way I was feeling that wasn’t an option. I emailed Yuri – my shipping agent back in Vladivostok – and asked for options to ship the bike back.

My bike looking cleaner than it has in a long time

My bike looking cleaner than it has in a long time

Sick and weak, I was still determined to check out some of the sights of Magadan, seeing as it was so bloody hard to get there. Sergei kindly drove me around. The museum in Magadan was cool, with some of the history of the Gulags – and Sergei even arranged for a lady friend of his to come along and act as a translator, as the museum was only in Russian. Afterwards, we went and ate pancakes at a trendy pancake emporium. Magadan might be the “end of the world”, but Russians need their blini, preferably served as trendily as possible.

Sergei and Aleksey also spent a lot of time looking for brake pads for my front wheel; just after leaving Yakutsk I’d realised that what I had thought were brake pads with plenty of wear were actually just the metal backing plates. Turns out, the metal backing plates are supposed to have brake pads attached to them, which explained why my brakes had been squeaking since I left Australia. I had of course made sure I brought a huge variety of small spare parts, from clutch cables to fork seals to wheel bearings, but completely forgot the brake pads.

4000km of metal-metal wear later, my front brake disc was wrecked and I’d worn a good millimetre into the metal. Worse, we were unable to find any Suzuki pads in Magadan. Plenty of Yamaha options available – Yamaha seems pretty popular in Russia, with a large dealer in Yakutsk (!) – but a big fat nyet to Suzuki. We even asked car places about riveting new material on to the old pads, but noone was interested.

My apartment building

My apartment building entrance

The good news was that after hitting some serious meds from my medical kit, I was starting to feel a little bit stronger every day and was considering the ride back. Yuri’s associate in Magadan had told me that it would be two weeks to ship the bike, which didn’t sound that attractive when I added up the costs of getting me and the bike to Vladivostok – around $1000 for ship, airline and train fares. Fuel for the ride back was perhaps $300. I was therefore keen to fix the brakes so I could ride and not die.

Finally, Sergei took me and the bike to a mechanic friend in a tiny garage, who said he would see what he could do. The next morning I got an SMS from Aleksey saying that the bike was fixed – for the grand total of $100 my handlebars had been straightened (bent since Australia!) and new brake pads had been found and installed. No new brake disc, but the pads would slowly polish it through normal use. The bike was like new again! It was really, really amazing to be able to stop: the small things.

Pretty evening light over Magadan

Pretty evening light over Magadan – rare sunny weather

I was still a bit apprehensive about the ride – considering I’d dropped the bike badly twice on the way to Magadan, and narrowly escaped injury – and I was feeling very comfortable in my apartment. Oskar-from-Norway had warned me not to stay too long because I would settle and not want to leave, and sure enough this was exactly what was happening. To make matters worse, the weather had been a steady 10 degrees with rain all week, which was not at all conducive to getting me up off the sofa.

The Mask of Sorrow monument in rare sunshine. Really beautiful

The Mask of Sorrow monument in sunshine. Really beautiful

...and the back, so you can see inside. Magadan in the background.

…and the back, so you can see inside. Magadan in the background.

I set myself a deadline: on Thursday, eight days after I arrived on that cold, cold Wednesday evening, the weather forecast was for dry-ish weather. I would leave really early – according to my ZyGRIB prediction it would get wetter in the afternoon – and try to get far enough north before lunch to get away from the terrible Magadan Wet Weather Zone.

Wednesday evening I got everything packed, retrieved my bike from Aleksey’s garage and prepared to ride the highway all over again. Here’s how I was feeling:


I rounded off my Magadan trip with goodbye drinks at Leningrad with Aleksey, Sergei and Stanislav – he of the chai tea – and I miss their company. They are a really, really great group of people. Also, for the first time I was able to enjoy myself at the bar instead of feeling like I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. Winning.

Stanislav and Aleksey

Stanislav and Aleksey

Left to right: enormous iron mammoth, Aleksey's son, Stanislav, Sergei, Aleksey's wife, Aleksey

Left to right: enormous iron mammoth, Aleksey’s son, Stanislav, Sergei, Aleksey’s wife, Aleksey

Stanislav, me, Sergei

Stanislav, me, Sergei. And Aleksey’s son sneaking into shot

Sergei checking out a new 125cc bike the club has just purchased, to be used to give riding lessons. There is no riding instructor in Magadan now

Sergei checking out a new 125cc bike the club has just purchased, to be used to give riding lessons. There is no riding instructor in Magadan at present

Thursday dawned, and I was away early wearing every bit of warm clothing I owned. It was 10 degrees and raining, and colder north of Magadan. However! Just as I guessed, about 200km inland the weather fined up into a glorious, warm sunny day. It was amazing the difference good weather (and warm clothing) makes to your opinion of that road; what had been a miserable, grey muddy track on the way in had become a glorious gravel motorbiking road with breathtaking scenery. The huge gravel mountains were sunlit with occasional shadows from the patchy clouds, the road was dry, smooth and windy, I had brakes that worked for the first time in 5000km, and it was a ridiculous amount of fun. I couldn’t believe I had considered shipping the bike.

Just before Yagodnoye – 550km from Magadan and my destination for the night – I overtook a car and realized it had British plates. Sure enough, when I next stopped for a break they overtook me and we had a chat – they were a couple driving from their home in the UK to Magadan and back as a retirement holiday. We continued to pass each other back and forwards for the next few days until we reached Artik, where they had to stop to repair their Landcruiser.

After chatting to the British couple, I was getting ready to leave when a passing truck slammed on the brakes and pulled over. The trucker lept out and shouted at me. “There are many bears! You must not stop!”. I looked around. I had not seen a single bear, or evidence of bears actually existing, all trip. Frankly, I was more concerned about being hit by a truck. But he clearly thought it was so dangerous it wasn’t possible to even stop for five minutes – and wouldn’t leave until until I had started moving again. Presumably the bears were about to leap from the bushes and … who knows. Eat me, I guess. Or steal my Nutella.

Aleksey had given me the details for a Polar Owls club member in Yahodnoye, and sure enough after a very long but very pretty 550km I was met in Yagodnoye in the light rain. He got me a booking for the hostel in town, we had tea with his wife and it was a really nice evening.

Awesome friends

Awesome bikers

The next morning my plan was 220km, then… Kadykchan: the huge abandoned city! I’d been planning this visit since Australia, and it was going to be a real highlight of the trip. It didn’t fail to disappoint. Although very, very muddy getting in there, I spent an awesome two hours checking it out and you should see my video below if you haven’t already.

After not getting mugged/eaten by a bear I pushed on for a another hundred kilometres or so and camped in a gravel pit a bit off the road. I hid my food in a tree – just in case – but still no sign of bears. Which I guess is a good thing.

Dinner: rice, peanuts and chocolate. Rather excellent cooking if I do say so myself

Dinner: rice, peanuts and chocolate. Rather excellent cooking if I do say so myself

Food in tree

Food in tree

What with exploring Kadykchan and all, Friday was a short day and so my plan for Saturday was to take advantage of the excellent weather and see how far I could get. It was wonderful – good roads, great camping and amazing scenery, and this kept up until I made it to Khandyga again, four fantastic days later.

Dinner. And pretty campsite scenery

Dinner. And pretty campsite scenery

Good riding

Good riding

At Khandyga the roads turned to shit, but I was expecting it so it wasn’t so bad. The final stretch approaching from the east is a single-lane track with lots of dust and trucks, followed by roadworks with appalling mud. On the way to Magadan I hit that stretch in the morning when I was fresh and it was a lot of fun, but last thing in the day it was a hard slog. After four days of camping I was desperately looking forward to my amazing guesthouse with home cooking waiting for me, and I planned to get up early the next morning to travel the last 80km from Khandyga to the ferry across the Aldan river.

…the guesthouse was closed. Or something. I called the number on the door as I had the first time I stayed, and someone picked up, realised I was a foreigner trying to ask questions in Russian, panicked, and just started shouting NYET! NYET! NYET! (no! no! no!) down the phone. When I tried to ask “but no WHAT??” she just hung up on me. So that was that.

Devastated, I bought some food and went looking for campsites, dropped the bike in a big puddle on a track off the highway and got all my gear wet, and ended up camping near the ferry launching point with the most brutal mosquitoes I have ever experienced. After I had set up the tent, a thunderstorm started. It was a miserable end to an otherwise fun day.

Pretty campsite, shame about the killer mosquitoes

Pretty campsite, shame about the killer mosquitoes

Monday, I was up at 6am and riding by 7:15, the mosquitoes ensuring a speedy if miserable campsite packup. Made it to the docks around 7:30 and there was no sign of life. The first ferry was supposed to leave at eight. Then I realized that I had crossed a timezone and all my clocks were still on Magadan time, two hours ahead, and so it was actually 5:30am. I had two hours to wait.

Pretty contrails

Pretty contrails

I sat on the riverbank, ate breakfast (spoonfuls of Nutella with instant coffee sprinkles) and watched the sun rise over the river as the town behind me came to life. There was – magically – no mosquitoes and the water was very pretty in the morning light. I dropped the bike again trying to turn around on the steep riverbank, picked it up, made it to the ferry, and had a relaxing trip across the beautiful river chatting to the locals.

Ferryboat docked in the dawn light

Ferryboat docked in the dawn light

Pretty scenery

Pretty scenery

At this point, Yakutsk was only 250km away and the weather was good – I figured I would try and push all the way through. However! This was the section of highway that took me three days in the rain and the mud, so I was a little concerned. I figured if the road was bad I had plenty of options for guesthouses.

Photo ops with cafe ladies

Photo ops with cafe ladies

Words to live by

Words to live by

As it turned out, the road in dry weather was fantastic. I cruised along, stopping at cafes along the way for coffee, and blasted triumphantly down the final 50km of asphalt to the Yakutsk ferry launch point for 5pm. It had taken two weeks, what with rain and mosquitoes and sickness, but I had conquered the Kolyma Highway on a motorbike.

I bought myself some icecream to celebrate.

Magadan or bust

By this point, we were within spitting distance of Magadan: two days hard riding. The road was good, and I could almost taste the finish. The Kolyma Highway tries to break you: with mud, with mosquitoes, with roads piled so high with loose gravel it’s like riding on sand. But it rewards you too, with scenery second-to-none, and with the people you meet along the way.

For me, this highway was more of a test mentally than I expected: after discovering how bad it could get – fighting through the sand and mud around Yakutsk – the hardest part was not knowing what was around the next corner. Would it be more excellent hard surface? Would the road abruptly turn to mud? Was the mud you were currently fighting through just a small rough patch or was it going to last for hundreds of kilometres? Would I reach Magadan in two days, or would it be another week? Travelling alone made this harder, and it was the best thing ever to travel as a team with Francis – travelling with someone for the first time since leaving Vladivostok with Kim.

We made a brief stop at the turnoff to Kadykchan, the huge abandoned city just off the highway, but didn’t go in. It looked very cool from a distance. Francis wasn’t going to Magadan – he was turning east about 400km prior to catch a ferry north to the coast, and he was eager to keep moving so he wouldn’t miss it. The ferry left once a week, but there was no information on which day it left; so the sooner he got there the better. We pushed on, and I promised myself I’d check it out on the way back.

Riding along on beautiful road, we ran into two bikers coming from Magadan. My impression was that they were Russian, but Francis reports that they were Polish. Which perhaps gives you some idea as to my command of the Russian language.

One had been injured in a fall (Francis says two broken ribs!) and did not get off his bike, but had opted to ride the highway back rather than wait or fly out of Magadan (!)

A brief chat, we said goodbye and the epic wilderness stretched on. It was really, really nice riding. Stopping for a break, I filled my bike from my fuel bladders, not having quite the extended range of Francis’ KTM. My bike chews through fuel like a truck – I’m too scared to mess with the carburetor for fear of breaking things in a big way, and so my range with bladders is only a little over 400km. The leg from Ust-Nera to Susuman is 410km with no fuel stops.

Coming into Susuman, I was watching the odometer and counting kilometers. Stupidly, I was riding behind Francis – we alternated every few hours – so if I ran out of fuel it would probably be a while before he noticed I was no longer following. I knew I had 100km-and-a-bit of fuel in the bladders, but I filled the bike 150km from Susuman. However! I never know exactly how much fuel is in the bladders, because the meters on the more antique fuel pumps in Russia only give you fuel to the nearest litre, so I was hoping that over the course of a few days I’d overfilled just enough to get me there.

As the kilometers ticked down, I regretted spilling a few millilitres of fuel when I filled the bike. That could make the difference! I started trying to coast down hills.

As it turned out, I pulled into the fuel station in Susuman with a few fumes left in the tank. It was a very, very close thing, and I was probably lucky that it was downhill most of the way into town. We filled up with fuel and stopped at a really excellent cafe, the first decent meal in a few days. After three days of camping, sticky mosquito repellent and dust from the road I was very, very dirty. I didn’t realise quite how bad it was until I looked in the mirror in the cafe bathroom: it was bad. I utilised the wonderful, modern bathroom facilities; the light didn’t work, but this is far-east Russia – after a while you stop noticing and are grateful there is actual running water with options for hot and cold.

My bodybuilding action shot

My bodybuilding action shot

Even better… there was working mobile Internet in Susuman! With the lack of coverage along the highway, and either incredibly slow or broken mobile data services in Ust-Nera and Khandyga, it had been four days without access to the Internet for both of us. We both tried to be polite and make some sort of conversation over the meal, but sneakily satisfied our addiction to our smartphones in between mouthfuls of grechka. The borsht was hot and chunky, the Internet was working – it was like heaven.

Really good borscht

Really good borscht

The last hotel waypoint I had before Magadan was in a small town called Yagodnoye, which was about 550km from Magadan and 100km from Francis’ turnoff. We resolved to skip Susuman, stop at Yagodnoye and then each make our final stretch to the finish in the morning.

Arriving in Yagodnoye, I navigated to the hotel. It seemed a bit out of the way, and the sign looked awfully fancy. But I could see the word “hotel” there, along with federal-something, so I wandered in looking for a reception. I met two policemen coming the other way, who seemed a little confused to see me. They stopped. I figured it might be best to ask them where the hotel reception was and save some time.

Turns out, not actually a hotel. The building is now used by the federal police services as a base, and I’d wandered in looking like I’d just crawled out of a mud bath. But they were friendly and eager to help; there was no place to stay in town, but an apartment would be arranged and we would be able to keep our bikes in the police garage.

Photo ops with federal police!

Photo ops with federal police!

We went to check out the apartment, unloaded luggage, rode to the police station, and were taken to meet with the friendly, overworked police chief. The whole process was eerily similar to the experiences we had in almost every town on the Ice Run in 2013 – the same script – and my theory then was that it looks good for the police chief to say in his report that he assisted two foreigners stuck for accommodation. Not that I’m going to look down my nose at the treatment I have received from Russian police – over the course of two trips, they have gone out of their way to assist me and the people I have been travelling with every single time, and have always refused payment. I can’t imagine local cops giving tourists free apartments in Australia.

Our apartment building

Our apartment building

The police chief – in between barking orders into his three desk phones and radio – was eager to hear our opinion on the trouble in Ukraine, which I gathered was still a hot news item from the plasma in his office. We both made polite, non-committal responses. After two months in Russia, it’s pretty clear that there’s no easy resolution to the dispute, and it’s certainly not as clear-cut as either western or Russian media presents. 6,500km from Kiev, I’ve met many, many people with immediate family ties to Ukrainians; the country is bound tightly – through the people who live there – both to Russia and to Europe.

A wonderful mosquito-free dinner in our apartment and we turned in for the night. I’d forgotten we’d crossed a timezone and booked us a police pickup at 8am, which was actually 6am by our clocks, meaning a 4am alarm to get everything packed. But we got away early; after all the messing around that comes from leaving from a town rather than a campsite we were on the road by 10:30am. However, we had 550km to go and the last time I attempted a leg that long I plowed headfirst into a pile of gravel at 80km/hr; I was therefore a little unsure about whether I could make it all the way to Magadan. On top of this, the wonderful fine weather we had enjoyed had ended and it was cold and wet. But it was time to finish this stage of our respective trips. I was ready to go.

Five minutes in, my bike felt funny. The surface didn’t look that loose, but it was all over the place. Travelling at the rear again I stopped, hoping Francis would notice and come back, and walked around the bike, hoping hoping hoping it wasn’t a flat tyre. Please, please let it not be a flat in this weather.

It was a flat tyre. It was raining and cold. There was mud everywhere. Clouds of mosquitoes were fighting through the rain. It was a final screw-you from the Kolyma highway.

But, what could I do except fix the problem? I started by unpacking my bike to get at my spare tubes. At this point Francis rocked up; I told him to go on and not miss his ferry. I’d only ever changed a tube once, back in Australia, but hey how hard could it be.

Changing tyres in the mud

Changing tyres in the mud

Francis, the amazing person that he is, insisted on staying and helping – for two hours – in the rain and the mud and the mosquitoes. Drawing on 40 years of offroad experience riding bikes in Algeria and France, he showed me how to rig up a centre stand using my monopod – which I carry everywhere in the faint hope that I will one day use it to take a photo – and we had the rear tyre off quick-as. We swapped out the tube with my spare and I was just inflating it with my tiny bicycle pump when two other bikers rocked up.

Espen and Oskar were from Norway, and were on the final leg of a Norway – Magadan trip over four weeks. Francis did his standard “oh, that thing on the back of my bike is a boat. That’s right, a boat. No, I’m not kidding. Yes, French people are pretty crazy!” routine while I packed my bike, we all swapped details, I said I’d buy them a beer in Magadan that evening and they headed on.





Back on the road again, the rain dried up a bit and it was good to be riding again. A few muddy sections made for some fun riding before the surface firmed up and we stopped at a cafe a few kilometers from Francis’ turn east. Espen and Oskar were just leaving and recommended the piroski, which were excellent. Me and Francis enjoyed a decent hot meal, said a tearful goodbye and headed our separate ways – you can follow his blog here. Once again, I was travelling alone.

Francis heading off for motorbike/boat adventures. Last I heard, he's really, really close to where he needs to be to launch. Getting to the coast sounds like the hardest bit, with washed out roads and infrequent ferries.

Francis heading off for motorbike-boat adventures. Last I heard, he’s in Egvekinot, close to where he needs to be to launch off the Russian coast. Getting to the coast sounds like the hardest bit, with washed out roads and infrequent ferries, but he’s getting there.

But not for long. 5km down the road, two familiar bikes were pulled over behind a truck. Oskar had – of course – gotten himself a flat rear tyre, 400km from the finish of his trip. I pulled over and waited with them, trying not to backseat-tyre-change as the trucker helped out, using his compressor to inflate the tyre in around five seconds. I watched jealously, having just spent ten minutes pumping.

So we travelled as three bikes to Magadan.

As we made our way towards the end of the Kolyma Highway, the road improved but the weather worsened: cold, miserable rain. I was underdressed and freezing cold. We rode through huge gravel mountains, beside rivers still covered with ice; a real moonscape, an inhospitable place. This would have been the first thing people shipped to the gulags would have seen, and coming from Moscow or St Petersberg it must have been like Mars.

Cold, cold cold. So cold. And wet :'(

Cold, cold cold. So cold. And wet :'(

We stopped briefly to check out a old gulag waypoint we had, but the first 500m of the track had five water crossings, and the waypoint was 10km off the highway. So we turned back, now dripping wet. I dropped the bike trying to turn around on the narrow track; stupid mistakes because I was cold. Oskar kindly helped pick it up.

Now that we were wet, the road at 110km/h was even colder. To make matters worse, I didn’t have a screen (you will of course remember I smashed it into a million bits just outside of Yakutsk) so the wind chill was brutal.

About 100km out of Magadan we stopped for a quick break and I dropped the bike again; I forgot to put the footstand down, more stupid mistakes. This wasn’t boding well, but there was nowhere to stop.

The last section of the highway was a frozen hell. The road was fine except for occasional huge dips in the tarmac – testing my excellent suspension, but the wind chill was rough; the air temperature was only eight degrees to start with and it was raining. I shouted “100 bottles of beer on the wall” to myself to stay focused, all the way down to one. Oskar later said he spent most of the time screaming inside his helmet to stay awake.

Finally, finally, we passed the magical Magadan townsite sign. Stopped for photos, shaking uncontrollably, then pushed on to find a hotel. I felt absolutely no recognition of what we had just achieved, I was focused on one thing only: a hot shower and bed.

Magadan! It's hard to tell, but I am trying to smile here but my mouth was sort of frozen

Magadan! I am trying to smile here but my mouth was sort of frozen

After a lot of messing around trying to find the cheapest of the extremely expensive hotels, I ended up in a place for $100/night. I had my shower and was about to sleep when the phone rang – from what I gathered someone was waiting for me in reception. Was it Espen and Oskar ready to head to dinner? They hadn’t called ahead! I grabbed my stuff and headed downstairs.

…to find the lobby filled with guys in leather jackets. The bikers had found me.



The next few days were blissful, sunny, beautiful riding. The Kolyma highway around Kyubeme is incredibly beautiful; sunlit forests, windy mountain roads descending to epic rivers. The road surface is generally great, a comfortable 80km/hour with some switchbacks and only occasional mud; with good weather you can’t get much better for fun riding.



....and me! That's ice on the river behind me, in July.

….and me! That’s ice on the river behind me, in July.

About 100km after meeting up with Francis, we were presented with our first river crossing of the trip! I’d never done a water crossing on a bike before. Or for that matter, in a car. As such I generously let Francis go first.

After we unstuck his KTM from the enormous hole it got jammed in, I had a go. Either because my Suzuki is vastly superior to Francis’ KTM (or perhaps because I went second…) I made it through without any issues. Here’s a video! Yeah boii

With boots filled with icy mountain water, we cruised through stunning scenery. Really, it’s amazing and I didn’t take enough photos, and my bug-splattered GoPro doesn’t do it much justice. The road from Khandyga to Ust-Nera has to be one of the most beautiful motorcycling roads anywhere, and it’s a shame (or perhaps a good thing) that you have to battle through so much rubbish road to get there. The road surface starts off very rubbish just out of Khandyga, with lots of mud, roadworks and really terrible loose surface. Then you get pretty single-track windy mountain road, which is fantastic if you can time it so there’s no other traffic (ie. morning).

After that, you hit the mother of all road construction projects: wonderful wide gravel (90-100km/h) with fancy bridges on the completed sections, followed by the ongoing roadworks and a slightly terrifying descent on switchbacks down through a stunning river valley. They’re building a huge bridge, so the road you drive on is temporary – one vehicle wide with precipitous drops off the side. And oncoming construction traffic.

At one point, a bulldozer dumped several tonnes of soft sand in front of me, which was nice. Evidently I looked like I needed more of a challenge. And so it is with roadworks in Russia: there’s no sense of continuity of service of the road. The construction workers are fixing things, you should be grateful, and you’re expected to make your way around them however you can.

In any case, in 2015 this will be a beautiful, beautiful stretch of road (probably to the detriment of the river valley, but this is Russia). The stretch of road is the most remote part of the highway, and so the scenery is stunning, untouched wilderness.

We made it to Kyubeme around 5pm, our target for the night. It’s really just a truckstop with three or four demountable buildings and some fuel pumps in the middle of absolute nowhere. There was a young kid, perhaps six or seven helping out with the cafe, and I couldn’t imagine growing up in a place like that. There is nothing at all for 300km in one direction and 250 in the other. Your life is a few tin sheds. And (apparently) One Direction DVDs on the TV.

A cat manned the fuel station as we filled up.

Fuel station office covered with bike expedition stickers...

Fuel station office covered with bike expedition stickers…

"How cat I help you?"

[Russian accent] “How cat I help you?”

Kyubeme fuel stop

Kyubeme fuel stop

We found a fairly nice campsite nearby, and enjoyed a beer with about six million mosquitoes. I’d read about this and had brought some serious 80% DEET repellent from Australia which held them off for about 10 minutes, but also dissolves some plastics. So, you got to choose: toxic chemicals or malaria. It’s got some sunscreen in it so you won’t get sunburnt, which is nice to know as your skin slowly dissolves.

Testing Francis' flare gun, for bears. You know, just in case...

Testing Francis’ flare gun, for bears. You know, just in case…

The next day was more of the same: great roads, great weather, great scenery. The roads were hard packed gravel and dry clay, with only occasional trucks to overtake with their dust plumes, and we made good time at 80km/h.

Pretty scenery

Pretty scenery

Grabbed some Chinese for lunch in Ust-Nera, a bit of a one-horse-plus-a-chinese-restaurant sort of town, and then it was back to the wilderness after filling up for the 410km stretch ahead. I’m not entirely sure if the restaurant didn’t make us both quite sick, so I’m not going to give it my recommendation (whatever that’s worth ;)

Photo ops outside the restaurant

Photo ops outside the restaurant

Having hit the northernmost point at Ust-Nera, the road turned southeast and changed from the rocky hills to epic marshland, as far as the eye could see: Siberia. This did make it a little tricky to find a campsite on account of everywhere being a pretty, mosquito-filled, bear-filled swamp. We stopped briefly in a middle-of-nowhere town called Artik to ask for a place to stay – nothing – so we persevered and ended up camped next to a small lake. Lake is probably generous, it was a swamp, and a polluted one at that; someone had dumped an old oil drum in there which was doing its bit to slowly destroy the unspoiled environment. Francis dived into the tent to hide from the mosquitoes; I tried to spend a few minutes enjoying the scenery with the DEET but ended up following soon after.



Scenery + oil drum :(

Scenery + oil drum :(