The problem with riding with a motorbike is that it’s like taking care of a small child: you get mobility, but with it comes the responsibility of ensuring you don’t break down in the middle of the Siberian wilderness, wolves nipping at your heels. It is a ridiculous amount of fun, which is of course why we do this.
I left off at my campsite, just outside of Khabarovsk. After carefully shaking all the spiders and some of the mud out of my tent, I gave the bike a quick check over to make sure nothing was obviously wrong. There was a bit of oil on the crankcase: it looked like the gasket was leaking. I knew it needed an oil change, so I figured Khabarovsk was the place to find a new gasket, and if that fell through I could always glue the whole thing back together with some gasket sealant I carry. I was a bit disappointed, though – four days in and this happens? If these pothole-filled monstrosities were the good roads, what were the bad roads going to be like?
It was thankfully slightly drier coming in to Khabarovsk, ie. occasional miserable drizzle rather than torrential downpour. I found a Chinese themed cafe (of all things) in the city centre to plan my next move, and sat near the door drinking coffee as the proprietor threw her hands in the air at my incredibly muddy clothes and boots. Of course, it was still holiday season in Russia and so cheap hostels were hard to come by, but after a bit of digging I got a reservation at the lovely Hostel Khabarovsk.
Next stop was some waypoints, courtesy of Walter Colebatch’s waypoint database – “Roman the helpful biker” and the “Iron Tigers bike club”. Unfortunately, Roman was away for the holiday, and the Iron Tigers club was now a large construction site. It possibly would have been intelligent to call ahead. I figured I’d go home and try to squirt gasket sealant places it probably shouldn’t go, wincing slightly that I was bodging repairs this early in the trip.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at an Avtomagazine (car shop) to grab some oil for the change. The lady said they had motorbike oil! She proudly held up a bottle of two-stroke lawnmower oil of dubious providence. I explained that my bike was four stroke, and I needed 10W-40, pointing at the hundreds of applicable bottles just out of my reach behind the counter. “No,” she said, “you don’t understand. Those are for cars. You need to use the lawnmower oil”. It was raining, I was tired, I felt sick and I just wanted to get back and have some dinner. I revised the first three things that came into my head and asked if I could just look at one of the bottles behind the counter, just for a moment. I pointed at my bike outside, in the rain. “It’s a big bike, not a scooter” I said. “I need car oil.” The bottles of beautiful 10W-40 were right in front of me. “No you don’t, you need two-stroke lawnmower oil!” she said. Impasse. I waited. She gave me the bottle, and went off to glare at me from her chair in the corner. Winning.
Pulling the bike apart in the rain anyway to see what I could do about the gasket, I found it wasn’t the gasket at all. Worse, it was the high pressure aluminium oil pipe from the cylinder head to the crankcase: the previous owner had installed a Fully Sick(tm) exhaust, which I hadn’t bothered removing because it worked ok. This had been rubbing on the pipe, and after about 10,000km had chosen Friday to wear a small hole. There was about a drop of oil every few seconds with the engine running.
The next morning I did my best to patch it up with some metal putty in the rain; I didn’t really want to hang around for another two days until everyone in town finished partying, and however long after that to get a replacement part shipped in.
As I was putting the bike back together and getting ready to leave, a dude having a smoke outside the nearby apartment building wandered over and asked if he could help. His name was Pavel, and he was a computer science student in his final year at the local university.
We talked, bonding over the universal uselessness of university CS departments. One drink led to another, and we ended up back in his apartment having lunch with his amazing mother, a doctor. It being early afternoon, they then both decided that they needed to give me a tour of Khabarovsk, so we set off in their car, Pavel’s mother pointing out all the sights.
Khabarovsk is a beautiful city, less industrial than Vladivostok, but it rains a lot. And by a lot, I mean every day. My plan to leave on Monday was scuppered when it started bucketing down – my gear had just dried out, no way was I getting it all wet again – and to top it all off I got really sick. I lay in bed in the hostel, hoping I would be well enough to ride the next day.
Tuesday dawned dry, if not sunny, and I was feeling a lot better. I ran the bike for a few minutes, and no oil leaks. It was a sign. I loaded things up and powered west.
As I got inland, the weather improved. On top of this, the road was fantastic – wide open highway, perfect asphalt. After the 800km nightmare of roadworks, potholes and mud from Vladivostok, this was an unexpected surprise. I waited for the first roadworks sign, or even a small pothole, but nothing. The road was straight, flat and wide. Boring, even. I opened up the throttle and started to enjoy myself.
My goal for the day was a town called Biribirjan, about 180km from Khabarovsk. After the road from Vladivostok, I set a deliberately low goal, expecting to barely make it before dark. Instead I powered through 150km in a comfortable two hours.
Stopping for fuel and a photo with a road sign, I noticed my usually reluctant footstand shot down with smooth, well-oiled ease. I looked down. Oil. Oil everywhere: splattered over my boots, engine, brakes, rear tyre. I checked the level and the bike was dry: 2.5L of oil dumped on to the road in 150km. Oh boy.
Turns out, my repair hadn’t held, and poking at the pipe had in fact made the problem worse. I bought some more oil from the servo, filled the bike and kept some in reserve, and figured I’d stop in a hotel in Biribijan, now 30km down the road.
I headed off. As I was riding, I looked down and could see rivers of oil running down the side of the bike. After 10km, the rivers stopped: no more oil. 2.5L on the road in 10km. Now we had a problem.
I filled the bike with all the oil I had, the secret reserve, everything, and just made it back to the servo, keeping the revs low and praying the engine wouldn’t seize. Asking the attendant, there was apparently a crappy hotel about 24km away, with the town 35km. A bit of arithmatic and I bought eight litres of oil, strapped most of it to my bike and headed in, stopping every 10km to refill the bike.
At the servo I had chatted to a guy my age, Vitali, who had a 250cc bike at home. Before he left he gave me his number, recommended a good guesthouse in town and said if I ran into trouble to call him. I made it into town and drove around looking for this guesthouse, clouds of smoke rising from the engine as oil spray hit the exhaust manifold. The car behind me kept following and tooting. I silently cursed overly-helpful Russians: I was very aware my bike was on fire, thankyou, and stopping for a chat was not going to improve the situation.
I pulled over to ask for directions and the car followed and stopped. Turns out it was Vitali who had spotted me some time back and was trying to lead me to the guesthouse. I felt a bit guilty. We drove around the corner, found the guesthouse, and I paid probably too much money for an enormous room. I didn’t care; I had a secure, dry base to work from.
In classic Russian fashion, Vitali smoothed things over with the lady on reception, shook hands and left, not leaving so much as an email address for me to say thanks. Vitali, if you’re reading this, thankyou. You have no idea.
This time, I repaired things properly. Everything came off the bike. The exhaust manifold get belted with my big hammer. The oil pipe got repaired properly with metal putty and left overnight. I went for a walk around town, took a few photos, bought some beer and food and crashed.