The hotel in Serebryany was a bit of a dive, but cheap. I don’t mind that the walls and floor don’t line up when I stay somewhere, but I do mind getting regular enquiries as to how much my bike is worth. A quick breakfast of fruit and bread and I was back on the road.
My goal for the day was Aldan, 261km due north of Serebryany. By now I was getting the feel of typical Lena Highway: good road for 50-100km, roadworks for 20, then back to the goodish road again. I took it pretty slow, stopping for brunch (rissole and potato) and some pics at an abandoned building; these are everywhere along the highway in Russia.
Arriving in Aldan in the early afternoon, I found some pricey digs with a secure garage and chilled out. Aldan was a nice place, pretty in a ghetto-Russian-regional-town kind of way. I took a few photos, worked on the bike, and got everything ready to leave first thing the next morning.
From the road signs coming in to Aldan, Yakutsk (the end of the Lena highway and the start of the Kolmya) was only 550km away. It seemed like too much of a chance to pass up: I could be in Yakutsk a day early, have a full day to be a tourist rather than riding all the time and catch up on some sleep before hitting the reportedly harder Kolmya Highway to Magadan. I resolved to try; 550km would be a hard slog if the roads were bad. But if they were good, it’d be a relatively straightforward six hours.
The next morning saw me away at a new personal best of 8am, more because I woke up early than due to any real improvement in my packing time. By 11 I had covered 250km on reasonable tarmac and excellent gravel, and I was feeling pretty good about making it to Yakutsk at a reasonable hour. All I had to do was keep my speed up.
Then the roadworks started. The Lena Highway before Yakutsk must be one of the largest road construction projects in the world; not only does it extend for 100km of continuous work, there are hundreds of bright orange trucks running up and down the road carting dirt for the excavators. I kept waiting for the construction to stop but it just kept on going and going and going.
By 4pm I was tired and hungry. Every time I came up behind a truck doing 40km/h, I would sit in the huge plume of dust and wait for a moment to overtake, completely unable to see oncoming traffic. The dust was everywhere: turning my visor opaque, in my eyes, in my mouth and nose, all over my clothes and gear. By that point, I had been riding for eight hours.
I passed a cafe and almost stopped to rest, drink coffee, and get some of the dust out of my helmet but Yakutsk was only 30km away: I’d made it more than 500km and there was only a little bit to go. Surely, surely there would be some bitumen near the town. Instead the road changed to patches of soft sand, which is even harder to ride on than rocks. There were a few sketchy moments but I managed to keep on moving.
Passing yet another construction vehicle, I came up behind a second dust plume. Figuring it was a truck I sped up to overtake it, but I couldn’t make out the vehicle. Was it even a truck? It was going pretty quick! Pulling to the left to try and get some clear air I hit a patch of sand unprepared and the bike started slewing from side to side; I tried to hold it but it was too far gone before I was able to react and I went down, ploughing into the gravel by the side of the road. Separated from my bike, all I could think was to get away from the traffic so I wouldn’t get hit by the truck I just overtook.
I looked back at my bike. Wrong way up: both mirrors smashed, screen smashed, rear wheel slowly spinning as the engine idled. I was ok: my safety gear had absorbed all of the impact, except for a couple of small scratches where gravel had gotten through the gap between my gloves and my sleeve. But if I had destroyed my bike, this was the end of the trip. I couldn’t believe what I’d just gone and done.
Two kind passersby stopped and helped me pick up the bike, and I rode slowly into town. Sitting in a cafe, watching my bike through the window, all the other options played through my head. I could have stopped at any point; with almost 24-hour daylight and a tent, there was no rush. Instead I had been gripped by this singleminded desire to reach the absurd target I had set for myself that morning with no prior knowledge of the road conditions. My hindbrain pointed out I had actually achieved what I set out to do, despite the obstacles, but was overruled in favour of about half an hour of abject self-loathing.
Eventually I ran out of misery, piroshki and coffee and figured it was time to make it into Yakutsk proper. Of course, I’d completely forgotten that Yakutsk is inaccessible by road from the east, so there’s a free* ferry which takes cars across. It was a good chance to stop, relax and review in the fresh air and scenery.
I met some great people on the 45 minute ferry ride, and it was nice to talk. One of them gave me the address of a Japanese car parts place in town, so I headed there Wednesday to enquire about replacement mirrors. I was eventually directed to a cheap Ural motorbike parts shop by a friendly Yamaha dealer, and picked up some classy new bling for my bike for about $10. The old mirrors started at me accusingly from the bin I dumped them in outside the shop.
Arriving back at the guesthouse I’d found, I was talking to the manageresses when one of the other guests asked me (via Google Translate) if I wanted to come “target shooting”. Google Translate is a little sketchy at the best of times, and that could have meant anything, so I said sure and hoped for the best.
Turns out Slavik was a police officer, in town for a competition – shooting, driving, fitness etc. He was inviting me down to watch him train. And so I ended up being snuck into the police station shooting range, told not to say anything so people would think I was Russian. In one of my more off the wall travel experiences, I chatted to the senior officer supervising the shooting while the others practiced, and then we went and threw the police practice Lada around the advanced driving course for a few hours.
Slavik is a fantastic guy, and ended up taking out the competition. It seemed to me that he might be pretty good at what he does.
*I say free, as in I didn’t pay anything. But speaking to a couple of guys on the ferry back, everyone else was paying decent money for the trip. So either motorbikes are free, or I’ll never be able to use that ferry again ;)