With 80km to the ferry, I needed to average 40km/hour to make it on time. How ferries linking major highways in Russia can operate only at 9am I don’t know, but according to the cafe staff, this was what I had to work with. One of the road workers in the cafe the previous night had said that the road surface improved a few kms on – with more gravel in the mix making it more resilient to water – and after negotiating some muddy ruts this turned to be the case. I cautiously increased speed to a blistering 50km/hour.
I stopped for a break after an hour or so, and the weather had fined up nicely: occasional sunshine, no rain. Because I’d left early, I had the road to myself, and it was really nice to be moving again after the miserable weather the previous afternoon.
I made it to the ferry launching point around 8:30am, just some ramps made by bulldozer from a muddy clearing down to the riverbank. There weren’t many people around – a few trucks parked, one deserted ferry and a couple of cargo barges docked on the river banks.
9am came and went. No-one seemed to be doing much. Eventually another ferry loaded with cars came sailing down the river, docked, and disgorged its cargo; the cars and trucks struggling up the muddy riverbank to the road. The truckers made no move to board this new ferry, so I wandered over to one pair – an older Russian guy and a younger dude from Algeria called Avetis. My attempts to ask Russian-dude when the ferry left just resulted in confusing Russian and an offer of breakfast: hardboiled eggs and bread, which I gathered should be the staple of any self-respecting trucker’s diet. Avetis watched us disdainfully; eggs were apparently not his thing.
We passed some time with mutually unintelligible conversation, before suddenly everyone fired up their trucks and moved about 100m down a muddy track to one of the cargo barges. This was apparently in service as a ferry, and so three trucks and one motorbike made their way down the muddy slope and on to the deck. At this point, one of the more enthusiastic trucks got well and truly stuck in the mud and was unable to be extricated by the local bulldozer-on-duty. Noone got particularly upset; mud was a fact of life. The ferry would leave when everyone was unstuck and on board.
So we waited for a second bulldozer; I took a few photos, Avetis tried his hand at fishing off the ferry and we exercised my limited smalltalk-Russian. He caught a couple of fish which would probably be well-and-truly-undersized in Australia, but which were pronounced “perch” by Russian-dude. I had no idea, I don’t do fish.
Around 2pm everyone was unstuck and on board and the ferry left. I snoozed on the deck in the sun next to my bike (which was a mistake, I got terribly sunburnt). It was a really lovely day.
200rub for the ferry trip, and about 40km of decent road later I was in Khandyga in the mid afternoon. I headed to a guesthouse waypoint I had and was confronted by an apartment building entrance with a sign in Russian listing five apartments. The first had three phone numbers against it and what seemed to be a word like “homestay”, so I gulped and gave them a call, managing to navigate my way through my first phone conversation in Russian. Winning! The two-room place was extremely comfortable, modern, and was run by a young couple. For 200rub on top of the 1300rub room charge, they said enthusiastically, they would buy and cook me dinner. I figured 200rub was less than I would spend at the shops anyway, so I said-sure-and-hoped-for-the-best.
The result was one of the best meals I’ve had in Russia. Tania’s mother was from the Republic of Tatarstan and so Tania cooked two traditional dishes: the first similar to an Australian quiche but better (lighter egg base, and more meat) and the second a kind of stew with veal, vegetables and dumplings made from rolled pastry. It was ridiculously, ridiculously good. I made a mental note to stay here again on the trip back.
The next morning I headed off early after signing the guestbook. There was one other biker expedition in the book – www.sibir2012.com, who apparently also enjoyed the food. I was on a well-travelled path.
The road surface after Khandyga improved nicely to a kind of hard rocky mix with small potholes and occasional loose gravel. I powered along in the sunshine at about 70. The word from the blogs I had read was that there was very limited food and fuel between Khandyga and Kyubeme, about 350km up the highway, so I had all my fuel bladders filled and my jacket loaded up with snacks to make sure I could cover the distance.
Sure enough, the occasional towns every 30-40km I had gotten used to as suppliers of piroshki, fuel and coffee thinned out until there was just sunlit forest, presumably containing plenty of bears. This part of the highway was only constructed 10 years prior, to cut out the terrible stretch of highway via Tomtor which is now the Ewan-McGregor-defeating Old Summer Road. It was really nice to be riding again after mud and ferries, the road was windy and beautiful, and I was having a lot of fun.
On a mid-afternoon stop for snacks, I was idly watching cars pull around the corner towards me when another bike pulled up. It was any farm-bike either – from the luggage on the back, this was another long-distance rider who must have been all of an hour or so behind me for the last few days. I ride comfortable, short days when I’m being sensible, so he’d finally caught me up.
His name was Francis, and he had ridden all the way from near Grenoble, France over the last four weeks. He had a lot of luggage (less than Kims Cook, who set new records for improbably-laden motorbikes, but still). I casually remarked on this. “Oh, that’s a boat,” he said. “I’m turning east about 400km north of Magadan, and from there making my way to the coast. Then, I’ll inflate the boat, ride my bike on, and motor the 80km across the Bering Straight to Alaska.”
There was a pause.
“The main problem is that I need to get my passport stamped in a port, and the nearest is 350km south of the crossing. After that I’m not allowed to touch the Russian coast, because I’ve left the country, so I’m not sure how that will work because I won’t have enough fuel. But I will see what happens: if it doesn’t work, I go home!”.
The biggest problem in RIDING A MOTORBIKE ACROSS THE BERING STRAIGHT was getting the right stamp in his passport. I was lost for words.
Before I could come up with a coherent response, Francis pointed out that he’d just passed four trucks, so perhaps we should get moving before they caught us up. I agreed, and spent the next 50km laughing to myself in my helmet. It blows me away that there are people in this world that do things like this, and makes me so happy to be alive.