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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.