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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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…