Day 81 Chita to Khabarovsk part 3

13 Aug


The mossies show no sympathy for my plight as I try to make repairs. I use a spanner to splint one of the broken frame spars, lashing it together with cable ties. I use a tie down strap to support the pannier rail, but as I tighten it I notice a crack in the rail, which I’ve probably just made worse. This isn’t going to last long. I contemplate fashioning a harness from burst inner tubes and bungies to support the frame with my shoulders, but decide it’s not quite that bad yet. I go through all my kit, ditching anything I don’t absolutely need, to minimise weight. Pasta sauce? Goodbye.


Then back on the road. It’s raining, hard, again, but inside my cocoon I’m warm and dry. The road is stunning in the early morning mist, reminding me of the Eiffel region near the Nurburgring, and the tarmac is as good as German tarmac too. I stop for a photo but park on a slight slope and when I get back on I lean just a little to far and over it goes. Idiot! You’ve probably just finished that broken frame off for good, just getting on the bike! Stupid! I take a look and it seems no worse. Now I have to pick it up. It’s almost upside down on a slope, the bars low, the wheels in the air. I summon all my strength, and some anger, but I can barely get the wheels back on the ground. I wait, and think. There’s hardly any traffic, it’s early, I’m miles from anywhere. Then a truck appears and I wave it to stop. It sails past, but then slows, and backs up. Two men jump out, and it takes all 3 of us to lift the bike. I get the usual “where are you from”, but it doesn’t seem to impress these guys. They do this road all the time.


I anxiously wonder how long the smooth tarmac will last before it turns to dirt again. On this smooth tarmac I think things will hold together, but on the rough it won’t. In blind hope I ride on. Eventually I find a cafe and it’s a pretty decent one. There was nothing yesterday, and I survived on Snickers bars, so with relief and gusto I tuck into a couple of sausages wrapped in doughnut (really), two cups of steaming hot coffee, and a chicken leg. Superb!


A little drier, a little warmer, a little fatter (seriously, sausages wrapped in doughnut: Is it any wonder the life expectancy of a Russian male is only 50 something?), I head off into the rain. Which quickly turns to sunshine. Bright, warm sunshine like I haven’t seen in days. I’m racing for Khabarovsk, believing it’s my best chance of making repairs. Trying to control my speed, knowing that going fast will mean hitting more bumps, bigger impacts. Going fast to get somewhere I can get repairs will be like going fast to get to a petrol station before you run out, or like eating fast so you can finish before you lose your appetite. But it’s hard not to let the speed creep up. I’m in my own tarmac playground, there’s no-one else here, it’s all mine.


Flying. The miles tick by, watching the kilometre marker posts and mentally converting. More crash sites, evidence of an impact that will have cost some young Russian his life, transporting a Japanese car from Vlad. This road is hard, even in warm sun. It should have it’s own program on channel 5 in the style of “ice road truckers”, and I’m starting to compare the hard ride I’ve had for the last few days to the epic survival stories on Ray Mears’ program. Then the tarmac runs out again. I’m acutely aware that every mile on the rough dirt is delaying my arrival in Khabarovsk, every bump reducing my chances of getting there at all. I proceed very, very carefully. Periodically I stop and check things over. Hanging in there, just, cable tie stretching but holding. I pass more road workers, and instead of a wave this time I get a fist raised triumphantly. They know. They know where we are. They know where this road goes, where it comes from, what I’m doing. They know. Yeah. Yeah! Khabarovsk! Just 200 miles now. I’m nearly there! If I can just make it to the big K I’ll be alright. One big problem to solve then on to Vladivostok. Lord of the east. The end of the line. So close. So close! Please don’t break! Please don’t burst! Just 200 miles! So close!


It’s been hard, really really hard, the hardest part of the trip. The weather, the environment, the remoteness, the solitude, the lack of facilities, the mechanical problems and the sheer distance. I have enormous respect for the people that crossed this way before the road was here. It’s almost impossible to believe they did it. It’s almost impossible to believe I will now.

Once again I’m alongside the Trans-Siberian railroad, a passenger train this time. I see that the road ahead turns left and crosses the tracks over a bridge, and I allow myself to risk blowing my dodgy innertube by going flat out, racing for the bridge. I tuck behind the screen and try to watch both road and train at the same time as I pick up speed and turn for the bridge. Too late, the train wins and I crest the bridge as the second carriage passes under. I can see people hanging out of windows, but it’s too far to tell if they’re watching, if they can tell I’m not a local. It’s getting dark and my speed is creeping up. I force myself to slow down, and roll into town in the dark, spend an age looking for a hotel as the rain comes down, and eventually find one with the help of a local who approaches and asks if he can help, once again demonstrating that riding sound the world on your own makes you dependent on the kindness of total strangers.


At long last I settle down with a cold can of Asahi, 2 hours later than I thought because I’ve gone so far east so quickly that I’ve crossed two time zones without realising. 1800 miles across Siberia in three and a half days through torrential rain on a bike held together by the strength of a plastic cable tie. Epic.

Day 80 Chita to Khabarovsk part 2

13 Aug


I wake up to clear skies and have to put full bike gear on before leaving tent as there is still a maelstrom of mosquitos. I inspect the broken frame but there’s nothing I can do. In a futile gesture I use my two spare bungies to support it. I don’t know what’s going to give way first, the inner tube or the frame. Either will cause great difficulty. I wish I’d seen it at Ura’s place. I bet he had welding gear, and I am sure he would have fixed it for me. I get on the road hoping to find a town with a welder. I don’t even find a town!

Until now the road has been stretches of dirt and stretches of tarmac. It seemed odd to build in patches, until I realised that they’re working outwards from numerous quarries along the route. Today the road becomes dirt, and this time it stays that way, for hundreds of miles. I try hard to pick a line through the potholes, but it’s impossible to see and avoid then all. Each one I hit has me fearing the collapse of bike or tyre, but it holds. The road is incredible, it just goes on and on and there’s nothing here. Imagine the A1 as a dirt road from London to Edinburgh, with nothing inbetween, then imagine it 5 times the length.


I realise that I’m humming the song Paulina was playing on her guitar. I don’t know the words, but it’s got a good beat! All I see all day are truckers, transporters and lots of road workers. The workers mostly wave as I pass, especially the younger ones. It’s a harsh place to ride but it must be bloody awful to work out here. I wonder if they realise how much fun I’m having on the road they worked so hard on? It really is an impressive achievement, even in it’s current state. I pass several recently wrecked trucks and signs of several more accidents. It’s not a place you want to have a crash, being so far from anywhere. Mongolia was vast, but this road is epic. It’s just one road and it goes forever.


I’m glad of a respite from the rain, and cruising along I make good time. When this road is finished it will be amazing in a fast car. I bet there will be illegal races along it, like the cannonball run. Still no towns and now I’m sure my best chance is to dash to Khabarovsk for repairs, and just hope everything holds together that far. It’s a very long way. I’m now humming the tune from Smokey and the Bandit (“We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there”). It starts to get dark and I decide to camp, but then I hit a rain storm and decide I should ride through it.


A few minutes later I’m thinking I made a big mistake. It’s very dark, the rain is hammering down, I can’t see my own hands never mind the potholes, gravel, and mud. I’m either going to crash, run off the road, or destroy what’s left of the bike on one of the unseen holes. It gets desperate, I’m really struggling and have slowed to a crawl. The skies look black, this isn’t going to stop soon. I just know I’m going to get a puncture any minute now. It always seems be at the worst moment, and this would be about as bad as it gets. Shit, what do I do? Keep going? Turn back? There’s no sense in going back, I’ll have to ride out of it. Fingers crossed, breath held, every bump in the road making my heart stop until I’m sure the back of the bike isn’t falling off. Now there’s lightning, thunder. Close by, very close. The rain is beating down hard, stinging my face as I have to keep my tinted visor open to see at all. I’m worried now, really worried. Another bump, a big one, I didn’t see anything. A surge of adrenalin as I wait for the bike to disintegrate, but it doesn’t and now the road is smooth, I’m back on tarmac. Beautiful, smooth, new tarmac. I open the throttle and at 60 instead of 10 it takes another 15 minutes and I’m out of the rain. I put the tent up, crawl out of muddy wet boots and trousers, and sleep, despite the noise of rain and thunder that’s so close it’s almost simultaneous with the lightning and sounds like someone is fring a machine gun inside the tent.

Day 79 Chita to Khabarovsk part 1

13 Aug


I wake at 4 when the cockadoodles start doing. They do all day long, from daybreak till nightfall, as far as I can tell.

Breakfast is black tea and fried eggs with bread, sausage, cheese, etc etc. Natalya is putting on great spreads and I suspect a lot of it is for my benefit. I have my photo taken at the wheel of Ura’s Kamaz, which is great after seeing so many of these big Russian, go-anywhere, do-anything trucks. Then we all pile into the car and head into town.

Ura spends two hours driving all over town trying all manner of bike and car places to find an inner tube or a tube repairer, with each place resulting in “Nyet”. The man is really going out of his way to help me, and I find it quite extraordinary. There is no reason for him to do any of this, but here he is, trekking all over the shop just to help out some English biker he found at the roadside in pouring rain. Finally, at Chita Moto they have a couple of 18 inch tubes for who knows what sort of bike, and I think there’s a chance one will work, at least for a while.



Back in the garage I install the new tube, with lots of help from Ura. It’s a huge relief to see the wheel re-inflate and stay up. While I’mm re-fitting the wheel, Ura and Sergei repair the tube I took out. I don’t notice them doing it, until they hand me an immaculately repaired tube when I finish with the wheel. I’m feeling reasonable hopeful about being able to cover some distance before running into more tube trouble.



Next is lunch, another fine spread laid on by Natalya. I have a bowl of dumplings, a cup of tea, and even though I’m stuffed, Natalya insists on giving me a bag of food to take with me.



We spend a while doing another computer-based Q&A, before I offer my gratitude and explain that I must get back on the road. I give them the bottle of wine from my pannier as a thank you, we do a few photos, and then I’m off.

Relieved to be back on the road with a working tyre, amazed at the experience I’ve just had, and feeling like I’ll miss them. I really feel like I’ve had a taste of normal Russian life, and apart from small details, it’s much the same as family life back home. Ura and his family made me feel like part of their family, for no reason other than genuine kindness, to a total stranger, and it was incredible.

I refuel and head back onto the M55. Before long I see a road sign and I have to stop for a photo. It says, “Khabarovsk 2055”.

Yep, 2055 km to the next town of any decent size. Two thousand and fifty five. This really is long distance motoring, and it’s quite special to be heading for somewhere as unusual and far away from home as Vladivosotok, knowing that’s the only reason to be on this road.

I hit the first few stretches of unfinished road, and they’re not too bad. Slippery, muddy, wet, full of potholes, but much easier than I feared. And shorter. The road is much more complete than I expected (the worst may be yet to come), and I’m quite please to be doing it at least just before it’s finished. It must have been much more of an adventure for those who came this way years ago, but I’m still enjoying it. It certainly feels adventurous to be so far from anywhere on a road only used by the transporters and truck drivers.

I follow a track off the road to find a camping spot, and there’s a place that will do fine. I’m immediately surrounded by mosquitoes, thousands of them. People weren’t kidding when they talked about this. I keep full bike gear on while I erect the tent.

As I unpack the bike I notice something that explains why it’s been feeling a bit wobbly today. The entire rear sub-frame has snapped off, and is only still there because of the bracing afforded by the pannier rails, and the fact that the pillion grab handles are attached by two bolts, one either side of the break. It’s all very loose and wobbly, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do. It will have to be welded. There’s nowhere I can brace it or strap it up, and it’s hard to do anything when surrounded by mossies like this.

I tighten the pannier rail mounting bolts and hope it will hold. I wonder if yesterday’s impact had anything to do with it, but I suspect the damage was done crossing Mongolia, with two spare road tyres strapped on the back that I should have just ditched but didn’t.

Knowing I can’t do anything, I make pasta and retire to the tent where I can finally get out my bike gear. All I can hear is the buzz of mosquitoes and the occasional whoosh of a transporter passing by on the road. I try to decide whether I should get the welding done ASAP, or just leave it till Vlad or beyond. I should know by now that you don’t get to decide these things, something will happen to decide it for me. I just hope that something turns out to be stumbling across a pristine welding workshop in the next town, not the back end of the bike falling off on the next bump I hit.

Day 78 Ulan Ude to Chita

13 Aug

Wow. This post could be as long as today’s ride! Let’s start with a picture of the delicious Maria at the Baikal Plaza hotel. Do you need any other reason to stay there?!


When I enter the restaurant for breakfast I discover about 50 Chinese who have stripped the buffet bare. They haven’t eaten it, it’s just all on their tables instead of the serving bowls, and it’s mostly untouched. Every time the waitress appears with a new plate of sausage or yoghurt or rice or weird white stuff or weird yellow stuff, it vanishes within seconds, redistributed across the room. Every yoghurt has a spoonful taken, the rest left. Every sausage a bite taken, the rest left. Every glass of juice a sip taken, the rest left. I make a cup of coffee, probably horrify the Chinese by drinking it all, and leave. I pack, checkout, and I’m gone.

Two minutes later I’m back, in a little bit of a panic as I can’t find the bullet cam recorder. Without it I won’t be able to finish my round the world video, and it has a week’s worth of footage on the memory card. I check the room I was in and no joy. Even though I’m getting anxious I’m still delighted by Maria’s anime-cute facial expressions as she tries to remember English words. Eventually I give up hope, but before heading off I check my pockets again. And there it is, in a pocket I just checked 5 times. With huge relief, I head off into the rain.

The road is easy to find since the Russians do road signs quite well and I have satnav back-up. It’s not easy to ride, being slick with rain and diesel and my bike is wearing dirt tyres, so I’m going relatively slowly. Not slowly enough. I look up from the satnav to see a cop in the road waving me to pull over, which I do, and he comes over. I smile, he gestures to the car. I offer my hand to shake, he says “Dokumenti”, sternly. In the back seat of the Police Lada I remove my wet helmet and gloves and place them carelessly on his pristine green hat which is lying next to me. He doesn’t seem to notice.

I hand over my documents, enormously glad that I went to the trouble of getting my lack of insurance resolved. He points at a video screen on the dashboard, which is showing a pretty decent photo of me riding towards the camera, and in the bottom corner it says “85kph” in bold red. I realise I have absolutely no idea what the speed limit is, and as he points at the speed readout and says what sounds like “big, big”, I wonder how expensive this will be.

Suddenly, he hands back my documents and says “Goodbye”.


“Yes, goodbye.”

I think I’m getting away with it. “May I take a photo?”, I enquire. “Nyet! Goodbye!”, in a voice that very clearly means get the hell out of my car before I change my mind and throw you in the gulag. I leg it, feeling relieved yet again.


A while later I meet a biker coming the other way. We stop and exchange info on the state of the road where we’ve just come from. You know you’re a long way from home when you meet a Korean who left his home just 10 days ago. I later discover that Jun has already met several other British bikers and HUBBers in the past few days, including Colebatch and Kennichi, and had a crash very early on during his first experience on gravel. From the huge grin on his face, even in pouring rain with several hundred miles still to UU (Ulan Ude), it obviously hadn’t bothered him and he seemed to be having the time of his life.


It’s a pretty wet day, and cold. I stop for lunch at a roadside cafe. I have a cornish pasty kind of thing and a coffee. It’s pretty good so I have another, and this time take a photo of it so I can ask for the same sort of thing in the next place. The cafe is occupied by transporters and truck drivers. Transporters are the (mostly) young men who are paid to drive imported Japanese cars from the port at Vladivostok through to other parts of Russia, and they’re pretty much the only traffic I’ve seen all day, all heading the other way. Seeing their cars reassures me that even with all this rain it must be possible to get through the unfinished sections of road. I seem to be drawing their attention, either because I look so obviously different or because I smell like wet dog and my clothes have dripped a substantial pool of rain water on the floor beneath me. I’m dry underneath, but the outer layers have soaked up their own weight in water.

Back on the road, I crest a hill and the sun comes out. I round a corner and suddenly I’m racing a goods train full of coal along the Trans-Siberian railway. Round another corner there’s a village. Some young lads spot me and race across the field to the roadside, where they wave and cheer excitedly as I pass, waving back. I try to toot the horn, but it must be waterlogged like everything else. A little further on, a soldier on a Russian bike and sidecar does a pretty good impression of the nonchalant gallic biker wave, and I realise I have a grin on my face and I’m loving every second. When I pass a sign saying there’s still 408km to Chita I actually find myself thinking “Brilliant! Only 408km!”. It seems great!

Suddenly the tarmac disappears. There’s a massive hole in the road, a stretch about 6 feet long where the tarmac is just not there. Instead there’s just a hole, full of other smaller holes. It’s too late, I’m right on top of it. Both wheels part company with tarmac. 10mph faster and I may have cleared it. Instead, there’s a thump that nearly breaks my wrists as I smack into the opposite side, followed by a bounce that kicks me out of my seat. Returning to earth, suspension and spine compress to the stops with a grinding squeak. As it rebounds again, everything goes loose and wobbly. Steering, teeth, vision. For a moment I fear disaster, but then it all straightens out and I’m still upright. I assess damage. Still going. Feels OK. Looks OK. Everything still here. The left wing mirror is pointing at the ground, the right one at the sky, and it feels like my nuts are doing something similar, but apart from that I think I got away with it. I admonish myself for not paying attention, and vow to concentrate on the road instead of composing this blog post in my head.

It’s raining so hard I decide the only option is to keep going to Chita, a ride of over 400 miles for the day. I’m a mile from the city, I can see it on the other side of a roundabout, when I feel that tell-tale squirm from the rear tyre and know instantly that it’s flat. I stop, quickly, not wanting to damage the tyre. Damn. It’s flat alright, and I have no spare tubes, only ones with irreparable damage. I try the compressor to see if re-inflates but no joy, I’ll have to take the wheel off.

P1030036(1) P1030037

It’s now 6:30pm and I’m in the middle of a raging thunderstorm, a deluge, and I have a puncture, but I’ve been feeling so good I’m almost thinking that adventure biking doesn’t get any better than this! I can’t lift the bike onto the centre stand on my own, but just as I decide I’ll have to unpack all the luggage, a scooter rider pulls up, helps me with the stand, then buggers off. I remove the wheel, and take out the tube. It has an obvious crease where it has folded it’s 18 inch diameter into my 17 inch wheel. and a big tear along the crease. I knew it wouldn’t last, and I kick myself for not having done anything about the innertube situation back in UB (Ulaan Bataar).

In the pouring rain, I try to patch it, not really believing it will work and trying to think of a plan B. It’s pretty hard work in such heavy rain, everything is wet and covered in sandy gritty mud, but I persist, and miraculously end up with a re-inflated wheel that seems to be holding pressure. Just then a car pulls up, and a Russian guy comes over and says things I don’t understand. It’s good timing because I’ve just seen that the centre stand has sunk about 4 inches into the soft wet ground, making it about 3 inches too low to get the wheel back under. The man and what looks like his son understand my gesture to lift and with the two of them gritting their teeth as they take the full weight of the bike, I manage, eventually, to get the wheel in place and the axle through. I have to get them to lever the bike over on the side stand so that I can spin the wheel to re-fit the chain, and that’s it, job done.

The rain is really hammering now, and despite my protestations I’m pulled over to the car and made to sit in the back with son and daughter, mum and dad in front, until the downpour passes. There follows a conversation in words I don’t understand and quickly drawn sketches I barely understand, but it seems clear that the man wants me to come back to his house for the night, put my bike in his garage, and in the morning he will help me find innertubes in the town. I politely refuse. He insists. I accept.


I jump back on the bike and follow their car as they turn off the main road onto a waterlogged back street. The thick, slippery mud and deep puddles give me a taste of what it’s going to be like on the unfinished sections of the highway after so much rain, and I become a little worried. We arrive at a big wooden house under construction and a 2 room wooden cabin in the grounds, alongside a massive brick built garage, into which I ride, parking alongside the family car, a small pick-up truck and a huge Kamaz dumper truck. Getting off the bike I see that the tyre is almost flat again already, but I don’t have time to do anything as I’m whisked into the house and given a cup of tea.


Not for the first time on this trip, a computer is produced with translation software and I am introduced to lorry driver Ura, his wife Natalya, 18 year old Sergei, and 13 year old Paulina. I am told I will stay for the night and in the morning they will take me to the bike shop in town. Out of nowhere, Natalya produces a meal of sausage, cheese, bread, fish and hot stir-fried vegetables, which is delicious. I’m the only one eating as they’ve all just been to granny’s house for dinner.


With the translator we talk abut various things, I show some of my photos, and then the subject of vodka comes up. You will drink vodka with me? “Da!”, I reply, thinking it would be nice to have a glass of something after a day like today, but hoping it’s not going to get out of hand, remembering how rough I felt in Semey. Ura, Natalya and I get back into the car to go to the shop for vodka. I had assumed it would be just round the corner, but instead we’re going on a night-time tour of the sights of Chita, and I’m shown the works, including a very impressive set of golden onion domes. Then I find myself wandering round a Russian supermarket with a Russian family, doing ordinary grocery shopping. It’s quite bizarre and I can’t help grinning at the situation and wondering what’s going to happen next.

P1030042 P1030046 P1030038

Next is vodka. Ura and I drink vodka, while there’s another Q&A on the computer, with Sergei doing the typing for the family. When I explain that Alistair is the Scottish form of Alexander, Ura immediately takes to calling me Sasha, the Russian diminutive of Alexander. He explains that we re now friends, and I agree. Then Paulina pulls out a guitar and starts to play. She’s only been learning for a very short time, and is only 13 to begin with, but I’m treated to a stunning display of singing and guitar playing. It’s all in Russian so I don’t understand the words, but it’s a great tune and performed brilliantly. Truly superb. I tell her she should be on MTV and she smiles.

After a long day, it’s time for bed. The girls are in one room, the boys in the other, and I have a feeling Ura and Natalya have given up their bed for me, but I’m too tired to refuse. It’s been a day that puts the adventure back into adventure motorcycling.


Day 77 part 2 Lake Baikal

8 Aug


Siberia is wet (wet like the middle of the Atlantic is wet) and rugged (rugged like Vladimir Putin on a horseback photoshoot). It’s definitely wild, and so is the weather today. The road out to Lake Baikal is pretty rough by Russian standards but I have a great time blasting along it, even in the wet, as it’s so quiet and the scenery is quite pretty. The warmth from the heated grips roasts my hands and percolates through the rest of my body, and tucked behind my screen (gad I went for the extra large size!), I’m warm and dry and in my element. So is the bike, clearly relishing being free of luggage, happily pulling 80 without weaving all over the place like it does at 70 when fully loaded.

Since going solo I seem to be having much more interaction with other people. Maybe it’s because I’m noticing it more, or that I have more time for it, or maybe this is just how people respond when you’re on your own. The very attractive and friendly Irina allows a queue of slightly annoyed customers to build up behind me at the petrol station as she enquires all about me, where I’m from, where I’m going, my family, my bike, and so on. She is very unlike the usual surly Russian petrol station attendants, but I still wish for the Mongolian’s enlightened approach to dispensing petrol (they will fill your tank and then charge you whatever it comes to) instead of having to guess how many litres I need and paying in advance.

The rain is quite bad so I get to the first place where I can see the lake and decide it will do. A quick photo and that’s it. It’s the deepest lake in the world, but that doesn’t really give you much to look at, and even less when the cloud is so low and thick. Still, I came, I saw, I took photos, and I got here all the way from England on a motorbike.

I return to the hotel feeling very relaxed and immensely pleased to be enjoying riding on my own so much, almost certainly more than before. There’s something very satisfying about solving problems on your own in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, and much more of a feeling of adventure when you’re exploring distant places on your own. It’s a much more immersive experience than when you have constant company in your own language and from your own culture, which makes it too easy to ignore the locals.

So, one more night of comfort (and Wi-Fi!!!) in the Baikal Plaza (probably the best hotel I’ve stayed in since day 1), before heading for Chita. Hopefully the rain will clear soon, otherwise the unfinished section of the Amur highway is going to be a nightmare.