DAY 1 / the sweet sorrow of departure
29.6.2014 / Helsinki – Iitti – Taipalsaari / 295 km.
Today was tough. Not because of the riding, but the departure. Until now I had been pretty preoccupied with all the preparations; planning and building the bikes, testing, route planning, logistics, spare parts, travel gear etc. It had felt like another project at work, and that’s the way I went about it. The fact that I had to say goodbye to my wife for two months, hit home only 48 hours before stepping out of the door. Our departure was delayed by a day, which gave me an unexpected extra 24 hours with my lovely, and much better half. In terms of the preparations everything was in ship shape, so we just had a day to kill. It was bitter sweet. I relished every second of it, with the dread of leaving building as time ticked away.
I woke up around 0545 and killed some time going through the first days of our route and checking and rechecking my equipment lists. Everything was on order and technically I was ready to go. Actually leaving home was a different case entirely. I was not prepared at all and in the end my wife, true to her style, told me to get up and get on with it. After a few sweet tear eyed words and kisses, I was out of the door. On my way to the garage I thought that the worst of this ride was now over. Everything else would be easier and every passing day would be one day closer to the return.
At the garage I went through all my check lists one more time. I had packed the bike the previous day and, a few minor details aside, I was ready to go. Juha sent an SMS telling he was 200 km away form our rendezvous. I had only 150 km, mostly on tarmac, to get there. I was in no rush, but the waiting was getting on my nerves so I decided to just take off.
The year of preparation turned into reality. I rolled my bike out of the garage in pouring rain and locked up the garage. No turning back, this was it. Once I left, there would be no second chances. Everything had to be in order and the only way would be forward. The ride had begun.
Due to the rain, I was in full rain gear when I rolled out. Why do these trips always start wet? Riding out of the city, I was still mentally going through everything and at the same time expecting for water to penetrate my riding gear. Funnily enough it never happened. It was pouring and I was dry. No trickle down the back or in the front and doen to the crotch. This was a whole new sensation for me and I was stoked. The only thing that didn’t hold water were my goggles. Water was getting through the vents of my clear Scott Enduro double lenses and building a mini aquarium between them.
The ride itself to the rendezvous was uneventful, but my thoughts were still at home and I was feeling pretty miserable. I guess it was expected and that with the coming days the feeling would pass. I was also hoping that I would get used to the weight of the bike. It felt heavy, and the gearing felt short.
Arriving in our rendezvous in Iitti, I was expecting Juha to already be there. There was no sign of him so I went in to the gas station and had lunch. In the end he turned up and we both agreed that it was good to get the team together as he had not enjoyed the ride either. I guess we’re both big softies when it comes to our better halves.
Rolling out of Iitti we pushed on to my brother’s place in Taipalsaari. The ride as uneventful, which was not how I remembered it from last year. It was the same route I had taken in Arctic Dirt 13. I remembered it being nice dirt roads with excellent scenery. I guess the novelty of the area had worn off and it was just another dirt road through forests. I was happy to stumble upon a wrecked building I had seen the previous year but where I hadn’t stop for a photo. It rained the whole day and I didn’t bother taking many photos.
Arriving at my brothers house and seeing his family was great. It really lifted the gloomy mood and we were warmed up by hearty food, sauna, a few beers and the good company. A fantastic ending for the first day.
DAY 2 / CROSSINGS and dead ends
30.6.2014 / Taipalsaari – Nuijamaa – Lumivaara / 262 km / 557 km total.
Waking up to the first morning on the road was very civilized as we were still indoors. After breakfast I spent the morning tinkering with my bike. My rear shock had felt a little soft on the ride in. I added some preload to the Rallye Shock due to the extra weight and did some minor adjustments on the luggage. Also, my original seat had cracked and Juha had brought me a new one from Motokeidas. I secured the rubber bungs on the new seat with Liquisol before mounting it on the bike. Packing the bike was kind of tiresome as there was no routine in it yet. I hadn’t really thought the final location of equipment through yet.
We took off at around 1100 in pouring rain. Visibility was bad, but the wiper edge on the left hand index finger on the Klim Element gloves is really clever and works very well. It was a short ride to the nearby city of Lappeenranta, where we needed to do some last minute shopping before heading for the border.
The support on my GoPro had fractured during the ride in so I bought a new housing for it as well as some emergency rations and a dry bag for my tent. The inevitable border crossing to Russia was getting closer mentally. Once we crossed, we would be leaving all familiar things behind. Leaving home behind. It would be the start of the adventure.
The ride to the border from Lappeenranta was quiet, in next to no traffic. There were very little queues at the border and we got through immigration and customs in around an hour. The Russian customs officers didn’t even want to look at our luggage and just waved us through once our paperwork was done. After a final passport check we were allowed to enter the Russian Federation.
It felt great to be in Russia. For some reason I felt some kind of a strange feeling of accomplishment already. I guess it was due to the fact that our paperwork and visas were in order and we were now in business definitely. Just after the border we stopped to buy some chocolate and exchange Euros into Rubles.
Our route would take us east 10 km after the border. I found the turn off but, after maybe 2 km on the dirt road we hit a serious looking gate. It was padlocked and covered with barbed wire and warning signs. It had a pretty menacing military look about it and we decided not to risk it. Getting into trouble for trespassing so close to the border didn’t feel like a wise plan of action. Instead we had to do a detour on tarmac before connecting with our original route further east.
It was still raining and I was a little worried as we had several river crossings ahead of us. On the Finnish side water was high and I was pretty sure it would give us trouble. Connecting with our original track, we rode into the forest on a small overgrown dual track. The grassy track turned muddy and gradually very wet as we descended towards the first stream. We didn’t even make it to the bank before turning back. Russia had welcomed us with open arms and was now showing us who was in charge. No big deal, that’s what these trips are about. Nothing is certain and dead ends must be shrugged off with a reroute. Just keep moving.
We continued to another detour in the rain and finally connected with the original dirt track. It was nice and flowing and the riding felt great, despite the wet and slippery conditions. Suddenly the track disappeared under a perpendicular road construction. It was the foundation for a new, wide road. It was heading in a generally right direction so we continued on it.
The road foundation soon spat us into a large construction depot and we were stopped by a guard. He was keeping watch in a small shack, armed with plenty of vodka and a bad tempered dog. The guard was very friendly though and told me that the small track was under the construction site but would appear on the other side. He gave me some directions where to find it and we continued through the depot with the workers looking at us in surprise.
I found the beginning of the road and we picked up the pace and rode back into the forest. The road was really nice and looked like it didn’t see much use. We were going up and down small hills, surrounded by pine forests. The road got smaller and smaller and seriously overgrown. I knew there would be a river a head, so I started to feel the familiar doubt about the bridge being gone, creeping into my mind. Unfortunately I was right and we found the river impassable. The bridge was long gone and there was no way over the river. The banks were several meters deep and there was a lot of water due to the rains. I had marked a detour on my trail notes in case the bridge was out and we doubled back maybe 2 km and hit the smaller trail. A couple of hundred meters down the trail there was a huge fallen tree over it and we had go around it through the forest. I managed to take a fall in the process, going over a smaller trunk. No harm done. A much bigger issue was that the trail completely vanished. The forest was dense and criss-crossed with fallen trees. The distance to the connecting road was only 2 km, but we had no other option but to double back and find another route.
After doubling back we decided to stay off the narrow trails as there was a lot of water, debris and fallen trees on them and progress was very slow. Instead we devised another route and made our way to the small village of Melnikovo. We needed to buy some provisions for the night. While I was doing the shopping Juha was approached by two young girls having a night out. They were very friendly and we ended up chatting with them about the bikes and the fact that this village used to Finnish. We left the village and were back on dirt roads.
It was very nice riding, but I guess I was a little distracted by everything that had happened on that day. It had been raining the whole day and we were now in Russia. Everything had changed after the border and I was still trying to get it all in. Savoring every strange little piece of what I was seeing, hearing or smelling. I couldn’t really shoot any photos. I wanted to experience it first myself, before trying to find an angle on how to portray it all. It was wonderful and overwhelming at the same time.
There was little traffic on the dirt road and we were a lot quicker than the cars on the bikes. The advantages of having only one axis of motion and better power to weight ratio. We cruised through the countryside and it was starting to get late in the day. We needed to start looking for a place to camp, which was easier said than done. The forests were impassable or unsuitable for camping if there was no road and most roads lead somewhere. I prefer to be out of sight while camping and we finally found a perfect spot on a trail branching off small agricultural road. That would be our home for the night.
The place was infested with mosquitoes and it rained sporadically. So instead of making a proper campfire, we quickly made some pasta with tomato sauce and sausages with my trusty stove. After wolfing the dinner we both withdrew into our tents for some peace from the insects and shelter form the rain. Before not long I could hear Juha snoring in his tent while I wrote my journal.
DAY 3 / DETOURS
1.7.2014 / Lumivaara – Medvezhegorsk / 479 km / 1036 km total.
I woke up at 0720 after a good night’s sleep. I heard Juha rustling about in his tent, so I kitted up. Crawling out of my tent the world welcomed me with an overcast sky but no rain. We went about our morning rituals and were ready to hit the road at 0900. We had lost some time trying to get our Thuraya sat phone to work, but to no avail. Apparently it wasn’t charging from the mini-USB port.
To my disappointment I also noticed that I had forgotten my 12V dual USB plug. It’s something that’s always on my bike, connected to the 12 V cigarette lighter socket in my tank bag. For some reason it wasn’t there. I must have taken it off in the garage while testing other electrical equipment and left it on the work bench. Well, those are easy to come by, but the Thuraya sat phone was another game altogether.
We continued east on the dirt road. Riding through Russian Karelia was kind of strange as this used to be Finland seventy years ago. All villages had Finnish names, written in Cyrillic letters. We passed the village of Лумиваара or Lumivaara, which is Finnish for snow fell. Most of my family is from Karelia and my great grandfather was from Kivijärvi, 300 km further north on the Russian side. He left Kivijärvi in the twenties to start a bakery in Kouvola. I was hoping to visit the village, but gave up on that dream after reading the history of the area. After the war, collectivization was the name of the game in the Soviet era and small villages emptied. To make sure people did not return to their homes, a plan called “liquidation of villages without perspective” was put into action in the fifties. Kivijärvi among other villages was razed to the ground.
Riding through the small dirt road, we connected with the A-121 and reached Sortavala without drama. After refueling we ventured into town to shop for the USB socket and a charger for the sat phone. Being Finns we were looking into maybe even getting a cup of coffee while we were at it.
I spotted a mobile phone dealer and parked in front of it. I was just about to venture in, when Juha decided to give the sat phone one more try. Miraculously it sprung to life, immediately receiving a couple of messages from people back home. Sorted. I still needed the USB plug, so I popped into the shop. The girl behind the counter burst out laughing when I walked in. I must have been a pretty ragged sight, but in good humor. I got the USB socket but had no luck with coffee. Instead we adjusted chain tension, before taking off to the road again.
The weather around Lake Ladoga was bitterly cold. We stopped at a road side kiosk for some lunch in Pitkäranta and were amazed of how chilly the place was in July.
Checking our route, I was starting to get the feeling that we should not venture into completely uninhabited areas on small trails. Thus far all small trails had proven to be impassable or extremely slow. We were on day three and I didn’t want to have to sacrifice time on the good stuff further east due to being slow in the west. Our original route went SE, but would result in a huge detour even further south in case it was impassable. I wanted to stay north to get to the Urals higher up, so we would have to take a whole new direction and scrap at least four or five days of our current track. I was devastated and felt that the whole idea of riding dirt was in jeopardy. We had already been on more tarmac than I liked, and I was dreading that this would turn into Eastern Tarmac 14. Well, there was no two ways about it and we headed back north to go around Lake Onega.
Fortunately the road soon turned into dirt and we were happy to cruise on it. We pushed on to Suojärvi and continued NE. It’s amazing how much faster the bike is on bad roads compared to cars, which were bouncing along, dodging potholes. I had planned to refuel in Porosozero, but the gas station was dry. I was not worried as there was bound to be fuel in Medvezhegorsk. However, it was getting a little late so I bought some food. Packing the food, Juha found out the hard way not to pack liquids into dry bags. He had packed a can of beer into the dry bag containing his down sleeping bag. The can had probably hit the luggage rack and punctured, emptying it’s contents. The beer had had several hours to soak into the down sleeping bag. I’m pretty sure he’ll never repeat that mistake again.
We bought food for the night and continued on the track, stopping at a river for some laundry. Connecting with a bigger road we were on tarmac again. It was eerie, as there was not a single car on the road in 80 km. The road itself was in variable shape, mostly pretty poor, so it was nice riding despite the tarmac.
The absence of cars made made me uneasy and the empty villages didn’t help. A fear of the road being cut due to flooding or some other catastrophe was growing in my mind as we pushed on. We would not have enough fuel to make it back to civilization if we hit another dead end. It was a huge relief to see inhabited houses close to the intersection with R-21. We had done 500 km and it was time to call it a day. After refueling in Medvezhegorsk we ventured a little further down the road and turned on to a small dirt road, snaking into a pine forest. We found a perfect spot and set up camp.
We were stoked about the nice airy camp site, after the rainy and muddy mozziefest we had woken up in this morning. Unfortunately it started raining again and we hastily had some pasta before crawling in our tents. Juha was bound to have a cold night though as he now had a very soggy down sleeping bag. I drifted off to sleep wondering whether there were bears in this area. Especially because the name of the nearby village started with bear in Russian.
DAY 4 / END OF DARKNESS
2.7.2014 / Medvezhegorsk – Vokhtomitsa river / 495 km / 1531 km total.
I woke up to my alarm at 0700, after a badly slept night. The name of the nearby town had resulted in nightmares of bears stealing my bike. Popping my head out of my tent I was happy to see my KTM still parked outside, on the low grass at the edge of the pine forest. It bore no evidence of being joyridden by bears. Equally delighting was the fact that it was dry for a change. Overcast, but dry and warmer. The flying vermin were back with a vengeance.
I was packing up my bike while Juha was doing his daily pre ride-checks. I heard him comment, to himself, about something not being good. I asked him what was up and he told me his radiator looked dry. That really cast a shadow on the otherwise fine morning. Juha’s first analysis was that the cylinder head gasket wasn’t sealing properly. His bike had had the engine taken apart and the casings changed prior to us leaving. Juha is a great mechanic and I’m sure he would have preferred to put the engine back together himself, but it was under warranty so it was done at a shop. It must have been murder for him.
This was a serious problem. There was about 300 ml of coolant missing and it had clearly come out of the expansion tank. We were prepared for many things, including a leaking radiator, but taking an engine apart and replacing the head gasket wasn’t one of them. The tools were not an issue as they could be found in any roadside workshop. The issue was of course the head gasket, which we could probably only get in St. Petersburg, Moscow or Novosibirsk. Then again the problem being the head gasket was just a guess. We really didn’t know what had happened to the coolant.
I think a million thoughts ran through both our heads. None of them were verbalized before Juha refilled the radiator and asked me whether there was any point in us pushing further east. I don’t think I ever answered the question and in the end we decided to push on. We would see what happened soon enough. It wouldn’t have made much difference whether we were 1000km or 1100km east of the border if the bike was unrideable. I didn’t tell Juha, but had he bailed, there would have been no “we” in turning back. I would have put Juha and his bike on a truck to the border and pushed on solo. His companionship would have been missed and some sections of the route would have been too risky to ride solo, but I was determined to go as far as I could.
As it was a little warmer I risked riding in my MTB gloves instead of the Klim Elements. We took off and headed east on tarmac, what else. This trip had thrown a lot of obstacles in our faces in the last three days. We only rode a couple of kilometers before being stopped at a raised bridge over a canal. Once the boat had passed under the bridge and into the lock, we were allowed to pass. That’s when I saw the the first AK47 in Russia, slung over the shoulder of a female guard. The Russians obviously take their canals very seriously. At 0930 exactly, the sun showed itself for the first time during the trip. It was a brief peek through a small gap in the clouds, behind a thin layer of mist, but it was there. That small glimpse was all it took to evaporate all my worries. Twenty minutes later we were out from under the cloud cover, in sunshine. Stopping to take off our Klim over-pants, we basked in the sun. The mood had changed. I felt as if we were now getting out of the miserable wet weather of the Baltic Sea and the Karelian lakes. Instead we were now headed for the warm and sunny continental summer of Central Russia. Adding to the good mood was the fact that Juha’s bike showed no signs of coolant overflow yet.
Riding in just the Klim Dakar In Boot pants without the restriction of the over-pants was incredibly liberating. After another 180 km we stopped to refuel in Pudozh. We had left the frigid shores of Lake Onega behind us 60 km ago. The cold and rainy weather had turned into a hot summer in under an hour. It was extremely hot and we changed from the Klim Traverse jackets to the Dakar Jerseys. Life just doesn’t get much better than that. Sunshine, good company and riding in just MX gear. Also, Juha’s radiator was still holding.
We pushed further east in the beautiful scenery of eastern Karelia. The road was quiet and had a feeling of remoteness and tranquility to it. Outside of the villages forests were mostly unmanaged and wild. Rolling over hills and through wide valleys displayed nature as it ever was, untouched and unchanged. Trees remained where they fell at the end of their days, gathering moss over the years. Drying in the clutches of the long cold winter. Inevitably decomposing in the end to become earth for the generations to come. Playing their part in the ever rotating cycle of life and death. It felt like time travel and I loved every second of it, despite the fact we were on tarmac.
After a long straight through wild scenery we hit the border of Arkhangel’skaya Oblast and everything changed. It was the end of tarmac, replaced by a winding dirt road into a national park. There was a little traffic on it, but nothing significant and the ride was exactly what we needed. Dirt, finally. The road was in pretty bad shape and very sloppy in the bottoms of the valleys. No doubt the heavy rains had been here too, and the heavy trucks had churned up the wet road. Our bikes were caked with mud, but the riding was good.
Inevitably the road turned into tarmac and we took a small break. More bad news were to come as Juha’s radiator’s expansion tank had spewed coolant out. Funnily enough the radiator was full though. Juha thought that it was probably due to the fact that he had filled up the radiator cold. When hot, it would have pushed the coolant into the expansion tank. As it was already almost full, it would have pushed out the excess. Juha siphoned out some coolant to hit the high mark and we continued east.
We stopped briefly in Nyandoma to refuel and buy food for the night. We pushed on south another 80 km before finding a suitable camp site on a trail branching off the dirt road. Finally, a nice camping spot next to a clearing on a hillside. There was a little breeze which would keep the insects somewhat at bay. We had arrived at around 18, which essentially gave us the evening off. It was still sunny and most of our gear was wet so the camp quickly started looking like a yard sale with gear strewn around to dry. This was also a perfect moment to tinker with the bikes. Unfortunately Juha discovered that he was missing 100 ml of coolant. Somehow the coolant would end up into the expansion tank but wouldn’t go back into the radiator when it cooled. The head gasket was probably fine, and Juha cleaned up the valve on the rad cap in case it was not flowing properly in both directions.
As we were chilling out with our victory beers, we heard the tell tale sound of a bike, and it was getting closer. To our surprise it turned the bend about 150 m down the trail where we came from. It was a local two stroke side car with two guys on board. There was a ditch on the road with plenty of water, which we had eyed before crossing it. The guy on the sticks didn’t even blink, just shifted down and revved over the obstacle. Russians are another breed when it comes to off-road and bikes. We waved to them as they passed by without stopping. They waved back and looked at our bikes and camp as they went on their merry way.
Dinner was a bit of a laugh. We had some pasta, corn and tuna. Or at least I though it was tuna when I bought it, but it ended up being some form of herring. It was canned whole and looked pretty sad, curled up in the can. I felt sorry for it. The stench was exquisite and Juha buried the poor herring a hundred meters away from our camp. As the evening cooled down we lazed on our mattresses and discussed previous events and the route to come. A burning issue was of course Juha’s vanishing coolant. We could only hope the problem was something minor, but plan for the worst.
DAY 5 / SHATTERED DREAMS
3.7.2014 / Vokhtomitsa river – Pantusovo / 604 km / 2135 km total.
I woke up at around 0630 and wondered why the sun hadn’t hit my tent yet. Figuring the forest next to us was blocking the sun I dozed off. My alarm went off at 0700 and at that exact moment the first drops of rain hit my tent. I had envisioned riding in the sun, sporting an MX jersey and minimal gear. It soon dawned to me that the temperature had dropped and we would ride in full rain gear. It was a pretty disappointing start to the day after enjoying the sun for half a day thus far on this trip.
The positive thing about rainy mornings is that and breaking camp is swift. We were back on the road at 0804, so in just over an hour after waking up. This was how it was supposed to happen. No lazing around and tinkering with stuff, but instead getting up, packing up and rolling out. Having said that, sipping coffee on sunny mornings is pretty much as good as it gets in camp. What was that about clouds and silver linings?
The small road next to our campsite spat us back on tarmac. Fortunately the road turned into dirt after some 80 km and I felt good. For the first days the bike had felt heavy and unpredictable. No doubt because of the extra weight added to the luggage after the test trip, and me not really riding the bike for almost three weeks before leaving. Now it was starting to fit like a glove. Or rather it was becoming an extension of me. I’d only had the 690 for fourteen months, but early on I’d realized that this bike really needed a firm rein. Any half-hearted attempts at obstacles lead to failure. Commanded with confidence, maybe even aggression, the 690 would do great things. As Mishutka put it so well: “The main thing is to believe in yourself and see the target. And then comrades will raise you and push you out if needed :)))”
Our speed didn’t slow down at all from tarmac to dirt. Not that we were going fast. We had agreed to keep our marching pace at 80 km/h to save the equipment and avoid injuries. It seems very slow, but it’s actually the breaks that slow you down, not the speed on the long run. The ride was at its infancy and we were still basically in the shakedown phase. We didn’t know how the tyres would wear and keeping a slower pace worked wonders for fuel consumption.
The ride was uneventful and we pushed on for 150 km straight and stopped in Velsk. It was a miserable town with muddy roads and we stood in mud while filling up our bikes. Velsk is a big forest industry town, as is most of the region I suppose. Strange looking chain driven timber vehicles were mixing up the usual traffic of cars, SUV’s and trucks. We were happy to pull out of Velsk and continue east.
We were now deep into the forestry area of Vologodskaya Oblast, arriving in Tarnogskii Gorodok. Our lunch was dictated by the pretty basic selection of a roadside shop. The meal consisted of bread, cheese Fanta and chocolate, laid out as a buffet on our bikes’ seats. While we had a our smorgasbord, two kids approached us and asked the usual stuff about where we were from and some stuff about our bikes. Nice curious kids. The conversation ended in the guys looking at the sky and saying that it would rain hard soon. “Normal…”, I replied and the guys took off to seek shelter. We packed up and hit the road again.
Just outside of town the skies turned black and the world became dark and quiet. Riding into the heart of it felt menacing as the air grew colder. Suddenly the suspense was replaced by wrath. The darkness was replaced by piercing lightning and thunder roared. Then came the water. It was an downpour of epic proportions. I mean it wasn’t rain any more but rather water pouring out of the sky. It was everywhere and I saw it come in waves. My mouth was full of water despite the full face MX helmet. Our speed dropped to sixty and even the russians slowed down and that’s something else. This was the highlight of my day. I mean I don’t like rain, but seeing nature creating something so magnificent was just exhilarating. We rolled on watching the display through our goggles, although it seemed more like stained glass. Amazingly enough, I was still dry under my riding gear.
All good things come to an end, and we passed under the storm in one piece. Leaving it behind us we ducked out form under the cloud cover and into the sun. Our original route lay ahead of us and it was time to make a decision. Whether to take the safe route and continue riding tarmac or give the dirt track another go. The dirt track was risky, as we would be on the tight stuff 40 km out and would have to double back in case we failed. A decision was made and our tyres pointed south, on dirt. The first 40 km were easy dirt roads with deepish mud here and there. The bikes and riders were quickly caked in it, before getting to the beginning of the trail. It looked gnarly.
We both gave the thumbs up and hit the trail, with Juha leading. It wasn’t exactly a trail, but a sloppy mudfest of clay and water churned out by track driven forestry machines. In the mix was an assortment of wooden debris, no doubt piled up by rushing rainwater. Pushing through the first valley bottom, water was up to the top of out tyres. There wasn’t even a river there yet, just rain water. The trail was wet clay and wouldn’t support the weight of our bikes. Our 120’s just ripped through it and sunk, but still slowly pushing the bike ahead. It was tough going, but we made it up the hill on the other side of the small valley. The situation looked bad and it was time for a quick chat. There would be 40 km of the sloppy trail with no less than ten river or stream crossings. Needless to say water was very high due to all the rain.
There, on that muddy hilltop, the original route came to an end. We were defeated and the plan of linking a dirt track from the north had failed. There were a lot of ifs, but none of them would change the situation so we turned around. I felt disappointed in myself, but also relieved as we still had long ways to go and there would be plenty of dirt on the way. We just couldn’t link the sections. Maybe one day someone else will or I will be back to find another way. Time will tell. It’ll be a sweet trail for sure if it connects.
Reaching the main road we took a small breather. While there, three kids on two dirt bikes appeared and started chatting with us. The KTM’s always seemed to interest people because, modified as they were, they looked so different from other bikes. The Rally Raid EVO 2 front tanks give them a very military look, I think. The guys asked if they could take some pics of the bikes, which we or course agreed to. A few polite farewells later, they revved off while we put on our helmets and pulled off to the other direction. Thos guys really have the best place in the world to train in. Lucky.
Our next stop to refuel and resupply was Veliki Ustjug. The gas station clerk insisted that we should visit Santa Claus, who apparently lives 30 km north of the city. I thanked her for the advice and we rode out south to look for a campsite. Riding around small roads through abandoned villages gave hope that we might well find a nice spot. We did indeed find a nice spot on a hill. The slope faced east so we caught the sunset while a light breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay. It was heaven.
Juha prepared dinner as I pored over maps and tried to figure out what route to take next. There was also another decision to be made. We discussed whether to try to link up with the trail again and see if we could push through it further SE. Juha, being the logical one, asked me whether I wanted to go to Mongolia or not. I instantly replied that of course, because it was all dirt. There was the answer. We would push to Omsk on faster but less exciting, if not boring, roads. This plan of action would save more time for our adventures further in the wild east. I felt relieved. Despite the fact that we couldn’t link up a trail from east to west, we still had thousands of kilometers of dirt ahead of us. Mongolia was pure magic for me after seeing Walter’s and Oisin’s reports form there. I couldn’t wait to see it. Also, looming in the horizon was the BAM road, which I didn’t even dare to think about yet. Many things were bound to happen before the decision to go for it or not.
DAY 6 / REPETITION AND EXORCISMS
4.7.2014 / Pantusovo – Yakshanga / 492 km / 2627 km total.
I was woken by the cold at around six. In subzero conditions I sleep inside the sleeping bag but in normal climate I just use it as a duvet. It makes it feel more like home. It had been a cold night and I was shivering. I cocooned under the sleeping bag, head and all and drifted back to sleep. My alarm went off at seven and I somehow drifted off for another twenty minutes before realizing that the alarm had gone off already.
I like to put on my knee pads, pants and boots in the tent, just to get a slow start into dealing with the insects. I noticed sunshine on the tent, which was a welcome change to the pace. The first morning without rain. Juha was already up and I too crawled out of my tent. As it was dry, we decided to make coffee before hitting the road. I packed up, and the fact that there were no problems in the pre-ride checks added to the good mood. Juha had the coffee done so we just enjoyed the morning for a while, before getting on our bikes and taking off.
The small road, by which we had camped, took us south. Riding in sunshine was bliss and the riding was good. A narrow dual track with a dry clay base. Just before the intersection connecting us into the big road south, we were blocked by a truck being loaded with timber. There was no way around them on the road and they told us to go back, We had none of it and cut across a meadow and on to the road.
Further south we turned off to a smaller road that should connect us back with the main road later. It was a longer route but we desperately wanted to ride dirt, even if it meant a longer ride. The route was marked as a proper road, and not the type of trails that had barred us passage on several occasions. The road twisted through small villages and people were surprised to see us. A local guy on a tractor gave us two thumbs up, and we waved back. I guess they don’t see many of our kind here.
We were on a logging road, which was wide but used by heavy trucks. The rains had softened the road and the double tyres of the trucks had turned it into something resembling a battle field at places. The riding was good though and we were in good spirits, blasting away on the dry sections and navigating the trenches here and there. Juha is a much better riding than me. He’s ridden the Päitsi, a legendary three day winter enduro race in Finland. It was great to observe him riding the slop with ease while I had to take care in the tricky sections. The double tyres created a tricky pattern, guiding the front tyre to get lodged between two high walls of dirt. There’s no other way to get through them, but with good speed and whacking the throttle if the front tyre leaned into either of the walls.
I was happy. The bike was starting to feel more and more like an extension of me and we worked as one. Turning off the main dirt road the route soon deteriorated. Muddier and with deeper ruts. We were getting fit to ride it though and made good progress, following the track carved into the forest. The Tractive Rallye rear shock was working very well and would suck up the ditches with ease as I wheelied over them. Suddenly the road turned into a strange double track made of concrete slabs. I’d seen this in pics, but hadn’t ever seen one live. Riding it was great fun and we were quick about it. At a long climb up a gentle slope I looked back to realize that Juha wasn’t behind me. I was on top of a hill and could see him way back, off his bike. I waited for a while and he didn’t get back on it. Turning back I noted the time being 1120, and rode back towards Juha. He was standing up and moving, so he couldn’t have been hurt, but I was dreading that there was another mechanical problem.
When I reached him, he told me that one his dry bags had fallen off. I was relieved that he was okay and that his bike was running. The dry bag was no big deal as we’d find it. We checked the photos I had taken and realized, that it was way back. When shooting, I usually ride first to scout the spots, so I couldn’t have seen the fallen dry bag on the road. It was a beautiful day with a good trail to enjoy, so it wasn’t an issue to ride back again. Juha was bummed out though and once we were off the concrete slabs he left me in the dust. Riding back about 20 km from the turning point I found Juha, strapping the mischievous dry bag onto his bike. He was obviously relieved. The good thing was that we hadn’t seen a single vehicle on the road, so the bag couldn’t have been picked up or driven over.
We hadn’t had breakfast so I made a couple of cheese rolls, which we enjoyed in the fine weather. In fact it had warmed up enough to strip down into our jerseys. On our way back to the turn off, we were met by two trucks hauling logs on the concrete slabs. We let them pass and continued into the intersection of the road that would take us west and back on to the main road. I felt a dread building in my gut. Why were the trucks headed this way as it would be a shorter way to he road via the route we were taking. We quickly had the answer in the intersection. The road leading west was tiny and overgrown. It was good riding but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling of hitting another dead end.
We hit the first river 10 km later. The bridge was long gone, swept away by the waters. Water was surprisingly low, and it would have been easy to cross. The problem was that the banks were steep, especially on our side. We could get the bikes down the debris of the bridge, and ride up the other bank, but returning would be tricky. Should we meet an impassable obstacle later on the trail, it would be very hard if not impossible to get them back up to this side. We scouted the other side by foot and didn’t find any fresh tracks. There were several rivers on the way out and we decided not to risk it, but turn back. It was a painful decision, as we were a long way out and would lose a lot of time. Also, we had been defeated twice already by impassable trails. It was starting to feel like a routine. Luckily, the way back was as good riding as going in so I shrugged of the shadow and enjoyed the ride.
Doubling back we overtook the two trucks we had seen earlier. Being a Russian trucker demands a lot of patience, I think. They were really slow, navigating the heavy trucks around the churned out road. Riding 180 km on dirt saw us back right where we started four and a half hours earlier. Shaking off the thought, we went to refuel and have a late lunch in the next village. In the process, Juha took off his riding socks and they stank out the parking lot. He said something about washing them, but we both agreed that an exorcism was probably more appropriate. While eating some sandwiches and pies by our bikes a local with his Hornet came to say hi. He laughed at our bikes, caked in mud and all. We chatted for a while before the mandatory handshake and he took off. It was getting late in the day so we took to the highway and rode south. It was on tarmac but it wasn’t raining so I put on my head phones and suddenly the boring ride became enjoyable. Good music and good scenery.
Arriving in Shaya, we decided to spend the night in civilization. A hotel would have been a welcome as we had camped out for four nights. I had worn my base layer for over a hundred hours straight without a shower and was feeling pretty grimy. I was used to this though, from my climbing days, but Juha was clearly suffering and had even bathed in a stream on day three I think. A night indoors was not to be though as the hotel we found wouldn’t accommodate us. It was a beautiful evening so camping wasn’t really an issue. After shopping for some food we treated ourselves to some ice cream. While enjoying the crazy Friday night ice creams some locals came to have a chat. They couldn’t believe that we had ridden there from Finland. I was amused as they thought nothing of riding to Baikal via Mongolia. Being Friday the town was in party mood and the guys popped into the shop for some beers before wishing us well and taking off. It would have been nice to party out the Friday in Shaya.
As we were packing up, another biker pulled over to check us out and have a word. No matter where you were from, bikers seemed to be a brotherhood in Russia. The brethren of the iron horse. It was moving and encouraging to experience such unity, with the only thing joining us being our two wheeled rides. He took off and while we finalized packing up he surprisingly rode back and told us to follow him. He just wanted to help us find our way out of town. Following him I remembered all the things I had read of the hospitality of Russians. At the beginning of the road leading out of the town we shook hands again and went our separate ways.
A few kilometers later it all could have gone sideways. Scouting for a campsite, I put on my indicator for a left turn to a small road. There was a car behind us, closing in at high speed. The tail of my bike was caked in mud and he couldn’t have seen my indicator. Luckily I noticed him from my mirror and swerved right as he whooshed by me. It was a sobering moment and reminder to keep alert at all times. Adding insult to injury, the road ended up to be a no go and we had to keep looking. A few kilometers later we found a suitable spot just off the road and made camp.
Our engines had been running pretty hot so it was time to check the radiators. They were covered in mud as were the vents on our high fenders and the Rally Raid radiator screen. We took off the screens and fenders and devised a makeshift pressure washer from a water bottle. It just needed a hole in the cap and voilà, a mini-Kärcher was born. The it just needed a squeeze and water would spray out in a small jet, cleaning up even small holes. The radiator would have more breathing room and I also adjusted my front suspension which had felt a little harsh. Other than that, it was a normal evening of drying stuff and cooking dinner, which was a combination of pasta tomato sauce and sausage, what else. Our food intake had been too low for days and we were both losing weight already. This was something we would need to address quickly, or there would be trouble.
As I finished writing my journal, it started raining and I wondered if we would be riding in full rain gear the next day again. I also realized that this was the farthest I’d ever been from home on my bike.
DAY 7 / A CHANGE OF PACE
5.7.2014 / Yakshanga – Kirov / 277 km / 2904 km total.
Sunlight, filtering through leaves, danced on my tent. It was 0700 and what looked like the makings of a very good morning. I was pretty quick about getting my kit sorted and getting into my pre-ride checks. The engine on my bike consumed roughly 10 cc of oil every 1000 km, so I added another 20 cc. It had been another cold night and the morning was no exception. So I put on my jacket instead of the jersey. We would have to ride tarmac for a while and I didn’t want to catch a cold.
Riding tarmac on dirt bikes was monotonous, so I put on my headphones before we took off. The ride was totally uneventful with very little scenery as the road was pretty much a straight line through forests. We made good progress and arrived in Kirov at midday.
We had planned to take a day off the next day, but instead decided to make it two half days. We rode around Kirov looking for a hotel and finally settled on Hotel Kirov. A very nice hotel with safe parking. Well at least we hoped so as they were fenced and had video surveillance. After locking up the bikes we hauled up all our gear into our room. Slinging the Adventure Spec Magadans over my shoulder I realized how heavy they were. I was sweating bullets by the time I made it up into our room. First on in the shower was to be resolved by a game of paper-rock-scissors. I ended up being a draw, round after round and in the end Juha just told me to go first. The room was very nice and the bathroom was no exception. It was my first shower in almost a week. Bliss.
The room looked like a bomb had exploded in it. Tents, sleeping bags, riding gear, muddy boots, bags were strewn around the room and hanging from any possible hook or railing. Luckily the room had plenty of windows so it was well ventilated. They also had a very good internet connection, so after post-producing my photos, I could update my site as well as send e-mails to everyone involved in the project. I was happy to receive an e-mail from Mishutka, as he was our for tyres and parts in Russia. Our tyres and oil were now confirmed in Omsk, Ulan Ude and Novosibirsk, which was a relief. Mishutka is the same Mishutka from Mongolian Cosmonauts, riding around Mongolia, and the 110, east of Baikal. An enduro god in my book. My bike had developed a squeaky rear brake the day before and the reason was obvious. The pads had gone from brand new to nothing in six days. I only had one extra pair so I sent Mishutka an e-mail about scoring some pads in Russia.
I also finally got our Thuraya XT to connect with my Twitter account so I could send tweet updates to my site from the road. I was super happy to have this resolved as getting the SMS Twitter to work had turned out to be another dead end. First world problems, I know. Juha had already done his laundry while I was working and he was now taking a nap. I decided to sort out my laundry too. I love polypropylene base layers, because they feel dry even when wet, dry fast and are widely available. The only downside is that, compared to Smartwool and similar products, they truly reek after two days of wear. I had worn my base layer for five and a half days straight, night and day. As with Juha’s socks earlier, my base layer was probably more in need of a priest than a wash. I’m sure they would have tried to wrap around my neck and strangle me to death like a python, had I turned my back to them. Pulling the plug from the sink, I could have sworn I heard a stifled “Hail Sataaaaaaaannnnnnnn…….” echoing from the sink with the last drops of the filthy water gurgling into the plumbing.
It was time to enjoy the luxuries of living in an urban environment and we went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Salad, chicken and chocolate cake, washed down by a beer or two. We were now probably back on track with our food intake. The rest of the night was all about route planning. Russia was tough to plan as a lot of it was dictated by rivers. Many promising trails just wash out or ended on the bank of something too deep to cross. Luckily the internet connection at the hotel was very good so I could check the route meticulously in Google Earth. I managed to find some tracks to connect roads over rivers and by the looks of it we would be able to cross. Turning in at 0230, the trails were still preying on my mind.
Helsinki-Kirov. From endless rain, a border crossing and shattered dreams to sunshine and rekindled faith.
Kirov-Omsk. Pushing further east. First mechanical problems and some seriously beautiful riding.
Uvsin Khar - Ulan Ude. Taking a break and finishing the Mongolian leg. New trails and unexpected difficulties.