DAY 43 / THE SEVENTH GEAR
10.8.2014 / Bikbulatovo – Kurumoch / 608 km / 15 838 km total.
My hilltop camp ended up being very windy. Despite the tent flapping about throughout the night I slept very well and woke up feeling fresh at 0700. Outside it was overcast but completely dry. Ironically the first drops of rain fell at 0705. I was feeling optimistic though and decided against putting on my over-pants, instead riding in my Dakar ITB pants and Traverse jacket. Since there was a light drizzle, I didn’t waste time and packed up quickly. After adding some engine oil and refilling my OSCO, I was back on the trail.
The gravel road turned turned into tarmac and I stopped for fuel at a small village. While I was filling up the tanks and chatting with a with a very friendly local, the weather had turned more sour. I decided to put on my over-pants after all, but it was the never ending internal battle of optimism vs. practicality and odds. Riding in my Dakar ITB pants and Jersey was by far my favourite setup. The over-pants and GoreTex jacket always felt cumbersome and sweaty compared to the light Dakar setup. Then again getting wet would have soon resulted in getting cold, and in heavy rain the GoreTex gear gave an exhilarating feeling of immortality. Against the elements at least.
My route consisted mostly of tarmac for the first 100 km or so and the highlight of the morning was a hearty breakfast at a road side stolovaya. I looked very alien compared to the other patrons and the old woman across the counter laughed at my order and copious amounts of coffee. Further on the tarmac fortunately came to an end as I turned off to a small agricultural road. The weather had improved and I was now baking in the sun, sweating under the rain gear.
Stripping off the GoreTex, and riding in just my Dakars was pure bliss. Not only was the weather and riding gear perfect, but the terrain had taken a turn for the better. It was the stuff of dreams. A hardpack trail gently snaking across undulating countryside. The last crop had been cut and visibility across the fields was perfect. Despite the fact that I had been very happy riding gravel the previous day, the dirt track was much, much better. The riding became a natural flow and even though I had made a mental note of trying to take it easy, it didn’t happen. The terrain was very fast and I found myself looking for a seventh gear every now and then. Riding through the perfect trails, I felt sorry for Juha, as he did not get to experience it. I had gotten an SMS from him and was happy to learn he was okay. He had been clocking 1000 km days on tarmac and was due to hit the Finnish border at nightfall.
My route took me off the main track and the trail soon deteriorated, and then disappeared completely. Vegetation became high, but I found old tyre tracks in the grass. It looked as if a 4×4 had been through there a while back. The tracks took me off my original route, but at least they provided a better margin of safety as opposed to riding blindly through the grass. I crossed a dried up brook and pushed forward to meet the creek it had fed. I could see it from a distance, lined on both banks by high grass and trees. I didn’t like the look of it.
The tyre tracks I had been following disappeared into water. The creek looked suspicious, with a stretch of high grass on both sides with a soggy looking grassy middle. I didn’t even bother scouting it as it smelled bad and looked soft. It had been a great day of riding and I didn’t want to ruin it by getting stuck in a bog by myself, with no help from the Heideanu K 60’s. Reluctantly I turned back and retraced my tracks. I always hated turning back, but that was part of the adventure. Sometimes rational calls are needed and one bites bitter defeat. It does make the small victories, when trails connect, all the more sweeter though.
Once I had made my way back to wider trails, I took another fork. Luckily it took me to the correct direction and I soon reconnected with a gravel road. Riding through the countryside and enjoying endless sunflower seeds, I felt unsure of what to do next. There was still had plenty of time, but my patience was waning. Turning the front tyre towards home always resulted in a deterioration of motivation. I wanted to enjoy the trails for as long as possible but at the same time I felt I had seen plenty and there was not enough variation to keep it interesting forever.
I ended up connecting with a big tarmac rode, which took me to Samara by the evening. I had planned to visit the city, but decided against it due to heavy and slow traffic. Instead I pulled a U-turn and took the road towards Moscow. I was pretty tired and happy to find a good hotel for the night. It was a bit swanky for my taste, but had safe parking and an excellent restaurant. It wasn’t cheap, but in my view worth every penny. As the wifi was working well, my wife and I had a long Skype call, trading war stories about mountain marathons and outstanding riding.
Sitting at dinner, enjoying roasted sausages, borsch, potato pelmenis and a cheese plate over beer, I thought about next possible moves. A specific plan never materialised, and I figured the morning would have more answers.
DAY 44-45 / TRANSIT
11.-12.8.2014 / Kurumoc – Vöru / 1861 km / 17 699 km total.
Despite the luxurious accommodation, the road was calling and I made an early exit. My route pushed ever west and I crossed the mighty Volga River at the impressive Zhiguli Hydroelectric Station. Other than that, the ride was pretty boring as tarmac always was. While refuelling I met Vladimir, a local adventure rider on his way to adventures in the west. A pleasant guy who spoke excellent english. Rolling out of the petrol station and hitting cruising speed I suddenly felt a tap on my helmet and pain spreading across my forehead. Stopping at the side of the road to investigate, I found a bee stinger on my forehead. It had just a tiny section of the bee’s tail attached to it, protruding like some freakish minuscule flower from my head. Apparently I had been lucky enough to hit the bee perfectly in the small crack between my helmet and goggles. The bee had disintegrated on impact but the stinger had jettisoned perfectly through the crack. I wondered what were the odds of that happening as I rolled back on the road.
The ride was mind numbingly boring. My mind slipped into tarmacoma as I kept trying to figure out what to do next. Stopping for food, I still had no idea about what to do next, so I just pushed west. The first 500 km always felt slow but after that pace seemed to quicken. Maybe it was the mind just giving up on hope of anything interesting, instead just idling along.
In Shatsk, as my daily trip meter hit 600 km, I had to make a decision. I had set up a date with my wife four days later in Tallinn, which was over 2000 km away. The question was whether to venture off the main roads to find some off road trouble, or push west fast, maybe taking a day off somewhere in Estonia before the big meeting in Tallinn. Making the decision to ride directly to Estonia made me feel guilty. There was definitely no adventure in it, but the truth was that there had not been much of it after turning west on the BAM road anyway. It had been an incredible ride but I found myself feeling restless and wanting to get back into the west. I decided to ride towards Moscow.
Just before midnight, after a little over a thousand kilometres of riding, I was 30 km south of Moscow. I definitely did not want to camp close to Moscow, so instead I took the ring road around the city and pushed further west. As the city was behind me, the street lights were gone and I rode in darkness. The nights had started to get cold and I had to stop to put on my over-pants and long gloves before continuing.
After a full day on the bike, I was finally starting to get tired. Unfortunately the area was quite populated, so I had no chance of finding a safe place to camp. Instead I kept riding on, shivering in the dark. At 0430 the night was at its coldest and I stopped again to put on a fleece jacket under my armour. I was wearing pretty much everything I had with me. There would be another 90 minutes of darkness until sunrise and the last hour was always the hardest. I knew that if I made it to first light, it would be smooth sailing from there on. An hour later, silhouettes of trees started to appear against the eastern sky. A new morning was about to begin. At 0520 I stopped at a beautiful field to take a break and enjoy the sunrise.
Continuing on the road I noticed something from the corner of my eye. It was a moose, looking straight at me at the side of the road. I figured it must have just popped out of the forest as I rode by, but that probably wasn’t the case. There could have been six moose wearing sombreros and playing banjos by the side of the road and I would not have noticed them. My focus was long gone.
When I pulled over to a roadside cafe at 0700 I had been awake for 24 hours and ridden over 1400 km. Even after two coffees, water and pancakes I felt dizzy on the road. Riding in the comatose state I was in had become too dangerous and I decided to take a short nap. A small trail forked off the main road and I parked right on it. It was a good spot, and I leaned against the front tyre of the bike, putting my gloves between the tyre and the back of my head. With the ground vibrating with every passing truck and the warm sun on my face, I immediately fell asleep.
I woke up and wondered where Juha was. I was absolutely convinced that he was parked behind me and I was surprised to see him gone. Once my brain was back online along with reality, I felt surprisingly fresh after sleeping only 45 minutes. Before getting back on the road I stripped down to my Dakars and had some chocolate to get going again. On the road, the rain came immediately and I had to stop again to put on the GoreTex gear.
Rolling west I had a halfhearted internal debate about what to do next. Since I was so close to Estonia, it really made no sense to stop for just a little bit more of Russia. Instead I pushed to the border. I had originally planned on crossing at Luhamaa, but an Estonian friend recommended Koidula instead. Arriving at the border I realised that I had bought nothing remotely resembling a souvenir from Russia or Mongolia. The Wild River MC bikers in Novosibirsk had given me a bottle opener which would have to do.
The Russian side of the border went nice and smoothly. The only minor glitch was my passport which was in pretty bad shape. It had taken a beating during the wet days in the 110. Especially when I fell right into a puddle with the bike landing on top of me. Apparently my zip lock bag, containing the passport, had been through enough abuse at that point to keep water out. As the officer handed me back the passport and wished me safe travels, I realised that the adventure was really over. I was back in the EU. Just as my passport, which had started the adventure in mint shape, my bike and myself were equally beat up and battered, needing some maintenance and rest.
Stopping at a parking lot on the border I switched back to my Finnish SIM card and called my wife. She was happy to hear I was in one piece and that our date in Tallinn was definitely on. I also texted Tiit Rand, an Estonian adventure riding legend, who had given me advice on Russia and Mongolia before our ride. He lived pretty close to the border so we agreed to meet for dinner later at night in Voru.
Voru was only 30 km away from the border, but I decided to take smaller gravel roads instead of the main road from the border. It took a while longer, but was also a good cool down ride after all the tarmac. It also felt like an easier transition from Russia into the west. Soon enough I arrived at a hotel Tiit had organised. I did not waste time hauling my gear into the room. I was due to meet with Tiit at 2000, so after a quick shower I was soon asleep.
After two hours of sleeping like a corpse my alarm went off and brought me back to semi-consciousness. I was wondering where Juha was and what had happened to the meat smugglers from Afghanistan. Most of all I was wondering where on earth was I. The hotel room was completely alien to me. Little by little the pieces came together, sleep and reality separated and I regained full consciousness.
Tiit showed up at the hotel on time with his car and we rode to town for dinner. It was a nice evening as it was great to have a long conversation with a person for a change, and especially because that person was Tiit Rand. He had done some pretty serious rides on his ’96 TransAlp; three tours in Mongolia and a BAM road solo to mention a few. He had had a close call in Mongolia, and I admired his mental strength and attitude. We could have traded war stories all night, but he had a family to look after and I desperately needed more sleep.
He dropped me off at my hotel and being an adventure rider he wanted to have a look at my 690. After a little chitchat over the bike we said our farewells and he took off. Walking up to my room I was pretty sure I’d see him further down the trail sooner or later.
It had been a long two days with 1861 km of riding and very little sleep. I was out as soon as I hit the pillow.
DAY 46, 47 / FAMILIAR TERRAIN
13.-14.8.2014 / Voru – Parnu / 203 km / 17 902 km total.
I woke up at 0700 feeling pretty fresh, after sleeping like a baby through the night. An hour later I crept down to get some breakfast. The restaurant of the spa hotel was full of pretty and vibrant fitness girls and other wellness enthusiasts. I probably stuck out like sore thumb with with my haggard face and Pantera t-shirt. I didn’t want to linger, and was soon back in my room mapping out a route for the day.
I finally made it out of the hotel at around midday and took to the road feeling deflated. I had mapped out a nice route on small roads. Or supposedly mostly on dirt but there was no way of knowing as I hadn’t bothered checking all of the satellite imagery. I just made sure the rivers had bridges and that was it.
I had always loved Estonia for to its nice people, good food and an accommodation range from dirt cheap to luxury. From Helsinki Tallinn was just a two hour ferry ride away, and I’d done some street bike rides with friends through Estonia and the Baltic states. I had never ridden the dirt tracks though, so I was excited to ride through the country on smaller roads than on the street bikes.
The scenery was great. The Soviet era and it’s heritage was clearly visible but Estonia had recovered remarkably well. Not only in Tallinn but also in the countryside. They had an eye for aesthetics; beautiful farm yards and gardens dotted the countryside. After riding through Russia and Mongolia the architecture in Estonia seemed like a film set.
The weather had cooled down and I stopped briefly to put on my jacket, before continuing. There was an ominous dark cloud right on my route and I was pretty sure I would get wet. Despite the possibility of a reroute around it, I rode right under it. The day would be short so I just did not care about the possibility of riding the last hour or two in wet gear. So I kept on my trail and rode straight into the heart of darkness. Light subdued and sound became dull. I could see birches rocking in the choppy wind. As the first drops came, I stopped to protect my DSLR, as it was located in the now open tank bag due to the broken lid zipper. After wrapping the DSLR into a dry bag, I looked up at the sky and rode on. Hard rain fell in huge drops, stinging my face below the goggles. I hadn’t even bothered to put on my over-pants and my boots were drenched within seconds. I could feel water trickling down my calves and filling the boots. The cloud was ferocious but it was short lived and I continued through forest roads to Parnu.
The reason to ride to Parnu instead of Tartu was Aleksandripub, a local biker bar with accommodation. I’d been there on every ride through Estonia, so it seemed like the right place to get some rest. I had two days to kill before meeting my wife in Tallinn, so I decided to spend the last two nights in Pärnu. Doing nothing would be a welcome change and I would possibly get some laundry and maintenance done. They had nice affordable rooms and cabins as well as a good garage for bikes and a nice restaurant.
I was there pretty early in the afternoon so there was plenty of time to kill. It felt like the first time in a long while, that there was no rush to whatever next obstacle or waypoint. All sense of urgency and anticipation was gone, and I felt empty and numb. The evening passed lazily while I wrote my trail notes and observed the crowd. It was surprisingly quiet, with only a few drunken Harley riders discussing whatever adventures they were returning from or going to. After dinner I was out.
The next day passed equally lazily, while sorting out laundry and tinkering with the bike. The 690 was still in good shape, but it had developed a tap in the top end and was not starting as well as it used to. It would definitely survive the ride home, but I needed to have a look at the valve clearances eventually.
As they day drew to a close I realised that it was in fact the last day of the ride by myself. The next day I would ride the last section to Tallinn where I would finally meet my wife for the first time in almost eight weeks.
DAY 48 / THE TRAIL ENDS
15.8.2014 / Parnu – Tallinn / 249 km / 18 152 km total.
After a full day and a half of rest I was happy to get back on the road again. There was plenty of time so I decided to stick to the coastline, instead of taking the direct route to Tallinn. Riding through the countryside was just like a Sunday ride. Cruising around on small tarmac roads and rural dirt tracks.
My mind was detached of everything what had happened in the previous weeks, and of the significance of the day. In fact I felt almost detached from everything. Reality only hit me when the dirt track I was on connected with a tarmac road. It was the end of the trail on Eastern Dirt 14. The last bit of dirt was finished and the only thing left was the ride home.
The last section to Tallinn was uneventful and I soon pulled up to the hotel we had booked for the weekend. I was happy to find out the hotel had safe parking for the bike as it would have to sit there for three nights.
DAY 49 / DAY OFF IN TALLINN
16.8.2014 / Tallinn / 0 km / 18 152 km total.
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.