DAY 8 / DESTRUCTION AND MISERABLE RETURNS
27.7.2015 / Wólka Biszewska, Poland – Bukowa Mała, Poland / 229 km, 1953 km total
I woke up to another beautiful sunny morning. The excellent mood was further improved, when we realised that we had enough fumes in a gas cartridge to boil water. We sat for a while, enjoying a cup of coffee and a sandwich, before breaking camp early. Our route took us SE, towards the Belarusian border, on familiar agricultural terrain.
When designing the route, I’d spotted an old bunker in satellite imagery. It was part of the Molotov Line, a system of Soviet defences constructed between 1940-1941 to protect their western borders. Unfortunately for the Soviets, most the Molotov line was incomplete during Operation Barbarossa, and did little to hinder the invasion of the German forces.
The coordinates proved true and we found the bunker on a small hill, camouflaged by trees. It had clearly met a grisly end, as all of the the gun slots were blown out. I hoped no one was inside when it was destroyed, but unfortunately that was unlikely in war. We climbed in to take a look at the destroyed fortification. It had two levels; a bottom level for storing munitions, and a winch to hoist them to the second level, which had housed artillery or an anti-tank gun and machine guns. The mood was somewhat sombre, and peering out of the bunker and seeing a farmer working the field below felt oddly out of place. I wondered whether any of the Germans, that had fought the bunker on their way east, had survived their brutal campaign in the Soviet Union and limped back west past the same bunker in defeat, with the Red Army on their heels.
Our southbound trail continued with several sections of tarmac, but closing in on the Belarusian border, we found a lovely dual track over short grass. I attacked it with gusto and enjoyed the undulating terrain and great traction. After a while of riding, I stopped to take a photo of the guys, but they were not in vicinity, nor did they follow me. There had been some ditches on the trail and I was worried whether one of them had taken a tumble. Doubling back, to my relief I saw both guys up and moving on the field, so neither of them had probably not crashed hard. But they had taken off their gear which indicated some kind of issue.
The problem was with Perra’s bike, which refused to start. When hitting the starter button, the starter relay and the the speedo would buzz, but nothing else would happen. We took the fairings off to investigate further, but could not find any obvious issues, even with the help of a multimeter. Luckily Perra was well insured and he called his insurance company. They informed Perra that they’s send road service, but we would need to get the bike bike on a road first. I had a rope, which we connected to Johan’s Super Tenere, then Perra’s bike, and we were soon back on tarmac.
Everyone was hungry, so I rode back to a nearby village to get some food. The mood improved slightly when I pulled two cold beers for the Swedes from my luggage. However Per was pretty pissed off, and I felt really sorry for him. It must have been a bitter disappointment for him, especially after all the problems he had had with his bike. Despite running further checks, we got no wiser about the source of the problem. It was strange, as the starter relay was functioning and battery voltage was at 13V.
Four hours later the roadside assistant agent arrived. He immediately said that it was probably a battery problem, and pulled out a set of jumper cables. I was skeptical, but to my surprise the bike roared to life with the help of the external power. The joy soon disappeared, as the bike died immediately as the cables were disconnected. We tried charging the battery for a while with the same results. The battery was somehow damaged, and the roadside assistant agent told Perra, that he’d put the bike on the truck and take it to a local electrician who had experience with bikes. If it didn’t help, he’d then haul the bike to the nearest KTM, which was in Lublin, 150 km away.
It was sad to see the 950 pushed onto the truck, and having to say goodbye to the Swedes so abruptly. The mood was melancholic, after a week on the trails together and then see the team split in such circumstances. Once they left, I didn’t want to rush off, but instead sat down. I was suddenly alone, and would remain so indefinitely. It was a little overwhelming, especially since I would be heading into Ukraine next. I felt low, depleted and undecided about what to do next. But I knew there had never been any guarantees about anything, and the future was mine to shape. So after a deep breath, I packed up and rode back to the southbound trail.
After a quick refuelling and dinner stop, I continued to push towards the Ukrainian border. It was boring tarmac, but making progress felt nice. I was back in a good mood, which might have also been due to the massive dinner of ribs, French fries, salad, pie and coffee I had at the truck stop earlier. Progress was good, band as night fell, I started looking for a campsite. It turned out easier said than done though, and I ended up on a gnarly forest trail with deep tractor ruts. To make things worse, it started to rain and I was forced to head back to tarmac.
The rain soon soaked me, and I decided to take make camp at the first possible spot I would find. Luckily, after turning to a random gravel road, a spot where I could camp appeared on the edge of a field. My tent was up in record speed, and I crawled into it to take shelter from the rain. Suddenly the world slowed down, as all sense of urgency disappeared. I pushed my wet riding gear to the opposite side of tent and lay on my sleeping pad, listening to the rain.
I was only about ten metres from the gravel road, but I was not expecting traffic and felt fairly safe. The mood quickly changed, as a set of headlights washed over my tent. I knew I had been seen, and listened to a change in the revs of the car. It was a relief to hear it pass without slowing, but I wondered whether I should pack up and move. In the end fatigue won and I decided to stay put. I listened carefully to my surroundings, but all I heard was rain.
DAY 9 / TIME TRAVEL
28.7.2015 / Bukowa Mała, Poland – Posnykiv, Ukraine / 285 km, 2238 km total
The dry fabric of the tent rustled, as I crawled out to meet the beautiful morning. The rain was long gone, and the landscape bathed in warm sunshine. The mood of the campsite had been dramatically different just a few hours earlier in rain and darkness. I sat for a while, enjoying the weather, before breaking camp and riding to the Ukrainian border.
The border, in my mind, was a very real transition into the next part of the expedition. It felt like an increase in seriousness, as I was very much alone, and entering the unfamiliar terrain and culture of Ukraine. Before riding to customs and immigration, I exchanged currency and had a hearty breakfast of a hamburger with fries, and plenty of coffee. I had the feeling it would be the last taste of the West for a while.
As I pulled up to the queue of cars, a border guard immediately waved me past them. Twenty five minutes later I was in Ukraine, riding east and admiring the long queue of trucks going the other way. They were clearly in for a much longer crossing.
Turning off the main highway, the clock went back decades. The agricultural villagers still used horse drawn carriages on the roads and chickens ran around in the villages. I did not have much time to savour the scenery though, as I turned off the gravel road to a small trail and headed onto the Ukrainian section of the Crimson Trail.
Ukraine was clearly a step up in riding difficulty, compared to Poland and the Baltic states. The trails quickly became tricky and the pace slowed down significantly. It was a little tiring, and finding a rhythm was somewhat difficult as there was so much variation in the terrain. What started off as a rutted sandy forest trail with deep puddles, turned into a trail at the edge of an overgrown field with vegetation over the handlebars. To make matters even more turbulent, I was hit by a short but fierce thunderstorm. I was utterly drenched even before managing to get my rain gear on, and by the time I did, the storm had already passed.
Further east, the trail connected with service roads on huge fields. I had never seen anything like it, and the fields seemed to flow on forever like an ocean of crop. The riding was luxuriously fast with good traction, and I was making good progress.
My goal for the day was to link up with Walter Colebatch’s Sibirsky Extreme Trail. It began further south on the Ukrainian border, and I had planned a route to connect with it in the town of Mlyniv. It was getting late and as the sun was already low, so I decided to fast track on tarmac to get there before darkness.
The plan almost worked, and I arrived in Mlyniv at dusk. I didn’t have time to celebrate connecting with the Sibirsky Extreme trail, and instead refuelled, bought food and hurried onto the trail to find a place to camp. Luckily this time, finding a camping spot was much easier than during the previous night. The trail was small, with no traffic and I quickly found a field I liked, and rode onto it.
I had been lucky, as finding a camping spot in darkness was tricky, and I didn’t like the fact that everyone in the area could see my headlight, but I would be completely oblivious of them. After killing the engine, I sat for a good while, and listened to my surroundings. Aside from the familiar barking of dogs, all was quiet and I pitched my tent quietly in darkness.
DAY 10 / THE SIBIRSKY EXTREME TRAIL
29.7.2015 / Posnykiv, Ukraine – Nova Huta, Ukraine/ 424 km, 2662 km total
Getting back on the trail early was always preferable to lazing around at camp in the morning. Despite the late arrival at the campsite the previous night, I was was out on the trail at around 0740. One contributing factor might have been the overcast sky, or the prospect of finally getting to ride the Sibirsky Extreme trail.
The trail was initially nice and fast, but soon deteriorated as I ventured into a forest. The terrain became increasingly overgrown and deeply rutted, so even with the 690 care had to be taken to avoid getting stuck. I knew I was off track, as I was on the wrong side of a derelict railway, which ran through the forest. I had tried to follow the original route to the other side of it, but had been stopped by a guard and forced to turn around. I didn’t want to head back out to tarmac, and instead decided to navigate a new route on the fly. Navigating was perhaps a strong word for the operation, as the map in my Garmin Montana was completely blank in the area. So in the absence of data, I headed east, trying to avoid a river that I knew was somewhere in my proximity. The forest was strangely dark and the mood was eerie. I did not want to linger.
Pushing through wall of vegetation, to my surprise, I suddenly popped onto a gravel road, which led me back onto the SibEx trail. I was happy about making it back on route, but I’d grown a certain sense of dread for any sections within forests. They seemed to deteriorate very quickly, and made for very tricky riding, especially after all the rain of the previous days.
The overcast sky turned into rain, and progress became miserably slow. The trail was incredibly soft, slippery and rutted. It took me two and a half hours to cover a measly 70 km, and I could feel exhaustion creeping into my body. The riding was one thing, but I had been eating much too little since the big meal in Poland two days earlier.
I stopped briefly at a tiny village along the trail, to do some shopping. To address the issue of the missing calories, I bought wafers, soda, chocolate and peanuts. The brief pause from the trail was welcome and I had a chat with the nice shop owner. An old gentleman with bandaids all over his face joined the conversation, and despite his strange appearance, he was very friendly.
After the village, the trail deteriorated further, into unbelievably soft sand, and progress slowed down to a crawl. My high-carb lunch didn’t help long and the clutches of fatigue took a tighter grip of my body, and worse still degraded my morale. The deep muddy ruts I had ridden earlier, seemed far preferable to the soft sand that was slowing me down.
Taking a small break, I assessed the situation. I was well behind schedule and Ukraine was much slower than I’d expected. Also, the weather was miserable, and the dozen or so countries, where my trail would head next, were further south and presumably warmer and drier. It might be that the cumulative fatigue of riding ten days straight, along with the calorie starved diet, affected my logic, but nevertheless I decided to cut the eastern section of the trial in Ukraine and head south. It was a bittersweet decision to get off the SibEx trail, as I’d miss the abandoned towns around Chernobyl, but hopefully be rewarded with better weather and faster trails. Also, I was eager to get off the North European Plain, and head up to mountains.
I hated to admit it, but getting back on faster tracks, and finally on tarmac felt good. It was not so much a question of the ease of riding, than that of progress. Being behind schedule had increasingly bothered me, and doing something about it rekindled my focus and hope. It was also nice to see something else, than an endless wall of trees that lined the trails.
The day progressed on a generally southbound route. The pressure of fighting the trails was off for the time being, and fortunately the also rain came to an end. I suddenly had time to focus on others things, such as coffee, food and the scenery. Ukraine was incredibly beautiful, and I stopped to just enjoy the views on the edge of a field. It was the perfect spot to enjoy a late picnic lunch of bread, cheese, tomatoes and chocolate.
I had made good progress during the day and wanted to avoid having to find a campsite in the dark again. As the sun approached the horizon and the shadows grew, I turned off the southbound road and scouted for a campsite. There was a lot of work going on in the fields, but I found a safe spot on the far end of a field, tucked behind a small hill. It was extremely luxurious to get off the bike with daylight to spare and just enjoy the beautiful evening. I was utterly exhausted and would have happily set up camp immediately and just crawled into my sleeping bag. But as I was travelling solo, I just leaned back against the front tyre of the 690, observed my surroundings and enjoyed the sunset. Under the cover of darkness, I finally pitched my tent.