DAY 29 / MUDDY FENDERS
27.7.2014 / Ulan Ude / 6 km / 9584 km total.
Morning came too soon, but I woke up feeling more or less fresh. I had promised some travel documents to our new Belgian friend with the Land Cruiser and he showed up at 1030, after breakfast. With the file transfers done, it was time to head down to meet Sergei. Walking down the staircase, I was starting to feel a little off. The previous night had been easy so it was not a hangover, but something else. I was hoping that I wouldn’t get sick.
Sergei pulled up to the hotel and we unloaded our fresh tires from the roof of his land cruiser 80. We wouldn’t change them yet, but instead ride the long stretch of tarmac to Tynda on old tyres, sprockets and chain. We would change into fresh tyres there to have everything ready for the BAM. After dropping the tyres into the hotel room, we followed Sergei into his huge garage. There must have been six or seven 4×4:s and three bikes.
We got to work immediately and I changed engine oil, oil filters and oil sieves. We decided to let the valve clearance check wait as there were no signs of the clearance being off. The forks got fresh oil to replace the black water they contained. We also cleaned up the fork seals with a Seal Doctor, a truly handy piece of kit.
The front bracket on Juha’s Rally Raid engine guard had broken into two, but Sergei was quickly on the case. He made an exact replica of the original but out of steel instead of aluminium. He welded horizontal supports for extra durability. The UHD bracket á la Sergei was born.
As we we worked, I chatted with Sergei about the possible routes. Especially the 110. He said his friends lived very close to the first ford and provided him with real time information on water levels. He repeated that water was low at the moment. I found the 110 more interesting than the BAM and a plan started to take shape in my mind.
During the service work, I had started to feel increasingly ill. Getting back to the hotel room I had full on diarrhoea. I felt pretty weak and just lazed around in the room in the afternoon. In the mean time Tolga had finally caught up with us. He was also suffering form a Mongolian bug but in good spirits. Apparently he had better medication than me and was happy to share.
It was cool to see him again, and the conversation quickly picked up from where we had left it. After being separated from us, he had been leaving signs on the road to communicate his whereabouts. He had made T’s our of rocks with an arrow pointing forward. Obviously we had missed all of them and apparently passed him the next morning, while he was still in his hotel room.
In the evening we went back to enjoy the lovely shashlik in Bochka and a late night beer at the hotel before calling it a night.
DAY 30 / A CHANGE OF PLANS
28.7.2014 / Ulan Ude / 0 km / 9584 km total.
The morning was pretty miserable, but Tolga’s magic pills had calmed things down a bit. We met over breakfast and it quickly became obvious that everyone was in the same condition. Juha hadn’t taken any medication, so he was probably the worst off. I was happy to have everything inside on hold and just felt depleted.
After four weeks on the road, I decided to get a Russian SIM card. Why I hadn’t taken care of it earlier was a mystery to me. I was suddenly back to the 21st century with mobile data. I also checked the latest news on ADVRider and stumbled upon RTWPaul’s amusing account on meeting with us on the trail earlier in Mongolia.
The day passed quickly. I was gathering as much information as I could on the two possible routes that lay ahead of us in the following days. I had been dreaming of riding the western BAM for a long time, but now the thought of attempting to ride the 110 had taken hold of my mind. It seemed more magical. The 110 saw no traffic aside from the rare 4×4 expedition and was completely uninhabited save for bears and other wildlife. As far as I knew, it was also technically harder and ridden much less frequently by bikes than the western BAM. In fact I only found a single documented ride through it. A true adventure in my mind. Not that I didn’t want to ride the western BAM too, but it would be available for an attempt from the west if we made it though the 110.
I had another chat with Sergei and the water levels were still holding low. The main obstacle was the Barguzin River, which would need to be crossed twice to gain access to the trail north. Sergei’s view was that we could maybe get across the fords but the route would be risky with only two bikes and no support. I also had a chat with Mishutka, the Russian rider who had led the previous ride through the 110. His view was that a team of three to four bikes would be optimal, and a team of two would have to be “very strong” to make it. I was certainly not feeling strong at the moment, but an opportunity to sneak across the Barguzin at low water seemed too precious to pass by. Besides, The Walrus was a huge guy and I figured he’d count for two people easily.
I had made up my mind and had a chat with The Walrus. He didn’t object to changing the plan and calmly suggested that we ride up to the Barguzin River and make the final decision there. In case it turned out to be an impassable obstacle, we could double back and ride to Tynda for our bid on the western BAM, losing only three days.
Lying in bed at night, I had trouble falling asleep. We had stayed in Ulan Ude long enough and I was anxious to get going. It wasn’t that, keeping me awake, though. The 110 had taken a hold of me and the familiar rush of adrenaline hummed in my ears. The embers of the adventure were relit.
DAY 31 / MONSTERS
29.7.2014 / Ulan Ude – Yarikta / 369 km / 9952 km total.
It felt as if we’d been in Ulan Ude forever. I was happy to wake up to a new morning and eager to get an early start. It never worked that way though with hotel departures. Something always came up or time passed just lazing around, enjoying the last comforts of civilisation. I had to pop into an MTS store to sort out a snag with my Russian SIM card and Juha decided to get one too.
In the end we were packed up and ready to at around noon. Tolga was also packed up and on his way out of Ulan Ude. He was headed to Irkutsk, from where his journey to Magadan would continue via a ferry from Ust Kut to Lensk. It sounded like an awesome plan.
We took a final group photo and said our goodbyes. I hoped to see Tolga somewhere along the trail at some point. On the current ride it would be unlikely though as our paths would not cross unless something went very wrong. So it would be a while.
Juha and I had decided to change our fresh tyres at the last minute so we were carrying the new Mitas’ on our bikes. The bikes looked like yard sales. Embarrassing. We all rode out of the hotel parking lot and headed north. The last ride of the trio came to and end at the intersection to Irkutsk. With a wave of his hand, Tolga was gone.
I had found the coordinates of a nuclear missile silo in the HUBB’s POI list for Northern Asia. It was located 20 km north of Ulan Ude, but unfortunately pretty inaccessible due to road constructions. It would have been interesting to see it. Instead, we continued to Turuntaevo to refuel and have a bit of lunch. There was a mood of stocking up for the next few days which might end up being quite hard.
The ride towards the eastern shore of Lake Baikal was on tarmac but the scenery was great. We swerved up and down mountainsides, making our way to the huge lake. Its presence could be felt several kilometres away. The cold breath of the great body of water welcomed us as we made it downhill to the sandy shores.
The beaches were packed with holidaymakers. It looked like a giant campsite and I’m sure they had nice parties night after night. We stopped to enjoy the view and a local guy in a 4×4 rolled up for a chat. He asked me where we were going, and I told him about our plan to ride the 110. He was from that area and knew it well. He also told me that riding it was impossible. I smiled and told him we’d have a look anyway. He and his wife smiled quietly back at me, like I was a foolish child. They were probably right. Before taking off they gave me a can of meat, probably guessing that we’d need it on our adventure. Very friendly people.
After refuelling in Ust Barguzin, we saw the Barguzing River for the first time. We rode over it just outside of town, before it connects with Lake Baikal. Even from the bridge, the river looked huge. It was maybe 300 m wide and flowed lazily. I was pretty intimidated, knowing that we would have to cross it twice, without the luxury of bridges, to gain access to the BAM. Further north it wouldn’t be as wide, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a brook either. Sergei had said that water was low and so far all evidence pointed to that. We’d find out the following day about the true state of things. Luckily the weather was still holding and we were riding in the warm sun, wearing just our jerseys over armour.
We got resupplied further down the road in Barguzin village. It was also a chance to have a chat about the road ahead with some locals. They talked about the 110 as if they rode it every day to get to the BAM. They even said a group of bikers had passed through it not days ago. I had a feeling that the group he mentioned was probably the Mongolian Cosmonauts from the previous year. Not that I’d have minded having company. In fact, having a local 4×4 crew to ride along with would have been ideal.
We rode maybe 50 km further in very dusty conditions before taking a side road and setting up camp for the night. The evening passed quickly as we changed our tyres and had a bite to eat. Before turning in, I put all our food in a dry bag and hung it off a tree outside of our camp. Luckily we were close to the road and houses, but this was getting very close to proper wilderness where bears roamed freely. Waking up to a bear rummaging through our stuff at night was a thought I couldn’t shake off.
DAY 32 / WATER
30.7.2014 / Yarikta – Ruhlovskogo Pass / 236 km / 10 188 km total.
I overslept the alarm with an hour and woke up at 0730. Despite the excitement of the road laying ahead of us, we enjoyed coffee and cheese sandwiches, before packing up. We dropped back down to the road, from our camp in the hills, and headed north. It was a 150 km ride to the first ford on the Barguzin River, and we stopped briefly in Kurumkan for fuel, water and some food. I was so anxious to see the first ford, that the world around me seemed to be moving in slow motion. Leaving the town, the road seemed to grow emptier and quiet.
The rumours of a petrol station in the village of Alla turned out to be true, and we left the village in our dust with full tanks. We were now prepared, with the last 50 km to go to mighty Barguzin River. It was the first obstacle and perhaps the last on our push north. I was completely possessed by it.
Riding north, the road was clearly less used. The terrain gained a certain wildness to it, with evidence of high water in the not too distant past. Passing the last village of Ulyunhan, we had ten kilometres to go.
The road ended. Blocked by the Barguzin River river. A hundred metres wide, with deep fast flowing channels between wide rocky rapids. The attack line of the ford was clearly visible, as the road plunged right into the river where we had arrived. It looked like it was used mostly by 6WD trucks, and seemed too deep for bikes.
Juha didn’t waste any time, and immediately waded in. He was quickly thigh deep in fast flowing water, and looked back at me. His expression said it all; we would not be able to cross here.
Sergei had told me that he had friends living by the first ford, and that they might be able to help us across. Unfortunately the location had been vague and there was no sign of the house. We decided to have a look around and took a small road leading north, on the bank of the river. The few houses there seemed uninhabited. Instead we found a parking lot with plenty of cars by the river. There was a pedestrian suspension bridge over the water and a clear ford next to it. According to the map it was an island in the river.
We decided to investigate whether we would find answers there and I rode into the river. The crossing was tricky, with slick bolders strewn around the bottom. The realisation of that being child’s play, compared to what lay ahead of us on the 110, cast a brief shadow of a doubt in my mind. We both made it across though and stumbled upon a holiday colony of sorts.
We parked and I went to have a chat with one of the locals. Actually not a local, but an Armenian holidaymaker. He was friendly but cast an inquisitive look when I told him about our plans. He said we would not be able to cross on the bikes. Furthermore, he told me we would need a permit to ride into the nature reserve on the other side. Still, I couldn’t make out exactly where the registration office was. We decided to ride back to have look around. There was another ford out of the island on the NE side, which turned out to be much easier. The scenery was magnificent.
Back at the ford, we investigated a road leading south and another one branching off the main road further back. They both ended up revealing nothing so we soon found ourselves back at the first ford. Juha had some family business to take care of, so I left him with the sat phone and took a walk.
Upstream, in the middle of the river, was a small sandy island scattered with debris. I walked up the southern bank to investigate whether it could be reached, and found a connection to the island via a chain of gravel bars and fordable rapids in the river. That would not grant passage over the river yet, though. The biggest obstacle between the island and the northern bank was a deep, fast flowing, channel. Attacking it directly from the island was impossible. It was too deep and ferocious. Just below the island, the channel seemed gradually get smaller as it fed a rapid flowing towards the southern bank.
From the island I waded into the wide rapid and followed it downstream. To my surprise a 4WD popped out of the forest on the northern bank and rode into the river. It made it across the channel and then turned directly towards me. Obviously they weren’t keen on crossing the deep section on the southern bank either and took the same route I just had. Standing knee deep in the river, I waved to them as they passed by. I hoped Juha would flag them down and have chat about getting a bike across a river.
The section of the channel where the 4WD had crossed was too deep for bikes so I followed the rapid downstream. It swung gently towards the northern bank where another gravel bar swung out to meet it. Almost. The channel was still there, between the bars, but it had lost a lot of its ferociousness. Crossing it, I found it deep and fast flowing, but narrower than upstream. Riding a bike across it would be risky, but the only option if we wanted to get to the 110.
Wading up to the northern bank, I decided to walk up the road to have a look whether I could find Sergei’s friends. I surprised to be met by dog, followed by a man with a huge water container in tow. It was an awkward meeting and we first just eyed each other. He must have been wondering whether I had lost my bike in the river, being clad in full MX gear and all. The conversation was scant, and he told me there was no house up the road. I found it quizzical as I expected him to have a domicile of sorts. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been lugging an aluminium water container around, wearing a pair of shorts and flip-flops. I decided not to push the issue, instead thanking him and walking back to the river. Getting back across was a lot harder going upstream than downstream.
Back at the bikes we had a brief debate about the situation and decided to make a final decision at the deep channel. We figured that getting the bikes to the island would be hard enough, and focusing on the problems one at a time was the best approach. Half a kilometre north of the ford, we rode into the river. The gravel bars and rapids were all smooth rocks and boulders. Finding grip was hard and we took a few tumbles. Luckily the water was shallow and the bikes did not drown. Reaching the island, I was feeling exhausted. We took a small break and stripped all luggage from the bikes to make them more manageable and add ride height for the deep section.
Attacking the channel one bike at a time seemed like the safest option and I rode in first with Juha following on foot. Cutting across the rapid was tough. The boulders were constantly guiding the bike downstream, and I repeatedly had to wrench the bike towards the narrow section in the channel. Reaching it, we had a short discussion. If we were to get on the 110, we would have to risk crossing the channel. I knew there would be no second attempt and I was fully committed. Playing into the decision of taking the risk, was probably also the prospect of having to ride all the way back to the southern bank. It would have been even harder work going upstream.
We decided to power walk the bike over the channel, with me on the upstream side operating the throttle. Juha was supporting on the downstream side. Little by little, boulder by boulder, we inched the bike into the channel. The flow became stronger as the bike went deeper. The flowing water started pushing against the bike and creating a wave that crept higher and higher up the side. It was getting very close to critical level so I moved my body forward to protect the air box intake from the flow. Choking the bike there in that channel would have meant serious problems. Fortunately the air box just cleared the water level, which started to ease off when we started ascending to the opposite gravel bar. It consisted of smaller rocks and I rode it standing on the pegs, to reach the beginning of the road. It had been a severe river crossing and having made it, I felt extremely relieved and exhilarated.
We waded back to fetch Juha’s bike over in the same fashion without incident and then another two trips for our luggage. Wading upstream and hauling all the luggage was hard work. When everything was on the northern bank, we took a break before packing the bikes. It had been a tough morning. Even though we had triumphed in the widest river crossing on the 110, we had only just gained access to the beginning of the road. Also, we were tired and completely wet. As we were just laying on the bank, a local sidled up to us and told us we would have to register in a rangers’ office. That’s when everything clicked. The rangers were the friends Sergei had mentioned. I told him we would soon follow him and he took off.
After packing up and taking to the road, we reached the rangers’ hut. It was the last inhabited house for 150 km. Having finally found it, we planned to camp there with the rangers, recover and hit the road the following morning with replenished energy. A few hikers were lazing around and the mood was jovial. It seemed like a great place to recuperate.
I walked into the rangers’ humble office to register and pay the nature reserve fee of 250 RUB per person. The rangers kept asking us about the rest of our crew, and when I told them it was just us, they were clearly surprised. They expected us to have a bigger team and a support vehicle. They also told us to get a move on as it would start raining later. Further north, the Barguzin River turned east, and the 110 would cross it for a second time. We had been very fortunate to have made it over the first ford due to low water. If it rained, the river would swell up and we would be trapped between the two crossings. This was bad news, but sunk in quickly. Wet and tired as we were, we had to move.
The second crossing was another sixty kilometres up the trail. Before leaving, I asked how the second ford was, and was told that it was narrower but deeper. That sounded pretty worrying as did the fact that there were a lot of bears in the nature reserve. The ranger did add though, that they didn’t bother people. To this notion we said our goodbyes and took off.
The road from the rangers’ hut was in good shape. A normal forest road, that had seen some maintenance. It ascended sharply to a mountain pass, and we quickly got cold in our drenched MX armour and jerseys. We briefly stopped to put on our Klim Gore-Tex jackets, and continued north. It would be a cold race to the second crossing.
The road twisted through the hills and dropped down into a lush valley. The skies looked threatening but it was still dry. The road was in good shape, with a makeshift bridge and some minor obstacles here and there. Mostly it was easy going and we were making good progress.
We had just connected with the Kovyli River, when rounding a bend I noticed a strange hulking shape in front of me. It was fleeing from me down the trail, and my initial reaction was that it was a huge dog. When I realised that it was in fact a bear, I hit the brakes. I just stared at it in disbelief. Too dumbstruck to take a picture. The way it moved was alien, lurching from side to side and looking back to see if we gave chase while it ran. Juha soon stopped next to me and we just watched the bear run off and disappear into the forest. I felt very fortunate to have seen one in the wild for the first time. It also dawned to me that they actually did exist here in large numbers, which resulted in a bitter sweet emotional cocktail of gratitude and anxiety. The Walrus, true to his character, just remarked that the only bears left here had learned to fear humans and wouldn’t bother us. I certainly hoped he was right.
The road ran parallel with the Kovyli River, reaching a closed wooden gate. We passed through it, closing it behind us and proceeded to pass the last evidence of civilisation. A small farm house and fields. Leaving them in our dust, we were soon at the Birankur River. The crossing was easy, but it had a totally different ambience than any other river I’d ever crossed. The air was thick with tranquility and the absence of human interaction. Debris, carried down by the river, lay in piles and we carved a path between them. Access was granted to us, not taken. We were visitors, not conquerors.
Our route took us in a generally straight line through the floor of the wide Kovyli Valley. The road was in good shape, but the skies kept growing darker, eventually covering us with a light drizzle. It was a stark reminder of why we had to keep moving. Reaching the crossing of the Kovyli River, I was feeling overconfident and target oriented. The river was flowing fast, but I rode straight into a line I had spotted. I only made it across maybe a third of the way when I hit a boulder and fell on the right side of the bike. Taking falls was normal and the only damage was that the breather cap in my Rally Raid front tank had blown off. However, getting hurt so far away from civilisation was dangerous. I was annoyed at myself for the cockiness.
Feeling more humble, I continued up the trail which ascended for 400 vertical metres to a mountain pass. Until then the road had been very good, but quickly deteriorated as we descended into the valley that lead to the rendezvous with the Barguzin River. The terrain got sporadically marshy, with deep soggy pools stretching over the road. Being on bikes we managed to pass them on the solid turf on the sides of the road. Riding through the pools would have been risky as some of them had clearly been churned out by 6WD Ural trucks.
Crossing a small pool, I used the bank of the road to avoid riding into the water. I was carrying some speed and the bank ended up being completely soft. My front tyre sank in and before I knew it, I was airborne. In fact long enough to worry about the damage to my bike, before landing on the hard rocky road. Thanks to my full MX armour, I was just a little dazed. I went back to my bike to assess the damage and could see fluid gushing from underneath it. Dreading to find a smashed radiator, I picked up the bike. To my relief, the radiator was intact. Instead, the bottom of the right hand side front tank had been completely sheared off by a rock on the road. The taps on the front tanks were closed, so I only lost what fuel was in the destroyed tank. We had plenty of reserve, so I still had enough to make it through. Other than that, the bike was undamaged. Juha was already ahead of me so after catching my breath, I got back on the bike and rode on.
I caught up with Juha on the bank of the Barguzin River, and told him about the situation with the tank. As there was nothing to be done about it, we proceeded to figure out the crossing. The Walrus waded in and scouted an arcing line running downstream and then back up again. He rode over it with ease, but I was getting very tired and had to power walk my bike over. We had successfully crossed the Barguzin twice and were definitely in business. However we first needed to camp for the night and recuperate.
The scenery at the crossing was beautiful and would have made for a lovely spot to camp. Instead we decided to just take a break and head up into the mountains for the night. It was ironic that one of the reasons to camp in the mountains was that we thought there would be less bears than by the river. Riding up the steep mountain road, I recognised the familiar dark shadow on the road and hit the breaks. Or rather three shadows, in the form of a female with two grown cubs. I knew enough not get close, so I waited for Juha. The bears were ignoring us, with the female looking in our direction every now and then, but not moving off the road. We honked our horns and revved our engines, and eventually they started to move. It was almost humorous how in charge the female was. She was in no hurry to get off the road and made it clear that she walked into the forest because she chose to, not because she had to. We waited for a while before attacking that section of the road in Erzberg style.
Riding up towards the Ruhlovskogo mountain pass, we found a flat spot suitable for camping. We were wet and tired so getting a fire going was our top priority. Luckily we found some dry wood and before too long were warming up and drying in front of a roaring campfire. It was the only fire we had made during the four weeks on the road, and I think the fact that we were less than a kilometre from where we had met the bears had something to do with it.
The fire provided comforting heat and light and we had some snacks for dinner. We were both too tired to be interested in cooking, and a sudden shower eased the final decision considerably. We crawled into our tents, and in the comfort of my down sleeping bag, I finally started to warm up. I wrote my trail notes for the day and thought about everything that had happened. We had been very fortunate in several instances where things could have gone wrong. I didn’t like luck playing into the equation and needed to focus on not making mistakes. We may have crossed the Barguzin River twice, but the worst was ahead of us. After the overture, the 110 was about to begin.
The rain whispered in my ear and I drifted into an uneasy sleep, tormented by visions of drowning bikes and roaming bears.
DAY 33 / THE 110
31.7.2014 / Ruhlovskogo Pass – Novi Uoyan/ 158 km / 10 346 km total.
Consciousness crept back to me at around six in the morning. In fact it probably never fully left me during the cold night. Lying among all my wet riding gear, I had spent most of the night worrying about bears and river crossings. The constant hiss of the rain hadn’t subsided, and I somewhat stoically realised that the way back was shut. There would be no return across the Barguzin River, with all the rain having amplified its ferocity throughout the night. The only way out was forward, and making it through the 110. It was a sobering, yet fortifying realisation.
I lazed in my tent for another 45 minutes, hoping the rain would subside. Unfortunately it only grew stronger if anything. The only option was to leave the comfort of my sleeping bag, put on my cold, wet riding gear and crawl out into the rain. Mornings like that really were what Siberian enduro was all about. Enduring. Enduring fatigue, malnutrition, being cold and wet. Finding the mental strength to get up and out when the body resists. The reward on the other hand was priceless. Only for the mind though, for the body it was more of the same.
The rain clouds were drooped low and generous with the water. Our camp looked pretty bleak in the grey morning, as did our situation. We were on one of the most remote and hardest trails in Siberia. It had been raining all night and the rivers would only be increasingly difficult to cross as the day progressed. I told Juha we should skip coffee and get moving immediately. On the trail we would hopefully warm up and breakfast could be replaced by our trail snacks. If the rain subsided or we found shelter further down the trail, we could cook hot food. He agreed and we packed up hastily. Despite the exertion of breaking camp and packing up the bikes, I was still cold as we hit the trail.
We had camped near the Ruhlovskogo Pass and, after hitting the trail, we immediately passed the legendary view point. I recognised it from all the empty vodka bottles. The viewpoint would have given great views over the Barguzin River and mountains, but as the weather was so bleak, we rode right past it. Descending towards the Akumtu brook the road deteriorated. Water from the mountainside rushed down it in streams. The road had become deeply rutted, with rocks and debris scattered all over it.
Rounding the final bend of the descent, I noticed a huge dark structure ahead. It was an inaccessible bridge, towering over the Akumtu Brook. Water in the brook was strangely low and we crossed it with ease. Apparently there were several similar steel bridges on the 110. They had supposedly been flown in by helicopters and dropped next to the road to be put into place later. It never happened though and they were forgotten there. They were like the skeletons of long gone behemoths that had chosen to die there. Silent guardians. Save for the pouring rain, it was eerily quiet and time stood still.
We continued down the trail, which improved when it crossed flat ground. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at another brook with the hulk of a dead bridge looming in the background of the ford. We crossed it without issues and kept pushing onwards. The weather remained unchanged. It was still cold and miserable, with a steady rain beating down on us.
The trail was covered in small puddles, which seemed to grow as we advanced. They eventually spanned across the entire width of the road. They had muddy bottoms for the most part but weren’t deep, with water only up to the top of our tyres. I recognised some of them from the Cosmonauts’ video, where the they had seemed a lot deeper. Despite all the rain, water was still on the move instead of laying still in the valley bottom. With every river crossing there seemed to be more and more of it though.
The world was ominously dark with the thick rainclouds unloading on us. Visibility was still acceptable but the air seemed to consist mostly of water. We both had our goggles slung backwards. It would have been impossible to see through them and we were so slow anyway, that there was no need for them. It was almost as if I was in a bubble, traveling through the Siberian taiga. With the sound of my single cylinder breaking the surrealism. I felt as if we had been granted passage over the Barguzin, twice, only to be trapped on the northern side with only one way out. We were like flies navigating through a web, with the spider watching closely. Toying with its prey. There would be no conquering, only enduring and surviving the 110, if we were lucky and played it smart.
On a long straight I finally detected what I had been expecting to see. The 110 km signpost. It was apparently the only surviving signpost and what gave the road its name. I parked in front of it and Juha followed suit. The post was covered with stickers from 4WD expeditions. They liked to travel with luxuries and had even brought a wooden table and benches. The table was covered with initials and dates, all from 2014. We took some mandatory photos and I added The Rolling Hobo into the sticker collection on the sign. It was a somewhat celebratory moment, but we did not have time to linger. We had accomplished nothing yet. We were soon back on the road, with the elation of seeing the signpost quickly evaporating.
I had spent most of the night fretting over a final deep water crossing, I had seen in the Cosmonauts’ ride report from 2013. It had looked very deep and I apparently they had drowned at least one bike there. When the intimidating water crossing was finally in front of us, I burst out laughing. The road had been washed away but water was very low, with only a trickle in the bottom. We crossed it with ease and my heart was lighter, despite knowing that all the difficult technical riding was still ahead of us. There would be many rivers to cross, but they would hopefully be shallow. Very technical but shallow. At least we’d have a fair chance of riding across them instead of being stopped by deep water.
On our way to the bank of the Namana River, we crossed the Amnei River. It was there, where I expected to run into the first technical sections. We had left the long straight lines of the wide valleys behind us and were in a world of rock and stone. A technical trail, carved by water where the old road had been. A grey scar through the lush pine forests.
Riding the rocky trail was still easy, and I could stand on the pegs and carry speed. The 300 mm Rally Raid suspension was working well, despite the weight of the bike. I was able hit boulders straight on and just float over. Then again hitting one at an angle would have resulted in a completely different scenario. Walter Colebatch said that one of the things the 690 needs, is a suspension damper. Neither of us had bothered to fit one, but for the trail we were on, a it would probably have been a nice addition.
The Namana River was absolutely beautiful. A true wilderness river. Wild, remote and impassable. We rode down its eastern bank, navigating rocky obstacles where water had washed away the road. It was not too difficult, with another two river crossings with the signature dead bridges. Here and there the road climbed back into the forest and we rode through green wet tunnels of branches and foliage, drooped over the road.
Approaching the conflux with the Svetlaya River, the road started to disappear. Small rivers, fed by the generous rain, plummeted down the steep slopes to feed the Svetlaya River. All the sand and dirt was long gone and we were riding on boulders. Riding fast on the pegs would have been easier, but out of the question. The terrain was very technical and crashing from the pegs would potentially have resulted in serious injury. Riding boulders and technical rocky stuff from the seat was exhausting. The seat height on the 690 was tall, especially with the extra 50 mm of suspension we had. Balancing was delicate and I was constantly looking for the next boulder for foot support on either side. If I missed it, I went down and had to pick up the bike. I was doing everything I could to avoid that situation but went down three times in that section.
Just as I thought I was out of the rocky section, it had one more spanner to throw into the works. A narrow stream with boulder banks on each side barring the way. It didn’t look like much, but was tricky to ride across. Adding to the agony was the fact that the road was clearly visible right behind it. Clearing the final obstacle, I stopped, feeling exhausted from the rock garden. We took a break before continuing. Our supply of trail food was quickly diminishing.
Riding down the bank of the Svetlaya River, we came across a wide and flat gravel bank. It stuck out far into the river, which was very calm at the spot. We rode onto the bank and killed the engines. Time suddenly stood still and I could feel myself relaxing. It seemed as if it was the first opportunity to really observe my surroundings. Solemn mountains watching over the calm, graceful river. The air seemed to be clearer and the rain had subsided to a drizzle. Juha had some business in the forest so I had the place to myself for a while. It was a blissful break from the noise, the rain and the battle with the trail and the rivers. A little solace.
The mood quickly evaporated as I opened my tank bag to get my camera. The top lid of the Giant Loop Fandango had a zipper with two sliders. One of them had already come off earlier in Mongolia, and now the second one followed suit. It was a bit of a nuisance as I carried all my photographic equipment in the tank bag. Luckily I had some 4mm climbing cord with me for just such situations. It was not a pretty or practical fix, but secured the lid enough to keep my cameras onboard.
Soon Juha was back and we enjoyed the serene ambience for a while before firing up the engines. Time suddenly accelerated back to normal, noise whooshed into my helmet, the world shrunk to just the familiar tunnel vision of the trail, and my nerves steeled. We were back on the 110.
The trail continued down the rocky eastern bank of the Svetlaya River, and smaller rivers merged into it. The calm section was long gone, with the river picking up speed and force. The bank was rocky here and there but very enjoyable to ride in the beautiful scenery.
Further down the river the route became increasingly rocky as it climbed up, away from the bank. It had some steep sections, but nothing too difficult. Here and there water was rushing down the mountain, cutting across the trail. It had become somewhat normal for the road to disappear and be replaced by boulders and rock gardens.
The scenery changed again, and we were soon back in a lush forest. The tracks became muddy with the familiar puddles appearing. We were blocked by a huge puddle, much wider than the road. I opted to go around it through the thin forest, but Juha decided to take the direct route across. He immediately got stuck in soft mud. I, in turn, got my bike stuck in a ditch on the other side. I walked back to Juha and we wrestled the bike out of the muddy pit. It was nothing like the crisp waters of the rivers. The pool stank. After we managed to free my bike too, we were back on the trail. Our time at the bank of the majestic Svetlaya River came to and end as we turned east to meet the Ulug River.
We still had the greatest challenge ahead of us, and crossing the Ulug River was a light preview. It was an awkward crossing as the trail cut across the river in a bend. Juha rode in a large arc, crossing the river twice, but I opted for the direct route right up the river. It was hard work and I regretted not taking Juha’s line. On the other side of the crossing we took a small break. I knew that we would next be riding right into the heart of darkness, the Sramnaya Valley.
The ride to the Sramnaya River was a familiar blend of gravel road, puddles, rocky sections, small river crossings and mud. Some sections of the road were completely churned out by 4WD’s and filled with water. One section had a wide turf bank on its side and we were able to ride on it. The turf was soft though, with small ditches running out from the road here and there. I was carrying speed to clear the soft turf and managed to get my front wheel caught in a rut. I immediately came off the bike, landing onto the waterlogged road. Unfortunately the bike followed suit and landed on top of me. The problem was that that if I had moved, the bike would have probably drowned. So I had to stay put, pinned under the bike in water. Luckily Juha was riding behind me, and came to my rescue. Any parts of my body, that the Gore-Tex gear had kept dry, were now drenched.
The beginning of the Sramnaya Valley was unlike anything I had ever seen. The walls of the valley were steep, rising 500 m on both sides as the valley plunged down almost 400 m in just eight kilometres. The river was wild and fast flowing, with boulders strewn around the riverbed. The rains had seriously swelled it and the river had a generally menacing demeanour to it.
We crossed the Sramnaya River several times, as the road zig zagged between the steep walls of the valley. The first crossings were easier, with some sand in the bottom and boulders only here and there. Further down the valley it got more technical as the crossings got deeper with more boulders. In the end the road went straight into the river and disappeared. I looked at the route in disbelief. I couldn’t see the exit line and there was no way back. Somehow we had to find a way onward.
I parked my bike and waded into the river. We were above an impassable section so I waded right across to the other side where the river was met by a steep wall. I could make out a general line down and kept following it until I saw the exit. It was on the same side as our bikes, but we would have to cut across the river, ride down and cut across again to reach it. With lower water levels there may have been a road but now everything was under gushing water. I signalled the line to Juha and he attacked it immediately. I admired his commitment and attitude. There was no need for discussion or room for doubts. This was our line and we had to take it or stay there forever. There would be no help from anyone if we failed. True adventure enduro.
Juha made it across and down the river, while I waded back up to my bike. I started the 690 and attacked the line. The traverse was tricky with water pushing me hard downstream with the tyres giving very little grip on the smooth boulders. I tried not to look ahead further than two meters, instead focusing on each problem at hand. I made it across and started down the line towards the next traverse. I hit a boulder and put my foot out for support and found nothing. I fell down helplessly with my bike, which fortunately remained propped on a boulder and didn’t drown. Juha waded up to support my bike as I made my way down to his. The traverse back to the other side was between a waterfall and a deep pool. Crossing it was pretty daunting, but we made it across and back to the track.
The trail was immediately washed away and we made our way down the bank on boulders and rocks. It was strangely exhilarating. Pure action and focus on the task at hand. Moving forward, no matter how slow. I knew that the river would end in a lake a few kilometres further down so the river couldn’t go on forever. We just had to keep moving.
The trail disappeared into a narrow channel of large boulders, wedged between steep walls. There were no more any indications of a trail or a line of any kind. It was just a gushing white water chute without an exit line in sight. Juha scouted it and indicated that the exit was maybe 50-100 m further downstream. He came back up and then rode down the right hand side of the river. I was amazed that he was on the bike as there was no way to see what was below the surface of the water. His luck came to and end and he went down. I saw him struggling to get up and immediately waded into the river to give assistance. I was surprised to find the bottom consisting only of large boulders with wide gaps of deep water between. I had to feel my way ahead with my feet and hope for grip. I naturally fell in between boulders, and went down to my chest in the icy water. After scrambling out of the pit, I reached Juha and backed him up the last section, which he tackled in good form. Juha, true to his style, commented dryly that he didn’t recommend trying to ride it.
We went back up to my bike and power walked it down the boulder chute. Juha had memorised the route and guided us through. It went pretty well, except that I missed a step and fell deep between the boulders again. I ended up in a pit with the bike standing on the boulders beside me. The handlebars were at level with my head. It was insane, but we made it through. Finally both bikes were again on the trail, in working condition. Unfortunately we were still on the wrong side of the river.
A bumpy trail of boulders and rocks took us to another crossing of the Sramnaya River. It was an easy perpendicular line across the river and gave us no trouble. I hoped it was the last crossing, as the trail continued down the rocky western bank of the river. Little by little, dirt crept between the boulders, puddles formed and streams rushed across the trail. The steep rocky walls were replaced by slope with a lush forest. The trail remained technical but felt luxuriously fast after the battle with the river. It was still close and visible through the trees, but we were moving away from it. I knew that our business with the Sramnaya River was done.
We stopped briefly at a small clearing in the forest, to eat whatever we had left of our trail food. I ate my last chocolate bar and then I was out. The BAM Road was still over seventy kilometres away and there were several rivers on the map. Terrain around the lake was also a big question mark. I did not know what to expect, but hoped that we would make it to the town of Novi Uoyan on the BAM, before nightfall. Otherwise it would have been another wet and cold night of miserable camping. So I was eager to get back on the bike and hit the forest trail. It would also keep us warm as opposed to just standing around.
The rocky road in the forest spat us out onto a wider muddy trail. The forest seemed to back away little and I could see the sky again. The muddy road was churned out by 6WD trucks and extremely slippery. Juha was riding ahead of me and I managed to get my tyres caught in different parallel ruts. I went down immediately. The front tyre became wedged in a rut with the rear tyre lying higher up on a bank. I couldn’t find purchase for my feet in the slippery mud and getting exhausted with the exertion of trying to pick up the bike. I felt completely helpless and guilty for making Juha ride back and help me with the bike.
We reached the lake where the Sramnaya River ended and suddenly we were on a dirt road. Not like the dirt sections of the 110 but a proper dirt road. Wide, level, hard and full of potholes. I couldn’t believe it. I was expecting the 110 to go all the way to the BAM, but 65 km earlier than I expected, it was all over.
We had made it through the 110 unassisted. From the beginning of the first crossing of the Barguzin River, it had taken us 24 hours to ride through it. It dawned on me simply as a fact, without emotion. There were no handshakes or high fives, as we were not out of the woods yet. There was still another 65 km to go, and it would be fast riding in fully drenched gear. We had a cold ride ahead of us.
Cruising towards the BAM, the cold slid its fingers into my suit. It attacked me first through my collar and cuffs. I could feel the energy being drained from my body with every kilometre. At first I was shivering, but that stopped too at some point. We stopped briefly to wipe our goggles and put on the last bit of gear we had. We had been riding thus far in MX gloves but it was time to put on the Klim long gloves.
There was a sand bank next to the road and I ran up and down it to get my blood circulating. I was sapped of energy and the running didn’t do much. We were soon back on the bikes, and riding north in the rain. The gloves helped but my core had started to cool. Blood was directed from my limbs into the vital organs. I could feel the muscles on my arms and legs stiffen up and lose power with every minute. I sat on the bike like a statue. Not moving, as it would only have made my arms and torso make contact with an even colder spot inside of the gear. It was utterly miserable and reminded me of winter cave diving. Being stuck under ice in decompression for an hour. Motionless and freezing.
Everything has an ending, and surely enough we connected with the BAM road. Ironically the rain stopped at the very same moment. Novi Uoyan was just a few kilometres to the west and there was supposedly a hotel in town. Riding on the BAM road, the western skies opened up a little and displayed a beautiful view of the mountains, far between the clouds. It was strange too see so far for the first time in two days. I guess there had been glimpses here and there but the riding had had my full attention.
The hotel was on the edge of town and manned by a grumpy woman. Communication was snappy, but she eventually told us that we could spend the night there. It was huge relief, as camping would have been grim. We hauled our gear into the room, which soon transformed into the usual damp circus of wet gear. Taking a shower and putting on dry clothes was luxurious, but our top priority was food. We still didn’t bother with cooking, instead just buying some bread, cheese and other basic fare from a shop across the street.
Munching on sandwiches and sipping beer in our room, I sent Mishutka an SMS with the short version of the previous two days. I promptly received a congratulatory message, and wondered how they had celebrated a year earlier, after making the first successful ride of the 110 on bikes. I was getting tired and my mind drifted elsewhere. I found myself considering the next move. It had started to rain again.
DAY 34 / THE QUESTION
1.8.2014 / Novi Uoyan – Severobaikalsk/ 189 km / 10 535 km total.
I woke up feeling as exhausted as when nodding off the previous night. The room was a mess, strewn with all our riding gear. Everything was still completely wet, but that was just a minor nuisance in the big picture. The real issue at hand was deciding what to do next. The question had been pushed back for the last few days, but now it was staring at me without blinking.
The options were simple. Either to take the BAM road west towards home, or push further east and ride through the BAM adventure. Playing into the equation was also the fact that this was not my decision alone. Juha would have an opinion and I of course knew what it was without asking. He would want to go home as soon as possible, and with good reason. Still, he was reasonable and committed to the adventure, so I felt confident that both options were open.
We stood on the balcony of the hotel, eyeing at the miserable sight in front of us. The BAM road running through the once industrious town of Novii Uoyan. A black strip of sorry tarmac between mud and water. Rainclouds gathered in the east with the sky clearing in the west. It was a very real metaphor of our two options. Take the eastbound road to ruin or the easy way out west. There were no other options. Riding the western BAM had been my main objective of the adventure. The Holy Grail. During the winter months of planning I had been consumed by it but now my interest was fading. Having gambled with the 110 and ending up on top somewhat diminished the shine of the BAM in my mind. Several riders had ridden the western BAM this summer alone, while the 110 most likely saw only us pass through it. Having ridden it unassisted put a little extra icing on the cake.
I never came out to Siberia to prove anything to anyone, except myself. I felt that I had accomplished what I set out to do. However, the eastbound BAM road called me persistently, despite the fact that I was absolutely exhausted and it would take another two days to recover and get re-equipped. Not to mention what would be ahead of us on the trail east: days of rain, river crossings, sloppy trails and the terrible Vitim bridge. I definitely wanted to go, but I noticed that my motives had changed. My desire to ride towards Tynda was unsound and motivated by egoism.
Discussing the options, Juha expectedly said he would rather go west. I made a brief summary of the realities of our options and closed with the notion that I think we had done enough. The decision was made there and then, on that miserable balcony, staring at four Kamaz trucks a storey below us. We shook hands and hugged. I thanked Juha for his companionship and support thus far. We were going home.
It was a decision that could not be undone and I felt both relieved and defeated. The feeling of defeat soon evaporated as I received a cheerful message from my wife, after breaking the news to her. The BAM road was not going anywhere and there was something much better to look forward to in the west.
We were in no hurry to leave as we would only ride to Severobaikalsk. It was under 200 km from Novii Uyoan, and most of the road should be tarmac. Before packing I did some maintenance on my trusty close combat weapon, the Nikon 1 AW-1. It was waterproof and shockproof and I kept it on my CamelBak harness at all times for quick opportunities. I mostly shot for online use so the sensor was more than adequate for loose comping and the lenses were of decent quality. It had a little flaw though. The camera had been designed with form rather than function in mind. The power and shutter buttons got clogged up when used with sandy or muddy gloves, and stopped working due to the dirt trapped under the button. Luckily it was an easy fix. I rinsed it under running water with the aid of a toothbrush and the camera was ready to get back to pursuing that one perfect frame.
After packing up we refuelled and took to the western BAM. It was easy going on good gravel and tarmac. The highlight of the ride was stumbling upon a Lada somebody had parked in a river. While wondering what chain of events had put it there, it started to rain again and we were back in full rain gear for the rest of the ride.
There was a HUBB waypoint for a hotel that had cabins on the eastern edge of Severobaikalsk, and we found lodging there. It was a really nice place with safe parking and we had the possibility to hang all our stuff to dry. Needless to say the veranda soon looked like someone had dumped a container of riding and camping gear on it.
When everything was unpacked and hung, we noticed that all four inner bags of our Magadan panniers contained water. This was strange as they were supposed to be waterproof. The initial thought was that it must have gotten in through the top closure but the evidence spoke against this; all the light stuff i.e. clothes and sleeping bags stored in the top of the bags were dry. So the water must have seeped in through the seams of the inner bags, while they were partially submerged during the deep water sections of the 110. It was bad news as some of our spare parts had been damaged by the water.
Once we had settled in, I ventured out for groceries and we prepared the biggest meal of the adventure thus far. Pasta, meatballs, goulash sauce and canned beef. It was the first hot meal in close to a week, and we tucked in with relish. Sleep came early.
DAY 35 / FLAMES OF DISCONTENT
2.8.2014 / Severobaikalsk – Zarb’ / 814 km / 11 349 km total.
Waking up to sunshine never ceased to put a smile to my face. We took the opportunity to hang all our stuff to dry once again and took an easy morning, savouring the last of our 3 in 1 coffee sachets, which had come to an end. Lovely stuff. The front tank I had ripped open on the 110 needed some attending to and I secured the dangling part with generous use of gaffer tape.
We packed up, refuelled and took to the westbound road. We were still on the BAM, but it was a wide gravel road, with no technical trouble. The scenery quickly became magnificent as the road carved its way through the mountains. Still, the tide had turned and we were on our way home. I was finding it hard to concentrate and enjoy the ride. In my mind it had become a long slog home, which was disastrous as it would be a very long wait. I knew I needed to readjust my attitude quickly, but it didn’t happen. Instead, I grew tired of the pothole riddled gravel road and couldn’t wait to get to tarmac and open up.
We reached Ulkan, where the road turned into tarmac and I was happy to find a sign post for the BAM. Fifteen kilometres later, we were back in full rain gear, riding in a downpour. Right there was the low point of the ride for me. It was utter misery and time seemed to stand still. Luckily, further down the route the weather improved and we were back on gravel which had started to feel like the preferable option to tarmac. Apparently the rain had quenched, instead of fanned, the flames of discontent.
Our route took us over the magnificent Lena river in Ust-Kut, where we refuelled and stopped a roadside dinner. Our Turkish friend, Tolga, would be riding in in a couple of days and taking a river boat to Lensk, bike and all. I was very happy for him, it should turn out to be an awesome adventure.
We had to leave the river behind us and pushed further west. I was riding first and rode on for roughly 200 km without stopping. After a small break we continued west and hit a section of the road under construction. It was strewn with equipment and trucks rolling back and forth. We were just overtaking a truck on rough ground when I noticed a big sharp rock on the road in front of me. It was the size of a cinder block and I did not have enough time to manoeuvre around it or break. Instead, I whacked the throttle open and leaned back to lighten the front wheel. I was too late and the front tyre hit the sharp edge of the rock with a bang, took to the air and the rear followed suit. The throttle was still pinned and the revs redlined as I took to the air. The landing was smooth but I could already feel the front tyre getting deflated. I knew that there would be a snakebite on the UHD. I was carrying two two extra tubes so the puncture was not an issue, but it was the rim that worried me.
I pulled over by the side of the road and after making sure the rim was okay, started getting my tools out. Juha had noticed my absence and doubled back. As he got off his bike, I just pointed at my front tyre and he jumped off the road to find a small tree trunk to use as a bike support. I had loosened the front axle and pushed the front up into the air, supported by the side stand. Juha put the tree trunk to the correct height and strapped it into the right hand guard to keep the front propped up. I really enjoyed the progress of dealing with the problem without fuss. Other than explaining what I had hit, there was no discussion concerning the tube change. It was routine and we chatted about mundane things instead. We both knew our jobs and if the situation had been reversed, the roles would have been opposite too. You take care of your bike and give support to your buddy when he’s dealing with his. Help where you can, but don’t touch his bike. The tube was soon changed under the watchful eyes of a truck driver, who kept his diesel engine running throughout the whole ordeal.
It was getting late and close to sunset. Good campsites were scarce as it had been raining, and the ground looked pretty depressing. Juha was set on camping before dark. I was a little surprised as we had good lights on the bikes and I would have liked to push on. Juha spotted a small road that branched off the main road, leading to a mini dump site of sorts. There were no garbage bags or anything like that. Just some junk strewn about, but the vibe was pretty grim. Juha started to pitch his tent and I told him I didn’t like the spot and would continue further. We agreed to meet later down the trail and I took off.
I rode in the dark to the city of Bratsk to refuel. I was considering getting a hotel but it was already pretty late and I enjoyed riding in the dark. After refuelling I called my wife and had a chat. It was bliss, as hearing that lovely voice always brightened my day. After the phone call, I decided to have a bite and reached into the back pocket of my soft luggage. I was sitting on my bike and in the process of turning around, my right support leg came off the ground and the bike tilted to the same direction. It felt retarded sitting helplessly on the bike and knowing exactly what would happen next. The bike would fall over and throw me off it in the process. Instinctively I pulled up my right knee to avoid the boot being caught under the peg and then I was off. The bike slung me clean off it and slid down the inclining tarmac of the petrol station. I screeched to a halt and remained lying motionless on my side and laughed.
I’m pretty sure the CCTV footage will end on some “idiots-on-bikes” show, and rightfully so. I gathered myself and my pride off the tarmac and picked up the bike. I sat on it again and ate the chocolate bar I had been fishing for before the tumble. Five minutes later the station attendant came over and asked if he could help. I was baffled and asked why. He told me people had said that I had a problem. Be that as it may, I told him everything was normal. He looked at me quizzically and immediately changed the subject to the clear waters of the Lake Baikal in the winter. He was clearly cut our for customer service.
I took off down the road and ended up riding through most of the night. I loved the all-nighters. Last summer I rode from Hamningsberg, Norway to Helsinki, Finland in one go. 1723 km in 26 hours. The secret was the 690. It may have been uncomfortable in the seat for long periods of time but it was very comfortable on the pegs.
Finally, when I was getting too tired to ride along safely, I started looking for a place to camp. After a couple of scouting runs I found a dryish spot under a huge pine, close to the road. I pitched my tent hastily and crawled in just before 0500. I slept fully kitted, taking only by boots off to give my feet a bit of a break from the humidity.