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.
DAY 11 / HEAD KICKS AND COMA
30.7.2015 / Nova Huta, Ukraine – Vinnitsya, Ukraine / 86 km, 2748 km total
The alarm on my phone went off before seven, but after turning it off, I went right back to sleep. Waking up an hour later, I felt the tell tale signs of cumulative fatigue; a certain reluctance to take action, accompanied with a lack of determination on what the action should be in the first place. Riding solo only amplified the symptoms, as the only person affected by them was you. The lack of company gave the tempting option of inactivity free reign, and what I really needed was a good kick in the face to snap out the lethargy.
Staring at the ceiling of the tent, I weighed my options. Having jumped the trail the previous day had given me some slack in the schedule, but I didn’t want to end up back in the same hole of delay I had just crawled out of. On the other hand, exhaustion taxed the enjoyment of riding, not to mention it increased the level of risk. My riding style was somewhat aggressive, as I performed better when I rode instinctively at my pace. If I had too much time to think and over-analyse things, I made mistakes. So exhaustion resulted in slower defensive riding, which for me meant more spills and potentially injuries. The human brain truly was a strange contraption.
I had been on the bike for ten days, and in addition to getting some rest, I needed to look into the route, run file backups and get generally organised for the next section of the trail. The Moldovan border was very tempting, but common sense won, and I instead made plans to ride to the closest city of Vinnytsia.
Vinnytsia was a nice bustling city, and I found safe parking and a room in hotel Podillya. The room quickly deteriorated into the usual chaos of dirty riding gear with laundry and wet camping equipment hung out to dry. The highlight, as always after a couple of days of camping, was the shower.
Laying on the bed drying off, I drifted off into a lethargic state. I was not asleep, nor awake, but stared blankly at the ceiling. Time passed, but I had lost all track of it. Still, a nagging feeling of forgetting something grew in my mind, and through the semi-comatose state, it finally dawned on me that the what I had forgotten was food. I had pushed much too long with much too few calories to fuel the body and mind, and it had finally caught up with me in force.
Hobbling out of the hotel, I dove into the first decent restaurant I found. My energy was soon replenished by a huge lunch with plenty of water and coffee. As always, I reminded myself on having to focus more on food during expeditions, but doubted that it would actually ever result in real action.
DAY 12 / FAREWELL, MY LOVE
31.7.2015 / Vinnitsya, Ukraine – Malinovskoe, Moldova / 249 km, 2997 km total
I was still somewhat off my original trail. This time the fact that I was in a hotel room, instead of a tent, washed away some of the sense of urgency to get moving. I spent the morning planning a southbound offroad route from Vinnitsya to connect with the Crimson Trail. At noon I was on the bike and riding out.
The time invested in route design had paid off. Although the trail took me through a gravel pit and a makeshift dumpsite, the terrain soon turned back into the wonderful agricultural variety, so characteristic for Ukraine. Dual tracks snaking through the seemingly endless domain of agriculture. The ground was mostly hard packed, and although it would have been a nightmare when wet, in dry conditions it offered fantastic traction for my Mitas motocross tyres. It always took me a while to get into the swing of things, but after warming up, the pace quickened considerably and the Moldovan border was getting close very quickly.
Ukraine was a magnificent country, where the riding was as superb as the people, the culture, the food and the general ambience of the land. It had seduced me entirely, and I felt reluctant to leave. Parked on the edge of a field, I just sat there taking in the landscape, while farmers tirelessly worked to reap the fruits of the earth. The anxiety of leaving slowly faded away and I found solace. Everything had a beginning and an end. It was time to leave beautiful Ukraine behind. For now.
Crossing the border to Moldova went smoothly, but the atmosphere in the border town was fairly ominous. I had to stop for cash from an ATM, and kept looking back at my bike, while making the withdrawal. All under the watchful eyes of local scoundrels. Some borders seemed to be a collection point for seedy types, somehow stuck in one side or the other. I was relieved to get out quickly and without trouble, but unfortunately the skies had darkened and the first drops of rain fell.
Luckily the rain didn’t last long as I pushed west towards the Romanian border. The riding was unremarkable except for a few short sections between fields. In the end I parked early on a derelict road between sunflower fields. There was an agricultural gravel road running parallel to it, with a row of trees and bushes between the roads giving cover. I sat around monitoring my surroundings, but nothing moved. After pitching my tent in the cover of darkness, I crawled in and sleep came instantly.
DAY 13 / ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS
1.8.2015 / Malinovskoe, Moldova – Roman, Romania / 234 km, 3231 km total
The thirteenth morning of the Crimson Trail felt like a new beginning. The the sky was clear and the rising sun washed over the beautiful landscape. I broke camp quickly and rolled out. Despite the rain during the previous night, the trails were hard with excellent traction. The trail snaked in an undulating landscape of rolling hills and valleys. I blasted my way West on the hard clay single track. Moldova was giving its best, and all the reservations I had during the previous night quickly evaporated. I was sold.
All good things come to an end, and this was especially true in Moldova. It was a fairly small country and, only 100 km later it was time to say goodbye. I arrived at the Romanian border, and crossed it without issues. The geographical border also marked the end of the great North European Plain. Technically it had already ended in Poland, but the trail across Ukraine had been relatively flat, and only in Moldova the first hints of the ground rising began. I had essentially ridden around the Carpathian Mountains in the north, and I had doubled back to attack them from the east. I was very excited to see the land rise, but it also meant that the riding would become more technical and difficult.
The trail soon forked from the main road and it immediately became evident that Romania was spectacular. Hills grew higher and valleys deeper, as I pushed on towards the west. Just fantastic fast riding. However, as the route pushed me into the first forest section, I realised that it had just been foreplay. Romania certainly meant business.
The forest was littered with tracks, probably due to the bad condition of the main trail I was on. The route I had mapped was difficult to follow in the maze of trails, which zigzagged the forest. Eventually I took a wrong turn somewhere, and ended up riding a trail that washed out in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest. My route was only a few hundred meters off the trail, so I decided to cut across the forest, but my way was soon barred by a small ravine. I managed to find a place to cross it but it was steep and keeping the front wheel on the ground while climbing was tricky work. Fortunately I made it out without issue, but just as I hit the main trail, the 690 gave me its first ever engine temperature warning. It was the perfect spot to take a break, and both the bike and myself cooled off for half an hour before continuing.
The trail out of the forest was very tricky. I couldn’t remember where I’d found the trail while designing the route, but it had clearly not been in use for a long time. It was deeply rutted with rain water plummeting down the hillside, and baked completely hard in the sunshine. Progress was slow but I eventually made it out in one piece. Luckily the trails widened and became nice and fast again. I ended up deciding to take a hotel night in the city of Roman and plan the route through the Carpathian Mountains.
DAY 14 / THE ASCENT
2.8.2015 / Roman, Romania – Potiond, Romania / 210 km, 3441 km total
The fourteenth day started as lazily as hotel mornings always do, but I was still pretty anxious to get on the trail, as I would finally be hitting the Carpathian Mountains. Soon enough the mountains were silhouetted against a cloudless sky as I rode up my route. The riding was more or less fast and easy on hard and rocky logging roads. Riding up and down the mountains was a welcome change after two weeks on the North European Plain.
In addition to logging the area was used for oil drilling, and the rotating pumps were a strange site on the mountainside. Riding past one of the pumps the trail suddenly ended. Or actually there was a very ominous looking continuance in the form of a steep rutted trail descending into a mess of trees on the mountainside. The trail had clearly not been used for a long while and overgrown. For once, I had an atypical moment of consideration. The trail seemed perfectly rideable, but it would have been a long stretch completely off the grid and there was likely a good reason for why it wasn’t being used any longer. It of course might have become redundant, but landslides, water damage or just a large tree trunk across the trail would have meant backtracking back up and out of there. So I reluctantly turned the bike around and found another, but less adventurous, route out.
The trail spat me into a village and I had to do a bit of tarmac to reconnect with The Crimson Trail. The route continued on wide gravel and climbed gently up into the mountains. After the last village, the trail deteriorated considerably and I found myself attacking a very rocky and steep climb through a forest on the mountainside. It was badly rutted with water flowing down the trail.
I was wearing my tinted goggles so it seemed as if I was in complete darkness under the cover of trees. The trail was still manageable though, and I pushed up it without too much trouble, except for almost hitting a cow, which was parked in the middle of the trail. Visibility was less than ideal in the shadows under the trees, but suddenly the world was awash with light as I popped out of the forest and onto a spectacular col, high in the mountains. The timing was perfect with the sun low in the west and cattle grazing lazily on the short grass of the col. I took in the scenery as adrenaline evaporated and my pulse slowed down after being on the offensive from the bottom of the valley.
The continuance of the trail was a reverie. Grassy dual tracks flowing over ridges, washed by the low sun. Instead of riding my original route into a forest lower in the valley, I made a route change on the fly and opted to stay up in the ridges for as long as I could. It was much easier riding, despite some pretty steep sections. In the end I had an unavoidable forest section and rode in hesitantly. The track had been used by heavy machinery and became deeply rutted with muddy wide puddles. Fortunately I managed to pass through them without getting stuck and soon after camped for the night. High in the hills, on short grass and sheltered from view, I enjoyed the last rays of the sun as it dipped behind a ridge in the west.