The crossing from Kazakhstan to Russia was the usual affair…..except the Kazakhs were amazingly friendly and the Russian border guards particularly sour here. Maybe the Kazakhs were happy to get rid of us and the Russians had to deal with us again. As usual it was a hot day and we re-grouped just outside the gates on the Russian side with a view to riding to Barnaul and finding a hotel. I was now dealing with the form of loathsome stomach condition we all talk about when travelling….Montezuma’s revenge, Delhi Belly…..call it what you will, Kazakh food finally got me. I was not a well man. This, coupled with a bad back from the accident and the heat made me a pathetic wreck. I needed to hole up in a hotel room and sleep for days. The final nail in the coffin came at a fuel stop. I was so scared of lifting my leg too high (Montezuma remember?) that I caught the cuff of my bike pants on the pannier and came crashing to the ground on my back with my right leg still hooked up on the bike. The pain was excruciating for a moment. My back was even worse now. I needed rest and the hotel was 300 kms away. This would prove to be the most uncomfortable ride I’ve had ever.
Barnaul is a bustling city set to the north of the mountainous Altai region of Russia. Here the wide streets and the western style shopping malls give hint to a wealthy economy. We found a small hotel off a side street and Ulf went in to negotiate the room rate etc. A car pulled up and a guy was staring at the bikes from a broken windshield. He exited the car and came over. I really wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone though, I was shivering as this stomach condition worked its magic on me. I felt like I had been hit like a train. “You are from Canada yes”? He spoke broken English. It took me a few moments and I replied, telling him that I was not well in the process. He asked me if I needed anything and at that point I needed fresh fruit….my body was craving this. Five minutes later, Stanislau came back with a bag of fresh fruit for me. Once again I was amazed at the hospitality being shown here. We exchanged email addresses, shook hands and he drove away. I thought I would never see him again. I slept 12 hours that night.
The next morning I was nearly 100% better…..although the pain in my back was still there. I awoke to an email from Stanislau asking if there was anything he could do for us and would we like to go out for dinner tonight. We spent the whole day catching cabs across the city looking for a spare rectifier for Twiggy in case the makeshift one gave up the ghost later down the road. I also bought a new GPS because my old one wouldn’t recognize any of the new Russian mapping we were using. Dinner that night was at a Bavarian style restaurant and we ate a LOT. Stanislau paid for everything. I owe him so much. He has become a dear friend indeed and I hope he will visit me in Canada someday. Four nights later it was time to leave Barnaul and head south to the Altai region and possibly enter Mongolia from there. Our aim was to ride the northern route across the Ulaanbataar. The road south was a regular 2 way highway that increased in hills and bends as we approached the mountains of the republic of Altai. The flat fields of crops that reminded me so much of crossing Hungary were now gone and replaced by large forests of evergreens and small log houses that could easily have been located in central British Columbia. This place was gorgeous. Rain threatened from time to time but that’s what you get in mountainous country right? I was at home, I felt at home at least. There is a universal feeling that spans all mountain communities I believe….and I was part of this now. Small towns situated on the Katun River boasted rafting companies and guiding outfitters. Small wooden houses with intricately carved fascias and fences dotted the main thoroughfares. We spent the night at a wonderful little hotel about 200kms into the region. The next day we set out for crossing the Altai and onward toward the Mongolian border. This is when we started to notice the swollen rivers and marshy ground here. They had recently received a lot of rain. We pressed on marveling at the new landscapes we encountered around every corner or over each hill. This place is so beautiful with its small alpine streams that trickle from rocky ledges set into verdant mountainsides. Sheep, horses, goats and cattle lined the highways from time to time. Fathers taking their children to school on horseback or just herding cattle could be seen everywhere. I could only imagine Switzerland looking like this a hundred and fifty years ago. Eventually we stopped at a mountain pass and had coffee at one of the many little shacks one can encounter throughout the region. Ulf’s bike was not breathing right. His air filter was choking up and the altitude was making his bike sluggish. There was black smoke coming out of the exhaust every time he opened up the throttle and he had no spare filter. Dilemma. We also discussed the soggy countryside. If this continued we would be bogged down in Mongolia in no time on the bikes. It could take us weeks to cross the 2000 kms to Ulaanbataar. It was decision time. Do we do the northern route in Mongolia and risk deep river crossings and mud or do we turn around and head back and enter Mongolia from the north near Ulan Ude 2500kms away? Naturally we chose the latter. We were on a loose timeline to ride around the world and really couldn’t afford a big delay. Besides, our visas were only single entry so we needed to get it right. That night we returned to our little Altai hotel and arranged for air filter materials to be shipped from Moscow to Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. We would be there in 4 days to collect, all we had to do was ride across Siberia………..
Novosibirsk is a big place. It seems that most Russian cities don’t have a circular road and you have to ride through the city to get to your connecting road out. It was hot, the traffic was at a standstill and the bikes were overheating. We elected to split-lane and get the heck out of there where hopefully there would be a hotel on the other side. This plan worked…..we slept well. The M53 road across the heart of Siberia is varied in size and condition. Sometimes it was a 4 lane motorway, sometimes it was a two lane frost heaved monument to the old Soviet days. At any point it can turn into a gravel road with diversions and chain smoking roadworkers standing around waiting for something to change. It’s a game of road roulette. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Large buses and 18 wheelers will pick the best part of the road to drive on; if this means your side of the road then eyes up because this is a test to see if you’re alert. You are about to get shrouded in dust AND try to pick your way through the ruts, potholes and oncoming traffic whilst half blind. I nicknamed it the Magoo Run.
All along this tree lined highway there are small towns. Some are hamlets boasting handicrafts like woven baskets or wooden carvings. These are usually small stalls at the side of the road….just out of the town’s jusrisdiction and they are run by ladies of all ages. Then there are the animal skin stalls. This was something I didn’t want to see but sadly it had to be part of my education. There were bear skins, stuffed bears in aggressive poses, bear skin chairs and paws for sale. Whilst I was repulsed by this I had to force myself to understand that these people make their living this way. The one thing that struck me was how physically small their bears are……not that I want to wrestle one or anything but I felt at ease now if we encountered one. I could probably beat it away with a shoe. The trees kept coming. The road seemed to go on forever and the towns whizzed by in a flurry of grey disused factories, beautifully painted wooden homes and war memorials designed in that very angular way that only Russians know how to do. Some memorials are adorned with decommissioned tanks, aircraft and field guns from years gone by. These old, once ferocious war machines are now playgrounds for children, a testament that with age we all get a little softer 🙂
Every morning outside our hotel I would do the usual check:- Engine oil, chain lube and tires. I noticed that Twiggy was getting through about 200ml of oil every 1500 kms now. The head gasket was slowly weeping I could see. I hoped she would make it to South Korea and I can fix her at my house in Alberta. Finally we made it to Irkutsk and checked into our hotel. Here we were approached by an American who worked in the oil industry. Adam was happy to see a couple of dirty well weathered bikes pull up. He had a buddy in Texas that really wanted to do what we were doing. We talked that night over a beer or two and told stories. We made another good friend here. We were in Irkutsk just long enough to pick up Ulf’s air filter from DHL and then we set about trying to find a spare too. This involved a cab driver called Anatoly, a whole morning and a wonderful lady at the local Yamaha dealership called Tatania. She was part owner and made us feel totally at home with coffee and directions to a market place where we would probably obtain after market stuff. By noon we had three air filters and were headed back with Anatoly. Life was good. The next day we were Baikal bound, the largest body of fresh water on the planet. As we dropped out of the hills about 200kms south of Irkutsk Lake Baikal suddenly stared at us from directly ahead. It’s massive, simply massive. The first impression I got was cold. Suddenly I was surrounded by cold air that had spilled off the lake onto the shoreline and had to zip up the vents on my bike jacket. The next 140 kms we rode were along the southern shore of the lake…..only you can’t easily access the lake easily because the Russians have layed train tracks, power lines and industrial plants along the way. There wasn’t even a decent turnout where we could take a photo. Frustrating.
On to Ulan Ude, where we would change tires and head south to Mongolia. Here we encountered a bike workshop tucked down a sandy roaded alleyway. Within a minute the gate slid open and I heard and American accent. Doug Lear had been staying here for five days and was waiting for his KLR650 to get a new crankshaft. We talked for a couple of hours while Stas worked at switching the tires on both bikes. Doug knew he was at the mercy of the Russian customs guys…..he could be there a while. Ulan Ude has a wonderful downtown core with a giant statue of Lenin’s head in the main square. It’s tradition that newlyweds get their wedding photos taken here and we watched on as 3 couples did exactly this to a cacophony of car horns and shouts as is the unofficial custom of onlookers. We tried in vain to get Rubles changed into Tugrik, the Mongolian currency. We got the impression that the Russians rather regarded our request as a joke, as if we had asked for monopoly money or something.
The road south to Mongolia was only 200kms long and slowly gained in elevation winding through high forested hillsides interspersed with farmland and the compulsory goat herds here and there. The people were starting to look a lot more Mongolian in their facial features too. Pulling into a gas station in Kyakhta Russia was our last chance at getting Russian gas for a while. Here we were approached by quite possibly the pushiest 10 year old I have ever met. “Dollar”? he kept saying. “no” was our reply….”Dollar”? …”No” …it went on for a while until I pulled an angry face and he went away. We were now 2 kms from the Mongolian border……I couldn’t wait to see what this immigration process had in store for us.