Siberia - The Breakdown

Siberian highway We finally left Sukhbaatar around 1:30 a.m., crossed the Russian border in our freight wagon at 2:15am, were grilled by Russian border control about what two Australians might be doing crossing the border, with their motorcycles, in a freight car, in the middle of the night, and then once we got to Naushki, we were shunted off to a siding in the middle of this huge border rail yard. By now it was 4:30am and we were exhausted. We rolled out our Thermarest mates and sleeping bags and fell asleep in the wagons, exhausted. We awoke about 9 a.m. Opening the doors of the boxcar, we looked around and saw that yep, we were still stuck in the middle of the rail yard, about 500 yards from what seemed to the be the station itself. After about 20 minutes, we spotted a passing shunting locomotive doing its work around the yard. We signalled the driver over, asked him if Naushki had a ramp and when he said yes, asked him if he could take our wagon to the ramp. He obliged us. A few minutes later the sliding door of the box car war a mere 10 cm away from a ramp, at the same height. All we had to do was pack up and ride straight off the wagon and into the depths of Siberia. This worked out surprisingly well for us in the end. At Sukhbaatar train station on the Mongolian side of the border, the staff mentioned that the Russian customs officers at Naushki would make up some fee to let us into Russia - probably in the vicinity of US$200 each. $400 gets you a hell of a long way in Mongolia or Siberia so we weren't at all keen to ensure we got this "bill". When the train driver shunted us to the ramp (about 500 yards from the station) he reminded us that we really should pop in and see the boys at customs. We nodded in agreement as he drove away then changed our minds and just rode off. For the first few hundred kilometres, every time we saw police we were paranoid that they were on to us for jumping the scam! After the experience in China, we knew that it was no problem at all for them to set up a roadblock just to get some cash from a couple of foreign motorcyclists. But, our concerns were unfounded.

A closer inspection of the Russian entry stamps showed how long it takes changes in Moscow to reach remote parts of Siberia. Our entry stamp was still the old USSR border stamp, and our passports were now emblazoned with the Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik (CCCP).

Almost as soon as the border was behind us, we entered for the first time, the great Russian Taiga - an enormous forest that stretches from the Sea of Japan to the Gulf of Finland. We were to see a great deal of the taiga over the coming months.

Fifteen kilometres out of Naushki, we came across our first small rural Siberian village. The thing that struck us was the sudden change from a Asiatic culture to a European one. We had eaten little bread and no milk over the past 2 months in China and Mongolia and yet here we were in a peasant village watching a farmer walk down the main street carrying a pail of fresh milk and a few loaves of bread. Now I am no aficionado of neither plain bread nor milk, but when you haven't tasted milk or European style bread in months, and you see it, you suddenly crave it. We stopped the farmer and asked him for a loaf of bread and a litre of milk. He was happy to give them to us. But we insisted on buying them and as we had no rubles yet, we bought a loaf of bread and topped up out water bottles with milk for the grand sum of US$ 1. It was a bargain. Milk had never tasted so good. What that farmer subsequently did with his one dollar bill is anyone's guess, but where he was, it was probably the first one he ever saw.

Siberia seemed to be very removed from all pre-conceived notions of how it would be. Visions of a hell on earth; home to Solzhenitsyn's gulags, populated by hardy ex-convicts; of fat, ugly, tractor driving women known to be able to out arm-wrestle anybody in the west; could not be further from the truth. We found a land of endless forests, snow capped mountains, beautiful lakes, quaint wooden villages and very friendly people. Though far from standard that we expect in the west, the food was a step up from that in China and Mongolia. At Ulan Ude, the first Russian city we passed through and home to the largest bust of Lenin in the world (quite some claim to fame), we were pleasantly surprised to find pizza and ice-cream in abundance. The Siberians never cease to amaze; their desire to eat ice-cream all throughout the year (even if it is minus 25 degrees) has given rise to ice-cream stalls all over their cities.

We left Ulan Ude [see Russia map 1] around 2:30pm on that first day, after having the most western food since Hard Rock Cafe in Beijing. Soon after Ulan Ude, Baikal came in to view through twisting and turning mountain roads. This was one of the scenic highlights of the trip. This great lake holds 20% of the worlds fresh water and is a mile deep. It is over 700 klms long and is largely surrounded by snow capped mountains. After a 450km day we stopped to camp by a creek that flowed into Lake Baikal. We were in the middle of beautiful nature, we had a nice little beach all to ourselves and we had a nice warm roaring fire going. It was a scene that lifted our spirits immensely. This was the sort of thing we dreamed of when we planned this trip. Snacks, a can of coke each and a few beers purchased earlier in a village we had passed through completed the picture.

The next morning we slept in a bit before stoking up the fire again. We were headed for Irkutsk in one day, but road was good, the weather was good and there was not too much traffic. The scenery from when we first saw the lake until when we reached Slyudyanka on the southern tip of the lake, was all like the postcard scene at the top of this page. Just outside Slyudyanka, we saw our first roadside shashlik stall. All over Russia's highways you see these shashlik stalls, sent from the heavens, to warm up and feed weary motorcycle travellers. For a couple of bucks, you get a huge skewer of spiced fresh meat, a beer and some bread. We indulged. One of the other patrons of this particular stall took a strong interest in who we were and what we were doing. He had a nice new modern Jeep Cherokee, so we assumed he was important. It turns out he was one of the big shots at the Irkutsk Police HQ 100klms further down the road. He offered us an escort into town and he didn't look like the kind of guy who accepted no for an answer, so we accepted. He drove like a maniac over twisting winding roads and we could hardly keep track of this big Jeep zooming away in front of us, but he did leads us straight to the Irkutsk Intourist Hotel on the banks of the Angara River - the only river that flows out of Baikal.

Unfortunately the Intourist hotel was a touch on the pricey side for us at USD 100.00 per twin room. We were then driven round the corner to the Sibir Hotel where we got a room for USD 30.00 per twin. So by the evening of the 11th of September we were sorted in the Sibir Hotel, with our bikes stored in the entrance hallway free to enjoy Irkutsk and to catch up on a bit of admin work.

By this stage in our journey, it was time again to change the rear disc pads on both motorcycles. We sought the assistance of a newly established Toyota franchise in Irkutsk and were once again impressed by how ingenious and resourceful local mechanics were. Igor, the man in charge of solving our problem had just moved into a position as a humble mechanic at Toyota from his previous position as a engineer with the Sukhoi jet fighter factory. Why? Because the move to a western company increased his income 500% from Sukhoi's measly $35 per month. Coincidentally, Igor had in his possession some jet fighter brake pads. Four hours with a hacksaw and file later he had fashioned a set of extremely hard compound brake pads for our TransAlps. It was an amazing piece of work and on top of that the guys steadfastly refused to take payment. We were humbled. While Igor was working on the brake pads, we had taken advantage of the workshop to tighten cables, change the oil and do a few other assorted bits of more serious maintenance that were beyond our usual morning lube ups.

It was also a chance to check mail. The Poste Restante Irkutsk address was one of our key contact points for folks back home. There should be a pile of it waiting for us, but despite going to several post offices in the city (on the recommendation of other post offices) the mail simply wasn't there. Heaven knows where it all got to, but it was really proving tough to keep any sort of contact with friends and family back home. No-one know where we were. We ended up heading into the Intourist Hotel, where there was a fax and communications room. This tiny little room, staffed by the lovely Marina, was the main contact point out of Russia in Irkutsk. We tried the post office and they were hopeless. Wasted hours there. But once we found Marina's office we knew we were in the right place. Every foreigner in town came through that room once every couple of days to check for messages. Amongst them were the support staff for Baikal Airlines, a new Siberian airline starting up with western planes. Also some Raleigh staff from a British mission to build roads and communication links in remote Siberia, and a crazy Finnish guy, who drove out to Baikal every year in his Citroen, so he could hand build an orphans home on the shores of Lake Baikal at Listvyanka. Marina's phone calls or faxes cost USD 7.00 per minute or part thereof (they travelled direct from a dish on the roof of the hotel via an Estonian satellite - thus avoiding all of Russia's dysfunctional telecoms network). A 10 minute call home would have set us back $70. We couldn't afford that. I guess the folks at home would have to live with waiting and wondering where we were. In the end we decided a one page fax would be sufficient communication. It would take a minute and a half to send and set us back over 33,000 rubles (US$14) but at least the folks back home would know we were ok and on track, even if we were well behind schedule.

We had one key task to fulfil in Irkutsk, and that was a rendezvous with 200 rolls of film. We had initially sent the package of film ahead to Vladivostok and the Australian Honorary Consul there. But as a result of our running late through China, we had to cut a huge corner from our initially planned Siberian excursion. Vladivostok was no longer in our plans. So from Beijing we had spoken to the Consul and asked him to send the film package ahead to Irkutsk. He did that and gave us the address details for his contact in Irkutsk, who would have the film package. Having fixed our brakes and being eager to start making up time, we just needed to pick up the film and we would be on our way. But, nothing is ever as simple as it seems ... the address was wrong. There was no such address.

18th Century Wooden Houses, IrkutskWe called the Consulate but the Consul was away and his secretary was adamant that was the only address she had. Luck came our way in the form of a Television news crew who had spotted us riding around Irkutsk. We were pulled over at the side of the road and a news crew jumped out and accosted us with cameras and microphones. It wasn't the first time this had happened, but it was the first time I had to do it in Russian without a translator. Somehow I managed to tell the crew what we were doing and what our problem was in Irkutsk. By the next day everyone in Irkutsk seemed to know who we were and that we were looking for a package of film located somewhere in the city.

While searching for the film, we were guests of the 4 remaining British staff of a Raleigh International camp 20 kilometres outside Irkutsk. This kept our stay in the Sibir Hotel down to 2 nights (thus saving us valuable cash), with the other 2 nights with the Raleigh folks. They supplied us with British Army rations and excellent hospitality with James and Chris, the boss man, swapping blues tunes and before we all jumped in the Banya with Cath and Anya.

Two days after the initial TV interview, we were spotted riding around town by another news crew. Another on the spot interview was conducted but this time I had the luxury of using Anya, the Raleigh translator, and could give a much more comprehensive set of answers to their questions. There were very few people at all in Siberia who spoke English at the time as the USSR had only ceased to exist two and half years earlier.

Soon after, one of the leads we had laid down came through. We got a phone call from one of the dozens of people we had involved in the search for our film. It turns out the lady who had the film was on holidays. She waited for us for several weeks but as we were so late, we hadn't turned up and she had gone on holidays and left the film with a friend. The lady who called us had managed to track down the woman who was on holiday and got the contact details for he friend with the film. Hooray ... after 3 days of searching, we scored our 200 additional rolls of slide film.

Anyway ... Job done, it was time to get back on the road, but not before bumping into a middle aged Japanese man, surrounded by a number of Japanese and Russian minions. As it happens, he was the boss of Yamaha, not just for Russia, but for all of non Japan Asia. He had seen us feted as celebrities on local TV and asked about our travels. He asked why we were not sponsored by Yamaha. James tried to explain that we contacted them in Australia but received little interest. He berated his counterpart in Australia for not bringing the Tokyo to London Project to his attention, and wanted to sponsor the remainder of the trip. But we were already very late, already had bikes and couldn't wait weeks for a couple of Tenere's to arrive in Irkutsk. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon once you are underway, but few take the step before they see its going to be successful.

On our way out of Irkutsk it began raining. This had happened before in our travels and was happening again. We had been in Siberia about a week, and each day had been fine and sunny. Maybe not warm, but definitely fine and sunny. As we are riding through the streets of Irkutsk the rain starts to fall. What was it with our luck and the weather? Irkutsk, like most Russian cities, is covered with tram tracks. These trams tracks are not flush with the street, like they are in Melbourne or Adelaide, or San Francisco, but instead the bitumen around them has sunken and crumbled, leaving the tram rails often 10-15 cm above the road. Its a killer for suspension, and the cars crept gingerly around the tram tracks. It was also a killer for motorcycles. Crossing the tram tracks or turning across them was a hazard at the best of times. You really needed to try and take them head on, of find a place where the road had not crumbled so much and therefore the tram rail was a mere 1 or 2 inches above the bitumen. Unfortunately the advent of rain to this mix made it even more tricky. Wet rubber and wet steel don't make for great traction and in turning across on of these track in Ulitsa Lenina, the main street in Irkutsk, James slid along the rail instead of crossing it and the bike slid out from under him, landing on his left knee, with packed trolley buses bearing down upon him. Fortunately he was OK and the only damage was a smashed mirror.

We left Irkutsk on the 15th of September [see Russia map2], intending to spend the next five days dealing with the 2,000 kilometres through the taiga on highway M53 to Novosibirsk. It had been raining constantly for almost three days when we left but we were confident that it would break soon. Unfortunately the weather was not on our side and two hours later, and with a mere 140 klms on the clock since Irkutsk, we were soaked, shivering and defeated by the onset of the Siberian winter. It had become too cold to continue and we had little choice but to stop and sit out the rain. All of our riding gear was wet, the gloves, the boots, the jackets, the pants ... all soaking wet. We pulled off the road into a clearing in the forest, not visible from the road and set up the tent. When all was set up and James was just finishing locking the bikes together with out sturdy Abus chain, some drunken lunatic drives of the highway and into the same clearing we had just pitched tent in. He was as surprised as us to see anyone else at that spot, but his wife needed a piss, and while she did that in the bushes, he tried to turn his Volga round. Naturally enough he got bogged in the soft terrain and we ended up pushing him out. In return however, we were thanked by means of a loaf of bread and some apples. It seems Russians always have a loaf of bread with them in the car, whenever and wherever they are. That loaf came in pretty handy in out tent that night, and it was British army rations smeared over Russian bread and that did us just fine.

We found ourselves then stuck in the tent for three further days of rain and snow. It was so cold that we spent almost all of the time in our sleeping bags slowly going insane from boredom. James was burning throughwalkman batteries at the rate of 6 per day, while was unable to consume. My headphones had broken and the best I could do was listen to James' audio overflow. I would be able to get some new headphones at the next town we stopped at, but here in the forest, I was sans walkman.

We were camped in the forest, just out of view from the road while we waited for some sunshine. The first day we were there, around lunchtime, a milk tanker stopped on the side of the highway and we saw the driver hop out and grab himself a few litres of milk from the tanker. We approached the driver and explained that we were two Australians travelling through Siberia on motorcycles, we were waiting out the rain in the forest, and we were running low on things to drink. He introduced himself as Vladimir and after breaking a few bones with each handshake, he asked sceptically if we really thought it was cold. He then kindly filled our water bottles with milk, before getting on with his delivery.

The following day, around the same time, we heard a horn beep from the highway. Looking out to see what it was, we found Vladimir with a friend, waiting to give us our daily milk. On the third day this happened again. He tooted his horn and sure enough two dishevelled Aussies in long underwear would come shivering out of the woods carrying water bottles. This time he had a different person with him. We got the feeling that he would tell his friends to come for the drive with him just to watch what happens when he toots his horn at a certain isolated location by the highway.

After 72 hours things were starting to get more than a little on the nose in that tiny tent. The rain kept coming down, broken with 30 minute pauses from time to time when we could get out and stretch the legs, and also by 30 minutes patches of snow. The temperature sure wasn't getting any warmer while we waited out this rain. We needed a break of at least 3-4 hours of no rain and ideally some sunshine, so we could dry out all the gear. Without that, we were going no-where.

On the morning of Monday the 19th of September we stuck our heads out of the tent to the best scene we had seen in 4 days. There was no sun, but similarly there was no rain, nor it it look like it was close to rain. We decided to chance it and break camp - make the most of the overcast skies. With the aid of petrol we got a fire burning and used the fire to dry our the next batch of logs for the fire. Two hours were spent intensely by that fire drying out all the wet riding gear. By late in the morningwe had packed up the bikes and hit the road. The first 150 klms flew by at 110 km/h on good road. But we also knew that of the 2,000 kilometres from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk, about 400 kms were unpaved. With the five days of heavy rain, we knew these stretches would not be easy but were completely unprepared for the muddy hell that lay ahead.

Breakdown ! .. Somewhere in SiberiaWe hit 150 kilometres of dirt road, the last 50kms being mud, and that mud was sometimes axle deep for several hundred yard stretches. 110 km/h progress was suddenly only 5 yards a minute. Naturally we fell several times. We were used to that by now. Falling was becoming second nature to us. Falling into foot deep cold mud while 250 kgs of bike and motorcycle fall on top of you is something everyone should try. Even the good stretches of dirt road were hell. Driving along at 30km/h was complicated by the potholes. Dirt roads and 5 days of rain routinely result in large potholes, and dirt roads and 5 days of rain also result in a slippery slimy mud covering everything. This meant that even when you saw the potholes, you were not going to get enough traction to change the direction of the bike without risking falling over, so you saw the potholes and simply had to brace for them. Just as we were emerging from this muddy hell, I saw from behind that the rear wheel bearings on James' motorcycle had completely perished and the bike was wobbling all over the place. James was totally immobilised on the outskirts of a small Siberian village called Sheragul. This premature bearing failure came as quite a body-blow to our plans. We carried no spare bearings and did not feel that even the resourceful Russian mechanics could satisfactorily conjure up a sealed bearing unit and precision rubber seals.

While James examined the damage I sought out life and food in the village, a search that took me to the village bakery. The ladies in the bakery took to us like long lost sons. They locked the bikes up in the bakery, gave us a piping hot loaf and arranged for us to use the very very warm building which seemed to be, in a former life, the local party assembly hall as our sleeping quarters for the night. There we considered our options. Tulun was a large town only 20 klms further down the road. We learned that there were a couple of mechanics there and would try them out. We also considered going back to Irkutsk and faxing Honda in Japan for parts. That would be a chance to grab a few other parts while we were at it, like spare chains a new mirror for James and loads of spare brake pads.

In the end the only option was to leave our bikes and head 450 kilometres back to Irkutsk. There we could fax Honda in Japan and request that they try to send out some new bearings and seals. The sole town policeman, a young guy called Evgeny, was charged with looking after the bikes until our return, in what we hoped would be around five days. With the broken rear wheel in hand, we boarded the train back to Irkutsk. As usual, it was an overnight train. It cost us 1500 rubles for two tickets back to Irkutsk an the 23:00 out of Sheragul on the evening of the 20th September.

Our train arrived back in Irkutsk, wheel in hand at 10:00 am on the 21st. It was straight to the Intourist Hotel and Marina's fax room. Back to the world of $7 a minute faxes and phone calls. Those charges didn't just go for sending faxes and calls, it went for receiving them as well, since you were renting the satellites time. We faxed Honda in Japan we details of our plight and the parts we needed.

The following day we found out by return fax that fortunately, Honda was glad to be able to help. Unfortunately, Siberia has no DHL, TNT or any other freight companies serving it. We had no idea how Honda would get the parts to us, and neither did Honda. The man in Japan told us just to sit tight and wait until they arrive.

This unfortunate news was complicated by the weather. The day we heard back from Japan, the 22nd of September, Irkutsk has its first taste of snow for the year. Irkutsk really is a lovely city. Its wooden lace houses and great location close to lake Baikal make it the best place in the whole of Russia to spend time waiting for motorcycle parts. Listvyanka, Lake Baikal

The first night back in town was spent at Marina's flat, but then by a stroke of luck, a friend of Marina's was going out of town for a week to spend time at her dacha, growing vegetables, and so we were gifted a flat for a week, all to ourselves. James passed the time away with Marina waiting in the international fax room at the Irkutsk Intourist hotel. This gave him a chance to get to know the western support team for Baikal Airlines - Barry from Boeing, John from Rolls Royce and Sally the Stewardess from Ireland. John had a 3 room $400 a night suite at the Intourist and was gracious in letting us use his shower facilities regularly. This was a boon as the hot water in Irkutsk was not yet "turned on". Hot water in Russia is centralised. Each home does not generate its own hot water, but rather the town down does. Unfortunately, each town shuts down the huge network of hot water pipes that criss-crosses the cities and feeds each home during the summer months, and the townsfolk must go with cold showers until the hot water is turned back on. The Intourist Hotel however, had its own partially functioning hot water system, thus the pleasure in showering at John's suite.

Marina introduced me to the lecturers at the Institute for Foreign Languages and I went along and helped teach English to pass the time. Surprisingly, all the students were female - males don't do languages in Russia - and were exceptionally enthusiastic students. They were not exactly unattractive either. Of the dozens of invitations to home cooked lunches and dinners though, I only accepted three. International co-operation was significantly enhanced thanks to the lovely students of the Irkutsk Institute for Foreign Languages. It turns out that foreign tongues were not so foreign after all.

On one of many regular trips out to the airport to chat with the customs guys and to ask if our parts had arrived, we were stopped in our trolleybus by a girl speaking to us in an Australian accent. Melanie was from Tasmania and was in Siberia with her new Canadian husband Kemal, spreading the good word of the Bahai. First time I had ever heard of the religion, but they kind enough to offer us a roof and we gratefully accepted for a few nights. Their story was quite amazing. They got married and keen to do the evangelical work of the Bahai they shut there eyes and pointed randomly at a map of the world to find out where god wanted them to go. On opening their eyes they found the finger was pointing to deepest darkest Siberia, and without further ado, they packed their bags and duly arrived in Irkutsk in early 1994 in -30 degrees, in the middle winter, speaking no Russian, and knowing no-one. Mel and Kemal taught themselves Russian within months and by that summer had enrolled in University; Mel studying philosophy and Kemal studying medicine. Further, they had a near permanent 17 year old blonde Russian visitor, Veronika, who took an immediate shine to James and taught us much about student life in Russia ... including the bizarre annual potato picking ritual. We often wondered who were the scores of people in the potato fields, picking away as we rode past, and Veronika explained that these were mostly students. University students were obliged to follow a roster system that required the students to donate free labour to society and pick societies potatoes, on the threat of expulsion if they didn't turn up to do their share of picking. The students counter this by getting smashed on moonshine while doing the picking.

By the time the spare parts finally arrived, it was the 8th of October, and snow was on the ground over most of Siberia. Customs hit us with a bill of 700,000 rubles (about USD 300), but we weren't having any of it. We debated extensively with the customs people that we were not importing the parts, but the parts were merely transiting Russia, as they would be out of the country and into Kazakhstan within days. Eventually we wore them down and the order was given that despite this not being the way it was meant to work, they should just give us the parts. And so we got the parts, duty free.

James had made arrangements with the Israeli chief mechanic from Baikal Airlines to get a midnight lift out to the airport and to fix the wheel bearings with his tools. The lift out to the airport was hampered by blown out tyres and the Israeli guys two 15 year old Russian girlfriends, also in the airport van, drinking as if their lives depended on it. The airport was an incredible graveyard of old Soviet planes and helicopters. Hundreds and hundreds of aircraft were sitting around Irkutsk airport, some had been stripped for spares, others were in tact and merely decommissioned. The scale of it was mind boggling.

Our last night in Irkutsk (Sunday the 9th October) was with Marina. She had a couple of friends who were a really talented musical duo - electric violin and acoustic guitar. They spent most of their time on Moscow and abroad, but were back in their native Irkutsk to perform at a bank function. Marina got us all tickets and a great night was had by all including a few beers at the end with the dynamic duo themselves.

We said farewell to our good friends made during the wait for parts, and resumed the journey on the overnight train back to Sheragul. The village of Sheragul looked wintery by the time we got back. It had been three weeks since we left. The train pulled into town around 4 am on the 11th of October, so we waited until 6 at the local bakery before going round to knock on the door of Evgeny, the policeman looking after our bikes. We had told him 3 weeks ago that we would be 4 or 5 days at the most. But he was more than happy to see us and his parents fixed us up a simple Siberian breakfast (lots of sweet tea) before we went out to spend the morning putting the bikes back together and the afternoon testing in the hills around Sheragul. We hit the road the following morning.Alternative Transport, Siberia Our first day back on the bikes saw is heading northwest [see Russia map 3]. We crossed the 55th and 56th parallels in a 370 km day, that pleasingly saw both bikes bikes running very well. The bulk of the day was dirt roads, but a chat we had when we stopped for food and drink just before pulling off the highway to camp again in the frozen forest led us to believe that there was quite possibly only another 25 klms of unsealed road left.

Although the five days spent riding to Novosibirsk were all clear and sunny, the temperature barely rose above freezing even in the middle of the day, and would drop down to minus ten during the night. Our minds were now firmly fixed on getting to the deserts of Central Asia where hopefully we would find warmer weather. To this end, each day started early, with a fire, and would go until sundown.

One further episode of Siberian hospitality took us by surprise as we entered the city of Kansk. As we approached the city, a convoy of military vehicles flagged us over. We weren't initially sure whether to be annoyed or worried. Usually when this happened it was a chance for someone to show their importance by holding you up and checking your papers un-necessarily. But my senses moved away from irritation and more towards worry as the head of the convoy, a young captain or major, insisted we follow his lead vehicle. We were led through the city and out the other side to an Army base. Worry was building by the minute now as to what the guy was about and what he wanted from us. It didn't get any better when once in the centre of the base, we were told to get off the bikes and follow the escorting soldiers down into a basement underneath the main building.

But once in there, it dawned on us what was going on. These guys were adventurers as much as soldiers and their basement den was a shrine to their hard core adventures. These included an 800km ski trip across Siberia's most northerly mountain range - in mid winter. The log from that trip showed daily temperatures in the -40s. Also shown to us were plans for their 1995 summer adventure - a 3000 km canoe journey down the Yenisey river from Krasnoyarsk to the Arctic Ocean. They stocked us up on Russian Army rations. Not quite as tasty as the British Army ones we scored from Raleigh, but just as nutritious and functional I am sure. Then they went intot heir own vehicles took out 2 road atlases and gave us those. We had no good road maps prior to this, just our ONCs and TPCs, which tend to be topographical rather than road focussed. These guys then gave us an address in Krasnoyarsk for more of their adventure comrades and after another 350 km + day, we made in into Krasnoyarsk [see Russia map 4] just before sun down on the 13th, found our contacts who fed us and gave us somewhere warn to sleep - after last night, our first sub zero camping night, the warm beds were appreciated. In general, life was good, the bikes were running well and we were putting the miles in. We had crossed another time zone in Kansk, giving us an extra hour. What we could do with more time was of course pretty limited. We were still above 56 degrees North and the sun was not rising beyond about 25 degrees above the horizon, even at midday.

Roadside shashlik, SiberiaThe 14th of October started at the adventure club, with the best cup of coffee we had drank in months. The club in Krasnoyarsk also ran a small shop, from which they sold ski and adventure gear. James needed gloves as the riding gloves he had bought in Japan were of no further use. They were much too thin in this cold. So James splashed out on a USD 60 pair of Rossignol ski gloves. Krasnoyarsk is a major city of over a million people, and we were awestruck at the size of the mighty Yenisey river. It must have been well over a kilometre across as it passed through town, and yet we were 3000 km upstream from its mouth in the Arctic Ocean. We had some other running around to do, things like stocking up on batteries in the market (I had replaced my walkman headphones first day in Irkutsk). The plan here had been to take a detour south and visit Khakassia and Tuva, two autonomous regions in Siberia bordering Mongolia, but the route to Abakan and Kyzyl was mountainous and less than 75km from Krasnoyarsk we were forced to turn back as the roads were too icy. We continued then along the main highway to Novosibirsk. After Achinsk, a classic industrial looking hellhole, the forest disappeared and we were surrounded by endless plains of tilled land. This was going to make our camping attempts tough and in the end we had to ride a good 70 klms past Achinsk before settling down for another frosty night in the Siberian taiga.

Another frightfully cold night passed and we awoke on the 15th, at sunrise - which by now was around 8:45 in the morning. We weren't in any great hurry to leave the comfort of the sleeping bags and by the time we had a fire going to warm ourselves up, dry the sleeping bags and tent, and then pack up the caravan and get underway, it was almost 11 in the morning. The scenery continued in the same vain as that late last night, increasingly bland, with vast amounts of tilled flat farmland now only occasionally interspersed with patches of taiga. Prior to Achinsk, it was pretty much taiga taiga taiga everywhere you looked.

The towns and cities became more and more industrial and less interesting as we headed west. The land too was increasingly agricultural. The only stops during the day were for lunch and for the incredibly cheap fuel; around 350 rubles (11c) per litre. These stops would be our only opportunity to try and warm ourselves with some tea and hot soup. For security reasons we would camp off the road in the safety and seclusion of the forest.

Our daily life back on the road had become routine. The routine was we wake up around 8:30, struggle out of the tent, quickly get a fire going to warm up and dry gear out, and finally get underway. Then we would ride until lunchtime and the first meal of the day. Russian towns and villages featured communal cafeterias called stolovayas. These places grew to have a special place in our hearts. While stuck in Irkutsk for 3 weeks we had become very familiar with these canteens that opened between 12 and 6pm. The first town we hit after 12 would be lunchstop. Find the stolovaya and go in for some meatballs, or some pelmeni (lovely Russian dumplings) and wash it down with sweet black tea or hot chocolate. Then, warmed and fed, we hit the road again in the afternoon until 5pm, when we would again seek out a stolovaya, eat our evening meal, then find a kiosk and stock up with snacks and beer before riding out of town for at least 20klms till we found a remote campsite in the forest. The sun went down around 5:45pm, so often there was a mad rush to get the tent up, sometimes by the headlights of the motorbikes, and then get a fire going as we settled in for the evening. That was our modus operandii for October trans-Siberian motorcycling. We were doing about 5-6 hours on the road each day and churning through 350 - 400 klms a day.

The beer was interesting. There was no shortage of Czech beer in the kiosks out here in Siberia. It cost us around 1000 rubles (40c) a can. Considerably cheaper was Russian beer (at around 350 rubles a can), but despite sampling the local brews several times we were unable to endorse Russian beer as an official "Tokyo to London Project" product. It was flat and tasteless. [editors note - since about 1997, it has indeed been possible to get quality beer in Russia, but back in 1994 there was none].

As the roads become increasingly boring, and as our necks get increasingly too cold to turn and take in the limited scenery we were now faced with, the mind begins to think along all sorts of obscure lines. People you haven't thought of for years, suddenly become a key player for half an hour, before you mind wanders off on another tangent. It is a great time to be philosophical, sitting on a motorbike across Russia, pondering the meaning of life and the role of all the people you have met in that life.

The cold was forcing us to come up with new ways to keep ourselves warm. The fires we routinely began the days with would warm us initially, so that when we first sat on the bikes, we were warm, our fingers were warm, and thanks to keep the boots heated by the fire, our toes were toasty warm too. But within half an hour on the bike, the fingers and toes would begin to feel the cold. There was absolutely nothing we could do about the cold toes, except wait for the next stolovaya break, but we developed a unique technique for keeping the hands and fingers warm. I was riding in fur lined leather gloves, and James was riding in leather palmed ski gloves. Taking advantage of that leather, we found we could ride one handed, leaning right over the fuel tank and with the left hand actually grabbing the allow cylinder for warmth. Initially this was done in short burst, of a minute or two every 20 minutes, but as it got colder and colder we increasing rode most of the time with the left hand on the front cylinder. We learner to steer and control the throttle with the left hand on the right handlebar grip, so that the right hand could reach down and grab the cylinder.

Sunday October 16th saw us pull into Novosibirsk around lunchtime [see Russia map 5]. There had been loose plans to have mail sent to here and we considered staying till tomorrow to check it out until we learned that the Poste Restante here only held mail for a month before returning it. We were by now well over a month late and so we decided to push on through the city and past the pretty academic town ingeniously named Academgorodok (Academic town) on our way south to Kazakhstan.

Continue to next page Central Asia

Additional Images of Siberia

All text and images copyright © 1994; Walter Colebatch and James Mudie