Wow. This post could be as long as today’s ride! Let’s start with a picture of the delicious Maria at the Baikal Plaza hotel. Do you need any other reason to stay there?!
When I enter the restaurant for breakfast I discover about 50 Chinese who have stripped the buffet bare. They haven’t eaten it, it’s just all on their tables instead of the serving bowls, and it’s mostly untouched. Every time the waitress appears with a new plate of sausage or yoghurt or rice or weird white stuff or weird yellow stuff, it vanishes within seconds, redistributed across the room. Every yoghurt has a spoonful taken, the rest left. Every sausage a bite taken, the rest left. Every glass of juice a sip taken, the rest left. I make a cup of coffee, probably horrify the Chinese by drinking it all, and leave. I pack, checkout, and I’m gone.
Two minutes later I’m back, in a little bit of a panic as I can’t find the bullet cam recorder. Without it I won’t be able to finish my round the world video, and it has a week’s worth of footage on the memory card. I check the room I was in and no joy. Even though I’m getting anxious I’m still delighted by Maria’s anime-cute facial expressions as she tries to remember English words. Eventually I give up hope, but before heading off I check my pockets again. And there it is, in a pocket I just checked 5 times. With huge relief, I head off into the rain.
The road is easy to find since the Russians do road signs quite well and I have satnav back-up. It’s not easy to ride, being slick with rain and diesel and my bike is wearing dirt tyres, so I’m going relatively slowly. Not slowly enough. I look up from the satnav to see a cop in the road waving me to pull over, which I do, and he comes over. I smile, he gestures to the car. I offer my hand to shake, he says “Dokumenti”, sternly. In the back seat of the Police Lada I remove my wet helmet and gloves and place them carelessly on his pristine green hat which is lying next to me. He doesn’t seem to notice.
I hand over my documents, enormously glad that I went to the trouble of getting my lack of insurance resolved. He points at a video screen on the dashboard, which is showing a pretty decent photo of me riding towards the camera, and in the bottom corner it says “85kph” in bold red. I realise I have absolutely no idea what the speed limit is, and as he points at the speed readout and says what sounds like “big, big”, I wonder how expensive this will be.
Suddenly, he hands back my documents and says “Goodbye”.
I think I’m getting away with it. “May I take a photo?”, I enquire. “Nyet! Goodbye!”, in a voice that very clearly means get the hell out of my car before I change my mind and throw you in the gulag. I leg it, feeling relieved yet again.
A while later I meet a biker coming the other way. We stop and exchange info on the state of the road where we’ve just come from. You know you’re a long way from home when you meet a Korean who left his home just 10 days ago. I later discover that Jun has already met several other British bikers and HUBBers in the past few days, including Colebatch and Kennichi, and had a crash very early on during his first experience on gravel. From the huge grin on his face, even in pouring rain with several hundred miles still to UU (Ulan Ude), it obviously hadn’t bothered him and he seemed to be having the time of his life.
It’s a pretty wet day, and cold. I stop for lunch at a roadside cafe. I have a cornish pasty kind of thing and a coffee. It’s pretty good so I have another, and this time take a photo of it so I can ask for the same sort of thing in the next place. The cafe is occupied by transporters and truck drivers. Transporters are the (mostly) young men who are paid to drive imported Japanese cars from the port at Vladivostok through to other parts of Russia, and they’re pretty much the only traffic I’ve seen all day, all heading the other way. Seeing their cars reassures me that even with all this rain it must be possible to get through the unfinished sections of road. I seem to be drawing their attention, either because I look so obviously different or because I smell like wet dog and my clothes have dripped a substantial pool of rain water on the floor beneath me. I’m dry underneath, but the outer layers have soaked up their own weight in water.
Back on the road, I crest a hill and the sun comes out. I round a corner and suddenly I’m racing a goods train full of coal along the Trans-Siberian railway. Round another corner there’s a village. Some young lads spot me and race across the field to the roadside, where they wave and cheer excitedly as I pass, waving back. I try to toot the horn, but it must be waterlogged like everything else. A little further on, a soldier on a Russian bike and sidecar does a pretty good impression of the nonchalant gallic biker wave, and I realise I have a grin on my face and I’m loving every second. When I pass a sign saying there’s still 408km to Chita I actually find myself thinking “Brilliant! Only 408km!”. It seems great!
Suddenly the tarmac disappears. There’s a massive hole in the road, a stretch about 6 feet long where the tarmac is just not there. Instead there’s just a hole, full of other smaller holes. It’s too late, I’m right on top of it. Both wheels part company with tarmac. 10mph faster and I may have cleared it. Instead, there’s a thump that nearly breaks my wrists as I smack into the opposite side, followed by a bounce that kicks me out of my seat. Returning to earth, suspension and spine compress to the stops with a grinding squeak. As it rebounds again, everything goes loose and wobbly. Steering, teeth, vision. For a moment I fear disaster, but then it all straightens out and I’m still upright. I assess damage. Still going. Feels OK. Looks OK. Everything still here. The left wing mirror is pointing at the ground, the right one at the sky, and it feels like my nuts are doing something similar, but apart from that I think I got away with it. I admonish myself for not paying attention, and vow to concentrate on the road instead of composing this blog post in my head.
It’s raining so hard I decide the only option is to keep going to Chita, a ride of over 400 miles for the day. I’m a mile from the city, I can see it on the other side of a roundabout, when I feel that tell-tale squirm from the rear tyre and know instantly that it’s flat. I stop, quickly, not wanting to damage the tyre. Damn. It’s flat alright, and I have no spare tubes, only ones with irreparable damage. I try the compressor to see if re-inflates but no joy, I’ll have to take the wheel off.
It’s now 6:30pm and I’m in the middle of a raging thunderstorm, a deluge, and I have a puncture, but I’ve been feeling so good I’m almost thinking that adventure biking doesn’t get any better than this! I can’t lift the bike onto the centre stand on my own, but just as I decide I’ll have to unpack all the luggage, a scooter rider pulls up, helps me with the stand, then buggers off. I remove the wheel, and take out the tube. It has an obvious crease where it has folded it’s 18 inch diameter into my 17 inch wheel. and a big tear along the crease. I knew it wouldn’t last, and I kick myself for not having done anything about the innertube situation back in UB (Ulaan Bataar).
In the pouring rain, I try to patch it, not really believing it will work and trying to think of a plan B. It’s pretty hard work in such heavy rain, everything is wet and covered in sandy gritty mud, but I persist, and miraculously end up with a re-inflated wheel that seems to be holding pressure. Just then a car pulls up, and a Russian guy comes over and says things I don’t understand. It’s good timing because I’ve just seen that the centre stand has sunk about 4 inches into the soft wet ground, making it about 3 inches too low to get the wheel back under. The man and what looks like his son understand my gesture to lift and with the two of them gritting their teeth as they take the full weight of the bike, I manage, eventually, to get the wheel in place and the axle through. I have to get them to lever the bike over on the side stand so that I can spin the wheel to re-fit the chain, and that’s it, job done.
The rain is really hammering now, and despite my protestations I’m pulled over to the car and made to sit in the back with son and daughter, mum and dad in front, until the downpour passes. There follows a conversation in words I don’t understand and quickly drawn sketches I barely understand, but it seems clear that the man wants me to come back to his house for the night, put my bike in his garage, and in the morning he will help me find innertubes in the town. I politely refuse. He insists. I accept.
I jump back on the bike and follow their car as they turn off the main road onto a waterlogged back street. The thick, slippery mud and deep puddles give me a taste of what it’s going to be like on the unfinished sections of the highway after so much rain, and I become a little worried. We arrive at a big wooden house under construction and a 2 room wooden cabin in the grounds, alongside a massive brick built garage, into which I ride, parking alongside the family car, a small pick-up truck and a huge Kamaz dumper truck. Getting off the bike I see that the tyre is almost flat again already, but I don’t have time to do anything as I’m whisked into the house and given a cup of tea.
Not for the first time on this trip, a computer is produced with translation software and I am introduced to lorry driver Ura, his wife Natalya, 18 year old Sergei, and 13 year old Paulina. I am told I will stay for the night and in the morning they will take me to the bike shop in town. Out of nowhere, Natalya produces a meal of sausage, cheese, bread, fish and hot stir-fried vegetables, which is delicious. I’m the only one eating as they’ve all just been to granny’s house for dinner.
With the translator we talk abut various things, I show some of my photos, and then the subject of vodka comes up. You will drink vodka with me? “Da!”, I reply, thinking it would be nice to have a glass of something after a day like today, but hoping it’s not going to get out of hand, remembering how rough I felt in Semey. Ura, Natalya and I get back into the car to go to the shop for vodka. I had assumed it would be just round the corner, but instead we’re going on a night-time tour of the sights of Chita, and I’m shown the works, including a very impressive set of golden onion domes. Then I find myself wandering round a Russian supermarket with a Russian family, doing ordinary grocery shopping. It’s quite bizarre and I can’t help grinning at the situation and wondering what’s going to happen next.
Next is vodka. Ura and I drink vodka, while there’s another Q&A on the computer, with Sergei doing the typing for the family. When I explain that Alistair is the Scottish form of Alexander, Ura immediately takes to calling me Sasha, the Russian diminutive of Alexander. He explains that we re now friends, and I agree. Then Paulina pulls out a guitar and starts to play. She’s only been learning for a very short time, and is only 13 to begin with, but I’m treated to a stunning display of singing and guitar playing. It’s all in Russian so I don’t understand the words, but it’s a great tune and performed brilliantly. Truly superb. I tell her she should be on MTV and she smiles.
After a long day, it’s time for bed. The girls are in one room, the boys in the other, and I have a feeling Ura and Natalya have given up their bed for me, but I’m too tired to refuse. It’s been a day that puts the adventure back into adventure motorcycling.