Khabarovsk to Belogorsk
I had a little taste of how extreme Siberian weather can on the ride to Belogorsk. It was very cold, wet and windy, and my neck ached constantly fighting against the wind blowing over the Siberian steppe.
Riding 680 km like this, in the freezing pouring rain, isn’t my ideal way to spend a day. I discovered one or two things along the way, such as my dry bag is no longer dry, and the seam of my motorcycle trousers has come unglued around the crotch area, giving a new meaning to their name First Gear ‘Escape Pants’. While this is great for air-conditioning, it isn’t so great in the freezing rain, especially as the design of the Tiger’s tank is such that it channels rain water directly into that area, and after a few hours I eventually lost all contact with my balls.
The good news is my Gortex jacket does a great job of keeping my top half warm and dry, which is the most the important thing (I can get a new pair of balls anytime).
Along the way I passed a historical point – the first 50,000 km of my World Tour!
By midday I was starving and pulled over at the first ‘кафе’ sign I saw.
The Russian alphabet uses letters from the Cyrillic script, which is different enough from the Latin alphabet we use (or I use) to make it very difficult to work out what’s what. I quickly found myself remembering the shapes of important words so I could survive, like café (кафе) and beer (пиво).
I went in and ordered whatever they had ready, and was handed a delicious bowl of piping hot traditional Borscht soup, thick bread for dunking, and a lovely cup of tea, all for 1 pound at a trucker’s cafe – just what the doctor ordered! It’s amazing how delicious and satisfying even the simple things in life can be when you really need them.
On the way out I bought a bottle of water for the rest of the day’s ride. It’s quite amazing that so far all my attempts to buy a simple bottle of mineral water have all, without fail, ended up with me buying a bottle of fizzy water. It’s obviously very popular in Russia! I must have been through all the different colours of bottles, but still I end up with fizzy water, and they even have different levels of fizziness (I know, because I’ve tried them all).
Back on the road there were several stretches of slippery, muddy road-works, so I had to take it easy on my rapidly balding rear tyre. I must admit my tyre management has been terrible, and I hadn’t even considered where I was going to get my next pair from. I put my existing Heidenau K60 Scout tyres on in Malaysia, and since then I have ridden 14,000 km. My last pair of Heidenaus lasted 16,000 km (rear) and an amazing 26,000 (front). However, the rough Siberian roads have been much harsher on the tyres, and are literally eating the rubber, so the rear will need replacing soon.
In a rare break from the rain, I pulled over to take a quick photo, and a huge lorry pulled up behind me. The Russian driver was a lovely man who just wanted to talk to me about my travels. Even when it started to rain again, he still stood there in his jumper chatting away as I smiled and laughed and pointed at flags on my panniers, although I didn’t have a clue what he was saying.
Late afternoon I eventually rolled into Belogorsk. It felt great to have made it to in one piece. Just as I was dreaming of a warm, dry hotel room to crash in, two Policemen sitting in a Police car on the verge must have been reading my mind and decided to pull me over to torment me further.
Actually, my first experience with Russian Policemen, they were really friendly and polite, and just wanted to talk about where I was from and where I was going. One of them took a quick look at my UK driving licence (I’ve never showed my International one), and let me go with a friendly wave. Cool beans!
A bit further down the road I saw a hardware shop, and so pulled over and bought a 10 litre jerry-can for extra fuel that I’d probably need in Mongolia.
Outside the shop I met a guy from Mongolia who delighted in telling me he was from there when I told him that’s where I was headed. I’d guessed he was, as he had distinctive Mongolian features. I think I’m going to love it there – vast open countryside (with little rain) where you can literally camp anywhere. I hope my sleeping bag is warm enough for the low Gobi desert temperatures at night.
Decent hotel rooms in Russia seemed to vary between 10-20 pounds, and in most cases I much prefer the privacy of my own room to saving a couple of quid sharing a dormitory with 101 people, especially when I’m tired and need a decent night’s sleep. I planned to be mostly camping in Mongolia where it was meant to be dryer and warmer (I hoped), and later when I reached Europe, and so would save a lot of money that way.
After a heavenly hot shower in the comfort of my warm, dry room, I set about unpacking my ‘dry’ bag and drying everything in there. Luckily I’d wrapped most things up in plastic bags as well, or else it would have been much worse. I suppose the ‘Overboard’ dry bag has lasted quite well with all the abuse it’s had over the past 20 months. And the few small holes in it aren’t too bad – I’m sure it will see the trip out if I turn it the other way round on my bike.
In the evening I headed out down the road for dinner and the first restaurant I found happened to be a pizza place. That would do nicely thank you, and I played a game of ‘lucky finger anywhere on the food menu’ and also ordered a cold beer from the fridge (at least I know how to do that).
All Russian shops are very well disguised from the outside from the ignorant traveller like myself. They almost all have a series of double doors, which must be to help keep the cold wind out during the winter, but are impossible to see through. I’ve walked into several shoe shops and a lingerie shop looking for banks and somewhere to eat.
My gamble turned out OK, and the pizza was ham and cheese, although I was so hungry I think I would have eaten and enjoyed Chinese chicken feet pizza, if there is such a thing.
It’s strange that when you’re starving, pretty much anything tastes good. I remember buying a burger in Khabarovsk and finding out it was actually a liver burger, and I hate liver, but I was so hungry I actually quite enjoyed it.
Back in my hotel room, a web search for ‘new tyres in Siberia’ led to not much, as you might expect. Most sensible riders pre-order tyres for delivery into Ulan-Ude or Ulaanbaatar weeks in advance, as that’s usually the only way to get them there, and I have no idea why I didn’t. Bad planning, or just an eternal optimist?
I’d say eternal optimist, as where there’s a will, there usually a way. I contacted lots of people and eventually I got put in touch with a guy called Denis Panferov who just happened to have a TKC 80 my size hanging around in Ulan-Ude – Yippee!!! However, I still had another 2,000 km to get there…
Denis is a great bloke, and can probably get you any tyre you want, delivered to anywhere in Russia you want, in only 10-14 days for a reasonable price. As TKCs don’t wear as well as Heidenaus (but they are great off-road tyres – perfect for Mongolia), I ordered another Heidenau rear to collect from Barnaul, when I emerged out the western end of Mongolia in a month or so.
Here are his details, should you need him:
Denis Panferov, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel:+7-495-507-9530 / Cell:+7-925-507-9530
I didn’t need to order a front tyre from Denis because I’d already found one in Ulaanbaatar. Well actually, a very friendly person called Urnaa at the Oasis Guest House had found one for me and actually bought it for me too! She had it there waiting for me, so I’d better stay in her guesthouse, as I owed her 100 USD.
One thing that is very evident here in Siberia is that the weather forecast changes constantly, in which respect it reminds me of good old Blighty. Currently, it looks as though I’m heading into more rain tomorrow, instead of the sun that was forecast yesterday.
Oh well, how wet can it get?
Belogorsk to Skovorodino
Have you ever tried putting wet double skinned motorcycle gloves on with cold, wet hands? It doesn’t work; it’s like coating cotton thread in superglue and trying to thread it through the eye of a needle (not that I’ve tried to do that, but I can imagine it would be very difficult).
My heated grips continue to be about as much use as a new square tyre.
I’d studied Google Maps the night before and seen a sizeable city called Skovorodino about 560 km away further up the road to the west (I’ll have to get a proper Russian Map one of these days). So that became my target, which I thought should be an easy ride after yesterday’s 680 km.
After a good 8 hour sleep, which I really needed, I set off from Belogorsk just after 9am, and this time started with all my layers on, rather than the reverse which I tried yesterday which ended up getting me cold and wet.
I stopped at a café early and ordered another steaming hot bowl of borscht, bread and tea for brunch, as there was no breakfast at the hotel.
I’ve tried to learn some basic Russian, such as daily pleasantries (many of which don’t seem to exist in Russia) and ordering food, but as my pronunciation is terrible I’m still largely not understood, so I usually end up doing a lot of pointing and guessing things on the menu – but that works. It’s actually kind of fun playing lucky dip at restaurants; I’ll probably stop when I end up with sheep brains or something similarly unappetising.
Being in the middle of nowhere almost all toilets in Siberian fuel stations are just holes in the ground, meaning you have to hold your breath for a long time while taking a wee, or go behind a tree somewhere else (preferable).
In the afternoon the rain cleared up and the sun tried to come out. And when the sun comes out, the bugs do to, and soon I was getting battered by all kinds of coloured kamikaze bugs. I had to wash my visor every rest stop so I could see again.
Fuel stations seemed quite regular so far, and so I was doing fuel stops every 250 km or so. Plus I had my emergency extra fuel can should I need it.
Various sections of the road had road-works again, and somewhere along one of the bumpy bits, my luggage pannier rack snapped off. This caused the pannier to occasionally bash against the back tyre, and wore away a big chunk out of the bottom of the pannier, and the side of the tyre. I would have to take it slowly and find a mechanic drill out the broken bolts. Luckily Skovorodino wasn’t too far away.
At my next fuel stop I met Spanish biker Xavier, who was 52 years old and riding his BMW GS800 from Spain to Vladivostok and back. He was sensible and had his own new tyres!
Xavier was strapped for time, like Geoff was (I felt so lucky not to be!), and wanted to ride another 400 km before stopping for the night. I wished him all the best, and he shot off. I emailed Geoff later to let him know Xavier would soon be catching up with him, and later found out they had met up and were going to travel through Mongolia together, so I was happy for them.
I bumped and rattled up a broken, sandy road on the outskirts of Skovorodino and found this old work yard that looked like it might be able to help me. Of course language was a problem, but when I showed the broken luggage rack to the lady at reception, she disappeared to speak with another man. After a while another man arrived in a car and beckoned me to ride my bike round the back of the yard.
A small crowd soon gathered and asked the usual questions about my journey, which I replied using a string of sentences pre-saved on my Google Translate App.
Then a very nice man asked me to disconnect the battery because he was going to weld the luggage rack up for me. I hesitated for a second, as that would mean I wouldn’t be able to remove it again, but then quickly thanked him and let him carry on. At least welding would be stronger than bolts, and I could live without removing it.
A few minutes later he was all done, and it worked a treat. I tried to pay him something, but he refused blankly. What a lovely guy to have done that for me, as I could also see he was busy working on a truck.
I rode into town, but not finding anywhere obviously to stay, I decided to go back to the suburbs where I’d seen a nice looking ‘motel’ just off the main road. And I’m really glad I did because it was a great, cheap place, with a good restaurant. More importantly, it had a garage out the back where I was asked to park my bike.
As I parked up I realised one of the clamping locks had broken off the right pannier, and it was now only held onto the grab rails with one. This was no good at all, and meant the second one would soon also break off with the extra stress. The only way I could see to remedy the situation was to drill through the top of the pannier case and use cable-ties to hold the broken clamping lock to the grab rail.
The helpful guys in the garage drilled the case for me (again for free) and I affixed 2 cable ties. I didn’t ask them why they appeared to have a Russian Missile Launcher in their garage.
It seemed to work and looked secure, but of course meant I could no longer remove that pannier without cutting the cable ties. Again, I could live with that; the main thing was to keep the pannier secure to the bike so it wouldn’t fly off. It was going to get bumpier in Mongolia!
I felt good after another long and eventful day, and very fortunate to have met such nice and helpful people. I did a little circuit training in the room to celebrate. Then I celebrated properly with a couple of beers in the motel bar at dinner.
I turned in early because it was going to be a big day tomorrow – I had 1000 km (620 miles) to ride to the next town of any size – Chita. Yes, I could have camped, but it was forecast to be wet and cold again, which is no fun at all, and so I was actually looking forward to the challenge of getting up very early to get cracking on the long ride.