Siberia

Vladivostok

Well it didn’t start too well…

Firstly, my luggage didn’t arrive in Moscow from Goa (via Doha).  Then I found out my flight to Vladivostok was from another airport in Moscow (called Sheremet) which was 100 km away.  Darn!  I had 2 hrs to get there, but by the time the lost luggage attendant had completed all the necessary paperwork, I was never going to catch it, particularly as it was now Moscow rush-hour (which is supposed to be terrible).  Double darn!  Luckily the airport had free wifi and I managed to call the Aeroflot booking office on viber (an iPhone app) and change my flight to a later one.

There was a train that went almost to Sheremet airport, but it looked complicated, and having travelled all night & day from Goa with very little sleep, I just couldn’t be bothered to mess around for the sake of a few quid, and so looked for a taxi.

Luckily, walking back into the arrivals hall, I was approached by 101 different taxi reps, and the first nice Russian gentlemen I hesitated at offered me a very special tourist price of 6800 Rubles (about 120 quid), so I thanked him and wandered away to check out some more prices (with him following all the way, slowly eroding his generous price as we walked). In the end he dropped it to 4000 Rubles, but the information desk pointed me in the direction of the cunningly disguised ‘official taxi booth’ where I finally picked up a taxi for 2350 Rubles.

From a not ideal start, two and a half hours later I was sitting in the correct airport enjoying a couple of beers and a couple of burgers (that mysteriously came with the beers), ready for my evening flight to Vladivostok; proof that things usually do turn out OK after all.

The flight from Moscow to Vladivostok was 8 hours and 20 minutes (with 7 hours time difference), which put how big Russia actually is in perspective.  I would be riding back to Moscow on my bike, and should be there in 2 months or so (taking my time via Mongolia).

After 2 days & 2 nights travelling on planes I finally arrived in Vladivostok at midday 7th May and jumped in a taxi straight to the port customs office where I had arranged to meet the manager from the shipping agent handling my bike, Svetlana.

After a couple of teething problems, such as getting turned away from the customs building by the receptionist and not being able to call Svetlana (as I didn’t have wifi to call on viber, and no SIM card that worked in Russia), I eventually managed to get inside and meet Svetlana who was knee deep in Russian paperwork.

Also at customs waiting for his KLR650 to be released was a Mr Geoffrey Bransbury.  Geoff is originally from the UK but immigrated to Australia as a young man (one of the old ‘10 Pound Poms’).  He’s riding his Kawasaki (shipped to Vladivostok from Melbourne) from Valdivostok to the UK, but as he’s set a date to meet his wife in Paris, he’s on a tighter schedule than me.  He’s 69 years old, but looks great – good for him!

After a short while at the customs office we found out our bikes would have to be inspected the next day, so we went for lunch & then went to find me a bed.  I’d actually booked a room at the same hostel as Geoff, and on the way back I bought a local Russian SIM card for a few quid – it was good to have Google Maps up and running again, and find out where I was!

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Vladivostok – a fine city!

I was pretty tired after the long trip and thought a jog would do the trick and wake me up.  So I told Geoff I was going for a jog, and then remembered my jogging kit was in my lost luggage, probably still stuck in Doha.  If my luggage didn’t turn up at all, I was thinking it wouldn’t be disaster, as I had all the important things I needed in my hand luggage (my tank bag with shoulder straps).  However, it would mean I’d have to go on a mini shopping spree to buy a few changes of underwear.

Annoyingly I’d left the inside lining to my helmet in my luggage, as I’d taken it out to wash it, and so it would also mean a new helmet.  And I’d also need a new dry bag to keep everything in.  And a new security chain (I’d bought a new one after losing the key to my other one).  And new running shoes.  And casual shoes.  So actually, it would be quite a pain.

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Vladivostok Railway Station – the terminus for the Trans-Siberian Railway

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The Ferry Port, just round the back of the railway station, and the Russian Pacific Fleet HQ

Back at the hostel, instead of jogging I devised a little circuit training session in my room (I’d splashed out a couple of extra rubles for a single room), which made me feel much better.  I wouldn’t say I’m a fitness fanatic, but every now and then I HAVE to do SOMETHING , or else I feel as though my body will clog up and grind to a halt.  Goodness knows what I’ll do when I’m too old to do anything, but I guess I’ll always be able to do something – at least I hope…

In the evening Geoff and I went for a little wonder around town and came across a procession of Russian artillery vehicles, tanks and troop carriers.  Were they about to start invading their eastern front, as well as their western one?  (Only joking all Russian readers 😉 )

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They rolled out the Military Guard to welcome me!

The 9th May in Russia is ‘Victory Day’ when they mark the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union in the Second World War (also known here as the Great Patriotic War), and being 7th May this was all part of the preparation.

We found a decent bar, ordered food and supped a couple of pints.  I tried to order Russian beer with my new found Russian linguistic skills (courtesy of Google Translate), but ended up with Japanese Asahi, so it looks like I have some work to do.  At least it was beer.

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Beer O’Clock!

The next morning we breakfasted in style with The Queen at the ‘5 o’clock Café’ down the pedestrian high street.  It was strange to see British royal memorabilia scattered around the place, but still no-one could speak the Queen’s English – or any type of English.  Fair enough though, of course, seeing that we were in Russia.  Unfortunately my Russian is rubbish, but Google Translate gets the job done for me, near enough.

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Breakfast at the Royal ‘5 o’clock Cafe’. See the picture of the Queen behind Geoff?

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Vladivostok street outside our hostel

Then off to the customs bonded store, and I clamped my eyes on the Tiger for the first time since Japan, sitting all alone in the cold, dusty, Russian bonded warehouse.  I felt a tear of joy well up in my eye, but forced it back in, so as to not look soft in front of all the stern, dour Russians standing around.

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She’s alive! The Tiger in the customs bonded store, awaiting freedom

Geoff’s bike was extremely well packed inside a wooden crate, having been shipped from Melbourne.  I helped him reassemble it, like a motorcycle jigsaw puzzle.

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Geoff’s new KLR650, shipped from Melbourne in a wooden crate. Geoff is 69 and looking good! He’s riding it to Paris to meet his wife

The customs inspection went well (they just read the frame numbers) and by 16:00 we had our bikes freed.  I’d also had the good news my luggage had turned up at Vladivostok airport, so my first trip on my bike was a run to the airport to collect it.  Unfortunately the airport is 45 minutes away, and as it was now Vladivostok rush-hour, it actually turned out to be an emotional 3 hour round-trip (this was also partly because I went to the wrong airport terminal at first).  It had also started to rain, and so I and the Tiger got soaked and covered in mud.

I arrived back at the hostel just in time to be collected by Yuri, Link’s General Manager, who was taking Geoff and me out to dinner.  We had a traditional Russian pizza (?), but it was a good one!

Yuri is a good guy and gave us a few tips driving the road to the Mongolian border, where he’d just been on a business trip.  His services for releasing the bike were only 200 USD, which I thought was pretty good, considering what I’d been charged in Japan (600 USD).

Geoff and I had decided to leave the next day after lunch so we could watch the Victory Day Parade in the morning.  It turned out to be quite a spectacle, with hundreds of Russian troops and military hardware parading through the streets, followed by a long line of civilians holding up photos of their relatives who had fought in the war.  It is sometimes forgotten (or not known) that an incredible 27 to 28 million Russians died during WWII – far, far more than any other country’s loses.

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9th May is Victory Day, when Russians mark the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union in the Second World War (also known as the Great Patriotic War)

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There were the usual parades of soldiers

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…followed by a long line of civilians holding up photos of their relatives who had fought in the war

Then we were off!  The friendly hostel workers saw us off with photos and a wave, and I started to see that once you’d got past the initial Russian ‘cold front’ shown to strangers, they were just like everyone else in the world – friendly and hospitable.  Well, almost everyone else.

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We’re off!

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Our friendly hostel manager wanted a photo too

Before we went, I just had time for a photo of me and similarly handsome baldy bloke, Yul Brynner, who was actually born in Vladivostok back in 1920.

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Me and my fellow handsome baldy mate – Yul Brynner – born in Vladivostok

We stopped to look at the view of Golden Horn Bay on the way out of town.

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Golden Horn Bay

 

The first target on our Russian Tour was Khabarovsk – the next big city nearly 800km away.  And the sun was shining!

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Categories: Siberia | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Vladivostok to Khabarovsk

Vladivostok to Lake Khanka

It was a beautiful sunny day and I wondered what all this Siberian ‘extreme weather’ fuss was about.  Having said that, we weren’t actually in ‘Geographical Siberia’ yet (there are several definitions) and it was going to get colder the further inland from the coast we went.

It was almost 800 km to the next major city called Khabarovsk, and on the map about a third of the way up was a large lake called Lake Khanka.  I ‘googled it’ and saw it had some nice sandy beaches, ideal for camping.  As we were starting late (after watching the Vladivostok Victory Parade), I thought it would make sense to make our way to the lake (only a short detour from the main road) and camp there for the night.

Geoff hates camping, and I love it, but there was bound to be a hotel nearby for him to stay in, and I thought we could meet up again in the morning.

So off we rode into the sunshine, on a good surfaced road, and thought how easy and beautiful it all was.  The open countryside stretched out before us like a welcoming friend – an eye catching mixture of grassland and birch forests.

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The open Siberian steppe

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My iPhone on charge (white lead) against the grassland plains

We got to the lake turn-off after a couple of hours and stopped at a small grocery to pick up some camp dinner, and beer of course.  It seemed we were quite the object of attention in this little town!  (I did notice their eyes weren’t painted on 😉 )

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Another member of my Russian Fanclub 😉

There was only one tiny road showing on my Sat Nav (OSM maps) that led to the lake, so we followed it through some flat back country roads.  After a while it led to a rocky, narrow causeway crossing a series of waterways, which was good fun to ride down.

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Narrow causeway that led to Lake Khanka (I hoped!)

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Beautiful water views either side

There weren’t many people around, except for a few fishermen, as we bumped up and down along the track heading for the lake at the bottom, with beautiful water views either side.

Geoff was bit slower than me due to the smaller KLR, and so I rode on ahead to the end of the causeway to scope out any potential places to camp.

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See you in a bit Geoff!

At the end the lake opened up in front of me – a peaceful and relaxing place, but unfortunately it was all wet marshland and no sandy beaches.  I guessed the sandy beaches must be on the west coast of the lake, but that was too far out of the way for us to travel to.

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I found the lake!

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Nowhere to camp though (unfortunately) – just boggy wetland.

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Beautiful scenery though! Now where had Geoff gone?

I relaxed on the lake shore for a bit and chatted to a couple of interested fishermen (in sign language).  Geoff was taking some time so I called him (he had also bought a local SIM), and he had broken down.  He had been having problems with his bike earlier, and so I shot back to see if I could help.

When I arrived Geoff was on the side of the causeway with a local Russian who had kindly stopped to try and help.  His bike started OK, but would cut out as soon as it was put into gear.  It appeared to be an electrical fault, and Geoff had read that a common problem with the KLR is a temperamental side-stand safety cut-off switch.  We tested this theory out with a length of wire to bridge the cut-off switch, and it worked, so we cut the wire and rejoined it, bypassing the switch altogether.

It was now late afternoon, so we shot off back to the main highway to look for somewhere else to camp.  It was a beautiful, warm evening, and Geoff had decided to suspend his dislike of camping for one night to give it another go.  I think he was pleased he did, because we found a wonderful spot off the main road down a track.

Once the tents were set up, I got the stove on and cooked us both up a delicious one-pot meal of pasta & chicken in a couple of weird sauces I had thought was something else.  We ate it with fresh bread and drank cold beer as the sun went down.  Life was good!

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A great little camping spot – time to celebrate!

Lake Khanka to Khabarovsk

We got to bed early, and I slept very well, rising in time to see a spectacular sunrise.

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I don’t often get up early enough to see the sun rise, but when I do, it’s usually well worth it

Geoff also said he’d had a good night’s sleep, and he may now be a reformed non-camper!

As we were packing up a man drove up the track in his jeep with 2 huge dogs in the back, which looked like Afghan Hounds.  We smiled and said ‘good morning’ in our best Russian, and he got out for a chat.  I thought he was probably the land owner, but he didn’t seem to mind that we had camped.

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Friendly local guy (land owner?) with his 2 huge dogs

After a while the man then drove away but then returned a few minutes later with a box of candy and mosquito spray for us – how nice!

Actually we were lucky with the mosquitoes; I’d noticed a couple biting me at the lake, but apart from that, I hadn’t seen or felt any.  I’m told in later summer months when the rains start they are a real nuisance, and can eat a man alive through chainmail.

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Packed up and ready to move!

We set off again on a straight run to Khabarovsk, and again the weather was hot and sunny.  Intermittently the road would turn to an un-surfaced mix of dirt, stones, gravel and sand, but as it was dry, it wasn’t a problem, although you had to remain alert to dodge some huge pot-holes.

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Time to dodge the pot-holes again!

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Letting Geoff have a head-start

We made great time, cruising at between 100-140 km/h (the speed limit is 90 to 100 km/h outside built-up areas), admiring the vast, green landscape that seemed to stretch on forever.  Some of the roads were particularly beautiful, lined with Siberian Silver Birch trees as far as the eye could see.

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Beautiful roads lined with Siberian Silver Birch trees

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More forest, and not much traffic – just the way I like it

I got into the habit of shooting off ahead on my Tiger and stopping for photos while Geoff caught up.  Occasionally I’d also take a quick nap!

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Waiting for Geoff to catch up – (ha ha, sorry Geoff! 🙂 )

We took our time and stopped for coffee breaks and a nice lunch of local meat-filled pastries at a small garage.  I had one which looked like a pizza, but actually had a burger in the middle – what a great idea!

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Coffee break. The restaurants in Russia are well disguised (if you don’t speak Russian)

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Siberian wetlands

Khabarovsk

We arrived in Khabarovsk around 4pm, filled up with fuel (92 benzine) ready for the trip out, and set about looking for digs.  I’d seen a great looking cheap hostel on ‘booking.com’ and we went to have a look.  It was in a huge apartment complex with no signs, and would have been impossible to find had I not asked a local couple who kindly called the phone number for me to get directions.

Geoff went in to take a look while I looked after the bikes, and came back looking not impressed, so we executed Plan B and shot off to look at another one.

It was a good decision, because the 2nd one was much better, and we met a lovely local Russian guy called Tim who (once we’d booked in) took us for a drink at the bar next door.

Then the fun started!

Just as we were about to enter the bar, I got stopped by a crazy looking local girl who kept trying to pull me off to the side to show me something.  I could tell Tim was humouring her, although he didn’t look too impressed.  However, we all ended up following her into a pet shop round the corner, where she produced a huge iguana lizard to show us.  Lovely!

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If you ever go to Khabarovsk, watch out for a crazy girl and her iguana (crazy girl on the right, I think)

From then on, she attached herself to me and I couldn’t shake her off – but she was harmless (I hoped!), and apart from being crazy at least recognised the fact I was beautiful, which she kept telling me again and again, while trying to stroke my bald head.  After all, she wasn’t made of wood I suppose 😉 This is something I have had to get used to over the years, of course.  One question I have never been able to answer is: are women crazy before they meet me, or do I make them crazy?

We bought some beers and some traditional ‘beer snacks’ of salted fish, and sat around a table for a chat.  Tim could speak English fairly well and was a really interesting guy – an ex-military bomber pilot.

Crazy girl’s friend was in the bar and was half-way through a bottle of vodka.  She kept passing out on the table, intermittently waking up to shout out a toast and take another swig.  They both joined us and made the evening entertaining at least.

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A fun evening in the local boozer, with Tim (friendly ex-Russian bomber pilot), Geoff, crazy girl and her drunk mate

Luckily I had an escape plan:  I’d arranged to meet my own personal tour-guide, Jenya, who I’d met on a social travel website I occasionally use, and she had volunteered to show me around the city.

There’s no better way to see a new city than to be shown around by a local, and Jenya took me to see all the points of interests including Lenin Square and the Transfiguration Cathedral (completed in 2004) down by the Amur River.

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Luckily I had an escape plan – Jenya, standing in Lenin Square

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Not a very good photo of the Transfiguration Cathedral, taken with my iPhone

The Amur River is called the Black River in Chinese and marks the dividing line between Russia and China for much of its path.  Although it wasn’t quite black, it didn’t look especially inviting for a swim.  Jenya said it was because it was joined by a Chinese river further upstream, which brought with it lots of pollution.  Heavy rainfall caused the river to flood last year (2013) and it rose 8 metres (26 ft), flooding many parts of the city.

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The Amur River (or Black River in Chinese) – recently flooded

Jenya was 27 and already an Account Manager for a major Russian Bank – destined to be a high flyer.  She spoke flawless English and was interested in meeting new people and liked showing them around her city.  She was the perfect hostess.

We ended up in a Maltese restaurant for dinner, of all places, which was delicious, and then she took me on a tour of Khabarovsk’s bars and clubs.

We went to the Harley Davidson Cabaret Saloon and were enjoying frozen margaritas when my nostrils started burning.  I looked around and saw people choking, so I told Jenya not to breath and rushed her outside with everyone else in a heaving crowd.  I have no clue what gas it was that someone had let off – maybe CS or Pepper Spray, but I didn’t see anyone’s eyes watering.  Someone obviously didn’t like that bar though.

Funnily enough I met a Nigerian guy outside who worked at the club.  He was from Lagos, where I have worked in the past, and it was good to chat about things there for a while (he spoke excellent English, of course, as English is the official language of Nigeria).

I suddenly realised I hadn’t seen any black people in Russia so far, and so asked him what it was like.  Unfortunately it seems many black Russians are treated with curiosity, at best, and open hostility, at worst.

We didn’t fancy going back into the gas chamber, so Jenya and I decided to join 2 other girls in a taxi to another club, and continued to dance the night away with the help a few more margaritas.

Khabarovsk – The Long Weekend

As Geoff was on a tight schedule to meet his wife in Paris, he got up early and left the next morning.  He was riding directly west and south to Mongolia, whereas I wanted to head north to Lake Baikal first and spend a good week around there.  It was nice to have travelled with someone for a couple of days though, although I never do get tired of laughing at my own jokes.

To clear my sore head I went for a run down Amurski Boulevard, a nice green avenue running all the way through the city and down to the river embankment at the bottom.

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Amurski Boulevard – a nice plan for a run

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Some typical Russian wooden housing on a leafy suburb

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Khabarovsk Railway Station; one of the final (eastern) stops on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Later that day Jenya took me for a bike ride along the river embankment, which only last year was totally underwater.  It was nice to spend an afternoon on a push-bike rather than on my motorbike, and I enjoyed the much slower pace (for a while).

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Trading in my motorbike for something a little slower

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Russia is full of statues of Mr Lenin, and girls with long legs on push-bikes (not often smiling though)

On the embankment there is a small fun-fair with rides, games and fast-food, mostly for kids, but it was fun to hang about there and grab some dinner and a drink.

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The embankment fun-fair!

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My Tiger was always much more popular than me!

Khabarovsk was a nice city and I spent 3 days there in all.  Then it was time to move on west, and I put my finger on the map and found a city called Belogorsk 660 km away that I thought looked doable in one day.

Then it started to rain.

Categories: Siberia | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Khabarovsk to Belogorsk to Skovorodino

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.

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A cold, wet day in Siberia

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).

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A typical Siberian road-side trucker’s cafe

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.

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A life saver! Delicious Russian Borscht Soup

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.

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It may have been cold and wet, but the scenery was still beautiful

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Siberia is very, very big, and it is easy to fall asleep on the long straight roads if you don’t get enough sleep

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: buy@motorezina.ru Tel:+7-495-507-9530 / Cell:+7-925-507-9530

http://www.motorezina.ru

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

Pretty wet!

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).

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The start of another wet day outside my Belogorsk Hotel

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.

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Is that really the sun?

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.

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Uh-oh; broken pannier rack – not good. The bolts had completely sheared off

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!

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Spanish biker Xavier, riding on his BMW GS800 from Spain to Vladivostok and back

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.

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The Tiger undergoing surgery

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.

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As good as new! Hopefully that will remain attached in Mongolia

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.

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Friendly guys who drilled holes in my panniers for me at the motel

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.

Categories: Siberia | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Skovorodine to Chita to Ulan-Ude

Skovorodine to Chita – a 1,000 km (620 mile) day

 

The trick about riding long distances on a motorcycle is to get up really early.  That way you can have a good chunk of the journey done before most people are even out of bed; not rocket science, but easier said than done (for me at least).  I started at 8am, as breakfast started at 7am, which is very good for me.

 

Unfortunately the weather had taken a turn for the worse, from freezing, wet and windy to blimmin’ freezing, blimmin’ wet and blimmin’ windy.  Trust me to choose today to put in a 1,000 km ride.  It pee’d it down for almost the whole 12 hours it took me.

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Surprise, surprise – it was raining again

 

It must have been cold as more and more snow started appearing on the sides of the road, and then in the fields, and shortly after my knees started chattering against the side of the tank they were clamped tightly to in an attempt to seal my crotchless trousers.

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And cold

 

My fingers and toes also went numb as I sped through the deluge trying to see clearly through my visor.

 

Other little things didn’t help, such as Russian trucks (in various states of repair) with no rear mud-flaps, which means it’s almost impossible to see anything past them through the barrage of muddy water and stones they fly up in their wake.

 

The road, in many places, was undulating like the ocean, caused by permafrost, and was like riding along on a carousel at 140 km/h.  I completely took-off several times when the dips were larger than I expected and had a couple of close calls, so I slowed down quite a lot after that.

 

Despite all this, I made good time, even after being stuck at a railway crossing for half an hour waiting for 3 trains to pass.  I’m lucky as I find the Tiger’s seat pretty comfortable, and when my bum goes to sleep I just stand on the pegs for a bit (it’s really comfortable to ride in the standing position as well).

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Railway crossing are slightly different in Russia, and you can find yourself waiting for half an hour while 3 trains pass

 

Fuel stops were noticeably scarce on this section of road, and one fuel station I went to (in the middle of nowhere) had even run out of fuel.  It was a good job I had the extra 10 litres with me, or else I would have been stuck.

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The only fuel station for 100 km, and no fuel…

 

I rolled into Chita around 8pm and my Zumo took me straight to Hotel Chita that I’d splashed out on (for 20 quid), as I thought I might need a warm, dry place to sleep.  I did.

 

Without changing I went straight to the hotel restaurant to refuel myself, as I was famished, and then took a walk down to the city centre, as I knew if I showered first I would just fall asleep.  The city centre was suspiciously empty; had everyone been abducted by aliens?

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Chita Lenin Square

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I was too late – the alien spacecraft had just left with all the rush-hour traffic

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Chita Cathedral

 

On the way back to hotel I bought some snacks, which I hardly ever do as I don’t really like them, but I felt I needed some more energy.  Then, back in my room, I put my feet up and watched the world pass by (very slowly) from my window.  I felt good – although I hoped it wouldn’t rain again tomorrow.

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It was date night – just me and my tube of bacon Pringles

 

16 May 14 – Chita to Ulan-Ude

 

In the morning, for a change, it was raining.

 

Raining and cold.

 

Very cold.

 

There didn’t seem to be much more to hang around for in Chita, so I had decided to ride on to Ulan-Ude, the stopping off point to/from Mongolia, a relatively short 550 km away.

 

After a great free hotel breakfast of Russian porridge, boiled egg, yoghurt, cheese, ham, bread, pancakes and tea, I wrapped up in everything I had and loaded up the bike.  I had to ride through a tree to get out of the carpark because some joker had blocked me in.

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The 4th cold and wet morning in a row – must be my lucky week! And some joker had blocked my bike in

 

It didn’t take long for my hands to freeze, and soon I couldn’t feel my thumb to know if it was actually managing to hit the indicator switch or not.  And of course my gaping crotch split let in the rain and my balls froze again.  Good job I’m getting used to it.

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Scenery never quite looks as nice in the rain

 

I was frightened to even look at my rear tyre now as it was getting eaten away very quickly by the rough Siberian roads.  I tried not to think about fixing a puncture in the freezing rain, and I slowed down a lot over the rough unsurfaced sections, took it easy on the bends, accelerated gentle and tried not to break if I could help it.  It is great testament to the Heidenau rear tyre that not once did it slip or flounder – in fact I would not have even noticed it was on its last legs had I not known.

 

I pulled into a garage to get some fuel and noticed my chain had suddenly become very loose.  I disassembled the luggage to get at my tools (kept under the seat) and tightened it up a bit, but then realised the chain must be wearing unevenly, as parts were very tight and other parts very loose.  I got an amazing 36,000 km out of the original chain & sprockets, and so thought the new DID Gold X-Ring Chain I got in Malaysia would last longer.  It’s now coming up to 15,000 km, so maybe I was wrong.  Or maybe there’s another problem?  I’ll have to keep a close eye on it, and hope it lasts Mongolia.

 

At one point I felt myself starting to nod off at the wheel, and so pulled over for a cuppa.  Perhaps I’m not getting enough sleep?  I thought I’d slept quite well, but maybe not.

 

I met a group of bikers at a fuel stop going the other way.  The Russian ‘Hells Angels’ were on Yamaha and Honda Cruisers, and grabbed my hand and bashed shoulders like I was one of ‘The Gang’.

 

“Russian bikes are sh*t” they said.

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The Russian ‘Hells Angels’

 

The weather forecast for Ulan-Ude was sunshine, and as I got closer sure enough the rain eventually stopped and the sun came out to dry me off.  Oh sun – how I’ve missed you!

 

I rounded a hill and came across an amazing view – the Siberian steppe stretched out ahead of me under a backdrop of rolling hills.  The landscape had switched instantly from a severely cold, wet, harsh wasteland to one of endearing beauty – what a difference the sun makes!

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The sun eventually came out and suddenly the vast Siberian steppe looked more inviting

 

Further on I came across a lake by a sharp escarpment – easily the best view I’ve had so far in Russia.  I couldn’t wait to see more like it when the landscape became more mountainous.

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This was the best view so far

 

Ulan-Ude

 

As I rolled into Ulan-Ude around 6.30pm, I could have kissed my tyre, which was now severely ragged.

 

I rode to the place I’d arranged to meet Denis’ mate Igor and found it to be on a deep, sandy road.  With no tread left on my rear, I slipped and skidded across it and almost got stuck, but still the old thing didn’t let me down (yes, I was too lazy to reduce the tyre pressure).

 

Now in the sandy backstreet suburbs of Ulan-Ude I began to suspect I was in the wrong place.  I approached a stern looking man (as they all are) walking past me and asked him if I was in the right place, or at least tried to.  He replied with something I couldn’t understand, not surprisingly, so I called Igor and persuaded the man (by sign language) to talk to him to see what would happen.  As I had hoped, the man signalled me to stay put, and 5 minutes later Igor rolled up in his jeep with my brand new TKC80 tyre in the back.

 

Payment was made, which considering where we were must have looked like a very dodgy deal, and the next issue for me was finding somewhere that would change it.  I could do it myself if I had to, but I would take much longer than a professional who had all the right tools at hand.

 

It turned out Igor could actually string enough English words together to be understood, and told me he could change it for me if I followed him to his house.  With nothing to lose (ish) I accepted and followed him down the sandy track, slipping and sliding like a beginner on ice skates.

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Igor at work changing my tyre over for me

 

Into Igor’s back yard we went, where I met his wife, 2 kids and family pet mouse.  It brought back memories of the pet mice I used to breed and sell to my school mates for 5 pence each, until their mothers made them return them (that all ended unhappily, by the way, when my Dad sold them all to a reptile shop for snake food).

 

Igor set to work like a pro, and ten minutes later the new tyre was on.  Amazing job!

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This is what a bald tyre looks like

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And a new one!

 

I was then very kindly invited into their house where Igor’s wife had laid out a mini-banquet for me – pastries, cakes, sausages and hot tea – delicious!

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My first real taste of Siberian hospitality by Igor and his wife

 

Igor had a Honda XR-650 and showed me videos of him riding across frozen Lake Baikal in winter with home-made steel studded tyres – incredible!  It made me want to come back in February and do the same thing.  I wouldn’t get very far now, as the ice had melted.

 

I had once again witnessed how the initial stern Russian front could melt as rapidly as winter ice in spring.  I got the feeling Russian friends really would do anything for you.  I had only known Igor an hour and he would not accept any money for changing the tyre for me.  I was very humbled by his (and his wife’s) hospitality and rode away feeling like I was leaving old friends.

 

I had jumped another Russian time zone without realising it, and although it was late evening, it was an hour earlier than I thought.  It’s always a nice surprise to find you’ve won back an hour of your life (as long as you don’t lose it again by travelling back east).

 

The next job was to find somewhere to sleep.  I’d read about a cheap hostel online on ‘wikitravel’ in the city centre, so I found it on Google Maps (what would I do without it?) as it wasn’t on my satnav, and went directly there in about 10 minutes.  A friendly Moroccan guy called Osama answered the door and showed me where I could park my bike in the secure lock-up, and within no time at all I was unpacked, showered and ready to hit the town.  Actually I hit the nearest fast food joint first to get my weekly fast food fix – ‘Golden Bird’ – it was surprisingly good.

 

Then I wondered around and watched a musical fountain dancing to Beethoven, saw a giant Lenon’s head, and walked around the town square.

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Ulan-Ude city centre, and the largest Lenin’s head in the world!

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Ulan-Ude’s musical fountain

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But still not many people around

I liked Ulan-Ude; it had been good to me so far, so I thought I’d stick around for a day or 2 to relax and catch up on my blog before heading north to take a look at Lake Baikal – the world’s largest fresh water lake (by volume) and the deepest.  I agreed with myself and thought that to be a grand idea.  And so it was.

Categories: Siberia | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Ulan-Ude to Lake Baikal

Ulan-Ude

Sometimes I’m having such a great day I just feel like shouting out ‘Hallelujah!’

HALLELUJAH!!!!

(Good job no-one was around to hear me say that, or I’d be re-committed to the Catholic Centre Hostel in Nagasaki).

I’ve just been for a great run through the centre of Ulan-Ude and down along the river embankment.  I wouldn’t say I’m a fitness fanatic, but once in a while I have to do something physical or risk going insane.  And I do thank my lucky stars everyday that I’m still able to do something, particularly after several past close encounters which involved me breaking parts of me.

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Jogging along the River Uda

I love getting out for a run when I arrive somewhere new, and also use it as a great way to explore a new city or place.  However, I am now much more careful than I used to be, and make sure I research (or at least ask someone) about the route I take first to make sure I’m not running into anymore gangster slum areas, as I blindly did in Guayaquil, Ecuador, which ended up with me getting robbed at gunpoint while being bitten on the ass by possibly rabid dogs.  Ha!  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, hey?  But that really did teach me a valuable lesson!

As I was running by the River Uda, ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor came on my iPod, and I suddenly found the keys to a new bank of energy within and sprinted up part of the embankment.  It’s amazing the power (and even the instant emotional fixing) that certain types of music can give you, and there’s not much Survivor or Bonny ‘I need a Hero’ Tyler can’t sort out; and even sometimes a bit of Abba, but don’t let anyone know I said that 😉

Ulan-Ude is a beautiful town, but that might have something to do with the brilliant sunshine that shone for most of the 3 days I was there.  It would also have something to do with the generous and kind people I met there.

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Sunshine in Ulan-Ude’s Lenin Square

 

The city didn’t seem to be very busy I enjoyed wondering around at leisure.  Just outside the hostel I said “Hello” to Lenin’s head everyday, which is largest one in the World, in Lenin Square of course.

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Lenin’s head – the largest one in The World

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“Hello, Mr Lenin here…”

Walking through Ulan-Ude’s ‘Arc de Triomphe’ led to the Odigitrievsky Cathedral, which during the Soviet era was used as an anti-religious museum.

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Ulan-Ude’s ‘Arc de Triomphe’

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Odigitrievsky Cathedral – used as an anti-religious museum during the Soviet Area

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Local housing

In old Soviet law, freedom to practice any religious was constitutionally guaranteed, although the ruling Communist Party regarded religion as incompatible with the Marxist spirit of scientific materialism, or scientism (the belief that everything was created by natural scientists).  Therefore, in practice, the Soviets discouraged religion and attempted to curb the activities of religious groups.

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Ulan-Ude is a nice city, and there didn’t seem to be many people around

During my stay it was ‘International Museum Day’ where museums around the world try to raise awareness by staging events and special exhibitions.  I popped into a couple, but there were hardly any English translations (so not that International).  However, I was lucky enough to see a Russian Cossack Band playing outside one of them.

Russian Cossack were among the first Russians to settle this area in the 1600s, expanding the Russian empire (indigenous natives before them were always nomads).

 

There is a nice view from the 10th floor SkyBar if you fancy a drink while downtown.

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Za zdorovje! 10th floor SkyBar, Ulan-Ude

Anyone following this in ‘real time’ would have noticed a sudden spurt of blog posts catching up to this point in time.  A mixture of circumstances and procrastination had seen me fall well behind again, but here in Ulan-Ude I’ve found a comfortable hostel to sit and catch up; except for the fact that 1) I am very easily distracted, 2) there is a guitar in the hostel and 3) there is a social, good bunch of other travellers & even businessmen flowing through.  One interesting entrepreneur from Hong Kong has been trying for a year to get a certificate to export Russian herbs to China.

Anna (from France) is doing a fantastic trip on her bicycle from Japan back to Paris, and as it was her birthday while I was there, so I and a couple of Dutch travellers, Yann and Christian, took her out to celebrate.  Things got interesting when a group of young Russians introduced themselves and joined us at the table in the local Irish Pub.  Out came the Siberian Vodka, of course, and the fun began.

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Anna’s birthday party. She’s riding from Japan to Paris on a bicycle – crazy!

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So out came the Siberian Vodka!

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Which took some getting used to – but we did after a few bottles 🙂

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Ulan-Ude Irish Pub with our new Russian Friends

Considering not many Russians speak English, it’s funny that almost all the music I hear playing on radios and in shops and bars is in English; everything from The Rolling Stones to Rihanna.

The day before I was planning to leave to Lake Baikal, the sunshine disappeared and black clouds rolled into town.  It was supposed to snow later, so I decided to suspend my departure for another day, when again the sun was forecast to reappear.

Ulan-Ude to Lake Baikal

The forecast was right – it did snow a lot and in the morning my bike was covered in 5 inches of the stuff.

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I’m sure I left my bike around here somewhere!

It didn’t look like a good day to leave the warmth and comfort of ‘Ulan-Ude Travellers House’ and head out on a 550 km (340 mile) ride to Lake Baikal in the freezing cold.

I had breakfast and considered the situation. Then the sun came out and things started to look better. The forecast to the west was more sun, so I decided to go for it.

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After breakfast the sun came out and things started to look better

Not surprisingly, at first it was freezing.  I lost all feeling in my fingers after a few miles and resorted to riding with be hand on the cylinder block in an attempt to keep it warm, while my other one froze. I wished, yet again, that my heated grips worked.

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Ulan-Ude – on the way out of town

As the day went on the sun gradually melted the snow and warmed the air up.

The road twisted through some mountains on the way to Irkutsk, presenting some nice views of the lake, but I took it easy as the road looked a little slippery in the wet and possibly ice.

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The road to lake Baikal, via Irkutsk

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Does this mean it’s gonna be a White Christmas?

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The wrong way, but it looked nice!

There were also quite a few road works & rough, unsurfaced road, so I took the opportunity to test out my new tyre and cable-tied luggage panniers.  They both performed famously.

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Road-testing my new tyre

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The sun quickly melted the rest of the snow

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A good section of the road to Irkutsk

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The road ran alongside the lake and the Trans-Siberian Railway for much of the journey

During one fuel stop a passenger in a car behind me came up to chat.  I could smell alcohol on him and yes, he turned out to be pretty drunk.  He couldn’t understand why I couldn’t understand him, and so spoke slower and louder in case I was just stupid (funny how some people do that!).

As I was refuelling and looking at the pump display, I turned back around to see him light up a cigarette directly over my open fuel cap!  AAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I almost punched him, and quickly covered the cap with my hand.  Another guy ran up and shooed him away.  It took a long time for my heart-rate to reduce to under 200 bpm.  That could have very easily been total disaster, and endex…

I rode straight through Irkutsk without stopping as it was getting late (and I would be coming back the other way anyway to go to Mongolia) and headed straight for a town called Listvyanka one hour to the southeast on the shore of Lake Baikal.

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Lake Baikal

Listvyanka

A busy tourist town in the summer, it was still too early in the season for most tourists and there were only another handful of people there. I parked up and wondered down onto the gravelly shore and felt the water; not surprisingly, it was freezing, having been completely covered in ice a couple of months ago.

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Lake Baikal on the shores of Listvyania

In the winter they actually drive across the lake in trucks to get to the other side, like in the video Igor had shown me, which is much quicker than following the road along the shore.

The local delicacy here is Omul, a fresh water fish living in the lake.  Locals smoke it and sell it by the side of the road, so I thought I’d better at least try one.

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Buying myself a smoked Omul – the local freshwater fish delicacy

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Smoked Omul and flat bread – yum!

I’m not a huge smoked fish fan, but this was really amazing. The meat was chunky white and didn’t taste too fishy.  There were a variety of market stores along the front and I ended up with a delicious picnic of Omul, bread and beef pasty things impressively cooked on the sides of a traditional clay oven.

 

Lake Baikal itself is pretty impressive.  It is the deepest and oldest lake in the world, and also the planet’s largest freshwater body of water (by volume), containing one fifth of the world’s liquid fresh water.

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View across Lake Baikal from my hotel

I looked forward to exploring some more, and thought I’d head up to Olkhon Island 350 km to the north, which was supposed to have some of the best scenery the lake could offer.

Categories: Siberia | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal

Listvyanka to Olkhon Island

 

I stayed a couple of nights in Listvyanka.  Breakfast at the hotel didn’t start until 9am, and so that was a good excuse to have a lie in.  I noticed the forecast suddenly change from cloudy to sunny and back a couple of times, which demonstrated how changeable the Siberian weather can be.  It turned out to be sunny when I left for Olkhon Island, which certainly made a welcome change.

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The view across Lake Baikal on a gorgeous, sunny morning

Before setting off I conducted my usual bike checks and saw the oil level was below the minimum.  I’d noticed it slowly getting lower and lower over the past couple of weeks, but foolishly I didn’t have any spare to top it up with.  It was due for an oil change & service anyway, and so I planned to find a garage an hour up the road in Irkutsk and get it sorted.

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Lake Baikal on my way back to Irkutsk

I arrived in Irkutsk around 11am and thought I might as well take the opportunity to look at a couple of sights that ‘trip-advisor’ said was worth seeing, including the 17th century Epiphany Cathedral.

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Irkutsk Epiphany Cathedral

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The River Irkut (where the city gets its name)

My Sat Nav showed a motorcycle garage not 5 km away, which saved a lot of messing around asking people in sign language, and took me directly there.  I bought 4 litres of oil and an oil filter and took them round the corner to the workshop where one mechanic was busy working on another bike.  I imaged just turning up for an oil change at any motorbike shop in the UK, and laughed to myself because I knew they would tell me to book the bike in at reception, and they would be full for the next 2 days at least.

I said “Hello!” in my best Russian and hung around outside, as I could see he was busy working on something.  After a few minutes he came outside to see what I wanted, and, with the help of Google Translate, I explained I needed an oil & filter change.

“No problem” he said, in Russian, and made a space for me to wheel my bike into the workshop.

Thirty minutes later we were all done, and my Tiger must have been breathing a sigh of relief having had the same old oil for the past 12,000 km (the rest of the service would have to wait, but I couldn’t see anything major needing doing).  The guy only charged me 300 rubles (a fiver), and once again I felt truly humbled by the way he’d gone out of his way to fit me in at zero notice.  I gave him some more money and told him to buy himself a good bottle of vodka on me.

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The Tiger having a much needed oil and filter change

It felt great riding off with my new tyre and new oil, and the bike was running like a dream.

By now it was 2.30 pm and I’d completely forgotten about lunch, so I got out of the city and pulled over in a scenic spot to eat the bread and cheese I’d bought for just such an occasion.  Then, for some unknown reason, I bit almost completely though the end of my tongue.  Why on Earth would my body do such a thing, after all these years?

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Scenic views along the road to Olkhon Island

Northeast of Irkutsk the scenery changed noticeably, and I saw lots of farm animals for the first time in any number; cows, sheep and horses.  It was arable land and stretched out flat before me in the wide, fertile flood plain of the River Angara.

The road intermittently changed from tarmac to gravel to clay, and it was time once again to dodge the potholes.

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Beautiful road, as far as they eye could see

Along the way I was pulled over for the 3rd time by the diligent Russian Police.  This time I wasn’t speeding and so I assumed it was just a routine document check.  It must have been, because he checked all my docs and let me go soon after.

My GPS had me arriving at the small Olkhon Island Ferry dock at 17:36, which was 6 minutes too late to catch the 17:30 ferry that crossed the small gap between the mainland and the island.  I arrived to see it sailing away, but it didn’t matter because it would back in 30 minutes, according to the schedule of the noticeboard.

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Waiting for the Olkhon Island Ferry

Waiting with me were several Russian UAZ 4 x 4 vans nicked ‘Bukhankas’ or Bread Loaves, as that’s what they looked like.  These vans were everywhere in Siberia, and I thought they looked pretty cool.

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The Russian UAZ 4 x 4 vans were everywhere (nicked ‘Bukhanka’ or Bread Loaf)

45 minutes later they managed to squeeze 3 trucks, several Bread Loaves and a few cars onto the tiny ferry, with only inches to spare between each vehicle.  I squeezed the Tiger on up the side of one of the trucks in a space too small for a car and got off for a leg-stretch as the ferry bumped along the pier and set off.

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Just room for a small Tiger

Olkhon Island

Riding off the ferry onto Olkhom, things soon got very bumpy and threatened to rattle my luggage off the back seat as I faced 38 km of sandy, stony washboard.  It would have been lots of fun had I not been loaded up with all my luggage, but I was concerned my cable-tied pannier would fly off.  It didn’t, which was good.

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The washboard road from the ferry to Khuzhir, Olkhon Island’s only sizeable town

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Gorgeous views of Lake Baikal

I stopped a few times when I gasped wide-mouthed at the awesome view across the island.  It really was beautiful.

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West coast of Olkhon Island

Lake Baikal (meaning ‘nature lake’) is 636 km (395 miles) long and 79 km (49 miles), and being a rift lake is very deep (the deepest in the world), reaching depths of 1,642 m (5,387 ft).  It is thought there’s another 7km of sediment underneath that, which would make it the deepest rift valley on Earth.  The tectonic plates beneath started drifting apart around 25 million years ago and are currently pulling apart 2cm a year, creating the occasional notable earthquake.

The lake is fed by as many as 330 inflowing rivers and is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, two thirds of which can be found nowhere else in the world, including the Baikal Seal (I unfortunately didn’t see any) and the delicious Omul fish.  It contains 27 islands, of which Olkhon is the largest, 72 km (45 miles) long and it is the third-largest lake-bound island in the world.

This time, for once, I was pretty well prepared and had learnt the name of the accommodation I had booked in Russian, which is completely different to the English spelling of the word of course.  On entering the only sizeable town on the island, Khuzhir, I soon spotted a sign for Усадьба Дарьяна (which was Usadba Dariana in English) and found it to be a wonderful wooden resort close to the water full of wooden huts.

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My new home for a couple of days – Camp ‘Усадьба Дарьяна’. Got it?

It was still too early in the season for most tourists to arrive, and there was only me and one other guy there.  The old lady in charge quickly warmed to me, after her initial typically stern Russian welcome, and to my pleasant surprise dinner was included in the price, which I wolfed down in minutes with several cups of delicious hot tea.

I spent most of that night picking 5 splinters out of my right hand with a sowing needle.  This wasn’t easy for me as I had to use my left hand to get them out (I’m right handed).  I got them when I opened the wooden gate to the camp so I could ride my bike in, and it was almost like it had been booby-trapped by an old splintered lump of wood used to bar the gate shut.

I unpacked my bike and cut the cable-ties of the panniers to bring them inside.  It was OK – I had some more – but I wanted to spend the day exploring the island on my bike tomorrow, without the extra weight and rattle of the panniers.  I was looking forward to it!

I was actually staying in a large 2 storey wooden hut divided into several rooms.  I had to make my own bed up again, which seems quite normal when checking into Russian hotels and hostels (at least the ones in my price range), which is no hassle, but it does make me wonder why all Russian sheets are too small for the bed, and aren’t long enough to tuck all the ends in.

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Sunset over the camp

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And down the high street

I popped to the shop for supplies and then stayed up for a while writing a little blog, and before I knew it, it was past midnight.  I went to the bathroom at the end of the corridor and when I came back to my room the door was locked.  Yes – I’d locked myself out of my room!  Sugar!

I had a feeling this was going to be a problem, due to the fact that everyone else was asleep.  I studied the door handle and tried my luck with the old credit card trick (luckily I had my ‘false’ wallet on me, full of old credit cards – a trick I always use in case I’m ever held up at gun-point again).

It didn’t work.

I wondered outside in bare feet, in the dark, and found my way to the old lady’s cottage.  I knocked on the door and, quick as a flash – nothing.  I knocked again, louder.  Nothing.  I looked through the window – nought.  I waited for a bit, waiting for a miracle, and when nothing happened I knocked again VERY loudly.  Zilcho.

OK – time for Plan B.

What was Plan B again?

I walked around the hut and considered climbing up onto the 1st storey roof to try and get through my window (my room was on the top floor), but I could see the window was double glazed and dead-locked.  Oh bugger!

I went back to my room door and studied the lock again.  There must be a way to open it without the key!  I really didn’t fancy sleeping in the corridor as it was freezing and uncomfortable, and my lovely warm, cosy bed was a few feet away.

I tried the credit card trick again, and doubled it up with another one.  Nothing.  I started pulling the doorframe apart, but then saw it wasn’t going to work.

An hour had passed and I was getting fed up.

Not to be defeated I tried 3 credit cards in different positions and also pulled down on the door handle while pushing the door back hard against its hinges.

POP!

As if by magic the door opened!  I couldn’t believe it and breathed a huge sigh of relief.  I’m not doing that again!

Exploring Olkhon Island

The next day I had a late breakfast at 9am, because that’s when the old lady served it, and then set off for the very northern tip of the island, Cape Khoboy.

I was prepared – the bike was naked (without luggage) and with new oil and a new back tyre she was raring to go.

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The bike ready for some island exploring

It was 38km to the cape and from what I gathered from the old lady and other guest at the camp, the road was going to be rough.  The other guest told me he went by truck and it took 7 hours for a round trip.  I reckoned I could do it in half the time.  At least I’d better, because I had no lunch to take with me.

The remoteness and peacefulness of the whole area had already won me over, and when the sun came out, I was sold.

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Khuzhir port

First I rode down to the coast at Khuzhir to see the famously beautiful Shamanka Rock – and it really was beautiful.  I’d heard Lake Baikal is not often calm, but today it was perfectly flat and looked crystal clear.  I’d picked a perfect day to go!  Apparently the lake is one of the clearest in the world, and so pure you can drink the water straight from the lake (although I didn’t test that theory out).

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Shamanka Rock

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And again, in case you missed it

As there were no proper roads on the island, I was free to ride pretty much wherever I chose.  I chose to ride up a big cliff to catch a great view of the rock and the bay.  It was a huge amount of fun, racing over the grassy hills and skidding over the loose gravel.

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Exploring the island was great fun – I could ride pretty much anywhere I liked!

On the island & around Lake Baikal I recognised the Buryat people (as I also had done in Ulan-Ude), who are the largest indigenous group in Siberia and a subgroup of the Mongols.  This part of Siberia is called the Buryat Republic (a federal subject of Russia) and is where most of the remaining Buryat people live (only around 500,000 remain).  They are easily recognised by their Mongol features, following the same way of life and traditions, and mostly live in the republic’s capital of Ulan-Ude, a stone’s throw from Mongolia.

Buryats hold great reverence for trees and they are an important part of their tradition. Large or unusual trees are believed to be the residence of powerful spirits and are honoured by tying on pieces of coloured cloth (or leaving tobacco).  Trees are also their places of prayer, as they are the place ‘heaven and earth touch’, and ribbons are also left when praying for healing, luck, or some other wish.

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A sacred tree whose spirits have been honoured by the Buryats with coloured cloth

Many Buryats still practice Shamanism, which involves the Shaman reaching altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world.  Within this world he is said to have influence over benevolent and malevolent spirits, and can use them to treat illnesses by ‘mending the soul’.

I came across these wooden stakes which I guessed were also decorated with ribbons for some spiritual offering.

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Sacred Poles?

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The Lake was perfectly smooth

The road to the Cape started out fine, and then got steadily worse.  I actually got a bit worried when the road turned into a huge sand dune, but committed myself and kept ploughing through slowly but surely.  After all, it would have been more difficult to turn around than keep on going (depending on what lay ahead, of course).

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There were many lovely beaches

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Great for practicing sand-skills!

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And some more challenging tracks (I was too lazy to let my tyres down at this point, hoping it would soon firm up)

Luckily the road firmed up again, but then got worse as I faced huge (luckily dry) muddy ruts as the road went through a forest.  I thought at one point I was going to fall into one, which would have probably hurt.

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Beautiful forest tracks

Just when I thought it was going to take forever to cover the last 20 km, the road opened up again onto solid steppe, and I rolled on the power, the bike riding like a dream and effortlessly gliding over the uneven, rough surface.  It was fun to build up some speed and I really enjoyed getting clear air beneath both wheels as I jumped small hillocks.

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Then the road opened up again into the steppe

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It was fun to get some speed up on these flat bits

It only took me about an hour to get to the cape, where I stripped off and relaxed to cool down for a bit.  I couldn’t believe my luck with the weather on this gorgeous, clear, sunny day.

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Approaching Cape Khoboy

I walked the very last couple of hundred metres to the very end of the cape, as it was blocked off to vehicles – it was a stunning view and one of the highlights of my trip so far.

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End of the road – Cape Khoboy

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Cape Khoboy

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Cape Khoboy – the northern point of Olkhon Island

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Early settlers first thought this was the ocean

On the west side of the island I could see the remnants of the ice that had covered the whole lake 2 months ago.  The lake was so big it was hard to imagine it all covered in ice up to 2 metres (6.5 ft) thick.

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Ice remnants on the west coast. The whole lake freezes with ice up to 2m thick during the winter

It was now 12:45 and, getting hungry, I turned the bike around and sped back to Khuzhir at full speed to get some lunch.  It was much easier on the way back; it always is when you know what’s coming – the hardest part of doing anything is tackling the unknown.

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The cliffs are much bigger on the eastern side of the island

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I took the east coast route back for some of the way, before it rejoined the original route

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More open steppe

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I don’t know why this old farm would have been abandoned – perhaps it’s too remote in the winter

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Rejoining the original track

I got back into town in no time at all and stopped by a café/bar with chairs outside, as it was still lovely and sunny.  However, always expect the unexpected; inside were a bunch of Siberian fishermen that had finished lunch and were now on their desert of vodka shots, and I was instantly invited over to join them for a shot.

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My new Siberian fishermen friends and their vodka

Actually, in Russia, there’s no such thing as just one shot of vodka, and before I knew it more vodka was being bought and more shots were being knocked back.  After the third bottle wet dry, I bought the 4th to show my appreciation, which I really didn’t need, but what the heck – it was Friday after all.

I finally escaped after the 4 bottles were dead, and slowly weaved my bike across the road back to the wooden camp with the intention of having a little snooze.

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Buryat Biker

As I was parking my bike in a wobbly fashion, four new Russian arrivals at the camp came up to chat.  They had all just finished a business conference in Irkutsk (they worked in construction specialising in wooden housing) and were taking a couple of day’s holiday, and invited me to join them for a drink.

“Of course!” I said, as that was just what I wanted!

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More drinking (whiskey this time) with 4 more new Russian friends. Just what the doctor ordered!

So several hours later I fell into bed after a fantastic day – one of the best I’ve had so far on my tour, in fact.

I didn’t even care what I was going to do tomorrow.

Back to Ulan-Ude via Irkutsk

With Lake Baikal explored, I was now ready to head south into Mongolia. To get there I had to double back on myself, back to my favourite city of Ulan-Ude.  On the way there I stopped in Irkutsk for a couple of days to relax, look around the city and do some washing; yes, I like my washing breaks!

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Leaving Olkhon Island – an incredible place for off-road biking

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I made this new friend waiting for the ferry back to the mainland – he just followed me everywhere!

 

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Olkhon Island Pier

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Lunch stop on the way back to Irkutsk

 

The hotel I stayed in in Irkutsk was lovely, and only a couple of pound more than a shared hostel, so I thought I’d treat myself to some luxurious privacy.  I went for a great run along the river bank, following the Irkut River, which joins the Angara River (the only river that drains Lake Baikal) directly opposite the city. The Angara River flows north from Lake Baikal to join the Yenisey, which is the largest river system flowing to the Arctic Ocean.

 

In the early 19th century, many Russian artists, officers, and nobles were sent into exile in Siberia for their part in the Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I.  Irkutsk became the major centre of intellectual and social life for these exiles, and much of the city’s cultural heritage comes from them.

 

It was a nice couple of days, but then it was time to move back to Ulan-Ude and prepare for Mongolia.

 

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Heading back to Ulan-Ude to prepare for Mongolia

 

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Farewell Lake Baikal!

 

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Back on the rough roads en-route to Ulan-Ude

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