Posted on September 13, 2015
Siberia is vast. We had a whole lot of its bigness to get across. A carpet of forest stretches to the horizon rolling up and down over the hills. The uniformity of green was rarely broken, other than by the railway and the highway on which we rode. To us, the road was civilization. It was solid. There were other people on it. When we rode just half a mile off the highway and down a muddy track, the forest swallowed us up, as though the trees closed in behind us. It was always something of a relief to return to that tenuous tarmac interruption of the forest.
We’d left Ulaanbaatar with 2400 miles (4000 km) to ride to reach the other side of Russia. We enjoyed a final night of camping out on the open Mongolian steppe before crossing the border where the grasslands slowly graded into pine forests.
We only ride about 200-300 miles a day, so it would take us more than a week to get across Far Eastern Russia. We started off slowly with a stop-off at Lake Baikal. By volume, it’s the largest freshwater lake in world. Which is precisely why we went there, and no other reason at all. We’d heard it was a beautiful place, but we found it unremarkable in every way and basically indistinguishable from any other massive lake that you might run into. We stood and looked at it for a while, felt the water, then got back on the bike and rode away. The beautiful places must have been on the other side. Did I mention that we visited the biggest lake in the world? Yep. Totally touched it. Forgot to take a photo though.
When we finally did get into the forest, it was difficult to find campsites because the trees and undergrowth were so thick. It was the first time since West Africa that I truly wished for a machete strapped to the saddle bag. Our favorite sites ended up being clearings made for rock quarries.
The birch forests usually had more closely spaced trees and thicker undergrowth than the pine forests and we would thread the bike through the trees looking for clear, flat spot to camp.
We usually had plenty of food, but good veggies were hard to find and we had to resist the urge to forage in the woods.
We did our best to find nice picnic spots, but they were as few and far between as nice camp spots. We were quickly missing the outdoor playland of the Mongolian steppe. Here in Siberia, nature was a little more intrusive to our comfort.
The road itself is truly a marvel. To keep the forest at bay and avoid the sucking mud that comes with melting permafrost, there are literally thousands of miles of road tiered up well above the forest floor with tons and tons of gravel. Sometimes we found ourselves riding amongst the treetops, 5-10 meters above the forest floor. The amount of rock that had to be quarried to do this for so many thousand of miles is just astounding.
We met friendly Russians the whole way along who always asked where we were from and where we were going, sometimes wanted to take photos with us, and usually invited us to drink some vodka. One nice guy working at a gas station called us over to his little maintenance shed so that we could do an oil change. He offered us tea and from the shed produced tools and an oil pan for me to use.
Our constant companion was the Trans-Siberian Railway steaming along beside us. At one stage we found a town 10 miles down a dirt track off of the highway. There were markets and banks, offices and apartment buildings; all in what seemed to us to be the middle nowhere. It felt surreal, like an episode of the Twilight Zone. It just seemed mad for all of this to exist down a long dirt track surrounded by forest so far from the highway. But this town was built in the age of the railway, not the highway. The whole town was virtually built around the rail station. We couldn’t help but think how the construction of the rail line must have changed life out here, where the ground is covered in snow for half the year and a muddy bog for the other half. Before the rail line, it would have been incredibly difficult for anything or anyone to get in or out of here.
Eventually it seemed that everywhere that wasn’t the road was a swamp. We had to check carefully what the surface was like before we rode down off the highway to be sure that the undergrowth wasn’t hiding a bog that would have us hopelessly mired.
With the water came the mosquitoes and they came in droves. Our last camp was so bad that Jamie kept her helmet on until we finally dove into the sanctuary of the tent. Anytime I uncovered the cook pot for even a second, hundreds of them would kamikaze to their deaths into the food. The whole thing must have been a comedic site, both of us bundled like ninjas, Jamie running around in her fogged up helmet, screaming ‘breach’ every once in awhile when a mosquito found its way inside, and me trying to stir a pot with the lid still on and regularly smacking myself in the face. As the sun got lower they got worse. I’ve been in places with bad mosquitoes before, but this was another level. It was difficult to breath without inhaling a cloud of the little suckers.
We rode more than 400 miles the next day to reach Vladivostok rather than camp in another mosquito cloud. The last time I touched the Pacific Ocean was in California and now I got to dip my toes in on the other side of it. I’d been hopeful to find a surf shop and some waves to ride near Vladivostok. The hope of it had spurred me forward on plenty of days. We found some great cobble reef/point setups where I’d seen photos of pretty good waves on the Internet. However, it seems that you’d have to be pretty lucky to get a big enough swell here in September and we only saw the most micro of waves peeling along the raised bars of cobbles.
The last couple of days on the road, Dyna Rae had been trying to bog at about ¼ throttle. I assumed that it was some gunk clogging a jet in the carburetor. On the night that we rode into Vladivostok it had gotten bad enough that she was pretty difficult to ride in city traffic. I was happy to make it to a guesthouse and collapse for the night. When we packed up to move to a cheaper place the next morning, she died under any throttle. Fortunately it wasn’t far to the other guesthouse and the first half was downhill. Unfortunately the second half was uphill, and so there Jamie and I were, grunting and heaving the fully loaded bike against gravity inch by inch, towards a massive soviet-era submarine.
I took the carburetor apart and cleaned it up shiny but was dismayed when my efforts had no effect whatsoever. I puzzled over it for a day or so before I resolved that something mechanical must be going wrong with the fuel delivery. I had a close look at the needle that I’d replaced in Romania and found it and the spacer very worn. When I compared the needle to the old one I’d replaced, I noticed that its taper was slightly thicker at the end, allowing less fuel into the chamber. It seemed that as the spacer wore down, the unexplainably thicker needle eventually stopped letting enough fuel in to keep her running. I put the old thoroughly worn needle back in, the bog disappeared and she roared back to life. It’s amazing that this didn’t happen in the middle of the Siberian forest mosquito hell. She was tired and coughing, but somehow just didn’t quit until we made it all the way to the finish line at Vladivostok. Thank you Dyna Rae.
We’d run out of east to ride so it was time to turn south to head for China. As nicely as we asked, the Chinese simply would not let us go riding our bike around willy-nilly across their country. We’d need to have a full time guide, a Chinese driver’s license, and a bunch of other stuff that made the whole escapade far too structured and costly for our taste. The smart thing to do arriving in Vladivostok with a clapped out bike and nowhere to ride would be to sell it, not to haul it back across an ocean, but I just couldn’t manage to let her go.
This little machine has been home for two years and carried Jamie and me back and forth across three continents more than 60 thousand miles. Her chain is sagging, sprockets worn down to the nub, rotors scored, bash plate thoroughly dented, front wheel wonky from our crash in Tajikistan, tires nearly bald, carb bodged together, and she’s still carrying a quarter pound of dust from the Sudan Desert. She’s no spring chicken and drinks some oil as the parts in her worn cylinder head begin to show their age, but just keeps thumping along. I know every nuance of every sound she makes and how it changes when the temperature or the altitude rises, her valves get loose, or her air filter is clogged. I can feel the difference in how her gears mesh together when the oil gets dirty. I’ve put every scratch on her and twisted every bolt myself. I love her flaws and quirks as much as her attributes, because they all add up to my bike.
I cleaned her up and arranged to get her in a container headed for Vancouver at a cost that makes no sense given the state of the bike. Now we’re on the bus. No dust in our face or mosquitoes in our dinner. No sore behinds. We climbed a mountain and my face didn’t get cold and when a rain shower passed we didn’t get wet. I didn’t smell the trees when they changed or feel the bumps in the road. It was comfortable. How lame.