To BAM or not to BAM
Davai, says Max, it’s not the first time I see a broken frame. In the space of a second, the banality of his comment disappointments me. We check on the other side. Symmetric to the first, a second fracture. Max’s blabber continues. A while back I had two Australians with broken frames. My welder fixed their bikes and they made it to their destination. But official confirmation of the disaster makes me nauseous. Once the front end is completely stripped and the frame is exposed to unobstructed inspection, we count not two, but five fractures. The famous Trellis frame! It’s supossed to be unbreakable!
We work in silence – nobody is in the mood to speculate – and in the meantime the welder shows up. The stocky 60 year old gives us an annoyed look; he is clearly not pleased that his boss wants to give him a job when he was planning to enjoy his own extra-curriculum. In the afternoon the bike is prepped for welding and the bored welder is called back. It’s too late my friend, he says, we’ll do it tomorrow morning. I pack my stuff but I bump into Max. He snaps at me: what do you mean we don’t weld, where’s Vasea? So about 5 p.m. me and the welder start fixing the state-of-the-art chrome-molibden frame. I’m not at all happy to attempt such a delicate job so late in the day, but I have little choice.
Max insists we strip the triple clamp and the legs, but once we do, we realise it was a bad idea, as we have nothing to push the frame back into shape. Finally we manage to align the fractures, and the welder starts mending my frame. The result looks a butchered job, but Max and the welder vouch it’s bulletproof. I look at the weldings and I decide that WR to Magadan is now out of the question, and I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t cancel the BAM as well. I pay 3000 rubbles and I get on Max’s car. The bike stays.
Sasha is waiting with another delicious feast, beer and family vibe that successfully lifts my spirit. After dinner I sit at my host’s computer to research about the latest weather news and updates on the calamities devastating the region. I seek Sasha and Natasha’s advice, I think things through and I try to separate fact from fiction. But I have already made peace with the fact that the OSR is not in the cards and I’ve decided that it’s stupid to attempt crawling to Magadan and back on a mended frame just to say that I’d done it. My dilemma is: should I ride back the 3500km of useless asphalt or should I venture on the more interesting route I came all this way for? In other words, to BAM, or not to BAM?
Matthew writes back: Soseste raspunsul lui Matthew
Date: Thursday, August 22, 2013 5:45:09 AM / Subject: Re: Spot tracker Hey Dude, Very tempting, cheers for the offer but I don’t really fancy riding this 250 off road. It’s ok to potter along but it’s not that well maintained so dont want to risk it. I’m going to head to Vladi then take the train back to Ulan Ude. When do you plan on being in Irkutsk? Hopefully my bike will be repaired so I can meet you there. All the best Matty
In the morning I let Ana know what’s going on:
Date: Friday, August 23, 2013 7:37:59 AM / Subject: Raliul UB Magadan – Update III 160km offroad (gravel but bumpy) to tynda and the frame cracked… incredible.
Back to Kamaz, we notice a small crack that escaped us yesterday. The welder fixes it on the spot, and I put everything back on the frame. At a push of a button Frankenstein returns to life. The few kilometres from the Kamaz centre to Sasha’s feed my confidence; I can feel that my 690 has recovered its rigidity.
I have a new message in my inbox
Date: Friday, August 23, 2013 12:14:08 PM / Subject: Re: Raliul UB Magadan – Update III your email worries me u think the bike will stand Mag, BAM? what about later on…. americas etc? chris, the guy who took phil’s Xchallenge is here he says magadan is a waste of time, but people debate so what broke he asks? ‘main chassis or rear subframe’? i noticed you’ve talked with colebatch and that there’s someone else on the route take care and good luck ana
Looks like before direct news could arrive, the oasis was already teeming with rumours. The world of travellers is small. While Ana was in Terelj NP, Chris occupied a bed in her dorm. He is the one who after our buddy Phil fell in love (and subsequently married a Russian beauty) borrowed the Xchallenge to Magadan. In a curious turn of events, I am doing the road Phil was supposed to do. Meanwhile, unfazed but what I don’t know – I mean what’s being speculated in Ulaanbaatar – I have indeed contacted Colebatch, who is manning the red line between riders on the move in and towards eastern Russia. Vlad, a Romanian expat in Moscow who rode over the summer from Magadan and to the capital is also providing me essential information (he and his buddy were stuck for 2 days, waiting for the road to be fixed). I receive news from Walter about a Canadian on an XChallenge, 900km away from me, in Yakutsk. I need a few more days to service the bike, replies the Canadian, but if you are waiting for me in Tynda we can do the BAM together, he says. Even if it’s evident that the winter is approaching fast, I figure it’s a good idea to wait for this guy. Meanwhile I decide to test how strong is the welding with a short ride. I pick the East BAM, which looks a bit like that.
Email to Ana:
Date: Monday, August 26, 2013 7:52:23 AM / Subject: news
leaving now on a short test on east bam, up to lake zeya maybe. i believe i’ll meet ed on wednesday in tynda; sasha will ship my backpack and trailmax by train. i ll try to email again on wednesday when i come back here to say hi to sasha & co. i love you,
Most people considering crossing Siberia by train take the famous Trans-Siberian. Built in a time when tzars saw no reason to deviate infrastructure to unnamed villages of mujics lost in the taiga, the railway darts indifferently across a vast expanse of Russia, stretching from Moscow to the Pacific Ocean. But while the Trans-Siberian was finished in 1916, there’s a northern alternative to it, started under Stalin and sort of completed under Brezhnev in 1991. This is the 4324km Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad, what the Russians call BAM. It was destined to be an artery, instead it sprouts two-thirds of the way through the country, only to dwindle towards nowhere, across a sparsely inhabited region where few towns scatter and where paved roads are poorly maintained. The Trans-Siberian was born out of ambition and it continues to impart an undeniable romance to travellers; the BAM grew on an utopia and the track along it features today on the bucket list of adventure travellers. I don’t know which of the two destinies is more intriguing.
1 or 2 days on the East BAM should suffice. I leave in high spirits and the next 80 km cement my conviction that the repair is solid.
At the first major river crossing I stumble on a classic. His cistern stuck in waist-deep water, the driver, another Sasha, blue eyes, Adidas coat zipped up the nose, brews his hundredth tea. No need to say that Sasha has no mobile coverage and that all he can do is wait for someone to show up and help him out of the river. We chat, cloud gather for rain. Instead of continuing further across rivers that will only become an inconvenient repeat as I’ll come back, I return towards Tynda and in the first village I send people out to pull Sasha from his river.
48 hours later I find in my inbox and older message.
Date: Monday, August 26, 2013 7:52:23 AM / Subject: news kurt, the man who traveled w noah is here and he is insisting that you engine blew up… there’s a bit of panic at oasis they say you should not be alone especially this year with all the flooding since morning rene is pushing me to sell him the DRZ i know you’re in the wilderness, but try to answer
So I learn that in Oasis people are debating the news from WR, OSR and BAM. Ana is caught in the middle of the testosterone beehive, a place too narrow for so many experts. As soon as they meet, Kurt advices Ana to do the 3×3 mod to the DRZ air box, because this way “you’ll instantly pop a wheelie”. His speech is interrupted by one of the corsicans with the info that Ana is the girlfriend of that John who has met Noah and who is going to the BAM track. Oh, I heard about that John, the guy’s done, his engine just blew off! Panic. I think you must be mistaking John for someone else, Ana says; I believe that the broken engine is from a Honda that belongs to a certain Matthew. Later, Chris asks Ana if I broke the main chassis or the rear subframe. The question alone shows lack of knowledge about the bike model. What, he wants to go alone on the BAM, he says. I’m afraid my dear, he tells Ana, that this John of yours is an utter fool. As everybody knows only bits of the truth, the controversy continues and Ana cannot wait to leave the place. The fact is – and I hope I’m not the only one to say it – when in deep shit, you either let it suck you in, or you suck it up and do whatever you can to get out. Digression closed.
The Canadian from Yakutsk keeps on stalling and changing his estimates. This allows me some days to fix a pore in the radiator, re-stock on duct tape and repair the Garmin power supply. The weather forecast says that the next 4 may be some of the last remaining fair days of the year. At night temperatures have dropped to zero and days are getting colder as well. I’m quite aware that the welding looks strong albeit it’s a butchered job; on the other hand I don’t want to miss the BAM. I don’t want to try later, in the sorry years, to re-enter this moment, to turn the key and reignite events, to swallow my fear and my pride and have to reverse my decision. I figure it’s easier to avoid regrets, and make the best decision right now. I go alone.
After we lunch together, Sasha, Natea and Kostea give me a hug and see me out. I cringe in anticipation. In the world of superhero comics, the origin is usually as grim as they come: the legend starts in a narrow alley, in the dark, under a pointing gun. A sad or terrifying event shifts a humble character on an unexpected track. At the end of the story we are used to expect a happy resolution. I’m on my way to find out mine.
The first 200 km are supposed to be quite decent, so I start slow; my main target is to make it to the end. No village interrupts the wilderness where two parallel rails are pointing to opposite horizons. Instead of giving me the creeps, the place gives me energy. Steeper climbs, narrow passages, stretches with boulders and deep summer ravines start showing up. They are timid manifestations of what’s to come.
I generally follow the side track and the river, with the odd rail brige across; eventually every day ends with dozens of bridges passed. I don’t know who counted them, but the official numbers are mind boggling: 4200 bridges on the BAM alone!
In the nights spent at Sasha’s, I have analysed the Sibirky Extreme track and I POI-ed all major river crossings. When night closes in, I’m approaching the first. The tormented water of the river Chilchi forbids an attempt. I return to the junction and I tackle the rail bridge.
The spikes force the cars to take it to the water.
After I cross, my adrenaline levels spike up. The sun has already set; all that’s left to do is pitch my tent, look for one more time at the bridge and enjoy my diner. Like a proper Russian mother, Natasha prepared for me a jar of baked cabbage and pork, a couple of tomatoes and half a loaf.
Day 1: Tynda 12:00PM – BC1 17:15 275km