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Of Troubles and Angels

Thursday 15th of August. In Ulaanbaatar the weather is shit for a walk around town, but as I’m leaving for Magadan, I couldn’t care less. I kiss Ana for good-bye, and in the heat of the moment we forget to capture it on a camera. If everything goes well we’ll reunite in circa 20 days. We’re not yet sure how we’re gonna stay in touch, except for sporadic emails. Ana’s SIM is out of credit and my phone is locked on the Romanian roaming provider. I guess I’ll buy in Russia a cheap phone and local SIM. Careful not to slide too much in the mud, I drive out of Oasis, trailed by Matthew and Robert.

Matthew arrived from the UK with the plan to hit Magadan on his XR 400. Croatian Robert is working as a bartender in Munchen; he’s left on a RTW by Honda Transalp. We kicked a word while catering for our respective machines, and one wrench lead to another, until we realised it’d be a good idea to ride together the stretch of Russia we were all gong to do anyway. Matthew took care obsessively of every detail on his Honda, and so did I.

Robert took for a ride the unusual vehicle of a another overland. His own Transalp was tuned with a winch and an Africa Twin fuel tank. The croat’s chunky rig reminds me of how I left in 2011 for Africa.

Instead of playing the tourist in Ulaanbaatar, I’ve spent all of last week on mechanics. Taking the KTM apart and putting everything back together couldn’t make me a happier man. An oasis this may be, but it’s not my grandfather’s garage, where I got all the bits and bobs that I need. I checked the valve clearance, I fitted the Trailmax tires and I saved the 908s for the hardcore roads.

I like to see that the KTM people invested a lot of time and brains in this bike; their ready to race tagline is not just about how the orange machines do under racing circumstances (chassis, engine, suspension); every bolt is designed to render bike service smoother and easier. Before departure I was joking with Pinocchio (probably the best suspension guy in Romania) that this model can be serviced from A to Z with the T handle wrench alone. On the afternoon I got to checking the valves it was getting already dark, and an adventurer came to ask me if I was not taking unnecessary risks with such a delicate procedure so late in the day. I would have finished my job in under one hour had I not realised that the engine had not cooled off since the morning run. The next day after breakfast the whole thing took me less than 45 minutes.

On the other hand, 4 litres of oil costed me three trips across town to the so-called KTM dealership, where there is no 15W60 300V Offroad on stock. Quite reluctantly, I bought 15W50. I hope that this temperamental LC4 will cope.

We have decided all three of us that even if preparations will take us a long time, we should go anyway and not waste another evening in Ulaanbaatar. So as inappropriate as it is, we leave at 6 in the night. With only a few hours of light before deep steppe night settles in, we push a little. Out of Ulaabaatar and back into Mongolia’s open country, we drive past the last gers and the last roaming herds tended by fresh-faced cowboys in belted robes. The plain is alive with wildflowers and that’s where we set camp, after we did 100 of the 300km to the Russian border. It’s the first time when it becomes noticeable how different travellers behave. If Matt is easy about any camping spot, Rob tries to persuade us to stay hidden, out of the sight of an eventual passer-by. Even if we are in the range of a sheep farm and a couple of yurts, I plead that the worst that can happen is that we are invited for tea in a well-heated ger by some lovely people. We pitch our vagabond rooms. I sleep in a one-person Vaude that I have received from a German cyclist. He serendipitously arrived in UB to share our dormitory right when Ana and I were wondering how we were going to distribute the camping gear between us. We made him an offer for his Ortlieb cycling bags, and John suggested that I mend his tent, that he was going to chuck into the bin anyways. So Ana kept our double sleeping bag and the 3-people tent, and I left with the Vaude, plus a Chinese sleeping bag that I bought for 15 dollars from a shop. Going this cheap will be the first thing to regret.
Before bed Matthew has a surprise for us: 3 beers tucked in his bag, and we enjoy them cheerfully.

At dawn I’m the most handsome of the lot, with a napkin shoved into my right nostril and looking like a stand-in for a horror movie. Minutes ago I KO-ed myself with an uppercut while tightening the ROK strap. How funny would have been for Rob and Mat to find me lying with blood trickling down my face and with nobody around for miles? Luckily for me I’m strong enough to face my own fist. I’m now at peace that even if I’ll do the BAM alone, in a battle of me vs. myself, I’ll be on top of the situation. :))

One last breakfast of fatty buzz followed by one more straight line out of Mongolia.

The border checkpoint from Mongolia into Rusia

As we enter Russian territory the landscape regains its vertical. The border is brutal, decided by the war of trees: where the steppe concedes victory, the taiga starts its reign. In Central Asia there is virtually no transition between ecosystems; forrest, barren fields and finally rock are delimitated in horizontal ribbons: the taiga, the steppe and the Himalayas. For ages the people that inhabit this massive chunk of Earth have ravelled along it, not across.

Aproximatively 70km from Ulan Ude, we stop in the town of Gusinaziorsk to refill our food supplies. As we get rolling, we notice that we are only two out of three. Matt is nowhere to be seen. We find him still in front of the shop, abusing Honda’s kickstarter. People gather like the circus is in town. Many Russian men cannot bear to stay aside and offer their suggestions. The most original are the two drunks in a rotten Lada, who explain that the problem is caused by not heaving enough fuel in the rear brake fluid reservoir!

We check the spark and the plug, but the lack of compression in the kickstarter is the big question mark. We resign to the fact that our day is spent; I leave in search of accommodation and I send in the direction of my companions the small pack of dirt bikers met on the way. Robert tows Matt to the pathetic guesthouse I’ve found for 50 bucks. At least the yard is spacious enough for us to take Honda’s engine apart for breakfast.

We find the automatic decompression pin blocked, and after restoring the puzzle the small Honda returns to life at the first kick.

Unfortunately in less than 20km Matt has to stop for a second time.

Now things look more dramatic: the kickstarter wont’t turn the engine which must’ve seized. Again, it’s enough that the Russian arrive for everything to precipitate: the first pick-up pulls over at our sign and we load the wounded and its rider back for Gusinaziorsk. Matt looks concerned but remains as calm as ever.

On the way Matthew kicks the Russian problem-solving-machine in extraordinary motion: he calls one of the bikers from yesterday, and reveals that we are in trouble. The Russian does what Russians know best: don’t worry, he says, I’m sending a man to fix everything, he’ll be waiting for you by the gas station. 15 minutes later we shake hands with John, a local entrepreneur who has a coal shipping outfit to the thermal plant on the lake. An old man – John’s trusted mechanic – and a teenager get off the Range Rover. The mechanic takes a look at Matt’s bike and confirms our worst suspicions. One Honda has to tow again the other Honda to the mechanic’s compound, where we are catapulted into a set of a Nikita Mikhalkov movie set: a small yard, a garage, a typical izba with superb carving at bays, the wife preparing jars with pickles (as we are already in mid autumn here) and a nephew napping in the back of the house (we are asked to shush, which when you cannot speak Russian makes everything very difficult). A story of bikes and Russia cannot happen without stunning Russian ladies somewhere in the plot, so John’s girlfriend arrives to successfully fill up the part. She is majoring in foreign languages in China and she will be out interpreter, as John manages some English but the mechanic not at all. Once the engine guts are out, the verdict is clear: a part of the piston is missing and the crankshaft rod bearing has seized. John makes a couple of calls and within a few minutes Matt has quotes for the parts that could be delivered from Moscow. In any case, fixing the bike is going to take at least a week.

To soothe our minds John buys us lunch: katlet, kartoshki y piva in a stalov (a sort of a small blue-collar bistro). At the table we make an important decision: me and Robert will only keep Matt’s company for another night, then we take off. Even if we left Mongolia with the plan to ride together to Magadan, Matt is not going to be able to ride his bike very soon. And while he has a one year multiple entry visa, I have 25 left of my 30 days visa, with dwindling hopes that this will suffice to rejoin Ana on the Russian territory. The second decision is to camp on the Gusin lake. We stock on beer, meat and charcoal, and we pitch camp in a fine spot.

John’s lady in her denim shorts is making a solid plea for the quality of the Russian DNA.

While we organise our stuff John appears busy with some phone calls. Then he walks to Matt with the news every kids awaits for Christmas: what’s you say, he asks, if I sort you out with another XR so you can achieve your journey to Magadan? In the meantime we fix yours, and later we’ll find a way. Matt is baffled. Narmalnyi, says John, you don’t have to answer on the spot, take you time to think about this, but please know that I’d be stoked to help you with this thing. Some hours later John and his girl go home, but John is back only a short while later with the aforementioned XR! Just in case anyone would suspected that a Russian’s promise is not based on 400% solid facts. Well, 250% in this situation, as the XR is not exactly 400cc as Matthew’s, but a 250cc.

We stay up late with John and many beers, debating routes ahead and kicking ideas, while our steaks sizzle on the fire. Robert is obviously responsible with the entertainment.


In the morning I email Ana. So far she has not returned any of the SMS I sent to the Frenchman’s mobile, and her mobile is still dead. 

Date: Sunday, August 18, 2013 7:42:11 AM / Subject: Raliul UB – Magadan – Updates II

M.’s engine is done; we opened it yesterday and he must get a new piston and a crankshaft. In the meantime John found a XR250 for him to ride to
magadan and back while he has parts delivered from the UK. Matt considers shipping parts to oasis and wonders if you can bring the parcel over.
Me and Robert are leaving now to Yakutsk, to meet with Noah.


Nine-ish in the morning John returns by Landie to pick up Matt and see us out of town. But as we say our goodbyes Robert remembers that he needs some chain lube to resuscitate his old chain until Vladivostok. John needs no more: he grabs his phone again, then makes a u-turn and leads us to the door of a buddy of his, who comes to say hi with a tube in his hand! Of course it’s a gift of lube for Robert. I did not manage to overhear it, but I can imagine what the friends’ dialogue could have sounded like: Maslo na tsepi iesti? Iesti. Davai!

With Matt soldiering behind, we’re finally off. We roll by Ulan Ude without deviating to downtown and we make a turn on the Moscow-Vladivostok highway, in the direction of Chita. At bivouac we dine each in their own tent, as the dreaded Siberian mosquitoes are hunting us without mercy.

In Desyatinkovo, a small town of bee farmers, the honey sellers wave us to slow down as we roll into a pack of policemen hidden in the bush and waiting for the unsuspecting drivers to make a mistake. When we pick up some speed, Robert’s engine stops. His fuel tank is dry, which leads us to believe that the frisky pacing made his Honda suck more fuel that it normally does.

With the half of a litter of gas from my burner’s tank we make it back to town and to the station. While refuelling we grab some food, but at the sight of the next character, we almost choke with zakuski.

The identical twin of the bearded stocky man from Buggs Bunny pulls into the parking lot on a IJ Planeta. The kiwi’s coming on this thing from Magadan and he says that the OSR is flooded and that he has taken the Winter Road.

If rain comes, beard-man says, it may take 4 to 5 days before anyone can reach you or the road teams manage to fix the road. Other than that the tracks are easy, with a more challenging stretch after Yakutsk; but with a bit of experience you’ll pass without a problem. The kiwi’s just confirming what’s been circulating since July: 2013 has been a particularly tough year to ride this ride. Catastrophic flooding closed the route to Magadan for days or weeks and made sections the BAM impassable at times. I don’t know if anybody managed to do the Old Summer Road. And the cold season is advancing relentlessly: frost will fall during the following nights, and in a couple of weeks the endless swathes of taiga will be silenced under early winter sky. But following in the example of Gramsci: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

I am pleased that we pushed on the flat stretch up to here, as the road to Chita starts to become more interesting. The taiga, this boreal jungle, rises into the sun a sculptural filter. The light has a unique consistency, like a magic paint that makes everything appear precious, from the humblest boulder to the most majestic tree; it’s a stunning decor worthy of a tzar.  After refuelling and resting overnight in the woods, the next day we go shopping in Chita.

Before lunch picnic we have to make a loop of a few dozen kilometres as a bridge connecting two highways is under construction. The 20-40 km of fast gravel leading back to Moscow-Vlad tar is the best part of the day, and it ends in a bivouac that reminds me of Mongolia. It’s already the second time to wake up in tents drenched in condensation. The day is short in the taiga and the sun starts melting the morning mist only after 8, so by the time we manage to dry a little bit our stuff it’s already after 10.

To make up for the late start, we kick it all day long, only stopping for gas, tea or to pee.

Even if the road is boringly impeccable, the taiga is riddled with proof that soon we’ll be not so bored anymore. The flooding is no rumour. In many places the road is the only dry stretch across a forested waterland. As the sun sets around 6.30 p.m., at 5 we have to start searching for a campsite, and it happens more than once to wander in dwindling light deeper into mosquito-infested swamps. Luckily there’s always the odd abandoned quarry, dry enough to ignore how uncomfortable is to pitch on rocks.

Meanwhile I learn that after me and the guys left the oasis, Ana and Baptiste, the French rider who decided to accompany her while I’m in Russia, have also switched plans. The following pics were taken by the Frenchie or by Ana with Baptiste’s camera. 

Baptiste experienced troubles with his Russian visa, and he got so pissed that he realised he had had enough with the Mongolian washboard of the south; so he persuaded Ana to forfait the idea of going to the Gobi, and pursued a route to the north-east, inside the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.  They were both happy to leave the capital, its depressing streets, the illusion of abundance from the sterile supermarkets, the oily mutton dumplings and the fried foods behind.

Shortly they were regaining Mongolia: they manifested their joy by pitching camp on the most immediate spot. For the first time in days, Ana was able to sleep all night. Strong downpours were expected region-wide, and indeed during the night the water level kept rising. At dawn Ana wakes up a prisoner on a temporary islet.

A place that water has just made inaccessible to weekenders, what could be more tempting to get lost into, both Ana and her friend realised. They crossed the stream not to safe land, but deeper inside. Not that deep though, as they pitched again only 500m from their first campsite. Their tents are visible in the second pic, next to the cluster of trees in the middle.

The second night Ana and Baptiste agree that they are both far more tired than they were aware of. Exhaustion has been accumulating since their respective trips began, and this park is the perfect place to take a holiday within the holiday. They will not budge for 4 days. A sole yurt gleams in their vicinity, and to put the owner’s worries at ease and to borrow a spoon of salt, Ana pays a visit. The mongol returns the gesture the next day, with an assortment of steaming offal. It’s finally Ana’s chance to sample the dreaded Mongolian fare: sheep guts boiled along with whatever the victim’s stomach and colon contained at the time of death. It was not just the taste, Ana told me later, it was the smell as well that was forbidding. During her second visit to the neighbours, Ana does her usual tour of the household, asking tons of questions and the host can’t be happier to explain how he fabricates almost everything under his roof, and all his horse-riding gear.

DRZ and TTR parked safely, Ana and Baptiste spent their time hiking up the mountain, experimenting with different ways of grilling meats when you’ve got no tools around, and fetching firewood .

The park is teeming with wildlife: squirrels, marmots, birds, even snakes.

It doesn’t mean that nature has not been generously embellished by people.

The next 48 hours are invested in exploring the trails farther to the eastern part of the park, which looks like a giants’ playground.

The mongol cattle is not dissimilar to the yaks – undeterred in their search for better, greener pastures.

After a night in a yurt (and a visit to the forest loo), Ana and Baptiste visit the buddhist monastery nestled in a mountain crease. Dozen buddhist verses make the climb feel longer and steeper than it actually is.

Seen from uphill, the valley is flooded with light; the small settlement at the bottom reminds of a village from a boreal country.

The warnings on the sacred frescoes are grim: look what awaits those who don’t follow the right path! To ensure that her preference for dirt trails will not lead her directly into the arms of the blue demons, Ana spins the prayer wheels one by one, and overnight pays great attention to the shamanist ritual that happens to take place yards from her tent.

Sadly the magic fails, as Ana and Baptiste have to return in the oasis, where the trucks do not appear to have moved an inch.

The return to Ulaanbaatar is not joyless: more people came for a second stint, the lovely corsicans among them. The (almost) complete team decides to celebrate the reunion with an Indian dinner. But as Ulaanbaatar is Ulaanbaatar, access to a fancy and quite expensive restaurant requires taking substantial risk.

Ana emails:
we’ve decided w. baptiste to leave here on the 27 don’t forget that the russian visa expires on the 14th, so we must exit before that date


In Never, where the road forks to Yakutsk and Vladivostok, we meet Kim and Noah, who have done the BAM and are planning to team up with Matthew and myself for the ride to Magadan. Matt was supposed to bring along a bit that Noah received in UB (the weight of the automatic decompression system for his 690). As Matt is stuck behind, I’m the courier. But since our last text messages everybody’s plans have changed. The third guy riding with the other two, someone named Kurt, decided to return to Mongolia; Matthew’s engine broke down; Noah fell for a Russian biker who may join him on the way to Vladivostok and the rains brought more flooding of serious proportion. So it goes that after a group pic we do indeed switch teams, only differently than initially planned. The American, Kim and the Croat head to Vlad: Kim and Robert are chasing a ferry, and Noah a girl.

I stay on my track to Yakutsk, but I’m already questioning my itinerary. Is Magadan worth the 3000 km return trip, plus another 3000 km from Never to Irkutsk (85% of which I’ve already done)? If half of the staff they say about Kolyma Highway is true, there’s indeed a chance I get stuck between two teams of road workers, and waiting for them to mend the road is not an awesome outlook for me.

The guys don’t leave me empty-handed. Discussing the route to Tynda – roughly the halfway between West and East BAM, Kim and Noah give me a lot of information about the railways red lights, the river crossings and the spots where I’ll have to take it over the rail bridge. The next 180 km to Tynda are being repaired, with a couple of rough patches.

Every soul you meet in Russia makes a lasting impression. If the Siberian bear remains timidly reclusive, the Russian is on a mission to engage. 50 km into the road I encounter Alexey from Celiabinsk, who will prove instrumental to my future salvation. Alexey has arrived from Yakutsk on a CB400 (yes, my brothers, a street fighter indeed); after he has traveled from home to Magadan on an Africa Twin, in Yakutsk he decided to sell his bike and buy the CB400 for the ride back.

We don’t part without Alexey providing me with two phone numbers: for a certain Sasha from Tynda and for Alex, the president of Yakutsk bikers’ club. Any problem you have, you call these guys, he says. Finally I am able to enjoy my 690, with a long stretch of wilderness and fine gravel ahead. Just like all Central Asia, Siberia is a place for soul-searching. Indigenous to an intense geography packed into a relatively small space, the European spirit looks up to the truths of scientific discoveries or to esoteric revelations. The spirit of Central Asia finds itself in the nature that offers a mirror for self contemplation. Us travellers cannot achieve the clarity of mind demonstrated by Herzog‘s trappers, or the wisdom of the Buryat people described by Jeremiah Curtin. Nevertheless, no day passes out here without a small change to take place within. These are my first days alone with the bike, and I welcome the sweet solitude, as it is the messenger of freedom.

A few km before Tynda I hit tarmac. As soon as I’m rolling on smooth surface the bike doesn’t feel right. On the bridge that takes me into Tynda I am swallowed by traffic, but something is definitely wrong with the front end.

The handling feels weird and sloppy at slow speed, so I start suspecting a front flat, then, like any man arriving in a new place after an adrenaline-packed ride I start going more and more paranoid. Perhaps it’s the head bearings? Or something with the suspension? I pull over and I check. By compressing the fork a few times I feel there’s a free play coming from somewhere, most likely from the head bearings. It’s too late to do anything about it, so I head to the only hotel in Tynda. The prohibitive rates send me back to the street, from where I spot a group of riders, gathered in a small park. I park in clear sight and I start fiddling with the GPS. Moments later a girl comes to ask if I’m all right. There couldn’t be a more suitable person to play my saviour angel: after almost being killed by alcohol, Gulya discovered motorcycling and did on her rookie year a 15000 km ride around Russia on a chopper. A journey that took her from the suicidal struggle of her past to her present swagger of a fighter and a survivor. I tell Gulya that I’m on my way to Magadan and the BAM, that something’s wrong with my bike and that I need a place to sleep tonight. A certain Max is phoned to smoothen the dialogue, and he translates my story to the audience.

We ask around for accommodation, but have no luck. The two gastelnitza in town are filled to capacity. Don’t worry, I tell Gulya, I’m used to camping, I’ll drive 30km and pitch there, and I’ll be back in the morning to look for a mechanic. I have already tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with the man recommended by Alexey, but Sasha did not pick up my calls. As a last resort, I ask anyway: Gulya, do you know a biker named Sasha? The girl calls him immediately. Da, da, says Sasha, bring him over. Sasha who has a Harley to himself, is a train mechanic on the BAM. He is waiting for me in front of his house and is holding his 7 year old son, Kostea. Worry not, everything will work out just fine, he says, while giving me the house tour. Tomorrow we go see Max, at the Kamaz centre. As Sasha’s wife Natasha shows up, she takes over the operation of sorting out the clueless westerner (well, easterner…) who got stranded in their little corner of Siberia. Kostea is relocated to his parents’ bedroom, because I’ll be sleeping in his room for a couple of days. He measures me with suspicion, but he moves his affairs of books and pencils that he was readying for his first day of school. Finally Natasha puts out a gargantuan spread of foods capable to feed an entire caravan of travellers who did not eat for a week.

By the end of the meal, our table looks like prop for a horror movie. We have massacred the chicken, the Russian salad and the mountains of cabbage, and Natasha is delighted. There is a sense that the bond we’ve made while sharing borsch is a bond that will last.


In the evening I email to Matt

Wednesday, August 21, 2013 9:07:04 PM
Re: Spot tracker

Hey man, my sucky roaming phone won t let me sms. I m in Tynda at the moment and the bike feels weird after the pounding of the road to here. If all’s fine (will check it tomorrow) I’ll head for the BAM. The winter road is closed due to massive floods in the area and the OSR is impassable. Care to join me?


The next morning at the Kamaz centre I stumble into a familiar scene: even if the outfit is run by a private company, to the model of all soviet workplaces (in Russia and Romania alike) the working hours are purposely wasted or invested into small individual business ventures. Max turns out to be the manager of the place and a passionate motorcyclist. Every year he takes his DRZ 400 for solitary 10-day runs up into the wilderness, to get away from it all and recharge his batteries. That’s a damn fine machine, he says upon seeing my KTM, I’m planning to get a 990 myself. Let’s see what’s wrong with it!

We lift the 690 on a piece of wood and start pulling the front fork. The free play is consistent. Max start scursing. Dam these KTMs, he shouts, this fork’s done with, we gotta strip this thing and see what’s in there.

We push the bike into another section of the warehouse and put it up on a stand. In this place the lighting is more uniform, and we are no longer distracted by the mosaic of lights and shadows coming from the skylight. So when we pull the fork again, we recognise that the free play is not coming from there. This is when we see the first fracture in the frame.

I’m paper white and my pulse has instantly risen to the rate of a bungee jumper. After a couple of long moments, someone breaks the silence in Russian. Read the continuation here.

See the map of Silk Road to Mongolia adventure in a bigger frame


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