On the West BAM Track

About 3 a.m. I am awaken by freezing cold. I roll from one side to the other until 5, when I feel I cannot lay horizontally anymore. The sun will only come up after 8; waiting for it, I keep busy with the only thing that can warms me up – a pot of tea.

I start of in bruising cold, wrapped up in everything I have

A few dozen km before the town of Yuktali I arrive at a bridge. At the other end there’s a UAZ-452. The passengers get out one by one to walk on the bridge and make sure that the wooden puzzle is strong enough. When I ride past, the youngest man waves back. Otkuda, he asks. S’Romanie, I say, and the next thing I hear is in my mother tongue. What the heck are you doing here? he says. The man (sadly I cannot remember his name) turns out to be our brother from Moldova and he is a railway worker.

He tells me there’s no official gas station in the next town and he sketches a map that should help me navigate to the man who can sell me the fuel. On the way it goes like that:

In town I tend to supplies first, and later I ask for the fuel dude. Beefy, slightly inebriated, over 50, with a teethless smile, Volodea takes notice. Benzin iesti? I ask, and Volodea waves me to follow his van. We drive through a yard filled with rusty boats, then we stop to pick up a mate of his, and finally arrive on top of a hill, in a compound of a small izba that is supposed to be the house of the man indicated by my Moldovan. The Russians start knocking on doors and windows which make a neighbour show up with the news that the man we are looking for is not home; we are told he’ll return shortly, and while waiting we snack on my fish can and their vodka spread inside the trunk of the van. The problem is not the first shot of alcohol, but the next ten, until the bottle is as dry as the Gobi. After the fuel man arrives and I do my transaction, I figure that my two drunks are the best people to show me where to buy vodka. The bottle is nice gesture – as Walter has advised – for the next bridge guard.

The BAM is day and night; every stretch is thwarting in a different fashion and I have to constantly change my game. A 50 cm deep pool sends me sliding across: the blue Mongol demons or perhaps my two friends with the van are the ones who have carved deep tranches on the boggy bottom. I manage to stay vertical, but this is a reminder of my biggest fear on the BAM. Dropping my bike and sinking the complicated electronics of the 690 could end ugly out here.

A deceiving river crossing follows: a few dozen meters wide, clear water, slippery rocks on the bottom. I start the GoPro and I take off. The sound of water lets me know that I’m sinking and reminds me too late that the lens effect makes the real depth of a clear river appear shallower than it really is. Even if I’m standing up, the water is almost up to the middle of my shin. I try to keep calm, and I deviate to a small islet of some sort, where I stop to recollect and then keep going for a few more metres. Finally I switch to defensive mode and I push my bike against the current and out of the river.

When I arrive at the bridge over Olykoma river, the barrier is on. The sound of the engine alerts the guardian out of his shack. I give him the vodka, he talks into his radio and then he waves me through.

I avoid getting stuck in the thick layer of marble gravel, I hop through the forrest, slide across a sandy patch and end up at the fringes of the woodland where I realise that the river I’ve crossed is just tributary of the real river.

Imangra is huge. I cannot pass here.

I must retrace my route back to the junction, take the deviation, go up the side road and then across the rail bridge. The deviation is rubbish: perhaps the deepest boggiest stretch with one of the pool of the series swallowing my bike up to the lights. For an instant I picture sinking all the way, but immediately my front wheel hits solid ground.

The friendly rail workesrs ask me what’s the time

Cold slows me down, and the sun is setting fast. Every now and then I have to stop and jump like a maniac around my bike, to get blood circulating back into my legs. Returning to the water is the most unpleasant thing to do. The air is clear as diamond, and cuts skin just as formidably. If tonight I don’t arrive in a dry space to undress, I doubt I’ll be able to warm myself up. A second overnight in my tent would be a restless ordeal.

In the afternoon I reach Olekma, where again there’s no gas station. Two girls on a moped take me to the fire station. I can sort your out with some fuel, says Kostea, but you have to wait until morning. I later realise that the man is on duty, and only at dawn he could run to his house and bring me some fuel from his own stash. I ask for a guesthouse, and they all laugh. There is no guesthouse, but Kostea shows me a room in the warehouse. You can sleep here, he says. I’m so grateful that I’m afraid that if there was a fire in town during the night, I might have jumped to return the favour to Kostea. But to my luck the night is calm and in the fire station is warm enough for my boots and tent to dry, spread around as they are next to the firemen’s ZIL.

Day 2: BC1 5:30 – Yuktali 9:30 – Fire station in Olekma 14:30 225km;

Group shot in the morning with the chief of the fire brigade. I never fail to appreciate the absence of humans in between towns; on the other hand, every single Siberian settlement is like a receptacle of everything that makes us long the human spirit, in its most concentrated form: warmth, compassion, altruism. One drop of this magic and my energy is restored.

At a crossing I’m taken by surprise by the size of the boulders, and my KTM tastes the water. Luckily during this time of the year the water level are low.

The day continues with an enduro scenario made to measure to a 690 or a similar machine: collapsed or live railway bridges, fast gravel, sand and rough gravel, where rocks rise up to 10 cm of the layer of hard-packed. Either you cross fast (risking your suspension, unless you have a better, upgraded part) or you go slow (Marsabit-Moyale style). With my butchered frame and stock suspension it’s clear how I proceed. My tactic ensures that every bolder is felt in the handle bar. In the third day of this, the pain in my wrists is excruciating.

From Chara I go to Old Chara. I want to reach the dunes, but a swamp makes me go back to a smooth spot where I discover that I’ve escaped a flat.

On the edge of lake Leprindo I suffer though another cold night. I have to vamp up my daytime pace. Too bad, ’cause I like it out here. Day 3: Olekma 7:40 – Old Chara 12:30 – Novaya Chara 13:30 – BC2 on lake Leprindo 16:00 296km  

I manage to lay down until 4, when I boil my life-saving tea sweetened with a few drops of the rhum bought for the next guard.  The wind rattles my tent. Like a boy scout, I lick my index and stick it out. My frontal lamp illuminates a smoking finger. The sun melts the frost and I get going. Days spent in Siberia are gloriously therapeutic. I begin to understand why recluses have been seeking refuge for decades where a Revolution born 6000 km to the west only reached after the arrival of Internet. Sadly the taiga is just as accommodating for the mosquitoes that are undoubtedly its most hated immigrants. I am easily consoled in quiet contemplation of a landscape often too grandiose to bother with description. Wild grasses fringed with cedar trees and pines – this boreal jungle recycles three modest colours, blue, black and green, into an universe of shades that seduce the eye.

I survive the night only to arrive at the Kuanda river, where Kim si Noah could not take the bridge, and were forced to rent a van that took them and their bikes through the river. But the guardian’s shack is only at the other end of the railway bridge, and I have a plan. The timing is perfect: 2-3 km before the bridge I hear and immediately I spot in my rearview mirrors the approaching train. It’s my free ticket across. Ta na naaa… I let the train to pass in front of me and with the theme from Mission Impossible in the back of my head, I rev it, trailing the last wagon. When I hit the bridge I roll on the 30 cm track; the train is so loud that the guardian cannot hear my engine. When he finally sees me, it’s too late. With a flick of a throttle I zoom by him and I jump from the bridge and back on the side track, indifferent to the guardian’s shouting. The Mission Impossible tune gets louder, and then dies out under the roar of my Akrapovic.

I watch the GPS: it looks like Vitim, it’s about where Vitim’s supposed to be – have I arrived at the infamous bridge? The image has been haunting me since Uzbekistan. A 2.5 meters wide, 570 meters long horizontal, suspended 15 metres above the river. The minutes to spare raise the pulse. There have been speed records and “Vitim Bridge club” badges made their way into some adv inmates’ signatures. Vitim is surely a classic BAM trial. I stop to recollect before I can even see the bridge, as I don’t want to fall victim to useless paranoia. Then I start the engine, I switch to first gear, rev it, switch to second, stand up and a couple of curves later I’ve entered on the bridge. On the first section my tire rubs against the plank and for an instant I deviate, only to regain momentum and jump over the sketchy speed-bump that takes me to the next flat section. They say when in doubt, give gas. At a certain moment I hear a small sound: damn, my GoPro stopped. I quickly decide that I don’t want to do the Vitim three times only to be able to film it, so I stop and check. The camera was working, but my breathing has slowed to such free diving pace that any noise is amplified. As I had no intention to set a new record anyway, I continue with my crossing and at the end, even if there’s no one to share it, my joy is complete.

I open a jar of pickles and a can of smoked fish and 30 minutes later I wrap it up. At night I am reunited with the field of stars so beautiful that even if I have a warm guesthouse it forbids the eye to shut down and sleep.

Day 4: Leprindo 6:36 – Taksimo GH 13:20 202km;

The fifth day opens withe the triptique of taiga, silence and fog. By now I got used to having solitude as my sole companion. I start to believe it was necessary to be alone too, as conversation could not not enhance the experience. I leave early from Taksimo, but the 200 km of rough gravel make me remember all sort of profanity.

A series of broken bridges and funky roads make my quite hungry. I drop the KTM a second time, but with no consequences.

Of course that after the last 180 km of sand and fast gravel I regret that it’s over and I hit tarmac. Last night I realised that my overall pace has been better than what I anticipated, so I asked Ana to text me with the GPS coordinates of the bush camp on Olkhon when she would settle there. I plan to surprise her, and I said she should not expect me to arrive sooner than one week. I overnight in Severobaikalsk. After I buy some groceries I discover that what the Russians mean by “single room” is only an indication of the size of my bed, and that it does not prevent the front desk lady to assign me a room buddy. With the TV muted, a thin man is eating omul from the Baikal and drinks beer from a 2l PET. Our room smells like a smoke house.

At dawn I start rolling. Few hours later a familiar feeling creeps down my spine. I pull over, get off and with a somber presentiment I lean to check on the frame. It has cracked again. Only the eternal pines gleaming along the road manage to calm my rage.

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