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Thou Shalt Not Ride

I decide to crawl back to Severobaikalsk, driving as gingerly as I can, so the ride back takes me twice as much as it did in the morning. On the way I have plenty of time to ponder my options. Time and money have become an issue. It’s Sunday afternoon; an attempt to find in Severobaikalsk another welder that could patch up things and to try to ride the remaining ~800 kilometres up to Irkutsk would simply mean fooling myself. So I head directly to the train station.
The first thing I do at the ticket counter is to ask for all trains leaving for Irkutsk and Moscow. There’s one today to Baikal, and another that departs for the capital tomorrow. If I buy now my ticket for Irkutsk will I be able to sort out transportation for my bike in due time, I ask the ticket lady. Go to ‘bagajnaia adilenia‘ she says, but I misinterpret the information, and instead of searching for the cargo department in the building no. 2, I end up at the second floor of the main building, right in the command centre of the train station. Liubea, a tall blonde pushing 40 years of age, takes immediate interest in my quest. What are you looking for, she asks, and soon she is walking with me back to the information desk where I am told that it is indeed possible to put my 690 on the train to Moscow, on the condition that I exchange my ticket for the same destination. While snacking in the train station cafeteria I text Ana: Houston we have a problem.
After 2 pm I’m back at the shipping counter. A bored lady with a communist attitude makes it clear that she is in no mood to deal with my very sketchy Russian. We cannot get your bike onboard, she says, because there’s nobody to load it on the train. I think of my friend Tanea from Tynda and I call to ask her to help me explain that I’m prepared to pay extra for the loading. But it’s the first day of school in Russia, and I find Tanea busy with the festivities. Realising that it’s not the right moment to push it, I send her my love and I return to Liuba. She welcomes me like one would an old friend. Sit down, she says, and a tray of cakes appear in front of me. Would you like a cup of tea? As soon as Liuba can take a break, we go negotiate my case to the unfriendly lady from earlier. 15 minutes and a couple of phone calls later, Liuba has good news. There’s a wagon departing for Moscow right now, she says, and I’ve got the people who can load your bike on the train. We don’t usually deal with these things, so you’ll have to settle a price for yourself; here’s their number. The dudes show up: they are beefy Azeri people, with wide hands hardened from tedious work. We put my bike inside their van, then they drive to the cargo station where the four of us plus two men from the train company barely manage to lift the 690 on the platform sitting well above our shoulders!

On the way back to the main train station I chat with my Azeri mates. I learn that they run one of the numerous small businesses that survive on the back of the gigantic state-owned corporations. We have agreed on 1500 rubbles for their services (including small bribes to various people), but the driver tells me: you’ve worked side by side with my men, I’ll only charge you 1000. As I have not wasted my time in Central Asia, I remember that I should thank him in Turkish. The driver is so happy, that for fear he should return all the money I immediately have to say good-bye and leave. During all this time there has been no word of any documents… I was only given a paper with a phone number. 5 days from now you should call here, I was told, so naturally I’m paranoid enough to check this information with Liuba. Everything will be fine, she says, and I’m comforted to return to my shabby guesthouse and to enjoy a sundowner beer on the hill that allows a lovely panorama of Lake Baykal.

The next day I start my bikeless Trans-Siberian journey to Moscow.

In third class the wagons contain cells with 4 bunk beds each; the corridor is lined with more folding beds, and I end up in the one on top. The mood is relaxed: a drunken lady invites me to meatballs and vodka. We get chatty. Where you from, she asks; Romania, I say, which prompts my neighbour from below to explain to a fellow traveller that I am a gipsy. That ends our potential friendship, so I will contend to spending the rest of my time with Tolea, another vodka champion. He manages enough English to entertain me with stories from the swathes of the taiga where he is a forest engineer.

The rest of the long hours are spent with the two ladies that attend for our wagon. As the journey progresses they become more friendly; their job is to distribute beddings, to scold the passengers, to care for the steaming samovar, to sell unfashionable souvenirs and instant soup, and of course to wash the floors. Tolea takes of in Omsk and three black guys get onboard. While they are being interrogated by the train attendant I try to peek at their passports. An amateur singer, the 22 years old Michael is the friendlier of the lot. We become buddies. I learn that Michael and his mates come from wealthy families from Accra and that they are returning after a stint in an international summer camp, that may help them collect the necessary extracurricular points to apply for the dream school: MIT. I’m impressed to meet Africans volunteering in Russia and I share some of my own biking adventures. Before we’d part ways, the Ghanians borrow me the African universal charger that I last used in Mozambique!

Days pass excruciatingly slow. Prisoners of our metal box on wheels, we take advantage of every stop to stretch our limbs. The train stations are all alike, greyish assemblies of parallel lines converging into nothingness, with the odd shack from which emerge even stranger apparitions: uniformed beauties who start walking on the rails in their sky-high stilettos.

At 4 in the morning I’m collected from Moscow’s station by Vlad. The Romanian is a superb host: delicious meals and restful nights in his comfy apartment alternate with a drive around Moscow with his buddy Max, a beer with Walter @Sibirsky Extreme and a Cuban music concert with Tom and Tony. After week in the taiga and with the fractured Trelis on my mind I find it hard to unwind. But some of the best people Russia has and Russia lures. It’s not just the caviar, or the oil, it’s also the meltingpot of tribes and beliefs, the massive ambitions mixed with a disarmingly melodramatic spirit, the outstanding land features au par with the immense wilderness stretching beyond imagination. Churchill was spot on when he said that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” To experience the humbling and unassuming Russian camaraderie or to serendipitously meet its rather brilliant expats is nothing but joy.

A few days back from all this, about the time when I was crossing some river on the West BAM, Ana was leaving Ulaanbaatar, together with Baptiste. The sun was missing as usual and the air was poisoned with emissions. Inch by inch, the DRZ and the TTR cross for the final time the yurt favelas which show that in Mongolia one need not be a nomad to have to live in a tent. This city is something else – an anomaly in the heart of the steppe, a town that has imprisoned its people under the promise of a future filled with unnecessary objects. Or it could be just the depressing weather. It’s raining cats and dogs. By evening the two motorcyclists decide to end their agony in a shabby hotel.For 30 bucks their room offer no handles at doors, the plugs sparkle and the view couldn’t be more ‘charming.’

Up to Ulan-Ude the road is impeccable. Ana keeps wondering why so many bikers were arriving in the Oasis infuriated with the quality of the roads from Russia, only to forfeit any ride further into Mongolia for a hasty return the same way they had come. Could there be a connection with their 800-1200 cc engines and immense rigs? Just like I did two weeks ago, Ana and Baptiste enjoy the splendid Siberia. The trick is admirable: the mongols were left with the barren steppe and the storms, the russians scored a sky blue as hope and a brilliant sky as guardian of an endless taiga. On top of such beauty, the first lunch is delicious, and Ana can’t stop giggling that soldiers and hefty ladies approach her under firm conviction that she is one of their own.
My girlfriend and her temporary companion park in front of Ulan-Ude’s bronze landmark: a 10 meters hight Lenin head, the largest of the soviet world and one of the few still standing. The locals have kept it as it give character to the square: lovers kiss in front, tourists pose next to it. It takes a couple of second for the boggy knobblies and the foreign plates of the two bikes to stir the curiosity of a local. A tall guy walks hastily in their direction. Stas, he says putting out a freshly wounded arm. I took a razor, he says, meaning he rolled on the tarmac and shaved his elbow after falling of his bike. After he finds out what’s the deal with them, he starts talking energetically in this mobile. Shouldn’t we go? asks Baptiste, but Ana tells him to chill and allow the Russian magic to unfold. Indeed, Sas returns to us gleaming, to inform that tonight we shall sleep at the headquarters of the local bike club. Refusing is out of the question. Two guys arrive on a chopper to take us to the place where a consistent gathering has formed. Ana and the French guy park their bikes inside, where there are musical instruments, motorcycling paraphernalia and plenty of sleeping space for any unexpected guests who are always most welcome. The party will not end before dawn.

In the morning – actually about 10 o’clock, Andrei arrives on his CBR 1000 RR to take as to the buddhist monastery, as planned. It’s way too late, says Baptiste, but Ana realises how disappointed Andrei will be if he is not able to do something nice for the guests. So they agree to go. Here’s the farewell pic. Next there’s Sasha aka “Real men ride choppers”

Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Buryat Republic. The Buryat belong to conservative branch of the Mongol family, where shamanism is still prevalent alongside buddhist traditions. The forest behind the monastery is a poetic reminder of that.

Near Irkutsk, Ana, who is rolling one hour behind Baptiste, sees this Siberian sea, the Baykal lake for the first time. On the other side of this lake I was still riding my 690, under a sun just as glorious, but on completely different roads and in crippling cold.

Irkutsk is one of the most picturesque in Russia: tsarist architecture aligns the river promenade. On the bottom of the river there are countless keys from the lockers attached to the bridge by lovers of all ages, in oder to preserve their love binds intact.

At night, Ana, the french guy, their CS host Marina and Roman, the Argentinian who is their temp housemate, all go out for a drink. Baptiste cannot leave town before a chain change; in the warehouse of the moto-shop Ana finds the frenchie’s fav vehicle: a monocycle, which he takes for a ride

The next sunset finds the two riders comfortably installed at the bivouac. My text message where I ask her to send me her future island coordinates feeds Ana false hopes.

300 km of asphalt across the taiga and a free ferry ride later, the DRZ and the TTR are rolling on a island that look right out of fairytales: Olkhon.

It’s the 1st of September, the first day of school in Russia, and all tourists and weekenders have left the island. Deserted, surrounded by the calm blue of the lake, Olkhon has a unique vive. The trails and the landscape remind of Genghis Han’s homeland; actually its nickname is “little Mongolia”.

In the village, Ana and Baptiste pull over at Serghey’s, a character not one bit less fabulous than the place where he’s been living together with his family. Polyglot, handsome, initiated, Ana cannot decide if he’s a surfer and a spiritual man, a shaman or a mystic artist. Every morning and sometimes at noon, the russian, who tends for the only orthodox church on the island, shoots another sublime song, by pulling a few strings and bells. The travellers have settled in Serghey’s cabin, and while he’s out foraging for winter berries, they do a bit of housework and care for the vegetable garden.

Their bikes relieved of all extra burden, Ana and Baptiste go to explore the 75 by 15 kilometres of dry land surrounded by world’s deepest lake.

Baykal lake is the one truly astonishing feature that interrupts Siberia. 1/5 of the planet’s fresh water sits in one of the most ancient geographical scars, a 25-30 mil. years old trench that is destined to become world’s sixth ocean. Somewhere along this coastline the bottom only ends 1637 meters below the surface! On the other side of the lake, the legendary Lena starts its 4472 km journey. There’s a non-stop show of cloud and fog, with sun its masterful director.

Olkhon is not just a geomorphic anomaly (the climate is the driest in Siberia); many endemic species have managed to survive in isolation, suffering almost Australasian mutations

The sand on the beach could very well exist in the Caribbean. On the contrary, the pines rising off the desert remind that the closest line of reference is not the Equator, but the Polar Circle.

The place is a miniature motorcycling playground: steep hills, a labyrinth of winding trails interrupted by hops and tree roots sprouting out, forests of trees with bark that appears ingeniously carved by a master, their branches lifted in prayer to the sky. The forrest spanning the northern half of the island end in another glorious promontory.

Clues scatter everywhere on the island. With an exceptional natural environment and wildlife, the locals are to match. Olkhon is a sacred place to the shamanist Buryats; almost every rock, hill, cave and cape has an ancient legend attached to it; there are countless totems (ovoos) and cairns in places Buryat believe to be inhabited by spirits: cattle hooves amputated above the ankle, teeth, horn fragments.

At night, Ana devours from the amazing collection of books gathered at Serghey’s, the book of Jeremiah Curtin who took at the dawn of the past century a journey into a world our generation has already missed. In our times the complexity of such cultures and places is mummifying in history books.

Contrary to the mysterious vibe of the inhabited bits, Olkhon’s main village lingers in its romantic juices. Wooden izbas with blue shatters, dusty alleys where blond kids on squeaking bicycles are the only things that move. In the port there are a few ships abandoned to rust, and some warehouses scatter, their empty carcasses gleaming in the golden hues of rotting wood.

On the coast shaped by relentless wave work, a graffiti makes for a fitting symbol of the place’s nostalgia.

Only in the third day will Ana and the french guy realise that they’ve been living on the edge of Olkhon’s most stunning promontory. The cape connects to the mainland through a narrow stretch that separates a beach with golden sand that could very well exist in Thailand, from a beach where crystal water washes a layer of white pebbles, pretty much like what you’d see on the Dalmatian coast.

The last sunset on the island. Ana and Baptiste, who are yet to learn of my new technical troubles, start gearing up for our supposed meeting in Irkutsk.