Chapter 33 – Silk Roads to Siberia Pt III – Altai Adventure

It was a slow, snowy, slushy, muddy descent from the pass and I was conscious of the pain in my back after picking my bike up off the ground at the border. Unsure if I had the strength to pick it up again should I fall I descended cautiously through the cloud.

After negotiating several switchbacks I came to a group of buildings surrounded by numerous trucks all with their bonnets open and presumably in various states of repair. I was approached by a guy and asked if I’d deliver a 1.2m long steel spike to some guys that were working on the road further down the mountain. I agreed, but failed to see that one end was covered in a thick, oily deposit that slowly found its way onto everything – including my tent!

I dropped the spike off and continued along what must be the longest ‘no-mans land’ I can ever remember crossing. Eventually I came to the Kyrgyzstan border where the first guard looked at my passport and sent me to the immigration office. Within seconds my passport was back in my hand having been stamped and I was ushered off to customs. I found them eating lunch and expected to be in for a long wait. All I got was “You go Osh?” “Da” I said and was told to “GO…GO!” I’ve never crossed a border so fast!

Back on tarmac after entering Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan

Kyrgzystan

I rode away from the border on a wide plateau at the head of which was a string of mountains like a brick wall for as far as I could see in either direction. The road turned right and followed them through a village before ascending a series of switchbacks and through a pass before plunging three vertical kilometre’s towards Osh. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of what lay hidden behind the cloud and cursed the foul weather. Eventually I emerged from inside the cloud and found myself in a green valley with red rock outcrops and yurts pitched all around. It rained virtually the whole way to Osh (250km) where I eventually found the Crystal Hotel (as recommended by Michael the Austrian) where a clean ‘dungeon’ room on the lower ground floor set me back SOM500 (£6.50/U$10). The shower was next door, the toilet around the corner and the wi-fi worked in my room. What’s more the showerhead hung on the wall, the pressure was good and the water hot! Outstanding.

Once cleaned up I headed out for another of Michaels’ recommendation’s – The California Café and an appointment with a draught beer! (Cheers Michael!)

I had no reason to hang around in Osh so the following morning I packed up. As I was doing so, so I met three German guys riding Yamaha XT600 Tenere’s. Martin, Henning and Wolfgang had driven to a hotel in the Ukraine from where they were riding a return loop through Central Asia – in four weeks!!!! Apparently they do a long trip every two years. In 2011 they sent their bikes to Mongolia and rode home. Kudos to them.

I should have broken up the ride to Bishkek into several days but the allure of big city food and an email from Griff that read simply ‘party in Bishkek’ was to much to bare and I knocked out the 714km in one day. Now those of you who’ve ridden from Osh to Bishkek are saying “But It’s not 714km”. Well it is when you let your GPS plot your exit from the city (straight through the neighbouring country – Uzbekistan!) It was another WTF moment as I approached the border and realized what had happened.

Once away from the towns and cities the road turned NE and followed and incredible hydro electric reservoir that would its way through the valley like a river for miles and miles, eventually emerging into Toktogul lake. The road follows the southern shore of the lake in an easterly direction before turning west along the north shore then NE into the mountains. It was a beautiful ride up through the pass and I bought fresh honey along the way. It went down nicely with the readily available freshly baked (Tandoor style) bread.

Lake Toktogal, Kyrgyzstan

Turning east I climbed onto plateau with yurts scattered everywhere; many with Mercedes and Lexus’s parked outside. I guess there’s good money in Kyrgyz horses! For 60km or so I rode east along the plateau until the road turned north to cross the Aybuu Pass at 3586m. As it turned out the road didn’t cross the pass. Instead it passed through a narrow tunnel at 2564m before plunging down to the main east/west M39 at 600m via a narrow 60km long valley. 
At the junction I filled up with gas and set off on the final 70km to Bishkek. The increase in traffic came as quite a shock and the closer I got to the city the worse the driving became. Just like Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India the drivers were complete idiots, only these were idiots with fast cars. Those last 70 km seemed to take forever and it was dark by the time I reached the hostel. The hostel had no sign up outside and I began to wonder if I was in the right place but Griff heard my engine and ran out to greet me. I was pleased to see him. With over 700km on the trip and the last 45 minutes in the dark I was tired and pleased I’d found my destination. Griff looked decidedly secondhand after the previous nights party/clubbing/puking but he took me out to the beer ‘n’ shashlik place nevertheless; even though the look of my beer turned his face green.

It was great to catch-up with Griff and Lisa again and with Griff restored to full health they indulged me with a celebratory feast. Thanks to an ex-pat butcher selling his produce through an ex-pat bar we had bangers ‘n’ mash with onion gravy. Damn fine bangers they were too!

Bangers ‘n’ Mash courtesy of Griff & Lisa. Mmmmmm……

It was good to rest-up for a few days although it did take me two cab rides to the auto bazaar before I found the shop I was looking for to be open. Daisy then got treated to an oil change and a fresh spark plug as well as having her air filter washed and oiled. The rear sprocket and chain still had plenty of life in them but the front sprocket was finished. I cursed myself for leaving a part-worn one in the garage at home as had I have taken it with me I could have saved my new ‘kit’ until Irkutsk. As it was I went ahead and fitted it.

International Street Art festival Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

The French contingent (TSF Crew) were staying in the same hostel and agreed to paint a mural for the owners. It was an opportunity to give Timelapse a try. Here’s the outcome…

Eventually the time came to leave. Griff & Lisa had left the previous day and so I said goodbye to Martina, a German woman travelling in a Toyota Landcruiser with her adopted Argentinian spaniel and hit the road. Leaving at a reasonable time the traffic was relatively quiet and the temperature comfortable. I retraced my route west then south over the Aybuu Pass before turning off the main road in a SE direction along a road that alternated between gravel and tarmac as it wound its way through a few villages. Once away from them I found some shade under the trees by a river and tucked into a lunch of fresh bread, crunchy peanut butter and blueberry jam.

From my lunch spot I followed a gravel road alongside the river through a valley where the rock formations and colours seemed to change at every turn. Come mid-afternoon I entered a village from where a track led out to Son Kul (Kul means lake). I didn’t get as far as stopping to ask the locals, they clearly knew what I was looking for and just pointed the way as I rode through the dusty backstreets. A dirt track led across some fields and into a narrow valley past a few shepherds’ huts before climbing to over 3000m.

Northern approach to Song Kul

From the summit, tracks led away in numerous directions (not all terminating at the lake so I learned). Some led to gur’s, others to bogs that had since been by-passed but eventually I found one that followed a ridgeline towards the southern side of the lake. I had planned on camping lakeside but soon changed my mind when I discovered how windy it was and instead set about finding a place amongst the rocks. Several times I stopped at what appeared to be the perfect spot only to find myself staring down on someone’s ger.

Searching out a campsite above Song Kul…

Eventually I did find a decent spot and settled down for an altitude affected poor nights sleep.

…found it!

The sun woke me at 0500 but I managed to doze until 0645. I was in no hurry to leave and made the most of the cooler temperature, enjoying a leisurely breakfast of fresh coffee, porridge with honey, walnuts and dried apricots whilst doing a bit of diary catching-up.

Clouds began to build as I set off along the lakeside gravel track that entered a shallow valley as it turned SE away from the lake.  Suddenly I rounded a turn to see the track plummet into the next valley in a seemingly endless ribbon of switchbacks. In the far distance it could be seen climbing to the horizon through another valley.

Into the valley – SE of Song Kul

At the bottom of the valley I stopped to filter water from the fast flowing river and as I did so black clouds appeared overhead but I managed to get going before the rain came. A little further on the track entered a beautiful wide valley; the one I’d seen from atop the switchbacks. There wasn’t a soul insight along the entire valley and as I reached the top I stopped to look back at my route. The sun illuminated the distant mountainside but in-between lay in the shadow of the black clouds that were following me.

Looking back at my exit route from Song Kul

I crossed the pass and the view east was no less spectacular; just different. Again the light was poor and it was hard to make out the features of the land. I’d love to see it in decent light.

Back on the main road I headed for Naryn, ate a snack lunch, stocked up on camping supplies and rode east through fields of wild flowers before entering a steep, narrow river valley lined with pine trees. I could have been in the Canadian Rockies. As the track climbed above the tree line so the valley leveled out and widened.

Heading east away from Naryn

It was a little early to make camp but the black clouds on the horizon persuaded me otherwise. I just had to find a place out of the wind. A narrow goat track led down to a wide, flat area above the river and whilst not completely wind free it was way better than anywhere else. Not that I had much time to look around – there was a storm approaching. I pitched camp just in time for the rain to start. It didn’t rain hard on me but I did listen to the thunder in the mountains to the north and watch the occasional lightening strike; all from the comfort of my tent and with a brew in-hand of course!

Time to find a place to camp!

Found it…just in time!

Riding away from camp

The storm rattled around in the mountains all night: never managing to escape. I couldn’t see it when I broke camp but I knew it was there, following me along in an adjacent valley, and only showing itself whenever I unpacked my camera.

As the valley narrowed so the track deteriorated and in two places had been completely washed away. An obvious route crossed the river a few times before a boulder field stopped me in my tracks. I walked around for a good 20 mins before I found a way through.

There is a route through those rocks…honest!

Just as I did so the storm finally leapt out from behind the mountains and threatened me with a few spots of rain as I rode away.

As the track continued to deteriorate so the lack of other vehicle tracks made me wonder whether the pass I was heading for was actually open but I didn’t have to wonder for long as a Lada Niva 4×4 – the roof-rack piled high with firewood – appeared on the horizon before disappearing towards a ger camp in the valley bottom.

The track commenced a series of steep switchbacks and I suddenly found myself stopped on a very steep, rocky section hemmed in by a herd of cows. I had no choice but to sit still and try not to slide backwards down the hill as I waited for them to pass. It would have made a great photo but my balance was at its limit. Attempting to access my camera would have surpassed it!

Eventually I made it to the pass that clearly hadn’t long been open. The view south towards the Tien Shan and China looked foreboding but I didn’t linger long. It was cold in the wind and that storm wasn’t far behind.

Crossing the Tosor Pass – 1

Crossing the Tosor Pass – 2

Crossing the Tosor Pass – 3

The initial descent from the pass was unlike anything I’d ever encountered. It started as just a rocky track but soon became a series of giant whoops, each 1.2-1.5m deep (like a roller coaster) that was certainly impassable to anything bigger than a 4×4 jeep. The Lada Niva had done well.

It didn’t take long to descend from the pass and suddenly the temperature rocketed and the landscape opened up in a flurry of green bisected by an alpine river. Horses, sheep and goats roamed the hillside that was dotted with a few gers.

Gone were the black storm clouds and cold wind replaced by a clear blue sky and a view all the way to Issyk Kul. At 182km long its not only Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake but the world’s second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea.

A valley apart: A world of difference. Issyk Kul in the distance

Despite hanging around in Karakol for a few days it was still 0300 on my day of departure before I got to bed such was my frustration in trying to get the Chapter 32 trailer video to upload. I was up again before 0800 to check its progress only to find it had failed.
The internet seemed to be working better than usual so I left the video uploading again whilst I went for breakfast. It still wasn’t done when I returned so I went for a shower. Returning from the shower I found an email from Facebook saying my video had been disallowed for copyright infringement (I’d used the Cults’ She Sells Sanctuary) Arrrrgggghhhhhh!!!!!!!.
By then the internet had also slowed to a halt so I walked to the cafe around the corner, ordered a latte and finally got the video uploaded without sound.
Back at the hotel I quickly finished packing and left – the country.

Kazakhstan

It pissed down all the way to the border but the crossing was swift and easy; I was the only ‘customer’ there. On the Kazakh side I had to help the Customs Officer with identifying various details on my V5 but other than that it was easy.

I stocked up with camping supplies in Kegen and turned west, parallel with the border – destination Kaindy Lake.

I soon ran out of tarmac after which the track became quite rough and stony but there was nothing technical about it. The weather picked up and there were some great ‘alpine’ views across a smattering of villages not shown on my map.

Beautiful landscape along the Kyrgyz – Kazakh border

From the junction with the main track it was 15km south to the lake along a rough, narrow, stony track and across two rivers. At the entrance to the lake was an entry booth manned by a nonchalant guy who produced a fag packet, wrote down three different figures, added them up and showed me a total of T1543 (to pay to get in). That was more than 10 quid!
There were no ATM’s in the region and I knew I’d also have to pay to enter Charyn Canyon. I only had T3200 on me and would also need to buy fuel. Having seen hundred’s (literally) of stunningly beautiful lakes for free I declined, returned to the main track and set off to find a place to camp. Not for the first time did I just pitch my tent in time before the rain came and a thunder & lightening storm passed over the valley.

I deliberately camped on top of a hill as Daisy’s battery had been playing up. On a few occasions it only just started the engine despite the volt meter showing 14.2 charging and 12.6 stationary. Mmmm….

As I entered my name in the Charyn Canyon visitor’s book so I saw that Griff & Lisa had camped there the previous night. Any thoughts of catching-up with them were soon quashed though by Polish Pete the Photographer who said they’d left early. Having driven his Toyota Landcruiser from Poland (as he had done every spring for the previous 10yrs) he was waiting for the light to improve – a long wait as it turned out.

Charyn Canyon

I took a ride into the canyon where I made lunch before ripping back up the slope that gave Ewan & Charlie so much grief (aaahhh…the joys of a light bike offroad J)

Charyn Canyon was the only place in eastern Kazakhstan that I particularly wanted to visit and with that accomplished I set off for Russia – 1500km or so away across a rather flat, featureless landscape with a penchant for afternoon thunderstorms.

Rather than just sit on the black top, I followed PPP’s (Polish Pete the Photographer) advice and rode via Lake Balkash…”The most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen – PPP.”

Well, I gotta tell ya Pete…you need to get out more. Given the magnificence of the lakes of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Lake Balkash wouldn’t even stick in my memory. What did stick in my memory though was the sandy track that I followed through the tall grass along the west shores of the lake. It was great whilst it skirted the lake but as soon as it turned inland so it all but disappeared. Damaged by the rain then baked dry in the sun, it was a horrible, horrible ride than often had me asking myself “WTF am I doing here???”.

The usual afternoon storm brews alongside Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkash

Two more afternoons of thunderstorm soakings followed by mozzie infested camping spots and I was in Russia.

Cometh the afternoon: Cometh the thunderstorm – Kazakhstan

Russia

Or more accurately, I was in the Altai Republic, the region of Russia that borders Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. After another painless border crossing I rode into Zmeinogorsk where upon seeing a sign that began Cyber****** I walked inside expecting to find an internet café but instead found myself in a handbag boutique. DOH! The typically stunning Russian sales assistant found this hysterical but nevertheless led me upstairs to the buildings owner, Ayrtom and his mum Natalya. Once they’d stopped laughing Ayrtom helped me procure a USB modem that would provide me with a 3G internet connection anywhere in Russia (the reality proved to be a far cry from that) before buying picnic supplies and whisking me away for an interactive history lesson of the town. Zmeinogorsk it transpires was far more than an important 18th Century gold & silver mine; it stood at the forefront of mining technology including such inventions as the worlds’ first elevated railway (1809).

Tour over I collected my bike from Ayrtom’s garage and followed them 30km or so north of town to Lake Kolyvanskoe where I pitched camp in time to watch the sun set. Welcome (back) to Russia!

With Artem at the only statue of Yermak Timofeyevich in Siberia. Surprising, given that it was the Cossack that claimed Siberia for Russia in 1582

Crossing the Altai

Prior to setting off on this leg of my journey I’d pored over maps of this region wondering if there was a more direct route through. For 6-months I had on back-order the 1:200,000 Altai Republic Road Atlas that I thought might provide the answer but alas it was still out of stock when I left home.

I discussed the subject with Austrian Michael and he promptly gave me a copy of the GPS track he’d painstakingly traced on Google Earth that followed exactly the route I’d been pondering on my paper maps. I was keen to give it a try.

The sun shone brightly as I made my way across rich, green rolling hills dotted with villages of century old looking single story wooden houses utilising every inch of garden to grow produce.

The run into Sentelek – Altai Republic

Many villages had hand water pumps but despite trying several I didn’t find one that worked.
 Eventually I passed through the village of Sentelek with its interesting wooden suspension bridge and found a great spot to camp by the river. It was obviously used regularly by the locals but it was mid-week and there were just a few people camped on the opposite bank.

The following morning I got delayed by a group of scouts as I tried to photograph the wooden suspension bridge and as we chatted who should appear but Griff & Lisa! They too it transpired had been gifted Michael’s GPS track and were equally keen to discover if the route was feasible.

Riding the wooden bridge near Sentelek (Gareth Griffiths Photo – http://siroccoverland.com/)

We caught up with each others news since leaving Bishkek and after lunch continued along Michael’s track that ran alongside the river – but not for long. The track led to a smallholding where two local guys confirmed we were at the end of the track. However, they did indicate that there was a ‘route’ to Korgon that ran behind the mountains that paralleled the river to the south. All we had to do was find where it started.

No banjo jokes! Like all Russians these guys were friendly and helpful

After a few false starts in the next village to the SW of Sentelek we finally found a track that headed off across the fields in what looked to be the right direction. The jeep track became increasingly overgrown the further we climbed and as we crested a rise I stopped and turned off my engine, waiting for Mary Poppins to walk out of the landscape that lay before me. Not even the distant storm could detract from the glow emitted by the green pastures and the remains of the winter snow added to the alpine ambiance.

In search of a new route through the Altai

A narrow descent led to a closed gate that preceded a shallow river crossing and a long climb adjacent to a chain-link fence with signs indicating CCTV cameras – not that we saw any cameras. There was something eerie about that fence and I wondered whether its purpose was to keep something out or something in. Jurassic Park came to mind. Again we climbed until we found ourselves at the top of a descent into a sharp, v-bottomed valley with a long, straight, steep climb out up an earth track. The descent had clearly been tampered with either by man or machine and a series of whoops (similar to those I’d encountered in Kyrgyzstan) led to the bottom. It was the end of the road for G&L.

Without the trailer their SWB Landrover 90 would have made it but Griff was concerned (and rightly so) about the climb out. Were they to loose traction and slip back the chances – and more importantly the consequences – of jack-knifing were immense. It wasn’t worth the risk, and so with a storm brewing we returned to Sentelek, picked up a few beers and headed back my campsite from the previous evening where we broke out the wood-burning stove.

Camping with Griff, Lisa and their wood burning stove… fabulous

2nd Attempt

I had something of lay-in and didn’t get up until almost 0900 the next morning. It was always destined to be a lazy one with G&L around. 
We sat around chatting over refills of freshly ground coffee, then when it was almost lunchtime Lisa decided to make pancakes.
 I think it was gone 1500 when I finally rode away, leaving G&L packed up but chatting to a local fisherman. 
They were heading off on the route to Ust-Kan that we all know exists whilst I was going to make another attempt at the direct route to Korgon.

Buoyed by Griffs’ words “If you make it through we’ll call it the Lewisky Trakt” I returned to where we’d turned back the previous day descended into the narrow bottomed valley, crossed the stream and nailed Daisy up the steep climb. My concern was grip but I had no problem and hooked 2nd gear on the way up though I think G&L had made the right choice.

There’s a track through there somewhere…

The track became increasingly overgrown making the riding slow as I couldn’t see the ruts I was riding in. Another steep descent led me to another gate beyond which the track faded further still. I was following well-worn animal tracks but was beginning to wonder if a vehicle had ever come this far. In places the animal tracks became hard to ride as the cattle had churned the ground up so much and the whole area was scattered with rocks.

It was easy to miss a turning amongst the long grass

I rode on and eventually came to a river crossing. The track obviously led into the river but didn’t appear to emerge from the other side. After walking around for a while I realised I had to ride along the shallower part of the river to get to the main, deeper, faster part where the track emerged from.
 I managed to spin the rear wheel on a slimy rock an fall down but despite picking Daisy up quickly she didn’t want to start. The battery was dying really quickly and so I resorted to kicking the engine over with both fuel & ignition turned off in a bid to clear the cylinder head of any flooding (the engine has never started with the kickstart for some reason). I waited 5 mins between each attempt at starting and eventually the battery recovered enough for the engine to start.

A little way on from the river I reached what I can only describe as an enduro track. I should have realised then that I was going the wrong way but I was lulled in by the rivers presence just a few km’s ahead and the presumption that the decent road would be there. 
I pushed on; often parking Daisy and walking sections to check the best line before riding on. There were trees, rocks, tall grass, regular mud and cattle trampled mud.

Cattle churned mud – nice

Hidden obstacles made it more like an enduro track

In the churned up mud I often found thick sticks that I presumed had been placed there to give support for vehicles. 
It took me ages but eventually I made it to a large open area next to the river.

Two guys in a log cabin were clearly surprised to see me! They said there was a way to Korgon but that no vehicles took it; just horses. One indicated something about a thigh deep river crossing whilst the other was saying something about football sized boulders.

These guys were surprised to see me

I thanked them and rode on. Very soon all trails merged into one next to the river and very shortly after I found myself faced with a mudslide that had been trampled into oblivion by cattle. I walked the section and had just come to the conclusion that it was impassable when a guy in his early 30’s appeared carrying a sports bag. He indicated with crossed arms that there was absolutely no way through and asked where I was going. When I told him Korgon he indicated that there was another track around the back of the valley we were standing in (the one I was looking for). I must have missed a turning in the long grass and headed for the river too soon.

I thanked him and rode off back towards the enduro track wondering how the hell I was going to retrace my tracks.
 The first tricky part went well but then I dropped Daisy and couldn’t pick her up. It was so muddy that my feet were sinking in rather than lifting my bike. I found some thick branches to place on the mud, removed my helmet, jacket etc and unloaded my camera bag. It was still a struggle to get her upright again but eventually I managed it. Getting her started was another story though. I employed the kicking with the fuel & ignition off technique but still she didn’t want to start. Again and again I tried but nothing. I began thinking about what I could carry with me if I had to walk out and how long it would take me.
 I also thought about how dumb I was to be attempting to pioneer a new route solo.

One of several that nearly left me stranded

Eventually I got her started and once on firmer ground I reloaded and set off again only to drop her a little further along when bouncing across a stretch of cattle trampled mud I got bounced off course and hit a rock (Daisy doesn’t handle anywhere near as well as Rosie). I quickly turned the fuel off and this time managed hit the kill switch as I went down.
 Daisy was 90deg across the track and once upright I had to dig out the rear wheel in order to pull her backwards and get her pointing in the right direction.
Once again I employed the kicking technique and she fired up without too much fuss. 
I passed back  through the gate shortly after which I found a track heading east into a valley – the one the young guy had mentioned.

I sat there thinking about it for a while, my mind divided. Part of me was saying ‘Go on, ride it’; part of me was saying ‘Don’t be so bloody stupid. It was only 10 minutes ago you were nearly forced to walk out!’ I guess that’s what makes me tick though and had part of me not wanted to take that turning then I guess I wouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Finally my head overruled my heart and I decided against it. I had 3hrs of daylight remaining, no evening meal, a battery that seemed doomed to imminent failure, black clouds were building overhead and there was no way I wanted to be anywhere on that track in the rain.

I rode on and made good progress to where water ran along the track and promptly made a poor line choice and ended up in the rut with all the rocks in. Through a lack of concentration (thinking about the turning) I managed to slip on a rock and drop Daisy again. I struggled to pick her up as the handlebar was buried in the bank and had broken the mirror. Because of the rocks I couldn’t get my lower back under the seat and as a result struggled to pick her up. Eventually though I did get her upright and started and from there it was a painless ride back to Sentelek where I arrived at 2000, bought noodles, tinned fish, bread and beer and returned to the same campspot I’d departed from 5.5 hrs earlier.
 When I unpacked my cook pots I discovered I’d smashed them into an oval shape.

I’d just finished writing the days diary when the thunder & lightening started. Then came the rain and I felt vindicated over my decision to return from what was nearly the ‘Lewisky’ trakt.

My cookpot used to be round!

Boot drying

Moving on

When I finally left my riverside camp I found a gravel road through the hills that knocked 120km off the tarmac route to Ust-Kan where I stocked up on camping supplies and cash before heading east towards the M52.

I found a place to camp and after a decent dinner consisting Fried onion, pepper, carrot in soy sauce, two pieces of rotisserie chicken (from the supermarket) & rice, I settled into my tent. Once snuggled into my sleeping bag I went over my notes for the ‘Tuva Track’ – my intended route – and stopped dead where it said ‘10km of bog’. Given the recent (and current) rain and the condition of my rear tyre it would be tough but with my battery problem I decided that attempting it solo would be foolhardy. Instead I decided to be a pussy and ride to Irkutsk via the Trans Siberian Highway – approx 2500km away.

Irkutsk

Four days later I reached Irkutsk and took a room at Nina’s Guesthouse. An unadvertised affair so I was glad I’d been told it was behind the big wooden gates. After a hot shower and a shave I began to feel slightly more human and asked for a recommendation for a place to eat. Nina promptly directed to the London Pub, just a few blocks away and attached to one of the cities more (most?) expensive hotel.
 The restaurant was expensive. Waaaaay over my budget but after 11 nights of bush camping I wanted a good meal, cold beer and wi-fi and that was just what I got. A HUGE pizza and two 500ml beers set me back £18!

Irkutsk was to be my staging post for my ride to Magadan via the Western BAM and the Road of Bones. I’d ordered tyres and front sprockets from Moscow to be delivered to a local dealer, I needed to service Daisy and procure a Mongolian visa.

Maintenance

After a few days of admin, laundry etc I rode out to the bike shop where I was happy to learn that my tyres had arrived but not so happy when I got to see them.

The front was fine but the rear Mitas 140/80-18 E0-9 was the widest section 140 tyre I’d ever seen. No way was it going to go on the rim, never mind fit in the swing arm. Vlad (the owner) and his mate tried to convince me it would be OK but they just wanted the tyre paid for. The choice of tyres available in Moscow had been limited but having used 140 section tyres on both Lady P and Rosie I didn’t think there’d be a problem with Daisy. The 140 Mitas E-09 changed that.

The only other options in the shop were Shinko or IRC motocross tyres or a Continental TKC80. I knew the MX tyres would have the grip but I had no idea of their longevity. Would they last until Magadan? Never mind a return ride (if necessary). The TKC80 would go the distance but is a shite off-road tyre. I opted for the IRC.

No Japanese battery was available, only Chinese but as it was the only option available the decision was easy.

When I removed the drain plug to change the oil it didn’t feel right. Only when I went to re-fit it did I learn why. The thread in the crankcase had stripped. Noooooooooo

After spending the best part of a day searching in vain for a repair kit I remembered that the drain-plug I’d removed was an aftermarket magnetic one and on closer inspection noted how few threads it had. I stuck my head under the engine and with a torch ascertained that it was only the first six or so threads that were stripped. What if I could find a longer bolt?

I spent another half-day in pursuit of a longer bolt, eventually finding one that would just about do the job so long as I was extra careful when tightening it.

Drama over I could finally think about moving on.

The English posse

Prior to arriving in Irkutsk I’d been in touch with Chris Bright and arranged to have a beer as our paths were likely to cross. He showed up later than usual, along with three other riders and a typical overlanders tale to tell…

He’d stored his bike in Ulanbaator (UB), Mongolia over the winter and upon returning to collect it had met Pete Berry, Bod and Matty; three English lads that had ridden from home on Honda XR400’s. Matty had decided to leave the trio in UB and Chris had taken his place. On the way to the Russian border though, Bod had a huge crash resulting in a broken ankle and the trio had returned to UB to sort him out. That left Pete and Chris who promptly met Jon Boulton and Andrew Don (http://www.jaba-mundus.com – who’d ridden their KTM690’s from the UK via North Africa and whom I’d briefly met in Kazakhstan) at the border.

They too had maintenance to do and wasted no time in getting stuck in at the mechanic’s shop – aluminium welding amongst their many tasks after Andrew to had taken a tumble in Mongolia. More of that later.

NOTE – Jon turned out to be a mate of Steve Burbidge, owner of Burbidges Bakery in my hometown of Andover and whom I’ve known for many years. Small world!

BAM bound

On July 17th, after a week in the city, I was finally ready to leave and rolled out of town at lunchtime.

Ready to leave Nina’s, Irkutsk

I just missed the ferry to Olkhon Island and as I waited for the next one so it pissed down with rain. It had been threatening all the way from Irkutsk but somehow I’d managed to just skirt by it. Olkhon Island is the largest island on Lake Baikal (The worlds most voluminous lake, reported to hold 20% of the planet’s fresh water. At 1642m its also the deepest). The ten minute crossing carried six cars plus me and was followed by ‘Registration’ which entailed providing my surname, registration number and destination and in return I was told that if I wanted to ride anywhere other than along the main road (track) to Khuzir I would have to obtain a permit (in Khuzir).

It was a corrugated, often sandy track that ran the 35km to Khuzir and had the weather been good it would have made for some good photos. Alas it was overcast and another storm was threatening so I didn’t stop.
I rode straight to Nikita’s Guesthouse only to be told they had no space and after a quick spin around town asked myself why I was looking for a room when the camping opportunities were endless. So it was that I retraced my route a few kilometres south of town before following a track to a clifftop campspot. Shame it was so cloudy as it would have been a great spot for sunset.

First and last I saw of the sun on Olkhon Island

The wind woke me at 0530 which wasn’t a good sign; a storm was brewing. I slept erratically for another hour then got up and made breakfast. At

 0700 it pissed down. 
When it stopped the wind helped dry my tent quite quickly and I also used my newly purchased micro fibre cloth to wipe the water off. It did a great job and helped speed-up the process.

I finally rode away at 0915 and used the tracks adjacent to the main ‘road’ as they were much smoother. After 15-20km I spotted Brighty & Co in the distance and soon caught them up. We were now the ‘not-so’ Famous Five.

Olkhon Island tracks

There are many ways to carry tyres: Jon and Andrew preferred the ‘Dumbo’s Ears’ method

We followed the Lena River for the latter third of the day. The tarmac ended about 140km south of Zhigalovo and barring a few stretches through some of the towns en-route it would be he last we saw of it for 2000km. Andrew had the first of what would be many punctures for the Jaba-Mundus boys on the run into Zhigalovo where the first hotel we found wanted R800pp (£16/U$24). The second place wanted R650pp but said there was a third place that charged R500pp and gave us directions! It was gone 2000 when we arrived and after collecting a kitty from everyone I rode out to the shop to buy beer and breakfast. When I returned the guys had been given the use of a wooden double garage in which to park the bikes and change tyres – which all but Pete needed to do.
I changed tyres, serviced the rear caliper and replaced the rear wheel bearing seals. 
We didn’t really have dinner; just snacked on cheese and salami washed down with a few beers.

Maintenance night in Zhigalovo, Siberia – Russia

After 436km’s and a maintenance session we were dead beat but excited when we finally retired to bed; for the following day we would join the BAM ‘road’, and that’s where the fun really started…

View ALL Chapter 33 photos

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11 Responses to Chapter 33 – Silk Roads to Siberia Pt III – Altai Adventure

  1. Maarten says:

    Crazy stories, as usual! Those pictures of the Altai are BEAUTIFUL!
    Greetings from Holland. Ilse Maarten Lilou & Kaya

  2. Nacho says:

    Amazing. I love reading these DRZ chronicles.

  3. Rod Theobald says:

    great report as usual , and the pictures are fantastic.

  4. You know Adam, I am sitting in my apartment in Vancouver now. In the garage, the G/S is still sitting with shot fork seals and no love since I arrived back here in early December. After being “homeless” for two years on the bike, I can’t imagine what it’s like to travel the way you are doing, and certainly not for that long … I think only a handful of people are as hard-core as you are about it. Glad to see you are enjoying it mate! I think after 11 nights of bush camping I would have a nervous breakdown … 🙂

  5. Andy Brown says:

    Inspirational, as always. Your blog continues to be a real page turner, or should I say a real ‘down scroller’, if that’s a word !

  6. afear says:

    decent pics, decent story. pleasure to read. but- you never meet woman on the way? Isn´t that frustrating???

  7. Griff says:

    It will always be the Lewisky Trackt, even if its a dead end 🙂

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