[NB: Distance and time trips not updated this chapter]
With so much going on everyday my diary notes are a little ‘thin’ for the period I spent in Siberia and so I’ve used photo’s and written a daily account of events in a kind of Ride Report style for this chapter…
So what and where is the BAM?
The following overview & map of the BAM come courtesy of Walter Colebatch and are taken from his epic 2009 ADV Rider RR
“The BAM – Baikal-Amur Magistral – was a transcontinental railway line commenced in the 1930s under Stalin, and completed almost 70 years later, in 2003, under Putin (the track was finished in 1991, but tunnels were not finished until December 2003). The Russians already had the Trans-Siberian, but it hugs the Chinese border, and to put it bluntly, the Chinese are the only realistic external threat to the territorial integrity of Russia. So having a vital ‘one and only’ railway line next to them for thousands of kilometres was strategically terrifying, even back in the 1930s. Now its a serious national security risk. So they began building the BAM Railway, a second route across Siberia, but this time at least several hundred kilometres from the Chinese border.
So what of the BAM Road?
At one time, in the 1980s, it was the theoretically first and the ONLY road across the Soviet Union. It was never more than a railway service track for the BAM railway, but the Authorities were embarrassed that there was no other road across the CCCP so they promoted it as a major road – despite it NEVER having anything in the way of traffic, and never being passable by anything less than a 4WD, and missing dozens of vital bridges over vital rivers that have never been built. There was another purpose to talking up the road; by pretending they had a good road across the country, the Soviets were also trying to bluff the Chinese and the Americans into thinking their transport infrastructure was better than it actually was.
Following the collapse of the CCCP back in 1991, there was no further interest in the road from the Authorities, and under Boris Yeltsin’s reign, the road went the way of the rest of the former Soviet Union – it disintegrated without so much as a hint of maintenance.
When Vlad “the Lad” Putin came to power, a new strategy was developed. It was recognised that a transcontinental road was needed to supplement the railways, but the BAM wasn’t the place to have it. The BAM went through empty country. All the population across Siberia was near the Trans-Siberian Railway, so any major road across the country had to be built following the Trans-Siberian Railway … and so it was. In February 2004 Putin went on TV to proclaim the Trans-Siberian Highway, open!!!
The BAM Road had been ignored in the 1990s, because every infrastructure need in Russia was ignored in the tough days of the 1990s, and by the 2000s it was irrelevant as the new plan was now the Trans-Siberian Highway.
So what have we got now? A road that was once the only route across the country: A road that for most parts hasn’t seen maintenance since the Soviet Union: A road that in many parts is so overgrown and eroded that only 6WD trucks can drive it … and then only without load: A road impassible to normal 4WDs: A road that is so sparsely populated that some stretches include a ride of 3-4 days, just to get to a settlement of 300 people.
Note: Don’t be fooled by many Russian Road atlases proclaiming it a relatively major road. This is still partly a hangover of the Soviet days in which the track was promoted as a major road for bluff purposes. Further, as we found on the Road of Bones, Russian Road Atlases are pretty quick to incorporate new roads and towns, but they never delete old ones. All Russian maps have the town (and fuel station) at Kadykchan marked on them bold and clear, though in reality the town (and fuel station) haven’t existed for over 13 years now. The BAM Road is another good example. It is often marked as a secondary road, as indeed it was close to being in the CCCP days, but now its mostly non-existant!
Its not like map makers have ever been on it to check its condition!”
BAM Day 1: Zhigalovo – Severobaikalsk – 444km
When the rest of us awoke Jon was already in the kitchen and knocking up a crackin’ breakfast. So keen (hungry?) was he that he’d omitted to put his trousers on: The half-naked chef?
The tarmac had finished 140km or so south of Zhigalovo and barring a few stretches through some of the towns we wouldn’t see it again until Tynda, almost 2000km away. Muddy and potholed early in the day, the going was slow.
We stopped for lunch at an overgrown picnic table and based on the km’s we’d covered when we did I knew it would be a long day. Struggling to stand-up, Chris’s pace was slow and uncomfortable. There was no doubt that he was having the toughest time of all of us aboard his Honda Transalp; overweight, overloaded and unsuited to the BAM (which Pete described as the best trail ride EVER). Arriving in Tynda would be an achievement over adversity rather than the fun ride the rest of us were having.
After 10hrs, 444km and one puncture (Andrew) we pulled up outside a guesthouse in Severobaikalsk just in time for Chris’s bike to piss its coolant all over the floor…
It was late when we arrived at the guesthouse which at R800 (£17) night was a bit more than we wanted to pay, but we were all rather tired and knew it would be a late night without trying to find somewhere else so we checked in.
Chris removed the radiator and I helped him find the leak before ‘pinching’ it and leaving him to Araldite it.
Whilst we were engrossed in that Jon and Pete cooked a huge pot of chorizo pasta, which we devoured like we hadn’t been fed in a week, before crashing out for the night.
BAM Day 2: Severobaikalsk – Novy Uoyan – 188km
Up at 0700 for coffee whilst Chris tested last nights’ radiator repair. It hadn’t worked, not fully anyway and so Andrew and I rode into town to find an autoparts shop where we bought anti-freeze, rad weld, a length of hose with jubilee clamps and a straight connector so Chris could by-pass the damaged radiator if necessary. We also picked up breakfast supplies – eggs, bread, tinned ham and Heinz beans!
As Chris set about filling the Transalp with Radweld so the rest of us prepared a huge and satisfying breakfast – or rather brunch – and we finally hit the road at lunchtime.
We soon met a group of Russian lads heading in the opposite direction on what I think were 250cc Honda XR’s but were fitted with upsidedown forks. One had a damaged ankle that was strapped up with typically Russian roadside ingenuity (see photo) and based on their experience they said they didn’t think we’d make it (to Tynda) and if we did it would take us at least 10 days on our ‘big’ bikes.
Late afternoon and it was my turn for a puncture – my one and only and thanks to a nail.
In Novy Uoyan we found a decent place to stay with a huge yard in which to park the bikes. Pete replaced his rear tyre with one removed by either Jon or Andrew in Zhigalovo (he’d already fitted one of their part worn front’s) and Andrew set off to book us a table for dinner in the town’s only ‘café’.
Showered and changed we wandered into the ‘café’ at 2130 and were immediately bemused by what we found. The place was full of women! The arrival of us five lifted the male/female ratio to about 5:1.
The DJ set-up, dinner was served, Jon ordered the first of several bottles of vodka and that’s when it all got messy and why I have very little written in my diary for that day.
The dance floor soon filled with Russian beauties and filled with Dutch courage the normally quiet and mild mannered Pete hurled himself into the mix with much gusto.
Eyes widened and eyebrows raised as Pete strutted his stuff to the Russian pop but he didn’t stop there…
“Do you do requests?” he asked the DJ and soon the crowd were treated to the sight of four (Chris had gone to bed) inebriated Englishmen leaping around to the booming tones of House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’. The locals were amused and even joined in to a certain extent but when Sid Vicious struck up the first verse of the Sex Pistols ‘God Save the Queen’ the Russian contingent were struck by the question of how to react. Pete soon showed them by managing to throw his huge repertoire of ‘shapes’ across the whole of the dance floor.
I don’t know what time we left, I don’t remember returning to the hotel. In fact the next thing I remembered was my alarm call ringing in my head like a church bell.
BAM Day 3: Novy Uoyan – Taksimo – 254km
How any of us managed to ride a bike the following morning (nevermind along the BAM) I’ll never know. My (vague) memories of the morning involve a headspin at the top of the metal staircase that led down to the courtyard and only a quick grab of both handrails prevented me from plummeting the 4m onto the concrete.
As we fired up the bikes so the church bells inside my head were replaced by a cacophony of 4-stroke thunder and we rode out to rejoin the BAM for an eventful day.
Late morning, when approaching (another) closed bridge with an alternative route, Jon – who was leading at the time – followed the detour without first checking the bridge. Of course, any of us could have stopped to check the bridge but none of us were fully functional and we all followed like sheep. We soon woke up.
Water flowed 20cm deep along the stony track that led to the river around 50m ahead. The river itself was 70cm deep in places but fortunately it was crystal clear and so all the big rocks could be avoided.
Both the 400’s and the KTM’s made it across with a bit of bouncing around although Jon got stuck mid-way and had to dismount to get himself unstuck (with some help from Pete). I had my usual ‘dance’ in the rocky waters as the following video – The Short Legged Shuffle’ – demonstrates
Chris and the Transalp though were a different story. Struggling for ground clearance the fat pig (The Transalp not Chris) got well and truly stuck. So stuck that Chris burnt the clutch out trying to get unstuck. Stranded mid-stream with his left hand in the air and the engine revving Chris was shouting, “It’s in gear!” Sitting on the rocks we all glared at Chris, at one-another and back at Chris.
It took not two or three but four people to wrestle the fat pig out of the water and even then we managed to drop it.
Exhausted, I broke out the stove and brewed up. We all felt better for a well earned cup of tea.
We left Chris negotiating a ride to the next town with a couple of truck drivers and rode on.
Chris tell’s his story here Brighty/ADV Rider: Mongolia – Magadan
Rocky water crossings came thick and fast over the course of the day…
Later in the day Andrew fell in a water crossing and twisted his already injured knee (from a crash in Mongolia). Running to help, Jon (who had already lost his Garmin Montana GPS from its cradle, lost his pocket camera. It was one of those days.
We finally rode into Taksimo at 2100, found a 4-bed room in a hotel (with wi-fi!!!) for R650pp (£13ea) and ate pork chops in a café around the corner. A local arrived and wanted to buy us all a beer but none of us could face it. The day had taken its toll.
BAM DAY 4: Taksimo – Vitim River bridge west bank – 71km
My diary notes mention ‘the snoring room’ and given that he was up first to buy us all jam filled croissants from the supermarket I suspect Jon was feeling guilty. Washed down with copious amounts of coffee it was a delicious start another gloriously sunny day.
The next job was for Jon and Andrew to find some extra straps and re-jig their luggage. Flapping around like Dumbo’s ears their Magadan panniers had taken a real beating and were in desperate need of extra support.
Lunchtime saw another trip to the supermarket afterwhich we sat on the hotel steps making rotisserie chicken sandwiches. Don’t let it be said you can’t eat well along the BAM!
We loaded up and rode to the chemist to stock-up on anti-histamine’s only to bump into Chris coming the other way.
It transpired that amongst the myriad of spares aboard his Transalp was a spare clutch which the truck drivers fitted for him!
He was bolloxed though and when we pointed to the hotel with wi-fi he decided he’d be staying for several days and so we said goodbye for the second time in two days.
We finally filled up with fuel and rode out of town at 1500 onto good sandy going for 40km until we turned off towards the ‘mighty’ Vitim River bridge.
The track was a seemingly endless chain of murky and often deep puddles; ten’s of metre’s long. In one such puddle approx. 70cm deep I hit a rock and got stuck. I had to dismount to un-stick myself. Jon hit the same rock but toppled over whilst trying to dismount and quickly filled his bike with water. Once recovered we upended the bike to drain the exhaust of water, removed the sparkplug and spun the motor over to expel the water from the cylinder and wrung out the airfilter.
As Jon and Andrew completed the above so I once again broke out the stove. Being English, a cup of tea fixes everything!
The ‘Mighty’ Vitim River bridge
It was early evening by the time we reached the bridge. A bridge that has gained legendary status since Walter Colebatch, Terry Brown and Tony P first crossed back in 2009 at a time when few had even heard of the BAM. What made it so legendary was Tony getting ‘stuck’ on the bridge as a rainstorm suddenly blew down the river. With no choice but to lay his bike down and hang of for dear life, 30m above the river on a bridge one vehicle wide and with no guard rails.
On the opposite bank Walter and Terry watched on helplessly, praying that their friend hadn’t been blown off the bridge.
Given that the bridge strikes enough fear into some that they walk their bike across the 570m span in good weather, Tony’s story is quite something. Oh, and did I mention that he was 67 at the time? Quite a guy.
With the photo’s over we took the first left turn after the bridge and looped back to a fabulous camping spot on the west bank, overlooking the bridge.
Firewood was collected, clothes dried tents pitched, and macaroni pasta cooked. We watched the sun set across the bridge and reflected on a cracking day: A day that all of us had envisioned and worked towards for several years. Pure magic.
BAM Day 5: Vitim River Bridge – Chara – 199km
Pete and Jon were up early and had the fire going. I whittled a toasting stick and we ate toast and jam for breakfast whilst Andrew commenced his second attempt at re-packing. Jon checked his engine oil and found it full of water and so changed it as he waited for Andrew (yes, having foreseen the potential for drowning his bike he was carrying sufficient oil for an oil change).
The railway was very busy with freight trains – something to consider for later…
The Kuanda River
As we were packing up so a guy arrived in a Ural truck. We asked him about crossing the Kuanda River further along the track and he gave us a name and phone number of a guy in Kuanda called Rahl. In Kuanda we stopped at the village shop and bought a few things for breakfast/snack. A guy showed some interest in the bikes and we got him to call Rahl who in-turn said he’d send someone to fetch us. Whilst we were waiting an old lady asked us back to her place for chai & some food. It was difficult to explain why we couldn’t accept; I hope she wasn’t offended. Ten minutes later a lad arrived on a motorcycle and led us to Rahl who told us the rate to use his truck to cross the river was R1000pp (£20ea). The alternative was to speak to the guards on the manned railway bridge but the rumour was that they’d got greedy and besides, we all fancied the truck ride.
As an old Ural truck was fired up and reversed into the street so we were sent down to the riverbank to meet it. Upon its arrival it drove into the river – which was soon wheel deep – before reversing into the bank to commence loading via a plank.
It was a bumpy crossing that suddenly became worse as the Ural drove out of the river and onto the sandbank. It soon sank in so deep that it couldn’t go forwards and a series of ‘shunts’ was required to flatten a drivable path and after crashing through the undergrowth of a little used track we reversed into an unloading bay.
With the bikes unloaded we saddled up and rode onto the Golden Spike where we ate lunch. The Golden Spike marks the spot where the two railway construction gangs, working towards each other from East and West finally met in 1984.
Close to Chara we came to a old, long, wooden bridge that looked as though someone had tried to torch it; it was unuseable. The river was far too deep to cross and so we made our way through the trees and up onto the railway embankment.
After a quick recce of what was involved to get onto the bridge itself Andrew walked across to act as signaler. With a thumbs-up we proceeded across one at a time. There wasn’t much room to play with: footrests rode barely above sleeper level and our wheels ran but 10cm from the sleeper ends to prevent panniers from snagging the guardrail. Not knowing when or from which direction a train might appear made for a rather exhilarating experience; one that we were to repeat again and again.
We eventually arrived at Chara’s only hotel where we were quoted a ridiculous Rs1100pp (£23ea). At more than a day’s budget, Pete and I just laughed. As we did so a passing gap-toothed taxi driver showed an interest in the bikes and soon led us across town to a suspicious den of iniquity where we once again found a room big enough for all of us to share and safe parking for the bikes for a far more reasonable Rs500pp (£10ea). It was a curious place with doors and cupboards were cut around large heating pipes.
BAM Day 6: Chara – Railway hut 1956 – 289km
A surprise fuel station wasn’t our only discovery on the morning we left Chara. Andrew’s radiator had sprung a leak and so we returned to town to search for Rad Weld (he also had a front puncture today). Now Siberian towns are funny places when it comes to shopping as locals know where everything is and visitors are but few thus negating the need for signage. Shops exist in places you’d never expect them to and so only by asking around do you get pointed in the right direction. Ever asked for Rad Weld in Russian?
Outside the ‘supemarket’ an English speaking couple on their way to the airport asked if they could help and promptly started asking around and leading us all over town to where we finally found it in the most unlikely of places. So unlikely was it that from the outside you’d never believe the building even contained shops!
Today was the first time we saw signs of the second (parallel) railway line being laid and wondered if it would eventually spell the end for riding the BAM. Currently maintenance crews can access the railway from the track we were riding in 6wd Kamaz trucks but once the second railway line is completed so the maintenance crews could access one line from the other and therefore – perhaps – leaving the BAM track (and more importantly its surviving wooden bridges) to be reclaimed by mother nature.
Plenty more water crossings ensued and so when we came across an uninhabited railway hut complete with benches, table and most importantly a wood burning stove we jumped at the chance to spend the night and dry our wet boots, socks etc.
Very soon the hut resembled a Chinese laundry and was toasty warm too. So warm in fact that we had to leave the door open.
BAM Day 7: Rail Hut 1956 – Bushcamp (RUS023) – 137km
Our obstacle for the day was the Olyokma River: A river far too deep and wide to be forded by anything. The only way across was via the guarded railway bridge and so we were utterly at the mercy of the guard.
Having parked the bikes on the west bank, Andrew and I walked across to speak to him. We were hoping to negotiate a price for crossing but he was as straight as they come and having none of it. He would phone for permission and told us to wait. Minutes turned into hours and we both fell asleep outside his hut. What if the answer was ‘no’? We’d have to retrace our steps 2000km to Irkutsk.
From time to time we awoke to the sound of a ringing phone but we saw nothing of the guard. Eventually, after 2+hrs he appeared wearing his hi-viz jacket and said “OK…we go” and walked to the bikes with us…
After lunching on supplies outside the local shop in Yuktali we set about finding fuel. After asking around we found ourselves outside a modified shipping container containing a huge (15k litre?) tank and a pump. R43/ltr was the most we’d paid anywhere but give the logistics of getting it here we weren’t about to complain.
The railway (and the track) followed the Nyukzha river and we often found ourselves up on the railway embankment riding along where a second railway line was yet to be laid. These detours often coincided with the original track disappearing into a bog/forest – reinforcing the possibility that once the second railway line is laid the access track will be no more.
Early afternoon we came to a rocky but innocuous looking river crossing. I rode through first discovering a rather deep channel in the riverbed about ¾ of the way across. Jon came next and despite a dodgy exit made it across. Andrew wasn’t quite so lucky and dropped his bike on the stony riverbank. Pete made it across without incident.
We were about to set off when Andrew realized his rear wheel was jammed and it didn’t take much to see why. The chain had jumped off the rear sprocket and jammed behind the front sprocket. Closer inspection however revealed something I’d not seen in 30 years of motorcycling. Both the front sprocket and retaining nut had snapped. We weren’t going anywhere in a hurry.
Parallel to where we had stopped was the access ramp to the disused bridge – an ideal place to camp. We pushed Andrew’s bike to a suitable place to work on it and whilst he got stuck in the rest of us, collected firewood, made a fire and pitched camp. Luckily Andrew was not only carrying an extra front sprocket but also a nut. Who the hell carries a spare countershaft nut!? – Oh yeah, KTM riders with aluminium nuts, that’s who!
BAM Day 8: RUS023 – Tynda – 323km
Over breakfast a Ural truck appeared in the river where Andrews’ chain had broken and promptly turned into our camp. Dimitri was a friendly chap who accepted a cup of coffee before posing for photos with everyone on the bonnet of his truck.
Andrew still had a bit of work to do which included peening over the soft rivet on his chain repair.
With his bike finally ready Andrew was once again having a nightmare with his luggage (probably overtired and distracted by thoughts of whether his chain repair would last). As a result we didn’t hit the road until noon but which time it had just begun raining. Pete and Jon rode down the track to recce the railway bridge…
Last night we’d scouted out the next river crossing only to find it far too big to be forded so we were thankful to Dimitri for pointing out the route to the railway bridge where we rode up the embankment and crossed just before a passenger train thundered past. So close behind us was it that we hadn’t even ridden off the embankment.
The early part of the day saw some rotten bridges that took a bit of negotiating. Whilst they’d have been ok in the dry the rain had made them treacherous and so taking no risks we often pushed the bikes across.
We hadn’t ridden far when we came to another completely washed away bridge. It was another unfordable river and so once again we went in search of the railway bridge. This time however it had been made quite clear that we (or anyone else for that matter) was far from welcome to use the bridge and to emphasize the point a row of hand made metal spikes had been laid across the route. We had no choice but to ignore them and so did exactly that.
With supplies low the local shop in Lopcha was a welcome sight and we filled our bellies with all sorts of goodies, much of which we shared with the local kids who’d come to investigate the strangers.
From Lopcha it was a pretty fast gravel track to Tynda where we checked into a newly built hotel complete with wi-fi on the left side as we entered town. Jon wooed the receptionist and we soon had a plate of sandwiches on the table in our (giant) 5-bed room.
We’d made it. Years of dreaming and planning had come to fruition and we’d completed the western half of the BAM. Beer was in order and we found it I a restaurant just around the corner.
Rest(!) day in Tynda
Clothes got washed, emails got sent and bikes got checked. I pitched my (wet) tent in the back yard and hung the fly sheet up separately only for it to piss down with rain and fill the ‘bath tub’ of my tent with a good 5 litres of water.
With everyone clean and rested we headed out in search of a Chinese restaurant. Communicating with the taxi driver proved a little difficult until a – perhaps politically incorrect – display of charades had him laughing like a drain but heading in the right direction.
Food…beer…bed: Tomorrow will be an early start.
But that’s Chapter 35…