June 10, 2008 GMT
St Petersburg

31 May to 5 June 08

Saint Petersburg, henceforth known as St Pete, is in the top left hand corner of the Russian Federation and is, therefore, the logical place to start a crossing of this country which ends at Vladivostok, henceforth known as Vlad, located in the bottom right hand corner. It is almost a bonus that this is a legendary city, famed for its beauty, its cultural treasures and its heroic history in defying the Nazi Army in a bloody two year siege.

We knew the city would be easy enough to find, it is hard to misplace 4.5 million people, but our pre-booked hotel was another concern. We had no paper maps and only some general digital maps for the GPS. The best we could do was to find the Lat/Long of the suburb from Google, pick a point and set it as a GPS destination and then use this as a general guide of direction through the city. As it turned out, this took us through the centre of town on a busy Saturday, but it got us to the correct suburb where one stop for directions at a servo found us settled with time to spare.

The city was largely rebuilt after WWII but is still a monumental. St Isaac's Cathedral gives a feel for the grand style of the place.

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Although some of it, like the south portico of the New Hermitage...

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...is a little excessive for our tastes.

The city is built on the delta of the Neva River and has water, and mosquitoes,everywhere. It also has some nice canals complete with ferries to move the locals and tourist boats to move the terrorists.

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This leaves some beautiful streets where the most elegant of the old houses are positioned along the canals.

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I particularly liked the view along the canal to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood with its colourful onion domes shining in the late afternoon sun.

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There are few reminders of the destruction of WWII, but this stenciled sign on a city wall has been kept fresh as a memorial.

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It warns citizens that they are on the side of the street most dangerous in an artillery attack!

Interestingly, although we stayed way out in the suburbs, where the tariff was still extortionate, getting around was easy. The city has a great metro system. It is fast, clean and cheap, and....

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...a long way underground!! It dropped us in our suburb, which was a tourist free zone, near a nice supermarket.

The first time we went in to buy some dinner on the way home we were reminded of the time during the Cold War when there were many shortages of consumer items. The belief in the West at the time was that it was no use talking to people about human rights if they had other, more basic, problems on their mind: like feeding the family.

It was obvious at the first stop that...

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... the Russians had achieved “The Freedom of the Sausage”. We were yet to see if this translated into other freedoms as we had hypothesized.

Of course, the thing that everyone “has” to see in St Pete is the Hermitage; the rightly famous museum and custodian of a goodly share of the “West's” cultural heritage.

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The building itself is impressively large without being excessive in the way of other some grand buildings.

We queued for an hour to get in and intentionally left our camera behind so that we could concentrate on the art. This turned out to be a mistake, not because we needed a digitally enhanced Matisse or two to liven up the blog, but because the antics of some of the other visitors were worthy of recording.

The Hermitage is simply amazing! There are not just one or two, or a few, of each of the important artists. There are so many that they fight for space in this gigantic complex. There are rooms full of Picassos, truck loads of Rembrandts, a shed full of Renoirs, Gauguins a dime a dozen, and a gaggle of El Grecos. It would take a week to give the displayed part of the collection a cursory once-over. The millions of pieces not on display are another story altogether.

Jo had done some excellent research on the collection so we concentrated our day on the major European art. We bypassed all galleries that were not on the plan, made straight for the areas of interest and stuck to our task all day, and, it was amazing and worthwhile.

The place was crowded and it was impossible to ignore the crush. Two groups struck us as interesting. The first were the “digital camera users”. Having paid a small extra fee to use their cameras, they rushed up to each painting pausing long enough to focus it on the screen, before pressing the shutter and rushing off.

We discussed what they might do with the images. Did they take them home, blow them up to life size and study them at their leisure? Would this allow them to understand the emptiness in the eyes of Picasso's Absinthe Drinker that had left us so troubled? And how did they reconcile that they had only ever seen these things vicariously through a 2 inch LED screen?

The second group of interest was the tour group inmates. They caterpillared their way through the building, milling along. Each group followed a leader holding aloft a marker showing the name of their cruise ship or tour. They walked on in silence as each individual had a headset connected to a small radio receiver. The guides talked continually into a headset-mic pointing out some facts of interest for selected exhibits as they passed. There was time only for a glance. There was no time to linger.

Often, groups would pass in opposite directions. Mauls of aging Americans and well-to-do Japanese, each listening to their own drummer, played out a silent ballet of side-stepping, worried only about falling behind the voice in their heads.

Some group tours were no doubt better than others, but it seemed to us that most would simply allow the members to say that they had been to the Hermitage, and maybe to recall a few facts, but nothing more.

Our final observation on the Hermitage concerns the exhibition itself. There are so many exhibits jostling for wall space that much is not shown to advantage. Most of the paintings are framed in glass. This reflected the poor lighting, overlaying a reflection of the observer on the image that caused us to constantly shift position to see different details. Some were so poorly lit that a clear view was not possible from any angle.

We have many thoughts about our visit to the Hermitage, but it is too early in our exploration of Russia to make much sense of it yet. We are, however, very pleased we went and satisfied that the $16 entrance fee was well spent.

Having arrived into St Pete through the centre of the city, we cunningly planned our escape by heading out to join a ring-road running around the eastern boundary. We found the ring-road without trouble and thought we were onto a winner as we thundered south on an 8 lane freeway. Our smugness lasted about 15 km until the traffic ground to walking pace and we found ourselves trapped in the middle of ...

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...a good old fashioned traffic jam. The Elephant got hot. Aging Ladas boiled and stopped in the middle of lanes adding to the congestion. Ancient trucks covered everything in a pall of black diesel soot. It took more than an hour to inch forward to the cause of the problem and break free. Six lanes over a new bridge merged into two lanes at the place where an on-ramp added traffic from the city!

We were starting to learn that things aren't always what they seem in Russia.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 03:48 PM GMT
June 18, 2008 GMT
Moscow

Moscow!

Moscow! What can we say?

Well, quite a lot actually, starting with our stop at the town of Velikiy Novgorod on the way there from St Pete.

This ancient Russian town was an important part of the formation of the Russian nation and culture and it wears its heritage with considerable pride and style. Located on the Volkhov River, we loved the way that they had created a little beach culture right below the wall of the kremlin (kremlin is a general term referring to the fortified central administrative district in an old city).

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This huge Millennium of Russia Monument in the centre of the old city was also of interest...

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...unveiled in 1862, it has all of the important characters of Russian history in three llevels of statues and base relief. In 1944 the visiting Germans cut it up and were ready to ship it back home. No wonder they are suspicious of tourists here!

We also liked this “leaning” bell tower...

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...but the best for Jo was this tiny 1406 Church of Peter and Paul.

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Our great find in V Nov was this little cafe...

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...obviously named after our friend and neighbor back on the Gold Coast, Gioia Berry.

The run down to Moscow was also notable for our first encounter with the notorious Russian constabularies (there are many). The first was a show and tell with a radar gun which resulted in a stern warning, a big grin and best wishes for our visit.

The second ran closer to the script and resulted in me purchasing a ticket to the Policeman's Ball in exchange (fair of course) for return of my documents. The Elephant, honest soul that it is, disapproved of all of this, grumbled a bit, and spent the afternoon being naughty and splitting lanes in the city traffic.

The Moscow traffic was almost a pleasure after the run down, and that is certainly saying something as this is a huge city (more than 10 mil) with world class traffic congestion! It is also monumental and beautiful, clean, safe and well organised.

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We only had a few days in Moscow and we had a lot of administration to get done in addition to seeing the sites. This proved to be less of a task than we had anticipated thanks mainly to the efficiency of the Moscow metro. This masterpiece of organisation moves 9 million Moscovites each day with admirable speed and no real fuss at all. At 75 cents a ride it is also affordable to all.

We stayed at a hostel, that was cheap in Moscow but dear anywhere else in the world. Its best feature was its helpful staff, Ana...

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..., known to us as Madame Cinq Dihrum, after swapping great stories about travels in Morocco, and Dimitri, who avoided the camera, but finally explained the Russian visa registration requirements.

We rode the subway and walked, and walked and walked. By the time we had our Mongolian visas and done the main sites, we had covered 30 km around inner Moscow. Another city we know pretty well!

Interestingly, the Russians had told us that we would have a terrible time with the Mongolians as they are “so bureaucratic”. On the basis that it takes one to know one, we expected the worst. What we encountered was a friendly and helpful consul who sorted the papers, separated us from $90 each, and had us out the door with our visas in record time. You may recall that our Russian visas took months and cost us about $1500 all up. There was nothing for it but to go sightseeing.

The Kremlin, including the Assumption Cathedral shown here...

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...was spectacular without being ostentatious. They had this great old gun called the Tsar Cannon, which I have included in honour of Burkey, who used to be a devotee of St Barbara, and who remembers a time when gunners really did have big balls!

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Red Square wasn't red at all. In fact, they were setting up the stage for an Independence Day celebration which seemed decidedly un-Red to me.

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St Basil's, at the end of the square, looked better in real life than it had in the glossy travel shows. Inside, however, we were surprised at how small and pokey it is.

Jo reckons that Moscow strays are a little spare on it after those in Athens...

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...but this lot seemed content with life on a warm Sunday afternoon.

The best thing by far about our visit to Moscow was our chance meeting with Ksenia and Andrey, a Moscow biker couple we met through a chance Internet contact. Hearing that we were having difficulty finding affordable accommodation, they kindly offered us a billet at their flat. Unfortunately, timing and location combined to stop us taking advantage of their offer. We did, however, catch up with them on a warm Sunday afternoon for a ride around Moscow.

With Andey setting the pace on a Yammy FJ 1300, that looked like it had more “blues” than hot dinners, and Ksenia as Tail-end-Charlie on her pristine GSX 600 (Suzuki, way of life), we charged around some of the important Moscow sites.

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Although our hosts were modern, sophisticated young professionals, we were delighted to find that they were proud of their country and its heritage and that they knew all of the foundational stories and told them well. We visited the memorial complex at Victory Park ...

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...and had a reminder of the still raw trauma of WWII in this country. The complex includes monuments to all of the armies and fleets that fought in the conflict and a public reference database to help family trace the history of those who served.

On Sparrow Hill...

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...we had a great view of the city, including the football stadium where two English teams recently played the European Cup final. When I asked if the English fans had been a problem, Andrey just laughed and said that compared with Russian fans they were nothing to worry about and that the police had plenty of practice at dealing with stroppy crowds!

In an inner-city park we found a jazz band...

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and an exhibition of underwater photography...

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...including this Leafy Sea Dragon from south eastern Australia. Since I had seen Dragons similar to this diving in southern NSW, I enjoyed telling Andrey something about the GSL.

We rode past...

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...the famous White House, and...

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...visited the site of Moscow's new Multi-Function Center. All of this was very impressive, but the highlight of the day was a visit to the Moscow Bike Center.
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This amazing complex is the home of the Night Wolves, Russia's oldest bike club. It is inside a secure complex and includes a coffee shop and restaurant, stage area, bike servicing facilities and the clubroom (off limits to non-members)

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The complex looks like a set from Mad Max 2...

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...amazing in the daylight, it must be eerie at night.

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The facility provides a drop-in place for all bikers, not just Night Wolf members...

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..., but the big glasses in the photo of Andrey telling Mike why the Ural was such a good bike they named a mountain range after it, contain tea! The new drink-driving rules here are so draconian that any alcohol on the breath and its shanks pony for a half a year! What makes it worse is that if you decide that you would like to purchase a ticket to the policeman's ball, the cost would be astronomical. Bikers' Tea it is then!

We were lucky enough to meet the President and Secretary of the Night Wolves. They were interested in our journey and offered to provide contacts along the way in case we get into a jam. We were quick to accept. It seemed to us that they would be handy blokes to have around in a crisis.

By Tuesday evening 9 June, we had all of our administration done and we were ready to go. This included the purchase of a new set of knobby tyres for the Elephant. We will take these forward to Irkutsk and fit them before the roads turn to mud or dust (depending on the weather). Moscow is the last place to get them. We had our route planning done and, apart from breakdown, nothing good co wrang.

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Two extra tyres!

Posted by Mike Hannan at 04:29 AM GMT
A Bad Start

10 to 12 June 08

We bolted out of Moscow on 10 June having calculated that this was the last day to leave to make a comfortable run to the Mongolian border 6000 km away if we intended to stay on our schedule. We navigated out of the Moscow megopolis with relative ease and headed east towards the industrial town of Nizhniy Novgorod 450 km away. This was to be our first overnight.

We were on one of the major commercial highways in Russia, the traffic was heavy and the road conditions varied from motorway to goat-track. On the good sections of road we made the best of it and ran hard. On the bad sections we ground out the kilometres using the Elephant's acceleration to blow past other traffic at every chance. We made the 450 km out to Nizhniy Novgorod by 1600 and started looking for a hotel.

And that's when the wheels fell off. We tried 5 hotels and none would accept us as guests. They all claimed we had visa irregularities. We were sure of our ground and Jo (who is responsible for organising accommodation) pointed out that we were complying with the new, 2007 regulations. She was told at one hotel that the new rules were fine for Moscow, but in Nizhniy Novgorod they were not applying the new rules and we would have to comply with the old ones.

If there is one thing we can do it is take a hint. They clearly didn't want us in this town. With the daylight starting to fade we got out of town in a hurry looking for some place to stay. In a small village 25 km away we rocketed past a café that looked like it might have rooms and had U-turned and stopped out the front in a few seconds. Jo was already off the back of the bike and looking for the way-in when I noticed that the place had a staff of about 8 girls, all dressed for “work”. A couple of the girls came over to talk to Elephant.

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All seemed to be going well when Jo returned with a room key and the barman to open a storage shed for Elephant. We unpacked and carried our gear in past the disco room complete with mirror ball and the bar. We had a room in the quiet corner of the accommodation floor and with the madam positioned behind her disk and ledger at the top of the stairs, we were confident of not being disturbed. Although, after 12 hours on the bike, the thought of a back rub did cross my mind.

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We were sure to get a sound night's sleep with sheets like these!

Whatever the activities of the Helping Hands' Motel, we had a quiet night and slept soundly. In the cold light of the next day we assessed our situation and decided that whatever the “legal” position, we needed to sort out our visa problem before we continued. There was nothing else for it but to return to Moscow. I pointed Elephant back down the highway and, with rain clouds forming, got down to the business.

Six hours later we were back in Moscow, just a little wet, and two hours after that we had the “unnecessary” paperwork in our possession. Pizza, beer and a good night's sleep helped us to reconcile the two days and 1000 km we had just burned.

With an early start and the benefit of having done it before, we were out of the city in under 40 minutes on the morning of 12 June so we stopped for a breakfast of pancakes and coffee. With a full belly to set us up for a long ride we rolled Elephant into the river of traffic and let it carry us along. I looked down at the GPS to check our navigation. The message on the screen was simple enough. “Go East” it said, and so we did.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 04:34 AM GMT
June 23, 2008 GMT
Siberia!

12 to 22 Jun 08

Our return to, and final escape from, Moscow coincided with the first two days of a four day holiday weekend for Independence Day. We asked every Russian with whom we could communicate, from exactly what or whom was independence being celebrated, but no one seemed to know. I considered looking it up on the web, but thought, in the end, that if they don't know,why should I. The holiday actually fell on the Thursday, but the cunning Russians had all worked a previous Saturday as a normal workday so they could have a long weekend.

Whatever the reason for the holiday, the consequence was an extraordinary amount of traffic on the roads, much of it “weekend drivers”. As we went back into Moscow it was going the other way so we had a dream run. But on Friday the 12th we were in the thick of it all day. Not that a long weekend was needed to make life difficult on the road.

The Russians are world class when it comes to creating traffic chaos even on the freeways which are a mass of dodging and weaving vehicles that results in many accidents. In a single day we saw 14 accidents on the run from Moscow to Nizhniy Novgorod (450 km). This is more than the total for the 10 preceding months on the road!

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Another three vehicle prang blocks the road

Each day was a similar story with a dozen or more accidents in our path. In the built-up areas, each accident created a little more congestion and slowed traffic further. This had a bad effect on the ageing fleet of Ladas and Russian trucks that expired at inappropriate places creating further chaos. All of this made for a stop-start drive of crazy sprints between mauling jams.

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Traffic jam endurance test for visitors.

To be fair, some of this was caused by the number of extra vehicles on the road for a holiday weekend. But even 4000 km east of Moscow, where the highways are mainly used by long distance trucks, accidents are a daily sight. Statistically at least, this put the Russians way ahead in the worst drivers stakes.

We had set ourselves the target of riding 500 km a day for 10 days to get across to Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. We also allowed 5 rest days for sightseeing and to allow us to service the bike and wash off the road grime before crossing into Mongolia. With two of our rest days used up in a return to Moscow, we didn't have a lot of fat in the schedule.

Now, 500 km is not a big day back in Oz. Here it is hard work. In addition to the road conditions and drivers, Russians also have to put up with some of the most heavily policed highways in the world. Police check points are every few km pulling over vehicles for offences, real or imagined, or just to check documents. We have been generally lucky with the police, but it was our 10th day on the road in Russia before we rode a full 500 km without being stopped.

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It doesn't take long to work out why the railway is the most important mover of freight and people.

On the second day out from Moscow we got mixed up in the vehicles competing in and supporting the Trans Orientale Rally. This is a Paris – Dakar type event, although in this case the event goes from St Petersburg to Peking.

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St Petersburg to Peking Trans Orientale Rally competitor.

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There is a serious investment in running a team in this event.

We got a chance to chat with some competitors and support staff at a few lunch and overnight stops but lost a lot interest in ever getting involved when we converted some of the costs to Aussie dollars! After a day and a half of riding together, the circus turned south for Kazakhstan and we headed north east into Siberia.

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John van Rakinzen was with the Dutch team We found out he was born in Ringwood, Victoria, but we didn't hold it against him.

The country itself has been quite different from what we expected. The first 1000 km to the Ural Mountains, the area often described as Western European Russia, is green rolling hills much like rural Victoria, but seemingly endless. The Urals, when we did get to them, were a disappointment. They are not much of a range, at their best rising only 2000 m at the high point. Where we crossed, they were no more than some low hills.

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There is lots of green because there is lots of water.

The romantic moment I had imagined, sitting on the watershed, with the West behind and Siberia and the East in front, passed unnoticed between morning tea and lunch without changing out of top gear.

Beyond the Urals, the country drops down onto the Siberian Plain. The Plain is more than 4000 km across and is low and swampy. The Spring melt-water doesn't drain away in the summer, leaving the water-table close to the surface or exposed. It also makes road-making very difficult. Most of the main road is bunded above the surrounding plain for vast distances.

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It is often hard to get off the road because of the amount of water.

The roads vary between four lanes and a good surface (very occasionally), to badly deteriorated single lane where first and second gear are the best we could do, and we did better than any of the cars making about 40 km in an hour. In general, the roads have continued to deteriorate as we have traveled east.

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Roads are of “variable” quality.

The fuel itself has been relatively cheap ($1.10/litre), but many stations only sell 80 and 92 octane, and this is poor feed for Elephant. The local cars seem to run fine on 80 or even 76 octane but we have found that this causes Elephant to fart a lot and lose interest in proce(e)ding(s).

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Local cars seem to run OK on 80 or 76 octane fuel but Elephant doesn't like it much.

Any area that is above the water is cultivated and any area with tree cover is wet and, therefore, not cultivated. The area of arable land is breathtaking. We have ridden 5000 km through rich black-soil country and only now, at the eastern edge of Siberia, have we found some higher ground and sandier soils. One consequence of this is that it is difficult to find somewhere to pull off the road for a piss, without stepping off the road and into a swamp, and our usual roadside lunches have been out of the question.

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Now, where is a dry tree to hide behind?

Instead of roadside picnics, we joined the brotherhood of long distances truck drivers and started to frequent the truck stop cafés and hotels. These places generally have a fuel station (they couldn't be called service stations here as all they do is sell fuel), a café and and a hotel. We have lunch at the cafés of soup, salad, bread and tea for about $4 each. We stay overnight at the hotels from $25 for the room ($5 extra for a shower) with dinner and breakfast equally good value.

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A typical truck stop with accommodation upstairs and cafe down.

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The decor in the cafe left us in no doubt where we were!

Obviously, services of all kinds thin out as you go east. This led to one longer than expected day when I failed to take Jo's advice and stop a suitable pub claiming we needed to ride an additional half hour to make our schedule. Four hours and 250 km later we were running out of time and options when we finally found an old Soviet block-house hotel in a provincial town. We arrived in time to see the town's mid-summer fire-works display, but not in time to find anywhere to eat. We were at least 200km ahead of schedule.

We have passed through many very poor rural villages in the last ten days. Most have no indoor plumbing of any kind and for many, wood burning is still the source of winter heat. The countryside is desperately poor and life seems tough.

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In the poor rural villages log construction is still used.

This is not to say that Siberia is a backwater or even backwards generally. There is a resources and development boom underway here and big fortunes are still being made. The cities that are at the heart of the boom are thriving with new middle-class suburbs sprouting like mushrooms and construction cranes filling the sky. We have been into supermarkets out here that were as big and well stocked as any in Australia or Western Europe. Expensive cars and fashionable clothes are everywhere.

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A skyline full of construction cranes is testament to the boom underway here...

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...as are the residential projects in the big cities.

The agricultural sector has been left behind and those cities and towns that were built under dodgy Soviet central economic plans are struggling. Those cities hooked into the new economy are booming.

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There is coal to burn in Siberia, which is exactly what they do with it in some very dirty power stations.

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Siberian locals (and Russians generally) have been amazing. A request for directions often results in a local driving to the destination in his car while we follow or, as in this case, four pages of maps printed off the business computer to make sure we didn't get lost getting out of town.

It is hard to sum up our feelings on Siberia. Our antipodean minds have an innate understanding of the tyranny of distance. But this place, like much of Russia, flows out over the edge of our imaginations.

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...and did I tell you how big this place is? The wheat just disappears over the horizon and continues to do so as you drive hundreds of km.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 10:58 AM GMT
June 30, 2008 GMT
Baikal

22 June to 29 June 2008

The end of the road on our transit of the Siberian Plain was the town of Irkutsk, the start of the Russian East and the gateway to Lake Baikal. 400 of the last 600 km of roads leading to Irkutsk were very poor and we had stretched ourselves to keep up our average daily distance. Had it not been for an inadvertent 850 km day, when we miscalculated the location of accommodation, we would have fallen short of our ten day target from Moscow to Irkutsk.

By the time we arrived at Irkutsk on 22 June, it was raining steadily and we were keen to get settled in some decent accommodation for a couple of days lay-over. We found some fair digs at a hostel, or should I say they found us, when the owner leapt out of his car and apprehended us as we were about to try our luck at the cheapest pub on the our list. We had the place to ourselves on the first night as another other couple due to arrive phoned to say that they were in hospital with food poisoning from the Trans Siberian train. This confirmed our view that rail is a dangerous form of transport. We enjoyed an evening playing house and cooking a simple meal in the kitchen. Meanwhile, it rained steadily through the night.

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The landlord's son Nikita was a precocious 3 year old who kept Jo entertained on rainy afternoon.

On the morning of Monday 23 June, businesses were open for business and we set out to find the automotive souk to buy some specialised oil to service Elephant. We found the right place without difficulty and were pleasantly surprised to find one of the best automotive markets anywhere. About 200 traders had individual shops gathered inside a single large building. All the shops were modern and very well laid-out. It was easy to find what you needed and to compare prices. Once again, Siberia surprised us.

All I needed was four litres of fancy oil so I had no excuse to linger with Jo standing in the rain guarding Elephant. I shouldn't have worried. By the time I got back, Elephant had gathered the usual handful of admirers and Jo was having a conversation with one handsome young gentleman about the geology of Siberia.

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A young man outside the car souk tries out Elephant's seat for size.

Elephant got a service, but only just. Half way through the rain started to bucket down and, with no shelter, it was hard work to get the basics done. Nevertheless, fresh oil, filter and plugs is a good start on these bikes and we were pleased that Elephant checked out OK after a tough 12 days.

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Two minutes later the rain started again and didn't let up for two days.

The first treat of Irkutsk was a chance meeting with two German bikers Emil and Wolfgang who had come through Kazakhstan and were on their way to Mongolia. It was a great chance to compare notes on Russia and intelligence on Mongolia and to reassure each other that we are all perfectly sane!

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Emil and Wolfgang flagged us down as we arrived in town. They were BMW mounted and had already been to Kazakhstan.

Emil and Wolfgang were planning to go back to the west from Ulan Baatar. A few days later in Ulan Ude we met a Russian biker who had just come over these roads. When we asked him what they were like his one word answer was: “Hell!”. He had fried the clutch on his Transalp Honda and ended his trip to Ulan Baatar in the back of a truck. He looked pretty used up by the time we met him.

The second treat of our Irkutsk stay was back at the hostel. We were not looking forward to sharing with a group of strangers arriving on the train, but we needn't have worried. Chris and Jess turned out to be a delightful young American couple traveling with some of their family and taking a break from teaching in Korea.

We don't meet many English speakers on our travels and often go for long periods with only each other for company, so the young Americans were shanghaied to the kitchen where tea was made and stories exchanged. Hopefully we will catch up with them again, perhaps in Korea on the way home.

It continued to bucket down and, as Irkutsk had already established itself as one of our least favourite places to stay in the rain, we decided to head out to Lake Baikal regardless of the weather. A planned early departure turned into a late departure as we fussed about with our wet weather gear and hoped for a break in the clouds.

None came and our discomfort was made worse when we took a wrong turn and exited the city the wrong way only to circle the town and ride through the centre to get onto the right road. This, combined with torrential rain, heavy traffic, and a twisting, poor quality road added up to a three hour ride for the 100km to the first lake-side town. It had only one ancient, run down hotel but we were not in a choosy mood. We booked in, spread out our gear to dry, found the basics (food and beer) and waited, with the lake barely visible through the rain and mist.

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Wet riding gear hanging on every available place in our decrepit hotel room.

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This hotel also had the largest bathroom (shared) ever. Shame about the plumbing!

The next day we rode on into steady rain as there didn't seem much point in being lake-tourists in such poor weather. This was a shame because Lake Baikal is worth visiting. The lake is not only huge, it is also deep. Deep enough to contain about 20% of the world's surface fresh water or more water than all five of the North American Great Lakes combined! But, as the rain continued, our plans for a few lazy days seemed as elusive as the sun and we splashed up the east coast of the lake heading for Ulan Ude.

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Lake Baikal as it greeted us, barely visible through the mist.

The rain had left the unmade sections of the road very muddy, slippery and slow but as the day dragged on the rain lessened and then stopped and we arrived in Ulan Ude in a blast of sunshine and humidity. We found an affordable room in the old Soviet era hotel, that was unrestored to the extent that the original single-station radio was still on the wall, and settled in for three nights.

Top of the to-do list for UU was to fit the Metzler knobby tyres we had brought from Moscow and to find a small engineering shop to do a welding repair. We gave Elephant a bath using a public standpipe near our hotel.

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Drawing water from a public standpipe in a city street.

Even in larger cities in Siberia and the Far-East, many houses are not connected to mains water and people still draw water from public standpipes. Our final indulgence was a haircut each; the first since Hungary.

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These should do the trick for the bad roads in Mongolia and the Far East.

Ulan Ude is the centre of Mongolian Russia and the look of the people and feel of the place was very different from the Siberian towns we had visited until then. The town itself has the vestiges of a faded 19th century glory including a huge opera house and some elegant public buildings. It was a scrubby, rough and ready sort of place but a good place to enjoy some sunny days and catch our breath.

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Ulan Ude's elegant opera house was a reminder of more prosperous times in the 19th century.

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Ulan Ude also gets an award for this huge head of Lenin. We were already joking that Russia is a land of giants because of the number of larger than life-size statues that can be found in every town, but this head of the famous Mr Vladimir Ulyanov takes the cake.

On 28 June we rode down to the Mongolian border and the frontier town of Kyakhta. This garrison town (there appeared to be an Infantry division straddling the road on the way in) had its hey-day before the advent of the railway when it prospered from the caravans bringing tea from China. Today it is another of those dusty border towns full of the characters and desperadoes that seem to gravitate to these places all over the world.

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The ruins of the Trinity Cathedral, built in 1817 on the wealth of the China tea caravans, were an interesting find in the dusty border town of Kyakhta.

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This border-town desperado thought he would earn a fee by helping us get through the border. He got a photo op for his trouble but no payday. We have been through this too many times.

We prepared our papers to cross into Mongolia the next morning. We were less well prepared for Mongolia than for any other place we have visited and the Russians had done a good job of frightening us with stories about the roads and broken bikes. But, as always, we were keen to work it out for ourselves.


Posted by Mike Hannan at 02:07 AM GMT
 
 

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