July 30, 2008 GMT
Russia Week 8

North from Vladivostok (554km) 23 July

Although we cleared the bike on the first whole day in Vladivostok, we needed to sort out our mobile phones, it was still raining, and we wanted to have a bit of look at the city. We aren't planning an early return.
Farewells were said to friends we met on the boat, and the alarm set for 5.00. We were fumbling with our cases in pitch dark half an hour later.
At least there wasn't much traffic about.

The signage in Vladivostok is more or less non existent. By asking a few wandering souls, Natasha managed to negotiate a way north.
I simply steered. We were stopped for an inspection of documents, but we managed to avoid spending too much time .
We had been told that the road is “good” to Harbarovsk . The first roadworks, I use the term loosely, as there was no work and the road was almost non-existent. The rain had turned the area into muddy, potholed skid pan, 4km long.
Cars being driven north were picking their way through the quagmire at a painfully slow pace.
Fortunately, the area was very wide and we were able to get around them. We had only one moment of major panic when there was a bit too much sideways and not enough forwards.
The reason that there are so few photos of this sort of road is because it is a bit too challenging for rank amateurs such as ourselves, but this is what we managed.

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We diverted off the main road to pay a flying visit to one of Natasha's family.
The bike, which by now showed that it had done some serious work attracted quite a lot of attention. By the time we left, several blokes were wishing us luck.
Oh how we need it.
Around 5 pm we were beginning to start the room for a nigh search.
A black Kawasaki flashed passed us going the other way, I saw him brake hard, and turn, we pulled into a fuel stop and had a brief chat. Natasha asked him if he knew of a nice hotel.”Follow” so we did, down some pot holed streets,

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to a perfectly lovely place for the night. £12.00 each
Are we looking forward to tomorrow?? Not a lot.
But they say chaps have been down here on Harleys Respect where its due,
Todays distance 554 km Vlad to Luchegorsk


Luchegorsk to Birobijan 24 July

6am and we were puttering up the road in misty fog.

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The road north was a pleasure. Although potholed , it was easy riding by and large and we put another 500 km by early afternoon. We had decided to visit Birobijan, a former Autonomous Jewish State within the Soviet Union.

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The town center was prosperous by any standards, with lavishly prepared floral displays, and very clean modern buildings.

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We were directed to the Vostok Hotel. Totally splendid. Clean, modern air conditioned, and less than the hotel in Vladivostok.
They said that there was wireless internet.
£4.00 for 2.5 hours. We needed to visit six shops/kiosks/ information desks before locating the necessary card.

Birobijan to Shimanovk 25 July

Its only 648 km, and it has meant that we are over thousand km closer to Chita.
We have now ridden over 400 km of unmade roads.

In places there are tracks, about a car tyre's width where the loose gravel is to the side. We were able to manage about 60-80 km/h in these stretches, and even found 5th gear. However much of the surface was about 2” deep with gravel up to the size of an apple, and most sizes in between. Then there were the pot holes and occasional fissures from the side of the road. These were about a foot to 18” wide, and very deep.

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But the real problem for us was the dust. There was no wind, so it just hung over the road. Now, by now you are probably thinking “The big pussy!”
Well yes.
But in mitigation, I feel I should mention our companions, the other Knights of the road.
There are various sized lorries and trucks traveling between 10 and 90 km/h in either direction. Then there are the hunting packs of Japanese imports (they come in threes and fives). These are covered in masking tape and plastic which acts in much the same way as Superman's cape apparently. They travel as fast as they dare, and will overtake on either side. One lorry driver overtook a slower lorry on the “wrong” side, as we were overtaking on the correct side. With all the dust, we were a bit perturbed to get blasted by “The Undertaker”. On a bit of tarmac-ed road we went past the lorry as it struggled up a hill.
Some miles later, we had stopped for much needed fuel and a cuppa, when “The Undertaker” pulled in to the same stop. He got out of his lorry and came straight over to me, shook my hand and apologised. He then went back to his cab and brought a small Orthodox (hand painted) Icon “To keep you safe ahead” We needed it.
We are not looking forward to the ongoing journey. We are told that there is another 400km in one solid piece lying just ahead.

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Hmm
Saturday 26th 6.33 am
On the telly is The Long Way Down, dubbed into Russian. We have not been able to send e-mails for another day. Nothing seems to work in Shimanovsk.

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The thought of another 1000 km of the relentless pounding for us and the bike has given us a disturbed night, along with it being 28c in the room.
We will head back to the highway and continue to pray for a miracle. We could do with one of Ewan's back-up vehicles for the next day or two.
We are not looking forward to the next few days one little bit.
We are going to see if Natasha's brother can arrange for us to put the bike onto the back of a lorry.

Shimanovsk to Magdagachi 246 km - 26 July

I was hoping that we could at least get some idea about the expected weather forecast for the next few days. Apparently that doesn't happen in Shimanovsk either. (The weather was on TV, but was dismissed.)
So in the end, we fannied about from 6.00 to 11.00am. trying to sort out a lift for the bike. Natasha's brother went off to buy us some rope to tie the bike down should we find a lorry. He returned with something that would restrain the Queen Mary and a bit of clothes line. We hastily thanked him, then flung it in the top-box, and said farewells.
So we went down the road to the petrol station to find out if anyone knew anything about the road ahead.

It seemed that the consensus was the road was not that much worse than what we had come through, but that the dust would be getting worse.
So off we went.
The first 66k were gravel, but it was older, and compacted. We fairly hurtled the first 500m, then I noticed the mirror trying to unwind itself. Ah well.
Off again, and things seemed a bit easier than yesterday. The surface was much easier, but sandy in patches.
Then we had 66 km of Tarmac. Bliss! I was hoping this was to be pattern, but sadly it isn't.

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The bridges from just before Shimanovsk are not finished, so we are diverted around on a sandy bit.
Either the roads are a little easier, or we are loosing our dirt road virginity. Certainly there are long stretches of really loose stones, but there are other places where 100 km/h was comfortable. We did wonder what was ahead creating so much dust it was impossible to see a thing. It turned out to be a Tank on a low loader.

So we are in a regional village with, apparently, an airport. Its 4 km off the main road down a twisty un-signed sandy track, with potholes the size of swimming pools.(well jacuzzis) Natasha found a fine hotel of the Soviet era, but freshly painted. We had a meal at the local cafe. There was a choice, either eat what you were given or go hungry
We won't be in a hurry to leave. Mainly because it has just been bucketing down outside and I don't want to end up in one of those mud holes. Might get eaten by a hippopotamus!

Tomorrow we hope to start a bit earlier and see where we end.

The information we have gleaned from other drivers is variable at best, and probably no better than anybodies guess.
Roads that drivers find shakes their suspension to bits is fine for us (well in places.) On the other hand, they regard the deep gravel as good because they can move quickly. The quality of the surface changes constantly. Light grey is usually good ,dark grey tends to be made of coarse rocks. White is very difficult to see where the holes are. Sandy yellow is also a problem for us as we don't like the very loose texture that can become sandy. All along the way there are sharp boulders just to keep you alert.
In places these are used to keep drivers off newly surfaced sections. Well I guess that they are cheaper than cones, and there are just so many of them.


Across the top of China, Madgagachi to Mogocha 539km - 27 July

Today started with fog. Lots of it. Couldn't see much. We were directed out of town down a disused runway, thus avoiding the big holes. By making early starts, we are able to get a bit of the way down the road before dueling with the car transporters.

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We are beginning to get around the corner, and Chita is now 598 km away. 400 more miles of the former Zilov Gap to go.

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We seem to have made quite good progress for a couple of beginners. At least we are now treated with a bit of respect by lorry drivers, who give us a bit of room occasionally.

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It seems that the gravel that we started on about 1000 km ago was amongst the worst we have encountered. Our forward speed now being determined by the surface, rather than index of fear. The bike has started to join us in our attempts to lighten the load. Today a rear indicator lens has been destroyed, and the rear plastic mudguard fractured at its mount. The bike feels a bit lighter.
Todays 500 km of gravel has had me thinking. If the Esquimo's have seven words for snow, how come we have only one for crap road.
The Quality of bad takes several forms. From boulders embedded in the surface, to loose gravel that is bout 1.5” in diameter. Pot holes and boulders you can at least try to miss. The gravel just acts in much the same way as the kitty litter on GP circuits.

The town we are in is about 11 km down a clay road. Its frightening just how poor people seem to be. The houses all seem to be falling down, the streets are filthy.
I guess they have TV, but if the plumbing I have seen is anything to go by, then sanitation is still some way off. Perhaps its the vodka. Some say that if they drank less, there would be better roads , and plumbing. I think they drink so much BECAUSE of the roads and plumbing.

I guess that I have begun to get used to the riding, but I don't think that either of us will miss the bashing and dust. This is our dust trail.

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Todays scary bit was being so enveloped in dust that we could barely see the road at all, The source of the dust being three huge lorries line abreast trying to overtake each other. Once we could see, it was easy to wiggle through a gap.

Something else to tempt you to keep on moving (apart from the thought of getting off this bl**dy road), are the flies.
They come like the potholes and gravel, in all shapes and sizes. The small ones are noisy and sharp. Then there are domestic sized flies, that seem immune to attempts to swat, flick dodge etc. They are ready to share your meal at every opportunity.
The most spectacular are the A380 derivative of the house-style fly, which behaves much like its smaller relative, but due to its long take-off run is quite swat-able. There may be a Ferrel version that dwells in regions of the former Zilov Gap. These manifest as a yellow smear on your helmet and cause a mild concussion. I haven't actually seen one, in one piece, but I've cleaned several off.
Tonight in the room of the only hotel in town, we are listening to a thunderstorm. The madam of the establishment has asked us to unplug the aerial from the telly. Now the rain has started to lubricate the streets ( clay).
Oh happy day, we have survived one more day!

28 July - early morning

So we are staying in the far from pleasant town of Magdagachi for the meantime.
The all night disco in the hanger-like barn that serves as the cafe and dining emporium has at last stopped. The thunderstorm and subsequent power cut may have helped.
We were up and ready ish well before 6.00am, then the lightning started.
Some of the five revellers came to chat with us and ask what we think of their roads. They are impressed that we are on our motorbike, and it seems we are regarded as “cool” in spite of my age.
Yesterday we did meet a Swiss biker just as we were about to pull into a fuel stop.
He had just taken a tumble in the thick gravel and cut his hand slightly. We offered help, but he shrugged it off and was on his way after changing a fuse. He had also had tyre problems some 50 km ahead.
We asked about the road ahead and it was shitty, same in both directions then.

The party boys have driven off. Its a good thing they have their cars, because most of them seemed to be having trouble standing upright, and walking wasn't easy for them
Mind you it isn't for us either as the paths are littered with debris and potholes.
Perhaps there is a big problem with subsidence, as roads, paths and houses are all warped and buckled.


But then the rain stopped!!!

Chita 595 miles, we'll do that....... 28-29 July

Not at 30 kph you won't sunshine.

So by 8.15am the storm had passed, the skies brightened and we started to head off. First do something about the rear tyre it was distinctly squishy. No signs of nails, so get it pumped up. Seemed to be OK and off to find the petrol station. Down yet another street that seemed part of one large junk-yard, avoiding the deeper potholes.
We had learned that the roads to Chita were bad. (So what had the last 1500km or so been?) But it seemed to make sense not to fill the tank to the brim. Down the 11 km of dirt road to the main “Federal Highway” and off to Chita.
About 20 minutes down the road it seemed like the rain was returning, so we stopped and put on our wet gear. A little further and it appeared that the windscreen had developed a distinct lean to the left. another stop, fiddle and adjust.
Then the weather started to deteriorate even faster than the road conditions. There was lightening, thunder and rain of biblical proportions. Cars ahead of us had slowed to a crawl and were spread all over the road trying to negotiate a way through. The surface had become very bad, with potholes about three feet apart. Then there were diversions where bridges hadn't been started.

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These were steep sided and a bit slippery, but the bike plodded up them in a reassuring manner. The low octane fuel did elicit a complaint or two if too much torque was needed. ( Sometimes it seems just too much to stay upright and be in the correct gear)

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Onward and upwards, we were now overtaking quite a line of cars, and catching up with a crop of 4x4's that were also struggling along.
We came to a fork in the road, with the main ( wide) road going straight ahead, and a small track heading off to the left and up quite steeply. As one of the 4x4s had blasted along the “main” road it seemed reasonable to follow. There were some cars waiting at the bottom to see which was the best route. Remembering that someone had reassured us that “the Trans Siberian Highway is all there, and the Zilov Gap doesn't exist, Off I went after the 4x4. The first puddle was a bit deeper than I had anticipated, as the tops of my boots submerged. But the bike kept running and up we went. Did a couple more of these, before we saw Mr 4X4 turning around. Poor Natasha. there we were in a thunderstorm, going through serious puddles, and the main road blocked. Its a good thing we are on a motorbike and she couldn't see I had a grin almost as wide as a flattened roll of duct tape. But being serious (Oh it WAS fun) We saw that the safe route was up the steep hill. So we joined the queue.
As we looked down onto the workings, it may have been possible to get through if you had bridging equipment. Back on track, and the road surface was just awful. we weren't slipping about, but with the volume of rain, and potholes, we were reduced to a crawl ourselves.

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However after a while, the rain eased, the sun came out and the road stayed terrible. We had covered 10 km in just under an hour.
Eventually we were able to get moving again, but we couldn't manage more than 4th gear things were too rough. Either the road improved, or we sped up, it seemed as though we were able to get across the tops of many of the holes. we made quite good progress. After about 250 km we could hardly believe our eyes. New, fresh not even white lined, tarmac!
We have enjoyed almost 20km, but knowing that Chita is still 313 km with another 200k bad road ahead. (When Russians say its a bad road, it is BAD)
We are staying in a “Guest House” dormitory with other travelers (in cars) The building errs on the dilapidated side of quaint. Still its less than £10 for the night and all the cucumbers you can eat.

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We are warm and dry. It's raining heavily outside. I have pumped the rear tyre up again and I'm cursing myself for sending the mini compressor home as excess weight.
Oh how we hope to make it to Chita tomorrow!

We are learning that the accuracy of local knowledge can be dubious. Estimates of distances to fuel/food etc vary enough for it to sometimes be a worry.
It seems that knowledge of the road ahead can have little accuracy as the road itself changes from day to day. Weather, traffic and road works mean that places that were a doddle two days ago are now difficult. Today we saw some fresh gravel being laid. All sizes, from sand to rocks the size of two crash helmets. I wouldn't want to be first down that bit.

Although we are about 200 miles from Chita, it is at least 6 hours away if the road hasn't suffered from all the rain.
So... If the rear tyre stays up, if it doesn't rain any more, we MIGHT make it to civilization.
We have been away from internet contact for 5 days. There aren't even internet cafes in the villages we have stayed in.
This place has loo 20 yards down the path past the chicken run and through the veggy patch. There is a light in it with a low energy bulb, but quite frankly I'd rather not see. I have avoided eating any supper, and most certainly any beverage that might encourage diureis.


Chernyshevsk to CHITA!!!!! 29 July

Tuesday the 29th of July.
Probably won't remember it next year, but right now it feels pretty good.
That final 313 km was a bugger. It felt as though the road itself was determined to make itself memorable. We have certainly imagined it with a vitality and independence.

We were lulled by the 20km of new tarmac, but then IT started again. The surface was more difficult than we had encountered, but the experience we have gained at least meant we coped. There was the 2” deep kitty litter for a while, dust then mud. And a bit of tarmac, Just a ½ kilometer or so, followed by more pounding. I find the undulations more difficult to deal with than anything, as their frequency alters and eventually bum and seat collide.

We limited our fuel intake to try to save as much weight as possible. It meant a couple of stops, but was probably one of our better ideas, as the bike seemed to cope better.

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Then we saw it, the first sign of approaching civilization, Russian Style . Someone selling produce at the side of the road. 1700km since the last one.

The trans-Siberian Highway will be a true feat when it is completed in about 5 years time. In many places all the signs are in for overtaking lanes on hills, parking areas , armco barriers etc. These days it is also used by cows as a resting place.

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The graffiti is already in place as well, which is a bit sad.

The scenery is beautiful and when the camera person on the back is not scared for her life it can be documented.

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All the meadows are covered with carpet of pink or blue or yellow and white, really pretty.

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We are relieved to have found a hotel.

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Natasha has manged to find someone to locate a tyre repair place that can deal with motorcycles. The rear tyre had one small hole, which has been repaired with a vulcanised patch on the inside. In the same small trading estate was a car valeting company. They invited us to bring the bike around once the tyre was sorted. While repairing the tyre, I took the opportunity to check as many fasteners as possible. Then I discovered that one of the crash bar mounts had sheared. As it is made from a non ferrous alloy, there is no-one known who can repair it.
Its not vital to the bike's well being we have silenced it with a strategically mounted piece of rubber. The tyre repair was £4.00 so we gave some extra, and the bike-wash would have been free, but we insisted on paying for a round of beer for the lads.
So the bike is back to sparkling, and Natasha has just finished cleaning the luggage. Now its us and our riding gear that need throwing in a washing machine.
We need to post about the last weeks blogs sorry there is so much.

Posted by Brendon Ball at July 30, 2008 06:31 AM GMT
 


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