The first entry into the Russian Federation for Dan and Ed on 29 June was every bit as highly organised and efficient as you’d expect. There was one slight hiccup when the guy stamping the passports demanded to see the migration card that the gatekeeper hadn’t given to Dan, but after passport control barked at gatekeeper through his radio, gatekeeper came running out of his hut with a migration card for Dan and a very apologetic face. With passport control formalities out of the way, the next hurdle was customs, who were disconcertingly uninterested in the travellers and their bikes. There were at least no frustrating checks through the bags for contraband, the Russians clearly having slightly less idle curiosity about western tourists. After establishing as best they could that they didn’t need to fill in a customs declaration of some description and overcoming their disbelief, the guys headed on out into Russia for about 150 metres before stopping and buying some third-party insurance. Three months of insurance for the Russian Federation cost each rider about fifty US dollars, and gave peace of mind for police checks, even if the claim procedure in the event of an incident was likely to be inpenetrable.
With insurance in force and pleasant rolling Russian countryside to ride through, the guys headed towards Barnaul, where they hoped their new tyres would be waiting for them. With road conditions in Mongolia difficult to predict (heavily dependent on the weather) new tyres with fresh tread had been ordered from www.motorezina.ru in Moscow whilst still in Kazakhstan to be delivered to Barnaul, a few hundred miles from the Mongolian border.
On arriving in Barnaul, the first task was to find somewhere to stay, which both guys expected to be more expensive than they were used to. With no guidebook to follow, there was no option but to visit each hotel listed in the GPS maps in turn and check their rates. After taking longer to complete their impromptu evening tour of the city than could be hoped due to yet more motorcycle bans in force on several main streets, the guys settled on the Viktoria guesthouse, and parked their bikes out of sight round the back, locked to some rusting relic. The rate was 1800 Roubles (£40) per night for the room, plus another 200 Roubles in registration fees. Russian visa conditions require visitors to register in a city within three days of arriving. If not staying anywhere for longer than three days then in theory it is not necessary to register at all, but that can result in awkward questions at the border.
On Thursday 30 June, the guys ventured out of Viktoria to go in search of a Russian SIM card and an internet cafe to get in touch with the tyre supplier and find out about the tyres. There was no delivery estimate available, but the name, email and phone number of Motorezina’s agent were waiting in Ed’s inbox, enabling the guys to get in touch and get an update on how long they’d be in Barnaul. Andrey is a very friendly and helpful guy, himself something of an extreme motorcycle traveller – his chosen discipline being long distance rides in the Siberian winter with sidecars. He had been awarded the furthest travelled attendee at a recent Snowdogs rally having arrived on a 20 year old 80cc scooter with a sidecar. Andrey was the bearer of bad news – the tyres had not yet arrived, but may arrive on Friday. He was however keen to show the guys around and gave them a quick tour of the city in his new Lada Priora. Andrey had previously lived in the US for a couple of years and spoke excellent English, so the conversation about the history of the city and his views on motorcycle travel, motorcycles, motorcyclists and Russian cars was free-flowing. The city was founded by the river and the commercial centre is still there, the suburbs having been forced to the north side of the city by the river. Russian planning laws are apparently laughably complicated and time consuming to follow and most building projects in the city are built without prior planning consent, their right to remain being contested in the courts afterwards as this is a quicker, cheaper and relatively low-risk approach. Dan was interested to know how Russians viewed their domestic cars, and given the relatively plush surroundings of the Priora, was somewhat surprised to learn that Russians would generally much prefer to buy foreign, the domestic products (Avtovaz’s Volga, Lada and GM-joint-venture Chevrolet-branded cars) only really being bought due to cripplingly high import tariffs on foreign manufactured vehicles. When it came to trucks however, the pride was strong – Kamaz units being held in as high regard in Russia as they are in the rest of the world by anyone who knows them for their ability and durability in tough Siberian conditions.
Part of the Barnaul city tour was a visit to see Viktor, the local bike mechanic, and his workshop. Here the guys were pleased to see bike-maintenance products, notably proper air-filter oil and bike-specific engine oils.
Everything on offer was the reassuringly expensive French Motul brand, and while the price of the engine oil was a bit salty, the air-filter oil was well worth having. With that and a new front inner tube to replace Ed’s now heavily patched spare, the band of bikers left Viktor’s workshop for a bite to eat and a couple of beers at a local German-brauhaus-style brewery/restaurant. The food and drink were both good and on hearing that Dan was planning to have a chain and sprockets sent to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia Andrey explained that he was going to Novosibirsk the following day and would almost certainly be able to buy suitable parts there. This sounded like a good way to save some cash as the parts would probably cost no more than the cost of sending the spares Dan had in the UK, and those parts would still be there when he got home. After agreeing a plan of action, Andrey dropped Ed and Dan back at Viktoria for the night, where they hoped to hear good news of tyres the following morning before Andrey headed to Novosibirsk.
Friday dawned torrentially wet, and remained that way for most of the day. The tyres were still in a truck on it’s way from Moscow and would now not arrive until after the weekend. The good news was that Andrey had located a shop in Novosibirsk with a good quality chain and sprockets to suit Dan’s DRZ – the price being slightly higher than hoped, but little more than the £150 DHL were asking for to get a chain and sprockets from the UK to UB in 4 days, so Dan agreed that Andrey should pick them up and bring them back. Faced with at least another three nights in Barnaul before the tyres would arrive, the guys followed up Andrey’s recommendation of a cheaper place to stay, just over half the price of Viktoria at 500 Roubles (£11) a night each. Given the weather and the lack of concealed parking at Kolos, the guys cheekily opted to take a cab with their luggage and leave the bikes locked up in the rain at Viktoria. The following day in a break from yet more biblical rain, the guys walked back across the city to Viktoria to explain that they were having “problems with the bikes” (as close to the truth as limited Russian could get them) and ask whether it would be ok to leave them there. After much confusion, the guys left at a point at which they felt they had permission to leave them there until Monday, when they hoped the tyres would finally reach Barnaul.
Sunday was another dismally wet day in Barnaul, with little to relieve the boredom and frustration of not moving on bar the fact that one of the hotel staff at Kolos had inexplicably taken a shine to Dan, referring to him as “Santa Claus” on account of his excessive facial neglect and taking every opportunity to grasp his beard. Turning up at the door of the room in a top sporting a sequinned union jack resulted in little more than bemused looks from the Brits inside and a confirmation that yes they hoped to be leaving the following day so they’d probably not see her again. A chance discovery of a pizza restaurant near to the Kolos had also provided welcome access to the internet for paying customers via Wifi and the guys took full advantage of the service to catch up with news from back home whilst enjoying the novelty of fastfood.
On Monday 4 July, it was independence day for the whole of the US, and also for two Brits who had been holed up in Barnaul for five days. At lunchtime Ed received a call from Andrey to say that the tyres had finally arrived, and shortly after the tyres came a break from the rain with some sunshine. To save some cash the guys had selected Czech-manufactured Mitas tyres which had received good reviews from fellow overlanders. The price for each rider for a pair of tyres delivered from Moscow to Barnaul was 7300 Roubles, £160 – so they were still not cheap, but much less than buying the better known western european brands within Russia. They were certainly much needed, Dan’s tyres had done 13500 miles since he’d persuaded them onto the DRZ’s rims back in April, those on Ed’s WR a couple of thousand less.
By 2pm, the guys had overstayed their welcome at Kolos and were bundling themselves, their new tyres and their luggage into a cab back to Viktoria to fit their tyres in the car park. By 6pm, both bikes had new shoes and Ed’s bike had been treated to new sprockets to extend the life of his chain and reduce his gearing to unleash his bike for the unpaved roads ahead. Dan’s new spare chain and sprockets sourced in Novosibirsk by Andrey had also been satidfactorily stowed, the rather unwieldy rear sprocket strapped and clamped to the inside of his pannier rack.
By 7pm, both riders had been fed and watered, and both bikes were loaded up and heading out of town towards the Mongolian border. With a suitable secluded corner of a cornfield selected, the guys set up camp for the night, both thoroughly relieved to finally be back on the road and making progress towards the next leg of the adventure, the unpaved haven that is Mongolia.
On Tuesday morning, the guys packed up early and left the cornfield behind, and headed off into the mountains of the Altai region. The area is genuinely reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, green peaks with rivers and forests, with birds of prey soaring overhead preying on the abundant wildlife of the area. It’s a popular place for Russian tourists, despite being a long way east from Moscow. Consequently the road is in good condition and makes for easy going, and is well equipped with picnic areas with benches and bins – a real novelty for the guys after travelling through central asia, much of which still has a more free-form attitude to waste management.
On the road, the guys met a British couple in a Landcruiser Mick and Chris (http://intrepidfor10minutes.blogspot.com/) and stopped for a cup of tea in one of the local tourist haunts by the river and swap tales of the road. They had travelled out a different route but would be heading back the way Dan and Ed had come from the UK, so were interested to hear what the route had been like, and it was good to have a chat about overland travel over a cuppa.
The guys were keen to do an oil change before heading into Mongolia, while decent quality oil was still relatively easily available. A detour into a village bypassed by the main road yielded a little motor factors selling various recognisable brands of oil – the guys settled on 3 litres of Esso Ultra and lashed it to the bikes to effect a change that evening. Once within striking distance of the border for the following morning, Ed started looking for a place for the guys to camp. There were numerous pleasant spots down by the river with quite established tracks leading to them from the road, but they were mostly already occupied by Russian vehicles and tents, so it was time to look a little further afield. A spot was found which was high above the river and not visible from the road, where the guys could spend an evening without being bothered except perhaps by the occasional curious local bovine. Once the tents were up and both bikes had new oil and filters, the oil was transferred into sealed bottles to be carried by the guys and disposed of properly when the opportunity presented itself.
On Wednesday morning, 6 July, it was time to head to the border. The guys had heard that fuel generally is a bit of a problem in Mongolia due to troubled negotiations with their main supplier: Russia. Diesel is very hard to come by and only at inflated prices, higher grade petrol is also rare, though 80-RON is easy to come by everywhere in Mongolia still. The guys topped up with Russian 92-RON (95+ would have been nicer, but beggars can’t be choosers…) and chatted to some French 4×4 drivers at the petrol station. On hearing that the little bikes were headed towards Mongolia, one lady was quick to warn Dan that the roads in Mongolia “are not asphalt – they’re really not roads at all!”.
“Yep, we know, that’s why we’re on these little things, we’ll be fine…”
A few kilometres down the road, the guys saw another motorcycle overlander coming the other way. This was a guy who perhaps did need the French lady’s warning – a middle-aged German gentleman on a very heavily laden 1980s BMW R80 GS – he’d been travelling with three friends, got 100 km into Mongolia, got tired of the constant bumps, corrugations and dust and turned round and come back to Russia. He was now headed to Lake Baikal through Russia and would meet back up with his friends there after they had got through Mongolia.
At the Russian exit formalities, there was some confusion as the bikes hadn’t been stamped out of Kazakhstan or into Russia – but it turns out that they share a common customs region, and that the Kazakh entry declaration was all that was required. The border process was mostly trouble free but painfully slow, and having arrived at 11.30 am, it was at least an hour and a half before the guys headed out towards the end of the tarmac that marked the start of their journey through Mongolia.