It was July 15th and while Dan waited for delivery of the replacement part for his motorcycle, Ed was keen to make use of the time to explore further. First he needed to head north back into Russia and then make his way up the east shore of Lake Baikal.
An idea had come to Ed while looking at GPS tracks of the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) route on his netbook in preparation for the coming month in Russia. In particular, his interest focused around attempting to find an alternative way to reach the BAM using a ziminik or winter road, except this time in the summer. Ziminiks are officially recognised routes that are generally only accessible in winter when frozen ground and rivers allow vehicles to use routes that would otherwise not be possible. Ed was hoping that even if a new summer route to the BAM was not possible he would at least see a ziminik for himself and explore an area he would otherwise not have had the time to.
While most of the guests at the Oasis were still asleep Ed got up, packed his things and paid his tab. He said goodbye to Dan and his new friends and headed north. The going was slow due to the traffic but once outside the city there was very little on the roads and other than a near miss with a stray goat on a blind bend (never let your guard down for even a second) Ed was soon at the border. The effect of a week of public holiday meant that there was very little activity and before the hour was up Ed was dealing with russian formalities on the other side of a short stretch of no-man’s land.
Riding towards Ulan Ude Ed hoped to rough camp on route rather than search the city for a place to stay. The rolling, grassy plains of Mongolia had given way to thick forest and this in turn became a network of reservoirs and rolling country as the area became more populated heading towards the city itself. The evening was drawing in and the chance of finding suitable rough camp locations became less likely. Calling on the GPS for help, Ed dialled-in the option for accomodation and found a hotel in the city called The Buriyat. Arriving to find a conventional hotel with the cost for a room a disappointing 1600 roubles, Ed decided to employ the secret card of the single-travelling overlander (no, not flirt with the lady behind the desk). Plead poverty. This is something that is not hard to do when a 630km day’s ride leaves you looking as tired and dirty as you feel.
The ploy was successful and a short time later Ed was relaxing in the same room for 800 roubles with the bike safely parked in the basement for a further 100. He took advantage of facilities to wash some clothes and hang them on the towel rail to dry. His kit was spread across the spare twin bed and he used the time to undertake some last minute preparation before bedtime.
The bike was liberated from the basement by 8am and looking around for a suitable option for breakfast Ed struck up a conversation with a lady coming to work at the hotel. Concerned that an imaciated looking Ed may not have eaten for many days, she motioned for him to follow her back into the hotel to find some breakfast. Surreal as it sounds, this is not uncommon and from time to time Ed and Dan accepted kind offers of food. This was partly for the convenience but also for the interesting opportunities to meet people that it affords. It became apparent that she worked in the Buddist temple which was part of the hotel complex and Ed was led through the shadows of the sweetly smoky main hall to a room where bags of biscuits and cakes were thrust upon him and a cup of tea shared with the kind lady to a background of mystical chanting and tinkling bells.
Spiritually sated and full of biscuits, Ed hit the road pausing only to buy some more provisions. The 140km to Gremyachinsk were dispatched before he was granted his first view of the lake. Forest lined the sides of the road and Ed noticed that the air temperature had plunged quickly. Against the heat of the Siberian summer it became almost too cold and Ed was forced to close the vents on his jacket as he rode onwards. The lake when it did appear was more akin to a view of a becalmed sea with the rugged coastline tumbling abruptly from thick forest straight into the still waters. The nearest point on the other shore was Olkhon Island, 48km away but due to the haze it was impossible to see anything of island’s rolling hills. Continuing northwards, Ed stopped for lunch 70km further up the coast, pulling off the road to find a clearing in the forest overlooking a tiny beach. Fresh tyre tracks and an already assembled circle of stones for a firepit suggested that it was in fairly regular use but with only space for a single 4×4 it was sheltered and quiet. The main road that Ed had been using ran parallel to the sea no more than 100 yards away for most of it’s length and here Ed sat on the logs that had been arranged for seating and ate his lunch, taking in the beautiful view.
The road north was being improved. Diversions led Ed to and from the coast, all the time struggling to see through the thick dust kicked-up by the lorries and Russian tourists’ 4x4s. A further 57km and Ed reached the ferry mentioned in his GPS. Not having been on a boat since crossing the English Channel back in May, Ed was intrigued to see a flat-topped barge pulled by some sort of powerboat. The barge was of a robust metal construction on the end of a thick cable with which it was pulled across before being swung alongside the opposite jetty like a pendulum. The was no charge for bikes and no queuing.
Ten minutes later Ed’s front tyre touched down on the concrete jetty on the far side and he continued onwards but with the condition of the road deteriorating he was forced to pick his lines more carefully to avoid the potholes hidden by dust clouds kicked-up from the passing vehicles. The road became narrower and sandy in places and the rocks protruding from the road were becoming more punishing. Encouragingly there was still regular traffic, perhaps a lorry passing every 30mins even up to 9pm due to the late sunsets this far north. Ed had decided to get as far as the village of Alla, the last town on his map and then complete the 20mi to the ziminik the next morning. During the course of the afternoon as Ed had ridden north a range of hills had sprung up between the track and the lake to the west and the GPS showed it as the Barguzin Nature Reserve. The hills were crested with sharp peaks and surrouded with thick forest the effect of which would not have been out of place in a Jurassic Park movie.
He pitched camp early at about 7pm because he was feeling exhausted but with the sun still relatively high and no wind to speak of, the temperature inside the tent began to soar. The sun didn’t lose it’s heat at that time of year until after 9pm and with the local insect population making their presence felt Ed was forced to sit it out inside his tent. With sweat pouring off him the best he could manage was to make a fan from a document wallet vowing not to camp until later next time. In fact it was still perfectly light at 10pm which gave little chance of Ed sleeping any time soon and clearly visible through the mesh of Ed’s tiny tent stood the edge of the forest which imposed a psycological barrier between civilisation and a level on ‘nature’ that Ed was not usually accustomed to. Then a chilling sound caught Ed’s attention. At first he was not sure he had heard right but sure enough the noise of a creature’s, possibly a bear’s, calls echoed out from deep inside the forest. It dawned on Ed that firstly he really should have built a fire but secondly, he should probably sleep in his clothes. Just in case a quick exit was required.
The sky outside was already bright and clear when Ed awoke suddenly. It was 6.30am and the long ride of the previous day along with the hardness of the ground beneath him had left Ed feeling tired and sore. The light and increasing temperature outside the tent meant there was little point trying to sleep any further so Ed dressed fully in his riding clothes and mozzy head net and emerged to face the waiting insects whose number always seem to increase dramatically as their bodies are warmed by the early morning sunshine.
The bike was packed and together they headed north towards the start of the winter road. A town emerged on the horizon that wasn’t in Ed’s GPS. After a short detour through the quiet muddy streets that separated the houses constructed in dark, stained wood, Ed crossed a decaying bridge and drove on through the forest towards the target. As he neared the end of the reasonably surfaced track he’d been following he saw a sign ahead on which was printed a topological map of the surrounding area. The track ahead of him led to the edge of a river and his heart sank.
A powerful mass of water slid past the banks and from where he was standing he estimated the depth varied between waist and past-head-height with a bed consisting of large round stones that notoriously rob motorcycle tyres of their grip when submerged. Across the on the other bank he could just make out two 4×4 parked up with their owners enjoying a spot of breakfast. Nearby a couple of tents sheltered beneath the thick forest canopy. The distance and noise of the river meant communication would be impossible but it afforded hope of another way across.
Retracing his steps Ed turned off the road onto a small path that led away from the previous sign. A local was startled by the arrival of the bike but ultimately lacked the patience to decipher the questions that Ed was asking, gesturing that he should continue along the bank further. This he did and was met by a suspension bridge which was too narrow to cross on the bike and protected by steep steps at each end.
Not to be put off, Ed continued following the bank until he found a more likely crossing point. The water was calm and shallow most of the way across before dissappearing into a deeper section that the bike was unable to manage. An elderly local, dressed in fishing atire, stood watching Ed test the crossing and watched him return to the bank unsuccessful.
He asked Ed the usual prerequisite questions about the range of the bike and its top speed before remarking that Ed would need a lorry to make it across the larger river on the other side of the treeline opposite. Ed had no lorry and felt it unlikely that he could afford to pay a lorry drived to drive him the 200miles to Novy Ooyen should he encounter more rivers like these. Despite being midsummer the forest embraced an orange hue throughout its canopy and the warmth of the ground coupled with the cool air from the river only added to the autumnal feeling. In Siberia you often feel as if winter is only just around the corner.
Ed stood outside the grocerie store in the nearest village having retraced his steps from the ziminik. His bag now contained smoked cheese, bread, apples and he was enjoying a chilled softdrink. It’s not unusual in just about any shop in Siberia to find an old fridge stuffed full of chilled beer but not as common to find that anyone has bothered to stock it with soft drinks as well. It was only 9am and already a gaggle of drunks had gathered good-naturedly waiting to see which of their friends would arrive with any money so they could kick-off the day’s activity. With the route to the north now closed off by the river Ed’s only other task for the east side of Lake Baikal was to backtrack halfway down the shore almost back to the ferry of the previous day before turning into the nation park situated on a stubby peninsular. Rumour had it that a number of boats regularly took the trip from Olkhon Island on the west shore across to the park carrying tourists and the occassional vehicle. If he could find a suitable vessel Ed hoped to be able to cut out the long detour back around the south of the lake giving him more time to explore the west Baikal area while he waited for Dan to catch up.
Arriving at the gates of the park Ed found a guard hut and learnt the price was 210 roubles to enter. The guards on duty assured Ed that there was a ferry on the peninsular and that it would take a bike for 3000 roubles, which sounded expensive. Seeing as Ed was running out of options and still had time to kill he reasoned that he might as well go and explore and if he found the boat he could probably negotiate a more reasonable rate. The guard’s parting comment was that Ed should take the left turning once he reached the peninsular and not to follow the coastal route closest to the mainland. A narrow strip of sandy beach joined the peninsular to the mainland and the only way onto the strip was to follow the single track of soft sand just wide enough for a 4×4. Once out of the forest and into the wide open the temperature soared. The slow pace through the sand didn’t help either. Russians are keen campers and the national park was clearly enormously popular with the holiday makers. Clean water and a narrow sandy beach stretched the length of the sand bar with huddles of 4x4s parked back from the beach in the shade of small trees and bushes. Ed decided to stop have some lunch, tucking into the bread and cheese bought that morning while sitting on the beach. In front of him the lake lapped quietly on the beach and the smell of fires and BBQs drifted past on the slightest of breezes.
The sandy track took Ed up to the peninsular where it ended abruptly in dense forest and was replaced by a hardpacked mud road. The forest turned the road into a series of allyways, like a maze and with no view of the lake, Ed was forced to follow the road blindly. Ed ignored the guard’s advice and headed to the first of the small bays to investigate. He found a small daytripper boat but the skipper would not let him bring the bike aboard. The one page map that was included with his ticket into the park showed a series of bays linked by a red line so Ed continued along the track and into the next bay. Sadly the scale of the map didn’t show that getting into each bay involved negotiating an assault course whereby the track would disappear into the forest, climbing the steep hillside before descending hair-raising tracks back to the water. The little 250 climbing the slopes gallantly and coming back down in a low gear with the back wheel hopping and sliding. This continued many times over the next couple of hours. In places the track had huge gullies cut into it from the rainfall and in others it was necessary to detour into the forest to get past deep stagnant puddles. Even the detours were often partially blocked by holiday makers whose 4x4s were stuck on tree roots or being dug and winched out of the mud by willing friends. The final bay yielded a larger group of huts with lorries and vessels of all sizes lined up along the pebble beach. Sadly the boats were either out of the water or too small to take a motorbike and no one seemed able to help. They were either too busy and disinterested or a combination of poor english and Ed’s poor russian made communication impossible. Resigned to the retracing his steps through the forest Ed asked a local for a better way and was pointed down a track which climbed steeply away from the shore. Whilst as steep as the other routes, this track took Ed across the main hill and down the otherside back to the sandbar where he could retrace his steps out of the park. He had now covered a diversion of about 30miles Arriving back at the ferry, Ed jumped the queue and squeezed his bike into the last remaining space for the short hop to the far bank. It would be far to late to reach Irkutsk all the way back around the lake so remembering the lunch spot from the day before Ed rode the short distance to it and camped there. Having set up his tent and eaten some dinner the stillness was interrupted by a car which pulled up and parked a short distance from the beach. A man climbed out carrying something. Expecting it to be locals bearing bottles of vodka Ed kept an eye on it from inside his tent but it turned out to be a guy with a fishing rod stopping to do a spot of evening fishing by the side of the lake. Ed lay back and was asleep in minutes.
A cold misty morning greeted Ed when he woke. The motivation to get up and pack had abandoned Ed – Dan hadn’t left Mongolia yet and it was over 300miles to Irkutsk around the south western tip of the lake. Still, there was no point waiting around so Ed reluctantly began the task of retracing his steps south towards Ulan Ude. There was a river through Ulan Ude and the GPS was showing that Ed could either head all the way back to the City to use the bridge there or follow the lake further west and cross the main river by ferry. Not keen to go back over old ground if he didn’t need to, Ed opted for the ferry and by lunchtime he was parked behind a short queue of cars waiting under steep cliffs in front of a typical Siberian river – wide and menacingly powerful. They weren’t waiting long before a barge appeared this time pulled and pushed by powerboats at the same time. A family in the queue mentioned that we would have to wait until after lunch and sure enough the crew piled into one of the powerboats and disappeared off down river for an hour or so. It was overcast and quite cold so it was with much relief that when they returned everyone crammed aboard and the barge started across the river to somewhere slightly upstream that Ed couldn’t yet see. Embarking had been a case of driving the bike down a narrow gangway but Ed failed to anticipate that on arrival the bike would have to come backwards up some steps to disembark. With the whole crew to help, the WR was carried out onto the deck of the barge and after thanking them all, Ed was back on terra firma and following a major tarmac road – the Trans-siberian highway, as it happened.
The developed world embraced Ed again with its traffic, petrols stations and speedlimits. The sky had darkened significantly and it was threatening to rain. Waterproofs out and put the miles in. Ed’s chain oiler was also running low on oil which could become a problem on the fast stretches of highway so Ed pulled off at the next available shack by the road advertising oil and parts and stocked up with a litre of normal engine oil, which experience suggested would work just fine. Back on the road again, the scenery gave way from gently rolling green spaces with scattered forest to much thicker, darker forest and winding roads. Army convoys were using the roads and holding up the traffice with their enormous lorries but Ed was able to squeeze through and escape. It was getting late as Ed approached Irkutsk. He had planned to rough camp but if you don’t start looking early enough you soon find civilisation sprouting around you and options for camping begin to fall away. Riding right into the middle of the city revealed a massive, bustling city with some lovely architecture but too much traffic. GPS to the rescue – Ed found an entry for the Trans-siberia Backpackers so pulled off the busy streets into a quiet courtyard instructed by the GPS. Wondering whether he had made a mistake he immediately noticed someone sitting smoking with ginger hair. It was Alistair, the British biker Ed and Dan had met earlier in the journey. The bike was stripped of luggage and chained to a lamppost in view of the hostel and a short time later the guys were catching up over pasta and shots of vodka in the warmth of the diminutive backpackers’, which was only as large as a two bedroom flat but could house 8-10 backpackers! The owner Anton was there and when the topic moved on to where Ed had come from he explained that he had been on that winter road but in winter and expressed surprise at Ed’s attempt because at a number of points the road actually uses the frozen river which would be near impossible in summer with the water flowing. The conversation was interesting and informative and provided some much needed intel for the next stage of the journey. Ed was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
The plan discussed the night before was to head north up the west side of Lake Baikal at a leisurely pace to give Dan enough time to catch up before commencing the BAM road. A large island called Olkhon Island which had significant spiritual significance to the local people would be tomorrow’s destination. Alistair was also planning to undertake that route so they decided to ride together. After breakfast the guys packed and headed off. Alistair went off to pick up some oil and retrieve his video camera from the repair shop. The shop had only managed a partial fix but didn’t charge him for the work they had done. He also needed to collect his Carnet de Passage document from the DHL office which had been sent from the RAC in the UK and would allow him to take his motorbike into Japan. Ed needed to change some US dollars so he left Alistair at a carpark on the way out of town, waypointed it in the GPS and set off to look for a bank. Finding a bank is not hard in Russian cities but that morning they all had long queues out of their doors and ticket systems whereby you select the service you want and then wait for your number to come up. Easier said than done when there is no english language option. Ed managed to find a branch of “Moscvuy” which was queue-free, pocketed some roubles and stopping to collect Alistair, they were soon refuelled and heading north out of the city.
Travelling with Alistair proved to be a laid back affair. Regular tea and cigarette breaks relaxed the pace giving time for observing and talking to locals and taking in the landscape. 80 miles after leaving the city they stopped for sweet tea and savoury doughnuts.
They had been driving through beautiful rolling grassy plains, more akin to Mongolia but as they turned back towards the lake towards Olkhon Island the forest grew up around them only to completely disappear once again as they neared the island. After 70miles, the road was replaced by piste for a further 15miles to the village that the ferry sails from. There were a number of boats on the shore but they were too small and Ed was sure that there was a much larger ferry servicing this popular tourist route. Sure enough in the next bay was a large tarmac waiting area with small shops selling food and beer and in the distance the island was clearly visible with an identical area and a large ferry collecting its next load of vehicles.
For whatever reason Alistair wasn’t keen to spend an extra day on the island and thinking they would camp on the mainland that night before continuing north they spotted tracks leading straight up the nearest hill and over into another bay. Alistair went to investigate and disappeared into the distance. A red dot climbing up the hill and over the top before returning a short while later. He gave a big thumbs up when he returned so they grabbed a couple of beers from the shop by the ferry and climbed the hillside on their dirtbikes. Sure enough the view on the otherside was stunning and they had the whole area to themselves. Having selected a suitable spot to camp they used the last of the daylight to change the oil in the bikes and the odd mechanical chore before cooking up noodles on Ed’s stove and drinking the beers. Other than a small huddle of buildings down in the bay there was no sign of life and without the slightest breeze it was still and quiet.
It was already mid morning by the time Ed came ’round. The sky was overcast and this had allowed the campers to sleep longer as it was darker and cooler than usual. Outside Ed’s tent rustled which was odd as there was no wind. He soon realised that someone was trying to get his attention and sure enough a rough, local voice began to query the unseen occupant. Needing a moment to get dressed and telling the voice to wait, he called out to Alistair to see if he was awake. Nothing. Alistair’s parting comment before each retired to their tents the night before was that he was a deep sleeper and Ed now regretted not waking him earlier because it meant he would have to deal with the person shaking the outside of his tent on his own. He needn’t have worried because when the tent was unzipped a short, weathered shepherd stood looking at him. It soon became apparent that the shepherd wasn’t interested in conversation but was looking for roubles to buy his next bottle of beer with. It was 11am. Ed had a couple of hundred rouble notes in his pocket, but at 27 roubles to the dollar he wasn’t about to get that lucky so fishing in his riding jacket pocket he found a handful of coins which he handed over. It’s rare to find Ed or Dan encouraging begging on these trips but every now and again someone gets lucky, if only to get rid of them. Minutes later his tiny form could be seen making good progress up the hilltop that led back over to the ferry terminal and cafes. Whistling to himself probably.
Alistair hadn’t died in the night and with a bit of chivvying, both riders were up and the bikes packed just as it started to rain. They guys headed back up and over shephard’s ridge to rejoin the road. While not as fun as the previous day they were both enjoying being back on the road again. A quick stop for coffee and pirozhkee followed by fuel and some impromptu bike fixing with cableties by Alistair and the pair were on their way again, turning north for the settlement of Zhigalovo. They reached Kachug and decided to continue on a short distance in order to rough camp that night but with the weather looking increasingly ominous they found themselves sheltering at a petrol station as the rain lashed down. A lull in the rain convinced them to make a break for the surrounding countryside so after stocking up on provisions and ignoring a following sidecar outfit (whose slighly tipsy rider insisted, unsuccessfully I might add, that the guys contribute some fuel to help get him home) they rode out of town into the misty drizzle and pulled off the road. A freshly ploughed field curved around out of sight of the road and the bikes followed the edge of it before cutting into the forest and camping on the thick bed of pine needles and foliage between the trees. With a beer each from the shop in town Ed proceeded to demonstrate how to almost burn down a forest with an MSR petrol stove before getting the flames under control and cooking up some more instant noodles. Despite the late start the guys had covered a good distance for a wet day and were completely shattered. From there the road would follow the meandering river Lena toward the next town whose name is given to the Zhigalovo road, a dirt road which is pretty much unknown to most russians, which was to take the guys North and East towards Severobaikalsk and the start of the BAM.
The weather was better by the morning of July 21st and still with no indication of where Dan had got to, the guys decided on another late start.The river Lena was on their left for most of the day as they rode towards the town of Zhigalovo. They stopped for fuel and decided to have lunch in a local cafe. An audience with a wide spectrum of ages, from the young waitress to the elderly ladies, gathered to ask questions as the tourists sat eating their tea and pirozhkee. The comfort of just being inside a building and having something dry to sit on was a welcome relief and the guys decided to order a second round of drinks while they relaxed. As usual the plan was to rough camp so after collecting provisions they headed out of town. A provisions stop would not be complete without trying to converse with drunk locals and that day it was the turn of a battered hatchback to pull up. Unsurprisingly, the two guys inside were drunk and as usual began trying to talk to the foreigners. When one suggested that he thought he should take Ed’s bike for a spin the guys took that as a sign to leave and were halfway down the street before the drunks realised they were back on their own again.
The Zhigalovo road was rough in places but it was still possible to make good progress. Above them the skies had darkened again and it began to rain quite hard. One thing to note about Siberia is that there is no natural cover and mostly no buildings or bridges to shelter under. The forest is often thinly spaced with pathetic branches that don’t resist the rain so in this case the guys spied clearer skies in the distance and decided to ride quickly towards it.
Slippery mud interspersed with deep puddles provided an unwelcome hazard. The sky above the horizon was grey and the watery mud beneath their wheels mirrored the sky giving the road a tunnel-like effect and the guys hunched down beneath their motorbike screens as they tried to negotiate obstacles along the road. As luck would have it, they reached the clear skies and decided that it made sense to find a campsite in case the rain returned. Setting up camp in the rain is never fun so they seized a moment of dryness and found an area of cleared forest where truck drivers or construction people had created an impromptu firepit with a couple of treetrunk seats nearby. Once the tents were up the guys got a good fire going and sat contemplating the day’s riding and a repeat dinner of noodles and beer helped re-energise the bikers before turning in for the night.
Sunshine was already warming the air when Ed awoke. A call to Alistair’s tent revealed nothing so a much louder call was employed to get his attention and while he collected his thoughts Ed packed away his tent and remade the fire to pass the time. The road was now only slightly slippery but a patchwork of large, deep puddles remained and slowed their progress when they did finally hit the road. With no settlements to stop at for tea, the guys continued for a couple of hours before stopping to take photos around a partially collapsed bridge. In the distance a motorbike could be heard approach at speed. The guys had scarcely seen another vehicle all day and the distinctive sound of a modern machine immediately got their attention. Around the corner from the direction that they had just come from emerged a white motorcycle travelling briskly towards them. It was Dan and his appearance marked the end of the East Baikal chapter. They guys filled each other in on what had happened since they last met before saddling up and setting off once again. Spirits were high and nothing stood between them and the start of BAM railway less than a day’s ride away.