It's now Thursday the 30th July, and I'd like to give an account of the last few days. I'm lying in my tent by the side of a river, it's about 7.15 pm, and I'm the more entertaining side of the sober.
It starts in the morning. I'm a little over four months into my motorcycle adventure project, and on the brink of embarking on a project within a project, which I'll call the Road of Bones venture. The Kolyma Highway, or as the west refers to it, the Road of Bones, is a viciously weathered road built in the 1930's and 40's by prisoners of the gulag camps. It's a horrendous story of suffering, in which millions of people died, and life expectancy was 2 years. I'll say no more about it, there are far better resources on the subject than this straggle of words.
For me, this project starts long before the Kolyma Highway, it started when Simon and I took the left hand turn off the M55, the point when you're faced with the decision to continue East (Vostok) to Vladivostok, or head North to Yakutsk and on to Magadan.
There's another story within this one, about the sometimes difficult dynamics of travelling with other people, but I'll keep that one a little more private. Lets just say that a trio of bikers became a pair, under awkward and unpleasant skies.
We reached our camp spot by laying a railway sleeper across a large ditch, and riding bikes over this makeshift bridge. Gear on, fire the bikes up, and edge onto the bridge. Front wheel on, line up, then gun the engine to shoot over the ditch. At the crucial moment, I crank the throttle, cold Honda stalls, and we topple down into the ditch. First drama of the day. Fortunately the wonderful Honda is completely unfazed by the event, and I'm unscathed. We sweat over the process of lifting the heavy machine up onto higher ground.
Simon's not keen on these bridge crossings, and watches with a concerned look on his face, as I ride his huge KTM over the gap.
There was a clearly defined direction to this challenge, go for it hard and fast, with the optimistic and border-impossible aim, of covering the two thousand odd miles in four days. We start well, no issues with navigation on this Northern track, straightforward loose gravel cutting through dense forest.
I'm consumed for the first half hour or so, mentally blinded by the reality of this decision I've made to have a crack at a greater challenge. I'm not thinking consciously about the riding, the scenery, the terrain or any external influences, just mind racing with the concept of what's ahead. After this strange thought process is done, I'm free to gauge what's going on, and realise that the pace is way way in excess of the boundary of sensibility. The track is made up of coarse, loose gravel, and winds with the kind of frequency that bikers adore.
Under normal circumstances my rear tyre would have been changed long long ago, there is so little tread remaining, there is almost a continuous band of slick around the centre. Not by any means the ideal tool for this 'road' surface. On almost every bend I feel the back of the bike drifting, often an enjoyable sensation, sometimes terrifying. We're still riding way too fast, and I make a note to talk to Simon on our first stop “Right mate, that was great fun, but we should really tone it down a bit eh, ride to arrive and all that”
It's off topic, but it's at this point that I undergo a step change in my attitude to Honda, and my gear. Up until this point I've been pretty precious about the bike and all the overland bits. I'd had this feeling that I was at the start of this great big journey. For anything to fail or get damaged would be a bit of a disaster, and I treated everything with fluffy care and attention.
But at this point I shift my thinking. I've come about 16,000 miles, more than half the way around the world. I've challenged myself, and battled poor Honda through some truly demanding parts of the world. Everything has taken an absolute hammering. Mongolia tried it's best to kill my motorcycle, every component took a kicking, and signs of wear are now in full view.
I'm at peace with the situation though, aesthetics have become less of a concern, and I'm primarily just thankful that the bike's still going, and did so well to get me this far. I can now accept that things will fail, and that they'll probably have to be patched back into working condition, rather than getting the love and attention that I'd usually like to put into repair work.
I'm leading, and periodically open up a gap between Simon and myself. We're silly to be doing this pace, approaching motorway speeds, on terrain that cries out for a steady speed, caution and attention. Simon drops out of mirror view as I pull a gap between us. Speedo shows 70 on the straights. I'm thoroughly enjoying myself.
I slow for a bend, but as I start to round it, it becomes clear it's a damn sight tighter than I'd allowed for. I'm hit with a feeling that I imagine just about every biker is familiar with. Entering a bend too fast I'm presented with two options, get the bike something like upright and haul on the brakes as hard as I can, try and come to a stop before I run out of road. Or, crank the bike over as far as I dare, turn as tight as I can, and try and take the curve.
I brake as hard as I possibly can, trying to keep both wheels on the brink of skidding. No chance I've got the time to stop, ease off the brakes, and lean the bike as far as I can. Nothing's going to get me round this corner, we approach the edge of the track, worn, graded gravel becomes bigger looser rock, and Honda snakes wildly as I ask way more than is feasible. Brace for impact as we career off the built up embankment, and tumble down the 6 feet to the bottom, landing in a heap.
I am absolutely buzzing, heart racing, adrenalin still coursing through my body. Get the bike upright in a second, and I'm taken over with a feeling of happiness and relief. I'm absolutely ecstatic.
Simon rounds the bend, to see me sitting astride Honda, down at the bottom of the embankment. Screeching to a halt above me, he flips helmet and says in his heavy Geordie accent “Fookin hell mate, you OK?”
I struggle the bike along and up the bank to the road. A rough look over the bike shows everything's OK. Progress is key today and we're back on the road in a couple of minutes.
Our first stop is Tynda, a surprisingly large town. We keep it quick, stop at a shop to stock up with food, and sit outside to munch breakfast. The charming lady working at the store joins us.
Emerging from a bank, we meet Max, a smartly dressed Russian biker. He explains in superb English that he's got 3 bikes, and quickly asks what he can do to help us. He's a lovely chap, and within his words, we can read his true generosity. He's more than happy to help, we couldn't ask for too much. He'd go out of his way to do whatever's needed. All we need really, is a spare inner tube.
Max has his chauffeur drive him to an auto/hardware store, and we follow on bikes. I love these places, and always insist on spending time looking on every shelf, and into every cabinet.
Max is keen we stay the night in Tynda, or at least allow him to shout us a meal before we go, but we're fixed on this crazy schedule, and have to decline.
I'm learning on this trip. Time and time again I conclude that the way I want to travel is extremely slowly. Take up every offer, stay at every town I'm made welcome. It'll be different on the next chapter of this trip, I'll make it so.
We slow the pace, and continue north. Not 50 miles out of town I get a puncture in the back tyre. Half an hour or so to get it sorted. A mile down the road, and another puncture, rear. This tyre isn't helping, it's running red hot, and with so little meat on it, it's prone to punctures.
I'd wanted to save the Mongolian rear tyre I'm carrying, for the tougher stuff we'll hit on the Road of Bones, but these punctures are killing our progress, and we switch. It's an odd tyre, and an absolute nightmare to get onto the rim. Get it on, and it's not holding air, pinched the tube.
Start the process again, and I'm sweating buckets in the 35 degree midday heat and mosquitoes are everywhere. Patch the tube and start again. Patch leaks, start again. Pinch the tube, start again. Pinch the tube again. All in all, I manage 9 punctures that day, and a leaking valve. We spend all day at the side of that road, changing tyres and patching holes. A few folks stop, but there's not a lot they can do to help. Many of the Kamaz drivers stop to chat. They're all Armenian, and all friendly. They relay up and down, delivering materials for road construction. One chap, Babic, stops to chat, and later stops again, having bought us a picnic lunch, bread, cheese, fish. He also gives us more patches, and a rasp tool. What amazing generosity. “Come and stay with us, 5 Km up the road, beer, vodka, no problem”
It's great; Despite the hardship and the relentless mosquito attack, we both keep spirits high, joking the whole day, and pouring with sweat. Simon is one of the best travelling companions I've ever met. We're on exactly the same wavelength, and have an absolute ball. He's extremely generous, and I have absolute faith and confidence in him. That's enough Bolton.
We had thought there was a chance of covering the 900 remaining kilometres to Yakutsk. With the day spent playing with tyres, we're way behind, and making it to Magadan for the 1st August boat to Vladivostok is now completely out of the question. We change our approach, slow it down. Find a nice camp spot here, and ideally a beer or two.
A few km on, we take a right down a smaller track. A passing car stops, “No hotel, get back on main road and head north”. We chance our luck, and continue. Zolotinka is an odd little town, built for rail workers. The small population (500-900) is housed almost entirely in a few huge, high-rise apartment blocks. We ride to a little square in the middle of town, and find a little shop with table and chairs outside.
Sitting in the shade, we take great pleasure in a pair of cold beers, ice creams, and chocolate. I'm completely contented.
As we sit there, a familiar scenario develops. We arrived to an empty town square, and as we tuck into goodies, the area becomes more and more populated. It's not chance the people have decided to hang around there, they are interested in what's brought these two strange and stinking English bikers to their quiet little town. Before too long their inquisitiveness gets the better of them, and they come and strike up conversation. Starting with the stock set of questions; where are you from, where are you going, how much did your bike cost, how old are you, no family?
We soon make friends, lovely lovely people. Any chance of a workshop or somewhere to fix the 9th puncture of the day? Of course, no worries, just tell us what you need. We ride down to a little auto repair garage, with sizable entourage. They're great. They patch three tubes for us, using a little rubber welder thing, that's attached to the nearest car battery. I sneak back to the shop, and get cold beers for everyone at the garage. It actually gives me a real feeling of warmth, that not a single person thanks me for the beer. The Russian approach to helping folks out, and treating someone to a drink or bite to eat is as much a standard procedure as offering a cup of tea to a guest is in the UK. These events happen daily, everyone seems to be willing, and it must actually seem a bit odd how these English folks are forever saying thank you, spaseeba spaseeba spaseeba.
The garage guys won't take money for the help they've given.
What else do you need guys? There's a banya in this chaps garage, just about up to temperature by now, how's about getting naked, and cooking yourselves? Well, it'd be rude not to I guess, when in Rome and all that. The place is a strange setup, enter the oil soaked rough messy garage, clothes off, trying to keep out of the engine oil as much as possible, then into a wooden constructed room with table, chairs and beer, then through door into searing heat of the banya. Wood fired, home made, savagely hot. Thermometer on the wall shows 68 degrees centigrade. A couple of sessions in there, broken with beer breaks in the adjoining room, and we're just about spent.
You'll be staying with Sergy, manager of a team of railway engineers. We're shown up to the top floor of one of the blocks of flats, and into Sergy's huge apartment. He's obviously not doing too bad from his managerial role, and shows us round, every room bristling with expensive toys.
In the banya I'd been teased about the ragged mass of hair I'm sporting, not having been cut since I left the UK over 4 months ago. I'm game for a radical cut, and Sergy knows just the chap. Evan shows up brandishing a set of clippers. He's about to graduate in the paratroopers, and among other skills he's learnt in the paras, he's become adept at giving the standard Russian paratrooper haircut.
I'm pleased with the result. Not a style that would really be appreciated at home, but I'm not at home.
Before bed, a nightcap. Sergy produces a large glass jar, containing a couple of litres of clear fluid. He explains that this is not vodka, but is what he refers to as spirit, and is 96% alcohol by volume. What a way to end the day. It burns. Further shots are diluted 50/50 with water, and also burn.
The following day we're getting geared up to leave, and set off after a flurry of handshakes and English excessive thank yous. Riding out of town, we snap decide that we need a day to re-group, after yesterday there's not a chance we can make the 1st August ferry from Magadan, and so we abandon the mentalist rush. Finding a river and good camp spot, we set up 4 miles out of town.
Such luxury to have time on our hands. Folks from town soon discover us, and greet us with confused delight. We're told of a festival in a few days time, will you stay, funny English biker people? Simon and I look at each other, well why the hell not?
So we've spent days here by the river, and had dozens of visits from people from Zolotinka. We've carried, and I don't exaggerate, about 20 empty bottles of vodka up to the town waste dump. We've been treated with incredible kindness, and given all kinds of stuff.
Arton, now a good friend of ours, has given me lifts to and from town in his upgraded Toyota Hilux, and encouraged Simon and me to drive it up and down the river, and over rock fields. People pay for this kind of experience. We've slowly expanded our limited Russian vocabulary, and taught folks some English. Found great liberation in washing naked in the river. We've seen a car get stuck trying to make the river crossing, group of guys push the car out of the water and up incline of the bank, as driver falls out of the car, too drunk to even remain in the drivers seat.
We've tried the Russian breakfast, which is transparent and about 40% by vol.
I've gone on and on, but I'll call it a day there.
We've fallen in love with this strange little industrial town, and its generous inhabitants. The adventure's hardly even started. Road of Bones, here we come.