Update, April 22, 2014
It all started in Delta Utah when I heard the civil defense sirens blasting while getting gas. It wasn’t noon, heck, it wasn’t even a Wednesday. I asked the guy pumping gas into his Suburban, but he just shrugged, then I saw he had B.C. plates. I should have asked a local. Minutes later while riding thru town, I noticed school kids still playing in the school yard, so thought it not too important. It had been windy riding getting to Delta from Green River that morning, and I was hoping it would subside soon because my neck was getting sore from holding my helmet against the constant cross force of the wind. Not to be. Instead, the velocity of the wind increased; rivulets of sand were snaking across the highway, stinging my legs thru my jeans. (memories of coastal Peru) The sage brush was grey, the earth was grey sand, and the horizon was an opaque grey, filled with air born dust. It was a total white out and a bleached version of Oklahoma in the 30’s. The few oncoming headlights weren’t visible until a 100 yards out. It was like riding into an ‘abrasive fog’.
The few times that US-50 turned north, I could feel pressure on my back and hear the front tire hum at 70mph. But the scariest was when the wind direction would shift unexpectedly. In a split second the bike would do a lane change and then boom, I was back on course. There must have been some wind shear thing going on, like riding through an invisible ‘dust devil.’ Wow, these were the worst riding conditions ever, (but not the scariest); thank god the road surface was predictable and there was little traffic.
My first break would be Great Basin National Park, (just a few miles off River Road (US50), about 2200 miles west of Cincinnati) and about 2/3rd of my way to Ely NV that day. The Visitor Center sat on a slight crest above the access road. (note: while getting gas back in Delta, I noticed my Tenere bobbing up and down a few inches as the wind loaded and unloaded its weight off the kickstand.)
Concerned about the wind blowing my bike over in the parking lot, I sought the lone wind break, a National Park Rangers Tahoe parked in the bus lane. I positioned the bike downwind and far enough from the Tahoe that it wouldn’t be hit if it did blow over. Or so I thought. I put my helmet on the ground beside my bike knowing that it would be on the ground anyway if I put it anywhere else.
The Visitor Center was nice. I especially enjoyed the cross-section specimen of the old Bristle Cone Pine. The tree was cut down in 1961 to pave a parking lot. After examination, it was determined that they had just cut down the oldest living thing on earth…… 4500 years plus. Oops, sorry about that. There was a magnifying glass to examine the growth rings, and believe me, they were paper thin. A cross section would have over 9000 growth rings…..think of a book with 9000 pages. Maybe they can cut down another tree and find that it’s even older. That would make the guys who cut this one feel better.
When I left the Visitor Center, I had a clear view of the back of the Tahoe. Damn. Ironically, the placement of my helmet on the ground was the cause of the major damage, putting a dent in my gas tank and cracking my helmet. Unfortunately, I was an inch or two closer to the Tahoe than I thought and the corner of my ‘top box’ swiped the rear bumper putting a tiny crease in the white plastic. Since I was the rightful owner of the Tahoe, (and the Rangers were merely driving it), I didn’t feel a need to report the incident, however, I needed help lifting my bike, so it was back to the Visitor Center and ‘fessing up’. The Head Ranger lady didn’t take it personal, but she wanted all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted. Actually, the Center which appeared to be inhabited by a lone elderly Park Ranger guy, suddenly became a mass of interested folks. I’m sure the incident was their main entertainment of the day, maybe week. Two ranger folk helped ‘right’ the Tenere, and after signing a confession, I was off, back into the wind.
The Ranger told me that Ely was 60 miles further and that I could expect even heavier winds. The windmill farm 20 miles out was ‘still’, perhaps it’s possible for too high winds?
There’s an irony to riding in high cross winds: higher wheel speeds produce higher gyroscopic forces, aiding stability and keeping the bike upright, (that’s good) but higher speeds also allow the bike to ‘lane change’ more severely when the cross forces are changed abruptly as with ‘gusts’ or passing semi’s, (that’s bad). I could average 50-60mph, slower was unstable, faster had higher consequences. (no semi’s were seen, so maybe they ‘knew’ about the sirens.)
Thirty miles from Ely it starts raining, the temperature has dropped from a cool low 50’s into the cold and wet 30’s and the road is climbing over the final 8000 foot pass before Ely. So, I find a spot to pull over and have to steady the bike with one knee while fighting the wind to put on my rain jacket. I don’t take the time to remove my helmet, so the jacket hood is acting like a wind sock and the zipper is trying to lacerate my neck. Again underway and still ascending, the rain turns to snow. Wiping the snow from my visor wets my gloves and my hands begin to freeze. Visibility sucks and there’s no safe place to stop to get my warm gloves buried in my pannier. The right berm is sloped the wrong way, ensuring another tip over, finally I spot a turn off on the east bound lane, pull over, take a foto of the ice on my windscreen, and dig out my cold weather gloves.
US 50 west of Ely is dubbed “America’s loneliest highway” and since there’s not much traffic born in Ely, this section has very little traffic also, for which I’m grateful. I was hugging the center line and the unexpected gust had me in the eastbound lane a few times.
The snow and rain stop during the western decent, I find a Motel 6 in Ely, call Geico with the news and am told by the young Geico lady that since neither vehicle was occupied or in motion, that the wind was the culprit, that it was an ‘act of god’ and that my comprehensive would pay for my damage, but that the owner of the Tahoe would be liable for the damage to it. I wonder what the GSA will say to that… I might have to remind them that I’m the rightful owner.
Wednesday dawned clear and cold (low 30’s,) windy but blue skies with dust devils playing in the distance.
merrill in Nevada.
A little about Great Basin National Park… the Park is within the Basin, but the Basin is not within the Park. The Great Basin is roughly the size of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois combined…. No rivers flow out of the basin, all rain and snowmelt evaporate. Because it covers 95% of Nevada,” what happens in the Basin, stays in the Basin”….. it’s comprised of many smaller basins each separated by a North/South mountain range, of which I passed over 6 or 7 getting from central Utah to Ely. The Park is just a representative spot to tell the story. For you Cincinnatian’s, just jump on US50 and head west 2200 miles.
Update, April 26, 2014
I met Roy while having breakfast at McDonalds in Raymond Washington. Roy’s an old local (a year younger than me) riding a faded early 80’s Goldwing. We talked.
I told Roy that I had followed the coast up from Mendocino and lamented that Raymond was my last maritime town and that I’d be heading inland from Aberdeen to Seattle to get new tires, (which were waiting for me at Alyxmoto.)
He told me that if I took a left at the last traffic light out of town, I would be on 105 which would make a scenic loop to Aberdeen, following the coast and the fishing ports of Grayland and Westport, adding but 25 miles. I told him that I could always find the first traffic light, but how was I to know which was the last?
He said, “follow me”, so off we went.
Don't worry, it's not real.
Ten miles out on 105, there’re big breakers about a half mile off shore. I ask if there’s a reef and Roy tells me it’s a ‘bar’ and where the Willapa River meets the Pacific. At this point, the ‘river’ is about five miles wide, and looks to have lost all sense of flowing, but I guess not. Seems an awkward situation where rivers meet oceans.
On entering Westport, (which is on a dead-end jetty) I feel the rear of my bike start to wiggle, I’m hoping it’s the grooved asphalt, but it worsens rapidly. Roy is ahead, doesn’t know that I have an issue and I can’t catch up to tell him, so we parted without a ‘goodbye’. I pull over onto a gravel apron on someone’s side yard. The kickstand won’t extend because the bike’s too low to the ground…. Damn.
Wow…. I’ve just traveled 8 days, covering 3645 miles; I’m less than two hours from Seattle and my new tires….AND I GET A FLAT?????
I dig a hole in the gravel for the kickstand and stand in the middle of the road, wondering if Roy will return with some local advice; nope. The rear tire is now completely flat and I’m hoping I don’t have to move the bike much to find the leak (which could break the bead loose). (tubeless tires) I see a worn pebble and using the key, pry it out. I splash water from the puddle the bike is resting in and there’s just enough air escaping to let me know, this is it…. I couldn’t have positioned the wheel in a better rotation to work on it. Now, I’m feeling lucky. I find my new tire repair kit, and ready the plugging strands, rasp the hole clean and go to apply the goop to the plug. WTF…the adhesive tube is ‘used’, the foil seal has been punctured, the glue is stiff and there’s precious little left in the tube. Make it count. I work some glue into the puncture, and put the rest on the plug. I stab the plug into the wound and quickly extract the needle. I cut the plug flush, but there’s no air pressure left to test if it’s sealed.
(I had bought a new ‘kit’ just for this trip… someone had used the adhesive and snuck it back into the blister pak and returned it… funny thing is, I never take the package that’s ‘in front’, always taking the second one on the hook. Ha.)
Now for the air??? A cop cruises by, I wave but he continues on. A kid on a bike rolls by and tells me there’s a Shell station about a mile further. I walk and no one responds to my thumb (maybe four pick-up trucks on this dead-end stretch in 20 minutes)…. A lady yells, “not going far” and disappears in the distance. As I’m about to step up to the Shell front door, a big burly guy walks out and I confront him with “I have a flat, it’s plugged, but I need air.” He replies, “I’m your man.” We head to his house, (in his pickup) he starts his little pancake compressor until there’s a hundred psi, and off we go to my bike. Bob notes that the house I’m parked at now belongs to his ‘ex’….
He was just returning from ‘clamming’ when we met, so he didn’t hesitate to lie in the puddle and find the Schrader valve, we cross our fingers that the bead hadn’t broke and instantly, the bike rises three inches. Another splash test confirms the plug is sealed.
I offer to pay, he refuses, but accepts when I say it would make me feel better. I’ve seen bathrooms bigger than his house.
So, when did I pick up this sharp little pebble? On the scenic detour? Or before? If it was before, then hadn’t met Roy, I probably would have been booking on I-5 going into Seattle when my tire failed. As it was, I was slowly cruising some scenic back roads and met another nice guy.
The tire had about 8 months and 9,000 miles on it; wouldn’t you think it could have lasted two more hours? merrill, safe in Seattle.
April 27th …….
After thinking about all this last night, I’m asking myself these questions: if someone wanted to tell me: “hey, the most important item in your tool kit is not in order, and you’d better fix it now, before you really need it”….. how and when was a better way and time to tell me? And,….. who was Roy?
Note: the small hand pump I carry would have worked, because the bead held air; but I didn’t know that then. Besides, it was easier to walk the mile.
Cannon Beach, Oregon
Spent my last hours in the Western Hemisphere in one of my favorite spots in North America, in one of my favorite cities, Granville Island, Vancouver BC. It was a glorious weather day. First visited Vancouver as an extension of our moto wedding trip in ’74, (married in Banff, Alberta), a redo of that trip in ’76, again for the World’s Fair in ’86 ( in our new RX7) and several times in the winter enroute to Whistler for skiing. Before the ‘Fair’, Granville Island was an industrial wasteland with a huge cement plant that still operates, getting raw materials from the sea. The giant cement trucks still have to dodge meandering tourists as they wind the narrow alleys to exit.
A jam packed three hour flight from YVR to LAX and another jam packed thirteen hour flight on an Asiana 777 to Inchon Korea, arriving 5:30am. Customs offices didn’t open until 9am.
My friend Doug, who did a similar trip last year, gave me tips on where to find the customs office (in the basement) and how to proceed. I elected to hire an expediter so that all my documents would be ready upon my arrival. Not to be. Korean Customs had not proceeded with the process and I had to supply all my original documents, (bike title, registration, passport, international driver’s license….) plus some that the expediter didn’t ask me for, and waited two hours. Getting my documents to Wendy and her getting them to Korean Customs was for naught.
By the time I got to Korean Air Cargo, to pay for my one day storage fee and claim my bike it was after noon. By the time KAC finished their paperwork, it was after 1pm. I finally finished the reassembly of my Tenere at 4pm, suited up and turned the key…nothing. I had forgotten to reconnect the battery, dah. I was on the 4:30 ferry to the mainland.
I somehow managed to navigate from ICN to City Center Seoul in three hours. When I felt that I was close to the hotel, I pulled behind a waiting taxi and asked him to guide me to the New Seoul Hotel. I was only three blocks away by dead reckoning and quite proud of myself for doing that. At least it was a good finish to a day that started in Bellingham Washington 30 hours prior. It was 7:30pm, I was beat, but was meeting Wendy Choi (my expediter) in the lobby at 8. Wendy had made my reservations for the ferry to Russia, and procured my all important moto insurance (so that I could proceed with Customs). She had prepaid for the hotel, insurance and Customs, so I had to pay her back (in cash). We met, did business and walked to a soup restaurant for dinner. Wendy is a good person, trying to help ignorant bikers like myself. Her fees were very modest. While walking to dinner, it began raining, I was thankful that it had waited until I was checked into my hotel and that my moto was in dry basement garage. The day I dreaded most was over.
I’ve got a pretty good collection of Winter Olympic Ski towns going, so I thought I’d add Pyeongchang to that list, site of the 2018 games. I’ve never been to a ski town I didn’t like and the mountain moto riding has promise. Route 6 headed from Seoul to within 98% to P town… but how to get to rt. 6?? I asked, no one knew and no one could even tell which direction was North. Finally, the doorman, with much confidence pointed north. Following the taxi had screwed with my ‘reckoning’ and it was noon, so the shadows didn’t help. The hell with it, just go. My hotel was on an alley (anything less than four lanes is an alley) and I pulled out onto the street we had dinner on but headed the opposite direction. A half block away, there’s the familiar green overhead traffic sign (in Korean) with a ‘6’ in a blue oval. New Seoul Hotel was a half block from my route. HONEST. I followed 6 East, cleared Seoul traffic in about an hour and was on my way through rural Korea. I made not one missturn. ‘6’ follows a huge river delta East toward the mountains. After two hours, the valley narrows and the road snakes. All valley land is cultivated into small family farms. Women tending the fields are wearing cotton bonnet/scarfs that remind me of my grandmother Meyer. No monster 8 all-wheel drive John Deere’s like in Kansas here, small tractors and the two wheeled walk behind kind. Lots of greenhouses, metal frames with tightly pulled plastic. All open fields are covered with rows of black plastic mulch, each plant having a dedicated hole. It gives the appearance that each plant is a precious thing .
Every acre that is reasonably level and can be irrigated by a stream is cultivated, small modest farm houses, remarkably western in style. I feel a connection with my German farmer heritage here. Memories of working on the Meyer Farm (Duck Creek & Redbank Roads.) come back.
I pull into ‘P’ town about 5pm. Heck, this ain’t no ski town, it’s a farm town. I check into the Royal Hotel and have two missions…. Buy and install a new ‘bicycle water bottle holder’ (1st one crushed with the tip-over in Nevada, 2nd one lost in shipment). I find a bike shop, think K-Mart quality; the guy helps me install it. Then I think maybe he can help me install the 3 liter gas can/bracket that I bought at Tourtech in Seattle. Mistake. He doesn’t have a drill motor that works, has to go borrow one, no drill bits, uses a self tapping sheet metal screw as a drill bit, which makes way too small a hole…. Runs next door to borrow a bit too…. The stainless steel bracket ruins the drill bit…… I finally take over the situation. It ends well, he refuses payment. If his expertise measured half his enthusiasm, it would have been a more enjoyable experience for the both of us.
Oh, the second mission was to do laundry. My jean knees were soaking with old engine oil from kneeling and working on my bike at the truck pickup area at Korean Air Cargo. They were filthy and I didn’t want them in the bag with my clean clothes. Surprisingly, the hotel guy knew no English, so I had to pantomime ‘washing’. He took me to the 5th floor laundry room. The wash lady grabbed my jeans and shirt, threw them into a huge commercial washer, added some industrial grade soap, raised her index finger (one hour?) and left. I left too and shopped for dinner, found a pizza joint that used genuine Tabasco Sauce from Avery Island LA. instead of tomato paste. Yikes, that didn’t help future matters. When I returned to the hotel, it was dark, the laundry room was dark. I fumbled for a light switch, threw the jeans and shirt into a large dryer and pushed the buttons that had the rubber covers worn off (like Neil’s GPS) and watched the temp readout climb to 50. Oh, on the way back from the pizza, I spotted a lit and spinning barbershop pole. I hate it when my mustache rakes my food, a ‘stach trim: 90 cents. The old barber worked with a lit cigarette in his mouth. (note: all other venues….hotels, restaurants etc. respect the no-smoking rule.)
So, I cleared Seoul, rode the mountains, and got all my chores accomplished before bedtime, it was a good day.
Pyeongchang is a farm town and hardly suited to host the Olympics. What goes? Pyeongchang is also the Provincial name and includes all the mountainous area east to the coast. The non-alpine venues will be held in the coastal city of Gangneung, my next stop.
Bought my first cup of hot coffee today. Not the first cup today or of the trip, but the first cup ever. Drank hot coffee while on my free trip to Vietnam in the 60’s, but to my recollection, have not bought a cup for myself. Actually, it wasn’t a cup, but a can.
It was cold, windy, rainy and foggy, temp in the low 40’s, warming from the mid 30’s. Who would have thought that Siberia would be cold? I was standing inside one of the few gas station/ convenient stores that allow customers inside. There’s a Mafia looking dude packing a Makarov protecting the two sales girls. 90% of the stations are concrete block shacks with a pass through drawer for conducting business with the woman inside. I was looking out the window at my Tenere, parked next to the pump on my second fill-up. I was thirsty and eyeing the cold drinks when the girl placed the hot can of ‘Americano’ in my hand. Instantly I could feel energy flowing to my body instead of being drained away. I gripped the can tightly with my throttle hand…. It was a revelation. I paid for the coffee and squeezed the can until it had cooled…. My hands needed the heat more than my gut. This instant energy discovery would change my outlook.
I was headed for Blagoveshchensk, 509 miles west of Khabarovsk and a 90 mile southerly detour off the Trans-Siberian Highway. The promise was tsarist architecture, buildings from the late 1900’s. (Four days into Russia and I’m already sick of seeing the Soviet crap.) ‘B town’ lays on the Amur River which delineates the border between Russia and China… no bridges between these two large cities though.
I’m disappointed, the nice old buildings are scattered about and stained by their soviet style neighbors. In the old section, there are numerous 2 story log houses, with curtains, intricate wood shutters and a few dim lights visible inside. Fancy log cabins, still occupied. (This scene repeats in Irkutsk).
But first, let me tell you about the first 3 days in Russia. The ride down the slippery wet and greasy ferry ramp goes well. The 126 mile ride from the ferry town of Zarubino to Vladivostok is treacherous, lots of rain filled deep potholes and high cross winds coming off the ocean. An introduction to my next two days of riding which were the worst of my life. The Trans-Siberian heads dew north from Vladivostok for 500 miles to Khabarovsk. The road is bad, but it’s the long unpaved detours that make it hell. In 3 or 4 years, this will be the best road in Russia, but in 2014, it’s got to be the worst. The winter thaw, spring rains and constant heavy truck traffic have made the detours a river of slippery mud. There’s 3 and 4 inches of mud soup hiding deep pot holes and ruts. I’m in a slow parade of vehicles churning up more mud. The north and south paths are separated by a mound of mud making passing impossible. It’s cold, raining, windy and foggy with low visibility through my muddy visor. When will this stop? It doesn’t.
Concerned about darkness, I’ve been looking for a hotel. It’s been over 300 miles and I’ve seen not one. I pass thru the last town on my map that had hope and pull into a gas station. A trucker is leaving and I motion for him to lower his window. I rest my head (helmet) on my two hands…. He responds, “hotel?”, I nod yes, yes. Just to hear some English gave me hope. He says “follow me” and heads back to the town I had passed thru and that he was headed to. Alexander and Mikhail worked for a ‘Catapillar’ repair shop in Alabama, they each wore “CAT” caps. Both had poor English, were native Russians, and had never been to America. Alex stops and makes a phone call, asks some local kids for directions and we drive into one of the many depressing soviet apartment complexes that make up each city. We park in front of what looks like any other apt. building. I never would have found this place without their help, not even had I rode right past it. No ‘hotel’ sign in English or Russian.
Alex and Mikhail are staying there too. I grab the essentials off my bike, check in and then they escort me to a secured parking lot, with dog. On the walk back to the ‘hotel’, we stop and share dinner. What a wonderful coincidence to meet Alex and Mikhail.
My body and soul are recuperating from ‘the road thru hell’, but the Tenere didn’t fair as well. Just two days of riding Russian roads with washboard, potholes and gritty mud had blown both fork seals. Fork oil was running down the sliders and being blown back onto my brake calipers and brake pads.
Note oil stains on brakes and rim.... 1st day's ride in Russia.
Now, you’d think that if an old fat man could survive the roads, shouldn’t his ‘adventure’ bike? I was disappointed in my Yamaha to say the least.
The compromised suspension performance didn’t concern me, but Doug emailed that the fork oil also provided the necessary lubrication for the sliders, and that did concern me. To aid lubrication, I took a pair of (dirty) cotton socks and wrapped them around the seal area, securing with cable ties. The liter of 10w40 I bought had a foil seal, so I punched a small hole and could use it as a squirt bottle to saturate the socks at each gas-up. I pulled the sock up and felt the slider area to ensure that there was no heat buildup and every time, the sliders were cool and oily. Good.
I knew where I wanted the seals replaced, but getting there was the problem, the mechanic was over two thousand miles away…. like having a problem in Cincinnati and driving to LA for the fix.
Brake performance was poor. The Tenere’s anti- lock system was now redundate. If I would ‘ride’ the front brake hard, I could feel the braking getting progressively stronger the further I traveled. I kidded myself by saying that the brakes would be adequate about 10 meters past impact. If you’re going to ride two thousand miles with lousy brakes, there’s no better place to do it than in Siberia.
I still had the acceleration to pass, but lost the ability for a quick abort if needed.
I found an aerosol can of ‘Engine and Parts Cleaner’ but debated if it was worth the $15. It helped a little, maybe.
Oh, the most memorable thing about the hotel was the toilet paper dispenser: a plastic clown head with the TP coming out its mouth…. when you flipped his mouth open, the paper didn’t have a tube, it was wound tight to the center. Never seen that before.
Hotel in Luchegorsk
More to follow. Merrill in Russia.
May 19, 2014
Westbound #5…… Blagoveshchensk to Chita
From the disappointment of tsarist ‘B town’, I headed 90 miles north to rejoin the Trans-Siberian and continue westward. The T-S makes a big loop over a northerly hump in China. Today I would be riding in a northwesterly direction. The winds were from the north and cold, but the day started dry. I had no destination in mind, only to ride hard and find a hotel before dark. This would be the most desolate stretch of Siberia. Towns were few and far between, very little agriculture, lots of trees, streams and sky. If Montana is ‘Big Sky Country’, Siberia is ‘Biggest’. I was riding with my rain gear on for wind protection… it really didn’t matter if it rained, traffic was almost nonexistent. The first hotel visible from the highway (it was like a road house), appeared at 427 miles…. it was only 4pm, it stays light until 10:30, but my core temp was low and I didn’t want to take a chance on the next hotel being another 400 miles further. It proved a wise choice. A prepared pizza (40r) and bottle of water (60r) for dinner, 3 bucks.
The city of Chita was my next stop. I was a hundred miles short of making the halfway point on Friday, so it meant a 600 mile day for Saturday. Cold but only showers on the mountain passes when the temps drop and the air can’t hold the moisture. Around 4pm, after clearing a pass, geography makes a sudden change, kinda like coming out of the Rockies into eastern Colorado…. trees gave way to grass lands… just as I had envisioned the steppes of Mongolia. I saw a horseman herding his sheep way in the distance, I waved and he waved back…. The sun was bright, the temperature had climbed into the upper 60’s, I stopped at a remote ‘café’, shed my rain gear, petted the puppy while removing my rain boots, went inside to see what’s to eat….. nothing I could figure out....
After an hour of ‘steppes’, the terrain returned to what I had seen for the last 2500 miles…. As I approached Chita, it began raining again, back on with the gear. I mistakenly had taken a bypass around the north side of the city, which proved good for getting out of town on Sunday. I punched the GPS for a hotel. I entered the hotel, but it was a liquor/convenient store and the lady didn’t have clue as to why I was there. I went back outside to look for another entrance, none. About this time, three guys walk in…. no English, but they sense the situation…. We do the head on hands deal…. They grab my arm and lead me through some iron gates and steps at the back of the building, take me upstairs to the check-in desk. The girl clerk assures me there’s wifi…. yeah, I check-in and then the guys are VERY persistent that I go with them in their car. Finally, the leader flashes his police badge and calls his wife on his cell.
She has good English and invites me to dinner. I’m dead tired after 600 miles of shit road, still have my dripping rain gear on and am getting hot in more ways than one. Finally, ok let’s go.
Cafe, near Chita
The young cop drives like a madman…. sliding his little right hand drive car on the wet and sandy streets. The three guys were on a liquor run when they met me…. there were five bottles of vodka on the counter and
plenty of food on the table. It was Saturday night; there were four young families plus me. The food was great and I ate as much as I could, but they insisted I eat more…… I didn’t like where this was heading, so I told the cops wife that I wasn’t feeling well and needed to go back to my hotel… she could see my distress, and told everyone that I needed to leave. I apologize, they sing “don’t worry, be happy”… and it’s back to the hotel just before dark. No wifi.
(The home owner was Asian, not the cop. He and his wife had two beautiful little girls. Their house was brand new, the kitchen a showcase for Samsung appliances. It was totally western in design and execution.)
Dinner invitation in Chita
Sunday’s goal was to get to my mechanics town of Ulan-Ude. But first some background….. Remember that my friend Doug had done a similar trip in 2013… We were to travel together but I backed out knowing we had too different traveling styles… anyway, Doug’s KLR was making an engine knocking noise that got progressively stronger coming into Ulan-Ude. It needed attention. He found a moto mechanic named Sasha Utenkov who disassembled the bottom end and determined it was the connecting rod/crank bearing. The KLR has a one piece rod and pressed crank pin, it needed to be replaced as an assembly. Doug found the part on eBay, had it shipped USPS. It arrived to Russian Customs in a timely manner, but took several weeks to clear customs. Long story short, Doug stayed with the Sasha family for 30 days.
I had emailed Doug about my seal issue and told him that I would like to make it to Sasha’s for the repair. See previous update #4…..
I arrive Ulan-Ude at 6pm. Several Mongolian guys are gathered by their tractors and eye me as I pass. Someone who shows interest is a good thing. I turn around and pull in like we’re old buddies…. We shake hands and they inspect my Tenere…. then a Corolla pulls in, the driver gets out and motions for his wife to join us. She speaks good English. I pull out my note binder and search for Doug’s email printout with Sasha’s name and phone number…. he calls, no answer. Not to worry, he knows Sasha and his son Stas and will take me there. He had called Stas who would meet us half way. I’m so thankful this couple took the time to help me; I don’t even know their names….
Note, I could not get wifi service on the most remote sections of the T-S… I hadn’t connected for four days, I was just riding hard. Doug figured that and had informed Stas about my coming. He was expecting me.
Friend of Sasha and Stas who pulled over to help me.
We arrive Sasha’s house, Stas shows me Doug’s bed (now mine) and Doug’s old crankshaft… and looks up on the internet the seal size for my Tenere…. 43x56mm. and leaves to get the seals…. It’s Sunday evening. Good news, they’re in stock. I forgot to tell Stas to get an extra set, just in case… no problem, he pulls the second set out of his pocket…
Before dinner he has the forks removed and cleaned. Sunday must be hot water night; I’m invited to take a shower. Sasha arrives with bikers friends; he had been in Chita (the city I was in last night, 600 miles east) for the Season Opener Bike Festival. We have dinner with Stas and Sasha’s friends.
After dinner, Sasha goes to the shop and starts on my forks. The man works like a robot, no wasted motion, like he’s done this a thousand times and probably has. The forks are disassembled, he removes the little coil spring from the new seals and clips off a half inch (to increase the tension) drains the remaining oil (I’m surprised there’s so much) and reassembles the forks. Stas reinstalls the forks, front wheel, brakes and fender….. New fork seals installed on a Sunday evening with hot shower and dinner included. (while riding the previous three days, I’m wondering, will Sasha have the time to work on my bike? What’s his schedule?)
I stay two nights, get a city tour with Stas and Alexander…. Ever try to keep up with a young Russian riding a Kawasaki 1400 (the fastest bike on the planet) crotch rocket in his own neighborhood?
Stas Utenkov removing the forks.
Of course there’s no charge for any of this, nor for Doug’s month long visit.
In case you’re wondering about the cities I’ve mentioned in my stories…. Even though I’ve never heard of them, except for Vladivostok of course, they are big cities, bigger than Cincinnati I suppose. All had street cars and trolley busses, serviced by expressways, and traffic lights with digital count- down clocks which make for fast getaways…. and heavy impatient traffic. 90% of the cars and small trucks are right hand drive, being procured thru online auctions in Japan. Right hand drive, on left drive roads, makes for interesting passing. The oncoming passing car is practically in your face before its driver can see you.
I saw hundreds of Japanese cars being towed, trailered, trucked going across Siberia to be delivered, all still had the auction id written on the back window…. Some had the front fascia removed, some with packing foam taped over the entire front.
Hot water for bathing at Sasha’s involved filling the water tank, starting a wood fire and waiting several hours. Water was scalding hot and dispensed by a hose with a ball cock. Fill the dipper one third with hot and the rest with cold from a large drum. The wood fire makes the ‘bathroom’ feel like a steam bath…. The floor, walls and ceiling are raw wood. Very rustic. There was no hot water on Monday or Tuesday; glad I made the Sunday cut.
I arrived Ulan-Ude on a glorious warm Sunday afternoon, temps in the low 70’s. First order of business on Monday was to wash the Tenere. I thought this would be a DIY project but Stas led me to a commercial washing garage. Lots of high pressure sprayers and big drains, several trucks being washed. My bike has never been so clean… trouble was, the air was not. The wind had shifted from the south to from the north, it was cold, windy and the air was filled with smoke from giant forest fires near Lake Baikal. At Monday night’s dinner, Stas pulls the drapes back and announces that it’s snowing. I planned to leave Tuesday morning, so this was not good news to sleep on.
Three inches of fresh snow greet me Tuesday morning, but I’m committed to riding and the sky is promising if not sunny. My destination is Irkutsk, “the Paris of Asia” and 300 miles to the west. I delay my departure as long as possible hoping for sun and warmth. I leave Sasha, Stas and Mrs. Utenkov a nice note and gratuity.
The route hugs the southern shore of Lake Baikal for about 170 miles, the wind is from the north and cold, but smoke free. Many vistas of the Lake, but my camera is not handy with my rain jacket on, so I’ll get the photos on my return, not. I was warned that it would be a cold ride, even on a normally warm day. This was a cold day. I stopped twice for my Mocha Latte hand warmers and met three Russian bikers on the new Honda NX700 adventure bikes, they were heading east.
Lake Baikal has 1500 miles of shore line, (think Lake Tahoe, not Cumberland) and holds more fresh water than all our Great Lakes combined…. Its waters never warm. U-Bear rode his Ural onto the winter ice and camped… he has a great foto of his Baikal campfire on his web-site.
Leaving Sasha's in an hour
I find a nice cheap hotel (ArtHouse) near the center of Irkutsk, turn in my laundry and walk for dinner.
Wednesday I walk town and fret about losing internet with Diane….. ever since my 3rd day in Russia, Cinti. Bell has shut me out of my email; I can’t log in and when I go to their web site to change my password, I’m banned from entry… A few very expensive phone calls explain the situation…. I’m going to rely on Diane to sort it out. I can’t express how much this upsets me…. that I’ve never been to a more remote place, and to lose communication….. I’m disappointed in myself for becoming so reliant on the web…. There are no internet cafes like in Central and South America, everyone here has a smart phone, (except me).
Thursday breaks warm and sunny. The reason for this 700 miles detour off-route is to visit an “old Russian wood architecture outdoor museum”…. Surprisingly, it’s not listed in LP but is listed in my Eyewitness Guide book. The museum is not on my map, nor on the GPS…. I hope I can find it. The road leads south to the tourist town of Baikal which sits on the western shore of Lake Baikal…. I’m about to give up on the ‘wood building museum’ when I see a picture sign…it’s it. It’s great, past my expectations. The site is wooded, maybe 20 acres, with trails that wind thru birch trees and the buildings representing a chronological history of dwellings in Siberia… up to the 20th century. Teepees clad with slabs of bark, log homes like our pioneers, mills, early forts and churches…. school kids on field trips, crafts and period furnishings on display inside the buildings. This is the first time I get ‘lost’ in my trip and not concerned with the internet, weather a and road conditions…. I’m on holiday…whahoo.
I meet my first Americans at the museum, a group from Utah on a Trans-Siberian train tour….
Thirty dollar ArtHouse in Irketsk, Russia.
I continue on to Baikal, the most popular resort town on Lake Bailkal. A dozen ‘lake cruise boat’ kiosks still shuttered, waiting for the summer crowds. There are two ‘steamers’ that traverse the lake in the long N-S direction. Not many tourists about…but I find the fish market. The Lake is famous for Omul fish and the market is half full of vendors with dried fish… I take a few fotos and buy a fish kabob, hot off the grill. It was a good day.
Fish market in Baikal.
RFE (Russia Far East) Trans-Siberian Railroad, saw dozens of trains each day, only one passenger train. Typical rural housing. Always blue shutters. RFE
Siberia, RFE…… Fishing on Amur River… Typical rural village, Siberia, RFE….. Caretakers house Talsty Wood Building Museum, Irkutsk.
Eleven days in Mongolia…..
After my 700 mile cultural detour to Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and the Wood Building Museum, I head back east toward Ulan-Ude and take the southerly turnoff before reaching the city traffic. The ride was cold, rain threatening and no fotos.
100 kms. south of Ulan-Ude there’s a small town and I try to find a hotel before the Mongolian border. It’s raining, the streets are muddy and puddled. (We take crowned roads and storm sewers for granted, not so in Central Asia and Siberia, when it rains, it’s an accepted big mess.) It’s an old Soviet era apartment building, my room is on the 4th floor, no lift, and the 5th floor stairs are roped off. The first three floors are probably for resident guests. It rains all night and I’m awakened at 3am by a dripping noise…. but where? I turn on the single overhead bulb and find the hard- wired smoke detector dripping, right over the foot of my bed. I scoot the bed over and place the plastic waste can to catch the drip. In the morning there are a dozen buckets in the hall which explains why the 5th floor was closed…
I meet a Swiss couple on Moto-Guzzi with side car at the border, but the Russian guard doesn’t have the patience for our conversation, so we part.
I’m on the main road and only paved road to Ulaanbaatar, the capitol of Mongolia. The road is good for the first 100 kms…. then turns to shit. I arrive at the Oasis Guesthouse and take a dorm room, shared with a Korean guy (pronounced ‘You’). It’s a welcoming place, English spoken, western fixtures, thoughtful construction….. built by an Austrian couple who split a year ago and now run by a Mongolian woman who speaks fluent English and German. Facilities are shared with the local community…. Non-guests enter from another entrance to take hot showers and to use the beauty salon. It’s a busy place behind the scenes…. tranquil if you’re a guest. Besides the dorm rooms, there is a private room and six gers. Each guest gets a ‘chit sheet’ kept in a file box to keep track of items used…. water, food, snacks… it’s an honor system.
On day two at the Oasis, I meet Cornelius a Dutchman (Triumph 800XC) and Uwe (You-ee) a German (KTM990 Adventure). The Triumph is losing oil from the drive sprocket area. I take an interest. A mechanic lives next door, he removes the sprocket cover and sprocket… the seal is totally chewed up and the shaft bearing can be seen, including the ball bearings in their cages. Not good, especially when a trip to the Gobi is planned…..
Fabricating a new seal for Cornelius
A plan emerges to make a semi seal fabricated from a metal disc, and use silicon around the drive shaft. The mechanic doesn’t have calipers to measure the shaft od, (seal id) so I devise one using two Allen (hex) wrenches held with my vice grips…. then I cut a circle of paper with a hole larger than the shaft and press it against the case to get a greasy impression of the seal od…. The mechanic finds a piece of aluminum sheet and cuts the disc. Things are cleaned, the drive shaft is oiled, the disc adhered to the old chewed up disc with silicon and silicon wiped around the shaft to form the new seal. Longer story short, Cornelius has to add a half liter of oil at each fuel stop, but the leak doesn’t get worse with distance…. Good. We kid Cornelius that he will never have to change oil on his bike again…. just continually add fresh.
So, the road in is the only paved road….how to exit?? Going NW, there are two days of pavement with beautiful scenery…. I think maybe I’ll do that and then exit on the paved road north, the way I came in… but that sucks because then I’ll do a triple take on the road to Irkutsk and make my ‘cultural detour’ redundant.
(I rightfully believe that riding solo thru the Gobi is ill advised, and this becomes all the more true when we do it as a threesome.)
Over dinner, Uwe and Cornelius welcome me to accompany them on the southern route…. which entails one day of pavement (to the old Mongolian capitol of Bayanhongor) and seven days of tracks skirting the Gobi and exiting Mongolia in the NW into Russia.
(Let me get this over right now. It has rained on my parade almost every day since entering Siberia…. I feel the rain is hunting me. It’s been 3 sunny days in Ulaanbaatar and I’m feeling the rain is looking for me. Meanwhile, Cornelius and Uwe have had only one day of rain on their entire 10,000 mile trip from Germany and they don’t seem concerned about the weather….. I want early starts to maximize daylight, they piddle in the morning and I tell them it’s like traveling with two old ladies….. they laugh, but I get my point across and it’s up at daylight, departing at sunrise from then on.) What else is there to do???? A heavy rain would dictate waiting (somewhere?) while the bad drainage muddy spots dried. It doesn’t rain the entire eleven days….just one sand/dust storm and high winds on day six.
The ride out of Mongolia is to be the ride of my life….. THE most physically challenging thing I’ve done in my life, and I’m not adjusting for my old age. There are no roads…. just tracks in the steppes… going every which way. They probably all converge at some point, but who knows for sure…. We keep on the GPS route which is supposed to be the ‘main road’.
We have three Garmin GPS’s, they all concur on the route, but Cornelius notes from his topo equipped map, that our route is taking us too far south into the Gobi, and when we follow the route on the gps by advancing the map…. The road ends near a large lake, much too far south. We have spent the first five hours of the second day on the wrong path, and have to back-track and lose a day riding….. and this is our first day.
Careful watch of Cornelius’s map, mountain ranges and peaks, and setting shorter targets on the gps keep us on track…. mostly.
There are two nights that concern me most. Everyone has told us that there are two nights that require tenting as the towns are too small to have hotels. Uwe (the youngster at 46) tells me I can have his tent and he will sleep outside…. OK…. a cold night for sure.
Somehow, on our approach to the first village without a hotel, we get split up having entered on different tracks. I gas up at the lone station, and do the head on hands routine to the operator. He walks over to his SUV, points to the bumper; I walk back to my bike and follow him to a ‘pub-karaoke’ joint. The door’s locked, he points to the ground, I wait, 5 minutes later a guys pulls up on his Chinese 150… he unlocks the door, I buy 6 bottles of water and chug 2…. do the head on hands and he shrugs ‘no’…. He takes me outside and points to another building, I go to check it out, but it’s locked also…. I ask another guy, he leads me back to the ‘pub’. The guy comes back, I do the praying hands, he takes me upstairs, shows me two rooms, two beds each…. I give the thumbs up…ok. how much? (it doesn’t matter at this point)… $7 USD per person. There’s a wash basin across the hall, dip your own water, and an outhouse out back with two sturdy planks. The man and his wife live in the end rooms…. It’s their washroom that we share. The gaps in the outhouse boards let you know when it’s in use…. no confrontations.
Family shared washbasin.
Where are Cornelius and Uwe??? It’s been over an hour and they still haven’t shown up….. No one realized that I had gotten ahead on the other track, so they thought I was still behind….and Uwe made a long backtrack looking for me….. Finally, we meet and we’re all thrilled with our accommodations… darkness is upon us. Our separation made for some anxious thoughts and we made plans so it wouldn’t happen again.
After the road reached its southern most point, Cornelius would comment, “Maybe the sand will diminish over the next hill”…… well, it didn’t, not until we reached the mountain pass that separated Mongolia from Russia. Six days of industrial grade washboard and deep sand. Who would have thought there’d be sandy tracks in the Gobi??
It was six days of total concentration, palm pounding, shoulder wrenching, eyeball jarring sand filled roads. Most days were in first and second gear….. Cornelius fell unhurt 9 or 10 times… Uwe fell 3 times, hurting his knee the second fall, and his ankle and foot when it was pinned under his right pannier on his third fall. I became his gopher, hauling his luggage to his room. He could ride, but not walk. It could have been worse. I don’t know why I didn’t fall….. a dozen times, I was totally out of control…. leaving the track and snaking wildly 20 meters into the sand before coming to a stop. A smooth section was bait…. accelerating just meant using the brakes hard in a few meters and it meant shortening the ‘smooth time’. We just kept a slow steady pace….
Fall #???? for Cornelius...Gobi.
The route we’re on is the main road through Mongolia…. It’s basically the only way across the country. We see maybe 6 to 8 vehicles per day; gasoline trucks, other trucks, a few personal cars, and a few bikers, all traveling east toward Ulaanbaatar. Peter (Africa Twin) and Mandy (BMW650GS) from Holland, A German couple with a Toyota AWD truck with a super camper…. Jimbo, this is what you need. (pics on request) and a poor guy from Paris on a BMW1200GSA, in the middle of nowhere, whose computer showed a fault (after a crash) and would allow the engine to start, but would quit when throttle was applied. We spent an hour with him, left him some food and drink. His traveling partner was ahead and did not know of the incident and had not returned in more than an hour… he had a tent and sleeping bag.
The small villages are basic. No streets, sandy hard pack, drive anywhere…. A minimarket, bar, some gov’t looking buildings, no one about. The three larger cities enroute have basic hotels, paved streets, restaurants, Buddhists temples at first, then mosques. The only thing I can compare it to is Bolivia…. Stark subsistence living…. sheep and goats. The Mongolian men ride 150cc Chinese bikes….. they can run circles around us as if not affected by the sand. They ride mostly on virgin ground…. And we do too when looking for a smoother track. This is the only place I’ve seen, where riding on virgin soil is better than the roads….except for patches of deep sand that are camouflaged and shoebox size angular rocks spaced far enough apart that they can be dodged…. As remote as it appeared, when we would stop for a water break, many times a Mongolian or two would ride up to check us out…. They wear heavy drab oversized topcoats below their tall boots, a wide belt band and a knit face mask with slits for eyes and mouth, plus a hat. They all have smart phones and want fotos of themselves on our bikes…. We oblige. They are not shy people. Meetings and departures are done with a hardy handshake…. all bum a cigarette from Uwe.
At our second ‘no hotel’ village, I find a somewhat regular two story hotel… the poured stairs have two landings and they’re so off level and tilting that I feel like I’m in Alice’s Wonderland. I take a foto. Toilet is an outhouse, same deal.
First and last nights are at ‘ger camps’ (yurts). At the Blue Wolf ger camp, three Fins arrive heading east. They get the last of the hot showers. No hot showers since the Oasis.
Mongolian herders on 150cc Chinese bikes.... Small village, curious kids.... I peeked in his window.... he returned with his pet lamb... maybe favorite foto of trip?
….. more Mongolia. Mostly pics this time.
One of 5 large eagles spotted, many more in sky... ,A finger of the Gobi dunes extending into our tracks, Open range since 1st day in Russia. Gobi Desert, looking south toward China.
Old Buddhist Monastery at old Mongolian capitol of Kharkhorin. 108 Stupas surround temple site. Mid 17th century. End of Day 1.
Commies destroyed most temples in 1930’s to discourage pilgrim worshippers from coming to site.
We* stayed at a ger camp near here on our first night of ‘the road trip’. *(Uwe, Cornelius, me)
Morning of Day 2
Ger camp, Kharkhorin. Mongolian cowboy...
Pick a track, any track..... Heading South-West into Gobi. Sorry, wrong track…. Let’s go back and try again…,
300 miles down.... only 1300 more miles to go. Hundreds of miles of tracks like this….
wtf. Slugging along in 1st and 2nd gear. Uh, Cornelius, your 800XC is pointed in the wrong direction….
Riders of the storm.... , Wait while I fetch my lamb.... Day 4., Check out my eyelashes.....
Day 5. Uwe's down and favoring his right foot. Only 600 more miles to go. Uh, Uwe, your KTM is headed the wrong direction,
Sand storm approaching from north; in less than an hour, the temperature drops from 104 to 59 degrees. Day 6.
Couple from Germany in Toyota super camper.... Uwe's gotta have one.... aluminum cap that raises... really rugged and cool. They love the sand,
hate the washboard, we hate both. Day 5.
Peter (Honda Africa Twin) and Mandy (BMW650GS) from Holland, chatting with fellow Dutchman, Cornelius. They are heading East. Day 4.
Second floor hotel lobby, in second town with 'no hotel'….. milk pail of water to fill washbasin dispenser… lift stick, water falls.
Bucket behind cabinet door gets emptied before it overflows….maybe. Day 5.
"Alice In Wonderland" stairs.... or am I drunk? Note riser height on left…. Day 5.
Sure there's room for a freezer in that old Ural. End of market day, Khovd Mongolia.... Day 6.
Cornelius on 2nd water crossing of Day 6....
This just about says it all..... endless riding toward a mountain range, to be met by yet another range and another..... thank god for good weather..... those aren't clouds. Day 5.
Slim pickens....... Day 6
Best looking Yak in Mongolia..... note ear tag. Day 6.
The three of us..... Heading north toward Russian border. Day 6.
Bridge out.... first river crossing. Uwe walks to get best path.... I go first. Everyone makes it without falling. Day 6.
GPS says this is the main track, it isn't. New, better route not on GPS as we find out too late... we reconnect with main track after a couple of hours.
This track leads down into distant big valley, with two water crossings and faint tracks. Day 6.
Blue Wolf Ger Camp, Olgii. Felt carpet at door way, door surround is a shyrdak.
( I bought some antique ‘shyrdak’ remnants in Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan for Diane.)
Socks drying from river crossing… Day 6.
Hotel outhouse with view.... near Darvi. Day 5.
Industrial grade washboard. 4 inches deep, 20 inches peak to peak.... impossible to 'skip' across. Rode it at 12-15 mph…. only relief was deep sand….. most days.
Mongolian Southern route.
GPS says we're on the main track, tracks are faint, third water crossing of day 6. ‘Big Valley’
Cornelius taking a shot......High altitude, (10,000ft.) Day 6.
The three of us again..... heading due north to Russian border... Day 6.
Girl sticks her head into our ger and asks if we want dinner???? an hour later she arrives with table, cloth and most delicious meal of our trip... cool Coke included.
4 bucks each. Wolf Ger camp, Olgii. Note felt floor rugs and ‘shydaks’. Uwe and Cornelius. Good end to Day 6.
High altitude Mongolia-Russia border. Mid day 7.
Remote Russian border outpost.... at mountain pass. They checked your papers to see if you could proceed to lower elevation crossing station. Thin air, sun was intense.
Mid day 7.
It was too early to stop, but too pretty to not. So we got this cabin by the river and enjoyed a good meal and conversation.
No water or electric but a big dumb German Sheppard that swam across the raging river to be with us.... he slept at our doorstep. Our last night together. End of Day 7.
Saying "Goodbye" in Barnaul Russia. (cold and raining of course) Mid day 8.
….. Mongolia conclusion.
Uwe’s a big 6-4, 300 pound German teddy bear. He owes a trucking company, rides hard and takes a smoke while Cornelius and I catch up.
Cornelius, the Dutchman, is slight, a dentist who owes and manages a 40 employee clinic and is very contemplative….. like me. Every time we see a Buddhist stupa, he walks it CW…. hands together, face down.
They are ‘new’ friends, the common denominator being they have adopted Ugandan children and met at the orphanage in Uganda. It’s a grassroots effort, no charity or religious affiliation, just them, an administrator at the orphanage and the children. They provide food, education and health care for the kids. A successful graduate is expected to give back…. tutoring etc…. Cornelius admits that “they all look the same to me” but that his wife knows each and every one by face and name. They visit once a year.
Their plan to ride Mongolia was hatched a year ago, Uwe being the ‘leader’. These are good guys.
Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a loner and travel alone. This will be a new experience for me, 24/7 for 7 days with two ‘strangers’. But it’s out of necessity and mutual benefit that we join forces for this adventure thru the Gobi. I’m in.
The physical hardship of the riding becomes a mental stress as well. It’s obvious early on that this task will not be easy. We take it seriously and all contribute…. sharing everything, food, drink, advice, righting a fallen bike… we’re a team and it’s an experience that brings back some (few) good memories of Viet Nam…
I can’t express the feeling of camaraderie that lifts me…. not peer pressure, but a desire to make it through this task as a team.
When we reach Russia, (and pavement) there’s a sigh of relief, but also a bit of a ‘let down’ knowing that our sharing days are over. This was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I’m thankful for it….
Cornelius and Uwe.... Mongolia. Westbound Update #10….. Kazakhstan…. It’s not what you think.
The main reason for getting a visa for Kazakhstan (Kaz) is to get to Kyrgyzstan. Mongolia ate another fork seal, (left) so I’m also betting on having it repaired in Almaty, the largest and most progressive city.
I meet up with two Austrians (Marcos and Hans) at the border crossing from Russia into Kaz. Marcos rides a KTM990 Adv. and Hans rides a Triumph 800XC…. Sound familiar? Marcos and Hans had left the Oasis the day I arrived and had taken the ‘southern route’ with a three day jump on Uwe, Cornelius and me. Uwe and Cornelius had met them before I arrived and told me of them. (Todd and John, the 990 has one of those super big orange tanks like the one we saw at MMM.)
Hans (800XC) me and Marcos (KTM990) near Kazakhstan border, first of three meetings.
When M&H left Mongolia, and crossed the Russian border, they took a detour off the main road (where we took the river cabin) and took a lesser road closer to the mountains. They got two days in and the road turned to deep mud and they had to turn back, losing three days…. hence my catching up and our meeting.
We clear Russian and Kaz immigration and customs as a threesome and I ride with them to Semey where we exchange money. (Kazakhstan currency is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.) They ride faster than I like, so we part but meet again for lunch down the road. It takes me two nights to reach Almaty.
I’m entering the city traffic and wondering, “how am I going to find a mechanic to repair my forks?” Just then, a Kawasaki street bike passes me going north… I check my mirrors and do a u-turn and follow him for a 20 meters… he pulls over next to two other guys on Suzuki’s.
Misha, Mikhail, Michael, Mike and Andre, Andrew,Andy. Repairing the left fork seal.... one hour after we met.Almaty.
I show them my leaking fork seal and try to tell them that I need a mechanic. I’m not getting through….. maybe these guys just ride…. Finally one pulls out his smart phone and we’re texting with translation…. It’s Sunday, no parts available… shops are closed on Monday also…. wait until Tuesday??? No, I have parts….. then I open my pannier and show them the seals from Sasha. “OH”.
The guy, Misha, is a motorcycle mechanic…. We’re parked in front of his shop…. They swing open the big iron gate and show me the shop…. A dozen bikes in various state of ‘repair’…. Within an hour of meeting Misha and Andre, my left fork is off the bike and being disassembled. I watch. Just like Sasha, no wasted motion, no hesitation…. this guy knows what he’s doing….. they clean everything before getting to the guts…. Replace the seal, and reassemble. Before installing, they ‘pump’ the fork on the ground… bad news, it still leaks…. Back apart, they install the second new seal, it leaks. Then, they disassemble it again and wet hand
sand the slider with 2000 grit… reassemble, it still leaks…. It’s now late afternoon and they’ve given me their entire day off…..
I need a new rear tire… no problem, come back on Tuesday and we’ll go shopping…. I leave and continue into city center and find a nice hotel…. The gps led me to one, but it was too expensive and the girl clerk tells me about this one around the corner. Monday is my day off…. I walk the city and jump on the trolley bus when I get tired…. It rains in the afternoon.
My mechanics.... Tasha, Alexander, Alex, me, Misha and Andre. Almaty.
Tuesday morning I leave my hotel at 8:30, not wanting to be late for my 10’oclock appointment with my Kazak mechanic.... It should only take me 15 minutes to get to the shop…. I get lost… I’m too far out of town…. I need to go back to the hotel and try to get my bearings… I punch the gps for the hotel but now I’m in rush hour traffic going into the city…. I creep along watching the clock advance, it’s now 9:30 and I’m stuck in traffic….. finally I get back to the hotel at 9:45…. I think to set the gps for the town to the north and hope it will put me on the same road I came in on…. It works…. I arrive at the shop at 9:58…. sweating.
The “no problem new tire” is a problem…. The only tire in town that fits is a Chinese “Eternal Wisdom” brand street tire and it’s a size too small….. well, it’s the only game in town. Andre tells me that a machine shop can replace the 43mm fork slider and install a new seal…. For $100usd…. That’s a deal, let’s do it. 3 hours later a worker returns with the new fork….. it’s now 3 weeks later and it hasn’t leaked…. That’s really good news.
On Wednesday, Misha takes a taxi to get the Chinese tire and has it mounted on the rim. We discover that the rear brake pads are worn to within 1/32” and they need replaced. “No problem”, come back after Kyrgyzstan and we’ll get new pads and change the oil…. OK.
Kazakhstan…. A breath of fresh air after Mongolia and Siberia…. The people are smiling, friendly and any eye contact warrants a hardy handshake. It doesn’t hurt that the weather is sunny.
Almaty, the capitol until it was moved to Astana a few years ago….. is alive with tree lined shaded streets, nice shops (Tiffany’s, Cartier, Emporio Armani….) women show lots of cleavage and belly buttons…. Nice street cafes…. All’s well.
Kazakhstan is big, larger than all the other ‘Stans’ combined. It’s arid scrubby desert in the south with roaming camels, suitable for sheep and goat grazing in the middle and fertile wheat land to the north. The southern border with Kyrgyzstan is formed by the snow covered Amati Mountains…. Some reaching 18,000 feet.
Mosques in the south are replaced with Russian Orthodox churches in the north… there are many new Churches and the gold leaf onion domes are now gold anodized aluminum (I’m guessing). The brilliant gold domes against a blue sky is memorable.
I meet up with Marcos and Hans a week later at a café in Naryn Kyrgyzstan.
After returning from Kyrgyzstan, the “no problem brake pads” also become a problem… one shop has pads that fit the carrier (Nisin I believe) but they’re for a smaller diameter disc. They ‘hump’ out beyond the disc, and are a ½” short on the inside diameter…. But they work, with 60% contact area.
You can bet that when someone tells you “no problem” that there will be a problem…. This happens in Latin countries also…. they don’t want to disappoint with bad news, so everything is “no problem.”
There’s more to the ‘shop’ than meets the eye…. This is a large operation with about a dozen guys working. It’s a ‘chop shop’…. They bid and buy crashed cars and bikes from the USA on auction, and rebuild them for resale…. They specialize in Toyota Landcruisers… and there are a dozen “doghouses” (I think that’s the term for the engine compartment and front suspension) on the premises. There are also stacks of SUV roofs and shelves of engines. The bikes are not customers, but insurance ‘totals’ each with an 8 ½ x 11 sticker on the tank with the insurance company (Allstate, Geico etc.) the model, vin and ‘crash’ check marked. The doghouses come with the license plate and they have a collection of California plates on the wall. They buy and ship by the container load. The Kawasaki that I first saw Misha riding was going out on the street with the Suzuki’s with a ‘for sale’ sign…. It was the daily ritual to ride them a few blocks to warm the engine and park them in front of the shop. I just happened to be riding by at the same time……
This is a big operation…. They do body work, engine work, everything. They also work on customers cars. All the guys would gather in the kitchen for lunch… and share their food with me….
Zenkov Cathedral, Almaty Kazakhstan.
Tasha was the upholsterer; on my last day, he whipped out a ‘skull cap’ for me in about 5 minutes…..it’s lined too. There’s nothing automotive these guys can’t do. I was impressed. Misha wasn’t a ‘leader’, so I don’t know how he got permission to work on my bike and run around for parts etc….. I think Andre’s brother was an owner…. As with Sasha in Ulan Ude, they would not accept any money…. I paid only for the parts and outside work.
Misha, Merrill, Andre's brother, Andre.
Roaming camels in the south of Kazakhstan. I thought it was 'yard art', but the guy came out and started it and took off.
These were the only ones i saw with one hump. Note wiper linkage, if it's beautiful, expose it. 1957 Moscow car, Northern Kazakhstan.
Desert humor, Southern Kazakhstan. Mineret, for call to prayer.... Southern Kazakhstan Garage art by the same guy who had the old 1957 Moscow car.
Westbound Update #12…… Kyrgyzstan and the ‘Silk Road’
I’ve had an appetite for the Silk Road that was whetted when we visited the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market at its western terminus in Istanbul in 1999 and again in 2003. All the roads I’ll travel in Kyrgyzstan will be part of the ‘Silk Road’ system…. old caravan routes once traveled by camel and horseback, stretching from Xian China in the East, through the ‘Stans’ and finally Turkey in the West.
Entering Kyrgyzstan was easier than crossing into Canada, less ‘chit chat’… no motorcycle paperwork, just a look at my mug and a passport stamp…. But first I had to leave Kazakhstan. The Passport Control guy inspects my passport and declares ‘problem…problem’. What problem? Seems I neglected to register with the “Immigration Police” which was required on stays of longer than 5 days… this was day 6. My pleading didn’t work, he phoned someone in the ‘big office’ who came and collected my documents and left me waiting. 15 minutes later he returns with a thumbs up and says “OK”.
Kyrgyzstan is what this trip is all about and my heart sank when the guy told me I couldn’t proceed…what are they going to do… keep me there???
(When I return to Almaty Kaz. a week later to get my rear brakes fixed, I make it a point to get registered…. But there’s more….. there are regular taxis, white Ladas with yellow plastic caps and then there are shared rides. If you stand in the street and point your right index finger to the ground, someone will stop, you exchange destinations and if they’re going your way, you get in the back seat… 500 tenge ($2.50). Even well dressed business women do this….
I get back to Hotel Relax from Misha’s at 5:30… take a quick shower, go to the hotel girl and ask her to write “Immigration Police Office” on a slip of paper. I walk to a main street (I know where the office is from the LP map) and point my finger. A pretty young lady in a little micro car stops, I pass the slip of paper thru the passenger window, she hands it back to me, and says “I know” and I get in the back seat. A few blocks later she stops for a mother and little girl who get in the back seat with me, then a few blocks more, another girl gets in the front seat.
The girl in the front seat and driver converse and the passenger girl asks… “Don’t you think the office will be closed after 6pm?” I admit I’m taking a chance but want to leave very early the next day… we proceed. When they drop me at the office, its 6:20 and the business hours are clearly printed on the glass door…. 9:00-18:00… but the door is open. The guard informs me they’re closed. A German girl tells me that she is waiting for some permits and that someone is still working and then tells the guard the same… the guard makes a phone call, a woman comes to the lobby, I apologize for being late, she takes my passport and disappears. 15 minutes later she returns with my ‘registration’ paper. I can’t believe they did me this favor…. To all those involved, ‘Thanks’. I wind up leaving Kaz on the fifth day of my second entry, so I guess I didn’t need the heroics, but it was a good experience all around.
Someone named Kyrgyzstan the “The Switzerland of Asia”…. well, maybe they’ve never been to Switzerland. I did find one similarity though… both Kyrgyz and Swiss farmers like to haul small utility trailers behind their little cars…. The Swiss trailers being the more substantial. I happed into market day in Kochkor and everyone had a trailer full of wool, sheared or still on the sheep. I walked the market, sheep, goats, donkeys and produce…. some of the older men wearing their white felt hats.
My first destination is Lake Issyk-Kol. The northern shore has the most accommodations, (well heeled Russians frequent here) so that’s where I head. I’m a little disappointed, wanting it to be like Lake Tahoe with spectacular views around each bend of the road, but the road is straight and often a kilometer away from the shore, and it’s flat and barren, arid almost.
I stop at one of the ‘resorts’ to check prices and see what this is all about. The complex is deserted, and a room without a view is a hundred USD…. Very uninviting in a Soviet kind of way.
I research LP and stop in Tamchy and ride to the shore. A couple of guys take an interest in my bike… I do the head on hands thing and the older one says he has a guesthouse…. I’m already parked as close as I can get, so I follow him thru the gate and inspect the place. Lone bed, water stand outside, squat toilets with flush…. 1500tenge 11 dollars, I’ll take it. I walk town and find a nice alfresco restaurant. The gas stove is on the sidewalk, there’s a wok full of veggies and meat and the soy sauce catches fire as she flips the wok…. I point to the wok and then to myself and take a seat….. This will be the best meal of the trip…. meat and veggie stir fry, flat bread and a cold Coke, four bucks.
The guesthouse owner speaks Swedish and Kyrgyz… we sit and chat and when we need translation, he calls his daughter in Bishkek (the capitol). She speaks English without and accent and is leaving to fly to Stockholm tomorrow. Didn’t get all the details, but think the mother is Swedish.
Saturday Market at Kochkor, traditional felt hat.
The next morning, I continue CW around the Lake, but scenes don’t improve so I turn around at Cholpon-Ala, the ‘most Cancun-like place’. It’s quiet, too early and cool for the Ruskies. I turn around and head back east toward the mountains.
After the first mountain pass, I descend into Naryn and spot Marcos and Hans and share lunch with them. Marcos is in a bad mood, they had camped the night at high altitude at Song-Kol and he nearly froze. A couple from Belgium are at the café, they bicycled here from Ghent… she took a bad spill and was recuperating from severe road-rash. They tell me about their hotel… a big old Soviet era monster that needs to be torn down but it’s cheap.. and not clean.
While heading back to Bishkek, at the town with the Saturday market, I stop at “The Good Shepherd”, recommended by LP for shyrdaks and felt rugs. These are the textile pieces that are used to decorate a yurt, long wavy belts that surround the yurt at the top and bottom…. Mongolia has similar decorations, but different.
www.dopeyoldbloke.com Geoffrey, from Australia, who was at the Oasis in Ulaanbaatar spots my Tenere and stops to chat…. He rides a KLR and when I first met him, I’m thinking, he’s too old to be doing this stuff. I was right, we’re the same age. He had taken a fall in the sand, bruised some ribs, and returned to the Oasis to heal and decided not to do the ‘Southern Route’ and left Mongolia on the paved road north to Russia, the way he and I came in. He then visited Irkutsk and Lake Baikal and then west and down into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan on paved roads…. Small world, eh????
This is what Kyrgyzstan is all about….. great green mountain views with yurts and kids and sheep and goats and cowboys…. friendly and smiling. The weather has been great for riding since leaving Russia, and I’m grateful.
Meeting Geoffrey at ’The Good Shepherd' office, Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan.
Felt rugs at 'The Good Shepherd' coop. Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan. Proud mother of three kids traveling in the bed of an old truck carrying their yurt
and all belongings....felt bundles used to wrap yurt… heading south over Dolon Pass.
Kyrgyz shepherds home, on the road to Naryn. He mounted and rode out to meet me.... we're both curious.
Shepherds with dog. Saturday market, Kochkor. Near Tor-Ashuu Pass, 3586 meters.