© Ulf Müller 2013
Nevil’s Blog   I’m here: click to see my GPS position!
Kazakhstan!  A country of such beauty and diversity…..oh yeah….and the occasional bad road. The Kazakh entry checkpoint was a well built modern looking affair that loomed up out of the desert in no time. As usual we had to purchase our vehicle insurance, which was probably not the paper it was written on and then get into passport control, migration control blah blah blah….the usual routine. Fortunately we got through all this in about an hour and were set free into 9th largest country on the planet. Our goal was to reach Almaty and the Mongolian Embassy within the week so that week could apply for our Mongolian visas. That’s if the roads would let us. You see, the road from the checkpoint just changed our perspective on what we thought a rough road should be. How someone had the audacity to lay asphalt here and call it a road beats me. It was rutted, pot holed and frost heaved all in one shot, but asphalt nonetheless. Surely it would be easier to ride on the desert sand? Anyway, for about 200 kms we played the usual game of Dare as cars weaved toward us in the oncoming lane so as to try and save their tires and suspension. As usual it was hot and dusty too and that just made me irritable, I needed somewhere to sleep and wanted to get off the bike. We found a little truckers “hotel” that evening and were settled in quite quickly. The kitchen looked really shaky so we ordered boiling water and made supper from IchiBan noodles as the proprietors stared in disbelief. Kazakhstan is a big country. In fact Almaty was some 3000 kms from us and we needed decent roads to get there so That our bikes weren’t destroyed before Mongolia. My brother had sent me an email a few days earlier warning me not to take the road from Atyrau in the south west to Aqtobe in the north. This was confirmed by a local guy we met in a hotel and so we set out for Oral , 500 kms north. The roads for three days were wonderful. In fact they are only two years old and well looked after. It appears that Kazakhstan is completely revamping its infrastructure and there are posters everywhere on the sides of the highways setting goals for 2050 in certain areas. We were on two little motorbikes thumping along in 40 degree heat day by day….just a small speck of insignificance in the grand scheme of things….but we were happy specks. The countryside out in western Kazakhstan is steppe that goes from green to desert the further south you go. The land here is remarkably flat and the roads seem to go on for ever. We camped one night at a rest area. It was so hot at night that I didn’t even use my sleeping bag until about 3am. Occasionally I would spot the odd snake winding its way across the road and my thoughts went back to my friend Dickie in England who a few weeks earlier gave me a hip flask full of Tallisker with the following  inscription on it: “My very good friend Nevil….. Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore, always carry a small snake” WC Fields I grinned in my crash helmet and mused upon this for a while. Slowly but surely we were heading south east out of Oralsk and on through Aqtobe, Quandyagash and Kyzlorda. The weather was so hot here….and the roads are still under construction. This was where the fun started. Just when you think you’re doing ok, there’s a giant earth berm across the road and a directional sign that shoots you off onto a dusty, gravel, pot holed, temporary road that can take you up to 40 kms to get rid of. You never know when this is going to happen either. Maybe this is some sort of national intiative to alleviate the boredom of driving in the desert. It certainly works for me anyway. Camels! There are camels dotted around in these parts. It looks like they are losing their winter coats too as they have long strands of useless fur hanging off them in various locations on their cumbersome bodies. I mused to myself, Twiggy, this little motorcycle has taken me to a land where camels roam! It really struck me how far east I was now and I still had a long way to go! This is a BIG continent. I was getting sores on my hands from the combination of heat and prolonged pressure hanging onto the handlebars, but this is only temporary I told myself. I was almost half way around the world from my home and had so many different climates and eco-zones to cross. I’m sure there will be more sores. Curious….that’s the word. Kazakhs are curious indeed and this was becoming a problem for Ulf and I. Pulling into a gas station can be quite the experience sometimes. Firstly you have to tell the attendant through the little window that you want X amount of litres. They then take your money and you get to fill up……except that sometimes you can’t to the bike because it’s now surrounded by locals, kids and security guards. That’s right security guards. If you want decent gas you go to a shiny new gas station. This gas station always has a security guy, usually armed, standing in the forecourt ready to shoot anyone who doesn’t pay up. He’s usually the guy to approach first with a smile and a handshake and let him know that you know he’s the boss. It’s bad form to get shot just because you don’t understand the etiquette of how a Kazakh gas station operates. The next step is to fill your bike up, put your helmet on and get the hell out of there before the cell phones come out. This has caught us a few times and when someone pulls out a cell phone it means either they want to get a picture of themselves with you or they are calling their buddies to come down and take a look a the two bikes that just blew into town. Sometimes it can take us an hour to gas up. The same applies for cities too. As the traffic gets more congested, people start winding their windows down and asking where you’re from etc. This is an opportune moment to start asking them for a hotel or any other form of accommodation if you’re in need of it. It has worked for Ulf and I quite a few times now. You just have to be patient. The desert finally gave way to rolling green hills near Tashkent and soon we were riding what seemed to be beautiful lush farm country. Here people were travelling the highways by donkeys and carts, sitting atop their lush grass cargoes. Again, people were working in fields using hand tools like sickles and hoes. Firewood piles and small stacks of hay are littered across the landscape. There is a certain satisfaction seeing irregular plough lines in a field; it’s confirmation that the mechanized efficiency of the big corporate world hasn’t encroached here yet. One small boy tried to impress me atop his donkey by beating it across the back with his crop so that it bucked for him. I wanted so badly to tell him off and felt terrible for that poor animal but also knew that this is the way of life around here and I was the guest. Trees lined the streets in the towns with their lower trunks painted white so that you can see them easier in the dark. Loose dogs lay in the shade of the trees panting, waiting for a noisy motorcycle to come by so they can chase it. The pace of life here is slow, I was jealous. Somewhere in the west we have become consumed with speed and efficiency. A week or two here would be good for the blood pressure I think                                                                                                                                                   There were big  mountains in the distance and for an entire day we rode alongside their snowcapped grandeur. It was wonderful, we were now right on the Kazakh/Kyrgyzstan border and these were the Kygyz mountains. It made me homesick for Canmore. I am a lucky man to live in such a beautiful place. Suddenly out of nowhere, I saw an orange baton being waved at me, motioning me to pull over to the side of the road. The policeman came over as we were taking our helmets off and was indicating we were doing 80 in a 50 speed zone. He was wrong and I knew it. He grinned at me and showed off a mouthful of gold teeth, stating that if I paid a fine he would let me go. He kept rubbing thumb and forefinger together. I asked him how much. “100 dollar” “NO” “Yes, you pay” “No, I want a receipt” I promptly pulled a random receipt from my pocket and indicated that if I were to give him money, I wanted his receipt. He was reluctant…so I pulled out my iphone and photographed his badge. At this point the conversation went to and fro…with him covering his badge with his right arm. I was about to pretend to make a call when the gentleman suddenly changed his mind and waved us on. I was lucky, I could have had my iphone confiscated. The police in southern Kazakhstan are blighted with fellows like this. They use their position of authority to make a few illegal bucks. It makes me wonder what their annual salary is. Are they really corrupt or is this action justifiable due to poor government wages? Fifteen minutes later we got pulled again. This time the cop had batteries in his radar gun. Ulf had to grease the wheel a bit but he didn’t have to part with much fortunately. I will be on my guard over the next few days. Rolling into Almaty we experienced the usual heavy traffic queues and people shouting questions from their vehicles. This was a big city and we were looking for a specific hotel. The Sarayshik Hotel is in the north of the city and is a very well constructed, high end hotel. The staff here are all amazingly helpful and this was to be our home base for a few nights as we needed to locate the Mongolian embassy and get some work done to the bikes. It also has internet, although somewhat sporadic and we were able to write and upload blog material when possible. The Mongolian Embassy is in the south of the city located in a plush neighborhood full of expensive looking homes with security guards on the gates. The Embassy could do with a lick of paint though and unfortunately stands out as quite possibly the shabbiest house for miles. We rang the bell on the gate. Within a minute a very polite well built gentleman let us in and set us about filling in our application forms. He told us to return in 3 hours and hey presto, two Mongolian visas were in our passports. It was a real pleasure dealing with them, they are so polite. The rain that afternoon was basically a monsoon that lasted for an hour. We were soaked and trying to find a motorcycle shop called Moto Board in the northeast. It took a while but eventually we were there and haggling for tires. They only had one 17 inch tire though. We agreed that my rear tire was the most buggered and that I would purchase this new one. That’s when I found another 17 inch road tire on the rack and Ulf bought this as a spare for himself. Our Knobby tires still remain unused and I’m sure we will be putting them on very close to Mongolia. The next order of the day was to get across the city again to MCC Motorcycles. Again, they were a little hard to find but we knew we were in the right place when they opened the gates up and told us to put the bikes in their workshop. They set about putting my new rear tire on while I negotiated doing my own oil change there. I wanted to see how many bits of steel were stuck to the magnetic drain plug of my engine. This is when I noticed that Twiggy’s oil was low. Hmm….she did get really hot in the city traffic the other day but the engine still sounded good. Mind you, the old girl now has 90,000 kms on the clock and that’s not bad for a single cylinder engine. I will keep my eyes on that oil window. They worked on Ulf’s bike too and before long we were all set to continue north toward Russia again. I did notice on the back of their workshop door a few travelers had written comments. Walter Colebatch, Guzzi Overland and Doug Wothke had all been there. I felt that warm fuzzy feeling, grabbed a pen and headed for the back of that door too. Tomorrow we head out of Almaty and onward north to Omsk and Novosibirsk in Russia. The journey continues….will Twiggy? Please remember, I’m also raising funds for the heart and stroke foundation in doing this trip. As a stroke survivor myself, I realize how important it is to plough money into this research. If you haven’t donated yet, please find the link on this website and give it a go. If you have donated, you have my deepest thanks…. it makes everything worthwhile. Please spread the word and go tell relatives, friends and neighbours about this site. Maybe they will donate too?? Nevil

Kazakhstan Part II

”A body will remain at rest or in uniform motion unless acted upon by an exterior force”.

Isaac Newton This was going to be a warm and somewhat humid day. After breakfast in the Saraishik Hotel, we proceeded to pack our bikes. In hot weather it’s good to leave all your bike gear off until the last minute. I was in shorts and a tee shirt and loving it. It was going to be a hot day heading north toward Astana. We hoped to make it half way by nightfall if possible. After a quick photo opportunity with our new friends Anara and Gulsim, we headed out of the hotel gates and into the side streets of Ainabulak, a suburb in the north of Almaty. The streets were busy as usual. It seems as though everyone owns a car here and uses it to its fullest extent. Filtering down toward the central part of the city, the traffic was getting heavier. Now, we have to comprehend Kazakh city driving here for a moment. It’s basically a mixture of dodgems and some form of martial art combined. Rush hour is barnstorming madness on its third espresso of the morning. Rush hour also appears to last all day. There are probably rules for the road somewhere on paper tucked away in a government building but they must be so secret that only a select few are allowed to read them. We were on motorcycles and that made it even more interesting because as usual, people were shouting questions to us when we were at a standstill….which appeared to be most of the time. I could feel the heat of Twiggy’s exhaust pipe through the thick motorcycle pants on a 36 degree day. I was uncomfortable. As usual, Ulf was in front because his GPS had the street map of Almaty on it. At last we started moving again. It was supposed to be a 4 lane highway here but was being treated as a 6 lane instead. There were horns honking and people swerving wildly in all directions missing pot holes or aiming for pedestrians (another good Kazakh game). We were happy. We had attained the speed of 50kph and air was now circulating through our jackets and cooling us down. Life was good, we were almost out of the heavy traffic and would be heading north to Astana soon. That’s when I saw the burgundy Honda accord. He wasn’t hard to miss. He was the only car sideways in a sea of cars pointing forward….and he was accelerating toward me…..staring at me as if he were daring me to keep going. I had no option but to keep moving forward. I was surrounded by cars all pointing in the right direction and doing 50kph. Surely this guy must see the error of his ways? How no other cars hit him I will never know…but he hit me pretty hard. Those 2 seconds seem to go in slow motion. This idiot was still staring through the windshield at me as he hit the right pannier on Twiggy. I was now concentrating on getting my right leg the hell out of this situation. I was going to be damned if my leg was going to get broken by a 1980’s Honda! The impact instantly punted Twiggy onto her left hand side at 50kph, the corner of the Aluminium pannier somehow came up and hit me in the right buttock and there was a shooting pain through my back instantly. I went over the bike and slid about 20 metres down the road, coming to a stop in the outside lane to a plethora of Kazakh drivers who relished in this new game of kill the pedestrian. Idiot stopped his car in the centre lane blocking the movement of about 75% of the traffic flow. Twiggy occupied the outside lane, albeit on her side with gasoline leaking from the tank. I needed to get her upright ASAP. Idiot got out of his car to an audience of hostile car drivers who now wanted to kill him too. I pointed at my eyes and then to him as if you say “what part of me, the bike and my headlamp didn’t you see”? He just stood there with his jaw open…and reeked of alcohol. I turned toward Twiggy, this little bike that had carried me over 10,000 kilometres so faithfully and nearly wept at the damage. Lights were smashed, panniers ground down or stoved in and gasoline leaking everywhere. I tried to pick her up but she was too heavy and there was something definitely wrong with my lower back and buttock. That’s when I saw Idiot getting back into his car and drive away…..not before I got his plate number though. I wrote it down on a pad and tucked it inside my jacket. I was going to find a police officer as soon as Twiggy was upright. The Kazakh drivers were almost at fever pitch now. This was good sport! There was a pedestrian AND a stationary bike right in the road. This would be like shooting fish in a barrel! There was no way Ulf could have made it back to me at this point. All he could do was sit a few hundred metres away and wait for me to eventually catch up with him. He never even saw the accident. After bending stuff straight as best as I could, I hopped on painfully and the old girl started up first try. Bless her. I caught up with Ulf, explained what happened and we went down the highway to find a policeman. They’re the guys dressed in blue fattening their own wallets from motorists, remember? It turns out that’s all they do because they sure as heck aren’t interested in dealing with an accident either. Where I come from, if you give a cop the number of the car that just hit and ran, they jump on it…..but this isn’t where I come from. Whatever twisted logic/reasoning they live by prevailed that day. I knew it was time to leave. Time for some open road where I could mentally lick my wounded sense of justice in the solitude of my crash helmet. We were headed north out of Almaty and on toward Astana, a thousand kilometers away. We aim to try and ride 500kms per day so Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan would be a two day ride. My lower back and buttock were killing me though. It was difficult to remain in one position for more than 2o minutes. I was shifting in my seat like a bored schoolboy on a sunny day. The city finaly gave way to open desert again with the occasional camel dotted across the landscape. The area is as flat as we’d expected it to be but slowly this gave way to slightly higher ground and a kind of huge lake area that accompanied us to our right for about 300 kms. This lake is as industrial as it comes. There are power lines all over the landscape here, mines operating, large chimneys belching out dark smoke and plenty of police checkpoints to thin out your wallet if you’re not savvy. Pushing on, we saw the landscape change from sandy, barren openness to grassy openness  As usual we stayed in a cheap hotel or motel for the night. These places usually offer secure parking and a uniformed security guard that will “keep and extra eye on your bike” for a few pennies more. Camping here can be done but the land is so flat you can be seen for miles. The last thing we needed was an audience at 1am in this respect….besides, I needed a bed and to stretch this back out, it was not getting any better. The next day was very much the same as before, breakfast, shake hands with the security guard and point out the sleep lines on his face, pack the bike and ride. Until the bike stops. This is exactly what happened just outside Pavlodar at about 2pm. Twiggy just backfired and there was no more go. I coasted to a halt on the side of the road to the customary horn honking from my fellow road users. Ulf carried on up the road as if oblivious to my plight. As usual it was scorching hot so all the bike gear came off and I was in shorts and a tee shirt in moments. Before long I had stripped the bike down and the fuel tank, seat and luggage were stacked on the side of the road too. I almost expected people to stop and see what I had for sale, as is customary in this part of the world when you display all your worldly belongings roadside. Where was Ulf/ There was still no sign of him. I had deduced that there was no electricity at all. This either meant the generator, battery or Regulator had quit on me. I suspected the regulator because it was the only new part I installed before leaving Canada. My luck always goes that way and this was the entire basis of my reasoning. Ulf finally showed up after waiting up the road for a while. Shortly thereafter another bike stopped and before long people were making calls on their cells and would be picked up by a tow truck and driven in to Karagandy, 30 kms away. It was now getting late and we hadn’t eaten but we were at the mercy of the garage that had accepted the bike in for repair. They set about stripping Twiggy down and diagnosing the problem before 10pm. They wanted to talk to us about bikes and we wanted a hotel and food. As I said, be prepared for this when travelling. After a few more phone calls, we had a used regulator being soldered into place. Twiggy started up first go. It was 11pm and we were asked to follow the owner’s car to the location of a hotel in the city. This was an exercise in sleep/food deprivation for us. In the dark, we weaved in and out of side streets, missing giant pot holes and oncoming cars doing likewise. We arrived at F1 motorsports in Karagandy and the owner told us to drop the bikes there for the night and he would drive us to the hotel. Not only was our room really good but the owners of the garage paid for our meal that night. I cannot find the correct term right now to express my gratitude to these guys. Once again we were shown hospitality that knew no bounds. I will be forever in their debt. At 1 in the morning we finally got to bed….my back was still very sore. The run to Astana the next day was wonderful, we bumped into our friend Ramil. Oh yes, I forgot to mention Ramil, he stopped on the roadside for me when I broke down the day before. He was on a bicycle and is riding from his native Azerbaijan to Japan. As far as we can tell, he’s the first person to attempt this from his home country. Ramil is a wonderful man who is full of happiness and life. He will be my friend always. He is cycling a solid 100kms every day to Japan! Ramil, I wish you God speed! We didn’t get to see Astana. The bypass took us north away from the city before we reached it. That was good because I am really nervous about riding in cities right now. I don’t need any more damage to me or Twiggy. The landscape turned greener and before long we were seeing rolling hills like that of Dartmoor in the UK. I half expected to see the shaggy mane of a pony once in a while but alas I was thousands of miles away from that speck of familiarity. The Russian border was upon us in hours. As usual, we had to check out of Kazakhstan and in to Russia…..i think you know the long winded procedure by now so I’ll spare you the details but I will state that the Kazakhs were an absolute delight to deal with that day, really. Back in Russia we were headed for Barnaul or “Barn Owl” as I like to call it. This city is the gateway to the Altai region, a wonderful mountainous landscape that borders the northwest of Mongolia with Russia. Twiggy was thumping along and as usual my thoughts were with that used regulator we installed a few days ago. Would it hold out………?

“Back in the USS…….errm, I mean the Russian Federation”.

The crossing from Kazakhstan to Russia was the usual affair…..except the Kazakhs were amazingly friendly and the Russian border guards particularly sour here. Maybe the Kazakhs were happy to get rid of us and the Russians had to deal with us again. As usual it was a hot day and we re-grouped just outside the gates on the Russian side with a view to riding to Barnaul and finding a hotel.  I was now dealing with the form of loathsome stomach condition we all talk about when travelling….Montezuma’s revenge, Delhi Belly…..call it what you will, Kazakh food finally got me. I was not a well man. This, coupled with a bad back from the accident and the heat made me a pathetic wreck. I needed to hole up in a hotel room and sleep for days. The final nail in the coffin came at a fuel stop. I was so scared of lifting my leg too high (Montezuma remember?) that I caught the cuff of my bike pants on the pannier and came crashing to the ground on my back with my right leg still hooked up on the bike. The pain was excruciating for a moment. My back was even worse now. I needed rest and the hotel was 300 kms away. This would prove to be the most uncomfortable ride I’ve had ever. Barnaul is a bustling city set to the north of the mountainous Altai region of Russia. Here the wide streets and the western style shopping malls give hint to a wealthy economy. We found a small hotel off a side street and Ulf went in to negotiate the room rate etc. A car pulled up and a guy was staring at the bikes from a broken windshield. He exited the car and came over. I really wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone though, I was shivering as this stomach condition worked its magic on me. I felt like I had been hit like a train. “You are from Canada yes”? He spoke broken English. It took me a few moments and I replied, telling him that I was not well in the process. He asked me if I needed anything and at that point I needed fresh fruit….my body was craving this. Five minutes later, Stanislav came back with a bag of fresh fruit for me. Once again I was amazed at the hospitality being shown here. We exchanged email addresses, shook hands and he drove away. I thought I would never see him again. I slept 12 hours that night. The next morning I was nearly 100% better…..although the pain in my back was still there. I awoke to an email from Stanislav asking if there was anything he could do for us and would we like to go out for dinner tonight. We spent the whole day catching cabs across the city looking for a spare rectifier for Twiggy in case the makeshift one gave up the ghost later down the road. I also bought a new GPS because my old one wouldn’t recognize any of the new Russian mapping we were using. Dinner that night was at a Bavarian style restaurant and we ate a LOT. Stanislauv paid for everything. I owe him so much. He has become a dear friend indeed and I hope he will visit me in Canada someday. Four nights later it was time to leave Barnaul and head south to the Altai region and possibly enter Mongolia from there. Our aim was to ride the northern route across the Ulaanbataar. The road south was a regular 2 way highway that increased in hills and bends as we approached the mountains of the republic of Altai. The flat fields of crops that reminded me so much of crossing Hungary were now gone and replaced by large forests of evergreens and small log houses that could easily have been located in central British Columbia. This place was gorgeous. Rain threatened from time to time but that’s what you get in mountainous country right? I was at home, I felt at home at least. There is a universal feeling that spans all mountain communities I believe….and I was part of this now. Small towns situated on the Katun River boasted rafting companies and guiding outfitters. Small wooden houses with intricately carved  fascias and fences dotted the main thoroughfares. We spent the night at a wonderful little hotel about 200kms into the region. The next day we set out for crossing the Altai and onward toward the Mongolian border. This is when we started to notice the swollen rivers and marshy ground here. They had recently received a lot of rain. We pressed on marveling at the new landscapes we encountered around every corner or over each hill. This place is so beautiful with its small alpine streams that trickle from rocky ledges set into verdant mountainsides. Sheep, horses, goats and cattle lined the highways from time to time. Fathers taking their children to school on horseback or just herding cattle could be seen everywhere. I could only imagine Switzerland looking like this a hundred and fifty years ago. Eventually we stopped at a mountain pass and had coffee at one of the many little shacks one can encounter throughout the region. Ulf’s bike was not breathing right. His air filter was choking up and the altitude was making his bike sluggish. There was black smoke coming out of the exhaust every time he opened up the throttle and he had no spare filter. Dilemma. We also discussed the soggy countryside. If this continued we would be bogged down in Mongolia in no time on the bikes. It could take us weeks to cross the 2000 kms to Ulaanbataar. It was decision time. Do we do the northern route in Mongolia and risk deep river crossings and mud or do we turn around and head back and enter Mongolia from the north near Ulan Ude 2500kms away? Naturally we chose the latter. We were on a loose timeline to ride around the world and really couldn’t afford a big delay. Besides, our visas were only single entry so we needed to get it right. That night we returned to our little Altai hotel and arranged for air filter materials to be shipped from Moscow to Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. We would be there in 4 days to collect, all we had to do was ride across Siberia……….. Novosibirsk is a big place. It seems that most Russian cities don’t have a circular road and you have to ride through the city to get to your connecting road out. It was hot, the traffic was at a standstill and the bikes were overheating. We elected to split-lane and get the heck out of there where hopefully there would be a hotel on the other side. This plan worked…..we slept well. The M53 road across the heart of Siberia is varied in size and condition. Sometimes it was a 4 lane motorway, sometimes it was a two lane frost heaved monument to the old Soviet days. At any point it can turn into a gravel road with diversions and chain smoking roadworkers standing around waiting for something to change. It’s a game of road roulette. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Large buses and 18 wheelers will pick the best part of the road to drive on; if this means your side of the road then eyes up because this is a test to see if you’re alert. You are about to get shrouded in dust AND try to pick your way through the ruts, potholes and oncoming traffic whilst half blind. I nicknamed it the Magoo Run. All along this tree lined highway there are small towns. Some are hamlets boasting handicrafts like woven baskets or wooden carvings. These are usually small stalls at the side of the road….just out of the town’s jusrisdiction and they are run by ladies of all ages. Then there are the animal skin stalls. This was something I didn’t want to see but sadly it had to be part of my education. There were bear skins, stuffed bears in aggressive poses, bear skin chairs and paws for sale. Whilst I was repulsed by this I had to force myself to understand that these people make their living this way. The one thing that struck me was how physically small their bears are……not that I want to wrestle one or anything but I felt at ease now if we encountered one. I could probably beat it away with a shoe. The trees kept coming. The road seemed to go on forever and the towns whizzed by in a flurry of grey disused factories, beautifully painted wooden homes and war memorials designed in that very angular way that only Russians know how to do. Some memorials are adorned with decommissioned tanks, aircraft and field guns from years gone by. These old, once ferocious war machines are now playgrounds for children, a testament that with age we all get a little softer   Every morning outside our hotel I would do the usual check:-  Engine oil, chain lube and tires. I noticed that Twiggy was getting through about 200ml of oil every 1500 kms now. The head gasket was slowly weeping I could see. I hoped she would make it to South Korea and I can fix her at my house in Alberta. Finally we made it to Irkutsk and checked into our hotel. Here we were approached by an American who worked in the oil industry. Adam was happy to see a couple of dirty well weathered bikes pull up. He had a buddy in Texas that really wanted to do what we were doing. We talked that night over a beer or two and told stories. We made another good friend here. We were in Irkutsk just long enough to pick up Ulf’s air filter from DHL and then we set about trying to find a spare too. This involved a cab driver called Anatoly, a whole morning and a wonderful lady at the local Yamaha dealership called Tatania. She was part owner and made us feel totally at home with coffee and directions to a market place where we would probably obtain after market stuff. By noon we had three air filters and were headed back with Anatoly. Life was good. The next day we were Baikal bound, the largest body of fresh water on the planet. As we dropped out of the hills about 200kms south of Irkutsk Lake Baikal suddenly stared at us from directly ahead. It’s massive, simply massive. The first impression I got was cold. Suddenly I was surrounded by cold air that had spilled off the lake onto the shoreline and had to zip up the vents on my bike jacket. The next 140 kms we rode were along the southern shore of the lake…..only you can’t easily access the lake easily because the Russians have layed train tracks, power lines and industrial plants along the way. There wasn’t even a decent turnout where we could take a photo. Frustrating.  On to Ulan Ude, where we would change tires and head south to Mongolia. Here we encountered a bike workshop tucked down a sandy roaded alleyway. Within a minute the gate slid open and I heard and American accent. Doug Lear had been staying here for five days and was waiting for his KLR650 to get a new crankshaft. We talked for a couple of hours while Stas worked at switching the tires on both bikes. Doug knew he was at the mercy of the Russian customs guys…..he could be there a while. Ulan Ude has a wonderful downtown core with a giant statue of Lenin’s head in the main square. It’s tradition that newlyweds get their wedding photos taken here and we watched on as 3 couples did exactly this to a cacophony of car horns and shouts as is the unofficial custom of onlookers. We tried in vain to get Rubles changed into Tugrik, the Mongolian currency. We got the impression that the Russians rather regarded our request as a joke, as if we had asked for monopoly money or something. The road south to Mongolia was only 200kms long and slowly gained in elevation winding through high forested hillsides interspersed with farmland and the compulsory goat herds here and there. The people were starting to look a lot more Mongolian in their facial features too. Pulling into a gas station in Kyakhta Russia was our last chance at getting Russian gas for a while. Here we were approached by quite possibly the pushiest 10 year old I have ever met. “Dollar”? he kept saying. “no” was our reply….”Dollar”? …”No” …it went on for a while until I pulled an angry face and he went away. We were now 2 kms from the Mongolian border……I couldn’t wait to see what this immigration process had in store for us.  


2013 on motorbikes
2013 on motorbikes
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