Winter! That’s what was riding heavily on my mind. I pulled off my helmet, reluctantly detached the electric vest, and I sauntered over to the gate to peer through the barbwire. Things were looking a bit ominous. There was no sign of life at the Russian border post. “No man’s land”, that bit of space between border crossings is always a bit strange. You’re not legally in any country. And today’s bit of “no mans land” was at 11,000 feet, with out a tree or any friendly looking scrub in site…..and then the weather with its infinite sense humor decided roll in some of those mean looking clouds to accompany the already strong mountain winds. As the first few drops of snow landed on my nose, I briefly considered fleeing back to the smiling faces and lower altitudes of Mongolia.
After about 10 minutes, life did emerge from a nearby cabin on the other side of the fence. A heavy set Russian lady in military garb peered at me from the doorway. My spirits soared,…and then sank, as she reached inside the door, pulled out a broom, and began sweeping the snow off the cabin steps. I called out a greeting in Russian, and she barked something back that I deducted was either, “hold on I’ll be there in just a minute”,..or “get lost!”. My Russian is extremely limited, but I pinned my hopes on the first of the two possibilities.
To my enormous relief, after sweeping the steps, she arrived on the other side of the fence directly across from me. I gave her my most convincing smile and pushed my documents through a gap in the barbwire. She didn’t return the smile, but she did take the documents, which was a good sign. Anything other then being waved off or ignored is a good sign at a border post. And, having handed over the documents I could now slip my bare fingers under my jacket and out of the numbing wind. Things were going well!
She trudged back to the cabin with my registration and passport as I remained on the other side of fence hoping I’d get through this before the weather decided to drop something nasty.
Another 15 minutes passed before she reemerged from the warmth of the cabin. She came down and opened the gate, ushered me through, handed back my documents, closed the gate and quickly returned to the warmth of her lonely outpost. I was back in Russia!
I sort of figured there was more to the border crossing than what I’d just bumped through. Even though there was no other traffic, and it was a lonely dirt road, I was pretty sure this was one of the two biggest crossing points between Mongolia and Russia. At any rate the good dirt road was drawing me down off the mountain pass and into warmer climes.
About five miles down the road a massive and very modern looking vehicle control point loomed over the road. Yep,..this was customs. The post on the border must have served the duel purpose of preliminary check point and locale for government workers in exile.
I pulled up to the gate, where I was directed to back up 50 meters for a quarantine wash…..ahhhh the never ending Mongolian cattle plague. Then I wandered around poking my head in various offices and causing enough friendly annoyance to warrant being dealt with. You think I’d have the whole border crossing thing down by now,…but the fact is they are all different and when you don’t have a fixer(and I never do),..optimism and fortitude are your only assets. The Russian guards might not be the friendliest folks on earth, but they were professional and entry fees were legitimate and reasonable. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I was ever truly ripped off by anyone in Russia.
As I’ve mentioned before in this blog,…there’s nothing quite like the high of being disgorged out of netherworld of customs and freed to roam a new land on a motorcycle.
I’d already done some big miles traveling through the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia. But this was Western Siberia! There’s mountains out here, big uns!
I’d been told by all who’d gone before me that the Altai region was going to be a rock’n ride. This was true…and what a pleasant transition from Mongolia. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rate Mongolia as one of top three riding destinations in the world, but after weeks of rugged dirt rides, a weary rider and machine were feeling quite receptive towards the smooth Russian tarmac. The nature of the pavement emboldened my vision of pulling off huge miles and arriving in Europe before Siberia earned its reputation. There was even a twinge of evening sun lighting up the road ahead.
The Altai region blessed me with two days of stable weather, great camping, and luxurious mountain twisties. Sure, it was not the recommended time of year to be touring through Siberia on a motorcycle, but hey…the fall colors in the Altai are absolutely spectacular. I’d pull around a corner, leaning into the curve, slicing through a shower of golden leaves, experiencing an in depth appreciation for the beauty of riding in Autumn.
Ironically, the temps dropped with the elevation as I exited the Altai and arrived on the flats of Western Siberia. The sun slid from view, fog rolled in over the fields and a blanket of clouds sank in among the tree tops. This soul sapping dreary weather rode with me until the very day I left Russia.
Even with my electric vest I was alarmingly cold. I was in denial, as the previous day I had overheated even with the vest turned off. Traffic was bit heavy, as I was now either in or between major industrial centers. I had jockeyed hard to get around various truck convoys and the idea of pulling over to refit with warmer clothing wasn’t appealing. I had on my light GS gloves with the heated grips cranked up, but the two were no match for the icy wind. For whatever reason(lack of discipline) I decided to push on to some promising looking café for lunch. That café arrived about 50 miles later and I earned myself a gray patch under my right pinky fingernail. There’s only one reason for frostnip,…bad decision making.
From this day forward I rode with winter mits, and every possible layer I had….and I needed it. With everything I had- top of the line mountaineering baselayers, prima loft jacket, full rallye suit with liner, heated grips, heated vest, and balaclava…I still wasn’t warm,..but it was enough to keep me going. Some Red hot Chilli Peppers on my MP3 player also helped.
I never saw another biker, and I got a lot of weird looks. Every time I pulled in for fuel or for food, I knew I was going to be the resident freak show. Sometimes people were really friendly, but usually it was about 5 to 10 unemployed guys standing around the service station frowning at me. I realize that this should be expected as I might be an unusual sight in these parts, but nevertheless it started to really get to me. I often felt a bit intimidated in Russia. However, there are always good people to be found in all regions of the globe, and fortunately they often find me.
I’d just exited a hotel in Ekaterinburg and was returning to my bike when I found a well dressed guy on a scooter admiring my crusty GS. Some people can perceive my bike not for the weathered, dirty and cosmetic disaster that it is, but for the far away places, exotic stories, epic adventures and misadventures that it represents. I like these people. Folks that admire a dirty adventure bike are of my own heart. Stanz and I became friends for the brief time I was in Ekaterinburg. And I’m seriously in his debt for the 4 SD cards he hooked me up with….loaded with routable GPS maps of Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czech and Germany. Stanz is the man!
I never took a wrong turn again from that day forward. Okay, that’s not really true,…but those digital maps were an enormous asset.
I primarily camped my way across Russia. Not only were there loads of good campsites, but in the land no fences it was all legal. I’d always check my map to ensure I was at least 10 miles from any metropolis,..then, as evening drew near, I’d scan the road side for that inviting dirt track leading off the tarmac and into the woods.
The only issue with camping across Russia is dealing with the visa registration. The Russian government insists on registering at a hotel within 3 days of entering the country,..and every consecutive hotel as well. It must be some vintage tracking system from the cold war era. There is a gray area involving exactly how many times you’re suppose to register the visa, so I simply did it once after entering the country.
While local tourism exists on a moderate scale, foreign tourism this deep into the country is rare, and its virtually nonexistent beyond the Trans Siberian rail line. There’s plenty of hotels in each city, but some of them don’t accept foreigners and most of them won’t provide for the visa registration. I found myself limited to an upscale hotel in Ekaterinburg, as it was the only one I could find that would register the visa. It feels weird transitioning from camping to a luxury hotel room for a night.
In all my time in Russia I stayed in four hotels. All of them were expensive, most of them offered good service, and all of them were built and maintained to soviet standard- for example,..as I stepped into the shower in Ekaterinburg and turned on the water, the shower head detached from the pipe and struck me in forehead. However, a small bump in the forehead and a busted shower head are trivial compared the joys of hot water! I simply left the showerhead on the floor and messed with the piping until I could get under it…sort of like showering under a garden hose.
I’m pretty cautious when it comes to animal hazards on the road. Even if the cows or what ever are not even on the road,..if there’s no fence between them and the tarmac, I’m slowing down and preparing for evasive maneuver. With the exception of some large birds, I’d been quite fortunate thus far. But what can you do when you unexpectedly come across a cat eating a dead cat…in the middle of the road. Nothing!
I had just entered a small town. There was a lot going on, a lot of hazards to focus on…numerous people on or near the street, moderate traffic, and I had a turn coming up that I didn’t want to miss. By the time I realized there was cat looking up at me with furry bit of carrion in his mouth,…there was no time to stop. The GS suspension managed to absorb this far better than my conscience. I could already picture some cute little girl posting up wanted signs for a missing cat. However I didn’t deem it safe to stop. I had a weird vibe about this town and all the frowning faces,….and this was before I killed their cat,..so I put palm to throttle.
But Karma is real bitch. 10 miles down the road I realized that I’d missed my turn. Over the drama of a very flat cat, I had ridden right past my exit. In fact the exit was at the exact spot that I hit the cat. So I had to ride right back into town, gingerly drive around the carnage, and take my exit., all the while being smothered in deserved evil looks from all the locals. I was not at my best that day.
The farther west I traveled in Russia, the more police I saw. In fact I’ve never seen so many cops anywhere in my life. It was killing my mileage, because I’d have slow down to 30km an hour at every check point, and in some places there were cops every 10 kilometers. It was insane. I’m guessing its the governments solution to unemployment. Give’em a badge and a gun and put’em out there. They don’t need much of a salary because they’ll win most of it off the streets. That said, I cant complain much about the police in Russia, 9 times out 10 they were professional and courteous. However, they did get me once!
I was putting in as many miles as I could each day…just to get through to the warmer climes of Europe as soon as possible. Every day was devoted to riding,..sun up to sun down. I’d arise before dawn,..pack up my kit, and be riding just as the sun came up. And this was one of those days. I had just popped out of my middle-of-nowhere campsite and was riding on deserted bit of highway in Western Siberia. Normally I’m careful to never be the fastest guy on the road. This technique had kept me ticket free for the entire tour. But this morning it was just me on the road, no one to gauge my speed off of,..and I was a little heavy on the throttle. I was speeding. And sure enough, I got tagged on radar as I came over a hill. I spent the next 20 minutes in the back of Russian Police car negotiating my “fine”.
These guys were all right. I was in the wrong and I knew it. They may have been driving a crappy Lada, but it was loaded with digital video recorder/radar and modern radios. It would be stupid to run from these guys. I had my wallet prepped for this occasion,..and I made a point of letting them see me pull every bill out and hand it over. The law officer took the cash, then, to my enormous surprise, he pulled a few notes and handed them back to me…so as not to totally clean me out. What a gentleman! He had left me enough for lunch with out me having to dig into my secret reserves. I toasted the Russian police at the next café….and… I slowed down.
For the first day in weeks, it was sunny. Probably because I was on the border leaving Russia. The army dude at the border spoke one word of English, “present”. He made it clear that I had to cough up some sort of present in order to exit the country. “Is this shit ever going to end”, I thought to myself. I decided to start low and then bid my way up…so I pulled a souvenir stuffed koala bear out my magic bag of border crossing tricks and handed it over,…all the while making a big deal out of how it was from “Australia!” The heavy set staff soldier must have had kids, or personal fascination for cute toys. He let me leave Russia, and I was ready.