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January 19, 2021 Location ==> Ride Reports - Russian Express: July 3-16

Russian Express: July 3-16

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© 2001, Iron Butt Association, Chicago, Illinois  Please respect our intellectual property rights. Do not distribute this document, or portions therein, without the written permission of the Iron Butt Association.

July 3: Ferry from Kholmsk to mainland at Vanino

We are four: John Sartorius (American, Salt Lake City, working in Yuzhno, Sakhalin Island, Russia); Mike Kneebone (American, Chicago); Steve Attwood (Englishman, north of London); and moi, Bob Higdon (American, Daytona Beach). Our plan is to ride our bikes --- John's BMW R1000GS, Steve's KTM 640, and the two Honda Nighthawks --- from the Pacific to the Atlantic across the width of Mother Russia.

We traveled over to the Pacific side of Sakhalin on Saturday morning, took some obligatory photos in the 49F drizzle, and headed back across the island to the port city of Kholmsk. The ferry was due to sail at 1800. It left at 2200, screwing our hopes for an early departure from Vanino to Khabarovsk the following morning.

By Russian standards the ferry's cabins were opulent: TV, showever, refrigerator, and telephone, though nothing worked very well. It was an easy crossing, but it would not be an easy day.

We rolled off the ferry just after noon and cleared customs within ten minutes. Just beyond Vanino, when we banged into the dirt road that led west toward Khabarovsk, life became a little grimmer" Steve had warned us that this road would preview everything that we would face on the unpaved section between Khabarovsk and Chita. I'll make this simple: The road out of Vanino was the worst dirt I've ever seen. Mike rolled up to me within the first two miles and said, "We ought to turn around right now". We didn't.

Steve was right. The road had everything: Gravel, sand, hard-pan dirt, dust, washouts, potholes that could swallow small trucks, and bridges that had been condemned by the last czar. It took 7.5 hours to crawl through 186 miles, at which point we intersected with the pavement to Khararovsk at sundown. You drive at night in foreign countries and you'll be burned. We had no choice. We reached the Hotel Versailles in Khabarovsk at 0130 on the July 5.

July 5: Obluche

We gathered at 1000 in the hote lobby for a meeting. I was ready to put my bike on a train to Chita right then and there. I told Mike, Steve, and John that I had just found the intersection of my two worst fears: riding impossible dirt on the one hand or losing John's ability to speak Russian on the other. Hamlet faced a similar choice. In the end John's linguistic skills trumped my fear of the dirt that lay before us, but not by much.

We took off just after 1100, loaded down with bottled water and diet Pepsi. The road was paved, clean, and fash to Birobidzhan, where we stopped for lunch. A couple of hours later I came to a stop. A mile in front of me was an incredibly large cloud of brownish-gray dust. It hung above the road like a permanent feature of the landscape. I rolled up to it cautiously. The pavement had stopped.

I turned to Steve, who had come through this area a week earlier. .So this is where it begins?. I asked glumly. He nodded.

.This is the good stuff,. he said. .One day we'll get to the road works. That's where things really turn pear-shaped.. I looked at the dirt, gravel, and dust in front of me without enthusiasm. It didn't look .good. to me. It looked like a strip of pain without name or mercy. I thought about the train again, just as John shot by on his BMW. .I can't let that man get away from me,. I mumbled, launching my poor Nighthawk into the dirt.

July 6: Belogorsk

The dust on the first day had been the worst part of things, although the gravel and potholes weren't far behind in the pantheon of horrors. If a truck passed you, it would cover you with so much dirt that you couldn't see for half a minute. If you were behind a truck that was going approximately your speed, passing was impossible. I felt like a Paris-Dakar competitor.

The road conditions were about the same on the second day as they had been leaving Khabarovsk: Huge chunks of pavement interrupted by large sections of hard pan and potholed dirt. The weather had changed dramatically, however. We were in rain suits from Obluche to Belogorsk. It rained every inch of the way until early evening. At one point in the morning, as I struggled along a stretch of mud in first gear at 15 mph, a car passed me. The passenger rolled down the window, stuck a camera out, and took a photo of me. That's when I knew that I was doing something a little out of the ordinary.

My Givi top rack came apart, shattering itself hopelessly. We strapped the bags with tie downs as a temporary fix. An hour later Steve's left saddlebag bracket broke. We limped into the town of Savintsk and found a welder. Soon we were the most famous people in the region. Video cameras appeared and friends began dropping by to see the Brit and Americans. They told us we'd be on the evening TV news. After a couple of hours they'd patched up our broken equipment and took us to lunch. They didn't want any payment, but I insisted that they take something for all their efforts. So much for the Cold War that scarred my childhood soul.

July 7: Magdagachi

We faced endless dirt. Mike, Steve, and John could plow through anything. They were all riding bikes in dirt at the age of five. I never set butt on a bike before I was a junior in college. I can't ride in dirt at all. I hate the crap. And if I ever get home, I'm buying myself a .Nuke and Pave. t-shirt from Aerostich. It sums up my feeling, though perhaps not exquisitely enough.

Since they could easily ride two or three times faster through the gravel than could I, when they'd stop for morning or afternoon breaks, I'd just keep riding. Even at that, they would have spent hours by the end of the day just standing around, waiting for my slow, sagging ass to show up.

And we hadn't gotten to the bad part yet. By early afternoon today I asked Mike at a gas stop whether he thought that Steve had accurately described the condition of the highway. He agreed that what we had seen so far had been nothing like what we'd been expecting. I was getting through it, albeit slowly, but it wasn't killing me. We didn't know it at the time, but at that moment we had just seen the last of the asphalt we would see for the next four days.

Things turned hellish immediately. I was stuggling even more than I had been in the first two days. Where I used to be able to count on some pavement for relief, there was now nothing but dirt, sand, and gravel. Between Sivaki and Ushumun the road deteriorated into a sand pit with broken rocks. Mike and I stopped three times to make sure that we were really on the .highway. to Chita. I've never seen anything so bad. I was essentially in first gear for more than 15 straight miles. Mike commented later that night, .It wasn't a construction zone; it was a war zone..

Not long after Ushumun, coming into another small town, I noticed that Mike was in the corner on the opposite side of the road, wilding motioning to me. That was the last thing I saw before the bike low-sided on its left side in a foot of sand. There was no real physical damage to me or the Honda --- maybe because the damned sand was so deep --- but the psychological hit was something I'd be thinking about for the next week.

If you ask any of us where our personal low points on the ride have been, we'd all say the same thing: Magdagachi. Mike was so sick he couldn't join us at dinner. John was furious at having been overcharged by a low-rent hotel. Steve wasn't quite as sick as Mike but was having his worst day of the trip. Me? The fall had wrecked what little confidence I had about navigating through such conditions. Although Steve had reduced my air pressures to 20 and 30 psi front and rear, it wasn't enough. I was still sliding all over the place. I couldn't imagine continuing. If I got two hours of sleep that night, I don't remember any peace at all. All I could think about was putting the bike on the train. I stuck ear plugs in to drown out the incessant noice of the city. I could hear my heart banging away in its cage. Why doesn't the poor thing just quit, I wondered.

July 8: Yerofey Pavlovich

When Mike wokek up, I told him I wanted to bail out. I could take the train to Chita and stuff the bike in a baggage car. He looked at me blankly as if I'd lost my mind. .There may be no train through here for a week,. he said. I knew it. It was an ignorant idea, borne of fear and frustration. This son-of-a-bitch road wasn't going to let me go so easily. I walked off disconsolately and told my tape recorder, .I am going to have to bungle through this long, long road somehow..

So alone I went again. By the end of every day I had spent two or three more hours in the saddle than the others had. I hated making them wait, but I simply couldn't go any faster than I was already going. I looked back on the road from Vanino and the 25 mph average I'd made. Now I was lucky to make 25 kilometers in an hour, particularly in the ugly sections with deep gravel. Steve dropped the pressures to 17 and 25. I slogged along.

In mid-afternoon one of the mounts on John's Jesse saddlebags broke. He and Mike spent a couple of hours patching things back together. Steve was still sick. He lay on his back on a concrete slab with gloves and mosquite netting covering any exposed skin. The flies were man eaters. I wouldn't have been surprised to see one of them make off with a little kid.

The first section of the big road works that Steve had warned us about showed up before Skorovodino. It was so bad that I began to laugh. You had to tip-toe the bike through rocks the size of footballs. There was no road bed. There was no rumor of a road bed. A guy on a bulldozer pointed us over to the left of the slag pile where a road might show up next week or next month and we dabbed our way over there. It was a kind of preview of hell for me. It took an hour to go five kilometers. I remembered one of the workmen who was watching John fix his bike earlier in the day say, .I've never been to Germany, but I've heard that the roads are so smooth that you can read a book while you drive your car.. Yes, we said, they have some fine roads there, much better than the one near Skorovodino.

By late afternoon John once again saved us from having to camp with the flies by finding a dormitory for working men in the village of Yerofey Pavlovich. We hiked over to the community shower (with the largest boiler I've ever seen), paid a few rubles to get half the dust off our pasty bodies, and had a few beers over dinner. The highlight of the day had been a bridge detouring through the village of Urusha. Mike thinks a photo of the structure first appeared in Dave Barr's book. I had gone over it by myself while the others were having a tea break. I couldn't bring myself to look down.

July 9: Highway work camp at Kilometer #432

The dust, which had always been bad except when it rained and turned the road to vicious mud, turned even worse on this endless day. In late morning we managed to regroup --- a rare occurrence, given my inability to keep up with the others --- and discovered that only 80 octane fuel would be available from that point to Chita, a distance of hundreds of miles. A refinery had closed, we were told, and nothing better would be available before August. John refused to put such swill in his BMW, but Mike, Steve, and I filled up with it. The Nighthawks ran fine. Later that day we found that the refinery hadn't shut down at all.

I rolled along, sometimes making such poor progress that flies actually overtook me, flew up under my face shield, and bit me on the nose. I thought it couldn't get any worse, but the rain changed my mind. It became very difficult to see through the visor with the onset of rain. My view of the road's surface, never very good in the best of times, was even worse with raindrops smearing dirt and mud around in front of my eyes. But the rain soon stopped and the dust returned within ten minutes.

We had hoped to be able to make a town with a hotel by the end of the day but my palty average speed --- barely 17 mph for 14 straight hours --- precluded any chance of that. Even though the sun wouldn't set until almost 2300, we were definitely in for our first night of camping. Then John yet again pulled a rabbit out of a hat and got us invited to spend the night in a trailer in a highway work camp. The road crew cranked up the generator for a sauna, fed us dinner and booze, and refused to take a dime for their efforts. The one thing that they required was that we stay up until amost 0200. John wearily said as we were finally able to crawl into bed, .Russian hospitality can kill you..

July 10: Chita

The previous day was my slowest. I never once got the bike into fourth gear. I didn't think it could possibly get any worse. We now had just 300 km of crap left until we could recover pavement for the final 130 km shot into Chita and civilization. But The Road wasn't through with me just yet. On top of everything else it had thrown at me, now it cranked up the sand. The gravel I could handle, even when it piles up and makes you sick at the thought of it. Even mud I can waddle through. I can't do sand at all. Not one damned foot of it.

Today I spent 16 miles in first gear, trying to find my way out of the hundred miles of sand that surrounded the countryside of Chernyshevsk. The scenery had changed from the usual Wyoming/Montana/Colorado-like vistas to the sand hills of Nebraska. My progress, always slow, came almost to a halt. To make matters even worse, Mike, who had been shepherding me though this long road for nearly a week, had disappeared ahead of me. I felt like crying.

Hour after hour I watched the GPS grind another kilometer away. .I have just 80 to go,. I would tell myself. .It will get better soon.. Then 75. Then 70. .Soon it will be pavement,. I'd cheer myself. And then the sand would get deeper and I'd go more slowly and I'd hate this motherless road and I'd hate what it was doing to my pretty motorcycle and I'd hate most of all what it was doing to me. It was 95F. The sun burned a hole in my soul.

At five minutes to five this afternoon the pavement appeared. Mike, John, and Steve were waiting for me, smiling and clapping. I parked the bike, got down on my hands and knees, and kissed the asphalt. They took photos of me. With a plug, Mike fixed the hole a two-inch nail had left in my rear tire. A couple of hours later we checked in at the Panama City Motel in Chita. I reflected with low mirth that the namesake "Panama City" is just a few hundred miles from my condo in Daytona Beach, and is a lot easier to reach.

For my woeful inability to make any sort of time on that awful road, I paid for the motel, dinner, and beer that night. Mike worked on the bikes for a while and discovered that my air filter had become so clogged with dust and dirt that the poor machine couldn't pull more than 4,000 rpm. He knocked a half-pound of grit out of the filter and the Nighthawk ran like it had never heard of Skorovodino at all.

Do I feel a sense of accomplishment about such a ride? Yeah, some. But I wouldn't do it again under any circumstances. And I was particularly unhappy that I had caused so much delay to the others. Still, we all knew that it would be a difficult ride. I'd said in Khabarovsk that it might take me a week, realizing that Steve had bombed through there in half that time. They said that they didn't mind, and they never yelled at me once.

The choice of the bike to take on a ride like this --- a Honda Nighthawk is almost a Platonic ideal of a street bike --- didn't really matter. Even the street tires (Battlax BT45s) weren't really an issue. There wasn't that much mud or sand in the grand scope of things, where dual-sport tires might have made some difference. I am so poor in off-road conditions that no single-track vehicle can possibly help me. No, this was a failure of the singer, not the song.

The next time I come through Siberia it will be in a first-class sleeper on the Trans-Siberian railroad. I'll be knocking back a vodka or two with a smile as I watch one of the world's great highways being built. It isn't quite there yet, but one day it will be. And, as I watch the scenery float by from the club car, I'll recall --- possibly with some fondnest that I don't quite feel right now --- the week that I was on that hard, bleak track, muttering darkly to myself as I scratched along in first and second gear.

Bob Higdon
Novosibirsk
Western Siberia
16 July 2004 (2230 hrs)

 
 
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