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
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
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
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
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
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.
16 July 2004 (2230 hrs)