26 June 2011

Irkutsk to Yakutsk, Part 3

After a good night's rest in Never, I got up early the next morning, had breakfast with the biker from Ufa, and set out around 09:00. This would be the hardest part of the trip; up until now I had been riding on excellent asphalt on roads which I had been on before (at least until Chita). From now on was more than a thousand kilometers of gravel, with unknown gas and hotel stops (waypoints were also basically non-existent for this part of the trip, although by looking at a map I'd figured out where the fuel was).

Here is the sign right after the turn off for Yakutsk; a little past the sign you can see where the pavement ends and the gravel starts:

The road was not that tough, although I had forgotten about some of the tricks to riding on a gravel road, such as the fact that cars swerve like crazy even on a straight stretch of road, to avoid potholes, etc. As a result, I was almost run off the road a couple of times before I got my act together. I pulled into the decrepit fuel station in Tynda and encountered one of the very few unpleasant people I met on the whole trip: the witch who worked at the fuel station. I could not figure out the 1940s technology they used at the station, and she started screaming at me about something or other. I've been in Russia long enough to know that the appropriate response is to simply scream back, so was finally able to fill up and get on my way. A few minutes later I passed a much more modern-looking gas station on the north side of town, so next time I'll go there!

As soon as turned on to this road at Never, I thought my GPS had broken, because in place of the usual distance to the next turn, it was only showing "---". I soon realized that it wasn't broken, it was just that the GPS could not display distances with more than three digits, and I was more than 1000 km from Yakutsk. I could just picture the engineers at Garmin sitting around thinking "haha, who would ever need to see four digits to the next turn, where is that even possible, hahaha?". Shortly after leaving Tynda the GPS display finally gave me a number:

There is really not much to say about this stretch of road; it is long, straight, and boring. The quality of the road is not too bad, but varies very much from almost like asphalt to rough, large chunks of gravel. Because road conditions vary all the time and without warning, you really can't go too fast, I was probably going about 70 kmph most of the time, but often slower. Here are some pictures:

Well, you probably get the idea…the road is pretty tedious, although I was (unpleasantly) surprised to find the mountains (with snow!) in the middle of the journey. The weather was pretty chilly in the first place, and I was really not dressed for the mountain temperatures. Somehow my research had failed to reveal these mysterious mountains.

The dust clouds in some of the pix are from trucks that I am about to pass. The trucks are probably the biggest danger on this road; most of them are slow as hell and would be easy to pass, except for their tendency to swerve to avoid potholes, and the fact that they kick up huge clouds of dust which make it difficult to see the truck itself, much less oncoming vehicles when you try to pass. Passing can get super-dangerous if you are not careful, as you are basically riding blind into an impenetrable cloud of dust hoping that there are no oncoming trucks. Another danger is when passing, you really have to crowd the back of the truck in front of you, and if it brakes suddenly you often can't see it because of the dust and can ride right into it. Quite scary… That said, like everything else in life, you soon figure out more effective strategies (such as just waiting for the wind to shift, or the truck to slow down even more because of a hill, etc., which reduces the dust) and can pass more safely. I had a couple of close calls, but nothing too scary.

I had planned to make it to Aldan to spend the night, which was I think a bit more than half-way to Yakutsk. By the time I got there I was totally exhausted from the ride; again no waypoints so I had to stop and ask for a hotel. The first hotel I found was full, so I kept going, and soon found another place which had a very expensive room (3000 rubles, or about $100!), but I was too tired to go on, so I took it.

The hotel manageress was like a caricature from of a movie, gruff, kind of greedy, etc. Kind of hard to explain. Anyway, I was able to park my bike in the lot behind the hotel, although she insisted that I park it in a muddy corner full of broken glass, because "you know, you can't take the space that some truck driver will pay me to park his truck in." The hotel was not particularly nice, but not too bad, and it had a cafe and a little shop right next door, so I was able to have dinner and buy some beers. And lo and behold, what kind of beer did I find in this god-forsaken place? The King of Beers!

I was very surprised to say the least, but it was not the last time I would find Bud in Russia's Far East.

JUNE 15, 2011

I was in a good mood the next morning; I got up early, and it looked like I would get to Yakutsk by about 15:00—excellent! So I aired up my tires with the pump I always bring with me, and set out. The road was more of the same, maybe bit rougher, just tons and tons of vibrations. I wasn't sure about the fuel situation in this stretch, so was a bit worried about that; while in theory I had 500 km range with my big fuel tank, I had never gotten the fuel to flow right and always seemed to be running out much earlier, with a bunch of fuel unusable in half of the big tank. Of course I could put a lot of this fuel to use by tipping the bike on its side, I wanted to avoid this because I would probably have to take off the bags, etc. to be able to tip it over on its side and pick it back up.

Anyway, here is the little town of Verkh Amga, on the banks for the Amga River. While calling it "picturesque" might be a stretch, it was certainly nicer than most parts of this dreary road. I was already pretty cold, so I stopped at a cafe for some coffee and warm food.

Not far out of Verkh Amga my rear tire started feeling funny, and when I pulled over to take a look saw that I had a flat tire, my first one ever! Not good, I was pretty much in the middle of no where… I tried to pump the tire up, just to see if it was a slow leak, but it turned out that the pump did not work, even though it had worked fine in the morning. Within a few minutes a truck pulled up; the driver asked if I needed help, I said yes, and Pavel proceeded to help with changing the tire. Here are some pix:

Pavel was a real pro, he said he got a lot of flats on the road, so had to do this alot. His truck was carrying a load of Coca-cola to Yakutsk. The old tube was supposedly heavy-duty, but it had a u-shaped rip big enough to fit my thumb through, so no patching that. We put in my spare tube, but it turned out that it had two holes in it, so we took it back out, patched the old one and put it back in. Actually, Pavel patched it and put it back in, I mainly got in the way. We finally got the wheel back on, and we agreed to meet at Ulu, about 20 km ahead, for a bite to eat. I got there first and had the old tube vulcanized, just in case. Anyway, we had a quick lunch, fueled up, and got back on the road; it should only take me a few hours to get to Yakutsk from here (I think about 300 km away), but it would take Pavel until late that night or even the next day, because the trucks drive so slowly on this road.

Everything went pretty well at first, I rode a couple of hundred kilometers and stopped at Kachikatsy, where there is a ferry across the Lena, for a Coke and some chips. Only about another 100 km to the end of the Tynda Road at the ferry at Nizhny Bestyakh! Then, about two kilometers out of Katchikatsy, I got another flat, the patch didn't hold. Luckily, the tire went flat just as I was passing two trucks on the side of the road, so I pulled up right next to them. This time I was probably back on the road within half an hour. After fixing that flat, I finally made it to the ferry in Yakutsk, I was really happy to have made it…

I got to Yakutsk just as it was getting dark, and had a hard time finding a hotel, but finally got a room at the Sterkh Hotel. The first room they gave me did not have any water, so I had to ask for another, but finally got a hot shower. I found a decent pizzeria down the road for dinner and went to bed, very tired.

JUNE 16, 2011

I had heard a lot about the Lena Columns, a geological feature on the Lena River, so decided to take a two-night cruise up the river to check them out. Being there in mid-June was a great time for seeing the "White Nights", when it never gets dark. The fourth picture down was taien at about 1:00 am, the fifth picture, with the moon, was taken at the same time, facing in another direction. All in all, a cool trip and a good way to relax after the ride, I highly recommend it.

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