On Aug. 8, 2017, Dave and our Latvian friends—Oskars, Didzis and Sandijis (a.k.a Adventure Team Latvia)—left Irkutsk in pursuit of the BAM road.
When overlanders refer to the BAM, they’re talking about a service road that follows the Baikal-Amur Mainline, a railway first conceived of in the late 1800s but not fully completed until Sept. 1984 when the last “golden spike” was hammered into place, connecting eastern and western Siberia.
It’s not a road that is used much now the train has become the more common thoroughfare. Thus, the BAM is considered by many overlanders to be one of the toughest off-roads left on the planet. Travellers are often miles from civilization at any given time and are forced to endure extreme weather and unrelenting bogs full of mosquitoes. There are also a number of waist-deep river crossings, where bridges are either non-existent or rotted out.
If you’re on a bike, an option for getting across some of the many, many river crossings is to use the railway bridges. But some riders can get caught on the tracks with oncoming trains. There are little ‘balconies’ where one can pull over, but I can’t imagine how heart-stopping that would be on a fully-loaded motorcycle with panniers sticking out the sides.
Despite all this, Dave still salivated thinking about riding this road. He’d thought about it for more than two years since before we left to ride around the world. The fact he now had some of the best riders as a team, a wide-open weather window with unseasonably low precipitation and, well, he was finally right there, made it all the more alluring.
Although the BAM road runs for approximately 4,300 km (2,700 mi), Dave and the Latvians planned to ride a section about 1,300 km (800 mi) long. This was still expected to take 5-7 days so I planned to meet up with them all again in Tynda, just over 2,000 km (1,200 mi) to the north-east, if riding along the Trans-Siberian from Irkutsk.
From the hostel, I waved Dave and Adventure Team Latvia off into the distance, happy that Dave would get to ride a road of his dreams and that we’d have some time apart to explore on our own. It’s far too easy to become dependent on someone always doing certain things. I was used to Dave handling the route navigation and taking care of the bikes and Dave depended on me for food and water. I swear left to his own devices he would have died somewhere along the trip of dehydration and/or starvation.
With the first night to myself in six months, I went back into the hostel we’d been staying in for five nights now, and poured a glass of very cheap beer (about $1.10 for 1.5 litres). While writing a blog post later, I received a message from Roland. He and Brian were to be my travel companions for the next week riding east but Roland had decided he’d like to spend more time in the Baikal area, driving north-west instead to visit an island located at the northern end of the lake. I didn’t blame him as the lake was a beautiful destination drawing thousands of visitors each year. In fact, Dave and the Latvians were heading to the same island that night and planned to spend two nights camping there before officially starting the BAM.
I was envious of everyone getting to see the island but it would have meant me riding almost 800 km (500 mi) in the wrong direction with my bike in its current state of disrepair. We had to get to Tynda before I’d have parts for my forks.
I messaged Brian to see if he was still planning to ride east and received a reply he, too, was thinking of staying to visit Baikal’s island. He would let me know in the morning, he said. I’d gotten used to the idea of having guys to ride with and now I had no guys. Although I wanted to ride solo at first, it now seemed a little daunting, given what one could expect in Russia’s Far East; super shitty roadside trucker hotels and restaurants, bike breakdowns and crazy Trans-Siberian drivers. I may have been more excited if the BAM happened to be located in Europe or somewhere with all kinds of fun things to do around every corner, but this was Russia’s remote regions. Aside from Lake Baikal, this part of the country wasn’t exactly known for its tourist attractions and off-bike excursions. I’d be riding this part of the Trans-Siberian, arguably the world’s longest highway, in a monotonous state of alertness, watching out for drunk drivers and food poisoning.
But the next morning, Aug. 9, there was a message from Brian saying he’d decided not to go to the island and would ride with me. He arrived at my hostel around 9:00 a.m. and we left shortly after. Seeing as we both wanted to explore more of the southern end of Lake Baikal, we decided to ride about 150 km (90 mi) along the main highway then turn off north about 30 km (18 mi) to the lakeshore where we found a very basic room behind a house to stay for the night. It cost about $7 and had an alright view from the porch to the lake about 500 metres away.
After only sharing hotel rooms or a tent with Dave for the last two years, it took some getting used to having another man in such intimate quarters. Brian had just spent four months travelling with a platonic female friend so seemed quite at ease with the arrangement, but this first night was something different for me, especially since our beds were no more than three feet apart in our tiny room.
I had, however, spent many nights in tents with platonic male friends while climbing or skiing in the mountains in past years, so felt I’d soon get used to Brian.
Before leaving the next morning, Brian and I rode down to the lake’s shore. Had it been a nice day, I would have loved to have just sat for hours with a book—it was so serene and peaceful. Sadly, the weather wasn’t as serene and peaceful and we soon rode off to get some miles under us before the rain started.
Riding with Brian was also a very different experience to riding with Dave. As we weren’t in any hurry and were sure to cover the 2,000 km (1,200 mi) stretch to Tynda well before Dave and the Latvians arrived, Brian and I had a lot of time to kill. He liked to stop a lot and took considerable time putting on his rain gear, which required fishing out a pair of waterproof pants and pulling them on, then taking off his riding jacket and layering a rain coat underneath, then swapping out a different pair of gloves and covering his backpack with a rainproof bag.
It’s not easy to find the perfect riding suit that will keep you cool when it’s hot yet also cover you from head to toe when it pours. When that happened, I’d pull out a rain jacket tucked into a small bag on the side of my panniers and wear it overtop of my riding jacket. My pants had three layers, two of which were removable: quilted for very cold days and waterproof for wet days. If the day looked dark when we started out, I’d just keep my rain layer on underneath. Sometimes this would catch me by surprise when it turned hot and sunny but I’d rather be hauling off a layer on the side of the road in the sun than pulling one on in the rain.
Another difference riding now with Brian was we never really rode over 100 kmph (60 mph) on the pavement. This took some getting used to as Dave and I normally ride an average speed of 120 kmph (70 mph) on well-paved roads. I used the slower pace to take more photos and we stopped more often for pee breaks, fuel and food. The days were relaxing and uneventful as there wasn’t much to see along this stretch of road, but Brian and I had the usual follies Dave and I’d have when trying to find a place to stay at night.
One evening we arrived in Ulan Ude to a hostel Roland had told us about. Brian stayed with the bikes while I walked up three flights of stairs in my motorcycle boots following signs for the hostel. When I found the office, I asked to look at some private rooms in an apartment they rented out and a young girl grabbed a key and motioned for me to follow. We walked back down the stairs, out onto the street, up a block to a traffic light, across the street, down the other side (exactly across from the bikes), into an apartment building, up five flights (this time there was an elevator), through two large steel doors and into the apartment. It was bright, large and empty and I said we’d take it.
The girl and I reversed our steps and I followed her past Brian, giving him a thumbs up, then up the three flights of stairs back to the hostel’s office. I was sweating pretty good now and looking forward to a shower but a man behind the counter now told me nothing was available. I asked why I’d just been walked around the streets to see an empty apartment just to be told there was no longer any vacancy but he just shrugged and said in the 15 mins we were gone, the whole apartment got booked.
Back on the street, Brain found another hostel on his GPS just around the corner. I walked to this one and asked for a room there. The man opened the door to four sets of bunk beds. On the top of two separate bunks were a couple of large Russian men in their underwear staring at their phones. One was scratching his big, naked belly.
The hostel owner understood the shake of my head and volunteered to call a friend, who had an apartment for rent. I said go ahead and in the meantime, walked back to Brain to retrieve my bike. He and I rode back to the second hostel and I went inside to ask about the friend with the apartment. The man said it was fine to stay there but it needed to be cleaned first and could we wait an hour. Brian volunteered to ride to another hotel he’d found while I stayed at the hostel. If we could find something else, we wanted to just get sorted without having to wait as it was already food and shower time.
Brian returned about 20 mins later.
“It’s expensive,” which meant over $60 per night, “but it’s really nice.”
Done! Let’s go.
We pulled into a gated hotel parking lot where the receptionist, a nicely-dressed, dark-haired girl, stood outside waiting for us. She motioned where we could park the bikes and got us sorted. I felt bad because my bike’s forks were dripping oil onto the nice bricks. I ran inside to ask for some cardboard but all they could find was a yogurt container. For what it was worth, I stuck it under the fork leaning to the side that would likely drip more.
Spending $60 per night in a North American hotel means you might wake up with bed bug bites, but in Russia, it’s pretty posh. Although we couldn’t afford to do it every night, it was nice to splurge every now and again.
While laying in my comfy hotel room, I wondered what sort of torture Dave had endured on the BAM that day; did he have to do any waist-deep river crossings? Were the mosquitoes driving him crazy? I was immensely curious what they’d all be riding through and couldn’t wait to hear all about it.
Next post: Dave has some bad luck on the BAM road.
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