Posting Aug. 27, 2017—On the morning of July 19, Dave and I crossed back into Russia from Kazakhstan. At the border we were excited to see three other overland bikes loaded up with gear like ours, except these guys all had a second set of tires for both their front and rear wheels strapped to their luggage.
They looked like pretty serious athletes in their matching team jerseys and vinyl wrapped bikes with sponsor logos everywhere. Dave and I walked over to say hi and were happy to find they spoke English. Oskars, Sandijs and Didzis were from Latvia and in their early thirties. A gas company, Neste, had sponsored them for their food and fuel to ride an 18,500 km (11,500 mi) route from Riga, Latvia to Magadan, Russia over a period of two months. They were on two KTM 990s and a KTM 950.
The Latvians’ route plan included some of the same roads Dave and I wanted to ride through Russia and Mongolia so we exchanged contact info just as the line through the border started moving forward. We all wished each other well until we might meet again someday, which was actually about 15 minutes later inside the customs office, then again on the side of the road after we were through customs and yet again at a gas station down the road. It was awkward our paths kept crossing so we decided to ride the 200 km (125 mi) into Barnaul together—a city Dave and I were going to take a few days off to do some bike maintenance and other chores. From Barnaul the Latvians were going to continue to Biysk another 150 km (95 mi) east but when we arrived in Barnaul there was an aggressive storm going on. After a hefty meal of meat, meat and more meat from a BBQ place on the side of the road, the Latvians decided they’d stay in town as well. We all followed Dave to a hostel he had programmed into the GPS and were soaked by the time we got there. Inside we were told there wasn’t enough room for five people but the hostel owner also rented out an apartment on the other side of town, which suited us better anyway.
The owner of the hostel, a middle-aged guy surprisingly spry with such a big gut, wedged himself into his car and told us to follow him through the city to the apartment 9 km (5 mi) away. When you’re going 120 kmph (75 mph) on the highway, 9 kms (5 mi) is covered in a matter of minutes. In a city during an epic rain storm and rush hour, it takes considerably longer. It’s even worse when you’re on a motorcycle that can easily lane-split, hop curbs and even use sidewalks to get past a traffic jam, but are at the mercy of following a car that can’t do any of that cool stuff. Not easily anyway. The traffic was so stopped up we had time to get off our bikes, walk to the car, get directions from the owner then get back on our bikes and try to find the place on our own, which, despite some missed turns, we were able to find.
The owner showed up a little later having broken through the traffic barrier and kindly took some of my bags and walked us all up to the third floor where we would spend the night. In Russia, we were finding out it wasn’t just hotels where travellers stayed but little apartments rented out for the same purpose. The outsides don’t look so great, sometimes with patchwork paint jobs and rusting window frames, but once inside the apartments are actually quite charming places to stay. The added benefit is they also have amenities that hotels don’t usually, like kitchens and laundry machines.
We spent this first night together with the Latvians, sharing vodka and stories about anything motorcycle travel related. Dave and I loved their sense of humour, especially Oskars, who spoke fluent English and had a very dry, deadpan way of joking with us. Didzis and Sandijs weren’t as fluent but could speak some English and understand what we were saying. All three also spoke fluent Russian, as well, which was a great asset while trying to arrange a place to stay and order food off a menu.
In the morning, Sandijs, Oskars and Didzis left to head east to Biysk where they too had some bike maintenance to do. We would try and meet them a few days later to ride through the Altai Region together. When the noise of three rumbling KTM engines finally petered off through the streets of Barnaul, they left a cacophony of car alarms going off in their wake.
Dave was excited to head to the shop later that day, where he would be installing new dirt tires onto our bikes, and also removing the silencer installed inside his Akrapovik exhaust pipe. The night before the Latvians had informed him he could take this part out and have a louder exhaust. Men…
Dave and I spent a few more days in Barnaul then did a 400 km (250 mi) ride east to catch up to the Latvians. We didn’t leave Barnaul until after 3:00 p.m. because of some logistics with the bikes and although the road was paved the whole way, didn’t arrive at the lake until after 10:00 p.m. We don’t make it a habit to ride after dark but there are exceptions to every rule. In this case, we had an issue after we’d stopped for food around 5:00 p.m.
We were riding along a double-lane highway that was getting quite congested coming into Biysk, about 150 km (95 mi) from Barnaul. Dave was in front of me and an SUV separated us. I saw the SUV brake hard then swerve, which revealed Dave on the ground. My heart hammered into my chest. What had just happened in the last two seconds?
I pulled off to the side and quickly jumped off my bike hurrying over to where Dave was now picking himself up off the ground. Relieved to see him moving fine, I tried to figure out what happened. A pedestrian had stepped out onto the highway from behind a moving semi and although he was using a well-labeled crosswalk, hadn’t appeared to have looked both ways, causing cars in both directions to brake hard. The car in front of Dave jammed on the brakes. Dave also braked but not hard enough and didn’t stop before hitting the guy’s bumper, causing him to fall off his bike. The SUV in front of me swerved to avoid Dave.
Luckily Dave and the bike were fine but the car had a scuff mark on its bumper from Dave’s tire. The driver asked for $200 but agreed to $60 without too much hesitation and we carried on without any police involvement. Russia’s crosswalks and pedestrians are something to shake your head at. We’ve seen crosswalks in the middle of the freeway where people are going highway speeds. I’m not sure any car going 120 kmph (75 mph) could stop in time for a pedestrian at these crossings, never mind the potential pile up that cars coming to a dead stop on a highway could cause. It was a lesson learned about following too close and keeping a better eye out for pedestrians who seem to just step out into traffic expecting it all to stop.
The Latvians had rented an apartment on Lake Teleckoe about 100 metres from the ferry dock and, knowing they could push their bikes to the 6:00 a.m. crossing the next morning if needed, were in very good spirits by the time we met up with them at a patio bar. With little delay, Dave and I joined them, feeling deserving of a cold beer. While we sat at the patio restaurant, several locals came to talk to the table, asking where we were from, what kind of bikes we had, etc. One gregarious Russian man arrived at the table carrying a platter of 25 smoked fish; a gift he’d bought for our trip to the Altai Region. It was quite a treat to have for the days to come.
The next morning, July 22, came a little too fast but we all rose on time and loaded our bikes onto the small ferry to begin the 7-hour floating journey into the Altai Region. The distance to cover on water was only 70 km (45 mi) but the boat’s top speed was 10 kmph (6 mph).
Our route over the course of a few days would take us to the Mongolian border, so we didn’t have to come back on the ferry.
We disembarked to very black clouds, which before we could even get our bearings after getting off the ferry, unleashed buckets of water on us. For about an hour or so we rode in pouring rain and a muddy two-wheeled track into the mountains with other ferry passengers. Then the weather cleared thankfully and we were able to ride a few hundred kilometres on very scenic dirt roads. We rode up and over a 5,250 ft (1,600 m) pass arriving at the top to sunshine and warm temperatures.
We found a yurt-like cabin that night and squeezed the five of us into beds arranged in a circle around the room with a table in the middle.
On July 24, we had a gorgeous ride up to the top of a mountain, after turning off the main road and riding about 10 km (6 mi) up some steep, rocky bits to the top. The weather held off long enough for us to stay up there for over an hour. On the way down, I went first to get ahead of the guys so I could get some shots of them riding through the incredible wildflowers. On a corner I dropped my bike. Rather than waiting until the guys started coming down and missing the photo opp, I lifted it myself. Sometimes, I can lift that beast and other times I can’t even budge it. It all depends on how it falls and what angle it lays itself down for a sleep.
We made it to the Mongolian border that evening but after waiting over an hour, discovered they were closed so we rode up into some hills and found a camping spot for the night. So far it was very fun but fast-paced riding with three Latvians, who race motorcycles off-road at home, and one boyfriend, who couldn’t be happier to have found his ‘brethren.’
Next post: Mongolian ‘roads’ and their insane drivers…
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