Posting Sept. 19, 2017—After my pothole incident the day before, I remembered that when I was gearing down to come into the campground, my clutch felt weird. I had to stomp on it to get into gear. I mentioned this to Dave and he got up from the little handmade table outside our yurt where we were having a warm beer, trying to relax. He walked over to my bike and I heard a big sigh.
“Your bike is unrideable,” he said.
“You’re kidding? What?”
I walked over to have a look. Clutch oil had leaked out because of erosion of the seals causing everything to gak up and stop working, either from lack of maintenance or from the accident. My poor steed was continuing to bleed out. I couldn’t ride my bike any further unless we could somehow find a replacement clutch cable.
Looking around at our surroundings it seemed impossible. There was nothing around us but lakes, hills and the odd village here and there. However, there was a small town about 10 km (6 mi) down the road. I figured it completely unlikely we’d find a replacement clutch for a BWM motorcycle even in all of Mongolia, but Dave rode off to see what he could find after asking vacationers in a yurt beside us if the town nearby had a hardware shop. They offered for Dave to follow them as they were heading out.
Less than an hour later he was back and pulled a clutch lever and cable out of his bag.
“You’re kidding!” I said again, laughing. “How the heck did you find that out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“What’s even more funny is I found it in a grocery store,” he said. “And it was only $5 and that was including the mineral oil.”
This was fantastic. It’s totally anxiety-inducing riding a motorcycle with compromised brakes, blown forks and a bent front wheel. A broken clutch was an addition to the malfunction I just didn’t need.
There were more sighs and cursing coming from Dave as he worked to install the cable. It was too long for one, but he managed to engineer something and within the hour was taking it for a test ride out in the fields, scaring the yaks.
“It works,” he said when he came back.
Great. Now we were able to enjoy the rest of our day off, having this problem solved. I decided to go for a hike up one of the hills above the campground and take some photos.
Stress caused by mechanical breakdowns that needed to be jerry-rigged on the side of the road and/or with minimal resources at hand, left Dave and I edgy, both with each other and life around us. I found myself incredibly angry one day when I stepped out of the yurt and found a guy climbing onto my poor, broken bike to have a photo taken. Not much in Mongolia is considered private space.
I snapped off a few photos of our yurt from up high and reasoned that the sheer nature of the trip we were on demanded a lot from us and our bikes. We couldn’t really expect not to have issues.
Back at our yurt, Dave and I ‘enjoyed’ another warm beer by the lake. Earlier, we’d had good news. Not only was my bike rideable again but the road was also paved the rest of the way to Ulaanbaatar, which was, in fact, only 700 km (435 mi) away. We could get there easily in two days and there was less chance of damaging my forks further if there weren’t rocks and potholes to worry about.
A few days earlier, Dave had asked me if I really wanted to do the BAM road. He did but didn’t want me to feel forced into it. The BAM consists of about 1,300 km (800 mi) of sometimes dangerous river crossings, old, broken bridges and, in a wet year, a lot of mud. I’d always assumed I’d do it, or at least try, as long as we had others to join us for help in the river crossings. There was a strong temptation to be one of few females on her own bike to ride this section of road. But the thought was starting to lose its appeal. Not only did my bike need some major repairs, my drive and motivation for this type of exertion was waning.
It was OK with me if Dave went with the Latvians to ride the BAM and we all met up in Tynda. While I didn’t particularly want to travel alone in Siberia for over 2,000 km (1,240 mi), I didn’t want him to miss out on the chance to ride the BAM. And the more I thought about it, the better the idea became. Here was my chance to go at my own pace and tap back into my independence. I’d have to navigate myself to Tynda and although it would be along mostly paved roads, there was some allure to the challenge of what might lay ahead; maybe I’d get a flat tire or not find a place to sleep for the night…
On July 30, Dave and I rode into Ulaanbaatar (UB) in blistering heat.
It was no surprise the city should be chaotic and that we’d be completely exhausted once arriving at our hostel in the late evening. We’d been riding over eight hours with only pit stops at gas stations that didn’t have anything fun to eat. Our stomachs were long since emptied of the oatmeal we’d eaten for breakfast and the ice cream, Coke and dry crackers we’d had for lunch.
A huge storm was bruising the sky with dark clouds when we finally pulled into our hostel around 8:00 p.m. I sank into the warmth of familiarity as we rode off the dirty, potholed streets of UB into the driveway of The Oasis. It was a great scene: a large, covered area held half a dozen parked adventure motorcycles, all in various stages of repair. The lot was home to another half dozen overland 4×4 trucks, some vinyl wrapped with cool world maps showing their intended routes.
Riders and other travellers were on the patio drinking cold beer, laughing about various travel mishaps that seemed worse at the time. It appeared everyone was there with some kind of mechanical issues caused by the unrelenting beatings of Mongolian roads. We saw an opportunity to decompress and have a much-needed laugh with our brethren about our own experiences over the past few weeks.
After getting settled into a room, we went down to discover the kitchen was closed, save for some bread and tea. We ate six pieces of toast each with butter and sat nursing a beer. Although the road to UB had been paved for 700 km (435 mi), there were plenty of surprise potholes and dips available to give my broken forks some crunches they didn’t need. I was sure I’d now also trashed the bushings and other innards not visible until Dave could remove them and do a little exploratory surgery.
In the kitchen of our hostel now, Dave looked weary from a day of travelling slowly between 80-100 kmph (50-60 mph) because of my broken bike. I swallowed feelings of guilt. It was time for another rest and so we spent the next three days talking with other travellers and trying unsuccessfully to fix my forks in the mechanics shop next to the hostel.
One day, Dave spent four hours in a car driving around the city with the mechanic’s assistant, who had offered to take him to a KTM dealer. Some KTMs use the same sized fork seals as our bikes so it was worth a try. Although he didn’t find the correct seals, he did find a set of front brake pads that would replace the oil saturated ones I had now. When they got back to the hostel, the mechanic’s assistant asked Dave to cough over $10/hr, for “chauffer and translation services,” even though it had just seemed like a nice gesture at the time. Dave could have easily gotten a taxi there for about $4.
Also, when Dave went back to the KTM dealer on his own the next day to look at tires, the guy working at the counter, whom Dave had a long conversation with because interestingly he’d lived in Bellingham, WA (where Dave lives) for a few years, told Dave that the mechanic’s assistant had told him to charge an additional 10 per cent onto the bill. When Dave and this greedy dude got back in the car, the dude said, hold on a minute, and left Dave in the car while he went back in to collect his “commission.”
Once Dave could take the forks apart, he found the bushings were not damaged, which was fantastic, but the force of the Bridge Deck Mother-of-all Potholes hit had caused the fork seals to twist and fold up on themselves, which tore them. Dave was able to carefully remove the seals to clean them up and re-insert them right side up.
The tears in both rubber seals meant the forks couldn’t hold oil for long but nevertheless, on the (bad) advice of the mechanic Dave put the forks back together with transmission fluid, so the forks would at least have some lubrication. How long it would stay inside, we didn’t know. We just hoped they’d get me to Irkutsk, back in Russia, where we’d luckily had some parts shipped of things we figured we’d need after travelling through Mongolia.
Irkutsk was also the last major stop before the beginning of the BAM road. As luck would have it, among those parts included blessed fork seals and wipers. If all else failed, (which it did), all I had to do was coax the bike 1,027 km (638 mi) to Irkutsk.
Even knowing the parts I needed for my forks were within reach, (if another country and 1,000 km was that), I still spent my days off in UB scribing pleas to the online motorcycle community on the very, very off chance riders or travellers from Europe, North America or anywhere else there were BMW dealers, might be coming to UB and could bring me the parts. This yielded no results but plenty of helpful tips and opinions on riding with blown forks, which was what I did in the end.
Next post: an uncomfortable but hopeful dash to Irkutsk, Russia, where we had pre-ordered new wipers and seals for my forks. But they sent the wrong size…
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