I left UB at around noon. Got lost trying to find the road north to Ulan Ude, and therefore couldn’t make it to the border before it at 6 o’clock.
70 kms from the border, I noticed a heavily loaded road-bike with elaborate aerodynamic fairings parked in front of a local rest-stop. The rider was a Bulgarian named Costa. He wore a leather jacket, big round earrings and long hair. It would be an ordinary sight somewhere in California, but definitely not so in Mongolia. Costa is also a graphic designer. He left home 4 months ago and rode through Russia to Ulan Ude. He had just crossed the border less than an hour ago, and was curious about my trip. We had some food together talking about each others experiences. It was past 5 so we decided to camp together.
We left the pavement and started climbing on the hills covered with grass. It was a real treat watching him ride his huge elaborate bike on the Mongolian steppe. We stopped on the other side of the hill, away from the road and pitched our tents. I had a beer. Kosta doesn’t drink; an amazing feat considering that he spent so much time in Russia. So I prepared some tea as we were enjoying the vast blank landscape ahead of us. It started to drizzle as we were continuing our profound discussion regarding the Buddhist culture in the area. Particularly about Buddha riding a motorbike in Lotus position. I concluded that the handlebars would have to be turned upside down to accommodate the hands resting on the knees. The throttle and clutch would have to be perfectly tuned so they can be operated with just two fingers. Kosta thought the seat and suspension was not an issue since he would be floating above it at all times.
We were having fun, without realizing how wet we were getting. The drizzle had become proper rain and it didn’t seem like it would go away any time soon. That’s when Kosta revealed the truth about himself. In Bulgarian riding community he was known as the “God of Rain”. We retreated to our tents very early and spent the rest of the night listening to the sound of rain. I assume Kosta, the rain god fell into sleep a little after midnight because that’s when the rain stopped.
There was so much wind through the night, everything was completely dry in the morning. I cooked some oatmeal and coffee. I noticed as we were packing, how much filming equipment Kosta was carrying on his bike. He had two cameras, a full size tripod, a steady-cam, and a vehicle mount.
We did some filming as we came down the hill to the road. It took about an hour to cover less than a mile. He had to walk ahead, set-up the tripod and camera, come back, ride, stop, walk back and retrieve the equipment… And do it 4 times… I appreciate his persistence. I’m sure he’s going to have some nice footage in the end.
Back on the pavement, we parked the bikes and said our goodbyes, wishing each other good luck, until we met again in Los Angeles.
All the way through Mongolia, I had been noticing these blue ribbons tied on to trees and graves. I knew it was a religious (probably Buddhist) item. I wanted one on the bike but didn’t want to untie one. Just before I left Mongolia, I noticed one lying on the side of the road. I was very happy with this silly coincidence.
Here is another small but surprising coincidence that happened a few moments later: Since I already stopped for the ribbon thingy, I decided to check the air pressure on the tires. In the process, the small plastic valve cap dropped on the ground. I saw it fly a few meters in the wind. It’s very hard to find such a small thing among a million other little stones. Just as I was about to let it go, I noticed another one lying right in front of me. It wasn’t the one I dropped, because later, I found that one too…
In any case, if the blue ribbon thingy has a spiritual power to bring luck, I’m sorry to have spent it on a stupid valve cap…
I arrived at the Mongolian border in less than an hour. There were no incidents but it took too much time. I purchased Russian insurance on the Mongol side for 1030 Rubles. It’s cheaper here. But I got tricked by the money changer dude again. He said the rate for dollar was 30. I bargained for about 20 minutes to get it for 31.5. It turns that the actual rate was around 35. So I lost about 14 dollars, which is a night in a hotel room. Then I watched an official trying to plug the USB cord of a mouse for twenty minutes. In the end he climbed on the table and reached down to the back of the computer, pointing his ass right on my face. It was a splendid portrait of bureaucracy, which I couldn’t risk photographing.
Russian side took just as long. First, one of the cars tried to kill me to get my spot on the queue, then the policewomen examined my passport for almost 15 minutes realizing in disappointment that it is indeed authentic, then another police-babushka decided to recite me chapters from Russian law book even if I made it extremely clear that I spoke absolutely no Russian. I made a blank face when she finished. What a mistake… She started again from the beginning. This time ‘louder’!
Landscape changes dramatically as you move north. As if the nature is aware of the cultural and political territories… Hmmm, maybe it works the other way round. I don’t know. It looks different. The steppe is broken with occasional trees at first. Pine like coniferous trees… This is probably the southern edge of the taiga that claims the land from here northward into the tundra.
I stayed in Ulan Ude for one night. It’s surprisingly cold. The thermometer shows +8 degrees Celsius but the wind changes things dramatically.
As I left Ulan Ude, the road turned southwest and kept on going like that for almost 100 kms. Being paranoid about going the wrong direction, I asked 4 different people to confirm that this was actually the road to Chita. It looks like I’m making a huge detour for the sake of keeping my wheels on the tarmac.
The road is paved, but old. Nevertheless, there are crews working to maintain it. Despite numerous patches, bumps and small detours, it’s a relatively comfortable ride. Easily manageable as long as you have a working suspension.
At one point, I came across a construction zone and stopped. There was a guy, directing the traffic with a flag in his hand. A truck was stopping perpendicular to the road but there was enough passage in the back for a bike. The guy looked at the driver, than waved his flag hastily, telling me to move on. I started moving. Just as I was approaching to pass the truck, it started backing up. It was horrifying to see the big wheels that close. I braked immediately and avoided what seemed to be inevitable for a few milliseconds. The front tired skidded and I fell down. The truck driver and the flag dude started shouting at each other as I lifted the bike, checked for damage and moved on to safety.
I’m officially in Siberia. People in here sometimes see temperatures below -45°C. It will be a little awkward to talk about cold as it’s just the beginning of September and not even below zero. But I still will! I have a California license plate!
Moving between 70, 80 kph with a strong side wind and occasional snow for about a few hours, I lost sense in my fingers and toes so decided to do something about it. After a few different attempts of trial and error, here is what I concluded:
The feet and hands are cold because your body feels the threat and directs the blood to your vital systems. In order to warm up, I had to make sure that my head and abdomen were completely isolated. Wearing a wind and waterproof jacket may seem sufficient at first. But after an hour of wind exposure, the outer shell gets so cold, that it sucks up the heat of your body. The solution was to wear more and more layers and isolate every hole the air could escape. Below is a list of things I ended up wearing to achieve this:
• Thermal base layer shirt and pants
• Polar fleece jacket with high neck piece
• Wind and waterproof full body liner with polyester insulation
• Cordura outer shell
• Polar neck warmer
• Thick riding socks
• Gore-Tex winter riding gloves
• Gore-Tex riding boots
• Wool beret (inside the helmet which is a little oversize by now)
• Riding goggles
• Full face helmet
In addition to these, it really helps if you don’t skip meals and get high calorie stuff that’s easy to digest. I try to wait half an hour before I go back to riding after lunch as the digestive system also needs blood to work.
This way, I managed to ride around 650 kms in one day to Chita, passing through dense forests, river valleys and many small villages with wooden cottages on the roadside. I was stopped in a few established police checkpoints for document controls, but never for speeding. I’m still looking forward to the title of “RTW Without Tickets or Bribes”…
Chita is the last developed Russian frontier before I continue through what’s known as the infamous Amur Highway and Zillow Gap. This road has been in construction since it was symbolically opened to use in 1994. For more than 15 years, many people tried to ride it. Some with success, some not. It’s supposed to be colder and wet with long stretches of gravel and potholes.
My hopes of making it to sunny California by the 23rd to attend the Horizons Unlimited Community Meeting is diminishing as I’m still waiting for a suspension to arrive here in Chita. If I receive it by Monday the 7th, I could possibly make it to the ferry on the 17th in 10 days. That would require me to move 200 miles (320 kms) per day on average without any delays. From there I will have about 4 days to ship the bike and myself from Seoul. Honestly, I think it won’t work that smoothly. We’ll see…