It’s been weeks now since we finished the BAM, but despite being so adamant upon completion of that monster of an off-road route that I would never ride it again, sitting here now with an ice-cold beer, it’s proving impossible to feel those same emotions again. I already want to be back there and the more I flick through the pictures and video footage, the greater the desire becomes. Siberia, gripped me in a unique way and I’m almost certain I’ll be riding that trail again.
The end of the BAM represented the beginning of the tarmac, which, excluding a few trails through Alaska and Canada, will most probably take us through to the Baja route through Mexico.
Getting the riding gear back on after a short one day break in Tynda was pretty tough going. We didn’t have a chance to get any clothing cleaned so everything was still covered in mud, dirt and sweat, and every single belonging we owned was damp from the various downpours and river crossings. We needed a break but didn’t want to stop until we hit Khabarovsk, apparently Russia’s most European like city. After being out in the wild for so long it sounded like paradise.
We left Tynda and headed south to re-join the Trans-Siberian highway which would eventually take us the entire way to Vladivostok.
We were still running the soft compound of the Dunlop MX51 dirt tyre on the rear selected for the BAM and had no idea if it was going to make it over the 2000 KM of tarmacked road we needed it to in order to reach the final Russian calling point. All we could do was cross everything and see how it held up. Sourcing tyres at this point would mean waiting for at least 10 days for them to be sent from Moscow and rainy Tynda was hardly a barrel of laughs so there was no way we were hanging on there for that duration.
The plan was to head to Khabarovsk, apparently Russia’s most European like city, where we knew we could relax, re-group and get ourselves cleaned up. It was a two-day ride if the road surface was good to us so we expected to be pitching the tents again alongside the Trans-Siberian that night. We left it fairly late to find somewhere to pitch and when the sun eventually started to set we found ourselves in a swamp like region with your standard portion of Trans-Siberian mosquitoes. We were both fairly worn out from the previous couple of weeks and well and truly over that camping malarkey so we decided to go all out and treat ourselves to a night in a motel. The motels along this road are all pretty much identical. A basic room to sleep, a communal bathroom and a small restaurant selling basic food and drinks. This one however came with an additional twist…
That night it was hosting a birthday party for an old chap from the nearby village. We hardly even had time to unpack the bikes before Vladimir, pictured above in the shirt and trouser braces, insisted we joined the carnage that was taking place on the make-shift dance floor in the restaurant area of the motel. We’d had a heavy night the previous day in Tynda celebrating the completion of the BAM so neither of us were overly keen on getting back on the vodkas again but despite his lack of English, it was clear Vladimir had a very different plan for us that evening. His handshake left me feeling like a 6-year-old boy. He was clearly a no-nonsense guy, as hard as nails and a very well-respected individual by those around him. I wasn’t planning on upsetting his party. Besides, we’re on a tight budget and the rule since day one has always been ‘accept all hospitality and good will gestures gracefully.’
I can’t be sure exactly what took place after we cleared those bottles of vodka but the alarm we sensibly set before the first drink woke me up fully clothed (including shoes) in a dribbling mess. Thankfully I was in the room we had checked in to the night before. Not an ideal way to start a 500km ride but I know Vladimir wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I was still shaking off the hang over upon arrival to Khabarovsk which in turn, provided everything we needed for a couple of days of relaxation. The sunshine was out and we took the opportunity to do very little other than to enjoy the restaurants, bars and nightclubs and awesome waterfront in an attempt to make up for the relentless days of instant noodles and we even managed some of the Tough Miles admin work online. Khabarovsk is an impressive spot well worth checking out for a few days for anyone visiting that region.
A dry pack up and back on the road towards Vladivostok. The road surface was fairly typical of Russian highways. Generally good tarmac with a few loose gravel patches where road works are taking place. It’s not uncommon for even the good patches to throw some nasty surprises at you when you least expect it. Russia’s harsh winters means that most of its main roads suffer from quite sever fractures. In some places these cracks are filled with a motorcycle unfriendly tar mix, which, when freshly laid or baked under intense heat from the sun can prove lethal. One particular patch back in the mountain region of Altai caught me well and truly off-guard. I was leading at time when I entered in to a left-hander between 60 and 70 mph and hit a long patch of the stuff running parallel to the white line in the middle of the road. In this case it was the midday heat which had melted it. There was no sign of it coming and it had me in a full on tank slapper. I was preparing for impact. Both feet were off the bike but in a Moto GP recovery style, something kept me upright. I’d like to say it was riding ability but quite frankly, I felt like that same 6-year-old Vladimir shook hands with outside that motel.
When you make it through moments like that there is little else you can do but have a little chuckle to yourself and be thankful that the bike is still in one piece and the trip can go on. Other than avoiding more strips like that, there was little to report from that particular ride to Vladivostok but the relatively well surfaced road provided some decent time for me to mentally reflect over the trip to date. We’d ridden quite literally to the other side of the globe and it was the end of the first chapter of this trip. It was a proud moment over the intercom as the sun was setting on what we knew would be our last long distance ride on Russian soil. I was proud of the bikes, the work and countless decisions that made them the perfect tool for the job. I was also proud of the incredible effort that both our Dads and Paul put in to this trip by helping us during that stressful stage. Despite putting ourselves under some intense time pressures by getting the bikes at such a late stage, I think the best job possible was achieved.
Vladivostok’s reputation for being a dirty and busy port town couldn’t be any further from the truth and the architecture was noticeably different to the rest of Russia. With countless bars and restaurants and water side entertainment it felt more like being back in Brighton. Most of the hostels are run illegally so they don’t put up any signs indicating which building they in so trying to locate this particular one proved as painful as ever. We searched high and low for the place which turned out to be similar to the others we had come across in Russia. It was a small flat in a Soviet style block just outside of the nice buildings in the centre. Imagine an East London council flat but stick in over 15 bunk beds and do nothing with the one single shower and one toilet. It was far from ideal but there were 3 other bikers present, all of whom had a wealth of knowledge useful for arranging transport to U.S.A.
Upon entering that dingy flat we had no idea that we were about to meet one of the characters that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the travelers we have met on this trip. Richard Jones is a 61-year-old man from North Wales circumnavigating the globe on a BMW 1250 completely alone. When we met him, his bike was being shipped north to Magadan for him to begin the Road of Bones so he’d been kicking around in Vladivostok for a good while prior to our arrival. His head start in the city made him the perfect guide for us and he did everything in his control to make our stay in Vladivostok as comfortable and as hassle free as he possibly could. It didn’t take us long to give him the name of ‘Skipper’ and when we stumbled across a stand on the sea front selling rip off captain hats, we simply couldn’t resist.
Skipper enjoying the sights of Vladivostok:
Despite the age difference between us, his laid back attitude really made it feel like there was just a couple of years between us and his unique ability to communicate with non-English speakers made him an entertaining aid whilst chatting to the local girls of Vladivostok. His comical opening line would typically be (in a strong northern accent) “Girls, you really need to meet these two lads. These boys right here are officially motorcycle superstars. No, really, I’m being serious now…They have just ridden the BAM road!” The girls would generally have no idea what he was trying to say but his gentle approach and big grin would always generate a few giggles and smiles all round.
As we left him on the port of Vladivostok we discussed our concerns for him riding the Road of Bones solo. We knew how nasty those Russian roads could be at times but we later found out he successfully completed his challenge and is now on his way through Mongolia. He had one or two falls, one of which had him on the deck until a passing 4×4 could offer some assistance but thankfully he suffered nothing worse than a minor leg injury which didn’t keep him from riding on.
As we walked the streets of Vladivostok one day, coincidently we bumped in to a Russian guy called Nikolay we met in the snooker club all the way back in Tynda. He introduced us to his huge friendship circle and kindly took great care of us for the duration of our stay. An awesome bunch of people who won’t be forgotten.
Amongst all the night activity, it was critical we remained focused during the day time in order to ensure we arranged the most suitable shipping option for the bikes over the States. I could talk for days on end about the frustration involved in this but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll simply fill you in with the method we saw most suitable at the time.
In an attempt to keep both time and costs to a minimum, we decided to take a 24 hour roll on roll off ferry to a port called Donghae in the northern region of South Korea. There was simply no way we could handle the Russian Customs paperwork so we had to use the services of a local agency. On the advice from other riders on the Horizons Unlimited forum, we located a shipping agent named Yuri from Links Limited. His fluent English and exposure to Russian customs processes meant that he was able to narrow down the options that we had to get the bikes over to the States. He then put us in touch with a shipping agent in Korea who would help with the next stage of the process.
The plan was to put the bikes on a cargo ship to Seattle once we made it to South Korea then spend some time in Seoul before flying over to meet them a couple of weeks later. It was a great opportunity to include South Korea on the trip but we later realised that after all the questionable Russian custom fees plus the price of the ferry itself, we would both be close to £1000 worse off and this was just to get to South Korea, nevermind any further. A financial hit that neither of us were ready for but we had no other choice so after 5 or so days in Vladivostok, we set sail to the next destination, South Korea…