The BAM road is not just about motorcycling skill, it is a real test of physical and mental endurance. It is impossible to portray how tough this route really is, and once finally over it is far too easy to forget the pain each kilometer can bring. To ride it you need pure grit and determination.
Mongolia was soon a distant memory as the Tough Miles boys left Ulanbataar and headed north back into Russia. With our improved off-road riding skills it was time to re-group, replenish the stocks and focus on the ultimate challenge, the BAM road to Tynda. We had spent many hours, days, even weeks thinking about this adventure route, trying to decide if we had the time, the skills, and the will to tackle such a demanding unknown stretch of land prior to heading for the USA. But really there was no option, we couldn’t leave Russia without giving it our best shot.
The plan was to purchase new tyres, chain lube, and oil in Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia. From there we would travel north through Kachug and Zhigalovo, before riding a dirt road to Severobaikalsk, a small town at the North tip of Lake Baikal. At this point we would commit to the BAM road in an attempt to ride East to Tynda, 1400km of pure off-road adventure riding, with no way out. We either completed it or turned back. There really was no other way out of this one.
The ride from Irkutsk to Severobaikalsk should have been straight forward, but the off-road stretch was not as we expected. The road initially followed the river Lena, with a good loose gravel surface and fantastic views. However, our fortunes soon turned as we hit thick sand, and the condition of the road rapidly deteriorated. It was a punishing logging track with endless pot holes, surrounded by dense forest and swamp land. This didn’t fare well for our plan to camp on route, and before long we found ourselves pushing on into the night. Things continued to get worse as our path was blocked by a large jack-knifed lorry. As we waited for the road to be cleared a group of Russian truckers communicated with us through hand gestures, crossing their arms and shouting in Russian “BAM road not possible”.
This is often the opinion of locals, so we tried not to listen, but it always scares me, and we knew we had a long ride in the dark on an off-road trail before reaching any kind of civilisation. It was 3.30am by the time we arrived at a small town called Magistralie, and we had been riding for over 17 hours non-stop. Finding a guest house proved impossible, especially at that time of day, so we reluctantly pitched a tent on the side of the road behind a derelict railway hut and slept in our riding gear from 7am till noon. It was arguably the toughest ride to date, and hardly an ideal start to our BAM adventure. We were exhausted, morale was rock bottom, and we were nervous of what lay ahead.
Finally in Severobaikalsk, we fitted our new knobblies, visited the BAM museum and mentally prepared to go into the wild. With little idea of how long the stretch to Tynda would take us, we stocked up on water and noodles, and made sure our tanks were brimmed. Without knowing when we could next find fuel, our 28L Safari tanks were essential. I made a short phone call to my mum, Sue, to explain I would not be reachable for perhaps 10 days. She sounded concerned, so to ease her thoughts I just agreed when she said “but many motorcyclists ride this route though right?” I decided it was best not to tell her that there are sections of the BAM that even 8-wheeled trucks cannot pass, and that there was more chance of her winning the lottery than us crossing paths with another biker.
The Baikal-Amur Mainline, aka BAM, is a railway line traversing Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. Construction began in the 1930s, largely using forced labour of gulag prisoners, including German and Japanese prisoners of war. As many as 150,000 died of overwork and starvation, with only 10% of all POWs working on the BAM returning home. In 1953, following the death of Stalin, virtually all construction work on the BAM stopped and the line was abandoned to the elements for more than twenty years. However, being a strategic alternative route to the Trans-Siberian Railway, especially along the vulnerable sections close to the Chinese border, meant that interest remained in finishing the BAM. In 1974 progress on the project was resumed, and in 1991 the BAM was declared complete.
The BAM ‘road’ is a single track lane used to access the railway during its construction. The road runs from Taishet, proceeds past Severobaikalsk at the northern tip of Lake Baikal, and finally reaches the Pacific Ocean at Sovetskaya Gavan. Tynda is a small town roughly in the middle, splitting the road into a Western and Eastern half. There are some small villages along the route, however, many have now been abandoned. The settlements still occupied are used to service the railway. It’s hard to fathom life at such a remote location, where the only transport in and out is via the BAM line. Some places we passed through consisted of only 1 or 2 blocks of flats, with a single small shop selling only the basics. These places would certainly not exist without the BAM.
The word ‘road’ cannot be used. Not even the word ‘track’ or ‘trail’ is fair. In multiple sections the route is impassable, where bridges have collapsed or were never finished. At these points the only way to continue is to ride the railway, which is still in regular use by huge heavy steam trains. The path winds through a large mountain range, so rivers of all sizes cut through your track at random intervals, sometimes as frequent as every 100m. The severity of these crossing is dependent on the time of year, and inevitably the local weather plays a huge part in your day-to-day progress. Baltic winters mean that in June the mountains are still ice capped, and many of the large rivers are still in their melting process. This makes for some truly beautiful landscapes, but high water levels and fast flowing freezing water doesn’t help when attempting to ride through on a motorcycle.
The terrain is constantly changing. Mile upon mile of thick sand quickly turns into loose gravel, followed by muddy pools and deep ruts. Our direction would often diverge from the path of the railway, climbing 1000m in altitude up a steep river bed trail. These moments are good fun as you wrestle the bike over large rocks and pebbles. Whilst lighting up the rear wheel you can feel debris smashing against the sump guard, and rickashaying off your feet. Sometimes it felt like a full on hill climb competition, where you try sitting, standing, anything in an attempt to relieve the strain on your body. The incline seems to go on forever, and it’s amazing that the bikes and the tyres survive. It’s easy to get carried away, and god forbid either of us had fallen, or seriously damaged the bikes, I really don’t know how we would have gotten out of there.
Generally the trail is narrow and lined with trees either side. Occasionally there are openings where you can see the railway track, indicating you are heading in the right direction! On every crest of a hill you wonder what obstacle you are about to face, and my heart sinks every time the track splits. At this point one route always goes high, leading to a rotten wooden bridge, or simply the remains of what once was. The other path goes low, leading to some kind of river crossing. This is typical of the BAM road, and without being able turn back there are really only 4 options:
Option 1: Cross the Bridge
There are literally hundreds of bridge crossings to tackle on the BAM road. Having been built in the 1930’s, most of the wooden bridges are now rotten, and many have collapsed. They are normally constructed from wooden railway sleepers, but patched up with old planks, logs, tree branches and even table tops. Some are extremely narrow and very long, stretching across vast powerful freezing rivers. The contours in the surface are a nightmare for a motorcycle, and often there would be little chance of surviving a fall. Occasionally we would see small plaques covered in flowers in memory of someone who had lost their life, or even a fallen truck lying on its roof beneath a precarious section of the bridge. These were stark reminders of the dangers of such an adventure, and often made us question what we were doing ‘for fun’.
One particular crossing neither of us will ever forget is the Mighty Vitim Bridge. Back in Moscow, Tony P, part of Sibersky Extreme project, had given us a first hand account of his horror story, and now it was time for our own. It was only Day 2, and as we came over the crest of a hill I remember saying “holy shit”. We both knew this moment would come, but neither of us thought we would reach it so soon. Before starting this trip, deep down both Pete and I believed we would ride it, but our view soon changed as we sheepishly wandered on and looked down at the vast mass of powerful water surging beneath us. The length of the crossing is unbelievable, the other end of the bridge disappears into the horizon. The surface is constructed from wooden railway sleepers, held together by loose metal shackles. In the middle is a large ramp, with rough slats either side. For the entire length it is extremely narrow with no side walls. Even just walking along it made my stomach turn, and looking down at the fast flowing water made my head spin. Pete looked at me and said “just standing here is making me feel sick, I’m spinning out”. It was obvious that riding it would be less clumsy, but the consequence of making a mistake would be devastating, so we decided there was no option other than to power walk the bikes across. Holding a bike fully laiden with luggage, and controlling the clutch whilst walking along side is no easy task. It certainly doesn’t help having giant size 12 motocross boots. There is always a high chance of tripping, or trapping your leg under the rear panniers. I went first, with Pete following close behind. It was going well until I reached the middle. As the front wheel went up the ramp I lost momentum, and the bike began sliding backwards even with the brake held. Sweat was dripping off the end of my nose, and as usual my Alpinestars trousers were falling around my knees! Fortunately I was able to re-gain composure, pull up my trousers, and execute the ramp crossing in one smooth action. I then watched in fear as Pete tackled the obstacle. Once safely on the other side we sat on the edge of the bridge and looked back in awe, relieved that the Vitim was now behind us. To ride that you must have balls of steel.
Often a bridge would not exist, as it had either collapsed or was never finished, at which point we would investigate option 2, riding through the river.
Option 2: River Crossings
The water is fresh off the mountains, which means it is freezing and often fast flowing. Sometimes you are faced with a river so vast that it is obvious you cannot possibly ride or push your bike through. Other times it is less clear, and one of us must wade through in order to make the decision. Rock, Paper, Scissor, Stone, these moments matter most when you have a long day ahead of you. The airbox height is a limiting factor, but seeing your engine underwater, hearing the tone change and feeling the bike being pushed sideways is always an uncomfortable experience.
If you cannot ride or push your bike through the river, and there is no passable bridge, then it is time for option 3, to ride the railway.
Option 3: Ride the Railway
As a child I was taught not to mess around on railway tracks, so the idea of riding a motorcycle along one seemed out of the question. However, when riding the BAM road often there is literally no other option. On day 3 the trail completely ran out, and it became clear that vehicles could no longer pass through this section. At this point we made our first effort to head back and reluctantly find a route onto the railway. Unfortunately the only space available to ride was on the opposite side of the tracks, and before long we found ourselves in a panic frenzy, trying to drag each bike over the rails. Without much thought we positioned my bike, opened the throttle and dropped the clutch, hoping the suspension would absorb the rails as the bike crossed. This didn’t go to plan, and with the front wheel in the middle of the track the back of the bike bounced of the first rail, spinning up the rear wheel whilst leaping a foot into the air. Eventually the entire bike, laiden with luggage, was stuck in the middle of the track. Fortunately Pete kept his cool, and directed us to lift the bike over the second rail, which we only just about managed. Shaking with fear we sat down and thought how stupid we had been. Knowing this wouldn’t be the last time we have to execute this kind of crossing, we spent some time developing a more elegant solution. On the same day we had to perform this 6 times, whilst on a hangover and with no remaining water supply. That was day 3, living hell.
Our longest and most dangerous rail crossing occured on day 5.The bridge was over 200m long and at the far end was a sharp bend in the track, making it impossible to see if a train was coming. In the distance we could see a small hut, where a rail guard was positioned. These guys get dropped off by train in the arse end of nowhere, and spend days in solitude manning the bridge. We stopped and discussed the possibility of walking across first. Perhaps we could speak to the guard and seek permission to ride on the track? But we wondered if there was any point. Attempting to communicate with a guard that speaks no English would only delay the proceedings, and there was a chance he would not agree to our plan. Also, knowing the amount of time and money some of these crossing cost the Sibersky Extreme crew, we decided to take a chance. We followed our usual strategy, cut the engines, listen very carefully, then ride across one at a time whilst keeping in touch via the intercom. If there was any sign of a train coming then we would try and ride off the track and squeeze into one of the small gaps in the side railings, where we hoped there would be just enough room to narrowly avoid the oncoming train. This particular section of track had concrete railway sleepers, giving a good surface to ride on. Trying not to think about it, I fired up my engine and accelerated down the bridge, reaching 4th gear as I approached the end. I could see the guard emerge from his hut, and with a huge feeling of relief I pulled over at the end of the crossing and killed my engine. I looked back and Pete was a small spec in the distance. I listened for any trains and then signalled over the intercom, GO GO GO! Pete came flying across the bridge with inches between the rails and edge of the sleepers. There was no room for error, and the consequences of a mistake don’t bare thinking about. Once finally over we rode slowly towards the guard and tried to act calm, as if what we had just done was perfectly normal. Being quite literally in the middle of no-where, god only knows what he thought when he saw 2 motorbikes appear. He looked stunned, and began ranting something in Russian. We sweetened him up with a 500rub note (10 pounds) and shook his hand, at which point he smiled, called us crazy, and amazingly invited us into his lonely hut for a cup of tea and some warm soup! We were grateful to have that one out of the way and still be alive. With no idea of how many more of these we would have to risk on our way to Tynda we decided to pitch up whilst we were ahead! 5 rail bridge crossings was enough for one day.
In some cases, even riding the track is not an option, at which point it is time for option 4……find a boat, or sit and pray for a passing truck!
Option 4: Seek the Assistance of a Small Boat or Passing Truck
It was 10.30pm on Day 2, and we had already conquered more than our fair share of obstacles, including the mighty Vitim Bridge. But just as we decided to stop we reached a huge river with no way across. There was a rail guard in our way, who was adamant we could not use the railway. He explained that if he was to agree and there was an issue, it could potentially cost him his job. But we knew this was Russia, and with sufficient amounts of arm twisting and a large enough bribe, anything is possible. After 1 hour of negotiations, which are never easy in Russian, we agreed to pay a large sum of 7500rubs (150 pounds) for the assistance of some locals. As the sun was setting we found ourselves loading each bike, one at a time without luggage, onto a small outboard motor boat. With a full 25Litres of fuel in each bike, lifting the bikes onto the front of the boat was difficult, and then we had to hold it upright during a shaky crossing. Nevertheless we got the job done, and lost very little time. It was a succesful day, so we pitched up and celebrated with a bottle of straight vodka. Never a good idea, and needless to say we were punished for that one the following day!
On Day 4 we found ourselves defeated by yet another deep fast flowing river. Cold, wet and exhausted, we sat under a bush as the heavens opened. Huge thunder and lightening struck as we sat and wondered how long we would have to wait for someone to come to our rescue. This was a particularly tough time. We were helpless and began wondering if it was too early in the year to tackle the BAM road. Perhaps water levels were too high? Sometimes we wouldn’t see any trucks for an entire day, so we wondered if at some point we would be completely stuck. The last thing we wanted is for this to ruin the rest of our trip! Then, in the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a truck on the other side of the river, and in a desperate effort to get help I ran to the edge of the broken bridge and shouted over to him. His truck had a large load on the back, and was clearly not suitable for carrying our bikes across. However, much to our surprise the legend went to get help, and within 30minutes or so a large truck was ploughing through the deep water towards us. The guys guided us to a large mound of earth, where together we were able to haul the bikes onto the back. Pete and I sat and supported the bikes over the crossing. It was an incredible moment as the truck carried us effortlessly over this giant obstacle, and once again we were making progress against the odds. With the bikes safely on the other side the truckies invited us into their shack and gave us a cup of tea. They wouldnt accept any money for their massive effort to help us, so we took their photo and tried our best to show our appreciation. Those guys are hard as nails.
The examples described in the options above hopefully give you some idea of the day to day challenges we faced on the BAM road, and through out this incredible journey we camped every night beside the railway. The earth would literally shake beneath us as huge steam trains rumbled past, and the piercing sound of their loud horns would often wake me in a cold sweat. One evening with fresh thoughts of dragging bikes over the track, Pete had a nightmare and bolted out of his tent at 3am, convinced we had pitched up on the railway and that I was a sure goner! Bears were another fear of ours, as the locals had warned us countless times about sightings in the area. We assumed being close to the railway was the safest bet. Whenever possible we would light a fire and eat 50m from the tents. Every rustle of a plastic bag, or crackle of fire brought this thought to the forefront of my mind, making it hard for me to sleep. Often riding in torrential rain and wading through freezing rivers meant that our gear was constantly soaking wet. A fine dry evening was no guarantee of a sunny morning. Most days we would wake up to the sound of heavy showers, knowing that it was time to pack up again and sink your wrinkled blistered feet back into the wet boots. All this was tough, but the final straw after a long day is the millions of mosquitoes. Sometimes there were so many that we couldn’t even sit and eat together, it was a case of pitching up and diving into the tent! In the mornings we barely spoke, we both appreciate that no two pack ups are ever the same out of a Wolfman, so we would each take as much time as we needed.
6 nights and 7 days and we had finally completed the West section of the BAM road. Upon reaching Tynda, I got on the intercom to say “Congratulations Pete, you are one hard bastard”.
Whilst writing this blog I re-read an email I received from my friend Chris. It said “enjoy the BAM road mate, surely it can’t be that bad?”
Well, it really was that bad. Some days were like living hell, but looking back it was the best thing I’ve ever done. The adrenaline rush and relief that each obstacle can bring is priceless, and the sense of achievement in completing the mission makes every second worth while. Embarking on a difficult challenge is about pushing yourself to the limit, and the reward of proving that you can do it. Our friend Liam Page knows this feeling all too well, having signed up for The Marathon Des Sables, a 6 day / 151 mile endurance race across the Sahara Desert in Morocco, the toughest footrace on earth. Best of luck to him………I’d sooner ride the BAM again!
Please keep the donations coming guys. We’re slowly getting there. Big thanks for all who have donated already. www.justgiving.com/toughmiles