Motorbike Meditation in Siberia

Motorbike Meditation in Siberia

I heard the last 4000 km would be boring: the stretch between Baikal Lake and the end of the continent would require some stoic perseverance until reaching Vladivostok. I can confirm: it does. The road is long and monotonous. Nothing to do, nothing to see. Nothing but bugs and birch trees. Nothing to keep your mind occupied other than your own thoughts. Until there’s nothing left to think of. Then there’s only the continuous sound of the motorbike. 

Bugger off!

Vast stretches of nothing; that’s what it’s all about. When I crossed Siberia it was hot, humid. The bugs were absolutely insane. As soon as I stopped for a pee-or-tea break, they attacked me as if there was no tomorrow. Unimpeded by the heavy duty fabrics of a motorbike suit, they were dedicated to get what they wanted: my blood! Only to breed on – to reproduce and have more of these aggressive creatures. Arms, legs, belly and back were not enough. They went for my face, as if finding the most uncomfortable places would be their ultimate challenge: ears, nose, lips, neck. Crazy!

First milestone: Irkutsk

Since I didn’t get a visa for Mongolia in Almaty, my radar was set to Irkutsk where I’d have a second chance. Leaving the Altai mountains for a later moment, I went straight for the big city. Harry was fitted with a new chain and sprockets: ending the increasingly disturbing sound of the last while.

Max, a local mechanic with great skills and a contagious smile, ensured that everything was back in order before heading back into the vast stretches of nothingness.

Coincidentally the Silk Way Rally participants were gathering in Irkutsk for the start of their 10-days rally raid contest crossing Russia, Mongolia and China, so I spontaneously decided to check out this world of big-boys-with-expensive-toys. The Yamaha Factory Team played their game well, but despite their attempt I’m staying loyal to my Honda. While I was pushing my 250 CC bike over the hills, some of the participants showed me their slightly advanced horse powers.

From flood to fire

A beautiful night at Lake Baikal and an unexpected delay in Tayshet due to the flooded areas around Tulun, before I’m speeding up eastwards. Heading deeper into Siberia, civilization becomes scarce. Villages are not much more than a couple of wooden huts rather than houses; gas stations become pragmatic fuel-up-and-move-on places … no more ice creams stops!

One evening, when I’m about to finish and call it a day, a strange cloud is covering the sky. The sunlight fades in a typical way; a thick smoke makes me cough. When I look back it becomes clear: there’s a huge wildfire going on. How fast will this spread? Will they get it under control? Better to move on another hour or so, just to be sure.

Lake Baikal

Heading east

Jumping the hour every few days makes me realize that I’m steadily heading east now. Vladivostok … it has been resonating in my mind for years and years. Somehow it was always there – more like the whispering of an exotic sound rather than a plan – since I saw that name in the title of a book somewhere during childhood. I can’t imagine how often my finger followed the coast-to-coast line on the world map: Vlissingen to Vladivostok. Now I’m just this one last stretch away from actually being there – with my motorbike – alone. I zoom out as far as possible on my GPS, showing me as a motorbike-figure on the map; trying to visualize me being here … it’s hard to grasp! 

My rear tire is pretty much worn down, so I ordered a new Heidenau K60 from Moscow to Ussuriysk, 100 kilometers before Vladivostok. Unfortunately the transportation didn’t go according to plan but I found a fitting Shinko at the Nika Moto shop, thanks to the great service of Japanscooter. A quick change of tires and I’m all set to roll into Vladivostok on fresh new rubber. 

Reaching Vladivostok is … unreal

I expected the ‘ok, now what?’ feeling, and was a bit surprised by the emotional impact of it. I have to tell myself a couple of times: ‘I am in Vladivostok!’ … ‘I drove my bike from Vlissingen all the way here – alone’. And I’m laughing by the thought of telling this story one day in the elderly home … perhaps admitting it was a crazy adventure.

In town I meet up with 5 Brazilians that I met a few days before. It’s great to see them back and to be welcomed in a authentically warm way. Samuel, an Israeli motorbike traveler whom I met in Kyrgyzstan joins the club and a day later I meet with Lien and Ab from Belgium and Holland, who will take the ferry to South Korea. Wow – a lot of travelers energy coming together! After everyone goes different paths again, Vladivostok disappears in thick mist: the perfect opportunity to take some time off, do some maintenance on the bike and plan the next stage.

When disaster hits

When disaster hits

Saturday afternoon, it’s warm. Hot. It hasn’t been raining for quite a while – at least not where I was. A quick glance at the headlines online: floodings in Siberia. Oh, that’s where I am. Well… Siberia is huge and it’s sizzling hot so I don’t even take the time to look up the mentioned towns and settlements – I continue my ride. Since a few days I’m heading east on the Transsiberian Highway; I’m hoping to reach Irkutsk in a few days.

About 15 minutes back on the road, and there’s water. A lot of water. An unusual, whole lot of water! Just like some others I stop to take a look, when I sense this is not normal. Only then the article in the news comes back to mind … can’t be here, right? It’s bloody hot and has been like that for as long as I can remember (that is: at least a few days). So I continue.

More water. More people. More going on. The situation turns hectic. Rubber boats are being loaded with water and cat food; then I see the flooded houses right in front of me in the distance. No way … It is here. People tell me the road is closed, but there’s traffic coming from the other direction so I decide to drive a few kilometers further to investigate and make a plan. Tayshet, a mid-size town has a guest house recommended by other overland travelers. Igor welcomes me in front of the gate; there’s a Dutch man but he’s leaving soon to hop back on the Transsiberian train. Maps on the table – where’s the affected area? Turns out that we’re in the middle of it. The road to Irkutst closed; about 5 deaths and thousands affected; more flooding to be expected. I’m glad to have found a safe and comfortable haven to wait and see how the situation develops; I can even enjoy a wonderful Banya (Russian sauna) in the backyard to relax from the previous heavy days.

Only the next morning, when the seriousness of the situation becomes clear with online updates and live videos, I realize how lucky I have been. I’ve been camping, as usual, wherever I decided it was enough for the day … just somewhere in the woods, in a high-grass field, behind a hill … as long as I wasn’t seen by others. What if I had continued according to plan the day before, and not had stopped like I did? I would have been exactly here, where the water level raised approximately 4 meters overnight, sweeping away entire villages… I would have been taken by surprise and ended of in who-knows-what situation. Lucky me. Once again. Yet another confirmation not to push it any further if, for whatever reason, I feel like I shouldn’t.

Igor communicates through the day with other people being stuck where the road is blocked; his wife Lena spoils me with great homemade Siberian food. I use the opportunity to sort out some logistics for the stretches ahead: organizing maintenance and replacement parts for Harry and calling in to my CRF-lifeline-support Peter Scheltens – world traveler and owner of Bartang – asking his advice about a small issue on my bike. And of course, to finally update the website again, which was too long ago.

I couldn’t have wished for a better place to sit out this disaster – not for me, but for the tens of thousands of people affected by it. My trip is just a trip and will continue sooner or later; their properties and in some cases their lives have been destroyed. It’s been a while since I was in disaster areas, and I didn’t expect it to come back to me this way. Luckily I know a little bit about what happens next – about the risks that are luring around the corner after emergencies like this – so I’ll take my precautions. Plenty of water, food, fuel to get through, if it seems reasonable in the first place. If not, there’s probably another plan for me!

My next ‘Wild Camping’ talk will surely carry another warning message Lesson learnt, blessings counted!

Thank you Igor and Lena, for providing a homely getaway these days!