The diaries - 10

17 June

Barnaul - Russia


So to travel back in time a little... Sue had read in the backpackers bible, 'The Lonely Planet Guide', of a small village in Mongolia which was the only place in the country where traditional bows and arrows were made by hand, and that about only ten people in the country had the knowledge to do so. Would you believe that Dulaanhaan was on our route from Ulaan Batar to the border crossing into Russia at Suhbaatar, where we met the Swiss guys having problems. We rode into the small village and thought the place where the bows and arrows were being made was deserted or closed down. We walked inside to find a couple of women separating and shredding tendons from animals, and one guy who stopped work to welcome us. He had been working at a table, wouldn't let us take photographs, but gladly showed us the different stages the bows in front of him were at.

An eagle's wing, probably three foot across, supplied the feathers for the arrow-flights. Large animal horns were cut and hand-carved into strips, the lining between the bark and the wood of the silver birch was carefully separated into what looked like brown felt, the sinews and tendons - from what we were given to believe were reindeer - were all layered with the wood and resin, shaped, carved and formed into the Mongolian traditional bows. Altogether fascinating... and just one man was here making them.

We rode down from Irkutsk to have a couple of days in a small ‘home stay’ (left) at the small village of Listvjanka and couldn't help but take a photograph of the weather station there, for brother Dave, who is the on Fair Isle and has his very own weather station up there! We had a trip round the museum for Lake Baikal and managed to 'attach' ourselves to an American group being shown round. Some two thousand (2,000) earth tremors are registered each year in this area. Last century a rather large one wiped out a complete village ... it just slid into the lake.

The lake contains one fifth of the world's fresh water, and if we're right, we were given to understand that it is a mile and a half deep at its deepest. We had a boat trip for a couple of hours... the water is so clear that you can see every stone on the bottom in thirty feet of water.
Slowly we made our way along the M53 from Irkutsk, through Tulun, Alzamay, Kansk, Krasnojarsk and back to Barnaul. Sounds easy, but this leg took us six days. The M53 is not a motorway, although it is a main (only) road serving the East-West-East route. Many miles of the road were just an unmade, unsurfaced, pot-holed, mud and slime-covered track. Lorries on their sides in the ditches, cars and trucks weaving and swerving, all trying to find their own ideal path through the slurry or pot holes. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining, this was sheer heaven after Mongolia!

We speak to Russians who have great problems with the police, for us no problems. We are stopped quite regularly but always for a look round the bikes, a natter, and a laugh and smile. Yesterday, as we approached one checkpoint, the policeman mimed us to 'pop a wheelie' as we went passed. He grinned and smiled at Sue, I just dropped it down a gear and accelerated past briskly... can't do wheelies!

In Kansk a check-over of the bikes revealed that the wheel bearing fitted in Olgi, Mongolia, had given up the ghost! It hadn't really been a 'sealed' wheel bearing application, but rather for a gearbox where it would run in oil. Only one side was sealed, but then only by a metal cover that didn't do the job totally! The sand of the Gobi had taken its toll, got into the works... and now it was ruined. I really hadn't expected it to have lasted this far... hence the regular checks. No wheel bearings to be obtained in Kansk, so bright and early next morning sees me on my way to Krasnojarsk some 150 miles away.

Don't do large cities... so find a taxi driver, he takes me straight to a bike market, within minutes two brand new NSK wheel bearings (two quid!) are in my tank bag. The guys at the bike mart are intrigued with our trip, my F650GS, and I have great problems escaping their handshakes, vodka bottles, and friendship. By 3pm the wheel bearings are fitted and I have a bier in my hand!

Our Asian adventure was to be one large circle but, with the door to China being closed (always a possibility), we had to resort to 'plan B' and head back into Russia. No real problems with that for I love the place and its people. The trip now had to be a figure of eight and not a circle, and where better to cross our original route eastwards than at Barnaul where we had made many friends. We rode into the town, found our way to 'Older's bike shop, and then to Hotel Siberia, where we had been made most welcome in April... strewth was it two months since we were last here?! They remembered us, and asked how my foot was. A 'phone call and we were soon chatting away to our old friends Nick and Dennis, exchanging stories and laughs.

Sadness starts to encroach into my thoughts... this trip has become my way of life. I'm not ready for home yet, not by an means, the adventure is still on. But yet we now ride west each day, we have pulled back two hours of time-zones, we have ridden one and a half loops of our figure eight, with just the southern loop from here in Barnaul, through the 'Stans, Georgia, Turkey etc. to complete.

We head for Kazakhstan tomorrow and The Long Way Home!


June 7 sees us leaving Irkutsk and travelling down the east side of the river Angara to Lake Baikal. It is a cool wet day, but I am pleased to be out of the city and travelling along quiet roads to Listvjanka, the only holiday area I have ever been to that is devoid of tourism!

Russian 'home stays' (b&b) are common here and we manage to find a top class 'allotment watch' garden shed, which is just out of this world! Washing facilities are a sink in the veg plot, the loo is a very posh wooden hut in the raspberry canes,and the dormitory-style accommodation is furnished with just camp beds and a samovar to heat the water for tea. It is absolutely fantastic
and we decide to stay longer and smell the roses!Again it is the local people, fantastic, friendly, that make the trip so very special. We meet lots of backpackers at Baikal, having a couple of days away from the Trans-Siberian Railway and it is interesting to note that, generally, the younger the backpacker, the more hassle they have with the authorities. They find the Russians rude and overbearing and certainly not friendly. The older the traveller, the friendlier the welcome, ...... I wonder .....?

The Chinese Prime Minister with accompanying Russian bigwigs is visiting, their cavalcade of 20 cars makes ear-splitting noise - nobody takes any notice of them, they could have pedalled down the shore front on push bikes and would have been just as safe! I have to pinch myself - Lake Baikal - me! The world,s largest, deepest freshwater lake, it has to be fish for dinner.

Leaving Lake Baikal in heavy rain we head back to Irkutsk and on to the infamous M53 towards Novosibirsk. I say infamous because, for hundreds of miles between Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk (or
as Mick has re-christened it), the road is being 'upgraded'. For this read no tarmac in places, just earth. What happens to earth in heavy rain? Yup, you've got it, mud, mud and more mud. The stretches of unsurfaced road on a 500 mile section probably number about 200. It took forever!

Why was I finding it so difficult? I stopped on one section to make sure I hadn't had a puncture the bike was handling so badly - that was when we found that the front wheel bearing had gone again! Mick's groan of frustration was interestingly explicit! As with all the other little problems, this was fixed, this time with a 300mile round trip by Mick on his bike. He is a star, and king of the repair-men and I will be the first to admit that, without him, this trip would have been almost impossible for me. He also did a running repair when the hinge of my petrol cap broke, by drilling a piece of plastic ruler to act as a brace.

I feel quite guilty at laughing uncontrollably at the situation he found himself in shortly afterwards. He was 'caught short' as the saying goes, and had to hurriedly lower his breeches in the Siberian woods. The howls of anguish as the mozzies attacked his legs and bum could be heard for miles. Dozens of bites had him unable to sit in any comfort for the next 24hours, he would have given the earth to have one of those inflatable rings to sit on!

We are now in Barnaul, a great town, we renew acquaintances with Nick the Navigator, Dennis, and the lads at the bike shop. There are more long-distance bikers here, Austrian, German, they all seem to gravitate to the bike shop. Nothing changes eh?

Khazakhstan tomorrow, another new country, more adventures? We shall see.


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