Monday, July 31, 2006

Stuck in Ulan-Ude

It's been more than a week in Ulan-Ude since my ignition coil blew up. We had the part sent just a week ago from Switzerland, but unfortuntely we found out that they used a TNT service that won't track it, and that it would take the regular russian post to Ulan-Ude! so it can take anywehere from a couple days to a couple months.. if it arrives at all, that is.

But we're also bored to death, there's nothing really to do over here. We tried a train trip along the Baikal lake, but it was cold and rainy.. not much to see. And the company we got on the train wasn't really of the same standard as the petrol station chicks we met entering Russia..

So we are ready to ask for (yet another) new part to be sent over to Ulaan-Bataar, this time using UPS or FedEx so that we know when it arrives, and Ulaan-Bataar being the capital of Mongolia, UPS and such have offices there. Pretty expensive of course, but better than another couple weeks in the hotel here drinking beers!

Question is, how do we get the bike there ? 3 options:
1/ try the original part that was rewound by a guy here. He already did it once, we tried it on and it was able to power the bike but only for 5 minutes, after which it broke and spilled its winding.. not so good for the engine I reckon. But that may last the 500 km or so until Ulaan-Bataar where we can mount a good one.
2/ have the bike shipped by truck to Ulaan-Bataar. May be expensive and tricky due to the customs.
3/ ship the bike up to the border only, then drag it across and make all the papers and find another Mongolian truck for a lift to Ulaan-Bataar.

We'll go and tak to a nice girl we met in a travel agency, who speaks well English (very rare here) and may help in getting our point through to the Russians.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Ulan-Ude by night

First thing first, we phone Philip and find out where our package is. It's been 5 days (he sent it out on Monday) so we're looking forward to getting a tracking number. The one Philip gives us is unknown on TNT's website, so we call again. And then he explains us that it's a bit complicated because it went through the Swiss post to TNT and then.. to the Russian post! We’re a bit depressed to hear this as we translate that to "Lost in a black hole". We could well spend another couple months here waiting for this package that may never even make it to Ulan-Ude! Of course we're very much disappointed, because he could have sent it safely using FedEx or DHL, etc.. even if we have to go get it in Irkutsk (can do a round trip by train in 24h, no big deal) and cost us 100$ more (guess the hotel cost us more than that).

So we decide to consider this package lost and we'll ask Philip to send a new part to Ulaanbaatar where we bring the dead bike somehow, it's only 500 km. We could find a truck going there, or we could try the new spool that was wounded by the guy at the store; it could make it to Mongolia, and we could swap it with the new one when we receive it. And we would get our ass out of this shit hole!

We walk into a travel agency to try and find somebody who speaks (even broken) English and could explain to the guys at the store what we're up to and help us find a truck driver for the bike. Luckily we meet Zena, a girl who was in high-school in Philadelphia so she speaks English fluently. She's very friendly and explains us plainly that she's been here for 1 year and there is just nothing to do here.. I was thinking of renting an Ural (Russian side-car) for the week-end, but no way. You can't even rent a car! She suggests to go to a night club as it's Saturday. So there is one? Sure, it's called "Fabrica". So we go there, pay the 250r cover (10$) and walk into it. It's pretty expensive, and doesn't include a drink; but then the vodka is only 40r (1.5$) so getting drunk is never much of a concern in Russia.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Train around Baikal

So we figure we could have the part toward the end of the week at earliest, so we check what we could do meanwhile. There's this circum-Baikal tourist train that's supposed to be very scenery, so we decide to take the train to Slyudianka and from there a ticket to Port Baikal. We arrive late, and it's cold (30 degrees in Ulan-Ude and 15 degrees next to Baikal, only 5 hours away by train). We ask a taxi driver for a hotel and he brings us to a place that's both a geological "museum" (ok, a random selection of stones thrown out on the pavement) and a hostel with little cabins (kitchen and living room but no shower).

In Slyudianka train station we find out we just missed the train by 5 minutes (that's what we figured) and that the next one is the following day.. so we decide to go to Arshan to kill time. Supposed to be a nice place in the mountains, and we find a bus going there in 3 hours. Indeed, it's very touristic (mostly people from Irkutsk), but not so interesting either.. we find a home stay for the night and take the bus back to Slyudianka to catch our famous train.

The bus leaves at 7h30 AM and it's cold and rainy. That’s a pretty miserable trip to Slyudianka, where after a couple hours we finally manage to buy a ticket. 37r (1.5 $) for a 5-hours trip, that sure isn't going to kill our budget. It’s a small train with just 2 passengers cars and a diesel locomotive. We start 30 min late, run for 10 min and stop for 1hour.. they change the locomotive and we can keep going. So we cross numerous bridges and tunnels, and watch people camping near the tracks wherever there's a flat surface.. even with that shitty weather.

We end up in Port Baikal, pretty uninteresting so we just wait there a few hours in the brand new train station (10r per hour to wait in the lounge with sofas, pool table and music). We meet a group of Germans who spend a couple days here.. wtf? we only spent a couple hours and we already want to leave! At 1:50 AM we climb in the train (pitch black, there’s no light in this train), lie in a bunk and go for a sleep. 37r for the night, that's OK!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Russian mechanics at work

We show up at the store, and we find out the stator had been fixed meanwhile by the old guy with a new coil. The guys there are pretty proud of Russian mechanic skills, and would like to see it running. We measure the resistance of the coil and it reads ok, so we decide to give it a try. We mount it and lo and behold, it ran! It starts pretty badly, worse than before, but it starts. We figure it might bring us to Mongolia and have the new part shipped there instead. So after much cheering and kudos to the electrician who fixed the bike, we start to pack up and load the bikes. I keep it running idle as it is so hard to start (Anders manages it much better than me), and just when I'm about to put on my helmet and wave good-bye the engine suddenly dies (sounds familiar?). Kick-starting it makes a pretty bad rattling, so we figure there's something broken in there.

So we're back to square one: take off the clothes, unload the bike, take out the engine cover and... the coil just went lose in the engine. No wonder the engine won't run! We show this to the guy who fixed it; he nods and wants to redo it. We try to explain him that it's not worth it and we'll just wait for a new part. But we can see that he's not content with this failure and he just wants to do it again, better.

Back in town we meet Gino that we had already met in Listvianka, together with Suzi & Herve, on motorbike as well, and 2 German guys in a camper. We all go to that chinese restaurant where I manage to order something in Russian (which means basically a suprise menu for everybody).

Sunday, July 23, 2006


We left Ulan-Ude very enthousiastic about entering Mongolia. A little more than 100 km and we would hit the border.

But only 15 km after Ulan-Ude my engine suddenly dies. As if I had turned off the ignition. That doesn't look very good, but on the other hand that's really our first break-down, so we pull over and we check the one part that we've been warned about: the ignition coil. Bad news: instead of reading the 200 ohm or so it shows aa an open circuit on the multimeter, so the part is dead. In a way, we figure it's best to handle it over here in a fairly large city (300'000 people) than in the middle on Mongolia.

Philip had warned us that, very seldom, this part can break without any warning, but usually it lasts for ever. So we didn't take the spare part as it was expensive and a bit bulky, and Philip said he can have it quickly sent anywhere in the world in case it breaks. And of course, the rule is, whatever spare part you take with you, it's another that breaks. So we better travel light.

Tough luck.. so we're back in town, towed by Anders. Stop at the first petrol station and ask around for a place where we could store the bike, do some mechanic and wait for the spare part to be sent over to us (with a few russian words and lots of gestures). Eventually a nice guy takes me with him by bus to a big automobile spare parts store, not immediately useful for me but I meet the boss and he kindlz offers me some help: send a truck over to the petrol station to fetch the bike and store it there. He also can have the part sent to him and tell me when it's arrived. I even borrowed his computer to send a mail to Philip to ask hinm to send the part ASAP, DHL or FedEx or so.

Then we leave with Alexei to the petrol station (and Anders waiting there) with his truck to bring back the bike. We quickly unmount the stator and show the guys around what the problem is (they're all very interested and willing to help). An old guy comes up, looks at the part, understands the problem and leaves with the part. We don't give it too much hope as this winding is very difficult to do right, and we rather wait for the orginal spare part. So we leave the bikes here and go find a hotel.

Friday, July 21, 2006


We have to see Baikal Lake, so we leave for this little town only 70km away. The temperature drops dramatically when we approach the lake (and the river Angara), and the weather is very cloudy. In town we find a nice B&B run by Irina, with Sauna and pool... we'll stay 2 days here, servicing the bikes (between 2 rain showers). We would like to go to Olkhon Island, but we figured it would be disappointing with this kind of weather, so we decide instead to leave for Ulan-Ude.

I guess when the hot and humid air comes in contact with the very cold Baikal waters, it builds clouds and often rain. We sleep in a kind of summer camp resort near Baikal, pitch our tent on the beach while dozens of people come by, sit on the beach and make a fire to drink beer.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Krasnoiarsk - Irkutsk

The road from Krasnoiarks to Irkutsk goes from pretty good to.. no road at all basically. Some stretches it seems they just gave up on maintaining them, as there are huge holes that the trucks can barely cross. That’s just fine for our bikes, but you have to watch for those incoming trucks in front of you, because if there’s a hole in front of them when they cross you, they will move to the other side of the road and you better pull over or you’re just another casualty of the Siberian road!

Of course with this kind of roads the average speed is not very high, so we split these 1000 km in 3 days. The first day we stop in a little village and ask if there’s a place where we can pitch our tents. Nobody understands or knows, so we carry on. As we leave this little town I spot an abandoned house; we go have a look and as there’s a way to hide the bikes from the main road we settle down and sleep there. We’re also protected from the attack of the mosquitoes, something that Siberia is never short of.

The second night Anders insists on pitching the tent (I notice he’s very much into camping in the wild) and anyway we didn’t spot any hotel on our way, so he finds this lovely field for camping. He’s stops and turns to me, and by the time he’s finished saying “let’s stop here and pitch our tent”, he’s surrounded by so many mosquitoes that I can hardly see him.. so we decide to keep going until we leave that swamp. Finally we take a side track next to a cultivated field and end up in a nice place, where the mosquitoes are a little less present (but you still have a few hundreds around you at all time). The campfire doesn’t seem to bother them at all, and by sunset they launch a large-scale attack that see us retreating under the shelter of our tent.
Rain starts to fall during the night, which isn’t much of a problem by itself, but as we find out the next morning, the little dirt road that we took the day before had changed in a muddy, boggy mess that took us 1 hour to get through with our useless road tyres.

We had quite a long road to get to Irkutsk, and as we didn’t find any kind of hotel on our way we ended up at 2AM in Irkutsk, trying to find a hotel at a decent price. Of course when you’re tired you don’t search very long, so we ended up in a stupid tourist hotel, but it had a hot shower.. and was serving an excellent espresso!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

In the Transsiberian

We leave early to be at the train station around 8 AM, where our new friends (and our bikes) are waiting for us. It takes a couple hours to prepare the bikes (fortunately they had given up on requiring a crate), weight them and pay for it. They don’t speak any more English, but once they know what we want, the rest goes easy with some gestures and a handful of Russian words.
At 1:30 PM we board the train for a 3-days journey across Russia toward Krasnoiarsk. Our train is not one of the fast express trains that most tourist choose (it takes just 10h more on this one), but a “local” train where most travelers are Russians, which makes it all the more interesting. But we quickly meet this Dutch couple sharing our wagon, and later on a Russian girl who speaks English, and could translate some phrases for us.

The train stops for 10-20 minutes every 3-4 hours or so at a main station, which enables us to get out and stretch our legs, and buy some food and drinks from the kiosk or the local “baboutchka”. Hot water is provided in every wagon on a samovar (running on wood!), so we spend the day reading books sipping tea, watching through the window (trees.. and more trees), sleeping (a lot) and occasionally chatting with people (those we can understand). I must admit that it gets a little bit boring so we’re pretty happy to leave the train after 3 days. And it’s only mid-way the whole transsiberian!

We find our bikes and baggage all right in the wagon where we strapped them (quite relieved; we weren’t totally sure the cargo wagon was even part of the train), and with the help of the station guys we quickly unloaded them. Hooray! The hardest part is over, now we’re independent and free (well.. read on) .

Why Krasnoiarsk? some people called us crazy as that is where the road gets pretty bad. Well, that’s precisely why we skipped the former part: riding on paved highways is not our cup of tea. But the stretch from Krasnoiarsk to Irkutsk (1000 km) is another matter.
The city itself is not very interesting, but the little booths they set on the side of the Yenissei are quite enjoyable, and the weather quite nice. We spend a couple days here to relax and pack some food for the departure.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Bikes on a train

We pack all our stuff and leave for the station. On Saturday the traffic is pretty light so we quickly make our way to the station. Too happy to reach it I just dash through a no-way sign, which of course immediately attracts a couple greedy cops who make an easy 2000 rubles (receipt? we ain’t giving no freakin’ receipt..).
We then try to explain why we’re on the platform with motorbikes, that we want to load the bikes on the train, and that attracts train attendants who then tell us no way, this train doesn’t have a cargo wagon.

So I wait on the platform with the bikes, while Anders goes with the guys in the office to sort things out. That took 2-3 hours, so I have time to chat with a few Russians very interested by our gear. Finally Anders comes back with new tickets for 2 days later, for another train that has a cargo wagon for our bikes. He explains me he’s been “discussing” in the offices, calling Gallia several times on the phone to translate back and forth between him and the Russians. Meanwhile a guy came to me introducing himself as a biker as well (riding a Glodwing). We chat a little bit as he speaks decent English, and he tells me he has a place to store the bikes while we wait for our train. It turns out to be one of the head train attendants in the station, but off-duty as he didn’t wear a uniform. He was around by chance, heard our story (guess it quickly made its way throughout the offices) and the bikers connection made the rest.

When we had our new tickets we left our bikes at that garage right at the train station (that seemed to be used for the personal use of the boss to store his bike and 4x4) and headed back to Gallia’s place where we met those 2 bikers, also invited by Ivan to stay at his place (coming from Croatia and Serbia). One of the guy is a professional video producer, and he is carrying his whole gear on his bike; a semi-pro HD cam, a pretty heavy tripod and even a light reflector and projector.. He found our trip interesting and insisted on interviewing us. So he started set up a whole video studio in Gallia’s apartment in the middle of the night and asked us to talk about our trip.. Crazy.

We spend the next couple days sightseeing in Moscow, the Kremlin, etc..

Friday, July 07, 2006


Ivan, my contact in Moscow I met on the Internet, told me we should come on the 7th to present our bikes at Moscow’s train station, so as to leave on the 8th, and because we lost some time on the way unfortunately we have to dash through St-Petersburg (not a single road sign indicating the way to Moscow in the whole freakin’ city, and it’s big!). We arrive late in Moscow but we bought a good map in a petrol station so I lead the way through Moscow to Ivan’s home. He happens to be out of town, but his wife(Gallia) is kind enough to offer us a room in her nice apartment. In fact she’s a little bored alone with her kid, so she appreciates our stay, and she’s happy to practice her English.

The next morning we leave with the bikes for the train station, which is on the other side of the city. We decide to take this ring motorway around Moscow, but it’s totally jammed from one end to the other: we end up making our way between the lanes (and the exhaust fumes) for about one hour until we reach the station. The first real challenge of our trip is to find a person who speaks a little English behind the dozens booths. After a few tries we understand that it’s not something that’s required to work on the capital’s main train station. Finally we bump into this nice lady who’s willing to help us, so she leads us to some booth where she gets us tickets for the bikes for such a low price that we don’t really believe it.. but what else can we do ? so we come back to Gallia’s place and we’ll find out tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Leaving the west

So, there we are, at the border between Finland and Russia. That’s where our trip really starts to get interesting. We left Denmark on July 3rd, after a BBQ party with Anders’ friends by a very fine weather (but the Danes warned me that I didn’t get the real Danish experience: it’s supposed to be cold and rainy; well, I don’t mind). Then a long ride through Sweden, spend the night on the deck of the ferry to Finland, and look around Helsinki for a good set of knobby tyres. Not very exciting really.

I actually crossed 4 countries without seeing any custom officer (Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden), and a very informal one in Finland (thank you EU) but now this is different: Russia means quite a bit of red tape. Of course they don’t speak English, and they don’t try to help you (except this young soldier who was bored to death) but the female custom officers are attractive and we have time, so eventually we enter this huge country spanning no less than a quarter of the earth!

First stop right after the border to get some petrol (half price compared to Finland), and we find a couple blonde girls very lightly clothed to fill up our tanks; as the saying goes, you don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression, and those Russians do it the right way..