Late one evening (the day of Brett’s fall) the corrugation on the road was particularly bad with the deep gravel and dust along the sides made stopping and getting out of the way of the passing traffic a very dicey manoeuvre. If it sounds like fatigue was setting in you’re right. We decided to stop for the night especially as Brett was starting to get rather grumpy with the pain in his knee and ankle. We had pulled up at a small lake side not far off to the right of the road. It was a particularly pretty spot, a rather large lake with patches of trees, families swimming and picnicking. So we decided to camp the night. As Brett was heading down to the lakes edge to get some water for our evening meal a young fellow from one of the family groups indicated that the water was OK to swim but we should not drink it and offered us some water from their 20 litre container, which we accepted.
We didn’t unpack the tent but busied ourselves in setting up to have a coffee and cook a meal. The older of the young men with the family who Brett had spoken to come over and after introductions, Sasha offered to share their shish-kebab meal with us. We declined as our meal was well on the way. Theirs looked delicious where as ours was well adequate.
In not too short a time the motorcycle magnets had attracted the usual gaggle of local lads from out of the wood work. All standing around asking questions about the bikes and ourselves. In small groups of 3 or 4 this is usually OK but this afternoon there were 10 and some not so innocent looking. Soon the questions seem to focus on the value of the machines and equipment and a general feeling of uneasiness crept in. Brett wandered back over to Sasha and the family to ask if it was reasonably safe to camp here. The immediate answer was ‘NYET!’. What followed was a conversation starting with the offer to show us to their town and a Hotel plus they would find a safe place to store the bikes. Meanwhile back at the bikes the admiring group were getting a bit boisterous as two local bikes had turned up . Now it was a comparison between theirs and ours. The family group now looked annoyed that ours and their quiet picnic spot had been invaded by such a noisy mob. So arrangements were made that we follow them into the town where we would put the bike is a secure place and stay at the hotel. In light of how the situation was going with the noisy group this plan was fine by us.
Within the hour the picnic was packed away and we all set off on the 12k run into town. Two small overloaded cars with all the family and us on the bikes all dodging and weaving around the gravel and pot holes when we eventually got on to the asphalt and wind it’s way into the town eventually to stop where we were told automobiles could go no further. Following our leader now on foot we rode the bikes along a foot path through a park through a couple of back lanes arriving at the back gate of a house with a particularly vicious big hairy black dog. When the gate opened the smiling little old lady had put the dog away and we were invited into the yard. Now during the trip into town apparently the decision was made unbeknown to us to put us up at Sasha’s place (a small ground floor unit in a large Soviet Era housing complex , it was a very modest home that he and his wife and 6 week old baby owned, one bedroom, small kitchen, bathroom with no hot water, kitchen and living/ dining room, with a huge carpet wall hanging on one wall and on the other a huge wall poster of a tropical scene, framed with by a number of tropical indoor plants. Sasha’s wife was most impressed when we mentioned that may of the plants in the poster can be found in Brisbane back yards, we were later told that the temp ranges from 40 below zero in winter to 40 above in summer). They would not have us say no, we were their guests. That evening with the bikes secure and getting the undivided attention of the ‘Big Black Dog’ we were treated to family gathering as guests of honour. Such was the hospitality, cake, coffee, tea all of which nobody touched until we started to eat or drink. Though it did seem a little strange that our request to go to a local shop and purchase a gift was met with a firm response that this was a military city and no one would understand English. Hmmm? we stayed where we were.
Eventually after much fun of talking with the help of the Russian/English Dictionary we had with us, those who had to went home and we rolled the swags out on the floor of the small lounge. Sleep came very easily.
Some time after midnight our quiet night was interrupted by persistent knocking on the door. Which when not answered immediately was followed by pounding on the windows. Sasha eventually woke, answered the door and was confronted by two unsmiling men one in uniform the other plain cloths accompanied by a very unhappy and indignant little old lady from the house of the Big Black Dog, hastily dressed in a night robe. After much discussion between Sasha and the men we were asked to give an account of our movements to date in Russia. This was followed by another discussion in earnest between Sasha and the two men. When the two men left, it was explained to us that the plain cloths fellow was from the ‘Hidden’ police and we were in fact in a ‘Secret Military City’. Every thing was OK all they wanted to do was watch us. We asked if they were in any trouble following this and the reply was chut chut ‘just a little’.
Next morning as we had breakfast we noticed three uniformed men loitering in the park outside the flat. As we left to go back to the bikes one of these blokes trotted after us came up and asked us to wait. Within five minutes the plain cloths fellow from the previous evening appeared still in his same cloths and rubbing sleep from his eyes. He wanted photo copies of our passports, visas and motorcycle registration papers. After he got what he was looking for Sasha was instructed to escort us to the edge of town. On the journey out following Sasha in his little car we went through the ‘Official Check Point’ which the lads had smuggled us around the previous night.
We waved Shasha and one of the young lads farewell and settled in to another day of conquering the road. Brett’s knee and ankle were causing his considerable discomfort so during our many regular stops that morning we made a decision to head to the next largish town 200k’s away which was a major train stopover and inquire about putting the bikes on a train to Chita. It was a slow days ride and the road didn’t seem to get any better. We broke the journey up into 15 or 20 km sections finding the stops helpful to relax a bit from the tension of keeping the bikes upright and dodging the passing traffic in the dust. The last section of road before getting to the turnoff to the town had us passing along the perimeter of a bush fire. We had been looking at the smoke rising for about half an hour before cresting a rise and facing it. There was a slight wind blowing directly left to right across the road which was keeping the smoke off the road but as we passed patches of flame the heat was quite intense. The front was about a kilometre in length and we did see some fire trucks and crews who were monitoring the situation but not attempting to control the blaze. We understand that there is a law against logging the forest unless it has suffered from a bush fire and consequently a large number of “fire” occur every so often from which the local “business” take advantage and log for the Japanese market. A few kilometres later at the top of a rise we sighted the town we had been aiming for. And as luck would have it there was a small café on our left. We pulled over along with a number of other travellers. A rest and a coffee to calm our selves would be just what the doctor ordered.
Not finding a visitors information ‘You Are Here’ map we just started looking for the train line as we rode into what we thought was the centre of the town. In our well rehearsed style we had no idea where we were going so we pulled over .Within a minute a police car did a U turn and a really friendly officer got out. Once he understood we were from Australia and looking for the train station he gave us an escort right to the front door of the freight department. Now that was service. He then went in and found the lady who handled the freight. She was very nice and patient. We’ve found in this central Siberian region not one person we have encountered speaks English. Nyet! To the idea of putting the bikes on the train, this will happen at another town 100k’s up the line. Well it is very late the sky is clouding over Brett asks if there is a hotel in town with security for the bikes. This lady put her thinking cap on and what happened next was brilliant. She had us ride over to the Fire Station and arranged for us to have the bikes locked up over night in one of their garages. Our freight lady suggested a fee of 100 rubles, we were very happy with that. The fire crew on duty that night were a great bunch of men. Again the bike magnets drew all the attention. Grabbing what we needed for the night from our panniers our freight mistress then took us to the train station. It was a very large building and it would appear that the larger train stations have accommodation similar to hotels but cheaper. We had a room with two comfy beds, hot shower down the hall and down stairs was a café which stayed open till 2am. The trains ran all night. Russia has an enormous rail system all running to Moscow time and the worlds largest amount of rolling stock for one country. The fellows at the fire station had wavered the fee for the bike security when the freight lady was out of ear shot so we returned later with a bottle of Vodka for them to share. While pretending to blush and fain embarrassment in front of their superior they greatly accepted the gift, there were warm hand shakes all round. It rained very heavily that night so it was good fortune that we were where we were, nice and dry and warm. Just before the storm broke we took a walk along the main street from the train station. More of a mixture of asphalt and dirt with a mixture of shops and residential complexes. The local dairy herd also seemed to have claimed the main street as a fav hang out with a memorable image of one of the cows happy camped right at the door of the main food store. At what must have been milking time the herd got up and left, all of their own accord.
Next morning we are headed back up the road to join the not too wet gravelly highway and the 200kilometers to find the train depot passing through about five small wooden villages on the way all with their resident dairy herd wandering the streets and fields surrounding the village.
On paper this next train stop was larger than our sleep over town but when we got there it was in fact very small and we had all but passed through it before really finding anything that looked like a station or a hotel. We pulled over outside the last house which was next to a small shop. In the midst of our discussions on what to do and where to go, a man walked over and offered assistance. When we explained we were from Australia he bolted inside to get his wife who could speak German (we think he thought we said Austria). She was a charming lady who very carefully listened to the fact we where looking for a hotel to sleep the night and then launched into an excited monologue of mixed Russian and German. The upshot of all this was we were offered beds in their shed and the bikes would be put behind the house with the side gate locked. This sweet lady and to a lesser degree her husband were fascinated with our travel details. The shed down the garden was a large room that may have been living quarters some time ago but it is still used now and them. It was a little rough but very cosy .There was power to it, a large fuel stove, thick walls and double glazing. No sooner had we settled in and had a cold shower than our hostess was knocking on the door with two large bowls of steaming Borch, bread and a thermos of boiling water for us to make coffee. We slept very well that night and marvelled at the diversity of our experiences in finding accommodation in the last three days.
Continued next edition
. Brett and Dave