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Diary: Russia

Well, I've made it to Russia. Once I've crossed from Estonia I am stopped by police three time between the border and St Petersburg. Checking papers or looking at the bike...I was not fined unlike most bikers I have meet who travelled this road.

Russia feels different to Estonia, the forests lining the road even smell different. The cars are older and the people obviously poorer. I should say that every Russian I have had a sign language conversation has been really friendly so far even the GAI policemen.

The sun sets about 10pm and its dark by 11:30pm. I get into Petersburg at 1030! I manage to find a petrol station selling maps and can find my way to the Hostel, although the roads in town are woeful, huge gaps and raised tram lines all conspiring against you.

Traffic is fast when moving and crazy ducking and weaving with might always in the right. This leaves me somewhat powerless but the loud pipe seems to wake people up.

The receptionist at the hostel rode on the back to show me where the security parking was...her first time on a bike so we road up and down one of the less hazardous streets with her squealing helmetless on the back!

I now have to find a seal for the gearbox and a mechanic who can do something with the filler plug bolt so I can use it.

Will the bike make it?

St Petersburg: 2nd August 2003

Today I will leave St Pete and head to Moskva, although I won’t get there today.

St Petersburg is a huge city, but I have found the people really friendly and helpful. I have had numerous encounters with Russian tourists from places like Vladivostok and Samara.

St Petersburg at night

And again…

St Petersburg During the Day

The spectacular architecture of St Petersburg

Now, when I think of Russia, I think about the time I spent with Alex from the “St Petersburg Off Road Club�. He went out of his way to meet me in a familiar place then drove, with me following, to a workshop run by the club. There a friend welded a 19mm nut to the top of my Gbox filler plug. We also removed the faulty seal and tightened it by shortening the spring inside slightly. After this I was taken by Alex to a Seal shop where I was able to buy a replacement seal as spare.

While we drove around I got to hear about the Rally Raid events the club organises, in particular the Lagoda Lake Rally [see links page].

Thankyou Alex for your help and the cool T-shirt - it is very much appreciated.

As happened in Tallin - where Peter and I fruitlessly searched for the seal - mechanical problems with the bike have allowed me to meet and experience a side of Russia I would never have had on the bus or train. I get to see a different side of life and while it might not be to everyone’s taste, it is much closer to reality than the glitzy tourist shops and expensive restaurants surrounding the big tourist sights.

It’s really hot here at the moment and everybody, myself included, walks around with a bottle of cold Baltika beer in their hand. Unfortunately today I have to ride - so no beer!

Kids swimming under the bridge to Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg.

The Hermitage Museum is awesome...the collection of modern art is incredible, not to mention beautiful sculptures by Rodin.

Inside The Hermitage

More soon - I must go as I am late leaving for Moskva.

5th August: Moscow, Moscow…

Well I made it to Moskva! The longest 800ks of my life I think...no not really. The roads are quite rough, but not all the time…they only get really bad at about the point you least expect it! Russian drivers are the worst I have encountered so far. They like to drive as close as possible especially when over taking. They also have a notion that the cars will move out of the way as they overtake on blind crests and around corners...but its not just the cars…the trucks also like doing this as well…and just when you think its clear you are onto a cart being pulled by a tractor so everything goes left!

It is like there are always three lanes…the middle one is for overtaking (its not marked)the others for getting as far away from the looming crash as possible.

Managed to get stopped by the GAI (traffic Police) about 90ks south of Novgorod. He pulled me over for passing a truck over an unbroken line…mind you the road was straight for at least 2 ks! He went off in Russian…I said Na pamaniu Ruski! He said Do you speak English? I held up my hand with about 5mm between thumb and forefinger…he asked for 100 roubles fine! I said in really bad English ..Do I get paper? He told me to get going!!!! No fine, Yay!

Stayed at a place south of Novgorod overnight just north of Kresni. Soviet motel but good and blessedly mosquito free. Met up with Nicolai riding a Ural Chopper to St Pete for his holidays.

Ride to Moscow long and slow 500kms took 10 hours including some short stops for sight along the way. One thunderstorm had the wet weather gear out for about 40 minutes but otherwise the days have been fine.

The Kremlin by night, Moscow. "Here Ivan the Terrible and Stalin orchestrated their terrors; Napoleon watched Moscow burn; Lenin fashioned the dictatorship of the proletariat; Khrushchev led communism in the Cold War; Gorbachev unleashed perestroika (restructuring); and Yeltsin struggled to keep reform afloat." (lonelyplanet.com)

The Kremlin by day, Moscow

I was absolutely covered in black dust or dirt by the time I found a hotel in Moscow. I could hardly recognise myself in the mirror…no wonder the hotel staff looked so strangely at me when I arrived.

And then I headed out only to find that Red Square is closed due to terrorism! [on the same day a bomb went off near Chechnya in the south]. So I will try to visit Lenin’s tomb tomorrow.

Red Square

St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow. In the 19th century a vistor described the exterior of St Basil's Cathedral as 'a sort of irregular fruit bristling with excrescences, a cantaloupe melon with embroidered edges'. (lonelyplanet.com)

A skylight in the Moscow Metro

Moscow: one of Stalin's "seven sisters"

Susdal, 5 August 2003

I left Moscow on the 5th for Suzdal. Moscow is huge and it is really easy to get stuck on one of the ring roads and end up somewhere you don't want to be. Recovery is very time consuming and patience wearing.

Suzdal is about 250ks from Moscow and is the most famous of the so-called Golden Ring towns around Moscow. To give you some idea of the progress this trip with some short sight seeing along the road took just over 7 hours.

As I approached Vladimir I was to experience a very heavy Russian thunderstorm at which point the bike decided it wanted to be Italian and began cutting out and running rough.

About 1km from Suzdal I gave up and stopped at a roadside cafe...

Russian Ladies at roadside cafe

The stop at the cafe was fortuitous as a group of men going the other way wanted to know where I was from and I got a large meal of barbecued pork in plum sauce and copious amounts of tea on them. It was only with great effort I kept my vodka intake to one small shot, much to the disappointment of the men. The one with the beard was known as "the padre", no doubt a joke on the Orthodox priests who all have beards.

Once in Suzdal I stayed in a hotel (sic) in an old Monastery, the Monastery of the Deposition. Still very much run down. No hot water and when I arrived no electricity, but no problem when it means being out of the rain.

The monastery where I stayed...so many!

Once unloaded and promising to look at the bike later I headed off to the local bar. Introduced myself to a table of people mistakenly thinking they were foreign tourists...nope...another session of drinking with Russians coming up! Micha the grooviest dancer since Dylan ...he has a wicked combination of Rap with Traditional Russian Leg Kicking that had the whole place bursting with applause when each song finished.

Suzdal Drinks

Suzdal is tiny by Russian standards but there must be at least one church for every five houses. There are fortified Monasteries, small chapels and wooden churches. The largest is the Saviour Monastery of St Euthimus. Surrounded by huge walls an tower entrances it would not be out of place in St Petersburg or Moscow. The place was built in the 14th century but only got its fortifications in the 17th. The church inside has fantastic iconistic artwork painted onto the walls and ceilings, lots of cobalt blue!

Suzdal cathederal

Old icons painted in Monastery cathederal

Just across the Kamenka river is another walled monastery but it is now functioning as one. At the other end of town after passing about a dozen churches is the Kremlin wall and the Nativity of the Virgin Church with its imposing bell tower and helmet domes.

A working monastery in Suzdal

But enough of churches, Suzdal is also famous for its wooden buildings. Because no soviet development took place here the town is very special. The houses are made from logs on brick foundations with fancy architraves around the windows and doors.

Suzdal wooden church

It is however not the only place you find these houses in Russia. They are everywhere in the country, especially in the small farming villages away from the roads and railways.

Wooden house on road to Nizny Novgorod

I had to bribe my way into the Wooden Architecture museum...10 roubles! it was officially closed unless you were with a group?

7th August 2003: Big Time Bike Trouble #1

After my experience in the rain from Moscow I wanted to avoid the main M7 route for as long as possible as I headed off towards Nizny Novgorod. It was a good move as the road conditions were much better and there was significantly less traffic ..especially trucks.

Ok so we had left Suzdal, great farmland with many small villages and fields surrounded by lines of Birch and Conifers. Some of the houses in these little towns are much more impressive than Suzdal.

However my time off the M7 was short and I backfired my way into the filth of trucks and sheets of grimy muck that seem to accompany travelling on Russian roads in the rain. Unfortunately the bike was only running on one cylinder. I assumed that it was an ignition problem brought about by the weather.

Wet and Dirty I pulled into a roadside stop that had people selling odds and sods for trucks and began my investigation into the bikes declining state of health. I had read somewhere that the adrenalin when broken down away from anywhere familiar makes you a much better mechanic than you normally are...I must say it didn�t seem to be kicking in!

Filthy bike

I had spark, I had fuel into the carburettor, but when I lifted the throttle on the left cylinder I got no increase in revs. I was also using about twice as much fuel as I normally do. I removed the top of the Carburettor to see if the diaphragm had gotten a hole in it but it to looked perfectly normal.

I was going to need a mechanic but after some bizarre exchanges I was able to ascertain that none were around. So with a very badly performing bike I limped the 60 or so Kms into Nizny Novgorod by which time the bike was totally unpleasant to ride.

I stopped at a what I thought was a mechanics...a friendly Russian rang his sister who spoke English, through her I was taken to the "Nizny Novgorod BMW Dealer".

If you are in Russia and want to buy a new BMW I can recommend the service.

After some investigation we determined the bike had no compression in the left cylinder and it was most likely a burnt out exhaust valve! I must say that at this point I thought the Russian odyssey was over. It takes about ten days to receive parts from Germany and my Visa would expire in twenty. I walked around for about ten minutes working out what I should do next when a call from inside revealed more news.

It appears that the Valve tappet adjustment had tightened up so much that the exhaust valve was stuck open and therefore no compression. Once adjusted back to the correct tolerance the bike ran fine!

Valve problems in N. Novgorod

I shall in future more regularly check my valve tolerance settings! An unexpected night in Nizny Novgorod, but I again met wonderful people who went out of there way to keep me going.

Nizny Novgorod is at the confluence of the Oka and Volga Rivers. At first glance there doesn't seem to be much but in fact a great Kremlin Fort looks over the rivers from the East and watching the large ships and Barges travelling the Volga was quite fascinating. There is also a huge ski jump on the edge of town...it seems really out of place in summer but no doubt when its minus 35 it makes sense. The rowing club is just beneath it on the Volga!

N.Novgorod service staff

N. Novgorod

N.Novgorod ski jump

Bribery and Corruption

I had been told that the Russian police were expert at extorting money from travellers, I have since found that they extort it from the locals as well, so in no way is my experience novel.

About 50 ks west of Kazan I came up on one of the many police check points. I have been pulled over many times and usually a quick look at the documents sees me on my way. Not this time.

Slimy man Number 14-2593(I think) says "$20 you go" to which I of course say "nyet"

The result was an hour spent in the office looking through the chicken wire covering on the windows with the contents of my bike spread out before the policemen.

View from inside Police station while being harrassed by police

After he got bored with this I had to remove my Jacket and back protector as well as all the contents of my pockets.

Mistake Number 1...due to the frequent stops I kept my money belt in my jacket pocket. I have only had to show my passport etc. This guy wanted to see the rest, the rest being my money. After some pulling and "nyetting" I took it back from him.

- $20 you go

- Nyet you goose, I reply

- $5 you go

The price was now coming down and he had decided to view all the photographs stored on my digital camera!

Grabbing my Russian-English phrase book he explains it is road tax! Road tax for this coppers personal fiefdom I think.

My patience was now gone

-$20 you give me receipt, I call ambassador, and you go to Gulag

At this point bored with the lack of progress he walked out so I grabbed my stuff and did the same. Hopped on the bike and left.

Thirty Ks further along approaching Kazan I was stopped again. I had a certain demeanour that suggested I had had enough and I suspected the police had spoken with each other.

My intuition said don't stay in Kazan so I didn't and rode on. A shame really as it is the Tartar centre with many mosques to compliment the Orthodox churches, and I won't know what I missed.

Tartar Farmers near Kazan

Sunset east of Kazan

9th August

I spend the night in a small guestina in the Ural mountains. The official "border" between Europe and Asia. The morning started with a huge fog bank and I had to drag out a polar fleece for the first time on the trip. I had hoped to reach Cherblinsk today but am a few hundred kms short. Passed through a city whose name I cannot even contemplate translating on the Kama River. A huge dam with massive docks to allow ships to pass the wall. Once through the Sovietski city - typical collection of high rise flats and shops that have no fronts, past the coal fired power station belching thick clouds of black muck skywards and you come upon the "dachas". These "country houses", as they are called, are really nothing more than a shack built on a small plot of land that is used to grow vegetables in the summer months. They are almost like huge separate cities, but remind me of shanty towns bordering most large cities in the world.

Onwards to Ufa past huge wheat fields with harvest in full swing. It is starting to feel like the centre of a country now...previously it has been so green I imagine the sea is not far away - well maybe its some sort of delusion I am having - but it doesn't seem dry enough to be thousands of kms from the sea...mind you, the size and number of the rivers that cross the country is staggering.

Ufa Oil Feilds

There is no lack of the small wooden houses typical of Northern European Russia...those Suzdal is famous for.

About 50k out of Ufa the Urals appear. Not so much a giant but gently rolling hills with some higher mountains in the middle distance with barren tops but no snow.

Riding is becoming a real effort, the old Kamaz trucks that struggle to reach 5 kph going up hill all try to hit 160kph coming down. This is funny until they start to overtake you around blind corners with oncoming traffic. It all goes pear shaped when they realise the down hill is too long and they can't stop; trucks with their brakes on fire litter the roadside, Russian road manners - and that is too rich a description - are really bizarre. Everyone wants to get there quickly in new Ladas, as fast as a BMW X5� and in Kamazs, as fast as a new Volvo Semi! Yet they just can't.

Russian 6WD Truck

Want a blow up Dolphin? Well they are available on the roadside in Cym. Heaps of dodgy traders.

Dachas outside Cym in the Urals

Good news: I was only stopped three times today by the police, and the lady running the hotel I am in is great - 200 roubles including a snack of noodles and chai!

10th August 2003

The morning began with the usual top-up of the gear box oil and a valve adjustment - the left hand exhaust valve had closed up again, although not completely.

I rode to Chernalbinsk and onto Kurgan and Tyumen. It is not possible for me to ride directly to Omsk as in the breakup of the USSR the direct road to Omsk was given to Kazakstan and my visa isn't current until the 25th.

In a field east of Tyumen

Once over the Urals the air is much drier, not surprising really as the predominant wind is from west to east so the air is heating up as it descends back down towards the east.

There are huge wheat and barley fields, really long straight stretches of road that would do Australia proud.

The difference is that the land is primarily bogs and the fields have been made out of drained bogs. If I try to take the bike off the sealed road it sinks into this heavy black mud. Makes for an interesting ride and I wouldn't get far if I wanted to.

I don't know if I mentioned the hundreds of oil wells between UFA and Kurgan, all bobbing gently in resplendent blue and red!

As I passed through Kurgan I think its Saturday and I should call Vicki before she heads off to Africa on the Monday for three weeks. It is impossible to find a phone on the road so I decided to push onto Tyumen. It is an extra 250ks but the roads are much better hear than in European Russia and the traffic quite light.

Between Kurgan and Tyumen are large stands of forest, mostly conifers of some sort as well as some small hills, feels almost national parkish, and there are quite a few campers about. When I arrive in Tyumen I discover it is Sunday! The campers were Tyumen locals away for the weekend, picking mushrooms and berries in the forests.

I call Vicki...I manage to reach her only two hours before she is due to leave!

Tyumen doesn't have much to offer, no real touristy sights and I have become rather blase when it comes to Russian cities next to rivers.

I manage to find a friendly cafe where I meet one of the waitresses who speaks English.

Cafe Siberian style

She has just come back from 12 months studying in America. So together with her boyfriend and some friends we head out to see what Tyumen is all about.

...Well basically its about OIL. The clever young people all get well paid jobs in the oil industry as engineers and chemists and the like, Tyumen is the oil capital of Siberia.

Petrol Station, Siberian style

I also discover that high school teachers earn roughly $40 per month and if you can afford it small personal contributions that help improve their standard of living will result in improved marks. I was shocked to find that this also occurs at higher levels of education as well. One of the students works all summer to pay his lecturers to improve his marks! And I'm not talking about coaching.

Its on our pub tour that I meet a Russian air traffic controller; he is very drunk and a rather sad old drunk at that! Next.

12th August, 2003

Omsk.....I road from Tyumen to Omsk in one day. This was not planned. I passed the last roadside guesthouse 300ks outside of Tyumen. As mentioned earlier once off the main road it is a black muddy quagmire so getting away from the road can be a little difficult.

About 100ks from Omsk I stop at a roadside Cafe for a tea, instead I get a toothless 50 year old prostitute wanting to give me a massage, when I say no it turns into her imitating a cuddle - and more. No amount of "Nyets" seemed to get the message across, the only truck driver in the place just sat there laughing into his soup.

I literally have to lift this woman off the bike, she has decided that she wants to come with me...I don't bother with the tea and slither off across the mud back onto the road.

It is dark when I get to Omsk, and although its a city of 1.5 million, it apparently doesn't deserve a map in the lonely planet guide... Eventually I ask two passing girls where a hotel is; they just want me to go to the "dance club" with them. I of course am covered in mud and bugs and have just ridden 600ks of Russian roads, do I look like I want to go dancing?

Eventually I manage to find the Hotel Irtush, which is on the bank of the Irtush River. Good Sovietski hotel, no hot water but I see a bar over the road for a beer.

Today is obviously the day of Russian Prostitutes. As I leave the Hotel these two rather large women one with some missing teeth the other covered in huge cold sores saddle up to me. I find the bar, drink my beer and try to leave.

- "You want jiggy jiggy?"

- NYET! NYET! NYET!

I hate to say this but I literally had to run away from these women back to the hotel, being chased the whole way!

13th August 2003

Wake up to heavy rain - I've missed breakfast because I am now in a different time zone so my watch is wrong.

Spend the day wandering around speaking to people at the internet cafe, going to the odd cafe or bar. Pondering how Dostoyevsky felt when he was here in exile.

Trolley bus trouble in Omsk

I find a great restaurant-cafe that has its own Lenin statue inside as well as great paintings done in the Soviet style featuring: Elvis crooning to a peasant woman with a squeeze box, The Beatles in yellow submarine outfits scything a field, Sylvester Stalone drinking from a jug as he stops momentarily from forking hay onto a wagon. The staff all wear white shirts and red neckties. There is also live music and its on Lenina St. Very cool.

Also went to see some live Siberian Jazz at Gambrinas just out of the centre. Cool bar, lots of atmosphere, great jazz ....didn't even have a hangover the next day!

Omsk Phone box

Butterfly

Irtush River, Omsk

Shopping Malls

I just need to say that in Russia Shopping malls don't have windows onto the street. They are like bunkers built into the non descript apartments that cover every town. Inside its like a bazaar with different little stalls selling their own particular thing. The exception is GUM in Moscow!

Omsk to Novosibirsk: Big Time Bike Trouble #2

I couldn't bring myself to ask the University professor I met if he took payments to improve his students marks, he was consulting to outside businesses and expressed some disappointment that the exchange program with the Australian university seemed a little one sided - Russian students jumping at the opportunity to study in Sydney but as yet no Australian student had taken the opportunity to study in Omsk for a year. OK it may be a little cold for most of the year but you would think that economics students would jump at the chance to experience no holds barred free market development...bit of gangsterism and standover, good training for today's corporate world I would have thought.

Once again I am riding across large flat plains, once again they were large swamps and bogs drained to make farmland. Sixty or so kilometres out of Omsk I come across a Helicopter Training school. Lines of huge old Russian helicopters stand decrepit and stripped for parts while two or three make low circuits around the airfield. I stop by the gate to say hello and have a chat with the guard. "Big Helicopters" I say "acuda acuda" the reply�"Australia" "Oh! Nyet Small, College, College" So if you want to learn to fly a helicopter here you start in one with twin turbines!

Me with a friendly policeman…and yes he did stop me for no other reason than to look at the bike!

Russian road works! No warnings are on the road beforehand.

Sometimes you wonder where all the people selling salted fish on the side of the road live, its not often you pass close by villages on this road. Then you remember that the Trans Siberian railway is running a couple of kilometres north of the road and occasionally you can see some smoke stacks or concrete flats sticking out in the distance - that will be the railway - the road dies off in winter but the railway keeps on.

Spent a night about 250ks from Novosibirsk. Outside an old man has his salted fish spread all over the windscreen of his Volga. 5 roubles for a biggie. With beer and Vodka the salted fish is quite tasty, a bit strong at first but quite appealing after a while. I don't think about where its been before the bonnet of his car, just that with so much salt nothing nasty could survive.

Crossed the Trans Siberian today so the railway is now south of me, while stopped making a cuppa on the roadside I could hear them rumbling past in the distance. When you cross the line it has trees either side for as far as the eye can see, but one hundred meters or so either side the farmland begins. It makes me wonder if the tourists on the train get the wrong idea about Siberia. That there is nothing here but Taiga!

Trans Siberian Railway

The Villages off the road are really poor. I ride into a few and wobble across huge pot holes on Muddy or dusty dirt tracks. Some of the roads into the villages are only fit for tractors or 4WD trucks. Every time I stop I am mobbed by curious onlookers; "Australia!" they exclaim..."come drink vodka", placing forefinger and thumb against their necks, the ubiquitous sign language for let's get absolutely smashed.

Siberian Village

Village women

As usual I make my apologies and bounce off into the distance on the wobbly old bike!

As I ride into Novosibirsk I notice an awful sound coming from the bike. Sounds like bits of metal being thrashed around inside a tumble dryer. At first I think I have forgotten to tighten the valve adjustment nuts in the morning ritual. So I pull over and take off the tappet cover - no everything is fine tappet-wise!

What was to come wasn't quite so fine!

Banyas and Boxes

There are a few things about bikes I do not understand. The first is the electrical system and devices such as black boxes! Once the smoke leaks out of the wires I am pretty much stuffed. The other thing is Gearboxes. I get what they do but dismembering and reassembling them is something I could know some more about.

After contemplating what might be wrong I determined that something was amiss in the gearbox. If I pulled in the clutch I could rev the engine with no noise - if I revved it in neutral...ouch!

I ride it into town across the mighty Ob river that feels kilometres wide in places. Luckily, the Lonely Planet guide has determined Novo of sufficient interest so I have a basic map. Head for the Hotel Novosibirsk, supposed to be the cheapest! But I am coldly rejected at the front desk - "NO FOREIGNERS". I thought Russia was past this, past the idea that - to paraphrase Colin Thuburon - the Shops and Hotels were for the staff that worked in them and customers were an unnecessary hindrance to normality!

I end up at the Sibir Hotel where the staff are friendly but the price is less so! at least it has a bath and HOT water, they also give me directions to the Novo BMW dealer who it transpires can do nothing to help...Handy hint: Go to Nizny Novgorod for helpful BMW shops!

As I head disappointedly back into town I see my first motorbike rider. Helmet-less with wrap around Harley goggles on his custom Honda, Dima comes to the rescue.

He takes me to the only bike shop in Novo - NBS. There we arrange to have a look the next day and see if anything can be done.

That's it for the day then, I think!

Dima and I head to a bar on Lenina St for a small beer. Dima buys me a 1 litre glass, this is only the first!

It is Friday night and before long Dima's friends have arrived, most speak English and the eating and drinking continues until it is suggested we all go to the Banya!

A Banya is like a Russian Sauna, there is a hot room for sweating and a cold plunge pool and at this one a lounge for playing pool and drinking Vodka and beer.

I must say that a Banya is a good way to get over a bad day and not think about what is coming!

It is 2.00am when I eventually get back to the hotel. The banya makes drinking less hazardous as you seem to sweat all the alcohol out in the course of the evening. The next day no headache!

A very entertaining evening indeed, and again great Russian hospitality.

15th August: Novosibirsk.........

I arrived on Friday the 15th and left on the afternoon of the 24th. Yes, that is a long time to spend in one city in Siberia; it’s been suggested that it was my opportunity to experience exile in Siberia! Instead I would like to say that the efforts of Dima, NBS and people like Sergey, Alexei, Sacha and Anya made my stay as good as it could have been under the circumstances. I was given a place to sleep, I was taken to the Banya, to dinner, to bars, to the Ob Sea, to Acadam Gorodok and the Botanical Gardens and also to the Club house of the bike club with no name! So to everyone that looked after me a big thankyou.

Hangover free and quite refreshed after the Banya experience I rode back to the bike shop to begin the serious investigation into the mysterious noises. The mechanics suggested it may be something as simple as the starter motor not disengaging…I hoped. The starter would cost $15 to fix the Gearbox at least $150.

Surprise - its the Gearbox. Once apart we realize that a gear has been striking the large output shaft bearing in the gearbox. This has caused the bearings in the gearbox to fail. There are 5 main bearings in the gearbox for the tech heads out there 4 are 6304-c3 and one is a 6403-c3. In addition the Output shaft oil seal has been damaged by movement of the shaft and is leaking into the final drive.....and I had been worried about a leaky gear shift seal!

The culprit bearing

Not tappets this time…

Alexei and I spend a few hours driving around all the bearing supply shops trying to source the bearings. We can find all but the large 6403 bearing. The only solution is to order the bearing from the UK and have it delivered by courier. The post takes up to 3 weeks while DHL say 5 days. The problem is now the length of time left on my Russian Visa, it expires on the 27th, but I cannot enter Kazakstan until the 25th. The other annoying part is by the time we determine that I have to order the part its late Saturday and the shops are closed for the weekend!

Alexei promises to keep looking for the bearing and tries to find out why the failure occurred. This becomes an interesting situation as the manual I have brought is in English and no one but me speaks it! The diagrams and few photos with my finding tourge settings and tolerances is all we have to go on!

It turns out that the person who rebuilt the gearbox before I left didn’t put a required circlip on one of the shafts allowing the gears to move slightly. In some ways its amazing it has made it this far!

Day 3…

Found a good coffee shop on Lenina St, mind you, I got lost within one block of the front door of the hotel, so a walk that should have taken 5 minutes took an hour. I head back to the "base" to see how the bearing hunt is going.....no joy but Alexei has managed to find an oil seal that will replace the damaged O/shaft seal, so it feels like progress is being made.

Day 4…

Novo is 6 hours ahead of London so I have to wait until 2 pm to contact Motobins for the parts. After much driving around in a van??? I am given a mobile phone to call the UK but it must be very quick. I explain that it must come by courier as my visa expires in a few days, I do my best to stress this point! I email my mate Dave in London who makes sure the parts have been sent. Now all I have to do is wait!

I feel relieved that something is happening to get the bike up and running again. Alexei and Anya take me down to Acadam Gorodok to see the botanical gardens and then for a drive around Novo at night showing me the various sights.

We also go to the club house of the bike club with no name. It is a two story garage in a collection of garages outside of the city. Here I was able to see what Alexei Alex and everyone got up to in there spare time, they had various bikes being restored; older Japanese bikes mostly, with the occasional Ural. These guys make everything themselves, fairings panniers, lights including the plastic covers…all made from scratch. I could only dream of doing what they do. We talk about bikes for some time, and about the length of the Siberian bike season - not long - and how this year has not been a good one for Novo bikers. A good night with great people.

Club House, Novo

Day 5…

I am not the most patient person at the best of times, but this waiting! I meet some Germans driving a 4X4 Truck and ask if they have a spare bearing of the correct size…no luck but they have just driven up through central Asia and on previous travels had used motorbikes, but now with a young daughter they travelled by truck....not a bad idea really!

Tonight I am to stay in Sergie's flat just outside the city centre and I get a lift with Alexei. The flat is in one of the Soviet style apartment blocks that I had seen in every town I had been through. Its on the 6th floor and the lift works! The view is of more apartment blocks and the intersection of the main roads beneath us.

The apartment has a small kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms. I will be sharing Sergei's room. Normally three men live here but one is away. There are no pictures on the wall just peeling wallpaper and a large damaged antique style clock on the wall in one room. I cant really imagine what it must be like to live in somewhere like this for all of winter! There are metal railings on the balcony that you couldn’t touch because in minus 37 your hands would stick to them!

Home in Novo

I take a walk down stairs and into my new Novo neighbourhood. Once again the women are all well groomed and those invisible supermarkets are embedded into the bottoms of the buildings. The roads around the flats are potholed and rough and the summer beer tent serves only Baltika Number 4 (like Tooheys Old) and Baltika number 9 which is 8% alcohol by volume and tastes like it!

At about 9pm when the boys get home from work a basic soup is made for dinner. It consists of potatoes and stock with some canned offal thrown in for protein. The soup tastes great but chewing on the offal takes some getting used to.

Sacha and Sergei come from Binsk and work for NBS over the summer months. They can earn three time the average Russian wage preparing bikes, much more than their regular jobs…in Sergei's case he is a Radar technician! This explains the Spartan feels of the apartment. They have two houses to support and by living together they can save on rent and send more money home.

It is strange to be sitting in such a Spartan environment drinking beer and trying to make conversation with phrase books and dictionaries. I feel as though I am in one of those flats you see on the news at home full of asylum seekers. All the same I cannot describe the welcome and generosity of spirit I am being shown.

Day 6…

Wake up to my new surrounds and call Dima. Today is Boat day!

The Ob sea was formed with the damming of the Ob river. It was part of the program to develop Siberia into an economic powerhouse. The lake is about 20k by 400k – so its pretty big. Dima’s boat is about 30 years old and made from aluminium in the same way a plane is made…all pop rivets and it is powered by VOLGA! We cruise the lake drinking beer with Dima telling me how things have changed along the lake since the collapse of the soviet union. The place reminds me a little of Sydney harbour, lots of little coves with trees and now new houses coming down to the waters edge.

I still can’t believe I am boating in Siberia…its warm and I am tempted to swim until we start to see dying fish floating past us.

Boating on the Ob Sea

We stop at a resort built for the families of Nuclear Power station employees...more beer and I eat fish! Don’t think about it Alec.

Salted Fish

With Dima

When I get dropped off at my abode I discover I cannot get in the front door, after waiting for an hour I head back to the Sibir for another night! It transpires I had the only set of keys and Sergei has slept at work.....This of course provides endless hours of fun for the other mechanics over the next few days.

Day 7…

Still no bearing. The waiting is starting to get me down. I think about what the Altai mountains would have been like and if I will get a chance to see them from the Russian side and I am getting tired of my regular thrice daily walk down Krasny prospect and up Lenina St via the internet cafe. I have a regular stop at an Ice cream shop where I no longer have to ask the lady just reaches for the same style each time I appear…at least its good ice-cream!

I keep wandering around getting covered in that gritty dust that is so vile when wet and smelling the dirty exhaust from those blasted Kamaz trucks. I am now having to contemplate how I will get myself and the bike into Kazakstan if the Gbox cannot be fixed in time.

It is a rather hopeless feeling and quite stressful I think my hair has gone grey!…must try to relax…but I can’t! I sometimes wonder whether it would be more poetic to burn the bike and let it die in Russia, the graveyard of so many that tried to cross it or conquer it in someway or another.

I keep walking to occupy myself. Half the city is hidden from view. Walk down into the metro station and a whole world of small traders opens up. It feels like an Arabic bazaar, lots of people pushing past each other in very narrow corridors, all the while being watched by men in Cammo gear wearing the patch OXPANA emblazoned across there backs. This is the security!

Krasny Prospect Metro

Drunk in Novo

Once again the women overdressed and over styled while the men are the opposite no style bottoms of their jeans drooping and heads hanging limp…I don’t get it! Not all Russian men are like this; only those that don’t seem to have cracked the new way.

I try to imagine my aimless wandering and waiting as a form of suffering that might bring me closer to the Russian psyche…Lost opportunity…robbed of the dream you have been working towards… Bloody melodrama, that’s what.

I think about the murder of Roman (last month), the owner of the bike shop I am dealing with. It explains the Kalashnikov toting guards protected the entrance to the shop, it goes someway to explaining why Russian are so fearful of something bad happening, of mafia hits and car jackings. Why people can be completely stand offish.

I go back to the "base" and am met by the big black dog that only a few days ago tried to rip my lungs out. He bounds up tail wagging…Harasho doggy Harasho…I say thinking I have really been here too long.

I sit down next to the dog. Together we wait! I for my bearing he for some new smell or perhaps some hapless burglar that stumbles into his patch. in the background the constant thrum of Russian pop music and Madonna's Hollywood! It makes me think of Ted Simons remarks in Jupiter’s Travels when he was having his bike repaired in Melbourne’s Elisabeth St 30 years ago. Just that mine is Radio Siberia and I don’t understand the lyrics!

The Novo Market

Road Sign

Back to Sergeis and watch the Novo world from the balcony, people cooking, kids arm wrestling in the dust bowl park below me, women going out, couples coming in! Feels like I am in a movie - very surreal.

Tonight I go and try to call Motobins to find out which courier company they have used to send the parts, as I am now running out of time. Well after some commotion trying to get a phone to work...instructions in Russian and when someone answers you are meant to push the number 3???????? Eventually I get through…they have sent the part by "Royal Mail" ......the what...the royal @!#%&* mail…do you know what they did to the royalty in Russia? I was truly beside myself with anger. I wanted to kick something…anything. Clearly the pressure was getting to me…nobody here understands me and where they do they don’t bother to listen.

But now I know the part will not arrive in time so I have to look at the alternatives.

Day 8…

I have an email from Motobins asking me to be patient...grrrrrrr

I visit the central train booking agency in town. The ladies try hard to help me but no train with a baggage car leaves until the 26th and it crosses the frontier on the 27th…that would do it but cutting it fine! However I must buy my ticket from the station itself and the bike may have to be crated! Not again.

I go to a photo shop and have some prints made to give to the boys at the shop, a little reminder of who they have had to put up with the last week. When I go back I find that Alexei has put the gearbox back together and it’s back in the bike.

The only problem being the dud output shaft bearing....but he tells me it should make it to Iran before completely packing it in!

I hop on and take it for a ride...no horrible noises and the gearbox works fine even though it feels a little different.

I will be out on Day 9 Sunday the 24th. I will leave Novosibirsk for Kazakstan. We all drink lots of beer and I cannot describe the instant change in my mood. To celebrate we go to the supermarket and buy smoked salmon, smoked chicken cheese and olives and live it up a little in the flat....turns out to be the first time Sergie has tried olives!

24th August: Day 9

Loaded up I head off down the now familiar Krasny Prospect and off towards Akadam Gorodok and the Ob sea to Barnaul, Alexie's home town.

Road is rough but boy is it good to be moving again. Bike seems to be holding up OK but I am taking it very smoothly.

I camp in a field off the road about 50 kms north of the Kazak border. Tea has to be made from mineral water…funny taste...but I find I am camped under a family of Owls, the first interesting wildlife I have seen since entering Russia.

Bike and Birch

25th August: Across the border

Woken up by the sound of a tractor chugging by me. Excited remarks coming from the passengers on the trailer. It is really early and the sun is yet to rise. I crawl bleary eyed out of the tent and wave to the curious labourers then pack up.

The town at the border is truly awful, full of soldiers camped in concrete barracks, smoke stacks and mud. The border is a sign pointing left to a gate.

I pull up ate the gate and a young soldier walks up and opens it. He checks my passport and ushers me onto the next stage…there is no queue. Here I pass the test " What did you think of Russia?" Harasho Harasho. The graffiti put on my bike by the Novo mechanics may have helped me here! I hand over the paper given to me to cover the bike…I am not asked for the document I thought I had lost so had made a copy of! Onto the final stage and a customs officer removes all the paper work attached to my visa and explains to me that I cannot come back to Russia once past this point. I explain what I am doing and the boom gate is lifted…I am no in the no mans land between Russia and Kazakhstan but I have left Russia.

It is strange to think that I have been travelling a whole month in Russia, my Russian is still only a few words, and I have not managed either the Altay or Lake Baikal. In fact I have only made it halfway across Russia. Russia is really HUGE!

The Russian Route:

St Petersburg - Novgorod - Moscow - Vladimir - Suzdal - Nizny Novgorod - Kazan - Nov. Arish (east of Kazan) - Ufa - Cym - Urubn (100k east Ufa) - Chelabinsk - Tyumen - Omsk - Barabinsk - Novosibirsk

Me and Lenin

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