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Episode 6: Endless Siberia | Mongolia

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Omsk-Kemerovo

The next day we kept going east, towards the Baikal Lake. By evening we were supposed to be somewhere between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, in Kemerovo. I must admit I had never heard of this city before, but it was sort of “on the way” and it was at an acceptable distance for us to take it into consideration as a checkpoint – 900 and something kilometres from Omsk. Novosibirsk was too close and Krasnoyarsk (way) too far.

To Kemerovo then!

Remember, in my previous article I was telling you about my KTM’s sidestand?... on our way to Kemerovo I had another thing coming! So, we stopped at a gas station – it was an even stop, therefore we took a break – I went in to get some coffees and the usual Snickers bars. The weather outside was beautiful, the sun shining, about 25 degrees and wind. Not a storm, but some strong gusts from time to time. As I waited in line, Adi came in and told me my bike fell down. “Ha ha, very funny!” I said, and turned around to pay the lady at the cashier’s desk.

When I went out, holy smoke! my bike had been knocked down by the wind over a kerb. Lucky me, it fell on the right side – the side where I had the spare tire strapped to it. The damage was minimum, the crash bar got a bit of red paint from the kerb. We took some pictures and an enthusiastic guy helped us pick up the damn thing.

We arrived in Kemerovo city at dusk. Following the usual routine, we went to the city centre to take a look around and then look for accommodation. We stopped in a large square, next to a park. The first ones to greet us were the mosquitos. We had seen mosquitos before, when we stopped at gas stations, it was Siberia after all, their “home”. But there were never so many of them like in Kemorovo. I mean, you simply could not stay in one place without waving your hands like crazy. I thought maybe I should put my helmet on, but guess what, if you had your face shield up, they would fly by it, so I forgot that idea quickly. Adi took out the 3G modem with the Russian SIM and found us a place to sleep. All good, but our GPS had some trouble finding the address. No panic, there were people around, so we asked someone how to get there.

Big mistake.

The folks – a 50 something couple – didn’t speak English at all, but they were very patient and willing to help. The lady called their daughter, who spoke some English, a teenager judging by the voice, to talk to us, but the girl had no idea how to get where we needed to go. The conversation led nowhere, the couple we had asked insisted to help us and got into a debate with other passers-by, but could not reach a common conclusion about the address.

After 10 or 15 minutes spent with the super kind people, all of us stoically withstanding the torture of the biting bugs and mosquitos, we found a good time to tell them that we understood where to go. I felt so sorry for cutting their enthusiasm, but we just couldn’t bear it anymore. So we warmly thanked them, got on our bikes and rode off to a random direction just to get out of there.

Long story short, we managed to find the address after all. It was an apartment building in which somebody had listed (on Booking) an apartment for rent. So there we were, in front of the building, and after going round it 2 or 3 times we concluded that there was only one entrance.

So, the apartment should have been in the building in front of us, but the thing is we could not find the owner. After a couple of refusals, two cyclists agreed to give us a hand and call the owner.

Finally, the man showed up, but guess what: the apartment was occupied. He assured us however that he had a friend who had a vacant apartment nearby. He showed us pictures sent by his friend on WhatsApp – the place looked all right – so we went there. We took our luggage to the apartment, then the owner recommended not to leave our bikes in the parking lot behind the building because, as he said “balshaya problema” (big problem). Lucky for us, there was a guarded parking spot just 50 meters away, so we rode there and asked the man to call us a cab to take us to an ATM, as we needed cash for the accommodation and we wanted to grab something to eat.

Fortunately, the ATM and the restaurant were just next to each other. The owner followed the taxi in his car (he had the car full of car parts, a crowbar and other staff) to the ATM, we paid him and went into the pub. Well, pub is an incorrect description, it was a rather fancy restaurant located on the ground floor of a hotel.

The Internet whirred, so did the bears. We talked to the girls, the kids, surfed the web a bit. After a while, over a cigarette, a Russian couple and their friend approached me and started a conversation.

The couple were very groggy, their friend was still pretty much sober, so it was his task to “support” the birthday man – they were celebrating his 54th Russian summer. At 1.90 m and over 100 kg, he needed some serious support.

There we were, talking about all kinds of staff, like where we’re from, where we’re going. They were from Novosibirsk, just visiting Kemerovo - what a coincidence - we are visiting, too! One thing led to another and the birthday guy invited us to their table to have a drink for his health. We went inside, paid for what we had eaten at our table, took our beers and joined the “party”.

The general situation became clear to us very quickly… those guys were partying Russian style - with “Absolut” vodka in an ice bucket and some wine they drank after the vodka shots. About 10 minutes later, our birthday man kind of started to go off the rails, remembering the glorious times of the tsarist Russia, followed by the Soviet period. He then continued with something about Hitler and Napoleon, feats of arms of his forefathers, all mixed up in a very intricate story in which Germans, French and just about every other nation was pictured in a not so favourable light. Seeing that, we withdrew discretely to the taxi called by Adi from the first side slips and we went to the apartment, where we “pulled the blanket” over a new day.

Kemerovo - Trucker hostel

The next day we were to continue our long road east, for another thousand kilometres through the nothingness of Siberia. Endless forests and vicious mosquitos at every single stop.

As we rode, I was worried about the pressure in the tires and I started looking for a gas station where I could find an air compressor. I had a small compressor of my own, but it was strategically placed at the bottom of the panniers – under all the tools and other luggage, so I preferred to use it only in case of emergency. We finally arrived at a fancier gas station ¬– most gas stations on the road only had a small booth with barred windows where you pay for the gas, and that’s it, no air compressor, no water or food. It should be noted however, that you can pay with a credit card at any gas station in Russia, no matter how small it is and even if it is in the middle of nowhere.

After all said and done… I pulled over at the air compressor and topped up the pressure. However, after a few kilometres, the pressure sensor of the back wheel indicated I was losing pressure… 0.1, 0.2… I clearly had a flat. I found a small parking on the right shoulder, and pulled over to fix the flat with 1.8 PSI in the back wheel.

When I looked at the tire, surprise-surprise… before I left Bucharest, right after I put on the new tires, I caught a piece of metal from a tramway rail, not bigger than a lag bolt. I had the tire patched up back then, they patched the hole using a flat tire thread (the brown ones, not black) and that was it.

Now, however, some 7-8000 kilometres later, air began to escape by the thread. Probably because the tire was so worn now, or because the pressure in it was a bit high :) No panic, we were expecting this kind of problems – we both had complete puncture kits on us, with 5 black, high quality threads, CO2 reserves, and, in the event of catastrophic failure, tire irons and spare tubes.

The truth is that was the first time I used a plug kit. Despite that, I managed to fix the flat the fastest I have ever done it ever since. In a record time, I inserted a new string right along the first one, plugging the hole the air was escaping from, topped up the pressure, put everything back into the pannier and rode the hell out of there! If not for other reasons, the mosquitos and various other species of flying bugs were eating us alive.

With the flat fixed and the pressure all good, the dusk found us a few hundred kilometres away – time to look for a place to sleep. The first attempt was a truckers’ hostel. Unfortunately, they did not have any available rooms, so we went ahead for another 80 km to the next establishment. It wasn’t the cleanest or the prettiest place we’ve ever stayed at, but… “beggars can’t be choosers”, it was already dark outside, and they had hot water, food and cold beer.

We had a beer (so to say) in the “dining room”, grabbed a bite and that was it. “Tomorrow”, one of those days we will not forget too soon was expecting us.

Trucker hostel - Baikal

The beginning of the day did not promise much. Another endurance day – 676 km through the same landscapes – straight roads, passing a lot of cars and trucks.

At some point, we started recognizing the trucks - we had passed the same ones every day. There was a blue one with a “W” on the pack, one that carried some wheels tied with chains on a platform, another one that was carrying a crane with flat wheels and the one that carried a boat.

Russian truckers were very friendly when they were being passed: made room when they could, waived, signalled when it was ok to pass them (I don’t rely so much on their signalling, but I do appreciate the gesture). On the other hand, when they were passing someone (heading into oncoming traffic), they would do it following the principle “they will avoid me” – anyway, no one really cared about crossing the double yellow lines. It wasn’t a tragedy, as the roads were straight anyway and the visibility was great, but they would sometimes push us to the shoulder - we had to be very careful. Note to self: the classical “zig-zag” formation doesn’t work well in Russia.

In this atmosphere of camaraderie we rode towards the wonderful Baikal Lake. We crossed Irkutsk at rush hour, with the bridge over the Angara river jam-packed. We scrounged our way across the bridge, riding between the cars, stepping “lightly” on the continuous line between the ways from time to time.

At some point, as I had the front wheel very close to the double continuous line, I saw a police car just ahead of us, going the same way as we did. We retreated between the lanes and kept going. The police officers did not seem to have anything against this so we minded our own business. A few kilometres later, at the very end of the bridge, on the right side, o police car parked and three police officers were watching the traffic. They saw us from afar lane splitting. At some point one of them went to the centre of the road, we knew immediately what was about to happen – they pulled us over. We were sure that the guys in the police car on the bridge radioed us in, so we were ready “to acknowledge our deed and repent for it.”

“Dokomient”, said one of them. We then continued with small joke of ours about traffic, where are you from, where are you going, the questions were flowing naturally. The police officers took a quick look at our papers: thank you, ride safely, goodbye.

Say what? What about the bribe, the imaginary documents we did not have and have never heard of? He may have at least asked us to show him the insurance, the green card, something more exotic.

Niet, that was all, we put our helmets back on and took off. These police officers were nothing like the fierce, corrupt police we had imagined.

We stopped further at a gas station near the Baikal Lake to look for accommodation. Hundreds of guesthouses in the “Baikal” region. Yes, hundreds. The Baikal Lake is the largest fresh-water lake in the world. Not very wide, but about 600 km long. Just about the distance from Bucharest to Timisoara. Around one kilometre deep at its deepest point, it contains about 1/3 of the world’s fresh water reserve.

Word of mouth and folklore says that if you bathe in the lake you will be protected from all kind of suspicious and very dangerous diseases.

We found a guesthouse that seemed to be located just by the lake and went that way. We arrived in the general area where the map on Booking app showed and entered the yard of a house that looked kind of like the one we were supposed to stay at, but... surprise. The owner knew nothing about the guesthouse we were looking for. We showed him the photos of the place we were trying to find but apparently he had no clue. He then sent us all the way across the “village” to ask around there.

So we went back to the main road headed to the other side of the village. When we got there, guess what: the only building there was a sort of a complex that housed a children’s camp. We asked some folks at a kiosk to call the owner of the hostel we were looking for so they talked and the owner said he would meet us by a railway bridge.

We went ahead to the bridge (we knew where it was, as we had already passed it twice), stopped on the side of the road and waited, and I am not exaggerating, about 20 minutes. After 20 minutes we decided to stop the next car that passes by and ask again about this guesthouse.

A pickup truck came along, we waved, it stopped. We showed the driver the name of our guesthouse and the photos on Booking. He looked at them and said something about a “gostinitza” (a generic Russian word meaning any kind of accommodation) pointing at himself. We thought he was saying he would take us to his place. But we didn’t want that, because we had already paid on Booking.

We argued for a bit, just to understand quite soon that he was the owner of the guesthouse we were looking for and so even if we hadn’t waived he would have stopped as he was coming to meet us anyway.

We followed him to the guesthouse and on the way, we passed just in front of the first one, the one whose owner had sent us all the way across the village. They were practically neighbours. So that was our “tour” looking for the accommodation.

At our destination we entered a pretty large backyard, with two wooden houses – a fancier one, the one we saw photos of on Booking, and the other one, recently finished.

We later learnt that both houses had been built from scratch by our owner, who was a super handy man. He had done everything himself: from cutting the beams to installing the floor tiling, piping, windows, everything. Inside, in our villa, the furniture looked quite austere, but proper and clean (everything was practically brand new), I think we were his first guests in this building.

Finally, we parked our bikes, changed our clothes and asked the owner to take us to a store to buy beer and some food. On the way we met his wife – she was driving the other way, coming “home”. They stopped one next to the other, exchanged a few words and we drove ahead to the store. All this time we were followed closely by Baikal, his dog.

The village store has just about everything one might need… food stuff, all kind of cans, bread, oil - a full-fledged market. You know what else they had there? The usual beer on tap. We found beer on tap in most Russian stores. The beer was kept in regular kegs (you know, the metal ones), and the store owner had some 2 L plastic bottles he would “screw in” onto the tap, used CO2 to pressurize the bottle and then pour beer. At the end, he would place the cap back on the plastic bottle and fasten it. So…. we bought what we needed, a couple of beers (excellent beer by the way, I highly recommend) and went back. When we got there with the beer and the bag full of cans, bread and other staff, we bumped into Iulia, the owner’s wife, on our way to the kitchen. She was just cooking something.

We cracked the beer open outside, Iulia brought us some raw fish caught in the Baikal lake. I am not that big of a fan of raw stuff, but that fish was delicious…

The sun was about to set, so we went to the shores of the famous Baikal Lake to take a look around. After crossing a field (the house was about 300 or 400 hundred meters away from the lake), we reached the rocky shore. The sunset was absolutely stunning. Curious about testing the Russian folklore, I dipped my hand in the lake. Un(surprisingly) the water was freezing cold. “At least we have brought along all sorts of medicine” – I said to myself, we won’t have to rely on the Baikal lake to stay healthy.

We took a few photos, stayed for a little while longer and went back to the guesthouse. “Welcome, dinner is almost ready”, Iulia greeted us. She invited us inside, so we took the “Varu” out of the bag and poured each of us a shot.

After about a half an hour, I went outside for a cigarette. “Look, it’s already dark” I though to myself standing at the top of the stairs, after closing the door. In the back yard, it was complete darkness, not even a faint light. Just as I closed the door behind, two cars were pulling into the dark yard.

Remember I was telling you there were two houses there? Well, the one we were staying in was finished on the inside, everything to the last detail. On the outside however there were a few little things still missing.

So, I closed the door and was looking at the cars parking. Blinded by the headlights, I wanted to make my way down the stairs into the yard, but instead… shock and terror.

Our architect handy-man never got to mounting the guard rail… and as the stairs were just opposite way from where I thought they would be, I quickly descended about half a metre straight on a garbage bin that was next to the stairs. Falling down I also knocked off Baikal’s water bowl – sorry, mate.

I picked myself off the ground and, with hoodie full of mud, went back into the house. When I opened the door Adi and Iulia started laughing… they had heard the noise and pretty much imagined what had happened. We all laughed it off, personally I was glad I didn’t break something.

After we calmed down, a group of boys and girls came in – they were the ones that had just parked their cars outside. As I found out later, it was our hosts’ daughter and some friends of hers, college students. After they settled, they pulled out a banner for the guesthouse, they were going to put it up the next day.

We sat together at the table, poured a glass of “Varu” for everybody, then we opened the beer, they opened a bottle of vodka and the party started.

After a while, our hosts went to bed, while we kept partying for some time. Suddenly, this idea came up. I still don’t know whose idea was it, but it spread like wildfire. In less than 10 seconds everybody agreed that it was a good idea to go take a bath in the Baikal.

So we all walked across the field separating the house from the shore and once there we plunged into the lake for “treatment”. Miraculously, the water didn’t seem as cold as before… maybe it was one of the lake’s magical properties or maybe it was the “5 Lakes” vodka… we’ll never know :)))

Refreshed after the bath and out of beer, we continued the party on the porch with vodka named 5 Lakes (or maybe 7 Lakes, it didn’t matter anymore).

We got up the next day with great difficulty. To our amazement, everyone else was “alive and kicking”. They had woken up, eaten all appeared to be in great shape. Soon after we were having a light breakfast. With our elbows on the table and our heads aching we tried to get ourselves together. Today we want to reach Mongolia :)

In the next episode we will enter Mongolia. It was exactly as I imagined it to be (not) :))

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