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Episode 5: To Siberia | Mongolia

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Volgograd - Samara

The morning finds us sheltering from the sun in Volgograd while packing the motorcycles. Today we are leaving for Samara, some 850 kilometers away. Because with the dozens roads under construction we know for a fact it will take us more time to get there than the optimistic Google Maps estimates

The road has been quite dull, we stop from one gas station to another because there’s really nothing much to be seen besides these. The rule of thumb until we reached Mongolia was during the odd stops, we just fill the tanks and go. Every other fuel stop we also take a break for a cigarette, a Snickers, a few minutes pause. Other than this, we would just ride. There was enough water in the Camelbacks to stay hydrated and there was no other reasons to stop. A demanding rhythm, but one that allowed us to travel many kilometers per day.

The first notable event from that day took place (what a surprise!) in a gas station - obviously an even numbered one :)

We had just gotten in to pay for the gas and get water and coffee. Two BMWs show up at the fuel pump. The riders were returning from – guess where? – Usghuli, where we had been with the girls last year, in Georgia. We exchange some impressions on the road until Usghuli – turns out it is just as bad as it was last year. They whole heartedly advise us to avoid Samara, for it was super crowded and it had a lot of roads under construction. Bad luck – we think – because we were just planning to stop in Samara.

Just our luck – one of them owned a hostel exactly in Samara. He books us a room and it sounds like a plan!

We leave together and I spot something pretty weird about the way the two Russians are riding: instead of riding like us in a zigzag formation, they were riding one behind the other on the right hand-side of the lane.

After a few kilometers, I understood why they did doing this – the Russian drivers overtake aggressively so the right hand side of the road, as close as possible to the verge is the safest place. Not to mention that a lot of cars  are imported from Japan and have the steering wheel on the left side.

After driving together on the last sector of road we get to the entrance point in Samara… our guy was right, it was a complete disaster. Car queues, uncovered asphalt, parked trucks and cars, absolutely crazy traffic. We make our way through the traffic, go through a construction site and finally reach the hostel.

After we unpack the luggage, the hostel owner takes us to a guarded parking, a couple of streets away. The parking was included in the price of accommodation. We leave the motorcycles there, he speaks with the guardian and he arranges for us to pick them up tomorrow morning.

Samara - Chelyabinsk

Next day, we took the motorcycles from the guarded parking, packed our luggage and got on the road again, this tome to Celyabinsk, where we were going to meet up with another of Adi’s friends. We drove about 900 kilometers that day.

Besides a few funny things we say on the road, like some stickers that the truck drivers had on their trailers or all sorts of shops with statues, fountains or other kitsch from the side of the road, there was really nothing much to be seen.

The most interesting stuff was a huge red star on the side of the road. We stopped, took a few pictures and just like magic, we arrived in Chelyabinsk.

It was, I believe, the first dry day, without rain :)

While waiting for Adi’s friend we witnessed a kind of conflict between a drunken citizen and some (apparently) policemen or armed bodyguards. The citizen, who was very vocal, had an issue with the pay check or something like that.

By the noise he was making we expected to see him handcuffed on the pavement in no time. Much to our surprise however, they raised their tone a bit and then the citizen was invited to leave, which he did immediately. No guns drawn, no karate techniques.

Aleksei arrives shortly after and we found out that he already took care of the accommodation and “activities” for the evening :)

We follow him to the hotel, change rapidly and follow him to the center. We walk around the pedestrian area in the center, we pass by the terrace where the drunken citizen was performing a show earlier. Aleksei tells us about the history of the city and brings up to speed with the latest news in Celyabinsk.

Back in the day, Chelyabinsk was a major city along the Silk Road. No coincidence that the emblem of the city (which I had seen earlier on a bus) has a few camels, with a sort of sacks tied on their backs.

Fast forward a few hundred years. Fearing the rapid advance of the Nazi Germany’s army, Stalin moved here the factories that produced the mighty Russian T-34 tank. Whole factories were dismantled and brought to Chelyabinsk over the Volga in order to continue production.

Nowadays, Chelyabinsk is the most polluted city in Russia – because of the copper mining and operations in the area. Only a few months earlier, a private investor wanted to open up another mine, with decantation lakes and everything involved in extracting copper, right next to the city. The people fought back as this would have only added to the already rampant pollution but the state-backed companies kept claiming that the operations are perfectly safe and environmentally friendly.

After the brief history lesson, we find go to a pub with burgers and beer. Soon enough the closing hour inevitably arrives. Right when we go out, two guys (probably employees or friends of employees) were playing foosball at a table near the exit. We don’t miss the opportunity and  kickoff a match, two versus two.

Chelyabinsk - Omsk

The 920 kilometers we drove to Omsk won’t make it in my top favorite routes any time soon either.

There were not so many construction zones any more - we noticed that the more we advance East, the less they were. We drive past a tank monument at some point. One hundred meters farther there is a roundabout. We don’t miss the chance, turn around, take some pictures with the tank and we continue our way to Omsk.

There are not a lot of things to mention about this part of the trip, other than a scene at a gas station. After we filled up the tanks and were about to head off, I notice a lady repairing what looked like a flat tire. The gas station did not have a compressor, so I head over to her car wanting to ask if she needs help. The lady gestured that she has just finished and everything is ok. It was only when I was next to the car that I saw the “gentleman” – her husband, who was watching a video on his phone relaxed, most probably asking why it’s taking his wife so much to fix the wheel. The Russian way, I guess…

Once arrived in Omsk we get to a guest house located in what looked like a residential neighborhood with a barrier and security post. We park on the sidewalk and check in.

I haven’t told you anything about my KTM’s sidestand yet. Some guy over at KTM thought it would be a good idea to design the sidestand so the motorcycle stays as upright as possible. The foot of the sidestand, the “contact patch” of the jack with the ground is very close to the motorcycle’s center of gravity so if you don’t manage to place the jack in a small hole in the ground, you have high chances to find the motorcycle tipped over. I am not exaggerating, this happened to me once in a gas station, when my parked motorcycle fell down because of a sudden gust of wind.

Because the sidewalk’s slope was not oriented in the right direction, I decided to tie the motorcycle to the fence with a rope. It was not fancy but did the job…

With the luggage already taken in the room and the fence tied by my motorcycle, we go by foot through the lovely Omsk.

A few hours later, when we return, we decide to have a final beer in front of the hotel, while I am smoking a cigarette. We couldn’t have been more surprised when we saw that it was not dark outside despite it was 2 AM. The sky was dimly lit, sign that we were on a pretty high longitude. Google maps proved us right – Omsk is situated farther north than Amsterdam…we were not expecting this.

With this final geography lesion, we put an end to this day too.

In the next episode, we will arrive in Siberia and enjoy the fauna. The first fall of the KTM and the first flat tire.

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