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Published: October 23rd 2018
Our first taste of early winter on the south shore of Baikal was a real awakening. Following days of rain at lake level the mountains were covered in snow just above us. We think of ourselves as rather cold-hardy people and we have saddled up for some pretty bad weather over the years, but we still felt a sense of urgency to get rolling and not stop. Back in Chita, when we bought our return tickets to the States, we chose Krasnoyarsk as our departure city thinking that we would take a leisurely pace in the fall and make a few stops. We also knew from experience that the highway to and through Novosibirsk would be very busy, making Krasnoyarsk a fitting place to stop.
But the winter in the Baikal region started to press down and we could see that one good lineup of bad weather could find us deciding between riding on frozen roads or catching a lift with a truck. Neither option seemed appealing and so, with 1200 kilometers to go we put our heads down and pushed. Our rest in Slyudyanka had been long and we had walked quite a bit. We felt rested, restrengthened,
and confident for the seemingly small mountains ahead. A lot of truckers had warned us about the hills in this section. Long and steep they told us. We looked over the vertical profiles and could not imagine how it could be so bad.
Mountains come in a wide variety of presentations. Some (like the Alaska Range) stand right in one's face with full display of prominence. Others (like the Urals) hide their secrets. We have trundled over some really big passes over the last few tours and our experience has been that the steepness of the grades have the most direct correlation with difficulty. A lot of the classic 4000+meter passes in Sichuan and Yunnan are actually quite tame with winding roads that slowly amble up into the high country. Conversely we climbed hills in the humble little Urals so steep that it seemed as if something just had to break, be it in our bikes or our bodies. In many countries, regulations dictate maximum pitches of road grades but Russia is not one of those countries. Besides, many of these roads were built in a time when most transport happened on the railways. Therefore, when you notice on
a Russian road map that the railroad strays far from the highway, you can basically asume that you are in for it. When we left Slyudyanka, we got into it hard.
The first climb was pretty mellow and long, bringing us a thousand meters up out of the Baikal rift into lovely fall foliage. But the hills that followed were flat out brutally hard. Some of them were much steeper than the 14% posted on the road signs, and quite long. Pacing ourselves on these maxout efforts was difficult, especially while trying to balance our loads on narrow roads with steady traffic. By the end of the first day, we felt not even the slightest vestage of the long rest we had just enjoyed. Our legs felt like we had ridden for weeks and our chests burned from totally tacking out in the chilly air. We felt somehow good about all of that however and we laughed at ourselves, in our tattered state, as we watched the sun set over the taiga that evening.
The grades did not abate, but neither did our spirits. The scene out on the road was comical at times. Small microbusses carrying loads
on their roofs the size of small microbusses spewed smoke as they too maxed out to make it up the climbs. They rared back on their supspension so hard; It seemed that if the passengers had coordinated their moves, the vans could have popped a wheelie....or worse! We had installed fresh brake pads in Slyudyanka but none the less, we were deathgripped to the brakes on the downhills. Rivers crashed by. The train crossed under us every few kilometers in an endless set of switchbacks. The colors became more golden with every passing day and the villages smelled of woodsmoke and lignite. In short, it was really great fall riding.
At last we descended past Irkutsk and out into flatter country. Here the wavelength of the road became long and undulating and we could maintain a real flow. A cute little family stopped us one night and offered us a free meal and a night at their friend's rest base in the forest. Within hours we were swatting each other with birch twigs in a sauna on a small pond surrounded by golden birch trees. It was perfect but when they offered us a few more days worth of
rest we declined and rode on. We were riding a wave and we had the deep sense that it was best to ride it all the way to the beach.
A day or two later, Sylvia began to sniffle and cough and we could see that she was coming down with a cold. We stopped at a forest apothecary along the road who had just the cure. He sold us a small jar of rendered bear fat and some syrup made from young pine cones. She began treatment immediately and the cold stopped in it's tracks. In a day or two she was feeling great and had seemingly developed a taste for bear oil. Roadside forest goodies are a major highlight on the trans Siberian highway and we thoroughly enjoyed a variety of jams and honeys. However the presence of bears was obvious and we were more than a little wary going to sleep at night with our stove and our honey and jam collection in the vestibule of our tent. This wariness was confirmed by a road crew worker who managed the crew's chuckwagon. He told us that his kitchen had been destroyed the night before and the
crew had spotted numerous bears recently exibiting aggressive behaviors typical for this time of year.
There was no doubt that we were in serious bear country and the days were getting shorter, the nights colder. We decided to pull out our Ursack, a half-assed contraption that is basically a kevlar stuff sack that you tie to a tree. Supposedly, these bags are supposed to keep the bear from taking your food, but we were thinking that it would likely just buy us time to wake up and start making noise to scare the animal away, as opposed to waking up with a new, uninvited tent mate. We had a difficult time finding a flat place to sleep in the bumpy taiga forest at times and one night we made camp in a place where obvious recent wood cutting had cleared and area. We ate our meal, tied the Ursack to a tree and went to bed. In the morning, as we were eating breakfast, we were startled by the unmistakable sound of a tree beginning to fall. Looking around the front of our tent, we were a bit surprised to see a seemingly healthy birch tree thumping to the
ground not far from our tent. We had finished breakfast and walked over to inspect the fallen tree when we found a chilling reality in the windy forest. The fallen tree had been cut through most of it's diameter and left to fall on the first windy day. It was not alone. Nearby were two other trees, both closer to our tent though just barely out of range. One of them fell while we were breaking camp and the top landed just a few meters short of our spot. We have cut down quite a few trees in recent years and we know that things do no always go exactly as planned. However, leaving a tree with most of it's diameter backcut and no face cut whatsoever seemed like some sort of trap. We were vaguely familiar with the idea of letting the final felling task to the wind, but we would never have thought to look for such a danger in the standard safety assessment that we do before making camp! In subsequent potential camp spots we found other such specimens, some had evidently spent a winter or more mostly severed. It is another version of the same old
lesson that the most dangerous animal in the forest walks around on two legs.
On and on we rode, as the colors and scents of autumn continued to peak. We shook the frost off our tent in the mornings, mounted up, and tried to make it as far as we could every day. We rode through a few rain cycles where we simply pulled up our hoods, donned our rain gloves and booties and tried to laugh at our situation. Then the horizon opened up, both on the landscape and in the forecast. With Krasnoyarsk five or six days away, we saw meteorological doom developing a week out. We we're running now, trying to get to a warm, dry place before all frozen hell broke loose.
Through all of this, the traffic steadily intensified. After every large town, a few more vehicles would join the ranks of those longhauling it west. Along with the increased traffic the shoulder regularly narrowed or dissapeared altogether leaving us out in the lane with no place to go. The drivers were by and large benevolent towards us, but several of those we encountered in cafes along the road expressed concern and even offered rides. With the wind of an approaching system blowing in our face and the trucks rocking us with dusty exhaust, we were tempted. But we came to ride and we knew we could make it just in time to dodge the snow.
The traffic intensified. We were starting to feel like we were in the way. And then one day we noticed something promising on the map; an old road that paralleled the new highway, thirty kilometers ahead. We made it there the next day and rejoiced in our escape from what had become a very busy road. It was like a red carpet rolling us through small villages on a completely empty strip of asphalt. Sylvia rode a lot if it in her little bike behind Allison and for the first time since we climbed away from Baikal, we felt like we could take our time. We made our last camp in a colorful stand of birch and watched a hot pink sunset together. It was bittersweet knowing we were pitching our tent for the last time. We felt a true sense of accomplishment after riding together for so long, and the previous two weeks had been an all out push. But finishing a trip always leads to some forlorn emotions for us. We are in our own little world on tour and stopping is simply never exactly what we want to do, it's just time.
The following day we rode casually into the outskirts of Krasnoyarsk. We celebrated our arrival with ice cream and pastries and mokachinos from a gas station. Then we found a surprisingly clean and cheap roadhouse in the Leninsky district which is decidedly the "ethnic" side of town. The streets were crazy with high speed traffic and the population was overwhelmingly Central Asian. We plowed a meal and washed the dust off ourselves. It had been an 18 day straight push and our legs were useless. We used the last of our energy to make a beer run, then we passed out on a big pile. The next day, the temperature dropped to seasonal norms, and the rain poured down as the wind pounded the windows. The wave had crested and washed us out on a safe beach, just in time.
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