Wednesday, February 13, 2013

À la Recherche de Caméras Perdus

“Basically you’re being too cautious.”, Rico said in answer to my question after he and Björn had dug me out of my third crater in 30 minutes. With dark blonde shaggy hair and a beard, gold rimmed glasses and a precise fluency in English, Rico’s lust for adventure makes him every inch a geek and polymath. “You need more speed and to be a little more aggressive to get through the deep sh**.” Björn murmured in agreement. I made a mental note to stop driving like a dad and more like a lad. We had just spent the last hour bashing our way along a logging trail that didn’t exist on any map. It was around three o’clock and we’d already had a pretty full day, including towing, repairs, lunch at a local school, and losing the contents of Zaya’s camera bag and, as a result, Zaya. Taking it from the top:

We awoke with surprising agility and as we packed up the tea bags the early team came up from behind and paused to see how we were doing. This team included Ural owners, serious bikers, and ace mechanics. Heavily overweighted as they were with motorcycling talent they would ultimately finish first, but in doing so missed the mechanic’s melee in Uray and the roadhouse rave outside of Nyagen. But I am getting ahead of myself. 

It was all of 500 meters into the little village of mostly single level wooden houses, many with rustic barns on one side. In the tidy corner shop we found a few essentials (chocolate and vodka) and waited for Björn and Rico. Children, all smiles and curiosity, appeared in droves out of nowhere. (Actually, the children came out of the local school that stood directly across from the store.) With all the innocence of youth we became the object of many photos, our bikes were decorated with Russian flags, and we got invited in for lunch by the school’s director. Chicken soup and kotlette (a kind of Salisbury steak) with a side of bread, for which we were duly grateful. 

Rico walked up alone and announced their bike had died and could they have a tow? Sure I said and quickly brought them round. It seemed like it was an ignition problem and Geordie dug through their spares and together they replaced the coil. That seemed to do the trick. We all started our bikes and with a wave bid our goodbyes to the kids and bemused adults and pointed our noses north. Our route was a bumpy track that ran alongside the railway line. Did I say bumpy? I meant tortured. The trail started off smoothly enough, but soon disintegrated into a choppy, lumpen mess of heavy snow, icy patches, and ruts. We’d battened our luggage down pretty well, but about 50 kilometers in we realized that Zaya’s camera bag had unzipped and spilled its contents out - who knew where or for how long? I swore - @#$@%! - with a combination of concern for Zaya’s very expensive equipment and priceless videos, but also for figuring out how we were going to keep up if we double-backed to recover her things. Just as we agreed that it made the most sense for her to hitch a lift back in a truck, the second team behind us pulled up waving her camera and some, but not all, of her video equipment. Still missing was her external hard drive with all her media on it. We agreed we’d rendezvous in Mortka later. 

Without Zaya in the sidecar, Eva became a different beast. Lighter on her wheels, but also more prone to bucking and tipping. Unaccompanied I felt I could take a few more risks and picked up the pace as Rico suggested. The morning’s low clouds had burned off and through clear blue skies the sun quickly brought the temperature up to about freezing. It was so warm wrestling Eva around the deep ruts and pushing her out of snowbanks that I worked up a heavy sweat. I peeled off my coat and unzipped my shirt and then agitated about hypothermia. “Ruts are sluts!”, Olly had said in our briefing, and he was right. Trying to keep the driving wheels on level ground wasn’t easy and I just had to go with it, keeping the revs up and my fingers crossed. The bike leaned over so far at times the left cylinder would catch a wad of snow which instantly vaporized into a cloud of steam that obscured my vision. It was awesome fun!  

Pat, Guy and I caught up with Geordie who had just bought some benzine from a chap that had broken down. Apparently the gentleman was saying this road wasn’t really a road at all and that only an ‘dickhead’ would drive on it. He spoke in Russian and looked at Geordie who, with typical Australian directness, made an inspired translation. Pressing ahead it took another couple of hours to find our way to the outskirts of Mortka, a town dangling on the end of a paved road from the north. Catching our breath at the welcome sight of smoother surfaces, we paused long enough to notice that Geordie’s bike was leaning against his sidecar at an unhealthy angle. On the Ural, the sidecar is secured to the bike by two ball joints and a couple of other bolts. One of Geordie’s balls had plainly separated from its joint requiring a quick field repair. That led to a group effort of tipping the bike and spinning spanners and setting things aright. By now it was getting late and the first thing we needed to do was find enough petrol for the entire team to drive another 100 kilometers. There is no petrol station in Mortka. It was Björn’s turn to take the lead. While he’s not fluent, Björn’s Russian is strong enough that he secured us all the benzine we needed from the resident policeman and his neighbor. The price? Twice what it was at the pump, but that seemed standard for folks in these parts. 

Back out of town we paused for beers and a bite at the crossroads diner. A crusty geezer in the bar speaking in broken English warned us not to get caught drinking and driving - that Russia’s zero tolerance policy is an expensive thing to bribe your way out of. Perhaps he was talking from experience, perhaps he was an off-duty cop, in any case we decided that only passengers would enjoy the brews. Rico and Björn had scouted a location for our campsite and as soon as we finished we gathered our things and walked out to start the bikes. At that moment Zaya climbed out of an SUV having located all her missing equipment. There’s something karmic about traveling with Zaya. Neither she nor I had any doubt we’d find each other again and here she was in the very place she needed to be at the precise time. 

Our campsite lay about three kilometers away alongside a picturesque, solidly frozen river. Almost as soon as we started unpacking the wind picked up and soughed through the tall birches. After the previous night’s festivities, Geordie announced that he intended to fill his sidecar with enough wood for a real fire every time he slept outdoors. With Björn’s help in town he had negotiated for a cord of wood and was now happily burning it. We sat in a circle and discussed our incredible day and what we had learned about bike handling in the heart of Siberia’s winter. Woodsmoke, coddled by the chilly breeze, swirled around us and then fainted up and away into the clear, cold night. It was time for bed.    

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