Date: November 21st, 2016
Distance: 75 kilometers
Song of the Day: Good Time - Counting Crows
This trip seems to be moving right along now. The terrain has started to roll more, but I'm feeling good about that. Really, it feels like just a nice ride along a pretty stretch of river. A little cold for most people I suppose, but I've gotten used to it. No more frostbite, even.
Date: November 20th, 2016
Distance: 62 kilometers
Song of the Day: Strange - R.E.M.
Today was much like yesterday. The terrain was rolling but not steep. On occasion there is some kind of reminder of human activity but often this is run down or fully abandoned.
At the end of the day I got to a small town. I asked one of the locals if there was a hotel to stay at and he said I could stay at his house. Okay, that sounded good. It was only when we had made it about half way to the guy's flat that I realized he was very drunk. Ah. It was cool, but it made for a strange evening. The guy cooked dinner, and offered me vodka. When that ran out he went the store to get more. This, I have to say, is one of the more odd places I have ended up in any of my journeys. The guy was just strange all evening. No complaints, though. It was quite an experience.
Date: November 19th, 2016
Distance: 50 kilometers
Song of the Day: Long Nights - Eddie Vedder
My feet are feeling better but I think I'm going to have to switch back to my original boots. The Russian ones are great for warmth, but they aren't good for biking.
Leaving Susuman, I'm still struck with how, well, depressing it is out here. It seems like half the town is abandoned. I don't know why people moved here originally, but it seems like whatever industry brought them has since disappeared. This is not to say it's bad. I liked Susuman. But you just can't come here without thinking that it's seen better days.
The road wormed its way along the river valley. It wasn't flat, but nothing too steep or too large either. The road just seemed to follow the river in its slow course to the ocean.
Date: November 18th, 2016
Distance: Rest day
Originally I was going to head out today, but I decided that was a bad plan as soon as I woke up. My feet hurt. They feel like someone took a hammer to them in the night. I think the new boots I have aren't really that great for biking around in so I'm going to take a day and see if I can get them feeling a bit better.
Date: November 17th, 2016
Distance: 41 kilometers (300 km cheating by truck)
Song of the Day: Escape is at Hand for the Traveling Man - The Tragically Hip
My hopes for warmer weather may have been premature. When I awoke, things were about as cold as I had remembered them being before. I packed up as quickly as I could but that isn't particularly fast. Touching anything just sucks the heat out of my fingers. Even putting my sleeping bag away hurts. When pulling down my tent I spend a lot of time waving my arms about spastically to get blood flowing into my fingertips.
The terrain around here is still pretty boring. Nothing that beautiful or exciting to write about. I did pass a town called "Kholodny" or "Cold" which I thought was funny. I think it's really just a big mine.
The trip into Susuman was slow, like I have kind of come to expect in these conditions. I didn't arrive until just before sunset, and then it took a while before I was able to find a place to sleep. What I was directed to did not look promising. Half of the building looked boarded up, the doors on that side locked with large rusting chains. The doors on the other side were open, but beer bottles and cigarette butts littered the stairwell. When I got upstairs, though, everything changed. There really was a hotel here. The inside was well maintained and warm. This seems to be somewhat common in the former Soviet Union. The exterior of the buildings and the public portions, like stairwells, were supposed to be maintained by the government. Often it seems like no one is doing that anymore. Inside an apartment, however, it's totally different. The occupants spend lots of time to make sure those parts are kept up. Ugly on the outside, but beautiful and functional on the inside. Strange.
Date: November 16th, 2016
Distance: 2 kilometers (300 km cheating by truck)
Song of the Day: Change Your Mind - The Killers
This morning started out a lot like the day before. I was up early with the other mine workers, went to breakfast with them, and then started work. The workshop was pretty slow in the morning. The other guys were just hanging around waiting for things to get to work on so I continued building my chair. It was pretty fun. I think I got the size just a bit off, though. It turned out a couple of inches too big. It doesn't look so bad when it's all parts, but when I got it all together Sasha laughed and called it a "throne". Okay, so it was a little big. Still, I was happy with the way it all came together.
I went to lunch with the guys from the shop and Ruslan, the office manager, was there. He said that a truck was coming in shortly and would take me to Magadan. Okay, I got packed up and ready. I ended up waiting around for a few hours because, well, nothing is on a strict schedule here. No big deal.
I wasn't too excited about taking a truck. I had done this whole trip so far without motorized transport. But, there were still a few issues that I was very concerned about. First, my frostbitten toe was no longer blue, but it still wasn't better. It had turned red and I was worried about doing any more damage to it. The weather had been about -40 the last few days and it didn't look like that was going to change any time soon. The second problem was that I didn't know how well my bicycle was going to work. I had fixed it somewhat, but I had no idea how long that would last. I didn't want to have it break again shortly after I left and have to come back yet again. Even worse would be if it broke down far away to leave me freezing in the cold. The last factor was that I knew my trip was coming to an end. Whatever happened I was stopping in Magadan and not continuing on to Chukotka like I wanted. I decided based on all of this to take a truck south to Susuman, where I hoped it would be warmer.
When the truck arrived I got my bike loaded on. I said my goodbyes to Ruslan, Sasha, and Valeri. They have been so good to me. Then the driver and I left, heading south. The trip itself was rather dull, not much to see. The land was flat and featureless. I guess I didn't feel too bad about skipping over it. The few towns we passed through were invariably run down and decrepit looking. I can't imagine living out here. It looks depressing.
After dark the driver stopped and we had a bit of dinner. He also had some vodka, which he shared with me. I thought at that point the day was over, and we would get a little sleep before continuing in the morning. I was wrong, though. After dinner the driver just got right back on the road. Uh... okay.
We barreled on in the dark. I was sort of concerned about how much he had been drinking now. At least there wasn't much out here to run into? I also asked to be dropped off at Susuman if we were going to continue on but I was told we weren't going there. I thought it was on the way to Magadan, but it turns out there are two different roads out there. Okay, well I asked to be dropped off where the two roads split. I think the driver thought I was crazy for that.
It took another hour before we arrived at the crossroads. He asked again if I really was going to head to Susuman, so I said yep. He said it was 40 kilometers away. I knew that was further than I could make, but I was all set up to camp out. The driver shook his head, but he let me out. I thanked him and took off.
I didn't bike very far, just a few kilometers, before I found a nice spot on the side of the road to pitch my tent. It isn't that much warmer, but I found it somewhat easier to pitch my tent. That's a good sign at least.
Date: November 15th, 2016
Today I spent another day working at the gold mine. The repair shop is a crazy sort of place. In the morning we cut some glass for one of the big mining vehicles, then we repaired a door in the dining hall. I guess it wouldn't stay closed. In the afternoon we were building some furniture. The chief of the repair shop, Sasha, even let me try building something on my own. "Anything" he said. So I started work on a chair.
After dinner I went to work on my other project. I wanted to see if I could do anything to fix the bike because I was starting to feel less confident that I would be able to get anything to fix it in Magadan. I also had the feeling that Magadan was going to be the end of the road. If I just took a truck to Magadan my Russian adventure would be over. So, fixing the bike myself was clearly the best option.
The bolt that holds the crank arm on was pretty messed up, though. It wouldn't thread right into the spindle. I spent a couple of hours trying to clean it and make sure it would thread on correctly. Eventually I just figured, it was aluminum. The steel threads of the spindle should straighten everything out anyway, right? So I just kept tightening it. I was using way more force than you should for a part like this, but eventually it worked. Sort of. It never got easier like I thought it would have, but I was able to get it on and tight enough to hold the crank arm from falling off. Sadly, in the process I stripped out the hex-socket of the bolt. Well, it's on the bike now. No going back at this point. I'm not sure how long that will last, though.
Date: November 14th, 2016
Distance: 9 kilometers
Song of the Day: Darkmatter - Andrew Bird
I woke up early, 7:00 AM, with the rest of the camp and had breakfast with the miners. The temperature was not better, in fact it was -45° C. At least I would get a great breakfast before I headed down the road. The ladies at the dining hall took great care of me, giving me extra portions of anything with a smile for the crazy stranger. I said goodbye to Ruslan and Valeri and thanked them. They thought I was crazy for heading off into the cold like I was. Maybe I am.
By the time I left camp the sun was just coming up. It was going to be a sunny day, clear and cold. My speed was not improved any over the last day I rode. Everything was sluggish. The road was even mostly flat, but everything was a struggle. All I could do was push one pedal and then the next. It was slow. At least the new boots seemed to be working well. They kept my feet warm.
It took a couple of hours, but it was still not far from camp when I noticed something wrong with the bike. I wasn't quite sure what it was, it just felt like something was loose. Before I could find the cause, my left crank arm fell off. Ah yes, that would be it.
When I stopped to examine the problem I discovered that the bolt holding it on had fallen out. I think this is another issue from the extreme temperatures. The bolt is aluminum, while the spindle it connects to is steel. The two will expand and contract at different rates due to temperature. The aluminum appears to have shrunk more and worked its way out. I tried the simple fix of just putting it back in, but that only took me another hundred yards before it fell out again. Looking closer I could see that when it had fallen off the first time it had stripped off half the threads. Okay, now that is a serious problem. Not something I could tackle in the frozen wasteland around me.
It would have been almost another 100 kilometers to the next town. The better bet was to turn around. I walked the bike back for almost an hour before a truck came by. I stopped and asked if they could take me down the road, which they agreed to. So I loaded up the bike and went with them a few miles back to the camp. When I got there the guard at the front gate looked at me confused and asked what happened. I told him my bike had broken and he asked how far I had been. Nine kilometers, I said. He just laughed and let me back in. I headed over to the office and asked if I could spend another night there. Ruslan told me I was crazy for going in the first place and agreed. Valeri joked with me that the camp was for workers only. I said I didn't mind working. They could give me a shovel and I would be happy. Valeri laughed. He asked about what I was going to do. I said I would need to get another truck to Magadan. Maybe I would be able to fix it there? No problem. Ruslan said he could get me a ride back to Magadan. Their trucks come in from that direction with supplies, but usually head back empty. The only problem was that it could be a few days or maybe a week. The schedule wasn't exactly set in stone. No problem, I guess I have time.
Valeri let me back in to the "hotel". I brought my bike in and tried to see if the crank arm was something I could fix myself, now that I was in out of the cold. Valeri came back a few minutes later with a pair of insulated overalls, and a huge warm jacket. The jacket was amazing. It felt like wearing a hug. When I said I would work, he was going to take me up on it. That was fine by me, I would rather do something than just sit around. Valeri took me over to the supply room and also got me a pair of warm work gloves and an "ushanka", the traditonal Russian hat.
Then he got me out working with the wood shop. My first task was to help move some logs around. It was fun, in an odd sort of way. I guess I can at least say I have worked at a Siberian gold mine.
Date: November 13th, 2016
Distance: Rest day
I had planned to leave today, but somehow that never happened. Ruslan, the office manager for the camp, took me over to get some breakfast. I ate just about whatever I could get. They know how to pack on the calories here, it was awesome. Porridge with butter, meat, bread, gravy. I actually ate my fill, and that's pretty rare these days.
Ruslan also asked if I wanted to use the internet. What? I didn't think that was possible here. I was told they had a satellite connection. Crazy. I was happy to get on the internet and let my family know that I was well. While I was on there I saw a bit of sad news, though. I finally found the right people who could get me a permit for Chukotka but it was going to take another 6 months. Crap. I was pretty bummed out about that, because I don't have six months to devote to getting to Chukotka. It looks like for all my grand plans my trip ends in Magadan.
While I was in the office kind of moping about that, Valeri came in and asked if I needed anything. I said I was worried about my boots not being warm enough. He said he could get me some. It took a few hours but he got me a pair of "vilinki". I guess these are pretty traditional footwear here. It's just some felt, but about an inch thick. They also gave me "Russian socks". They were just a couple of pieces of wool felt about the size of a hand towel. The guys showed me how to wrap it around my foot to keep it warm. Wow, that really is the old school way to do things. But if it works? Yeah, I'm not complaining.
I wanted to test out the new boots but the trial for them would have to wait. By this point it was only two hours to sunset and I knew I wasn't going to get anywhere. I asked if I could stay another night and the guys didn't think it would be a problem. Ruslan even told me it was shower night. I guess they only run their banya on certain days, and today was one of them. Cool. I could at least get a good shower. I hope tomorrow warms up and makes things easier for the day ahead.
Date: November 12th, 2016
Distance: 57 kilometers
Song of the Day: Pile of Gold - The Blow
Okay, I was feeling much better today. I got out on the road and felt pretty good. Except, the cold here has just gotten devastating. It is now south of -40°. The bike seems to be so much harder to pedal, like trying to push through honey. I kept going, and going. The terrain itself seems to reflect this monotony and difficulty. It's gone from stark and beautiful to bleak and depressing.
It went on like this all day, just a struggle to keep pushing on the whole time. It was also an effort to keep my feet warm. I have been very concerned about that since I don't want to get frostbite again. I know it's easier to get when you've already been frostbitten.
What a thing to do. I feel like kind of an idiot for not checking on my feet earlier.
As the sun was setting I came upon a huge dump truck broken down along the side of the road. Not something you would use for road construction, this was a giant piece of mining equipment and it took up most of the road. There were a group of guys underneath the thing, working on it. Even better, they had an old steel barrel with a fire going to keep them warm. When I saw that I just dropped the bike and went over to warm myself up. Two of the guys came over and looked at me as if I had just stepped off a flying saucer. They were so confused about where I had come from. I laughed and joked with them while warming my hands up. One of the guys looked at me and asked if I knew that it was -50° C out. I looked at the other guy and asked if he was right. The second guy told me the first guy had lied. It was only -45° C. Ah yes. So much better.
They worked for a gold mine just down the road and invited me to come and stay with them. That sounded like a good deal to me. It turns out the mine was about 10 kilometers away, so it was good and dark by the time I got there. Still, the guys at camp were confused, but certainly welcome. They took me over to the dining hall and got me some dinner. I talked with Valeri, the "comandant" of the camp, and he said that I could stay in the "hotel". It was just a little room they had, I think for visiting company executives. Not really a hotel, but it was warm and had a bed so I had no complaints.