Date: November 1st, 2016
Distance: 25 kilometers
Song of the Day: It Comes Back to You - Imagine Dragons
Another cold morning here. It really is quite hard to get out of a nice warm sleeping bag and face the day but I made the best of it anyway. I'm still riding through a series of hills and mountains around here. It's really quite a beautiful place.
Just a couple of hours after starting out I came upon a camp of some kind, which turned out to be a road construction camp. As I went by, the folks at the camp called me over. They were really excited to see a guy on a bicycle way out here. I told them all about my journey and they invited me to have some lunch. Hot food, that isn't something I can really pass up. They filled me up with chicken soup and bread, plus a couple of cups of hot tea.
As I was finishing lunch they asked me if I wanted to stay at the camp for the night. I had wanted to push on a little further, but lunch had taken quite a while and it would only have been two more hours before sunset. I figured I might as well just stay and get a good start tomorrow.
The guys at the road camp here really took care of me. They told me it was their shower day, so the banya was open. I had not had a shower since Khandiga, so it seemed like a good idea. I love the Russian banyas. It's quite refreshing to be in a steam room after spending so much time in the cold.
After the shower I was given a bunk in one of the shipping containers they were using for housing. This isn't a bare metal box as I would have expected. Instead they had insulated and appointed the interiors to be more like a little cabin. There was even a wood stove in there to keep it warm. Over dinner I told more stories about my travel. I also asked some of the workers what it was like out here and we had a great time chatting.
I fell asleep that night thinking about all the crazy places that I find myself in. What a life.
Date: October 31st, 2016
Distance: 42 kilometers
Song of the Day: The Boogie Monster - Gnarles Barkley
I slept in today. I needed the rest after the day I had yesterday. When I finally got up, taking my tent down took just as long as getting it up in the first place had. Everything is just so much harder in the cold. Then when I got the tent down it took forever to get it back in the bag. There was much cursing about this. All I wanted to do was leave so I could heat up while riding the bike and something so small was stopping me. Urgh.
When I got on the road I found I was just two kilometers short of the town of Razvilka. Two! Double Urgh. I decided to stop anyway and see if there was a store I could at least get some extra food from. The town itself was pretty run-down. It reminded me of Gilman, Colorado, an abandoned town. No one was on the streets and it looked like many of the buildings had either collapsed or been torn down and left. I was about to leave when a local guy drove by and told me where a little shop was. I went to open the door but it was locked. The Russian guy shook his head. I had to ring the bell. This wasn't a store that had hours. Just a place that was available when the owner was home. It felt a little like trick-or-treating, which was appropriate given that it was Halloween. The lady who owned the place came and opened the door for me. In the front entryway she had stacks of goods for sale. Mostly food, but also soap and batteries. I purchased a few things and asked if I could eat them in the entry because it was warm. The nice woman instead invited me inside and made me tea. She even cooked a couple of eggs for me while watching a Russian soap opera. I love Russian hospitality. I thanked her as much as I could.
Back on the road I got to thinking about how appropriate for Halloween I was being. Not only had I gone trick-or-treating, but I was dressed head to toe in a costume. I had even covered my head in a Darth Vader-style mask. That got me thinking even more deeply about my mask. I'm quite happy to have it, in spite of the tendency to stick to my beard. The cold here is vicious. I can feel how much it hurts to breathe in just the short durations when I take it off to eat. It also made me realize how much I am separating myself from the world. Every inch of me is covered. I am insulated from the pain and cold of the world. I think that may be contributing the alienation I feel from the landscapes around me. I feel more like an astronaut from the safety of a space suit peering out at and foreign world.
I didn't make it that far today. Ah well. I am going fine. I decided to get camp set up earlier rather than later. Maybe tomorrow I will have another good day.
Date: October 30th, 2016
Distance: 91 kilometers
Song of the Day: Sleepless - Soul Coughing
Okay, that was so much harder than I thought it would be. I was able to get out of Teply Klyuch in good order. The temperature has been dropping a bit more each day though. I don't know what it is, but I can just feel how much harder everything is right now. I am also having to put on more clothes to keep warm. That was as expected, however.
After Teply Klyuch I began to leave behind the flat lands and head up into the mountains. This was also expected, but that didn't make it easier. The area feels almost monochromatic, as if the whole place is being projected in just black and white like an old movie. I kept pushing on through the day hoping to get to the next little town on my map. The sun began to set, and eventually things went dark on me. I was riding along at night by the beam of my headlamp. Finally I couldn't take it any more. If the town did exist I must have already passed it. I pulled over on the side of the road and pitched my tent in the cold. This takes so much longer when your fingers are freezing. When I finally got into the tent and my food ready I found that my mask had frozen to my beard. All I wanted to do was eat and go to bed but I couldn't because the mask was covering my mouth. Just one more frustration, but the worst of them. Eventually I was able to un-thaw the ice enough to pull the mask off. Not pleasant. I was so happy when I could finally crawl in my sleeping bag and fall asleep.
Date: October 29th, 2016
Distance: 70 kilometers
Song of the Day: Straight to Hell - The Clash
Today was nothing spectacular. I am certainly getting farther away from "civilization". After crossing the Aldan there really isn't much traffic out here and I have the road pretty much to myself. It is a stark and quiet place to be. You have to be a bit crazy to go on a trip like this, but you also have to be sane enough to keep it together while being on your own in this forbidding and alien place. There are very few places in the world that I have felt this alone. I know I am on a road, a human construct, but even it seems to add to this feeling of solitude. It's just a dirt road in the freezing wilderness. Any other evidence of construction is more often evidence of the dereliction of this area.
I was happy to get into Teply Klych. The people here were as wonderful and helpful as I have come to expect in Russia. The town, however, just seemed to be more proof of the desolate nature of life in this region. It was a town of old buildings, often sagging along the ramshackle street. On the edge of town the power station was pouring forth dark smoke, the communist star still proudly displayed on top. It is like traveling to a place more lost in time than lost in space. Just a strange feeling.
Date: October 28th, 2016
Distance: Rest day
I didn't get back on the road today. After the last few days I just couldn't get out of bed at a reasonable time today. I have been going pretty hard and wanted a real rest day. I wish I had something better to say, but I don't. I got to be lazy today and it was great.
Date: October 27th, 2016
Distance: Rest day
Today I had two projects to work on. But first, I should tell you a little about how I am overcoming the cold here. Most things (me included) don't like sub-zero temperatures. Most batteries fail if you get them too cold and my potable water freezes pretty quickly these days. To keep that from happening I have a utility vest with lots of pockets. I keep two flasks of water and my rechargeable batteries in there to keep them against my skin and warm. The problem is that the vest is too loose. Not only is my water freezing, but it bumps my legs as I pedal. So I found a tailor today to fix the problem. There was a nice little shop down the street from the place I was staying that was run by some very sweet ladies who helped me out. They did a fantastic job of it, too. My vest now fits nice and snug. They didn't even want to take any money for it, but I insisted on something.
I was also able to find a machine shop to fix the clips that had broken a few days ago. Well, actually I just replaced them. It wasn't worth trying to fix them. My rear rack is now held on with some very sturdy clips, so my bike is back to top shape and my vest is all snugged up. I am happy to be back on the road tomorrow in better circumstances.
Date: October 26th, 2016
Distance: 43 kilometers
Song of the Day: Alone + Easy Target - Foo Fighters
This morning didn't start off that great. The guy who had been nice and friendly the night before was now demanding a whole bunch of money to stay in the cabin. He wanted 150 Euro, which is ridiculous. A night at a hotel is usually around 10 Euro. I said I didn't have any Euro so he said that he would do the exchange for $250. I kept telling him that I don't have any euros and I don't have any dollars and I wasn't going to pay him that crazy amount. He got mad, which I think now was because he had been bragging last night about how much money he was going to get to all the people who came in the previous night. It wouldn't have been so bad but there were other hunters in the wagon with us. To save face he kept yelling at me that I needed to pay him. It ended with him slapping me across the face. That was pretty shocking, but probably for the best. It made me reevaluate what was going on. My first thought was "you can't do that", but I realized I was demonstrably wrong. I was in a small cabin with people armed with knives and guns. It was time to leave. I dropped what rubles I had with me (a little less than $50) and walked out. No one yelled or came after me, which I was glad of. Of all the interactions with other humans on my trips, that is probably the scariest one.
Leaving, I was a little shaken up. It was hard to get focused on riding. I was mad about losing $50. At the same time, avoiding a fight with an angry Russian was well worth it. The cold and re-thinking the whole thing just had me in a bad mood.
To make things worse, about 15 kilometers from Handiga I noticed my rear tire going flat. I tried to pump it up a bit, but my pump was frozen. I had to stand in the cold for 20 minutes with the pump in my armpit to warm it up. Finally I could get a little pressure in the tire and move on. The tire just wouldn't hold air, though. I tried limping it along, pumping it up every three kilometers. That ran out just as I got to the outskirts of Handiga. I had to stop and really pull the tube out and see what was wrong.
It turns out I had a staple in my tire. Who is leaving staples out on this road? I hate staples. It took about an hour out in the cold to get the tire patched and back together.
Handiga is a nice little town. I found a place to stay, with no armed and angry people this time. It was in a 2 story building and looked like an unused apartment from Soviet times. The rooms were rented individually, with a common bathroom and kitchen. It was nice to get into someplace warm again. I immediately went about laying all my stuff out to dry.
Date: October 25th, 2016
Distance: 11 kilometers
Song of the Day: Dangerous - The Who
Okay, that was a hell of a thing to do. I crossed the Aldan river today, skipping between a few of the islands out there. These aren't small by any means, and the entire crossing was difficult. I don't think I rode the bike more than a few meters the whole day. The beaches were made of jumbled stones covered with snow, too big to bike over even for the fat tire, and the steep angle along the shoreline din't make pushing the laden bike along much easier.
The ice on the river didn't improve things as much as would be hoped for. I thought it would be flat sheets of ice, but I was wrong. The pressures of the river flowing underneath had shoved the surface into a broken mass. Most of the time this wasn't so bad. It wasn't rideable, but it wasn't difficult to walk the bike across the craggy surface. In a few places, however, the forces had pushed slabs of blue-green ice into huge piles. I tried to avoid them for the most part but on a few occasions I had to drag the bike over them. This part wasn't so scary. The ice was thick and stable, so I wasn't worried about falling through. On a couple of occasions I did put a boot through a spot of thin ice. It was startling but I wasn't in danger of totally breaking through. I was also glad my boots are waterproof.
Things actually got worse when I found sections of flat ice. I tried riding one, but the surface was so smooth my tires slipped almost as soon as I began to ride. I also began to realize that the flat areas were new ice, places that had just frozen and hadn't had time to get broken apart and pushed on top of itself. This also meant that it was where the ice was thinnest. This is a terrifying revelation when you are halfway across a sheet of perfectly flat ice. The sound of ice cracking beneath me is one of the most frightening things I have ever heard. I carefully backed up and headed back to a section of thicker, more broken ice. Don't try this at home kids.
The only real problem of the day was trying to get to the far shore from the river ice. In between the two was a small amount of flowing water. Sometimes it was covered with a thin layer of ice and I could see a couple of wagons pulled up on the beach out there. A few guys were standing around and came over to try and help. One of them was pointing to a spot for me to cross. I didn't think it would work, but tried anyway. As soon as I stepped on it my foot fell through. Cold water over-topped my boot, surprisingly not as cold as I thought. Still, I should have trusted my own instincts. The guy came over to help but I was stuck and ended up getting both feet soaked before I could pull my bike up onto the shore. The guy helping me owned one of the wagons and invited me to come in and dry out my boots.
It turns out the wagons are like little hunting cabins on wheels. Inside was a stove with some places to sit and sleep, and some food. The owner told me I could come in and hang out until my boots dried which seemed okay to me. I wasn't sure what was going on. There were people coming and going all day long. Most of them were hunters I guess, but I didn't see what they were hunting for. So it was noisy, but I did get some sleep.
Date: October 24th, 2016
Distance: 48 kilometers
Song of the Day: Find the River - R.E.M.
Today I got to be inside for a little while. It feels like it's been a while since that happened, even though it's really only a couple of days. I reached Megino-Aldan, but there wasn't much there. I was hoping for a cafe to get some hot food but I was out of luck. They did have a small general store where I grabbed some food to eat. The lady running the store even made me a cup of tea while I consumed everything I had just purchased. By that point it was time for her to head home for lunch, so I was back out in the cold.
The road to the Aldan river was longer than I expected but eventually it just ended. I was hoping the river was frozen, but I could still see some ice moving out mid current. That was disappointing. No biking over the river here.
Even though the road had ended, there were still a few tracks in the snow leading up the river. I was hoping they would take me to a place where I could cross, but it didn't. Not entirely, at least. The river is split up by a few islands here, so I wouldn't have to do it all in one go. I did end up crossing part of the river and making it to one of the islands. It was slow going, as the snow was deep. Sometimes I would break through the crust of ice and snow to the rocks of the beach underneath. Fortunately, the part of the river I was going over is dry this time of year.
The sun set before I could do too much exploring. I think if I hop along the islands I can make it to the other side so I'll try that tomorrow.
Date: October 23rd, 2016
Distance: 74 kilometers
Song of the Day: Can't Keep - Pearl Jam
Today was not great. I stopped in a little town for lunch but, sadly, the place I was hoping to eat at was closed. (If given the chance I will always eat calories I didn't have to carry with me.) The dogs were still around, though. They barked at me for a little while, but eventually softened up and came over for me to pet them. So I sat outside on their porch and had some of my own food and played with the dogs.
Then, just as I was leaving, my chain snapped. Urgh. Before when I have popped a chain one of the pins has worked loose. This time was different. One of the plates just sheared in half. The cold and all the weight had snapped one of the links. It wasn't a hard fix, but I am now down one link so I can't get into my highest gear. It will have to do, I guess.
The road has also begun to get more hilly. It's nice because I was getting a little bored with all the flat areas, but it does mean I'm going slower.
Halfway up one of the big hills in the afternoon, I noticed that something wasn't right. My rear rack was rubbing against my tire. The thin metal clamp holding the rack to the frame had busted on one side. I got some zip ties to hold it mostly in place, but because of the cold I snapped 4 before I could get two to hold. I was glad I found a whole packet of the things in Mongolia. It wasn't too long after that, however, that the clip on the other side broke as well. I was not pleased. There was a storm of cursing but without a soul around to hear it. I ran through a bunch more zip ties before I got the other side to hold. The rear rack is still wobbly, but I'm hoping it will hold me until I can find a repair shop.
I ended the day camping in the snow off to the side of the road in a thicket of trees. I hope tomorrow will be better.