Nexus Expedition halted until 2012!
Sunday October 16, 2011 - 60.56186° N, 128.44982° E
Stopped Location on Tuesday October 12th:
(N60° 56.186; E 128° 44.982)
Near Kilometer marker 150km, between Katchikatsi and Ulu
Republic of Sakha, Yakutia, Russia
Yes, Nexus Expedition has indeed been grounded until 2012 because of a mechanical failure (broken freewheel body hub) and a Russian visa expiring on Nov 1st 2011!
I left Kyril Popov's Stark bike shop and very welcoming home on the western outskirt of Yakutsk on Sunday October 9th, quite hopeful to be able to push as far as I would be able to, down south towards Neryungri, on the Lena Highway (M56), 820 kms away, despite what I was cautioned by everyone who had been on the road in the previous week.
Indeed, everyone warned me that the road was then in very bad shape, with some sections either drenched in deep mud or in deep fresh snow...
Nevertheless, I prepared myself and mounted with Kyril's help on my bike a new "homemade" bike stand. Indeed, my first bike stand broke under the cargo weight on my first riding day out of Omsukchan in August and Gulnara's bike stand broke the following day.
Since then, I have been struggling to find an adequate solution to be able to load single-handedly my bike, and with Kyril's help, we build this temporary solution.
Next year, I am still planning to order and mount an Xtracycle Kickback to resolve this matter.
I departed then under the falling snow in company of Yakutsk bicyclist Misha who wanted to accompany me for the first 20 kilometers through Yakutsk until I reached the parom/ferry landing.
Then, after having gobbled quickly a freshly grilled pork shishkebab from a stand nearby, I pedaled my way through sand banks and jumped on the ferry, ready to cross back the Lena river, one of the largest rivers in the world, to get back to my starting point in Nizhny Bestyakh , N 61° 58.417 E 129° 54.212.
I parked my "Big Dummy", aka "Long crocodile" now also known as "Damaz" between two Kamaz trucks and took refuge for the 1.5 hours ferry crossing on board a Kamaz where the driver had invited me, therefore escaping the cold river breeze.
Of course, along the way on the ferry ride, I was inundated with the usual questions by curious Yakut and Russian bystanders:
* Where am I from?
* Going from where to where?
* What do I eat?
* How do I sleep?
* How cold does it get at night?
* WHY NOW as the winter season is rapidly approaching?
and above all
* WHY ON EARTH DO I WANT TO DO THIS?
A question that indeed I was trying hard at the time to avoid to ask myself, especially when I was contemplating how I was going to tackle this next piece:
The uninviting Lena Highway (M56), considered as one of the "world most dangerous roads" aka "The Highway from Hell"...
I landed on the eastern side of the Lena river at night time, navigated myself through sand banks, mud pits, snow and rode up the steep bank of this majestic river to arrive in the busy commercial town of Nizhny Bestyakh, where I was quickly able to ask curious teenager drivers driving by in a dark tinted windows Volga GAZ 3110 where could I find a гостиница/hotel.
They responded: "They are none in Nizhny Bestyakh but follow us and we will take you somewhere where you can rent a room for 600 rubles a night."
It can always be a little disturbing to be asked to follow a black car with tinted windows driven by unknown teenagers that you don't fully comprehend at night a few kilometers out of town, BUT what other choice did I have, except riding a few kilometers further and pitch my tent in a hidden patch of snow...
And after all, let's remember that this expedition is called "Nexus" which in Latin means "Connect". So, here I was, "connecting" with whomever this meant!
The teenagers ended up taking me to the hidden eastern part of town where I met Valia, a great older Ukrainian lady who welcomed me into her apartment and provided me her daughter's bedroom in her unofficial hotel.
On Monday morning Oct 10th , I started to ride towards Neryungri, and ecstatic at the time, even thought momentarily that before my visa was going to run out on Nov 1st, I could potentially even ride further south, 1100 kms to the appropriately named (at least for the time being as I found out!) town of Never.../Skovorodino where the Lena highway was going to end and where the dreamy asphalted/paved road was set to begin!
Well, not so fast, Dimitri, your destiny/"судьба" has had indeed decided otherwise for 2011!
In fact, my bicycle broke on my 3rd day, between the towns of and Kachikattsy and Ulu, after I had ridden down 15o kms south on M56.
I mostly rode these 150 kilometers of federal road/"highway" covered with mud, gravel, sand and icy snow under a pouring rain and/or falling snow with the exception on my first day where I enjoyed momentarily a few rays of sun....
On several occasions, it actually felt as if I was riding a boat on a rough seas, when I will get splashed sideways by passing trucks/cars/tabletkas, projecting small rocks and "waves" of mud right into my face.
As I have experienced so many times before while moving forward on this expedition, over the next three days of bicycling, I was also blessed to be able to meet a few very interesting characters.
Indeed, on my first day, I was "pulled over" to the side of the road, by Dima, a Yakut northern traditional medicine doctor who was on his way with his son Igor to collect firewood at his cabin, 50 kms away. After a quick introducing chat, Yakut Dima quickly draw me a map on how to get to his cabin and invited me to stop there on my way south to spend the night.
A few hours later, on his way back from his cabin, in opposite direction, Dima stopped once again and asked me this time if I wanted some tea.
As I have learned on countless occasions with warm and welcoming Far Eastern russians to never turn down a cup of tea offered, I of course gladly accepted.
Yakut Dima proceeded then to pull out of his car a cooked reindeer stew, as well as bread, onions which we feasted upon on top of his car.
Once again, a great impromptu Russian meal which I very much enjoyed before start riding away, as the night was quickly approaching! As I was departing, Dima kindly insisted on giving me a loaf of bread, a few onions, chunks of reindeer, as well as 1/2 kg of margarine and sugar, concerned that I did not have enough calories aboard my "damaz" for the road ahead...
An hour later, relying on Dima's drawn map, I followed an old trail covered with fresh snow 2 kilometers of the federal road and I ended up in the middle of a brightly lighted generator-run workers camp surrounded by giant construction tubes! Not exactly the charming yakut cabin I was expecting to find!
There, I was welcomed by Abid, a 45 years old chef, Kyrgyztan native and in charge of feeding his 20 men camp.
Abid explained to me then that Yakut Dima's cabin, located one more kilometer further way, was actually closed and that instead he was offering me to spend the night in his own camp.
I thankfully accepted, spent some time washing the copious amount of mud off my bags, and I proceeded inside. I was offered a bunk bed in a cabin that I was going to share with Genia, a white Russian from Verniy Bistekh, approximately located 60 kms away.
Abid offered me a warm bowl of shchi soup and I found myself quickly surrounded by the mid twenties Yakut, Kyrgyz and Chechen workers, eager to learn about France and the USA.
Salahudin, a young energetic Chechen started asking me to translate in French a few sentences that he wanted to SMS/text to his Yakut girlfriend, waiting for him in Yakutsk.
So, here I was writing away "Je t'aime à la folie, tu es la plus belle du monde, tu me manques beaucoup..." when I started missing my own Gulnara whom I did not think at the time I will be able to see for a few weeks...
Soon thereafter having played the role of a sribe, I was invited by my roomate Genia to return to to our cabin where we shared a French evening, watching on his DVD player a Russian dubbed version of the action packed 1998 French movie Taxi with its classic car chases in Marseilles, a city I quite enjoy.... An intriguing change, well away from this surrounding Yakutia!
The next morning, I woked up, started packing and was offered by chef Abid a full plate of Plof.
While enjoying this dish, I spent time with Mazamet, a 46 years old Chechen who seemed to be in charge of the camp and had employed over the years a few of his family members/nephews to come and work from Chechnya for quite a few months at the time in this cold Yakutia!
Mazamet and I discussed for about 2 hours in my poor knowledge of the Russian language and we compared notes on what was life like in Yakutia, Chechnya, Western Russia, France and Seattle!
Mazamet invited me warmly to come and visit on my bicycle his family in Chechnya, telling me how quickly his republic has changed, being very quickly reconstructed after years of tumultuous war. Mazamet also showed me pictures of the house he is having built in his homeland Chechnya by Vietnamese foreign workers while he is himself working and saving away as a foreign worker in Yakutia!
I also learned that most of the camp workers were paid for their hard labor in this isolated location, a salary of 1000 to 1500 roubles (30-45$) per day + free room/board and strangely enough free cigarettes of which they sadly took great advantage!
These isolated camp workers are actually building bridges and roads for the completion of the Amur Yakutsk Mainline railway, between Tommot and Pravaya Lena (right bank of the Lena river, facing Yakutsk) which will connect Yakutsk by railway to Southern and Western Russia.
Amur Yakutsk Mainline Railway (N61°31.664; E129° 35.124)
Mazamet explained to me as well that the construction of a bridge across the Lena river was most likely impossible because in Spring time, when the river thaws, this very large body of water transports large ice surges (up to 2 meters high) which with the strong current would probably destroy any potential bridge!
From this perspective, a long tunnel across the river might end up being a safer solution.
At that moment, I was suddenly surprised to see and hear a TRAIN riding near the camp, carrying rocks northbound. This was indeed the first time on my expedition, since I started more than 7000 kms away in Anchorage, Alaska that I had seen a working train!
I learned then that trains were already operating, carrying cargo towards Pravaya Lena. However, passengers will have to wait a few more years for the ground to settle under the tracks before being authorized to ride further further north than Tommot.
So, here I was able to see the future and started pondering if in my lifetime, I will be able to ride a train between Yakutsk, Russia and Anchorage, USA?
We will see what the future entails!
I finally left the camp to get back on the federal road and on my way, met Dima's son, Igor who was chasing me with his car in order to give me an interesting Russian book on the Yakut history of the region!
Here I was receiving on the trail yet another interesting gift which I will cherish in my Seattle home!
On Monday October 11th, making progress further south, I started riding on an exciting 20kms long PAVED section which abruptly stopped as it had started. Why was this there and whether or not this has been a tease, I did not really mind. I was simply glad to have found this temporary relief from the rocky road!
I then saw a man in front of me falling face down hard in a ravine on the side of the road. As I approached closer, I realized that he and his three friends sitting in a car on the side of the road were in a well advanced stage of inebriation, to say the least.... Observing that he was not so badly hurt, I decided to quickly leave the scene, never fulling knowing what to expect in this type of situation, alone...
Gulnara and I had faced a somewhat similar situation a few weeks earlier near Ytyk Kyuvol when we found on a side of the road an inebriated passed out Yakut woman that no truck drivers driving by wanted to stress about until we were able to successfully call the local police for help.
2 kms further, I stopped to chat briefly with two truck drivers who simultaneously were repairing their flat tires.
I was quite thankful that after more than 2200kms on this gnarly road, I had not experienced any single flat tire while some of the coal truck drivers told me that they experienced up to one flat tire per 100 kms driven.
I immediately puff three times over my shoulder since it is the Russian equivalent of "knocking on some wood" to guarantee further luck!
I stopped a bit further at the local столовая/Café near Kachikattsy, to enjoy a bit of warmth, away from the cold rain and a few tasty fried eggs!
Looking for a гостиница/hotel, I decided then to proceed downhill 4 kms away the federal road, towards the center of Kachikattsy.
On my way I came across a gravel pit where I could see beautiful free roaming horses escalating the steep quarry edges/cliffs which clearly reminded me that I was still in Yakutia, crossing a few horse farming communities on my way south.
In the town of Kachikattsy, with approximately 300 inhabitants, Ivan, the main store owner told me that the гостиница/hotel had been closed. Ivan, a mid 50's white russian who had migrated in Yakutia 30 years ago from his native USSR Kazakhstan, recognized me from a yakutsk TV interview that had been broadcasted the day before and offered me to spend the night in a warm cabin located behind his shop. I gladly accepted to do so after having spent an hour chatting with him and his watchman Vladimir.
I took off on Tuesday Oct 12th under a falling cold rain/snow and move further south. After about 30 kilometers, I stopped at yet another столовая/Café to enjoy a warm meal and try to somewhat dry my soaked clothes.
In the Café, I quickly met a few маршрутка/minibus riders and truck drivers bound for Aldan, Neryungri and further south who once again inundated me with questions.
One of them, a boisterous white policeman from Yakutsk offered me a vodka shot which I promptly turned down, explaining how focus I needed to be while riding my bike on this dangerous road...
Instead, I accepted to toast with a beer and was very clearly called a "Durak/Idiot" for trying to proceed down south on a bicycle...
A few kilometers further, on this same Tuesday Oct 12th, my third evening spent on the road since Nizhny Bistekh/Yakutsk, the air temperature started to drop very rapidly, turning my bicycle covered with mud into a brown muddy Popsicle, transforming the mud layer instantly into ice!
I tried quickly to clean my bicycle as well as I could but the ice layer has already been formed, forcing me to try to use a plastic brush as an ice pick to clean around my cassette/gear/hub.
Not having apparently used the proper "-20C safe" type chain lubricant, my hub/gears rapidly started to clog up and as a result the cogs in my FH-M775 Shimano freewheel body hub broke, leaving me with no ride-able gear at all!
I decided to camp at that spot (N60° 56.186; E 128° 44.982) in the middle of a small birch trees clearing on the side of the road, hoping that I will be able to fix this problem the next morning.
Well... not so, I tried everything I could for a few hours during the next morning but Noooo, my Damaz was badly hurting and it was no longer willing to proceed any further down the road.
I finally started to bring my gear and bike on the side of the road, facing the opposite northbound direction towards Yakutsk this time and started to sadly raise my thumb in hopes of being able to hitchhike my way back towards the city!
Why? Because with an unridable bike, and the next bike shop probably located in Chita, 2000 kms away, the smartest thing was for me sadly but truly to backtrack towards Yakutsk and get back to Kyril Popov's Stark bike shop, the "bicycle shop buoy" in the 4 thousand kilometers of road/ "ocean" that separated Chita from Magadan .
The first Kamaz truck driving by stopped and told me that he was full with cargo and therefore unable to take me with my own "Damaz" bike on board.
The second vehicle was a fast and furious Tabletka, one of my favorites... which promptly stopped.
On board were three mid-twenties cell Phone towers builders from Samara, on a 10 months "business" trip (yep, folks, you read that one right, 10 months business trip = not uncommon in Russian Far East), building these 90-130 meters tall beautiful towers and spending most of their nights on the road, the three of them in their Tabletka.
In about 2 minutes, we had managed to squeeze my "damaz" and cargo into their tabletka and ready to take off towards their final destination in Nizhny Bestyakh. On our way, we stopped in a столовая/Café where I had toasted the day before with "my" policeman to devour copious amount of tasty goulash.
After a few hours of fast ride listening to a mixture of fast paced Russian, French and American rap, metal and electronic music we arrived in Nizhny Bestyakh where the three amigos dropped me with my broken bike and gear on the sand banks of the Lena river were I was able to get on the ferry back towards Yakutsk....
There I was once again pounded with questions, and one Yakut postman grabbed and asked me to sit in his postal UAZ 469 for the 1.5 hours crossing.
A ferry employee looked at my bike, smiling, and said: "I have seen some of you guys in cars, motorcycles but now, YOU, on a bicycle, there is nothing I can say!"
Well, having this time a broken bicycle, there is not much I could say as well...
Once I reached the Western side of the Lena river, I was met by Kyril Popov who came with his car to transport me and my bike back to his house 20 kms away. Beforehand, he quickly jumped on my Surly Big Dummy bicycle to test ride it and quickly confirmed indeed that the cogs in my FH-M775 Shimano freewheel body hub were broken and most likely needed to have the whole piece replaced.
Apparently not something I could have fixed on the road, unless of course if I would have chosen more spare parts, potentially equating to the weight of an entire second spare bicycle!
Man.... As I had predicted, bicycles can be a great mode of transportation and allow me to progress in this circumnavigation much faster than while trekking/skiing/pulling a sled but on that night, unable to move forward, I seriously started to miss my reliable and faithful sled!
Now, taking into consideration how long it would take to repair my bike with a new and more robust freewheel hub, able to sustain my cargo weight and the Lena Highway (M56)'s abuse, and the fact that my Russian visa was bound to expire on November 1st, Kyril and I decided that it was indeed time for me to stop the Nexus Expedition for 2011 and return, well prepared, in Spring 2012 to continue this journey, probably sometimes in the late March-April-May 2012 time frame, when hopefully the weather will be the most appropriate to get this challenging Yakutsk-Neryungri section done.
My girlfriend Gulnara Miftakhova still has the next few months to ponder on when and where she will join me in Spring/Summer 2012 on my route to continue together future sections of Nexus Expeditions.
Kyril Popov and his inviting parents Vladimir & Sveltana once again welcomed me then to stay in his intriguing home in company of all his thankfully eccentric siblings until I could fly out of Yakutsk back to Moscow a few days later on Monday Oct 17th 2011.
I spent the next few days cleaning up all of my gear, scraping out the layers of dust/mud (in similar fashion to what I and so many of my friends have done years after years, after returning from the Burning Man festival, deep in the Black Rock Nevada desert...
I tried as well to see what I could potentially eliminate off my cargo in 2012 to reduce the overall weight/ stress on my bicycle.
Finally, as I have done in previous years when I had to stop pulling my sled in Spring time, I benefited from my hosts kind hospitality to store all of my gear in their attic until my 2012 return...
On Sunday October 16th, my last day spent in Yakutsk in 2011, Kyril invited me to go and join his Yakutsk cycling posse on some icy downhill freeride and even loaned me his own bike for this occasion!
It was a great sunny -10c day and I could not turn down this opportunity!
Gladfully, I spent the next few hours zigzaging / joyriding on very icy roads on a LIGHT cargo-less Mongoose freeride bike through Yakutsk suburban streets, pine forests and surrounding hills.
However, I was smart enough, I believe, to turn down the invite to take part in the downhill slalom competition on a very icy course, not having any protective gear (besides a partial helmet) and not willing to break a bone before catching a flight on the next day.
So, instead, I wisely chose to be the time keeper!
On Monday October 17th, I caught my Transaero 7 hours flight Yakutsk to Moscow where I caught on Tuesday October 18th an overnight train to Kazan to be reunited with Gulnara and her family, benefiting of a few days in Western Russia before my visa expires on Nov 1st 2011.
While waiting to be able to return and continue this expedition in Spring 2012, I am now planning to post pictures, videos and related stories on this August-September Omsukchan-Nizhny Bistekh (Yakutsk) in the weeks to come.
Stay tuned and Poka!