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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Orotukan, Magadanskaya Oblast: First 335kms completed on bicycles.

Note: I apologize but I am currently not able to post ANY pictures because of the local speed of the internet access. I will do so as soon as I will be able to!

Urban settlement of Orotukan, Magadanskaya Oblast
N 62° 15.763
E 151° 40.015
335 kms done, 1635 kms til Yakutsk

Information on Orotukan in English
Information on Orotukan in Russian

9th day: Sunday August 21st 2011

We finally left our Koryak hosts Tatiana and Volodya as well as our friends and logistic support Gena and Valera in Omsukchan on Saturday August 13th 2011. We took off with a smile while riding in the rain on our fully loaded Surly Big Dummy (which my Magadan bicyclist aficionado and friend Igor enjoyed calling “the long crocodile”) and Gulnara’s Surly Long Haul Trucker bicycles.

I must admit though that on the last night prior to our take off, I went through a serious panic when I discovered a flat on my brand new tire, wondering very much if my tires will be able to transport all of my weight (myself + cargo + “big dummy” own weight).

It has been indeed a challenge for my sled-pulling mindset to switch from my sled days to my new bicycle era where I need to transport less and count on resupplying along the way.

Although, I am happy to report that so far, after having slimmed down a bit my cargo, neither one of us have had any flats on these first 335 kms of gravel, rocks and mud!

And we are still carrying all what we need though to face successfully mosquito clouds, heavy rain, heat wave (up to potentially +37 degrees Celsius) and potential snow.

So, we spent the first 6 days traveling on the Omsukchan highway also known as the “Chechen” highway because of its somewhat Post Soviet time desolation and the large amount of tombs along the way: truck and car drivers funeral tributes of all sorts (tombs covered with wheel drives, truck tires, pictures, vodka bottles, flowers, etc…)

We faced along the way 6 days of cold rain while we overcame four beautiful mountain passes varying from 900 meters Zharky Pass to 1300 meters Kapranovsky pass.

On our trail, we were greeted with a copious amount of large hungry mosquitoes which we were able to deter successfully when we had to stop, with cream repellent, a sealed proof tent, specific insect shield clothes by Ex Officio and an OR mosquito proof Bob/hat with a net.

However, the mosquitoes were not a nuisance if we were riding our bicycles fast enough.

One night, Gulnara mentioned to me: “Listen, it’s starting to rain again…” to which I responded that they were actually thousands of mosquitoes bouncing against our tent!

At one mountain pass, on a dark and grey rainy evening, we came across 3 road workers who offered us coffee. They have been stationed in this outpost since May, somewhat relying on vodkato apparently overcome the boredom. They invited us to spend the night away from the rain in their modest abode while telling us that they were waiting for an additional vodka delivery coming up the pass by truck.

Needless to say we decided to move further along. However, while talking, they warned us about the potentiality to come face to face with bears while going down the pass and to therefore prepare ourselves accordingly with our bear spray, flares, etc...

Once again, I am not allowed to carry a firearm since I am not a Russian citizen and furthermore it would not be such a practical thing to do while riding a bicycle for a very long distance.

We were also told that last year in 2010, 3 persons were killed in the region by upset bears, running away from the numerous fires in Yakutia and Magadanskaya Oblast.

2 kms further a 4*4 travelling in opposite direction, warned us that they had just come across a mid-size bear on the road.

We proceeded further on our bikes carefully when Gulnara spotted 2 kms further, about 500 meters away, on the river’s edge, 2 mid-size bears obviously foraging for berries, fishes, etc… We stopped, took a few pictures and videos until we saw one getting up on his 2 legs, sniffing.

Not wanting to take obvious unnecessary risks, we decided to ride away before they could spot us.

Along the way, we camped hidden off the side of the road every night, away from rivers where bears tend to gravitate, treated or boiled our water, lived mostly of our dehydrated meals and let our bodies adapt to this new life rhythm.

We passed the “almost” ghost town of Balagychan where we were chased by a furious dog, the settlement of Kupka’s road workers, two otherabandoned villages anda wide variety of cement/concrete/metal bridges, often pairing older wooden decrepited wooden bridges.

We also had the pleasure to meet along the way countless large Ural/Kamaz drivers,4*4 drivers from Magadan on fishing/hunting trips, marchroutkas (minivan/minibus) drivers transporting Omsukchan “commuters”, Dukat gold & silver miners, etc…

Everyone somewhat risking their life while driving at high speed on this tortuous muddy, rocky and partially gravel road.

However, generally, these drivers were kind enough to slow down when spotting us on the road, mostly surprised to see us out there…

On one gnarly mountain pass, we could see in the bottom of the valley the cistern of a gas truck which went off the curve in the last winter bringing its driver to his premature death.

We also met 2 excellent road maintenance crews who were very kind with us.

The first crew traveling in an antiquated bus inundated us with questions and intriguing facts on the region.This crew was mostly in charge of repairing and repainting road signs. Their leader Sergey mentioned to us that in his 40 years of service on this road, he had never seen anyone on a bicycle in this 256 kms section…

The 2d crew was a well-equipped crew in charge of bulldozing new section of the road. Very kind, they invited us for tea and fed us bread, salo/lard, biscuits and patés.

I progressively stopped waving “hello” to the truck drivers coming by since most of them promptly stopped, interpreting that as a sign of distress, calling for “help”.

Indeed, in Russia, you may nod your head as a “hello” sign but definitely not wave your hand…

On our 6th and last day on the Omsuckchan road, we met Sergey in his Russian jeep, who asked us a lot of questions. When he discovered that we had been living for a week on our dehydrated meals, (and thankfully delicious lä
rabars!) he decided to promptly give us a whole box full of homegrown delicious tomatoes, fresh bread, pickles and cans of “tushonka” as well as duck liver patés. It felt like Christmas and Santa Claus had arrived!

On the evening of the 6th night, after 256 kms completed on the Omsukchan highway, we joined the Kolyma highway (aka “road of bones”) and started moving Northwest on a better surfaced and hard packed road where we were quickly showered with clouds of dust and potentially flying small rocks resulting from the even faster driving trucks (transporting logs, mining equipment and even recycled scrap metal from the Soviet times being shipped overseas out of Magadan) as well as 4*4s zooming North for their weekend on their Friday night.

On our 7th day, we passed the beautiful Gerbinsky mountain range, enjoyed an intriguing cascade under a warm +27c sun and stopped for our first served meal at our first trucker restaurant in the small mining town of Laryukovaya.Enjoyed some borsch, golubtsy (stuffed cabbage), fresh bread, potatoes, fried chicken and chocolate!

While sitting in the diner, we asked where we could potentially find a place to stay, looking forward to a night inside to shower and reacclimated ourselves after having endured days of hard rain.

After a few phone calls made by our waitress, we were greeted by our ” tomato man” Sergey once again who with his partner Marina asked us to follow his car with our bikes 5 kms away to Orotukan.

We arrived in Orotukan around 21:30 under the sun setting and were given the key to an entire furnished apartment generally loaned to visiting mining contractors (on the first floor of a 5th floor building) and told we were welcomed to stay for free as long as we wanted…

We were even asked if we wanted to move here in Orotukan and asked if we needed money to eat!
We must have looked a bit in shambles… ;-)

Our host Marina also mentioned: “don’t bother locking the door, Orotukan lives in “communist” peaceful times, where no one steals anything from anyone…”

We woke up this morning, got on the very slooooow internet that we could catch thanks to a Megaphone dongle/flashcard which we bought in Magadan, bought some fresh food, andtour this urban settlement as well as the sports center which is well known for its Russian boxing national champions.

Orotukan currently has ~2000 inhabitants, less than in its heydays in Soviet times where was assembled and repaired gold mining equipment for the surrounding mines and also has had a gulag camp in its proximity in its earlieryears.

One striking fact about Orotukan’s population coming from Further East (Evensk, Kamchatka Koryak Okrug and Chukotka) was the large proportion of Caucasus minorities, mostly coming from the Republic of Ingushetia, in southwest Russia.Here they come to settle and work in the gold mines as well as in construction work. Most of these men come with their spouses and a large amount of young children busy running around town and shopping for candies in the few local shops….

So far our bodies are holding well.
Gulnara has been dealing with a few muscle sores and especially one somewhat alarming in her right knee, particularly after we passed steep mountain passes. Although, thankfully, all this seems to be dissipating progressively itself away…

Our bikes are holding well except for two broken stands which snapped under the weight of our cargo and a bent front derailleur on my big dummy that took a while to fix.

I spent a few hours indeed trying to fix it myself until we decided to look for Ivan Zanorin’s contact in Omsukchan: the local mechanic Alexander Sidorovich.

After having found Alexandr’s phone number through one of the local shop keepers, we went to Alexandr’s garage and successfully passed through an armada of threatening guarding dogs. There, I spent a few more hours with local mechanics Alexandr & Valera trying to figure out how to successfully fix this American bicycle front derailleur which to them, used to work on Japanese and Russian automobiles/ minivans seem a bit like learning the inner workings of a UFO.

I am happy to report though that we were successful.
I was able to regain the 27 speeds on my bike (instead of 9) and I profusely thanked Valera and Alexander for theirtime!
After having spent this day off our bikes, we are planning to leave tomorrow and proceed towards Yagodnoye (130 kms away) as quickly as we can.

But before we go, we want to thank our Orotukanese hosts Sergey and Marina for their hospitality!

Dimitri & Gulnara

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