RideUnlimited: Siberia and the BAM Baikal-Amur-Mainline by Motorcycle
We Buy Any Bike would like to thank Jenny of RideUnlimited for once again sharing her exciting travels with us!
In my last post, we had just left Mongolia and were riding East into extreme Siberia. My parents were driving east towards Vladivostok and catching the ferry to South Korea. We were finally riding to our start point on the infamous Western BAM road.
The BAM is possibly one of the toughest adventure roads left in the world. Only a handful of 4x4s and motorcyclists tackle the road each year, as it is an exceptional test of physical and mental endurance. The road is an old railway service route. It runs roughly alongside the train line known as the Baikal-Amur-Mainline or just BAM for short.
The road contains everything that might be considered scary to ride, including:
- Rickety, decaying bridges with huge holes
- Fast moving rivers as deep as waist high
- Train bridges you must ride over with no idea when the next train comes
- Remoteness where you may be up to 100km from other people
The BAM rail line travels from Tayshet which is to the west of Lake Baikal, all the way to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific Ocean. The Bam road is 4.300 km (2,700 miles) of mostly dirt and gravel track. This was used in the early 11970sto construct the BAM railway. It has seen little if any maintenance since then. The track has completely fallen into disrepair, on our intended traverse of the Western half from SeveroBaykalsk to Tynda. Among the half washed away, collapsed road bridges and wide fast flowing rivers you’ll find the most terrifying aspect, the Vitim Bridge.
Why the BAM?
So why would anyone ride the BAM? What reason would we have to put ourselves through this testing time? Many people would not understand why we felt the need to ride this harsh road. Completely drenched through every day with freezing water and thick mud. We knew this wouldn’t be easy or at times enjoyable time on the trip. We knew that this would be one of our most challenging times, something to always remember
When we first started planning this around the world motorcycle trip, we were looking for a real adventure that was going to test us far past anything we’d overcome before. We wanted to get through something that was adrenaline-pumping and be out in the brutal elements with nothing but ourselves. The BAM definitely gave us the sense of exposure that we were looking for.
We joined the Western end of the BAM around the village of Okunayskiy. After traversing 700km of rough heavily potholed logging roads from Olkhon island which resides in Lake Baikal. From there the 1479km to Tynda took us around 6 days to complete. Due to a number of complications with our trip, we were quite behind our timetable and arrived Olkhon island on the 26th of August.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much planning you can do.
In the end, things pop up that stop or delay trips like these. Chunks of the time were lost due to various events... Bikes breaking down, waiting for parts and so on. We knew we had a pretty small time limit to do this road before the weather really turned on us. Winter in Siberia doesn’t quite compare to the UK. Stand still long enough and our eyelashes freeze! We wanted to be out of there before the frost kicked in. Nevertheless, it would be a cold couple of weeks.
Food at the BAM
In the beginning, there were quite a few little towns. We tried to buy as much as we could, not knowing when we’d see the next shop. Our dinners along the BAM were mostly noodles, crisps, tins of sweetcorn. Not amazing but got us through the day! We avoided dairy and meat were possible, the last thing we needed was for one of us to fall ill. Finding fruit or veg was almost impossible so we stuck to basic foods. Starting the road there were some towns that had little cafes to get something warm like soup, but a couple of days in on the BAM, restaurants were nowhere to be found. So we stocked up at the ‘magazins’ which are local shops, more like rooms in peoples homes selling some goods.
Accommodation on the BAM
We camped 90% of the time on the BAM, sometimes not through choice but more because we hadn’t reached the next town as planned. Making up miles on this terrain is extremely hard. You can be battling away all day and only do 50 miles due to the obstacles. Camping is our favourite accommodation usually, we prefer it to hotels!
However, keep in mind that we were completely soaked through from the river crossings throughout the day and the temperature was dropping. Setting up camp each night we could see our own breath as we shivered our way out of our gear, once you get that cold it's hard to get the heat back. We’d then try to sleep putting every piece of dry clothing we had on, but we’d only get a few hours sleep. Then the worst bit, putting our cold wet gear back on the next morning! Although once we got it all on we were good to go again!
A few days into the BAM we were in a pretty rough way. Freezing cold, a lot of bruises and bashed up bodies from the falls. We entered a town late one night and were praying for a hotel. We asked a local who said there was no hotel, however, said to follow him in his car. He drove us to the local hospital! We were a little confused but some nurses came out and explained they were happy to rent us a room for the night, amazing news! They took us in and gave us some hot soup, the old Soviet hospital was extremely old-fashioned and to be honest was a little creepy but that place saved us. We’ll never forget the kindness those nurses showed us that night when we most needed it.
The Vitim Bridge
We reach the Vitim Bridge on the third day. Even though we knew it was coming nothing prepared us for turning that corner and seeing the bridge for the first time.
Originally built to be part of the Baikal–Amur Mainline railway, the bridge is clad with rotting wooden planks, random broken metal plates and nails. It’s around 570 meters long and about 16 metres above the water. Only being about 2.4 metres wide and with no guard rails, riding this thing was terrifying and I still get heart palpitations thinking about it!
I took my time going over the bridge, I decided to sit on the bike and ride it over but slowly. People get over the bridge in different ways, I felt pushing the bike while walking next to it was more unstable. I feel more in control of the bike when actually on it. So, I went from slowly paddling over some bits to riding. My heart was racing, there was only a narrow space for my wheel and if I went, either way, there were no barriers so it would be straight off and into the river but we made it across! And the sense of achievement was massive!
This was the first time I have felt like I could die if I put one foot wrong. I would have been scared riding this narrow bridge with no barriers anyway. But to top it off there were huge gaps in the rotting wood, slippy metal plates random nails sticking upwards. To add insult to injury someone has also now stapled a large plastic pipe down the entire centreline of the bridge meaning you must ride close to the edge. Now I think of it, the whole thing was pretty ridiculous but incredible at the same time.
After 6 days riding the BAM, we eventually reach Tynda and went to the first hotel.
The receptionist looked at us like we were aliens, covered in mud and soaked through. We apologized for how dirty we were and had to mostly undress at the door but she let us in.
At this point, we had planned to break off to do the Road of Bones. But once getting the quote through for flights and shipping we started to rethink our route. It was proving expensive to ride to Magadan and also the frost was kicking in. On the last night camping, we were unable to start a fire due to everything being wet. This signalled to us camping was coming to an end.
With the weather getting bad and too expensive to ride further North, we made the call to head south instead. This was gutting and we wished we were at that point a month or two before. But then we thought if we do everything on this trip what’s left for the next one?! So the Road of Bones will be on our “to do” list next time around.
Once getting to Tydna we were back on the main road. We couldn’t quite work out how we were feeling. So relieved that we didn’t have to drag the bikes through rivers that day. But also depressed the BAM adventure was over. We’ll be seeing the BAM again one day though until then I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to really put the whole experience into words.
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26 Oct 2018