Jun. 23, 2016: Ulyagir Station, Amurskaya Oblast, Russia

I never did find out what kind of animal had made those nighttime shrieks in the meadow near Krasnaya Pad Station.

Sorry to all the curious readers, but at the end of the day, anything I could say would just be made up. And this isn't that kind of blog.

I got up the next morning, packed up the tent and took a gander around, but didn't see anything. No tracks, no disturbed bushes, nothing. My best guess is that it was an owl, but it's just that: a guess.

Once I was up, I was up. I packed up my tent in a beautiful morning, and got on the road, headed for the the truck stop near Magdagachi, 25 or 30 km up the road, where my map said there was a cafe and I could have breakfast.

After little more than a hot dog for dinner the previous day (and a couple of пирожки for breakfast), I was pretty hungry so it was a big meal. Borshch (always borshch!) with bread, coffee, plov (i.e.: pilaf), a couple pieces of chicken, and a mushroom-stuffed chicken roll.

Eating at my table, I overheard a couple of the ladies behind the counter giggling and saying something about "the American" but ehh... let 'em think what they want, etc. I had 100 miles to bike.

That was indeed my target: actually a hair over 100 miles; 167km to be accurate. 167km would get me to the town of Skovorodino (or more accurately, the outlying village of Never), where the A360/M56 "Lena" highway to Yakutsk and Magadan, and the Wikipedia Highway of Bones splits off.

So at Never, one of the major crossroads of the Russian far east, I knew there was a hotel (an actual "tourist" hotel, rather than just a truck stop) that would presumably be able to do the government checkin. It was the only one that I was at all confident about until Chernyshevsk, almost another week away.

So I kind-of had to stay there. It would have been a much easier haul had I made the intended distance the previous day, but the headwind put an end to that. So now I was faced with a 100-mile slog to get to Skovorodino.

With the headwind still coming at me. Of course.

So a necessarily early start, and a big breakfast.

Breakfast dispensed with, I was back on the road. I also had a slightly secondary motive for making the hotel in Never that night: I was running low on battery power for my iPhone. The breakfast truck stop didn't offer a place to plug in and charge; nor did the attached store have another backup battery, to supplement the one I had bought in Bikin, back before my big battery blew up in the Birobidzhan hotel room.

So: into the wind!

And the wind notwithstanding, I made reliable, if slow, progress. Skovorodino looked to be within sight.

I spent almost the entire day riding through what I can only describe as the "butterfly republic." I don't know if it's the latitude or the time of year, but suddenly, there are butterflies everywhere. Hundreds, thousands; tens of thousands; hundreds of thousands of little pale yellow butterflies filling the air and all along the ground. I was riding through literal clouds of butterflies all day long. A little surreal.

In mid-afternoon I began to grow increasingly worried about my drive train. It was beginning to squeak something fierce. A few days prior everything had been running so smoothly - I had been looking forward to the 1000km mark and the ability to make a Social Media post to wit: "1000km from Khabarovsk and the bike is purring like a kitten!"

Because it was.

Until... it wasn't.

I never got to quite make that post the way I had envisioned. The squeaking had started the previous evening, a few hours before the 1000km milestone. And had only grown worse over the following day.

I thought it might be the strain of constantly pushing into the wind, but I wasn't sure. Either way, in mid-afternoon, I pulled into a highwayside rest stop, and took the time to thoroughly clean, WD-40, and re-oil the chain and everything.

It seemed to help, so I was still confident of making Skovorodino.

This feeling only increased when, about 80km short of my destination, I discovered that the suspicion I'd been having for the last couple of days, that I was slowly climbing in elevation, was true. A little short of Taldan, I went over a clear pass and started descending. The road changed direction and the headwind was no longer quite so bad.

(Indeed I had seen on my map that the road took a big zigzag at this point and half suspected that it might represent a pass of some sort. But I wasn't sure how much this was wishful thinking, and in the interests of not raising my hopes only to have them dashed, had not thought about this particularly hard.)

But nevermind that now. I was descending, and not quite so into-the-wind as during the first half of the day. And I still had a little over 4 hours until sunset! I briefly stopped at the gas station near Taldan to buy some new water bottles, and full of expectations, pressed on.

Until 45 km from Never, when the squeaking came back, and suddenly a big sproing on my bike went "Sproing!"

Worried that I might have just lost a spoke (I have backups; I can fix that... but it's a pain), I looked down and saw that my tyre had completely blown out, bringing me to a swift halt.

I changed the tyre, and checked all the spokes. They all seemed to be fine. Was that just a particularly loud blowout that I'd heard? I was suspicious, but I didn't see anything else immediately wrong. Until I was about to load everything back on the bike and saw that the front derailleur had twisted itself all around, causing a kink in the chain and at low gear, poking into the tyre. Hence the blowout.

Sigh. Well, whatever got twisted could be untwisted. I did so, and tightened the bolts, praying that that was all that had caused the problem in the first place; bolts that had come loose, as opposed to something more serious. And then replaced the chain, and got back on the road. An hour and a half down.

It was now only an hour to sunset and with 45 km to go, I obviously wasn't going to make that, but with any luck it wouldn't be too much later.

The wind was pretty much gone and I was making decent time again. Sunset with a little under 30 km to go, and then 23km from the hotel, an uphill.

Not the slight, very gradual net increase of the previous couple of days, but now suddenly the first real uphill since Zavitinsk: 5km of 6% (or so?) grade.

(Hill grades here are hard to tell. The signs lie. I am entirely convinced that the highway crews have a stock of signs with various grades written on them, and they just pull one out at random. I've seen numbers anywhere from 3% to 12% and they seem to bear no. correlation. whatsoever. to how steep the hill actually is. Some of the steepest hills have been posted as 4% or 5%. Some of the 10%+ hills have turned out to be nearly nothing.)

So I'm not sure exactly how steep it was, but 6% seems as good an estimation as anything. And the 5km was definitely right.

So that took over half an hour to climb.

At least there was a downhill on the other side... until halfway down things started feeling soft. I checked the tyre, and found I was riding nearly on the rims.

One fixed tyre later, it was starting to get definitively dark, and I made it another 5 km. The dark made it hard to see what was on the road, and I went over a big pointy rock. There went another tyre - the third of the day.

13km to go; it was past 11:30. I could still make this by midnight? Maybe? I started passing places along the side of the highway that looked like they would make promising campsites. But no. No, at this point I was going to get to that hotel, even out of just stubbornness alone.

I needed the hotel to check me in, I needed to get power for my phone, and...


...and I was riding on a flat tyre. Again.



Part of the problem with riding at night, of course: you can't see all the little bits and pieces on the highway that you'd normally want to avoid. Whether rocks, or other detritus. There are a lot of (truck) tyre parts strewn over the shoulders, and those are the worst. Because they come with little slivers of metal ribbing that easily poke into a bike tyre and cause a puncture. But in the black of night, with the black of the tyre against the black of the road...

I began to think I might never make it to Never. (The jokes, they write themselves...)

But no: I was 4km from the hotel. I was so close! I could even see the lights just ahead in the distance. I felt like I could walk it. I almost was about to walk it, except that with all the weight on the bike, even doing that would have caused problems for my wheel.

So at past midnight, there I was, unloading all my saddlebags and panniers, so I could turn the bike over and fix the FOURTH flat tyre of the evening. To say I was "grumpy" would have been an understatement.

But also more stubborn and determined to make it than ever.

Small blessings: the butterflies aside, it had not been a particularly bug-filled day. The mosquitoes and black flies, for whatever reason, had been almost entirely absent. I just realized as I was fixing the flat. I was almost entirely unbothered by insects!

Finally fixed, finally back on the road, finally almost there, and I once again felt a telltale squishiness...

No, no, no, no, NO.

I got off. And walked. The last 750m, pushing my bike up the last little hill, past the police station, and to the Hotel "Uyut."

Where they had room available, and were able to check me in with the government.

It was 1:30 AM, and the restaurant had closed at midnight: a good thing I'd had that big breakfast at the truck stop!

I had a much-needed shower and went downstairs to see if I could find anything else to eat. Connected to the hotel was a big greenhouse-like building (indeed that's what I initially thought it was) called the "Зимний Сад" (Winter Garden). But the hotel lobby looked out into it and I could see it was actually an (African-themed) tiki bar! In a greenhouse, to be sure.

You know what? I could probably do with a drink, now that I thought about it. I went in, just as a couple of patrons were spilling out of the doors: 2AM and the bar was closing.

Oh well. I went to see if the gas station next door would have any snacks or anything. I woke up the sleeping kiosk attendant and managed to get a chocolate bar and bottle of orange pop. Breakfast of champions, as it were!

But it would have to do. I went back to the room to eat "dinner" and see if there was anything of interest on TV. A dubbed version of IMDb Two for the Road.

Audrey Hepburn, a handful of snacks, and then I was more than ready for bed.

Compared to yesterday's shenanigans, today was relatively uneventful.

I've been having issues with the code on this website (technical details: it 403s on me when certain combinations of Cyrillic letters are passed in as a POST variable -- but it took me a while to narrow this down, and for a long time, it seemed "random"). So I spent some time trying to narrow down the problem and debug.

I also needed to take a long look at the bike tyre and make sure I'd removed every possible pointy bit that could cause further punctures.

So it was a bit of a late start from the hotel.

I also needed to get some cash. Was starting to run a little bit low, and Skovorodino was the last major town for many days, so seemed to be the best opportunity to find an ATM.

The town itself was about 6 or 7 km off the highway. Luckily the access road was A+. The Google Earth coverage of this area is several years old, and squinting at the satellite view, it looked like it might be gravel. But nope - great newly-paved road with wide shoulders.

My map showed 2 banks in Skovorodino.

The first bank was a lie. There was nothing there but an old rundown shack.

The second was better: there was at least a supermarket on the corner, but no ATM in evidence.

Not sure what to do, I started aimlessly wandering the town, when I remembered the lesson of Belogorsk and headed for the train station.

There was a little plaza in front of the train station, a bunch of cafes and food kiosks, a taxi stand, and a couple of shops, but no bank, as such.

On a hunch, I parked the bike out front and went into the station.

There was a metal detector at the entrance, and I had my backpack on with my computer in it, so naturally, the thing started squawking when I went through. I made a split-second decision and did what I guessed would be the norm: I completely ignored it and strode confidently into the station.

Correct: nobody else cared about the alarm, either!

And there, in the main concourse, a row of ATMs. Success!

The cardinal rule of Russian towns: if you don't know where to find something -- first try the train station.

Cash in hand, I came out, grabbed a late lunch / early dinner from one of the cafes, fed a few pieces of chicken to the cat who came out to make friends, back to the highway, and pressed on.

With all the of the day's prior activities, I didn't make it too much further, but I also didn't want to press things, and made sure to end the day well before nightfall.

Yesterday's big hill shortly before Never turned out to the beginning of a significantly hilly region: it's been a lot of up and down big hills all day.

Nevertheless, I made it 82km (minus about 13km into town and back). No hotel or truck stop or anything anywhere near here, so I just found a campsite buried in the forest. All right, except very full of horseflies.

I did pass one cafe not too long before the campsite, but it not having been that long since Skovorodino, I wasn't particularly hungry, so didn't stop.

The tyre has so far held out. The weather has been really good the last couple of days. Sunny but not hot. Not a drop of rain in evidence.

Today’s road: R297 (Fmr: M58). 167.6 km, 9h31. Road was good as always, first half slightly uphill, second half mostly downhill or flat. Big hill ~20km short of Never.
Today’s road: R297 (Fmr: M58). 81.6 km, 4h57. Lots of up and down. Into the hills now!

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