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Proper Pavement (at last)

After our debacle trying to leave Mongolia, we traveled through 25 miles of literally no man's land, owned by neither Mongolia nor Russia. Once we got to the actual Russian border things proceeded easily enough. Immediately we noticed that Russia has its shit together. We were directed to park the bikes and go through the formalities of customs and passports. Everything was hand-written by a very polite human robot, triple-stamped, and duplicated. Our bags were inspected. Some jokes were made about us smuggling Kalashnikovs in Nick’s tripod case and we were waved through to meet our guides Eugene (Evgeni) and Juri, two early-twentysomethings with expressions of both "we know everything" indifference and childish excitement that they were meeting dudes from California. They were completely new to the "guide" business yet desperately didn't want that fact to be revealed, so they feigned an air of know-it-all, seen-it-all, and told us to follow them to our rustic pension in the mountain town of Kosh-Agach.


We were most concerned with whether they had been able to find and buy a battery for my KLR, which had died midway through Mongolia. We were all tired of push-starting my bike every time we stopped, and we had been assured that they had found the right replacement battery, unobtainable in Mongolia. We asked Evgeni for the battery, and he confidently produced it from the trunk of his car. One look told us it was not the right battery but fortunately, it was the right amperage and voltage so if we could shoehorn it into the bike it would work. Evgeni and Juri's expressions turned from confident smiles to disappointment as they saw us debating how to make it work so they asked if we liked BBQ and beer. We all enthusiastically and in unison shouted "YES!" and they trotted off to the local market while Nick and I dove into getting the battery to fit in the KLR.

The boys (literally) returned just as Nick and I finished jury-rigging[1]  the battery. They started the BBQ as we trudged exhaustively to our rooms and cleaned up for dinner.

When we came down to eat, we were presented with quite the display of pork and real vegetables (also unobtainable in Mongolia) and a sack full of non-alcoholic beer. We looked quizzically at each other and without a word spoken decided to let it pass and drink the not-quite-satisfying beer. It became painfully obvious that our guides were underage or at the very least novice drinkers.

To make matters more comical, when we eagerly bit into the first skewer of pork, we realized that it was still cold in the middle. We quietly put down our skewers and dove into the vegetables which were what we were most looking forward to and with big smiles expressed deep gratitude to our hosts. They returned half smiles and, sensing that things were not going as well as planned, excused themselves, and left us to finish our meal.


As soon as they were out of eyesight Nick loaded up the BBQ with the raw meat and cooked it to perfection and we chowed down. We had a good chuckle at our naive hosts' well-intentioned efforts and retired to our rooms and hit the sack.

The next morning as we were gearing up to depart, Evgeni let us know that we were about to travel on one of the world's top 10 motorcycle routes and that along the way we'd be stopping at a bridge that was the inspiration for the famed San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge.


The top 10 road was the Chuyskiy Trakt, which followed the Chuyskiy River. and It was indeed a fine motorcycle road with some nice sweepers and beautiful views of the mountains and river. We had seen these snow-capped mountains in the distance from Mongolia but now we were breathtakingly up close to them. If you were to merge the Rockies with the Alps it would still be an understatement how beautiful these mountains were. Throw in nomadic Altai herders, Urts, and ancient stone burial totems and you’d begin to get the picture.


The ride itself paled in comparison to a true top-10 ride up Route 1 along the California coast and wasn't nearly as technical as the famed Mulholland Snake in Malibu, one of our hometown rides, but it was the best true motorcycle road since embarking on the trip. We gobbled up the pavement and curved hungrily.

The "inspiration" for the Golden Gate Bridge turned out to be a dinky footbridge across a narrow section of the Chuyskiy Trakt. We all got off our bikes and walked just off the road and took pictures, more for the sake of saving face for Evgeni and Juri than for memory’s sake.

Our day ended in the small town of Onguday, cruising up to a small funky resort that was preparing for an onslaught of holiday Russian hillbilly revelers. After settling in, Mike went poolside and met a Russian family, and settled into some serious vodka drinking. Nick and I, on our way down, to meet Mike by the pool, were motioned into one of the neighboring rooms by another family of Russians and handed two shots of some of their homemade hooch.


We couldn’t refuse although we should have. To make a long story and a long night short there was torrential rain, more hooch drinking, a semi-naked pool plunge, DJ music, singing, dancing, more hooch drinking, lots of laughing, guitar playing and singing in a sauna, more eating and a friendly escort to our rooms so that we got back safely.


After waking up with wicked hangovers and a poolside breakfast in which my t-shirt and glasses, found at the bottom of the pool, were kindly returned, we set off for Biysk. About 2 km down the road all of our bikes started to sputter. We pulled over and discovered that during our night of partying someone had drained our bikes of fuel. Welcome to the Russia we were warned about by our Mongolian friends.

On our way to Onguday, Juri, and Evgeni ditched us and our guide was replaced by Denice (a guy), who immediately apologized for his lack of English. We set off for the town of Biysk and after a few rest stops and several attempts to communicate with Denice, which were met with blank stares and shoulder shrugs, we realized that he didn’t have a grasp of the English language.


At first, we thought, “shit this is not going to be fun”, especially backed up by Denice’s unemotional responses to our questions. However we started to have a little fun with him after a while and even though communication was limited, Nick started to connect with his black humor and had Denice belly-laughing quite a few times. Plus, he was able to get us bootleg versions of The Game of Thrones before the episodes were released in the US elevating him to hero status. All hail Denice!

Biysk and Zmeinogorsk, the last towns we visited in the Altai region, were not much to talk about. Although the countryside was beautiful, the cities were mostly depressing Soviet worker towns. We went to several WWII memorials in each town and got a humbling sense of the enormous loss of life in Russia, particularly what Siberia suffered under Stalin.


We also went to the most run-down and joyless amusement park any of us had ever seen. We did however meet some thoroughly nice young Russians in a funky little video gaming café in Biysk and we left Russia with very warm feelings but ready to move on to Kazakhstan.


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