Western Siberia is not a name or a place that conjures up visions of a great vacation spot. It may invoke instead words such as "gulag" and "Stalin." So when my friend Werner Wachter invited me to join him on a motorcycle trip in Siberia I was unsure of exactly what I was getting myself into.
Siberia is a huge area, and we traveled to the Altai Republic and mountains, nestled among Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, four time zones east of Moscow.
Wachter and I have ridden bikes together in faraway places such as western China, Israel and Oman, so I knew it would be challenging and an opportunity to learn about a distant part of the world.
Wachter, who owns Edelweiss Bike Tours, had invited his friends Bernd May, George and Gerhardt Offer, Uli Bree, Brett Taylor and me to join him and his son Toby to try out a new tour being offered by a Russian tour group called Moto Typc. This risk-tolerant group of American, Austrian and German men became know as the "Siberian Heroes." Together we became the first group officially to tour the off-road Golden Altai Mountain route.
We met at the airport in Moscow and flew 4 1/2 hours east to the city of Barnaul, resplendent with Soviet-style architecture. Barnaul would be our jumping-off point and where we would pick up our bikes, BMW 650 GS models.
After a two-day ride, mostly on pavement, we arrived at Lake Teletskoye, a smaller replica of Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake. It reminded me of Flathead Lake. It looks very pristine, but during the Soviet years rockets launched from Baikonour in Kazakhstan fell around the area. Some rocket parts were contaminated with poisonous fuel, and there have been a few cases of a local person finding a nice piece of metal, installiing it on his outhouse and dying a few years later from the contamination. Rumors or truth, this was a great story that added a little spice to our adventure.
Lake Teletskoye is a nature preserve and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Golden Mountains of Altai. The road ends at the village of Artybash, and there are no roads around the lake.
After a night at the famous Eden resort, we loaded our bikes on a tour boat for a seven-hour trip across the lake to the Chulymshan Valley, where our off-road adventure would begin. The trip across the lake was a prelude to what we would encounter on the road - we had sunshine, hail storms, intense rain and wind in the time it took to reach the other side some 80 kilometers away.
The landing and off-loading of the bikes on a makeshift dock of large rocks was difficult enough, but was followed by a deep water crossing in mud 100 meters down the road. We had arrived in the wilds of western Siberia.
The Chuymshan Valley is deep and narrow the entire length, and it's crisscrossed with streams and rivers. The dirt path we traveled was filled with potholes that were full of water from recent rains and quite rocky at other times.
We needed to make 100 kilometers that evening to reach our camp site. At one particular river crossing that was deep and swift, one of the bikes stalled out and we ended up towing it until we could restart it. Passing through small villages offered a couple of unique experiences, such as riding through standing water and sewage.
As riders, we all were pretty good, and our guide Victor Pantykin was a three-time Mototourismo world champion, but we still had a couple of bikers go down that first day, including Wachter, who made a guest appearance in a villager's backyard after crashing through his fence.
Mototourismo is a type of enduro riding into areas never reached by bike before. Pantykin had scouted this route for us, and it was a beautiful valley with steep mountains on both sides and spring wildflowers in full bloom. We passed through a couple of small Mongolian villages and horsemen herding flocks of goats and sheep. It looked a lot like Montana to me.
That night, we stayed at the foot of Katu Yaryk Pass in round shelters with a fireplace in the middle. Each shelter slept eight, and we needed to keep the fire going all night for warmth. After dinner, we had a traditional Russian banya in a wood-fired sauna, then a swim in the river. The Russians use bundles of eucalyptus soaked in hot water to beat each other while they are in the sauna to help exfoliate the skin. There's nothing like a bunch of dirty naked men sweating out the day's effort.
Katu Yaryk Pass is 3.5 kilometers long, gravel and a 20 percent grade the whole way. At the bottom of the pass by the sign warning of the dangers ahead, there is a pile of empty bottles of vodka drunk by travelers either preparing themselves for the ascent or in relief after their descent.
Reaching the top turned out to be the easy part. The snow was melting off the high area, and the road was quite muddy. Our BMWs were equipped with Metzeler tourance tires which are an on-road/off-road tire. The mud would stick on the tires if we went too slowly, and if we managed to get into second gear, we couldn't touch our brakes without falling down.
The mud was like gumbo, and everybody fell on this road. We really needed knobby tires. I fell at a little higher rate of speed and dislocated my collar bone. The Offers are both doctors and told me I couldn't do any more damage to my shoulder, so if I could handle the pain it would be OK. It did slow me down for the rest of the day, but I really didn't have much choice. Heck, I was in Siberia.
The ride now was rough track, trail and large gravel or mud, and there were times my skills were severely tested, but the route was unmatched for beauty and remoteness. On some of the trails we had to get off and push each other up the track or let one of the more experienced riders go ahead a stretch. Where there were bridges, they would be swinging bridges of suspect condition, and we would ride one or two at time across them. When the rain came, nothing was a treat. There was one spot on the last day of the trip where the bikes stood up in the mud without kickstands. As in Montana, if you don't like the weather, wait 15 minutes.
Every corner and bend offered a new treat or challenge, but it would take all of my concentration not to fall, so I didn't have time to look around.
We stayed a couple of days in Mongolian yurts and bought a sheep, which was delivered in the trunk of a car. Our host butchered the sheep and reached in and grabbed the heart to put it out of its misery. It was the oldest sheep in the Altai region and really gave us something to chew on for days.
I also got to try my hand at fly-fishing the River Chua. I met a couple of Russian fisherman and got a couple of nymphs they were using and set about catching what I would guess were whitefish. Unfortunately, it was not enough to replace mutton for dinner.
Log homes with brightly painted shutters typified the few Mongolian villages we passed through. We were told not to stop in the villages due to drunkenness among the locals and our lack of language skills. This is one of my regrets. I wanted to stop and look around the villages, but we kept moving at a brisk pace, dodging pigs and dogs followed by very curious stares from the inhabitants.
I really can't comment on the culture; we camped out or stayed away from the cities and had little contact with the locals. Our cultural experience was the nightly banha and a dip in an ice cold river, then socializing with our Russian tour guides. On a few days we visited a local museum or had lunch in a small village. Locals were friendly, but there was always some sign of the vodka problem with the drunks wanting to visit with us.
This trip, unlike most that I've been on, was about the riding and the terrain, the search for a challenge and the thrill of pushing ourselves. It was also about friends getting together to share some time, laughs and a good ride.
Western Siberia and the Altai Republic are remote and basically unspoiled regions of the world. I hadn't heard of it nor put it on my list of places to go, but it was a wonderful place to get away from it all and enjoy spectacular scenery and a challenging motorcycle ride.