Friday, 7th August: So, from Kansk we rode to Achinsk, another smallish town to the west of Krasnoyarsk – chosen for no better reason than it gave us an easy day’s ride of 400km or so to Tomsk. The Victoria Hotel had good reviews and was on the outskirts of town, making for a quick getaway in the morning. But there’s ‘the outskirts’ and then there’s ‘the outskirts’. The hotel was clearly signposted from the road (well, it was clear if you can read Russian cursive script; which, although it is used in some newspapers, is confusingly different from the regular Cyrillic alphabet), 700m down a flooded and pot-holed dirt road, past some abandoned industrial units. Pretty normal for Russia, as we are learning. “You’ve got to be kidding”, was all I heard as I manoeuvred round the deepest part of the temporary lake and set off down the road.
But, for once, John needn’t have worried. The Victoria Hotel turned out to be a modern motel that, despite its location, wouldn’t have looked out of place in any Western European city. The car park was gated, hidden from view behind a high sheet metal wall and monitored by CCTV. The pedestrian entrance clicked open as we approached. Encouraging. Meals (of a sort) and beer were available on site, there was an ATM and a billiard table, and the bedrooms didn’t disappoint. I had redeemed myself slightly after the previous two nights’ accommodation and, we told ourselves, from here west, things should start to improve.
Tomsk is described by Lonely Planet as a lively University City and cultural hub, with a wealth of spectacular wooden architecture. It sounded the sort of place where we might like to spend an extra night. There are two routes from Achinsk; the direct route is about 400km and turns off the main Trans-Siberia Highway at Mariinsk, then there’s the route recommended by the GPS, which takes you via Kemorovo and adds another 200km. Looking at Google Earth, both roads are paved, so a bit of a no-brainer then.
We had lunch in a nice little bakery in Mariinsk, before cashing some money and topping up with fuel.
For the first 30km or so, the road to Tomsk was fine. Old tarmac, but fine. Then the tarmac ran out, and the road surface varied between hard-packed dirt and broken concrete. We had been making good progress for about 20-25km, slaloming around the worst of the holes, when I stopped to check on John and his bike. “What do you think?” I said. “Fine”, he said. “Actually, I’m quite enjoying this”, I said. “Good”, he said …
Moments later, we were in deep, loose, gravel. I don’t quite know what happened next. It was all very quick.
We had been doing our best to stay in the tracks of previous traffic, on the crest of the road, where the gravel was thinnest. But the vehicle, long gone, that I had been following, had presumably swerved to the nearside to avoid another, and the shallow tyre tracks now veered off into the deep stuff at the edge of the road. It was too late and my reflexes aren’t sufficiently practiced to power out of trouble. The front wheel kicked, and I was off.
The bike was still running and in gear. It spun on its back wheel so that it was pointed back in the direction of Mariinsk. The wheels were above the level of the handlebars, which were angled towards the camber of the road. Close to 250kg of bike was going to be a nightmare to pick up from this angle. I got up, unharmed, and turned off the ignition. For a split second, John was nowhere to be seen. Then I saw his bike, also down, about 100m behind me. I heard him groan as he rolled on his back.
With the help of a couple of passing motorists, we did eventually manage to get both bikes upright again, but word had it that road conditions were not going to improve for 60km or so. We made the decision to turn back to Mariinsk. John was in pain, so I rode behind him. Worryingly, I noticed that he couldn’t stand up and was having difficulty changing gear. I took him back to the café where we had had lunch and asked for help.
An ambulance crew arrived. Our only means of communication was the Translate app on our phones, so the paramedic phoned his English-speaking supervisor. A small crowd gathered around our table. Another phone, with another English-speaking friend, was handed to me. Unfortunately, although their English was undeniably better than our Russian, neither was exactly fluent and the scene rapidly descended into a game of Chinese whispers, with no one knowing how to ask the right questions or interpret the given answers. The only thing to do was to get an x-ray at the hospital.
It was quickly established that John had broken his left fibula and that the bones were displaced and requiring an operation to plate and stabilise it. First, we needed to deal with a growing number of police officers, whose purpose it was to establish the facts surrounding the incident and pinpoint its location. Luckily for us, a lovely lady called Anna arrived to visit her husband, one of their colleagues, and … she spoke English. Properly.
With Anna interpreting, they managed to get their statement and John was wheeled away. But any hopes of that being the end of the matter for me were quickly dispelled when it came to pin-pointing the location. One of the officers noticed I was limping slightly and wanted to know if I had been involved in the accident. Having heard numerous accounts of the pedantry of Russian police officers, we had said nothing about my bike having gone down, and I was keen to keep it that way. No matter that there was no one else involved, and I was unharmed, an accident on a public road in Russia is a police matter and must be reported. In full. I explained to Anna that I had broken my leg in May.
As I was unable to tell the police, with any degree of certainty, exactly where the accident had occurred, there was apparently only one thing for it. I would have to accompany them back to the scene. My heart sank momentarily, until I remembered the BikeTrac security tracker fitted to John’s bike. We had, after all, been using it to pin-point his whereabouts, with great accuracy, throughout China, so why not here? The police agreed and found me an office with a computer. They watched with curiosity as I changed the map view and zoomed into the end of the line marking his westward trajectory. They pointed at the nearest village, ‘большой песчанка’ and, I assume, asked me to confirm that this was, indeed, site of the accident. But I couldn’t give the correct form of words to satisfy the pen-pusher. The senior officer opened Google Translate in another window and his question was duly translated, “So, the accident happened near big gerbil?” There a lot of giggling. However, once we had all recovered our composure, the officer decided that a screen capture of the map would suffice and all I needed to do was sign the paper in confirmation.
John had an operation to put a plate in his leg on Wednesday. While this may sound dramatic, in fact, it has cleared up the dilemma as to what to do from here regarding repatriation. With his fracture internally stabilised, John’s recovery time will be significantly shorter than mine was.
We did, initially, assume that that was it. Game over. And we duly started looking at sensible stuff like insurance claims, flights and shipping for the bikes. But John will be discharged from hospital next weekend, and the surgeon said that he should be fit to ride his bike again by the end of the month. So, instead of worrying about the £3000 each we were being quoted to airfreight the bikes out of Moscow, I’ve bought us a couple of train tickets and arranged to put the bikes on a truck.
We get to Moscow on 18th and will hole up in our favourite biker motel for a couple of weeks until we can ride home. Sure, our return will be delayed by a week or two over our original itinerary, but we aim to complete the “Inagh to China Motorcycle Ride”. It hasn’t been quite the trip we planned, but the adventure continues …