Siberia – Lawrence Bransby (issue 26)

…Of course I was riding too fast, I don’t deny it. Perhaps it was because I just wanted to reach Ust’Nera before I started growing mould. There was a small rise in the road ahead of me and it was only as I crested it that I saw the river. It wasn’t a particularly big river but it was flowing strongly, had a stony bottom and I had no idea how deep it was going to be.
I hit the brakes but, probably because they’d been wet all day, nothing happened and in a moment I was calf-deep in a strong, icy flow amongst the rocks, and the engine died. Suddenly, except for the rushing of the water, all about me was silent. Mountains surround me, shrouded in mist and rain, and I feel very alone.

I give it a moment or two for the heat of the engine to dry the electrics and to allow me to gather my thoughts. I’m not in any real danger but I recognise I’m in a predicament where riding alone is not wise. I’m a very long way from anywhere, there’ve been no other vehicles on the road for a while now and I have no big son to leap off his bike, wade into the flow and steady the bike while I try to extricate myself. I tell myself that drowning the engine is simply not an option. Not out here. (Not anywhere, really.) Lifting a laden bike in the dry and on a firm surface is bad enough; lifting it, alone, when half under water and being resisted by a strong flow will be well nigh impossible. Well, it would be for me. Fast-flowing water is a scary thing and if I get my body trapped under the bike I could drown…

…I wake to a strange light in the room. The sun is shining. All is forgiven.
I pack up quickly, strap my panniers onto the bike while beating off mosquitoes and fire up the engine. The road shimmers ahead of me like hammered silver in the low sunlight reflecting off its wet surface. For about an hour I ride in a state or relative bliss until, yet again, the sky closes down and rain begins to fall, intensifies to another deluge that lasts, without cessation, throughout the day. Once again I ride along mud-slick dirt roads, mostly in good condition; the rivers and streams are swollen now and deluge across the track, seeking lower ground, the clouds heavy and low, partially obscuring the mountains all about me. For hours the road follows the meandering valley of the Indigirka River that boils and swirls below me, carrying with it tangled knots of trees that spin and cartwheel in the mud-yellow waters.

What strikes me about this 395km section of the Kolymer Highway between Ust’Nera and Susuman is its desolation; even more desolate than the first 1,000km, if that’s possible. Throughout the day there is nothing but the muddy road and swollen rivers under a leaden sky. And trees.

Possibly there are some people living here; I have no doubt that they do. But I don’t see any and the only man-made structures I ride past are wooden pylons carrying dipping cables into the mist, broken wooden bridges across swollen rivers, the occasional settlement – one quite large, almost a small town – but, in every case, as I look more closely, I become aware of broken windows, doors ajar like the open mouths of dead people, the wrecks of cars and the usual detritus left behind when a family or community is forced by circumstances to abandon their homes, their places of work, everything they used to call dear as if suddenly, one day, by mutual decision, every one just closed their doors and walked away…

This is an extract of a story that appeared in issue 26