LONDON TO VLADIVOSTOK VIA NORWAY

 

Highlights

 

Why did we do the trip? At least for me the initial impetus for the trip was a bit of a boys own adventure based on not much more than a whim (fuelled by too much beer) plus my general love of travel and motorcycles and the fact that I hadn’t been to Russia and it therefore seemed suitably exotic. By contrast my two travelling companions assure me that their impetus was solely driven by intellectual considerations and a long standing and deeply abiding interest in all things to do with Russian culture and history (and who am I to doubt them). The trip in fact turned out to be so much more than any of us had expected or indeed hoped for. Russia was so different in so many respects, presumably because it had effectively been closed to the rest of the world for so many years. Many of the cities we visited were simply off limits to outsiders (including Russians not actually living there) for decades. Even Vladivostok was a closed city until 1992 – that didn’t stop Mike, our friend and host in London, visiting there in the mid 1960s as a merchant seaman!

 

The Russian People

Undoubtedly the biggest joy on the trip was the pleasure we had from our interaction with Russians. The only negative was that my poor Russian ran out more quickly than I would have liked. Sometimes this was however part of the fun – we were stuck on one ferry for a couple of hours and I ended up chatting for the whole time with three Russian teenagers with them (and me) using my Russian / English dictionary to converse. After about an hour they used the dictionary to ask me “Are we boring you?” I just laughed (if I’d had a French / Russian dictionary I would have been able to say “au contraire”).

 

Even policeman found the dictionary useful although one poor policeman was trying to tell us that we had to give him money for a fine but he got confused and indicated by pointing that we would have to give him a poem – he wondered why we just laughed, then he realised he’d pointed to the wrong word and put away his AK47 and laughed as well (phew).

 

There were an amazing number of times when we were in trouble with paperwork or directions and a good Samaritan would pop up and suddenly from the depths of depression the world would suddenly look all rosy again. And then there was the fellow who for reasons unknown bought us all a beer as we were parking our bikes outside the hotel in Omsk – all we had to do was sign his autograph book! There were the numerous people who gave us small gifts – these were often good luck items or small religious icons. A few people even autographed 10 rouble (about 50 cents) notes and one generous soul who gave us an American dollar (duly autographed). One dear lady gave me an obviously treasured laminated Soviet era one-rouble note.

 

It’s a big country

Russia is more than twice as large as Australia (Siberia alone is more than one and a half times the size of Australia with only 30 million people). It tells you something about the country that before the completion of the Trans Siberian Railway (early last century) the quickest way from St Petersburg to Vladivostok was across Europe, across the Atlantic, across North America and then across the Pacific. When we left Australia there was (as far as we could gather) no road right across Russia – there was still a gap of between 500 and 2000 kms in the middle of Siberia where the only way across was by train. As it turned out the gap is currently being filled in and we managed to ride the whole way. Sobering thought though that until the last few months it was simply impossible to ride or drive from one side of Russia to the other.

 

It’s a beautiful country.

Russia truly is a beautiful country and was never flat and boring despite the myths and what some of the travel books say (and to be honest what we half expected). I suspect the flat boring stuff comes from too many travel books being written by people looking out train windows. While some short bits were flat (no more than a thousand kms or so at a time – I told you it was a big country) most of it was rolling countryside with a picturesque mix of forests and farms with villages every so often and then larger towns and cities.

 

Particularly beautiful parts were Karelia (bordering Finland) with it’s thousands of lakes, the spectacular Altai mountains leading up to the Mongolian plateau, the jewel in the crown of Lake Baikal, and then the wild and remote scenery of the newly roaded (I use the term roaded loosely) part of eastern Siberia.

 

Lake Baikal

Not sure who works all this stuff out but it is said to contain 20% of the worlds fresh water and all the worlds rivers would take a year to fill it. It is 636 kms long by 80 kms wide and 1620 metres deep - this makes it the deepest lake in the world (and there is 7 kms of sediment below the bottom of the lake). 1500 species of fish and other animals live in the lake and of these 80% live nowhere else. It has the only population of fresh water seals in the world (short fat little things), several thousand kilometres from any other seal populations.

 

The water is crystal clear and except in one or two spots is virtually unpolluted. Legend has it that you can drop a penny into the water and it will take several minutes before it disappears.

 

And to top it all off the local fish, the Omul, which only occurs here is a culinary delight.

 

The Altai Mountains

From Omsk we rode right down to the Mongolian border through the Altai Mountains. They were absolutely beautiful and very spectacular. Around every bend would be new colours, textures and shapes with rapidly flowing rivers cutting through steep valleys. And just before the Mongolian border it all levelled out to miles of flat, stony steppes (complete with the odd yurt) but all surrounded by distant mountain peaks. Real central Asia stuff! The Altai people are ethnic Mongolians.


And to add to the experience we were caught in a seemingly endless series of thunderstorms that swirled around us with lightning bouncing of the road and rain squalls which totally blinded us, but only for minutes as each storm moved on to be replaced by another from a different direction. It was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen - a bit scary, but great to have experienced it. I pretended to be an expert in such things, and insisted that it was safer to keep riding during a lightning storm no matter how bleak it became (actually I thought the lightning would have more trouble hitting us if we were moving targets). Maybe I knew what I was talking about because we survived to tell the tale.

 

We also endured one violent electrical storm in our tents. I lay awake nervously trying to remember the physics of lightning strikes so I would know how scared I should be (would my insulated sleeping mat save me?). That was the only thing I could think of to do to take my mind off how scared I was. As you will have noted we again lived to tell the tale.

 

To get to the Altai we left the main highway before Novosibirsk and travelled south 1000 kms into areas where very few foreigners go, and of course got the usual "visiting royalty" reception from the villages and towns along the way. These Russian people are just so generous and friendly! We have even had people in passing cars waving us down to take a picture of us with them. And almost every time we ask for directions they insist on escorting us to where we want to go. A few even wanted to know if we were Paris-Dakar competitors (doing some light training in Siberia presumably. Or were we lost?).

 

It was during our time in the Altai that we discovered we had a big problem with our motorcycle import documentation which necessitated a visit to the city of Barnaul. Customs at the border made a mistake with the expiry date, which we never realised, and it ran out on June 26. On two occasions police indicated that they had no choice but to confiscate our bikes. Somehow we bluffed our way out each time, and in Barnaul we met a young university student ("Gary" - real name Igor) who offered to help. He spoke perfect English, but it took two days of travelling to different offices, getting contradictory advice, filling out form after form, signing statements which we did not really understand, etc etc. When it looked like they would not do it (meaning we might never get our bikes out of Russia), our friend rang his aunty who "had connections" and from then on our problem was gradually sorted out. I guess it is the Russian way!

 

It was all a bit Monty Pythonish. But all the officials (police and customs people) smiled throughout and were actually quite pleasant, but rules were rules, and protocol was protocol, they said. Just a bit more of the rich tapestry of Russian life.

 

The Cities

Most Russian cities that we visited had a vibrancy about them with lots of people and activity late into the night – helped by the long days (white nights they are called). Many are built on the major rivers (Volga, Ob, Yenisey, etc) -  commonly these are several hundred metres wide still several thousand kilometres from the sea. I felt constantly embarrassed by the size of some of the cities and rivers that I had never heard of before we started planning for the trip.

 

Vladivostok is particularly beautiful with its steeply sloping streets leading down to the harbour – mix of Sydney, San Francisco and Hong Kong.

 

Culturally St Petersburg was probably a highlight with the overpowering magnificence of the Winter Palace or Hermitage, the beautifully preserved inner city and the canals throughout the city. There is also of course the awful history of St P or Leningrad as it was during the second world war when it endured the 900 day siege from the German army with over a million deaths from disease, bombardment and starvation. The Hermitage you could spend days and days wandering around looking at the art, the museum collection and the building itself. It really is all a bit overpowering particularly the riches of the art collection. I for one can’t really absorb the impact of 40 Picassos together – or if I do manage it I have none of my “art brain cells” left to absorb the next room full of Van Goghs, or the Renoirs, etc etc…..I’m sure you get the picture.

 

The Opera in St Petersburg

No dress code for the opera so they let us in with jeans and sneakers – well we had nothing else.

 

We went to a major production of Tschaivosky's opera, Mazeppa – this is set in the Ukraine and is rarely performed outside Russia (so my Penguin Opera Guide tells me). We had great seats although they were in the back row of the fifth and top level and they cost $8! Even better than the opera was the Marinsky Theatre that was built in the mid 1800s, it is just how you picture a grand old European Opera house - hard seats and all even after a $20 million refurbishment.  Two nights later we went to the Barber of Seville by Rossini. This (again for the cheapest seats in the house) cost an outrageous $15 about five minutes before opening. Then they wouldn’t let us in cos the seats we had just bought weren’t available that night!! All sorts of kerfuffle went on. The next thing the babushka (these are grandmothers that run these sorts of things in Russia) grabs us and indicates to us to follow her (to the exit maybe!?). Up and down stairs and all of a sudden we are in a private box next to the stage! The sort of box where the Queen and her Corgis sit. All seemed so typically Russian – one moment they sell you tickets that aren’t on sale and then the next moment they won’t let you in and then the next moment you are in the best seats in the house. Priceless! Our babushka gave us very specific instructions as to when we were allowed to take photos and that we mustn’t put our feet up on the balcony – as if! (although you never know with these foreigners in their scruffy clothes).

 

The Hotel (or Gostinitsa).

 

Every city in Russia has one in the centre of town. Soviet era hotels are quite an experience for the visitor to Russia. They all look the same from the outside and they all look the same on the inside. We would call it a “developers’ opportunity.” They call it Gostinitsa Russiya.

 

Usually we were very welcome. But on occasions reception staff simply weren’t interested in us staying there – hard to believe that 500 room hotels were really full. Maybe it’s a carryover from Soviet days when westerners were only allowed to stay in a limited number of hotels. There also is a bit of a thing that sometimes they think their hotel is not up to the standard expected by Western tourists. They didn’t realise we weren’t Western tourists – we were motorcyclists.

 

In a handful of cases though I think they were just rude. I am sure one babushka had the simple attitude that “you may have won the cold war, but I don’t have to like it and therefore I don’t have to give you a room in “my” hotel”.

 

The upstairs corridor is where you begin to feel a bit concerned. It is long, dark and nothing is square. The walls vary from vertical to other-than-vertical in gentle swelling waves of plaster partially covered in the glossiest paint ever made. The floor appears to rise and fall ever so slightly. Covered in badly worn linoleum with a threadbare strip of red carpet, it is being mopped by a diligent cleaner. The key to our door seems to be the key to someone else’s door for several minutes and the door does not swing open freely, but needs to be physically encouraged away from it’s closed position.

 

Inside, two out of three lights work and we find an en-suite. It’s small, with a light but no switch. There are several tiles missing and a substantial hole in the floor where new plumbing has been routed. Maybe they will be back to fix this today. The toilet has a seat but it won’t stay up unless you hold it. Not a problem for women, but we are not women. The shower has a hand rose which is what you use to get water into the hand basin which has no taps. Or plug.

 

All of this becomes insignificant when we discover that there is no hot water. Cold showers. We are in Petrozavodsk in western Russia. Its latitude is about 62 deg. north. (Melbourne is 38 deg. south and the Antarctic sea ice starts at around 60 deg south.) We want hot water. The receptionist tells us that there is no hot water in rooms on our floor. The rooms with hot water are fully booked. We look surprised and disappointed. It doesn’t work. Cold showers all round in the first of the dozen cities we visited.

 

The hotel in Petrozavodsk had one redeeming feature. It had a television that worked. Pity the only good reception we could get was Rex Hunt fishing in Western Australia!

 

Each hotel we go upstairs and we meet our floor lady. Every floor of every hotel has a floor lady on duty.  They know everything. They seem to work 24 hour shifts and then reappear a few days later for another one. This is not always a bad thing. Despite the stereotyped image of an overweight, fire breathing fascist, the floor ladies we met, with few exceptions, were efficient and suitably friendly without being in-your-face. They knew which room key to hand to us and they knew when to send the cleaners into our rooms. We suspect a few had a hot line to the local escort service as well.

 

In Omsk, we approached one floor lady to try and find out where we could get ripped leather motorcycle pants stitched up. We spoke English. She spoke Russian. She took the pants. I was quite pleased as he thought this meant she was going to get them fixed. One of my travelling companions said, “She may have thought you were giving them away because they were coming apart.” The next day our new floor lady presented the beautifully repaired pants. They were lined, so a lot of work had been done. There was no bill and we couldn’t even find out the name of yesterday’s floor lady. We never saw her again.

 

In Russia, there appears to be no bargaining. Fixed price. Except in the hotel in Krasnoyarsk where we were given three prices for the same rooms, each one cheaper than the previous as the receptionist tried to help us out. The place was almost full, but with the help of her calculator, the price kept coming down as we put on our best, “Is that really what we have to pay?” faces.

 

Another thing about hotels was water or lack thereof. Hot water was provided on occasions and we thought we were lucky each time we got it. When we didn’t get cold water either we thought we were unlucky – this happened of course the one time I was sick (from both ends). I filled the sink and the toilet bowl and then found that there was no water. Pity the poor next person who used the closet.

 

We arrived in Vladivostok to find all the hotels fully booked. The receptionist at the soviet era hotel (called Gostinitsa Vladivostok, believe it or not) made 17 phone calls trying to find accommodation for us. She succeeded. We ended up in an unregistered apartment. It was a bit cheaper than the hotels and we didn’t officially exist, but we had a roof over our heads. There was nothing in it for her.

 

Except for one call from a Post Office, the only successful land line call any of us made out of Russia in almost three months was from Khabarovsk. This hotel had had some money spent on it and there was hot water in the mornings. Not that the phones worked. But the receptionist, with a look that said she was going against her better judgement, invited Phil into the administrator’s office and allowed him to use the phone on the administrator’s desk. It was late and the administrator was not administrating. The phone worked and I thanked her profusely after speaking to his wife and kids for the first time for a month. In the morning we were in the foyer when she was clocking off. Phil thanked her again. She turned and came back to me and said “Please don’t tell anyone. I will lose my job.”

 

Some rooms have fridges, but if you want to get any sleep, you’ve got to unplug them.

Mattresses vary from unbelievably bad to rock hard. Clean sheets with every new customer, but usually clean towels every day. For some reason Russian sheets are never as long as the beds (maybe the cotton crops failed in the Crimea, who knows). Same with towels – most were the size of tea towels.  They all have very kitsch and tacky fittings, decorations and furniture.

 

Some of these hotels are having money spent on them. One of the worst had new doors with super-duper locks on every room. The rest of the place was a wreck, there was no hot water, but each room had a new door.

 

You could ask why they are so run down or how do they expect to attract westerners to their third world conditions or why there is no hot water, but these are silly questions. Occupancy rates when we were in Russia (June, July and August) are very, very high. Locals told us that these hotels are busy all year round.

 

They are not really cheap, often full and usually off the bottom of the 5 star scale (well, any scale you care to name), but there is something charming about their lack of pretence, pomp and ceremony. And, they are all very well located.

 

After a while, there is something vaguely homely about these slowly decaying Soviet era hotels.

 

The Police

Well, in summary we did the whole trip without paying one out and out bribe. One of us (not me) crossed a white line (illegal). He was also accused of speeding (not so) and “fined” $25. Given the normal amount for a “fine” was about $5, this was regarded by all and sundry as excessive.

 

One of us (again not me) also decided to go past a police roadblock on the wrong side of the road (the reasons for this action remain obscure but it was allegedly something to do with less bumps on that side of the road). Chase was given and the offender was brought back to the station to face justice. This suited at least two of us quite well as it was cold and raining and the police station was dry and warm – plus it was all a bit of light entertainment. After much negotiation and being asked to provide a poem (see elsewhere in this missive) the offender paid a $5 fine and everyone was happy.

 

We only had one really negative police experience which was on a trumped up traffic charge and they demanded bribes somewhere around the US$100 mark (we think this was each). They threatened to take off at one stage with our Australian licences. After much back and forth and us generally playing dumb (dumb, dumber and dumbest actually – I was the dumb one) and indicating that we were about to ring the Australian embassy (on a Sunday afternoon!) they blinked first, gave us back our licences and off they went with nothing.

 

The Railway

The trans Siberian. Only two tracks but the busiest line in the world (we should know we spent a few nights camped a hundred metres or so away). Have you any idea what a hundred-carriage freight train sounds like when you are sleeping on the ground and it’s 3 am, then another at 3:15 am, then 3:30 am, etc etc.

 

Those who read my ramblings may think I go on a bit about the passion, friendliness and hospitality of the Russian people, but the following incident again demonstrates it, as well as the slightly anarchic way in which life is lived in the Russian countryside.

 

On the main highway near Baikal we came across hundreds of cars and trucks banked up. We wound our way down to the front of the queue (don’t you hate it when motorcyclists do that – I do, but only when I’m in a car) to find rail lines being dug up at a crossing and that the road was closed for the next 6 hours. When the workmen realised that three Australians had arrived on their way to Vladivostok by motorcycle, the workman went into a frenzy of grabbing tools and planks and built us a narrow (very) bridge over 20m of a gaping holes so that we could get through. When we miraculously wobbled safely over their little bridge, they burst into cheers and were still waving us on our way as they faded from our mirrors.

 

The Magazine.

 

I had been warned before we left that we should expect poor service from shopkeepers etc. I tested this out in a Russian delicatessen in Balaclava Rd (the Russian quarter in Melbourne). At least 10 customers and three shop assistants. The shop assistants were having a jolly good time with their backs to the customers reviewing either last weekend or the coming weekend. When they had quite finished they deigned to serve us. Confirmed everything I had heard. Russia however was different.

 

Magazine means shop in Russian. There are magazines selling everything from tractor gearboxes to motherboards. But the most common magazines are similar to our corner stores of the last millennium. This is especially true of the magazines in towns and small rural villages. And every visit to a magazine was an adventure.

 

As everyone knows everything in rural villages, no one feels the need to put up a sign advertising their magazine. For a person new to a village, this means asking for directions. The inevitable answer seemed to be “straight ahead”. Only once was there no magazine in an entire village. (A business opportunity staring people right in the face it would seem. But maybe they know something I don’t.)

 

Once we knew what to look for, we became adept at locating magazines. There are a few give-aways. First, there might be a sheet of A4 paper in a plastic pocket somewhere with the name of the business, its hours and the business registration details. This is often on a window behind a curtain or a door that has been swung open so you can’t see it. Second, the door. Or, the second door. That is, a normal entrance will have a door-sized extension built on to it about 1.5m long with another door on it. Security. Many magazines are in the basements of blocks of flats or are a room beside/attached to a house.

 

Once we were directed inside a normal looking house. We walked in the front door, convinced we had made a mistake, nervously down the hallway and were called into the third bedroom. I think they decided to set up a business there because it was too small for a bedroom. She had nothing we wanted, except water.

 

Another was in a basement. Once through the first door, it was too dark to see anything. If it wasn’t for a customer opening another door to leave, we might still be there.

 

All magazines are run by women and women seemed to be 90% of the customers. We aren’t women, we don’t speak Russian, and we are dressed in serious motorcycle touring gear. Wandering into a magazine, we would make no less impact than if we had just landed from Mars. This usually worked in our favour as Russians are not only curious but also adventurous and they love meeting people doing adventurous things.

 

In one village in Siberia there were 2 magazines. We went to both. The first one had no bread. The second one had a truckload, literally. It was being unloaded as we rolled up. Most sell out of fresh milk by 1.00pm. They often have bananas from Ecuador and apples from Chile, but no yoghurt from the next town. Unlike most other poorer communities around the world we never saw home made yoghurt – it was all in little plastic thingos just like at home. We saw no fruit from Australia…another opportunity? If they can get bananas from Ecuador – well they must cos I saw them, but I still can’t quite work out how they manage it.

 

Life inside a magazine is very interactive. In small villages, the magazine is a focal point for social interaction (as in Australia). Everyone becomes involved. The manager, customers, passers by who come in for a look, family from out the back and neighbours who sense that something is going on. People of all ages assemble around the bikes outside, so by the time we have stocked up, the whole village seems to be in on the action.

 

We did not meet one magazine proprietor who was not helpful, patient and/or amused by us. They often did not have what we wanted, but would always try to suggest where we could go (if there was somewhere…). Sometimes it was simply “nyet” (“none”) when we asked for apples, tomatoes, cheese, water, muesli, bread or yoghurt. They always had Mars bars, shampoo, sausages, beer and vodka.

 

One woman was so proud of her English. She was able to say “No” to everything we asked for. It started out as being a bit disappointing. It ended up with everyone in the shop laughing. We left with nothing for lunch, but she had made our day as we had made hers.

 

Some magazines close for lunch, which makes buying lunch at lunchtime difficult.

 

Another had no bread, but one of the elderly customers dragged one of us back to her house where there was lots of bread. Meanwhile, a young man with fewer than half the usual mouthful of teeth was looking at our road atlas. We were trying to work out where we were, as the village didn’t have a sign with its name on it. We were having difficulty communicating and I suspect his map reading skills were in need of revision. We finally asked him, in Beginners Russian, where his home was. He pointed to an old wooden house over the road. The look on his face said it all. “Why are you looking at a map for my home when it’s in front of you across the road?”

 

Phil was having trouble getting water. No well in this village. Our young man of maps grabbed my empty water bottles and headed for home. He would fill them up for us. He motioned for Phil to follow him inside but he declined when his german shepherd thought all his luck had come at once and lined him up for a mauling. The mother (as it turned out) sorted the dog out with a brief tongue lashing and insisted he take several fresh cucumbers from her garden. He offered her money and she nearly set the dog on him again. These people had nothing and they were giving the filthy rich (by their standards) westerners gifts of food and fresh water.

 

Late one afternoon, Phil was looking for potatoes (is there no end to Phil’s talents, if it’s not water it’s potatoes) to cook with our smoked fish (omul from Lake Baikal). The magazine had no potatoes. (Who would buy potatoes when everyone grows them?) The woman running the magazine followed me outside and asked an old man walking down the other side of the street if he had potatoes. He didn’t but he walked to the closest house and banged on the fence. Some kids poked their heads over the fence. They went to ask their mum. No, but she knew someone who might. Phil was torn between saying, “Don’t worry” and watching it unfold and see where it would end up. He chose the latter. He didn’t get any potatoes (wrong time of the year….we think that is what she was indicating), but 12 people that we were aware of, were co-opted into the potato hunt which was finally abandoned after about 20 minutes.

 

In the Soviet era, waiting in queues was elevated to a national pastime. The USSR even tried to have it included in the Olympics, but the IOC knocked them back. No other country would stand a chance for the gold. (At that time no one knew how the Australian banking industry would bloom in this field). Almost every time I was in a queue in Russia, someone would try to jump it. These attempts are gently but firmly resisted by the others. No aggression or raised voices, just calm dismissals.

 

But a few times we were moved up the queue at the insistence of those in front. We would try to avoid this special treatment, but sometimes we had no choice.

 

There were a couple of occasions when I felt others were being served before me because it was easier than dealing with the weirdo biker with no Russian, but this was  rare and only in bigger towns or cities.

 

The supermarket idea is yet to catch on in Russia (except in the big cities). In magazines all the goods are behind the counter and you must point to things you don’t know the names of. Some challenging packaging covered with Russian meant that we sometimes ended up with something different to what we thought we had. Tomato sauce for the evening’s pasta instead of tomato paste. Plain buckwheat instead of rice and vegetables (just add boiling water). Butter instead of cheese. These discoveries were always made when we had set up camp later that evening and started cooking.

 

I miss the magazines with their quirky and unpredictable contents, their kind hearted  and bemused owners and the people who gravitated to our bikes outside. It was our major daily (or twice/three times) dose of Russian contact when we were on the road. There was other contact with Russians…….police, for example but that’s another story.

 

Big cities don’t have  magazines – they have shops. Even saw RM Williams boots for sale in Omsk. Locked in a glass cabinet with the jewellery – at $500 a pop where else would you put them.

 

The Road.

We had heard there was a section of eastern Siberia where there was no road. The distance varied from 400 kms to 2000 kms, depending on whom you listened to. This put it into the same category as every other subject concerning Russian travel. Finding up-to-date, accurate information about anything to do with travelling in Russia had proved an elusive task, so the “no road” question simply joined a long list of things we were not clear about.

 

A very detailed and accurate Russian Road Atlas (2004 edition) had dotted lines (road to be completed) and some solid lines (road, but not necessarily paved) between Chita and Khabarovsk. This is over 2200kms in total.

 

A Russian Travel agent in Vladivostok told us there was no road between Chita and Skovorodino (about 450kms).

 

A friend in London said he saw the Russian President Mr. Vladimir Putin, opening The Road between Moscow and Vladivostok on TV in April. This was supposedly the final remaining section to link the two cities which were linked by rail about a 100 years earlier. What our friend in London actually saw was Putin opening “a bit” of the road.

 

Tom (650 BMW, similar to our bikes) from Alice Springs was travelling from east to west, the opposite way to us. He had ridden The Road a month earlier. He spoke of gravel and rocks “as big as your fist”. He said 40 to 50 km/h was his maximum speed for the “3 or 4 days” it took to complete. We didn’t ask how many kilometres it was, but calculated it was probably about 1500. Tom said camping on the way was easy, petrol was available, but there were no shops for supplies. His parting advice re The Road was “keep the power on”.

 

Two Brazilians an American and two Latvians had also just completed The Road. The Latvians were two-up on a bike similar to ours (dual purpose 650 single). The bike was invisible under their luggage. They were both over 185cm tall and said The Road was horrible and they would not recommend it, but we would be OK because we only had one person per bike and less luggage weight as well.

 

The Brazilians and the American were on Gold Wings and a Valkerie respectively. These are the biggest, heaviest, longest and lowest highway touring bikes money can buy. Designed and built in America, they are the last bikes I would imagine as being suitable for The Road. They said The Road varied from good to bad. Bad was probably about 500 kms in total, they said. The Latvians said they were sure it was more than that.

They all said we’d be fine on our bikes.

 

The Japanese guy riding a 200cc single (cruising speed - 75 km/h) said The Road was bad, but OK on his bike. He said it took about 2 or 3 days to complete the bad sections. He was able to do 40 to 50 km/h most of the time, he said. He said he didn’t camp, but stayed in hotels. His bike was packed up in a way that I’d never really seen before. It looked like he lived on the fifth floor of a block of flats and packed his bike by dropping his stuff out the window onto it.

 

A Russian man we spoke to had just driven a car from Vladivostok to Barnaul. He went over our touring atlas methodically indicating where the road was bad and good. Bad totalled about 450 to 500 kms. He said.

 

Before we left Australia, to ride from London to Vladivostok, we had assumed we would put the bikes on the Trans Siberian railway for the section with no road. Now we find there is a road. What to do? Ride The Road or take the train? With the help of Pavil (“My English name is Paul”) we found out about the trains. Costly, difficult to arrange, bikes on a different train to us…different day too. Of the three of us, one wanted to ride, one didn’t and one was in the middle, but leaning towards the train. This is because we had agreed that if we were in a situation where one person did not want to do something, then none of us did it. Not an uncommon rule for these sorts of journeys.

 

Over dinner we agreed that the time for a final decision had arrived. All the information we had was considered again. The guy who wanted to ride The Road had not changed his mind, but said he would go on the train happily if that was the group decision. The guy who didn’t want to ride decided to give it a go. We all agreed. We would ride The Road, starting the next morning.

 

Chita to Khaborovsk is 2264kms. The first 110 kms is good bitumen. There is about 500 kms of OK to good bitumen in the final 800 kms including the last 200 kms into Khabarovsk. The rest (over 1600kms) varies from good hard dirt to soft deep sand/gravel. There are rocks as big as your fists, but not many kms in total. However, when you think you are about to fall off every 5 seconds, these few kms stick in your mind. There is dust. There is mud, water and river crossings where The Road and the new bridges are yet to be joined. There are road crews working 3 shifts virtually the entire length of The Road. There are temporary road workers’ villages on the sides of The Road. The biggest bulldozers (D9s for those who know about such things) and earthmoving equipment you have ever seen prowl The Road at all hours. In parts we were doing 10 to 20km/h for an hour at a time. Once we were stopped by a road crew. Next minute the earth moved followed quickly by a loud explosion and lots of smoke and dust. The side of another hill wasn’t. We were waved on. Fill for The Road…

 

There are no hotels (still have no idea where the Japanese guy found his hotels). Camping is not easy. The Road is built up over the swamplands. Armco fencing stops you disappearing over the edge. It also makes finding camping spots difficult. One night we camped on a siding that was a storage area for bluestone screenings. All night trucks drove in and dumped their loads of screenings. The next day we saw the bluestone quarry about 30 kms from where we had camped.

 

There are a few truck stops. These are best avoided as, first, there are no commercial trucks yet (they couldn’t get through) and second, to fill in the empty hours too many of those who hang around the truck stops have been sipping vodka. Not that this makes them aggressive. Far from it. They want to cuddle you, take photos, pose on the bike, ride the bike, come with you……….it can get too much.

 

There is petrol, although a few times we had to fill up with 80 octane (usually 92 was easy to acquire). We almost got caught out as there is a section of 400kms with no petrol. (Our bikes carried enough petrol for 450 to 500kms).

 

Apart from road building vehicles, there was virtually no-one going our way (west to east). All the traffic was the other way. This is a booming business in Russia. Importing second-hand cars from Japan. They travel in groups of 2 to 8. Safety in numbers. We heard stories of car high-jackings. The cars are hammered over The Road on their way to their new owners in central and western Russia. The life expectancy of these cars must be reduced by 50% or more by most of the delivery drivers. We saw many cars showing evidence of crashes and several which had been patched up after being rolled. They are all right hand drive (as in Australia) but Russians drive on the right (as in Europe). Makes passing an interesting event.

We did find some turn-offs to villages, but only in the final 800 kms.

 

It took us 6 days to do the 2264 kms.

 

Damage?

 

Both fuel tank support brackets on one bike broke. (Those on the other 2 bikes had broken before we started The Road). One bike ended up with shot steering head bearings. One puncture (the only one for the whole trip… rejoice.) One of us (not me) had a very minor fall at the end of the first day on The Road. He was up a muddy sidetrack looking for a suitable camping spot and slipped over at 1 km/h after deciding (correctly) that the track was too muddy to ride on. His left ankle and knee were pinned under the bike (just the minor sort of accident with big consequences that we had been dreading). He couldn’t walk, but could ride. As we were riding and not walking across Siberia – no drama (you’re a hero Phil).

 

The psychological scarring. It can be hard to enjoy riding when you think you are about to fall off. You don’t forget times when you are so on edge for so long…day after day.

 

But we can dine out on the fact that we did it. We rode all the way across Russia. Just for the record: Ewan McGregor et al put their bikes and support vehicles on the train for this part of their trip across Russia.

 

Anyone could do the rest of the trip, if they didn’t mind lots of crazy traffic, but not everyone will do The Road.

 

The Road is a living, dynamic organism. It is ever changing, slowly evolving into a fully surfaced freeway. Hundreds work on The Road. Already over 5 years of work with perhaps another 5 to go. A huge project, which makes you think how amazing the building of the railway was, over 100 years ago. When it reaches maturity, it will become a 2000 km long race track. It will cut through hills and over swamps and valleys, by-passing the few villages that exist out there. Trucks will pound the surface into oblivion as they do in western Russia.

 

By then The Road will not be a challenging adventure in itself. It won’t throw up the surprises it currently does. The myths and legends will fade………and grandchildren will no longer say, “Grandpa, tell us about the time you rode The Road.”

 

Russia – the State of the Nation

Whole books have been written by any number of Westerners (and of course many more Russians) trying to come to grips with modern Russia. The following comments are from our collective observations plus comments from Russians we met plus our general reading.

 

There is a general air of apparent affluence around the centre of the major cities. Lots of people out socialising etc. There is also a fair amount of conspicuous consumption – Plenty of expensive restaurants and in Moscow and St Petersburg you can play spot the new model Roller plus the top of the line Lamborghini or Ferrari. Of even more interest (to us) are the A$20,000 motorcycles that can only be used for 3 or 4 months of the year. A fair amount of money has been spent doing up landmark buildings in the inner cities but apart from this there is often an air of decay – potholed roads particularly breaking up along tram lines (real interesting on a motorcycle), high rise apartments in a state of gentle decay or lack of maintenance.

 

Public transport in the cities is very cheap, reliable and frequent – most of the trams, buses and trolley buses though look as though they have seen better days.

 

A common feature in cities are the old ladies (and some not so old) selling flowers or a few vegetables or pet kittens – one step up from begging. Probably no more beggars than most western cities but most beggars are very abject and subservient – people who really are at the end of the line.

 

The outer (ie 90%) of the cities are less affluent. High rise buildings everywhere in pretty poor state of repair.

 

In contrast to the cities, rural villages have a true third world feel to them. Muddy pot-holed roads, shops with limited stock. Every major road has people selling goods by the side of the road – often berries or mushrooms picked wild in the forests.

 

Many and maybe most town dwelling Russians own small dachas. These are small (quarter acre or less) blocks often on the edge of the cities where they have a small shed and grow vegetables and maybe fruit to get themselves through the year.

 

Russian people were unfailingly honest with us to the extent of chasing us down the street to give us a few roubles change if we had not taken all the petrol we had paid for (we are talking 20 cents to a dollar here).

 

The other issue was personal safety. We had lots of warnings about this which we heeded – well we were a bit nervous. We can honestly say that there was never a moment when we feared for our personal safety – traffic incidents excepted, although even there it was better than most third world traffic.

 

Other Bits of the Trip

Wouldn’t be fair to finish without mentioning England, Norway and Finland. The friendliest couple of the whole trip were Bob and Jill from Cadeby in north England who let us camp in their back yard, shouted us beer at the pub, gave us two cooked English breakfasts and then escorted us on their Harley to the road to Newcastle where we caught the ferry.

 

Norway was just beautiful. From Bergen to the far north near Murmansk in Russia, 3,000 odd kilometres of endless winding roads with ferries, bridges and tunnels to keep us amused. 800 kms north of the Arctic Circle at Kirkeness the locals asked us as the snow was falling “what do you think of our summer?” The coastline and the mountains were, sorry about the cliché, breathtaking. Particular highlight were the Lofoten Islands – about a three hour ferry ride off shore and truly one of the world’s beauty spots with black granite mountains straight rising straight out of the Arctic Sea.

 

Finland while less spectacular was beautiful with seemingly endless forests and lakes and lots of reindeer. Finland was very expensive but was very cheap compared to Norway which was frightening – the only thing cheaper than home was Atlantic Salmon (fish farms everywhere!).

 

That’s All Folks (except for a bit of technical stuff which follows)

Bet you can’t wait for the next instalment. Alaska to Patagonia? Can’t decide between that or Melbourne to Ballarat – freeway all the way, good coffee shops at each end, everyone speaks English, everyone drive on the right (that is the left) side of the road, not many insects……how boring!.

 

 

The Bikes.

 

We chose to buy Kawasaki KLR 650s. Why?  What were we looking for? How did we eliminate every other possible model? An easy question to answer if our checklist is looked at first.

 

We agreed whatever we buy must be:

 

  1. reliable. Obvious? How does that cut the list down? It immediately eliminated the possibility of buying a bike in Russia and riding it across. (exit Urals, Cossacks, etc)
  2. simple. We couldn’t fix electronic fuel injection on the side of the road. Some would say we wouldn’t need to because it doesn’t go wrong, but we’d heard all sorts of stories about low grade fuel and so on………No point having a bike that needs a stack of expensive special tools to fix it either, (exit BMWs)
  3. strong. Any bike without a serious sub-frame and pillion carrying potential was out. We would have 50kgs of stuff on the back of the bikes for months. (exit TTs, XRs and other enduro models)
  4. steel. It bends and springs back. If and when it breaks, you can get it welded anywhere. Not so alloy (exit more enduros)
  5. light. Difficult when 1. 2. 3 and 4 are important……but must be considered.(exit twin cylinder BMWs or other large bikes)
  6. power. Enough to sit all day on 100km/h fully loaded. (exit anything under 400cc)
  7. smooth. Vibrating bikes had no chance of getting selected here. (exit KTM singles, if they passed No. 1 that is)
  8. cheap. None of us were able to walk out and spend $20 000 on a bike for this trip. (exit BMWs/KTMs)

 

You may have a different checklist, you may come to a different conclusion, but for a trip like this you really must let your head over-rule your heart.

 

One idea was to buy second hand in Japan (and ride west), or in London (and ride east). This was dropped because:

 

  1. We wanted identical bikes. Minimises the pile of spare parts. One clutch cable, one gear lever, etc. not three. Finding 3 second hand identical bikes may take a long time in Tokyo/London. Every day in Tokyo/London costs serious dollars. If it takes a week to find 3 bikes, that means we have all spent another squillion dollars plus. The same applies at the end when trying to sell.
  2. Buying in Australia meant we could do all the servicing, setting up and testing of our luggage systems before we left. Time and money saved. We also did some extended dirt road riding. The first time for one of us and the first time for a long while for two of us.

 

We bought new because:

 

  1. It eliminates nagging doubts about a bike’s history.
  2. New bike warranty (2 years). We were sure that would be useful in deepest Siberia!
  3. The buying power. Walk into your local dealer with cash for 3 bikes and you get a good deal, especially if you are buying a bike that doesn’t sell like hot cakes. Our three bikes, new, on the road, cost about the same as one well-known German brand.

 

So, the field was down to Yamaha’s XT 600 and Kawasaki’s KLR 650. Honda stopped selling the Dominator a while ago and Suzuki re-introduced the DR650 about a month after we bought our bikes.

 

Scanning lots of sites re. Adventure Touring and Round the World travelling sites (try www.horizonsunlimited.com) it becomes obvious that the KLR650 has a huge following in the USA. Only one potentially serious reliability question was raised, (the doohickey…more on that later). Not so for the XT600s. Gearboxes and vibration seemed to be issues with lots of owners. The seat got lots of unfavourable mentions too. We felt the water-cooled KLR engine may last longer than the air-cooled XT. The DR650 popped up as a possible contender, but was not on the Aussie market when we purchased.

 

We hadn’t ridden either bike. We found it hard to get a test ride as they are not kept in stock by dealers as they don’t sell. Then we got an offer we couldn’t refuse from a Kawasaki dealer.

 

Preparation:

Bikes were kept as standard as possible. This is because we didn’t have money to burn, we were not going out to set any records and we felt it would be interesting to see how they handled the trip in standard condition.

 

Frames: standard except for steel pannier frame.

Suspension: standard. Two of us didn’t even wind up the preload on the rear suspension, because it was too much effort (just because we organised a trip like this doesn’t mean we aren’t slack at times).

Engine: standard, except for doohickey replacement.

 

Handlebars: standard, except for “Barkbusters” (ie hand protectors) and Oxford heated grips.

Acerbis 24 L tank. As it turned out we could have done the trip on the standard 14 L tanks. Only one stretch of 400kms would have seen us carrying extra fuel.

Tyres: Michelin Siracs, standard size. Heavy duty tubes fitted.

Sprockets: Chain Gang rear, standard front. Standard chain.

Plastic headlight protector.

Luggage:

-          Givi plastic top boxes

-          Tank bags

-          Lockable Aluminium panniers made to our specifications  by an engineering business in Thornbury. These were solidly mounted to a simple but strong and light pannier frame. The panniers were made from 2 mm aluminium with the hinging and removable lids made form 1.5 mm aluminium. Very useful feature was a cutaway at the front base of each pannier (only two of us did this – Phil wished he had). This reduces the chance of getting your leg caught by the pannier if you put your foot down for balance or to paddle through sand or mud.

 

Doohickeys: Replaced with single piece machined items from  Sagebush Engineering (USA). The doohickey adjusts the tension on the chain which drives the balance shafts. Standard doohickeys seem to have a reputation (in the USA) for breaking, but Kawasaki Australia says they know nothing of this problem. If/when these go, there are several things which happen in rapid succession which mean that you have to park it immediately. It’s deep down hocus pocus which we didn’t want happening in Siberia. Total cost was about $70 each and 3 to 4 hours in the garage. Would the standard doohickeys have been OK? We’ll never know…but we slept well at nights.

 

One of us made a thing (from 100mm PVC pipe) for carrying heavy tools down low which mounted horizontally, low on the frame tube behind the front wheel. Also from 100mm PVC, a vertical container for chain lube, mounted on the rear pannier frame.

 

Apart from that, we did set the valve shims to the biggest recommended clearances, greased our wheel bearings and rear suspension bushes (those of us who didn’t meant to). It was a surprise to see how little grease was on these things straight out of the factory. We were going to do our steering head bearings too, but ran out of time (with hindsight we should have made time).

Guess what needs to be replaced on the bikes apart from front sprockets? Steering head bearings……

We did about 20 000 kms each. So, in 60 000 kms what went wrong?

One set of steering head bearings were very badly worn (one other set just started to show wear when we returned to Australia).

One bike had a puncture.

One had in intermittent charging problem. After the fan had been on in slow going, it was hard to start, but it started, every time except once. It bump started easily.

The other two bikes would occasionally have petrol coming out of the float bowl overflow pipe. One  was stopped by this. Easily fixed by draining the float bowl. One bike never did it. We bought petrol at the same places.

One of us disconnected his sidestand cutout switch in Australia after several reports of them playing up. Another had to be disconnected in Vladivostok, after being steam cleaned on our way to crate the bikes to return to Australia.

 

We did many days of riding for 10 or more hours. The seats were fine with no-one complaining. The softish long travel suspension was great at the speeds we were travelling. No Kawasaki bits broke or fell off. We found out after we had purchased the bikes that they were made in Thailand. Any worries we may have had about quality control or materials used, have long disappeared.

Having said that, I’m sure the Yamaha and or Suzuki would be equally dependable. We approached Kawasaki Australia for assistance before the trip. We requested help with shipping back to Australia and/or cheap (free?) spare parts. They were not interested at all. We guessed it may be because of the low numbers of KLR 650s sold in Australia. Is saving money by not promoting the bike make this a self-fulfilling prophecy?

 

The total cost of; a new KLR 650, modifications and accessories, shipping to London and shipping from Vladivostok back to Australia, was about A$12 500 each.

 

In the end, our trip was not about the bikes, it was about Russia. We did not want it to turn into a trip about bikes by having reliability problems.

 

There is no better way to see the world than by riding a motorcycle. Start planning today.

 

Organisation for the Trip and General Travel Stuff

The trip did take a fair bit of organising but nothing that was too daunting.

We needed three month business visas for Russia which we didn’t actually end up getting until we were in London – these need to be planned for well in advance. You need a specialist travel company to arrange these. Tourist visas for Russia are easier to get but are for a maximum of one month only.

 

For money we used a mix of cash ($US), key cards, travellers cheques and credit cards. With hindsight key cards were the best option as there were auto teller machines in every medium sized city. You would be a bit nervous though if you were on your own and you only had a key card – imagine the fun if it stopped working in the middle of nowhere (or anywhere for that matter). Travellers cheques were only accepted in limited places and interestingly, Euros were actually more sought after than US dollars although the dollars were easy to use.

 

We didn’t need a carnet de passage for the bikes for any of the countries that we visited. If required for particular countries, these need to be planned well in advance and you need bank guarantees etc etc. (for some countries up to three times the value of the bike).

 

 
Shane Dwyer, Phil McMillan and Don Brown