After arriving in Ulaanbaatar on July 19th, I visited some travel agencies to find a jeep in order to go back into the Gobi and complete the few stages Madame de Bourboulon had made150 years ago before reaching Urga (presently Ulaanbaatar). A bit south of Choir, her route went slightly east of the railway line and it couldnít be done by train any longer. After shopping around for a couple of days, I found an agency which was willing to let me make my own itinerary.
On the 23rd I left the Mongolian capital with a driver at the wheel of a Russian jeep. We passed Choir where the road ended and drove south on a track with the Trans Siberian line in view on our right. A bit further south I asked the driver to cut across the desert. I wanted to visit another confluence point which was less than twenty kilometers east. With the help of my GPS we made it directly to the location. Then we turned south and spend the night near the place where Madame de Bourboulon had camped.
For the next three days we stayed near the places where she had also stayed and followed her route all the way back to Ulaanbaatar. Along the way we also visited another confluence point. Two days later I continued to follow her route but this time on a horse. Then, on August 2nd, I took the train again to make the last two stages before reaching the Russian border which I crossed at Altanbulag, the exact same location through which she had passed herself. The Russian cathedral of Kiakhta, which she had so much admired from the Mongolian side just before going across the border, can still be seen. Unfortunately, it had been ransacked a few decades ago and abandoned and it doesnít look so magnificent anymore.
After reaching Ulan-Ude, which at the time was called Verjneoudinsk, she continued her journey by crossing Lake Baikal before reaching Irkutsk. Ulan-Ude is where I had to abandon her route for a while in order to go back to China to pick up my motorbike. On August 8th, I boarded the Trans Manchurian, which goes from Moscow to Beijing, and arrived in Harbin on the 10th. I had my small digital camera stolen the next day but I replaced it the following day before taking a bus on the 13th to reach Suifenhe, the border town where my motorbike was kept.
I had to wait at the border three days before being allowed to cross it. Chinese customs release my motorbike in no time. But it was a complete different story with the military. Two months ago it was Chinese customs which didnít want to let me in. This time it was the army which didnít want to let me out. In order to do so, the motorbike had to be placed on a truck in order to reach Russia. The problem is that all trucks coming from China and going to Russia were full.
Chinese customs officers helped me a lot, and finally on the 17th they stopped an empty truck and assisted me to put the motorbike on the open platform. The truck went through all the check points before stopping six kilometers further down the hill at Russian customs. I filled up all the papers, was told to go back into the truck cabin, waited for about 30 minutes, and was refused entry to Russia with no explanation.
In the meantime, the truck driver had been ordered to take me and my motorbike back to China. It took me a while to realize what was going on. And we had already driven for a couple of hundred meters when I told the driver that I couldnít go back to China. I had no visa. I asked him to take me back to Russia again.
He didnít know what to do but he finally agreed to turn his truck around and went back to the Russian buildings down the road. An army officer came out from one of the buildings and ordered the driver to go back to China.
I got off the truck with my passport on hand as well as the Russian insurance for the bike I had taken in Vladivostok and the bill of lading. I handed over all the documents to the officer and told him that I had no visa to go back to China and that I couldnít understand why I was denied to enter Russia this time although I had been admitted two months before.
The officer looked at all the documents before giving them back to me. He left and went back into the building. He came out five minutes later. The decision had been reversed and I could enter Russia again with my motorbike.
I went back to Vladivostok to pay a visit to Shustrik and prepare for the rest of my trip across Russia. I had heard about the very bad road between Birobidzhan and Chita and I had no intention of riding on it. My motorbike wasnít design for that type of roads, I was almost one month late on my schedule and Madame de Bourboulon had not taken that road herself.
I nevertheless rode all the way to Khabarovsk and, with the help of Evginy, a friend of Shustrik, we put the motorbike on a train on August 24th. The next morning I boarded the Trans-Siberian to Ulan-Ude where I was welcomed by Sergei, another friend of Shustrik. The following day, we went with some other bikers to the station to wait for the train with my motorbike on it to arrive. The train was on time and I could now ride my motorbike across Russia.
On arriving in Irkutsk on the 30th, I noticed that oil was leaking from the front suspension. I had a name and a phone number, again provided by Shustrik. I called and a few minutes later Alexey and Pavel showed up. The next day Pavel and I went looking for parts. We couldnít find any but Pavel decided to buy some auto parts instead and redesign them to fix the motorbike. It worked. He probably could have made a brand new motorbike out of two old bicycles. Then he replaced the saddles, which were too small and completely worn out, by an aluminum box originally made for Aeroflot, the former Soviet airline.
The weather was getting colder and colder. For the three days I stayed in Irkutsk, the temperature remained under 10į. I couldnít loose too much time on the road and I had to reach Europe before it got too cold. It had become a race against the clock. The road to Krasnoyarsk wasnít particularly good, with plenty of places where it was only dirt and gravel for dozens of kilometers. One day I had heavy rain for the entire day to be replaced by a temperature of only 3į the next. It had snowed before I got up that morning.
On arriving in Krasnoyarsk on September 6th, again I called a contact given to me by Alexey in Irkutsk. Andrei was a member of a bike club and I spent the night in his apartment. The next day he was going with some other members to Novosibirsk to attend a bike meeting for the weekend and asked me if I wanted to join them. I did and we rode to Novosibirsk in two days under a much warmer temperature of above 25į.
Shortly after arriving in Novosibirsk, I took part in a big parade that took a couple of hundreds bikers in the evening to a small national park on the other side of the Ob river. Streets had been closed to traffic to let all those bikers ride freely across the city. I camped in the wood that night. I have no tent but I managed to install my sleeping bag next to a camp fire. The night was cold but it didnít rain and I slept well.
The next destination was Omsk where I arrived on the 10th. I went to a hotel but the next day I called another contact to do a small check up on the bike. The muffler was making an abnormal sound. Alexey brought me to a small house with a yard that Slava, the owner, had transformed into a garage with plenty of old and new bikes. After looking at the muffler, he realized that it needed to be fixed urgently. It worked on it for two days and was able to fix it. Russian mechanics can do miracles.
I left Omsk on September 13th escorted by Roma, a biker that I had met two days before. I soon noticed that my rear break wasnít working properly. Roma took a look at it and was able to make it works. But he said that it would have to be fixed properly in Tyumen. He told me not to worry, phone calls would be made and people would be waiting for me to help.
On that day the temperature dropped again and I had hail for quite a long time that prevented me to ride as much as I wanted. I decided to stop after 280 kilometers for the night and I reached Tyumen the next day after 380 kilometers and a day of rain and cold. I was welcomed there by Alexey and some of his friends. They spend two days fixing the rear brake as well as the rear suspension which had been damaged just before reaching Tyumen. They replaced it with a Russian suspension, not perfect but good enough to cross the rest of the country as well as Europe.
Iím still in Tyumen, waiting for the weather to improve a bit before crossing the Ural and reaching the European continent where I hope itíll be warmer.
Thatís where Iíve been since I crossed the Ural Mountains on September 22nd. I had left Tyumen the day before and spent the night in Yekaterinburg in Eliaís apartment, a local biker. This is the city where the czar Nicolas, his wife and children were murdered by the Bolsheviks. I was glad to have crossed the Urals. I knew that I could relax a bit more from now on; winter west of those mountains was still a few weeks away.
I stayed in Perm for a weekend. I was welcomed there by Vadim, a local biker. I was planning to go down the Kama River as well as the Volga all the way to Nizhniy-Novgorod, as Madame de Bourboulon had done in 1862, but unfortunately the season was already over. The temperature wasnít very high to cover those 1000 km by road but at least it didnít rain.
In Izhevsk, I stayed in Mahratís place, a local biker and I received some help in Kazan by some other bikers. I donít think I could have crossed Russia without the help of all those bikers. Theyíve done more than what I could ever have imagined.
Nizhniy-Novgorod where I arrived on September 28th was one of the finest cities I had seen so far with its Kremlin overlooking the Volga. This is also where Madame de Bourboulon stopped taking notes. Nevertheless, I know than from Nizhniy-Novgorod she went to Vladimir. From there she took a train to Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and, across northern Prussia and Belgium, went to France where she ended her journey. I was now planning to follow the same route by riding along the railway line.
Moscow where I arrived the next day was better that I expected. I still had this image of a city with terrible road conditions and cars with dying engines along the sidewalk. Not at all, and in many ways the Russian capital could easily be compared with some western cities. This is also the last place in Russia where I stayed in a bikerís place. Timur was from Irkutsk but had been staying in Moscow for a while.
I left Moscow on October 3rd under the rain and arrived in Saint-Petersburg the next day still under the rain. The weather didnít improve much during the three days I stayed in the former Russian capital and it rained on and off during the entire day on October 7th on my way to Latvia. I got a puncture on that day but I was lucky that it occurred just as I was passing near a small hamlet. Some local villagers helped me fix it.
It was too late to cross the border and I did it the next day. It took me one hour and a half to clear customs. All the documents I had received entering Russia in the Far East didnít seem to be the ones the officials where asking for. Entering Latvia was a relief regarding customs. They just checked my bike registration and stamped my passport.
Madame de Bourboulon couldnít have taken the train to go from Saint-Petersburg to Warsaw. The line opened only in September 1862. But the line to Vilnius opened in March of the same year. This is where I arrived on October 10th and where Iím planning to stay for a day or two.
I left Vilnius on October 13th. From Vilnius the train in the summer of 1862 wasnít going directly to Warsaw yet. But the line had just been opened in March between Vilnius and Kaliningrad, formerly Konigsberg and then a Prussian city. Madame de Bourboulon couldnít have taken any other railway line and this is the line I followed to go to Kaliningrad on October 14th.
The city is a mess, worst than anything I had seen so far in Russia. And the worst is that it used to be one of the finest cities in Europe before the Second World War. It was so depressing that I went through without stopping and turned south along the Baltic Sea to cross into Poland the very same day.
The city of Braniewo where I stayed for the night was a pleasant surprise after seeing Kaliningrad. So close and so far apart. I left Braniewo the next morning. Within a few kilometers I realized that the motorbike had already covered 10 000 km since the day it left Japan more than four months ago. As a reward I decided that I would give the bike a slow and short ride.
At Malbork, I turned south and stayed in a very nice B&B, in the small hamlet of Wirty. It was so nice that I decided to stay for an extra day. On the 17th, I continued to follow the railway line that goes from Tczew to Krzyz. In 1862, Poland wasnít independent and Pomerania was then entirely in the kingdom of Prussia.
On October 18th, I crossed the Oder River and entered Germany. I went through Berlin the next day and stopped in front of the Reichstag. I had visited the city 17 years ago when the wall went down. I still had the memory of those very old cars coming from neighboring eastern countries fully packed. Western and Eastern Europe had finally been reunited.
I spent the night in Burg, a city where Clausewitz was born, at the Pension Villa Wittstock, a very nice B&B built in 1900. The two following days, I continued to follow Madame de Bourboulonís path through what was then northern Prussia all the way to Aachen and then LiŤge in Belgium.
After reaching Namur, Madame de Bourboulon had two options to reach Paris by train: the longest via Brussels and the shortest via Charleroi. But she could also have taken a shorter way and followed the Meuse River through the Ardennes. Although the railway line wasnít entirely finished between Namur and the French border at Givet, a distance of 47km, she could have taken either a coach or a boat. In 1862, from Givet, the line was already opened and then direct to Paris.
I followed the Meuse River through Belgium all the way to Sedan in the French department of the Ardennes. This region is typified by a steep-sided valley, the Meuse Valley, named after the river. I stayed in Sedan for a few days and, on November 10th, I left that city for Paris, which was Madame de Bourboulonís final destination. But this time, it wasnít by motorbike but by car that I covered that distance of just over 300 km.
The sun was just setting over Paris when I finally stopped in Montparnasse ending a journey of five months across two continents; covering a distance of 20 000 km among which 12 000 had been done by motorbike.
The aim of my trip is to follow as closely as possible the journey Madame de Bourboulon made in 1862 on horseback between Beijing and Moscow though Mongolia, and to stay wherever she stayed. She was supposedly the first European woman to have made such a voyage. Although she stopped taking notes after reaching Moscow, she continued her journey all the way to her ch‚teau south of Paris. Iím planning to end my trip there as well.
For those who can read French, I have another blog with a daily report, more details as well as pictures (and a link for even more pictures on Flickr) which is updated more often. It can be found at the following address: Sur les traces de Madame de Bourboulon
There are also some stories (in English) regarding the visits Iím making along my journey to some confluence points for the DCP (Degree Confluence Project). The goal of this project is to visit each of the latitude and longitude integer degree intersections in the world, and to take pictures at each location. The pictures, along with a narrative describing the adventures it took to get there are then posted on the DCP web site. My stories appear at the following address: Fabrice Blocteur's confluences
See you on the road someday, somewhere...
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