I left Iwataki on June 1st at around nine and rode my motorbike all the way to Takaoka where I arrived seven hours later. I met the representative of FKK who was very helpful. He told me that I could park my motorbike in front of their building for the night.
I came back the next day at around noon and again the guy from FKK helped me by showing me the way to customs and by taking care of the paper work. I then followed him to the ferry at Fushiki and went directly to my cabin. The crossing went fine and on Sunday morning the vessel was in view of Vladivostok. Customs clearance went slowly and before leaving the ferry I decided that I would stay another night on board. At $16, it was much cheaper than anything I could find in town. I tried to call Shustrik, from the Horizons Unlimited Community, but couldnít get in touch with him before late in the evening. I went back to the ferry to spend the night.
Early on Monday morning I tried to get my motorbike. This is when it started to get a bit complicated. Although I had asked many times on board to have the Bill of lading before reaching Vladivostok, I was told that I could only get it after disembarking. I went from one office to the next before ending at Bisintour Service (BIS) which told me that it would coast me $150 to get my bike with all the documents. It was a take it or leave it offer. I took it.
The Bill of lading, konosignment in Russian, is the document that you absolutely need if you want to save some money and do the processing by yourself. I didnít have it. I had no choice but pay and hope for the best. I also had to buy for $30 a third party insurance for six months. It was already too late to do anything today regarding the motorbike and I was told to come back the next day.
I also needed to have my visa registered. I tried a few travel agencies but I had to wait one day or two and they werenít sure if they could do it. Finally I went to the Primorye hotel near the station where I managed to get a room for 1000R half the price of what it was supposed to be. I could also use their business center where Internet was cheaper than any other places I had tried so far.
Tuesday morning at ten I was at BIS. Went to different places until noon and went back at five. More offices, a few more signatures and we ended up at the warehouse where my bike was. It was now past six oíclock. A custom officer checked if all the numbers on the Bill of lading were matching those on the motorbike andÖ one number didnít. Back to the main office where nothing can be done. Rules are rules and numbers have to match. Too late to do anything else today. Please, come back tomorrow. Back to Shustrikís apartment where I spend my first night.
Wednesday morning at nine. Same buildings. Same offices. I now have to produce some pictures of my bike which I fortunately have. More signatures. Pay 3000R for storage. Go back to the warehouse where I can finally take possession of my bike. Get on, start the engine and realize that something is very wrong with the gears.
The problem on the bike wasnít serious. Shustrik fixed it in no time. We even replaced my battery with a new Chinese one. The weather in Vladivostok was awful during the ten days I remained there.
After asking around during several days how to enter China with my bike, the answer finally came on June 11th. A German biker had successfully made it a few months ago but the people who helped him werenít ready to take the risks they had taken at the time and told me that I would need to do it by myself.
On the 13th I left Vladivostok early in the morning and drove to the nearest border at Suifenhe. The day was a bit chilly and the temperature on the thermometer never went above 14į. I stopped only once to fill up the bike and encountered no problem at all along the way except being held at a police check post for more than an hour supposedly because my visa had not been registered properly in Vladivostok. But finally they let me go and at around three oíclock I was at the border.
The first Russian officer I talked to didnít know what to do and called his superior who arrived shortly after. He was extremely polite and told me that unfortunately I wouldnít be able to ride my bike between the two borders. However, they would help me put it in a truck to go through. There wasnít much traffic. A minibus showed up but was too small for the bike. Finally a truck followed some twenty minutes later and with the help of some people we put the bike on the open platform. I suggested that it would probably be better to put the bike inside a truck where it couldnít be seen by Chinese customs but I was told that as soon as I reach the Chinese side it would be perfectly all right for me to ride it again.
Clearing the Russian customs didnít take long and we slowly drove the five kilometers to the border where the first check post let us through. At the second the truck driver was asked to whom the motorbike belonged but then again they let us pass. At the third one we had to get off to have our passports checked. At that point they told me that I would have to wait a few minutes regarding my bike. I had already been admitted into China by having my passport stamped and I thought that everything was fine. It wasnít. I waited for about an hour and finally was informed that I couldnít go through with my motorbike. I had two choices: go back to Russia with the motorbike or proceed into China but without it.
I suggested that my bike could just transit though the country by train to the Mongolian border where I was heading but again I was informed that the rules were clear: it was impossible for me to bring my bike in China unless I go with a group accompanied by a certified Chinese guide. To do that, I first had to leave the country and apply through the proper channels.
During all the discussions that lasted more than two hours, all the custom officers were very courteous and very sympathetic to my cause but the rules were the rules and there was nothing which could be done. My bike was carried on the same truck and escorted by a custom officer to the nearest storage facility. On that evening I was invited to a Korean restaurant by half a dozen custom officers and they helped me find a hotel as well.
The next morning I went back to the storage facility to fill up some papers and was informed that I had one year to come back and pick up my bike.
I have decided to stick to my original plan which is to follow on the footsteps of a woman who went from Beijing to Moscow through Mongolia in 1862 on horseback. She was supposedly the first European woman to have accomplished such a journey. I was planning to do it by motorbike but will now do it by some other means. After crossing Mongolia and reaching Russia, Iím planning to go back where my motorbike is, bring it back to Russia, and drive it from there to Ulan Ude or Irkutsk where I will pick up on that womanís track again.
For those who are absolutely determined to enter China with a motorbike, and possibly from the same border, I suggest that you put your bike inside a truck and very well hidden from the outside.
After saying farewell to my bike at the Chinese border, I took a bus on June 16th in the morning to Mudanjiang, 150 km from Suifenhe, to board the night train to Beijing in the afternoon. The road was in perfect condition and was probably part of the new highway which was to be opened two days later between Haerbin in China and Vladivostok in Russia. Road signs in both Chinese and English could be seen as well as a few in Russian.
The next morning just before noon I got off the train in Beijing. The capital had changed a lot since the last time I was here ten years ago: new buildings, new roads, new shops, and new people from the old countryside, as well as fewer bicycles and more vehicles. Here again the roads are in excellent conditions and well marked with signs and can be compared with the ones in the most advanced industrialized countries. What a change with what I had seen in and around Vladivostok in Russia.
During the nine days I stayed in the Chinese capital I saw many motorbikes. I had been told that in Beijing, as well as Shanghai, motorbikes were not allowed. It seems like in that case as for crossing the Chinese border with a motorbike, itís legally forbidden but practically possible. I even saw quite a few foreigners riding motorbike, some with sidecars and a few without a helmet. I talked to some expats who had been leaving in China for years and they were not aware of any restrictions regarding motorbikes in Beijing. Furthermore, because Chinese administration was becoming really complicated about registering a motorbike, more and more foreigners were riding their bikes without any documents. No one had ever heard of a foreigner having had his or her bike impounded.
The trip is going slowly but surely. Iím making small steps, never more than forty to fifty kilometers a day after leaving Beijing, and a bit more north of Zhangjiakou. Iím trying to respect as much as I can the journey made by that woman in 1862 from Beijing to Moscow. Until Zhangjiakou the names of the places have remained basically the same and were easy to find, but after Zhangjiakou cities and villages had not yet been built at the time, and she, and her companions, had to camp every night in the middle of nowhere all the way to Urga, the former name of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
I didnít need to camp but Iíve had to stay in a few remote places during the past few days, like on July the 4th in the tiny village of Deng You Fang. In late afternoon, the police burst into my room. They wanted to know where I was coming from, where I was going and why stopping here instead of a city a bit further north or south. I had to explain my plan and told them that probably 150 years before me, a woman had camped in the vicinity. They checked my passport and left the room.
Two days later, I entered the Gobi desert north of Xianguang Qi where the asphalt road stops. I took a bus and we rode on a dirt, or rather a dust road heading northwest until we connected with the main road to Mongolia south of Xi Su Qi. The day was extremely hot, the road condition not too good and many people inside the bus got sick. A new highway is being built south of the Mongolian border to Beijing. Itíll probably be ready for the Mongolian delegation to use it for their participation at the 2008 Olympic Games.
A lot of motorbikes can be seen, small cylinder mostly, never more than 150cc, but sometimes with big frames that make them look like Harley. Motorbikes are mostly used by farmer but also by city folks who canít afford to buy cars, and by young guys who want to look cool.
Iím now in the border town of Erlian, on the Chinese side, and Iím planning to cross into Mongolia today or tomorrow. Some Mongolian guys I met yesterday have offered to sell me a motorbike and to help me cross the border with it. I said thanks but no thanks. I already have to go back to pick up a motorbike at a Chinese border somewhere east, I donít want to spend my time traveling around Asia to collect my bikes wherever theyíve been impounded.
Iíve got a new Chinese visa since yesterday and Iím going to be able to go back to China, as soon as I leave Mongolia, to pick up my motorbike at the border near Vladivostok. The plan, after I have my bike, is to cross Russia all the way to Europe.
After arriving in Mongolia from China on July 8th, I took a night train and went directly to Ulaanbaatar. I wanted to see the Naadam festival which was just starting three days later. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook: ďPart family reunion, par fair and part Olympics, Naadam (meaning Ďholidayí or Ďfestivalí) has its roots in the normal assemblies and hunting extravaganzas of the Mongol armiesĒ. Itís like also like a Chinese New Year, meaning that almost everything is closed.
Itís the biggest event of the Mongolian year for foreigners and locals alike. Small Naadams are held throughout the country but the one that competitors as well as spectators want to attend is the one held in Ulaanbaatar for three days starting July 11th.
After the festival was over I went back south into the Gobi desert to restart my itinerary where I had left it. I started in the small village or Irdin and slowly headed north by train from one station to the next. On July 16th I arrived at around 10:30 pm in the small town of Sainshand which is supposed to be one of Mongoliaís most dusty, dry and windblown aimag (provincial) capitals.
Outside the station, I met a businessman from Ulaanbaatar who helped me found a small hotel. As I was beginning to take a shower, I got electrocuted inside the bathroom and my journey almost ended there. I still donít understand how I managed to extract my body, which was violently shacking under the 220v electric current, from that bathroom.
I remained half unconscious on the bedroom floor for a while where the receptionist found me. She called that businessman who had brought me there and he arrived soon after with a doctor who gave me an injection to revive me. They had to carry me to my bed. I couldnít walk. They left at around two oíclock and at three oíclock the police woke me up to check my passport. The receptionist told them what had happened and that I couldnít get up. They managed to take my name and my nationality and left.
The next morning I was feeling a bit better although my entire body was still very painful. I needed to do something somehow intensive and positive in order to put that awful experience behind me. I decided to go into the middle of the Gobi desert to visit a confluence. The closest was less than 20km away from the city. I called that businessman again and asked him if heíd be interested to join me.
We rented a Russian jeep with a driver and we made it across the desert directly to the point with the help of my GPS. We found the confluence with the skeleton of a cow lying less than ten meters away. Except that carcass, there were just a few plants here and there which are made into a concoction by nomads to ease stomach pain.
The same day I left Sainshand late at night; again by train. Finally, on the 19th, I found a car in the village of Airag that took me directly to Ulaanbaatar where Iím going to stay for a couple of days.
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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