Frank Campbell - Around the World in 80 Days - A Trip Log, USA to Russia
by Frank Campbell, MOA 43430
"... And in his brain,
Which is as dry as the remainder biscuit
After a voyage, he doth strange places cramm'd
With observations, the which he vents
In mangled forms."
Day 1. Home: near Tampa, FL. 82W, 28N.
Without weekday traffic I zip across Tampa onto I-75N on my F650. This route is our usual weekend club breakfast run, but this time I am alone. Today I have set off to ride around the globe. Hurricane Season has been on for a month. Along I-75 dark thunderheads pour buckets full of water that test the limits of my Kalahari suit. Lukewarm rainwater has seeped ankle-level into my boots, but the rest of me stays dry.
Day 8. Seattle, WA. 47N 122W.
The GPS brings me to within 60 feet of Chris Poland's backyard. A timely arrival: there is an Independence Day cookout on. Before you can say unpack, I am heaping roast turkey and all the trimmings on my plate.
I am only about 11% of my way around the globe. Hope the other 89% will be as easy.
Helge Pedersen and I commandeer Chris' truck and haul my F650 to the Sea-Tac airport. The Aeroflot Ilyushin 62 sits on the tarmac being readied for tomorrow's flight. From across the fence it looks rather small, but everyone has assured me the bike will fit. The battery is packed in a separate box that could safely hold Plutonium.
Lucky day. The Il 62 taxies out right on time. Takeoff is smooth; we climb out steeply and head W across the Pacific. There is no in-flight movie; I doze off thinking I hear my Funduro rattling around under the floor.
Day 14 or 15, I am not sure. Khabarovsk, Russia. 48N 135E.
We have crossed the date line and it is really tomorrow evening. While pondering the matter, I fiddle with my watch unsuccessfully trying to reset it. The sun is still high over the horizon. We taxi to the terminal and exit the aircraft. A blast of hot Florida-like air hits me. Are we really in Siberia? I expected snowdrifts and patches of ice, but everyone is running around in T-shirts. Signs reading "XABAPOBCK" on the terminal finally convince me this is not Kansas any more.
Inside the building I fill out the "deklaratsya" forms, stating what I bring with me into Russia. Drugs? Nyet. Money? Just enough. I list "motorcycle". The customs officer looks incredulously at my form. You are bringing a WHAT? A BICYCLE? No, I insist it is a "matatsykla", making motor noises with my mouth. They stare at me in disbelief. Another demented American. Can anyone get a passport in the US?
Lena, my guide, drives me to the Intourist Hotel. "Do you know there is a man from America touring the world in his car?" she asks, showing me a newspaper clipping. Who else but Investment Biker Jim Rogers, aboard his custom built 4WD Mercedes Benz. We are staying in the same hotel. After checking in I phone Jim in his room to greet him. He and Paige, his travel companion are getting ready for dinner. There is a special floor show on tonight: a "draka", that is a no-holds-barred Russian-style boxing match. I can think of more appetizing forms of entertainment and decline. We agree to meet the next day for breakfast. With Aeroflot's help, I am now 30% around the earth.
We return to the airport. It is Sunday and the place is nearly deserted, but we are going to try anyway. We traipse through cavernous buildings and find the duty Customs officer. Lena is imperial: "What, your Chief is not WORKING today? I am working, SEE, why can't HE?" The Customs man sheepishly answers he hasn't the authorityto approve the bike, but Lena is relentless. I placate her telling her I REALLY don't want to ride today, and why don't we just wait 'til Monday. She struts out of the office with loud comments about the sad state of Russian bureaucracy.
Back at the hotel Jim and his entourage are preparing to leave. We chitchat sharing road adventures. We are following a similar route, and we will be bumping into each other again. Literally.
My bike is finally released after countless trips between offices. Everyone is a model of professionalism. Lena tones down her Catherine the Great act. My total fees come up to 31 rubles, or about US$1.25.
Day 19. Birobidzhan.
The town is supposed to be the capital of a Jewish "autonomous" region, but besides for a few signs in Hebrew, there is little Jewish presence. The weather is stifling hot. I am told this is the hottest summer of the century in Siberia. Today the thermometer hit nearly 40 C (100F). It feels like riding around in the Okefenokee Swamp. My helmet and face shield look like an entomologist treasure trove, with splattered species ranging from Florida Love Bugs to bird sized Siberian flies.
Day 20. Blagoveschensk.
As I park my bike in front of the hotel, a distinguished looking man approaches me and asks me if I am German. My interlocutor turns out to be Werner Bausenhart, a rider from Quebec touring the world solo on his R100PD. He came into town earlier from the W, and confirms there is no usable road for the next 900 km.
We walk around a while enjoying the festivities: the city is celebrating its 50th anniversary with great fanfare. Across the river lies the Chinese city of Heihe with an impressively modern skyline, probably showcased for the neighbors. The river reminds me of the Rio Grande at El Paso sans a bridge. There is a Russian patrol boat in the middle that looks like it has ran aground. I see no great rush of people trying to get across from either side.
Days 21 to 23. Aboard the Trans-Siberian Express.
Hard to tell time or place on this train. We've been bouncing across endless taiga for a long time. Earlier, Werner went with me to the station and helped me load my bike on a freight train. It was fairly easy after we found someone who would listen. Werner was a God-send, keeping an eagle eye over my belongings while I ran around finalizing details. I jumped on the train as it pulled away from the station. Werner punted me my GiVi cases with a style Joe Namath would envy.
Day 24. Chita.
This town is downright weird. I drive around in a cab from hotel to hotel. They all claim to be full, but aside for the night watch, I see little signs of life in any of them. Cab driver suggests we try the "Panama City", a new motel in the outskirts. We approach a fenced compound with searchlights and security guards everywhere. It looks more like a Gulag than a motel. I spot a familiar yellow vehicle in the parking lot. Jim Rogers and friends are sitting around sipping beer. We all march into the office and speak to the night watch. The reply is categorical: NO ROOMS, AND THAT'S THAT!
Back in the cab, the driver suggests we try the Bank (did I hear that right?) hotel. The brand new building is on an unpaved street has no address or sign. I pound on the door and a sleepy miffed babushka peeks from between iron bars.Yes, they have plenty of rooms. No, I can't stay there because I am a foreigner. I am incensed. "Foreigner? I may speak lousy Russian but I am ETHNICALLY proper". My grandparents were Ukrainian and I can prove it!" Babushka recants and lets me in. I pay the cabbie off and throw in a hefty tip. Had he not mentioned the Bank hotel I'd be sleeping in Lenin Square tonight, the last thing I'd want to do around here. The hotel indeed turns out to belong to a Bank, which uses it to house their money couriers, hence the Fort Knox tight security.
My bike came in the early AM train, but they've unhitched the wagon and can't get it till "later". A couple of the workers saw the bike and thought it was "pretty neat". I am really from America? Riding across Russia? Other men join in and hold a brief conference. They will go get the wagon and unload my bike right now. They are amazed that this 650cc single can put out more power than the old twins confiscated from the Germans during the war. I offer them a tip for their services but they refuse. It is the most fun they've had all week.
Day 28. Ulan Ude.
I am securing my bike to a chain link fence when a cheerful voice behind me says: "You must be Frank! And why are you parking your bike here?"
Masha speaks perfect English, and has a contagious good mood.
"Nonsense" she replies, when I tell her the hotel had no parking. She jumps onto my back seat and we ride back to my hotel. She lectures the desk clerks about their lack of concern for such a special guest, which produces immediately a locked garage.
The city is capital to the autonomous region of Buriatya. The people are ethnically Mongolian but speak mostly Russian. Downtown there is "The Head", a most singular monument to Lenin. It is reputedly the largest monument of its type in the world. Large parade grounds in front of "The Head", formerly used for display of military hardware are now used for rock concerts, probably with far greater attendance. In the outskirts of town, I visit an ornate Buddhist temple of which the Dalai Lama is spiritual leader. There are drums with Tibetan inscriptions, which you turn a few times for good luck.
Day 30. Irkutsk.
I ride along the shores of Lake Baikal, largest in the world. The road is hilly, but rough pavement discourages aggressive riding. On a lookout south of the lake there are hundreds of vendors, selling everything from dry omul (a local fish delicacy) to Chinese trinkets. The pirozjkye (potato dumplings) are irresistible and I overdo it, a decision I will regret for the next several days.
Entering Irkutsk I am about as lost as I've been on this trip; the GPS can't work miracles without a street template. The instructions handwritten earlier by a woman I queried are not easy to follow. Streets go in every direction, many of them unpaved. Ferocious dogs roam round. I ask for help from a family sitting in a car. They take my piece of paper and pass it around. A debate ensues on how to get the nutty American to his destination. Babushka commands everyone back in the car. They will lead me there, all six of them. A mile or so later, they deposit me in front of a house I'd never have found on my own.
Day 33. Tulun.
The weather has turned cold, and it is raining buckets. The GoreTex liner for my suit is at the bottom of my top case, naturally. The town looks dismal, but I need shelter. Two hundred km of unpaved roads haven't helped, and besides being soaked to the bone, I am covered with mud. A man stumbling around oblivious of the rain says: "There is a hotel across the river. Not much, but you look like you need shelter. Can't miss it. Only four story building in town". We shake hands and he wobbles away.
The hotel is truly seedy. My hopes for a hot shower are dashed, as here is only a trickle of cold water in my room. Implying a safety concern the receptionist tells me to pull the bike into the lobby, which I do with the help of two awed teenage onlookers. I pick up a few victuals in a shop across the street and eat in my room. I go to bed wearing my long johns, thinking of Solzhenytsin's "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch".
The next day the weather is cool but sunny. I dress, pack, go downstairs and quickly pull my bike out of the lobby, noticing a babushka bundled in old blankets sleeping on a couch next to it. She has guarded my bike all night long with her life. I slither out of the hotel feeling like an ungrateful worm.
Day 34. Krasnoyarsk.
The hotel Oktyabryskaya is luxurious, but in Russia anything by that name is. I take an hour-long shower to wash off the grime of the last few days, and decide to stay in town a little longer than planned. There is a lively boardwalk along the river and strolling around is a pleasure.
Day 38. Novosibirsk. 55 N, 82 E.
I am exactly half way around the planet. Novosibirsk is third largest city in Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg, and geographic center of the country. I meet Roman, a young entrepreneur and motorcycle enthusiast. There are only 40 motorcycles in this megalopolis and Roman owns 25 of them, including an I-could-kill-for Africa Twin. He walks about with a cell phone and a pager, which go off constantly. He seems to be prospering.
Day 41. Omsk.
Arriving in town is disconcerting. The city is quite large but hard to find. Again, a small LADA packed with an entire family saves my day leading me to the hotel. As I pull the bike into the lobby, I notice one of my luggage mounts has broken.
Next day my luggage mount is superbly welded at a BMW-Mercedes car shop. The owner Isa Alexandre, another young, blue-jean clad, pony tailed "byznezman" and motorcycle aficionado. With the breakup of the clumsy Soviet system, a great number of private businesses have sprouted all over Russia. Young entrepreneurs run them with amazing efficiency, making a very nice living in the process. Alexandre charges me nothing to repair the mount, but asks me to tip the welder 50 Rubles (US$2.00).
Day 44. 11 AM.
Problem. My bike purrs along the solitary road when suddenly the "engine hot" warning light comes on. I pull over, shut the engine and look for obvious leaks but see none. The coolant reservoir is empty, and the engine oil level has increased. The dipstick comes out looking like it had been dipped in cappuccino. It doesn't take a Max Friz to figure out what is happening. The owner's manual dutifully recommends in this event "the bike transported to the nearest BMW motorcycle dealer". Ha! The nearest is in Moscow 3,000 kilometers away. I refill the reservoir from my canteen and press on. Will have to keep an eye on that coolant level.
In next installment: A visit to the URAL Motorcycle Works.
Coping with a broken down F650 in Russia.