12 to 22 Jun 08
Our return to, and final escape from, Moscow coincided with the first two days of a four day holiday weekend for Independence Day. We asked every Russian with whom we could communicate, from exactly what or whom was independence being celebrated, but no one seemed to know. I considered looking it up on the web, but thought, in the end, that if they don't know,why should I. The holiday actually fell on the Thursday, but the cunning Russians had all worked a previous Saturday as a normal workday so they could have a long weekend.
Whatever the reason for the holiday, the consequence was an extraordinary amount of traffic on the roads, much of it “weekend drivers”. As we went back into Moscow it was going the other way so we had a dream run. But on Friday the 12th we were in the thick of it all day. Not that a long weekend was needed to make life difficult on the road.
The Russians are world class when it comes to creating traffic chaos even on the freeways which are a mass of dodging and weaving vehicles that results in many accidents. In a single day we saw 14 accidents on the run from Moscow to Nizhniy Novgorod (450 km). This is more than the total for the 10 preceding months on the road!
Another three vehicle prang blocks the road
Each day was a similar story with a dozen or more accidents in our path. In the built-up areas, each accident created a little more congestion and slowed traffic further. This had a bad effect on the ageing fleet of Ladas and Russian trucks that expired at inappropriate places creating further chaos. All of this made for a stop-start drive of crazy sprints between mauling jams.
Traffic jam endurance test for visitors.
To be fair, some of this was caused by the number of extra vehicles on the road for a holiday weekend. But even 4000 km east of Moscow, where the highways are mainly used by long distance trucks, accidents are a daily sight. Statistically at least, this put the Russians way ahead in the worst drivers stakes.
We had set ourselves the target of riding 500 km a day for 10 days to get across to Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. We also allowed 5 rest days for sightseeing and to allow us to service the bike and wash off the road grime before crossing into Mongolia. With two of our rest days used up in a return to Moscow, we didn't have a lot of fat in the schedule.
Now, 500 km is not a big day back in Oz. Here it is hard work. In addition to the road conditions and drivers, Russians also have to put up with some of the most heavily policed highways in the world. Police check points are every few km pulling over vehicles for offences, real or imagined, or just to check documents. We have been generally lucky with the police, but it was our 10th day on the road in Russia before we rode a full 500 km without being stopped.
It doesn't take long to work out why the railway is the most important mover of freight and people.
On the second day out from Moscow we got mixed up in the vehicles competing in and supporting the Trans Orientale Rally. This is a Paris – Dakar type event, although in this case the event goes from St Petersburg to Peking.
St Petersburg to Peking Trans Orientale Rally competitor.
There is a serious investment in running a team in this event.
We got a chance to chat with some competitors and support staff at a few lunch and overnight stops but lost a lot interest in ever getting involved when we converted some of the costs to Aussie dollars! After a day and a half of riding together, the circus turned south for Kazakhstan and we headed north east into Siberia.
John van Rakinzen was with the Dutch team We found out he was born in Ringwood, Victoria, but we didn't hold it against him.
The country itself has been quite different from what we expected. The first 1000 km to the Ural Mountains, the area often described as Western European Russia, is green rolling hills much like rural Victoria, but seemingly endless. The Urals, when we did get to them, were a disappointment. They are not much of a range, at their best rising only 2000 m at the high point. Where we crossed, they were no more than some low hills.
There is lots of green because there is lots of water.
The romantic moment I had imagined, sitting on the watershed, with the West behind and Siberia and the East in front, passed unnoticed between morning tea and lunch without changing out of top gear.
Beyond the Urals, the country drops down onto the Siberian Plain. The Plain is more than 4000 km across and is low and swampy. The Spring melt-water doesn't drain away in the summer, leaving the water-table close to the surface or exposed. It also makes road-making very difficult. Most of the main road is bunded above the surrounding plain for vast distances.
It is often hard to get off the road because of the amount of water.
The roads vary between four lanes and a good surface (very occasionally), to badly deteriorated single lane where first and second gear are the best we could do, and we did better than any of the cars making about 40 km in an hour. In general, the roads have continued to deteriorate as we have traveled east.
Roads are of “variable” quality.
The fuel itself has been relatively cheap ($1.10/litre), but many stations only sell 80 and 92 octane, and this is poor feed for Elephant. The local cars seem to run fine on 80 or even 76 octane but we have found that this causes Elephant to fart a lot and lose interest in proce(e)ding(s).
Local cars seem to run OK on 80 or 76 octane fuel but Elephant doesn't like it much.
Any area that is above the water is cultivated and any area with tree cover is wet and, therefore, not cultivated. The area of arable land is breathtaking. We have ridden 5000 km through rich black-soil country and only now, at the eastern edge of Siberia, have we found some higher ground and sandier soils. One consequence of this is that it is difficult to find somewhere to pull off the road for a piss, without stepping off the road and into a swamp, and our usual roadside lunches have been out of the question.
Now, where is a dry tree to hide behind?
Instead of roadside picnics, we joined the brotherhood of long distances truck drivers and started to frequent the truck stop cafés and hotels. These places generally have a fuel station (they couldn't be called service stations here as all they do is sell fuel), a café and and a hotel. We have lunch at the cafés of soup, salad, bread and tea for about $4 each. We stay overnight at the hotels from $25 for the room ($5 extra for a shower) with dinner and breakfast equally good value.
A typical truck stop with accommodation upstairs and cafe down.
The decor in the cafe left us in no doubt where we were!
Obviously, services of all kinds thin out as you go east. This led to one longer than expected day when I failed to take Jo's advice and stop a suitable pub claiming we needed to ride an additional half hour to make our schedule. Four hours and 250 km later we were running out of time and options when we finally found an old Soviet block-house hotel in a provincial town. We arrived in time to see the town's mid-summer fire-works display, but not in time to find anywhere to eat. We were at least 200km ahead of schedule.
We have passed through many very poor rural villages in the last ten days. Most have no indoor plumbing of any kind and for many, wood burning is still the source of winter heat. The countryside is desperately poor and life seems tough.
In the poor rural villages log construction is still used.
This is not to say that Siberia is a backwater or even backwards generally. There is a resources and development boom underway here and big fortunes are still being made. The cities that are at the heart of the boom are thriving with new middle-class suburbs sprouting like mushrooms and construction cranes filling the sky. We have been into supermarkets out here that were as big and well stocked as any in Australia or Western Europe. Expensive cars and fashionable clothes are everywhere.
A skyline full of construction cranes is testament to the boom underway here...
...as are the residential projects in the big cities.
The agricultural sector has been left behind and those cities and towns that were built under dodgy Soviet central economic plans are struggling. Those cities hooked into the new economy are booming.
There is coal to burn in Siberia, which is exactly what they do with it in some very dirty power stations.
Siberian locals (and Russians generally) have been amazing. A request for directions often results in a local driving to the destination in his car while we follow or, as in this case, four pages of maps printed off the business computer to make sure we didn't get lost getting out of town.
It is hard to sum up our feelings on Siberia. Our antipodean minds have an innate understanding of the tyranny of distance. But this place, like much of Russia, flows out over the edge of our imaginations.
...and did I tell you how big this place is? The wheat just disappears over the horizon and continues to do so as you drive hundreds of km.
22 June to 29 June 2008
The end of the road on our transit of the Siberian Plain was the town of Irkutsk, the start of the Russian East and the gateway to Lake Baikal. 400 of the last 600 km of roads leading to Irkutsk were very poor and we had stretched ourselves to keep up our average daily distance. Had it not been for an inadvertent 850 km day, when we miscalculated the location of accommodation, we would have fallen short of our ten day target from Moscow to Irkutsk.
By the time we arrived at Irkutsk on 22 June, it was raining steadily and we were keen to get settled in some decent accommodation for a couple of days lay-over. We found some fair digs at a hostel, or should I say they found us, when the owner leapt out of his car and apprehended us as we were about to try our luck at the cheapest pub on the our list. We had the place to ourselves on the first night as another other couple due to arrive phoned to say that they were in hospital with food poisoning from the Trans Siberian train. This confirmed our view that rail is a dangerous form of transport. We enjoyed an evening playing house and cooking a simple meal in the kitchen. Meanwhile, it rained steadily through the night.
The landlord's son Nikita was a precocious 3 year old who kept Jo entertained on rainy afternoon.
On the morning of Monday 23 June, businesses were open for business and we set out to find the automotive souk to buy some specialised oil to service Elephant. We found the right place without difficulty and were pleasantly surprised to find one of the best automotive markets anywhere. About 200 traders had individual shops gathered inside a single large building. All the shops were modern and very well laid-out. It was easy to find what you needed and to compare prices. Once again, Siberia surprised us.
All I needed was four litres of fancy oil so I had no excuse to linger with Jo standing in the rain guarding Elephant. I shouldn't have worried. By the time I got back, Elephant had gathered the usual handful of admirers and Jo was having a conversation with one handsome young gentleman about the geology of Siberia.
A young man outside the car souk tries out Elephant's seat for size.
Elephant got a service, but only just. Half way through the rain started to bucket down and, with no shelter, it was hard work to get the basics done. Nevertheless, fresh oil, filter and plugs is a good start on these bikes and we were pleased that Elephant checked out OK after a tough 12 days.
Two minutes later the rain started again and didn't let up for two days.
The first treat of Irkutsk was a chance meeting with two German bikers Emil and Wolfgang who had come through Kazakhstan and were on their way to Mongolia. It was a great chance to compare notes on Russia and intelligence on Mongolia and to reassure each other that we are all perfectly sane!
Emil and Wolfgang flagged us down as we arrived in town. They were BMW mounted and had already been to Kazakhstan.
Emil and Wolfgang were planning to go back to the west from Ulan Baatar. A few days later in Ulan Ude we met a Russian biker who had just come over these roads. When we asked him what they were like his one word answer was: “Hell!”. He had fried the clutch on his Transalp Honda and ended his trip to Ulan Baatar in the back of a truck. He looked pretty used up by the time we met him.
The second treat of our Irkutsk stay was back at the hostel. We were not looking forward to sharing with a group of strangers arriving on the train, but we needn't have worried. Chris and Jess turned out to be a delightful young American couple traveling with some of their family and taking a break from teaching in Korea.
We don't meet many English speakers on our travels and often go for long periods with only each other for company, so the young Americans were shanghaied to the kitchen where tea was made and stories exchanged. Hopefully we will catch up with them again, perhaps in Korea on the way home.
It continued to bucket down and, as Irkutsk had already established itself as one of our least favourite places to stay in the rain, we decided to head out to Lake Baikal regardless of the weather. A planned early departure turned into a late departure as we fussed about with our wet weather gear and hoped for a break in the clouds.
None came and our discomfort was made worse when we took a wrong turn and exited the city the wrong way only to circle the town and ride through the centre to get onto the right road. This, combined with torrential rain, heavy traffic, and a twisting, poor quality road added up to a three hour ride for the 100km to the first lake-side town. It had only one ancient, run down hotel but we were not in a choosy mood. We booked in, spread out our gear to dry, found the basics (food and beer) and waited, with the lake barely visible through the rain and mist.
Wet riding gear hanging on every available place in our decrepit hotel room.
This hotel also had the largest bathroom (shared) ever. Shame about the plumbing!
The next day we rode on into steady rain as there didn't seem much point in being lake-tourists in such poor weather. This was a shame because Lake Baikal is worth visiting. The lake is not only huge, it is also deep. Deep enough to contain about 20% of the world's surface fresh water or more water than all five of the North American Great Lakes combined! But, as the rain continued, our plans for a few lazy days seemed as elusive as the sun and we splashed up the east coast of the lake heading for Ulan Ude.
Lake Baikal as it greeted us, barely visible through the mist.
The rain had left the unmade sections of the road very muddy, slippery and slow but as the day dragged on the rain lessened and then stopped and we arrived in Ulan Ude in a blast of sunshine and humidity. We found an affordable room in the old Soviet era hotel, that was unrestored to the extent that the original single-station radio was still on the wall, and settled in for three nights.
Top of the to-do list for UU was to fit the Metzler knobby tyres we had brought from Moscow and to find a small engineering shop to do a welding repair. We gave Elephant a bath using a public standpipe near our hotel.
Drawing water from a public standpipe in a city street.
Even in larger cities in Siberia and the Far-East, many houses are not connected to mains water and people still draw water from public standpipes. Our final indulgence was a haircut each; the first since Hungary.
These should do the trick for the bad roads in Mongolia and the Far East.
Ulan Ude is the centre of Mongolian Russia and the look of the people and feel of the place was very different from the Siberian towns we had visited until then. The town itself has the vestiges of a faded 19th century glory including a huge opera house and some elegant public buildings. It was a scrubby, rough and ready sort of place but a good place to enjoy some sunny days and catch our breath.
Ulan Ude's elegant opera house was a reminder of more prosperous times in the 19th century.
Ulan Ude also gets an award for this huge head of Lenin. We were already joking that Russia is a land of giants because of the number of larger than life-size statues that can be found in every town, but this head of the famous Mr Vladimir Ulyanov takes the cake.
On 28 June we rode down to the Mongolian border and the frontier town of Kyakhta. This garrison town (there appeared to be an Infantry division straddling the road on the way in) had its hey-day before the advent of the railway when it prospered from the caravans bringing tea from China. Today it is another of those dusty border towns full of the characters and desperadoes that seem to gravitate to these places all over the world.
The ruins of the Trinity Cathedral, built in 1817 on the wealth of the China tea caravans, were an interesting find in the dusty border town of Kyakhta.
This border-town desperado thought he would earn a fee by helping us get through the border. He got a photo op for his trouble but no payday. We have been through this too many times.
We prepared our papers to cross into Mongolia the next morning. We were less well prepared for Mongolia than for any other place we have visited and the Russians had done a good job of frightening us with stories about the roads and broken bikes. But, as always, we were keen to work it out for ourselves.
5 July to 11 Jul 08
Chita to Khabarovsk is a distance of 2150km. Not much in this vast land. Of this, a few hundred are a bituminous surface varying from “good”to pot-hole alley. The remainder, about 1800km, is unsealed. To be more technically correct, the “remainder” is under construction. To put that in perspective, that is a construction site stretching from Brisbane to Melbourne. In the land of giants, even the construction sites are epic.
Chita, the end of one road at least.
A few dozen riders undertake the 12,000km trans-Russia crossing each year and, with a single ribbon of road crossing most of the land, it is inevitable that each rider will meet, or hear about, most of the others on the road at the same time. The meetings are often short and intense. Each rider, or team, keen to confirm that there are others who would want to do it and desperate for information about the road, fuel, accommodation, helpful contacts and places to avoid.
Most solo riders cover the 2,000km in about five days from Chita to Khabarovsk. We had intended to take six, out of deference to our seniority and common sense, but ended taking five. The story of why is really the story of our crossing.
Trans-Siberian Railway does all of the heavy lifting. It is amazing!
Routes M55 and M58 across Siberia all the way to the Russian East have been poorly built then poorly maintained over many years. The reason for this is that the road system is almost irrelevant to the economy and the lives of the people in remote Russia. It is the Trans-Siberian Railway that provides the all-purpose communications network that binds this impossibly big country together. The railway moves the great mass of every kind of resource or supply, around the clock, with impressive efficiency. Development has followed the tracks with a string of towns clustered along the line and sparse development elsewhere.
The road system has never had the capacity to take much commercial traffic.
The road has been strangely detached from all of this. It moved little freight in the Far East and did mainly local service and was almost impassable in numerous places from time to time. Four years ago work started on redevelopment of the road. The re-surveyed route took it further away from the railway and from the railway towns in many places. The surface varies greatly, but most is now gravel, deep gravel, unconsolidated road-base gravel, riding on marbles gravel, every bike rider's favourite. Gravel!
The road is like riding through a construction site in many areas.
On our way into Chita we met Polish couple Kamil and Izabela riding a Honda Africa Twin. This bike weighs about 50kg less than Elephant, but theirs was heavily laden and would have been no easy ride on the gravel. Our store of up to date information and our confidence grew. A few hours later we met Yasuhito Konishi, solo on an Africa Twin, who had ridden the road three years previously. The road was much harder now, he said. The gravel was awful. Our confidence flagged a little.
Kamil and Isabela on the road to Chita.
Yasuhito looking like he had done it all before.
On the morning of 7 July we solved the riddle of the maze and found our way out of Chita and onto the road east. We had met Charlie Honner, a lone Australian rider heading west, who had given us some good information on conditions so we blasted over the first 100km of tarmac then settled down to the rough ride.
Mike and Charlie in Chita.
For the first two days our ride went to plan. We made the towns we were targeting comfortably and, eventually, found a bed. These towns are desperately poor. Forgotten in the vastness of the Eastern Plains they are ground down by poverty, dusty and frayed. The log-cabin houses have no indoor plumbing at all and are heated by wood fires. No foreigners come here. No tourists get off the train. Nothing much changes.
The “guest house” in Chernishevsk. It took us an hour to find it. There were six beds in the house. Five were occupied the night we stayed.
A new log cabin house under construction.
We shared our accommodation with ordinary Russians; company reps visiting the small shops, delivery truck drivers, electrical engineers working for the power company. We ate in their cafés, discussed the road and the weather and answered, as well as we could, their ever curious questions about where we had come from and why we were there. The Russians we met started to have faces and names, jobs and families.
A typical roadside café where the weary traveler can get a bowl of cabbage soup (and other stuff).
On a dusty section of road we saw a couple of big bikes approaching and pulled Elephant over for a meeting. As they emerged from the dust we saw that they were all Harley Davidsons, all low slung cruisers. There were 17 in all from the Korean chapter of the Harley Owners Group! They had a support vehicle for all their gear with a trailer behind that had a bike on it.
The Korean HOGs looked like they had had a big day out.
The HOGs were on their way to Germany on a grand adventure. They had had some bike problems and gathered around our heavily laden rig looking at the details of the luggage fit, the special knobby tyres, the long travel suspension and lots of other stuff. Elephant looked down that funny nose at the low slung cruisers and I must admit that I saw a certain rugged purposefulness in the beast that had eluded me on the freeways of Western Europe. Out here, Elephant looked the goods.
Mike signed the leg of several HOGs. This chap already had a dozen signatures!
On the third day it rained, and rained, and rained. We met Masayuki Goto on his Africa Twin looking cold and tired but showing the same sense of independence and determination we see in all the riders. We reassured him that the road ahead was awful and he did the same for us. It seemed the least we could do for each other.
Masayuki Goto in his rain gear.
The road turned to mud. Elephant slipped and slid and we were reduced to a 2nd gear idle. It took three exhausting hours to cover 40km. There was nowhere to stop so we pressed on throughout the day and into the early evening. We stopped for fuel in the early twilight and learned that there was a hotel in the town of Skovorodino not far up ahead. We set out to find it.
At least in the rain you can see the potholes before they crump your suspension...
...in the dry they just can't be avoided.
30km further along we found the sign for the turn-off to Skovorodino. It was one of those large white on blue signs and said turn in 300 m. We turned. The road went 25m and stopped dead. We went down the highway further, turned around and found a sign coming from the other direction. Turn in 200m it said but the side road remained a 25m dead end. This was Russian humour at its best and even after 12 hours on the bike in the rain we got the joke.
Mike starting to look like the day had gone on too long.
We continued east for another 16km wondering where we could find a bed before seeing a small track heading off in the direction of the town. It had no sign post but we followed it anyway. After about 10km a town of 30,000 emerged from the mist! The joke, it seemed, was on them. We had found Skovorodino.
We also found the hotel, a clutch of friendly, helpful locals who manhandled Elephant up the hotel steps and into the foyer, and a Chinese restaurant that didn't serve rice but did serve chips.
The road dried out on the fourth day and we made better time sometimes going as fast as 40 or even 60km/h! The day was hot and long, food and fuel were hard to find and there was no sign of accommodation in the place we had hoped it to be.
We pressed on further. The second accommodation option we had planned failed to materialise and, with the last of the afternoon shadows fading and only the twilight left to ride, we had 170km of bad road to the last option. We pressed on with some determination over some of the worst roads we had ridden. We made the distance just after last light to be told by the locals that there was no hotel or guest-house for a long way in any direction. Our information had clearly been wrong three out of three!
The roads in this section were very hard to ride. They were a sand base with loose river gravel up to 100mm deep. If Elephant wasn't skating on the stones, the front wheel was burying itself in the exposed sand.
We had dinner at a roadside café and headed Elephant east again on a stretch of sealed road. After about an hour in the saddle we found a small side road, then a track and finally a concealed meadow. It was midnight and we had been riding for 16 hours.
We organised an improvised shelter and settled down to get a few hours sleep in our “stealth” camp. Unsurprisingly we both slept well!
Stealth camping was not on the plan but we were prepared for contingency.
We had a dingo's breakfast and started early on the fifth day. The road got better, then worse, then better again. We met Edgar from the Russian Black Bears Motorcycle Club when we had only a few km of unsealed road remaining and he had the whole ride to Moscow ahead of him. We wished him luck with some sincerity. Then finally, late on the afternoon of 11 July we ambled into Khabarovsk and booked into a hotel with plenty of hot water and a double bed.
Edgar was solo on a light bike.
Throughout our 12,000km ride across this stunning land we have rubbed along with the ordinary Russians going about their lives. In the remote areas the only foreigners have been other adventure riders. The locals have been friendly, amazingly helpful, curious, cheerful and pleased that we have made the effort to come to their town.
The road stretches into the vastness of the Russian Far East. Khabarovsk is somewhere out there!
Long distance truck drivers in this place have a tough life. The extraordinary distances, appalling roads, extreme climate and almost complete lack of infrastructure make every trip an adventure. They form a sort of tough-guys brotherhood, proud of the difficulties they face each day. We have had many conversations along the way with them speaking Russian and us speaking English. They give us advice about the road ahead, the weather, where to get a bed and the cafes where the cabbage soup is as good as grandmothers (at least that's what I think they said).
When they see the bikes, with their grim faced riders skating around on the gravel, they acknowledge them with a series of horn blasts and a friendly wave. Some punch the air with a clenched fist in the universal salute of the undefeated; the exclamation mark of defiance.
We always acknowledge them with a wave and, I have to admit, occasionally a raised clenched fist. After all, we are all tough-guys out here.
13 to 22 Jul 08
The last leg of our 12,000km journey across Russia was a mere 780km of reasonable road between Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. Under other circumstances we would have made the distance a day's run but Elephant's rear tyre had been almost destroyed in the 2000km from Chita to Khabarovsk. Fissures had opened up in the casing and too much more abuse would see it fail. We decided to take a slow, two day trip down and to look for new tyres in Vlad.
Every lug in the central two rows on these Metzler Karoo T tyres had been opened up like this. Most riders carry spare tyres. We had decided to save the weight and came through on one set...just.
Rumbling along through the forests and fields of the Russian Far East at 80kph gave us a great opportunity to think about our Russian experience and put it in some perspective with our wider journey. From the beginning we had known that our traverse of Russia would be the most physically demanding part of our travels but we never considered it to be a test. We knew we could ride across with only the “necessary” drama and we had no intention of making it more difficult than it needed to be. No matter what we could achieve, even in the small world of adventure riders, there would always be someone who has gone further, faster, lighter or tougher. The journey was always about us living our dream and not about getting to Vlad or to anywhere else in particular for that matter.
We finally caught up with Alan (left) and Geoff in Vlad after following them for a week across Siberia. They are riding around the world on the smell of an oily rag for charity. We left them in Vlad looking for empty 44gallon drums and rafting materials to get to the US west coast on a budget.
We have often said that we are propelled on our way by the kindness of strangers and never has this been more the case than in Russia. For once we were deprived of a useful language and we struggled to transliterate Cyrillic. The potential for us to fall into difficulties was greater than at any other time on our journey. However, the ordinary Russians we relied on to get ourselves fed and accommodated were wonderful. They greeted us with curiosity, good humour and friendship at every turn and made the impossible doable and the difficult easy.
We know that our experience is different from that of others. We have met genuine and nice tourists who have complained of officious officials, corrupt cops and bureaucratic bureaucrats. Our trite response has been to point out that that's their job! But at another level it raises the question about why our experience has been so different.
Our broken down hotel in Vlad had a great view over the bay but not much else to recommend it.
What middle class Vladivostokians do on a weekend.
The first serious answer is that we were simply splashing about in a different pool of Russians. The folks we met have little experience with strangers and foreigners and are genuinely curious about us and the reason we were in their world. In short, without the experience of having met demanding tourists, they were prepared to take us as they found us and met our smiles and good humour and grateful thanks with their own.
But we think there is much more to it than this and that the deeper reason is about Elephant and the nature our journey. We have found, as we have traveled, that the idea of a “journey” has a deep cultural significance that is probably universal. To journey far among strangers is seen as an honourable thing, worth doing for its own sake. Our arrival on Elephant underscores the nature of our journey, its difficulties and, therefore, its specialness.
We met Dot and Phil in Vlad. They are an English couple out to prove you don't need a lot of money or fancy equipment to waste a retirement. They are driving an ancient Ducato van around the world. Sensible folk wouldn't bet against this pair of seasoned voyageurs making it easily.
We have learned to tell the story of our journey quickly and efficiently and use it as a kind of currency. We use a map with graphics to show where we have come from without the need for language. We end our explanation by saying, or indicating: “and now we are here!” This usually elicits a broad smile.
The personality of Elephant is the final element in the transaction. Elephant is so distinctive that a small fan club forms wherever we park. People wave as we ride by and grown men ask to sit in the rider's seat to have their photo taken. People often say to us “this is my dream”. We have often spent a half hour or more answering questions and posing for photos and videos when we stop in the street. We spend the time willingly even when we are filthy, exhausted and hot because we understand that this is our part of the transaction. And, for their part, the Russians are kind to us, and true to their own belief in the idea of the great journey.
With these thoughts being passed around we rolled on towards Vladivostok. In the days ahead we would have much to do. We would clean Elephant and our equipment, catch up with some other riders, and get important administration completed for our onward journey. Eventually we would ride 260km further south to the port of Zarubino, pole-vault over mouse shit one more time for the border police and, on the afternoon of 21 July, depart Russia by riding Elephant onto a ferry bound for the Republic of Korea.
But all of that was in the future. This day we looked forward to our arrival in Vlad and the symbolic end of this odyssey. The end of our easterly journey. The end of a continent.
In my imagination we rolled into Vlad like Maharajahs, lumbering along and dispensing the largesse of our waves to interested bystanders. We rumbled down through the city to the harbour and surveyed the sea, basking in a feeling of wellbeing. Of course we photographed the moment and made pithy comments full of poignancy for the record.
As it turned out, it was nothing like that. About 50km out of Vlad the traffic started to thicken and slow as the day warmed to plus 30 and humid. By the time we reached the outskirts of the city we were bathed in sweat and fully occupied with navigating our way into the centre and negotiating traffic populated by some of the world's most irresponsibly stupid drivers.
We struggled with navigation close to the port area, blocked by one way streets not shown as such on our map, and were hampered at every turn by grid locked traffic. We roasted in our riding suits. By the time we parked in front of the ferry terminal my hubris had dissolved in a river of sweat. Rather than feeling elated we were both flat and tired.
Off the bike at last we checked navigation for our hotel and snapped a photo and prepared to leave. As we pulled on our gear I turned in the general direction of St. Petersburg and shouted at no one in particular “is that the best yer can do ya bastards!”
No one answered.
Jo frowned. “Hmm”, she said “we're not on the ferry yet.”
Team Elephant in Vladivostok on 14 July 2008. Ready to storm the Bastille.
24 July to 4 August 2008
We had an easy week in Vladivostok working out our next move, eating well and catching up with other travelers. It didn't take us long to work out that shipping a bike out of Russia was going to be hard work and that our best bet for a successful departure would be for Team Elephant to all go out together. We decided to catch the Dong Chun Ferry from Zarubino to Sokcho, Korea, on Monday 21 Jul.
With a good night's sleep under our belts we started early on the 260 km run to the port. Of course it rained and the road turned to mud but we found the ferry-less port by 1130. It was too early to buy a ticket; come back at three said the lady at the gate. We dripped all over a cafe floor for a few hours and went back at three. The port was still ferry-less and it was still raining. No ferry today, said the lady, come back tomorrow at 1000.
Zarubino, the ferry and the rain.
After a long hard search we found the only hotel in town, hidden at the back of some crusty old apartment buildings up a dirt road turned to a river. By the time we got inside we were wet through and cold and the rain continued to thunder down. As always, some food and a warm bed improved morale.
There is a hotel up here somewhere!
Russian roads were consistent to the last 50 metres.
It would be nice to report that the rain stopped on our last day in Russia; and so it did, but only just. We splashed down to the docks at the appointed 1000 hrs and started the process of figuring how to get ourselves and Elephant out. It became a long day that ended with me sitting on the dock at 1800 hrs on a despondent Elephant while the Russians argued about the correct paperwork to get on the boat. In a way this sums up one element of our Russian experience. There are lots and lots of rules, but no one has the rule book.
Nothing for Elephant to do but wait. There was no way we would have left Elephant in Russia.
Supervised by three Russian Border Police, I loaded Elephant which was the only vehicle on the vehicle deck.
Eventually, at 2230 hr, the ferry slipped her mooring and it was da svi da niya Russia. The next morning we landed in Sockcho, Korea, and started to come to grips with another type of bureaucracy. The Koreans, it seems, also have lots of rules, but everyone has a copy of the same rule book. We were quickly gripped up by Korean Customs and in a few hours we had been separated from about 600 Greenbacks, given an envelope full of paperwork, escorted to the gate and wished welcome to Korea.
With the rain thundering down we spent the first three nights in Korea in the coastal port of Sokcho. This gave us a chance to start to come to grips with this interesting country and to dry out our riding gear. We launched our culinary exploration at once at the "raw fish market" with a great dinner shared with Bjorn Heggelund a Norwegian we had met on the ferry. Over the next few days we ate our fish in a spicy hot pot and on a traditional bar-b-que. All good! After three nights, however, we grew bored with waiting and decided to ride south in the rain. Rigged for wet-running we splashed down the coastal road towards the industrial heartland.
We met Bjorn Hegglund on the ferry. He is a Norwegian who teaches music in Chicago and has some interesting stories to tell.
Jo gets set for the fish hot pot. We wasted no time in getting our bellies around some great Korean tucker.
Elephant didn't do so well on Korean fuel. The "standard" is among the worst we have used.
Over the next week we put up with the summer monsoon and rode around the country on two tanks of fuel. It is not a very big place. In addition, 70% of the land is mountainous and the population of 48 million uses every bit of flat or arable land for productive purposes. This leads to the interesting combination of heavily populated industrial centres distributed around largely unpopulated wilderness areas. Korea is also spotlessly clean, oppressively well organised and, to our New World eyes, extraordinarily homogeneous.
There are lots of picturesque scenes like these rice paddies where every available metre of land is in use.
Despite the high population density, there are plenty of wild mountains, people do lots of walking and there are outdoor stores everywhere.
We were taken by these tiny house boats that were used as a platform for fishing in this lake. Koreans fish everywhere.
All of this, plus great food and reasonable prices, makes Korea a treat to visit. But...those of you who have got to know us a little will recognise that we thrive in places that are a little on the shambolic side. Sometimes, organisation is a pain. Take the road system for example. There is an extensive expressway system in Korea criss-crossing the country, but this is of academic interest only to us. Motorcycles are not allowed on the expressways! In case you think this is because of the blistering speed on the super-highways, the maximum is 100 kph. That leaves the A roads. These are as good as motorways in Australia and most other places and much of their length is divided dual carriageway. The speed limited on these roads is generally 60 kph and 80 for short stretches; frustration central.
The expressways, like this one, are fantastic but are off limits to bikes despite a ludicrous 100 kph speed restriction.
The secondary roads are like motorways elsewhere but are limited to 60 or 80 kph.
We eventually joined a river of traffic flowing north west into the capital Seoul and found our way to the satellite city of Gimpo where we spent a few days cleaning Elephant, repacking and preparing our gear for shipping. There was plenty to do but we also had time to start to become familiar with another huge but amazing city.
No one had much to say on the day we delivered Elephant to the shippers. Not that there was much opportunity to think about events. We still had hours of work to do before we were ready for the farewell. Cleaning off 50,000 km of road grime was the first task. Once that was done, we joined the warehouse staff for lunch before work started on an Elephant crate.
Elephant got as close to a good clean as we could manage without stripping the bike to its component parts.
As the depot is a long way from the nearest village, we shared lunch with the workers. Our verdict was that Korean workers are doing OK, thank you very much.
Eventually, with the paperwork and cleaning done, we were ready to load Elephant onto the crate. Jo was inside the office building sorting papers and most of the staff were off on other tasks. I started the engine and, walking alongside, manouvered Elephant in front of the ramp.
Walking alongside, I drove Elephant the last few metres onto the crate.
I gunned the front wheel up onto the base of the crate. Elephant farted loudly and stalled in disgust. A lone worker stood waiting for the signal to move forward and nail down blocks to stop the wheels moving. The only sound was the faint whine of the fuel pump and the clicking of relays. I reached forward over the dash plate and switched off the ignition. With a final click of relays the panel lights went out and Elephant was silent.
It was 4 August 2008, day 335, and the adventure was over.
Elephant crated up in Gimpo, Korea, 4 Aug 08.
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