Motorbikes Across Russia!
Three local Melbourne lads
decided that a traditional 'mid-life' crisis was not for them!
With Family permissions, and much planning, their journey began. London to Vladivostok via Scandinavia!
Here follows some emails received whilst on the road...Read and dream!
Bikes being packed for shipment
Read some emails from the road - scroll down. View some pictures of trip - click here
Have not had easy email access, so a general letter to all and sundry makes it easier. We are in Kirkenes in far north Norway (around 71 degrees north), about 800 kms into the Arctic Circle, and having a great time. It was snowing this morning, but mostly the weather has been great. The Russian border looms only 4k away, and the beginning of our real adventure.
Norway is absolutely spectacular. We have never been out of sight of snow capped mountains and lakes or fiords, and have been sleeping in cute little cabins. We have done about 4000 ks and pretty well seen the best of the country. And for the bike fans, the roads are magic, winding continuously, but never too tight, and in perfect condition, although with quite a few reindeer to dodge up north. The people all seem to speak English and have made a huge fuss over 3 Australians so far from home, their jaws drop when we mention the Russian plans. It's a pity it is so expensive.
In the Kikenes harbour are 3 big shiny Norwegian fishing boots. Beside them are 3 big rusty decrepid Russian fishing boats. Perhaps a sign of what lies ahead.
Hope all is well back home.
We are currently in Petrozavodsk, a quite beautiful Russian city on the edge of the huge lake Onega, and staying in the Stalinist grandeur of Hotel Severnaya. If only the hot water was working!
Our first week in Russia has been wonderful. We ended up entering from the border near Joensuu in Finland. The snow and cold on the road to Murmansk in the far north finally wore us down, so we rode from Kirkenes in the North of Norway down into Finland, picked up some new rear tyres along the way (Alec, our Siracs will only make around 6000 ks, even at 45psi - we must be riding too fast!). Finland was beautiful, but Northern European Russia looks exactly the same, quite stunning. Lush green forests of Birch and Fir, and spectacular lakes and rivers. The Russian experience, so far, has been quite something. The border crossing was easy, we even got smiles from the guards, but the initial experience as we rode on was real Alice through the looking glass stuff. The Finish side was classic modern western, all shiny and clean, while the Russian side was totally rundown, with ramshackle houses and derelict industrial buildings. This seems to be the norm in the countryside, whereas our first big city, Petrozavodsk, is quite cosmopolitan, tree lined streets, many with beautiful classic buildings, western style shops, the streets full of young people, bars, clubs, the usual western stuff. It could be anywhere in Europe.
We have already camped in the Russian forest. It was fantastic, and not a bear to be seen. The Russian people have been very, very friendly both in the country and here. The bikers in Norway and Finland always wave, even the Harley riders, but in the Russian countryside everyone waves, except the old people who stare in disbelief.
The downside is the state of the roads, and the "pedal to the metal" driving style of the Russians in their clapped out Ladas and Volgas. But we have seen them building new roads, so it will get better.
Where we have been (apparently it is Dr Zhivago country), no one ever seems to have met any Australians before, only Finns. In fact, some people we spoke to in the countryside did not seem to have heard of Australia. The language makes everything hard, and it is a mark of Russian friendliness that they are very patient, although they do seem to find our communication efforts a bit hilarious. And hardly anyone speaks English, which has surprised us.
Tomorrow we hydrofoil to Kizhi Island - look it up, it sounds a bit special in the Lonely Planet book.
We will soon head south to St Petersburgh, then Novgorod, Moscow, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, and on to Siberia.
Hope you are all well. How is that wonderful school in Sunshine travelling? I think of it often.
I really like Russia. It has at the same time been both exotic and familiar.
We have been here two weeks and travelled 2000 kilometres. Everyone has been friendly and helpful, and very interested and amazed that we are riding across their country. They don't have enduro bikes here, so they attract an amazing amount of attention, especially in the villages. And when they find out that we are from Australia, we get a double dose.
Being independant travellers has meant that we really are seeing places that relatively few foreigners get to, and probably even less Australians. Thus the attention.
We have stayed with a Russian family, in old Stalinist era hotels, in pine forests, and at the moment we have our own apartment in the suburbs of Moscow.
So far, not a single person has hassled us in any way, and they go out of the way to help us. The roads, however, are scary. The main highways are jammed with trucks all going too fast and overtaking whenever the driver feels like a little excitement. A bit like parts of Asia. We have often been off the main highways, but still fitted in the famous cities.
St Petersburgh was wonderful - a beautiful and sophisticated city, looking like a cross between Rome and Venice (according to phil, who knows about such things), with canals, parks and history everywhere. We did the usual tourist thing and went to The Hermitage, Winter Palace etc, and the opera. Would you believe $8 to see Mazeppa (Tchaikovsky) at the Marinski Theatre, with a full symphony orchestra and 200 performers? Just great! We also went to see The Barber of Seville, and when the babushka at the door found out we were from Australia, she would not let us watch from the back row with our cheap tickets, so she moved us to one of those private boxes like the queen and her corgis use. We stayed with a Russian family only 5 minutes walk from Nevsky Prospect, and had our first experience of Russian home cooking. And they organised tough guys to guard our bikes just down the road.
All the big cities have shops full of everything we have back home (except vegemite), so it really has been easy (and cheap). And no shortage of restaurants selling western style food.
We have also been to Novgorod (the original Russian 10th century settlement), and will leave Moscow in a few days and head for Perm and Yekaterinburg, then into Siberia.
A typical example of Russians going out of the way to help us occurred yesterday as we tried to find our way into Moscow through the traffic created by 10 million people. And it was raining! We missed a turnoff on the outer Moscow ring road and got lost (would you believe 10 lanes of divided road running 150 km's around the city - jam packed with traffic going far too fast - scary stuff) . We pulled up in the emergency lane in front of a broken down truck (for protection, because everyone drives in the emergency lane). The truck driver fixed his truck, then escorted us about 40 km's back to our turnoff, insisting that he use his truck to shield us from the worst of the traffic - because he felt that it was not safe for Australians on motor bikes.
Interestingly, Russians seem to have no idea that many people in the west think that Russia is a very dangerous country with an out of control crime problem. Like other people, Russians seem to love their children, treat visitors with respect and courtesy, and simply get on with their lives. One surprise has been how few people speak English, even in the big cities. Then we stop in a village and a 14yo kid comes up and talks to us in English, explaining that his teacher taught him. Thank god for teachers, eh?
Hope everyone is well back home. Thinking of you all.
I am writing this from Omsk, in the "Radioactive Internet Club". It probably is.
We really are in Siberia now. The roads are straighter, the land is flatter, and we come upon villages less frequently; but it is still Russia, and the good things have not changed. I am more aware than ever of how passionate and emotional the Russian people are. They appear to treat our journey as if it were an adventure of epic proportions, deserving of unlimited assistance and hospitality. Our bikes continue to attract attention wherever we go, whether it be small villages or big provincial cities. We are regularly given food, little gifts, advice, endless handshakes and embraces. Even money! And no one is yet to ask for anything in return. They appear by nature to be very warm people. Sometimes we have to scratch the surface a little before this warmth appears, but it always does.
We continue to sleep in the forests every few days, then visit big city hotels for showers, a rest, and the good, cheap restaurant food we are regularly finding. We have travelled about 4000 kms in Russia so far, with about 5000 to go.
The roads have actually been better since we left Yekaterinburgh in the Urals (where the Romanovs met their end in 1918).
Our efforts to get off the main roads has led to a few unexpected adventures. We really see the villages when we do, but between Kazan and Perm we found ourselves faced with 50ks of deep slippery mud. My previously faithful Kawasaki deposited me upside down in the quagmire, which the locals found very amusing, but then offered me a banya (like a home sauna) to clean up. Part of this little saga was a river crossing on a huge barge. We spent over three hours on it after a truck got bogged on the loading track - enough time to become real celebrities, with virtually everyone on board wanting their photo taken with us, autographs, etc. A queue actually formed to view Shane's album of family photos. We left them to manage the photos, and of course they were all carefully returned later on. They gave us food, tapes of Russian music, old soviet money, beer, etc. And they would all have been local villagers. It was quite wonderful.
After Moscow, we visited Suzdal, an very beautiful old town in the so called "Golden Ring". We stayed in a hotel within the grounds of one of the six or so crumbling old fortressed monastaries. There we met a young artist who arranged for his mother to meet us a week later in Kazan and show us around. Svetlana turned out to be a research scientist at the university (PhD etc). She really looked after us, including an offer to visit her dacha and pick strawberries.
Kazan was where we saw the first sign of the ethnic and religious diversity that characterises eastern Russia. Moslem Tartars mix easily with Christian Russians. Mosques can be found alongside churches. Local villages alternate between Tartar speaking and Russian speaking. Wonderful place.
The provincial cities are full of life late into the night, particularly around the central malls which most seem to have (usually named Prospect Lenina), where there is always music and young people doing their thing. We are yet to see any aggressive or anti social behaviour.
Tomorrow we head for Novosibirsk, then south down to the Altai mountains and the border where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazahkstan all meet.
Again, I hope you are all well, and that my teaching colleagues have had a good holiday break. By the way, the temperature here is usually between 25 and 30 degrees. Just trying to make you all jealous!
With 15,000 ks behind us,
eight time zones, and a Russian haircut, we are now in Irkutsk.
From Omsk we rode right down to the Mongolian border through the Altay mountains. They were absolutely beautiful and very spectacular. Around every bend would be new colours, textures and shapes with rapidly flowing rivers cutting through steep valleys. And just before the Mongolian border it all levelled out to miles of flat, stony steppes (complete with the odd yurt) but all surrounded by distant mountain peaks. Real central Asia stuff! The Altay people look similar to those from Mongolia.
And to add to the experience we were caught in a seemingly endless series of thunderstorms that swirled around us with lightning bouncing of the road and rain squalls which totally blinded us, but only for minutes as each storm moved on to be replaced by another from a different direction. It was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen - a bit scary, but great to have experienced it. Shane, who claims to be an expert in such things, insisted that it was safer to keep riding during a lightning storm no matter how bleak it became. Maybe he knew what he was talking about because we survived to tell the tale. I hope the photos do it all justice.
To get to the Altay we left the main highway before Novosibirsk and travelled south 1000 ks into areas where very few foreigners go, and of course got the usual "visiting royalty" reception from the villages and towns along the way. These Russian people are just so generous and friendly! We have even had people in passing cars waving us down to take a picture of us with them. And almost evertime we ask for directions they still insist on escorting us to where we want to go.
It was during our time in the Altay that we discovered we had a big problem with our motorcycle import documentation which necessitated a visit to the city of Barnaul. Customs at the border made a mistake with the expiry date, which we never realised, and it ran out on June 26. On two occasions police indicated that they had no choice but to confiscate our bikes. Somehow we bluffed our way out each time, and in Barnaul we met a young university student who offered to help. He spoke perfect English, but it took two days of travelling to different offices, getting contradictary advice, filling out form after form, signing statements which we did not really understand, etc etc. When it looked like they would not do it (meaning we might never get our bikes out of Russia), our friend rang his aunty who "had connections" and from then on our problem was gradually sorted out. I guess it is the Russian way!
"Gary" (real name Igor) spent two days with us, riding around on the back of one of the bikes - lucky it was uni holidays.
I have recorded each little step of what we had to do. It reads like something out of Monty Python. But it is important to note that all the officials (police and customs people) smiled throughout and were actually quite pleasant, but rules were rules, and protocol was protocol, they said.
Just a bit more to add to the rich tapestry of our trip, I guess.
One thing I don't think I have mentioned is that Russia is paradise for anyone interested in wooden houses. The basic village hut is a type of log cabin with decorative fretwork around the windows, but the old parts of the cities have "big" versions of the same - usually two stories, plus a half concealed basement level. They are rarely painted except around the windows. I have photographed probably too many of them. Predictably, Russians see them as old fashioned and only for poor people. Hope they save them before they all sink into the ground.
Is Melbourne getting warmer? The weather here has been great for the last fortnight (except for our thunderstorms, but they pass quickly).
We have heard that Australian TV mentioned tornadoes and the like in Siberia. Yesterday we passed through a village which had been flattened (along with its local forest) just 6 days earlier. Lucky we missed it. They gave us very colourful descriptions of their adventure (it's amazing how much can be communicated with body language and a few Russian words like "big" and "not good"). But everyone seemed to be smiling and requesting that we take their photograph with hammer and plank in hand. Just part of that Russian resilience I guess. They just resign themselves to their situation and get on with it.
We actually meet more foreigners in the remote, so called "adventure" areas than in the big cities. They are all doing the big Kazahkstan/Mongolia off road thing, and are invariably interesting. Their feats certainly make our journey look a bit wimpy. For example, two young Poles on bicycles in the Altay who had already crossed Kazahkstan with hardly any baggage, and a Finish bicycle rider near Kazan who intended to be in Vladivostok the same time as us. And judging from the steely glint in his eyes, I daresay he will do it. We even met an American in the Altay who introduced himself as an Australian. Turns out he has lived in Alice Springs for 30 years. He was 61 years old and had just ridden his BMW through Mongolia. It's never too late!
SIberia is as diverse as Western Russia. The scenery is constantly changing (the opposite to what we expected). It is lush and green, the rivers are spectacular, the villages take on different characteristics, the ethnic mix changes, no two cities are alike, etc etc. I like it!
And for a postscript, the first time we turned a hotel tv on in Russia, we were stunned to see Rex Hunt prattling on, but dubbed into Russian. Just can't escape the pervasive influence of Australian culture. They love our nature documentaries. When they can't understand the word "Australia", I simply do a kangaroo impersonation. Works every time.
Hope you are all well.
We are in Khabarovsk - the Chinese border is 30ks one way, the Pacific Ocean about 200ks the other, and apparently Amur tigers roam nearby.
Siberia never seems to end, but we still think it is a great place to be in.
We had a wonderful 10 days on and around beautiful lake Baikal. For those who may not know (which included me before we planned this trip), it is the world's largest and deepest lake, with 20% of the world's fresh water - a true natural wonder of the world. We camped literally 2m from the water's edge on three occasions, I finally got to stay in an old timber cottage (in the village of Listvyanka), and I swam in the lake a few times (unlike my wimpy companions who thought Baikal's sacred waters too cold).
We shared camping areas with Russian families who of course fed and entertained us. I was amazed at how many take their cats with them. One particular cat, Sonja, kept us entertained for several days even if we did have to rescue her from big trees on a regular basis. When they left they simply called her, she appeared, jumped in the Lada, and off they all went waving madly at us in the usual Russian manner. Baikal was as amazing as we had heard - an absolute highlight of the trip. Its appearance keeps changing - the colour of the water, the way clouds continuously form and reform into shapes and patterns I have never seen before, surrounding mountains would appear, then fade away as banks of mist came and went, etc etc. The locals say Baikal has many moods. I now know what they mean.
We lived mostly on delicious freshly cooked omul (the commercial Baikal fish) purchased from the roadside for a dollar each.
There were great mountain roads and pine forests around the south of Baikal, but in typical Siberian fashion, by the time we reached Ulan Ude, we were in grassed steppelands.
We rode down to Invoginsk to visit the Buddhist Datsun there, apparently the most important in Russia. This area is the home of the Buryat people who are mostly Buddhist. The temples are being slowly rebuilt after the Soviet destruction of the 30's.
Those who read my ramblings may think I go on a bit about the passion, friendliness and hospitality of the Russian people, but the following incident again demonstrates it, as well as the slightly anarchic way in which life is lived in the Russian countryside.
On the main highway near Baikal we came across hundreds of cars and trucks banked up. We wound our way down to the front of the queue to find rail lines being dug up at a crossing and that the road was closed for the next 6 hours. When the workmen realised that three Australians had arrived on their way to Vladivostok by motorcycle, the workman went into a frenzy of grabbing tools and planks and built us a narrow (very) bridge over 20m of a gaping holes so that we could get through. When we miraculously wobbled safely over their little bridge, they burst into cheers and were still waving us on our way as they faded from our mirrors.
We arrived in Chita intending to put our bikes on the train for the 2300k trip around the Chinese border to Khabarovsk, because until recently there had never been any road whatsoever. Only a month ago we heard there was now a road but it was still very difficult. Some very optimistic Russians convinced us that our motorcycles would "overcome" whatever difficulties we might have.
Well, we actually did make it to Khabarovsk, after a week of what I can only describe as "character building". At times the road was almost impassable, but we did see places and things that few westerners have seen in the past (that's the best spin I can put on it, although Shane, our resident true adventurer, thought it was all a bit of a doddle - I may never speak to him again. I even had our first puncture of the trip. Not bad I guess after nearly 60,000 collective kilometres.
In Chita we were befriended by an English speaking Russian and his young son who managed all our affairs. Pavel was a sailor on the Kursk up until a month before its tragic end. He now works for the Chita Dramatic Theatre, and our bikes spent three days secure in the theatre's garage.
Our journey is almost over. A bit hard to believe, really.
More Motorbike riders..
We had another intrepid rider make his way across Russia in the opposite direction. Jan, a Dutchman, had been working in rural Victoria on an engineering project. Rather than fly home after his contract he wanted to ride home. He was making a shorter trip the the 'chaps' - expecting to make it in six weeks. Click here to see his story.