Entering Russia from Latvia was a minor exercise at the border. The visa was stamped as well as my passport, giving me license to ride my motorcycle nearly anywhere in Russia for the next 30 days. I had to fill out a Customs Form, declaring things like my cameras and motorcycle, estimating their value. There was some standing around while Border Ivan came back from lunch or a power meeting, but eventually a computer spit out the needed document allowing entry of my vehicle, a Kawasaki 650 KLR. One wrinkle that would present a minor problem exiting 30 days later was the different engine number and VIN for the motorcycle, Border Ivan entering the same VIN on both lines of the form instead of writing the different number. The entry process took just over an hour and one-half, which was less than trying to get into places like Egypt or India. I entered Russia without a Carnet de Passage, and insurance was not required.
While it is possible to stay in a hotel every night while crossing Russia, I carried my tent and sleeping bag. Hotels were often expensive, especially in the large cities. The tourist infrastructure is slowly developing in Russia, but is nowhere on par with Europe. Sometimes I was able to find a roadside sleeping room for as little as $2.00 US, or a better "motel" for $10.00 - $12.00. The quality ranged from a sagging single bed made from plywood in a shared room to a double bed with fresh sheets in an upscale room with television and private bath for $20.00. I tried to stay out of the big cities where rooms were readily available for $50.00 to $150.00, and I lost time trying to find them, often overpriced for their value. If I got too far into the day and could not locate a cheap sleep for the night, I would head for the woods and pitch the tent. The price was always right (free) and I never had to listen to the nocturnal sounds in the next room through thin walls or the clanking of the water pipes. One morning in the woods I woke to the sound of a cuckoo bird, or something very similar.
Moscow was expensive, and huge. Moscow bike friend Vladimir Zyablov (www.shop.moto.ru) interviewed me for a Russian motorcycle magazine (MOTO), then introduced me to "BIKE CENTER," owned and operated by Russia’s oldest motorcycle club, The Night Wolves. Their Harley-Davidson shop, restaurant, disco, theatre, and bar were a huge complex modeled in Mad Max deco. It was the most impressive biker display I have seen anywhere in the world, and a credit to the Night Wolves that they could "out-do" other biker groups and yuppie restaurateurs around the world.
Russian people were far friendlier than I expected. Having lived through the Cold War and various media campaigns in the USA press, I did not expect them to be so friendly. People were always surprised to discover I was an American, traveling solo by motorcycle around the world. Most of the motorcycle travelers they meet are from Europe, generally German or Swiss. The Russian people frequently asked to have their picture taken with me. An even bigger surprise for me was how often they were able to identify me as an American Indian. They would ask shyly if I was, and when I said, "Yes," their reaction was occasionally overwhelming. I was more warmly welcomed by Russian people, as an American Indian, than I have been in America. It was really quite surprising. The lady in the picture above insisted her husband take this picture of us together. She wanted me to mail her a copy when I got home, which I will, but I thought it would be quicker to post it here on my website.
The road police were very active throughout Russia. Several times I saw hand held radar guns being used. Usually on the road into and out of larger towns there were police checkpoints. I was asked to stop at several of these checkpoints where I had to show my passport, International Driving Permit, or visa. Once the officers required me to come into their blockhouse where they wrote down by hand the numbers off my visa into a well used notebook, borrowing my pen because they did not have one. Most often the police were just bored and wanted to look at my motorcycle when they flagged my down. I never felt easy at these roadside stops, as there was always a second officer with his hand on a gun, watching the first officer check my papers. While I was able to get them to smile and laugh, I had the feeling it would not take much to get them to point their gun at me and pull the trigger, especially the ones with bloodshot eyes and cuts on their faces from the previous night’s fistfight and vodka consumption. The Road Police Ivan's looked a lot like Military Ivan's from not long ago.
Vladimir Smetnik, from Chita, had spent the winter (in Siberia) rebuilding this 1990 Honda 4, a former police bike from Japan. He saw me at a gas station, made me follow him to a friend he knew who spoke English, and we ended up having a wonderful 24-hour time together. He took me to his country house (dacha), introduced me to his family, shared a banya with me, and overfed me. The next day we parted after he worked some "Russian magic" to grease paperwork to help me ride with my motorcycle on a train. I hope someday to be as hospitable to him, his friends and his family when they come to the USA.
Someone forget to tell Arthur Zawodny that growing old means slowing down. Pictured above is Arthur enjoying the company of friendly wives and girlfriends of a motorcycle club (Lynx of Amur) in eastern Russia. Zawodny, at 69 years old, started on his first motorcycle ride around the world from Poland a month earlier on a Yamaha SR 500 motorcycle. I hope that when I am his age I am still riding motorcycles and enjoying the attentions of others like he is pictured here.
The road across Russia was not difficult, just long, with some potholes, a 1,000 miles of swamp, and several small gravel sections gravel. I would like to say it was Hell, nearly impossible, and not recommended for Harley-Davidson's or Gold Wings, but can not. I did see a Gold Wing in the middle of Nowhere, Siberia, and knew of an Italian Ducati rider in front of me a day or two who was on a Ducati ST 4S (accompanied by two mini-vans filled with parts, including spare frames, transmissions and wheels). In retrospect I would have to say any kind of motorcycle could make the ride across Russia, and most probably have.
This was as close to China as I was going to get on this ride around the world, 23 kilometers from the border. China wants a $10,000 "entry fee," and also required that the "adventurer " pay for a government guide (about $150.00 per day) who drives his car in front of the motorcyclist from town to town. After three solo motorcycle rides around the world, I view the thought of following a set of car tail lights through a country piloted by a bureaucrat about as adventuresome as watching butter melt on a cold day. The adventure would be making bets as to when the trip would be over. When China opens its gates to solo travel I may venture there, but even that is doubtful. All motorcycle travelers I have spoken with who have paid the price to ride in China agree there is not much in the way of motorcycling once they got there. This fact, coupled with the Chinese belief that Westerners are somewhere below dog droppings on the scale of things on the planet, says to me I would be happier spending my time and money riding motorcycles on the other 90% of the earth’s surface.
One element I had not planned on before entering Russia was the vastness of the country. Day after day I was amazed at what little progress I was making as I marked my progress on my map. I would ride for 12 hours, yet the line I drew on the map seemed to only inch forward towards the east. The distance of crossing 8 times zones did not really have the impact of the vastness when I was told the distance some months before. The USA is only four time zones across, so I was riding twice as far, and not on the super highway system of America, but rather a two lane road, often winding through the center of towns clogged with traffic and slow moving cars. It was hard to keep the pace of 500-1,000 kilometers per day I had set for the previous legs of this trip as I moved around the globe. In Russia, the combination of smaller roads, poorer quality of pavement, slower moving traffic, lack of road signs giving directions and city congestion made a 1,000 kilometer day a hard day.
This map shows the world, with the "red" being Russia. It was a surprise to ride every day for a week, and discover I had only gotten about one-third of the way across the country.
There was a section of nearly 1,000 miles where the road did not exist. In this area there is a swamp. Trains cross it, and there are some service roads, but most cars, trucks and motorcycles take advantage of the train by being loaded onto platform cars and making the trip in two nights and three days. I "tested" my Kawasaki in some of the swamp, and immediately determined it was far to heavy for the mud, water and slop. For me to ride through this section would have required that I send all of my luggage, unaccompanied, by train to the end of the line, while I spent the next two weeks flogging the motorcycle through the Siberian swamp. In my short life I have seen enough mud, water and slop to fill the rest of what is ahead of me, so I opted to put the motorcycle and myself on the train. That was an adventure in itself, as I had to ride illegally to accompany the bike, maybe best described in a future short story. The train ride included elements such as the police, prostitutes, bad food, toilets that were clogged, beer/vodka, guns, gambling, oven-like temperatures and a wreck. One motorcycle friend said that for her the ride on the train was the biggest adventure of her entire ride across Russia. For me it constituted a major challenge in for my patience. I had come to Russia to ride roads, not rails. As I saw mile after mile of the land pass by from the open door of the luggage car, where I passed my days and nights, I felt the loss of missing a great section of this huge land.
Several years ago I had read a book about some bicyclists who had made the journey across the swamp. Their story was one of misery of having to find food, slapping bugs, and carrying their bicycles much of the way because of the impossibility of pedaling through the muck. To do the same on the motorcycle, given the time I had, would have been impossible. I saw sections of gravel road along the way that would have been easily ridden over, but then I would see other sections of water covering the road, often 3-6 feet deep, because the month of June and July had been especially wet (a lot of rain), so knew those sections would be impassable until I could flag down a truck or build some kind of raft. As I looked at those sections, knowing them to have more mosquitoes per square inch than India has people in their entire country, I would smile to myself, sip my beer and wonder why anyone, including myself, would even contemplate such a land crossing.
David McSkimming, pictured above, was from Australia, where they do not have many "swamps," so he did not have a clear picture of what lay ahead of him. He was going to try to cross the swamp by riding his motorcycle. He had met an English rider who claimed to have ridden across, so figured he could also make the ride. A friend of mine, Dave Barr, rode his Harley-Davidson across, but Dave is an exceptional adventurer. He did it in the winter, when the swamp was frozen. I still wonder if McSkimming made the complete ride, or, like me, bagged it after the first 100 meters of muck and pitched his Honda onto the train.
Once I arrived in Vladivostok, I was faced with the problem of getting the motorcycle crated, then onto an air cargo flight to Los Angeles, where I would collect it and complete my fourth ride around the world.
I used a company (Links, Ltd) in Vladivostok to crate the bike. Their General Manager spoke English, and the company had previously crated other motorcycles for air cargo. Their email address, and telephone, 4232 220 887, in Vladivostok. They were very efficient, made the crate to specifications given by the air cargo shipper, and delivered the box, unassembled, to the airport. The price was $160.00 for the box and $70.00 for the delivery.
At the airport, I placed the motorcycle on the base of the box, and took it apart, removing wheels, front fender, compressing the forks, and disconnecting the headlight/speedometer pod, to get it to fit inside the much smaller box. Once that was done, the Links workers nailed the box together.
A forklift moved the box to a scale where it was weighed and I was billed $1,253.00 US, plus some odd change (which I paid), to get it shipped. There were several documents that needed to be filled out, and a payment to be made ($3.00) several miles away to secure a stamp on an export form. The whole process took about 8 hours, and I could not have done the paperwork part without the help of one of the Links workers who knew where to collect and drop off the forms. The Customs Office required the crated motorcycle to spend 24 hours sitting in a warehouse before it could be shipped out.
Crated bike, ready for shipping. The weight, including some of my personal items and the wooden box, was 310 kilograms.
The air cargo airline that contracted to deliver the crate to the USA was Vladivostok Air Cargo. Since they do not fly to Los Angeles, they passed the box onto a second airline, their sub-contractor, Asiana Air Cargo, once it reached Seoul, Korea. Several days went by, then the box was moved from Asiana Air Cargo to Korean Air Cargo. Still more time went by. Faxes, telephone calls and inquiries as to the status of the crated motorcycle were seldom responded to. At first I was told the box was waiting for a flight, then told all air cargo flights were full. Then the stories became more interesting, but seemed to focus on ineptness at Vladivostok Air Cargo. Korean Air Cargo insisted that Vladivostok Air Cargo had "book" the box on one of the Korean Air flights, which translated to "agree to pay for." As the "shipper" I could not "book" the box. It had to be done by Vladivostok Air Cargo, which would not make the appropriate arrangements. More time went by, as did more faxes and more telephone calls. Finally a motorcycle friend in Vladivostok, Svetlana Laletina, started to call Vladivostok Air Cargo. Different answers were given to her, like "it will be shipped in the next days," and "we are booking it now," and "we are aware of the problem, and working on it."
After 10 days, Vladivostok Air Cargo advised me that the box had been moved back to Asiana Air Cargo, who would fly it to Los Angeles. Another day went by, and then Svetlana was told it would not be shipped until I paid more money. No amount was specified, nor how payment was to be made, nor when the box would be shipped. Then another story came from Vladivostok Air Cargo, this time that because the box was oversize, it was a problem. Of course, Vladivostok Air Cargo had specified the size of the box when it was originally built (90 cm high, 100-cm wide, and 200 cm long), so being told it was "oversized" came as a surprise. A new, third air cargo sub-contact airline name surfaced. It seemed Vladivostok was "shopping around" in Seoul to find some air cargo carrier to fly the box to LA., but no one at Vladivostok Air Cargo was willing to make a decision on who, what, when and where. Then "a new bill" entered the conversations, with a suggestion of an additional $1,800.00, paid in advance. It seemed Vladivostok Air Cargo was blackmailing me for my motorcycle, even though we had a written contract (Air Waybill, paid in full) quite to the contrary.
At this point in time we tried to identify officials in the Vladivostok Air Cargo company who might be sensitive and could make a rational decision, such as the General Manager. I also began to offer to do live interviews with the Russian media as to why Russian business would not be able to compete in the world markets if Vladivostok Air Cargo was a typical Russian managed business. It had become clear that some mistakes had been made by the air cargo company and rather than accepting responsibility for the mistakes and solve the problem, Vladivostok Air Cargo were trying to cover up their mistakes by me paying more (125% more) money.
This problem is reflective of some of the carryover problems from USSR days when everyone had a government job, and performance was not a factor in keeping that job. The worker went to work and was paid, whether they worked or not. If work was done poorly or mistakes were made, the worker could not be "fired." After dealing with Vladivostok Air Cargo it became clear the bureaucratic bungling was an acceptable business practice, and the party that was expected to pay for it was the shipper, or I.
As I look back on the experience I was saddened because it paled my perception of Russia and the many nice Russian people I had met. Most seemed to have been hard working and industrious, wanting to compete with the western world in the system of capitalism. Sadly, they can not easily do so, given the ingrained carryover of decades of acceptance of shoddy performance and unacceptable management styles. I wish my many new Russian friends well in their efforts to catch up with the west, but realize what an uphill battle they have ahead of them. Vladivostok Air Cargo I have nothing good to say about, as I can see after dealing with them they are pushing water uphill with their noses. I would strongly recommend to anyone who has capital invested in this company, or who does business with them, to get their capital out, even if at a loss, and find a better business partner. Without government subsidies they probably would have gone out of business some time ago, a sad reflection of a country that touts it wishes to be competitive in the world marketplace. I suspect it will take several generations before it can even get up to speed in the competitive world, and by then the others in the race will have left them well behind.
The motorcycle ride across Russia was far less difficult than I had expected. While not a "soft ride," with fluffy towels in Hilton Hotels each night, I saw that such a ride could easily be done. One tourist agency told me of a motorcyclist who used them to book him into the fluffy towel hotels for his entire trip across the same route I had ridden, suggesting I do the same. While I would have enjoyed the comfort of high priced tourist hotels my limited budget would not, and I would have missed meeting the many nice and interesting people I met along my route.
Nor was my ride a "hard ride." I opted not to ride through the swamp, cooked no meals and pitched my tent usually as an option to spending excessive funds to sleep in a tourist hotel. The roads were in fair condition, gas plentiful and food available. The "hard part" was maintaining a tight schedule and trying to decipher the Russian language. I should add to that dealing with the toilets and Russian toilet paper, but will leave those topics to another missive.
The Russian motorcyclists I met were avid enthusiasts and some of the most friendly I have encountered anywhere else in the world. The motorcycles were also interesting, most being Ural and Jupiter sidecar models, used as primarily farm vehicles. Newer foreign models were present, and more were flowing rapidly into Russia each day, mostly from Japan. The infrastructure made traveling by motorcycle fairly easy, as long as your equipment was in good condition. However, if your bike broke, like a BMW F650 did owned by another American, you can expect to wait 3-4 weeks, as he did, for the part to arrive. In his case it was a water pump, but it would be the same for any part having to be flown in from outside Russia.
As I rode across Siberia I would pass through many small towns. It took some time for me to realize the sign I saw as I entered the town with the picture of a telephone on it meant in the town there was a public telephone in town, often only one, and that sometimes did not work.
In other parts of Russia there were all the necessities required by the normal soft Western motorcyclist riding around their home country. These included a MacDonald's, hotels with business centers for fax/phone/Internet, and stores selling imported toilet paper. Like the toilet paper in Russia, a foreign motorcyclist could make the choice to go the hard or the soft way. My ride was somewhere in between, except for the paper, best left described elsewhere.
July 27, 2000, Going Out Again - 'Round The World
October 4, 2000, Why Another Long Ride, The Plan, and Mr. Fish
October 10, 2000, the beginning, in America on an Indian
November 6, 2000, AMAZONAS-Tamed By Beasts in Brazil
November 22, 2000, Monster Cow, Wolpertinger and Autobahn Crawling Across Europe
December 22, 2000, Enfield 500 Bullet, India Motorcycle Dementia, Ozoned Harley-Davidsons and Gold Wings
December 25, 2000, Yeti on a Harley-Davidson, Nepal By Enfield, No Carnet Sexpedition
January 1, 2001, Haunting Yeti
January 25, 2001, Monkey Soccer, Asian Feet, Air 'em Up: Bhutan and Sikkim
February 12, 2001, Midgets, Carnetless, Steve McQueen on Enfield, Bangladesh
February 20, 2001, Higgledypiggledy, Salacity, and Zymurgy - India
March 20, 2001, Road warriors, sand, oil leaks - meditating out of India
April 8, 2001, Bike Cops, Elephants, and Same-Same - Thailand
May 1, 2001, Little Bikes, Millions of Bikes, Island Riding - Taiwan
May 15, 2001, Harley-Davidson, Mother Road and Super Slabs - America
June 8 , 2001, Crossing The Crazy Woman With A Harley-Davidson, Indian, BMW, Amazonas, Enfield, Hartford, SYM, Honda
January 1, 2002, Donged, Bonged, and Gonged - Burma
January 20, 2002, Secrets of The Golden Triangle - Thailand
March 31, 2002, Bear Wakes, Aims Green Machine Around The World
April 10, 2002, Moto Cuba - Crashes, Customs and El Jefe (Fidel)
May 20, 2002, Europe and The Roads South to Africa
June 10, 2002, Morocco Motorcycling, Thieves and Good Roads
July 30, 2002, Russia – Hard and Soft, By Motorcycle
August 30, 2002, USA – American Roadkill, Shipping Bikes and BIG DOGS
September 30, 2002, Good Times Roll Home, Riding With Clothes On, Team Green - USA
November, 2002, Mexico By Motorcycle - Gringos, Little Norman Bad Cock, and Bandits
March 2003, Laos by motorcycle - Guerrillas, Mekong Beering, and Plain of Coffins
July, 2003, Alaska by motorcycle – Deadhorse, Fish Story and Alaskan Bush
January 2004, Angkor, Bombed Out Roads and Dog Eaters - Cambodia
April, 2004, Minsking, Uncle Ho and Snake Wine
August 2004, Around The World Again, 1st Tag Deadhorse
February 2005, Colombia To The End Of The Earth - South America
January 2006, My Marriage, Long Strange Ride, Montana Nights
May 2006, Cherry Girls, Rebels, Crash and Volcano - Philippines
September 2006, Break Bike Mountain Ride – United States
March 2007, Kawasaki Cult Bike “No Stranger To Danger Expedition” - Thailand and Cambodia
November 2007, Lone Wolf Wanders: Bears, Moose, Buffalo, Fish
April 2009, Global Adventure Roaming: Burma through the USA to headhunters on Borneo
February 2010, Adventure Motorcycle Travel: Expedition to Alaska, then Java
Copyright © Dr. Gregory W. Frazier. 1999- All Rights Reserved.
Thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author,
and not necessarily Horizons Unlimited