Friday, September 26, 2003  

Pride Goeth Before the Fall

Between the cites of Tumen and Ekaterinaburg lies a short stretch of road that left a real and lasting impression upon me. We had been riding hard for several days on our way to the Black Sea town of Scochi. For the last few months the name "Ekaterinaburg" had been popping into my head like a siren call. It wasn't that far out of our way and I was able to convince Shaun and Ilja to make a slight detour so that I could spend a couple of hours in that city. I didn't know why I kept thinking of it, or where I had heard of it. It was either because it was a horrible place, or a place not to be missed, and I had to know.

We were making good progress despite the moderate traffic. I was in the process of passing one of a line of trucks when I suddenly lost all acceleration. The engine was still running so I quickly realized that my poor rarely lubed chain had slipped off the sprocket (Shaun and my chain lube was confiscated at the airport in Anchorage and we had been unable to procure anymore, Ilja had kindly offered some of his to us, but by that point the damage was done). Fortunately I had enough momentum to get in front of the truck before the oncoming vehicle and get to the side of the road. Shaun was passing a truck further ahead and carried on oblivious.

Ilja stopped to assist me and we managed to get the chain back on the sprocket and with some difficulty tighten it the last remaining bit. It was still loose, so I knew I had to be careful about hard acceleration. While working on the chain it had started to rain, but, we're tough adventure motorcyclists and can't be deterred by bad weather.

So off we went hoping to catch up to Shaun, who by this time was miles ahead under the impression that the lights in his mirror were ours. Despite the rain, most Russians drive without headlights on. This was to be my undoing. I eased out from behind a truck to see if it was safe to pass. I remember seeing a sign advising to slow down but those are universally ignored by Russians and we had grown accustomed to their being meaningless. But it had stuck in my head to just wait, but I was already committed. The road ahead was clear and straight and I had been very succesful in keeping my visor clear with my gloves.

Suddenly I noticed the small dark older Lada with no lights on. So binders on and drop behind the truck. Nope he's braking hard as well, so try to squeeze next to the truck to make a third lane. Nope, there's a huge patch of oil on the road and someone just yanked the front wheel away from me. I fortunately "low-sided" off the bike and started to luge down the road, feet first on my back. I had been told many years ago that one you fall off a bike, always be wary of the motorcycle tumbling after you. So with one eye on the motorcycle, one on the approaching Lada and a third (you grow several eyes at times like this) on the truck I steered myself down the center line of the road. Ilja, who was behind me described it as a smooth descent off the bike and that I looked to be in complete control of my slide, even propping myself up on an elbow to look around and steer.

I had wondered what would happen if one of us had a collision with a Russian. We have no insurance for this part of the world and can barely speak the language. As I was sliding it occurred to me that I was about to find out. Did I fear for life or limb? Really only for a fleeting instant right before I dropped off the bike. Since I hadn't "high-sided" I knew that my only risk would come from being hit by a vehicle. I had control over my direction and, as in all facets of life, when you can control the direction you're going in, fear fades away.

I heard the Lada hit the bike and I finally came to a halt. I was certain that I had been sliding on ice, but we later learned that my 20 meter slide had been on oil. The truck had kept on going, but the car behind Ilja and I stopped to help. The occupants of the Lada, visibly shaken from having come so close to a celebrity, quickly surveyed the damage to their car and we assured each other that no one was injured. The damage to the Lada was minimal (its hard to tell on the older ones anyway) and it didn't take long for them to realize that I didn't speak Russian. The word "Rally" was thrown around and I did nothing to disabuse them of the notion that I might have been connected to the annual Gdansk to Magadan race that was passing through that region at that time.

Ilja and I pulled the bike to the side of the road and surveyed the damage. It was all cosmetic, but aren't brake discs supposed to be flat? They just don't make them like they used to. The weight of a passing Lada was enough to bend it a good half inch down. We decided to try and repair it and moved the bike completely off the road into a construction access, leaving Ilja's bike on the side for Shaun to see.

Our first efforts at just bending the disk with leverage provided by some rebar from the construction site was unsuccessful. Taking the front wheel off and bouncing on the disk also provided no results. Around this time Shaun arrived and asked me to hold his bike while he collapsed on the ground. He had just been hit in the leg by a rock kicked up by a passing truck. But once he learned that I had been in an accident he popped up and the pain disappeared. In the rain he had confused a following car's headlights with ours. As I mentioned earlier, Russians rarely turn their headlights on. He had gone some 80 km before realizing his error. Each passing kilometer on his way back to us filled him with a new dread as his thoughts went from minor mechanical difficulty to horrible accident.

We eventually hit on a solution to straightening the disk, heating it with my Coleman stove and whacking it with the back
of a hatchet and bending it between two concrete posts laying on the ground. It flattened considerably and we put it back on. It was getting late though so we spent a miserable wet and chilly night in a field across the road.

It was still raining the next day and none of us was in the mood to ride in it but, by afternoon, we accepted that we would have to. With every revolution of the wheel I could hear and feel a thunk as the warped disk passed the calipers. A couple of hours of this was more than enough and after some debate at a gas station we decided to stop at the next remont and shinomontage (mechanic and tire repair) and see what they could do. As luck would have it, there was one right next to the gas station. The mechanic was willing to look at the disk and try his hand at it. Alas, after a few attempts he pronounced it unfixable and a hazard to the calipers so in to the pannier it went.

We spent the night in a small gastinitsa (hotel) nearby. The next day it had stopped raining and I resolved to brave the 150 km ride to Ekaterinaburg (the people in that small town insisted on correcting us to use the Soviet name of Sverdlosk). We had been told that there was a BMW dealer in that city and given what turned out to be incorrect directions to it. So, without a front brake and a hair's width of pads left on the rear, but mostly relying on engine compression and my "Fred Flinstone" brakes (that is, dragging my boots) we set off, arriving, somehow, without incident. We passed the U.S. consulate and I had to stop because the flag was at half mast. We had been without news for some time and I wondered who could have died while we were on the road. It was after hours and the guard only spoke Russian, but eventually they called someone who spoke English. I have to admit I was a little embarrassed by the answer, I had lost track of time and didn't know the date. September 11. Discuss this post

View the Maintenance Log for more bike fixes

posted by matt; | 10:37 AM


Central Russia

Ilja and I had taken a quick tour down to Lake Baikal, leaving Shaun in Irkutsk. When we met up again we decided to keep on going on our then planned route to Moscow. Irkutsk is a lovely city with a very European feel to it. Russia is very much a country of contrasts and we had just passed a boundary of sorts. From that point on we were riding through a different country than the regions we had ridden through before.

Ilja had passed through this region on the train, but as he remarked later, he really hadn't experienced this section until he rode through it. One of the beauties of traveling by motorcycle is the close and intimate contact with the people and scenery that you just can't get from other modes of transportation. Sometimes the contact is a little too intimate as Shaun and I discovered. Dropping quickly from the mountains around Lake Baikal, we entered a rich farm country. The road was well paved and the bucolic scenery allowed for very pleasant riding in the late summer sun.

One of the interesting and pleasant things about Russian farming methods is that they leave small, irregular shaped, copses of trees in the fields. The size can range from 1/4 acre to a couple of acres and they simply plow around them. In addition, they still use haystacks, some as large as houses. The amount of labor that must have gone into creating them is mindboggling.

In the small villages people sell fresh produce from their gardens alongside the road. The watermelons were frustratingly tempting because their was no way to carry them on a bike and a couple of days were quite warm. I was able to buy some fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes though from a couple of babushkas. The vegetables are sorted into piles, each costing the same amount, rather than just picking out what you wanted. When it came to the potatoes the bags were too large for the space available on the bike. I would try and say that I wanted a smaller bag and she would hand me two, thinking I meant the bag was too small. Nyet, nyet, nyet I would reply, the bag is too big. Ah, she responded, you want three bags then. After about five minutes of this, I led her over to the bike to show how little space I had to carry the potatoes. Finally she understood, and gave me four bags. Just kidding, she agreed to break with Russian tradition and give the customer what he wants.

At some point we made it to the city of Novosibirsk which Shaun had hoped would have a Kazakh consulate. Up until the end of the cold war this was a sealed city due to the many munitions plants in the region. As a result there are very few hotels and most are off limits to foreigners. After several frustrating hours we finally found accommodations at a reasonable rate. A note to anyone staying at the Intourist hotel Siber, the receptionist let slip that the rooms are still bugged. Unfortunately for Shaun, but fortunately for Ilja and I, there is no consulate in Novosibirsk, so Shaun had to ride on with us. Its not a bad city otherwise. Since Henning had left Moscow to return home there was no longer any reason for us to head that way so we decided to make for Turkey instead.

Heading west from Novosibirsk we continued to pass through well maintained farmland. But by the time we had passed Omsk, the farms went from fields with copses of trees in them to forests with fields running through them. The land gave the impression of a vast archipelago or a broad delta. That they would plow in these irregular patterns to preserve as much of the forest as possible says something about the Russians' love for trees. A Russian cemetery, for example, is always in a forest, with trees planted thickly amongst the blue painted fences around each plot. Russian parks in the cities are also thickly planted.

Of all the trees that the Russians love, their favorite is the birch. An attractive woman is often compared to a birch. Birch is also the tree of choice in most parks and cemeteries. Shaun likes them too.

The days passed effortlessly, as they do when riding, and we soon lost track of which day it was thinking only of the sights, sounds and smells along the way and people we had met. At some point Shaun had picked up a stone between the radiator and the frame of his bike which worked a hole in the radiator. We patched it in a small town along the way. While working on it we were once again beset by curious and friendly children and adults. One in particular had the extremely annoying habit of looking at my bike and pointing out something new that was broken that I hadn't noticed before. We were nearly taken hostage again, but were able to break free at the last moment, after I was forced to accept a cassette of my erstwhile captor's band's music.

We eventually made it passed Tumen to a stretch of road that I will always remember. From there we carried on to Ekaterinaburg and our destiny. Discuss this post

View Photos

posted by matt; | 10:36 AM


Lake Baikal

After leaving Mongolia, Shaun, Ilja and I proceeded quickly to the Lake Baikal region, a place Ilja had long wished to visit. Blasting quickly through Ulan Ude, managing to avoid a vodka hostage taking by mere inches, we made it to the lake by nightfall.

Lake Baikal is a very large and deep lake nestled in the mountains of Siberia. Throughout Russia we had been told that the lake is so pure that you can drink directly from it. It certainly looks clear, you can see to a depth of several meters. But to Ilja's and my dismay, the water, even on a hot September day never warms up. We braved the icy plunge though and managed a short swim. Shaun would have swam as well but, unfortunately, he was able to evade us.

This is truly one of the most beautiful places in the world and Russians are deservedly proud of it.
Lush green forests surround the southern portion of the Lake. Along the road locals sell freshly picked berries and mushrooms as well as smoked fish while families from the nearby city of Irkutsk go for hikes in the woods. Small towns revealed little garden plots with tomatoes ripening on the vine. The best way to describe it would have to be "Summer".

Following the twisty mountain road around the southern edge of the lake brought us to Irkutsk. (Like Yakutsk, another fabled region from the game of "Risk"). Ilja and I chose to proceed to the Lake and try to get to one of the islands in the central portion of the Lake while Shaun stayed behind to try and research ways of getting a visa to the 'stans. We chose to take the smaller road through the mountains since, after all, we are motorcycle adventurers.

What followed was a mini version of the road from Magadan to Yakutsk. The paved road gave out some 30 km from town and was replaced by a dusty gravel road complete with washboards and potholes. We even had a chance to play Russian roulette with some small trucks. Then we took a left turn on to the "road" north towards the islands. The grin on Ilja's face at the first mudhole could be seen clearly through his helmet. I was a little less pleased as it harkened back to a difficult time in my life. There were many more to follow, none as big as what I had experienced before, but big enough to occasionally require getting off the bikes and scouting a path around the road.

Following Ilja's "trusty" gps we eventually found ourselves on a logging road through a forest. We eventually met a couple of loggers at their landing who directed us back to the main "road". This "road" gave Ilja the chance to try something else he had long wanted to do, ford a raging river He can now say that he truly is an adventure motorcyclist (with the caveat that he did take the train to Mongolia).

A little bit more than the 3 to 4 hours anticipated we made it to the lake and set up camp in a mountain pass some 400 meters above the lake. By this point the forest had disappeared to be replaced by grassland reminiscent of Mongolia so we were able to once again ride in any direction at will. The next morning rose bright and clear which was a relief after the rain we had encountered the evening before.

We rose early and quickly made our way to the end of the road and the lake. There are two large islands in Lake Baikal and we had hoped to tour the western one and see some Baikal Seals, the only freshwater seal in the world. As luck would have it, the ferry had just changed from its summer season schedule. It was September 1. We took some photos of the little resort and fishing town by the pier and returned to Irkutsk via the paved road. Discuss this post

View Photos

posted by matt; | 10:36 AM


Vodka Hostages

Any traveler to Russia will no doubt experience a vodka hostage taking. Essentially you are befriended by some stranger and invited for a "malinka (small) vodka, chut-chut (tiny), Russian tradition". Sure you think, its a tradition, the guy seems friendly, one quick drink and I'm on my way. Don't be fooled. As quick as the first shot is drunk, a second is poured. "Their can only be a short pause between second and first" or "you can't stand on one leg" is the usual statement. Well okay, you think, one more won't hurt. Guess what, they've got sayings for the third, fourth and fifth shot too. And, of course, you can't drink vodka without some food, Russian tradition after all. Next thing you know, it's 4 a.m. you're drunk and stuffed full of food, singing and dancing with some stranger who is now your best friend in the world. Is there a way to avoid this? I suppose, but why try to?

posted by matt; | 10:35 AM

Thursday, September 25, 2003  

Carrying on . . .

ok it's sorted. Matt has had his brake disk machined down and is as flat as a pancake now - well flatter actually.

This means that we will be shortly be wrapping up our 14! days here after many a good time and many a good nightclub. A personal note - there are absolutely no good looking girls here so all males should stay away. We will be coming back to Ekaterinburg regularly to check on the situation for everybody but until then STAY AWAY! ;-)

We had some interviews yesterday and are making the local TV station as well as an interview on Radio Freedom which is the sister station to Voice of America here. Also we may appear in a Russian magazine Sports Extreme which would be a real blast. I'll try to get copies of the articles/interviews when they are finished to post on this site for those that may be interested. It's funny when people start asking you about your life and when we don't really know what to say when the fact is that our lives are pretty boring and we are pretty normal. The big thing to say from that is anybody can really do this stuff. nuff of that . . . .

Ahead of us in a couple of days is the local bike gang "The Black Knives" end of season party (starting to get chilly here) which is going to be a two day affair involving lots of pictionary, trivial pursuits and apple bobbing . . .righhhhhhht ;-) can you say V-O-D-K-A.

Should be an interesting affair and will write about it next week sometime as well as video and pictures of course. We'll be writing an article for an American Bike magazine about the event so stay posted.

Oh - and we keep getting the question on where we are heading next. My plan to go down to the stans has been delayed and I will be joining Matt and Ilja to Turkey from here where the next decision is to go to Europe and work for a while or head down to the Middle east or north Africa and see if money and myself can be re-united somehow. That's as far as I know for the moment but you never know what might happen next . . . . .

posted by Shaun; | 2:50 PM

Monday, September 22, 2003  

Returning Home

By Henning
Returning to the United States from a four months ‘round the world bike trip is not an easy thing. I have been back for about 5 days now and must say that I find parts of resuming a regular live rather difficult. There are several key points that are particularly difficult for me.

I really miss the travel. Knowing that you will wake in one place but go to sleep in a different place. In between waking and sleeping there are new challenges, places, people and experiences to be taken in.

I am thinking about what I want to do next with my live. Finding a follow-on to a ‘round the world bike trip is not easy. Whatever I do next needs to be educational, challenging and yet, tremendous fun …… and, it would be helpful if I made some money at it.

I miss the freedom of being on a bike almost every day. It is very addicting to have the luxury of riding every day. It lets you take in scenery, work on your riding skills, reflect on life, think about anything and everything you care to and, best of all, have fun riding.

The switch from the extraordinary to the ordinary is also not easy. Overnight you go from using a foreign language to try and find as well as buy fuel and other essentials in a foreign country to, the monotony of fetching your mail, checking the bills and making a few phone calls. You go from giving TV and newspaper interviews about your experiences to contemplating and writing about the difficulty to returning home and adjusting to the challenges of everyday life. You go from wearing the cleanest clothing available to you to making fashion decisions about what is in and might look acceptable.

I am sure that at the end of the day all will be well because, life, not unlike the planning and execution of a round the world trip, is a do it yourself thing. In short if you want something to happen, apply yourself and you will figure out a way to make it happen. At the moment I am thinking of writing a book about my experiences and impressions during this trip. Writing helps me better digest experiences so this will be fun and educational for me. At the same time I will be looking for an opportunity in international business that allows me to either live overseas again or takes me abroad frequently. One thing this trip has made me realize is that I really miss the challenges of living and working with different cultures. It is these challenges that help me grow and keep me flexible.

posted by Henning; | 1:44 AM

Sunday, September 21, 2003  


for yer viewing pleasure.

Slideshow of Mongolia and a black and white view of Magadan Docks - Far east Russia.

click to view more slideshows

posted by Shaun; | 3:23 PM


Maintenance Log Updated

Thanks to Andre - a genius of a motorcycle mechanic many of my outstanding problems have been fixed. It took Andre only 3 hours to fix my issues and also make (machine!) new parts for ones that are broken or missing.

See what was done in the Maintenance Log

Also for those interested in the shipping of our bikes from Anchorage to Magadan, I have written up a Shipping Report

posted by Shaun; | 2:21 PM


Let me tell you about a car I know. It goes by the name of Godzilla and its one of the finest all terrain offroad vehicles out there. Now I know a lot of you think that your SUV is pretty cool and could handle the tough stuff if you ever took it offroad, but I can assure you, its got nothing on Godzilla.

"What kind of vehicle is this?" you're probably wondering. Well its a 1987 Fiat Ducato panel van. Yup, front wheel drive, 2.5 liter diesel engine, 6 inches of ground clearance 150,000 miles and bald tires. But with Roman at the wheel, Mirella clearing the road and Taco watching over everything, Godzilla made it through terrain that the average Los Angelino SUV would never think of attempting.

We met Godzilla in Tsogt-Ovoo while working on Ilja's clutch. Roman and Mirella had agreed to follow us for a bit to make sure that the clutch would hold up. In exchange we offered to show them the correct way out of town to avoid the red clay lake.

That evening we were first introduced to the sweet side of Godzilla. You see the van had been transformed into an RV by a previous owner. Luxuries that we could only dream about while traveling by bike awaited inside. A fridge that kept things cool, a two burner stove, a working sink, a fully stocked pantry, comfortable seats and a table. This may not sound like much, but compared to squatting on the ground around a hastily prepared meal, to be able to sit like a human being, listen to music and play Uno through the evening was something akin to nirvana. Not to mention that Mirella is a great cook (she is Italian after all).

It didn't take long to learn Godzilla's tough side, though. Mongolia doesn't really have roads in the normal sense. For the most part you're just following a compass direction and some telephone poles. There's usually several sets of tracks leading to the destination as the route varies from year to year in an attempt to avoid obstacles and sleeping camels. Yet every time I thought Godzilla's never going to make it over this hill or through that gully, I would quickly be proven wrong.

Even the narrow canyons of Yolan Am were no match for Godzilla. Mirella would pop out of Godzilla, move a rock or two and guide Godzilla along. Okay at one point we did have to improve the road a bit to keep the tires from digging into the soft gravel but, it made it all the way to the end of the trail.

Riding with Godzilla was a great experience. On the one hand it was like having a support vehicle, tea with bread and jam in the morning, a hot home cooked meal in the evening, followed by a several games of Uno. On the other hand, we got the feeling that we were the support vehicles, scouting out the proper route for the wagon train, or even buzzing around the mother ship like sci-fi fighter pilots.

Roman and Mirella only paid $3,500 for it, and bought it mainly as a way to bring their dog Taco with them on their journey and it is a Fiat after all. But in two years Godzilla's taken them from Switzerland through Iran, Pakistan, India and Southeast Asia to Japan and back through Russia and Mongolia and then on to the 'stans before heading back to Switzerland with hardly any problems. It makes you wonder doesn't it? If a 15 year old Fiat van can do all this, what can that SUV in your garage do? And, more importantly, what can you do?
Discuss this post

 - Matthew Glitman
More People on the Road

posted by matt; | 2:15 PM





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