Saturday, 26 July 2014


5 days after entering Japan and so many things happened, I am compelled to write my first post.  I expected Japan to amaze me, but I wasn’t expected to be blown out of my boots!
I left Yuzhno Sakhalinsk very early morning because my agent (Mr. Valeriy, an excellent gentleman that prepares everything for you, both on the Russian side and on the Japan side; I have his info for the interested travelers through that region) in Korsakov said I should be at the ferry before 8.  There was a peaceful feeling to my last ride in Russia, the 42 km to Korsakov... I had this deep sense of satisfaction that I made it alive through the largest country on the planet and I had memories that will stay with me forever.  I went slowly, enjoying the last sites of the Island and reflecting on my journey. 
I arrived at the ferry and sure enough, Mr. Valeriy was already there, waiting for me, with all my papers on hand.  We went through Russian customs without a hitch and I headed towards the Heartland Ferry dock.  As I entered the belly of the ship, 4 impeccably dressed Japanese men welcomed me, showed me where to park (I was the only vehicle on board, all the passengers were on foot and mostly Russians going to Japan).  As I parked, a young man brought a small piece of carpet and set it under my footrest so I don’t scratch the deck! I thought:” What in the world is this?”  Scratching the deck? 
Then the four men brought a pressure washer, all sorts of brushes and soap and started to scrub my bike.  It was so clean I could have licked it.  All the Siberian dust and mud and bugs disappeared at once.  A new horizon was ahead, with an entirely different mindset.
I climbed upstairs where I was greeted again (with a bow, something I would see a thousand times a day in Japan) and after taking my dirty boots off (which were immediately washed by one of the crew) I was shown to my place; there were no seats or benches on the ferry (except in the lobby) and everyone is sitting on the floor, without shoes.  I was given a tray with my lunch and the ferry departed.  I went outside to look for the last time to the Russian shore.  It was hard to believe that I was leaving this country on the Pacific side, after crossing almost 11.000 km from the Baltic side at Varna, Estonia, just 6 weeks ago!  I had mixed feelings about this all experience, but as I turned south, I realized that beyond those clouds lies a new adventure, one that I dreamed of and planned for a long time.  Japan was basically my destination from the beginning; the bike was built here and now it was returning to her homeland, this time not in a crate, but by road.  From here on, is basically considered the return to Africa.
I fell asleep on the ferry for a couple of hours and when I woke up and went outside again, the sun was shining and on the port (left) side of the ship I saw the first sight of Japan; I trembled as I took my camera out... The high rises of the volcanic mountains were peaking through the haze and massive amounts of Wind generators were lining the tops.  Wakkanai was ahead. 
We pulled in Wakkanai exactly 5 hours after departure from Sakhalin, a far cry from the 20 hours we did on the Vanino ferry (which operates without a schedule).  I was welcomed by another agent at the door and invited to wait in an office.  Few minutes later, an Immigration officer came with the agent, all the papers for the bike stamped and the insurance issued, plus my visa for 90 days for Japan.  The Immigration officer than bowed and said: “John San, welcome to Japan!”  I was finally here!
I rode few minutes up to the mountain and camped that night in the Wakkanai park, a spectacular place, above the city, full of bikers and campers from all over Japan.  I set my tent and then I was looking to see where to pay for my night’s stay.  Some people saw me and told me: “It is free, you don’t have to pay for camping here”.  I couldn’t believe my ears, but this would be the beginning of a series of events that shocked me in Japan so far.
I cooked dinner (I still had some food from Estonia and Russian with me) and after I finished eating, I see an older gentleman approaching.  He came and sat next to me and served me Sake, just to say Hello (even though he didn’t speak English) and make me feel welcome.
At 4 in the morning as the sun was rising (being 2 hours back from Russia, the day starts really early here) I had to get up and pack for my first ride South.  All the campers were up too, going for the morning Yoga or jog.  I now understand why these people live so long and look so young: they go to bed at 9, wake up at 4, exercise and take time to enjoy their lives.
I headed South towards Haboro and I felt rejuvenated in the morning coolness, riding through the small roads of the fishing villages (I always avoid highways) and filming the spectacular landscapes around me.  I was in paradise: the roads are impeccable, the people welcoming and respectful, the food, out of this world.  I stop for coffee and breakfast at a little store on the way and the attendant there sees my foreign plates and comes out with a bottle of Iced tea and cookies and offered them to me.  “A gift”, he says.  I am speechless!
I pulled in for gas and 3 people run out of the gas station and when they find out I come all the way from Africa, they bow and shake my hand in respect.  As they fill up, they set a small towel around my gas tank so they don’t spill on it.  I keep thinking: “Who does this?” 
I pass Haboro, heading towards Sapporo, an amazing city, but already so hot, I couldn’t breathe inside my helmet.  41 degrees, my thermometer shows... I desperately get out of the city and find a camping side on the mountain: Arten Campground.  Set among the trees of the forest, it looks like a typical Japanese landscape: manicured and quaint.  At 4 in the morning, the mist from the mountain gently flows through the trees, creating a Zen atmosphere.  I am taking photos and smiling in the same time... I have a surreal experience.
I ride to the beautiful city of Hakodate, take the ferry to Aomori and enter the South Island.  Aomori is splendid, the city is so clean and so quiet you can actually hear the birds singing in downtown.  These people never honk their horns, never shout and never show you the finger.  They walk quietly about their business and everyone keeps to themselves.  There is no unnecessary noise.
In the morning as I head Southwest towards Sakata, I can feel the heat building up.  Sakata area is very humid and I am sweating even though it is only 7 in the morning.  The mountain ride is breathtaking, with low mountains lined with pines and large rice fields in the valleys.  Flowers are planted everywhere, even on the highway.  I pass by a spotless lake, with a red tower in the middle and I have to stop, just to take in the sights and the silence.  This country touches me to the core of my being... the peace, safety, standard of life (highest in the world, I have no doubt) and landscapes are just a few factors that can change my perspective on life here.
I stop to one of the many rest areas (these are huge places with everything you can think of, from markets to pharmacies) and buy an ice cream.  As I enjoy sitting in the shade, a little girl runs to me with 4 cereal bars and a bottle of Iced tea, saying in a cute voice: “Gift” and then she runs back to her parents.  I am flabbergasted again and asked the parents “why is everyone so nice to me?”  “It is our custom to welcome weary travelers from faraway places.”  And as they say that, they bow again. 
5 days into Japan and I feel I am on a different planet... I cannot but think that they are and should be the standard by which the whole world should be judged.  Japan sets a bar of civilization level that should be adopted by the rest of the world.  A sign of true civilization, the way I see it, is when all the citizens of a country enjoy the same standard of life and quality across the society’s areas.  Whether you have money or not, you can still eat at cheaper restaurants where the quality is the same.  Your house, small or not, has the same modern amenities as anyone else.  You car, your healthcare, the infrastructure will be the same whether you are rich or poor.  Most of the countries I have lived in or visited in the last 25 years are basically catering to the rich: if you want a very good meal you will pay more in a fancier restaurant (otherwise food poisoning is on the menu), you want a nice place to live, you have to pay more, a better hospital care, you pay more.  Basically, the underlining message is: “you’re poor, you’re screwed”.  Japan does everything the other way: food is amazing everywhere, whether you pay 5 dollars or 200.  The cleanliness, the technology and the infrastructure is available for everyone, rich or poor.  Of course, if you have more money, you have a better house or car, but even the small houses and cars and restaurants are of the highest standard here. You also get the same treatment and respect, whether you are rich or poor, which is very rare almost anywhere else I have been before.
I want to thank the Yamaha people in Sakata, where I stopped to ask for directions to a camp and who helped me find accommodation and even drove in front of me to find the place.  Your generosity is greatly appreciated.
Lastly, the respectful attitude of all the people I met, the politeness and the peaceful approach these people have to everything makes this country what it is today, a jewel of our planet.  Their determination to not only survive but thrive, in spite of typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, plus a couple of nuclear bombings, is remarkable, to say the least.  
The Japanese have everything they want and no one is trying to rip you off (I get free tea, sake, cookies, food, someone even filled my tank free, etc).  I remember paying 4 Euro on the Italian highway for a cup of tea, just because they can, or 6 Euro a cup of coffee in Norway or 1 Euro for 1 egg at the grocery store, just because it’s Norway. 
I have more than 3 weeks to explore this country on my own 2 wheels and I am already walking on clouds, because I have reached the best country on the planet (I understand that different people have different experiences and opinions about Japan, but this is my experience so far here).
And this, my friends, is my 2 cents worth of reflection after 5 days in Japan.
Photos below.

Leaving Korsakov on a grey morning

 The Hearland Ferry

 My lunch
 First sight of Japan
 Camp in Wakkanai Park
 Wakkanai from the top of the mountain
 Leaving Wakkanai for the South

 This little girl just wanted a photo on my bike; at one of the many rest areas
 Summer camping for these children.  I camped in the same place.  They were very exciting to see this giant foreigner coming by bike.

 Morning mist at Asten Campground: 4:30 am

 Japanese love entertainment and you see special places like these everywhere
 The Pacific
 Amazing little restaurant where I had my first lunch: Rice, teriyaki chicken, veggies and drink: 5 dollars

 Zen Lake on the way South

 Rest area markets

 Some gas stations have no usual pumps: the hose hangs from the ceiling and they fill up from above. 
 One of the many Temples and Shrines I have seen here

 Beautiful Aomori

 My dinner in Aomori: the lady did not speak any English and just brought me this amazing Udon noodle soup; free of charge!  So much for expensive Japan!
 Sakata in the evening

Monday, 21 July 2014


I am writing my last post from Russia... What an experience this was for me and my bike!  6 weeks spent crossing the largest country on the planet, 11.000 km done, 7700 by motorbike and just over 3000 by the TransSiberian train (see below my train experience).  Russia enchanted me with her friendly people, her amazing food and her heritage of culture and history, but it also challenged me more than any other country I have ever been to (with the exception of Congo, perhaps).  I am still licking my wounds, both mentally and physically and I think it will take some time to recover from this ordeal.  To cross a mammoth like this, with roads that rattled my brains out and drivers that nearly killed me several times, and considering the accident I had, would be enough to write a small book about overlanding through Russia.  I deeply and respectfully salute all those that have done it, by any transportation means and I even salute those that attempted it and failed.  There is no shame in that; only those that have been on 2 wheels (or any other number of wheels) through this country will understand what price you have to pay to reach the other side. 
The ride from Krasnoyarsk was one of the most challenging, as the roads were very bad with large broken parts and very remote places.  It took me about 16 hours to reach Irkutsk and by the time I got there, I was shaking so badly I could hardly park the bike.  I stopped in front of a Subway (the American Sandwich store) and ran inside to buy a sprite to get some electrolytes in me before I passed out; I rode the whole day with only a 500 ml bottle of water and no food and I was ready to faint.  The boy behind the counter got very scared when he saw me: I was muddy from top to bottom, eyes were popping out, I had a mud mask around my goggles and I pretty much looked like a racoon in Yamaha clothes.  He quickly prepared a foot long sub and 1 litre bottle of Sprite.  People were watching me as I shakily unwrapped that sandwich and started eating.  I left Krasnoyarsk at 6:30 in the morning and it was now 11:00 at night!
I rested in Irkutsk for 4 days, arranging for the train in the same time for both myself and my bike; I wanted to take the train from 2 reasons: to experience a part of the Trans-Siberian and to give my body a chance to heal from my rough trip so far.  I rode on adrenalin until now and I didn’t realize how much I abused my body and neglected my injuries.  Now, my hip was dangerously swollen, my neck was twisted and stiff from wearing the helmet for so long and from the Moscow accident. 
I booked a train ticket for me, through my new friends in Irkutsk: Natasha, Nikolai and Sasha, all bikers that have taken care of me again.  Sasha arranged with the cargo company to pack my bike and send it to Khabarovsk.  They said it would take 6 days; no problem... It took 11 days.  “This is Russia” everyone tells me, even though I don’t know exactly what that means.
I left Irkutsk on Monday, July 7, at 9:30, being driven to the station by Colea (Nikolai) and Natasha.  It was starting to rain and Colea said: “There is a saying in Russia that when good people leave, it starts raining”.  I replied: “There is a saying in Canada, that when you leave good people behind, it starts raining.” 
The train arrived on time (a miracle in Russia) and I went to my “apartment”.  I took this train after reading so many reviews on the amazing quality and experience you might have and I was quite excited.  When I got to my cabin, I noticed 4 “beds” (4 planks of wood, with dodgy mattresses), and 3 guys that were already there.  I said “Hello”, and introduced myself.  They were professional athletes, and the sport was shooting.  I thought: ‘wow, it must be one of those disciplines at triathlon or something like that”, but they said that they were actually shooting with AK-47’s.  What?  Yes, AK-47’s!  One of the guys had a gun on his hip, while lying in bed drinking tea.  I thought: “OK, this should be an interesting ride!”  It turned out they were from Novosibirsk and heading to Chita for a National competition.  They were very pleasant and respectful and we had a good time together.  I slept for few hours that night, as the train was throwing us all over the place and it was hot.  Outside, a major rainstorm was unleashing and I realized what would have happened if I went by bike on my own.  The Trans Siberian highway was right next to the rails and the condition of the road was terrible: muddy, broken, and narrow.  I was happy I chose the train.
I woke up in the morning extremely stiff, my neck was twisted badly and I looked like Quazimoto! I actually envied the Hunchback for having his own place in the attic of the cathedral.
  I wobbled my way to the toilet and when I opened the door my jaw dropped: the stench was indescribable and on the floor there was a sea of urine and water, trying to find its way to the hole in the middle.  I swear this thing had a tide of its own, moving back and forth with the bumps of the train.  I had to find a system to use this toilet without sinking my feet into this piss.  I started brushing my teeth outside (trying hard to contain my gagging from the smell and sights of the interior) and when I knew I was ready, I stepped inside.  I quickly rinsed and when I wanted to use the toilet, I understood why there was so much on the floor: it was hard to hit the toilet while the train is throwing you all over the place...  I was wearing flipflops... This was going to be a long ride!
As I returned to my cabin, my roommates were packing as we were approaching Chita.  As soon as they left, I thought I would have the cabin all to myself until Khabarovsk; 5 minutes later, 3 massive Russians walked in, with bellies the size of an American Thanksgiving turkey.  They started to take their clothes off to prepare for the ride and they were sweating profusely already.  “Great”, I thought, “I feel now like Ben Stiller in “Along came Polly” when he played basketball with the sweaty, hairy guy!”  Another 40 hours with these guys!  I went out to give them some “privacy” (I am using this word extremely loosely).  I asked the conductor where the Restaurant car is and he told me to wait.   Few minutes later a lady came with a cart filled with Fanta and Chips.  She even had a menu: chips, Fanta, different kind of chips, other Fanta types, water J  I almost started to cry! 
Evening came again, inside the train there was total darkness and outside a Biblical deluge was filling up the vast Siberian swamps.  I shyly opened the door and sneaked into my bed and closed my eyes, wondering how I was going to sleep that night.  The Russian grizzlies were already in bed, each one snoring and farting their brains out.  Their undigested kielbasas were coming out with the vengeance.    I didn’t close an eye that night, I had my headphones on to drown the snoring but I found no relief from the farting.  I am sure that the genius that will invent a camera that captures smell, will win the Nobel Prize. 
We arrived in Khabarovsk 2 hours late; by now I was stuck looking down on my left foot, with a twisted neck that would not let me straighten up.  People in the train were wondering what kind of weirdo I am; not that the rest of the characters there were of great stature: a guy was lying on the floor of the corridor, so drunk, vomit was coming out of his mouth and he had no clue; another one was sitting in between the cars so he can sneak a smoke; he was in his not-so-white underwear, hanging with one hand on one of the metal bars while smoking with the other.  “I fit right in”, I thought.
I took my bags and got the hell out of this train.  It was still raining, but the fresh smell of rain and grass in the train station made me extremely happy.  I limped my way to a taxi and went to the hotel.  I took an hour long shower (after 62 hours on a Russian train, I needed that), disinfected my flip flops, and I went to bed.  I am not sure what Trans Siberian train tourists take, but I was the only tourist (and this was first class, a propos). There must be another, fancier train that caters to the tourists, for sure!  But I think I got the true cultural experience with this train.
 It saved me time and headaches and probably my life, as I would have never made it through 10 days of mud, rain and in the physical state I was in, but what an experience that was!  I rode with Russians, on a Russian train, across Siberia!  I am sure this will be a funny story for my grandchildren, but at that moment it didn’t seem funny at all. 
In Khabarovsk I met Alexey (Ivan from Novosibirsk gave me his phone number) and Kate (Katia), his daughter-in-law.  This turned out to be, again, a life saver for me, as this family of Flight Attendants took me in their home like one of their own and fed me, gave me a room in their home and drove me everywhere in town.  When the bike turned up a week late, I was cared for by them without one hint that they would want to be reimbursed for their efforts.  This is what will make me miss Russia: the wonderful people I met and their altruistic nature.  Alexey, Galina and Katia, and Katia’s parents: Natalie and Nikolai became very close friends; the list of my Russian friends is growing. 
I headed from Khabarovsk for my last leg on mainland Russia on a cloudy and sticky morning; it rained the whole day before and the humidity was high.  I was worried about the 550 km of the Eastern BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) because I knew the condition of the road and after rains it would be worse.  I was lucky enough to avoid rain and when I saw that large tracts of the road were missing I realized how difficult it would have been in the rain.  As I turned East towards Vanino at Lidaga, the road narrowed and soon I was heading towards the mountains.  Even though it was extremely remote, the landscapes were spectacular and due to my slow speed, I managed to enjoy the scenery.  It took me 8 hours to reach Vanino from Khabarovsk and when I saw the Pacific Ocean my heart trembled with joy.  I reached the end of Russia’s mainland, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, I was still alive and my bike was purring like a cat, as if she knew she is approaching her own country.  The humidity disappeared and the fresh ocean breeze was already cooling me down.  I was a happy man!
In Vanino I met Natalie (friend of the friends from Khabarovsk) and with impeccable English she lead me to her parents’ home, where I was offered a room (the “great” Vanino Hotel wanted to charge me 120 Euros for a shitty room).  As soon as I unpacked the bike, Alexander, Natatie’s father, took me to the ocean where a lot of fishermen were by the shore fishing for Salmon.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how much salmon there is in these waters!  Few minutes later we ended up with amazing salmon and few more minutes later the barbecue was on, the salmon sizzling on it.  Next was the caviar, the salmon roe, the garden potatoes and the veggies, all from their own garden.  I was speechless... An hour before I was in a completely strange place and now I am in someone’s home, having a dinner fit for the Czars.  All this hospitality offered without one word that I have to pay anything or at least buy them a gift.  For them, it was a pleasure to have me as a guest and a simple thank you was enough.  This is the Russia I will always remember: the biker community that is so welcoming and the total generosity of the local people for complete strangers like me.  It makes me feel sad that what the world hears about Russia are mostly bad things, but I will always hold dear all the memories that these people gave me.  The ferry to Sakhalin took 20 hours, even though it is only 210 km from Vanino to Kholmsk.  The ferry is a giant piece of rust that goes only 5 knots per hour.  It is understandable when you realize that they put more than 20 rail cars inside, about 40 trucks and as many cars.  I was the only bike and I was lucky because Natalie arranged (without my knowledge) to have a private cabin so I had a good night’s rest and good food.  I arrived in Yuzhno the next day around 4 pm where I met up with Dennis, a biker that found out about me from Alex from Moscow (again).  He led me to the hotel where I now wait for my departure for Japan. 
I have a deep sense of satisfaction when I look back where I was 6 weeks ago and what this ride across Russia taught me.  I am humbled by the size of this country, but even more humbled by the bigger size of people’s hearts.  I was privileged to stay in their homes, eat their food and learn of their daily joys and struggles, their view of their country and the world and I was a small part of their lives for the little time we spent together.  I will never forget them or what they have offered me.
Enjoy the photos below... Meanwhile, I can sense the magic of the country of the Rising Sun, which lies only few hours away from here. Sayonara Russia, Konichiwa Japan!

The beautiful city of Irkutsk

The magic of Lake Baikal: the oldest and the deepest lake in the world, with a depth of 1.7 km, even though they claim that it has over 7 km of sediment before you reach the real bottom.

 The famous Omuli fish, endemic to Baikal; excellent taste!
 Natasha and Nikolai, my biker friends from Irkutsk.

 Waiting for the Trans Siberian train

 Remote Siberia
 Poor villages in Siberia; I had to wonder what these people are doing to cope in the harsh Siberian winters in these tiny houses
 Quazimoto's corner!
 Large parts of the so called Trans Siberian highway

 The beautiful Taiga
 The not-so-beautiful-extremely-stinky toilet
 This is our only source of water: a large boiling tank (I didn't care to ask where the water comes from)
Beautiful Khabarovsk
 The Massive Amur River

 I saw this amazing puppy in the park and had to play with him
 Alexey and Kate, my angels in Khabarovsk.  She speaks impeccable English and he has the heart of a giant
 Fresh blackberries that I ate every day from Alexey's garden.  Most of the food came from their yard.
The Siberian Eagle, 2.2 m from wing to wing, one of the most majestic birds of prey I have ever seen

 The Siberian reindeer being fed here with cucumbers by Masha, Kate's sister
 Finally, I saw my first live Siberian Tiger, a magnificent male
 I love these Ural bikes
 Khabarovsk cathedral

 My bike arrived a week late in Khabarovsk from Irkutsk but in one piece
 The beautiful Siberian deer, looking like Bambi
 On the way to Vanino, waiting for some bridge work to allow us to pass
 Port of Vanino
 The Pacific Ocean, for which I longed for...
 My dinner
 Natalie's parents place, where I stayed for the night
 Dinner is being prepared

 Alexander, Natalie's father, a colorful characted, a former seaman, very funny and witty, with his Kazak wig
 Barbecued wild Pacific salmon, garden veggies, caviar and salmon sashimi; dinner for a Czar
 Natalie, the amazing lady that speaks fluent English and helped me with the booking of the ferry to Sakhalin and many other things.
 Train being loaded on the ferry

 Port of Kholmsk, on the Sakhalin Island, after 20 hours at sea