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