Russia By Motorcycle With No Safety Net
Happy guys at Red Square, Moscow. They were friends, and I was on a new adventure: no map for the next seven time zones.
Mafia Russians, guys who called themselves businessmen, but were in reality kidnappers or at the least extortionist. They might as well have had me at gunpoint. The only way I could secure freedom for my motorcycle was to follow their faxed instructions and wire money from the United States to some unnamed numbered account in Russia. It was a kidnapping for ransom, just not on the highway or street with a gun but through international money laundering channels.
I had ridden across Russia to Vladivostok, where I had agreed to pay the demanded cash to the only air cargo company that promised to fly my crated Kawasaki motorcycle to Los Angeles. After handing over the money and receiving an executed Bill of Lading, my boxed motorcycle was carried by a fork lift into a secured storage area at the airport purportedly to be loaded on the next cargo flight out to Los Angeles. I flew to Los Angeles a day later to collect it.
What the mafia guys did not tell me was their airline only flew to Seoul, Korea. Once the motorcycle arrived in Seoul it was off loaded and placed in another storage area until I coughed up more money. When I was trying to hunt it down from Los Angeles I discovered the telephone number listed on the Bill of Lading for the Russian air cargo company was the number for a pizza restaurant in Vladivostok and not their office at the air cargo terminal in the airport. Two weeks later the kidnapped KLR was finally freed after a ransom of nearly another $1,000 was paid to the captors. The Russian businessmen called it the cost of shipping. I called it ransom, or minimally their way to make a larger profit.
Three of us had started out from the Russian border with Latvia to cross Russia in our visa allotted time of 30 days; three supposedly well seasoned motorcyclists on a lark. The other two turned around in Moscow and I was left alone, headed east, literally following the sun. When my riding pals headed back to Germany they took with them their GPS. My map was one that I had torn out of an airline guide, one of those three page fold-out maps of the world showing the airline's routes. It had some major cities shown on it across the eight time zones of Russia, but no roads. I thought I could purchase a road map at a gas station along the way, only to learn after crossing the first two times zones that gas stations in Russia did not sell maps, instead sold gas, and sometimes oil.
With only one main road it was pretty hard to get lost crossing Siberia. Small towns like this had gas, but often no hotel or truck stop for sleeping.
I knew there was only one road across Siberia that would get me east to my target city of Harbarovsk, and from there another main road that would take me south to my end point, the port of Vladivostok. My map-less plan was to try to stay on the main road, find the sun, and then head in the direction the sun had come up from. At Harbarovsk I would turn south. A few times, in large cities, I got off course when the major road split and I would follow the wrong one until it got smaller and traffic thinned, but usually that was when it was raining and I could not see the sun.
When my pals went back to Germany they also took with them our electronic Russian-English-Russian dictionary. Prior to our departure one of the two had taken a short course in Russian, so he was to be our "speaker." Once I was on my own, my Russian speaking ability was limited to four or five words I had learned on our day together in Moscow. On the road I soon picked up a few more words and was able to order simple meals in restaurants, ask for directions to a hotel and how much it cost when I found it, and get some general directions.
After leaving Moscow I was without any safety net. After finding my way across the Ural Mountains I felt pretty comfortable with my sense of direction and the plan of staying on the main road. The scenery became pretty boring as did the road. Both were endless two lane miles through green scrub trees.
This was the main road across Siberia. Other than frost heaves, some pot holes, and minor construction it was in fair condition.
One Belgium motorcycle couple we met on the road shortly after entering Russia told the three of us that our planned road route was going to be the "Road To Hell" after leaving Moscow. The brother-sister team were going to cover the same ground we were, but by loading their BMW GS and themselves on a train. Their definition of a bad road and mine were far from the same. While there were some potholes and dips in the road east of Moscow, most of the next two or three time zones were paved, with a total of 42 miles of gravel, but that was in sections of road construction. Later I met the couple again, after their long train ride. They were surprised to see me alive and alone. I explained that my pals had experienced an electrical fault on one of their BMWs and rather than try riding with an intermittent charging system had decided to return to Germany. Asked about how I survived the Road To Hell I told them my Kawasaki KLR650 did just fine on the pavement and had a little fun on the gravel section.
I realized later that the Belgium driver likely did not know what a bad road was because nearly all of Belgium was paved roadways, and good quality paved road. It was a reminder that we all have different envelopes or definitions of road conditions. What was bad to him was pretty good to me, far better than some roads I had ridden in Africa, Asia or even the United States.
There were few other motorcycle travelers on the road across Russia, but all I passed were friendly enough to stop to exchange names and road talk about what was ahead or behind us. One Swiss couple clued me into saving money by negotiating with small hotel owners to pay a nominal fee to set my tent up outside next to their hotel instead of paying far more for a room inside. I would eat in the hotel restaurant, use the restaurant toilet, but sleep on the ground instead of paying for a room with a bed.
I was invited to try piloting one of the Ural choppers, and told if I crashed it my security deposit would be my Kawasaki KLR 650.
While in Moscow I had made friends with several members of a biker club. Their clubhouse was a serious biker compound that included a bar, restaurant, stage for music events, miniature Thunder Dome and a Harley-Davidson dealership. While most of the members could only afford to dream of owning a Harley-Davidson and were mostly hardcore Ural chopper riders, they accepted my Kawasaki KLR650 as part of their motorcycling world. They passed on some contact names of bikers in towns ahead of me that I could ask for help if I needed any and made a few calls ahead to let some of their friends know I was coming through. They said I should just call the locals if I needed help. My not carrying a cell phone made that possibility unlikely, but it was a nice offer on their part.
Another rider I met, from Switzerland, had chosen to take his own safety net with him in the form of a truck driven behind him carrying spare parts and tools. Like me, he knew there would be no dealers or parts stores for his Japanese motorcycle, a Suzuki, so carried in the truck everything he thought he might need from spare tires to oil and gas. His plan was to reach Vladivostok, and then fly himself, his driver and both vehicles back to Switzerland. I've never heard from him again, likely due to his not being able to afford a phone call or Internet time after he paid the air cargo bill.
The Pepsi signage told me this was a café where I could get a Pepsi and also a meal. Converted railroad cars were commonly used for roadside cafes like this.
My biggest perceived danger in riding across Russia was the overly friendly vehicle drivers I met. Some I would meet at lunch in a café, others at dinner. The basis of the danger was vodka. Many times they would try to engage me in conversation and that usually meant offering to buy me a drink. To be polite I would accept their offer when having diner and because my tolerance for alcohol was low, my slurred Russian would improve quickly. Soon we would be having a full-on conversation, likely none of us understanding each other, but having a good time. I would pass on the offer of vodka at lunch and was surprised to see some of the drivers consume a full bottle of the strong stuff as if it were water with their meal. Then they would get back in their trucks or cars and drive down the road.
Finding food was simple. I usually passed on trying to find breakfast but would stop at small shops, bakeries or cafes and have a mid day meal or snack. Often lunch was little more than bread, cheese, salami and a can of soda that I would purchase at a public market I saw in a town I was passing through. Once out of town I would stop in along the road and have a meal out of my tank bag. Other times I could figure out by the cars or trucks parked out front that a building was a restaurant or café, where I would stop for a hot sit-down meal.
Towards the end of each travel day I would start looking for a small hotel or truck stop for sleeping. For the safety of the motorcycle parked outside at night I would try to stay on the edge of town instead of mixing with the tourists at some inner city government approved tourist hotel. The inner city hotels had too many curious people looking at my motorcycle parked in front of the hotel to let me sleep easy. The sleeping places on the edge of town were often a little seedier, but I found them to be more motorcycle traveler friendly and far less expensive.
A mistake on my part one night was to say "Da," which was Russian for "Yes," when I thought the security guard at one of the inner city tourist hotels asked me if I liked ladies. What he was really asking was whether I would like a lady. About thirty minutes later a pimp with two ladies knocked on my hotel room door. It took some work for me and my limited Russian speaking ability, then some stress on all of our parts, to convince them I was not interested in making a purchase.
The tourist hotel, like many others, had a system which involved money being paid in the form of a commission to the security guard on the ground floor for making a connection for the pimp with the tourist. He would then call the pimp to bring the ladies to my room. Because there was a floor manager at a centrally located desk on each floor, usually a woman, the pimp had to make another payoff to get past her and to my door. So that was two payments out before knocking on my door. When I said "Nyet," the Russian word meaning "No" to the proffered business deal we had a slight problem.
This was a typical truck stop motel or roadhouse where I shared a room with a trucker, used a common shower and drank proffered vodka in a small dining area. The price for a meal, bed and swill was less than $25.00 a night. The sound of drunken truckers snoring was free.
I was worried that not paying the pimp for his out-of-pocket expenses would find the security guy sabotaging my motorcycle parked in front of the hotel, supposedly under his watchful eye. In the end I paid $5.00 for the ladies and their manager to go away, far less than the $100.00 for the proposed short time business deal. My Kawasaki was not damaged and everyone at the front desk and the security guard were smiling when I checked out the next morning. They were likely grinning because they had a good story to tell about the "girly boy" biker from the USA that had stayed with them.
At the truck stop hotels or roadhouses the ladies were less of a problem. It was obvious what they were trying to market as they smiled at me and made small talk when I was unpacking or covering the motorcycle and locking it up for the night. I would laugh, say I had no money, smile and usually they would go away. Once three of the working ladies came into the restaurant/bar and sat at the table next to mine, drinking vodka and smoking cigarettes while trying to make eye contact. They bought me a beer, trying to soften me up, and I reciprocated with a round of vodka for them. By the end of the evening there were three or four truckers that had joined us and all were having a good time making fun of me and me poor Russian speaking and drinking skills. My roommate that night, a non-drinking truck driver who spoke a little German and English, asked me how I had escaped the ladies when I came back to the room alone. I told him I would say "Da" when they asked if I wanted another beer, and "Nyet" to any other suggestions. I also remember saying "Nyet" when I was asked to pay my bill, which got a good laugh from the group.
Camping was one way I could save money. I saw no public or private campgrounds along my route. Each night when I camped I would try to find a spot well off the main road and out of sight.
Another item that went back to Germany from Moscow with my pals was their hefty wallet, so I had to manage my cash carefully to leave enough for crating and shipping when I got to Vladivostok. To cut costs I would sleep in my tent when I could find a safe place. I never saw a campground during the entire journey. Most camping nights I would drive the motorcycle into the woods or far into a farm field, well away from the main road and prying eyes. This was often a test of my mud riding skills because in the summer the surface permafrost had melted and the tracks or trails were black mud bogs, soggy and slippery. These times were when I appreciated the Kawasaki KLR 650's lugging ability and my having lowered the gearing. The motorcycle would slip and slide, but nothing like some of the bigger displacement motorcycles I considered before making the crossing.
The only problem I had with authorities was at a checkpoint where two bored policemen tried to extort some money from me. From their demeanor and my limited Russian I concluded that earlier foreign motorcycle travelers had folded and paid their road tax. I showed the two policemen my nearly empty wallet (the big $ was well hidden away from the show wallet), and my credit cards. After some banter and a few laughs they settled for a couple of motorcycle stickers I had and a colorful business card from a motorcycle shop I had been given in Germany.
This was a typical Siberian gas station. My Kawasaki KLR 650 ran well on whatever they were pumping. I met one BMW rider on an F650 who was carrying five liters of octane boost additive to add to the low octane gas that was sold at these stations. The octane boost containers took up most of his top case.
Over the three weeks I took to cross Russia I most fondly remember the people I met along the way. Some were local motorcycle enthusiasts who took me into their homes, others envious workers who wanted to know as much as I could tell or show them about America. Each day I was able to eat at least one large, well cooked meal. Gas was plentiful and sleeping ranged from the tourist hotels to basic shared rooms in truck stop roadhouses mixed with some camping in the wild. I drank bottled water which was cheap and plentiful.
The road turned out not to be the Road To Hell but more of a Road To Fun. Each day I met fun and interesting people. Had I experienced a mechanical problem the adventure might have been less fun, but the Kawasaki missed not a beat, even on the low octane gas that was standard.
Both my motorcycle and my riding gear had been well tested before I started across Russia. The unexpected departure of a mapping system, money, and dictionary made the solo crossing a little stressful but in the end I felt I had experienced more of the local culture without them had I had those parts of the safety net.
Do you think you need a $20,000.00, big displacement motorcycle to cross Russia? Arthur Zawodney, a 71-year young adventurer, did it easily on his 250 cc Yamaha.
About the time I was congratulating myself on making the crossing on my own without the safety net of fellow riders and the electronic gizmos my ego was hammered by meeting another solo American. He had made the same crossing as had I, albeit a little slower. Instead of having a big 650cc motorcycle like my Kawasaki KLR 650, he had used a 250cc Yamaha. With no GPS, no satellite phone or riding pals, he only had one real advantage on me. He spoke Russian well enough to communicate. We traveled two days together and became good friends. Where he really made my adventure seem rather tame was when I learned he was nearly 20 years older than me, and did a five-mile run each morning.
Both of us felt we had a good handle on solo motorcycle traveling in difficult parts of the world, each having been taught our lessons on the road over long years of riding miles. We were of the same mind when we landed in Los Angeles, both having used the same air cargo company out of Vladivostok. And we were both taught another lesson, each being introduced to the same mafia guys as our motorcycles sat next to each other, kidnapped and held ransom in Seoul. Had it not been for the fleecing we took it would have been a laughable situation at the time.
The end of the road for me was Vladivostok. It was here I unknowingly meet the mafia air cargo shipping guys.
Now both he and I can laugh at our experience. Arthur Zawodny is his name and I think he'll agree that traveling without a safety net across Russia can be a rewarding personal experience, but dealing with the motorcycle kidnappers, who called themselves "businessmen," was not. That doesn't mean each of us would not have another go at a motorcycle ride across Russia, and both again without a safety net.