Heading north from Vladivostok I planned to ride the 750 km to Khabarovsk. The road started well as a paved and smooth two lane freeway, it continued like this for quite a distance and then out of nowhere the road disappeared and in its place was a wide strip of wet, loose and thick gravel and stones that went on for as far as the eye could see. The cars barely slowed as they bounced and jumped through the water filled pot holes, I on the other slowed down to almost 10kmph as the bike snaked, slipped and slid in the gravel, in a panic I opened the throttle fully, lurching the bike forwards, I had my feet off the pegs for a fear of a fall and so began the 500m of slapstick comedy that Mr Bean would have been proud.
I slowed the bike and managed to stay up right, I raised my visor and looked ahead sighing a breath of relief and inhaling a good dose of realization of what lay ahead. The road continued to change in three very distinct ways over the next 11 hours of riding. From smooth asphalt, to deep gravel then consecutive like speed bumps that would bounce you of your bike like a bull in a rodeo if you rode too fast.
On the way I was passed by many motorcycles heading in the same direction. They zipped over the gravel and sand which such ease I couldn’t help but be envious, but i knew this was their stomping ground, their bread and butter. At my final petrol station I met the two brothers, Nikolai and Sergey, whereby they explained that it was the opening of the bike season for the Far East of Russia in Khabarovsk. They said there was room at the small house they were staying at so I followed them into town where we met up with a an extreme eclectic plethora of Russian bikers. From two girls on a 250cc Baja Scrambler who were madly in love to the Americanized fat ponytailed Harley rider. I had arrived in eastern Russia! The small house I had been told we were staying at actually turned out to be a children’s summer camp that was closed for the season. I was shown to my room by the Doctor, a rotund chap with a natural smile and broken English. My room consisted of two soviet era children’s beds, with one already occupied by an old, tall, withdrawn Russian with a permanent look of childish fear in his eyes. He was dressed in old jeans with a tattered black leather jacket over a blue white stripped t-shirt, at first I thought he was maybe a worker at the summer camp but he was part of the crowd rode a big KTM and an avid biker. I sat on the bed watching him sleep not knowing what to feel of the situation, I was glad to meet some people who were kind enough to look after me but apprehensive about what lay ahead. I had a wee and cleaned myself with a baby wipe and let myself relax to a couple shots of vodka and some delicious borscht cooked only 20minutes earlier by one of the women over the camp fire. Everyone within my group was sweet and caring to start, exchanging stories and requesting their picture with me, which I obliged and warmed immensely to their hospitality. We sat out under a wooden gazebo letting the sun set behind us and planning the following days activities, I had planned to ride on the following day but the Doctor asked if I would stay and mind riding in the parade tomorrow with the bike club, I said I would and let me head hit the pillow knowing the following would become a story of Eastern Siberia, I just hoped it was a positive one.
The following morning I awoke to rain and black skies but we headed out in a 12 person convey to the start of the parade. I had anticipated a shot ride down to the local square and a few circles of the central streets, however rode for nearly 60 miles to a car park in an adjoining town. On the way to the parade a taxi drive had reversed into one of the bikers, I didn’t actually see the accident myself but we must have been traveling all of 10mph, the taxi driver got out of his cab, rising some 6ft 8inches tall, a square jaw and heavily broken nose. Words were exchanged between the biker and the driver and then ensued full on fist brawl, heavy punching landing on either face with quick succession, two further bikers joined in until the driver hit the ground. My stomach turned in somersaults at this violence, i knew this was the wild west but I was scared of any repercussions and what had happened to the driver, I felt a huge an ease of them over the next 48 hours I was them. I knew I didn’t fight and was petrified that I would do something unintentionally that would lead to a good hiding or if this cab driver sought vengeance, my imagination went berserk.
We arrived at the start of the parade which was a large gated car park, that filled with nearly 500 bikes. Word quickly spread of a foreigner riding solo round the world and many people came to have their picture taken with me, or have their child sit on my bike with me stood behind, the attention was bizarre but pleasant, After lunch I was approached by a Russian TV station wanting to do an interview, I explained I didn’t speak any russian but I would try my best to explain what i was doing. I was able to stretch out a 5 minute hand puppet explanation of my adventure and why i was doing it. We completed the parade back in town and headed towards the camp with my bunch of misfits, they rode aygrevisly through crazy traffic at high speeds, it unsettled me as I didn’t know the way back to the camp and was keen to keep up. A small white darted in front of me causing to brake hard, my front wheel slipped out from under me on the wet gravel, my foot caught under the bike and me and tina slid down the road. I came to stop and took to breathes, i searched my body in my mind for sources of pain but none came, i pulled myself from under the bike and switch the ignition off. One of the other riders stopped and helped me right my bike. My fuel canister bracket had snapped and hung on the straps holding the bags, a large dent resided in one of panniers and I had torn my jacket quite badly on the shoulder and elbow. Adrenalin coursed through my body, I looked around and sat back on my bike. I felt small and embarrassed to what had happened, a stupid mistake riding my bike well beyond what the environment allowed. Lesson Learnt.
We arrived back at the camp to find that 150+ more bikers were staying at the camp and the party was getting underway. Drinking to Russian’s seemed to be a profession and copious quantities were consumed in the hours that followed, I planned to leave early the following morning so avoided the constant shots of vodka being handed to me, at 10pm a quietly disappeared to my room to allow the days events sink in and let me heart rate slow. My room was empty and sat there with the shallow drum of singing, fighting and laughing continuing outside. Many of the men carried large knives strapped to their thighs and people told me that a group of the bikers that were there carried guns, just as I finished laughing through my fear I looked up to see my door consumed by a large figure holding a bottle of vodka, staring at me with wide blank eyes. I tried to introduce myself and shake hands but I was batted away with the back of his hand and a slur of russian words, my heart truly sank and what was going to happen. The 5 minutes he stood there felt like 50, until he moved forward and collapsed on the bed opposite, snoring loudly. I hoped that incident was merely a communication breakdown, but my gut instinct said to move, so I walked down the hall and found an empty room where I moved my things and locked the door behind me. I slept well and was on the bike at 6am heading towards Svobodny, to stay with one of my new friends best mates who was a bike mechanic and avid biker.
The bus travelled the two hours to down town Seoul, the buildings rose, tall from the earth, desperate to impress but the dirt of combustion had masked their sheen, revealing the cities price it was failing to pay, wealth was clear but city planning was not, each enterprise begged for attention through loud print on white banners and neon signs, through a europeans eye the message was lost and a became a piece of the next photograph rather than an enticement to visit an others hard work and creativity. Like many asian cultures a dichotomy exists with the west, where we aspire to be an entrepreneur, a self sustained made man, yet here everyone runs there own business, whether that be the owning of a small nimble truck or access to exotics goods, everyone appears to wheel and deal their way to an income. In a couple of days my bike would arrive at the hotel in Seoul and we could head east, a direction that seemed counterproductive when home was still thousands of miles to the west. WIllis and Kirst arrived from Tokyo that evening, after a big hug and shared smiles we hit the town, 7am came round and we were still sharing stories and running from this bar to that market through the electric night of a city that never sleeps. At night the true flavor of Seoul arose, as the ingredients of frantic wholesalers, street food stands and electric lights stirred to create a nonstop broth that is addictive to even sip.
Four consecutive nights of 7am bed times, amazing food arriving in dishes no bigger than ash trays, yet are served 15 at a time, all with different flavors of red and spice, textures of crisp and smooth, velvet and snap. Like a beautiful house viewed fleetingly through trees, the intricacies of the world can only be seen if the speed was slow enough to allow a full picture to be collected, but like pulling apart a cut to see the veins and sinews underneath the price you have to pay is thrust to every inch of your neural network. You will not remove the grit of understanding unless you keep digging at the picture however much it may cost. The strike of pain keeps us away most of the time, the warm plaster of home or work is safe to place, but in some of us the cuts never heal, for others the cut heals and the body slowly pushes the grit to the surface falling away never needing to be found and some, maybe the lucky ones, are never cut.
North my wheels took me, towards the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. At a time when a vein and arrogant boy from the North tried to prove himself a man, causing us to pass humongous tanks from the South, forcing us to weave and dive out of the way as they squeezed their way through tunnels and passes. The rain abated just as we arrived at the DMZ allowing us to see the so called forbidden land, an old bullet riddled train from the Korean war and a very good traditional Korean restaurant. Moving due east the routes were kind even though we had to stay away from the motorways, navigation wasn’t too difficult and the interior was stunning with dens let covered hills and mountains, we arrived in Sokcho a coastal fishing town known for its raw fish, we booked into a hotel that offered rates by the hour but for the entire night was on $30, my room had a round orange bed with a pink plastic stand next to it containing various body lotions and oils, i walked into the green bathroom to realize there was a one way mirror from the bathroom overlooking the bed, i’d be in my sleeping bag as the prospect of waking up stuck to the sheets was not something I wanted to entertain. I hoped in a taxi with the others and headed down to walk around the fish market, huge octopus fight in tubs, tentacles reaching through the netting covering the tanks, huge fish gutted hung from their tails from rusted blue beams, water constantly pumped into the containers, over flows onto the ground and around you feet, the assault to the senses was brilliant. We all got excited about the evenings dinner at one of the many seafood restaurants, the only challenge now was to choose one. We finally settled on a busy place with a picture of the owner on the sign, we were ushered to the tables with chairs but asked to sit on the shorter, more traditional tables that required you to sit on the floor, a novel idea that soon wore off as my boney behind started hurting 10 minutes in, a distraction when the fish was delivered to my plate, it looked like Sole, the top of the fish was cut into domino size pieces and tasted delightful, after 4 or 5 mouthfuls I looked down to see the mouth of the fish move, I blinked and froze as I saw it move again. You couldn’t argue with the freshness.
Sunrise on the following day we headed to a national park just south of where we were staying and I was keen to stretch my legs and work a sweat. We did a short hours hike to a small waterfall that lay a few clicks up a deep gorge, the waterfall fell in a rather unimpressive way to a small pool but the change from a road was welcome. Next we rode in a cable car rising high above the clouds that started our final hike to an amazing peak that presented forest and mountain views across Korea, it was a beautiful sight of greys and blues as far as the eye can see.
I left Willis and Kirst to return to Seoul to catch their flight home as I relaxed in Donghae, the port I would catch my ship to Russia.
I sat crossed legged on the top bunk watching films, each bed in our eight man room was shrouded in individual gold curtains, the growling extraction fan working with all its strength to draw the musk of 8 bodies. Yureg’s GPS indicated we were about 70 clicks from Vladivostok, I had asked the city to hold my first Russian steps safe for the 3 hours until the ferry docked. Two other brits, with a private school ease about them were backpacking around the world, a short and broad korean man that did nothing but sleep and a long haired Russian who sold old records and motorcycles in a shop in downtown Vladivostok. Together we made room 1203.
Occupying 24 hours at sea was easier to accomplish than I had previously anticipated, firstly the booking agent had put all the europeans in the same room, and a russian school group next door eager to learn some English and share card games. My most joyous moment of the journey was spreading Bovril on stale bread I stole from the dining hall. I had not a knife so I improvised with a relatively broad tooth pick, unused I might add!
Looking out to sea, the endless constant, no future or past just the now as far as the eye can see. Bright fresh air brought a smile to my face, like a warm drink on a cold morning.
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Where he treads, beneath the sun
Blazed leather pealed
Wondering glimmer of gypsy thought
Fish never once caught
Conditions driven by imbalance
Purse short comings
and gloss connections
Did heart or home
Not hold gravity
False bottom birthplace locked tight
Whispering inner ear strong
Print discovered unknown
Unknown carried inside
Like itch of flea
Are there any wonders left to see?
I arrived in Seattle with gun metal skies and wet ground, I checked into the dated multi-story hotel in downtown, imagining days gone of seedy men pushing women and drugs from the corners and dark alley ways. Life was regained in my weary bones after a hot shower and clean clothes, time from my last seafood encounter was to great for comfort so I found a great sushi bar offering happy hour prices and ate my fill of Toro Tuna and Salmon.
Tiredness set in so I called it an early night, looking forward to staying with Mike and Morgan in Edmonds about 30 miles north of Seattle. the horizon surrounding Seattle is epic to say the least with Olympic mountains, a beautiful sound and endless exposed shores. Mike’s and Morgan’s house was situated in proud, tall trees, hiding neighbors and the coast only a few minutes walk. That evening we went next door to celebrate a birthday, over beers, steaks and campfire stories. So many people had opened their doors to me and the longing I held to be with people was great so I exchanged stories for their hospitality, an amazing deal I would do any day.
The following day I headed north to Vancouver with fresh baked cookies from Morgan and a set of directions through the beautiful roads over picturesque islands from Mike. Leaving Mike and Morgan, a realization occurred of the life that lay ahead, beyond this trip and beyond this year, Mike and Morgan had a great way of life in my eyes, surrounded by thoughtful and funny neighbors, in mountains and water, city life and woodland peacefulness, and most importantly each other. The thought of a life spent with another fought in my mind like children on a seesaw desperate to feel the ground beneath their feet, as I weaved my way through thick spruce and pine, I longed to hold Libby’s hand, feel her touch and stand broken as I was forced to explain my actions when I was wrong. Could I spend my life with her or would I just become another penultimate boyfriend before she married another, just as I had been in every other relationship. The doubt of this wanting thought would battle in my mind for weeks to come, was this a lie to believe when your heart sits far from hand or a realization of feelings that I’d previously not dare believe.
Two many rises and falls of our star in different lands had set my sights on the idea of roots that until recent were deemed unattainable for a heart such as mine. Am I in love at last? Are these grand thoughts that now occupy the majority of my time a product of longing or have I earnt an honesty with myself from the gutter of roads less travelled and a product of selfish endeavor.
The crossing of the Canadian border was effortless as I punched the air to celebrate the completion of my first country, and in a weeks time would have crossed my second. Vancouver is constantly ranked as the one of the best places in the world to live as it strikes a beautiful balance between outdoor pursuits and the plethora only a city can contain. I had never been, yet a University housemate and dear friend, the canadian born Jonny, a seaplane pilot, who i’d always admired his vigor and determination in anything he set his mind to awaited my arrival. His outlook was similar to mine so i was excited to explore his finds of the city and hopefully do some sort activity. From tantalizing and delicate Mexican and mystical sushi to hiking the Chief, I lost myself and forgot the bike.
I spent almost a week in Vancouver flying between the islands, drinking, hiking, eating and laughing. What a way to end my trip across North America. Next stop South Korea. I had my motorcycle crated and prepped by Pacific Motosports in Richmond BC, just down the road from LEI who flew my motorcycle via Korean Air to Incheon. I was able to acquire a triumph crate for a new bike that had been delivered to the shop a few days earlier, so it fitted my bike perfectly and didn’t require me to remove any wheels, just the mirrors and panniers, the price of the shipping had come in under budget so it made for welcome treat to counterbalance the excess of seafood.
I left North America very proud of Tina, she had cried oil a few times but with a bit of TLC had carried me safely over 5000 miles across mountains, deserts, valleys, plains and highways. At times it did not seem like the easy part of my trip but as it contextualized into the next leg of trip I was emphatically sad to say goodbye
Apprehension about the next stop, South Korea and beyond set in as I bordered the only flight of the expedition. What a wonderful invention, jet propulsion, human flight, pressurized cabins and reclining seats, why would I endeavor this costly, isolating and dangerous task, a misplaced sense of British Stoicism? held on to like an old gift that is both ugly and irrelevant but given to you by dear hands and brought out from under dust and shadow when nostalgia becomes popular.
After a 13 hour flight I touched down in South Korea, my first foreign land of the trip. I was excited but my head was firmly in bike mode and I focused on getting emails sent and balls rolling as soon as I entered the arrivals lounge. I have an unstoppable need to complete tasks now, not in 5 or tomorrow or later, now. I feel like I can’t relax until I have, but on a trip like this there are always tasks to achieve, to do, plan, organize and plot and the most important task I was yet to add to the to do list was to relax and enjoy, get out of that mode and absorb what was going on around.
Page 1 of 5