We’re in the plane back home while I am writing this, my last update of our trip. We’ve made it to Vladivostok, 20000 kilometers, 15 countries, 76 days. I still can’t believe it if I look at the map, the distance that we covered, kilometer by kilometer.
The last section of our trip took us through Russia. After leaving Ulaanbataar we covered the stretch to Ulan Ude in one day. Shortly before the border we met Sami from Finland, who was on his way from Magadan on the Russian eastcoast, and had driven part of the same stretch we would drive. We exchanged information and money, and we wished each other a safe trip. The border crossing was uneventful, this time the Mongols did not make a mess of it and the Russians were thorough but friendly. So we made it to Ulan-Ude in the early evening. We checked into a hotel that was recommended to us, parked our bikes in the hotel parking lot, had some dinner and went to bed early, it had been a long day.
We planned to stay in Ulan-Ude for the day so we were sleeping in. But in the morning the reception called us, quite early. Since we don’t speak any Russian and the reception just speaks Russian, we listened, did not understand what they were saying and hung up. Then they were at our door, that is hard to ignore. They had a message that one of our motorcycles had been stolen, and the police was there for us. This woke me up real fast. I put on some clothes and ran downstairs. And yes, one motorcycle was gone and it happened to be mine. The policeman who was waiting for me spoke a few words of English and told me that my motorcycle had been found already. We went a few blocks by foot, and there was my motorcycle, in a small yard next to a playground.
At first sight it looked OK, but at closer inspection I could see that the wiring had been damaged. Apparently the thieves had watched too many movies and had tried to hotwire the ignition. But this won’t work, since my motorcycle has chip protection, the key has to be present for the engine to start. Unfortunately I could not start the engine either anymore, since all wires were cut. I also could see that they opened one of my panniers and stole some of my stuff, one of which was the drone.
A bunch of police officers were already at the scene, and there was one officer pulling fingerprints, CSI style. After this had been done we pushed the bike back to the parking lot and I went with the police officers to the station, where they typed up a report. They were friendly and even provided me with a translator. So now I can say that I spent a morning in a Russian police office, which was an experience in itself. From the camera footage from the hotel they had seen that it was a group of teenagers who pushed my bike off the lot. Fortunately for me, anyone more professional would have put the bike in a van and I would never have seen it again.
Paul picked me up from the police station and we drove back to the hotel, picking up some tools on the way. I then spent a few hours trying to repair the wiring myself. I could get the bike back on ignition, but the engine would not start, it complained about the key missing, although it was there. I was afraid that the antenna that senses the key had been damaged.
Meanwhile, the hotel had called a friend of the hotel owner, who had a car service workshop. So a young guy shows up, on a BMW 1150GS – a pleasant surprise. He introduced himself as Konstantin. I explained to him what had happened and what I thought the problem was. We went away and came back with a towtruck, we put the bike on it and went to his garage, This was a huge place, and after a while it dawned on me that he was the owner. We conversed through Google Translate, and he put one of his men to work on the bike, brought me back to the hotel and told me we would go out for beers later that night, so we could see a bit of Ulan-Ude.
And so happened – he came back with his wife Natalya and we went to a nice pub, and had a great evening. They are such a nice couple – and they felt so bad about what happened that they invited us to spend a weekend at Lake Baikal with them, about a 2 hours drive from Ulan-Ude.
And so it went – the next day, which was a Saturday we first went to visit a buddhist monastery. This part of Russia, which is called the Buryatia Republic has strong Kazach and Mongol influences. This particular monastery has the 12th Buryat Lama of Russia on display. This is the mummified body of the Buddhist leader of Russia, who lived about 100 years ago. Some people believe he is still alive, since the body does not decay. He sits in a temple in the lotus position, and people pray to him and ask him for good fortune after donating money. There are also some other temples and stupas, and they reminded me of the temples I’d seen last year in Myanmar.
When we came back to Ulan-Ude, there was a very pleasant suprise. Konstantin’s men had gotten my motorcycle to run again! The problem was not in the antenna as I had suspected, but in the on-board computer itself. By trying to hotwire the bike, they had shortened the battery and that had created a current that was so large, that a connector had melted away.
So after fixing this, the engine started again. I could not believe my eyes – I seriously had considered the scenario that we would put the bike on the train to Vladivostok and we would ride the last stretch in the Trans-Siberia Express.
With this good news we left for Lake Baikal. Konstantin, Natalya, their two sons and we got in the car and with a quad in the trailer arrived after 2 hours, rented a yurt and got the barbecue going. We spent a great evening eating, drinking and singing karaoke songs, and listening to Konstantin playing his guitar.
The next day the weather had turned from rain to sunshine, and the first thing I did was dive into the lake. Lake Baikal is the largest sweetwater body in the world, and it’s quite deep. And cold… very cold. But refreshing. The day was filled with a cycling tour and driving the quad – the youngest son Igor (who is only 6 years old) can drive that thing like no other. So he drove us around, and we could have a go ourselves as well. We also went into the banya – the Russian word for sauna. This is a tent they put up on the beach with a portable oven and hot stones. So you sweat it out in the tent and then you run into the water. A great experience. At the end of the day we drove back to Ulan-Ude and the next morning we set off for the last stretch through Siberia.
I have grown up in Cold War times – the Russians were always the bad guys, and of you watch too much news and Hollywood movies, it seems these times are back. My experience is, however, that I have nowhere encountered such nice, warm, generous and hospitable people as in Russia. Sure, there is the occasional grumpy baboushka but in general Russians are amongst the nicest people I know. We already experienced it at the border from Russia to Mongolia and now again. In Holland we would never do that – invite two strange guys you’ve not even known for 24 hours to go away with your family for a weekend, and refuse to let them pay anything. These are the experiences that make trips like this unforgettable. The sights are great, but it’s the people that matter.
It took us about 9 days to cover the stretch through Siberia. Where I thought it would be boring, I was wrong. The sight of the endless landscape is fascinating and constantly changing, and every now and then we would see the railroad track of the Trans Siberia Express. It looked like something from a miniature railway setup – just perfect. In the evenings we sometimes stayed in large cities like Chita or Khabarovsk, or small towns where you would think you are back in Soviet times. We spent a day in Khabarovsk, a large city at the Amur river. We walked through the city, visited the park, looked at life in Russia. Very pleasant.
A park in Chita
Chita main square
Moskow – Vladivostok monument
Khabarovsk city view at the Amur river
And finally we arrived in Vladivostok. The name alone was by now magical for us, we had told it so many times and now it was reality. Vladivostok reminds me a bit of Hong Kong, rolling green hills, highrises, a lot of traffic and humid heat. But it’s much less polished. There are stunning views, nice boulevards to walk, nice bars and restaurants, it’s a very pleasant city. We spent the evenings strolling along the waterfront, eating seafood and having a beer.
And at last the moment was there where we would say goodbye to our bikes and put them in a container. We arranged to meet with Yuri, who arranges our transport back to Rotterdam. We met Yuri, drove to the warehouse and made the bikes ready for transport. After Yuri dropped us back at the hotel we were normal pedestrians for the first time in three months. It felt a bit weird, but also nice, not having to wear the suit and helmet in the sweltering heat. I felt like a normal person again.
In the warehouse preparing the bikes
Vladivostok bridge and view
As this is the last post for the trip I want to reflect a bit on the trip. For some reason even travelling becomes routine, and the time moves faster every day we’ve been on the road. While there are still many moments that make me marvel at what we’ve done and what we’ve experienced, yet it almost feels normal. And looking at the inflight screen with the map it is hard to believe that we cover the distance home in just 12 hours while it took us almost 12 weeks to drive it.
I’m glad to go home, and to see my family and friends again. I’ve learned that I am not a guy that wants to go on a indefinite round-the-world, but doing this once in a while is something that I definitely want to keep up. There are so many great destinations still left, and for me it is a great way to get completely away from it all.
So what were the highlights? The most beautiful country? The things I liked best? This is very hard to answer, there have been so many fantastic moments.
Georgia as a country – I could have spent much more time there. Uzbekistan – stunning architecture. Tajikistan – probably the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen, along the Pamir Highway. Kyrgystan – Son Kul, a magical place, where I celebrated my 50th birthday. Mongolia, the stunning emptiness and landscapes. All the gravel and unpaved roads we have driven, all the driving skills we have gained. Russia – the people. The people everywhere that we have met, both fellow travellers and local people. The feeling of just me and the road. The nights out in the big cities, Baku, Tbilisi, Almaty, Ulaan Bataar, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok.
Fortunately there were very little bad moments. Even the motorcycle theft led to a positive moment, because we met Konstantin and Natalya. We both had a bit of stomach trouble, but that’s about it. No accidents, no injuries, no sickness, no real damage besides some dented panniers and scratched ego’s because of drops that were unnecessary. I managed to lose some stuff – my favourite driving shirt, my headphones, and some other small things.
So all in all it was fantastic. The bikes held up great, our planning was spot-on. We planned the trip in advance without knowing the circumstances, and it turned out to be accurate to the day. Our tire planning worked out great, both from a distance and a capability perspective. The TKC70 were perfect for asphalt, the Pamirs and all the gravel roads, and the TKC80 were great for Mongolia. We’ve been also lucky with the weather. We missed the scorching heat in Uzbekistan – we had just 38 degrees, and in 3 months time we’ve had rain about 5 times. And there had been hardly any rain before, so there were hardly any muddy sections.
And I want to thank the people that we met over the course of the last three months. To name a few: Rasti, Andy and Alissa, Didier, Max, Tom, Matt, Benjamin, Edouard, Zan and Evelina, Tom and Wafa, Martin, Harry, Chris, Zhan, Bota, Konstantin and Natalya, Alex, Kosta, Nadeshka, Robin, Kim, Dave, Jenny, Anna, Nikos, Nykoss, Andrey, Aigerim, Ekaterina, Sami, Jean and Elena, Johan, Bert and Jin. And then there are the people on Facebook who were in the same region, travelling the same road, with whom we shared tips, experiences and information.
Last but not least I want to thank Paul for making this trip an unforgettable experience – he’s the only one who can stand me 24/7 for three months. On to the next trip.