Monday, 31 August 2015

Korean karma

Sat in a garden with the constant electric razor chirp of insects, next to a green pool teaming with leaping fish it is easy to find the inner peace that the Buddhist temple over the stone bridge will preach. It is a place of quiet contemplation and somewhere to consider a sense of achievement in the distance I have covered so far. 

 While a morning mist over the mountain backdrop adds to the scene. Intense Incense burns under paper lanterns watched over by golden idols where peace and tranquillity is expected. An air of holiness is inescapable as reverent devotees offer their prayers to the symbol of light.

Korea is a heady mix of modern and tradition. High technology, advanced electronics and an ancient history sit side by side. 

Korean culture is very different to my usual experience. The language is indecipherable to my european ears. Road signs unfathomable and yet it seems relaxed and easy to manage. I don't expect to see the road ahead torn back to its stony base layer and the supermarkets are stocked with everything I need. 

A lunch of rice and vegetables eases me through the afternoon and not having to cover vast distances relaxes my senses even more. 

Time to kick back and immerse myself in this exotic land.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

The Eastern Dream

Sat dockside the Panama registered? Eastern Dream was less than I expected. Not the ocean going liner but more a coastal cruiser. Given the reported ferocity of typhoon Goni I was happy to sit it out in Vladivostok.

Once aboard the sense of modernity is immediate. Duty free shops café, bar and restaurant provide everything a passenger might need.

I share an eight berth cabin with one other passenger and after a comfortable night the morning dawns bright and clear, with calm seas and soon after the feint blue haze of distant land on the horizon.

Approaching a country by sea is something countless travellers have experienced over the centuries, but  is denied to passengers in a modern world of air travel.
From that glimmer of blue a landscape emerges and then buildings until the introduction is complete as the ship enters port.

Welcome to a whole new experience that is South Korea!

Friday, 28 August 2015

Storm hit Vladivostok.

Wednesday mornings news showed little hope of typhoon goni weakening its hold on the south China sea and the shipping agent confirmed there's would be no departure today. So as the rain increased to a steady downpour over Vladivostok I sorted out a room for the night and have an extra day in town.

My bike it appears is already aboard as it's gone from the customs dock along with a few other Korean registered bikes.. well at least one of us is on the ship. It's also one of us dry as the steady downpour turned into a torrent. Any sight of the sea disappeared in a curtain of rain as strong winds swept though the water front streets driving people to seek shelter.
A comfortable apartment is my own overnight shelter from the storm.

Thursday morning dawns calm but overcast. As I walk to the port there is blue sky on the horizon which I hope bodes well.

Waiting at the port I seem to have become something of a celebrity as the Korean and Japanese tourists marvel at my height. . Regular group photos ensue. I'm tall for Europe but hugely so in the far east!

Aboard the Eastern Dream everything has changed. Korea provides the currency, the traditions and the language. A small gathering around a stove cooks what appear to be small omelettes in a tiny pan. Although the ship has all modern conveniences some of the cabins are simple mats on the floor.

As we clear the islands around Vladivostok the skies clear of grey clouds and a relatively 
calm sea welcomes the eastern dream.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Tickets, Tariffs and Typhoons

With all the paperwork done, tickets purchased. Customs fees paid and bike delivered to the customs dock. The DBS line "Eastern Dream" sits tied to the dock waiting to be loaded and we will be ready to go... 

Except maybe not as Typhoon Gori sweeps through the south China sea it appears there may be a delay. Not that it's an issue for me. My visa is still valid and I have time on my side on Korea.

The Eastern dream looks like she may be more of a nightmare in heavy sea's. More a short voyage cruiser than an ocean going liner, so I'm more than happy to wait. 

The reported paperwork difficulties were cast aside by the efficient expertise of Yuri and Svetlana at Links Ltd - contact them before anyone else,including the ferry company if you need to ship out from Vladivostok. Making the whole process simple. Just a case of waiting for each document to be completed and paying the necessary when required. 

In the meantime I have had chance to swap the front tyre on the bike with a little help from my friends at who were more than happy to lend me a hand with workshop facilities right next door to my hotel room. Especially handy when the owner is a devoted "petrol head" with his 250 2-stroke Honda powered cart and various "ongoing" projects. 

So with everything prepared I just have to wait and see what nature gets up to over the next 24 hours which will determine if we depart on schedule. Time and tide (and typhoons) wait for no man! 

For those who haven't yet - check out the video on my YouTube channel and pictures on Flickr

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Destination Vladivostok

I'm here! I have ridden my little kawasaki from merry olde England to the far eastern Russian port of Vladivostok !!!!!

That fact on its own is amazing to me.
To have ridden across blazing hot desert, dry grasslands. Wet woodland and lush forests. Over snowy mountains and through green valleys. To arrive here feels like a massive achievement.

My "targets" . Assuming I ever had any. . Included getting this far. To cross the huge distances involved, overland, just me and my bike. I "celebrated" with a local cabbage salad and a bottle of kbac! LOL 

My bike has taken a bit of a beating of late. Since the "off" in Irkutsk it has been through tougher times than at any other point on the journey. While Kazakhstan's roads were rough, they were dry. Russia's road works, which involves simply removing worn out tarmac, back to the rocky base for miles, are very similar but the climate isn't and a wet mix of sand, stone, gravel and diesel sets like concrete once the rain stops. A blocked radiator has caused a few overheating issues and the chain has been through a grinding paste mix. The tyres have just about had enough and riding into Vladivostok in a rain storm did little for my confidence. Time for a bit more maintenance.

The "hotel" has a jet ski garage right next door, which is handy. Free use of a power washer will make things a little cleaner to start with. The mechanic more than a little interested in my bike and how I got here. He appears to have lots going on with jet ski repairs car bodywork and what looks like two brand new Subarus direct from Japan in the compound. 

The ferry operators office was closed on Sunday, but at least I know where it is and will be there on Monday morning to be ahead of the game for the ferry departure on Wednesday. 

Vladivostok itself sits in at the end of the Muravyov-Amursky Peninsula in a hilly cove surrounding the "golden horn" bay where the Russian pacific fleet sit at anchor. With a modern suspension bridge spanning the water it has everything a modern waterfront city needs. Yet it still feels slightly strange to stand taking photos of Russian warships and looking at WW2 memorials when for years of my youth it was somewhere impossible to think that I would ever visit or had any desire to. This huge Russian bear hidden behind an "Iron curtain" in a dark frozen corner of the globe, the subject of many western biased news stories, the site of secret soviet and American nuclear agreements and usually home to the villains of fictional spy stories. 

Next update once I've sorted the shipping! 

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Khabarovsk: east is west

A couple of days in Khabarovsk gave me time to catch my breath prior to the final push to Vladivostok. Which makes it sound more like a route march than a travelogue but in places it has felt like crossing half the planet in one country!

The seaside feeling of Khabarovsk continues with fast food joints on the river side beach front selling the American dream, well a burger fries and a coke at least. While more traditional fare is available in town alongside another American dream in the shape of a Harley-Davidson branded bar.

As an Englishman abroad I remain unconvinced as to the benefits of Americanisation and the traditional Kvas made from fermented bread is an infinitely more palatable experience than the iconic sugary black stuff and amusingly branded in some places as Nikola (or No Cola) despite the strange thought of making pop from bread and it being sold from barrels in the street. Although the chemical ingredients of the later probably don't bear thinking about either. 

Lots of Chinese tourists experiencing a western consumerism style vacation in far eastern Russia ??? only 30km east of their border, with Japanese products, the united colours of branded clothing and like everywhere the union jack is a symbol of cool. It's a strange world we live in. Where adventurous travellers head east to experience the exotic and often find an imitation of the west. Global brands seem intent on homogenising the whole world.

Despite all that I like Khabarovsk, it is a comfortable place to be. It has the sense of being far away and yet somehow familiar, with trees and vegetation very similar to northern Europe and a summer climate not dissimilar to what we think a summer should be in the UK, without the rain! Sitting in the warm afternoon sunshine in one of the many neat parks with people strolling, rollerblading or cycling past, couples with youngsters, the gentle tumble of a fountain and the scent of freshly mown grass, it's hard to picture a frigid Siberian winter, or in fact the insect infested harshness of a siberian summer just a few miles north, but after weeks of exploring my own limits of endurance it is a pleasant feeling.

 I still don't have a definite plan for Korea and shipping out of there has not yet been confirmed. . One thing I am certain of is that I will travel without the bike for a while after Korea while it gets transported down under, much like the rest of the population (sorry Australia!)

So with the world available to me at the flash of a credit card and a UK passport I will have some time to take a more usual form of holiday travel to any place that will have me.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Zilov Gap - bridged

Well the modern day route from Chita to Kabarovsk is nothing compared to the pre road days. Prior to the road openeing in 2004 making progress was measured in metres not kilometers. . Hundreds of them at a time! 

Khabarovsk. . At the end of a long 2100km ride is something of an oasis . A modern city on the banks of the wide confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers and only 30km from the Chinese border. Like everywhere else in modern Russia western brand names are on the high street and teenagers wander around with iPhones and trendy headphones. This far east the locals are more likely to speak Japanese than English and almost all the vehicles in town are right hand drive Japanese motors. It feels strangely European despite being about as far as its possible to be from that western influence. With a beach on the river and pleasure boats cruising the waters it has a coastal ambience as well, although I'm not so sure about the quality of the waters!

The journey here was very different. With almost no civilisation after Chita apart from truck stops, remote fuel stations and the ever present trans Siberian railway. The "super" highway to Vladivostok doesn't include the small towns en route and consequently appears to have brought little benefit to those communities who still rely on the railroad to make it through whatever the season. 

Chilled early mornings are definitely autumnal in places. But the days warm up considerably and the squadrons of mosquitoes still believe its summer with vicious attacks on any single patch of exposed flesh. 

I passed a few bikes going west A single bike late in the day on Saturday when I was slowing in places to look for a camp site. A 
Honda Transalp I think with a yellow registration plate, but he didn't slow as he passed. I hope he found as good a camp site as I did. Then early on Sunday a group of bikes all waved enthusiastically as they passed led by a BMW GS adventure and followed up by a similar bike it looked like an organised trip? 

Two nights wild camping provided the rest in between covering the distances required to cross this section of  the journey. The first night in a disused quarry provided a sandy bed and a small fire kept the worst of the insects at bay for a while. The second night in a small woodland just off the road was equally peaceful but without the benefit of dry wood to get a fire going. However by then I had lost any idea of the time zone so was content to sleep when it got dark and move on when it got light.  

The scenery varied from vast swathes of deciduous woodland, marshland and coniferous forest. Valleys and hills and rivers too numerous to count. Crossing this land prior to the road must have been impossible. As indeed to Mondo Enduro guys endured in the 1990's taking to the ever reliable railway in the end. 

Just to try to put it all in perspective for the UK readers, its like travelling from lands end in Cornwall to John O Groats in Scotland, then turning around and riding back to the English border. All without passing through any towns or villages. Just a vast wilderness that used to separate the far East of Russia from the rest of this huge country. 

Now I'm in Khabarovsk I intend to take a little break from travel and enjoy a few days off. I don't have to be in Vladivostok until next week to catch the pre booked ferry. So I can take a bit of time to fix a couple of issue with the bike and have a look around this town. I have seen a Harley Davidson branded bar. Might have to visit that with my Triumph Tshirt on!

Будем здоровы! 

Friday, 14 August 2015

Russian Revolution

No not a history lesson, but a revolution in my thinking. 

Monday was a day that started bad and didn't improve as I travelled. But arriving in Ulan Ude late in the day and finding a comfortable hotel eased me into the evening with a Chicken Kiev and a glass of beer to settle my mind and rest an aching body. After a good nights sleep a sunny morning made light of the previous days depressions. 

After straightening out the bent handlebars with the help of a local chap and his woodwork lathe as a clamp, it was sorted with minimal fuss. A wander into town brought me to the destination of the mongol rally where cars were expected to arrive over the next few days, under the watchful eyes of Lenin's head!

The following day I sorted out the overdue oil change and the bike was once again fit to travel. 

After a rest I once again headed east from Ulan Ude to Chita where the scenery got decidedly Siberian! luckily its still too early for snow (I think) but with a chill wind and occasional rain, some of the trees appear to be already shedding leaves as autumn colours spread through the branches. The wet road made a section of road works a sticky area to navigate across as sand, gravel and a deeply pot holed loose surface coagulated to mire progress. But with a determination to not repeat Monday's mishap I made it through to the formally restricted military city of Chita, where I will restock my supplies and prepare for the 2000km trip to the next port of call at Khabarovsk.

The journey continues! I have been in contact with a shipping agent in Korea and am having to plan ahead a little as I need to have some arrangements in place in time for my arrival on the Vladivistok to DongHae ferry. But before all that there is the little task of crossing what used to be known as the Zilov Gap

Mondo enduro were brought to a muddy halt and long way round avoided it but but these days it the route of the M58 Chita-Khabarovsk highway.. Thanks Russia! 

Monday, 10 August 2015

Baikal blues

Sadly not the sky or the water.
Blues as in Russia is difficult at times and today has been testing. The language barrier is no different to being in any country. In the end different words for similar meanings is just a case of education. . But when the alphabet is different it sometimes gets a bit cryptic.
No blue skies travelling from Irkutsk to Ulan-ude. .just grey cloud. Cool temperatures and occasional rain.

No blue water either. . The great lake all but hidden from view by the endless trees. . .Russia has become a road lined with trees hiding anything that might be interesting, punctuated by mainly grim cities and paranoid petrol station cashiers. Is this all that Russia is?

Irkutsk was vaguely interesting. But one town becomes much like any other in the end . .
My day started badly in Irkutsk as rain and slippery tram tracks conspired to put me down the road just 5 minutes into the days journey. That I guess went some way to setting my mood for the day, which matched the atmospherics.  No serious damage. A bent handlebar will straighten and a bit of a knock on the knee will be a little stiff the day after but I'll live on. . Just annoyed at myself for what is really a rookie mistake. Crash bars and good kit saved the day.

I'm just not feeling good about Russia right now. . Initially  it was a pleasant change after Kazakhstan's trials but further East it's just, well grey, tree lined and mostly uninteresting. The people I've met seem mostly the same. More interested in their mobile phone conversation than customer service. I know I don't speak the language but give me a break here!

Sometime it would be nice to have someone around to pick me up both metaphorically and as it happen today literally!

It's just been a bad day that's all. . With a few repairs to sort out I'll take some time in Ulan Ude before moving on. .

Lake Baikal - best view of it all day!

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Rushing through Russia

At the risk of invoking every Russian stereotype you have ever imagined. . Most Russians appear to have a real affinity with vodka! But served ice cold I can understand why. . As a single malt whisky lover a cold shot of vodka is a disparate but agreeable experience.

And all the trees that weren't in Kazakhstan? - they are in Russia. Millions of them. 
Mile after kilometer! of endless roads with trees. no views, just trees! Silver birch and conifers by the score. 

The petrol stations have a system where you pay up front for what you think you will need and then either pay the difference was collect the change once you've filled up. Which is fine now I understand it. It was more than just a bit confusing when the first petrol station I stopped at had a woman behind a mirrored window talking through a speaker with a sliding slot to put the money in before she switched on the pump. With no eye contact on my side, communication was somewhat difficult!

By Friday I've had to push on a bit. . With over 6000km to cover in 3 weeks I can't hang around. Consequently I've not had much time for film or photo's stopping to catch "that" shot puts an enormous dent in my average speed and covering 800km in one day means that is crucial.

One night stops in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyark were just that, neither being places you'd really visit. Although arriving after dark in a strange city is always fun! Seeing flashes of lightening illuminate the slightly yellow smog was a dramatic introduction.

My Friday night was a tent in a woodland next to the continuous rumble of the trans Siberian railway, but it put me within a days travel of Irkutsk on Saturday which is right on schedule. An early start ensured I covered the distance easily and at some point in the day I seemed to enter a Russian version of Lincolnshire. Dense forests of trees gave way to rolling hills and farmland with islands of trees amongst the sun ripened golden cereal crops. The only difference seeming to be the size and with collective nouns of combine harvesters working together to reap the crop. 

Irkutsk arrived at 52° N 104° E and 40°C! Russia had been pretty cool until then! I'm sure Irkutsk will be cool in other ways that most of the Russian conurbations I have passed through so far could never be. 

So after 3 big days of covering the kilometres, 800 on the first day and 1000 split over two days to get here its time to have a day off to explore some of Russia that I have only passed through along the way... So far I've seen trees, road and trees and some fairly messy big cities, I'm sure there's more to offer than that? Lake Baikal and onto Ulan Ude  on Monday will I'm sure be a highlight. 

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

From Russia with love...

Monday the 3rd brought my Russian visa into action. With the usual trepidation I approached the end of Kazakhstan fearing the worst if my six hour endurance test on entry was anything to go by. 

As it happened the border guards were significantly less officious on exit. I was asked if I had any drugs (adrenaline does me fine thanks) or guns and pointed in the direction of the passport control office. Less than twenty minutes later I was on course for the Russian entry which was swift and courteous as the customs guy took a cursory glance at my pannier contents and after my passport was stamped I was allowed into the embrace of mother Russia. 

A stop to purchase insurance for the month was completed with minimal fuss and minimal cash at 750 Rubles is less that £8 for the month - Bargain! And Russia has proper roads to boot! its like re-entering civilisation. 

My first destination was Barnaul where I took a two night stop over to allow me to fettle the bike a little. A broken bracket on the exhaust had allowed a worrying tyre/exhaust interface to occur. Rough roads in Kazakhstan took their toll. . .A little less of a problem than a Belgian guy had with the drive shaft of his BMW. Niko,Steve and Koen had some sorting out to do to overcome that issue on one of their three trans Mongolian express beemers. 

On Tuesday evening Stuart and Oli, I travelled with into Georgia and Ian, I met in Tbilisi arrived not only in the same town, but the same hotel as our paths crossed again. 

Russia it seems is not some dark distant land with overpowering political rule. So far it is a modern relaxed civilised country with good shops, modern roads, plentiful goods on the shelves and 21st century gadgetry. So put away the ideas of cabbage soup and cross the border in your mind. "Velcome to WRussia my friends". 

Planning ahead for my route will I hope bring me to Irkutsk by the weekend which will mean I am one third of the way along my mammoth Russian trek. Hopefully I can take a little break around lake Baikal before tackling the prodigious distance to Vladivostok.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Kazakhstan Konclusions

So kazakhstan finale dawns and time to reflect on the experience. Kazakhstan is absolutely vast. Massive open plains. Huge desert scenes.  Incredible seas of grass steppe that meets the cerulean sky at the distant horizon. Those more than anything will be my overriding memory of this country.

Although I fear the state of some of the roads may well be a resonant memory. There is a big road building programme going on and in the next 5 to 10 years Kazakhstan will have a viable roads infrastructure, so in some respects I'm glad I've seen it now because despite the attention grabbing pot holes, rippled, broken down and just plain horrible tarmac in places it somehow fits into the tableau of the country. Lines on a map do not necessarily mean there is a physical road in this country.

Zebra crossings in the middle of nowhere I can only think are for the benefit of Camels, but they don't seem to have understood the irony. Similarly, bus stops and road junctions that can't possibly benefit any potential customer are placed miles from any occupied areas.

Everyone I've met has been genuinely pleased to see a tourist in their country. Lots of car drivers waving and tooting as they pass in either direction.

It can be a dusty, hot, dirty frustrating travel experience. You could easily think of the negative things that are part of the daily reality in Kazakhstan. But I like to think it has been a positive time. While it's true there is not a lot to see in between destinations, that remoteness is in stark contrast to someone more used to a country that is ten times smaller in area with four times the population!

My last night in kazakhstan was spent in Semey. Which from 1949 to 1989 was the site of Russia's nuclear test facility. Not a place to linger long! But a sunny Sunday stroll in the park doesn't reveal any of the substantial issues that have been evident from the exposure to the fallout from 456 explosive tests. 

So that's that. . Two weeks to cross Kazakhstan was a viable timescale. Did I need off road tyres? Probably not in reality. They were useful in places, but there is enough road to not warrant that capability. I now have 3 weeks to get to Vladivostok...

Russia beckons. . . .