Having ridden across Russia, Alistair Todd finds himself in trouble when his frame snaps. Will he make it to Hotel Vladivostok?
Stick or Twist?
Siberian rain drummed against the window. The Bavarian-themed Beerhaus, a block over from Hotel Sapporo, was just as empty as the rest of Khabarovsk. The rain that had led me to take up refuge there seemed to be keeping everyone else off the streets, too.
Eating bratwurst and sauerkraut wasn’t really making the most of my arrival in the Russian Far East, but just being able to understand the menu freed me to concentrate on making a big decision: stick or twist?
I’d nursed my badly broken XT600 across Siberia to the warmth and security of a Khabarovsk hotel.
I’d been sure that my arrival would mean I could get the frame welded back together and keep alive the dream of riding all the way around the world, but I just couldn’t find a mechanic. I’d been looking all day and found nothing.
My visa was rapidly running out, a ticking clock that was causing me to agonise over the smallest decisions.
My planned exit from Russia was by ferry to South Korea, but I had no idea where or when that would be.
I didn’t want to risk being too late or miss the chance of being a tourist in Vladivostok, home to the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet, a city that had been closed to foreigners under Soviet rule.
As time passed without finding a way to get the bike repaired, my agitation increased and it got harder to stay positive. Siberia had been raining on me for so long that it was starting to piss me off.
My clothes were dry but I still felt wet. My fingers were wrinkled like I’d just got out of the bath. Even the notes in my wallet were soggy. I no longer had a sense of humour about it, and I was blaming the rain for my inability to find repairs.
I didn’t know where anything was, I’d asked dozens of people and got nothing, and I hadn’t seen another biker all day. The roads were slippery, the traffic moved very fast, and it was hard to see through the rain and fog on my visor.
No sign of anything but tyre fitters. Seeking safety I’d returned to the hotel and posted a plea for help on the internet. I wouldn’t have got to Khabarovsk without the internet, and I needed it now more than ever if my trip wasn’t to end in failure. The forecast said the rain would continue for several days.
In Vladivostok, 500 miles to the south, it looked bright and dry. Maybe it would be easier to find a welder in such a big city, and the legendary Iron Tigers Motorcycle Club was another potential source of assistance.
While the bike enjoyed some R&R, I’d be in the right place to make arrangements for the ferry to Korea. What did I have here, in Khabarovsk? Dark clouds, lightning, and rivers of rainwater flooding the streets.
A hotel that served hotdogs and sweetcorn for breakfast. The skies were so grey and the rain so heavy, even sightseeing held no appeal. It was pointless trying to photograph anything.
I had known I would hit Siberia in the wet season, just like I’d hit Uzbekistan at the peak of summer; on a trip like this, you can’t schedule your arrival in each region at the ideal time.
I just hadn’t expected it to be quite so bad, and the thought of my trip coming to an end here, the thought of failing like this, had left me despondent.
Stick or twist? A dilemma I’d had in various forms so many times on this trip.
Going to Vlad was risking catastrophic collapse – the bike was held together by the strength of a plastic cable tie – but if I found a welder then my bike would be rescued.
My trip would be rescued. To get this far and not make it all the way round was unthinkable.
I thought about stories of other bikers tackling much worse to get here, and that made me realise that even in the rain with a broken bike I was having the time of my life.
One day I would be off on another trip, bigger, bolder, further. I had to buck up and start thinking like an adventure bike rider.
I had to be bold and head for Vlad. Yes! Come on, just get on and do it.
Yes. Decision made. Perhaps it was the beer talking, perhaps it was simply the act of making a decision, pulling fate back into my own hands, that stopped me from feeling so powerless.
I emptied the glass and left in a positive mood, determined not to give up. Detouring past the biker bars I’d found earlier, still empty in the rain, I made my way back to The Sapporo.
Outside the hotel, the bike sat in the rain looking very soggy. As I approached I saw how badly it was sagging at the back. I stood and gazed at it for a while, oblivious to the rain for once.
I noticed how lopsided the panniers were, how fragile it looked as it stood in a puddle with a growing film of oil making rainbow patterns underneath. I half expected it to collapse like a clown car.
My estimate on the odds of a successful run to Vlad slumped, and so did my shoulders. This wasn’t going to work.
Twist? Or stick?
I sighed, visited the reception desk to book another night, and went upstairs to check my email…
@ Posted by: Todderz Location: Kahabarovsk
Hi folks. I’ve made it to Khabarovsk but my bike is hanging by a thread. The rear sub-frame has completely sheared off, it’s all held together by pannier rails that are cracked in two places. Desperately need to find a bike shop or a welder in Khab or possibly Vlad. The bike held together with bungies and cable ties. It could collapse at any minute! I’ve searched all over town but haven’t had any luck. Help!
@ Posted by: Chris of Japan Location: Nagano, Japan
Russia is full of welders. If I remember right, the Russian word for welding is ‘swarka’. Or try to find the Lynx of Amur biker club for help. Just flag down anyone on a Japanese bike, they should know.
@ Posted by: Mountain Man Location: Canada
If you want to get help and a place to stay, there is a bike club with a gathering place in one of the members back yards. They have close ties to the guys in Vlad, who have helped many a foreign biker. Unfortunately, both are tough to find without coordinates, but hopefully, someone here will have them at their fingertips.
@ Posted by: Maximondo Location: Brisbane, Australia
I found a mechanic in Khabarovsk who was linked to the Vlad Tigers. I think a few of the guys working there are part of the gang, but like Mountain Man, I can’t tell you where is it located! I’m really sorry, I have been staring at Google maps for you without any luck!
@ Posted by: Todderz Location: Khabarovsk
Thanks all for the suggestions. It’s raining so hard there are no other bikers out. Of course, all the local girls are still tottering about in very impractical high heels, and I found a place that sells decent German beer, so it’s not all bad!
@ Posted by: Chris Location: Sydney, Australia
Telephone Marina, the Khabarovsk Bikers moderator. Speaks good English. She’ll be able to put you on to a good bike mechanic. Marina’s number is: +7924xxxxxxx.
✆ Marina ‘Hello, this is Marina.’
‘Hi Marina. I’m a biker from England. My bike is broken and I’m told you might be able to help me.’
‘Ah, yes, hello, I’m sure we can help. What is the problem?’
‘The frame has snapped. I need a welder.’
‘And where are you?’
‘I’m at the Hotel Sapporo. Do you know it?’
‘Yes, yes, I know it. I must call Alexander. He will come and help you. But it will be only at 12. Maybe at 1. Alexander sleeps until 12.’
‘Oh, that’s fantastic. Thank you so much!’
‘It is not a problem. Do not worry, we will help you! Please, wait at the hotel.’
Yevgeni was obviously the man in charge. He had the look of someone who knew what he was doing. The welding torch in his hand had certainly helped to make a good first impression.
The workshop was crammed full of Japanese bikes in various stages of assembly. A Fireblade sat outside next to an enormous white Goldwing. Bike parts, tools, mechanics. Paradise.
I’d gone to bed feeling hopeless and one phone call had changed everything. Members of the Khabarovsk biking community were going out of their way to help me, confirming my previous experience that a Russian biker will treat you like you’re his brother.
Alexander had arrived at the hotel early that afternoon, not looking much like a biker but definitely looking like he had indeed just got out of bed. There had been much talk in Russian with one of the hotel staff, and numerous phone calls.
I couldn’t catch any of the Russian words, except one that sounded like ‘maestro’. Alexander’s phone eventually rang again and it seemed that arrangements had been made. A taxi was coming and I was to follow it to ‘Geni’ – The Maestro.
I had raced through the traffic trying to keep up with the taxi, finally arriving in an industrial estate and rounding one last corner to see the beautiful sight of Geni’s workshop.
Geni was examining the bike and talking to the taxi driver. A few anxious minutes passed with much folding of arms and shaking of heads. I felt like I was waiting for exam results.
The taxi driver handed me his phone. It was the receptionist at the hotel, acting as translator: ‘Your motorcycle will be ready tomorrow.’ Yes! Amazing! They were going to fix my bike! I suddenly felt calm and happy again.
With a huge smile on my face I shook Geni’s hand and offered a ‘Spasiba’ (thank you). Half a dozen people on the internet, a guy roused from his bed, hotel receptionists, taxi drivers, and now four mechanics in an industrial estate had all come together to rescue me, just because they could. Heroes.
The way Geni conducted himself told me that he was the right man for the job. Who knew what it was going to cost? I didn’t care. I would have given those people anything. The taxi driver took me back to the hotel. The rain quickened again, but I didn’t mind it any more. I didn’t mind it at all!
Best In Show
The rain, at last, began to ease and I did some sightseeing, visiting the golden-domed cathedral (third tallest church in Russia) and the humbling memorial to the thousands of Russian soldiers and sailors who died fighting ‘The Great Patriotic War’ (the Second World War to you and I).
The eternal flame and 30-metre tall monument in Glory Square make an impressive centrepiece to Russia’s ‘City of Military Glory’.
Under clear skies, I joined the locals to enjoy the more modern side of Khabarovsk; the vibrant beer tents along the river promenade, where I found it much easier to enjoy the evening now that the bike was being repaired and I was no longer the only person out on the streets.
The taxi took me back to the Maestro’s workshop the next afternoon. My heart sank when I saw a bike still in bits. A blinding white pinpoint of light was sparking from the end of Geni’s welding torch.
When it stopped and the afterglow faded from my retina I could see that the broken frame had been neatly welded and looked as good as new. Nice!
Geni showed that he had strengthened it with a steel rod, and pointed out a hand-crafted piece restoring the connection between bike and exhaust.
This wasn’t a quick bodge, there was real care and skill being applied. On into the evening, Geni and his three helpers buzzed around my bike. One of the team applied my chain lube, treating it as if every drop was precious.
He positioned the nozzle and applied one drop at a time, giving each link no more and no less than it was due. No pulling the trigger and spinning the wheel for these guys, this was precision maintenance born of a different economic need.
To them, every drop of chain lube was precious. Why waste something that you would just have to pay for when it ran out? I watched this in awe because it wasn’t their chain lube that they were rationing, it was mine.
It didn’t matter to them that it wasn’t their own money at stake, they were treating my bike and my belongings just the same as they would treat their own.
They worked until half-past seven, checking every inch of the bike. I couldn’t imagine anyone going to such lengths to perfect their own bike, never mind doing so on behalf of a complete stranger.
Try your local dealer and see if they would drop everything and work into the evening as if there was some grand prize to be won for best bike. That’s what it looked like, it looked like they were aiming to win ‘best in show’.
I learned that it was Geni’s birthday. The guy was working on my bike on a Saturday evening and it was his birthday.
The frame and pannier rails were completed, the oil was changed, new fork gaiters were fitted, chain tension adjusted, spokes tightened, brake fluid topped up, dangling cables secured with cable ties, broken bulbs replaced, body panels secured, and the whole thing was topped off by cleaning the front mudguard and painstakingly applying some new stickers.
The Yamaha factory didn’t put that much care into producing the bike, and by the time The Maestro and his team had finished, it was as good as new and felt perfect. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Igor, who had done a large part of the welding, gave me a keyring made from an AK47 cartridge. Igor was an avid collector of foreign coins and showed me some of his prizes. I could only add a pound coin, but he still seemed delighted.
I vowed to always keep that memento for my bike keys, though I did wonder what airport security might make of it when I flew to Vancouver for the next stage of the trip.
The Road To Vlad
I was back on the road. The bike felt amazing. I felt relief and excitement. It was late, but it was dry and being back on board a bike that felt stronger than ever quickly got me to thinking about the big prize; my arrival in Vlad. Vladivostok.
I knew that once I got there it would be plain sailing all the way home across America. It was within range now, after coming so close to defeat, to disaster, I had been rescued and there were just 500 miles between me and the glory of reaching Vlad.
It was after eight but the idea of spending another night in the Sapporo was unthinkable. I would ride through the night and I’d be in Vlad. I was on too much of a buzz to be sensible and go to bed.
I was going to bloody well do it! I was going to make it to Vlad! I picked up the route south, thinking that Geni The Maestro and his team would never truly know how grateful I was.
I rode into the night. In the dark, all the traffic seemed to be coming the other way and I was nearly wiped out by overtaking cars that hadn’t seen me or didn’t care. It was tough and tiring.
There was no point rushing to arrive in the early hours of Sunday morning, so I kept to cruising speed. Apart from the occasional excitement of the death-wish drivers, I began to nod off.
Leaving Khabarovsk I’d been fired up, but now I needed a rest. I took a turning onto a side road, parked up in complete darkness, and switched off the engine.
Sitting on the bike with the side stand down and the bars turned all the way to the left, I could lay my left arm across the tank, rest my head on my arm, and doze off for a while, listening to the occasional whoosh of a car passing on the main road. I’d rested like this a few times on the trip and it was remarkably comfortable, but I’d always kept one nervous eye on the surroundings.
This time, I didn’t worry at all and quickly went to sleep. I felt contented, somehow proud of the fact that I was so used to travelling that I could happily sleep out in the open without a care in the world.
I was 15,000 miles from home (and just 23km from China according to the last road sign), but after 84 days and 20 countries, the bike was my home and it felt as safe and comfortable as my own bed.
I woke when the sun started to rise and cruised the last 200 miles on empty roads, arriving in a deserted Sunday morning Vladivostok with just a few early risers out clearing rubbish.
The GPS seemed to be taking me to a block of council flats until I rounded a corner and saw the hotel sign. There it was. Hotel Vladivostok. I had done it. I was there. I’d ridden my bike to Vladivostok!
Nothing else had ever come close to the feeling of parking my motorbike in front of the hotel, after all the planning, the preparation, the dreaming.
The real goal was to ride all the way around the world, but right then, right there, I knew I’d done it. Years of my life had gone into this and I’d done it. I had fucking done it.
I know that riding your bike for a few thousand miles is far from being the most amazing thing ever, but that’s how I felt and it was weird that nobody had a bloody clue that this was the most important moment of my life.
I looked around at people just going about their business, ordering breakfast, paying bills, making plans for the day. I wanted to scream and cheer: Yes! I’ve made it! Hotel Fucking Vladivostok! Come on! Come on you people, don’t you realise? I made it!
It was a moment of delight, of relief, of happiness, and of pride, and if I close my eyes I can still feel it.
A Chinese tourist kindly took a photo of me and I know that in that moment, standing in front of the Hotel Vladivostok, with my beautiful bike just behind me, I was the king of the world.
My dream had come true. With a little help from the Maestro of Khabarovsk and all the other people I’d encountered along the way, I’d done it.
The workshop in Khabarovsk can be found at:N 48 25.278, E 135 06.937 Pokraska Polirovka Motoremont Ulitsa Industrialnaya 8A Telephone 8924-201-7914 Yevgeni Alexandrovich
Getting out of Vlad
Air shipment from Vlad historically hasn’t been possible, so that leaves sea container to Seattle, or taking the ferry to South Korea or Japan which creates options to fly the bike on to somewhere like Vancouver. The situation often changes, and there are other routes from nearby Zarubino, so consult the usual forums. One option is the overnight ferry to Dong Hae in South Korea, currently running once a week with DBS. http://www.dbsferry.co.kr/
Top tips for dealing with a breakdown
Relax, it’ll all work out! When it seems all is lost, you’ll be unexpectedly rescued. It will become one of your best stories.
Just stand there Break down miles from anywhere and soon enough a local will stop. Before you know it, you’ll have a new friend helping you out, or be a guest of honour at some family gathering.
Local knowledge You could be the first one ever to ride that road but there’ll still be someone on a forum who happened to live there three years ago.
Keep on truckin’ If you can’t fix it here, then your problem simply becomes finding transport to the next place, where you can try again. Flag down the next lorry.
Take a picture Need to leave the bike to find help but don’t know the local lingo? Breakthrough the language barrier by taking a photo.
Be prepared Your most important jobs happen before you even begin the trip.
The Bike: 2002 Yamaha XT600E 4PT
A 17,000 miler costing just £1,500. With a reputation for reliability, proper off-road credentials, and a ready supply of expertise on the net, it was a clear winner. I spent two months taking it to bits to repair and renew and learn how bikes work. It’s so simple that you can do everything yourself (except welding), which really pays off when you’re stuck at the top of a mountain in Kyrgyzstan.