Oma, He’s Making Eyes at Me.

Fukui City, Japan. 31st October 2014.

Refueling in Japan is invariably a pleasant experience. As you pull onto the forecourt a uniformed man or woman will almost leap out of their cubicle and wave you to the pump, ask you what you want and how you want to pay, then refill your vehicle for you. They always carefully wiped down my tank after filling it and their patient approach meant they never spilled a drop. The price was good too, at about 93/94p per litre. This at a time when UK prices where close to £1.30.
At one small forecourt I pulled onto I couldn’t quite work out where the pumps were. I was waved to a stopping point and was fascinated to see that the pump nozzles hanging down from overhead. The readout screens were up there too, suitably enlarged for visibility. A clever way to get more vehicles onto a small area.

Rugged west coast.

Rugged west coast.

I hadn’t left Kyoto until 11am and experience had shown me that on a gloomy day I was going to need to be looking for a place to stay by about 4pm. It tended to get dark quite early. I had headed out to the west coast and was riding along it northwards. On Sae’s list of recommendations were some places in the north of Japan and I’d decided to go up there before autumn turned to winter. At one point I’d considered getting the ferry across to Hokkaido but it was quite pricey and the weather was likely to be too cold.

Not exactly the Hotel California!

Not exactly the Hotel California!

The problem with finding a place to stay was that the coastline was rugged and the strip of land next to it narrow, so nowhere to  camp. The villages and towns I passed through were small, with no evidence of accommodation that I was able to recognise. Eventually a solution appeared. I came across an abandoned restaurant snuggled in against the cliffs and I was able to tuck the bike around the side and go in through the broken side doors. Inside, the place looked as if the previous occupants had simply picked up the tills and left. Everything was still in there. Cushions, low tables, floor mats, crockery, cooking utensils. Everything that was needed to cook for and seat the guests. I almost expected the band to strike up! Actually, I didn’t because all the plumbing and most of the wiring had been ripped out. Deliberately or by thieves, it was hard to know. But I was able to make myself comfortable in the office behind the downstairs reception, using the cushions for my bed. The rain had started now so I was pleased not to be in my tent. I had expectations of a comfortable night.

Japan loves Halloween.

Japan loves Halloween.

The next destination was Ogimachi Village which is the main attraction of Shirakawa-go. It is almost a living museum and is full of Gassho-Zukuri farmhouses, some as old as 250 years. The phrase means ‘constructed like hands in prayer’. They are designed to survive the harsh winters of the region and they are unique. The village is almost a living museum with most of the houses aimed at satisfying the tourists’ needs to stare, eat or sleep, although some are still occupied by farmers. I was fascinated by how they were constructed, especially the roofs with their 60 degree slopes. The large attic space inside was used to house silk worms. While walking among them I was amused to see a garage built in the same style. Conservation regulations? Maybe.

Houses in Ogimachi Village.

Houses in Ogimachi Village.

Even the garage is in Gasoho-Zukuri style.

Even the garage is in Gasoho-Zukuri style.

Road Stations are often found in many Japanese towns. Usually somewhere near the edge of town, these are places where motorists can refuel themselves and often their cars, enjoy some shopping, some food and generally relax while they break their journey. They were set up in the 1990’s by a national and local government partnership to improve facilities for longer distance drivers but, equally importantly, to provide retail outlets specifically to help the local economy. Some have accommodation and they also have local tourist information. The good thing about them is that you are allowed to stay overnight there, either in your car or to camp if they have a suitable patch of grass somewhere. It seems to be a cultural ‘right’ to do this although I don’t know whether this is official or not. After leaving the Ogimachi village, with no luck in finding a hotel, I found  a Road Station at Taira just as it was getting dark. I asked a woman in a shop if I could camp there and she said I could or that I could sleep on one of the benches if I wanted to.

Comfortable-ish and dry.

Comfortable-ish and dry.

In the end I did just that and found there were several people also sleeping in their cars too. I found a kind of desk with a public telephone on it which had a socket where I could plug in my laptop and I was near enough to a free wi-fi hotspot to get some internet access too. I used the heated toilet seat in the disabled loo to dry off some of my riding gear, so all in all I spent a comfortable night. One odd thing was the public tannoy, just up the road, from which a woman made several announcements at around 19.30, followed by a car driving up and down the road a couple of times tolling a bell. I really wish I knew what that was all about.
The tannoy announcements came again at 6am so I took the hint and got going. I was following the coast north and eventually the rain and the slow traffic drove me onto an Expressway, just so I could cover some distance. After a couple of hours I pulled into a service area and parked next to another biker. I was pleased to find that Osuma spoke good English and was happy to chat. When I told him I was heading north he started warning me about snow! Not part of the plan at all. I was surprised because the weather was quite warm. Even so, he pointed out some nice roads on the map that I could ride, one of them up around a mountain. Another biker who joined us also mentioned the likely bad weather in the north. Hmmm.

Osuma and his Suzuki.

Osuma and his Suzuki.

One of the brilliant tunnels that gets the road through the mountains and gives me a rest from the rain.

One of the brilliant tunnels that gets the road through the mountains and gives me a rest from the rain.

At the end of the Expressway I nearly had a heart attack. I had ridden 340kms and they relieved me of £34 for the privilege. 10p per kilometre. Unbelievable!
It was still raining so eventually I found a town, found the station (always signposted) and found a hotel. Japanese rain is the wettest rain I’ve ever come across and I needed some respite.
All Japanese hotels supply complimentary toiletries and they all have a small water heater for tea etc. These are great because there’s always a convenience store nearby and it’s easy to live off the sandwiches and large noodles based meals they sell. Tear off the lid and just add water. Stir in the sauce and condiments supplied, job done. You’re supposed to drain off the water before adding the sauce but I never bothered as it left a nice soup to drink. The joys of life on the road eh.

Little Pot Boiler.

Little Pot Boiler.

A couple of days of riding got me up onto the northern peninsular where I was going to be meeting some friends of Sae’s family. I’d ridden some of the routes that Osuma had pointed out to me, including one that went up and around Chokai Mountain. That was where I found the snow he’d been worried about but it was only at the top and was really only sleet.

It's cold in them thar hills!

It’s cold in them thar hills!

Tricky riding to get up there.

Tricky riding to get up there.

Sae had introduced me to her friend Hiromi on Facebook and she got me booked into a Japanese style guesthouse in Ohata, run by a friend of hers. She also arranged for me to have a special Japanese gourmet fish dinner there. It sounded great. We arranged to meet near where she worked as it was en route. She’s a translator for a company that deals in nuclear materials and she told me her parents had invited me to stay on my way back south. Fantastic. Before that I was going further north to stay with another of Sae’s family friends, Yotoro Muraguchi.
After sharing a coffee with Hiromi I headed up to Ohata and the guesthouse run by Ikuo and his wife. He’s a great guy, a professional musician who plays guitar, bass and drums. The setting for his guesthouse is wonderful, up in the hills, surrounded by woods and next to a river. Northern Japan has plenty of hot springs and a favourite Japanese pastime is to visit an Onsen. These are places where you can bathe in the hot water. Most are commercial although some are free. There was one of each near to the guesthouse and I planned to visit one next morning.

Outdoor Onsen. Sit and gently simmer.

Outdoor Onsen. Sit and gently simmer.

The meal I had was simply amazing. It consisted of several dishes but the main one was a basket of raw fish. This was eaten with soy sauce in which either ginger or horseradish had been mixed. Break off a piece of fish, dip it in the sauce and enjoy. It was delicious. A fishy list: Conger; Yellowtail; Oma Tuna; Squid; Scallop; Flat Fish; Mackerel; Salmon. The other dishes, whose names I forget, consisted of vegetables with a raw egg mixed in and a dish of beef, bacon and veg. Both were cooked at the table over a small gas fired grill. This was a real culinary adventure and was superb value too. People told me later that such a meal, served in a big city, would have cost a huge amount of money.

Meal fit for a King, or Shogun.

Meal fit for a King, or Shogun.

After a similarly exotic breakfast next morning Ikuo took me up to the public Onsen and left me there to enjoy getting boiled. I’d told him I would walk back through the woods. There were separate sessions for men and women, necessary because you don’t wear clothes in them. I’d arrived before the women’s session ended but as it was deserted I took a chance and got in anyway. There are no walls around the pool so it was a little bit chilly but the water was hot – about 40 degrees. I eased myself in and enjoyed a nice warm soak. I found that if I sat still so that the water wasn’t disturbed then the surface of it became too hot to touch. I believe the water comes out of the ground pretty much boiling hot and is mixed with cold river water to make it bearable. I think I lasted about forty minutes before I had to give in and get out. It was lovely!

I always wanted to be a guitar man!

I always wanted to be a guitar man!

A great guy (the one on the left, silly).

A great guy (the one on the left, silly).

I left Ikuo and rode up to the North Cape, Honshu Island’s (and therefore the Japanese mainland’s) most northerly point. It’s near to Oma, from where it’s reckoned Japan’s best tuna comes. I’d eaten some of that last night! There are some nice sculptures up there, including three standing stones with poetry on them and a quirky one of a fist rising out of the waves with an Oma Tuna leaping towards it. It’s supposed to represent the mastery of the Japanese fishermen’s success at tuna fishing. Very striking.

North Cape statue.

North Cape statue.

Poetic stones.

Poetic stones.

I met a group of tourists there and offered to take their photo for them. They insisted I join them for a photo too. A few of them spoke English so we chatted for a while. It was one of those nice little moments that I love about travel.

Always happy to meet with friendly strangers.

Always happy to meet with friendly strangers.

I found Yotoro’s place with the help of a kind woman from the Village Office, who took me up to his house. In fact it was his business complex. There’s a factory where he produces various items from wood. Anything from a pair of chopsticks to large tables. There is a shop and cafe on site, with guest rooms above. People come to stay for weekends while they are taught the skills of wood working by Yotoro. He is very well known in the area for his work and his quirky character. His daughter, Kana, lives there too although she’s just married a Canadian of Bajan extraction so will be moving away soon. She was happy to show me around the place. All his buildings were constructed with wood, as were most of the houses in the village. Quite normal for older houses in Japan and they’re good at surviving earthquakes too.

Kana.

Kana.

At dinner, as well as the family, was Rachel, an American woman, who teaches English at the local schools. Her Japanese was fluent after two years in the country and we were all able to enjoy some lively conversation with her and Kana translating for me. I put myself in the frame for some gentle mickey taking by asking if I was using the chopsticks correctly but it seems I was doing OK. Kana had given me a pair with my name inscribed on them and I was giving them a try out. I had found that ease of use often depended on the size and material of the chopsticks. After a while my fingers were tended to refuse to obey my brain and it was as if I was eating with two lumps of wood rather than delicate tools. Nobody laughed too loudly though.

Yotoro-San (left of me) and his mostly elderly workforce.

Yotoro-San (left of me) and his mostly elderly workforce.

After that very pleasant stay I headed down to where Hiromi lives in Mutsu I had a nice run down the coast along some good biking roads. It was blustery and a bit cold but I was quickly warmed up when I stopped at Hotokegaura Cliffs and walked down to the beach. These cliffs are of a strange, green tinged limestone. They stand out at right angles from the main cliffs and have been worn into interesting shapes by the weather.

Hotokegaura Cliffs, from a distance.

Hotokegaura Cliffs, from a distance.

And a bit closer.

And a bit closer.

The general countryside around this area is very steep and wooded, quite dramatic in fact. I even saw some monkeys at the side of the road. Being a peninsular means that the wind tends to blow across it too. On some of the roads I had seen strange fences, with metal frames that had slats mounted across them horizontally. The slats could be turned so they presented a barrier to the wind and I worked out that their purpose is probably to reduce the amount of snow that gets deposited on the roads. They were electrically operated and therefore probably controlled remotely. A clever idea, I thought.

A picture explains these better than words.

A picture explains these better than words.

Cheeky monkey!

Cheeky monkey!

Once I got to Mutsu I waited in town until Hiromi was able to meet me. I followed her home and was introduced to her parents, Yoko-San and Kazuo-San. They made me to feel very welcome. Yoko spoke some English as she had a friend in England who had married an English man and she’d visited her a few times. But mostly Hiromi did the translating. I didn’t tend to see too much of Kazuo as he spent most of his time looking after his elderly father.
Japanese meals tend to consist of several small dishes and I was able to give Yoko much pleasure as she watched my clumsy chopstick efforts. Every time I finished a dish she’d give me another one. Because she knew I was hungry? No, it was so she could continue to chuckle at my efforts to eat. I kept her laughing for days! Of course, there was no malice there and we had a good laugh together. I was getting better though.

Playa and harish.

Playa and harish.

I had a great weekend with Hiromi. On Saturday she went with her Indian work colleague’s pregnant wife to her maternity appointment. I met them afterwards and took the opportunity to find out a bit about the Indian custom of arranged marriages. I asked them how they felt about having their family choose their partner for them. They’re both very happy about it and like the custom. Harish told me their families are distant relations. His is from the north and Playa’s is from the south. They now have a home in Chennai although they’re working in Japan at the moment. They are both highly educated. Playa said that because the families were so involved it made her feel very safe and protected. She knows they will always get support from them when they need it. They both felt that marrying for love is a very strange idea and such a marriage is more likely to fail than an arranged one. They met for the first time just before their wedding and then spent a long time getting to know each other. That was a very interesting conversation. They’re certainly one of the happiest and relaxed couples I’ve seen.
They both ride bikes and said they thought I was some kind of great adventurer because of the journey I’m on. I was quick to disabuse them of that notion, saying it was just a long holiday. Anyway, I’ve got an invite to call in when I eventually get to Chennai.

Oshima Island.

Oshima Island.

On Sunday we took a drive out to the Natsodomari Peninsular. This is a place Hiromi likes to come to when she wants some peace and quiet. It’s wooded and remote. We stopped off at Tsubaki Shrine where I watched her go through the clapping and bowing ritual. She explained to me how it’s done. It felt very odd to me when I tried it but it seems to come naturally to all Japanese and I  know it’s done with genuine spiritual feeling.

Hiromi.

Hiromi.

We went to visit Oshima Island, taking a walk out along the causeway and a climb up the steep hill for a nice view across the bay. Afterwards we went into a cafe. Inside were a couple of tanks, one with fish swimming around and another with squid in it. Hiromi ordered some squid to take home and the woman took them out with a net then proceeded to peel the skins off them while they were still alive, as far as I could see. She gave each of us a skin to eat and they were rubbery but tasted quite sweet. Hiromi then ate a head, eyes and all. I passed on that one!

Squid.

Squid.

After something to eat back at home we went to an Onsen, one with full facilities this time, including a shower area that you use before you go in. I made a bit of an idiot of myself by mistakenly using another guy’s personal wash kit instead of the one supplied. When I realised what I’d done HE apologised to ME! I felt very bad but a soak in the hot pools made me feel better. One of them had some kind of electromagnetic pulse system where the force seemed to grab hold of the insides of my body. The closer I got to the grid, the stronger the force. It felt very odd.

A very clean achine.

A very clean achine.

My final day was spent washing Doris and sorting my gear out. It was clear that my chain was at the end of its life but I cleaned and lubed it as best I could, hoping it would last until I got to NZ. When Hiromi came in from work she took me to a local store where I was able to buy some flowers and cakes for Yoko. With Hiromi’s help we wrapped them up in a gift bag. It wasn’t much but I was very grateful for the way she’d looked after me. When I gave them to her next morning at breakfast she seemed genuinely delighted so I was very pleased too.

Yoko-San seems to like her gifts.

Yoko-San seems to like her gifts.

Hiromi and family.

Hiromi and family.

I’d had a great time up on the northern peninsular and had met some fantastic people. I was honoured to have been received with such hospitality and kindness and pleased to have learned yet more about the Japanese way of life. I’d spent a few days on my own, either sleeping out or in hotels, so it had been great to have some company. I’d reached the conclusion that the Japanese are lovely people.
Time to head south again though, and hopefully some warmer weather.

The Japanese definitely know how to create a lovely garden.

The Japanese definitely know how to create a lovely garden.

Enshrined in Kyoto

Kyoto, Japan. 26th October 2014.

One time capital of Imperial Japan, Kyoto is sometimes referred to as The City of One Thousand Shrines. I was going to be busy!

Shinto (Way of the Gods) is Japan’s main religion and is centered on Kami, the spiritual essence of places –  rocks, trees, streams, animals, and occasionally people. From its inception in about 660BC until the influence of agriculture, shrine type buildings were rarely used. When people became more settled then buildings became more common and later ones were sometimes influenced by Bhuddhism. There are certain rituals that you will see  performed by visitors to shrines, including ritual hand washing and bowing and clapping in front of the entrance. The basic style of the buildings hasn’t changed much although many of them are rebuilt deliberately as a form of renewal. There will always be a Torii at the entrance to the shrine. It denotes the separation of public from religious space. About 80% of the population follow Shinto traditions, the rest follow Buddhism, Christianity or Islam..

The ride to Kyoto was interesting in many ways. I was on a steep learning curve with regard to road layout, other drivers’ manners and tunnels. Lots of tunnels. Like I said, Japan is mountainous and when the roads aren’t twisting and turning around them they’re running through tunnels beneath them. They all have signs at the entrance telling you the name and length of it. The longest one on that day’s ride was three kilometres. I was impressed! I’d never seen anything like it. I hadn’t been in the tunnel long before my mind started telling me I’d be in France when I came out the other end.

The normal roads are all single carriageway and tend to have plenty of markings down the middle, even big studs on some of the bends. It seems that overtaking is very much discouraged. They are narrow, with a 60kph speed limit and the well mannered Japanese drivers stick to it. I tended to get very frustrated and overtook whenever I thought it safe to do so. I went on to an Expressway at one point, where the limit was higher at 80kph although the road was single carriageway. Management of entry and exit slips onto these is pretty much the same as anywhere else. Expressways mostly mean tolls and these would be collected either by machine or at a toll booth. There didn’t seem to be any difference in price between cars and motorcycles and there is an automatic toll collecting system called ETC (Electronic Toll Card). Towns along the route tended to be long and narrow, hemmed in by mountains or because they were in river valleys. They usually had traffic lights every 500 metres or so and progress was slooooow. I made best use of left or right turn lanes to get to the front of traffic queues, which helped to relieve the frustrations a bit. Towns have their uses though, one of them being the plethora of convenience stores within them. As well as the aforementioned Lawsons there were four other common names. The ubiquitous 7/11, MiniStop, Circle-K Sunkus and Family Mart, all providing coffee, snacks and toilets.

At one point I stopped at a cafe where I’d seen lots of bikes outside but the riders were just leaving and seemed fairly incurious about the Western biker who’d just pulled up. In fact Japanese bikers generally don’t seem to go in for greeting other bikers. Whenever I waved I might be lucky to get a nod, rarely a wave back. But many of them ride Harleys so that might explain it.

Sunday riders outside a cafe.

Sunday riders outside a cafe.

The weather was sunny and warm although it was late October, and the trees looked very beautiful in their Autumn colours. But it was dark by 5.30 and I rode into Kyoto on headlights. I’d managed to download some Japanese maps for my GPS but it soon became clear that they weren’t very good for minor streets and, in particular, street numbers. However, with the help of some passers by I managed to find my hostel, K’s House, and got settled in. This hostel is high quality and is part of a chain with a hostel, sometimes two, in several cities. This one has a cafe attached which sells an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast at around £7. It was worth the money.

Sae, my friend Richard’s Japanese wife, had given me a long list of places to visit, gleaned from her extensive knowledge of her country. The list included several places in Kyoto so the next four days was to be spent visiting the sites and seeing the sights. Shrines, temples and castles were on the list. In preparation I made some plans and tried to find the addresses of each one on my GPS. That was a massive fail as none of them were on there. The only solution was to Google the coordinates for them and make a manual entry of the location. This came to be a system I frequently relied on in Japan. Research what to see, download the coordinates, programme the GPS. Although Kyoto has good transport I preferred to ride around on my bike rather than tackle the mysteries that lie within foreign bus systems.

But first I needed to shop and a map of Japan was top of the list. The hostel staff directed me to Yodobashi, a big department store, not too far away, which had a large book section. This place was enormous and I immediately discovered something about Japanese life. They clearly love to shop and regardless of which item I looked at, there would be a huge choice, especially in anything related to household goods, electronics or cameras. As an example, one section sold tripods. They were all stood up on the floor covering an area about 5 metres wide by 15 metres long. The choice was huge and I really couldn’t understand just how many types of tripod one person might need! I suspected that buying five different items could be a full day’s work. On the plus side there were plenty of polite and helpful staff to assist, who would bow to you as you approached. It didn’t take me long to get in the habit of bowing back and I must say I quite took to the idea, not feeling in the least bit uncomfortable about it. I managed to find a road atlas, in English, although it didn’t include an overview map of the whole country, important for route planning. It broke the country down into sections, with lots of tourist information, larger scale maps and town plans. It turned out to be very effective book.

A veritable forest of tripods.

A veritable forest of tripods.

Once I’d got a couple more things that I needed I headed for the Kyoto Tower where I could see over the city from 100 metres above it. The view was great and the sun set over the mountains while I was up there. I noted that the city has several elevated roads, speeding up the flow of traffic, although experience led me to discover this was at a cost. Streets tended to be laid out on a grid system in the city centre, less so on the outskirts, and many of the roads were quite long. Many Japanese cities suffered bomb damage, enabling modernisation, although Kyoto wasn’t much affected in this respect. Fires and earthquakes had been a bigger problem over the centuries.

View over Kyoto from the 100 metre high tower.

View over Kyoto from the 100 metre high tower.

I’d been told about a couple of cheap, simple eating places by the hostel staff and one of them was a popular Ramen Bar. Ramen is a wheat based flat noodle served in a meat or fish broth, with added vegetables. It was a fast food place in that you got your food very quickly, you shared your table with others, or sat at a counter, and as soon as you were finished you left. There would usually be queues at busy times. Noodles with pork was what I chose out of only five dishes on the menu. The waiter brought me a fork but I used the chopsticks with a good degree of competence. The food was good, and Japanese don’t give, or expect, tips. Straight forward and easy.

Kyoto Tower.

Kyoto Tower.

Time to get serious about some sightseeing so next day I headed out with a list of four places although I only got to three in the end. The first challenge was delivered by the GPS not taking me to the exact location. Somewhere between the mapping and the coordinates lay a mismatch. Usually of less than a kilometre but I invariably had to ask for directions. On one occasion this proved to be a real blessing. Doris desperately needed a service and a new rear tyre. The GPS took me to the wrong place but across the street was a Kawasaki bike shop. I parked outside and got chatting to a customer who spoke English. He spoke to the owner for me and I ordered a new rear tyre and arranged to come back a couple of days later to have it fitted. I would also be able to carry out the much needed service in his workshop. Every cloud has a silver lining after all. I also tried to order a desperately needed chain and sprocket set but my model of bike was never sold in Japan so no luck with that.

So here’s an overview of the places I visited during my time in Kyoto.

FUSHIMI-INARI-TAISHA. Inari is seen mainly as the patron of the rice harvest and also of business, the two having been intimately connected over the centuries. It is a large complex with many buildings, the main one of which was built in 1411. One of the noteworthy features of the site is the 4kms trail of Torii, which winds up and around the hill behind the main buildings. A Torii is an arch which can have dedications inscribed on its uprights. These are often paid for by businesses in the hope of being rewarded with success. There are thousands of them here and when I walked through them I couldn’t help but feel I’d walked inside somebody’s abstract art painting. The bright orange colour was very disorientating and they were very close together. On the hillside were hundreds of shrines of various sizes and complexities, most featuring a fox with a key in its mouth, the key to the rice store. People will often put little aprons on the statues although I’m not sure why. At the main building you can pay for a small piece of wood on which you can write a wish. Once a month a priest takes them and makes a prayer on your behalf. I left one on behalf of a friend who is ill. She’s improving now. Make of that what you will.

Part of the Fushimi-Inarii Temple complex.

Part of the Fushimi-Inarii Temple complex.

Lovely lanterns.

Lovely lanterns.

A Torii forest, and a strange feeling from being inside.

A Torii forest, and a strange feeling from being inside.

One of the more exotic shrines.

One of the more exotic shrines.

Foxes with aprons. It'll be gloves now, as it's winter.

Foxes with aprons. It’ll be gloves now, as it’s winter.

CHION-IN TEMPLE. This is the main temple of the Jodo Shu (Pure Land) sect of Buddhism. It was built in about 1640 after the original building had burnt down, a common story amongst these wood and paper buildings. It has a huge and very decorative main gate and the main temple is also very big but was closed. The gardens are very nice but I was a bit disappointed overall.

Elaborate gate to the Chion-In Temple.

Elaborate gate to the Chion-In Temple.

GINAKU-JI TEMPLE. This is a Zen temple and was supposed to have a silver pavilion. It was built by a retired Shogun Warrior but the work was interrupted by war. He died before it could be completed. I didn’t go inside because it was a long wait until the next tour. Once again I wandered around the formal gardens. All of the temples have these and they are invariably beautifully laid out with trees that either look very colourful or have a very unusual shape. They often appear to be very old judging by their spread and shape and look to me like giant Bonsai trees. Despite the crowds I found these gardens to be places of peace and tranquility, with an air of timelessness, and it wasn’t difficult to feel linked to strollers from previous centuries.

ROKUON-JI TEMPLE. This is another Pure Land temple and its main attraction is the Kinkaku-Ji, or Golden Pavilion. This is a stunning building whose upper two storeys are clad in gold leaf. It was rebuilt following a fire, started by a disaffected monk in 1955. I was unable to go inside but that didn’t matter because its beauty lay on the outside. More than anything, it lay in the lake next to it and the way the building was reflected in the water. It looked stunning. The gardens here were less formal but delivered their beauty via the colourful trees and their reflections. It was another great place to walk around.

Gold and gorgeous.

Gold and gorgeous.

Just reflecting.

Just reflecting.

I'm guessing this tree is pretty old, judging by the need for support.

I’m guessing this tree is pretty old, judging by the need for support.

RYOAN-JI TEMPLE. Another Zen Buddhist temple, this place is mostly famous for its Kare-Sansui (dry landscape) garden. It was created by a highly respected monk in about 1500 and consists of fifteen different size rocks laid out in a series of islands. They are surrounded by silver gravel which is raked into straight lines. It sits within an area 25 metres by 10 metres. There are no plants apart from some moss around the rocks. There is no explanation of what they’re supposed to represent so, in typical Zen style, you sit and contemplate. They will come to mean something, eventually.

Just rocks and gravel but you need to sit and think.

Just rocks and gravel but you need to sit and think.

Just a rock and some moss. Perhaps.

Just a rock and some moss. Perhaps.

The wall along the back of the garden is made from clay that has been boiled in oil. Over time the oil leaches out and makes patterns as it runs down the wall. I sat there and eventually saw something in the patterns that really got me thinking about life and its journey. I won’t say what it was but I left there feeling like I’d really got something out of the visit. I felt it was very special. And that’s the whole point of the place after all. As well as the rock garden there was a water garden. The sunshine helped to enhance its beauty by means of the reflections of the colourful trees on the lake surface. The whole complex was easily the best place I’d visited so far.

There may be a message for you in there, if you look long enough.

There may be a message for you in there, if you look long enough.

In a Japanese garden. Beautiful autumn colours.

In a Japanese garden. Beautiful autumn colours.

TENYRU-JI TEMPLE. At this site the main attraction was the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The grove lies either side of a path and consists of bamboo trunks that are 10-12 metres tall. The trunks block out the sunlight and walking through them has quite an overpowering effect. It was definitely a weird experience. The temple buildings were closed anyway but, as in all the other temples, there were nice gardens to wander around in.

Bamboozled!

Bamboozled!

Heading back to the hostel each day I was starting to enjoy my cross city journeys. Queueing drivers didn’t seem to mind bikes zipping by them, on either side, and I felt back at home in a busy city. I tried another Japanese dish at a chain restaurant called Sukiya. A bowl of beef and rice, some fish soup and salad, all for less than £3. I’ll be going there again! I successfully negotiated the rice/chopstick minefield and didn’t hear any laughter from my fellow diners. Result!

Rickshaws for hire near the Tenyru-Ji Temple.

Rickshaws for hire near the Tenyru-Ji Temple.

NIJO-JO.

Superbly decorated gate into Nijo-Jo.

Superbly decorated gate into Nijo-Jo.

Nijo castle was the place I was looking for when I found the bike shop. This time I knew where it was and after my visit there I was going back to the shop to get some work done. It’s what I think of as a proper castle in that it’s situated on a huge rock and it has a moat around it. Built by a local Shogun in 1626 it has thirty three rooms, many with very ornate and important wall paintings, and large gardens around it. I disobeyed the rules and took photos of the interior and then enjoyed a walk around the gardens. Most of the contents of formal Japanese gardens have some kind of religious or spiritual significance and although I mostly didn’t know what they were, it wasn’t difficult to appreciate the effect of them.

Japanese art at its best.

Japanese art at its best.

It gets better!

It gets better!

Back to more practical matters. I headed to the bike shop and spent the afternoon essential on maintenance. Although the tyre still had plenty of tread, I was concerned that the patch on the inside of it would give way, hence the decision to replace it. I’d decided on a Michelin T63, a nice, meaty trail style tyre, thinking it would serve me well when I got to the backwoods tracks of New Zealand. Yanagi Motorcycles is a small family business, with a husband/wife/son team. Friendly and helpful, they made everything easy and had all the bits I needed – bulbs, spark plug and a replacement screw for one that I’d lost, found within his box of odds and sods. A man after my own heart – never throw anything away because you just never know! Fantastic service but to be honest, I’m not surprised.

Yuya (son), Isao and Hiromi from Yanagi motorcycles.

Yuya (son), Isao and Hiromi from Yanagi motorcycles.

Having spent three days immersing myself in Kyoto’s ancient culture I rang the changes by enjoying something of its modern one. For my final meal in the city I headed back to the restaurant area in the Yodobashi department store. There was a variety of different types and price ranges but I chose one which I thought had a fantastic way of delivering service. On display outside were plastic models of each dish on the menu and examples of the plate sizes – small, medium or large. All I had to do was decide what I wanted and how much, put my money in a machine and press a button. It issued a ticket which I then gave to the young lady inside who passed it to the kitchen. Five minutes later my meal was delivered to my table. Condiments, chopsticks and water were already there. So quick, so simple. What a great system.

Peace loving Japanese youngsters. Friendly too.

Peace loving Japanese youngsters. Friendly too.

Time to move on. Kyoto had been a great place to visit on many levels. I’d learned much about Japanese culture, old and new, and had rubbed shoulders with lots of Japanese people in various ways. I had even started to learn some of the language. I felt confident and relaxed about exploring more of this lovely country.

I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so!

Ferry to the Far East.

DBS Ferry Eastern Dream, Sea of Japan. 22nd October 2014.

The city and docks of Vladivostok disappeared from view and that was the end of my Russian adventure. Looking forward to Japan but a two day voyage to survive before we got there. Our little party went down to the lounge and settled in.

DBS Ferries gets into the Christmas mood.

DBS Ferries gets into the Christmas mood.

We enjoyed the rest of the day, swapping experiences and making plans. My bunk and cabin were comfortable and I was lulled to sleep by the sound and feel of the ship’s propeller shaft turning the screw and ferrying me to the next chapter.

Hans on the right and the French family Blandin.

Hans on the right and the French family Blandin.

When the ferry docked at Donghae, Korea, Hans and I said goodbye to our French and Swiss friends but didn’t rush to get off the boat until we were made to. We weren’t in any hurry. While we were going through immigration we had to put up with a drunk and obnoxious Russian who was being taken charge of by the port security. He had a bloody nose. Whether he slipped or was slapped I don’t know. The latter I hope. Him and his friends were the first Russians I’d seen behaving in that way. No different to some Brits abroad I suppose.
This was made up for by our meeting Maria, a pleasant Danish woman, and her father Peter. They’d travelled across Russia on the Trans Siberian Railway, stopping off at various places on the way, and were now going to Japan. Chatting to her I discovered that she was a Ship’s Captain. A very unusual job for a woman, even these days. It seemed she’d been on an Operation Raliegh type trip when she was a teenager and decided to take it up as a career. She’d worked for the large Danish shipping company Maersk, who had put her through all the necessary training, such as navigation, and she’d worked her way up to Master Mariner, at forty years old. She now worked freelance and loved her job. Great to see the barriers of tradition being broken down.

Captain Maria and Peter, her father.

Captain Maria and Peter, her father.

Hans and I spent our time in the terminal using the free wi-fi before going back on board for the second leg of the trip. We were joined by Lukas, an Austrian biker who had taken a break from his corporate world and had also ridden across Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. He and two friends had tackled some of the tough Russian tracks that I had wanted to attempt but from what he said of their condition it was as well that I didn’t. They were in a very poor state after a lot of rain and I could tell I wouldn’t have got through on my own. I was pleased that I’d let discretion overrule valour.
The ferry was much emptier on this leg so we had a quiet time and a peaceful night before docking at Sakaiminato port at about 10 am. I said goodbye to Hans with the promise that I’d visit him when I got to Australia. Next job was to get all the paperwork done to release my bike from customs. Lukas and I were aided in this by Tatianya, a lovely Russian woman who spoke English and Japanese. She was the port agent for DBS Ferries. We were taken to the Japanese Automobile Federation offices in town to get our carnets authenticated first, then back to customs so they could stamp them. Then the bikes were ours. Tatianya had arranged for an insurance agent to come to the ferry offices so I was able to buy some cover for the bike. Two months for about £30. I was happy with that. It all took about three hours I suppose. No tales of struggles against the might of bureaucracy to tell here I’m afraid, just efficient service.

Lukas and his sickly KTM. He sent a box full of spares ahead to Tokyo ready for an engine rebuild.

Lukas and his sickly KTM. He sent a box full of spares ahead to Tokyo ready for an engine rebuild.

Tatianya had given me details of a hostel in the town of Matsue so that’s were I headed. I posted my IDP application form at the Post Office en route, something that was now urgent. The hostel took a while to find but I managed it eventually. I was pleased at this little success as I had no Japanese maps at that time. Just a small leaflet type town plan that I’d got from the port and a hand drawn copy of Google Maps. Number one job was to download some maps for my Garmin GPS from the web, something that I kind of knew how to do but hadn’t actually managed to achieve yet. I booked in to the hostel for two nights and went out for a walk.
I found a restaurant called Wara Wara and went in. It was a while before I was served but the menu had pictures on it so I was able to point and ask. The food arrived quite quickly once I’d ordered and was nice enough although mostly fried. It was also time to rediscover my chopstick skills. On the way out I saw lockers by the door where people had put their shoes. I probably committed a cardinal sin by leaving mine on but at least I now understood why the waiters walked around in their socks.

Streetside vending machines, including cans of hot coffee.

Streetside vending machines, including cans of hot coffee.

Opposite the restaurant was a convenience store where I could buy some fruit and a sandwich to see me through the next day. On the walk back I was surprised and impressed by the number of vending machines I saw selling canned drinks. A closer inspection revealed that they were selling both cold and hot drinks. Hot coffee in cans! A new one on me. I couldn’t help but wonder how long such a machine would survive on the average UK high street before being robbed and vandalised.
One of the things that I instantly liked about Japan was their wonderful idea of heated toilet seats. A trial run revealed that they also incorporated a bidet function with heated water and jets adjustable for strength. The symbols indicated different buttons for men and women. I just had to indulge in blissful experimentation! Well, wouldn’t you?

Luxury!!

Luxury!!

Saturday in Matsue appeared to be some kind of celebration day. I’ve no idea of the reason but some local streets were closed off, with food and trinket stalls all along them, and there was a small square containing a podium with lots of seats on it. It was a sunny and warm late October day and the memories of a frozen Siberia soon faded as I walked around in T shirt and shorts. At a local shrine I saw a family enjoying some kind of celebration and I was allowed to take a photo of the young daughter in her traditional costume. Earlier I’d seen a school band getting ready to perform and eventually they marched down to the podium and took their places, explaining the reason for all the chairs. They were very good too.

Smartly dressed school band before they marched down to the town square for their performance.

Smartly dressed school band before they marched down to the town square for their performance.

Traditionally dressed young Japanese girl.

Traditionally dressed young Japanese girl.

Earlier on I’d gone looking for a barbers and found one by means of the traditional red and white striped pole. Obviously an international symbol. The barber reminded me so much of Mister Teasy Weasy, the famous hairdresser from the 1960’s, only he was wearing a full on wig to maintain his air of hairdresser competence. He knew how to charge as well, relieving me of £18 for a trim. Ouch!

Mr Teasy Weasy, with rug and fat wallet.

Mr Teasy Weasy, with rug and fat wallet.

I had my first proper Japanese meal of noodles and pork, eaten with chopsticks of course, in the cafe attached to the hostel. Green tea to follow. I got chatting to a guy who is a friend of the owner and had been doing some maintenance work there. He was about my age and spoke quite good English, having worked abroad. It was pleasant chatting to a local and he gave me some useful suggestions as to what to visit. The meal was quite cheap and I went to bed feeling that my first two days had been quite successful.

Matsue canal system with tourist boats.

Matsue canal system with tourist boats.

So what were my first impressions of Japan? Helpful and friendly people so far. I’d heard talk of how Japanese people don’t want anything to do with Westerners. Absolute nonsense. It’s clearly a well organised society with good infrastructure – road signage etc. Usefully in English as well as Japanese. Speed limits are 50, sometimes 40kph in towns and only 60kph outside, although I’m told the Expressways have a much higher speed limit. They drive on the left, no bad thing and easy to get used to even after six months of driving on the right. Drivers are well disciplined although they don’t rush. It seems to be that when traffic lights go green they think about what to do next for a couple of seconds, eventually decide to put the car in gear and finally pull away. I don’t think they’d last ten seconds in a UK city. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. I tended to be sitting at the next set of red lights by the time they moved. Maybe that’s the point!

Japan has a very high proportion of old drivers and I’d been warned to watch out for their predilection for making sudden decisions and acting on them instantly. I’d had plenty of experience of people like that and had the broken bones to prove it. At the pedestrian crossings were guys wearing dayglo bandoleers and waving illuminated red sticks at the approaching drivers, who dutifully stopped to let the pedestrians across. Clearly a well organised society.

'Road traffic please stop! I have an illuminated red stick.'

‘Road traffic please stop! I have an illuminated red stick.’

There are small convenience stores everywhere, Lawsons being one that I’ve seen plenty of. They sell some basic essentials but also sandwiches, fruit and hot snacks. Oh, and very delicious and cheap coffee, about £1 for a large cup. As my journey progressed I came to love these places and I even obtained a Lawsons loyalty card. Their down side is the very delicious sweet and creamy cakes they sell.
Japan is a very crowded country. It is about half as big again as the UK but has about twice as many people. There are three main islands, on which most of the population live, and several smaller ones. They tend to have mountainous areas along the middle of them which makes the coastal areas very populous. As I rode around I found that one town would often run into another. Cities are very big and full of apartment blocks. One very noticeable thing was how houses tended to be different to one another. Very little by way of neat streets with well established terraces or semi’s, as in Europe. Buildings are either wooden or made from preformed materials such as cladding. They have to be earthquake resistant so brick is not a practical material anyway.
I had found Matsue to be a gentle and pleasant introduction to Japan but it was time now to venture forth to a big city, Kyoto.

BMW R100GS. A rare beast in Japan.

BMW R100GS. A rare beast in Japan.

Siberski Escape.

Kyakhta, Siberian Russia. 4th October 2014.

Now I was back in Russia, I only really had one aim – get to Vladivostok! A ferry awaited, I hoped, and beyond that, Japan. Whenever anyone asked me where I was going I would always say ‘Japan, or Yappon’, as it’s pronounced in Russian. All I had to do was get there.

Having crossed the border, my plan was to ride as far as I could towards Ulan Ude then find a hotel before it got dark. Well, you know what Robert Burns said about best laid plans, all those years ago. It still holds true today. About 5kms from the border, my rear tyre went flat. I started the well oiled repair process once more. Remove the wheel nut; lay the bike over on its right hand side; pull out the wheel spindle and remove the wheel; tyre levers at the ready, off with the tyre and out with the tube.

A well rehearsed system for dealing with punctures.

A well rehearsed system for dealing with punctures.

I couldn’t find a hole in the tube so I fitted my spare which I knew was OK. While I was working a guy stopped but couldn’t do anything to help. After a while a second guy stopped. It was getting dark by now and his headlights were very useful for lighting up the scene. Even more useful was his 12v compressor, which saved me time and effort. My helper’s name was Jan and he was a commander in an anti-tank regiment. He lived in the nearby town of Kyakhta, where there is a big tank battalion base. Once the wheel was back on we set off for the town where Jan was going to show me to a hotel. We didn’t get very far before the tyre went flat again. Jan’s compressor did the trick once more and we soon got to a hotel which had secure parking attached. Not a cheap place at about £25, with no wi-fi or breakfast, but I had no choice. At least the room was good and was comfortable. I was very grateful to Jan for his help. He spoke good English and before he left he told me this joke. ‘In Russia, if we’re going to the shops we take our car. If we’re going to the woods we take our Jeep. If we’re going to Europe we take our tank!’ Hmm. Topical if nothing else and I did laugh.

Tanks and tank men on display outside the battalion HQ.

Tanks and tank men on display outside the battalion HQ.

There were no shops anywhere near the hotel so it was lucky that I had some noodles and biscuits to make a meal out of. The hotels in Russia always have a kettle in the room and the metal cup-with-lid that I’d bought in Mongolia suddenly became a very good purchase.

A good sleep set me up for tyre and tube duties. It turned out that the yard I’d parked in also included a tyre changing shed and although the tyre removal machine was no good for motorcycle wheels, the airline came in handy. I repaired both tubes and managed to convince my self that part of the reason why I pinched the tube when refitting the tyre was because it was too big and therefore got in the way. Well, I had to have some straw to grasp to make me feel a bit better about failing to complete a simple task.

Pretty church near my hotel. Orthodox churches always seem to have unorthodox colour schemes.

Pretty church near my hotel. Orthodox churches always seem to have unorthodox colour schemes.

The ride to Ulan Ude was nice. Good weather, a bit warmer than before too. One straight road but with some hills and bends occasionally to relieve the boredom. I was surprised to see a couple of Buddhist temples along the way, one of them looking brand new. I learned later that there is quite a large Mongol population in this part of Siberia so I suppose it made sense.

Very nice Buddhist temple, en route to Ulan Ude.

Very nice Buddhist temple, en route to Ulan Ude.

By now I was getting good at finding Russian addresses and found my way to the hostel despite it having a different name to when I’d booked it on the internet. They spoke English there and didn’t seem too bothered that I hadn’t turned up the previous night, as booked. There was nothing much to see around Ulan Ude itself but I wanted to take a ride out to Lake Baikal. I’d considered going on a separate trip to Irkutsk, the main lakeside town, but decided against it in the end. It had turned very cold and the clock was ticking. I just didn’t think I had the time to spare and the benefit in terms of what I’d see at this time of year just didn’t make it worth it. Lake Baikal is a unique place and Russians, and especially Siberians, tend to be very proud of it. Here’s some info from http://www.lakebaikal.org.

Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world with a maximum depth of 1,632m It is also the world’s largest volume of fresh water 23,000 cubic km.

This means that one-fifth of all the fresh water in the world is located at Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal is 640km long and judging by its dimensions only it would be more of a sea than a lake.

Baikal is also the world’s most ancient freshwater lake, it originated 20-25 million years ago.

It is home to many unique species of animals and plants including the freshwater seal.

Lake Baikal is one of the clearest and purest bodies of water. On a good day you could see 40 meters into the lake.

Dimensions of Lake Baikal: It is 636 km long, 79 km wide. There are 27 islands in Lake Baikal, most of them being uninhabited. Baikal Lake’s coastline measures 2100 kilometers (around 1300 miles).

More than 300 streams and rivers flow into Lake Baikal, but there is just one outlet, the Angara. The water in the lake creates a mild microclimate around its shores. More than half the species found in Lake Baikal are unique to this place.

The shore of Lake Baikal on a cold, windy day.

The shore of Lake Baikal on a cold, windy day.

It is a very popular holiday destination with Russians and as well as the usual lakeside activities – fishing, boating etc., there are also small, isolated ‘hideaways’ where you could shut out the busy world and commune with nature during lakeside walks or from the comfort of a hot tub. Visiting a Banya would also be an option, a favourite pastime of many Siberians. My time there was limited to a day ride and I set off on a gloomy and cold morning for my Baikal experience. It took a couple of hours to get there and although the ride through the mountain pass was very cold, at 1200 metres, it was well worth the effort. It was late autumn in Siberia by now but even so, the tree colours were still a joy to behold. I’d often see small bushes among them, with flaming red leaves which provided a nice contrast to the greens of the firs and the and yellows of the laurels.

The predominate colour of a Siberian Autumn seems to be yellow from the Laurel trees.

The predominate colour of a Siberian Autumn seems to be yellow from the Laurel trees.

Eventually I came to the lake itself. It is certainly impressive to look at. I could see land when I looked across it, possibly an island, but could see nothing but water when I looked along its length. It certainly is very big! The strong, biting wind that was blowing across it created quite large waves, definitely giving the impression of it being a sea more than a lake. It wasn’t difficult to imagine people out there skating before too many weeks had passed. In fact it’s frozen over from January to May, with an average air temperature of only -21 degrees C. Only! Warmer than the rest of Siberia though, which can get as low as -70 degrees. Such thoughts had me itching to get back to the warmth of my hostel so I headed back, with a stop en route for fuel and a snack. A pizza from the shop across the street that evening had me feeling better, even though pizzas sold in Russia seem to have some kind of mayonnaise sauce as a base rather than tomato paste. Odd.

Some internet research on Horizons Unlimited had informed me of a shop called Jupiter Motorcycles, in Chita, the next major town along the Trans-Siberian road. I needed to get my luggage rack welded and maybe do an oil change too, although it wasn’t quite due. So an early start saw me heading out of Ulan Ude, picking up the signs for Chita and settling down for a long, cold ride. Over 700kms today and I was wearing all the warm riding gear I possessed!

Warning! Winter is on the way.

Warning! Winter is on the way.

As I rode up into the hills the sleet began to blow around me, soon changing to snow. It settled, but not on the road itself fortunately. My screen and heated handlebar grips are two of the accessories I valued most that day. The third is my Airhawk seat, which successfully separated ‘numb’ and ‘bum’. Once over the hills, the sun managed to sneak its way through the clouds and it actually warmed up a bit.

Warning! Don't try to beat the train at level crossings!

Warning! Don’t try to beat the train at level crossings!

The landscape was pleasant enough although it was starting to lose most of its autumn prettiness. The rivers looked great, down in their valleys, carving their way through the landscape the way that rivers do. The road tended to run above them, which made for nice views to relieve the boredom. I didn’t pass through many villages or towns. The road seemed to have been constructed to avoid them. It was interesting to see that most of the buildings were made of wood, either board or logs. In fact I passed several places where I didn’t see a single brick building. It seems that simple old wood is the best material to resist the rigours of Siberian weather. A lunch stop at a roadside café helped me to do the same, where I enjoyed my favourite Russian dish of Borscht. A bit of a GPS glitch meant that when I arrived in Chita I ended up, quite literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. A bit of rethinking soon had me in the station square where I found City Central Hotel, the one I’d been aiming for. In the middle of the square was a huge Orthodox church and next to it was a secure car park. They were happy to take in my bike at the princely sum of just under £1 per night. Just the job. With a guard on site and a church next door it ought to be secure enough. After all, I had been good. The room in the hotel was one with four beds in it, so I could have been sharing with three others, but at about £12 per night, including breakfast and good wi-fi, I was very happy. I ended up on my own in there anyway so it worked out to be a very good deal. Just like a hostel room but without the bunks. A complete contrast to the place in Kyakhta, down near the Mongolian border. The breakfast was nice, the sun was shining and it was definitely warmer.

Church in Chita. Big, bold and brassy.

Church in Chita. Big, bold and brassy.

I set off to find Jupiter Motorcycles, which didn’t take too long. The owner didn’t speak any English so I didn’t bother trying to discuss an oil change but I did manage to communicate my welding needs. He couldn’t help but ho drew me a map to get me to a place which he thought probably could. I found the road with no problem and, after a false start or two, managed to find the place he meant. As I looked into the yard I could see wrought iron fabrications at various stages of progress and the sharp, blue light of an arc welder doing what it does best. As I rode in I could smell that electric smell that welding delivers. Just what I needed. I rode in there and found myself getting treated like the prodigal son. I spoke to a guy in the yard and showed him what I needed. He sat me in the office and shortly after another couple of guys came to look at the bike. They told me to take the rack off and less than ten minutes later they brought it back out with the two breaks now repaired. I was about to put it back on the bike when a third guy indicated that it needed strengthening or it would snap again. I agreed with him so was happy to hand it over for further work. Five minutes later it came back out with a two inch length of rod welded alongside the original repair. It didn’t look pretty but it sure wasn’t going to be breaking again any time soon. They made it clear that no payment was required or expected so I set to refitting it to the bike.

Welded, never to break again, but pretty it ain't!

Welded, never to break again, but pretty it ain’t!

I’d just about finished that when the foreman came over and asked me if I wanted some lunch. Me, refuse a meal? It’s never happened before and it didn’t happen this time either. Sergei took me round to their rest room where I could wash up and then we sat at their big trestle table in what was obviously the ‘works’ canteen. The woman who had been working in the front office joined us and we enjoyed soup and bread, followed by more bread and jam, which turned out to be delicious home made marmalade. Sergei could speak some English and it transpired that the woman, Natalya, was his Daughter. Her English was pretty good. She was 31 and and already has a son of twelve and a daughter of seven. Sergei is 52, so it seems he was already a grandfather at forty! I blame it on those long, Siberian nights and the need to keep warm. I’m still trying to decide if it makes me feel young or old. They told me they thought I was a hero for undertaking such a journey and also that Siberia was full of thieves and that I should be very careful. Hero? I’m on holiday! But I appreciated the warning and also the information that the road ahead had very few hotels along it. Some cold camping was likely to be happening. Everyone had made it clear they expected no payment but I managed to persuade Sergei to accept 200 roubles by getting him to understand he should buy some biscuits or cakes for his guys to share in the canteen, just by way of saying ‘thank you’.

Sergei and Natalaya.

Sergei and Natalaya.

I rode back to the car park and changed my front sprocket from the 13 tooth I’d fitted for Mongolia, back to the 15 tooth I needed for the long road miles that lay ahead. When I’d finished I went into the office to let the guy in there know, and he promptly gave a present of a clasp knife with a six inch blade. I was surprised in every sense at such an unusual gift. I accepted it gratefully. It was unfortunate that I had nothing I could pass to him in return. I also wonder if this was another, veiled, warning about the dangers that lay ahead. If the treatment I’d received in Siberia so far was anything to go by I was more likely to be overwhelmed by kindness than by evil. I enjoyed a walk around the centre of the town and was impressed by the huge square I came across,overlooked by the ubiquitous statue of Lenin pointing to, or at, somewhere or something. On one side of the square was a large building, possibly relating to local government, and in front of that was a large podium of the type you used to see Soviet leaders taking the salute from. Clearly a hang over from communist days.

Pioneer resident of Chita, from the memorial in the town square.

Pioneer resident of Chita, from the memorial in the town square.

I also took a good look around the church. There were some beggars outside and I gave an old woman some five rouble coins. She looked at them then started haranguing me, demanding notes not coins. I politely demurred and left her muttering into her old woman’s beard. Next morning I woke up at 07.00 but breakfast wasn’t served until 08.00. So I killed some time by packing my gear away then went down to eat. By 09.00 I was heading over to get my bike on a cold but clear day. I was just bringing down the last of my gear when I glanced at the clock in the lobby and saw it was 10.20. My watch said 09.20. Bugger! I’d already lost an hour between Ulanbataar and Ulan Ude and now I’d lost another one. How careless of me. There are eleven time zones in Russia and it doesn’t seem to take long to leave one behind and lose time.

I set off but soon had to stop to consult the map when the road I was on was closed by roadworks. That was when one of those ‘funny how these things happen’ moments occurred. My backpack has a water bladder in it so that I can drink on the move. I had filled it up earlier but hadn’t screwed the cap up properly. When I pulled my map out it was wet around the bottom edge. It was lucky I stopped when I did otherwise it would have been rendered useless by the leaking water. I was very surprised when I had to switch the fuel to reserve much earlier than usual. Having fitted the larger front sprocket, thereby raising the gearing, I’d assumed the fuel consumption would be much better and had been pushing the speed up a bit. Clearly, I was wrong and slowed things down a bit thereafter.

The other factor working against me was the terrain, which was very hilly, and the wind, which tended to be against me most of the time. I noticed that many of the smaller rivers were partially frozen and any standing water was completely frozen. I was was hoping that a hotel would appear on the horizon later. It looked like the night was going to be cold. While I was riding along I saw a timber wolf walking along behind the roadside barrier. It was totally unconcerned at my passing so close but when I turned around and came after it, hoping to take a photo, it decided it was concerned after all and loped off into the woods. Shame.

Any standing water tended to be ice. A taste of things to come?

Any standing water tended to be ice. A taste of things to come?

Things were going well until the inevitable happened. A flat tyre. How unusual! A previous repair had failed so I fitted my spare tube and yes, you’ve guessed it, I pinched it when putting the tyre back on. The air turned blue around me as I took off the tyre and repaired the tube yet again. While I was doing this a herdsman rode up on his horse. He gave me a hand to put the tyre back on and after a while I asked him if he was Russian. What with the constant changes in time zone and the severe sense of deja vue brought about by constant repetition of the same task, I wanted to be sure I hadn’t been transported back in time to Mongolia. He assured me he was Russian before trotting off to carry on with his business. Wheel now replaced, I went about mine. I called in to a garage in a village just off the road, hoping to buy some water. I knew camping was very much on the cards for the night. They only had small bottles in the fridge but had some bigger ones on the shelf. I asked if it was gassy water and the woman said something to me. I asked again and this time her husband repeated what she’d said. I asked if it was drinkable and eventually, from their gestures, I realised it was water for topping up batteries. I beat a hasty retreat and sneaked off as best I could. They’re probably still laughing at me now.

The road and terrain open up before me but those hills start to sap my fuel consumption.

The road and terrain open up before me but those hills start to sap my fuel consumption.

Further up the road I stopped at a cafe and got some food as well as some water. I was hoping not to have to camp but didn’t want to take chances. Just as well really because 10kms up the road my rear tyre went flat yet again. Off came the tyre and this time it wasn’t a previous repair that had failed but a split in the tube. I checked the inside of the tyre and found a corresponding split on the inner face, about 40mm long. I guessed that it had been caused by me having to run with a completely flat tyre on several occasions while I found a safe place to stop and fix previous punctures. So I patched the inside of the tyre, as well as the tube, just to try to prevent the split eating into the tube again. By the time I’d finished it was dusk so priority number one was to find somewhere to camp. This road is relatively new and passes across a lot of swampy ground. But eventually I managed to find a track that went up a slope and onto a clear patch of ground which, judging by the tyre marks and cleared area, had been a makeshift depot for roadworks vehicles and materials. Flat with minimum brush, just what I needed. I kept waking up in the cold but at least that gave me some thinking time. To go on and see what happens or go back to a town that I knew was forty kms or so away and try to get a new tyre or at least a decent repair.

Common sense prevailed so in the morning I headed back to the town and found a vehicle repairer who also fitted tyres. I’d looked up some phrases in the dictionary last night and they obviously worked because Nicolai, the owner, pulled open a draw and showed me some some nice, heavy duty vulcanising repair patches. Just what the doctor ordered! To the great amusement of the onlookers I simply laid Doris on her side, whipped out the wheel and Nicolai, and his assistant Andrei, got stuck in. It was clear Nicolai knew what he was about so I left there feeling confident I had a repair I could rely on and if it went wrong, it wasn’t for the lack of trying. He wanted 400 roubles for the repair, I was happy to give him 500 (£8). A cheap price to pay for the peace of mind. Unfortunately he didn’t have any new tyres or motorcycle tubes so I had to carry on with what I had.

 

My tyre repair team.

My tyre repair team.

The rest of the day went well, I’m pleased to say, including a lucky break. I’d stopped in a cafe at about 4pm, one which I thought had a hotel attached. I was wrong in that, but I got chatting to a Russian who was in there and asked him if there was a hotel anywhere nearby. He said there is one 142kms along the road. Well, I thought, that’s not a guess or an assumption so I think I can trust the information. At that time of day I wouldn’t have been thinking of riding so far before stopping for the night, which would have been a camp again. But I pressed on with confidence and sure enough, just as he said, a new hotel hove into view. They had a room, with two beds in it and I might have to share, and the price included breakfast. No wi-fi but I didn’t care. Things had turned out well after 500kms on the road, and I turned in, feeling very tired.

Thinking back, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t met the guy in the cafe. It would be over dramatising to say he saved my life but he certainly saved me from a huge amount of inconvenience, discomfort and possibly injury. When I woke up next morning and looked out of the window I saw a raging blizzard and two or three inches of snow on the ground. I shuddered to think how a night in the tent might have ended up, and I still do. The room price didn’t include breakfast after all and I didn’t care. They wanted and extra 100 roubles to use the shower and I didn’t care. All I cared about was that I was inside, not out. And there I stayed for two more nights. I’d arrived on Friday evening. The blizzard finally stopped late Saturday afternoon.

The scene from my hotel window.

The scene from my hotel window.

They began clearing the parking area of the hotel on Sunday and some of the trucks that had parked up during the storm moved on. There was plenty of snowplough activity on the road. Things were looking up. Annoyingly I discovered that the hotel seemed to have very little insulation in the roof. By Sunday the heat from the hotel had melted the snow and it was sliding off onto the ground. Unfortunately I had parked my bike out of the way just under the eaves and it was now covered in snow. I dug it out and moved it round the side. I wasn’t happy to see that something, probably ice, had broken the glass in my clock. What surprised me the most was that a building way out in Siberia didn’t have roof insulation. It seemed a criminal omission in such a climate. But after some thought I realised it may have been deliberate. The amount of snow that would sit on that roof over the long winter, and its weight, would surely damage the roof after a while so it made sense to allow it to melt and fall off. Having said that, the building was clearly of the ‘fast build’ variety, so who knows.

The truckers didn't want to move and I know whose example it was best to follow.

The truckers didn’t want to move and I know whose example it was best to follow.

I spent my time writing, partly because I needed to catch up and partly to take my mind off my predicament. While the blizzard was raging I had no way of knowing if this was the Siberian winter setting in. Would I be stuck here until May with nothing to do but write and improve my Russian? No wi-fi and no mobile phone signal either. Lost in Siberia, no communication with the outside world? Common sense and logic prevailed. I knew it was too early to be proper winter and the behaviour of the truckers told me they were just sitting it out and waiting for it to clear up. By Monday morning it had melted enough for the road to be clear of snow. There was still plenty along the roadside but whatever methods the Siberians used for snow clearing, they seemed to have worked. I had no choice but to leave anyway as I was swiftly running out of cash. I showed the map to the woman who was in charge and gleaned the information that the next town had a Bankomat, there was another hotel further along the road but that everything was ‘balshai’, which I took to mean a long way apart. OK. That was enough info for me to feel that, on a bright, sunny morning, it was worth taking a chance. To be honest I was glad to be leaving. The staff at the hotel were a pretty off hand bunch, both in the cafe and those who looked after the rooms. None of them made any effort to allow for my lack of Russian or attempted to be friendly. I know there’s no obligation to do so but up to now everyone else had. Possibly fed up with having to deal with an idiot foreigner who shouldn’t even be there. Happy in their work? I think not! I was glad to get out for many reasons.

Amazingly well cleared roads.

Amazingly well cleared roads.

The bike didn’t want to start so a plug swap sorted that out and I set off onto clear, dry roads on a sunny day. I was amazed at how effectively the roads had been cleared. There didn’t seem to be any salt on them so I’m guessing they used ploughs and brushes. Obviously they have to keep the roads clear out there otherwise everything would grind to a halt. Maybe they use a special asphalt? I don’t know. What I do know is that I made good progress. I found the town and the Bankomat, so was feeling even more relieved. I had to deal with some stretches of slush which hadn’t been cleared up. I even came across a couple of snow ploughs too, getting some very odd looks from the drivers. Oddly, as soon as the road turned south,where I expected it to be warmer, the patches of slush became more frequent.

Still some slushy stretches though.

Still some slushy stretches though.

Around about 16.00 I came across a cafe and saw it had a motel attached to it. Easy decision to make, I go no further! This was another new building, just like the previous hotel, and was all shiny, pre-fabricated panels and a bright red steel roof. No snow on this one either. Called 777, it was lucky I decided to stop because I learned that the next hotel along the road was 400kms away. The cafe here was much better than at the other hotel, with a wider range of food and a servery where I could just point at something and say ‘That please’. I don’t know what it is about Russian eateries but they never seem to heat up the food enough. It’s only ever warm, never hot. But the food tasted good and the tea was OK too.

Sitting at a table near me where four truck drivers who came over to talk to me. I joined them at their table and we chatted about things as best we could. They were driving two trucks between them, both American, a Mack and an International, of which they were clearly very proud. I’d noticed that most of the long haul trucks were American, obviously well suited to the terrain. The four guys were Vova Snr., Vova Jnr., Denis and Kolyan. Kolyan is into bikes and does motocross. He showed me his biking scars and I told him about mine. He declared us to be brothers. The two Vovas are a father and son driving team and come from Irkutsk. They were delighted when I said I’d been to Lake Baikal. Denis comes from near Moscow but I’m not sure about Kolyan. Denis was the one who made the real effort to talk to me. My dictionary came in handy as I told him about my journey, where I’d been and where I was heading to. He asked me how old I am and his eyes nearly popped out of his head when I told him. The vodka was flowing although I declined. Eventually we parted, agreeing to meet for breakfast.

Three of my trucker friends.

Three of my trucker friends.

I went over to the hotel and secured a shared room for a very nice £8, and once again, I was on my own. Considering how late in the morning I’d left and that I’d stopped there at about 4pm, I was quite happy with the 300kms I’d ridden. There was still snow on the ground and it was still very cold, but I felt I was making some progress at last.

At breakfast next morning (which I had to take back to get warmed up and no truck drivers to be seen), I was watching the weather forecast. 22C in Sochi, where the Russian car GP was on; 9C in Kabarovsk, the next big regional city I would reach; 14C in Vladivostok, my final destination. This confirmed my thoughts that it would get warmer as I headed further south. I was looking forward to it! The snow gradually disappeared and the terrain changed too. The hills were left behind me and were replaced by flat countryside with plenty of agriculture, mostly hay crops as far as I could see. Now I was out of the hills my fuel consumption improved too, thankfully. That type of terrain was hitting it hard. The ground was also very boggy in places and I couldn’t help thinking that if I were to run off the road I might never see my bike again once the bubbles had stopped. Other stray thoughts came and went, as will always happen on a seven hour, 500kms, mostly boring, ride. The road, although only single carriageway, was in very good condition and was clearly quite new. I passed several new cafe/hotel type buildings so clearly the infrastructure was being built to support the truckers and travellers. I also noticed that some of the petrol stations were labelled ‘ECO’, and sold Euro 5 standard of fuel. That was good to see. All they need to do now is to shut down those smoke belching district heating systems and there might be an improvement in air quality in some places.

These chimneys are from the District Heating System, common in Russian towns and cities. Guilty of mass pollution.

These chimneys are from the District Heating System, common in Russian towns and cities. Guilty of mass pollution.

Soon enough I came to one of the roadside cafe/hotels and pulled in for food and sleep. The Goulash I ate was disappointing and came back to haunt me at 9pm and 3am. I was worried. Bike riding and a dodgy stomach don’t go well together but I was OK by the morning. This hotel was dearer, at nearly £17, but at least I had a room to myself in theory as well as practice. As I set off next morning, at 0C but expecting a warmer day, I was hoping to be able to knock off over half the remaining distance and get to Vladivostok in two days. All went well and when I stopped for lunch and fuel I was pretty pleased with the day. Soon afterwards my previous sins came back to haunt me as the rear tyre went flat once more. I just shrugged my shoulders and got in with the repair. While I was taking the wheel out a guy in a car stopped. He spoke some English and was a local biker. He couldn’t really do much to help me but he left me the remains of his drink before he left. I appreciated the gesture. The problem was a previous repair that had started leaking so I stuck another patch over it and pressed on. Not for long though as it had gone down again in less than 10kms. I pumped it up again and was wondering how far I could get in this manner before I had to give up. Just then I came to a town and when I saw a cafe/hotel I decided that was too good an opportunity to pass up so pulled in. The room was cheap enough at £8 but the whole place was a bit run down.

Once I’d settled my gear into the room I started on yet another repair. There was an older guy hanging around the place too and he came out and gave me a hand, smoking about ten cigarettes in the process. No wonder he had a cough! It took two goes with two tubes but eventually it was holding air. I wanted to repair my other tube too but I had now run out of glue. I wasn’t really surprised to be honest. I seemed to have done nothing but glue patches on to tubes for days on end. After cleaning up I ordered some food, being happy to accept whatever they had available. Chicken soup, burger and mashed potato. It’s clear that the adventure part of adventure travelling happens in the most mundane places, often on a plate. The hotel didn’t seem to do much business – I wonder why? There was a railway line just across the road with very loud goods trains from a very busy goods yard, where I was constantly hearing loud announcements about various things. I hope it wasn’t going to go on all night. When I went to bed I found I couldn’t hear the trains any more but could feel the whole hotel gently shake as they trundled past. I didn’t care, I was soundo!

Irina's cafe/hotel.

Irina’s cafe/hotel.

 

What would today bring, I wondered as I woke up? A flat tyre was the answer. It had gone down overnight. Another failure and now no way of repairing it. So I asked Irina, mine hostess, if there was a tyre shop in town. There wasn’t, but she offered to take me down to a nearby town where there was a place that would repair my tube for me. I had to wait about two hours until she was ready. A fantastic offer for which I was very grateful. By the time I’d had breakfast Irina had changed her mind and wanted to leave straight away. Fine by me, so off we went. During the journey I discovered that Irina could speak some English. I learned that she had three children, the young boy and girl that I’d seen at the hotel and a 15 year old son who lived with her mother while he was at school. Not at all an unusual arrangement in Russia. She’s 35 and is married to an Armenian chef. She has just taken over the hotel, which is why it’s so run down. She has plans to renovate it so will start to redecorate soon. The guy who ran the tyre repair shop was also Armenian and he got stuck in to putting a patch on my tube as soon as we arrived. Then he tested it for more leaks and promptly declared it to be no good. At least that’s what I assume he meant. I’m sure the words he used were a little more fruity, judging by the way he looked at it. The tube had several pin prick holes in it and was beyond repair. He gave Irina details of a place in nearby Kabarovsk, the main city of the region, where we should be able to get a tube. Irina generously offered to take me there and after some close encounters of the sexy kind between her and the tyre man, we set off. It was clear there was, had been or he wanted there to be, something going on between them. None of my business although I had the impression he is more keen than she is.

The place he’d told her about only sold car parts but they directed us to a motorcycle shop where, finally and at last, I was able to get a new tube. I wanted to buy two but they only seemed to have one. No problem. The fitting of this new tube would be done with more care, attention and finesse than any Micheln starred chef had ever lavished on his finest meal. I made sure to clean all the dust and grit out of the tyre before fitting the tube. That had been part of the problem and was the result of fixing punctures at the roadside. No pinching of the tube this time. Inflation took place as rapidly as under a Thatcher government and all was well. It was just starting to rain as I refitted the wheel which cemented my decision to stay another night. It was 3pm now anyway, time for a shower and then some food. Irina didn’t want to take any money off me for driving me around but she accepted some for petrol costs. When I came down to eat I brought with me the knitted cat that Elena, from Novosibirsk, had given me. I gave it to Irina’s daughter. I hope Elena will forgive me for giving away a gift but I felt it would be enjoyed and appreciated by an eight year old more than by an oldie like me. It seemed like the right thing to do. I gave one of my Russia maps and some fridge magnets, that the truck drivers had given me, to her young son. Both the kids and Irina seemed to appreciate them. I was pleased to be able to return some of the kindness she had shown me.

My very kind hosetss Irina.

My very kind hosetss Irina.

Irina told me this morning that her husband had a new job in the western city of Sirina so they are all moving there and she will close the hotel up for the time being. She seemed very pleased. I couldn’t help but wonder how the Armenian tyre fitter would feel.

When we’d been driving back earlier I’d noticed some kind of building up on the hillside which Irina said was a memorial. So when I left next morning I went up to look at it. It seemed to be related to a battle that had taken place between Red and White Russians in 1922. It’s easy to forget that there was a long period of resistance to the Bolshevik takeover, mostly led by supporters of the Tsar.

Memorial to local fighters.

Memorial to local fighters.

Irina told me this morning that her husband had a new job in the western city of Sirina so they are all moving there and she will close the hotel up for the time being. She seemed very pleased. I couldn’t help but wonder how the Armenian tyre fitter would feel.

I went back to the bike shop in Kabarovsk, hoping to be able to buy a puncture repair kit, or at least some glue, but they didn’t have any. On the off chance, I asked for another tube and that was no problem. I’d asked for a second one yesterday but clearly didn’t get my message across. Now I had a way of fixing any subsequent puncture and I left there a happy man, Vladivostok on my mind.

An old style Siberian apartment block, seen in Kabarovsk.

An old style Siberian apartment block, seen in Kabarovsk.

For some time now the road had been deteriorating. I seemed to have left the new section of road behind and on this stretch there were several sections of roadworks with Kazakh style diversions, i.e.down a bank and onto the dirt. I didn’t care. I was making good, puncture and snow free progress, and Vladivostok was within two days riding. The

weather was getting warmer, the roads busier and Doris and I were singing along together. At the hotel that night the woman told me the price for a room (£18) and I said, in my best Russian, ‘That’s rather dear’. She replied, in hers, ‘No it bloody isn’t!’ I gave in. I needed to sleep and it was all there was. On a nice, sunny and warm day it didn’t take me long to reach Vladivostok. On the way in I was amazed by the number of right hand drive Japanese cars I saw. I assumed that people went to Japan, bought them and drove them back but I later found out that they’re mostly imported, to order, by specialist companies. Even so, I hadn’t seen nearly as many up to now. I kept counting groups of ten cars and only sometimes did I find one of the ten to be left hand drive. Irina had one but nothing like as good as these. They do create a problem though, especially in places like Siberia where most of the roads are single carriageway. Irina had a lot of trouble overtaking those big trucks.

Busy dock area in Vlad.

Busy dock area in Vlad.

Vlad is a big city and looked impressive in the distance on the other side of the bay as I rode across the causeway that led to it. I headed for the city centre, and eventually the railway station, my plan being to scout around for a cheap hotel or hostel. I hadn’t had any internet access for nine days so had not had any chance to research accommodation. But the simple rule of heading for the station and looking around had worked well up to now. Not in Vlad though. It was in the expensive part of town and the hotels reflected this. Then I had one of my rare brainwaves. I used my GPS Points of Interest facility to find an eatery that might have wi-fi. Magic Burger fitted the bill. So I ordered a pizza, sat down and logged on. I was busy searching online when, after about 30 mins I realised my pizza hadn’t arrived. I went back back to the servery and the guy pulled it out from under the counter where they’d put it. I’d deliberately sat right opposite him so he could call me when it was ready but that obviously hadn’t been covered by the instruction manual. I sometimes have to wonder where common sense has disappeared to.

I was able to find a hostel, in the same road as the burger place, and also the same road where I would find the agents who would deal with my ferry booking. In typical Russian style it was a long road and the hostel was 2kms further on. But I found it OK. The website said that English was spoken, only not by the staff, as it turned out. She was a woman about my age and I learned later that she was the owner. She was pleasant, the hostel was nice, if a little chilly, the price was good and the wi-fi was excellent. I was happy enough. My room companions were typical of those I’d come across in other Russian hostels. Apart from Hans, a Swiss Australian who was travelling on his bicycle, they were Russians who were in the city on business. It’s been normal to find people like this rather than holidaying backpackers, as in Europe. Russia is so big that people often need to find several day’s accommodation when they visit a city, rather than being able to pop in and pop out again. I had learned from Andrey, in Moscow, that bureaucratic business is very centralised and takes time to complete.

Typical Russian style 'Brutalist' memorial.

Typical Russian style ‘Brutalist’ memorial.

One of the guys spoke very good English and is a sailor. His job is to procure crew for ships and he said he needs to be good at several languages. Another guy was there in connection with his PhD course. A third guy was there regarding a car but I couldn’t work out exactly how as he spoke no English. Hans is a delightful guy. He used to own a bakery in Australia, up on the Gold Cost. He and his wife sold it so he’s been able to fulfill his ambition to cycle across Russia. He flew to Switzerland with his bike, visited friends and family, then set off across Europe, into Russia. He had hoped to get into China but his visa ran out before he got there. That must have been a real blow to him. He’s getting the ferry to Japan too and was hoping to bring his booking forward. Assuming I could get this coming week’s ferry as well, we would be travelling together. That suited me as we got on very well.

Dry docked Russian submarine.

Dry docked Russian submarine.

My key concern now was the ferry to Japan so I walked down to the offices of Links Ltd, the agent I had been recommended by various people on Horizons Unlimited. I walked into the office and as soon as I explained what I wanted Yuri and his assistant, Svetlana, swung into action like a well oiled machine. Their main business is shipping the household effects of people from Russia who go abroad or foreigners who get posted to Russia. Quite high end stuff in the main so I wondered why they mess about with motorcycles. It seems it’s a bit of a sideline that Yuri got involved in as he’s a biker too. Once he’d helped a few travellers the word got around, mostly via Horizons Unlimited, and now it’s just another part of his business. And to be fair, they’re pretty good at it. They explained all the processes, timings and costs and I immediately realised I was in good hands. Today was Monday, the ferry sailed at 14.00 Wednesday. I met them at their office Tuesday morning and paid them their fee, they led me to the ferry port where the bike was placed in the secure customs compound. Then we went to the customs office where they took the customs document received when I came back into Russia from Mongolia. Back to the port to pay the ferry company their fees for freight etc., and to buy my passenger ticket. And that was that.

An example of Vlad architecture, 19th Century.

An example of Vlad architecture, 19th Century.

There was a slight query from the guy at DBS Ferries regarding my lack of International Driving Permit but as I was going to Japan he wasn’t worried in the end. The ferry goes to Korea before continuing to Japan and had Korea been my destination I wouldn’t have been allowed to put my bike on the ferry unless I had one. I took note of that as my plan was to come back to Korea later. An IDP needed to be obtained! The total cost for bike and myself was £600. Is that a lot of money? I have no idea. I thought it wasn’t too bad for a two day ferry trip and bike freight. When I had arrived at Links Ltd office there was a French family there, also arranging for transportation. Nothing as small as a bike or even a camper van. Their vehicle was a huge, in your face, 12 tonne four wheel drive Iveco truck, with living accommodation in the back. Cedric, Marion and their under five year old children, Ruben and Louvre, were on a world tour too. They were going to Korea, planning to ship out from there to Thailand. They’d had some adventures too, including Cedric being locked in a prison cell for an hour over a driving licence misunderstanding and a major welding job when the cab split in two on some rough roads.. They’re a great couple and I think it’s a fantastic way to bring up young children although their respective grandmothers weren’t quite so approving.

Dirty great camper truck, go anywhere style.

Dirty great camper truck, go anywhere style.

All of this only took until about 13.00 so I had the rest of the day free to stroll around the city. I’d already used my last afternoon with the bike yesterday to ride around the city, up and down the many hills and then out over a rather splendid suspension bridge (one of Dimitry’s?) to Russisky Island. There wasn’t much to see there so I came back to the city by a different route and another big suspension bridge which gave me a great view of the harbour.

Suspension bridge across the harbour.

Suspension bridge across the harbour.

Vladivostok is an interesting city. It has some great architecture as well as some huge apartment blocks. It is the home of Russia’s Pacific Fleet and there is plenty of military and naval memorabilia around the place. Close to where the fleet moors is a submarine, mounted on a concrete stand and open to visitors. It claims eight German ‘kills’. There were various memorials, some in the usual Soviet Brutalist style, others a little more subtle. There was also a display of guns and mini tanks at one place.

Neat little railway, funicular style.

Neat little railway, funicular style.

Yuri had mentioned a funicular railway which goes up one of the steep hills to the Eagles Nest, a viewing point on one of the city’s highest hills. A nice little train at a nice little price took me up and once I’d walked up to the top I could see why the lookout was so popular. The view over the city and the harbour was pretty special, even on a dull October day. There were several navy vessels moored there, along with a three masted sailing boat. Vladivostok has a bit of a special feel to it, partly due to its history and architecture and partly to its status as a naval base. It sits at the end of the Trans Siberian Railway. Catch a train there, you wont regret it. I’d looked around the railway station earlier and was very impressed by its design and some of the artwork on it. It was designed to be a twin to the departure station of the railway in Moscow. It really does look stunning.

Nicely decorated ceiling inside the station.

Nicely decorated ceiling inside the station.

Hans had managed to change his ferry booking so we’d be able to keep each other company. When he’d arrived at the hostel he’d mentioned to our hostess that his birthday was coming up. That evening she very kindly put on a little celebratory meal, with some red caviare, nice cheese and a little chocolate cake. Some sparkling wine was produced and the other occupants all joined in as we sang Happy Birthday to Hans in various languages. Hans was delighted and it was a very kind gesture from our hostess whose warmth made up for the chilliness of the hostel rooms. Typical Russian kindness.

Down at the docks. Ancient ....

Down at the docks. Ancient ….

.... and modern.

…. and modern.

Hans and I left next morning, he pushing his bike with me carrying luggage. We walked past yet more military memorials on the way to the port. Once there we paid a booking fee to get our passenger tickets and waited to board. Hans was travelling Economy Class, which meant he was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a room shared with sixteen others. I’d been warned against this and had paid a bit more for Second Class, which meant I had a bunk in a cabin of eight.

Hans comes on board with his bike.

Hans comes on board with his bike.

The ferry was quite full but we met our French friends in the lounge and Hans also found a young, German Swiss couple who came to join us. We all went up on deck to wave goodbye to Russia. I think I can safely say that nobody could visit Russia, for however long, and not be completely blown away by the size, the culture, the history and the people. A two week holiday in one big city may not give a visitor too much contact with Russians outside of the tourist industry. but if you travel, as against merely visit, you can’t help but find out what Russians are like, for better or for worse. As in any country, there’s a mixture of all sorts. But I think that being able to speak a bit of the language and finding myself dependent on their help and hospitality sometimes, I can safely say that I find them to be wonderful people. The worst treatment I received was indifference (at the hotel where I was snowed in) but the most common was an incredible level of hospitality and kindness without which I would have struggled to progress on my journey and for which I will always be grateful, and will never forget. Now, Japan awaited me. I couldn’t help but eagerly anticipate experiencing yet another very different culture.

Goodbye Vladivostok, Da Svedanya Rossiya.

Goodbye Vladivostok, Da Svedanya Rossiya.