The news catches with Ana and Baptiste in a Siberian stalov. They’ve stopped to borsch and stretch their legs. A client overhears their conversation in French and bursts into a French ballad. These Russians love the French, and as harsh their life is out here, they aren’t hopeless. To help with their mood, the Russians take their dose of 100 grams at any time of the day – this is not conducing to revolution which history taught is is not lead by drunks, but by Stalin, immolation and blood. Here vodka is the government’s best ally, the lid on the bubbling pot of kasha.
Ana and Baptiste resign to sorting out their own train journey to Moscow. Logistics take the better half of the day by the end of which both bikes have been fitted with wooden braces, and motorcyclists have metamorphosed into backpackers. For a while they feel inadequate. But as the Trans-Sib swallows them into its gut, they relax and enjoy the experience. 30 minutes since departure, passengers change into train gear: baggy sweatpants and shirts, flip-flops, overalls. Bags of food are being consumed in gargantuesque feasts, vodka bottles are open, tongues unravel their wit. Social abilities return, after being lost in the weeks of limited dialogue with rarely russophile/ anglophil mongols. By the first evening Ana is juggling a sketchy translation from French to Russian and viceversa; to deepen the confusion, neighbour turns out to be Armenian, and he insists that Ana learns a few words in his language, while asking for the equivalent in Romanian or in English.
The night ends in a vodka orgy: two Siberian youngsters from Krasnoiarsk are so smitten with the idea that a French citizen is on their train, that they basically kidnap Baptiste and Ana to the restaurant, where all four enjoy a lavish dinner with way too much alcohol. Ana is careful, but Baptiste is not used to such craziness and he falls victim to the two bottles of premium vodka. On his way back he will have to pay visit to each and every toilet from the train, and he will eventually miss the 5 language good-night exchange between his train fellows.
The romanticism of a Trans-Siberian journey is surely exaggerated; after 24 hours of marinating in their own juices, bodies demand a shower; the smell of instant soup and sodium nitrate sausages is ever more nauseating. Out of the window, Siberia unravels indifferent, monotonous, deceivingly virgin.
But every 4-bunk-bed cell in the wagon and the narrow passage lined with more foldable beds is a beehive of just as many funny scenes. A comedian, an anthropologist or a writer could find plenty material: a 17 years old gypsy is burning her one year old son, a sweaty man eats sunflower seeds directly from the flower that serves for packaging and plate, two former marines in their knickers and stripes are playing poker while eyeing each other with lust. The mother of the Armenian dude caters with mute adoration every ring of here son, who is on a quest to seduce every female should on the train, whenever he wakes up from alcoholic come. The last arrived refuses to join the conviviality: a slim lesbian, who after a final kiss leaves her muscular lover standing, and hoists her bags up, confining herself to her bunk bed for the rest of the journey. Next a father is setting up lunch for his 9 years old son who is sleeping in running stance while gripping his plastic machine gun. The mother is sporting a stark shade of mauve on her toenails and leopard-skin leggings, with a concerned rictus between the eyebrows. A napping passenger is moaning on his upper berth, his feet hanging over the narrow corridor that Aliona, the attendant, has started sweeping. She is young, perhaps not yet 25, yet her features have already frozen into the grimes of her future old self. Twice a day she puts on her blue nylon overall with embroidered collar, the kind of stark object that makes Ana feel like she’s not just traveling along Russia, but across time. Aliona grabs her dirty little broom and a bucket and starts cleaning the floors, while scolding the passengers like a severe kindergarden teacher. She gets upset when people don’t lift their feet up for her broom, when too much time is spent in the toilet, when chatty passengers don’t shut up with the official ‘lights-off.’ The Russians, contrary to the nations who had to adopt their ways, appear unfazed and go on with their journey as jovially as ever.
Every now and then a smart man decreed that stops should take longer, so that the passengers can stretch their legs.
Finally, on the third day before dawn, I am waiting together with Vlad for the train 69 that will reunite me with my girlfriend. Even if the adventures we’ve been through in the meantime have not all ben jolly and fine, we are all ecstatic to see each other. We plant Baptiste in a youth hostel until the next day, when another train brings the DRZ and the TTR home.
In this 15 million strong megacity we bump into none other than Tom whom we met over a month ago in Ulaanbaatar; Tom is also glad to see us, and takes us to lunch.
The two bikes freed from their cages, the frenchie goes on his way, while I and Ana stay to fall a little bit in love with Moscow. Vlad offers us the family bicycles, allowing us an early feel of what’s to come on our next adventure, that is to start in less than 10 days on the other end of Asia.
When we are not exploring the surface, we wander the underworld: Moscow’s tube is world renowned for its stunning train stops that double for veritable art galleries: a display of cubism, mosaic, art nouveau; some statues are even believed to retain magic powers, and are constantly rubbed by believers’ hands.
We’d love to linger, but we soon must start cycling across China. That means that in a few days we should park our bikes back in Bucharest. So I’m in urgent need of a good welder. Heavily bearded, massive, gourmand, poet, drunken, generous, Kostya meets me in his welding shop at the fringes of Moscow. But he’s no welder, he is a metal artist; a fabricator.
My 690 restored once more, we’re ready to say good bye to Vlad.
Once Moscow melts in the distance, we only stop for brief cupppas – the bikes are in good shape and we feel rejuvenated after the stint at Vlad’s. Sadly, the end of the expedition is doomed to be pathetic. This is the last restful bivouac…
Then troubles start… In Kiev Ana has the first flat; I’m next, and after changing the tube in relentless rain we have to camp in the most disgusting bog, on the side of the noisy highway.
Before Odessa the damn 15W50 kills my rocker arm bearing. It’s not the final blow yet, and it takes us over an hour to persuade somebody to help us carry the bike to town.
At the HQ of the shipping company we find a good samaritan: Dimitri helps us to hire for a reasonable price a driver; the man will tow the 690 on a shabby platform attached to a disintegrating car, while I’ll be riding Ana’s DRZ.
Through freezing rain we finally arrive at the border to Moldova, where we push our bikes across. Ana’s sister has arrived with a friend to tow the bike to Galati, but for some mysterious reason the Ukrainean border control find his car suspicious, and impounds it for the night. They are eventually released with no further explanations at the wee hours of dawn, but by then I and Ana have long pitched our tent on the most immediate spot out of the restricted border area. In the morning we make the last 15 km to Romania by rented van.
Our joy to have finished a short but quite intense trip that saw us achieving our targets and reinventing ourselves, is slightly tarnished by the non-heroic arrival. Rich in events – from drama to extreme happiness, from snow, visions of the Himalaya and remote Siberia, nomads and bureaucrats, resplendent cities, desert storms and so much more, our motorcycling adventure Into Asia is over.
During the following week we are regretfully retiring our bikes for the winter and get ready for a few months on bicycles. As we did many extra thousands of km and a seizable part of the BAM additionally to our original itinerary, we consider to have more than compensated for the missing link from Ulaanbaatar to China. Therefore, we start in Beijing.
Warning! Those yet unsure of why should they follow a cycling adventure on a website about adventures on motorbikes may learn that the ride reports coming up may contain: a city of the future versus a forbidden city
discipline and relaxation
food that makes your mouth water – like world’s best pho and caterpillars pricier than gold
urban chaos versus village zen
snow in Tibetan 5000m high mountain passes and tropical storms in Yunnan
track action that requires loading on carbs
a story of life in the midst of world’s most photogenic rice paddies
Tibetan cowboys and a fussy little fellow who resembles a younger me
humbling open-hearted people
a China or harmonies
and one of contrasts
a jade dragon hiding in the Yangtze
an alpine micro-adventure and a week with Vietnam’s fishermen
an (almost) secret spot
a réunion on Cambodia’s seaside
… but, hold on now, ’cause the adventure is still not over.