|03-10-2014, 04:45 AM||#1|
Joined: Mar 2013
Round the World for Zambia Orphans
LEG 7: Morocco, 2200 km
For earlier posts, check: www.nomadsportsacademy.blogspot.com
EYES WIDE OPEN !
On a windy morning, we left behind the Rock of Gibraltar and we were staring at the continent of Africa once again. We never dreamed of coming to Morocco. Our original itinerary already changed many times, as I expected from the beginning. Morocco came about as a forced detour, because our European visas were expiring and we needed to get out of the European Union somewhere and come back for another 90 days stay. I never like "forced" anything so I wasn't looking forward to Morocco. I thought: "Let's get it over with, so we can come back and proceed north!". However, as I sat there on the ferry looking at the coast of Africa, my heart was telling me something else; I was getting excited and I didn't know why. Maybe because I was coming to Africa once more, or maybe the new frontier ahead was tickling my adventure spirit. In any case, I was curious to see what would turn out with this detour.
We arrived in Tangier, one hour away from Tarifa and even though it is so close to Europe, the moment you step on the dock from the ferry you are hit by the noises, smells and sights that only Africa can produce. I was back into familiar waters!
We passed quickly through customs and Immigration (quite a surprise for an African country) and headed straight for the Tangier Medina, the first place to see because that is where the action is in every city. Small streets, tiny houses and lots of people, children and little shops as well as the food places make up the fabric of any Medina. As Medinas go in Morocco, we realize soon that Tangier is not one of the best, but it made a strong impression on us because it was our first one. We settle for the only night in Tangier (locals say, forget the North and head for the South and Center) and we had our first Tajine, couscous and a local taste of the spiced drinks. I loved them from the first taste. Nothing better than spices in an exotic food.
Early the next morning we jumped on our bike and headed south to Casablanca. The road is perfect, the sights beautiful and Africa was pulsating in front of me again. Few hours later we pulled into Ocean Bleu Campsite in Mohammedia East, 30 km north of Casablanca. Everyone enjoys this side of Casablanca, apparently, as the city itself is nothing like the image it has in the world. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman did not even step in the real Casablanca as the whole of the movie was shot in Hollywood and the only true Moroccan in the cast was the door keeper and he was not even credited in the cast list. Casablanca is actually a broken city, currently being rebuilt by the King of Morocco, who wants to remake the original beauty of this city, as designed by the greatest French architects. The city is the only one in the world that was entirely designed from the air.
Once settled in Mohammedia, we visited the beautiful Hassan II Mosque, the second largest mosque in the world and the only one that non-muslims can visit. It is an impressive sight and in my opinion, about the only one of the few things worth visiting in Casablanca.
2 days later we headed East for Marrakech; this was high on our list, especially for the famous Jemaa El Fna, the beautiful Medina, the Atlas mountains, the gardens and palaces. It is hard to explain in words when photos say so much more. Below you will understand why.
In Marrakech we stayed at the famous Relais de Marrakech, a beautiful campsite located inside La Palmeraie Conservation and few km outside Marrakech. The city is beautifully designed, clean and pleasant to the eyes.
While at the Relais, I spotted a small brochure with a place called: Les Cascades D'Ouzoud and I felt compelled to read it. This little brochure proved to be the beginning of an experience that would almost pop our eyes out as we discovered a Morocco that I never dreamed of, with places that seem unreal and people with more than 3000 years of history behind them.
Ouzoud is a little Berber village in the High Atlas Mountains, where farmers and sheperds made their living for many centuries. I found their place a paradise, hidden in the mountains and providing them with everything they need for survival; the soil is fertile (I saw the most almond trees I have ever seen before), the water and air pure and the landscapes out of a Swiss story book. On top of all that, they have the spectacular Ouzoud Falls, fed by the small Ouzoud river that looks quite unimpressive but creates a spectacle when it hits the canyon right below the village. Again, the photos will, hopefully, say more. We explored this place, with its amazing villages, canyons, caves, system of water falls and olive groves for 4 days. We camped at the neat and perfectly located Zebra camping, owned by Paul and Renate from Netherlands. Their camp is a perfect spot to enjoy the silence and the sights of the Ouzoud Village.
When we left Ouzoud, Renate recommended that we take the road less traveled to Ouarzazate, crossing the High Atlas on a mountain road, 2200 m high. "You will never regret it" she said, " you will not see more than 5 cars and the landscapes will shock you". What an understatement that was! There were no more than 3 cars for 7 hours on that road, a tiny, mountain track through very isolated villages and very high up in the mountains. Carmen filmed the high passes, so soon you will be able to see this episode on our YouTube channel. It was challenging riding, soft terrain at times, high passes with snow on the mountain and lots of curves. But it was the best experience to date as far as biking was concerned. We arrived in the Valley of the Dades late at night, tired, dusty, but super excited. In front of us there was the Sahara and my nostrils were flaring like a camel's nose in the desert wind. Deserts will always stir me to the depths of my soul and Sahara is one I wanted to encounter since I read of her in my childhood. I slept uneasy that night, knowing that the next day we would leave the high Atlas behind and enter the largest desert on the planet.
The morning was cold and brisk, as only the desert mornings are and the Gorges de Dades were shining brightly in the sun. The road was winding through spectacular scenery, with rugged rocks on each side and oases in the middle, following ancient riverbeds to the desert. As soon as we cleared Errachidia we could see the horizons opening up and the winds of Sahara rising in the East. It was a feeling that cannot be described properly, unless you are a Hemingway or a Bernard Shaw, and I am neither one. My deep love for Africa and for the desert compelled me to open up the throttle until I felt Carmen's fingers pushing deeper into my side, signalling a slight stress level increase on her part. "It would look stupid" she said, " if we die within reach of Sahara and not ever see her". Her logic seemed impressive.
Few hours later, we saw yellow dunes rising on the Eastern horizon and my heart started to pump harder; I was coming to Sahara on my own two wheels, a little like the Berbers on their dromaderies, who are the first and true nomads of our world, self sufficient and free.
Even though Merzouga is a popular destination for Sahara-bound expeditions, we decided to pull into the little Berber village of Hassi Labied. It is a clump of mud and clay buildings, right next to the Erg Chebbi dunes (which no one, even the Berbers, knows why they are called like that) with lots of children running around and shouting as we entered the village on our bike.
We ended up camping at Oceans de Dunes, a simple campground owned by 5 Berber brothers. We loved it from the first moment, not only because it is walking distance from the dunes, but also because these people did everything themselves, from building it, to cooking the food, to making expeditions into the desert. All together, they speak English, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, and a couple of Berber dialects.
Not even 2 days from our arrival, we asked Hussin to get us a couple of Dromaderies and Berber clothing so we can get into the desert and sleep in their "bivouac", a desert dwelling of the nomads. Below you will see our transformation into Touareg Berbers, as they called us. To ride into the Sahara on these amazing animals, to sleep under the stars and to eat a slow cooked Tajine, prepared by two Berber men, was more than I expected. I knew the feeling of the desert from the Kalahari, the Namib, and the North American Deserts, but Sahara blew me away! The peace, the camels, the colors and the miracle of water in the desert, not even 2 meters underground, are just a few of Sahara's attributes.
At the end of our "forced detour", we feel overwhelmed; Morocco turned out to be THE highlight of our trip so far, perhaps because it was a new and unexpected change and perhaps because it is a special place, that offers so much diversity and beauty. I fell in love with a new desert and a new tribe and I have now new friends in this country.
Update information for all those that are wondering about the stories and determination behind this expedition:
Here you will find the story of our orphans and of our Sports Academy for Orphans. It is a challenging project that aims to reach over 20.000 orphans and underprivileged children in the area where we live and to build a future for them.
Due to our consistent talk about this project to virtually everyone we meet on the road, the news is spreading and thousands of people, organizations, newspapers, magazines, etc are finding out and stay in touch with us.
Our blog is growing every day with people from the far corners of the world and we thank you, all our readers, for telling others to follow up with our adventures.
Because we have quite a bit of photos that would not fit here, you can see them all at:
Nomad Sports Academy and click on the Morocco Gallery
|03-10-2014, 05:08 AM||#2|
Joined: Feb 2010
I read through all this. If I understand correctly, you will not be posting pics through the read but linking to a blog
KTM EXC - in 530 flavor
'10 Concours14 with >85,000 miles and ticking'
'99 ZX9R Ninja - rolling retro style
'99 ZX9R - because I like the other one so much
'08 ZZR600 minty
|03-10-2014, 05:59 AM||#3|
Joined: Oct 2007
Location: Los Alamitos, CA
|03-10-2014, 06:45 AM||#4|
Joined: Mar 2013
I just clicked on the link and it goes fine to the smugmug gallery site. I am not sure what happened before.
I am not linking to a blog but to the smugmug photos so everyone can see all the photos of our trip. I tried posting them here but it does not work and I don't know how to upload photos here. everyone recommended I put them through smugmug. The reason I have posted the other blog is that we were already on the road for 5 months and it makes no sense to put 5 months of stories here. All the new posts from now on will also be posted here. I am not advertising anything commercial and I am not trying to divert your readers from ADV site, of which I am a member for a year. I love this website and I promote it everywhere. I have stickers on my bike with ADV riders.
|03-28-2014, 02:25 PM||#5|
Joined: Mar 2013
Leg 8: Portugal and galicia, spain
We came out of Morocco very excited about the wonders we have seen in that beautiful country; however, we were also tired, full of mud and dust from the Sahara and the Atlas and rattled out of our brains (some of the country roads in Morocco are in bad shape). When we arrived at the ferry terminal in Tangier the police checked our bags for drugs, probably because we looked so strange.
The ferry crossing was rough, half of the people on the ship were vomiting all over the place (myself included). The swell was so huge I thought the boat will crack at any minute. I was happy to touch Spain again, however briefly. The afternoon towards Portugal was warm and peaceful and we rode into Portimao with the sun setting in the west and we felt again the European levante, although not as bad as before.
Portugal was a sweet and short passing, the country is tiny, with beautiful villages in the South, even though remote and sparsely populated, with an amazing coastline to Lisbon. We camped for 4 days in Portimao, resting and washing everything after Morocco and then we intended on riding to Lisbon and camping there but we had a mishap with my "trusted" Garmin Zumo, which by this time I was ready to drown in the Atlantic. We entered the coordinates for the camp outside Setubal and it almost guided us somewhere out at sea. This was not the first time for this to happen: in Tarragona we entered the Yamaha Dealer's address and it took us out at sea and it showed us a red line in the ocean for about a kilometer. In Bilbao, it took us on a piece of highway that was cut off above the city, with no warning. It does not see One way streets in the city, and sometimes it just loses the whole road altogether leaving me clean out in the bush. So it is a love/hate relationship, but I think I will break it off soon.
Therefore, when we saw that we are stranded in the middle of nowhere (literally; see the photo below), we decided to keep going. We entered Lisbon around 5:30 in the evening and again the lady in the GPS (I have many names for her, but they are not very nice) decided to take us out to sea again and of course we got lost. I got angry so I headed North on the highway towards Porto, passing Lisbon fast. Porto was high on my list and I wanted to experience it a little bit more than anything else in Portugal. I was right on: Porto has a medieval feel to it and we loved walking its streets around the center and all the way down to the river.
We were lucky (we thought) to find a place to sleep right in the city center, as we could walk to everything, but it turned out that the street we were on was full of pubs and that night some drunks kicked my bike on the right side, breaking my right panier box and my headlight bulbs. I found her laying on one side in the morning and I felt like crying. We did almost 17.000 km with her through many wild places and nothing happened and we come to the civilized world to go through this. It was a rough start of our Galician trip!
I patched her (I had to unlock the panier box, unscrew the foot support, bend back the support, fix the box and replace the bulbs), in the end it was not a trip-threatening event, so we loaded her up and off we went; Galicia's wind was blowing in our faces and I could hardly wait to see it.
Galicia (for those that hear of it only now) is a province in North West Spain, that feels more like Ireland than Spain. One of the favorite places for Ernest Hemingway and a magical place for thousands of pilgrims and tourists that come to its heart every year: Santiago de Compostela. Santiago (St. James, the brother of John the Zebedee, the sons of Thunder from the Bible), apparently preached here in the first century and is buried in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. To get there, for hundreds of years, pilgrims needed to walk the so called Camino de Santiago (St. James' Way) with the climax in the town itself. Even today, some 200.000 pilgrims of all types come here. To qualify as a pilgrim (and get a certificate and 3 days of free food) you need to walk at least 200 km on the Camino de Santiago or cycle for at least 300 km. We entered Santiago by motorbike, of course, and it was interesting to see how many people actually do this thing. We love Galicia, from many points of view: the natural rias (fjord-like inlets) with their fantastic Eucalyptus forests and beautiful villages, the people, who are very friendly and the history of this place. We tried to portray what we have seen in our photos, but no matter how hard we try, it is quite impossible to reenact what our eyes have seen. My most favorite moment was when we reached Cape Finisterre by bike! Believed to be the feared End of the World (hence the Finis Terre in latin), Romans came here after major wars to pay tribute to their gods and thank them for being alive. Whatever the reason was, I can tell you that when we reached the Cape, we stopped breathing! It does feel like the end of the planet, but the beauty is spectacular and to see my bike all the way from Cape Town (Cape of Good Hope) coming to Cape Finisterre was a very happy moment for me.
Galicia will remain a highlight for our expedition around the world! The weather may be capricious but the people and the sights more than make up for it. If you ever have a chance to see it, you will not regret it.
This concludes our experience in Southern Europe: for the past 3 months we rode our bike from Bosphorus to Gibraltar and up the Atlantic Coast to the Basque Country, more than 7000 km of unparalleled scenery, people, customs and experiences. We now enter a new chapter: Western and Northern Europe.
For photos, go to:
click on the Portugal/Galicia gallery
|04-27-2014, 03:01 AM||#6|
Joined: Mar 2013
Leg 9: France, Belgium, Netherlands: 2100 km
I was 9 years old when I first read Dumas’ “The Three Musqueteers” and I read the whole series several times again throughout my life. I loved the books when I was 9 and I had the same excitement reading them when I was 39. The description of French countryside and its people, customs and food was what made me dream of France for a long time. Of course, I have been to France probably 20 times, but it was always in a hurry, driving to or from somewhere and never really taking the time for the countryside.
Leaving Northern Spain by San Sebastian, we entered the Maritime Provinces of France, from Bayonne in the South all the way to La Vallee de Loire and up to Normandy by the English Channel. This stretch of France, famous for its culinary delights (rightly so), was exactly what I dreamed of since I was a child. The perfectly manicured villages, with tiny but impeccable houses and lawns lining the equally tiny and winding country roads, were mingled with fields with yellow flowers gently rolling in the morning breeze and caressed by the April sun. The smell of the village bakery, where even on Sunday people were coming out with fresh bread and pastries for their brunch with the family and friends; the elderly people, walking hand in hand and with woolen scarves over their necks and stylish hats or basques; we couldn’t believe how different country life is to the city life in France. All in all, I was riding the bike but gasping at the scenes in front of us, which were incredible, village after village. One of our favorite cities on the West Coast was Nantes, set on the Loire River and boasting some impressive architecture and cathedrals. However, I have to say that nothing compares to the villages and small towns we encountered; and this is just our opinion, perhaps because we love the off the beaten places so much.
The food is impeccable, of course, from the foie gras to their cheeses and meats and veggies and fruit and certainly for their amazing recipes of seafood. From province to province and apparently from village to village, same kind of food tastes different than the previous. We have never seen so many kinds of cheeses as we saw now; Charles de Gaulle was right when he said: “A country that has more than 400 types of cheese cannot be governed”; at least not from a cheese point of view!
We exited France at Calais/Dunkerque and entered Belgium and headed for Bruges (or Brugge as they call it in West Flanders). I wanted to take enough time to explore this city, apparently the only one in Europe that has the most medieval buildings still habitable by locals. From here, we could explore the surrounding regions of Belgium and Netherlands, because the distances are relatively small compared to what we have experienced before. Amsterdam is only 250 km away, Ghent, 70 km, Antwerp, 90 km, etc so it seemed like a good place to center ourselves. Brugge proved to be more than I expected and we fell in love with the city right away. The character of the buildings, the canals and the many medieval bridges that cross them, the architecture and the spirit of it all make this city one of the top 3 on our list of favorite places. Words are not needed much, the photos below convey the message better.
My bike reached the 50.000 km mark here in Brugge, 20.000 km from Livingtone, Zambia and from our orphans. It is a great milestone, as this is 30% of our Round the World trip. I also changed my tires here, over 21000 km from Pretoria and I think I had 500 more km on those Heidenau K60. I put again Heidenaus and I am hoping to ride on them all the way to San Diego. My bike had its 50.000 km service here at the Yamaha Dealer and we are now ready to face the East.
We visited Keukenhof in Netherlands, of course (if you have never heard of Keukenhof, check it out online) to see the Tulip Festival. It was the best 15 Euro we ever spent. I will say nothing on this subject because this is a visual experience so enjoy the spectacle.
New horizons await now, our European journey is slowly coming to an end and I smell already the flavors of the Great East, from Russia all the way to Japan. I take it a day at a time, looking at the few hundred kilometers that I have to ride to my next destination. That’s how we did 20.000 km so far and I think it is the best way for us to cope with these immense spaces in front of us.
|05-16-2014, 04:04 AM||#7|
Joined: Mar 2013
Leg 10: Bruges, belgium to trondheim, norway, 3100
LEG 10: BRUGES TO TRONDHEIM, NORWAY: 3100 KM
It is pissing rain here in Trondheim as I write this and I am wondering when is this going to end? The past 2 weeks gave me nothing but cold, rain, snow and high winds, with the exception of few short magical hours of blue skies and perfect temperatures.
As I left Belgium, the mood was not good, even the damn music I listened to was talking about loneliness and the weather was cloudy and disturbingly depressing. I was supposed to ride 300 km that day to a camp in Holland; I rode like a maniac 690 km all the way to Northern Germany to a village I don't know the name of and slept in a camp out in the bush, with no one in sight. I wasn't going to stop for few days anywhere until I got to Norway. I rode to Flensburg the next day, then Frederikshavn, Denmark, where again I camped in a place all by myself as the season is only starting and no one was camping. I took the ferry to Gotheborg, Sweden and I was supposed to camp in Sweden somewhere, but rain was on me yet again, and I decided to just ride. I ended up somewhere between Honefoss and Klaeken in Norway, in a beautiful village. Norway was beginning to show its beauty from the moment I crossed the border. It would be the start of a shocking journey, of a solo ride that would take me so far through 7 mountain ranges, 5 fjords and extremes of weather, from 1 degree on top of mountains covered with snow to 21 degrees in Hardangerfjord, camping in a cherry orchard in paradise. I decided to split in 2 episodes my Scandinavian tale, mainly because of distances (over 3000 km so far and still 3000 more to Helsinki) and because of the amount of photos I collected. It is impossible to give you a just idea of what I am seeing in one post with 30-40 photos. I have over 600 so far and they keep on piling. I do 400 km in 9 hours because I stop a lot and film and take photos. Below you will understand...
Norway so far has climbed to the 2nd most beautiful country in the world (in my book), a short second after New Zealand. West Coast of Canada comes 3rd, Alaska and Northern Canada 4th, South Africa 5th, Namibia 6th, Vietnam 7th, Australia 8th, Vanuatu 9th, Morocco 10th, in case you wondered what the 10 top countries of this traveler are.
Norway has managed to shock me to the core of my soul, because the diversity and marvel of this country are hard to describe. Mountains few thousand meters high, packed with snow and minutes later you find yourself at the bottom of a canyon sitting on the beach of a fjord with perfectly clear waters surrounded by small villages with red houses reflecting in the mirror below. Hardangerfjord is home to more than 400.000 fruit trees, lining the slopes of the snow capped mountains above, all the way to the waterline. Peaches, cherries, pears, apples and plums, all were in bloom when I was there (May is the perfect time to visit Hardangerfjord, apparently), releasing their perfumes everywhere and making this place look like out of a Heidi story in the Swiss Alps. The farmers there supply more than 60% of Norway's fruit from an area of about 10 km long.
From Hardanger I headed to the famous Geirangerfjord, 500 km north through some of the most dramatic landscapes I have ever been in my life. Rugged mountains with extremely steep slopes where roads were built, waving their way down in the valleys, immense tunnels dug through the belly of the mountains (I was lucky to ride through the Laerdal Tunnel, the longest in the world, stretching 25 km through a massive mountain. These people didn't just built tunnels, they build parking spaces with blue lights (see below) and even roundabouts, sending you to different directions right there under the massive rock. They didn't even bother to cement the tunnels but left them carved into the stone for a natural look. Apparently, the granite is so strong, they don't need to do anything else but to carve their way through it. It was very humbling to ride my bike through these tunnels, especially that many of the smaller ones don't even have lighting so you have to really feel your way through them (not good for me, as I ride with tinted goggles, making me completely blind inside these tunnels).
Their standard of life is higher than anywhere I have been before, and the prices reflect that: I was lucky to buy all my food in Germany otherwise I would have been forced to beg here. With my kind of daily budget (25 Euro, food, gas, accommodation) I couldn't even serve a proper breakfast here. On the other hand, all water in Norway is safe to drink and everywhere you turn, even in the smallest, most remote village, the facilities are impeccable.
I arrived in Trondheim exhausted, cold to my bones and excited in the same time, for having crossed all those mountains, through so many landscapes and places and seeing so much beauty. My mind is still racing with the images that entered my eyes. I wish I was a professional photographer with professional equipment to capture all that I have seen, but I managed to capture images that will be with me for a long time. I was just lucky I guess to arrive here on my own terms, riding my own bike and having the freedom to choose where and how long to stay.
From here on, Finmark will start soon with the Sami people and their beautiful locations and herds of reindeer. I only hope I can reach Nordkapp without having to freeze on the way there.
|05-28-2014, 02:02 AM||#8|
Joined: Mar 2013
Leg 11: Trondheim norway to helsinki finland: 3500 km
NORDKAPP, NORDKAPP, NORDKAPP!!!
I am looking at the bike’s odometer and it tells me I have done 6600 km from Bruges and 3500 km from Trondheim, Norway where I posted my last blog post. I am in a quaint village close to Helsinki, resting at a friend’s house (thank you Jan for your generosity and friendship, it saved my life). All my gear is soaked, muddy and I am exhausted and on the verge of collapse. The past 2 weeks have been the most challenging of the entire expedition so far. With the exception of few glorious hours of sunshine here and there, I rode the bike through the worst weather I could have imagined: high winds (highest at Nordkapp, 20m/s), low temperatures (1 Degree Celsius) and snow, icy roads and then rain all the way to Southern Finland.
I left Trondheim in heavy clouds, heading north to Mosjoen. The road was straighter and the riding was not difficult, except that it rained on me the whole day. The camp in Mosjoen was lonely but they had good facilities and I made sure I used their warm kitchen where I cooked and dried my clothes. It is amazing how your spirits are lifted up when you cook a warm meal and rest in a dry environment. This would be my second last haven of warmth and while I didn’t know about it, I had a sense that Nordkapp will not let me conquer it without putting up a fight.
As I headed north to Narvik, I passed the Arctic Circle on top of a mountain. The day was miserable, of course, low clouds, wind and 3 degrees. The Center at the Arctic Circle was open but empty, no visitors, as the girl at the counter told me that this is too early in the season for visitors. I got that from several other people who told me I am crazy to attempt Nordkapp this time of the year.
Narvik Camp was closed so I camped wild (in Norway and most of Scandinavia you are allowed to camp virtually anywhere where there are no farms, plantations or private properties, it is called the Right of Access), on top of a hill overlooking the Narvik Fjord. It was a quiet night and I needed to rest, as the next day I was heading for Alta, my last stop before Nordkapp. I was already riding 500 km per day, which is nothing if you are riding in Namibia (where I rode 1300 km in one day, because the roads are straight, virtually no traffic and very little population), but not in Norway, where the speed limit is rarely 80km/h and the roads are winding around the high mountains.
As I headed to Alta the landscape changed to round-top mountains and more snow. It was becoming very desolate, with fewer villages and less trees. I felt I was riding in Nunavut, Canada and I shook my head, suddenly realizing what is waiting for me. When I arrived in Alta, rain started, yet again, but I was already set with my tarp over my tent so I was dry, fortunately. It rained most of the night and the next day and while I was cooking, the lady from the camp came and told me that I could stay in a cabin without extra charge. She must have seen in me a suffering soul and felt pity... I was surprised that a Norwegian would offer me something without money (no disrespect intended, but Norwegians should join Planet Earth and have prices that can actually be reasonable: I paid 1 Euro for 1 Egg in Mosjoen in a grocery store, where I paid 1.09 Euros for 10 eggs in Rovaniemi, Finland. 5 Euro for a loaf of bread is unreasonable in my humble opinion, and over 2 Euro for a liter of petrol in a country that has immense oil reserves, seems to me a “little” ridiculous), but as I talked to her, I found out she was Finnish. Aaaah! God bless the Finnish! No wonder she talked to me, as throughout all my traveling through Norway, for 3 weeks and over 3000 km, only 4 people talked to me and were curious about my journey.
I woke up the next morning in a snow blizzard, 1 degree Celsius and close to 10 cm of snow weighing heavily on my tarp and covering my bike (see photos below). Nordkapp was showing its teeth, as I had only 240 km to go to complete this quest. I waited one more night and the next morning, May 23rd at 6:00 am I left Alta and headed for Nordkapp. The road took me through a mountain pass and it was dry, but as I climbed the mountain, just rounding a peak, I hit ice on the road, blown by the heavy wind on top of the mountain. I didn’t have much speed, I think less than 60 km/h, but I came on the ice too suddenly and I started skidding towards the left side of the road pushed also by the wind. I was screaming in the helmet on my own and I used engine breaking to reduce the speed but the bike being so heavy it was heading dangerously towards the cliff. I put both my feet on the ground to maintain stability so I don’t tip over and I spotted a large snow pile and I headed straight for it. I thought it might be better in the snow than at the bottom of that cliff. I hit the snow pile hard, ice flying everywhere but I stopped and I was happy to be alive. The road was very lonely that morning, it was cold and I was frozen stiff. I couldn’t push the bike, of course, and I dug around it as much as I could and I jumped on it and I did what I thought it would be the best choice: I opened up the throttle and let it rip hard into the snow. My amazing bike (which has never seen so much snow and ice in her life) and my amazing Heidenau K60 tires pulled me out of the frozen snow that morning and back on the road. The rest of the mountain pass was done very slowly, 20 km/h with both feet down until I reached the valley below and I stopped on the side of the road to control my shaking (whether it was from the cold or from the idea that I could have died frozen up there, I don’t really know). 160 km to go to Nordkapp and I seriously thought it might not happen anymore. To come 25.000 km from Africa with this in mind and stop short of Nordkapp was a genuine possibility at this stage.
After a few minutes, I breathed deeply and I jumped back on the bike, decided that I would take a kilometer at a time and see what happens. The wind was increasing, blowing from the right side hard; my hands were numb and I felt very cold down my spine. The thermometer indicated 1 degree still, but I was sure that the wind-chill factor at this temperature would be way worse than I expected.
As I turned north at Olderfjord, it started to drizzle, some sort of frozen rain, making the road extremely slippery. On the way to Honingsvag, the road is built right on the side of the sea, with high cliffs on the left and the churning Arctic Ocean on the right. Few kilometers outside Honingsvag I entered the Nordkapp tunnel, a 7 km tunnel that goes 5 km under the sea to reach the final stretch to Nordkapp. The tunnel was freakishly dark, I had to pull out my goggles to be able to ride and it was very cold in that darkness. No cars, no traffic and my state of mind suddenly took a turn for the worse; deep depression set in, I started shaking uncontrollably again and I turned the bike around inside the tunnel and stopped. I had 32 km to Nordkapp this way, or 240 to the Finland border that way, where straight roads, friendlier people and warmer temperatures would welcome me. I starred in both directions inside that tunnel and the darkness starred back inside of me. It was a very natural decision to quit, it felt easy and unremorseful. I jumped on the bike, started it and as I put it in first gear, the deep rebellion in me woke up and said: “Screw this! Screw natural tendencies and easy decision making! Today, I go against myself, against my mind and against my will!” I turned the bike around and headed to Honingsvag and Nordkapp.
After passing Honingsvag, the road becomes very narrow (3-4 m wide) and climbs higher to reach the Cape. There are no more trees, the wind is unrestricted and it was blowing me off the road into the cliffs that were dropping on each side. I grinded my teeth like never before, hating the rebel inside me and promising I would never listen again to its idiocy. Nordkapp was now only 9 km in front of me. I grinded some more and I leaned harder on the right side to counteract the wind power.
As I reached Nordkapp that morning, 10:45 am, 1 degree, 20m/s winds (3 local forecasts were posting that), my odometer was indicating 24525 km from Livingstone, Zambia and 6 months and 9 days from our departure. I rode to the gate and the poor young guy there looked at me astonished; I was alone, no other soul in sight and he said: “Welcome to Nordkapp!”
I asked him to go inside, but then I realized that I have to pay to reach the building. When he told me I have to pay 25 Euros to pass, I looked at him, deeply and I thought: “If I jump on his neck and strangle him, it wouldn’t help much. He is just working here.” I told him with a very frozen smile: “I will just turn around”. I did a U-turn and rode 100m down to the Nordkapp sign where I said I should at least take a photo. I climbed off the bike and as I put the foot peg down the wind almost toppled the bike on the side. I couldn’t get away from it to take a picture. The photo you will see of the Nordkapp and a part of my bike was taken while I was pushing the bike with all my power with one leg, against the wind, while I stretched backwards to be able to take the bloody photo. The next second the camera froze, the buttons would not respond and I couldn't even turn it off. That made me understand how powerful the wind-chill was.
It was extremely disappointing to go through so much hell to get there and to be stuck at the sign, by myself and not being able to document it properly. In retrospect, I don’t care anymore, Nordkapp was mostly a symbolic feat for me, as the place itself is not that spectacular; it is a rock on a top of a ridge. As I found out later, it is not even the northernmost point of Europe, the real one cannot be reached by car or road, as you have to hike for about 8 hours to get there. For me though, it was the conquering of my own fears, tendencies, weaknesses and doubts and that is why Nordkapp will always be important to me. It brought out the inner struggle and helped me understand how fragile us humans are and how we can also find strength to push our limits further.
I rode 4 more hours that day, even though I was frozen and wet and as I headed south towards Karasjok, I found the road challenges very feeble in comparison to what I just witnessed.
The next day I entered Finland, where the roads are straight, the speed limit 100 km/h, the people friendly and the prices reasonable. I was still shaken from the day before, but I was feeling invigorated and had a deep sense of peace and tranquility in my heart.
Nordkapp was on the top of my list since 2011 when I started to plan for this expedition. Our major direction from Livingstone was North. North to Nordkapp of course. Reaching it implied serious shift in physical direction (I would now head south to Turku, Finland and then East for the next 11.000 km to Vladivostok, Russia) and in my mental attitude as well. Now, Mother Russia awaits for me, with its humongous distances and cultures and secrets. When I entered northern Finland and saw the first signs for Murmansk, the hair on my neck stood up. I need few days to recover from Nordkapp trauma and set my mind for Russia.
On my way down, I stayed in Jan’s friends’ homes, Mr. Eero and Mr. Rogers, excellent gentlemen that opened the doors for a stranger like me. It felt very weird to sleep in a bed, eat some amazing food, and chat with these people. Even though I was coming out of one of the top countries in the world, I felt I was coming out of the Amazon Jungle (where I have spent some time in the past). It was the same feeling because of the loneliness I endured in that country and the challenge of riding through its mountains and fjords.
Norway will forever bear its print in my soul and my subconscious... It is with mixed feelings that I declare that, truly, this is a paradise country to ride your bike in, even though it will hurt your wallet, your heart and your mind; but if you make it, you will become a stronger person inside and out, just like the Vikings of Norway are.
|06-15-2014, 04:15 AM||#9|
Joined: Mar 2013
Leg 12: Finland, estonia, st. Petersburg, russia, part 1: 1500 km
The last 2 weeks were spent at Jan’s apartment in Ekenas, Finland. Once Jan arrived from Namibia, he made sure I get a taste of the local back roads and I must say, I was very happy to ride like a local, with a local. Jan knows the woods and the tracks through them like the back of his hand, as he grew up in this part of the world and I was privileged to see amazing places and meet excellent people through his network of friends. We explored the back roads (amazing gravel roads, winding beautifully through the forests and farmlands of Southern Finland) on the bikes and we explored the archipelago as well on a boat belonging to a friend of his. I was amazed how many islands, inlets and bays they have in this place and how peaceful everything is, with private islands away from the buzz of the city and great nature all around.
I visited our friends in Turku as well, Heikki and Ulla, long (very long) distance bikers that have seen and done it all, from Ushuaia to Cape Town, from Israel to Nordkapp. Heikki and Ulla spoiled me while in Turku, taking me out to various restaurants and showing me a good time. With friends like these (Stina and Pile in Ekenas as well, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for feeding me and for arranging for a great article in the local newspaper), it was hard to say goodbye and I realized once more how easy it is to get comfortable in good company and how quickly the human mind relaxes in favorable circumstances. For all the above, I have Jan to thank for, as he is the initiator of all good things.
I arrived in Tallinn at 6:30, waiting for Jan first by the ferry and then at the hotel where we were supposed to stay. I soon realized that he missed the ferry (there was no other explanation) and once I found out how bad the backpackers hotel was, where we were supposed to stay, I headed out of town where I found a campsite (still a dump, but cheap).
Once I set camp, I rode back to the Old town to see if I can still find Jan, who hopefully would come with the evening ferry. I hovered around the same spot until around 9:30 and then I ate something and headed back to the camp. As I rode out of the old town, by the roundabout at the Viru Hotel (the tall one) I looked for incoming cars but I overlooked the fact that there is a tram way as well. I accelerated to enter the roundabout and I heard screams and loud honking of the cars around me. I turned and saw the tram within meters from my bike... I accelerated again but, from panic, I opened the clutch too fast and the bike stalled and died on the rail. The tram driver saw I was stuck and started to brake, people were shouting louder and running towards me and I knew that I was dead; my bike was on the rail and I was looking straight at the driver’s face, which became very white and his eyes became very big. My blood rushed down from my face and I knew it was all over. I heard screeching noises and the tram literally stopped with its bumper touching my left crash bar with my knee only 10 cm away from it. The passengers jumped out of the tram, the driver came out pulling his hair, thinking he broke my leg, and other drivers in the cars behind came to help me push the bike back and looked at my leg. All this happened within few seconds, but I saw everything in slow motion, as if I was not actually there, but I was watching the whole thing from the side. I was in such a state of shock, I couldn’t believe that I was still alive and neither anyone around me. They were very friendly in the end and extremely courteous and two cars actually escorted me for a while as I headed back to camp. I had nightmares about this the whole night.
I left the next day after breakfast (which I had in the Old town, again, but this time extremely focused on trams) to Narva. I rode straight to the border, trying to find out if I need to do anything in advance for entering Russia. I am glad I did: I needed to reserve my space, buy a reservation number, fill in 4 different customs forms and change money into rubles. I then went to camp in Narva. Then, this morning, 12th of June, I was at the border at 8:00 am. It is a big holiday in Russia so lots of people crossing into Estonia. I arrived with my bike at the border kiosk and presented my passport. The guy looked at it, put it through the computer and then looked at me strangely, called another guy, spoke something in Estonian (remember this was at the Estonian side of the border, not Russia) and then he said: “Come with me, please”. He took me through some very dark corridors, into a room with no windows, barred doors and it really looked like an interrogation room. Then he took the bike keys, the passport and the bike registration and said to wait here. Then, I waited, from 8:00 to 12:00. No one came to see me, I had no water, it was freaking hot and I couldn’t hear or see anything. I was worried about my bike, with so many people around it and all my valuables there.
Eventually, at 12:00 a big guy with 2 stars on his shoulders, with gun and everything, came with my papers, and very imposingly said: “you are an illegal immigrant in Europe and you stayed 3 months longer than you were allowed”. I said “What? What do you mean 3 months? I have a visa that expires today”. He said “No, you were not supposed to get another 3 months in March when you came back from Morocco, so you stayed illegally in Europe for the past 3 months”. I got so pissed with this guy, because he thought he would scare me with this tactic. I said “I need to contact my embassy and I need a lawyer”. “How could I stay illegally if I have a perfectly legal visa on my passport?” He replied: “You do, but the Spanish Immigration officer in Tarifa should have not stamped your passport”. “Really”, I said, “so why am I the guilty one here? I am just a tourist, he should have known better”.
Apparently, he said that I can only stay 3 months in a 6 months period in Europe and after 6 months I can come back for another 3 months. Which I think it is bullshit, as I know for sure that you can have a 3 months tourist stamp and then you have to exit Schengen area (what they call most of the European Union) for few days (which I did, staying in Morocco for more than 2 weeks) and then you can re enter Europe and get another 90 days, which I also did. As a proof, Carmen had the same visa as me, “overstayed” by 2 months (according to Estonian immigration) and when she flew back from Belgium back to Canada, no one said anything to her, she was legal.
Well, after a few more questions, the guy left and again I waited for more than an hour. Then he came back with a stash of papers (which I have with me as copies), explaining to me my “crime”. Therefore, here is my offense:
1. I am an illegal immigrant in Europe. They took photos of myself (front and side, just like the criminals) and gave me a copy of the paper stating this, next to my photograph.
2. I have to pay a fine of 100 Euro to the Estonian Ministry of Finance within 50 days
3. I have to present myself in court to dispute my case (I told them to f... off)
I then told them to handcuff me and send me back to Estonia to jail, as I will not pay anything, I will not come back for a court trial and I couldn’t care less if I am banned from beautiful Schengen bloody area. He said he couldn’t do that because I am not allowed back in Europe, but he will let me go to Russia now. I asked him “how can you let me go and how do you think I will come back to court in Estonia,?” He replied: “it is not my job to think of that, it is my job to make sure you comply with European law”. I showed him the finger (in my mind of course).
So, I got all my papers, my passport, the new offense papers (which I have with me to prove how they tried to screw me and to write articles about this everywhere), jumped on my bike and I headed to Russia border. I got to the Russian line, a blonde lady greeted me with a smile, stamped my passport, sent me to Customs, where I got another paper, and in less than 15 minutes I was welcomed into Russia.
I rode to St. Petersburg guessing my way more than anything, because the GPS didn’t do much for me. I loaded the maps for Russia from opensource.com but for some reason the GPS does not see them. So, I rode towards St. Petersburg (I read and speak a bit of Russian, which so far, has been a lifesaver here) and then for 2 hours I tried to find roads that will take me closer to my camp, for which I had the coordinates. I discovered something amazing in the process: if you have the coordinates, even if you don’t have the maps, you can see the destination and then you can just try to ride on the closest road that you find in front of you. I did this and after about 2 hours I arrived at my camp.
St. Petersburg is an impressive city, and Russians like to build big. The historic city, of course, is a gem of architecture and design, but only now, by visiting this citadel, I realized how big the rest of the city is and that it is much more than just the bridges and the cathedrals. Most of the pictures and videos I saw with St. Petersburg before were specific, with the greatest attractions it has to offer, but never with the neighborhoods surrounding the historic downtown. It is massive, with apartment blocks that stretch for kilometers, lined up like giant dominoes on each side of the road. The traffic is crazy, these guys drive over 120 km/h in the middle of the town, slaloming in and out of lanes like there’s no one else on the road.
My first 2 days in Russia and my head is already spinning. I have 10.000 km to go... I cannot even begin to even imagine what it’s going to be like.
|06-17-2014, 01:56 AM||#10|
Joined: Mar 2013
Accident on Russian Highway
Meeting an angel
I decided to write a separate post with my adventures of getting to Moscow because of the events that happened, which are of great significance in my Round the World trip.
I left St. Petersburg on a cloudy morning, with wind gusts that challenged me from the beginning. The road was OK, but the traffic was crazy, as I learned it almost always is here in Russia. I intended to stay in Tver for 2 nights as I couldn't find anything in Moscow that would suit my budget. I had in mind to take a train to visit Moscow and then come back to Tver and head out from there. Little did I know how different everything would be...
Tver was 500 km from St. Petersburg and as I came closer to the city I realized that it would be too far for me to take the train from there and then come back. I decided to keep going, even though I was tired, the road was packed with trucks and cars, road construction was making everything muddy and slippery and the rain would not let up. I hoped to find a hotel closer to Moscow. About 100 km from Moscow, the road construction reduced the traffic to one lane and I could see drivers were peeved; everyone was in a rush to get home and they were pushing the limits on how and where to drive. I added to everyone's stress because I was driving slower than anyone and eventually a truck driver decided to show me how things go on a Russian highway. He became very abusive and came close to touching my sidebags several times. I swerved to let him go but he would reduce the speed just enough to stay close to me and try to push me out of the road all the time. I hate when this happens in my own country, but here, in Russia, I was a stranger and I didn't want to upset anyone. So, when I saw that he would not let me go easy, I tried to slow down to 35 km/h and let him pass; that's when he came speeding at me to scare me out of the tarmac into the gravel and mud track on the side. I went out of the road and I saw the water puddle in front of me but I thought it would just be shallow and I would just clear it. I didn't take into consideration also the difference of level between the tarmac and the gravel, which was about 30 cm, and when I hit the water puddle, the bike sunk (it was deeper than expected) and twisted towards the tarmac and hit the road hard, on the left side with me under it. The trucker kept on riding and as I was lying there on the road under my bike, I heard brakes screeching and a Mercedes jeep turned sideways on the highway in such a way as to stop the traffic behind it so cars don't run over my head. I was stuck under the left side case, I had great pain in my elbow, ribs and thigh as well as my left leg was twisted badly. From the Mercedes I saw this massive Russian who came running towards me and single handed picked up my heavy bike and push it outside of the road and then with one hand (I am a big guy myself, I weigh easily 95 kg) he picked me up and took me aside. People came running to see if I was OK, a lady (which happened to be a doctor) came and asked me if I was OK, as I was limping, full of mud and oil from the fall. I wasn't sure what exactly happened, but I know I was very worried about the bike, because I knew if something happened to it, I would not be able to continue. I was confused, wet, my gear was torn in 6 or 7 places, I had very sharp pain in my elbow (it turned out quite ugly, even though I had very thick padding) and I couldn't feel my left leg. Anyway, I let everyone go, I rested for 10 minutes while checking my bike for damage. The ABS light was on, the check engine light as well, so I thought: "I am done, the bike is gone". My two plastic bottles that were tied to the crash bars were broken to pieces and scattered around the accident site, the left case pushed in and the left crash bar flattened but seemed to have taken all the impact of the fall. I turned the key off in the ignition and after few minutes I turned it back on. The engine purred like nothing happened! I was happy. I clumsily mounted the bike, while crying of pain, and I headed slowly out. I was so dirty and torn, all the cars stopped to let me pass and were shaking their heads in pity. I thought: "How am I going to find a place to sleep now, looking like this, in a foreign place and not knowing Moscow at all?" It was already 9:00 pm and I was freaking out already.
I rode slowly on the side of the road and I saw a biker standing at red light in front of me. I squeezed in between cars to get to him and I asked him in Russian: Gostinitsa? (Hotel?) He turned to me and replied in perfect English: I wouldn't stay in this area if I were you, it is not a good place". I was shocked... He pulled aside, introduced himself to me as Alex (Alexei Mikhailov) and this was the beginning of my salvation in Russia and the angel of mercy had Alex's face.
Alex is an engineer for a Tech company in Moscow, a fellow biker and a dreamer and philosopher. He was coming from Tver, he himself tired and wet, but took the time to help this muddy stranger looking like I was fallen straight from Jupiter. He started to make phone calls, inquiries and found me a hostel smack in the middle of downtown Moscow, a nice private room with great price. He told me he has to go back to Tver the next day but will be back so we can meet again and plan some other things for my Russian voyage ahead of me.
It is hard to explain what Alex meant for me at that moment... I know that bikers in Russia are friendly but Alex put a face to everything I heard about. In the next few days, Alex arranged for my accommodation all the way to Novosibirsk, talking to friends to accommodate me, to bikers to escort me into each city and to show me around. He advised me about certain areas of danger, of road quality and of different routes. Suddenly, Russia became a familiar place and until now, it is due to this young man, of great intelligence and education. We walked the streets of Moscow at 12:00 at night and he would tell me the history of each building and we spoke of many things, from philosophy to geography to travel and to different mentalities of the country and its people.
I found Moscow to be a mesmerizing city, full of history, culture and amazing people.
The next morning, Alex came on his bike and escorted me out of Moscow to make sure I found the right road to Nizhniy Novgorod. By the time I got to Nizhniy, he already sent me several emails with info on the next town, roads, routes, parks to visit, etc. I only wish that one day I will repay Alex for his grace and his friendship. I am working on that...
Photos at: www.nomadsportsacademy.smugmug.com
|06-22-2014, 08:51 PM||#11|
Joined: Mar 2013
Leg 14: Moscow to ufa, 1700 km
I look on the map of Russia, as I am writing this, and even though I already rode 2600 km in Russia, it looks like I have done nothing of my total route to the East.
This is the first thing that hits a traveler like me when visiting this country: the sheer magnitude of the land! When I manage to come to a higher point on the road, the horizons stretch so far, even the sky seems to bend to be able to encompass this size.
I left Moscow riding East, still sore from my encounter with the Russian truck driver. The road to Nizhniy Novgorod was busy, full of trucks and cars and not in very good shape. It is patched so many times that the result is a pitiful mix of tarmac and very uneven bumps that rattle your brains out. I felt sad to leave Moscow, because I made my first friend in Russia and it felt lonely again on the road to the unknown East.
As I approached Nizhniy, I was trying to guess my way to the coordinates of the Fabrika hotel. My amazing Garmin can only show me where the destination is, but not how to get there, so I was riding up and down the hills in Nizhniy in order to get closer to the flag on the GPS' screen. Somehow, after a while, I managed to arrive right in front of the hotel. As I pulled in, a few young people that were outside the hotel got very excited to see me and surrounded me, looking at my bike. I am not the prettiest sight in the world, especially with my muddy, torn apart gear, full of dust and smoke, but these young people didn't seem to care. They helped park the bike behind the hostel, then helped me with the bags into the room. Over the next 2 days, I got to know them all and we became good friends. The night before my departure, they organized a party with Shashlik (meat skewers) and drinks, they took photos with my bike and we had a good time. I got to understand a little better how brilliant these young people are and how amazing dreams they have. Some are artists, others engineers, all very educated and pleasant. Again, I was heading out of a new town in Russia leaving new friends behind. Next was Kazan, in the Republic of Tatarstan, Alex's place. Here, Alex already arranged for a friend of his to meet me outside of the city and guide me to my accommodation.
This would become a habit for Alex, to arrange things for me in advance. He is still the reason I met so many friendly people here.
I arrived in Kazan and waited at a gas station for Vasya, who arrived on a Yamaha bike, shaking my head and admiring my bike. He then lead me to my hotel in Kazan and I went to rest. I was getting chronically fatigued and stressed by the Russian roads and I was still weak from Moscow. My elbow was healing nicely, but I was still swelled up on my hip and my whole body ached (probably due to the impact when I hit the road and all the vibration after).
The next morning I woke refreshed and I headed for a town walk at 7:00 in the morning. It was cool, the sky was clear and I was alone, walking all the way to the Kazan mosque, the Kremlin, the cathedral, without any tourists or other people. Kazan is a spectacular city, on the banks of Volga, amazingly designed and very clean. Photos will speak more... In the evening Vasya and his wife took me out for a stroll in town and we spent some time getting to know each other.
On the way to Ufa, the Republic of Bashkortostan, my GPS lead me to a completely deserted road in the middle of a forest, showing me a very large highway in front, where there were nothing but trees. I turned around and got lost again, until I managed to find a policeman that showed me how to get to the road to Ufa. I wasted 3 hours in the process so I rode for 12 hours that day, instead of 9. I arrived in Ufa and I stopped in town next to a McDonald's. I called Alex (once again) and before I told him where I am, he said: "I found a friend of a friend in Ufa to guide you to accommodation and take you around. He used to live in Canada". Few minutes later, a car pulls in and two guys come out: Dennis and Tim. Tim spoke perfect English, he lived and studied in Hamilton, Ontario for few years. I couldn't believe that I met someone in Ufa with such close connections to Canada. They found me a hotel, helped with the bags and we decided to meet the next day. I was so dusty and weird looking that I believe they thought I am a crazy man.
The next day, Tim and his wife, Polina took me to see a great airshow and reenactment of a battle between Germany and Russia in 1942. There were soldiers dressed in the uniforms of the day, old motorbikes (my favorite), planes, parachutes and lots of people.
We ended up the day having a splendid time at a ski resort on top of the mountain. I am truly shocked of the developed status of these Russian cities, the education of the young people, their view of life and their friendliness. It has nothing to do with the image the world has about most of Russians: mega rich (even though some of them are), loud and uneducated. Their hospitality and friendship showed me the real spirit of Russia.
Thank you Alex for your friends, and friends of friends. Thank you Yuri (several Yuris actually), Yura, and the rest of the gang in Nizhniy, Vasya and his wife in Kazan, Tim, Polina and Dennis and Fareed in Ufa. You made me feel welcome and made me feel sorry to leave you behind.
7000 km to go... By passing the Ural Mountains, I will enter Asia and a different kind of culture shock altogether.
LEG 14: MOSCOW TO UFA, 1700 KM - Nomad Sports Academy
|06-30-2014, 11:52 PM||#12|
Joined: Mar 2013
Leg 15: Ufa to krasnoyarsk, siberia, 3300 km
3 years ago, as I was planning this expedition and going through the itinerary, I looked at the Siberia crossing and wondered how will I react when I reached this part of the world? The expedition was in its infancy at that time, quite a few things changed, but one thing remained clear: Siberia would be a milestone!
Soon after leaving Ufa, I was heading SE towards Chelyabinsk. The Ural Mountains were looming up ahead and I sensed a change of scenery. Pine forests were appearing and undulating hills were breaking the flat horizon. I crossed the Ural mountains without a hitch (except for the roads, of course, which are always a challenge here). The bike kept purring nicely and I actually enjoyed the climb of the mountains where the air was fresher and the smells of the forest filled my lungs.
I arrived in Chelyabinsk, which is on the Asian side of the mountain. In front of me, Siberia was stretching its immense body for the next 6000 and then some, kilometers. I checked into the hotel (most Gostinitsas in the smaller towns are renovated blocks so you feel you are in a boarding school) and took off my dirty, dusty gear.
In the morning I walked in town for a little bit, but I was still tired (my hip continues to swell up and from vibration, my elbow is constantly painful) so I went back to the hotel. As I came to the hotel door, I spotted a note on my bike. I thought: "the police wants me to move the bike from the walkway". I opened the note and, in perfect English, it said: "Hello, My name is Andrey Fedoseev, I am a biker too, if you need any help or information, please contact me..."
I called Andrey immediately, just to thank him for his offer, but we ended up walking to town again, this time under his skillful guidance and historical background of the city. Andrey is a special friend, an IT man, again, like Alex from Moscow, working for a San Francisco based company. He was quiet, polite, very knowledgeable and a great man to know. As we came back from town, I spotted another note on my bike: "We glad meet you" it said, "motorbaik klub" and then the address. Andrey and I jumped on our bike (he has a splendid Honda Shadow) and rode to the club where we met a lot of local bikers that ended helping us with route information for Tyumen, my destination the next day.
In the morning, Andrey was at my hotel at 7:00 am (it turns out he lives just behind the hotel where I was staying) and he rode with me for about 30 km to show me the exact road to Ekateringburg.
As I rode out, I kept thinking how amazing these people are, and how lucky I am that in every city so far, to meet them and to see they went so far out of their way to help a complete stranger. I understand that not all bikers are my friends, but in Russia, I have to tell you that most bikers I met became actually my friends. Maybe because I am a foreigner or maybe because these bikers are friendlier than others I met in my life and during this expedition. In any case, I am grateful for the biking community in Russia, that truly is a life saver for most of us that dare to tackle this challenging country.
The road to Tyumen, turned out to be better (thanks again to my biker friends in Chelyabinsk) and I reached the town without issues. I rested one night and headed out to Omsk, Siberia. The road now becomes more and more desolate, larger distances between gas stations and civilization.
Omsk is a huge city, very well designed and easy to discover. The hotel I booked was a dump, completely broken up by renovations so I went in the city searching for another. As I was crossing the bridge I ran out of gas; first time since Livingstone! I knew I was low but I always banked on going about 85 km on my reserve, which is always true. But I forgot about it, as I was looking for hotels and I got stuck. I sat there in the middle of the bridge and a van stopped, husband and wife and offered to help. They took my jerry can, went to a gas station, filled it up, came back, then lead me to a hotel, paid for my first night there and then they left... Just like that! I tried to argue, I tried to offer to pay for the gas and hotel, but nothing; they disappeared into the city as fast as they appeared to me on the bridge. I am grateful for your help, my friends, and I wish we had a chance to spend some time to know each other. But your anonymous help is well noted and gratefully received!
In the morning I took the bike for her service: the poor thing was abused for the past 10.000 km and it needed new juices. I went to Omsk Yamaha, where I met Max and the rest of the crew, very nice people, again. They gave me a major discount on the service, cleaned the bike and she was so beautiful the next morning, I wanted to hug her. We have both been through so many things together, it was hard not to be happy for her. They found no problems with it, all the fluids checked and changed, no loose bolts or screws (it's a wonder), just the balancing lead weights of the back wheel came off during all the bad roads we endured so far. Otherwise, she was ready for the next challenge.
I left Omsk early morning and without a guide this time, so it took me 30 minutes to figure out the road to Novosibirsk. The GPS is blind, as you know by now, so all I was looking on its screen was the general direction. This is the great things about Siberia: it has virtually one road stretching Eastwards, so in any city I am, if I follow the general East direction, I will eventually find my way to the Trans Siberian.
As I was riding on the lonely road to NSK, I kept feeling sad for myself... I thought of the loneliness I endured the past 7 weeks and the remote places ahead of me and the long, loooooonnnng freaking road that was still lying ahead. As I was quite happy victimizing myself, I see ahead on the road two cyclists; I thought: "Russian cyclists! Very nice!". I came closer and I spotted a German flag! I pulled over immediately and I waved for them to stop. They were husband and wife, from Bavaria, Klaus and Doris Hohle (Willkommen bei Hoehles-Challenge.de). Fully equipped, they were riding their bicycles from Germany to Vladivostok!!!! Here I was complaining of the long road, riding a machine that easily does 1000 km a day, and these people are riding their bicycles, doing 100 km at the most and camping in the bush. But this is not all: to get an even bigger slap on my victimizing face, they told me their age: Klaus is 75 years old (are you kidding me?) and Doris is 62 years old!!! I wanted to hug them! Who, in their right mind, does this at 75 years old? And this is not all: they are the oldest couple in the world who have ridden their cycles around the planet and it was already finished! This trip they were on now, was just 10.000 km, "to just stay in shape", as Klaus very unassuming put it... We took few photos together, exchanged emails and we said good bye. What incredible people! I cannot but love their spirit and their passion; my Russian friends, if you see these two German people, wherever you meet them, please take care of them and help them on their way. I hope with all my heart that nothing bad will happen in their journey East.
I climbed on my bike and promised never to complain again...
I reached Novosibirsk late afternoon, and the size of the city and its industrial feel, kind of scared me at first. I couldn't find the hotel, but I stopped at a Lukoil gas station and Alex's friend, Alexander, came to show me to the hotel, which turned out to be just 200 m from where I was.
He was in hurry, so as soon as we reached the hotel, he left. While I was checking in, Ivan showed up; Ivan is the Heidenau dealer in Novosibirsk and I contacted him through Alex to find a back tire for me, as the one I had was eaten up by the broken roads. Ivan told me he will come pick me up in the morning to get the tire.
At 11:00 the next day, he came and said: "Let's go, concert in town", "Concert", I said, " I thought we go to get the tire", "Later", he replied.
We went downtown, where I met his family, Lena, his wife, Katia and Slava, his children. It turned out that, exactly that day was the 121 birthday of Novosibirsk, so the whole city was out in celebration mood, with music, dancing, balloons and the whole package. It was a lot of fun, especially since I thought that I would just stay in the hotel for 2 days. It was also special for me and my bike, because Novosibirsk became the half way point of my Round the World Expedition and half way across Russia as well.
Here are some statistics (for those of you that are not interested, just skip this part and go straight to the photos):
in Novosibirsk, Siberia:
Bike Odometer: 62500 km (I bought the bike with 0 km, in October 2012)
From Namibia (where I bought the bike): 34.000 km
From Livingstone, Zambia (where our project is): 32.500 km
From Narva, Estonia (border with Russia): 4100 km
Accidents: 1 (between Tver and Moscow, see Moscow Post)
Damage: Crash bars bent, back left case scratched, cracked elbow, swollen hip, bruised rib, mad ego
2 sets of tires from the beginning to now
No mechanical problems with the bike, no spare parts used, just oil and lube
Countries crossed: 23
Duration: 7 months and 2 weeks
TO GO :
3500 km to Vanino, for the ferry to Sakhalin Island
5300 to Iwata, Japan (Yamaha Factory)
22500 km to Ushuaia, Argentina
34.000 km to Namibia
35.500 km to Livingstone, Zambia
From now on, it is the countdown back to my Africa, where the sunsets are dark red and where my heart is happy!
From Novosibirsk it was the lonely, very long road to Krasnoyarsk, 917 km, where I reached late at night, desperate to find a hotel before dark. Riding around town, I spotted this couple riding on a Yamaha cruiser and I followed them. They stopped soon and I asked them for help. They immediately (of course) started to make phone calls to all the hotels in town and rode with me to several of them until I found a good one. Ivan and Vasilitsa are two young people that immediately became friends with me. Thank you again, bikers, for your hospitality and friendliness.
LEG 15: UFA TO KRASNOYARSK, SIBERIA, 3300 KM - Nomad Sports Academy
|07-21-2014, 04:40 AM||#13|
Joined: Mar 2013
Leg 16: Krasnoyarsk-sakhalin island, 5100 km, ПРОЩАНИЕ РОССИЯ И СПАСИБО (farewell ru
I am writing my last post from Russia... What an experience this was for me and my bike!:scooter: 6 weeks spent crossing the largest country on the planet, 11.000 km done, 7700 by motorbike and just over 3000 by the TransSiberian train (see below my train experience). Russia enchanted me with her friendly people, her amazing food and her heritage of culture and history, but it also challenged me more than any other country I have ever been to (with the exception of Congo, perhaps). I am still licking my wounds, both mentally and physically and I think it will take some time to recover from this ordeal. To cross a mammoth like this, with roads that rattled my brains out and drivers that nearly killed me several times, and considering the accident I had, would be enough to write a small book about overlanding through Russia. I deeply and respectfully salute all those that have done it, by any transportation means and I even salute those that attempted it and failed. There is no shame in that; only those that have been on 2 wheels (or any other number of wheels) through this country will understand what price you have to pay to reach the other side.
The ride from Krasnoyarsk was one of the most challenging, as the roads were very bad with large broken parts and very remote places. It took me about 16 hours to reach Irkutsk and by the time I got there, I was shaking so badly I could hardly park the bike. I stopped in front of a Subway (the American Sandwich store) and ran inside to buy a sprite to get some electrolytes in me before I passed out; I rode the whole day with only a 500 ml bottle of water and no food and I was ready to faint. The boy behind the counter got very scared when he saw me: I was muddy from top to bottom, eyes were popping out, I had a mud mask around my goggles and I pretty much looked like a racoon in Yamaha clothes. He quickly prepared a foot long sub and 1 litre bottle of Sprite. People were watching me as I shakily unwrapped that sandwich and started eating. I left Krasnoyarsk at 6:30 in the morning and it was now 11:00 at night!
I rested in Irkutsk for 4 days, arranging for the train in the same time for both myself and my bike; I wanted to take the train from 2 reasons: to experience a part of the Trans-Siberian and to give my body a chance to heal from my rough trip so far. I rode on adrenalin until now and I didn’t realize how much I abused my body and neglected my injuries. Now, my hip was dangerously swollen, my neck was twisted and stiff from wearing the helmet for so long and from the Moscow accident.
I booked a train ticket for me, through my new friends in Irkutsk: Natasha, Nikolai and Sasha, all bikers that have taken care of me again. Sasha arranged with the cargo company to pack my bike and send it to Khabarovsk. They said it would take 6 days; no problem... It took 11 days. “This is Russia” everyone tells me, even though I don’t know exactly what that means.
I left Irkutsk on Monday, July 7, at 9:30, being driven to the station by Colea (Nikolai) and Natasha. It was starting to rain and Colea said: “There is a saying in Russia that when good people leave, it starts raining”. I replied: “There is a saying in Canada, that when you leave good people behind, it starts raining.”
The train arrived on time (a miracle in Russia) and I went to my “apartment”. I took this train after reading so many reviews on the amazing quality and experience you might have and I was quite excited. When I got to my cabin, I noticed 4 “beds” (4 planks of wood, with dodgy mattresses), and 3 guys that were already there. I said “Hello”, and introduced myself. They were professional athletes, and the sport was shooting. I thought: ‘wow, it must be one of those disciplines at triathlon or something like that”, but they said that they were actually shooting with AK-47’s. What? Yes, AK-47’s! One of the guys had a gun on his hip, while lying in bed drinking tea. I thought: “OK, this should be an interesting ride!” It turned out they were from Novosibirsk and heading to Chita for a National competition. They were very pleasant and respectful and we had a good time together. I slept for few hours that night, as the train was throwing us all over the place and it was hot. Outside, a major rainstorm was unleashing and I realized what would have happened if I went by bike on my own. The Trans Siberian highway was right next to the rails and the condition of the road was terrible: muddy, broken, and narrow. I was happy I chose the train.
I woke up in the morning extremely stiff, my neck was twisted badly and I looked like Quazimoto! I actually envied the Hunchback for having his own place in the attic of the cathedral.
I wobbled my way to the toilet and when I opened the door my jaw dropped: the stench was indescribable and on the floor there was a sea of urine and water, trying to find its way to the hole in the middle. I swear this thing had a tide of its own, moving back and forth with the bumps of the train. I had to find a system to use this toilet without sinking my feet into this piss. I started brushing my teeth outside (trying hard to contain my gagging from the smell and sights of the interior) and when I knew I was ready, I stepped inside. I quickly rinsed and when I wanted to use the toilet, I understood why there was so much on the floor: it was hard to hit the toilet while the train is throwing you all over the place... I was wearing flipflops... This was going to be a long ride!
As I returned to my cabin, my roommates were packing as we were approaching Chita. As soon as they left, I thought I would have the cabin all to myself until Khabarovsk; 5 minutes later, 3 massive Russians walked in, with bellies the size of an American Thanksgiving turkey. They started to take their clothes off to prepare for the ride and they were sweating profusely already. “Great”, I thought, “I feel now like Ben Stiller in “Along came Polly” when he played basketball with the sweaty, hairy guy!” Another 40 hours with these guys! I went out to give them some “privacy” (I am using this word extremely loosely). I asked the conductor where the Restaurant car is and he told me to wait. Few minutes later a lady came with a cart filled with Fanta and Chips. She even had a menu: chips, Fanta, different kind of chips, other Fanta types, water J I almost started to cry!
Evening came again, inside the train there was total darkness and outside a Biblical deluge was filling up the vast Siberian swamps. I shyly opened the door and sneaked into my bed and closed my eyes, wondering how I was going to sleep that night. The Russian grizzlies were already in bed, each one snoring and farting their brains out. Their undigested kielbasas were coming out with the vengeance. I didn’t close an eye that night, I had my headphones on to drown the snoring but I found no relief from the farting. I am sure that the genius that will invent a camera that captures smell, will win the Nobel Prize.
We arrived in Khabarovsk 2 hours late; by now I was stuck looking down on my left foot, with a twisted neck that would not let me straighten up. People in the train were wondering what kind of weirdo I am; not that the rest of the characters there were of great stature: a guy was lying on the floor of the corridor, so drunk, vomit was coming out of his mouth and he had no clue; another one was sitting in between the cars so he can sneak a smoke; he was in his not-so-white underwear, hanging with one hand on one of the metal bars while smoking with the other. “I fit right in”, I thought.
I took my bags and got the hell out of this train. It was still raining, but the fresh smell of rain and grass in the train station made me extremely happy. I limped my way to a taxi and went to the hotel. I took an hour long shower (after 62 hours on a Russian train, I needed that), disinfected my flip flops, and I went to bed. I am not sure what Trans Siberian train tourists take, but I was the only tourist (and this was first class, a propos). There must be another, fancier train that caters to the tourists, for sure! But I think I got the true cultural experience with this train.
It saved me time and headaches and probably my life, as I would have never made it through 10 days of mud, rain and in the physical state I was in, but what an experience that was! I rode with Russians, on a Russian train, across Siberia! I am sure this will be a funny story for my grandchildren, but at that moment it didn’t seem funny at all.
In Khabarovsk I met Alexey (Ivan from Novosibirsk gave me his phone number) and Kate (Katia), his daughter-in-law. This turned out to be, again, a life saver for me, as this family of Flight Attendants took me in their home like one of their own and fed me, gave me a room in their home and drove me everywhere in town. When the bike turned up a week late, I was cared for by them without one hint that they would want to be reimbursed for their efforts. This is what will make me miss Russia: the wonderful people I met and their altruistic nature. Alexey, Galina and Katia, and Katia’s parents: Natalie and Nikolai became very close friends; the list of my Russian friends is growing.
I headed from Khabarovsk for my last leg on mainland Russia on a cloudy and sticky morning; it rained the whole day before and the humidity was high. I was worried about the 550 km of the Eastern BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) because I knew the condition of the road and after rains it would be worse. I was lucky enough to avoid rain and when I saw that large tracts of the road were missing I realized how difficult it would have been in the rain. As I turned East towards Vanino at Lidaga, the road narrowed and soon I was heading towards the mountains. Even though it was extremely remote, the landscapes were spectacular and due to my slow speed, I managed to enjoy the scenery. It took me 8 hours to reach Vanino from Khabarovsk and when I saw the Pacific Ocean my heart trembled with joy. I reached the end of Russia’s mainland, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, I was still alive and my bike was purring like a cat, as if she knew she is approaching her own country. The humidity disappeared and the fresh ocean breeze was already cooling me down. I was a happy man!
In Vanino I met Natalie (friend of the friends from Khabarovsk) and with impeccable English she lead me to her parents’ home, where I was offered a room (the “great” Vanino Hotel wanted to charge me 120 Euros for a shitty room). As soon as I unpacked the bike, Alexander, Natatie’s father, took me to the ocean where a lot of fishermen were by the shore fishing for Salmon. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how much salmon there is in these waters! Few minutes later we ended up with amazing salmon and few more minutes later the barbecue was on, the salmon sizzling on it. Next was the caviar, the salmon roe, the garden potatoes and the veggies, all from their own garden. I was speechless... An hour before I was in a completely strange place and now I am in someone’s home, having a dinner fit for the Czars. All this hospitality offered without one word that I have to pay anything or at least buy them a gift. For them, it was a pleasure to have me as a guest and a simple thank you was enough. This is the Russia I will always remember: the biker community that is so welcoming and the total generosity of the local people for complete strangers like me. It makes me feel sad that what the world hears about Russia are mostly bad things, but I will always hold dear all the memories that these people gave me. The ferry to Sakhalin took 20 hours, even though it is only 210 km from Vanino to Kholmsk. The ferry is a giant piece of rust that goes only 5 knots per hour. It is understandable when you realize that they put more than 20 rail cars inside, about 40 trucks and as many cars. I was the only bike and I was lucky because Natalie arranged (without my knowledge) to have a private cabin so I had a good night’s rest and good food. I arrived in Yuzhno the next day around 4 pm where I met up with Dennis, a biker that found out about me from Alex from Moscow (again). He led me to the hotel where I now wait for my departure for Japan.
I have a deep sense of satisfaction when I look back where I was 6 weeks ago and what this ride across Russia taught me. I am humbled by the size of this country, but even more humbled by the bigger size of people’s hearts. I was privileged to stay in their homes, eat their food and learn of their daily joys and struggles, their view of their country and the world and I was a small part of their lives for the little time we spent together. I will never forget them or what they have offered me.
Enjoy the photos here:
Meanwhile, I can sense the magic of the country of the Rising Sun, which lies only few hours away from here. Sayonara Russia, Konichiwa Japan!
|07-26-2014, 09:39 PM||#14|
Joined: Mar 2013
Leg 17: Riding in the country of the rising sun, 1100 km
5 days after entering Japan and so many things happened, I am compelled to write my first post. I expected Japan to amaze me, but I wasn’t expected to be blown out of my boots!
I left Yuzhno Sakhalinsk very early morning because my agent (Mr. Valeriy, an excellent gentleman that prepares everything for you, both on the Russian side and on the Japan side; I have his info for the interested travelers through that region) in Korsakov said I should be at the ferry before 8. There was a peaceful feeling to my last ride in Russia, the 42 km to Korsakov... I had this deep sense of satisfaction that I made it alive through the largest country on the planet and I had memories that will stay with me forever. I went slowly, enjoying the last sites of the Island and reflecting on my journey.
I arrived at the ferry and sure enough, Mr. Valeriy was already there, waiting for me, with all my papers on hand. We went through Russian customs without a hitch and I headed towards the Heartland Ferry dock. As I entered the belly of the ship, 4 impeccably dressed Japanese men welcomed me, showed me where to park (I was the only vehicle on board, all the passengers were on foot and mostly Russians going to Japan). As I parked, a young man brought a small piece of carpet and set it under my footrest so I don’t scratch the deck! I thought:” What in the world is this?” Scratching the deck?
Then the four men brought a pressure washer, all sorts of brushes and soap and started to scrub my bike. It was so clean I could have licked it. All the Siberian dust and mud and bugs disappeared at once. A new horizon was ahead, with an entirely different mindset.
I climbed upstairs where I was greeted again (with a bow, something I would see a thousand times a day in Japan) and after taking my dirty boots off (which were immediately washed by one of the crew) I was shown to my place; there were no seats or benches on the ferry (except in the lobby) and everyone is sitting on the floor, without shoes. I was given a tray with my lunch and the ferry departed. I went outside to look for the last time to the Russian shore. It was hard to believe that I was leaving this country on the Pacific side, after crossing almost 11.000 km from the Baltic side at Varna, Estonia, just 6 weeks ago! I had mixed feelings about this all experience, but as I turned south, I realized that beyond those clouds lies a new adventure, one that I dreamed of and planned for a long time. Japan was basically my destination from the beginning; the bike was built here and now it was returning to her homeland, this time not in a crate, but by road. From here on, is basically considered the return to Africa.
I fell asleep on the ferry for a couple of hours and when I woke up and went outside again, the sun was shining and on the port (left) side of the ship I saw the first sight of Japan; I trembled as I took my camera out... The high rises of the volcanic mountains were peaking through the haze and massive amounts of Wind generators were lining the tops. Wakkanai was ahead.
We pulled in Wakkanai exactly 5 hours after departure from Sakhalin, a far cry from the 20 hours we did on the Vanino ferry (which operates without a schedule). I was welcomed by another agent at the door and invited to wait in an office. Few minutes later, an Immigration officer came with the agent, all the papers for the bike stamped and the insurance issued, plus my visa for 90 days for Japan. The Immigration officer than bowed and said: “John San, welcome to Japan!” I was finally here!
I rode few minutes up to the mountain and camped that night in the Wakkanai park, a spectacular place, above the city, full of bikers and campers from all over Japan. I set my tent and then I was looking to see where to pay for my night’s stay. Some people saw me and told me: “It is free, you don’t have to pay for camping here”. I couldn’t believe my ears, but this would be the beginning of a series of events that shocked me in Japan so far.
I cooked dinner (I still had some food from Estonia and Russian with me) and after I finished eating, I see an older gentleman approaching. He came and sat next to me and served me Sake, just to say Hello (even though he didn’t speak English) and make me feel welcome.
At 4 in the morning as the sun was rising (being 2 hours back from Russia, the day starts really early here) I had to get up and pack for my first ride South. All the campers were up too, going for the morning Yoga or jog. I now understand why these people live so long and look so young: they go to bed at 9, wake up at 4, exercise and take time to enjoy their lives.
I headed South towards Haboro and I felt rejuvenated in the morning coolness, riding through the small roads of the fishing villages (I always avoid highways) and filming the spectacular landscapes around me. I was in paradise: the roads are impeccable, the people welcoming and respectful, the food, out of this world. I stop for coffee and breakfast at a little store on the way and the attendant there sees my foreign plates and comes out with a bottle of Iced tea and cookies and offered them to me. “A gift”, he says. I am speechless!
I pulled in for gas and 3 people run out of the gas station and when they find out I come all the way from Africa, they bow and shake my hand in respect. As they fill up, they set a small towel around my gas tank so they don’t spill on it. I keep thinking: “Who does this?”
I pass Haboro, heading towards Sapporo, an amazing city, but already so hot, I couldn’t breathe inside my helmet. 41 degrees, my thermometer shows... I desperately get out of the city and find a camping side on the mountain: Arten Campground. Set among the trees of the forest, it looks like a typical Japanese landscape: manicured and quaint. At 4 in the morning, the mist from the mountain gently flows through the trees, creating a Zen atmosphere. I am taking photos and smiling in the same time... I have a surreal experience.
I ride to the beautiful city of Hakodate, take the ferry to Aomori and enter the South Island. Aomori is splendid, the city is so clean and so quiet you can actually hear the birds singing in downtown. These people never honk their horns, never shout and never show you the finger. They walk quietly about their business and everyone keeps to themselves. There is no unnecessary noise.
In the morning as I head Southwest towards Sakata, I can feel the heat building up. Sakata area is very humid and I am sweating even though it is only 7 in the morning. The mountain ride is breathtaking, with low mountains lined with pines and large rice fields in the valleys. Flowers are planted everywhere, even on the highway. I pass by a spotless lake, with a red tower in the middle and I have to stop, just to take in the sights and the silence. This country touches me to the core of my being... the peace, safety, standard of life (highest in the world, I have no doubt) and landscapes are just a few factors that can change my perspective on life here.
I stop to one of the many rest areas (these are huge places with everything you can think of, from markets to pharmacies) and buy an ice cream. As I enjoy sitting in the shade, a little girl runs to me with 4 cereal bars and a bottle of Iced tea, saying in a cute voice: “Gift” and then she runs back to her parents. I am flabbergasted again and asked the parents “why is everyone so nice to me?” “It is our custom to welcome weary travelers from faraway places.” And as they say that, they bow again.
5 days into Japan and I feel I am on a different planet... I cannot but think that they are and should be the standard by which the whole world should be judged. Japan sets a bar of civilization level that should be adopted by the rest of the world. A sign of true civilization, the way I see it, is when all the citizens of a country enjoy the same standard of life and quality across the society’s areas. Whether you have money or not, you can still eat at cheaper restaurants where the quality is the same. Your house, small or not, has the same modern amenities as anyone else. You car, your healthcare, the infrastructure will be the same whether you are rich or poor. Most of the countries I have lived in or visited in the last 25 years are basically catering to the rich: if you want a very good meal you will pay more in a fancier restaurant (otherwise food poisoning is on the menu), you want a nice place to live, you have to pay more, a better hospital care, you pay more. Basically, the underlining message is: “you’re poor, you’re screwed”. Japan does everything the other way: food is amazing everywhere, whether you pay 5 dollars or 200. The cleanliness, the technology and the infrastructure is available for everyone, rich or poor. Of course, if you have more money, you have a better house or car, but even the small houses and cars and restaurants are of the highest standard here. You also get the same treatment and respect, whether you are rich or poor, which is very rare almost anywhere else I have been before.
Lastly, the respectful attitude of all the people I met, the politeness and the peaceful approach these people have to everything makes this country what it is today, a jewel of our planet. Their determination to not only survive but thrive, in spite of typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, plus a couple of nuclear bombings, is remarkable, to say the least.
The Japanese have everything they want and no one is trying to rip you off (I get free tea, sake, cookies, food, someone even filled my tank free, etc). I remember paying 4 Euro on the Italian highway for a cup of tea, just because they can, or 6 Euro a cup of coffee in Norway or 1 Euro for 1 egg at the grocery store, just because it’s Norway.
I have more than 3 weeks to explore this country on my own 2 wheels and I am already walking on clouds, because I have reached the best country on the planet (I understand that different people have different experiences and opinions about Japan, but this is my experience so far here).
And this, my friends, is my 2 cents worth of reflection after 5 days in Japan.
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