Russia: The Early Years
© 2001, Iron Butt Association, Chicago, Illinois Please respect our intellectual property rights. Do not distribute this
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Mike Kneebone and I will be flying out of Los Angeles just after
midnight next Wednesday for Sakhalin Island, Russia. It is due north of
Japan. The bikes we shipped over there a couple of months ago have made
it out of customs and are waiting for us. We intend over the course of
the next few weeks to cross Siberia, Russia, and Europe, eventually
sticking the front wheels of the bikes in the Atlantic ocean on the
coast of Portugal.
We're meeting with two other riders in Sakhalin: John Sartorius, an
American who lives on the island and is fluent in Russian, and Steve
Attwood, an Englishman who in the last few weeks has ridden from his
home north of London all the way across Russia just to hook up with us
for the trip back. If you think the ride that we will be taking is an
adventurous one, consider what Attwood has already done. These guys are
world-class riders. I am honored to be in their company, at least for as
long as they'll have me.
I will try to send e-mail reports of our progress as often as I can, but
it won't be easy. In Russia, for example, I imagine the first thing I'll
have to find is an internet cafe that has an English, as opposed to
In the meantime, wish us luck. We might need it. 8-)
Incheon International Airport, Korea
It is going to take some work to do this ride, I fear. I didn't make it out
of Baltimore's airport security without having to take my boots off twice.
Some of the things I had hoped to carry on were bounced (motorcycle chain,
two spark plugs, and a few other things). Then it was a 5.5 hour flight to
I managed to find Mike Kneebone and Lisa Landry there. She was the
rallymaster of the last Iron Butt. We hauled seven bags weighing 4,100
pounds into her SUV and spent half an hour trying to maneuver through
laughably dense traffic over to the international terminal for the flight to
Korea. More security. More boots coming off. More lines. The check-in guy at
Asiana Airlines said it was a 13-hour flight across the Pacific.
It wasn't quite that long, but it was endless nonetheless. There was an Adam
Sandler movie --- can anyone tell me one good film he's ever been in?
--- followed by some Scooby-Do crap. I finished off six bike mags and slept
for a few hours.
We hit this airport at 0440 local time, both of us utter strangers in an
even stranger land. More security. More boots off. I expected to begin
hemorrhagic bleeding from the eyes and ears at any moment.
We shoved our luggage carts through these empty, cavernous halls, weary from
time zones and wearier still anticipating what lies before us. When we
decided upon Honda Nighthawk street bikes for this ride, there was no road
between Khabarovsk and Chita, a distance of perhaps 1,200 miles through an
otherwise impassable Siberian swamp. But a couple of months ago Putin,
seeking to buff up his re-election campaign, managed to have the road
"Completed," however, may be too strong a word. Steve Attwood (and before
him some Finns) came through on a bike in the past couple of weeks. He (as
did the Finns before him) pronounced the road to be in "very bad" shape. It
is gravel, not well compacted, varying in size from marbles to golf balls.
He's on a KTM 640 dual-sport bike, the one that has won the Paris-Dakar
rally in the past two years. Our Nighthawks have street tires. It is one
thing when an American rider tells me a road is crap; it is quite something
else when European riders say it.
What we should do is stick these poor machines on the train at Khabarovsk
and begin drinking vodka sours for three days until we dock at Chita. But
since Attwood has gotten through, I am confident that the consensus will be
that we at least have to try to slog down that nightmare road until the
blood starts pouring out of my ears for real.
The airport was empty at 0500. Mike idly said as we staggered along, "You
know, this is the good part of the trip."
Russia grabbed this island, which lies directly north
of Japan, during the reign of Catherine the Great. In
the Sino-Soviet war in 1905, Japan conquered the
bottom half of it and held on for dear life until the
end of World War II when the Russians reclaimed it for
Oil --- lots of oil --- has drawn Exxon/Mobil, Shell,
and others here like flies recently. Half the people
on the plane from Korea to Yuzhno were American
engineers. Prices have escalated as well to
accommodate Western standards. You can find hotel
rooms that cost about the same as the Hilton in
It took 35 hours to make it from Washington, D.C. to
the airport here. The weather has been cold and foggy
with only occasional appearances of the sun. That
should change when we hit the mainland, where it will
turn hot and muggy. There will also be 1.2 million
mosquitos per cubic meter.
We have the bikes packed, more or less, and will be
leaving here for the ferry to the mainland later this
afternoon. It sails at 2000 tonight and should dock in
Vanino twelve hours later on Sunday. It's an all-day
ride from there to Khabarovsk over roads that Steve
Attwood says will be a preview of the sorts of stuff
we'll be facing in the 1,300-mile section between
Khabarovsk and Chita. There the pavement resumes for
the remainder of the trip.
There aren't a lot of road choices on a journey like
this. The highway essentially parallels the
Trans-Siberian railway all the way to Moscow. I'll be
interested to see if that city treats me any better
than it did the last time I was there in 2002. Then I
had a bike that had broken down to the point that Mike
Kneebone and I had to retreat to Europe. Moscow can be
a tough place to visit. Ask Napoleon and Hitler.
It is a long, long way from here.
Saturday, July 3, 0900