08 May 2009


Here is a report about bringing my new used 2005 R1200GS from Heidelberg to Moscow:

MAY 1:
I flew into Frankfurt on the afternoon of May 1 and got to Stefan Knopf's place in the early evening. Stefan kindly offered me some barbeque and beer, and I gratefully accepted. The red GS was parked out front, all ready to go, so I fussed around with it for awhile, here it is:

I briefly considered heading into some bars in Heidelberg but was too damn tired and ended up just going to bed.

One troubling development--my GPS didn't work! Or rather the GPS worked, but it didn't have any maps on it! This was odd, because it worked fine when I bought it a few months back. Hmmmm, maybe just needs a reboot, decided to deal with it in the morning.

MAY 2:
Up early the next morning and there was the bike, did some basic repacking and stuff, met with a couple who live in Guatemala and were staying with Stefan for a couple days--nice folks! I went for a ride through the forests near Heidelberg to check out the bike--I had never ridden it before! It seemed to run well, and I liked the new Ohlin shocks, so all seemed good. May 2 is my annual "Live a Little" day, so I looked for a nice brat and beer stand somewhere with a good view for a break from the ride, but I could not find one and ultimately gave up and went back to Stefan's.

MAY 3:
On Sunday morning, May 3, I headed out for Moscow. Here's me as I'm pulling out:
Then rode up the Neckar River for a ways:
Then turned east and then south, towards Wurzburg, more cool roads:
I rode to Rothenburg am der Tauber, the touristy place I've been several times before in a past life, but basically just kept going to Regensburg, then on to Passau. by now it was getting kind of late, but the stretch of road past Passau is really nice, along the Danube with lots of castles and shit like that, as well as an occasional excursion boat:
I had originally planned on going all the way to Lake Balaton on the first day, but I was WAY off pace, so thought I'd stay near Linz, which sounded like a nice place. Unfortunately, it looked like this, so I kept rolling:
By now it was getting kind of dark, and I was in the middle of nowhere, Austrian farm country. I was getting a little worried that I'd end up sleeping in a barn, but I kept on going and finally found the Danube again, and across the Danube saw a very inviting-looking gasthaus right next to the bridge (of course called the Gasthaus DonauBlick or some such). I crossed the bridge, got a room, unpacked the bike, and soon was enjoying a very nice goulash and beer. I went back to my room, smoked a cigar overlooking the Danube from my balcony, and hit the rack. Here are some pix of the view from my room:
MAY 4:
Didn't know how far I would get today, thought I'd stay on Lake Balaton if it was nice, or keep going all the way to Romania if I could. I did some pretty cool riding in the morning, first along the Danube:
Then I crossed the Danube into some little mountains, where there was still quite a bit of snow on the sides of the road:
I didn't really care where I ended up today, the main thing was to avoid Budapest, which is a great city, but I just wanted to avoid all the traffic, etc. Unfortunately, most of the roads in Hungary seem to run through Budapest, so I didn't have much to work with. I got to Balaton in the early afternoon and didn't care much for it--it was kinda touristy, and the lake was a really weird greenish-blue. I rode along the northern shore, looking for somewhere that looked nice to stay without success. Stopped in ________ for some tourist shots, but didn't care to stay:
Then I kept on moving through the Great Hungarian Plain:
There was no where special to stay into well into Romania, so I just decided to ride to Kecskemet, a random city in Hungary which I had never been to before. The city was easy enough to get into, although it took me a little while to find a hotel in the center. The hotel was OK and they sent me to a really good Italian restaurant for dinner.

MAY 5:
Well, a couple of really boring flat hours loomed ahead of me in the morning for the ride from Kecskemet to the Romanian border. Very tedious ride, but I got to the border without incident and passed out of Hungary and into Romania, although when I left Hungary they made me fill out some kind of health form because of the swine flu bruhaha. Also, when when entering Romania they didn't both to check passport, bike docs, nothing. Actually, there was no one at the booth at all...

So I pulled up at a gas station about fifty meters from the vacant Romanian border post to change money, get gas, and get insurance, and I quickly realized that I'd lost my Russian work permit, which I keep with my passport and which I had just put in my jacket pocket (or so I thought) as I was leaving the Hungarian border. I spent about an hour looking around for it, but no luck, so was in a kind of bad mood when I finally left the border, because I was afraid that losing it might make it harder to get my new Russian visa, or maybe even get into Russia!

I guess it was a bit after midday when I set off towards Brasov, to see how far I could get that day. The day had started kind of sunny, but now that I was in Romania the rain clouds moved in (a recurring theme):
I rode through some pretty dingy little villages, and had picked the smallest roads I could find that led in the general direction of Brasov. I soon realized that there was something wrong with my clutch, which was very difficult to shift; when I pulled into a gas station after a couple of hours, I found that I could not even stop the bike without stalling it--the bike would keep moving forward even if the clutch handle were pulled all the way in--not good! I had had a similar problem with my R1200C, and it was the clutch slave cylinder, and the bike had quickly become completely unridable...now here I was in the middle of Romania with the same problem...


If I broke down I at least wanted to be a bit less in the middle of nowhere, so I set off on what was to turn out to be one of the most unpleasant rides I'd ever been on, through the mountains in Transylvanai...on a bike with no clutch...in a thunderstorm...

From this point on I was focused on getting down the road and hardly took any pictures, so you'll be spared further blurry shots of obscure locales.

I had planned my route before realizing I had a problem with the bike, and had therefore chosen what looked like an interesting curvy route through the mountains. Now that I realized there was a problem with the bike, I was kind of stuck, because the only way to where I had to go was through the mountains. So off I went through a light drizzle, which turned into a steady drizzle, which turned into a hard rain, which turned into a thunderstorm. Once I got the bike in second gear, I just left it there because I was afraid that I'd be unable to shift at all. Second gear was generally OK, although on some of the steep curvy bits I would not have minded dropping into first. Luckily there was no traffic and I just sort of chugged along.

After a couple of hours I was getting low on gas and was nervous that I would not find any, because there were not many signs of life in these mountains. I came into a little town and pulled into the only gas station and motion to the attendant to come and fill the tank. It is pouring down rain at this point and he shakes his head no, making clear that the gas station is closed. I get out my map and ask him to show me where I am, because I have no idea, and he shows me some little town much closer to my starting point than I had thought, with lots of mountain road until the next town. I was getting worried that I would run out of gas somewhere down the road when one of the attendant's buddies walked up with a couple of plastic bottles and gets the attendant to fill them with gas, at which point I prevailed on the jerk to fill my tank as well. Feeling much better with a full tank, I set off again down the road.

I finally got out of the mountains and decided that I should not continue further toward Brashov, which was southeast. Given my bike's condition, I decided that I needed to head straight back to Moscow, via Kiev. So that meant I had to go northeast, not southeast. So I set off towards Turda, which looked like the nearest largish city on the way to Ukraine. I finally got there, but it was another industrial dump, so I decided to keep going to Cluj Napoca, supposedly a fun university town about 40 kilometers down the road. I was dreading riding in the city with no clutch but when I got there I found that the more I used the clutch, the better it seemed to work. I pulled into Cluj Napoca, rode through the entire city before I could find a hotel, and I took the first one I found, which was in a pretty blah area, but that had a gas station next door and a pizzeria a block away, so it could have been much worse! I had seen a sign for a BMW dealer while coming into the city, and spent some time online that night trying find if the dealer also dealt with BMW motorcycles. Ultimately I figured that they probably didn't, and I didn't want to waste time in the morning dealing with this, so I decided to head to the dealer in Kiev as quickly as I could. But first I had to escape from Romania! Here is a shot of Cluj Napoca:
MAY 6:
I picked what looked like a pretty direct route to the Ukrainian border, along some pretty small roads through towns I've never heard of. The weather was kind of crappy, the scenery OK but typically Romanian:

After a couple of hours of heading up this highway (note the gloomy weather...)
the road turned to dirt. OK, a little patch of dirt, I think. Nope, the road turns to deep mup for the next couple dozen kilometers (you can't really tell from the crappy shot below, but it was muddy, really!):
Shouldn't have been a big deal, but with no clutch, street tires, hilly curvy terrain, and no dirt skills it was pretty hairy. Moreover, I wasn't sure if the road wouldn't simply deadend, and I'd have to turn around and do it again! The only good news was that there were some logging trucks coming the other way, so I figured there was something up ahead, and worst case one of the trucks could carry my bike out if I wiped out. Anyway, after almost wiping out several times I finally made it back to pavement, I have rarely been so relieved!

I made it to the Ukrainian border a couple of hours later, got through Romania without any issues, then was welcomed by some very friendly Ukrainian border guards. They even helped me find the rubber thingy for my earphones! The guy at the border kept scrutinizing my copy of my title under some kind of special lamp, I guess looking for a watermark or something, but I didn't have the heart to tell him it was a photocopy. Anyway, it was good enough, and they ultimately let me in. While I was waiting at the border, the clouds went away and the sun came out!
I started out for Kamenny Podolsk, where I thought I would spend the night, and hadn't gone more than a couple of kilometers when I see a couple of BMW motorcycles parked on the side of the road. I pulled over to ask them if they need help, and it looked like there had been an accident--one of the bikes was all scraped up, with the windshield, gone, etc. It turns out that the two guys were from Austria and somehow, someway, in the middle of a completely flat and open road with no traffic, they had managed to run into each other, and one of them wiped out! Weird! Both were OK, and I guess the bike still worked, so I set off for Kamenny Podolsk.

I finally got into Kammeny Podolsk just as it was getting dark. I was worn out, drove down to the old fortress, and took the first hotel I found, which was a nice one with a cute receptionist. Went over for some pizza (again) at the pizzeria across the street. The town was cool but there was some kind of god-awful stench permeating the whole place, I think down by the river there was some swamp/sewer, don't know but it smelled so bad it was hard to eat...the smell was gone in the morning, I guess the wind shifted.

Anyway, I braved the stench to take a few pictures of a church and the old fortress:
MAY 7:
Next morning, called the BMW dealer in Kiev, told them I was heading in, they told me they'd squeeze me in...good news! Frankly, I don't remember much of the ride to Kiev, it was kind of a blur, but a cold and damp blur. But I do remember that as I pulled into Kiev my clutch was barely functional, and that the bike stalled every time I had to stop, and then when I started again the bike would leap forward because the clutch would not fully disengage. It was no fun!

Anyway, finally made it to the dealership in Kiev. They were very helpful, and confirmed that I needed a slave cylinder, and that they didn't have one... Waited several hours while they bled the clutch, and they sent me on my way. I was pretty dubious because the last time my slave cylinder went out and someone bled it, it did not fix it at all. But this time it seemed to work.

While I was waiting around, I asked one of the guys about the best way back to Moscow--he told me that I really should go via Kharkov, which is southeast of Kiev and totally out of the way--he said that on the direct route, the roads were non-existent and the police very greedy and corrupt. This sounded nuts, so I completely disregarded his advice and decided to take the direct route when I left in the morning.

They'd made me a reservation at some hotel right on Khreschatik Square...it was a Soviet dump but right in the center, and I thought I would be OK. The room was crap, and my mood was not improved when I found that the bottle of beer that I had (rather foolishly) placed in my bag had broken, with the beer and tiny glass shards all over inside the bag. I cleaned up as best I could, put my beer-soaked, glass-covered clothes all over the room to dry, and headed downstairs to check out the town.

The lobby was a pretty seedy place, however, with a friendly African shoe shine guy who kept bugging me about shining my boots until I agreed. He did a great job and he told me about his hard life in Ukraine, with Ukrainian wife and child, no way home, etc. He recommended the hotel's nightclub, which I had serious doubts about. Anyway, I then set off to find a nice dinner, strolling down the main street, packed with high end stores. And no restaurants. None. I passed a couple of cafes, some McDonalds, kept going, a German restaurant (sorry, those don't count) and found nothing. Finally, after walking about two miles, I found a TGIF, which was perfect! As I tried, to enter, however, it was closed--at 10 pm!? Kiev is not Moscow, that's for sure. So back I went along the same glitzy but barren stretch of road. By now even the hotdog stands were closing, so I knew that I only had one choice--McDonalds. I was a little bitter about this, but slunk into a McDonalds, had a rather miserable dinner, and went back to the hotel. I asked the guard in the lobby about the night club, and he explained that it was a strip club (surprise) and other arrangements could be made (surprise surprise). Not really what I was looking for, so I headed back to my shabby room for an early night.

MAY 8:
I woke up really early--maybe 05:30?--because I went to bed so early, but I decided to wait around until 07:00 when breakfast opened. I laid around, got packed up, packed the bike, and went to breakfast at 07:00 for rather disgusting fare--greasy sausages, greasy eggs, greasy fish--after gagging down a few bites I put the plate aside and opted for some tasteless (but not greasy!) cereal and milk, and then got the hell out of Dodge!

I thought that with my snazzy GPS maps, getting out of Kiev would be a snap, but there was a slight catch--apparently most of the bridges are one-way INTO the city during morning rush hour, which makes it rather difficult to get OUT of the city. Moreover, my GPS had absolutely no idea about the bridge closures, so kept trying to send me the wrong way. After several failed attempts to escape Kiev, I did the unthinkable--I stopped and asked a couple of policeman how to leave the city. They were actually helpful, didn't hassle me, and told me how to get to a bridge allowing me out of the city. I was off and running!

But further problems with the GPS arose when I missed (I think) a poorly marked turn off and ended up doing some loops and then on a highway which my GPS said was heading WEST, rather than EAST. This didn't seem right to me, so I had to pull over at a gas station and ask for directions to Russia. Indeed, I was heading the right way.

So off I went again. The roads were great--glass smooth, brand new--and I cruised along at hi speed. The few police seemed oblivious to my presence, or at least my speed, and did not give me a second look as I zoomed by--this was great! I concluded that the guy in the Kiev dealership must have been on crack or something...

The only down side was that the road was very boring--completely flat and straight--but hey I wasn't in the Alps, was I? Even the bizarre and dense swarms of june bugs that I road through did not spoil the trip, although it was weird to be juking and dodging to avoid the pesky buggers as I rode through the swarms.

Then, about 80 km from the Russian border, the road ended abrubtly, like a big barrier across the road--I had to backtrack a couple of hundred meters to figure out that I had ridden by a detour, or detours, one to the left and one to the right. Didn't know which one to take, so I took the right detour and ended up on a dirt road--cool!

Anyway, the detour continued for a couple dozen kilometers and consisted of dirt or bad pavement. Not an issue at all on the GS, and kinda fun, and I was able to pass a bunch of cars and trucks which were driving much more slowly that I was. Got back on the road about 50 km from the Russian border and was promptly pulled over by some greedy corrupt cops for speeding through a non-existent construction zone. The standard bargaining ensued, and I ended up paying 500 rubles, or about $15. Kind of irritating, especially that it took so long--probably more than half an hour altogether while I had to wait to speak with the big man. Once we'd negotiated an arrangement they were OK guys, couldn't help but think that they'd be named Bubba or Billy-Bob if we were in the US. Told me some of the local history--Prokofiev was buried nearby--and about how bad the swarms of June bugs (they called them May bugs) could be at night. With hearty handshakes all around, I set off for the Russian border.

I breezed through the Ukrainian border, although the guy asked me for my Ukrainian insurance, which I had not bought--I told him it was buried in my luggage and he let it, and me, go. At the Russian border, no real hassles, but had to wait forever, fill out some forms, etc. Finally it came down to business, because I wanted them to issue a temporary import permit for the bike for the duration of my visa (about two months) and they wanted to only issue a permit for three weeks, and I could extend it in Moscow. I explained how inconvenient this would be and 1000 rubles fixed the issue.

About two hours total for the Ukrainian and Russian borders, and I set off toward Moscow about 16:00. I didn't know how far I would go, I thought maybe I'd stay in Bryansk or Orel...once I got going, however, I decided to try to make it all the way to Moscow.

So there I was, cruising along at maybe 100 kmph, when I get pulled over by a couple of young cops. I was barely over the speed limit, so this was kind of irritating...anyway, so the bargaining begins again. Since I was barely over the limit, I offered them 200 rubles ($6) and they agree. Upon looking in my wallet, however, I realize that I only have 500 ruble notes--damn! I ask them for change and of course say that they, as poor policemen, don't carry those kind of sums around with them. So then I proposed to flip a coin, heads I win and don't pay anything, tails I lose and pay them 500 rubles. We were going back and forth on this topic for a little bit when all of sudden they got excited and said "The commander is coming, the commander is coming, put away the money!"

So the commander pulls up and the two young guys leave me and go talk to him. I'm sitting around waiting, and in a few minutes one of the young ones comes up and says to me "Yeah, you can't miss Moscow, it's right up the road that way" and for effect points up the road the way I was going. I assume that the commander asked them what they were doing with me and they told him I'd stopped for directions or something. So in another minute the commander comes up, asks me how things are going, and tells me to have a great trip! I smile, say "Thanks", and ride off. Pretty funny incident (OK, maybe you had to be there).

I still had a few hundred kilometers to go to Moscow, so just kept on going. The road was pretty crappy, and I did not want to be on it at night, but I figured that closer to Moscow, where I'd be by dark, would be a good road. I finally got to Moscow about 23:00 local time (22:00 Kiev time), for about 15 hours on the road. Here is a crappy pic of the bike in my courtyard once I'd arrived:

No comments: