Bikes, Borscht, and Bad Roads - A Russian Journey
By Ken Freund
Photos by Ken Freund and Alex Nikonov
I've been just about everywhere in the world astride a motorcycle. I've gone from the North Pole to Antarctica and all around the equator, but never once did I make it to Mother Russia. Traveling to Russia had been on my bucket list for many years, and what better way to see it than on two wheels? Riding a motorcycle allows you to feel, smell and fully experience the journey – unlike conveyances which surround you in metal.
READ MORE: Exploring Mother Russia on a Motorcycle
Finally, an opportunity arose for me to ride this vast, mythical land, the world's largest country by area. I chose Moscow-based Russian Moto Travel Co. largely because I don't speak Russian and didn't want to try it alone. Having people along who could guide, translate, understand the culture and laws, deal with authorities, and knew the ins and outs of the trip by heart made things easier. There were three riders on this trip aside from Russian guides Alex and Tim: Gilles, a French Canadian, Andre, a fellow from Johannesburg, South Africa, and yours truly. They rode BMW R1200GS models, while mine was an F800GS.
The plan: Ride east from Moscow across the Ural Mountains and vast Siberia, all the way to the Sea of Japan and Pacific Ocean port at Vladivostok. The highway passes through 12 regions, 5 territories, 2 republics and 1 district. It also crosses seven time zones and 16 large rivers, among which such giants as Volga, Kama, Yenisei, Amur, and Irtysh. Along the way we skirted Khazakstan, Mongolia, and China, saw huge Lake Baikal, and ended up only a few hundred miles from North Korea.
Day 1 Moscow - Nizhny Novgorod 620 km
The morning one started off slow and easy. We got to know one another along with the bikes, roads, signs, and Russian drivers. In the morning we went to Red Square to take photos, then we left Moscow headed for the Far East. There were plenty of stops during the day in places like Chernogolovka and Kirzhach. We stopped for lunch in Suzdal, passed through Shua, and stopped for the night at Nizhny Novgorod at the plush Azimut Nizhny Novgorod hotel.
Day 2. Nizhny Novgorod to Kazan 580 km
From Nizhny Novgorod we rode to Kazan through the Mariy El republic. Kazan lies at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers, and is home to the largest concentration of Muslims in Russia. Along the way we stopped at Sukhoborka village to take photos, and then waited for the ferry at Korotni village. After the ferry we visited Kozmodemyansk Enthnographic museum, which is an interesting re-creation of an old Russian village, complete with actors dressed in period costumes who put on skits to demonstrate how things were done back in the day. In the evening we dined at Tatarskaya Usadba (Tatar Village) restaurant, and after dinner walked to the historic Kazan Kremlin, which is a World Heritage Site. For those of you who don't know, the word "kremlin" translates roughly as "walled fortress", and there are twelve kremlins scattered around Russia in various states of repair – from the ruins of Old Ladoga to the spectacular and famous Moscow Kremlin.
Day 3. Kazan – Izhevsk. 475 km
From Kazan we followed secondary roads to Izhevsk. A bridge on this route was destroyed by flooding, so we had to take a detour with about 15-20 km of rough, rutted, unpaved road and deep mud. (Sounds like a pretty typical Russian country road to me -Ed.) After about 300km we stopped for lunch in Mozhga before moving on to Izhevsk, home of the Kalashnikov factory and birthplace of the notorious AK-47. We toured the museum and shot some guns in their indoor range. That evening we had dinner in a traditional-style restaurant with baked potatoes and local beer.
Day 4. Izhevsk - Ekaterinburg 725km
From Izhhevsk we rode to Votkinsk, then Chaikovsky city, and then Elnya and Osa villages. About 30 km before Osa we stopped in Subbotino village for a short lunch with local bread, cheese, and sausage, plus small cakes for dessert. In Subbotino, Gilles took off on his bike alone to take photos and got stuck into deep mud. It took us a long time to find him down by the river.
After Osa we headed to the Ural Mountains where a rainstorm hit just as we stopped for lunch at a café near the federal Trans-Siberian Highway junction. After lunch we donned our rain suits and rode the next 100 km on the main highway, then headed to Krasnoufimsk by secondary road. It was rural and beautiful for the next 200 km, with smooth pavement winding through forests and up and down hills. About 70 km before Ekaterinburg we once again took the federal Trans-Siberian Highway, and by 8:30 pm finally we reached the city and enjoyed local beer, food, and some vodka.
Day 5. Ekaterinburg - day off
Ekaterinburg (or Yekaterinburg), is the capital of the Ural Region and the fourth largest city in Russia. It's a very large city with an interesting historic city center, about 50 different museums, a large industrial center, and is an important hub on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It's also notorious for being the place where Tsar Nicholas II, his family, and a handful of servants were executed in a basement by Bolsheviks in 1918. We stayed here for a day off, and I took the opportunity to bring my bike to a BMW dealer because the check engine light was on, and for some other maintenance work. Thankfully, the CEL was just a bad sensor, and it was fixed in a flash. We took a walking tour of Ekaterinburg, enjoyed the sights, and generally had a lovely day.
Day 6. Ekaterinburg - Tyumen 400km
We left Ekatrinburg at 07:30 and soon reached the Europe-Asia border monument, which is where Europe officially ends and the Asian part of the continent begins. From there we rode to Ganina Yama, or Ganya's Pit, in the Four Brothers Mine near the village of Koptyaki where a small memorial complex for Tsar Nikolas II and the Romanov family stands. It was here that the Romanovs' bodies were unceremoniously dumped after the Bolsheviks killed them at Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg.
After that we rode about 200 km to Irbit city, site of the Ural factory, which is the capital of Russian motorcycle production. We also visited the MotoDom museum, where they provided us with a personal tour and VIP reception. At the Ural factory we had an hour-long guided ride using Ural 2WD sidecar rigs on rural dirt roads around the city. We took lunch in a Soviet-style canteen and then had a guided tour of the Ural factory museum and manufacturing plant. Today there are only about 1,200 bikes made per year, but in previous times there were about 100,000 motorcycles built annually, by 13,000 employees.
READ MORE: The Factory in Siberia Where Urals are Made
From Irbit we traveled 180-190 km to Tyumen, the oil and gas center of Western Siberia. This region is quite wealthy and Tyumen is a very nice city. We overnighted at Hotel 41 and dined at Ermolaer Beerhouse where we had a fine dinner and fell sleep quickly after a long busy day.
Day 7 Tyumen - Omsk 625km
We awoke at 04:00 and, after breakfast, did 400 km in five hours (including refueling, stops for coffee, etc.). After that, we visited Ik Lake and took a short detour to visit a local cemetery. Russian cemeteries are considerably different than Western ones. When we reached Omsk city, we discovered that heavy rains had flooded the streets. Omsk is a very industrial city, thus not as beautiful as some we visited previously. Still, we saw a modern hockey arena then visited a central church and saw a traditional evening service. Afterward we had dinner in one of the best Omsk restaurants with borscht prepared in bread bowls.
Day 8 Omsk - Novosibirsk 650km
Day eight consisted largely of a long, 650 km run along a straight, flat highway to Novosibirsk. It was neither easy nor very pleasant, as we once again woke up early and started riding in the dark. We made good time for the first few hours, but about 08:30 Tim got a finger-size hole in his rear tire. We lost several hours as we tried to repair it with plugs and finally took the wheel off and carried it on the back of a bike to a tire shop many kilometers away. They installed a patch and put a tube in the tubeless tire to get us going until we could find a new tire. Afterward, we continued at a slower pace, stopped in several quaint villages, and found a nice cafe for lunch. In the city of Novosibirsk we went to the Siberia restaurant near the hotel, where we enjoyed tasty local cuisine accompanied with live music.
Day 9 Novosibirsk - Day Off
This day we planned to walk around the city and go to the motorcycle fest Obskaya Wave, but bad weather changed our plans. In the morning the weather was fine and Alex visited a BMW dealer to replace the gear position indicator on my F800GS, plus do some other minor things. By noon though, the heavy rains began so we stayed indoors and went for lunch at Sibir restaurant. Instead of the fest we decided to visit a railway museum that is 25 km from the city, which turned out to be one of the largest train museums in Russia and very impressive. After we came back we went for dinner at Shashlikoff restaurant; several beers, soups, and burgers were sacrificed for our edification.
Day 10 Novosibirsk – Kemerovo, 315 km
In the morning we had about a 180 km ride from Novosibirsk to Ugra, the city where Alex's in-laws live. Along the way we stoped several times for photos of farms and beautiful scenic views along this secondary route. In Urga, we stopped at the central railway station where we took photos of the arriving trains and a parked vintage steam locomotive. We entered the city and, while Alex stopped to buy flowers for our visit, we walk around the Sunday fruit and vegetable market. Urga is a non-tourist city so there are no hotels, just plain working-class cafes.
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With the flowers ready, we proceed to Alex's grandparents-in-law's home for a traditional lunch of borscht, cutlets with mashed potatoes, and pancakes. Kirill, a friend of the family, gave us home made honey beer and other presents. After the heavy lunch we head to Kemerovo, capital of the Kemerovo region and Russian coal mining production. Upon arriving we visited a small railway museum and then checked into the beautiful hotel situated outside of town on the shore of the Tom River. We visited a coal mining museum and returned to the hotel for a nice outdoor dinner, surrounded by the thick Russian forest.
Day 11 Kemerovo – Krasnoyarsk, 630 km
We departed at 07:45, and the first 180 km was a nice road with many curves and almost no traffic. We briefly visited a museum and church built as memorials to the people who died in the prison camps, then rode another 200 km to Achinsk. We stopped along the road where local people sell handicrafts, wild berries, the skins of bears and other animals, and homemade liquors. The road was good and the scenery picturesque, but due to rain we didn't stop for photos. In the evening we checked in the hotel and went for dinner at a local restaurant where Tim finally rejoined us. He lost a day in Novosibirsk repairing his bike, and then in the morning his tire blew out at 120 km/h. Sergey, a local guide, joined us and after dinner took us for a city tour in his car. He took us where the city was founded, showed us a boat that was used by Nikolay II and Lenin, visited a Catholic Church and several other places.
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Day 12 Krasnoyarsk, day off
Another blessed day off! In the morning we visited Stolby National Park, which is part of the beautiful Altay-Sayano mountains. We set out for a hike with guide Sergey, but after a while two of the guys got separated from the group. Several trails lead far into the wilderness, and without a working knowledge of Russian they couldn't read the signs and chose the wrong direction. After a quick and fruitless search, we returned to base camp and asked the local rescue service to help. Fortunately they were found soon and we headed to our next stop, a cliff overlook above the river. We had lunch nearby, then visited a huge dam and hydro-electric power plant, one of the top-10 in the world and second in Russia.
Day 13, Krasnoyarsk – Tulun, 660km
On the morning of the 13th day we headed to Kansk. There were farm fields, forests, villages, and railway stations with trains regularly running to or from Vladivostok. After 200 km we stopped for a break at a road café. By about 14:00 we arrived at Taishet where we visited Igor, who lives there and hosts motorcyclists. We had lunch at his home and then, after several more hours of riding and 200 km, we arrived at Tulun. Our hotel was a rustic resort located on the banks of a river. It was August 2nd, which is apparently a holiday for Russian Special Forces, and there was a group of paratroopers at the hotel celebrating. At one point they surrounded me, asking questions, curious about the bikes. I didn't understand what they were asking, but they were friendly drunks and as they learned that I'm an American they shook hands, offered beers, and we did a group photo. In Tulun we first tried a Russian banya (sauna) and swimming in the river after. Dinner was basic meat with potatoes and local beer.
Day 14, Tulun – Lake Baikal
We started late because our breakfast wasn't ready until almost 09:30. Apparently the cooks came to work late. We ate boiled eggs and toast and headed for Lake Baikal where we would have two days off. It was a rather tough road with much traffic, construction, and hot temperatures. At Baikal we settled in a private family hotel named Derevenka, where Andrey and Zhanna were our hosts. The hotel is built on a hill and consists of primitive cabins overlooking the lake. In the evening we ate local fish with beer and went to sleep early.
Day 15, Lake Baikal - day off 1
On our first day off at Lake Baikal we took in the sights, including a museum of Lake Baikal, a blacksmith, a museum of wooden houses, and several other places. In the evening some of the guys went to the banya (sauna) and swam in the lake. After the banya we all had a nice dinner with fresh fish, potatoes, local beer, and some more vodka.
Day 16, Lake Baikal - day off 2
On day two, some of the guys went by ferry to an old railway station. There they had a several km ride with their bikes, and afterward a 5-7 km walk along the tracks. Later they visited a local market and closed the day with dinner near the hotel. I spent most of the day exploring along the lakeside and in the evening went to the local market, had dinner there, and took a boat tour on Lake Baikal.
Day 17. Baikal – Ulan Ude, 520 km
Back on the road again. We started out at 06:30, and the first 250-300 km stretch was a nice scenic road along Lake Baikal with plenty of turns and elevation changes. About 350 km from Baikal we spotted a Japanese rider broken down on the shoulder with his older model Africa Twin. He was riding across Europe and his front wheel bearings disintegrated. A local towing company wanted nearly $500 to tow him to the next big city, which was crazy. Instead, we decided to flag down a passing truck and get his bike into town that way. Eventually we were successful, and a passing truck driver agreed to carry his bike to Ulan-Ude. Unfortunately, the Japanese guy didn't speak Russian. He did speak a little English though, and combined with sign language we were able to communicate well enough.
We followed the truck to Ulan Ude and we had him stay at our hotel so we could take him to a motorcycle shop in the morning to get parts. We also met a guy at the hotel who was riding from Germany to Mongolia. After that we went to a local Buddhist monastery up on a hill overlooking the city and afterward to the Nomad restaurant.
Day 18, Ulan Ude – Chita, 670 km
This day's ride was very scenic, especially the first half. The landscape was stunning, and completely different from what we'd seen in previous weeks. Despite dark butts that were on the horizon most of the day, we got lucky and stayed dry.
In the middle of the day we found a problem with Giles' bike, the front wheel was not rolling easily and there was a noise coming from it. We removed the brake calipers, but the problem persisted, indicating the wheel bearings were starting to fail. We continued for the next 200 km at reduced speed, and Alex called a friend in Chita who helped us find wheel bearings.
Chita is a non-tourist place, and we arrived late because of Giles' rapidly disintegrating wheel bearings. By the time we reached the city, it was completely dark. There were heavy butts in the sky, no street lights, and fresh, wet, dark asphalt without lines which made navigating the unfamiliar roads a nightmare. At least we enjoyed a very beautiful sunset. Near the hotel we met Alex's friend Andrey who promised to come the next morning and show us a local motorcycle shop that might have the parts we needed.
Day 19, Chita – Erofey Pavlovich, 800 km
In the morning, Tim took the BMW with bad wheel bearings to a local motorcycle shop. There, they found all the necessary parts and repaired the bike by 12:30. We packed and left the city by 13:00, but still had 800 km ahead of us. The forecast was rainy for the second half of the trip, but we got lucky, as the rain was all around us but not above us! All told it took 9 hours to ride the 800 km. This was the most rural part of the trip, with gas stations only every 150-200 km, few cafes, almost no traffic, wild Taiga (a moist sub-arctic conifer forest which begins where the arctic tundra ends), and 3,000-foot mountains all around.
Being so far north, the last few hours we were riding in twilight, and then in a blanket of darkness. It's a very ominous feeling when you ride in Taiga at night through cold rain and fog so dense you can barely see the road. We got in late and the only place to stay was a truck stop. They messed up our reservation and we had to share the tiny rooms. Outside there was loud music playing from several trucks which were also idling loudly all night. The bathrooms were down the hall and the shower was in a separate building where you had to go out in the pouring rain to reach it. It was miserable. At least we managed to get something to eat before they closed the trucker's cafe for the night.
Day 20, Erofey Pavlovich – Blagoveschensk, 790 km
We bid a not so fond farewell to the truck stop early in the morning and set out for a cold, rainy, foggy ride The first 400 km we rode in the rain, often times very heavy rain. At around the 200 kilometer mark, we stopped to fuel up in a village called Magdagachi, which was several kilometers from the highway. When we turned from the highway onto the road to the village, the asphalt ended and we had a difficult time riding in heavy rain over the deep loose gravel road. Near the village we had to negotiate a flooded tunnel under the railway, which was axle deep in mud with rocks and fast running water, to reach the gas station.
About 200 km from Magdagachi, the rain finally halted and we took off our rain suits. At Uglegorsk we visited a new-ish Russian aerospace complex, but unfortunately we were not able to make photos as security guards quickly came to us when we stopped near the gates. We reached Blagoveschensk about 20:00, but because of another time change it was already 21:00 there. This city is located on the Amur river, with China on the opposite side. After dinner at a restaurant on the river bank we returned to the hotel ready for much needed sleep after the nearly 3,000 kilometer slog that made up the previous four days.
Day 21, Blagoveschensk - day off
Day 21 was a well-deserved rest day in the city. We checked over the bikes, did laundry, rested, and had a walk around. Later, there was a short trip to a local market and we took a small ride around the city. In the evening we went to a Chinese restaurant and sampled some tasty local draft beers.
Day 22, Blagoveschensk – Khabarovsk, 780 km
We left the hotel early in the morning. too early for breakfast sadly, and rode 180 km before stopping to eat. Along the road we saw vast fields of wheat and other crops, along with many agricultural machines in the fields and on the road. After refueling, we stopped at the Moscow-Vladivostok monument, a must-stop place for all travelers that take the Trans-Siberian Route. After about 150 km, we entered the Jewish Autonomous Region, a place that was given to Russian Jews in the '30s by the Soviets. We stopped there in a local canteen to try some food and continued our way directly to Khabarovsk. We reached the city by 18:00, and after a quick shower went for a walking tour around the city with a local guide. After that was dinner and additional sightseeing.
Day 23, Khabarovsk – Vladivostok, 750 km
This was a long day in the saddle, and the last riding day on the Trans-Siberian road. Traffic was heavy as we approached the city due to heavy road construction. Vladivostok is a large city with a vast port and many big bridges. We reached the hotel tired and hungry, so dinner was in a restaurant nearby and we did little else that night.
Day 24, Vladivostok
In the morning we went to the local BMW dealer to service the bikes. It was Sunday and they brought in a mechanic specifically to help us. In three hours all was done and then we had a four-hour ride to take in the main city sights. We started from Russky Island, rode through the city, and visited the military port at Korabelnaya. There we saw submarines, cannons, and several monuments. Afterward, we rode to the central train station and adjacent seaport. They were built close to each other with the idea that travelers can ride the train from Moscow to Vladivostok and then get on a ship on the Pacific Ocean. Later we rode out to the spit of land near the lighthouse, which is at the edge of the city, for a group photo of the final goal. In the evening we visited a restaurant known for its excellent crabs and other seafood.
Day 25, Vladivostok - day off
Having reached our destination, we had the day free to explore and rest. In late afternoon we walked a bit around the city and went to a local Chinese market. Later in the evening we visited a Korean restaurant, and afterward met an around-the-world traveler from Switzerland who had just arrived with his Harley-Davidson ready for a trip to Moscow. The following day we bid farewell and flew back to Moscow, a flight of nearly nine hours.
Lodging varied by region, with some modern hotels in the cities and more rustic accommodations in rural areas. Most were good, some excellent. Money goes farther than back home in the States, and the Russian ruble's exchange rate was about 58 to $1. The cost of food and drinks is noticeably lower than in the U.S., as is almost everything else.
Most of the main roads are paved. However, it seems like every road in Russia is undergoing repairs. We experienced many detours and sections where only one lane was open that were controlled by flagmen who alternate traffic direction. Some of the traffic backups stretched for miles in both directions. Often the roads under construction would be graded dirt and gravel, with many potholes and sometimes dust. Much of the Trans-Siberian Highway is two lanes, and parallels the Trans-Siberian Railway closely.
On the highway there's a lot of truck traffic. Many vehicles drive incredibly slow so there's a lot of passing. Fortunately, the Russian drivers are fairly courteous to motorcyclists and they seem to follow the rules of the road a lot better than those ubiquitous Russian dashcam videos online would have you think.
Overall the people were helpful and friendly. Many people were curious about us and our large motorcycles, especially outside the cities. Many times they asked where we were going and had questions about the bikes, where we were from, etc. We were almost treated like rock stars, with people wanting to pose on the bikes and with us, shooting stills and video with their cell phones. We never had any hassles with the police or problems with any sort of crime, and the motorcycles were never disturbed or anything pilfered.
The weather in July and August varied from chilly upper 40s Fahrenheit overnight in some of the more northern areas, to milder 50s and 60s as lows elsewhere. Highs ranged from 60s when it was rainy and overcast, to low 90s and humid in some cases. It rained for at least some time during most days, with a few heavy downpours and thunderstorms.
Our Trans-Siberian route with side trips came to about 6,400 miles. Afterward I flew back to Moscow – which took 8 hours 40 minutes – and re-crossed seven time zones. After touring Moscow, I took an additional side trip with Alex by motorcycle north to historic St. Petersburg, and toured the wonderful sights there as well. The Hermitage Museum is not to be missed. It's chock full of amazing sculptures, and paintings by the Masters.
Finally I rode back to Moscow, logging about 7,500 miles by land overall for the whole journey. The basic ride took about 28 days, I was in Russia for a total of 35 days.
Long days in the saddle and vast distances may not be everyone's idea of an ideal vacation. For the less hardcore, Russian Moto Tours offers a number of shorter tours.
Most of us really know very little about Russia, and the name Siberia has negative connotations with many folks. However, weeks and thousands of kilometers proved otherwise, as the vast landscape is covered with beautiful forests, farmland, lakes and mountains. The cities often have architecture and modern amenities rivaling the best anywhere, and the rural areas have a rustic charm that's hard to describe.
Looking back, I'm glad I rode across Russia and I was pleased with how honest and helpful Alex and Tim of Russian Moto Tours were. Their help with translation was invaluable since I neither read nor write Russian.
For more information on the Russian Moto Travel Company, check out their website at www.rusmototravel.com.