Russian soil beneath our wheels

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Our first glimpse of Russia, from the bowels of the ferry. Photo / Rob Gray
Our first glimpse of Russia, from the bowels of the ferry. Photo / Rob Gray

I expected my entrance to Russia to be a grand affair. Not that I imagined we would receive an official welcome, or that the townsfolk would crowd around to shower us with gifts, but I guess I assumed I would expertly disembark from the Dong Chun ferry at full speed, perhaps on one wheel, bravely riding into a howling blizzard, Russian border guards in awe of this mysterious figure on a motorbike.

So when I finally wheeled my bike off the ferry, sweaty and tired from pushing it over the corrugated metal surface, I felt a little embarrassed.

My bike wouldn't start.

What's more, no one seemed to notice me, and as for the weather, it was actually quite pleasant - much like a sunny winter's day in New Zealand.

We'd caught the ferry from Sokcho, a little port in the north of South Korea, to Zarubino, a little port south of Vladivostok, in the east of Russia. Confusing? It was.

Actually, getting to that point was a story in itself, but I'll come back to that in another blog. For now I want to fill you in on our first day in Mother Russia.

We woke early aboard the lumbering old ferry, ready to go at 5.30am, fuelled by a quick breakfast of half a cheese slice and some tuna between three bits of bread (which, incidentally, was also what we'd had for both lunch and dinner the day before).

Repacking our bags and dividing up the team gear between the bikes, we started our machines to allow them plenty of time to warm up, as they sat strapped down in the ferry's gloomy depths.

Mine started first go, but spluttered to a halt within a few seconds. Repeated efforts to start it were unsuccessful.

Soon it was time to get off the ferry and go through immigration. We had no choice but to leave our bikes behind on the ship. Immigration proved to be far easier than I had expected: we filled in one form each, stood in line, had a broken conversation with a curious customs official, heard the satisfying thud of the necessary stamps pressing into our passports, and strolled through. Easy.

Then the drama began again.

"Motosikil?" I was asked by a looming figure.

"Da" I replied, eager to be helpful.

"Have you declared your motosikil?" was the response, as the looming figure was joined by several other equally imposing officials.

This was the point I realised that the other forms on the bench - the ones we hadn't been able to read because they were in Russian - might have been important.

My legal instincts kicked in, and I tried to explain that, technically, I hadn't yet imported my "motosikil" into the country because it was still on the ship and I was definitely planning on declaring it the instant they let me back on the ship to get it.

My inadequate Russian may have let me down, but it created enough doubt on their part to buy me some more time.

We then heard a terrifying sound: the sound of the ship's loading ramp being raised again (to the "Mr Whippy" tune in place of a more conventional beeper, incidentally), with our bikes still on the ship.

We gestured toward the boat urgently, and the customs officials relented, allowing us out the door and back to the ferry - though not before they made us hand over our passports to a sour looking matron who promptly drove off in a jeep.

And that's how I came to be wheeling my bike off the ferry. To tell you the truth, I tried to roll off, but I ran out of momentum just in front of a group of Russian soldiers by the ferry door, mumbling engine noises under my helmet.

Sufficiently humbled, I dismounted and lugged my ride the remaining distance onto Russian soil, muddying my boots in the large murky potholes in the carpark.

While we began tackling the customs process, Tom and Mike tackled my bike, and eventually identified the problem as a dirty spark plug - easily fixable.

The next eight hours were a whirlwind of papers, Cyrillic, officials, and tension.

Every official had a different story: declare everything, right down the clothes we were wearing.

Declare nothing, only our bikes.

Declare valuables.

Declare electronics.

Declare money.

Only declare if over US$10,000.

Declare even the smallest amount.

We were taken from building to building, filling out the same form each time but never finishing it. Part way through the form, the official would get bored, confused, or frustrated, and we would be passed to the next one. Then we would make a mistake on the form, and the process would have to begin again.

We seemed to be something of a curiosity. Customs officials would walk past us, trying to look busy, while peering out of the corners of their eyes. Crammed into tiny rooms, they seemed to be continually on the move, yet not actually doing anything.

Finally, when the guards had tired of us, and they realised we would not be done by closing time, they allowed Rachael, the CEO of Living Hope, and Alla, her secretary and translator, to assist us.

Rachael brought us chocolate bars and deep-fried hot dogs - the half slice of cheese and bread was a distant memory, and I was starting to feel faint. The guards also gave us English versions of the form, which must have been floating around all day but which they had neglected to offer earlier.

By 6.30pm, the ordeal was over, and we were ushered out to collect our bikes. Russia was now only metres away.

Starting up our bikes, we were about to pass through the gate into Russia when we were stopped again by a gun-toting guard. Apparently, despite the drama we had gone through over the last eight hours, we had not been given a pass to enter Russia! Eventually, this problem was resolved too, and we were allowed into the country.

We now faced a four-hour ride to Vladivostok. On the ferry, we had agreed that this was potentially the hardest four hours of our trip: not because of the roads, but because of the cold, coupled with the fact it was the first time we had fully loaded our bikes, the first time we had ridden our bikes on the right-hand side of the road and, in my case, the first time I had ridden since my accident in Auckland a month earlier. We hadn't planned on doing it exhausted, hungry and in the dark.

We set off immediately, to make the most of the remaining light. The scenery was stunning. Hills whitened with the last of winter, trees brown and glowing with the setting sun. Stark, bleak, but beautiful. I was constantly catching my breath - and not just because of the temperature. We were finally in Russia!

The remoteness of the landscapes was incredible, as was the fact that people actually lived here. Every so often we would pass a little community: a few houses, an old lady hobbling along the road, a stray youth with hands in pockets.

With all the excitement, I completely forgot to be nervous about being back on my bike.

Piza handled nicely, and I didn't feel the effects of her bent frame. Soon enough though, darkness set in, and the journey became more one of survival. Even two pairs of gloves was not enough to keep the cold from wrapping around our fingers. The road would occasionally disintegrate from pristine highway to potholed track. Reckless drivers were quick to pass on even the most dangerous of corners.

And then, all of a sudden, we turned off the main road, trailed along a few side streets, through a massive set of iron gates, parked our bikes in the courtyard of the Living Hope centre... freezing, frazzled, fatigued, but triumphant.

We had reached Vladivostok, the start line. London awaits: all that remains is to cover the distance in between!

* To help Rob and his mates reach their fundraising target and for more information on their journey, click here.

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