Russian Roulette: Riding to Moscow on a sportsbike
Motorcycle travel author Kevin Turner puts his life in the hands of Russian road engineers and truck drivers as he does the improbable, and rides a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle from the UK to Moscow, via Norway.
In Russia, no one can hear you scream – at least not if you’re wearing a crash helmet – and I did quite a lot of screaming as I made my way from the Finnish/Russia border towards St Petersburg, then on to Moscow, before embarking on a long and arduous ride towards Latvia. I screamed as I bounced over potholes large enough to harbour lost civilisations and I screamed as I overtook enormous trucks, only to find my path blocked by equally large machines thundering towards me on the wrong side of the road. I screamed too, when the highway simply ended, the craterous carpet of blacktop replaced with mile after spine-shattering mile of rubble, dirt and small boulders. This is what constitutes a major arterial route in parts of Russia and neither I, nor my 12-year old Kawasaki, were prepared for the ride. I screamed a lot in Russia; I suspect most motorcyclists do.
Russia, or rather Moscow, had become the destination of choice for a hectic three week, 6,000 mile blast from my home in London, via the majestic fjords of Norway. It was an ambitious jaunt that required plenty of long days in the saddle and little time for rest; an ill-planned adventure, driven by the imminent arrival of my first child (which turned out to be children) and the realisation that epic rides would soon be a thing of the past.
Norway was beautiful; its landscape almost mythical in both scale and drama; towering mountains, vast foreboding forests, plunging cliff-faces streaked with waterfalls. And the fjords: vast, splendid, soul-stirring.
But that was Troll-country, wild and untamed, and it seemed a long way away as I willed the Kawasaki onwards towards St Petersburg, a lone biker on a road as dangerous as any I had ever ridden.
There are three types of vehicle in Russia: dirty, lumbering freight; tatty, circumspect old cars with lose panels and rotten chassis; and gleaming modern 4x4s with ominous blacked-out windows. This triumvirate is a sort of mechanical proxy for the new caste system which has come to define the country since the fall of communism two and a half decades ago. The great convoys of stinking trucks that rumble along the highways like ogres on a death march are the lynchpin of this new Russia; the great unwashed, toiling in joyless pursuit of the next ruble. A few rungs up on ‘the big ladder’ sit the men and women who, like their cars, will never receive the full service they so richly deserve. Poor souls condemned to a life of pointless paperwork, ticking boxes to please mindless bureaucrats still clinging to Stalin’s mad dream. Then there’s ‘the white armada’ – spotless cars driven by manicured mistresses and men in tailored suits. They drive with the confidence of folk who know the laws of the country do not apply to them. They can afford their own justice in this new frontier.
Different lives; different incomes; different dreams; but the one thing these people have in common – beyond their nationality and their language – is their propensity to be very, very drunk behind the wheel. This is a big concern for a hapless biker already on the brink of meltdown as yet another car pulls a desperate U-turn across six lanes of traffic and the big trucks either side of me shudder and shake, their air-brakes struggling to prevent catastrophe. Back home this would make the local news, but out here, in this no-man’s land flanked by dark forests and twisted metal, it is commonplace and utterly terrifying.
In England – and I suspect this is true of most of the developed world – our driving is informed by an essential respect; an underlying, tacit agreement that we will abide by the rules and each do what we can to avoid killing the other.
In Russia, those same basic rules of decency do not apply; if you assume that the driver of the car to your right is not going to turn left until you are out of the way, you will be killed, or at best, left very badly shaken. There is no place in the Russian approach to motoring for those philosophical tenets that we take for granted: consideration is weakness; caution is risk; trust is death.
But this is a cultural novelty, part and parcel of living in a country that has forced its people to survive on their wits for so many generations that gratitude and empathy are no longer positive traits, at least not on the road. So there is no point complaining as yet another reckless lunatic attempts a suicidal overtake, the success of which is totally dependent on the oncoming traffic veering out of the way.
But it’s not all bad. There is a macabre thrill in that mad death-race and there’s a reason they call it Russian roulette. Each overtake felt like the roll of a very loaded dice; but huge risks are required if you want to make progress on those awful roads and if that fact hadn’t registered already, it certainly had after a chance encounter with a biker named Alex.
I was wrecked by the time I reached the outskirts of St Petersburg. It was early evening, I had no idea where I was, or where I was going and I was too tired to push on. A few hours discreet sleep under the plastic table of a service station seemed about as good a prospect as any at the time.
I was scouring the restaurant area for a makeshift mattress when I spotted a lone biker sitting opposite me on the other side of the forecourt. Might he know enough English to understand the word ‘hotel’? To point me in some vaguely hopeful direction? It seemed unlikely; but as I have come to learn from so many miles on the road, miracles rarely present themselves as such, preferring to stay hidden until you make the effort to reveal them. Sure enough, not only did Alex speak English, he was kind enough to phone around for a cheap (ish) room then spend much of the rest of his evening leading me across St Petersburg in what I can only describe as something like a failed suicide pact which ended as happily as these things can an hour or so later in the carpark of the Hotel Olgino.
I learnt a lot about motorcycling the Russian way as I wrung the neck of the Kawasaki in hopeless pursuit of Alex, who sliced through the traffic like a graceful dolphin amid a school of mackerel. Total commitment is the only way to pilot a motorcycle in this weird land. Force your way through the madness with the throttle pinned and a complete faith in your own ability. Use the power and dexterity of your machine to your advantage and take ownership of your immediate future, which lies in the shrinking gap between a couple of BMWs, the drivers of which neither know or care that two helmeted lunatics are about to graze their paintwork with panniers and mirrors at terrific speed with no margin for error. This is real riding; the sort of hopeless, pyrrhic battle that would have been a big draw for those old-time heroes who died young in search of real life; the sort of motorcycling that T.E. Laurence, back from Arabia and grinning madly astride his imperial Brough, would have relished; immensely dangerous, with nothing but your wits and skill to protect you from the onslaught. But I am no hero, old school or otherwise, and I prefer the odds stacked a little more in my favour.
Outside the hotel I thanked Alex for his kindness and made a mental note to sell my motorcycle the moment I got home. My heart felt like a nail-gun and it seemed my blood had been replaced entirely with adrenalin. Alex said to call him if I needed more help and I promised that I would do so if I ever felt life had become too much for me to bear.
From Alex I learnt two important lessons: that with the exception of anyone in a position of authority, the Russians are kind and generous to a fault, and that if I were to survive the ride down to Moscow, and then back out of the country, I would need to steel myself for a very bruising few days in the saddle.
That turned out to be a significant understatement; Moscow was wonderful, but the journeys to and from it where about as bad as you could endure and live to tell the tale. Major highways became single-lane rubble-strewn paths in the blink of a wincing eye; the traffic from both directions channelled towards each other with size being the deciding factor in who ended up in the ditch. Head-on collisions were avoided with a frequency that eventually became tedious and my resolve – not to mention my Kawasaki’s suspension – was tested to the absolute limit.
I survived, but only in a manner of speaking. Even now, many months later, my lungs are still struggling to clear the rank clouds of filth that billowed from the rotten exhausts of so many thundering juggernauts and my spine feels like it’s been bolted together with rusty fittings.
When I finally crossed the border into Latvia, after a tortuous eight-hour battering along the consistently inconsistent M9 highway, I felt like Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption; I had escaped sure enough, but at a horrible price and unlike Andy, I had no one to blame but myself. I rode some distance from the border; far enough that I felt sure the Russians couldn’t invoke their furious bureaucracy to drag me back into the fray, and parked the Ninja under the shade of a natural arbour. With the pistons resting in their cylinders and the exhaust silent, only the ping of the cooling metal interrupted the rural tranquillity.
I took a moment to regain my composure and make some final frenzied notes in my diary. They provide a concise, if pitiful, summary of my Russian experience and would have made for a nice conclusion to this article. However, my editor (*) assures me that this is a somewhat respectable publication, and there is no place here for those muffled expletives which tumbled through my visor on that hot afternoon in the quiet seclusion of a Latvian layby.
* Ed: we love a good swear and a decent rant. But this was too much even for us. Our news editor threatened to resign and the publisher was all for catching Turner in a big net and beating the mortal shit out him for even thinking the kind of horrible thoughts he expected us to commit to print. We settled on the above compromise, for the good of everyone involved.
Kevin Turner is a freelance writer and author of two travel books, Bonjour! Is This Italy? A Hapless Biker’s Guide to Europe and From Crystal Palace to Red Square: A Hapless Biker’s Road to Russia.
For more info, visit www.haplessbiker.com
Kevin will be donating his royalties to Shropshire and Staffordshire Blood Bikes (SSBB), his local group of life-saving riders, for all book sales from 1 November 2016 to 30 April 2017. Click on the books below to buy from Amazon.