Europe the hard way


Some people plan, and read up, and plan carefully some more before they set out on their big trip. Others just go. Like Russian-born Kirill Ivoutin and his mate, John.

Backpacking is a tried and tested way around Europe for many young Aussies every year. But as we found out there is another more adventurous alternative, so long as you don’t mind oil on your pants and waking up in a wet tent every morning.

There we were, two uni graduates about to begin our “grown up life”. It seemed that the care-free student lifestyle had finally rolled to an end. John has been a good friend ever since I migrated to Australia from Russia in 1994. I was 11 then and spoke no English.

We had become friends because John had been obsessed with Russia ever since he watched The Hunt for Red October. My efforts to convince him that Sean Connery’s accent was at best a slap in the face for any Russian were in vain and John remained of the opinion that Sean Connery was the epitome of a true Russian.

After watching John’s older brother, Stu, race around on his ZZ250 one summer, we decided to join the motorcycling fraternity, me with an old battered RZ250 and John with his smoke-blowing ZZ250. We rode the wheels of those bikes all around WA and the stage was set to conquer Europe.
No planning of course, that would make things easy.

When in Russia, use a Ural
After a year of saving money and not going out (much) we managed to save 10 grand each. First stop: Moscow city. “Wild capitalism” with obscene advertising slogans, old churches and a mummified leader, create a contrasting picture.

Not so long ago Moscow was a totally different place, believe me. We walked around the grand streets for days, ventured into Moscow’s many museums and street bars. It’s impossible to see everything in such a huge city, so we started making plans for our adventure.

So which bike? It had to be a Russian Ural with sidecar, of course. The design was “borrowed” by Russians from the German BMWs and Zundapps of WWII fame – and it hasn’t changed that much since then.

After some running around, we found a 1993 Ural with Tourist options. It had been in storage for 10 years in a shed outside Moscow.

Rusty iron doors opened with a screech and we saw the machine that would carry me, John and our luggage for the next four months. It was dirty, dusty and the seat was half eaten by mice. I kicked it into life. It was the sound of yesteryear, the ticking lifters, the knock of the pistons, it was alive! The deal was done, $1500 with full tool kit, a box full of parts and a tyre pump. Score!

Just spit on the cylinder head
After some basic preparation (oil change, cables, spark plugs, leads, etc) we set out from Moscow at 4am. It was rainy, cold and miserable. Our adventure had begun. We intended to set off full throttle to Russia’s old capital, St Petersburg.

To our disappointment full throttle meant 75km/h but to be fair, the bike was carrying well above its load capacity.

Getting out of the Moscow’s chaotic traffic takes a while but slowly the grey apartment projects faded away and open fields and villages began to dominate. Once we were on the open highway, we had to swap places about every 100km. The driver gets a sore arse because the camber of the motorcycle was biased to the left.

The sidecar was not much better, with the low seat giving you a back ache. At one of many roadside cafes some locals gave us advice:
“Spit on the cylinder barrel and if the spit beads off then motor is about to melt. If it bubbles, then you’re okay. I know, I used to own one of these on a collective farm.”

After 16 hours and 700km of crazy adventures on Russian highways, we reached St Petersburg. We rested our beaten bones in a cheap hostel run by a one-armed Afghanistan war veteran.

“Oh, you boys look like you just rode out from the war!”

“Which way did the Germans go? Hahaha. Can you keep an eye on our machine?”

“It’s safe here, I put you in the ‘foreigner’ room.”

We were dirty, tired and alive! Our backs hurt. Luckily for us, the bottle shop next door was open 24 hours and we stocked up on locally brewed Baltica 7 beer. It could only get easier, surely.

St Petersburg is a truly amazing place, the complete opposite of business-oriented Moscow. The grand streets, canals, palaces, parks and attractive girls make for a good time.

After a week in St Petersburg we set our sights on Helsinki, Finland. We managed to cover that in only one day. There was a bit of a scare on the Russia-Finland border because I had forgotten to get some insurance documents for the bike and was sent to see the general in charge of the border! Fortunately, all he wanted was to ask me about Australia, while his young secretary wanted to know if I was married. Good times.

There’s a noticeable contrast between the Russian and Finish borders. On the Russian side there are three zones, each requiring the same passport and motorcycle papers. Young conscripts with loaded AKs asked us heaps of questions and usually laughed once we told them our grand plans. Laughter was beginning to get annoying. On the Finnish side was one empty building and a young Finn with designer glasses and spiked up hair who greeted us:
“Hello! Why do you wish to visit Finland?”
“Drink some beer, eat some reindeer!”
“We also have some girls here. Hahaha. Welcome to Finland boys!”

I got a sad feeling leaving my Motherland as we rolled across the border. We were on our own. This was Europe! No Ural spares from now on.

International brotherhood of bikers
Helsinki is a nice place. We soaked up some street culture and then went bushwalking in a nearby nature reserve with a very beautiful forest and met good-hearted people. While in Finland we acquired the taste for saunas and reindeer stew. Finns told me it was a country of 10,000 lakes and we spotted a few.

After staying in historic Helsinki with some friends, we put our bike on a ferry to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, which turned out to be a real gem. It is blessed with a magical medieval Old Town full of trendy restaurants and pub breweries, all at affordable prices. This was our kind of place and we milked it for all it was worth.

Everything was going great! We were the luckiest bastards on earth, riding a cool retro bike, camping out every few days. Our luck ran out as we rolled into Tartu (central Estonia). The gearbox made a nasty screech and our rig rolled to a halt. Luckily for us we were helped by local bikies, the Piratica MC, who took pity on us. The leader, Eiko, fed us, fixed our gearbox and arranged for us to stay at a clubhouse. That night we drank booze, relaxed in a traditional sauna and smoked shisha. When I asked Eiko why he did all this for us he replied:
“We all ride motorcycles! We all share the same philosophies about life and that makes us brothers!”

I nodded to him, and then shook his hand, biker style.

After a few days of rest we got back on the road, making our way through the Baltics. One of the highlights was visiting an abandoned Russian nuclear missile base in central Lithuania at a place called Kaliningrad. There John got to live out his Hunt for Red October fantasies when we visited a Russian submarine.

Germany means beer
By the time we got to Germany we had already run into all sorts of trouble, such as confusing Frankfurt Main with Frankfurt Uder. One is a huge city and one is a small university town. Have a guess where we ended up?

Again we got lucky and some uni students spotted us hanging around the college noticeboard and they let us stay at the share house. John repaid their hospitality by blocking up their share toilet with his Aussie poo the morning we left for Berlin.

The first night in the German capital and we were already on a pub crawl, representing Australia in every drinking game. The following morning people told me I was running around the hostel with a fire extinguisher, covering everyone with dry powder. The hostel manager was looking for us so we packed our “mule” and rolled along to Amsterdam, then Belgium, France, Spain.

Somewhere along the way, in some godforsaken Spanish village, we indulged in a feast of bull testicles to the enjoyment of the locals.

We managed to make it all the way to Portugal just in time for the Portuguese MotoGP at Estoril. The Ural kept going and going. One of the most dangerous stages we did was crossing the twisty mountain passes in Spain because by that stage all the tyres were bald and the roads were wet and slippery. We’re not doing that again.

What struck us on this trip was how helpful people were everywhere we went. One time I forgot to fill up with petrol on my driving shift and the bike ran out of juice. Almost immediately a truckie pulled over and drove me to a gasolina station and back again. The thing about Spain is that the language barrier disappears once you say the words la moto. They love motorcycles in Spain.

In Poland, after a night of drinking on a river bank, we found our battery was dead. No problem because Tomy the Polish farmer feds us breakfast and charged up our battery, all for goodwill and a photo.

We rode for weeks from Portugal to Switzerland. A typical routine was to wake up at 7am fold up the tent, pack the bike, ride all day then stay at some dodgy roadside motel when it got dark. Repeat.

It was a cold and frosty morning when we finally crossed into Switzerland where we stayed with John’s aunt in beautiful Lasagne. She took us to a family winter ski cottage and we ate melted cheese with hot tea – the national dish apparently. That night I couldn’t sleep. In the morning I would board a train to Paris and then fly home. Four months of crazy road adventures had drawn to a sobering finish. Suddenly I realised that had I loved it!

Everything I hated before, getting drenched, sleeping in a leaky tent, negotiating city traffic jams, I suddenly found exiting. Maybe the reality of going home finally sank in.

Ural for sale – two careful owners
I had one last look at our battered Ural before John took her to the UK to sell. There was no wiring left alive – the coil was powered by a piece of wire connected directly to the battery. All the tyres were bald. The rear axle was secured by a tent peg. The sidecar was showing signs of very disturbing cracks.

But the bike got us across the whole of Europe, and with style. Sure, a BMW or a Japanese bike would have done the same with more comfort and fewer things breaking but we wouldn’t have met all these people who were so eager to help and who asked us nothing in return. Farewell old friend.

1 x Ural Tourist 1993
1 x Kirill
1 x John
2 x hiker backpacks
1 x shoulder bag for my camera
1 x Leaky Polish two-man tent.
1 x axe
1 x spare tyre
4 x patched up inner tubes
1 x full factory tool kit
2 x spare carburettors
2 x spare cables
1 x box of various parts
1 x foot pump
2 x camping mats
1 x Russian military trench coat