part 4: Japan and Russia

Japan.

 

Mount Fuji.

People are cued up behind a yellow line on the platform at the Tokyo subway. Exactly on time the metro arrives and stops exactly at the yellow line. Japanese get out and in without pushing each other. Smoothly like a machine. Everything is under control. On the streets it seems that also everything must be controled. There are so many traffic signs and traffic lights to guide the ongoing stream of cars and motorbikes. For us it's too much and we get confused by all the signs. To make it worse, shops, restaurants, gambling houses and petrol stations try to get your attention by bright colored flashing lights. The streets look like a big disco... And the people, it’s so crowded.

Mega stores filled with the latest electronic equipments, like vacuum cleaners that tells you when to change your filter, refrigerators that beeps when your beer is old, heated toilet seats and much more. Petrol stations where the fuel hoses drop out the ceiling, just to save space on the floor. Every centimeter used in Tokyo. We wanna get out of this place....

With the help of our friends Hugo and Yuko we pick our bikes from the port. Without them it would be very difficult because a few people speak English and we cannot read Japanese. Arrigato!

In the Fuji go-ko area we find our peace and calmness again. Touring around the five lakes that surrounds Mt. Fuji. Just beautiful. And again hi-tech. Electronics are used to measure the road temperature and can heat the road in winter time. We find a nice place near a lake to camp with a view on Mt. Fuji.

We pack our daypacks and start to climb Mt. Fuji. Folders we got from the visitor centre shows time tables so you know exactly when you arrive at the summit. Only for the Japanese, because they want to control the situation... We throw them away and hike the way we want. We start at 22.00 hours and the first stage is easy and the track gently ascents. Then we get to a steep, rocky part where we need hands and feet to climb up. This part is especially difficult because it is still dark. We pass the 8th station at 3450 m. and it gets cold. We take a break and put on some extra clothes. When we look in the valley we see the little lights from Fujiyoshida city, like stars at a bright night. At 03.00 we reach the snow. Now it gets slippery and dangerous. But the first sunbeams light our way to the summit. At 04.10 we reach the top at 3776 m. We are at Japans highest point, Fuji-san. A few minutes later we see the sun rising and colors the sky gold. It's breathtaking.

Away from the big cities and build up areas it's great to ride your bike in Japan. Narrow, winding roads meander through deep green forests. Little picturesque villages with temple style roofs. Farmers that work in rice paddies. No influences of the hi-tech industry. Or....right, everywhere you look you see concrete. Big express ways build over the valleys, waterfalls are guided with concrete walls in to dammed lakes. It looks like a concrete jungle. We try to look aside it and enjoy the riding. A good thing is there are vending machines everywhere, so we can always get a cold drink.

It's a grey day when we enter Hiroshima. We go straight to the Peace Memorial park. At this spot the first atomic bomb was dropped at august 6th 1945. The A-Dome is the only building (ruin) that survived the bombing. In a circle of 2 kilometer everything was blown away. Now there are many monuments calling for global peace. Very colorful are the folded paper cranes, made by children and is a symbol for longevity and happiness.

At the Suzuki company in Hamamatsu is Mr. Hiroyuki already waiting for us. With a deep bow he welcomes us. He gives us a tour around the Suzuki museum. All the important models in the Suzuki history (from 1920) are here. The winning machines from Barry Sheene, Kevin Schwantz, Gaston Rahier and Kenny Roberts are lined up. And in between there stands the 1987 model of our bike: DR 600 Dakar. We have a big smile...

After the tour we ask for some spares but the answer is simple and direct: "NO, we don't give parts to travelers". ``We don`t have the facilities to help you``. We guess that they have priorities on their new top model ``Potato-busa``.... Well, this is a disappointment. And when Udo want to starts his "Suzi" she doesn't want to start. She's disappointed too...

The naked truth.

Japan is a country of contradictions. At one side there are hyper modern skyscrapers where everything is activated with sensors. Like voices on tape that welcomes you when you enter a building, tabs that start running when you put your hands under it and toilets that flushes automatically when you get up. Expressways `floats` above the country, connected with several kilometers long bridges and tunnels. At the other side you see a country that keeps old traditions. Many times we see women dressed in traditional kimono`s and there are many old castles and shrines. Although many castles were destroyed in the 17th century, there are still a few original castles to discover. In Matsumoto is an original castle build in the 16th century. The six store high wooden castle is build in contrasting black and white and has many beautiful details at the roof.

Because Japan is very expensive, we camp in the forests, but sometimes under a bridge in a city. Restaurants have food examples in their shopwindow and because we don't speak the language, we can point out the dish we want. It works great!

Spread through the country we see a lot of shrines. From little one-man size between the houses, till giant temple complexes in forests. The Shinto shrines (Shinto is the original religion in Japan) are entered through a "torri" (gate). Then you reach a basin where you purify your hands by rinsing them with water with a bamboo ladle. It is an interesting way to see how serious the Japanese are doing this ritual. Then you walk up a stair to the entrance of the shrine, because you "ascend" a shrine.

Hokkaido is the second largest island of Japan. Here we see many Japanese bikers. It is their holiday paradise, many, empty curvy roads in a green landscape dotted with lakes and volcanoes. And it never rains here... At least....

Since we arrived on Hokkaido we had five days of rain and now we are caught by a typhoon. Cold rain hits our face and it hurts. The wind tries to push us oft the road and in some curves it feels that we are blown backwards. This you don`t wanna experience on a bike.

After a "hard day" work on the bike it is time to relax. Like Japanese we do this in an "onsen"`. An onsen is a spa or mineral hot spring. In a little cabin you undress yourself, take a bucket and walk to the bath. If you are a bit shy you can cover your private parts with a little towel. First you wash yourself. You sit down at the bath, take soap and pour hot water over your body with the bucket. Then slowly ease yourself into the water, put the towel on your head and soak and relax. And in the event that you inadvertently fart, just say: ``Kyo tansan wa kitsui desu ne`` (Carbonation is strong today, isn`t it?)

 

Ainu.

The indigenous people of Hokkaido are the Ainu. Ainu, means human being, lived for thousands of years peaceful from hunting and gathering food. Until the 16th century, when the Japanese started to explore Hokkaido and outlawed all their customs. Like tattooing, burning of a house when a person died and hunting rights. So the Ainu were forced to live as agriculturists. Only recent (1997) and under international pressure, the Japanese government accepted the Ainu as an ethnic group and provide funds for Ainu language classes and research to maintain their traditions.

Poroto Kotan is the Ainu village we visit. The houses are build from wood and reed and have a living room, bedroom and a fireplace. In the back of the house is a place for rituals and a window where their gods could enter and exit. Little houses are used for storage or bear cages. The clothes they wear are made from animal fur and cotton and are decorated with beautiful embroidered patterns.

The Ainu perform a dance and they make music with handclapping, drums and "mukkur" (bamboo flute). They dance to express gratitude for protection, food and a peaceful life. We dance with them, because we are all Ainu.

When we arrive at the harbour of Fushiki, near Toyama, we see already that cars are being loaded. High above the ground a car is swinging on a crane and put on the deck. We can ride ours bikes in the belly of the ferry. Decks are fully loaded with cars and the russians start a party already. It's going to be a long night...

Russia.

 

From Russia with love...

After 48 hours on the ferry from Japan we arrive in Vladivostok, Russia. And again we are in a completely differrent "world". From a modern high tech Japan to a poor and detoriated country because of socialist governments in the past. Well, that's the first impression we get. Old houses, black from the exhausts from dirty buses and streets with potholes. But the people are very friendly and always interested in our bikes. "Atkuda vy?", Where are you from?, they always ask first and then how many cylinders, how many cc, how fast. They are amazed...

At a market place in Svobodny we are spotted by a journalist from the local newspaper. He invites us to his office and all the staff gathers around us. They call Vera, an 62 year old english teacher for the translation. First they make coffee and while we eat all the chocolate cake we tell about our journey. After three hours, five cups of coffee, and a dozen cookies the interview is finished and Vera takes us to her "dacha", her cottage with garden. She pickes potatoes, carrots, peppers and berries and give it to us. "From Russia with love", she says with a big smile. But before we can go we have to drink tea. How we like our tea"? she askes. Stirred, not shaken, hahaha...

For days we follow the route along the Trans Siberian Railway. Many times when a train passes us the train driver waves out his window and horns. This is cool. The trains are very long, one time we count 80 carriages with goods pulled by three locomotives.

In East Siberia the train was for many years the only way to cross the swampy taiga. But the Trans Siberian Highway is under construction. Roadworkers are working hard to build a road from Chabarowsk to Chita, many places there is a good gravel road but other parts are still pretty tough. The part from Skoworodino to Tschernyschewsk, also known as the "Zilov Gap", is the toughest part, depending in which stage the construction is. Near Skoworodino there is only a sand/clay surface and the trucks make deep tracks and after rain it turns in oozing mud that stickes to our tires. At walking speed we go forwards and we barely can hold our bikes that looses grip. Finally we make it through and then we get the next test. For upleveling the road they use big rocks, spreaded over the surface. With our loaded bikes (240 kg) we trail and bump over the rocks until all our muscles hurts. But our DR´s are still running alright. The road workers tell us that from Mogotscha the road will be good and that there are bridges over the rivers. Well, the bridges are there but a good road? Just say you can do it on your bike. The last part from the "Zilov Gap" to Tschernyschewsk the gravel road is good but very dusty.

After 4 days and 750 kilometers we take some rest. We camp at a river and walk in with our clothes on to wash off the dust. A local family in an Ural sidecar are our neighbours and they share there meal and wodka with us. And like every night in Siberia we are attacked by hundreds of mosquitoes. It seems that the insect repellent is not sufficient to protect our self. "Maybe an extra bottle of wodka", say the neighbour...

The Altai republic in south Siberia borders with Mongolia, Kazachstan and China. It has beautiful snow capped mountains. We pass little villages where we get the feeling that we are set back a century. Old, little wooden cottages with a back yard for their own vegetables. Men work on the land cutting grass with knives. Women walk to a pump to get drinking water. Like every where in Siberia the people are so friendly and the hospitality is fantastic. Every time we get some fruit, vegetables or wodka. Yes, we love the Russians.

Home Sweet Home.

Novosibirsk is a big industrial city in the middle of Russia. In the centre stands a memorial sign that tells us that this is the geographic centre. We rode already 6.000 km through Russia and are only halfway. It's a long way...

We stay a few days with friends who we met on the road. They live in a grey, square concrete flat of which we see many in the city. Outside on the streets lay big heating tubes for the common heating in the flats. All are in poor shape and when one tube will leak, hot water will float the street and a whole city block would have no heating. Thinking of the coming cold winter gives us the shivers.

We cross the Ural mountains leaving Siberia behind and enter European Russia. But the landscape, houses and roads look the same. There is only more traffic.

We headlong for Moscow. Thick, irritating smog from bush fires make our eyes tear. At the Red Square we see for the first time in Russia other tourists. In the past the Red Square was used as a market place. Later it got famous for the impressive parades from the Red Army. Next to the Red Square stands the Kremlin, where the government settles. The Kremlin, what fortress means, was build in the 12th century and is rebuild between 1475-1516 by Ivan the Great. More impressive is the St. Basil's Ccathedral. With nine towers, some have onion shape domes, and all the colors from a palet, it is a beautiful masterpiece. The smog is too bad so we let Moscow quickly behind.

Around St. Petersburg we have look at some more interesting buildings. Tsar Peter the Great, he was called this way because of his length of 2.24 metre and of his victory of the Sweeds (1721), founded this city. He was the first tsar of Russia who traveled to Europe and studied there. When he got back he started with the modernisation of Russia, using Europe as an example. He designed the Grand Palace where in front is a cascade of fountains. Water comes out of dozens gold-looking statues. The statue in the middle is Peter pulling a lions mouth open, a symbol of his victory on the Sweeds.

Autumn starts early on this lontitude. Red and yellow leaves from birch trees coloring beautiful in the sun. The days and nights are getting colder. Everyday when we camp we make a campfire to keep us warm. Holding a cup coffee in our hands, starring into the fire, to let pass our thoughts.

But realizing that the winter is coming we rush back home. But ofcourse it is not that easy. First Harald's bike stops somewhere in a city. Nothing, dead. An old man comes to us and wants that we come with him. We push Harald's bike into a parking place. We find out it's only a loose battery contact. It's getting dark already and the man opens a classroom and explains that we can sleep here. It is a driving school. How cool!

We cross the Baltic States, Poland and Germany. And in Germany Udo's bike stops on the highway. Quickly we find out that the dynamo is fried. So we put a spare one in and can continue.

And then, after 17 months, 24 countries and 64.000 km we are back in Holland. It is just a little jump further til Delft. There are we welcomed by our parents and friends. We are back home but we are not realizing it. Our minds are still traveling.

The last few kilometers to my own appartment... The sun is setting and colors the sky orange-gold. Next to me I see a long silouette shadow. It's my traveling Saint. The guy who protected me and my Suzi on our trip.

I drop a tear. I wave to him and to the sun. I wave to life. Thank you and thanks Suzi.

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