Hey you, yes YOU. You over there with the KTM. You’re not thinking about taking that Adventure on an actual adventure are you? You know that on an 1190, even getting to the end of the driveway without braking down qualifies as an adventure. KTM. What does that stand for anyway? Keeps Taking Money seems to be a common description. But I prefer Kum To Mummy. If you take your Adventure beyond screaming distance of the mother ship then good luck. You’re going to need it.
I’ve done 3 big trips on 2 different 1190 Adventures, and so far its scoring 100%. 100% failure rate that is. 2016 the immobiliser transponder failed in no mans land just outside the Laos border. Truck..ship…dealer…£1000 thanks very much. 2017 the chrome on the forks decided it was no longer necessary, wore through a couple of days before reaching Everest base camp and spent the next 5000 miles pissing oil out all over the brakes. £500 hard re-chrome and rebuild … first ride .. some bastards nick the bike out of a pub car park. I’ve had better days.. So, another 1190 is bought, an R this time. 18k and a full service history. Replace the bits the scum nicked with the old bike, fit the panniers, get some visas and fuck off east. What could possibly go wrong… it’s a KTM after all … so virtually anything really. Still, it’s not a holiday is it. It’s an ADVENTURE!
The plan. The plan was the BAM. Lets go ride out to Irkutsk then up and along the BAM to Tynda, then down to Vladivostok and back from there. Easy peasy. Look how quickly I can get there on Google Earth. A quick flick on the mouse and I’m there. No problem at all. I asked for company. There is definitely safety in numbers on these sorts of trips. I’m not a big off-roader and I’m going to need help for sure. A couple of people were interested but for various reasons dropped out along the way. Only two people committed. My old mate, the 74 year old ex truck driver that’s ridden London Bangkok twice with me, and an Australian mate that again rode London Bangkok with me in 2016. He’d be riding 2 up with his perfect pillion wife, planning to avoid the BAM and meet us in Never where the summer road meets the main east-west highway. Plans should always be simple, even the big ones. Ride out, train back. Simple.
We all had a quick chat and decided on a route. Minsk, Kiev, Moscow, Vladivostok, and wherever in-between. Spending more than 30 days in Russia you’re going to need a business visa. Pretty straight forward nowadays – £100 for an LOI from an agent then apply as normal online. I got a 60 day single entry for about £100. Same for Belarus – pay $30 plus accommodation in advance to get a voucher then apply to London – 60 Euros I think. Anybody needs any help just ask. It’s simples:)
My old mate decides to drop his bike in Bosnia about a month before we leave, just to make things difficult for himself, it was always going to be too simple otherwise. He just dropped his brand new AT and something twisted. The radiator started leaking badly and it was overheating. Surely that shouldn’t happen. Only KTMs do things like that don’t they? Anyway, his bike is couriered back on a three legged horse with 2 limps and only makes it to the dealer a week before I leave. I’m convinced it’s going to decend into an insurance super nightmare but by some miracle it’s all assessed, estimated, cleared and fixed in a couple of days. One of the radiator fans had moved slightly when it fell, and then chaffed through the rad when it kicked in. Rufty tufty these ATs eh! Anyway, he was delayed a few days and would meet up with us in Kiev. My Ausie mates flew their bike over late June and spent a month zig-zagging all across Europe. We planned to meet in Lublin, close to the Belarus border.
Feels weird to be leaving alone this time. Just kiss my wife goodbye. “See you sometime mid September” … Dover and out…
Quick skip up to Made in Holland to see my sister-in-law, then a 900km slog across the increasingly broken roads of Europe to Lezno in Poland. Just another pretty little town keeping itself to itself…. just minding its own business..
Found a cashpoint to get some money out… and a suggestion of just where I might like to put it… I am a cat lover after all.
Before heading to the square for a sunset dinner
Breakfast… checkout. I asked the young lady to sign my helmet. I’d cleaned some of it off before I started.. and I asked her if she wouldn’t mind filling it up for me again… took forever and ever … I’m nothing if not a patient man… “no don’t worry … just take as much time as you like”
Then back to the square to have a play with my new drone… and see an early indication of the standard of driving when some fuckwit doesn’t register a screaming drone flying just by his left ear!
Only a few 100 miles to Lublin so take the roads less travelled for a change. Photo mojo is in hiding again. I know I’ll regret it later but I just cannot be arsed. It’s all pretty flat and dull out this way and it also really bastard windy. Still, my reputation seems to proceed me wherever I go. I can’t step foot into a coffee shop nowadays without a young woman reaching for my helmet..
This fucking wind is absolutely doing my fucking nut. I’ve tried so many screens on this bike and they’re all varying degrees of fecking useless. I think they were tested by having an elf sit on the bike and having someone else bend over and fart 100m in front of it. “Can you feel that?” “No mate – not a trace, just a slight smell of cabbage” Job done. Bloody useless. Maybe on a perfectly calm day it might work but add in trucks, trees and a flat naked wind obsessed landscape and it feels like my eyeballs have come loose. I ride into a big electrical storm and decide the best medicine is coffee and cake. I sit down and wait. It suddenly gets really dark. Someone has just walked in. A regular by the looks of it. She’s dressed very inappropriately and bending over to look at the cakes. I whip out my ‘thigh-chaffometer’ and take a quick measurement. She scores %100 – the perfect score. Complete contact from thighs to ankles. Good job I ordered my cake before she arrived as she’s bulk buying..
Anyway, WTF am I going to do about this screen? It’s only day 2. I’ve only done a few 100 miles and I’m already thinking of just taking it off and throwing it in front of a train. Fecking useless. I look out the window into the rain. This screen is from the 1290 – fits fine if you just fit some of these and some shorter screen screws – just in case your’re interested .. anyway, the screen has a big vent in it. I reckon that’s what screwing up the airflow. So I step outside and as luck would have it there is a decorating shop next door. Loads of paint, and by shear luck, some special Polish motorcycle screen vent repair …
Which I go and administer to the bike. Fits in perfectly. You’d never notice it was there. This will be a KTM power part in the very near future.
I’d have paid at least £1000 for that to be done at a dealer. Anyway.. time for a road test so into the rain and west towards Lublin.
The tape makes a huge difference thank God. Feels like someone has glued my eyeballs back in. Fuck that’s a relief at least. Saves me securing them with nails. I look at my bike in pictures like this.. and it’s like looking at pictures of my wife when she was 25 … I get all excited … until I look in the kitchen and see it now.. that’s right .. I keep my bike in the kitchen ..still, they’re made for riding, not for looking at eh .. uh um.. perhaps I should stop there… otherwise I might be looking for a solicitor ..
Get to Lublin late afternoon and my Aussie mate’s bike is already there safe and sound. Part 1 done. Go and celebrate with a meal at the Sexy Duck. Who the fuck has ever seen a sexy duck? Anyway, one duck burger later and I waddle back to the hotel and have a strange urge to dive for soggy bread in the bottom of the swimming pool.
It’s the night of the blood moon so we sit out on the veranda sipping coffee and staring at the sky. A group of Israel kids is here and we have a chat with their teacher. I’m embarrassed to say my war history knowledge is very poor but it turns out that one of the biggest death camps was just up the road at Majdanek. The kids are bought to see it as a reminder.
Off towards Belarus. I wonder what this will be like. Every border is different but we’ve seen reports of 7 hour crossings so I overdose on patience pills and off we go. It’s not a busy border… just as well .. getting out of Poland is simples. Nomansland is a narrow road across the river border so the Polish only release a few vehicles at a time. The majority of travellers are Russians and Belorussians obviously. There is a land border between Belarus and Russia but it’s currently closed to Europeans so we will exit into Ukraine.
At the end of the bridge there is a young girl in a tight uniform , sporting a long thick auburn pony tail, wearing a big smile and carrying a big gun. That alone is reason to visit Belarus… she flatly refuses to sign my helmet though. She just ushers us on into the beginning of the usual paperwork trail these borders entail. We join the queue amongst all the scrap 20 year old Peugeots and VWs being pushed through the border. We get pulled forward as a group and wander about trying to work out what to do. I loose my mate and I see a guard waving me over to a small hut. I go in and my Aussie mate thinks he’s hit pay dirt. In front of us is a real killer in a little Thunderbirds outfit, complete with small red hat and fingernails that look like they’ve recently been dipped in somebody’s blood. She’s wearing a smile but I suspect that she could easily tear apart a rare steak, made out of my leg, and swallow it in an instant if provoked. Still, she asks a few polite questions and orders the shuddering fat guard to go and fill our forms in for us, which is nice. Go into the main building and this is where it goes all old soviet on you. Window 1 gives you a faded printout on old yellowing paper that you take to window 2.. or is that 3 .. that punches some keys .. puts a stamp on it and sends you to window 3 or is that back to window 1 .. I definitely went back to window 1 at some point in the game .. anyway… you just keep going until there is no more room for any more stamps. Then you get a fanfare and you can go to window 4 to get some insurance… unless you’re a car.. when you’ll have to go to window 5 to pay the toll for the roads..before going back to window 4
So… 4 hours later and we’re off, just as someone sticks a big pin in the jet black clouds and sets off a massive storm.
Go to fill up the bikes. FYI, almost all petrol stations in Belarus/Russia are pay in advance, and most don’t let you just fill the bike up. “сколько?” [skolka – how many] Pick a big number, pay, fill, then go back and give them your card to credit the remainder. Best done with cash as the B[W]ankers will charge you on both transactions. And not everyone trusts the Russians with their credit cards either do they.. Works fine though.
We’re running late and arrive in Minsk after dark. Big place, looks more modern than I thought it would. Some weird architecture too. Lots of money about. Lots of big expensive cars and bikes about. Mostly the ones where the dealers has to take you into a special little room and measure your cock to make sure it’s small enough before you can buy them .. and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of very beautiful young women. I had the thigh-chaffometer out for 3 days and it registered 0% every single time..
Get to the Hotel and pass through the usual time portal to 1970. It’s all good though, comfy and quiet and safe parking. I’m quite surprised so far. Good roads too, new and shiny to the capital at least. A nice atmosphere to the place as well. Get up for breakfast, Russian style. Breakfast is last nights cold leftovers. Who cares. Who doesn’t like fried eggs and beetroot?
Welcome to Minsk. I was expecting lots of old architecture and big brutal soviet building everywhere but it’s not like that at all at first glance.
We go to the war museum just up the road and it soon becomes clear why. Looks like Belarus (White Russia) was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was just destroyed. Lots of harrowing details of all sorts of atrocities. Pictures of people hanging in the streets and battles being fought among the rubble of the city. It’s got a complicated and very unpleasant war history.
No police about… drive up on the pavement and get the drone out …
We’re here for a couple of days so we head out into the countryside to Nesvizh Castle. Just to show how fluid the borders have been around this region, the castle has been in Poland… Lithuania .. and now Belarus. Still, it’s an target .. a destination .. a distraction.. that’s all the excuse I ever need.
Even out in the countryside the roads are all good and there is lots of new in among all the old. I like the old though. Europe is loosing all it’s character fast. It’s turning into a bland meh soup and it’s a shame. You’d often be hard pressed to know just where the hell you were if you were dropped in randomly on the main arteries. All these prefab, pre-drab buildings… Germany… same … Poland ..same … same same same. I juts hate it. Belarus is a relief for now, but I’m sure it will succumb to the inevitable eventually. So, out into the little wooden villages. Tiny one room houses built to keep everyone warm in the winter. Real communities. Stop here for a minute and people appear out of houses and wander down the road for a chat. Chewing the fat and passing the time. Laughing at my pigeon Russian, handing me dirty apples from a filthy bucket, leaning out the windows and laughing. Really friendly people. We’re all the same underneath..
Get out to the castle for a look about. Nice place on a big lake. Busy too… I think I saw at least 5 other people there..
Blowing a bloody gale but these little drones are amazing…
Then out for a lovely warm evening among the beautiful people of Minsk
Pity I didn’t bring my dog… they do his favorite …
Next stop Kiev.. Fill my stomach with cold vegetables and cream, meatballs and cheese, cucumber and custard … all the things you see on Masterchef .. then get on the road. Pretty flat and empty. New roads.. falling prey to the pre-drab epidemic..
Cross into Ukraine and down into the chaos of Kiev. Big, tight, noisy city with the biggest fuck-off cobblestones I’ve ever seen. Rough as arseholes but stop you going too fast and last 2 million years. I’ve seen three Maybachs here in about 10 minutes too, one of them wearing a matte paint job and wheels from a MiG – must be a hoods convention going on somewhere.
Find the hotel, cleverly disguised as a drugs den..
With a deliverscrew franchise right on the doorstep..
According to the internet.. not experience you understand … the standard of such services in Kiev is described as ‘Premier’…
My mate is into all things big and explosive so we do a day trip 300km south to Pervomaysk to visit the ICBM Museum. After the big treaty was signed one was allowed to be kept open as a museum in Arizona and one here in Ukraine. 300km of sunflower fields and shit roads later and we go down a dusty track to what looks like a rocket scrapyard in a field, through a rusty gate and park by a big helicopter that crash landed back in 1995.
A little Maldovan guide turns up in a short dress totally unsuited to the windy conditions and takes us round. With a big smile on her face and a happy sing song voice she spends ages explaining just how fucking scary and close to complete destruction the world was back in the days when I was happily riding round on a Chopper buying 8 chews for a penny. She told stories of how during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one senior soviet commander averted world annihilation by refusing an order issued due to a case of mistaken identity. He was never acknowledged but instead sent away somewhere ‘nice and quiet’ .. and very very cold probably.
Then underground we go… into the belly of the beast. First into the air and water processing plant
Then down a tunnel into the actual control structure. These places are designed to withstand a direct hit and still be able to operate for up to 45 days in total isolation, completely cut off from the world. The statistics are ridiculous and I can’t remember them other than they were in the ‘fucking hell’ bracket of weights, sizes, and dimensions categories. Basically, the control unit is a very very very very very thick, very very very very heavy metal tube about 40m by 3m inside a massive huge meganormous concrete sleeve. The whole thing is independently suspended in the void to help resist shock. Difficult to photograph.
There are 12 stories in the tube, and it’s the one at the bottom that houses the big scary fireworks buttons. You get in a tiny lift/coffin and descend into the cold and dark and appear in a little tiny room with 2 seats, 2 screens and lots of buttons. The soldiers/moles used to sit here for days on end with absolutely no entertainment allowed. The Yanks apparently had TV and all sorts but the Ukrainians just had to do with staring competition … I Spy .. and “could you please avert your eyes for a minute please Vladamir.. and maybe stick your fingers in your ears… and pass me a tissue”. Must have driven them insane. Two of you can play at earth destruction by sitting in two chairs, typing a code at a terminal and both pressing a button within a few seconds of each other. Boom. Thanks and goodnight. Two fingers.. two yellow buttons… the end of the world.
Its quite a relief to get back outside where a whole load of big boys toys are slowly rotting and turning to rust. Moving the ICBMs about and maneuvering them into the silos needed all sorts of specialist vehicles. There are big FUCK OFF Tonka toys everywhere
And of course the silos themselves. The American silos were designed to be used more than once I think but the Russians took their usual ‘functional’ approach. Why build a re-usable silo when the whole world was about to be blown to shit? Their rockets just had a monster fuck off explosive charge strapped to the bottom of them to launch them out the silo while simultaneously turning the whole place to rubble and dust. Fuck I’d like to see (an unarmed) one of those being launched. That would be a sight to see.
We wander back to the bikes and I ask if we can ride the bikes past all the missiles, over the bunker complex, past the trains and out to to the silo for a picture… I’m not hopeful .. “Da.. no problem” so off we go:)
Then back between the endless sunflower fields to Kiev. Ukraine is the world’s top producer of sunflower seeds. I’ve yet to see a single parrot yet though. Pick a field.. any field… and ride
Next day .. the deliverscrew ladies are still wandering about outside so in an effort to dampen the attraction to such services we decide to go and get ourselves radiated. Chernobyl is only about 80 miles away. You can book tours from here but my friends have organised a personal tour and will meet a guide up at the outer checkpoint. We turn the sat navs on and follow the line north to the pulsing yellow dot..
It’s at times like these I think what a stupidly lucky sod I am. Riding round the planet .. chasing my dreams .. visiting nuclear disaster sites …
My Aussie mates have ordered a special personal tour that includes taking X-Rays of each other right up against the wall of Reactor 3 where the very large piece of radioactive shit hit a truly massive fan. Their guide arrives and I’m tagging along for the ride. Get in the car, open the barrier and here we go.. The area is pretty big and it takes a while to arrive at … Chernobyl ..
Chernobyl isn’t where the shit went down though it seems. Chernobyl is a small town just up the road from the shit+fan site It’s still a living breathing town.. It has all the usual stuff. Shops, offices, restaurants, hotel, a post office .. police station. Looks completely normal and undamaged. It does have special rules like nighttime curfews and people only work here for short periods I think though. It’s not what I expected though, not at all. There are some reminders here, like a display of some of the remote control equipment used to clean up the site.
You have to go through lots of checkpoints and have lots of paperwork to get inside the area, and you’re constantly checked for radiation levels. Walk up to the machine… assume the position… hands on the sensors .. and if you’re OK the barrier will open and let you through .. hopefully
So in we go.. I remember Chernobyl. I remember seeing it on the news. I remember hearing about it, seeing all the scare stories and pictures of two headed animals etc. But the reality, as explained by the guide, is not what I remember at all. Who to believe is anyone’s guess but it’s interesting none the less.
From memory.. so don’t have a go because my memory isn’t what it was .. my memory isn’t what it was .. my memory .. anyway… There were 4 reactors here and there were plans to gradually build that number up to 12. At the point when reactor 4 went up, reactor 5 was already 85% complete and reactor 6 was underway too. The first 4 were built like semi-detached houses, right next to each other. I think the story goes that the auto systems were turned off to do some manual tests .. that were not entirely successful. They just lost control and it all went Pete Tong. They obviously shut down the other 3 immediately but the remarkable thing is, they bought them all back up and had them working online again just a few days later. Belarus caught the brunt of the cloud. Everyone was evacuated from Pripyat (the ghost town) but it wasn’t hit badly by the cloud and could have been repopulated but the decision was made not to. They ‘say’ nobody died as a direct consequence of the accident. One fire-fighter died of a heart attack I think. Obviously they do acknowledge the bravery and sacrifice made by a lot of extraordinary people involved in fighting the fire and the subsequent containment operations. You see pictures of helicopters just hovering just over the pit dropping stuff into it and checking conditions. Just normal uniforms on, no lead suits or protective stuff. Seriously brave individuals every one of them. “Fuck that shit” as my Aussie mate would say. Who knows how many died as a result of that. Reactor 4 is now enveloped in a big concrete sarcophagus, but you can go into reactor 3 next door and stand next to the wall to reactor 4, take X-Ray selfies and maybe cook some marsh mellows.. That’s what my mates are off to do…
I’ve only paid for the cheap seats and I’m expecting to bum around for a few hours in the sunshine… maybe soak up some rays … or maybe not … So I go back to the car with the guide and prepare to read. “OK… what can we do.. do you fancy going to reactor 5?” Ummmm… OK then …
The guide has been coming here regularly for 10 years and he’s only been to reactor 5 a few times he tells me, it’s definitely NOT on the usual itinerary. It was 85% complete at the time of the accident but they decided to stop, not surprisingly… They stripped it out and then clad it in some red panels for some reason to do with the radioactivity… just to be on the safe side .. yea right .. anyway, we get out the car and take a path through the undergrowth towards the cooling tower. Let’s just check the radioactivity levels here shall we..
that’s millisieverts I think… I dunno .. that’s measured just off the path anyway .. and we’re sticking to the path .. I’m sure that’s fine.. and I am wearing long sleeves as instructed .. it’s all good..
So we wander through the undergrowth towards the cooling tower. Please note all the health and safety warning signs and daily signed inspection notes to confirm that the walkway is safe and complies to article 22234234B of the ‘you’re a fucking idiot’ guidelines …
These cooling towers are MASSIVE. Amazing acoustics too. The guide throws a big rock against a metal panel and it echo’s about the place like a ghost trying to fight it’s way out. Quite poignantly, a quite well known Australian artist came here and painted a mural of a doctor working at the local hospital after the event..
We get back into the car and ride the tracks round to the cooling lake and the old labs they used after to try and detect changes in the fish and animals. Apparently they never found any abnormalities but they put it down to the fact that the first thing to go in infected creatures is the reproductive system… mother nature’s fail safe mechanism kicks in..
And then round to the reactor itself. It’s just a big sod off derelict nuclear power station. Safe as houses.
We climb under a monster lump of metal that’s just fallen off the side and leans against a hole in the wall. I take time to inspect the safety certificate.. just to be sure .. before climbing up a load of incomplete concrete stairs in 90% darkness to emerge towards the roof. Nice… I like what you’ve done with the place. very ‘now’ .. very ‘in’
The guide takes me through another door into 100% darkness and we navigate through to the huge void in the middle where the reactor would have been. Luckily he’s got a torch… on his phone.. and as long as I keep within 10 centimeters of him I can avoid the 5 story drops between the platforms we step across. You can here the scale of the place as your voice/screams/farts echo around in the darkness. Why the fuck didn’t I use my torch too? It’s funny how fear can mess with your head:)
Out into the light we go, up loads of 99% corroded 89 degree ladders, dodge round more fallen tonnage and we can get a really good view across to Reactor 4.
You’re not supposed to take pictures of Reactor 4, so the guide didn’t take me round there when nobody was about. Here is an artists impression of what I saw ..
Not a place I ever expected to be for sure.. We go and collect my mates from their tour through reactor 3 and go for lunch. Looks nice enough … bit of a fizzy aftertaste though…
The guide is with us for a couple more hours so he decides to just take us for a walk round Pripyat. This place is weird.. .and BIG. It was a really big place… maybe 50000 predominately young people lived here. The school had to run 2 shifts to accommodate all the children. I thought it was going to be a tiny place but no. It had a big stadium with running tracks and big grandstands, a swimming complex, lots of high rises .. hotels .. everything a normal town would have. We start with the usual… the wheel.. where there is a radioactive hotspot scoring somewhere over 300 on the ‘DIY sterilizations done here’ scale.
Then we just wander about through the undergrowth, through the old stadium and into the swimming pool..
And the gym.. with its parquet flooring .. as supplied by people on extended holidays in Siberia with nothing better to do apparently ..
And up one of the derelict and stripped out 17 story tower blocks for a view.
Cool… “Do you want to go through the red forest to see the woodpecker?” WTF are you on about mate? What is this bollocks of which you speak? Well, just in case we’ve not received more than 1000 times our daily allowed dose of radiation, the Red Forest is area that caught some of the cloud and killed all the trees, turning them … yep .. you guessed it .. . “It still has high levels of radiation so … keep the car windows shut… ” Understood ..that’ll work .. I’m sure this little Toyota has been heavily modified to resist all the nasties in the air round here .. so off we go … quickly .. to see The Woodpecker, otherwise known as the Duga Radar. This is some HOOOOOOOGE engineering, old soviet style. I think it was basically an over the horizon radar to detect ballistic missiles going through part of the atmosphere, sending shortwave bursts through the air, fucking up everyone’s communications and disrupting broadcasts all over the world whilst consuming vast amounts of electricity… hence it’s location .. Its MASSIVE… I think 500m by 100m. It would make a good washing line…
Then back to Kiev for a day of wandering and people watching. There is a nice old Metro system here, looks a lot like the one in Moscow, not surprisingly…. from when they used to be besties..
The girl at the ICBM museum told us you can get 10-12 years in prison just for displaying a communist symbol here nowadays…
Ukrainian is uses about 80% Russian words I think, but has a few extra letters of its own like ґ, і and ї. And longer legs too .. Plus the usual compliment of churches, fountains, trolleybuses and, of course, pretty girls..
And we came across the Ukraine branch of the Putin fan club..
We’ve not had much exercise for the last few days so we get on a random metro train to the end of the line and walk back
Seems they have a problem with flying saucers round here, crash landing into the buildings.
We’ve got a long long way to go… so we’d better get on with it.. we pack up and head east .. to the Motherland.. it’s time to get on with it.
Next – Siberia