Gunships bearing the flags of many nations are gathering in Vladivostok’s port, their artillery pointing towards North Korea as sidecar adventurers Bertrand and Geneviève Louchet prepare to say farewell to Russia.
After FTR followed their trek from France to Vladivostock – the easternmost point of Russia – they are suddenly struck by some of the things they WON’T miss about fascinating, diverse Russia. Holes everywhere, pollution, plov (a dish of oil with rice and bits of meat) and Russian salad, which seems to be one of three main dishes in every restaurant.
Bertrand takes up the story…
Before we catch the ferry to South Korea we meet with famous French cartoonist and motorcycle blogger Ptiluc, aka Luc Lefebvre, who has made Vladivostock his home.
A fearless rider accustomed to wide-open spaces and aware of our obsession to travel the roads of a world that has so many marvels to offer, he shows us the wonders of his adopted city that was forbidden to foreigners from 1958 to 1992.
The station to nowhere
After docking in Sokcho in South Korea, 50km north of Seoul – bypassing Kim Jong-un – we arrive at a beautiful ‘lost’ station built in 2000 to link the two Koreas as part of a ‘Sunshine Policy’. By 2003 and the North’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons, it was a train line to nowhere.
We gaze at the forbidden country across a 4km no man’s land in the company of a horde of curious people who come by train and coach to see the ‘ghost stop’.
As a brief interlude before we finally head for Japan, here are a few tips if you’re ever planning a trip to Korea.
- Take a road map… the largest bookstore in Seoul had only two copies.
- Download a route to your smartphone to guide you. Google Maps does not give directions, Navmii can not find addresses and Maps (so effective in Mongolia) doesn’t distinguish between highways and ‘normal’ roads.
- Motorways are off-limits to motorcycles, so imagine how confused we were on the first morning when we were refused entry to the highway leading to Seoul.
Finally, we reach the megalopolis of Seoul (10 million inhabitants, 25 million if you count all those served by the metro, for a country that totals 51 million). On the plus side the roads are on the right, are as soft as silk and have signs in two languages, one of which is English. Also, the Koreans drive perfectly and without hurry, possibly because of the traffic lights at every intersection.
Temple time for sinners?
We ride out of the metropolis and head for Geochang. Its Haeinsa temple in is one of the most beautiful in Korea. It is also one of the largest Buddhist libraries in the world containing more than 80,000 engraved wooden tablets from the 13th century depicting the three canons of Buddhism of ethics, meditation and wisdom.
It is part of a retreat for sinners like us to find the rhythm of the monks through prayer, meditation and noodle soup, but despite the temptation we move east to the peak of Seokguram. From here – if you are Korean – you can see the East Sea, but a Japanese national would be looking at the Sea of Japan. The Shakyamuni Buddha in his cave has watched over the country for 1,200 years, with his eyes glued to the East Sea, protecting his nation.
Olympic gold and the rising sun
As we arrive in early 2018, preparations for the Winter Olympics are advancing apace at Yongpeong Olympic Park. A few kilometres away, Alpensia will host the opening ceremony with its ski jump, sledge and bob slides as well as the development of sumptuous roads and public toilets.
From Donghae (Korea) to Sakaiminato (Japan, Kansai) by ferry in 15 hours, we dropped anchor in the harbour alongside the fishing boats and get clearance for our sidecar and Scrambler ‘Orange Blue’ after a full search of luggage. Fairly straightforward.
After settling in for the night we enjoy an onsen (a collective hot bath), put on yukata (cotton kimono jackets) and socks with separate toes, and eat sashimi, ravioli, tofu and tempura on the harbour as the moon rises on the horizon. We’re in Japan, with the cry of the cicadas and the white moon on the water.
Inspired by a spy
We move on to Tokyo and I fulfil a long-held ambition. A brilliant spy by the name of Richard Sorge played a key part in deciding the outcome of World War II. In his biography, he reveals how he raced around the streets of Tokyo at full speed on a motorcycle. When I read it, I though to myself: ‘One day, I’ll ride Japan on a motorcycle’.
Here we are on a Triumph Scrambler and a sidecar, with only two rules to govern us: don’t drink the tap water and don’t drive at night, largely because they drive on the left, so a car coming from the opposite direction would not see the sidecar because of the obscured headlight. Little decisions like that save lives. Two days ago the dark night arriving early caught us out but, fortunately, the Japanese are peaceful and law-abiding drivers. In Georgia we would be dead. We press on to a nearby ryokan (a Japanese-style inn).
Paradise found in Kyoto
We head east to the temple of Shōren-in, with its beautiful garden adorned with massive 800-year-old camphor alongside a pond filled with large stones and fed by a small waterfall. Another day, another stunning temple, this time Kurama-dera – the temple of the mountain in secluded wilderness at the base of Mount Kurama and accessible only by its own hill railway.
Tomorrow we will visit the terrace of Kinkaku, the Golden Pavilion, to watch the moon rise through the branches of a 600-year-old bonzai carved in the shape of a ship turned towards the west, where it is said, paradise lies. It rains in the bamboo forest once every 100 years where exotic plants bloom and die all at the same time.
A rarity on the road
In 2,000km we have seen only two sidecars. Surprising given the fact that the roads are excellent, but unsurprising because there are traffic lights every 200 metres. That said it’s a wonderful way to tour the Land of the Rising Sun, but it seems this means of transport is reserved for the rich Japanese who have their vehicles imported from countries where they drive to the right.
Travel with the one you love
As it’s still summer I refresh myself in the Pacific while Genevieve visits a small Buddhist temple in the countryside. Later that day at the port, once the boats have dumped their cargo of fish, we eat a selection raw with just a dash of soy.
We spend the night at Kishiwada in a samurai house overlooking the ocean, where we meet a French woman who has lived in Japan with her Japanese husband for more than 30 years. Geneviève asks her what she has learnt from her life here and she replies: “That one can live and travel happily everywhere when one is with those one loves.” Very true.
Alas, all beautiful stories have an end and this one is no exception. After dropping Geneviève at Kansai airport in the middle of Osaka Bay I took Orange Blue to the port of Kobe for her trip back to France by boat and home.
After overcoming bureaucratic obstacles, demonstrating patience and showing the self-control of the Japanese, she now waits in a warehouse. It will take her less than two months to reach Le Havre after crossing the Pacific and the Atlantic and possibly also the Indian Ocean… but she will not see much. I’ll follow by plane.
And the moral is… do it on a Triumph
It’s too soon to know the moral of this story, if there is one, but in motorcycling terms there are several lessons we’ve learned.
Reliability The Triumph Scrambler 2016 is a solid, reliable machine and a ‘good girl’, running without fail in more than 50˚C and in heavy rain over bumps that would have broken the frame of other machines.
Balance Motorcycle and sidecar are remarkably balanced and stable on flat roads at constant speed with no need to correct the trajectory by pulling one side of the handlebar and pushing the other. You can drive for hours without muscle fatigue or cramp.
Power More than sufficient (contrary to what happens with other bikes when teamed with a sidecar). And it’s possible to drive on a motorway without forcing the engine.
Comfort Geneviève, who had undergone spinal surgery less than two months earlier, travelled the potholes of Siberia without damage or the slightest inconvenience thanks to the suspension and the seat.