As his successful career as a barrister drew to a close, Bertrand Louchet knew it was just the beginning of a “crazy” new adventure. He and wife Genevieve, both 66, didn’t want to be kicking around their pleasant enough French home town of Albertville near the Swiss/Italian borders for the rest of their days. So a 19,000km trip across Europe and Asia to Vladivostok on the cusp of Japan and North Korea seemed like a good idea.
The trip would span Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and Russia again. Bertrand shipped his modified 2016 Scrambler – named Orange Blue because of its purple-blue colour and thin orange edging – to Istanbul, so his adventure began alone, with Genevieve flying out to join him in Asia. “It was a little crazy but I wanted to reach Vladivostok by land, travelling the Silk Road and then along the Amur River,” says Bertrand.
Before setting out, Genevieve asked me: “How will we get there? I don’t ride.” I replied: “Simple. By sidecar.” Her only requests were a horn for herself and a hood to protect her from showers and sandstorms. We promptly bought a Scrambler and sidecar – then matched the paint jobs!
I was reunited with Orange-Blue in Istanbul. After a ferry from Turkey’s capital to Trabzon on the Black Sea I take the ferry to Sochi in Russia. Except that Genevieve’s instructions are slightly out of date and the ferry service no longer exists. I have to cross Georgia by bike.
I cross the Turco-Georgian customs and quickly discover that in Turkey, roads are excellent and the drivers dangerous, whereas in Georgia both are dangerous. I press on along the Black Sea shoreline and my GPS abandons me, forcing me to ask a car’s occupants the way to Sochi. ‘Turn back,’ comes the reply: ‘You’re heading towards Abkhazia, which, since it has unilaterally declared itself independent of Georgia, is purely and simply closed!’
Sorry, Abkhazia is closed
The only way to reach Russia without passing through Azerbaijan is to cross the Greater Caucasus via the Georgian Military Road. It’s at this point I ask myself what I am doing, a feeling that stays with me until I cross the only border post between Georgia and Russia later that day and arrive in Russia in the evening.
Early next morning I hit the road and am lost in the immensity of the land, with its wheat and sunflowers, until suddenly a familiar perfume caresses my nostrils. It’s a scent that would make a perfumer rich if they were able to grasp its essence and recreate it; a mixture of lemongrass and broom. Where had I met it before? In Mongolia! It was the smell of the steppe.
I did not need to see the roofs of Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, to know I had arrived in Asia. Tomorrow I gallop to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea.
It takes 12 hours to make 367km from Astrakhan (Russia) to Atyrau (Kazakhstan). The landscape is not dull but the road is a horror. When I noticed the mudguard of the basket jumping more than usual, it was the start of a series of makeshift repairs that would not deter me. I reach Atyrau in Kazakhstan. I still have 2,000km on similarly dreadful roads before meeting Genevieve in Kyrgyzstan.
Silk Road to Turkestan
I am finally on the Silk Road after a detour north via Uralsk to avoid losing even more of Orange Blue, but since Kyzylorda I ride a road as smooth as billiards table. Despite the 50˚C heat, my Triumph Scrambler is solid and reliable, encountering jolts that would have broken the frame of other machines. It is proving the ideal motorcycle for one who is not a mechanic. Tonight I sleep in Turkestan, a stone’s throw from the mausoleum of Khodja Ahmad Yasawi – a 12th-century Sufi wizard – built by Tamerlane and considered the most beautiful monument in Kazakhstan.
Love on arrival in Bishkek
While I’m in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, I need to buy a spare tyre for the basket wheel but this place is destitute and almost totally devoid of motorcycles, so it’s with no little anxiety that I wait for Genevieve at the airport and yes, she has it… that big red package on her cart.
How good it is, after 40 years of marriage, to be able to say: ‘I love you, a tyre, a lot’? When Orange Blue is fit and healthy, she attracts thumbs up and honks from horns (at first I thought it was to reprimand me) and when she stops, she is surrounded by admirers who want to get in. To win sympathy, get a sidecar.
A meal close to heaven
This afternoon we visit the valley of Ala Archa, an hour from Bishkek, where the surrounding mountains are higher than Mont Blanc and people, such as the gentleman who cooked chicken chachlyks (grilled skewered cubes), invite us to share their meal. We do and then head west towards Lake Issyk Kul, or ‘hot lake’.
Today it is a welcoming place where several thermal springs of hot water stuffed with radon gas mean bathing times are sensibly limited to 15 minutes. We stop by the lakeside road for coffee and meet a couple of young Turkish riders on their way back from Vladivostok! Warnings about the state of Russian roads follow before we take the bumpy military road that passes through Karakol to the Kazakh border post in Karkara… beautiful.
Back into Kazakhstan Bonnie and Clyde style
We’re going to double back on ourselves for Almaty in Kazakhstan once we get through Kazakh customs in Karkara. Or that’s what we think. We’re stopped by two policemen who tell us we’ve broken the speed limit, despite countless Kazakh land cruisers all having overtaken us. The fine, if we don’t dispute it, is 20,000 tenge (£50). We pay, trying to keep perspective.
Powering north towards Semey, we reach Usharal and are again arrested at a checkpoint by police. They tell us the bike does not belong to me and insist we must be punished. I tell them I need to get my licence, jump on the bike and start it in a whirl. Like Bonnie and Clyde, we flee and take the road to Semey at full speed. When we’re sure we’ve given the police the slip, we stop in the fragrant steppe for a picnic to celebrate our 66th spring. Now is a time to remain positive.
A brush with the KGB
We’re making good progress to the Russian border but Orange Blue’s basket damper is showing signs of weakness. Once we cross we stop in Novosibirsk, gateway to and capital of Siberia, to try and replace it. A car pulls alongside us and motions us to stop. The driver Alexei is also a motorcyclist who asks if we need anything. We tell him about our problem and he gives us, in addition to his own, the address and phone number of a motorcycle shop. There is always someone with a kind heart happy to help.
Far from Novosibirsk, the isbas (Russian log huts) line up along the secondary roads until the entrance of Tomsk where 1980s social housing is bleak. These are Putin buildings, but in the heart of the old town there remain old aristocratic ones. In Lenina Street sits a red-brick-fronted house with a basement accessed by a staircase. We push open the heavy wooden door and find The Museum of Oppression, a dingy basement formerly owned by the KGB between 1919 and 1988 in which unspeakable horrors took place.
Last stop for the Gulag
We cross the River Ienissei and stop at Tayshet station at the junction between the Trans-Siberian and the BAM – Baikal Love Magistral – railway tracks, which goes up towards the north-east. This station was the transit point for prisoners of the Gulag. After a night in the hotel opposite, there are 600km between Orange Blue and Irkutsk. We buy honey, refuel and prepare to go.
We depart for the shores of Lake Baikal in pouring rain via Listvianka, a place frequented by Chinese tourists and where our ‘mini hotel’ is, which is, according to Booking.com, located ‘four minutes from the beach’. Don’t be fooled by descriptions.
The prestigious Trans-Siberian Railway runs along the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, with a thick curtain of Siberian pines separating it from the road. We stop at Baikalsk, a pretty, fashionable and off-season ski resort popular with hikers and whose main claim to fame is that Putin visited in 2002.
The next day, we enter the republic of Buryatia and summer returns. The blue line of the lake named the Pearl of Siberia is visible between the trees before we arrive in Oulan Ude, the regional capital, famous for having the largest statue of Lenin’s head in the world! We return to the Buddhist monastery of Ivolginsk, a place of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhism, the religion adopted by the Buryat people, before Orange Blue leaves Buryatia and the time zone of Irkutsk.
Slow boat to Japan
Vladivostok means ‘The Lord of the East’ and marks the end of Eurasia and the end of the dream. We stay where the waves of the Sea of Japan lap the land but, unfortunately, it’s polluted and overshadowed by growing numbers of warships ready to sail if Kim Jong Un does his worst.
We’re in a cabin on the ferry with Orange Blue in the hold. The sky darkens beyond the 38th parallel and the long-range American missiles point northward – we are headed for Japan and our journey’s exciting end.
Look out for part 2 of the adventure – coming soon.