Editor's note: We first heard from Rob and Dafne de Jong in early 2001, when the couple arrived at the Motorcyclist offices with a most incredible story--and superb photos--of a worldwide journey by sidecar. We published their tale in our May '01 issue ("Living Your Dream"), though Rob and Dafne weren't done. While in the United States, the couple planned to careen across the globe once again to Siberia, Japan and the Ukraine. Now they've done it, and here is the final piece of their globe-trotting tale.
Our sidecar is loaded onto the old Russian cruise ship, the Antonia Nezdanova.
Leaning on the railing of the Antonia Nezdanova (the old cruise ship that will take us away from Japan) we are looking to the horizon over the quiet waters of the Sea of Japan. Europe is our home, but after five years on the road it still seems too soon to return. Somewhere over the horizon is Vladivostok, Russia. Just beyond lie new roads to be driven and people to meet.
We check the straps to make sure our Yamaha XJ900 sidecar is tightly anchored to the deck. She seems ready and willing to take on the next stretch. We've ridden so many miles together, she's like family. The first leg of our journey took us east around the world through the Americas, Africa and the Middle East to India and Nepal. Next we headed through Australia and New Zealand, came back to America to drive up to Alaska, and then returned to Mexico. From there we headed west by boat from America to Japan, and now from Vladivostok all the way to Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
We never thought we'd return to Holland coming across Asia. We'd underestimated the size of the world and the impact it would have on us. Our route changed day to day, and the freedom to do as we felt and go where we wanted became one of the most sacred things in our traveling life. We didn't plan to travel for five years, and we certainly don't plan to stop now. We've been living our dream, and to finally return home made us realize one thing--our dream is still alive.
Japan wasn't a total surprise--it'd been with us all along. Our Yamaha, cameras (Nikon) and film (Fuji) originated in the land of the rising sun, making Japan a part of our everyday lives. Still, Japan absorbed us; the smells and tastes, the different social rules, and the way of living and working were like a breath of fresh air. We arrived just in time to see the cherry trees bloom. The Japanese youth are going through some kind of flower-power phase, with teens (especially girls) dressing up in white and black, sometimes with blue-painted faces. It turns out the flower-power movement is more of a flower party.
Volgograd got its name in 1961. Stalingrad will never be forgotten, though, as one of the most terrible battles of World War II was fought here in February '43. High above the city rises the 236-foot-high statue of "Mother Russia." Sword in hand, her face looks grim, frozen in an outcry of "No more war!" On September 11 these images came back to us, as we saw the horrific terrorist attacks on television. On this hill in Stalingrad dead bodies were piled up as human shields for the next group that was sent in. Later we thought about the children in Afghanistan and felt sorry we could not visit them with our project. The children in Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Pakistan were all happy to see the colorful drawings of American children we had displayed and were full of questions. Just as our thoughts were with so many on September 11, the thoughts of those Afghan children must have been with the children whose drawings we left behind. On the memorial grounds are statues and a huge relief showing soldiers wounded, in pain, sad faces. In the mausoleum the light of an eternal flame falls over thousands of names, which are only a few of the total number of soldiers who were killed in combat. The only building still remaining after the combat of Stalingrad, a flour mill, was ironically built by the Germans themselves.
Visiting Japan may include climbing up the Tokyo Tower or even Mount Fuji (yes, we did it). For motorcyclists we found an alternative named "Mount Motorcycle." This mountain is made of the remains of an estimated 10,000 motorcycles, scooters and mopeds. If permitted by owner Hagita Katsushi, who by the way says that he knows all the motorcycles in his yard, you might try to climb the twisted wreckage. The summit is at approximately 15 feet.
This picture is from Tokyo's Shinjuku district, and in some ways it reminded us of our own small country in Europe. The streets are so narrow there is a constant parking problem. Most people travel by public transport or by bike, scooter or small motorcycle--small not only in cc, but also in size, as in made for children. Only here we saw adults aboard them, splitting lanes of ever-jammed traffic in the cities. I never fancied learning to read and write Japanese. Still, the signs attracted me, so I asked our American friend Chris for the meaning of two signs I picked out. One was the sign for "big," the other "small." Next time I went to the toilet I saw the same signs, and as I flushed I saw that I could flush "a little" or "a lot."
We were invited by the Japanese importer of EZS sidecars and welcomed as guests of honor. Someone estimated we were the second sidecarist travelers ever to visit Japan on a world tour. We were surely the first to do so on an EZS. Our Japanese friends Taka and Hiroko-san also took us and our sidecar to a Buddhist temple where, during an impressive 20-minute ceremony, a Buddhist monk prayed for our safety and then blessed us and our sidecar. In Japan it is custom to do this whenever you buy a new car or bike.
Sidecars are used for many tasks in Russia. Summer is when Russians prepare for the long winter, which means that the whole family is often working the land. Many Russians prefer to live in the ugly looking apartment buildings from the Soviet time because, we were told, "here you have running water, central heating and a bathroom." Russians who are not farmers still have a piece of land to grow vegetables--and even now many Russians survive on the food from their gardens. Food is harvested to feed the animals in the winter, also. Everywhere grass was being cut (often still by hand) and stacked. It is not uncommon for small farmers to perform this difficult task with their sidecar and trailer.
In the middle of nowhere there were three guys and a girl pushing something on two wheels with an engine that didn't want to run. We stopped to ask if they needed help, and one of the guys showed us an electric wire, indicating that his battery was dead. We were traveling together with two Austrians, so one of them connected the wires to his battery and they got the bike started. Here they are ready for take off. The next second the driver put the bike in gear and let go of the clutch. The bike's front wheel flew up in the air, and the three guys ended up on top of each other behind it. Of course, the fourth passenger got the blame, and after starting it again he decided to walk to wherever they were going.
We always like to stop in villages to drink coffee and meet people. This time girls wanted to exchange little gifts, some boys were on their way to go fishing, and another two boys ran home and came back with their Ish, a Russian-made motorcycle. Adults stopped to ask where we came from and an elderly woman invited us to sit on the wooden bench outside her house. When it was time to go the two boys decided to join us for a while. Although we think the Russian tank helmet worn by the driver looks great, his passenger is proud to wear a real one.
Russia is truly the land of sidecars. They are used as utility bikes and, though handy, they're not as popular as real motorcycles because of their perception as slow, poor men's vehicles. Because of this we often got angry looks when overtaking Russian cars; drivers were simply not happy with the idea that they were being overtaken by a sidecar. Only when they saw that we were riding a Japanese bike would we see a smile on their faces. "Oh, chateree (means four in Russian) cylinders," is a phrase we heard often.
In Russia the schools have summer holidays for three months, and the summer camps are very popular. Many camps are set up by companies and open only to the children of the employees. During our rainy days in Irkutsk we visited one of these camps with our project "The World on Children's Drawings" (see sidebar page 98). We had a nice exhibition and exchanged many drawings. Most of all, however, the children were interested in our sidecar and we were sure many of them were traveling around the world in their dreams that night.
In Vladivostok we were warmly welcomed by the Iron Tigers. They gave us a place to stay and helped us get our sidecar through customs, which took three days. The day we arrived, customs was closed, and our sidecar was locked up in a warehouse; we were worried. The second day customs came up with all kind of excuses as to why we couldn't get our bike, not enough time to get any paperwork done. The third day we explained to our Russian friends Sergej and Dima that we wanted to go alone to the customs office and play stupid (njet pa Ruski, which means "no speak Russian"). Lo and behold, it worked! All the problems were solved within the hour, and we were able to retrieve our sidecar. Sergej and Dima thought this was the ultimate joke, "It took us a week to get our bike out last time!" There are many biker clubs in Russia and as travelers you are always welcome to visit and stay with them, work on your bike, or just have fun. The wearing of club colors is very important. These guys are from Novosibirk.
This is Saratov. We loved the sight of the beautiful Russian orthodox churches; they look like palaces out of fairy tales. Religion did not fit in the communist structure, but the Russians never lost their faith and many churches are being repaired and redecorated.
Siberia can be quite hot in the summer. It can also be swampy and, in order to get to a nice camping spot, Rob had to cross this spongy area. We had visions of our sidecar disappearing in the muck as I was slowly sinking while getting to the right place with my camera. As soon as Rob felt he was getting stuck he jumped off and opened the throttle. "Oops, what do I do now? Drop the camera to help or stay and capture the sinking of the sidecar?" I could not put my camera in the muddy moss, but luckily Rob made it out on his own. We were rewarded, though, as we were able to cool down in a lovely little river.
Another coffee party in a village resulted in this great photo. Little Russian girls are usually shy, but this one is curious about these two strangers and their big modern sidecar. Still, she decided to stay on her side of the road.
Ukraine, Kamjanech, with the Chotin fortress in the background. We are not yet in Europe proper, but the whole atmosphere of this area (which used to be Polish before) is European. "Is it going to be good, I mean, to see Europe again?" Rob agreed, "The old cities, the little squares and streets, the nice churches. We now know how unique Europe is." Still, we wanted to go back to South America, to see the Andes and the Atacama Desert. Then back to Iran and drive the Karankoram in Northern Pakistan. We haven't been to Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgizstan yet, and what about Southeast Asia? Say, let's come back to Siberia in winter, too, to drive over the ice.
About 40,000 units of the well-known Russian Ural were built here in the province of Irbit every year. This is only a small part of the factory, which also houses a most interesting museum. We were surprised to see that Ural had done a lot of research and developed new engines including the so called "flying brick" as well as a four-cylinder star-shaped engine for motorcycles. It's a shame these were never put into production. The factory is now in decay. The whole Russian market is dead, as Russians seem to not want their own products anymore. The only markets left are the United States and Europe, for which no more than 2000 sidecars are built annually. Still, the new staff of the factory is positive about the future. They are busy trying to improve the quality of the product and hope to sell more units every year.
Rotterdam. "I cannot see the skyline, you have to lie down!" We always have a lot of fun making self-timed pictures using the tripod, and this time it even had some magic to it. The skyline of Rotterdam is rather long and hard to capture on film. From this spot you can see the "Northern Island" in the middle of the Maas River. On the left you see that the railway bridge and the Queens bridge are open to let a boat through. On the right you see the Willems bridge.
The World On Children's Drawings
Rob and Dafne did not travel for the sake of traveling alone. During the five years of preparation they shared their dream with a group of children. Out of it came a project aiming to connect children worldwide by exchanging their drawings. In more than 50 countries children from every possible economic, social and cultural background talked with Rob and Dafne about what this world looks like, and shared that vision in their drawings. They did not just tell their own story, but also put down a message of love and friendship, which traveled with Rob and Dafne in their sidecar. Rob and Dafne are in preparation of writing a book and setting up a full exhibition of their tour and the project. They also have plans for a slide/two-man theatre show (in English) that they hope to bring to the United States in due time. For more information please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.