The Road to Moscow

Part two of Keith and Tania's around the world by motorcycle odyssey

Editor's Note: Our first contact with Keith Kimber and Tania Brown came in early 1998 when a thick and tattered manila envelope arrived at our office. In it was an outline of an almost unbelievable around-the-world story, and some of the most stunning bike-touring photography we'd ever seen. Turned out that, way back in 1983 the pair had, in their early 20s, quit their jobs, bought a well used CX500 Honda for $1400 and taken off to see the world. We were so impressed with their tale we published a large chunk of the story in our April, 1999 issue. By mid 1998, Keith and Tania were heading across the United States toward Alaska and a new chapter in their (now) 18-year, tour the world by motorcycle adventure.

By 1990, we'd already been around the world once. Now we were stuck in Cyprus, the Gulf War cutting off our route through the Middle East to Russia, the next leg of our journey. What we really needed was a boat. We looked for a working passage, but couldn't find a ship traveling that route. Then, one day, Tania walked into a marina and found a 31-foot, 35-year-old wooden sailboat--one full of holes. We knew absolutely nothing about sailing. But with the last of our savings we bought the boat, fixed the holes, dismantled our bike, stored the pieces on board, and sailed away from the war in the Middle East by traveling West--across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.

No sane person would want to dismantle his or her beloved motorcycle and store it in a leaky old boat. We certainly didn't; after all, it was a perfectly good motorcycle. But we did. To get our CX500 on board, we disassembled it on the dock (with quite a crowd watching) and had to squeeze each bit through a hatch the size of a TV screen. The frame was the tightest squeeze; we had to twist and turn it to get it through.

For the next six years, seawater leaked all over our CX, and for long periods the engine itself was submerged in bilge water 8-10 inches deep. Everything corroded. The wiring loom turned to mush. (Now, why couldn't I have destroyed my perfectly good motorcycle by crashing into the side of a truck, or spinning off the road at high speed like any normal biker?)

By the time we landed in Florida and took the CX out again--piece by corroded piece it was nothing but a pile of scrap. It took a whole month to rebuild the CX on the front deck of our boat (more crowds), though only 20 minutes to get it running. (And only four months of riding for the parts to stop dropping off--all those bolts I forgot to tighten properly!)

From Florida we traveled across North America to Vancouver, Canada, crossed to Japan with the arrival of spring, 1999, then headed by ferry to Vladivostok at the far eastern end of Russia. During the short Russian summer, we rode a third of the way around the globe: through the Siberian forests and, finally, back to Europe. We had traveled around the world twice.

No job, no house, no boss, no schedule, no commitments, no pension, no insurance, no money...in other words, on top of the world. And all because one day in 1983 we bought a secondhand motorcycle.
Atop a chunk of granite we stand at the center of Europe. The U.S.S.R. occupied one sixth of the entire land surface of the planet all of it out of bounds to foreigners. With the collapse of communism 10 years ago, this vast area suddenly became accessible, including the geographical center of Europe that lies atop a hill in a field 40 miles outside Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
The coldest temperature in which we can ride is -8 degrees Celsius (17 degrees Fahrenheit). -8 C may not sound that cold, but to keep up with the traffic we have to ride at 55 to 60 mph, giving a wind-chill factor of -35 C (-31 F). Sleeping out in the elements is often not much more fun than riding in them.
Shaky crossing. With the last light of the evening, we always left the road to find a place to camp. Seventy-five years of collective ownership means there are very few fences in Russia, so it's easy to ride off the road onto farmland or into the forests. Seventy-five years of totalitarian rule means the average Russian takes absolutely no notice of anything strange or unusual. So we were never challenged if anyone spotted us. This made Russia--the largest country in the world--an easy place for camping.
The Road to Moscow. The entire way across Russia we were constantly stopped at roadblocks so the police could extort money. The closer we got to Moscow, the more frequent the roadblocks became; we were going through as many as 20 a day! Then two Chechnian terrorist bombs went off in Moscow and the roadblocks suddenly became deadly serious, with Special Forces soldiers checking us and our equipment. But it stopped the police extorting money!
Taking shape on the forward deck. We rebuilt the CX in the most convenient space we had. Using ropes from the mast, we strung it at a comfortable height to begin work: corrosion removal, drilling-out seized bolts, painting and, finally, reassembly. Boaters in the area began taking dinghy-detours to see "crazy bikers" building a huge motorcycle on the bow of their boat!
It took only a month to clean, paint and rebuild the bike to get it running. Having a generator on board meant we could use power tools, without which the job could easily have taken three times as long. The only disadvantage of rebuilding the bike on a small anchored boat was that if we dropped parts or tools they sometimes bounced overboard. One day the carburetors bounced into the sea. It took three hours of scuba diving in muddy water to find them.
Morning start. While anchored in an open waterway, the wind constantly blew salt spray all over us. We began each day by wiping everything down. Although the front deck of a boat was a strange place to build a motorcycle, it turned out to be ideal. The boat was fitted with winches to lift the engine and frame, we had a 240V generator to run our power tools, and we only had to walk 15 feet to start work each morning.
Freedom. For nine years, we carried our entire life on the back of a motorcycle, and a seven-pound nylon tent was our home. It protected us from rain, kept us warm at night, and each morning we viewed the sights of the world through its triangular door: Halley's comet, the pyramids of Giza, the Himalayas, the Andes, the dunes of the Sahara....
A bicycle is the most important possession a Russian boy can own; a motorcycle's an impossible dream. But in spite of the huge wealth our motorcycle represented, not once did anyone in Russia try to steal anything. We became so relaxed that we would often leave our bike unattended for hours. Within 45 minutes of leaving Russia, we had a bag stolen off the bike by kids in Estonia.
Short listed. Tania catalogued the parts of the CX that weren't worth restoring; mainly the handlebar switches, the brake calipers and the tank--which had a hole in it from being stored beneath a leak in the deck. We knew from experience with rusty fuel cans that fiberglass repairs to gasoline containers never work very well because the metal underneath continues to rust. So you have to keep repairing it--until you end up with a fiberglass tank filled with rust.
Preventative maintenance. The motor's compression was fine, but with the whole of Siberia ahead of us, I decided to recondition the cylinder heads anyway. We had just rebuilt the CX from a pile of scrap. So a little extra work at the end to fit new valve guides, seals and re-cut seats seemed like a minor job.
In remote parts of Siberia the rivers have never been bridged. But the Russians run good ferry services with skilled crews. Crossings rarely cost more than a few cents. Motorcycles in Russia are considered a cheap alternative to a car (no sport riding here!), so most of the bikes we saw in Russia were attached to a sidecar, often with drive to the third wheel. The Russians are very disparaging of their local bikes, but with a new Ural going for as little as $700, we thought they were a pretty good value for the money.
High and dry. Between Fushiki, Japan, and Vladivostok, Russia, we crossed the Sea of Japan on the Antonina Nezhdanova--a Russian boat that carries millions of dollars' worth of Russian Mafia automobile shipments each year. There's a huge demand for cars in Russia, and a huge surplus of old cars in Japan an ideal business opportunity. I had decided that the Russians should be encouraged in their new found capitalism until the newly capitalist crew demanded $50 to winch my bike on board! All of a sudden, I found myself wishing they'd remained a bit more Communist.
After rebuilding the CX on the bow of our boat, we had problems with the fuel tank rusting from the inside. So we stopped at a fuel station to flush it out. When the tank was empty, and all the gasoline flushed away with the rust, we took the empty tank to be filled. Inside a concrete bunker, the cash desk was staffed by a woman who had been watching us the whole time. Even though she had seen us throw away all our fuel, she never told us the gas station was empty and not expecting deliveries for a month.
Go with the flow. In the developing world, any business that needs a good supply of fresh water will often have its head office on the riverbed: carpet cleaners, laundries and car washers being the most common. So whenever we needed to launder our clothes, wash the bike or fill our water tanks, we joined the professionals. In some countries (India, for example), the water often looked dirtier than the clothes they were trying to wash. But here in Siberia the rivers ran clean and pure.
Forest camp. Deadwood lies thick on the ground in the Siberian forest, making it easy to build campfires for cooking (and to keep the mosquitoes away). We made repairs to our equipment in camps like these. A frequent job was re-sewing straps on our luggage where thread after years on the boat had become weak and rotten.
Below-decks, the CX occupied space among damp sails, damp ropes and our wet foul-weather gear in the forward cabin of our 31-foot wooden boat. The boat leaked everywhere. Whenever waves broke across the decks, saltwater dripped all over the bike. Each time the bilges overflowed, seawater flooded the engine and left it covered in layers of sea-salt crystals. The wiring loom turned to green paste. Corrosion was so bad that even the frame number disappeared!
The CX was on board our boat for six years. That's six years of sailing, which means traveling at 4.5 mph--no more than a fast walking pace. An unexpected consequence of this lifestyle came after we rebuilt the bike and began riding again: Normal traffic speeds seemed suicidally fast. We just weren't used to 55 mph anymore. Then we got on I-95 near Miami, Florida where the traffic flows at 90 mph and it seemed like the world had gone mad. These days we're back to normal recalibrated to the same death-defying speeds as everyone else!
Making hay. We saved money whenever possible in developing countries by purchasing locally manufactured tires; always cheap and always a gamble, because we never knew how they would perform when fitted to the bike. But we could never resist the price and, like addicts, always bought them. In Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, we bought a very chunky off-road "Made in the U.S.S.R." rear tire for $16. When fitted, the ride was so bad it sometimes slowed us to a walking pace as the back wheel uncontrollably followed grooves and ruts in the roads left by Russian hay carts. But who cared? After all, didn't we get ourselves another hot deal?