Behind the Iron Curtain with only a BMW R1200GS Adventure for company, Comrade Urry sets out to explore a rapidly changing Moscow
The policeman with the gun is shouting something at me, but I don't speak his language and he doesn't speak mine. His anger is building and the small police station I'm in suddenly seems very claustrophobic. Even more so when five other officers join us in the room. I look around for help, but all I see is a small shrine to Lenin. I've been caught speeding and now I'm being interrogated in a ramshackle police station in the middle of nowhere. The officer with the gun has my passport, documents and driving licence. I'm scared.
Another officer writes something down. It says '60kph', which I assume is the speed limit, '120kph', my speed, and '100 Euros'.
I take out the money but the policeman won't accept it. He's pointing down the road and getting angrier. I think he wants me to go somewhere to pay the fine, but where? The man with the gun shouts at me again.
He holds out his hand. I give him the 100 Euros, he gives me back my documents. I think I've just bought my way out of jail.
Welcome to Russia, you're a long way from home.
Why have I chosen to ride a bike to Moscow? It's a long way away, around 2000 miles I reckoned. So why do it? To be truthful I don't really know. I think it's because I don't know anyone else who has done it. It sounded like a challenge, but I had concerns. For a start I'd be doing it on my own, just me and the GS.
I had no idea what would happen at the Russian border. And neither did the Russian embassy. You can't get insurance cover for Russia. You can get a visa for yourself, but as for the bike, well, no one really knew. The general consensus was that you have to buy insurance on the border, but no one was sure if they would let the bike in. There was a very real possibility of me getting turned away. But even if I did make it in, what would the road to Moscow be like? Would there be petrol stations? Would the bike be stolen? Two big locks and chains provided the security, but the rest? A fistful of dollars and euros should see me through. So I turned up at Dover at 7:30 on a Monday morning with a bike, visas, passport, Russian phrase book and an open mind.
The first day was easy enough, cutting through Europe to Berlin. From there I was aiming to head through Poland to Belarus and stay overnight in its capital, Minsk. The next day a vague waft of cabbage announced the arrival of the Polish border. Gone was the dual carriageway, replaced by single lanes each way, with deep ruts left by countless lorries. Signs warn of the ruts, but they have to be seen to be believed. During rain showers they fill with water, creating tidal waves every time a lorry goes through.
Poland was a nightmare. Polish drivers have a unique way of overtaking: they simply go for it. It's perfectly normal to round a corner and find two artics bearing down on you, one on each side of the road. At first it's terrifying but after a while it becomes normal. By the time I reached the Belarus border I was knackered. The guard took down some details, checked my passport and the bike's documents and let me through. Some 50 yards later another guard once again checked my details before giving me a piece of paper. Then came the border...
When I say 'border' I mean a collection of portacabins in a car park. What the hell am I meant to do? A guard points to a cabin, so I walk in. And get thrown out. Apparently I have to wait outside. Which I do, for 10 minutes, until an official decides to see me. I hand him the piece of paper, which he looks at, grunts, then points to a form. I fill it out. The official only takes five minutes to look up this time, before pointing to another cabin. There they look at my form, and point to another cabin. And repeat. For two hours.
The border city of Brest appears with huge, grey, apartment blocks taking up the skyline while in the city tired looking trolleybuses ferry residents around. It feels like another world. Road signs no longer make sense; gone is the alphabet I've grown up with, replaced by a confusing jumble of Cyrillic symbols. The only signs that make sense are for Minsk.
I know two things about Minsk. One, it's the capital of Belarus and two, it has a McDonald's. Neither of which are any use when you're tired and need a hotel. I usually rely on the old neon sign trick to find a hotel - look for neon signs and you either end up at a hotel or a strip club. Either will do. But this doesn't work in Russia. Even apartment blocks have neon advertising and, because I don't know the difference between the Russian for 'new Daz non-bio' and 'hotel', I was screwed.
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Posted: 29/11/2010 at 14:47
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