Articles by Andreas

Born in Westphalia, rural Germany bordering the Netherlands, Andreas Becker is the only one of the four founding partners still with the company. He is in charge of company development, and is the driving force behind new projects. You can contact Andreas at becker [at] circus-berlin.de

4th September – 300km to Vladivostok

Andreas_Far East(above: the Far East)

My asylum for the night was an elementary school in God knows where, with only Elbow’s One Day Like This in my headphones for company (thanks Pauli). Russia’s Far East has enough cornfields to feed the world, and enough rain to make sure no one goes thirsty…

Our mindset was: we would smoothly roll down south to Vladi (as we now call it), but of course it ain’t over until, well, our singing fat lady would be a plate of delicious Soba noodles in an Isakaya in Asakusa, downtown Tokyo. The recipe for disaster is a simple one: rain and constructions sites, masses of them, and a myriad of potholes, rubble, and orgies of slippery bitumen.

It seems like years ago that a Russian trucker told us in Saratov to “never complain about a bad street, because there could be no street…”

You’ve got a point there, Towarisch…

This might be the moment to sing a song of praise – again – to this wonderful machine that brought me here. It had taken a heavy beating, and every morning I expected to push the starter button with no result. Every hole I crashed into there was a second where I thought, “oh no, that’s it,” but… nothing. Reliability, your name is 1200 GS Adventure. Hundreds of times the shocks when on block, it slipped, it got covered in mud… we drove through temperatures ranging from zero to forty degrees, filled her with shitty petrol, and this mechanical kid pretends it is doing nothing more than carrying its rider to the pizzeria around the corner in Berlin-Mitte.

The truth is that I’m a pretty mediocre motorbike rider, but that thing saves me every time I reach the limit of my talents. I have lost a plastic mud cover at the back, a screw has come loose, and that’s it. I haven’t fallen a single time. Amazing.

The Russians we have met just couldn’t believe that any bike can cross the whole country without a mechanic following in a van full of spare parts, but…hey, mine can.

If all goes well we will ride into Vladivostok tomorrow, and my trip with Pierre will come to an end. After a few days on my own I will take the ferry to Sakaiminato, where it will spit me into the arms of my friends Chris and Ken, who I haven’t seen for far too long. Pierre has decided to skip Japan, send the bike home from Vladi to Germany, and head instead towards Cambodia to see some friends. He says he needs some good nights of sleep, some great food, some smiles and some hugs. Good idea, that sounds like a plan…

6th September – Vladivostok

Andreas_Vladivostok(above: In Vladivostok)

We made it. Reached the city. I will need a few days to come down…

- Andreas

Andreas from the Circus and Pierre from the Eastseven are on their way to Japan… by motorbike. Andreas is sending us regular updates and you can find the whole archive of the trip here.

31st August – On the BAM, 1,700km from Khabarovsk

BAM_road

(above: The BAM in its bad parts. But overall it was among the best streets in Russia.)

It is our first night on the BAM – the Baikal-Amur-Magistrale, which connects Chita and Khabarovsk. It is a famous stretch of road, a project that has taken decades (and some of which built by prisoners) and which was finally finished last year.

We have found a hut along the street that will accommodate us for the night, and it is a pretty funky experience. The wallpaper is peeling, the roof is partly made of pieces of cardboard, and the toilet is outside in the forest… to imagine the smell, think Dante Aligheri. The only room besides us contains a slightly hysterical lady with four kids, all of whom are sharing the same bed. In the dark basement, decorates with pink walls and a photo wallpaper depicting  a tropical garden, beer is sold to a stranded trucker, a slightly dodgy car mechanic who works out here in the big nothing, and an older local. He has no teeth, is one and half metres max, and keeps talking to me in Russian, bravely ignoring my “Russki Njet”. By the length of his monologue he must be quoting War and Peace in its entirety… it feels like a scene out of a Tarantino movie.

2nd September – Sovorodino, 1,200km from Khabarovsk

BAM_petrol

(above: The petrol stations are a highlight)

It took the gods of motorcycling twelve thousand kilometres, but now they have decided to punish us badly. We woke yesterday in our little BAM Hilton to realise there were thin layers of ice on our seats and a grey sky that appeared to be hanging just above our heads. We left in temperatures of two degrees, and the day that followed was one of the worst I have ever had on a bike.

There was uninterrupted rain that soon turned into ice rain, a sharp cold side wind, and temperatures hanging out around zero. My gear held up pretty well (besides the gloves), but Pierre is suffering heavily. Soaked to the bone, he hit a low point, and since the hut last night had no heating he had to get up this morning and into his icy cold and wet gear. He’s pretty down. For my side, three pairs of socks, four layers on my legs and five on my upper body make me look like a clown, and I bow deeply down in respect to everyone who made this trip before the street was built.

Here is a video from the BAM:

4th September – Khabarovsk

BAM_GPS

(above: East on Amur and turn left after 816km… I think I’ll be ready)

Riding into Khabarovsk last night and crossing the mighty Amur with the city laid out ahead was a very, very special moment. After spending the last night on the BAM in a kid’s bed (1.6m long) in the garage of a truckers stop we had one more hellish ride before reaching the end of this notorious stretch of road a whopping ten days early. There are only 800km now between us and the end of the land mass that starts somewhere in Portugal, and I am beginning to get sentimental already.

So we need to plan what to do with our free week, and since we might not be able to get a re-entry visa with such short notice, we will probably have to focus our attentions on Russia. Maybe the Trans-Siberian is an option, if only for the chance it would give me to digest my experiences and get the endorphin levels down. Vladivostok is not an option, as the ongoing APEC summit makes the whole place inaccessible.

It feels slightly unreal to be here. The city has an airier, lighter feel than its inland brothers, and I am sure it is because we are near to the Sea of Japan. After looking west for technical expertise, luxury goods and generally “how to do things” (and often to Germany), Russia has now turned her head to the east, in the direction of Japan. There are sushi restaurants and cars made for left-side traffic, Japanese bathrooms… it makes me smile and realise how much I miss the country that was my home for a good while in the early nineties.

Have you ever accelerated a vehicle to a high speed and then suddenly taken your foot off the gas? With the body and the mind getting light at that very moment? That’s how it feels being here. For months, including the preparations, the concentration was fully set on the days that ended, actually, yesterday. It will all be pretty light now, as if we have reached the peak and suddenly the view has opened out before us.

- Andreas

Andreas from the Circus and Pierre from the Eastseven are on their way to Japan… by motorbike. Andreas is sending us regular updates and you can find the whole archive of the trip here.

26th August – Ulan-Ude

Bypasses

(above: Bypasses in Siberia. A “good” street. A mud-loving kids dream… which I am not.)

Stuck in Ulan-Ude might sound like the title of a pretty weird story but it isn’t. Pierre and I separated a few days ago as he was keen to do some off-road riding and so headed to Olkhon, a peninsula on the eastern side of the Baikal. After a few days of heavy rain it hit me that the road off the Olkhon peninsula is flooded, but he hopes to re-connect tomorrow or the day after.

We travel to learn, and this is what I have learned over the last few days_

-          Don’t trust a Siberian when it comes to the quality of the roads. A stretch of rubble becomes “good” and even a hint of tarmac is classed “very good.”

-          I am a whiner. Whilst I have my thoughts firmly set on a warm shower after six or seven hours of rain and temperatures of around ten degrees, I see locals with no tops on selling berries by the side of the road in a Mediterranean mood.

-          Great equipment pays off! I will never accept the evil jokes from my mates when buying the latest functional second layer or comparable (even if there are already another three in my closet). Staying warm and dry in these road conditions is a prerequisite to reach Vladivostok in one piece… at least, for a spoiled German postwar kid like myself.

-          I am vain (some of you might have guessed). Riding the bike into cities like Ulan-Ude after three or four days on Siberian roads comes second only to Caesars return to Rome after beating the Barbarians. Cars and buses slow down, the honking starts, trolley bus passengers rush to the window, phone cameras galore and you know what? I love it. “From Berlin? On THAT???” These questions never fail to make me happy.

-          Buryatis are nice people but lousy drivers. The Italians of Russia, so to speak…

We are not far from the Mongolian border and here Russia has an Asian face. Buddhist temples and shrines can be seen along the roads, and there is a more accessible and less tight atmosphere. Europe feels ever further away.

29th August – Chita

Siberia

(above: Siberia.)

Nothing prepared me for this land. How often have I read about the near mystical place it holds in the poetry, literature, music of Siberians? Even the word “Siberia” had a special sound, a dimension that goes beyond a local title. As a child I envisioned Siberia as a harsh, rough remote corner of the world, hostile to human life, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

This land is completely and utterly overwhelming. For days and days every ascent, every hill, is opening up vistas onto a land of biblical dimensions. Hundreds of rivers on their natural beds disappearing at a far, far horizon, between seemingly untouched forests and fields. It does not have the intimidating spectacle of – for example – the Grand Canyon or Victoria Falls, but it puts everything in its place by its sheer dimensions and the harmonious, paradise-like composition of its landscapes, free from any human involvement, as if in an act of justified modesty, since nothing man made could cope.

My Russian born friends back home always suffered under the extreme tightness of Europe, and despite the seemingly better life, were homesick in a way. At times it seemed overly romantic, but I understand them now. There is a liberating tranquillity in this land, and a way to breathe that must be with you, and missed dearly, wherever your life might take you.

I had a few difficult days in Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude. Tough riding, exhaustion, the constant rain, and being stuck in Ulan-Ude, which is not exactly Pisa, all added to a little travel blues .It disappeared the moment of getting out of the city and into the land. Riding a motorcycle on a mild summer evening, with the sun setting over this land, must be one of the most touching things one person can do in life.

30th August – Chita

Medals

(above: he earned his medals fighting my forefathers… no bad feelings and lots of laughter with that German kid.)

We are leaving Chita tomorrow for the long ride to Chabarovsk, 2,500km along the Baikal-Amur-Magistrale. This is the remotest part of our journey, and we will have find places to sleep along the route. Petrol also becomes a topic, as the distances between stations are too large for Pierre’s KTM and so canisters are needed. The quality drops and the prices rise. But speaking to some truckers and an Italian couple who have been travelling by bike for eleven years (!), the road conditions are better than expected and so it might only take five days, and not the ten or twelve we had reserved. So maybe there will be some time for a side-trip into China, or to the north. We will see…

- Andreas

Andreas from the Circus and Pierre from the Eastseven are on their way to Japan… by motorbike. Andreas is sending us regular updates and you can find the whole archive of the trip here.

22nd August – Taischet, 700 km to Irkutsk

Irkutsk Blog_Four

(above: On the road there are thousands of them. This guy was a thirty-year-old trucker, and although 3,000km from home there were fresh flowers…)

We passed by two prison camps today, set into the big Siberian wilderness and evocative of pictures I have only ever seen in history books and old movies. The camps are made of the simplest wooden structure, with watchtowers over the barracks and barbed wire fences. The prisoners were working outside in blue overalls and they waved and shouted enthusiastically when they saw us. I can only imagine what type of things they felt as they spotted the bikes and the riders.

It reminded me that this is the land of the Gulag. Prisoners and labour camps have been long been built here, far away from the big cities, and millions have been deported to the region including many Volga-Germans. I guess that the fact that this was a homeland forced on many people contributes to the feel of decay in the villages and smaller cities around, as well as the obvious lack of identification.

Another companion during recent days has been the Trans-Siberian Railway. We are often riding alongside the tracks, and the sound of the train horns – deep and seemingly endless – sends shivers down my spine. There has also been first longer stretches of dirt roads, and my beloved BMW – although a little fat around the hips – has done remarkably well. The elephant can swing…

As the streets get worse, the villages more spread out, the accommodation ever more Spartan and the petrol stations increasingly rare, it is fascinating to see the infrastructure and civilisation thinning out the further east we get. It is like the echo of a disappearing sound.

Irkutsk Blog_Three

(above: Russia can be pretty direct…)

25th August – Irkutsk

Irkutsk Blog_One

(above: The attention it deserves in Irkutsk)

We reached Irkutsk after some of the most difficult riding days so far. The temperatures kept dropping down to 11/12 degrees, there was non-stop rain, massive roadworks with long stretches of stone, sand and rubble, and the distances are starting to take their toll with some good old well-deserved physical exhaustion. My neck, shoulders and upper legs from standing whilst riding remind me of every gym hour I have missed.

Irkutsk, with its Kirov Place that shows that the Soviets had their Speers too, is a fuelling stop, with some good food, a nice bed and, as usual, some loving attention for the bike before we head off to Lake Baikal which is 70 km away. For me and my aching self it is time for the Banya again, and I have already found one… lovely. Just like the Japanese Sento, these simple public bath houses serve not only as a place to take care of your body, but also as a community focal point. People talk politics and family, and take a break from the stresses of life outside. My banya looks like a naked United Nations with Kirgis, Uzbek, Mongol, Buryat, Turkmeni and Aserbaidschani around… and now a German.

Here, take a look:

I am invited into this brotherhood of working class muschiks – entry is €2 and it shows – because of the bike tour, and the truckers, builders and shopkeepers are so heavily impressed I had to bring the bike as proof. There is always someone happy to beat the weird German up with birch branches, and it’s a great way to get into a new city…

Irkutsk Blog_Two

(above: the Russian mafia…)

19th August – Novosibirsk

Dima

(above: Dima, my mechanic in Novosibirsk)

We are discovering a city that on the first glimpse appears to have nothing to discover. The guidebook deals with the city in literally two lines, saying that basically if you have no real reason to be here then don’t bother.

I had a long a rewarding talk today with the local LGBT activist who loves his rights as much as his country, and I got invited by a friend I made – Dmitrij, or Dima – to a Russian house party. Somewhere beneath those thick layers of tiredness and sometimes resignation, forced upon people by disastrous political, social and economic circumstance, and behind the seemingly grim faces, you will find wonderful people with a deep understanding of all that is human, passionate and rich, people who are sensitive and who have an inspiring will to give access to their hearts…

20th August – Novosibirsk

Bikers race down Lenin Prospekt on their back wheel. Pale-skinned boys in ill-fitting suits carry their violins to the opera. Noisy SUV-driving Muschiks pay three thousand euros for a Belstaff jacket… in cash of course. Big ladies in their 60s smoke a fag whilst manoeuvring black-fumed ancient buses through the dense traffic. Girls in black silk dresses that would not disappoint at the Oscars invite me to dance…

Half the men are wearing fake Adidas tracksuits. Toothless old folks hang out of the windows of derelict housing blocks and give us a wave and a smile. Young Tatars with pride in their eyes grab my hand and invite me for lunch at the river. Young kids in a minibus stare as if I am an alien. I say “boo” and the whole bus bursts into laughter…

Russia has come alive for me in Novosibirsk and like so many before I am beginning to understand why it is hard not to love it. Hopefully the work on our bikes will be done today, and then we will head in the direction of Lake Baikal and Irkutsk. It should take four days, maybe five.

20th August – At night, on the road to Irkutsk

Siberian roadside

(above: On the Siberian roadside with two Italian riders on their way home from a Trans-Asia trip)

We are back to the world of fields and forests and the greyish belt that runs between them, a place where truck drivers flash their lights, the occasional police car honks their horn, and the children give us the thumbs up as we pass. A place where street signs say “Irkutsk – 1,784km” or “Chita – 2,972km” and it seems completely appropriate.

Girls sit in rundown bus stops dozens of kilometres from any human settlement. Elderly ladies sleep by the street with a pot of potatoes and two glasses of honey in front of them. By now I am totally at ease with the riding, the distances, and the level of isolation that comes with it. Vladivostok is around seven thousand kilometres from here but seventeen would make no difference. I am in the flow…

- Andreas

Andreas from the Circus and Pierre from the Eastseven are on their way to Japan… by motorbike. Andreas is sending us regular updates and you can find the whole archive of the trip here.

15th August – The Road to Omsk

We had a great last night in Yekaterinburg, taken to an underground club by some wild Azerbaijanis, drank a few glasses of Scotch and rocked the dance floor to some evil Rihanna tunes. A short night of sleep.

But we were still awake enough the next day to sense the beauty of eagles circling above crystal rivers and rays of sunlight breaking through the forests and onto the street. The land masses ahead have ceased to be a job to be done and have become something of a promise… A promise of interesting stories, great people and a beautiful land.

16th August – Near Omsk

Nice smile

(above: great smile, even better soup…)

Riding into Siberia we entered Trucker-Land… the men seem to be all truckers or mechanics, the few women serve on patrol stations or are prostitutes. This is not exactly my normal habitat.

We arrive at the truck stops at night for petrol, some food, a bed and maybe a shower. We get many distanced and sometimes even hostile looks… at least until we make use of our irresistible charm that works – at least – on the ladies at the cash register. Sometimes it feels as if you have wandered into a sports bar in Newcastle wearing your pink drag queen outfit. Or in the Australian outback.

17th August – Tatarsk

The stage has been set for the next few weeks and it looks good… Yellows and sand-tones for the grasses and the corn, light green for the bushes and high grass, darker greens for the forests, and a light baby-blue for the sky that reaches from Moscow to Ulan Bator at least. Sometimes we travel 100km and see no buildings. The temperatures are mild, between 13 and 20 degrees, and there is much less traffic. Also, the further east we travel the better the roads… things are looking too good to be true.

And added to that we should get into Novosibirsk today, which means we are even a day ahead of schedule.

17th August – Novosibirsk

We have reached Novosibirsk after 8,500 km and it is a sense of achievement, although we have arrived to a couple of smaller problems. The tires we had sent here have not been picked up by our local contacts, and the mechanic has already gone for the weekend. This means we will be hanging around in this sexy place for a few days. We have found a nice small hotel and met some good people. We will also check out the Novosibirsk nightlife. Stay tuned; news from the dance floor will break any minute…

Andreas from the Circus and Pierre from the Eastseven are on their way to Japan… by motorbike. Andreas is sending us regular updates and you can find the whole archive of the trip here. Below you can watch a couple of videos filmed in the past week from the Ural Motorcycles factory and museum. Andreas would like me to make clear that of course he knows it is Anthony Hopkins… just a small brain freeze moment J

Short film from Ural Motorcycles Factory…


…and from the Ural Motorcycles Museum


12th August – En route to Ufa

seven_well protected

(above: A well-protected bike)

A brilliant day, full of endorphin rushes, the beauty of the landscape and our decision to cross it. I kept singing and celebrating under my helmet. The soundtrack, if you want to know, was Tainted Love by Soft Cell, Smalltown Boy, Madonna, and 1000 Light Years from Their Satanic Majesties Request. Can never-ending birch trees dissolve brain cells?

13th August – Miass

There is a complete change of scenery today, as not only are the Volga and Don gone, but Pierre is as well. We lost each other at a crossing in Ufa and we hope to come together again in Yekaterinburg. Also missing are the cornfields and the sun. The landscape is a lot like central Sweden with an occasional wrecked truck alongside the street. It is a chilly 16-18 degrees and there is mist every morning… I can sense the Ural Mountains approaching. It feels as if this country has no beginning and no end!

14th August – Yekaterinburg

Yekaterinburg_PierreandtheRomanovsite

(above: Pierre and the Romanov site in Yekaterinburg)

The city is quite a surprise. We see people on water skis, riding segways and rollerblades, open air theatre and all in a setting that reminds me of Vancouver. There is water everywhere. Finally we have come to a city where people are able to do more than simply struggle for the bare essentials.

We use Yekaterinburg as Russians have done for centuries; the last major outpost before the Urals and the width and emptiness of Siberia. We get the bikes, ourselves and our clothes cleaned, stay in a good hotel, eat well and I have even managed to pick up a semi-legal looking GPS in Cyrillic.

Besides strolling the streets, we have checked the Romanov site which houses a pretty impressive Orthodox church and another good example of why you should not mix politics and religion. An authoritarian ruler has been turned into a Saint, and the whole place – complete with souvenirs, young cadets and grannies on their knees – pretty much highlights the lack of social orientation in the country beyond the shark capitalism you find everywhere.

Tsar turned Holy

(above: the Tsar turned Holy)

We have reached 6500km now and pretty much a third of the tour is done. Roughly 8,000km await is in Russia, and hopefully 2-3000 in Japan. The next stage, Siberia, is surely the heart of the trip.

And how are we? Good of course. Easy and relaxed. It is fantastic to see the country, learn and get impressed. I realise every day once more what a liberation travel is, how it refreshes your brain and soul, and how privileged we are to be doing this.

Unpleasant elements? If you have been reading the blog you will already know about the roads. The condition of the surfaces force you to keep a very high level of attention and it is hard to lose yourself in your thoughts, which is one of the reasons I love riding… and since we don’t speak Russian and hardly any Russian speaks English, communication is way too limited.

We are now heading in the direction of Novosibirsk via Tjumen and Omsk, where hopefully some fresh tires and oil filters wait for us.

Andreas

Andreas from the Circus and Pierre from the Eastseven are on their way to Japan… by motorbike. Andreas is sending us regular updates and you can find the whole archive of the trip here.

10th August – Saratov

Saratov_Safe Parking

(above: safe parking, Saratov style)

I had a bit of an Action B-Movie moment today when the tire of a truck in front of me burst with a massive bang, showering me with smaller bits of debris. Thankfully the massive tire body missed my front wheel by about a metre… it seems as if the trucks don’t like me here.

Pierre told me that I was previously too negative about the traffic here in Russia, and so – with apologies to Mr Putin’s Minister of Roads – here are some of the nice things: food stalls along every overland street piled high with fresh apricot, melon, grapes… you name it. What else? You can get a litre of proper 95er for seventy cents, very light on the wallet. The local summer fashion is semi-nude, very light on the eye. At the same time, every few kilometres you come across another artistic memorial to someone who died on the roads, some complete with marble chairs, tables and life size posters of the driver who passed away too early.

Here in Saratov we took some time to visit the Gagarin museum. What a cute bloke…

11th August – En route to Samara

Cornfields and sunflowers, sunflowers and cornfields, cornfields and sunflowers…

I spent a good proportion of the day on the bike thinking about whether it is possible that the traffic ministries around the world are having a secret competition to claim the title of “World’s Worst Streets”. Whoever is in charge at the ministry here in Russia must be sending out the troops nightly to destroy them and keep in top spot…

The rest of the time I am glancing at the totally empty screen of my GPS with the motorbike symbol in the middle and the headline “Fährt Ost.” It has been the same for days. It appears that there is a poet somewhere in the system.

11th August (continued) – Samara

Samara_Chess

(above: chess players in Samara)

This is my favourite city of those we have seen so far. Although it is as apocalyptically morbid as the rest of them, there is a vital and life-loving heart beating amongst the urban ruins. The location, on the banks of the Volga, and an ethnically colourful population with a rich cultural heritage, gives the city a light positive vibe.

Samara_Downtown

(above: downtown Samara)

Besides the thousands of wooden houses kept upright only by the hope of those who live in them, there are Cinderella-like Catholic churches, Bauhaus villas, Art Deco warehouses and one day, I am sure, when the decline comes to an end, there will be a swan rising from the ruins. It may take a generation or too.

Samara_Street Scene

(above: street scene in Samara)

We are heading next via Ufa to Yekaterinburg, the murder site of the Romanovs, and we will take a 2 or 3 day break to do some washing, clean the bikes, and look for someone to take care of our aging bodies. Where’s your physio when you need him most.

Andreas

Andreas from the Circus and Pierre from the Eastseven are on their way to Japan… by motorbike. Andreas is sending us regular updates and you can find the whole archive of the trip here.

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