Vodka Virgin, Ivan's Toilets and Motorcycles in Russia
By Greg Frazier

Road Notes - July 2002, Letting The Good Time Roll

Spittle. Not the fine spray of a grandmother, but airborne droplets the size of watermelon seeds. Onion Breath Ivan was slurring at me, gray mucus drops flipping off his tongue onto my face like drool from a rabid boxer dog. I was in a small cafe in the Ural Mountains. The local patrons adopted me for the night. Their induction ceremony included teaching me the Russian art of throwing back shooters of vodka. I was a slow learner. After four slammers I could not concentrate on what Ivan was wording. His saliva was smearing my glasses. My eyes would not focus because my nose was trying to turn inside out from the onions and cigarettes on his breath. My brain was clouded from shots of the killer juice he and others kept toasting me with.

My ride from Germany to Moscow had been with two other riders. Their BMW's and my Kawasaki looked to be a fun-run of hammering and tonging our way across Russia. We touristed a little on the way, adjusting to the riding changes and requirements of the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia like Jell-O does to a mold as it cools. Some trepidation was present as we approached the Russian border, but bureaucrat Border Guard Ivan was less trouble than his counterparts in Latvia and Lithuania. After an hour and one-half of standing around and paperwork, we were allowed to enter with a green light all the way to Vladivostok, 8,000 kilometers away.
66 miles from Moscow we met a Belgium BMW rider who tried to scare me into putting my motorcycle on a train in Moscow and riding the rails across the length of Russia. He told wild tales of 2,000 kilometers of the Road To Hell ahead of me. Twice he swore on his "25 years of riding motorcycle" that near death lurked over the hills of the Ural Mountains. He said he was sending himself and his BMW GS motorcycle around the Highway Of No Return by train to Chita, and recommended I do the same. I gave his suggestion an outward degree of consideration, but quickly concluded it was cow excrement, a lot of bull plop.

A persistent electronic problem was plaguing one of our trio of road warriors when we stopped in Moscow to register our visas. A visit to BMW dealers over the next two days proved fruitless. A second BMW problem emerged, an oil leak. With the clock ticking, two days gone and no forward movement against our closely timed crossing, one warrior threw in the towel. He wisely decided not to attempt crossing the next seven thousand kilometers of no BMW repair shops while leaking oil and watching his GPS indicate his battery was being charged intermittently. His wingman stuck with him like a good wingman should. Both turned around and sprinted back to the Bavarian breasts of BMW's Motherland.
I left Moscow with $1,000 US worth of rubles in my pocket and six Russian words in my vocabulary. Two nights later I was in a rural Ural café enjoying a dinner of bread and soup chased with a couple of bottles of 10 % beer when Truck Driver Ivan and his buddy Onion Breath at the next table invited me to share a drink. They were celebrating the Brazilians hammering the Germans in the finals of the World Soccer Cup. Neither Ivan spoke a word of English so they decided to knock down the communication barrier with bottles of vodka.

Russia equals vodka like America equals hamburgers. Vodka was everywhere. It was sold at gas stations, in small kiosks on the street; hotels lobbies and anywhere near a train, bus or airplane. The Russians drank vodka like the Australians inhaled beer or French sucked wine. Russian authorities told me that vodka was the secret weapon the military used to defeat Hitler and Napoleon, thus qualifying it for national days of remembrance. The Russians like to remember the glory of the Great Wars, and do so 365 days a year.

I had tried to prepare myself for vodka by practicing before I arrived in Russia, but tripped in my training program. Beer was the hurdle in Germany and Poland. Wine got in the way in France and Spain. The Muslims of Morocco told me I was lucky to find beer, and sneered at my requests for vodka. When I hit Russia I was still virginized to their national sport of slam dunking vodka.

My personal rule for mixing motorcycle riding and drinking is simple: park the motorcycle, then drink. That night in the Ural Mountains I had parked the bike in the garage of the $4.00 per night motel/hotel/guesthouse/truck stop. My confidence needed some swill to stiffen me for the road ahead, what the Belgium BMW rider would call a "Road Into The Dark Hole."
Onion Breath and Truck Driver were hammering vodka shots chased with Coca-Cola, looping me in for each round. They told me how happy they were that I chose their country to ride my Kawasaki motorcycle across. They toasted everything from the Brazilians to Kawasaki, with Britney Spears and Mel Gibson somewhere in between. After 10 shots I thought my vision had blurred, but realized it was Ivan's saliva on my glasses. He had been shouting his Kawasaki happiness at me. Somewhere around midnight Onion Breath fell off his chair. I was glad he could not get back up. Face-planted on the floor he would breathe into the tiles and not my face.

Around midnight Track Driver Ivan and I zoned in on trying to reach our second floor rooms. Halfway up the stairs Truck Driver missed a step, lost his balance and fell back on me. Both of us crashed down the stairs onto the foyer. Luckily, I was wearing my Combat Touring Boots, Darien riding pants and jacket. My motorcycle gear did its job, protecting me as I crashed. Truck Driver was saved from damage by landing on top of me. Onion Breath escaped injury too. We had left him sleeping on the floor under the table.

At 3:00 AM I was crying, realizing I had been vodka de-flowered. I found myself gut wrenched with tears in my eyes. I also found my face inches above a hole in the floor of a Russian toilet, both hands on porcelain. My hands were where most Russians place their feet when doing their business, and I was making a contorted effort not to tip forward. Hard as I tried it was impossible to ignore the smell wafting from the hole or the brown splatter on the porcelain, floor and walls. The Russian truck stop toilet scored high on my list of the worst places I have been in the world.

Some days later a Russian Tourist Bureau official asked me in an interview what it would take to get more western tourists, especially Americans (on their Harley-Davidsons, with American Express cards) to travel in Russia. Remembering the night I lost my vodka virginity, my response was "Cleaner toilets." She quickly replied, "Yes, we know this already. What else?" I thought, then quipped, "More toilets." She smiled, then said, "We know this too."

Most of Ivan's toilets were "squatters," a hole in a slab of porcelain or cement floor flat with the ground. In the outhouses, of which there were many, there was often not a bench with a hole in it for sitting. Instead there was a round hole in the floor ranging in size from 4 inches in diameter to 18 inches in diameter.

In some of the better public toilets, like in an upscale train station, there was a row of stalls with doors for privacy. Each stall had a stained white porcelain squatter, usually with a small open trashcan next to it (in which to put the paper after use) and a faucet or hose to wash things down the central hole. Sometimes I could tell when a foreigner had entered the next stall because shortly after the door closed I heard coins or keys hit the porcelain. It takes a while to learn to remover these things from pants pockets before squatting, but after having fished your wet keys, billfold or passport out of the holes once or twice the lesson takes hold. I met no one who admitted to retrieving coins from the depths of the dark hole. I have confessed to my motorcycle key having been washed in soap and water more than any other key I own.

Riding my motorcycle for more than a couple of hours at a time, day after day, made my leg muscles tired. I dreaded the squatter toilets during these periods because my tiredness, coupled with a blown right knee, meant sometimes I could not bounce right back up like I would have some years ago. This meant I had to use a splattered wall for support, or put my hand on the floor, neither a pleasant experience.

Rather than deal with a public squatter, I erred once by opting for Nature. I was riding through Siberia where there was nothing but scrub trees and green brush, so decided to make a quick pitt stop. I had forgotten about the mosquitoes for which Siberia is famous.

I had not ventured into Siberia without mosquito repellent. With me I carried US Army issue bug dope that had a skull and cross bones on the package. Mosquitoes hated it, but so did paint, plastic and tender white skin. It was OK on my face, hardened by 1,000's of miles of wind from riding a motorcycle, or my hands, toughened by rain, gas and sun. I thought I could take care of my business in the woods fast enough not to have to chance putting the cancer causing repellant on my body parts that are seldom exposed to the sun (I am a motorcyclist, not a nudist).

This was an error in judgement, and one that I paid heavily for the next three days. As quick as I was, coupled with my swishing a broken branch back and forth behind me, the hungry bugs of Siberia still had a free "all-you-can-eat" buffet. I had to sit on for those irritating bites for the next three days. The lesson I learned was never make a pit stop within ten miles of people wearing nets over their heads and gloves in warm summer weather. As long as I was moving on the motorcycle the bugs could not attack me. Their only botheration was the blurring of my vision due to so many smashing on my face shield. Once I stopped I was no longer a moving target. In the place I made my pit stop the flies were so thick I inhaled them through my nose, with my helmet on and face shield down.

Another lesson I learned was to carry my own toilet paper. The paper I found in Russia, especially away from the overpriced fluffy-towel tourist hotels, ranged in texture from crepe paper to newspaper. In several private toilets cut up newspaper or magazines was provided. In train station toilets I had to "purchase before entering." What was sold could have been used for coarse sandpaper. I suspect the Russian people eventually get used to the roughness. I never did, so when I found some fluffy stuff I stocked up, and always had a pocket full in my motorcycle jacket. It is possible the Siberian peasants with the scrunched-up faces we see in the National Geographic photographs did not earn their facial expressions from the hard cold winters. Instead, their warped look came from years of using Russian toilet paper.

The motorcycles in Russia were a wide collection, ranging from Harley-Davidsons (very few) to Russian Urals and Jupiters (many of both). The most rapidly growing numbers are Japanese sport bikes; usually having been purchased used in Japan and shipped into Russia. The price of these Japanese motorcycles appeared to be about 20% - 30% above the price for the same motorcycle in the United States. This increase reflected the import tax paid to get them into Russia as well as transportation costs to the various points around Russia.

One of the more interesting aspects to motorcycle life in Russia was the motorcycle clubs. Because there are so few motorcycles (with the exception of the Urals and Jupiters, which are built for use as primarily farm equipment or transport), the motorcyclists tend to band together in localized clubs. Whereas in America there is a thriving motorcycle club culture, usually the American clubs are exclusive to a specific marque or brand of motorcycle. For instance, the BMW Club, or the Harley Club or Gold Wing Club. If this snobbishness existed in Chita, Russia, the Harley Club would be one member, and maybe the same with the BMW Club or the Gold Wing Club.

The clubs of Russia are a collection of motorcycle enthusiasts in an area, riding different kinds of motorcycle. Instead of branding themselves with a manufacturer name like the BMW F650 Belt Drive Club of America, the Russians prefer the names of animals associated with their group. For instance, the Lynx of Amur (a river on eastern Russia), the Night Wolves (from Moscow) and the Iron Tigers (from Vladivostok). To be a member of their club you need not own a brand specific motorcycle, but instead have a similar focus on motorcycling. What a novel idea.

I have been a member of numerous USA motorcycle clubs. I can still remember the political fights that would take place in some clubs as members jockeyed for power and control. Usually the fights were over how to squander the club money, the greedy usually coming out on top because the avid motorcyclists would quit and walk away rather than waste time and effort fighting the egotists over who should represent their club and their brand of motorcycles. The Russians do not have to worry about these kinds of fights. They have no money in their clubs and with a mixed breed of motorcycles one make is no better than the another.

The Russian motorcyclists were hungry for western motorcycle "things," such as Harley-Davidson shirts, stickers, and bandanas. At the same time others wanted sport bike equipment, racing boots and helmets. They were avid readers of the two Russian motorcycle magazines (one Russian owned, the other one of MOTORRAD's step children from Germany), both which reflected motorcycle trends outside of Russia.

Very few Russian motorcyclists travel. As one said, "We have no money, so how can we travel?" There are exceptions. One, nicknamed SINUS, from Vladivostok, has traveled extensively on his Honda throughout Europe and is currently attempting to ride from Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina. Last year he organized a "bike meeting" at Lake Baikal in the center of Siberia. Several hundred motorcyclists attended from the far ends of Russia (4-6 days from Moscow for instance). For a group of motorcyclists who have no money, this meeting was a reflection of their sincere dedication to their love for motorcycles. For a biker from the USA attending the meeting the biggest surprise would have been that the Russian motorcyclists all rode their motorcycles to the event. Since they have little or no money, there was no chance to load their bike onto a trailer or into the back of their pick-up truck and haul it to the rally. I do not think the term "trailer queen" (the American idiom for people who trailer their bikes to rallies like Sturgis and Daytona in the USA) exists in the Russian language. I do not see it being easily translated in the near future.

And what about the 2,000 kilometers of the Belgium rider's Hades Highway? His description was as I had surmised, flop of toro. The road was closer to 70 kilometers of high-speed gravel road, in small sections, and better than most gravel roads on my reservation in Montana. But as they say, "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder." Where he saw certain doom, I saw fun on two wheels rolling across Russia. But I may have had an advantage. I was no longer being a vodka virgin.
Gregory, on the road out of Russia, letting the good times roll on a Kawasaki.

(For a look at Russia and motorcycling, you can go to my website at www.horizonsunlimited.com/gregfrazier and click on "What's New." There you will find under "July 2002" some photographs and my usual verbiage or typographical wanderings. For an update on the motorcycle I am riding, a Kawasaki KLR 650, and how it is behaving, you can go to the July posting under "Media" at www.dual-star.com).

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