Going East in 1998

2nd December 2021 |

While waiting for my new book to arrive from the printer I’ve been going through some pieces I wrote years ago, and thought I’d keep you entertained in the meanwhile. This one appeared in Motorcycle Sport & Leisure twenty-three years ago. I’d been thinking of doing another long journey after living in the USA for twenty years, and it was time to see how it felt now, at the age of 67. The long journey, of course, turned out to be Dreaming of Jupiter.

I was about twenty miles into Poland on the edge of a small town, surrounded by debris and decrepitude, when I saw a café with tables on the pavement under colourful umbrellas. The Poles know how to relax. Some might say they know too well, but I approve. In this I feel the Poles have their priorities right.

It was an unusually hot Saturday in June and I was getting thirsty. I hadn’t ridden far that day; it’s only 40 miles from Berlin to the Polish border – but border crossings and money changing take their toll. So I sprawled gratefully under the shade and reflected on what I was doing there.

It was twenty-five years since I had kicked down on the old Tiger 100 and begun my 78,000 mile journey round the world. Then the Triumph went into a museum and I succumbed to an R65 just to give myself a holiday from motorcycle maintenance. I still have the same BMW and in all these years I have only put 20,000 miles on it. But there are rumours floating about that I might want to go round the world again – not surprising really since I started them. So what would it feel like after all this time? Obviously I needed to hit the road and find out. A rehearsal if you like – but where? After 18 years in the USA I chose Eastern Europe.

Hinckley Triumph lent me the bike. I rode around England’s green and pleasant land selling Jupiter’s Travels and Riding High until I had enough cash for the adventure. Then one fine day in May I took a boat across the Channel, wandered around France, Holland and Germany for a few weeks, and went East.

On the whole it had been a wonderful experience so far, but that particular day did not start well. On my way out of Germany’s scorching and dusty future capital I stopped to refuel, packing in as much gas as the 15-litre tank would hold. Coming back from the cash register I saw an ominous pool spreading under the bike. Petrol was running freely down the side of the engine, appearing from some hidden source below the tank. I turned off the tap. the gusher slowed and stopped. I turned it on, and the petrol ran again. I turned it off once more, moved the bike to a dry place and started the engine. It ran fine. I turned on the tap and petrol ran out again. This was not good. I had no idea what to do. I was NOT going to ride through Poland on a crotch rocket waiting to ignite. On the other hand I had just paid $200 for a 24-hour visa to Russia, valid on Monday only. There was no time to waste on motorcycle mysteries.

In desperation I called ADAC, the German equivalent of AAA, hoping they knew more about Triumph triples than I did. It was a national holiday in a heat wave. They were very busy. While I waited for the man, I took off various bits of fairing to see if I could detect where the juice was flowing from. My efforts were futile, so I screwed everything back on. After ten minutes of impatient waiting I turned on the tap again. As mysteriously as it had begun the hemorrhage stopped. I cancelled the call for help, pretending I’d fixed it myself, and set off feeling rather foolish.

All these things contributed to my thirst and I meant to take a long, lazy break. I had hardly begun on my Orangina when along came a crazy man. This short, shabby peasant ambled up, mumbling, with a loony smile, and I was his new best friend. He was prematurely aged, probably more by vodka than the weight of his responsibilities, and he stood at my table gazing at me with a kindly expression as he gibbered non-stop gobbledygook at me, one calloused hand outstretched, in greeting or supplication. I gulped down my drink, climbed back on the Triumph and headed in the general direction of Gdansk.

I was on a less important two-lane highway, but the surface was quite good and the traffic was light. All around me the Polish countryside was moist and lush. Sheets of water gleamed through gaps in the trees to remind me that in this northern stretch of Europe forests and lakes shared the landscape equally. To tell the truth it was beautiful. There was no industry, only small towns and glorious country.

People sold fruit and fish at the roadside. Along one stretch, where an unusually long lake extended langorously behind a curtain of forest, there were people standing at the mouth of every cart track dangling what looked like long brown sticks from their outstretched hands. They were people of all kinds – young, old, men, women and children, and they dropped behind me as regularly as telegraph poles from a train window. Only after I was long past them did it strike me that they were selling smoked eels, which I happen to relish above most other things but it was too late. One can never go back.

Gradually the heat and humidity built up, and by mid-afternoon I was pretty sure it was going to rain. The sky was a bustling arena of clouds, some silvery bright, some dark and drear, chasing each other through shafts of sunlight. I don’t mind riding through rain, but I don’t choose to. It seemed to me I had come far enough for one day and I started to look for a place.

Near Walcz – which I pronounce “vouch” because the L has a cross on it which I can’t type – I saw a hotel shouting at me from across the road. It boasted a huge sign covered in boxed illustrations of people engaged in Olympic water sports. It was like an IKEA user manual, and behind the hotel, on the edge of a lake, were many sporting types dashing about following the instructions. The driveway to the hotel was protected, military fashion, by a guard house and one of those pivoting poles. A severe-looking couple emerged from the little house, and you could see immediately that their lives centred around this pole. They did not want me to get past it. I drove up and waited while they raved at me. Finally, due no doubt to the superior force of my personality, they raised the pole. I parked and walked to the reception desk, where I met a nice-looking, English-speaking young woman.

The Eastern bloc has a vast army of nice-looking, English-speaking young women. Presumably they all used to spy for the KGB but now they don’t and they are just as nice as before. She told me that a room cost 80 Zlotys. 80 Zlotys is about $25. That would have been very cheap in Peoria, but I was being even cheaper in Poland.

“That’s rather too much,” I reflected sadly.

“Yes,” she said sympathetically, “it is, isn’t it.”

I rode back to the guard house where the two trolls, unable to disguise their glee, raised the pole with alacrity, and I rode on for a few miles. Pretty soon, next to a small shop, I saw a hand-painted sign. All it said was HOTEL, with an arrow pointing forward down a rutted track. A hundred yards further on was a similar sign with the arrow pointing back down another track. My willpower crumbled under the persuasive power of this brilliant advertising campaign and I turned to follow the arrow.

It led eventually to a large building of modern Gothic appearance. From a high peak the roof swept down almost to the ground and from under its formidable overhang little windows peeped out. The first strange thing about it was that the roof was divided in two at the crown. The halves were at least twenty feet apart and it looked weirdly vulnerable, like a crustacean with its soft parts exposed. Under the heavy sky, which was now descending like a lead blanket, I wondered whether some Transylvanian thunderbolt had split the building down the middle.

The other strange things were that it had no name, and that there seemed to be no entrance. I walked around it twice, and finally went in through the kitchen where a not-so-nice looking non-English-speaking older woman received me with rapture and guided me through a culinary labyrinth to find the inevitable nice-looking English-speaking young woman.

“How much for a room,” I asked. She thought for a minute.

“25 Zlotys,” she said. I was sure she had just invented the number, but $8 was fine by me.

“How about dinner?” I asked. She turned to the N-S-N-L N-E-S lady and they chatted.

“25 Zlotys,” she said.

I should have asked to buy the hotel.

Dinner she told me would be at seven because they were catering for a wedding that evening. I said that seven would be fine and went to my room, which contained three single beds, a wash basin and a radio. It was small but cute, walled with naked pine like a ship’s cabin, with a window that peeped through the roof.

Then I went outside to admire the view – the hotel had its own lake with boats and swans and a tennis court – when the N-L E-S young woman appeared. It was six o’clock when she announced brightly, “Your dinner is ready.”

“Why not,” I thought. “At $8 for all this, I should be a slave to time?”

Dinner was also small but cute. It was the same delicious stuffed chicken they would be serving the bridal party, and I was the absent guest. Afterwards I took my umbrella to the store on the road, bought my favourite beer, pronounced Jiviets (you don’t want to know how to spell it) and sat down outside under the awning to drink it. I had barely swallowed three gulps when a crazy man came and sat next to me. He clearly knew me intimately because he muttered secrets into my ear and patted me. It seemed to me later that whenever I sat down to drink in Poland a crazy man would appear, to engage me with a mad monologue of which I understood nothing.

A bolt of lightning shot through the cloud cover and the rain came pelting down. How unpleasant to be trapped in a thunderstorm with a mad man, but – A-HAH – I had my trusty umbrella. With another bottle tucked under my arm I returned joyfully to the no-name hotel, and while nature went berserk outside, I spent the night listening to Cole Porter tunes on the radio.

The moral of this story? Always carry an umbrella. Don’t get on your bike without it.

Next morning I was on my way to the Russian Border.

More next week.


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