How to Motorcycle Around the World Solo
Chris Foster, a 48-year-old teacher from Southern California, just completed Part 1 of a solo motorcycle journey around the world. We caught up with him to find out why he wanted to do it again.
Chris Foster, a 48-year-old teacher from Southern California, just completed Part 1 of a solo motorcycle journey around the world. He roared his way 14,343 miles across three continents and 11 countries—starting his journey in late June by dipping his feet in the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, CA, flying to Seoul, South Korea, and taking a ferry to Vladivostok, Russia. After driving 9,000 miles across Siberia, Chris headed into Europe and shipped his BMW-GS to Orlando in mid-August so he could ride across the southern U.S. to his home near San Diego, where he celebrated with a swim back in the same spot where he started.
But that’s not all: Part 2 begins in early 2011, when Chris will ship his bike to Ushuaia at the tip of South America and ride until he reaches far northern Alaska. This is Chris’s second round-the-world adventure—his first, 10 years ago, took four months and was on a cruise ship—and you can follow his two-wheeled solo journey via his blog at Planet Earth Quest. We caught up with him to find out why he wanted to do it again, and to get his Top 10 pieces of advice for a long motorcycle road trip.
Q: What has been your worst experience to date?
A: That would be the bureaucracy of attempting to fly in a spare part when my bike broke down in Siberia. The rules are so complex that it was seriously challenging. It took me an incredibly frustrating 19 days—with two overnight Trans-Siberian Railroad rides and a sleepless 16-hour hitch with a trucker—to get back on the road.
Q: What have proven to be your most useful supplies?
A: Baby powder for my rear and sunscreen for my face. I am riding west, facing the setting sun, almost every day.
Q: How would you compare the driving skills/habits of Russians, Poles, Germans and Americans?
A: That’s a good one. I think every country thinks they’re the best! Obviously, America is the easiest place to drive—despite the traffic. Germany seems to have the best road organization and drivers who follow the rules, which is good given the speed with which they drive. The Poles are good drivers and their roads are developing at a rapid rate. The Russians are good drivers, but their roads are very mixed, ranging from muddy, one-lane “Federal Roads” to well-organized highways. To handle the unpredictability there, you really need to be a good driver.
Q: You’ve already been around the world once—by ship 10 years ago. What made you want to do it again?
A: Traveling by motorcycle is a one-of-a-kind experience—you can get close to everything: the weather, the smells, the sights, and most importantly, the people. On the ship, the port visits were sometimes more superficial than I would have liked. But the bike literally breaks down the physical barrier between you and the people.
Q: Which is worse, seasickness or butt rash?
A: No question, seasickness. I can get off the motorcycle and treat the butt rash, but seasickness takes a long time to go away and can get progressively worse, regardless of how you try to cope with it.
Q: What did you miss most about home?
A: Family, friends and food…in that order.
Just in case you plan on a similar road trip, here are 10 pieces of advice from Chris on international motorcycle travel.
10. Old School Rules
Satellite phones, GPS devices, laptops, BlackBerries, computerized motorcycle tools, iPods, IPads and so on. I came across so many riders who were so loaded down with so much high-tech gadgetry, I thought they were going to turn into lightening rods during a storm and go up in a flash. Two of my heroes turned out to be a pair of young men from the Ukraine who were riding on very simple, small motorcycles, with very little else. But they rode from Kiev to Vladivostok and we connected near Lake Baikal on their way back. They had no problems because they had nothing to break down. Tip: Keep it simple and enjoy the ride.
9. Know Your Insults
Who would have thought it an insult to put on a seatbelt? During one 16-hour overnight truck ride across the unlit roads of Siberia to find an airport where I could have a new starter for my motorcycle shipped, the driver was insulted that I would even consider putting on my seatbelt. In Russian, accompanied by many assertive hand gestures, he explained that he was an excellent driver and there was no need to strap in. Tip: Your chance of getting killed is statistically rather small. You wanted adventure, right? Go with it. (Note from the editors: When riding with strangers, we’ll stick with our seatbelts.)
8. Connectivity is a Luxury
I, like almost everyone these days, rely on the Internet to stay in touch and keep informed. On this journey, it’s often been a quest to find a connection of any kind. One night, after not having Internet for five days in Siberia, I decided I needed to find a hotel that offered it. After stopping at five hotels, I finally gave up and settled on a room without it—only to discover the disco started at midnight and went until morning in the parking lot under my window. Tip: Don’t obsess over cyber-connectivity and connect instead with your travels; you’ll get online eventually.
7. Take No Offense
One of my main motivations for this journey was to gain first-hand knowledge of various countries and their customs. But some of the things I experienced were not what I expected: belching loudly when eating; spitting indiscriminately in the street; using a toothpick like a dental tool and really getting to it; being asked very personal questions within minutes of meeting someone; being lectured on the causes, impacts and true facts of World War II; and being asked why I would be so crazy as to ride my motorcycle around the world. Tip: Learn and respect even the crudest customs and simply go with the flow.
6. Know When to Say “Na zdorovje”
A major part of many cultures revolves around the social aspects of alcohol. When I was in Russia, vodka was consumed in significant quantities. What if I didn’t feel like drinking? What if I didn’t like what was being served? What if the glass had already been used by 20 people? Tip: As long as you’re not driving any time soon, drink up—you don’t want to offend your hosts and you came to experience the culture, didn’t you?
5. Prepare to Pantomime For Your Food
In hindsight, this had to be the most fun I had on the trip—just not at the time when I was tired, hungry and not sure what I might be ordering! Imagine wanting eggs and clucking like a chicken and using both hands to make a circle and hoping it was understood. I don’t eat red meat and at times I was forced to look at and sniff what others around me were eating and even go into the kitchen and open pots on the stove. Not that I couldn’t stand to lose 20-plus pounds, but I was hungry. Tip: Be happy there’s food on the table; if you have special dietary needs, learn the words for the foods you can’t tolerate.
4. Don’t Care About Boredom
Before I left, I worried how I’d fight loneliness and fill down time—books, movies, Internet? Should I bring horror flicks or would the roads be scary enough? Would I want to read guidebooks or fiction? The reality: When you’re physically and mentally exhausted, there is no such thing as boredom. Tip: Put your head on a pillow, count to 10 and enjoy your dreams.
3. Think Fresh Not Clean
I am now an expert at doing laundry, anytime and anywhere. In the beginning, I was worried about the temperature of water in the washing machine, then how to operate the washing machine, then how to plug the bathtub so I could wash clothes, then how to plug the sink so I could rinse out clothes, and finally where to get water and hand soap to wash a few necessary items. My only concern most of the time that I would have at least one fresh (maybe not clean) set of clothes to wear—and that they’d be dry enough to wear come morning! Tip: Don’t sweat it. Being truly clean is simply not going to happen.
2. Learn the Lingo Before You Leave
On my journey across Russia, I realized that knowing a bit of the language is crucial—in many more ways than just not being able to read Cyrillic road signs without the Russian bukfas (phonetic translations) to figure out which road to take. It was also about: What to say when I was pulled over for doing double the speed limit; what to tell the police when my motorcycle number did not match my title; how to ask for forgiveness of a ticket on a visit to the police station; how to ask if my motorcycle was likely to be stolen at night; how to request someone translate a menu after riding 1,000 miles on dirt road in Siberia; how to find a truck to transport me and my broken-down motorcycle 16 hours to the nearest city with an airport. Tip: Saying something about Arnold Schwarzenegger because the world seems to love him won’t always work.
1. Know Your Toilets
The range is vast and unfortunately includes the pit toilet, which definitely requires some special techniques—where to stand, where to put your pants and how to angle your body—for successful use. I was on a pit toilet in Asia made of wood and when my 220-pound body balanced on this structure, usually used by someone half my weight, it started to cave in—and what lurked 20 feet below was not a pretty sight. With my shorts around my ankles, I was able to grab the mud walls and make it up, and out, alive, but it was a close one. Tip: Know how all toilets operate before you enter. And carry your own toilet paper as there often is none or it resembles sand paper—never a good thing when you’re battling the forces of nature.