A Leisurely Run to the Russian Border


KERCH, AUTONOMOUS REPUBLIC OF CRIMEA — Yalta’s Hotel Krim managed to outdo its own hospitality. When I checked in, the expressionless old lady manning the desk let me park my Vespa in the hotel’s courtyard, but told me that I’d have to pay the doorman the next morning for “security.” No problem, I thought. The next morning, when it came time to check out, I went to the lobby to pay the doorman for his valuable services. To paraphrase Clive James’s memorable description of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the guy resembled a brown condom stuffed with walnuts, albeit one wearing tight black bouncer clothes and pointy shoes.

I asked him how much it’d be. “Tree hunnred hrivna,” he said. Three hundred… three hundred… I did the math in my head and soon figured that he was asking for US$35 worth of Ukrainian currency. There is nowhere on earth, not even London or Oslo or Tokyo, where a garage would relieve you of $35 to park your scooter for ten hours. And here I was in the crappiest hotel in town. $35 was taking the piss.

Yalta's Hotel Krim: not such a nice place

“Three hundred hrivna way too much,” I said. “Thirty hrivna.”

That didn’t go over very well. He slowly stood up and I soon appreciated just how enormous he was. “Tree hunnred hrivna,” he said again, a little louder this time. Apparently, the price wasn’t open to haggling. I pleadingly looked over at the lady at the desk, and she just sat there staring at me with the same blank face. Cripes, I thought, the old bag’s in on this too. Defeated, I dug into my wallet and pulled out three crisp hundreds and handed them over.

Now, nobody enjoys getting ripped off. I get frustrated more than most at moments like this, probably because of an overinflated self-image of a hard-bitten globetrotter, the sort of guy these things don’t happen to. Well, they do happen. And there’s not much I can do about it either — except to exact cold, hard revenge.

I had an idea. I put on my helmet and gloves, loaded up the Hamburglar, and wheeled it onto the sidewalk, leaving its rear end still loitering in the hotel’s lobby. I then slowly went through the whole startup routine. Choke, on. Starter, starting. Mirrors, okay. Indicator lights, indicating. Brakes, okay. The bike idled for a bit before I closed the choke. I knew my two-stroke engine was smoking a lot more than normal, probably due to the dirty gas and motor oil I’d been subjecting it to all across Ukraine. All the more reason to really open her up and clean out those pipes! I cranked the throttle and ran the engine at the redline for five… ten…. fifteen seconds, all the while looking down and pretending to divine something from a nonexistent tachometer. Over the din of the screaming 200cc piston, I could hear the security guy hollering at me. I looked over and saw him a few feet away, frantically waving and not looking very amused.

“WHAT’S THAT?” I said, pointing at the part of my helmet where my ears were. “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”. The engine still redlining, I looked behind me and could see that the Hotel Krim’s entire lobby was now wreathed in noxious blue smoke. Take that, fuckos!

Satisfied that I’d gotten my point across, I shifted into first, waited for the engine to wind down, eased out on the clutch, and scooted my way onto the waterfront drive. Next stop for me was the sweet civility of a nearby studio apartment I’d reserved that morning.

Livadia Palace, where the European map was redrawn

Yalta, of course, is most famous for being home to the Tripartite Conference in February 1945 where Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill carved up postwar Europe. Stalin did manage to violate nearly everything he promised at Yalta, which didn’t bode well for what would later become the Eastern Bloc countries. Now, as then, it’s a holiday destination, purely there for the sun and sea and sand. It’s undergone massive change since the conference, though; in the postwar years, tourism here exploded as the Soviets promoted it as a workers’ paradise. Today you can still feel the everyman re-imagining it went through; the main promenade in the harbour, a few kilometres long, is a riot of tack and kitsch, with carnival rides, clowns, and at least one guy juggling chinchillas. Along the sea wall, thousands of sunburnt Russians lean back and sip beer from cans, watching the world go by. At at the fringes of all this, newly minted minigarchs busily go about being ostentatiously rich, their private helicopters shuttling them to and from rooftop condos.


I had a pleasant enough few days in Yalta, once I got the hang of the place. The clock on my Russian visa was ticking, though, and I had to get a move-on. I loaded up the bike and rode northeast down the coast, and one lengthy stretch of serpentine road was particularly lovely.

Along the way the Hamburglar’s motor started bogging down at low RPM’s, similar to what I’d experienced back in Romania, and more than once it coughed and wheezed and simply conked out. I was determined to keep moving, so I developed a technique (don’t try this at home, kids!) that would keep the engine from dying on the hairpins and during downhill sections: I’d simply pull the clutch and crank the throttle, always keeping the engine revving high. It wasn’t so good for fuel economy, but it did work, after a fashion.

I pulled over to fill up with gas, and I was approached by a bunch of 20-something people on 50cc Japanese scooters. They were members of a Kiev-based scooter club that was terrorizing the countryside in the Tour de Crimea, a two-week counterclockwise circuit of the entire peninsula. They had no safety gear to speak of — one guy was riding barefoot — and one couple was actually riding two-up, with luggage dangling off the bike everywhere and a large flag propped up on the floorboard. We exchanged some observations about fuel quality (Item: in big cities, gas is less likely to be cut with water) and then it was time to get going. One of them suggested that I ride with them.

“No can do, Kemosabe,” I said, narrowing my eyes at the horizon. “The Seanster rides alone.” His face fell, but I was quick to add that I was headed in the other direction.

A splinter group from the Tour de Crimea

I’d made it maybe another hour down the road, just past the beachside hippie colony of Koktebel, when I snapped a clutch cable. This was my first snapped cable on the Hamburglar, and now I had to change a cable for the first time in nine years. Lucky for me, I was right at a gas station when the cable went, and so I had a nice flat concrete surface to work on. I removed the windscreen and mirrors and headset and went to work. Despite my liberal application of lube, it took ages to work the cable in. Covered in grease and grime, I laid down on my back for the least fun part: reattaching the cable to the clutch lever. For an amateur like me, it’s a very frustrating trial-and-error process. A third hand would make this chore a lot more tolerable. I must’ve been on my third or fourth attempt when I heard a scooter pull up next to me.

“Что-то на русском языке!” said a female voice.

“Sorry, I don’t speak Russian,” I said. I winced as I tried and failed, again, to tighten the screw going in the clutch cable’s nipple. I put my tools down and looked up at the girl talking to me. She was on a red Vepsa LX, the first Vespa I’d seen in weeks. “But hey,” I said, “sweet ride.”

“Thanks,” she said, and returned the compliment. As it happens, she, too, was part of the same scooter club that was circumnavigating the Crimean peninsula. Her name was Anja and she was off on a mission to find a replacement tire tube for a friend who’d had a flat. She invited me to stay with the scooter gang down at the cottage they’d rented a few clicks back in a village called Schebetovka. I eagerly accepted and went back to work on my clutch cable.

An hour later I found myself at a remote cottage that was housing a dozen or so scooterists, most of them hailing from Kiev, plus a group of folks from St. Petersburg who were friends with the owner of the place.

The nucleus of the Retroscoots gang

And an hour after that I found myself drinking with the St. Petersburg crew. The bottle of Nemiroff vodka I’d brought with me had been polished off, and I thought it might be time to hit the hay. No chance, said the one guy. He produced another bottle of Nemiroff, this one twice the size of the one I’d brought. And that’s pretty much all I remember.

Drinking with Russians is serious business

I woke up the next afternoon, feeling like death, to the sound of the local Tatar muezzin delivering his call to prayer. This cottage was in a half-renovated state, and while it had high-speed internet, it still lacked running water. The thing to do was to walk way out to the back-40 to a well that Tatars had dug hundreds of years ago, haul up a bucket of ice-cold wellwater, and slowly dump it on your head. I was apprehensive at first, but I have to say that was the most satisfying shower I’d ever taken.

I had to get going to Kerch, 120 kilometres away and the last stop on the peninsula before Russia. There was time for one more photo:

The Retroscoots club near the end of their trip

I was very happy to have had that experience, and wished I could’ve stayed a few days longer. I thanked Anja and her pals for their hospitality, and hit the road. The eastern tip of the Crimea changed dramatically once I reached Feyodosia and headed inland: vegetation all but disappeared,the landscape flattened out to steppe-like wastes, and the only economic activity out there seemed to be the raising of emaciated cattle. The sun setting behind me gave the dust in the air a baleful red colour, and I’ll confess to being a little spooked. I rode on into the darkness until I reached Kerch, checked into a cheap hotel, and wondered what lay in store for the next day’s ferry crossing to Russia.

UPDATE: I, or at least the Hamburglar, made it on the Kiev scooterists’ website. Here’s what Google translate says: “Last evening when seemingly nothing to happen, at the stop Anja met with Sergei, Sean .. In short, Sean, American who lives and teaches in Barcelona, he bought his Vespa PX200 in Germany and Serbia began trip around the world. And at the gas station in Schebetvoke we met him! Shared their experiences and impressions of business cards, we drank wine and started Heavenly Lantern, wonderful end of the tour.” Not bad, not bad. Apart from “American” and “Barcelona” and “teaches”, it’s 100% factually correct. Thanks again for your hospitality!


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