When crossing from Germany into the Czech Republic you notice a marked decrease in the quality of the road’s surface. It degrades from a freshly ironed tablecloth to a patchwork quilt of filled in potholes. There are other differences too — almost instantly my phone with its German sim card went into roaming mode, unable to receive data and the relatively decipherable German signs yielded to the clustered consonants of Czech. Both conspired to mean that should I deviate from the pre-recorded GPS route I would be well and truly lost.
It was four hours since I had left Berlin but I was already beginning to miss it. For over a month Marty and I had been living double lives like a dynamic Dionysian duo. By day we would negotiate one bureaucratic organ after another and race around town in a mad grab for the spare parts and tools necessary to traverse a continent. As soon as night fell, we would resume a relentlessly party lifestyle with the dear Berlin set, packing a month’s worth into every hard day’s night.
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This type of existence has a limited shelf life, of course, and there had been some moments where the entire house of cards looked like it would topple. In one such moment I had been transporting my brand new motorcycle luggage stuffed with camping equipment down Kottbusser Tor, a main road in Berlin, during peak hour. I was putt-putting along with an overwhelming sense of achievement and goodwill when I felt the luggage slide like a seal off a rock from the pillion seat behind me. Throwing a glance backward I saw a shiny black Audi, the grill smiling demonically bearing down upon 350 euros worth of hardwon gear which lay on the bitumen in an untidy heap. Peak hour Kottbusser Tor was not a place you just stop so I pulled over on a pedestrian island and ran chicken-like, my helmet still on my head through the traffic. Luckily the driver had stopped, got out and placed my gear to the side of the road before returning to his car. Not even a raised fist or a blast of his horn, just a nod and a mouthed “danke” to me through the tinted passenger window as he passed. Ah Berlin — Du bist so wunderbar.
There had been other challenges too, like the language barrier and some truly confounding aspects of the mechanisms of German society. Take Marty’s bike purchase for example — we had to travel about an hour outside Berlin for an inspection. For reasons that still eludes me, the owner wanted to keep the number plates. This meant that Marty had to pay a deposit, return to Berlin, register the bike, receive new number plates, go back to the motorcycle, pay the remainder, attach the new plates and only then was he the legitimate owner.
But how legitimate we felt after having both purchased our BMW F650 GS motorcycles. I always opened the lockup garage with a sense of pride, watching the rising sweep of the metal door like a curtain give way to these relentlessly practical creations slanting rakishly on their side stands. I had bought the Dakar model which had such high suspension that I was unable to plant both my feet on the ground. This lead to many situations in which I had to reverse my bike out of a cobblestoned parking space only to have my feet brush the stones, unable to get sufficient purchase to heave the 198 kilogram monster out.
This weight was most likely closer to 250 kilogram now as I sped over the uneven road, loaded with camping gear, spare parts, clothing, all manner of tools and electronic devices. Marty was in Paris and would meet me a few days later at my destination. The sun was getting low and I still had another four hours of travel. I sped up and passed an old truck. The sound of the single cylinder engine begins like jackhammer, then into a whir and finally a shriek as the revs pass 3500.
There is something irrefutably German in the character of this motorcycle, the controls have an unadorned, industrial coarseness to them, in which practicality has clearly trumped luxury at nearly every turn as the guiding principle of design. When shifting up a gear, for example, the bike responds by a crunch then a shudder which is so deliberate that it forces the rider to respond in kind. In other words it is a serious and decisive piece of machinery that demands a serious and decisive operator. I just hope its estimation of me didn’t fall too much that afternoon on Kottbusser Tor.
As the long summer dusk gave way to night things became a little surreal. Have you ever noticed that shuffle never seems to be truly random? I had an audiobook of Frank Herbert’s Dune which I had loaded on for travelling through the Gobi desert. This tome was divided into 105 audio files that seemed to always take pride of place on my iPod’s shuffle playlist. The result being that as I bounced through the blackness, trying desperately to fight off fatigue and cold as I squinted through the bug smeared visor of my helmet on the unblinking red eyes of a truck in front, the music would switch to dramatic fragments of Dune featuring multiple breathy voice actors and swirling 80s synth.
So why was I travelling through the night on bad roads? And to where? Well dear Reader, if you have made it this far, you deserve an answer. Let us leave that Czech night and head North-East to Siberia, to the Ural Mountains that skirt its perimeter, and back in time.
I am in a platzkart, which is a third class carriage whereby people sleep dormitory style, three high and it is the height of summer. It is difficult to invoke such a scene without bestowing upon it an escaping refuge-like quality. Imagine, sixty people crammed into a single carriage, some wearing shirts, others not, all lying nearly comatose. They fan themselves, slice off a chunk of kielbasa with a flick knife, eat it then pass the sausage around. It is very hot due to the season and one’s proximity to other bodies. I am on the middle bunk. Below me is a pair of young women with Central Asian features and garb. They each have a small child and they take it in turns to breastfeed. I lie back, trying to minimize my movement and look out the window at the birch tree forest that makes up the bulk of the Siberian vista. It’s been like this for about twenty hours. Occasionally I scribble down notes in my book because I am trying to document a typical leg of the Trans-Siberian.
I receive a message on my phone. It is from my mother and it says to call her because it is urgent. This is not unusual. Most messages from my mother contain a note of urgency whether the situation warrants it or not. I explain curtly, that it is best for me to contact her when I am in circumstances more conducive to chat. It’s a decision that I will most likely regret for a good while to come. She replies with “Your grandfather died last night”.
I scramble and re-read the message. After checking flight details out of the industrial city of Perm (which is our next stop) to Frankfurt and then Sydney, I call my mother. She answers with my grandmother in the background. They explain that he passed away quietly in the night. There will be a funeral in Sydney and the ashes will be brought for burial in the family crypt in the Czech Republic. I tell them that of course I will be at the Sydney funeral but they repeatedly tell me that it is not necessary. I hang up in a state of shock.
I was quite close to my grandfather, who lived about ten minutes’ walk from where I spent the first twenty one years of my life. He did a great deal to raise my three sisters and me. In the tenth grade my history teacher and I went through his history with him, which was in a journal, and the highlights are worth repeating.
My grandfather, Hugo Belcredi, was born a count into an aristocratic Austrian family in 1923. In a move that I never quite understand, though I am assured is common, he was adopted by a rich man who had no children of his own. His adopter was a part Jewish Austrian. When Hitler invaded Austria in 1939 he was conscripted, but because of his aristocratic past was placed into a politically unreliable unit. These units were sent to areas with the heaviest fighting which my grandfather seemed miraculously to mostly avoid. I can remember him telling me that whenever he heard gunfire he would throw down his gun and run in the other direction — the converse of bravery as equated with stupidity. He did cite one instance in which he and 350 of his comrades had been encircled by Russians and he was one of only ten to escape.
Hugo had been injured with frostbite and confined to a military hospital. After his wounds had healed, he was ordered back to the front. On the way there the truck he was in was hit in an air raid. My grandfather used this as an opportunity to desert. He hopped a train back home to the Czech Republic, still in uniform which was at great risk as the train was full of military police. Upon returning home his father told him he could not remain and must hide in the forest from the Germans lest they shoot him and the entire family as a deserter.
In 1948 there was a communist coup in Czechoslovakia which, as a result, became a satellite of the USSR. All of Hugo’s family’s properties were appropriated by the government. As an Austrian citizen he was temporarily immune from the worst consequences of the new regime, but he was eventually given a choice — either become a Czechoslovakian citizen or leave forever. He chose to leave and married my Grandmother, Marie.
There was one problem though; Hugo’s brother was stuck in Czechoslovakia. Hugo and Marie illegally returned there to try and convince him to leave but he would not. When Hugo and Marie tried to jump the border back, they were caught. After being accused as spies they were jailed for three months. Marie’s father, still in Czechoslovakia managed to bribe the guards and as a result they were released and managed escape to Vienna, running 60 kilometres in twelve hours through the no man’s land between Czechoslovakia and Austria. Finally in 1956, with nothing but a string of pearls, my mother (then three years old) and her young sister, they all came to Australia.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall our family managed to get a portion of their properties back. One of which had been turned from a large estate into a school and then returned as-is. It was here that I was travelling through the Czech night to reach.
The closer I got, the worse the quality of the roads grew as the lines that marked the road became increasingly difficult to read and in sections disappeared altogether. Never wanting to take my eyes off my bike (and the luggage it contained) my last three meals were microwave heated sandwiches.
I was now getting so cold that my hands became numb and I began to lose fine control over the brake and clutch levers. But I was close, spurred on by the thought of entering the large circular courtyard and seeing my family for the first time after four months of travel, greeting me as the hero I clearly was. After nearly running into a deer as it leapt across the road, I made it into the town to find the estate silent, the windows black and the gates were closed. I was shivering when I stepped through them. A light went on and my two sisters came down in their pyjamas. Mum had gone to bed early no doubt so riddled with anxiety about my safety that she needed a good night’s sleep. I went upstairs, poured a large scotch and told my sisters all about it.
K Johnson is blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run.