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The Silk Road – Part 1 : Summer – Chasing Nothing

1.0 The Silk Road - Part 1

The Urban Jungles of Northern Asia

This is the story of the first true Chasing Nothing project.
I'd been working up to a big trip for 2 years. Me and Niko built a custom bike from scratch, the goal - to cross from Japan to England .. overland.
In the end, this bike wouldn't make it - those two years of planning went to shit in the first week of the trip.

See the Sydney/ lead up post, for the details about that shemozle.

All you need to know:
A KLR 650 was bought in Sydney by proxy, thrown in a box and flown to, Seoul, Korea, where I put it together and got underway, making do.
I'd spend the first month and half on foot, before the bike caught up with me.  I'd then spend the next 7 months on the bike of that bike.  
Slow progress would see me trapped by snows at the most inopportune time.
At many points the bike would break, and I'd fix it.
At many points I personally would break, and then I'd pick myself up.

But we'll get to all that.

Part 1: Will go from the rain soaked cities of Japan and Korea, through the fog covered forests of Siberia - and finally the gritty and rough streets of Ulaan Bator, Mongolia. Covering the summertime, and first 1/3 of what would be one of the most gruelling journeys I've ever undertaken.
I've focused each of the parts - not on chronological order so much as the unifying threads that ran through the whole trip.
Shooting travel/street and landscape photography from the back of the motorbike, allowed me to capture the slow and subtle transitions over time across a huge swathe of land.

I got to see and document a huge variety of environments - watched as the faces of people around me changed week by week.
I spent 90% of that 7 months unable to speak to anyone.
I spent half that time in complete wilderness and on open highway.

With that in mind - I hope you enjoy the following.
/James
I vlogged the entire trip.
It took me a few goes and eventually I went back through all the original footage and redid it all in a 4 part mini-series of vlogs.
If video's more your thing, go to the Chasing Nothing channel and check it out and/or, proceed below.

Street Photography

Stuck in Tokyo:

So I didn't have motorbike but i was overseas.
In the confusing weeks after, whilst I worked out what exactly plan B was, I had time for something I never planned on.

An entire month of street photography on the streets of Tokyo.

Originally I was meant to do an entire lap of Japan on the bike before catching a ferry to Korea.  Instead I didn't get outside of Tokyo - stuck by the constant need to be in communication with the good folks back home who were acquiring a suitable motorcycle on the fly.

This proved to be a pretty good thing, out of a bad situation.
My camera got quite the work out. 
Every ward in Tokyo is different, each area, it's own little specialised area with it's own unique quirk that sets it apart from the huge sprawl around.

Never mind a month - I could spend a year getting lost in the streets of this city.
Street Photography

I made it a goal - every day was a different area, a different suburb.
I stayed in Chiyoda for most of my time there - smack bang in the old center of Toyko. 
And each day I'd jump a train and try out a different neck of the woods.
A city of Canals
One of my better walks took me to the waterfront.  It's hard to tell where the port begins and canals/city proper ends.
Also, I just love the layers of building that cover parts of Tokyo.
Teaming up 
Along my walk with local photographer Tim Bueger, through Shinjuku, he told me a funny story.
There’s a small city block just down from the main train station, made from a series of tiny 2-storey buildings shoved together with the tiniest of alleyways running down the middle.
Now I’ve seen a few such blocks like this around Tokyo, running along the inside are all the shopfronts.  Each business might be at most serving a dozen customers but theres several dozen businesses shoved into the space of your average parking lot.
Back in the day though, it wasn’t so nice. Just an empty disused alleyway on the edge of the railway, a dark little corner along a much used thoroughfare.
Unsurprisingly it usually ended up being used by the local men looking to relieve themselves, hence it's name - “Piss Alley”.
Eventually over time it got cleaned up and the buildings got turned into a happening little place to eat, but locals not wanting to forget the good times, renamed it Memory lane, with only a little bit of irony.
Roofing in the rain :
Japan at Night

It's pouring:
I was reading another travellers blog this week, won’t mention who, but they were bemoaning the rain that rolled into Tokyo this week, how hard it is to see the Tokyo when it’s like this (the rainy season is on it’s way here).
If you ask me though, it's fine. I don’t mind a bit of water and neither does my camera..
I wanted to see how different the nice clean streets would look. And boy was I not disappointed the shots I got over the 48hr period that it was bucketing down I think really did what I saw justice.

If I was getting lost down backstreets before this I was lucky to find my home this time, for want of staying out and exploring everything. Just goes to show, you can complain about the weather or you can enjoy it.
Don’t look down:
If you get vertigo I recommend against climbing up where we were. My friend Andy Yee, set up his tripod to shoot some nearby architecture. Meanwhile I kept climbing out seeing how far I could get along this one series of rooftops. I can’t emphasise how much it was raining up there, the camera doesn’t show the droplets.
It’s moments like this, that make this trip what it is. It can be as simple as a regular city street, just viewed from a different angle. But it's the act of looking for it, that I love.

I decided to take the long way home. Got turned around in the back streets and the rain. By the time I got back to my hostel it was 4hrs later and I was drenched and exhausted but so it was so worth it.
Tokyo truly looks alive in the rain.

The Bike Arrives - The Journey begins...

Korea: 

Eventually Japan had to come to an end.  
I could spend a year in that country... hell, in Tokyo alone.  But I was burning money staying in such a big city - money that could keep me on the road for weeks in the wilderness of Central Asia, would get me a room and meal for a night.

So I made for Seoul, Korea.

Again, I had a few weeks of street photography - bouncing around the various streets of Seoul while I waited.
Crashing with Phoebe:
My cousin Phoebe was in Seoul. working as an English teacher - I had a spot on her couch for a few weeks while the bike (which was almost ready at this point) arrived.
I definitely owe her and her expat mates one, after the hospitality they gave me.
We were on the train in the middle of Seoul and this guy spots a beetle running around and loses his shit. Starts chasing gets a hold of it and keeps it all the way to his stop.

When I asked the expats what the hell that was about; apparently people in the city are so sheltered from nature in Seoul living as constantly as they do in high rise apartments, that something as simple as a beetle can really suprise them.

For someone that grew up around the bush in Australia .. I can't explain how odd I find this.
The Bike arrives

After huge delays and a solid effort all round, we got my new Kawasaki KLR650 airfreighted into Korea.
It took a whole day to clear customs and the following to get it out of the Freight companies warehouse, put back together, battery refitted, refill the petrol tank and get all tied down and good enough to drive out of Incheon airport.
But I did it. And now the fun really begins.
Riding around Korea :

First up was a small loop up past the DMZ to the far NE corner of the country, looping back to avoid heavy rain. Using this trial run, I adjusted the bike and gear, before taking off for good. Wishing Phoebe farewell.

I cut through the hilly interior of the country for a few days, getting lost in the forests and mountains. Eventually I reached the coast and hugged the small coastal roads (motorbikes aren't allowed on the highways of South Korea ... just ... don't ask, it doesn't make sense to me either).
The Coast & the last days in Korea :

My last day in Korea. I started just outside of Busan on the South-East corner of the country.

Every building in this city seems to have a view. After spending so long in Seoul, trying to sort out the mess that my bike and carefully laid plans had become … I really wish I’d taken a few days down here in Busan. Like I said the traffic was horrendous and the bike was actually a hindrance, had I been on foot this is one place I actually would have had a really good time shooting.
Perhaps another time.


Following Busan I went all out to make my timings with the ferry in Donghae, a smaller port located on the Mid/North-East coast of Korea. It was about 700 -800 km all up - easier riding because at this point I wasn’t stopping for sightseeing and I was mostly covering ground I’d already been down.
I got there late in the evening and was at the port facility first thing in the morning. Getting out through customs and on board the ferry was relatively painless. It was here that I met the other bikers heading the same way was me. A group of 4 Koreans (3 bikers and 1 FWD), who’d end up at alot of the same points as myself along the road through Siberia.

The Foggy Streets of Siberia

Siberia, Russia:

A day or so on a ferry and I landed in Vladivostok. 
It  hugs a bay in the Sea of Japan and sprawls out onto the surrounding islands.  Forget what you think you know about Siberia - with it's cold winters ... this was later Summer, it was swinging between boiling hot and sunny through to rainy and foggy.
There are even some pretty popular beaches nearby though I didn’t get to check on account of the traffic out to them being ridiculous.
Being this far North winters are dark, cold and miserable. Come summer time every local is spending every hour of daylight out and about doing something.
That struck me more than anything, everyone was out making the most of it.
For all that it sits on it's own on the furthest corner of Russia, Vladivostok has a lot going for it, I definitely recommend a visit.
 
It's a trend that I'd see repeated through alot of the Siberian cities - they might seem isolated and remote on a map.  But visit the nicer parts of these towns and you'll find cosmopolitan hubs that surprise you for all their vibrancy.
Fun nights( early mornings) out :
I joined forces with the other English speakers in my hostel.
Max a Chilean traveller who’d been on the road forever and lived all over, and ‘Nica a Russian expat in Shanghai she was making her way back to Moscow to visit home.
One beer turned into… a few. And before we knew it, we’d led astray one of the waitresses at the bar we started at and she joined us after finishing work and took us to a little known bar on the other side of town. Shenanigans ensued.
Cultures and languages were compared. People attempted to sing songs they didn’t know the words to, finally Max realised he had to catch a train in 4hrs and it was actually daylight outside.
So we walked home in the early morning fog.

---

This would repeat itself in Irkutsk, where I had another couple of days on the far side of my journey.
Siberia is a wild and wonderful place.
Some stereotypes exist for a reason, if there's one thing I can say for certainty about Russia; it's a fun place to go for a drink.

Rough - Street Shooting in Mongolia

I was just meant to pass through here :
... I definitely didn't intend to stay.

My first week in Mongolia. having spent a couple of days in the wide open plains of the Steppe, I stopped in at Oasis guesthouse for a few days ago, a central point for motorcyclists in a country that is totally unforgiving on our machines and lone travellers..
I'd recollect myself here before heading back out into the steppe ... where things would go somewhat awry.
Wild Amimals :
Domestication is a foreign concept in Mongolia. 
'Your dog' is just any dog that follows you and hangs around your house.  The only training dogs get is that they're never allowed inside.  Even the domestic ones look wild, and actual wild dogs do roam the streets of most towns.  
More than once I had run ins with wild dogs and I can tell you .. it wasn't pleasant.

The same applies for horses as well.  
They have horses that they use all the time, but most of the owned herds just kind run around free in the evenings, getting rounded up each morning and kept close during the day.
And truly wild horses will just show up from time to time and join a herd.

It's wide open country, with wild animals just roaming around everywhere and the lines between tame & wild, are blurred at best.
Hot and Dusty :

Summer in Mongolia is brutal.  There's so few trees in this country and being in a city is not much better.  Pollution and smoke hang heavy in the air, adding to the heat of the unrepentant sun.
I won't like... it wasn't enjoyable.
Soviet high rise and Ger Suburbs :

So Mongolia has been seeing a huge shift over the last few years, nomads from the steppes are ever increasingly making the move into the city, much like populations everywhere else in the world.
However, unlike Sydney say, where developers build a suburb and create the houses for a predicted burgeoning population to enter and inhabit, here in Ulaanabaatar it happens in reverse.
As the nomadic Mongol people have lived for hundreds of years with portable housing, they simply bring the house, kids and dog into the outskirts of the city, set up camp, build a makeshift fence around the property and get a job in town. Eventually the job opportunities the city affords mean they can afford to build a house on the lot they now have.
The result is the sprawling ger suburbs (the “ger” being the Mongol name for their version of the Yurt/huts – meaning literally ‘home’ in Mongolian).
These suburbs run up and over the hills around the centre of Ulaanbaatar, starting where the Soviet era apartment buildings end, making a labyrinth of dirt roads, collapsing wood fences, the odd fixed structure or beginnings of a wall.
Thick smoke hangs in the air in the air, from from burning cow dung and rubbish fires and the barking of several hundred dogs is constant (many of which roam the streets).

Apparently only a few years ago most of these suburbs were empty land – who knows what they’ll look like in another few years.
Dark and Dangerous:
In terms of questionable places to take expensive cameras and go street shooting ... Ulan Bator is up there.
Nevertheless; compact OMD hidden beneath my heavy jacket and hood drawn to avoid identification as a foreigner, I went for a few forays into the Ger suburbs after dark.
Between the heavy rain, muddy raods that turned into small lakes, and packs of roaming dogs that had to be deterred with a few thrown stones I kept in my pocket - it was ... an experience, for which the photos made up for.
 

Out of the Cities... Into the Forests

The Height of Summer :

It wasn't all urban jungles and open highway.
All through Japan and Korea were jaunts into the heavy wooded hills that cover those lands, and my stint in Russia was 90% looking at endless tracts of Birch filled Taiga forest ... as it whizzed past at 100Km/h.

I spent the bulk of my time in Russia actually camping in the mosquito filled forests.  
And no, I didn't see any bears.
But I did meet plenty of friendly Russians - none of whom could speak to me.. but that didn't matter.

This section : covers the shots from those dense, North Asian forests.
It was hot and  steamy - not in the fun way - and every second day seamed to rain or at least threaten to.
I had little shelter and no company.
It was a hard and long slog, with some days exceeding 1000km in a single days ride.  
Apart from an incident involving overheated brakes seizing up - very little went wrong until I reached Mongolia.

Ultimately; this was to prove to be a warmup, for what was to come.

The Steamy Forests of Japan

Tokyo's Surrounds :

In my last week in Tokyo I took myself off from the urban chaos and went hiking and camping in the hills surrounding it.

I started with Mt Takao - an easy trip to make, you literally just catch one of the trains from Shibuya straight to the end of the line and get off - the footpath to the top of the mountain is literally straight out of the train station and its barely an hour to the top for a good walker.
But then I was hooked, I continued past Mt Takao, past all the carious shrines and temples that dot the hilly terrain.  Through thick forests.  It was raining most the time I was there, but this really mattered little as the trees are so thick.
And when it wasn't raining the mist streamed off every inch of the forest in a way that was truly spectacular.

To finish off the many, sweaty kilometres of steep hill climbing I did, I washed it all off at the end at a traditional Onsen.
This by far was one of the best ways to finish up my time in Japan.

Japan... you go alright.

A Circuit of Korea

Remember those mountains I mentioned :

First decent trip after receiving the motorbike was to head north from Seoul on the West coast, following the DMZ (de-militarised zone) with North Korea all the way to the East coast and then completing a big loop all the way back to Seoul.
I took 3 days to do it, camping out both nights and I really enjoyed. This part of Korea is very scenic if very rural.
It’s just one valley after another with farms at the bottom and forest covering the surrounding hillside. The closer one gets to the DMZ the more military bases take over, farms disappear and it becomes thick forest, high mountains and steep passes filled with fortifications and some interesting structures designed to drop across the road and block off said passes should the North Koreans decide to visit their cousins in the South.
Closer to the border with North Korea the number of troops getting about really intensifies. 

I highly recommend travelling this area by car or bike, although most people I talked to had guided tours take them to points along the DMZ, without your own vehicle you don’t get to see alot of what I just described - though you do have to pass through more than a few military checkpoints, the road are mostly open to the public.
The following shots are more of the surrounding mountains than anything else… for obvious reason taking photos of active military bases in a foreign land is usually ill advised - so you’ll just have to take me word for it on the rest.

The Taiga of Siberia

Into the Taiga :
The Taiga is the thick temperate forests of Siberia, a true wilderness of thick foliage and tall but thin trees all drenched in water and greenery this time of year. 
Water is everywhere, pooling in lakes and puddles, flowing in rivers and streams.  For all that Siberia's covered in snow most of the year round, that snow does melt in most parts of it and it soaks the land for summertime.  

Taiga is a particular kind of forest, running from the temperate, grassy steppelands I tackled later, through to the arctic region where it ends in the tundra and permafrost.
It’s comparable to the forests of Canada and Alaska though a bit different in fauna and flora – but equally just as wild and untame-able.
What is most striking though is it’s vastness, you really don’t appreciate it till you get here – having travelled all over Australia I appreciate more than most, wide, empty space; but here those similarly vast horizons and filled with endless trees.

Where it meets the highway and railway – two solitary lines of civilisation cut through it, the taiga makes a perfect wall of trees, thick and unending for hours of driving on end.
And this is just it’s southern edge – the easier more civilised part of Siberia.

I think I'll leave the road of bones to another trip.
Siberia really is a land of Golden Domes and Wooden Hovels – though this isn’t always true. But at some points the contrast did seem rather stark.

The orthodox church has always loved to display it’s beautiful churches for all to see. It’s not hard to imagine why, I mean, many of the wooden farm houses you drive past here have been unchanged for hundreds of years, simple wooden structures to perform the duty of providing shelter.
You can't help imagine being the serfs living in one of those and knowing nothing else apart from your small village and then making your way into a larger town to see one of these gleaming golden domes … it would probably fill you with the appropriate amount of awe that churches do love to inspire.
An interesting place to pass through, though I feel no urge to visit any of the churches … I can already tell you what’s inside, an absolute tonne of iconography and no seats (see my last name for an explanation there).  
I’m interested in this part of the world for other reasons.

What's Next ?

The Taiga in Autumn :


I touched on earlier; the stark contrasts between the ramshackle appearance of your average Siberian cottage, and the splendour of it's golden churches the surprising cosmopolitan cities.

However I passed through more than a few remote towns that were amazingly beautiful for the care and effort the people had put into them.
Brightly painted fences and ornate windows - houses built from sturdy logs .. a building material that is in abundance here..
These towns were often nicer in general, people were friendlier.
Summer ends :

Early morning Fog. The last few days in Siberia got really, really cold and I was running out of time, so had ride through the night at one point.
The fog the next morning was beyond belief.

The changing of the seasons.
I had 45 days in Mongolia - breaking up my trip across Siberia into 2 halves.
In the first half, summer was in full swing and it was all greens and blues.
But after my hold up in Mongolia, I returned back through Irkutsk and finished off Siberia just shy of the Ural mountains and headed south into Kazakhstan. 

Autumn is definitely here now and boy is the countryside putting on a show of it.

Maybe it’s just that autumn is such a non-event in Australia that I’m easily impressed, but the countryside was every shade imaginable. There was also a lot of evening haze and morning fog - the air noticably crisper, which made a stark contrast from the thick heat, smoke, dust and smog from last time round.
^^^
See Part 2 for the story behind this picture - a 30 hour stint on the motorcycle racing to the Kazakh border in time whilst battling thick fog and freezing temperatures.