Friday, June 27, 2008

Book Review: Into the Den of the Bear and the Lair of the Dragon on a Motorcycle

Epic biker’s odyssey
Into the Den of the Bear and the Lair of the Dragon on a Motorcycle by Werner Bausenhart; Legas, Canada; Price: Rs.900; 203 pp

Cross-country biking is not new to two-wheeler aficionados across the world. Men and mobikes taking off to far-flung destinations is old hat for intrepid and free-spirited souls who wish to explore the world. One such adventurer is Dr. Werner Bausenhart, a former professor at the University of Ottawa, who during the past decade has biked across the Americas and travelled down the west coast of Africa.

“Motorcycle adventure travel is mainly a man-thing, although lately a few women seem to have been bitten by the bug as well. It is a disease without a cure. The symptoms are well known, but not well understood, particularly by the female half of the population. We, the sufferers, need space; no, more than that: we need the vista of wide open spaces. We need adventure as a fish needs water. We need a bit of danger in our lives to add zest to an otherwise prosaic existence,” writes Bausenhart, the author of this travelogue. The ambitious eventful excursion on two wheels took Bausenhart across two of the largest countries in the world — Russia (the eponymous den of the bear) and China (the dragon’s lair). Refreshingly Bausenhart’s thrilling adventure narrated in this book began after his retirement from Ottawa University which he served faithfully for 27 years — proof there’s a lot of life after retirement.

The Russian leg of the 31,686 km journey on a BMW R 100 GS PD began in London and ended in Vladivostok via Moscow, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, and Khabarocsky, and return was via Beijing, Kashgar, Islamabad, Tehran, Ankara, and Istanbul — an eight month long odyssey.

Liberally peppered with route maps, monochrome photographs and illustrations, this book is an easy and entertaining read. Conversations with a multitude of locals, fellow travellers on the road and policemen and inevitable haggling with border officials provide useful information on local cultures and practices of each country.

“Although the highway to Minsk was excellent, I did not make much time, since at every little town I was stopped by their traffic police, only to admire my motorcycle and to make conversation. This I loved. This was the very purpose of my journey, to meet the locals. In Minsk I was chased by a city cop on a motorcycle for no apparent reason. He pulled me over at a traffic light, and with a smile pointed out at his motorcycle: it was a BMW, the same type and year as mine, but in police livery. The two of us went through an instant ritual of male bonding, a ritual that was to be repeated again and again throughout the trip. After all boys will be boys, no matter what nationality and where they may meet,” writes the author.

Like Bausenhart’s earlier books 8 Around the Americas on a Motorcycle and Africa Against the Clock on a Motorcycle, this comprehensive travel diary would particularly interest the multiplying tribe of bikers — majority of whom entertain ideas of hitting the highways full throttle. A series of vignettes and a tour d’ horizon of societies and cultures en route, mark the meandering jaunt.

Indeed as one pours over lengthy paragraphs, it’s arguable that the unique selling proposition of this travelogue is the valuable advice it contains on required documentation, bike maintenance, road and riding conditions and how they affect the motorcyclist, sea crossings by air/ sea freight and basic security precautions. A concluding appendix of hard data provides details of exact distances between towns, camping sites and most importantly, includes the author’s rating of hotels in which he lodged.

On the down side the book could have done with professional editing, production, and colour — instead of black and white — photographs. Nevertheless for the growing tribe of subcontinental bikers, Bausenhart’s recitation of an epic odyssey is certain to prove inspirational. It demonstrates that anyone with the ability to win friends and influence people can do likewise. All it takes is a bike, a bit of money, and lots of time.

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