It was 31 years old and looked it, a heinous shade of blue with beefy tires and two dinky seats. It was a 1983 Ural with a sidecar and I was in love.
I’ve been planning this trip for over a year. What started out as a motorcycle trip across China into Kyrgyzstan morphed into a circuit through Central Asia. I was going to buy the bike in Bishkek, do the loop, then come back and sell it.
After a great deal of research and getting advice from locals and people who’ve done similar trips, I stumbled upon gold. A Kyrgyz classifieds forum, entirely in Russian. All about motorcycles.
After looking through a great many posts, I found five bikes that looked suitable and started calling. Or, rather, the wonderful Aizada–an employee at my guesthouse–started calling. All were sold, so I checked the forum again. As if by fate, there was another posting. The Ural.
The owner picked up and said the magic words. They were Russian, so I had no idea what they were, but they were something to the effect of, “It’s available, see you tomorrow.”
The next day, I found myself well outside the city crouched on the pavement where the bike is parked in the picture above. Using a smart phone, the seller and I talked about the bike, how the spark plugs were Soviet ‘scheisse’, and why I wanted the bike. He fired it up and I took it for a spin. With a 650 cc engine, it was burlier than anything I’ve ridden, and a heckuva lot of fun to drive. The sidecar made things interesting, but I figured it out after a few minutes. I was straight up smitten with the thing.
I drove back and we struck an agreement. We exchanged money for ownership documents and shook.
That sexy old bird was mine.
We pulled out onto the highway and I opened the throttle, on the lookout for a gas station (the seller had warned me it was close to empty). Rolling up to an intersection, I saw one just ahead. Suddenly, the engine sputtered.
You’ve got to be kidding…
I stepped off and tried to kick-start it. No luck. Not wanting to hold up traffic, I pushed it to the shoulder and tried again. Still nothing. Whatever, the gas station was just across the road. I waited for the crosswalk light to turn green and, when it did, I pushed it over to the gas station. The attendant had a good chuckle and filled my new baby up. I thanked him and went to start it again.
Grinning and pointing at the bike, I shook my head. Tried again.
C’mon, you piece of…
Beginning to get frustrated, I pushed the bike to the shoulder. Remembering the scheisse spark plugs, I unscrewed each and brushed off the ends. Just to be safe, I pumped the fuel lines before I tried it again. Nothing.
The gas station attendant, whose name turned out to be Suyoon, waved me aside and started fiddling with the carburetor and fuel lines. We each took turns trying to kick-start it, but to no avail. With a grin, he waved over a friend of his, who also took a turn. Neither of them could get it to work.
“Come,” Suyoon told me, gesturing across the street. “Motorcycle seller, maybe fix Ural.”
Seeing a ray of hope, I followed him to the shop. It was a line of shipping containers, almost all of them locked and sealed. One near the end was open, a group of surly looking men with welders and tools worked on bikes that looked lifted from a Mad Max movie. Suyoon talked to a few of them, but no one had parts for a Ural.
Disheartened, I followed Suyoon back to the bike. He called over a few more friends from an auto shop next door, and they all took turns trying to fix it. After a few minutes, one of them tried out some English. “This motorcycle… NOOOO!!” He yelled, waving his hands like he was trying to stop a plane.
Great. I’d finally bought a Ural, and it induced panic in everyone who saw it.
He slapped the back of the seat. “Mudderfockerbeeatch!”
I blinked. Then burst out laughing. Just a little tension sloughed off my shoulders.
“Yeah,” I agreed, “mudderfockerbeeatch.”
Suyoon came up with an idea then. He called his girlfriend to help translate, and she relayed the plan to me. I would leave the bike at the gas station and return the next morning. He would meet me there, and we would go together across town to the Kudajbergen Avto Bazaar to find a Ural mechanic. I was nearly overwhelmed.
“Suyoon, thank you.” I said it again in Russian. He laughed and shook my hand. I remembered what he’d told me when we’d introduced ourselves.
“My name, in English, translates ‘smile'”. Apt.
Then, my phone rang. It was Aizada, from my guesthouse. I’d called her earlier for some help translating, so she had an idea what was going on. She’d gotten a hold of a neighbor with a big truck, who had then agreed to come pick up the bike for me. I gave her the go-ahead and filled Suyoon in as well.
Aizada and the neighbor arrived in a massive transport truck. Her neighbor got out and started talking with Suyoon and his friends to figure out the problem. During the course of the conversation, it became clear. Every last one of them thought the bike was a big, steaming pile of… scheisse.
Aizada asked me what I wanted to do. “You could call the owner, maybe he will give you some money back.”
I saw my dream trip evaporating right in front of me. All the planning, all the excitement, all the build-up… to a breakdown at a Kyrgyz gas station. Then, I had a fatal thought. If I couldn’t even figure this out, how the hell was I going to do it by myself in the middle of the mountains in Tajikistan?
“Call him,” I told her. I was exhausted. I was thirsty, hungry, and had a splitting headache. I wanted to curl in a ball and disappear.
She called him and he came a few minutes later. He pulled out a new spark plug and plugged it in, starting the bike up a few minutes of tinkering later. Still, my decision had been made. I got on the bike and followed him back to his house. It stopped running once more on the way.
I parked, gave him the documents back, then he went inside and handed me my money. All of it.
I know I was the one who got sold a junker, but I still felt rotten.
“Good luck,” I told him.
He smiled grimly and offered his hand. I shook it.
Aizada and I joined up with her neighbor and he drove us back. I sat in between them, trying and failing to not dwell on what had just happened. My motorcycle trip wasn’t going to happen. I had failed before I even began.
But then, I had a thought. A single, beautiful thought.
I had just been helped by so many people.
All the random guys who’d stopped by to tinker with the bike; Aizada’s neighbor, who gave me a ride; smiling Suyoon, who spent 4 hours and was willing to spend the next morning trying to help me; Aizada, who helped me setup the appointment and cancel the sale… who totally saved me. Even the seller who, instead of holding on to some of the cash, gave me a full refund without being asked.
People are awesome. No matter how crappy I feel now, I know that’s going to be the memory that sticks with me.
That’s why I love travel. Horrible things happen, but people save you. All that you can do is smack whatever pile of junk is giving you a problem, shake your head, and say, “Mudderfockerbeeatch.”
Sorry for the Kyrglish cursing, Mom!