Eileen Bjorkman is a retired Air Force officer, so she’s no stranger to exploring new places around the world by air, land and sea. But on the back roads of Siberia, China, and Russia, traveling with a 1928 Plymouth Roadster and die-hard motorists intent on duplicating the around-the-world Great Auto Race of 1908? Hmm, that’s in a class by itself!
Eileen is writing a book about her epic motoring tour through Japan, China, Siberia, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Belgium and France, with the complex logistics organized by MIR Corporation. Here’s a taste of what she saw and experienced, in her own words.
Note: MIR president Douglas Grimes highlights some of MIR’s landmark overland expeditions, including this one of driving Siberia and beyond in a vintage car. Each of the four “Longest Race” participants that Douglas mentions has an utterly unique story to tell: Eileen Bjorkman, Luke Rizzuto, John Quam, and Leo Janssens. Eileen is featured here.
Long and Bumpy Road
Every time the GMC Envoy SUV hit a bump on the Siberian roads, my iPad switched from vertical to horizontal mode; when I rotated back to vertical, my reader app dropped back one or two pages. Just as I swiped forward again, we slammed into another bump to start the whole process over. Many days I gave up and just watched the scenery, while the scribbles in my notebook made random jumps with each SUV jolt until some pages resembled the art of a crayon-wielding toddler.
But my reading and writing travails were nothing compared to the ride in our other trip vehicle, a 1928 Plymouth Roadster. After a few days of driving in Russia, both the front and rear shocks on the Roadster were shot. Although we still made decent time on stretches of good pavement, when we encountered construction areas or unmaintained roads, our convoy of two slowed to ten mph to keep the Roadster chassis from bottoming out on the bumps.
How bumpy is bumpy? Here’s a Siberian rough road video I shot that’s just one minute long, but feels like an eternity:
Driving Into History
I was a passenger on this expedition with three other AARP-eligible Americans, and our goal was to re-create the Asia-Europe portion of the original 1908 Great Race from New York to Paris. Having read several books about Siberia before I left the U.S., my overactive imagination had conjured up primitive conditions and hostile natives, but other than some questionable toilet facilities along the route, none of that had come true.
However, many of the Siberian roads wouldn’t qualify as logging roads or even hiking trails in the U.S. Dirt and gravel roads rutted with pot holes that could swallow a car whole were the norm, and we only saw highways that resembled modern freeways outside major cities.
Russian drivers dealt with the poor conditions in part by creating impromptu lanes – it wasn’t unusual to see two lanes become five, as drivers used both shoulders and even ditches, while also adding a middle lane in the actual road for anyone gutsy enough to try it.
I was thankful we were at least able to drive on the right – I can’t even imagine trying to navigate through the chaos while trying to remember to stay left, as we’d had to in Japan!
It wasn’t all serious business. I couldn’t stop laughing at the chicken leg hut we passed in Siberia. Only later did I learn that in Russian folklore there’s a witch called Baba Yaga who roams the birch forests of Russia and Siberia. Depending on your intentions Baba Yaga can hurt, or help you. Maybe she can help us find gas in Siberia?
Still, the slow pace gave me time to absorb passing vistas and towns as I pondered on Russian history in a way we often miss in the U.S. as we whiz through panoramic deserts and prairies at eighty mph.
In the Siberian villages we passed through, many of the wooden houses sagged or tilted at such a terrifying angle that I imagined furniture bolted to the floor and shimmed on one end to keep plates from sliding off dining room tables and people from rolling out of beds. But a surprising number of these houses, most of which had no running water, sported gray satellite dishes in jarring juxtaposition with traditional blue or green shutters. Abandoned factories and collective farm dormitories, covered with graffiti and broken windows, reminded me that Russia is still only two decades removed from the old socialist dream.
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Every village, no matter how small, seemed to have a cell phone tower and a memorial to the villagers lost during the Great Patriotic War, the name Russians use for what Americans call World War II. During the war, the US lost about 400,000 people, most of them military, the equivalent of wiping Minneapolis off the map. It’s a number that boggles the mind, but one that pales with the Soviet Union loss of 25 million.
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Going the Extra Mile
But in spite of Russia’s collectively tragic past, we found upbeat, friendly citizens who went the extra mile to help us everywhere we went. Of course, the Roadster made a great ambassador, attracting attention and cell phone pictures at every gas station, café, roadside stand, tourist attraction, and hotel.
Salesmen at auto stores happily scoured the Internet for replacement shocks and brainstormed ideas for temporary repairs with the help of MIR’s Russian guides, Ksenia and Natalia.
At one stop, a young man insisted on helping to pump up the rear air struts, and at another, an auto shop owner offered to open up on a holiday weekend to help with repairs. I can only hope that if a few Russians show up to drive Ladas across the U.S. some day, they’ll be received with reciprocal warmth.
Although construction delays often made for long days, each evening we made it to the hotel MIR had reserved for us. Knowing that clean beds, hot water and flush toilets awaited us helped the team keep going, and I can’t thank MIR enough for all their assistance.
A trip like this takes a team effort, and MIR made the difference each step of the way, including visa applications, customs paperwork for the cars, shipping and flight arrangements, English-speaking guides, and hotel reservations. They did pretty much everything except the driving, and I’m sure they would have done that too if we’d asked!
–– Eileen Bjorkman
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Learn MoreDiscover why the Great Race of 1908 was important not only to the auto industry, but to the entire world in MIR’s special stories on these automotive adventures. For starters, MIR President Douglas Grimes offers an overview on MIR’s expertise in overland expeditions, and especially on this complex multi-country journey by car. Then read the travel stories of Eileen Bjorkman’s motoring colleagues in the “Longest Race,” each with a unique perspective on why they traveled and what they experienced along the way:
- Luke Rizzuto: “Longest Race: Living a Vision, 1908 Style”
- John Quam: “Longest Race: Recycling a Dream, 1908 Style”
- Leo Janssens: “Longest Race: Driving to Parts Unknown, 1908 Style”
You can also delve into the day-to-day journey of these four “Longest Race” participants in their own travel blog, “World Auto Tour.” It chronicles the pitfalls, pit stops, and motoring passions as they re-create in 2008 and 2014 this electrifying, around-the-world “Great Race.”
Does all this compel you to imagine your own adventurous journey? If so, imagine that journey with MIR. With nearly 30 years of logistical expertise, MIR specialists help you create your own hand-crafted itinerary focused on your own interests and activities, and on your own timeline. Truly, it’s a “journey of a lifetime.”