On July 1st, 1994, Australian motorcyclists Walter Colebatch and James Mudie set out from Japan to become the first people to ride and conquer the roads, cities and vast expanses of China, Mongolia, Siberia and Kazakhstan, unescorted, on their way to London. The Tokyo to London Project is the story behind that journey.

By five o'clock on July 1st, we were drinking beers on the deck of the "Suzhou Hao" as it sailed out of Yokohama, bound for Shanghai. The previous three days had left us with mixed feelings about the beginning of our trip. We felt relieved that we had managed to buy the two motorcycles that we wanted, and still make the ferry for China on time, while also feeling somewhat anxious and concerned that we had not had the opportunity to inspect and prepare the bikes for the journey.

Taking a break from the rain - muggy days in eastern China

We had decided that Honda TransAlps were the motorcycles that we wanted to use for our trip and we had been in regular contact with many motorcycle dealers in Japan. Despite being assured over the telephone the day before our departure from Australia by numerous dealers in Tokyo that they had plentiful supplies of second-hand TransAlps, we arrived in Tokyo to find the exact opposite. Only after two days of running around from one end of Tokyo to the other did we manage to find the first bike. We were then left with only a few hours the following morning to locate and purchase another bike before the bi-weekly ferry to Shanghai departed. By 1 p.m. we had finally purchased the second motorcycle and we set off frantically to collect our gear, pack the bikes and ride 40 kilometres through dense urban Japanese traffic to make the 5 p.m. ferry departure. We left the bike shop in such a hurry that there was no time to check the oil and fuel levels. Consequently, the bike ran out of fuel in the middle of Tokyo, just when we needed a quick, no hassles drive to Yokohama.

We arrived back at the house where we were staying in the suburb of Kawasaki at 2:30 and estimated that at absolute best we had 60 minutes to pack and load the bikes for the first time and get underway.There was no time to mount the gear racks, no time to pack logically. The racks were tied on with duct tape, and the luggage thrown haphazardly on. On the back of it all we threw 2 spare rear tyres and one spare front tyre each - 3 tyres each in total and held the whole lot in place due to the magic of elastic octopus / bungee straps. We pushed away from our hosts as late as we could, right on 3:30 and made our way gingerly down the narrow, ancient Japanese street. But the fun had only just begun. With so much weight on the back, the bikes were totally off balance. We had barely ridden 50 metres before we both came close to crashing into the gutter. The front wheels were almost uncontrollable. Our host family down the street must have been shaking their heads in wonderment - thinking how are these two idiots going to make it round the world, when they cant even make it 100 metres down the road. A quick attempt the throw some weight further forward by putting the tyres on top of the luggage rather than dangling off the end of the bikes was enough to calm the manic front wheel wobble and nervously, on bikes totally unfamiliar to us, laden to the hilt we pressed on through bumper to bumper Japanese traffic. At long last the ferry came into view with only minutes to spare - we were the last vehicles loaded onto that boat.

Again this was hardly without troubles. The ticket office would not take credit cards or travellers cheques for the $240 bike and person fare. We didn't have enough Yen to pay for the ride so we had to break into our emergency $1000 supply of US dollars. This meant that we were already used up half of our US dollars cash, and the journey had barely begun.

This is what a makeshift Chinese drivers licence and motorcycle registration look like

In our desperation to get loaded onto the ferry, we drove the bikes onto the ferry deck, tied them down with straps and after all that panic and exhaustion headed upstairs for a cold refreshing beer. We planned to return to the bikes later to do get the gear we needed for the trip and to try and give the bikes a bit of a service. We neglected to take from the bikes the essentials that we needed for the three day journey to Shanghai. Consequently, when the cargo hold was locked we found ourselves with only the free T-shirt we were given as we boarded, and our cameras. Once locked, the hold was strictly off limits to passengers for the whole of the journey, thereby keeping us from a much needed change of clothes. We had also hoped that the three day trip would give us ample opportunity to properly prepare the bikes for the journey ahead. As we had only seen our bikes for the few hours between buying them and then locking them in the cargo hold we were very disappointed that we had no access the bikes during the ferry trip.

The three day ferry crossing was surprisingly pleasant. The Chinese crew were very friendly and helpful. The crew and passengers played table-tennis with each other while computerised route maps in the lounge plotted our route. Sleeping on board was all in one large common room. There were only a few separate sleeping rooms but as students we decided to slum it with the hoi polloi. It was a large low ceilinged room, with wafer thin mattresses for each person to lie on. We were the only westerners on board the ship and apart from a friendly Mongolian businessman and a few Japanese tourists, the rest were all Chinese labourers returning from Japan, armed with cash and presents for family and friends back home.

We left Japan on two Honda XL400V TransAlps, and carried over 60 kilograms of luggage and spare parts each. Spare tyres, tubes, chains, brake pads, cables and levers were considered the essential spares, along with tents, sleeping bags, a huge amount of photographic equipment. Due to the lack of any suitable local substitutes we also carried many litres of engine oil, chain lube and brake fluid. Further, anticipated low grade fuel quality meant we had to try and take as much octane booster as possible. We stocked up in Tokyo with 4 litres each - we couldn't really carry any more - but we knew it would never really be enough. The fact that we also had to carry clothes and riding gear to deal with all weather conditions from a steamy Shanghai summer to a sub-zero winter in Northern Europe meant that the bikes were very heavily loaded for the majority of the trip. The motorcycles were totally standard apart from Gearsack luggage racks attached with hose clamps.

With the bikes locked presumably safely in the ships hold, there was nothing for us to do during the crossing of the East China Sea but revisit where we had come from 9 months ago. September 1993 was the genesis of the idea. A group of 6 adventure seeking friends were sitting around discussing what we would do next Australian winter (July - August '94). James was keen to ride motorcycles around Japan. Walter had just finished reading "Across the Red Unknown" (a journey across Russia from Vladivostok to Moscow by 4WD by journalist George Negus done in 1991 - while the last hardline Soviet coup was still going on) and he wanted to incorporate far eastern Russia into the motorcycle plans, linked by a couple of boat trips across the Sea of Japan. Within weeks these tentative discussions had expanded taking into account the possibility of riding as far as Mongolia. Western China then came into view and soon the old silk route trough Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan... and by this stage in the plans we began to realise it will be easier to continue on to London than to turn back to Tokyo. As the plans grew, the other potential team members dropped by the wayside. Some had just begun jobs and could not envisage getting more than 4 weeks off. Others were still at university and needed to be back by mid August. Within 2 weeks of the idea's genesis, it was down to just James and Walter, the two guys behind the initial concept, that were left and by then, the idea had already grown into the Tokyo to London Project.

The appeal of the trip in the planning stages were Russia and China. Less than 2 years earlier, Mikhail Gorbachev had presided over the inevitable decline of the Soviet Union, and the independent nation of Russia was reborn. China too appeared to be opening up and a chance to make an historic journey through two huge previously closed countries was too good to pass up. It also tied in with personal circumnavigations the globe, as in 1991/92 I had hitch-hiked around the US and Canada for 10 months, including coast to coast, and James had driven across the US in a beat up VW Kombi van with 2 South African girls, also coast to coast. Having both crossed America from Atlantic to Pacific overland, a motorcycle crossing of Asia and Europe from the Pacific to the Atlantic would complete an overland circumnavigation of the globe for both of us. It all tied together neatly.

Relaxing, The forbidden city, Beijing

It had quickly become apparent that while we were off to a fantastic start dreaming this idea up, there was no way we could even think of paying for it. We were both university students. Saving money was for old people, and we worked just enough to pay the bills and keep a bank balance of around $200 for spur of the moment drinking expenses. Since the idea was rather fantastic (in the literal sense) for 1994, it was decided by the Tokyo to London brainstrust that we should be sponsored. George Negus had been sponsored for his "Across the Red Unknown" so why cant we get someone else to pay for it. Sure he was Australia's best known journalist and we were a couple of 20-something students, but if you don't go for it, you will never get it. That was start of another adventure entirely ... the adventure into the world of corporate sponsorship, and one in which we had to feel our way right from the beginning. I contacted the Media Studies department at my university and found a suitably attractive tutor to question. Between her, James and myself, it soon became clear that the answer to the question "How were we going to get the sponsorship?" was to get the media into it. Once we had written media interest, then we had a shot at getting sponsors. The sponsors would only be in it if we gave them near guaranteed exposure, to their relevant target markets.

A detailed 40 page synopsis of the trip was prepared and distributed to motorcycle and travel media in Australia and abroad. This was a mammoth project in itself. We had to prepare a book basically, just to get the media interested. From there we would need another 10 page sponsorship proposal to get the sponsors involved. We gave ourselves a deadline of end of November '93 to get the 100 or so copies of the synopsis out to the press, in order to give them time to respond. Then we could beginning hitting the sponsors in January, hopefully armed with loads of media interest. If we could nail down the sponsors by March '94, we would be in good shape to leave in June '94, after exams.

But there was more than money to worry about. Neither of us had a suitable motorcycle. In fact neither of us had ANY motorcycle. But it gets better ... James had just ridden enough to pass his provisional licence, and I hadn't even done that much. Motorcycle licensing was structured such that an applicant had to hold a learners licence for a minimum of 6 months before getting a open licence. That initial open licence was then in the form of a provisional licence - meaning the rider was capped to riding bikes of 250 cc and under for the first two years. If I needed to hold a learners permit for 6 months before getting a licence, I needed to get that learner's permit ASAP.The learners permit was a simple multiple choice test of 10 questions, in which I needed to get 10/10.

Our Chinese plates and drivers licences: 00002 and 00003

They were the basic essential road rules. I had been driving for 8 years, so didn't bother reading up on my road rules ... and I failed. 8/10. I had to wait another week to sit the test again. This time 9/10. Time was running out and I couldn't even get my learners permit. On the third attempt (and after 3 weeks) it happened. 10/10, but it was now early November. It would be early May before I could even apply to sit my riding test - just one month before we departed.

We decided to get riding practice in and the ideal part time job turned up. A courier company delivering mail and small parcels needed riders.The bikes were little Honda CT110s, but were heavily loaded both front and back, and dealing with handling overloaded bikes would be very good practice. The other side effect of the job was that we got paid, and we needed to raise as much cash as possible before leaving. Getting riding experience and money at the same time made was as good a preparation as we were going to get.

All of this meant our timetables were absolutely full. We were full time students, yet we were also each working around 3-4 hours a day, every day on administration, document preparation, planning etc for the journey and getting the media and sponsorship organised. What gaps existed in this schedule were filled with working as motorcycle couriers, earning cash and experience. Fortunately the courier company had very flexible schedules and we could turn up and work pretty much as it suited us.

All through December we were working on researching what we needed in terms of paperwork. Visas were planned and organised for the appropriate countries but driving through China was proving a stumbling block. Extensive work began in December 1993 and would go on until April 1994 to get the permissions we needed. Initially no-one supported our aim to ride unescorted through China. It simply wasn't possible. Each Chinese tour operator insisted we book accommodation through them and travel with an escort in a jeep. We ran up against dead end after dead end. Eventually, hundreds of expensive faxes later and in the obscure province of Inner Mongolia, we found an operator who said he could get us the permissions we needed. Also at this time were extensive conversations with Tony Hill. Tony had planned the logistics for 'Across the Red Unknown', and was one of the few people we could find to brief us on road conditions across the former Soviet Union.

By January the expressions of interest started coming in from the media. Most were non-committal, as neither James nor I had much in the way of writing experience, and while I was a keen amateur photographer, and James was picking up photography rapidly, neither had anything published before. But while the media were non-committal, they were very interested in the unique nature of the trip and assured us that subject to us proving to be anything but disastrous writers and photographers they would publish the story. Late in January 2004 we had a breakthrough. By then we had over a dozen expressions of media interest from around the globe coming in on our hired fax machine. But one magazine, Australian Geographic, went a step further and suggested sponsoring us as well. This was to be a key break for us. Australian Geographic was set up by millionaire businessman Dick Smith who was himself considerably more than just a dilettante adventurer. Dick Smith was the first guy to fly a helicopter around the world in 1983 and in 1989 become the first person to pilot an aeroplane round the world "vertically" via both the south and north poles. His financial sponsorship of the Tokyo to London Project was in itself a personal endorsement from one of the Australian business community's most high profile and well respected figures. In the letters that went out in late January to prospective sponsors, we invited them to join Dick Smith and Australian Geographic as a sponsor. It was a lot easier than asking people to back us without that. Dick went further and wrote us a letter of introduction, expressing his strong support for this kind of "responsible risk taking". Even to people who did not end up sponsoring us, we got a genuine audience and felt a genuine willingness to participate thanks to Dick's backing.

The nightmare - Highway to Hell, Kazakhstan

By February, new sponsors were showing interest and James and I prepared to travel for two weeks to Sydney and Melbourne, where the majority of Australian businesses were based, and where the multi nationals in Australia had their operations. It was to be a marketing roadshow detailing where we were with the planning and what we could do for them, and what we wanted from them. Several of the companies were potential financial sponsors, such as Coca Cola and Mars, while others were potential product sponsors, such as the motorcycle manufacturers. There were a number of motorcycles we thought we could work with. From Suzuki there was the "Dr Big", the DR 800, Kawasaki KLR 650 Tengai, Yamaha Tenere, Honda's NX650 Dominator and XLV600 Transalp and finally we cast an eye over the new BMW F650. We met with Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha in Sydney and Honda and BMW in Melbourne. Suzuki were not that into the idea and their bike didn't really do it for us anyway, so that was an early out. Yamaha showed some interest but it never got too far.That was a pity as the Tenere was one of our early favourites. Kawasaki's Tengai was initially our early favourite choice of bike - it was a touring version of Kawasaki's very reliable KLR 650 - with a much bigger fuel tank. Kawasaki too showed some interest and were prepared to discuss a few ideas - it was a start.

Down in Melbourne things went even better, Honda really liked the idea, but their main bike in Australia in this segment was the Dominator. The Dominator was the lightest of the bikes we looked at but it was probably also the weakest. The rear subframe was very light and it was hard to see it being up to the job of carrying our load of luggage halfway round the world over rough roads. Honda Australia was very helpful though and sent our proposals onto Honda Japan. BMW also took a keen interest in the idea. The F650 was a brand new bike in the BMW stable but was made in Italy by Aprilia and the BMW guys immediately though we were barking up the wrong tree with that bike. Also new to the BMW stables in 1994 was the revolutionary R1100GS - the first of the beaked BMWs, and the Tokyo to London project could be just what they needed to promote it. They sent the proposal on to BMW Japan and BMW Worldwide in München, as they felt the Japanese and Global marketing operations were the ones to get the most benefit out of a proposal like this.

Also in Sydney, we had a chance to meet and chat with Dick Smith. Dick had recently flown low level over Mongolia on his adventure from the North to the South Pole. Dick said we should really try and incorporate Mongolia as it looked a truly beautiful wilderness from the air. It would later prove to be great advice.

Meanwhile marketing efforts were paying off on other fronts. Both Coca-Cola and Mars decided that with both of them opening up new markets in China and the former Soviet Union, a couple of mad adventurers passing through on motorcycle would be just what was needed to give the branding a wild, fun boost and we agreed to visit Mars offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Moscow and do some press conferences there. Coca Cola was firmly focused on Eastern Europe and we agreed to travel through Belarus in exchange for their sponsorship.Agfa film came in and offered us all the professional slide film we asked for, 400 rolls of 36 shot film, in several exposures, though the bulk was 50 ASA film. Nikon Australia also liked the idea and offered us some equipment free and the rest at cost price. It was all coming together ... we still had nothing nailed down for the bikes, or Airline tickets to Tokyo and back home from London but we had reached a critical mass and sponsorship seemed to be getting easier.
Soon after returning to Brisbane, the main television news network in Australia contacted us for a short Sunday evening "human interest" addition to the evening news. It was to be a little 2-3 minute segment coming after the weather. We still had no bikes and quickly borrowed a couple from a local dealer to do the shoot. Incredibly it took 4 hours to shoot the 3 minute segment but again that little segment on the country's biggest network was another shot in the arm. McLeod accessories, who is the Australian distributor of a wide variety of motorcycle products offered us Shoei Helmets, Sidi boots and Dririder riding gear. Gearsack, an Australia bike luggage manufacturer offered us racks, tank bags, saddle bags and a back bag each. Mountain Designs, an top end Australian outdoor equipment manufacturer chipped in with a tent, sleeping bags, and water filter. The sponsors kept rolling in.... Dunlop Australia had sent the idea to Dunlop in Japan who loved the idea and offered us 3 front tyres and 3 rear tyres each - 12 tyres in all - and a dozen heavy duty inner tubes. Stagg Leather, a bespoke leather riding jacket manufacturer in Australia offered us custom fitted kangaroo leather jackets each.

By the end of March 94, with 3 months to departure, we had everything we needed to make the trip work, except a couple of motorcycles and airline tickets. In a way this was ironic as at the beginning of the process we thought cash sponsorship would be tough, and getting airline seats and motorcycles would be relatively easy. On the airline front, Singapore Airlines and Qantas were both showing interest, but were not quite at the point of committing two seats to Japan and two seats back from London. On the bike front we were down to Honda and BMW, and communicating by fax to Japan and Germany. BMW were particularly interested. The fly in the ointment for BMW was that neither of us had a track record of either doing anything like this nor getting stories published. They came up with a compromise. They would sell us the bikes in Japan at factory prices (US$ 7,000 each) and buy them back on the successful completion of the project, at the same price. This served to protect BMW in case it all went wrong and we didn't make it. It also suited them as they were in the process of building a huge new glass BMW showroom in the middle of Tokyo and the idea was to hang the Tokyo to London bikes up in that showroom as evidence of their prowess.

 It was a nice offer and once which effectively gave us two of BMWs brand new R1100 GS bikes without risk to BMW, but while still showing their obvious interest in the project by sponsoring us and by effectively giving us the bikes. Unfortunately, it still meant we had to come up with a loan of US$ 14,000 to be our "deposit". Here was the catch for us. There was no way we would be able to come up with a loan of that size and take on the risk of that amount. If we had the bikes stolen in Russia, then we were down US$14,000. It was a great pity not to able to run the Tokyo to London Project on sponsored BMW bikes, backed by BMW Japan and BMW Worldwide. It was close, but no cigar. That security that BMW needed effectively meant we had to look elsewhere.

Honda too came to similar conclusions .... in the end they offered us bikes at factory prices out of Japan (US$ 5,000 each), after earlier hinting at heavily subsidised bikes. It was a tough blow, but with one month to go to departure, we realised we were going to have to buy second hand bikes in Japan. And it was looking like we were going to have to buy our own airfares too. Cash was at a premium. The cash we had received from Dick Smith, Mars and Coca Cola had partly gone towards office equipment hire, printing costs, postage costs, hundreds of faxes to Japan, Germany, England, Russia, China ... and faxes to China and Russia at that time were in the vicinity of $4 a page. What was left, about AU$ 2,500 each was to be fuel and living expenses for 6 months. Suddenly we needed an additional AU$ 7,000 each with one month to go.

Piggy banks were raided, we worked overtime, with so much achieved already and with only a month to go, suddenly the whole trip was in jeopardy. The sums didn't add up. We could scrape up another AU$ 2,000 each before we left he country, but even then we had a black hole of around AU$ 10,000 to fill or everything was off. In desperation we hit the bank. Student loans department. $5,000 each, and we need a decision fast. With only 2 weeks to go, the approval came though, and we could relax. The Tokyo to London Project was finally 'all systems go'. Singapore Airlines came in with a late offer to carry as much luggage as we needed. This would actually save us a fortune as we carried over 60kgs each on the flights to Tokyo.

Also just in time, the motorcycle licences. Driving tests were done, passes were achieved. International driving permits were issued on the spot. At least that part of the planning had worked out.We had hoped to be able to make a video of the Tokyo to London project but we had been unable to secure the interests of Canon or Sony as a sponsor, and they were the only two makers of camcorder equipment in 1994 of suitable quality. Camcorders were prohibitively expensive for poor students like us and it was with reluctance that we had to forego making a video documentary of the Tokyo to London Project.

Ideally a trip across the Eurasian landmass should start in May. As students, our exams went on well into mid June. Two months before departure the exam timetables came out. James was badly hit. His final exam was on June 28th 1994 We were not going to be able to get underway until July! That was really straining our initial plans and despite not wanting to admit it to each other, some parts of the initial plans were going to have to be cut out. Most vulnerable was western China. Travelling through Xinjiang, seeing the oasis towns of the Taklimakan and even riding across the Khunjerab pass were in the initial plans but all that looked very doubtful now that we set off 8 weeks later than would be ideal. Time was at a premium and as James sat his final exam, James' flatmate and I packed the car full of our luggage. James emerged from the exam room straight into the pre-packed car and we were rushed to the airport to catch the Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore and then on to Tokyo.

The arrival in Tokyo was difficult. Retrieving the dozen assorted pieces of luggage and getting them through customs was all one thing; taking them on the train to Tokyo and then on another train to the suburb of Kawasaki was something else. We arrived at our Tokyo Base Camp around 9am on the 29th of June. We had the rest of that day, a full day the day after that, and then in the afternoon of the following day, July 1st, the ferry to China left and we needed to be on it, with the whole Tokyo to London show. That little bit of time, one full day and two half days, was an insane rush to find 2 second hand motorbikes, work out how to attach our Gearsack racks to the motorbike, buy oils and spares, work out the best way to pack it all and get the show on the road. Needless to say, we didn't sleep much in Tokyo.

For reference, currencies are quoted in local units. Many of these rates have changed dramatically since 1994. But at the times we were passing though the countries, these were the approximate exchange rates:

1 USD = 6 Chinese Yuan
1 USD = 400 Mongolian Togrogs
1 USD = 2400 Russian Rubles

Continue to next page China 1


All text and images copyright © 1994; Walter Colebatch and James Mudie

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