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COMPLETING MY EUROPE MOTORCYCLE EXPEDITION

JAN 28, 2024

Woohoo! I completed my Europe motorcycle expedition! Two years ago, I had a goal to ride through every country in Europe. Since then, the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, so I skipped Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. I also skipped Iceland since I rented a car a few years ago and drove around the whole country by myself prior to motorcycle touring. To read more about where this Europe goal originated from, read HERE.


Overall it took me about two years to ride Europe. Before I started, I thought it would only take me one year, but I never accounted for the challenges I would face. Some of these included the Schengen Visa rule, how unbearable the winters would be, how they would slow me down, as well as the physical and mental exhaustion from riding over a prolonged period of time. During the two years, I went home to the Bay Area, California twice, once in 2022 for a month and then in 2023 for 4 months. So really I was on the road for 20 months. I rode about 55,000 kilometers/ 34,000 miles on a 1990 Honda Dominator 250 or NX250.


I'll do a deep dive of my experience and reflections in this post.


RULES

I made one rule for myself before I started: I didn't want to make any plans for this experience and to just let the random take over. In society, I was a planner and needed to know every detail, schedule change and what happened next. I carried a paper agenda with me everywhere and had everyday of my life planned out months in advance. If something didn't go according to plan, I would have major anxiety and ruminate afterwards. As I grew older, I relaxed a bit and became more go with the flow. I wanted to test myself to see how I would fair with no plans at all. Would I sink or swim? The only booking I made prior to landing was staying with a Couchsurfing host in Zagreb for a few days. I motovlog about that experience HERE. Strangely, I adapted pretty easily. I sort of knew the direction of country I wanted to head towards, South for the winter, but didn't book hostels or Couchsurfing stays until a few hours before I arrived in a city. I quickly learned with motorcycle travel, the random is a major aspect of the experience. You can never predict weather, road conditions, mechanical issues, seeing something cool off in the distance and deciding in that moment to just ride to it because you have the ability and mode of transportation to, if you meet a cool local and hang out with them for a few hours or a few days, or most of all physical and mental fatigue. That's the mentality I started my trip with and I still keep it to this day. Practicing letting the random take over has changed me significantly. In fact, making plans now gives me the feeling of being trapped and my freedom being ripped from me.


THE ROUTE


I started October 2021 in Croatia, right in the middle of fall/ autumn. I flew from San Francisco, California to Zagreb, Croatia where I rested for a week to recover from the jetlag, then picked up my Honda Dominator and took off! I was aware of the Schengen Visa Rules when I started, but since Croatia wasn't yet in the Schengen during this time, nor are the majority of the Balkans, I didn't need to worry about that detail for a while. If you don't know what the Schengen is, you can read more about it HERE.

I'll divide my ride into four sections. I color coded the different sections of my trip in order of ride sequence and country order:

1. The blue is the Balkans where I started. I rode through Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, North Macedonia, and then entered Greece. Only Greece was part of the Schengen and I spent almost the full 90 days there since I loved the country so much. I then exited Greece and rode through Albania, Kosovo, Bulgaria and Romania. I rode this blue section from October 2021 to June 2022. I loved riding in the Balkans. It's not the most visited part of Europe and even has the myth that it's a dangerous region. However, upon speaking to so many locals, I might agree with this sentiment 30 years ago right after the Yugoslavian War when things were really rough. But now, times have changed. The major challenge was riding in the winter in the cold and for some reason, winter in Europe lasts a whole lot longer than California. For your information, Greece isn't warm in the winter. Maybe on some of the islands, but this is the biggest lie ever told. This Balkan region stayed cold until May.


Silly me hiking in shorts and only a long sleeve top to Rila 7 Lakes in Bulgaria's mountains in May thinking it would be hot and sunny during this time. I was completely unaware of Europe's climate, and still am in some ways.







2. The orange sprint is where I entered the Schengen from Romania into Hungary to start my 90 day clock and toured 17 countries. I rode through Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands. I don't count Belgium or France here because I only cut through to take the Eurotunnel from France to England. This section was really grueling due to the pace and number of countries I needed to tour. Riding on a 250 isn't the slowest of motorcycles, but there are definitely limitations how fast you can go and how many hours patience wise you can endure at this pace. Fully loaded I could go 62mph/ 100kmph. I also didn't want to just cut through a country to say I've been there. I made sure to see things I was truly interested in or play at a badminton gym if I could. I tried my best to interact with as many locals as I could to form a real connection to a place and to really absorb the culture. I wanted to learn about a region's people and see what life was really like from someone who lived there, not just from me passing through. One of the other challenges here was that since there was better weather, the sun didn't set until 10 or 11pm at night, so I would push myself to ride longer during those months to "make up time" so I could see more. Sometimes I would ride until 2 or 3 am at night since it was still warm. This exhaustion was self imposed, but I was motivated!

3. The puke green is where I entered the United Kingdom (UK) to reset my Schengen clock and spent about 3 months during the winter here. This was really rough for me. It doesn't mean much to an outsider when folks in the UK complain about the weather and rain all year round. But I wholly understood and empathized as I felt the full force of this combined with the unbearable cold riding in the elements. I rode through England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland and Wales and toured here from October 2022-September 2023. I was especially lucky when I was in Northern Ireland mid December 2022 when locals informed me there was a cold spell during the time I was there. I took a break from January-April 2023 based on the recommendation of my Cousin. As I was talking to her on the phone, she asked why are you putting yourself through that? "You're staying indoors most of the time, not seeing anything, and burning through money not doing what you want to be doing." She offered to buy my plane ticket back to California to help her taking care of her first child as a new mom. Honestly this was an internal struggle for myself. I saw it as quitting and being weak, but I thought I would never be able to spend that much time with them any other time in life, so I accepted. If someone needs me, I will be there. It was the best decision I ever made, and in a way, I actually needed them. I arrived to my Cousin haggard in really rough condition and was absolutely spoiled with my own bed in a room I didn't need to share with raccoons or 23 other people. You really learn to appreciate the smallest things when you live on the road.


I rode in the snow on accident for the first time in Northern Ireland. I followed a route into the mountains based on a local's recommendation for some good views. Silly me for not checking the road conditions. But I told myself no plans! Most of the time this meant no prior research before either. Yes, I'm crying. I did a lot of self soothing and positive affirmations on that mountain.

4. The purple is my second sprint in the Schengen to tour the last 11 countries. I decided I had enough of riding two winters in Europe and tried to pick a route where I might avoid the cold. I was racing against time as I only had 3 months from September to December to try to beat the winter. I rode through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Italy, San Marino, Malta, Vatican City, Monaco, Andorra, Spain and Portugal. I didn't have to ride through as many countries as my first Schengen sprint, but this section had its own challenges. I learned France, Italy, and Spain are huge countries and this tested my patience. Italy was glorified in my mind (think food, views and culture), but I neglected the fact that I needed to ride down the entire length to reach Malta and then ride all the way back up. This is a very long distance and made me a little crazy. I just wanted to be done with it. I actually took a ferry from Sicily to Napoli to cut some of this out since my knobbies were squaring out and looked like slicks. I detest taking highways because they are boring, tedious, a waste of experience, and expensive due to all the tolls in Italy. But when you are racing against the clock and the back country roads will add another 3 hours to your 10 hour day, I had to take them.


I rode all year round in every type of weather imaginable. I'm from California, so we have perfect sunny riding weather 10 months out of the year, so European winters were a surprise for me. I don't have any special riding gear. I bought my Dainese touring gear used from another female rider in the Bay Area, and a friend of mine gave me these Sidi boots that were too big for a friend of hers. Neither of these wardrobe pieces are waterproof because I never thought I would ride in the rain or cold riding as much as I have. I do have a Nelson Rigg rain suit, but that fails after an hour of heavy rain. I don't have heated gloves, vest, seats or anything. I rode in the Balkans in the winter my first year and then the UK in the winter in my second year. Some days were so cold, I cried in my helmet from the pain. It was so unbearable. Body heat leaves your body so fast at temperatures like 33F/ 0.5C (not to mention the wind chill), first starting from your fingers and toes. It constantly felt like my nails would pop off from their nail bed and I couldn't ride more than 45 minutes to an hour before I had to stop at a gas station to warm myself up again and go at it again.


Here Freyja and I are in Derry, Northern Ireland December 2022 where the ground is frozen and slippery. I didn't know if knobbies could ride on roads this slick, but I just went very slow and tried to stay where car tires already crushed the snow. I skidded a few times.











THE BIKE

I test rode quite a few motorcycles in the Bay Area before I took off. We have a great community where other riders offered to let me test ride their babies in preparation for my expedition and for that I am so grateful to this day. These bikes included a Vstrom 650, BMW GS310, DR350, Kawasaki Versys 300, Royal Himalayan 400, XR250R and a CB500X. I wanted a bike I could beat up, but also something that I could pick up by myself. I ultimately decided on a Honda Dominator 250 because it was affordable, parts were easily available in any country since it's such an old bike, and it's easy to repair. It is such a bare bones bike that it doesn't even have a fuel gauge. I didn't need bells and whistles, I needed a seat, tires, an engine and a headlight.


Riding the Kotor Serpentine in Montenegro













There were occasions where I missed my Ninja 300 and thought how epic it would have been to tour on my trusty sportbike. But then I think of all the times I've dropped my Dominator and there's no way my Ninja would have survived even the first 6 months. I definitely made the right choice with my dual sport.


THE REALITY

Living on the road constantly moving is a nomadic existence and this lifestyle isn't for everyone. It's a lot harder than it seems. Big picture, for people who get homesick, need stability, comfort, family, routine, and predictability, living long term on the road may not be aligned to your human body wants. The lack of these things don't bother me anymore, but I also had to undo a lot of the mental constructs from living in society thinking that these things would keep me safe and happy in the world.


The everyday? It's honestly grinding. I've learned I'm a human that enjoys short term suffering for the long term payoff of self growth and achievement, whether its a physical or mental. I rode 4-14 hours a day moving from gas station to gas station eating quick unhealthy food. I would try to get fresh fruits and vegetables in, drink smoothies, ginger shots, but it was inevitably no match for the demands of physically sitting on a bike for so long and the concentration and alertness it requires. In the winter, I moved slower and stayed more than a few days in hostels so I could cook heavier more nutrient dense meals. It was a constant cycle. Get depleted on the ride, calorie overload as much I could to get ready for the next day.


I carried everything I needed on my adventure in my two soft panniers (25L each) and 90L duffle bag. These weigh about as much as I do, 120 lbs/ 55kg. Everyday I needed to remove my luggage from my bike, plop them next to my tent or if I stayed in a hostel, carried all this up several flights of stairs because most buildings in Europe are hundreds of years old and don't have elevators. I also learned the hard way about Bonus Floors. I made this term up. In Europe, the Ground Level is not the same as the first floor, like in the US. In fact, Level 1 is the floor above the Ground floor so this adds another level of carrying all this gear. This was no fun after a long day.


I'm grateful everyday I can live my life like this and am aware I am living many people's dreams, but I want to be realistic with my experience. Yes, I got to see the MOST amazing things, but it was not all fun. For me, it was 30% fun and 70% hard work and grinding. But I'm someone who enjoys suffering.


THE BEST PART

There's quite a few things. The obvious given is riding bikes and the absolute freedom to go and see whatever I wanted. There's nothing like waking up everyday and asking yourself, "What do I want to do today?" without the constrains of work, home, responsibilities and routine. I was the architect who got to design and choose what kind of experience I wanted. But even greater than that I think is the help, kindness and generosity I received from strangers. Before I started, I didn't know anyone on the continent. Traveling solo on a new continent, much less a new country where you have no network is incredibly challenging sometimes. However, I received so much help from strangers without ulterior motive that it tells me that the vast majority of the world is good. I'm talking about 99.999% from personal experience. If you take one look at me, I can be what you consider a vulnerable victim. I'm small (5'-2"/ 157cm), female, travel alone, a foreigner, don't speak the language, don't know the customs of the culture, don't have someone I trust that I can turn to for help and am in unfamiliar territory. But what I've experienced is overwhelming kindness and support.


In Bosnia and Herzegovina where my bike broke down and I was blocking traffic. This auto mechanic stopped and asked if I needed help. We couldn't fix the problem, so he called his father in law who has been riding for 50 years and arrived to the scene with his mechanic friend in the rain to help me get back on the road the same night. He later invited me to have dinner with his family in Serbia HERE.



In Romania on an especially hot day in the countryside in the middle of nowhere, this shop owner gives me drinks and snacks, and goes back to work restocking his store. He calls his son after I'm done eating to translate to tell me to be careful and to let their family know if I need anything to save their number and call if I need help.



I have hundreds of stories like these that melt my black crusty heart. I like to joke that that these kind humans pick me up off the street. Because that's exactly what they're doing. I'm dirty, hungry, sweaty, mangy and a little rabid. They take care of me, feed me and reenergize me to continue on my journey.


Nostalgic things are funny. The experiences that you go through as a child never quite leave you. That's why some people later in life buy that car they wanted since they were a teenager or visit places they read about in books when they were younger. I loved Greek mythology growing up, so being able to see ruins of the Roman empire after learning about it in grade school was such a strange and magical experience. I can remember my world history teacher teaching us about monumental structures and politicians in history, but to see these places and statues of those figures in real life was a feeling I can only describe as a combination of time traveling, de ja vu, wonder and confusion all at once. Like wow, I learned about this 20 years ago and it's no longer a slide on a projector, but in front of my own eyes.


Exploring the Temple of Knossos in Crete, Greece. This is one of the most well preserved archaeological sites with informative signage that I've visited.









THE WORST PART

I don't really like to talk about this, but I think it needs to be said because it is a reality of the world. As a woman that travels alone, there is the male gaze that occurs. Living in society, I could brush this off or ignore it since the Bay Area is densely populated and quite diverse, so Asian women aren't particularly unique. However, Europe is pretty homogenous, so someone that looks like me stands out doing what I'm doing. It is human nature to look at things that are different. I personally hate attention that has an ulterior motive or other intentions based on attraction. I freely give my time and energy to people who want to know me as a human, not the body I was born into. I was too trusting in the beginning of my expedition and went through a bad experience. I talk about it HERE. It was a nightmare, but also a blessing in disguise. I wised up quickly and learned to not only trust my intuition, but to take action and speak up. The worst thing for me is when I come in contact with a person, is the internal dialogue with myself where I am studying someone's intentions to detect whether I am in danger.


THE HARDEST PART

I define the worst and hardest as different things. Worst as in things I wish I didn't have to go through, but always needed to be aware of. Hardest as in things I may not like in the moment, but afterwards helped me evolve to the next version of myself. There are two hard things for me that stand out. One is the absolute physical and mental demand of riding long term. The Honda Dominator 250 is an upright bike, the stock seat is squishy and comfortable, and overall I would say has pretty good ergonomics in terms of arm and leg position. However, when you sit and ride hours a day, while also needing to be mentally alert to make sure nothing on the road kills you, it's extremely draining. I can confidently say no matter what bike you have, riding for 10 hours gets uncomfortable at some point. There's no amount of conditioning that can get you in shape to just sit for hours a day for months on end. You just have to suck it up and do it even on days you don't want to. It takes a lot of endurance to just keep going.


Sometimes I was so tired and faced mental fatigue that I would just pull over anywhere and take a nap on the ground. Gas station parking lots and rest stops were my favorite.









The other hard part for me was the drift in relationships from my circle. I was someone who had a lot of close friends with deep relationships. Physical distance, differences in lifestyle, time zone differences, my friends kept busy in life by trying to make ends meet in society create a recipe for space in a relationship. I lessened my effort to try to keep these relationships as strong as they were before I left for self preservation and told myself I will work on them when I return when I'm done with my journey. I wouldn't say I experience loneliness, but more isolation. I go in depth about my experience HERE.


HOW IT FEELS TO COMPLETE MY GOAL

I thought I would be jumping up and down with excitement and pride when I finished. But it doesn't feel like that at all. It feels like a whirlwind happened, you sit back and ask, what happened? The feelings come in waves. The first wave of emotions occurred when I was on the ferry exiting Spain into Morocco. As I watched the ferry employee ratchet strap my bike down and he was speaking English to me with a Moroccan accent, that was the moment where my body released all the pressure and stress. It was in that moment that I could finally stop rushing because I knew I was physically leaving Europe and entering Africa. I broke down and started crying. It was as if every hard day from the last two years flooded my mind and I remembered everything it took to get there. All the hard days of rain riding, lugging around all that gear, dropping my bike countless times, and struggling to pick it up with no one around, dehydration, hunger, being stranded, the countless times I rode into the night until I hallucinated, watching my body deteriorate and being responsible for putting it through that. I was happy that I could still feel, and that the journey hadn't hardened me too much.


On the ferry from Tarifa, Spain to Tangier, Morocco












I wish I felt more accomplished than I feel. I can only compare it to the feeling of running a marathon. During the race, you're constantly pushing, focused in the moment. Your body hurts, but the glory is within reach. But after you finish, it's like the body almost wants to forget the pain it went through so you can keep moving forward in life to survive. I might also even relate it to childbirth. Immediately after giving birth, my girlfriends tell me that was the most traumatic and painful thing they went through and never want to even think about having a second child. But a year or two later, they tell me they're thinking of having another child. I'm not sure what this is called, but it's just an observation I have. Even though I completed my goal less than a month ago, it feels so far away now because it was just so demanding.


I think I haven't fully processed it yet because I am still going.


WHAT'S NEXT?

The Middle East. Before I started, I told myself one year for Europe and one year for the Middle East. It took me twice as long, but Europe was always a warm up for the beyond. Europe seemed the safest continent to get some international riding experience under my belt, and now that I'm a bit braver and wiser, I am ready for the next chapter. Afraid, but going to do it with fear.



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