Doris Wiedemann is a world traveller, author, and photographer based in Munich, Germany. Her books recount her adventures and the people she‘s met along the way. She also writes travel guides, with the latest—on Germany‘s Romantic Road—available in 2015. Motorcycles are the primary means of transportation on her mostly solo journeys. A willowy woman with friendly eyes and a warm smile, my cousin Doris and I talked via Skype this weekend.
NO TALKING ME OUT OF A TRAVEL BIKE
You trained as a tax accountant before getting your degree in economics. When did world travels via motorcycle enter the picture? My first trip outside of Germany was to the US in 1990. I went between jobs, before University. Your parents’ place was my home base. I had my motorcycle license thanks to an old boyfriend who inspired me but refused to let me drive his bike [laughs]. I hear your Dad was planning to talk me out of buying a US bike but that didn’t work out either [more laughter]. I bought that first travel bike from a chimney sweep in Maryland. We Germans know that shaking hands with a chimney sweep is bound to bring good luck. One stop on that trip was Sturgis, South Dakota, for the 50th anniversary of that city’s annual motorcycle rally.
I hear Sturgis is a wild and crazy event. No, I’d say it was polite and crazy! It was a nice and very respectful crowd. I heard they don’t start little fights there, because they know a little fight will turn into a big one.
HAVE ECONOMICS DEGREE, WILL TRAVEL
You made your next trip while studying economics at Augsburg University? Yes, I took some time off to travel around Australia by motorcycle in 1996 and crossed Africa in seven months in 1997–98 before hurrying to finish my diploma in 2000. I set off again to Russia in 2001. I’m planning to ride through Cameroon again, a shorter five-week trip beginning this December. My bike is already there, waiting for me.
Had you planned to publish books about your travels? The books happened over time. At first, I took pictures just for myself. Then I contacted some magazines after my trips to Africa and Australia. I was contacted by a publisher after I returned from my solo trip through Russia to South and North Korea, Japan and back to Munich on a BMW motorcycle. We decided that this nearly 25,000-mile journey would make a good book. Taiga Tour was published in 2006. I followed that up with two books for a different publisher, one about a 2004–2005 trip to China through Poland, Ukraine, Khazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia from Munich. The second is about a journey from Manhattan to Key West to Alaska in the winter of 2009 on a BMW F 800 GS.
I really enjoy having the space in a book to tell the whole story. The books are a real passion of mine. Aside from the travelling, they are my favorite thing to do alongside public readings and book signings, where I can get feedback from a live audience.
BREAKING THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
You speak great English and German is your first language, but no Russian or Korean. How did you communicate on that trip? I had a Russian dictionary and tried my best, but you’d be surprised how far body language and gestures can get you. In Russia I wanted to pitch a tent one night, driving off into the woods to hide from the road. My BMW Enduro bike dropped into a mud puddle up to its axle and I was stuck. When I heard horse‘s hooves approaching, I ran out of the woods and jumped up and down to get the attention of a passing farmer. His little one ‘horsepower’ cart pulled my 60hp BMW from the mud. He took me to his home surrounded by high wooden fences, opened the gates, and drove in. The women surrounded me and took me to the banya (sauna) where they scrubbed my back and washed my hair for me before wrapping me in a big towel and offering me their own clean clothes. This was all without speaking a word, through facial expressions gestures and eye contact. I was so touched by that family, and their hospitality towards a total stranger. They fed me and I slept there before continuing on my journey the next day.
What made you trust that family? I rely on my intuition and if I don‘t speak the language, on reading body language and gestures and gauging the situation. When I feel that something is not right, I leave immediately. But I worked my way up to the tougher situations. In the US, I had a pretty high degree of safety and great access to supplies. Then in Australia, there was safety but the desert made water and petrol supplies a concern. Those trips helped me prepare for Africa, with its safety and supply challenges, and the later trips.
That Bashkirian family was so gracious. I also had some very transfixing daytime moments in the Siberian forest, driving alone through miles and miles of beautiful yellow birch trees, not another soul in sight. Moments like that are very special. In the China book, I wrote about driving my BMW F 650 GS motorcycle through Mongolia on my way to China. One evening, I was in a beautiful valley at sunset, and had set up a tripod and kept riding by my camera trying to time a good “selfie.” A young woman appeared on foot and watched my shenanigans with great interest. She gestured for me to follow her. I trailed her slowly on my motorcycle to a group of yurts in the distance where she “introduced” (with nods and smiles) someone who must’ve been her grandfather. That night I slept in a women’s yurt.
TO THE ARCTIC OCEAN ON TWO WINTERIZED WHEELS
And you came back to the US in 2009. Yes, and I ended up traveling from the southernmost island of Key West in Florida to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean on another BMW motorcycle, this one specially fitted out for ice driving by Touratech. I’ve experienced some firsts. I was the first female to make the winter Dalton Highway trip to Prudhoe Bay by motorcycle. I was the first woman to ride her western bike in China on her own and without the mandatory Chinese guide, and I believe I was the first woman to cross Russia on a motorcycle by herself. Not sure if I was the first woman to cross Africa along the East Coast on her own, though it is quite likely. And I believe I was the first Westerner to actually ride a motorcycle into North Korea.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
So you started with your first overseas trip in the United States. I’d like to formally invite you back! 2015 will mark twenty-five years since I started my adventures, so it seems fitting that I should make a return trip next year. America is where I started to be a world traveller, where I learned to approach people, ask questions, be open to the answers. It would be great to find an interested publisher. You know, I talk with women‘s magazine in Germany and they put my work in a drawer. “No, this is for motorcycle magazines.” I think my trips, which are about the people I meet along the way and the things I learn on and off my bike, are relevant to more than bike riders. What do you think? Are there American publishers out there who’d be interested?
DO IT HER WAY
What would you say to a young girl at a book signing who said she’d like to follow in your footsteps or in this case, motorcycle tire tracks? I’d tell her to do it her way. I always try to answer questions about supplies and mechanical repairs and how to handle traveling to another country. But in terms of how to find the motivation within yourself and the support to make it happen, I say you need to find your own way.
interview is condensed and edited
Text © 2015 Barbara Wiedemann, Design Story Works, LLC “Person, Place, or Thing" blog
All photos © 2015 Doris Wiedemann