To Shanghai by motorcycle

It was without a doubt pre-war Poland's most unusual honeymoon. In 1934, Halina and Stanisław Bujakowski decided to go to China by motorcycle. Their nearly two-year-long expedition completely changed their lives.

How many forgotten stories does our past conceal? How many homes harbour valuable journals and photos documenting unusual exploits now stuffed away in the bottom of desks or cupboards. How surprising can old newspapers and magazines be, containing the accounts of people who had travelled off into the unknown against all odds? Poland had lacked a tradition of filling in blank spaces on the world's map. Individuals such as Benedict of Poland, Krzysztof Arciszewski, Maurycy Beniowski and Stefan Szolc-Rogoziński were the exceptions that prove the rule. Our ancestors had of course criss-crossed the European continent over the ages, but they somehow seemed less attracted to exotic climes. One reason for this was that Poland had no overseas territories. How much easier were such exotic escapades for the Spanish, English and French who had convenient points of departures in their colonies than it was to set out into the world from the banks of the Vistula.

A real turning-point occurred during the 20-year period between the two World Wars. Poland’s regained independence gave Poles a powerful dose of positive energy and the impulse to dream beyond the horizon. Without state sponsorship, little-known Polish travellers organised spectacular expeditions on their own, ones that elsewhere would have brought them fame and fortune. Unfortunately, as a result of Poland's complicated history (I am referring first and foremost to WWII and communist times) many of those splendid exploits have been forgotten and travel journals ready for the printers never got published.

The communists banned publications dealing with the exploits of Antoni Ferdynand Ossendowski. Few people have ever heard of the mad expedition of two young men, Tomasz Perkitny and Leon Mroczkiewicz, who without a penny to their name and no planned itinerary set out on a four-year trek that took them round the world. Also forgotten was the unique feat of Kazimierz Nowak who in 1931-1936 set out on a solo cycle trip that covered the length and breadth of Africa. Sadly, less than a year after returning, he died of emaciation and the diseases he had contracted during his expedition. The only testimony to his exploits were articles in pre-war magazines and the unpublished letters he wrote to his wife Maria from Africa.

It was 60 years later that the memory of that outstanding traveller was resurrected for posterity by Łukasz Wierzbicki.

A similar fate was in store for Halina Korolec-Bujakowska who jotted down her impressions of a pioneering motorcycle trip to China with her husband Stanisław Bujakowski in 1934-1936. Those recollections lay in a home archive for 70 years. It was only the determination of Halina's nephew Hubert Twardowski and the support of the above-mentioned Łukasz Wierzbicki that enabled her to publish them in book form.


The Bujakowskis hailed from Druskienniki, a charming health resort on the River Niemen, whose mineral springs attracted the cream of pre-war Poland's high society. Stanisław Bujakowski was born on 10 March 1906 and Halina – on 8 October 1907. Stanisław's father Walery was a health-resort doctor, one of the town's wealthiest citizens who owned a stately villa in the centre of Druskienniki. Halina's father Józef Korolec was the president of the Przezorność (Foresight) Insurance Society and of the board of the Polish School Society.

Neither Halina nor Stanisław could complain of any lack of money. But as subsequent entries in their travel journal were to show, money and careers were not what they wanted to build their common future on. A rich and comfortable life in Druskienniki was not their cup of tea. Halina and Stanisław were drawn to the outside world. Deep down they must have felt some undefinable disquiet that pushes one over the threshold and does not allow one to return. They needed a change and wanted to test themselves in untypical situations. Łukasz Wierzbicki pointed out yet another factor that pushed the Bujakowskis towards what appeared to be a mad undertaking when he wrote: “If we take a closer look at that young couple, we will notice a beautiful but not always audible in the contemporary world call to the rite of initiation. In nearly every culture on every continent there exists a tradition whereby in the life of every young person, both male and female, there comes a time to sever ties with one's secure birthplace and set out on a new, common, independent course. For Halina and Stanisław Bujakowski that moment came on 19 August 1934 when they bade farewell to Druskienniki and set out together to discover the world.

Their inseparable travel companion was a two-cylinder, 10-horsepower British-built BSA motorcycle with the number plate: W 19-484 (PL). The driver was Stanisław, who was also the mechanic, logistician and photographer. Halina, who served as the travel chronicler and driver's assistant, travelled in an attached side-car built in Lodz under (a) Austrian licence. Their goal was clear: to travel by motorcycle as far as possible. Their map told them that Shanghai, China was a motorcyclist's end of the world.

The notion of travelling the globe by motorcycle was nothing new at the time. Already in 1912, Carl Stearns Clancy had criss-crossed Europe, Africa, Asia and America astride a Henderson Four motorcycle. Other such expeditions took place in the 1920s, and the Hungarians Zoltan Sulkowsky and Gyula Bartha had spent eight years on such a journey. Two years before the Bujakowskis, Robert Edison Fulton Junior had set out on a London to Tokyo trip. Nevertheless, the Bujakowskis were not mere imitators. The itineraries they traced on their maps had yet to be travelled. Moreover, never before had a woman taken part in a motorcycle expedition. In that respect, Halina Korolec-Bujakowska was a true pioneer.

My Boy, Motorcycle and I, by Halina Korolec-Bujakowska Motorcycle journal

On their expedition, they took a green tent, four blankets, two small pillows, raincoats, sportswear, sweaters, some underwear, a change of shoes, a collapsible cooker and aluminium pots, a typewriter, two cameras, spare motorcycle chain, a spare tyre, inner tubes, a set of tools, rope and a shovel and other sundry small items needed on a long journey. Initially they had taken along a dinner jacket and evening gown, but in Vienna they decided to send them back home. Their financial assets were limited to the 100 sterling they received from their family, a paltry sum in view of the enormous challenge involved. But they resolved to earn the rest of the necessary cash by working along the way.

The Bujakowskis' first foreign stop was Berlin where they could enjoy rapid travel along smooth, broad roads. Their true expedition began when they reached the Balkans. For over 500 kilometres they struggled over muddy roads into which their heavy motorcycle sinks. They were pleasantly surprised by Bulgaria, which everyone had warned them against, but there they were most cordially welcomed. Following a short visit to Istanbul, they set out on the road through the steppes of Anatolia. There they encountered scorching heat, sand storms and rutty roads. While trying to cross one small river, their motorcycle got trampled by a herd of oxen. It was therefore with some relief that they bade farewell to Turkey.

They caught their second breath in Syria. “We pitched our tent and stayed for four days beneath a lone fig-tree. Behind us were mountains, before us – the sea and sun. Probably more than one passer-by or driver felt a bit eerie while passing the mysterious glow of our little canvas home and may have wondered whether those weren't bandits huddled round a camp-fire. But it was only us – a couple of carefree rovers,” Bujakowska noted in her journal.

They made their way through British Iraq quickly and without incident. Crossing Persia turned out to be more time-consuming. The two reasons for that were: bureaucracy and hospitality. Because of the former, they were stuck several weeks in Tehran waiting for a permit to transport a firearm. The latter forced them to pay frequent and often wearisome visits to private Iranian homes. But that was nothing compared to the Firoz Kooh pass at an altitude of 2,500 metres above sea level. Snow, bone-chilling cold and impassable roads sapped much of their energy. But they did not give up and kept pressing on until they finally ended up in the warmer valleys below where they could regenerate their spent strength. That was a necessity, since subsequent stages of the expedition would be no easier. Their motorcycle kept sinking into the sand dunes of Nok Kundi and got bogged down on the sodden roads of Pakistan. Some days, the Bujakowskis were able to travel only a dozen odd kilometres and, to make matters worse, Stanisław came down with a bad cold. At difficult moments, the husband and wife team provided one another with mutual support. When one felt under the weather, the other sought a solution and provided motivation. Nothing was able to stop the Bujakowskis who on 9 January 1935 reached India. “We are entering the valley of the Indus, a river that is 12 miles long. Jackals sit in a row and beautifully howl to welcome us. On a foundation of shifting sand lies an iron screen on which a bed of reeds has been placed. Here that is called a road. (…)  We are majestically travelling on reeds amid reeds”.

They stayed in Bombay for four months, because that is how long they had to wait for a money order to arrive from Poland. They had long since spent the £100 brought from home. The money they were expecting was for the honorarium for the stories Halina had been sending to different Polish magazines. But their shortage of cash did not undermine their will or tranquillity. When their Bombay hotel turned out to be more than they could afford, they moved out of town and pitched camp in a coconut grove. “Filth, pestilence, rats. Huge red ants crawl all over us as if we were palm trees, colourful beetles crawl out from beneath the pillows each evening and every manner of centipede, vermin, toads and reptile have free admission because, after all, not they but we are the intruders,” Halina Bujakowska noted with the humility of a true globetrotter. But they do not miss their previous                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  life. They change both physically and mentally. When Halina but for a moment nostalgically recalled the elegant boy from Druskienniki and compared him to the “travel version” of her husband, she could hardly fathom how greatly her “boy” had changed. But then she soon added: “In his new version he also has a great deal of charm, perhaps even more”.

With each passing kilometre, their fame increased. By the time they reached Calcutta, articles in the Indian press had turned them into true celebrities. “In trams and on the streets people point at us. All Calcutta knows us from our photos published in every possible newspaper and magazine. We are like Mahatma Gandhi – the property of ardent gawkers”. Fame opened their doors to many interesting places but in the long run turned out to be tiresome. They travelled on, to Burma.

House in the jungle

The Bujakowskis always liked risks and challenges. Although all reports from the Siamese border said all roads leading to French Indochina were impassable, they nevertheless decided to take off in that direction. Via Meiktila, Loilem and Kengtung they made their way past the last British outpost along the route from Burma to Sujamy and arrived at the tiny village of Loi Mwe lost in the jungle. That was when fate stepped in. The loud clunking sound coming from the motorcycle's engine meant that a ball bearing had disintegrated and further travel was out of the question. The part needed to mend the situation would take six months to arrive from Madras.

The Bujakowskis were living amongst the friendly Ika tribe. It later turned out that the time they spent in Loi Mwe would be the most beautiful stage of their expedition. They lived in a tent and slept on bamboo mats. They ate what generous tropical nature provided. They were sometimes helped by Sister Assunta, a nun from a nearby mission with whom they became fast friends. Halina's pride and joy was Thai, a young female moon bear they bought out of captivity and surrounded with solicitous care. “The months those three spent together amid tropical nature were the fulfilment of Halina's unarticulated dreams of life close to nature and far from people and the hubbub of civilisation,” Łukasz Wierzbicki wrote in the epilogue. When reading successive chapters of Halina Bujakowska's reminiscences about their six-month stay in Loi Mwe, it would be difficult to disagree. The simplest of things gladdened the hearts of our young globetrotters. When Stach (short for Stanisław) improvised an entranceway for the tent using fabrics bought from the Ikas and bamboo sticks, Halina enthused: “How beautiful our little home is. The three of us look with delight upon the fluffy thatch, the sloping cooker hood, the steep sides and shady porch. In the entranceway, I set up my kitchen and trash bin made from an old metal drum. I bring twigs from the jungle and Stach ties them together to make a broom. I tidy the place up, and the tent becomes roomier, quiet and cosy”.

When after a half-year wait the new ball bearing finally arrived, they took a good long time before resuming their expedition. But the delay could not last forever. Ultimately, they took down their camp, started up their motorcycle and off they went. “It was a downhill road and the wind whipped our cheeks, the wheels kicked up grey dust and bits of black mud and at bends in the road there's the crunch of dry leaves, and everywhere so much sun, dancing patches of shade. We pass another village, the last in the valley at the foot of Mist Mountain. There, beyond that crested hump bristling with the brush of forest green was our little corner of the world. Farewell the most beautiful of mountain and jungle kingdoms! There we lived half a year, or maybe it was just half a day?” Halina described the moment of their departure.

Several days after leaving Loi Mwe, Thai went her own way. She could not endure the dubious comfort of riding in the motorcycle’s side-car and decided to return to the jungle. For Halina, the bear's unexpected departure was a traumatic experience. She wept many nights and became depressed. That did not help her cope with the trials and tribulations of their continued journey, and there was no lack of those. Time and again, the Bujakowskis got bogged down in the muddy swamp into which the rainy season had turned the roads of Indochina. In addition, Halina was grappling with malaria and, while pulling the motorcycle out of the mud, Stach seriously injured his hand and it became infected. With the more than 20,000 kilometres they had covered on its odometer, the motorcycle began failing, forcing them to stop frequently. Finally, it died. Fortunately, their goal was not that far away, but they were forced to travel the last leg of their journey by boat. They reached Shanghai on 15 March 1936.

Return to India

The Bujakowskis’ two-year expedition was one of the most outstanding exploratory achievements of the inter-war period. But Halina wrote about it quite modestly: “We were seeking out great adventure, carefreely rolling along through boundless expanses into the unknown, au blanc de carte, as one friendly officer of the French Foreign Legion joked. He gave us a map of the desert but it lacked the itinerary we had planned. We had not discovered America nor even the tiniest patch of land, because everywhere someone had come before us by cart, ox, camel, donkey, on foot or horseback. But no motorcycle or even motorcar had ever traced the entire length of our particular itinerary. We had broken no record nor achieved anything special, but we had experienced an adventure of two footloose globetrotters”. That was all and nothing more.

The Bujakowskis were in no hurry to return to Poland. Only after the war between Japan and China flared up anew and Japanese bombers appeared over Shanghai, did Halina decide to return to her homeland via the Trans-Siberian Railway. She arrived in Druskienniki on 2 July 1937. Stanisław had stayed on in China as a war correspondent, providing the Polish press with despatches on the war in Manchuria. He returned to Poland only in 1938, after learning he had fathered a son. Unfortunately, the bedlam of war was soon to engulf Poland as well. After Poland's September 1939 defeat, Stanisław made his way to the West and joined the RAF's Transport Command, a unit responsible for transporting military equipment from the United States. After the war, the Russians took over Druskienniki, and Halina with her son Jarema moved to the Baltic Port of Gdansk. She tried in vain to make contact with her husband, but luck was on her side. When a ship carrying Polish airmen returning to Poland called at the Port of Gdynia, she approached the first one to disembark and asked about Stach. He gave her a strange look and out of his breast pocket produced a photo of her husband. It turned out that for five years he and Stach had performed air missions together. Thanks to him, the couple managed to reconnect after years. On 9 June 1947, Halina and her son left Poland, and a month later met her husband in Calcutta. Stanisław already had a job as a pilot with a private transport firm. They never returned to Poland.

Author: Krzysztof Jóźwiak

Source: "Rzeczpospolita"