Thursday, 3rd September: OK, so we are playing catch-up with the blog. The first thing we did on arriving in Moscow was to hire a car. The operation on John’s leg meant that he had no plaster cast and, since it was his left leg that was injured, he could easily drive an automatic. He put us both on the hire agreement but, in fact, I was quietly glad not to be asked to drive. Illogically, perhaps, I find it a scarier prospect launching myself into the unremitting traffic on the 3rd Ring Road in a car, than on a bike. It might seem a bit “Mad Max”, but there’s far more vision, and the power-to-weight ratio of a bike means that you can very quickly accelerate to outrun the other vehicles. Also, bearing in mind that even the most minor ‘coming together’ on a public road must be reported to the Police, and despite appearances to the contrary, Muscovites do actively try to miss each other. The bikes weren’t due to arrive until Monday 24th, and we were by no means sure how quickly John would be able to ride. He was certainly restricted in terms of the amount of walking he could expect to do on any one day, but having the car meant we weren’t entirely captive at the Night Train Motel for the period of his recuperation.

And just as well, as the following day we had an invitation from Stephen Dalzeil, formerly with the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce, and whom we met while planning our 2011 Moscow ride. He happened to be in Moscow with his Russian wife, Marina, and their son, Alex.

We were invited for dinner at Marina’s father’s tiny top-floor apartment in South Moscow but, having got there, Stephen asked if we would like to stay overnight and go to the Annual Autumn Honey Fair in Kolomenskoye Park with them on Sunday. As with much of the trip, this was entirely unplanned and a rare opportunity to gain a real insight into Russian life. As in France, a two room apartment generally consists of one bedroom and one living room. Marina’s father was away for the weekend, but he normally lives on his own. Having the family over on a visit means that things get cosy. But, as we are learning, what to us might seem unconventional sleeping arrangements, are perfectly normal in Russia so, relieved of the necessity to drive back to the Night Train, we accepted a pre-dinner Pimms and Marina made up a sofa bed for us.

It transpired that the family were in town to visit the dentist – as first class dental work is considerably less expensive in Moscow than in London. I must confess that John and I both subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke …” school of thought on dentists, so I haven’t been anywhere near one in at least 21 years – as long as I have known John, in fact. Even so, under unforgiving bathroom lighting, I had recently begun to notice that my pearly whites weren’t quite so pearly any more, and here seemed to be an opportune moment to do something about it. Marina called her hygienist and set up an appointment. No matter that I don’t speak Russian. Who is able to talk during a dental check-up, anyway? With all the incidents and accidents that we have experienced over the last few months, John and I have become quite brave. (Possibly to the point of recklessness. But more of that later …)

We dined on cold meats, fish, and a variety of salads, breads and cakes, which Marina had carefully chosen as being typically Russian. Spare toothbrushes were found, and t-shirts to sleep in … and, in a stroke of ingenuity, Marina produced a sterile container for my contact lenses, and made up some saline solution with boiled water and a pinch of salt. Did I mention she normally works as a GP in London?

Breakfast followed the same pattern. Again, keen that we should experience ‘real’ Russia, Marina prepared millet porridge for us. Whilst John and I have reacquired a taste for oat porridge in Moscow, the millet version was a bit … meh! Even with the addition of jam. It didn’t matter; the small table was laden with all manner of other goodies. There were yoghurts and bread, small cakes and biscuits, and black and green tea. Again, like the French, Russians see nothing wrong with eating chocolate for breakfast, but I struggled a bit with the cloying sweetness of it all.

Moscow Honey Fair

I’d got over myself by the time we got to the Honey Fair, where there was sweetness aplenty. Who knew there were so many varieties? Every corner of Russia was represented in the huge marquee, and every colour, texture and consistency of honey. At each stand, we were handed two or three disposable plastic wands and invited to sample honey from lime flowers, honey from wild flowers, honey from heather, honey from acacia … chestnut … coriander … You get the picture. There are literally hundreds of varieties on sale, each with their own very distinct flavour, and often accompanied by outlandish claims as to their health-promoting or healing properties. There’s nothing I like better than a dollop of honey on a slice of hot, buttered, toast. Resistance was futile, so John and I bought far more than we could carry and had to prevail on Stephen and Marina to ship a couple of tubs home in their luggage.

On Tuesday morning, I received a text telling me that two motorcycles had been received at Ratek’s Moscow warehouse, conveniently just around the corner from the Night Train. Unfortunately, that was just about the only thing about the delivery that was convenient.

John’s bike was brought out first, and the staff set about dismantling the crate. I could see mine, wedged up against a wall at the back of the warehouse. Even from the door, some 30 metres away, I could see that something wasn’t quite right. But, for the moment, it was John’s bike that was causing most concern.

broken bikeThe bar end weights had been removed and the hand guards were loose. The left-hand indicator had been smashed, one of the headlight protectors was missing and there was a gash in the left-hand grip and a deep scratch on the plastic fairing. The bike started ok, but John was understandably upset. What were we to do? The bike was rideable, yes, but the damaged and missing items would amount to hundreds of Euro to repair and the bar ends and indicator would need to be fixed before we left Moscow. There was nothing else for it. Reluctantly, I messaged Maxim … who quickly dispatched the unfortunate Dennis to the scene to assess the damage, fix what he could, and sort out an insurance claim.

Now we turned our attention to my bike. The crate was completely shattered and the bike required two men to hold it upright on the forklift. WTF?! In fact, when the remains of the crate were peeled away, there was no visible damage to the actual bike at all. Well, there wouldn’t be; the bike was filthy. But, even so, it wouldn’t start. No! Not another flat battery, surely? Dennis asked one of the warehouse staff to help jump start the bike from his car, but the bike was having none of it. Then a truck driver offered a more substantial battery. Still no joy. It didn’t make any sense. The battery had been new in July, remember, and had been kept charged by regular riding ever since Irkutsk. Dennis suspected a loose connection and removed the fuel tank for an inspection. What we found was a completely dry battery. All the electrolyte had somehow drained out of it, leading us to the conclusion that there was more to the crushed crate than met the eye. At some point during the truck ride from Mariinsk, the bike must have fallen over and been left on its side. Dennis went to buy a new battery …

We spent the following afternoon drinking tea and watching Russian television, while Dennis fixed John’s broken bike in his workshop behind Leningradsky Station. Although we couldn’t understand the language, the (seemingly interminable) programme, entitled “Military Secret” or something similar, was a highly inflammatory piece of propaganda portraying the Ukrainians as a nation of rabid fascists. Anyway, there was nothing to say and this was no place for a political argument via Google Translate.

With the bikes now back on the road, there was no further need for the hire car, so we returned it. Alas, when we arrived back at SixT’s office, the rep noticed a small scratch on the bottom of the plastic bumper. We looked at each other and shrugged. “We have no idea how that happened”, we lied. Actually, we knew exactly how that had happened. The very first morning we had the car, John had backed it into one of the concrete planters that line the Night Train’s parking area. Oooops! Anyway, there was nothing to worry about, was there? John had taken out full insurance, so we should be covered.

Wrong. In order to claim on the insurance, there would have to be a police report. You have got to be kidding! Well, we weren’t about to be stung for the cost of polishing out a small scratch, so we had better make a report. Luckily, the female rep was sympathetic and called the police for us. Remarkably – considering the sheer quantity of minor accidents they are required to attend – an officer arrived with 30 minutes.

The policeman listened patiently as the rep explained our predicament. We invented some sort of cover story about the damage probably having occurred in a fictitious stretch of roadworks, and the officer obligingly took a photo of the scratch and fetched a sheaf of forms from his car. There followed much writing and document checking and re-checking, all necessitating the translation skills of the pretty rep, who seemed to be quite enjoying the whole episode … as was the police officer! We’re only happy we appear to have brightened up their otherwise dull afternoons.

So, here we were, back on two wheels and approaching the end of John’s convalescence. Soon we must start our final homeward journey but, before we left Moscow, there was one last thing that John had promised himself: a tattoo. Back in our hospital room in Mariinsk, he had briefly toyed with the idea of getting a dart board tattooed on his backside, but the ride to China had been such a massive achievement, he felt it deserved something more meaningful … and more visible. He came up with Carpe Diem, which translates roughly as “live for the moment”, and perfectly sums up our attitude to life. And, since John was having a tattoo, he could hardly object to my ‘improving’ one of mine. I knew exactly what I wanted …

Carpe DiemMaxim introduced us to Dmitry, the Night Train’s resident tattooist, who occupies a small studio above the Honky Tonk Roadhouse.  He asked what we had in mind. John’s tattoo was straightforward, but my idea made Maxim hesitate. “Your mother will not like it”, he said, “you’ll have to wear long sleeves …” I assured him that my mother had long since got used to my unconventional ways and would be delighted to have me back in one piece, with or without the tattoo.

Anyway, the deal was done and, at the appointed hour, Dmitry tracked down a couple of suitable images on Google and did some clever wizardry with Photoshop to create his design. He applied the transfer and asked if my mother would be happy with it. Ah… Dmitry had understood my conversation with Maxim. So as to avoid any misunderstanding, I used the Translate app on my mobile phone, “For the purposes of this tattoo, Maxim is my mother.”

This raised a laugh but, given that Maxim is effectively Dmitry’s Landlord, I’m not sure he was particularly reassured. He made me a cup of coffee and started work. It was 5pm.

Carpe Diem I had assumed that the tattoo would be done in two or more sessions, but it wasn’t painful and Dmitry, fuelled by coffee, cigarettes and (dare I say it) heaven knows what else, was happy to carry on. At regular intervals throughout the evening, various Night Train regulars put their heads around the door to ask (in English) if I was still alive. John and I kept each other up-to-date by means of text messages. At 3.45am, I texted to ask him to let me into the motel …

A few days later, we had a last meal at the Honky Tonk and made a vague plan to meet Maxim in Amsterdam on our way home. The following morning, we packed our bikes and bade goodbye to Moscow and the Night Train Motel.

До свидания, Москва.

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Slow train to Moscow

Saturday, 22nd August: All credit to the staff of Mariinsk Central City Hospital; they took excellent care of us. Though, after ten days’ sampling Russian hospital food, John and I were more than glad to exchange the confines of our hospital room for a four-person ‘kupe’ sleeper compartment on the 62-hour train journey to Moscow.

TV stardomOur stay had been a surreal experience in many ways. The small town hospital was unlike any other I’ve experienced and worlds away from the weary and target-driven NHS. I dare say that most British patients would have been appalled by the lack of amenities. Our room was bare, furnished with two beds and bedside lockers, a table and a fridge. There was no medical equipment installed and no picture on the walls: no unnecessary dust traps, just a couple of reading lights and an electric wall socket. The colourful mismatched bedding looked like a job lot of leftover sale stock from Primark. But we were treated like minor celebrities and, in every way that mattered, the treatment of John’s injury was faultless. His dressing was changed personally by the (rather fierce) matron in charge, dressed from top to toe in sterile theatre scrubs and apron. Food was bland, but copious and, above Lunchall, healthy. While we may or may not have relished the idea of various types of porridge (who knew there were so many?) and/or milk puddings twice a day, at least they were freshly prepared. Rice and cereal made up the bulk of our main meal at lunchtime too, but it came with a soup starter – and each meal was accompanied by the freshest of fresh bread, so sandwiches were always an option if yet another bowl of semolina or millet failed to entice.

All the staff had multi-functional roles, so it was not unusual for the nurse who had just set up John’s antibiotic drip, to reappear from the kitchen 5 minutes later with a large enamel kettle to offer us chai or ‘compote’ (hot fruit juice). Catering staff doubled as cleaners and the doctor in charge of the department helpfully ordered taxis whenever I needed one, and liaised with the British Embassy over my registration. None spoke English but, even so, did their best to cheer us up and engage us in conversation – in particular the doctor who, despite admitting via his phone’s Translate app, that he had forgotten all the English he learned at school, still managed “Good morning. How are you?” on his daily rounds. In fact, John and I have reason to believe he may have developed a bit of a crush, but probably the less said about that the better … In any event, my investment in a tablet pc, with the option of switching from UK to Russian keyboard and back, certainly paid off.

We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to Anna Antipina who, having had the misfortune to have happened to be visiting her husband at the time of our arrival at the hospital, was press-ganged into service as our translator for the duration of our stay. A service for which she was obliged to leave her three year old daughter in the care of her mother, and for which she received no compensation other than an official-looking laminated certificate from the hospital management.

As soon as we knew the date of John’s discharge, Anna took me to the station to book our tickets to Moscow. From my experience with Russian ticket offices, I knew this was something I would have no chance of doing on my own. It had been complicated enough, travelling on my own. Now I had to take account of John’s injury and make sure we weren’t assigned top bunks! (Note to self: top bunks on Russian trains are strictly for the young and agile; I am neither.)

Unfortunately, the first train leaving on Friday night had no remaining lower bunks. The whole rail system in Russia works on Moscow time and Anna explained that the next available train left at 2 o’clock – or 6 o’clock, local time. “6am, in the morning?” “Yes”, said Anna. We would have to fill the hours between John’s discharge and the train’s departure somehow but, once on the train, we would have nothing further to worry about until we reached Moscow. I agreed and the tickets were duly booked and printed. It was only when I got back to the hospital and took them out of my wallet that I noticed the departure time was shown as 14:29 … or 6.29pm local time. Worse, I noticed the arrival time in Moscow, 04:11! There was nothing to be done about the booking at this stage, so I explained the situation to the doctor and he agreed that John would be officially discharged on Friday, but we would be able to stay an extra night – thereby avoiding the need to book a hotel room.

Mariinsk VoksalIn the event, we escaped at lunchtime on Saturday and set up camp in the local café, who appeared genuinely pleased to see us again. While I ran a few errands in the high street, the staff made John comfortable at a corner table with Pullman-type seating so that he could elevate his leg. I bought more credit for my phone, cashed money, and bought picnic supplies for the 4,000km, 62-hour, journey. At 5.30pm, a taxi arrived to take us to the station.

We were less lucky with our compartment than I had been on the outward journey to Irkutsk. A young man and his father were already comfortably installed, occupying the top bunks when we boarded. They were friendly enough, but were probably less than thrilled to have to vacate the lower seating. The young man manoeuvred himself into the top bunk with the ease of an athlete on the parallel bars. But dad struggled, as I had done, to the point where we feared for the seat of his trousers as he balanced precariously between the bunks with one foot on each of the tiny ladders, before launching himself onto his bed.

Home Sweet HomeBefore disembarking at Omsk, ‘dad’ persuaded us to try some of his friend’s homemade wine. At least, I think it was homemade wine; it was homemade, anyway. Ignoring our protestations, he pulled a lemonade bottle from his rucksack and poured out two large glasses of something that had the appearance and consistency of concentrated blackcurrant syrup, but carried rather more of a kick. We thanked him politely and remember very little of the morning after that … His son got off in Tyumen.

After the previous week’s Sunday Lunch of bulgar wheat and fish in hospital, we were looking forward to investigating the restaurant car. Getting there was an adventure in itself for John on crutches, negotiating the heavy double doors and moving footplate that separates the carriages, and then fighting our way through two or three crowded third class compartments. Perhaps that’s why no one else bothered. It was a depressing experience. Two stewards and the cook were seated at a dining table, looking at their phones, when we arrived. Faded curtains were drawn over the windows at one end of the carriage, casting a shadow over the deserted bar area; boxes of catering supplies littered the floor at the other end. We sat down and ordered one of the ‘Signature Dishes’ from an extensive menu. The best that could be said was that it was freshly cooked for us and a contrast to the hospital food. Otherwise, it was unexceptional and over-priced.

It was still Komsomolskaya Squaredark when we arrived in Moscow. Strangely, for Russia, none of the stewards was on duty, and it took a while before the passengers realised that they would have to fend for themselves. Confusion reigned. Eventually, the doors were opened, and with John unable to carry anything more than my small backpack, I hurled our luggage, piece by piece, onto the platform. As well as my overly-heavy sailcloth bag, we now had a huge and unweildy nylon zip bag containing our motorcycle clothes, boots and helmets. Once again, we were in the second to last carriage, at the far end of a very long platform so, when a ‘freelance’ porter with a trolley asked if we would like assistance, I accepted with alacrity. After a short distance, seeing John struggling, the porter loaded him onto the trolley along with the bags … There was, inevitably, a premium fee for this service, but we didn’t quibble. He dropped us at the door of the station’s own ‘motel’ – a few bedrooms designated “Long Term Waiting”. At 5,000 roubles for a few hours, it wasn’t cheap, but it gave us a unique view of early morning life in Komsomolskaya Square, and allowed us to rest and reorganise ourselves before disturbing Marina at the Night Train Motel. It also gave John time to have a haircut and shave …

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Snap! An unscheduled break …

Friday, 7th August: So, from Kansk we rode to Achinsk, another smallish town to the west of Krasnoyarsk – chosen for no better reason than it gave us an easy day’s ride of 400km or so to Tomsk. The Victoria Hotel had good reviews and was on the outskirts of town, making for a quick getaway in the morning. But there’s ‘the outskirts’ and then there’s ‘the outskirts’. The hotel was clearly signposted from the road (well, it was clear if you can read Russian cursive script; which, although it is used in some newspapers, is confusingly different from the regular Cyrillic alphabet), 700m down a flooded and pot-holed dirt road, past some abandoned industrial units. Pretty normal for Russia, as we are learning. “You’ve got to be kidding”, was all I heard as I manoeuvred round the deepest part of the temporary lake and set off down the road.

But, for once, John needn’t have worried. The Victoria Hotel turned out to be a modern motel that, despite its location, wouldn’t have looked out of place in any Western European city. The car park was gated, hidden from view behind a high sheet metal wall and monitored by CCTV. The pedestrian entrance clicked open as we approached. Encouraging. Meals (of a sort) and beer were available on site, there was an ATM and a billiard table, and the bedrooms didn’t disappoint. I had redeemed myself slightly after the previous two nights’ accommodation and, we told ourselves, from here west, things should start to improve.

In the run-up to the start to the football season, John describes one of the best goals ever scored at Wembley, by Gazza for Spurs against Arsenal in 1991.

Over lunch, in the run-up to the start to the football season, John describes one of the best goals ever scored at Wembley, by Gazza, for Spurs against Arsenal, in 1991.

Tomsk is described by Lonely Planet as a lively University City and cultural hub, with a wealth of spectacular wooden architecture. It sounded the sort of place where we might like to spend an extra night. There are two routes from Achinsk; the direct route is about 400km and turns off the main Trans-Siberia Highway at Mariinsk, then there’s the route recommended by the GPS, which takes you via Kemorovo and adds another 200km. Looking at Google Earth, both roads are paved, so a bit of a no-brainer then.

We had lunch in a nice little bakery in Mariinsk, before cashing some money and topping up with fuel.

For the first 30km or so, the road to Tomsk was fine. Old tarmac, but fine. Then the tarmac ran out, and the road surface varied between hard-packed dirt and broken concrete. We had been making good progress for about 20-25km, slaloming around the worst of the holes, when I stopped to check on John and his bike. “What do you think?” I said. “Fine”, he said. “Actually, I’m quite enjoying this”, I said. “Good”, he said …

Moments later, we were in deep, loose, gravel. I don’t quite know what happened next. It was all very quick.

We had been doing our best to stay in the tracks of previous traffic, on the crest of the road, where the gravel was thinnest. But the vehicle, long gone, that I had been following, had presumably swerved to the nearside to avoid another, and the shallow tyre tracks now veered off into the deep stuff at the edge of the road. It was too late and my reflexes aren’t sufficiently practiced to power out of trouble. The front wheel kicked, and I was off.

The bike was still running and in gear. It spun on its back wheel so that it was pointed back in the direction of Mariinsk. The wheels were above the level of the handlebars, which were angled towards the camber of the road. Close to 250kg of bike was going to be a nightmare to pick up from this angle. I got up, unharmed, and turned off the ignition. For a split second, John was nowhere to be seen. Then I saw his bike, also down, about 100m behind me. I heard him groan as he rolled on his back.

With the help of a couple of passing motorists, we did eventually manage to get both bikes upright again, but word had it that road conditions were not going to improve for 60km or so. We made the decision to turn back to Mariinsk. John was in pain, so I rode behind him. Worryingly, I noticed that he couldn’t stand up and was having difficulty changing gear. I took him back to the café where we had had lunch and asked for help.

An ambulance crew arrived. Our only means of communication was the Translate app on our phones, so the paramedic phoned his English-speaking supervisor. A small crowd gathered around our table. Another phone, with another English-speaking friend, was handed to me. Unfortunately, although their English was undeniably better than our Russian, neither was exactly fluent and the scene rapidly descended into a game of Chinese whispers, with no one knowing how to ask the right questions or interpret the given answers. The only thing to do was to get an x-ray at the hospital.

It was quickly established that John had broken his left fibula and that the bones were displaced and requiring an operation to plate and stabilise it. First, we needed to deal with a growing number of police officers, whose purpose it was to establish the facts surrounding the incident and pinpoint its location. Luckily for us, a lovely lady called Anna arrived to visit her husband, one of their colleagues, and … she spoke English. Properly.

With Anna interpreting, they managed to get their statement and John was wheeled away. But any hopes of that being the end of the matter for me were quickly dispelled when it came to pin-pointing the location. One of the officers noticed I was limping slightly and wanted to know if I had been involved in the accident. Having heard numerous accounts of the pedantry of Russian police officers, we had said nothing about my bike having gone down, and I was keen to keep it that way. No matter that there was no one else involved, and I was unharmed, an accident on a public road in Russia is a police matter and must be reported. In full. I explained to Anna that I had broken my leg in May.

As I was unable to tell the police, with any degree of certainty, exactly where the accident had occurred, there was apparently only one thing for it. I would have to accompany them back to the scene. My heart sank momentarily, until I remembered the BikeTrac security tracker fitted to John’s bike. We had, after all, been using it to pin-point his whereabouts, with great accuracy, throughout China, so why not here? The police agreed and found me an office with a computer. They watched with curiosity as I changed the map view and zoomed into the end of the line marking his westward trajectory. They pointed at the nearest village, ‘большой песчанка’ and, I assume, asked me to confirm that this was, indeed, site of the accident. But I couldn’t give the correct form of words to satisfy the pen-pusher. The senior officer opened Google Translate in another window and his question was duly translated, “So, the accident happened near big gerbil?” There a lot of giggling. However, once we had all recovered our composure, the officer decided that a screen capture of the map would suffice and all I needed to do was sign the paper in confirmation.

I guess Mariinsk Municiple Hospital doesn't get many international visitors ...

I guess Mariinsk Municiple Hospital doesn’t get many international visitors …

John had an operation to put a plate in his leg on Wednesday. While this may sound dramatic, in fact, it has cleared up the dilemma as to what to do from here regarding repatriation. With his fracture internally stabilised, John’s recovery time will be significantly shorter than mine was.

We did, initially, assume that that was it. Game over. And we duly started looking at sensible stuff like insurance claims, flights and shipping for the bikes. But John will be discharged from hospital next weekend, and the surgeon said that he should be fit to ride his bike again by the end of the month. So, instead of worrying about the £3000 each we were being quoted to airfreight the bikes out of Moscow, I’ve bought us a couple of train tickets and arranged to put the bikes on a truck.

We get to Moscow on 18th and will hole up in our favourite biker motel for a couple of weeks until we can ride home. Sure, our return will be delayed by a week or two over our original itinerary, but we aim to complete the “Inagh to China Motorcycle Ride”. It hasn’t been quite the trip we planned, but the adventure continues …

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Homeward bound

Saturday, 1st August: So, after a brief hiatus in Gusinoozyorsk, John’s bike was fixed and, frankly, behaving a lot better than it had in a long time. We had to shave a day off our planned stay in Ulan Ude, which was a shame, but we stayed just long enough to enjoy a couple of pints in the Cherchill [sic] Pub on Lenin Street, and sort out our Russian motor insurance.

Since arriving in Moscow, I had been all too aware that I had no third party insurance. However, since I almost immediately decided to put the bike on the train as far as Irkutsk, I actually only rode it to and from Andre’s warehouse … and, a week later, when I arrived in Irkutsk, I confess I had forgotten all about it. Luckily, although Ken, Sam and I were stopped by the Police on the way to the Mongolian border, they were more interested in where we came from and how two Australians, a Canadian and a Brit came to be traveling together. Anyway, it was a situation that couldn’t continue, so John and I set about finding an insurer in Ulan Ude.

We tried Angara first but, having spent 200 roubles having our documents translated, followed by two hours sitting around in their stuffy fourth floor office, they told us that they couldn’t help because our bikes weren’t registered in Russia. No shit, Sherlock! It wasn’t all bad though. They did give us the address of Rosgosstrakh who, probably in part thanks to our translated documents, dealt with the whole thing in 5 minutes flat. After lunch, we packed the bikes and headed for Irkutsk.

I warned John of the long stretch of roadworks where I had dropped the bike on the way out, but Russian roadworks stop for no man and, two weeks later, the treacherous gravel had been replaced with a fresh layer of smooth tarmac. Hoorah! Alas, my relief was short-lived. It seemed that the whole of the rest of the road was now under construction and my heart sank slightly as, every 30km or so, we saw another yellow panel, indicating a new stretch of improvements taking place.

We stopped at a truck stop on the shores of Lake Baikal for a tea and a bar of chocolate. The Lake is a renowned beauty spot and I had hoped to get a couple of photos from the viewpoint on the road above, but it was shrouded in mist and, anyway, our delayed departure from Ulan Ude meant that we were running out of daylight. John asked me to step up the pace a bit, so I had a bit of fun on the twisties for the last 80km or so into Irkutsk and we arrived at the Hotel Matreshka in time for dinner.

Funny how different a city can seem depending on who is guiding your visit. We asked the receptionist to order us a taxi to the centre of town so that we could get a meal. We didn’t specify any particular type of restaurant, but I assumed that the ‘centre’ would be somewhere around Karl Marx Street, where I had been staying last time. But, no. The taxi took us instead to the ‘tourist area’. Normally, I’d baulk at being directed to an area specifically dedicated to tourists but I’m glad I didn’t. The area between Ul. 3 Lyulya and Ul. Sedova is packed with restaurants that are as popular with the bright young people of Irkutsk as they are with tourists like us. We had a very good meal and walked back there for lunch and dinner the following day.

Eventually, it was time to move on and continue our homeward journey. I had booked hotels ahead for Tomsk and Novosibirsk but, for the next three nights in Tulun, Kansk and Achinsk, we would be relying on pot luck.

I checked my various booking websites and found that Tulun and Kansk didn’t feature. Other sources suggested that both towns did offer accommodation and, as we had discovered in Gusinoozyorsk, smaller ‘mini-hotels’ are often hidden away in apartment blocks and not advertised to tourists. In any event, Tulun boasted a promising-sounding ‘Central Hotel’, so it should be easy enough to find …

In fact the Central Hotel turned out to be exactly the sort of mini-hotel we have encountered before, occupying the second floor of an apartment block. The rooms were decent enough, with a fridge, kettle and television, and separate toilet and shower rooms being shared with the room next door, off a private hallway. A notice on the back of the bedroom door suggested that the café next door offered the best food in town, so we had a quick shower and went to investigate.

We arrived downstairs just as two German bikers arrived: a couple, Alexandra and Wolfgang. They parked their bikes next to ours and we got talking … as you do. In the meantime, a wedding party had spilled out of the café onto the pavement and, since I don’t suppose that Tulun gets to welcome too many foreign tourists, we became objects of much curiosity. Unfortunately, it goes without saying that the wedding guests were in varying stages of inebriation and things began to get out of hand as one of the more enthusiastic men made a grab for me and shoved his driving licence under John’s nose, making it quite clear he wanted to take my bike for a ride. I don’t think so, mate! It was all innocent enough, but still I found myself fending him off with the handle of my walking stick. Again! This is getting embarrassing. Eventually, the groom stepped in and your man was bundled away back into the café, loudly protesting his innocence.

The wedding couple were at pains to excuse their guest’s behaviour but, unfortunately, with the party occupying the café, we would obviously have to find somewhere else to eat. John and I had done a quick reccie of the ‘High Street’ earlier, and the signs weren’t promising. But we still don’t understand Russia very well and hadn’t thought to investigate the back roads. The groom’s brother kindly escorted us across the road and up what looked like a farm track. Low and behold, there were two restaurants within staggering distance of the hotel: a pizzeria and a Chinese! John has had his fill of Chinese, so we opted for pizza … and very good it was too.

Kansk is rather bigger than Tulun, so we had high hopes for the Zaprosto Hotel, which had two good reviews on TripAdvisor. Alas, when we arrived in Proletarskaya Street, there was no sign of a hotel and, despite the efforts of several helpful passers-by, we never found it. In all likelihood it was, like so many others, hidden in an apartment block, but no one had heard of it. Instead, a helpful motorist led us to the Onix Hotel, itself hidden away behind iron gates, with no hint from the road that it existed at all. In fact, it had a spa and advertised rooms by the hour … so we were in little doubt as to its primary function. Nevertheless, the rooms were clean and comfortable, if a little airless, and the manageress was kind enough to find garage space for our bikes and call us a taxi to take us to dinner.

After much discussion with the manageress, the taxi took us to a swanky-looking restaurant on the outskirts of town, but it wasn’t what we had asked for. We asked instead to be taken to the ‘centre’. The driver seemed surprised but, hey, isn’t the customer always right? No. Apparently not. He dropped us off at the main square and gestured towards a café. Surely this wasn’t the centre of Kansk? Although the square was impressive, it was surrounded by dilapidated buildings and very few operational businesses.

John checked his phone for local eateries. There were two on the other side of the square. Both closed and boarded up. We walked a little further and saw another. Again, closed. I was beginning to think we had actually found the arse end of the universe. Then, just as we were about to give up and wander back to the café in the square, I noticed a sign advertising shashlik (Russian kebabs). They were good, but not quite enough for a meal, so we treated them as a starter, before going back to the square for our main course and beer, at the café we had been directed to in the first place!

We had, of course, no clue what we were ordering, but with one other diner being keen to practice her English and a good-humoured waitress, we were soon tucking into a tasty meal of … I’m still none the wiser. At the end of the evening, we went to the bar to pay, only to be approached by the sort of amorous drunk whom, wherever in the world I am, I seem attract with tedious regularity. Deep joy. Where’s my walking stick? Having failed to get any response from me, he wrapped his arm around John’s shoulders and took him into the foyer to have a quiet word. John didn’t understand any more than I did … except that he appeared to be being offered money for me. I don’t know what was the worse insult; the offer of money or the amount? 150 roubles (that’s about £1.50 at today’s exchange rate)! Luckily, my honour was preserved by some other diners who persuaded my admirer that this was not his lucky night.

Predictably, there was no breakfast on offer at the hotel, so we were quick to leave Kansk in the morning.

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A spot of welding

Tuesday 28th July:  As Brigid rightly said, there is nothing to see in Kharkhorin of Genghis Khan, sadly. Having seen the Erdene Zuu Monastery and wandered around the town, the next morning it was time to return to UlaanBaatar (UB). The weather was threatening to rain and sure enough as we left it started – not a good omen for the bad stretch of road ahead. But fortune favours the bold and, as we approach the bad 25 kms or so, the weather brightened up and we had a very pleasant ride back to UB, untroubled by the road.

We spent another couple of nights in UB before commencing Brigid’s trip: the ride home. The traffic was light and the weather and road were good as we headed north and that lulled me into a false sense of security. I found a couple of deep pot holes, one natural and one man made where the surface had been taken up in preparation for repair. The bike went right down to the bottom of the shocks and really clunked. At the time, I didn’t notice anything else wrong and we rode on to our overnight stop in Darkhan without further mishap.

The following morning, as I started loading the bike, I saw that the seat was not right, the front wasn’t nestling against the tank as it should be. I took it off to have a look and then saw that there was a break in the front subframe where it joins on to the real sub frame. This was a major problem. Without it being properly fixed, it was a trip stopper. We talked about our options and agreed that we had to get the bike into Russia, where we might have a chance of getting a temporary fix, a “bodge”, done. So off we rode, reaching the border without any further problems.

As usual the border took longer than it should, but we got through and off we went. But, as we rode, I noticed that the handlebars were getting further away from me. Not a good sign! Suddenly, first the left plastic panel, and then the right one, cracked, and the front ends of both came away from the front fairing. BUGGER! The handle bars were then even further away from me. Without looking, I realised there was a major, major, problem, and the only way I could possibly get the bike to even the next town was to stand on the foot pegs to try to keep the weight off the broken sub frame. So I did, for about 80 kms (50 miles), with Brigid riding behind me with her hazard lights flashing.

By the time we reached the first real town, Gusinoozyorsk, we were both just about out of fuel and had to stop at the first petrol station we came to. I took the seat off and was not surprised to see that both sides of the front sub frame, at the rear of it, had sheered completely. It was a nightmare. The end of the ride and, probably, a write-off of the bike. We were discussing our options as a local man approached, as often happens, and asked, in broken English, where we were going. I have to confess we were not very receptive, but tried to be patient. I pointed out that we had a major problem with the frame. He pointed to the rear of a bright orange building next but one to the garage, and said go to the “orange house”, where the man could fix it. We said that we needed to get the bike to Ulan Ude, thinking that we might be able to ship it home from there and where we could work out our options. We were polite, but clearly not receptive to his advice, and he went away without saying anything else. If he was unimpressed with us, particularly in the light of events, he was justified. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that there was nothing to be lost by going to the “orange house”, so we slowly rode around to the front of the building.

It wasn’t a house but a factory unit. A big one, with sign outside that read, in Russian, “Auto Tech Centre”. Maybe the man was right, I thought. A couple of guys were outside, so we got off our bikes and gestured that my bike was broken. The doors were opened, I took the bike in, took off the seat and showed them the damage. They immediately started chattering away and mentioned Argon welding. Without any formal agreement to do the work, or an indication of the cost, one guy immediately started stripping the bike down and within a hour it was down to the subframe. At this point I mentally hoped that he knew how to put it all back together, but realistically knew that if he couldn’t fix the break it really didn’t matter! By now, the guy doing the work was busy cleaning the broken surfaces with a powered wire brush.

It was now around 7pm, and we knew we were there for the night. We asked them if they knew of a local hotel. Their response was two fold, if we were prepared to stay for the night it meant they could do a better job, and yes they knew of a local hotel. We were taken there with just the stuff we needed, whilst Brigid’s bike was brought inside the big, very well equipped workshop. To call it a garage would be selling it short.

We didn’t sleep very well that night, worrying about what the morning would bring. By the time we got back to the workshop in the morning I was a bit frazzled. We walked in and there was the bike, being put back together. We were shown the welded sub frame and I was absolutely amazed, it looked like new. There was no sign of any different metal, it was very clean, just like a new sub frame would be. It seemed very strong, like new. Perfect. Even better, the welder showed me the pannier carriers and indicated that he had also welded them. They were more solid than they had ever been.

We were ecstatic, I was in seventh heaven, the ride was still on! Yet another low to a real high in less than 24 hours, someone “up there” really must be looking after us.

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Motorcycle “mojo”!

Saturday, 25th July: When I broke my leg in May, it is likely that, if push came to shove, we could both have claimed for curtailment of the trip then and there, on the basis that, with my leg in plaster, I couldn’t look after myself at home. However, riding to China was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I didn’t want John to miss out on, so we came up with another plan. John would join GlobeBusters and ride to Beijing but then, rather than riding home across Mongolia, as we had intended, he would fly back with the rest of the group. Of course, at the time, we hadn’t realised how difficult it might be to change his exit permit to allow him to leave from Beijing, but that’s another story …

As far as John was concerned, this was a ‘least worst’ solution. Those of you who know him well, will know his love of military history and, although my Shanghai-based cousin had originally suggested the ride, the goal of getting to China had quickly been usurped by a greater desire to see Mongolia – the empire of Genghis Khan. While John would be seeing remote parts of Western China and Tibet that few tourists ever have access to, in flying home from Beijing, he would be missing out on Mongolia and, in particular, Kharkhorin … Genghis Khan’s ancient capital city. His disappointment was tangible.

So, naturally, when we came up with the plan for me to join John in Ulaanbaatar for the journey home, one of the first things I did was to research the condition of the road as far as Kharkhorin.  As far as I was concerned, if there was any possibility of getting John there without putting too much stress on my recently healed leg, then that’s what we must do … what I must do! So I had a look at Google Earth.

It was good news. The road from Ulaanbaatar was definitely ‘surfaced’. We paid our bill at Oasis and packed the bikes. However, as often happens when travelling by motorcycle, just as we were leaving, another group of travellers engaged John in conversation. They had just come from Kharkhorin in a truck and warned of extremely difficult conditions for the last 50km or so, due to road construction and detours. I had no desire to have to detour off the main road, but to get this far and not to even attempt the trip seemed feeble. We agreed to give it our best shot and be prepared to turn around if necessary.

Ulaanbaatar must be one of the longest cities, east to west, anywhere. We seemed to drive for miles and miles before we were eventually clear of manic car drivers and railway tracks. But, eventually, we were out on the open road, with only sporadic settlements of gers and herds of goats, horses, yaks and cattle to look at. There was nothing difficult about the ride, except that we had set off later in the day than we had intended and the midday heat was intense. We stopped once or twice for water and/or fuel.

We had travelled well over 100 kms when we found the road ahead blocked by a nightmarish accident. Without going into too much detail, it involved two cars and an overturned truck transporting sheep. I didn’t look too closely at the wreckage …. No, the problem as far as I was concerned was that traffic was being forced off the highway from both directions, down a steep verge onto a single sand track though the grassland that bordered the road for as far as the eye could see.

Having made myself the promise not to ride ‘off-road’, I had not, in fact, so much as stood on the pegs, since my accident in May – and I didn’t fancy the idea of competing for space with the oncoming traffic on the track.

John was worried for me. He suggested turning back, but that really wasn’t a realistic option. I’ve ridden in more difficult conditions on Simon Pavey’s BMW Off Road Skills Course in Wales. I told myself I really should be able to do this!

John went ahead and picked out a fresh route through some low shrubs, away from the traffic. All I had to do was to negotiate the 8ft drop from the main road and then make a quick turn before the traffic behind me caught up. I lined myself up, took a deep breath, stood up, and let the bike (with its new Heidenau tyres) do its stuff.

At the other end of the diversion, there was a double dip before we briefly re-joined the traffic on the track and negotiated the 8ft climb back onto the main road. Suddenly, everything fell into place and I realised I was riding normally again. I punched the air as the bike bobbed easily over the curb and back onto the tarmac.

The ride as far as the Kharkhorin junction was uneventful, and we began to wonder about the dire warnings we had received about the condition of the road in. However, minutes after leaving the main east-west route, we hit the construction zone. However, as John had quite rightly suggested, the roadworks were far more of a problem for 4-wheeled vehicles. They found it impossible to avoid the large potholes, and preferred to use the sand tracks that wove their way alongside the main road. Whereas we, on 2 wheels, were easily able to steer between the holes and standing on the pegs gave us a stable platform, avoiding the worst effects of the uneven surface.

Kharkhorin_templeTo be completely honest, there really isn’t much at Kharkhorin. Probably because Genghis Khan and his people were nomads, no evidence remains of his ‘capital city’. The town’s most notable tourist feature is the Erdene Zuu Monastery, known for the iconic ‘pepper pot’ ramparts that reinforce its walls. We stayed a couple of nights, took our photos, and left.

However, the ride to Kharkhorin had been an important one for me. While I was quite glad not to be riding further on Mongolia’s unmade roads, I had proved something to myself. If my little mishap in May had sparked a minor motorcycling menopause, then the ride to Kharkhorin gave me back my mojo!

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Oasis, Ulaanbaatar

Tuesday, 21st July: The Oasis Guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar is a hub for overland travellers of all nationalities and, despite its position, off a dirt side road on the eastern edge of town, is a landmark in its own right. It’s a hostel, rather than a hotel, and most guests use shared dormitory accommodation either in the main house or in one of half a dozen traditional gers in the courtyard. In contrast, John and I had what appeared to be the owner’s apartment to ourselves. The apartment sleeps up to four people. Single beds, though.

The café operates on an honesty system. Rock up any time of day, order food from the kitchen, help yourself to a slice of cheesecake, a beer or a fruit juice from the fridge, and just write it down on your ‘kitchen passport’. You pay at the end of your stay. Cash only.

But the thing that makes the Oasis so popular with overland travellers, is …. well, other travellers. Motorcycles, bicycles, backpackers, and 4×4 RVs come and go all the time. Organised tours or solo. Need information on the road conditions where you’re headed? You can be sure, even if there is no one in the hostel who has come in from there recently, someone will have been talking to someone else who has – and it’s far more reliable and current than any Google or HUBB search. Need help changing a tyre? Someone will have a bead breaker handy. Just ask.

John and I spent Sunday relaxing. We took advantage of the (slow) Internet access, did our washing, caught up with our blogs and compared our journeys. It was just nice to ramble about our various experiences and our expectations for the trip home, with nowhere else we had to be and no risk of interruption. In the evening, we took ourselves out for a slap-up meal in the centre of town.

By Tuesday, we had pretty much exhausted all that Ulaanbaatar had to offer, so were pleased when Ken Duval suggested stopping by to pick the brains of some Dutch travellers who had recently arrived from the Altai Mountains. His bike had been suffering an intermittent electrical fault and he needed to check on the condition of the roads before making a decision about onward travel. Also, we all wanted to visit the Genghis Khan memorial, about 50km to the east of town. The road was reported as dangerously poor, so it would be good to travel as a group.

To drive in Mongolia is to take your life in your hands. From the moment GlobeBusters’ Director, Julia Sanders, had suggested meeting John in Ulaanbaatar for the ride home, it had been pretty clear that I was not up to riding our original route across Mongolia on unsurfaced ‘washboard’ roads. I was very much here on the understanding that I would be sticking to the tarmac. Even so, there’s tarmac and … other surfaces. If there’s one thing Russia and Mongolia share, it’s the unpredictable nature of paved roads. And then, of course, there’s Mongolian drivers to factor into the equation …

Although Google Earth appeared to show a new road out to the monument itself, I hadn’t reckoned on the ‘Demolition Derby’ that was the 25km stretch of potholed Hell out of town. All manner of vehicles hurtled towards us on the wrong side of a narrow ribbon of broken concrete, swerving violently to avoid the worst of the holes, cars tail-gated and overtook on both sides, constantly honking their horns, and buses trundled along, stopping two or three abreast, seemingly with no consideration or even consciousness of any other road user. With this as a benchmark, the unmade roads that form the majority of the Country’s transport network, might seem positively benign!

In any event, Ken and Carol, Sam, John and I, all made it to and from the monument with no mishaps and were glad we had made the effort. The Genghis Khan Memorial (or ‘Chingiss Khan’, as he is more usually called here) is extraordinary and quite spectacular. Mongolia’s answer to the Statue of Liberty, perhaps?

John and I were due to ride out to Kharkhorin on Wednesday morning so, having gone back to the Oasis for a much needed shower and change of clothes, we met up with Ken, Carol and Sam for a farewell meal at the excellent ‘Mexi-Khan’ (I kid you not) Restaurant.

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togetherSaturday, 18th July: Here are two posts – one from each of us – describing the lead up to our reunion in Ulaanbaatar.

John’s point-of-view first:

Wednesday night, I hardly slept a wink, I think I just managed to nod off 5 minutes before the alarm sounded. It was the excitement. I had breakfast and packed, and was ready a full one and a half hours before the taxi came to take me to the airport. The ride was uneventful and the wait for the flight seemed interminably long. Indeed, although we got on board on time, the plane took off an hour late and landed half an hour late. After taxi ride to the hotel, I rang Navo Tours to get in contact with one of their guides who was to take me to collect my bike. In the event, the bike was literally a couple of hundred yards around the corner, crated up in a wooden cage made from pallets. It looked rather fragile, but looks were deceptive and it took a fair bit of dismantling with a crow bar to free up the bike. The wing mirrors had been removed and the only issue was that I will need two spanners to adjust them properly! I rode it back around to the hotel and went out for dinner with the guide, Green, and two Australian couples: Alan, Lynn, Barry and Donna, who were in the middle of a fantastic adventure of their own, travelling in convoy in their own two 4 x 4s in a very convoluted route from Australia to Portugal.

Alan Lynn Barry and DonnaThe following morning, we met up to cross the border together with the help of Green and a Navo Tours man who specialised in the customs issues at the border. As usual, it took time but eventually we were out of China. Getting through the Mongolian customs was a bit of a trial as the guides were then not with us, but I managed to get through eventually with just a stamp in my passport, nothing to show for the bike at all, although I’m sure the details were entered on a computer at one of the many windows I visited.

Then it was “North to Alaska” …. Well, actually, Zamyn Uud was the first town, from where the idea was to find the apparently tarmac road north toward Ulaanbaatar. The Aussies were delayed a bit coming out of the border when one of them drove over a metal bracket which was part of a fixed “stinger” – a device designed to puncture the tyres of vehicles who upset the border guards. I rode around looking for the road, whilst examining Garmin, but it didn’t seem quite right. The route seemed to be taking me straight North but the road was very poor and petered out into sand. I turned around and pulled off the road and, as usual a crowd gathered. I asked, hesitantly, for Ulaanbaatar and one older guy indicated that I was indeed on the right road. I set off again, having a little earlier passed the two Australian vehicles who were letting air out of their tyres in anticipation of a sandy road.

I came to the end of the tarmac and was horrified to find that the road was sand – soft, but packed down and not too bad. I rode along slowly, skidding a little from side to side. I am fairly sure I should have been riding a bit faster and should have let my tyres down as well. However, I carried on and before long I found a patch of soft sand and down I went, for the third time on the trip and again on the right hand side. As I went down I just managed to prevent my leg from getting trapped under the pannier and after a quick check, decided that there was nothing wrong with it.

Phew! I got up and had just started taking off the uppermost pannier when a local biker on a small 125 machine pulled up and walked up to the bike and started to lift it. I quickly ran to the handle bar and hauled it up with him. I must say there didn’t seem to be much of him, but he certainly did more of the lifting than I did. At his prompting I jumped on, he handed me my helmet and off I went again, just as the Aussies pulled up next to me. A bit of banter and off we went in convoy, with me dreading a ride on soft sand all of the way to Ulaanbaatar. Fortunately, a couple of hundred yards down the road the road we joined another road. A tarmac road. Heading north. And it was nice new tarmac. Google Earth was right! I joined the Aussies on the tarmac, and left them as they pulled off the road to pump up their tyres! Next stop Sainshand and an overnight stop in a poor hotel with no hot water, but the bed was comfortable and I slept reasonably well.

Then D-Day, or maybe it should be B-day, but that wouldn’t sound right either would it! A very quick breakfast and I was on the road. It was just under 500 kms to Ulanbaatar and wanted to get there as soon as I could. It was a cool day and threatening heavy rain, nevertheless I stopped and took photos on the way.

Garmin, yet again wanted to take me on a convoluted route around Ulaanbaatar, but I was having none of it. I headed for the waypoint for the Oasis Guesthouse like an arrow flying to its target. It turned out that it was just off the main road and there was a small service road straight to it, Bloody Garmin, PAH! I rode into the courtyard to be greeted by a sea of bikes, and there in the middle was Brigid’s bike, the “Yellow Peril”. Bliss!

Now, Brigid’s version of events:

I knew that John had stayed near the Chinese border on Thursday night and was due to cross into Mongolia early on Friday. In all probability, he would arrive in Ulaanbataar on Friday afternoon, a full day before me.

Our border transit took 3 hours, during which the promised rain arrived. Somehow, despite the Mongolian side having a large covered hangar in which to carry out vehicle inspections, the officials contrived to position all three of our bikes directly under the overflowing gutter. Still clutching my bike title and customs declaration, I unwisely ran out into the rain to gather up my Klim jacket and body armour, which I had draped over the bike seat. I was instantly soaked from head to foot … which explains the soggy documents I came to hand over to the border officials minutes later. It was gone 5pm by the time we had cleared customs, changed currency, and bought our third party insurance, so we took the decision to stop overnight in Darkhan.

Darkhan is a dreary town, whose only notable feature is its proximity to the border. It boasts half a dozen dull hotels, variously described as “average”, “tired” or “functional”, and none of which anyone would use if they didn’t have to. We checked into the Karaa Hotel, which one reviewer suggested was better and cheaper than the Comfort Hotel just around the corner. Perhaps it was, but that didn’t say much for the Comfort Hotel and, unfortunately, we had arrived on the last night of a National Festival which meant that the restaurant was closed.

The Comfort Hotel had a cosy-looking restaurant in a traditional ger in the car park. Inside, it was traditionally-decorated with carvings and wall hangings, and rather gruesome animal skins, which imparted a distinct, and slightly unpleasant, odour. ‘Essence of Wet Bear’, anyone?! Beer was off, apparently due to the National Festival, but so was tea with milk. The waiter spoke no English, which didn’t help, but I managed to get a green tea and Sam had milky coffee, which confused us somewhat. Why could they provide hot milk for coffee, but not cold milk for tea? Eventually, it transpired that it was actually the black tea that was off, so Ken and Carol were left without drinks until they persuaded the waiter to get them a coffee instead. We ate our food as quickly as possible and retired to Sam’s hotel room to raid the mini bar. We couldn’t wait to leave in the morning.

The Mongolian language turns out to be nothing at all like Russian, despite using the same Cyrillic alphabet. We needed breakfast, but had no idea how to identify a roadside restaurant. In the end, we pulled over at a house with an open door and a few cars outside. Good call. Better still, the menu was in pictorial format, with a huge poster hung on the end wall, advertising the various dishes available. All we had to do was point at whatever took our fancy and pay …. Well, that was the general idea. Unfortunately, the first couple of choices were not available. “They’re not ready yet”, came a female voice with an unmistakably Australian accent. The speaker introduced herself. She was a Mongolian, home for the holidays from … Brisbane! Living streets away from Ken and Carol’s former stamping ground. What a small world.

The rest of the ride into Ulaanbaatar was uneventful, until we reached the city centre. I was due to peel off from the group to find the Oasis Guesthouse, but construction had closed part of Peace Avenue. Instead, I followed Ken and Sam, who had booked an apartment. It was hot and the traffic was almost stationary, so it was no surprise when Sam and I got separated from Ken and Carol at an intersection. Assuming they would have stopped to wait, we looked out for them when the traffic moved on, but they were nowhere to be seen. I was now well beyond the roadworks and, strictly speaking, could have turned back on to the main drag. But Sam was on his own. I caught him up and suggested he follow me to the Oasis. He agreed, little knowing that I barely know how to operate my GPS, much less lead someone safely through the Ulaanbaatar traffic to an unknown destination. When I saw the Oasis Guesthouse sign come into view, I did a small virtual air punch in triumph. Sam was none the wiser.

John had not yet arrived. I checked in as quickly as I could and got the wifi password, so that I could log in and retrieve Carol’s phone number. She managed to pass on the first part of the apartment’s map coordinates before the phone cut out, leaving Sam waiting for her call back with the vital second part. In the meantime, I started to unload the bike.

Suddenly, from the first floor bedroom, I heard the familiar sound of a Triumph engine. I ran to the window just in time to see John arrive on his blue Tiger 1050. He had spent the night at Sainshand and we had, after nine weeks apart, crossed a whole continent and managed to arrive within minutes of each other in Mongolia. Crazy, eh?!



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Ulan Ude


Clockwise from left: Daniel, Lawrence, Sam, Brigid, Ken, Carol, Kate, Paul

Friday, 17th July: My distress call on the HUBB had also attracted the attention of Ken and Carol Duval, a couple who sold everything to live ‘Life on a Bike’ in 1985 and have been travelling the world ever since! Unluckily for them, but happily for me, they had been stranded in Ulan Ude for a few days, sorting out a tiresome electrical issue. Ulan Ude was my last Russian destination before the Mongolian border, so rather than stay in glorious isolation in the plush Baikal Plaza Hotel in the centre of town, Ken invited me to join them in the less plush, but infinitely more practical (and less expensive), Ayan Hotel on the edge of town.

Once the railway staff had got my bike going, I programmed my new destination into the GPS, and hit the open road. It was warm and sunny and the air around Lake Baikal is scented with pine. As rides go, it was pretty idyllic. The route to Ulan Ude twisted through the forest before revealing a spectacular view of the lake itself at Kultuk, where I refuelled: 95 octane for the bike, and a Twix and Nestea for me!

Then the road skirted the lake and turned north-east. I would have stopped for photos, but Russian roads don’t lend themselves to scenic viewpoints, and it would have been hard/dangerous to stop. Indeed, my luck with the road conditions couldn’t last, and soon I was into a lengthy construction zone, where tarmac gave way first to hard-packed sand and then to rough aggregate gravel. The deep layer of stone would have been tricky enough had it been dry but, to try and overcome the level of dust created by passing traffic, they had wet it. It now took on the consistency of thick mud, with large, angular, stones thrown in to test your concentration. Mine lapsed for a moment as I deviated from the tyre tracks created by the cripplingly slow post van in front of me, and I went down.

There was no harm done and two or three construction workers arrived to pick me and the bike up and set me on my way again.

There were no further mishaps, and I arrived at the Ayan Hotel at around 7.30pm. To my surprise, I was greeted by Paul (my HUBB friend from Irkutsk). He and Daniel had endured another day clearing Russian Customs formalities and had left Irkutsk a day late. The dining room was about to close so, before I had even got off the bike, I asked him to order whatever he was having for me, and I’d catch them up after washing my face and hands.

It was a good party. Apart from Paul and Daniel, there were Ken and Carol, a Canadian called Sam, and Lawrence and Kate, a couple travelling in a 4×4. Everyone had a story to tell, but Ken and Carol’s was truly remarkable. They are utterly barking, of course, but charming and very good company.

Paul and Daniel moved on the following morning, but Ken and Carol stayed on an extra day to help Sam with a luggage issue.

On Friday morning, we left for the Mongolian border together, as old friends.

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JR at The Great WallWednesday 15th July: I was fortunate that after Sunday’s celebrations I, alone of the group, could afford to have a lie in. The rest were leaving at 9am to ride their bikes to the port at Tianjin, about 100 miles away, so that their bikes could be put into a container for shipping back to the UK. I, of course, was already bikeless, but was still up and eating breakfast by 9am. I ventured out a few hundred yards to visit Tiananmen Square, but decided it was just to hot and humid. So, after taking a few photos returned to the air conditioned comfort of Raffles Hotel, our luxurious Beijing accommodation, where I caught up with the blog and looked around the shops in the afternoon. China is famous for producing cheap goods, but there was no evidence of that in Beijing!

Tuesday we all visited the Great Wall at Mutianyu. There are a great number of sites to visit the Great Wall and the one we went to was not the closest. That was a bonus as the school holidays had started and our guide Andy showed us photos of sites nearer to Beijing taken during the holidays. Just try and imagine the busiest shopping street you can, during the last few days before Christmas. That was what the photos showed, the whole wall and the approaches were absolutely crammed full of people and anyone with claustrophobia would have been terrified.

Fortunately, we had no such problems, and were able to take a leisurely stroll along the wall for a couple of hours although, it didn’t really need that long and my stomach started complaining before time was up, but I had already taken my photos and had seen enough.

We returned to Beijing in plenty of time to get ready for the last group meal of the trip, and what better meal to have in Beijing than Peking Duck at a local restaurant famous for its duck, and where you can see them being cooked in an open ovens. A great time was had by all and a number of short speeches were given.

The Gang at Rafflesd BeijingFor my part, I want to express my thanks to Kevin and Julia Sanders of Globebusters, without their agreement to us joining them just for the China part of the ride, I would not have achieved to goal of “Inagh to China”. For that, I will be forever grateful. In addition, I had a wonderful time and learnt much about riding in adverse conditions, not to mention the fantastic mud bath facilities! Their team of Darran and Alan were very supportive and great fun, to boot. I must say that before joining up with the group I was worried about joining them half way through. However, my fears were all groundless and every one of the people on the ride was friendly and helped to make the ride a unbelievable experience. There are times from that ride that will stay with me forever. Thank you, one and all.

The following day, Thursday, was spent recovering and wandering around the shops and was an anti-climax for most. The majority were flying home over the next few days, although Stuart was staying for a week and his wife was joining him for a holiday. However, I was getting really excited. The following morning I was leaving for the border with Mongolia and a reunion with Brigid after over 9 weeks apart. It was the start of a new ride for me, the ride home with Brigid, and I just couldn’t wait!

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