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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Reunited!

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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Beijing

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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How much?!

 

Tuesday, 14th July: My brief stay in beautiful Irkutsk got off to an ignominious start. Exiting the station, I was confronted with the usual throng of taxi touts at the station entrance. They can be quite aggressive, and my plan was to ignore them completely and find my way out to the taxi rank. Unfortunately, one of the more persistent ones caught me up and directed me to his driver. The car was a beaten up shit-heap, but that isn’t unusual. I asked the tout for the price. After all, that’s what the touts do – negotiate the fare for the drivers. This tout waved his hands dismissively and just said “taximeter, taximeter”.

I really should know better by now, but he took my bag and put it in the boot and opened the door for me. He explained to the driver where I was going … and then got in the car himself! A small alarm bell went off in my head. Taxi touts don’t generally travel with the passenger. He asked if I minded if he smoked, and lit up before I had a chance to answer. I couldn’t see any evidence of a ‘taximeter’. So here I was, a foreigner with no Russian language, in what was presumably an unlicensed taxi, with two strange men. I took my folding walking stick out of my day bag and snapped it together as noisily and purposefully as possible!

The hotel was not a good choice. Thanks, Booking.com. It was in a housing estate, 4 or 5 kms from the city centre. The driver couldn’t find it and there was much checking of the address and the GPS before, in desperation, I handed the tout my phone showing the location in map view.

We stopped outside and the tout showed me his ‘taximeter’ – a dodgy-looking app on his mobile phone. 4,500 Roubles (approximately £50)!!! In English, I told them they had got to be kidding and that the cost of their taxi was more than the price of two nights at the hotel. It wouldn’t have mattered what I said. I could have called them a couple of thieving gobshites and all manner of other unflattering names, but they got the message that I was extremely angry. I opened my wallet and took out a 1,000 Rouble note. It was more or less all I had on me, and should have more than covered the ride. No. It wasn’t enough. I told them I didn’t have any more. They said they would take me to the ‘bankomat’.

There really wasn’t an awful lot I could do about it, as they still had my bag in the boot. So we went to a local supermarket and I drew out 7,000 Roubles (which I needed anyway) from the ATM. On my way back to the car, I made a great play of writing down the car number. The tout started protesting in a hey-what-are-you-doing sort of a way, waving his phone at me, “taximeter, taximeter …” “You can turn that off, right NOW!” I slammed my stick into the ground and had another rather public rant about their dishonesty. No one would have understood a word I was saying, but I was making a bit of a scene. The fare dropped to 2,000 Roubles, to which I reluctantly agreed. At least they took my bag out of the boot before I paid them. I was angry at myself. Since I’ve been back in Russia, I’ve encountered nothing but help and friendliness wherever I’ve been. I let my guard down for a moment at the station and ended up about 1,500 Roubles out of pocket. Still, it could have been worse. Much worse.

Feeling the need for English-speaking company, I logged into the Horizons Unlimited boards and asked for recommendations for ex-pat pubs in town. Within minutes I had a response from one of the members who was actually in Irkutsk, starting a ride to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan with a mate … just as soon as their bikes cleared customs. They invited me to come and eat with them, so I asked the hotel to order me a taxi.

Following a very good meal with Paul and Daniel, I asked their hotel to order me a taxi back to the sticks. Now this was a perfectly respectable, professional, taxi driver – with a proper taximeter and all – but even he couldn’t find my hotel. When we did eventually arrive (after he phoned the receptionist for directions), I paid for the one night and said that I would be moving into a more central location the following day. I was sorry to do so, because the accommodation was very comfortable and the staff, though non-English speaking, were friendly and helpful, but I couldn’t be doing with getting lost every time I wanted to go into the city.

By midday on Tuesday, I was installed at the Victoria Hotel, just off Karl Marx Street, in central Irkutsk. By 2pm, the English-speaking receptionist had arranged for me to pick my motorcycle up from the railway depot first thing on Wednesday, and ordered a taxi to take me there. Things were looking up.

Wednesday morning arrived and I was duly collected and delivered to the freight depot. The warehouse staff took my paperwork and extracted the bike crate from the dozens of other crates and boxes that had, presumably, arrived on the same train. Remembering how solidly it had been put together, I did momentarily wonder how I was supposed to dismantle it on my own.

I needn‘t have worried. Intrigued by this strange English woman and her yellow motorcycle, two of the depot workers set about the crate with a couple of crow-bars. I produced a knife and sliced away the layers of cling film and, minutes later, the bike was free of its cage. My next problem was how I was going to get it down to street level. One of the workers went to fetch a fork-lift truck! But no. They weren’t about to move my bike with it. They simply moved some other freight that had been stacked in front of the shutter door, leading to the railway platform, and motioned me to roll the bike outside, pointing to a ramp at the far end.

Now for the moment of truth. Would it start? Don’t be silly. Of course it wouldn’t! I had barely ridden the bike at all since Denis had installed the new battery and, over the course of the last week or so, it had run flat again. With hand signals, I explained the problem. They gestured that they could jump start it with cables, to which, in turn, I pointed out the inconvenient siting of the battery underneath the fuel tank. We would have to lift it. A tool kit was produced from a back room.

A car was driven onto the platform and the jump leads were attached as well as they could be. I gave the starter another try. No. It needed a bit more charge yet. We let the car run. More people gathered on the platform. Suddenly, everyone was an armchair biker. Some had a few words of English. I explained that I was meeting my husband in Mongolia. “Mongolia?” “You’re going to Mongolia?” “On this bike?”” I like this bike.” “Skola mototsickle?” “How much?”

By the time we got the bike started, I probably could have sold it three times over!

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Beijing – mission accomplished!

At the Ace Cafe BeijingSunday, 12th July: Ok, so I have had a bit of a break from blogging, especially as Brigid has now started writing about her adventures in Russia. However, it would just not be right to leave you all agog to know how I finished up the the ride into Beijing – completing the “Inagh to China” objective!

So, we left Xian on Thursday 9th and had three long days on the road. Although the actual distances were not too bad at between 250 and 300 or so miles per day, the nearer to Beijing we got, the heavier the traffic got and there were, of course, yet more roadworks and crazy Chinese drivers. The weather also decided to warm up and it got very humid. Consequently, by the time we reached the hotel in the evenings, up to Saturday, everyone was hot and sweaty and most, including me, were in desperate need of a beer or two. Following the shower, it was usually time for dinner and the long day took its toll, so an early night followed. The hotels were nice, but little time was left to see the area outside the hotel.

Drone cameraThen came the big day. Sunday 12th July. Arrival in Beijing. Three and a half years of planning, all leading up to one day! We rode in one convoy of 10 bikes, one support van and two Minis. The Minis shared the job of filming us, whilst zipping in and out of the traffic ahead and at the same time using a very clever drone carrying a camera, thereby getting some amazing overhead shots of us riding. We had around a 100 miles to go to get to the official opening of the new Ace Cafe in Beijing. That’s what the Globebusters ride was, “Ace to Ace”, i.e. Ace Cafe London to the new Ace Cafe in Beijing. The owners of the Ace Cafe in London flew out for the event, having seen the riders off from London’s Ace.

Other bikes at the Ace BeijingWe arrived just after 12 noon. We knew there was going to be some sort of arrival event, but had no idea just how big it was going to be. I must confess that I was a bit sceptical about that, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. We rode along, having turned off the main road and pulled alongside the car park of the Beijing Ace cafe.

Chinese Dragon danceThere were a huge amount of motorbikes and a great crowd to welcome us with a ticker tape machine and a great roar as we were signalled to ride in to the front of the cafe one by one. I had been feeling a little bit emotional prior to the arrival, but the excitement generated by the crowd and the loudspeaker introductions, followed by the champagne shower made me forget all that, and the excitement took over. It was a fantastic reception and not a moment I will ever forget.

*additional photos by Anna Routledge

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