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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But this is Omsk!

Sunday, 12th July: As well as picking me up from the station, Anastasia’s father used his connections with a local hotel to get me a good room with a view of the river. She came back a little later with her brother to give me a whistle-stop tour. While it might not be the most attractive of Siberian cities, it does have its share of history and a pretty old quarter boasting a number of designer shops. I wasn’t too bothered, though I would have liked to find a pair of to replace mine that suffered a boating accident last weekend. Unfortunately, though, there wasn’t too much choice for the older (or larger) woman. Damn. I was quite fond of those shorts. They had got a bit big for me, but they were comfortable … and not too short. Maybe I’ll remake them when I get home.

Before she left, Anastasia kindly helped me buy my onward ticket to Irkutsk. Frankly, I never would have managed on my own. I should have used the Internet. You might not get quite as much control over your accommodation (I wanted a female-only compartment), but at least the pages on the RZD website are logical and translated into English … and you can pay by credit card. Yup, you’ve guessed. I had to go and raid the ATM again. I wouldn’t mind, even, but the daily limit on most machines is 6,000 – 7,500 Roubles. That’s no more than about £75-£85 – not even enough to pay for the train ticket. It’s embarrassing when you continually find that you have no cash on you. I pointed out that I had paid for my train ticket in Moscow by credit card and was told simply, “But this is Omsk.”

My sight-seeing intentions were thwarted by the weather on Friday. I hung around the hotel, watching wedding parties pose for photos on the steps of the museum next door. It seems to be a tradition in Russia that the happy couple get driven around to pose for photos at well-known landmarks. Though John and I were delighted with our wedding photographs, the thought of having to spend a whole afternoon getting in and out of the car for them, not to mention all the fixing of make-up and hair that must go on would, I suspect, be grounds for divorce in themselves. I must be missing something.

Unfortunately, my train on Saturday was not due to leave until 10pm and I needed to check out of the hotel by midday. I packed my bag and put it in the left luggage room, taking the essentials (my documents, computer, and toiletries and a change of undies for the train) in my day bag.  I’d slightly given up on sight-seeing, but I wanted to buy some picnic food and I had promised postcards.

The picnic food was easy enough. I couldn’t find any Trail Bars to replace the ones from the UK, but I spotted what appeared to be the next best thing, ‘fruit batons’. The illustration on the box showed an appetising-looking bar, apparently containing apricots, plums and apples; along with which, I bought some salami (same word in Russian), water, and a selection of small pasties.

The postcards were more problematic. I tried various souvenir vendors but, despite showing them the word for postcard in the dictionary, none of them seemed to be familiar with the concept. The tourist office seemed to be my best bet, but the battery in my old HTC phone (now containing a Russian SIM) was almost flat again and gave me no time to interpret the directions. By pure good fortune I stumbled across the main post office.

The woman behind the stationery kiosk pulled out a smart pack of 10 assorted postcards and four pre-stamped envelopes. “Spaciba”, I said, “I’ll take the lot.” Five minutes later, having failed to work out the queuing system for the post office counters, I was back for stamps. The envelopes were, presumably, good for Russian addresses, but I felt sure that I would have to attach extra stamps for England. “Angliya”, I said, while miming a weighing action with the envelope. The woman looked at me blankly. I pointed at the pre-paid frank on the envelope. “Evropa”, I tried again. The penny dropped, and she went off to ask a colleague. Do I expect too much from people, I wonder? After a few minutes she came back and sold me four 13 Rouble stamps, one for each envelope. 13 Roubles? That’s about 2p. Seriously?! I have now forgotten how much the pre-stamped envelopes were, but I was sure that European destinations would cost more than 13 Roubles extra. I was powerless to ask anyone else, so we’ll have to wait and see whether they arrive.

I ordered a taxi to the station at 9pm and waited for the 242 to Irkutsk to come in. By that time, I had walked half way round Omsk and I was exhausted and fit only to climb into my bunk bed. I just hoped that I wouldn’t have noisy companions. I couldn’t be as lucky as I had been with Olga and Nika, could I?

I boarded at about 9.45pm and quickly found my place in Wagon #5, next to the restaurant car. There was only one other woman in the compartment, but she had made herself at home, spreading her luggage, magazines and picnic over every surface. She cleared the unoccupied lower bunk so that I could stow my bag underneath, and then I sat and waited for the carriage attendant to check my ticket and give me my bed linen, while my companion packed away the rest of her belongings.

As the train moved out, the carriage attendant duly appeared … with a man! Hadn’t I requested a female-only compartment after all? Oh, well. If Russians don’t mind mixed-sex compartments, I suppose I won’t have to either. I was confused as to which bunk he was taking, as he was already in possession of a pack of bed linen and was trying to stow the spare mattress and pillow from ‘my’ upper bunk. I got out of the way, so that he could lift the lower bunk, but my case was taking up the chest underneath so, with a few words of apology, he rolled up my companion’s mattress and bedding and tried her side. Already in her nightdress, she waited patiently in the passage, while he tried to put everything back the way it had been.

I was tired and getting increasingly frustrated. I just wanted to go to bed, but the carriage attendant called on the translation services of a young woman in the next door compartment. Her English wasn’t good, but it was a great deal better than my Russian. It transpired that the man was a railway employee and was only trying to help me make my bed. Oh dear. It was a kind thought, but he was quite clumsy and I really wasn’t in the mood. I asked my translator to thank him and tell him that I would be ok from here … Now there were only four people left in the compartment. The attendant checked my ticket and passed on various messages about the facilities on board and, in particular, the rules about using the toilet.

At last, job done, the carriage attendant went away and, with her, the girl from next door. The lights had been turned out apart from my companion’s reading light, so I brushed my teeth and got into bed. (Note to self: top bunks are provided for use of the young and athletic!) Suddenly, all the lights came on again by themselves. WTF?! Neither of us had stirred. I reached down to the switch by the door and turned them off again and closed my eyes. Peace, at last.

There was a knock. The door slid open and the lights came on again. Christ! What is this? I just want to go to sleep. Here was the carriage attendant, the translating girl from next door and a third woman, dressed in a sort of tea-lady’s tunic. The carriage attendant said something to the effect of “Sorry, were you asleep?” and the girl explained that the tea-lady had come to take my order for meals. Meals? “Yes, they’re included in the price on this train.”

The choices for breakfast, as far as I understood, were “porridge” or “eggs”. Since neither appealed, and I had my ‘fruit batons’ and jasmine tea, I declined. Lunch was “meat or fish”, and dinner was … “meat or fish”. I chose “meat” for both and went back to bed. Moments later, the door opened again. It was now close to 11pm and the attendant was selling souvenirs! To be fair, she did have a rather nice glass tea cup in a fancy metal holder bearing a pair of imperial eagles, and I needed a cup, so I asked how much it was. 1000 Roubles. “Niet, spaciba!” She closed the door behind her and I turned off the light again.

I don’t think I slept very well, but I must have dozed off at some point in the early morning as, when I awoke, I found my companion preparing to disembark in Novosibirsk. Now alone, and in a much better mood, I got up and went to buy a cup of tea – mainly so that I would have a cup that I could reuse. The attendant produced a teabag, so I mimed drinking from a cup. “Ah,” she said and, opening a cupboard, she handed me a smaller version of the souvenir glass tea cup and a teaspoon – on loan.

My ‘fruit batons’ need to be reported to the advertising standards people. Rather than a satisfying Trail Bar-style biscuit illustrated on the box, they turned out to be small lozenges of dried fruit that looked suspiciously like some sort of laxative. I tried one with caution.

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East!

Thursday, 9th July: All good things must come to an end, and it was time for me to get on the train. Though I had successfully managed to pack everything non-essential into my new sailcloth bag, it was now extremely heavy and a bit of a struggle to keep the shoulder strap in place over my day bag. Maxim had kindly said he would be there at midday to see me off and I joked that it was probably the only way he could be sure I’d get on the right train. If so, he was very nearly right. I had over an hour till my departure, so went upstairs to the waiting area and bought a couple of bottles of water.

Right on cue, Maxim texted to say that he was ‘outside’. Assuming he had had difficulty parking, I thought he was aiming simply to say goodbye ‘outside’ the station and go and, knowing a little about Moscow traffic, I wouldn’t have blamed him. Oh well, how difficult could finding a platform possibly be? I lugged the bags back downstairs and out of the station entrance. Maxim was nowhere to be seen. “Where are you?” I texted. “Outside. By the trains.” Oh, flipping heck …

So I put the bags through the security scanner and hobbled quickly through to the platform entrance. In front of me were a row of platforms serving suburban trains. I looked around. Still Maxim was nowhere to be seen and, clearly, these were not the right platforms. Though John might tell you different, my panic mode is generally reserved for small stuff: lost keys, phones, handbags, etc., which almost always turn up exactly where I left them. Important stuff, over which I have little or no control, tends to engage my problem-solving mode instead. However, as I scoured the concourse for a panel showing my platform number, I was feeling distinctly rattled. I rang Maxim, “Where are you?” “Near Platform 4.”

Platform 4!? Why Platform 4 and, anyway, where the fuck was Platform 4? They seemed to end at 6 and I could see the street beyond. But logic dictated that, even in Moscow, the platforms would be arranged in numerical order, so all I had to do was keep walking … I was so visibly relieved when we did eventually see each other that Maxim laughed.

In fact, the platform number isn’t displayed until the train comes, in about 30 minutes before its advertised departure time. True to his good nature, Maxim waited with me until it arrived and – having given me a light-hearted ticking off for its weight – carried my bag the full length of the platform to Wagon 2 at the front of the train. He saw me into the correct compartment, and explained me to my new travelling companions, a young woman and her small daughter. He offered to arrange for someone to meet me in Omsk, and we agreed to keep in touch. Then, after a well-deserved hug, Maxim was gone and I was on my own.

Travelling East so fast, overground, is strangely disorienting. Seemingly minutes after leaving Moscow Yaroslavskaya station, we were racing into the twilight. Seasoned railway travellers know this and prepare their bedding as soon as they can. Certainly, my companion, Olga, wanted to get her daughter, Nika, off to sleep quickly. Unfortunately, Nika had already made friends with Mathias, a boy of about 10, travelling with his grandmother. He was a nice lad though, sharing his toy cars and playing peek-a-boo with her until ushered back into the next door compartment by the attendant.

The other thing seasoned travellers know is to pack a picnic. Though there was a restaurant car somewhere on the train, most people seemed to be unpacking fruit and cakes to see them through the night. I had water and a couple of Trail Bars, which I thought I had better save for the morning. While Olga mixed some puree for Nika, I settled down and reconciled myself to going to bed hungry.

The entire Russian railway network operates on Moscow time, so changing my watch would have been counter-productive as the timing and duration of all the stops en-route is posted in the passageway. It doesn’t matter anyway.  You simply rest or read until the light fades and then you go to sleep. You wake when it gets light and the routine starts again. The only problem is that it gets light at 2am.

The bedding was surprisingly comfortable. Each passenger is issued with a rolled mattress, a pillow and a duvet, a pack of crisply starched bed linen, and a towel. I settled down at about 8pm on Tuesday (Moscow time) with every expectation of a good night’s sleep, but it wasn’t to be. My companions were silent as mice but, as early as midnight, I found myself awake and gazing out of the window at the breaking dawn.

We pulled into a station and I could hear the sound of doors banging in other carriages. A freight train passed. Only after the first dozen or so wagons had gone by, did I start counting. 84; It was a long one.

By 4am it was fully light and my companions were awake; there was already a queue for the washroom … and I was hungry. I reached into my day bag for a Trail Bar and a bottle of water. Olga pointed to the other end of the carriage. I understood two magic words, “coffee, chai …” Sure enough, the friendly carriage attendant had a small selection of snacks and instant drinks for sale and (scalding) hot water was freely available from the slightly scary-looking boiler opposite her compartment. She even lent me a spoon for the teabag.

Needless to say, by 7am I was fast asleep. When I opened my eyes, an hour or so later, I found Olga playing quietly with Nika, having closed the door on Mathias. She smiled at me and I got the distinct feeling that I’d been snoring. I took out the ziplock freezer bag that contains my toiletries and went to see if the washroom was now free.

Now, Maxim had assured me that all trains provide charging points for mobile phones and laptops and, indeed, had pointed out a socket conveniently situated directly outside my compartment. I opened the cover of the elderly smartphone into which I had put the all-important Russian SIM; the battery symbol was now showing 10% remaining. Yikes! I realised that there would be no way that I would be able to connect to the Internet until I charged it. Lucky there was a socket handy, eh?.

Alas, the socket was not working. Mathias, eager to show off his few words of English, ran to find the attendant. To give her her due, she did seem to worry that the socket wasn’t working as it should. She pointed out the label showing low output and took me down to the 220V shaver socket outside the washroom. It worked. Intermittently. But I had to hold the plug in place. I asked if I could sit there. “Pashalsta!” And that, folks, is how I became the washroom attendant for two hours.

Anyway, two hours gave me enough charge to connect to the Internet at the next station; enough to receive a message from Maxim reminding me that I had forgotten to give him the money for the bike crate. I explained the problem with keeping the phone charged and apologised profusely for forgetting the money. I’d had to make an extra cash withdrawal the previous morning to pay for the motel, so had thought of nothing else on the way to the station. I had even separated out the amount I owed, but with all the bother finding the platform, it had completely slipped my mind. I offered to pay him next time I see him and he didn’t seem overly bothered about it.

Mathias and his grandmother got off in Yeterinburg. Predictably, he was immediately missed and, to both Olga’s and my consternation, Nika began to cry. Olga tried calming her with juice, sliced sausage and chunks of cucumber, but Nika wasn’t having any of it. Olga tried a DVD, but that didn’t work either. Mercifully, children of that age (I’m guessing 2 years) are fickle and it wasn’t long before she was once again playing happily with her Peppa Pig train. I must have dozed off.

As I came to, I became vaguely aware of a snuffling sound. Olga was looking down at her phone. She noticed that I was awake and rubbed her nose. Something didn’t seem right but, not wishing to intrude, I closed my eyes again. The snuffling continued.

What do you do at times like this? Olga’s life was none of my business, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her, trapped on a train with a tiny child and a mute foreigner. It would have been cruel to ignore her completely. “Narmalna?” I ventured. She nodded, wiping her eyes. “Ya hachoo peetz. Vuy hachietay chai … coffee?” She nodded. “Chai zeelorni. Spasiba.” It was the only friendly thing I could do and, after all, wherever you are in the world, tea and chocolate are an easy fix … for most things!

We arrived in Omsk at about 10.30am. I managed to negotiate the crowded platform without too much difficulty, ignoring some rather aggressive taxi touts. Reaching the security screen inside the station hall, I thought I was safe, but a large hand grabbed at the handle of my bag, “Taxi?” Luckily, the weight of the bag surprised him, but I got such a shock, I gave him a good poke in the chest with my walking stick for his trouble. Sensibly, he backed off before things escalated … as, to my eternal shame, things have been known to do in the past.

I reached the station entrance with no further drama and scanned the car park for a bus stop. I hadn’t heard anything further from Maxim and hadn’t a clue where I was going. The laptop battery was flat and I had forgotten the name of the hotel I had identified in my earlier planning. Suddenly, a woman’s voice called out, “Brigid!”

I was saved again.

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Essential maintenance

Wednesday, 8th July: This morning I had intended to do a little maintenance on the bike and clean out the air filter. However, after discussion the highly technical issue of air filters with Darran, one of the Globebusters guys, I decided not to. My K & N air filter needs to have oil added to it, and don’t have any with my, well, not the right type of oil anyway, still it saves me an hour and stops me getting oily fingers.

I went shopping instead for a new camera to replace the one that got nicked in Almaty. I found the model that I wanted but it was 30% more than I can get it online. Now call me tight-fisted, but I’m not paying that so I will wait, either until Beijing or until I get home and buy one there.

As the temperatures are unlikely to drop significantly from now on, I then took the opportunity to post some thermal clothing back home, thereby losing some excess weight from the bike. It also makes some space for the spare parts that have, apparently arrived. This is good news as it is liklely I will need to change the brake pads at some point before getting home and the thought of having to send off for another set of pads had irritated me, just a little. It was galling to think that Brigid had sent them in plenty of time to collect them from the company on the way through Chengdu but that the system had contrived to produce them after we had left there. Consequently, I won’t get them until after the bike has been shipped to the border with Mongolia and I will have to change them some time after that even though I had set aside time to do them in Beijing.

Bugger!

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Xian

En route to Xian 3Tuesday, 7th July: Another beautiful ride through great mountain scenery and twisty roads at the start, spoilt only by a stupid error in not parking the bike on the right slope at a view point. The result was that as I started to get off, the bike decided it didn’t like where I parked it so it fell over. Bloody temperamental bugger! Fortunately, no damage, the panniers came to the rescue again.

Glad the timbers on this bridge were newThe nearer we got to Xian, the more the traffic built up and the more road works were going on … and the warmer it got. It was very humid and the only way to cool down was to ride bit quicker, making sure the ventilation zips were undone. Nevertheless, by the time we arrived at the beautiful hotel in Xian on Monday evening, we needed a couple of cold beers to cool us down!

No Al not a good lookThere is a very good street market in the Muslim quarter, only a couple of hundred yards from the hotel and after dinner we took the opportunity to look around it. Despite it being after 9 pm and dark, it was a hive of activity. Presumably the heat of the day discourages people from going out until the cooler evening arrives. That said, cool is relative, especially around this part of China. It was still warm enough to walk around with shorts and still feel hot.

Xian Bell TowerTuesday morning most of us took up the option of a trip to see the Terracotta Army, a couple of hours drive away by coach. The guide, through her heavily accented English, explained the background to the discovery and the reasons the locals set alight to the excavations. It turned out the the government started taxing the locals to pay for the excavations and they didn’t like it so they took action!

It's bigDespite the fascination of the 2000 year old clay soldiers, 4 hours was really more than we needed. It was probably just as well that beer wasn’t available, or we would have needed a few pit stops on the way back to the hotel!

“Offa” a Franco / Irsaeli living in South Africa (and I though I was mixed up!) found a very nice Italian restaurant for the evening as a break from the Chinese food that we would probably be eating over the next few days and the Lasagne and Chianti went down very nicely, thank you.

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