Sunday, 25th October: It’s exactly one month since we arrived home from the UK after our ride, and the whole “Inagh to China” odyssey is fast becoming a distant memory. John and I frequently find ourselves wondering whether any of it was real, so it’s high time I wind up our story.
We left Russia almost exactly four months to the day since I had broken my leg on an unpaved road, eight days into the ride. We both shed a few tears that night back in May, realising that my “Inagh to China” ride was over before it had even begun. Oddly, though, I woke up the following morning with a totally different, and more optimistic, mindset. Over the coming days, John and I determined that he would carry on to China and I would fly home to stay with my mother in the UK – returning to Moscow to collect my motorcycle as soon as I was fit enough. I could not have known at that time that fate was about to give me another bite of the cherry.
I’ve always said that if everything went to plan, it wouldn’t be an adventure. There were many times when I wished I had eaten those words, but what an adventure our return journey from Mongolia had turned out to be. And it wasn’t over quite yet.
From Moscow we rode to Velikyie Luki, where we stayed at Podvorye again, as we had on the way out. In European terms, there is nothing particularly special about this motel, with its chalet rooms set out around a horseshoe-shaped driveway, except its proximity to the Latvian border and a 24-hour restaurant service. On this occasion, however, the motel was even less special than usual, as we awoke in the dull early morning light in an unheated room to find that there was no electricity. Anywhere. With no natural light in the bathroom and the water supply relying on electric pumps, we fell back on our emergency supply of baby wipes and bottled water. Cold and hungry, we packed our bikes, while two operatives poked and prodded a nearby electrical transformer box and scratched their heads. It was definitely time to leave. Next stop, Vilnius, Lithuania.
The M9, from Moscow to the Latvian border, has been almost entirely resurfaced since May. Unfortunately, Latvian roads have not. They’re trying though. Our progress to the Lithuanian border was painfully slow, with almost the entire A13 from Rezekne to Daugavpils subject to roadworks. Latvian roadworks, however, lack the challenge of hair-raising anarchy and testing, enduro-worthy, conditions that make Russian construction zones miniature adventures in their own right. Also to note at this point, references to ‘M’ and ‘A’ roads in Russia and Eastern Europe do not denote ‘Autoroutes’ or ‘Motorways’ or even dual-carriageways (‘restricted-access highways(?)’ to our American friends).
It took nearly five hours to transit Latvia, a 200km journey that, on paper, should have taken two and a half. Now, in Lithuania, we were welcomed with cracked and broken pavement and gale-force winds that seemingly arose from nowhere. Still, at least we had an evening in Vilnius to look forward to.
The misleadingly-named ‘Real House B&B’ was actually a rather grand apartment building in a narrow street just a couple of blocks from the centre of the ‘Old Town’. Our self-catering room had high ceilings and tall French windows, with a swanky designer bathroom and a small kitchenette. Dressed in grubby motorcycle kit, we looked an incongruous pair as the receptionist showed us the room, immaculately and impractically decorated in pale neutrals.
Nice as Vilnius is (and it is), John and I were now on a mission. By 8.30am, the following morning, we were heading westwards again. Next stop, Warsaw.
All I will say about Poland is that, having been tailgated several times at 140 kph (87 mph, the legal speed limit), their drivers are batshit crazy. Germany, with its ‘advisory’ autobahn speed limit of 130 kph (81 mph), feels infinitely safer.
By the time we reached western Germany, Maxim had arrived in the UK to pick up his Indian motorcycle, which he had abandoned in Leeds following a mechanical problem while on holiday in June. He was due to catch the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam the following evening, but BA had managed to lose his luggage, including his helmet and bike kit …
We still had the notion to meet him for a coffee in Amsterdam and had a day in hand, so we decided to kick our heels in Arnhem. On our way through in 2011, we had intended to visit the Airborne Museum, but had ended up spending half the day at a motorcycle repair shop after John Plumb’s MT350 developed some sort of fuel issue. The WW2 Battle of Arnhem, code-named Operation Market Garden, was the basis for the movie, “A Bridge Too Far”, which must have been one of the last films I saw with my father. He was too young to have fought in the War, but our bookshelves were filled with the biographies of the Generals in command. Perhaps it’s the nature of war that gives rise to these extraordinary leaders of men and their remarkable stories; luckily for the history books, many of them were also great raconteurs.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. The museum doesn’t open until 11am and, for reasons that now escape me, we were unable to visit in the afternoon. So, for now, the Airborne Museum remains on my bucket list. The meeting with Maxim never happened either. The jinx that had blighted his UK summer holiday was now following him home. BA had located his luggage and had promised to send it on to him in Amsterdam, but his bike had suffered a wheel bearing issue in The Hague. So long, Maxim. Maybe next time.
Meanwhile, Amsterdam is an undeniably beautiful city, and it would have been a shame, having come so far, to leave Holland without seeing the sights. We checked into an Ibis hotel, conveniently close to the city centre and within staggering distance of the No. 4 tram line into its very heart.
Everything you could possibly crave in a cosmopolitan European city, is available in spades in Amsterdam: fashionable shops, charming lop-sided seventeen-century canal-side houses, brilliant public transport, art galleries, restaurants, cafés, bars and coffee houses, and bicycles. Thousands, tens of thousands even, of bicycles. And everything is crammed, cheek by jowl, into an area of just 64 square miles (165 square kilometres), half the area of Central London – and much of it given over to 60 miles (100km) of waterways. Armed with a few recommendations from John’s son, Dave, we sallied forth. Given that both of us were still recovering from our broken legs, this was a rare opportunity to relax and explore – though we may have let it go to our heads!
Amsterdam’s coffee houses are legendary and, since coffee had, after all, been the original purpose of our visit, we might as well sample the best that the city had to offer. With that in mind, after an impressive Chinese meal at Nam Kee in Chinatown, we crossed the Red Light District and found ourselves at the De Dampkring coffee shop in Haarlemmerstraat. It was immediately clear that this was not the De Dampkring that featured in Ocean’s Eleven, but it made no odds to us. Aside from their particular brand of coffee, one of the things that must make these shops unique in Europe, is their apparent exemption from the smoking ban. Since neither of us smoke anyway, we sat for an hour or so, enjoying our coffee with a couple of the shop’s special marble cakes, while John kept himself updated with the latest football score in the England v Switzerland game.
By the time the final whistle blew after 93 minutes (England 2 : Switzerland 0), we were feeling a little underwhelmed by the whole experience and decided to move on. We meandered through the quiet shopping centre, hoping to pick up the No. 4 tram, but my usually-reliable internal compass was confused by so many apparently identical, picture-postcard, canals and bridges, and we stumbled on The Dolphins Coffee Shop instead. We had been warned that De Dampkring’s dark rich marble cake had a nasty habit of creeping up on the unwary but, feeling no ill effects nearly two hours later, we decided to risk one of the Dolphins’ colourful sprinkle-covered cupcakes. In retrospect, this may have been a mistake.
Luckily, we hadn’t intended riding anywhere the following day. We woke late to a bright and sunny morning, still feeling somewhat mellow, and in the mood for nothing more taxing than a peaceful canal tour.
Having stayed rather longer in Holland than we had planned, we rode from Amsterdam directly to Caen in Northern France, leaving ourselves a five-hour ride to Roscoff on Friday to catch the ferry to Cork. This was our last night in mainland Europe and, still in the holiday spirit, we treated ourselves to a Champagne dinner at Restaurant S. Andrew’s on the Quai Juillet.
We landed at Cork Ferry Terminal at Ringaskiddy, on schedule at approximately 9.30am on Saturday, 11th September. We paused briefly to activate our Ridehawk helmet cameras outside the port and then joined the queue of traffic heading into the City. It was only when we left Cork and joined the N20, sign-posted for Limerick, when the emotions really kicked in. We had been warned that the West of Ireland had suffered torrential rain on Friday night and much of Cork (and Miltown Malbay in Clare) was flooded. However, the sun shone for us on Saturday morning, and Ireland welcomed us home with blue skies.
We stopped at the toll plaza on the Clare side of the Limerick Tunnel and realised, with some sadness, that John’s helmet camera had not been recording our ride from Cork. “Never mind”, I reassured him, the light on mine was still showing alternating blue and green, indicating that I should, at least, have had some footage of him riding ahead of me. We punched the air as we crossed the County boundary, one day short of 20 weeks since our friends from the North Clare Bikers had accompanied us to more or less this same spot on our way out in April. True, I hadn’t made it to China, but even taking into account our time off the road while John recovered from his broken leg, we still managed to rack up a combined genuine mileage of 23,884 miles or 38,370 km between us.
There was no fanfare waiting for us in Inagh when we arrived. We stopped to record the moment with a photo outside Dillons Bar & Restaurant and went in for a celebratory cup of tea. Half a dozen men sat at the bar, half-watching the television. The nearest of them looked up. “Howar’ye,” came the familiar greeting, followed by an equally deadpan, “So ye’re back from yer travels.” We couldn’t stay long, as John’s cousin, Bridie, had a dinner waiting for us at home. We finished our tea, checked our helmet cameras again, and set out on the final leg of our journey. We savoured every last moment, in the sure knowledge that, wherever life may take us in future, the last four months had been a unique and unrepeatable adventure.
Note: Alas, when we arrived home, neither John or I had recorded our Cork to Inagh ride. John’s camera malfunctioned for unknown reasons but, in my case, it was pure user error, as my 32Gb micro-SD card did not have the capacity to record the two-hour ride. I did, however, manage to capture the last few kilometres to our door in two videos, now uploaded (with soundtrack) to YouTube. “Inagh to China” Homecoming – Part 1 shows our route from Dillons in Inagh to pick up the keys from John’s cousin. “Inagh to China” Homecoming – Part 2 shows the short ride from her house to our front door …