The 9MMFF came about because I was trying to come to terms with the hours of footage that I had taken on my little “adventure” camera. It dawned on me that I knew nothing about editing all this material into something half presentable. After all, how many of you have been invited over to someone’s house to watch hours of helmet cam footage with the road just coming toward you?
Yes, I was that guy who took that footage!
So the challenge was set. I wanted as many of my friends as possible to have a go at editing their helmet cam footage into something interesting.
Thus, the first 9 Minute Moto Film Festival came to be … And boy were we surprised when we saw some of the entries! We had actually tapped into people’s creativity and the results were so wonderful!
So, we hope to do this again each year at the end of May. The location will still be the Mad Dog Cafe in Dead Man’s Flats, Alberta Canada. Once again, we’ll be camping at the “Three Sisters” Campground there but we will also be liaising with some local hotels and motels too for those who prefer a bit more comfort.
…..and why only 9 minutes?
Because that’s my attention span…..I’m usually asleep in the cinema at the 10 minute point.
So I finally returned from my travels and have many stories to tell. Please bear with me as I try to remember how to add stuff to the website etc! In the meantime you can read my blog (or my travel partner Ulf Mueller’s) at www.rtw2013.com. For a bit of extra info, I am also uploading my Round-the-World blog on this website too. In the meantime, if you want some easy reading and pictures, please visit my 2010 blog from the Yukon and Alaska at https://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/Nevil/ .
MotoExped got its name from two words, Motorcycle and Expedition. In late 2012, Nevil Stow was preparing for a 5 month motorcycle ride around the world on his Suzuki DR650 with friend Ulf Mueller. Nevil came up with the idea that MotoExped would be a good name for their joint website and blog but Ulf beat him to it with rtw2013.com! Thus MotoExped was shelved for about 9 months but was activated upon Nevil’s return to Canada and used as a platform for his blog and links to local rides, riders and sponsors.
Over a relatively short timeframe, MotoExped became registered as a business and has become the parent company of the 9 Minute Moto Film Festival, the brainchild of Nevil and Michelle Stow that seeks to showcase short (9 minutes to be precise) movies made by motorcyclists and travelers around the globe. More details can be found at 9mmff.com.
The aim of MotoExped was originally to highlight western Canadian rides and riders, their backcountry routes & trails and serve as a platform for “paying it forward” to travelers to the area. Whilst this has predominantly been the case, MotoExped has organically grown to become the business side of the 9 Minute Moto Film Festival and an upcoming dual sport school & adventure workshop.
Our border crossing to Mongolia was actually pretty good. They were happy border guards. Actually everyone in Mongolia seemed happy. We changed our Rubles into Mongolian Tugrok at the change bureau right there in the customs building and started out south toward Ulaanbataar on a fairly decent paved road. About ten days earlier we had run into a Korean fellow on a BMW 1150 that told us of nightmares on the road south here. He gave us tales of back hoes, torn up pavement and mud. We went south expecting to run into a minefield of carnage at any point. This never happened. In fact we rode on a lovely 2 lane country road south into rolling hills full of wildflowers and green grass. There were hundreds of different species of butterfly out. It was impossible for me to keep up with all the different colours and sizes as we stopped periodically to take photos. Slowly more yurts were appearing on the hillsides as we lost latitude, distinctive with their round construction and white coverings. It was as if someone had dotted small cakes all over a sea of green fields. The yurts….or gers as they are known here were working homesteads with goats and horses corralled around their perimeter. It was as if time stood still here in this part of the world……until I spotted my first satellite dish protruding from the side of a white homestead. This was my culture shock for the day. I get one almost every day but this hit me pretty hard. The thought of a 15 foot wide tent with a colour tv and a probably a DVD player inside seemed so strange….it still does actually. The more I looked around the more I saw brand new quads and motorcycles for herding cattle, instead of the traditional saddled horses with multi coloured cloth adorning the riding gear. I was tickled to think of Mongolian kids on the side of a hill in their gers with goats bleating outside and “world of warcraft” blasting away on the flat screen from a playstation 2. The world never ceases to amaze me.
The road was getting a bit potholed now but nowhere near like that of a Kazakh road. The day was getting on as we pulled into the town of Dharkhan and located cheap accommodation. The room was rough, had two beds in it and a toilet that wouldn’t flush. The paint was peeling of the walls and the carpet was frayed after many years of wear…..but we slept well that night. The next day saw us thumping our way south toward Ulaanbataar and the road was still there, no earth moving equipment and certainly no carnage. We marveled at the way the light changed on the land as the sun changed angle and clouds cast their shadows on the curved landscape. Light greens became dark greens and seas of wild flowers would be highlighted by a single beam of light through the puffy cloud cover. This truly is a magical part of the world and so vast in its own right. I looked in my mirror to notice that Ulf had stopped a few hundred metres back. He was probably taking more photos. We were doing this a lot so I pulled over and shut the motor down only to be enveloped in a beautiful silence. It was quiet here, so peaceful. Occasionally I would hear the sound of a goat or a horse but that was about it. I noticed that the grass in this area was so short. It was everywhere really. This was due to grazing livestock nipping it down to almost golf green length. It reminded me of some areas of North Wales or even Scotland where sheep grazed. The smell of fresh grass and sheep poo was the same too, again small gers dotted the hillsides some with well established vehicle tracks leading to their front door. Could this be Hobbiton in real life? The noise of Ulf starting his bike down the road snapped me out of my daydream. I watched in the mirror as he rolled up the road toward me…..although as he slowed down to stop he wasn’t rolling very well. His front wheel was wobbling. “I was looking at the GPS when I did not notice this big pothole” Ulf said. Sure enough, as we inspected his front wheel he now had a good 5 inch flat spot in his rim. He was very lucky not to have a flat tire too. We pulled in a few more kilometers down the road into a small gas station to better assess the situation. Ulf could ride the bike ok but front braking was now wobbly and at certain speeds his bike would shake about a bit. We had 90 kms to go and needed to get across the city to the eastern side to the Oasis, a travelers retreat and café situated just on the edge of the city of Ulaanbataar. Ulf’s rim is steel so it might be able to be bent back into shape by a good wheel builder. This would be a challenge for sure. For now, the bike would have to make it to the Oasis as is.
The ride into UB (or vowel city as I like to call it) was a slow one. The road was good but we were nervous about the wheel. Crossing the city was interesting to say the least. It was 17 kilometres of mayhem. The roads started out ok because the city was re furbishing the road that comes in from the north and feeds the city its daily trucked supplies. This didn’t last long though and we soon saw some of ,well, simply the worst inner city road conditions I have ever seen. Cars were veering into oncoming lanes to avoid craters the size of bathtubs. We witnessed 3 accidents within 9 kilometres as we cautiously rolled along with the traffic. There was absolutely no regard for the other motorist as they clashed and fought over a flat piece of tarmac. Motorcycles don’t event factor into this equation here. As far as they are concerned, if you are dumb enough to put yourself on a bike and try and do battle with the traffic then, you’re going to lose eventually! We finally managed to find another road south and east in the city and things got a little better. We rolled slowly past an open air market that was made up of hundreds of shipping containers in rows that were selling car parts, wheels, tires, shock absorbers or aftermarket bumpers. To add to the traffic carnage, people were crossing the road here and actually working on fitting these newly purchased parts on the very same road that we were on. I was reminded of the Jawas, the scavenging creatures that traded robot parts and existed on the desert planet in Star Wars. Amidst the cacophony of honking horns and shouting pedestrians we weaved slowly east through a tighter, more narrowed stream of tussling cars, buses and trucks and choked on thick black diesel fumes from engines that should have been retired decades ago. Then, suddenly, I saw the sign for the Oasis….we veered off and down a muddy side street that made me wonder where the hell I was going. Steel gates opened and a security guy waved us in. We pulled into a small parking lot alongside a café and noticed about 6 gers occupying the back of the property. There were motorcycles and 4×4’s from many countries parked up here. We had found the right place. We were going to be camping with overlanders for the next few days J
Ulf and I booked a ger to ourselves and rapidly unloaded our bikes into the tent. It was fitted out with four beds around the perimeter and a wood burning stove in the centre…..no satellite dish in here though! The café is a casual affair where you order your food for a specific time and enter it into your “kitchen passport”. The idea is that you pay your food and alcohol bill upon checkout when the time comes. The food there was awesome, I spotted chicken curry on the menu and suddenly felt hungry. I hadn’t had a curry in months.
The next day we set about locating someone that might be able to fix Ulf’s rim. There were many suggestions from locals, a few GPS waypoints and the odd phone number that would be useless to us unless we had an interpreter. The thing is, you need to have a GPS waypoint. Only the downtown core uses street addresses…the further out you get, the more rugged it gets and no one has a street address on any of the alleyways that make up 90% of the suburbs in the north. There was no other way around it, we had to ride the bikes out there and go to war with the traffic again.
The side streets of UB in the north are hideous for their lack of surface and rain rutted dirt cambers. We watched cars bounce and weave up steep hills in order to avoid another trip to the Jawa market. Our destination was marked on a GPS waypoint here somewhere. We rode around what looked like a shanty town for about 20 minutes before we gave up looking. We stopped on a brown patch of dirt close to an old fellow urinating on the road. He didn’t bat an eyelid and just kept about his mission. We checked our GPS points to discover another waypoint marked only about a kilometer away. We soon found this place but they couldn’t help us….but they knew someone who could…and that person knew someone who could….then we were taken to another place where someone could help us out. This turned into an afternoon of being shunted around the north of the city by people who really wanted to help but couldn’t. Finally we were told of a guy near the city centre who had a wheel. Two kids on scooters would guide us there….we were to follow. They tore off on some kind of deathwish race race and we lost them within five minutes. Time to head back to the Oasis and take stock of our situation. We’d had enough for the day and needed a rest.
The following three days comprised of rest, chatting with overlanders about various routes, sightseeing and emails. This is when I got my “can you come home” email. The company I work for wanted me back on two counts. Canmore, my home town in Alberta had just been badly hit by storm flooding and many homes had been severely damaged and Mike, the guy who took over my position in the construction company where I work for five months had just been diagnosed with cancer and needed treatment very soon. This changed my entire trip plans. I now had to get me and the bike back to Canmore as soon as I safely could. I discussed this with Ulf. He is 50 % of this trip so it was important to both of us that we could come up with a plan. Eventually we did and the idea was to head north back into Russia and east over the top of China to Vladivostok as soon as we could. From here we would catch the ferry into Korea and fly our bikes out of Seoul into Vancouver. I would get back to work while Mike had his cancer treatment. Ulf would press on across Canada to Cape Spear Newfoundland to complete his RTW trip. He needed the time to find a new place to live in Switzerland because his relationship had recently ended with his girlfriend. The timing would work in this case for him. As I write this, it’s my hope to resume across Canada to Cape Spear around September 1. There are many people counting on me to complete this trip and thus complete the fundraiser for the Heart and Stroke foundation. I sincerely hope that I can complete this. I also feel for Ulf and his situation too….It must have been hard on him and his girlfriend after 13 years together.
Our last few days at the Oasis were spent sightseeing, resting and preparing for what would be a long ride to Vladivostok. After all, it was 4500 kms away by road. Our journey back through the north of Mongolia was very pleasant. Even though the scenery was the same, we still marveled at the stunning landscapes and big skies that greeted us a week ago. It was time to re-enter Russia for the last time and ride east….to Vladivostok. Would we be in time to catch the newly set up STENA ferry to Korea or would we have to wait another week?
Please, if you have enjoyed reading this blog so far, remember that I am also hoping to raise $20000 for the heart and Stroke Foundation in the process.There is a link on this website that will take you directly to their donation page. You could make a difference to someone’s life. After all, someone did it for me when I had a stroke in 2009. 🙂
The crossing from Kazakhstan to Russia was the usual affair…..except the Kazakhs were amazingly friendly and the Russian border guards particularly sour here. Maybe the Kazakhs were happy to get rid of us and the Russians had to deal with us again. As usual it was a hot day and we re-grouped just outside the gates on the Russian side with a view to riding to Barnaul and finding a hotel. I was now dealing with the form of loathsome stomach condition we all talk about when travelling….Montezuma’s revenge, Delhi Belly…..call it what you will, Kazakh food finally got me. I was not a well man. This, coupled with a bad back from the accident and the heat made me a pathetic wreck. I needed to hole up in a hotel room and sleep for days. The final nail in the coffin came at a fuel stop. I was so scared of lifting my leg too high (Montezuma remember?) that I caught the cuff of my bike pants on the pannier and came crashing to the ground on my back with my right leg still hooked up on the bike. The pain was excruciating for a moment. My back was even worse now. I needed rest and the hotel was 300 kms away. This would prove to be the most uncomfortable ride I’ve had ever.
Barnaul is a bustling city set to the north of the mountainous Altai region of Russia. Here the wide streets and the western style shopping malls give hint to a wealthy economy. We found a small hotel off a side street and Ulf went in to negotiate the room rate etc. A car pulled up and a guy was staring at the bikes from a broken windshield. He exited the car and came over. I really wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone though, I was shivering as this stomach condition worked its magic on me. I felt like I had been hit like a train. “You are from Canada yes”? He spoke broken English. It took me a few moments and I replied, telling him that I was not well in the process. He asked me if I needed anything and at that point I needed fresh fruit….my body was craving this. Five minutes later, Stanislau came back with a bag of fresh fruit for me. Once again I was amazed at the hospitality being shown here. We exchanged email addresses, shook hands and he drove away. I thought I would never see him again. I slept 12 hours that night.
The next morning I was nearly 100% better…..although the pain in my back was still there. I awoke to an email from Stanislau asking if there was anything he could do for us and would we like to go out for dinner tonight. We spent the whole day catching cabs across the city looking for a spare rectifier for Twiggy in case the makeshift one gave up the ghost later down the road. I also bought a new GPS because my old one wouldn’t recognize any of the new Russian mapping we were using. Dinner that night was at a Bavarian style restaurant and we ate a LOT. Stanislau paid for everything. I owe him so much. He has become a dear friend indeed and I hope he will visit me in Canada someday. Four nights later it was time to leave Barnaul and head south to the Altai region and possibly enter Mongolia from there. Our aim was to ride the northern route across the Ulaanbataar. The road south was a regular 2 way highway that increased in hills and bends as we approached the mountains of the republic of Altai. The flat fields of crops that reminded me so much of crossing Hungary were now gone and replaced by large forests of evergreens and small log houses that could easily have been located in central British Columbia. This place was gorgeous. Rain threatened from time to time but that’s what you get in mountainous country right? I was at home, I felt at home at least. There is a universal feeling that spans all mountain communities I believe….and I was part of this now. Small towns situated on the Katun River boasted rafting companies and guiding outfitters. Small wooden houses with intricately carved fascias and fences dotted the main thoroughfares. We spent the night at a wonderful little hotel about 200kms into the region. The next day we set out for crossing the Altai and onward toward the Mongolian border. This is when we started to notice the swollen rivers and marshy ground here. They had recently received a lot of rain. We pressed on marveling at the new landscapes we encountered around every corner or over each hill. This place is so beautiful with its small alpine streams that trickle from rocky ledges set into verdant mountainsides. Sheep, horses, goats and cattle lined the highways from time to time. Fathers taking their children to school on horseback or just herding cattle could be seen everywhere. I could only imagine Switzerland looking like this a hundred and fifty years ago. Eventually we stopped at a mountain pass and had coffee at one of the many little shacks one can encounter throughout the region. Ulf’s bike was not breathing right. His air filter was choking up and the altitude was making his bike sluggish. There was black smoke coming out of the exhaust every time he opened up the throttle and he had no spare filter. Dilemma. We also discussed the soggy countryside. If this continued we would be bogged down in Mongolia in no time on the bikes. It could take us weeks to cross the 2000 kms to Ulaanbataar. It was decision time. Do we do the northern route in Mongolia and risk deep river crossings and mud or do we turn around and head back and enter Mongolia from the north near Ulan Ude 2500kms away? Naturally we chose the latter. We were on a loose timeline to ride around the world and really couldn’t afford a big delay. Besides, our visas were only single entry so we needed to get it right. That night we returned to our little Altai hotel and arranged for air filter materials to be shipped from Moscow to Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. We would be there in 4 days to collect, all we had to do was ride across Siberia………..
Novosibirsk is a big place. It seems that most Russian cities don’t have a circular road and you have to ride through the city to get to your connecting road out. It was hot, the traffic was at a standstill and the bikes were overheating. We elected to split-lane and get the heck out of there where hopefully there would be a hotel on the other side. This plan worked…..we slept well. The M53 road across the heart of Siberia is varied in size and condition. Sometimes it was a 4 lane motorway, sometimes it was a two lane frost heaved monument to the old Soviet days. At any point it can turn into a gravel road with diversions and chain smoking roadworkers standing around waiting for something to change. It’s a game of road roulette. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Large buses and 18 wheelers will pick the best part of the road to drive on; if this means your side of the road then eyes up because this is a test to see if you’re alert. You are about to get shrouded in dust AND try to pick your way through the ruts, potholes and oncoming traffic whilst half blind. I nicknamed it the Magoo Run.
All along this tree lined highway there are small towns. Some are hamlets boasting handicrafts like woven baskets or wooden carvings. These are usually small stalls at the side of the road….just out of the town’s jusrisdiction and they are run by ladies of all ages. Then there are the animal skin stalls. This was something I didn’t want to see but sadly it had to be part of my education. There were bear skins, stuffed bears in aggressive poses, bear skin chairs and paws for sale. Whilst I was repulsed by this I had to force myself to understand that these people make their living this way. The one thing that struck me was how physically small their bears are……not that I want to wrestle one or anything but I felt at ease now if we encountered one. I could probably beat it away with a shoe. The trees kept coming. The road seemed to go on forever and the towns whizzed by in a flurry of grey disused factories, beautifully painted wooden homes and war memorials designed in that very angular way that only Russians know how to do. Some memorials are adorned with decommissioned tanks, aircraft and field guns from years gone by. These old, once ferocious war machines are now playgrounds for children, a testament that with age we all get a little softer 🙂
Every morning outside our hotel I would do the usual check:- Engine oil, chain lube and tires. I noticed that Twiggy was getting through about 200ml of oil every 1500 kms now. The head gasket was slowly weeping I could see. I hoped she would make it to South Korea and I can fix her at my house in Alberta. Finally we made it to Irkutsk and checked into our hotel. Here we were approached by an American who worked in the oil industry. Adam was happy to see a couple of dirty well weathered bikes pull up. He had a buddy in Texas that really wanted to do what we were doing. We talked that night over a beer or two and told stories. We made another good friend here. We were in Irkutsk just long enough to pick up Ulf’s air filter from DHL and then we set about trying to find a spare too. This involved a cab driver called Anatoly, a whole morning and a wonderful lady at the local Yamaha dealership called Tatania. She was part owner and made us feel totally at home with coffee and directions to a market place where we would probably obtain after market stuff. By noon we had three air filters and were headed back with Anatoly. Life was good. The next day we were Baikal bound, the largest body of fresh water on the planet. As we dropped out of the hills about 200kms south of Irkutsk Lake Baikal suddenly stared at us from directly ahead. It’s massive, simply massive. The first impression I got was cold. Suddenly I was surrounded by cold air that had spilled off the lake onto the shoreline and had to zip up the vents on my bike jacket. The next 140 kms we rode were along the southern shore of the lake…..only you can’t easily access the lake easily because the Russians have layed train tracks, power lines and industrial plants along the way. There wasn’t even a decent turnout where we could take a photo. Frustrating.
On to Ulan Ude, where we would change tires and head south to Mongolia. Here we encountered a bike workshop tucked down a sandy roaded alleyway. Within a minute the gate slid open and I heard and American accent. Doug Lear had been staying here for five days and was waiting for his KLR650 to get a new crankshaft. We talked for a couple of hours while Stas worked at switching the tires on both bikes. Doug knew he was at the mercy of the Russian customs guys…..he could be there a while. Ulan Ude has a wonderful downtown core with a giant statue of Lenin’s head in the main square. It’s tradition that newlyweds get their wedding photos taken here and we watched on as 3 couples did exactly this to a cacophony of car horns and shouts as is the unofficial custom of onlookers. We tried in vain to get Rubles changed into Tugrik, the Mongolian currency. We got the impression that the Russians rather regarded our request as a joke, as if we had asked for monopoly money or something.
The road south to Mongolia was only 200kms long and slowly gained in elevation winding through high forested hillsides interspersed with farmland and the compulsory goat herds here and there. The people were starting to look a lot more Mongolian in their facial features too. Pulling into a gas station in Kyakhta Russia was our last chance at getting Russian gas for a while. Here we were approached by quite possibly the pushiest 10 year old I have ever met. “Dollar”? he kept saying. “no” was our reply….”Dollar”? …”No” …it went on for a while until I pulled an angry face and he went away. We were now 2 kms from the Mongolian border……I couldn’t wait to see what this immigration process had in store for us.
This was going to be a warm and somewhat humid day. After breakfast in the Saraishik Hotel, we proceeded to pack our bikes. In hot weather it’s good to leave all your bike gear off until the last minute. I was in shorts and a tee shirt and loving it. It was going to be a hot day heading north toward Astana. We hoped to make it half way by nightfall if possible. After a quick photo opportunity with our new friends Anara and Gulsum, we headed out of the hotel gates and into the side streets of Ainabulak, a suburb in the north of Almaty. The streets were busy as usual. It seems as though everyone owns a car here and uses it to its fullest extent. Filtering down toward the central part of the city, the traffic was getting heavier. Now, we have to comprehend Kazakh city driving here for a moment. It’s basically a mixture of dodgems and some form of martial art combined. Rush hour is barnstorming madness on its third espresso of the morning. Rush hour also appears to last all day. There are probably rules for the road somewhere on paper tucked away in a government building but they must be so secret that only a select few are allowed to read them. We were on motorcycles and that made it even more interesting because as usual, people were shouting questions to us when we were at a standstill….which appeared to be most of the time. I could feel the heat of Twiggy’s exhaust pipe through the thick motorcycle pants on a 36 degree day. I was uncomfortable. As usual, Ulf was in front because his GPS had the street map of Almaty on it. At last we started moving again. It was supposed to be a 4 lane highway here but was being treated as a 6 lane instead. There were horns honking and people swerving wildly in all directions missing pot holes or aiming for pedestrians (another good Kazakh game). We were happy. We had attained the speed of 50kph and air was now circulating through our jackets and cooling us down. Life was good, we were almost out of the heavy traffic and would be heading north to Astana soon.
That’s when I saw the burgundy Honda accord. He wasn’t hard to miss. He was the only car sideways in a sea of cars pointing forward….and he was accelerating toward me…..staring at me as if he were daring me to keep going. I had no option but to keep moving forward. I was surrounded by cars all pointing in the right direction and doing 50kph. Surely this guy must see the error of his ways? How no other cars hit him I will never know…but he hit me pretty hard. Those 2 seconds seem to go in slow motion. This idiot was still staring through the windshield at me as he hit the right pannier on Twiggy. I was now concentrating on getting my right leg the hell out of this situation. I was going to be damned if my leg was going to get broken by a 1980’s Honda! The impact instantly punted Twiggy onto her left hand side at 50kph, the corner of the Aluminium pannier somehow came up and hit me in the right buttock and there was a shooting pain through my back instantly. I went over the bike and slid about 20 metres down the road, coming to a stop in the outside lane to a plethora of Kazakh drivers who relished in this new game of kill the pedestrian. Idiot stopped his car in the centre lane blocking the movement of about 75% of the traffic flow. Twiggy occupied the outside lane, albeit on her side with gasoline leaking from the tank. I needed to get her upright ASAP. Idiot got out of his car to an audience of hostile car drivers who now wanted to kill him too. I pointed at my eyes and then to him as if you say “what part of me, the bike and my headlamp didn’t you see”? He just stood there with his jaw open…and reeked of alcohol. I turned toward Twiggy, this little bike that had carried me over 10,000 kilometres so faithfully and nearly wept at the damage. Lights were smashed, panniers ground down or stoved in and gasoline leaking everywhere. I tried to pick her up but she was too heavy and there was something definitely wrong with my lower back and buttock. That’s when I saw Idiot getting back into his car and drive away…..not before I got his plate number though. I wrote it down on a pad and tucked it inside my jacket. I was going to find a police officer as soon as Twiggy was upright. The Kazakh drivers were almost at fever pitch now. This was good sport! There was a pedestrian AND a stationary bike right in the road. This would be like shooting fish in a barrel! There was no way Ulf could have made it back to me at this point. All he could do was sit a few hundred metres away and wait for me to eventually catch up with him. He never even saw the accident. After bending stuff straight as best as I could, I hopped on painfully and the old girl started up first try. Bless her. I caught up with Ulf, explained what happened and we went down the highway to find a policeman. They’re the guys dressed in blue fattening their own wallets from motorists, remember? It turns out that’s all they do because they sure as heck aren’t interested in dealing with an accident either. Where I come from, if you give a cop the number of the car that just hit and ran, they jump on it…..but this isn’t where I come from. Whatever twisted logic/reasoning they live by prevailed that day. I knew it was time to leave. Time for some open road where I could mentally lick my wounded sense of justice in the solitude of my crash helmet.
We were headed north out of Almaty and on toward Astana, a thousand kilometers away. We aim to try and ride 500kms per day so Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan would be a two day ride. My lower back and buttock were killing me though. It was difficult to remain in one position for more than 2o minutes. I was shifting in my seat like a bored schoolboy on a sunny day. The city finaly gave way to open desert again with the occasional camel dotted across the landscape. The area is as flat as we’d expected it to be but slowly this gave way to slightly higher ground and a kind of huge lake area that accompanied us to our right for about 300 kms. This lake is as industrial as it comes. There are power lines all over the landscape here, mines operating, large chimneys belching out dark smoke and plenty of police checkpoints to thin out your wallet if you’re not savvy. Pushing on, we saw the landscape change from sandy, barren openness to grassy openness J As usual we stayed in a cheap hotel or motel for the night. These places usually offer secure parking and a uniformed security guard that will “keep and extra eye on your bike” for a few pennies more. Camping here can be done but the land is so flat you can be seen for miles. The last thing we needed was an audience at 1am in this respect….besides, I needed a bed and to stretch this back out, it was not getting any better. The next day was very much the same as before, breakfast, shake hands with the security guard and point out the sleep lines on his face, pack the bike and ride. Until the bike stops. This is exactly what happened just outside Pavlodar at about 2pm. Twiggy just backfired and there was no more go. I coasted to a halt on the side of the road to the customary horn honking from my fellow road users. Ulf carried on up the road as if oblivious to my plight. As usual it was scorching hot so all the bike gear came off and I was in shorts and a tee shirt in moments. Before long I had stripped the bike down and the fuel tank, seat and luggage were stacked on the side of the road too. I almost expected people to stop and see what I had for sale, as is customary in this part of the world when you display all your worldly belongings roadside. Where was Ulf/ There was still no sign of him. I had deduced that there was no electricity at all. This either meant the generator, battery or Regulator had quit on me. I suspected the regulator because it was the only new part I installed before leaving Canada. My luck always goes that way and this was the entire basis of my reasoning. Ulf finally showed up after waiting up the road for a while. Shortly thereafter another bike stopped and before long people were making calls on their cells and would be picked up by a tow truck and driven in to Karagandy, 30 kms away. It was now getting late and we hadn’t eaten but we were at the mercy of the garage that had accepted the bike in for repair. They set about stripping Twiggy down and diagnosing the problem before 10pm. They wanted to talk to us about bikes and we wanted a hotel and food. As I said, be prepared for this when travelling. After a few more phone calls, we had a used regulator being soldered into place. Twiggy started up first go. It was 11pm and we were asked to follow the owner’s car to the location of a hotel in the city. This was an exercise in sleep/food deprivation for us. In the dark, we weaved in and out of side streets, missing giant pot holes and oncoming cars doing likewise. We arrived at F1 motorsports in Karagandy and the owner told us to drop the bikes there for the night and he would drive us to the hotel. Not only was our room really good but the owners of the garage paid for our meal that night. I cannot find the correct term right now to express my gratitude to these guys. Once again we were shown hospitality that knew no bounds. I will be forever in their debt. At 1 in the morning we finally got to bed….my back was still very sore.
The run to Astana the next day was wonderful, we bumped into our friend Ramil. Oh yes, I forgot to mention Ramil, he stopped on the roadside for me when I broke down the day before. He was on a bicycle and is riding from his native Azerbaijan to Japan. As far as we can tell, he’s the first person to attempt this from his home country. Ramil is a wonderful man who is full of happiness and life. He will be my friend always. He is cycling a solid 100kms every day to Japan! Ramil, I wish you God speed!
We didn’t get to see Astana. The bypass took us north away from the city before we reached it. That was good because I am really nervous about riding in cities right now. I don’t need any more damage to me or Twiggy. The landscape turned greener and before long we were seeing rolling hills like that of Dartmoor in the UK. I half expected to see the shaggy mane of a pony once in a while but alas I was thousands of miles away from that speck of familiarity. The Russian border was upon us in hours. As usual, we had to check out of Kazakhstan and in to Russia…..i think you know the long winded procedure by now so I’ll spare you the details but I will state that the Kazakhs were an absolute delight to deal with that day, really.
Back in Russia we were headed for Barnaul or “Barn Owl” as I like to call it. This city is the gateway to the Altai region, a wonderful mountainous landscape that borders the northwest of Mongolia with Russia. Twiggy was thumping along and as usual my thoughts were with that used regulator we installed a few days ago. Would it hold out………?
The Kazakh entry checkpoint was a well built modern looking affair that loomed up out of the desert in no time. As usual we had to purchase our vehicle insurance, which was probably not worth the paper it was written on and then get into passport control, migration control blah blah blah….the usual routine. Fortunately we got through all this in about an hour and were set free into 9th largest country on the planet. Our goal was to reach Almaty and the Mongolian Embassy within the week so that week could apply for our Mongolian visas. That’s if the roads would let us. You see, the road from the checkpoint just changed our perspective on what we thought a rough road should be. How someone had the audacity to lay asphalt here and call it a road beats me. It was rutted, pot holed and frost heaved all in one shot, but asphalt nonetheless. Surely it would be easier to ride on the desert sand? Anyway, for about 200 kms we played the usual game of Dare as cars weaved toward us in the oncoming lane so as to try and save their tires and suspension. As usual it was hot and dusty too and that just made me irritable, I needed somewhere to sleep and wanted to get off the bike. We found a little truckers “hotel” that evening and were settled in quite quickly. The kitchen looked really shaky so we ordered boiling water and made supper from IchiBan noodles as the proprietors stared in disbelief.
Kazakhstan is a big country. In fact Almaty was some 3000 kms from us and we needed decent roads to get there so That our bikes weren’t destroyed before Mongolia. My brother had sent me an email a few days earlier warning me not to take the road from Atyrau in the south west to Aqtobe in the north. This was confirmed by a local guy we met in a hotel and so we set out for Oral , 500 kms north. The roads for three days were wonderful. In fact they are only two years old and well looked after. It appears that Kazakhstan is completely revamping its infrastructure and there are posters everywhere on the sides of the highways setting goals for 2050 in certain areas. We were on two little motorbikes thumping along in 40 degree heat day by day….just a small speck of insignificance in the grand scheme of things….but we were happy specks. The countryside out in western Kazakhstan is steppe that goes from green to desert the further south you go. The land here is remarkably flat and the roads seem to go on for ever. We camped one night at a rest area. It was so hot at night that I didn’t even use my sleeping bag until about 3am. Occasionally I would spot the odd snake winding its way across the road and my thoughts went back to my friend Dickie in England who a few weeks earlier gave me a hip flask full of Tallisker with the following inscription on it:
“My very good friend Nevil….. Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore, always carry a small snake”
I grinned in my crash helmet and mused upon this for a while. Slowly but surely we were heading south east out of Oralsk and on through Aqtobe, Quandyagash and Kyzlorda. The weather was so hot here….and the roads are still under construction. This was where the fun started. Just when you think you’re doing ok, there’s a giant earth berm across the road and a directional sign that shoots you off onto a dusty, gravel, pot holed, temporary road that can take you up to 40 kms to get rid of. You never know when this is going to happen either. Maybe this is some sort of national intiative to alleviate the boredom of driving in the desert. It certainly works for me anyway. Camels! There are camels dotted around in these parts. It looks like they are losing their winter coats too as they have long strands of useless fur hanging off them in various locations on their cumbersome bodies. I mused to myself, Twiggy, this little motorcycle has taken me to a land where camels roam! It really struck me how far east I was now and I still had a long way to go! This is a BIG continent. I was getting sores on my hands from the combination of heat and prolonged pressure hanging onto the handlebars, but this is only temporary I told myself. I was almost half way around the world from my home and had so many different climates and eco-zones to cross. I’m sure there will be more sores 🙂
Curious….that’s the word. Kazakhs are curious indeed and this was becoming a problem for Ulf and I. Pulling into a gas station can be quite the experience sometimes. Firstly you have to tell the attendant through the little window that you want X amount of litres. They then take your money and you get to fill up……except that sometimes you can’t to the bike because it’s now surrounded by locals, kids and security guards. That’s right security guards. If you want decent gas you go to a shiny new gas station. This gas station always has a security guy, usually armed, standing in the forecourt ready to shoot anyone who doesn’t pay up. He’s usually the guy to approach first with a smile and a handshake and let him know that you know he’s the boss. It’s bad form to get shot just because you don’t understand the etiquette of how a Kazakh gas station operates. The next step is to fill your bike up, put your helmet on and get the hell out of there before the cell phones come out. This has caught us a few times and when someone pulls out a cell phone it means either they want to get a picture of themselves with you or they are calling their buddies to come down and take a look at the two bikes that just blew into town. Sometimes it can take us an hour to gas up. The same applies for cities too. As the traffic gets more congested, people start winding their windows down and asking where you’re from etc. This is an opportune moment to start asking them for a hotel or any other form of accommodation if you’re in need of it. It has worked for Ulf and I quite a few times now. You just have to be patient.
The desert finally gave way to rolling green hills near Tashkent and soon we were riding what seemed to be beautiful lush farm country. Here people were travelling the highways by donkeys and carts, sitting atop their lush grass cargoes. Again, people were working in fields using hand tools like sickles and hoes. Firewood piles and small stacks of hay are littered across the landscape. There is a certain satisfaction seeing irregular plough lines in a field; it’s confirmation that the mechanized efficiency of the big corporate world hasn’t encroached here yet. One small boy tried to impress me atop his donkey by beating it across the back with his crop so that it bucked for him. I wanted so badly to tell him off and felt terrible for that poor animal but also knew that this is the way of life around here and I was the guest. Trees lined the streets in the towns with their lower trunks painted white so that you can see them easier in the dark. Loose dogs lay in the shade of the trees panting, waiting for a noisy motorcycle to come by so they can chase it. The pace of life here is slow, I was jealous. Somewhere in the west we have become consumed with speed and efficiency. A week or two here would be good for the blood pressure I think. There were big mountains in the distance and for an entire day we rode alongside their snowcapped grandeur. It was wonderful, we were now right on the Kazakh/Kyrgyzstan border and these were the Kyrgyz mountains. It made me homesick for Canmore. I am a lucky man to live in such a beautiful place. Suddenly out of nowhere, I saw an orange baton being waved at me, motioning me to pull over to the side of the road. The policeman came over as we were taking our helmets off and was indicating we were doing 80 in a 50 speed zone. He was wrong and I knew it. He grinned at me and showed off a mouthful of gold teeth, stating that if I paid a fine he would let me go. He kept rubbing thumb and forefinger together. I asked him how much.
“Yes, you pay”
“No, I want a receipt” I promptly pulled a random receipt from my pocket and indicated that if I were to give him money, I wanted his receipt. He was reluctant…so I pulled out my iphone and photographed his badge. At this point the conversation went to and fro…with him covering his badge with his left arm. I was about to pretend to make a call when the gentleman suddenly changed his mind and waved us on. I was lucky, I could have had my iphone confiscated. The police in southern Kazakhstan are blighted with fellows like this. They use their position of authority to make a few illegal bucks. It makes me wonder what their annual salary is. Are they really corrupt or is this action justifiable due to poor government wages? Fifteen minutes later we got pulled again. This time the cop had batteries in his radar gun. Ulf had to grease the wheel a bit but he didn’t have to part with much fortunately. I will be on my guard over the next few days.
Rolling into Almaty we experienced the usual heavy traffic queues and people shouting questions from their vehicles. This was a big city and we were looking for a specific hotel. The Sarayshik Hotel is in the north of the city and is a very well constructed, high end hotel. The staff here are all amazingly helpful and this was to be our home base for a few nights as we needed to locate the Mongolian embassy and get some work done to the bikes. It also has internet, although somewhat sporadic and we were able to write and upload blog material when possible.
The Mongolian Embassy is in the south of the city located in a plush neighborhood full of expensive looking homes with security guards on the gates. The Embassy could do with a lick of paint though and unfortunately stands out as quite possibly the shabbiest house for miles. We rang the bell on the gate. Within a minute a very polite well built gentleman let us in and set us about filling in our application forms. He told us to return in 3 hours and hey presto, two Mongolian visas were in our passports. It was a real pleasure dealing with them, they are so polite.
The rain that afternoon was basically a monsoon that lasted for an hour. We were soaked and trying to find a motorcycle shop called Moto Board in the northeast. It took a while but eventually we were there and haggling for tires. They only had one 17 inch tire though. We agreed that my rear tire was the most buggered and that I would purchase this new one. That’s when I found another 17 inch road tire on the rack and Ulf bought this as a spare for himself. Our Knobby tires still remain unused and I’m sure we will be putting them on very close to Mongolia. The next order of the day was to get across the city again to MCC Motorcycles. Again, they were a little hard to find but we knew we were in the right place when they opened the gates up and told us to put the bikes in their workshop. They set about putting my new rear tire on while I negotiated doing my own oil change there. I wanted to see how many bits of steel were stuck to the magnetic drain plug of my engine. This is when I noticed that Twiggy’s oil was low. Hmm….she did get really hot in the city traffic the other day but the engine still sounded good. Mind you, the old girl now has 90,000 kms on the clock and that’s not bad for a single cylinder engine. I will keep my eyes on that oil window. They worked on Ulf’s bike too and before long we were all set to continue north toward Russia again. I did notice on the back of their workshop door a few travelers had written comments. Walter Colebatch, Guzzi Overland and Doug Wothke had all been there. I felt that warm fuzzy feeling, grabbed a pen and headed for the back of that door too. Tomorrow we head out of Almaty and onward north to Omsk and Novosibirsk in Russia. The journey continues….will Twiggy?
Please remember, I’m also raising funds for the heart and stroke foundation in doing this trip. As a stroke survivor myself, I realize how important it is to plough money into this research. If you haven’t donated yet, please find the link on this website and give it a go. If you have donated, you have my deepest thanks…. it makes everything worthwhile. Please spread the word and go tell relatives, friends and neighbours about this site. Maybe they will donate too??
The next day was tough. Ulf’s bike was not handling at all and he wasn’t going to make it on some of the Russian and Kazakh roads we’d heard about. His hi-tech shock absorber was only 3 weeks old and was already fit for the junkyard. His bike was handling like a cheap supermarket trolley with a rogue wheel.
It was a hot day as we entered the city of Kirovograd in the centre of the Ukraine. The sun was beating down, I had all the vents open on the motorcycle clothing and had been wrestling with some debris that had got into my eye some 150 kms earlier. We stopped on the side of a busy city street and I set about using a nalgene bottle to flush my eye out. I didn’t care that people were looking at me like I had just come from another planet…I just needed my eye back. Suddenly Ulf was talking to someone who had just pulled up on a large throaty motorcycle. He was wearing a cut off denim jacket with “Black Ravens” emblazoned across the back. I was concerned, the last thing we needed was to get involved with the local Hells Angels now. He introduced himself as Igor ….yes Igor…..and we spotted the shoulder holster under his left arm and the blue steel handle of the pistol therein. My blood pressure was now at a level that my doctor warned me about. It became very evident withing 30 seconds that no one could understand each other and we were asking if there was a place in the city where Ulf could get his shock absorber repaired. Igor jumped on the phone and barked a few commands. Within 5 minutes, his nephew had arrived and could talk English, in fact he was over on Vacation from his new home in Vancouver. Again, we explained our predicament and he explained that the closest place for repairs would be Dnipropetrovsk, 150 kms away. Here’s where the language barrier doesn’t always work. We though Igor (his pistol now lying on Twiggy’s saddle) had said he would show us out of the city and point us in the right direction. Instead, he rode all the way to Dnipropetrovsk with us and handed us over to…the “Angels MC” club member…a formidable looking guy called Nicolai. Fortunately, Nicolai wasn’t packing a gun….i’m sure he has one somewhere but right now I felt at ease. He made us follow him across the city to the local Yamaha Dealership, on a Sunday. They opened up their doors and we were asked to ride the bikes down the 6 steps into their showroom and park up among the shiny new models on the showroom floor. Nicolai then drove us up the road and booked us into a very nice western style hotel for the night and paid for our meals. We would meet at Yamaha again at 8am the next day.
Here’s where my education was furthered. I am so used to seeing bike gangs in the west that I had come up with a stereotypical picture of Nicolai and Igor. In fact I couldn’t have been further from the truth. In the Ukraine and Russia motorcycle riders look after each other on a level that is unparalleled. Ulf and I were experiencing this in a big way. We were fed, housed and gifted to the n’th degree by these gentlemen….and I mean gentlemen in the truest of terms. They greet you with a hearty handshake and a hug every time as if you were a long lost relative. The simple fact that you’re on a motorcycle qualifies you for respect and care because they know how hard it can be out on the road most times. I am humbled and overwhelmed by their generosity and hope I get the chance to return the compliment someday.
Monday morning rolled around and we caught a taxi to the Yamaha dealership. Twiggy was still on the showroom floor looking like one of the ugly sisters from the Cinderella story and we set about getting the bikes into the workshop. I was going to do an oil change on Twiggy and Ulf would set about his shock absorber. Not to go into too much detail here, we managed to repair the shock absorber over a 2 day period and even got some air into it….not before a fellow came in with a second hand shock absorber in his hands for Ulf. Nicolai….yes there are now two Nicolai’s in the story, had spent the night removing this from his bike, had cleaned it all up and had driven the 50 kms into the city to give this to Ulf if he needed it. This was all brought about by a few phone calls from the Angels the night before. We were so humbled by this act of generosity. Nicolai hung out for the morning with us and took notes as to what he could do to his bike. We all got along famously and before long had met the president of the club, he spoiled us with more food and drink and then we had to say goodbye because Russia was calling. Just as we were putting the bike gear on outside the shop we were visited by a guy in motorcycle leathers. He had been told by someone that we were here and he wanted us to come and stay at his house. Two hundred kilometers later we arrived at a beautiful place in Central Ukraine. He opened up the door to his garage and there were giant photos of him riding his motorcycle to Magadan everywhere. This guy had ridden the road of bones and wanted to spend the evening giving us advice. We listened like we were in class again for he was a mine of information. Once again, we were fed and housed by complete strangers. I think we have a lot to learn in the west. The new day saw us off bright and early and heading for Russia and who knows what?
Western Ukrainian roads are generally very good…..that is until you get past Donetsk. The road here was as ugly as a welder’s bench and we bucked and bounced around for a couple of hours. At least this would be a good test for Ulf’s shock absorber. The Russian border came up quickly and my nerves were kicking in. Russia was an integral part of this trip….in fact it was about half of our trip. What would happen if our visas were in error? We would have to turn back! The Ukrainian border guards are slow here. It takes twice as long to check out of their country than it does to enter. They were all asking for “presents” too but we just ignored the comments and set about approaching the Russians. Things couldn’t have been easier here and we were done within half an hour with a Heavily accented voice, a Russian border guard raised the barrier and boomed “Welcome to Russia”. We rode into beautiful farm country……at seven in the evening…….looking to buy Russian motorcycle insurance which is compulsory. Our European Insurance was now invalid here. After asking a few simple questions and pointing to my Lonely Planet phrase book we were directed to a dodgy looking little shack with a couple of old ladies sitting out front. This was where we buy our insurance?? After 20 minutes and about $80 we came away with a certificate written in Russian. I had no idea what it said and could have just bought shares in some shaky business venture for all I knew. Bedtime was looming and we were in search of the Hotel Grant in Kamensk Shaktinskiiy. It’s a business hotel and has the capability of processing your passport and validating your visa. Something you must do every 5 days there. Russians love paperwork….and it all has to be exact or you won’t get very far. This fact tickled me…I love bucking the system a bit, but maybe this was the wrong country to do it in.
It was a long ride to Volgograd the next day, We rode through a big countryside full of giant farm fields and straight roads. Every once in a while we would encounter a police checkpoint and would have to stop and answer questions as to our business and where we were going. On the whole this is not a bad experience at all. Small towns appeared and disappeared and we pressed on. People sat outside their homes on chairs selling fruit, honey or some form of moonshine looked on as the deep noise of Twiggy’s exhaust came into earshot. We were warm and dry and now collecting dead bugs on or bikes, helmets and jackets. Turning south from Volgograd we entered the Volga river valley. It’s not really a valley per se but I can’t really come up with a word for it at the moment. It’s a major river and shipping channel from the Caspian Sea to inland Russia. Further toward Volgograd the river is well defined and cuts deep into the flat warm countryside with relative ease. Further south the river contuse to braid over and over again and then becomes a giant Delta akin to that of the MacKenzie at Inuvik in Canada. This is where the world gets its supply of flies. To stop anywhere along this valley is hell. Small flies are on you within seconds and I chuckled to myself as I saw Ulf wrestling with this for quite obviously the first time in his life. Northern Canada will be an education for him I thought to myself. In the meantime we had to find somewhere to stay….away from flies. Our digs for the night could only be described as odd. It was cheap and cheerful and full of drunk locals that wanted to talk to me about “America” while they were watching the wrestling on TV in the common room. Nobody here was happy. I put it down to the flies. How the hell do people put up with living there? Why don’t they move away? I hate flies.
The next day was also a fly ridden start. We rode across the delta toward the Kazakh border. Every gas stop was hell as we dealt with flies that could swarm so thickly that they would land on your eyes and inside your nose. I even inhaled a bunch. One of our maps showed a river bridge, and there was one but it was a pontoon floaty thing. We paid our 20 rubles to cross and then entered the crap shoot. The pontoon bridge is nearly two cars wide and everyone wants to get off it before it sinks. The deck is steel and slick. There are large hinges every so many metres that make this crossing hard on a motorcycle because not only are you looking out for where your front tire is going, you’re also dealing with oncoming vehicles. Don’t get me started about that either! These people don’t care about you….you’re small and in their way so any rights you think you have at this point are a figment of your imagination. Basically I was using all my motor skills at this point and was getting educated again.
More flies for an hour or so then out of nowhere we came up to the Kazakh border. Well actually it was the checkout point for Russia…the Kazakh border was 11 kilometres hence. It was 35 degrees and we were baking in the sun in black motorcycle gear. The queue of cars was about a hundred and fifty metres long and people were sat with their car doors open, trying to get their elderly in the shade or tending to uncomfortable kids. Women wrapped in white head wear and shirts were pacing the queue selling water and fruit juice. It was quite surreal….rather like a casting call for the “invisible man” in the desert. I couldn’t see any means they had of keeping their wares cool so I declined to purchase. Slowly we inched along metre by metre until we were motioned to a small shack with a sweaty border guard inside. He was actually quite affable considering he was sat in a wooden box with a tin roof up top.Maybe he could empathize with us, or was my mind just fried in the heat? Within ten minutes at the shack we were out of Russia and heading to the Kazakh border control. I needed a shower badly but at least there were no flies here.
Breakfast in our run down little Romanian Motel was surprisingly good. It consisted of Omelette with mixed vegetables in and bread and cheese. I was now getting used to ask for coffee too. It appears that the further east we go the less coffee you are offered and thus need to seek it out to get the day started right. I now have instant coffee in my pannier.
Today was the day that we were to attempt the Transfargasan and Transalpina highways in central Romania. They are located in the southern central mountains and are famed for their winding curves, good road surfaces and spectacular views. There was some uncertainty among the locals as to whether the snow line had receded enough to allow traffic to pass on both of these roads but we thought we’d better give it a try anyway…..after all we’d ridden a long way not to have a go. Romanian roads at this locale are great to ride but are heavily congested with trucks and cars all trying to negotiate the two lane winding twisty roads that join town to town…..there are no expressways here. To try and ride distance in Romania is also futile. Double your time if you are planning to be somewhere… 100 kms will take you about 2 hours and just go with the flow because getting stuck behind a 25 year old truck that is belching out diesel fumes from an engine that is barely propelling said vehicle is an occurrence every five minutes. Saying this, the scenery is gorgeous. We rode through small towns where people were taking produce by horse and cart. The thing that struck me most was the amount of people walking the highways. That’s right Nevil, not everyone can afford a car so they walk to the next town. Old couples would while their afternoon away by sitting outside their houses and watch passers-by. Sometimes thay would have lemonade for sale in used coke bottles……or at least I think it was lemonade J
Romanian dogs are mental. I just had to get this off my chest. If you ride a bike in Romania you will encounter small furry missiles that shoot from all tangents across the road with the sole purpose of entangling their teeth in your spokes. This is your cue to break the speed limit in each town.
After a short wet morning ride through sub alpine scenery where broad leafed trees dripped with moisture and the fresh aroma of springtime came as a welcome friend, we found ourselves at the base of the Transalpina road. A quick check in the rain to see if the Camera was working, I headed out with Ulf to encounter wonderful high twisting corners that switched back at 180 degrees or more. Eventually this road takes you out of tree line and into the Alpine zone. More snow was appearing around each corner as we leaned the bikes into them hard. Then….a giant snowdrift covered the road. We stopped the bikes and paced around for a bit feeling frustrated that we were so near….. yet so far. The place was beautiful though and it reminded me of a late spring day at Sunshine Meadows in Alberta. We had no option but to turn around and go down the hill…..bummer, we would have to do all those corners again J
Moving eastwards we met more people along the way that told us the Transfargasan was also closed so we elected to give this a miss and head straight to Brasov where we had arranged to stay at my friend’s house. Cristian, his wife Alina and daughter live in a lovely house in the north of the city and they own a tour company that specializes in castles. Naturally, a Dracula tour was in order as we were now in Transylvania!
The next day Cristian had arranged for a local guide to pick us up and show us through a couple of castles. Bran Castle was probably the highlight of the day because it was a working museum….and was part of the Dracula family a long time ago. Niko….our guide was amazing and put into context the history of Romania during the tour. He is a mine of information and left me with the feeling that I should think more upon the history of Romania, from the Slavs to the Romans rather than become fixated on Count Dracula. Hard to do really; it’s like listening to the William Tell overture and trying not to think of the Lone Ranger! After two days of being spoiled by Cristian, we had to head south to see other friends in Bucharest. I first met Andreea and Alex in British Columbia last year as they too were heading out on their bike trip across Canada and on to South America. Their photography and website actually inspired me to go buy a Nikon and see what I could do. Bucharest was hot, in bike gear that’s hot hot! The city is huge and as we entered in from the Northwest we got ourselves a good education in survival. It seems like everyone here wants to kill you with their car. We were on our way to a small fabrication shop in the Northwest of the city to get some highway pegs made up for Ulf’s bike. He is 6 foot 3 so sitting all day on that 650 was crippling his knees…..it reminded me of trying to cram a daddy longlegs into a matchbox.
The lads at NSEW Motorcycle Products were amazing. At first you think you’ve entered some dodgy back alley mechanical shop but upon further inspection they have a goldmine of tools and produce panniers, bash plates and all manner of things motorcycle. They offered us into the garage style workshop with our bikes, mainly to get out of the heat and set about measuring Ulf’s bike for the highway pegs. Two and a half hours later they were made, installed and…..the guys wanted no money from us! We were both stunned and honored that 4 guys had just produced a 2 1,2 hour piece of work and wanted nothing in return….naturally this wasn’t to be so for probably the first time ever, we haggled with people to UP the price of the job. Ulf finally got his way and they accepted cash from him. Wonderful people.
Our friends lived on the other side of the city. This was going to be a nightmare because the circular road that skirts the city is crazy at the best of times. One would have to be barnstorming mad to tangle with the traffic on two wheels. Once on this road I felt like a complete bumpkin. Traffic was everywhere and there appeared to be no form of etiquette at all regarding lane or junction use. I was looking everywhere and the spidey senses were on full alert as I wrestled through this tangled weave of diesel fumes and chain smokers throwing butts out of their windows. Then, out of the blue haze came a sight I will never forget. An old man was riding a moped that appeared to have been manufactured the same year he was born and he had a cigarillo protruding from his mouth, flip flops and shorts. That was it. He seemed to be at complete peace with the world and even the traffic swerved around him to let him by as if he had some magical bubble around him. In a blink he was gone but that short moment gave me a form of understanding with the traffic. I can’t explain it really. It was like I just met Yoda on a moped.
Arrival at Our friend’s house was a hot sticky affair because we had to get our gear to the third floor in our bike gear on a thirty degree day. Hugs and greetings naturally came after we showered and we were offered a sip of the home made brandy. The boys in the southern States would certainly call this moonshine. Andreea took us for a night time drive around the city centre and we took in sights like the houses of Parliament and universities that were all lit up. It really was stunning to see. I think we both slept well that night. I remember going to bed wondering what happened to the guy on the moped. Was this the day he died in traffic? He seemed so at peace with everything….was he suicidal?
The next day we did more sightseeing in the city before going to meet Mihai and Doyle. Doyle is the name of his bike and Mihai has written and produced a wonderful book about his adventures to Mongolia and beyond. I hope someone out there would be willing to help him set this book up in the English language. It really looks like a fantastic piece of work. Margaritas in hand we listened to Mihai intently as he gave us valuable info on travelling to Mongolia. He was the Master and we were the pupils in his classroom….but with margaritas J
The next day we had to head out toward Moldova. Andreea was kind enough to drive us out of the city and we said our goodbyes at a gas station on the outskirts of Bucharest. Alex and Andreea had been wonderful to us. They fed us, housed us and guided us for two days. I only wish we had more time to spend with them. I guess that’s life on the road though. It was wonderful to see them again and I hope they come to Canada some day so that I can repay their hospitality.
We rode some 200-300 kms north east from the city to Moldova through classic farmland where small communities could be found working in fields. Some people were tilling grass with pitchforks whils others were moving firewood by horse and cart. It was as if we had ridden back in time. Every once in a while I would see a sign on a house or café saying “Pensuine”. These are the local Bed and Breakfast places and they are abundant out in the country. Crossing into Moldova was an easy affair and we were getting used to visiting the usual three stops at passport control, Migration control….where you need to show your passport again and customs where they check out your bike etc…..oh yes and show your passport again. Once everything is in order they wave you away and you ride 300 metres to a barrier and a guard house and….show your passport again, just in case you sneakily managed to smuggle your bike through the chickenwire fences, video cameras and armed personnel.
Moldova is a wonderful country, from what I saw there were rolling green fields and small communities that worked the land as in Romania. Moldova went by too quickly though and we noticed that the roads were getting rougher. Before long we were peacefully riding along when we passed some army guys stood at a guard house. I looked over my shoulder and they just waved me on without much care and attention. Within a few hundred metres there was another guard house and then another and finally a barricade that was attended by a girl in her twenties and she was in camouflage too. What was going on? I had to think to myself. She eventually waved us into a small area that consisted of some three wooden shacks that could easily have been selling coffee or trinkets for all I knew. Unfortunately these huts were occupied by more camouflaged people, this time with guns and they wanted to see our passports. The next 2 hours were made up of probably the finest display of bullshit and make-work projects I have ever witnessed. Lots of huffing and puffing and form filling, in duplicate and triplicate and filing and stamping and re-filing saw Ulf and I released into their country for …two Euros each. Christ almighty, who the hell works that hard for 2 euros an hour?! The Transnistrians do, that’s who. Yup….i’ve never heard of them either but they sure as hell want the world to know they’re here….and they earn 2 euros an hour in a country about the size of Nose Hill Park in Calgary. Their army appears to be the size of the Calgary Saints Rugby Football team and they have a tank. It’s parked on the Dam at the local reservoir just in case someone wants to blow up their water supply. Ulf and I were headed that way, not for subversive purposes but to join a bike meeting that we had just got invited to at the border crossing. Upon arrival at the bike festival we were made to feel most welcome. We filled in some more forms at the check in tent and were shown where we could pitch our tents. We quickly made supper and had a hot cup of instant coffee but then a car drove up to us and I guy told me that my presence was requested at the main stage area because I had won a prize. Ulf and I locked up the bikes and headed up to the main rock band area where everyone was bopping away to some really good rock music. It turns out I had won first prize for the biker who had travelled the furthest to get here. It never even crossed my mind until that point but yes….i had come from Canada and was now half way round the word at a bikers festival in a country that wants independence from Moldova but can’t afford to because it bought a tank two years ago. I had to get on stage and make a speech then got sprayed in champagne and whisked off the stage to dance a wild circly thing with about two hundred fellow 2 wheelers. It was incredible. These people had come from all over Romania, Ukraine and Moldova to make this weekend festival. Once again their hospitality was exemplary. My heartfelt thanks go out to all those people I met that night and spoiled us silly.
The next day was to be our crossing into the Ukraine. The usual passort issues were dealt with, in triplicate of course and we were let loose onto the Ukrainian roads…..although I wish we hadn’t been.
These roads in the Ukrainian west are rough. Pot holes abound for hundreds of kilometers saw us dodging and weaving all over the road, as the oncoming trucks were doing the same. It’s not uncommon to come around a corner to find a tractor or 18 wheeler on your side of the road. Your eyes bug a bit but you get used to it in the first three hours. Suddenly there was a “Whack” and Ulf weaved all over the road in a frantic attempt to keep his overburdened bike upright. I thought I was going to witness his first yard sale in the middle of the Ukrainian countryside but no…..he kept it upright and pulled in to the side of the road immediately. There was a black canister dangling on the road from the rear of his bike and oil was trickling out of it. He had blown the oil dampening canister on his very expensive Wilbers shock absorber. I walked up the road and picked up the few fragment of shrapnel I could find that I thought might have once been a part of his bike and handed them to him gingerly. He was muttering long German swearwords under his breath. We had to try and get it fixed so we hastily hose clamped it to the outside of the bike frame and reloaded all the luggage. Ulf took off up the road and I watched him bounce around like a fairground ride. This was not good….and it was about 300 kms to the nearest big city Dnipropetrovsk where we might find a mechanic.
Something to consider again:- As most of you know, I am hoping to raise about $20,000 for the Heart and Stroke Foundation in the process of riding a motorcycle around the world. If you’ve enjoyed the read so far, please consider clicking the link on our website to donate to these guys. The money goes to research and could help someone you know someday. It doesn’t have to be one of our chosen charities either, maybe you have one that you already support? Let’s just do some good out there for a change. The world is actually a wonderful place full of wonderful, generous people that help out people like Ulf and myself without ever wanting anything in return….despite what you hear in the media. Go out there and “Pay it Forward”