Mt. Kailash

Mt. Kailash

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The end................................?

Finally concluding this blog (the trip itself ended in early November). After re-entering Thailand and meeting with the Boss in Bangkok; we rode two-up to Kuala Lumpur, via Krabi and Penang (to meet some friends). Not been to Penang for over 20 years, so it was good to see it again. Had a day riding around the island (without luggage!) to see the sights.
On to KL to see the in-laws and various brother and sisters in law and about 250 of their kids. After only a brief visit, I tried and failed to get a decent price to freight the bike back to the UK. So, I decided to ride back to Bangkok to get a better price, and extend the trip by a few days. The ride back was much quicker than the ride down, including a somewhat ill advised 500 mile today (from the Thai-Malay border to Hua Hin), the last few hours of which were in the dark. Made it back to Bangkok in one piece, my faihful XT still going strong, albeit in need of a good clean. Met Chris again briefly in Bangkok who was only just being reunited with his own bike after his adventures in Vietnam.
The day came to freight the bike back to the UK. It didn't go well. The company I was using were not good, but were expensive. I had fears for the bike, but against expectations it turned up in London with only another couple of minor scratches to add to its existing battle scars. As I finished reassembling the XT at Heathrow (on a cold, wet, miserable day in November), none other than Iain rolled up (last seen in Ulaan Bataar) collecting his bike from Malaysia airlines cargo. He had paid a fraction of what I had paid and didn't even need to take his bike apart before freighting! Oh well, you live and learn.
So, 4 months, London to KL, mostly without leaving the ground! A few problems along the way; a few plans going astray, but a superb trip, a real adventure. My XT660Z proved to be the perfect choice of bike for the trip, and I would take the same bike again in a heartbeat: robust, reliable, economical and well, an XT!

Soundtrack: Psy - Gangnam Style (sadly unavoidable in South-East Asia)

Where next? Well, China and Tadjikistan are unfinished business. Mongolia demands another proper visit. Then what about South America? Africa? Time to start planning the sequel!

EDIT: OK; it is now May 2015, I am sat in a bar in London (boooo); but I am off biking in South America (yayyy!) from September. Started a new blog here:
See you on the road.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Thailand on to Laos (back on track)

After a week in Bangkok (working!), I finally went to the airport to collect my much missed XT. Using my agent in Bangkok made this pain free and I was soon back on the road (even if the police manning the toll booths thought I shouldn't have been!). The windscreen and numberplate were both broken from the flight and some moron in UB had cut off one of the velcro straps on my panniers rather than undoing it, so I had to improvise a repair. Also, oddly, the fuel gauge no longer works. Otherwise, the bike was sound (as usual; great bike the XT) and I was on my way to Pattaya.
Afyer a day of drinking way too much and I headed north to Chiang Mai via Ayuthayya. The Thai roads are generally very good, especially after Mongolia, and I made good time to the north, experiencing only a couple of torrential downpours on the way. Just enough to cool down in the heat and humidity of Thailand. I spent a few days in Chiang Mai but soon headed north again as I heard a monsoon was sweeping into the south, so it was on to the border with Laos at Chiang Khong.
The crossing from Thailand to Laos was a total cock-up. As I was stamped out of Thailand, I was given a form by the Thai immigration to give to the Lao immigration to allow me to import the bike. I boarded the ferry (no bridge......yet!) with all the trucks and set off across the Mekong to the Lao side. First problem was gridlock on the slipway into the country which the truck in front of me got stuck on, with no way around. When that was finally sorted, I found the customs office only to be told to go back to Thailand as they hadn't stamped the form they had given me to export the bike. So, back on the ferry and back across the Mekong to get the stamp. Landed at a different dock this time and I had to walk through the town (I had already been stamped out of Thailand, but I could have easily wandered anywhere without a problem) to find the customs man. Finally with my paperwork in order, I crossed the Mekong for a third time to try and enter Laos. The bike documents were now in order, but it took another hour for me to find the place to get my passport stamped as I had landed at the freight dock rather than the passenger one and didn't know where to go. This is a somewhat relaxed border, and very porous.
Eventually back on the road by early afternoon for the beautiful ride to Luang Namtha, close to the Chinese border where I should have crossed into Laos! Spent the next few days meandering back south through the stunning Lao countryside. Bumped into Lorraine at one point riding up the other way. Laos is a great place to ride a motorbike!

Soundtrack: Levellers - Beautiful Day

Friday, 12 October 2012

Mongolia (Part 2) and drifting

After successfully arriving on time in UB, it was time to apply for a second Chinese visa. I had heard horror stories about this; but it proved to be easy and largely pain free. However, during the two days the visas took to process, the devastating news came through that the Chinese authorities had denied us the permits to take our bikes back in to China. There was another group staying at the Oasis Guesthouse who were due to pass through China at much the same time as us, using the same company and their permits were granted. The only explanation given was that because two of our group had broken the rules and been (disgustingly) abusive toward the guide during the first leg through China, the authorities decided we weren't worth the hassle. So, a year of planning and preparation ruined because of two arrogant, ignorant selfish people. Put me right off group travel.
Anyway, once this news came through there was nothing for it but to get drunk on the local vodka ("Chinggis Khan" brand, naturally. This was augmented by some "Putin" vodka). As the trip was now buggered, I was keen to get out of UB as soon as possible and get to South-East Asia. So, after a quick trip to see the massive Chinggis Khan statue and too many days doing nothing. A freighting agent was recommended (who turned out to be not great), and my bike was packed ready to be sent to Bangkok. I flew to Hong Kong for a few days; spent a couple of days in Guangzhou (were I was ill), then continued on to Bangkok. These two weeks without the bike were not that enjoyable and I just sort of drifted. The focus and impetus for the trip had gone; the objective not achieved. I started counting the hours until I could get my bike back and get back on track.

Soundtrack: Napalm Death - Scum

Monday, 8 October 2012

Mongolia (Part 1)

After hanging around for the whole day waiting to leave China and then waiting to enter Mongolia, we finally crossed the border just before dusk. It was a very short ride in beautiful countryside, before a few of us set up camp a little way off the road. Some instant noodles later I was ready for sleep. The next day dawned clear and bright, and we set off down the road to the nearest town to the border; possibly called Bulgan, but nobody seemed to know as a lot of places seemed to be called Bulgan. Filled up with petrol and asked for directions. We were pointed down a valley which quickly became blocked by deep water and deep, soft sand. The group quickly became separated, leaving 4 of us (myself, Nacho, Chris and Richard) to soldier on. It was very slow going, and the plan to reach UB inside 4 days in order to get the second Chinese visa in time looked doomed. It would take weeks at this rate. We ploughed on for a while when a strange site appeared up ahead; from this distance it almost looked like a proper road. In Mongolia? A land reputed to have only a few hundred milers of tarmac in the whole country. It must be a mirage? But no, a brand new paved road suddenly stretched before us, going in more or less the right direction! Made good time for the rest of the day following this tarmac for a couple of hundred miles or so to join up with the main southern route through Mongolia. The good tarmac abruptly ended at a mine; apparently a Chinese operation (hence the good road going from the mine to the Chinese border). It wasn't far to the main road from here though. This proved to be small comfort. The main road was a series of dirt tracks and corrugations slithering in all directions. I had no GPS maps for Mongolia (never expected to be here!), so I rode by compass bearing: ever Eastwards! It wasn't long before dusk crept up on us again and another wild camp was established. More of the group had re-converged by this point, and a dramatic setting for the camp with a mountain backdrop made for the end of a good day. The next morning, I set off early to try and avoid riding in others dust clouds. I was making pretty good time, pretending I was in the Dakar rally and generally enjoying the ride. Stopped for a breather, and Chris caught up. Nobody else appeared so we set off the next "major" town, Altai. Got there around lunchtime and gradually others appeared. I was keen to push on, so myself and Chris left the others to have various running repairs made to their bikes. Never use aluminium panniers; all those who had them needed repairs done; from missing bolts to welding. As we left town, the tarmac reappeared. Another new road! However as it was still under construction, they had placed big piles of dirt every few hundred metres to stop vehicles from using it. This hadn't stopped everybody, and the dirt piles were a bit lower in places where bikes could struggle over. I hit one a bit lively and was briefly airborne; at another, a van had managed to beach itself as it didn't have enough clearance. So decent progress was made again, until the new tarmac became graded gravel, which became ungraded gravel, which became dirt before finally petering out into a narrow sandy track. It seemed we were off the main route now (the new road following a slightly more northern track than the main route). Should we double back to the main track, or continue on the track we were on? As we were still heading east, we carried on. There had been no sign of the others for hours now, and we didn't know if they were behind or ahead of us, so we carried on along the increasingly erratic trail as dusk began to fall. We were getting a bit concerned as there had been no signs of life for quite a while (save the occasional Ger and shepherd, who we tried to confirm the direction with), and we had very little food and water (and no means to cook anyway, as the others had the cooking gear). Suddenly, out of nowhere a small town appeared (not on any map that we had, but then again, we had little idea where we actually were). So we restocked our supplies and set off to find a camping spot. I was a little ill by this stage and was unable to eat much and spent a rough night dashing out of my tent to answer natures increasingly urgent call! I survived though and the next day we set off east again, hoping that we were on the right track. It wasn't long before we bumped into Iain and we were more confident we were going the right way now (he had a functioning GPS). Still no sign of the others and after finally reaching Bayankhongor at lunchtime we were in no mood to wait. We aimed to get to Arvaikeer (where the tarmac started) and find a hotel for the night. Again, we were teased with a new tarmac road while leaving town. It didn't last and we were back on the dirt. Worse though, the weather was closing in. We came across a couple of mad Kiwis riding in the other direction; one of whom had his luggage secured to his bike by sellotape (Touratech branded sellotape coming your way soon........only 100 pounds a roll!!).. The rain started and got heavier and heavier. We rolled into town just as it was getting dark, frozen to the bone and soaking wet. Eventually finding a hotel with space. Iain (of course) had arrived ahead of us and nabbed the last spot in the nice hotel, still, we had a few beers with him later (purely for medicinal purposes you understand). The plan for the following day was to reach UB. The road was tarmac (reputedly) and the distance wasn't serious. However, the next day greeted us with horizontal snow sweeping past the hotel window. This was never part of the plan! It was supposed to be a trip of perpetual summer! A decision had to be made, do we sit it out or head off? This could last for days (which we didn't have), so after gaffer taping some plastic bags over my (still wet) gloves, we headed off. A whole new meaning of "cold" was discovered that day. The snow didn't last too long though and we eventually rolled into UB and into it's perpetual traffic jams and bike sized potholes. But we had made it, 4 days to cross Mongolia to UB. Well, some of us made it. We had heard nothing of most of the others for 2 days by this point. They would have stories of their own adventures in Mongolia. 

Soundtrack: The Clash - Should I Stay or Should I Go

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Whirlwind tour.......catching up

A lot has happened in the past 2 (or is it 3 weeks?). We all finally met up near the Chinese border; most of the group staying in a somewhat "cosy" caravan just short of the border. A cold night trying to avoid some over friendly truckers and we were ready to enter China. Not as easy as you might think. We were waved through the first Chinese checkpoint only to be stopped by a very angry man at the next. He insisted we shouldn't be there and that we had to go back to the previous checkpoint. I managed to calm him down and we settled in to wait for our official guide. Things were eventually smoothed out when he arrived and we continued on our way to Kashgar.......slowly!
After an eternity we arrived in the fabled silk road oasis. Great to be back: proper Chinese food and my favourite Chinese beer, Yanjing! Oh yeah! 3 days in the city to fix various bikes (mine has been sweet so far), before hitting the north desert road via Aksu and Korla to Turpan where a mini Dakar was in full swing. The ride to Turpan included a dust storm.......which was nice! Unfortunately, two of our group felt they were more important than the rest of us and decided to go off project and camp in the wilderness without telling anyone. This was to have serious repercussions for all of us, but that was to come. After Turpan we swung north skirting Urumqi and heading into yet another desert on the way to the Mongolian border.
Spent the last night in China in the charming little town of Qing He. I managed to find a nice little bar and had the oppurtunity to practice my pitiful Chinese. Next day we rode the short distance to the border, which took the entire day to negotiate, and then we were in Mongolia!

Soundtrack: Stagger Lee ─ Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Monday, 27 August 2012

Off road in Kyrgystan

Finally back on the bike and it was time to hit the hills. Chris and I headed over the mountains to Lake Issy Kul and the town of Cholpon Ata; "the Cancun of Central Asia" according to Lonely Planet. Well, if Cancun is like Milton keynes on a wet tuesday morning, then Cholpon Ata was it. Bumped into Richard and Lorraine as we pulled in to town. But between us, we failed to find anything exciting in "Cancun".
The next morning, Lorraine headed back to Bishkek to get parts for her bike, while the rest of us headed round the lake to the south side where we bumped into Iain (again!) and camped on the shoreline. A brief storm at sunset made for some dramatic photos.
The following morning, the five of us (Nacho had also reappeared) took the mountain "road" towards Naryn. This was to turn into an epic day. We covered 50 odd miles in 11 hours. The dirt track became worse and worse as we climbed towards a 3900+ metre pass past glaciers. Washouts, landslides, river crossings, high altitude and the inevitable angry dogs made for some serious off road riding. Richard, on his heavy and low V-Strom had a big off over a small cliff. He was a bit shaken, but OK. The bike was a bit chewed up, but still rideable. The "road" continued to worsen as we reached the pass; fortunately, a nice German couple in a heavily modded 4WD van helped us out by carrying some of Richard's luggage (to lighten his load) and making us tea at the summit. As we were much slower than expected, we ended up camping on the far side of the mountains at just short of 3000m. It was a very cold night. The following morning, we thought it was only about 7 miles to tarmac which would continue all the way to naryn. Wrong! The dirt continued for the next 60 miles, but nothing like the previous days trials.

Soundtrack: Yes - Roundabout

The Almaty excursion

After a couple of days kicking my heels and doing a bit of bike maintenance (new headlight bulb and air filter) in Bishkek, it was time to try and re-enter Kazakhstan for a Mongolian visa. This was potentially tricky as I didn't technically have a Kazakh visa. There were several rumours of being allowed to go to Almaty from Bishkek, IF you had a double entry Kyrgyz visa. So, with some trepidation, we approached the customs man: he spent a long time looking at my passport, and specifically my Kyrgyz visa. Then he had a look in his rulebook, stopped to shout at some poor woman who was stood in the wrong place, looked at my visa again and stamped me in! Result!
We headed for the Mongolian embassy in Almaty (still 3 or 4 hours away) where we found Iain sitting outside waiting for his visa. After filling in the forms and paying for the express service, the visa was issued after only an hour or so. Result! Had already booked two nights in Almaty as I hadn't expected it to be this easy. As I had left my bike in Bishkek, I played tourist for a while in the big city.

Soundtrack: Tindersticks - A night in