Monday, 26 November 2012


OK, so this is not strictly about bikes......but it does have a tenuous bike link because when we were in Turkey ( the chapter on which is currently being written up and should be published by the end of the week - probably) we bumped into the men who were freighting the bikes from the latest Bond film 'Skyfall'  from Istanbul back to London. And later we were taken to several locations around the Grand Bazaar and adjacent streets where the opening chase scene was filmed. So when we discovered that filming in and around the  Skyfall House was not done in Scotland but in Surrey, which is just down the road, we just had to see if we could find it........

The A3 is the main  ( non motorway) road from London to Portsmouth  and it is a pretty good route, apart from the bit just south of Guildford, where it enters a valley, known as The Devil's Punchbowl, just north of a small town called Hindehead. For years, this was a major bottleneck for traffic and there was no way round it. Then several years ago, a tunnel was built, by-passing the town and magically vapourising the traffic problem. It did backfire a bit though, in terms of local businesses, which have now lost out on passing trade, in a sort of very scaled down version of the Interstate effect on Route 66 in America.

But the area surrounding Hindehead is very rural, covered in heathland and pine woodland, with tiny hamlets dotted here and there, and its one of those places that you skirt en route to other places It is very nice, yet much of it is also used by the MOD, but the recent discovery of some rare lichen (yes really) there meant that instead of being sealed off and used by them and them only, the MOD was forced to share it with the rest of us, film makers included. But one good thing about the MOD being around is that the land has a history of being blown up and driven over, and practised upon by soldiers - and that means that there are various military artifacts hidden amongst the trees.

And one such artifact is a mock up of the Atlantic Wall from WW2.

The Atlantic Wall was what the Germans built as anti tank defences in order protect their newly acquired lands (France) from the Allies, when the war was still going well for them.  France, having a very long western coast, was clearly vulnerable to attack from the Royal Navy and friends. So when they came to plan D Day, the Allies rightly anticipated that landing along that coast would not be easy. Thus the mock up, built in 1943, was to train troops for the landing and give them a chance to practise overcoming the blockades. It also allowed them to develop specific and precise ordnance to breach the heavily fortified concrete wall.

Evidence of this activity is apparent along the length of it; there are many gaps and exposed metal rods.

There are also patches of dragons teeth, anti tank fortifications, which troops developed tactics to overcome.

This particular piece of wall was used by Canadian troops, and the area is very reminiscent of Canada, particularly some of the birch and pine woodland covering the Canadian Shield. And rather bizarrely, the long since abandoned concrete has now been colonised by various plants, the lime in the concrete offering optimum nutrients for flourishing plant life.

But just up and over the ridge to the left of all these pictures, is a huge sand and rock basin, devoid of trees but covered with heather. And this is where the Skyfall house mock up was. There is actually a small army camp in the basin, an area which  I think is called Hankley Common.

This camp was used by the film crews during the making of Skyfall, and although it is off the beaten track, there are pre-existing forest roads which enabled trucks, equipment and props to be taken in and out.

The house was built on a platform so when they set it off, it didn't damage the plant life. Pretty considerate really.

If you've seen the movie, cast you mind back to the bit in Scotland ( supposedly) when Bond and M arrive in the DB5 at the Skyfall gates, go up the drive, and then look down into the valley where towards the house. Well this is the location folks.........minus the house.

After that, we went and had a look at the old A3. Sounds very odd I know, but now that bit of road has become redundant thanks to the tunnel, it is in the process of being turned back to nature, with the tarmac being ripped up, and the track being allowed to grass over. It will be a cycle and walking route, with great views over the whole Punchbowl.

Overlooking the route is a monument to an unknown sailor who was murdered here back in 1787.

Apparently he was walking back to Portsmouth and his ship, when he stopped off at a pub in nearby Thursley. There he met three men who could not afford a meal, so he bought it for them, plus beer, and paid for it with a golden guinea which he had earned from his last sea voyage. After he left, they followed him and cut his throat. They were arrested the next day and hanged a few hundred metres away on Gibbet Hill, and their hanged bodies were coated in tar and suspended from the Gibbet in chains, where they were left to rot. Today, the spot is marked by a Celtic cross, erected in the 20th century because locals believed there was an evil air about the place. It is also the second highest point in Surrey, surpassed only by Leith Hill.

Our kit, our mods, and our spares

This is what we did and what we took, and there was nothing that we didn't use - frequently.

Nadine's most useful piece of kit was her Leatherman, mine was the tarp. We used both pieces of kit everyday and they were invaluable.

The multitool Leatherman was used to farkle the bikes, cut rope and cable ties, modify clothing, and mend my arm. The tarp became a shelter, something to sit on, and a bike cover, as well as a base for mending engines and fixing punctures. It cost £10.00 from B&Q in Sutton.

Our Adjustments
-       Replaced engine mounting bolts
-       Reinforced electrical blocks with cable ties
-       Spark plug cap and spark plug - replaced both
-       Taped the inside of the wheel rims
-       Tightened and Loctited all bolts
-       Taped the headstock wiring to stop it chaffing
-       Rerouted the wiring under the fuel tank to stop chaffing
-       Removed the kick-stand cut-off switch
-       Removed kill switch
-       Put extra shock absorption in the rear lights
-       Wired the licence plate to the bike
-       Jubilee clipped the footpegs
-       Added sat-nav wiring and 12v chargers
-       Extended the rack
-       Fitted some Grip-Puppies on the handlebars
-       Fitted eyelets to attach baggage to front of leg shields
-       Built a cage around the headlamp

Our Spares
-       Clutch plates and puller
-       Spare rear tyre each
-       Chain and sprocket set
-       Inner tubes
-       Wheel bearings
-       Spokes
-       Tub of grease
-       Throttle cable
-       Spare number plate
-       Bulbs

Our kit
       2 Tents
       Down Sleeping bag and silk liners
       Cooking kit
       Minimal personal kit
       First Aid Kit
       Paw Paw cream
       Minimal tools (only what was needed and doubled up where possible)
       IPod and Laptop
       Rehydration tablets
       Photocopies of important paperwork
       Fake licences for Russian police
       Camera – waterproof and good
       USB storage sticks and SD cards

Friday, 23 November 2012

Illness, Injury and medical precautions

Plan a trip anywhere, and the health question is likely to come up. 'What happens if' type things sneak into your mind and if you're not careful, can make you paranoid and scare you silly. But in reality, it really is not that big an issue.

Both Nadine and I are just normal, regular women. Neither of us are super fit but we are basically OK, and generally healthy. Neither of us is prone to any particular condition, common or uncommon, or any regular medication, although both of us have various injuries existing but healed injuries that still need occasional managing. Nadine has a knee injury and a back niggle from a bike accident, and I have a shoulder/arm injury from a pushbike argument with a car. But that is it. Yet we did this trip with no backup or specific training, and no particular planning, proof that it is possible to just get on and do what you want to do, regardless of the gadget and bike assumptions that some people seem to swear by.

Having both ridden in Africa earlier in 2012, we had already had a number of jabs for things like Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Polio, and Hepatitis. These are things that we knew about and knew we would be going into areas where they were common, so it made sense to get sorted before we went. It also meant that by doing so, we would not be taking away vaccine and medical treatment from locals who needed it yet had no other opportunity to get it.

Some of these jabs were free from the NHS, whilst others were done for a fee by the Superdrug Travel clinic. Jo and Julie at the Clinic in Croydon were excellent and went out of their way to identify danger areas and find information on managing conditions for us. That really helped put stuff in perspective too.

Meningitis was another jab we had. We knew that on the Africa trip, we would be in and around a hospital where medical cases were routinely mixed, and quite possibly would come into contact with carriers, so it made sense to have this. But just before we went, the Muslim Council for Great Britain sponsored an initiative to inoculate anybody going to Muslim countries in an attempt to reduce the spread of meningitis at the hajj or routine  religious gatherings. The existing vaccine stopped you getting a particular strain, whilst this one also stopped you carrying it, which again made sense as neither of us wanted to get Meningitis, let alone transport it across the world and into places that we travelled through, either in Africa, Europe or Asia.

The big one though was Rabies. At £150.00 for three jabs, it is quite expensive and it only buys you 24 hours to get help and possibly survive should you get infected, as opposed to dying a painful death on the spot. But we knew we would be out in the wilds and likely to encounter fierce dogs, so we decided to have it. And nowadays, its just three simple injections in the arm, and not a painful ordeal with along needle as it used to be.

Once we had done that, we needed a sensible and manageable medical kit that wouldn't get us into trouble. We both needed painkillers for our existing injuries, but some common medicines ( stuff containing codeine for example - a common ingredient in many over the counter medicines - is dodgy  in some places) and even alcohol wipes are illegal in some countries and if caught, jail is the likely result, so we didn't want to go down that route. And we had limited space, so anything that could be put to double use, and could be used for anticipated incidents was preferable. Nadine - being a nurse - was in charge of this.

We took two bandages and a roll of sticking plaster, anti histamine cream (for bites), painkillers as above with prescriptions, and a letter from our doctors, all stamped with surgery stamps just in case. Former Soviet block countries love stamps on paper, even if they can't read it - looks good and official. We also had some saline wash for cleaning road rash injuries and washing sand out of eyes, some sutures and some diarrhoea pills. A roll of gaffer tape which was also good for general fixing of bikes and luggage and a good supply of rehydration tablets completed the set up.

We took Zero rehydration tablets, and had had Nuun in Africa. Both were good but the Zero was cheaper so that is why we took them, and they really saved us on several occasions.

Dehydration will  make you feel rubbish, and that in turn will affect your thought process, reaction time and judgement, all of which are crucial on a bike. It will also give you a headache, but its not just a question of replacing fluids - you need to replace minerals too, which these tablets contain. So every morning, we took one each in a litre of water, and again at lunch and in the evening. We took more if we had vomited or had upset stomachs too or if we felt tired or not quite right. And they worked.

But however much you prepare, you can still get ill. We didn't fare too badly on that front, although both of us did feel a bit rough at times, and had heatstroke, despite drinking plenty, being covered up, and resting.

We kept an eye on what we ate, avoided stuff if we didn't like the look of, and cooked our own food much of the time. And we weren't silly with drink either, which is quite easy to fall into if you get caught up in the vodka drinking ways of eastern Europe and Russia.

I don't eat meat but knew that I would probably have to on this trip; either that or starve. Nadine, however, will eat anything. But I'm not precious about it and abstain because I don't like it very much. But for me was a bit of a trial because I knew that it would probably be too rich for me, especially if it was greasy. So when I did have to eat meat, I made sure that it was as well done as possible, and I didn't have too any problems. And fish is not an option as I hate it and it hates me, although I did accidentally eat it twice in Russia and was immediately violently ill afterwards. But the allergy excuse works well if put on the spot and you really can't do the expected thing or avoid it beforehand.

Then there are injuries. Given the type of trip we were riding and the roads and terrain we were encountering, a crash or two was very likely. And with motorbike crashes, injuries usually result.

But again, we were sensible and didn't worry too much about what could happen. Some of the driving in countries like Croatia and Albania, Russia and Georgia was appalling and I think that both of us half expected to have an encounter at some time, and were half prepared to sort the other one out. But we rode carefully and had some close calls, but no prangs which was good.

I did fall off and injure my arm though. It was a slow speed tumble on gravel and sand on a particularly bad road in Kazakhstan, and the bike just went from under me, tangling my left arm as it did, and catching my wrist. I knew I had done something to it as it hurt, and my hand and fingers swelled.  I got my wedding ring off before it got really bad, but I couldn't grip the bar nor turn my wrist and I knew it was broken, although I wouldn't admit it. I think I thought that if I did, it would somehow be even worse. But Nadine made a back slab and bandaged it on and we carried on riding. There was nowhere to get any medical attention anyway, and that's probably all they would have done, had there been.

I did eventually go to a hospital about a week later where the rather blurry X-ray revealed nothing, so I was able to keep pretending. But the silver lining was that it was my left hand and there is no clutch on the bikes were were riding. Had it been my right hand - my throttle hand - that would have been difficult.

We fared well for the rest of the trip, although we both got a flu like thing in China. I wasn't too bad but Nadine was very ill with a high temperature and the shakes, but we were holed up in an air conditioned hotel by then, so we managed it with Paracetamol and fluids, and lots of sleep, which she excels at anyway.

The dilemma for me though was that it was three days before we flew home and if I found a doctor, it was possible he would declare her unfit to fly but it was unlikely I would be covered to stay behind and look after her. There was no way I would have left her but it would really have complicated things with tickets and visas, so I decided to keep a careful eye on her and she how she went; if she had not improved by the morning, I would get medical help. Fortunately, she was better when she woke up although still not good but she by resting and drinking plenty of water with rehydration tablets,  we  were able to get the plane as planned and get home OK, although it took a good two weeks for both of us to get fully better.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

About the bikes

Is there such a thing as an ideal bike for a trip? No, probably not as there are so many variables that no one bike can do it all. And in any case, the bikes that we chose to take were probably - on paper at least - exceptionally unsuitable for the trip we planned to do. Yet our decision was actually quite sensible and was based on recent experience and a wish to be involved with as much of the environment that we would be passing through as we possibly could. Neither of us ever intended this trip to be about bikes or gadgets; we just wanted ride to Ulan Bataar, and see everything that we possibly could, even if it took a while.

Originally, we were going on different bikes. I had intended to do the ride on my Yamaha 250 dirt bike, and Nadine on her BMW 650ST, but we were both so impressed with the capability of the Honda C90s that we rode down to The Gambia a few months before, that we started to think about smaller machines.

The Gambia trip was already an established trip to donate Honda C90s to health workers at a hospital to help them reach patients living in outlying villages, but as C90s were getting scarce, four people on that trip trialled new Chinese 110 copies of the Hondas, and we were very impressed with their durability and simplicity. We had also seen at first hand the problems that the copies had, modifications that were required, and most importantly, how to service them.

Chinese 110cc copy with two Honda C90s in Africa
Taking new bikes meant not having to fix wear and tear problems or replace parts. And having the same model of bike as it meant only one set of tools, the same spares, and learning how to fix just that model. Neither of us were interested in speed or gadgets either - which was just as well as these bikes had neither - but we just wanted to ride and do stuff for as long as our money and time allowed, so slower was good.
So we bought two brand new scooters still in bits, and set about assembling them. That gave us an added opportunity to learn about them as we did so, and alter stuff from the start, rather than have to adapt things that were already in place.

We had a stroke of luck when it rained heavily over the Easter weekend, and actually managed to get ahead of ourselves with planned modifications. On the advice of Tony at Riders, we rerouted the wiring loom, which is located under the fuel tank.

For some reason, the factory squeezes the loom through a part of the frame where it chafes against the fuel tank and eventually rubs through. So we took the whole thing out and replummed it through a bigger gap, thus reducing the risk.

The wiring is not generous, so options were limited, but after a bit of fiddling, we managed to get it to where we wanted it.

Tony also suggesting adapting the side stand cut out switch. This switch works backwards in that it cuts out when depressed against the frame as the side stand is lifted, but because of where it needs to be, it is
vulnerable to bashing or breaking. And as we knew we would be riding off road most of the time, then it made sense to remove it before it broke and prevented us from starting the bikes. But we had to bridge the look by joining the cut bare ends to complete the circuit.

The wheels were next on the list. We had learnt on the Gambia trip, that gaffer tape on the wheel rims was a very effective means of cutting down on spoke damage to the tubes.

Snapped spokes were something that was high on the likely list, so we removed the new tyres off, binned the paper thin rim tape, and bound each rim with several layers of gaffer tape, before replacing the tubes and tyres.

Nadine's bike was ready first, and it fired beautifully but refused to spark; we suspected dodgy caps and /or leads   but it still refused to play a even after we changed those both a few days later. After much head scratching and some spot on advice from Peter Darke ( Darke Cycles, Sunderland and a riding mate from the African trip), we pinpointed the non starting to a dodgy kill switch. Again, this was a backward switch which worked when the circuit was competed, so we cut the wires and insulated the respective ends. We eventually removed both kill switches because it was so easy to accidentally lean on them and then wonder why the bike wouldn't start. But we only learnt this the hard way, after Nadine spent half an hour trying to push start my bike in Greece and swearing like a trooper at the bike and me.

We also replaced the two bolts that hold the engine in the frame. The Chinese ones seemed OK but Honda ones are made of better quality steel, so we dropped both engines out and slipped Japanese originals in, just to be sure.

Those were the only running modifications that we made, although we adapted a couple of things too. Nadine built a mesh cage around the headlamps to reduce the chances of it getting smashed by stones or during falls.

A sheet of garden mesh and some garden wire from B&Q in Wimbledon, a bit of bending a a few holes dremmelled into the headlamp casing, and it was ready to go, and at a fraction of the price of Touratech c versions. I think it cost  about £8.00 to make two. And we opened the headlamp and rear lamp casings and  put bathroom sealant along the seams to reduce vibrations and damage to the bulbs. This worked quite well.

We also extended the luggage rack, using a length of steel wardrobe rod cut into four lengths, and then jubilee clipped together and onto the proper rack. It was only ever intended to carry volume rather than weight, but was actually surprisingly strong, and we lashed the spare tyre and fuel cans to that. Oh and we screwed four eyelets onto the leg shields and used Rok straps to secure a sleeping bag, stashed in a drysack to keep it dry, and wired the number plate onto the frame incase it snapped off ( this happened twice in Africa) so that we didn't lose it. We had a spare just incase because crossing borders or just roadside place checks without number plates can be a right old nuisance, and a good fining opportunity for enterprising police along the way, so it is well worth avoiding.

We were dead chuffed when the bikes worked, if a bit surprised too, but it was surprisingly easy. Type approval came a few days later, but the most frustrating bit was waiting for DVLA to assign registration numbers so that we could get plates made up. That took so long that in the end, we only managed to clock up 27kms before leaving for the trip. But it was Ok, and we ran them in as we went, taking it steady for the first  500kms,  which got us to Luxembourg.

As far as luggage goes, we took minimal kit. We each had two small ex army ammo type panniers on the inside of the leg shields, and we carried spares, tyre pump and tools in these.  Then we each had two larger ex army webbing panniers lashed together, waterproofed and slung across the luggage rack. Our gear was in carrier bags inside as well, and I think the whole luggage system cost us about £40.00 each. Everything had to fit into those or it got binned - apart from our tents which we tied onto the rack.

The first farkling session was in Luxembourg where we changed the oil; we had emptied the Chinese oil out as soon as we started building the bikes as it was very thin and very swarfy, and replaced it with good 10w40 oil. We also adjusted and oiled the chains and removed the kick start arms from both bikes. These are really useless and allow very little room, even for small feet. But we kept one just incase, and later used it in Kazakhstan when Nadine's electronic ignition failed and deep sand made push starting impossible. Both exhaust guards came off too - useless pieces of metal.

By Salzburg in Austria, the engines felt like they were running well, and we were getting a comfortable, if stately, 40-50mph (70-80kmh) with ease, and they were also very good on fuel. Even in pricey old Western Europe, it was only costing us  eight euros to fill both bikes, and we were getting about 100kms each for that.

The bikes kept going well although the exhaust on mine started to rattle. The collar was loose despite the bolts being tight, and at first I thought some baffles had come loose inside. But it didn't affect the performance of the bike, but just made my arrival very noisy.

The first puncture of the trip went to Nadine - front pinch puncture due to hitting some roadworks a bit too hard. But we fixed that ok, and without taking up any of the offers of help from locals. It was nice of them but we were OK.

The next major servicing session was in Sarajevo. We had access to a garage at the hostel so we stripped the bikes down and worked on them.

I took my rattley exhaust off but the problem seemed to be a loose connection between the collar and the cylinder head, although the studs were tight. So I made some cardboard gaskets from a cereal packet and that did the job. In fact, they held good all the way to Turkey I think, where they eventually caught fire and singed my leg.

Nadine's throttle cable had worked loose, and we removed the whole headstock and plastics off to repair that as it had snagged inside. There was a slight panic when she dropped the tiny clip that holds the needle in at the carb end, but we eventually found it ok.  We also fixed a rear puncture there - my bike.

A few days later, and the rattle was back on my exhaust. By now we were in Croatia and had clocked up 2500km, and it was time for another oil change. Unfortunatley, during that service one of the  exhaust studs snapped off and so we had to clamp it to the cylinder head with a super large jubilee clip, which did the job, but it  did nothing for the noise.

We carried on to Albania, where mine needed its clutch sorting, as well as the rear lights and indicators. I wasn't too worried about the indicators which had not been right since about Belgium, but despite various efforts to replace bulbs, clean contacts and check wires, we had not been able to fix. But by now we were in countries where nobody uses them anyway, so it didn't matter.

The brake lights, however, we a different matter.  Nadine's bike was running fine, although a bit rich, and she usually needed petrol before I did, so we just fixed what we could before we left for Greece.

In Istanbul, we were hosted by some local bikers who run a club, and help visiting riders. Mehmet and his pals were really nice blokes, very welcoming and generous, and just all round good people. Their club house had a workshop and tools, which they put at our disposal, and also gave us a hand to fix stuff that we couldn't do, like drilling out and replacing the broken exhaust stud.

We stripped the bikes down completely there and gave them a full service. There were several broken spokes on my rear wheel which were very fiddley to replace but we did it ok. That proved a useful lesson as later on it the trip we would have to do it again, roadside and in baking heat, whilst being watched by fascinated locals.

Nadine's bike was OK though. We did an oil change on both, greased the chains and took her brakes apart as they were juddering slightly, although intermittently. We thought it might be corrosion around the cam that pushes the shoes outwards, so we cleaned it off and it seemed to do the trick.

A few days later further east in Turkey, my bike started to leak oil. We had stopped for petrol and were wiling time away while a thunderstorm passed overhead, and noticed oil dripping out of the bottom of the engine. But no hole or gap could be found, so we tightened everything up, topped the oil up and set off, only for it to happen again. But this time, the bike steadily lost compression too, and thus  power, which mean far from romping along at a blistering 70kph/40mph, I was reduced to a smoking 40kph/20mph.

Mehmet from Istanbul arranged for somebody in a local town (Kastamanou) to help us) and we managed to limp there very slowly and were taken to a mechanic, who fixed the leak for us. Or so he thought.

The oil was coming out of the head where the exhaust pipe attaches, so it seemed like a gasket problem. They were replaced, but the same problem occurred again two days later, then another three times, by which time we were in Sinop, northern Turkey.

There was clearly something structurally wrong with the engine but it wasn't something we could see, and never did manage to find even when much later, we took the whole engine apart and inspected it carefully. The gaskets were good, as were the casing seals. But retrospectively, we think what probably happened was when the exhaust stud was drilled out in Istanbul, the drilling went a bit too deep and weakened the cylinder head so that as the bike ran and pressure built, the weakened wall was subjected to higher significant pressure, which eventually caused it to fracture, and as the whole thing heated, the fracture expanded, forcing pressurised oil to spurt out and drip down to the bottom of the engine where it found its way out through the exhaust port.

I decided that a new engine would be the best idea as repairs, although very cheap by western standards were costing us money and we didn't really know what the extent of the damage was. And we also wanted to be sure that the engine would be ok, the further east we travelled. However, getting a new engine proved impossible because there wasn't one available locally, and the mechanics, although lovely and very helpful, wanted to repair mine rather than replace it, and would not be persuaded otherwise. It was definitely a 'you're girls and we're men - we know best' moment and we had to give in.

In the end, they sent the cylinder head back to Istanbul for repair, but when nothing could be done, a new one was sent back on the night bus and they fitted that instead. Inspection of the old one revealed extensive wear and tear around the exhaust port and some bad pitting inside the casing. It could have been a bad casting from the factory, made worse by the rattling and then oil pressure problem; who knows. There was nothing we could do, so we just set off again, hoping that the repairs would help. And they did, although the bike still needed regular oil top ups.

Nadine's clutch then started to play up,  slipping and not pulling the bike along properly. Her bike had always been meatier than mine, but mine was now pulling away from lights and uphills far better. She could catch up eventually, but it was more of a gradual build up than acceleration. We tweaked the clutch ourselves and did take it apart once on a garage forecourt, but although we had a puller, we were unable to loosen the screws that held the plate casing on. They must have been done up with a compressor gun in the factory as they were budging for nobody. On future trips, an impact driver is a must.

But true to form, and just as she was getting really fed up, we stumbled upon a motorbike workshop. It was right on the coast and near to the Georgian border, and amazingly was open - on a Sunday- and we only noticed it because it had two tatty old motorbikes leaning against each other out front.

What a lovely bloke Musa was too. It was just a one man band, and eventually and with the help of a man who lived next door, we managed to explain to him what was wrong with the clutch. He took it to pieces, removed the plates which he said were rubbish, despite being brand new ( Chinese and bought in Kastamanou) and replaced them with some heavier duty jobs. That did the trick and the clutch was OK for the rest of the trip, albeit with a bit of adjusting now and again, but that was something that we did oursleves with a screwdriver and spanner.

As we moved eastwards and the roads got rougher, the bigger wheels and the lightness of the bikes  really made a difference. They were easy to ride over the bad road surfaces and also negotiate roadworks, steps, verges and fields, potholes, rivers and craters with ease.

Although we both ride bikes as our principal means of transport, both in the UK and in Australia, the whole point of this trip was to see as much as possible, using bikes to do so, rather than go on a bike trip and see stuff in the process. I don't think either of us ever regretted taking the scooters rather than bigger bikes because we  had agreed from the start that this would be a pottering along trip, seeing what happened from day to day. As long as we kept going, looked out for each other and stayed safe whilst still pushing the experiences we were accumulating, then that was ok. No daily mileage quotas, no average speeds, no set rules, other than be in the right country with the right visa at the right time.

After Turkey, the bikes kept more or less running as they had been since being fixed in Sinop. Oil still dripped from my bike, but it got no worse and I just topped it up every time I refuelled. It was an expense we could have done without but then living was so cheap and we were wild camping most of the time so we had no accommodation costs, that it really didn't matter that much. And when we had to go through border posts, I stuffed a rag in the leak to stop it dripping onto the concrete and attracting attention and fines.

We did daily checks and adjustments of course. Tyres, brakes, lights, nuts and bolts, but had no problems there. We both had a few broken spokes, mostly in rear wheels, but that was hardly surprising given the extreme rough terrain we were riding daily. Fortunately, the spoke replacing lesson in Istanbul had taught us what to do and we ( particularly Nadine) got very good at it. And when we ran out of spare rear spokes, we moved  stronger rear spokes around and interspersed them with smaller weaker front spokes to spread and reduce stress on the wheel.

The valves caused a bit of a problem on my bike, and that was something we were unable to fix, although we did pinpoint the problem by eliminating other possibilities and tracing things back logically. But again, the mechanics in Astrakhan wouldn't believe us because we were girls, and we had to wait for several hours while they poured over the bike before announcing that they had identified the problem -  the valves. Zzzzzzz.......... I think it was probably the inlet valve but to their credit, they did replace them and that bit of the bike at least, worked fine from then on.

Punctures were something that we expected to be dealing with daily, but although we did have them - about ten in all, five of which were in one day-  we had surprisingly few, given the distance we rode  the surfaces we encountered, and the fact that we rode most of the way on stock rubbish Chinese road tyres. Retrospectively, what we should have done was to have replaced the existing tubes with heavy duty spare tubes, and taken heavy duty spares with us, rather than rely upon standard tubes.

We patched when we got punctures, and they held good apart from when we reached Kazakhstan and the heat generated by friction, as well as the 44 degree air temperature in full sun was too much for the glue, which it wouldn't allow to set. We just couldn't get repairs to set sufficiently to retain air once we got the bike back on the road. It was very frustrating and quite demoralising, but there was nothing much we could do.

Luckily, our last repair in our one good tube held up, and even that had been mended before, but using ordinary bicycle repair glue rather than the supposed heavy duty motorcycle grade Slime glue that would not set.

Tubes are heavy and bulky so it wasn't practical to take a pile of spares, and the Slime glue was supposed to be good. It had no upper heat limit, but it failed just when we needed it most, and was surpassed by a nondescript tube of nothing glue from Wilkinsons. Mad. Perhaps we would have had even more punctures had we not taped the rims before we left; who knows.

Despite the mishaps and the daily wear and tear en route, both of the bikes made it to Ulan Bataar, a journey of about 9000 miles/13000kms. That in itself is incredible for two town bikes of dubious build quality. But they lasted, and they lasted well. The frames were good, the engines were mostly good
( apart from described here) and even the rubbish tyres held up; both front tyres lasted all the way without much visible sign of wear, and the back tyres were changed in Russia for better grip, although they still had life left in them. We had no major cable, sprocket, chain or brake issues, and much to our surprise, and despite the extreme bashing we gave these bikes, they worked just like they were supposed to. Would we take them again, now knowing what we know about the terrain, the heat, the problems? Yes, definitely. Without hesitation.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012


Well all we knew about this place was that it was Borat's manor, and that it was a long way away. And we were right on both counts. But as we also discovered, it is also very big, very hot, and very full of nothing.  Kazakhstan is the biggest landlocked country in the world and is also the size of Western Europe.

It is also the ninth largest country, as well as the world's biggest producer of uranium. It was also probably the most difficult place that we rode through because of the isolation, the heat and the the relentless flat landscape, but also the roads, which were just something else.

Our original plan was the enter Kaz at its western border with Russia, near Astrakhan, ride round the top of the Caspian Sea and drop down to Aral, then Baikanour, where the Russian space programme is based, before carrying on into Uzbekistan and the rest of the Stans and the Pamir Highway. But because of the delays in Turkey and the bad roads in Kaz, we knew we wouldn't make it. We wouldn't even have made it on bigger bikes in the restricted time that we had.

The problem was always the Russian visa. Although getting a visa is now simple in comparison with what it used to be, it remains a right old performance and is costly. It is also something that you can only get in your home country, or country of residence, and it can't be extended. We'd opted for a month ( 30 day) tourist visa, but in retrospect and had we had more time in general, we might  have gone for a three month job instead to ease some of the pressure, but I don't think either of us realised just how big Russia is.

It is overwhelmingly huge, and we had to get from the Georgian border to the Kazak border, through Kazakhstan, and the other Stans, then back out and across Russia to Siberia and down into Mongolia. All in now just three weeks and on appalling roads,  and without any further problems, something which realistically, wasn't possible.

We each had a particular place that we wanted to see on the trip. For me it was the Aral Sea, for Nadine, Lake Baikal, but it  looked like we would both miss out. So we decided to ride eastwards  anyway, see how far we could get, and then work out what to do. We considered catching a train, or getting the bikes onto a truck, but we really had no idea of either how to do that or or whether it was possible, and of course we couldn't ask people or read up on it because of the language difficulties.

Both of us found Kazakhstan was quite a difficult place, not because of administration, or people but because of how empty the place is and how little people travel about. And because few people go anywhere, there didn't seem to be much of an infrastructure.

But we didn't know this until we got there,  having waited at the Russian/ Kazakh border for several hours in searing heat and at the mercy of swarms of midgey fly things.  The boys in Astrakhan had given us some potion to sort them out though - baby lotion mixed with baking soda. it did work but the swarms were still too much.

They were horrible and they got everywhere - up your nose, in your ears, on your face. Everywhere and the air was thick with them. We had one net hat that somebody had given Nadine in Astrakhan, but it wasn't that good as the netting was too short and ended at chin level so they still got in, although one hat was better than no hat.

There was no shade at the border crossing either and initially we used the tarp for some makeshift shade, attaching it to the bikes and sitting under it. But that was difficult as we had to keep moving, so we gave up and just stood in the shade of nearby vehicles when we could.

It all depended where they were in relation to our bikes though because if you moved too far away and the queue moved, somebody would squeeze in front.

There were also quite a few cars which drove down the side of the line to the front, causing waiting drivers to gesticulate and shout at them. But some still got through. Trying it on seemed to be the done thing, though neither of us wanted to do that here, although for some reason, it seems to be an accepted thing on bikes. Thierry, a French bloke we met a few hours later told us that is exactly what he did - rode to the front of the queue and was waved through without rancour or comment.

There was a gang was a of women selling water and fruit from baskets at the border. It was obviously quite a profitable sideline and these women were well dressed, and clearly in good health; not peasants or anything. They homed in on us several times because as westerners, we were a potentially lucrative source of income, but we had water so didn't need any more, and also had food there which we didn't want to eat because we'd eat midges too.

We were there quite early - about 0900 I think, but there were still cars in front of us, but the queue actually moved quicker than it looked like it would. Nobody tells you what to do or helps you at these crossings so its all a bit hit and miss, and you just have to try and work out what is expected of you, and do it accordingly. They soon yell at you if you don't, but will also chuck you out of the line if you're not careful, so the trick is to try and glean some sort of indication and work from that, and stand your ground without annoying anybody too much while you're trying to do so.

And the border was a bit of a remote outpost, with a big ' no man's land' of dried up desert in between the two sides. There were a few ramshackle huts, a wire fence, and a metal gate, with border police opening and shutting it at will. The huts were really rough and had little shuttered hatches, through which you had to slide your passport, rego papers, and immigration card before the person behind snapped it shut. Presumably they wanted to keep the midges out of the hut but it didn't look like they did it any differently anyway, even in midgeless times. But it was OK and we provided a source of interest for the other waiting drivers, some of whom tried out their English on us, which was amusing. And they liked it when we did a bit of Kazak in return, which we hammed up for the occasion specially. Then of course you have to do it all over again on the other side of no man's land, but by then with half an idea of what is expected.

We bought insurance at the border post, again from a bloke in a hut. Retrospectively, I don't  think we would have bothered had we known how meaningless it was in Kaz but having come from Russia where document checks happen all the time, we played safe, and we thought there might be a chance that the Russian police might ask for the Kazakh insurance when we crossed back into Russia. But as it was, in Kaz we hardly ever saw any police and insurance doesn't mean anything anyway. It's not like in the west where its a 'must have' driving document and nobody pays it anyway.

But we got some, and returned to our bikes to find that our lunch had been nicked by some kids. Little shits. And again, these weren't poor kids but well dressed and well fed - some of them a bit too much as they were porky and sweating profusely in the heat- so they clearly nicked our food because they could rather than because they needed it. So that didn't please us as we had nothing else and no means of getting anything more, and its a real liberty when local people assume that all westerners are rich and can afford to lose things. Not us, and no, it is not alright or excusable. We are not Charley and Ewan, nor do we want to be; we worked hard to save up money for our trip, we weren't sponsored, nobody gave us anything, nor did we want anything.  But somehow, some locals seem to think that all travellers are loaded. Wrong. And many of us travelled long before those two and their entourage appeared, and will continue to do so. So don't nick our stuff; it is not OK.

There was a vast and very noticeable change between the landscapes of Russia and Kazakhstan. Whereas Russia had been very lush and cultivated, Kazakhstan was dry and arid, with buildings made of mud instead of timber.

And the absence of trees meant there was very little natural shade, even along the river that we did eventually come across. It was a large river but oddly, flowed through baked earth steppes.

The animals changed too - out were normal cows and in were camels and big cow things, and the latter had got the heat sussed, standing belly deep in the water to cool down and drink.
Two humps - Bactrian camel

smart cow
And every now and again, there was a huge building, probably something to do with agriculture.

We were a bit peeved at having had our lunch stolen, and although there was no point in getting upset about it, we never left the bikes loaded and unattended after that. However we didn't have any choice on this occasion.  We were also rather rattled and as a consequence, failed to change money at the border post because we knew we would get striped up on the rates, and thought we would do it in the next town. But that was a big mistake as there was no bank, no ATM,  a very unhelpful supermarket which wouldn't take a card although they take local cards which were also visa and master card, and a hotel which refused to change anything (most will usually exchange dollars, but I suspect that it was easier to tell us to bugger off than it was to do some work) That meant we were unable to buy anything food, nor could we get fuel. We had some, but not enough to go many more miles.

So we sat in the shade for a while, wondering what to do, and topped my bike up with oil ( it was losing oil rapidly because of a bodged repair by a mechanic in Turkey.) Then a big KTM  passed, having just come through the borer post. It turned out to be Thierry from France, and he also needed local  money. We bumped into him a few hours later at a petrol station where again, nobody would take a card ( and you have to pay first in these countries, so its not as easy as taking the fuel and force them to take other currencies or end up with nothing) He managed to do a deal on the forecourt with a local driver, swapping some dollars for Tenge ( Kazakh money), and subbed us some for water and fuel.

All this took quite some time, and the afternoon was passing by. We had planned to camp near to the Caspian Sea, and Thierry decided to join us. We found a track down to the shore, and all headed down it. However, it soon became a problem for him on his heavy bike in the fesh fesh and he dropped it several times. It was so heavy and the sand so light that it took all of us plus some passing shepherds to right it. But not the scoots. Nadine fell off once but just picked it up and carried on but our bikes coped really well with the dust and pulled as if nothing had happened.
Nadine downed by the fesh fesh
It did help that we were able to drive across the scrubby vegetation though because the roots knitted the sand together, but Thierry's bike was far too heavy and had it got bogged down up there, there is no way we could have dragged it out. So he had to continue on the track.

We eventually made it to the shore line, which was deserted and so which we had to ourselves.

Deserted shoreline around the Caspian Sea
not much vegetation to hide behind though
We also washed ourselves and our clothes in the Caspian, which was great because it is fresh water. We also combined all the food we had, and ended up with a reasonable meal.

Now clean!
The sunset that evening was stunningly beautiful, and after the day's ordeal and dragging the bikes around, all of us slept  exceptionally well.

Sunrise the next day was pretty good too.

The following day, the fuel, water, money and fuel situation was urgent, so the three of us stuck together and made it to the next town, some 50 kms east. We saw very little en route though and did feel a little vulnerable because of our isolation and lack of supplies.

But when we made it to the town and found the ATM, it had no money in it. However, Nadine found some us dollars in her bag,  and we managed to change them in the bank. It seemed like the whole of the town's population was in there, hiding from the heat, so once again, we became a visiting circus with everybody stopping what they were doing and staring. This could have been intimidating, but not only did we not care, by then we had learnt to smile widely, bow and wave, and say 'hello'  loudly in Kazakh and generally play to the audience which made people laugh and chat to us, not that we could understand what they were saying. And some followed us around and inspected the bikes.
outside the bank
being inspected by locals
The High Street

The above ground piping looks out of place in the heat of summer but it is an indication of the extreme winter they get here, and the need to stop the pipes being covered by deep snow and frozen.

So once we had money and fuel, we found a cafe for food. Nadine and I were the only women inside, and everybody stared again, but were friendly and allowed us to watch Ugly Betty on the TV with them, in English, with Kazakh subtitles.
Thierry and Nadine in the cafe
After that, we parted company with Thierry. His bike was much faster than ours and we would only hold him up. He was a top bloke though.

We wild camped that night, not far from the train tracks.

There was no vegetation to hide behind and no civilisation to even consider a hotel, so we ducked down out of sight behind some piles of earth near to where they were putting some pipe into the ground. But there were no signs of any workmen,  and there was nowhere else to camp, so that had to do.

And I had a mishap earlier in the day...broke my wrist. So Nadine just patched it up. Then we ignored it.

We didn't have any dinner that night either because we had lost our food. Not nice.

But the following day, we made Aytral, a big city in western Kazakhstan and a  centre for the oil industry.

Oil is a big deal in Kazakhstan and the wealth that it generates is obvious all around, with familiar stores, flash buildings and big, new vehicles all over the place.

There are also lots of foreign workers and it was funny to hear English on the streets, albeit with mostly American accents.

We were tired this day so we decided to stop by about 1400hrs and find a hotel. So we got some food in TGI Friday ( yes really) but on the way there, were stopped by two men in a car who asked if they could film us. So we smiled sweetly, were filmed, then had something to eat. We also chatted to the waitress who was most impressed that we were on bikes and had ridden from London. A few days later, as we pulled up outside a hotel further west in Aktobe,  two blokes asked us if we were the Gobi girls. Apparently they had seen a news piece on us in the Aytral newspaper, announcing our arrival, and displaying a picture - the picture that the film blokes had taken. We had been papped and were famous, which was pretty funny.

We serviced the bikes in Aytral too; changed the chains, changed the oil, tightened bolts etc. But again we missed out on dinner, which I found particularly difficult. But when we emerged in the morning, we discovered that the hotel staff had covered our bikes for us to protect them against sand and rain during the night. This chap was the grounds manager and he was very sweet, so we gave him a couple of badges and things, with which he was delighted.

Then we set off towards Aktobe. I can't remember how long it took us but it was a very hard ride. Bad roads, incredible heat, and heat stroke, so we stopped in the only bit of shade we could find - under a railway bridge, over which large goods trains trundled every 15 minutes, shaking everything within a hundred metres. We stayed there for several hours and only covered about 40 miles/70 kms that day. Not good but better than crashing and making things worse.

We took it steady for a few days, camping where we could and getting food in local towns. These were invariably off the main routes though so you have to turn off and ride into them, which was a bit like cowboys riding into a place. People couldn't believe what they were seeing, and we couldn't believe it when we asked directions, expecting the local chap to speak only Kazak, and he spoke to us in English telling us that the supermarket was the building with "not the green roof but the other colour". He meant blue! And there was nowhere within miles of the place, so the chance of him having ever left it were slim. By 'town', I actually mean a simple self contained small settlement, more like a village, so its highly unlikely he had ever been anywhere. Yet here he was speaking English to us.

But I felt ill and so went outside to throw up. However, I didn't get the chance because I was immediately surrounded by locals wanting to chat. So poor old Nadine was left to do the shopping, whilst I concentrated hard not to disgrace myself. But when she reappeared, they quizzed her too and looked at our map of Kazakhstan, although it became apparent that they had no idea of anywhere more than about 10 miles/17kms beyond their town, in any direction. 

The women were quite interested in us too, and the lady above came over to have a chat about what our lives were like as women from 'somewhere far away'. She was cool and probably not as old as she initially appeared.

And the kids were fascinated by our helmets.

We continued to meet people along the way, either in shops or by the side of the road when we had punctures. These kids were really nice kids and they took me to find water whilst Nadine removed her wheel. The village where they lived was very dusty and had nothing there, and they were all playing in the dirt with on bikes and with sticks etc, and all were pristine. They stayed with us for about an hour and one mum came to see who we were and what they were up to, but was perfectly happy and went away again. We gave them a few bits and pieces when we left, and they waved until we were almost out of sight.

By the time we made it to Aktobe, we were filthy. Really filthy. And we couldn't find a hotel. We stopped at a travel agent to ask, just as a gang of youths on bmx came by. They led us to hotel Amsterdam, a 5 star job, and were quite surprised to be given a room. This is where the men came up and told us we'd been in the Aytral newspaper.

We hired a local cabbie to ferry us around - to the hospital where they x-rayed my arm, and produced a very blurry picture, then gave me a bandage and some cooling gel, to the market to buy some spanners, and to the train station to buy tickets. He was a good bloke but played the most awful music in his cab, a clapped out old contraption of dubious origin. But it did the job.

It took us both ages  and lots of scrubbing to get clean but eventually we looked semi decent and had something to eat. My broken wrist was a bit painful and needed a rest so we took a few days off and caught a train down to Aral and the Aral Sea, the place I most wanted to see on the whole trip.

The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest inland sea in the world and Aral was an important fishing port on its shores. But back in Soviet days, they decided that the barren land in the area could grow cotton - white gold - and dammed the two main feeding rivers to irrigate it. This caused a major environmental disaster as the Aral Sea shrunk, the fishing industry collapsed, and the once long established and thriving town and hinterland became an empty dustbowl. And that was only recently - 40 years ago or so.

The train ride was an overnight sleeper job.
But the train is the major travel conduit in Kazakhstan, and that is where most activity is found, far more so that along the roadside. So from the train, we saw quite a bit of local life.

Our biggest worry though was that we would not be able to read the train station stops, and so miss Aral, but the guard said he would wake us.

However, he didn't and we did miss our stop, having to get off two hours down the track in the next town and catching a local bus back. And the guard had the cheek to shout at us! Silly man................

Some women gatecrashed our compartment and took over a bit, but they were OK and when they realised what had happened, wrote us a note to show to a taxi driver to take us to the bus station and put us on the right bus back to Aral. They also told us how much it should cost so that we didn't get ripped off.

the bus station
on the local bus with the locals

The ride back was very bumpy and rather tortuous, particularly for the poor goat that was trussed up in the back. But the bus got us there and cost us hardly anything. The local people seemed nonplussed with our presence and we even got a seat - both of us squeezed onto a small seat with an old lady.

Aral was horrible Really horrible. A scorching dustbowl that reeked of mouldy fish. And there were no beached boats to be seen. But I could at least tick it off my list. Evidence of its former glory was all around though, with statues and murals marking the fishing industry, and fishermen's cottages, now curiously out of place in a dry and dusty town, far from any water.

But we did glipmse what was left of the sea, albeit in the distance, but there was no way for us to get nearer to it. 

We had a good wander around but were over the place after a few hours and fell asleep under a tree near an ATM. One thing that we both noticed was the lack of outside life in Kazakhstan, presumably because it is so hot in the summer ( most days were 42+ celcius ) and very cold in the winter. Nothing much grows in these extremes and people seem to do what they do indoors. But had to wait for the train back which didn't leave until 2336hrs that night, so we hung out in the train station waiting room which was nice and cool.  And we watched people come and go.

Again, the train woman said she would tell us which train was ours but she didn't and we nearly missed it as a result.

Thankfully, our bikes were still where we'd left them in Aktobe the following morning ( covered up in the hotel forecourt) so we retrieved them and set off westwards again.

We spent more days living rough, and got a bit fed up with the relentless emptiness of the place, and met various locals en route, some of whom rode the bikes.

On one really bad day, I had five punctures, which Nadine fixed.

And again we were helped by some really nice people, like a man and his son who fixed my one remaining tube with special compound glue.

And another man, the owner of a motocross shop, who gave us two heavy duty tubes and two headlamp bulbs, and refused payment for either. He also gave us coffee, mare's milk and chocolate.

Eventually made Petropavlosk up near the Russian border, where we were again helped by locals on bikes.

By now, we knew we needed to get a train across the remaining bit of Russia as we would be unlikely to reach the Mongolian border within our remaining visa time, and overstaying would mean huge trouble and arrest. So we decided to get the Trans Siberian to Ulan Ude. This stops at Petropavlosk but then the train line crossses and recrosses the border several times, yet nobody could tell us whether by being on the train, we would be classed as in transit and so not actually entering the country. So in the end, we had to ride to Omsk in Russia, 300kms beyond the border and catch it there. But at the border post we were arrested - for accidentally violating our Kazakh visa. 

According to the guards, we were supposed to reiterate it each time we stopped for the night. They meant revalidate it, but this was something we had been told we no longer needed to do; it was a left over from old soviet admin. But nobody had told the border guards that, and we'd been camping most nights anyway, so would not have been able to. But they wouldn't listen, and kept asking us to explain ourselves. But we hadn't got anything to explain - we had done what we had done, so we settled in for a long wait. Eventually, and after two hours of us watching their chief play backgammon, they cracked first and allowed us to go. We didn't get fined either - which was probably what they were after all along - because as they said to us ' if you had money, you would be on bigger bikes". Really.

But while we had been incarcerated, the word had obviously gone round about us and our bikes, and the younger guards had dared one of their number to ride a scooter when we emerged. We weren't in a position to refuse, so he jumped on my bike and set off - but it was obvious that he had never ridden before and he careered around, out of control before stopping. Luckily he didn't crash it but the other guards, including those who had locked us up, were crying with laughter - real tears - as they all waved us off and into Russia.