Journal The Motherland of BMW

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Back on the road,..with a new drive shaft!  If there was ever a destination in my tour,..it was Germany.  Years ago as I was crossing into Mexico, I wasn’t sure where exactly the tour would lead,..I just new I had to have a go…South was a reasonable option in January. However, as I rolled off the ship and my tread struck Russian soil, I knew I was trying for Europe…wanting to finish in Germany.  I never knew if I was going to make it, if I was going to beat the snows in Siberia.  There had been a number of doubtful moments ..on long cold days in Russia…with one eye turned to the sky, I’d get that cold feeling in my stomach…um errrrrrr.,,maybe this wasn’t the best idea!

So as I found myself hauling ass on the autobahn over the open border into Germany, there was an enormous rush of emotion.  It was cold, dark and rainy… but the whole world around me was glowing with my enthusiasm for the moment…I’d made it and was love’n life!

Sure, Germany was the last foreign country I’d hit on this tour, but is a tour really ever over? Of course not… everything is mere reconnaissance for ever greater endeavors ahead.  There is so much more of world to see, in two years I’d barely tapped the beauty of it all.

I gave myself a few weeks in Germany to unwind from the tour,..do some site seeing, visit friends, and work out logistics to get myself and the old girl home.  My father had suggested I visit the BMW factory and see the birthplace of my bike. Having once before seen the BMW headquarters in Munich, I figured I knew right were it was,..so I shot for Munich.

So I arrived at the BMW factory in Munich to learn that the motorcycle factory had been destroyed by allied bombing……in world war II. The headquarters and automobile manufacturing is still done in Munich, while the motorcycles are actually assembled at the Berlin Plant.  However, the saving grace was the BMW museum…which included all of BMW’s most interesting motorcycles and cars.

I tried, but was not able to squeeze onto a tour of the car plant.  Ironically, I watched the tour guides include my bike on the tour they were giving as they crossed between the plant and the museum.

I left Munich late, and was stuck fast in traffic on the autobahn.  Not one to waste time in traffic, I pulled off the highway and wasted time at Mcdonalds instead. (disclaimer…it was the only warm place to stop off at)  I’d rather eat a Thai fried grasshoper then a Mcdonalds burger.  So I settled for a coffee and fingered through my riding jacket for some crackers.

Eventually I was back on the road,….rolling towards Stuttgart at night.  I was feeling pretty uncomfortable with the speed of traffic on the autobahn, out of concern for a seriously worn front tire…not something you want to blow out high speeds.  Even in the slow lane I was getting honked at.  There were definitely some aggressive drivers out that night.

By chance I made friends with another biker in Stuttgart and she kindly offered up a couch for the night.

The following day I wandered my way over to the Touratech factory.  This blew me away…..imagine a sportsman warehouse for Adventure Bikers! Starting with one mail order product, these guys are now the greatest innovators for Adventure motorcycle accessories in the world.  I’d say there were at least 30 adventure bikes on display, each fully modified for either endurance racing or hardcore touring. It was high end equipment at a very high end price.  I bought the only thing I could afford at the time…a mug J….it was on saleJ!

Following Stuttgart I rolled north…ended up taking a room in this castle just above the town of Bacharach.

Using the castle as a base for a few days, I focused on acquiring logistics information to get home.  While shipping from Perth to Korea was cheaper than anticipated, shipping from Germany to the US was looking pricier than I’d expected. I had  figured that shipping out of Germany would be cake as it’s the a major shipping hub of the world,..with every modern convenience at hand. However….there’s rules here….lots of them! And somebody’s got to pay for these rules…that fee is usually passed down to guys like me!  And crates are bitch to get a hold of.  Recycling is so efficient…there’s not much to score behind a bike shop. So crates have to be built…fumigated..and then transported to the site….MASSIVE price here,..even if you build it yourself.

I tried a few off the wall ideas…like using connections to get a military transport out of Rammstien Airforce base…or the tour operator out of Heidelberg who was shipping containers to Florida.  None of them really panned out in the way I wanted.  But I still had a few more tricks up my sleeve…numbers to call, emails to send, contacts of contacts to be contacted.  Finding a good deal can take weeks.

Logistics is boring…on a more interesting note- I found out from a friend that

there was going to be a party in Cologne…and I was definitely had to make it!

Back in my high school days, while studying abroad in Germany, I’d forged some great friendships. Although tenuously maintained over the last 12 years by random emails, we were still in contact.  My buddies were now working or studying throughout Europe,..but by chance,..they were all coming back together for a party in Cologne in two days time.  Come hell or high water I was definitely going to be there.

As I made my way up to Cologne,..I got a call from a man I’d met in back in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Back in Brazil, when I was organizing shipping to Perth from Sao Paulo I’d met Thomas in the B&M logistics office.  He was a Bavarian based logistics agent shipping  full scale aircraft mockups for aeronautical exhibitions around the world. Over lunch in a Sao Paulo café, we got to know each other and I scored his business card.  Now that I was in Germany,  I didn’t think anything would come of it, since our meeting had been years ago and on the other side of the world.  However, I got the call and invitation to meet that night for dinner in Düsseldorf.  As it was only another hour past Cologne, I figured I could swing both the link up and the party that night.  Two hours later I was linking up with Thomas…the world is a small place!  A few beers later were talking business and he totally hooked me up!  At first I wasn’t sure about it all….crunching logistics numbers through in your head while drinking beer is something only Germans are good at, but when he  mentioned we’d be riding his KTMs while organizing shipping, I had to take it. As I would find out, it was more than a deal, as a fellow biker,…Thomas was basically pulling all the strings for me and making it an affordable and easy shipment. With that set,..and I had party to go to.   I reversed direction and rolled through the night back to Cologne.

At about 11:00pm I found the address I’d been given,..and noticed a rainbow painted on the door. “you’ve got to be shitting me” I was thinking!  But I called my friend and he got his laugh out of it, and explained the party was in a basement just next to the  club.  I pulled the bike onto the side walk, just as I was met by a whole gang of gals and guys I hadn’t seen in years. It was an epic reunion, and made for one historic night.

4am

pack'er up and ship her out!

Journal And “Snap” goes the drive shaft!

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Ahhh…crossing into the European Union.  Into the metropolis of modernity, culture and sophistication. It was going to be lattes and prosciutto on quaint breakfast rolls from here on out.  Gone are the days of corrupt border crossings and hungry coppers.

Well …it had been a while since I’d been through Europe.  The overweight Polish border guard immediately approached me to try for a bribe. That was my first impression of the EU.  On a good note I met some nice folks on the border queue up, including this cool Polish dude riding a rare and barely functioning Ural…I had to shake his hand!

I was on verge of being among friends again and I was riding hard along the Czech highways in anticipation of the reunion ahead.  Traffic was really moving on this road,..I was getting passed by speeding cars all over the place…something I’m not used to.  While pulling a steady 90mph on the freeway, just 50 miles from Prague, I  heard a massive “WACK”  followed by an equally nasty shudder, emitting from the rear of my engine.  And then she died on me.  Riding my momentum, I drifted over to the side of the highway to avoid being run over.

Not an ideal scenario…or was it? Aside from the cars zooming close by at alarming speeds. …  Who cares! I’m not in Siberia! I’m in Europe now…its lattes, posciutte..and BMW shops in ever major city.  Over 70,000 miles and she craps out now,…no worries! I’m quite satisfied with the old girl, considering the reliability she’d provided and all terrible things I’d done to her.  Sure, we’d had a few…“relationship problems”(crashing, water crossings, electrical quarks), but she’d never done this before…thankfully, as I could recall areas around the globe where this sort of breakdown would be giving me serious pucker factor.

The engine sounded great, but I couldn’t get her to power the rear wheel.  The rear wheel was stuck!  I didn’t know exactly what was wrong with the bike,..but I had an idea…and I new I couldn’t fix her on the side of the road.

This is where having a cell phone is handy, well.. I didn’t have one….nasty things!   But I did have a backpack,..so I piled my valuables into the pack,..and locked everything else on to the bike.   I started walking along the freeway with a thumb out, knowing I’d get a ride at best, or good long walk at worst.  I’d learn that hitchhiking along a highway is not very effective,..cus by the time the rare person who actually cares…sees you,..he’s already miles past you and cant turn around.

Well to my surprise,..right away a car pulled over to the side in front of me.  I was congratulating myself as I ran the 100meters to catch up to the car. As I approached, an old lady got out of the passenger side door,…and I began thanking her profusely in English, Russian, and German…hoping something would get through..as I don’t speak Czech.  Well,  she yelled at me, and waved me off! As I said, I don’t speak Czech, but I got the picture.  Apparently,..she figured my location was an ideal place to pull over to the side of the road and shift some luggage round and toy with my emotions.

I trudged off feeling stupid, embarrassed,…I was a novice at this hitchhiker thing.

But all was not lost,..it wasn’t raining!  Not yet!  And a car did in fact pull over for me.  This time I approached with less enthusiasm,…wondering if they to were “shifting their luggage.”  I was good hands….God bless hippies!  Few things are as welcoming to a hitch hiker as a van full of young happy people.  They didn’t have room,..but they made room!  There was a massive party going on in that van,..you couldnt even see the floor for all the bottles.  They didn’t speak much English. What was there to explain anyway? They’d seen my bike and then seen me…and they had been good hearted enough to figure it out and actually care.

Sure, my bike was broke down and temporarily abandoned on the side of a Czech freeway,..but I was feeling quite fortunate about it all,.. I had a ride,…access to a cell phone..and a long lost friend of mine in Prague was about to get a interesting phone call.

Nothing quite like testing a friendship…like, “hey,…its me Chris,..we met in an Alaskan Cannery 6 years ago…..and now I’m in Czech Republic and  I need you to come rescue me!”  Fortunately, I’ve got a knack for befriending the best of humanity…and Vatzlav is one of the best.

Way back in the day, we’d been working the slime line together…gutting salmon in Whittier Alaska.  I’m not sure what either one of us was doing there gutting fish back then…him having a masters degree in electrical engineering,..and me …well I don’t have a masters degree..so maybe I did belong thereJ.   At any rate, we’d been looking for adventure back then and Alaska was and still is an adventure mecca for wandering souls.

Within minutes he was organizing a trailer and pick up for me.  Meanwhile the party on wheels stopped off at a service station…where I bought them enough beverages to continue the fun into the next decade.

Vatslav totally came through for me!  I never knew two people could lift a GS into a trailer,…but he’s a deceptively strong dude!  And having vehicles brush by at 100 mph provided the extra adrenaline to get the job done.

Judging by the severity of the breakdown and lack of a garage, I retreated to the local Prague BMW dealership to have the techzperts tear into her and give me the nasty news.

With the bike in the shop I had some time to hang around and explore Prague.

The following week was truly enjoyable, and Vatslav was an amazing host.  These were late nights catching up on brash cannery tales, while armed with an ample supply of the best beer I’ve ever had.

Prague made quite an impression on me.  Captivated by the beautiful architecture, great food and limitless history…yatayatayata-its Europe!)..I came reappreciate this continent.  For so long my attention had been captured by the rugged beauty of the third world (still my preferred touring local), that I’d overlooked Europe as being unappealingly busy, sophisticated and for lack of better terms…unexotic!  Well, I was having a great time…drifting down cobblestone streets, soaking up the 16th century ambiance, while never more than stones throw from the safety and convenience of modernity.  Hands down..Mongolia has got Europe beat,..but you cant go to a concert in UlaanBataar and wistfully jam out to celestial  notes drifting from the exact same organ played by Mozart.   (although a throat singing seminar in Olgi might rival Mozart…depending on your level of weirdness.)

Whats  Absinthe?..kids don’t try this at home!

The only bad experience I had in Prague was in public transportation. And that’s my own fault as I’m completely inexperienced with busses and trams. Not being a city person,  I didn’t even know exactly what a tram was.  I normally avoid public transportation at ALL cost, but here I was trapped.  I wasn’t going to waste a week hiding in an apartment…bike or no bike I was going to explore Prague.

So..long story short, I bought the ticket for a train..or tram..or what ever you wanna call it,  but I didn’t verify the ticket in the tram.  As I would learn you are supposed to put the ticket in a little machine for a stamp.  I hadn’t seen anyone else do it, so I never thought about it. Well,..the “federales” got me….and made me pay about 20 times the price of the ticket..on the spot.  Interesting enough, they didn’t ask anyone else on the tram. Grrrrrrrr! My buddy told me I stuck out as a lost tourist with my American baseball cap..so they clued in on me…knowing I wasn’t clued in.  That sucked,..but that was only the beginning, because as they were issuing my ticket I missed my stop.  Not knowing I missed my stop, I continued to wait and look for the stop that I thought was still coming.

Soon I was the only one on the tram,..the tram stopped…the doors locked…and I was locked in a tram, in the tram yard for 20 minutes,.until my frantic waving caught some other tram operator’s attention.  He opened the door,,..yelled at me,..and I left, swearing off public transportation for life.  I was only too happy to pay my massive bill at BMW and thankfully ride off on my trusty stead.

The most exciting part about visiting Prague is that I think I’ve convinced my buddy Vatslav to buy a motorcycle!  I like to think I’m collecting good karma points by introducing friends to the beauty of motorcycles and paragliders. Its like competing with the missionaries for lost souls….I’ve got about 7 happy converts so far!  I’m a big believer that Riding and Flying are windows opening into exciting new worlds and rewarding ways of living……although some of my friend’s wives and girl friends may challenge me on that.

next stop,...Germany!

Journal Embracing Ukraine

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as a note…thanks for your patience.  I know its been a while!  I’m focusing for Ukraine on this post..as its one of most unique experiences I’ve had on the tour.  Regrettably, I don’t have many pics..cus this was more about people then epic landscapes…it was a social adventure..which is not always conducive to taking pictures,…so there’s a lota dialogue here and not much eye candy…at least for not for the reader(clearly there was for me:).    And of course the story of Ukraine…started for me, long before I arrived there.

Back among the dust and glory riding of Mongolia I’d come across a convoy of one super truck and a Land Cruiser doing a recon for potential adventure tour operations.  I like trucks, especially weird ones that exude Dakar with a dash of Mad Max. Serious man toys!

And I hadn’t seen another Westerner for a long time..so I stopped off to chat.

Considering where I was going and where they had come from, the advice dispensed.

“When you cross the border into Ukraine,..dont stop, just get through as fast as possible.”  They ruffled through some weathered maps, while pointing out potential routes.  ”Not only is there nothing to see out there, but they target foreigners.”  Another piped in, “I got stopped 4 times and coughed up a total of 300 euro to the Ukrainian police, recommend you get through as fast and as efficiently as possible.”

The nature of a travel destination is always relevant to the one’s personal experience.  Its not the place, but a place in time, the people you meet, your interests, and of course your “joss”.  As that Canadian rider I met in Siberia claimed,” its all good!”  Although it may not always be good for you, I’d add!  Luck of the draw.  I’ve turned sour on a country before…nailed by police, forced to pay bribes, mistakes on my part, miscommunication, fear,..whatever,..no one’s above it.  For example, Colombia was the absolute best experience of my tour,..yet if you reference a rider from years past that was incarcerated by the FARC,..you’d hear a very different story.

Bad news travels faster than good news.  Although some societies claim to ride above others on some holy cloud of intellectualism, fear (usually based on misinformation) is a human trait spread thoroughly around the globe.  The challenge is to be aware of potential threats, but keep an open mind. This concept dawned on me through personal blunders abroad…and from the timeless rhetoric of my two favorites Robert Fulton, and Richard Burton.

I’m not harping on the truckers I met in Mongolia…they were excellent folks and experienced overlanders,..they just had a hard go of it in Ukraine wanted me to be aware of it for my own benefit.

I planned a two day crossing of Ukraine, not based on their advice, but rather for concern of the approaching winter, low funds, and excitement to see friends in Czech and Germany.

The two day plan didn’t work.

I had such an outrageous blast in Ukraine that it took me over two weeks to make it to the Polish border.  Ukraine, or I should say the Ukrainians, were good to me!  Real Good!  And I’ve been looking for a way to return ever since.

The country embraced me from the minute I stepped over the border.  Riding the 20 feet from Russia to Ukraine was culture shock!   I pulled up to the border post and almost fell off my bike as an attractive gal in uniform smiled with a lovely “welcome to Ukraine.”  A friendly, helpful, smiling border guard! I looked around desperately in hopes that someone else was present to witness this epic anomaly!   Taken by surprise, I was all thumbs with my documents.  Fortunately, she was patient with me and helped sort it out.

Next stop was customs, where I was beset upon by a pack of young enthusiastic soldiers. It was hand shakes all around and I absorbed a massive amount of helpful advice as they searched my bags.  They started with my left pannier…getting as far as my bottle of Ruski Standort Wodka…nodding their approval the search was abandoned in lieu of more important issues…like listing off a plethora of excellent Ukrainian dishes that I was required to taste before exiting the country.   I was loving it.  These guys were top notch!

The afternoon sun graced the Ukrainian countryside, lighting up a full spectrum of autumn colors.  It was a country road rolling gently through the woods, meandering through meadows and villages.  As far as I was concerned I’d completed the long ride from Vladivostok to Europe…and it felt sooooo good!

The plan was to pull in to the capital,..use the classic tactic of riding for the city center and then wander in gradually widening circles until I stumbled upon an affordable hotel .  The unavoidable flaw was entering a BIG foreign city at night.

Kiev is really something,.. cut through the middle by a massive river and further divided by enough highways and byways to confuse an LA Californian.  I was at loss as to which side of the river harbored the city center. Taxed out by trying to refresh the screen with massive amounts of urban data, my GPS was on overdrive and freaking out.  Fortunately my GPS doesn’t give voice commands..which would have amounted to a long stream of Boolean obscenities.  My arbitrary turns and the high speed of traffic were causing digital mayhem.  Attempting to revive my GPS and survive rush hour in Kiev became too much….and I pulled off the road and up onto sidewalk(the GS was practically made for jumping curbs).

“So no shit, there I was”, at night, on a sidewalk in the Capital of Kiev, doing what you do when your lost….curse your GPS and attempt to simultaneously push all the buttons!   That’s when and where the Ukrainian Adventure really started.

Distracted by my GPS, I didn’t notice the white sedan pull up alongside, nor the two men that dismounted and approached me.  The two Ukrainians materialized in front of me.  ”Hi, man, where you from? Where you going to.”  I really didn’t have an answer for either of those questions, but introductions and handshakes took over as I was introduced to Boris and Gera. Talking over each other in their enthusiasm, they were asking me all sorts of questions.  ”Do you need anything fixed on your bike?”  “Where are you staying tonight?” “You should come with us.” “We are going to help you!”

I was bit wary of them, politely refusing their invitation, mumbling something about my bike being in immaculate condition and trying to appear….well…. not lost.  I suck at lying, never did come naturally to me.

Fortunately, I would come to learn that when it comes to hospitality Ukrainians are incredibly persistent.

“I’ve got a bike shop and we can fix up your bike”

I was thinking to myself, does my bike really look that bad?

“Were experienced bikers, you can trust us.”

Well, I thought, this might be interesting. Besides, a shop floor and tools to knock out a valve adjustment would be cherry.  If they are bikers as they say they are,..then I’d trust them.  I figured if I could get eyes on this supposed bike shop,..I’d know for sure what these guys were all about.   ”Okay, lets do it.” I’m always game for a potential Black Swan.  Unusual invitations are the gold threads of international travel.

It took some ballsy traffic riding to keep on Gera’s tail. He’s a nut behind the wheel, but the fact that he’s still alive suggests he’s got the skills to pull it off.  20 min later my bike was in an immaculate mechanics bay, resting contently among horses of the same breed.  One look at all the knobby treads and hardcore adventure machines and I knew I was among friends.

I got the tour from Gera, who’d built a bike shop from the ground up…and was rightfully proud of it.   We darted from one end of the shop working our way to the other, swapping faraway stories, gleaning over beautiful machines and all the latest bike tech.

He took a great deal of interest in my GS and we talked over what I wanted to work on.  I started to pull tools out and get to work,..but Gera insisted I relax,..freshen up and worry about it later.  “Besides” he said, we’re gonna party hard tonight,..I hope you’re ready for it!”

I was more than thankful for the ride to the nearby hotel, and the use of his shop, but when he booked me into a hotel while physically blocking me from reaching forward with my credit card, I didn’t have the words to express my gratitude.  Gera waved it off, “Don’t even think about paying…you’re our guest,.stay here as long as you want! I’ll be back in 30 min to pick you up”  We are partying with Boris tonight,  its going to be a long crazy night!”  As it was the second time Gera casually dropped the “crazy night” concept,..I was starting to wonder just what was in store for me.

Gera picked me up and we returned to his Motorcycle shop to regroup with friends before going downtown.  Looking to swap out my MX boots for my hikers, I popped into the mechanics bay to retrieve them out of my panniers.  Again,..I was left speechless,..there in front of me at 8 o’clock at night was the only certified BMW mechanic in Ukraine adjusting the valves on my bike. My busted windshield, which had been tenuously secured by prayers and duck tape, was now firmly bolted, with reengineered mounting sockets.  “Hey Chris,  dont worry about it,  your bike’s in good hands,  we’ve got to meet up with Boris, common lets go!”

Unreal! My valves hadn’t seen a proper BMW mechanic since Brisbane! And now I had a  certified expert honeying up my wheels as I was out pulling maintenance on an excellent draft beer and inhaling my way through a high end steak.  You, as the insightful blog reader, will began to imagine why my “two day plan” was rapidly becoming obsolete.

Out at the pub I met up with the gang of friends.  All good wholesome types and immediately likeable…even with out the booze which was seriously flowing.  Gera and Borris, the guys who picked me off the street were clearly the leaders of the group as well as the best English Speakers.  Boris yelled over the music…introducing me to every one.  It was a great mix of guys,..from all walks of life…from Boris the billionaire lawyer biker and Gera the premier motorsport dealer of Ukraine,..to heavy machine operators and retailers..all bond together by love of the motorcycle, and appreciation for spending a Friday night like it might their last.

With each round of beer,..came a new proposition on how the token American would spend his time in Urkaine.  I took a split second to consider all the invitations,…then I sealed the deal with a toast…and my next few weeks were scheduled virtually to the minute.

These guys were Ukrainian patriots and extremely proud of their country, something I understand and respect. They were absolutely determined that I come to love their country and cultures as they did.  All decisions were made, all contacts put in place,..all that was expected of me was to ride the wave and soak up the experience. For the entire time I was in Ukraine I would be living like a Cossack prince chasing luxury adventure on an iron stead.

Looking back, I still feel a bit strange about this. When hospitality had came in the past few months, there was usually a way to pay the favor back.  When invited into a Ger camp I offered gifts out of my panniers, when guided over the steppes by a local, I offered fuel.  I always try to give something back. But this was different,..there was nothing I could give that these guys that they didn’t already have, they wanted nothing from me except that I share the experience of there country.  All attempts at catching the dinner bill, or beating the host to the cashier were crushed instantly.  All I could do was make a sincere effort to communicate my gratitude, part with heartfelt thank you cards, extend invitations and carry the memory of their hospitality with me forever, and share this story.

After the pub we retired to a private club. You know, no sign and three taps on a nondescript door.  I’d never been to a private club in my life.

I’m familiar with the Korean gigs, where you rent a little private room for a party, but this was an entire club.  To describe what ensued as a full on party would be an understatement.  Given the nature of my new friends and my desire to celebrate the crossing of a continent, I was partying a bit harder than usual.  The fact that they got me to participate in Karaoke suggests how far gone I was, and the further fact that they endured my singing suggests that they were out of their minds as well.  It was a historic night.

I think we stumbled out of the club at 4 or 5 in the morning.  A brief debate ensued on where I was to spend the night.  I argued that Gera had been kind enough to check me into a hotel in the vicinity of his shop. However, Boris had other ideas. There were a couple “firsts” that night aside from the private club, singing karaoke and enjoying it, to crashing in a master sweet of a 5 star hotel.  I was blown away, there were freaking furs on the bed, original paintings on the wall, suits of armor and balcony overlooking downtown Kiev.   It probably wasn’t appropriate,…and not a good indicator of my own maturity …..but…I had to try on some of that old school riding gear  for size.

I spent a few more days hanging with Gera in Kiev. He took me to a local paraglider launch just outside town, but regrettably, it was blown out with high winds and rain.

view of Kiev from hotel-

Gera is an exceptional dude.  Well traveled and a biker after my own heart.  I’ll never forget him telling me about his history. “So as a kid growing up in kieve with rich parents,..it was sort of boring,..so I ran off to New York City and became a cab driver for a few years. That’s where I learned my English”  What balls! Who does that!? And a great story at that.  Since his return, Gera has become the champion quad bike rider of Ukraine, in addition to pulling off an impressive array of adventure rides into the Stanis on his Vstrom.  Just recently, he’s upgraded to a fully loaded R1200GS Adventure, and is schedule to solo ride Iran in March.  The dude’s got cred!

The next stage of Operation Ukrainia was for me to ride down to a small town just outside Dnepropetrosvk and visit a friend of Boris.   Armed with Boris’ detailed map, a GPS waypoint, and one wicked hangover,..I left Kiev,  riding south, skirting the mighty Dnieper river.

What was initially a pleasant ride became quite daunting as I found myself riding at night through a perpetual rainstorm.

The heavy rains were keeping most of the usual traffic off the streets, however there was one event I wont soon forget.  I was out in the country, rain pouring down, headlight barely penetrating through the downpour. I’d just come around a corner and there in the middle of the road materialized a man in a black trench coat,…just standing there..like he was auditioning for a horror movie or something.  The guy didnt even flinch,..as I just barely missed him.  Super wierd and scarry.  I’m guessing it was just some guy in a drunken stupor hanging out on the road in the middle of nowhere..in the rain.  Maybe his old lady gave him the boot,…who knows,..I’m just glad I didnt hit him.

It was two or three hours of endurance riding in conditions that I’d normally have opted out on.   But I’m a sucker for following up on commitments. I said I’d be there, so I pushed through.

The Boris map,..

although exceptional in its own right(and my favorite)…was missing some key terrain features(like roads and stuff), but in conjunction with a GPS coordinate, all was in order and I pulled up in front of Alexi’s business.

It was about 9pm,..not the ideal time for a guest to arrive, especially a stranger.  Fortunately, Alexi, an experienced biker himself, fully understood.  We put the bike into his garage..next to shiny R1200GS (once again,..I knew I was in good company)

Alexi and his friend’s smothered me in Ukrainian style hospitality.  I was as cold and wet as a mountain trout, and they subsequently suggested I de-ice in the sauna.  The word “sauna” had my attention.  I would find out that Alexi’s business was a Slavic style bath house. Perfect for a biker coming off a frigid wet ride.   I slipped into a set of dry clothes and my riding suite, boots and everything else was scurried off by attendants for a wash.  Laundry is always an issue for a biker on the road…and I hadn’t located a wash in weeks.  Alexi was aware of this,…I was hoping not from just my appearance, but from his experience as an adventure biker.  Stories I heard about his exploits on a Goldwing were awesome.  The man who takes a Goldwing to the dirt roads of Iceland…solo…is crazy,…crazy but awesome!  Crazy and awesome are admirable attributes in my book.

My favorite story about Alexi comes out of one of his Iceland tours. It was told to me by one of his friends.   I feel compelled to share a good story.

So there he is, setting up camp along a remote stretch of road deep in the wilds of Iceland. (try to imagine)  Jacket turned against the cold wind, hands defrosting next to the camp stove, brewing up some atrociously instant coffee, to be followed by some main course of even lesser appeal.  He’s roughing it, as a man does on an adventure.  The drone of an approaching vehicle grows louder as a truck approaches along the lonely dirt road.  The truck stops out of concern for the lone biker seemingly stranded in the wilds.  Much to Alexi’s surprise, a drop dead gorgeous Icelandic gal leans out of window inquiring on his disposition. “Hiya, you al’right?”  “You need help?”

No, thank you, I’m okay, Alexi replies.   Now, its important to put things in context,..Alexi is a good look’n bloke, and had the premier bike of the time parked next to him.  The gal thought a minute then made her offer.  “Its gonna get real cold out her tonight, why don’t you come with me.”  Stay at my place, I’ll fix you up some hot dinner. ” Alexi,..in all his admirable bravado was still caught up in adventure mode…dedicated to roughing it in the wilderness…and probably not thinking clearly under the gaze of those powerfuly blue Icelandic eyes.   Resorting to primordial man instincts to demonstrate his self reliance, he pointed out the tent and cooking kit, “got everything I need right here.”   And so the story goes she left (disappointed I might add), and only as the cloud of dust from her spinning wheels hit Alexi, did he thin realize his fatal error. The Zac Brown Band says it best….”dont be falling in love as love goes walking away.”  Alexi’s friends LOVE this story, and continue to torment him with it to this day. “you Idiot” they would say,..as Alexi shakes his head smiling, thinking of the possibilities of it all, as he has a thousand times over.  Sometimes its what didn’t happen makes the greatest story of them all.

I love that story to,..its the story of a true biker, as every long distance rider has ridden away from love at some point…only to reminisce on a cold night in the glow of lonely campfire.  It tares at the soul, builds character, and leaves the rider placing his faith in the wind,..faith that it will all come together in time.  For Alexi,..I’m filled with confidence that there’s a second chance, another shot at those blue Icelandic eyes.  And I hope I’m there to witness, as Iceland is definitely on the list.

I joined Alexi and his friends in the spa.  Beer and some truly tasty dishes arrived on a table in the spa room.   A classic error I’d make more than once in Ukraine was mistaking the appetizers for the main meal. I’d chow down with enthusiasm,..filling up on epic good food,..then to my embarrassment the main course would appear and I’d nearly kill myself trying to at least get halfway through it.  Then it was into the Sauna, a unique experience its own right.

In this part of the world, saunas are an important part of a healthy lifestyle.  Imagine my surprise when Alexi enters with a wooden bucket laden with freshly cut tree branches. The tradition…as I would experience, is to take turn thrashing each other with these branches…until you nearly pass out from the heat generated from a full on tree-branch- whoopping in a suana. Try to imagine…I’m bare assed in a sauna with a Ukrainian Dude that I don’t really know thats twice my size …and he’s whipping me with tree branches.  Is life too weird or what!  Anyways…as strange as the ordeal may have seemed to me,..its a cool custom.  And now I know what to expect in a Eastern European style bath house. I think I’m going to bring this cultural anomely to the US,….walk into the YMCA coed sauna,…bare naked, armed with a particularly mean tree branch…and commence to give someone a whooopping for their own good..and cultural awareness of course!

Okay, I’m exaggerating, its not really a whipping from a green twig, but more of a flushing from all the green leaves attached to the branch.  At anyway, its enough drama to drive out a demon, or at the least raise your body temperature enough to kill any potential case of the snivels.

As I’ve mentioned before, everything was planned out for me to the hour, the next day- maps were put in my hand, contacts were ready and off I rode to meet up with Borris,..or more correctly Boris’ escort.   I was instructed to make link up with Boris’s assistant at a service station just outside town.  I was told I’d recognize them by their black SUV Lexuses, and was given license plate numbers to verify.  Alexi really went over the top to make sure I didn’t get lost or wander off with the wrong folks.

Sure enough, there were two immaculately clean black SUV lexuses waiting for me. I had the pleasure of introducing myself to a very attractive assistant/translator flanked by a number of well armed body guards. I’d spend the next few days, trading the torn saddle of my motorcycle for the plush leather seat of a Lexus, surrounded by vigilant guards and receiving a personal tour of Dnepropetrosvk from a Ukrainian billionaire.  This was definitely an adventure of its own kind.

Boris is not your average upper class bloke.  He might even be referred to as an eccentric by his business associates, for he chooses to affiliate himself with people and activities from the entire spectrum of society.  He’s not the guy in a 4 piece suite, gingerly sipping a martini at a polo club, but rather causally dressed, perpetually wearing motorcycle boots, and fully keen on worthy pursuits like motorcycles, travel, and swapping a good yarn.  His list of professional pursuits go on for miles,..as does his touring experience in Europe, Russia, Africa, America, and the Middle East.

Dnepropetrosvk is a major industrial center in Ukraine.Its not a tourist attraction in its own right, but Boris’s enthusiasm for his city was contagious and I thoroughly enjoyed the sightseeing.  I found it fascinating that there’s often two or three names for every location,..as each historic power(Cossak, Tzarist, Communist) to control the city enforced names that met their likened their own agenda.  So it’s a bit confusing,..but as Boris is an astute scholar of local history, he managed to answer all my questions.

wwII relics,..check out those Katyusha rockets!

meeting a Russian Orthodox Priest was  a very cool experience.  You will notice some serious wind burn on my face…rode Russia with my windshield up due to cold/condensation problem….gives you that freaky red triangle.

Following the city tour I was put up in yet another 5 star spread,..and instructed to prepare for dinner within the hour, for I would have the  honor of dining with Boris and his family.

I didn’t even know they made hotels like this….there were five rooms for one dirt bag biker and the bar in that pad was better stocked then most pubs.

I wasn’t picked up a black Lexus that night,..instead it was a jacked up ford F350, chromed out.. suitably armed with serious bumping speakers.

The driver, “Little Boris”, managed the mathematically impossible task of maneuvering this massive American monstrosity through the traffic of Dnepropetrosvk, pedal to the medal,  while we jammed to ADCD at stage front decibel levels. Yep,  we got some looks from folks.  A decked out F350 is a big deal in the states, here it was,..well, the only one in the country.

It was a distinct pleasure to meet Boris’ wife and daughter, both which were wonderful hosts, spoke flawless English and offered intriguing conversation.

For the second time in two days I made the painful error of mistaking the appetizer for the main meal,..and nearly killed myself on the main course…which was amazing by the way!  When your absolutely stuffed,..and starting to fear your food,..and it still taste amazing.. that’s when you know its fine dining..and probably worth the pain of overeating!  Besides,..as a biker on the road,..you never know when the next round of good chow is coming your way.  Although, if I used chow to describe the elegant food in that fine diner, the head chef would probably materialize next to me and hit me over head with a sauce pan.  This is a long wordy way to say that the dinner was amazing, and almost as great as the conversation and rich experience with Boris and his beautiful wife and daughter.

A massive party ensued afterwords at the hotel..a story in which I’m sure a few of my friends would love to hear about…however, as I’m going on 10 pages now in an attempt to record this Ukraine experience,..I’ll be withholding certain tales, certain tales that are best recalled in glow of a campfire deep in the backcountry.

After a few hours sleep, I stumbled out bed..not daring to miss my next hit time of 0830. Like I said, everything was planned to the hour. I stood there behind the hotel in anticipation of meeting another famous Ukrainian biker, and supposedly some employees of Boris that would assist me in locating a paragliding spot.

They arrived by private helicopter, as you do…apparently!   Boris in his infinite generosity, loaned me the use of his chopper to run off and look for paragliding sites. As we hovered over the Dneper river, I found myself pondering the extreme weirdness of life….and wondering…did someone really just loan me his helicopter?

Even though they never really pushed me, I found myself under enormous self imposed pressure to get a flight in.  Not only was I using a very expensive recon asset, these guys were particularly interested in seeing how a paraglider works.  At first, the pilot wanted me to jump out the door at 800ft,  which I declined having no D-bag..and nor any experience in launching from a D-bag.

I did my best to explain the terrain and conditions I required for a foot launch.

So we toured around, landing here and there on random hills.

I tried very hard to make it happen, but even with such an incredible asset at my will, I never did find a paraglider launch. The country side was barren of any serious vertical terrain and even a launch from a small hill could have been fatally dangerous due to high winds.  Even with all the assets in the world, I still needed mother nature to play along..and this time she wasn’t game, and I wasn’t going to risk it.

So, I compromised with an impromptu class on the Paraglider.  We landed in a sheltered field behind a random farmhouse,..I pulled out the glider, explained how it worked, hooked in,..and flew the wing from ground handling position.  It certainly wasn’t a big let down,..as it was an epic beautiful experience flying the contours of the Dnieper tributaries.

Afterwords, Volf and I got to know each other over coffee back at the hotel. This is an Adventure biker of the highest order. Riding light on a very capable enduro, he’d ventured far into the exotic lands of southern Kazakistan and beyond.  I liked him even more as he revealed his impossibly difficult ambitions to pioneer new routes in northern Siberia. For me, few attributes offer as much credit to an adventure rider than modestly proposing ridiculously challenging motorcycle adventures that are almost certainly doomed to failure.  Although for the adventure rider,..not having a go at YOUR dream is the only failure,..anything beyond trying is a technicality reserved for bystanders.

In the famous words of Digby the Great of Perth,..while looking at a 10 year old photo taken on the Canning stock route,… “mate, that sand doesn’t look that deep,…f**k it mate,  have a go!”  Truly …words of inspiration!

As Volf and Boris revealed the ethnography of the Dnepro region, I became enamored with Cossack culture and history…an important piece of world history that had evaded my education.

The Dnepro region during the 15th century was quite remote, lightly populated, and offered excellent natural defenses among the islands of the Dneiper river.  The fiercely independent communities that arose from this region produced the unique warrior culture of the Cossacks.  They were a wild look’n bunch, best portrayed in Ilya Yefimovich Repin’s painting, as he captures the historic scene of the Cossacks drafting a letter to the Sultan of Turkey(essentially responding to the Sultan’s demands of servitude, with brash letter of “piss off”) I love this painting!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Repin_Cossacks.jpg

This small yet incredibly capable Cossack culture, became a serious pain in ass for the great empires of Europe, Russia and Turkey.

Over the centuries,..Russia was ultimately able to dominate the Dnepro region, but knowing they’d never fully subdue the Cossacks,..they offered limited autonomy to the  in exchange for military service.  Even today the elite Cossack units continue to augment the Russian army with distinction, and as a people they’ve managed to maintain their culture and independence unlike any other ethnic group in the Russia empire.

Volf presented me with a gift, a pewter cast of a Cossack noble,..which I treasure as both a memory of my friends in Dnepropetrosvk and reminder to approach life with tenacity and courage of the Cossack.

As much fun as I was having in Dnepropetrosvk, Operation Ukrainia and its pressing (albight rewarding) schedule,  mandated that I ride off and see more of the country…gradually riding towards Poland in my typical non linear(circular) fashion.

I had a full days drive ahead of me to get to the next rendezvous point,..Vinitsa. Borris handed me cell phone, told me to drive west for 5 hours until I saw a large white cross, at the cross I was to use the cell phone to call Borris’s buddy in Vinitsa.  After being off the bike for a few days,.I welcomed the open road!

Things had been so unbelievably cherry since I landed in Ukraine, that I had let my guard down.  The people, the soldiers, even the cops had all been very friendly.  So I had neglected to prep my wallet, like I usually in do in case of a squeeze or robbery.   So of course, the one day I’m not prepared, I make contact with corrupt police.

I wasn’t speeding, or doing anything illegal other than sticking out like..well, an American biker in Ukraine.  I was making a right hand turn at about 2 mph, when I got the “stick”. They point this black and white stripped stick at you and motion for you to pull of the road.  I pulled off expecting the usual paper work check and questions about the bike. I was totally caught off guard when they demanded I dismount and get in the police car.  “Damn it,” I was thinking, I knew where things were going.  I just felt super pissed off and I didn’t want to cooperate. I sat there in the car playing word games with coppers for about 20 min, until I realized I was not going to get out of this with out coughing up some cash.   I couldn’t pull the usual,…look this is all I’ve got in my wallet take it,…cus I was actually packing a fat was of cash this time,.. so I had to negotiate.  I ultimately got his asking price cut in half….I’m getting pretty good at this..for a Gringo at least, but I still felt seriously peeved.   I’m willing to bet that convoy I met up with in Mongolia had gotten squeezed by the same guys at the same spot.

Looking back I think I handled the situation poorly and was quite fortunate to have only paid up about 30 USD.  For one, I should have never got off the bike.  Two, I should not have spoken any Russian to them. Three, shit happens, I shouldn’t let it get me riled up, regardless of perceived injustices.  I’m a believer in the saying, “Its not what happens that matters, its how you react”  Whatever,..now I have had the rich experience of occupying the back of not only a Peruvian and Russian cop car, but a Ukrainian cruiser as well…by far the Russian cop car was my favorite.   These sort of experiences, while not exactly on my bucket list, are interesting in their own right.

Everything else ran like clockwork. I arrived at the white cross, dialed the preprogrammed number on the cell phone, and wala!…I was back in the Boris network of super cool people.  Alexi(another Alexi) was immediately likable…something I’ve almost come to expect among Ukrainians.  There’s never a dull moment with these folks

“Chris, are you tired, no! ..good lets ride!”  “But first…lets have a drink!”

“I never drink and drive….but we are going with quads.. different!”

It was whisky, and good whisky at that.  “To your journey,” Ukrainians have a talent for making toasts that are impossible to refuse!”  Then it was onto the quads.  I got a two minute demonstration on how to ride,..since I’m totaly lost on a 4wheeler.  Then it was off into the woods…full speed,…at night!  It scared the shit out of me,..but I’d be lying if I said it wasnt a blast.  Alexi doesnt just ride a quadbike,…he bush bashes with it…no trails,..if he cant go around it,.he just runs over it.

“Dont worry Chris, ….no fear!”  I could kill myself on this thing in a heartbeat, I was thinking.  “Didn’t Gera tell me something about you breaking your neck on this thing last year?”

We were staying at Alexi’s cottage, a beautiful location overlooking a bend in the river.

As amazing as the 5star scene had been over the last week and as thankful as I am for that experience, it was relief to be outside again, grilling on a barbacue, the smell of woodsmoke, cold brisk air,  hanging around a campfire, sleeping in my sleeping bag,..I felt truly comfortable in that setting.  Alexi was into these things to.

Alexi had big plans for me, but a family emergency came up while I was visiting. He insisted that I stay at his cottage for as long as I liked. I thanked him but expressed my desire to continue my journey.  However, an invitation came up from a friend of Alexi. I was to go horseback riding.  Not one to pass up a unique opportunity, I agreed, thinking I’d just leave a bit later in the day.

What was initially an invitation to ride, turned into an amazing day in and around Bratzlav under the wonderful hospitality of Sergey.

I was greeted in the morning by Sergey and his translator. There seems to be consistent correlation between good looks and language ability made evident by translators throughout Ukraine. Irina was no exception to the rule. We sped off into the country side, and I mean SPED, as in raced. I’m thinking that while most of world puts speed limiters on their vehicles…SUVs in Ukraine are not limited,..and only have one speed…pedal to the medal. And the cops new there were consequences to arresting certain vehicles,…this white Toyota being one of them!

I’ve ranted quite a bit about the fall colors in the mostly wooded country side, so I won’t elaborate on how beautiful it was.

I was treated to an excellent and typicaly overdosed country breakfast.  Beer wasn’t offered, it was insisted,…the brew being an appropriate Ukrainian breakfast beverage, as opposed to the preferred vodka, which was reserved for latter in the day.  The meal was followed by coffee of European refinement.

Few things are as satisfying as heavy stomach matched with a caffeine buzz…followed by pleasant walks among romantically crumbling castles nestled in the countryside.

I was fascinated by Sergey’s stories of the region’s noble history.  The land surrounding Bratzlav was at one time encompassed by a polish nobility. It was sort of a buffer zone between the polish sovernity and the ever encroaching Turkish empire.  Local castles had underground tunnels running for miles to enable escape from, or routing of Turkish raiders.

As was the way of the times,..the Bolshivik revolution ended the era of nobility and great estates of the region.  Reining nobles(men women and children) either fled or were shot on the spot. Their estates and palaces were converted into social service centers  such sanitoriums and hospitals. Although it makes a lot sense to serve the greater social good, the demise of nobility came at the price of gradual degradation of the once incredibly beautiful architecture and landscape.  Although I reminisce about the age of great estates and castles, I assume the communist revolution was a direct response to a top heavy and mismanaged society. Good or bad is irrelevant, as it was the course of a very rich history, and Sergey was proud of it, as he should be.

I had the unique experience of visiting Sergey’s factory,..where various farming equipment was produced to meet the growing demands of an international market. I gathered,  that by manufacturing in Ukraine he was able to undercut European prices with high quality product.  I recall him offering me hundred US dollars,..if I could break one his milking machine adapters.  After a valiant attempt on my part, I failed miserably,..but only for lack of C4 plastic explosives J  and a D9 dozer.

Ultimately we arrived at his private stables.  I personally met all of his 15 or so horses, which he clearly adored as his own children.

Some of these were extremely high end breeds.  I was given a ride on the Ukraine’s latest champion jumper- a magnificent and spirited creature.

The ride was followed by dinner at the stables.  A massive spread of food was placed before us, in addition to a case of vodka.

Here I developed a real taste for caviar…something that had(for good reasons) evaded my biker’s diet over the years. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting a number of his friends and his beautiful wife…who spoke immaculate English.

Each toast was more sentimental then the last. With such sincere and meaningful speeches, raising the glass becomes a matter of honor and not to be refused.  Sergey was a gentleman however, and upon my request began pouring half shots for me..so I’d survive the night.   It was a warm wonderful experience and I could never fully relate the profoundness and sincerity of their hospitality.

The following morning I was treated to breakfast, a full tank, and topped off on oil.  Naturally drawn to the open road,..I was ready to go,..but I left Ukraine with a heavy heart and a life time of warm memories. Who would have guessed the Ukrainians would have embraced me as they had. And therein lies the beauty of riding the world on a motorcycle.

Journal Siberia in October

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Winter!    That’s what was riding heavily on my mind.  I pulled off my helmet, reluctantly detached the electric vest, and I sauntered over to the gate to peer through the barbwire.  Things were looking a bit ominous.  There was no sign of life at the Russian border post.  “No man’s land”, that bit of space between border crossings is always a bit strange.  You’re not legally in any country.  And today’s bit of “no mans land” was at 11,000 feet, with out a tree or any friendly looking scrub in site…..and then the weather with its infinite sense humor decided roll in some of those mean looking clouds to accompany the already strong mountain winds.  As the first few drops of snow landed on my nose, I briefly considered fleeing back to the smiling faces and lower altitudes of Mongolia.

After about 10 minutes, life did emerge from a nearby cabin on the other side of the fence.  A heavy set Russian lady in military garb peered at me from the doorway.  My spirits soared,…and then sank, as she reached inside the door, pulled out a broom, and began sweeping the snow off the cabin steps.  I called out a greeting in Russian, and she barked something back that I deducted was either, “hold on I’ll be there in just a minute”,..or “get lost!”.   My Russian is extremely limited, but I pinned my hopes on the first of the two possibilities.

To my enormous relief, after sweeping the steps, she arrived on the other side of the fence directly across from me.  I gave her my most convincing smile and pushed my documents through a gap in the barbwire.  She didn’t return the smile, but she did take the documents, which was a good sign.  Anything other then being waved off or ignored is a good sign at a border post.  And, having handed over the documents I could now slip my bare fingers under my jacket and out of the numbing wind. Things were going well!

She trudged back to the cabin with my registration and passport as I remained on the other side of fence hoping I’d get through this before the weather decided to drop something nasty.

Another 15 minutes passed before she reemerged from the warmth of the cabin.  She came down and opened the gate, ushered me through, handed back my documents, closed the gate and quickly returned to the warmth of her lonely outpost.   I was back in Russia!

I sort of figured there was more to the border crossing than what I’d just bumped through.  Even though there was no other traffic, and it was a lonely dirt road, I was pretty sure this was one of the two biggest crossing points between Mongolia and Russia.  At any rate the good dirt road was drawing me down off the mountain pass and into warmer climes.

About five miles down the road a massive and very modern looking vehicle control point loomed over the road.  Yep,..this was customs. The post on the border must have served the duel purpose of preliminary check point and locale for government workers in exile.

I pulled up to the gate, where I was directed to back up 50 meters for a quarantine wash…..ahhhh the never ending Mongolian cattle plague. Then I wandered around poking my head in various offices and causing enough friendly annoyance to warrant being dealt with.  You think I’d have the whole border crossing thing down by now,…but the fact is they are all different and when you don’t have a fixer(and I never do),..optimism and fortitude are your only assets.  The Russian guards might not be the friendliest folks on earth, but they were professional and entry fees were legitimate and reasonable.  Come to think of it, I don’t believe I was ever truly ripped off by anyone in Russia.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog,…there’s nothing quite like the high of being disgorged out of netherworld of customs and freed to roam a new land on a motorcycle.

I’d already done some big miles traveling through the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia.  But this was Western Siberia!  There’s mountains out here, big uns!

I’d been told by all who’d gone before me that the Altai region was going to be a rock’n ride.  This was true…and what a pleasant transition from Mongolia.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d rate Mongolia as one of top three riding destinations in the world, but after weeks of rugged dirt rides, a weary rider and machine were feeling quite receptive towards the smooth Russian tarmac.  The nature of the pavement emboldened my vision of pulling off huge miles and arriving in Europe before Siberia earned its reputation.   There was even a twinge of evening sun lighting up the road ahead.

The Altai region blessed me with two days of stable weather, great camping, and luxurious mountain twisties.  Sure, it was not the recommended time of year to be touring through Siberia on a motorcycle, but hey…the fall colors in the Altai are absolutely spectacular.  I’d pull around a corner, leaning into the curve, slicing through a shower of golden leaves, experiencing an in depth appreciation for the beauty of riding in Autumn.

Ironically, the temps dropped with the elevation as I exited the Altai and arrived on the flats of Western Siberia.  The sun slid from view, fog rolled in over the fields and a blanket of clouds sank in among the tree tops. This soul sapping dreary weather rode with me until the very day I left Russia.

Even with my electric vest I was alarmingly cold.  I was in denial, as the previous day I had overheated even with the vest turned off.  Traffic was bit heavy, as I was now either in or between major industrial centers. I had jockeyed hard to get around various truck convoys and the idea of pulling over to refit with warmer clothing wasn’t appealing.  I had on my light GS gloves with the heated grips cranked up, but the two were no match for the icy wind.  For whatever reason(lack of discipline) I decided to push on to some  promising looking café for lunch.  That café arrived about 50 miles later and I earned myself a gray patch under my right pinky fingernail.  There’s only one reason for frostnip,…bad decision making.

From this day forward I rode with winter mits, and every possible layer I had….and I needed it.  With everything I had- top of the line mountaineering baselayers, prima loft jacket, full rallye suit with liner, heated grips, heated vest, and balaclava…I still wasn’t warm,..but it was enough to keep me going.  Some Red hot Chilli Peppers on my MP3 player also helped.

I never saw another biker, and I got a lot of weird looks. Every time I pulled in for fuel or for food, I knew I was going to be the resident freak show.  Sometimes people were really friendly, but usually it was about 5 to 10 unemployed guys standing around the service station frowning at me.  I realize that this should be expected as I might be an unusual sight in these parts, but nevertheless it started to really get to me.  I often felt a bit intimidated in Russia.  However, there are always good people to be found in all regions of the globe, and fortunately they often find me.

I’d just exited a hotel in Ekaterinburg and was returning to my bike when I found a well dressed guy on a scooter admiring my crusty GS.  Some people can perceive my bike not for the weathered, dirty and cosmetic disaster that it is, but for the far away places, exotic stories, epic adventures and misadventures that it represents. I like these people. Folks that admire a dirty adventure bike are of my own heart.  Stanz and I became friends for the brief time I was in Ekaterinburg.  And I’m seriously in his debt for the 4 SD cards he hooked me up with….loaded with routable GPS maps of Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czech and Germany. Stanz is the man!

I never took a wrong turn again from that day forward.  Okay, that’s not really true,…but those digital maps were an enormous asset.

I primarily camped my way across Russia.  Not only were there loads of good campsites, but in the land no fences it was all legal.  I’d always check my map to ensure I was at least 10 miles from any metropolis,..then, as evening drew near, I’d scan the road side for that inviting dirt track leading off the tarmac and into the woods.

The only issue with camping across Russia is dealing with the visa registration.  The Russian government insists on registering at a hotel within 3 days of entering the country,..and every consecutive hotel as well.  It must be some vintage tracking system from the cold war era.  There is a gray area involving exactly how many times you’re suppose to register the visa, so I simply did it once after entering the country.

While local tourism exists on a moderate scale, foreign tourism this deep into the country is rare, and its virtually nonexistent beyond the Trans Siberian rail line. There’s plenty of hotels in each city, but some of them don’t accept foreigners and most of them won’t provide for the visa registration.  I found myself limited to an upscale hotel in Ekaterinburg, as it was the only one I could find that would register the visa.  It feels weird transitioning from camping to a luxury hotel room for a night.

In all my time in Russia I stayed in four hotels.  All of them were expensive, most of them offered good service, and all of them were built and maintained to soviet standard- for example,..as I stepped into the shower in Ekaterinburg and turned on the water, the shower head detached from the pipe and struck me in forehead.  However, a small bump in the forehead and a busted shower head are trivial compared the joys of hot water!   I simply left the showerhead on the floor and messed with the piping until I could get under it…sort of like showering under a garden hose.

I’m pretty cautious when it comes to animal hazards on the road. Even if the cows or what ever are not even on the road,..if there’s no fence between them and the tarmac, I’m slowing down and preparing for evasive maneuver.  With the exception of some large birds, I’d been quite fortunate thus far.  But what can you do when you unexpectedly come across a cat eating a dead cat…in the middle of the road.  Nothing!

I had just entered a small town. There was a lot going on, a lot of hazards to focus on…numerous people on or near the street, moderate traffic, and I had a turn coming up that I didn’t want to miss.  By the time I realized there was cat looking up at me with furry bit of carrion in his mouth,…there was no time to stop.  The GS suspension managed to absorb this far better than my conscience. I could already picture some cute little girl posting up wanted signs for a missing cat. However I didn’t deem it safe to stop. I had a weird vibe about this town and all the frowning faces,….and this was before I killed their cat,..so I put palm to throttle.

But Karma is real bitch. 10 miles down the road I realized that I’d missed my turn.  Over the drama of a very flat cat, I had ridden right past my exit.  In fact the exit was at the exact spot that I hit the cat.  So I had to ride right back into town, gingerly drive around the carnage, and take my exit., all the while being smothered in deserved evil looks from all the locals. I was not at my best that day.

The farther west I traveled in Russia, the more police I saw.  In fact I’ve never seen so many cops anywhere in my life.  It was killing my mileage, because I’d have slow down to 30km an hour at every check point, and in some places there were cops every 10 kilometers.  It was insane.  I’m guessing its the governments solution to unemployment.  Give’em a badge and a gun and put’em out there.  They don’t need much of a salary because they’ll win most of it off the streets.  That said, I cant complain much about the police in Russia, 9 times out 10 they were professional and courteous.  However, they did get me once!

I was putting in as many miles as I could each day…just to get through to the warmer climes of Europe as soon as possible.  Every day was devoted to riding,..sun up to sun down.  I’d arise before dawn,..pack up my kit, and be riding just as the sun came up.  And this was one of those days.  I had just popped out of my middle-of-nowhere campsite and was riding on deserted bit of highway in Western Siberia.  Normally I’m careful to never be the fastest guy on the road. This technique had kept me ticket free for the entire tour.  But this morning it was just me on the road,  no one to gauge my speed off of,..and I was a little heavy on the throttle.  I was speeding.  And sure enough, I got tagged on radar as I came over a hill.  I spent the next 20 minutes in the back of Russian Police car negotiating my “fine”.

These guys were all right.  I was in the wrong and I knew it.  They may have been driving a crappy Lada, but it was loaded with digital video recorder/radar and modern radios. It would be stupid to run from these guys.  I had my wallet prepped for this occasion,..and I made a point of letting them see me pull every bill out and hand it over. The law officer took the cash, then, to my enormous surprise, he pulled a few notes and handed them back to me…so as not to totally clean me out.  What a gentleman!  He had left me enough for lunch with out me having to dig into my secret reserves.  I toasted the Russian police at the next café….and… I slowed down.

For the first day in weeks, it was sunny.  Probably because I was on the border leaving Russia.  The army dude at the border spoke one word of English, “present”.  He made it clear that I had to cough up some sort of present in order to exit the country.  “Is this shit ever going to end”, I thought to myself.   I decided to start low and then bid my way up…so I pulled a souvenir stuffed koala bear out my magic bag of border crossing tricks and handed it over,…all the while making a big deal out of how it was from “Australia!”  The heavy set staff soldier must have had kids, or personal fascination for cute toys.  He let me leave Russia, and I was ready.

Journal Jan, Olgi, and the Kazakhs

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The funny thing about flying off mountains is that I never seem to end up landing at camp.  My priorities change dramatically as the ground is jerked out from under me and the thin mountain air takes punches at my glider. Suddenly its all about avoiding turbulence and landing in the safest possible location, wherever it may be.  All those ground issue (like getting back to camp) are insignificant compared to issues you face in the air.  Subsequently I landed miles from camp and had to ford one river, and cross 2 valleys, climb three ridges…and finally with enormous relief I was soaking my swollen feet in an icy creek a few yards from my tent.

Having pushed hard for 13 hours on a few hours of sleep, I knew rest and food were in order before I muscled the bike out of the mountains. To tired to cook, I shoveled a fistful of dry noodles in my mouth, and settled into my tent for some rack time.  But all the day’s excitement and the prospects of an enormous hot meal somewhere over the horizon, kept me awake.  And then there were concerns of that nasty little creek I had to cross to get back on the main track to Olgi.   I managed a little shut eye, but then bolted upright with the notion that a hot, restaurant prepared meal was the most important thing in the world at that moment.

I’m a super big fan of monster enduros like my R1150GS Adventure, you can do just about anything…its just harder, and its harder than hard when you’re tired. I dropped the bike right off the bat as I was backing it up over rocks in the yak corral.  “Good start dude” I remarked, with no shame in talking trash to myself at this point in the tour.

However, the truth is that the backcountry campsite is a motorcycle’s favorite local for a dirt nap. It will just fall over by itself as the rough untrodden terrain seduces the bike off its rubber and into the terra unfirma.  You might as well grab the front wheel of the downed bike,..drag it 10 meters out the campsite and then right it,…safely out of reach of the campsite gravity mistress.

Once you’re actually on the track and you’ve got momentum…you’ve got balance, rhythm, and focus all on your side.  Even the creek crossing went well, although my boots hold water better than most aquariums.  Thoughts of having the luxury of gortex socks kept my feet warm as the temps dropped below freezing,(overheating my torso with the heated jacket was the real savior on appendages).  Tired, wet, but cranking down the miles, things were going smoothly!

It also helped that I was aware of how tired I was and I knew that this is when mistakes and injuries happen. When I’m clued in to a potentially bad situation, this is when I’m riding my best regardless of circumstances. Its those damn sunny Sundays that blind side me (reference Tawoomba Australia).

I rode and rode and rode late into the night, driven hard by my relentless slavedriving stomach (named Gladys). Gladys must be satisfied at all costs!  It was tough, and kinda stupid. What little traffic I came across always abused their highbeams as I closed in,..with a sort of wow, we should blind that biker so we can google at him- kind of mentality.  I took it slow, real slow in many parts.  The gravel techniques I’d learned Australia saved my ass again and again.  But it all worked, and by 9pm I was quickening my pace with the welcoming sight of city lights beckoning ahead.

It was a short stop outside town for a police search on my kit, then I was in like Flyn(my buddy Quin tells me Errol Flynn was pretty good with the ladies, I’m guessing that’s were the saying came from…but I digress).

A rogue and dangerous biker stomach was slipping through the main drag hunting down some chow.  New towns always take a bit to figure out, especially in the dark, but it wasn’t long before I was treating myself at a classy sit-down restaurant.  It was two beers, two waters, and two dinners before I happily lurched out of the establishment, much to the relief of those well dressed diners that had actually bathed that day.

The hotel not only advertised hot water….but actually had hot water!  And the pretty Mongolian lady was nice and had that charming smile,..so I signed in for a couple nights.  It was a rest well earned.  There was a disco going full blast downstairs but that didn’t stop me from sleeping like a dead man.

So this is Mongolia West,…Muslim Kazakh country.  They’re a noticeably different culture from the typical Mongolian.   Although far more conservative than the Mongols, I found the Kazakhs to be friendly, polite and hospitable.

As I’ve mentioned before, Mongolia’s beauty lies in its natural environment and its people, and not in its towns (with the exception of Tsetserleg and Kharkhorin).  However, Olgii was pretty good.  Chow was easy to come by, and each new food joint I experimented with turned out to be better then the last.

Anything associating culture, such as a museum, is quite hard to find in a soviet founded metropolis.  So it was much to my surprise that the biggest building in town was the museum.  I’d like to say I’m a super savvy international man of mystery, but the fact is I stick out of the crowd like a typical lost Caucasian tourist.  The curators of the museum, demonstrating either desperation or, or a great enthusiasm for their profession, hawked me off the streets and shuffled me into the museum.  I paid a few bucks and paid witness to an extensive collection of historic artifacts in addition to an educational display of stuffed local critters.

After two fascinating hours cruising the 3 floors, I was making my retreat, but was..of course… ushered into the souvenir shop.  At this point of my tour I’m about sick of souvenirs, which are dead weight on a motorcycle. I respectively declined, although the marmot fur horseman hat was tempting.

There was certain chill in the air I hadn’t felt before and it had me a bit worried.  Sure, I had taken some cold days on mountain passes, and temps usually fell below freezing at night, but over all my September ride in Mongolia had been dominated by ridiculously beautiful days.  But now was different. The dusty wind screamed down main street reeking of winter.  The realization that I had yet to get through Russia’s Western Siberia further chilled my bones.  I suddenly experienced a revelation  -to get on with bike maintenance and get out of Dodge.

I’d barely set wrench to bike, when I was addressed by an obviously American voice.  I had the great pleasure to meet Jan, the photographer/Anesthesiologist(Dr Happy) from Alaska.

I hadn’t had the good fortune of an Alaskan for company since the crazies I met in Baja living out of a teepee.

Jake in Baja

Alaskans are great folks in my book. Having put in a summer with the Alaskan fishing industry back in the college days, I feel like I’m free to give some opinion on those Northern types.  Alaskan folks, none of which are completely sane, are always a sure bet for a good time.

So Jan and I hit a local pub and over a few beers I scored an invitation to join him into the hills in search of the famed Kazakh Eagle Hunters. Ever since a co worker and friend back in Perth showed me this you tube video(below) I’d been looking for a way to witness some of this first hand.

YouTube Preview Image

here’s another good vid of these Golden Eagles taking out prey 3 times their size

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The following day I linked up with Jan who was standing by with a soviet era UAZ Jeep and kazakh driver.  It was good times all around with Jan, who was not only great company, but scored me access into the homes of the kazakh eagle hunters.   This is what travel is all about, never refuse an invitation and always revel in the great company of locals and fellow adventure travelers(especially the weird ones).

above)-I have a feeling that if I took off that hood, it would eat me.

below) thanks for the poser shot Jan!  See you on the next ride!

I knew I needed to get going, get going to Russia that is.  But I was dragging my feet a bit,  even with winter looming on the horizon.  Its hard to explain, but I thought that this was the end of my adventure.  Sure, I still planned to complete a circumnavigation of the globe by riding from Mongolia to Europe, so there were still massive miles between me the end of the tour.  But in my mind adventure touring was tied closely to dirt tracks, remote territories and exotic peoples, and I figured as I drew closer to Europe, previous days oozing with glorious adventure would fade into long tarmac rides and vistas limited to industrial monotony.  But I had a lot to learn.  Although I still favor experiences of the knobby tread type, I would come to accept that adventure comes in many forms, and I was in for some pretty wild shit  in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czech and Germany.  But I’ll get to blogging on that next week.

Journal In Search of Big Air

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Even though the mean elevation of the Gobi Altai is relatively low, the region boasts some of the highest summits in the country.  Massive plateaus and mountains rise out of the desert plains forming impressive valley walls.  Although only a handful of these summits reach as much as 14,000 feet, many of them are glaciated and provide technical challenges for those who love the climb.

I was eyeballing various peaks as I rode towards khovd in hopes of a good climb and possibly some flying.  However, I was low on water and food, and foul weather made the peaks look particularly ominous.  Following a two day run from Altai I arrived in Khovd and picked out a hotel.

After a heavy dose of attention upon entering town it is was a treat to shut the door of the hotel room, plop down on the bed and relax for a bit.  I had just pulled off my boots when I got a knock on the door.  Before I could even answer a Mongolian man entered, followed by another man, then a woman, and then another woman.  These were the days before I learned to lock my door.

The quadruplet had arrived to change a light bulb in the hotel room.    I retreated to the corner of the room, sat on the bed and watched the show.   This was apparently a four man job.  The oldest man of the group, aging about 60 sat down on the bed next to me.  He was clearly the operational controller.  This was made evident by his authoritative finger pointing and commanding attire. Dressed for Mongol success, the old gentleman donned a white tailored shirt, proper sporting jacket, tie, and blue streaked MC hammer type pants.

The second man was the handyman. In an effort to reach the light bulb and exhibiting his concern for etiquette, he rolled the sheets back and stepped onto the mattress,..leaving a behind size 7 footprint.  The handyman removed the light bulb bracket with a screw driver, then unscrewed the light bulb. Why he unscrewed the bracket from the wall, I have no idea.  Maybe it was the directors idea…perhaps the “Hammer Pants” had spoken.

Supporting this effort were two the two women. One was probably the hotel manager.  She would have been in charge of changing the lightbulb,..but she didn’t have cool pants and simply observed from the door way. And the other lady was the assistant of the manger lady.  She assisted the manager in watching handyman unscrew the light bulb.   The light bulb was ultimately removed, but the “pants man” was now more interested in my kit.  He was poking various things as I begin zipping up bags and closing containers.  Satisfied that I wasn’t carrying anything interesting, the old man returned his attention to the task at hand.  From his leather satchel he produced a new light bulb and passed it over to the handyman.  The handy man jumped back on the bed, screwed the bracket back in, and then attempted to screw in the light bulb.  For some intuitive reason, I was not surprised to see that the new light bulb didn’t fit.  After a few more tries at forcing in the incorrect light bulb, the handy man gave up…and to my enormous relief the entire entourage called it day and evacuated the room.

Having lost my shades in Tsenkher, I knew I’d need another pair if I was to be climbing on any snow capped or glaciated peaks.  So ventured into the market to shop in search of sunglasses.  The markets in Mongolia are usually walled and require a minor entrance fee to gain access.  I got that weird feeling that I was being ripped off by the shady gate guy, …ahh the good ole gringo tax…its not always easy being a pasty white dude!  I refused to pay and chose to go to another gate. At this entry point I waited for local to come through.  Watching what she paid, I learned the amount and made entry for 1/10th the price asked of me at the other gate.  Okay, we are talking peanuts here, but I think its good to roll as the locals when ever possible. No sense in making a point of flashing money everywhere and reinforcing the local perception that westerners are merely animated ATM machines.

I found myself some classy looking Armani shades… that’s how I roll, high end Italian or nothing!  I’m sure they are fully authentic…there was even a little Armani sticker to prove it!  For two dollars I was walking way with some slick shades on.  But things looked kinda weird through the lenses…and I started feeling a bit noxious.  Whatever, it’s a small price to pay for looking cool-which is sooo important in Mongolia!  I handed the glasses to some kids and then scored the world’s worst Oakley knockoff as a replacement,..not quite as styl’n but at least I could wear the glasses and still walk in a strait line.

Fed, rested and fueled I rolled out of Khovd.  A kilometer out of town the pavement gave way to random desert tracks flowing off into the distance for as far as the eye could see.

An hour or two into the ride I caught site of this.

I hadn’t seen real glacier since Bolivia over a year ago. I was about 60 kilometers from the mountain, but what details I could make out suggested that this was what I was looking for in terms of “big air”.   Climbing on the mountain would be rewarding in itself, standing on the top would be kudos,but actually flying off the summit glacier,…that would be full on!.

note, its 2am and I might get carried away…so if your not the avid reader type you can just skip to the end of this post for the short video.

I had a lot of kit, but what I was missing was a good map.  My national road map wasn’t giving me any clues on how to get in close to the mountain.  I picked out the tastiest looking side track, drifted off the main route and rolled toward the mountain.  The terrain wasn’t as easy as the north-middle regions of Mongolia.  In the creek beds, softball size rocks kept me fighting to keep my wheels in line.  The water wasn’t deep, but it proved to be the more difficult crossings I’d done due to fast water, big mossy rocks and steep river banks.  Once I had gained some ground it was good fast riding along old tracks.

I could see a number of man made rock shelters and livestock corrals in the area, but the place was deserted.  There was not a soul for as far as I could see and I figured that herdsman had taken their livestock to lower elevations in preparation winter. As I gained altitude the desert terrain transitioned to lush flowered meadows divided by gushing glacier fed streams. I pushed for as far as I could find tracks, eventually landing at an abandoned ger camp in a canyon.

It was 5 star camping…..the standard in Mongolia.

With out a good map it was difficult to plan the ascent.  I’d never been on such a big mountain with out good route information.  Although the lack of intel reduced my chances of a successful summit bid, the feeling of climbing into the unknown was thrilling.  I was more than excited to see what was up there. I’d have started up the mountain that very night, but I didn’t want to be stuck for hours on a very cold summit waiting for a sunrise.  I brainstormed over dinner, munching on noodles and trying to come up with good courses of action. I ultimately decided on a 2am wake up, hoping it was enough time to get to the summit by sunrise.

When planning a flight in an unfamiliar area, I always try to launch around dawn before the winds pick up. Some times it works, some times it doesn’t.  I’ve got about a 70% success rate on climb and flys.  The 20% being long and humbling down climbs lugging a useless glider on my back.

I decided to carry enough kit to keep me going for three days.

There are three variables I was concerned about: wind direction, wind speed, and terrain.  With three days worth of kit, I could fly off the mountain in any direction and work my way to a ger camp to hire a horse or whatever.  Its nice to fly back to camp, but not always possible.  In theory this would mitigate the variables of wind direction and terrain.

By the time I had eaten dinner, packed, and filtered water it was 11pm.  Normally it takes me a bit to sleep before a summit bid.  The night plays your fears and smothers you with worst case scenarios.  But with a good plan and fatigue from a day of riding, I slept like a rock.

At 2 AM my watch alarm brought me around.  It took a lot of motivation to pry myself out of a cozy sleeping bag and expose myself to the frosty night air.  I was cold, and a bit tired, but super excited for the climb.  ACDC pumped in my headphones as I prepped my gear and pushed down as much food and hot tea as I could manage.  By 3 AM, my kit was ready, breakfast was devoured, and everything was locked to the bike.  I was on the move.

Even in subfreezing temperatures, the hard cardio work out of steep terrain had me striping down to my base layers.  It was a moonless night, so the stars were abound.  In my entire life so far I’ve only seen two really really big shooting stars. One was when I was a kid backpacking in Philmont New Mexico and the other was on this night in Mongolia.   It was a massive orange star burning a streak across the Mongolian night sky for what seemed like forever.

As I gained altitude, I began to get a feel for the terrain and the climb ahead.  I had started a looooong way from the summit.  I was essentially traversing the slopes of a massive plateau.

It was tough going.  I’d top out on a ridge and then be forced to down climb a valley just to repeat this over and over again.  It was hard work and I wasn’t making very good time.  However, I was feeling strong and weather was stable so I just kept pushing for what I figured was the summit.

The sun began to creep up and I was still a long ways from the glacier.

But the weather was still good and I could now see the glacier, so I pushed on.  There was absolutely no trail to be found.  It was all a game of route finding and I wasn’t really winning. After needlessly wasting a lot of energy negotiating some hidden ravines, I ultimately arrived at the glacier.  I pushed some water and food down, slipped on my crampons and grabbed my ice axe off my pack.

It felt sooooo good to sink my crampons into firm ice as opposed to the loose scree I’d been climbing below the glacier.  I was loving it.  Sure, I was behind schedule to fly, but the weather was holding, I was feeling strong, and it was just a pleasure to climbing.

I reached the top of the glacier at 1000am.

It was a far cry from summiting at sunrise like I’d planned.  I had already written off the possibility of a flight and had simply settled for enjoying the climb.   However, two strange things occurred to me on the top of the glacier.  One was the realization that I was still (after 8 hours of hard climbing) a long way from the actual mountain summit, or any summit for that matter.  This was a strange mountain,..actually its not a mountain but a plataue with a serious of summits on top.

I had no idea which summit was actually the highest.  In addition, none of the summits were reasonably accessible from my position.  There was a long climb on  risky terrain between myself and the other summits.  I’m willing to travel solo on a glacier for limited stretches under certain circumstances that I deem safe, but the route ahead was serous shit.   With a partner, rope, snow stakes and ice screws, it would be a go, but I felt it was out of the question for me to run it solo.

note

(I was on the wrong side of the mountain. More recent information would lead me to believe that this mountain is not hard to climb if you come from the N West side.  Later I learned that with a hired jeep you can get to another glacier, where you could probably top out on the summit in a few hours.  Whatever : )

The second strange thing that occurred to me was the weather.  It was perfect!  The sun was bringing the temps above freezing, but there was only limited thermic activity and a slight 5km prevailing wind.  Its unusual to find such light conditions in the middle of the day at this altitude.

Wind direction was not ideal…I was essentially in the lee side of the mountain. Normally I would never launch this site with a leeward wind, but the wind was so light I figured the rotor would be slight or nothing, and I had a massive bowl between me and the nearest summit,  allowing me to launch into the wind and towards the mountain,..and then once stabilized I could turn and run with the wind.

the bowl I launched into

It was a little tricky, but with plenty of vertical drop and light winds,…I figured I could fly it safely.

I’d always wanted to fly off a glacier…so I was thrilled to be on the verge of realizing the goal.  It would have been handy to have a couple sticks to secure the glider to the snow as she was in constant threat of sliping down the glacier.  Some how I got it to hold fast just long enough for me to hook in.

Like taking a big drop on skis or a snowboard,..what you do right before you leave the ground determines whether you fly or fall.  Its about not holding back, going hard and giving it all you’ve got. The slightest hesitation and the wing will deflate,..possibly as you step off the edge…not ideal!  So it’s a full on charge right over the edge!

okay,..here’s a quick vid

http://www.vimeo.com/16488291

Journal Gobi-Altai

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The great Gobi Desert reaches up from China and sweeps into southern Mongolia where it eventually transitions into the Mongolian highlands to the north, the Russian Altai to the west, or the great plains of eastern Mongolia.  I rode for about a week in the Gobi Altai region, privileged with desert tracks and tasty options for exploring the valley walls up into the snowline.  This is a harsh and magnificent place.

Its a major transition from the rolling green valley’s and tree topped mountains of the highlands to the north.  The ger camps here are few and far between, requiring vast stretches of desert to support their herds.

Round one for Mongolia! :)

The windblown town of Altai drew me in for fuel and food.  Everything was pretty average,..kinda of an unappealing place limited to concrete soviet style apartments.  Mongolia’s beauty lies not in its cities, but in its captivating natural landscape.  Perhaps that why Ghengis khan never invested much in building cities or monuments.  How could he compete with the natural beauty of his homeland?   What few ancient cities existed in Mongolia were used as trade depots and congregations for foreigners, while the majority of the Mongolian preferred the autonomy and open space of the ger camps.

One thing I sometimes struggled with in regards to the locals was the hands on approach to curiosity over my motorcycle.  Typical of this end of the world, the sense of personal space doesn’t exist, so they crowd in on me as soon as I pull into town.  It’s a bit claustrophobic as hands go everywhere on the motorcycle and I can barely move to put the kickstand out.  A favorite place for them to grab is the throttle. There’s not the  slightest bit of hesitation in walking up and rolling the throttle regardless if my hands is on it or not.  This seriously pisses me off! At one point I was about to set off– left hand was just sliding off the clutch and right hand was gently pulling on the throttle, when a kid grabbed the throttle over my hand and rocked it back, mean-while two other kids stepped in front of the bike.  It was a hairs breath from me running over the two kids as the other kid rocked the throttle.  Fortunately I subconsciously pulled in the clutch, and nothing dramatic occurred.  I wanted to belt the kid. But what can you do,..nothing, its their culture, their country and I’m just a guest passing through.  I will add that frustrations in dealing with throngs of aggressive kids was only ever in issue in the Gobi Altai region.  In most places the Mongolian children were well behaved and under close supervision, especially in the ger camps off the beaten track.

It was perhaps 200 kilometers of well graded road followed by about 300 kilometers of great desert track.

There’s no such thing as too much good luck, so in hopes of upping my game I paid my respects to a desert Ovoo.

Ovoos are very cool.  A sort of portal to the spirits in the form of a rock cairn adorned with blue silk and located in far away windy places….any where in the middle of nowhere is suitable for an Ovoo.  You’ve got to put forth an offering and than circle the ovoo three times.  One shot of vodka for me and 4 for the ovoo, then it was a DD test to ride the bike around the rock cairn three times.YouTube Preview Image

As far as the Ovoo thing went, I might have screwed something up.  Reminds me of that scene in the movie “Army of Darkness” when he screws up the ritual.  Anyways, not five kilometers down the road I can see a massive storm building in the distance.

The wall of dust and dark clouds stretched across the entire valley and was approaching at an alarming rate.  I pulled over, snapped some photos and tried to figure out what to do.  I could make a run off road for the hills and try to shelter it out in a draw.  I could sit it out alongside the road and if it was a proper sand storm I could drop the bike and lay behind it under a tarp.  Or I could ride on into it and have go!  I could always stop if things got nasty.  Like most things, it wasn’t as bad as it looked.  The dust storm was only a 300meter thick wall of sand kicked up before the storm.  Once I got into the storm proper, it was high winds and rain.  I just put her in second gear, trudged forward.  This is one of those times when a big heavy BMW earns its pay as it muscles through the mud and high winds with out a care in the world. You might even say the bike and I enjoyed it!  An hour later I emerged on the other side to a magnificent sunset.  Sailors, mountaineers and pilots are privileged to know that mystical and beautiful vista that materializes in the aftermath of a big storm.



broken exhaust pipe mount...the toll of off good gobi vibrations

Bailing wire fixes all!

Cold clean air, bright blue skies, and infinite views…inspiration is everywhere out here.

Journal Tsenkher and Beyond

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Even in the big city you’ll find folks living out of gers.  They’re spacious, warm and perfect for drying out wet boots.

But I didn’t linger long in Ulaan Bataar.  I was eager to push on into central Mongolia and I was soon on the move.  It was an hour of tough traffic just to exit the city. However, once I was free of the urban grind, the Mongolia I had envisioned begin to materialize before me and exceed my expectations.

It was the vast tracks of wild land as in Eastern Mongolia, except the terrain here was further graced with mountains, canyons and the occasional stretch of sand dunes.  As the day drew to a close I started eyeballing potential camping spots.  An isolated draw leading off the valley wall drew me in. As you do in Mongolia, I simply pulled off the main route, pointed my front tire towards good camping terrain and drove several kilometers off road until I was at the base of the mountain.  

There were certain pleasing amenities at this campsite, like paragliding launches. I put off setting camp, rucked up, and began ascending the mountain.  While scanning ahead for the best launch zone I spotted a herd of elk along the ridge top just above me.  They were pretty far off, and I was doubting myself on if they were truly elk or some other ungulate.  I didn’t think that elk frequented this end of the world, but those animals certainly weren’t deer or ibex.

It was a relaxing, sunset glide back to within a few feet of my motorcycle.

view from launch

As temperatures seemed to be dropping further each consecutive night, I was becoming more and more familiar with certain cold spots in my worn out sleeping bag.  From this night forward I’d be sleeping in full Capilene 4 Patagonia long underwear and my Primaloft insulated jacket.

My doubts about the elk siteing were dissolved at dawn when I heard the their tell- tale bugling from a nearby draw.  There are elk in Mongolia, along with loads of other cool animals, like bear, fox, marten, wolves, wolverine, wild boar, and snow leopard.

It often takes me a few hours to break camp and ride off.  I know that sounds like a lot, even I’m still amazed how long it takes me to pack up and do maintenance.  Along with packing up there is always something that needs to be tightened, sewn or glued back in place.  On this particular morning it was stove maintenance.

The MSR Whisperlite International stove is a rock solid device that can burn just about any fuel.  However, I’ve been running auto petrol in it for two years, which is not clean burning like the white gas usually used with camp stoves.  There was a nasty carbon build up and the stove was barely operable.  Armed with my Leatherman, I dismantled the stove and washed each piece in my “solvent washer”(dug a depression in the ground, lined it with a plastic bag, then poured gasoline into the bowl for washing parts)  An hour later the stove was operating like new, I reeked of gasoline, and my fingernails were stained black.

I have already mentioned my excitement over the Bactrian Camels, but this day I would come across yet another exotic critter.  I’d always wanted to see a yak, and this was my day.

Since this occasion I’ve seen them everywhere, including on my dinner plate.  Since your average cow would not survive the winter out here and Mongolians are enthusiastic meat eaters, yaks got the job.  Their brilliantly adapted to the environment.  Yaks play a domesticated roll during summer months as herdsman round them up, but in the winter they are left to fend for themselves. (some horse herds are also left to fend for themselves, roaming wild through out the winter months) The long coat that gives Yaks that weird and almost indiscernible shape wards off the Siberian wind and keeps them cozy as they dig through the snow for grassy edibles.

I’d be riding along early in the morning, freezing my ass off in subfreezing temps, and I’ll notice a herd of yaks happily wallowing in a half frozen pond.

no fingers? no problem!

The immaculate tarmac running for 200k out of the capital ended in classic dirt tracks.  However, the national highway is expanding and my track ran alongside what will soon be paved highway.  Like the gorgeous dirt road from Bolivia to Brazil, its only a matter of time before the trans Mongolian tracks are buried forever under black tarmac. But for now, and probably 10 years to the future, Mongolia will remain one of the best off road rides in the world.

I like hot springs, and those that know me will know that “like” would be an understatement.  My map had a number of hot springs listed on it.  It was a national map and there were no specific grid locations, nor could I arose any intel off the internet.  I resorted to getting as close as possible then asking for directions.  A recipe consisting of limited information and vague directions often results in an adventure of sorts, if not half baked at times.  Anything involving hot springs is worth a shot in my book.

I don’t know how to say hot spring in Mongolian, but I managed to get the concept of hot water across to some folks in the town of Tsenkher.  They pointed up the valley and off I went.  The riding ranked up near the top the list for my most enjoyable two wheel jaunts.

The track ran along the floor of a beautiful mountain valley, tracing back and forth across the crystal blue waters of a trout stream.  At some point I had a feeling that I was off course.  There were no signs, only a few tire tracks in the grass leading off in any number of directions.  I decided it was time to make contact with one of the gers I’d seen off in the distance.  Not sure on what the etiquette was on approaching the locals, I parked the bike a good 50meters from the ger and dismounted.  Immediately the man of the house came forward.

If there is one easy Mongolian word, its hello (Sain-bai-na), and its usually enough to break the ice.  The guy responded to my hello and then I started to bable, “hot water” out of my phrase book. He waved it off with disinterest, insisting instead I come inside the ger.

I’d been invited inside a ger before, but that was more of a transient living quarters set up for the quarantine post guys.  This was different.  This ger was a legit home for a family.  The outside of the ger was adorned in red quilted patterns and the inside was richly decorated in hand made rugs and tapestry.  The dirt floor was mostly covered by intricately woven rugs.  Beds made up in quilts and furs lined the perimeter of the household, while a wood stove for cooking and heat centered itself beside the main support beam.  There was what seemed to be an altar, adorned in gold framed black and white photos honoring bygone relatives. Between the beds and along the walls of the ger were wooden trunks laced with artistic patterns of silver.  I was impressed with an inescapable element of tidiness, care of detail and pride in one’s home.

I was ushered to the far end of the ger to a seat obviously set for guests.  I sat next to the grandfather of the house and was offered airag(fermented mare’s milk), followed by what tasted like watered down vodka.  I was also offered something that tasted like cream yet had a bread like crust.  I’ve got no idea what this was but it was tasty, as was the refreshing airag.

Since I’d been invited into ger, fed, and had the whole family as company, I could then explain my visit.  One of the women of the household, grasped what I was attempting to explain.  The grandfather immediately offered to personally guide me to the hot springs.

The grandfather rode a 250cc Chinese something.  The back wheel had a very mean wobble and I made sure not to ride to follow close…lest it fly off along with the rider.  I took along one of the younger boys of the household as pillion on the GS.  (which he was insanely excited about)

I hate to admit this, but I was a full valley and about 4 kilometers off from my intended destination.  The Mongolian herdsman was kind enough to guide me all the way to the hot springs, which I’d likely not found on my own.  These folks are not wealthy, and I understood the sacrifice in petrol that he’d made to guide me out there.  As a sign of appreciation I gave up 2 liters of petrol, and a bottle of vodka, both of which brought a big smile to his face.  It was a hand shake and a big thank you(and I had to pry the kid off my bike), and I was off to see about some hot mineral water for some travel weary bones.

Although I’d count myself as an enormous hot spring fan…bordering on freak level..I also have high standards.  There’s nothing more disappointed then a hot spring…that’s a actually a “warm” spring, or even worse..a full on spa!  I’m not wasting time with luke warm water and I don’t want a mud mask with cucumbers!

I’d give Tsenkher hotsprings a 9 out 10.  A 10 being remote, non-commercial, super hot, and along an icey cold river. But even back in the states I can list only a few of these.

This hot spring was just what I needed.

Although a commercial operation, it was inexpensive, rural, and natural.  After meeting the lady in charge I immediately felt at home and committed for a few nights stay.  I regret that I can not remember or much less pronounce her name, but she was an amazing host.  In addition to revenue provided by the hot spring fee and yurt accommodation, her family lived off the land, managing healthy herds of yak and horse.  As I lounged back in the lovingly hot water, 200 plus horses would meander by in the evening, and baby yaks would drop by for a visit in the morning(this would suggest I a lot of time in the hot spring- guilty!)

The hot springs were wickedly hot(just right for me)!   After a full day of exploring in the mountains, I’d stay up late into the night soaking in the steaming sulfur water.  The cold night breeze would freeze my hair as I lounged back under an expansive night sky.  One night I could just make out wolves howling from far away and high up in the mountains.  For me, this is living.

For several days I searched out the area for potential launch zones. Often, I could simply ride to the top of the mountains.

It was a pleasant transition to ride without loaded panniers.  Without the extra hundred pounds of kit my shocks easily absorbed big drops into creeks or popping in and out of massive ruts.  (I regret not having had my stock shocks reworked for a heavy loads while in Australia- an average day riding in Mongolia while fully loaded means bottoming out about 50 times a day)

The problem with flying this region is that the windward (flyable) side of all the mountains is covered in trees, leaving the only launch spots on the grassy leeward side of  the mountains.  This meant flying sleddies in the evening, or risk flying the leeward side during the day.

I’ve seen good thermic flying everywhere in Mongolia, as evident by circling eagles.  But its hit or miss, and I just havnt been in the right place at the right time to catch one of these thermals.   Strong winds, an unfamiliar environment, and a very conservative approach to flying solo, have limited me to descent flights.  That said, I’ve still enjoyed my airtime over Mongolia.

Can it get any better than camping out near hot springs…yes..you can add the availability of an excellent feed.  At any time I could order up a home cooked meal.  By order up, I mean I just told the lady I was hungry and she’d cook something up.  There was no sense in telling her what you wanted because it was all tasty and filling.  It would take about an hour because she cooked over an open fire.  Virtually all the food came from her farm. This is where I learned to like Mongolian food.  It was yak ribs for dinner, and yak cream and yogurt for breakfast.  Yak meat is a hell uv a lot better than sheep meat.  I’ve developed a certain gag reflex towards the smell of cooked sheep fat.  (although I’ve learned to suck it up and eat it when I have to)

The lady of the hot spring spoke fairly good English and I enjoyed long hours of conversation with her.  She was beautiful in a proud and noble sort of way, but it wasn’t a romantic attraction that I felt by any means.(she was  probably 10 years my senior and I have no idea if she was married or not)   I simply enjoyed her conversation, hearing her thoughts and learning about her subsistence life in the highlands of Mongolia.

As I packed my panniers on my final morning and prepared to set off, she walked over and handed me a sheep pelt. She was concerned about me riding and camping so late in the season and offered it to me as something warm to sleep on at night. It was a beautiful pelt and I felt twinge of guilt for accepting such special gift.  I ride with it on my seat during the day, and it covers the cold spots on my sleeping bag at night.  I wish I could tell her now how much I love that sheep pelt,…especially on these cold Autumn nights.

I heard rumors of short cut leading through the mountains to Tsetserleg.  I made my best guess on the track and headed out on a compass bearing.  I dismounted at creek crossing to check the depth out. Upon returning to my bike I noticed my security cable had become entangled between the final drive and the wheel. Its interesting how “issues” (mistakes on my part) seem to come in series.  Earlier that day I’d realized that I’d lost my beloved Oakley sunglasses…a critical piece for riding.  I had unloaded my entire kit, hoping to find the glasses.  I returned to the hot springs, feeling like a dumb ass who cant keep track of his kit…warranted at that moment!

I ultimately realized that the glasses had fallen out of a pocket while I was inversing my flight harness for a launch. The grass was tall and my glasses could be anywhere in a 6 square kilometer area. I’d just burned through my second pair of oakleys (my other pair was pinched by aboriginals in Newman).  I accepted the blunder, took the hit and rolled out.  While frustrated and distracted by losing my glasses, I never reattached the security cable and it was left dangling next to my final drive.

So there I was at the creek crossing realizing my second blunder for the day. So I made a conscious decision that I’d get my head in gear and get things right.  I decided I was going to do a full maintenance on bike right then and there.

I spent the next hour removing the jammed cable, then followed up with a full bolt check, final drive oil swap, engine oil check, and air filter check.  Only when I was absolutely sure everything was in order did I mount back up and continue.  I think its critical to realize when you’ve got your head up your ass and you need to stop and sort things out. This was my moment.  I no longer had glasses and my cable was jacked, but that was the end of that round of mistakes and things were smooth there after.  An example of smooth, would be remembering to plug in the snorkel for the water crossing….which turned out to be absolutely essential.

Probably for the first time ever, a shortcut actually turned out to be a short cut.  I arrived in Tsetserleg after an hour’s ride of soothing dirt tracks.

This town had all the charm to match its very cool name.  It’s a mountain village set in a grassy valley with an impressive mountain backdrop. I only stopped long enough to upload a blog entry (on lightening fast internet) and stuff some chow down.  I pushed on that evening until the fading light pushed me off the road to a camp site.   I found a sweet spot on a hill top along a strange rock outcropping.  However, I remembered the last time I camped on a hill and got caught in a storm. So I abandoned the epic view and retreated to the wood line.  I had not had the pleasure of an open campfire for a long time.  It was usually too hot in Australia to light a fire.  In korea it was always raining. In Russia I didn’t want to attract attention to myself.  In most of Mongolia there’s no trees.  But here I was, out of site on a cold night and surrounded by plenty of timber laying about the ground.  I briefly considered if it was okay to light a fire out here, then I thought of what Ghengis Khan would do.  I reckon he’d light the mountain on fire, sack nearest town, and ride off with all the women.  As the temperatures dropped well below freezing I was toasty warm in the glow of a proper camp fire!

I arrived at the town of Tosontsengel and pulled up for a feed.  To my delight I found that they served Khuushuur, which is a yak meat filled pastry-may favorite!  I ordered up a massive serving with the idea that I’d takes some with me, but I couldn’t help eating it all on the spot.  Looking for a bit of a caffeine hit for the ride ahead I asked for a coke, but she only had the big 2 liter bottle.  This was a small town, low end café, and I could more than afford it.  I bought the bottle, poured myself a glass then distributed the rest to the other guest in the café…which appeared to be a quite a treat for them!

From Tosontsengel I turned south and headed for Altai.  This was a transition point in geography.  As I rolled south the terrain and climate changed to a drier, desert like environment. Even as the geography and climate changed, the five star trend in Mongolian vistas never faltered.

Journal Mongolia Far East

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I was getting my first taste of the Asian steppes on the road to Choibalsan, and I was loving it.  The vast sweeping plains of Eastern Mongolia spread out before my handlebars.

Herds of antelope raced across the tracks before me.  Riding along, I spotted my first ger way off in the distance.  The ger, perhaps the icon of Mongolias nomadic culture, is the round tent like structure that shelters a family.  I’ve read that somewhere around 50% of Mongolians live out of gers, pursuing nomadic lifestyle on the steppes, in the mountains or in the Gobi deserts.  Imagine 50% of Americans living out of Teepees in a land with out fences!

In my excitement of witnessing this ger, I stopped along the track and pulled out my camera to capture the moment.  I was a full kilometer away, but one of the occupants of the ger camp spotted me and was immediately on his horse, galloping towards me.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but since the guy obviously wanted to make contact with me I waited up for him.

Although neither of us spoke the other’s language, we exchanged our appreciation for each other’s rides.  I had promised myself to stay away from the livestock due to the cattle plague, but I couldn’t help holding up a hand for the horse to sniff and giving her a scratch on the neck.  It was not as tall as horses back home, but it sure looked capable. Muscular, stocky, and exuding a sense of power, she was the ultimate creature of the steppes.

Although not wealthy in a conventional sense, the people came across as strong, healthy, proud and free.  As I write this I’ve traveled over 1,000 miles in Mongolia and I haven’t spotted a single span of barbwire or any range fencing what so ever.  Cities here are like cities anywhere, folks are generally too busy trying to make a buck to give you the time of day.  However, in the country(99% of Mongolia), if I so much as slow down near a ger, I’m waved down and ushered inside for airag (fermented mares milk) or chai.

My police issued document that authorized me to travel through the quarantine zone required that I drive directly to Choibalsan.  I was actually told that I’d be arrested if I was caught straying off the track.  So, naturally I pushed on late into the night to make it to Choibalsan and complete my obligations to the police.  Beyond Choibalsan I was a free man.

Maneuvering to the town center amid soviet era apartment buildings, I located the town center..and then pounced on the first hotel.  Prices where less than half of what I was paying in Russia, and for oh so much more.  After the ordeal of the last few days I was only too happy to have a shower, hot chow, and warm bed for the night.  And imagine my surprise when I found free internet in the room.

The following morning, I was ready for the fun to begin.  I marked this as the first real day of riding Mongolia since I was free of the quarantine stops and police control.  However, Mongolia had a new challenge for me….weather!  It felt like a sand storm was going to blow in at any moment.  Winds were high, sky looked grim, visibility was low, and I was expecting a major storm to lash out.  I pushed forward, eyeballing the menacing weather on the horizon.

Aside from a lot of dust in the air, and some strong winds,..the storm continued to linger on the horizon and never quite hit in full force while I was riding.  The road was a slightly improved from the previous day’s route,..but it was still a wild and wonderful track.  The true highlight of the day was chancing upon Bactrian camels.

In my opinion camels are some of the most interesting animals out there.  Mostly feral, but grudgingly domestic on occasion, and always boasting an enourmas amount of character, camels are fascinating! They smell bad, spit, cough, growl, bark, and are generally ill tempered.  Much credit goes to the man who first considered these hairy monsters for domestication.

I’d never seen a two humped long haired camel before, so it was off the bike and out with the camera.  I sat among them for about an hour just enjoying the company of animals I’d only previously read about.

I was stoked for my first night camping out on the steppes.   I had a magnificent view of the valley below…..for about five minutes.  The uber menacing clouds above should have been an indicator.  Seriously…is that or is that not a skull looking down on me?!

I had barely erected the tent, when all hell fell out of the sky.  I’ve been through worse, but I can’t remember when, and I definitely was not exposed on top of a hill during any previous gales!  I lashed the tent to the bike and jumped inside out of the torrential downpour.  The winds nearly flattened my tent as I tried to hold it up from the inside.  As the storm distorted the shape of the tent, rain water poured in from every side.  I was beginning to wonder if Mongolia had some personal vendetta against me.  It was yet another test on top of the last few days of trials.  I voiced my opinion of the matter to the storm, yelling through the tent flap. This didn’t help with the weather, but it did make for some comic relief.  There was nothing I could do but lay low and hope things cleared up by day break.  With earplugs in I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and eventually drifted off to sleep.

By dawn the rain and wind had abated.  It was a cold and dreary morning but the sun looked like it just might burn through.  I brewed up a hot cuppa then set to hanging my kit out to dry.

There was no sign of man for just about as far as you could see from my campsite, so I wasn’t expecting visitors.  However, the herdsman, I would learn, are always watching the hills.  Armed with monoculars, they are vigently keeping an eye out for wolves, rustlers or anything else that might threaten the herd.  So it wasn’t long before a few homed in on the wet gringo.

Each day in this country gets better than the last, and the adventure and awe of Mongolia grows with every consecutive mile.  The experiences I’m catching up with now in this blog, are miniscule compared to more recent excursions in the highlands and of course the Gobi. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The sun did come out, and my kit did dry out, except the boots-these are still wet today.  I’ve been burning through foot powder ever since the first deluge.  Even though I was out of the quarantine zone I was still running into a few mandatory stops.

These camps were run with less enthusiasm than the posts closer to Choibalsan.  At one camp, I think they completely forgot what they were suppose to do in their excitement over my bike.

I was ushered into their ger and told to take a seat.

It was hot chai in a bowl and some horrifying mutton substance.  The chai was good, but it took a lot of resolution to force the meat down.   Clusters of cold fat, skin and meat were placed before me in a plastic bag.

They were all watching in expectation,. so there was no backing out.  The taste wasn’t so bad. It was the texture that challenged my gag reflexes.  Animal hair, bits of bone, massive chunks of cold fat, and some sort of grit really tied it all together.  The certain fact that it had been cooked (who knows how long ago) over a dung fire made it even less desirable.  I got the first one down, but the second bite managed to lodge in the back of my mouth, which was discharged when I was down the road and out of sight.  For the most part, I like Mongolian food. This was the only experience where I struggled a bit.

It had been a few hundred kilometers of dirt from Choibalsan, but then out of the blue the track transitioned into a near perfect tarmac road.  I was rolling along at full speed now. With a black strip of smooth tarmac all the way to Ulaan Bataar there was nothing to slow me down.  Except a potential paragliding launch that is.  There’s always time to pull the wing out for a little sleddie.  (a sleddie is quick descent flight)  The wing had been in the bag since Pusan Korea and I reasoned it would be good to do an inspection on it and conduct a test flight on something minor before I stepped off anything big down the road.

I love how you can simply pull of the road and ride strait up hills in Mongolia.  The ground is perfectly smooth and the grass is trimmed down by livestock, making riding effortless.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the reason the police at the border crossing had threatened me with jail time if I didn’t stick to the route to Choibalsan, was because they knew I could have forged my own route..over the grass for hundreds of miles in any direction, easily evading the quarantine posts.  Much of Mongolia is ridable off road, but there are exceptions in the forested highlands, the gobi canyons and of course you’re obviously not going to ride across the mountain glaciers in the west.

I blasted up the hill with the Tourance rear tire easily gripping the turf.  I was thrilled to see a valley unfold below me, with a light wind flowing directly up the face.  It wasn’t lift conditions, but it was stable and safe for a sleddie.

While unfolding my wing I heard a voice off on another ridge top.  A young girl on horseback was yelling out to her dogs and rounding up a herd of goats.  She herded the goats down to a gully then popped back up on some high ground to have a look at me.  Her dogs caught my scent and raced for me.  I’m not usually intimidated by dogs, especially while wearing size 10 motorcross boots.  These dogs were simply excited to check me out.

Super friendly and particularly interested in my paraglider, the dogs hung around waited for the girl on horseback to join us.

She was effortless riding her pony bareback across the rolling terrain.  She kept about 40feet away,..apearing curious but wary.

I smiled and tried to explain what I was doing, but then settled for a little paragliding demonstration.  I took off with ease and enjoyed a short and non turbulent flight to the valley floor. I wasn’t at all worried about my kit, I almost felt safer having the herdswoman and the dogs nearby.  I packed up my kit and hiked back up to the bike to find a young man had joined the show.

I was away from my motorcycle and kit for about 30 minutes. The gal and guy could have scored some serious booty off my motorcycle had they been inclined.  However, I never felt any threat from these folks.  In fact, outside the cities, I feel pretty safe around Mongolians.  I may be presumptuous in saying this, but I sense a sort of pride about these folks that doesn’t lend itself to thieving.  There are always exceptions, every country has their share of knobs, and for that reason I still make every effort to lock things up and keep honest folks honest.

The guy and gal were friendly and inquisitive, and I loved their dogs!  You’ve never seen happier or healthier canines.

It was back on the tarmac to the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaan Bataar.  En route I got a glimpse of a massive statue of Chingis (Ghengis) Khan. I arrived at the memorial just as the sun was setting.

City driving in third world countries is always a challenge and UB(Ulaan Bataar) is no exception. Its full on combat driving. Ride hard or be driven over!  However, thanks to that Canadian biker I had met in Russia, I had near perfect GPS tracks taking me right to the hostel Oasis.

Journal Another Hard Earned Border Crossing

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I’ll start where I left off on the last blog entry-

I pulled into the cottage, set camp amid the stables, and sat down for chow with the family.

It all started off well as I got to know the folks and offered up some gifts out of my panniers. However,..things got very weird at night.  I crashed out early into my tent. Its noisy enough in stables with all the livestock around, but the man’s wife was also drinking up a storm. (the husband had left for Borzya and I was now staying with his parents and wife)  I got the impression that the parents had kicked the lady out of the  house for being drunk. She was wandering around stumbling, wretching, and doing whatever.  Things got even weirder when she found my tent as source of interest at 3am.  Yelling in long streams of Russian broken by a few words of English, she was trying to open the zipper as I held the zipper shut.  She was telling me to come inside the house because it was cold.  I said no, trying to explain what a down sleeping bag was. Then she insisted I come out and have a drink with her. Trying to argue with a drunk Russian is like pedaling backwards,..its a lot of effort and you don’t get anywhere.  Then the father opened the door and yelled at the daughter in law. She backed off and resumed interest in her bottle of vodka.

The drunk lady paid me another visit before the sun was up.  Peering through the bug netting, she explained her brilliant plan for me to take her to Borzya in the morning (because she was sick of her husbands parents).  I apologized and explained that I was heading south into Mongolia.  At this point,…at 4am, she tells me that there is a quarantine in Mongolia and that I wont be able to cross the border.  Thus, I had to return to Borzya and take her with me.  I refused to acknowledge this, but was starting to get worried about the border crossing.  What if it actually was closed?  Either way, there’s no way I’m taking on a passenger in any direction.

Being farmer types, there was no slipping out before the parents got up.  Fortunately the daughter in law was out cold after hitting the bottle hard all night long.  It was an awkward morning as I packed up. The warm hospitality from the night before was replaced by cold looks and awkwardness.  I got this feeling that maybe they thought I had fooled around with their daughter in law or incited the drinking session.(clearly I was involved in neither)  I dropped a few bucks on the table and jetted off.

In retrospect the family was very kind to take me in for the night, and I feel a bit conflicted about writing negatively about it all.  However, it seemed a story worth telling as I experienced it.

I zoomed out of town with no plan or direction other than putting miles between myself and the farm.  I still didn’t know where the border crossing was located or if it was even open.  If  the vodka lady was right, I needed to return to Chita, then take two more days to reach the primary crossing point south of Ulaan Ude.  I had put about 300km to get here from Chita, so I wasn’t ready to give up yet.  From past lessons learned, I’d say most information that comes to me by word of mouth is wrong,..but based on some truth.

I positioned myself on an intersection, where I sat on my bike, munched on a snickers and waited for the first car to pass buy.  After a good thirty minutes, my ears tuned in on the grumble of a soviet made engine rolling my way, I hopped of the bike, desperately flagged it down and asked for directions to the immigration office.  Eyeballing my phrase book like a cheat sheet, I rumbled off in broken Russian.  I got the point across and they pointed enthusiastically towards back towards the village.

Some folks are so eager to help they’ll just say yes and point anywhere,.. but Russians seem different.  Either they’ll give you a disgusted look and zoom off as soon as you open your mouth, or nod approvingly and point in the correct direction.  Its hit or miss!

Here she is,..the Ereentsav border crossing between Mongolia and Russia.

the border crossing as viewed from Mongolia...the road leads into Russia

This is the loneliest border post I’d ever bumped into.  I was the only non-government guy around and this provided an enourmas amount of entertainment.  It was a full hour long inspection of everything I had. However, I was so pleased that they hadn’t turned me away, I happily opened every little container with enthusiasm.  After a few hours, the guards sort of warmed up to me,..I finally got them ease up, smile and laugh a bit…no small feat in regards to Russian border guards.  “Quarantine my ass” I thought, as I passed through the gates. I rolled out of Russia and greeted the Mongolian border officials with enormous relief.

I didn’t understand what anyone had to say at the Mongolian border post. I got the idea that things weren’t going well.  It was back and forth between the bike and the paper work in the office.  Price of entry was one leader of fuel from the bike and my map of Mongolia (I knew that thing would come in handy :  )  Things seemed like they were now  rolling along,..lots of smiles, and everyone got a cell phone picture of themselves with the bike.

I was ordered to follow a border official to the nearest town.  I was thinking, “awesome, I’m through, he’ll just guide me out of the border zone and I’ll be free.  Not so!  In the Mongolian town I was ushered into the police headquarters where a grim and important looking dude told me to take a seat at his desk.  Within half an hour a Mongolian school teacher arrived to translate.

Well, …..the Vodka Profit’s words were true.  I had just landed myself in a full on quarantine zone.  A nasty livestock plague, potentially threatening to humans had slammed eastern Mongolia.  It was explained to me that for my safety I was forbidden to enter further into Mongolia(there were no routes around the plague regions).  To my enormous disappointment I was ordered to return to Russia.

This is where it got complicated.  The commander of the Russian border crossing post made it very clear to me that once I left the post I could not return through the same post.  I was only authorized to reenter Russia through Tashaant(thousands of miles beyond the quarantine zone).  I couldn’t move forward, and I couldn’t move back. I was trapped.  It took a great deal of effort to convince the Mongolian police that Russian regulations prevented me from returning.  Ultimately the police confiscated my passport and registration and instructed me to make camp in the town school yard.

I was not a happy camper.  Pitching a tent in a school yard is akin to being the resident freak show in circus.

After hours of entertaining a constant stream of understandably curios children and villagers, I ultimately resorted to locking up the bike and walking out onto the open steppes for some relief.   First it was the super weird night on the Russian side, then it was a long day in the hot sun dealing with the border crossing, and now I was stuck in a tiny town on the steppes, passport confiscated, and no idea of how I was going to get out of this mess.  I killed time by reading Russian history….which is depressing in itself.  The suck meter was off the charts.

It could always be worse and given the good luck I’d had over the entire tour, this was a mere glitch.  I only hoped that it would sweeten the victory in the end and that I’d ultimately find a way into Mongolia or somewhere beyond the school yard.

By the second day, the novelty of an American biker in the school yard had wore off with the adult villagers, but not with the children.  I learned that doing as little as possible was the best way not attract attention.  So much as opening a pannier or pulling out some tools would instantly attract an audience.  I was seriously worried about sticky fingers around my kit, but to be completely honest, the kids behaved themselves.  At some point the teachers made a futile attempt to shoo the kids away, but the new game was to sneak up commando style on the token American.  At any given time there’d be band of little warriors crawling my way through the grass…this was pretty funy actually.  I’d sit there at night, wait for them to get close, then shine my headlamp on them and they’d run off giggling and laughing with delight.

I don’t know if it was my constant visits to the police, or the teachers pushing to have the “distraction” removed from the school yard, but I was suddenly told me that I should pack  up and that I’d be leaving with an escort immediately.  You’ve never seen biker pack his kit so fast!  They continued to withhold my passport even as we set off.  They were clearly taking no chances with me jetting off.  I was also seriously pushed to stay on this guys tail, I recall feeling frustrated at not having even a second to properly buckle my helmet.  I followed the police through several quarantine checkpoints where my motorcycle received a dousing of something(lets call it plague killing juice).  This was fine, I was just happy to be on the move and rolling south.  It all looked and felt like progress.

On the third quarantine point we pulled up behind a few other vehicles awaiting “the juice”.  I got off the bike and retreated into the shade of truck,..but was quickly instructed by police to get back on the bike.  After an hour I was told to dismount and was ushered forward.  I thought, “no worries, paperwork..ect ect”   Imagine my surprise when I’m told gargle mouth wash, rub alcohol over my hands, and then to remove my clothes.  Not just my jacket and boots, but everything save my underwear.

Well….I got caught not wearing underwear. Ooops. That provided some entertainment. :)

One thing I immediately noticed about the Mongolians was that they are for the most part easy to smile and quick to laugh. (a pleasant transition from Russia)  There were a number of us “in quarantine”. The joke was on us as we sat their half naked in tent. Fortunately non of us where above laughing at ourselves.  I’m not a fluent smoker, but “when in Rome, or Mongolian quarantine”…

Open exciting the “exotic” quarantine camp, I received my much missed passport from the police.  Armed with a passport and free of the police escort, I felt whole again!  It was 250km of delicious dirt miles to Choibasan. The route was akin to a groomed motorcross track.

The track required attention and up on the pegs riding at times, but it was always in a gentle soothing manner.  There would be 6 more quarantine camps along the route, but I knew the process, and did my best to participate with an over abundance of enthusiasm.

So far, Mongolia had been hard work.  I hadn’t yet truly experienced the country but was looking forward to epic good times ahead.  Close, but no cigar, not yet!

above pic,.. a friendly herdsman I met along the way to Choibalsan.