Mongolia & our last border crossing into Russia
We entered Mongolia full of anticipation and excitement, knowing that this land provides some of the finest off road riding on earth and we weren’t disappointed.
A Mongolian local
Our first nights camp was at an impossibly scenic spot on the bend of a river surrounded by utter wilderness. A small but constant flow of curios Mongolians trotted by on their horses to drink tea with us and look at the bikes. With dinner completed a full moon rose illuminating the countryside in a bright silver light, wild horses grazed nearby and the silence was profound, it was an magnificent introduction to Mongolia.
A local Ger dwelling family invited us in for Kymys (salted mares milk) and cheese the following morning, an experience that was enjoyed by all.
Joe washing his bike
Turning off the main road we pounded our way for 2 hours through spectacular scenery to Mongolia’s most important monastery, Amayasgalant. Our first river crossing saw the R 1200 go down to the axle ensuring a very wet me. The days of spectacular riding continued struggling at times to pick the correct track to ride on as there are so many choices, rule of thumb was to follow the power lines and keep riding west. We eventually reached the spectacular Khovsguul Nuur, a stunning alpine lake surrounded by lofty peaks. Two nights were spent sleeping inside traditional Gers and relaxing lakeside as the ¾ moon reflected off the lake.
We retraced our tracks back to Moron and rode south bound for Tsgaan Nuur, another stunning lake. We made it to within 15 minutes of the lake when disaster struck; at the time it seemed like a disaster. The axle snapped on the trailer with a wheel and axle stud rolling into the nearby river. It was certainly a sorry sight to see the end of the axle buried in the dirt in a very remote part of what is already a very remote country, Mongolia. With the axle removed and a local who knew a welder both Micks drove off into the Mongolian night (only to get hopelessly bogged for two hours) before arriving at our destination, (the welder), at midnight. An early start the following day and a welding job to reattach the axle stud to the axle (inspiring zero confidence in me that it would last ten minutes) we drove back to our impromptu campsite.
We hadn’t quite made our Tsgaan Nuur destination the previous night so a quick revamp of our itinerary saw us ride for two hours to an absolutely spectacular spot on the shores of the lake staying once again in a luxury Ger camp; it was a welcome treat for all as were the beers and great meal.
Riding the vast Mongolian landscape
With the axle holding (to my complete surprise) we continued on past ancient volcanoes and spent the day again riding the vast empty spaces of Mongolia, being spurred on by the promise of great cinnamon rolls and a wonderful feed at the Fairfield Hotel, a hotel run by and Australian couple in Tserterleg, it didn’t disappoint.
We rode back onto paved roads and into the chaos of Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital, all of us could have quite easily turned around and gone back out into the wonderful countryside, although the excellent Hotel Continental was a nice taste of luxury after a few weeks of roughing it.
A New Zealand gold mining company was found and the axle was again welded and machined with the hope that it will last to Magadan, I am still doubtful!
We rode north to the Mongol/Russian border and camped for our last night in the magnificent Mongolia. If wide open spaces, huge blue skies, friendly people and boundless off road riding is your thing then Mongolia has to be your destination. It was agreed that Mongolia was high on everyone’s favourite places visited list thus far, what a great experience.
Entering Russia and the usual five hour border crossing we spent the next two days riding the Trans Siberian Highway through vast stands of Taiga and impossibly big wheat fields to Chita.
Our cruiser at White Lake
We continued on the Trans Siberian highway until the turnoff for the legendary M56/Lena Highway; otherwise know as the “Highway to Hell”. The sign informed us that we had over 1200kms of dirt to ride until we reached Yakust, in the north of Siberia.
The track proved to be hard on the bikes but thankfully there was very little mud. Again the riding was inspiring as we are late in the season and the wonderful colours of autumn are out turning the landscape a shade of yellow and red.
We were looking for a camping spot when a couple of reindeer hunters stopped us and invited us to camp with them on the banks of a river, we quickly accepted. The spot was idyllic with a small log cabin being home for six people and a Sable Cat being cooked in the pot. The boiling eyeball did make my stomach turn a little.
A wonderful night of Yakut hospitality ensued and we chatted, (or more truthfully charades) around the campfire getting a brief insight into their culture and their way of life.
Eventually we rode into Yakutsk or more correctly caught a ferry across the Lena River as there are no bridges, yet.
The Kazakh Steppe & Russia once again
After a relaxing couple of days in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, and time to catch up on needed maintenance on our BMWs we rode out for Charyn Canyon, one of Kazakhstan’s finest scenic locations, a wonderful campsite was found in close proximity to the Valley of the Castles, it was good to be away from the city again.
Returning to Almaty we stocked up for the ride across the expansive Kazakh Steppe once again as we headed for Russia. We had planned for an early start to the day as we knew the next hotel was a four day ride away however Joe’s bike had other plans, blowing a fork seal before we had even left the outskirts of town.
Pat with the mountains nearby
The hours turned into days as we rode the spectacular steppe with the looming snow capped peaks always nearby to remind us just how close we were to China, it was wonderful riding and great evenings were spent camped in remote locations under the stars surrounded by magnificent scenery, the setting sun turning the landscape ablaze.
We eventually reached the Kazakh/Russian border three days after leaving Almaty, this time the border proved to be uneventful and we were all across in less than three hours before spending the remainder of the day riding the gentle rolling green landscape that surrounded us. Every inch of this region of Russian is either farmed or forested and finding a campsite in the biggest country on earth proved difficult and always waiting were the ever present mosquitoes. We deliberately left London in June to get to this region at the most bearable time of year, any earlier and the mosquitoes are simply murder, unlike nowhere else on earth, yes they are “that” bad.
Joe on the Trans Siberian
Another big day’s ride saw us reach Krasnayorsk as we entered the region referred to as Siberia. The day was spent riding the optimistically named M 53, otherwise known as the Trans Siberian Highway. It was sensational riding though small villages with their small log cabins slowly sinking into the mud and the elderly tending their productive gardens in the all too brief summer. Shades of the former Soviet glory stood everywhere as we passed countless crumbling Soviet factories and deserted settlements, new settlements were appearing everywhere, prosperity it seemed has finally reached the countryside, time will tell as we ride ever east.
The bikes are performing well with negligible problems to date except for Pats ribbing of me every night “the ride leader has to be king, doesn’t he” he would tease “that’s why you had to ride the 1200, while the rest of us peasants follow behind on the smaller bikes” I am nearly hoping for mud on the Road of bones just so I can say “I told you so”
Lake Baikal and Mongolia are next; there is never a dull moment on the Road of Bones Expedition.
Silk Road antiquities, Samarkand and Bukhara
We left Tashkent early primarily to avoid the searing heat to be expected as we rode the Silk Road toward Samarkand. The Silk Road attracted the greatest travelers and conquerors in history and we were excited to be riding it.
Another day draws to a close over the Silk Road
Uzbekistan lays claim to a breathtaking architectural legacy and Samarkand features high with the stunning Registan built by Tamerlame as he spread terror across Central Asia centuries ago. Watching another day draw to a close over the Registan was a great experience.
Two days were spent here, one with a guide, to give us more of an insight into the cultural treasure trove that is Samarkand.
Onward to Bukhara, a maze of blue tiled domes and souks, we arrived early afternoon to our hotel conveniently located 100mts from the historical heart of the old city, Laubi Hauz. Sitting at this small pond surrounded by traditional restaurants one could easily feel transported back to the distant past. There are 100s of blue tiled domes in this city as well as the infamous Ark and Zindon Jail, anyone who has read Peter Hopkirks “The great game” will relate to these historical sites.
The expedition continued on to Shakrisabraz, birthplace of Tamerlame and home to his, what would have been absolutely massive palace, unfortunately the structure was too big and collapsed, but the 36mt archway still remains.
Sadly the decision had to be made, (actually it was made for us) to cancel our route through Kyrgyzstan as our nominated border crossing at OSH is now a refugee camp due to the troubles. We decided it prudent to cross back into Kazakhstan and ride the border region between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (actually we crossed into Kyrgyzstan 2 times on a shared road with no border points) finally finishing in Almaty after a 600km day.
Leaving Tashkent we rode for the border at Yallama 60ks away as the border only 20ks away is shut to vehicles for a year, all was going well until, due to the last minute itinerary change, 3 visas were expired by a few hours, the ensuing chaos and delays would make a Hindu saint swear, eventually the 3 culprits were “released” a staggering 32 hours later from the border town, sleeping at a policeman’s house overnight.
Riding the western Tien Shan mountains
The re-routed itinerary had us staying for 2 nights at a home stay at Zhabagly, a small village in the shadows on the Tien Shan Mountains, the home stay, and break, was a welcome relief as we ate copious amounts of excellent home-cooked food and spent the day walking the Tien Shans.
The following day was our biggest yet as we covered 600ks as we hugged the snow capped peaks of the Tien Shans, arriving in Almaty at 7pm.
Samara, Russia to Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Here we are in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (it has been more than a week since our last blog). We left Samara, Russia and headed toward the Kazakhstan border with trepidation. Mick, owner of Compass Expeditions, warned us that these border crossings from Russia on can get a bit dicey as oftentimes there are hours upon hours spent where they go through ALL of your luggage, personal effects and they just plain “hold ya up” for no apparent reason. Yet, this was not the case for us.
Camp cooking at its best
We arrived and had to wait for a bit to exit Russia and then to enter Kazakhstan (approx. 4-5 hours to do the entire exit/entry thing crossing customs with troopie and the bikes). Just past the gates, we had to purchase insurance for riding the bikes in Kazakhstan (their law) which we calculated to be a month once we return from Uzbekistan. We spent our first night camping near a very small village and body of water. People came from all directions as this appeared to be a pasture for their cows, sheep, goats, horses. Kids arrived by horseback, dirt bike as well as just walking up from nowhere. They brought us gifts of cookies and milk. The sunset was amazing making it very peaceful even though their is a bit of work involved in setting up camp. We all received a crash course on our personal tent setup in conjunction with learning how to set up the cook tent. Carmen, Leo and Mick have assumed chef/cook details. Jacquie is the “go girl for ingredients” as well as helps out Mick from Tasmania, Pat and Murray wash dishes. The guys also load and unload the troopie each night
As we left the Kazakhstan border we expected to hit gravel, sand and dirt within about 50km, however due to much road work having been done since Mick McDonald’s last trip, we rode on smooth, paved surfaces until we hit Aktobe, Kazakhstan. After that hotel stay, we camped for three nights and rode many gravel, sand and dirt roads which was something we all looked forward to attacking and conquering (no falls or injuries). I guess the riding can be compared to operating a jack hammer all day long with the constant vibration and hammering and it was necessary to ride on “the pegs” for greater handling and control of the bike. Let’s suffice to say, this can be quite tiring for extended periods and we were all happy to see pavement when it surfaced.
A millionaire at last, 1 Million Uzbek Som
Our group slogan, “it’s an adventure, mate” is Mick McDonald’s favourite saying when any problems arise. After Aktobe and spending three nights, we crossed the border into Uzbekistan where we were to spend two nights in Tashkent. Once again, this was “an adventure mate!” as it was a day that should have only taken two hours of riding since it was only 120km, however, due to the fact that the Uzbekistan border near Tashkent was closed we had to take an hour and a half detour to another border crossing in which a part of the road was closed which made us detour the detoured route. We were approx. 4 hours crossing the border (much better timing than what Mick had gone through 5 years prior) with most of the time spent filling out declaration forms in duplicate. We had heard that a group had been through the Uzbekistan border within the last month and they were completely strip searched. Thank God this did not happen to us as rest assured no one would have wanted to see any of our underwear after three nights of camping and not showering. Once cleared, we then re-tracked the hour and a half ride back to Tashkent. It was a Full Days Ride. We spent two nights in Tashkent where a group went off to see the sights such as the Tamerlane museum while Joe worked on his bike with Leo and Mick. Today we rode to Samarkand, Uzbekistan; the historical Silk Road territory where we will be spending three nights and will have lots to report in a few days. Until then……
Suzdal, Kazan & Samara
After leaving Suzdal, destination Kazan where Layla (Moscovite biker) came from. It was a beautiful day with blue skies and sweltering hot once again. Some parts of the road were very rough and patchy with lots of roadwork being done everywhere. Other times the road was smooth, paved and roller coaster like going up and down as we were heading in the direction of Kazan. We will not being making Kazan this night as the distance was too far so we would be looking for a hotel somewhere midway. Since Leo has joined us we have been extremely well organized not only as our driver but he and Carmen plan the daily menu while driving prior to shopping at huge shopping malls.
We stayed at an unknown hotel only to find that there was no air conditioning and in ordering dinner, the waitress seemed to only understand goulash and shishtek and clek (bread). A fellow who was studying at Moscow university brought in salted fish for everyone to try with their beer (this is a specialty). It’s like having peanuts with your beer. Carmen and Jacquie went to leave the restaurant when a station wagon stopped and asked “you working girls” wanting to know if we were prostitutes. We could only respond, “English! English!” and he ended up driving off. We went next door to the fish market where they had everything from catfish to salmon (freshly smoked) and once again we were being propositioned with free fish. What services were to be provided, we will never know. After a walk around the small village, we all retired early as we were leaving early for Kazan.
Leaving for Kazan was a refreshing beginning to the day as it was the first day where the temperatures dropped and the cool breeze would make for pleasant riding. We still were enjoying relatively decent road conditions however there was more roadwork being done as we proceeded southwest towards Kazan. The ride was pretty much the same as previous (highways)but noticed the difference in road conditions (deterioration) that was beginning to happen. Arriving in Kazan we observed a lovely walled Mosque which we toured and were told was their Kremlin (one of the nicest on this trip). Everyone explored the Kremlin and then met for dinner at a pub style restaurant where some ordered salmon, salads, calamari and beef. Once again, early to bed as it would be a full day of riding to Samara as opposed to the half day that it took us to Kazan.
Off to Samara. We left at exactly 8:04 am for a 8 o’clock departure (one of the closest on schedule departure times we’ve had so far). We had several stops trying to get out of the city as it was not only dodging chaotic traffic but the roads conditions that were severe in nature with huge potholes as well as contending with railway tracks that jutted out of the cement making it difficult to cross. Yet, we all maneuvered unscathed. We had our morning coffee at a small restaurant where the local people came out to see and support our group. Many gave us the “thumbs up” sign when we told them our destination was Magadan. We continued on back rolling roads which were smooth and winding throughout harvested fields when all of a sudden the road conditions changed and it became grooved from heavy weighted trucks indenting the paved road making it hazardous to us riders. It also was heavily potholed with lots of gravel patches which made us slow down to approx 45 km/hr. or less. We had a picnic lunch that was shared with the bees and the wasps. Our lunch was some wonderful sandwiches made with homemade bread, salads, deserts, juices that are better than what we would make at home. Continuing on, we had our afternoon coffee break not drinking coffee but eating watermelon that was from the local farmer’s market at Kazan. We had approx. another 50km and we were in Samara arriving at approx 5:30 pm. Samara is the home of the MIG fighter plane which had monuments scattered throughout the city. We enjoyed dinner by the beach and the jazz band that played in the square by our hotel. Today has been a rest day and everyone has been getting their bikes serviced for Kazakhstan (the gravel and sand that we would now be riding on). Some also got laundry done while others slept, went shopping or blogged. From this point forward we will be going to more remote places where internet service may not be present so please be patient as we will try to update as often as we can.
Pat and a bit of off road riding, Isaac and Joe
Trabzon, Turkey to Suzdal, Russia
We stayed two nights in Trabzon (which we thought could be longer) as we were waiting to get booked to take the rust bucket ferry from Trabzon to Sochi, Russia. We left our hotel, Sicilya, at 2pm Thurs and reached our next hotel, Hotel Sochi, by 2 am Sunday morning (over 48 hours in total). Let’s just say that probably none of us will be in a hurry to take a ferry ride of that nature for awhile (if ever).
Departing Turkey for Russia, crossing the Black Sea
We did eat in their cafeteria style restaurant, some of us slept on benches on the upper deck (inside) while others were smart enough to get a cabin for a more restful sleep. The washrooms were holes in the floor and it was questionable as to what exactly you were standing in along with aroma’s that one could smell ten feet away. As Mick our Compass Expedition Leader keeps saying, “it’s an adventure mate!”. And that it’s been. Once we arrived in Sochi, Russia, approx 5:30 pm Saturday night, it took us until 1 am before we were finally through immigration and customs. We had what is called “an agent” who helped expedite matters which we now know was fast compared to a guy from Switzerland who was waiting over two days to board the ferry from Sochi to Trabzon (obviously he did not have an agent).
After a few hours sleep, we were all back on the road making our way through the mountains of Sochi. It was heaven to be back on the bikes going through the “sweepers” once again and racing through traffic. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even lunch time and three of our crew had been stopped at the top of a mountain turn by the police for passing on a solid white line. The police produced video showing one of our guys the offense and after saying “prison! prison! prison!” he finally gave their licenses back and stated “present” and off they went. No fines! A definite present.
We ate lunch roadside with a statue of a wartime person. It was scorching outside with the hot blazing sun beating down and no wind. After lunch, we ended up along the coast riding with a bit of wind in our faces. We stopped at a local beach-side cafe and watched all the people who were out swimming on this beautiful Saturday. There were so many cars along the coast that we believed that all of Russia was at the beach this fine day. We arrived in Krasnodar and were treated to an outdoor Russian style dinner eating borscht and kebabs (a regular item on the menu in Russia). We were all exhausted and retired early so that we could set out to Rostov-na-Don the next day.
Hot riding on the Volga Steppe
Leaving for Rostov-na-Don all of us had commented that all the beaches were very carnival like in nature. They had places that were like “wet ‘n wilds”, rides, cotton candy and the works. It was a hot, sweltering day again however by midday, the clouds had started to appear and after making a brief stop by a gas station, Pat noticed that his back bike tire had a nail in it. What a miracle it happened there. So, we set up shop for our picnic lunch while all the guys helped Jason fix Pat’s tire and after a nice buffet of fresh breads and cold meats along with a quick salad and desert, we were back on the road once again. Not to mention the rain had passed and it seemed like this was meant to be. Right then!
The rest of the day was fairly sunny and we got to the city approx 5 pm. It was an old war time city. Many of the roads were in disrepair with manhole covers removed and severe potholes that kept us on our toes while navigating to our hotel. The hotel was spectacular and as I write this let’s just say it had GREAT AIR CONDITIONING (a feature we are no longer experiencing). We went down to the Rostov River and had a fabulous dinner in a ship/boat that was somewhat rustic. We all enjoyed our meals from shrimp to fish to shishkebabs while being serenaded by the local Russian folk group that consisted of women in their embroidered white dresses and hair shawls while the men were dressed in military style clothing. The entire waterfront was upbeat, music playing, carnival like and we all enjoyed a coffee before retiring for the night. Oh! And did I forget to mention the beautiful Russian women. Let’s just say that women worldwide should take note as almost all the Russian women dressed as if they are going out to a major event everyday and they are all well groomed, in shape and wear stiletto heals through the worst grooved streets and make it look like a walk in the park.
Once morning hit, we were back on our bikes; destination Volgograd. We had all taken a vote and decided to go straight to Volgograd as we were suppose to take two days to get there but many of us wanted an extra day in this infamous old wartime city to explore, get caught up on emails and laundry and just R&R as we are all pretty wiped by the end of each day. The day once again was hot, sweltering while we rode on to our lunch break at a local restaurant in which goulash and kebabs were the items on the menu. Outside a lady was selling fresh, smoked fish that was strung to the handlebars of her bike and was not open to any photo shots. We continued on to our afternoon break that was spent at a gas bar taking pictures with the locals who were so excited to see all of us as it is a rare event to have group riders pass by and stop in. They gave Mick an extra ice cream (no charge) and a CD of a singer from Magadan. En route to Volgograd, we saw many harvested wheat fields, sunflowers in full bloom as far as the eye could see. Once we hit Volgograd, the “Mother of Russia” monument loomed over the city making it quite the site as we arrived in this once very war torn city. She stands at 72 meters high on the hilltop looking over the city as if she is a guardian over the city; protecting all.
The incredible mother Russia, Volgograd
We parked our bikes in front of the Volgograd Hotel and were asked to move around back. Since we were all exhausted, we went to a nearby cellar style pub and steak house and watched old black and white silent subtitled movies while we ate. Many casually walked around the area taking pictures of many monuments close by in anticipation for the sightseeing of the next day.
The next day took sightseeing around the city to the war memorial and Mother Russia. It started out sunny but as typical began raining midday. The day was spent rather leisurely with some catching up on sleep, a little bit of shopping to be had while others sampled the local cuisine at outdoor cafes before heading off to bed as another big day of riding was ahead of us; bound for Moscow.
Unfortunately this wasn’t Pats first encounter with the law
It was a beautiful sunny day leaving Volgograd and our destination was Moscow. We had all agreed that we wanted to get there in two days, not three, and it was approx. 1000km ahead of us. The road was all patchy, under construction with repairs being made along the entire section of single lane highways. Police checkpoints were everywhere. The day warmed up however as the day went on, it became very overcast ending in rain. Traveling on the highway we observed pretty much the same flat, harvested wheat fields with huge sunflower patches and rolling plains that went on for miles. We had a roadside lunch in a wheat field and carried on to an unknown spot for the night. Along the way, four of us passed an unmarked police car doing 100 km/hr in a marked 50 km/hr zone. When we got to the checkpoint, we were pulled over and the police asked for the front and rear drivers to provide documentation and accompany them to their vehicle where they could show on video the infraction. A ludicrous amount of money was demanded and after much negotiation some American dollars changed hands and we were allowed to progress – needless to say, a fine was issued. A storm was brewing, we needed fuel and accommodation so at our first opportunity we pulled over at a truck stop which housed the bikers in the guesthouse and the leaders, Mick and Jason, stayed in a two bed hut at the back of the guesthouse – not enough room to swing a cat around (Aussie humour). After dinner, the entertainment for the night was a strumming session on Jason’s guitar accompanied by two Ukrainian men who not only played his guitar as well but belted out lyrics to the music breaking all language barriers.
Now, MOSCOW!!!! Our total focus was to get to Moscow; one of the major highlights of our trip. We had over 500km to travel along the long monotonous highways with several police stops; and more as you approached Moscow. The day was once again sweltering hot and our normal two lane highways became four and then six and eight lanes wide approaching the city centre. Traffic was chaos and cars were coming at us from all directions as if they were trying to kill us. Which nearly happened. A drunken Russian screamed up behind Mick, our fearless tour leader, who saw him at the last moment in his rear-view mirror and became instantly fearful, gave it a gut-full (on the accelerator) and narrowly avoided being mowed down by, ironically, a BMW sedan. Luckily, BMW doesn’t have two coats of paint because it was a paint layer away from being swiped. Joe did some of the best maneuvering that any of us have seen so far on this trip as he weaved to try and escape a kamikaze bus driver who was in a hurry going nowhere fast because the traffic was so thick. Joe nearly lost his panniers where his spare underwear was packed (which he almost needed in the moment). Welcome to Moscow!!!!
Moscow is a must for everyone. The first day the group caught the train in to the city centre heading straight for the Red Square. The enormity of The Kremlin, the spectacular and colourful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral with the incredible mosaics on the inside, Lenin’s Tomb (no cameras allowed), the magnificent flora of the gardens. We took a tour inside the Kremlin and it’s fair to say that it is not only the seat of power but it is also a city within the city of Moscow. Too much to absorb in one day so some people went further sightseeing the next day while others had their BMW bikes serviced at BMW where they met Stefan and Layla (Moscovites) who were also having their bikes serviced and offered to translate. While waiting for the bikes, they took Murray and Joe to other bike shops to pick up other bits and pieces needed for trip. Later, they came around to our hotel and took some of the group to the local bikers hangout which overlooked the entire city. We then went on a night ride throughout some of the more affluent areas of Moscow; flying through the city of Moscow that was quiet for a Saturday evening considering how maniacal is was Friday. We ended up at the Night Wolves Biker Hangout which is the largest biker group in Europe and the president of this club not only has met former President Putin but was also blessed by the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Biker Hangout was like something out of Mad Max with welded metal resulting in unidentifiable structures that fused everything together like a modern fortress. Big guys dressed in colours guarded the gates selecting who enters. Before we knew it, it was 1:00 am and we needed to get back to the hotel to get some rest for our early departure to Suzdal.
Since our last blog, we have had a crew change. Due to unforeseeable circumstances, Jason has had to return to the UK and Leo has flown in from Germany to take his place as the Support Vehicle Driver. We thank Jason for his friendship and support and we wish him well. Welcome Leo. Our first night together in Suzdal. Suzdal is not only known for it’s many churches but also the remnants of Communism can be seen at Hotel Suzdal as this was the vacation hot spot for Communist Leaders, their subordinates and their families. This hotel is still equipped with bowling alleys, wardrobe centre, concert hall, indoor and outdoor pools and unairconditioned rooms to cater for a small army. In it’s heyday, this place would be a vibrant city bustling with people.
We are now traveling on the Transiberian Highway and getting into more remote locations. Our camping days are fast approaching. Our internet service may be very sporadic but we will do our best at keeping you abreast of our travels. We can be followed by satellite link which can be found on the route page. Until next time……..
We set out from Goreme to beautiful blue skies, puffy cotton ball clouds and had one of the best days of riding since the beginning of our trip.
From the support vehicle, Carmen noted large farmlands with farmers driving their tractors loaded with their workers behind in the trailers. Many tents on these farms suggesting that these workers may sleep there or possible refugee camps. Many herdsman walk along the roadside with their sheep and cows untied. The land moved through gentle slopes passing through various old villages. The support vehicle and bikes met up at a service station for lunch. Carried on to Amaysa, Turkey and aside from some light drizzling rain, it was a perfect day. The quaint town of Amaysa is really quite lovely and after another traditional Turkish dinner a surprise birthday cake was brought to one of our riders, Jacquie. She was quite surprised. Next, Trabzon.
The amazing Amasya, Turkey
The riders had beautiful sweeping curves that went along the entire Black Sea Coast stopping for lunch at a coast side restaurant with beautiful views of the Black Sea eating pizza and pitas. The support vehicle however took the long way around and ended up in the mountains with gravel narrow roads where one side of the road is straight cliff looking down. By the time the support vehicle arrived at the Secilya Hotel in Trabzon, the rest of the group was finishing their second pint of beer after showering. Now, we are sitting in the lobby, blogging as we wait for news on our ferry departure to Sochi, Russia. We’ve just heard that it might leave at midnight tomorrow and we have to be at the ferry for 2pm. It is a sixteen hour ferry ride to Russia where we will sleep on heaving deck in our sleeping bags. So, when we write next we will be in Russia beginning the next leg of our adventure. We’ll keep our rubber side up until then…
Lunch over the Black Sea coast
Friday, June 25 Istanbul to Safranbolu, Turkey
Making our way to the ferry, we cross the Bosphorous as we would have had to buy tickets to cross the bridge so this was the quickest and cheapest way to get through the craziness and mad driving experienced in Istanbul. This day was mostly highway driving, cool and approx. 450 km of riding and at one point; elevation was four and a half thousand feet. We passed a major steel works industry that looked like something out of Mad Max. We passed through Karabuk and arrived in Safranbolu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994.
This is home of the saffron; a purplish flower with 3 reddish stigmas in the centre which is the part used to make saffron. We learned that saffron was used in meals, sweets (Turkish Delight) and for cosmetic purposes. We were greeted by a young couple and baby and stayed in a boarding house with several rooms for all of us. The two Micks did minor repairs to the panniers on our tour leaders bike and the rest of us walked around the small town where we sampled some bread, lots of Turkish Delight, visited the Turkish Bath and took pictures of cobbled stone streets and old buildings with their wooden half timbered houses preserved along with the Ottoman cuisine that has been established as a stop along the silk road. Everywhere throughout Turkey, whether in the modern areas or small older traditional Muslim communities, prayer time happens five times a day except on Thursday, the day in which they have six prayers due to Friday being the “holy day”.
Saturday, June 26th, Safranbolu to Goreme, Turkey
Göreme located among the rock formations, is a town in Cappadocia, a historical region of Turkey. Getting to Goreme from Safranbolu was once again another story and adventure. The team separated; therefore the storm that we hit just before Goreme was witnessed from different perspectives. From the support vehicle the storm was a picture of beauty, from the riding perspective it was a tornado where the winds were so blustering that if you didn’t pull over it could take you into oncoming traffic. Most of the riders took refuge in an abandoned shed with nothing in there except the smell of human excrement. There were a couple that pushed through the storm as they were already wet and some would say a little nuts.
Saturday and Sunday (26th & 27th) Goreme Sightseeing
The hot air balloon ride ended with a Champagne toast and everyone receiving a certificate that we were passengers aboard one of these flying balloons. What an amazing way to start your day and see the sunrise. We returned to our very own cave house at the Shoestring Hotel where we start with a view of Goreme lookout. The group took a tour of the “underground city” that was eight levels below the ground showing dugouts of holes that were established during the war leading from one chamber to another with various rooms – bedrooms, kitchens, church etc. We also visited the location for which Star Wars was filmed which is called the Selime Monastery where many frescoes lined the ceilings in the monasteries. Cappadocia is chiseled out of rock forming “fairy chimneys” and caves from mother nature’s erosion process. This has been an amazing place to have two days off to relax. If anyone is interested many cave homes are for sale. Heading to Amasya tomorrow night…
Saying Goodbye to Lauren and George
We’ve had two nights in Istanbul, Turkey and we are all now leaving Istanbul and going on to Safranbolu, Turkey with the departure of two people from our group, Lauren and George who are heading back home.
George was riding a BMW F650 GS and joined the group in Rouen, France. Originally he was supposed to ride the entire trip but due to other obligations he was able to ride from Rouen, France to Istanbul, Turkey. We were all very sad to see George leave but will keep in touch through the blog as well as emails exchanged.
We also had sad goodbyes for Lauren who rode many days with her husband Patrick and was also always looking after those who were left behind. She had to return home for business reasons even though Carmen and Jacquie will miss the “girl bonding” yet Patrick will probably notice her absence even more.
Thank you both for your friendship, navigation skills, the picture taking, the storytelling and the laughs at the end of the day. Thank you George for your round of drinks toasting you both in Safranbolu
Bulgaria to Turkey
June 22. Nesebar, Bulgaria to Turkey Border
We left Nesebar, Bulgaria and headed for the Turkish Border. It was smooth roads all the way. When we got to the Border, I think we all thought it would be a walk in the park however we had a scare there that we were going to be held up for a bit.
We had to go from one station to the next (four in total). First we went to show our passports. They sent up to the Visa station as we had to purchase Visas (Canada was the most money of the bunch). Then back to the passport dep’t where they stamped it and then back to the front gate, as we had to register the bikes through. Once we did that, we had to purchase insurance and then we went to the final stamp of approval and everyone got through except the support vehicle, Mick the tour leader, the second Mick from Tasmania and myself. They needed a document from Mick’s company stating that he was the owner and had permission to bring the vehicles through. He was going to send Murray with the group ahead as it appeared this might take a day. But, a few phone calls to Veronica at the Compass office and we were headed to Istanbul.
Turkey is such a colourful place with its carpet displays, lighting displays and even the food dishes are quite brilliant in their presentation. Everyone wants to sell you their wares when passing by their shops. Yet, the real bargains are to be had at the Grand Bazaar. The Hotel Manager in Istanbul ordered a cab for Lauren and Carmen to take to a specific dealer within the Grand Bazaar to view and perhaps purchase one of the many Magnificent Turkish Silk Rugs. The deal was sealed after much bargaining and was celebrated with Turkish Tea. This appears to be a gesture that all of the Turkish people offer whether you are shopping on a small scale, purchasing large items or getting gas. It is a “friendship gesture” throughout Turkey that they offer tourists.
Wednesday, June 23rd Istanbul, Turkey City Tour Day
Our no ride day in Istanbul, Turkey was spent taking an organised city tour. We set out to explore some of the highlights: the Blue Mosque which was built during the 17th Century by an Ottoman Ruler with stone domes and minarets on the outside and the famous blue tiling on the inside. We then saw the outside of the Aya Sofya with thousands of tiles that created dazzling Arabic patterns that has had a history from Christian to Islamic faith and then to today’s place as a museum. Our next tour was of the Palace, Topkapi Sarayi, the nerve centre of the Ottoman’s empire and a fabulous treasure house of its riches that encompass the jewels of the treasury and holy relics of the prophet Muhammad. From there some went on to see the underground waterway system called Yerebatan Sarnici which houses the cities fresh water supplies in case of a siege while others detoured to the Grand Bazaar to soak up the feel of a marketplace that has been run for thousands of years. Everyone seems to go for a variety of reasons; some for the architecture of the many lane ways and arches, others just to shop and try to find the ultimate bargain and others just to say they’ve been there. Istanbul is a stop that many hikers, travelers include in their journeys
Our travels since Bucharest
Leaving a chaotic city of Bucharest our group got separated through the traffic and didn’t reunite until the border at Bulgaria which was lined heavily with trucks.
Once out of the city it was a sunny day and warm weather. The sunflower heads were open, the wheat has been harvested and we were still seeing gypsies yet not so many horse and carts. The small farmer still uses his horse and plow. At various truck stops, prostitution seems rampant with young girls walking back and forth trying to hire tricks. The countryside varied with it being flat to hilly and large mountains in the distance. Lunch was by the roadside with a feast of the local produce. The ride to Nesebar was a bit challenging as the GPS’s were not working so good. Carmen, Jason and Lauren were in the support vehicle and had observed a area which was called “the fields of rock” and were millions of years old.
When we were approaching Nesebar it was like we were coming into Walt Disney World with all the high rise buildings and new theme park type hotels such as Pirates of the Carribean, however our hotel was by the seaside in the medieval part of the city nestled alongside a fishing village. We shopped amongst the local merchants selling their wares from antiques to home made ice cream, clothing and souvenirs which was set amidst the ruins from Roman times. Leaving Nesebar Bulgaria we were headed toward Istanbul, Turkey
Riding the back roads of Transylvannia
Budapest to Bucharest
Day 7, Friday June 18, 2010
So much is happening so fast that it’s hard to keep track of everything. The day that we were in Salzburg, Austria two of the guys, Mick and Murray, decided to take a 10 and a half hour ride to Passo De Stelvio to ride the Stelvio Pass. These guys are diehard as 7 1/2 hours of that ride was done in torrential downpour. It was quite the trek for these two as they had to travel through three countries to get there; Southern Germany, Switzerland and Northern Italy but the 49 switchbacks up the mountain was well worth the effort. We’re still talking about it now.
Leaving Hungary on our way to Timisoara, Romania we cross a border in which this time we MUST show our passports. A few riders went ahead and paved the way for the rest as everyone wanted to ride their own ride. The landscape changes from mountains passes to flat fields of corn, sunflower and wheat. The riders that rode ahead decided that they just wanted to get to the hotel as it was pouring buckets with rain, hail, thunder and lightening. The others had a meeting point with the support vehicle at another spot (boatshed) however the reunion never happened as the support vehicle was running late from a shopping expedition (which is another story in itself). The water was forming rivers on the roadway. Two of the riders got to the hotel two hours before the next two riders followed by the support vehicle two hours later and then the rest of the riders followed within approx. fifteen minutes. It was AN ADVENTURE!!!! We stayed in the Hotel Victoria in Timisoara, Romania. Dinner was fine dining and the weather stayed raining the entire night.
Day 8: Saturday, June 19th, 2010 Timisoara to Sighisoara, Romania
The weather started off beautiful, sun was shining, birds were singing and it was a pleasant relief from the dismal, rain from the day before. This lasted most of the day until the last 80 kms once we crossed into Transylvania. Suddenly, it was like we were in a whole new world of it’s own. The lightening bolts across the sky, the ominous dark clouds that were suddenly upon us and the torrential downpour forced all of our bikes off the road as well as pedestrians, cars, trucks that were taking refuge in gas stations by the drove. Hail followed and winds that gusted and knocked over trees (sounds like a movie???) made us think that we were in the midst of a tornado. We were headed to a mideaval, cobblestone citadel that overlooked a poorer area that was nearly impossible to find in the rain. After seeking the aide of cab drivers and police escort as well as small bats that flew low amongst the bike tires, we were able to get to the top of the citadel which was extremely slippery, dangerous as well as freaky.
We had two bed and breakfast type lodging and once everyone was able to shower, change and dryout, we all headed for a walk in this bizarre and eery village. Everyone had jet black hair with mesmerizing eyes and the mood was somewhat Gothic. One of the buildings signage read “Vlad Dracul lived here”. Most of the shops, bars and restaurants were in caves and were closed due to the power completely going out in the town upon our arrival. We found a pizzeria with a woodfire (which was one of the only restaurants in town that could provide a meal) and dinner for that evening was pizza for everyone.
After dinner a few went over to the cave bar as the power had gone back on only to get into the cave and the power went out once again. This was something straight out of a movie and we were expecting Count Dracula himself to appear at any time. As much as this medieval town was magnificent it was a bit of relief to get on the road and head toward Dracula’s Castle and then on to Bucharest, Romania.
Day 9, June 20th, 2010 Sighisoara to Bucharest, Romania
Well, FINALLY the rain let up and it was a beautiful day of riding and we could actually dry out our gear. We were heading for Bran Castelle also known as “Dracula’s Castle”. After the night in Sighisoara, touring Dracula’s Castle didn’t seem so bad. The sun came out warming everything up and today we were off the highways doing nice paved mountainous sweepers with some hairpin turns (switchbacks). Romanian women were standing by the side of the roads selling berries to passerbys. Many horse drawn carts and caravans of gypsy’s were camped by the rivers. Pedigree pups in many locations where the tourists would stop were being sold. Being that it is Sunday, many of the older Romanian men and women were sitting out front of their homes watching the traffic go by.
Even though there seems to be much poverty, the Romanian women work hard outside their homes taking pride in their beautiful floral gardens. We saw many farmers working hard today moving their cattle and sheep to greener pastures. All the animals roam free with no gates/leashes.
After leaving the freeway and coming into Bucharest and seeing all the high rise flats on both sides and on blocks of streets was an adjustment from the green hills and farmland. Going forward, it is hard to know what to expect and what we will see. The one thing we have down pat is our early morning routine of being up by 6:00 am, bags down to the support vehicle by 7:00 am, breakfast between 7:30 and 8:00 am and off by 8:30 am. (sometimes pushing 9 am). Next stop, Nesebar, Bulgaria with another border crossing.
London to Budapest
Well, we are at Day 7 of our Road of Bones Trip and so far we have covered a great deal of terrain from London, England to Timisoara, Romania (after today). Everyone is in good spirits as we will be leaving the vast highways behind and will be entering more sub standard roadways with more scenic twisties and sweepers. The group consists of eight riders beginning with Mick McDonald, tour guide leader and owner of Compass Expeditions, Mick, Murray, Joe (Australian riders), Patrick (Colorado, USA), Isaac (San Diego, USA), George (Scotland) and Jacquie (Ontario, Canada). Patrick and Joe are riding two up with their spouses Lauren and Carmen as well as Jason (the support vehicle driver) who is also from Canada, however living in the UK.
preparing for takeoff at the Ace Cafe
On Day 1, which was Saturday, June 12th, we left the infamous Ace Cafe after a HUGE breakfast and a wonderful sendoff by fellow Compass Expedition Employees and Bikers. We were escorted out of London on our way to Dover, England by several riders taking pictures of our entire group beginning what will be for most, the biggest adventure of our lives. We arrived at the Ferry in Dover where we grabbed a quick bite to eat for lunch before arriving in Calais, France. Once in Calais, we headed toward Rouen, France after re-fuelling and getting a few supplies for the bikes (chain link oil etc).
The ride through France was spectacular; rolling hills with plush green grass and trees against the English Channel in the background. The beauty of France’s farmlands as we passed over viaducts was breathtaking as we headed to Rouen, France. Once in Rouen, we parked our bikes for the night in front of Hotel Le Cardinal; a quaint hotel with a little outdoor patio in front for our first night of over 100 days remaining. Next, Rouen to Flavigny France……..
Another French village near Flavigny
Day 2, Sunday June 13th, 2010 we headed off to Flavigny after a nice continental breakfast. Once again the scenery was beautiful as we travelled the highway to our next destination. Just prior to Flavigny we stopped at a small town whose old building were from a time past; all the buildings were made of old stone and cobblestone roadways as we crossed a stone bridge that had a flowing waterfall below. Flavigny was an ancient town that one can just not say enough about. It is from a time past in which all the homes and buildings are made of stone and has a stunning view looking over a horizon of farmland in the distant. Mary, our host, served a traditional beef bourguignon complimented by a skewer of tomato and cheese appetizer with salad, local wine from the area and a three desert finale which included creme brulee (one of France’s originals). The hospitality was second to none. Obviously there was a lot of thought put into our accommodations from Mick McDonald as the entire group feasted and slept amongst the local residents of Flavigny France. Job well done Mick and Compass Expeditions……..
Leaving Flavigny, Monday, June 14th (Day 3) was difficult as it is such a beautiful mideaval town however the road was once again before us and as most bikers will tell ya moving forward on two wheels is the best way to travel and another destination was ahead of us. We must apologize for the lateness of these entries onto our blog and the lack of pictures however internet connections as well as usage of computers has been a challenge more complicated than the road trip. However, we will endeavor and keep writing until we are able to send you some of our beautiful pictures. On our travels towards Switzerland we left the highway and began our pass through the winding rounds and started seeing some of the more picturesque views of the lakes and waterfalls as we were making our way up into higher altitudes. Once again, BREATHTAKING!!!!! We stayed at Hotel Shuetzen which sat in front of of the most grand and stunning views of waterfalls and mountains. In the morning the cows were escorted through town ring their cowbells which was the most beautiful sounds. Next, Switzerland to Austria
Joy 130 KPH in Austria
Arrived in Austria Tues afternoon, June 15th and 16th (Day4 & 5) and observed many castles on mountainside. As we came into Austria we ducked in and out of Germany once and back into Austria as well as passing through Lichtenstein (a country of it’s own). Even though we arrived fairly late, the city doesn’t get dark until after 10pm at night. This is the land of Mozart. This time in Salzburg was our 2 day layover where people were able to catch up with their laundry, sight see and head to the old city leading to the magnificent palace that sat on top of the mountain overlooking the entire city. Many pictures were taken of all the magnificent views as the mountainous terrain was spectacular and many medieval buildings as well. Sightseeing through Salzburg some people of the group were able to capture the beautiful cathedral churches on film, smell some of the aromas of freshly baked streudal enticing one to stop and take a taste in the local pastry shops. We stayed at the Best Western Hotel which was once again an excellent choice made by Compass Expeditions. Next, Hungary bound……….
So, Day 6 (Thursday, June 17th) were off again and our destination is Budapest, Hungary. Today will be a long day of highway riding, approx. 560 kms worth of riding, and we will be stopping at a little boat shed for a picnic lunch by the fields of a wheat crop. Jason, the support vehicle driver and bike mechanic, has been awesome in accommodating us with our picnic lunches as well as providing maintenance to the bikes. Our lunches have been a feast of local cheeses and fruit with croissants and freshly baked breads. We all leave well satisfied. Preparing to stop at the border into Hungary with our passports, we were surprised to find that the border crossing wasn’t manned so it was clear sailing. Weather improved from overcast skies and spitting rain to a warm and sunny day. Once arriving in Budapest we all have agreed that this so far has been the best city for its beauty as the Danube separates what was once two cities, Buda and Pest. Buda was the administration side with the grand Parliament House that overlooks the Danube and Pest was the industrial and trade centre. With fireworks over the Danube at night as we ate at one of the local cafes and experienced an array of pastries from one of the oldest pastry shops in the world (where Veronica McDonald’s grandfather once worked) an experience that brought the taste buds alive. So, now we are heading for Timisoara, Romania which we have heard it will lead us to Dracula’s Castle so we’ll keep you with us and informed once we get there…. hopefully as we are at the mercy of internet connections.
With only a week to go before departure all bikes have been collected and prepared by Compass Expeditions staff, it was a great relief to swing the container doors open to see all bikes, support vehicle and trailer exactly as we left them, a big thanks to James Cargo for all their assistance.
The mammoth job of sorting and preparing the vast array of equipment required for the London to Magadan expedition is well underway with last minute design alterations being made to the off-road trailer.
Catching up with Walter from Siberiskyextreme
It hasn’t all been work, work, work, we took time to catch up with the Siberia aficionado Walter Colebatch creator of www.siberiskyextreme.com that follows his amazing ride across Siberia in 2009, a huge thanks to Walter for some very valuable tips.
Our clients are beginning to arrive into the UK now and transport has been organised to take everyone to the Treatme off-road training centre, on the Salisbury Plains, for a full day of off-road riding training.
I know I speak for everyone when I say we just want to get on the road now, it’s been a long time in the planning and the time has come to ride.
6 Weeks to go…
A flurry of last minute bookings saw an apparent end to the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) and a swelling in ranks for the 2010 London to Magadan Expedition.
Our group of adventure riders come from all corners of the world. We have clients from Australia, USA, Mexico, Canada and the UK and all agree this will be the ride of a lifetime.
The visa obtaining process is now on in earnest and with us not being able to apply for our visas before a particular timeframe, (otherwise the visas would have expired by the time we need them), many sleepless nights have been endured. However there is light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not the Trans Siberian train coming.
Bikes have been shipped as has our support vehicle and trailer; hopefully they are bobbing up and down on the ocean somewhere as I write.
Hotels have been booked, excursions and city guides confirmed and breakfast at the Ace Café, London organised.
All we have to do now is ride to the other side of the world……