Turkey and heading Northwards

Turkey began with a problem at the border and ended riding out in driving rain, but the intervening seven days were overwhelmingly good. The first problem was when reality dawned on me that you need to show your log book at borders. Mine was safely stored in Wales. This created a great deal of problems at the Greek/Turkish border, eventually resolved by peeling the chassis number from the bike to provide evidence for the mandatory green card insurance that you must buy at the frontier. The second problem to materialise shortly afterwards was that our Garmin GPS doesn’t work in Turkey. Whilst Istanbul is well sign-posted, finding a small hotel in Sultanahmad (the old city) would be more challenging.

The plan was well established. We would ride to Istanbul and then meet four people (respective girlfriends and a couple) who were flying out from the UK at the pre-booked hotel in Sultanahmad. Some frantic emailing and texting at the border ensured that my log book would be brought to Istanbul.

Turkish roads are at best variable, whilst the Turks themselves are invariably friendly and helpful. The ride to Istanbul was straightforward with two overnight stops, the second only a short-distance from the city. We had failed to buy a map of Istanbul so Mark planned a route into Sultanahmad using Google maps and using his GPS as a compass. The plan worked surprisingly well and we located the hotel with relative ease.

Three nights spent at the hotel were interspersed with two nights spent on Princes’ Island, an hour and a half on the ferry from Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. Cars are essentially banned on the Island, so transport is by foot, or horse and buggy. There is also an elderly man at the port who will load your bags onto a trolley and push them uphill to your hotel for the price of a small dwelling on the Island. He doesn’t reveal the cost until he has completed the trip, with theatrical pauses to catch his breath and to take on water. It’s a great performance but not worth the money.

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From Turkey we crossed the border into Bulgaria and then onto Romania. A night in Bucharest in a small hotel close to Ceausescu’s palace. It was close enough to stroll down the wide boulevards to get a good view of the enormous and imposing building. Apparently he bulldozed schools and hospitals to create the Bucharest that is a monument to his megalomania.

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From Bucharest it was onwards north into Transylvania. Some great mountainous scenery and some fantastic twisty biking roads. A twenty mile backtrack to view “Dracula’s castle” – good to see the Romanian’s finally catching on to tourist opportunities.

One of the great things about this trip has been the kindness of  strangers. Two hotels in recent days have offered us parking for the bikes behind locked gates. On neither occasion did we ask for this. On each occasion the bikes have still been there next morning. Smile

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Greece

Mark arrived in Kathmandu on Tuesday (8th May) and we flew to Doha, Qatar the following evening. A five hour “overnight” stop in a swish hotel and we were off on the early morning flight to Athens on Thursday morning. We booked a hotel at the airport on arrival, received with the ever cheerful “it’s very easy to find from the station”. We lugged our bags into the  relevant bus and proceeded into town, sadly with no basis to identify the relevant station.  Sometime into the journey we randomly disembarked the bus and took a taxi to the hotel.

The next day we ordered a taxi to the offices of ITC, who we believe had shipment of our bikes. Fifteen kilometres or so in a taxi and we were dropped at an unlikely location – a sort of lorry park with loading bays. A lap around the building revealed some small offices inside, one of which turned out to be ITC. We arrived about 8.45 – there was no one there. Some girls in a neighbouring office ventured that maybe we could expect someone to be there by 9.15.

This proved to be near enough accurate and a helpful girl offered us coffee and water when she arrived. Friendly though she was it was little comfort to learn that the bikes were not here – they were about 30 kilometres away and the location was “complicated” to find. We ordered a taxi and were given the telephone of Nikos who would talk our taxi driver in. It was indeed complicated and there were long and occasionally incredulous exchanges between the taxi driver and Nikos. Eventually we arrived at the “NAF” warehouse and the two splendid crates that held our steeds were revealed. Two guys helped us unpack – essentially smashing the crate apart with a hammer. The bikes were largely intact – top boxes needed to be re-attached and some fuel located. Both bikes started and we headed back to the hotel to pack.

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In honesty Mark’s packing is better than mine. My bike looks like someone has stacked two oversize bags on the back seat; ungainly at best, precarious at worst. We set off in the afternoon heading north east towards the Aegean sea. First impressions of Greece are favourable. It doesn’t look like a country on its arse. It has no Government and is in danger of defaulting on Government payments if it doesn’t negotiate a bailout and yet there is an everyday normality about everything. The Greek people are kind and friendly.

We spent 3 nights in Greece, gradually winding our way towards the Turkish border. Some lovely sea views, with picturesque hills inland to complete the vista. We reached the Turkish border on Sunday. There was an immediate problem – they wanted to see the log book for my bike. It was at home. You need to buy green card insurance at the border and for this you need to produce your log book. A standoff ensued. Eventually it was decided they could issue the green card if I produced the chassis number. This was eventually located on the frame, where it was unreadable. It was carefully peeled off and offered up.  The Green Card document was issued and we entered Turkey after some delay.

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Kathmandu, Nepal

Sunday 6th May 2012 – Technically all elements of riding from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Nepal have been accomplished. Sort of.

Jon and I have been in Kathmandu since 1st May. John left last night to fly back to Shanghai. Mark has ridden to Everest base camp on a Chang Jiang 750 and is now in a truck headed back to Lhasa. The road into Nepal was apparently blocked by a landslide. He is going to try and get a flight to Kathmandu on Tuesday. We have flights to Doha, Qatar on Wednesday evening, with an onward flight to Athens on Thursday morning. The bikes are apparently en route to Athens. We need to be in Istanbul by Tuesday 15th May.  What could go wrong Winking smile

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Kathmandu has been restful and fun. Very different from Tibet. Although dusty, it is green and luscious, and has water and, above all, oxygen. Exploring has been on foot – lots of narrow, bustling market streets, ever accompanied with the horns of motorbikes and cars. The food has been good – inevitably curry, but largely vegetable-based dishes. Everywhere there are people.

We watched a Hindu cremation, with the body burnt on the banks of the river. Apparently it is only the belly button that remains after the body is burnt. Two to three hours to cremate a body, with women taking longer than men. On the plus side, none of the Crew brothers provided the corpse, so by that measure alone, the trip has not been a complete failure Smile.

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Oxygen is the new Alcohol

The final night in Lhasa saw Jon, Bernd and I opt to go for a massage. We received directions to a place nearby. It was an unlikely-looking office building, with smartly turned out security guards at the main gate. The main guard confirmed that we were in the right place and proceeded to show us to the lift. His diligence extended to accompanying us to the correct floor and showing us into a large room, with an enormous bed, with handrails fixed on the ceiling above it.

We were duly provided with pyjamas and lay prostate across the bed, like over-sized infants. We each had a masseuse, who would walk on our backs, partially supporting her weight using the guide rails. When lying face-down it’s hard to figure out exactly who is doing what to who. It was an odd, somewhat surreal, experience. It was good-natured and fun, with much banter between the girls. On occasions you would be able to move your head sufficiently to be able to gather what was going on. The clearest image of all was the smartly-attired security guard sitting at the end of the bed, still watching proceedings intently.

Friday 27th April saw the motley crew of five Chang Jiangs. one 4*4 for filming and one support truck depart Lhasa. If I say so myself, we did it with some style. The Chang Jiangs’  rode in formation past the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace, completely blocking the road. There was a cacophony of horns, bemused looks, curiosity and goodwill. Greg and Darrell rushing around with cameras on tripods, as if on a film set. Fortunately the police only gave us passing attention. Peter had been unable to get Mark and I Chinese driving licences.

On the outskirts of Lhasa Pete tied a Tibetan scarf to the crash barrier at the  side of the road in memory of the guy who died on last year’s trip. He had drifted wide on an uneven piece of road and hit an oncoming truck head-on. His wife, in the sidecar, was seriously injured.

Peter Tribute

As the town faded we climbed the first 5,000 meter pass – more than three miles above sea level in old money. The CJ’s climbed the twisty mountain road without difficulty despite the altitude.   I felt surprisingly good – the constant ‘altitude headache’ had faded – and the stunning views made it easy to forget day-to-day maladies.

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Peter 5k Pass

 

The exact chronology of events over the next few days remain confused in my mind. At some point I started falling over – unable to co-ordinate or judge things properly. This concerned others more than it concerned me. I remember being taken to a doctor at Gyantse and being prescribed a selection of pills and potions. These do not appear to have had the desired effect and it was resolved that I would visit the hospital at Shigatse, as this was the last place en route where there would be suitable medical facilities.

The doctor attached a probe to my finger which produced a reading of something like 34 – it should be 95 she explained. She put me on Oxygen, explained that I had pulmonary oedema and would need a chest X-ray. Sunday 29th April was spent in hospital – with a drip-feed of antibiotics to accompany my oxygen feed. Mark drew the short-straw and had to stay the night with me; there was only one nurse to cover the entire hospital at night it was explained.

The nurse did pop in periodically during the night to top up the antibiotics in the drip system, and to adjust the oxygen feed. Peeing was more problematic. I was provided with a small container but the size was evidently based upon the presumably smaller-bladdered Tibetan patient. I was in no position to go looking for a toilet, which regrettably, only left the ‘empty it out of the window’ option. Even this dignifies proceedings, as it omits the overspill from the capacity issue. Once in full flow it is all but impossible to stop.

Oxygen

Morning came with a medical note and strict instructions that I would need to be taken to lower altitude. Jon it was resolved would accompany me and a driver and head towards the Nepalese border. By 10.30 at night this was achieved and we spent Monday 30th April in the wet border town of Nyalam.

Tuesday 1st May – we headed first thing to the border and customs. One immediate problem was there was now only two of the Welsh contingent on the paperwork and the border guards require the full three brothers to process us. Jon was insistent on the ‘medical emergency’ story but points out to me that my failure to keep falling over is casting doubt on its credibility. I compromise with ‘assisted walking’ from our driver and the act is deemed good enough for us to pass immigration.

We bid farewell to our driver who heads back to re-join the main group and find ourselves a new Indian driver to take us to Kathmandu. Walking across the bridge at the border the scenery is green and spectacular, with water running in deep gulley’s beneath us. The atmosphere is chaotic and vibrant – people are washing themselves at the roadside. Three hours or so later we arrive in the bustle of Kathmandu.

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Lhasa, Tibet

Wednesday – 25th April 2012 started early. A flight to Lhasa, via Chengdu. The connection time is short so no time to see Chengdu – apparently they have giant panders there just like in Scotland. Here they eat bamboo apparently, rather than their native deep-fried Mars bars.

There are nine in our group on the plane – Greg and Darren from Australia, ‘Yangtse Pete’ and Bernd from Germany, and the three Crew bothers from Wales.  Surprisingly ‘Yangtse Pete’ is not the real name of our esteemed leader – it turn out it’s ‘Peter’. Extraordinary. Greg and Darren are the guys making the film.

The permits for Tibet arrived only a few days ago. Changes in the rules mean we are now officially three parties – the Aussies, the Germans and the Brits (or the ‘numerically superior Welsh’, as I like to think of us).

The film is going to be a documentary of the trip. They’ve already shot some great footage of convoys of Chang Jiangs around Shanghai. We did some brief interviews on camera last night before an early dinner, and then headed back across town for an early night.

The first challenge of the day, apart from rising from my slumber at an ungodly hour, was checking in at Shanghai airport. We are only allowed 20 Kgs of baggage per person. The camera equipment alone weighs 78 Kg. In the end the total amount of excess baggage paid was zero. Yangtse Pete is affable and easy-going but has a rare gift for shouting and gesticulating in Chinese, in a co-ordinated and passionate manner. It is not only impressive it is surprisingly effective. Frankly it has put Jon’s ‘ordering from the menu by pointing at pictures’ skills look shabby by comparison. The net result– large amounts of carry on luggage. Bargain.

Greg is not subtle with the filming and is happy to point cameras at people at short range. Darren is more subtle, and has gone for a miniature ‘Go-Pro’ camera secreted about his person. Whilst this has less chance of being challenged it carries an increased risk  of being branded a pervert as people may need persuading that closet under-skirt shots weren’t the objective. I’d personally prefer declare myself to be a spy than face the humiliation.

I’m looking forward to seeing Lhasa again. The last time I was there was three years. I travelled there alone by sleeper train from Shanghai – three days if I remember correctly. There were only 4 westerners on the train – two American students, a mad Russian woman who spoke bollocks in fluent English, and me. I was happy to provide light cabaret as the hapless western traveller. In particular one chubby Chinese guy chuckled at my appearance as we sat in the buffet car. He was resplendent in his new pyjamas; it was mid-day.

I felt quite groggy on the third day on the train – a sort of moderate hangover, but without the pleasure of the night before. I wondered if I was going down with a flu bug. I noticed pieces of clear plastic tubing being acquired by passengers  and plugged into a rail on the side of the train. Under the ‘when in Rome’ principle I requested one from the smartly-attired carriage  guard using fluent pointing and plugged myself in. Ten minutes of inhaling pure oxygen and my supposed hangover was cured. I had no further trouble with altitude sickness during my stay in Lhasa. This time Pete has provided some local Chinese tablets – lots of Chinese symbols and a red arrow pointing to the heart and brain.  That’s close enough to a double blind research study for me.

Lhasa StormLhasa Taxi

Lhasa has fairly relaxed atmosphere despite a strong police presence.  You must have permits and use a locally approved guide. Whilst the diminutive stature of the police  is less threatening this is more than offset as they are armed to the teeth. The Chinese are sensitive about many things, and  Tibet in particular.  Facebook and Twitter are blocked in Chinese search engines, although I have had no problem accessing either via mobile using my UK Vodafone, which must access webservers outside China. Many people in China now use VPN (virtual private networks) which apparently gets around the problem, at least for now.

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Lhasa Scene (note sniper on the roof)

 

 

 

 

 

We had a great dinner as a group – Yak steak of course, with a few Tibetan delicacies. I had some mild effects of altitude sickness, which developed further overnight.

Thursday – 26th April 2012

I awoke with a stonking headache – amazing how altitude can replicate the effects of an all-night bender. I skipped the trip to the Portala in the morning as I’ve been here before, and have done all the mandatory tourist spots.

My CJ

By early afternoon the first of the Lhasa-based Chang Jiangs (CJs) appeared. Pete has done this trip a few times before, usually without incident. Unfortunately last year a guy was killed on a Chang Jiang and his wife seriously injured. He collided with a lorry in Lhasa at the very start of the trip. One of those tragic incidents that randomly happen – nothing to do with veteran vehicles and mountain roads. As he crashed in the Dalai Lama’s heartland hopefully he has reincarnated Smile

Tomorrow we leave.

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Shanghai

Olivia Welcome LRAfter an eleven hour overnight flight we arrived in Shanghai on Sunday afternoon to be greeted at the airport by Jon and his eldest daughter Olivia.  Olivia is the delightful girl holding the sign; Jon is the one in the camp hat.

It has been three years since I was last in Shanghai. It was then a building site, awash with most of the world’s concrete which was being shaped in shuttering in preparation for Expo 2010. It looks a lot nicer now. Vibrant and bustling – full of promise, an intoxicating mix of  optimism, noise and pollution.

Some things had remained the same. The generosity of Jon’s friends Andrew and Sunhyi  Todd who came to dinner on the day of our arrival, being one. I had stayed with them last time I was in Shanghai.

There are a number of cures touted for jetlag. Four bottles of red wine and two bottles of malt whiskey did not make the short-list, and for good reasons. The heady combination brought out the usual male-trait of solving the world’s problems with alcohol. The conversation progressed, or more accurately regressed, as the malt flowed. The key requirement is to hold increasingly extreme views on anything, and indeed everything.  Whisky has the strange property of promoting conviction and passion, whilst removing the ability to offer any  supporting  arguments. “Talking bollocks” as it’s known to outsiders who have not imbibed sufficiently to share in the collective wisdom.

Monday morning arrived early and with a hang-over. The joy of living in the play room is you can share the enthusiasm and relentless curiosity of young children from about 6.00am onwards. Mark resolved to head downtown to see the Bund. I resolved to put right last night’s damage and conquer my jet-lag with a programme of extensive massage – about 3 hours worth. A full body massage followed with an extended foot massage. Andrew promised to “pick me up” at about 9.30. He didn’t disappoint, arriving by tandem at the appointed hour.

TandemI adore massage. I like to enter the twilight zone of complete relaxation – a sort of meditation on contentment, punctuated with the odd spasm of pain to keep you awake. I have no need for conversation at such times. Women I find do not generally hold with this quiet reflection. My dental hygienist usually has a couple of fingers and a probe or two rammed down my throat when she enquires about where I am going for holidays. The incoherent noise that comes out of my mouth each time invariably sounds the same, and certainly far too vague to identify the correct destination   There is no such place as “migotoa” as far as I am aware.

I vaguely recognised the massage girl from the last trip. As she speaks no English and I no Chinese the information exchange was likely to be even more limited than my dental conversations. She was undeterred. When I looked blankly at her  when she slowly repeated some simple Chinese words she would search for alternative Chinese words and repeat the process. The strategy was doomed to failure as I don’t in fact understand any Chinese words.

The breakthrough came during the foot massage. She grabbed her IPhone and keyed her was through 4 or 5 screens of Chinese characters and handed it to me. It said “lovely/loveliness” in English. I was naturally delighted with this, although the long time delay gave ambiguity as to what in fact inspired these words. The most likely candidates were  my right foot, the weather or, less likely still,  me in general.

Nevertheless a precedent had been set and the process started. The next exchange produced “much/from” on the IPhone screen, which I felt was a conversational cul-de-sac. I smiled weakly.

The highpoint of the exchange came when the girl admired the hairiness of my left calf. She pinched bits of the stuff between her thumb and forefinger and then enthusiastically hit the IPhone screen. She handed it to me displaying the words “sexy/sexy looking”. Finally it has been recognised. “I’ll be coming here again”, I thought as I reflectively sipped my green tea.

In the evening we went out dinner on Jon’s Chang Jiang 750. The Chinese are wonderfully lax about traffic laws – no helmets, and indeed many vehicles don’t bother with headlights. Dinner was inevitably preceded with drinks with a bunch of Jon’s mates. Most were ex pat teachers from the school. Two of the group implausibly seemed to share the name ‘Alfred’ and one was a Dutch engineer, who spoke to a dog in French. As Jon moves to Thailand shortly the conversation inevitably turned to Thai cuisine and lady-boys.

Dinner was at a nearby Japanese restaurant. Jon impressed us all with his fluency at pointing at pictures on the menu. He enthusiastically ordered a large selection of meat and fish, which they cook at the table. The initial items were tasty. My heart sank when we reached his culturally-sensitive ethnic selections. The low point of my last visit to Shanghai was eating stinky Tofu. The Chinese ferment tofu – it smells like poo, it tastes like poo. It is absolutely degusting. Jon had clearly decided to extend this theme by ordering most of the pigs digestive tract – bowel, large and small intestines, arsehole – the lot. The culinary journey was complete. Not only had we smelt and tasted poo, we were now actually eating it.

Post dinner we returned to the bar to continue the discourse on lady-boys and Chinese labour laws. In the midst of the noisy conversation Jon casually mentioned “I’m going with them to Lhasa”. I was stunned. I asked him to repeat it several times and swear the veracity of the statement on each of his Children’s lives in turn. It was evidently true and he had kept the secret brilliantly. I thought to myself “Fantastic”, quickly followed by “Fuck it – the T-shirts are wrong”.

 

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To Leigh Delamere and Beyond!

nickDucati’s are beautifully styled but are about as dependable as Captain Schettino, and as reliable as catholic birth control. My bike looked pretty precarious this morning – it was overloaded, it had been badly packed and repacked (twice).

I try not to regard success and failure as absolute states. Instead I like to think in terms of gradations; low expectations make success easier to perceive.  As I type this blog  I am sitting in the Three Magpies pub, near Heathrow, watching Arsenal v Chelsea on the box. The volume is most impressive – the dial must go up 11, if not 12.  Our bikes have been left in the capable hands of Kevin at  James Cargo, and are hopefully being lovingly bubble-wrapped and crated as I type.

Thoughts have been constantly playing on my mind. My bike would fail to start this morning, or would simply be unrideable with all the baggage. It would be hard to dress failure to reach Leigh Delamere services as anything but abject failure. In the event the bike road perfectly – it was even confortable. It’s reassuring having your back resting against the two large bags that now occupy the passenger seat. The rear view mirror filled with the ungainly big red blobs that shows me that they’re still attached.

And now a pint or two and a bus to the airport awaits. I have fucked up – I have six bags to carry. But this is only a  minor inconvenience. I am also swaddled in endless layers of clothes – people have ventured to the south pole wearing less. This is more of an inconvenience. I am hot and look like a dick, or a best, a very nervous bus passenger.

Tonight we fly to Shanghai. This is success to me. Our trip has finally begun.

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Mind Over Clutter

Motorbikes are perfectly designed for feng shui; minimalism is mandatory. The panniers on my Ducati Multistrada can snugly accommodate two pairs of pants, a thong and a sandwich. The top box holds the staples of modern life – Ipad, electronic notebook, helmet camera and the miscellaneous electronic gadgetry without which the human condition is officially intolerable.

Planning for a big trip thus requires, well – planning. A big bed and a spare room is useful.  Here things can be grouped and sorted into bags. A big bag that can hold smaller bags. A bag for a tent, a stuffer bag for a sleeping bag, plastic envelopes to hold paperwork, bags to hold the wires and attachments that link gadgetry together and to power supplies, bags to hold special tools and adapters. Then come the essential fluids – synthetic engine oil, WD40, ACF50, lube (no not that – stuff for the chain), single malt whisky.

It’s oddly satisfying sorting and grouping your possessions. There are essentially only two groups – ‘stuff to take’ and ‘stuff to leave’. ‘Stuff to take’ is subdivided into ‘stuff to wear’ and ‘stuff to pack’. ‘Stuff to pack’ can include ‘stuff to wear’ like wet weather gear and a spare visor. ‘Stuff to pack’ divides into ‘stuff I’ll really use’ and ‘stuff I’m carrying to enhance my street cred’. This latter group is important because it’s bulky.

The main items in ‘stuff I’m carrying to enhance my street cred’ are the tent, sleeping bag and bed roll. It also includes an aluminium mess tin, with a solid fuel thing to heat it. I’ve seen them in prisoner of war films and I think cool hand Luke ate from one. That’s how cool it is. I also have three torches, all with batteries. One that goes around your head – the Chilean miners inspired this. I have one that’s specifically designed to hang on things. I did have a wind-up one but gave it away in an uncharacteristic rash fit of Christmas largesse.

It’s wrong to suggest that I am inexperienced at Camping. At about age 13 I recall a moderately unsuccessful but not totally disastrous camping and canoe trip to Symonds Yat. Mark, ‘bounce’ and myself in two tents. We fearlessly and successfully scaled the not insignificant rapids at dawn but most succumbed to food poisoning shortly afterwards. ‘Bounce’ I recall was in  no immediate danger of expiring from lack of food – he was called ‘bounce’ for a reason.  I escaped both the rapids and the food poisoning making me the most successful of the trio. My only failing was being unable to put the tent up and falling over the guy ropes.

I have digressed. There really is a point to this. I live buried in clutter. A cluttered home, garage and car. Clutter accumulates like fridge ice – it flourishes while you do nothing. Clutter is stressful – it causes me to lose things. And worse it’s a metaphor (or possibly a simile) for those areas of my life that lack direction or purpose – essentially all of it.  All the things that I have failed to control. Constant reminders of things I need to do, can’t do or should have done. I am adrift in a sea of clutter – I can paddle about to give direction but am always floating where the current takes me.

On my bed though are the bags that I have brought order with. I have only the things I need and want. I am master of all I survey. I have brought order to the madness – here I control my destiny.

In short – in the bedroom I am king Smile

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