Hanoi Traffic

Hanoi Traffic

Or, If This Is Anarchy Then I Broadly Approve


Hanoi arrived in the way that Asia usually does. Stepping through the airport doors and it's instant Asia! The noise, the dust, the busy frenetic activity of taxi drivers, bus drivers, fellow passengers, various scooter riders racing everywhere and the uniformed airport staff going about their work day activities. There's a definite smell to Asia, a delightful earthy musk, a welcoming warmth with a hint of the exotic all wrapped up in a hot, humid, dense, fuggy comfort blanket. Hanoi did not disappoint.


The taxi driver continued the acclimatisation process. The journey from Hanoi airport to the old quarter of Hanoi passed uneventfully. Uneventfully for Asia that is. Should a London taxi driver swerve across several lanes of traffic on a frequent basis, sound his horn at every opportunity, answer his mobile phone whilst driving, then answer his other mobile phone when still talking on the first and you'd be dining off the stories for months to come. However this is Asia and it appears that every other driver on the same piece of road is doing pretty much the same thing. And then there's the scooter riders. Mopeds, scooters, small capacity motorcycles of every description are everywhere. Zooming in and around us, swarming and darting like insects around this slow ponderous water buffalo of a taxi.


After my first taxi ride in Asia many years ago, it came as a great surprise that we arrived at out destination intact. In fact it came as a great surprise that anyone arrived at their destinations intact. But of course we did, as indeed did everyone else, the first five minutes or so in the taxi provide an acclimatisation period, the rest of the journey is simply accepted that this is the way it is.


Breakfast the first morning provided an opportunity for further study. The hotel's dining room was on the second floor and our breakfast table was by a window. Hang Bong street, the one on which our hotel stood, is a main Hanoi thoroughfare, it's narrow with tall buildings on both sides. Several roads cross it at right angles and also carry similar levels of traffic. Bikes, by that I mean small capacity motorcycles, scooters and mopeds are everywhere. They flow like blood cells through an artery, filling every available space with a dizzying blur of motion. Except of course blood cells flow in only one direction, here they flow both ways. There appeared to be a broad consensus that riding on the right was the preferred option, but it was by no means universal.


The road was not divided half and half as one might expect; half for bikes going in one direction and the other 50% for traffic going in the other. Here, should there be a greater volume of bikes going in one direction over the other, then that lane would automatically grows, occupying a correspondingly larger percentage of the road. Sensible? Certainly. But how this was achieved unbidden, like a massive flock of starlings wheeling and darting in flight remains a mystery.


Across Hang Bong, many other roads crossing at right angles. Theses roads carried similar volumes of traffic to Hang Bong yet they merged like tributaries flowing into a river; neither stream of traffic yielding to allow the other progress. They didn't need to, they melded together like streams of molten metal flowing to fill a mould. The traffic may have been mostly bikes, but that was certainly not a guarantee of uniformity. Some were solo riders, some carried a pillion. Several carried more than one pillion, up to a maximum of three. It's not just people that get transported by these marvellous little bikes, but goods also. Tiny motorcycles carting improbable loads stacked well above the rider and adding at least a metre and a half to the overall width of the bike, teetered and staggered through this corpuscular flow as the height and weight of their loads created instabilities as the bike lurched over the pot holed road.


Some of the bikes carried goods too large to be strapped directly to the bike; ladders, chairs, a coffee table and on one occasion a large oil painting. Here the rider held the item in his left hand leaving the other hand in solo control of the motorcycle.


A westerner, upon seeing this scene for the first time would recoil in horror at the scant regard for the rules of the road. His second thought might be how can anyone ride these roads or worse be so irresponsible to take their children onto these roads! Even if they were securely strapped into their CE approved car seat and sitting in a 4×4, surely that would be tantamount to child abuse? And yet here are mothers taking their children on the back of these bikes. Not just the back, but standing on the foot plates of scooters or squeezed in-between two adults or both. Let's put away our thoughts of disbelief, utter disbelief, that any, let alone the vast majority would survive this anarchy and wonder why they do.


Vietnamese riders appear to operate without any recourse to the rules of the road. They will occasionally stop at red lights if the situation utterly demands it, but that's about the only rule they do follow. Priority to traffic from the left (they drive on the right remember) doesn't apply. Pedestrians giving way to motorist is unheard of and just having one side for overtaking would be considered absurd.


In the UK we have rules! Rules to keep us safe from each other. Rules that are strictly applied and rigidly followed. Woe betide anyone who transgresses! Even inadvertently. Any motorist who even just witnesses, let alone become mildly inconvenienced, by another motorist is felt fully justified in unleashing a whole salvo of insults, from angrily honking the horn to flashing the lights or even unleashing tirade of verbal abuse!


The riders of Hanoi without the rules of the road have to make do with common sense, good humour and civility. If a fellow rider wobbles a little in front of you because he's carrying a coffee table in his left hand, then give him space to do so. It is consider that he has a much right to be doing what he's doing as you have to be on your journey. This level of non aggressive riding makes the basic and fairly obvious assumption, given a moments thought, that nobody would be carting a coffee table on a Honda 50 unless they have a very good reason for doing so. The mother riding with three small children on her bike knows that the safety of her children is in her hands she also knows that it's in the hands of her fellow riders. A fact fully known and accepted by all her fellow riders. She is not derided for taking her children on a bike, but afforded the opportunity to do it safely. If this is anarchy, then I broadly approve.


A Time-warp Before Vietnam

A Time Warp Before Vietnam

We live in changing times.

About as uncontroversial a sentences as I can write. I can say that with absolute certainty because not only is it true, it has always been so. We have always lived in changing times. Queen Elizabeth 1st said as much, as did William the Conqueror before her. King Alfred the Great, Marcus Aurelius and for all I know the first Cro-Magnon leader who lead his people into the virgin territory of Western Europe around 30 000 years ago also said as much.


The point of all this preamble is that with such a constant state of flux and uncertainty it's hardly surprising when we find things that are new, novel or exciting. What is fascinating however, is finding something that's unchanged. Something that has passed through the generations largely unaltered for so long as it passes into folklore, and into our collective tribal memory. One such discovery befell me yesterday.


The Great British Guest House! As if plucked from a museum, or perhaps assembled from the collective memory of countless generations of holidaymakers, I found one that matched every preconceived idea and stereotype I could imagine. In Surrey, not too far from Gatwick Airport, I entered a time warp. Driving through the gate onto what was once the front garden, but now concreted over to comply with modern planning regulations, could not have been more auspicious if I'd driven through Alice's looking glass.


The red brick, late Victorian era property was as large and imposing as an elderly dowager, and who was clearly made for better things than an overnight stay and cheap parking for holidaymakers eager to jet off to Florida or Cancun. The large heavy wooden front door looked a little dull and lack lustre as if she had now accepted her fate and has ever so slightly slightly let itself go.

It mysteriously opened with a slight groan as we stepped up to it. Actually, no mystery, merely coincidence. A fellow guest was leaving just as we arrived. Convenient maybe, but just a little disappointing as I was quite looking forward to locating the red flower pot under which we were promised the key would be hidden.

Once inside, the quiet, an almost anacoic quiet, descended. The dark sober tones of the heavy carpet, flock wall paper and velvet curtains added to the almost claustrophobic sense of security. There was no one there to meet us just a room key left on a hall table with a hand written note saying “Mr. Crew Room 7. Up the stairs.”

This was not the only note to read, the two short paces from the front door to the hall table revealed many others; “Breakfast is from 7:15 to 8:30.” It didn't say as much, but the tone implied that that there could be no exceptions.

I was made aware of the fire procedure; “…call the fire brigade or ensure that someone else has done so”. The TV operation procedure was also made abundantly clear “use the grey remote control to switch the TV on and the black remote to change channels”.

My favourite, and it's only concession to modernity was “please don't ask for the WiFi password as it's written in your handbook on your bedside cabinet”. It was too, along with three pages of instruction. And a fourth containing an explanation of the typing error in the password on the previous three.


The room was small. Smaller that the wide, heavily carpeted and massively newel posted stairway led me to expect. The plasterboard walls revealed much about the building's fall from grace. Her large bedrooms had been divided and then further subdivided into smaller more economic units to cope with a more challenging economic climate. It was well equipped for all that and comfortable in the way you'd imagine it to be. I slept well, if briefly. The early morning breakfast and a desire to use to the communal bathroom before my fellow guests ensured this.



The dining room was a magnificent a piece of 1960's reproduction as you could wish for, except, of course, it wasn't reproduction. It was un-changed. The heavily patterned carpet, an excellent choice as far as longevity is concerned, but now looking rather too garish and fussy for modern tastes. The tongue and groove pine clad walls had darkened considerably with age whilst the ornaments and trinkets collected form every cheap and exciting package holiday destination the 1960's had to offer, had faded to a uniform gentile grey; the bull from Toromalenos, still with pics in his poor back, the single clog from Amsterdam with a tulip painted on the instep, various barometers and thermometers from locations so far flung and exotic that only a meteorological instrument would serve as a reminder of the holiday.


Breakfast fulfilled every expectation. Not that it was particularly good but it exactly fulfilled every expectation that I had of it. Don't think that I didn't enjoy it. I did! It was, well, a nostalgic meal. A breakfast from the days when bacon was pale pink and more chewy than flavoursome. When toast was thin, sliced and cold, and when coffee was a light brown colour, which was about the only indicator you had that it was really coffee. My delight was complete when I retrieved a pot of jam from a shelf set into one of the ornament adorned walls and opening it to find mould!

It was a meal from a time that I thought had passed or maybe had started to believed, had never really existed.



An Ithacan Odyssey

An Ithacan Odyssey


I shall tell you a tale of the sea. A tale of heroism and tale of self sacrifice – a salty yarn if you will. This tale takes place in the Ionian sea off the coast of Ithaca.


The Ionian and Ithaca! Two names synonymous with courage, and fabulous adventure. For Ithaca was the land of Odysseus, the fabled Greek hero, whose name has passed into our language, and even given us our word for 'Great Adventure' – odyssey. For you to appreciate this tale I will have to tell you two background facts to help our story on its way.


The Ionian Sea is a placid, warm and friendly sea, for the most part at least. This first fact leads us to the second; the warm inviting nature of these waters has led to the mooring up technique of swimming the lines ashore. A technique where a vessel drops her anchor in a harbour or bay and a rope from the other end of the vessel is swum ashore by a crew member. This line is then tied to a tree or rock or even, in our modern world, a lamppost. This line then prevents the vessel from swinging about her anchor and allowing all the crew on board to have a restful night, secure in the knowledge that their ship is firmly attached to terra firma.


Our yarn begins on a beautiful summer's day off the northern coast of Ithaca. On board the yacht 'Alkis Dimitra' is my crew, consisting of my wife Alison, my sister Anne and her husband Paul. Alkis is nearing the end of a day's pleasant sailing and is about to enter the port of Frikes (pronounced frik-ass). The harbour entry is negotiated easily and soon Alkis is securely berthed. Her stern safely attached to the harbour wall by two short stout lines and her bow held securely by her anchor buried deep in the sandy bottom of the harbour. It's one of those warm sultry Mediterranean evenings that late summers brings. The sort of evening that Virginia Wolfe and the Bloomsbury set would have constructed steamy holiday romantic affairs around. My crew were preparing for a run ashore and looking forward to a delicious meal in one of the many tavernas surrounding the harbour. While Paul and I had put on clean t shirts and shorts for the occasion, Anne and Alison had dressed for dinner; beautiful strapless summer dresses, exquisitely applied makeup with hair to match.


Alkis' gang plank had but touched the harbour wall when pandemonium broke out! It was as though Alkis' gang plank had touched a secret switch on the harbour marked DO NOT PRESS! For out of nowhere the Meltemi – that late summer scourge of the eastern Mediterranean hit with full force! A hot blast of gale force ferocity struck the harbour out of the north west, heeling boats over to 45 degrees or more. Mooring lines strained, boats creaked under the loads and anchors were beginning to be eased out of their sandy burrows on the harbour bottom at the behest of this mighty force. At exactly the same moment as the Meltemi struck, a huge swell, at least a metre in height began to feed into the harbour an unending rhythmic procession of marching waves sending boats into violent, sickening rolls. Masts clashed, ropes broke, one boat had a hole ripped into her side as the relentless army of waves continued to roll in.

The inevitable happened. A boat broke free. Her anchor torn from the sea bed. Now with this new weapon at their disposal, the waves and the wind could really go to work. The wind sent her across the harbour, her crew unable to regain control as the waves sent the boat into violent drunken rolls as her anchor began dragging the bottom, scouring the harbour for other anchors, first locating them and then releasing them one by one from the seabed. With their anchors no longer set into the bottom they too joined the rampage. And the chain reaction started – more and more boats joined the fray as the wind and waves continued to work their malevolence unabated.


Alkis was soon amongst the rampaging mob, albeit as an unwilling accomplice I like to think, we had barely enough time to get back on board to start the engine, haul in the anchor, separate our anchor chain from the others that Alkis had inadvertently scraped up and head out to sea for a rethink.


Back out at sea, we regained our composure, We tidied up Alkis and discussed a plan of action. Frikas, despite the lure of decent tavernas and the promise of good food and Mythos beer was clearly an untenable option for the night. There was a couple of inviting bays which looked not only inviting but also peaceful but, being bays they lacked tavernas. The thought of doing without tavernas would quite likely be too much to bear.


Kyoni, a delightful harbour with a beautiful name, lay to the south, about an hours motoring away. It was decided to make for there. The short passage was uneventful, actually it was pleasantly relaxing after the trauma of leaving Frikas. The entrance to the harbour was easy, but what we saw once inside was a disappointment: the place was jammed full of yachts, all with exactly the same thought as us. Get into a harbour with good shelter, and then a decent meal.


Kioni is truly beautiful. Brightly coloured houses and tavernas line a small harbour which are themselves in turn surrounded by steep pine covered hills. A harbour, both picturesque and practical, but sadly for us, it appeared full. We motored around for a while looking for a spot to moor up. Our first thought of mooring against the harbour wall next to a taverna was soon abandoned, there was not so much as a space to fit a canoe in, let alone Alkis. We widened our search area until we found a likely looking spot. It might not have been against the wall, nor was it close to a taverna, in fact the journey from it to a taverna would involve a trip in Alkis' inflatable tender, safely stowed in one of the cockpit lockers. However, it was a berth and it looked both peaceful and safe for the night. The was a bit of a sea running and a bit of a wind blowing, but nothing like Frikes so we thought it perfectly suitable. The chosen space was against a steep cliff face offering a snug little berth, away from the northerly Meltemi. My plan, or at least my original plan, was to drop the anchor in about eight metres of water then reverse the yacht gently up to the cliff, feed two mooring lines, one from each quarter of the stern to two mooring rings that we had spotted on the cliff face, presumably put there for this purpose. Alkis was put into astern and, I like to think skilfully, reversed toward the cliff face. All went well, initially at least. The anchor clattered out of its mounting on the bow and quickly buried itself into the seabed. I felt the drag o the anchor chain and eased back the throttle to slowly manoeuvre Alkis into her allotted berth for the night.

Alison and Anne were on the stern with me as we searched below the waves for any rocks. Closer and closer we got to the cliff, no rocks, just nice deep water. We gingerly edged further and further back. Paul was steadily paying out the anchor chain. Ten metres to go, still plenty of water, I steered toward an iron mooring ring that I'd spotted earlier. Eight metres to go.


“OK get ready with that line Anne, as soon as we get within reach quickly tread the line through and bring it back on board please”. Five metres to go,


“Rocks!” shouted Alison. She was right. Just about a metre behind Alkis were indeed rocks. Great big chunky ones immediate blocking our path. “Hold the anchor!” I called to Paul There did appear to be a little room to manoeuvre around the rock and continue toward the morning ring. In fact it would have been a pretty straightforward task to to so if it wasn't for the Meltemi, which, at that very moment, had decided to reassert itself. Not the full force of the Meltemi you understand, just a capricious little side gust. Just strong enough and certainly malicious enough to send Alkis swinging on her anchor toward a neighbouring boat! There was no way we could get a rope around that mooring ring. I though flashed through my mind – a Greek hero from the 'Age of Heroes' would now have dived over the stern, swim strongly toward the ring with the rope in his teeth, threaded it through the ring and averted disaster.

Anne may be my sister, but I'm guessing that she can't read my mind. But, somehow, it was as though Odysseus himself was on board. There was a splash! Anne was swimming strongly through the water toward the mooring ring towing the rope behind her! She swam swiftly toward the ring, skilfully threaded the rope through and without so much as pausing for breath swam back to the boat. I was absolutely in awe and about to lavish praise of her when there was another splash, smaller that the last, but clearly a splash. I was filled with horror! Alison is nowhere near as strong a swimmer as Anne. 'Oh my god!' she'll drown! I remember thinking. Actually, before that thought had even fully fully crystallised in my mind, I spotted that Alison had not so much dived over the side, more stepped onto the rock and was now walking toward the other mooring ring! Alison has spotted that although the journey to Anne's mooring ring was through deep water, her's merely involved a short walk over rocks, not more that 30 cm below the sea!


When both Anne and Alison were safely back on board, I called to Paul “OK Paul haul in the anchor a little please, let's take the boat further from the rocks”. “No wait! Stop please!”


You'll no doubt remember the short stout mooring lines from Frikes? Well I stared in horror! I'd given Anne the short line! Way too short for mooring here. I retrieved the longer rope from the locker. “Anne…..?” I said. Without saying a word or even a moment's hesitation, she dived back over the side towing the new longer rope.


With the longer ropes in place Alkis settled peacefully for the night. I looked at both Alison and Anne. Alison was looking a little splashed, with her hair rearranged by the wind giving her an interesting windswept look. Anne however, looked drowned! Her dress soaked and quite possibly ruined, her hair stuck to her head and her makeup had run and streaked. She had every right to begin to admonish her brother for being so stupid as to hand her the wrong rope in the first place. But she didn't. She simply smiled whilst panting heavily from swimming that heavy mooring line ashore.

“I'm surprised that I had so much difficulty swimming that line ashore”, she mused.


“Ah yes, umm sorry, that'll be because, umm, I gave you the wrong rope again…..” I said “We have a lightweight floating line on board for that………….”


Anne looked at me from her makeup streaked face, looking not a little unlike one of the early 'Hammer Horror' gothic zombies, she didn't say anything, because sometimes sisters just don't need to……..


Star studded Istanbul – Part Two

Next day off to Princes Island – Nick has already described out innocent old man who then robbed us blind.  I expect he lived in one of the Hollywood style sea front houses.  However it entertained us that evening.  We also had an encounter with our first celebrity lookalike – Hugh Jackman – but Turkish, a foot shorter, 20 yrs older and in flat cap with no smile.  After a tiring time walking the car free island gave us no choice but to grab Hugh, his 2 horses and tacky but colourful carriage. This was on our schedule at some point anyhow.  After much debate with 2 words and pointing to the tariff of street names we did not know, us pointing at a map – we think we got him to 30.  We had a 5 min journey through some woods – we decided to snuggle in and be romantic as that is what you must do when paying over the odds for a horse and carriage. The farting horse added to the romance.

The he stopped – pointed to the hill – he walked off without any facial expression and brought back his friend who could speak 5 words of English.  Much pointing of map – much pointing at hill – he told us we must walk up the hill as no horse, have a cup of tea and then carry on.  No – we just wanted to get back to “town” – after thinking we had agreed another price we set of again. We were clearly in the wrong as not acting like normal day trip tourists.

Prince’s island is a surreal place – playground of the rich in Istanbul when it got too hot – there are lots of wooden houses.  Some palatial and luxury to a Hollywood star standard, others have no roof and look like a house you would dare your mates to go in or be part of a film set for the Goonies or Addams family.  Lots of stray cats and dogs – all quite happy although some a little battle weary.  We were in the minority as everyone day tripping was Turkish; it was probably the equivalent of a trip to Blackpool.  The sea front cafes had old men playing cards, the girls all wore flower garlands in their hair bought by their young suitors.  I bought one as if felt I should although have no idea why.

Our second celebrity spot was David Banner – aka Incredible Hulk in the Ali Baba.  He was our chosen restaurateur for both evenings – on the boat over a chap had been given out free tea “from his heart” – he helpfully gave us a map with his restaurant name on – Ali Baba, it worked.  We had to battle through Turkish men hurling themselves out at us begging/complimenting and all had the best price and menu although these all seemed the same from our point of view.  David banner had a great toothy smile – mix of sincerity/insanity and charm – I would not make him angry though.  He pulled out all the stops – the second evening culminated in fresh flowers for our table and an amazing fruit display with a bowl of firelighters in the middle like a virgin fruit sacrifice. I wish we could have stayed just to see what he could produce the next evening.  Our several male waiters were inefficient but attentive – one UK woman could have replaced all of them.  One wore a fonz like leather jacket whilst serving, the only requirement is a sparkling white shirt & no smiling.  David the boss was allowed to smile and talk to the sacred guests. There was a portly man in a suit inside who seemed to deal with bills nut not approach any customer – money seemed to be a very serious male business.  An enlarged photo of Ataturk eating there was pride of place.  Each evening cost exactly the same – each evening the choice – fish or meat.  Our extra baklava and surprises were not requested or ordered but tasted better for it.

On our return our ferry arrived 10 mins after our Turkish Haman appointment had started.  Another true taste of Istanbul was our taxi ride across the main commercial centre, through the aqueduct and a few sharp turns down packed cobbled streets.  The method is to keep going –any hesitation would cause an accident.  A British driver in the one way cobbled streets packed with pedestrians & coaches would take 30 mins compared to his 4 1/2.

The Haman is one of the only mixed/family ones, but the oldest and built and used by Suleyman in the 15th C, so hardly like your local rec centre. – more for the tourists rather than the full cavity search by a hairy Turk a real one offers.  We dressed in cloth and were scrubbed with lots of foam and a bath mitt with loads of cold water poured over our heads.  It was very much like being washed down by your mum after a day in the mud, – however your mum was a young man in his 20’s with a towel round his middle and he poured more cold water on himself as was working with bubbles and in a sauna – literally. The massage was quick, firm and routine.  You are then shuffled along toward the changing area and another young man wraps you in cloth and you hobble through in your authentic wooden sandals.  No mirrors – just as well as a red faced Nick looked not so much Lawrence of Arabia as he hoped but more Terry Jones from Life of Brian. I doubt I looked very Sophia Loren though.    www.suleymaniyehamami.com.tr

It was Ataturk’s birthday – although he would be over 100 if still alive.  The city was covered in Vivid red Turkish flags.  From all the pictures and banners – he did somehow resemble the evil brother in Thunderbirds, but I can only say that from the comfort of the UK, he was a big deal, and they love him.  The others witnessed a big white limousine in the city with lots of kerfuffle to attend something important.  The chap was clearly a Turkish Super star. He could have been anyone to us – but quite nice that the blanket of samey western Hollywood fascination has not reached Istanbul… yet.

Finally we braved a trip through the grand bazaar on a mission.  This is a great place – so long as you like certain things & walking ten yards in 10 minutes.  Every third shop was pashmina – even I could not keep them all in business, yet they were all socialising and chatting, blocking the view of the stock. In the shirt shop he literally dragged Nick in and started dressing him – Nick looked at me with panic saying he did not like the shirt.  Luckily he has an expert shopper on hand – it was my turn to point and say yes or no as the man unpacked different shirts – real and fake ones.

We asked one chap who wanted us to sit and eat in his cafe how to get to the tram – he pointed and said good luck my friend.  That 400m took a long time, on the outside there were still more shops but with glass fronts. Alex had been there for 40 yrs despite being in his 30’s.  Alex Tacyildiz is our new best friend – he shut the shop door and was interrupted several times as he tried to secure our sale. We declined tea, as we didn’t want any and had not even looked at the shoes yet – he showed us his holiday pictures from Kenya to prove he did international trade – he wants us to go back in 2 yrs and thank him. The shoes were bigged up so much they have magical powers.  I babbled away like a fish on a hook, Nick is not a great fan of any shopping so his silence & boredom made him look like a serious man weighing up if the shoes would change his life or not.  He did not make eye contact and then swooped in with a crazy price, Alex laughed and bargained a tiny bit (£6.72) – he then took the price of the undrunk tea that we did not want of. (£1.68)   Success by British standards.  We bought the shoes – result for all.   We will remember him but I doubt we made the same impact. He earnt every minute of his sale – just for his standard of English alone he should be rewarded compared to our complete lack of Turkish.  Lets see in 2 yrs when we return to see if the mythically blessed shoes are still bouncing Nick from the promised success to success.


Our final evening in a fancy place for the tourists in the old town had lots of choice – such as chicken curry. We were grateful to be away from traditional cuisine – our waiters were dressed in matching “turkish” looking silk shirts.  The piano player & violin girl were playing various versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber mixed in with snippets of “ Those were the days”.  The chairs and table were chunky wood armchair style – it meant that with the background noise and distance you could hot near anything anyone said.  It was an old roman cistern, they had large iron “Errol Flynn” style chandeliers and go with the theme the tables had candelabras. Our waiter was a bit of a Turkish stud – the sort you don’t want your daughter to meet on holiday – however the other waiter who was lighting the candles bore an uncanny resemble to Egor.  Being so tall as well he had developed a sort of hump to add to the effect as he bent to light the candles.  All in all a good meal but twice the price, I missed being told what to eat and the simplicity of Princes Island. www.sarnicrestaurant.com


The Crew brothers debated for about a week on this blog about essence and the point of travel – Istanbul is all about colours, smells, banter and people, lots of them.  Impressive buildings are full of sounds and vibrancy, old men in a questionable variety of hats, old ladies with headscarves sat still watching wisely.  It certainly had lots of essence and therefore i feel travelled, even for only 5 days.


Star studded Istanbul – Part One

Al and I flew over to see the boys on Turkish Airlines, a surprise for me used to recently doing easyjet and Ryan air was the allocated seat, free drinks and palatable dinner.  Alot had happened in 4 weeks – but I spotted the motorbike jacket & “tanned” nose in the massive crowd at arrivals, hugs and kisses and a crazy night taxi ride in the torrential rain.  I hoped this was not the Istanbul feel for the next 5 days.  Rain had been predicted so I chose not to wear Bermuda shorts and flip flops like any true brit on a plane – I had jeans and a cardy, plus a jacket and pashmina.  I had in my case rather hopefully packed a bikini and floaty tops to aid with hot and sticky days ahead.  Alas my cardy/jacket/pashmina combo saw more use than I would have liked.

Our hotel was right in the tourist district but the guidebook said this meant it was quiet at night… maybe relatively compared to other parts of the city.  All mod cons – after reading marks recent blog about toilets I should think it was Nirvana. Istanbul seems to have gone for western charm but there always seems to be an element of eastern crazy – our room overlooked a rather stunning railway, a few abandoned land plots and looking into some poorer residential verandas and flats.  However if u looked beyond there was indeed a view of the Sea of mamara and its romantic oil tankers.

Buffet breakfast –I could eat via buffet every meal forever. This one looked fab but maybe on closer inspection there were about 6 plates of the same cheese in different formations. Lots of plates of coriander, olives (not for breakfast I am british), gloopy  jams and assorted breads etc.  Some fried breakfast items including chips, however I am not that british.

Shades firmly attached to my head out of principle: first day was spent getting our bearings and mooching about holding hands. We went up to the Blue mosque where I was very charmingly asked to put my tits away, my cardy had parted & my womanly disgrace was visible.   Before we went in there were the ladies WC – translated as “Place for woman” – I did comment I should know my place and there it was – signposted.  A note on carpets here – bare footed I walked sinking into the lush endless red carpets – I did have an urge to run beyond the barrier and roll around.  I sensed though maybe this would not be particularly seen as a good laugh.

Whilst sat in the open yard, there was a husband posing for pictures with his wife – in full Black burka.  Somehow this seemed really bizarre – it could have been a body double and no-one would know looking at the picture.  Imagine the slide show – oh that’s a lovely one of you Sandra, really brings out your eyes.


I am rambling and only on the first afternoon.  Each evening the 6 of us met at 7 for dinner.  The first evening we strolled just up the road and were typically ambushed with charming men jumping out with compliments and politely enquiring whether we liked carpets. Why yes, thank you I do – oh you want me to buy one. Well I guess so as I did not realise before what they were; I wondered why my feet bled every time I walked across my living room floor.  I love rugs and could easily browse for hours just looking at the fabulous patterns, or indeed roll about on them – but window shopping is not really an option in Istanbul – as indeed it seems free will and having an opinion.  But I should know my place.  It was signposted after all.

A roof top terrace meal overlooking an abandoned roof terrace in front of us, a roof top water tank and a distant glimpse of the sea and its oil tankers.


One more full day on mainland – just about got our bearings which is tricky until you study a map for a few hours.  My Istanbul moment came as we caught the tram up to the port just to check out any riverside restaurants – we found the cheaper Del boy style market in the subway and coming up into the sunshine a man offered – or Istanbul style told us to – take a ferry up the Bosphorus for 10 Lira ( £3.36 each).  Spotting a bargain we hopped on.  I realised I was without a coat and about to go out on a boat with rain threatening.   Nick had bought me under instruction to get a pashmina from the home of pashmina:  Kathmandu which he done so obediently without question.  For all readers who are pashmina aware – the real ones are of course made of pashmina wool – hence warm and worn by those Himalayan ladies for a purpose rather than accessory – to keep warm. Before I educated Nick in the ways of pashmina – he had thought I carried a comfort blanket.  Cut a long story short – you are grateful for a real one when at sea.


After we sat there for 40 mins – the helpful chap did not point out the boat would not leave until full, the call for prayer in the mosque opposite began.  Hence my real Istanbul moment – we could hear it reverberate and mimicked through the city.  It was spiritual, it is – and me being an atheist sounds a bit stupid too, but it was so beautiful & spell binding: to see everyone heading of to the mosque I suddenly found myself agreeing momentarily for organised oppressive religion.  I rather like the way you can gather several times and have a “slice” of silent personal worship rather than sitting through hours of sermon, boredom & guilt.

The houses on the banks of the Bosphorus are very Hollywood – the whole prosperous city seems to be stretched on river/sea fronts.  When it started to rain torrentially we headed downstairs and met an enthusiast Chicago man with a happy glint in his eye and his sour faced wife who had once been pretty – and their two guides.  He was fascinated with the bike trip & travel, he had circum-navigated all of Wales coastline in his by car back as a young man.  He was so knowledgeable about Istanbul and the culture/art I felt we had seen all the things by the way he described them with relish.

Coming off from the boat we docked/crashed into the more functional part of the port beyond the bridge and then stepped/dodged through a chaotic bus station and boats selling fresh fish kebabs.  As it started to rain we were surrounded by boys selling umbrellas – an offer of 1 lira then became 5 when I produced my purse.  Our hard bargaining brought us down to 4 lira (33p of but a victory).  The boys gathered together but did not fight or compete – all vendors I have noticed sell the same things in a group but help each other – it is all good natured and makes it a pleasure.  Some are mixed with sadness as a granny sits on concrete steps with piles of tissues next to her – not hassling you, but also not begging so with dignity.  Road side stands had come out at snack time selling home cooked pretzels, grilled sweetcorn, peeled apples etc.  I wish the uk could have this healthy fast food culture – cheap, fresh and delicious. But more – enterprising & hard working.  Alan Sugar would love it.


The Road Ahead

The Road Ahead

clip_image002I awoke at nine o’clock with the light streaming through the gaps in the door, through the window shutters and through the door frame where it didn’t quite fit the opening in the wall which had been formed to accommodate it. I felt fantastic, fully refreshed and ready for anything. I would normally comment on the hardness of the bed or otherwise. However, I have absolutely no recollection of the degree of comfort offered by the bed, had I tripped going through the door, landed starfish like on the floor, I’d have slept where I’d fallen and still be in no position to comment on the relative degree of comfort offered by the concrete – I’d slept soundly.

After my morning ablutions, which consisted of inserting my contact lenses into my eyes having first giving them the most cursory of swills from the remains of my small bottle of water, retained, with untypical forethought, for the purpose. A swift visit to the Gents, the swifter the better as a Tibetan toilet is not a place to linger.

Perhaps a word on Tibetan toilets here may clarify exactly what this fully entails. I do, of course, fully understand if anyone reading this wants to skip this next paragraph or two. You see, Tibetan toilets, the one attached to guest houses at any rate, are indescribable. However I shall try. Before entering such edifies, I usually take a few deep calming breaths, as I like to confine breathing to the absolute minimum once inside. This is particularly difficult at altitude where I find it impossible to hold my breath for more than a second or two in order to take a photograph, even this short a time results in panic breathing. Any more than that and I’m sure I’d collapse – and believe me there are very few places in the world where I would choose to collapse and a Tibetan clip_image004toilet is somewhere near the bottom of the list.

Upon entering such a place, having ensured that it is both absolutely necessary to do so and it is a matter of the utmost urgency, and of course, there is absolutely no alternative available, one is faced with the hole-in-the-floor. They will always be of the-hole-in-the-floor type, the stand and deliver, the squat and drop type – western toilets are never used. I desperately attempt to avert my eye from falling on the hole-in-the-floor, but somehow this is never possible. For one thing, one has to locate the foot plates upon which to stand, and worse, there is a morbid fascination that inexorably draws you eye to the hole-in-the-floor.

In the particular case of this one in Pelbar, or new Tingre (Tibetan towns frequently seem to have two names), light was emanating from the hole-in-the-floor, that and a light breeze. It appeared that the entire toilet block was suspended over the communal rubbish tip. This did give me some degree of comfort, seeing the light so to speak, as I was once advised in Tanzania, when using the dark hole-in-the-floor-type, to take a large stick and bang heavily on the hole-in-the-floor to scare off any bats that may be roosting below. I can imagine that frightening bats into flight once proceedings had commenced, must be, on a personal level, one of the world’s most shocking moments.

Once you have, to use the airline phrase, adopted the brace position, it allows you to check that the door is firmly closed, there is no lock, but as the door was only half height, the necessity for a lock is rendered largely superfluous. Should I encounter someone else during my hopefully short visit, I thought a cheery ‘Good Morning!’ might be the best greeting – first impressions are after all lasting ones.

I’m hoping that I’ve not exhausted my supply of euphemisms before commencing the last paragraph, because here’s where delicacy is paramount. After completion of the act one will, quite naturally, look about the small concrete cubical. You will find a large vat of water and a small, hand held witches broom. I shall draw a veil over the implied usage of these two items; suffice to say that the broom bore testament to frequent usage.

clip_image006I like to think of myself as a worldly wise traveller; however there are certain matters that do expose me as a squeamish westerner. However, how much greater must the culture shock be for Greg, one of the film crew, who enquired of me “if I knew where the bathroom was?”

This was to be our last ride in Tibet, from Pelbar to the border town of Zhangmu. How we covered the final 135 km or so into Tibet and on to Kathmandu was left open. We could ride it on our Changs, that’s assuming the Chinese Authorities would allow the bikes to be taken out of the country or by taxi, it that was the wish of the Chinese border guards. It was, I was going to say in the lap of the Buddha, however, and not to be too prosaic, it was quite frankly, in the lap of the Peoples’ Liberation Army.

……the sky Tibetan blue and the air cold and Himalayan fresh it was a lifetime away. This was a moment to be lived in.

That was all in the future though, something to be resolved later. It was a whole day away and on such a beautiful Tibetan day with the sun shining, the sky Tibetan blue and the air cold and Himalayan fresh it was a lifetime away. This was a moment to be lived in.

“This is your last ride in Tibet, so how do you feel Mark?”

Such questions from the film crew I’d become so accustomed to answering that I’d assumed flippancy was appropriate. “It’s a fabulous biking day, what can possibly go wrong?” I seemed to remember answering.

The road out of Pelbar was tarmac, and smooth – beautifully smooth. Crisp clear watery sun bathed us with high altitude brilliance. This is a perfect day for Chang riding – slow, steady and purposeful – riding toward Kathmandu; to warmth and a climate more suited to human physiology.

After about an hour of probably the best riding I’ve ever done we pause to take our last views of Everest and her eight thousander sisters. We stop to take a few photographs and say our goodbyes to the mountains. Our next stop will be Nyelam, a small town with a main road running through it, a few hotels for trekkers and some restaurants dotted about. A lunchtime stop, before we plunge off the Tibetan Plateau; a two kilometre free-fall in less than twenty as it snakes through a narrow twisting gorge, over the Friendship Bridge and into the Kathmandu valley.

About an hour outside Nyelam, the sky darkened, low clouds scudded in from the south west, the direction we were travelling, what’s a little rain? It’s hardly the first time I’ve ridden in rain.

The warm moist tropical air that blows in from India is forced over the Himalayas where it turns, not to rain, but snow. OK, still no problem, I’ve ridden in snow before, only this time I’ve got a third wheel, so hardly an issue.

This snow, I will admit, was impressive stuff, supercooled at high altitude over the Himalayas, but as it doesn’t have far to fall to reach the Tibetan plateau, it lands supercooled. It stuck with unimaginable tenacity to whatever surface it hit, sucking every last drop of residual heat out of every surface it made contact with, freezing instantly into a solid mass.

The snow piled up on my visor with such ferocity that I was riding one handed, the right one on the throttle, the left one continuously clawing at my visor

My headlight was on full, although you wouldn’t think so as no light could possibly penetrate the supercooled, super-dense, snowy substrate that formed on its surface. The dynamo on a Chang barely has the power to illuminate the bulb, let alone find enough surplus energy for excess heat to melt the snow.clip_image008

The snow piled up on my visor with such ferocity that I was riding one handed, the right one on the throttle, the left one continuously clawing at my visor to allow brief, fleeting glimpses of the road ahead.

Our first sign of Nyelam was a stationary queue of trucks stretching back several kilometres from the outskirts of the town. Overtaking them, we arrived at a military guard post; there was a barrier across the road. ‘There’s been a landslip’, we were told. ‘Road’s blocked you can’t go on’.

The guard only let us through as we were cold and very tired after riding through the snow. We could go into Nyelam, but only to find a hotel. We would not be permitted any further.

It was a relief to be allowed through. It was about four in the afternoon, the snow was still falling and it was getting colder, A hotel would be unbelievably welcome. With the road closed, it wouldn’t be long before all those people, who like us, thought they’d just be passing through Nyelam, on their way to the border, would also now be trapped here in Nyelam. It wouldn’t be long before the rather limited number of hotel beds would be used up.

As it turned out, finding a hotel wasn’t too difficult. What to do next was the harder decision to make. Information abut the road closure was in the true spirit of Chinese information dissemination; non-existent. In the absence of any official word on the subject, the rumour mill went into overdrive to fill the information vacuum.

clip_image010‘It’s only a small landslide it’ll be cleared tomorrow’.

‘Thousands of tonnes of debris have fallen into the roadway, but heavy earth moving equipment will be brought in and the road will be open in a week’.

What was lacking in official promulgations was more than made up by unofficial pronouncements.

“I was there when the land slide happened, never seen anything like it. I was lucky to survive!” one Canadian told me.

Wherever the truth of the situation lay, a decision would have to be made. We were safe and comfortable in the hotel, but as is the case in the modern world, deadlines had to be kept, the world of work beckoned and our ordinary lives outside being intrepid motorcycle explorers lay there for us to return to, with increasing impatience.

The following morning a decision was made. We would check out of the hotel, ride through the barriers closing off the road and toward Tibet. Maybe a motorcycle would get through? The truck and its owner-driver were paid off. ‘We won’t be needing them any more’. We naively imagined.

The following morning, as planned, we checked out of the hotel. The bikes and the sidecars were loaded with our luggage, the cameras and the film crew for the attempt on the border. We left Nyelam discretely, that is as discretely as seven men on four vintage motorcycles, carrying film making equipment can be discrete. It appeared to us that the whole town had assembled, lining the main road to see us on our way. The interest in the success or failure of our mission suddenly became the focal point and the main conversation topic for every walker, hiker, trekker and mountaineer trapped in Nyelam. If we didn’t return then clearly there was a way through. However, should we return then the road was well and truly impassable. If a motorcycle couldn’t get through then there was certainly no hope of anything larger getting through. The implication of that would be obvious; unless you’re prepared to wait many weeks, even months for the road to be repaired. It’s a return to Lhasa, 1200 km along the only road. Our return would instigate a mass exodus from Nyelam. Every availed truck, taxi and Land cruiser would be commissioned for the retreat to Lhasa and the airport – the only remaining route out of Tibet.


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.


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.


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


Shigadse , it really had potential

Shigadse really had potential, I mean, it even had beer garden… sort of. But certainly it had a nice place to sit and drink beer. It also had fries, excellent fries, probably the greatest fries in world, and in saying that I am only exaggerating a bit ! The hotel was simply breath-taking, it even had oxygen piped directly into the room. The purchase of a small credit card, which when inserted into the special bedside machine would provided hours of life giving gas, all with a comforting bubbling soundtrack as the o2 is filtered and diffused through a small bottle of some clear liquid. A healthy bong at 4100 meters above sea level! Oh yes, Shigadse really had potential, it also had a hospital.

clip_image002We mostly saw the hospital.

The morning departure was as Mark described, his forgetting about the sidecar, and allowed it to achieve coitus with a dirt cart, briefly mounting the filthy machine before being left dented, paint scrapped, but happier and wiser in the street. Hell, we’ve all been there! I frankly found the whole affair comforting as it confirmed a prediction I had made, all Yoda like before we left Shanghai, “Sidecar you have! Forget it you will! ” referring to the early days of riding a Chang Jang, when I would merrily scoot down the street, not a care in the world, whilst dozens of Chinese people leaped salmon-like for their lives. Apparently “lǎo píao” does not mean “Onward my foreign friend.” Mark too had forgotten; my prediction had come true and I was feeling smug. I find feeling smug always lifts my day.

Rusty, the name of a brown and trusty CJ, was loaded onto the truck and I was demoted to sidecar, until with typical efficiency and clarity of thought we realised that why the hell was I in the sidecar when we had an extra bike? I was back on a bike and we rode in convoy out of Shigadse which I must say, really had potential!


The morning belonged to logistics, getting a new vehicle to speed Nick and I on our way, getting more footage, making some kilometres and refuelling the bikes by watering can, because apparently filling the bikes at the pump is too dangerous. So we drove, we filmed, we watered the bikes with highly flammable liquid, we visited a state sponsored monastery, rather clean and lacking the warm, thick incense, yak buttered atmosphere we had experienced previously, and then it was time to say goodbye.

In an inexcusably over-emotive moment of anthropomorphism I said goodbye to my bike, my Green Goblin, as Peter had named it, and there are many jokes here, but all inappropriate.

I photographed the little thing, looked longingly at the prayer flags I had carefully tired to the spare wheel and knelt in contemplative worship, giving an ancient warrior blessing to the God of bikers. Then I noticed that Greg had lost interest and had stopped filming me so I gave up. With a manly nod of the head to the rest of the chaps Nick and I climbed into the land cruiser. Not a tearful and soul-searching farewell to my companions of the past few days ( had it only been a few days?) not because I didn’t feel sad, or am an emotional homunculus, but because I was secure in the knowledge we were due to meet up again in few days in Kathmandu; swop stories, drink beer and reminisce about the fries of Shigadse.

Which just goes to show that however much experience you can muster, you can still be a damn naive fool. Something I have always prided myself upon!

The Green Goblin ( insert joke here)

The Road Down

The journey across the Tibetan plateau was speedy when compared to the Changs but still took hours upon hours, something like 9 in total. But I think, for every single minute of those hours I was captivated. Drawn to the unending stretch of enormous sweeping valleys, fringed with roadless hard-brown mountains that we sped past, all the vast geological forces were laid bare around us. It was wonderful, not as rewarding as on a bike, not as special as on a Chang, but the sights I greedily drank up were peerless. I was disappointed by not to be completing the trip, but the excitement of where I was, what I was looking at, beggared any negative thoughts, made them seem petty and ungracious.

Watching the people from the comfort of the land cruiser, cannot really be described by my weak-kneed and gasping eloquence. The Tibetans we passed were all busy, working the fields, and when I say fields it evokes, at least to my Welsh mind, green pastures. What I saw were mean, slender patches of the enormous brown, arid desert. They were churning it by hand or by yak plough, to grow God only knows what, barley, presumably, as it seems to be the only thing that can grow in such extremes.


Adjectives like resilient, tough, and hardy, spring to mind, but all are inadequate; I find it impossible to conjure any remote feeling of empathy for such a life. It isn’t humbling, it isn’t embarrassing to be whisked past in steel cocooned, air-conditioned machines, because it is all too alien. So alien there is no lingering feelings of some ill-defined guilt. You can, successfully forget what you saw, as you didn’t really understand it. What possibly remains, deep in whatever acts as a conscious is a profound sense of respect and awe.

We crossed later that afternoon into the Himalayan National Park and saw, across the rocky brown of the plateau the white and blue peaks of the tallest mountains in the world. It was intoxicating. I was imagining grabbing a tent, heading off road and rough clip_image008camping, to see that sight in the clear of a morning. But we’re had a mission, we were to head to Zhammu, the boarder town on the Tibetan, Nepali frontier, where at 2000 meters Nick should start to recover. The mission was highlighted by Nick himself, who since the morning had started to become more and more sluggish and tired, as his blood, oxygen enriched from his over night stay at hospital had been depleted and now his lungs were failing to make up the short fall. I had bought many cans of oxygen from the hotel, and as we climbed a final time, the last major bit of altitude before diving off the Tibetan plateau and into the oxygen-rich tropical greenery of Nepal, Nick was devouring the bottles in the back of the land cruiser. The Himalayas in their mystical glory before me, and what sounded like Darth Vader on a scuba diving holiday behind me.

It feels like you literally drive off the plateau and free-fall, plunging into a twisting world of switchback roads, that drop you down, down, down. The road was under siege by the mountains, with frequent rockfalls that have whisked away the reinforced steel shuttering that had been placed along the roadside. It was geological time in fast forward, almost as if you perceive the grind and thrust of the millions upon millions of tonnes of rock, that now, as we were deeper in the valley began blocking out the fading sun.

As the sunlight finally began to fail, there was a sudden rush of crashing water, and green flowed back, bathing the roadside with thick growth. Far below, at the foot of the steeply shelving valley roared the river, white foaming past massive boulders that had been swept down in rages past.

Still the valley went on. Just when I’d think we’d reach the river, the road twisted again, the valley turned on its edge and the river dropped away again, crashing down a new gorge, the road had to tentatively pick its way around. As night fell the gorge grew steeper still as the vegetation loomed thicker and black outside our window. The sheer drop at the edge of the pitted road, seemed to leap, animal- like from one side of the car to the other as we wove ever lower following the lights of cars, that kept disappearing far below. Finally, Zhammu was before us, a town perched on one side of the spectacular gorge, hotel, restaurants and houses clinging to the walls, while water poured in a perpetual noisy roar all around.

We ate a late night curry at a restaurant, just down the steep road (all roads are steep in Zhammu) from our hotel. The faces of the staff already owed more to the Indian plains than the high plateau, and it struck me; we had left. We were still in Tibet, still under the jurisdiction of the Chinese, but we had left behind Tibet, what makes Tibet special, unique, the things we had come to see and experience. And now it was behind us, somewhere up there in the darkness, at the end of a twisty road.


Everest Base Camp (Part 3)

Everest Base Camp (Part 3)

clip_image002It’s never a good thing to retrace your steps, in motorcycling as in life. The return ride from Everest Base Camp took a different route to the way up, Peter, the owner of the motorcycles, believed that there was an ‘old’ road that run from Everest base camp to Pelbar. A road now seldom travelled, so it would be unlikely to be heavily washboarded and by the same token, unlikely to be easily followed.

The night spent at Everest Base Camp was not a restful one. We all retired early after toasting absent friends, or in my case absent siblings. We not only toasted them, but we also drank a toast to George Everest, a great unsung Welsh hero after whom the mountain is named. Jon, Nick and myself were given a bottle of whisky in Shanghai along with strict instructions that is was to be carried to the ‘roof of the world’ where it would be opened and drunk at Everest base camp. In the event it was only myself out of the three of us that got a taste of the whisky and that’s all it was – a taste. Drinking at altitude is not recommended and in my case not possible as the altitude had begun to reassert itself again, with nausea and joint pain.

We followed the road that we used on the way up to Everest Base Camp for the first 20 km or so, and then swung to the left of our original track onto the western side of the Kama Valley. Col. Howard-Bury, during his reconnaissance of Everest in 1921, the first westerners to enter the Kama valley described it as “…..one of the most beautiful valleys in the world.clip_image004

Ninety odd years later I can fully concur with Colonel Bury, it has an astonishing beauty, but it’s far from the Wordworthian, Lake District beauty. The Kama valley has the most terrible, harsh, brutal beauty, a beauty with a complete indifference to human life. This part of the valley sees far less traffic that the route up. In over 100 km of riding we only encounter two other vehicles.

This is a very ‘new’ part of the world. The first western explorers came here less than 100 years ago, in fact humans only came here at all in the eighth century. I reflect upon the fact that my Chang was designed only 12 years after Mallory’s ill-fated attempt on Everest, indeed my Chang was already an old fashioned, 15 year old, design when Everest was eventually conquered in 1953.

Despite my tiredness – sleep at over 5 000m is at best fitful – I’m enjoying the ride immensely. I like the isolation, I’ve never been in such a landscape, it’s not just the stark beauty of the landscape that impresses, it’s the scale. The sheer vastness of everything, even the valley floor is over 4000 m above sea level. The snow covered mountains surrounding us are giants, the highest on Earth. Away to the south east I can glimpse Mount Makulu only 400 m lower than Everest making it the fifth highest peak in the world and with its four sided pyramid shape, it is in many people’s eyes, the most beautiful.

The first part of the road was easy to follow, it was rough, from the rock and stones that inevitably roll down from the valley sides, but, mercifully, it wasn’t washboarded. As we begin our first climb to around 5000 m, it starts to get colder, much colder, and the wind picks up to near gale force. The bike is pushed around by the wind, but this I find reasonably easy to control especially when the bike is on an un-cambered road.

The bike’s much harder to control when we’re riding along part of the route that’s been cut into a steep hillside. The valley sides are steep and with little or no vegetation to provide anchorage for the rocks and soil, they tend to be unstable.

Riding along the right hand side of the valley is where the problems begin to manifest themselves. A Chang has the sidecar on the right. To my left is a drop of around 100 m, not a vertical drop, just a very steep drop. A drop so steep that should you start to fall down it then stopping or steering would be rendered impossible, and sudden uncontrollable acceleration would be the only inevitable outcome.

Over many years the rocks, dust and soil from the top part of the mountain side have slowly percolated down to the road surface giving it a definite and quite pronounced camber to the left. Attempting to ride this road with the weight of the sidecar, now elevated slightly higher than the motorcycle, has the effect of wanting to turn the whole combination sharp left and over the bank. The only way to prevent this happening is to steer hard right. And to continue to steer hard right, for kilometre after kilometre. The bike will now (hopefully) plough straight on despite the bars being forced to the right. Changs are heavy bikes to steer on the finest tarmacadam, here on this loose, rough surface and at this altitude, it’s exhausting work.

At other times we ride across the valley bottom, where the track disappears and we can ride anywhere we choose. I ride through a small herd of Yak, who are widely dispersed over the valley floor as they seek out the sparse vegetation on which to browse. It’s one of those moments, a reality check moment. I go through my mental check list– yes this is me. I am riding a motorcycle in Tibet. That is Everest behind me and yes, those are Yaks.

Toward late afternoon after clip_image006we’ve ridden around 70 km, we arrive at a small village. A village, but only in the only loosest sense of the term; it’s a collection of mud brick houses, surrounding a central compound. There’s no school, no shops, no village hall, no church, no temple and no doctor. In fact nothing that appeared to give it any sense of a place, a place that is, with a community identity. Nobody seems interested in us being there, this is unusual in China, as a more curious and friendly people you’ll be unlikely to find anywhere in the world.

Eventually a couple of children come to see us and to hold out their hands for money, they have beautiful smiles but precious little else. They’re dressed in rags. Rags which have years of dirt engrained in then. In exchange for 1 Yuan each I take their picture – in the shadow of Mount Everest.

As we ride away, it’s hard not to wonder what the future holds for those kids.

Years of grinding poverty?

No education? And certainly no prospect of them even knowing more that their ancestors did a thousand years ago?

A premature old age without medical care?

Cataracts from the UV?

I feel uneasy. Guilty even, that I only gave them 1 Yuan, but should you give them more? Should you give them, say, 10 Yuan? This is quite possibly as much as their parents clip_image008will earn in a week?

Should I have given them food?

Should I even be here at all? A westerner on a motorcycling holiday, who moans because his motorcycle is a little bit old fashioned. Time for another reality check; yes, and this is hard to accept, yes this really is the 21st century.

The following hours riding takes us back onto the friendship highway, the G318 linking Lhasa to Katmandu, just a few short kilometres brings us to Pelbar or New Tingre, same place, different name, not such a rare occurrence in Tibet, and to the guest house for the evening. A guest house that has forced me to reconsider my opinion about the first guest that we’d stayed in back in Nangadse. If I’d described that as primitive, it was in comparison, palatial. But frankly I was beyond caring; it had green tea in copious quantities and a bed. I could want for no more. I fell into my bed at 7:00, pausing only to remove my motorcycling kit; I’d removed my helmet earlier to assist with the tea drinking, and slept for 14 hours.


Everest Base Camp (Part 2)

Everest Base Camp (Part 2)

clip_image002The second half of the ride is harder than the first, not because the road itself has become harder or that the bike has suddenly become more recalcitrant. It’s tiredness creeping in, the lack of sleep over the past two nights is starting to take an effect, that and the wash boarding, the endless wash boarding is beginning to take its toll.

When large 4X4s continuously use a piece of dirt road, the road yields to the resonant frequency of the 4×4’s suspension, creating a uniform, rhythmic, corrugated wash boarded surface to the road. Further 4×4 use exacerbates this problem as the road is now feeding back the resonant frequency into the vehicles suspension, which has a further effect of the road…….

The result on my poor Chang was a medium frequency, uncontrollable shake, the suspension crashed around underneath me, completely unable to prevent any of the crashing and jarring being fed into me. I was becoming exhausted – we were steadily climbing to the 5250 m height of Everest Base clip_image004Camp – show any weakness to the altitude and it is merciless.

In my tired and oxygen deprived brain, I began to long for a modern bike, a KTM or something similar, with huge suspension travel and the power to accelerate over the wash board, when the front wheel goes light and the bike begins to float over the ruts, I would get to my bed in about a third of the time the poor old Chang is taking. A more positive take on the Chang is that I was by now going so slowly that a crash would almost certainly just have me rolling off into the dirt – probably, the peace from the endless crashing would be a relief, allowing me to fall asleep exactly where I fell.

This thought also put my KTM fantasy into perspective a crash at far higher speed could be more problematic – the nearest western hospital is probably Shanghai 5 000 km away. Kathmandu is much closer and has, by all account, a good hospital, being closer may not be much help though, the route is blocked by the Himalayas.

I wondered at the wisdom of building a monastery in such an inhospitable, one is tempted to say god forsaken, place.

At around 10 km from Base camp, we pass a monastery, claimed to be, and I have no argument with this, the highest monastery in the world. It was a crude mud brick building, which had once been painted white. The usual Tibetan prayer flags, frayed and faded by the sun, were flapping in the wind – now blowing at near gale force and cold, bitingly cold. The forecast was for -6C at night, but it felt colder, the wind cut into every part of exposed skin.

clip_image006I wondered at the wisdom of building a monastery in such an inhospitable, one is tempted to say god forsaken, place. But, maybe that’s the point; to build one in a more conducive spot may have seemed less devout.

I would like to say much more about the last 10 km, my final approach to Everest, but all I remember is cold, tiredness also, but mostly cold. Everest base camp arrived suddenly I just remember riding in and lining my Chang up with the other three.

There was great whooping and cheering, high fives, handshakes and hugs. Actually there wasn’t. All I and everyone else wanted was to get out of the wind, and the cold, and the dust. I’ll be honest; I was disappointed with my reaction to being here as well!

Tibetan tents are the most homely, comforting and inviting places I have ever been in. You walk in and it’s instant peace, instant warmth and very possibly instant Karma.

Thick, heavy and made of closely knitted yaks’ wool, Tibetan tents are astonishing! They have the cossetting comfort and warmth of a well-loved duvet and they generate the same feelings of security, solidity and permanence that you expect of a room at the Savoy.

We were invited into this warm palatial tent, warm because the yak dung stove in the centre was working flat out. We were gestured to sit on carpet covered sofas and given copious amounts of tea. I was just allowing myself the thought of well that’s it were here, when our Chinese fixer, downed his tea and said “hurry last bus leaves soon!”

As a nation, China amazes, irritates and simply dumbfounds in equal measure, even to the point where you’re not sure exactly which emotion you’re experiencing or indeed should be.

“Micmar, I thought we were at Everest base camp”.

“Yes, yes we are. But the best views of the mountain are 4.5 km away at the very top of the valley – and there’s a bus!”

Mount Everest is a sensitive border region with Nepal, it’s a border therefore sensitive, goes the Chinese logic.

Mount Everest is a sensitive border region with Nepal, it’s a border therefore sensitive, goes the Chinese logic. The Chinese military won’t allow personal vehicles to be taken up to the head of the valley for that reason. However, they do lay on a fleet of small rugged busses for the sole purpose of ferrying all the visitors who wish to make the trip to the foot of the mountain.

“And bring your passport!” shouted Micmar.

This being China, you don’t question such requests. I really didn’t want to leave the warmth, and peace of the tent, but being stoic and dismissing such thought as unworthy, I put on my full motorcycling kit (apart from the helmet so as not to look too silly) and got on the bus.

The bus stopped at a military check point where we were ushered inside for passport and permit checks. This being China, and this being a military region, I was, as usual, unsure as to exactly what emotion I should be feeling at the overt stupidity of this pantomime.

“I appreciate that this is a border, but have you not noticed that it is arguably one of the world’s most secure borders, barred as it is by an 8000 m mountain, several in fact?”

Everybody thinks this, and everybody is wise enough not to say it.

The head of the valley is flat bottomed, no more than 600 m wide, its end is barred by Everest. I walk toward a small hillock in the centre of the valley; it’s only about 10 m high but takes most of my remaining strength to climb it.

When I get to the top I do as most visitors do, I take a few photographs of Everest.

Then I sit. Without really intending to we’d caught the last bus of the day so there were far fewer visitors than there usually would be on that hillock. It’s only now that it begins to filter through my brain, maybe it’s lack of oxygen, maybe tiredness, maybe I’m a bit slow on the uptake, whatever it is, I now suddenly become very aware of where I am and what I’m seeing. That is Mount Everest, this is me.

This is me, that is Mount Everest.

There’s no one in front of me. I have a completely uninterrupted view. And I sit. And I stare.