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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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Everest Base Camp (Part 1)

Everest Base Camp (Part 1)

clip_image002I left Shigadse hospital with mixed emotions. The ride to Everest base camp was meant to be the highlight of the trip. In all honesty, I still expected it to be that, but the journey was not meant to start with Nick and Jon being driven off in a Land Cruiser, Nick through altitude sickness and Jon on sick duty. Not crashing my motorcycle into the back of an ash cart, would have also helped to give the big day a more auspicious feel as well.

Still, we were on our way to Everest. The first twenty kilometres were on tarmac and easy, it was a bright sunny day, a little cold, but the forecast predicated a high of 10 C, so excellent motorcycling weather. The rhythm of the ride arrived early; the absolute shock of riding in such a foreign place has disappeared, replaced by a pleasant familiarity with the alien landscape.

The entrance to Everest National Park, or Choumolounga National Park to use the Tibetan name is guarded by a military check point, it is after all a border region with Nepal, and China is sensitive over such matters, indeed the sensitivity of the Chinese over many such matters cannot be overstated.

Once through the barrier, the road turned to dirt, obviously well used, mostly by Land Cruisers – the 4 x 4 of choice, and by small, rugged tour buses. I’ve ridden off road before, although never anything like this distance and it was also on a modern moto-cross machine.

The scenery has become extreme, it’s dry, dusty, barren, oxygen starved and UV blasted, barely a living thing grows……..

clip_image004The road narrowed and started to wind back on itself in a series of switch backs as it snaked its way to the top of our first 5 000 m pass, actually at around 5 300 m it was higher than Everest Base camp. The scenery has become extreme, it’s dry, dusty, barren, oxygen starved and UV blasted, barely a living thing grows here. I really don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere so harsh and unfriendly to life.

We stop on the top of the pass for photographs, interviews with the film crew and coffee. I really enjoyed that ride up to the pass, only about 20km or so, but it was fabulous. The Chang is a hard bike to ride, ordinarily on an off road bike one stands on the foot pegs, with your body held quite fluid. Your legs act in conjunction with the bikes suspension to absorb the bumps. Steering is accomplished, not by violently wresting the bars in the direction you want to go but by subtle shifts of body weight and smooth small movements of the bars. The much greater power output of a modern bike also assists the control by allowing the back wheel to be slid through a corner.

On the Chang, none of these techniques are available to you. You sit bolt upright on the seat, the bike crashes around underneath you as the pre-war suspension soon gives up the un-equal struggle of attempting to absorb the rocks, stones, ruts and pot holes of a Tibetan dirt road. The jarring and crashing is fed into your body through your arms, legs and through you poor bottom. A Chang needs to be steered through the turns, great sweeping movements are required, clearly leaning your body weight isn’t going to work as its got a third wheel. And its heavy work – the bars require a great deal of effort.

Achieving the top of the pass is, however, worth that effort. I park my bike in the full view of Mount Everest and several of her surrounding 8 000 m peaks. It is I that is view of them, to put it the other way around seems inappropriate, sacrilegious even. I sit on my Chang looking out over the view and attempt to take in what I’m looking at, it’s so alien that it takes a conscious thought process to evaluate exactly what I’m looking at – that or my brain is addled by the lack of oxygen. Micmar, our Chinese fixer, hands me a cup of coffee, it’s boiling but, bizarrely, not hot. At this altitude water boils at only around 83C. Coffee has always been part of my wake up routine; here it’s a more poignant ‘wake up’ – a wake-up to the reality of where I am.

I don’t want to leave this pass; I know I’ll probably never be as high again

I don’t want to leave this pass; I know I’ll probably never be as high again. I know I’ll never see such a view again and quite frankly, after riding such an inappropriate motorcycle to this height, to ride down to the valley floor seems so anticlimactic. The ride down is less dramatic than the ride up, taking about thirty kilometres to descend from the pass so there are fewer and less extreme switch backs. At ‘only’ about 4 000 m the valley bottom is more friendly to life, there is more greenery, if you look hard enough, and even the occasional yak. Our lunch time stop is in a small village, which appears to have no name.

clip_image006It lies about halfway along the route to Everest base camp. Perhaps it has no name because; perhaps it’s not a real ‘official’ village. It seems to be desperately poor, a collection of mud brick houses, a litter strewn stream and a restaurant! A restaurant like no other I have ever been in. Mud brick built and Yak dung heated. The owner appears to be a wealthy man, wealthy that is in comparison to his fellow villages. It appears that it was he who realised the potential of selling food to the passing ‘big nose’ tourists as they ply their way to Everest Base Camp.

A short word on Chinese food may be helpful here. The Chinese, and please pardon my sweeping generalisations here, tend to make some very nice rice based dishes, egg fried rice being a particularly nourishing and readily available staple. Noodles too are popular, wholesome and plentiful, a ubiquitous staple that never fails to disappoint. I tend to favour the bowls of noodles that don’t contain the pork, because, well meat in China can be a little, inconsistent. It’s here with the meat that were come to the nub of Chinese cooking. Meat dishes, from my experience in China, tend to have some rather lovely sauces, however Chinese butchery skills tend to be, err how’s best to put this, rudimentary.

Chicken tends to get served in three forms; chicken that’s been hit with an axe, chicken that’s been run over with a truck and exploded chicken. And if like me, you’re not a fluent Chinese reader then there’s no way of knowing which form of chicken you will receive in your choice of dish.clip_image008

Here in Tibet, where yak is popular and may I add, quite delicious, the butchery followS the same basic tenants as for the chicken, although obviously on a much larger scale. I once ordered a yak curry which the menu described as ‘yak that’s been hit by the Shanghai to Nanjing express, served in a light and creamy butter masala sauce’. Now I wouldn’t swear to that being an exact literal translation of the menu, but I feel I’ve caught the gist of it.

After my egg fried rice and several cups of Yak butter tea, I go outside to take some photographs before we re-commence the ride. I feel so sorry for the donkeys and mules that spend their working lives in harness, hauling improbable loads at impossible altitudes and doing so with extraordinary compliance and patience. I can’t help being reminded of ‘Boxer’ the cart horse in Animal Farm, who worked himself to death because he believed that it was the right thing to do. Orwell may have known the human condition, but he also knew animals as well.

It’s time to go, we have a further 50 kilometres to go horizontally, and one and a quarter vertically.

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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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M*A*S*H’ed, Trashed and Crashed (Part 3)

M*A*S*H’ed, Trashed and Crashed (Part 3)

clip_image002As we had arranged the previous night, our driver and Jon collected me from the hospital at eight the following morning. It was too early for Nick to be discharged as the doctor wouldn’t be available until nine, so Jon took my place as ‘Nick-nurse’ while I went back to the hotel for a shower and some breakfast.

After a night of oxygen, sound sleep and his medication, Nick was looking so much better, we knew of course that these improvements would only be short lived if we couldn’t get him to lower altitudes. Kathmandu was about 500 km away – about twelve hours away by Land Cruiser or around twice that by Chang. The situation that we were in was that we did have a Chang, but not a Land Cruiser. Now at the risk of turning this blog into a public thank you forum, I would like to thank, Greg and Darryl, our Aussie film crew, for giving up their Land Cruiser to get Nick to Kathmandu – they piled their mountain of expensive hardware into the back of our flat-bed truck, to free up their Land Cruiser for the dash to Nepal and lower altitudes. Guys, you were brilliant, thank you so much.

clip_image004I found it a great relief to be eating breakfast in the hotel, knowing that Nick was better and. To be brutally honest, it was a relief to be out of that hospital. We arranged to meet up again back at the hospital, so that Nick could be formally discharged, placed in the Land Cruiser and taken immediately to Kathmandu. The film crew wanted footage of the departure and the goodbyes.

Before I explain what happened next, I need a little scene setting, or if you prefer my attempt at making excuses. The truth is I was shattered, absolutely dog tired and exhausted. I don’t want to appear churlish here, but I was so looking forward to a night in that lovely Shigadse hotel, a soft warm bed to catch up with my lost sleep.

…….which offered the all comfort and softness of a mortician’s slab covered with a millimetre of household dust……..

The hospital, was not contusive to a good night’s sleep, it wasn’t just the bed which offered the all comfort and softness of a mortician’s slab covered with a millimetre of household dust for padding, it probably wasn’t the constant interruption of the nurse flicking the light so that she could see to change Nick’s drip or adjust his oxygen supply and it probably wasn’t even the discomfort. Lying in a foreign hospital five thousand miles from home, does make your mind wander. You wonder about the wisdom of this trip, what the consequences could be and the unpalatable truth that there are, and will always be, things that are outside your control, the random throw of the dice, the laws of probability.

Lying in a foreign hospital five thousand miles from home, does make your mind wander.

Demons, however, cannot face the bright light of day, certainly not the brilliance of a Tibetan sky in spring sunshine, and a good breakfast certainly put pay to any lingering doubts. I was back on the bike and ready for anything, my tiredness had disappeared.

clip_image006I’m not sure how I became separated from the rest of the group, but we set off from the hotel for the hospital, I was toward the end of the group. The traffic was a little heavy in Shigadse certainly, but nothing too serious, certainly not up to the usual standards of Chinese city organised madness. The group swung left across three streams of oncoming traffic, not as suicidal as you might think, Chinese drivers expect this sort of thing and give way, or swerve around you. For some reason I misjudged it and hesitated. The group sped off leaving me behind three streams of now considerably faster moving oncoming traffic. I would have to wait for them to pass. By the time I set off again the rest of the group had disappeared, but hey, no problem I knew where the hospital was, I had after all been there before.

I was keen to catch up with the group because I wanted to arrive at the hospital with the others as the film crew were planning on filming us arriving together. I found myself following an ashcart and started planning my overtake. When the ashcart suddenly slowed, a glance over my left shoulder showed a car about to overtake both me and the ash cart. Hardly a problem – I’m on a bike. Slam open the throttle and accelerate hard through the closing gap.

Then there was a Bang!

clip_image008For an instant my brain wondered what could possibly have made such a noise, then the side car lifted. It probably only lifted a foot or so into the air but it felt considerable more. I’d slammed the side car into the back of the ash cart. In that split second decision to overtake I’d forgotten that I wasn’t on a solo motorbike! I was at least a metre wider that I’m normally used to. It was a serious error of judgement. Tiredness? Altitude? Simply getting flustered about losing the group? The truth is I really don’t know, but I took it as a serious wake up call. I’d have to up my game and concentrate more on what I was doing.

It also crosseed my mind to wonder what reception I’d receive, arriving late at the hospital, with a heavily dented sidecar, so I must give Peter, all due credit for his friendly reassurances, that, it was only metal that I dented and that he was thankful that I wasn’t hurt, so thank you Peter, that gesture really was appreciated.

The goodbyes were a somewhat stilted affair; I was very conscious that my every move was being filmed as we loaded Nick and Jon into the Land Cruiser for the long haul to Kathmandu. And then there was one, I thought as we headed out from The Shigadse hospital, 120 km to go, 100 of which will be off road. Next stop, Everest Base Camp.

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M*A*S*H’ed, Trashed and Crashed (Part 2)

M*A*S*H’ed, Trashed and Crashed (Part 2).

clip_image002Shigadse is very roughly half way between Lhasa and Kathmandu so it’s very tempting to think of it as the half-way point on the journey. Shigadse is also the jumping off point for the journey to Everest Base Camp, so in terms of the physical effort required; it’s far from the half – way point.

The ride from Gyantse to Shigadse was tiring, it’s not that far, 230 km or so, but the slow speed of the Chang and the lack of sleep are beginning to tell on me a little. If the only effect that the altitude is having on me is a lack of sleep then, it’s hardly a problem. For Nick, things are not looking better; indeed he finds himself ‘demoted’ further, from the sidecar to the truck.

Shigadse is a sizeable town which boasts, easily the best hotel that we’ve stayed at so far and, far more importantly, a hospital. Hospitals are not the same throughout the world, I think that is the best way I can put it. Nick was received promptly upon arrival and the doctor, luckily spoke a little English, which was of course a great help. We were then directed to a small ward with two beds in it, the first bed was occupied by a Chinese man receiving oxygen and quite obviously in some distress. A nurse directed Nick to the second bed, where he too was given oxygen.clip_image004

Let me now set the scene for you. I do not intend this as a criticism of the medical staff of the hospital in any way, far from it, the medical attention Nick received was excellent. He was diagnosed swiftly and accurately and he was medicated appropriately. If anything the conditions that the doctors and nurses work under, emphasises their commitment and skill rather that detracting from it.

I used the word ward to describe the room; this may have given the wrong impression. The room was small, no more than two metres wide, it was dirty, the carpet on the floor was threadbare and deeply stained, there was litter strewn everywhere. The walls had once been painted a dark green colour; this was now peeling and flaking off in large swathes. The beds were unchanged from patient to patient and bore the stains of their former occupiers. Standing against one wall was the medical cabinet, un-locked, as the lock appeared to have been broken for some time.

Our driver, a helpful and curious man at the best of times, but also, so it appeared a little naive in matters medical, picked up a sealed syringe from the cupboard and started to idly play with it. Collectively, mine and Jon’s Chinese is about up to ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, although I believe Jon can also say ‘left’ and ‘right’; the point being that our abilities fell far short of being able to explain the importance of not damaging the packaging to avoid the syringe becoming contaminated.

…………………………was placed a screaming, hysterical, hyperventilating Chinese girl….

Imagine now if you will, a scene from M*A*S*H and the resulting, inevitable, chaos that occurs when the helicopters arrive bringing in the wounded, now hold that image in your mind and you will have some idea of the scene that follows; because into this small, cramped, dirty ward, with both beds being occupied by two men obviously in distress and being fed oxygen was placed a screaming, hysterical, hyperventilating Chinese girl of about 14 years of age and two of her very supportive and, thankfully, sensible friends.

The doctor decided, that in order to confirm her diagnosis an x-ray would be required, this was swiftly arranged and a wheelchair was provided to transport Nick from the MASH unit to the radiography department. Chinese hospitals don’t have porters, it’s up to the relatives to transport the patients around from department to department, we were lucky as our Chinese fixer was still with us and volunteered to do the pushing. It may have only been a short distance 300 m at the most but it was uphill, it would have been a little strenuous at sea level, but at 4000 m, I‘m not sure I would have made it. Micmar – you have my eternal thanks.

clip_image006The radiography suite was equipped with all the very latest equipment, it was clean and looked very modern, which was, of course, all very reassuring, we felt that we were in safe competent hands. The radiographer directed us to take Nick into the x-ray room and place him on the bed, while she retired into her shielded operations room. Placing Nick onto the bed of the huge x-ray machine was very straight forward as the machine adopts a vertical aspect to get patients on and off. When the patient is secure and comfortable, it begins its slow rotation to a horizontal aspect for the x-ray to be taken.

I have no medical knowledge, so what happened next may well be standard European procedure, but I’m guessing not. We waited to make sure that Nick was comfortable on his rotating machine before we left the room and closed the huge shielded doors. Actually that’s what we intended to do, but no sooner had the machine reached its horizontal plane, it started to rotate slowly back the other way, with the radiographer appearing at the door smiling and saying “all done”. When we came to pay for the x-ray we were told “30 yuan”.

“Is that just for Nick or for all three of us?” quipped Jon.

Nick was diagnosed with an oedema. He would have to stay in overnight, be kept on oxygen and be drip fed saline solution and penicillin. Before the doctor finished her explanation, it had become evident that Nick’s Himalayan adventure was over – he would have to be taken to lower altitudes, preferably by tomorrow morning.

We were just saying our goodnights to Nick when the doctor interjected with, ”No, no not possible, one of you must stay in with him”. Apparently the hospital, in common with many Chinese hospitals, has only one nurse on overnight. She is obviously kept so busy administering medication to all the patients in her ward that she couldn’t possibly monitor an individual; that was the job of a relative.

Jon and I both knew the full implications of the evenings events; Jon spoke first “Mark this is not negotiable, it’s your trip, you stay in overnight with Nick, I’ll accompany Nick to the lower altitude of Kathmandu”.

This blog is my public thank you to Jon. It would be me that would have the opportunity to get to Everest Base Camp, the other two would miss out.

Jon, thank you so much for that. I don’t think you will ever know how much I appreciated that gesture.

The hyperventilating girl had to be sedated.

If after reading this, there is anyone who still thinks that publically funded healthcare is not the best solution, please leave your email address in the blog’s comment area and I shall email you the iphone pictures that I took in the hospital. They are not suitable for the blog.

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M*A*S*H’ed, Trashed and Crashed (Part 1).

 

clip_image002The ride from Lhasa was truly fabulous. I’m beginning to forgive the Chang all it’s, let’s be generous, it’s foibles. The sky is blue, and there’s snow on the surrounding peaks, the road is straight, level and beautifully smooth – the easiest of easy riding. There are times when I have to pinch myself to make sure that I’m not dreaming. This really is me, with my two brothers riding my motorcycle through Tibet, China

I’m passing fields being ploughed by Yaks hauling wooden ploughs. I’m riding past peasant farmers dressed in their traditional Tibetan costume, men, women and children carrying hoes and shovels and rakes. They’re about to spend a day in the fields, I’m on a motorcycling holiday. I’m having trouble believing that it’s me doing this. Me, really me! I’m not Lawrence of Arabia or Alan Wicker, or even come to think of it Judith Chalmers! I want to stop and smack my head on the petrol tank to make sure I’m not dreaming.

Me, really me! I’m not Lawrence of Arabia or Alan Wicker, or even come to think of it Judith Chalmers!

The ride over our first 5000m pass brings home the enormity of the Tibetan Plateau. The road winds and twists and turns, climbing steadily for kilometre after kilometre, the view is, to use that rather overworked word, awesome; in the sense that it fills one with awe. Not just the scale of the landscape – there’s no pass in Europe anywhere near this height, but the stark brutality of the landscape. The Tibetan Plateau is a desert. There doesn’t appear to be a drop of greenery anywhere, it’s parched, dry and barren. Due to the altitude, the soil is bathed in harsh UV light. And the wind. The wind is such a constant feature, sometimes at gale force, sometimes a little less, but it’s always there, blowing the soil in dust clouds to sweep across the plateau. The wind dries your skin, blows choking dust into your lungs and eyes, and sucks, not just the moisture from your body, but the very life out of you. It’s your constant companion – your every waking hour companion.clip_image004

Our first night above 4 500 m was spent in a Guest House in Nangadse, a high, dusty, run down and very poor village. The Guest house lacked any form of heating, hot water or indeed come to that cold water! It, needless to say, lacked any form of sanitation or at least it lacked anything that the normal usage of the word sanitation would conjure up. It was, shall we say basic. The owners of the business were clearly struggling to make ends meet, despite being a favourite stop for the truck drivers that ply this route across Tibet. The lady that showed me to mine and Nick’s room was very pleasant and provided us with a thermos flask of hot water and a plastic bowl to wash in.

The Guest house lacked any form of heating, hot water or indeed come to that cold water!

After spendin the night above 4 500m we all awoke tired, from lack of sleep, hung-over from lack of oxygen and, quite frankly, feeling none too good. Nick appeared to be suffering more than most. Although he was bright and perky, or at least as bright and perky as the rest of us, he had difficulty coordinating movements, especially so when walking. The decision was made that Nick should travel in Jon’s sidecar until we reached lower altitudes and he felt better.

The journey to Gyantse was made in beautiful bright sunshine, a fabulous ride, although we were getting more and more concerned about Nick. Riding behind Jon, it appeared for all the world that Jon was attempting to smuggle a cadaver across Tibet by dressing it in motorcycling attire! Nick’s head rolled and flopped about, its movements exaggerated by the weight of his helmet. It was clear that he wasn’t just dozing, but very deeply asleep.

clip_image006By the time we got to the night’s accommodation, a rather splendid hotel and all the more welcome after the previous night’s accommodation, Nick was decidedly worse. His movements becoming more and more uncoordinated; slightly slurred speech and a staggering rolling walk, Nick appeared quite unperturbed by these symptoms, possibly because for those suffering from anoxia, diagnosing your own symptoms is unreliable or whether it was mere familiarity with the symptoms of a good Saturday night on the town – impossible to say. However Jon and I were sufficiently concerned to take him to a doctor. Nick was diagnosed with ‘altitude sickness’, no surprises there, and was prescribed various pills, potions, some phials of glucose injection (to be drunk) and an aerosol can of oxygen.

The Gyantse Hotel was exceptionally comfortable, and despite the altitude I slept rather well. Nick also slept rather well – suspiciously well.

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Lhasa

Lhasa

clip_image002I’m liking Lhasa much more this afternoon than I did this morning. You see Lhasa is high, we all knew that. I know that it’s 3 500m above sea level as my Lonely Planet guide told me so. I was also aware that most people have some difficulties adapting to the altitude. So I expected ‘some difficulties’. However what I didn’t expect was such fitful night’s sleep – despite being tired from the flight from Shanghai and the cumulative effect of the three night’s sleep deprivation that comes from sleeping on a sofa.

At altitude for the first time, you fall asleep in the usual manner, whereupon your breathing falls into its normal pattern that it uses for the more familiar lower altitudes where there’s nearly twice as much oxygen in the air than there is in Lhasa. The result; you wake up in a panic struggling and gasping for breath.

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Altitude sickness can be a ‘little like a hangover’ I remember reading in my guide book. Technically correct advice as the feeling was ‘a little like a hangover’, in the same sense as the Boy Scouts are a little like the SAS. I awoke with my head feeling that I’d fallen asleep wearing my crash helmet, which miraculously had shrunk to half its size during the night. My shoulders and arm ached, I was nauseous and disorientated. The walk to the breakfast hall exhausted me as much as the smell of breakfast cooking nauseated me. A hangover to match this could only happen if you’d imbibed enough alcohol to fell an elephant.

………………..the feeling was ‘a little like a hangover’, in the same sense as the Boy Scouts are a little like the SAS.

The three of us, myself, Nick and Jon (please read my previous blog, Shanghai Surprise for the reason why there’s now all three of us) flew into Lhasa from Shanghai at 4:00 pm on Wednesday. Followed by a day to acclimatise and explore the Potala Palace and, for me, my first ride on the Chang Jang. Enough has been written about the Chang Jang on this blog so no further details are really necessary from me, except that I like to add that it’s exactly as you’d expect a vehicle that was designed 75 years ago to be like. I can’t really comment on the brakes – it barely has any. The Chang, like all motorcycles has two brakes.

…………..changing gear requires similar levels of effort to that which would be required to kick start a Boeing.

However on a Chang the rear brake does very little and the front brake does nothing at all. The steering likewise; requires brute force, not to steer it, but merely to dissuade it from shooting off in all the random directions that it chooses – several times a minute. That leaves the gears; suffice to say that changing gear requires similar levels of effort to that which would be required to kick start a Boeing.

clip_image007Still, I successfully completed a two kilometre ride – once round the car park, into a petrol station and back to the hotel, just 1200 to go, oh and Lhasa is the lowest place I’ll be for the next 10 days – Everest base camp is 1800 m higher!

It’s beginning to dawn on me what I’ve let myself in for.

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