© Ulf Müller 2013
Nevil’s Blog   I’m here: click to see my GPS position!
April 28 - May 12 2013 Canada to England and onward to Romania.
I was so nervous on April the 25th 2013. My friends Grif and Jim had come with me to Calgary airport to help drop off Twiggy with the screening guys. This procedure is necessary 48 hours in advance of flying the bike. Inside I was a ball of nerves. What if there was a problem? What if they refused to fly her? The trip would surely be over. I got on the flight at Calgary Airport on Saturday the 27th of April and was assured Twiggy was in the hold of the aircraft. The flight was uneventful (thank God) and we touched down at Gatwick half an hour earlier than expected at 07:30. I raced through passport control…went to pick up my bags that were already circulating on the carousel ….only to find that I didn’t have a pound coin to pay for the bloody luggage trolley. I have been away from England for nine years so this was all a bit of a learning curve for me. Anyway…baggage in hand I race through customs and hailed a cab to take me to Shed H Servisair terminal about 5 kms away. I was there within an hour of landing and so was Twiggy! Even better still, UK Customs cleared her electronically and within ten minutes I was pushing her across the yard and unloading my bags in order to pack her panniers (you’re not allowed anything in the panniers if you ship by air). I re-connected the battery, re- mounted the mirrors, turned the fuel on ….yes she was allowed 1 US gallon of fuel in the tank, and pulled the choke lever on. Now was the moment of truth! Would she start?? I cranked her over about three times and the motor sprang to life. This was the first inkling that my trip had become real! Wow! I was about to start an adventure that I had been planning for about two years. It was an emotional moment….in front of a bunch of hairy Bulgarian truckers that had just dropped off some electronic goods bound for Canada. I didn’t care, for the next two weeks I was a solo rider until Switzerland where I would meet with Ulf Mueller, my future travelling partner. It took me about two hours to load, pack, re-pack and fuss over the luggage on the bike. Once complete, I started her up and rode up and down the yard weaving from side to side to get used to the inordinate amount of crap I was carrying. Yes, I’ve been told that we all do this on a big trip. We pack way too much stuff and this has now become apparent as I type from a dodgy motel room in Romania. I was set. After asking directions as to how I could get out of Crawley I hit the road and withing 200 feet was my first roundabout. HOLY CRAP….i have to drive on the LEFT! I never thought this was an issue but all of a sudden I was mortified. I elected to drive southwest to Devon via the A272 to Andover….it would be more relaxed than the M25 motorway for sure. Besides, my blood pressure is high enough already. The A272 just south of Crawley has actually had a book written about it. I can now see why. Simply put, it’s lovely. I thumped along on Twiggy , a 2004 Suzuki DR650 and lapped up the sunny morning that unfolded through the remnants of river mist and dewy fields. I was re-discovering the country of my birth again with memories of limestone churches and people cutting grass in green wellington boots that will stay in my mind’s eye forever. Onward through the countryside of southern England on small roads I could smell farmyards and even a bakery in one small town. Unusual for a Sunday I thought. Kids were pressed up against their backseat windows as they noticed that my bike had a Canadian license plate, some waved and I would reciprocate. Beauty all around me. Life was good. The sun disappeared behind cloud on the A303 near Stonehenge. I was going to stop there for some photos but it was heaving with people. I was tired and cold now. I needed a hot cup of tea pronto so I pulled into a petrol station about 8 miles from Stonehenge. To my Surprise a gentleman came over and asked if he could take a photo. This was followed by a Lady walking across the car park waving a piece of paper in her hand. She asked if I had space for one more sticker on the bike. I was dubious but Ok’d the sticker. It turns out Jenny was from Overland Magazine and by chance she was there with her husband ….at a small fuel stop on the A303! We became friends pretty quickly and I look forward to throwing out some articles for this fine publication soon. I arrived at my Mum’s house shortly thereafter and was treated to a Sunday roast dinner and lots of hugs. It was so good to see her. This week was to be the week that I would visit as many friends and relatives as possible. It was a rollercoaster of emotions for me that would ultimately end with me standing by the bike at Brittany Ferries’ terminal in Plymouth after a wonderful ride there with my old school friend Chris. It was hard to leave England. I feel that I haven’t seen anywhere near enough of these wonderful people. The crossing to Roscoff, France was perfect. Only a little swell and my own 2 berth cabin. Once out of the bike gear I wandered around the decks peering into shops and gazing out to see through the darkness of a still night. A glass of wine saw me go to bed and sleep straight for 7 hours. France was just how I remembered it and once again I was on the road thumping my way along well maintained autoroutes through beautiful scenery. The first part of this route I knew well because it was our old route to Le Mans and the 24 hour races that were usually held in the 3rd week of April. Just the name Le Mans makes me tingle with excitement these days. Onward through French countryside and small towns I eventually reached my cousin’s place just south of Paris. Roget is a wonderful man who has an even more wonderful wife. Raymonde would ensure I was well fed for the next few days. Eventually the time had come for me to say my goodbyes to French Family and head out for Switzerland and Ulf’s abode. He sent me a text a day earlier stating that he would a day late in his preparations and that he needed more time. Once again the French countryside rolled by and I was enjoying the sunshine and warmth. Farmers were in their fields tilling grass on tractors that looked so old. I stopped occasionally in small towns to grab a coffee or a snack. There’s something completely different about French villages, they know how to eat well and every street corner smells of wonderful food. I was in heaven. The city of Basel came and went and before I knew it I was being urged to purchase Swiss road tax for the princely sum of 40 euros. After explaining to the border guard that I wasn’t driving a truck, only a motorbike, he retaliated that it was the same for ALL vehicles….then spotted the Wenger wristwatch that was attached to Twiggy’s handlebars and said that the Swiss made the best watches in the world. I told him this one was made in Japan and rode off. Wadenswil in Switzerland is lovely. It’s on the shores of Lake Zurich and is in a perfect setting….except that Switzerland is overcrowded. There are people everywhere! I felt like such a country bumpkin bumbling around the streets looking for Ulf’s abode. Eventually I found it and was greeted by a black Audi driving on a collision course with me. I t was Carmen, Ulf’s Girlfriend in the driver’s seat and she was waving frantically at me to let me know I had the right address. Ulf was right…he wasn’t ready yet. In fact we had a lot of work to do …like mounting the tool tube and repairing a flat tire. All this work was punctuated by good Swiss food from Carmen and a margarita or two…or three. Ultimately the time came for us to say goodbye to Carmen and wend our way east into Liechtenstein and Austria. My heart went out to both Ulf and Carmen as they said their goodbyes, it choked me up because I had only been through this ten days earlier and I know exactly how painful it all is. It was a somber ride in the rain to Austria. From what I saw, Liechtenstein and Austria were wonderful places but shrouded in cloud that obscured my view of mountains. Occasionally the clouds would part just enough for me to see red terracotta roofed farmhouses tucked away in tiny dells or high up on mountainsides where bell collared cattle roamed. Austria gave way to Germany and Bavaria where we settled for the night. This was our first night of many to come and as we checked into our Gasthaus room I’m sure this was on booth of our minds. Would we get along with each other? Does one of us have any really annoying habits?  One thing that struck home quickly was the amount of electronic stuff that we all use today….and the cables, chargers and hard drives. Jeepers, this was going to be an ordeal. The next day, Germany turned into Austria which turned into Hungary. We went from spectacular mountain scenery in Bavaria to Hungarian flat farm field in the blink of an eye. Just like back home on the Canadian prairies, this is where you start to fidget on the bike. Ulf especially. His 6 foot three frame was not used to perching atop a fully loaded XT600. It’s rather like trying to cram a Daddy Longlegs into a matchbox. We made plans to get hi a set of highway pegs made up soon  The rain had continued all day and our gear was soaked. Fortunately all my gear was wet from the day before so I really didn’t care anymore. Settling in for the night in a Hungarian town called, Mosonmagyarovar we treated ourselves to a slap up meal in the hotel ….accompanied by a guy playing the Hammond organ. Yes, it was just like being back in the 70’s again being a kid and listening to some relative who had just bought a Hammond organ and was trying to entertain the family. I relished the knowledge that I was now old enough to own a gun though. That night we made plans to see Budapest the next day. Perhaps it wouldn’t rain tomorrow? Sure enough, it rained the next day. As we rode east toward Budapest we got wet again……for about and hour and a half  . Riding through the city centres of Buda and Pest we crossed the Danube river twice…just for the hell of it. The architecture was stunning.  Big wide streets lined with 8 storey apartment buildings from a forgotten age dwarfed us as we threaded through traffic. Barges on the Danube struck home to me how important this river was and still is for modern day commerce. I’m so glad I got this on the GoPro camera. Within two hours of Budapest we were crossing the Romanian border. This was our first experience of a more controlled crossing could be like. It was a three part process with passport control  leaving Hungary, entering Romania and checking to see if we needed to pay road tax. Fortunately Motorcycles are exempt. Within 1 minute of passport control, I stopped to put on my gloves and helmet properly and was accosted by a woman who wanted all manner of things from me. She wanted to wash my bike, she wanted my Austrian road tax sticker….i had to seem very stern and tell her to go away. She picked on Ulf as I readied myself for the 100km ride into the spectacular Romanian countryside. Note:- The roads are not as good as Hungarian roads but HUGE fun if you own a bike! The countryside went from flat farm fields to rolling hills in no time and took us through small towns that seemed so run down and penniless. It was a stark contrast to the rich lifestyle we have become familiar with in Europe and I was astounded to see horses and carts parked up outside village shops. Another common sight is to view people tending their farm fields by hand at almost every turn. On one hand I admired and was envious of the simplicity of life here but on the other hand knew this was a reflection of changing times in a country in need of growth. Ulf and I checked into a motel tonight that is rough around the edges. We know we will see a lot worse in the future but for now it’s good for us to be humbled gradually I think.

I need to backtrack a bit!

Sorry folks, I wrote an entire page a while back on the start of my trip in Cornwall UK and somehow lost it. My entire trip was to start from Land’s End in the UK, so that I could “wave” at Canada across the Atlantic and then start the daunting task of riding east until I get to Cape Spear in Newfoundland. Here I will “wave” at England across the Atlantic. I set off from my Mum’s place in Devon on a Wednesday morning and rode Twiggy down the A38 toward the Tamar bridge that spans the river Tamar, the division between Devon and Cornwall at this point. The day was sunny and dry and there was a slight chill in the air but nothing serious. Memories came flooding back as I rode into Cornwall again and gazed upon fields of sheep and cows. The grass is so green here and, as I remember the roads were getting narrower too. I passed through the town of Dobwalls and sniggered to myself in the crash helmet. It was always known as “Dogballs” to my friends and me….I’m sure “m not the only one. Slowly but surely the roads petered down to 2 lane windy roads that would normally be fun on a bike if it weren’t for the odd van or truck slowly trudging southwest. My mission today was to meet Tiffany Coates at the train Station in a St. Erth, a small hamlet way down near Land’s End. I was lost in my own little world of viewing fields, small churches and villages so much that I almost zipped by St. Erth. I pulled up in the station car park and waited….i was half an hour early anyway. I watched a couple of small trains pick up and drop off people as they went about  their daily  ritual. The station is a typical rural English station and could have been used in a Miss Marple tv show or similar and I was just contemplating this as I heard the sound of a boxer twin coming down the road. The sound got closer and closer and I saw Tiffany dash past the entrance and careen down the hill away from the car park. Fortunately she looked back over her shoulder and noticed that I was already there…..then she dashed out of sight. She had someone on the back of Thelma, her bike. I was alone again. Two minutes later she reappeared and it turns out the passenger is her nephew that she was returning from school. Yes Thelma is still used everyday even though this bike has been all over the world and put Tiffany in the Guinness book of records as the most traveled woman on the planet by motorcycle. Thelma has been there every inch of the way…….but is also local school transport too. My afternoon was to be a guided tour with Tiffany, after all this is her neck of the woods and who better to go motorcycling with? She took us along the north coast road that started with a lovely harbor ride into St. Ives and beyond. Onward across the clifftops we rode with the se to our right and eventually came into the Porthmeor and Bosigran areas. This was a rush of memories for me as I had spent quite a bit of time climbing here when I was younger. Tiffany took us along an old dirt road at Bosigran that skirted old tin mine ruins and dry stone granite walls that have stood the test of time for hundreds of years. The scenery here was that of open moorland and sweeping single lane roads that reminded me of Scotland. “You know, I’ve never been to Scotland Nevil” came the words from Tiffany……I almost fell over. She’s been to Ulaanbaatar but not Scotland. Land’s End was our destination and it was a cold evening by then. At the Land’s End sign we took photos of me and Twiggy and the Atlantic behind me as the sun set in the west. It was a beautiful moment. Onward to the bar Tiffany started the trip properly by buying me a margarita. This was to be my mission….a margarita in every country I visit. I put on my Hawaiian shirt that was given to me by good friends Don and Carole Nelson in Alberta and sipped the drink slowly as the sun set in the west. It was a perfect evening to start a motorcycle trip around the world. I wonder what adventures might lay ahead of me over the next five months. Tiffany’s place is only a few miles from here and she was kind enough to give me a room for the night. I slept well. It must have been a good margarita. I had to leave the next morning and return to Devon to see my Mum again. Tiffany and I (and her entire housefull of friends said our goodbyes and as I rode down her driveway I wondered to myself….when would I see her and Thelma again? Travel is a wonderful thing, you never know, you just never know.  My only other thought as I left her house was that Tiffany needs to go to Scotland. Someone please offer to take her there? Thank you so much for your tireless hospitality Tiffany, You are a national treasure Dear reader, if you are finding this blog interesting and can find the time to donate to the heart and stroke foundation then please know that this will go toward vital research that could save countless lives.

Pot holes and Motorcycle Festivals

Breakfast in our run down little Romanian Motel was surprisingly good. It consisted of Omelette with mixed vegetables in and bread and cheese. I was now getting used to ask for coffee too.  It appears that the further east we go the less coffee you are offered and thus need to seek it out to get the day started right. I now have instant coffee in my pannier. Today was the day that we were to attempt the Transfargasan and Transalpina highways in central Romania. They are located in the southern central mountains and are famed for their winding curves, good road surfaces and spectacular views. There was some uncertainty among the locals as to whether the snow line had receded enough to allow traffic to pass on both of these roads but we thought we’d better give it a try anyway…..after all we’d ridden a long way not to have a go. Romanian roads at this locale are great to ride but are heavily congested with trucks and cars all trying to negotiate the two lane winding twisty roads that join town to town…..there are no expressways here. To try and ride distance in Romania is also futile. Double your time if you are planning to be somewhere… 100 kms will take you about 2 hours and just go with the flow because getting stuck behind a 25 year old truck that is belching out diesel fumes from an engine that is barely propelling said vehicle is an occurrence every five minutes. Saying this, the scenery is gorgeous. We rode through small towns where people were taking produce by horse and cart. The thing that struck me most was the amount of people walking the highways. That’s right Nevil, not everyone can afford a car so they walk to the next town. Old couples would while their afternoon away by sitting outside their houses and watch passers-by. Sometimes thay would have lemonade for sale in used coke bottles……or at least I think it was lemonade Romanian dogs are mental. I just had to get this off my chest. If you ride a bike in Romania you will encounter small furry missiles that shoot from all tangents across the road with the sole purpose of entangling their teeth in your spokes. This is your cue to break the speed limit in each town. After a short wet morning ride through sub alpine scenery where broad leafed trees dripped with moisture and the fresh aroma of springtime came as a welcome friend, we found ourselves at the base of the Transalpina road. A quick check in the rain to see if the Camera was working, I headed out with Ulf to encounter wonderful high twisting corners that switched back at 180 degrees or more. Eventually this road takes you out of tree line and into the Alpine zone. More snow was appearing around each corner as we leaned the bikes into them hard. Then….a giant snowdrift covered the road. We stopped the bikes and paced around for a bit feeling frustrated that we were so near….. yet so far. The place was beautiful though and it reminded me of a late spring day at Sunshine Meadows in Alberta. We had no option but to turn around and go down the hill…..bummer, we would have to do all those corners again Moving eastwards we met more people along the way that told us the Transfargasan was also closed so we elected to give this a miss and head straight to Brasov where we had arranged to stay at my friend’s house. Cristian, his wife Alina and daughter live in a lovely house in the north of the city and they own a tour company that specializes in castles. Naturally, a Dracula tour was in order as we were now in Transylvania! The next day Cristian had arranged for a local guide to pick us up and show us through a couple of castles. Bran Castle was probably the highlight of the day because it was a working museum….and was part of the Dracula family a long time ago. Niko….our guide was amazing and put into context the history of Romania during the tour. He is a mine of information and left me with the feeling that I should think more upon the history of Romania, from the Slavs to the Romans rather than become fixated on Count Dracula. Hard to do really; it’s like listening to the William Tell overture and trying not to think of the Lone Ranger! After two days of being spoiled by Cristian, we had to head south to see other friends in Bucharest. I first met Andreea and Alex in British Columbia last year as they too were heading out on their bike trip across Canada and on to South America. Their photography and website actually inspired me to go buy a Nikon and see what I could do.  Bucharest was hot, in bike gear that’s hot hot! The city is huge and as we entered in from the Northwest we got ourselves a good education in survival. It seems like everyone here wants to kill you with their car. We were on our way to a small fabrication shop in the Northwest of the city to get some highway pegs made up for Ulf’s bike. He is 6 foot 3 so sitting all day on that 650 was crippling his knees…..it reminded me of trying to cram a daddy longlegs into a matchbox. The lads at NSEW Motorcycle Products were amazing. At first you think you’ve entered some dodgy back alley mechanical shop but upon further inspection they have a goldmine of tools and produce panniers, bash plates and all manner of things motorcycle. They offered us into the garage style workshop with our bikes, mainly to get out of the heat and set about measuring Ulf’s bike for the highway pegs. Two and a half hours later they were made, installed and…..the guys wanted no money from us! We were both stunned and honored that 4 guys had just produced a 2 1,2 hour piece of work and wanted nothing in return….naturally this wasn’t to be so for  probably the first time ever, we haggled with people to UP the price of the job. Ulf finally got his way and they accepted cash from him. Wonderful people. Our friends lived on the other side of the city. This was going to be a nightmare because the circular road that skirts the city is crazy at the best of times. One would have to be barnstorming mad to tangle with the traffic on two wheels. Once on this road I felt like a complete bumpkin. Traffic was everywhere and there appeared to be no form of etiquette at all regarding lane or junction use. I was looking everywhere and the spidey senses were on full alert as I wrestled through this tangled weave of diesel fumes and chain smokers throwing butts out of their windows. Then, out of the blue haze came a sight I will never forget. An old man was riding a moped that appeared to have been manufactured the same year he was born and he had a cigarillo protruding from his mouth, flip flops and shorts. That was it. He seemed to be at complete peace with the world and even the traffic swerved around him to let him by as if he had some magical bubble around him. In a blink he was gone but that short moment gave me a form of understanding with the traffic. I can’t explain it really. It was like I just met Yoda on a moped. Arrival at Our friend’s house was a hot sticky affair because we had to get our gear to the third floor in our bike gear on a thirty degree day. Hugs and greetings naturally came after we showered and we were offered a sip of the home made brandy. The boys in the southern States would certainly call this moonshine. Andreea took us for a night time drive around the city centre and we took in sights like the houses of Parliament and universities that were all lit up. It really was stunning to see. I think we both slept well that night. I remember going to bed wondering what happened to the guy on the moped. Was this the day he died in traffic? He seemed so at peace with everything….was he suicidal? The next day we did more sightseeing in the city before going to meet Mihai and Doyle. Doyle is the name of his bike and Mihai has written and produced a wonderful book about his adventures to Mongolia and beyond. I hope someone out there would be willing to help him set this book up in the English language. It really looks like a fantastic piece of work. Margaritas in hand we listened to Mihai intently as he gave us valuable info on travelling to Mongolia. He was the Master and we were the pupils in his classroom….but with margaritas The next day we had to head out toward Moldova. Andreea was  kind enough to drive us out of the city and we said our goodbyes at a gas station on the outskirts of Bucharest. Alex and Andreea had been wonderful to us. They fed us, housed us and guided us for two days. I only wish we had more time to spend with them. I guess that’s life on the road though. It was wonderful to see them again and I hope they come to Canada some day so that I can repay their hospitality. We rode some 200-300 kms north east from the city to Moldova through classic farmland where small communities could be found working in fields. Some people were tilling grass with pitchforks whils others were moving firewood by horse and cart. It was as if we had ridden back in time. Every once in a while I would see a sign on a house or café saying “Pensuine”. These are the local Bed and Breakfast places and they are abundant out in the country. Crossing into Moldova was an easy affair and we were getting used to visiting the usual three stops at passport control, Migration control….where you need to show your passport again and customs where they check out your bike etc…..oh yes and show your passport again. Once everything is in order they wave you away and you ride 300 metres to a barrier and a guard house and….show your passport again, just in case you sneakily managed to smuggle your bike through the chickenwire fences, video cameras and armed personnel. Moldova is a wonderful country, from what I saw there were rolling green fields and small communities that worked the land as in Romania. Moldova went by too quickly though and we noticed that the roads were getting rougher. Before long we were peacefully riding along when we passed some army guys stood at a guard house. I looked over my shoulder and they just waved me on without much care and attention. Within a few hundred metres there was another guard house and then another and finally a barricade that was attended by a girl in her twenties and she was in camouflage too. What was going on? I had to think to myself. She eventually waved us into a small area that consisted of some three wooden shacks that could easily have been selling coffee or trinkets for all I knew. Unfortunately these huts were occupied by more camouflaged people, this time with guns and they wanted to see our passports. The next 2 hours were made up of probably the finest display of bullshit and make-work projects I have ever witnessed. Lots of huffing and puffing and form filling, in duplicate and triplicate and filing and stamping and re-filing saw Ulf and I released into their country for …two Euros each. Christ almighty, who the hell works that hard for 2 euros an hour?! The Transnistrians do, that’s who. Yup….i’ve never heard of them either but they sure as hell want the world to know they’re here….and they earn 2 euros an hour in a country about the size of Nose Hill Park in Calgary.  Their army appears to be the size of the Calgary Saints Rugby Football team and they have a tank. It’s parked on the Dam at the local reservoir just in case someone wants to blow up their water supply. Ulf and I were headed that way, not for subversive purposes but to join a bike meeting that we had just got invited to at the border crossing. Upon arrival at the bike festival we were made to feel most welcome. We filled in some more forms at the check in tent and were shown where we could pitch our tents. We quickly made supper and had a hot cup of instant coffee but then a car drove up to us and I guy told me that my presence was requested at the main stage area because I had won a prize. Ulf and I locked up the bikes and headed up to the main rock band area where everyone was bopping away to some really good rock music. It turns out I had won first prize for the biker who had travelled the furthest to get here. It never even crossed my mind until that point but yes….i had come from Canada and was now half way round the word at a bikers festival in a country that wants independence from Moldova but can’t afford to because it bought a tank two years ago. I had to get on stage and make a speech then got sprayed in champagne and whisked off the stage to dance a wild circly thing with about two hundred fellow 2 wheelers. It was incredible. These people had come from all over Romania, Ukraine and Moldova to make this weekend festival. Once again their hospitality was exemplary. My heartfelt thanks go out to all those people I met that night and spoiled us silly. The next day was to be our crossing into the Ukraine. The usual passort issues were dealt with, in triplicate of course and we were let loose onto the Ukrainian roads…..although I wish we hadn’t been. These roads in the Ukrainian west are rough. Pot holes abound for hundreds of kilometers saw us dodging and weaving all over the road, as the oncoming trucks were doing the same. It’s not uncommon to come around a corner to find a tractor or 18 wheeler on your side of the road. Your eyes bug a bit but you get used to it in the first three hours. Suddenly there was a “Whack” and Ulf weaved all over the road in a frantic attempt to keep his overburdened bike upright. I thought I was going to witness his first yard sale in the middle of the Ukrainian countryside but no…..he kept it upright and pulled in to the side of the road immediately. There was a black canister dangling on the road from the rear of his bike and oil was trickling out of it. He had blown the oil dampening canister on his very expensive Wilbers shock absorber. I walked up the road and picked up the few fragment of shrapnel I could find that I thought might have once been a part of his bike and handed them to him gingerly. He was muttering long German swearwords under his breath. We had to try and get it fixed so we hastily hose clamped it to the outside of the bike frame and reloaded all the luggage. Ulf took off up the road and I watched him bounce around like a fairground ride. This was not good….and it was about 300 kms to the nearest big city Dnipropetrovsk where we might find a mechanic. Something to consider again:- As most of you know, I am hoping to raise about $20,000 for the Heart and Stroke Foundation in the process of riding a motorcycle around the world. If you’ve enjoyed the read so far, please consider clicking the link on our website to donate to these guys. The money goes to research and could help someone you know someday. It doesn’t have to be one of our chosen charities either, maybe you have one that you already support? Let’s just do some good out there for a change. The world is actually a wonderful place full of wonderful, generous people that help out people like Ulf and myself without ever wanting anything in return….despite what you hear in the media. Go out there and “Pay it Forward”         Nevil

Ukraine to Russia

The next day was tough. Ulf’s bike was not handling at all and he wasn’t going to make it on some of the Russian and Kazakh roads we’d heard about. His hi-tech shock absorber was only 3 weeks old and was already fit for the junkyard. His bike was handling like a cheap supermarket trolley with a rogue wheel. It was a hot day as we entered the city of Kirovograd in the centre of the Ukraine. The sun was beating down, I had all the vents open on the motorcycle clothing and had been wrestling with some debris that had got into my eye some 150 kms earlier. We stopped on the side of a busy city street and I set about using a nalgene bottle to flush my eye out. I didn’t care that people were looking at me like I had just come from another planet…I just needed my eye back. Suddenly Ulf was talking to someone who had just pulled up on a large throaty motorcycle. He was wearing a cut off denim jacket with “Black Ravens” emblazoned across the back. I was concerned, the last thing we needed was to get involved with the local Hells Angels now. He introduced himself as Igor ….yes Igor…..and we spotted the shoulder holster under his left arm and the blue steel handle of the pistol therein. My blood pressure was now at a level that my doctor warned me about. It became very evident withing 30 seconds that no one could understand each other and we were asking if there was a place in the city where Ulf could get his shock absorber repaired. Igor jumped on the phone and barked a few commands. Within 5 minutes, his nephew had arrived and could talk English, in fact he was over on Vacation from his new home in Vancouver. Again, we explained our predicament and he explained that the closest place for repairs would be Dnipropetrovsk, 150 kms away. Here’s where the language barrier doesn’t always work. We though Igor (his pistol now lying on Twiggy’s saddle) had said he would show us out of the city and point us in the right direction. Instead, he rode all the way to Dnipropetrovsk with us and handed us over to…the “Angels MC” club member…a formidable looking guy called Nicolai. Fortunately, Nicolai wasn’t packing a gun….i’m sure he has one somewhere but right now I felt at ease. He made us follow him across the city to the local Yamaha Dealership, on a Sunday. They opened up their doors and we were asked to ride the bikes down the 6 steps into their showroom and park up among the shiny new models on the showroom floor. Nicolai then drove us up the road and booked us into a very nice western style hotel for the night and paid for our meals. We would meet at Yamaha again at 8am the next day. Here’s where my education was furthered. I am so used to seeing bike gangs in the west that I had come up with a stereotypical picture of Nicolai and Igor. In fact I couldn’t have been further from the truth. In the Ukraine and Russia motorcycle riders look after each other on a level that is unparalleled. Ulf and I were experiencing this in a big way. We were fed, housed and gifted to the n’th degree by these gentlemen….and I mean gentlemen in the truest of terms. They greet you with a hearty handshake and a hug every time as if you were a long lost relative. The simple fact that you’re on a motorcycle qualifies you for respect and care because they know how hard it can be out on the road most times. I am humbled and overwhelmed by their generosity and hope I get the chance to return the compliment someday. Monday morning rolled around and we caught a taxi to the Yamaha dealership. Twiggy was still on the showroom floor looking like one of the ugly sisters from the Cinderella story and we set about getting the bikes into the workshop. I was going to do an oil change on Twiggy and Ulf would set about his shock absorber. Not to go into too much detail here, we managed to repair the shock absorber over a 2 day period and even got some air into it….not before a fellow came in with a second hand shock absorber in his hands for Ulf. Nicolai….yes there are now two Nicolai’s in the story, had  spent the night removing this from his bike, had cleaned it all up and had driven the 50 kms into the city to give this to Ulf if he needed it. This was all brought about by a few phone calls from the Angels the night before. We were so humbled by this act of generosity. Nicolai hung out for the morning with us and took notes as to what he could do to his bike. We all got along famously and before long had met the president of the club, he spoiled us with more food and drink and then we had to say goodbye because Russia was calling. Just as we were putting the bike gear on outside the shop we were visited by a guy in motorcycle leathers. He had been told by someone that we were here and he wanted us to come and stay at his house. Two hundred kilometers later we arrived at a beautiful place in Central Ukraine. He opened up the door to his garage and there were giant photos of him riding his motorcycle to Magadan everywhere. This guy had ridden the road of bones and wanted to spend the evening giving us advice. We listened like we were in class again for he was a mine of information. Once again, we were fed and housed by complete strangers. I think we have a lot to learn in the west. The new day saw us off bright and early and heading for Russia and who knows what? Western Ukrainian roads are generally very good…..that is until you get past Donetsk. The road here was as ugly as a welder’s bench and we bucked and bounced around for a couple of hours. At least this would be a good test for Ulf’s shock absorber. The Russian border came up quickly and my nerves were kicking in. Russia was an integral part of this trip….in fact it was about half of our trip. What would happen if our visas were in error? We would have to turn back! The Ukrainian border guards are slow here. It takes twice as long to check out of their country than it does to enter. They were all asking for “presents” too but we just ignored the comments and set about approaching the Russians. Things couldn’t have been easier here and we were done within half an hour with a Heavily accented voice, a Russian border guard raised the barrier and boomed “Welcome to Russia”. We rode into beautiful farm country……at seven in the evening…….looking to buy Russian motorcycle insurance which is compulsory. Our European Insurance was now invalid here. After asking a few simple questions and pointing to my Lonely Planet phrase book we were directed to a dodgy looking little shack with a couple of old ladies sitting out front. This was where we buy our insurance?? After 20 minutes and about $80 we came away with a certificate written in Russian. I had no idea what it said and could have just bought shares in some shaky business venture for all I knew. Bedtime was looming and we were in search of the Hotel Grant in Kamensk Shaktinskiiy. It’s a business hotel and has the capability of processing your passport and validating your visa. Something you must do every 5 days there. Russians love paperwork….and it all has to be exact or you won’t get very far. This fact tickled me…I love bucking the system a bit, but maybe this was the wrong country to do it in. It was a long ride to Volgograd the next day, We rode through a big countryside full of giant farm fields and straight roads. Every once in a while we would encounter a police checkpoint and would have to stop and answer questions as to our business and where we were going. On the whole this is not a bad experience at all. Small towns appeared and disappeared and we pressed on. People sat outside their homes on chairs selling fruit, honey or some form of moonshine looked on as the deep noise of Twiggy’s exhaust came into earshot. We were warm and dry and now collecting dead bugs on or bikes, helmets and jackets. Turning south from Volgograd we entered the Volga river valley. It’s not really a valley per se but I can’t really come up with a word for it at the moment.  It’s a major river and shipping channel from the Caspian Sea to inland Russia. Further toward Volgograd the river is well defined and cuts deep into the flat warm countryside with relative ease. Further south the river contuse to braid over and over again and then becomes a giant Delta akin to that of the MacKenzie at Inuvik in Canada.  This is where the world gets its supply of flies. To stop anywhere along this valley is hell. Small flies are on you within seconds and I chuckled to myself as I saw Ulf wrestling with this for quite obviously the first time in his life. Northern Canada will be an education for him I thought to myself. In the meantime we had to find somewhere to stay….away from flies. Our digs for the night could only be described as odd. It was cheap and cheerful and full of drunk locals that wanted to talk to me about “America” while they were watching the wrestling on TV in the common room. Nobody here was happy. I put it down to the flies. How the hell do people put up with living there? Why don’t they move away? I hate flies. The next day was also a fly ridden start. We rode across the delta toward the Kazakh border. Every gas stop was hell as we dealt with flies that could swarm so thickly that they would land on your eyes and inside your nose. I even inhaled a bunch. One of our maps showed a river bridge, and there was one but it was a pontoon floaty thing. We paid our 20 rubles to cross and then entered the crap shoot. The pontoon bridge is nearly two cars wide and everyone wants to get off it before it sinks. The deck is steel and slick. There are large hinges every so many metres that make this crossing hard on a motorcycle because not only are you looking out for where your front tire is going, you’re also dealing with oncoming vehicles. Don’t get me started about that either! These people don’t care about you….you’re small and in their way so any rights you think you have at this point are a figment of your imagination. Basically I was using all my motor skills at this point and was getting educated again. More flies for an hour or so then out of nowhere we came up to the Kazakh border. Well actually it was the checkout point for Russia…the Kazakh border was 11 kilometres hence. It was 35 degrees and we were baking in the sun in black motorcycle gear. The queue of cars was about a hundred and fifty metres long and people were sat with their car doors open, trying to get their elderly in the shade or tending to uncomfortable kids. Women wrapped in white head wear and shirts were pacing the queue selling water and fruit juice. It was quite surreal….rather like a casting call for the “invisible man” in the desert. I couldn’t see any means they had of keeping their wares cool so I declined to purchase. Slowly we inched along metre by metre until we were motioned to a small shack with a sweaty border guard inside. He was actually quite affable considering he was sat in a wooden box with a tin roof up top.Maybe he could empathize with us, or was my mind just fried in the heat? Within ten minutes at the shack we were out of Russia and heading to the Kazakh border control. I needed a shower badly but at least there were no flies here.

Kazakhstan: click here

2013 on motorbikes
2013 on motorbikes
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