Sunday, 3 February 2013


Before we left home, Istanbul - and Turkey in general - was about as far as I could imagine riding. I'm not sure why but I seemed to have some mental yardstick that made places beyond seem misty and vague, and I was unable to imagine anything about them other they how they appeared on a map. And that  was despite  the hundreds of images I had seen on the internet, in guide books or on TV. I think Istanbul was fixed in my mind because when I was a child, I had a book about capital cities of the world. It was only small, and a freebie from a cereal packet, and the page I looked at most often was the page about Istanbul because I liked the picture - a white building with funny tops that Mum told me were onion tops, and it was set against a deep blue sky. That picture fascinated me and that was the image I had in my head as we rode towards Turkey.

We had intended to drop down into Turkey from Bulgaria and head straight to Istanbul but bad weather across Europe delayed us and we had to rethink our route.  Expensive insurance requirements in Serbia and Macedonia also influenced us, so instead we headed south from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Montenegro, Albania and Greece before turning east towards the Turkish border.

The crossing from Greece to Turkey was rather longwinded, courtesy of mutual dislike on both sides, with soldiers from the respective countries guarding each end of the bridge that separates them, giving us opposing instructions. But at least there were banks and places to get food there at this border, even if the ATM was difficult to find an then reluctant to give up cash from the disliked neighbour.

But it was here that we got talking to two British blokes taking a lorry back to the UK from Istanbul. It turned out that they worked in the film industry that their cargo was motorbikes - the bikes that had been used in the recently filmed and now released James Bond film, Skyfall. And they let us have a look at them, which was great.

But five separate gates, two hours and one visa ( me only - Nadine didn't need one for some reason, much to her glee) later, we finally left Greece and entered Turkey, only to be stopped ten kilometers down the road and subjected to a full document check. Luckily we had bought insurance at the border although we later discovered that despite what the border police had told us, it was not compulsory for EU citizens, and they had made a few Euros at our expense. But in the circumstances, there was little we could do, and anyway, the piece of paper and my IPA card satisfied the two cops and we were on our way pretty quickly.

And because we had crossed the frontier further west than originally planed, we were near to the Gallipoli Peninsula, and so decided to go there first.

Gallipoli is known for a nine month campaign in the middle part of WW1, involving mostly Australian  and New Zealand troops (Anzacs), also known as the Dardanelles Campaign or the Battle of Canakkale.  The Allies needed to take the Ottoman capital of Constantinople ( now Istanbul) in order to secure a sea route to Russia.  The campaign was a disaster for the Allies but it set up modern day Turkey and its founding leader - Kamel Ataturk. Gallipoli is known as Gelibolu in Turkey and is a peninsula - Turkish Thrace - which forms the European part of the country.

The place now seems very peaceful and is covered by pine forests and very sandy soil. There had been floods just the week before which meant that many of the roads were covered with a sand wash  and the banks had been carved by water. But I still tried a bit of off roading and took a tumble, smashing a mirror. But at least I didn't park my bike on a patch of sand and have it sink up to the rear axle. It took both of us and all our strength to pull it out; thank goodness it wasn't a bigger bike or we would still be there.

We stayed in Eceabat that night, in a hotel right by the ferry terminal. This ferry enabled us to get across the water to get to Canakkale and then down to Troy.

On that ferry, we met a gang of Austrian bikers on Goldwings, who seemed very amused by our intention to ride all the way to Mongolia on our little scooters. But they were nice guys and we chatted to them for the whole crossing, and later saw them on the road to Troy.

Troy (as in Helen and the wooden horse) is an actual place and an ancient ruin. However, its not just the ruins of one city but nine consecutive civilisations, all on top of each other. But even after nine incarnations, there's not much there to see except piles of stones and various cats that have taken up residence, but it's one of those places that you have to go to, so that's what we did. And now we've ticked that one off the list.

After another night in the same hotel - an an earthquake which I slept through, we set off for Istanbul via the northern coastal road. of the Sea of Marmara. It was a bit windy which made riding difficult as the wind really rips at your head and neck. But it was still warm and sunny, and rather than take main roads, we picked our way through coastal villages and towns, and through small places dotted up on the sparse mountainsides.

The scenery was beyond spectacular and it made us realise just how lucky we were to be able to actually go places. I don't mean as rich people, but as ordinary people able to opt out for a while and not be tied to an office,  a stressy boss or skiving colleagues or whatever. We had both worked and saved to be able to do this, and were doing it as cheaply as possible, riding cheap bikes and roughing it, but the thing was that we were actually doing it, and that was pretty awesome.

Pottering along was also a good way to see the countryside, and we stopped for lunch in an olive grove by the side of the road.I can't remember what we ate but I think it was probably stale bread and a bit of cheese that had seen better days, washed down with some warm bottled water but it really didn't matter.
On this day, there was some sort of celebration going on, which seemed to be the focal point of every town and village that we passed through. Bans, flags, soldiers and parties. It might have been a national day or something but whatever it was, we had many cheery waves thrown our way.

We eventually arrived in Istanbul at rush hour on a Friday evening, into the most insane traffic ever, both in volume and driving style. Yet the little scoots coped very well, winding through the jams and sneaking up hard shoulders. far from annoying people, occupants of cars seemed to love it, especially when they saw we were foreign. People hung out of moving windows shouting to us, asking us where we had come from, taking pictures of us and making way for us to cut across lanes of traffic. It was totally bonkers and a real rush to ride, yet not once did we feel unsafe or overwhelmed, either by the driving standards or the woeful capacity of our bikes. I think that ride through Istanbul's mega congestion will be one of the highlights of both of our lives.

And to our surprise, we found the Istanbul Bike Clubhouse very easily and met up with some UK friends who had arrived the day before. Mehmet and the Istanbul guys were great - very welcoming and helpful, and they allowed us to use their garage, tools and expertise for several days for some serious bike farkling.

They also helped us with some mods and repairs - they drilled out a broken exhaust studs and also showed us how to mend broken spokes, of which I had several,  and made a bit of a rack to secure the spare fuel cans. The spoke lesson proved invaluable when we reached Kazakhstan, the land of no mechanics, no help and lots of punctures.

We then spent three days wandering around the city on foot, being guided by Mehmet and seeing the sights, the back streets and being told the history of the place, as well as interesting little snippets as we went. It was an excellent tour and well worth the sore feet that we had at the end of it.

On thing that troubled us both was the behaviour of some tourists at the Blue Mosque. Turkey is a Moslem country but it also welcomes non Moslems and is very open and accommodating when it comes to visiting places. We both had scarves to cover our heads and wore long trousers to ensure our legs and ankles were covered, although the leg thing did not seem to be necessary. However, head covering was a must, yet women were removing their scarves once they had passed the entrance people. Not very respectful nor a great way to promote understanding etc. If it's that much of a problem, then don't go to such places. Not cool and as it's their country, they make the rules.

Mehmet also made a few phonecalls on our behalf and discovered that the Georgia/  Russia border was now open to non Georgian or Russian citizens. That meant we could ride the whole way to Mongolia and not take a ropey old ferry across the Black Sea to Russia, at a cost of £400.00.

We left Istanbul  to ride east and made good time, despite rain and dust.  As we had also crossed the Bosphoros, we were officially in Asia. People continued to be nice to us,  they all seemed to be called Mustapha, and everybody wanted to make us chai, which was lovely but we would never have got anywhere had we accepted their offers, so most of the time we declined, albeit after a brief but friendly chat.

Things went well for a day or so, despite more bad weather, but then my bike started to drop oil badly. It seemed to be dripping out of the head and into the exhaust pipe, and the engine loosing compression, suggesting a leak somewhere, so we tightened everything but it made no difference. Eventually we called Mehmet who directed us to Kastamanou, a town to the north of our intended route, where he said he would send an English speaking mechanic to help us. He turned out to be a non English speaking artist with no idea at all about anything faintly mechanical, but he was very nice and bought us food. He also found us accommodation and took us there - albeit he was on the bus which we had to follow on our bikes, mine smoking badly,backfiring, and limping pathetically. The following day he took us - via the same bus/bike method - to town and found us a mechanic.

The mechanics were great blokes and really helped us out. They also bought us lunch and generally chatted to us while instructing the junior mechanics. They tidied up writes, fixed the clutch, changed the oil and replaced the head seals. But the weather turned really bad with heavy rain. Apparently this is a daily occurrence in the summer, and something to do with the nearby mountains, their cooling effect, and convection. It was enough to keep us there for three nights and we realised that we needed to get on the road early in order to get the best part of the day.

So that is what we did on the day that we left, and we  rode about 60kms before my bike broke again, with exactly the same problem that had marooned us in Kastamanou. Unfortunately, this time we were miles from anywhere and high in the mountains.

Poor old mehmet got another call as we knew we could not fix this by the side of the road and despite what the mechanics in Kastamanou had said, neither of us believed it was as simple as another failed oil seal. And even if it was, what was causing them to fail?

An hour later, two men in a pickup truck arrived, heaved both bikes on the back and drove us to Sinop, the most northerly town in Turkey. One of the men turned out to be co owner of a bike shop, the other just a driver. Again, they thought it was a failed oil seal, and indeed when the head was removed, the seal was distorted. But why? I had already decided that if it was not a quick fix, then I would buy another engine and get them to fit it into the frame. However, they insisted it was the seal, and replaced it the following day after we had been hosted by them and their family. Again, really lovely genuine people, who made us very welcome.

But the seal failed yet again and after just 50 kms, so it looked like a new engine was the best option. However, that is when we encountered a touch of the 'we are men and men know best' mantra that seems to prevail in that part of the world, especially when it comes to anything mechanical. They were very nice about it but there was no way that they would concede, insisting instead that the head be sent by overnight bus to Istanbul for welding, and then returned, where it would all magically work. So we had to agree, albeit with the proviso that if a good repair could not be made, a new head was to be sent back. That turned out to be a good call as it could not be repaired, and had we not instructed them, we would have been marooned for longer. People meant well and were exceptionally kind but a straightforward engine swap would have been cheaper and quicker, but it was clear that it was just not going to happen.

So whilst we waited, the mechanics - Kadir,  brother Atilla  and several of their biking friends took us sightseeing and showed us around Sinop.

Again, they were very kind to us, and we even ended up having tea with the Police Commissioner who gave us perfume and chocolate.

Eventually, we got underway again but our Russian visas had started and we were still a country and a half away from that huge place, which we needed to enter and exit twice within thirty days. Time was becoming a real pressure and we knew we would have to rethink our route. We rode steadily eastwards along the Black Sea coast and my bike was good, with no sign of dripping oil. However, Nadine's clutch was slipping badly despite the Sinop mechanic replacing it with a new unit we had bought in Kastamanou. We tried to fix it, and took it to pieces on a garage forecourt but the inner screws had been tightened with an impact gun and were just too tight, so we we had to reassemble it and hope for the best. Luckily we later spotted a motorcycle mechanic shop which was open ( on a Sunday) and the owner helped us. We also had a tremendous stoke of luck when the man living next door wandered over to see what the two foreign women were up too, and revealed that he spoke fluent English - which he'd learned in Norway. So he translated for us, in a Norwegian accent, and it all worked out just fine.

By now it was already 1800 hrs but fortunately for us, we were closer to the Georgian border that we thought, so we decided to try and cross that night. Several hundred other people had clearly thought the same thing too, but again, fortunately for us, they were all in four wheeled vehicles - cars, vans and lorries, and were all arguing about who should be first in the queue. But being on small bikes, we were able to ride around them and get to the front while they carried on shouting at each other and insulting each other's driving. Then just as we got to the front of the queue, a heard of Alpine cows wandered through - and nobody batted an eyelid. They were really pretty cows too - all long lashes and brown/black faces and they walked right through the formalities. Bizarre.

Despite the cow distraction, we crossed the border very quickly, providing a source of amusement for the assorted police, customs men and still arguing drivers. Stamped out of Turkey, quizzed at the Georgian line, stamped in to Georgia, requizzed and then sent on our way with waves and shouts of ' 'Foreigner womens! Welcome to Georgia', we were just one smallish country away from Russia, and so far, the scoots were still behaving.

However, we were about to break a real no no as far as bike riding goes; riding in the dark. But we had no choice. Batumi town where we crossed was several kilometres further on,  but after a few kilometres, we were diverted off the main road onto a track in pitch black. Actually, the track was more crater than track and we had no idea where it was leading us. So there we were, fully loaded, dodging craters by feel and people by luck, unable to see, and not having any idea of local road rules. Then just as we'd been flung into it, we popped out again, right next to a garage were there was a truckies motel.  The owner not only gave us a room, but told us to ride the bikes straight into the lobby which we did, and he cooked us dinner. Neither of us had any idea of what it was, nor did we care, and we even found some dollars with which to pay the bill because he couldn't remember the exchange rate for Euros. But we had survived another day.

Monday, 26 November 2012


OK, so this is not strictly about bikes......but it does have a tenuous bike link because when we were in Turkey ( the chapter on which is currently being written up and should be published by the end of the week - probably) we bumped into the men who were freighting the bikes from the latest Bond film 'Skyfall'  from Istanbul back to London. And later we were taken to several locations around the Grand Bazaar and adjacent streets where the opening chase scene was filmed. So when we discovered that filming in and around the  Skyfall House was not done in Scotland but in Surrey, which is just down the road, we just had to see if we could find it........

The A3 is the main  ( non motorway) road from London to Portsmouth  and it is a pretty good route, apart from the bit just south of Guildford, where it enters a valley, known as The Devil's Punchbowl, just north of a small town called Hindehead. For years, this was a major bottleneck for traffic and there was no way round it. Then several years ago, a tunnel was built, by-passing the town and magically vapourising the traffic problem. It did backfire a bit though, in terms of local businesses, which have now lost out on passing trade, in a sort of very scaled down version of the Interstate effect on Route 66 in America.

But the area surrounding Hindehead is very rural, covered in heathland and pine woodland, with tiny hamlets dotted here and there, and its one of those places that you skirt en route to other places It is very nice, yet much of it is also used by the MOD, but the recent discovery of some rare lichen (yes really) there meant that instead of being sealed off and used by them and them only, the MOD was forced to share it with the rest of us, film makers included. But one good thing about the MOD being around is that the land has a history of being blown up and driven over, and practised upon by soldiers - and that means that there are various military artifacts hidden amongst the trees.

And one such artifact is a mock up of the Atlantic Wall from WW2.

The Atlantic Wall was what the Germans built as anti tank defences in order protect their newly acquired lands (France) from the Allies, when the war was still going well for them.  France, having a very long western coast, was clearly vulnerable to attack from the Royal Navy and friends. So when they came to plan D Day, the Allies rightly anticipated that landing along that coast would not be easy. Thus the mock up, built in 1943, was to train troops for the landing and give them a chance to practise overcoming the blockades. It also allowed them to develop specific and precise ordnance to breach the heavily fortified concrete wall.

Evidence of this activity is apparent along the length of it; there are many gaps and exposed metal rods.

There are also patches of dragons teeth, anti tank fortifications, which troops developed tactics to overcome.

This particular piece of wall was used by Canadian troops, and the area is very reminiscent of Canada, particularly some of the birch and pine woodland covering the Canadian Shield. And rather bizarrely, the long since abandoned concrete has now been colonised by various plants, the lime in the concrete offering optimum nutrients for flourishing plant life.

But just up and over the ridge to the left of all these pictures, is a huge sand and rock basin, devoid of trees but covered with heather. And this is where the Skyfall house mock up was. There is actually a small army camp in the basin, an area which  I think is called Hankley Common.

This camp was used by the film crews during the making of Skyfall, and although it is off the beaten track, there are pre-existing forest roads which enabled trucks, equipment and props to be taken in and out.

The house was built on a platform so when they set it off, it didn't damage the plant life. Pretty considerate really.

If you've seen the movie, cast you mind back to the bit in Scotland ( supposedly) when Bond and M arrive in the DB5 at the Skyfall gates, go up the drive, and then look down into the valley where towards the house. Well this is the location folks.........minus the house.

After that, we went and had a look at the old A3. Sounds very odd I know, but now that bit of road has become redundant thanks to the tunnel, it is in the process of being turned back to nature, with the tarmac being ripped up, and the track being allowed to grass over. It will be a cycle and walking route, with great views over the whole Punchbowl.

Overlooking the route is a monument to an unknown sailor who was murdered here back in 1787.

Apparently he was walking back to Portsmouth and his ship, when he stopped off at a pub in nearby Thursley. There he met three men who could not afford a meal, so he bought it for them, plus beer, and paid for it with a golden guinea which he had earned from his last sea voyage. After he left, they followed him and cut his throat. They were arrested the next day and hanged a few hundred metres away on Gibbet Hill, and their hanged bodies were coated in tar and suspended from the Gibbet in chains, where they were left to rot. Today, the spot is marked by a Celtic cross, erected in the 20th century because locals believed there was an evil air about the place. It is also the second highest point in Surrey, surpassed only by Leith Hill.

Our kit, our mods, and our spares

This is what we did and what we took, and there was nothing that we didn't use - frequently.

Nadine's most useful piece of kit was her Leatherman, mine was the tarp. We used both pieces of kit everyday and they were invaluable.

The multitool Leatherman was used to farkle the bikes, cut rope and cable ties, modify clothing, and mend my arm. The tarp became a shelter, something to sit on, and a bike cover, as well as a base for mending engines and fixing punctures. It cost £10.00 from B&Q in Sutton.

Our Adjustments
-       Replaced engine mounting bolts
-       Reinforced electrical blocks with cable ties
-       Spark plug cap and spark plug - replaced both
-       Taped the inside of the wheel rims
-       Tightened and Loctited all bolts
-       Taped the headstock wiring to stop it chaffing
-       Rerouted the wiring under the fuel tank to stop chaffing
-       Removed the kick-stand cut-off switch
-       Removed kill switch
-       Put extra shock absorption in the rear lights
-       Wired the licence plate to the bike
-       Jubilee clipped the footpegs
-       Added sat-nav wiring and 12v chargers
-       Extended the rack
-       Fitted some Grip-Puppies on the handlebars
-       Fitted eyelets to attach baggage to front of leg shields
-       Built a cage around the headlamp

Our Spares
-       Clutch plates and puller
-       Spare rear tyre each
-       Chain and sprocket set
-       Inner tubes
-       Wheel bearings
-       Spokes
-       Tub of grease
-       Throttle cable
-       Spare number plate
-       Bulbs

Our kit
       2 Tents
       Down Sleeping bag and silk liners
       Cooking kit
       Minimal personal kit
       First Aid Kit
       Paw Paw cream
       Minimal tools (only what was needed and doubled up where possible)
       IPod and Laptop
       Rehydration tablets
       Photocopies of important paperwork
       Fake licences for Russian police
       Camera – waterproof and good
       USB storage sticks and SD cards

Friday, 23 November 2012

Illness, Injury and medical precautions

Plan a trip anywhere, and the health question is likely to come up. 'What happens if' type things sneak into your mind and if you're not careful, can make you paranoid and scare you silly. But in reality, it really is not that big an issue.

Both Nadine and I are just normal, regular women. Neither of us are super fit but we are basically OK, and generally healthy. Neither of us is prone to any particular condition, common or uncommon, or any regular medication, although both of us have various injuries existing but healed injuries that still need occasional managing. Nadine has a knee injury and a back niggle from a bike accident, and I have a shoulder/arm injury from a pushbike argument with a car. But that is it. Yet we did this trip with no backup or specific training, and no particular planning, proof that it is possible to just get on and do what you want to do, regardless of the gadget and bike assumptions that some people seem to swear by.

Having both ridden in Africa earlier in 2012, we had already had a number of jabs for things like Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Polio, and Hepatitis. These are things that we knew about and knew we would be going into areas where they were common, so it made sense to get sorted before we went. It also meant that by doing so, we would not be taking away vaccine and medical treatment from locals who needed it yet had no other opportunity to get it.

Some of these jabs were free from the NHS, whilst others were done for a fee by the Superdrug Travel clinic. Jo and Julie at the Clinic in Croydon were excellent and went out of their way to identify danger areas and find information on managing conditions for us. That really helped put stuff in perspective too.

Meningitis was another jab we had. We knew that on the Africa trip, we would be in and around a hospital where medical cases were routinely mixed, and quite possibly would come into contact with carriers, so it made sense to have this. But just before we went, the Muslim Council for Great Britain sponsored an initiative to inoculate anybody going to Muslim countries in an attempt to reduce the spread of meningitis at the hajj or routine  religious gatherings. The existing vaccine stopped you getting a particular strain, whilst this one also stopped you carrying it, which again made sense as neither of us wanted to get Meningitis, let alone transport it across the world and into places that we travelled through, either in Africa, Europe or Asia.

The big one though was Rabies. At £150.00 for three jabs, it is quite expensive and it only buys you 24 hours to get help and possibly survive should you get infected, as opposed to dying a painful death on the spot. But we knew we would be out in the wilds and likely to encounter fierce dogs, so we decided to have it. And nowadays, its just three simple injections in the arm, and not a painful ordeal with along needle as it used to be.

Once we had done that, we needed a sensible and manageable medical kit that wouldn't get us into trouble. We both needed painkillers for our existing injuries, but some common medicines ( stuff containing codeine for example - a common ingredient in many over the counter medicines - is dodgy  in some places) and even alcohol wipes are illegal in some countries and if caught, jail is the likely result, so we didn't want to go down that route. And we had limited space, so anything that could be put to double use, and could be used for anticipated incidents was preferable. Nadine - being a nurse - was in charge of this.

We took two bandages and a roll of sticking plaster, anti histamine cream (for bites), painkillers as above with prescriptions, and a letter from our doctors, all stamped with surgery stamps just in case. Former Soviet block countries love stamps on paper, even if they can't read it - looks good and official. We also had some saline wash for cleaning road rash injuries and washing sand out of eyes, some sutures and some diarrhoea pills. A roll of gaffer tape which was also good for general fixing of bikes and luggage and a good supply of rehydration tablets completed the set up.

We took Zero rehydration tablets, and had had Nuun in Africa. Both were good but the Zero was cheaper so that is why we took them, and they really saved us on several occasions.

Dehydration will  make you feel rubbish, and that in turn will affect your thought process, reaction time and judgement, all of which are crucial on a bike. It will also give you a headache, but its not just a question of replacing fluids - you need to replace minerals too, which these tablets contain. So every morning, we took one each in a litre of water, and again at lunch and in the evening. We took more if we had vomited or had upset stomachs too or if we felt tired or not quite right. And they worked.

But however much you prepare, you can still get ill. We didn't fare too badly on that front, although both of us did feel a bit rough at times, and had heatstroke, despite drinking plenty, being covered up, and resting.

We kept an eye on what we ate, avoided stuff if we didn't like the look of, and cooked our own food much of the time. And we weren't silly with drink either, which is quite easy to fall into if you get caught up in the vodka drinking ways of eastern Europe and Russia.

I don't eat meat but knew that I would probably have to on this trip; either that or starve. Nadine, however, will eat anything. But I'm not precious about it and abstain because I don't like it very much. But for me was a bit of a trial because I knew that it would probably be too rich for me, especially if it was greasy. So when I did have to eat meat, I made sure that it was as well done as possible, and I didn't have too any problems. And fish is not an option as I hate it and it hates me, although I did accidentally eat it twice in Russia and was immediately violently ill afterwards. But the allergy excuse works well if put on the spot and you really can't do the expected thing or avoid it beforehand.

Then there are injuries. Given the type of trip we were riding and the roads and terrain we were encountering, a crash or two was very likely. And with motorbike crashes, injuries usually result.

But again, we were sensible and didn't worry too much about what could happen. Some of the driving in countries like Croatia and Albania, Russia and Georgia was appalling and I think that both of us half expected to have an encounter at some time, and were half prepared to sort the other one out. But we rode carefully and had some close calls, but no prangs which was good.

I did fall off and injure my arm though. It was a slow speed tumble on gravel and sand on a particularly bad road in Kazakhstan, and the bike just went from under me, tangling my left arm as it did, and catching my wrist. I knew I had done something to it as it hurt, and my hand and fingers swelled.  I got my wedding ring off before it got really bad, but I couldn't grip the bar nor turn my wrist and I knew it was broken, although I wouldn't admit it. I think I thought that if I did, it would somehow be even worse. But Nadine made a back slab and bandaged it on and we carried on riding. There was nowhere to get any medical attention anyway, and that's probably all they would have done, had there been.

I did eventually go to a hospital about a week later where the rather blurry X-ray revealed nothing, so I was able to keep pretending. But the silver lining was that it was my left hand and there is no clutch on the bikes were were riding. Had it been my right hand - my throttle hand - that would have been difficult.

We fared well for the rest of the trip, although we both got a flu like thing in China. I wasn't too bad but Nadine was very ill with a high temperature and the shakes, but we were holed up in an air conditioned hotel by then, so we managed it with Paracetamol and fluids, and lots of sleep, which she excels at anyway.

The dilemma for me though was that it was three days before we flew home and if I found a doctor, it was possible he would declare her unfit to fly but it was unlikely I would be covered to stay behind and look after her. There was no way I would have left her but it would really have complicated things with tickets and visas, so I decided to keep a careful eye on her and she how she went; if she had not improved by the morning, I would get medical help. Fortunately, she was better when she woke up although still not good but she by resting and drinking plenty of water with rehydration tablets,  we  were able to get the plane as planned and get home OK, although it took a good two weeks for both of us to get fully better.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

About the bikes

Is there such a thing as an ideal bike for a trip? No, probably not as there are so many variables that no one bike can do it all. And in any case, the bikes that we chose to take were probably - on paper at least - exceptionally unsuitable for the trip we planned to do. Yet our decision was actually quite sensible and was based on recent experience and a wish to be involved with as much of the environment that we would be passing through as we possibly could. Neither of us ever intended this trip to be about bikes or gadgets; we just wanted ride to Ulan Bataar, and see everything that we possibly could, even if it took a while.

Originally, we were going on different bikes. I had intended to do the ride on my Yamaha 250 dirt bike, and Nadine on her BMW 650ST, but we were both so impressed with the capability of the Honda C90s that we rode down to The Gambia a few months before, that we started to think about smaller machines.

The Gambia trip was already an established trip to donate Honda C90s to health workers at a hospital to help them reach patients living in outlying villages, but as C90s were getting scarce, four people on that trip trialled new Chinese 110 copies of the Hondas, and we were very impressed with their durability and simplicity. We had also seen at first hand the problems that the copies had, modifications that were required, and most importantly, how to service them.

Chinese 110cc copy with two Honda C90s in Africa
Taking new bikes meant not having to fix wear and tear problems or replace parts. And having the same model of bike as it meant only one set of tools, the same spares, and learning how to fix just that model. Neither of us were interested in speed or gadgets either - which was just as well as these bikes had neither - but we just wanted to ride and do stuff for as long as our money and time allowed, so slower was good.
So we bought two brand new scooters still in bits, and set about assembling them. That gave us an added opportunity to learn about them as we did so, and alter stuff from the start, rather than have to adapt things that were already in place.

We had a stroke of luck when it rained heavily over the Easter weekend, and actually managed to get ahead of ourselves with planned modifications. On the advice of Tony at Riders, we rerouted the wiring loom, which is located under the fuel tank.

For some reason, the factory squeezes the loom through a part of the frame where it chafes against the fuel tank and eventually rubs through. So we took the whole thing out and replummed it through a bigger gap, thus reducing the risk.

The wiring is not generous, so options were limited, but after a bit of fiddling, we managed to get it to where we wanted it.

Tony also suggesting adapting the side stand cut out switch. This switch works backwards in that it cuts out when depressed against the frame as the side stand is lifted, but because of where it needs to be, it is
vulnerable to bashing or breaking. And as we knew we would be riding off road most of the time, then it made sense to remove it before it broke and prevented us from starting the bikes. But we had to bridge the look by joining the cut bare ends to complete the circuit.

The wheels were next on the list. We had learnt on the Gambia trip, that gaffer tape on the wheel rims was a very effective means of cutting down on spoke damage to the tubes.

Snapped spokes were something that was high on the likely list, so we removed the new tyres off, binned the paper thin rim tape, and bound each rim with several layers of gaffer tape, before replacing the tubes and tyres.

Nadine's bike was ready first, and it fired beautifully but refused to spark; we suspected dodgy caps and /or leads   but it still refused to play a even after we changed those both a few days later. After much head scratching and some spot on advice from Peter Darke ( Darke Cycles, Sunderland and a riding mate from the African trip), we pinpointed the non starting to a dodgy kill switch. Again, this was a backward switch which worked when the circuit was competed, so we cut the wires and insulated the respective ends. We eventually removed both kill switches because it was so easy to accidentally lean on them and then wonder why the bike wouldn't start. But we only learnt this the hard way, after Nadine spent half an hour trying to push start my bike in Greece and swearing like a trooper at the bike and me.

We also replaced the two bolts that hold the engine in the frame. The Chinese ones seemed OK but Honda ones are made of better quality steel, so we dropped both engines out and slipped Japanese originals in, just to be sure.

Those were the only running modifications that we made, although we adapted a couple of things too. Nadine built a mesh cage around the headlamps to reduce the chances of it getting smashed by stones or during falls.

A sheet of garden mesh and some garden wire from B&Q in Wimbledon, a bit of bending a a few holes dremmelled into the headlamp casing, and it was ready to go, and at a fraction of the price of Touratech c versions. I think it cost  about £8.00 to make two. And we opened the headlamp and rear lamp casings and  put bathroom sealant along the seams to reduce vibrations and damage to the bulbs. This worked quite well.

We also extended the luggage rack, using a length of steel wardrobe rod cut into four lengths, and then jubilee clipped together and onto the proper rack. It was only ever intended to carry volume rather than weight, but was actually surprisingly strong, and we lashed the spare tyre and fuel cans to that. Oh and we screwed four eyelets onto the leg shields and used Rok straps to secure a sleeping bag, stashed in a drysack to keep it dry, and wired the number plate onto the frame incase it snapped off ( this happened twice in Africa) so that we didn't lose it. We had a spare just incase because crossing borders or just roadside place checks without number plates can be a right old nuisance, and a good fining opportunity for enterprising police along the way, so it is well worth avoiding.

We were dead chuffed when the bikes worked, if a bit surprised too, but it was surprisingly easy. Type approval came a few days later, but the most frustrating bit was waiting for DVLA to assign registration numbers so that we could get plates made up. That took so long that in the end, we only managed to clock up 27kms before leaving for the trip. But it was Ok, and we ran them in as we went, taking it steady for the first  500kms,  which got us to Luxembourg.

As far as luggage goes, we took minimal kit. We each had two small ex army ammo type panniers on the inside of the leg shields, and we carried spares, tyre pump and tools in these.  Then we each had two larger ex army webbing panniers lashed together, waterproofed and slung across the luggage rack. Our gear was in carrier bags inside as well, and I think the whole luggage system cost us about £40.00 each. Everything had to fit into those or it got binned - apart from our tents which we tied onto the rack.

The first farkling session was in Luxembourg where we changed the oil; we had emptied the Chinese oil out as soon as we started building the bikes as it was very thin and very swarfy, and replaced it with good 10w40 oil. We also adjusted and oiled the chains and removed the kick start arms from both bikes. These are really useless and allow very little room, even for small feet. But we kept one just incase, and later used it in Kazakhstan when Nadine's electronic ignition failed and deep sand made push starting impossible. Both exhaust guards came off too - useless pieces of metal.

By Salzburg in Austria, the engines felt like they were running well, and we were getting a comfortable, if stately, 40-50mph (70-80kmh) with ease, and they were also very good on fuel. Even in pricey old Western Europe, it was only costing us  eight euros to fill both bikes, and we were getting about 100kms each for that.

The bikes kept going well although the exhaust on mine started to rattle. The collar was loose despite the bolts being tight, and at first I thought some baffles had come loose inside. But it didn't affect the performance of the bike, but just made my arrival very noisy.

The first puncture of the trip went to Nadine - front pinch puncture due to hitting some roadworks a bit too hard. But we fixed that ok, and without taking up any of the offers of help from locals. It was nice of them but we were OK.

The next major servicing session was in Sarajevo. We had access to a garage at the hostel so we stripped the bikes down and worked on them.

I took my rattley exhaust off but the problem seemed to be a loose connection between the collar and the cylinder head, although the studs were tight. So I made some cardboard gaskets from a cereal packet and that did the job. In fact, they held good all the way to Turkey I think, where they eventually caught fire and singed my leg.

Nadine's throttle cable had worked loose, and we removed the whole headstock and plastics off to repair that as it had snagged inside. There was a slight panic when she dropped the tiny clip that holds the needle in at the carb end, but we eventually found it ok.  We also fixed a rear puncture there - my bike.

A few days later, and the rattle was back on my exhaust. By now we were in Croatia and had clocked up 2500km, and it was time for another oil change. Unfortunatley, during that service one of the  exhaust studs snapped off and so we had to clamp it to the cylinder head with a super large jubilee clip, which did the job, but it  did nothing for the noise.

We carried on to Albania, where mine needed its clutch sorting, as well as the rear lights and indicators. I wasn't too worried about the indicators which had not been right since about Belgium, but despite various efforts to replace bulbs, clean contacts and check wires, we had not been able to fix. But by now we were in countries where nobody uses them anyway, so it didn't matter.

The brake lights, however, we a different matter.  Nadine's bike was running fine, although a bit rich, and she usually needed petrol before I did, so we just fixed what we could before we left for Greece.

In Istanbul, we were hosted by some local bikers who run a club, and help visiting riders. Mehmet and his pals were really nice blokes, very welcoming and generous, and just all round good people. Their club house had a workshop and tools, which they put at our disposal, and also gave us a hand to fix stuff that we couldn't do, like drilling out and replacing the broken exhaust stud.

We stripped the bikes down completely there and gave them a full service. There were several broken spokes on my rear wheel which were very fiddley to replace but we did it ok. That proved a useful lesson as later on it the trip we would have to do it again, roadside and in baking heat, whilst being watched by fascinated locals.

Nadine's bike was OK though. We did an oil change on both, greased the chains and took her brakes apart as they were juddering slightly, although intermittently. We thought it might be corrosion around the cam that pushes the shoes outwards, so we cleaned it off and it seemed to do the trick.

A few days later further east in Turkey, my bike started to leak oil. We had stopped for petrol and were wiling time away while a thunderstorm passed overhead, and noticed oil dripping out of the bottom of the engine. But no hole or gap could be found, so we tightened everything up, topped the oil up and set off, only for it to happen again. But this time, the bike steadily lost compression too, and thus  power, which mean far from romping along at a blistering 70kph/40mph, I was reduced to a smoking 40kph/20mph.

Mehmet from Istanbul arranged for somebody in a local town (Kastamanou) to help us) and we managed to limp there very slowly and were taken to a mechanic, who fixed the leak for us. Or so he thought.

The oil was coming out of the head where the exhaust pipe attaches, so it seemed like a gasket problem. They were replaced, but the same problem occurred again two days later, then another three times, by which time we were in Sinop, northern Turkey.

There was clearly something structurally wrong with the engine but it wasn't something we could see, and never did manage to find even when much later, we took the whole engine apart and inspected it carefully. The gaskets were good, as were the casing seals. But retrospectively, we think what probably happened was when the exhaust stud was drilled out in Istanbul, the drilling went a bit too deep and weakened the cylinder head so that as the bike ran and pressure built, the weakened wall was subjected to higher significant pressure, which eventually caused it to fracture, and as the whole thing heated, the fracture expanded, forcing pressurised oil to spurt out and drip down to the bottom of the engine where it found its way out through the exhaust port.

I decided that a new engine would be the best idea as repairs, although very cheap by western standards were costing us money and we didn't really know what the extent of the damage was. And we also wanted to be sure that the engine would be ok, the further east we travelled. However, getting a new engine proved impossible because there wasn't one available locally, and the mechanics, although lovely and very helpful, wanted to repair mine rather than replace it, and would not be persuaded otherwise. It was definitely a 'you're girls and we're men - we know best' moment and we had to give in.

In the end, they sent the cylinder head back to Istanbul for repair, but when nothing could be done, a new one was sent back on the night bus and they fitted that instead. Inspection of the old one revealed extensive wear and tear around the exhaust port and some bad pitting inside the casing. It could have been a bad casting from the factory, made worse by the rattling and then oil pressure problem; who knows. There was nothing we could do, so we just set off again, hoping that the repairs would help. And they did, although the bike still needed regular oil top ups.

Nadine's clutch then started to play up,  slipping and not pulling the bike along properly. Her bike had always been meatier than mine, but mine was now pulling away from lights and uphills far better. She could catch up eventually, but it was more of a gradual build up than acceleration. We tweaked the clutch ourselves and did take it apart once on a garage forecourt, but although we had a puller, we were unable to loosen the screws that held the plate casing on. They must have been done up with a compressor gun in the factory as they were budging for nobody. On future trips, an impact driver is a must.

But true to form, and just as she was getting really fed up, we stumbled upon a motorbike workshop. It was right on the coast and near to the Georgian border, and amazingly was open - on a Sunday- and we only noticed it because it had two tatty old motorbikes leaning against each other out front.

What a lovely bloke Musa was too. It was just a one man band, and eventually and with the help of a man who lived next door, we managed to explain to him what was wrong with the clutch. He took it to pieces, removed the plates which he said were rubbish, despite being brand new ( Chinese and bought in Kastamanou) and replaced them with some heavier duty jobs. That did the trick and the clutch was OK for the rest of the trip, albeit with a bit of adjusting now and again, but that was something that we did oursleves with a screwdriver and spanner.

As we moved eastwards and the roads got rougher, the bigger wheels and the lightness of the bikes  really made a difference. They were easy to ride over the bad road surfaces and also negotiate roadworks, steps, verges and fields, potholes, rivers and craters with ease.

Although we both ride bikes as our principal means of transport, both in the UK and in Australia, the whole point of this trip was to see as much as possible, using bikes to do so, rather than go on a bike trip and see stuff in the process. I don't think either of us ever regretted taking the scooters rather than bigger bikes because we  had agreed from the start that this would be a pottering along trip, seeing what happened from day to day. As long as we kept going, looked out for each other and stayed safe whilst still pushing the experiences we were accumulating, then that was ok. No daily mileage quotas, no average speeds, no set rules, other than be in the right country with the right visa at the right time.

After Turkey, the bikes kept more or less running as they had been since being fixed in Sinop. Oil still dripped from my bike, but it got no worse and I just topped it up every time I refuelled. It was an expense we could have done without but then living was so cheap and we were wild camping most of the time so we had no accommodation costs, that it really didn't matter that much. And when we had to go through border posts, I stuffed a rag in the leak to stop it dripping onto the concrete and attracting attention and fines.

We did daily checks and adjustments of course. Tyres, brakes, lights, nuts and bolts, but had no problems there. We both had a few broken spokes, mostly in rear wheels, but that was hardly surprising given the extreme rough terrain we were riding daily. Fortunately, the spoke replacing lesson in Istanbul had taught us what to do and we ( particularly Nadine) got very good at it. And when we ran out of spare rear spokes, we moved  stronger rear spokes around and interspersed them with smaller weaker front spokes to spread and reduce stress on the wheel.

The valves caused a bit of a problem on my bike, and that was something we were unable to fix, although we did pinpoint the problem by eliminating other possibilities and tracing things back logically. But again, the mechanics in Astrakhan wouldn't believe us because we were girls, and we had to wait for several hours while they poured over the bike before announcing that they had identified the problem -  the valves. Zzzzzzz.......... I think it was probably the inlet valve but to their credit, they did replace them and that bit of the bike at least, worked fine from then on.

Punctures were something that we expected to be dealing with daily, but although we did have them - about ten in all, five of which were in one day-  we had surprisingly few, given the distance we rode  the surfaces we encountered, and the fact that we rode most of the way on stock rubbish Chinese road tyres. Retrospectively, what we should have done was to have replaced the existing tubes with heavy duty spare tubes, and taken heavy duty spares with us, rather than rely upon standard tubes.

We patched when we got punctures, and they held good apart from when we reached Kazakhstan and the heat generated by friction, as well as the 44 degree air temperature in full sun was too much for the glue, which it wouldn't allow to set. We just couldn't get repairs to set sufficiently to retain air once we got the bike back on the road. It was very frustrating and quite demoralising, but there was nothing much we could do.

Luckily, our last repair in our one good tube held up, and even that had been mended before, but using ordinary bicycle repair glue rather than the supposed heavy duty motorcycle grade Slime glue that would not set.

Tubes are heavy and bulky so it wasn't practical to take a pile of spares, and the Slime glue was supposed to be good. It had no upper heat limit, but it failed just when we needed it most, and was surpassed by a nondescript tube of nothing glue from Wilkinsons. Mad. Perhaps we would have had even more punctures had we not taped the rims before we left; who knows.

Despite the mishaps and the daily wear and tear en route, both of the bikes made it to Ulan Bataar, a journey of about 9000 miles/13000kms. That in itself is incredible for two town bikes of dubious build quality. But they lasted, and they lasted well. The frames were good, the engines were mostly good
( apart from described here) and even the rubbish tyres held up; both front tyres lasted all the way without much visible sign of wear, and the back tyres were changed in Russia for better grip, although they still had life left in them. We had no major cable, sprocket, chain or brake issues, and much to our surprise, and despite the extreme bashing we gave these bikes, they worked just like they were supposed to. Would we take them again, now knowing what we know about the terrain, the heat, the problems? Yes, definitely. Without hesitation.