The Straight Dope On Wild Camping

“If you fancy a real taste of the great outdoors – away from the mini suburbia of campsites – try wild camping… The views are much better and it won’t cost you a penny: You genuinely feel part of the countryside, not once removed from it” Dixie Wills

I wild camped for just about the whole of my 3 months solo moto-adventure from the UK to Mongolia & Siberia, and back. I simply stopped when I felt like it. Here’s my general advice to anyone new to the business of wild camping:

  • Stay away from towns and villages. My hard and fast rule is either everyone should know where you are camping or nobody should know. You don’t want to be bothered by the local drunks in the middle of the night.
  • Let go of your paranoia. Relax, no-one is out to get you, nobody knows you are even here. This will probably take a few nights but the sooner you do this the more you’ll enjoy it. Don’t listen to the horror stories and the naysayers but do trust your intuition, if it doesn’t feel right move on.
  • Stop early.  If your spot turns out to be less than ideal and you decide to find another make sure to have plenty of time to find somewhere else. So it’s very helpful if you know when the sun sets each day – not a problem with most GPS devices. You don’t want to be looking for somewhere in the dark. If you do, you might wake up to a glorious scenic view or you might find yourself somewhere very odd like on the edge of a cliff edge or on top of an ants nest.
  • Turning off. Turn off the highway then take at least two more turns before you stop – this way you’re well away from the main highway and any busybodies that might have seen you turn off. Of course you might not be on a highway – good for you, just stay off the main track.
  • Camp in groups. I came across an American couple doing the Mongol rally and we camped together for a bit until going our separate ways – it’s nice to have some company and the added security, especially when you’re flying solo.
  • Don’t be afraid of the locals. Farmers, sherpherds and or ramblers might stumble come across your pitch. Be friendly and polite and if possible offer them a cigarette to break the ice. In my experience most people are just curious, they’ll make some small talk and then be on their way. Try and be an ambassador for the wild camping moto-adventure community and leave them with a good impression.
  • Leave the area as you find it. This goes beyond leave no trace. If you can’t burn or bury your biodegradables take them with you. Don’t contaminate water supplies, dig a latrine. Try not to churn up the ground.
  • Be discreet. Don’t be a nuisance, avoid loud music, bright lights, fires and engine revving. Cover your bike at night to avoid the shiny bits… shining. I stumbled across and camped with a local fisherman in Russia, after numerous vodkas we broke all these rules, but this was his manor to do as we pleased.
  • Try out different places. Be experimental, find out what sort of places you like to camp. I found that I like camping near the water: lakes and rivers especially because I love to have a swim at the end of a hot day. I tend to have a good look at my map in the morning to see if there are any such places roughly where I want to stop for the night. Lakes surrounded by forests are my ideal wild camping spot.
  • To ask or not to ask? If the legality of your wild camp site is in question simply arrive late and leave early. If you can ask for permission I would advise you do so but you risk the vendor saying “no”. Alternatively, if nobody knows you are there and you follow all these rules then as far as I’m concerned what they don’t know won’t hurt them – but that’s your call. I’ve never asked for permission and I’ve never been asked to leave.
  • Be patient. Recce a site, wait around for a bit before setting up. If it’s not right move on. You’ll get better at finding the perfect place and you will find some beautiful spots but don’t expect this to happen straight away or every time. Sometimes you’ll have to be satisfied with somewhere merely flat and dry.
  • Ear plugs. If your campsite (wild or organised) turns out to be a noisy one you’ll be glad you had some earplugs. Leave a couple of sets in your tent.
  • Mozzie protection. For some reason the mozzies and insects love me. I usually get bitten to within an inch of my life if I don’t use a repellent. As a result, I always carry 100% deet that I spray on my skin before I set up camp. I also have a mozzie net for when it’s really bad. Mozzies are just one of the downsides to camping so you might as well just learn to deal with it. Don’t leave your mozzie door open in your tent because the little bastards WILL get in and wait for you! They’re attracted to CO2 so don’t leave your engine running.
  • Seize the day. There might be times when you struggle to find anywhere appropriate and then an amazing opportunity might present itself, be open to making new plans and being flexible. One such time I was struggling to find a campsite when I stopped at a petrol station in Croatia to get a drink and have a break when a local lady asked if I was here for the bike rally? “What bike rally”, I asked. She informed me that only 1/2 a mile away there was a bike meet with free camping – that was a noisy night but the spot by the Adriatic was idyllic.
  • Be stealthy. Whatever shelter you use try to use subdued colours, you don’t need para-military DPM, but a bright red, blue or yellow tarp/tent isn’t exactly inconspicuous. They’re great if you want to be spotted in an emergency but stealth is the name of the game when it comes to wild camping, especially when traveling solo.
  • The nervous family. If you have nervous friends and relatives take a spot satellite tracker and send them an ‘ok’ message when you do stop for the night.
  • Get off my land. I’ve never been asked to move but if you are simply apologize, plead ignorant, pack up your gear and leave without any argument. The last thing you want is to be shot by farmer maggot’s 12 bore.
  • Local knowledge. Check out the HU communities. Some areas might not be safe or appropriate for wild camping either because of the terrain, the weather or the people. Sometimes you might just be better off in an organised paying campsite, a hostel or on someones couch.
  • Have fun. Its a great way to travel and cheap too!

Mongolian Daisy Meadow

By a river somewhere in Austria

 

Finding somewhere when it’s already dark is not ideal…

…but leaving early affords the best sunrises

Adriatic Coast of Croatia

The Black Forrest was eerily dark but comfortable

Dried river bed on the Mongol Steppe

 

I was lucky enough to find the same spot on my return leg. It’s a free, public camping area, very quiet and secluded but lots of mozzies.

Sometimes anywhere in the wilderness will do. This campsite is only about 200m from the main road, albeit very quiet main road, behind a very big bush. It worked. Leaving the rain fly off means you can gaze and the millions of beautiful stars unpolluted by city lights.

I love camping in the woods and there’s plenty of them in Siberia.

The fairly touristy campsite that I blagged into for free, it was a bit noisy and a bit lousy but…

…it had a nice view of this humungous fresh water lake. The water was brilliantly crystal clear, my morning swim with the sunrise washed away the hangover from drinking with the great locals the night before

 

I met my fisherman friend here, this was his manor so I broke the rules.. do it when you can. Nothing like a fire, beers (& Russian vodka) and fresh caught lobster.

 

Group camping has it’s perks

Sometimes there are no highways and finding a wild campsite is easy peasey

http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2007/mar/31/saturday.camping.green

Agri Tool Tube Installation

“Incredibly versatile tube with multiple mounting options and a screwdown top which allows riders to carry an assortment of items (fuel bottles, tools etc.) safely and in a location of choice anywhere on a bike.”

When I was fitting my Zega Pro cases before leaving on my Mongolia & Siberia adventure, instead of mounting my tool tube on the frames as I should have done, I was a lazy git and just attached it directly to my pannier. Not really ideal but it worked okay. The Zega Pro’s are nice looking cases but they’re not perfect: after a spill they now leak, probably an easy fix with some silicone, but they’re also quite heavy. Despite they’re advantages, some real and some just imagined, I’ve decided to give soft luggage a try and having found some tidy little Wolfman Teton bags on eBay at a great price I thought it was about time I fitted the tool tube properly. It’s a great little tube that I’ve ke[t all sorts in; tools and puncture kits in it as you’d expect but it’s also a great fit for the 1L MSR type fuel bottles, apparently a bottles of wine fits too but I’m an ale man myself…  Time for a quick digression. I chose Wolfman as I already have a fair bit of there kit already; its pretty good and I like it a lot. They’re much smaller than hard cases but that’s part of the reason I’m trying them. I’ve noticed excess space when packing for trips recently so I think I can get away with less space. I have other luggage on the bike so I do have some extra capacity elsewhere. Back on topic. I’ll use the tube to carry my Trangia’s meths (another experimental departure from my ‘burn anything’ Optimus nova+) but Wolfman have a bottle carrier for that so I may revert to using it to carry my puncture kit.

The Agri(cultural) tube,  also known as the John Deere tool tube, is a very common accessory in the ADV moto community because it’s cheap and effective. Before we co-opted them into our service they were originally used to store user manuals. They’re made from a strong injection moulded plastic with mounting tabs at each end and have an internal diameter of 8cm and an internal depth of 29cm (base to top of cap when closed). It’s not totally waterproof as it has a tiny hole on the back, presumably to prevent it forming a vacuum so the top doesn’t get stuck on – although you could just put a bit of tape over the hole if you wanted. They’re available from ADV-Spec in the UK for £16. It’s really easy to fit, I suggest using whatever hardware you have, but as I didn’t have anything suitable I purchased 3x 16mm black anodised P-clips from eBay. Although the frames are 18mm these clips grip the frames snugly. I also got a pack of stainless steel flanged M5 bolts (12mm long), washers and nyloc nuts. The hardware probably cost £10 but I have plenty of spares. In retrospect the bolts could have been a bit longer; 20mm would have been better, along with a few penny washers. You’ll probably need some sort of bracket as well to attache the rear p-clip, I used what I had. The rest should be obvious from the pictures.

Located in the centre of the frames so I can still use my hard cases with the puks.

Slightly longer screws and a penny washer would be nice but it works. NB: the hole.

I don’t know where the bracket came from… I think it was to mount something to my cross bar?

 

Lovely jubbly.

I know, the bikes filthy. I gave her a good clean and polish a few weeks ago then it pissed it down, but this winter has taken its toll. She’s getting due for a service very soon so I’m going to give her a bit of a makeover at the same time with some nice new shiny hardware, some powder coating where needed to freshen it up, a lick of paint and a good polish of the headers. I’m considering a colour change too: black carbon fibre (maybe yellow-black carbon fibre)?

My Top 5 Hostels

Austerity has hit British holiday makers and travelers like never before and has forced many of us to make severe cuts in the money we spend on our holiday digs, but cheaper travel need not mean poorer quality. Hostels are budget oriented accommodation for sociable people where guests can rent a bed and share facilities like the bathroom, lounge and sometimes a kitchen. The beds are normally bunks in mixed sex dorms but can be single-sex. Sometimes meals are included in the price but they’re usually self-catering and adventure oriented attracting a younger, more venturesome crowd.

However, whilst some may have a youth focus and may indeed have an age limit, people of all ages, backgrounds, origins and interests stay in hostels; first-time travelers, seasoned travelers lone travelers or large groups. Hostels are on the whole much cheaper than hotels and usually have long-term guests that work as desk clerks or housekeeping staff in exchange for free accommodation. Hostels can be found in just about every country in the world and are most likely to be associated with backpackers and gap year students. The hosteling market is generally split between a few large hosteling organizations and a variety of independently operated hostels.

Party time at Hostel Anton, Montenegro

Staying in hostels is usually a no frills affair but it’s not something to be endured, it’s something to be enjoyed. Many still have bunk beds and dorms but the newer generations of designer hostels are have much fancier offerings with private rooms and ensuite bathrooms. For me there are two things that distinguish the hostel from the hotel: the price and the occupants. Hostels are usually much cheaper and almost always have shared communal living spaces that bring travelers together. Some have their own bar but most at least have a kitchen and some have secure storage lockers.

Hostels can have some drawbacks, especially the official ones, some have strict rules, some lock up during the day and a few have a curfew at night when the doors are locked. Although some might consider this an advantage – hostels that don’t have curfews are more likely to have guests returning at ungodly hours. You’ll hear lots of sounds just after everyone’s turned in for the night like snoring, laughing, burping, farting as well as other strange noises, and conversations in many different languages. Hostel rooms can be large and packed. Sometimes you’ll meet a school groups and sometimes theft can be a problem. But with a little preparation, a modicum of understanding, a splash of patience, a sprinkle of common sense and a spirit of adventure hosteling can be awesome!

Here are some of my favorite hostels from my trip based on character, security, location, staff, cleanliness and design.

Chillax, Moscow (Russia)

The Chillax Hostel is the best equipped hostel you’ll find in Moscow! It’s generously sized but maintains a friendly and personal atmosphere with very friendly and helpful staff that will go above and beyond to assist you. The hostel is easily found in the heart of Moscow and is only a short walk away from Trubnaya Metro station, giving you quick and unfettered access to the whole city. The hostel is up three flights of stairs, and clearly signed. Moreover, Chillax is only a stones throw from the Moscow Police HQ, so you probably couldn’t find a safer place in all of Moscow.

The dorms vary in size from single-sex and mixed dorms for 10-14 people, but the rooms are very big so you won’t feel crammed in. All the rooms are equipped with the widest and most comfortable bunks I have ever experienced in a hostel. The bathrooms are separate: male and female, each with three toilets, two sinks and two showers – so no long queues for the facilities. The house is clean and tidy and the dorms have plenty of free secure storage lockers. Furthermore, on street parking is available, if you can find a space, however, lots of parking is available to the rear of the hostel and given the presence of the police HQ I was quite confident leaving my motorbike locked up here.

The common space and the amenities at the Chillax Hostel is what makes this hostel unique. It has a HUGE HD TV which dominates the lounge with cable TV, DVD and PlayStation 3, so kick back and Chillax on one of the three soft sofas or on one of the many bean bags. You’ll enjoy this air-conditioned lounge even more when the corn start popping and it becomes the Chillax Cinema for film night or for the PS3 tournament. If that’s not your thing, they often have master classes on Russian cooking. In addition, the hostel is equipped with two modern desktop computers with the fastest Wi-Fi I have ever used in a hostel. The kitchen is modest but reasonably well equipped, and with a giant American style fridge freezer with ice dispenser. Laundry facilities are reasonably priced at 150 Roubles per wash and 150 Roubles for the tumble dryer. The Chillax hostel is very clean and exceptionally well decorated throughout.

From the moment you arrive you’ll be made to feel welcome and the staff will help you in any way they can. The toilets are a tight squeeze but manageable and the hostel has excellent facilities. Moreover, it is well priced for the budget conscious traveler that wants something a bit nicer but at no extra cost.

4.Friends, Krakow (Poland)

The 4.Friends Hostel is a very nice hostel in a convenient location. It’s generously sized and has a friendly atmosphere. The staff are helpful and will make you feel very welcome. It’s situated in the heart of Krakow only a short bus ride from the town centre. The hostel is only about an hour’s drive from Oswiecim and a memorial visit to Auschwitz. It’s very easy to find and is well sign posted. The hostel itself is located at 8a not 28, which is actually part of the street address. It’s also on a quiet street with a bakery only a stone’s throw away, ideal for fresh pastries and bread. Moreover, there’s lots of on-site secure parking.

The mixed sex dorms vary in size from 4 beds up to 8 beds and all the rooms are well sized, although lacking in personal, locking, storage space, however, some group storage is available on the landings. All the rooms are equipped with comfortable bunks and fresh linen with the beds already made up when you arrive, a nice touch when you’ve already ridden your motorbike thousands of miles. There are two shared bathroom facilities with shower, toilet and sink. The house is very clean and tidy and well decorated throughout.

The common space is open plan and modern with a large cable TV and soft sofas. The kitchen-dining area is also part of the open plan common space and has ample room with dining tables and chairs. The Wi-Fi is fairly good but despite what the hosts will tell you, the Wi-Fi is not strong enough to be picked up in the dorms. The best access can be found in the common area or out on the veranda, which is pure bliss on a cool summer night. The breakfast buffet is substantial and varied and is free to guests, as is the laundry facilities, but you’ll have to find a spot outdoors to hang your clothes out to dry. The garden has a patio with heaters as well as a barbecue area and the reception is open 24 hours, with no curfew.

From the moment you arrive you’ll be made to feel welcome, the staff may even offer to do your laundry. The Wi-Fi isn’t the best but there areas in the hostel in which you can get a decent connection. Moreover, it’s a very nice, modern hostel, and is very competitively priced.

Trans-Sib Hostel, Irkutsk (Siberia)

Deciding to stay at the Trans-Sib Hostel was exceedingly fortuitous and by the end of my stay here the staff had become more like friends than just hosts. The hostel itself is a small apartment but it preserves a warm and friendly atmosphere. It’s greatest asset is the staff, who are extraordinarily thoughtful and friendly.

The hostel is situated on the riverbank running through Irkutsk and is only a stone’s throw from the train station. The hostel is easy to find but access is at the rear of the building and guests should press number 8 on the keypad to alert the hostel staff of your presence. There are no exterior signs for the hostel but it is possible to access the hostel by vehicle, the turning for which is adjacent to the bank and pharmacy at the road junction. Adequate parking is available but I would advise locking motorcycles.

The main dorm has bunk beds that can accommodate six people as well as a separate room with one double and one set of twin beds. All of the beds are comfy and the pillows are generously sized, with all linen and towels provided free of charge. You can be assured of a good night’s sleep at the Trans-Sib Hostel. A secure storage cupboard is available for luggage but no other personal storage is available in the dorms themselves. The hostel has one shared bathroom with shower, toilet and sink. There is a corner bath but this seems to have become a laundry basket…

The hostel is clean and tidy and well decorated throughout. The common areas are comfortable with a dining table that can easily hold seven people as well as two soft armchairs. The kitchen is well equipped with the usual amenities, including a toaster, and there is always a free and plentiful supply of tea, coffee, cakes and other sweets. The hostel has a reasonably priced laundry service that costs 150 Roubles per load. Moreover, a single computer with good internet access and free printer is available for guest use.

From the moment you arrive you’ll be made to feel welcome and the staff will go out of their way to help you with advice or any problems that you might have. It was here that I met Alexei, aka the Monster, who helped me to get my bike stripped and packed up onto the train to Moscow – thanks dude. The Trans-Sib hostel is small but with decent facilities and is good value for money. This is one of the better hostels in the immediate vicinity.

Golden Gobi, Ulan Bator (Mongolia)

The Golden Gobi is the best hostel in Ulan Bator – FACT! It’s generously sized and has a friendly and personal atmosphere. It’s greatest strength is in providing it’s guests with tourist information and guided Tours of the Mongolian countryside. The staff are very friendly and exceedingly helpful, they really go above and beyond to ensure you have a great time and have all the information you need to negotiate Mongolia.

The hostel is situated in the centre of Ulaan Baatar and is well placed for exploring Mongolia’s capital city and beyond. Banks, restaurants, cafe’s, shops, public transport links and of course, the cities sites, are all only a short walk away. To find the hostel itself, you take the turning off Peace Avenue between the state department store and the Adidas store, and then turn right at the camping shop. The hostel is on the other side of the park on the far left corner of the square. You can’t miss it as the Golden Gobi sign is proudly on display.

The dorms vary in size and are conveniently laid out along the main corridor. Two separate showers are available as well as two separate toilets. Whilst the dorms themselves do not have storage, a large secure space for luggage is available if you ask a member of staff. Parking is available but it is not advisable. A secure parking facility with a night security guard is available for motorbikes 300m away at the local car market. The bunk beds are adequately comfy and the pillows are generously sized to ensure that you get a decent night’s sleep.

The Golden Gobi has a kitchen with the usual amenities as well as a filtered water cooler that’s free for guest use. Just off the kitchen is the hostel reception and lounge/briefing area, to find out all you need to know about the various tours that are available, and there are lots, with a tour to suit all tastes and budgets. A second common area is available downstairs with soft chairs and a big screen TV, as well as two guest desktop computers. The Wi-Fi is decent but bandwidth is reduced at peak times due to the number of guests all trying to use it at the same time. The common areas are excellent and really make you feel welcome and at home, whether you’re planning a tour or just relaxing after a long day of sightseeing or travelling. The hostel is clean, tidy and well decorated throughout.

From the moment you arrive you’ll be made to feel welcome and the staff will bend over backwards to assist you in anything you need. It has some decent facilities but it’s the local knowledge and the friendly atmosphere that will make you want to return. The Golden Gobi is well priced and it’s refreshing to find hosts that actually care about their guests. Moreover, the tours that are available will ensure that you connect with a wide range of different people

Hostel Anton, Tivat (Montenegro)

Hostel Anton is the best hostel I have stayed in! I wish I could have stayed here longer. It’s generously sized but is has the best atmosphere and the most friendly staff I have met. The Hostel Anton’s greatest strength is in its ability to connect people. The staff, they really go above and beyond to ensure you have a great time. The hostel is situated in Tivat with a great view of the Boka Kotorska Bay and is well placed for visiting Podgorica and Dubrovnik. To find the hostel itself, you must turn onto the small road behind the Petrol Station and follow the road up the steep hill.

The dorms vary in size, are conveniently laid out and all have en-suite facilities: toilet, shower and sink. The house is clean and tidy and the dorms have plenty of storage space with big wardrobes. Whilst there is no secure parking, you’ll be confident leaving your vehicle out front. The bunk beds are comfy and will ensure that you get a good night’s sleep.

Hostel Anton is a treasure trove of interesting things and is colourfully decorated throughout. The common areas are excellent and really make you feel welcome with a homely community feeling. The hostel has a wonderful music room with piano, drum kit and guitars, indeed, there are various instruments scattered throughout the hostel just waiting to be picked up and played. Likewise, there are lots of books and interesting pieces of art all over the house. The outside chill out area and bar is a marvel and is the focal point of the house and is a great place to chill out and chat with others. The hostel has a single computer with decent internet access.

From the moment you arrive you’ll be made to feel welcome and the staff will bend over backwards to assist you. It has some decent facilities but it’s the personal touches and the great atmosphere that will make you want to return to Hostel Anton over and over. Moreover, Hostel Anton is well priced with great staff that are well placed in their roles as ambassadors of travel and Hostel Anton. If you like the laid back hippy community vibe you’ll feel right at home here.

Hostel Anton’s chill out area.

And there we have it, my five favorite hostels of my trip, so even in these tight times cheaper travel need not mean poorer quality. In fact, it was quite the opposite, I found hosteling to be a great way to travel on a budget. And hostels are much more sociable and can encapsulate everything you could ever want from your adventure.

For more great hostels around the world, at great prices and with easy booking, as well as how to write reviews and get paid for it whilst traveling, check out www.Hostelz.com

Georgia Military Highway

I’ve been home a few months now, busy applying for jobs to fund my next adventure, either the Americas or central Asia… perhaps even a RTW trip. Looking back there’s a few places that I want to tell you about,one of those is my time in the beautiful Georgia.

Having ridden my Bridgestone Battlewing tyres across Europe, the Balkans and the Mediterranean into Asia, I was planning to change them somewhere in Russia. However, having read that the roads  in Georgia are terrible I decided to carry a set of Heidenau K60s with me and change them when I arrived. It turned out that the roads were pretty good and as I still had plenty of rubber remaining I decided to push on. My last night in Turkey I folded my Caucasus map, got my compass  out and was mentally prepared to stow away my GPS, it was gonna be old school navigation for here on in. I was wrong, my routing was done entirely on the GPS and I had no need for the paper map and compass. The free OSM maps that I had downloaded and installed on my Garmin Zumo 660 prior to leaving performed just fine.

The crossing from Turkey into Georgia was simple and straight forward, I even got away with my Turkish speeding ticket that I’d got the day before. I was really happy to be getting into a new country and especially excited about the prospect of being somewhere a bit more edgy, this was certainly the furthest I had been from home and I was buzzing with anticipation. I made my way north up the Black Sea coast through several quaint little seaside towns that reminded me of home. I was heading toward Poti, a major port city and home of the Georgian Navy.

From here I was going to be heading east along the well maintained federal highway to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi then north up the Georgian Military Highway to Kazbegi into Russia and the infamous Caucasus Mountains. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all travel to many of the eastern provinces of the Caucasus’, particularly Chechnya, as well as all but essential travel to many of the surrounding regions. My route would skirt between these areas, and would leave me on my own without British consular support should anything untoward happen to me. However, like all travel advice, the FCO should be taken with a pinch of salt, so I decided to take my chances.

Everything was going well, the sun was shining and the roads were good, apart from the crazy Georgian drivers but I was making good steady progress so I decided to I stopped in Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city and apparently twinned with Newport. For a change it was really easy to find my hostel, situated right on the main square in the centre of town, not far from the train station. But for such an epicentre it was oddly quiet and quite ghostly. I was chuffed to bits to find that the hostel had a garage, so I parked up and settled into my usual routine. It was a fairly large house, albeit basic and in dire need of renovation, with several sets of bunks in one big drawing room. Other than one couple, that had a private double room, I had the entire house to myself. Once I’d showered I took a nice walk into town to get some cash and supplies. It was a good job I had a back up credit card because my ‘special’ travel credit card didn’t work in the machines here.

Once I’d got supplies I headed back but stopped briefly in the main square to chat with some local taxi drivers who were mingling about drinking beers at a small bakery. I ordered a beer and a pastry and made the usual small talk; where I was from and where I was going, but they didn’t seem very interested so I went back to my room for a lush meal of bread and sausage, washed down with an ice cold ‘shandy’.

As the dawn broke, the following day I packed up and initiated ‘Operation don’t get kidnapped or murdered’. I wanted to get to Kazbegi in the north of Georgia as soon as I could, it would be much more scenic and interesting with mountains and makeshift roads. I had no interest in visiting the capital, cities are not my thing; too many cars, too many dodgy people and, usually, the worst of all, too many damn tourists. There is a real distinction between a tourist and a traveler, I considered myself part of the latter. I was headed for the Georgian Military Highway, the historic name for the major route through the Caucasus into Russia from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz. It’s the traditional route used by invaders and traders alike throughout the ages. It stretches 200+km through valleys, ridges, gorges and canyons past rivers, mountain-top fortress’ and dams. My destination was a small northern town in the Kazbegi municipality called Stepantsminda.

Courtesy to Google Images, original source unknown.

The further north I rode the more picturesque it became with beautiful cathedral like green covered mountains and good quality twisty roads with switchbacks that slowly ascended clinging to the rocky foothills. I didn’t look into accommodation as I’d heard stories of travelers just arriving in town and within minutes being offered a homestay. I was keen to try this out so I pulled into the town square in Stepantsminda and within thirty seconds of switching off the bike and removing my helmet I was approached about a hotel. I bartered the gentlemen down to a very good price for a bed and two meals: dinner and breakfast. I followed him to his home just outside of town, parked up in his garage, unloaded the bike, mindful of the chained up dog that was determined to get a piece of me, and got settled into my very comfy 4 bed dorm room. My host returned to into town.

Forty-five minutes later my host returns to tell me that he has a group of Italians coming to stay and that he wants me to leave as he plans to put them in ‘my’ room. “I can share”, I tell him but he informs me that it’s a large group and that there won’t  be enough room. He reassures me, however, that he’s found me another homestay, for the same price. So I pack up and follow his friend to my new digs, it’s basic, as before, but it’s clean and friendly and it’s all I want or need. As we’re driving through town I see what looks like an internet café called the Google Market, it’s livery stylised like the search engine, but it turns out to be a small supermarket. The matriarch of the house prepares me some dinner and shows me to my bed. It’s not long before I’m in it fast asleep and dreaming of what’s to come.

The following day I reach the last stretch of the Military Highway where it suddenly turns into a complete mess of boulders & memorials, pot holes and loose gravel tracks that winds it’s way through the valley. This section of the highway is closed to the public in the winter. A cooler chill is in the air so I decide to stop near a memorial to put on my boots and Jacket just in case I have a tumble. If it’s going to happen it’ll be along this mostly downhill stretch. The weather had been so nice and the roads so good up to this point that I had largely been riding in my trainers and a T-shirt.

Dotted along the way are these long concrete tunnels, which I later learn are avalanche tunnels for drivers to take refuge in the event of an avalanche. I don’t stop much on this stretch to take pictures as I’m so focused on the road, a couple of the pictures I’ve included here are from a Google image search, I’ve tried to credit the original source as much as possible.

 

Eventually the road improves and I arrive at the  Verchni Lars border, which has not seen much use in recent years, mainly because of the delays in crossing but often because of complete closures, due to regional tensions. Moreover, its use has often been limited to the locals only. However, having done my research I’d learnt that it had recently been re-opened to stimulate economic recovery in the border areas and facilitate the Armenian-Russian trade. Moreover, it opened up to all nationalities and had been used, with great success, by some fellow British overlanders like myself. Using this crossing not only allowed me to explore some of Georgia but enabled me to cross into Russia via a land border instead of using the Trabzon – Sochi ferry, saving me untold time and money. As I sat at the first checkpoint, I couldn’t believe my eyes, there was a British car in front of me. The guards tell me that the occupants are American, so at the next opportunity I introduce myself to Matt and Ingrid who are doing the Mongol Rally. We hit it off and decide to travel together for bit until we eventually part ways, a few days later at Elista, with me continuing north to Volgograd and them east into Kazakhstan.

With me being bit of a cheeky rebel anarchist, I start chatting away with the border guards, a combination of army and police officials. It’s easy to do because they love the bike and I hand round the ciggies. I know that taking pictures in a border zone is forbidden, the signs prohibiting it are a constant reminder, but I’m getting on so well with a couple of them that I gesture to them if they want their pictures taking with the bike, they oblige and I snap away. Five minutes later comrade commissar comes over and reminds me in a stearn voice “NO PICTURES”. Welcome to Russia.

Latvia, what a nice surprise

I really wanted to camp here and have a swim but the road was calling me ever onwards

Saying goodbye to Russia, I entered Latvia for short ride of only abut 100 miles onto Lithuania and Poland. Within 10 miles of crossing into Latvia I was off road. It was quite a shock, I wasn’t expecting any off road here, I thought my off road endeavors had ended when I crossed the border but apparently not. Maybe it’s just being maintained? But there was no road work signs, evidently this was ‘the’ road. Maybe it’s just a short stretch? But it continued for on miles. Not to worry, it was a lovely day and the off road surface was actually pretty good, not too much loose gravel or sand. Fifteen miles or so later the paved road reappeared, excellent,  thought. The lovely black ribbon weaved its way through the beautiful Latvian landscape: lush green hills with trees, rivers and old wooden farm buildings. Then the paved road then ended, again, and I was greeted, again, by more ‘fire road‘. This continued the whole way through Latvia: sections of paved road divided by long sections of good off road tracks.

Parts of this road reminded me of stretches of the Road of Bones

This was good fun, just enough off-road to make it challenging and interesting but not so much that it would make it an unenjoyable chore, I call it the Goldilocks measure. The scenery just got better and better and just like other moments in my trip I was really in the zone. I felt at one with my bike with everything falling into place perfectly. I couldn’t tell where my hands ended and my bars began. I was the master of my ride and my destiny, I was limitless. I truly felt at peace in the saddle. It was a liberating and numinous, the closest I’m ever likely to come to a religious experience, and as an out and vocal atheist that’s saying something. I felt good. I stopped two or three times to take pictures and the off road track, flanked by trees reminded me of what I would likely have encountered on parts of the Road of Bones to Magadan, had I gone that way. Latvia would have been a beautiful place to camp and I would have loved to spend more time here, especially the by the river, which was warm and inviting, I’m a real sucker for the water. However, I had a destination in mind and the road was ever calling me onwards. I think Latvia will be somewhere I’ll be returning.

Last Day in Moscow

Yes, I’m disappointed… not because of Red Square itself but because everything was closed off.

Having finally got Hitch back into my safe hands (as long as you don’t count my crash in Irkutsk or the dozens of drops along the way) I took her back to the hostel to repack and do a bit of maintenance. The bike felt so dodgy riding it back from the train station, I had too much weight at the rear, which made the front end feel really light, and not in a good way, as well as a squirmy rear end. With the Heidenau K60 dual purpose tyres and a severely under tensioned chain, the the bike wasn’t handling well at all. After a couple of hours sorting the bike out, I excitedly off to explore some of Moscow. I had big plans, I wanted to visit the Bolshoi theatre to see ‘Don Giovani‘ a masterpiece of opera but the tickets were sold out. There was a slight glimmer of hope, however, I met an awesome Columbian couple from Canada: Gabriel and Camila, who were on their honeymoon and who were on a grand and exciting tour. Gabriel Martinez is a very talented, up and coming young opera singer and when I mentioned that I wanted to visit the Bolshoi I discovered they too had the same plan and had found a way to get some touted tickets. So I cheekily invited myself along and asked them if they were able to get me one too. Sadly, they later learnt that the theatre had implemented a system to prevent the resale of tickets so ‘Don Giovani’ was out of the question. Whilst not the only place in town to experience some Moscow art and culture, it was the only place and show that excited me at that time.

The stadium which occupied 90% of Red Square at the expense of everyone else there

I decided to visit the Ismaylovo Market, apparently it’s the best place in Moscow to get souvenirs but I had heard that much of the market was closed in the week and the best time to visit was at the weekends but I wasn’t going to be around that long, so the market was also off my itinerary. This just left the handful of sites at Red Square so off I went on the bike, it still didn’t feel right, but at least it was a little better. When I arrived I was hoping that I might be able to get a shot of Hitch in front of St. Basil’s but there was no way I could sneak it through the temporary police checkpoint that had been set up let alone it’s metal detectors… So I parked up outside a posh hotel just up the road, luckily a very lovely woman was leaving just as I arrived. As I set off on foot I soon discovered that there was a huge stadium smack bang in the middle of Red Square, which was hosting the Moscow Military Tattoo. As a result much of the sites were closed and fenced off, squeezing the tourists into a tight thoroughfare. A hate tourists at the best of times, Red Square is a big place with plenty of room for everyone, but so too was the stadium, which took up most of Red Square and the mass of tourists was unbearable. FFS, I was really looking forward to Moscow: so of the three things that I had planned had come crumbling down for one reason or another.

Lenin’s mausoleum also closed… Lenin was interred here against his wishes, he wanted to be buried next to his mother in St. Petersburg but instead was put on display in Red Square for propaganda purposes

Not surprisingly, I didn’t stop long in Red Square, I got a few pictures and chatted with some Russian who asked me to take some pictures of them in front of Lenin’s mausoleum and I was off, bitterly disappointed. It was Moscow’s birthday, that was why the tattoo was in town. I thought I might go along, Red Square at night with fireworks might be quite an impressive site and quite an occasion, maybe Gabriel and Cam would like to join me, but decent tickets were getting  on for £40 each.Plus, I’d already seen several tattoos and if they haven’t got the Royal Marines Corps of Drums then it’s not a tattoo, LOL. I decided to give it a miss and treat myself to a decent restaurant for dinner instead. I for a late afternoon walk around town, trying to find somewhere to eat when I stumbled upon this great little unpronounceable Russian-Ukrainian restaurant that I saw advertised at the hostel and that came highly recommend by the staff, I even picked up the 10% discount voucher. So I went in, took a seat and ordered up some nosebag and a couple of drinks. For starters I had a wonderful wild mushroom and red bean salad, followed by veal a la Donetsk, washed down with a pear Kvass. What a beautiful meal it was, I left very content and took a nice stroll back to the hostel just as I light rain began to fall.

a yummy pear kvass from the Russian-Ukraine bistro

Auschwitz

Speech given by Obersturmführer Franz Hössler to a group of Greek Jews in the undressing room shortly before the group was led into the gas chamber to be killed:

On behalf of the camp administration I bid you welcome. This is not a holiday resort but a labor camp. Just as our soldiers risk their lives at the front to gain victory for the Third Reich, you will have to work here for the welfare of a new Europe. How you tackle this task is entirely up to you. The chance is there for every one of you. We shall look after your health, and we shall also offer you well-paid work. After the war we shall assess everyone according to his merits and treat him accordingly.

Now, would you please all get undressed. Hang your clothes on the hooks we have provided and please remember your number [of the hook]. When you’ve had your bath there will be a bowl of soup and coffee or tea for all. Oh yes, before I forget, after your bath, please have ready your certificates, diplomas, school reports and any other documents so that we can employ everybody according to his or her training and ability.

Would diabetics who are not allowed sugar report to staff on duty after their baths.

The Auschwitz concentration camp was a network of concentration and extermination camps. It was the largest of the concentration camps, consisting of Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II–Birkenau, Auschwitz III–Monowitz and many other sub-camps. Auschwitz is based around the the Polish town of Oświęcim, not far from Krakow. Auschwitz I was the administrative base camp, Auschwitz II–Birkenau the main extermination camp and place for the ‘final solution’. Transport trains delivered Jews to Auschwitz from all over German-occupied Europe. It is hard to say exactly how many people were murdered at Auschwitz since the Nazis destroyed a number of records, but the accepted figure today is no more than 1.5 million and no less than 1.3 million, with about 90% of the victims being Jewish. Those that were not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious disease, individual executions, and medical experiments.

Restored “Arbeit macht frei” sign (Work will set you free) at the entrance to Auschwitz I, after it was stolen and later retrieved in 2009.

Auschwitz I saw the deaths of roughly 70,000 people, mostly ethnic Poles and Soviet prisoners of war. Including residents of Oświęcim and other surrounding villages in a bid to isolate the camp from the outside world

Escape, especially from inside the camp, was difficult. Most were quickly captured, a common punishment was death by starvation. Often families of successful escapees were publicly executed by hanging for all to see and put prominently on display to deter others. Likewise, the SS would pick 10 people at random from the escapees block and starve them to death.

These building existed before before the ‘final solution”, as polish army barracks, but they were only one storey high. They were later extended by the inmates.

Auschwitz I memorial containing ashes from the various nationalities of the camp’s victims

Our guide explaining the location of the camps.

Empty cans of Zyclon B poison

Prostheses of the victims

The victims were told to mark there cases so they could easily retrieve themwhen they had ‘showered’

30,000+ pairs of shoes… it really makes you comprehend the number of victims

Initially ‘workers’ were photographed but when this became inefficient they began to tattoo numbers on the left forearm of the inmates. The tattoo only happened at Auschwitz and only to those that passed selection; deemed fit enough to work and not immediately murdered in the gas chambers.

Some didn’t even last 24hrs

Siblings too…

This picture got my attention based on the look of total contempt

The execution wall. Notice the covered windows, so the next block wouldn’t know what was happening. The murderers used silencers and even designed the wall to produce less noise before the victims were brought out naked,to maximise humiliation, before being shot dead.

The punishment block held various cells including a starvation and suffocation cell as well as this standing cell, no bigger than a phone booth that would be crammed with up to six prisoners who would have to crawl in on their hands and knees.

A replica of the gallows at the location in which Rudolf Höss, first commandant of Auschwitz, was hanged.

Post war reconstruction of the gas chamber using the original components, which remained on-site after the war.

Inside the gas chamber that operated from 1941 to 1942 killing about 60,000 people

The hatch in which pellets of Zyklon B poison was dropped. This was a slow, suffocating death that lasted 15 or 20 minutes. Those closest to the hatch died quicker.

Crematoria oven

Auschwitz II (Birkenau), the extermination camp, built by inmates to relieve Auschwitz II and which saw the deaths of at least 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles, and some 19,000 Roma Gypsies

One of the original deportation wagons that would be crammed with up to 100 people…

The gas chambers and crematoria were destroyed by the SS at the end of the war

The demolition was a futile attempt to cover up what had happened here…

Just as they tried to destroy evidence of the gas chambers and crematoria they also destroyed the accommodation blocks, the chimneys were for red cross propaganda purposes

Conditions were terrible and the worst place was often the bottom ‘bunk’ as the diarhoea would flow down and this was also where the rats were

View from the guard tower of the platform where the infamous selections took place whilst the Auschwitz inmate orchestra played; rght for labor, left for the gas chambers. Otherwise healthy women were gassed because they had children with them, rather than separate them and cause panic they were sent to the gas chambers together.

Hitch Reunited

Tan Siberian post train…

I stepped off the TranSiberian Train relieved to finally see the back of their delightful customer service but also happy to finally be in Moscow. No sooner had my feet touched the platform was I touted for a taxi. Planning to walk to the station and get the metro I thought I’d see what he was charging… his first quote was ridiculongkulous so I just laughed at him. He immediately halved it. “Your’e still taking the piss mate”, I told him, so he knocked another 20% off. Okay, I thought, that’s still expensive but it is Moscow after all, and it’ll be easier than lugging my bags around so I agreed. He grabbed a couple of bags and I suddenly remembered that I wanted to make inquiries about my post train that was carrying Hitch, who had departed from Irkutsk a few days before me and was due to arrive in Moscow in approximately 6 days. All being well, it should arrive the same day as me, but this was only a guestimate. Nevertheless, there was a chance that it had arrived on time and a slim chance that it was sitting in the back of some store room waiting for me to collect her.

I decided to let the taxi tout carry my bags to the end of the platform before telling him that I needed a few minutes, he didn’t wait around. I strolled to the first customer service kiosk with my delivery note in hand and gesturing a motorbike with my free hand. Lady 1, directed me into the main terminal building, so off I went in that general direction, but once inside where was I to go next? I found another woman helping customers with the cash machines but I had barely got to “Excuse m….”, in Russian, before she shooed me off like an irritating fly. “Thank you for all your help”, I said out loud, very loud, so that people turned to see what was going on. Perhaps rude, unhelpful women are the norm in this part of Russia? So I made my way to another kiosk at the other end of the building where lady 2, directed me back up to where I had just come from. I tried to explain that Lady 1 had sent me here but it was pointless, she wasn’t listening, she too shooed me off and wrote something on a piece of paper that I later learned said luggage, which wasn’t where I needed to be. So off I went, back toward Lady 1 and my wild goose chase was in full swing.

First glimpse of “my baby”…

This can’t be right, I decided to ask the police that were frisking would be terrorists as they entered the train station, I’d had good fortune with plod up to now, but these guys couldn’t give a shit, I even pleaded for one of them to personally take me if it was as close as they were saying. I exited the station when Lady 1 saw me and tried to send me back. I showed her the note and she sent me in a different direction to the very front of the building on the main road.I was hoping that I might perhaps see some sort of cargo kiosk. All I had achieved was to walk around the entire perimeter of the station and ended up back at lady 2. After being sent from pillar to post for the best part of an hour I was beginning to lose my patience, these people couldn’t give a shit, the only thing they were interested in was getting rid of me from their ‘area’. I decided to try and find Hitch myself.

I made my way back to the platforms, the cargo area must be close by, and it was. As I rounded the corner I saw some cargo being unloaded and I got excited, maybe it was my carriage? I was getting warmer. I continued onwards and found a porta-cabin on wheels and decided to make my inquiries, but as I looked up I saw yet another gaggle of women and I knew this was going to be a fruitless exercise… Lady 3, tried to send me back up to the main building, she even drew me a map, it looked like she was trying to send me to Lady 1 but that particular avenue was a total dead end. I tried to explan my hour long goose chase but she insisted on me going back up where I had come from. ‘Fuck this’ I thought, I was starting to lose my rag, “I just want my god damn motorbike”, I protested. I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to find out where I needed to go. I was beginning to contemplate my options, one of which was going to the hostel, finding someone who spoke Russian and return to the docks armed with a translator – what I actually needed was a babel fish.

Before I lost my mind completely I thought I’d try my luck directly with the dock guys, but first I needed to stop, drop my bags, take a leak and breathe. I felt calmer, the dock guys directed me around to a completely different place,not again I thought, so I took one of them to show me personally. He reluctantly came along to show me and continually reminded that he had to get back to work. “Don’t worry about work I told him, I’ll give you some ‘thank you’ money, make it worth your while”, if this turns out to be the correct place. This looked promising, these chaps reminded me of the guys in Irkutsk, they even had the same bags and string for doing up the parcels. I asked one of the guys and he immediately stopped what he was doing to help me. He asked a few of the other guys and he took me to an admin office with a huge queue. But instead of dumping me in the queue he took me outside where he banged on the window to get one of the girls attention – effectively cutting the queue. They said something to each other in Russian and we went back up to his work area where he gave me a piece of paper with a phone number on it and told me to phone tomorrow at 8am. Basically, my train had not yet arrived.

Hitch wasn’t alone on her journey, she had the company of three horny Swiss KTMs…

No problem, I was half expecting it to be delayed, I would just have to wait a bit longer, but at least I knew I was in the right place. I headed out of the station to get a taxi but I couldn’t find anyone, and nobody approached me either. After walking what felt like 10 miles trying to locate Hitch, I was parched, so I got a drink and something to eat and sat down for five minutes to collect myself. A young lad with a trolley finally approached and asked if I wanted a taxi, “skolka?” I asked. He got on the phone and his friend joined us, apparently he was the driver. “How much”, I asked again, and he gave me the same figure that the original taxi guy gave me, I laughed and said “way too much”, but he was unwilling to budge and made my way to the Metro. I got to the main road and another fella offered me a taxi. We went through the same rigmarole and finally we agreed on a price that I wasn’t especially happy with but I was ready to capitulate and glad to get to the hostel ASAP.

I jumped in the taxi and it was immediately apparent that this guy had no clue, it wasn’t even a proper taxi. I told him the address, I showed him the Moscow city map, I showed him the Google map on my phone, I was going to show him the GPS too but the battery was dead. I ended up directing him, because he couldn’t see, he had no spectacles… WTF kind of taxi driver is he, I thought. Of course I was kidding myself, this wasn’t any kind of ‘real’ taxi, it was just some random geezer at the station trying to make a few extra quid. Okay, I’ll go with it, it could be fun, we had a smoke and I told him where to go, but he kept stopping and asking directions. It was probably only a twenty minute walk to the hostel from the station, and a 5 minute car journey, but it had taken us the best part of 25minutes and that wasn’t due to the traffic. He stopped again, we were only at the Metro station, which was a 5 minute walk from the hostel, “it’s just down there” I kept telling him, “carry on down this road”, but he got out again. FFS, ‘you have exactly 60 seconds then I’m getting my bags and walking’, I thought to myself. I was generous; I gave him 180 seconds before I got out and got my bags from the boot of his car. The driver returned and tried to stop me removing my bags, and babbled something to me in Russian. “Look mate, we’ve been driving nearly 30 minutes, it should have taken no longer than 15minutes, even in this traffic, the hostel is just down the road, and you’re taking the piss, I’m walking the rest of the way”.

He had no choice in the matter, I was resolved, but I knew I should pay him something. He asked for payment, but there was no way I was going to give him the agreed price, he hadn’t lived up to his end of the bargain. Pissed off, I offered him half and not surprisingly he said “no”, he wanted the agreed amount, “your’e shit out of luck mate, take this or you get nothing”… he remonstrated and I counted down with my fingers 3-2-1… too late pal , I’m off and you get sweet FA. I picked up my bags and went, I was at my hostel within 3 minutes. The girls at the hostel stood in stark contrast to the female of the species of the TranSiberian railway and Moscow station; they were exceptionally kind, friendly and very helpful. These girls even agreed to phone the number I had been given, but the following day when they phoned the number, I was told it had not arrived and I should try again the next day. The following day I called again, and yet again I was told it had not arrived. Bollocks to this, I asked the girls at the hostel who it was they were talking to and whether they thought they were being told the truth, or whether they thought they were being fobbed off. 

It was one thing to mess me around to my face, I’m just a dumb tourist as far as they’re concerned, but now they’re messing around my Russian helpers too. Things were going from bad to worse, I might never be reunited with my bike at this rate. I decided to to the station and see for myself and hopefully speak to the lads at the docks. So off I went to the Metro station, two changes later I arrived and set off on foot up to the cargo area, with a resolve of pure steel. When I got there I was enthusiastically greeted like I was an old friend and yet again he dropped what he was doing to help me. He shouted to his mate, they chatted briefly, and I was taken into the office and asked to have a seat while they checked if the Irkutsk post train had arrived. It was good news, it had arrived, and they took me me to identify my bike as there was three others; three KTMs with Swiss plates. I walked onto the carriage and saw Hitch’s rear end, there was no mistaking it as the number plate was exposed… “oh my baby”, I involuntarily blurted out loud. I was overcome with joy, and relief, I shook everybody’s hand and said thank you, the dock guys started teasing me saying “oh my baby”, it was great.

My dock lads, if you want something doing…

Before they could get to my bike they would need to unload a few things that were in front of it, but within 10 minutes they rolled Hitch off the train and with crow bar in hand the dock guys freed her from her makeshift crate. I started putting her back together and loading her up while everyone else eagerly watched waiting for the big reveal. One guy even helped my put the screen on, just happy to be involved. It wasn’t long before crowds of admiring dockworkers gathered round and began asking me to start her up so they could hear her roar. I happily obliged and let a couple of them give Hitch a rev. With the bike ready to go I pushed it out waiting for one of them to tell me how much I owed them for unloading, uncrating and disposing of the wooden frame, but there was no charge. Cha-ching, I thought, I was expecting to pay at least 3000 Roubles. I wheeled her out and grabbed a quick piccie of the main two guys that helped me out and off I went back to the hostel with a broad grin on my face but riding exceptionally cautiously around the Moscow streets: it was the first I’d been on the bike, proper, since the crash and it felt unusual.

‘The Bitch’ of the TranSiberian Express

One of the traditional TranSiberian steam engines…

I apologize in advance… I don’t normally talk about anyone in such a derogatory way, especially women, but this person deserves it and it’s a catharsis for me. Words can’t express just how horrible this person was. Normal service will soon be resumed. xXx

I decided to chill out at the hostel for the remaining couple of days before my train, the effort in sorting the bike out for shipping had set off my already aching ribs. I think I had an uncomplicated rib fracture that was now aggravated and extremely painful. I necked the remainder of my painkillers and then set out to get some Russian drugs, which turned out to be so strong that they are banned in the USA because they were being used to get high. I was on one tablet twice a day and no sooner had I took the first pill did I start to feel better. It was only a 5-10 minute walk to the station but as it was so late and I had a few bags I decided to get a taxi. I arrived with plenty of time to spare and just as I got onto the platform the train arrived. I whipped out my ticket in a chirpy mood and began to board my carriage. To get on board you have to climb up a ladder with three or four steps, so I chucked my bags onto the train and got ready to board when the attendant cut in front me and who was then confronted by my bags. Muttering expletives under her breath she climbed aboard with me close behind.

My trai pulling into the station at Irkutsk… bit blurry, but it was like 0230am!

Aware that it was late, or early (0230hrs), I tried my hardest be quiet but the impatient attendant was waiting for me at my cabin, shushing me with every hobbling step that I took and beckoning me to hurry up. ‘WTF woman? It’s either fast and noisy or slow and quiet, make up your mind, I can’t do both, you could, of course, help me with my bags, that might speed things up’. Of course I didn’t say that, I’m English don’t you know, but if she could read minds… As I reach the cabin she ushers me inside where I see a mother with a baby fast asleep on one of the bottom bunks. The attendant then points to the other bottom bunk indicating it’s mine but the mum’s bags were in the way. No problem, I thought, I can wait while she moves them, but the attendant, whom I’m liking less with every passing minute, is badgering me to get in, but how the hell can I, the mother and her bags are in the way. As a space is made I move inside but I’m apparently not quiet enough, despite my best efforts and I now have both women shushing me. This is a fucking train right, not a nursery, some noise is to be expected is it not, and surely the train itself makes more noise than I’m supposedly making? I hope I don’t have the mother and baby for the whole trip to Moscow, that’s would be a disaster: a screaming baby and shitty nappies for three days and three nights. I stow my luggage and make polite with the mum establishing that she is in fact getting off at the next stop. I settle down for the night but am unable to sleep. When I do wake, I discover that I now have the cabin to myself. I remain the only occupant for the best part of the next day and I wonder if I’ll have the cabin to myself the whole way. I pass the time watching a couple of movies on my computer, which completely drains the battery, but as I’d read that the TranSiberian trains have sockets for charging I was optimistic. However, this cabin did not have a single socket, but there were several sockets in the corridor.

My carriage… notice how high up it is from the platform.

I plug in my netbook and take my seat. It’s charging for 5 minutes when Miss impatience herself struts up to me, rips the plug from the socket, throws it at me and says something in Russian. WTF? I plug back in and her colleague, Anya, returns to try and explain that the sockets are just for phones! Why?, I ask, incredulously, what possible reason can there be? I get no explanation, so I follow her up the carriage to try and reason, and if necessary to plead with her. Nope, it’s just some arbitrary, bullshit rule, with no rhyme or reason whatsoever. A couple of Russians on the train sympathise with me and can see that she was is on a power trip and being on my side JayJay, tried to reason with, her, whom I shall now refer to as ‘the bitch’, but without success. The funny thing is I could swear I heard him say “mission impossible’… I would love to have known in what context this was said. I could have taken  this bullshit rule, regardless of how irrational it was, if she hadn’t been so fucking rude, as it stands it was taking all my effort and restraint not to punch ‘the bitch’ in the face.

My home for 3 days and 3 nights

I tried on two or three occasions that day to try and sneak a charge but each time I would get caught and have to remove it. I even tried to charge it under the pretence that I needed to charge my IPhone via the computer, but apparently, she’s not quite as dumb as she looks. I return to my carriage and am grateful that my IPod is fully loaded with music and audiobooks. It’s not so bad, I soon have guests, including one very fit nineteen year old air hostess with skimpy shorts and a smoking hot body, so at least I had someone to chat with. The following day ‘the bitch’ is not to be seen and the other attendant Anya is on duty, so I try and persuade her to let me use the sockets in the first class carriage (I’m in second class) but, whilst she initially seemed receptive she eventually said no. I got the strong sense that it was because ‘the bitch’ was in the adjacent cabin. I told her I would be very quiet, I even offered her some bribe money but she politely refused, I was close but no cigar. Later that day, my Russian compadre, who had very quiet, got up and went to charge his netbook. Twenty minutes passed and he had not returned. Bugger this, I’m taking my netbook out too. I managed to get enough time to get my battery up to 50%, which allowed me to load up some new audio books and movies to my IPhone, just in case. I was doing well snatching short bursts of charge; the best was early one morning when no one was around, I hid my netbook behind the window blind whist I sat in my cabin. Anya walked past it at least twice and looked directly at it, she must have known I was up to no good and I think she was turning a blind eye. Anya, was actually quite nice, we chatted and I decided she was a decent person, albeit in the shadow of ‘the bitch’.

At most stops you could get off and buy some nosebag…

As petty and immature as it sounds, I kind of had the last laugh; not only did I leave the train, with a pretty decent charge on my netbook, but I even out-bitched ‘the bitch’. It was my last day on the train and we would soon be arriving in Moscow. Anya and ‘the bitch’ accosted me in the corridor, now what, was my immediate thought, I want as little interaction with these girls as possible, they don’t deserve even a single moment of my time. They wanted me to buy a lottery ticket that was linked to my train ticket, it only cost a couple of quid but the prize was quite substantial. I’m not a gambling man and I can think of better things to spend my hard earned cash on, plus I’m not naïve enough to think that I have a bat in hells chance of winning. However, ‘the bitch’ made it abundantly clear that she was desperate for me to buy a ticket. The tables were turned, I had something she wanted and to get it she turned on her femininity and her sexuality to try to charm me. It really was a pitiful site and I had come to despise this woman, to me she was a complete waste of a human skin and I would never succumb to her pathetic and feeble attempts to butter me up. We have a saying in England: ‘I wouldn’t piss on her if she was on fire’… I wish I knew the Russian translation at the time, just like I wished she would spontaneously burst into flames so I could put the saying to the test. So I played her like a fiddle for the next twenty minutes… letting her think that I was going to buy this lousy lottery. When I was bored of toying with her and when I knew I had convinced her that I was indeed going to cough up, I gave her the metaphorical middle finger and returned to my cabin smug and satisfied that I’d owned ‘the bitch’s.

To say the amenities are basic is an understatement, but at least they have a seat and not a squatting hole. When you flush, using the pedal, it goes straight down onto the tracks… they must stink!

Pretty decent documentary, albeit a bit old now, about the TranSiberian Railway (Part 1 of 3)

Crating Hitch for the long ride to Moscow

Waiting for Alexei the following day was like waiting for xmas. I spent the previous evening thinking about what I would do with the few days that I intended to spend in Moscow as well as where my adventure would take me next. I had a list of things, the usual tourist sites: Red Square, the Kremlin, the Lenin Mausoleum and St Basils Cathedral. But I also wanted to go to the Bolshoi Theatre to experience some ballet and opera, and where better than Moscow. There was also the Izmaylovo market where I could finally get some souvenirs for my peeps back home. I damn sure wasn’t going carry stuff around on the bike for thousands of miles – I’ll stick them in the post.

When Alexei arrived he gave me the skinny on the options and it was good news, it wasn’t going to be as expensive as I thought to do it officially. But was it possible to do it unofficially, I asked, by bribing someone. Alexei seemed to think this was no longer possible, times had changed and Irkutsk was a big and busy station. He was right, of course he was right. If I was serious about doing it unofficially I would be better placed to do it at smaller station. Furthermore, given the problems I had communicating my intentions before I met Alexei and given the fact I was still suffering from the crash, I decided to go with Alexei’s recommendation and do it officially from Irkutsk.

The next day we drove down to the docks, I was careful crossing the tram tracks this time, and we set to with the gargantuan task of paperwork. It was here that Alexei was to be at his most valuable and it was here that I got my first taste of Russian ‘train’ women. In actual fact there was only one form, albeit in Russian, which Alexei filled it out for me. The Russian ‘Train’ Woman though had other ideas as she seemed dissatisfied and we had to add more details, chiefly my Visa information. We returned the completed form but this time she wanted Alexei’s details as an emergency contact, sensible I thought, but would it prove to be an obstacle when it came to collecting the bike in Moscow. Alexei assured me it wouldn’t and I trusted  him so I zipped my pie hole. Once the form was signed and stamped it was time to get the bike stripped and crated for travel.

Getting weighed before being crated

The railway guys started building me my crate, while I got everything I needed or wanted off the bike. The crate turned out to be little more than a frame, not even any shrink wrap, it certainly wasn’t worth the 3000 Roubles I paid them, but it was a job that had to be done and the dock boys would probably need greasing up one way or another. I took off the screen and for some bizarre reason they suggested I remove the plastic part of the hand guards. I was getting ready to drain the tank of its fuel when Alexei told me that the dock guys had told him not to bother, as long as we kept it to ourselves. Great, I thought, that’ll save me some hassle at the other end. I was taking my 2L Jerry can with me so I had at least this much fuel when I was reunited with my bike in Moscow. I need not have bothered carrying it with me, it too could have stayed with the bike and it wouldn’t then have leaked into my tank bag.

It was soon time to stick the bike on the scales and see how much it weighed. It came in at 233kg, it had none of the luggage fitted but it did have half a tank of petrol. Next it came time to weigh the remainder of the kit, which had been neatly packed away, this came in at 43kg. That’s a lot, but consider that this number also included the two panniers themselves. All in, including what they were allowing for the crate, it weighed in at 300kg and with a quick calculation at 200 Roubles per 10kg it would cost somewhere in the region of 6000 Roubles (£120). I was allowing for it to cost as much as 12000 Roubles so I was pleasantly surprised that it came in at less than half that. I would still have to pay the dock boys and any VAT and or Taxes. But all in it cost me 9400 Roubles (£187) and I thought I might have to pay the lads at the other end too. Hitch was going on the post train departing on the 29th August and it was expected to take about six days.

The three stooges: Larry, Curly & Moe,who crated my bike

I said goodbye to Hitch and the dock boys finished crating my bike while Alexei and I strutted off to buy my passenger ticket. This came in at a very reasonable 11000 Roubles (£218), much cheaper than I had seen advertised online. My train was to leave Irkutsk on the 31st August at 2129hrs Moscow time, which meant it was due to depart at 0229 the following day, local time. With my cargo certificate and my passenger ticket safely in hand it was time for yet another goodbye, but this time I kept my shit together, I couldn’t breakdown like a big girl in front of the monster. So we exchanged details, promised to stay in touch and we said goodbye. As I made my way back to the hostel, I admit I was pleased as punch, what kind of a trip would this be without shipping he bike at least once, it’s almost a rite of passage in the adventure motorcycle community.

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