Mongolia & Siberia 2012: Adventure Moto Madness

Well, I’ve handed in my resignation; the 12th July 2012 will be my last day working for the Ministry of Justice. The very next day I’ll be hitting the road. My ultimate destination is Magadan in the dark depths of Siberia located on far eastern sea board of Russia. The trip will cover between 20 to 30k miles, it’ll meander through 27 countries throughout all of Europe including the Balkans, the Baltics, the Mediterranean as well as Asia and Northern Africa. This is my rough, overall route:

I’ve planned a few stops in Europe but this adventure is all about getting to and exploring Mongolia and Siberia. I have applied for my 90 day double entry Russian Business Visa, which, if granted, should start on the 1st August 2012. Likewise, my 30 day Mongolian Tourist Visa should start a week later. This will give me plenty of time to explore Mongolia and set me up nicely for the ride up to Magadan during the August/September weather window.

For much of this trip I intend to wild camp, mainly because its free, but also because its a real taste of the outdoors. Nevertheless, there will be times when I crave modern conveniences or there’ll be times when wild camping simply won’t be practical. On such occasions I’ll book into cheap hostels or more likely connect with fellow travellers and motorcyclists via ADVRider and CouchSurfer. Indeed, connecting with other people, particularly those of a different culture, is a big part of this trip.

My adventure will begin with a quick traverse across France. I don’t plan to spend much time in Western Europe, simply because it’s only a stones throw away from home and I could visit any of its amazing countries just about any time. However, it would be a real shame to just blat through these countries without taking in some of it’s sites. As a military history buff, I just can’t bring myself to pass through France without visiting a couple of battlefields, and for me this means Normandy.

As I’ve already spent a fair bit of time touring Normandy, the result of which is that it has somehow come to feel like home, and because I’ve not returned in a while, I simply can’t pass this place by. Indeed, Normandy, in particular the British 5th Airborne sector around Pegasus Bridge, feels like where my adventure should jump off. So it’s here, that I shall be heading first, to make my belated pilgrimage and where my adventure will begin. I shall then head for Paris for a day or two, if I can stand the traffic, and take in a few tourist sites before heading through the Champagne Region for Geneva, Switzerland and a visit to the Large Hadron Collider to get my science geek-on.

Switzerland and Austria have always been places that I’ve wanted to visit, not for any particular tourist destination, but for its areas of outstanding natural beauty: its breathtaking alpine vistas and valley after valley of winding roads straight out a o bikers wet dream. I’ve always had this love of trees and forests, especially when they encapsulate the roads like an umbrella and beams of sunshine gleam through the canopy; there’s something deeply numinous about it. And whilst I’m in the region I simply must visit the Black Forest of Southern Germany.

It’ll be here that I’ll most likely make my first connection with other likeminded people, whether they be carefree travellers, fellow bikers or secular humanist comrades in arms. I’ll be touching on the military history theme over and over throughout my adventure because its something that’s been a huge part of my academic life, so I’ll definitely be stopping at Zell Am See and Hitler’s Eagles Nest, before heading into Eastern Europe. For those readers familiar with Band of Brothers, you’ll know the significance, but for those not versed in the history of these great men, Zell Am See served as the base for Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division that later went on to capture Hitler’s Eagles Nest.

If I have the time after visiting Hitler’s Kehlsteinhaus, I’ll visit Bratislava in Slovakia and Budapest in Hungary, otherwise I’ll be heading straight for Slovenia and the Balkans. There’s been some talk on the wire about how the former Yugoslavian states are up and coming places to visit, hidden gems so to speak. Needless to say, I’ll be taking my time as I ride through this region. Before I started my research I had no idea how beautiful Slovenia was but before I knew it I had found half a dozen places to visit. From Slovenia I’ll trace a route down the Adriatic Coast through Croatia to Dubrovnik. and the heart of the former Balkans conflict. Bosnia has been mired in ethnic, religious and nationalistic conflict that culminated in some of the worst genocide Western Europe had seen since WW2: this place is firmly on my itinerary. The two places that became most synonymous with the fighting, ethnic cleansing and civil rights violations of the Bosnian Conflict were Sarajevo and Srebrenica. I want to visit these places to see for myself how or if this region and it’s people have recovered from the bloodshed that occurred here only a decade ago and which is still so vivid in my memory.

Many areas that I plan to travel through I have intentionally left void of possible stops, not because there is nothing I want to visit but because I want to let my ride through these areas to be more free, spontaneous and without in depth prior planning. None of my route is cast in stone, I shall take whatever deviation or diversion that arises whether by design or by error. Montenegro, Albania & Macedonia are three such countries that I have no particular destination in mind or any particular route to follow. The only requirement is that it must lead me onto the next leg: Greece and Turkey.

With the exception of a visit to Thessalonika, which to me is the most Hellenistic sounding name of all the Greek places names, I have planned my travel through Greece in much the same vein as Montenegro, Albania & Macedonia, that is not really at all. However, Turkey I have looked into a little more and I intend to spend two or three days in Istanbul before heading into Georgia and the penultimate border crossing into Russia for the chief focus of my adventure. Turkey will not only be the furthest I have geographically been from home it will be the first big cultural change. I think a few days in Turkey will be good acclimatisation for the big cultural changes of Mongolia.

Here’s where the REAL adventure begins, and it starts with a test of nerves, albeit those of my family. I plan to enter Russia via Georgia at the Verkhny Lars border crossing, situated on a narrow mountain pass high in the Caucasus mountains. It’s a test of nerves because the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against all but essential travel through this region and in some places they advise against all travel, for example neighbouring Chechnya. However, like all travel advice, the FCO advice needs to be taken with a pinch of salt and a dose of optimistic reality.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have been sketchy at best but this border crossing does at least avoid the troubled Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia. It does not, however, avoid the Kabardino-Balkaria region of Russia in the Caucasus. Nevertheless, this border has been reopened, and is now recently opened to non-CIS Nationals. Moreover, I am reliably informed that British bikers have very recently used this border without any bother and have reported it as quick and easy. So, I have decided to try this route and save the £300+ Trabzon-Socchi ferry, which I was planning on using to cross the Black Sea from Turkey to Russia.

Once in Russia I’ll be heading for Volgograd, previously know as Stalingrad, for some WW2 related visits. But not before a stop to Beslan, the location of the horrendous 2004 Beslan School Siege, which ended in the death of over 380 people, many of them children. In Stalingrad, I’ll visit the State Panoramic Museum and the Mamayev Kurgan Monument. I’ll then head for Novosibirsk, or Krasnoyarsk, for new tyres, a service and a diagnostic check before taking Hitch south along the beautiful M52 for the Mongolian Border to start my off-road challenge.

Mongolia… Siberia… what can I say about these places? Well, I had never really heard much about these parts of the world until I saw The Long Way Round. And whilst it is Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman I need to thank for introducing to me the concept of overland motorcycle travel, my inspiration for this part of the world came from elsewhere. It wasn’t until I’d seen Mondo Enduro and Terra Circa with Austin Vince and his gang and read a couple of ride reports by Walter Colebatch and Oisin Hughes, that I decided I wanted to visit these beautiful places. So it was these bad ass moto-adventurers that REALLY inspired me and caused me to abandon my USA trip planning for this more ambitious adventure. It has been said that if you enter Mongolia with no off-road skills you’ll certainly exit with some. I hope this will be true for me.

The reasons I want to visit Siberia and the Road of Bones is the same as Mongolia. It was only after learning more about this region that I began to think realistically about whether it was possible to go to these places, on my motorbike, on my own. There’s really not much by way of tourist attractions in Siberia, it really is about the riding and the challenge of making it to Magadan. About the only thing I will be seeking out is the Mask of Sorrow in Magadan, an important memorial commemorating the many prisoners who suffered and died in the regions Gulag prison camps under Stalin. This memorial is also a beacon, a marker if you like, the reaching of which will represent a huge personal accomplishment of having ridden to the opposite side of the globe. I will be looking out for the Chinese restaurant in Magadan not only to eat some good grub but more importantly to sign their guestbook, which has become a recent tradition for moto-adventurers that make it to Magadan. Of course Magadan will be the place to rest up, recuperate and provide much needed attention to the bike after it’s inevitable beating, before I head back out the way I came to Irkutsk.

As much talk and hype as there is in the wider, popular, adventure biking community about Siberia and the RoB, much of the Kolyma Highway, as it is called by the locals, is now federally maintained. That’s not to say its got that lovely layer of flat, hard black tarmac that us westerners are used to, instead a Federally maintained or ‘treated’ road is more akin to a fire road made up of hard compacted dirt. This is good news to me because a hardcore off road adventure is really not what I want from this trip, not this time anyway. What it does mean is that Siberia is at least accessible, albeit with a little iron butt stamina to get there. Nevertheless, with a bit of sustained rainfall Siberian roads, the Lena Highway in particular, can quickly turn into a quagmire of swamp-like-mud.

Nor I or anyone adequately familiar with my route would suggest that any part of my trip is a significant challenge, but to the uninformed outsider it may appear to be pretty extreme. So despite what it may seem to the observer, ‘hardcore’ this trip is not. More importantly, it’s not an accolade my ego either needs or requires, it’s an accolade I reserve for those friends that ride ‘roads’ like the Bam Road and or the Old Summer Road, which include a myriad of treacherous broken bridges, deep wide and fast flowing river crossing, as well as mud, gravel and sand galore. I’m not pursuing such a challenge but I’m not ruling these roads out either… who knows what spirit of adventure or stupidity will overtake me when I exit Mongolia as an off-road expert, LOL! I ride in the shadows of giants.

After the huge personal challenge of Mongolia and Siberia it will be time to start heading home, but my trip isn’t over yet, my adventure continues. In an ideal world I would like to ship the bike to the Anchorage or Searttle, ride up to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska through Canada, and return to the USA to ride across to New York in order to completely circumnavigate the globe. However, this itinerary would include a prohibitively expensive and time consuming process of shipping. Instead, I plan to simply ride back the way I came and continue to Irkutsk where I’ll put the bike on the Transiberian Railway, with the help of a contact in the area made via the Hubb, and spend a few days on the train back to Moscow. Here I’ll spend a couple of days visiting the Tourist sites before going onto St. Petersburg to do the same. This will probably be sometime around late September or early October, but at any rate I’ll have to be out of Russia by 29 October 2012 when they’ll be kicking me out regadless.

Coming out of St.Petersburg I’ll re-enter Europe via the Baltics: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I have no particular tourist destinations in mind for the Baltics, instead I’ll be keeping my options open and seeing where the road will lead me and where Hitch takes me.

With the closing stages of my adventure comes a little more pre-planning. As I leap into Poland and the Czech Republic I have a few more places that I want to visit, in particular Auschwitz-Birkenau, Krakow and Warsaw as well as a day of shooting in Prague.

And before you know it I’ll be back into Western Europe proper, chasing what’s left of the summer with a couple of days visiting WW2 and Cold War sites in Eastern Germany, Berlin and Nuremburg in particular.

As I chase what’s left of the sun and any remaining funds I’ll visit Italy starting with a couple of days in Venice. I’ll then traverse down the east side of the old Italian boot and up then up the western side to Naples and Rome for a few days visiting the tourist sites, followed by a Pisa before exiting Italy for Monaco and the south of France and onward into Spain.

I think I’ll leave Spain as one of those fly by the seat of your pants destinations and just let the bike, the mood and the place take me where it wants. The only destination I have in mind is Barcelona and Madrid, and eventually down to Gibralter before exiting into Morocco, providing I have sufficient funds available by this point.

I need to do a lot more research on Morocco but what I do know is that the weather in November is still very good with a cooler temperature then at the peak of its very hot summer. I intend to do a loop down to Agadir via Fes and Marakesh and then back up to Casablanca. Morocco comes highly reccomended from the motoADV community, and there is a wealth of valuable information available, not least the Tim Cullis’ Morocco GS Knowledge Base, which will be an invaluable tool when I get to this closing leg of my adventure. Indeed, Morocco, apart from it’s magnificence will serve me as a real taste of Africa and help me to decide whether or not to pursue an African adventure in the future.

Just like Spain and many other places on the trip Portugal and the Return leg through France is a blank canvass.

With the Adventure ending and the trip drawing to a close, the journey itself will end in the Low Countries with a visit to the Arnhem battlefields and a whistle stop tour and blow out party of Amsterdam with friends and family from home, at least that’s what I hope will happen.

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