Wake as it gets light, untangle myself from sleeping bag liner (ripping it more in the process), peer out of the tent and see if it really is time to get up. Roll around in the confines of the very small one-man tent and drag smelly, dusty riding gear on and emerge blinking into the sunlight to face another day.
I wrote that on the third day into Kazakhstan. The morning ritual was still pretty much the same – except the riding gear was now much smellier and much dustier. In fact, the old kit was feeling the strain a bit. The main zip on the jacket had given up somewhere in Kazahstan and the flies had gone a couple of days ago, along with the popper that fastened the trousers (I was actually losing weight on the slurry curry and snickers diet, so no comments containing ‘fat’ or ‘bastard’ from the back row please) – attempts at repair with safety pins and zip ties had proved largely ineffectual, so I was, shall we say, ‘open to the elements’.
The body was not doing too much better. Yesterday I had my biggest fall. Not quite sure whether it was by design or my mistake, but I found myself riding completely off the track – normally this wasn’t a problem as it was often hard to tell the difference between the track and the surrounding countryside. So I just kept blatting along with a view to re-joining the track a little further on. The only problem was I seemed to have wandered into some sort of ancient minefield, full of small craters that had now been covered with sparse vegetation and were therefore hard to see. I hit the first one pretty hard and launched the front wheel as I came out of it. As I hadn’t been ready for it, this threw me backwards – in trying to hang on I opened the throttle even more. I picked up speed through the second and third craters and somehow hung on as I launched out of the third crater and nosedived into the far lip of the fourth crater. The bike stopped…dead…I carried on…and then stopped…not quite dead! I landed on the floor and lay there laughing. I had already replayed the video in my head and I knew just how funny it must have looked. I can’t just remember who stopped to pick me up and dust me down – but he was laughing too!
The only unfunny bit (well i didn’t find it funny – probably you, dear reader, with your warped sense of humour and lack of regard for other’s suffering would have found it highly amusing) was, that as I parted company with the bike I had caught the handlebars with my left thigh and given myself a real good dead leg. As I woke that morning, I felt as though I had been give a right good kicking.
The alarm had gone off at 05.15 – aiming again for setting off at 07.00 – I could hear people up and about outside, but there was plenty of time for another 10 minutes – it felt bloody cold out there as well. When I did finally drag myself out of the pit and stuck my head out, I was quite surprised to see that many tents were already down and people were strapping stuff on to their bikes. Apparently we had crossed into another time zone and lost another hour, so it was now 06.45. Oh well…Snickers and Coke for breakfast at the first stop then.
The better road meant that we made good progress. At times the scenery was almost ‘European’ with rolling hills and trees.
We were making good progress. John even managed time for another quick dip.
A little further on we came across this quite unexpected Canyon (Tariat gorge – about 100km short of Tsetserleg). It was pretty much hidden from the road, but there was a sort of parking area, so we stopped for a break and a swig of water and ‘discovered’ the canyon. One by one most of us pulled up. We were just about to leave when Tony noticed he had picked up a puncture – so we all adjourned for lunch while he changed his tyre.
After a relatively relaxed break we motored on to Tsetserleg on mainly well graded roads. The only downside of graded roads is that sections can become heavily corrugated and shake body and machine to bits. There were also sections where the new road was closed off and we were diverted back onto rough tracks (à la Kazakhstan). We managed to ride round or over several of the earth mounds barring our way. The mounds often stood around four or five feet high and were quite steep sided. The technique was to try and hit them with reasonable speed and then come off the throttle straight away, so that you almost stopped on the crest and then coasted down the other side.
Perhaps I overdid the speed a little, I thought, as the front wheel soared into the air… it crashed back to earth all too quickly and after a token attempt at staying upright I was once again on the deck. It was becoming such a common occurence these days that it warranted little interest from the others – what did instill a little urgency in me as I jumped up up was the sound of another bike fast approaching the other side of the mound – they couldn’t see over, so weren’t aware that I was lying there in the ‘landing zone’ – if I didn’t get a move on it could all end up like some really bad ‘You’ve Been Framed’ clip.
Evel Steph Knievel took a very similar approach to me and the end result was pretty much the same. She landed short of me but veered off to the left and ended up down the quite steep banking. Fortunately there was no major damage to flesh or machine – just a few more bruises to add to the ever-growing tally.
A little further on we hit our first stretch of pristine tarmac – YEEEHAAA!!!!! We cracked the throttle open and went for it. The Tenere is not exactly a sports machine, but after days of travelling at around 50kph or less it felt quick enough! After hooning down the road with the throttle nailed to the stop. I eased back to a cruising speed around 110kph and then….WHOA! WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE!!!! The bike veered off to the left and then to the right and the steering felt like it had been replaced by a rudder operating in a sea of black treacle.
I ran through the options in my head (How come in circumstances like this, your brain can run through a multitude of options and answers in a millisecond but when faced with a simple question like ‘what do you want for tea?’ or ‘where did you leave the car keys?’ your brain just turns into some sort of sawdust mixed with jelly?).
The options I came up with were:
- Ice…Unlikely, given that it was about 35 degrees.
- Oil/Disel…possible, although unlikely given that the road was brands new and had no trucks on it
- Weird non-grip Mongolian tarmac – now, I know Mongolians don’t have much experience with tarmac, but surely even they wouldn’t think that was a great idea.
- Catastrophic bike failure – frame snapped in two or swing arm snapped – possible – hard to determine at this precise moment.
- Puncture – ahhhh yes – this seems most likely.
OK, probable problem identified – now what? – whatever you do don’t touch the f****ing brake!
I became slightly transfixed looking the black tarmac speeding by under my left boot as I veered from side to side. My only thought was that I would soon be in contact with it and it was going to hurt. Like some mad kind of sailship tacking into the wind, I yawed to the left and to the right, slowly, slowly scrubbing off speed, still convinced that any second I would be falling off. Somehow I stayed on and coasted to a stop. The front tyre was completely flat.
With some assistance, I got the tyre off and examined the inner tube. There were no obvious nails or puncture marks, just a huge rip down one of the seams. I can only think that perhaps the tube had been damaged from all the pounding on the off-road sections and as I increased speed on the tarmac the extra heat had finally caused it to let go. Slightly ironic that I had managed thousands of miles on poor quality tarmac, loose gravel and sand and finally had a puncture on the best tarmac I had seen since leaving Germany.
We stopped in Tsetserleg for fuel and provisions. It was the largest town we had come across since leaving Olgiy and we found the supermarket well stocked with crisps, chocolate, vodka and beer – all the essentials! Tonight would be our last night camping before we hit UB, so it would be rude not to drink a toast or two.
We cracked on out of Tsetserleg for around another 50km before setting up camp for the night. It was now pretty certain that we should be able to hit Ulaanbataar tomorrow. The roads seemed to be improving as we approached UB, so barring nay disasters or unforeseen hold-ups, it was looking as though Jeff’s prediction would be right and we would arrive in UB on schedule.
We feasted well(ish). Spirits were high, we felt as though we had made it through the wilderness, although the sense of achievement was tinged with a sense of sorrow at the imminent end of the trip. There was a great sense of camaraderie within the group as we sat around the fire. We had been through a lot together. Whether it was the adversity and bad times that had pulled us together as a group, or the fact that we all just got on with each other any way, I don’t know. I do know that it felt as though some real lasting friendships had been formed. Either that or I’d had too much vodka mixed with red wine! Peace and goodwill to all men! I must admit I did have a bit of difficulty finding my tent in the dark.