August 13, 2005 GMT
Turkmenistan

We've had a long-standing impression that the ferry crossing from Baku to Turkmenbashi would necessitate shadowy dealings and bribes to everyone from cargo boys to captains in order to get the motorcycle illicitly tucked away on board. Scenario part 2 encompassed images of futile nauseous attempts at sleep below deck, stashed behind tankers inhaling a hazardous plethora of environmentally toxic fumes. While getting problems squared away at the port in Baku was an experience best not repeated, this ride across the Caspian Sea is turning out far far better than anticipated.

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First Dave gets the bike tied down in the cargo hold. Then the friendly deck guy collects $10 each for a little cabin complete with refrigerator, toilet, shower, desk and teapot. Oliver settles into the cabin next door. The boat starts moving at 2:00 (we KNEW that boat wasn't gonna leave at 10:00). Pleasant breezes flow ceaselessly through the porthole. We poke around the boat like little kids, climbing up and down the stairs to the front deck and running down the long hallways.

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There's supposed to be a cafe but it looks shut down and abandoned. We have some bread and tuna but keep our fingers crossed that the dining room will open up later. Overall the ferry seems pretty empty. Having stayed up til about 3AM trying to de-escalate unreasonable brothel payments after a very long day of negotiating and waiting has left us pretty wiped out, so the next few hours are indulgently spent Doing The Nap.

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Something's cooking in the kitchen. It doesn't look like it's being made for the passengers, but the cook seems quite happy to swap $3 a piece for some bowls of soup and roasted vegetables. We sit with Oliver around the little cabin table, slurping and chomping and feeling satisfied. The sun sets across the water.

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Lights of oil tankers blink in the distance. It's leisurely and pleasant and time to sleep some more.

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At around 4AM, we wake up to to an extremely stuffy room. The breeze has stopped, which we brilliantly deduce must mean the boat has stopped. 4 hours later we wake up again and the boat is still stopped, a few kilometers from the port town of Turkmenbashi, its dry creased hills rising up behind.

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By 9:30 things have started up. Finally we disembark to meet our Turkmenistan tour guide, 24 hours late, at the customs department. The three of us have had numerous discussions speculating what might happen regarding the first day of our tour which was missed thanks to our motorcycle visa problem. The best hope is that we will be able to tack on an extra day at the end, doubtlessly paying extra, so as not to miss the sights of Turkmenbashi scheduled for day 1 of our brief 5 day tour.

(Hold on just a minute, you may be saying to yourself at this point. Why are you, Dave and Erika, independent travellers of the world, taking a tour anyway? Don't you have your own sporty motorcycle to take you anywhere you want anytime you please? Why are you forking over buckets of money to have someone hold your hand when you could be whizzing through the desert on your own??)

Good questions indeed. Well, it just so happens that Turkmenistan is run by a swell guy named Saparmyrat Niyazov, known to himself and his countrypeople as "Turkmenbashi", or Leader of the Turks. No opposition parties exist in Turkmenistan; his leadership has been compared to that of North Korea. Perhaps you read recently that Turkmenbashi just outlawed lip-synching as being Un-Turkmen. We read before entering the country that Turkmenbashi's previous decrees include 1) closing all hospitals except those in the capitol as people can bring themselves there for medical care and 2) closing all libraries in the countryside as people in the country don't know how to read anyway. Yet perhaps these are just vicious rumors, as Turkmenbashi is the author of a book known as the "Ruhnama", or Book of the Soul, which is required reading for children from elementary through college levels.

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We'll never be quite sure what is rumor and what is fact as no one seems comfortable talking about such issues. Pictures of Turkmenbashi and the Ruhnama are mounted everywhere in the country from billboards to apartment buildings. Meanwhile, on the road police stops take place about every 20 miles, at which point you must show your passport and documents to get registered.

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Anyway, in this tightly-monitored environment it turns out you cannot travel through the country with your own vehicle unless you are led by an official state-approved tour guide. Hence the current scenario wherein we are being met at customs by stocky jovial Russian Oleg. In whose big black van Oliver will have his bones rattled around for the next 4 days. We have five days (now four) in Turkmenistan because that's all we could afford.

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Sadly we wave good-bye to the first day's payment, along with hopes for one more day tacked on at the end. Oleg is a marvel at getting us and the bike through customs in what is apparently a record 2 hours, but after that is firm on sticking to the schedule and reaching Ashgabat today. The first day's would-be experiences basking on the beach and seeing the sights of Turkmenbashi are gone with the 24-hour-late ferry. It's noon, and we now have 12 hours of riding ahead. Twelve hours of riding through the desert in 100 degree heat. It's a good thing the four hour ferry delay provided us with the opportunity for some extra sleep.

Turkmenistan has some of the largest reserves of oil and natural gas in the world. Its citizens benefit from this via the unbelievable gas price of 6 cents a gallon. Tourists, however, must pay a "gas differential" which brings our gas costs to the more European rate of $5.00 a gallon. There are about 10 different offices collecting fees at customs, such as a $10 charge for riding the motorcycle down the boat ramp. Dave and Oleg visit every single office for the privelege of shelling out around $170.

Around 12:30 everything's registered and paid for. The sky is unusually dark for this part of the world; a storm's brewing. The rain is a good thing as occasional showers take the edge off the heat. Desert, desert, desert, with some interesting dry mountains. Homes are similar to those of the desert in Azerbaijan, but the land is untainted by visible environmental damage as it was near Baku. Cows dot the plains....wait, are those cows? or are they....camels? The latter are apparently domesticated and can be spotted in groups of 2, 4, 10 and more in the distance.

desert camels.jpg

We stop around 3:00 for an air-conditioned lunch in Bolcanabat, a sprawling one-story Soviet-style town ensconsed below the mountains. Then it's back on the road. Oliver makes us stop so we can take his picture (just kidding Oliver ;)

desert Oliver.jpg

Then Dave wants to stop again to get HIS picture taken (just kidding Dave ;)

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It hasn't rained much, but the parched earth on which the dusty desert towns are built is must be clogged with clay and streets are already flooded.
Small kids play in impromptu swimming holes as goats and camels wander the streets.

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Why is there such a line of cars at this gas station? Because the power is out and the pumps aren't working. Dave isn't sure he can make it to the next stop 60 kilometers up the road but has to give it a try. We make it, but there's no power at the next station either. Oleg pulls some strings and somehow comes up with a cannister of fuel for the next stretch. Good thing he has the van; from now on he'll carry extra for situations like this.

It's getting dark now. The air holds a slight cow tang tempered with pungent wet herbs, the fresh smell of damp mile after mile. Fast as subliminal messages, lightning casts jagged nets of celestial varicose veins, sunset pink under black clouds.

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The road goes on and on and on. It would be nice if dinner was also appearing on the horizon. Around 11:00 PM, the pavement gets better; must be approaching Ashgabat. There is a big arched gateway displaying a huge gold statue of a man with cape-draped arms outstretched--Turkmenbashi. Oleg's van leads us down a long hill into a bizarrely beautiful night scene: downtown Ashgabat, ornate highrise apartments lit up in gap-toothed rows against the black sky, not a soul on the street; beautiful government buildings glittering like a colorless Christmas for no one but us. Close to midnight, hungry and exhausted, we reach the ornate marble Chinese-themed lobby of Hotel Asya. The air conditioner of our high-ceilinged silver-curtained suite blasts cold into the room as we gnaw on a piece of bread and collapse on the hard silver-spreaded beds, safe and sound beneath the thin wires studded with little knobs looking just a teeny bit like microphones mounted high above our heads.

Hotel Asya lobby.jpg

In the morning we have breakfast with Oliver in the hotel's beautiful Chinese restaurant. We compare room notes: while everything on the outside of the hotel and in the lobby looks polished and exquisite, beneath the surface the rooms have shabby construction and flimsy plumbing. What's up with this surprise of a glamorous city in the middle of the surrounding desert's minimalistic poverty? The three of us have the day on our own on this "tour" to explore Ashgabat, so we begin the long walk downtown. We have the good fortune to be accompanied by the previous rainy day's legacy: the temperature is an unusually cool 100 degrees rather than 110.

First stop is the Monument to the Independence of Turkmenistan, ignominously referred to by our guidebook as "The Plunger" due to its shape. It is gilt in gold and surrounded by fountains and statues.

Monument to Independence.jpg

Apparently it's desireable to commemorate one's visit by photo, as evidenced by a nearby bulletin board.

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The Monument sits atop a sprawling park to be meandered through on the way to town. Our neighborhood, Berzengi, is about 3 miles from the center. Its modern small residential skyscrapers are quite new and remind Erika of Century City in Los Angeles. There is no evidence that anyone is inhabiting these fancy apartment buildings. We are told later that the buildings, indeed the whole city, are a project of Turkmenbashi who simply displaces whoever is living in the small hovels where he'd like to build new apartment buildings. Furthermore, apparently no one wants to live in the fancy new apartments because they are of Turkish construction, proven infamously shoddy during the disastrous earthquakes in that country in the late 1990s. If you weren't concerned about this, you could snap up one of the high-tech units for a tidy $22,000.

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Hardly anyone is around on the streets. The only people in the park are a small flock of green-clothed face-covered workers meticulously cleaning the marble slabs surrounding a huge statue of the Ruhnama. Oleg later says that they wear the strange face covers, revealing only the smallest slit of eye, to keep them from dust and environmental pollution. The city is so immaculately scrubbed and polished that it's hard to imagine any shred of dirt marring the skin of its inhabitants.

Ruhnama and park cleaners.jpg

Downtown, the Arch of Neutrality looks like a small Eiffel Tower except that Turkmenbashi doesn't sit in his gold-encased commemorative incarnation rotating with the sun atop the Eiffel Tower.

Arch of Neutrality.jpg

You can take an elevator to the first level of the Arch, from which a nice view of the Presidential Palace and numerous parliament buildings can be seen. You can't take a photo of the Palace from the street or the guards will yell at you. But there's no problem getting a snapshot from the top of the Arch.

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The government buildings have been built and designed by a French firm--no earthquake hazards here--and are arguably tasteful and attractive.

parliament building.jpg

Less tasteful (though some might find her rear end attractive) is the young waitress at a restaurant we pop into for lunch. Her employer may not be aware of the meaning of the 6-inch letters bleached across the back of her jeans, which let English-speaking diners read "F--- YOU" as she walks away with their order.

Of course there is no shortage of depictions of Turkmenbashi anywhere. Along with his visage, one also reads the slogan, "Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi" (People, Nation, Turkmenbashi).

just another Turkmenbashi billboard.jpg

Our book points out that some people note an uncomfortable resemblance to Hitler's slogan of "Ein volk, Ein reich, Ein fuhrer". Another common slogan appearing everywhere from community centers to beauty salons is "Altyn Asyr", referring to the Golden Age promised to his people by Turkmenbashi.

We all need to get some money, but the black market rate is 5 times higher than the offical rate. Oleg helps us find the right place to maximize our funds. The largest denomination of manat is a bill worth 40 cents, which means that when you obtain $40 in manat you shouldn't expect it to fit into your wallet. We speculate that the immense glossy empty-looking bank buildings must actually be built that size not to house employees but to hold the improbably huge stacks of money.

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Beautifully landscaped and empty parks and promenades stretch throughout the city. The Soviet War Memorial tops a long cascade of fountains stretching out to meet the main street.

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Fountains are everywhere inside this oasis within the parched desert. It's like a weird combination of perhaps Las Vegas, Russia and North Korea. Look, here's another statue of Turkmenbashi. But where are all the people? We ponder this over dinner at the hotel's Chinese restaurant.

Oleg is supposed to meet up with us at 2:00 for a ride through the desert to the Darvaza Gas Craters. This leaves the morning free. Erika wants to ride out to the Walk of Health, an 8 kilometer staircase oddly built into the side of a nearby mountain. When she asks the hotel clerk for directions, however, she's informed that it is not possible for the motorcycle to travel independently outside of Ashgabat. Oleg told us that we'd need to hold on to our tourist permits while walking through the city; though no one asked to see them, it is clear that you do not stray from the designated path here.

So instead we check out the Carpet Museum. Its impressive array of beautiful Turkmen carpets includes an astonishing portrait of Turkmenbashi's mother, who died along with his brothers in the 1949 earthquake (what was that about that flimsy new building construction again?) and another of his whole family (his father died in WWII). The museum also boasts the world's largest carpet, alongside the original Guinness Book of World's Records Certificate. It takes up an entire 2-story wall and took 40 people 9 months to make. No photos are allowed in the museum (the carpets are encoded with woven state secrets?)

Back at the hotel, Oleg is running late. Our small group has gotten slightly larger with the one-night addition of Jane. When Oleg arrives, we follow him to a market on the outskirts of town so we can buy water, then to another market some distance away so we can buy fruit.

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Then we stop for gas. It's after 4:00 before we're on our way. The glamor of Ashgabat melts almost immediately into small dusty desert shacks. The road returns to its previous rutted potholed lane. We stop at one small dune-filled community to get gas.

desert kids and Oliver.jpg

It must be a constant battle against the sand which blows about and settles morning to night. Not many people have set up homes in this harsh environment, but from time to time a small compound or yurt appears, perhaps a few goats, a handful of camels.

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Small motorcycles are also visible, with attractive seats in the local style.

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A few hours later Oleg pulls off the road onto a small dirt track. He shows us a strange water-filled crater which looks more surreal in the pink light of dusk. He knows of no scientific explanation behind how the crater pool came to exist in the middle of this vast desert.

at the crater.jpg

The next destination is even more surreal. It's dark now as we hop into the van for the very rutted bumpy ride (too difficult for the motorcycle to tackle in the dark) to the Gas Crater. We can't see anything yet as we disembark but feel the blast of something like a furnace which makes retreating into the previous 100 degree evening air feel practically cool and refreshing.

in the distance.jpg

As we gingerly tread downhill towards the burning unknown, scorching winds whip our hair like blow dryers from hell.

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Oleg explains that the huge rocky pit with its seething flames eternally roasting the granite piles within was originally caused by...oh no, what was it caused by? Dave and Erika can't get their stories straight. An explosion of the gas lines under the ground? Which a farmer threw a torch into? And it kept burning? We recall that Oleg said whatever our book said was inaccurate. In any case, it's a bizarre sight and one of the highlights of this trip.

burning gas crater.jpg

Last stop for the night: the chaykhana. We'll encounter this pleasant institution in many forms throughout Central Asia. These roadside stops serve tea and dinner and provide a resting place for travellers during the long dull hours of desert travel. Ours is simple but enjoyable, sitting under the stars eating a very late meal. Busloads of travellers making the long journey from the north to Ashgabat come and eat and go as we finish up and prepare to retire to the yurt.

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Time to get to know your fellow travellers a little bit better! Everyone is going to sleep inside the same yurt, so you'd better just hope you brought your cute pajamas. It's kinda stuffy in there and Erika fantasizes about sleeping under the stars, but Oleg says it's too noisy outside with all the buses coming and going. Who does she discover sleeping under the stars in the morning, though....

A hearty breakfast of traditional flat round bread with untraditional tuna and something like Hoho's starts of the next day's treck. Police checkpoints pop up with (reassuring?) regularity as the narrow sandy road continues. All that tea has pushed Dave's bladder to the bursting point as the cops collect our passports and take them into the hut for processing.

Dave: "Do you think it would be okay if I just took a leak in these dunes over here?"

Erika: "I dunno."

Dave: (sound of leak being taken)

Cop: (SOUND OF RUSSIAN LANGUAGE SPOKEN AT LOUD OUTRAGED DECIBEL DIRECTED AT DAVE !@#$%(&!#$%^!!!!!!!)

Oleg: (sound of placating Russian saying things surely like, "He's just a stupid tourist, he doesn't know you're not supposed to take a disrespectful leak at the police station, really, he's just a stupid American")

Other Cops Watching Scenario: (snicker, snicker)

etc. etc. etc.

Dave is about to have to hand over the relatively large equivalent of $10, but somehow Oleg manages to placate the furious cop.

Oleg: (grimacing to Dave): get OUT of here. NOW. GO. GO.

So off we go. That Dave, always pushing the edges with authority.

By mid-afternoon, we've reached the town of Konya-Urgench. This territory has a conflicted history as it is relatively green and lush, with evidence of a large cotton harvest in the making. As the land is so fertile it has been fought over with neighboring Uzbekistan. Turkmen who wish to visit must get a special permit, as must Konya-Urgench residents when they wish to visit the rest of Turkmenistan. We are there to see the historical ruins which were once the historical center of the Muslim world. The old city has gone through many sackings and rebuildings over the centuries. Our small group in Western gear (not to mention motorcycle gear) stands out among the many local tourists wandering about in family groups through the site.

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Oleg tells us that certain old rituals are still performed here, such as rolling down a certain hill to ensure fertility, attaching small wishing rags to holy branches to help fulfill prayers, and walking under arched branches to cleanse your soul.

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The pathway goes by isolated spires of ancient mosques and leaning mausoleums of bygone kings.

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Our last night is to be spent in the local home of a kind Korean woman whose family has been in the area for many generations. Oleg needs to take Jane to the border, so Oliver, Erika and Dave drink tea and watch Russian television. Svetlana's home is neat and clean and ornamented with beautiful rugs. She also has a Korean style sauna which we are delighted to use after the hot dusty unwashed days on the road. Clean and happy, we sit in the courtyard and read our books until dinner.

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Oleg joins us again at this point and provides some vodka to drink with our tea and delicious salad and dumpling soup. Russian TV accompanies us again, the same program as before. It's an entertainment show offering a classical ballerina and her partner dancing to "Swan Lake". In the middle of their emotive performance her cell phone rings. The whole thing is actually pretty amusing.

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The next morning we bid an appreciative farewell to Svetlana and her enjoyable hostessing.

Svetlana and Erika.jpg

After a short tour of the second half of the ruins, we must head for the border to cross into Uzbekistan. Oliver is taking a different border crossing to enter Uzbekistan (smart Oliver) so he waits in the van for Oleg to help us through and come back. Wait, wait, wait. That's what Oliver is doing as an hour passes. Another hour passes. What could possibly be taking them so long? he must be wondering. (Later he tells us that actually he was just absorbed in reading his book and figured it was The Usual Bureaucracy B.S.)

Meanwhile, back in Reality Land, what's REALLY going on with Dave and Erika and The Border Crossing? Is everything going just fine until the guard tells us we have to wait for some OTHER guard to show up for some unexplained reason?? Wait, wait, wait. Other guard finally shows up. Heated exchange in Russian between Oleg and the guard. Oleg looks very unhappy. We sit. Oleg looks more unhappy. Finally he turns to us and explains that we have committed the HEINOUS CRIME OF STAYING IN A PRIVATE GUESTHOUSE.

Guard: You are tourists. Did you not know that it is not legal to stay in a private guesthouse?

Us: But our book (waving around Lonely Planet Guide) recommends some private guesthouses right here. And anyway, we were on a tour which arranged this for us.

Guard: It is illegal to stay in private guesthouse. You must pay fine of $250 each.

Us: Gasp.

Guard: Or you will be banned from visiting Turkmenistan for 5 years.

With this kind of hospitality, would YOU be wanting to visit Turkmenistan in the next 5 years?

Oleg needs to hand-write 2 lengthy signed confessions (which we must sign) as well as complete numerous other inscrutable documents stating that he has taken us to this evil guesthouse. He must also pay a $300 fine. He is understandably upset over this as well as over the possibility that he could lose his job as his employer is contracted with the state. All WE get is a small red stamp in our passports. When we cross the border to Uzbekistan the guards there will eye the stamp, eye us, and smirk.

Later we will learn that Oleg's fine is reduced to $200 and his job is presumably safe. We will also hear at least 3 stories of other tourists who were banned from Turkmenistan for various other heinous crimes. One couple on bicycles arrived at the border 15 minutes after it closed and were personally driven many hours back to Ashgabat to pay a large sum of money. Another guy who overstayed his visa was banned for a year. Is it actually five times worse to stay in a private guesthouse than to overstay your visa? The other irony is that we were on a tourist visa, travelling with a required guide on a required tour. If we had been able to obtain a transit visa (very difficult as we were travelling with our own vehicle), we could have travelled on our own and freely stayed in a private guesthouse without breaking the law.

And what do you make of THAT???

Yours Truly,
Dave & Erika, Enemies of Turkmenistan

Dave's mirage.jpg

Posted by Erika Tunick at August 13, 2005 12:11 PM GMT
 


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