The usual route from Norway to Central Europe (and vice versa) is either by Denmark or Germany. Another familiar option is ferry to Newcastle with a second crossing at Dover. There is a third alternative, through Finland, St.Petersburg and the Baltics, but even as a Norwegian I’d never met anyone that done this drive. A widespread belief is that it is unsafe with high risk of being harassed by authorities and mugged by thugs. But is it true? There was only one way to find out.
An offroader was bought during winter. Evidently the bike broke its first owners leg. So the guy said, selling it in fury, meaning I got it cheap. I kinda liked its rebellious past, and with the exception of being a tricky fire up it seemed in good health. Tromso was an excellent point of departure with only a few hours to Finland and the first smell of EU. The border crossing is not much to talk about. I didn’t stop, just drove through, a nice advantage of the Nordic union of trust. From there it was hours on end with forest and reindeers until it became very late and I had to pitch the tent at a bus stop without seeing much because it was dark. Too late I noticed the unpleasant smell of what I then assumed was the result of car drivers yearning for a remote bus stop like this one to relieve themselves. Unfortunately it was worse. The tent stood on the same spot where a camper van had emptied the toilet tank, probably last year since the pulp was dry, but still…
The shops in Oulo offered a wide collection of flashlights. The city is an excellent hang out. Yet being in biker modus I decided to look for some nice coastal roads further south, only to discover that Finland doesn’t have any. It is a nation of lumberjacks. They have built their roads where the trees are. Trees is said to be of their main export articles, though the whole statement seems odd as I drove hundreds of kilometres without noticing any missing. Further down the road a crack in the rear tyre de-routed me to Kuvan Moottoripalvelu in Jyväskylä (www.kuvamp.fi). The motorcycle store is a knockout. Not only did they have the tyre in stock. The chief mechanic identified the start-up trouble by just staring at the bike for half a minute. Allegedly it was not a mechanical problem but a problem with a previous mechanic, and while he worked on it the shop crew gave me a chair under a sunshade and served me hot drinks. Another cup of coffee Sir? Yes, thanks. In the end I was presented the bill, expecting the worst, but facing a zero less than my minds most pleasant suggestion. Next I met my good friend Paula who was planning a conference at a fashionable hotel downtown. By being mistaken for her husband a fruit basket and a bottle of champagne was delivered to the room with compliments from the hotel manager. Yepp, the benchmark was definitely rising.
Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress: A trained eye will see that one of these seagulls are fake
I used a Helsinki agent for obtaining a Russian double entry visa, and the Ingostrakh (Russian third party insurance) was for sale at the border. Everything went smooth. So much had been said about the troubles to expect, and I would lie if I said I was not anxious driving alone on the boulevard to St.Petersburg. I had arranged reservation at a hotel with guarded parking, thinking it would cover most security issues, and a flow of relief went through when I finally saw the sign. But the feeling was soon replaced by something quite the opposite. The biggest annual motorcycle arrangement in town was arranged that evening, and of all places it was held on the parking lot of my hotel. A rock’n roll stage was built in the middle and everybody was welcome. Oh God, there would be hundreds of wannabe bikers dribbling all over my horse. Yes, tomorrow it would be nothing there but an empty spot.
Why they compare St.Petersburg with Venice
(for some reason they never compare Venice with St.Petersburg)
Now, these fantasies were highly exaggerated. The following day I got lost in the subway system (when having a hangover the Russian alphabet can be somewhat confusing). A woman pushed me back into the train and guided me all the way to my correct destination. She never said a word and disappeared into the crowd like it was routine before I managed to express my gratitude. And when leaving St.Petersburg I stopped in some dubious looking suburbs to have a second glimpse at the map. A bypassing car hit the brakes, a man with a grim face ran out, and I prepared myself for assault. I recommend you go there, he said, pointing on the map, showing me the best way to Estonia.
Two errors at the Russian/Estonian border:
1. Don't wait in line with the cars
2. Don't take a picture of a Russian border
No doubt that Estonia is proud of their European Union membership. You would think it was the Coca Cola marketing team that had decorated the border with EU logos, and signs frequently reminded that EU had sponsored the paved road from Narva to the capital.
The musician and motorcycle enthusiast Mait Seger dedicating a copy of his brilliant album “Sadness and Sun” to my trip. Thanks Mait.
At some point I had a roadside coffee looking at two giant mountains in the southern horizon, later said to be artificial and entirely made of cinder from a coal mine. From an environmental point of view it was more pleasant to visit Lahemaa National Park by the north coast. At the end of some winding roads it was evening, the sun was low, no wind, just a smell of barbeque, some distant voices, and flies flew silently between the trees. An older woman permitted me to camp in her garage, just a stone throw from a café where I met a Frankfurt backpacker carrying the same travel book as me. A reason for start talking. Ingo was very into space travel, though not being a cosmonaut he had his own blog on a webpage dedicated to the subject. I didn’t know it then, but Ingo the Raumfahrer would cross my path again.
Finally there. But where is it?
Southwest of Tallinn and behind some bushes is a town named Saue (www.saue.ee). Evidently few tourists visit the place. They sold no postcards with city images, but as soon as the ladies at the post office knew my surname they wanted me to have the only Saue artifact available – a big calendar hanging on the wall behind them. Maili, a newly employed beauty expert in EU directives invited me home for dinner and a listen at Mait Segers CD. Thereafter I went to see Saue Mois, a magnificent manor house. The owner was a car mechanic that successfully had built his own company. The revenue was put into restoring the manor, and he gave me a tour on the premises before inviting me to spend the night in deluxe atmosphere. Oh yeah. The last thought before falling asleep was “I love Estonia”.
The next day was rainy and my shoes were filled with water. Somewhere between Tallinn and Pärnu I spotted a Statoil station. Ah refill of coffee, what a delight, and I walked in with my Statoil thermo cup. “What! They give you free coffee at the Statoil stations in Norway? Do you think we’re stupid?”
In Pikk Street in Pärnu was another Statoil station, but something told me not to go there.
Pärnu is Estonias second largest city, but has a small town feel to it. A veteran motorcycle was parked in a side alley with helmet and gloves left unwatched on its seat. A health spa offered “electric cure”. I didn’t try it. A small pub displayed a photo of King Harald with a beer in his hand, enjoying himself at that very same pub. Strange. I strolled around for a few hours, observing and reporting to myself, then leaving the country with a sudden feeling of contentment.
To enter Latvia was like driving out of a forest and into a farmer’s field. A few windmills did their job, and I turned left at the first corner heading for Mazsalaca where you allegedly turn into a werewolf when crawling through a specific tree root at full moon while saying a certain spell.
Latvian quilt – the Latvians make perfect patches in the potholes
It was overclouded but I was confident that the moon would be somewhere up above anyway. After dark a squad of kids on bicycles showed me the way into the forest, taught me the magic words, and they watched with headshaking disbelief as I crawled and chanted like a fool. Nothing happened. I later got to know – and it is true – that it was a lunar eclipse that evening. That might explain the failure.
Bad timing placed me in the Riga morning rush. Traffic was a mess. A brief encounter with some unfriendly Internet café staff made me go on to Jurmala hoping that the beach resort would offer more affability. But nobody would smile to me there either. The only one approaching was a beggar with one leg and beard like Santa Claus. “John Lennon is Latvian”, he said with his palm set to receive payment for the information. “No, John Lennon was English, and he’s dead”. For a second the chap seemed shocked by the news, then concentrating hard. “Eh… Suzi Quattro is Latvian. Give me money”.
While pushing for the more rural Cape Kolka I tried to name a famous Latvian but couldn’t think of any. The cape was windy with neoprene suits and kites, and barely south was the Dungada village. A three meter long crocodile was on display by the main street. In Estonia they had stamps with rhino images, and now this. It was disturbing. Did African wildlife rule the Baltics? The locals kept their distance and refused to be asked, but a plaque explained that the ugly crocodile was given by a Latvian consulate in honor of a Dungada hero named Arvids von Blumenfelds. During WWII he escaped to Australia where he made a reputation as an outstanding crocodile hunter. Many years later a blockbuster film was made based on his character. So there you go – a famous Latvian – Mr. Crocodile Dundee.
In honor of a hero stolen by the Australians
The unsociability continued. I crisscrossed the inland, often stopping in towns and villages to seek information about what was ahead, but only the beggars made contact. Clearly the ordinary men and women looked upon me as an intruder of their everyday life. With a little open-mindedness the phenomenon might be explained by a collective embarrassment for not speaking perfect English. They might choose to avoid the awkwardness. In such case the rural Latvians are not alone in the world. But at the time it was annoying.
A long day with rejections had made its toll on me and I was eating what I in fury had decided to be my last meal in Latvia – a gas station steak – when Ulf rushed in. The Dane was thrilled for finally meeting a Scandinavian biker. Six years ago he bought a large piece of land that had not been grown since before the war, so when ploughing the soil there would now and then surface an undetonated bomb. After six years he had a pile of them. Obviously he was some kind of stuntman farmer. But hey, cheap production costs combined with good corn prices in Denmark was an excellent incentive. Despite being the village’s largest and richest employer the bachelor’s home was in desperate need of a woman touch. At night I had to position my madras so that it covered the nearby holes in the living room floor, so to avoid putting a hand into a hole while sleeping (there were rattraps in all of them).
Ulf kindly allowed me to service the bike in his tractor workshop. What a guy!
I thought about an early start, but Ulf insisted we went for a drive. He had something to show me and told a fascinating story on the go. In the fifties 3000 Russian soldiers came out of the blue and moved into the woods next to the village. There they did something for thirty years, and all that time the locals didn’t know what it was. Nobody would tell them. Suddenly the soldiers torched whatever they hid, left as abruptly as they came, and the village people walked together into the woods hoping to get some answers to the three decades of utmost secrecy.
We enjoy the radiation from three Russian nuclear rocket silos
The main attraction in Lithuania was the Curonian Spit (Kurische Nehrung), a unique 98-kilometer long sand strip in the Baltic Sea. The rare land formation is on Unesco’s world heritage list. Even better, there is a small winding road along the whole length of it. The hitch is that the Spit ends far into the Russian enclave Kaliningrad, and few drive the whole length due to visa regulations. Thus my double entry visa obtained in Helsinki had yet another stamping spot, and the Ingostrakh from the St.Petersburg roundtrip was still valid.
The Curonian’s northern tip is only ten minutes by ferry from Klaipeda harbor
The Curonian drive was very entertaining and scenic and nice except for the flies that gathered in clouds not visible at a distance. Driving into one of these balls of organic dust (usually found under brushwood hanging over the road) was as if someone blew a mouthful of cereal onto the face of the helmet. Instinctly I wiped the visor with my left thumb making an unfortunate thick film of gutter and amputated wings. Everything became a blur. The rest of the flies got sucked into my open jacket which I quickly zipped to the neck to avoid further intrusions. But the damage was done; I could feel them thriving in my underwear.
In Nida camping was forbidden, and every B&B was full. The only offer was the expensive hotel, an option not tailored to my budget. The prospects for the night seemed discomforting with the first rumbling sound from above. In next to no time it was poring down from an open sky and I ran for shelter in a nearby café. To my surprise Ingo the Raumfahrer whom I met in Estonia sat by one of the tables. He had hitchhiked all the way with two hippies in a Volkswagen bus saying they were from space though I’m quite sure they were from Vilnius. They were discussing a mechanical problem and questioning if the bus would last home. Somehow I managed to fix the problem with my bike tools, and in gratitude the aliens called a friend who had a friend who had a friend etc., and within the hour Ingo and I could camp in a privately owned apartment. Then drinks, all in a few hours friendship.
In Nida you can watch people without a Russian visa turn around and go back
The Kaliningrad border was just a few kilometers away. The officer in the tiny blue lit booth didn’t have a clue where to register the bike in the computer program. Allegedly he never met my kind, though I suspect that the Commodore sixtyfour lookalike likely found by an archeologist and donated to the border guys was the real problem. Programming took a lot of time, but I was patient and he was friendly. An admission fee was to be paid and I did not have any rubles left, something that caused a little commotion with the lady in charge of admission fee collection. My biggest concert was that I did not have a Kaliningrad map, meaning that I had to improvise. First I tailgated a bus from the border to the main station in Kaliningrad City. From there I used a compass to get out on the other side.
Despite its modest size the enclave exhibited three very different faces. The northeastern part was typical Siberian with thick vegetation. At no time did I see the ocean that in fact was just behind the trees on both sides of the road. Then the scenery becomes more urban with worn villages and an ugly wall of concrete being the capital. The traffic was chaotic, orientation was zero, and every corner seemed unsafe to leave a motorbike weighed down with valuables. Perhaps I was wrong, perhaps it was safe, but it felt like not. The whole city just oozed pollution and mafia. With these first impressions I was into quite a shock when roaring out on the other side. Who would have guessed – the southwestern part was clean and fresh with islands of green bushes and trees on endless fields of beautiful yellow flowers. Indeed it was the end of the Baltics and the beginning of something new.
Kaliningrad main station: These young soldiers that just arrived from duty in Chechnya tore their unit tag off a uniform and insisted I sew in onto my motorcycle jacket.
From the very beginning I promised myself to be a law obedient driver paying attention to the local speed limits. In Poland that was a problem. It was not that I felt like going faster, but everybody else did. For my own safety I aim to keep the same pace as the rest, but in Poland it was impossible without an extra tilt on the throttle. Evidently sixty means eighty, and eighty means hundred and ten. There is a race car driver in every Pole. They just can’t stand being bypassed, and when I did I could be sure that he or she would put the pedal to the metal to reestablish the previous position in line.
Would you spend two nights with these guys?
In Gdansk I met Maciek who not only have the same bike model but also share the passion for overlanding. His positive experiences made me feel even better about choosing a Yamaha for such a long ride. The prior idea was to stay at his place till next day, but the demanding underground club scene shattered the plan and we all had to recover till Sunday. It was raining again, but the guilt for not leaving sooner pulled me out of town. What a bore. The E75 going south must be the dullest drive on earth, especially if you’re driving an offroader. There was nothing to see and my automatic backup entertainment system activated, meaning that the rest of the day was spent inside the helmet.
The many guarded parking lots are marvelous. For a few coins you can safely leave your vehicle for hours, and the guards often prioritize two-wheelers by offering a spot next to the booth where they might fall asleep but not so much that they do not wake up if someone outside is fiddling with your chain lock. In Copernicus’ birth town Torun I parked in such a place, indulged myself with a hotel room, and went for an evening walkabout. The main shopping street was wet and shiny and abandoned. An eye-catching woman in her late thirties hasted in the opposite direction as if she was late for an important meeting. She wore a tidy dark business suit, secretary style, beaming professional success. It was an odd sight on a Sunday night. The home of Copernicus was supposed to be in the neighborhood, but I soon gave up searching by the assumption that the museum was closed. On the way back I noticed a crowd with umbrellas outside a massive renaissance church. I elbowed my way through the open door and on to the overcrowded rain soaked main hall floor where a ceremonial was taking place. The prayers were deeply involved; I felt misplaced, and as I turned to leave our eyes met again. She was ruining her neat dress by being on her knees in a filthy puddle while doing business with the man above.
The sheer evil that took place in Auschwitz is just too much to grasp
In Krakow I was welcome to stay with Pawel at a student home, but his room was also shared by his wife and new born child, so I camped with a friend two floors up. I do not remember this friend’s name. Let’s call him Bob. Well, Bob wanted to show me the town and was constantly asking what I wished to do, to see, etc… I know, it was with the best of intentions, but not very satisfying for me who wanted to experience their recreational preferences rather than repeating my own. After lingering for a while in a dubious side street I suggested we move on, but he said I had to be patient. Soon there would be girls around. Yes girls, I had said that I liked girls. No no Bob, not that kind of girls!
Here I could have attached a photo of Zakopane, but Pawel and his wife is much better looking.
I was climbing the hills to Zakopane, as usual being bypassed by all other vehicles, when a green minibus came into sight in front. To my amazement the driver was doing no more than the sixty speed limit. I squeezed some extra fluid into the carburetor, oozed by, and settled at eighty. Hah, finally I defeated a Polish driver. Oh yeah, I am a really tough biker. But the self appraisal was barely at birth when the minibus became very large in the rear view mirror, and as it passed on my left side in no less than a forty above legal I got a glimpse of the driver. It was a nun. The whole minibus was filled with nuns!
Over the Tatra Mountains, down a winding road, and in between some bushes was the border. The two border guys seemed impressed when I replied that I was going to Asia (then said as a joke), but their confidence in that I would make it across their own country evaporated like gasoline on a hot day when the bike didn’t start after the paper inspection was done. Just a flooded carburetor, but they didn’t know, and they sat in their booth pointing and laughing while I was working on the problem. “Going to Asia with that thing? Ha-ha, good luck.”
I do not remember, but this might be the city of Levoca
I like the bike. One cylinder, one carburetor, uncomplicated wiring system, fuel cheap, light weight, fun to drive, and fast enough. Even I can understand what is wrong and do repairs when it behaves out of the ordinary. Behaves, yes, it has a personality. It can be grumpy, a real bitch sometimes, but if I treat it in a certain way it is returning the kindness. Some people think it is silly to give the bike a name. I do not agree. Something with a name becomes a someone, and you tend to pay more attention to its wants and needs. I’ve named the bike after a heroic dog. The name is Balto (I say some more about the dog later). “Good morning Balto, how are you feeling today? Ouch, your chain is dry? No problem, we’ll fix it in a flash.”
The Spisske Castle and the village below
Stary Smokovec is an excellent starting point for trekking the Tatra Mountains. In the center of the village is a big sign telling about the lodging options, and as I arrived another traveler was studying the many options. Eric had driven from France in a Golf, and we got some flats at Pension Vesna. My flat was very nice, the price was low, and the boarding house owner offered Balto a garage. Pension Vesna is a super place for bikers and hikers, highly recommended. The next day Eric and I went on an excursion to the eastern part of the country. Among other things we went to the Spisske, the largest castle in Slovakia. There were a lot of gypsies living in the region, looking distinctly more southern that us pale faces from the Arctic, and for the first time I got the notion of having driven quite a distance from home.
Southern Slovakia: A decent cup of coffee is hard to come across. A jar of Nescafe is as important as spare parts for the bike
In a park in Budapest I met Petra. She offered me to pitch my tent in her parents garden, and after meeting them all and been served a wonderful dinner my status increased to houseguest. Then the father took me on a city tour in his car, an extraordinary experience, because his goal was not to show me the nicest places, but the worst.
On tour in the gypsy quarters, in a Citroen Xsara driven like Loeb
A remarkable fact about Hungary is that every year about a thousand people are killed in bicycle accidents, something that might explain why there were so few bicycle riders in town. Obviously there were very few left. Petra and I went on a walkabout, visiting the main attractions in Buda. Among other things we arrived at the mansion of the prime minister where tourists were gathered to see some fancy dressed soldiers do their turns on the catwalk. Allegedly they guarded the minister’s house. When the show was over a single policeman was left. He didn’t look very happy, explaining that the soldiers got all the attention, while it reality it was he who guarded the prime minister, not them.
The Hajnal ladies, what a cool family! Thanks!!!!
Petra’s mother was from the western part of the country, and on departure she gave me a map of her home region. Unfortunately I did not linger for long because I was anxious to see the ocean again, and I did not stop for the night before I was far inside Slovenia.
I never investigated if it was hundred meter to it, or if it was hundred meter long
As initially mentioned I was curious about the myth saying that you can not drive through Eastern Europe without being mugged by thugs and harassed by authorities. Well, by now I had driven 6000km without being mugged, stopped by police, or paying any bribe. Border patrols had been friendly and efficient. My confidence was on top. Then a few kilometres into Slovenia I was speeding twenty above legal through a village, when a uniformed man blocked the road before me.
As I came closer I realised he signalled for me to slow down, then waving me by with a smile, as if in a hello and good luck in Slovenia. He was right. I signalled back a thank you, and thereafter I was law obedient all the way to Austria in gratitude to that welcoming police officer. So, in my opinion the generalisation of Eastern Europe as notoriously criminal is dead wrong. Then again, you can hardly call Slovenia a typical eastern country. It had a far more western feel to it than the previous seven. In fact, it has the benefits of most western countries, with an above average of entertaining roads for biking, plus the benefit that the budget will last twice as long as if in e.g. Austria or Switzerland. Slovenia should be on every biker’s wish list.
Ljubljana was situated in the bed of a crater. The narrow streets and the three miniature bridges in the city centre made it seem more like a village that a capital. A few hours were spent strolling around, and then the course was set to Bled, a holiday resort further north where I had a swim in the lake and a night on the town with some backpackers. As with many other backpackers from the U.S., they had sawn Canadian flags on their rucksacks to avoid being targets for unfriendly comments or forced into discussions about politics. The following day they planned to trek the surrounding mountains, and I gave them my “rescue food”, two bags of delicious Real Expedition Food. I thought my stomach did not need to be rescued anymore. But I deeply regretted it two days later when my Visa card malfunctioned and I had to wait in starvation for cash to arrive. So, NEVER give your bags of Real Expedition Food away!
These boys ran away with my food
The prime target in Slovenia was the Soca Valley. I sat down by the river, reading Ernest Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms”, a novel inspired by the authors own experiences as a solider in the area during World War I. It was strange being in such beautiful place thinking about the bloodsheds that had taken place on the same soil. And of course, it was Hemingway’s experiences right there that made him the legendary writer he became. The Soca and Bled area is also referred to as the Julian Alps, and you’ll find outstanding zigzag roads up and down the mountains, just the kind that most bikers like. After investigating these for a few days I went for the Austrian border. East Europe was history, and I was on my way home.
No, this is not Audun Raudes gate in Harstad
Suddenly there were motorcycles everywhere, a stark contrast to the empty roads further east. I could say a lot about the many Austrian alpine resorts and the Grossglockner Road, but obviously it would be old news to road travellers. But it was all very nice. At the same time everything became very straightforward, and when stuck for a few days in the tent in rainy Lichtenstein I made the decision to do a U-turn and continue the excursion to some more far away places. It had to be a new continent. Yes, why not really go to Asia, to Istanbul and do the classic overland route to Kathmandu.
Bliss in Austria
A lot had to be done before I could do the U-turn. After a quick look at Switzerland I parked the bike at Knopf Tours (www.knopftours.com) in Heidelberg, Germany. Then I flew home, not without problems, because a can of WD40 had emptied itself in my luggage bag and mysteriously erased all ink print on the airline ticket. I worked at the Arctic stations to save some greens, and I applied for the necessary visas. A new international driver’s license was necessary too. So was the green card. Not to forget the Carnet de Passages that was obtained at the Norwegian Automobile Association. The trip would for sure last longer than the six week limit on the travel insurance, so a costly extension was made. A vast number of vaccines were taken. Some back-up medicines was provided by my doctor, and a letter of content was written by the pharmacy. My Dad volunteered as manager of the Bureau of Domestic Affairs, and Torger and Christina agreed to quickly forward all mail from my home address in Tromsø. Finally, Grant and Susan kindly provided me with this web log so that friends and family knows what’s going on. Thanks! And while all this was happening, Knopf in Heidelberg made sure that Balto the bike was safe and given a full service. Grrreat work!!!!
Knopfs: The garage every motorcycle dream about
The first drive on the second stage took me to Frankfurt where I met the legendary Ingo the Raumfahrer. He told some exciting stories from recent trips in Venezuela and Ecuador, and in the spirit of travel I gave him a bottle of Linie Aquavit, a Norwegian specialty famous for being shipped around the world before being offered to customers. Ingo insisted he would not open the RTW bottle before I returned.
OBS: TO ALL OWNERS OF XT600, XT660, TT600 etc...
I continued to Köln for an appointment with Off The Road AG, a company that promise to make your adventure bike better. Don't be fooled. They mounted a vacuum fuel pump (which loosened and caused oil spew through an engine gasket), a chain lubrication system (which fell off), and an oil cooler (which fell apart and caused the loss of half of my oil reserves). Thank God these things didn’t happen somewhere remote like in a desert. In addition they recommended their so-called 30 litre aluminium tank which in reality was smaller. Petrol was leaking from it when new, and the tank was still dripping like a coffee machine after they repaired it. At this point I expected some efforts on their part to solve the situation. After all, they made the thing and I had not yet been able to drive a single meter with it. But their suggestion was that I buy some glue and fix the problem myself. Say again???!!! Naturally I returned the thing with request for a refund or a replacement. Bizarrely they refused to pick up the parcel at the post office in Köln. After a week of no reply I received this mocking message by email (quote): "It is not possible for you to say: Oh, I do not want the tank anymore."
They claimed no responsibility whatsoever. The only comfort was their promise to send the repeatedly asked-for receipes for the tank payment and the job. They never did.
This bulky thing is a new product from Off The Road AG. They pretty much work like the carpet salesmen in Istanbul. After some fancy talk they make you pay a lot for rubbish. Some people call it swindle.
The so-called repair
It’s sad. I trusted these people with more than a thousand euro from my travel budget. But I received zilch benefits, just hassle, and I regard the money as stolen. I wish I knew then that you’ll find a much wider collection of Yamaha TT and XT stuff at www.kedo.de , more reliable wünstertanks at www.rikycross.it , and better travel gadgets at www.touratech.com
I cannot emphasise enough the great help received at Knopf Tours in Heidelberg. Thanks again! These people are bikers’ best friends. Go there and stay a night or two if you can. After removing everything done by Off The Road I experienced no more bike trouble (see previous chapter). I pent some days at my brothers place in Strasbourg. They were quite busy with visitors, but Trond and I had a really nice bicycle trip around town. What a nice city!!! What a cool brother!!!
Oops, the wrong way...
Further down the road I had the pleasure of visiting the Touratech shop north of Schwenningen. The staff was very joyful, perhaps because it was Saturday and soon party time, but I suspect they were like that always. Who wouldn’t be, working in the greatest motorcycle candy store in Europe.
Another shop I wanted to visit was Riky Cross west of Milano, but I could not be there before Sunday. “No problem”, said Rikardo on the phone. The next day he met me with his Pajero across the street from a Renault dealer, on a parking lot where a loving couple was having a furious fight in a car. I tailgated Rikardo to his garage, and I got the gadgets I was looking for. He was very interested in my vacation, and sponsored me with a center stand and some luggage straps. Cool, now I have an Italian sponsor. Check it out: www.rikycross.com . Thanks Rikardo! What a nice guy!
The rest of the day was a non stop drive to Slovenia. We arrived in Piran long after dark. Despite being low season many tourists were in the streets. A few restaurants on the seaside displayed photos of their dishes, pictures probably taken years ago, and they were faded and the meals looked like something you likely would vomit in a hotel toilet an hour later. I settled for a steak at a no display restaurant. Finally I indulged myself with a top floor room with a sea view balcony where I could sit and drink my coffee in the morning while deciding which way to go next.
Good morning Piran:)
A spot hover ahead, grows, until the butterfly smash into the visor with its bright yellow wings blocking the view. The landscape is rockier, with thorn bushes, and the strong scent of pine trees invades my nostrils. Ah, the Croatian coastal road is so much fun. Hot air and rapid gear shifts. Quick stops with a sip of water, then on again, and before I knew it the sign saying Zadar flashed by.
A Split second
Finding the hostel was not easy. The many and annoying one way roads made me go for an unauthorized shortcut through a narrow pedestrian alley. Bad idea. The side boxes were so wide that the bike got jammed between the walls, and it was a hassle getting it loose. It still annoys me that I didn’t take a picture, because the whole scenario was so ridiculous. Then I purchased a pile of small butter packages (great for camping), only to discover that it was yeast. Zadar was merely an overnight stop on the way to Split. It is an alright place to stay, but the further south you go the more interesting things become.
An evening drinking cheap wine and exchanging lies with Australian backpackers
Split has a great reputation, and maybe that is why I was a bit disappointed. I expected the city to be fantastic, but it was just OK. After half a day strolling around, I took the late ferry to Hvar Island. Hvar is said to be the sunniest place in Croatia, 2724 annual sun hours according to Lonely Planet. My hours there were of the remaining few. As I drove ashore the first drops of rain painted black spots on the asphalt. But the marvelous hospitality by Jagoda (which means “strawberry”) and Ante Bracanovic made up for the lack of sunshine.
The bridge across to Dubrovnik
The initial plan was to ooze by Dubrovnik, but everyone I met said I should not miss it. I’m glad I didn’t. It’s an attractive city, but if you stay for long it is better to do it with someone you fancy because the streets are filled with lovers and the atmosphere is laden with romance. Thus be warned, exploring Dubrovnik alone for a week or two might just be an unfulfilling experience where you eventually hang yourself in the hotel room before the vacation is over. Luckily I was out the next day.
Jazz from England is smiling although the ATM just ate his Visa card
On 24th June 1981 six teenagers in Medugorje claimed they’d seen an apparition of Virgin Mary. They still do, but only three of them see her every day. Now, I thought some well qualified sacred guidance could come in handy. Perhaps she would appear and bless the bike? That would really be something.
Can you see Virgin Mary? I didn’t.
My expectations were sky high. But the dirt poor mountain village was not dirt poor anymore. Mary had become big business. I had hoped for some dusty outdoor camping clinched against a rough stone church wall, but the village was brimmed with lodging options, in total more than 17.000 beds for tourists, and – perhaps most disappointing – I did not see Virgin Mary anywhere. If she were there, the busloads of pilgrims were first in line. I had no time to wait for an appointment next month.
Further up the road and beautifully situated in a valley is Mostar. This scene of heavy combat a few years back is now open for visitors, but the city is still filled with tension. The population is segregated between Croats on the west side of the river and the Muslims on the east side. Since I was neutral I could cross the line without getting in trouble. From a touristy point of view the Croat side was not much to look at. The Muslim side was the nicest and the liveliest. In a backstreet I met Omar, a retired professor, and I was welcome to stay at his loft.
The rebuilt Stari Most Bridge…
…and the view from it
Ramadan was over. Omar pealed an orange and shared it with me. In the streets firecrackers popped everywhere, thus bringing a déjà vu, the CNN sound of Bosnia Herzegovina. Next morning the joyful singing in the neighborhood had silenced. The temperature was only six Celsius, making the planned mountain drive a slippery business. Instead I zigzagged between two cars that crashed in front of me, carefully avoiding a puncture from the broken glass as well as any discussion with the arriving police, and set course towards Monte Negro.
Omar and his oven: Alright, let’s turn up the heat!
To ask someone on Balkan about the next country en route is often useless. Here is still much hate, and you will not believe the horror stories one tells about the other. A Croat strongly warned me against going to Monte Negro. He assured that the locals would drug me and steal my kidney (allegedly they do that to all foreigners). He finished the lecture with a self-destruction of his integrity as a Monte Negro expert: “…and therefore I have never been there”. But if his story was true, then what do the Monte Negroes do with all the kidneys?
I did not loose my kidney in the Bay of Kotor
Newsflash: The alleged 80 Euro domestic road insurance does not exist. A valid Green Card is sufficient; at least it was for me. The friendly border officer handed the papers back and said “Welcome to Monte Negro”. Note, he did not say “Serbia and Monte Negro” which is the official name. I later realized that every other local also excluded the word Serbia when talking about their country. I later learned that it was a reason for that, but that we’ll save for a discussion about politics. The main issue is that Monte Negro is a wonderful place. The day can begin by skiing in the mountains, and end under a sunshade by the coast. Monte Negro has something for everyone.
I did not loose my kidney at Oaza Restaurant in Budva
I arrived Budva without any plan where to stay, but was soon approached by Branco who work at Oaza Restaurant which also is a guesthouse. It is centrally located behind Budva Hotel. I was given a clean room with private bathroom and a kitchen alcove, guarded parking for the bike, hospitable staff with trustworthy advices for the road ahead, and a complimentary glass of wine while eating a delicious omelet, everything for the low-season sum of 10 Euro. There is just one thing to say: At Oaza they treat bikers as kings!!! When you visit Oaza, then say hello to Branco for me.
Any kidneys behind these bushes?
The ride further south was scenic, but not as beautiful as e.g. the Bay of Kotor. The towns seemed more worn and gave a few hints about what to expect in the next country en route.
Just a few meters from the Albanian border, and I still had my kidney. Then this dodgy guy showed up…
The current situation for bike travel in Albania is this: Stay away from the border region to Kosovo as you’ll have a fair chance of being hijacked and robbed (they might even take your bike). Arrival from Monte Negro is hassle free if you choose the border crossing west of Shkodra. And never drive after dark. In fact, for your own safety you should stay inside after dark unless you are accompanied with locals. On border arrival a biker must pay a 10 Euro entry fee, and on departure an additional fee of 1 Euro (the latter said to be road tax).
This look like a scene from Vietnam, but it is Northern Albania
Albania offer a wide range of road animals, including cows, sheep, goats, horses, pigs, dogs and hens. A widely used mode of transport is wagons pulled by donkeys, something you might expect in the countryside but not as much in the streets in the capital. The number of aged cars with broken oil gaskets is uncountable, so keep you visor shut when driving behind e.g. trucks. Other drivers will give bikers no space of comfort on the road. But hey, the traffic situation is not as extremely bad as they say (though it is close to). If you wish to park and leave the vehicle, then park in a secure parking lot. A good and easy to find parking option in Tirana is in front of Hotel Europark. Take the south end exit from Skanderbeg Square, drive 500 meters, and you’ll see the hotel on your left hand side.
Tirana is an excellent place to get asthma
Now, if you can live with all this, then you’re in for a good time. First of all, just entering Albania gives you a good feeling of doing something adventurous. Secondly, the rumor saying that the roads in Albania are awful it is not true. The drive north of the capital was made on a two lane freeway, while the south side offered windy roads through spectacular mountain sceneries. Petrol is widely available, and people I met en route were nothing but helpful and friendly.
Albania has some of the nicest and most entertaining roads I’ve ever driven
In 1993 I saw the image of a weird building on an old Macedonian 10.000 Denar note. Today the note is no longer in circulation, but in my memory the building looked like a giant football with windows on tentacles. Back then someone told me it was a church in Ohrid, and for some reason I knew that I one day would return to Macedonia and pay a visit to the architectural oddity. Unsurprisingly the holiday resort became a destination on my way to Istanbul, but after looking around and talking to locals it became clear that the building was not in Ohrid. Where was it? Perhaps it was not even a church?
The building on this note is not in Ohrid…
…but out here somewhere
The plan was to stay at a guesthouse recommended by Lonely Planet, but there was no drivable road to it. A taxi driver saw me scratching my head and came to my assistance. Soon I was sitting in the living room of some friends of him. The mother in the house (her name was translated to Rose) made coffee and prepared a guestroom. I felt welcome. During the evening I tried to describe the building. It was their turn to scratch heads, talking between themselves in a language I did not understand. They found some books with illustrations, but the building and its whereabouts was not found.
Nine out of ten coffee drinkers prefer Rose (this is an advertisement)
Philately became the key word. I wanted to ask an elderly man working in an exchange booth if he remember the old paper money, but he became angry when I first tried to trade 1000 Albanian Leke. Evidently they dislike the Albanians so much that they refuse to handle their cash. Then I found a picture of the Denar note on a webpage about philately. The Internet café did not have a printer, but making a copy drawing on the backside of an old receipt solved the mystery. It was recognized as a war hero museum situated in Krusevo, a mountain village half a days drive away.
This mountain village has no tourist office
From a motorcycle point of view this quest guided me off the beaten track, to the roof of Macedonia, on perfectly curved roads scattered with dry brown autumn leafs whirled up by the turbulence behind the bike. Now and then a sporadic cow was blocking the inside track, and the occasional lots-of-sand-on-the-tarmac made me extra awake and alert when cornering. I was hypnotized for hours, and in the end, on top of a twisty hill, I found what I had desired to see for twelve years.
My God, it’s ugly
Northern Greece does not remind much about the islands we fly to and get sunburned the first day so that we have to spend half the vacation inside a tile carpeted hotel room watching Greek TV programs without subtitles. No, the northern part might be the better option. It hides touristy jewels such as two lane highways, factories and power plants. Here you can spend hours drinking coffee at petrol station cafés and you can do it in peace since nobody care that you’re there.
The sun sets in the west. I’m going east.
The ride across Northern Greece was merely a transport stage. Though, I did have one destination on my agenda. The city of Alexandropoulos. It is the home town of a dear friend, where his mother once ran an underwear shop, and many times had I pictured myself spending a night in a pile of brassieres and laces. But the mother had retired and my friend had moved to England. Still I was eager to do the best of it. I got a room at Hotel Plaza which name might bring some ideas about luxury and comfort. But it was one of those places lacking a knob on the wall where to hang the shower head, something that complicates soaping and shampooing. This is of course a devilish idea by the hotel management who think that the guest will be tired of holding the shower head in the hand, and therefore use less hot water. In such cases I turn on the shower, put the hose in the toilet, and leave the room for a five hour tour around the city.
Here is George. He likes snowboarding. That is about everything I understood.
In my younger days I thought that underwear was as much of a niche that a market could support. That is, until I discovered an airport shop selling only socks. Well, in the main street of Alexandropoulos there is a shop selling nothing but engine oil. They offer everything from 10/40 to 20/50, whatever you prefer. Now, that is a niche.
The streets of Alexandropoulos: The bugs are getting bigger
On my way back to the hotel I bought a slice of pizza in a bag, and next door was a bookstore that had black felt pens. I had unsuccessfully been looking for black felt pens since Croatia. The prudish woman behind the counter said the price was 3,80 Euro. In my pocket was only 3,20. Then I remembered that I had some reserve Euros in my money belt. So I started to unbuckle it. The woman’s eyes became filled with fear, but I really wanted that pen. And when I finally found a fifty note, she handed back the change including an 80 cents discount, meaning that the fiddling with my pants had been for nothing. Not to upset the woman any further I left the store without putting the belt back on. I did not want to do it in the street either, so I had to manually hold my pants up all the way back to the hotel while the pizza got cold because both my hands were occupied.
Geronimo! The border to Turkey is close
My hometown has a population of sixty thousand people, and they cover the road traffic I’m used to. Istanbul has fifteen million, a quarter of a thousand times more than Tromso, more than the entire population of Norway and Sweden combined. That might explain the wobbling dirt bike with an N on the rear GPS-maneuvering through the Turkish metropolis last Wednesday. But I found my way, to Daytona Motor, the last point of dealer service before heading into Asia and no dealers land.
These men drop their fishing lines in the oil sodden Bosporus waters for the same reason that others use giant parabola antennas for receiving messages from outer space.
Prior to arrival I received valuable help from Ikbal Volpara at Motoreast (www.motoreast.com). She arranged my maintenance appointment with Daytona Motor (www.daytonamotor.com), and forwarded my requests for new parts such as tires and backup wheel bearings. Everything was taken care of. Thank you Ikbal! I will not forget. Balto the bike was left in the care of the mechanics for a few days while I was any other city tourist. Pause. It was nice. By accident I stumbled into Istanbul Hostel. The first evening was spent reading a book and being by myself. Then the occasional hello grew into social events, and the stay ended with a few kicks in the ceiling.
The Turk has a cigarette. The Fin has a lighter. With joint effort they smoke. It’s called globalization, and it is happening at the marvelous Istanbul Hostel in Sultanahmet.
The first people Jaekyun Kim met in Istanbul were two so called businessmen who invited him to a bar. The Korean globetrotter had two drinks, got surrounded by three party girls he did not call for, and given a fruit basket he did not order. For that he was presented a bill equivalent of 600 US Dollars, and then escorted to an ATM by two threatening gorillas. Since he was given no receipt the police had no evidence and no case. Now, this type of hoax is not uncommon. The aftermath is more interesting. The manager at Istanbul Hostel searched his network, made some phone calls, engaged some people, negotiations took place underground, and within 24 hours three civil dressed police officers arrived the hostel with 75% of the stolen money. The repossession was presented as a happy ending, and Jaekyun was pushed to buy a round of celebration drinks for all. But the fact remains: 25% of the money disappeared. In who’s pocket?
Jaekyun at the end of an eventful day
Now, most people in Istanbul are your friend. Don’t worry. You just have to be a little street smart. The variety of tricks on tourists made my curious, and I decided to check out the infamous sales methods of the carpet salesmen. I strolled by one, doing my best to look like a tourist with deep pockets, and of course he started to talk. What’s my name, where am I from etc… Then he invited me in for tea, calling it something innocent as Turkish hospitality. The tea was put in front of me, and after some friendly small talk he led the conversation into the quality of different carpets, rolling them out on the floor, telling me to feel their excellence with my fingers. He was getting warm, that was easy to see, and I did my best to respond to his sales methods with interest. But after a while I got tired of the carpet talk. I said with a smile: Too bad I’m traveling through on a motorcycle. How can I carry a carpet? He became dead silent, knowing that his so-called Turkish hospitality had been a waste of valuable sales time, and I prolonged his suffering by drinking the rest of my tea reeeaaal slow.
The guys at Daytona Motor did an excellent job, and the service is top class. Go there if you can. You’ll easily find the store on the seaside road in Kurucesme.
Early Sunday morning. I was through the fog belt around Bolu and was bypassing Ankara on the north side. New settlements lay scattered on both sides, on naked hills with distance apart. With the exception of an occasional truck perfuming the road side flora with a masculine led petrol fragrance I had the three lane highway to myself. Then a single woman came in sight. She wore tight red pants, looked real naughty, and as I rolled by she blinked her eyes and made her lips into a kiss. Yeah right, as if I would stop and give her access to where I hide all my cash for Iran.
The toilets in the east might seem like a challenge. The locals themselves are convinced that their patent is more hygienic than the western model since the behind does not touch anything when doing big business. That’s why the wall mounted toilets at Gardermoen Airport were regularly ripped off its bolts. In the beginning it was a mystery, but as they would discover, some well fed Arabs were standing on them to avoid skin contact with the porcelain. So how do a western approach just a hole in the floor? Well, my technique is inspired by Norwegian ski jumping. You set yourself in hockey position, with one supporting hand against the back wall, and go for the gold medal. Of course, you never really had to think about where your own exit is, so in the beginning you might miss the target. But be patient. With time you’ll grow into a master.
The slippery main street of Yozgat is a good place to fall and break the pelvis bone
In my mind I was prepared for cold weather the last 400km to the Iranian border, but I ran into snowfall before Ankara. Evidently most of the route across the country is about 1500 meters above sea level. The third day was rain, rain, rain, and in Yozgat it started to snow again, leaving me no choice but to find shelter and wait with fingers crossed for a better tomorrow. My boots were soaking wet and leathers does not dry overnight in a hotel room. The solution became a Turkish bath found in an alley where my boots spent all afternoon in a sauna with a dozen nude guys. In the mean time I sat in a kebab restaurant a block away, hoping that the nude guys did not try them on. You know, some people…
One of the many guys that kindly fired up the oven and fed me hot tea while asking how much my camera costs
In Istanbul the motorcycle couriers drove around with some odd looking leather bags on the handlebars to keep their hands warm. It was a local patent, definitely not something you would recommend to a fashion biker, but hey those leather bags looked like serving its purpose. The mechanic at Daytona Motor traveled across the city to find a pair for me. What a service! But now, as I was about to encounter the four mountain passes ahead, all of them above 2000 meters, it became time to open the bag and pull out my secret weapon against the wintry weather: Underwear from Brynje. You bet, it is the hottest thing on the market.
Balto with Turkish hand protectors: This dog might be ugly, but it will fetch the newspaper
Now, I could tell about the snow plough through the 2190 meter Kizildag Pass, or the unalike easiness of the slightly lower Sakaltutan Pass. I could go straight to the description of the two remaining mountain passes, but these would not compare with the fifth high, the most unexpected encounter. I rumbled into Erzurum at dawn, rolled the bike into the reception of Kral Hotel, and got the key to what might was the shabbiest room in town. Unshaved since Germany and with a face discolored from a long day in traffic I decided for a dinner at the Güzelyurt Restorant, with the intention of returning to the sound of pigeons crawling above the stained ceiling plates in my hotel room when the lonely feast was over.
You know that your motorcycle marathon across Turkey is close to the end when you see Mount Ararat in the horizon
To make a long story short: A Turkish girl was in the same restaurant. We were strangers. Eighteen hours later she escaped from her pedagogical studies at the university by buying a yellow slalom helmet (motorcycle helmets were not available). We rode over the icy 2315 meter Sac Pass where dirt smudged children threw stones at us, passed the notorious PKK guerrilla settlement of Eleskirt, and was forced by sunset to seek refuge at a dubious hotel in Agri, all in a days work. By noon the next day we conquered the last pass. The sky was clear, displaying the mighty Mount Ararat which became the view from our window in Dogubayazit.
The view from Ishak Pasa Palace
The 1700 kilometers through rain and snow had been strenuous for the motorcycle. I had not made any prior efforts to protect the electrics, and water repelling, cleaning and extensive use of insulating tape was needed. Then some lubrication here and there, and with the addition of a fresh Denso spark plug Balto responded with cheerfulness. It seemed like he felt the same kind of revival as we humans do when having a shower after a tiring journey. While he rested, the girl and I went on a bus trip to Ishak Pasa Palace, an epitome of the Thousand and One Nights castle. The light brown bricks, the clear blue sky, the fruitless but green sand, it all contributed to the utopian experience.
Traveling with the Turkish girl raised some concerns. Eastern Turkey offers a conservative culture where unmarried male and female companionship is a sensitive matter. Furthermore, according to the girls passport she is Muslim, while I am identified as a Christian. This is the way we were perceived, and the perception would only become more of an issue when crossing the border to Iran. On top of everything this “inappropriate” team would arrive by motorcycle (motorcycles with more than 200cc is illegal in Iran, though temporary import by foreign travelers is somewhat accepted). So how would be welcomed? We had no idea. There was only one way to find out. She covered her hair with a black veil while I kickstarted Balto. And off we went.
It is well known that Iran is a nation of terrorists and fanatics, thus we approached these madmen with great caution. Of course we would be perceived as aliens, something that easily could trigger their suspicious minds. But surprisingly the Iranians already knew many facts about Norway. Among other things they knew that we live in igloos, that the average summer temperature is minus 100C, and that only a third of our children grow up due to the many polar bears roaming around the playgrounds.
The Iranians knowledge about Norway would later be explained. A visit to the library at Tehran University revealed that they are in position of Aron I. Gurevich’s classic from 1977: “Norway – Social Conditions”. It might be interesting to know the book was found in the same section as two copies of Phillip J. Klass’ “UFO’s Explained”. So make no mistake about it; the Iranians are occupied with more issues than most westerners think, thus revealing that it is us who are the narrow-minded ones. It is a typical case of “never been there, so we have to believe the western press which frankly cannot afford to loose readers and advertisement income by publishing boring reports”. At the border we were pushed to the front of every stamping queue. “Welcome to Iran, have fun”, they said. First night stop was in Maku. We asked for a room for two. No problem. No questions asked.
Morvarid Hotel in Tabriz: Ernie (58) has bicycled from England and need a cup of tea before continuing his solo ride to China. Visit him at: www.thebuckstop.net
Another surprise was the road conditions. They are excellent. Even secondary roads are paved, and potholes are rare. The domestically manufactured Peykan’s (which is molded from ancient British Hillman machinery) is everywhere, and often you find a curious car driver rubbing his fender against your side boxes. Despite the road anarchy the traffic is flowing very well. You just have to flow with it. Three days were spent in Tabriz, and another two in Gazvin. We became customized with the grave gawking from locals, and the occasional pinch in my female passengers behind. However, these experiences were merely annoying, not really threatening, and the overall impression was that we were safer in Iran than in eastern Turkey.
The traffic in Tehran offers a lot of exitement, and it takes hours of your full attention getting in and out of town. Be ready for everything!!!
When planning this trip I imagined a visit to Iran as eating dust and living like a refugee. Therefore it is almost embarrassing admitting that I had a Tehran apartment with three bathrooms, a swimming pool, and a private chauffeur named Ali to my disposition. The whole enchilada is explained by family relations in the Iranian branch of Statoil. Oh God, we were lazy. We slept late, ate Iranian pastries till our teeth ached (highly recommended), and we barely sat foot outside the gate, perhaps as a reaction to the prior weeks of motorcycle marathon.
The managers of Lita & John Hostel
Despite the loss of an electrifying story of hardship and adventure in the capital, the wonderful hospitality of Lita, John and Ali was an indispensable experience. For five days we were spoilt, and on the last day we tailgated Ali to the outskirts of Tehran where we soon came back to earth. At that point I had driven through twenty countries, some of them infamous for their road patrols, but I had not yet been stopped by police. It might sound silly, but more and more frequently I gave a little extra twist on the throttle to get their attention, but they always just smiled. Those devious smiles, as if they enjoyed cheating me of the experience. Bastards. In Iran we often saw police vehicles ahead, only to discover that they were made of cardboard. But the policeman looking bored by the roadside south of Tehran was not a fake, and when he waved us to the curb I felt an absurd well of joy. What would he do? Would he put on a rubber glow and strip-search us? Yeah, yeah, c’mon!!! But the officer didn’t even ask for papers. Nor did he arrest us for driving on a road signposted as illegal for motorbikes. He had only two questions: What is your religion, and where are you going with it?
We brought our beliefs to Esfahan where alcohol is illegal as everywhere else in Iran, thus giving party animals a hard time. But Dirk was on the case. With the assistance of Helmut, his partner in crime, and by walking enough hours in the back streets, Dirk smelled (!) a source of canned whisky. The crime was successfully executed under the code name “Operation Potato Chips”, and for the next days we enjoyed several supplies of potato chips mixed with Iranian Pepsi Cola. The girl and I became very fond of Helmut and Dirk, and we were sorry when they one evening jumped into a taxi and disappeared in the direction of the airport.
The view from our scruffy room in Kashan
The next day the Turkish girl was to leave. It was not an easy farewell. We were no longer strangers. Instead we had become fellow travellers on one bike, all together a little ship in the desert, with no real destination but our selves. However, to face some realities, Balto was not prepared for two, and the girl was short of safety gear and insurance. With the long day rides ahead, in particular the nearly 1000km Bam-Quetta stretch infamous for drug traffic and the occasional kidnapping of overlanders, we would be fools to gamble with her safety.
After eating camel stew in Yazd I headed for Kerman, but because of a murder at the hostel I continued further south. Then it happened again, that the bike just stopped as if it was out of fuel. This reoccurring malfunction (usually happening when riding hard) was very annoying, especially when the bike gave up in front of a factory in the countryside. Iranians are very suspicious about foreigners lingering around their factories, and it was no surprise to see those security guards walk out the front gate.
The citadel in Bam will rise again
First the guards wanted to know my nationality. Ah Norway, you go to world cup in football? I didn’t have a clue, and I could see their brains work like steam trains: “First he says that he is from Norway. Then he reveals that he know nothing about the Norwegian football team. Hmm… veeeery, veeery suspicious….” Luckily the bike started in a few attempts, and I got away before they fixed electrocute cables to my genitals.
By the way, did the Norwegians make it to the world cup?
Now, simply explained, the engine drank petrol faster than the tank could supply, and the probable cause was that the mesh filter in the carburetor was clogged. The filter had to be removed, meaning that the carburetor had to be dismounted. Detailed instructions came by email from Holland (thanks Auke), and a motorcycle garage in Bam had the tools. A translator told the mechanic what I wanted done. But when the translator left, the mechanic went out of control. No no no, don’t do that, I said, and people gathered around the bike in such numbers that I was squeezed out of the garage. There, in the street, a boy discovered the protection padding on my Lindstrands motorcycle jacket, thus the bike spectators came out and touched me all over, making me feel like Madonna in one of her erotic music videos. However, their departure from the garage made it possible for me to get in again. And there, under the dim light, I saw the mad face of a mechanic gone bananas. He was about to open the CDI unit. Although he did not speak a single word English, he understood very well what I was shouting at him.
Bam: What’s left of the famous Akhbar Guest House…
… though Mr. Akhbar himself (here shown in a very elegant positure) is happy that the building of his new 1000m2 guesthouse is about to begin
I spent a forenoon repairing what the mechanic repaired (you know, as if you’ve been naïve and had something made or done by Off The Road AG in Köln). Then I went for a stroll around town. The citadel was in ruins, but the reconstruction had begun. Houses were collapsed, but there were stacks of new bricks in the streets. The aid containers were left behind, but used for new businesses. Revival and blossom was on its way, though not yet overly visible. So, at dawn I got a full tank of petrol (NOK 10,-) and left for the Pakistani border, hoping to find a place that was more inviting. Yeah, in my dreams...
Who says that Iranians do not like to be photographed?
(I tried to take a picture of the petrol station behind them)
Like most border towns, Taftan is not there to be dazzling. There is no petrol station, so I spent some time bargaining for canister fuel along the main road. Unfortunately the governmental guesthouse was closed for maintenance, so I had to settle for the second best option in town, the hard-to-believe filthy and inhospitable tourist hotel by the roundabout. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.
Welcome to Taftan. Here you can… well, nothing really
Allegedly you can pitch a tent outside the Pakistani Custom building (inside the guarded area), though I did not know it then. I wish I did. There is also a rest house inside the border on the Iranian side, though you might want to be through with the formalities and ready to go at daybreak. The unfriendly atmosphere in Taftan was exhausting, and I escaped an hour before sunrise. The change to left side driving required some mind adjustments, and with 630km to Quetta it would be the longest ride on the entire trip to Katmandu. The first 280km to Dalbandin was nice and fast, and there was a petrol bazaar at the outskirts of the village. Again some bargaining, starting at 55 rupees per liter, with the closing offer being 35. On this first leg there was nowhere to buy bottled water (so you better bring what you need from Taftan). Allegedly Dalbandin has a hotel too, but after my accommodation experiences in Taftan I’d rather sleep in a pile of camel manure. The reputedly dangerous speed bumps, described to be at the east end of Dalbandin, are found at every railway crossing and in most settlements all the way to Quetta.
The petrol hustlers in Dalbandin will try to rip you off
For the final 350km the road declined to the extent that I early on questioned whether I was lost or not. The plummet in road quality did not slow me down. On the contrary, the offroaders 30cm suspensionway finally came in handy, and I blasted over the rocks and through the desert, arriving Quetta in less than nine hours total. To my mothers joy I had not been taken hostage by hooligans (hello Mum, I’m OK). Even better, the carburetor overhaul in Bam had cured Balto’s fuel problem. Hurray!
The first encounter with other overland bikers since Croatia: Steve and Anna from Australia were riding a BMW camouflaged with schoolbook paper to make it less flashy
Quetta stinks! Someone said it is the second most polluted city in the world. That might not be entirely true, though it is a good bet. It is mind-boggling that people choose to live in all that noxiousness and filth. I mean, they might not be able to live elsewhere, but they might wanna do something to clean up their home. The abrupt change of environment required a few days to adjust, and I found a decent place to stay, the Bloom Star Hotel which also has secure parking. The hotel also offered some peculiar solutions. The light switch to the room was outside, the door was locked by pushing a button on the inside, and to get hot water in the shower you had to yank the knob while turning it. It took some time getting customized to these patents, and with the arrival of a little gas oven it became quite cozy in there.
This might look like a gloomy scene from the Quetta suburbs, but it is the view outside the highest ranked restaurant in the city centre (hey, you should have seen those suburbs…)
While doing the gravel road to Ziarat, a former mountain resort for colonial Brits, I became increasingly alarmed about two guys in a blue Toyota pickup lingering in my rear view mirror. What did they want from me? Were they robbers? I decided for a shake off, gave the pedal to the metal, and left them behind in a haze of dust. A little later, while stopping for petrol, the slothful diesel Toyota appeared again. And guess what; the two men happened to be Pakistani police officers with instructions (from God knows who) to be my bodyguards, and they were not happy about my run away.
The main street of Loralai
My plan was to spend the night in Ziarat, but the policemen were persistent that I continued to Loralai. They escorted me for half an hour. Then my so-called safety was passed on to a new Toyota crew, this time armed with Kalashnikovs. Who did they think I was? Kjell Magne Bondevik? This unexpected service was a bit frustrating because their cars were slow, and I did not want to hurt their feelings by running away again. But after the next checkpoint they left me alone. It was mostly downhill from there, and at some point I realized that I had forgotten my Lonely Planet book at the petrol station, meaning that all my maps for the cities ahead were lost. How could I be so slapdash!!!
Playing Ludo at the police station
At the city borders of Loralai yet another police crew was waiting, again without any prior notice. Evidently their colleagues up road had given them a phone call. The officers guided me to a surprisingly nice guest house, told me not to go out, and left an armed guard outside my room all night. It all seemed a bit over the top, though I slept like a baby. The next day I was invited to the police station. They gave me a chair in the courtyard, two meters from a cell where ravenous prisoners clung on to the iron bars, and the policemen offered me tea and hashish. Other offers were spirits (illegal too), a drug called “snuff”, and some remedies with alleged therapeutic qualities in a white bottle. I settled for the tea. In a corner they threw dices for money. A guy won a week salary in one throw. Hurray. Another investigator poured his heart out, being in love with a girl from Quetta, yet being destined to marry someone else decided by his parents. Then the man among them whom I regarded as the most trustworthy, approached me with a small package in his hand. I opened it. It was my missing Lonely Planet book, found in Ziarat and driven the 100km to Loralai by a police courier.
After some late night whiskys in my room, these Baluchistan policemen willingly posed for the camera
I left Loralai with a set of horns from a Marco Polo sheep, a peculiar souvenir given by Mr. Rishi, the guesthouse owner. For a while the road seemed fine. Then it deteriorated to the extent that there was no road at all, just on-passing trucks in the horizon to navigate towards. The average speed was much less than calculated, with the cliffhanger descend from Fort Munro as particularly slow and nerve wrecking. It was hot and dusty, I ran out of water, and a headache hit me like a hammer. In the late afternoon, when entering the Punjab region, I was not much to look at. I was dehydrated, my face and lungs were filled with dust, and the air pollution had given me flu-like symptoms. It took three days before I could eat normally again. On the bright side, I had learned some valuable lessons about motorcycling in far-off areas.
Excuse me Sir, can you tell me the direction to the nearest Statoil station?
For a while I thought I was mistaken for a spy suspect, but apparently most overlanders, whether traveling with motorcycle, car or bicycle, experience that the Pakistani police are on to them like mosquitoes on a tent vacation in Finnmark. It is called “governmental instructions”. Some Europeans even throw stones at them to make them go away. That method would violate with my upbringing, so I decided to sneak out of the Multan hotel and disappear in the morning smog. It worked for about 120km until they realized I was gone and caught up with me. From there no less than 10 vehicles and 35 officers were involved in escorting me to the door in Lahore.
That’s right, the news just broke that there is a sale at IKEA
The smog in Lahore was so immense that I could put away my sunglasses an hour earlier before sundown. The vision was no further than 500 meters. The exhaust was just too much for the afternoon sunrays to penetrate, and for three days it was unbearable to go out. Windows and doors were shut as if Lahore was struck by a nuclear disaster. However, there were several pleasant things to do inside the hostel. Sleeping became my favorite. But when the worst had blown over to India, it was time to explore. Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken!!! Finally something else than stew and bread. A nearby grocery store sold Nestle Choco Pops, and Internet was fast enough for entering the inbox within the hour. It seemed like the level of western welfare was beyond the rock bottom and on an upswing. Particularly notable was the many guests in the hostel that hesitated to move on. Christmas Eve was around the corner. It was a strange vista, those hardcore world travelers clinging on to a hastily constructed family of western faces, anxious of being alone on such a night.
Lasse from Denmark was happy to find McDonalds a few blocks away
The Christmas foreplay was a so-called soufi night, which is a gang of Pakistani drummers playing the same rhythm for five hours while smoking a lot of dope. It was an OK gig, but not when they returned the next day to do it all over again. In search of a more traditional Christmas feel we went over to a five star hotel, looking for a buffet. They did not have any, but they did have a Christmas tree in the reception and Japanese restaurant two floors up. In the hotel hallways I found a Pakistani Santa Claus and bribed him handsomely to ho-ho my new made sushi associates. Then we returned to the hostel where the drummers were stone and we gulped some black market whiskey on the rooftop till our eyelids became heavy and it was time to give in.
Christmas Eve at the hostel. To the right: Paal from Oslo is not the kind of guy you see on a charter plane to Mallorca
I left the next morning, and I met my last Pakistani mosquito at the border to India. He quickly took the Carnet, wrote down the details in a flash, and did his routine so fast that it was suspicious. Just one more thing, he added, and guided me to another room and closed the door. Nobody else was there, just him and me. “How much money do you carry?” An alarm rang in the back of my head. “Sixty Rupees”, I answered, which was not the complete truth. “Only sixty Rupees? No Dollars? No Euros?” I shook my head. He insisted on seeing my Rupees, and I showed him. Then he took them and put them in his pocket. “You don’t need them anymore”, he said and left the room. I was free to leave the country.
For the last five border crossing I had been questioned about the motorcycle’s engine number. No such number is mentioned in the vehicle registration documents, neither in the Carnet papers. So I assumed that I didn’t have any, with the customary reply being an accepting OK. But for the Indian custom this qualified as a “big problem!!!” I had to wait half a day while they figured out how to deal with the situation. It was tiring and boring, a good day wasted, and I arrived Amritsar quite late where the first face I saw was of a Swiss guy that left the border as I entered it. He asked about what had taken me so long. I told him about the hassle of not having an engine number. Then he took a 10 second look at the machine. “There it is”, he said.
Why is he looking at us that way? And what is that barbecue fork doing in his hand?
I was looking forward to my first rickshaw ride. A young pedal pusher took me to a bookstore, to a supplier of electric socket adapters, and then to the Golden Temple. While I was inside, a policeman told him to move the rickshaw to the other side of the jam-packed street. So when I came out and did not see him where I expected him to be, I hijacked another in assumption that the young man had run away with my new book and adapter. Nevertheless, in the afternoon he showed up again at the hotel. He gave me my items, said he had been waiting outside the temple for three hours, and that he was very upset for loosing me. Alright, I though, I’d better give him a sympathy ride. The problem was that I did not really want to go anywhere, so I figured that a ride to the kiosk would be sympathy enough. He pedaled down the street while chain-smoking, emphasizing how upset he was. I sensed that something was about to happen. He asked if I wanted to go to a restaurant. No. What about a hair cut? No. Shaving? No. You must shave…we must go somewhere… I have not eaten all day… I’M VERY, VERY UPSET!!!
A roadside break with the monkeys
Everybody warned me against driving to McLeod Ganj. This time of year it would be very cold up there. Cold compared to what? Hmm, I went anyway and enjoyed day temperatures above the summer average at home. Besides, it was a really nice drive, especially the last couple of hours. For those who do not know, McLeod Ganj is the commando center of Dalai Lama and a group of bald men in orange. I envy them. It must be very refreshing and comfortable walking around town in your evening gown. I wish I could do it in Tromsø without being arrested.
McLeod Ganj: The bars on the window is not to keep the monks in, but to keep the monkeys out
Chandigarh is a major city that on paper looks interesting because it was designed as recent as last century by a Swiss architect. I dreamt of clean avenues with metropolitan cafés. But don’t be fooled. Just imagine Zurich full of cows… I planned an early start to avoid Delhi and make it all the way to Agra to celebrate New Year Eve. It was an ambitious plan, and I would need the daylight from dusk till dawn to make it. But two dudes were outside the hotel, seemingly waiting for me, and as I was ready to go I discovered that the rear tire was flat. One of the men approached, went down on his knees, and without any searching he pulled a black spike out of the rubber. Oh, you’ve punctured, he said. But hey, this is you lucky day Mister; we have a tire repair shop and can help you. Thanks, I replied, but you’ve done quite enough already.
The hope of celebrating New Year Eve in Agra was very faded when this photo was taken
With a sabotaged rear tire and a remaining 450 kilometers including a crossing of Delhi with its thirteen million drivers and pedestrians, it seemed impossible to reach Agra before sundown. But I had a tire repair kit, and the helpful tire supplier Autovulk in Tromso had given me a fine demonstration how to use it. My recollection of the event was a bit rusty, yet somehow the Metzeler was sealed and fit for fight at 10am. With a third of the day lost I gently rolled out of Chandigarh, and when the engine reached combat temperature I leaned over the tankbag and whispered to Balto: “Show me what you’re good for”. And Holy Moses, he did.
Steven and Susanne was impressed by the Taj Mahal, especially at sunset when it became dirt beige like a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle
I bullied myself through the Agra city borders as the last ray of sun in 2005 drowned in the horizon. I got my New Year Eve where I wanted it, but not much more. I knew nobody, and fell asleep five minutes past midnight. On the bright side, I could wake up to a must-see attraction. I was not disappointed. Even my recollection of the pyramids in Egypt seems trivial compared to the Taj Mahal. Another sought after object was a more powerful horn. Yes, the Indians honk their horns as if maneuvering their vehicles is a subordinate activity, and in the struggle for attention Balto’s squeaky beep always came short. So I tracked down a shop specializing in adding decibels. They offered many nifty patents; some of them very disturbing. I settled for a mid-range model, not so expensive, but enough to blast an occasional rickshaw off the road. Thus I was ready to push through to some new places.
Agra trash cows
There is nowhere I can stop (I really mean nowhere) without being interrogated about my mean of transport. It is very tiring. Just imagine; you want to enjoy Paris, but an ever-present crowd of nosy men bombards you with questions about the airplane you arrived in? “Hey mister, what kind of machine was it? Boeing 737? Wow, how fast did it go?” Well, this is what you have to undergo if you drive in India with a big motorcycle. On the other hand, you can answer whatever you like and they’ll accept it. “Tempo Taifun. Yep, made in 1957. The price? About one million dollars.”
Gwalior: These two professors kindly invited me to their university. Though, instead of a get-together with the lady students, I had to drink coffee with the principal
My search for a quiet spot in the countryside was not very successful. The touts and the interrogators were even in the smallest of villages, and there was only one place I could enjoy some peace of mind. That was in my hotel room. So, my presence in the bazaars lessened as the days went by, and I developed a hotel compound fetish. The quickly filled wastebasket was a proof of that. And in one of those coca-cola-and-potato-chips-moments I unfolded the map of India. I was looking for an escape route. Considering my initial plan, the border to Nepal would be a natural getaway. But then I set my eyes on another option. Or was it an option? Even more questionable, could I go there by motorcycle?
The erotic temples in Khajuraho offered some doggy-style artwork, but this bitch didn’t seem to be excited
Varanasi has one major attraction – the Ganges River – and the rest is a mess. Oh well, the Ganges River is a mess too. A common measure for safe bathing water is that it has less than 500 faecal coliform bacterias per 100ml. Ganges has 1,5 million. No dissolved oxygen exists. It’s septic. By the shore some people pray, some beg, some take a bath, some do laundry, while others set their departed relatives on fire. Suffering animals are everywhere, and in between you see an occasional western youngster seemingly caught in a promise of spiritual enlightenment. It beats me how they can find a meaning to life where life seems so easily broken. But perhaps that is just why.
Ganges River: Good idea boys, let’s do the laundry by the sewage drain
I do not know why, but to witness hard core worshiping sickens me. It happened in Poland, and now in Varanasi. Really, it makes me wanna vomit. Literally. So I fled to Bodhgaya, a small town further east which is the most important pilgrimage site in the world for Buddhists. Buddhism is said not to be a religion, so I had an open mind for learning more about it. But the Buddhists were crawling and chanting and it pretty much looked like worshipping to me. So I fled again, this time to Rajgir just 70 km northwest. Allegedly this small village harbors the finest sushi restaurant in India. Now, that kind of worshipping I like.
The Buddhists were having a good time under the Bodhi Tree
But the restaurant was closed, so I decided for a 500km ride east through the seldom visited region of North Bihar. I asked the guest house manager about highway 31. He assured that it was an excellent four lane motorway. But, as he added, I had to go through in one day because the Maoists were very active in the region. But with such a thick red line on the road map it would be no problem. Yeah right. Flood had taken the tarmac, leaving just dust and an unbelievable number of potholes, and as I entered West Bengal I called for the Phantom (Fantomet) more than once. By the way, I heard no drums and he didn’t show up. That leads me to believe that the cartoon stripes in Harstad Tidende were just fake stories.
This is the so-called four lane motorway through Northern Bihar to Siliguri
To my relief there were few touts in Siliguri. But the bike was still a major attraction. Just after arrival and through the hotel window I discovered a guy in blue jacket and black cap sitting on Balto in the hotel parking lot. Obviously he was checking the suspension and how far he could twist the throttle without breaking it. I went out, told him to back off, and covered the bike. Then I went to make a phone call. I was away for ten minutes. When I returned the bike cover was off and a group of men, among them the guy in blue jacket and black cap, were fiddling with everything. So I went to the hotel manager and requested that they tightened the parking lot security. Yes, of course, he would tell the hotel guard. And he did. The problem was that the hotel guard happened to be the guy in the blue jacket and black cap.
Siliguri: What is that thing doing in the exhaust pipe?
Hopefully the answer will be in the next blog post
Nations typically measure their success in gross national product. Bhutan is different. They measure their success in gross national happiness. I have no idea how they quantify happiness, but hey, when knowing the suicide rate among the rich you’ll have to admit that the Bhutanese ideal is inspiring. I had no doubt that I would feel happier in Bhutan (because India sucks). But it is well known that the Bhutanese are very protective of their secluded way of life, and that they limit the numbers of visitors to avoid too much outside influence. But let’s say that I managed to be one of the few, how likely would they allow me to ramble around in their precious kingdom on my motorcycle?
The first moment of silence since Bear Island
Some guidebooks tell you to forget it. Other sources say it can be done, but you must enter or exit the country by air. Another common report is that you’ll have to join an organized group, or pay for a guide that will escort you wherever you go. Forget all this. What you need is an insider who knows his way in the domestic bureaucracy. You also need his friends at the border, an emission test document, a fax machine, and to make a money transfer to a Wall Street bank account. The showdown was at Phuentsholing, the only land border open to foreigners. After twenty-four hours I was five kilometers up the road, flashing my newly obtained Bhutanese driving permit and given a go-ahead at the final frontier. I was in. No escort attached.
Who wants to be in a hurry when the scenery is like this?
Bhutan got its first automobile in 1962. Yes, it is a sorry place for veteran car enthusiasts. On the other hand, you often find yourself being king of the road because nobody else is on it. An estimated 80% of the population live more than an hour walk from the nearest motorable path (60% of these more than a day away). Obviously they have other priorities than being in front of you. But think again if you are planning to travel fast. The only main road is at best 3,5 meters wide and winds through a scenery so majestic that you should not miss the marvels by oozing by. So the modest average speed is in fact a wonderful advantage.
I'd might as well change oil on a UFO
The reception in the capital Thimphu was out of the ordinary. Apparently it was a rare event being visited by a lone biker from the Arctic. The national newspaper Kuensel welcomed the first ever Norwegian vehicle in the country, and Bhutan television made it a prime time story. Every day I had to shake a hundred hands. People wanted to know about my journey, and there were many faces of disbelief when I replied that I had driven through 29 countries to get there. They pictured many months of hardship and solitude, and it didn’t make any sense that I’d gone through all that without any so-called message to the world.
BBS television: Any advice for the young people in Bhutan? Yes, buy a motorcycle and visit us in the Arctic
The high fees of stay in Bhutan might seem like a convenient way to milk visitors for money. But think about it - how does the tiny population sustain its unique identity when wedged in between 1,5 billion Chinese in the north and more than one billion Indians in the south? That’s right, the high fees keeps the low paid Chinese and Indians away. To make this strategy less obvious, the fees apply to all visitors regardless of their origin. And the surplus from those who can afford to visit has provided all citizens of Bhutan with free education and free medical services. In other words, you visit an educated people that have achieved child mortality next to zero because you visit. I guess that indirectly made me a nice person.
Ah, waking up to another day in tranquility
With one more permit I went to Punakha Valley with my new-made friend Kinley and his pal Tashi. What a peculiar team. By Bhutanese standards Kinley is quite an eccentric. Not only does he drive the only other big motorcycle I saw in Bhutan - a KTM 640 - but he has seven of them. That makes him the first and only domestic motorcycle tour operator (check it out: www.himalayan-adventures.com). He has an astonishing ability to get you and me through to places famous for being inaccessible. Last year he successfully led a group of Austrian bikers to Everest Basecamp (!), and he is currently sketching a new tour across the bureaucracy-ridden China, from Bhutan to Mongolia. And yes, he is the mastermind that made my solo ride in Bhutan possible.
Punakha Valley: Kinley here demonstrates a classic Bhutanese pose
So if you’re looking for something more exclusive than a roundtrip in much visited India or a motorcycle vacation in straightforward Mexico, then Kinley is your man. And if you ride all day and get an aching back you might want to visit the Thai massage institute run by his more reserved friend Tashi, a former Dubai flight attendant who struggle with apple-eating ghost hitchhikers. Then again, Tashi doesn’t drive often because – as he expressed with great sadness – the color of his car is yellow.
The roads winding though this typical Bhutanese woodland are infested with ghosts needing a ride
Definitely, the Bhutanese seems to be occupied with many a strange phenomenon. One of the most interesting first-encounter questions I received during the week was this: “In Norway, do you have many UFO sightings?” It was refreshing after months of “how much do your bike cost”. Although I had to disappoint him, he was flabbergasted by my follow-up tale of six unexplained flying objects videotaped in Cape Town last year. It sort of made me special, and he leaned over: More wine? Now, this is to point out the true interest and grand hospitality I received everywhere. At a pub stage in downtown Thimphu I joined a guitar jam session, and the preference where surprisingly the same burnout classics as in home parties in rural North Norway. I cursed myself for not knowing the lyrics to “Living next door to Alice” - I would for sure have made a few groupies.
Oh no, the exit gate to India
Wow, afternoon sun in my face. For the first time I was traveling west instead of east, and the return to West Bengal improved my overall impression of India. Oh well, not much was needed. The Nepalese border was well hidden behind a grimy bus stand, and I spent the night in a Kakarbhitta guest house where the owner was pale and sweating and had a bad cough. In the backlight I saw a spew of virus-infested spit eject from his tremor ridden lungs. “Yes, we… cough… brrr… have a room. Here is… cough… your dinner… cough…cough.” For some mindless reason I thought I was immune.
This bridge is 113008 centimeter long. Nice to know.
They call it the Terai, the Nepalese flatland. It has many swamp-like areas from the melted masses from the 8848 meter high ridge in the north. The tarmac lay in a straight line, like a rolled-out carpet, but a heavy army presence and plenty of road check points slowed the advancement. Daybreak was made in a non-descript town. Gunshots in the night, and I could wake up to the final leg to Kathmandu. I started to feel woozy, had a puncture, and remounted the tire the wrong way. No time to fix it. The road became increasingly bad as it turned northwards and gained altitude. I lost more time. It became dark. The lack of a battery and a good headlight forced me to loiter behind trucks. Another road block. Waiting. Waiting.
I spent a week in bed. The exceptions were a few headaching walks in the Thamel district where I made myself unpopular by telling every adventure-seller to make a trek up their own behind. The Kakarbhitta virus had caught me. It was a sorry thing because I really wanted a holiday in the mountains. An independent Australian walker named Michael gave me the perfect invitation to Everest Basecamp, and clearly we could walk and talk for weeks. What a nice chap! But my fitness was down the drain. At the same time it was a forthcoming election with a ten day strike and curfew and what not. I’d decided to get away before showdown. But going where?
Here are few facts: Burma doesn’t permit entry from India by vehicle, and Chinese Tibet-policy requires that you exit through the same border as you enter (something that kinda ruin the progress). In effect these two countries block the overland route to the east. I had to make a jump over these obstacles. Some sort of shipping. That brought me to another problem. Kathmandu is 1700 meters above sea level, and Nepal has no marina.
Question: What is this warehouse worker pushing into the X-ray machine at the airport?
Answer: My suitcase
Bangkok. The very name promises… certain things. But the food alone is a good enough excuse to stay for weeks. And I did. Seventeen days to be precise. Getting the motorcycle through the airport custom was such an elaborate project that I should have brought a laptop with Tetris to support my boredom while waiting for the formalities to carry on. It was hot as hell, and once in a while they requested me to sign documents which purposes were written in a Thai language so bureaucratic that they couldn’t even explain the purposes themselves. The only thing that was crystal clear was that if I failed to re-export the motorcycle within eight weeks I would be liable to pay the insane duty of 898.000 Bath. That is about 22.800 US dollar, a sum I will never be able to pay. So I signed.
The latest model from Rana Baatbyggeri
While this was going on I forgot to saturate my intestines, hence experiencing something new and - may I add - confusing akin to the first morning in the early eighties when I woke up in puberty. This time the symptoms were a sudden urge to undress in a public place and cling on to an air-conditioner whilst drinking three liters of refrigerated water. I later got to learn that the phenomenon is called “heat exhaustion” and is, supposedly, not good for you. Balto experienced something similar on the way to town, regrettably so severe that he will not fully recover without a little surgery. The engine overheated thus the oil lost its lubrication abilities. My mistake. The result became a vague but notable click-click sound that was not mended with a simple valve adjustment. However, the bike is tough, not really complaining about anything, which is pretty impressive after sucking more fuel than the weight of a Volvo and doing so through all sorts of grueling conditions.
Mechanical striptease at Mr. Yut’s place
Within a week I received fresh back-up parts from Lars in Denmark. He manages a gem of a web shop (check it out: www.dinmc.dk). If DinMc was a restaurant they’d earn five stars in the Michelin guide for their service alone. It was some excitement attached to whether or not the parcel would arrive undamaged, if arriving at all. The reason for this excitement was a sudden urge in areas with a noteworthy Muslim representation to thrash Danish and Norwegian property. In addition I got a five kilo gold reward on my head for a cartoon I didn’t make and didn’t publish. I haven’t even seen it. Heck, not even THEY have seen it.
The reason why the Norwegian embassy in Damascus was demolished
(and why the embassy in Thailand is next)
And who are THEY? They are goofballs, and goofballs are everywhere regardless of religion. They are diluted by the rest, like a drop of lemon in a bottle of mineral water. Of course, when making a label on the bottle, the single drop of lemon gets an awful lot of attention. The result is obvious. Or maybe not, but I’ll give it a shot: If you do not like lemon you’ll probably not buy the bottle, which is sad because if you did buy the bottle when expecting the strong presence of a flavor you do not like you’d likely be disappointed in a very positive way. Hmm...
Nonetheless, in respect to my mothers need to sleep at night (she has a rough time as it is) I’ve promised to avoid countries with a predominantly Muslim population until a certain president once again steal the limelight by demonstrating that he has the diplomatic skills of a goofball. For me that means a temporary close-down of the Malaysian border and the road beyond. Instead I'll go looking for colonel Kurtz, and – to prove my point above - I’ll do so with the enemy.
That’s right, the Turkish girl is back. But is she back with a vengeance?
Nobody really saw what happened to Marlon Brando (alias colonel Kurtz) when he was struck on the head by Martin Sheene in Apocalypse Now. We could only assume that he died. However, in Apocalypse Now II (Even More Now) - as we imagine - it becomes clear that the colonel miraculously survived and fled up the Mekong River to heal the gash on his bald head. So we started there, by the Friendship Bridge in Nong Khai, popping malaria pills and planning our search in the jungle of Laos.
Unfortunately the search crew got drunken thus spending six days to recuperate on the Vang Vieng air strip used by the Americans during the Indochina War. Even though the bomb raids ended more than thirty years ago the Saisombun Special Zone still have some security issues, with an occational tourist accidentally caught in line of fire and then getting the face cut off with a knife. This disfiguration is merely to hide the f@ck-up, an act that works the opposit way because this is only done to westerners. "Hey, look at that mince face. Yep, another tourist."
Anyway - about our recuperating - in the absence of western pharmacies we turned to ancient Asian therapy such as bicycling in the countryside, swimming in underground caves, and floating down rivers on bloated tractor tubes. We even watched a film, something I had not done in a very long time. Other key words are bungalow, banana pancakes, hammock and sunburn. Slowly but steady we became fit enough to realize that the colonel never made it to Vang Vieng. In other words, a search further north would be in vain. We had to drive back south, which was nice because on our way north we oozed through the Lao capital with an ignorance that makes the Ku Klux Klan seem excited about African architecture.
The Buddha in the Tham Phu Kham cave was not colonel Kurtz
Vientiane is a peculiar riverside capital because there is a hundred meter buffer zone between the river shore and the city. That is, hundred meters of nothing. In other riverside settlements they cannot build their houses far enough into the riverbed. Some places they even acquire bulldozers to make more land and so the river slimmer. But not in Vientiane. Ah, who cares, they seem to think. After an hour of promenade you realize that the locals are laid-back about most other issues too. In a central road crossing a tuk-tuk (taxi) and a moped crashed. Now, if this was in e.g. Germany an ambulance would have been on the spot within minutes. Then Derrick would show up. Not to forget the wonder dog Rex.
Vientiane accident: How are you doing in there? Can we get you a Coca-Cola?
Who are David McMillan and Erika Tunick? We had no idea except that they also have traveled through Asia on a motorbike and that we have surpassed each other several times yet never met. The hours apart in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Laos had been so often and mysterious that I started to picture them as a computer nerd in the US having a laugh on our expense. But David and Erika are real (check it out: http://www.horizonsunlimited.com/tstories/mcmillan ). After months sharing roads and guest houses with ghost riders we were to meet at Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) in southern Laos. This time we would make it indeed. But fate had yet a few ploys in stock.
Laos is truly wonderful for a tranquil roundtrip on two wheels, perhaps the best country so far in that respect. Though the towns up north was more inviting by the look of them. Larger settlements further south such as Paksan, Tha Khaek and Pakse appeared more like studies in worn-out French colonial architecture. Still, between these places and on rust-red gravel roads, we found little bamboo huts villages and primitive food stalls that beat the best of culinary experiences available in the capital. Indeed, the best Lao kitchens are the authentic Lao kitchens. Moreover, Laos supplies the best coffee on earth. A cup brewed on beans from the Bolaven Plateau have a distinct choc taste, is incredibly expensive in the west, but served for cents where the beans are grown.
The Tad Lo village was our last night stop before the Four Thousand Islands. In the morning we had a good breakfast with Bruce and Sarah, a friendly couple from New Zealand, and a swim in the river. Then we jumped on an elephant for a ride in the bush. But the latter was a bad idea. As the animal was to climb down a steep path, the seat strap around its belly snapped and we fell off. You know, elephants are pretty tall, like two horses on top of each other. I landed with a tree root jammed in my groin, and then the girl landed on top of me. My nuts were so torn and scratched that the girl fainted by the sight. Literally. At the same time the elephant boy was in shock, apparently afraid to loose his job. Moreover, how could I – with my strategically placed injury – sit across a motorbike and ride it 200km on bumpy roads to an appointment at Four Thousand Islands?
A distant cry in the Lao jungle: “Aarghh, my balls!!!
With excessive use of ointments, some rolls of bandage, and tons of persistence we gave it a go. As you would expect it felt lovely to stand when driving, but it did not take many miles before my leg muscles were sodden with lactic acids. By God, how does the Ullevaalseter-guy do it? He must be superman and I will worship him forever. In absence of Paris-Dakar-style training I endured the hours by sitting in a variety of unstylish positions, a few which by the look of them involved the tankbag in a very provocative way. Nevertheless, we made it to the meeting point. That was only to receive sad news from David and Erika. After nine months of safe journey they had crashed with a cow east of Pakse. David broke his collarbone and was of course unable to drive the remaining two hours to Four Thousand Islands. Now, if you believe that destiny work for some people to never meet, then this is a story that fits the label.
An eventful day ends with a beautiful sunset
(but romance was out of the question)
The reputation of the Laos-Cambodia border is brutal. We’re talking remoteness, robberies, landmines, bribes, and a road where even 4x4’s get stuck during rainy season. Now, it is still a good idea to start with a full tank and plenty of water. It is also recommended to avoid toilet brakes off road unless you wish to have the crap blown out of you. But a single dollar was all needed to lubricate the border guys, and Chinese contractors have greatly improved the road beyond. Their plan is to finish sometime in 2007, thus the bridge across the Mekong River north of Stung Treng is yet to be completed. So, in the absence of a bridge we had to improvise.
These riverboat boys clung on to the bike as if it was a suicidal girlfriend, so keeping it from drowning in the Mekong River
It might be of comfort to the next biker knowing that we did the ride from the border via Stung Treng to Kratie in five lazy hours. That includes the river crossing. I’m sure those in a hurry could do it in four. The Laos to Cambodia drive is no longer as challenging as it was just a few years back. What’s more? Stung Treng and Kratie were OK but not extraordinary. The locals were helpful but not bursting with friendliness. The good things were not fantastic, and the bad things were not as bad as we were told. Hence Cambodia entered our minds as a mediocre attraction. The only real awakening was the awareness of the horrific scenes that had taken place on the soil we drove on. The Khmer Rouge terror is history, but the majority of the 40.000 who survived stepping on a mine are still there. That is, what is left of them.
When the Chinese contractors complete this road it will be fit for Harleys
Kompong Cham is a name that must not be confused with “c’mon charm”. The town is a plain bore. You’d better try Skuon (known as Spidertown) where big, hairy spiders are barbequed and served with knife, fork and a toothpick to remove the legs that get stuck between your teeth. Skuon is also where the road split, one lane going to the capital Phnom Penh, and the other north to Siem Reap. It is a choice between big-city hullabaloo and tranquil days at the temples of Angkor. It took approximately one second for us to reach a decision. And the temples were OK. And the road to the next border was not as bad as we were told.
Why the restoration of Angkor Wat never finishes
What about colonel Kurtz? We had followed the Mekong down south without finding him. Of course an Internet search would have saved us the trouble. The story is that Kurtz returned to the US being his previous self - Marlon Brando. There he retired from the public eye and cherished his radio amateur hobby until call sign FO5CJ suddenly disconnected in July 2004.
A number of unusual events happened as we left Cambodia. The border crossing took longer than any other, and the kickstarter arm went through the sole of my boot. At sundown it began to rain, more so as we got closer to the capital, and when passing a badly lit roadwork area in the suburbs the growing wind caught a large wooden plate and slammed it into the bike. No injuries. However, these hostile hours could somewhat be explained: The cow-crashers David and Erika were in Bangkok to recover… Hey, wait a minute! Why go west to Bangkok if you wanna go to east to Vietnam?
Going the wrong way?
The Turkish girl flew home for her final exam, and with my once-again aloneness the skies clustered with brownish clouds. Thunder announced that the monsoon season was just around the corner, if not already there. A few brief but fierce rainstorms drowned the Bangkok sewage tunnels thus the rats escaped to the streets where three million cars belong. It is remarkable how large a rat can be when flattened. Like a hairy Grandiosa Pizza. Corpses were scattered in the drying streets, with small fur balls caught in the turbulence behind passing vehicles. My idea at first was to go to Malaysia. But something told me to take a time-out. To make a better plan. Review my ride, my bike, which is never-complaining but battered by three owners. I made a sketch – the road to purpose-bike perfection: Balto, but with a few more features. As the locals say: Same same, but different. Vietnam seemed like a good place to think about the details.
Bangkok rain. When I bought an umbrella it stopped.
So why going west to get east? Well, for starters Bangkok is the hubbub of SE-Asia and where you by flashing a handful of cash can get a visa and a ticket to whatever country in the region within 24 hours. Secondly, temporary import of motorcycles with more than 175cc is forbidden in Vietnam. Balto is simply too big for Charlie.
So how can you have a blast on your own motorcycle in Vietnam?
Answer: Buy a Vietnamese motorcycle.
And the short flight to Hanoi was great, with an above-the-clouds perspective so breathtaking that even the most arrogant of the meteorologists at Vervarslinga would get a hard-on.
Hmm, let's see if we find a motorcycle in this alley
We met at dawn in the Old Quarter, Mr. X and I. On offer was a heap of gaskets, rubber and metal parts which once upon a time were assembled in Russia in such order that the unit could be defined as a motorcycle. A Vietnamese license plate and some spare parts were included. Money changed hands. Mr. X said it was 1700km to Saigon, and he wished me good luck. Ah – I thought - just like a drive from Tromso to Oslo. But it was not quite like that.
Say hello to Laika. She doesn’t look like much, but at least she got me out of town
The Minsks have many fans. It’s difficult to understand why. Then again, it isn’t always smart looks and great performance that counts. Oh hell, who am I kidding? Smart looks and great performance is everything. Hanoi to Saigon on Italian machinery - THAT would be something. Did I mention that Balto was made in Italy? Hmm, not quite in the Ducati league but… Anyway, I was stuck with something assembled from the crash site of Sputnik 2, and I questioned if it would get me out of the capital Annoy. But the Minsk’s lack of flamboyance and refinement proved to be the least to worry about.
Tam Coc caves: Bring pepper spray against the rowing souvenir pushers
Easter vacation had just begun and the traffic was bloody awful. Though knowing that the Vietnamese do not celebrate Easter made me realise that the traffic is bloody awful all the time. The drivers love to bully, and - Easter or not - if you’re yellow or chicken you’ll be a looser. The menace is the many scooters and the constant cross traffic they represent. It took some time to figure out how to deal with them. The key is to aim straight at the crossing vehicle, and by the time you get there it has moved further to the side and the path is clear (hopefully). It all happens very fast, and you better get used to this bold system as hesitation confuses the others and they might wobble into you or someone else.
Hoi An and the only street I came across that was closed for traffic
“Hey Mister, where are you from?” Locals were notorious businessmen. There was no such thing as a reasonable first bid, and if they got their will I’d pay 40.000 Dong per banana, and 85.000 for two (special offer for you my friend). I met Tony, a member of the Easy Riders, a group of motorcycle guides operating from Dalat. He was returning from a tour up north, and since we both were heading the same way we drove side by side for a day. His front fender fell off shortly before his horn did. Then the Korean shopper barfed fuel and Tony had to weld the tank. Finally he tried to charge me for “guiding”. My reply was that I had guided him, so he should pay me. Then we had a dispute about who guided who. I never saw Tony again.
Tony was a nice chap though
Tony’s more stylish bike fell apart. At the same time the Minsk didn’t. The two-stroke engine rattled like a thousand empty food cans thrown into a trash container. It didn’t get better, but it didn’t get worse either. The bike just kept on doing what it did, day after day. After 1100km I cleaned the spark plug. That’s all, and the Minsk didn’t ask for more. On Easter Day we passed a giant shipyard, drove through the village of workers behind, to the other side of the small and lush peninsula. The asphalt turned to gravel, and the gravel turned to sand. And it was there - on Jungle Beach - that I decided to slip into something more comfortable.
The end of Asia coast to coast, from the Bosporus Strait to the Pacific Ocean. Yep, it was Speedo time, and the swim was bloody fantastic
Minsks are imported to Vietnam as farm machinery, and is said to be unbeatable when it comes to off road transport. So let’s find out if it is as good as they say. A new road was under construction between Nha Trang and Dalat. About 150km of unfinished highway. Indeed, it was so unfinished that I barely made it through. It started with a surfaced freeway. Then the luxury of tarmac ended, and the remains got more and more narrow and bumpy and deteriorated until it was no road at all.
The Minsk showed its Achilles' heel. The two-stroke engine was much too weak at low revs to perform well. The option was to burn clutch. And I did. I had to, and I was just waiting for a breakdown that didn’t come. I pushed the bike over piles of blasted rocks, gave full throttle through mud, manoeuvred in cotton-thick fog, and waded across rivers. The most demanding 20km took five hours to pass. I met many road workers isolated for months on their designated spot in the mountain. Some where laughing, others were shaking their heads. Many asked for cigarettes; they hadn’t had a smoke in a long time. Tough men living tough lives, sleeping with their shovels and machines, far away from the nearest tube of Colgate. A bit like Hopen really.
The path is blown away with dynamite
The road ended as it started and I cruised into Dalat. I found a quiet corner in a café. A lady entered with a hideously cute spaniel squashed up in her armpit. She ordered two cigarettes and a matchbox. I took a picture, the spaniel got spooked by the flash, and it ran out in the city traffic. Thus I decided to vanish too to avoid a compensation claim for one run-over puppy dog. My aloneness told me to seek comfort at Dalat’s main attraction, the Valley of Love, but so few were visiting that they closed the park while I was in it. And the next day I drove to Saigon, the end of my Vietnam, and I played tennis with a cool gang of veterinarians in exile. I got rid of the Minsk within hours.
A split second before runaway
This is the Valley of Love. I came alone, and left alone.
What now? Australia is pretty close now, but Balto is not in a very happy state. He’s going to a retirement home, and at home is a brand new motorcycle – Balto II - waiting to be rigged and shipped back to the east. Ships travel slowly, these things will take some time, and I will fill up the cash box while waiting. There is some work to be done before we go on.
Balto I - Retired and replaced
Poor thing, the old Balto barely made it to the door of the dealer. In the showroom was a new set of wheels, and I immediately appreciated the evolution of a newer model – it had a slightly lower suspension, and started with the push of a button. I would ship the thingy east where the RTW venture came to a temporary standstill due to mechanical problems. Those worries seemed like a distant cry at the moment I heard the first thump of the virgin machine. A run-in was required to smoke out any child diseases, and to guarantee the quality of the quest I teamed up with the most experienced motorcyclist I know.
My Dad and his baby, a mint condition 1960 Triumph Bonneville
You bring the tent, I bring the booze. OK, let’s go.
We crisscrossed England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Both machines worked faultlessly. Now and then we rented a room at a B&B, but most of the time we pitched the tent in the countryside and lived backpacker style. My Dad got much attention en route, not only for his classic bike, but also for being such a sport at 76. Yep, that’s my Dad alright. The father and son roundtrip should have had its own blog. It lasted four thousand eventful kilometers before we had to split. By then the new Balto had proven to be a robust little thing, and for the next few months it was parked in a garage with another gorgeous classic, a 1938 Morgan (thanks Sven Erik).
A visit at the secret den of a Triumph enthusiast
Even the wild deers at the Island of Arran were taken by the vintage Triumph
Sightseeing in between the battles
It was four years ago I came up with the extremely controversial idea of saving the money instead of asking for sponsorships. Since then I have done approx. 2400 weather observations, been a potential snack at 265 polar bear encounters, and endured 26 months in celibacy to finance my trip. So do not think that I’m not making sacrifices on my way round. This fall I also had to gain back the ten kilos I lost on the road to Bhutan (see the fatigue video at www.eriksaue.com). I had no idea that eating well was so crucial to long distance riding. The master chef Christer Sørlie took the stuffing job, and soon I fitted my pants again and could move on with the shipment of the bike.
The chef sums up this season at 76,30 degrees north
In Nepal and Thailand I had woodworkers making shipment crates for me. This time I wanted to make the crate myself. I sawed and hammered from dusk till dawn, and from the stack of materials emerged a hefty container. I will know in January if it was good enough. I had to partly dismantle the bike to make it fit inside, but the final screw was stuck. Bloody hell, being bothered with the very last thing that could go wrong. But Lunde Motorservice knew what to do. They provided smart advices and a free tube of magic paste, thus making sure that metal drilling became unnecessary. What an excellent and friendly workshop - every biker in Lillestrøm and Oslo should go there. In fact, give them a call right now to order your next service: 63 81 96 20.
Life is easy with standup friends like Thomas and Tor Inge
(hotel manager/driver/tool supplier/fax machine/cook/advisor etc...)
Nowadays the bike is somewhere on the Indian Ocean.
I'll wait at the docks at Port Klang.
Happy New Year. See you soon.
Where is the bike? Wheeeereee is it?
Being restless to the point of watching TV, I decided to spend my waiting time by visiting one of the smallest and most atypical nations in the world, the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam. It is a strictly Islamic country more or less run by Shell. They have no taxes, no alcohol, and a free trip to Mecca for all citizens. In effect that means there are plenty of cash, but no parties, and many of its adventurous are abroad. Indeed, Brunei (which fittingly means Abode of Peace) might just be the most boring place on earth, if not in the entire universe.
The stunning Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is the next best thing to Taj Mahal
Oh well, I’m not being completely fair with my characteristics. Brunei will entertain you for a day or two, but after that you’ll have to entertain yourself. If you can’t, you’re in trouble. The tourist office in will not help you – I was met with a distinct “oh no, another foreigner”, handed a leaflet, and kicked out before I could bother them with questions. Therefore, when strolling on the roadside with sweet inner images of places far away, I was thrilled to be hijacked by perhaps the most hardcore criminal in the country. For his own protection let’s call him “Danny”. Here is the case: Danny is the lead guitarist in Soul Decay, a Muslim metal band (!). The problem is that metal music is illegal in Brunei. See the dilemma? Anyway, we had a fulfilling conversation about Satan, and he was particularly fascinated by me being a genuine descendant of the Vikings.
Danny, his girlfriend Noodle, and I are enjoying Ambuyat, the national dish – hot slime and fish fried to death. It tasted… well, don’t ask.
Before Microsoft became macro the sultan was the richest man in the world, but now he’s on an embarrassing third place (æda bæda). His Majesty’s 1788 room castle is half a kilometre long, and he has 2000 cars in the garage. Most interesting is his royal chariot, a spitting image of Il Tempo Gigante, which is displayed at the Royal Regalia Museum. Other rewarding doings include a walk in Kampor Ayer, a village on stilts in the Brunei River, where half of the population in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan lives. And I have to mention Steven and Chris, a lovely British couple that - despite living there for five years - was not mentioned in the tourist brochure. They kindly invited me for chicken sandwiches and tea in their new house in the suburb which I imagine is far more practical than the Sultans castle (the toilet is in walking distance, etc…).
The water village is hot and humid. It has the feel and smell of a badly ventilated kitchen where someone is boiling a large pot of macaroni.
After a week I was more afraid of losing my Bryson book than my passport, and there had been plenty of reading hours and coffees at Brunei’s perhaps nicest outdoor facility, De Royalle Café. The last day they gave me a "regular customer discount card" (could be a bad sign depending how you look at it), and the owner came and shook my hand in the usual Brunei way – a touch so light that no sweat would be exchanged.
“Where are you from”, he asked.
“I’m from Norway.”
I corrected him, but he didn’t seem to grasp it. When I left, he said to his employees, loud enough for me to hear it:
“There goes a man from nowhere, and he’s going somewhere.”
I liked that idea.
Then I got the SMS - my bike has finally arrived at Port Klang.
“Honey, I’m going to the toilet.”
“OK, see you in the evening. By the way, have you seen the keys to the car?”
If you import a vehicle into Malaysia you only need to call Clasquin and ask for Yep. Yep, that’s right. Give her the papers she want, and then do something else for the two weeks it takes to process the import permit. During the wait you will miss the long, hard rides from dusk till dawn. But don’t worry; in Kuala Lumpur there are ways to compensate.
C’mon, ride that skunk, yes, yes…
I had to sleep too, and booked a room at Equator Hostel. They target overlanders at their most vulnerable – grimy, tired, and desperate to watch DVD movies - and I was sucked into a whirlpool of easy living. I tell you, I became a heavy user of their facilities. Its true, I showered every day. It was crazy!!! But know this: If you ever drive through Kuala Lumpur you’d be an idiot if you didn’t stay there. They have neat and clean facilities in a super-central location, top service for overlanders, and breakfast and lots of smiles included. They know where to get new parts and skillful repair for your bike, and across the street is an indoor motorcycle parking lot guarded 24/7. You’ll find your KL palace here: www.equatorhostel.com . Enjoy!
Hady and Phillip run the Equator. Watch out, they might make you wanna stay forever.
In younger years the Kuala Lumpur name was synonymous with a primordial place far away, but nowadays they have the superurban Petronas Twin Towers and a futuristic monorail. While you wait for the next train you are entertained by Beethoven, and in grocery stores you hear jazz, making banana shopping pleasant. Indeed, you hear calming music everywhere. However to move around in this western oriented capital can still be a nerve blasting experience. The locals walk extremely slowly, and on narrow pavements your inner tempo is seriously challenged. The same happens when you want to get off a train, and can’t because those waiting on the platform decides to board the train first, thus blocking your exit. Not to mention the sluggish and narrow escalators where the person I front of you just stand there. It it wasn’t Beethoven but Dimmur Borgir on the speakers… Still you have to love everybody. Give any person a smile, and you get a big smile back. In Oslo they would consider you a lunatic.
Arrival at Port Klang: If your original bike breaks down en route, do not despair; get a new one shipped from home.
In Port Klang I had a wonderful goodbye lunch with Yep and her assistants, and soon I hooked up with some friends I hadn’t seen since Pakistan. More to come…
The Hindu festival at the Batu Caves was slightly different party from those at home. Just imagine yourself on a vorspiel pushing a barbecue fork through your face, then walk all night carrying a jar of goat milk. Add a few fishhooks, scent sticks, fruits and flowers, blood and music and you’ll get the picture. The really interesting part is that the Hindu’s seemed to enjoy it.
After the crowds I was looking forward to some tranquillity at Cameron Highlands. Supposedly the landscape is stunning, but fog blocked the view, and I spent the night doing homework. Ah yes, I’m hereby a student. My first day at BI Nettstudier started a few weeks ago, so to improve my current degree. Very exciting indeed (check it out: www.bi.no). If all goes well I’ll do a couple of exams in Sydney. A few tips: When you’re motorcycling around the world while studying at BI Nettstudier you need lots of energy. The many food stalls serving fresh fruit juices are an excellent source. Add a cold shower in the morning and two tablets of Omega 3, and your ready to process international marketing management inside your helmet for miles on end.
Reading Harald Biong and Erik B. Nes would not be the same without this.
Malaysia is pleasant. I can recommend it to anybody. Yet my five weeks there were without those singular episodes – good or bad – that will stick with you forever. People were friendly, everything went smooth. It was all too straightforward to brag about to the grandchildren in year 2047.
If you're trying to read the book by Harald Biong/Erik B. Nes and see this guy, you’d better flee to another guesthouse. He will chat a hole in your head.
The ride ended in Penang, and I hooked up with motorcycle travellers Renata and Tobias from Germany. We met in Lahore a year ago, but the meeting was brief, and it was great to revive our acquaintance. All three were facing the question how to transport our bikes across the Malacca Strait. There are no ferries from Penang, so improvisation was needed. The solution became an iffy wooden boat shipping onions to Belawan in Sumatra.
The next question is how Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, will welcome a cartoonist from Norway
The rumor was that the custom in Belawan would suck every Ringgit out of our pockets. Though the paperwork was swift, and we got receipts for the 200.000 that each of us had to pay. It was all done in 45 minutes. The trick is to smile so immensely that they do not want to ruin your jolly mood by suggesting a bribe. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it works. Then it was off to the jungle.
Good news: The Indonesians have forgiven us the cartoons
We needed some retreat from the big city hullabaloo and found it in the rainforest near Bukit Lawang. Renata and Tobias wanted to stay for longer in the area while I – as I usually do – opted for a slower pace in the last half of the visa duration. So I left at dawn to check out the Trans Sumatran Highway. It doesn’t really remind much of a highway. It’s more like a second-class side road with a serious road sign problem. No wonder I got confused and did a wrong turn in a crossing. I still do not know where I was, but it was nice there.
In the rainforest we came across this exhibitionist orangutan mother. Drop me an email if you want her phone number.
I hoped to make it from Lake Toba to Bukittinggi in one day, but in the far-flung village of Rau I had to seek shelter from a massive rainstorm. It got dark. The rain would not stop, and I was stuck. However under the same straw roof was a cheerful Arabic language teacher named Idrus. The rain lasted long enough for us to have some laughs, and he invited me to stay in his humble home to dry my clothes, have a wash, have a good night rest, etc… The mud-spattered motorcycle was parked in their living room. He even drove me to a nearby eating place and refused to let me pay or share the bill. Islamic hospitality to a friend from Harstad, he said. What a nice guy!
Idrus and his family: What would happen if he or someone like him got stuck in bad weather somewhere in Norway?
The next day I crossed the Equator. From thereon the sun was always behind me. Bukittinggi was nothing to write home about, and I kept on moving south along the west coast. The next two days was as strenuous as the two before due to the astronomic number of hairpin corners and the trillion gear shifts (mostly between second and third). It was impossible to keep a steady pace. I didn’t expect any improvements as the map displayed an even thinner line south of Bengkulu. But indeed it was the best part of Sumatra – less traffic, much faster roads, more variation of scenery, inviting villages, lush forests and beautiful beaches. It all was like a great reward for the roads endured further north. The only annoyance was a wasp that got stuck up my right nostril. I had to use my Leatherman to remove it.
Jungle roads: Sometimes I take a break to enjoy watching cars stuck in the mud
Here is a sunshine story: In Ipuh - a village rarely visited by anybody - I stopped for breakfast at a food stall outside the local school. Four teachers came out to get me, and I had to be English teacher for a day. The kids charmed the hell out of me, and by the time I left everybody could sing “Får æ være sola di” by Randi Hansen.
The kids in Ipuh
I made it from Sumatra to the Puncak Pass in one go and camped with some birdwatchers. What is the deal about bird-watching I asked, and their eyes got big and wet and they licked their lips and… well, certainly bird-watching turned them on. I don’t get it. On a personal note I’m more into bird-listning. Indeed there are many odd sounds around here. E.g. in Sumatra I received a lot of SMS’s – I thought – but it was a bird blaring exactly like a Nokia. Better yet, the second day in Java I was woken up by a rooster yelling the theme song from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Was it for me? I don’t know, but I felt kinda tough when I rode out of town on my iron horse.
The only structure left on Pangandaran beach
I arrived Pangandaran, a small beach town the size of Harstad, with a broken clutch cable and a blister on my butt. A few months ago the town was hit by a three meter wave traveling at a speed of 400 km/h and killing nearly a thousand of its people (the second tsunami which they did not write much about in the West). Despite the total obliteration of the seafront I was able to find accommodation a few minutes away, in the garden of an old hippie. Very nice guy! My plan was to finish a case with my studies, and the hippie offered to help. I said thanks but no thanks and explained that BI Nettstudier regard case-writing under the influence of LSD as cheating. Then the night came and I could not sleep because of a frog that sounded like a car that would not start. You know an engine turning in vain, then a two second pause before trying again. Now, imagine this going on for hours… I was praying that the frog would run out of battery. Of course it didn’t.
Hmm, tough choice
After a wonderful 400k day along the south coast I opted for a frog-free night in Pacitan, but the guy at the reception was high on something and it wasn’t something good. So I placed my bet on a wildcard; that the day would end wherever fate had in stock for me. I do that sometimes. This particular day the sun set as I drove into Panggul, and I was immediately – immediately as in less than a minute – highjacked by the local doctor. And that is how a two day drinking binge with karaoke, grilled lobsters and beach touring started (to mention a few things). Dr. Suhartono is a hot candidate for the most entertaining man alive. Panggul is yet to be discovered by tourism, but his pioneer friend Flo from Montana is about to change all that by erecting a fabulous guesthouse by the beach.
Dr. Suhartono, his pioneer friend Flo, and their shy neighbor
The rumor was that the usual road to Cemoro Lawang, Java’s number one village for volcano spotting, was closed due to a landslide. Hence in Malang I got a tip about a 4x4 trail from the west side of the mountain. After a 2000 meter climb on a bewildering network of narrow and slippery brick roads I found myself in the clouds. Thus I couldn’t see much, so when uphill turned to downhill I was happily unaware of what I was driving into. And bloody hell, the volcano was active too. The moon-like landscape and the ghastly smell of sulfur made me assume a thing or two about my situation, and the oh-shit-feeling didn’t lessen by the increasing wind that erased all evidences in the ash showing a way to a drivable exit.
While I searched for an escape some hefty weather hammered the mountain and - as I later would see for myself - ripped the roof tiles of several houses in Cemoro Lawang. Rain came in buckets, the basin became a pool of mud, and I was about to pitch my shelter on a rock using the bike as anchor when I spotted some vehicles at the edge of the crater. It was a crew of Japanese engineers giving a brand new Nissan the rough ride. They were pretty flabbergasted by the sight of a motorcyclist coming out of the volcano, and they invited me to their end-of-testdrive-party in Bali. Alright, let’s go.
The new Nissan - soon available at Norbil AS
It takes one hour in Bali to realize that the average tourist is a sexually frustrated drug abuser in urgent need of a taxi. At least that is what the Kuta marketplace is all about. Here are the options: You can buy a venereal disease that will kill you slowly. Or you can be arrested for drug possession and get the unforgiving Indonesian death penalty (which will kill you faster). OR you can settle for a taxi ride, but the island is so small that you’ll likely die of backseat boredom before 5pm. Therefore - since the Balinese seem so eager to terminate their visitors - I decided to quickly move on to Nusa Tenggara, the island in the east and the ferry hell of Southeast Asia.
The happy owner of this pile of junk welded from a Vespa took me for a grand tour around Bima. It was a nerve-racking but memorable experience.
First ferry was to Lombok. The ticket master asked about the size of my bike. I said it was 600cc. Then he started to argue that it might be 500cc. I could only repeat myself, but so did he. Being annoyed with this seemingly unnecessary discussion I showed him the registration papers. He sighed, then - and not before then - explained that all bikes with more than 500cc had to pay triple ferry price, and now I had to pay because he knew for sure. Yeah, thanks a lot. Two hours drive and Lombok was history, and the ferry to Sumbawa was much cheaper because Balto was suddenly a 400cc. Then the hotel receptionist in Bima said there was no ferry to Flores going the next day, which was some bogus information to make me stay an extra night in their otherwise empty establishment. I didn’t, though the 8am departure was indeed delayed because the ferry was out of petrol (!). It took eight hours for a fuel truck to drive the 40 kilometers from Bima.
Flores offers some stunning roadside views. Volcanoes are everywhere.
The first person I met on Flores was a young man offering me a blowjob, something that would be a wonderful gesture of Flores hospitality if it was my cup of tea. Nonetheless being boringly heterosexual I quickly moved on because I was told by the tourist office in Ende that the final ferry to Timor would leave on Thursday. But in Ende there was no ferry, only more boys promoting Flores. Then I got a tip about a departure from Aimere sometime during the weekend, which meant that I had to drive back 150 kilometers. Being fed up with mixed messages I phoned the ferry captain in person to be sure. When talking to the man in charge it seemed needless to ask twice, but I’m glad I did.
“The ferry will leave on Saturday at 8pm,” he said.
“Are you absolutely 100% sure?”
“Yes, the ferry will leave precisely at 8pm in the morning.”
The ferry left at 10am.
It was 23 hours of terrified household animals screaming on the deck below. Rust painted water dribbled in because several windows were missing, and at sunrise I woke up by the rudder house rooster (yes, they had one), just to discover that we were behind schedule and someone had poed on my tankbag. But not to worry, Balto and I made it here to Kupang, and we celebrated by cooling down in a hotel with air-con, only to discover that our biggest ferry problem is yet to come. That is, there are no more. The only scheduled shipping route from here to Australia goes from Dili in East Timor (Perkins Ltd.). I had an appointment with them, but the East Timor border has closed due to recent riots and gun fights. The only option is to hitchhike from Kupang with a shrimp boat owned by an Ozzie named Bob, though his engine is kaput and new parts will not arrive before my visa runs out. How shall I get away from here?
At Kupang Airport it became evident that less fortunate countries do not afford waterproof ink when giving you an entry stamp. My passport was a bit washed after the wet season in Sumatra, and now the silly Billy officer at Kupang Airport pointed demonstratively on the blank spot: “How can I stamp you OUT if you haven’t been stamped IN? See, you are not here.” I insisted that I was, making a point about my presence. Yet he said no and that I could not enter the aeroplane because I wasn’t there.
For the next forty five minutes I watched his mouth talk nonsense in slow motion, a numerous other officials came and went, and nobody offered me cookies and coffee because… well, I wasn’t there. But all of a sudden he realized that I actually WAS there, and he waved me out the door. The propeller plane with the volunteer Australian doctors had closed the hatch and was on the move, and I ran down the airstrip as if I needed some immediate surgery. Hey, wait for me!
Goodbye Asia. Hello Australia.
What about the bike? Well, the East-Timor border was closed and my non-extendable visa ran out, so I had no better option but to leave the bike behind with Bob’s men and hope for a quick fix of the shrimp boat engine. But no, prepare yourself for dealing with amateurs, coz those guys really know how to fuck up your schedule. First prospect was that the boat would leave Kupang within seven to ten days, though ten days later the boat was still in Kupang. The new prospect was that it would certainly be in Darwin next Tuesday. Next Tuesday the boat was still in Kupang. Now, this is when the waiting started to be somewhat painful. I called Kupang again. Yes, it would for sure leave Thursday 12th. But on Thursday night the Kupang boys didn’t finish loading the boat before midnight, thus the boat crew refused to sail because it then was Friday 13th. Hello? But again a promise; they would leave night till Saturday, just one minute after midnight.
On Sunday the boat was still in Kupang.
Then, finally, the boat with the crew and the bike went to sea. It arrived in Darwin on Wednesday, and I was more than ready to pick up the bike and get going. But somehow the boat crew had forgotten (!) to notify the custom, thus they were not permitted to unload the boat before Friday afternoon, meaning that I would get my bike just in time for all the offices I have to visit to close for the weekend. Great!
I got my bike in the end. By the way; seeing Torbay II makes you wonder what Torbay I looks like
Then it was off to the Motor Vehicle Office to register. The forty-something male clerk said I needed to write down my local address. I said I didn’t have any. He then suggested that I use the address of someone I knew. I said I didn’t know any locals. Now, the following conversation was kinda confusing:
“Basically what you’re telling me is that I have to find someone to know?”
“Is it easy?”
“Yes, people around here are very friendly.”
“Alright, I want to know YOU”.
“Yes! I’m a nice guy. You will like me a lot.”
“I don’t want to know you.”
“I just don’t.”
So I faked an address.
Maybe I’ll find somebody to know out here?
The main road between Darwin and Port Augusta is flat and straight with few highlights but its own MaxMax feel and the far between petrol stations (yohoo, coffee time!). Until recently Stuart Highway, as it is called, had no speed limit, but nowadays it is restricted to 130kmh. I lingered along, hoping for that first sight of kangaroos, but I saw nothing, not even the tiniest lizard. I only discovered why butterflies are called butterflies – they look like butter after smashing into the visor. Yes, could easily be mistaken for Tine Setersmør. So bring a handful of tissues because it might be another 150 km’s to the next handkerchief on earth.
Ha ha ha
To survive the heat and the dust and the butter and the straightforwardness I’d printed out a photo of my Sweetheart and placed her on the tankbag. When the landscape became exceptionally monotonous I would still have something exceptionally interesting to look at, thus staying vigilant and awake. In other words; it was all a matter of traffic safety… ehem… Anyway, after some time traveling I’ve become familiar with attention from journalists, but the cameraman in Renner Springs who was there to cover a SIDS rally was more interested in the picture on the tankbag. What’s the story about the girl, he asked. I told him, and voilà, she hit the TV-news in Australia, and she didn’t even have to show up in person. What a woman!
Sharing my breakfast with a friend
(photo by BMW-traveller Mark Hamilton. Thanks Mark!)
Another half day down the road I pitched my tent in Wycliffe Well which has its own UFO landing site. If I didn’t see any kangaroos on my way through Australia I would at least see a few aliens. Allegedly they were all over the place. But, would you believe it, I didn’t see any of them either. Thus for one night I lived next door to Alice, that is, the camp ground on the outskirts of Alice Springs. Disillusioned by the 1500 kilometers of wildlife from neither bush nor space I went to a wallaby feeding ground at dusk. I was dying to see something. At first it was a mediocre show, but it all gained some appeal when an overfed wallaby started to vomit. I had no idea that a tiny creature like that could contain so much green liquid substance. Amazing! Then it was another 450k’s to Ayers Rock. Climbing it was like smoking – they urge you not to do it, and then offer you the ticket. So I did it. Unfortunately I did it with my motorcycle boots on (ouch, blisters, blisters, au, sh*t, f***)
…and then there was no ice-cream bar with live music and jacuzzi on top, just this lackluster copper plate
Finally at Coober Pedy I entered the Thunderdome. Yep, in the eighties they were all there - Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, you name it - to shoot Mad Max 3. On every other corner you see signs warning you not to walk backwards. Who the hell walk backwards? Anyway, the reason for the do-not-walk-backwards-frenzy is the holes in the ground. Coober Pedy is an opal mining town, and we’re talking deep shafts. Occasionally tourists fall into them, and the holes are so many and so deep that some of the missing tourists are never found.
A Coober Pedy sofa is always safe
Today you can go for a guided tour to the mining fields, or take a visit to an underground Serbian Orthodox Church, or a few other things with a touch of seriousness. Though on top of my list was an old chap called Crocodile Harry, not because he had a role in Mad Max 3, but because of his well-known and large collection of women underwear. I had all the questions lined up; if he preferred the panties new or slightly used, and if he sometimes wore collection items himself etc. Things like that. Unfortunately Crocodile Harry had just passed away, so I never got to understand anything about his hobby. I had to settle for the underground Serbian Orthodox Church, though it wasn’t really a good substitute.
World premiere at Harstad Kino sometime… well, probably never
Whyalla is a fascinating city. It has some hidden jems behind its industrial facade, but most noteworthy you can say its name while throwing up. Try to do the same with e.g. Alice Springs... That’s right, you can’t. In fact, whatever you say while throwing up it will sound like Whyalla, something that can be useful if taking a taxi home late at night (or a problem if you really want to go to Alice Springs). Anyway, I'm happy that my good mate Steven was home. I met him and his wife Anna Marie in Iran, then Pakistan (see photo in the Pakistan posting) before they gave their trusty Beemer the full throttle to Oz. Now I opted for a few days vacation and perhaps a late night taxi or two, but Steven had a different plan.
Imagine this going on for 1100 kilometers
For three days Steven, his buddy Disco, and I raced the gravel roads in the Flinders, a mountain range stretching from the Spencer Gulf and 400 kilometers north into the real outback. I realized that I’d never driven Balto without luggage, thus the “new” handling of the bike was an exhilarating surprise, just like a prudent girlfriend who one day and out-of-the-blue says something naughty.
OK, the metaphor sucks, but you know what I mean.
I do not recall the names of all the places we went. I do remember Arkaroola, another late-night-friendly name, but the perception of this being a general feature of South Australian places came to an end at Nooldoonooldoona.
Disco enjoying this lady’s pump
Sunset Steven and his sunset beer
After a whole lot of kangaroos and a bone-dry emu-burger we returned to Whyalla. It was time for that long awaited taxi ride. But Stevens Mum and Dad had returned from exile in South Africa with a few bottles of white and a bundle of good stories. Spending the evenings with the O’Briens made me rethink the saying “to be able to talk about anything” which often is confused with the ability to speak about private matters. No, with these guys even the silliest, most microscopic topic of no practical significance whatsoever could be discussed with great enthusiasm. I just had to love them.
On the last day Steven equipped me with Australian army supplies - olive green cheddar cheese, olive green apricot fruit spread, olive green tomato soup etc. Yep, they can nuke Oz and I'll still be touring it. Stevens Dad Terri hadn’t driven his beefy Kawasaki since last year and he joined me through the beautiful Claire Valley Wine Region, and we raced the sunset but the sunset won and we arrived in Adelaide after dark. After some gourmet pasta on the bustling local strip we camped in his father-in-laws house. Next morning Terri sponsored me a full tank and wished me good luck. It was almost strange to be alone again.
Soon winter in the Coonawarra Wine District
For the next days I had three things on my mind. The second thing were the exams in Sydney. I spent a couple of days in the excellent Heyward’s Oak Hotel in Penola to catch up with theories on B2B. Thirdly I was getting close to what numerous mags and world travelers rank as THE best motorcycle road in the world – the superduperfantastic B100, more commonly known as the Great Ocean Road. Naturally my expectations were sky high. At the same time the temperature plummeted. The clouds clustered, and some hefty wind promised a ride more annoying that pleasant.
I just have to say it: Those suggesting that the Great Ocean Road is THE best road in the world have clearly never been to North Norway. But to be fair - I guess any road on a shitty day is a shitty road.
No, this is not Bjørnøya. It’s the view from the best road in the world. Dah!
I was thrown onto dry land at the east end of the Great Ocean Disappointment with a diluted faith in ever finding the one thing in Oz that would surprise the hell out of me. After all there was nothing left but the dreary coastal highway to Sydney. That’s when it happened; the Oh-I’m-bored-center in my brain made a coup d'état of my body, and I helplessly watched myself do a left turn in a crossing with no signpost. The road went up in the Snowy Mountains, and after two days and a very cold night I arrived in a place so seldom seen that it is called just that - Seldom Seen.
Seldom Seen was not much, just a very remote petrol pump run by the David Woodburn and an emu. In 2003 it became even less when a bushfire roared through the area, too far away for any firetruck to assist. David barely saved his life by sitting in a dam with a kangaroo. He lost everything including his roadhouse and emu friend. But nowadays he has a new buddy, the sheep Lamborghini, a new petrol pump, and two campervans where they spend their days making art of rubbish. David seemed happy to see me (ref: see somebody), fired up the coffee kettle, and we sat for hours in a pile of debris talking about this and that and then some more. It was all very weird and wonderful. Note that the petrol price at Seldon Seen depend on what football team you support (no kidding). If you're low on gas and support the wrong team you're f***ed.
David Woodburn has the bushiest eyebrows in Snowy Mountains
Snowy Mountains is stunning and far from the stereotypical Australian landscape. Imagine Switzerland with kangaroos... When roaring along a narrow gravel road carved into a steep mountainside in the middle of nowhere I knew that if I accidentally drove over the cliff nobody would see me or my bike ever again. It would be one of those mysterious disappearances that would never be solved. Heck, there was probably a couple of mysteriously missing motorcyclists down in that canyon already. I spent another two days in the mountains before I began the decent to Cooma and Brisbane, and then making the final run to Sydney where my camping kitchen quickly was replaced with the finest of metropolitan cuizine.
A chocolate lunch break with Dew, the chronically happy owner of Manly Beach House. Check out that giant truffle... nam nam
Sydney is not the average big city. With a few distinct landmarks and a laidback atmosphere it has an intimate feel only shared with a few other major cities round thew world such as San Francisco and Cape Town. I wish I had more time to explore it, but my exams were my first priority. I also had to arrange shipment of the motorcycle to the US, so I was pretty busy. I got a room at the Manly Beach House, bought a roll of scotch tape, and decorated the walls with queue words. The exams where held in the Norwegian Church, and with such an almighty exam guard it became impossible to cheat.
Priest Torgeir Vea and his wife Margit. Thanks for all your help!
Ah, United States of America – finally I would meet the finest people on the face of the Earth. Indeed, after watching the average American on Ricky Lake Show I had no doubt that their beauty and intellectual capacity would take my breath away.
OK, you’ve already figured out that I brought with me some of that silly European prejudice. Let me say right now it’s BS. America is a wonderful surprise. The custom clearance of Balto was hassle-free with friendly officers. They didn’t even bother to check my stuff. The third party insurance was easy too. Fifteen minutes on progressive.com and we were ready to go. But where? The US has the unpractical shape of a roadkill. Whatever route you choose you’ll miss out on many things.
How many times do I have to say it – it’s not a teddy, it’s a kangaroo
Susan who spent a year with my family as an exchange student in the early eighties welcomed me at the LA airport. We had not seen each other since we were children, so we approached each other as responsible adults by blowing up a number of Coca Cola bottles with Mentos’ on her front lawn. The rest of the time we drove around in the city in her Chevy while drinking vegetable juice. Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and a bundle of places I’ve never heard of. Just name it and we were probably there too. The biggest surprise was the Walk of Fame which I imagined was a wonderful showcase. In reality it looks like a suburb of Riga. One amazing thing about Susan – with no practice for more than 25 years she still speaks harstaddialekt, the sexiest kind of Norwegian language. That’s right; harstaddialekt makes French sound like an epileptic convulsion. Susan’s problem is that it is a rare dialect that most American men do not understand. If they did she’d probably be married twice by now.
My sister Susan
The original Route 66 does for most parts not exist anymore, thus driving it would be like going to the Louvre to see a fake Mona Lisa. I drove the last three kilometers of it, and at the end was the beach where they filmed Baywatch with the assistance of so much silicone that Palmela Anderson alone could fix 40 blown engine gaskets (and then we’re talking big BMWs). Ah yes, she had two of them - that makes 80. Anyway, the legendary Highway 1 which follows the coastline is much more real, a winding funfair for bikers, and I laughed all they way to San Francisco. There I stayed a few days in the penthouse apartment of David and Erika whom I met in Bangkok last year when they were on a trans-Asia cow-crashing expedition with a Transalp. Nowadays they have a V-Strom with – as David emphasizes with a hint of satisfaction – Wilbers suspension.
David and Erika was absolutely delighted to see me again
Together we had a serious look on the map. I knew I was in for some long stretches on surfaced roads, so to be ready for a cross-country I needed to give Balto some cruising abilities. I mounted long-distance tires. Then it was off to the seat maker Corbin, and during some productive hours in their factory they transformed my offroader into a Harley Davidson. Eh, not quite, but close enough. Two Harley footpegs on the engine guard and I was ready to go. Another rider on the spot said he really liked my motorcycle. Now, how often does the owner of a petit Japanese-Italian bastard hear that from a Harley-dude?
The Corbin people had never made a seat for the TTR before, so they had to make mine from scratch
Then it was back on Highway 1 and continue north. Wow, the coastal road is so amazing, and the interest I received from the locals was surprising. Some places they were literary queuing up to ask questions. It was almost as in Asia, but instead of being asked the same question by everybody (e.g. in India: What does the bike cost? / in Indonesia: Where are you going?) the Americans has an impressive mixture of queries to throw at me, such as these: What kind of dangers have you encountered on your trip? What kind of weapon do you travel with for self-defense? Where do you hide your revolver?
And just before the ocean view starts to become habitual the Highway 1 ends at the junction to 101 where you all of a sudden feel like an ant. It’s the trees that do it. They are the biggest on the planet. A redwood tree adrift at sea could sink a supertanker. Or to put it more constructively; one redwood tree and your sauna will be hot as hell for the rest of your life. They are an awesome sight. Really, you’ll have to be there to grasp their scale. So when I crossed the border to Oregon I did a right turn and – spellbound by the many grand vistas - headed inland to see if I could find some really rocky mountains too.
Redwood trees made me lose all respect for bjørketrær
I was happy to leave the Californian fuel pumps. For some reason they have a kind of foreskin which you have to pull back to get the pump going, and then it’s either full ejection or none. In Oregon these problems were over, but I soon discovered that there always has to be another problem. Sometimes the pumps do not work because you’ll have to pay inside the station before pumping. Other times you’ll have to lift or turn a handle or push a secret button to get some action. To complicate things the octane numbers are different in the US. E.g. the highest octane is 91, but in reality it is not, and sometimes you get 10% ethanol, and you have no idea how much you fill of what because it’s all in gallons. Why can’t these bloody Americans adapt to the EU standards like everybody else?
Answer: Because this is the land of freedom
Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite authors, spent his last years in the skiing village of Ketchum in Idaho. I was hoping for the Hemingway experience and went for his home, but the garden was off limits and the house completely hidden behind blooming trees. Thus I decided to be content with a night at the Sun Valley Lodge where Hemingway completed For Whom the Bell Tolls. But all rooms were occupied. With a growing frustration I opted for his favorite restaurant Christiania where he ate his last meal. But again, the door was shut and it would not open before late. Now, at that point I felt like chewing on a very expensive custom-made silver-plated Boss shotgun cal. 12 with a barrel so long that I’d had to pull the trigger with my toe. However in absence of such device I decided to wait. So I did, and the reward was great. That night I went to bed with a New York Strip Steak, a Cesar salad, and a bottle of Bordeaux in my stomach. It was spectacular, probably the best Hemingway experience I could ask for, and I bet I farted a lot in my sleep. Now I just have to wait for Graham Greene to die and I’ll have my next dining destination.
Wait a minute… Graham Greene IS dead. Yohoo, I’m going to Switzerland.
The graveyard where a Nobel Prize winner wannabe with a writers block spent last night
In the Montana countryside I came by a sign saying Rodeo Tonight. I pitched my tent right there and at sundown the show was on. First everybody had to stand up. A cowgirl rode around in the arena with a large and seemingly heavy stars and stripes while another girl sang the national anthem with a voice like a horse on helium, and she sang so slow that by the end of it the girl with the flag was so exhausted that she probably was shot in mercy in her campervan. Then it was a few cowboy stunts before the speaker told all veterans of the armed forces to stand up and receive acclaim for making it possible for the rest of us to enjoy this wonderful evening in freedom. Between the rope tricks and the bull riding the appraisal of the nation reached religious proportions, with the speaker constantly reminding the crowd – perhaps two hundred people or so - that they lived in the greatest nation in the world. I was tempted to point out to somebody that it is in fact a small country in Northern Europe that is, according to the UN, the best country to live in, and that it has been ranked so for seven years now. But I had a feeling that nobody there would say: “Oh thanks for straighten that out. Hey everybody, we’re not the best after all. This guy (pointing at me) can tell you all about it. Yes, this guy…”
I body would never be found.
Why isn’t it called horsesboy? I’ve never seen a cowboy ride a cow
Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is just what the ad says - spectacular. It is the home of half of the world’s geysers, and since I’d never seen one I opted for the most reliable one, Old Faithful, which every hour and a half spews 30 000 liters of water more that 50 meters up in the air. Nice! Then everybody rushed to their vehicles to be first out of the parking lot. You see, in Europe the car is pulling the campervan, but in the US the campervan is pulling the car. They are called RV’s (Recreational Vehicles), and their purpose is for the owner to be able to watch satellite TV on different locations all over the country. They are kinda slow and difficult to bypass on zigzag roads. But only if you drive a car…
A few hours later; I was alone in my lane and came in a fine angle through a curve and jumped on the brakes. Straight ahead was something large, wooly and unhappy cornered by thick forest to the left, a canyon to the right, and a line of cars blocking the opposite direction. It was something I’d never seen before. I just knew it meant trouble. The animal had a massive forehead wide as the steering bar on my motorcycle. Even worse, it came straight at me.
I have to add that somebody, earlier the same day, told me that every year a number of people are run down and killed by buffalos, thus adding some excitement to the moment. But just before it hammered into my headlight it tilted slightly to my left, and passed me so close that I could have touched it. Phew… One car driver leaned out her window and shouted: “You lucky son of a bitch.”
With a sudden desire to leave the woods I drove over the rockiest of the Rocky Mountains with a headache. I didn’t expect it, but the abrupt ascent to approx. 3000 meters above sea level gave me some minor altitude sickness. At days end I descended on the other side with a low, orange sun to my left. It all became flat again, and soon there were industrial towns, neon lit petrol stations and a busy freeway where the drivers of colossal Mack trucks had just started their night shift. It was the end of the West; the beginning of the middle, and the odd experiences was queuing up.
The Rockies at 10.000 feet
Being an Arctic citizen on a motorcycle in South Dakota has its disadvantages. Temperatures rose to a record high 107 Fahrenheit; or 42 Celsius if you like. I felt like a polar bear in a zoo in Cairo. In Rapid City I found relief in an aircon motel with a fellow biker from Canada, but eventually I had to move on. It was plain awful because the breeze when driving was warmer than me thus heating me up instead of cooling me down. And if that wasn’t bad enough - Americans everywhere gave me a really warm welcome.
A moment feeling at home
I perspired my way into a nearby town to find a new refuge, but they were all occupied by fashion-conscious men with soft leather pants, stylish bandanas, and with colorful drawings on the back of their jackets. It seemed to be a group thing; matching tattoos and everything. Their motherly attachment was underlined by resting safe in the lap of the women sitting behind them. The name of the town was Sturgis which is famous for arranging the largest motorcycle rally in the world. One week a year approx. half a million Harleys roll into town. However, it might be the world’s biggest rally, but not the best. The best rally in the world is Nord-Norge Treffet arranged by HMC. Everybody knows that. Maybe that is why the boys in Sturgis were seeking comfort in the bosoms of their loved ones – Nord-Norge it’s just too far away.
Mt. Rushmore: Four of the most significant characters in US history.
From left: Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Tom Selleck and David Hasselhoff
After a sun scorching, sweat slobbering drive through Nebraska the temperatures finally plummeted as I rode into tiny Parkersburg in Iowa. I was relaxing in the shadow outside the gas station next to a sign saying “No Loitering” when the local Sheriff pulled up beside my bike. As he stepped out of his vehicle and the polished star on his uniform twinkled in the sun I knew what to expect. Oh yes, I’ve seen Rambo; the wandering veteran in small town America. I would be dragged down to the station, stripped for all my belongings and brutally flushed with the fire hose while all sorts of traumas would go through my head. I tried to remember where I had my sewing kit, but the Sheriff was too fast. The interrogation was something like this:
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m driving across America.”
“Cool! Would you like a cup of tea with me and my wife?”
Jason Johnson, the nicest Sheriff in America
With a map kindly sponsored by the Butler County Sheriff Department I maneuvered up to Decorah, a center of Norwegian-American culture and the annual Nordic Fest. The official reason for the festival is to celebrate Norway as an independent country. The real reason is to have fun. The people behind the festival are the ancestors of the Norwegian settlers in the 1850’s, and the result from 150 years absence from the motherland is remarkable. Add some influence by the American way and you’ll see ladies in traditional dress (bunad) roaring down the street on Kawasaki ATV’s. In Decorah you’ll learn that the prime leisure in Norway is to make kitchenware of whatever you find in the woods, that lutefisk is served with potatoes only, and that the main instrument in traditional Norwegian polka is the tuba. Amy and Dane who runs a café on Main Street gave me the opportunity to clarify a few things, and together we designed an up to date menu. So if you want the most delicious Norwegian stuff, visit Oneota Net Café. Nam nam. I promised to mail the recipe on kvæfjordkake. And of course, when interviewed by Decorah Newspapers I made sure to invite all Decorans to next years Festspillene i Nord-Norge. Oh yeah, its gonna be a good one.
The parade in Decorah was somewhat different from those at home
What nice people look like
In Wisconsin I came across the Harley Davidson factory. I though why not, knocked on the door, apologized for not driving a Harley, and wondered if I could have a look inside. Sure, no problem, and a member of staff gave me an hour tour through the factory halls. It was very interesting.
.. and their latest model
Encouraged by the good start of the day I continued to Michigan. I was still recovering from the jolly Norwegian time in Decorah when I saw a road sign approx. 10.000 kilometers sooner than expected:
Within an hour I was in the city of Norway. Within the next I was invited to the Mayors office (or City Manager as he was called). Suddenly I knew loads of new people. The owner of Norway Mercantile Gifts, Crafts and Apparel gave me a Norway-Michigan sweatshirt, cheerful Paula at Norway City Hall invited me to an evening with her family, and I spent the night in BJ, Trisha, Josh and Grace’s camper van. And as I woke up in the quiet sunrise, watching two deer jumping across the road, I felt grateful for yet another day where anything could happen. As usual I started by folding out the map to evaluate my options. I was not that far from Canada.
Paula is putting a life jacket on her dog before it goes swimming
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Unlimited, the motorcycle travellers' website!
You can have your story here too - click for details!