Into The Great Big Open

Around the planet by motorcycle

I’ve been home long enough to decompress and readjust to what passes for my normal life. The 10 months I spent on the road almost seem like a dream, a series of mini-adventures (and occasional frustration, malaise, loneliness and homesickness) that happened in a movie, in another lifetime. I get a lot of the same questions about the trip, so let’s knock out some answers for my patient readers, and the idle curious:

The numbers: 18 countries, 23,000 miles (estimated, see below), 10 months, 4 ferry rides, 2 airplane rides. 1500 games of Freecell. Two sets of tires, two sets of drive chain & sprockets.

The bike: Performed wonderfully. Only the speedometer cable drive in the front hub broke while in Kazbegi, in northern Georgian Republic (thus the estimated trip miles). The top rack broke (and was welded back together) in Mongolia. The windshield broke and was discarded after several falls in Mongolia. Before departure I failed to ensure that the seat was adequately comfortable, and paid dearly. The Shinko 705 tires were installed in Vancouver and lasted until Almaty, Kazakhstan; the Metzeler Tourances that replaced them lasted all the way home! Chain & sprockets, also installed new in Vancouver, were replaced in northern Jordan, and are still on the bike.

The rider: Not bad, all told. Two cases of diarrhea, one case of flu, various aches and pains from lots of saddle time. Picked up a cigarette habit on the ferry to Russia, and quit once I returned home. Psychologically there were bouts of homesickness and saturation of my brain with memorable sights and experiences. By the time I left Egypt I was full up on travel, so much so that I barely gave the pyramids at Giza a second look as I rode by them on the way to Alexandria.

Equipment, what worked and what didn’t: I am pleased with what I brought & how I packed it all, with a few exceptions. I used my helmet cam once, in Korea. My AA battery charger (a complicated, programmable model) vibrated apart in the middle of Mongolia. I only used my 9′ tarp & collapsible poles once. Most of the camping gear I used was consumer grade stuff from REI, Coleman, and the like, proving a personal theory that top-shelf, ultra light, hi-tech, expensive gear is not needed for what is essentially an extended motorcycle camping trip. My Asus netbook, purchased used, worked flawlessly (and indeed I’m banging away on it right now). My tent, stove,  riding jacket and motorcycle were also secondhand purchases.

Safety and security: The biggest threat to my safety was the seemingly homicidal driving habits throughout Asia, the Middle East and Egypt. I was made to feel very welcome in the Middle Eastern nations; I would stop for gas or to ask directions and a half-hour later would find myself drinking tea with complete strangers. I would hear the words “You are welcome in Turkey/Syria/Jordan/Egypt” at least once a day. In Tblisi I was shaken out of bed by a bomb blast a block away, when the government opposition party’s headquarters were blown up. And in Kazakhstan at a roadside chaikhana, I met three rough looking fellows (lots of prison ink and gold teeth) who were driving a huge, white Mercedes sedan. They were sure I had lots of money, and at one point I saw them having an involved discussion while gazing into the capacious trunk of their car. The thought popped into my mind, quite unbidden, that they were trying to determine if I’d fit in the trunk…

Costs: Air freighting the bike from Vancouver to Incheon, and then from Lisbon to Baltimore each cost around US$1300, with my personal flights costing about half of that. Daily living costs from Russia to Egypt ran about US$30/day, with costs going up in cities and touristy areas. Surprise costs included purchasing an unexpected transit visa for Russia (US$250), and replacing a digital camera that was stolen in Mongolia. Once I entered Europe, costs went up to US$80-US$100 per day and beyond, again depending on how “large” I was living and how many tourists were around.

Favorite country: A trick question! I liked different countries for different reasons. Mongolia was tops for “adventure” motorcycling, with its lack of infrastructure, wide open spaces, and decidedly non-Western culture. Favorite foods were in Korea, Italy and France (although recalling the smoky street food stalls of the Middle East get me salivating). The people of the Middle East were the friendliest, and the Russians the kindest (although Russia was also the only country where I was the recipient of an extended middle finger). Italy and France had the best motorcycling culture and some of the finest mountain roads. Uzbekistan’s Silk Road madressas in Samarkand and Bukhara blew me away. Georgia hit me hard (in a good way), with its unique language, culture and intriguing history.

Approximate dates of travel:

  • Canada: 6 – 10 Aug, 2010
  • South Korea: 11 – 19 Aug
  • Russia: 20 Aug – 2 Sep
  • Mongolia: 2 – 25 Sep
  • Russia: 25 – 28 Sep
  • Kazakhstan: 28 Sep – 15 Oct
  • Uzbekistan: 15 Oct – 6 Nov
  • Turkmenistan: 6 – 9 Nov
  • Azerbaijan: 10 – 13 Nov
  • Georgia: 13 Nov – 19 Dec
  • Turkey: 19 – 25 Dec
  • Syria: 25 Dec – 5 Jan, 2011
  • Jordan: 5 – 25 Jan
  • Egypt: 25 Jan – 19 Mar
  • Italy: 20 Mar – 8 April
  • France: 8 – 11 April
  • Andorra: 11 April
  • Spain: 11 – 26 April
  • Portugal: 26 April – 10 May

USA – Final leg

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“And did you travel anywhere else while you were in Portugal?” Can’t answer this question without getting into The Story. The Customs & Immigration official was amazed that I’d go on such a trip alone. I didn’t bother mentioning that, statistically, I was just about to enter the most dangerous country on my route. With a THUD of a rubber stamp I’m back in the land where I understand the menus, speak the language and know the traffic rules. There wasn’t any shock to this…I just slid back into the familiar sights and smells, like hooking up with an Ex. Sitting behind the wheel of my rental car, I did crack a grin at the thought of simply driving: No bulky riding gear. Tunes, snacks and a beverage within easy reach. Cruise control. I wouldn’t even have to bother changing gears. After parking, a button on the key fob would make my possessions relatively safe. I was struck by how easy it is to travel by car. (There was a GPS/nav system, but I didn’t want to complicate matters.)  The plan was to drive to western Maryland to spend a week with my mom & siblings while the bike was in transit. I enjoyed the home cooking, the massive DVD collection, the claustrophobic chaos that can only come from three generations living under one roof. After a few days I drove to my old home town in West Virginia, and unexpectedly found myself at a party surrounded by friends I hadn’t seen in many years. It was a  somewhat surreal experience, but I couldn’t have imagined a more heartwarming welcome. A few dozen scenic miles south in Marlinton, I had an excellent visit with Jeff and Sarah and their growing family. (Sarah is one of those women that other women tend to secretly hate — even 7 months pregnant, she’s tending a huge lush vegetable garden, not missing a beat, making it all look  easy.)

After a few days, I drove back to BWI airport, dropped off the rental car and after a few hours of rigamarole, was reunited with my moto.

The crated bike at the Forward Air facility at Baltimore-Washington Airport.

But I couldn’t ride off into the sunset just yet, and not just because it was cloudy and raining. I wasn’t allowed to uncrate the bike at the Forward Air offices, so I had to rent a small moving truck. (This involved hitching a ride into Baltimore proper with a hotel shuttle. The kindness of strangers continues to impress.) With the bike forklifted into the truck, I drove back to Hagerstown and with help from my younger brother, the bike was uncrated & unloaded. She’d made the journey unscathed, and the freighting company in Lisbon had done a bang-up job securing the bike and my riding gear. A few more days of R & R, and I was itching to make miles!

The first stop on my route home would be Blacksburg, Virginia to spend a few days in the loving bosom of the Leland family. Not being one to have an idle mind or body, Jarrod dragged out a canoe, called some of his amigos and we spent time paddling on the brown, swollen New River.

Paddling on the New River.

Not surprisingly I ended up in the water, busting my shins bloody on the rocks.  (My first injuries of the trip!) Later, back in the Leland garage I took the opportunity to change the motorcycle’s crankcase oil and filter, and give the drive chain some love. With psychic batteries thoroughly recharged, I headed west, stopping in Beckley, West Virginia for more hospitality from a friend who has known me for decades. This included a stop at the famous King Tut Drive-In for chili dogs; I love these local, character-filled eateries.

I continued on a westerly course, stopping at Rockford, Illinois to visit another friend and her husband, catching up on life and telling war stories from the road. Leaving Rockford I realized that the next familiar scene would be when I saw my bus…home sweet home. But there were lots of miles between here and there, and I plied the backroads through Rock Falls, IL; Cedar Rapids, IA; Dodge City, KS; a slice of the OK panhandle, finally back to New Mexico.

Grain elevator in Kansas.

 

New Mexico welcome sign. The bullet holes tell me I'm almost home!

On the morning of my last day on the road, I woke up in a $25 room on the retro hotel strip in Tucumcari, which is not retro in the cool and fashionable way, but in the dusty, sunbaked,  depressed, decaying and declining way that is common in the southwestern desert. It was a long, uneventful slog to Silver City, and I expected the overlanding gods to take notice of how far I’d come without a major mechanical failure and ground me with a flat tire or mysterious electrical problem. But even though my Tourance tires worn to a square profile (they’d lasted since Kazakhstan!) and the bike had spent most of the last 10 months being mercilessly flogged across the Asian landmass, I found myself entering the city limits well before sunset. Turning onto the last street, then the gravel drive, then parking and killing the engine at the point where I’d started was chock full of anti-climax. My friend Randy came out of his workshop, smiled and asked, “Been out ridin’?” I climbed off the bike, gave it a pat and a smooch on the headlight shroud for its yeoman’s service. From a few hundred feet away my cat observed my presence with no outward sign of interest; within a few days I’d be forgiven and employed again as her door opener-closer, food dispenser and water changer. It’s a good job to have.