‘And after the break you’ll going to find out something else about this gentleman, he wants to make a long journey, on a motorbike. Have a think about where he might like to go; if you can come up with it we will give you... congratulations.’ Said Noel Edmonds before the commercials started for the viewing public, and for me the makeup lady waited with her brush poised to apply yet another layer of crud to my face. The sound man came and fiddled with my microphone and the motivational production crew told me to be more appreciative and give more consideration to the money that the banker was offering me. ‘It’s a lot of money to some people who watch, don’t disregard it’
‘It's a tactic’ I lied ‘if I don’t look like I'm excited by it he will up my offer.’ I wonder if the banker can hear me.
And we’re back
‘With a significant sum of money the big journey you want to do is to...?’
‘Mongolia, why Mongolia?’ prompted Noel
I clearly knew nothing about it. But then that is why I travel, to find out. Research had never been my strong point.
I babbled something about it being a wild country, challenging, and adventure from the start.
And how much would a trip like that cost?
Oh I don’t bloody know, ‘I would need a specific bike, couldn’t do it on street bike...’
Well I'm committed now. I just told the nation of Deal or No Deal fans and all my friends who were watching. I cringe when I think of my response as to why I would want to ride my bike to such a place. In my defence they want sound bites not longwinded explanations. I’ll save that for the book.
So I was briefly a TV star, recognized everywhere from Marks and Spencer’s to Asda, even the local press had called for a story. In 10 days I went from celebrity status to white trash. I rented out my house to save for my trip and moved into a trailer.
Man did I pick a cold winter to live in, what I would explain to anyone and everyone, was not a caravan but a 33 foot long America 5th wheel trailer? The sort the caravan club frown upon in there reverse snobbery ways. But I wasn’t living in it to make friends in the caravan community; I was there to live a comfortable and compact life for a year. And I did until the winter of 09/10 decided it was going to break records and freeze my toothpaste in its tube. I was preparing myself for the hardships of the trip, saving money and sitting in the poorly insulated, freezing trailer. Whilst reading my guide books wearing a woolly hat and fingerless gloves and formulating a plan.
It was never meant to be a return trip. I can’t even imagine getting there let alone coming back. Ullan Baatar was where I was heading and that’s the goal, just that. It’s massive. End of story. My budget was £5000, 100 days at £50 a day; I wasn’t sure how realistic it was. It was not a holiday but it was not an endurance test either. Some days you want a hotel and a good meal some days there is nothing to eat and everywhere to camp, it should even its self out.
On reflection there was a major flaw in my plan; Mongolia was an unthinkable distance, unimaginable terrain and quite possibly an unachievable destination. But should I actually get there then what? Next time I do a one way trip I will try and make sure my destination is a port. Not a landlocked city in the middle of a land locked country in the middle of the biggest landmass on the planet. Ho hum ya live and learn.
Part of the motivation to go was, my social life gradually disappeared and no longer exists at all. Everyone seemed to get partners at the same time. They are all staying home playing happy families. There’s usually a divorcee around who wants to catch up on the fun they’ve been missing out on and I’m Mr. Goodtime, Mr. Commitment free and unattached always up for anything. But there has been a lot of time alone recently and if I'm going to be in my own company it may as well be on the road. I steered my life in this direction it’s time to go and take advantage of it.
I knew it was getting bad when the door bell rang one morning and it made me jump. The postman had bought another eBay purchase to my door. Yep when the ring of the door bell is unfamiliar it’s time to go out the door and close it behind you.
Inspired by ‘the long way round’? Was I? No I don’t think so. Mongolia was first bought to my attention in China when I met a Dutch couple who had ridden the Trans Siberian Express. Listening to their tales of wild horse men and staying in gers, that was the seed.
It germinated on a 11000 mile ride to the Arctic Circle in Alaska.
So I never wanted to even mention ‘the long way round’ and I refused to cast judgement on what they did until I had done it too. But Ewan and Charley are, (regardless of opinions and there are plenty) as associated with Asia overland as much as Borat is with Kazakhstan. So I can’t and won’t ignore what they did, and as my trip progressed I learnt just what talented actors they were.
It was probably 2005 when I saw their series. I watched it again in the May of 2010 for research. Ooo I thought we have the same panniers. And that’s where the similarities ended. And the butterflies began. How the hell I'm I going to manage that on my own? The most challenging ride to date had been to the Arctic Circle.
Years ago I decided to get a big piece of art tattooed on my back. I’d considered this for many years, every time my top was off it would think ‘now if my back was tattooed would that be a problem’ after years of the answer being ‘no’ I started to save and look for a suitable tattoo artist. I considered techniques and design I thought about colours and textures, size and time limits. After much consultation with the tattooist I chose; the day came when the design had been agreed and the entire out line had to be tattooed in one sitting from my shoulders to my coccyx. As the needle first penetrated my skin around the area of my kidneys and later over the bone of my shoulder I realized that the one thing I failed to consider in all my research was the bloody pain factor.
I’m wondering if I will find this has happened again when I hit the road. I know from other bike trips that the bum is a mussel that develops slowly, but the roads will become horrendous and I know that picking up my bike single handed and fully laden will be next to impossible. Removing luggage every time will be infuriatingly tedious but I’ll deal with that when I have to. For now making it to Ukraine will be an experience, riding into Russia will be remarkable, negotiating the roads in Kazakhstan is a daunting challenge, and if I do make it to Mongolia it will be a massive achievement. I'm not sure what I’ll do when I get there, I will see if anything is broken, bike, body or budget, if everything is intact then maybe I won’t turn around, but that is a big maybe.
Right, there’s this monkey; It’s a stuffed toy. It’s more than a stuffed toy. Monkey is a very significant character. He played a co-starring role in my TV game show. For the last 3 years or so I made picture books of Monkey having adventures, and then I would video myself reading them and would send them to my daughter in America. The idea being she would become familiar with scenes of England from the book so when she comes for her first visit it wouldn’t all seem so strange to her and secondly she would recognise my voice, accent and know what I looked like. Monkey evolved into a character and the stories always ended with him getting in trouble and so the catch phrase ‘Oh Monkey, he’s so bad’ was born
I managed to find another monkey on eBay he was going to be stunt monkey but when he arrived, although identical in every way he was half the size. He became Monklet. That led to new poignant story lines of how much fun Monkey would have with Monklet and how much he missed Monklet when they weren’t together.
In my idol hours I had made a crash helmet for Monklet out of a tennis ball. It was matt black and open face with a silver chain for a chin strap. My friends said I had too much time on my hands. Perhaps, just think of all those trips to Matalan and episodes of Strictly come dancing I missed out on. Whilst packing the bike I had moved Monklet around but there was no room to take him. It was unnecessary and impractical. He had a permanent cheeky smile on his face and I may be 44 but it kind of warms my heart to see it, particularly as he has become a common bond between me and my daughter when we speak on the phone.
‘So how’s Monklet doing?’ Madalynn would ask
‘Oh he’s so bad; you’re never guess what he’s just done...’
So at the eleventh hour Monklet was strapped to the spare tire with a bungee cord and it may have been the pressure from the elastic but I think his smile got a little bigger.
I'm leaving for Mongolia; I'm not catching a train not going to the airport. If I didn’t live on an island I wouldn’t be going to any port at all. If my panniers were empty and I did a right instead of a left out of my driveway I could have been doing a usual trip to Asda but I wasn’t. I was going under my own power to the Centre of Central Asia. Oh, and with the help of ferry company too.
So here we go with the first mass mail on the road to Mongolia . So much for an overland trip I have already been on 3 ferries. The last one took me from Sweden to Poland . Prior to that I had spent 5 nights camping at the Sweden rock festival- defiantly the coldest and possibly the most expensive, definitely the friendliest, maybe the healthiest and even after all that camping still the most beautifulist of festivals I have ever attended. I had travelled forward 1000 miles and back in time 22 years- the guys all had hair spray and scarves tied round their legs, bloody hell don’t tell me this look is back again.
To give some examples on the first night I was paying 10 quid for a beer, but I hadn’t exactly grasped the exchange rate yet. All I had grasped after putting up my tent was my bottle of duty free jagermister I had got on the ferry to Denmark. Also I was in the company of a very pretty sweed and I was not about to loose that company by counting on my fingers to figure out exactly what 100 kroners was. During most of the festival I wore more than I do when I am riding my bike, except one wonderful sunny afternoon when I went to get a Mexican meal from a stall the meal was as disappointing as any Mexican meal I have had outside of America but the compliment was way better than the salsa, he said ‘been working on ya biceps man?’
‘no not realy I’m a lazy git’
‘well ya lookin good man’ well I got back to where my friends were sitting with a smile so big the chile sauce was dribbling down my chin. One morning, I don’t know what time due to there only being 2 hours of darkness, it was hard to say but birds were singing and the sun was up but no one else was and as I weaved my way through the tents to the toilet block it occurred to me that the sweeds are such a considerate nation that not even anyone was snoring. It was silent not ya average festival camping area. Perhaps the birds are louder in Sweden cus on my so far most loveliest ride on the coastal back roads at the most south of Sweden I could hear the bird song through my helmet and over the noise of the engine. I was having a bit of extra bonus spring and everything was in blossom and the sky was blue the roads were empty and the smells of the lilac drifted through my open visor, and having my fingerless gloves on is always a good sign too.
So the Sunday morning and the packing up was really sad , not only was the festival over but it also meant that it was time to hit the lonely road again. I had butter flies all over again just like the Sunday before when I left my house . the difference was this time I was slightly more focused as I methodically packed my bike in its ordered manner. On the humid post storm morning of me leaving my house it was so preoccupied with the daunting journey ahead of me I put my underwear on back to front, I noticed almost immediately but it was a not the cool and calculated departure I was hoping far. The 2nd morning leaving Drobs parents house in germany I put my boot on the wrong foot, but since then things have got better. So I rode the short journey to the ferry terminal, its always weird going back into civilization after a prolonger festival environment but the grey cloud combined with the post festival blues and reluctantly back in my own company was a downer that half made me want to follow my friends up to Stockholm . Some Sundays scream Sunday and this one did, the hellish retail parks were heaving with obedient shoppers buying there electrics and other latest fashions to try and enhance there lives. even though I was not working tomorrow I could still feel the sense of just waiting for Monday to arrive and the ferry terminal was grey and concrete everywhere and was all closed up cus I was so early , yuk noting to do except wait . wait for the barrier to open, wait for the ferry to arrive and then finally my much anticipated single berth cabin, where I instantly stripped off and washed everything in the sink and strung it around the room. And that was that
I didn’t get the good nights sleep I had anticipated and 12 hours later we docked in Poland . My 8th country this trip and I haven got my passport out once. I stopped for money exchange straight away there was a scabby dirty stray cat outside and straight away things here felt more foreign I filled up with petrol and there was a wall of vodka behind the checkout. Yeah now I'm abroad. I got on the main motorway out of Gdansk and what do I see a big tescos. Ok not so foreign then. The first thing I notice was the smells, strong diesel fumes pumping out the back of slow trucks and the pungent toxic emmissions from the factories and suddenly I realized how incredibly sterile our western world is unless ya live in the gulf of mexico of course. Also the unfamiliar food smells that drift into my helmet . I take some back roads and wind round villages of old women with head scarves and cobble stone roads. Definitely back in time. There was a big stork type bird in a huge stick nest on top of a telegraph pole I stopped to take a photo but was not as strange of a sight as the 2 old men watching my every move though I was.
Back on the main road there are lots of prostitutes just sitting there on stalls waiting for passing motorists loads of them of varying degrees of attractiveness the other things being sold was pots of popcorn well I looks like popcorn but I didn’t slow down to check as id had a big breakfast on the boat. And the driving, oh my god its so aggressive and impatient, ya have to spend as much time lookin in ya mirrors as ya do in front of you. I was leaving a little space between me and the car in front and the car behinds passes me to get in the space with no intention of overtaking the next car. And they over take straight into on coming who then veer over to the hard shoulder , it seems to be recognized method but god. So when a car comes up behind me I have to go over onto the hard shoulder to let him pass, and if ya don’t notice he has come up behind ya he pass by you so close. Its really dangerous but when in rome…. so I was coming up on a truck and rather than slow down I just went past into the path of an oncoming can and sure enough he pulls onto the hard shoulder. So it does work but I didnt try it again. So between looking for trucks in front cars coming up behind whores on stalls and popcorn it was all pretty exhausting. I contemplated sightseeing in Warsaw but to be honest I’m not really intending to do any sight seeing untill I get further east. Its not what I came to see. That’s why I didn’t stop a Dover castle before I shipped to Calais . Every decision I agonize over. Its impossible to elliminate uncertainty from my life I read once Albert Eonstine had 7 suits all the same because he didn’t want to waste his brain power on thinking what to wear, I deliberate over weather I should wear jeans under my bike trousers today ,where I should stop to eat my bun I stole from the buffet breakfast and every other choice I have to make. Like should I spend one more night in Poland or go into the Ukraine . suddenly finding my self in a massive queue I realized that decision was made for me. I had run out of Poland and with the smell of sausage still on my breath I started to negotiate my way over the crossing. drivers kept telling me to just go to the front on my bike. So I did it was just as the sun decided to be its hottest and shiniest since I left and I stood in my bike gear (thankfully with out my jeans underneath) and sweated my way out of poland and into the ukraine it was going ok and I was just pulling away from a customs booth when there was a screech of tyres and crunch of metal. I looked behind, someone had got out of their car with the engine running and still in gear it rammed into the car in front and pushed the next car 20 foot forward right where I had been balancing my bike 5 seconds before. Phew, the entry into ukraine was going ok until the customes official tried to pronounce my post code. Bless him. Then we had to wait by the barrier ,why? Lunch time? Army search? No because they had just painted a new white line and we all sat watching paint dry before we could drive over it.
And what a line it was the other side of it is a very different world. The cyllic alphabet so I cant read any signs at all, there are horse and carts trundeling along next to massive sacania trucks. Workers in the fields with sythes and the roads have deteriorated even more although the driving standards have improved dramatically. Its so exciting to to have transported my self into such a different country. Its exhilarating and also very scary. I rode into L’viv looking for a hotel. I found my self right in the city centre and the traffic was awful because I didn’t realize I have gained another hour and it was rush hour. The pavements were full of beautiful women and the roads were full of ugly vehicles . then with an over heating bike and no idea at all what any sign said the roads turned to uneven cobble stones and just to really fuck with me they threw in some tram lines oh yes the motorcycle wheels fit in there perfect, well the front does. Shit. So I head out of town in some direction or other, I would like to go back in, it was beautiful architecture and fountains and parks and so many pedestrians. But I found a hotel out of town and been lent a lap top I am writing this on in my room and as I have been writing a band has set up below I kept looking up from my typing as another amp was dragged up. Thinking oh shit its right under my window but its really good, bass guitar, squeeze organ and a drum and its all kind of folky like unkrain traditional (I would imagine) music and no singing, so that s all for now ive seen food and road kill I cant recognize,I signs I cant read, I met people who have bought me beer and taken photos of me . just this morning a guy out side the hotel was loitering about and then took a photo of me on his phone and then showed it to me and then all the other ones he had taken of my bike ‘yeah I know, I do it all time’ its great having monklet with me too, he sits on the back tyre and people look and smile and monklet always smiles back he always smiles, no matter how cold and wet it is, how bad the exchange rate or how bumpy the roads are or how bad the drivers are, how impossible the communications are, no matter how uncomfortable ya helmet becomes. monklet always smiles and I’m trying to learn from him how I can do that too.
Look this is a forign language computer and im not about to risk loosing all this, but pressing spell check. So love it or leave it, its is what it is.