bugsonmyboard http://www.bugsonmyboard.org two wheeled wave hunting dispatches Sun, 27 Dec 2015 07:01:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 Epilogue to Adventure http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/12/13/epilogue-to-adventure/ http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/12/13/epilogue-to-adventure/#comments Sun, 13 Dec 2015 08:31:17 +0000 http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/?p=3642 Looking at Vancouver on the map when we were in China, it seemed so close to home. The ...Continue Reading]]> Looking at Vancouver on the map when we were in China, it seemed so close to home. The reality of riding a thousand miles in the rain at near freezing temperatures made it feel a whole lot further away. The immigration official at the Canadian border seemed confused as hell as to what we’d spent the last two years doing. He wanted me to write down every country we’d visited since last time in the U.S. on a form inside a box the size of my thumb. They weren’t all going to fit in that box. He gave me some extra paper and when I finished writing them all down, there were 85 countries on the list.

The bike was riding like crap. The brake rotors were scored, front tire wonky, carb needle about to break off in the slide, and the chain had stiff links in it, but this is all to be expected after a long journey. The chain and sprockets had been rolling since Sweden! After nearly 60,000 miles zigzagging across three continents, she was ready for a break.

We still had no idea what we were going to do when we got back and already feeling unsettled. There was Christmas music playing everywhere and everyone around us was speaking English in an accent identical to our own. It was strange. The supermarket shelves were filled with an avalanche of choices for breakfast cereals, cheese, and shampoo. It was paralyzing. The television streamed endless voyeuristic entertainment between advertisements of cures for several ailments that I’d never heard of, and sound bites of Donald Trump trying to alienate the Muslim world. Motorbikes have to drive around as if they are cars, following all the rules. We can’t even park on the sidewalk. Even the Germans allow that, and they are very fond of their rules. Jamie had returned with some food in comically gigantic proportions. The hotel bed was superbly comfortable, but as I lay in the dark, my stomach was fluttering. It’s a strange thing to have the most familiar of circumstances provoke feelings of anxiousness and bewilderment.

I wasn’t in a particular hurry to leave home in the first place. I didn’t hate my job or have a need to make my world larger than it was. I loved my job, the people I worked with, and I couldn’t imagine a nicer place to live. I had a brand new niece born just before I’d left and a new relationship in full bloom. But I also had an idea burning a hole in my brain (fellow motosurf wanderer Matty Hannon might call it a slow burning dream). It came down to an honest assessment of whether I wasn’t leaving because of what I feared to loose, even though I knew how my time could best be spent.

We rode for days along the coastlines and through the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It was so cold and the storms so fierce that we could only manage 150-200 miles each day. Sometimes we were shivering cold and others the wind had convinced us to get of the road before we were blown off. I’d never been on the stretch of the coast and we savored the few occasions when the sun broke through the steely sky.  I arrived home unceremoniously squishing in my boots as I got off the bike to go hug my mom. She said I looked taller. She always says that. A couple days later, we all said goodbye to my dad. He was an adventurer at heart too.

I drove a car for the first time in more than two years. I wandered all over the lane and couldn’t seem to tell how fast I was going without staring at the speedometer. In my steel cage I was isolated from the world whizzing by outside and disconnected from the machine that propelled me. It felt like I was driving around on a whale in jello. I hated it. Except that I was warm and dry. That was very nice.

Our time getting wet on two wheels would have ended for me long ago if not for Jamie’s spirit which spurred us forward when my resolve had long since worn through to the steel belting. While I let the bumps in the road rattle me, and the world we ride through wind me up, she just bends to what comes, taking all the madness in stride. She still thinks that I brought her on this trip, but in the end, she’s the one who pulled me along.

As always, the kind folks that we’ve met along the way truly made the journey and helped keep our stoke alive. You fed us dinner, helped us fix our bike, gave us place to rest, wrote some encouraging words, and rode alongside us. Our hearts spill with gratitude to you all.

I was a mess of apprehensions setting off on this trip, but mile-by-mile, they all slowly melted away into the sands of the Sahara. It bends my brain to know that the days of wave hunting in the desert, mud puddle diving in the Congo, making friends in Sierra Leone, elephant dodging in Botswana, gorilla tracking in Uganda, gasping for breath in the stratosphere alongside Kilimanjaro, and hunting visas in Nairobi all happened on this trip. In my memory it feels somehow like it wasn’t really us, as though events that happened two continents away were just scenes from a movie we saw. We knew the moments we wanted were out there, but didn’t know what they looked like or where to find them. They all happened because we decided to just go for a ride anyway.

Henry David Thoreau explained his own drive towards adventures in the wilderness simply enough:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I like to think that with the oddly appropriate combination of motorbikes and surfboards, and a long path ahead of us, we found our own way to move deliberately. We’re back home for now, and pretty happy to be amongst friends and family once again. There’s a whole world of coastline to ride with plenty of waves to find if you’ve got the time to look around and don’t mind some dust in your teeth, grease on your hands, and bugs on your board. There’s plenty of rad stuff along the way that you’re not even looking for. I imagine we’ll go for another two-wheeled wander at some stage and we hope to see you out there. Get moving. 😉

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Tales Untold http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/12/13/tales-untold/ http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/12/13/tales-untold/#comments Sun, 13 Dec 2015 08:08:44 +0000 http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/?p=3637 We rode as fast as our 48cc’s could muster through the south of Thailand, with fleeting appreciation for ...Continue Reading]]> We rode as fast as our 48cc’s could muster through the south of Thailand, with fleeting appreciation for the landscape as it passed. We were once again surrounded by karst topography, the ancient limestone hills with pale, sheer walls and rounded tops. I was zoning out a bit looking at the hills, when we were shook by a horrendous jolt from the bike that sounded like we’d run over a baby carriage. I stopped to see if there was in fact a baby wedged beneath the gearbox. The gearbox was baby free, so that was good. When the gearbox wouldn’t engage the rear wheel, I knew that our long-suffering chain had finally given up on us.

We literally had not even gotten off the bike before a pickup truck came along, I put my thumb out and we had our ride to the next town. We hoisted the bike into the back and Jamie and I squatted next to her for 40 km or so. The truck’s suspension was long dead, the road was bumpy, and I honestly longed for the safety of our motorbike. The new DID branded chain cost $5 USD and we were off again, hardly missing a beat.

At the hotel around the corner I saw a grizzled looking dude wearing a plaid shirt and bike shorts talking to the receptionist with his girlfriend tending a set of fully loaded bicycles. It was obvious that they’d been on a long journey and it soon occurred to me that I’d seen them before. The last time that we’d seen Paul and Jo, they were standing in the skinny shadow of a telephone pole in the Uzbekistan desert.   It was the only shade around for miles, there seemed to be no-where to resupply with water, and I thought they were completely mad to be riding bicycles there.

It’s been a heroic ride all the way from the U.K and will carry on to Australia and North America ( check out their FB page). Their route across Asia has been much more direct than ours, which wandered through Mongolia and Siberia, but even so, it was a shocker to have them turn up having pedaled the whole way there. We drank beers and commiserated over the unique challenges of traveling in China and the wonders of the Stans. Talking to them helped me remember why we just keep riding and how mad this whole trip has been.

Back on the Thai island of Phuket, I’d been looking around for a used board, figuring out how to attach it to the bike, and working out where to catch a ferry to Sumatra. I’d just zip tied my sandal together, hoping they’d hold together awhile longer. I wondered how many more miles the back tire would run and if the wheel bearings were starting to go. But then I got some news that vaporized all of the silly little problems that have occupied our transient world for so long. My dad had just died. The journey was over, and it was time to go home.

He had been doing just fine. He was sitting there talking to a doctor when his heart stopped beating and refused to start again. Suddenly it felt as though we’d just been floating along in a dream and that real life was happening on the other side of the world. We loaded up the bike the next morning and rode south, headed for Singapore, where we’d booked a flight back to North America. It would take days to get there, but it felt good to just keep doing what we knew for a while longer. There’s not much better for sorting out your thoughts than sitting on a bike all day long anyway.

My dad always seemed like he was born a century or so too late. I’d say he never fully embraced the advent of the telephone. He’s always been more of a ‘see ya when I see ya’ kind of guy, and so that’s how we left it more than two years ago. I’d always expected that when I got back, we’d go sit outside somewhere with a six-pack of Budweiser and I’d get to tell him all about the trip. The sun would be burning off the coastal fog, he’d be sitting there in his U.S. Navy hat, and he’d tell me a new joke and call bullshit on one of my stories. He’d know half of the people who walked by on the sidewalk by name and tell them that I was his son just back from riding around the world and I’d know he was proud. It didn’t work out that way, and I’d give about anything to do that just now.

Approaching the Malaysian border, we once again wondered whether or not we’d be able to cross a border with the bike. There was a bicycle race happening in honor of the king of Thailand’s birthday with a route that crossed the Malaysian border. After getting our passports stamped, we just pushed our bike through the gate along with all of the bicyclists. No one seemed to mind.

We spent the days riding through Malaysia dodging storms. They have a real motorbike culture of sorts in Malaysia, which is reflected in the roadway design, with a big shoulder and sometimes an entirely separate lane for bikes that winds its way around tollbooths and through tunnels under the overpasses. It made for quick miles when the sky wasn’t opening up on us. Jamie made me laugh singing songs from animated Disney movies as we rode.

By the time we reached Singapore we were soggy and exhausted.

It was time to move on.

We were having some trouble moving on.

On the Malaysian side of the border with Singapore, I found a little hole-in-the-wall bike shop, just like one of those that had helped us countless times on the road, run by a very nice lady. Since we had nowhere left to ride I gave her our faithful little bike to take back to her village. Out of the city, someone could use it without having to worry about not having a plate. It felt like giving a little something back to the sort of people who had helped us time and again. We were glad to see our girl go to a good home after all our time on the road together. After 12 thousand kilometers or cheap as chips Chinese bike was still running perfectly.

We weren’t in the most festive mood, but Singapore put on a heck of a light show to see us off anyway.

Our final wild camp was in the Shanghai airport en route to Vancouver.

A rider named Pete who had seen our story offered to help us out in Vancouver. He had picked up the bike from the shipper when it arrived and kept it tucked away in his shop for us until we arrived. As if that weren’t enough, he showed up at the airport to meet us, towing an enclosed trailer with the bike inside. When the bike wouldn’t start or charge the battery after we got her running, he even gave us a ride straight to the bike shop. It was yet another gesture of kindness in a clutch moment from someone that we’d never met. The guys at the shop let me wheel her inside along with our entire pile of luggage and start taking things apart. The multimeter read only 4 volts on the battery, so we knew it was toast.

While I worked on the bike, the mechanic there mentioned a gang of 7 British guys on a big trip riding DR350’s, who had stopped at the shop for some custom fabrication work way back in the early 90’s. He thought they had made a movie or something about it, and had a photo of them on the wall.  Of course it turned out to be a photo of Austin Vince and company on the legendary Mondo Enduro ride. It seemed that we’d come to the right place.

Things don’t always go as planned on the road and changes of course along the way are part of the deal. With all of the dangers and barriers in our path, I always figured that what stopped us would be running into some bad luck of our own, rather than events back home. There wasn’t much left ahead for us other than some nasty looking storms and a bone-chilling ride home to California from Vancouver. We’d take it one mile at a time, just like always. It’s been a ride to remember and I’m so happy that we took the chance to do it, even with a heart so heavy in my chest on the journey home. I never imagined that we’d get so far in the first place.

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Out of Step on the Vagabond Trail http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/12/04/out-of-step-on-the-vagabond-trail/ http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/12/04/out-of-step-on-the-vagabond-trail/#comments Fri, 04 Dec 2015 17:53:40 +0000 http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/?p=3618 Everything changed in Laos. Gone were the perfect tarmac roads, regularly spaced villages, and petrol stations. We ascended ...Continue Reading]]> Everything changed in Laos. Gone were the perfect tarmac roads, regularly spaced villages, and petrol stations. We ascended 1500 meters as we approached the border from Vietnam and were greeted by a lofty, impenetrable wall of jungle. We slowly climbed steep escarpments and coasted down ravines. Houses stood 8 feet in the air on posts in small clearings, barely free of the dense vegetation surrounding them. Intermittently we moved through sections of trees with an incredibly loud, steady, high-pitched whine. Surely it was a symphony of some insects, but I’d never heard anything quite like it before. Suddenly this felt like an adventure again.

After all the difficulty getting through the Vietnam border, we hoped that Laos would be easier. We parked the bike near the immigration office where all the local bikes were parked, walked in wearing our backpacks, got our passports stamped, got back on the bike and rode away. Just like we did it every day. We didn’t mention anything about a bike and neither did they, so I figured no one cared very much, and just like that, we were off into jungle.

The beaches and little cafés of Da Nang were fantastic, but it was a great feeling to be cruising along in a wild place once again. Both beams on the bike headlight had died and we were very happy to arrive at a small town just in time to escape the deep dark of the jungle that was quickly engulfing us.

After another day of riding, we arrived at the ancient  Khmer Hindu temple called Wat Phu, with structures dating from the 11th to the 13 centuries A.D. We wandered the ruins and sweated our way up the ancient stone staircases in the sweltering heat to the impressive shrine at the top, dedicated to the Hindu diety Shiva. The site later became a center of Theravada Buddhist worship as it remains today, with Buddhist shrines newly refreshed and folks quietly meditating here and there.

We continued west, winding our way along the Mekong River. The most direct route west unfortunately ran straight into the river, but it turned out not to be much of a problem with the help of a local boatman and his resourceful craft. We wheeled the bike out onto a set of planks that he had nailed to the rails of two canoes, joining them together to make his barge that was powered by an outboard motor with a tiny little propeller. We slowly putted to the opposite bank, nursed the bike up the bank through the sand and continued on our way along the river towards the Cambodian border.

There’s something soul crushing about backtracking. When we’re moving forward, no matter how slow the pace or difficult the conditions, it lightens the heart to know that progress is being made. After hours at the Cambodian border, it was pretty clear that they had no intention of letting us ride our undocumented bike in, no matter how diminutive she appeared. We turned around in defeat and did a full day’s ride the wrong direction. Our best option left was a massive detour around Cambodia through Thailand and try to enter Cambodia from the other side.

At least people drive much better in Thailand than in China. They actually look to see what’s coming before launching into a stream of traffic. It’s very relaxing. Jamie reckons I’ve been traumatized by China as I’m constantly honking the horn as we approach any intersection. In China, everyone did it and I got the impression that if you weren’t manically tapping your horn, you would be held responsible for anyone who decided to T-bone you from a side street. It will take awhile to get a handle on my PCSD, but I’m working on it.

We got to the Thai border and did the same routine as Laos – parked the bike with the others and strolled into the immigration office with our packs. No worries. Out the door and wheeling the bike towards the gate while the customs guys was busy talking with someone else. We were halfway there. Ten more seconds more and we would be out the gate and free to roam across Thailand. A shout came from the customs booth. I ignored it. Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with us. A second shout came. I turned around pointing to my chest, eyebrows raised with most innocuous look I could muster. He waves us over. Damn, so close!

We went into the office and explained that the bike is from China, and that bikes this size aren’t registered there, and it’s really little more than a bicycle, and we’ve ridden so far on it already through mountains and rainstorms, and if they could just allow us to continue the journey they would truly have our eternal gratitude. I was talking about accomplishing some world record for riding a tiny bike and all kinds of other bullshit. We were starting to sound pretty intrepid and heroic by my telling of it. We were provided some initial hope with an attempt to issue us a temporary import permit, but all that I had was the service manual for the bike, which was all in Chinese. They studied the booklet carefully, but it turns out, a Chinese service manual is not sufficient documentation to bring a vehicle across international borders. Go figure.

We were ushered into the big boss office, who turned out to be a wonderfully kind big boss. More dudes with all kinds of official looking pins and stripes on their uniforms piled in. There was a lot of conversation happening, but I didn’t quite understand what it could have been about because they just keep telling us the same thing in no uncertain terms – we must return to Laos with the bike. I kept replying the same thing – that if we can’t take the bike we’re just going to walk away from to border to catch a bus and one of you lucky dudes gets to ride it home. After two hours of back and forth I was running out of avenues to press and we became resigned to just leaving the bike. But something was wrong here…they were still talking to us. Why were they still talking to us? As it turned out, they really wanted to just let us go, but were worried if they might be called to account when the police stopped us for not having a license plate, which they were quite positive would happen. I wasn’t worried about it. I promised that if they helped us, we wouldn’t rat them out for all the tea in Thailand. Finally the biggest big boss just made a waving motion with his hand and the guy who spoke English said, “We never saw you”. We were off again.

Given all the effort getting into Thailand, we decided to just hop on the bus to Cambodia to visit the ancient city of Angkor. It was an awesome day riding in a tuk-tuk around Angkor exploring the ruins. We’d never seen anything like it. The styling of the architecture is unique in all the world. Stone pillars rise to the sky from mountainous temples served by grandiose causeways. High walls along with wide moats protect the city. It is an epic feeling place to explore and you can still find corners that are still nearly completely sheathed by the surrounding jungle.

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer people for 600 years starting around 800 A.D. and was the political center and home to a slew of god-kings during that period. It is an exceptionally grandiose example of Hindu dedication to their gods. The main temple, Angkor Wat, is arguably the largest religious building of any kind in the world. Subsequent Khmer kings upped the scale of the display with bigger and bigger temples and on occasion mixed in Buddhist figures and symbols to the temples according to their own beliefs. What we see now is just the spiritual skeleton of the Angkor that was. Most of the city was built of wood and has long since succumbed to the armies of neighboring peoples, and was ultimately reclaimed by the jungle. European ‘re-discovery’ of Angkor in the 1860’s by Portuguese and French explorers was a much celebrated event and the site has grown in popularity ever since.

From Angkor, we returned to Thailand and rode to Bangkok for a few days off the bike while we waited for our Indonesian visa to be processed. Indonesia was the next destination where there was a good chance to find some really good surf and I was getting pretty amped to get there. We weren’t looking forward to clawing our way into another big city, and Bangkok didn’t disappoint as we hit some solid gridlock as we approached the center of town. Jamie visited the Grand Palace and I didn’t do much besides drink coffee, enjoy air conditioning, and be glad I was walking around the city rather than trying to ride through it.

Getting out of the city was a dosage of pure madness. With a top speed of about 53 km an hour we were way out of our league on the little bike. Even the little 110cc and 125cc bikes smoked us as we cowered on the side of the road, trying to stay out of the way of everyone. The bike is a bit worse for all the wear after 10,000 km. Her seat broke off completely and I used some quick-set epoxy to re-attach it to the bracket. The right turn signal broke off again and went skittering down the road behind us, and the chain has some stiff links in it causing it to have a varying tension during rotation. But, she’s remarkably still moving forward.

Finally free of the city, we were off to find the prettiest beach we could to swing in a hammock. By the time we hit the Andaman coast of Thailand, we were deep into the well-worn SE Asia vagabond trail. The islands offshore of here were a wandering bohemian’s dream in decades past, with abundant gorgeous beaches and cheap living. Nowadays, most places seemed pretty overrun with Russian package vacationers, Scandinavian expats, European backpackers, and busloads of Chinese sightseers.

Luxury hotels and resorts lined the beaches and a souvenir shop, a tour agency, or a band of tuk-tuk drivers occupies every corner. A lot of the adventure seems long sucked out by the lucrative commercial appeal of this place. While I’m sure that there are still uncrowded places to find, we just didn’t make much of an effort to find them. We were roundly uninspired. There’s great food and the coastline really is spectacular, but in the end it just wasn’t our scene.  It’s a great thing about being on the road – when somewhere doesn’t suit, it’s a simple thing to just ride on to the next place.

 

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Good Morning Vietnam http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/11/12/good-morning-vietnam/ http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/11/12/good-morning-vietnam/#comments Thu, 12 Nov 2015 13:33:55 +0000 http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/?p=3600 We were delayed heading south from China by rain that came down in sheets as we hopped from ...Continue Reading]]> We were delayed heading south from China by rain that came down in sheets as we hopped from one covered spot to the next. We were anxious to get to the border and find out whether or not we’d be able to continue the ride. By all accounts we’d found, we wouldn’t be able to bring the bike through the border due to Vietnam’s restriction on foreign bikes.

The Beilun River forms the border between Vietnam and China at Mong Cai, with a border post situated on opposite banks. We rolled up to the Chinese side and were turned away immediately by the guard. I thought that we’d at least make it out of China! He told us in no uncertain terms that no motorbikes were allowed to cross that bridge, “It is not possible to ride motorbike.” We could go, but the bike had to stay. Someone came over to help translate, and we went back and forth for about 20 minutes with me trying every avenue of persuasion I could to at least help us identify an alternative. But it was to no avail. We rolled down from the gate in defeat. We could take heart in the fact that we’d already accomplished what we’d originally set out to do: we’d ridden across China under our own power, on our own schedule, without a guide shuttling us about. With nearly 7 thousand kilometers on the clock of our little machine, we’ve gotten our money’s worth and then some. The police didn’t nab us and a truck didn’t cream us, so I was calling it a win for team moto hobo.

Dogged persistence had paid off in the past, so I decided to give it one more try. I walked into the immigration hall as though leaving China and found a customs agent that could speak some English. I showed him the map of our journey, a picture of the bike, and told him where we were headed. I could tell he was stoked on it, and now on my side. He made a call, then went off to talk to someone and told me to stay put. After a half hour, another guy came over, asked a couple of questions, and then simply said, ‘OK’. OK?   OK what? I can ride the bike across the bridge that no motorbike can cross? Awesome!  But that wasn’t quite right. He shook his head and indicated that I should bring the bike up the stairs into the immigration hall. Really? Bring it in here? Whatever you say boss! I motored the bike up the stairs and then rolled it straight through the immigration counter where they stamped our passports as though it was a piece of wheeled luggage that just happened to have an engine attached to it. They even turned off the metal detector so that I could roll it through. And just like that, something that wasn’t possible an instant ago became so.

That was supposed to be the easy part, but now the task was to get into Vietnam on the other side of the bridge. If we couldn’t make it through, someone on that bridge was going to win a free scooter. I pushed the bike through the immigration counter as though I did it every day. Mind the oil drips folks! Everything seemed cool, but then we saw trouble in our path: stomach pouting heavily over the belt, thin mustache, overtly lounging posture, and relishing in the kowtowing of underlings. We had a class 5 proud-belly big-boss on our hands, and he looked darn grumpy. He halted our progression through the hall gave us a ‘slow down there partner’ sign, all without even interrupting the rocked-back attitude of his chair. I flashed my biggest silly tourist grin. We waited while his officers made some calls. We had no plate, no license, and no documents for our petrol burning luggage rack being wheeled through this hallway. I didn’t even have a sales receipt. I exhaled too soon, this isn’t going to work at all. After a tense 10 minutes of waiting, I’d yet again resigned us to failure, but to my disbelief, he gave us the go ahead. Thirty steps later were free of the hall then out the gate. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it would at least cost us a bit of cash. We get to ride the coast of Vietnam, Yahooo!

The first stop was to check out the geological marvels of Bai Tu Long and Ha Long Bay on the north coast of Vietnam. On the north coast of Vietnam, we rode through one fishing village after another, trying to get a view of the coastline that we’d heard so much about. We finally found our way out to a bustling little port at Bai Tu Long where fishermen hauled supplies from shore, jockeyed boats for a space at the dock, and women paddled from one colorful boat to another. I’ve never seen a coastline like it – the bay was dotted with thousands little domed islands with bright white limestone cliff faces. We’d hoped to find a boat to take us for a cruise around the islands, but it was pretty clear that we were in the wrong place unless we wanted to go fishing.

We motored on to Ha Long Bay and it felt as though we had landed on planet backpacker. The place was utterly overrun with hordes of twenty-somethings toting enormous packs on and off of tour boats. We’d been off of the tourist track for a long time and it was strange to land in the middle of a place where everyone speaking English, trying to get us to sign up for a tour, and come to the bar for jello shots.   Backpacker madness aside, the majesty of that bay was undeniable. It was a truly fantastical scene as we motored our way through narrow channels between the islands and alongside their towering walls.

Riding south, we escaped the swell shadow of China’s Hainan Island, I was amped to get our first view of the coast exposed to swell. We saw a number of little beachbreaks that looked well worth having a surf, but I still had to find a board to ride. All I could do was stand there watching, wondering if anyone had ever surfed them.

Headed for Da Nang, we tried to wait out a storm in Dong Ha, but the next morning it just kept up, so we had nothing to do but get riding and get wet.   We rode pretty slowly and stopped at little shops for Vietnamese coffees when the worst of the downpours came. We got caught in a real torrent coming over Lang Co pass towards Da Nang. The pass marks the divide between the former North and South Vietnam and below the road are situated disused French and American army bunkers.

It’s been strange to think of the fact that we’re here to tour around and have a good time, while the Americans here during our parents generation came to fight. My dad joined up when he was just 17 and was part of operation Starlight, one of the first major offensives, launched not far south of where we now rode. On the American side, the war was part of a larger containment policy, to stop the spread of communism, but to the North Vietnamese, it was a fight to expel foreign colonial forces, first the French and then the Americans. The human toll of the fighting was huge, felt much harder on the Vietnamese side, with casualties estimated in the millions. Soldiers like my dad didn’t get to decide whether or not the war was a good idea, they just had to go fight, and the people in the villages caught up in the middle of it all did what they could to survive.

We visited a town that spent the entire war underground. They had an elaborate system of tunnels dug into a hill and for years rarely came above ground during the day unless absolutely necessary. I was pretty happy to get out of those tunnels after 20 minutes, so I can’t imagine what was going on above ground to keep people down there for years.

We met a woman named Tam who had a small café and lots of stories about life during the war. Her café is plastered with images from that time. She was just 14 when she learned English and became an interpreter for the Americans. Her family had nothing to eat and working for the Americans made life a lot better. When Saigon fell in 1975, she and her family found themselves on the losing side – collaborators with the enemy. The North Vietnamese took everything from them, her brother was imprisoned for 7 years, and the rest of the family was soon forced out of Da Nang and into the nearby mountains to try to survive. Decades later, things are much better, Tam has her little café and her brother has lived in the U.S. for the last 30 years, but hard feelings still persist.

Communism won the war, but since then, Vietnam has adopted a largely open, free market economy. Lifting of the U.S. trade embargo in 1994 and the continued interest of international investors has driven Vietnam to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Da Nang is a bustling city filled with nice cafes, restaurants and hotels, and lots of foreigners that call it home. Everyone has a scooter to ride, and the city is a swarm with them. Young people weren’t alive during the war and seem to look mostly to the future and the opportunities now at hand.

We left the rain behind in the mountains on the way down to the beach in Da Nang. The sun was shining, we found some little waves breaking, and a surf shack owned by a Portuguese expat called Goncalo. Stoked. I spun donuts on the beach in celebration.

Jamie and I grabbed some boards from Goncalo and rode the beachbreak for a few days, hanging 5 on China Beach. Jamie is still new to surfing, so the waves were perfect size for her and surfing with her makes micro-waves fun for me too.

We hung around Da Nang for 5 days waiting for a swell to arrive that I’d hoped would bring a nearby point to life. Goncalo surfed it all the time and assured me that it was worth the wait. He nearly always surfs it alone and was happy to have some company in the water. To my great disappointment, the forecast swell never materialized and I had to be content with longboard cruising on the beachbreak. We’ve now run out of time to wait for swell, with our Vietnamese visa expiring in 2 days it was time to head for the Laos border.

Of course the morning we’re to leave, the bike wouldn’t start. Luckily it turned out to be just a bad spark plug. When I popped in a new one, she roared back to life – as much of a roar that a 48cc can muster anyway. We left Da Nang and ascended back into the mountains and crossed the Ho Chi Min Trail with impossibly fluffy clouds accumulating along the ridge tops. We were headed for Laos and feeling pretty content to still be moving forward on two wheels.

 

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Manufacturing Stoke in the South China Sea http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/10/27/manufacturing-stoke-in-the-south-china-sea/ http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/10/27/manufacturing-stoke-in-the-south-china-sea/#comments Tue, 27 Oct 2015 11:28:59 +0000 http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/?p=3577 We rode south towards the Nan Mountains and as the temperature rose, the cornfields that had been a ...Continue Reading]]> We rode south towards the Nan Mountains and as the temperature rose, the cornfields that had been a constant element of the scenery slowly transformed to rice, cotton, and sugarcane.

We shot by storefronts piled high with cotton drying in the sun.

The good new is that the bike is still running. The headset keeps coming loose, the fork travel is notchy, I constantly need to adjust the clutch, the headlight burnt out, and the rear springs produce a horrendous racket. I asked half a dozen places for a new oil filter before I learned that there is no oil filter. She’s a delicate little machine and anything plastic breaks off with the slightest bit of force. The drum brakes feel like I’d do better just putting my feet down to stop us and I have to get the revs just right to convince her to change gears. But even with all of her faults, she’s been plugging along for thousands of kilometers now, which is honestly more than we’d hoped.

The other good news is that we finally left behind the never-ending lines of trucks and cities packed so close together that the outskirts of one always seemed to touch the outskirts of the other. Open country lanes wound out in front of us, with ornate little bridges leading to villages, and pointy pagodas flanking the road. Even on this bike, it was fun railing through turn after turn on a road that snaked up a river gorge.

The perfect tarmac that we’d become accustomed to disappeared and was replaced by old concrete roads with ditches and ridges across the entire lane. Every one that we hit too fast jarred us to the bone and made me wonder how big a hit the bike could take without bending a rim or cracking the frame. Eventually the concrete and tarmac went away all together and we were left with a rutted, muddy, gravel road. We moved at an absolute crawl trying to avoid the biggest of the holes and wincing at the ones we couldn’t.

Crossing one rickety suspension bridge was a hair-raising affair. I could hear each board slap against the steel below as though it was trying to find a way to slip down into the underlying abyss and I could feel the whole thing swaying beneath me in the wind. I was fully puckered when I saw sections ahead with boards missing and just hoped there wasn’t a big enough hole to swallow my front tire.

We went out for a distinctly Chinese dining experience called ‘hot pot’, where you cook your own food in a little pot with a stove inset to your table. First of all, in China when anyone asks you if you want something ‘la’ (spicy), don’t say a little bit. The correct answer is no. A little bit makes you feel like you need to run around outside in the cool night air with your mouth open. Within the first few bites my tongue was numb. I had trouble regulating my little table stove, so that my pot was constantly roiling vigorously and I was talking to Jamie from behind a cloud of steam. I didn’t do a very good job cooking, but by the end of the meal my pores felt remarkably clear.

Lots of things in China are funny to western eyes. Sometimes they make us cry, but mostly they make us laugh. Here are a few:

Celebrity status.   There just aren’t very many foreigners around in China, so we catch people staring at us all the time. Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I catch someone taking a photo with their phone. I like to imagine they think we’re famous people.

Lugis.   Spitting seems to be the most popular way of sharing with your fellow citizen. People spit everywhere – into the public sink, at the restaurant table, next to your feet – it makes no matter, there is a universal aversion to swallowing your own saliva.

Smokytime   China is a seriously smokey place. Nowhere is safe. People light up in the elevator next to you.

Duck herders.   I did a double take the first time I saw an old guy walking on the road with a long stick behind a massive flock of ducks. It kinda made me happy.

Big Brother.   When the police aren’t keeping tabs on us I’d swear that there is someone on the other end of the internet tube looking in. Access is chronically slow everywhere and I always imagine a little Chinese man in a little room manning an enormous internet switchboard examining every page I’m trying to load and deciding whether it’s fit for viewing.

Vegetarian stuff always has meat in it.   There is no direct way to say to someone in Mandarin that we eat vegetarian. Jamie always tells people that we don’t eat meat, but the word for meat in Mandarin means pork. So that essentially communicates that we’re cool with cow, chicken, lamb, snake, dog, whatever.   The next approach is to say ‘we eat vegetables’ and point to a menu picture of a dish with loads of vegetables and no meat in sight, but that often just gets a plate of meaty vegetables. And sometimes, inexplicably, results in a steaming bowl of meat.

Chinglish.   Funny translations of English phrases are constant entertainment. Yesterday I bought a bag of “numb and spicy” flavored chips and Jamie got some peanuts that were “smelling in cream”. In one hotel shower there was a small sign that read ‘Before falling, please step carefully”, and the information sheet informed us that we would be “charged 60 Yuan for each additional bumhole”. I didn’t even know it was that kind of hotel.

We rode into one city with the coolest two-wheeled transit system ever. Below the elevated roads for the cars was a network of narrow lanes for the scooters. It was amazingly liberating, zipping around the city without having to contend with truck and bus drivers. We flowed along the lanes like a fish in our school, unable to determine who was leading the way, being driven as much as driving ourselves.

When we arrived at a hotel, the receptionist immediately called the police without any explanation and told us to stay put. Apparently we’d landed in a town with a military base that was restricted to foreigners. Oopsie. The plice agent arrived and told us that we couldn’t stay in the town. Not this again! It was already dark and fortunately rear tire on the bike had just gone flat, so we weren’t going anywhere. I showed him the tire and after a half hour of questioning via Google Translate he seemed satisfied that we weren’t spies. We were allowed to stay in the town but he made it very clear that under no condition were we to leave the hotel. We had packet noodles to eat and so were perfectly happy under house arrest.

Our experience has been that almost no one China speaks even a little tiny bit of English. It seems odd since it seems to be studied in schools universally and there are signs in English all over the place. You can go to the most flash looking hotel with the word ‘International’ in the title, but it doesn’t matter – not a word. This is pretty understandable, really, with two billion people speaking Chinese, and very few foreigners about, why would anyone speak English. We’re completely dependent on Jamie’s basic Chinese skills to find somewhere to eat and sleep. My vocabulary now includes four words that I use up pretty quickly upon entering a restaurant. Without preface, I generally walk in and say “hello….beer…cold.” Seems pretty rude sounding, really. If I learn the word for ‘now’, then I can make my staple phrase unmistakably rude, “hello…beer…cold….….now.”

We rode for days through the Nan Mountains of southern China enjoying the scenery immensely. The landscape was dotted with these pointy little hills everywhere. Our road had us bouncing from one hill to another amongst the rice fields as we made our way south.

We finally reached the edge of the mainland and took a ferry across the across the Qiongzhou channel in search of a wave to ride on a big Island. I knew that there was swell in the water, so as the sun sank we raced to get to the beach (racing for us is 50 km/hr (31 mph.) We reached the south coast of the island a couple hours before dark and found the local surf club, which had loads of boards available to use. The last place I’d been surfing was two continents away on the west coast of Norway, so when I saw a ruler edged left hander reeling along the reef I was frothing to get in the water.

I traded waves into the darkness with just one other surfer – a guy from Cuba who was in China on a business trip. I had imagined riding this wave while slogging through countless Chinese cites and now I was trimming along one after another in the fading light. It had been too long out the water and I was stoked to be sliding waves again.

This wave really has no business being here at all. A cursory look at the map would tell you that the South China Sea is not the place to go looking for waves. Generally, we’re after an expansive body of water where a storm can get cooking over a large area, sending swell energy towards the coastline without the storm being right on top of the coastline. The biggest and most consistent swells happen in oceans, not moderately sized seas. Both the Mediterranean and the Caribbean outsize the South China Sea by a fair margin area-wise. Nonetheless, some magical combination of geography, atmospheric dynamics, and ocean conditions have created a wonder of a wave here. On the right swell, the reef churns out multiple pitching tube sections. My Cuban friend and I weren’t exactly hooting at each other in stand-up backside barrels, but it was still pretty fun.

The waves were biggest on the first night and slowly tapered off during the coming days. They ended up perfect size for Jamie to come out and surf and we had a super fun couple of days riding waves together. The swell finally just about died completely and I grabbed the paddle board to slide some micro waves and try to do something about one of the major hazards of adventure moto-scootering: the most ridiculous farmer tan you’ve ever seen. Three days before we arrived it had gotten too hot to wear my insulated jacket while riding, which quickly turned me into a two-toned moto-hobo.

We’ve ridden more than six and a half thousand kilometers across China during the last 6 weeks with barely any time off of the bike. It felt like pure luxury to just not be headed somewhere new every morning. The beach was gorgeous and I couldn’t complain about the company.

 

After 5 days of surfing we made ready for the journey south into Vietnam. We had the choice to head for a border crossing via Dong Dang or Dong Hung. On the way to Dong Hung we’d pass through Wang Dong. I promise I’m not making these names up. It’s pretty much impossible to map out a route through Southern China without giggling like a 6th grader.

Riding along the north coast of Vietnam sounds like it would be absolutely epic, but the problem is that we have no idea whether we’ll have a bike to ride. Given the information available, we most likely that won’t be able to cross the border with the bike. Like China, Vietnam restricts the entry of foreign bikes. We’ve been unable to find any account of a traveler successfully making this crossing with a bike and several accounts of failed attempts. Our only hope is that the absurdity of such a journey on this little bike makes them laugh enough to give us a pass. Fingers crossed.

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Kung Fu Riding in the Middle Kingdom http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/10/15/kung-fu-riding-in-the-middle-kingdom/ http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/10/15/kung-fu-riding-in-the-middle-kingdom/#comments Thu, 15 Oct 2015 01:03:54 +0000 http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/?p=3553 Between daily servings of diesel dust we’ve found some places in China worth the work to get there. ...Continue Reading]]> Between daily servings of diesel dust we’ve found some places in China worth the work to get there. But with the regular visits of the local police to our door, truck backups, and an endless supply of cities, it isn’t exactly the overland adventurer’s dream destination.

We couldn’t leave Beijing without a visit to the Forbidden City, home to emperors and the political center of China for centuries. It seemed like about half of China had the same idea, and we spent the day in the midst of thongs of Chinese tourists. During the city’s heyday, only the servants and councilors of the emperor were allowed in the city and some of the emperors spent their entire lives within the city walls. It was a cool place, but hard to appreciate from within the crowd. As soon as we procured our Vietnam visa we motored out of Beijing, heading southwest.

 

Despite the challenges, China is a very moto-friendly place. The road usually has a massive shoulder and in the cities there’s nearly always an entirely separate lane with a curbed divider for bicycles and scooters. In the cities, you’ve got grandmas, 10 year old girls, and couples with a little kid hanging off the back or a baby chilling in the front basket; all zipping around on little scooters. Most people are on their phones and don’t seem to be paying much attention and hardly anyone wears a helmet, but they ride pretty slowly. Drivers are very used to having motorbikes and scooters around, so they’re pretty good about watching out for them. With so many fewer cars, it hugely alleviates traffic and parking problems in big cities like Beijing. China is light years ahead of the U.S. on this front, where it seems to be the default position that everyone should be driving around in a massive truck, but we make a few concessions for fanatics and daredevils that want to get where they’re going on two wheels.

Now without our tent and the weather still a bit cold at night to sleep out in the open, we’re constantly searching for a place to stay. Accommodation is great value when you can find it, with comfortable rooms usually available for less than $20 USD. The problem is finding one that will take us since most places don’t seem to serve foreigners. One night we spent 5 hours looking, tried a dozen hotels, and were turned away by all of them.   We gave up and started looking for a building site instead, figuring that we could just sleep the night in some unfinished concrete structure. Every place we tried, we were met with a barking dog from the darkness that convinced us to turn around. We were exhausted and on our way to just pass out in the bushes, when we finally ran into a place that let us stay.

With Jamie’s tutelage I finally learned to say a few things in Mandarin, but it honestly gets me into more trouble than it’s worth. Saying my one thing I know how to say usually prompts the other person to start rattling off in Mandarin. It gets really funny when they start writing things down in Chinese characters to help me understand. I look down at random arrangements of elongate apostrophes grouped together in cubes, and they look up at me expectantly. I mostly sit there nodding with my eyebrows raised and smiling stupidly; the most confused white man in China.

The level of development in China is like nothing I’ve ever seen in the world. Every town we pass is a big town and most of them have a whole bunch of 20-30 story buildings going up. The road infrastructure is way overbuilt with far more lanes than are needed for the cars currently on the road. It’s just unbelievable. They’ve really planned a lot of the cities out well. The country highways, however, are a different story. We spend days at a time in a sea of trucks, all of them the same open-bed style, carrying I have no idea what. There are literally thousands of them. Without the trucks there would be hardly any traffic on the rural roads. The only thing that I can think is that they are carrying either coal or road-building materials. We arrive everywhere with our faces covered in diesel dust, looking something like Alice Cooper during his glory days.

I don’t think that there are any right of way rules, or if there are, no one knows them or follows them. Every intersection is a slow game of chicken. The only way anyone ever makes a left turn is to mow through the oncoming traffic until they can kind of merge into the opposite lane. No one ever stops before entering a highway. If there isn’t a vehicle directly in front of them, the standard procedure is to just launch up onto the road regardless of what’s coming. A blind corner in the middle of a traffic lane however is a perfectly acceptable place to stop for a chat. We see near misses constantly. When there is a collision, both drivers get out and start yelling at each other. With no rules for who gives way, I’ve no idea how you might determine who is at fault. I suppose that’s why they both yell. On the Suzuki, we could use our speed to squirt us out of potentially dangerous situations, but now our only defense is slowness. As long as we move slow enough we can usually rely on the fact that someone won’t intentionally run us down. Usually.

We’ve had some hard days on the road riding this little bike slogging through one city after another or navigating the truck-scape. Most days we do nothing other than ride all day long. Progress is slow, and some days I’ve just ended up cursing China altogether at the top of my lungs as we putted along. One day we didn’t even make 100 kilometers as we got stuck in the middle of one huge truck jam after another. The first one went for at least 5 kilometers and the trucks were wedged so tightly together that the only way we could get through was to take both of our packs off the sides and wear them while we threaded through them. It was super not fun. We ran into another truck jam that went on for 12 kilometers. Some of the cities won’t let the truck pass through during the day, so they’re just lined up waiting for the entire day. There are moments that China has drained my adventure spirit altogether. Jamie takes it all in stride better than I do and keeps us on track.

After five days of riding, we arrived at the Shaolin Monastery, birthplace of the martial art of Kung Fu.  The temple grounds were shrouded in the mountain mist and the air was a still as a Kung Fu master’s mind. Since I still carry my 12 year-old-self around with me, I thought this would be the coolest thing ever, because Kung Fu is rad.  According to Chinese legend, it originated during the semi-mythical Xia dynasty, some 4,000 years ago. The Shaolin style of Kung Fu is regarded as one of the first institutionalized Chinese martial arts. I’ve since learned that in Chinese, the term Kung Fu doesn’t refer to the martial art exclusively, but to any skill that is acquired through learning and practice. So you can do some Kung Fu cooking or be a Kung Fu programmer.

The young students of the local Kung Fu schools punched, kicked, and flipped at one another demonstrating their mastery of the art. Everybody was Kung Fu fighting. Those cats were fast as lightning. Our display was slightly less impressive.

On the way down from visiting the Shaolin Temple, the mist turned to rainfall and showed no signs of stopping. Our $5 rain gear was beginning to disintegrate. I had a massive hole ripped in the crotch of my rain pants that I didn’t know about until I started feeling like I’d wet my pants. There’s also a big rip up the side of one of the legs from kick starting the bike that I tuck into my sock to keep it from flapping in the breeze. We’re both wearing our Keen sandals, since they’re now the only shoes we have, so our feet get soaked right away, but at least our socks are wool. Wearing two pairs of wool socks is now my version of motorcycle footwear. We’ve been traveling non-stop and have only one pair of pants each, so our clothes are constantly filthy. In our tattered rain gear, inappropriate footwear, and heavy metal diesel face paint, we’ve got a distinct zombie apocalypse look. I don’t think our bike can outrun a zombie though. Sometimes I have to push it.

The clutch on the bike had started sticking and it picked the moment we were entering a city, on a bridge to get stuck completely.  The arm attached to the engine case was jammed so that it wouldn’t engage the engine at all. Here we were on a bridge in the midst of city traffic and getting soaked and I can’t even get the bike moving. It’s moments like this that I wonder why in the hell we’re doing this at all. The only way I could manage it was to use my right foot to kick the clutch arm free while giving some throttle at the same time. The first couple tries I just did a quick wheelie as the clutch  popped free and then killed the engine, but I got the hang of it. Once we got off the bridge and moving I just matched the revs to the gearbox and shifted without the clutch, but every time we came to a stop and had to pull the clutch in and it would stick again. After a bit of Kung Fu riding we made it into town and found a guy tinkering in little scooter garage to unstick the clutch lever.

It was slow going as we headed for the pits of the Terracotta Warriors. We rode for a couple more days towards the city of Xi’an and we froze when we gained a thousand meters of altitude. We just don’t have the gear to ride in the cold anymore, and once again we’ve found ourselves trying to outrun the winds of winter. When the rain started in again, we were just too cold and had to hole up for the night after only making 80 km’s for the day.The terracotta warriors are these exquisite figures were made to protect the first emperor of China, Ying Zheng, in the afterlife. More than two thousand of them have been exhumed since a farmer digging his well discovered them in 1974, and they’re still digging more out.

They stand in row upon row within the very pits that they were buried. There are archers, infantryman, charioteers, and officers; each of their faces distinct from one another. It’s sort of an eerie sight; all of them lined up like that, seemingly assembled for their duty in the afterlife.

Every time I look at the map I grossly overestimate how far we can ride in a day. It’s difficult to wrap my head around how slowly we’re moving, and when we get lost, have some mechanical trouble, or can’t find the way across a river it just feels like we’re not getting anywhere at all. One morning I came out to find a deflated rear tire squashed beneath our beastly machine. We just pushed the bike around the corner to the local scooter shop to put in a new tube and change the oil while we were there. A scooter shop never seems to be more than a block away and the value is fantastic. A new tube along with a liter of oil and the mechanics work came to a total of 60 Yuan, which is about $9.50 USD. There are faster and easier ways to get across China, but I can’t imagine a cheaper one.

In the North, practically all we ever see being farmed are small cornfields. It’s fall here, so the corn has been picked and husked (by hand about everywhere we’ve seen) and now every surface available is occupied by corn drying in the sun – driveways, public squares, highway lane dividers and even entire traffic lanes have all been taken over by the local farmers.

We’ve spent so much time riding through really uninteresting landscape in China it was great to finally find somewhere that made us excited to walk up a hill. Zhangjiajie National Park is filled with sandstone and quartzite spires all standing at attention amidst the gaping abyss. The scene is truly otherworldly and reminiscent of the the digital worlds created for Hollywood movies like Avatar or Maleficent. The place feels prehistoric, as though a pterodactyl gliding amongst the pillars wouldn’t seem out of place. We walked along a stream valley, slowly ascending into this freak of geology.

Tiny enclaves of vegetation perched at the top of the pillars and spilled down the vertical pink and white rock to the jungle below. I can’t imagine a landscape better suited to a set of wings.

In Chinese, the word for America means the Beautiful Land, and China is known as the Middle Kingdom. China certainly feels like the center of the world with all of the people here and there are some beautiful places to be found between the city slogging and truck dodging. Foreigners are a rare sight most of the places we’ve been riding, but people have been very kind to us the whole way along. Our little bike has pushed us to about the middle of the Middle Kingdom, and we’re just hoping it can keep pushing us to the southern edge of it. It’s a lot to ask of a meager 48cc’s of displacement, but at least it’s faster than pedaling.   Barely.

 

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The Slow Road through China http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/10/01/the-slow-road-through-china/ http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/10/01/the-slow-road-through-china/#comments Thu, 01 Oct 2015 02:35:36 +0000 http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/?p=3542 China wins no points in the moto-fun department, refusing to let us enter with our beloved motorbike, forcing ...Continue Reading]]> China wins no points in the moto-fun department, refusing to let us enter with our beloved motorbike, forcing us to endure the four-hour bus ride from Vladivostok, Russia to Hunchun, China. We drove over the landscape in a sealed container barely awake, rather than riding through it with our senses alight. We needed to fix this situation, whether China was onboard with the moto-hobo lifestyle or not.

The cheapest thing that we could find was a little moped looking thing. She’s 48cc’s of fire breathing Chinese muscle. Two of those ought to do for us, but the shop only had one. Two-up on a 48cc across China – was this even possible? We were determined to find out.

Buying stuff in China is pretty cheap. They invented stuff-making here. We got the bike, along with a shiny top box, two helmets, and a lock chucked in, all for a song of a deal. I still don’t even know the make of the bike. We grabbed a couple backpacks to stuff our stuff, I assembled a comprehensive tool kit (mostly zip ties and duct tape), and that was it, ready ride across China.

On our diminutive machine, wearing our Chinese helmets with sunglasses on, we’re virtually undetectable as foreigners, so we fly under the radar at any police checkpoint. They don’t even look twice at us as we ride right by. Before we arrived I’d read on a website written by an American expat in China that you don’t need a Chinese license or a plate for a bike under 50cc’s. I don’t really know if that’s true or not, but so far everyone just ignores us.

You might think we’re being a bit cavalier about all this and you’d be correct. Even after all we’d gone through on this trip up to now, wobbling off on the little bike felt half insane. I didn’t even know if we could make it up a hill with the both of us until we got to the first one 30 km away from the town. She’ll get to the top of a mild grade but she’s none too happy about the climb. We’re basically about half a rung above a bicycle on the vehicle hierarchy.

For the first three days riding, something broke every day. We just hopped from one little shop to another. Little bike shops are absolutely everywhere and there is always someone to help out. Within the first 200 km the rear tire delaminated. We retreated to a shop to get a new one that is surely better quality, but it was bigger and rubbed the fender every bump we hit. We absolutely mangled the fender to provide some more clearance and iteratively stopped at one shop after another borrowing tools to mangle it even more. Finally, with the pre-load on the springs cranked all the way up, an over-sized knobby tire, and a rear fender that looked like a piece of modern art, we had a fully off-road capable machine. Mostly because I can just lift it up to carry it over any really big bumps.

The first few days of riding we spent most of the time winding through lovely, mountain roads with very little traffic, flanked by trees ablaze with the colors of fall. I was in a state of disbelief that this was actually working; that we were really going to ride this thing, carrying everything we needed, 3 thousand miles across China. When a storm came through we found our first hard day of riding ducking under bridges as the showers came and went during the day. We donned the rain gear that we bought in Hunchun for $3 dollars each. I looked like I was wearing a set of hefty bags and Jamie looked like she was about to be sent off to the school bus carrying a Hello Kitty lunch box.

As this trip has progressed, I’ve become increasingly more useless to get where we’re going and Jamie has become ever more essential. In Russia, Jamie learned the Cyrillic alphabet so that we could read signs and she even made a fair stab at learning Russian. The first time we got into an elevator in China, Jamie started speaking Mandarin to the lady next to us. My girlfriend speaks Chinese!? Jamie had lived in Taiwan for two years, so I figured she’d picked some up, but I still couldn’t help being amazed standing there listening to her. I can say hello. That’s it.

Additionally, Jamie is now the route planner and navigator, since I no longer have the phone mounted up on the front of the bike. So pretty much all I do now is drive the bike and say hello a lot. Ni Hao.

Planning routes in a huge country on a slow bike is a lot more complex than a big bike, since we have to take care to avoid the major roads where we’d quickly be mowed down by trucks. We pretty much have to plan as though we were on bicycles, following the smaller provincial roads through the countryside and trying the skirt as many of the big cities as possible. Riding all day long we can only manage about 200 km a day. We make about 40 km per liter of fuel (100 mpg), but the tank only holds 3 liters. At the first gas station, we found a 4-liter plastic container, which has been our auxiliary tank ever since, giving us a range of nearly of about 280 km.

People in China generally drive like idiots; going the wrong way on the shoulder, launching up onto the road without even slowing down at the intersection, weaving all over the lane in a three wheel cart while talking on a phone, performing a left turn by slowly mowing through oncoming traffic. In some ways the demeanor on the road has a distinctly African feel. All of this said, there is rarely any mal intent or aggression behind any of it. People are used to lots of motorbikes everywhere and are genuinely mindful of us on the road. Unless they need to turn left and you happen to be coming from the other direction – in that case, avoiding them is your problem. It’s taken me about a week to get into the swing of things and to stop being the angriest white man in China.

I wanted to come to China because I thought it would be strange and so far I’ve not been disappointed. One night we set out in a town looking for food and found a lady frying up tofu in a street cart. Awesome! Except when it was ready, she slathered it in some gray brown sauce that seriously smelled like it had come from a break in the sewer line. This was my introduction to a Chinese classic, called ‘Stinky Tofu’. The stink has nothing redeemable about it like stinky French cheese for instance. It seriously smells like an outhouse. It’s radical. I can’t believe people eat it. Another night, we checked into a hotel and quickly noticed that it was cooking hot everywhere in the building even though it was cold outside. It seemed that we’d inadvertently checked into some spa-hotel place with the idea to cook the ailments out of their guests. Every time we left the lobby, we had to check our shoes in and head upstairs in funny little slippers. I wasn’t into it.

The reason we ended up at Hotel Hotness was that we’d been told that only certain hotels are licensed to serve foreigners. When we’d tried to check into a simple guesthouse in a small town, the police quickly arrived to tell us that we had to leave the town. The place they wanted us to go was 80 km away and it had just started getting dark. We flat out refused to go on the grounds that it was too dangerous to ride off now. They said that we were in a disputed autonomous region called Liao Ning Province and it was for our own safety that we should leave. So, leave, and go hurtling through the darkness on the highway on our tiny little bike. Safely. That made perfect sense.

We went back and forth a few times until the police finally agreed that they would call a truck to drive us out of town with the bike. A free ride – stoked! These guys really did want us out of town! During the time we were waiting for the truck, half the town had turned up to the hotel to meet the crazy foreigners riding the silly little bike.   No one seemed the least bit threatening to our safety other than a guy who tried to make us eat some chicken feet. Those looked pretty dangerous. We’ve since learned that such a license to serve foreigners used to be needed, but no longer – the requirement was revoked in 2003. However, some local police still tell guesthouses that they need this license, which doesn’t exist. It’s all down to the whim of the local police and we’ve also learned some local jurisdictions have outlawed foreigners from being in their cities altogether.

With a population more than 2 billion strong, China is utterly filled to the brim with people. We run into big towns and full-on cities constantly.   For us, it’s been a dramatic change from the sparsely populated regions in Mongolia and Siberia.   Signs of the fastest growing economy in the world are everywhere from massive infrastructure projects to huge housing developments. Explosions of fireworks regularly punctuate the afternoon as fireworks heralding the completion of a new building. The first time it happened nearby I nearly ran for cover. We rode beneath expressways tiered up with more pillars that we could count spanning massive wide valleys and saw the skylines of town after town edged with scores of brand new skyscrapers and more on the way up. All of this growth requires plenty of energy, but they do seem to keep their nuclear power a bit close for comfort.

Sites that preserve China’s heritage persist right alongside the boomtowns. Riding towards Beijing, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go for a hike along the Great Wall. It had taken us more than a week to reach Beijing riding from the Russian border and we were more than happy to spend some time moving on our feet rather than on our butts.

We set out up onto the wall from the village of Gubeikou, where the wall is in a pretty ruinous state, but there are no tourist crowds like there are at some of the restored sections of the wall. It was a harder hike than we’d guessed climbing and dropping along ridgelines on an uneven surface of cracked and dislodged stones that formed this wild section of the wall.

Along the way, we met an Australian couple Dan and Nadine, also hiking the same section of The Wall, on a trip out from their home in Kuala Lumpur. They were the first foreigners we’d seen the entire time in China.

We hiked towards a restored section at a place called Jinshanling, before retreating the same direction that we’d come just before dusk. On the way out, we’d scoped out a good guard tower that we’d commandeer for the night.

We’d sent our warmest sleeping bag back to California with the bike, and the temperature dropped low enough that we spent a cold, angry night trying to find some warmth at bottom of our sleeping bags. I had both of our raincoats over top of my sleeping bag in an effort to retain some heat. From 2 AM onwards, Jamie and I were both barely in and out of consciousness and just waiting for sun to rise. Finally the stars began to fade as the sun rose behind the hills. As tough a night as it was, it still felt worthwhile when we caught the morning view of the wall in the golden glow of sunrise.

We’d ridden more than a 1200 miles to reach Beijing and still have double that distance to go to reach the other side of China. Jamie is practicing her Chinese and I’m trying to learn to navigate our minuscule moto through the city chaos like a Zen Master rather than a confused tourist. The journey has slowed to a snail’s pace, but at least we’re back on two wheels with the wind in our face. It still seems like a long way before I’ll get some bugs on my board again.

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Siberia, Interrupted http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/09/13/siberia-interrupted/ http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/09/13/siberia-interrupted/#comments Sun, 13 Sep 2015 11:29:00 +0000 http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/?p=3524 Siberia is vast. We had a whole lot of its bigness to get across. A carpet of forest ...Continue Reading]]> Siberia is vast. We had a whole lot of its bigness to get across. A carpet of forest stretches to the horizon rolling up and down over the hills. The uniformity of green was rarely broken, other than by the railway and the highway on which we rode. To us, the road was civilization. It was solid. There were other people on it. When we rode just half a mile off the highway and down a muddy track, the forest swallowed us up, as though the trees closed in behind us. It was always something of a relief to return to that tenuous tarmac interruption of the forest.

We’d left Ulaanbaatar with 2400 miles (4000 km) to ride to reach the other side of Russia. We enjoyed a final night of camping out on the open Mongolian steppe before crossing the border where the grasslands slowly graded into pine forests.

We only ride about 200-300 miles a day, so it would take us more than a week to get across Far Eastern Russia. We started off slowly with a stop-off at Lake Baikal. By volume, it’s the largest freshwater lake in world. Which is precisely why we went there, and no other reason at all. We’d heard it was a beautiful place, but we found it unremarkable in every way and basically indistinguishable from any other massive lake that you might run into. We stood and looked at it for a while, felt the water, then got back on the bike and rode away. The beautiful places must have been on the other side. Did I mention that we visited the biggest lake in the world? Yep. Totally touched it. Forgot to take a photo though.

When we finally did get into the forest, it was difficult to find campsites because the trees and undergrowth were so thick. It was the first time since West Africa that I truly wished for a machete strapped to the saddle bag. Our favorite sites ended up being clearings made for rock quarries.

 

The birch forests usually had more closely spaced trees and thicker undergrowth than the pine forests and we would thread the bike through the trees looking for clear, flat spot to camp.

We usually had plenty of food, but good veggies were hard to find and we had to resist the urge to forage in the woods.

We did our best to find nice picnic spots, but they were as few and far between as nice camp spots. We were quickly missing the outdoor playland of the Mongolian steppe. Here in Siberia, nature was a little more intrusive to our comfort.

The road itself is truly a marvel. To keep the forest at bay and avoid the sucking mud that comes with melting permafrost, there are literally thousands of miles of road tiered up well above the forest floor with tons and tons of gravel. Sometimes we found ourselves riding amongst the treetops, 5-10 meters above the forest floor. The amount of rock that had to be quarried to do this for so many thousand of miles is just astounding.

We met friendly Russians the whole way along who always asked where we were from and where we were going, sometimes wanted to take photos with us, and usually invited us to drink some vodka. One nice guy working at a gas station called us over to his little maintenance shed so that we could do an oil change. He offered us tea and from the shed produced tools and an oil pan for me to use.

Our constant companion was the Trans-Siberian Railway steaming along beside us. At one stage we found a town 10 miles down a dirt track off of the highway. There were markets and banks, offices and apartment buildings; all in what seemed to us to be the middle nowhere. It felt surreal, like an episode of the Twilight Zone. It just seemed mad for all of this to exist down a long dirt track surrounded by forest so far from the highway. But this town was built in the age of the railway, not the highway. The whole town was virtually built around the rail station.   We couldn’t help but think how the construction of the rail line must have changed life out here, where the ground is covered in snow for half the year and a muddy bog for the other half. Before the rail line, it would have been incredibly difficult for anything or anyone to get in or out of here.

Eventually it seemed that everywhere that wasn’t the road was a swamp. We had to check carefully what the surface was like before we rode down off the highway to be sure that the undergrowth wasn’t hiding a bog that would have us hopelessly mired.

With the water came the mosquitoes and they came in droves. Our last camp was so bad that Jamie kept her helmet on until we finally dove into the sanctuary of the tent. Anytime I uncovered the cook pot for even a second, hundreds of them would kamikaze to their deaths into the food. The whole thing must have been a comedic site, both of us bundled like ninjas, Jamie running around in her fogged up helmet, screaming ‘breach’ every once in awhile when a mosquito found its way inside, and me trying to stir a pot with the lid still on and regularly smacking myself in the face. As the sun got lower they got worse. I’ve been in places with bad mosquitoes before, but this was another level. It was difficult to breath without inhaling a cloud of the little suckers.

We rode more than 400 miles the next day to reach Vladivostok rather than camp in another mosquito cloud.   The last time I touched the Pacific Ocean was in California and now I got to dip my toes in on the other side of it. I’d been hopeful to find a surf shop and some waves to ride near Vladivostok. The hope of it had spurred me forward on plenty of days. We found some great cobble reef/point setups where I’d seen photos of pretty good waves on the Internet. However, it seems that you’d have to be pretty lucky to get a big enough swell here in September and we only saw the most micro of waves peeling along the raised bars of cobbles.

The last couple of days on the road, Dyna Rae had been trying to bog at about ¼ throttle. I assumed that it was some gunk clogging a jet in the carburetor. On the night that we rode into Vladivostok it had gotten bad enough that she was pretty difficult to ride in city traffic. I was happy to make it to a guesthouse and collapse for the night. When we packed up to move to a cheaper place the next morning, she died under any throttle. Fortunately it wasn’t far to the other guesthouse and the first half was downhill. Unfortunately the second half was uphill, and so there Jamie and I were, grunting and heaving the fully loaded bike against gravity inch by inch, towards a massive soviet-era submarine.

I took the carburetor apart and cleaned it up shiny but was dismayed when my efforts had no effect whatsoever. I puzzled over it for a day or so before I resolved that something mechanical must be going wrong with the fuel delivery. I had a close look at the needle that I’d replaced in Romania and found it and the spacer very worn. When I compared the needle to the old one I’d replaced, I noticed that its taper was slightly thicker at the end, allowing less fuel into the chamber. It seemed that as the spacer wore down, the unexplainably thicker needle eventually stopped letting enough fuel in to keep her running.   I put the old thoroughly worn needle back in, the bog disappeared and she roared back to life. It’s amazing that this didn’t happen in the middle of the Siberian forest mosquito hell.  She was tired and coughing, but somehow just didn’t quit until we made it all the way to the finish line at Vladivostok. Thank you Dyna Rae.

We’d run out of east to ride so it was time to turn south to head for China. As nicely as we asked, the Chinese simply would not let us go riding our bike around willy-nilly across their country. We’d need to have a full time guide, a Chinese driver’s license, and a bunch of other stuff that made the whole escapade far too structured and costly for our taste. The smart thing to do arriving in Vladivostok with a clapped out bike and nowhere to ride would be to sell it, not to haul it back across an ocean, but I just couldn’t manage to let her go.

This little machine has been home for two years and carried Jamie and me back and forth across three continents more than 60 thousand miles. Her chain is sagging, sprockets worn down to the nub, rotors scored, bash plate thoroughly dented, front wheel wonky from our crash in Tajikistan, tires nearly bald, carb bodged together, and she’s still carrying a quarter pound of dust from the Sudan Desert. She’s no spring chicken and drinks some oil as the parts in her worn cylinder head begin to show their age, but just keeps thumping along. I know every nuance of every sound she makes and how it changes when the temperature or the altitude rises, her valves get loose, or her air filter is clogged. I can feel the difference in how her gears mesh together when the oil gets dirty. I’ve put every scratch on her and twisted every bolt myself. I love her flaws and quirks as much as her attributes, because they all add up to my bike.

I cleaned her up and arranged to get her in a container headed for Vancouver at a cost that makes no sense given the state of the bike. Now we’re on the bus.   No dust in our face or mosquitoes in our dinner. No sore behinds. We climbed a mountain and my face didn’t get cold and when a rain shower passed we didn’t get wet. I didn’t smell the trees when they changed or feel the bumps in the road. It was comfortable. How lame.

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Making Tracks across Mongolia http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/08/24/making-tracks-across-mongolia/ http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/08/24/making-tracks-across-mongolia/#comments Mon, 24 Aug 2015 05:54:51 +0000 http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/?p=3508 Looking at the map, it seems that we’re about as far from an ocean as we could possibly ...Continue Reading]]> Looking at the map, it seems that we’re about as far from an ocean as we could possibly be anywhere on the planet, about 500 miles northeast of the Mongolian border. It must be more than 2000 miles in any direction to find an ocean coastline. The Stans had turned out to be kind of a bigger deal than we thought with searing deserts, landslides, flooding, and broken bikes. I suppose it’s silly to presume to judge what any place holds just by examining the outlines of its borders, but they just didn’t look that big on the map! We’ve got a hell of a long way to go to the other side of Asia and summer is fading fast. Winter is coming.

Barnaul, Russia is our waypoint en route to Mongolia where I had a set of tires shipped to replace our badly worn set that have been on the bike since Croatia, more than 14 thousand miles back. We rode off from Barnaul without a clue what we’re headed into, just because we had tired of looking stuff up and figuring out where to go. We headed into Russia’s Altai Mountains on some brand new knobby rubber. Our plan was to simply blast to the Mongolian border as quickly as possible, but as we rode, the landscape turned lush and beautiful as the road wound along a river. We kept seeing awesome camp spots by the riverside and finally just had to stop to make one of them our home for the night.

Jamie made friends with the tiny locals.

I got woodsy.

The rain dumped on us all night, finally abated in the morning long enough to pack up and get riding, but not for long. The Altai is a beautiful place if you don’t mind enjoying the views a bit soggy.

We mostly camped in cow pastures and have gotten rather used to being surrounded by cow patties.

The cows played coy at first, but in the end kept creeping up on Jamie. We think they were planning something nefarious. Sneaky little buggers.

After spending several days more than expected in the Altai, we finally motored up to the Mongolian border, where we found our cage driving counterparts in line. The Mongol rally participants racing from London in the crappiest cars they could duct tape together were already kicking up the dust in front of us, ready to tackle Mongolia’s tracks in comically inappropriate vehicles.

Jamie got down with some maps to figure out the best way across a thousand miles of the wild Mongolian steppe.  We forgot to bring a map. They laughed at us. We took photos of theirs instead. Problem solved.

Unfortunately we’d arrived to the border at about lunch time, which turned out to be a fairly drawn out affair. It was pretty annoying since we only needed one more stamp to get moving. We were less annoyed when we looked outside the office and saw that it was snowing, and no longer felt like riding anywhere. This didn’t bode well for our crossing of Mongolia along the northern route that had lots of creeks that could swell to flow levels that made them uncrossable on a bike.

At the border, we’d met up with a Swiss rider called Jonathan on a KLR who we’d first met in Kazakhstan. The three of us rode together; taking a detour to bypass the biggest river crossings that we’d heard had caused two riders to turn back the day before. At every meadowy stop, the local band of horses seemed to find us and come over for a look.

The Mongolians are virtually born on horseback and can just about ride before they can walk. They ride everywhere and seem more comfortable in a saddle than standing on the ground. We eventually learned that the bands of horses we found roaming around everywhere always belong to someone, and have been trained for riders. They are allowed to roam the grasslands freely until needed by an owner. They aren’t really wild, but they seem to lead a pretty close-to-wild existence out here on the steppe that’s wonderful to see. Back home I never really understood some people’s fascination with these creatures, but after so much time watching them in Mongolia I now do.

Outside of a few hundred kilometers of Tarmac, mostly laid down on the approach to the capital city, Mongolia doesn’t really do the road thing. They’re into tracks. Lots of tracks. The dirt tracks spill down hillsides and snake off into the valley as far as we could see. The pale green canvas is framed by low mountains and is only occasionally marked by the herder’s white gers, what we would call yurts, and their continuously munching livestock. The vastness of it all just fills your lungs with air and lightens heavy thoughts. A journey through this landscape can’t help but feel epic in scale.

We rode with Jonathan all day, traversing north from the town of Elgii towards the northern route and the town of Ulaangom. He rode faster than us and was soon out of sight. The route is often a dozen tracks wide and we couldn’t possibly always select the same one. Usually they converge with one another, but sometimes they don’t. At some stage we lost each other and we never saw him again. We had a long break on a hillside above a lake, so we figured he couldn’t still be behind us and rode on figuring that we’d eventually find him in Ulaangom, but he wasn’t there either.

We hoped everything had gone OK for Jonathan, but by noon the next day it was time for us to ride on. There were a few creek crossings and mud pits created from the rain of the past few days, but it was usually possible to find a way around any obstacle through the grass.

I’ve never ridden anywhere like Mongolia. It’s mostly fast two track that alternates from flowy dirt with whoops and bowls to bank off of, and faint tracks through the short grass. Some sections seriously feel like you’re ripping straight across a golf course. The dirt tracks are generally smoothed from the rain and when they get too bumpy or rough from a truck getting stuck in the mud, someone makes a new track. Lots of the time, you don’t really need a track at all. The only place where you can normally ride cross-country like this at a good clip is in the desert. Here, you get that same riding freedom, but don’t have to deal with extreme heat or lack of water. Even loaded and two-up, it was some of the most fun off-road riding I’ve ever done.

For the first time in months we weren’t cooking in the desert or freezing in the mountains, the storm front had moved on ahead of us and we had nothing but clear blue skies. We were riding about a hundred miles a day and good camping spots were always easy to find. We could see a spot way up a hill or across a valley from a track we were riding and just blast cross-country towards it. It was so cool. Mongolia feels like a motorcycle play land.

At camps far away from gers or animals, we were surrounded by the stillness of the steppe. A falcon flew overhead and I could hear every beat of its wings clear as a bell. I even managed a bath in a stream.

The Mongolian people are usually friendly and curious about us, but generally more reserved than those we met in the Stans. In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the kids would hear us coming down the road and there would be a stampede of them out to the road waiting at the ready to slap us a high five.   I never got tired of that. But here we were generally left on our own unless we happened to camp right where a herder was grazing his animals.

Mongolia is a hard place to live. The whole country is situated on a plateau with an average elevation of about 5250 feet (1600 m) resulting in very harsh winters where the temperature drops below 40 C and a blanket of snow covers the grassland. The climate doesn’t allow the Mongolians to grow much in the way of grains or vegetables and there isn’t much food available other than meat. Most people out in the countryside depend wholly on their animals for survival. They eat their meat, wear and make shelters from their hides and fur, and drink their milk. We encountered animals we hadn’t seen before: yaks (which look kind of like gigantic dogs), and two humped camels, better suited for the cold weather than the single humped variety we’d bern chasing all over the road in Africa.

After days of riding the tracks with no sign of any other riders, let alone our Swiss riding companion, we were stoked to find two other riders, Anthony and Jenny from Israel, both riding Honda CRF 250’s that they’d been riding all the way from Europe for the past five months.

As we rode east, trees appeared on the hills and the four of us found some fuel for fires at night while we talked story of bikes and adventure.

We turned north to find one of the few Buddhist monasteries that survived the Soviet purge of the 1930’s. The track followed a valley and was rougher than what we’d been riding out on the open steppe. The final obstacle was a wide creek. We couldn’t judge its depth the whole way across until a truck came by to show us the path along the shallow gravel bar.

We found a campsite in the saddle of a ridge high above the monastery and bedded down for the night with our usual cadre of four legged neighbors whinnying and neighing into the night. We packed up the next morning and bounced down the hill to check out the monastery as the Tibetan Buddhist monks-in-training went about their morning chants wrapped in robes burgundy and gold.

 

Approaching Ulaanbaatar, the tarmac returned along with the towns and cars and it was as if waking from a week-long dream in the grassland. The air became was tinged with diesel, a car horn honked, a mini-market appeared, and the spell of the steppe was broken. Given half an excuse I would turn around a ride the same route right back the other direction.

When we arrived at the default overlander flop house in Ulaanbataar, we finally found Jonathan again. A week prior, when we’d last seen him, he’d ridden way up a track that just went to someone’s ger. We’d taken somewhat different routes to Ulaanbataar, but arrived within hours of one another! His front tire was wearing through to the steel belting a week ago, so he sawed off some of the rear tire knobs and super glued them to the worst spots on the front. The prosthetic knobs stayed put during the whole journey. How’s that for a backcountry bodge!

Before arriving in Mongolia, we’d grown a bit road weary and thinking of home, but the time out on the steppe has re-forged the will to wander. I can’t wait to find the next spot to pitch our tent.

 

 

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Edges of Africa – Part II http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/2015/08/17/3504/ Mon, 17 Aug 2015 03:21:24 +0000 http://www.bugsonmyboard.org/?p=3504 After rounding the bottom of Africa, we continued the journey up the east coast.  We found barren deserts, ...Continue Reading]]> After rounding the bottom of Africa, we continued the journey up the east coast.  We found barren deserts, wonders of the earth, a bit of trouble, and some waves to ride in strange places along the way.

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