Tag Archives: motorcycle

Indonesia, China, Mongolia, and the Trans-Siberian

I’ve got a new adventure on the horizon, but before I introduce that I suppose I should try and sum up my last one. I would normally have done this while I was traveling and would have broken it up into 2 or 3 blog posts, but as almost a year has passed I am going to condense it into one post. Which means many details and observations will have to be left out, but suffice it to say, those details made their mark on my mind and soul and as always worked to shape my understanding of our world and my identity as it relates to it

Last year there was the Philippines on Two Wheels (I actually managed to get a post out on that that you can read here), from there I flew to Indonesia, where of course I bought another little motorcycle named Indie that I would use for the next 2.5 months to explore the country. I flew solo for a while but after one month was craving some company. There are not many people I know at my age that I could call on to quit their job and fly halfway around the world to jump on the back of a motorcycle and head off into the unknown. Well, by “not many” I really mean there is ONE person…and so it was that “Team Bala” was reunited

A throwback to old times…Bala, Magdalena, and me in the Pamir Mountains near the Afghan border, 2014

We hitched rides on fishing boats to uninhabited islands where we camped on beaches, exploring coral reefs, searching for sea stars by day and shooting stars by night.

One of several tiny uninhabited islands we briefly called home

We spent several days diving around the Komodo Islands…then from 40 meters below sea level one week to 3725m (12,225ft) above on the summit of Mt. Rinjani the next week.  

Sunrise summit of Mt. Rinjani

New Friends…..some great guys who opened their homes to me and helped me to buy Indie

We reunited with old friends and

made new ones.

We absorbed Indonesian culture and hospitality.

 

Then there was a “visa hunting” mission that landed us in Hong Kong. The Great Wall of China has many faces, and the one that is known as the Chinese Immigration Department turned out out to be a tough one to scale.

But after one rejected application (based on the fact that our passports showed that we had visited Tajikistan), and after 10 days of zub-zero air conditioning and forced entry into shopping malls, with visas in hand we crossed into China, the country where our paths first crossed 4 years before. But this time we headed to Xinjiang province, also known as East Turkestan, where the muslim Uighur people live. 

Tien-Shen Mountains, Xinjiang

Imagine a country (it was a country, East Turkestan, before China annexed it in 1949) that borders….get ready for it….Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, India, Tibet, and China….imagine the cultural overspill and mix of history, AND…that there is almost zero tourism. A forgotten corner of the world that no-one seems to talk about or know that it exists. We wanted to find out what’s going on there, and to reconnected with our Silk Road roots that had been planted years before when we began our journey through central Asia on our Royal Enfield motorcycle. 

Thanks to an amazing couchsurfing host (thanks Steve!) we got our hands on a motorcycle for 5 days to explore the Tien-Shen Mountains

No Idea what that says, but it looks cool 🙂

We were pleasantly surprised to see many of the same foods in xinjiang as

Lagman with hand pulled noodles

we saw years before in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan…we ate handmade pulled noodles (Lagman), fresh nan flatbread, samsas, dumplings, “Big Plate Chicken”, and lamb kebab.

We were shocked and appalled at the oppression and stifling security presence in the region, which makes Tibet look like a playground. It’s shameful how the Chinese government is treating the Uighurs.

 

We visited dozens of amazing ruins still standing 1000 years after the glory days of trade along this route

We suffered through oppressive desert temperatures and bundled up in the warmest clothes we had to cross snow covered mountain passes. We rode across massive grassy plains, through lush mountain terrain and climbed up huge sand dunes  – taking in an extremely diverse landscape

One of our campsites in the Tien-Shen mountains

Much of Xinjiang is covered in desert landscape

We probably went through an average of 6-10 security checks each day. Want to visit a market? Metal detector and passport. Want to get gas? Facial recognition scan and car search. Want to board a train? Four security checks

Kashgar animal market

each with Xray and a retina scan.

We visited an animal market outside of Kashgar, where animals are bought and traded in the same way they have been doing for centuries

We were whisked around town (Korla) by a father and son who were also part of the team that helped organize a motorcycle for us. Despite not being able to communicate with each other, we were treated to dinner (there was no way they would allow us to pay), shown all the sites of the city, had drinks at a bar, and were dropped back at our hotel (after they helped us arrange our train for the next day). Hospitality 🙂

We visited lively markets where you can buy anything from old shoes to live scorpions or dried frogs by the kilo.

We watched as Uighur master artisans made beautiful copper cookware and teapots or hand carved bowls.

We shared the shade of mulberry trees with old bearded Uighur men – men under the age of 60 are forbidden to grow facial hair.

From town to town we either arrived just in time to see the an amazing Uighur old town before it was destroyed by the Government, or we arrived too late and the deed had already been done – a systematic ploy to erase Uighur culture and replace it with Han Chinese.

The beautiful Uighur old town building in the town of Korla has most likely already been demolished since we were there

I was surrounded by 8 armed police officers, questioned, and had my camera searched after one of them thought I was taking a picture of them (I wasn’t).

We entered centuries old mosques, considered holy and important to the local Uighurs but that young Uighurs are forbidden to enter by the Chinese government.

We ate dinner at 11pm. There is only one time zone in China, so Kashgar, despite being 5,500km (3,400 miles) from the other side of the country, is on the same time zone.

Noodle maker, East Turkestan (Xinjiang) China

From Xinjiang we made our way to Beijing where we began the journey home. True to our favorite style of travel we decided that flying would be too easy, the best way to arrive is overland, to see that borders mean nothing, that cultures, tradition and history shape who we are, not the passport we hold. So after about 4 weeks in China, we got on a train and headed to the nearest border.

We would travel the entire length of the Trans-Siberian railway and beyond…all the way to Barcelona by train from Beijing. Roughly 250 hours gliding along tracks crossing deserts, steppes, mountains, taiga and border after border. But there were stops along the way.

The most memorable was a one month stopover in Mongolia, where of course we bought a motorcycle. Most overland travelers arrive in Mongolia from Europe riding one-up (no passenger) on their 1200cc state of the art BMW adventure series motorcycles, or their 1300cc badass KTMs to explore the dirt tracks that crisscross the steppe. We on the other hand threw down 450€ for a used 150cc Chinese made bike. His name was Khan and together we conquered the Mongolian steppe….our way.

We covered 5,000 kilometers together, much of it offroad, riding two-up loaded with camping gear on our little machine. The most sparsely populated country in the world, it is easy to feel like a speck of dust blowing across an endless grassland with a sky above that looms so expansive it seems like it could swallow you up.

In our previous travels, a big part of the challenge was always to find a safe and comfortable place to camp. In Mongolia that means stopping wherever you are whenever you feel like it and putting up your tent. 95% of the time that means you would be kilometers away from another living soul, aside from perhaps some curious goats or yaks.

We also got a glimpse at Mongolian culture through the fortuitous and coincidental fact that we were there during the most exciting time of year in Mongolia, the Nadan Festival, where nomads from every corner of the steppe flock to the nearest town or outpost to show their skills in archery, horse riding, wrestling, and knuckle-bone throwing. Yes, knuckle bone throwing, but it’s really more of a flick than a throw 😉

We sold Khan, boarded the train again and headed to Siberia. Some days spent walking the shores of the great Baikal lake (which holds ⅕ of all the world’s fresh water…yes it’s true), camping along the way and keeping our eyes out for fresh water seals.

Train passing by our campsite as the sun sets over Lake Baikal

From there we made several stops, a day here a couple days there, in places like Tomsk, and Kazan where we noticed hints of culture and traditions that we had observed years ago while riding across “The Stans” which had obviously spilled across borders, or rather borders had been draw around them.  And of course there were trains trains trains. We did several jaunts that took us 30 or even 35 hours consistently on one train before our next destination.

We finally arrived in Moscow, the end of the Trans-Siberian route, but not for us. As we had decided that it would be too strange to board a plane or a bus after traveling so far by train, we continued on clickety clack clickety clack clickety clack….one station after another, with stops in Warsaw, and Zurich before reaching Barcelona in the middle of August, flooded with tourists and sunshine.

Costa Brava, just North of Barcelona

And that was that. I had departed on that journey in January, expecting to be home in 4 months. Seven months later and a few more stamps in my passport I was back home.

The trip looked something like this:

The blue part was all done by train

Soon the planning would begin for the next adventure. Which has now arrived at my doorstep.

More to come.

Want to see more photos?

Here are links to some albums with lots more photos from the trip (some with commentary)

Indonesia

Hong Kong

China / East Turkestan

Mongolia

Siberia and the home-stretch

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This morning I woke up in New Delhi. I have been living here for over a month now. India is everywhere around me, its in the smell of sweaty people packed into a congested metro train, in the sound of a deranged and never-ending symphony of car horns, in the street food, the smiles of the kids, the traffic, and the colors of womans sari’s. I work as a volunteer for an NGO that runs some free schools in one of the larger slums of Delhi. But as usual, the weeks since my last report, since my motorcycle trip through Southern Europe, have been full of stories, new places, old and new friends. What have I been up to in the last seven weeks? Take a look…..

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I rode a bike across London Bridge.

I watched a cow languidly eating curried vegetables from a plate while standing in the middle of congested traffic.I was the top of a human pyramid on an abandoned train track/city park in lower Manahattan.

I reunited with old friends and family in New York. We laughed like idiots, we drank too much, stayed up too late, slept too late, and ate like pigs.

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I admired the fact that bellbottom pants seem to have survived the 70’s in India.

In New York I saw the first of the four “Sunflowers” paintings that Van Gogh painted in Paris.

I marveled at the amount of trash people throw onto the train tracks and platforms in the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANew York City subways.

I marveled at the absolutely spotless train tracks and platforms in the New Delhi metro stations.

In London I saw the 3rd of the four “Sunflowers” paintings by Van Gough.

I spent many days in the slums of New Delhi admiring how happy and friendly people seem to be, despite the human waste that surrounds their homes, the 12 people they share their single floor with, the millions of flies that never leave you alone, and the fact that the government seems to ignore them.

I ate a dessert called “Arctic Fox Poo” with one of my dear and close friend.

I watched a four year old barefoot girl with knotted hair and hands and face black with dirt do cartwheels and backflips between cars at a red light in Delhi. She then came to the rickshaw I was in, stared right into my eyes, and made the motion of hand to mouth, asking for food or money. I know it’s the worst thing I could do…to give her money, but that girl, who looks into your clear western eyes, at your backpack that she knows contains a camera worth more than her home or more than what she was purchased for…she doesn’t know all the reasons why you don’t reach into your pocket. How can she accept that I can’t pull out and give her a 10 Rupee note, worth about 8 cents? What is going through her mind as she looks at me and I smile and shake my head silently mouthing the hindi words for “Im sorry”. I have never made peace with this situation. (If you don’t know the reasons why you never give money to street children click here)

I deftly snuck into The Museum of Natural History in London. I was quite proud of my

Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum

stealthy abilities and the money that I had saved.

I became an Indian….almost. I am an official Indian resident complete with documents.

I watched a sunset from an airplane that lasted 6 hours.

Thirty minutes after sneaking into The Museum of Natural History, I discovered that admission to all museums in London, including that one, is free.

At a busy pedestrian area in Union Square, I wrote out a short inspirational message and left it in a wooden box for someone to find. Someone did find it and then they found me. They wrote me a long message that gave me goosebumbs to read, this is one sentence from it: “You do not know me, but you’ve brought magic into my life…I hope you find yourself blessed with a journey and that you are the hero of that journey.”

With my old friend Guri in Delhi

I met an old friend in Delhi who I haven’t seen in 3 years. We met 6 years ago in  Hollywood, coincidentally he was in Delhi visiting family and saw from Facebook that I was there too.

I saw someone slip, quite theatrically, on a banana peel.

I have spent countless hours in Delhi searching for my Rocinante…the trusty motorcycle I will buy that will take me through India and 20 other countries on my drive back to Spain. Still no bike…

In other news…I received word from my friend in Marseilles…with is help, my old motorcycle Billie Jean was sold at a fair price…the end of an era and the beginning of a new one….Thanks Szymon!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I ate Pizza in New York, Fish and Chips in London, and Dahl in India.

I smelled things walking through the streets of Delhi more powerful and intense than I have ever smelled before. Sometimes pleasant, sometimes not.

I went fishing in Long Island Sound on a boat  with one of my oldest friends. The only thing we caught was a buzz from the beer we were drinking.

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I saw the bones of a 180 year old 20 meter long dinosaur.INDIA-51

I researched and created an “Old Delhi Foodie Walk”. A walking tour that shows tourists the best of Delhi food culture in the “Old Delhi” neighborhood. The proceeds from the people who take the tour benefit the slum schools run by the NGO I work with. I have given the tour to 4 groups, so far no complaints.

I had a picnic in Central Park for the first time in my life when there were leaves on the trees and I was in short sleeves…despite the fact that I lived in New York for 8 months.

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My second day in Delhi I came down with a serious case of Delhi Belly. I didn’t eat anything for 4 days and didn’t fully recover for almost 10. Those first days in Delhi, laying sick in a cockroach infested hotel room that was costing me $4.50 a night, I wondered with fear, knowing I was to be in India another 6 months, if I would ever be able to look at Indian food and curry again.

I rode a bike around South Manhatten a Polish artist and filmmaker who now resides in Barcelona.

After having made a full recovery, sans antibiotics, from my Delhi Belly, I began drinking ¼ of a cup of tap water every day to build up immunity. Now I eat anything, even some things my local Indian friends think I’m crazy to eat…and I am officially in love with Indian food.

I stayed with a guy who grew up in a conservative Muslim family in Northern India, moved to the US at 18, discovered alcohol and parties, became an atheist and a successful banker earning a very good living. At 36 he felt the call to return to his Indian roots. He quit his job moved back to India and started a co-op to help farmers in rural Kashmir.

I got my international motorcycle license.INDIA-29

I learned about “The double lives of India”. How an ultra-conservative culture brimming with cultural and religious rules and expectations leads people to lie to family and loved ones.

I drank beers with some Muslim guys. They said their wives have no idea they drink. Telling them is simply not an option…their marriage and entire family would be lost forever. They said don’t feel that the rules of a religion that they are only passive believers in, should dictate their lives….they also said they lie to their wives because they love them, and they don’t want to lose them, and I believe them.

I stayed with a guy who, pressured by his Hindu family, pursued a coveted degree in engineering and afterward scored a dream job as an engineer in Delhi. After a death in his family he re-evaluated his life, quite his job, and decided to go back to school to be what HE always wanted to be…a Biologist. he is in his second year. He’s happy now. But his family still thinks he goes to his engineering job every day.

Tomorrow I go look at another motorcycle…could be the one…

I feel I am standing on the edge of a great new adventure, about to dive in.

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