Saturday, 27 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - The Easy Bit

Our first stop on the journey (new readers might want to begin here) was going to be Harwich, where we'd be taking the overnight ferry to Hook of Holland. The ferry's the same one as I used on the trip to Brno a couple of years ago, a cross-channel ferry with a hotel bolted on top.

For some it'd be a fair slog just to get to the channel - Mark had a couple of hundred miles to do from north Wales and set off around lunchtime, Steve was heading straight from work in London, Simon was coming from Brighton. I had a choice between going straight from work, or riding home from the City to Wimbledon, loading up, and then riding past my office again on the way to the dock. So I said goodbye to the doris on the Friday morning and rode through rush-hour London with the bike fully loaded. It only adds a couple of minutes to the commute but it does take a little more commitment when filtering through traffic.

Come 5pm and I had everything handed over at work and it was time to hit the road. The bike seemed to be running OK, with no sign of the problems it'd had until the day before. Or so I thought. Ten miles or so later, in the outside lane of the A13, the engine died and my heart sank. I grabbed the clutch, knocked it into neutral, and flapped my left arm desperately to warn people I was heading for the hard shoulder. Bugger.

The first thing I did was check the fuel taps. The tank on the SMT is an inverted U shape, holding fuel either side of the engine to keep the weight as low down as possible. There's a tap on each side, with a link pipe to the fuel pump, which had been replaced the day before. To my relief, I found the tap on the right side was closed, and a few seconds after opening it the engine fired into life. Panic was replaced with unease when I put 18 litres of unleaded into the 19 litre tank. The low fuel light should have come on when there were 3 litres left, so it looked like the new pump didn't have the right sensor and I was going to have to do a 4500 mile round trip through bandit country with no idea how much fuel was in the tank. Ah well, at least it was running. I took the chance to buy a spare headlight bulb, just in case, and hit the road again.

Next stop was Brentwood, where I knew there was a Toby Carvery, purveyors of roasts to the working classes. I thought this would be a good place to fill myself up on Proper British Food before two weeks of foreign muck. It had the added bonus of being full of Essex wankers straight out of TOWIE (mostly Bobby and Nanny Pat lookalikes), making me all the more eager to leave the country for a bit.

After that it was an easy ride to Harwich where the ferry would be waiting. The boat wasn't due to leave til almost midnight, but loading starts before 10pm to give passengers a chance to drink enough to put them over the dutch drink-drive limit the next morning. As I rolled in to the supermarket petrol station next to the dock, Mark and Simon were just filling up, so we parked up, talked excitedly about wolves, bears and landmines, and waited for Steve to appear. And waited. And waited some more. After a while we got bored and headed for the dock, boarded the ferry, strapped the bikes down and aimed for the bar, stopping off at our cabins to dump stuff on the way. As we were finishing our first pints in the bar, Steve turned up. This was a good sign - if we could all make it to the Essex coast, Asia should be a doddle.

Our trip happened to start the same weekend as the MotoGP race at Assen. This meant there were a fair few bikes on the ferry, more than usual, and I'd been told dutch police would be hanging around the port the next morning with breathalysers. Taking the change of time zone into account, we were effectively going to be riding off the boat well before 7am, so we limited our booze intake to two pints, just to be on the safe side. And a round of large whiskys, because Steve didn't quite believe me about the cops.

Next morning, getting off the ferry took ages, which was just as well because Mark had missed the announcement about heading to the car deck. He eventually appeared and we joined the queue for passport control. No sign of any police other than the usual border checks, it seemed the rumours had been false. That was until a couple of hundred yards later when we were diverted into a car park where Holland's finest were waiting to check everyone had brushed their teeth. Naturally we were OK, but there were several vehicles parked up, presumbly belonging to people who'd tucked a bit more away the night before. But we were fine, so we hit the road, aiming for Germany.


Not much worth reporting about the ride through the Netherlands. There never is - it's flat, featureless and involves far less hard pornography and soft drugs than one might expect. Germany isn't much more interesting either, if you're sticking to the Autobahns. All German motorways really have to offer are roadworks and little vouchers every time you go for a piss, which are usually spent on coffee to ensure another voucher at the next fuel stop. Because we had a long way to go, and I had no fuel light, we stuck religiously to stopping every hundred miles or so to fill up, give our arses a rest and exchange urine for coffee.

I knew that once we got past Hungary the fast roads would end, so I was hoping we'd get a good distance covered on each of the first two days. Ideally we'd make it to the Austrian border on the first day, with Nuremberg as a fallback, and somewhere near the Romanian border on the second, with Budapest as a fallback. That meant keeping stops to a minimum, starting early each day, and getting miles done. So it wasn't ideal when at 5pm or so we were sheltering at some services a hundred miles from Nuremberg in the middle of a storm, dripping wet and no sign of the weather improving. I was game for finding a cheap hotel nearby, getting an early night and making an early start the next day, but was vetoed by the boys' own adventurers who were dead set on spending their first night abroad in a tent. Simon found a nearby campsite on his phone, I punched it into the satnav, and we went to find somewhere to crash for the night.

We ended up at Camping Rangau, near Erlingen, where we scored a large, if slightly waterlogged pitch, with an archipelago of islands beween the puddles big enough for four bikes and four tents. Our host let us hang our kit in a hut for the night, to almost-kinda-sorta dry out, and we finished the night with beer, schnitzels, flick-knives, heavily fortified coffee, and earplugs to block out the noise from the party next door which eventually died down around 4 in the morning.

The next morning we were up early, but not before most of the caravans and motorhomes around us had already made a move. Tents really don't seem that common these days, the trend is very much for mobile homes, to the point that one campsite I looked at in Romania was entirely hard standing, completely unsuited to tents. That's not camping. That's, well, I don't know what it is but it's not bloody camping.

No caption required

We were starting behind schedule, but our first two stops were two of the most important (and yet pointless) on the trip. First up was the tiny Austrian village of Fucking. Worth it just for the photo above, which will be filed away for posterity next to a similar one of me in Wank a couple of years ago. The locals are known for being a bit annoyed by Brits thinking there's something funny about the name, so we stopped only as long as it took to get some photos and buggered off sharpish before anyone appeared with a pitchfork.

There is nothing funny about the name, OK?

Next up was a quick pilgrimage. Mark and Steve also own KTMs, albeit dinky little enduro bikes, and we were near Mattighofen, where they put the M in KTM. So it was time to take the bike home to see where it was born. Alas, it was Sunday, so everything was closed up, but the bike was still running OK and I didn't feel the need to shout at anyone.

Actually the bicycle factory, but shhhh

This ill-advised 70 mile, 2 hour detour, had left us way behind schedule, so we headed straight for the motorway, stopping for fuel and vignettes on the way. And some kind of cannabis drink that Mark bought for a laugh without looking at the ingredients. With no time to lose, we hustled the bikes on towards Hungary, hoping Mark wouldn't pass out on the way. Northeastern Austria is fairly flat compared to the rest of the country, so the scenery wasn't amazing, but the miles clicked down quickly enough until we stopped for fuel at St Poulten.

As we left the services, we were faced with a roundabout with two exits: one signposted for Salzburg, from where we'd just come, and the other for Wien (Vienna) near the Hungarian border. Mark was on point, and at the first roundabout he promptly took the road back towards Germany. He didn't hang about either - for the last 600 miles we'd cruised at a steady 77mph or so, but now Mark took off like a scalded cat. We followed, at least trying to stick together, even if we were going in completely the wrong direction. I was on the quickest bike, so I wound it on, caught up with him after a couple of miles, and gesticulated to suggest that perhaps he might be going the WRONG FUCKING WAY. He waved his arms a bit, trying to tell me that his satnav had gone a bit wonky, and then, rather than slow down to let everyone regroup, sped up. In the distance I saw him take the next exit from the motorway, and assumed he'd stop to wait.

When I got off the sliproad he was nowhere to be seen. Steve and Simon caught up and we had a quick chat to try and work out where he might have gone. Steve was certain Mark's brain had blown another fuse and he'd turned right at the junction, rather than left to rejoin the motorway in the other direction. Simon and I waited while Steve went hunting. After a while he returned alone and we headed for the services we'd just left, in the hope that we'd find Mark waiting. Of course, there was no sign of him, nor was he answering his phone. We cut our losses, sent him a text saying we'd meet him at the Hungarian border, and hit the road again.

Mark, it turned out, had assumed that I was the only one behind him, and had tried to catch up with the others, who he thought were already heading towards Vienna. Chasing someone in front of you can be hard. Chasing someone behind you is downright impossible, as he'd just found out. Fortunately he'd got our message at some point and he was waiting at the last services before the border.

While there, we took the opportunity to buy vignettes for the Hungarian motorway. In more civilised countries, though not ones so civilised that the roads are free, this involves buying a sticker which does two jobs. First, it tells the authorities you've paid. Second, it gives you something to leave on the bike to impress mere mortals when you get home. For Hungary there is no sticker, rather you scribble your vehicle reg on a bit of paper, then it gets entered into a computer. I can understand this is billed as progress but as someone who likes stickers I can say it's no different to the dark ages and whoever dreamed it up has rather missed the point.

Anyway, fully fuelled and with our bikes in the system, we headed for the Hungarian border. Hungary's signed up for the Schengen agreement, meaning there are no longer any immigration checks when entering from other Schengen countries, but hasn't yet taken down the border posts. This was also the border between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, the old Iron Curtain. So crossing from Austria to Hungary, unlike Germany to Austria, where the first sign you've crossed a border is a change of speed limit, it still feels like you're going from one country to another. Big concrete buildings and ghosts of men in massive peaked hats, waving automatic weapons and demanding to see papers before shooting you on the spot as a defector. But all that's all in the past now, so you just drive through slowly without a second glance.

There was absolutely no chance of us getting to Budapest that night, especially with Steve complaining that he was on the verge of falling asleep while riding, so we headed for a campsite we'd found in the nearest major town, Gyor. I was expecting Hungary, having been in the EU for almost a decade now, to be the last of the civilised European states before we got into bandit country. This notion was rapidly dispelled a couple of minutes after we left the motorway as we rode past the first horse and cart. The campsite looked pretty dodgy, and we immediately felt a bit defensive, so I picked the nearest campsite my satnav knew and we headed into town to find a cashpoint to get some Forints, the local currency.

As we rode through town, every head turned to see us pass, and I had visions of being stopped at gunpoint by a gang of locals, mugged and left lying in the gutter while my bike went off into the distance. Complete nonsense, of course, but a bit of paranoia does strange things when you're somewhere you don't know, and it really felt like we were somewhere properly foreign. It doesn't help that Hungarian is an unusual language, related only to Finnish, so every sign is complete gibberish to western eyes. We felt a bit like this every time we entered a new country, and I had to make a conscious effort to lower my defences a bit and not assume everyone was out to get me. Expect the worst and that's what you'll find.

It looks small on the outside. Because it is.

Once we had some cash, we headed for the campsite my satnav was suggesting. This was the Pihenö guesthouse, a small hotel and restaurant with a campsite at the back. We'd not booked, not knowing where we were going to finish up each day, and nobody there spoke either English or German, so after much gesticulating and awkward mumblings on both sides we ended up with a four-bed chalet for the night. Pretty basic, with a separate shared block for showers and toilets, but roughly the same price as the camping pitch the night before. The guesthouse had a ready supply of cold beer and it was impossible to feel lonely with three mates and ten million mosquitos for company.

An ideal spot for dry bumming

The exhaust on Steve's XT had come apart at some point during the day, shearing off at the end of the downpipe, so he and Mark set about trying to bodge it back together with tin cans, jubilee clips and liquid desperation. Meanwhile, Simon and I waged war on the swarm of mosquitos that had made it into the chalet so we didn't get eaten during the night. We rounded off the night with a few more beers, then headed in for some competitive snoring. Everybody won gold.

The next morning we got up, got clean and headed in to the guesthouse to see what the score might be with breakfast. This time we were led round the corner to a dining room with a breakfast buffet laid out and asked, in clear English, "would you like ham and eggs?" Result!

Everyone on a trip has a role to play. Mine was to do a bit of planning, then nag everyone all the time to get a fucking move on because it's hard to cover miles when everyone's dicking about with their phone, pissing or drinking coffee. Steve's was to faff about like an old woman at every opportunity, getting ready at a glacial pace and then complaining he was too tired to ride a bike. Simon was the photographer and purveyor of communist-era nuggets of wisdom. Mark had the most important role of all: boundless enthusiasm for absolutely everything. But that didn't stop him taking on a second: the one who needs to eat nine times a day, and they'd better be proper meals, a Twix won't do.

So several hours later, when we eventually dragged ourselves away from the breakfast table, we loaded up and hit the road. We had to get to the Romanian border by sundown or we were going to have to start changing our schedule, and it didn't really consist of much more than "be in Istanbul in a week".

The wheels started to fall off that wagon when Steve pulled over and announced that his exhaust repair hadn't worked. It was a bit loud, not terrible, but it was in Steve's head and when you're far from home and need to press on the last thing you need is a personal demon. He had a fiddle with his satnav and reckoned he'd found a motor factors in a nearby town, so we followed him off the motorway. The destination turned out to be a franchised main dealer for some brand of car or other, and wasn't much use, but we were directed to a Honda dealer that was, to quote, "second right, at the roundabout, then a bit further along on the right". Again Steve set off in the lead.

The first sign things were going wrong again was when we crossed another border. The directions to the dealer definitely hadn't included entering Slovakia, so we turned round and headed back to Hungary. Steve was clearly getting a bit frantic because he failed to check the traffic properly before doing his U-turn and caused a local woman to swerve and only narrowly miss a lamp-post. Words were exchanged, though fortunately not insurance details, and we headed back across the border. Steve had wanted to go to Slovakia the day before to add another country to the tally and I'd had to veto it on grounds of time, but I was secretly rather pleased we'd ended up there anyway.

Back in Hungary, we parked up outside a large Tesco (every little helps, even in Komarom) while Steve went in search of parts to fix the exhaust again. While we were waiting, a chap walked over and asked us in English where we were from, where we were going, and what on earth we were doing where we were. It turned out he was Slovak living in London, so slightly off his patch, but with a bit of help from some other locals was able to point us back towards the Honda dealer.


Steve went in to try and explain the problem, which elicited that head-scratching, breath-drawing reaction we've all seen from a mechanic a thousand times. What we hadn't seen before was the owner appearing, declaring (in Hungarian, but I can take a hint) that he couldn't do anything about it, but that he knew a man who could. He got in his car, we followed, and he took us to a house in the suburbs where what appeared to be a father and son team surrounded by car parts shot meaningful glances at a mig welder. While Steve got on with the negotiations, Simon and I chatted in broken German to a local on a mobility scooter about the weather, our bikes and anything else our limited vocabulary allowed.

Mr Baliga, we salute you
After giving the exhaust half an hour to cool down (they get rather hot, and my arms have the scars to prove it) they set to work, stopping only to bicker like close family members do. Having declared the job done, we were invited in for coffee. It was hotter than hell outside, and felt like Lucifer himself was stoking the fire, but shade is shade and hospitality is hospitality, and Hungary was shaping up to be a pretty friendly place. Heading round the back, we were led past a large barking dog and down towards a basement. Paranoia came back for a moment, but the chap just wanted to show us what he had downstairs, and I'm not talking about the contents of his underpants.

Our host, as well as being a welder of some skill, was an ex racer. Gathering dust in the garage was a classic Honda race bike, next to a Pan Euro with 250,000 km on the clock and a CB750 with a fair bit of crash damage down one side. Between hand gestures and grunts we gathered that he'd hurt himself quite badly crashing the CB and that'd put paid to his racing days. The rest of the garage was a treasure trove of what looked like old tat to me but kept the older members of our party interested, and with the tour completed we headed upstairs for a coffee. It looked like the finest family china had been brought out for our use and after a quick drink we were back outside to inspect the handiwork.

A visit to a main dealer, a professional repair to an exhaust, a tour of a bike stable and a friendly cup of coffee. The price? Ten quid. I didn't know whether to think we'd lucked out or feel a bit awkward about the state of the local economy. Hungary? You rock.

With the bikes back in fine fettle, it was time to hit the road and go in search of bandits.

Read on here.

1 comment:

  1. Ecellent report mate. Looking forward to reading the rest.