Saturday, 27 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - The Easy Bit

Our first stop on the journey (new readers might want to begin here) would be Harwich, where we'd be taking the overnight ferry to Hook of Holland - 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, loading up, and riding past my office again on the way to the dock. So my trip started with a ride through rush-hour London with luggaeg and a tent across the back. It only adds a couple of minutes to the commute but it does take a bit 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 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 desperately headed for the hard shoulder. Bugger.

The first thing I did was check the two fuel taps. To my relief, I found one was closed, and a few seconds later the engine fired into life. Panic was replaced with unease when I put 18 litres into the 19 litre tank. No warning light meant the new pump didn't have the right sensor, so I was looking at 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, and I could just count miles. I took the chance to buy a spare headlight bulb, just in case, and hit the road again.

Next stop was Brentwood, where I filled up on Proper British Food at a Toby Carvery, before two weeks of foreign muck. 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 helpfully starts before 10pm, so everyone has time to get themselves over the dutch drink-drive limit for the next morning. As I rolled in to the 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 headed for the bar, dumpin stuff in our cabins to dump along 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 drinking 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 breathalysers.

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 unfounded. That was until a couple of hundred yards later, where we were diverted into a car park where Holland's finest were waiting to check everyone's breath was minty-fresh enough. 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.


The ride through the Netherlands was as dull as ever. It's flat, featureless and involves far less hard porn and soft drugs than might be expected. Germany isn't better, when sticking to the Autobahns, offering little more than 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 a thirsty bike with no fuel light, we stuck religiously to stopping every hundred miles or so to fill up, give our bums a rest, and swap pee for coffee.

I knew that once we got past Hungary the fast roads would end, so I was hoping we'd make good progress over the first two days. Ideally to the Austrian border on the first day, with Nuremberg as a fallback, and somewhere near the Romanian border on the second, or at least to Budapest. That meant keeping stops to a minimum, starting early each day, and getting miles done. A plan scuppered when at 5pm we were still a hundred miles short of Nuremberg, sheltering at some services 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 other three 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 headed into the rain to find somewhere to stop for the night.

We ended up at Camping Rangau, near Erlingen, where we scored a large, mostly-waterlogged pitch, with an archipelago of tent-sized islands beween the puddles. Our host let us hang our kit in a hut for the night, to mostly 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.

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 already runnign late, and our next two stops were the most pointless on the, trip, but couldn't be missed. First up was the tiny Austrian village of Fucking, worth it just for the photos. The locals are known for being a bit annoyed by Brits thinking there's something funny about the name, when says more about them than it does about us, so we only stopped long enough to take a couple of snaps 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 were also KTM owners, and we were a stone's throw from Mattighofen, the M in KTM. So it was time to take the bike home to see where it was born. 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 unnecessary 2 hour detour had left us way behind schedule, so we headed straight for the motorway, stopping for fuel and Austrian 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 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 he 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, apparently 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 stopped 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. 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 most countries, this involved buying a sticker that does two jobs. First, it told the authorities you've paid. Second, it gave you something to leave on the bike to impress mere mortals when you get home. For Hungary there was no sticker, rather a vehicle reg being scribbled on a bit of paper, then entered into a computer. While billed as progress, the kid in thought it rather missed the point.

Fully fuelled and with our bikes in the system, we headed for the Hungarian border. Hungary had signed up for Schengen, meaning no immigration checks when entering from other Schengen countries, but hadn't yet taken down the border posts. While the main sign of crossing from Germany to Austria is a change of speed limit, this was the old Iron Curtain, NATO to Warsaw Pact, and still felt like a proper change from one country to another. Huge concrete structures, and ghosts of men in big peaked hats, with bigger guns, demanding to see papers before shooting you on the spot as a traitor. But that was all in the past, and nobody gave us a second glance.

Steve complained he was on the verge of falling asleep while riding, and there was absolutely no chance of us getting to Budapest that night, 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, to be the last of the civilised European states before we got into bandit country. A notion rapidly dispelled a couple of minutes after we left the motorway as we rode past the first working horse and cart. The campsite didn't look great, and we were all feeling ab it edgy, so I picked the nearest campsite my satnav knew and we headed into town to get some 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 the mind 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 and Estonian, so every sign is complete gibberish to foreign 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, guaranteed.

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 the English or German we had to offer, 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 a million mosquitos for company.

Basic, but up to the job

The exhaust on Steve's bike had come apart at some point during the day, so he and Mark set about trying to bodge it back together with tin cans, jubilee clips and 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 whether there was any chance of 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 move on because it's hard to cover miles when everyone's dicking about with their phone, pissing or drinking coffee. Simon was the photographer and our guide to communist eastern Europe. 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.

Several hours later, when we eventually dragged ourselves away from the breakfast table, we loaded up and hit the road. If we weren't at the Romanian border by sundown we'd need to start butchering our schedule, and it already wasn't much more than "be in Istanbul by Friday".

Inevitably, the repairs to Steve's exhaust 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 pointed 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 we were lost was when we crossed the Danube. The directions to the dealer definitely hadn't included Slovakia, so we turned round and headed back to Hungary. Steve was clearly getting a bit frantic because he pulled out into traffic and almost made someone swerve into 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 to add another country to the tally and I'd had to veto it on grounds of time, but I was secretly rather pleased he'd taken us there anyway.

Back in Hungary, we parked up outside a large supermarket while Steve went in search of parts to bodge the exhaust again. While we were waiting, a friendly chap walked over and asked us in clear English where we were from, where we were going, and what on earth we were doing at a Tesco in Komárom. It turned out he was Slovak living in London, back visiting family, and while he was slightly off his patch, with his help some other locals were 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.

Baliga and son, 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, so we jumped at shade and hospitality. 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.

Our host, as well as being a welder of some skill, was a former racer. Among the bikes gathering dust in the garage were a classic Honda race bike, 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. With the tour completed, we headed upstairs for a coffee, made to feel like honoured guests.

Coffee taken, and repairs made, it was time to settle up. The price? Ten quid. Hungary was shaping up to be a pretty friendly place. With the bikes back in working order, 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.