Saturday, 27 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - Getting Ready

A couple of years ago I did a road trip to the MotoGP in Brno, in the Czech Republic near the Slovakian border. Brno is about 900 miles from London, and the trip was easily done in two days. That set me thinking: If you can do half the width of Europe in two days, how long would it take to do the rest?

Maps are dangerous things. Not least because they make huge distances look small. I sat looking at a map the width of continental Europe, and the distance from Brno to Constanta on the Black Sea coast in Romania didn't look all that far. And then I looked South. Istanbul. Asia. If I could touch both with the fingers from one hand, it must be do-able. Must be.

Enter Steve. One of my idiot friends who tried to get to the Arctic Circle and camp, in February. He knows a thing or two about futile gestures, and once we'd both had the idea of riding to Asia and back only one thing was going to happen.

If you're looking for the tale of four wide-eyed friends getting out of their comfort zone in Eastern Europe and beyond, then skip forward, take your pick, and I hope you enjoy it as much as we did. I'll be honest and say it doesn't really get going til Hungary.

Germany, Austria & into Hungary
The rest of Hungary and Romania 
Bulgaria, first time around
Into Turkey, Asia and back
Bulgaria (again) and Serbia
Montenegro and Bosnia (my favourite section)
Croatia and the long road home

 For the rest, I'll let my last post to the UKRM newsgroup before leaving set the scene.
In a little under 24 hours' time, I'll be meeting Steve, Mark and Simon in Harwich to get on a ferry. If all goes to plan, 16 days later I'll get home.

We don't have any concrete plans, but we do expect to arrive in Istanbul after seven days. I hear Taksim Square is lovely this time of year. As to the rest, with a bit of luck we'll see parts of the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, with a pilgrimage to the KTM factory and the village of Fucking. We should arrive in Romania via Hungary just in time to see a bit of the Red Bull Romaniacs hard enduro. Then we should be able to do a run over the Transfagarasan (Top Gear's best road in the world), across the Danube and dip our toes in the Black Sea on the Bulgarian Coast. And then on to Turkey where we have two days to recover. Then it's back to Bulgaria and into Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, where a local bike club will be waiting to greet us. Then a mad dash across Slovenia and Italy to Bardonecchia, where the Stella Alpina rally involves riding the highest road in the Alps. And then an even madder dash most of the length of France to be home in time for work the next morning.
Just to spice things up, three hours ago my bike was at the dealer with a still-undiagnosed fault. I'm a gambling man. Wish us luck.
We didn't manage all of that, time and distance being what they are, but we did pack a hell of a lot of riding, adventure and expanded horizons into the two weeks that followed.

The plan was hatched at the tail end of 2012, when Steve sent round an email suggesting a trip to Asia. It looked like it was going to be a big trip, and I wasn't entirely sure it was going to come off, but the hardest thing about any trip is getting started. So we all booked overnight crossings on the ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland, a route we've all used before, and from there it was just a matter of sorting things out.

The unlikely lads - Me, Mark, Simon and Steve

To make sure nothing was left to chance, we held a number of planning meetings. These usually started in a pub somewhere in London, moved on to a nearby curry house, and mostly involved talking a lot of bollocks about bears, wolves and landmines. I think the most actual planning we did during one of these sessions was agree, for the nth time, that we were definitely going to try to get to Istanbul, and it'd start with a ferry from Harwich. Good curries though.

Beyond the ferry, everything was pretty much an unknown. We'd all ridden through Germany and Austria before, the others had been to Slovenia, but we knew very little about going further east. The first question was insurance - we were all OK for the EU, but there was the question of cover once outside the union. Enter the mighty Green Card.

Green Card. Not quite as green as the name might suggest

The Green Card scheme is a way for countries that haven't signed up to an EU agreement on motor insurance to recognise policies issued abroad. For us, that meant Turkey, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, plus any other Balkan countries we opted to visit. One quick phone call to each of our insurers and we were sorted, with one exception: I couldn't get cover for Bosnia. Or Macedonia. Or Albania. Or Kosovo. Of these, only Bosnia was a potential problem, as we were all looking forward to going there, and information online about buying insurance at the border was unreliable at best. Nothing for it but to hope for the best and see what'd happen.

Next on the list was an International Driving Permit. Not strictly required for any of the countries we were going to, at least for anyone with a UK photocard driving licence, but handy to have all the same. But the best reason to have one is the document itself.

Licensed to rip up the road in 95 countries

Made from grey card, printed in several languages, and coming in two variants (one for Iraq, Brazil and North Korea, and one for the rest of the world) it looks like nothing so much as a second world war era identity card. An essential addition to any document pack, if only to look like a proper hardy traveller.

Added to this was a new Garmin Zumo 350 satnav, to replace my manky old Zumo 220, and a full set of Michelin maps covering the countries we were going through. Partly as an insurance policy against the satnav failing, partly so I could check the satnav wasn't trying to take us somewhere stupid, but mostly because I just love maps. We were going to be camping, so I bought a new Khyam Highlander, a tent with built-in poles that can be erected in under two minutes, and a dinky Trangia meths-burning stove for making morning coffee and emergency meals.

And that was pretty much it until May, when just six weeks from departure we started to think about accommodation. We were planning to avoid cities and camp most of the time - Steve and Mark would have liked nothing more than to set up tents in a ditch somewhere and fight bears all night, whereas Simon and I were keen to at least have somewhere clean for a shower and a shit - but we all thought it might be an idea to book somewhere to stay in Istanbul. Easily sorted.

We held a few more planning sessions after that but, as usual, they involved beer, curry and talking bollocks and not a lot of actual planning. Attention was mostly focused on getting the bikes ready for the trip. I'd be taking my KTM 990 SMT, which I affectionately refer to as a big orange tractor on stilts. Mark and Steve would both be taking XT660Rs, big Yamaha single-cylinder trail bikes, and Simon had bought a horrible matt black Triumph Tiger 900 from a bloke who'd tried to turn it into a kind of rat bike before selling it on.

Mark and Steve's bikes had seen abuse during the winter and needed a fair bit of TLC. Mark's bike was like Trigger's Broom by the time he'd finished, and Steve's bike sporting new fork bottoms after he'd found one of them cracked through and about to collapse. Simon's speciality was electrical issues - his Tiger was pumping out enough volts to fry the bike and I spent a day chasing round the south coast with a new alternator for him to try and sort the problem. Two more alternators later the problem was still there, and it seemed to be thanks to some "improvements" made by the previous owner tricking the regulator into thinking it was throwing out fewer volts than it really was, but only while the headlight was on.

As to the KTM, it went in for a scheduled service a couple of weeks before the trip, with instructions to look into a running problem I'd been having. I'd had problems with it on and off since I rode it away from the showroom, and the latest was that the bike would occasionally cut out at random, quite violently, and it was starting to get a little annoying. Nothing showed up during the service, and the ECU wasn't logging any faults, but three days before departure things headed downhill, fast. Fortunately the dealer I use (InMoto in Croydon) is run by a decent bunch and they took it in straight away to try and get it sorted in a hurry, under warranty. I spent two days sweating, wondering if I was actually going to have a bike for the trip, until it was fixed less than 24 hours from departure. Austrian electronics, who'd have 'em?

War horse

Come the morning of the trip, I loaded the bike up with panniers, topbox, tankbag and tent, set the satnav to take me to Harwich and hit the road. To work. Because it was Friday morning and I wasn't on holiday yet. But at least the bike seemed to be running OK, and frankly I was fucking excited.

Read on here.


  1. I prefer camping to hotels and pretty much would have been up for the bear fighting. So long as it was Mark and Steve doing the being smeared in each other's excrement thing.

  2. With Mark leaping around the hotel room in his sleep, who needs bears?