Two weeks to go and preparations are heating up for the ride across Nepal, through Northern India (lovely cup of tea in Darjeeling) and The Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan. My ride will cover most of the length of Nepal, crossing India and a tour in Bhutan before returning to India for final destination. Google map gives the headline route a distance of 2000+km in 45 hours making the average speed of some 45km per hour. Reality will be different, on all accounts! After the earthquake some places may require a bit of negotiating although roads and bridges should generally be open. The trip is set up with the help of Peter Francon at FreeSpirit Adventure. Peter has geared me up for the route, recommended places to visit and stay, introduced local contacts and gave some handy general advice based on local knowledge. Crucially he has also armed me with a bike “made like gun” (!) a Royal Enfield of Indian making together with some necessary basic gear for the bike i.e. pannier bags etc. Royal Enfield is a popular bike in the region and although it is the oldest motorcycle brand manufactured continuously since 1901, it is famous for breaking down (with a bang?!?). It is also relatively simple and hopefully can be fixed on the spot without too much delay. I guess duct tape and some wire should be packed! While preparations otherwise happen in good spirits, a slight shadow is cast by recent, slightly worrying news to be mindful of. These include political restlessness following the new constitution causing local skirmishes in Nepal and the issues between Nepal-India relationship leading to a blockage of transportation from India causing rationing of fuel and cutting off Indian TV in Nepal. If only nations could man up and make up! On Sept 30th the word is that fuel allowance for a motorbike could be as little as 2 liters per day (providing there is fuel!). That would not take me far, although as I would be queuing for the fuel most of the day anyway, I would not have time to go far! That is if I can manage the Nepalese queuing style, which I did not even anticipate learning earlier. As my bike will be in Indian plates, perhaps I should wear a Finnish ice hockey jersey and have a Finnish flag mounted on the bike! I am now following the situation and hoping that skirmishes between the Nepalese ethnic groups will not get any worse or blockade with India not result in further fuel shortages, throwing a spanner in the works. For now, it is all systems go!
Entering West Bengal, India.
Leaving the home region of many of the brave British Gurgha Brigade soldiers in Dharan, Nepal, the plan is to enter West Bengal, India on October 27th. Heading towards the night stop in Bagdogra, India, the distance from Dharan is around 125km. There is however, the border crossing to India, which may take some time. I will be entering India in the District of Darjeeling and this is also the time to prepare myself for a lovely cup of world famous Darjeeling tea. This time the visit to india will be only two days before entering Bhutan. I will return to india from Buthan to Assam during the final leg of the motorcycle tour, riding back to Bagdogra.
Grossly happy in Bhutan.
Bhutan is a remote and tiny Buddhist kingdom with just 750.000 inhabitants. Not only geographically, Bhutan is also isolated by the desire to preserve their unique Buddhist culture, mainly against the western influences. Even the ban on tv and internet was lifted as late as 1999.
Bhutan has a very cautious approach to tourism and in 2014 only 133.480 tourists visited the country. To enter, some pre-planning is required and you must come on an approved travel programme (or be a guest of the government). This means that you need to contact one of many tour guides, who will sort out your itinerary for you.
I have with me my recommended local guide, Karma Wangdi of Bhutan Traditional Holiday, who is experienced with motorbike travelers like myself and has organised all the bookings and arrangements for me and will also be with me along the route.
Most have heard about the Bhutanese measurement of Gross National Happiness (GNH). GNH is again predominantly designed to preserve the buddhist values. The GNH concept has inspired a modern political happiness movement and in July 2011, the United Nations Resolution was adopted unanimously by the General Assembly.
The four pillars of GNH philosophy are (Wikipedia):
- Sustainable development
- Preservation and promotion of cultural values
- Conservation of the natural environment, and
- Establishment of good governance.
My plan is to get happy and enter the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan from India on the 29th of October 2015.
While Belarus might sound a bit daunting with visas, border crossings, paperwork etc, all preparations have run smoothly. Necessary documents include Green Card for the bike – which most touring bikers anyway have – and a Belarus Visa. Getting the Visa was a painless exercise. What one needs is the application, passport photo, proof of personal travel/sickness insurance and an invitation. This on top of your passport. We had invitations from the dealership in Minsk but also after you book your hotel, they can arrange one. I took my documents to the embassy and friendly staff looked the papers over and I got my passport back with the Visa in only a few days. With a few euros extra, one of our party got his visa in just minutes as he could not leave his passport with the embassy. Our friends from Vilnius and Minsk (with HOG you have friends everywhere) had made hotel bookings in both cities, so we were set to go.
Road to Vilnius
A mid-morning ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn. Seven guys, seven Harleys crossing the Gulf of Finland in some 2 hours. And some 2000 fellow passengers. A very popular route these days. Ride to Vilnius is 600+ km and there is really not much to see. Just straight road, a few roadworks and generally a good road surface these days. With an occasional eastern style driver to be mindful of and thousands of trucks. We had a beautiful, sunny day. Temperatures 20c -25c, so it was a very pleasant ride. A little drizzle just before Vilnius did not matter. Our hotel was City Hotel Vilnius and although I have been to fresher places, it was clean and comfortable and really good value at €30 incl. breakfast.
Heading towards Minsk, some 50 bikes from several chapters came together and the procession was led by our Lithuanian friends. Crossing the border was a wind from the past in true soviet style. But clearly everyone knew their role. A lot of paperwork, several stops, another document writen or stamped or handed to the officials. Some with big hats, some with huge hats, some with caps. All in all it took some three hours and we could continue to meet our Minsk chapter friends greeting us.
Ride to Minsk was spectacular. The city skyline is clearly planned to impress from afar. The gate to former Soviet Union we were told.
Sadly my new GoPro failed me at this stage. Sadly no footage.
Golden Autumn in Minsk
This was clearly one of the best organized HOG events I have been to. We were made specially welcome and really taken good care of. Hotel Viktoria was an excellent venue to stay and all events were within easy reach. Particularly as we were taken by bus when not expected to ride ourselves. Friday evening was spent in a fabulous restaurant. Great food, great band, great audience. Really good time was had! The main evening event was on Saturday at a covered stadium. Again another spectacular show with great classic bangs like Uriah Heap and UDO. The main number (!?!) was Garik Sukachev. A new acquaintance to me but clearly well known by the Russian speaking world. Everyone just went wild.
At the time for the Saturday parade, the weather turned damp. With such high spirits among the riders, this could not hold anyone from coming to the parade. Brass band playing and off course tanks lined up at the start. Well, these were for only display at a memorial site where we started from. The event was for everyone in the city and the city centre had bands, market places and other events taking place. Trying to leave the main area was difficult as there were so many families, kids and ladies wanting to have their picture taken with us or on the bike. Good fun was had by everyone! Even president Lukashenko joined the parade and naturally the press covered the story. Also Local tv covered the event and was filming with flying camera drones when we started.
On Sunday it was time to head home after a really great party. Good spirits were needed in pouring rain and 10c temperature leaving Minsk. Another 600+ km later in varying but cool weather reaching Pärnu Estonia it was again 10c but luckily no rain. Heading towards Alexandri guest house and time for sauna! The next morning the final leg to Tallinn and ferry home. Good meal on the ferry, many happy memories richer, tired but happy faces…
Video clips from the ride
We all know that elusive day. The day not found in any calendar but to which you keep postponing good things off to. It is the day you dream about for things that you know make a difference. For too many, Someday is a day which perhaps never comes. Perhaps it never comes to you either, unless you make that day. That elusive Someday. For me, traveling on a motorbike was something I always wanted to do, someday.
I am a “born again biker”, who started on a small bike, got into the daily grind and biking was just not an option just then. But someday, I thought.
I got back on the saddle of a new Harley sportster in England at the turn of the millennium, February 2000 just days before my 40th birthday. Since then I have ridden and owned several bikes and seen some incredible places, near and far. Places I never thought I would, or indeed could, visit. For me, biking is an individual sacred moment, perhaps a bonding experience and often a social event. Once I got my bike, I joined our local Harley Owners Group, aka HOG. HOG is a really friendly group of professional people from different walks of life. It is also the largest motorbike association in the world with some 1,5 million members internationally.
After touring in the UK, my first (of many) HOG rally was in Venice, Italy 2002. That tour took us first to The Circuit de Catalunya for F1 in Barcelona. Great tour through Cote d’Azur and northern Italy. Biking is also a family pastime for me. HOG in particular can be very family oriented and riding with family members is really fun and rewarding.
My wife is usually on the pillion. The pic above is from a St Petersburg rally in Russia. When my two boys turned 16, I took each of them with me for a tour of Europe on the pillion. First to Germany for a beer – legal drinking age in Germany is 16 years vs. my native Finland 18 years. Then across the continent to the alps and beyond. It is always memorable to be stuck in snow at Grossglockner in July or to enjoy the jazz festival in Lugano after a good day’s ride. And all the mountain passes, do not get me started…
Well, I did get started and I will write some more notes. I will also post some videos once I get around to editing them… For the purpose of this blog, in most cases the someday tends to involve traveling on a motorbike, as one might by now guess.
This blog is an attempt to write a journal or at least some notes about some of my biking and bike travel. The purpose is to keep my friends posted during my travel and to encourage everyone to make their biking someday a reality. Don’t be offended, I do this for fun. So can you (someday).
Someday, March 2015 – Myanmar aka Burma.
We set off half past four in the morning in Rayong, south of Bangkok and the day was already long. The lush gardens of Thailand could not be more different than this. Landing to Mandalay in Myanmar was spectacular – the light brown flying sand of the dry season in mid-March covered everything. Where the rivers used to be resembled the recent images from Mars. Only no ice here, but scorching hot dryness. The trip was organised by Severi Virolainen of Mad.Bike with the help of Zach Benoy of Mandalay Motorbike who organised the local bookings, dealt with the authorities, sorted bikes, etc. With these two experienced organisers and riders, things really run smoothly. We also had Zach’s support truck to secure the ride. Our driver was called James. (Yes, really!) Have a look at Severi’s video below and read his blog at Mad.Bike pages. Our group of riders was also a hoot. It is always amazing how bikers, perhaps otherwise very different and who may never have met before, somehow just are united by the shared experience and love of the sport. Severi has written the blog about the tour, so I will just make a few observations. Myanmar is a beautiful country with a very unique feel. We were lucky enough to travel in the cities (Mandalay, Yangon) as well as river beds, mountains, jungle, small villages and untouched beaches. When was the last time you rode a motorcycle next to water on a several miles long empty sandy beach! The influence of religion is very strong and we were fortunate to come across a few buddhist confirmation rituals with beautifully dressed children and adults alike with beautiful make up in a colorfully decorated gatherings. The children go to a temple for a week or so as part of the confirmation ritual. Their heads are shaved in a village feast, which everyone joins. And LOUD!! music. Yes, the music is VERY LOUD! I am surprised they do not all suffer from tinnitus. (Again, they might. I never asked!). Parties, processions and different type of money collection was organized for buddhist pagodas or Buddha images and it was always with LOUD! music pouring from the tannoy. Often people came from really modest wooden huts, which were either on stilts or often with dirt floors in large parts. But they seemed clean and well dressed with nice make up. A very unique make up is the Thanaka powder made from tree bark and cream made from it. Most women, children and mainly young men use it. Due to thanaka, the burmese claim to have the softest and the most beautiful skin of all people. Everyone we met were very friendly and helpful. Even when met with some unsure looks, a smile and a hello would bring the most wonderful smiles on the peoples faces. In some parts of our route, I assume us westerners were quite rarely seen and suddenly we had a larger audience witnessing our beers and crisps. Well, this worked both ways. It is not every day we see young boys coming to a village shop for an ice cream with an elephant on a leash. Or women with traditional tattooed faces. Also Myanmar is quickly developing the trappings of modern life and western influences are visible at places. We stayed in some really nice western style resorts as well as places like our hotel in the Gwa village, where one of the group had to change room due to rats fighting by his ear. I think we covered the spectrum of hotels well. Usually the electricity would be out around 9 or 10 pm when also lights would go out. A torch is good to have at hand. With the torch it was easy to see how the air was thick with dust and particles from coal fires in the houses and wild forest fires. The overwhelming feeling after the tour in Myanmar was that we westerners perhaps got it wrong in one turn. Facing all the adversity, these people certainly did not have a lot of money but they seemed rich in many other ways. People do survive. One peculiarity with Yangon, which is the former capital of Burma, is that one is not allowed to ride a motorcycle in the city. Every other Asian city seems to be packed with motorcycles but not Yangon. Allegedly an army general had had an accident involving a motorcycle and he decided to ban them from the city. Fittingly, we would leave our bikes outside Yangon and end our tour here. Mojitos cost around 75 cents, so we did not need the bikes anyway…
Burma cities, beaches and mountains. Video by Severi Virolainen Mad.Bike