A Traveller's Tale - an update
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Here Nathan updates us on what has been going on over the summer as he continues this ongoing saga...
The story starts two years ago when I went speed-dating and fell in love. I should have known better but she was lucky Number Seven and somehow everything just clicked. We got on great, dated, even held hands. Then my Australian visa expired and I thought it wise to return home to England, alone, no choice but to move on.
Only six months later I still hadn't quite managed that, I missed her too much. So one day I quit my job in London and booked a flight back to Sydney the very next week. I didn't tell her I was coming, I thought a surprise was better instead. And that's exactly what she got when she boarded the ferry home from work and saw me sat in her seat. 'What are YOU doing here?' she asked. What could I say but 'I've come back for you.'
We got back together that week.
For the next nine months it was tough. I had to work cash in hand while we investigated all sorts of visa options to help our relationship stick; we even mentioned marriage. In the end though it was no good. Immigration were adamant I had to leave Australia and there was nothing we could do. It was a situation so familiar, though this time things were different, this time we had a plan.
For a while I'd wanted to ride a moped around the world and now was my chance. In two days I packed and planned as best I could and in the remaining 14 days immigration had granted me I rode a 105cc old postman's bike called Dorothy from one side of Australia to the other. From Darwin I caught the boat to East Timor the day my visa expired, rode up through Indonesia across Malaysia and into Thailand. While I was doing all this, Lady Number Seven was making plans to meet me somewhere six months later so we could perhaps get married and even settle down. And that's where, if you were reading this column last academic year, the story was suspended for summer.
Three months on the saga resumes at 20,000 feet in the air. Me and Dorothy are on an aeroplane bound for Kathmandu for no other reason than Burma being too militant to let us ride through. Outside the sky is thunder. A menacing blue-black abyss struck electric by lightening that gives me and my red lady the willies. I sit marvelling at it all. Just thinking. Wondering. Who's really in charge of all this? The lightening, the plane, the clouds, the ground. Why does it all work and how does a metal tube made by a man named Boeing still stay in the sky? This planet of ours really baffles me. And for once, up in this electric sky, I realise that.
Then we land, now in Kathmandu. It's here that trekking groups prepare for Everest and local kids sniff glue. On the corner they stand fluttering like blades of grass in a breeze; stoned, high, trying to sell stuff to send you off the same way. It might just be me but Kathmandu - Nepal in general - just didn't seam settled, the people always on edge, waiting for another riot in the street after the Maoists recently put on the government shoe.
Me though, I made friends with some French folk who flamed my interest in hiking and said wouldn't it be cool to plod the Himalayas. I said yes and off we went, the four of us to the source of a meandering 14 day walk that would take us around a mountain the map calls Annapurna. How marvellous I thought. A new adventure, one giving Dorothy a well earned break and chance for me to use muscles other than the one in my throttle wrist. It sounded so easy, just a stroll.
But after two days I was completely buggered, leaving a note and an empty bed the next morning to say 'sorry guys, I've headed back.' Surrendering; in the company of the French, I'll never live it down. But I realised in those two days that my challenge wasn't to climb a hill or ruin a perfectly good pair of Converse trainers in the process. No, it was to ride my Dorothy home, across the half of the world to where my lady was waiting. I had no energy nor desire to embark on challenges secondary to that. The mountain could wait. My place was back on the bike, heading west.
Only we didn't get very far. Diahorrea in this part of the world is as common as a cold and for the next week it kept my bottom glued to the hotel loo. Fortunately it was one where you could sit not squat so at least my legs were allowed a full recovery and with nothing else to do I sat and read a book; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a document I liked very much until the bit about the author's bike just being just an assembly of metal and bolts. I said this cannot be. My Dorothy is alive, like you and I. She has a soul, a mood, a manner. To compare her to a can opener is to ignore her very essence, to forget what it is that she's achieving on this global adventure. When we met she was retired, her life's work already completed. Now look at her; 3,000 metres up a mountain on an adventure around the world and still going strong. That, I believe, is where the author of this book got it wrong. Bike's do breathe.
But in India's napalm traffic my Dorothy very nearly stopped.
As I arrived in the holy city of Varanasi the mercury already boiling at 46. And that, to someone leaving all their fluids in a Nepalese toilet bowl, wasn't much fun. Nor was the hassle from people trying to sell you all sorts of things. Postcards, tea, drugs, clothes… wood to help the bodies burn down by the river, boat cruises along it to watch the face of the deceased melt more closely. Everything here was for sale, 24 hours a day, seven sodding days of the week. I had a massage from one man who said he'd do it for 20 rupees. When he finished he demanded 250. I said 'fuck you' and flicked him the 20. I'm not normally like that, but it was these tricks and treachery that would make my blood boil from the day I arrived to the day I left almost two months later.
I never intended on staying that long, just a few weeks to pick up visas then on through Pakistan, Iran and into Turkey. That's when the Iranian post-election riots kicked off and their government stopped issuing British people visas. Something about us meddling throughout their history.
Either way it meant we were stuck. To pass through Iran now the only slim chance we had was to enter Pakistan and give it one last shot at the Iranian embassy in Islamabad. They may have had a different view to their colleagues in Delhi and waved us both through, but it was huge gamble. If they said no, me and Dorothy would have been stuck in Pakistan, no visa to carry on nor any choice but to go back. With the Taliban still taking ground in the north and bombs going off in the south, Pakistan really wasn't the place to linger. We had to come up with plan Two.
Posting my predicament online came up with all sorts of alternatives. I could get a boat from Pakistan all the way to Egypt, put Dorothy on another plane and fly from Delhi to either Turkey to the west or Kyrgyzstan to the north, or, many suggested, ride up through Pakistan into China via 4,700 metres Karakorum Highway. The last suggestion sounded real swell, but with China insisting motorcyclists have tour guides and it was going to cost far too much. One man solved this problem by suggesting I try and smuggle Dorothy over the Chinese border by hiring the Han Solo I'd find drinking at the Indian arm of Moss Islay.
It sounded quite romantic, me and Dorothy crawling barb-wired borders below the strafe of Chinese search lights, but to do that would take bollocks far bigger than mine, and with little time to fertilise them, I bit the bullet, made a phonecall home and borrowed the $2200 I'd been quoted for a seven day guided trip though China. I know that's a fat stash of cash and yes, flying to Turkey or sailing to Egypt would have been cheaper, but this is an overland trip, this is Sydney to England by moped, and while over Burma we didn't have a choice, now we do. And so there we go; Plan Two.
Rolling up to the Pakistan border I wished I was religious, at least then I'd have someone to say a little prayer to; someone on my shoulder to have a little word with and say 'please look after me'. Instead it was just me and Dorothy, alone, with only a pocket knife and 7bhp to keep the bullets off our back. I don't mind confessing we were scared. I'd sent my internet login codes to a friend with instructions to send news of demise, wrote a rather apocalyptic group email to everyone else and was genuinely fearing that this was mine and Dot's last ride, especially given the Frenchman yet to reappear having been kidnapped here last month.
But perception, it's a dangerous thing, because with my own eyes I realised Pakistan is a great place, with friendly people living in cities far more developed than I ever imagined. The first night we arrived safely in Lahore with the help of several spectators guided who poured us tea and ran a comb through my hair before sending us on our way. Of course Pakistani hospitality isn't all like that, with some villages, especially in the north, quite open in their loathing of outsiders. One man almost smashed the Coke bottle through his own counter in an attempt to demonstrate just how unwelcome I was in his shop.
For me though Nepal, India and Pakistan were the countries that the trip really came alive. It was a hard slog, one with difficult decisions to be made and all sorts of scoundrels that stood in the way. But it also included the moment when we stood back and went 'holy fuck', we're really doing this, we're really riding this show all the way to England. And that made me and Dorothy proud. For while we still have many miles to journey, we also have many more to look back on and say what a blast, what a ball. We set off from Sydney with nothing; no plan, no clue, no idea, and here we are, having stitched enough of our random rags together to somehow make it this far.
Next stop China. Hope to see you there.