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Riding Dorothy!

12th October 2010

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Life can lead you to some funny places if you let it. Like your last day at uni when you're contemplating your future and wondering where it all goes from here. So many different directions you could take. So many opportunities and fears. I was the same, never quite sure what I should be doing, and making some wrong turns along the way. Until one day, somehow, I found myself in Australia with a visa that was about to expire and a strange idea to ride a motorbike all the way home to England. For reasons of adventure, for reasons of escape, for reasons of wanting to undertake a terrific test that didn't involve any decisions, except for the one to set off that day.

Nathan Millward

The bike I would be riding was a 105cc second-hand Honda called Dorothy. Dorothy could only do 40mph and that meant with only two weeks to be out the country I would have to ride the 3,000 mile from Sydney to Darwin almost non-stop if I was to catch the boat to East Timor in time. The documentation to do something like this is a little fiddly, but worth every bead of sweat when you see your first Outback sunrise. It's incredible, playing David Gray on your iPod as you ride across it at 5am. Then you meet some Aborigines and some Joe Mangels and some backpackers in wagons they've rented and you remember why you decided to go there on a working holiday visa in the first place. Good times!

We made it to Darwin with a day to spare and off Dot sailed on a cargo boat, while I flew overhead, to Dili, the capital of East Timor, a place on the news for all the wrong reasons. I'd never been to Asia before and what I found was a city in ruins, the UN all around, Australian soldiers in the street. But these places are never as bad as they seem, and slowly you adjust, I had to at least, because I was going to ride a tiny motorbike along the jungle roads, across the rest of Indonesia, in a pair of Converse high-tops and floral board shorts. Apart from Bali, Indonesia is an untouched wilderness. The people scream 'hey mister' and hassle you wherever you go. That's why I started camping, out in the wild, across Java and Sumatra, a cheap Kmart tent and the rain that fell at night.

Then to Malaysia, which was a nightmare to get to. Across the Strait of Malacca there are no vehicle ferries, meaning Dot quite literally had to sail on a banana boat, being held hostage on the other side until I paid the captain more money. I was indifferent to Malaysia. It was nice enough but a bit bland after Indonesia. Thailand on the other hand I immediately loved. I can see why so many people travel there, though I didn't think much to Phuket where all the sex tourists go. I spent more time in Bangkok, a great city, especially on a motorbike which you can race around flat out, then north to Chiang Mai, a jungle region where the mountains grow, staying in wooden shacks, eating phad thai, meeting the great, generous, smiling people of Thailand.

By now me and Dorothy had been on the road for three months and ridden 8,000 miles. I was loving the challenge, and the simplicity of it. Never having to question what I was doing with my life, I just got up, and rode, all day, and sometimes all night. The only problem was Burma, or Myanmar as it's now known. You can't ride through it, meaning you either have to go up and over through China, or over it in an aeroplane. Surprisingly the second option is cheaper, and that was important given that I was being financed by Mastercard and Visa. We flew from Bangkok to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. What a crazy place! Politically unsettled, almost medieval in its spirit. It wasn't my favourite country, kids on corners sniffing glue. But it was fascinating to see. Everest on the horizon. Snow and rock all around.

Then down to India. Bloody hell. Riding in India is like being on the dodgems, everyone aiming for you, lorries, trucks, cows, bikes, everything is a threat.

Roasting hot too, almost fifty degrees. I went to Varanasi and watched the bodies burn by the river Ganges and in a rooftop hostel with people from all over the world. This is why we travel, at least that's what I think - the people we meet, not the sights we see. Some of them loved India. Some hated it. I did more of the latter but I think that's the way you get after many months on the road. I became less tolerant, not more. Especially in Delhi where you can't drop your guard for a minute, even taking a taxi you'll be scammed. That's good in a way, it makes you feel most alive. There's none of that numbness that gets you back in the real world.

Pakistan surprised me because it was so very different to India. The people more respectful of personal space, and friendlier. I liked it. Though a Frenchman had been kidnapped the week before me and Dorothy arrived, which made me worry for my safety, but soon you just don't care. I loved the danger, even the threat. Truth is you have to be prepared for the worst or else you'd never cross the border. On a campsite in Islamabad I was guarded by soldiers with machine guns, armed police give you escorts on the road. My original plan was to exit Pakistan to the west, into Iran and then Turkey. But as I couldn't get an Iranian visa I had to go up and over Afghanistan instead of beneath it. And that meant paying a fortune to take a foreign vehicle into China.

The road from Pakistan takes you over the Himalayas, along the Karakorum Highway, peaking at almost 5,000 metres. That's great altitude for man and machine but somehow Dot made it, sprottling up the steep hills in first gear for hours on end, in the snow, in the freezing cold, with a banging headache. Until we hit the top and freewheeled down into China, the soldiers checking my laptop, insisting I rode with a guide. Sadly I was only there 7 days but I'd like to go back and see more of China. The people are lovely, the food great, and it still feels largely untouched. That's also true of Kyrgyzstan, the country we entered next on our passage through Central Asia.

The country sits below Kazakhstan and is an incredibly pretty place. Nomads live in tents in the wilderness, there are beautiful lakes and a growing tourist industry, no doubt vexed by the country's recent ethnic tension. But wait for it to settle and then if you want somewhere off the beaten track, to hike, to explore, go there because it's an interesting, post Soviet world. In Bishkek, the capital, stay at Sabrybeck's Guesthouse. It's got a kitchen table around which backpackers from all over the world sit and drink tea while sharing their stories. But don't go to Kazakhstan, there really is nothing there, just an endless landscape of dry grassy scrub and villages that look like Borat's, but people friendly, just as they are across the rest of the world.

It had taken me eight months and 19,000 miles to get this far. Man and machine were both knackered, she was leaking oil, I was worn out. But we were on the final push. We had ridden across the world at 40mph, on a whim, to escape, and we had escaped, and seen some amazing countries, met some amazing people, now the horrible realisation that it was all about to come to an end. Stop. We all have to stop. We can't run for ever. This would be my last stand. Through Russia and Ukraine and Poland, riding at a terrific pace, not showering or changing clothes for weeks on end. Just riding for the love of it. Then the EU, and the German autobahn. Just surviving, hanging on in there, sleeping by the roadside in bushes and a tent with a missing pole.

But me and Dot had made it, we'd ridden across the world in nine months and 23,000 miles in one pair of Converse boots. And we were pooped. Now to get a job!

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