The much-feared Buran wind stirs into life in the north of Siberia, gathers pace on the Mongolian Steppe, and crashes into Kazakhstan. In winter, it is ice laden. In summer, in the now, on broken roads, it whips sand and soil into deadly dust storms.
Because I have no choice I ride half blinded over a hill; a burly SUV overtakes and throws more dust into my eyes.
The deep sand is not gentle with the front wheel under full brake.
To the road bed, pain shooting through my body from ribs broken five weeks earlier. Breathing is stilted; a few short gasps and new pain blossoms from my ankle trapped under a quarter tonne of motorcycle.
I turn my head and see the wheels of a giant Kamaz truck sliding towards me. “Dear God,” I beg, “beam me up.”
It’s the drugs that take up the space.
There was a time, employed as I was as an ambassador of an august international newspaper, coloured pink, when I was provided with an expense account with which to entertain clients. The entertainment was supposedly to persuade the clients to spend their corporate funds on advertising in said organ. Many of the advertisers were bankers in the City of London. Some of the more corpulent entertainees actually and audibly smacked their lips over food and wine thus freely provided, and told stories that the hills in the vineyard that made this wine faced south, or north or somewhere, therefore improving the wine beyond human capacity of description, adjectives or judgement. Thick lips, smack smack, guzzle guzzle, glug glug.
I never heard a geographic or geological discussion over the merits of marijuana or cocaine or other recreational drugs. But then I may not have been listening; I lived for a couple of decades with more than my share of blackouts. No matter the provenance, my sole interest in fine or any kind of wine, alcohol or other recreational stimuli was always the same. More. Now.
But personally, no lips were smacked.
Drugs needed for recreation can be purchased almost anywhere on the road; but the maximum allowable prescribed drugs needed to keep me alive for four months take up a great deal of room. In the days of the brown glass bottle it was much easier to pack, but today the pills are divided by paper, card and plastic the easier to forget and administer in the wrong order. Or time. I’d packed most things two days ago. Clothes, tools, tent and cooking kit. Plus, because I’d read about it, duct tape and nylon ties. The hard-plastic luggage and top-box were brimming and jammed tight. And last night at exactly midnight with nerves hammering and fear enveloping I had emptied and repacked everything. Twice.
Here and now in the morning, my wife and I discuss my toilet habits. She has years of experience taking children on journeys and toileting them before the off. But I’m wondering, smart in my red wax jacket, about two related things. Did I realise that I looked like a Mountie, Canadian RCMP? And would a Mountie’s wife say in a sweet Canadian drawl, to her man high up on his horse, “Hey Honey, have you been to the toilet for a wee?”
No answer comes. To answer my wife I nod my head, a final kiss and loving hug and I’m ready to mount up too.
Normally the prospect of a long ride and new horizons fills me with excitement; any biker knows that too few hours on the road creates a craving for wind in the face, but this time I am somewhat beset by nerves. Is it because the bike is still new to me? The Stelvio is a very large machine, I am physically small, and still learning to ride it with confidence. Or maybe it’s because I have spoken to other riders who have ridden through Mongolia and the thought of riding over trackless deserts on my own is just a little daunting.
But here we are, early on this bright and shiny blue skied morning, birdsong at high volume, and I’m ready to leave.
Helmet on, gloves on. Gloves off, helmet secured, gloves on. In fitted black jeans with kevlar cladding, my leg is swung over the saddle and then sitting tall with the nerves yammering and fear in the pit of the stomach. A final contrived smile to hide the stretching of the fear and rolling off the drive onto the road. Nerves quieting, fear leaving, and, with the acceleration, the thrill of adventure beginning.
To Dover, and brief nauticalia. I was a sailor, and indeed a nuclear submariner, in our good Queen’s Navy almost fifty years ago. So, I prefer the tradition, and sometimes for cost, to cross the English Channel by ship. There is an anticipation and a finality about leaving my Island; crossing the sea, disembarking to touch the soil of a new country and knowing, unmistakably, that I’m finally abroad.
For once I’d got the time right for the Ferry with the wait just thirty minutes; motorcycles are no longer at the front of the queue for the off which is a shame but, well, the advantage was only ever minimal. Boarding. Up the scary clanking metal ramp into this gigantic steel space painted white, blue, and yellow, the occasional patch of rust, and sailors ready to hook up and strap down my motorcycle with me thanking anyone who’d listen that it was dry with no skidding on the deck. It’s the mid-morning ferry from Dover to Calais in France.
Sunshine still abounds, blue sky but a bit of a chill and bluster introduced with the ship rocking lightly in the wind. And usually, at the front on landing, for fear of looking like a laggard or a fool, I ride off at speed. Invariably in the wrong direction.
In fact, the ride to Dortmund was short, about four hundred kilometres, and although I rode through three languages the journey in the countryside was marked only by the general lack of features, other than complying with Continental law by riding on the wrong side of the road. I wasn’t arrested in France for not wearing a DayGlo jacket. Nor, dammit, was I arrested and asked for a breath test with the breathalyser and spare light bulbs in a packet. Dammit because I had panic purchased them, just in case, on the Net three days ago.
There was musical interlude, briefly, in Belgium. The motorcycle was flashing its little yellow dashboard light in such an endearing way that I knew more petrol was required. Into a petrol station, with people, which in Belgium is passingly strange. The previous year I’d found Belgian petrol stations that served petrol, air, oil, coffee, hot croissants and umbrellas with nary a human in sight. Full service; but only slots for cards or cash.
So here I am, card outstretched and the dark haired Belgian girl behind the till asking, in a voice not dissimilar to Ms. Bette Midler, if I want to dance in the moonlight. I am taken aback by such a friendly attitude especially as it is daylight outside and the girl is now singing at the top of her voice. I pay, smile and as I leave the store realise Ms. Midler is also singing at the top of her voice, but inside my helmet. And can be heard, for the accompaniment and joining in, on the outside too. A wave from the till and I smile, riding away, as the ‘Wind beneath my wings’ begins to play over the engine noise