WEST DORSET TO THE WAKHAN CORRIDOR. AND BEYOND…….
NICK: June 2017. I walk into my local bike workshop in Bridport, W.Dorset, where a very well used Vespa is undergoing an MOT. Mod cons include a stylish Samarkand tapestry seat cover. A pleasant young woman in her mid 20s collects. As she rides off, Clive (proprietor) tells me: ‘That’s Emma, she went from Wotton Fitzpaine to Ulan Bator. Via the Wakhan Corridor. On the Vespa. On her own. You two should have a chat.’
I took his advice. Emma had just got back: she’d been away for two years. This is her story.
EMMA: Adventure exposes you to chance, to the potential which unplanned events can generate: you can choose how you respond. I don’t necessarily welcome being stuck on a track in the desert 300km from the nearest known human settlement, but I try and embrace new scenarios. The need to experience them was part of the reason for going.
I did it on a scooter because I had one, and just thought – let’s do this.
I also learned that situations always change. Once you recognise this, you know that at some point things will swing around again, that is the nature of adventure. Safe in that knowledge, you might as well stop worrying and start enjoying yourself. It’s very easy to overthink things.
I’m still amazed at the sheer amount of stuff people take with them even on short European trips. All that baggage. Often attached to big capacity adventure bikes, which I’m sure are great – but you can get very destination focussed, and maybe that misses the point. I learned that what you really need when you reach the back end of beyond is a simple motor and light weight. And bigger wheels!
I did learn basic maintenance en route but for a very long time my mechanical ignorance was absolute. On the other hand, I looked at things going wrong as an opportunity for meeting people. You learn about your own resources – and how resourceful other people can be.
As helpful as other bikers I met on the road were, I still don’t regard myself as being in the tribe, but if the term is defined by forming a close relationship with a machine… that definitely happened. To the extent that the Vespa ended up being called Gretel. Don’t ask.
As soon as I left school I was gone. To Southern India: next stop the ocean. Did it on a pittance, stayed in Ashrams, lots of crazies, third eye stuff, you know the score. I was 17. That trip lasted 9 months and it got better and better. It gave me a taste for traveling by scoot: mine was a cheap buy and got me a long way. I sold it on before I left.
Back in the UK I bought the Vespa and did a French trip during a vacation: I rode Gretel to Paris the day I picked her up. A year later I rode to a party in Poland and then made for the Alps, ending up in Croatia. I just camped out, sofa surfing whenever possible. I was buzzing when I got back for the final year of uni, which by comparison was…. every year I’d wanted to leave. But I stayed the distance. Just.
Once uni was done and dusted I decided to ride back to India, and that idea was the genesis of the big trip, although the plan changed in the making. I was with someone at the time and it didn’t work out: a week later I was on the ferry. I would have done it anyway, I was getting itchy feet, but the ending of one thing morphed into the beginning of something else. I was 24 years old and I couldn’t wait.
England, France, Belgium, Holland: I wanted to see some firends there, and apart from riding to India that was the only plan. So: Belgium again, Germany, Austria, Gross Glockner pass, Slovenia, Croatia, Monte Negro, Albania – where surreally I found myself in the middle of a Vespa rally – Greece, Turkey. Major crash in Istanbul; then Georgia (in Tbilisi there was a break out from the zoo, Tigers roaming rooftops), Azerbaijan, cargo ship across the Caspian to Khazakstan, into the Kazakh desert. Two more deserts in Uzbekistan, 60 degrees, then Samarkand, an incredible contrast to the wilderness of the approach, a city of arches, domes and golden vaults. Then Tajikistan and…..
Click on an image
The Wakhan Corridor bisects the Hindu Kush (a gorgeous place in its own right), the Karakoram range and the Himalayas: simply breathtaking. At the southern end it also divides Tajikistan from Afghanistan, and is as notorious for its supposed danger as its beauty. The corridor itself was pretty much rubble and landslide. It accounted for Gretel’s sub frame and topbox. Eventually someone turned up in a 4 x 4 and they agreed to take the box on to the next town, 200km up the road. At that point I had no clothes beyond what I was wearing, no luggage, no spare fuel. Everything was gone but the Vespa was super light. I loved it. I looped back up to the Pamir Highway which has sections of tarmac, so you have a decent surface and mind blowing scenery. Every so often the tarmac turns into a trail, but it’s still pretty relaxed compared with the Wakhan. Word somehow got round that a girl had done the Wakhan on a Vespa, other bikers were astonished but totally supportive.
I was still without luggage – no camping gear – when the weather seriously deteriorated. The last stretch into Murghab was in the dark, with the heavens open, I couldn’t see anything. But I felt ecstatic. The Pamir is the second highest vehicle pass in the world, and a combination of as astonishing landscape, the solitude and altitude (4,700m) contributed to the elation.
Gretel on the other hand felt pretty challenged; there was a terrible smell coming from the battery …… Sure enough the next day we weren’t going anywhere. You couldn’t get a new battery but people in low spend areas all over the world are brilliant at making good, bodging. Assisted by a tupperware container, someone managed to restore the battery. Reunited with the back box, we headed from Tajikistan into Krygyzstan. By now China was within reach: but the script was about to undergo revision…..
It was becoming obvious that some big decisions had to be made. I was running out of dosh, Gretel need extended TLC and autumn had arrived, with snow waiting in the wings. I’d wanted to take the Karakoram highway route to India which meant crossing the Chinese border. And taking your own vehicle into China is problematic and very expensive, much more so than I’d realised. Either way I had to find a job. I was headed for the capital, Bishkek – I’d been told that there was an art school there, and that I might be able to do some teachig: I’d emailed them in advance. 30km outside Bishkek Gretel died comprehensively: major top end issues.
I think the local college was surprised when the supply teacher turned up fresh from the UK on ropey scooter being towed by another bike. They couldn’t understand why I hadn’t arrived on a plane. That set the tone. It just didn’t work out. Somehow I found out that there was a teaching vacancy in Mongolia. That was the nearest prospect of employment. The problem was that Ulan Bator is in the opposite direction to India, and around 2,300 miles from Bishkek – across some of the most inhospitable territory on the planet, and winter was coming. I decided to go for it. I got a Russian visa, got all the documentation together – and then got mugged. Someone snatched my bag after a party. And everything was in that bag…. I gave chase but to no avail. I woke up the next day to the reality no passport, no visas and no money. And by that time I also had confirmation that a job was waiting for me in UB.
In the end, courtesy of an emergency travel document and endless communication with various authorities, I flew to Ulan Bator via Heathrow, picking up a passport en route. There was no other way: the alternative was going home and staying there. I wasn’t ready for that. Gretel stayed in Bishkek for a rest and some TLC courtesy of a nice couple who had let me camp in their garden. They accommodated her over the winter, the plan being to pick her up and continue in the spring.
Click to enlarge… Em’s road art
I was flying straight to a job I was already a month late for: it was head down to work over the winter. Which wasn’t easy: Ulan Bator felt disconnected from the wilderness surrounding it. On the other hand I could rest up. At this point picking up Gretel and heading for India after the winter was still the plan. And then I had a relationship with a nice English accountant, as you do, and decided to put India on hold, pick up Gretel and ride back to Mongolia…..
What actually happened was that Gretel’s engine exploded outside Almaty, which is the first stop post Bishkek en route back – its actually over the border in Kazakhstan. The top end was lunched again. This time I bought a second hand Vespa motor off ebay, and had it to sent to Clive (see intro) who stripped it and shipped the required parts out to Igor, his equivalent in Almaty. There are some wonderful lakes around Bishkek, and the delay allowed me to explore them. During the wait I hooked up with two crazy Slovak guys riding 1950s Jawas. They were headed for Mongolia. We decided to join up once Gretel had been repaired using the top end Clive had sorted.
The three of did the UB trip together. Because I was with two guys, both of whom could repair their bikes in the dark and therefore nurture Gretel as required, it was less chancy. On the other hand there were more machines to drag out of rivers….
We went through the Altai mountains (recommended) and entered Mongolia, which included a stretch of the Gobi. No roads in the accepted sense of the word, obviously, just rubble and sand. Lots of sand. But also rivers: up to five crossings a day. You can imagine…. scooter wheels aren’t made to cope with rivers and sand, it’s obvious really, but we managed. It was a laugh, really.
We had a couple of paper maps and I had a compass, but we still ended up completely lost, off piste in the Mongolian steppe. Imagine a grass field which goes on forever with no borders. We found traces of tracks often enough to give us clues, but I’m not talking trails or drover’s roads. Nothing as formal as that. If you come from China or Siberia you hit UB on tarmac. Western Mongolia is different….. the sense of space is overwhelming and you are very exposed to the elements. We just kept heading east.
This would unquestionably have been the sketchiest part of the whole trip if I’d been on my own. Had also I done so at the onset of winter, which was the original plan….. who knows? The mugging saved me some pretty hard times: like I said, situations always change.
I stayed in UB for a while, working, and it was there I adopted Molly the (Mongolian) collie. She was in a bad way, and I behaved like an archetypal westerner: got involved, got her cleaned up, adopted her. Less typically, I decided to take her back to England on the Vespa, a 13,000 km journey, the bulk of which was crossing Russia. We left UB at the end of April this year: trials determined that the best way of bringing Molly the dog along was as a semi enclosed pillion (see pix). She was excellent.
Siberia headed west
Russia is almost incomprehensibly vast, even the post USSR lite version we have today. Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world, and ticks all the boxes: deepest, clearest, oldest, None of which mattered when we got there as it was frozen – you could drive trucks across. The colour and light were amazing. On the down side the weather was horrendous and in some ways the journey across Russia was the most challenging part of the trip. I was on a trucker’s route and slept in trucker motels, but when I did stop off in towns and needed to ask questions, people were very reluctant to engage. Eventually you’d find someone helpful but I have to be honest, the general vibe wasn’t great. Near Omsk both Molly and me got bitten by some kind of infectious tick. This entailed vet and hospital visits, the latter involving random groups of people wandering in and administering jabs in my bum alternating with requests to examine my breasts. Molly fared little better! Annoying and demeaning rather than serious, but there you go. Gretel suffered no such indignities and was faultless on the long run home from UB.
Paperwork involved in getting Molly into the EU was minimal and for once we had a border crossing without too much aggravation. Latvia is a memory of lake and forest and sun, incredibly welcome after Russia. We then undertook a short European tour: Poland, Czeckoslovakia, Austria.We seemed to be heading south: the Alps were beckoning and I decided to take cross into the Dolomites on small back road passes. Europe seemed so easy and beautiful – but crowded. The Aosta Valley was fabulous and we headed for Mt.Blanc en route for the channel.
NICK: Talking to Emma confirmed something I suspected from the outset. The internal journey is every bit as important: your head, and therefore your attitude determines your whole approach. The ability to handle things with equanimity is priceless on the road, and maybe that involves letting go of a lot of baggage, metaphorically and literally. Emma Trenchard has this quality in spades.
I didn’t ask her why she was driven to keep moving, because the motive seems less important than the experience. Or maybe that’s motive enough.