Walking along the bustling cobbled streets of a small town in Western Turkey our attention was suddenly drawn to a large Turk, in uniform, shouting across the busy road to attract our attention. After three weeks on the road we considered ourselves seasoned travellers and knew that he probably wanted to sell us something. We ignored him. He shouted again and we ignored him again. Then we noticed the gun. It wasn’t that so much which stopped us in our tracks as the fact that it was attached to a hand which, in turn, was attached to the now angry Turk. We suddenly realised that, seasoned or not, without a swift attitude change we would soon be dead travellers.
We had left England in the summer of ’86 on two five-year-old BMW R80GSs in an attempt to ride overland to Sydney, raising money for Save the Children and the Down Syndrome Association. The heavily laden BMWs had already shown themselves to be more than capable through Europe. We had wound our way along the banks of the Moselle river in Germany, along the autobahns into Austria and the autostradas into Italy, which bore through the Italian Alps via a series of amazing tunnels down to the Mediterranean Sea.
After hitting the Mediterranean we had taken one of the best coast roads in the world: the Rijeka to Dubrovnik run which dangles its toes in the Adriatic. Apart from an unnerving habit of scraping off the tarmac on some of the tightest corners, the only other things to inhibit rapid progress were the gale force winds that we encountered. The guy with the Moto Guzzi rounded one rock bluff to find three trail bikes parked in the road in front of him for no apparent reason. Hauling the Guzzi to a stop, he whipped in the clutch and started travelling backwards before he realised what was happening. Parking the bikes up later in search of a beer to calm our nerves, a sudden gust lifted one of the BMs off its side stand. The side stand neatly retracted, the gust dropped, followed a second later by the bike. At times, as the road cut into the cliff-face, with a huge drop into the sea on one side and a wind that seemed determined to put us over it, we might have preferred to have been facing that Turk with the handgun.
In Istanbul – dirty, exotic gateway to the East – we camped between the Turkish equivalent of a six-lane highway and a swamp. The lane markings had long since worn away, resulting in a general free-for-all, with people overtaking on the hard shoulder before spotting a gap in the outside lane and diving for it: usual behaviour for bikes and scooters, except these guys were driving articulated trucks! It soon dawned that the only way to handle this, and still retain an option on our next birthday, was to make sure that we were always the fastest-moving things on the road, thus dispensing with the need for rear observations. The general scene could be likened to the northbound M1 leaving London on the very Friday afternoon radio announced an imminent nuclear strike in fifteen minutes time.
In Istanbul the word was that because Maggie (former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) had allowed American F1-11s to take off from British soil and rough-up General Gaddafi (former leader of Libya), so the Iranians weren’t likely to be over-generous with transit visas that summer. But – anything for a laugh – we crossed the Bosphorous River into Asia and rode to Ankara, the capital of Turkey, to find the Iranian embassy’s ‘welcome’ policy in the hands of an illiterate Turk who spoke neither Persian nor English. Ten days later, after trying to persuade the Chinese to settle their differences with Russia to help us help children in need, it finally clicked that we were just wasting our time. Most of Asia being effectively blockaded, there was no alternative but to head south for Syria. One of us, namely Max, who was going to have to claim he was Christian but couldn’t produce the foreskin to prove it, was not altogether thrilled with the prospect. We pushed on regardless.
Heading south-east for the Syrian border, we attempted to cross the huge salt lake Taz Gulu’, a huge expanse of brilliant white. If the initial effect of riding across crystalline washboard served to lift our spirits a little, it had exactly the opposite effect on the bikes. When the surface broke they didn’t stand a chance, for underneath the surface lay the thickest of muds imaginable, eventually glueing the rear wheel to the swinging arm and sucking the Bee-eMs down to their engines. We were just hippos pretending to be gazelles. Knobbly Tyres don’t make trail bikes; heavy GSs drown in mud and severely oversteer in sand.
Riding out of Central Annotolia in the long cool shadows of early morning, we picked up the banks of the Euphrates river which took us down to the Syrian border, the midday heat and some of the meanest, ugliest-looking border guards in the northern hemisphere. And, er, would Max be exposed?
After half an hour ‘examining’ our passports and rummaging through our personals, a particularly nasty character in a peaked cap approached Mark’s bike (Mark’s the Christian with the foreskin to prove it), slammed the passports on the petrol tank and stated (as one would state a basic fact of life, like calling the Pope a Catholic) “Mr Mark David, you are a Jew!” Half expecting to meet Terry Waite (former British Hostage) or make the six o’clock news that evening, Mark somehow managed to utter “Er . . .No, I think you’re mistaken”. After a painfully long silence he turned around and walked away. Meanwhile Max, head buried in tank bag, was trying to stifle an uncontrollable fit of the giggles.
After customs had ripped us off on the exchange rates, claiming they had no idea how much sterling was worth, they led us through the small villages of the surrounding desert to the nearest town, where the border officials unloaded some smuggled carpets before pointing us in the right direction for Aleppo (the largest city in the north of Syria). Nervous at entering Syria, we weren’t sure how to handle the mobs flocking round us as we stopped in the centre of the city.
“Where are you from?” “Well – where would you like us to be from – er England perhaps” we ventured, half expecting to be dragged off the bikes and clubbed to death. (England broke off diplomatic relations shortly after we left, but it wasn’t our fault). Instead of clubbing, lots of handshaking and invitations for coffee followed. Strange people; perhaps they don’t read the papers. When we came to book into a hotel the staff wouldn’t take the stuff we had changed our British pounds into: “You want a room you pay in pounds sterling “Funny they seem to know how much it’s worth now.
Straight, dusty, dry roads took us to Damascus (Syria’s capital) and a second attempt to obtain Iranian visas. Whilst making our way to the Embassy we inadvertently rode into the street where the President was living. BMWs don’t need ABS – it’s truly amazing what two guys in civilian clothes leaping out and levelling sub-machine guns at you head does for the braking performance of an R80 GS. This was not, however, the recommended way of finding out that motorcycles are a favourite tool of the terrorists around these parts. Failing to get an Iranian visa for the second time we headed south yet again, for the Jordanian border, confident that nothing could be worse than the entry into Syria. We were wrong.
They wouldn’t let us out. They told us that our fifteen day visa was only a 72-hour visa, pointing to the faint smudged stamp in Arabic script in our passport. Because of a customs formality our bikes were now trapped in a no-man’s land between Syria and Jordan, preventing us going back to Damascus to correct the visas. The customs chief suggested that we take a taxi to the nearest village where the police chief would be happy to alter our visas for a modest fee. The chief wasn’t there and his subordinate didn’t have the authority to accept a bribe. The officials back at the border telexed Damascus, which never filled anyone with hope, and as night fell we settled down for a dirty weekend on the Syrian border. Unbeknown to us, whilst in the middle of working out where not to go clubbing, the night shift came on duty; after realising we looked fairly comfortable, unconcerned and too stupid to think of offering another bribe, they booted us unceremoniously into Jordan after a mere 12-hours on the border.
Our £15 worth of near- worthless Syrian currency converted into enough Jordanian coins to buy two cups of tea, and an old five pound note, found in a dark corner of Max’s wallet payed for sufficient documentation to allow the bikes into Jordan.
It was now midnight, and riding south without the aid of a map we found ourselves on a twisty mountain road, straining to make out where the desert stopped and the road began in the faint glow dispensed by the BMW headlights.
The desert stopped grudgingly – in Amman, the capital of Jordan, some time before dawn. We spent the next two days toiling under the impression that our hotel was in the north of the city when in actual fact it was in the south.
The city map inflicted on us by the ‘information’ bureau played no part in helping us to realise our mistake. Evidently Jordanians don’t like to give too much away on their maps (until recently they hadn’t been available at all), for fear that the Israeli army would issue job-lots to their tank drivers.
We did however manage to find a British pub where we got friendly with the Embassy staff and, in turn, with two very useful contacts. The first, a Palestinian, brought us a pint and pulled £440 out of his pocket for the charities, The second, an Arab, performed the impossible and obtained two transit visas for Saudi Arabia. Our wheels were rolling East again.
We’d been warned that the Saudis are real sticklers for – or rather, against – drugs and, if they found so much as an aspirin, would hold us on the border for several days while they sent it away for analysis. There was no way we were going to give up our medical drugs, so we stuffed them into a sleeping bag which was then stuffed into another bag which was then stuffed into the spare tyres. Hopefully it wouldn’t look like we’d been hiding them. On arrival at the border everything had to be unloaded. The sleeping bag with the drugs was placed at the far end of the bench. By the time he got to the bag, we were both worn out from trying desperately to act normally. Fortunately the guard became too interested in the details of our journey to pay much attention to what he was doing and the drugs remained where they were. The international drug smugglers were through yet another border, pills intact: into the land of cheap petrol and desperately boring scenery.
We filled up our fuel tanks with fuel that cost less that coca-cola, then found the oil pipeline which crosses the Saudi desert from the Mediterranean to the Gulf. We followed this panoramic jewel east for 1,000 miles without a single bend. The desert it enhances is easy to describe: it is jam-packed full of nothing. The occasional wrecked car, the product of falling asleep whilst admiring the scenery, being the only thing to help keep the eyelids open.
With temperatures reaching 50 degrees centigrade, and the bikes trendy black levers too hot to touch, the engines never missed a beat despite so much heat coming off the cylinder heads that we had to ride with our feet on the crashbars.
After raising some cash for the kids in the Gulf city of Damman, we headed for Qatar. We expected a spot of bother with this decision as our Saudi transit visas were conditional on us exiting Saudi at the Kuwaiti border. Kuwait, however, was a place we had no interest in visiting. Various roadblocks, and government officials along the way, failed to spot the discrepancy, as none of them seemed able to read our passports, which we twigged from their holding the passports upside down and back to front and only realising their error when they got to the photograph. We were joined on the Saudi border by two camels in the back of a pick-up and finally talked our way out by name-dropping a powerful Saudi Sheik who had contributed to the charity to the tune of £1,000. This guy, we claimed, had given us permission to leave by this route. The border guards were reluctant to ring such a big-shot to check out this pack of lies, and let us through.
So somehow we reached Qatar, and a couple of hours later the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). The only trouble we had here was finding the place. Such is the value of land around here that No-man’s land between the two countries is seventy miles wide. The Home Counties of Great Britain it certainly isn’t.
Although Dubai was the scene of some monumental bureaucratic hassle with the Indian Government, (who refused to give us visas for six weeks, and which nearly resulted in Max getting arrested when he became animated with the Indian consular general), it turned out to be a very profitable stay. While members of Parliament back home tried to break the deadlock situation, we got put up free of charge in a five-star hotel and got to know and be known in the bars of Dubai.
A lunchtime drinking session in one bar led to the chance meeting with an amiable Scot in the oil business, whose partner was a member of the Royal Family in the Emirates. We wangled an audience at the palace where the ruler of Sharjah, in a bid to outbid the Sheik of Saudi, donated £2,000 to the charity.
Crossing the Gulf into India, six weeks behind schedule, meant that we were late for a very important date. It was a challenge. We had four days to ride 1500 miles from Bombay (now Mumbai)to Kathmandu on what we assumed were to be the worst roads of the trip. The ride was going to be the ride of our lives!
Will Mad Max and his good buddy Mark curry favour in India? Will the ride be tika-de-boo or will they spend the Trip vindaloo? Who knows, who cares? But catch the next gripping instalment anyway.
Photo Album: https://adobe.ly/3QTpi16