Bye bye Betty

An unexpected glitch causes our motorbike correspondent to make some changes in her round-the-world journey…

As I ride out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on a little 125 cc Honda Wave I am thinking many things. The first is that if you had told me four months ago when this trip began that I would end up in Asia I would have laughed. My thoughts on the subject were that as much as I love Betty, riding her through jungles would be hell. As well, if you had told me I would sell my BMW F 650 (affectionately named Betty) and use the cash to buy a Honda Wave I might have been tempted to throw a throat punch in your general direction. I may be just over five feet tall, but it’s five feet of pure, unadulterated anger.

The gods of motorcycle travel however are a mischievous bunch. Together they have a collective sick sense of humor. If you want to make them laugh, you make plans that involve your bike. If you want to test just how powerful small gods can be, you write a newspaper column telling everyone your plans. You may then find your plans changing rather quickly.

The gods of motorcycle travel however are a mischievous bunch…If you want to make them laugh, you make plans that involve your bike.

For us, it began with the discovery that German motorcycles are not allowed in South Korea. This was somewhat shocking because the German had no problems entering six years ago. In fact, that is why we had planned to ship from there to the Americas to begin with. The quotes out of Korea were significantly cheaper than from Vladivostok, Russia. In Korea we could put our bikes in a shared container. In Russia we each needed to pay for an entire container.

It turns out the German was a lucky winner in a game of chance. Only two countries are not allowed to take their vehicles into Korea: Croatia and Germany. Half the customs officials there do not even know this. However, the other half do. A Croatian we met on the side of the road in Mongolia explained to us from personal experience what happens when you are greeted with an official who actually does know the law. Your bike is put on a bonded truck, taken to the port in Busan, and shipped out from there. The good news is you can tell them where to ship it. The bad news is the obscene price tag that is put on it.

A shipping nightmare

We had a second plan: shipping our bikes straight out of Vladivostok and onwards to Chile. At $6000 US for the container we hoped we could find other bikers on the same route. But no one wanted to go to South America. A number wanted to go to South East Asia, but that was one route I was firmly against. Even if we could arrange the necessary customs documents and visas, the idea of Betty down in the mud in temperatures of 40 plus degrees did not appeal to me. South East Asia would be awesome but on a much smaller bike.

But as the estimates began to come in for getting the bikes out of Russia or Mongolia we gradually came to the conclusion that the shipping costs were much higher than the bikes were worth. This was compounded by the simple fact that once the trip was over my time with Betty would be as well. After my crash in Mongolia there was no way my motorcycle would even pass the next biannual inspection. Sure, she ran fine. But her front was held together by plastic ties and the light sent out a beam at a funny angle. We never (ok, rarely) ride at night anyway, but try explaining that to a German safety inspector. Their sense of humor is legendary, as is their receptivity to rule bending (note sarcasm). It’s a country which dips into crisis when the bus is two minutes late. Betty would not pass.

We were stuck. It reminded me again just how much motorcycle travel is like life.

But if we were going to try selling a funny-looking front end attached to an otherwise great bike, this is where Mongolia would prove to be an unexpected boon. No one cared about the funny front – they had seen dirtier patch jobs, and they cared more about how it ran. If we were going to sell our bikes (as opposed to scrapping them and selling the parts) this was the country to do it in. That, coupled with the extremely relaxed laws on importing and selling. We briefly entertained the idea of going through China, but it just seemed likely to prove a bureaucratic (and slightly illegal) nightmare.

We were stuck. It reminded me again just how much motorcycle travel is like life. You need to set a goal, have an idea what you want, but be open and flexible along the way. It is hard to know which line you are walking – is this a flight of escapism? Or is this a dream you are working to make into reality? If it is your dream, how much do you give before you realize it is not going to work? At what point do you say enough is enough? Do you give up, or do you just find another way?

Not about to give up

We faced two options. Go home, or sell the bikes and buy new ones in South East Asia or New Zealand. Neither of us felt like we were ready to go home, and yet neither of us wanted to stick to the idea of South America if it meant that three months later we’d discover our trip was over due because we’d spent a year’s travel budget on shipping our bikes there. It’s one thing to say the trip “feels” over; it’s another thing entirely to see it sink because of financial costs.

We were Bangkok-bound anyway: the plan was to spend three weeks there with my parents as the bikes shipped from Korea to South America. So we decided to look into the possibility of buying little bikes there. With the sale from our BMWs we could buy new smaller ones, and still spend less than if we shipped the bikes. Then come spring, we could fly to the US and continue the trip from there, swapping one continent (South America) for another (North America). We would lose our Argentinean Asado but we would gain curries sent from culinary heaven. Malaysia for bike buying it was!

We would lose our Argentinean Asado but we would gain curries sent from culinary heaven.

When we went to buy the bikes the dealer suggested I get a scooter. I took this to mean that because I was a girl I should get a scooter, and I became quite indignant. I had just ridden my 650 GS across Europe and into Mongolia; I could handle this little Wave scooter motorcycle hybrid (Wikipedia insists it is a small motorcycle, but the thing is semi automatic – there is no clutch!). Malaysia however, follows the British rules of the road. This meant that as I pulled out of the dealership and headed towards the highway I was balancing riding on the opposite side of the road (I kept thinking those transport trucks were coming AT me until I realized we were in fact in separate lanes) with the fact that now I gear down instead of up (that made for a couple of painful crunches as I meant to go to third and instead went back to second).

As I struggled with my new bike, a sari-wearing old lady burned past me on her Wave, gray hair flying in the wind, and it drove home to me that our game plan really has changed. And there are definitely worse ways to chase summer than five to six months motorcycling Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia. Stay tuned as we discover how our decision turns out…

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