When a student of teacher Rick Blackmore was diagnosed with leukaemia, the rest of his students picked the Teenage Cancer Trust Jersey as their charity of the year. They also came up with a challenge for Rick to undertake in order to raise money. With Rick being a keen motorcyclist, the challenge was set to ride to Mongolia. And to relate to the students, a 125cc VanVan was the bike of choice.
The enormity of riding a small capacity VanVan to Mongolia doesn’t quite sink in until you look at a map, just to double check how far you would have to go. But that’s what Rick Blackmore did after one of his students was diagnosed with leukaemia.
“The trip came about when one of the lads I teach was diagnosed with leukaemia and we started looking for ways to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust Jersey, because kids on the island have to travel to Southampton for treatment. The charity needed money to help kit out a ward for teenagers to receive their treatment.
“I’m a keen motorcyclist, and currently own a number of bikes, including a Suzuki LS650 which I have modified into a bobber, so when we decided to try and raise money, a motorbike-style fundraiser was planned. I teach at a school called Hautlieu, which is pronounced ‘ho-lee-a’, and my students looked for something that rhymed and so destination Mongolia was picked.
“As my students are up to the age of 18, I also wanted to go for a 125, something that they could relate to. It was between the VanVan and a few others, but in the end we picked the VanVan due it its robustness and reliability, and ease of maintenance.”
With the amount of miles that would be covered and the amount of countries that would be passed through, a lot of planning was needed in advance. However, Rick admits that he probably didn’t plan as much as he should.
“I did plan, but probably not quite as thoroughly as I should have done. I had maps and a GPS that would take me as far as Ukraine. I had a look at the routes and got the inoculations and visas that I required, but some of the visas needed to be in place at least three months in advance.
“I planned to go through France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine and into Russia, then head down towards the Caspian Sea, cross into Kazakhstan on the shore, cross into Siberia through the mountains to the West of Mongolia, then through the Gobi Desert and find Ulaanbaatar. But that was about it, and then I just set off really. I would actually miss Slovakia and ended up going through Poland instead!”
Despite the admission of slightly rushed planning, Rick’s journey still gave him plenty of experiences and memories, taking in spectacular places and meeting new people along the way.
“A few friends actually rode with me to the port to see me off, with three continuing on with me to Paris. The next day I set off to head across the border to Germany, and one friend rode with me the 50 miles out of Paris before turning for home. It was a great send off, but from then on I was on my own.
“One of the scariest experiences was on the way to Stuttgart; I ended up on the Autobahn in the dark, on a fully loaded 125, doing 50mph. I found this quite hairy as it was the first time I’d been on an Autobahn and things were flying past at incredible speeds. I stayed in the slow lane just thinking, ‘I’ve got to get off this motorway’. Then another one joined from the right and I was stuck in the middle thinking, I’m going to die before the journey even starts. I got off as quickly as possible and stayed in a motel.
“After Germany I headed to the Czech Republic and camped in the grounds of a castle before registering for the Mongol Rally. I also declined to ride the VanVan over the top of someone in a Strongest Man competition, then headed for Slovakia, ending up in Poland.
“From there it was into Ukraine where the alphabet changed and I ended up eating a lot of soup; it seemed to be the easiest thing to translate. It was difficult going from here too, with poor road conditions and masses of traffic. But fortunately a friend of mine in Jersey had contacted a bikers’ club in Kiev where they met me and took me to a popular bikers’ haunt where I think I lost a day and a half of memories! But they were extremely friendly. They also warned about going into Kazakhstan as there were no services and very few fuel stations. They recommended skirting round and staying in Russia.
“I headed off towards Russia and made it to the border a few days later. I found the Russian people extremely friendly and the younger generation could speak very good English. But again I ate a lot of soup! Although in some places I could point at pictures.
“As well as meeting some great people, I also saw some great places too. I visited a place that sounded like it had come straight from a Disney film called Astrakhan. From there I crossed into Kazakhstan, with locals warning about poor roads, poverty and guns readily available . But the border guards were very friendly and allowed me to ride right to the front of the queue, being on a bike.
“It was here that I realised how tough this leg of the journey was going to be. The road surface ran out and I was often travelling less than 100 miles a day on sand or loose shale. There was hardly any asphalt for the first few days. I rode in the ruts created by large trucks, but I worried about where to pitch my tent as the trucks often picked their own path.
“But it’s a stunning country with all different types of weather, large birds of prey flew overhead, wild horses crossed my path and camels seemed oblivious to me passing by, along with some really friendly people.
“At a petrol station the guard took me in out of the cold and rain, fed me, gave me coffee before showing me the right direction to head in, while a taxi driver let me stay at his house one night. Another day two people stopped in a car and in broken English explained they were bikers and took me to their club house and a bath house so I could shower. All their members turned up with food and drink and they let me sleep on their sofa.
“From there it was into Siberia and camping in the mountains. I didn’t realise how close to the snow line I would be in August. The police were friendly, waving me through road blocks and check points, but at the border it was a little harder to negotiate my way through. But after a night sleeping on concrete and a small bribe I was into Mongolia at last.
“After some time in the Gobi Desert, the last 300 miles into Ulaanbaatar were back on asphalt, although of varying quality. I had booked a flight home a few days earlier, and then got lost in the desert, so as a result it took 15 hour days to make it to Ulaanbaatar in time to make the flight.”
While the VanVan has earned a reputation as a robust 125, the miles and conditions were harsh on the bike, but Rick would still recommend it as a fun, retro and reliable bike.
“The headlight finally rattled loose in Mongolia after days and days riding the dried ruts of the trucks that cross the desert, but I managed to repair it. And apart from one puncture, the bike behaved impeccably, even after falling off 11 times.”
To make it to Mongolia, Rick made a few modifications to the VanVan, before donating it to charity on arrival and flying home.
“I got quite attached to the VanVan. Geoff and Owen at my local Suzuki dealership, Bikers Jersey, gave me a great deal on spare parts and also let me spend a day with their mechanic who showed me how to make emergency repairs, should I need any. A friend soldered USB plugs to my handlebars so I could charge electrical items and I had heavy duty chain and sprockets fitted. The art teacher at the school designed and made holsters for my four, one and a half litre fuel bottles. I stuck the big windscreen on it and I was off.
“The plan was, once I made it to Ulaanbaatar, to hand the bike to a local charity there to be auctioned off. There was a fair amount of interest when I handed it over, but I didn’t stay to find how much money it raised. But I have this romantic vision of somebody riding around Mongolia herding their animals on it.”
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