Motorcycle Explorer Issue 17 - Page 59

Cows stand about with yearning in their eyes, waiting to be milked. An old crone, stooped and, as always, dressed all in black, scoops up cow dung with a spade and flings it on a compost heap. Women, their cheeks pressed against the warm flanks of cows as they milk, smile at me as I pass. The metallic hiss-hiss of the warm milk frothing into the bucket blends with other early-morning sounds and the warm smell of cow dung.

Then it is time.

Back at the guesthouse, a friendly cow, tethered to the back of a truck, leans on us as we pack the bikes. The owner scrubs a large, cleanly cut log under a block and tackle attached to a metal frame. He had told us the previous day that he needed the block and tackle for "some business" and both Gareth and I assumed it was to lift the engine out of a car. However, the tethered cow and its desperate neediness sparks a thought: It isn't an engine that is about to be sacrificed to the block and tackle gibbet - it is the cow.

We are sad. It's a friendly cow. But such is life (or death, if you will).

Breakfasted, packed and loaded, we set off into the mountains. Immediately I can feel that my bike is out of sorts. Gareth notices my rear wheel bouncing repeatedly on the stony road. We stop and check the tyre pressures. And then I notice I've blown my monoshock.

It's not terminal. I'll just have to bounce along for the next few thousand kilometres.

How can I best describe the day? Playing?

What did we do? Well, we rode.

It was like four hours of solitary enduro riding - rocky tracks; undulating tracks; muddy, slippery tracks; the mountains and the rivers and the trees our silent companions.

Occasional villages surprise us, tucked away deep in the mountains, picturesque - I am sad to say - in their rural, tumbledown poverty. The beauty of decay. Neat suburban gardens and corner cafes are not interesting to ride past. Here the villagers are clinging to survival; only the very old and the very young and their parents seem to live here. The teenagers, the young men and women, seem mostly absent. They - the old ones left behind - watch us as we pass, a fleeting intrusion into their struggle for existence.

We pass oxen pulling wooden, log-built sleds laden with hay; black and white spotted pigs in the roadway; small, straggly crops of maize; dusty streets; logs cut and stored against the high-altitude cold of winter; hay filling barns to their roofs, forked there by men standing on the top of loaded wagons. Desolate and abandoned houses seem the norm, not the exception. The most vibrant life in these villages seems to be the trees that often cover the road completely, pooling it in shade. High up, the air is cool. Stream water is blue and clear and icy cold. We pass the remains of a glacier left un-melted in a mountain cleft close to the road. The ice is dirty and brown but with traces of the aquamarine blue that characterises old, glacial ice. Outside one small village we meet about twenty men in the road carrying what I at first think is a coffin. Closer, it turns out to be a large black and gilt Madonna and child being ceremonially carried on a wooden bier.