Overland Women Riders: Rachel Balm

[Intro_Women_ riders]

motorcycle Mongolia

Rachel describes herself as “Determined, Tenacious (read Stubborn!), “A Tryer”” and someone who is “pretty crap at getting up early, knowing how to fix a bike, or knowing which direction I’m going in.” Despite this, (or maybe because of it!) she always attempts whatever challenge is thrown her way. Including getting on a bike and riding off in the general direction of Mongolia without any previous riding experience outside of her motorcycle training course!

She has an extensive list of countries she has traveled to including Tanzania, Malawi, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and through England, France, Germany, Austria, Czech, Hungary, Romania, Moldovia, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia on her motorcycle.

Her interview gives great insights onto why if your dream is to ride then you should let nothing stand in your way. It is also full of the wisdom I wish someone had passed onto me when I first started planning my first big trip!

You can follow Rachel’s blog at Travel Expeditions.

Rachel on her bike black and white

What did you start riding a bike?

I completed my CBT in November 2010. I started lessons for the big bike test in March 2011, I passed September 2011. I didn’t ride again until May 2012, it wasn’t until May that I had bought a bike and it was fixed and ready to ride. Right up until the night before departure it was being worked on by my dad. So I guess I started riding my bike the day I left for the trip.

How did you decide to go on an overland motorcycle trip?

I don’t know if I did! I don’t really think I made a decision until the day we actually left. Before that I never really 100% fully believed it would happen until it did. So the decision was not that hard. It was only a decision to try something new. I learnt to ride with the idea of the trip in the back of my mind, but until I passed I knew I couldn’t properly comprehend it. The rest just happened a day at a time. In fact that was how it was throughout the whole trip. My confidence evolved over time. Before the trip I didn’t have any experience and I didn’t know the first thing about bike mechanics or off road riding… So although I made the decision to leave my job and go, the reality of doing it didn’t become conceivable until the day I left and each day thereafter.

motorcycle missing tires

What advice would you give a newbie rider planning on their first trip?

– Just go! I didn’t know the answers to what I am about to say below before I left, so although I offer this advice, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have every box ticked. Just leave and everything will work itself out. If I had known what was in store I might of considered covering less distance, or taking more time. However I’m glad I didn’t have hindsight. Surprises and the unknown are more fun. Luckily it worked out for me!

– Don’t think about it too much. Don’t worry about the stuff you can’t control. You know when you know. If you’ve got the confidence to go then you’re 99% there. It’s a cliché but take each day as it comes. I had to think about getting to the next service station or getting to Dover but never about Mongolia. If you don’t like it you can always turn around.

rachel looking back

– Think about what you want from a trip. Ask yourself – Do I want to ride every day, with maybe only one day off a week covering large distances. Or do I want to focus on a smaller geographic area and take it more leisurely. Also are you comfortable with all terrains, what is the terrain like where you are planning on going. Having said all of that, I didn’t know the answers before I went and I can only identify what I like now because I have actually experienced it.

– Don’t think you have to ride across the other side of the world or cover huge distances to have a trip of a lifetime. Although we rode 10,000 miles to Mongolia, I think you can get as much from a 3,000 journey around the UK or Europe. Our trip was fast paced, we had visa deadlines to meet and therefore we had to achieve certain distances everyday. In Russia, this meant riding for 400-500 km a day. If you don’t have strict deadlines to meet you suddenly create a different pace for yourself.

First Day of motorcycle trip

– Travel light. Most bikers we met were sensible with their packing because they were experienced and they knew what the essentials were. However we also met bikers who were over-packed, which subsequently affected their stability on the bike. You if go from doing a ‘backpacker’ style trip to a motorbike trip, remember you do not need 5 t-shirts.

– Maybe know how to do the basics of mechanics. But, having said that I didn’t know much at all! So at least get a friend or your dad (someone who knows) to pack you the tools you may need and basic spares. Even if you don’t know how to use all of the tools people along the way will always help you out, even when you least expect it! Or there is Youtube.

What do you know now that you wish you had known then?

Nothing, it might of put me off!

Rachel on motorcycle

What was your best experience?

I had too many to just say one. Riding from Colchester to Dover on day 1 because it was the furthest I had ever ridden. It was scary and so exciting at the same time!

Couchsurfing and being supported by all of the wonderful people that we met who fed us, gave us a bed for the night and who saved us when our bikes and us needed some TLC.

Riding into Ulanbaatar, Mongolia on our last full day of riding. Everything seemed to be against us getting there safety. Sideward rain and thunder and lighting met us as we rode in an open valley and I started to hear an interesting noise coming from my bike (i thought, please not now)!

Selling our motorbikes in Ulanbaatar, Mongolia was an unique experience. We stood outside the biggest department store in the city with our bikes holding ‘for sale’ signs. At one point we had people arguing over the bikes.

The amazing landscapes – the Kazakh steppe is breathtaking. Vast, quiet, remote, glowing orange, yellow and red.

Rachel and her bike

How about the worst one?

Again, there is never just one! And the worse turn into the most memorable experiences.

My chain snapped on my bike just as we passed the Russian border. The bike slowed to a halt, Tom (my boyfriend) was ahead, he had overtaken a couple of vehicles and so I was sure he hadn’t seen. Shit i thought! I tried to call him, knowing that he would notice and come back at some point. Funnily enough I had checked the chain days previous and thought I should tighten it. In that moment I was annoyed, hot and bothered, tired and thought that this was the end of it. Fortunately it wasn’t, I had spare links and the kindness of a local who stopped to assist.

On paper this should be a bad experience, however it turned out to be one of the most memorable days of the trip. We accidentally rode to a local Russian/Kazakh border, ‘local’ being the significant word here. Not for internationals might of made it clearer to us. It was 9pm and the officials point blank refused us. As a result we had to ride 800km over the next two days to get to the correct border crossing. This riding was some of the hardest of the trip. However because of this we got to stay in Kazakhstan another two nights, we rode to the nearest village where a family greeted us into their home for the night. They couldn’t of been more hospitable. We were fed, watered and put to bed. Showering outside with the animals was a highlight!

Riding to the Amarbayasgalant Monastery in Mongolia. On the way I fell of the bike and broke the starter cable, brake light cable and later the back brake pedal. I was shaken up. We were days away from our final destination and now I was messing up the bike. The days preceding it compounded the emotion, I cried, feeling annoyed and tired. Fortunately we were traveling with a new friend who with his knowledge and creativity fixed the issues and got the bike up and running again which saw it through to the finish line! A low followed by a big high!

Your favorite thing about overland motorcycle travel?

Your bike becomes your friend and accomplice. Its the machine which gets you places, it treats you well most of the time, and in return you want to look after it. Most mornings I loved getting back on it to see where it would take me.

The bike

Stopping at the end of the day, tired from a days riding but feeling satisfied from what I had witnessed and feeling relieved that we had arrived safety.

Getting better and more confident as each day passed. Overcoming the fears which I felt at home before I left.

What is the longest you have gone without a shower?

5 (ish!) days. To the point when you can start to smell yourself.

Did you have a supportive environment or did people tell you were crazy and that you would be better off at home worrying about a career and a family? How did that influence you (or did it)?

I quote my dad when he said at the dinner table…”this is the worse idea you have ever had”! I think my mum shared these sentiments. I don’t blame him, it was probably was, but it was also the biggest challenge and adventure that I had ever had. It was frosty for a while and the trip wasn’t spoken about much at home, but now I know they are proud of me.

Most people’s reactions were similar, are you crazy, what about this or that! But when you know, you know and I was up for giving it a go. Listen to your intuition and instincts!

curves on a romanian mountain


What was your favorite place to visit?

Kazakhstan. It is beautiful. The polar opposite to all of the feelings and misconceptions which I had prior to leaving. Before I went I was scared of going there but also I was the most excited about this country. The people we met valued the best, most important things in life such as a good hearty feast, being in the company of family and friends, copious amounts of vodka and the outdoors and its beauty. The people we met whole heartily opened their homes and their lives to us. I want to go back!

Which ancient place would you like to go?

Ancient Great Britain, Greece or Italy would be amazing to see wouldn’t it. I can imagine being sat in the Coliseum as it was hundreds of years ago cheering on with the crowds.

What will your first thought be when you had learned that you won a lottery?

I have work projects in mind which I would probably do more quickly because of the greater disposable income (and maybe less perceived risk), and I would help my family and friends achieve the things they want to do, if investment is required.

I would give to charities who can demonstrate a return on their investment. To name one of a few which I would support (whom I am a trustee of) – www.buildingmalawi.com. We build sustainable infrastructure in Malawi including schools, libraries, community areas and sport facilities for local communities.

If you were a god what would you do to the world?

I am reading Osho’s ‘Intuition’ book at the moment, so I would try and help people realize and listen to their instincts and intuitions. So rather than repress their desires and ambitions, they do everything in their power to make them happen.

Help people to be more receptive to each other, and not to be closed and defensive to people, their ideas, ambitions and successes. Everyone is capable of achieving what they want. Even the poorest man on the street. People exist to help people, not to put up barriers. The only barriers that exist are those that people put up themselves and to others.

Motorcycle Mongolia

You are a female overland motorcycle traveller? You have an interesting story to tell? You want to inspire other travellers? This is your chance. Please drop us an email or leave a comment, we have a series of questions that we would send you to fill out, and of course links, pictures, etc. are welcome! Thanks and safe travels!
Sherrie

About Sherrie

Sherrie was born and raised in Newfoundland, has her home base in Germany, and at any given time can be found just about anywhere in the world. Addicted to books, travel, chocolate and motorcycles, a perfect day for her is riding her bike followed by drinking good coffee and reading a good book or writing one.

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