Reporting from: All over the world
Local Contact: Tiffany Coates
How Tiffany got started
Having grown up as an Army brat, I’ve always been a keen traveler and done a lot of backpacking. One day I announced to my best friend Becky, ”Next year I fancy going to India,” to which she responded that she wanted to go as well. We quickly decided we’d go together, and instead of flying we’d travel overland so that we wouldn’t miss out on the experience of seeing all the fascinating countries in between. And then one of us—we can’t remember which one, but it was probably Becky as she’s more impulsive than me—said “Let’s go by motorbike” which seemed like a great idea.
We quickly put together a plan of how we would manage this, bearing in mind neither of us had a motorbike, a license or any knowledge of how to ride one. I had senior status, as I used to go out with a guy who rode a bike, and although I had been strictly limited to the pillion [passenger] seat, I knew I loved the thrill of being on two wheels.
We immediately booked lessons, which consisted of a five-day crash course of intensive instruction on 125 cc bikes and a test on the final day. Getting a driving license in England is quite different from the States; the test is so strict and difficult that barely half of those trying pass at their first attempt. We were under pressure, but concentrated hard, and at the end of the five days both passed at the first attempt.
Armed with our licenses, we then started to tell people about our plan: We just needed to buy a bike and then we’d ride it to India. Maybe we were naïve, but I like to think it was optimism that carried us forward. We asked bike-riding friends what model we should take, having already decided that we would ride two up on one bike in order to keep things simple and cheaper. Various discussions ensued and, having weighed up the pros and cons, it was decided that a BMW GS would fit the bill of carrying the two of us and our luggage the 7,000 miles to India.
Initially we were concerned (and rightly so) that through our inexperience with engines and all things mechanical we might end up with a vehicle that wouldn’t make it even as far as the fabled white cliffs of Dover. But a mechanic friend stepped in and told us about a bike he knew that was up for sale—an R80GS, five years old and with 24,000 miles on the clock. He assured us the engine was sound and so we agreed to buy the bike without even seeing it. When we went to collect it we were in for a shock – it was shiny and clean and sounded good, but we hadn’t realized quite how big it would be. Our five days of rider training had been on 125cc bikes that were mere sewing machines compared to this 800cc beast that weighed over 500 lbs.
Never mind, we’d committed to it. We spent the next few days trying to master such a large and powerful bike, both dropping it several times. After four days we were proclaimed safe enough to start riding on the roads (we’d been confined to a car park up to this point.) Right from the start we rode with both of us on the bike, learning from each other’s mistakes as they happened and also, crucially for us, encouraging each other. Two months after we got the bike, we set off across Europe and into the great unknown, although still somewhat wobbly at junctions and corners. The expedition to India took five months and was to prove life-changing for us both, the thrills and numerous spills giving us an unforgettable journey that we never realized would to be so fun.
Tell us about your recent trip to Tibet
That first foray into the world of motorcycle travel was fourteen years ago, and since then I’ve crossed every continent. (Becky settled down with the man of her dreams at the end of the second continent.) For me, exploring the world by motorcycle is the ultimate travelling experience: A 360° view of the scenery around me combined with the ability to go wherever I want, not to mention the warm welcomes I have received in every country. Whenever I finish a journey there always seem to be more destinations that reach out and beckon me onward: Cape Town, Chile, Alaska, Outer Mongolia, Timbuctoo and Labrador.
In 2011 I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ride to Tibet. GlobeBusters asked me to work for them as an expedition guide with a group of 12 motorcyclists, leading them from London to Tibet and onto Beijing, China. I jumped at the opportunity to visit this legendary country—one that is difficult to visit—nestled amongst the Himalayas and home to the world’s highest mountain. It’s a place that is not only difficult to reach but also notoriously problematic to get permission to enter.
I was not disappointed; after two months of traveling we reached our destination to find that Tibet is a breathtakingly beautiful country with mountains stretching in every direction, stunning vistas, and a landscape like no other. Although the backdrop is stunning, life is hard, dominated by the extremes of cold and high altitude. Tibetans are Buddhist and their faith is very important to them, with a myriad of monasteries and colorful shrines scattered along the Himalayan slopes. Despite the Chinese oppression, they are a gentle and peaceful people who welcomed us warmly; children peeking shyly from the entrances of the yurts and women offering us yak butter tea to drink. The harshness of life at these altitudes can be seen in their faces, and yet there were always smiles for us. Foreigners are scarce away from Lhasa (the capital) and so we were considered an oddity where very few travelers venture. Their welcome and the beautiful landscapes have made me determined to go back again one day.
How have your travels shaped your views and opinions of humanity?
One of the main comments I get when people hear about my travels is usually about how dangerous it must be to travel. Interestingly, these comments are often made by those who have traveled the least. The reality is that every country has its share of people who are motivated by greed and violence and usually there is no more danger than being at home. It’s a question of being open to friendship but aware of those who might have the wrong motives.
Every successful traveler develops the ability to know when to trust and when to make yourself scarce. In the world’s poorest and most remote regions I have been welcomed with open arms and offered whatever is available; this might only be a drink of water from a gourd the village well, where I am beckoned forward in front of the livestock waiting to drink. Or I might be offered a space in a mud hut to sleep at night, whether to shelter me from the weather, lions or bandits. In Asia, Africa and South America, the most underprivileged people have made me feel more welcome than those in the affluent areas and it is one of the most humbling experiences a person can encounter.
Tiffany Coates is the world’s foremost female bike adventurer; many countries and nearly 200,000 miles have been covered since her first journey from the UK to India. Her website – www.tiffanystravels.co.uk – is the story behind it all from Asia, Australia, Africa, the Americas, Timbuctoo, Outer Mongolia and even Everest Base Camp.
Christine Mason Miller is a writer and mixed-media artist who loves to travel, wander and explore, whether on her own or vicariously through others. Her latest book, Desire to Inspire: Using Creative Passion to Transform the World, is now available at bookstores everywhere. Visit her at www.christinemasonmiller.com.
MORE RESOURCES FOR MIXED MEDIA ARTISTS