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Friday, July 30, 2010

Kazakhstan. Loved it.

Distance: 4,443.3km
Distance from Vladivostok: 13,033.6km
Average speed: 55.7kph
Riding time: 79hrs 11'
Max speed: 116kph

We are putting in some big days, almost riding at “Campey Speed”, heading south west to the Aral Sea. Adams transit visa for The Ukraine has given us a deadline. Some lousy roads, some shitty roads, some fantastic roads and tracks. Top camp sites, without mossies. We have tried to stay away from the main roads, Not to many tourists ride this way. Actually not to many Kazaks travel this way, not to many Kazaks ride motorcycles either. There is an almost complete absence of bikes on the roads. The few we see are Russian built Urals or HHH 2 strokes. No Japanese or Chinese bikes at all.

We stopped to fill our bottles at a water pump in a smallish town in the back blocks, a group of locals come out to talk, look and take photos. A teenage kids appears with a plate full of pastries from his mothers kitchen, still warm and just like my Mum used to bake. We scoffed a few and rode away. Bloody Kazaks, bloody brilliant!

Kuba rode towards us. Nothing special about that? Well, yes. Kuba has taken 4 months off from University and is riding from Poland to India, on a pushy! What a man. We met him near the Baykonur Cosmodrome.

This is the joint from which the USSR, and now Russia send all their space flights. Including Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961 was the first man in space. Never was in Russia, has always been in Kazakhstan. They have a monument or something on the side of the road near the Cosmodrome. Someone has painted “Free Tibet” on it. I like their style.

I wanted to visit Aral, a town formally on the shores of the worlds 4th biggest lake, the Aral Sea. Only problem is, the fcuking Soviets decided to divert the river and drain the water, sending it hundreds of kilometres away to grow cotton. Aral is now 80 kms from the water. There are 20 metre fishing trawlers, high and dry, 80kms from the sea. Never mind the 60,000 people employed in the fishing industry, which caught and processed 20,000 tons of fish a year. Never mind the 20 species of fish that disappeared. Never mind the 135 species of animals that disappeared from the shores around the Sea. Never mind that there used only be 30-35 rain free days a year, now there are 135. Water usage increased over 50% and they only grew 20% more cotton. Pretty stupid, eh! Supposedly the worlds worst environmental catastrophe. This is what happens when any political system doesn't have checks and balances. What a fcuk up.

Zhassulan walks up to talk and asks if we need any assistance. He lives and works in Almaty and is in Shalqar, with his wife of 2 weeks, to visit his parents. I said we needed a shop and WiFi, if there was any. No problems, Zhassulan took us to his home, introduced us to his family and we used his WiFi to check our mail and to Skype. We left with a bag of home cooked pastries and a 1.5 litre bottle of locally produced soda water tucked into my tank bag.

We stopped to talk to Oliver and Marina, a young French couple on a 3 year RWT. On bicycles! Another couple, Artur and Ania, from Poland, riding a Honda Transalp had chucked their jobs and are riding indefinitely. Am I jealous or what!

Unlike eastern Kazakhstan where we could find lovely clean rivers to swim in almost every day, in the west of the country we have had to go many days without a tub. We must look and smell like crap. In one joint we bathed in the middle of town under the communal water pump. Probably not the correct etiquette, but we felt better after it. Another town we stopped to swim in a half clean river, I had almost finished bathing when Adam yelled for me to get out of the river. Quickly! A bloody snake was swimming towards me! Most days the temperature has been over 35 degrees. We are back to drinking gallons of water a day.

The Kazaks saved their most shitty tracks for last. Adam dumped it in the bull dust, our first proper “off”' for the trip. With my track record that is pretty good. We were taking a short cut around a town and had to ride up a 5 metre, near vertical bank. Not a problem, only I never know how much gas to give the Rooney in these situations, try to quickly calculate traction, height and angle. If I get it wrong it could hurt. Fortunately, this time I had it right, as I crested, the bloody road disappeared into a gulley. I managed to stop just before my front wheel went in to it. The front was on the edge of a gully and the back wheel was still down the steepest bank we had ridden up. And I stalled it. What a bastard!

So, I think the dirt roads have finished for the trip. We were glad to see asphalt and enjoyed being able to relax a little as we rode. For about 3 hours that is. Then we would have killed for some more shitty, challenging tracks. Most of the roads we rode in Kazakhstan were fcuked!

At home, I lashed out and bought 2 new, expensive KTM mirrors. About $70 each, but beautiful. The left one was a victim of the Mongolian corrugations and just fell apart. The right hand one did the same thing with the Kazakhstan washboards. Interesting riding for a few days without mirrors. Adam jury rigged a left hand one, so I am happy again. Thought KTM's were supposed to be “adventure tourers”. Paul fitted a new YSS rear shock for this trip. After 110,000kms my old White Power was stuffed. The YSS cost over $1,000 and is stuffed after about 11,000kms. The spring has sagged and it leaks oil. I think they might get a phone call when I get home.

People had warned us about the Kazakhstan Police, we were told they were corrupt and we would be stopped repeatedly and asked for bribes. It didn't happen last time and hasn't happened this time. In fact we did not get stopped by the Police at all. Everyone we have met in this country, including the Police, have been fantastic.

We had hoped to camp on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Unfortunately it is now peak holiday season for the Kazaks and Russian, so we checked it out, had our photos taken about a million times and shot through, forgetting to even take a photo. Had we camped there, they would have tried to kill us with kindness. We are camped in a great spot, beside a little lake and only 35 or so kms from the Russian border. We both woke up this morning as crook as Rookwood. To sick to ride. God only knows what we had eaten or drunk. We lay down all day in the 35-40 degree heat, sweating like pigs as we tried to drink water and keep it down. By tonight I could eat an orange, so I think I will live. We have called a rest and recovery day for tomorrow.

By 10am we were bored with our R&R day and it was bloody hot. We packed up and hit the border. What a shitfight! In some of these countries they have a silly system whereby, after clearing Customs and Immigration you still have to find the Immigration Police and register with them within a few days, in this case 5 days, or pay someone to do it for you I usually don't bother, just lay on a little bullshit at the border and get away with it. Not this time. They threatened to have us arrested and jailed, even locked us up for a little while, not to bad as it was air conditioned, interrogated us and asked us stupid questions. Like, where are you going. I think if you are at the Russian border you probably intend to go to Russia. Where did you come from? Read my passport for the 400th time. It says in letters 1” high, Russia. The Immigration guy said he could fix it all up if we paid $$US200 each. No fcuking way. Eventually it came down to $US100 each. No one even looked at the bikes, all they wanted was money. We told them they were corrupt and said we wanted to ring the Australian Embassy. Dumb bastards didn't even know we don't have an Embassy in Kazakhstan. Eventually they realised we weren't going to pay any money and we were all tired of this silly game, we rode back 40kms to the Immigration Police, they stamped our card, it took all of 5 minutes, rode 40kms back to the border and left for Russia. All took over 7 hours and it was bloody hot, over 40 degrees.

We rode for less than 100 metres and Police wanted to see our passports, good blokes though, I think they only wanted to talk and look at the “Rooney” and the V Strom. Tomorrow, before we head for the Black Sea, I think we might go and register in Russia.

"We're on the highway to hell"

Russia II
Distance: 1102.7kms
Distance from Vladivostok: 8,590.3kms
Max speeed: 119kph
Average speed: 63.4kph
Riding time: 17hrs 56'

Crossing into Kazakhstan from Russia was a breeze, our quickest border crossing yet, all done in under 1 ½ hours. The Kazaks are warm, friendly people. Just beautiful. Unlike the Mongolians, they understand what personal space means. They don't want to sit on the bikes and play with the controls.

Most of the Kazakhstan roads are shit! They are potholes joined together by strips of asphalt.Some are big enough to park the bike in. Very hard to ride, I can't get into a rhythm. It is just a pain in the arse, and it makes my back hurt like hell. There are dips in the road every 10 metres or so, Adam reckons they are like speed humps in reverse. The “Rooney” does not like them either. Frequently we leave the “asphalt” and ride the tracks beside the road. I now remember why I was not keen to ride here again. I hope the guy that builds the roads here is not the same guy who builds the railway tracks and airport runways. Kazaks drive their cars like they have stolen them. They all seem to be second hand Audis from Germany, so maybe they have stolen them

In Russia they have many, many road signs. Unfortunately most are in the Cyrillic alphabet, only one or two in English. This makes navigation interesting. In Mongolia they don't have road signs at all. This makes navigation damned near impossible. In Kazakhstan they have many road signs, on the main roads they are in English as well as Cyrillic. Navigation is a breeze and we didn't get lost today. This is not something we are used to.

The rivers here are very clean, we don't have trouble finding somewhere to swim and wash our socks & jocks most days. The camp-sites have all been exceptional. Last night probably our best of the trip. Our first without mossies. Adam and I are concerned we might be both turning into poofs, as nights we don't have a cold beer, we have a cup of green tea after we strike camp. We are both normally non tea drinkers

I really did not enjoy the last 2 days ride. Last night, after 1.5 litres of cold Kazak beer and sharing half a bottle of magnificent vodka, I slept like a log. In the morning my back didn't hurt any more. Most of today’s ride was dirt, about 250km, the “Rooney” and I loved it. We find we can ride much faster on the dirt than the tar. Even the asphalt was bearable today.

One of the main reasons to do this trip was to ride the Pamir Highway through “The Stans”. We have talked it to death, and decided, due to a bloody revolution taking place there, we will give it a miss. I am more than a little disappointed. Our Finnish mates, Sakke and Esa have bigger kahuna's than us and are going to try it. We are riding across southern Kazakhstan towards Aral Lake. The country is quite scenic. Not as flat and boring like it is further north.

Hopefully we will catch up with Val and Jason in Astana, although they are now separated as one of them fell in love with a Russian goddess in Banaul. Mark is in Europe with his family, his bike made the ship to America with 4 minutes to spare. Yes, 4 bloody minutes! Ron, Dave and Whitey are at Sakke's home in Finland. Ron has had to rip his engine out and perform some open heart surgery on it. The DR will live to fight another day. Adam's V Strom is an incredible bike, almost bog standard, it takes anything he throws at it. Very economical as well. Paul got it right with the “Rooney's” new frame. It is a dream, all I will change next time is to fit a much heavier spring in the shock. I can't seem to wear out the tires! My front TKC80 is a ripsnorter. The steering head bearings on Jason’s KLR are rooted, the engine appears to have a terminal illness and the radiator is cracked. Val’s KTM 990 is not healthy in the engine department, probably not long for this world, the rear subframe cracked through in 2 places, one front disc is about to part company.

We stopped at a lovely secluded lake for a swim and to do our laundry. In the middle of it all 2 carloads of Kazaks turned up to swim, BBQ shashlyks and drink beer. They stripped down to they jocks and joined us in the lake. The girls, of course, wanted photos with the bikes. We camped adjacent to some railway tracks, so went for a tour of inspection. Unfortunately, I think the bloke who built the roads also built the rail tracks!

STOP PRESS!!! MAGNIFICIENT ROADS IN KAZAKHSTAN!!! Things have changed, no the locals are still driving like lunatics, but the road is terrific. We are on the main Almati to Astana highway, probably the busiest in the country, but we can cruise at 110kph. To us it seems like 210kph.
Things have looked up, after 5 nights in a tent we have rented an apartment in Astana, on the 16th floor, 100 metres from the “Grand Centre” in town and 5 minutes walk to the Ukrainian Embassy. Cable TV, beer in the fridge, only 2 years old and we even bought some vegies. Our new best mate, whose name escapes me, found us us on the side of the road, adopted us, took us on a tour of his city, found wifi and our flat. A bloody good bloke. We even got to see Casey beat Valentino into 3rd place in the German Moto GP. Our Land Lady, Nina, is another lovely Russian Babushka. Astana is a little like Canberra, a scratch built capital, but still under construction. I liked it more than the last time I was here. I suppose not getting the runs this time helped. There is massive construction and most things are modern and clean. We even have a sit down toilet.

We pick up Adam's Ukrainian visa this afternoon and head west, should cross back into Russia in a 10 days or so. Today we do the internet and skype thing and play tourist. Bad luck with the Blog, it seems they are banned in Kazakhstan, so I could not post this one.

The best news is, Kelly, Doug & Christina have a new brother, Connor. That must mean Scottie & Lillian have had a baby. How good is that!!!!!!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Back to Banaul.

Max speed: 82.5kph
Average speed: 35.1kph
Riding time: 77.42hrs.

Cow shit. I didn't think I would be deliberately standing in the smoke of a cow shit fire, trying to escape the mossies. Our new best mates were heating up stones in the cow shit fire, dropping the red hot rocks into a milk urn, with meat and veggies, to cook a traditional Mongolian meal. We declined a dinner invitation. To bad the fire burnt a hole in my best strides. As seems to be the case in most of Mongolia, the mossies were about half a kilo each. Your average Mongolian walks around, for two months of the year, carrying a piece of towelling or cloth with which they constantly whip themselves. It seems, to the uninitiated, like mass self flagellation. Nothing so sinister. It is the only way to keep the damned mossies away! The Gher camp we were staying in was on an island. In Australia islands have bridges. In Mongolia they have river crossings. This particular island had 2 river crossings. One was quite deep. After crossing three times, guess who dumped it in the middle of the deepest, fastest flowing patch of the river. Soaked my boots, and I hate wet boots. Fcuk that!

In Khovd, on our day off, we discovered if we parked our bikes out the front of the University we could get free wi-fi. Great to catch up on our e-mails and to Skype/phone family and friends. Also a good spot to meet and chew the fat with the locals. Our new best mates Tilek and Esengul dropped by and invited us the visit and stay at their home. Tilek drives a Volga 3110. A big solid, staid looking 2.0 litre 4 cylinder sedan. Plenty of room for a family and built like a brick shit house. They are both teachers, Tilek speaks excellent English, very handy for an English teacher.

Tilek and Esengul and their 3 sons live in Hovd, as opposed to Khovd or Hovd, this was a 28 km drive, took a little over an hour and we only got lost once. Tilek took us to the horse races. In Mongolia they don't stuff around when they race horses. As we all know, it helps if a jockey is very light. Young people are usually light. So the jockeys start racing at age 4 and are retired by age 10. The first race was for 1 year old horses, the jockeys were a little over one year old, and only ran for 5 kms. By the second race they had stopped stuffing around and raced for 20kms. How long is the Melbourne Cup? Bloody Aussie soft cocks!! Tilek is writing a dictionary. How smart is that. We had an exceptional day and evening.

Our second last day in Mongolia was an absolute stunner. Magnificent scenery and fantastic tracks with a humongous variety of surfaces. This was one of the best rides on our trip. By now my boots were nearly dry. We had at 20-25 river crossings, some easy, some deep and fast flowing. And I kept my boots dry. On one of the last, fastest flowing and deepest crossings I got bogged. Bastard!! It took us about 40 minutes to get the poor old Rooney out of the river and my boots were full to the top with water.

We camped between the town of Ogly and the Russian border, only a few kilometres from where I had camped last time with Ron, Neva, Kim and the other Pommie, whose name I have chosen to forget. We were sad to be leaving Mongolia. Loved the place and the people. A few nips of Chingis helped to dull the pain. Changed money at the border, refused to pay the 10,000tg road tax, and were through into Russia (after a health check by a Doctor). Gotta go in style.

We met 3 Pommie blokes in 4WD,s heading east, decided to have an early camp and socialise. What a camp sight! A big level paddock, a fast flowing river, snow capped mountains, forests and plenty of firewood. Colin, Allen and Asher are bloody good blokes. For Poms, that is.

Today we rode the Russian Alti, probably the prettiest region in Russia, a magnificent area for motorcyclists. Sensational views, little traffic and great corners. A pity about the rain in the afternoon. Our last camp in the Alti was a belter. Could have done with more mossies and rain!

Bronwyn texted me. The shit had hit the fan, again. The good people at Manly Warringah Credit Union had rung and told her I was the proud owner of an expensive Apple computer and some other electronic paraphernalia I wouldn't even know how to use. Only one problem, I had only paid for the gear, some anonymous person had possession of it. My Visa card had been skimmed while I was in Mongolia. Tanyia cancelled my card and the Credit Union sorted the mess out. Fortunately I have a back up Mastercard this trip.

Banaul. Renown for having some of the prettiest girls in Russia. And Russia has a lot of pretty girls. Our newest best mates Andrey and Natalia guided us to a hotel (with wifi), took us to Andrey's garage so we could change our oils and air filters, then took us to their home for a meal. More fantastic Russian hospitality from 2 fantastic Russian people. Last winter Andrey rode to a bike rally. Nothing special about that. Except, it was 1,500km away, he rode a 80cc 1983 Honda scooter, with side car, and the temperature was minus 47 degrees!! And he slept at the rally in a fcuking tent. Even the other Russian bikers were impressed. He showed us his heated visor, necessary when the temp is less than minus 25. Andrey's road bike is a Yamaha Dragstar. We met Costa and Alex, Russian bikers on R1200GS's., about to head off to Vladivostok via Mongolia. They were planning to ride the “Stans”, The politics got them and they had to abort.

Eventually Jason and Val turned up. Their bikes needed some TLC in Andrey's shed. The KTM and KLR both looked pretty fcuked after the Bam. Talk about walking wounded, bits hanging off everywhere. The KTM's rear subframe had broken and The KLR had a crack in the radiator. The boys told me how they had a traditional Mongolian meal, cooked in an urn with hot rocks inside. Apparently it tasted OK, but gave them the runs for 2 days. I told them how the rocks were heated!

In 2008 Kim and Scotty changed tires in Banaul. We stashed their half worn tires in a crate in a carpark. Two years later I wandered in, retrieved them and gave them to Andrey. Today we off to Kazakhstan. Funny thing that. Last time I said I probably would not go back there again.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Frequently lost in the Gobi

Finally, we rode out of The Oasis. It was 45 degrees, I was tired, had a cold, the runs, a hangover and felt like shit. Rode like it as well. We had said gooodby to The Oasis in style. Six bottles of Chingis Vodka over 2 nights. The Gobi Desert causes carnage to Man and Machine. Of the 15 bikers at the Oasis the first night, 2 had broken legs, and were still riding, although they were heading back to Europe via Russia and the black top. My new best mate Seppo had been riding for 10 days with his, he only had 8,000kms to make it home to Finland! Bloody Superman. My other best mate from Finland is Sakke. He rode over1,600km in under 24 hours, over snow and ice .Are these Finish riders a tough breed or not!!

After 5 days in Ulaan Baatar we had collected our Kazakhstan visas, done a few touristy things, serviced the bikes and found a bar that served OP Bundy. It was time to hit the tracks again. Ron, Whitey and Dave headed off back to Russia via the Central Mongolian route, Adam and I were going to see a bit of the Gobi Desert. Val and Jason were still in Irkutsk, Russia,having their bikes welded back together after riding the Bam. Hopefully we will catch them down the track.
Only 20kms south of UB and the asphalt ends. The road becomes a rough as guts track. Try riding a 260 odd kilo bike down that crap when all you want to do is die! Sometime later Adam took pity on me and we camped beside a lovely cool river. Nomadic herdsmen and their Ghers (in Aus we wrongly call them Yurts) scattered over the plains. A couple of young blokes rode up to talk to us, one on a horse and the other on a bike. Most nights, as we make camp, a horseman or 2 rides up to check us out. No problems, most of the people are lovely. At first we headed south, and for the last week or so we have been meandering in a roughly westerly direction. At first it was incredibly hot, we had trouble drinking enough water. The damned water was at least 35 degrees. One day I bought 17 litres of fuel and we bought 18 litres of water! We have to buy water as there are not any creeks or rivers to filter it from. If we do find water, there is no known to man I would even think of trying to put it through my Katadyn filter. It looks like shit. At present we have not bathed for three days. Today we crossed a 3,000m pass and tonight have camped at 2,500m, so it is cool. Actually bloody cold. Before dinner we hiked up a 3,000m hill to check to view. A 360 degree panorama!
The Gobi Desert is amazingly, incredibly, fantastically beautiful. We have ridden through, across, around, over or past sand hills, mountains, cliffs, plains, dried lakes, swamps and mountain passes. Down dry river beds, along and across rivers and creeks, got bogged in the sand, ridden up and down near vertical slopes, some 1 metre high, some a lot higher. Two of the rivers were so big we had to walk the bikes across. The riding has been some of the most challenging I have tried. Some I didn’t like, some I hated. Most I loved. We ride between 9 and 11 hours a day and do a max of around 200km.The bikes love it. We love it. At the end of the day we are stuffed
We needed water and could see the town we needed to get to. It was on the other side of a dried up swamp. No problem to us, we have ridden through many dried up swamps, not quite this big though. Eventually we are at full throttle in first gear, and the bikes are sinking and slowing. Not such a dried up swamp in the middle as it turns out. My bike bogs first, and falls over, Adams does the same. It is around 40 degrees. My old motto comes to mind. Bite off more than you can chew, then chew like all fcuk. Right now we are chewing pretty hard. Eventually we get water from a well, filter it and make camp. All is good. That night a local rode up to our camp, must have like the cut of our jib, went home and told the family. They all came up to see us, on motorbikes and horses, brought us fresh milk and cheese. How good is that! Later one of the boys rode over to tell us something. We thought he was saying it was going to rain. No way. I think he was trying to say a dust storm was coming. Christ! Blow! It had to be over 100kph. I thought if I went out to check the tent guys, without my weight in it, my tent might disappear over the horizon, with all my gear inside. The wind was so strong it kept sending my burglar alarm off, even kept me awake for several hours. I worried about my little Vaude tent. But she is a ripper!!

The towns are like you would imagine those of the American wild west, circa 1850. Except with mobile phone coverage! I don’t know what they all do for a crust. Most towns are shit fights and probably should have been nuked long ago. But, good people call them home. This morning we needed fuel and water and called at Sharga, probably one of the better towns we have found on the Gobi. The people, brilliant. One guy gave me a badge, and pinned it to my jacket and invited us into his home for a cup of tea. Everyone went out of their way to make us welcome. I hope they don’t nuke Sharga.
The navigation is bloody hard. We have a GPS each, I have Garmin’s World Map and Smelly Biker’s Wander West World Map in mine. In this part of the world they are both WOFTAM’s (Waste Of Fcuking Time And Money) In addition I have a Mongolian map from International Travel Maps. Pretty bloody lousy as well. These maps are dangerously inaccurate. We bought The Mongolia Road Atlas in Ulaan Baatar and it is not bad. Without it we would be lost all the time. What we see on the map is frequently not what we see on the ground. We have to take our Lats and Longs from the GPS and plot on the Road Atlas with a pink school kids ruler. We are never lost. We always know where we are, we just don’t know how we got there or how to get where we want to go. Outside of UB there are not any road signs at all! The towns do not even have signs with their names on them. Our 3 maps can have a name spelt 3 ways and there can be 2 towns in the same are with the same name. There were 2 Chandmani’s and there are 3 Hovds. A total shitfight.
Yesterday we stumbled upon a carnival in aid of the Mongolian national day, at a joint called Darvi. Kids parades, horse racing, wrestling, the lot. Fantastic. I didn’t do a “Charlie Boorman” and join in the wrestling. These bastards were bloody fit. Darvi is the end of the Gobi Desert region.

After 3 attempts to find our way out of town we hit the main Southern Highway. Fcuk me!! What a mess. Corrugations! We had to go about 80 or 90kph to ride them. That was to fast as we could not slow down for the corners or washouts . This was 260 kms of hell. It shook the shit out of the poor old Rooney, and me as well. We took every side track we could find. Anything to get off the main road. We stopped for fuel. Some drunken Mongolian men rode up and into the Rooney. Hey, nobody hits my Rooney!! They wanted stuff for nothing, then they tried to steal things, then they wanted to fight us. What steps did we take? Fcuking big ones, in a westerly direction. Did those silly pricks think they could race the Rooney on a Chinese no name brand 125? I had to do the “old kick the front wheel away trick” at one point. I don’t think he expected that. Fcuk them!!
Today we hit Khovd, stopped in the main street and stole an internet connection, great to Skype family and friends. We checked into a Gher camp for R&R and to clean up, as we had not been able to shower for several day, must have stunk like pole cats. Swam in the river, spread our gear all over the Gher and relaxed. A bit special after 10 of the hardest days riding I have ever done. After 110,000kms on the Rooney I have finally damaged a front rim. The Gobi was hard. Damned hard. . I am really pleased we are rode the Gobi and would love to come back, in a “Troopy” though!
Our front door is 18 metres from the river and our table and chairs are about 1 metre from it. The locals are friendly, it is so good we will probably sit back and spend 2 or 3 days here. Food is not to foul either. Adam tells me his cold id nearly better and he is taking me rock climbing tomorrow. Fcuk that!! Tonight will be a Chingis night.
I think, my friends, this is as good as it gets.