A Slight Hitch

Bukhara to Khiva

The day I left Bukhara, I continued doing something very stupid, something I’d been doing for the past 2 transits: I rode with my protective jacket off, wearing only my T-Shirt.

I’d just had 2 great days in Bukhara and was on my way to Khiva in the west of Uzbekistan, close to where I wanted to cross the border into Turkmenistan.  The sun was shining, the road wasn’t too bad, and I’d just loaded up with an extra 10 litres of benzene, given to me in water bottles by some black-market dealers I found in a car workshop, for the 450km journey.  Life was good and I was happy as could be – everything was perfect!

Then my front tyre went flat.

Three things contributed the subsequent result:

  1. I ignored the tell-tale warning sign
  2. I was going too fast (120km/h)
  3. I was only wearing a T-shirt

In my whole life I have only had one puncture on a motorcycle, and that was the back tyre of my Kawasaki ZXR750.  The warnings are there and most of the time punctures do not cause any injury as the rider is able to stop safely in time (as the tyre usually deflates slowly).

I had been lucky enough to have not had a puncture at all on this Round the World 2 year trip, and I had got to the stage where I thought the Heidenau tyres were invincible.  One word was my downfall, as it is with many people – Complacency.

When you get a puncture the wheel wobbles slightly, as if you’re riding over a surface of blancmange, and the wobble gets worse the flatter it gets.  The trouble is, you also get this sensation when you ride over uneven roads, where the tarmac has melted into a series of wobbly troughs and ridges.  Looking back, at the time I remembered a subtly different sensation from the front wheel, and should of course have slowed down and stopped to investigate.  Instead, my (incorrect) logical mind told me ‘not to worry – it was only the wobbly road’.  After all, how could it be a puncture on a perfectly clean piece of tarmac, particularly when the tyre was in good shape and I hadn’t had one for 2 years, even after riding through all sorts of rubbish?

I was wrong, and by the time I realised I was wrong, and it was a puncture, I was still going too fast to stop safely.

As accidents have a tendency to do, the next sequence of events seemed to happen in slow motion.

I stood on the pegs and saw that the tyre was now almost completely flat.  Not wanting to slam on the brakes and rip the tyre off, I coasted with light pressure on the back brake to try and slow down.  All I can remember thinking was ‘I have a puncture – how is this possible?!  And I’m about to slide down the road wearing only wearing a T-shirt… This is going to hurt….’

For a moment I thought I was going to do it, but then the front just went and I could see the tyre almost come off the rim.  The bike went over on its right and hit the tarmac.

Luckily I was wearing my protective trousers and boots, or else I would have hardly had any leg or foot left.  The weight of the bike also rested on the engine cage bar, hand-guard and right pannier.  However, with the momentum I was unable to keep myself clear of the road, and I remember watching the skin on my right arm disappear as it was dragged along the tarmac.

I hoped we would stop quickly, and we did; the bike lying on its side in the wrong lane, and me lying nearby.  Luckily, almost all of the traffic had disappeared west of Bukhara, so I didn’t have to worry about hitting anything oncoming.

Strangely, my red-raw right arm didn’t hurt; it had almost gone numb.  However, the right side of my chest was agony, and I was having difficulty breathing.

For a moment I thought I’d collapsed another lung (as I managed to do in Tennessee after my cliff-diving performance), but I wasn’t quite gasping for breath, so I thought it was more likely I’d just broken a few ribs.  Who’d have thought that a tank bag could do that?

Help

I’m a stubborn so-and-so who doesn’t like asking for help, or admitting I need it, and I usually enjoy the challenge of getting myself out of trouble.  However, there was no doubt about it on this occasion; I was in a mess, and I needed help.

As I lay there I conducted a quick secondary survey on myself: fortunately, apart from my ribs and skinning parts of both hands and a sizeable part my right arm and shoulder, nothing else appeared to be injured.  I crawled onto my knees and breathed a (painful) sigh of relief when a car approached after a few minutes, heading back to Bukhara.

However, when it crossed over to the other side of the road (to avoid my bike) and kept going, I couldn’t really believe it!

When, 5 minutes later, another car did exactly the same thing, I started to get a bit worried.  What were these people thinking?  I hoped at least they would call someone to come and help me.

Luckily the third car that approached didn’t drive by.  It stopped and 2 local men got out, who were quite simply, just brilliant.

One of them came over to me shouting loudly something in Russian, I guessed, and I just about managed to express I was English, in between gasps.

I managed to take my helmet off with one hand and get to my feet, albeit doubled over (so I could show them I had no spinal injury), as the 2 guys lifted my bike up and wheeled it onto the verge.  They didn’t speak any English, and of course I’m rubbish at all languages, but it was obvious I needed hospital treatment, and they very kindly bundled me and all my luggage into their car.

They were heading back to Bukhara.  On the way I tried very hard to act tough, but may have accidentally let out a wimper or two on occasion as my head bounced off the roof and piercing pain shot through my chest each time we sped over a bump on the frequently bumpy road.  It didn’t help that their back suspension was shot.  I had only got 60km outside Bukhara, and so at least it wasn’t that far.

A few miles down the road we passed a police checkpoint, the same one I’d been stopped at for a routine check 30 minutes earlier.  One of the policemen spoke a little English and promised me he’d look after my bike for me.  Good man!

During the hour ride back to Bukhara, the pain subsided quite a lot, and so I was sure I’d only broken a rib or two and not damaged a lung.  I cursed myself over and over again;  I would have certainly saved the skin on my arm and hands had I been riding sensibly with my jacket & gloves on, but the jacket probably wouldn’t have saved my ribs.  I’d never thought before about wearing a motocross-style protective top with chest protection, but now I thought it would be a very good idea.

I inspected my boots and trousers – they had done their job and were now well scuffed.

I’d thought the extreme heat of (the forecasted) 41 degrees C (106 F) had made it worth the risk; it hadn’t, by a long shot.  Funny some people always think ‘it will never happen to me'; well, I did at least.  Oh well, I would just have to ‘keep calm and get on with it’, as the good old British wartime government had advised.

I examined myself further in the back of their car.  At least 1 rib was definitely broken because I feel it moving and grating as I inhaled a full lung volume of air.

Bukhara Hospital

When we arrived at Bukhara public hospital the staff were second to none.  Everyone was so nice & friendly, I immediately felt in good hands.

It wasn’t a busy hospital (Bukhara is only a smallish town of 250,000, most of whom clearly manage to keep themselves safe), so fortunately there was practically no waiting around.

A quick X-Ray showed 2 broken ribs at the front right so clearly even I could see it.

For the next hour I was shuffled between one department to the next for blood tests, urine tests, ECG and ultra-sound scans, and my arm and hands were cleaned and dressed.  I could not say I wasn’t being very professionally and thoroughly checked.

All this time the 2 guys who’d kindly stopped to help me sat patiently at reception.  When all the checks were done, I thanked them profusely and tried to give them some money for the lift, but they outright refused to accept it.  Such lovely good Samaritans; I got someone to take a photo of us.

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My two good Samaritans

I was then ushered through to the inpatients ward, given a (huge) hospital gown to put on, and taken to a bed in a room of 4.  It looked as though I was staying for the night then!

Committed

Thus began the next 3 days of my adventures in Bukhara General Hospital.

Soon after my arrival in the 4 bed room (2 of which were empty), I was moved into another room with only 2 beds – no idea why.  I asked how much the room was going to cost me, worried about a large bill at the end, but all I got was “free, free”.  Oh well, I was insured, and at least it would be cheaper than my hospital stay in the USA (which cost my insurers around 50,000 USD).

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My new 2-bed room

Up until now I had had no pain relief given to me, so I asked for some and received something via a needle & 2 bottles which knocked me out into a pleasant state of bliss.  I’d have to ask for that a bit more often!

I was woken by one of the friendly nurses bringing me a bowl of soup.  I’m not sure if it was really delicious, but as it was now 4pm and I’d missed lunch, I almost swallowed it in one go.

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The hospital food was surprisingly OK, although it consisted of a lot of cabbage, which didn’t do anything for the general aroma around the place

Then the police turned up.  They’d brought a young medical student along as an interpreter (hardly anyone in the hospital could speak any English) and asked me in depth questions about pretty much everything.  They were all very friendly though, and I was told my bike would be well looked after for me.  I was slightly concerned when they took my passport and bike documents, saying I’d get them back when I collected my bike from the police station.

By now I was dying of thirst, so I took large gulps from a bottle a nurse had brought me.  Then I noticed the water was cloudy and there were bits floating around in it.  Lovely!  So I wondered down and outside the hospital in my gaping gown to a grocery outside the hospital entrance and bought a couple of bottles.

I hoped I’d make a quick recovery because my 5 day Turkmenistan visa was due to start the next day, even though I hadn’t yet received it (it was supposed to come via email).  However, I knew ribs took a long time to heal and so I wasn’t hopeful.  That’s the problem with a Turkmenistan transit visa: you only get 5 days, and have to name the exact 5 days you are travelling.  I had another option to head north back into Kazakhstan (they’d just changed the entry requirements and now Brits didn’t need a visa) and catch the ferry across the Caspian Sea from Aktau, although I’d heard the road was pretty bad and the ferry could take up to a week to go.  It was, in fact, my only other option, as I couldn’t go through Iran (my carnet had expired, no visa and I’d heard I now needed a guide) or Russia (no visa).  The other problem was my Uzbekistan Visa expired in 10 days.

The next morning I was sore and stiff, as you would expect.  Strangely, what hurt most was a huge, ridiculously tight blister covering a large part of my left palm.  I must have burnt it on the engine block when I went down.  I also had stomach cramps and diarrhea, undoubtedly from drinking the dodgy water the day before, which is no fun at the best of times, let alone with broken ribs and handicapped hands.  I sunk a couple of Imodium and hoped for the best.

There were a couple of nurses at the hospital that were especially nice to me.  One just kept bringing me food (mostly some form of soup), and the other one, Ninosa, just kept coming up and smiling at me.  They were all lovely and took good care of me.

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One of the lovely nurses that took good care of me

After a rice pudding breakfast, which I wolfed down again as I was starving, the main consultant did his rounds, looked at my X-Ray and wounds, said something to his entourage of a dozen or so, and promptly disappeared.

My friendly nurse brought me another bowl of rice pudding and I sat back reading my kindle (thank goodness I had that), waiting to see what the day would bring.

Later on, my arm dressings were removed and some kind of green antiseptic was poured over my missing skin, which smarted just a tad.  My doctor, Dr Wakid, said I must keep the wounds open to the environment and douse them daily in the green liquid.  I didn’t argue, but I knew the best way for wounds such as this to heal was to keep them covered and moist, without the damaging addition of strong antiseptic (which also kills new skin cells).  He also burst my burn blister, which smartly covered everyone within a 5 meter radius in yellow liquid.

As usual in hospitals, there were plenty of people in there who were in much worse shape than me.  I thanked my lucky stars I was at least able to get up and walk about.

I’m only showing you this photo of my arm below for one reason:  to convince any riders out there who need it, not to do what I done!  If it saves one person, it will have been worth it:

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This was taken about 4 days after the accident when I moved into the hostel. The green bits are the residue of the iodine-like liquid

In the bed next to me was an old man who watched my every move with interest (granted, I didn’t make many of them).  We had lots of conversations in different languages, most probably about completely different things.  He had some kind of stomach problem, as far as I could make out, but was very nice to me, and kept shuffling over to give me biscuits and apple juice.  I bought him some fairy cakes from the grocery, which he didn’t eat, so I had to eat them.  He was discharged later that day, so I guess he was OK.

Around lunchtime I was taken down for an MRI scan; you couldn’t say they were not being very thorough!  It confirmed the X-Ray and showed one rib break was side to side, instead of end to end.  No further damage.  My nice doctor, Dr. Wakid, told me I’d be staying in hospital for 3 or 4 days (he was pretty much the only person who spoke a little English), even though I told him I felt well enough to book into a hostel to recover there, rather than taking up precious bed space; it appeared this would be impossible.  I wasn’t too sure why they wouldn’t let me go, but I couldn’t say they weren’t looking after me.  And as the hospital didn’t seem very busy (half the beds were empty), I didn’t mind staying there at all.

That afternoon I slept a bit, wondered around the ward, chatted to a few of the other inmates and walked outside for some fresh air to a little cafe across the road.  I received lots of attention everywhere I went; they obviously don’t get many bald Englishmen in oversize Uzbek hospital gowns around there.

With no phone or internet to contact the outside world, I passed the time reading my kindle and sporadically nodding off; I felt as though I’d retired.  My family is used to not hearing from me for a few days, so I knew they wouldn’t be worried; no news is good news, as they say.

I was paid a daily visit by the lovely Sitora, who had a friend ill in another ward.  She brought me chocolates, and I ate them, even though I don’t like chocolate; perhaps my body needed the energy.  I was being indoctrinated into a cosy little hospital ‘family’.

My ‘Hostel Survival Kit’ was useful at night (ear plugs and eye mask), drowning out most of the screams from the other wards, and first thing in the morning I liked going for a walk around the hospital rose garden after watching the sun rise, before it got too hot.  I went again in the evening and practiced some basic exercises I’d given myself.  The food was always some kind of soup, but it was eatable, and probably wholesome.

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View from my hospital window, with the cafe across the road and the rose garden on the right

There was not much else to do for 3 days but monitor my progress.  If day zero was the day of the accident (around 11am), by day 2 I could lift my injured arm (broken rib side) up 45 degrees – not bad.

As is common in such situations, I frequently thought how most of us take being fit and healthy for granted every day.  There wasn’t anything else I could do for my rib (you just have to let them heal on their own), and I knew the skin would take at least 10 days to heal.  I was mostly concerned about not getting an infection before the skin grew back (something I had done when I got knocked off a scooter in Sri Lanka by a suicide dog a couple of years before), and how I was going to keep it clean on the dusty road.  If I was sensible I would let it heal before I started riding again, but my visa was running out…

After a restless, painful night (they’d run out of magic injections!), on day 3 I was ready to get out of the hospital and they let me go.  I wanted to get back to the bike, see what condition she was in, and get my passport and documents back from the police.  My ribs were still sore, but my main worry was the healing skin kept rubbing back off my shoulder each time I laid on it at night; it was going to be tough for it to heal quickly and properly.

Before I left, Dr Wakid, who had been good to me, asked for “something to remember me by”.  I didn’t really have much to give, so I gave him my watch.  Then he did something doctors always do; he pushed on my chest really hard directly where the 2 ribs had snapped.  I yelled out in pain, and almost punched him.  Then he asked “Does that hurt?”

I almost punched him again.

“Are you sure you can ride?” he asked.

No, but I was going to try.

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Saying farewell and thanks to Dr Wakid

Did I regret what had happened?  I had been stupid, sure, but no.  As the great Richard Branson and many others have said, regrets are about things in the past, things you can’t change, so there’s no point having them as they just wear you down.  Instead I concentrated all my energy on the road to recovery ahead, and how to get there.  As long as my arm didn’t turn gangrenous and fall off, I would be OK!  However, I did wish I hadn’t had done it ;)

Bike Rescue

Dr Wakid was kind enough to flag me down a taxi, and also found a young English student called Diamond (Olmos in Uzbek) to help me get my bike back (for a few dollars).

Diamond turned out to be a top guy, around 20 years old, and was a great help.  He taught English to private students when he wasn’t studying, and relished the opportunity to speak with a native English speaker so he could improve his own skills.

We left in the taxi around 1pm and went straight to the police station to try and retrieve my bike, which was about 30km away (halfway between Bukhara and the place I had my accident).  Once there, we were shuffled around several different desks and ended up waiting an hour to see the ‘investigating officer’.  While we were waiting I asked to see my bike.  The request was initially refused, but then permitted shortly afterwards.  As I suspected, she was OK except for the front wheel.  Because the tyre had gone completely flat on the road, the rim was slightly bent and scuffed in a couple of places.  At least she was safe and sound.

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My damaged rim where it had been ridden on the road

I wanted to get fixing the flat tyre, but the investigating officer turned up and said we weren’t allowed to touch it until the ‘Accident Examiner’ arrived, which would be another hour’s wait.

Diamond and I walked across the road to a café to wait and had a drink.  It was the first time I’d been stood up for a while since the accident, and my back was killing me (rib ache).

Three hours later, the examiner still hadn’t arrived, and I was seriously flagging.

Diamond asked me how I was.  I didn’t want to moan and say “I feel like I’ve been awake for a week, trampled by a herd of elephants, had my arm set on fire, slam-dunked a couple of times by The Hulk, reverse trampled by another elephant and had a red hot poker driven through my chest”, so I said “Ah, I’m OK; I need a cold beer.  How about you?”

“I need a cold beer too” he said.

The accident examiner eventually turned up after around 4 hours, spent a couple of minutes photographing the bike, and then said “OK!”

I got the bike tools out from under the back seat and set to work getting the front wheel off to change the tube, with Diamond aiming to provide a lot of help.  To my dismay and embarrassment I found I didn’t have the correct size 17mm hex wrench to undo the front wheel spindle.  Having never removed the front wheel myself before, I had never realised that this vital tool hadn’t been included in the bike’s tool kit.  Hmm, not much good!  It was totally my own fault though for not checking it before, and not noticing when I bought the bike and checked if I had all the necessary tools.

“Never mind” I thought; it was probably a blessing in disguise, as the last thing I felt like doing at that moment in time was changing the tube; it probably would have been very painful, difficult and set me back a couple of days.  So we called a local mechanic, or ‘Bike Master’ as they’re called in Uzbekistan, to come and do it for me.

The mechanic arrived after a few minutes and discovered he also didn’t have the correct size wrench.  He left to try and get one, but never returned.  An hour later we were still sat there in the police yard, getting fed up.  In the end we ordered a local truck to take us and the bike back to Bukhara.  However, that also didn’t arrive, and at 9pm we were totally fed up and decided to leave it until tomorrow to sort out.

We jumped in a taxi, dropped my bags off at the same hostel I’d stayed in before, and headed out for well needed beers and local fried chicken, as I owed Diamond at least that much (even though I just felt like collapsing).

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Good old Diamond – and he really was one

We went to some kind of bar/restaurant/nightclub owned by a friend of Diamonds and a good (but tiring) night ended up with me watching him and his friends dance a traditional jig with their shirts off; quite a common thing this neck of the woods, apparently.

Bike Rescue Attempt #2

I slept like a dead log, and did I need it!  The owners were surprised to see me back at the hostel, of course, considering I’d left for Khiva 4 days ago.  The wonderful lady manager, Zukhra, was great and would not stop fussing around me when she heard my story, and I knew I was in the right place to continue my recovery for a few days.

After the previous day’s marathon standing session, I had taken a step backwards as my back and ribs were really aching and my arm had decided to swell up; it looked as though it had become infected.  I didn’t find this surprising, considering it had been open to the elements, dirt and dust all day.

Diamond turned up at 9am with a large truck and by lunchtime we had the bike safely back at the hostel for around 20 quid.  I was happy to have rescued it from the police yard and to have my passport and documents back.  Now I could concentrate on recovering quickly so I could ride it.

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The truck that rescued my bike from the police station

Recovery at Rustam and Zukhra Hostel

After lunch Zukhra called a local doctor she knew, who came to the hostel, cleaned and dressed my arm, and told me I should keep it covered; nothing like having conflicting advice!  However, I knew she was right, and was relieved to have her caring for me.  She also started me on a course of antibiotics to kill any infection that had taken hold.

I decided to stay and rest at the hostel until I had to leave.  My Uzbek visa expired in 7 days (21 Aug), and I needed 2 days to comfortably reach the border, so that gave me 5 days to rest and hopefully get ride-fit.

In the afternoon, Diamond found a local bike mechanic to come and repair the puncture for me.  He arrived on an old Honda XL250 and wanted to take my wheel away with him.  As I wanted to see what had caused the puncture, I went with him, but had to carry the wheel while perched on the back of his bike.

Turned out it was a tiny thorn.  I have four theories:

  1. It happened at the police check-point just before I fell off, when I pulled off the road underneath a tree.
  2. It happened in Mongolia.  I remember getting lots of ‘little b*stards’ (caltrops or devil’s thorns) stuck in my tyre (and feet) one day while camping near a stream.  It is possible one of the thorns broke off and slowly worked its way into the inner tube as the tyre wore.
  3. It was just a rogue thorn on the road that had perhaps fallen off the back of a truck carrying vegetation.
  4. Other (just to cover myself).

Where the rim had burred along the edge, the mechanic filed it down and then tied to bash out a couple of warps with a soft mallet.  Closer inspection of the tyre revealed a couple of spilt ribs on the sidewall, caused by riding it flat; I needed a new tyre.

I thought I was seeing things when the young mechanic pulled an identical tyre out of his garage: a 21″ Heidenau Scout K60.  It was almost brand new and he offered it to me for 100 US dollars.  I knew how rare these tyres were in this part of the world, so I almost bit his hand off to take it.

In a jiffy the wheel was ready with a brand new inner tube (I didn’t want to risk patching the old one as it looked a bit worn).  I carried the wheel on the back of his bike again as we sped through backstreets, backyards and building sites, back to the hostel.

Once the bike was back in one piece, I let the mechanic take her for a spin.  He liked it but said it was heavy.  “Only if you drop it!”  I said.

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Ace mechanic who fixed my wheel

With my bike back fixed, all I had to do was fix myself.  I hated to admit that would take longer than I’d thought, and I’d done myself no favours carrying that wheel on the bike of the mechanics bike, as now my back and ribs were really killing me.  I went to lie down to rest them for the rest of the day.

The infection in my arm knocked me out for the next couple of days.  It was very sore and I felt physically drained the whole time.  Zukhra was great the whole time, making sure I had 3 hot meals a day, and I still had the daily visit from her doctor to change my dressings.

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Steak and chips – great recovery food :)

On day 6 (since the accident), my normal doctor couldn’t make it, and instead I had a visit from ‘The Butcher of Bukhara’ who was less than delicate removing my dressings, ripping them off in one go, along with half my arm.  I cried out in shock and pain, and almost punched her.  Blood flowed freely from the wound and filled the sink, and I thought Zukhra was going to faint.  Then ‘The Butcher’ then told me I shouldn’t wear dressings and reached for a bottle of iodine.  We were going backwards!  Before she doused me, I politely thanked her for coming and cajoled her out of my room.  I’d had enough of Uzbek wound care by then, cancelled all further doctor visits, and stuck with my own methods (daily cleaning and dressing changes).

In the evening Andy (who I’d met in Osh) turned up on his V-Strom 650 and we went out for a huge lunch the next day.  I had half a chicken on a skewer- delicious!  We ate by the old town pond, the Lab-i Hauz.  Bukhara used to be full of such ponds in medieval times, but as they were notorious for spreading disease, the Russians filled most of them in in the 1920s.  I was careful not to get too close to the edge for fear my arm would fall off should I fall in (which I have a tendency to do, occasionally).

Andy asked me why I didn’t put the bike on a train to Aktau or further, and I said that would be cheating!  However, secretly I thought that would be the sensible option, and one I had seriously considered a couple of days ago when I thought my arm was falling off with infection.

Preparations for the Great Uzbek Escape

Soon it was day 7, the day before I had to leave Bukhara in order to reach the border before my visa expired.  I must admit, I didn’t relish the idea of the long 1,050km journey to the border in desert temperatures over 40 degrees C, and then another 550km to the port city of Aktau in Kazakhstan.

However, my escape plan seemed sound, and I mulled over the details:

  1. Roll out of bed at 3am under cover of darkness, wash and dress arm.
  2. Start 450km journey to Khiva at 4am, thus avoiding the intense heat of the day, and stopping my arm from melting.
  3. Arrive in Khiva around midday without me, my ribs or my arm falling off along the way.

Part 3 was especially important, I thought, and I planned to take my time and avoid pulling off the road at checkpoints in case I ran over any more thorns.

I’d visited the chemist down the road earlier in the week and stocked up on dressings and antibacterial cream.  I had to laugh when they only had 4 painkillers left, which brought my total to 8, so I had to ration myself to nighttime use only, so at least I got a half decent night’s sleep.

Bukhara to Khiva (second attempt)

I got up at 3.30 in the end and by the time I’d cleaned and redressed my arm, loaded the bike and had a quick breakfast, it was 5.30; how time flies when you’re having fun!  Zukhra has kindly got up to see me off, and cook me breakfast.

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The lovely Zukhra, up at 4am to see me off and cook me breakfast

Once I’d prised myself onto the bike, the journey started off well: no traffic, a half decent road and the lovely, cool air of the early morning.  However, every wobble-causing undulation in the road had me standing on the pegs looking at the front tyre, paranoid it was going flat again.  I suppose it will take some time for that feeling to dissipate.

I stopped to take a photo at the site of my accident 8 days before; something to remember Uzbekistan by.

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Scene of the crime

I passed 4 police checkpoints along the way and 2 of them made me park up and hand over documents.  As it was an effort to get off, remove my helmet and extract documents with one arm, I hated them for it, but I suppose they were only doing their job.  All the time I was off the bike at the police checkpoints, I had to keep the bike running because otherwise it would not start again.  Maybe the fall had amplified the existing problem, but now I had to leave it for at least 30 minutes to cool down before it would start again.  I thought it was possibly a dying battery.

I passed a couple of small outhouses in the desert and spotted an old soviet motorcycle outside one of them; a rare sight around these parts.  I stopped to ask if they had any petrol, and luckily they had.  I filled up with 10 litres, enough to get me the rest of the way to Khiva.  I turned the bike off to fuel, and so had a cup of tea while I waited for her to cool down so I could start her again.

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The road was generally good, although the sand dunes were closing in

Back on my way, at one point the road was almost consumed by the desert, but it kept in generally good shape until the turn-off 150km before Khiva.  Then it turned into the bumpiest, huge-pothole filled road in the world, or one of them, which was about the worst it could be; every bump my ribs stabbed and my arm chaffed against the jacket.

Khiva

I eventually rolled into Khiva around midday and thought I’d refill with fuel ready for the morning.  I was having no luck finding any, as all the fuel stations were empty or closed as usual, until a very kind man jumped on his push bike and led me to a house that had some.

In the house lived Furuze and his parents, and they filled me up with fuel out of old water bottles, as usual.  Furuze was a university student studying English, and spoke it pretty well.  His mum was chatty and fun but only spoke Russian, so he translated.  They also gave me a new 5 litre water bottle to carry my spare fuel in, as I noticed mine was leaking.

Then, of course, my bike wouldn’t start.  Rather than wait 30 minutes for it to cool, Furuze kindly offered to give me a push start, but we didn’t get up enough speed on the flat road.  Then he suggested taking it to his mate who’s Dad had a garage across the road; maybe he could fix it?

So we pushed it across the road to the local ‘Bike Master’ and his son, Marhon, who was Furuze’s mate.  They tested the battery and found it was not holding a charge; I needed a new battery.  However, the problem was probably something else as well, as it was strange it started again when it cooled down.  Maybe it was a faulty starter motor, or ignition system.  I thought I would have to wait until the nearest Triumph dealers (in Greece) to sort it out.

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Two top lads – Furuze (middle) and Marhon (left)

We wondered down to the local market and bought a battery that might work, but it didn’t.  I would hopefully be able to get one in Kazakhstan.

Marhon, although only young (20 ish) was already a great mechanic, having been helping his Dad since he was a toddler.  He was also studying to be a doctor at University.  He fixed my 2 front indicators, right pannier and windshield (crash damage), but wouldn’t accept any money, saying it was ‘for friends’.  Instead I insisted on taking them both out to dinner that evening to say thank you.

By now my bike had cooled and the duff battery had enough charge to start it, so I shot off and eventually found the hostel I had booked.  It took a while because my iPhone had gone completely flat and I needed a new power cord, so I was riding around blind until someone kindly sent me in the right direction.

It was now around 4pm and I was really tired.  I had a shower and removed the old dressings, which is always a monumental, painful task, as skin and dressing congeal together in a bloody pulp.

Afterwards I thought I’d have a little lay down to rest my ribs, which were throbbing, and ended up in a deep sleep for 3 hours.

Luckily I woke up at 8.15pm, and rushed outside to meet the lads (only 15 minutes late).  I’m glad I met them, because they took me to a great local café that served delicious shashlik, and then gave me a tour of the old city.  What good lads they were!

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Not a great photo, but here are the lads showing me a good time in Khiva

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The old city was beautiful and had atmospheric lighting

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It was a starry night

Khiva to the Uzbek/Kazakh Border

If I’d thought the ride to Khiva was tough, the next day’s ride made it look like a pleasant amble in the park.

It was an eventful day, full of surprises, and started with 3 valiant (and almost successful) attempts to knock me off my bike.  The first was a donkey cart which came at me out of the pitch darkness just after I’d set off (around 5am).

The second was an old woman carrying a bunch of twigs who just walked right out in front of me.  I don’t like beeping, and usually don’t, but I had to on this occasion to wake her up.  I served just as she stopped and looked up at me in terror, and missed her by a whisker.

The final bunch of 3 was a small puppy dog, who’s owners had not got it under control, which made an unexpected suicide dash across the road, right in front of me.  Again I swerved and just missed it (bringing back memories of the Sri Lankan incident where the dog and I weren’t so lucky).

Was someone trying to tell me something?  My ribs and arm certainly were – they were screaming “we want to be resting in bed!”

I made the next big town, Nukus, early, despite the best attempts to stop me, and continued straight on to Kungrad.  Here I found more black-market fuel (from plastic water bottles) at the local market, which allowed me to save my spare in case I needed it later.

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At least the road was pretty good to the border, although there was nothing to look at…

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… except the occasional railway crossing

The road was pretty good all the way to the border, and a few meters from the Uzbek gate I stalled the bike, of course.  Rather than wait 30 minutes for the engine to cool, a kind group of workers gave me a push-start, and I road through.

This far western Uzbek/Kazakh border crossing is very quiet, but it still took a couple of hours to get through.  At first customs were on lunch, and then one officer asked to see any USB sticks I had and spent ages looking at some fitness videos I had on one.  I jokingly said he could have a copy if he liked, and he then spent another 30 minutes copying the whole thing (I’d forgotten how big the file was).

I briefly met 2 more motorcyclists crossing the other way into Uzbekistan, a Kiwi on a KTM and a Ukrainian on my bike – a Triumph Tiger 800XC.  It was the 4th Tiger one I’d seen in 2 years on the road (one in Malaysia, one in Mongolia, one in Kazakhstan and this one).  I wished them both luck and gave them a bit of information I thought they’d find useful.  In return, they told me the road to Beyneu (the first town in Kazakhstan) was shite.

All this time I had kept my bike running, as it was getting harder and harder to start, and I didn’t want to risk getting stuck.  When I was cleared by Uzbek customs & immigration, the bike was not well, and coughed and spluttered across the border into Kazakhstan.  I thought it sounded like a clogged fuel filter, which wouldn’t be surprising with all the potentially poor fuel I’d been getting.

Kazakh customs were quicker, and the nice customs man just waved me through without searching anything, wishing me luck (how did he know I’d need it?)

I’d left the bike running again, but this time the spluttering was gone and she was perfect!  Maybe the fuel filter blockage had cleared?  Who knows!

By now it was after 2pm and boiling hot.  When I lifted my visor it was like a fan oven blowing roasting air on my face.

Border to Bayneu, Kazakhstan

True enough, the next 80km to Beyneu, Kazakhstan, was one of the worst roads ever for a guy in my condition.  It was sandy, gravelly and full of pot-holes.  I hated every second of it.  I almost slipped over in deep sand a couple of times, and was pretty exhausted.  My arm throbbed and my ribs felt as though they were bursting out of my back.

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One of the good bits on the bad road to Beyneu

I should have had just enough fuel make it to Beyneu so I was surprised when the bike started konking out 20km before the city.  I stopped and added my last spare 2 litres, just in case.

However, it wasn’t lack of fuel – the bike had developed the ‘spluttering’ problem again, and eventually died 5km outside the city.

Bugger!

I still thought it felt like a fuel blockage somewhere, and got off the bike check everything over.  I thought I’d also check the oil, which means sitting the bike up upright.  To do this I pulled it up from the other side, away from the side with the side-stand, as I crouched down to look at the spy-glass.  Unfortunately, I pulled it a bit too far, and she started falling towards me.  With only one arm and broken ribs, there was no way I could stop quarter of a ton of motorcycle, and jumped out of the way to avoid being squashed.

Shit!

At this stage, I was definitely not in a good place, mentally or physically.

I summed up the problems:

  1. I have 2 broken ribs and a skinless arm
  2. My bike has fallen over
  3. I can’t lift it up in my present condition
  4. Even if I did lift it up, it won’t start
  5. Even if it did start, it won’t run

I couldn’t believe this was all happening to me; I was exhausted and my body ached so much I felt like laying down and giving up.  I had gone 680km and the bike gives up 5km from Beyneu.  I hated the bike.  Had a spaceship appeared and offered to ‘beam me up’ and drop me off at home in the UK with a nice cuppa tea and a bed, I would have seriously, seriously considered going.

Just when I was plotting to blow my bike up, a car passed by with 5 strapping men inside.  Without a fuss, they all jumped out, lifted up my bike and gave me a push-start.

Miracle upon miracle, it started, and I roared off to cover the final 5km into Beyneu with a very grateful wave.  Perhaps someone did want me to carry on after all.

Beyneu

Beyneu isn’t so much of a town as a bowl of dust in the middle of nowhere.  It did, however, have a fuel station and a hotel, and I needed both.

Thinking I could get fuel in the morning, I rode straight to the hotel and booked a room; I think I would have paid anything they asked for, but it turned out to be very cheap anyway.  I had a shower, removed the caked on blood congealed dressings (which had also stuck to my shirt), and literally collapsed in bed.  I felt I would need at least 2 days there to recover.

Beyneu to Aktau

I slept solid for around 7 hours and felt much better when I awoke.  There were 4 ladies working in the hotel and they took pity on me, feeding me up and generally being very nice; that’s one benefit of having no skin on your arm!  I had a great breakfast and then felt ready to tackle the final 460km ride to Aktau (the port city where I would hopefully catch a ferry to Azerbaijan).

I had run out of dressing so used my last roll of bandage to wrap around the oozing mess of my arm, and very painfully slipped into my jacket (I hated that part).

It all started well when my bike started first time, and I shot off down the road to look for some petrol, eventually finding some at a small station down the road.  Not wanting to take any chances with the bike refusing to start again, I refueled with the engine running, very carefully (do not try this at home!)

A few miles later, just as I pulled onto the main road to Aktau, the spluttering started again, and my heart sank.

I tried to think positively and logically about what the problem could be.  It couldn’t be bad fuel as I’d just filled up with good fuel (I assumed), so it must be a blockage somewhere along the fuel line.  The only thing I could think of was a blocked fuel filter.

I shook and bounced the bike as I spluttered along to try and dislodge any blockage, but it did no good.  There was no way I could do the long journey like that, so I turned round and just managed to splutter back to the hotel.

Beyneu – again

I found some shade at the side of the hotel and parked up.  The nice ladies there were surprised to see me back so early, but not as surprised as I was.  I asked a local guy and two moped riders if there was a mechanic in town, but they all said there wasn’t.  There didn’t seem to be anything else here except shite roads and camels.

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Unfortunately the camels couldn’t fix my bike, which left no one else in Beyneu

Not giving up hope, I decided to try and fix the problem myself, even though I’d much rather have been sipping margaritas on the beach (‘oh please, please, please bring that day to me quickly!’, I thought).

I’m sure they had a good reason for it, but Triumph decided not to put an easily accessible and cleanable fuel filter on The Tiger, and instead installed it inside the fuel tank (from underneath).  To get at it I would have to take all the fairing off (a right PITA at the best of times) and remove the fuel tank.

The manual was not much help, and I found nothing on a quick forum search.  It appeared the fuel filter couldn’t be cleaned, and the whole unit had to be replaced.  However, I had nothing to lose, so I had a go.

I worked slowly, trying to save my arm and ribs further injury, got the tank off and removed the fuel pump, of which the fuel filter is an integral part.

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My Beyneu workshop

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The fuel pump and filter

The filter is a small, fibrous bag crimped onto the bottom of the pump intake.  It was caked solid in dirt, so I prized it off and cleaned it best I could with whatever I had (oil then petrol).

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I thought I had found the problem (or one of them) – a filthy fuel filter

It seemed to work, and came out looking much better.

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After cleaning it looked much better

After putting everything back together I cleaned up and had a good lunch in the hotel.  Then I crossed my fingers and tried to start the bike.

It didn’t start.

 

Broken Bike

Strangely, the battery now turned over liberally without effort (loose connection? – but I had checked that before); it just wouldn’t start.  No fuel seemed to be getting through, so I checked the hoses and tried again; still nothing.  I tried again and again, checking and re-checking everything I could think of.  I could hear the familiar noise of the fuel pump priming the system each time I switched the ignition on, but still no fuel seemed to be getting through.  What the?!  The only thing I could think of was the fuel pump wasn’t meant to be taken apart and was now not working.

By now I was totally deflated; stuck in the middle of the desert surrounded by nothing but camel poo, 500km from the nearest city with a broken bike and battered body.  How could things get any better?

Margaritas

I suddenly wished I was on that beach again, sipping frozen margaritas; how totally different polar extremes could you get?  To cheer myself up I told myself I would indeed be on that beach one day, and I would look back at this ‘hitch’ and laugh.

Having done everything I could, I decided I must get the bike to Aktau on a train or truck and get it fixed there.  And so I started asking around for help.

During my stay I’d become friendly with another hotel guest called Albek, a Kazakh policeman staying in Beyneu on a training course.  He very kindly offered to help me with a train ticket, which we thought was the best way of getting the bike to Aktau, and off we went to the station.

The train left at 6pm and the cargo office didn’t open until 5pm (it was now 3.30pm), so we went back to the hotel to wait.

Knight in Shining Armour

Then a team of workers from a local oil & gas construction company arrived in a Nissan pick-up and a Russian ‘go anywhere’ UAZ truck.  The driver, Ura, somehow heard about my predicament and came into Albek’s room, where we were sat having a chat at the time.  We said hello, and then they had a long discussion in Russian (as Ura’s English was about as good as my Russian).  All I managed to establish was that he had an old Ural motorbike.

“What was all that about?” I asked Albek, after Ura had left.

“He said they were off to Aktau tomorrow and he will give you a lift once the bike is on the train” he replied.

This was a very kind offer, although I was a bit confused as to why I would go in the car if my bike was on the train.  Surely it would be better for me to stay with my bike?

So I didn’t think too much of it, and just before Albek and I were leaving to try and put the bike on the train, Ura walked in again and had another long chat with Albek.

“And that?”  I asked.

“He said they will now take you AND your bike to Aktau tomorrow, so no need for the train”.

YIPPEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This was great news, as I had a feeling getting my bike on the train was going to be a PITA, especially as it didn’t start (I had a plan to tow it the short distance).

I found Ura and thanked him profusely, although he was laid back and cool about it.  I offered money, beer, anything, but all was refused.

It turns out they were a team of topographical surveyors who on their way back to Aktau for a month’s leave after working in the Aral Sea area for 2 months (where there’s a lot of oil & gas reserves).

In the evening I watched them do some work on their UAZ.  It was a co-incidence they had the same problem as me; a dodgy fuel pump/filter, except they managed to fix theirs (thankfully).

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Outside my Beyneu hotel, and the UAZ truck

Then the team of five lifted the Tiger into the back of the UAZ on top of all their surveying equipment.  We had to let the back tyre down to close the tail-gate, but it worked – just.

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The Tiger just squeezed into the back of the UAZ

They were leaving at 3am, so I booked another night at the hotel.  Then there was nothing left to do but get the beers in to celebrate!  I tried to buy Ura one, but he was driving, so that left me and Albek to finish them.  To top it all, Albek told me Ura had said I was staying at his when we arrived in Aktau, so I needn’t book a hotel.  He also knew a bike mechanic who could (hopefully) fix my bike.  Wow!  Who was this stranger with a Russian Ural?  I knew bikers often helped each other out, but this was going above and beyond.  Was Ura really a man, or a Knight in Shining Armour sent to rescue me?  I’d have preferred a shapely blonde maiden on a unicorn, but I was more than happy with the existing apparition.

I only found out later (from Ura’s son Alan in Aktau) that initially Ura’s team didn’t want to take me and the bike.  It was only when Ura put his foot down and told them he would leave them and help me get back on his own if they refused, that they agreed.  I say again – Wow.  How many people in the World would have said that to his friends/colleagues in order to help a complete stranger?  It made me really happy to know there were people like that in the world, and if everyone was like Ura, I tell you now the world would be a much better place.

Beyneu to Aktau (second attempt)

The road from Beyneu to Aktau was terrible for most of the 460km journey, and my ribs were not enjoying bouncing around on the back seat of the Nissan.  However, I didn’t mind, as every bump was a bump closer to civilisation and my bike being repaired.

We stopped for lunch at an old café in another dusty town, and I bought everyone a meal and drink – filling stewed meat, bread and tea.  Over the journey I got to know the rest of the 4 guys; they were all good guys and I’m sure they were all pleased Ura had made them give me a lift in the end!

Aside: If you ever go to Central Asia, never leave home without plentiful supplies of Imodium.  I got the ‘top twenty hits’ for the umpteenth time just after lunch, so swallowed a couple which soon sorted it out. 

The road to Aktau goes through a district called Mangystau in the southwest of Kazakhstan, which is mostly flat, sandy desert.  However, around halfway the landscape dips off a plateau and falls into an equally flat, desert-like plain.  In this conversion sits a series of colourful, weird rock formations of twisted labyrinth, painted with green, yellow, pink and red sediments.

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Ura (right) and my Nissan lift in Mangystau

We listened to a lot of UK and American dance music on the way (obviously popular in Kazakhstan), stuff I don’t usually listen to; I never realised how the lyrics to the most modern dance music are utter, utter crap – a far cry from the classics of Lennon/McCartney or Marvin Gaye, to name but two.  What has happened to today’s music?  Am I getting really old?

Aktau (at last!)

After 8 and a half bumpy hours, we rolled into the seaside port town of Aktau on the Caspian Sea, and true enough, Ura insisted I was staying at his house.

First we dropped the Tiger off at Ura’s mate, Anton’s garage.  There isn’t a big biker’s community in Aktau, but those that are there all know each other, and Anton occasionally takes a day or 2 off from his regular job to work on their bikes.  I knew it was in good hands, so I was happy leaving it with him.  He too thought it was the fuel pump and probably dirty fuel injectors.

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Dropping the bike off at Ura’s mate’s garage (Anton right, Ura crouched left))

At Ura’s house I was introduced to the family: Anna (Ura’s wife), Alan (their son), Angelina (their young daughter) and Ferusa (their friend and expert nurse).

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Ura’s flat (middle, middle)

It didn’t matter to them that they had no room to put me up; they had put me in their son Alan’s bed, and he had been relegated to the floor without a fuss.  I was extremely grateful, of course, but I didn’t want to take anyone’s bed, and so I set my blow-up camp mattress up on Alan’s floor instead.  That would be fine for me, as it was actually really comfortable.

Pretty much the first thing that happened, Ferusa insisted on cleaning and professionally dressing my arm for me.  It was the usual mess off congealed blood, bandage and shirt after being wrapped up in the same bandages for 2 days.  She did a great job, and afterwards it felt good.  She even put my arm in a sling; so that was why my hand had been swollen for days!

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My new professionally dressed arm – thanks Feruza!

Alan had just completed a degree in English and had plans to ultimately find work in Australia or Europe with his girlfriend.  While he was planning this big move, he was working at the port.

Their young daughter Angelina was just wonderful.  She took great delight in showing me all of her drawings (which were actually very good), and feeding me pistachio nuts.

The whole family was as great, friendly and hospitable as I had imagined they would be, and that night Anna cooked up a great meal to which Ura finally let me buy him a few beers for.  I had certainly been very lucky to meet this great family, and I was extremely thankful.

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Ura, Anna and Angelina, enjoying a few pre-dinner drinks

In the morning my arm was much better and the swelling had gone down a lot; it’s nice when you meet someone who knows what they’re doing!  In fact, over the next two days I was there, my arm healed noticeably rapidly, all down to Ferusa’s expert care.

I stayed at their house over the weekend, and each day we went down to the beach (10 minute walk) to swim and, more importantly, catch langoustines.

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Aktau Beach – not bad!

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Preparing for the langoustine battle (with Anna, Angelina and Ferusa)

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‘The Mummy’ exists the water

Ura was the Master Diver and caught far more than Alan and I.  He had an interesting technique of letting them nip his fingers and then lifting them into his bag.  I was more of a wimp and used more traditional techniques.  I looked like a drowned Mummy when my bandages started unraveling underwater .  The second day we were better prepared and wore gloves!

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Catch of The Day! Alan ad Angelina examine the goods

In the end we landed a nice catch, and Anna did her usual great job cooking them all up for dinner – delicious!

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Anna – Master Chef

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Delicious!

To try and say ‘THANK YOU’ to Ura and his family, one night I took them all out for pizza & drinks in town.  Afterwards Alan and his girlfriend showed me around a few sights of their city.  I liked Aktau and would quite happily go back one day.

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Taking the guys out for pizza & drinks. Anna and Feruza found a new drink they liked, called Brandy ;)

 

Tiger repair

Anton had done a good job with the Tiger, and managed to get it started again by cleaning all the injectors.  The problem had been dirty/poor quality fuel in Uzbekistan (and probably Tajikistan) which had clogged everything up.  He showed me a pile of rust he’d picked out of the tank with a magnet when I had visited him a day later.  Obviously I had not been prudent enough with my own filtering techniques (coffee filters).

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Some of the rust/crud Anton removed from inside my tank

He had also done a great job fixing my right pannier, welding on a new frame and riveting on more tin.

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My re-modeled right pannier and frame

We also went to buy a new battery with top guy Vladimir, another biker who had been our translator.

However, on installing the new battery, it proved the starting problem was down to something else – possibly a faulty starter motor that I’d have to get fixed in Greece.  Never mind; I could live with waiting 30 minutes or so for it to cool down, where upon it would still magically fire up again.

Ferry Ticket

I popped down to the ferry office Monday morning with Feruza and asked when the next one to Baku (Azerbaijan) was.  I’d heard I could be waiting up to a week or more, as they usually went when they were full, but it must have been my lucky day, as there was one leaving the next day.  They told me I must ride down to the port to start what I knew would be a long-winded marathon of paperwork.

And it was.  No one seemed to have a clue what they were doing; they just kept blindly stamping my Bill of Lading (once I’d got it from one counter) to tick their boxes as I moved from one counter to the next.  No one even looked at my motorcycle, not even the fire chief who had to inspect it and also leave his stamp.  After an hour or so, I had all the stamps I needed but one, the Border Control stamp, which I would have to get in the morning when the ferry came alongside.

I was lucky and bumped into Alan at the port, who was just finishing work, so he had helped me find the fire chief’s building for that stamp.

All this time I had left my bike running outside (locked up) as I didn’t want to risk it not starting again.  When I went to ride back to Ura’s, the blimmin thing coughed, spluttered and died.  And then it wouldn’t start, of course.

By now I’d gathered the bike didn’t like being left idling for long periods, so I decided not to do that anymore.  Luckily, after waiting 30 minutes, she started and rode OK back to Ura’s.  I parked up and hoped she would make it onto the ferry the next morning; I had been told by the ticket agent to get down the port for 4am.

Farewell Aktau!

Ura and his family were their usual fantastic selves and waited up to see me off at 4am (I was running a bit late).  Anna had made me a packed lunch and bottle of tea, Ferusa has been up all night sowing up my ripped biker jacket and trousers and Ura gave me a spark plug cigarette lighter and a Kazakh police badge (goodness knows where he’d acquired that!).

The bike started OK, with great relief, and they all waved me off as I set off on the short 8km ride to the port.

I got the last stamp at 5am from ‘Border Control’ and then sat for hours in the basic ferry waiting room for an exit stamp in my passport.

Just to prove that no one knew what they were doing, another Border Control agent in the ferry office gave me another stamp at 10am, which was the same stamp I’d got from them earlier at 5am.

After 9 hours waiting in the ferry terminal the immigration officer finally arrived and stamped me and a handful of other passengers out.  It had been a long, frustrating wait, made worse by the fact I kept being told ‘just another 30 minutes’….

My bike started first time again and I wasted no time riding onto the ferry.  I was sad to be leaving Asia and new found friends, but eager to continue my trip back home into Europe via Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

Moral?

Is there a moral to this story that some of us may be able to learn from (except for the obvious = wear protection!)?

I think so, and this is what I think it is:

Even when you are at your lowest and feel like giving up, there are always people out there ready to pick you up and help you get back on your way.  Hang in there, keep smiling, and you will find them.  For me it started with Gabe in Tennessee, and then continued with many other people including Dave in Darwin, Febri in Java, Anton in Kazakhstan, and now Ura, again in Kazakhstan.

It is often said that the best experiences occur when your ‘chips are down’, and I think this is because it brings you into closer contact with the locals who help you.  So try not to fret, and try to enjoy the experience that may well turn out to be one of the best you’ve ever had.

This may sound wet, but even though I’m proud to be British, I think of myself more as a ‘World Citizen’.  My travels have confirmed that people are (more-or-less) the same all over the world – generally happy and good, willing to help a stranger out, and in many cases give them the food off their table.  OK, it’s a song, but I think John Lennon had it spot-on when he said:

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion, too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

 

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will be as one

 

As well as the above, there have been a couple more pluses to this exciting episode in my travels:

  1. I’ve learnt to shave my head left-handed
  2. See above (it’s quite a big thing)
Categories: Uzbekistan | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Uzbekistan

Tashkent

I was a bit more prepared in Uzbekistan than I had been in Tajikistan, and had pre-booked cheap hostels with good reviews ahead along my intended route of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.  I hoped by the time I got to Khiva (in 6 days) my Turkmenistan visa would have arrived, allowing me to transit on through via the Darvaza Fire Crater and Ashgabat before catching the ferry to Azerbaijan from Turkmenbashi.  It all seemed like a good plan!

I was expecting a lot of hassle and delay at the border crossing from Tajikistan into Uzbekistan, after having read (and heard from other travellers) that Uzbek customs are particularly brutal and insist on searching everything.  I’d even heard stories of laptops and hard-drives being searched for ‘illegal content’, and private photos being searched on media-phones.  As it was, I passed through with just a cursory glance into a couple of my bags.  I’m certain that a positive attitude and lots of smiling at border crossings definitely helps speed things up.  The motorbike helps too, as most people are interested in it, and some officials even ask for their photos to be taken with it.  I’m also sure being alone helps too – maybe they just feel sorry for me!

I passed down the other side of the mountain range separating the two countries, into a flat, fertile plain packed-full of fruit & vegetables.  The area seems particularly good for growing melons, judging by the millions and millions (at least a trillion) I past piled up high in stalls along the road.

It was hot and getting hotter, so when I passed a huge lake, I pulled off to see if I could take a quick dip.

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Swim?

I found a small local tourist resort and lots of people having fun on pedalo boats.

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The Uzbek Butlins

 I was dying for a cold water and approached a lady by a drinks stall to buy one.  As I reached for my wallet, I suddenly remembered I hadn’t yet obtained any local money.  Oops!  I asked if she’d take Tajik somoni, or US dollars, but she didn’t.  “Oh well – never mind”, I thought.

Just as I apologised and walked away, the lovely lady ran up to me and handed me a large, cold bottle of water – for free!  Wow!  I thanked her profusely and got her and the other lady stall owner together for a photo.  The younger of the two seemed to take a liking to me and insisted on a couple more photos of just us two; I did notice she wasn’t made of wood ;)

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Two non-wooden Uzbeks

I’d heard Uzbeks were friendly people, and I couldn’t wait to meet more of them.  Yes, I thought it was going to be a good stay.

I arrived in the big, busy Uzbek capital of Tashkent mid-afternoon.  Traffic was heavy, but it seemed to flow OK.  Although much smaller than Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia with some 30 million people, almost 3 million of these in Tashkent.

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My bike riding itself in Tashkent

On the way to my hostel, I pulled up alongside an interesting building to take a photo, and was left stranded when my bike wouldn’t start.  It had done this a couple of times before when it had been really hot (it started in Mongolia), and I guessed the battery may be slowly dying.  I waited 15 minutes for the bike to cool, which usually works, and it did, and raced off to find my guesthouse.

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This photo cost me 15 minutes

Young lad Oybek and his father ran a clean, tidy guesthouse near the bazaar (market) in the city centre.  It was there I met my first Mongol Ralliers, two Brit lads that had flown ahead of their team who were in 2 Nissan Micras because their Azerbaijan visas hadn’t come through in time.  They told some good stories, but even before I had met them I had already made up my mind to do the rally in a year or two, and try and get my mechanic brothers out of Norwich (Andy and Eddie take note! ;) ).

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Tashkent Bazaar

Nathan, the Californian I had met in Dushanbe, arrived about an hour after me in his shared taxi, and we ventured down to the bazaar at the end of the road to find some food and a beer.  I changed 100 US dollars for 300,000 som on the black-market from a man with a large black bin-bag full of money.  There were loads of these guys wondering around, so it wasn’t too difficult to find one.  I got given a large pile of 300 notes, as the most commonly used denomination is the 1,000 som note.  I also got 70,000 more som than the official exchange rate, which is a well-known fact in Uzbekistan, and an indicator of the level of corruption (it gives certain people access to cheap currency).  Rampant inflation since independence from the Soviets in 1991, and slack fiscal policy, has meant huge piles of money are required even for the weekly shopping.  At least it made me feel rich, with all my pockets bulging with cash (until I quickly spent it)!

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Nathan buying us what we thought was beer, but turned out to be root-beer – doh!

After a bit of searching (for wifi), we found a decent British Pub called ‘The Chelsea’, except for the name (‘The Norwich’ had been relegated), and there we met another guy on the Mongol Rally called Gary, who had managed to break his foot riding a motocross bike in Turkey.  He too had flown ahead to meet his team again as they passed through Uzbekistan.

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Doing ‘a deal’ in The Chelsea

The Chelsea was owned by a local Chelsea football fan and got busy quickly as the night progressed.  They also had their own brewery attached and made, without doubt, the worst beer I have ever had;  it tasted like kumis, or sour horse milk, which isn’t good at the best of times, particularly in a beer (just believe me).

As I planned to leave for Samarkand the next day, I got up early next morning and wondered down to see some of the sights.  The hostel was conveniently only a 15 minute walk from the Khazrati Iman Architectural Complex, a collection of several Mosques, Madrasahs (educational centres) and Mausoleums (tombs).  The early buildings date back to the 16th century, but they were marvelously restored in 2007 and now stand as a breathtaking collection of 500 year old architecture.

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The stunning Khazrati Iman Architectural Complex

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And again

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I tried to climb this, but got told off :)

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Once more for luck

The Muyi Muborak Madrasah (‘sacred hair madrasah’) is said to have some hair from the Prophet Muhammad.  I searched around for a bit to see if another madrasah had any of my hair, but they didn’t.  The Muyi also houses what is believed to be the world’s oldest Quran – the 8th century Uthman Koran.

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Inside a Madrasah courtyard

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And inside another one

Many of the buildings are adorned by the trademark blue-glazed tiled domes of this era – some of the most architectural striking sights I have ever seen.  I must admit I was surprised and felt somewhat ignorant after seeing such beautiful buildings; I never even knew they existed.

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Beautiful blue-glazed tiled domes covered most buildings

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Lots of green in this desert

Quick observation:  Everyone I’ve met in Uzbekistan so far has gold teeth – probably easier than carrying around bags of worthless money.

Samarkand

The journey from Tashkent to Samarkand was only just over 300km, a mere hop compared to my recent daily mileage, and I completed it easily on one tank of fuel.  For some reason I seemed to be getting more miles to the gallon recently – superior fuel?  I doubt it!

The journey was flat and passed though the same fertile plains that surround Tashkent, with lots of fruit and veg for sale by the side of the road, which I stopped to buy for lunch.

It was around 40 degrees C (104 F) and I was melting.  For the final hour of the journey I took my jacket off; there just wasn’t enough airflow through it to cool me down.  I slowed down, of course, but I thought it was worth the risk of horrible gravel rash over heat stroke.  That’s the trouble with ‘Round the World’ trips: there’s just not enough space to bring clothing for all weathers.  What I really needed was a summer biker’s jacket as my Kilimanjaro was just too hot for this semi-arid climate in summer.

All along the road were fuel stations, most of them looking brand new, but their only disadvantage was they had no fuel.

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One of Uzbekistan’s many new fuel stations, with no fuel!

I’d managed to get petrol (benzene) OK in the capital, but outside Tashkent I had heard it was very hard to come by.  It seems Uzbekistan has plenty of oil & gas reserves, but not the means or expertise to extract it (yet).  This meant I had to buy petrol on the black market, which was easy enough (if you asked around for a while), but meant I was getting fuel of dubious quality out of old plastic water bottles.  I found my supply in Samarkand along a main road inside a clandestine garage.

Uzbekistan was at least very friendly; I was getting more attention on the road than anywhere else I’ve been on this world trip.  Everywhere I went people and other car drivers would wave and give me the ‘thumbs up’.  Cars would also pull up to me at lights for a chat, or to wave and say ‘Hi!’  It was nice.

I found my Samarkand guesthouse easily, thanks to my iPhone map, and it was another old, beautiful complex in the centre of the old city.

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Beautiful Samarkand

I met more Mongol Rally teams there, including one in an old Fiat Panda which had been broken for longer than it had been running – fair play to its drivers for keeping it going!

During the past few days, the repair that the kind chef had done to my biker trousers’ crotch in Mongolia had unraveled, and I was now dangerously close to being arrested for indecent exposure.  Luckily, there happened to be a tailor’s down the road, and the lovely girls in there fixed them for me for free.  That was the second thing I’ve had given to me free in Uzbekistan; it was quickly becoming one of the friendliest and prettiest places I’ve visited.

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The lovely ladies of ‘Samarkand Tailors’ who fixed me britches for free :)

I’m not usually a city person, preferring the open landscape of the countryside to city architecture, but Samarkand may be an exception.  It is filled with exceptionally pretty architecture, mosques, fountains and greenery.  It was the first time I could remember smelling the fresh aroma of green grass, plants and trees for a while.

I liked the relaxed, open feel of the city and was glad I’d planned to stay a couple of days.  It had everything I needed – a cheap room, good food, interesting history and friendly people (OK, it was just missing the free beer).

Conveniently, the largest tourist attraction in Samarkand just happened to be 10 minutes’ walk from my hostel (again): The Registan.

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One of the three Madrasahs in The Registan, Samarkand

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And again

The Registan (meaning ‘sandy place’) was built as a public square way back in the 15th century (when I assume it used to be sandy), and was where people gathered to hear speeches, witness executions and see the latest Hollywood Blockbusters.  It is framed on 3 sides by three Madrasahs, each one strikingly beautiful with amazingly intricate blue-glazed tile patterns, domed roofs and towering minarets.

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Amazing (not just the photo)

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Not bad for 500 years old

Inside are courtyards, lecture rooms and the old dormitories the students used to live in, now used to sell local handicraft, snacks and house interesting museums.

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Inside one of the Madrasahs. Small gift shops hugged the internal archways

The first Madrasah (Ulugh Beg Madrasah) was completed by the ruler at the time, Ulugh Beg, in 1420. He also built one in the city of Bukhara, transforming the cities into cultural centers of learning in Central Asia.  Ulugh Beg was quite a remarkable man – a mathematics genius, astronomer and ruler of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, southern Kazakhstan and most of Afghanistan for almost half a century (1411 to 1449).

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The gold roof inside one of the mosques

Bukhara

Samarkand to Bukhara was an even shorter journey of 280km.  The landscape was again flat, but the fertile plains slowly disappeared and were replaced by semi-arid scrub with the occasional empty fuel station.

It was getting hotter, and I took my jacket off again for part of the journey.

I was looking for some shade to stop for lunch, but I had as much chance of finding some as I had a drive-in McDonalds (and I really fancied a Big Mac!)

I passed three or four police checkpoints along the way, but only once was I directed to pull over for a routine document check.  I was pulled over a second time for cutting into a long line of traffic and slapped on the wrist.

Once again, my advance planning paid off, and I rode straight up to another wonderfully pretty guesthouse in the centre of the old city, along with half the teams from the London-Mongol Rally.  Why didn’t I do this ‘planning’ thing more often?

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Teams from the ‘London to Mongolia Rally’

This time I was in a dormitory, as the single rooms were a bit more expensive, and shared it with three top lads on the Rally from Australia and New Zealand in a Subaru Forrester.  I liked this guesthouse most of all.  It was in a great location, had a great social courtyard where everyone gathered, and they even put on 3 hot, cheap and delicious meals a day for 5 US dollars each.

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My fab guesthouse ‘Rustam and Zukhra’

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and inside…

Bukhara is an easy city to explore, and all the main sights are within walking distance; more beautiful 14th and 15th century architecture than you can shake two sticks at.

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More of the same – this time in Bukhara

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Inside a Madrasah in Bukhara – trees, flowers and beer; my 3 favourite things (except for sausages)

Highlights for me were the charming Char-Minar (‘four minarets’), with its unique, Indian-style design and four minarets with sky blue cupolas (built in 1807), and the much earlier 48m (160ft) high Kalyan Minaret (built in 1127), where criminals used to be hurled off the top to their deaths right up until 1920.

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The Char-Minar (‘four minarets’) – built in 1807

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And again, in case you missed it

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The 48m (160ft) high Kalyan Minaret (built in 1127). People were pushed off here up until 1920

The next day I bumped into Nathan again as he arrived from Samarkand, and went off to grab a beer and a catch-up by the picturesque pond in the old town centre.  Later we tried to find something that resembled ‘nightlife’, but the closest we came was an almost empty cabaret-style club, where the police came in and told the owner to turn the music down.  The only other people in there were a group of local men sat around drinking fruit juice.  When we went to go home, they all turned out to be taxi drivers waiting for us to finish!  Why can’t clubs be like that in Norwich?

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Pre-Bukhara nightlife

Categories: Uzbekistan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pamir Highway #3

The Pamir Highway – Day 4 – Khorog to Dushanbe

I had a relaxing night in Khorog and woke early to a good free breakfast at my wonderful guesthouse, Lalmo Homestay.  I considered staying another day because the leafy, sleepy town had a traditional music festival on.  However, I could hear it in the distance from my homestay and, nothing against Tajik traditional music, but I thought the best place to listen was as far away as possible.

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Back on the road north of Khorog

Back on the road north of Khorog I was back on the surfaced M41 Pamir Highway, and the road was good for a while up to a town called Rushan, sporting the usual Russian style ‘welcome arch’.

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The typical Russian-style welcome sign at Rushan

The road then turned west, still following the Panj River and Afghan border, and cut rather impressively into towering walls of solid rock.

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The road still followed the Panj River and Afghan border, and cut rather impressively into towering walls of solid rock

All of a sudden, when descending a hill, my front brake lever went rock hard and my front brakes seized on.  It had happened once before in Bishkek but I assumed it was because I’d left the bike standing for a week while I was waiting for my new clutch to arrive.  I pulled over by the side of the road, took the caliper and brake pads off and pushed back the pistons.  I spayed the pistons with a bit of WD40 to dislodge any dirt that had more than likely caused the seizure.

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Halfway down a hill my front brakes seized…

Before I set off, I noticed the plastic oil container I was carrying my spare fuel in had developed a small hole in the bottom and was leaking, so I chucked it.  Fuel stops looked far more regular from here on, so I was sure I wouldn’t need it anyway.

Several other sizeable rivers flow into the Panj along its route, and at one of these crossings I came up against a long line of lorries waiting to cross a bridge while some kind of repairs were underway.  They had made camp and had been there for days, I guessed.  Luckily the workmen let me ride across or else I could have been there for days as well.

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Traffic jam!

It was a really hot day and I stopped frequently to apply more sun-cream to my face; it had got burnt a couple of days ago and my lips were still peeling.

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Bridge across to Afghanistan

I passed a picnic shelter (one of the only ones I’d seen) and used the rare opportunity to escape the relentless sun and stop for lunch by the river.  A nice family in a car pulled up for a chat and asked me if I needed anything. They were from the capital Dushanbe.  I was also headed there, but wasn’t sure if I would make it in one day (being 600km away from Khorog on roads of varying quality).

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Another hot day!

The valley here was narrow, and the Panj River cascaded down rapids violently; I thought it would be a great place to come white-water rafting, although in places I thought it may be even too violent for that.

As the valley was narrow, I could clearly see the traditional Afghan squat, rectangular, mud houses across the river/border, and their occasional beautifully farmed terraces covering the steep Afghan mountainsides.

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Traditional Afghan squat, rectangular, mud houses across the river

Shortly after lunch my right pannier decided to fall off.  A dip in the road had caught me out and I took off as I jumped it, leaving the pannier behind on the road when I landed with a bump.

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This time it was the right pannier that decided to fall off

The pannier frame I’d had welded on in Almaty had snapped, so I pulled it off and hoped the pannier would remain on with only the 2 metal clasps holding it at the top (luckily they hadn’t broken off).  I would have to take it easy.

I’m not too sure why, but this section of the Pamir was really dragging; it was probably something to do with my pannier falling off and brakes seizing.  I also expected the road to be surfaced all the way, but I was surprised to find frequent long stretches of rough, gravelly and occasionally sandy road again.  After a while it became quite tedious and I couldn’t wait to get back on the black stuff and make some ground up.

Even the kids were now annoying me; instead of waving, as the kids back east did, for some reason they all wanted to make contact with ‘High Fives’.  Whenever I approached them, they would run out into the road, dangerously close, holding out their hands to try and make contact.  This was extremely dangerous, as they could have easily slipped on the gravel and went into me, or hit my pannier, and I ended up taking a wide berth to avoid them as much as possible.  Whoever started that stupid craze?

I thought I might stay in Kalai-Khumb, a town 240km up from Khorog, but when I arrived there 6 hours after setting off (after what seemed like forever) and didn’t spot anything I thought worth staying for, I decided to push on to Dushanbe.  Yes, it was another 340km, but I hoped the road would quickly improve and I could make up some time.  It was also a bit cooler riding in the evening, so I didn’t mind.

From Kalai-Khumb there are two possible routes taking you to Dushanbe; a northern route and a slightly longer southern route.  I decided to take the southern route, as although slightly longer, it was the main route favoured by most traffic and hence more likely populated by fuel stations (I would need one).  The roads were also supposedly better on the southern route, and I had had enough of rubbish roads for the time being.

As it turned out, the road did improve just west of Kalai-Khumb, and I was delighted to open up the Tiger (for the first time in 4 days) and have fun on an immaculate new road, still twisting alongside the river.

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At last – a perfect, new road to open up on!

Although the road was generally good, there was a horribly, sticky, red clay section under construction which cut through a mountain up towards Kulob.

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View of the valleys below headng up the Kulob embankment

By sunset I had arrived at Nurek Reservoir, the (disputed) tallest dam in the world at 310m high.  There are nine hydroelectric turbines in the dam which meets an incredible 98% of the nation’s electricity needs (as quoted on a Tajik website).

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I was pleased to see Nurek Reservoir as it meant I was almost at Dushanbe!

Lost in Dushanbe

I eventually rolled into Dushanbe hot, tired and completely lost after almost 12 hours on the road (600km on a wide variety of roads – some good, some very bad).  The local SIM card I had been given by kind travellers in Bishkek was not working (properly out of credit) and I had done no previous research on cheap places to stay.

Dying for a beer and a bed, I rode into the centre of town, hoping something would turn up.  And it did, as it happens, as things usually do if you ride around for long enough.

I passed a flash looking restaurant and saw a couple of motorbikes parked outside (a Suzuki Boulevard and a customised Honda Shadow), so I thought I’d park next to them, as three’s always better than two.

As soon as I rolled up (after driving up a couple of curbs and down a pedestrian path to get there) the owners of the two bikes had walked outside to meet me and welcomed me with open arms.  Indeed, I had hoped this would be the case, as usually wherever I’ve been in the world, bikers always treat other bikers as though they’re part of an extended family.

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Mr Gafur and his Honda Shadow

The Honda rider, Gafur, and his mate immediately led me to their table and ordered me a large beer; they could tell from my face, and head to toe covering of mud and dust, that I needed one desperately.  And, boy, did it taste good!

I never found out what either of them did, as their English (and my Russian/Tajik) was limited, but it didn’t matter because it was a perfect night.  My beer glass was never empty, and food magically appeared in front of me at various intervals; neither food nor beer touched the sides at any time.

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A great first evening in Dushanbe, thanks to my new biker friends

Over the course of the evening, I used the restaurant’s wifi to find what appeared to be the only cheap accommodation in Dushanbe.  It was a hostel called ‘Yeti’ and Gafur kindly offered to take me there.  As I didn’t want to put him out, I told him I’d be fine, but he insisted, and so at around midnight, a Triumph Tiger and a Honda Shadow were out cruising Dushanbe’s leafy streets looking for an elusive hostel.  OK, I’d had a couple of beers, but I knew I was OK to ride (not condonable, I know); Gafur, on the other hand, was all over the show and I’m surprised he didn’t get pulled over.  Perhaps he was the Dushanbe Godfather?  I had a feeling he was certainly a man of influence, judging by the number of people who approached him to say ‘hi’ over the course of the evening.

In any case, Gafur got us there (by calling the hostel in the end), and I once again thanked my lucky stars I was part of the biker fraternity.

The Yeti Hostel

The Yeti Hostel was a clean & tidy place on the 6th floor of a drab, grey tower block, in what looked like a part of town you shouldn’t wonder back to after dark.  In actual fact, it was perfectly safe, as me and an American backpacker I went for a few beers with the next night (Nathan) made it back alive in the early hours the next day.  Yes, if ever you find yourself at a loose end in Dushanbe, I can heartily recommend the Irish Pub and ‘Peoples’ nightclub.

Anyway, before the all-day drinking shenanigans began, Nathan and I had found the Turkmenistan Embassy early in the morning and handed in our applications (after a little excitement trying to find a colour photocopier).  I’d read you could apply in one city and collect the visa at the border a week later, and the nice Mr Turkmenistan Consul confirmed this, so I crossed my fingers that it would work.  My rough plan was to enter Turkmenistan at Dashoguz (from Khiva) and ride down to the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi to catch the ferry cross to Azerbaijan.

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Dushanbe Botanical Gardens provided a nice place for a kebab lunch (whilst getting attacked by the biggest wasps I’ve ever seen)

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Dushanbe is pretty green, with lots of water/fountains and a HUGE flag

The Embassy was in the north of town, and afterwards Nathan and I walked a couple of miles south into the centre.  Nathan wanted to go to a museum he’d read about, and I wanted a beer, as for some reason it seemed like a Saturday (it was Monday, but isn’t every day a Saturday when you’re riding a motorbike around The World?)

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Dushanbe high street, looking for a pub or museum

Fortunately we passed a pub first (which happened to be an Irish Pub), before the museum.  It was one of those days when a lunchtime pint turned into another one, and another one, and before we knew it, it was almost midnight.

During the course if the evening we met many colourful characters including a flamboyant Brit teacher, a group of European NGOs, local Kyrgyzs and a love-struck Turk; expat pubs are always good for a laugh.

On an aside, if you want one, I suddenly realised today that almost all backpackers I’ve met in the past few months have been sporting raggedy beards; it must be the new backpacker fashion, and I’m pleased to say I’m glad I’m miles behind, as usual (mainly because I can’t grow a decent one). 

 

In the end I stayed for 3 nights in Dushanbe, the third night mainly to recover from the night out on the sauce on the second night.  On the last night, Nathan and I had a junk food night and consumed a bucket of Tajik ‘Southern Fried Chicken’ and a large pizza; it’s nice to do that every once in a while.

We were both heading for Tashkent the next day, the capital of Uzbekistan, but Nathan was going via shared taxis as I (unfortunately) didn’t have any room to take him and his luggage on the Tiger.

 

Anzob Tunnel

The route north of Dushanbe towards the Tajik/Uzbek border takes you up twisty mountain roads with great views to the infamous Anzob Tunnel.  I’d read and heard a lot about it – 5.5 miles of terrible road in the pitch darkness – but I thought it couldn’t be as bad as everyone made out.

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Great views up to the infamous Anzob Tunnel

In fact, it was worse; not because of the road condition, but because of the horrendous traffic jam I encountered when I went through.

About a third of the way in, the tunnel went down to one lane while road works were being completed in the other lane.  As usual, a couple of idiots had tried to jump the queue and were now blocking the oncoming traffic.  It was gridlock, pitch black and hell, and I was choking in the middle of it all.

The worst thing about the tunnel is the lack of ventilation, and there is reportedly only one fan in the middle of the tunnel doing very little to clear the horrendous traffic fumes.  It was hard enough to see in the dark with my poor headlights (the backing plates had vibrated off at some point in Mongolia), but with the carbon monoxide smog, it was impossible in places.  My bike’s problem of cutting out when it got too hot (not moving) was also getting worse, and it was a pain having to keep starting her up.

I was stuck behind a car and couldn’t get past because there was a huge cement block in the way.  I tried to ask the driver to pull forward, but he wasn’t there!  Goodness knows why you’d get out of your car in that poisonous atmosphere (maybe he had done a Reggie Perrin?).  It was so noisy with traffic, car horns and people shouting, I could barely hear the Tigers engine running above it all.

I sat there, stuck in the gridlock for a few minutes, choking on the gases; apparently people have died before in the tunnel of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Then I got fed up and tried to squeeze the bike through the gap between the car and the block.  I only had millimeters to spare, and had to lean the bike away from the car a fraction to avoid denting it, but I just made it.

Then I entered an aggressive riding ‘self-survival mode’ and started weaving in-between the gridlocked traffic until I finally made it out the other side.  It wasn’t fun, at all, and I almost got squashed up against the tunnel wall by cars and trucks several times.  I didn’t find the poor road condition and water-filled potholes hard to deal with at all, but that was mostly down to the superb Tiger.

Having survived the Anzob Tunnel, there were several other shorter tunnels on the route north, but they were in perfect condition.  I’m sure the Chinese builders will soon have the Anzob completed as well, although they seem to be taking their time.  I’m amazed at how the workmen actually survive working in those conditions (it can’t be good for their life expectancy)!

Soon enough I was at the Tajik/Uzbek border, but you’ll have to wait for the next post to see what I got up to in Uzbekistan (here’s a clue – stacks of money, shite beer, shite fuel (if you can find it), very friendly people, amazing architecture, blood and guts on the road and a short undercover mission to a local hospital… not to be missed!)

 

Here’s my summary of the Pamir Highway (for people who like summaries, and others who don’t want to read all my waffle):

 

A remote, often spectacular, snow-capped mountainous region with gushing rivers and a couple of lakes (more spectacular for me towards the eastern end).  The road is mostly decent and surfaced except for excursions into valleys, such as the Wakhan Valley route.  Petrol (92 or 80 Octane ‘Benzene’) is regularly available if you ask around in small villages (I did not need to carry any extra, and my range is 300km).  I did need to carry extra 5 litres of drinking water, as I did not have a water filter (bottled water & groceries are rare).  The people are very friendly and hospitable.  The Wakhan Valley was nice but not as spectacular as I’d heard (which probably increased my expectations); if you don’t like riding on gravel/sand/washboard, stay on the surfaced M41 instead.  I completed the highway from Osh to Dushanbe in 4 days, 3 nights (I camped at Lake Karakol, homestay at Langar and guesthouse at Khorog), which was just right for me.  The Tiger ate the rough roads for breakfast (on Heidenau K60 Scout tyres) and had no problems with the fuel or altitude. 

Categories: Tajikistan | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pamir Highway #2

The Pamir Highway – Day 2 – Lake Karakul to Langar

Waking up in the morning camped on Lake Karakul, northeastern Pamirs, was just perfect: bright sunshine and no wind.  The only sound I could hear was the water lapping gently upon the shore (and not the wind inside the tent, as some witty family member is bound to remark).

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Someone had ridden their motorbike right through my tent!

I went for a quick dip; it was really cold, but just what I needed to wake me up.

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Nothing wakes you up like a quick dip in a freezing lake

Karakul Lake was created by a meteor impact around 10 million years ago and sits in a basin at 3,914m surrounded by the snow-capped Pamir Mountains.  The lake is salty, although after my swim my skin didn’t feel too salty.  It freezes solid in the winter and stays frozen until May (no wonder it was cold!).  I’d read that in 2 month’s time (Sep 14) they planned to hold a sailing regatta there, which would officially make it the highest ‘navigable lake’ in the world after Lake Titicaca on the Bolivia/Peru border.

I savoured the total peace and tranquility of the area (I was the only one around for miles) and took my time packing up the tent.  I heated up the leftover Spag Bol I’d made for dinner the night before and then set off on my way towards the Ak-Baital Pass and Murghab, where I would hopefully find my next fuel stop, ‘inshallah’.

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Lake Karakol, Tajikistan – perfect camping

I was looking forward to the ride over the Ak-Baital (White Horse) Pass, the highest section of the Pamir Highway at 4,655m (15,200ft).  It is supposed to be one of the easiest places to spot Marco Polo Sheep from the road; a rare, huge sheep with huge horns (and the National animal of Afghanistan) that some people pay 16,000 US dollars to hunt (I could travel for a year on that!).  I didn’t see any, but I was mostly looking at the incredibly spectacular scenery instead; some of the best I’ve ever seen.

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Approaching Ak-Baital Pass

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Over the pass the road turns to washboard, but its not too bad

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Ak-Baital Pass – 4,655m (15,200ft) – the highest on the Pamir Highway

Many people attack the Pamir Highway west to east, as this allows more time to acclimatise due to a gradual increase in altitude, and reduce the potential for altitude sickness (which commonly occurs over 3,500m, or 11,500ft).  I, however, was lucky and didn’t feel any effects.  Never-the-less, seriously consider this if you’re planning to visit this area.

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Ak-Baital Pass

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Going down the other side

Murghab

Once over the pass, it didn’t take long to get to Murghab; a dry, dusty town in the middle of nowhere.  I waved at 2 policemen hiding in a speed trap as I rode in; they didn’t wave back.

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Murghab appearing on the horizon out of the dusty desert

I had no Tajik money (having come from the remote eastern border with Kyrgyzstan), so I found the local bank to change some dollars.  It was shut.

“Hmm”, I thought.

The only other thing that looked half open was the town hotel, where a nice English-speaking manager told me ‘of course I’ll change money for you!’  Moments like that I could kiss people.

To celebrate I had lunch at the hotel as well; pea soup and traditional plov (rice and a few scraps of some indescript meat).  I’d had a dose of ‘Tia Maria’ since leaving Bishkek and had been sinking Imodium like smarties, so I thought I’d lay off the salad for a change (likely culprit).

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Tajik staple – pea soup and plov (rice and ‘meat’)

After lunch I filled up at the town ‘fuel station’; it was 232km since my last fill at Sary-Tash.

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Murghab fuel station

I thought about heading out towards Bulunkul where there were a couple of lakes I thought I could camp at, and so bought a pass for the National Park (as is required) at the Murghab Tourist Information Office for a couple of dollars.

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The busiest Tourist Information Office in the world…

Leaving Murghab the road continued along a pretty river valley – the first greenery I’d seen since Osh.

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The first greenery since Osh

I wasn’t too sure where my next fuel would come from, but was sure some would turn up somewhere, as it usually did.  I’d heard I could get some at Ishkashim, 300 odd km away, so I was sure I’d be OK.  As it turned out, I found some at a small town called Alichur 105km further on, poured out of old barrels (obviously great quality!).

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Alichur ‘Fuel Station’ – make sure you use your own filters!

The road between Murghab and Alichur is pretty flat and not as scenic as the road before Murghab, so I was looking forward to the Khargush Pass & Wakhan Valley (that had been recommended to me) for a change of scenery.

I had seen dozens of cyclists along the Pamir so far, but no motorcyclists.  There was a strong headwind all the way to Alichur, and I felt sorry for the ones biking that way.

I could sense a marked difference with the friendliness of the Pamir people; everyone I passed waved at me – it was nice.  Young girls would even drop whatever they were carrying (usually water jugs) to wave.  Every time I stopped, even though I thought no-one was around, I would soon be surrounded by interested looking locals who appeared to climb out of the trees.

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These 3 wondered up to see what the strange man on the motorbike was doing

Just past Alichur there was one of many routine police/army check-points; they have a long, porous border to patrol with Afghanistan, and an estimated 20% of Afghanistan’s opiate and heroin production seeps through daily.

I got to the National Park junction early:  straight on for the lakes, or left for the Wakhan Valley.  I decided to take the Wahkan Valley turn-off, eager to see if it lived up to all the hype I’d heard.

The Wakhan Valley

The Wakhan Valley turn-off is a rubble road just past Alichur which splits off from the main (surfaced) Pamir Highway (or M41) and heads south across the Khargush Pass and down into the Wakhan Valley (it was the last I’d see tarmac for 2 days).  This part of the road follows the Tajik/Afgan border for over 200km to Ishkashim, before heading north to Khorog and rejoining the M41.  From the rave reviews I’d had from other travellers, it sounded too good to miss.

The rubble road of the Khargush Pass passed a couple of small lakes which looked great from a distance, but the green and red water didn’t look too inviting for swimming as I got closer.

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Fancy a swim?

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Err – no thanks!

Then, after another check-point, I met the Pamir River and finally swung west into the Wakhan Valley.

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The end of the Khargush Pass where the River Pamir welcomes you into the Wakhan Valley

Although the road was sand and gravel, I thought it was OK, until I became too complacent and almost slipped off the road on a deep, sandy corner.  That’s when I bumped into (not literally, thankfully) a big Swede called Gibson on his Yamaha Ténéré 750 coming the other way.  He told me fuel wasn’t a problem for the rest of the way, and so I relaxed.

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Big Swede Gibson on his Yamaha Ténéré 750, and the sneaky sandy bit that almost skidded me off the road

Even so, on the downhill stretches I continued to switch the engine off.  Now I was doing it because I liked it; it made a nice change to freewheel down a beautiful mountain with nothing but the sound of the wind in my flowing golden locks.  Now I knew how the cyclists felt, although I had the best of both worlds, as I could motor up the hills :)

Note:  Coasting downhill with the engine switched off can be dangerous, as you have no immediate engine power to get yourself out of trouble, should you need it (but it was a risk I took, and I went slowly).

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Motoring towards Langar

The road followed the Pamir River southwest down a long hill until it met the Wakhan River at Langar.  Here, the two rivers join to form the Panj River, which keeps running west along the Tajik/Afghan border.  It was late afternoon so I decided to try and find a good spot to camp down by the river.  Instead, I found myself wondering into a local ‘homestay’ owned by Mr Yodgor and his huge extended family.  I was very pleased I did.

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Mr Yodgor’s wonderful Homestay

I had seen a couple of tents camped in Yodgor’s garden, so I asked him how much it was to camp.

“You’re too old to camp!” was his smart reply.  “You can stay in my guest room and drink beer”.

Well, how could I argue against logic like that (especially for 8 quid, full board)?

Yodgor’s Homestay was the kind of place it was impossible to be anything other than extremely happy around.  The hospitality showered by him and his family was completely natural and from the heart.  The whole guest camp was a hive of activity, with Yodgor’s large family, friends, travellers, builders and loads of happy, playful kids running all around the place.

As ordered by Yodgar, I spent the rest of the afternoon & evening relaxing and drinking beer.

Later on, at dinner, I was joined by 2 cyclists; Josy from Germany and Solmaz from Iran.  Both were great company; I always admire cyclists when I meet them, as I can imagine how tough and tiring it must be on the road all day/month/year (my bum goes numb on a cycle after 20 minutes!).

When Yodgor had run out of good (Russian) beer, we were forced to drink the local stuff, which may be cheap but tastes like it’s been filtered through old socks.  It didn’t help that it was also warm, but never-the-less it was better than no beer (just), and a friendly local guide kept topping us up with free vodka chasers, which certainly helped.

The Pamir Highway – Day 3 – Langar to Khorugh

In the morning I was woken by the playful tunes of Yodgor’s 101 kids and thought I might as well get up and give the bike a good going over.  Yodgor was building an extension and I watched as an army of men lifted huge wooden beams up over his wall and into place as roof supports.

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Many hands make light work!

As I was checking the bike over, Yodgor’s kids kept bringing me sweets, which I felt compelled to eat, even though I don’t like sweets.  A couple of them wanted to sit on the Tiger, so I lifted them on.

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Just the right size!

Then a few more wanted to join in the fun.  Before I knew it, I had all of them on – little tykes!

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I thought my new luggage system could work…

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Mr Yodgor and his ace kids

After a leisurely breakfast I saw Josy and Solmaz off, and I set off around 9.30am.  Just before I went, I was invited by the builders and family to sit around the yard with them and have tea and snacks.  It was nice to see everyone of all ages sitting down together and socialising.

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Seeing Josy and Solmaz off

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Sitting down for tea with the lads

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We had a vote and everyone decided I was the handsomest Englishman there today :)

It was another beautiful day, without a cloud on the sky, but a cool headwind and stunning views made the ride a pleasure.  I ambled along and took time, stopping frequently for photos.

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Lush farmland at Langar

As I’d come to expect, every time I stopped, even though I thought no one was around, I would soon be surrounded by interested and very friendly locals.  One young lad gave me a handful of delicious, small apricots his sister was carrying in a bucket.  I have him a little something for them and let him have a pose on my bike.

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Apricots anyone? Tiny, but delicious!

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Almost as cool as me…

The road ran along the valley floor for some distance after Langer, tightly hugging the Panj River through sandy, rocky terrain interspersed with occasional lush, green patches of irrigated fields.

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Panj River

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Anyone like riding in sand?

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Road to Ishkashim

At one point an impressive, huge delta of mud and water flowed into the Panj from the Afghan side.

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Afghan delta

I suddenly thought how lucky I was to be riding a bike (that works) through such beautiful scenery, and meeting such wonderful people on a gorgeous sunny day, without a care in the world.  I thought I’d celebrate with a beer, but I didn’t have one to hand, so I put it on my ‘things to do list’ for that evening.

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Yes, it sure was a beautiful day :)

It was the kind of day when everything went right.  Everybody waved at me as I rode past: men, women, kids – even the cows seemed to nod in acknowledgement as I dipped my helmet towards them.  Many of the kids would even race out of their houses to try and wave at me in time.  It was nice!

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Trees – haven’t seen these for a while!

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And back to the sand…

I passed through the market town of Ishkashim where, on Saturdays, they open the border with Afghanistan for a special bazaar so local traders can buy/sell/trade goods with each other.  I saw a ‘fuel station’ (of sorts) and could have filled up, but strangely I still had plenty of juice left and knew I could easily make it to the next big town of Khorog (courtesy of my downhill free-wheels).

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Lush meadows of Ishkashim

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Just past Ishkashim

There is a famous hot spring at Garam Chashma just before Khorog, so I took the short detour off the main road and up a tributary river valley to have a look.  When I arrived I had a good lunch, but the hot spring didn’t look too appealing to me.  I wondered why anyone would want to jump into a small bath of questionable water quality and sit next to lots of other fat, sweaty blokes.  Instead, I rode back down the hill for a few miles and stopped off to swim in the fresh mountain river running down it – a much better idea in my book.  It was really hot, so the cold mountain water was just what I needed to cool down.

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Garam Chashma hot spring

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Riding back down to the main road from Garam Chashma

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And stopping off for a swim – lovely!

Back on the main road I passed yet another police check-point, shortly followed by an army check-point (not sure why they both needed one).  As usual, they all wanted me to rev the b*llocks off my bike (or do it themselves) and ride away with a wheelie.

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“No you can’t do a wheelie”.

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Approaching Khorog

Khorog

When I arrived at the guesthouse I’d found in Khorog, the Tiger had gone a record 368km on one tank (19 litres), and she still had another 70km (2 fuel bars) left showing on the fuel gauge.  Usually I’m lucky to get 300km out of her; don’t underestimate the power of coasting down hills!

Khorugh is known for its beautiful poplar trees, and even the guesthouse I was staying in had plenty of them in the garden, along with a relaxing outdoor sun deck.

It had been a long day’s ride, but after a shower I settled down for dinner and a beer with the other interesting guests (German, French and Irish) and was instantly refreshed; it’s amazing what a shower, food and beer can do to a man.  Cheers! :)

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Relaxing at Khorog

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The Pamir Highway #1

Osh (Kyrgyzstan) – ‘Planning’ for The Pamir Highway

Having arrived in Osh (the start of The Pamir Highway) late the previous evening, I had a lie in and a great breakfast at my traveller’s guesthouse; one of the good, cheap hostels well known in budget traveller circles.  In most cities there is usually at least one cheap hostel known as a meeting place for ‘overland’ travellers on motorbikes, bicycles and in cars.  These are good to find if you want to get information on road conditions and things to see a head, and also to meet ‘instant’ friends with a similar mindset.  You can find them on traveller websites such as ‘Horizons Unlimited’ and ‘Advrider’ as well as ‘Hostel World’, ‘Booking.com’, ‘Trip Advisor’, ‘Wikitravel’ and ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebooks, among others.  ‘Biy Ordo’ in Osh is such a place, and when I arrived there were 5 other motorcyclists (the most I’d seen together since Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia) and several cyclists already there planning their next stage.

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Osh: Good old MacBurger – strangely familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it…

Travellers circles are relatively small, especially in his part of the world, and you will find yourself regularly bumping into the same people ‘on the circuit’, or at least meeting people who know other people you have met along the way.  It kind of makes the whole gig like a big, friendly extended family.  For example, 2 other travellers at Biy Ordo were also at Sakura Guesthouse with me in Bishkek.  It’s good unless you’re trying to get away from someone ;)

Osh is a pretty nice city and a good place to relax for a couple of days before embarking on the renowned Pamir Highway, which starts in Osh and finishes in Dusanbe, Tajikistan (or vice versa) – more about this later.

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Osh: Why don’t we have cheap airlines like this in the UK?

There is a motorcycle garage in Osh called Muztoo (dot com) owned by Swiss guy Patrick, but he was closed for the day, so I decided to try and fix my broken pannier (that I’d smashed on an erratic rock) myself.  I bashed out the squashed, thin, tin shell, and half a gallon of superglue and a roll of duct tape later, it was as good as it was ever going to be with glue and tape, and I thought it would do to get me to somewhere else, wherever that may be.  As long as I didn’t drop it, it would be OK (which I wasn’t planning to do).

With the rest of the day free, I decided to explore the city and walk down to Osh’s famous Bazaar (street market), one of the largest in Central Asia.  It was about 5km away and other travellers from the hostel were jumping on the bus to get there; however, I hate catching buses and would much rather a long walk, or ride myself.  A good thing in Central Asia is taxis are very cheap and it only costs a couple of quid to get home from almost anywhere in the city.

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Osh: One of the largest bazaar’s in Central Asia

For one of the biggest bazaars in Central Asia, it didn’t seem that big.  It was a market made out of shipping-containers, selling almost anything you could want (or not want), from underwear to distributer caps.  There was even a Kyrgyz Bingo Hall, jammed-packed with locals hoping for the big win.  On the market fringes were cheap food stands with bread & pasties cooking in traditional vertical clay ovens.

I have become used to seeing merchandise bearing the Union Jack flag in almost all Asian countries I have visited (on T-shirts, jeans, bags, and even cars and buses).  It feels good to see my country’s flag paraded around the world in such a positive manner, but I often wonder if everyone actually knows what it is (not many do).

I walked briskly though part of the bazaar (not being a market kind of guy), and then headed up to Osh’s prominent central landmark – a large, rocky crag called ‘Sulaiman-Too’, a sacred mountain in the centre of the city, and UNESCO World Heritage Site.  On the way I walked through a couple of parks, but Osh is not as green, clean or organised as Bishkek.

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Osh: Park and Sulaiman-Too in the background

I’m always very disappointed when I see people dropping litter, something common across much of Asia (except Japan, but nowhere as much as Indonesia), and even on this beautiful mountain I saw young kids dropping empty pop bottles on the floor.  Is this the fault of the children, parents or society?  I think all three.

There were steps all the way up to the top of Sulaiman-Too, and the view from the top was well worth the easy climb.

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View of Osh from the top of Sulaiman-Too

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‘Back a bit!…’

Having walked back down the hill, I was hungry, and it happened to be lunchtime, so I found a nice looking restaurant by the river and enjoyed a 3 course lunch of soup, kebab and fruit.  One of the things I love about traveling in Central Asia is that you can almost walk into any restaurant and not worry about the price, as they’re all pretty cheap.  They brought me large, round traditional loaf of bread; when eating bread in Central Asia you must remember not to deface it, place it upside down, or throw it away, because it is considered a sacred food.  Just like real ale in England.

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If you like meat, you’ll like Krygyz cuisine

As it was such a nice day, cool and overcast with frequent refreshing rain sprinklings, I decided to walk back to the hostel as well.  I was stuffed after my big lunch, so I wondered back slowly, taking in the sights.  I walked through a park which had a kid’s funfair in it; kid’s parks are obviously different in Kyrgyzstan, as this one had an aeroplane for them to play in!

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It’s not fair! Why can’t I have an aeroplane in my park?

I passed a chicken rotisserie stand and, even though I was still stuffed, decided to buy one for dinner.  I also bought a few other ingredients and later that night cooked a delicious chicken paprika casserole with rice for me and 2 other guests; it was good to have a ‘touch of home’ (and it was the best one they’d ever tasted, of course).

Osh had been a pleasant stay, so I decided to spend one more day there and actually try and do some planning for the Pamir Highway.  I was glad I did, because I suppose it did need a little bit of planning.

 

Tajikistan

 

Looking at a map of Tajikistan (that I’d downloaded from the web), there didn’t appear to be many roads.  This was good for me because it meant I didn’t really need a map (ironic I needed a map to find that out).

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The Pamirs

I was heading southeast from Osh to the Tajikistan border south of a village called Sary-Tash, into the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, home of the Pamir Mountains and the highway that runs through them.

 

The Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway runs from Osh (in Kyrgyzstan) to Dushanbe (in Tajikistan) and was built by the Russians between 1931 and 1934 in order to transfer military personnel, goods and supplies throughout their empire as they were assimilating Central Asia.

I had seen it written that ‘travelling through the Pamir Mountains is the trip of a lifetime’; nothing like building up one’s expectations!  The road twists and turns alongside the Chinese and Afghanistan borders, up high mountain passes and along river valleys overlooked by the towering 7,000m high snow-capped Hindu Kush mountain range (which separates Afghanistan and Pakistan).

Even before the Russians carved out the road, the route of the Pamir Highway had been used for over two thousand years to transport silk, paper, other goods and even slaves from the far-east (China) to Europe (one of the routes of the ancient ‘Silk Highway’).

As well as ‘the trip of a lifetime’, I’d also heard stories, mostly from cyclists, calling it ‘The Road from Hell’, and one of the most difficult but rewarding experiences of their trip.  I researched websites which also warned not to underestimate the remoteness and vast distances involved.  I even read about a couple traveling the highway on Triumph Tiger, before they got knocked off a cliff by a passing truck (luckily they survived, but the bike didn’t).

I imagined on a bicycle all the above was true, but on a ‘devil-road slayer’ like The Tiger, it surely couldn’t be that bad (minus the killer trucks), particularly after surviving western Mongolia.  Could it?

The nice thing about travelling to such a remote and inaccessible part of the world, is there aren’t many other tourists, and it is often described as ‘virgin tourist territory’.  However, The Pamirs are quickly becoming more popular.  There has been a very successful development programme in the eastern Pamirs for some time, and now many (previously very poor) local families offer ‘homestays’ where travellers can buy a bed for the night, including breakfast and dinner, for around 12 US dollars.

Since the breakdown of the old Soviet Union and Central Asia’s independence, not much maintenance has been done to the road, if at all in places, and it is frequently devoured by flash floods, landslides and day-to-day weathering, making it even more ‘interesting riding’.

The Pamir Highway – Day 1 – Osh to the Tajik/Kyrgyz Border and on to Lake Karakul

As it appeared that the availability of fuel along the highway was a bit like playing Russian Roulette, I thought it best to take an extra 10 litres of fuel with me to increase my range to over 400 km.

I tried to get a 10 litre fuel container on my way out of Osh, but everyone looked at me blankly as though I was asking for the moon.

“Do you have The Moon please?”

Instead I saw people filling up various plastic containers, such as water bottles and pop bottles.  I went slightly better and used a 5 litre plastic oil canister some kind moon-catcher gave me, which I strapped to the back with my bungees.

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My extra 5 litre fuel container, compliant to all European Transport Safety Regulations, of course!

By the time I was ready to go it was 11am – nothing like an early start!  The road was good and rose quickly up to 2,500m, and it just as quickly went from roasting hot to pretty cold.  Then I passed the first summit and switched the engine off for the steep 10km decent down the other side (to conserve fuel) to a small town called Gulcha, 80km from Osh.  Here I was surprised to find 5 petrol stations altogether, so I took the opportunity to top myself back up to 19 litres.  I also put on another layer in anticipation of the next high mountain pass.

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The Pamir Highway, on the way to Gulcha

17km down the road I found another fuel station at a village called Sogondu, so I put the 1 litre I’d used getting there back in.  It was about 420km from Osh to Murghab, so it was going to be tight on the fuel I had.

Another 22km passed and I put in another 1 litre at Sopu-Korgan village; perhaps fuel wasn’t going to be such a problem.

There was yet another gas station 17km further down the road, but I didn’t stop because there was now only 288km to Murghab, which was doable on one tank.

The road twisted up the next mountain pass to 3,500m, and the Tiger was loving the good road and tight corners.  On the way back down the other side I again I coasted for another 10km – every little helps!  It was so steep, it was just as quick coasting down as motoring down anyway, and I got the added bonus of enjoying the peace and quiet without the engine noise.

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Coasting down to Sary-Tash

64km later (180km from Osh) I reached the ‘end of the world’ village called Sary-Tash at over 3,000m (10,000ft).  I put on yet another layer as it was getting colder still.  I also broke open my winter gloves.

It must have been my lucky day as the fuel tanker had visited the only gas station in the small town that morning, so I topped myself up to a full tank, even though I didn’t really need it.

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Sary-Tash fuel station – I was lucky and just caught the weekly fuel delivery!

I bumped into Andy (the guy on the Suzuki V-Strom 650 I’d met in Osh) as I was fuelling.  He’d left a day before me but had stayed the night in Sary-Tash as it was belting down with rain when he arrived.  As the weather was still a bit wet, he was planning to cross the border tomorrow.  I, however, was keen to cross the border ASAP, and I could see blue skies on the horizon.  It was late afternoon but I thought I still had plenty of time.

It didn’t take long to get to the border on an OK road, and I whizzed through the tiny Kyrgyz checkpoint in record time; 10 minutes.  It only required a passport stamp as they don’t require any paperwork for the bike (easy, therefore, if you’re into bike smuggling).

I then set off on a 20km ride through ‘no-man’s land’ on a horribly muddy, red clay road, not helped by the recent heavy rain – Andy had been wise to wait.  At one point it zigzagged up what looked like a spoil heap and I was sure the whole thing would collapse sooner or later.  There was also a small stream crossing in case anyone thought it was too easy.  I suppose being a ‘no-man’s land’, no one wants to spend money on it!

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The horribly muddy ‘road’ passing through no man’s land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Good job I hadn’t picked a wet day! (oops!)

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… and a river crossing, for a laugh!

Just before the check point there was a ‘Welcome to Tajikistan’ sign in English, so I took a picture, as you do.  Then it started to snow.

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Welcome to Tajikistan! (land of giving money to border guards for made up bits of paper)

The guards at the Tajik border were friendly enough, but soon I was knee deep in handwritten paperwork; it appeared I required half a dozen forms to enter Tajikistan.  Eventually I got through immigration and customs, 20 USD lighter, and just when I was about to leave I was stopped by someone claiming to be ‘Disinfectant Control’.  I was positive it was a scam, but nobody (at customs) backed me up, so I went along with it and asked how much.

“’20 USD” he said.

I gave him my last 500 Kyrgyz note (8 USD) and said that was all I had.  He didn’t look happy, but took it and wrote me out a long form to take away, with the obligatory stamp.  Then his mate made up another ‘compulsory form’ I needed and demanded another 20 USD.  I then pretended to lose my temper and handed him the rest of my Kyrgyz small chance (3 USD) and said that was it.  He took it, proving it was scam, but I didn’t really mind as long as I got through quickly without further hassle.

On the Tajikistan side it was lovely – breathtaking in fact.  As I descended into the next valley it stopped snowing and the sun came out, throwing beautiful rays of light onto the snow-capped Pamir Mountains.

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The view on the Tajik side of the border was nothing less than stunning

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The straight road could have been built by The Romans

Everywhere I looked the scenery was stunning!  The colours in the cliffs were especially striking: reds, oranges and yellows, and I couldn’t resist stopping to take photos every few minutes.

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It was going to be a great journey, that was for sure :)

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The road was like a wobbly stand of Liquorice, but it didn’t matter

The road follows a long barbed wire fence marking a ‘neutral zone’ agreed between Tajikistan and China, although it had fallen down in quite a few places.  It is said nobody lives on this remote 230km stretch between Sary-Tash and Murghab, and I hardy saw any signs of life at all.

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Bumpy bumpy down towards Lake Karakol

I wanted to try and get to Lake Karakul, 130km before Murghab, to camp for the night.  One of the local guys I met at the border told me it was 2 hour’s drive.  I got there in 30 minutes!  I was surprised to find the road pretty good and paved all the way.

Just before I arrived, I stopped to chat to 2 Swiss cyclists traveling the other way who were trying to find somewhere sheltered to camp for the night; it was now 6pm and extremely windy.  I was lucky, being on a motorbike, and was able to ride round to the sheltered side of the lake in no time.  Since the bike’s makeover in Almaty, and new clutch and radiator cap in Bishkek, she had been running perfectly; I loved the old Tiger and wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world.

Lake Karakul

Just after 6pm I rode through the small village of Karakul and jumped off the sealed road onto the sandy lake shore to pick my camping spot.  I got close enough to the water, 40 yards, but closer than that the ground was marshy.

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Lake Karakol – this looks like a good spot!

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White salt deposits left by the retreating lake

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The lake shore – ready for a swim?

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OK – dinner time! I’m starving…

I watched the sun set behind the mountains in the middle of the lake (that were sheltering me from the wind) and then put up my ‘Japanese Special’ tent.  There were a few mozzies about, but a dose of DEET sorted them out.

I cooked a delicious camp meal, as usual, and watched the moon slowly set behind the mountains.  It was one of those nights when the stars were so clear, it put me back in my place thinking of the shear enormity and incomprehensibility of it all.  I’m sure also I saw a flying saucer, but I’ll leave that story for my next book ;)

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It was a beautiful evening – one of the best :)

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I thought I’d sign my work in case someone tried to sell it for millions ;)

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Do you prefer black…?

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… red … ?

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… or green and blue ?

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Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek to Osh

Border Excitement

I was up early, eager to get into yet another brand new country I’d previously only vaguely heard of in fairytales and implicated in the Borat bridal kidnapping scene: Kyrgyzstan.

However, it would be slightly more difficult than I imagined to enter…

I arrived at the border with only one car in front of me, whizzed through customs and was soon standing in front of the nice Kazakh Immigration Officer/ Arsenal fan at the immigration counter.

“Uh oh!  We have a problem….” he said.

“Sorry?”  I quizzed, trying to sound as innocent as possible.  You see, I knew what the problem was, and thought it was going to cause me some problems; I hadn’t bothered to register in Almaty, as is required of all tourists within 5 days.

The nice Officer called the Immigration Police in Kegen for me on his mobile, and then told me I had to go back and register with them.  Oh well, it was only 30 minutes away, so I jumped on my bike and whizzed back down the long, straight road to get this minor problem sorted.

When I arrived back in Kegen, it seemed no-one knew where the Immigration Police lived, and I ended up bouncing around back and forth as people sent me in different directions.  I even once ended up at the local prison, where I hoped I wouldn’t be staying.

Eventually I ended up where I had started and found the Immigration Police sitting at a counter processing lots of immigrants in a Town Hall type building.

Our meeting didn’t go too well, as after a quick conflab between themselves, the ‘boss’ told me I must ride all the way back to Almaty to register, 3 hours away!

I tried to protest, in the nicest possible way, and ask if ‘anything else could be done?’, but they gave me a stiff ignoring.

Uh-oh indeed, I thought, and cursed myself for not paying more attention to visa requirements.  I’d only discovered a couple of days before that I needed to register, and by then I was outside the 5 day time limit, and I knew the fine was 100 US dollars.  I thought I might be able to blag it at the border, but obviously not.  Oh well – another lesson learned!

I hung around for a while and refused to give up.  Then I typed out the following phrase on my iPhone ‘Google Translate’ App, as the police couldn’t speak or understand much English:

“I cannot go back to Almaty because my motorcycle has broken” (kind of the truth, clutch-wise).  “Can I pay you some money instead as a fine?”

The Immigration Officer in charge looked at it carefully and laughed.  Yes, he’d seen the flaw in my statement – how was I expecting to ride into the middle of nowhere (Kyrgyzstan) if I couldn’t ride 3 hours back to Almaty?  I laughed back, and then he laughed again.  Then we both laughed.

“100 US dollars” he said.

“Great” I said, and 10 minutes later the 100 US dollars was in his pocket, and I put it down to experience.  I haven’t paid many ‘bribes’ over the past 22 months, and to me paying 100 US dollars (60 quid) was worth not losing a whole day and 6 hours traveling over (plus fuel, food and accommodation for the extra day), and I probably would have had to pay 100 US dollars fine anyway in Almaty.

Back at the border I think the Immigration Officer was a little surprised to see me.

“Did you have any problems?” he asked.

“No problems!” I said.

Kyrgyzstan

Once I had escaped Kazakhstan, it was a breeze entering Kyrgyzstan.  Many nationalities don’t need a visa to enter Kyrgyzstan, including British, and there is absolutely no paperwork to complete for the motorbike.

This far eastern border crossing led through the picturesque Karkara valley and then to the tourist town of Karakol at the eastern end of Kyrgystan’s large, popular tourist lake Issyk Kul (Kul meaning lake).

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Peaceful Issyk Kul (Lake) before the rain

Karakol is popular amongst hikers as a base for setting off on numerous trails leading to pretty lakes in the surrounding mountains, and also amongst skiers and snowboarders from the former USSR for its ski resort in the winter.

When I arrived late morning in July, it was very busy with Tourists and I got harassed by a drunken Russian who couldn’t understand that I couldn’t understand him!  He did the usual thing and started again saying the same things, just louder and slower.  I quickly got fed up with him and left him in a cloud of wheel-spin dust.  Why do most drunks always seem to pick on me to ask for booze?  Do I look like one?

For a small town the traffic was bad, and I squeezed myself into a parking space when I saw a row of chickens turning slowly on a roasting spit.  I bought a whole one and whisked it away a few miles down the road for a romantic lunch on the lake shore; little did it know, it was the lunch!

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Lunch by Issyk Kul, and the approaching storm clouds

Issyk Kul used to be used by the Soviet military as a testing site for torpedo propulsion and guidance systems, but now it serves as a place for people to come to swim, play watersports, and drink vodka; lots of vodka.  It is the second largest saline lake in the world (182 km long, 60 km wide and 668 m deep) after the Caspian Sea, and never freezes despite being at an altitude of 1,607 metres (5,272 ft), hence its local name ‘hot lake’.

Then it started to piss down.

The skies were black as far as the eye could see, and it didn’t look to be getting any better.  After a couple of hours riding along the less touristy southern route of the lake in non-stop rain, I decided to can my idea of camping along the lake shore and head to the capital, Bishkek, instead.  This would also mean I could apply for my Azerbaijan visa before the weekend as it was Friday the next day.

Despite the rubbish weather, there were still some nice views of the lake against the backdrop of the rugged Tian Shan mountains.

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It was going to get wetter…

At the western end of the lake, the road twisted over a mountain pass with lots of road-works and traffic queues (which I flew past) and continued black skies with lots of rain.  As I emerged from the other side, it was like I’d passed into another world – a world of sunny skies and no rain.  I liked this new world a lot better.

It was a long ride and as I eventually approached Bishkek’s outer limits, I saw more and more police speed-traps hiding in the bushes.  I did my usual and ‘shadowed’ the fastest local drivers so I couldn’t be caught by a speed gun.

Bishkek

Bishkek seemed a big city when I arrived and I didn’t have a clue where I was staying, because I didn’t have any internet connection.  I looked in the ‘Kyrgyzstan’ section of the Central Asia Lonely Planet guide book I’d downloaded onto my Kindle (which is a right PITA to navigate through – a paper book is much more user friendly, although much heavier) but there wasn’t anything in there that looked easy to find.

In the end I headed for a hostel showing on my ‘Maps with Me’ app. When I arrived it was on the outskirts of town in a dodgy looking area that looked like it had just been bombed, so I just inconspicuously rode on through.

Bishkek is like Almaty in that many city streets have signs up forbidding motorcycles.  But as in Almaty, I have them all a stiff ignoring, rather than fight my way through the maze of traffic logged back streets and get lost.

A very noticeable difference here was that all traffic jumped red lights, and sped off on the red pre-empting the green light. They also drove like complete nutters on speed.

After driving around in circles for a while, I managed to find free wifi outside a shopping centre and found a cheap hostel on ‘Booking.com’.  However, when I arrived it wasn’t where it should have been, and nobody had ever heard of it. By now it was 9pm and I was getting fed up, but luckily the second choice hostel I’d saved on ‘Booking’ turned out to be in the right place, and was I relieved to find it so!

I soon found myself in a dormitory with 7 other beds (my favourite), but I didn’t really care – I was just glad to have found somewhere to crash.  I met the owner/managers and it was obvious it was run by 3 lads as the single toilet/shower room was absolutely disgusting (and that’s saying something for a bloke to say!)

The people in the hostel at least where friendly and helpful and showed me where the Azerbaijan Embassy was on the map, ready for my morning’s visit.

Azerbaijan Visa & Free Vodka

I rolled up outside the Azerbaijan Embassy on my bike at 10am on the dot, as soon as it opened.  There was just one other guy there who happened to be a Polish guy I’d met on Anak Ranch in North Mongolia.  He told me he’d been waiting 10 days for his visa – not good.

The Consul soon appeared – a smart, middle-aged man in a suit and tie – and invited me inside.  I felt a bit underdressed in my shorts and flip-flops.  I handed him the application form I had completed at the hostel and he told me I also had to write a covering letter.

“No problem!”  I said, and rode back to the hostel to type one up.

The hostel was only a 10 minute ride away, but during the ride my clutch degraded surprisingly rapidly, and as I arrived it was slipping to the point of becoming unridable.

After typing the covering letter I took a chance (as the Embassy closed at 12 and time was getting thin) and rode the bike there again; the clutch was slipping horrendously now.  The hostel’s printer hadn’t worked, but the nice Consul man printed my letter off for me and told me my visa would be ready in 5 to 10 days.  With no way to ‘expedite’ the visa, he gave me his phone number and told me to call him in 5 days to see if it had arrived.

Getting my bike back to the hostel took a while, and I had to ride very slowly next to the curb to let cars pass me as I crawled along.  There was no doubt about it – I needed a new clutch ASAP.

My first thought was to call Anton again – my friend in Almaty who had helped me so much with the other parts I’d needed – so I did.  Ten minutes later Anton was on the case and soon called me back with an original one he’d found in the USA, which would be the quickest way of getting one to me.  It would take around 5 days, which was fine, as I had to wait at least that long for my Azerbaijan Visa anyway.

That night I found myself in the city’s expat bar – The Metro – having steak and chips; lovely jubley!  I got chatting to the friendly Irish Manager whilst sitting at the bar, who introduced me to a group of regular expats.  Soon I found myself in the middle of a free vodka tasting session, generously handed out by the manager, round after round.  It didn’t seem long before either the bar was empty, or I went blind, and the expats all started staggering home.  It was a bit of a mission finding my way back to the hostel in the dark, as someone had moved all the streets around.

The next afternoon, when I woke up with the world’s worst headache and time on my hands, the first thing I did was move into another hostel with more than 1 loo.

Sakura

If you ever find yourself in Bishkek on a budget, Sakura Guesthouse is the perfect solution.  Run by a Japanese man called Yoshi, it is spotlessly clean and only 4.50 pound a night in a dorm.  I thought I’d splash out and treat myself to a single aircon room for a tenner, as it was really hot and sticky during the day.

For the next week I stayed at Yoshi’s hostel and had one of the most social times of my trip.  Many of the guests loved it there so much, stays of a week or more were common.  One guy, Brit cyclist Joe from Blackpool, had the record of 3 weeks, closely followed by another Brit cyclist, Will (who I guess was well over 6 feet 4 on the biggest bike I have ever seen).  We used to call it the ‘Hotel California’ (you can check out but you can never leave…).  Because of this, and a social courtyard where everyone gathered, everyone soon got to know everyone else, and it was almost like being part of one big family.

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The ‘Hotel California’ crew

Many a night was spent playing cards (poker or ‘shithead’) around the garden table eating pizza and drinking cheap Kyrgyz beer (which wasn’t too bad surprisingly).  We also ventured down to the city’s numerous bars and clubs when the occasion took us.  There was one fantastic bar nearby called ‘148’ where all the staff put on spontaneous group dances for the clientele in a ‘Crazy Signs’ Club Med manner.  It wasn’t long before the clientele were also dancing along with the staff, trying to copy their well-practiced routines, or making it up (like me).  The trick is always to down a few vodka shots first so you don’t care what you look like (although I did look particularly great anyway).

On completion of the Crazy Signs, there is a large selection of night clubs to keep one entertained in Bishkek, such as ‘Retro Metro’ and ‘Bar Suk’, which don’t sound the most appealing, but always provided a good laugh.

One interesting feature of Bishkek nightlife is the presence of ‘Face Control’ bouncers on the door.  This sounds a joke, but was in fact true.  We all had a good laugh when Blackpool Joe didn’t make the grade one night and failed the ‘Face Control’, but it was nothing a small bribe couldn’t fix.

Bishkek Sights

During my week at Sakura I thought I’d try and regain some of my lost fitness and started running every other day.  It didn’t work, but it was a valiant effort.  It did, however, allow me to see many of the leafy city’s sights, which include lots of fountains, monuments, parks and a hot air balloon.

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Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square

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Panfilov Park, where a dodgy looking fairground operates

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Lots of parks and flowers

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… and momuments

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… and a hot air balloon!

At the end of our road were two large lakes used as open-air swimming pools by the locals.  I used to jog around them on my route and loved the gorgeous backdrop of the snow-capped Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range, rising up to 4,855 metres (15,928 ft).

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My jogging route took me right past this lake used for swimming

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How can you miss Western Food when you have KFC? (Kyrgyz Fried Chicken?)

Happy Christmas!  A new clutch arrives in Santa’s Sack

On the 6th day at Yoshi’s my clutch arrived together with my Azerbaijan Visa, and I was a very happy bunny.

Anton was planning to ride down to Bishkek from Almaty for a weekend, but unfortunately fell ill with a cold.  Instead, he gave it to his mate, Zhenya, who was traveling to Issyk Kul for a camping trip.  I jumped in a taxi and met her at the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border at 3 am (only 30 mins/30km away from Bishkek) as she was backpacking on a bus.

Later that day, in Yoshi’s garage, I set about installing the new clutch.  Being my third one of the trip, I am getting quite good at fitting them.  On removing the clutch cover it was easy to see that the existing friction plates had completely worn away.

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This is what a burnt clutch looks like

A few days earlier I had also changed the coolant (again) after I had had to top it up with drinking water post overheating at Kaindy Lake.  A quick Google search convinced me that I had a faulty radiator cap (what would we do without the internet nowadays?).  Not relishing the idea of waiting another week in Bishkek for a new Triumph radiator cap, I took the old one down to the local car market to try and match it up, a huge container camp in the west of the city.  It turns out it is the same size as the radiator cap from a Subaru (and the same pressure rating of 1.1 bar) which saved me 1 week and only cost me 2 quid.

Both the new clutch and the new radiator cap worked like a dream, and The Tiger was ready to say farewell to Bishkek and continue south on towards Tajikistan and the infamous Pamir Highway.

Ala Archa National Park

But first there were a couple more sights to see in Kyrgyzstan.

Just 30 minutes ride south of Bishkek lies Ala-Archa National Park, which would be a nice, gentle test for my newly reconditioned motorcycle.

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The road to Ala-Archa National Park

Filled with alpine valleys, forested mountains and gushing rivers, the scenery here feels a million miles away from Bishkek.  Snow leopards live in the mountains above 2,500m, but few people are lucky enough to see these rare (and still hunted) animals.

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Only 30 minutes from Bishkek, but a world away in all other respects

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Ala-Archa National Park

In Kyrgyz, the ‘Archa’ is a bright colored juniper plant which the Kyrgyz people hold in high esteem, using smoke from its burning wood to chase away evil spirits.  I think it smells so bad it would chase away anything, but what do I know?

The only trouble with this park is, there’s one road in and one road out, which meant I had to ride back into and through Bishkek traffic in order to escape the city for real.

Speeding

The road from Bishkek to Osh (an old Silk-Road market town in southern Kyrgyzstan) is famously picturesque, but before I joined it, I fancied a little detour to an alpine lake called Song-Kul, nestling at over 3,016m in mid Kyrgyzstan.  In actual fact, the little detour is not little by any means, and it took the rest of the afternoon and evening to get there.  But it was worth it.

To get to Song-Kul I had to travel east from Bishkek back to Balykchy on the west coast of Issyk-Kul (where I’d come from a week before) and then head southwest to a town called Kochkor.

Just outside Bishkek I got stopped by the police for speeding.  I was doing my usual, shadowing the fastest car to evade the frequent police speed traps hiding in the bushes, but just as I got slack looking at the scenery, I rode right into one without any top-cover.

Once again (this is getting all too familiar), the policeman showed me a lovely picture of me riding at 68 km/h in a 40 km/h limit and took my driving license.  There wasn’t much I could do to contest it, so I put my hands up and asked “How much?”

The reply was written down on a scrap piece of paper – ‘3,000 som’ (about 35 quid), which instantly led me to believe he was telling porkies.

“No” I said, matter of fact.

The policeman then crossed out 3,000 and wrote ‘1,500’.

“No” I repeated, shaking my head.

The policeman offered me the pen to write down my own fine; an amiable way of doing business, but I’m not quite sure if it’s the right way to go about this kind of business.

As this business had been going on, I had been trying (very subtly) to remove all the 1,000 som notes from my wallet (which was inside my pocket) to leave only a few low value notes inside.  This I achieved, albeit less subtly than I would have hoped, and then showed the policeman my wallet contents with 300 som inside.

“You can have this” I said.

The policeman did not look impressed, and pointed to the inside of my pocket, which actually had a bunch of 1,000 som notes sticking out of it.  Darn!

“No!  I said sharply, “I need that”.

By this time, the policeman had a queue of other unlucky speeders to extort money from, and so he took the 300 som (3.50 pounds), gave me my driving license back, and said “Goodbye!” with a wide grin.

Song-Kul (Lake)

The road south of Kochkor was beautiful, lined with red rock mountains burning like fire in the afternoon sun.

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The road to Song-Kul (lake) south of Kochkor

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Pretty red hills

I stopped for a picnic lunch by a river and 2 local men wondered up with their kids to chin wag.  I’m very used to this by now – I can’t get away with stopping anywhere without some interested locals coming up to look at the bike and ask where I’m from.  At least they’re all very friendly, but it’s no good if you’re after some privacy.

Further on, I swung off the road to investigate a large salt lake.  The water was very low, and I rode down onto its dry, white, salt-layered bed.

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Investigating a large salt lake I found. I called it Lake Bowen II

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The water level was pretty low

In places it was muddy and I sensibly turned around before I hit a patch that swallowed me.

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Watch out for the mud-hole!

I bypassed Kochkor to the south and took the first branch-off to the west, just south of an ‘end of the world’ village called Sary Bulak, where I bought a delicious fried flat fish on the side of road for a few pence (I assumed caught from either Song-Kul or Issyk-Kul).

The road had now turned to gravel and twisted through the mountains up towards to the lake.  It was another glorious day and the views on this eastern pass were fantastic in the afternoon sun.

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Views do not get much better than this

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Climbing high to Lake Song-Kul

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Just look at that perfect road along the pass

There wasn’t much traffic on this road, so I was surprised when I past a car with a tall, blonde Englishman hanging out the window shouting “Hey Chris!”

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Will, ‘Face-Control’ Joe and the Bishkek Gang

It was Will, Joe and the gang from Yoshi’s guesthouse in Bishkek.  The 4 of them had left a couple of days before me to backpack/hitchhike around the lake.  We took a couple of snaps, I listened to their lake tips, and soon they continued on their way back to Bishkek, to the Hotel California.

Towards the top of the pass the road got pretty steep, but then plateaued out as I started descending slowly towards the lake.

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At the top of the pass, heading down towards the lake

There are two tracks around the lake – a northern and a southern track.  The lads had told me the northern track was lovely, and hugged the lake shore, so I took a further westerly track off the main track and rode directly for the lake’s northern route.  The first thing I came to was a small stream crossing, and after that the track continued down a grassy/compacted sandy track towards the lake.  The whole place reminded me very much of western Mongolia.

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Stream crossing – was I back in Mongolia?

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Flat, grassy/sandy track and Song-Kul (lake) on the horizon

There were plenty of yurts advertising ‘homestays’, but I had my own food and wanted to camp next to the shore.

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Many ‘homestay’ yurts on the eastern edge

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I preferred the more open landscape

Enjoying a leisurely ride along the lake, I stopped by an old fort and two local horsemen rode up to me for a chat.

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The Tiger has 94 of these ‘horse-powers’

I thought I might be able to ride all the way around the lake and join up with the southern road, and ultimately join the main road to Osh via a town called Kazarman.  However, soon it was obvious this wouldn’t be possible on my bike, as towards the northeast corner endless, muddy streams ran into the lake and my heavy bike began to get bogged down in marshland.

By now I had half a tank of fuel left and wondered if it was enough to take the long track back the way I’d come, and round to the south to civilisation. The road to the south was a little used ‘summer only’ road for 4WD vehicles, and I wondered what the conditions would be like, and where the nearest fuel station actually was.  The safest way would be to go all the way back to Kochkor and fuel up there before heading to Osh.  However, this was also the unadventurous, boring option, so I decided to find another way.

But first I was getting tired, so I found a secluded camping spot on the edge of the lake; at least it was quieter on this northern side.

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Time for dinner and bed!

The Road to Osh

In the morning I had a little dip in the lake and packed up the tent before it started raining; I could see some dark clouds rolling in.

I’d found a tiny track showing on my map leading from the centre north of the lake to a tiny village called Djanaryk, and then west onto Chayek and ultimately joining the main road to Osh northeast of Toktogul.  That looked like the best option to me, so I took it.

The track was pretty good up to the edge of the lake basin, but then plunged steeply down a loose, rocky horse track.  I turned my ABS off and pretty much stood on the back brake, sliding most of the way down.  I was glad I wasn’t going up-hill because I didn’t fancy waiting for clutch number 4.

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On the way back down the ‘other side’ (on a not-so-steep bit)

As I slid down, I saw a large boulder sticking out the cliff edge and didn’t think much of it until I heard a loud ‘Crack!’

I thought I’d sailed past it, and I had, but my left pannier had not.  Now one half of it was laying in pieces on the cliff edge.  It seems I’d forgotten the panniers were a now a bit wider ever since being welded onto their new frame in Almaty.

So, out came Mr Gaffa Tape, and soon we were back on our merry way, more-or-less in one piece.

For most of this long, downhill section, I switched the engine off to save fuel and coasted down in neutral.  It was nice to feel the wind in my hair (both of them), and enjoy the sound of raindrops as they started falling on my head (there’s a song there, somewhere…)

Eventually the track reached some kind of civilization at Djanaryk, although it looked like a very old civilization roughly 1,000 years old.  There was certainly no fuel, so I carried on west in search of the elusive benzene gold.

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Something told me the village of Djanaryk was old; very old…

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At least the road was better

At least the track had improved slightly since Djanaryk, and soon it was twisting its way alongside a raging river and up another steep mountain pass.   It was really beautiful, and I imagined similar to the Pamir Highway in places.  It looked as though the road was being prepared for surfacing, and the only problem was frequent large trucks spitting dust and gravel in my face until I could overtake them.

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On the way west to rejoin the main Bishkek-Osh highway

After what seemed like forever, the track finally led onto the main Bishkek to Osh surfaced road.  I reached the first fuel station just as I was running out of fuel, so that was well-planned (not lucky at all!)

At the fuel station I briefly chatted to another Brit biker on a Suzuki DR650 who was heading the other way to Mongolia.  He told me to put on my raincoat.

With a full tank if fuel, I was saved, and with a sealed road all the way to Osh I felt as though I was almost cheating.  Then the prophecy came true and it started belting down as the road twisted up into cold, snow-capped mountains, so I stopped to put on my Gortex jacket.  It was the first time I’d been cold for a long time.

Over the other side of the mountain pass, the weather got warmer and the rain eventually stopped.  I stopped too, for afternoon tea at a small wooden roadside cafe down by a river, and asked for hot tea (to warm me up) and any food they had fresh.  I got a pot of lovely, hot tea, honey, fresh bread and a delicious, baked fresh trout – just what the doctor ordered!  The only good thing about getting soaking wet and freezing cold is warming up again over a lovely, hot cup of tea.

On a sports bike, this new road to Osh really is a pleasure to ride.  Skirting the long way around Toktogol Reservoir, the road is immaculate and twists and turns alongside a river from Kara-Kul to Tash-Komur with incredible views.

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This road is one of the highlights of Kyrgyzstan

In the end it turned out to be a long day, and by the time I reached the outskirts of Osh, the sun was setting.  I stopped to take a photo as it set over a field of sunflowers.

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Now isn’t that lovely?! :)

Luckily, this time I was prepared with a pre-booked guesthouse, as after 12 hours in the saddle I was in no mood to ride round in circles for another hour.  But that was OK – I found the guesthouse quickly and settled down for a couple of beers with a group of travellers who were already there for story-swapping into the small hours.  It’s a hard life!  :)

Categories: Kyrgyzstan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Charyn Canyon, Kolsai Lakes and SE Kazakhstan

Charyn Canyon (Valley of Castles)

 

Next morning I armed myself with a nutritious bag of kebabs and set off on the ride to Charyn Canyon, 200km (3 hours) east of Almaty on a good road.  The last 10km were down a rough track and it was a good test for my now rock-solid panniers.

 

A mini Grand Canyon, the Charyn Canyon is 154km (96 miles) of dramatic 300m (1,000 ft) cliffs of volcanic rock and red banded sediment beds carved out by the Charyn River over 12 million years.

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Riding along the top of Charyn Canyon (wait for it…)

 

I rode along the top of the canyon first and took a few snaps of the impressive rock formations below.  It was really windy and at I kept my distance from the unguarded edge, considering my previous record with cliffs and high dives.

 

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The mini-Grand Canyon, but it was big enough. It was windy, so I kept away from the edge (considering past experience)

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Charyn Canyon – 12 million years old, and getting older…

 

 

While parked up admiring the view, a familiar face walked up from behind me and said ‘Hi Chris!’  It was Andrey from Silk off Road Tours; he had a tour on and was showing a Dutch guy around the sights.  He showed me the steep, loose rubble track that led down to the bottom of the canyon, and I took a look.  It was pretty steep – going down wouldn’t be a problem, but it looked pretty slippery coming back up.  It reminded me of the loose, rocky track I burnt my first clutch out in East Timor.

 

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See the road winding along the bottom? I wanted to go down there…

 

However, I wasn’t about to wimp out now, especially with a crowd, so I let my tyres down to 20 psi and stood on the back brake as I slid down into the canyon several hundred meters below.

 

It was worth it – the track at the bottom was amazing – awesome even.  I was alone and riding through a prehistoric canyon, red sandstone cliffs towering above me either side.

 

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… so I did :)

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Not bad for a hard afternoon’s work!

 

At one point the track led to a hole in the rock just large enough for a car (or motorcycle) to pass through.

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The Charyn Hole

 

Several miles into the canyon the track finished at a river and a small tourist camp.  I cooled off for a while and then made my way back to the entrance, slightly worried about the steep ride back up (worried for my clutch, that is!)

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End of the Canyon Road and Tourist Camp

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And the river flowing through the bottom

 

 

I took a run up to build some speed, and all was going well until three quarters of the way up the back wheel spun in some loose gravel and I lost momentum.  I put my feet down to steady the bike as she ground to a halt.  This wasn’t good because it happened to be a particularly steep bit!  There was nothing I could do to stop the bike sliding backwards except fight to try and keep it upright.  Eventually we stopped sliding backwards and there I sat for a while, contemplating our predicament.  Foolishly, I should have contemplated a bit longer, because instead of unloading the bike to make it lighter, I started the bike and tried to get a grip on the loose surface.  All that achieved was lots of rear wheel spinning and eventually I’d managed to dig a hole for myself in the loose rubble – in more ways than one.  Then I smelt the all too familiar smell of a burning clutch and cursed myself for being so stupid.

 

Then I did what I should have done first off – got off the bike, unloaded all the heavy luggage and pushed her out of the hole as I walked alongside, revving her up carefully in first gear (it was too steep for second gear).  Luckily, it worked, and I managed to jump back on and snake my way back to the top at full speed, amongst lots of slipping and sliding.  But it was obvious my clutch was in serious trouble.

 

Conveniently a Land Cruiser then turned up with 5 strong lads inside, and they kindly helped me carry all my luggage back up to the top, saving me lots of sweaty work in the baking heat.
Returning to my bike I inspected the clutch.  It was almost gone.  I adjusted it to the maximum cable length, and it bit.  I thought I might just get away with it, if I was careful, although I knew I was on borrowed time.

 

Kolsai Lakes

 

From Charyn Canyon I rode another couple of hours to reach the first of the 3 Kolsai Lakes – imaginatively named Kolsai No.1.  I bet you can’t guess what the other 2 are called?

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The road to the Kolsai Lakes

 

 

On the way I passed through the small town of Saty where the entrance to the Kolsai National Park is.

 

As I rode over the crest of the hill into Saty, it was one of those ‘Wow!’ moments – the view of the village next to the river flowing through the broad, fertile valley was amazing.

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Beautiful Saty Valley

 

Unfortunately, Saty is a small, farty village with a brand new fuel station with no fuel.  This was a real bugger because I had ridden past a fuel station 30 minutes earlier thinking I would hang on until Saty to fill up (as there was a fuel station showing on my map).  This taught me a lesson not to rely on fuel stations in Kazakhstan having fuel.
I paid the National Park entrance fee to an old lady who took 10 minutes to work out the price on a calculator, and then rode up the gravel track to the first lake.  By now it was late afternoon and the sun had disappeared behind clouds.  The road leading down to the lake was barred with a ‘no entry’ sign, but as nobody was there, and the barrier was open, I rode down anyway.

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Kolsai Lake No.1

 

The lake is pretty nestled 1,700m up in the alpine mountains.  To get to the second two lakes required a day’s hike, but I didn’t feel like leaving my luggage in an un-manned tent for a whole day.  I also wanted to crack on towards Kyrgyzstan.

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The lake sides were too steep for camping

 

First, I needed to find somewhere to camp for the night.  As the lake was in a steep sided valley, there was nowhere flat enough to camp next to it, so I rode back down towards the park entrance and found a nice spot by a stream.

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Nice little camp spot by the river

Starving, and too impatient to wait to cook something, I ate the last of my kebab stash I had wrapped away in my pannier.  In the morning, I learned the hard way not to eat one day old kebabs.  Luckily I must have had a premonition because I’d only just bought a pack of Imodium 2 days earlier in Almaty.

 

Kaindy Lake – Sunken Forest

 

In the morning I was glad to see the sun was out, so I ride back up to Kolsai Lake No.1 to take a better photo.  This time the barrier blocking the path down to the lake was manned, so I had to bribe the guy a couple of quid to let me ride down.

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Kolsai Lake No.1 again – things always look better in the sun

 

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Tent all packed up

With no fuel in Saty I had no choice but to ride 30 minutes back over 2 mountain passes to the small village I’d seen a fuel station at earlier, before riding all the way back again to take the long track down to Kaindy Lake.

 

On the way to the fuel station I was getting close to running out, so I switched off the engine on every downhill section to coast down and save fuel.  Fortunately, I made it just in time.

 

The track was full of potholes and sharp stones, but the Heidenau tyres were loving it.  On the way back I took a little detour across a mountain for some great alpine views.

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Great alpine views on a little detour I found

 

I wanted to see Kaindy Lake because it contained the remains of a sunken forest.  In 1911, an earthquake triggered a large landslide which formed a natural dam on the slopes of the Kungey Alatau mountain range, flooding the spruce trees that were previously growing on the valley slopes.

 

The only problem for me was the track to Lake Kaindy was a bit a nightmare with a rapidly fading clutch.  The guide book I had said the track was very bad, and it was.  It was steep – very steep in places – and loaded with loose gravel, large rocks, mud and river crossings.  With a well clutch it would have been fun, but it turned out to be anything but.

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The track to Kaindy Lake. It started off OK, but rapidly became a nightmare for my slipping clutch

 

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Small stream crossing

After an age I reached a closed barrier & gatehouse blocking the road.  The trouble was, no-one was in the gatehouse, or the house nearby.  I waited around for a bit, hoping someone would show, but as I’d not seen anyone for the past hour, I thought it was a safe bet no-one was around.  Fortunately I was on a motorbike and managed to squeeze through the pedestrian gap by the side of the barrier and continue on my merry way.

 

After a small stream crossing, the track lowered onto a dry river bed full of undulating, thick gravel.  When I went the wrong way and had to turn around in the stuff, my clutch finally gave way again and the bike wouldn’t move.  Great – stuck in the middle of nowhere down a dead-end (closed) track with not another soul seen in the past hour.

 

Luckily, the little trick I’d employed in this situation in Indonesia worked again, and got me out of trouble.  Basically, I removed the inner adjusting nut on the clutch cable to give me a couple more millimeters cable length, and this was just enough to allow the remaining clutch friction discs to grip again (for a little while).

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Removing the inner clutch adjusting bolt gave me a few mm of extra life, and got me out of a hole

 

Having gone this far I was determined to see the lake, and so I rode on, hoping the road would be kind to the last of my clutch.

 

Turned out it wasn’t, and another minor disaster struck; my bike overheated.  I could smell and hear the water boiling in the reservoir, although strangely the temperature gauge wasn’t showing a problem.  I pulled over again to inspect the scene.

I couldn’t see anything obviously wrong – the fan still worked and the hoses & radiator weren’t leaking – but this was the second time it had happened, so something must be up.

 

With much of the coolant having boiled over, I had no choice but to top it up with drinking water again and carry on, trying to take it easy as I’d done in the Altai Mountains.
Despite these minor incidents trying to sway me from my path, I stuck to my guns and eventually made it to the lake’s car park, after riding though a muddy lake that had decided to cover the lower part of the track, and up another very steep hill.

 

From the car park, another pedestrian track led down a very steep path to the lake.  I parked up, put on my tank bag (by attaching rucksack straps) and started the long hike down.

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The steep track to Kaindy Lake led down the side of this valley

 

Then the eerie sunken forest appeared out of the mist…. Well, it wasn’t misty, but it would have done, had it have been.

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Dead Spruce Trees emerge from the eerie Kaindy Lake after flooding caused by a landslide

 

Like wrecked masts from long lost ships, the dead trees poked through the water’s surface casting ghostly reflections across the water.  I wanted to go for a swim and film the trees underwater, but I was disappointed to discover I’d left my GoPro attached to my helmet in the car park.

 

The sky had rapidly clouded over and I could hear a distant storm approaching.  When it started to rain I made haste back up the steep path to the car park because I remembered I’d left my motorcycle boots upright, and I hate riding in wet boots (I had put on my hiking flip flops).

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There were more beautiful lakes near the car park at Kaindy Lake

 

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When I got back to the car park, the sun came back out and some campers turned up to keep me company

Back at the bike I suddenly released it was 3pm – how did it get so late?  I’d heard the Kyrgyzstan border closed at 5pm, and so it would be very tight to make it.  Actually, it soon became apparent it would be impossible to make it, as the road turned from bad to worse to nothing (mainly because I went to wrong way again).

 

Once I’d found the correct track, the road then decided to twist down various very steep mountain ranges, in what must surely be Kazakhstan’s answer to the Pamir Highway.  It was a beautiful ride.

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Great views along the track from Saty to Kegen, via Zhalanash

 

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Kazakhstan’s Pamir Highway?

Despite being very steep and rocky in places, my clutch adjustment held and the Heidenau tyres did a great job gripping the loose gravel.  I thought the steep slopes and slow speeds in low gears would cause the bike to overheat again, and I was surprised when it didn’t.  The air was noticeably cooler up in the mountains, and so I guess that had something to do with it.
I would fully recommend taking this remote back-route (from Saty to Zhalanash to Kegen), as the scenery was really spectacular – some of the best I’ve seen in Central Asia so far.

 

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Not bad, not bad

 

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Karkara valley

At Kegen, I rejoined the main, surfaced road and sped quickly along the long straight stretch to Kumtekey near the border.

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The long, straight road from Kegen to Kumtekey and the Kyrgyzstan border

It was now past 6pm so I found a nice, quiet spot to camp by a river ready for an early morning border crossing – I was going to Kyrgyzstan!

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Time to find somewhere to camp

 

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Venturing off-track to look for a suitable camping spot

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This will do nicely :)

 

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Kazakhstan – Almaty

Border and Song

I broke my own rule and got to the Russian/Kazakhstan border check point late; 10 am.  I’d woken up early enough, but somehow got distracted doing another task on the laptop (after a big breakfast), and before I knew it, it was gone 9; you know how it is.

Because I was late there was already a queue of around 20 cars.  Several times before at other border crossings I have ignored the cars and trucks and ridden to the front of the queue, but here the process looked orderly and I got the feeling I should wait in line.  At least the process was as orderly as it looked and they were letting 5 vehicles through at a time for processing.  It took 2 hours to get through the Russian side and an hour to get into Kazakhstan, so not too bad after all.  The entry process was faster into Kazakhstan because they accept and use the same motorcycle temporary import paper as the one I received entering Russia.

The first thing I noticed in Kazakhstan was that the weather was rainy, dark and miserable, but I’m not sure that was all Kazakhstan’s fault.  I covered my leaky dry-bags with garbage bags as it poured down, relentlessly.

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A dark rain shadow was creeping up behind me

Then I got pulled over by the police in the first village I passed.

Great!

I was about to employ my flawless tactic of pretending to not understand anything the police said at all, when I heard the well-spoken English accent of a police sergeant sitting in the cop car a few meters away calling me over.

Bugger!

Nice Mr Policeman was, in fact, very nice indeed, and politely explained to me that I had been photographed speeding at 102km/h in a 60km/h zone.  This was hard for me to dispute as he showed me the nice photo taken by the hidden camera.  I smiled lots and politely explained that I had no idea I was in a 60km/h zone as there were no speed limit signs, and indeed, few signs of a village, like houses.

This didn’t work at all, and I was shown a pile of driving licenses he was holding until the hapless drivers returned with the fine payment in cash (there had been a queue of several other drivers waiting to be fined when I was pulled over).  I could have been cynical and thought this was all just an underhand money-making scheme, but decided not to.

Just when I thought all was lost and prepared myself to pay a fine, the policeman started asking about my trip and seemed very interested.  I stressed the fact, several times, that I was riding for WaterAid Charity, providing life-saving fresh water to poor villages throughout the world, and luckily I was even wearing my ‘WaterAid’ T-Shirt at the time.

Then he asked me if I could dance, or sing.

“Excuse me?” I asked

“Can you dance for me, or sing me a song?”

Granted, I hadn’t been in Kazakhstan long, but I was pretty sure this wasn’t the usual line of questioning employed by the Kazakh Police Force.  Or maybe it was.

“Well, I can’t dance very well…” (without alcohol…); “what kind of song would you like?  Do you know The Beatles?”

“Sing me your National Anthem” he said.

“OK” I shrugged, stood to attention, and belted out a loud and proud rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’ on the side of the road, together with a customary Naval salute at the end.

The police sergeant and his mate both stared for a while, stern faced.  Then he handed me back my passport and license.

“Have a good trip, and welcome to Kazakhstan!” he said joyfully.

Despite the dark clouds and the rain, that’s when I knew I was going to like it there.

Semey

After an hour or so I reached the first city, Semey, on a good road.  Between 1949 and 1989 the Soviet military exploded some 460 nuclear bombs in the expansive steppe just west of the city, and radiation has taken a severe toll on the health of thousands of people in the area over the years.

I pulled off the main highway running through the city to search for an ATM to get some local money.  Once again the amazing ‘Maps with Me’ App led me straight to one.  Of my 5 credit cards, one of them thankfully worked (never leave home without them!)

I’d discovered 2 days before that Barclaycard had cancelled my MasterCard without notifying me due to a mistake they’d made.  I called them later on ‘Viber’ (super cheap international calls) and eventually got through to the right person (after the usual ‘ping-pong’ session) who arranged to send me out another card by emergency post.  I gave them the address of the hotel I planned to stay in in Almaty and hoped for the best.

On the way out of town I stopped for lunch at a great little grocery that sold delicious radioactive hamburgers and pizzas, so I got a stack for dinner as well – it was Saturday night, after all.

Mud and Guts

A large section of the road to Ayagoz via Georiyevka was being resurfaced and all traffic was diverted onto a muddy track running alongside.  The rain was not helping things, and the track had turned into a deep, horrible, muddy quagmire.  In one particularly horrendous patch one lorry had become stuck, sunk deep in mud down to the axels.  Behind it was a backlog of at least a dozen more trucks/lorries, and it didn’t look like they were moving anywhere soon.  I took a wide berth though the muddy road works and managed to pass them, but I almost slipped over several times in the process.  My new Heidenau rear tyre continued slipping and sliding through the mud for another couple of miles until the road slowly began to improve.  It wasn’t fun, and afterwards the bike looked like it had been dunked into a huge chocolate fondue.

Pannier Road Skating

On top of battling through the mud, I was wondering if I’d been wise to ride my now ridiculously loose chain another 1,600km.  I had adjusted it to almost the very end of the adjustment scale and still it was so loose it was almost falling off in places.  However, a tight spot stopped me from adjusting it further.  I wasn’t sure if the chain was a faulty one, or if it was usual for this to happen on a very worn chain.  It had done around 30,000km and so it hadn’t done too badly, but my original Triumph chain had managed over 36,000km and had little signs of wear and no tight spot.

Thankfully, in the afternoon, the surfaced road returned.  However, it was proving not to be the Tiger’s day…

I was riding around 100km/h, enjoying the solid road, when I heard a horrible, loud scraping sound behind me.  This turned out to be my left pannier enjoying a spot of road-skating.  Yes, it had fallen off and was now dragging along the road behind me, miraculously caught by a single stand of my (now very stretched) bungee cargo net.

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My left pannier got tired and wanted to lay down. In the rain.

It turned out another bolt had sheared off the pannier bracket (the second one to have broken) and the cable ties in place of the other bracket had snapped under the weight.  The Triumph pannier system was not really holding up too well on this world tour, but to be fair to them I had dropped the bike on them several times each side over the past 22 months.

I replaced the broken bolt with yet another 3M cable tie (the same as I’d done to the right pannier, which was still holding) and used more cable ties to secure the pannier back on the bike.  Sorted!

A couple of miles down the road I saw my left pannier overtake me in one of those comedy moments, although it wasn’t very funny at the time.  It slid across the road and down a steep embankment, finally coming to rest in a field.  A startled truck driver coming the other way managed to slow down in time to miss it.  It appeared things were not quite as ‘sorted’ as I thought.

Several more cable ties later the pannier was back on, and this time I emptied most of the weight from the pannier and placed it in one of my dry bags.  I was down to my last 3 cable ties, and so I thought I’d better slow down a lot if I wanted them to get to Almaty in one piece.

Kazakhstan is a big, empty country to ride slowly, and I was chomping at the bit to speed up whenever a piece of smooth, flat road appeared.  However, there weren’t many of them, and instead I cringed at every lump and bump I hit.  It’s amazing how much you notice every single bump in the road when your pannier is being held on by 3 cable ties.  Normally, of course, the Tiger would be in her element, sailing over the potholes at speed, as though they weren’t even there.

So with my chain about to fall off and my pannier hanging on by a thread, I tried to get as far as I could towards the sanctuary of Almaty before sunset.  At least the sun started to make a late appearance in the afternoon, which put a brighter tint on things; just.

I suddenly realized I hadn’t taken many photos, mainly because I didn’t feel like stopping in the rain and the mud, so I stopped to take a photo of one of the many conspicuous Kazakh cemeteries I’d been passing.  It seems they are all located on hill tops, I assume to cut down on travel time (or increase it, if they were going the other way).

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One of many regular Muslim cemeteries you will see in Kazakhstan

In the end I got about 50km past Ayagoz and found a nice place to camp out of sight of the road behind a hill.  I watched the full moon rise as I ate delicious, cold pizza.  It could have been romantic but the grasshoppers were playing hard to get, except for the one that jumped into my sleeping bag.

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Time to find somewhere to camp

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I was waiting for the werewolves to attack

Up at the crack of dawn, I started early and took it easy, considering my bike’s delicate condition.

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Morning! It was going to be a beautiful day!

At that point, my good friend, Mr Sod, and his fine Law interjected once again and laid before me the road to Armageddon.   OK, so the road wasn’t quite that bad, but it only took about an hour for it to be one bump too many, and the left pannier smashed onto the road for a third and final time.

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Oops – Third time down, and out for the count! Quite fittingly it died near another cemetery

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Luckily, I had room on the back

The 3M cable ties had been great, but I suppose they’re not really designed to hold heavy panniers to a motorbike over very bumpy Kazakh roads.

Now out of cable ties, the only choice I had left was to secure the pannier to the pillion seat, which my amazing ‘Master Lock’ adjustable bungee cords sorted out in no time.

It was certainly secure, but it didn’t leave much room for my butt, and my Albert Halls’ quite often received a battering against the tank, which wasn’t fun (or healthy).

Having been working on my bike by the side of the road several times during the past 2 days (re-attaching panniers and adjusting chains), one obvious difference I noticed between Kazakhstan and Mongolia was that nobody stopped to help/chat/nose in Kazakhstan, whereas EVERYBODY did so in Mongolia.  Is this what happens as a country becomes more ‘developed’?  Instead, many of the Kazakh drivers who passed me let out long blasts on their horns.  I wasn’t sure if they were honking in commiseration, saying ‘hello’, or trying to usefully tell me ‘don’t break down by the side of the road!’  Either way, it was annoying at the time, although I tried hard to not let it be.

At least the sun was out and the day was much nicer than the previous day.  At last the landscape started showing its beauty; parched, open steppe running off into the horizon on the left, and low rolling hills on the right.

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The expansive Kazakh steppe

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… and low rolling hills

I stopped for lunch at a Russian café by a monument of a (I supposed) Kazakh warrior on a horse, and shortly after got pulled over by the police for the second time in 2 days.  Admittedly it was my fault, as I had (unwittingly) taken a short cut across a huge, unmarked roundabout.  This time my tactic of ‘pretending not to understand a word the policeman was saying’ worked, and his attempts to extort some money from me (in broken English/Kazakh) failed.  Eventually he got bored and wondered off for lunch with his mate.

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Lunch stop, just before being pulled over for the second time in 2 days

The last part of the journey to Almaty dragged a lot as I passed Kapchagay Reservoir.  Again there were major road works jamming the roads with single file traffic in both directions.  It had been a long day and I had run out of patience, so I took no prisoners as I sped along in between the slow moving lines, up banks and verges and past police checkpoints.  One advantage of having my left pannier on the back seat was I was now much thinner and able to squeeze through smaller gaps I would otherwise been stuck in.

Almaty

Eventually I entered Almaty late afternoon, a large city of 1.5 million people and previous country capital.  I had booked a cheap hotel in the centre of town and after riding around in circles for a while, eventually found it with the help of passersby.

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At last! Found my hotel (the Turkestan) in the centre of Almaty

I planned to stay in Almaty a week or so to: 1) fix my bike up and 2) apply for my Tajikistan and Uzbekistan Visas, so I was lucky it turned out to be such a great city with great, friendly people.

From the minute I met Anton he was nothing short of very friendly, generous & hospitable (and he told me to say handsome ;) ).  I spent most of the time there wondering how I could ever pay him back.  Not only had he already ordered me a new chain and sprockets (which would be delivered in the next day or two) and given me his spare front and rear brake pads, but he also offered me a room to stay in his house, which turned out to be his lounge.

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Anton and his (almost as good-looking as mine) Tiger 800XC

Anton’s a big guy and, owning the only other Triumph Tiger in Central Asia, he had jacked up the suspension and raised the handlebars.  My Tiger looked like a baby Tiger cub next to his.

While I was waiting for my chain to be delivered, Anton showed me around his city and introduced me to more great, friendly bikers, including Turgan and Klik (sorry or the spelling!).  Almaty certainly has a welcoming and social biker’s scene!

Turgan owned a double garage where Anton stored his bike, and he let me keep mine in there too.  It’s one of the coolest garages I’ve ever seen, with a basement turned into a chill-out lounge with fully stocked beer fridge – exactly the kind of garage I like.  And he was generous with the beers too, and one could very easily turn up and forget to leave for several hours (or even days).  I’m sure next time I visit it will be the centre of Almaty’s biking community – ‘Turgan’s Angels’.

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Anton, Turgan and Klik outside Turgan’s fantastic garage

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The only 2 Tigers in Central Asia (to our knowledge) outside Turgan’s famous garage – not much to look at from the outside, but inside was a gold mine

Almaty is a lovely, clean, modern city, full of posh bars, shops and restaurants, and lots to see and do.  Over the next week I was taken to several great restaurants and bars to sample delicious traditional dishes and the odd beer or two.  I must admit I loved the food, and I will never get sick of eating juicy, succulent kebabs, fresh salad, spicy soup and mouth-watering cheesy-potato bread.

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One of the many fun times sampling genuine Kazakh hospitality and great food (and beer)

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And the hospitality continued long into the night…

Visa Hell

If you could ever have two extremes regarding country visa applications, the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan embassies are it.  I arrived at the Tajikistan Embassy at 9am on a Tuesday to find the office virtually empty and nobody else in line.  I walked straight up to the counter, handed over my application, and the nice Consul asked me to come back the next day to collect it.

Later, at 2pm, when the Uzbekistan Embassy opened for applications, I was confronted with a surging, desperate crowd of dozens of people trying to gain entry into the Embassy, held back by 2 armed policemen and an iron gate.  I tried to make some sense of it all, and most of the crowd appeared to be Uzbeks – perhaps trying to hand in some kind of work permit application?

I managed to get near the front and ask a policeman when they opened for visas, and he said “3 o’clock”.

I waited for an hour and 40 minutes before the Consul finally made an appearance at the gate, collected all the visa applications, and told me to come back in one week.  He actually said it may be ready on Friday (4 days) if I selected the ‘expedited’ option (for more money), so I did.

On the way back to Anton’s I wondered through Panfilov Park – a nice, big, green park in the middle of the city, housing the Ascension Cathedral (Zenkov Cathedral), a Russian Orthodox cathedral completed in 1907 and second tallest wooden building in the world.

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Ascension Cathedral (Zenkov Cathedral) – the second tallest wooden building in the world (1907).

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Panfilov Park

It also houses another impressive old wooden building – The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, but it was closed when I arrived, to my disappointment.

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The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments

Panfilov Park also looks after the ‘eternal flame’ memorial for fallen soldiers of WWII and other wars, and various pieces of old artillery which the kids love clambering over.

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WWII Memorial

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The kid’s playground

It seems every street you turn down in Almaty is lined with green trees under the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, and sprinkled with fountains and monuments of some kind, and I even found a mini-Eiffel Tower for any homesick French.

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Almaty’s mini-Eiffel Tower

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Leafy Almaty streets

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Almaty is not short of a fountain or two

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And there are plenty of monuments to keep one busy

Back on the tour of Almaty’s fine-dining establishments, Anton and Turgan took me to a traditional Uighur restaurant with delicious soup and noodles.  I found it interesting when Turgan explained the background of how his ethnic Uighurs are presently involved in a battle for equal rights (and some for an independent state) in China’s ‘autonomous’ Xinjiang region just over the border, which has resulted in many of them being labeled ‘terrorists’ by the Chinese.

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Traditional Uighur food

The Tiger Gets a Make-over

After a couple of days my chain and sprockets arrived – phew! – and I spent the next 2 days fitting them and servicing the Tiger with the help of Andrey and (another) Anton at ‘Silk Off Road Tours’, who owned a friendly and helpful workshop next to the Almaty’s Central Stadium.  It was long overdue!

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The Tiger in Silk Off Road Tours’ Operating Theatre

Complete list of works included:

  • New chain and sprockets
  • New front and rear brake pads
  • Oil change
  • Coolant change (after I had had to top it up with drinking water)
  • New spark plugs
  • Clean and re-oil air-filter
  • Repair broken fairing
  • Design and fix new pannier rack

Hardly surprising, but after the work was done she rode like a brand new bike!  Smooth as a whistle – it was a great relief to have her back in business to full capacity.

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Silk Off Road Tours’ great mechanics (and great people) – Andrey and (the other) Anton, showing off my new pannier rack

It turned out the tachometer ‘surging’ was a mixture of damaged ceramic on a spark plug and the alternating loose/tight spot chain.

To celebrate my new bike, Anton took me for a spin up to ‘Big Almaty Lake’ just south of the city, with its fun, twisty mountain roads and idyllic setting against snow-capped peaks.

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Big Almaty Lake, 30 minutes south of Almaty up a great, twisty road

 

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What’s more beautiful, the lake or 2 Tigers?

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The fun, zig-zag road up to Big Almaty Lake

Issyk Lake

 

One day when Anton had some work to do, Turgan, Klik and another friend of theirs called Alec, took me for a drive up to another beautiful lake 50km east of Almaty in the large Central Asian Tian-Shan Mountain Range.

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The drive to Issyk Lake in the beautiful Tian-Shan Mountains

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.. and some incredibly handsome men, sponsored by Heineken

On the way we stopped off at Issyk Village to see the famous Golden Man exhibition at the local museum (and to get some beer).  I was lucky enough to have my own ‘English-speaking’ guide who took great delight in showing me around the small museum (we were the only ones there).

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The famous Issyk Golden Man, and my top-guide

The ‘Golden Man’ was an 18-year-old Saka (Scythian) prince (or princess, as the skeleton sex is uncertain) recently found buried in an ancient ‘kurgan’ (burial mound) over 2,200 years old.  The grave contained a skeleton, warrior’s equipment, and 4,000 gold ornaments, and the reconstructed golden suit has now been adopted as one of the symbols of modern Kazakhstan.

The area is famous for its kurgans, and back in the car I could see the tell-tale hills alongside the road as we passed.

Issyk Lake was formed around 10,000 years ago by a landslide which created a natural dam, capturing the water from the Issyk river.  Unfortunately in the 1960’s another landslide destroyed the dam and a large tourist resort that had built around it, emptying most of the lake.  Many died in the tragedy and the lake, not surprisingly, lost its popularity.  Unfortunately for the people still living there, the whole area is on the massive Tian Shan – Baikal Fault system, and large earthquakes are bound to occur in the future creating more havoc (as they have in the recent Geological past).

The day we visited, the lake thankfully sat peacefully amongst some of most beautiful surroundings I have ever seen.

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Issyk lake – one of the most beautiful I’ve seen

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Wandering down for a swim

It was a hot day, so I wasted little time stripping off and jumping in for a cooling swim – and it was pretty cool; almost freezing, in fact, with the water fresh from the glaciers in the mountains above.

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It was hot – very hot – so time for a swim!

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10/10

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The donkey wanted more, I’m sure

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Farewell view

The whole day was fantastic, and to top it off the lads took me to a trout farm where I could show off my expert fishing skills, single-handedly landing 2 beautiful specimens after long, hard-fought battles of several seconds.

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It’s a hard skill to master, but luckily I’ve mastered it ;)

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2 seconds later – voila! The first one I caught was 5 times the size; but it got away…

No sooner had we caught our dinner (we caught 6 in all), they were fried up and brought to our picnic in the farm grounds, complete with chips, salad, fresh bread and beer, of course.  Needless to say, it was delicious!

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10 minutes later the fish were on the table

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The perfect picnic

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Yep, a pretty perfect day all round

Booze

As much as I didn’t want to leave Almaty after receiving such a warm and friendly reception from Anton, Turgan and friends, I was conscious time was running on and started to make plans to move.  However, it was the World Cup Final Weekend, and so I had to stay on another few days and force myself to sample more generous hospitality at its best.  This included visits to more fine, local drinking establishments such as ‘Gunz and Roses Pub’, ‘Soho Pub’ and ‘Shakespeare’s Pub’.

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It was run to ride around with others, for a change

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Almaty Viewpoint

I’d met a guy called Johnny, an Indian expat, a few days earlier at Silk Off Road’s workshop, and turned out he not only rode a Royal Enfield, but was also the lead singer & guitarist of a local Rock’n’Roll band that played at ‘Gunz and Roses’ – a man after my own heart!  I had a great night there listening to great music with Turgan, and was more than happy when Johnny belted out a superb performance of AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ for me.

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Johnny and his Royal Enfield

After a boozy weekend I was almost glad of a rest when Monday came, and I revisited the Uzbekistan Embassy on the off-chance my visa would be ready (I’d been again Friday just to hear it wasn’t ready, after a 2 hour wait!).  As luck would have it, it was, and after the added palaver of having to go to the bank to pay the visa fee and fight my way back through the surging crowds and wait around for a 4th time, I was finally handed my 30 day visa with a friendly ‘have a nice stay!’

This meant I was free to continue on my peace crusade and made plans for extraction the next day.  I also took a spin on the Tiger up to the highest Ice Skating Rink in the world at 1,691m – Almaty’s Medeu.  Sadly, after the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, the upkeep costs to maintain its world-class standing were too high for a newly independent Kazakhstan.  However, the future may be bright if Almaty wins its bid for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.

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The Medeu – the highest Ice Skating Rink in the world at 1,691m

The view from above the Medeu was well worth the ride, especially when the sun started setting – despite being an overcast day.

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Great views from above the Medeu

Further on up the road past the Medeu is a winter ski resort, supplied by cable-cars from the Medeu.  Here the road quickly turned to rocks and suddenly became very steep, so I thought it best to turn back as light was fading quickly.

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The steep, rocky road past the ski resort

That night I took Anton out for another meal in an attempt to repay some of his generosity, but somehow we both felt we’d see each other again at some point, so I’m sure I’ll have other opportunities.

Note to bikers:  Anton said he was happy for me to post his email address on this blog in case any of you are in need of help or cold beer in Almaty: bigmankz@gmail.com

Categories: Kazakhstan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Russian Altai Republic

Entering the Russian Altai Republic

The Altai Mountains are situated in central Asia where Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China all converge for the occasional Kumis Conference.  It is a land of high, white-capped mountains, traditional nomadic homes (gers or yurts), eagle hunters, Russian tourist camps, deep gorges, fast flowing rivers and lots of flies.

I had heard much about the spectacular scenery from travellers I’d met, and my anticipation was riding high.

Setting off to leave my home for the past few days in Oglii, Mongolia, I left for the border well rested and my chain half hanging off.  The chain was certainly past its best before date, and was now stretching at an alarming rate.  In fact the bike wasn’t very well at all; she’d occasionally cut out on the go (blocked fuel breather?), felt like she was running on two cylinders, all the brake pads were nearing the bone, the sprockets looked like tiger shark teeth, the panniers were half falling off, 2 indicators were missing and the rear tyre was approaching baldness; yes, Mongolia had certainly taken a toll!  Apart from all that, she was wonderful.

My family at home had new a new chain, sprockets and brake pads for me and were just waiting for me to send them an address so they could DHL them out to me.  I thought it best to ride to the next large (modern) city in Russia, Barnaul – nearly 900km away, to get this done.

I’d been told the 100km road from Oglii to the Mongolia/Russian border was surfaced all the way, so I pumped my tyres back up to 36 psi.  Had I have known it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered!  Instead much of the ‘road’ was either being built or resurfaced and I found myself skidding over large sections of muddy ‘diversion’ tracks like a beginner on ice skates.  It didn’t help that it was raining, and the tracks were becoming boggy.  I should have stopped to reduce the tyre pressures again, but I kept hoping any minute the surfaced road would re-appear.

It didn’t, for what seemed like a long time.

When the tracks eventually led back onto the completed road, I came across two Germans on Yamaha XT660 Ténéré motorbikes and stopped to give them my Mongolian map.

The border opened at 9am and I was there just before, behind about 5 cars.  It took an hour to get through the Mongolian side and one and a half to get through the Russian side; not bad at all.

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Entering the Russian Altai Republic

I must admit I was somewhat relieved to be back on good tarmac.  On the smooth road the injuries to my Tiger seemed more pronounced as rode along in a surging motion, the tachometer undulating rapidly.  I guessed it was a combination of the worn chain (with one very tight spot and the rest almost falling off) and a damaged spark plug; at least that’s what I hoped it all was, and nothing more serious.  I wished I’d carried more spare spark plugs.  In any case, she was still moving and it didn’t appear to be anything too serious that would indicate an impending explosion.

There is only really one main road through the Altai Republic, the ‘Chuysky Trakt’, which affords beautiful views of forested, snow-capped mountains, rivers and narrow gorges as it snakes alongside the Altai Mountains.

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Views of the Altai Mountains

The first town I came across of any size was Kosh-Agach, which is famed for being the driest inhabited place in Russia.  Well, it must have been my lucky day, as it was pouring down with rain when I was there.

As I rode on towards the next small town of Aktash the scenery gradually became more dramatic, helped by the sun’s appearance as it started peeking out from behind the clouds.

The weather eventually changed from rain to boiling sunshine, at which point I wished it was raining again.  I stopped by a nice stream for lunch but was immediately assaulted by millions of biting flies and Mosquitos.  I tried to suffer it for a while, eating my lunch through my visor, but it didn’t really work and I shot off to find somewhere else.

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Good lunch spot, but ruined by millions of midges!

Riding through Aktash I saw an interesting looking side-road branching off over a river and toward the mountains.  On my iPhone App (Maps with Me) the tracks led alongside a river and toward a couple of campsites, so I thought I’d try and find them.  Soon the side-road had somehow changed into a narrow, rocky track and I found myself weaved my way up a very large, steep mountain.  To the right the track dropped down a near vertical cliff to a fast flowing river in the canyon below.  I definitely didn’t want to fall down that one!

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I took a detour up a steep, rocky track with beautiful views

The views were spectacular, but the Tiger was having difficulty at times hopping over the rocky, steep incline loaded up with all the luggage.  I had to be in first gear for most of the climb, and soon I had a bit of a problem – the bike overheated.

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It was great until the poor old Tiger overheated

I pulled over on the side of the track to investigate and let her cool down.  The coolant in the expansion reservoir was boiling rapidly.  I checked the fan, and it was working, so I guessed it must have just been a combination of a really hot day and the prolonged, steep, awkward climb in mostly 1st and 2nd gear.

Once she had cooled down, I had no choice but to replace the lost coolant (which had boiled over) with drinking water (should have been distilled water to avoid corrosion, but I didn’t have any).  I planned to do a coolant change in Almaty anyway.

At this stage, considering the track didn’t appear to be getting any better, I thought it prudent to turn the bike around and coast back downhill to the main road.

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A fairly level section of the track (it got much steeper and rockier!)

She made it back to the road with no problems and as I rode on northwest the temperature gauge seemed to remain fine.  The road closed into a pretty valley with a fast river flowing through it, and I came across a weird monument of a pick-up truck.

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Now where did I park my truck?

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Every turn had a great view

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It was getting late so I started looking for somewhere to camp

By now it was getting late and when I saw a few tents camped along the banks of a nice looking river, I decided to join them a bit further along.

I had been slowly roasting in my bikers clothing all afternoon, and so before I pitched the tent I took a dive into the river and lay in ecstasy in the cold, mountain water.

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Great place for a swim and a tent :)

Luckily there were hardly any biting insects around, so I sat outside the tent, cooked up a great dinner and had an early night.

In the morning I was awoken by a herd of cows tying to mate with my tent.  One of them stuck around for a while to try and eat my breakfast.

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My breakfast date

It was going to be another really hot day, so I took my time to pack away and enjoyed another swim.

A couple of hours up the road I passed through Manzherok.  I’d read there was a nice lake there so I took the short detour to go and see it.  It was a nice lake indeed, but it was packed with tourists – more people in one place than I’d seen in quite some time.  I didn’t like it; was I becoming antisocial in my old age?  I don’t  think so – it was just too busy and I couldn’t find a free spot to park and swim.  Instead I rode back into town and did some shopping in a great fresh food market I found.  I was excited to see whole chickens roasting on rotating spits, so I bought one immediately – yum!

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Manzherok Lake – nice, but too busy with tourists for my liking

A couple of miles further on, I took a track leading through some woodland and found a nice shady spot by the river to devoir my chicken, all on my own.  That was more like it!

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I took a little detour through the woods to find somewhere quieter

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It was another roasting hot day so the shade from the trees was perfect

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That’s more like it!

I wanted to camp at a lake called Lake Teletskoye (‘Golden Lake’), which was 3 hours off the main road to the east via a city called Gorno-Altaysk.  The road was good and the journey actually only took me a couple of hours.  When I arrived, the journey had been well worth it – the lake was beautiful.

78km long, 5km wide and 330m deep, Lake Teletskoye is the biggest lake in Russian Altai Republic, and of course I jumped right in for a swim to cool off after my sweltering journey.

The tourist town at the western head of the lake is called Artybash, full of speed boat touts offering trips up and down the lake, so I passed through and found a great campsite in a large field with a shop, bar, restaurant and toilets for a couple of quid.  The field actually sloped down directly into the lake and I picked a great spot right on the lake edge, hoping it wouldn’t rain and flood me out (it wasn’t forecast to).

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What do you think of this camping spot? Lake Teletskoye

As I was setting up camp, a Russian guy & his girlfriend stopped by to chat and very kindly invited me over to their tent for dinner.  They had a BBQ and put on a delicious spread, and I ended up making several trips to the bar for take-away beers to compliment the evening.   Yet again it was a night sponsored by Google Translate, but that didn’t matter.

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My very kind and hospitable camp neighbours who invited me over for a great BBQ dinner :)

In the morning I woke to a wonderful view of a perfectly peaceful lake through my tent.

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Morning views don’t get much better than this

A few minutes later an eerie mist covered the lake until the rising sun eventually burnt it off.

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Morning mist on the lake

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It was gonna be another scorcher!

To get to the next city of Biysk there were two routes; one went back west the way I had come via Gorno-Altysk, and the other (recommended by Google Maps) went north and then west.  I thought I’d take Google Maps’ recommendation and set off on a good road running north.  However, I soon realised this was a mistake as the road rapidly turned into a nightmare track of loose, large stones.  Then it started to rain and part of the road turned to slippery mud.  It was horrible, but I’d come so far I didn’t want to turn around, and of course I kept thinking the tarmac road would suddenly reappear.  It’s funny, because I was under the impression all the difficult off-road riding had been done in Mongolia, but I suppose you can get a difficult track anywhere in the world.

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Yucky track in the rain to Biysk

Eventually I arrived in Biysk and the road surfaced again after what seemed like forever.  Then it was plain sailing all the way to Barnaul on a fast multi-lane new road.  On the way I pulled off onto a rough track for lunch and was instantly covered by millions of annoying midges, so much so that I couldn’t stay and had to ride off to find somewhere else.

Barnaul

Who would have ever thought I’d need a room with air-conditioning in Barnaul, at the foot of the Altai Mountains?  The small, cheap ‘broom-cupboard’ room I’d booked in the centre of town was like a sauna.  Instead reception gave me a tiny fan which was much better than nothing.  I could tell I was back in Russia as the bed sheets were too small for the bed.  Why, oh why??

I called a guy called Andrey Aksenov who had been keeping a brand new Heidenau rear tyre for me that I’d ordered several weeks before from Denis Panferov in Moscow.

Denis Panferov, Email: buy@motorezina.ru  Tel:+7-495-507-9530 / Cell:+7-925-507-9530

http://www.motorezina.ru

Andrey turned out to be a top guy, met me at my hotel with the tyre, and took me to a nearby garage that could fit it for me for a couple of dollars (saving me the hassle of doing it myself).

At the garage there was already another (Russian) rider on a KTM having his front wheel changed, so I waited and chatted to him for a bit.  When his wheel appeared, the mechanic had put his tyre on the wrong way round (they have a direction of travel), so off it came again!  At this point it was obvious the mechanic was used to changing car tyres but had little experience of changing motorcycle tyres.

When the wheel came back for the second time, the mechanic couldn’t put it back on the bike as the callipers were seized, so the KTM rider had to sort it out himself.  By now I could see the mechanic had had enough, and the result was he refused to change my tyre.  So, out came Google Translate and I managed to persuade him to change the tyre only, and I would remove and replace the back wheel myself.  He agreed, and in a jiffy I had a brand new rear tyre – happy!

After speaking to a couple of people and reading some internet posts, it became apparent that having spare parts posted to Barnaul could be expensive, take several weeks and involve problems with customs.  Not wanting to hang around for that long in one place, I started looking at other options.  I found one in a fellow Triumph Tiger rider called Anton Larin living in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which was my next port of call (thanks to another Tiger rider, Dave Shucksmith, putting me in touch with him).

Anton had the only Triumph Tiger in all of Central Asia (to our knowledge) and had imported it from the US.  After making contact with him via the Tiger 800 website forum, I was amazed at his hospitality and willingness to help me on my travels.  After a couple of exchanges he ended up very kindly ordering me a new chain and sprockets which would be delivered in Almaty in around 5 days.  This worked out well, because my Kazakhstan Visa didn’t start for another 5 days, and it would take me 2-3 days to ride the 1600km.

I used this time to rest in Barnaul, look around the city and finish my Mongolia blog, but soon I had itchy feet and moved down to Rubtsovsk on the Russian/Kazakhstan border, to bide my time.

On the way down to Rubtsovsk the flat, expansive green fields almost reminded of Norfolk back home in the UK.

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Fresh, green fields south of Barnaul heading towards the Kazakhstan border

As there was even less to do in Rubtsovsk than Barnaul, the time dragged a bit and I couldn’t wait to get going into Kazakhstan.  That taught me a lesson on being a bit more flexible when applying for visas and their start dates, although this is a difficult thing to try and do in Central Asia – the land of the forever changing and PITA visa application procedures.

Eventually though, the day came, as it always does, and I was off!

Categories: Russian Altai Republic | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Northern Route #2

Uvs Nuur (Uvs Lake)

It had rained during the night and my tent was soaked, although the 36 dollar Japanese marvel had still kept me warm and dry inside.  I needed to find somewhere hot and sunny to camp that night to dry it out; Western Australia, maybe?

From Tes further west the going got easier and the track firmed up a little.  However, it was still desert conditions, and I even bumped into some Bactrian camels – apparently the most northerly ones in the world; perhaps they were on holiday as well.

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These camels were either lost, or I was somehow back in the desert…

The northern route certainly takes you through some extremely remote areas, and that’s saying something for Mongolia.  I travelled all morning without seeing anyone except for a couple of herders on horseback.

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The mountains had been eaten up by some gigantic mountain-eating monster

It took me 7 hours to travel the 265km from Tes to Uvls Nuur (Uvs Lake), which isn’t bad considering the state of the (off) road.

The impassable rivers I had been worried about thankfully never materialised, and the few rivers I did have to cross were either completely dry or just small streams.  I could easily see this being a completely different story during the wet season next month and August.  Perhaps I had just been lucky with my timing.

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One of the small river crossings

I rode through two small towns, Baruunturuun and Zuungovi, stopping at the latter to get some fuel and supplies.

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Zuungovi supermarket – worth the 650 km detour

Soon after Zuungovi I caught a glimpse of the huge Uvs Nuur (Uvs Lake) on the horizon; it looked like a beautiful, dark blue, shimmering ocean, pouring out over the horizon.

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Uvs Nuur shimmered like a shimmering thing, although not in this photo

I’d read the lake was ‘tourist unfriendly’ (according to Lonely Planet Guidebook) due to being surrounded in marshland and infested with Mosquitos, but even so I wanted to take a closer look.

I turned off the track and headed north straight across the desert scrub directly towards the lake. It was around 10 km or so through deep sand, and I had to stop to let my tyres down further (to 20 psi) when I got stuck.

It worked like a dream and soon I was flying over the dunes like I was on a magic carpet.  It was good fun.

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Uvs Lake – one of my favourite places in Mongolia

I hadn’t ridden on sand at all before this world trip, and my experience in the Gobi especially has made a world of difference.  Now I don’t think twice about whizzing over sand dunes, whereas before it worried me a lot, and I got tired of picking up the bike.

In fact, I’ve learnt a lot about motorcycling on this trip, and each time I fall off I learn another thing (so that’s 3 other things I’ve learnt in Mongolia so far!).  During the past few days there have been times when I’ve felt ‘at one’ with the bike and have been almost in a trance, calving up the sandy tracks & berms like they weren’t there.  It has been lots of fun.

As soon as I saw the lake I knew I was going to camp there, even though it was still early, just past lunch.  It was breathtaking.  Who said Mongolia didn’t have an ocean?  It was huge; so huge I couldn’t see the other side.

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Who said Mongolia didn’t have an Ocean?

Uvs Nuur is actually Mongolia’s biggest lake by surface area and is supposedly 5 times saltier than the sea, although it didn’t feel or taste like it.

I rode up to the water’s edge to take a photo and was instantly covered by a swarm of flying insects that looked and sounded like Mosquitos.  My first instinct was to hightail it out of there, but I had to take at least one photo now I was there.  I got off my bike and saw the insects didn’t follow me – they were much more interested in the bike, for some reason.  I moved closer to investigate and offered them my arm; they did not bite.  I looked them up later and found out they were actually Chironomidae – in the same family as mosquitos, but not nearly as nasty.  You can easily tell them apart because 1) they don’t bite you, and 2) the males have large feathery antennae and no mouth spears.

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I think I was the only person on the whole shore

I found out the reason the males were swarming over my bike was they were looking to attract mates.  They do this over any visual marker, such as an isolated rock, plant, tree branch, or your parked car/motorbike.  This makes sense, as at least the females know where to go for the party.  Sadly, once the lucky male mates with an approaching female, he dies, so if I were a Chironomidae I’d have to think twice about that one, or at least have a lot to drink.  I wonder if they’ve worked that out yet?

Uvs Lake is a bird watchers paradise with over 200 bird species.  I saw beautiful terns, seagulls, cranes, geese, eagles and even swans; my mate Mick would have loved it, being one of those twitcher types.

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Lined by distant mountains, the backdrop could not have been better

The first thing I did was strip off and go for a swim to cool down – it was a roasting hot day.  The water was fairly warm, as the average depth of the lake is only 12m, and gets plenty of solar heating from the sun.

The second thing I did was pitch the tent in a perfect spot. In fact any spot on the shore would have been perfect, as it was all the same – perfect.

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Left a bit, right a bit – right there!

During pitching, another corner peg-tag ripped off my tent so I had to make another hole in the ground sheet to secure it (that’s two down…); it’s doing alright for a cheapy I guess.  Even though some of the rods have started to split down the middle, the gaffa tape is holding so I think it will last a while longer.  It occasionally buckles in strong wind, but I shouldn’t be doing too much more extreme camping from now on.

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Time for another swim!

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Have I got time for a little snooze before dinner?

I was excited because I could see loads of driftwood lying on the shore and I knew I was going to have my first camp fire since arriving in Mongolia.  Usually people don’t have fires in Mongolia because 1) There are no trees, and 2) The few trees that are there, they worship.

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My first Mongolian camp fire

It was the best fire in Mongolia, and probably the only one.

I was starving after my lunch had flown off the back of my bike earlier that day (another lesson learned – never trust a plastic bag will be strong enough to hold your lunch on Mongolia’s bumpy roads).  I’d been saving the tin of ham I had for a special occasion, and this was it.  Minutes later I was sitting eating the most delicious pot of spaghetti ham bolognaise I’d ever eaten.  It’s amazing what you can cook up in one pot (or is it just me?).

I made loads so I could reheat the rest for breakfast; a trick I employed often.  It also saved one lot of washing up (which I hate).

It was strange sitting next to the fire eating dinner on the lake shore surrounded by seagulls and mountains, and not another soul around.  For a moment I forgot I was in Mongolia; it felt like I was on another planet.

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The Planet Uvs

I kept the fire going until sunset and then retired inside the tent.  Soon after I heard a swarm of Mosquitos arrive; it was like the movie ‘Pitch Black’.  I hoped I wouldn’t need to venture outside during the night.

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Sunset over the lake

I did, actually, and it turned out they were more of our nectar-eating friends, Chironomidae.  Chironomidae, I love you!

Uureg Nuur (Uureg Lake)

I arrived in Ulaangom in style around 11am – on a brand new road that started 10 km or so outside the city.  It was the first surfaced road I’d seen since Moron, and was a nice surprise, while it lasted (not long).

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What’s that long, black, snaky thing?

Ulaangom is a pretty small town with not much about it, but it did have a small government information office.  After filling up with fuel I went there to ask about the best route to the next city I wanted to visit before the border, Olgii.

The lady in the office told me to pass south of Achit Nuur, a large lake in the mountains, as to the north of it there was a river too deep to cross.  This sounded sensible, and so the route was planned in a jiffy.

Before I set off I bought some stuff for dinner, including some eggs for breakfast in the morning.  I’ve learnt to always buy 2 more eggs than I need because I always end up breaking at least 1.  And yes, I did break another one.

Soon after leaving Ulaangom the sky turned black and the heavens opened; not good timing because I had to ride up the side of a steep mountain, sliding about in mud and dodging flooded potholes (yes, the surfaced road ended just as quickly as it had begun).

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Something tells me I’m gonna get wet…

The bike did marvellously though and soon I reached the summit and started riding across the mountain plateau.

Uureg Nuur is 1425m above sea level and surrounded by snow-capped mountains over 3,000m high (10,000 ft).  I saw it from the top of a mountain pass and decided to venture down to the shore to take a peek, as I like lakes (if you hadn’t realised).

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The second Lake in a day – the beautiful Uureg Nuur

It was different from Uvs Nuur in several ways; firstly, it looked like an alpine lake, not an ocean, and secondly it was crystal clear fresh water, not the salty sea-like water of Uvs Nuur.

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I rode down across the shingle banks to take a closer look. Yes – it was definitely a lake

I rode along the bank for a little and then spotted my perfect camping spot; out into the lake on a spit of shingle.  My tyres were still deflated from dune riding around Uvs Nuur, so I raced out onto it without hesitation.  It was deep, loose shingle and the bike weaved about all over the place, but she kept on ploughing through until I found the spot.

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I’m getting good at finding those perfect camping spots!

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Further…

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and further…

The rain cloud had passed and it was boiling hot again, so I didn’t waste any time diving in for a swim.  It was lovely and cool, but not too cold considering its altitude and the hugely varying mountain weather conditions.

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Second swim of the day!

There were a few flying insects around, but like at Uvs Nuur they weren’t biting ones, and flocked around the bike instead.  Poor old Tiger!

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The Tiger was happy too :)

It was only 2pm and for the second day in a row I had set up camp just after lunch; a far cry from my long days in Japan where on several occasions I set up camp well into the night.  I’d only gone 160 km, but this spot was too good to pass up.

I must admit I liked this modern routine better, and after my swim I sunbathed on the spit and ended up falling asleep for an hour (I must be getting old…)

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Nap time

I was awoken by a family of 8 from the nearest Ger (a couple of miles away) that had driven to the end of the spit and then walked the rest of the way out to see who I was.  I told them I was an alien from Uranus, but they didn’t understand.  They were friendly but, as usual, our communication was limited to sign language, strange noises and pointing at bits on the bike.  They didn’t stay long and when they went I gave their 2 young lads a small kid’s colour notebook and pencil each.  I had a few small such gifts to hand out along my Mongolian travels as I’d read it is the custom (usually when invited into someone’s Ger for food or drink).

When they’d gone, I took a walk further out along the spit and saw a large dead fish an eagle had been pecking.  I wished I had some fishing equipment, although even if I did I’m such a bad fisherman I probably wouldn’t have caught anything.

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The lake was like glass

After another swim I pitched he tent and got dinner on.  As it was cooking I had another visit from another local family member who’d bought another kid hoping for a notebook.  I tried to explain I didn’t have any more, but they seemed happy with 2 eggs and the rest of my tinned ham instead.  The parent, however, hated my spaghetti – ha!  If it isn’t meat, Mongolians probably won’t like it.

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More guests! Who’d have thought, in the middle of nowhere?? Good job I still had some ham left

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The evening was perfectly still

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A rainbow appeared over the mountains

When the sun went down, as usual it was windy.  This time it was pretty strong and half of the tent caved in under the force.  I hoped it wouldn’t get any windier as the fly sheet might rip leaving me exposed to any rain.  Luckily it did eventually calm down, or I fell asleep and didn’t notice.

Olgii

The road went southwest from Uureg Lake through a valley and up a steep, rocky track to snow-capped mountains before heading down to Khotgor.  It quickly got cold as I ascended and near the top it got pretty muddy when a small river decided to run down the track; hasn’t it got enough space!?

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A small river decided to run down the track for some exercise

I stopped and had a little snow-bath near the top.  The views fanned across the surrounding mountains for miles.

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I knew I should have brought my skiis

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You get a nice view from 3,000 m (10,000 ft)

The other side of the mountains was like another world – a world of pink sand and flat Martian rocky terrain.

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I crossed into several new worlds; Pink Sand Land

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..and Martian Moonrock

The track was hard and fast, and I felt like I was flying (luckily I didn’t fly off).

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Like a gravel drag-racing track

Eventually it rose over a small mountain range and then looked down upon the emerald blue Achit Nuur (Achit Lake).

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Another lake, for a change – Achit Nuur

The area around Achit Nuur is desolate.  And by that I mean a desert with absolutely nobody or nothing around for as far as the eye can see, and maybe much further.  I loved it.

I rode up a hill to get a higher viewpoint; it really was awesome.  I doubt it has changed much for millions of years, and I could just imagine the scene populated with Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, and all the other dinosaurs. I really hope they don’t build a road through the area, as that really would spoil it.

I rode down to the lake edge along a sandy beach.  There were the usual swarming flies, but this time they followed me and bit me, giving the Tiger a rest, so I didn’t hang around for long.

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Achit Nuur – lovely, but millions of biting flies

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I’d made the right choice camping at the other 2 lakes

From Achit Nuur the road continued to the southwest and changed again as it crossed over another mountain range.  This time the mountains were very steep, grey and rocky, with huge scree slopes cascading down into the valleys.

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The scenery changed yet again, into huge, grey cliffs with near vertical scree slopes

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Now where did I leave my bike?

It met the fast-flowing and sediment laden Khovd River, allowing trees and green oasis’ to spring up along its banks, producing some wonderful colours.

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This is how I imagine Kazakhstan to look like

The final stretch to Olgii was long, flat and rocky, and you could really get some speed up if you wanted to (yes, I did!)

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The final stretch…

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Nearly there…

When the sizeable city of Olgii came into sight, I must admit I gave the old Tiger a bit of a hug and cuddle – it had carried us across Mongolia, and we were almost still in one piece!

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Olgii – we’ve made it!!!!!! :) :) :D

From Olgii, the western border into the Russian Altai is only around 100 km away (mostly paved), and so this felt like the end of my Mongolian adventure.

Being a hub for travellers either entering or leaving Mongolia, there are several OK guesthouses to choose from.  Mine cost only 12,000 Tughrik, about 4 quid, and I had a whole Ger to myself, and a hot shower.  After not having posted a blog post for 1 month I thought it would be a good place to stay for a couple of days and catch up until my visa expired, so I did.

The best thing about Olgii is the Turkish restaurant there called Pamukkale.  After eating mostly pasta for a good few weeks it was heaven to find some fresh veg and delicious slow cooked lamb.  All travellers eventually found their way there for meals, so it was also a great place to socialise (except it didn’t sell beer).  At dinner the first night I met an American father and son on by bicycles, a Dutch couple in a Land Cruiser (with a cool pop-up roof) and an Israeli backpacker.  At least the hotel next door served beer, so that was often the après-dinner RV.  All in all it was a pleasant end to a great month in Mongolia.

Of all the places I have been on my trip so far, Mongolia has certainly been a highlight, and I was almost certainly return one day (although maybe in a Land Cruiser with a pop-up roof).

Categories: The Northern Route #2 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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