Turkish Riviera

The southwest Turkish Mediterranean Coast is known as the Turkish Riviera, or Turquoise Coast, home to beautiful beaches, ancient ruins and waterfalls.  It is so beautiful Mark Antony picked it as his wedding present for his beloved Cleopatra.

From Cappadocia I rode south, up and down mountains and in and out of the rain, but it was nice and refreshing at least.  The road, as usual for Turkey, was incredibly awesome in terms of lack of traffic, quality and scenic beauty.  Good old Turkey, my friend!

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The awesome roads of Turkey

Then I hit the coast at a large city called Mersin.

Up until Mersin I’d been impressed how well the traffic flowed in Turkey, but soon that myth was cruelly dispelled!  Here, traffic was a nightmare, and in the middle of a traffic jam in the middle of town the Tiger decided to stall.  Then, of course, it wouldn’t start, so I had to push it to the curb and leave it for 30 minutes to cool down.  “No matter”, I thought, and took the opportunity to grab a drink.

Soon I was back on my way and escaped the worst of the traffic by taking the coastal route through town.  I’d noticed my oil level was low, and so on my way out I made a quick stop at a garage and topped it up (with the engine running, as I didn’t feel like waiting another 30 minutes).

It was a relief to find myself out of the busy city and back on the empty, rocky Mediterranean coastal road.  I followed it west through Erdemli and towards a small tourist enclave called Kizkalesi.

By now it was late afternoon, so when I spotted a campsite advertising by the side of the road just before Kizkalesi, I pulled off to take a gander.  When I saw a lovely little clearing surrounded in flowers next to the sea, I decided to pitch for the night.  In fact, I had decided to stay before I’d even seen the nice clearing due to the friendliness and openness of the lady owner who met me at the gate.

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Good place for a spot of camping, I think

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Yep!

After a quick pitch (which I have discovered means 20 minutes without really rushing too much), I changed into my boardies and took a dive off the camp’s home-made wooden pier.  The coastline was rocky, which meant the water clarity was exceptional.  It was also nice and warm, which is always good.

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Ready for a dive off the pier?

There weren’t many people around (I think I was their only guest), but they made me feel welcome and cooked me a delicious fresh fish for dinner on a huge pile of greens, which were the first I’d had in a while, and something I had been craving.

Roman Ruins

Next morning I rose earlier than usual, left the luggage in the tent and set off to explore the area; it’s always much nicer to cruise around without the weight of the luggage.

There are so many ancient ruins along the Turkish Mediterranean coast that most are not even regularly visited, or indeed sign posted.  Just down the road I found an old 2nd century Roman settlement and amphitheatre with great views over the coast.

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Ruins of a 2nd century Roman settlement

It was great being the only visitor at this incredible ancient site, and I took my time wondering around, looking at the 1,800 year old Roman mosaics and climbing up and down the amphitheatre.

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The awesome amphitheatre

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1,800 year old mosaic

Heaven and Hell

Further down the coast there was a place called ‘Cennet and Cehennem’ which means ‘Heaven and Hell’, so I expected a mix of free beer and trance music.  What I actually found were two huge sink holes (collapsed caves).

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Entering into the mouth of ‘Heaven’

‘Heaven’ was the biggest, and there were 400 steps leading all the way down into a huge, dark, dripping cave.  It was really slippery on the wet rocks leading into the cave, particularly in my flip flops, but it was worth the climb.

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I always thought ‘Heaven’ would look slightly different…

Next was the smaller ‘Hell’ sink hole, where Greek legend says Typhon, a fire-breathing 100-headed dragon, defeated Zeus, King of the Gods, and imprisoned him in the hole.  Two other Greek Gods, Hermes and Pan, rescued Zeus (thank goodness), who then went on to defeat Typhon and imprison him inside Mt Etna, the active volcano in Italy.  Poor old Typhon!

On the way back to the tent I had a huge, delicious local (late) breakfast called Kahvaltı, consisting of many small dishes, feta cheese, salad and bread.  I do love Turkish food!

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Turkish breakfast – Kahvaltı – Yum!

Kizkalesi

Onwards to Kizkalesi, I had a peek at the beach which was too touristy for my liking, but there was a nice castle on the peninsula called Korikos castle, and another out on a rock out at sea called Maiden castle.

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Korikos castle

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Touristy Kizkalesi

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A bit too touristy for me

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Kizkalesi

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The pier was sinking!

The Master Plan

My Master Plan was simple: ride along the Turkish coast to Izmir and catch a ferry to Greece.  It was only around 1,500km, so I aimed to take my time, camping at the best beaches I found along the way.  Good plan, eh?

Back on the coastal road I took my time riding up, down and around the mountains, enjoying the frequent stunning vistas that unfolded all around me.

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The Turkish Coastal Road – not bad!

The traffic again remained light, and the police remained suspiciously absent.  The one policeman I did see was driving whilst chatting away on his mobile phone.  I wondered what on earth I would have to do to get pulled over in such a country!

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I’m always careful not to get tooooo close to the edge nowadays

Alanya

Historically a stronghold for many Mediterranean-based empires, including the Ptolemaic, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, Alanya is now a busy holiday resort enjoying the beautiful sandy beaches.  I found a relatively quiet spot to camp at Perle Camping, just before the main resort started at the end of the lovely Kleopatra Beach.

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Kleopatra Beach, Alanya

The campsite had a great bar and restaurant, but wasn’t much of a campsite.  With little space to choose from, they squeezed me into a corner amongst their stores, but I didn’t mind.

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Room for a small one?

The long, wide Kleopatra beach was wonderful – one of the best I’d seen for quite some time – and I decided to take a jog along it to explore a bit.  Not long into the jog I discovered it was a mistake not to wear trainers, as the sand was so course it acted like sandpaper on my feet.  It was also soft and deep, which made it extremely hard going.  However, not wanting to give up, I ploughed on and eventually managed 30 minutes without collapsing into a heap and crying, which was lucky as there was quite a crowd.  The swim afterwards was worth it!

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Fancy a jog? Wear trainers!

Odd Eyed Cat

The camp had a resident white cat with one green eye and one blue eye.  Having never seen such a thing before, I was fascinated, but having looked into it I discovered these ‘odd-eyed’ Angora cats are quite a common sight in Turkey, and they are considered a national treasure.  The Turkish Government (with the Ankara Zoo) even started their own breeding program to preserve and protect them in 1817, and the program continues today.  Turkish folklore suggests that “the eyes must be as green as the lake and as blue as the sky”.

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Odd-Eyed Angora Cat

Wakey Wakey!

Turks like to stay up late drinking tea, which is fine, but that means they don’t get going until late morning.  This, of course, is not a problem unless you wake up early and want to have breakfast, as I did one morning thanks to the combined efforts of the local mosque and a cockerel.

At least the wifi was working, so I caught up a bit on this blog.

The restaurant eventually got going at 10am, by which time I was starving.  Again I had the huge Turkish breakfast, Kahvaltı, which is really good, but not quite as good as an English one!

I decided to stay another day, considering it was extra cheap and the beach was nice, and after a quick discussion, I agreed with myself.

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Another day on the beach – It’s a hard life

Cirali

Next stop along the coast was Cirali, and on the way a nice lunchtime stop was the wonderful Manavgat Waterfall – just one of many hidden Turkish treasures.

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Manavgat Waterfall – lovely!

Next was the large coastal resort of Antalya.  Interestingly, Antalya became the third most visited city in the world last year (2013) by number of international arrivals, ranking behind Paris and London.  And no wonder, judging by the number of huge holiday resorts that lined the coast almost continuously.  Not liking the touristy masses, I rode on through, but having researched it later I wished I had stopped to see the Düden Waterfalls which fall directly into the Mediterranean Sea – oh well, you can’t win them all, and they’ll still be there for my next visit!

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Oops – wrong way! ;)

Cirali turned out to be a bohemian hippy camp along a secluded beach.  Now this was the kind of beach I did like.

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Gorgeous Cirali Beach

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My kind of beach

I found another empty campsite at the quieter end of the quiet beach (Cirali Camping) and set up amongst free range hens and cockerels; I suspected it would be another noisy early morning awakening.

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A witch suddenly appeared and turned me into a chicken!

At the other end of the beach were the 2,000 year old ruins of Olympos, a former city in the ancient region of Lycia (before it was assumed into various other empires).  Here the beach was busier and there was a line of bars and restaurants serving great food & cocktails.

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2,000 year old ancient Olympos

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Olympos was beautifully situated on a river at the coast

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The Olympos end of the beach

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Looking towards Cirali

I was learning a lot about Turkey; I hadn’t realised how many beautiful and interesting places there were to visit, and I was only just scratching the surface.  I thought I’d better get a beer and lay on the beach for a bit to contemplate its majesty.

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Time for a beer, me thinks :)

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Cappadocia – Turkey

Cappadocia

I didn’t know too much, if anything, about this region of Turkey called Cappadocia, but I knew I must be there when I passed some really weird rock structures that looked like fairy chimneys capped with flame-shaped rock.  Funnily enough, they were actually called Fairy Chimneys.

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My first encounter with the weird rock formations of Cappadocia

Fairies

I took at turn-off and followed my map to the ‘Pashabagi Fairy Chimneys’.  They looked worth a wander, so I switched the bike off and went exploring.  I’d heard about the rock people of Cappadocia, and for the first time I saw some of the homes they used to live in, carved completely out of the soft volcanic tuff (solidified ash).  In some areas people still live in them.  Inside they provide a dark and cool escape from the heat of the summer sun.

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Pashabagi Fairy Chimneys

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An incredible place to wonder around freely

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Some of the rock dwellings that used to house early Christians

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Yep – it’s me!

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Inside one of the cool rock-houses

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They weren’t short of a Fairy Chimney or two

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The best thing was, you could ride anywhere!

Zelve Open Air Museum

Further down the road I came to the Zelve Open Air Museum and bought a ‘Museum Pass’ that gave me entry to several sights for a much reduced price; I thought I might as well disguise myself as a tourist whilst I was here.

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Zelve Open Air Museum

The large rock city of Zelve was inhabited right up until the 1950s, when increasing erosion eventually made their homes unstable.  Set across 3 valleys, the early Christians who lived here were later joined by Muslims, where they lived together in harmony for many years.   It had churches, mosques, a winery, flour mill and all the other mod-cons you’d expect in an ancient city dug out of rock.

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These rock homes were inhabited right up to the 1950s

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The flour millstone

Some of the rock homes were high up on the cliff face, and the inhabitants must have been pretty nimble to scale up the rock ladders carved into the near vertical walls.

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The inhabitants must have been pretty nimble to scale up the rock ladders carved into the near vertical walls

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One of the inhabitants was still there! And a good-looking fellow too…

Pigeon houses are a common sight, easily recognized by their small rock pigeon holes, where farmers collected the droppings of pigeons to use as an excellent natural fertilizer on their orchards and vineyards.

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See the pigeon-holes? Their poo was collected for fertiliser

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The old rock city of Zelve

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Inside another rock-home

Off-Road Exploring

The whole area of Cappadocia is like another planet – full of really weird rock formations I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.  These formations are the result of the erosion of softer sediments, leaving exposed the harder volcanic rocks below.

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Off-road exploring

The good news for an Adventure Biker is there are off-road tracks and trails all over the place.  Many local tour operators offer ATV tours, but I had my own 2-wheeled ATV, and had great fun whizzing over the undulating terrain of sand and rock.

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There were some great tracks’n’trails over sandy, rocky ground

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Off-road exploring

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Yep – I rode down here!

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Nothing short of Fabulous

After my day of intensive sightseeing, I was hot and needed a swim.  I dreamed of finding a cheap campsite with a swimming pool…

Well, someone must have been listening, because just a few miles away outside Goreme, I found exactly that!

Dream Campsite

It was perfect, and I couldn’t believe my luck.  Before I even unpacked, I quickly changed into my swimming shorts and took a dive into the heavenly, cool water.

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Pure Heaven! My campsite swimming pool

Goreme Waterpark Campsite was virtually empty, being out of season, but for me I think it was the best time to come (September); the weather was hot and sunny, but no too hot, it wasn’t too crowded with tourists, and the evenings were refreshingly cool.

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My tent right next to the pool

That evening I took the short 15 minute walk into Goreme and had a delicious Testi Kebab, a meat and vegetable casserole cooked inside a clay pot (from the days they didn’t have casserole dishes).

99 Red Balloons

Around 5am the next morning I was woken by what sounded like several jet planes taking off next to my tent.  I got up to investigate and what I saw was one of the prettiest sights I’ve ever seen, which I never thought I’d say at 5am in the morning:

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Jet engines taking off next to my tent at 5am

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I could have watched them all day

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Some got pretty close

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They must have had incredible views over the weird landscape

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More…

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Like light-bulbs lighting up the morning

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Who can go the highest?!

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Fab

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Hello! I had to jump pretty high to get this one

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Sometimes I think I’m a fab photographer! ;)

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Balloon and Moon

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99 Red Balloons

I later learned Cappadocia is one of the best places in the whole world to do a balloon ride, with reliable winds and incredible views across the Martian-like landscape at sunrise.  Many balloon operators also compliment your ride with champagne breakfasts.

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To get out they all had to jump in my pool! ;)

Ihlara Valley

Ihlara Valley is a 16km (10mi) long gorge cut into volcanic rock by a river in southern Cappadocia.

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Ihlara Valley

During the first centuries, the first Christians fled here to escape Roman persecution, and the whole area is still honeycombed with their settlements carved into the soft rock.

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Christians fled here to escape Roman persecution in the 1st centuries

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Walking along the valley river

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Riverside cafe

The man-made rock caves include hundreds of old churches, one of which is the Saint George Church I visited with its still visible frescoes.

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Which way?

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Saint George Church’s frescoes

Hidden Underground Cities

As well as hidden valleys like Ihlara, early Christians also dug hidden underground cities in order to escape persecution.  Around 30 have been discovered in Cappadocia, and probably more exist that haven’t even rediscovered yet.  I went to the largest one in Derinkuyu.  To be honest, I didn’t fancy it too much, as I’ve been in a lot of underground tunnels and they all look remarkably similar.  However, with this one I was actually pretty amazed.

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Riding to Derinkuyu underground city, with an old volcano on the horizon

The tunnels led deep underground into a rabbit warren of rooms connected by more tunnels which seemed too get smaller and smaller.  At one point I was crawling on my knees in the pitch black to access some deep tombs.  What short-arses they must have been back then!

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Derinkuyu Underground City

Only part of the old underground city is accessible by tourists.  It is immense.  To give you some idea, it drops down up to 60m (200ft) in depth and used to house up to 20,000 people together with their livestock and food stores.

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Venturing down to 60m (200ft)

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Some of the passages were tiny!

The underground cities had large round millstone doors they could roll over the entrances if they came under attack, although I’m not too sure how effective they were.

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Millstones protected the entrances

Rock Fortresses

At Uchisar and Ortahisar there are huge natural rock fortresses that were once used as Roman Castles.

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Uchisar Rock Fortress

I climbed the one at Ortahisar, giving an impressive view of the surrounding area from its 90m high summit.

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Riding to Ortahisar Rock Fortress

Many of the castle’s rooms hollowed out of the rock were connected to each other with stairs, tunnels and passages, although increasing erosion has made many of them unsafe to explore.

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Ortahisar Rock Fortress

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View from half-way up

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View from the top

At the bottom of the fortress I was invited to sit down by an old man to eat some refreshing grapefruit.  It was just what I needed, so I accepted, not minding if he ended up charging me something.

‘Crazy Ali’, as he liked to be called, had once been a tour guide and now owned a gift shop (outside which we were sitting), but his passion was poetry.  He showed me a hand-written book full of his poems and I took the time to read a couple; they were good.  I stayed and chatted for half an hour or so, and when I left he gave me a pile of postcards.  On the back of one he wrote: “Even in a short time you can make good friends”.  And he wouldn’t charge me anything.

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A good man – Crazy Ali

Göreme Open Air Museum

My final bit of sightseeing was Göreme Open Air Museum, which is basically a collection of old churches calved out of the rock in the 6th or 7th century.  The most famous one is called ‘The Dark Church’, some of which has collapsed, but has some of the best preserved 11th-century Byzantine frescoes in the word (which you weren’t allowed to take photos of).  The reason the frescoes are so well preserved is due to the low amount of light which penetrates the church, hence its name.

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Göreme Open Air Museum

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The Dark Church from outside

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Göreme Open Air Museum

Jog

Back at the camp I was getting spoilt with my daily swimming pool swims.  I also went for my first jog since my accident one month ago.  My conclusion = I was very unfit!  I was huffing and puffing all the way and couldn’t seem to catch my breath, but I battled on and completed 30 minutes.  I’m sure it will get easier; it usually does.

Being Saturday night, I treated myself to a night on the town, and then decided to spend another day there doing nothing by the pool.  Anyone would have thought I was on holiday!

Dogs

The only thing I didn’t like about the campsite owners was that they kept their Alsatian dog, Zavla, chained up outside and never seemed to take any notice of her.  The poor thing was out of water when I first found her (on a really hot day) and I fed her a massive 2 litres before she stopped drinking.

I bought her some beef slices one night and she almost bit my hand off.  Actually, she did catch my thumb!  But no matter how badly she appeared to be treated, I suppose she looked in OK condition (although a bit thin) and looked better off than the hundreds of stray dogs I’d seen roaming the streets without a home looking for any scraps they could find, so I didn’t say anything to her owners (fearing any form of backlash on the dog).

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Fancy a stay in a Rock Hotel? Just like The Flintstones!

One afternoon I asked the old boy owner if I could take her for a walk, as she was desperate for some attention and some exercise (she went crazy every time she saw me), and they let me.  I didn’t intend on running with her, particularly after my poor effort trying to jog the day before, but that’s what I ended up doing in my flip flops (which is easier said than done), as she just so desperately wanted to.  We ran for about 30 minutes in all, and then she was spent; she even turned around to go back on her own.

That night I bought her a pack of raw chicken drumsticks from the supermarket in town.  On the way back to the campsite to give them to her, I met another Alsatian, this one only a male pup, and made the mistake of giving him one of the drumsticks.  From then on, he wouldn’t leave me alone, and followed me all the way back to the campsite.

When Zavla saw me arrive with another dog, she went crazy and almost pulled the tree down she was chained to.  For once I was glad she was chained up, for I think she would have killed this poor other pup.  When I fed her the drumsticks she swallowed them all whole, almost taking my hand with them.  I had to drop the last couple on the floor to avoid losing my arm.

I went back to my tent and the pup followed me; I couldn’t shake him off!  I knew the owners would go crazy if they saw him, so I had to walk him all the way back into town where I’d found him.  I then hid, hoping he’d go away, but he kept finding me and jumping up me, thinking it was a game.  I felt bad, but I kept hiding until eventually he couldn’t find me and wondered off, leaving me safe to go back to the tent alone.

I could have stayed at that campsite for a long time, but I was on a time limit to get to Greece.  I had to leave my bike at the Triumph dealership there to get the starter motor fixed while I flew back to the UK for my brother’s stag party on 26th Sep.  That only gave me 10 days for the rest of Turkey.

Beach

I’d had a superb time exploring inland Turkey, but now I could not deny it was time for some sand and sea action.  I re-set the compass south and prepared for a trip down to the Turkish Riviera to explore her Mediterranean Coast.

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Off to The Beach! :)

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Turkey – Sumela Monastery & Nemrut Dagi

Rain (bad)

I was sure I was going to get soaked leaving Batumi, Georgia.  It was belting down when I woke up and the Internet forecast said there was 80% chance of rain and thunder storms all day along the Black Sea coast (where my route into Turkey took me).  It was hardly surprising considering this coastline is usually soaked in rain due to the presence of a high coastal mountain range, and I had already been lucky with the weather for the past week.  I looked at the map to see if there was another less wet route to Turkey, but there wasn’t.

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Rain over Batumi – I think I’m gonna get wet

I thought about leaving it for another day, but the forecast was rain & thunder all week.  “Oh well, I can’t win them all” I thought.

Sun (good!)

After breakfast I was surprised when the rain stopped and the sun came out.  Not sure how long it would last, I quickly loaded up and set off as fast as I could, making sure my holey ‘dry bags’ were well wrapped up in bin bags.

Border Control

Batumi is only 30 minutes north of the Turkish border and amazingly it stayed dry all the way.  The Georgian exit was very quick and smooth, as expected, but then I hit a long line of cars and trucks waiting to pass through the Turkish side.

The Tiger’s starter motor problem was very inconvenient at borders (and fuel stations), because when I turned the engine off it wouldn’t start up again until it was cold.  This usually took between 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the external temperature.   At previous borders I had kept the engine running, but at the last two the bike got really hot (although did not overheat) and coughed and spluttered as I rode away.  So this time I switched the engine off, guessing I would be in the queue for at least 30 minutes anyway, which would give the bike time to cool down.

I had assumed Turkey would be a doddle to enter, as it’s practically in Europe (well, west of Istanbul), but I was surprised (again!) to discover I needed a visa to enter.  So much for not doing my homework!  I also needed motor insurance, but luckily I could buy them both at the border for 20 US dollars each.

Turkey

An hour later I was through (customs didn’t even want to search the bike), and I re-joined the Black Sea coastal road towards Trabzon.  I was pleased to find the weather forecast had been completely wrong, and I was now riding in clear skies and lovely warm sunshine.

From the minute I was waved through Turkish customs, I continued to like Turkey more and more.  Everyone I met was very nice and polite, and the roads were good quality with hardly any traffic.  Most of the main roads were dual carriageway, which was the first time I’d seen such things for a very long time.  I felt I had entered a completely different world as I rode along huge, empty roads with the calm, blue sea on my right and green, lush mountains on my left.

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The Turkish Black Sea Coast

Trabzon is a sizeable city of over 1.3 million, but the highway ran right through the middle with hardly any delay or drop in speed.  I did see the occasional traffic speed sign, but nobody seemed to take any notice of them.

Here I swung inland and south towards Macka as I wanted to see an old monastery I’d seen pictures of, built high up in the mountains.

As I rode through small town Macka, my eagle-eye spied rows of chickens roasting slowly away on a rotisserie spit.  My mouth started watering instantaneously and I had to stop to buy one.  I also bought a fresh loaf of bread from the shop next door while my bike kept running outside so I wouldn’t have to wait an hour to start it again.

Sumela Monastery

Sumela Monastery is incredible.  Having previously heard nothing about it, finding wonderful new treasures like this is one of the reasons I love traveling so much.

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Sumela Monastery – built in the 4th century, carved out of rock

It was built by Christians in the 4th century, carved out of a sheer rock face in the Pontic Mountains 1,200m (3,900ft) high.  Legend says it was built after an icon of the Virgin Mary was discovered by two priests in a nearby cave.  The monastery was inhabited up to 1923 before it was abandoned, and has since become a museum and a popular tourist attraction.

The road to the monastery rose quickly up from Macka with rugged mountain views along the way.  It was high; goodness knows how they managed to get all the materials up there to build the monastery 1,600 years ago.  I would imagine it was not a good time to be a slave.

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The road up to the Monastery

The car park at the top of the mountain was 300m from the monastery, but the nice guard let me ride another 100m further on up a small cobbled path.  When I could go no further, I attached the shoulder straps to my tank bag (with all my valuables inside) and hiked the rest of the way up a cool forest trail that led to the foot of the monastery.

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…and the shady mountain path leading to its base

Inside you were free to wonder around the old accommodation, kitchen, store rooms and churches, where 18th century frescoes were still preserved on the rock walls.  If I had to be a monk, I could think of much worse places to spend my life.

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Entering the Monastery

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Everything is pretty steep on a sheer rock face!

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Part of the Monastery calved out of the rock

Onwards and downwards

On the way back down to Macka, I stopped halfway at a shady picnic bench by a river and cracked open the roast chicken I had bought earlier, along with the fresh bread and huge, ripe tomatoes – one of my favourite all-time meals!  Yep, life was good.

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You can’t beat a freshly roasted chicken!

After lunch I needed some fuel, so rather than start the bike, I coasted down the steep hill back into Macka and rolled into the first fuel station I met.  That at least saved me half an hour or more waiting for the starter motor to cool down again.

It was 645km to my next target, the ancient ruins of Nemrut Dagi, so I thought I’d try and get as far as I could in the good weather.  I rode south through Torgul, Kelkit and Erzincan and carried on south over some great, twisty mountain roads towards Tunceli.

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Nice, twisty mountain roads

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And great views

Time to Camp

Late afternoon I passed Pulumur, 500km from Batumi, and started looking for a place to camp.  It had been a while since I’d camped rough (Tajikistan was the last time), so I was looking forwarding to getting back into the old Japanese Special.

I joined a small, rural road that followed a river, and after a couple of false excursions, I eventually found a great camping spot on the river bank, hidden from the road down a small dirt track.  It was now 6pm, so I set up before sunset, had a refreshing bathe in the shallow stream, and cooked up the old favourite tuna pasta in tomato sauce.

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My first camping since Tajikistan

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It was a good spot next to a river and an old disused bridge

I was healing well after my accident, and my ribs were now much better.  The new skin was also healing nicely on my arm, although it was still very thin and I had to be careful not to break it by knocking it (as I had done several times, being so heavy handed) or get it sunburnt.

I slept well…

There’s nothing better than waking up in the morning (a good start!) to bright sunshine shining through your tent, knowing you have food, fuel, and a great day ahead of you exploring a new place.

I had breakfast, packed up and hit the road south towards Nemrut Dagi.

Lovely Central Turkey

I think I may have mentioned it before, but it was a real pleasure biking on Turkey’s pristine roads.  The highways continued to be 2 or 3 lanes each side, traffic was sparse (which meant I flew along), and there were plenty of awesome sights to admire along the way.

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The road south to Nemrut Dagi cut through some stunning scenery

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And great roads

In fact, every turn I made it seemed the views just kept getting better.

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And the views just kept getting better!

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Lovely Central Turkey

Even in the cities (which were few and far between), most drivers continued to ignore the speed limit signs and belt along at high speeds.  The city streets all seemed pretty new and well planned, and multi-lane bypasses meant you could speed along quickly without getting bogged down in traffic if you didn’t need to enter the city.

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More great views

Most of the time, I found myself riding though lush, fertile fields, and along the roadside there were frequent fresh fruit and vegetable stalls.  I stopped by one to buy some lunch, including a whole watermelon, and made my way down to the shores of a large lake to eat it.  Well actually I could only manage half of the watermelon before I became stuffed, but I gave it an admirably good go!

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Me and my watermelon down by the lake

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Unfortunately it was a bit shallow for a swim

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But it was a great lunch stop

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The Tiger posing

Nemrut Dagi

I took the turn-off to the archaeological site of Nemrut Dagi just before Malatya and climbed up and down over a series of mountains until I reached the highest one, Mt Nemrut at 2,134m (7,000ft).

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The road up to Nemrut Dagi

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There were great views along the long, twisty road to the top

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:)

The final stretch of the road, past the admissions gatehouse, was extremely steep over loose, rocky ground.  For a moment I feared for the safety of my 3rd clutch, but the Tiger made it OK.  From this height the surrounding views were unforgettable.

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And finally, the top, Mt Nemrut 2,134m (7,000ft)

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Mt Nemrut

At Mt Nemrut, the megalomaniac King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene built his own mountain out of rocks (as you do) in the 1st century BC and surrounded it with huge 9m (30ft) stone statues of various Greek, Armenian and Iranian Gods.  King Antiochus included himself in their ranks, for good measure, and he lives on to this day, albeit somewhat weathered.

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Mt Nemrut, hand-made by King Antiochus – crazy!

The statues were originally all in a seated position, but over the years, and perhaps due to vandalism, the heads have all been removed and now lay in various positions on the ground.  The colossal man-made mountain, though, remains intact, and is still thought to hide the as yet undiscovered tomb of King Antiochus himself.  I thought about embarking on an exploratory dig, but a guard blew his whistle at me when I stepped over a barrier.

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King Antiochus and The Gods

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These heads were originally on seated stone figures 9m tall

With few other visitors to this remote location, it was nice wondering around at leisure enjoying the history and spectacular views (the correct side of the barriers).

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Remote and spectacular

West towards Cappadocia

Carefully weaving back down the steep track, I had to back-track to the main road to Malatya, and then started the 540km ride towards Cappadocia.  I thought I could break the back of the journey before sunset.

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On the way back down from Mt Nemrut

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I took my time weaving down the steep, rocky track

As the afternoon wore on, I thought instead of cooking another pasta camp meal, I would have dinner at one the restaurants that always seemed to be attached to the fuel stations.  This was also very convenient, as it meant my bike could cool down whilst I ate, foregoing the need to delay myself.

My first meal in Turkey consisted of the famous Turkish shish kebab, salad, bread and tea – simple, cheap and delicious.  The waiter/owner was also extremely nice, and gave me a free roadmap of Turkey.  I started to like Turkey even more.

It was then I hit upon my great game-changing plan:  as so many fuel stations had attached restaurants with great, cheap food, all I had to do was time my fuel-stops with mealtimes, and my starter motor problem would become redundant!

By the time I’d thoroughly enjoyed my meal and extra helpings of Turkish tea, I’d left it a bit late to find a camp spot, as it was already getting dark.  Whoops!

I studied the map and followed a track that was supposed to lead to a river, but the river was dry.  I kept riding, searching for a suitable place to pitch the tent, but I was in an arable farming area and all the land seemed to be occupied by farms or crops.  I could have asked a farmer if I could camp on his land, of course, but I fancied somewhere more remote, so I kept riding.

It was now dark, but the roads were good and well lit, and I thought I may as well take advantage of the cooler weather riding at night.

I made good progress until 10pm, when I suddenly became really tired.  I was also riding towards black skies and a thunderstorm, so I thought I’d call it a day and hope the storm missed me.

With my eyes peeled for a suitable camping spot, at last I entered a mountainous area where I could see no lights either side if the road – a good sign that no-one lived there.  I turned off the main road onto a small gravel track and ventured on into the darkness.

Under the moonlight, I could just make out rolling hills to the right, so I pulled off the track and rode directly over highland rock, heather, thistle and moss until I lost sight of the highway and all signs of civilisation.  It was almost a full moon and very peaceful, and I thought I could have almost been in the middle of the Scottish Highlands.

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Found another great place to camp

I woke up early to a great view of the surrounding rolling heathland and watched the sun rise over the mountains as I ate bread and jam for breakfast.

Although it was a sunny day, the air was lovely and cool, being high up in the hills; perfect biking weather.  Out of the blue, a familiar thought crossed my mind, as it usually does: how lucky I was to be riding my bike through such beautiful scenery in such beautiful weather, with nowhere I must go and no deadlines to meet!

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I could have been in the Scottish Highlands

Fuel, Food and Showers

At lunchtime I chose a fuel station with a nice looking restaurant attached, and had a great lunch of lamb shank, beans, salad, fresh bread and Turkish tea, while my starter motor cooled.

However, this was no ordinary fuel station and restaurant – it was probably the best fuel station and restaurant in the world!  Not only did it have great food and friendly service, it also had a hot shower that was free to use!  This was exactly what I needed after my night of rough camping, and after lunch it was such a great feeling to be full, fuelled and squeaky clean.  I think I could have probably lived at that fuel station for quite some time.

Could Turkey get any better?  Well, yes it could: then I arrived in Cappadocia.

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Cappadocia next!

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Georgia – Batumi

Heading for the Seaside!

Tbilisi to the Georgian coastal retreat of Batumi was an easy 5 hour, 400km ride through the picturesque Georgian countryside.

I reached the coast just south of Poti, Georgia’s largest port city, and headed south.  I passed through several coastal tourist towns and stopped off to peek at the beach where I could.  The coast was lined with trees for much of its length, and the beaches were generally sandy.

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Back at the seaside!

In many places you could ride right up onto the beach itself.

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I thought about camping here, but it was forecast to rain

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It was nice to be on the beach again

As evening approached the sky grew overcast, so I raced to Batumi before it started raining.  I checked into TJ Hostel, a short ride outside Batumi, just before the sun set and watched it with a beer from the lovely view I had from a shared balcony.

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A good day’s work – arrived in Batumi alive and in time for the sunset and a beer :)

One of the things I love about Georgia is the great food, and that night I treated myself to a 3 course dinner at an excellent restaurant down the road – delicious Ostri (beef stew), Lobiani (bean filled bread), chicken salad and local beer – Yum!  I was pretty stuffed on completion, but successfully completed the mission.

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I could easily get fat in Georgia (but happy)

In the morning the clouds had gone and now I could see the full beauty of Batumi laid out before me from the height of our balcony.  I couldn’t wait to take a dip in the Black Sea which looked so beautifully calm and inviting.

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The stunning view of the Black Sea and Batumi from the hostel balcony

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The magic shared balcony where I spent so many a memorable hour relaxing, chatting and drinking Lemoncini (try it, it’s nice!)

I jumped into a taxi for the short ride into town to explore and walked along the coast.  Of course there was a Ferris Wheel – obligatory in any seaside town – and plenty of tourist boats offering booze-cruises and fishing trips.  I really fancied a booze-cruise, and set my mind on finding someone to do it with me.

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Batumi harbour, with giant Ferris Wheel and Booze Cruise Boats (I wanna do one!)

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Batumi’s giant Ferris Wheel

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Super smooth water down at the docks

The beach was nice, especially if you like pebble beaches, and the Black Sea crystal clear, warm and irresistible.

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Batumi Pebbly Beach on the Black Sea coast

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And again (not your typical Georgian woman bottom left, by the way!)

I liked the fresh, wide-open feel of Batumi.  There was plenty of space to do whatever you wanted; there were cycle lanes, tennis courts, table-tennis tables, giant chess boards and even snooker tables lined up all along the promenade.

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Sports galore!

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Batumi promenade is the place to get fit!

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I picked up a bit of work on the Pirate Ship ;)

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Batumi Pier

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Anyone for fishing?

Adoption

Just when I thought Batumi couldn’t get any better, I was adopted by two wonderful women from Ukraine – Luba and Natalia.

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Luba and Natalia – if I run off to Ukraine, this is why ;)

Luba was into motorbikes and one evening I found out she had been secretly posing for photos with The Tiger.  Lucky Tiger!

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Luba and her new boyfriend

I took her for a ride and she fell in love with the bike immediately.  From then on she would hardly let it out of her sight!

The Good Life

Over the next few days the three of us had a memorable time exploring Batumi and the surrounding area together, enjoying more wine and excellent food.

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Going out in Georgia is all about eating and drinking too much – my kind of night out!

You cannot come to Georgia and not try the national dish – Khachapuri.  Also called ‘heart attack on a plate’, it is a delicious (but heavy) meal of bread filled with cheese, egg and lots of butter.  Another famous national dish is Khinkali – steamed dumplings filled with anything and everything you can imagine.  Some Georgians have competitions to see how many they can eat (I was pathetic and only managed half a dozen).

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You cannot come to Georgia and not try this ‘heart attack on a plate’ – Khachapuri

One restaurant I definitely recommend is ‘Shemoikhede Genatsvale’, where we had the most delicious local food and wine in a great atmosphere; they even rolled out the Ukrainian flag for Luba and Natalia.

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The girls under their Ukrainian Flag, tucking into Khinkali, Ostri and beautiful Georgian wine

Early Morning Swims

Early every morning the girls would go swimming in the sea at the quiet beach at the bottom of our road, and every morning they insisted I accompany them.  This was great for me, because I’m rubbish at getting out of bed in the morning, and this gave me no alternative but to do so.

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Wakey Wakey! Time for your early morning swim!

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“OK!”

Luba always made a pot of fresh coffee to take down with us (along with their essential, life-saving Snickers Bars), which added an extra nice touch to the morning routine.

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Ukrainian Coffee on a Georgian Beach – lovely!

Soon I found myself almost a kept man, with breakfast and lunch being made for me daily (Ukrainian style), and great company for fun evenings out.  I must admit, I found it very hard to find a reason to leave, and ended up staying a week in blissful harmony.  I would certainly recommend two attractive Ukrainian women for any physical or mental ailment you may be suffering from ;)

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Getting ready to tackle another huge plate of Khinkali

Like the hostel in Tbilisi, TJ Hostel had a wealth of fresh fruit growing everywhere, particularly fresh figs and grapes.  Everyday Luba would run up the fig tree and throw down handfuls of delicious fresh figs to accompany our meals.  It seemed that everything was easy to grow in Georgia, and all down the road to the beach we passed kiwi, grapes, oranges, lemons, limes, walnuts, pomegranates and cornelian cherries (or dogwood, which I’d never tried before, and took some getting used to!)

Every night we would invariably watch the sun set over the Black Sea from our balcony, and they just kept getting better.

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Sunset over the Black Sea

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And then moon rise

Fearless Exploration

Because Batumi enjoys a humid sub-tropical climate – warm with lots of rain – they have one of the best and most varied Botanical Gardens I have ever visited.  Thinking I was not really a flower kind of guy, my Ukrainian minders dragged me along one day, and in the end I was really pleased I went!

If you’re ever in the area, don’t miss it.  The gardens consists of plants & flowers from all over the world and has them arranged in 9 different sectors, including Caucasian, East Asia, Australia, North & South America, the Himalayas and Mediterranean (tip: it’s easy to get lost!).

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Batumi Botanical Gardens

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Lovely views of the sea to boot!

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An Australian Pond (I think)

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Are you sure this is the right way?

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A Flower (of some sort)

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And another

Mtirala National Park

Another trip well worth doing is Mtirala National Park, which lies 25km outside Batumi in the Adjara Mountains.  Natalia caught a taxi with some other hostel guests, and Luba bravely perched on the back of her beloved Tiger.  The last 10km or so was over a very rocky (and steep in places) track, but both Luba and The Tiger coped well and survived to live another day (just) ;)

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The Tiger did a good job getting us there on the rocky roads, so we left her with some cows as a reward

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Exploring Mtirala National Park

As well as a very pleasant place to amble around, Mtirala National Park had a couple of nice surprises, the first of which was an incredibly beautiful waterfall with a large plunge pool at the bottom perfect for swimming (which we needed after the hot climb up to see it).

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A spectacular waterfall in Mtirala National Park – perfect for swimming!

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Mtirala National Park

The second surprise was the delicious pan-fried fresh trout, straight from the river, that the local park restaurant cooked up for us, along with several other delicious dishes (and a touch of wine, of course).

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Delicious dinner of pan-fried river trout, et al

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These lads had the right idea!

Booze Cruise

Not forgetting about the booze cruise, one evening I dragged the girls down into town and onto a boat for a cruise up and down the coast.  We managed to grab the sunset cruise, and so had the added bonus of watching the sun go down.

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One of the Booze Cruise Boats

The boat had a bar onboard, and somehow I ended up with a bottle of Georgian Champagne, which always goes down well.

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Champagne anyone?

Then we relaxed and watched the colourful array of dazzling lights switch on up and down the Batumi seafront as the ship slowly cruised back into port.  What else could you wish for?

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Cruising back under the lights of Batumi

Well, I actually wished for one more thing – a ride on the giant Ferris Wheel!

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All aboard the giant Ferris Wheel!

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Batumi under the full moon

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And more dancing fountains!

As usual, all too soon the time came to move on; the girls moved onto Armenia and I was going south into Turkey.  But that’s part of the wonder of traveling – good friendships made all over the world and shared memories that create a special bond.

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Georgia – Tbilisi

Welcome to Georgia!

I loved Georgia the minute I reached the border and 2 custom officials waved me straight through with “Enjoy your visit!”  If only they’d handed me a glass of wine it would have been No.1 on my list.

The ride from Sheki, Azerbaijan had been an enjoyable one on good roads, skirting the base of the Caucasus Mountains with great views over the plains below.

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Georgian wine plains below the Caucasus Mountains

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Sunny, hot and wet – ideal for wine

I even managed to find a nice piece of gravel track to play on when I diverted north of the M5 in favour of a more direct minor road.  I crossed the border into Lagodekhi with no problems whatsoever, and followed the main road south away from the mountains and into Georgia’s wine country and endless vineyards.

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Heading south into Georgia

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Caucasus Mountains

Wine

Archaeologists have found proof that Georgians have been making wine for around 10,000 years (longer than any other nation), and anyone that’s been making wine for that long has to be OK in my book.  I can’t think of anything better than a Sunday ‘Sabre-Toothed Tiger’ Roast washed down with vast quantities of Georgian wine followed by a Mammoth hunt for next week’s dinner.

Although I’m not into religion, I would happily place a Georgian cross around my neck, mainly because theirs is made from grape vines and brings you good luck in choosing the right wine.  Having said that, you’d be unlucky to find a terrible wine, because all the Georgian wines I tasted were delicious.  And strangely, the more you taste, the more delicious they become; Halleluiah!

Wine is such an integral part of the Georgian lifestyle, they even have a famous hymn called ‘Thou Art a Vineyard’.  I agree totally, and if I had to convert, their wine religion would certainly be favourite.

Guide

I don’t usually go out of my way to find a guide in new places, but when I arrived in the capital of Tbilisi I thought I needed one for 2 reasons:

  1. I quite happily sup beer on my own, but Georgia has a huge variety of delicious wines that must be sampled, and drinking wine is a sport for two.
  2. I’d need someone to guide me back to my guesthouse after all the wine supping in part 1) above.

This is where the wonders of social media come to the fore, and in Tbilisi I was lucky on two counts: I found a great, cheap hostel with fantastic staff, and I also found an amazing guide.

Tbilisi Classic Hotel

Tbilisi Classic Hotel was a good find.  It was cheap, clean, well located and flawlessly run by Shiad from Pakistan with the help of young Mr James from India.  Both were fantastic people and couldn’t do enough for their guests to make them feel at home and comfortable.  James even helped me by filming the ‘ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’ I’d been nominated for by 3 people – all done in the best possible taste for a great cause, of course.

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Mr James and I

The hotel was situated a short walk from the city centre, surrounded by fresh fig trees (I love figs!), apple trees, grape vines and an assortment of other fruit and vegetables.  It was like living in the ‘fruit n veg’ section at Tescos, and was a great place to spend 4 days relaxing and exploring the sights.

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Shaid and James at the fantastic Tbilisi Classic Hotel

Tbilisi

Tbilisi is a beautiful capital city.  It was founded on the Mtkvari River in the 5th century when it was part of the ancient Kingdom of Iberia, and it now has a population of roughly 1.5 million (almost a third of Georgia’s entire population).

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The Mtkvari River running through Tbilisi

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A random street in Tbilisi, just to show you what a random street looks like here

Fate had matched me up with Mari, a fun, friendly and knowledgeable local to show me around this picturesque, scenic and lively city.  Mari wanted someone to practice her English with, and I wanted a guide, so it worked out to be a perfect partnership (except now she speaks with a rooomantic Naarwich accent).

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The bestest guide in Tbilisi – Mari – and great fun to boot! (taking me up in a cable car)

Mari took me just about everywhere, including a trip up in a cable car up to see the city’s symbol – the Kartlis Deda, a 23m high aluminium woman symbolising the Georgian national character: wine in her left hand to welcome visitors, and a sword in her right hand in case they don’t like the wine.

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The Kartlis Deda – The city’s symbol: wine in her left hand to welcome visitors, and a sword in her right hand in case they don’t like the wine

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Tbilisi

After a morning walking around the city, it was time for lunch and my first foray into the magical world of Georgian wine, under the watchful eye of my chaperon.

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Lunchtime! And time for my favourite wine – Kindzmarauli

A bit more about Georgian Wine, in case you’re interested

Georgia has an ideal climate for producing fine wines, namely plenty of sun, heat and water.  Many of the best Georgian wines are produced in an area called Kakheti in the east, which I had ridden through on my bike.

If you think you’ve tasted most types of wine, but haven’t tried Georgian wine, then you are in for a shock.  For thousands of years Georgian wines have been uniquely buried in the ground inside double-walled clay jugs called Kvevri to undergo fermentation at ground temperature.  Sometimes wines are left buried for decades (when people forgot where they buried them?), but also wines can be produced much quicker in a number of months.  I liked most of the wines I tried, but my favourite was one Mari introduced me to – a delicious bottle of Kindzmarauli from Teliani Valley.

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Georgian wines have been uniquely buried in the ground inside these Kvevri for 1,000’s of years

Although the second largest wine producer in the former Soviet Union (after Moldova), Georgian wine is pretty scarce in the UK, as most of it is exported to Eastern Europe and Central Asia.  However, it is well worth seeking out.  I found it to be incredibly fruity and tangy (in my expert wine-speak), I assume the result of burying it in the ground and also commonly keeping the grape skins on.  Keeping the skins on after the crush also imparts a unique colour into Georgian wines, and often the whites almost appear orange or rose, which went well with the shirt I was wearing.

Back on Tour

Mari was fun to be with, and also liked laughing at my strange accent, so we both got on well and she didn’t have to run away after the first 10 minutes with some excuse (as she said she’d had to do on several previous occasions post-meeting tourists she’d offered to show around).

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Back on tour!

Mari even took me on a bus ride several miles outside the city to a small 3,000 year old city called Mtskheta, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The walls of 3,000 year old city Mtskheta, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world

While we were there, we thought we’d venture back through the years and took a horse and carriage ride through the old city and around the 11th century impressive Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

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Going back in time….

Then we thought we’d better get some more wine in.

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Nothing better at the end of a hard day’s sightseeing than a bottle of wine or 2

The evening is a great time to take a wonder around old Tbilisi town.  The array of colourful lights is mesmerizing, and there is a lively buzz from the crowds of locals and tourists wondering around the bars and restaurants enjoying the good food and good wine.  What more could you ask for?

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Tbilisi at night

There was even a musical dancing fountain.

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Tbilisi’s dancing, musical fountain – every city should have one!

Summary, if you need one

Before I came to Georgia I knew very little about it.  What I have discovered is a little known treasure, certainly amongst many people in the UK.  In summary, if you are into your wine, then put Georgia near the top of your list – immediately.  It is a beautiful country full of beautiful people, cheap, cheerful and just waiting to be discovered.

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Cheers from Tbilisi! :)

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The Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan

Mercuri-1

If there was a world record for the number of stamps required on a Bill of Lading (the authority to load & disembark cargo), Port Aktau would win hands down.  In the end I had to get eight stamps over a period of several hours before my bike was allowed onto the ferry to cross The Caspian Sea from Aktau, Kazakhstan to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

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The 8 stamps required on a Kazakh Bill of Lading – easy!

‘Mercuri-1’ is a 30 year old Croatian-built ferry, 150m (500ft) long with a tiny 4m (13ft) draught when loaded.  Luckily the sea was dead flat, or else it would have been an interesting (as in rocky) journey.  I’d read that in 2002 her sister ship, ‘Mercuri-2’, had sunk in rough Caspian seas taking 43 lives with her.  With their small draughts these ships weren’t really designed to cope with the high seas the Caspian can occasionally whip up.

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Mercuri-1, my ferry across The Caspian Sea. I hoped she would do better than Mercuri-2

After a long 9 hour wait for an immigration stamp, I eventually embarked the ferry around 3pm.  My bike slotted nicely up alongside a lorry, and a crew member asked me for 20 dollars ‘security money’.  I asked him if he accepted visa, which he didn’t of course, so shrugged and carried my bags up to the passenger deck.

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The Tiger sat next to her big brother

Near the gangway I was met by the rest of the friendly all-Azeri crew and introduced to Savir, the Chief Communications Officer, who (was the only one who) spoke good English and looked after me during the trip.

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Meeting the friendly all-Azeri crew

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My charismatic host & guide, Savir (on the right)

I decided to ‘splash out’ on a single cabin for 20 US dollars for some comfort, peace and privacy on the 30 hour passage, rather than rough it on the filthy deck which was covered in a thin layer of black oil and grime.  My cabin was on the top deck where all the other officers lived and it was surprisingly clean and tidy; it even had a double bed.   I’d noticed the other passengers were crammed in 4-berth cabins below decks, and as they cost 10 dollars anyway, I thought I’d got a good deal.

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My ‘first-class’ cabin

By this time I was starving, as I’d not eaten all day and been up since 2am getting my 8 export stamps.  Then I remembered the packed lunch Anna had made me, and was extremely grateful for it as I wolfed it down.

I wasn’t sure what the deal was with food onboard, as there didn’t seem to be anyone about to ask.  For a large ship, it was virtually a ghost ship with only 32 crew and 8 passengers (mostly truck drivers from Georgia).  The rest of the cargo consisted of around 20 brand new lorries.

However, soon the situation resolved itself, as they quite often do.  One advantage of having an arm wrapped in bandages is that some people, mostly women, take pity on you.  One of these was the female chef, affectionately called ‘Jaynar Bebe’ (or Auntie Gazelle), who grabbed me as I wondered around the ship and led me down to the galley, where she fed me a delicious hot meal of chicken and potato casserole.  I ate it all despite having just eaten Anna’s lunch – the advantage of having a huge appetite!  It did feel a little strange though, as I was the only one eating in the huge dining room made to seat hundreds.  It was funny when Auntie Gazelle rushed in half-way through to hide me behind a curtain, as the Kazakh customs inspection squad was doing their rounds and apparently I wasn’t supposed to be in there yet!

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My lovely chef – Auntie Gazelle

The Caspian Sea

The ship finally sailed at 5pm, and I suddenly became excited to think about the next phase of my trip that lay ahead.

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Farewell Aktau!

Mr Savir turned out to be a very good host and guide, and made sure I had endless quantities of Azeri tea, got fed when I needed to, and gave me a good tour of the ship.  Being an old Navy lad, I couldn’t help noticing the lifeboats had practically seized solid, there were no test dates on the life saving equipment and there were no life jackets to be seen.  I couldn’t help but wonder if these contributed towards the loss of 43 lives on her sister ship.  If they did, it didn’t look as though many lessons had been learnt by the company.  Just in case, I had my own escape plan all worked out, which basically involved swimming out of the large port-hole in my cabin and into open water, grabbing whatever I could find that was still floating.  My dry bags would have been useful, except that they were full of holes!  At least the water was reasonably warm at 25 degrees C (77 F).

That evening, as we slipped through the calm sea, I felt a familiar, comforting feeling creep over me; after 8 years in the navy, this is where I felt at home.

There are few sunsets better than those at sea, and that evening was no exception.

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Few sunsets are better than those at sea

More Tea Vicar?

The next morning Savir invited me onto the bridge, plied me with more tea, and asked me if I knew how to work their new ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display & Information System).  It had been installed only 2 weeks before, but no-one had been trained how to use it!  Well it just so happened I did, so I showed them and won myself more tea and crumpets in the process.

Then Savir took me down into the engine room where I was given more tea by the lads.  Good job I like tea!  It is reassuring that no matter what ship you go on, you can always be sure the lads in the engine room will be hard working, good old boys.

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The Engine Room Crew. More tea?

They took pride in showing in showing me the ship’s engines, which you can now also have the honour of witnessing:

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So clean, you could drink your tea off them – well, almost!

Despite its misgivings, I would go so far as to say the 30 hour crossing on Mercuri-1 was wonderful.  The sea was calm, the wind blew a nice cooling breeze, the crew were friendly and hospitable, the cabin clean and the food excellent.  Sure, it was a dirty old rust bucket with minimal life-saving equipment and poor maintenance schedules (if any), but it had character and I’ve been on much worse.  It was well worth the hassle and wait getting on it, and I would do it again.  This pleasantly surprised me, because I had read on web reviews that the cabins were filthy, crew deceitful, and food poor and overpriced (at 5 dollars a meal I thought it was good value and delicious).

One of my few disappointments was, yet again, seeing the crew throw all their garbage into the sea.  The number of times I have seen this in Asia I’m surprised the continent isn’t one huge rubbish tip.  I really do hope one day people will learn not to…

Baku

We arrived off Baku around 11pm, 30 hours after sailing, and anchored in the bay waiting for a berth, as there was a queue of several ships ahead of us.  Sitting a mile offshore, the lights of Baku dazzled brightly over the black water.  I could see Azerbaijan’s famous huge flag illuminated as it majestically waved in the light wind.  It was once the tallest flag in the world (standing 162m/ 531ft) until it was quickly beaten by Tajikistan’s flag in their capital Dushanbe (both made by the same American designer, who I imagine isn’t too welcome in Azerbaijan anymore).

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The lights of Baku at 11pm

I could also see a huge Ferris wheel (every city seems to have one of these nowadays) and 3 huge LED displays mounted to the sides of 3 buildings, each showing people waving the national flag, just in case anyone forgot what it looked like.

Not knowing how long we would wait for (waits of several hours is common), I dozed off in my cabin and was awoken by one of the crew at 2am just as we secured alongside.

Expecting a long delay with paperwork, I was pleasantly surprised when I was off the ferry and through customs and immigration within 2 hours.  I wasn’t even asked to pay a bribe, as I had read happens commonly (allegedly).  From the experience I’d had with Azerbaijani’s so far, I did not have a bad word to say about any of them.  However, the customs officer did only give me 3 days to transit through the country on my motorbike, even though the immigration transit visa in my passport was for 5 days.

After customs clearance, I paid the shipping company for the bike’s transport in their office; I was surprised at how cheap it was (110 US dollars).  I was then free to ride onto the streets of Baku, and hit the town at around 4am.

I stopped at an ATM just outside the port and resupplied with local money.  After that, I wasn’t sure what to do.  I didn’t want to pay 20 US dollars for a hostel room for only a couple of hours’ sleep, and I wasn’t even tired, so I rode around looking for somewhere to eat.

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Looking for food in Baku at 4am. Nope!

The only good thing about arriving in a city at 4am is the lack of traffic.  I rode all over the city for an hour and didn’t find anywhere serving food except for a small newspaper stand selling drinks and snacks.  Then I found a building where I could pick up free wifi and started looking for hotels for the next night.  The only reasonably priced accommodation was a hostel but it had no parking, and all the other hotels seemed to be very expensive.  I sat and deliberated for a while and then, at 5.30am, I decided I’d had enough and left for Sheki, a small town in the Greater Caucasus mountain range 300km away.  I’d already seen most of Baku anyway (albeit at night) and this way I could complete the journey before it got too hot and my starter motor started playing up again.

Off to Sheki

Baku and its surrounding area are pretty flat and semi-arid.  By the time the sun rose I had escaped the large city, and watched the burning ball as it slowly enflamed the dry, dusty vista in a beautiful yellow-orange haze.

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Sunrise over Baku outskirts

I had half a tank of fuel and would need to fill up to get to Sheki, so I started looking for a gas station on a hill where I could easily push-start the bike again rather than wait around for it to cool down.  I found one, but was very happily surprised when the bike started first time.  This proved the starting problem must be a heat issue, as the cold morning air passing at speed over the engine had kept it cool, whereas in the city I had not been going fast enough for this cooling to take place and had had to wait an hour before it started again.

 

Sheki

Gradually the countryside became less dry and trees started to appear.  Then I caught sight of the distant Caucasus mountains and rode towards them.

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As I rode on the semi-arid desert changed into less semi-arid desert

Sheki was hot, in the high 30’s, despite being 500m up in the cooler mountains.  I liked it much better than Baku as soon as I arrived; small, clean and quaint with medieval cobbled streets and ancient buildings, once an important centre for silkworm-breeding, now selling Turkish sweats and pottery.

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Medieval streets of Sheki

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Once a famous centre for silk-worm breeding

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Now full of quaint shops and minarets

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Sheki

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More tea vicar?

I found a charming old 18th Century Caravanserai, used to accommodate silk road traders, and moved into a low-ceilinged, stone arched single room for 15 quid.

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My 18th Century Caravanserai

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Inside the courtyard

By now I was pretty wacked, and enjoyed a long, cool shower.  Changing the dressings on my arm I noticed the skin had almost healed over with delicate, bright pink new skin.  It was now 17 days since the accident, and because I’d not done much with that arm and the right side of my chest, they were both feeling pretty weak.  So, I immediately enrolled myself on an intensive Bowen Get Fit programme.

I started with a lot of stretching, and then managed 10 half-push-ups, which was all my repairing ribs could manage.  However, I wasn’t happy with that and tried again a few minutes later and managed 10 slow, proper press-ups.  Much better!  I was on the road to full recovery, and it felt good.

I celebrated with a huge plate of chicken, chips and beer at the on-site restaurant and planned my route into Georgia.  It was a shame I only had 3 days in Azerbaijan, which wasn’t really enough to explore, but I was looking forward to sampling Georgia’s famous wine and hospitality.

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Azeri dinner for Champions!

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Sleep tight!

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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: , , | 2 Comments

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

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

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