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:
- I ignored the tell-tale warning sign
- I was going too fast (120km/h)
- 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?
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 😉
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.
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).
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.
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:
- It happened at the police check-point just before I fell off, when I pulled off the road underneath a tree.
- 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.
- It was just a rogue thorn on the road that had perhaps fallen off the back of a truck carrying vegetation.
- 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.
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.
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:
- Roll out of bed at 3am under cover of darkness, wash and dress arm.
- Start 450km journey to Khiva at 4am, thus avoiding the intense heat of the day, and stopping my arm from melting.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
At this stage, I was definitely not in a good place, mentally or physically.
I summed up the problems:
- I have 2 broken ribs and a skinless arm
- My bike has fallen over
- I can’t lift it up in my present condition
- Even if I did lift it up, it won’t start
- 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 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.
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.
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).
It seemed to work, and came out looking 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.
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?
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”.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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!
In the end we landed a nice catch, and Anna did her usual great job cooking them all up for dinner – 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.
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).
He had also done a great job fixing my right pannier, welding on a new frame and riveting on more tin.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- I’ve learnt to shave my head left-handed
- See above (it’s quite a big thing)