An unexpected party

“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”
“I should think so — in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”

That was not the conversation I had with Iain a few kilometers short of the entrance to Charyn canyon but, mind you, he was trying to enroll me in an adventure and I did think it would make me late for dinner and The Hobbit movie is coming so I might as well quote the great book that is behind the movie. As opposed to Bilbo, I do have use for adventures, they are the little bricks that build the bigger adventure that is this trip.

Iain was trying to explain that there was something he wouldn’t dare to do by himself but if someone was with him to push his bike in case of need, he would try it. I didn’t get much because I hadn’t seen the place but after warning him that he may be pushing my bike a lot more than I would probably have to push his, we left towards the entrance to the national park. He also told me that the border crossing I was aiming for was closed and that the next day we would have to go back to Bishkek the long way round, through Almaty.

Soon we were at the entrance of the park and I used all of my Russian vocabulary, all the 25 words of it to get into the park for 3 M&M’s and a smile instead of the 600 Tenge official price. Useless but fun. Iain suggested that we didn’t see the canyon from above because it was getting dark and the road to get down was better done with good light. Pretty soon I understood why, we were headed for that place where Charlie and Ewan had been and couldn’t get their heavy GSs back up. Our bikes are lighter but with all my luggage, I think the weight would be comparable. Not Iain’s, he’s a much more experienced traveller and his luggage is small and light. Still, we removed most of the easily removable pieces of luggage and brought them down on foot after painstakingly riding the bikes down. I only dropped the bike 2 or 3 times, which given that it was a narrow track of loose stone and sandy dust is not a lot.

To say that Bilbo’s breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful.

Totally worth it. Once inside the canyon there was a wooden structure with a roof that we could use as our camp, there was even a table and chairs! I washed myself in the river and did my laundry too. And the views were splendid, the sun setting on the rocky walls of the canyon and finally the stars with no moon. I’m not sure I have already seen so many starts. Unfortunately, most of my pictures were botched. The day pictures due to some weird setting of the camera I don’t remember touching and the night ones by my impatience, I couldn’t wait for the exposure to be long enough. The first half of the pictures you will see in the album below had to be exposure corrected and that’s why they look so grainy.

On the next morning we woke up with the sun as usual when camping and set on our way. It was a real pain to get the bikes back up that road and I dropped mine a couple more times, Iain didn’t of course but he did need pushing. I’m trying to upload a video showing that track from up the hill but the connections here are quite bad and I’m sharing the bandwidth with people skyping and a Chinese girl streaming a movie. I think my video upload will have to wait. By 8am we had the bikes up and were rehydrating ourselves on top of the hill and on our way to see the canyon from above. It was really beautiful. On the way back to Bishkek we had lunch in Almaty, I stopped to chat with a British cyclist named Paul that had met David and Lyn, the couple in the Range Rover of the China group that I still hadn’t met. These roads are amazing, travelers meet travelers that know other travelers and you never know how or why. By sunset we were at the Sakura where Chris and Neil were surprised to see me arrive there.

I really liked Bishkek’s vibe and decided I would spend 2 more nights there just for the sake of it. Some cities don’t have much sightseeing to do but they have just the right vibe, good ambience in the guesthouses helps and the Sakura was one more of those places with its odd collection of travelers, from the Japanese biker that had been there for a month recovering from an injury to other world crossers and long-term travelers and even a professional photographer on holidays (she had brought 2 huge Nikons even if she was on holidays!). And of course, Tarik, he was everywhere those days. That was, I think, the last time I ran into him.

At the Sakura I rested for a day and tried to update the blog some more while I mentally prepared for the adventure ahead. I also had my pants repaired by a woman with a sewing machine that kept saying something in Russian that sounded a lot like “How come you speak with such a good pronunciation but you can’t understand a word of what I say?”. Well, lady, that’s how I roll. She did a great job with my pants, she even reconstructed the missing buckle.

I didn’t know it yet but the worst road/track I have ever ridden on was just ahead. In 2 days I would be riding for the first time less than 100 km in 10 hours, and not because I stopped to take a rest.

Shangcheng, Shangcheng District, PRC

Deja vu

“It’s funny, I’ve just had the exact same conversation two blocks ago with a girl that, in a way, looks exactly like you*”. It’s like when they make a change in the Matrix and you see the cat walk past by the brick wall twice.

Every time I sneak away from a scam, I am left with a question: What was it this time? Many times I have let them talk some more just to see where it goes but today I am walking around with my passport, all my credit cards and 3000 yuan that an ATM has kindly agreed to give me. It is out of the question that I pursue any conversation with scammers with pockets full of *goodies*. It’s no use taking risks so I told her that I wanted to walk alone, twice and then she said “Oh! No me?” and went on to deliver her payload in a last, desperate attempt to not lose the opportunity. “Do you want massage?”. There you are! I should have thanked her for taking away my doubts but she had already stayed behind. I could only hear her congratulating me for my good looks or maybe something else, I don’t know, it was in Chinese.

I was also accosted twice by girls that asked me to take a picture of them together and claimed to be tourists from other parts of China headed for a traditional tea house and “would you like to join us?”. My short answer is a clear NO but I could also go on about how I grew up in Argentina and this kind of thing is every day life in Buenos Aires and even locals are targets of scams like this one. This one in particular, I had seen it in Argentina already but in the form of a guy that offers you a free or very cheap ticket to enter a very exclusive bar or strip club. You sort of develop a sixth sense for these things growing up in BA.

* Moderately good-looking Chinese girl elegantly dressed in 100% Western clothes (nothing looks Chinese except of course her) speaking quite good English but not so perfect that you would be suspicious, Changning, Changning District, PRC

The Almaty run

This V-Strom flagged me and stopped
And after a day’s rest at Bishkek’s Sakura guesthouse, where it’s cozy and warm, I was ready for the Almaty run. Now that we were going to Mongolia, we all needed visas. Neil and Chris had decided that they would try to get into Kazakhstan with their Kyrgyz visas and they left early with a shared taxi but for me it was out of the question to leave my bike behind when I could ride there and so at 8:15am, I was on the road to Almaty. There was no news from Iain or Robin and Keely so I figured they had their own plans for getting a visa.

I didn’t get lost while leaving the city this time. I had carefully studied the way out because I had no time to lose. I knew also that at some point on the way I would run into Richard, another I still hadn’t met of the China group. And I did.

The road was long and mostly straight, which that particular day was a good thing because I could ride fast but I did spend around 20 minutes talking to Richard, changing my Som for his Tenge and accepting the Kazakh SIM card he kindly gave me. It was very nice but it proved to be fatal to my tight schedule.

Off-road to Mongolia(n consulate)
The “track” to the consulate
When I arrived to Almaty the traffic was, of course, hectic. How could I forget to account for that? Well, my Parisian training always proves useful in these situations and I managed to skip most of it despite the big panniers on the back of my bike. Soon I was cruising on the high-speed lane of Sain Street towards the Mongolian consulate but alas, yet another obstacle was on my way. You see, Mongolia has almost no paved roads, it makes sense that the way to the consulate takes you off-road in the middle of the city. Wait, what? Yes, Sain street is in works right north of the street I was looking for so I had to make a big detour, get into some small neighborhood street where I wasn’t even sure which way I was supposed to go (thanks to Richard’s SIM, I had a working Google Maps) until I found it: the off-road track of course. Take it and you’ll get there! And get there I did and at the entrance I found Neil, Chris, and Iain. So much for the mystery of how he was going to get his visa. They were all waiting outside because they had been told that they could get the visa on the same day so I went to the door and begged to be received. When the guy said it was closed, I pointed to my watch and showed him that we still had more than 5 minutes to go before actual closing time and he was nice enough to let me in and apply but of course I wouldn’t get it on the same day (even when I begged). No biggie, I can come tomorrow, pick up the visa, then go to the bikers shop to try to get new riding pants and then leave to Charyn canyon without having to spend 2 nights at the awful but not quite the worst I’ve seen Djetisu hotel where they have cheap shared rooms only if you ask for “hostel”.

En 4L
En 4L sur la route de la soie

So in the evening I went for some Turkish kebab (it’d been a long time since Turkey and I was already missing it), had a walk through town, bought a replacement for my cigar lighter USB charger and had a drink with Iain and his new French friends, the guys from En 4L sur la route de la soie.

The visa was there, so much that the guy came out of the door with my passport ready when I rang the bell. Was I the only customer today? Did they have a camera? I didn’t ask. Next mission, the biker’s shop and my potential new pants. Except for the humongous traffic jam I got into where I was invited to lunch by some random car driver and his friends. I played dumb because I was sort of in a hurry and went my way amazed at the possibility of being invited to lunch by a random group of strangers. They didn’t have my size. How did I know they didn’t have it? Well, I tried ones that looked pretty cool and the sales lady said “Sexy!”. That’s how I knew it wasn’t my size, that and the fact that I had to struggle and remove the internal liner to get them on. Oh well, I would have to get my sewing kit out… On my way to Charyn canyon!

For a preview of Charyn canyon, here’s a video from a couple of guys who’ve been there before. If it doesn’t go automatically, you should advance to the 35m20s mark.

Changning District, PRC

Into the wild in Kyrgyzstan

On the morning of August 16th we had to meet Neil to ride out together. We would only ride a short time together because I was going to take the Jalal-Abad to Kazarman trail and they were taking the highway because their bikes weren’t in great shape. We were late and Neil had left and I still had to top up so I sent Chris away, there was no point in holding him back; he was riding with Neil and I was riding alone. Alone, no one to follow, no one following me. I was confident because the bike was in great shape and happy because I could ride at my own pace and I wasn’t in any hurry to go anywhere.

Kazarman trail
Riding at my own pace
I had told the guys that I would spend two nights in the wild and then go to Bishkek but as I started riding and taking in the scenery, I told myself that I had no constraints and I may as well take my time. I could even do this trail in 5 days instead of the planned 3 and I would still be on time to go to Torugart.

The first day was pretty quiet, I took my time to weave my way up to the first high pass and enjoy the views and it was amazing. The beautiful roads, the humbling landscapes and the silence. Every time I stopped and cut the engine, there was absolute silence. Nothing. I made some videos of the road until my battery ran out but they are taking a very long time to upload. Around 5 or 6 in the afternoon, I was topping up in Kazarman. The tank was almost full but when you don’t know what the road ahead is like and how many days and kilometers it can still take, it’s better to have a full tank.

I think this was taken at the Kaldama pass
It is almost funny how 5km before a town the road becomes tarmac and stays like that for 5km on the other side and when it ended it was getting late and I started thinking that I should find a camp site. The problem was that there was no space at the side of the road to go off-road. On one side the mountain and on the other the valley. And that’s when I wasn’t riding through a canyon. It was getting dark and started to get nervous, looking at the smallest space behind a bush (there weren’t many bushes). Let’s check this one, oh, it’s a dump, can’t camp here. Until I found a big sort of plain where I could follow an old forgotten trail and set up my tent.

The next morning view
As soon as I stopped the bike and turned around I realized that there was a town in the valley and maybe I could be seen from there. It’s not good but it was already getting dark so I had no choice, I pitched my tent, cooked myself some rice and tuna with cashew nuts for dinner and when I was finished I covered the bike and went to bed. It was really comfy in the tent but seeing the town had obviously disturbed me and when during the night I heard the wind play with the bike’s cover, I thought someone was trying to steal from me. When it lasted for half an hour I concluded that it was just the wind and went to sleep again.

Cooking on top of my right pannier
Camping alone in the wild is very special. There’s just you and the nature and then when it gets dark there is only one thing left to do: go to bed. And when the sun comes out, you wake up and get ready. At 8AM I was already on the road on my way to Song Kul. Would I get there today? Would I finally see snow? After a noodles breakfast I set off to find out. Not long later I came to another mountain pass that also had a sign indicating the start of the Ak-Tal region.

Little yurt in the prairie
And then I saw it 😀

Can you see the snow?
Maybe a little zoom on that?

Maybe with a little bit of zoom?
Enough rest and contemplation, I set off and around 11am I had arrived to the town of Ak-Tal. I went into the shop and bought a couple of things. It felt good to have some bread and some Coke while the kids looked at my bike and at me. They shared some Cheetos and I shared some bread until they had to go. And then it happened. There are moments when you see the most unexpected thing and you camera is not with you but they stay in your mind forever. One of the kids picked up a bicycle wheel from where he presumably had left it before, grabbed a piece of wire that was probably his too and went away hoop rolling. I thought that only happened in very old comic books!

Didn’t photograph the actual Kyrgyz kids but you get the gist
But it was time to go, this was my second day in the wild by myself and I was getting closer to my target so I set myself on the road again after a short “chat” with one of the many town drunks and pretty soon I was up on the high mountains again at 3000m of altitude and I saw in the distance a deep blue spot.

Song Kul lake as I saw it from the road
From the shore.

In Song Kul
A rest on the way
Before arriving here I had thought I would be able to swim in the lake and camp there for the night but when I got there it was 2pm and it was quite chilly. My summer sleeping bag was not ready for that so after a piece of bread and a drink I went on my way back towards civilization. At first I thought I could go back to Bishkek that day but when I started trying to get on the trail to Chayek, a local on a 4WD told me not to go that way and asked me for a cigarette (a lot of people in this far away parts of Kyrgyzstan ask foreigners for cigarettes). I turned around and decided to take the standard road that tourist minibuses take to get here. I didn’t.

I ended up on the road Cédric had told me about: 72 hairpin turns on a dirt road wide as a car dropping several hundred meters. Stunning.

After a while I realized that because I got lost so many times before taking that road and that I was now on the long road to Bishkek instead of the short one, I wasn’t going to get there that day and turned back a bit to a very nice spot by a stream that I had spotted on the way. I had started very early anyway and it was already 5pm. I had earned myself the right to an early camp and the spot was simply irresistible.

Irresistible camping spot
I hid behind a little mound and set up camp, then I went to wash the dishes, my clothes and myself in the river before making myself some dinner and setting on the side of the little hill I was behind to read. A perfect day was coming to an end. I went to bed early, days are long in the saddle but they don’t feel like it when you are riding the beautiful roads I had been riding.

Sunset on my camp
The next morning I still had another high pass and still some more beautiful roads to ride before getting back to civilization. Here’s the full photo gallery fo my trip to Song Kul. Finally I took only two nights to get to Bishkek through that road but it was very comfortable and relaxing to know that I could have taken four.

Arrived in Bishkek I was very tired and couldn’t find most of the guesthouses mentioned in the Lonely Planet (or any other fwiw) and I met two cyclists (one of them was I think Austrian and the other one was Uzbek from Bukhara) and they recommended an expensive hotel called the Alpinist. I checked in there for the first night because I didn’t want to turn in circles around the city anymore. The next day I went to the Sakura guesthouse where Neil and Chris were and checked in there. It was 8 times cheaper.


Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

My Mongolian bike

Today I finally got the two accessories I wanted the most for my bike. The first one I have wanted it ever since I got my first scooter back in 2006, a sound system. It turns out that it’s a very popular accessory here in Mongolia so it was very easy to get a couple of 10W speakers that connect to the battery and can read SD cards.

The second one is something I have lusted for ever since I entered Xinjiang and saw that everyone had beautiful saddle covers for their bikes. They also have them here in Mongolia and today I finally found a couple of shops that sold them in the black market of Ulan Baatar. I and another rider I met here (Léo from bought one each, a bit unsure if they would fit my Tenere and his Africa Twin. They did. I’m so happy! Incidentally, now my bike is properly Mongolian with the speakers and the rug 😉

My panda/cow saddle rug
I got the one with the little cow and the big panda


Saddle rug
Léo got the blue one with super cow

Where was I? Oh, right, Kyrgyzstan!

The next morning we got up not too late and set on our way to the border. Our map shows a little border crossing close to Fergana and that is what we aimed for. Until we met the Italians (again). They had been to the border but it was a locals-only border crossing and they’d been turned down. After a short chat with them about their support truck, which had broken down due to water in the fuel, we set off looking for that other border crossing, the Osh border crossing.

Getting close to Osh

We got there almost in no time since we were very close and crossing it was a breeze, no hassle at all. THey wanted nothing to do with our visas, no need for them anymore. Osh i sonly a couple kilometers from the border and finding the Osh Guesthouse was also quite easy. One of the shortest rides so far. Pretty soon Chris and I had checked into the guesthouse and had an appointment for dinner with Christina, a German cyclist and her Finnish friend Henna at the California Café for a pizza (Yum!) and Neil had left to search for a hotel with private rooms.

The manager of the guesthouse, a bearded muslim wearing a kamis took us to a parking lot 500m away from the hostel to park our bikes and on the way we attracted a lot of attention among the neighborhood kids. With the bikes well kept, we went out looking for the pizzeria and not only did we find Christina there but also Neil, who had already spotted the local Chinese restaurant and took us there for a beer after dinner. I also had a very unexpected starter before my pizza: tarator! (they don’t call it tarator in Kyrgyzstan but that’s what it was).

Kyrgyz tarator
Looks like tarator, smells like tarator, smells like tarator, it’s Okroshka!

We all spent two nights in Osh for various reasons. Me, I just wanted a little rest. On the first evening I exchanged information with Christina about the road I had planned from Osh. I was planning to go to Song Kul following the road marked on the map I got from Cédric. She confirmed that it was a very nice road to do and gave me some tips about the imprecisions of the map: villages that weren’t there and other villages that were. Also around that time I got hooked reading Iker Iturregi‘s chronicle of his trip in this region and had reached the point where he was telling about the exact road I wanted to follow, the Kazarman trail to Song Kul Lake. If you can read Spanish, I do recommend reading his adventure chronicle, he’s done one of the most difficult roads in the world, the 2000 km long BAM road in Russia in less than 4 days and broken the speed record for crossing a very scary and long bridge on that road. Most people take around 10 days to do it.

Osh is not a very interesting city but I needed the rest to get in shape and ready for the next days when I would be riding solitary mountain trails with my Z as the only company.


Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

New plan

Since the China part 2 plan has gone down the drain for mysterious reasons, I had to do a bit of brainstorming to get my act together and keep going the way I want and the way that brings me more satisfaction. I don’t want to take a plane during this trip unless I really have to. This is not one of those times.

Today, I went down to the train station and bought myself a train ticket to Beijing. So there is a bonus in all this, I get to travel on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, part of the same network as the Trans-Siberian. Meanwhile, my dear Z will be shipped straight to Bangkok and will be waiting for me there until I arrive. From now on and until I get to Bangkok, I will be on foot. It will be a new experience but I have high hopes for this new part of the trip. It will be something different being back to depending on other people to get from one place to the next one.

Ulan Baatar
The roundabout near the hostel

After I got the train ticket, I went for a walk in the town center, checked rucksacks at the camping store (too expensive) and then at the black market (too cheap). Since I will only need this rucksack for a couple of weeks, I will go for the too cheap one and bring my straps, bungees and cable ties with me into China in case it needs “roadside maintenance”. Finally, I went for lunch inside the black market. I had already had lunch there yesterday with David and really enjoyed it: good cheap food, who could say no to that?

Yesterday’s yummy lunch


I sat at a random food stall and ordered a random dish from the menu around 4000 tugrugs. I have no idea what I ordered but a couple of minutes later I had in front of me a sort of prison tray with a full meal on it: soup, fried noodles with meat, Russian salad, two other kinds of salad and a strange but not completely disgusting hot white drink.

I ordered one of those, the third one after the red line


After that royal lunch, I was going to check the auto parts market for a couple of tools I am still missing and a 13 spanner for Lorraine who had asked me to kindly buy it for her but a sudden dust storm and the menace of rain convinced me to stick my hand out at the side of the road to go back home. In no time, a random local had lowered his window and was asking me where I wanted to go, I hopped on and went back to the hostel to finish repairing the bike.

Of course you don’t know what was wrong with the bike because I haven’t told that story yet but the rest of the afternoon was very productive: I put a new chain that Richard kindly agreed to sell me, I put the missing bolt in the pannier rack and finally I hammered my panniers back into shape, they are waterproof again. Actually, I didn’t hammer them myself, the hostel’s watchman saw me doing it and obviously thought that I was using the hammer like a little girl because he took the hammer off my hands and did it himself.

When I had finished with all my repairs and maintenance for the day, it was already time to go for dinner with the group. Today is the last night we are all together, from now on we more or less all go our separate ways. Neil is flying to Hong Kong, Iain is flying to Bangkok, Lorraine may be flying to Korea, David is driving back to the UK through Russia (I hope he doesn’t freeze!), Richard still doesn’t know and Chris is taking the same train as I am but will be crossing China a bit faster than what I have planned to. The group was created with the sole purpose of crossing China together on our bikes (+David’s car), now that we are not allowed to do that anymore, it makes no sense to stick together any longer. We all have different plans for the future and have already set them in motion but meanwhile, we absolutely had to find that English pub with the funny name that we had spotted a couple of days ago.

Unfortunately it was closed to the general public tonight (on a Saturday night!)


PS: Since my bike and I are going to be parted for some time, I have set up a new wallpaper on my computer, something to remember her by.

My memento of Z until we are back together

Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

F**k the Chinese government

We have just received an email from our Chinese tour company announcing that our tour is cancelled, we can’t drive through China. This is very sad news and also a major turnoff. Our permit to transit through China in our own vehicles has been refused. We are now getting drunk with Chinggis Vodka here in Ulan Baatar while we consider the alternatives. A couple of ideas had been thrown on the table:

  • Get very good winter gear and ride to Vladivostok, then take a boat to Korea and from there somewhere else
  • Same but take a boat to Canada and forsake South East Asia
  • Ship the bike to Thailand and fly to Thailand
  • Same but backpack across China
  • Same but buy my Chinese bike, maybe I’ll finally get that Shineray 😉

Meanwhile, just a thought about abusive governments.

Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

My Chinese bike

When I was planning this trip and I thought I wouldn’t be able to come to China, I thought of leaving my own bike for some time in India and buying a Chinese bike to go around China. The most likely candidate was a Shineray 150 Sport, a military-green beauty with pannier racks and handguards.
I saw one at a shop in Turpan the other day and thought I might still do it one day…



Tarkshken, Qinghe County, PRC