Hi! I had forgotten to upload this video I made after going up that impossible track in Charyn canyon. On the perspective of the road we did after Issyk Kul, this path doesn’t seem so bad after all…
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.
The Almaty run
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.
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 ».
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.
It all started in Atyrau, parked in front of Neil’s hotel there was a strange car with a UK licence plate and plenty of stickers, some of them stating « Travelling is for sissies » and « Mongol rally ». I thought it was just the one car but a couple of days later we started seeing them everywhere. In Khiva, there were 2 more cars parked in front of a hotel.
Pretty soon the city was flooded with little groups of mostly British people (but there was many others too) where one member was always wearing a Mongol Rally t-shirt. Apparently it’s part of the deal, there always has to be one with the t-shirt. At dinner we met Team Booby and talked for some time with them but later they left us to join their brethren: other Mongol rally teams. Oh, and they were not British: one Dutch girl, one Belgian and one guy from the US.
There’s other people in the picture, the leftmost guy in the light blue tee is Iain, another one of the China team, the guy in the black t-shirt is Neil and to his right, Askar, a Kazakh guy who had just started his own journey hitchhiking around the world (or maybe not around the world, he had no plan actually).
By the time we got to Bukhara we had camped with a Mongol rally biker team we had met on the road, Kevin and Nick (Idiots Abroad) who had plenty of problems with their small bikes (Yamaha XT125) and could use being escorted by other bikers just in case.
But what is this Mongol Rally thing?
Every year, hundreds of adventurers set off from London and Prague in a sort or rally to Mongolia, only that it’s not a race, you only have to get there. The objective is to bring a car to Mongolia in reasonable good shape to be sold and the money donated to charity. It all sounds very altruistic and it probably is but above all, they look like they are having loads of fun. They also experience lots of problems with their cars because they are usually very small cars, unprepared for the kind of roads they are taking. Click here to check out their website.
All the roads to China
When 10 people are aiming to be in the same place on the same date, they are bound to meet somewhere along the way. In our case, the place is Torugart and the date is August 28th.
I had run into Neil before at the Georgian border but he was going a bit faster than me and he got a 1 day lead on me. Until his top case flew off. He was a bit unluckier than I and didn’t see it fly off. It was lost to him and with it his bike’s papers and Russian import papers, which are necessary for Kazakhstan too, along with a couple more useful things (he kept remembering stuff he’d lost for days). He was staying in a very expensive hotel so I just had a chat with him and went off to search for a cheaper one in the expensive, oil-empowered, expat-inhabited city of Atyrau. He also told me that Iain, another one of the China group, was in town but he didn’t know where (Iain’s not big on email and technology). Nevermind because as soon as I got to one of the hotels mentioned as cheaper in the Lonely Planet, I saw a red Ténéré parked in the garden. It was Iain’s and so I knocked on his door, introduced myself and we were off to Neil’s hotel to have some beers together.
The road into Kazakhstan also brought a surprise to me: Camels!
It was on some email from Chris (yes, another one of the China team) that I had heard of the Southern road to Uzbekistan. Instead of going North to Aqtobe as Google Maps had shown me, I could go South directly to Khiva. The only problem is that I would have to cross a desert and go through uncharted territory. Uncharted to me anyway because these guys were sure there was a road and so was Open Street Map. I had no idea of the towns there would be on the way, the distances between them or where I could sleep but there was a big chance that Neil would finish his paperwork on time to leave with me. That would be a relief, I would feel better knowing that we were 2 on the road. My rest day in Atyrau was quiet and I spent most of the day doing what one does on rest days: resting. I did go for a walk around town and found the nice promenade along the river and THE beach, there is just the one and it’s artificial.
The next day I started to get ready at my usual late hour because Neil still had some paperwork to do and he hoped it would be done by 11AM. Luckily, at 11:30 he was ready and so was I. I hadn’t found a Kazakhstan map but it was alright because he has a GPS with OSM loaded on it. We set off around noon and the road was quiet and good (or maybe not bad) and by 7PM we were in Beyneu, the last town before the desert where we had to stock up on water and rest because he had ahead of us 90km of very bad roads to get to the border and more than 500km of Karakalpaqsa desert before the first town with a hotel. That night we went to strange sort of bar where there were only women. When we got back to the hotel I was informed that the second bed in my room, which I was assured would be empty for the night since the person renting it wasn’t coming for the night was now occupied by a third person. I gave little thought to the possibility of the third person coming back in the middle of the night to dislodge my roommate and went to sleep. I was interrupted by said roommate who absolutely wanted to talk to me (in Russian, of course) at 1AM but he quickly understood that it was not the moment. And that he better not turn on the air con either.
We wanted to ride early the next day because there is a 90k stretch of very bad road ahead and a border to cross for which Neil has « unusual » paperwork (a declaration from the Atyrau police saying that he’s lost all his papers).
Internet? Noooo, we don’t have that here, sir
Wow! It’s been a week since my last post and that one was about Russia. That’s two countries ago! The internet has been getting scarcer and scarcer ever since Beyneu where only one of the hotels had wifi (and it wasn’t the one I was staying). On the desert camps I don’t really count on the internet but in cities I expect some connectivity. Khiva was alright, slow but available while in Bukhara not only there was very few hotspots but everyone was pretty stingy about them. I figure they pay by the megabyte and want to keep their connection for their own customers. Anyway, Bukhara was great for many other reasons and most of the time I didn’t care about the internet. Now I’m in Samarqand and they have electrical problems, the connection keeps resetting itself every half an hour or so. I almost feel bad asking the hotel guy to get up and go reset the router every time.