Many years ago, while I was backpacking in Argentina, somewhere in Northern Patagonia we were restocking our food supplies at a small town supermarket when an old drunkard invited himself to our conversation. He had the discrete elegance that self-respecting old drunkards usually have, he wore a hat and a felt coat. His face was wrinkled by many years in the sun and he talked a lot. Unfortunately, something even the self-respecting variety of drunkards doesn’t have is articulate speech and even though he spoke Spanish, I couldn’t understand most of what he said. One phrase did get through and stuck to the walls of my mind. Whenever I remember the episode, it comes back: « And then the ‘huinca’ came ».
This is the land of the Mapuche. As I cross the Bio-Bio river, I remember that this was the last line of defence between the Chileans and the original Chileans. What else to call them if not that? Before that fort line was built, this was their land, all of it.
The Inca came and conquered, in name. A tax was agreed and a tax collector took residence here but in reality, the Mapuche were always left to their own devices.
Araucanos, the Spanish called them. The Mapuche always lived on both sides of the Andes and they still do. Araucanos is an unfortunate name, it robs them of their true nature. Perhaps that was the aim. Mapuche has ‘mapu’ in it: Earth (or land, or dirt) and « che » simply means people, they are the people of the land and I am but a visitor in their lands. Some say that our Argentinean custom of calling people « che » comes from them (yes, their land extended to what today is the province of Buenos Aires).
As I enter the Araucanía Andina region, an unofficial sign reminds me, in case I’ve forgotten, that I’m entering Mapuche territory and when I start seeing the beauty that surrounds me, I understand why they defended it so fiercely. The mighty Andes on the horizon, plentiful rivers teeming with fish every couple of kilometers, forests and grassland valleys with no end in sight. They lost, as history records, and today the descendants of the Spanish conquerors rule the land.
At the time of that episode, the word huinca didn’t make any sense to me. I had heard it somewhere but it wasn’t Spanish, I had to find out the meaning. Internet wasn’t that developed back then so I just waited and some time later, while perusing a Mapudungun glossary I found it. Huinca(1): White man. Hum… Wait a second, there’s a Huinca(2) definition under it. Huinca(2): cattle thief. Interesting.
So here I am, cattle thief by definition, visiting their land. I hope they won’t think too badly of me and let me through.
EDIT: This paper looks interesting but I haven’t read it.
Wikipedia says 321, the Lonely Planet says 320. Tonight I stopped at Walpole, Western Australia for the night and I was complaining about the quality of wifi and the fact that Vodafone doesn’t cover this « city » when I decided to check the total population.
On a more cheerful note, this morning when I was leaving the campground I saw a kangaroo for the first time. Two kangaroos actually.
No, those are obviously not the kangaroos. Those are Myriam and Koen, the gentle Dutch couple that camped on the site next to mine and shared dinner with me. I had beef sausages, they had vegetables. I had wine, they had chocolate. I had bread, they had, well, they had bread too. And fruit! They had everything that I can’t carry on the bike. We had dinner together and a lot of fun chatting into the night. They are from Utrecht and they are travelling in a rented van for a month around Western Australia. Naturally, this morning they wanted to share their breakfast with me too and even though I didn’t have anything to contribute, they shared pancakes and coffee. Awesome breakfast! Thanks!
While I went on with packing, they left to try to find some drinking water and the way to the beach so when I set off, I didn’t expect to see them again but when I was almost at the exit, I saw them on a side road and they were pointing somewhat excitedly to somewhere where there was not the exit of the camp so I pulled the break, turned around and came back to where they were and started looking at them quizzically. They were still pointing at something behind me, so I looked.
Later, on the road, I saw a dead one. That happens a lot in Australia, they get hit by cars that drive in the evening or early morning and they die.
On January 1st we all were horrified by the disappearing act of my gadgets. At least I was: Macbook, Kindle, DSLR and GoPro, plus the iPad of the girl in the bunk next to mine that she had entrusted to my locker, were gone. Gone, supposedly forever.
It was a dire morning but talking with the other roommates and the hostel manager, we quickly came to the conclusion that the Singaporean Indian that had introduced himself as Asi the previous day and was not in the room anymore this morning had taken the things. Based on speculations, of course, but it was our conclusion nonetheless. He had been asking suspicious questions that didn’t seem so suspicious at the time about where was everyone going to spend New Year’s Eve and what time we would be going out and all. No one paid much attention to him because we all had plans of our own and he had just arrived. And of course there is the little detail that he was gone and the things too.
I accepted the fact that everything was gone quite graciously except for a couple of very dark moods along the day and waited for the owner of the hostel to come back so that we could go to the Tourist Police together and register our case to be able to claim something from insurance. Her brother came and took us there quite late in the afternoon.
We were merrily (NOT!) telling our tale to the police when someone called and told the hostel manager that the Czech guy who had been in the next room with his girlfriend and left that morning to Cameron Highlands had seen the Indian guy there checking into their same hostel. The police of Cameron Highlands was called immediately to arrest him.
That gave us a little hope but what really got our hopes up happened later, in the evening. The hostel owner came to tell us that the boy’s family wanted to talk to us. Boy. Not guy anymore, boy. He is 16 years old and from KL, not Singapore.
I was a bit scared of what may happen but she reassured us saying that they were very correct gentlemen and it was alright to talk to them so we met them at the Indian food court opposite the hostel. There they told us a bit of a story: that his parents had divorced when he was 1 year old and that his stepfather really beat him very hard and he had completely lost vision of one eye and 50% of the other. A sad story indeed but they didn’t stop there. They asked us to withdraw our charges. What? In exchange of getting all our things back. Apparently some were still with the boy and some others (including but not limited to my Mac) had already been sold.
Once we agreed that we would withdraw our charges if and only if everything was returned, we only had to wait. The boy was to be brought back from Cameron Highlands soon and only then they would know where exactly he had sold my Mac. The wait was of course unbearable and I cancelled my visit to Melaka in order to be available for our next meeting but nothing happened on January 2nd.
On January 3rd, I was finally called by the boy’s brother to come to the police station and get my things back. Sophie too. Once there, everything was returned to me and a long discussion about Sophie’s make up bag and iPod ensued. During the discussion, the boy was slapped in the face at least twice. Once by the older, almost toothless guy that might have been part of the police force but I never knew and once more by his brother. Both times because he talked. He claimed many times that he hadn’t stolen anything from me and that the thief was actually Pavel who had later given him the things for selling and sharing the prize. I couldn’t care less if that was true or not.
Once again, chance meetings on the road had worked their magic. This time I didn’t get to be part of the meeting but I certainly benefitted from it.
While we were about to leave the police station, Raja, the boy’s brother said to me something very disturbing: « I will teach him, I will beat him ». That was after the boy had come to Sophie asking for the money back in order to go « back » to Singapore. In reality, he wasn’t even Singaporean, he was just a missing boy from KL.
I should get a backup service
Always keep my keys about me
He will get beaten very hard (if he hasn’t already)
I must have been collecting some pretty good karma to end up getting my things back
My Mac was formatted but it was also upgraded to Mountain Lion.
The only thing that didn’t come back was the splendid green sleeve I was using for the Macbook.
The South-east Asian leg of my trip is coming to an end soon. I lost many things in this region but I had a lot of fun. I lost one glove, one bungee strap, the Mac sleeve, my pants, and possibly some more things I can’t remember right now. Totally worth it. Update: I just remembered a couple more things I’ve lost. I lost my dragon thumb ring in the jungle in Thailand and I forgot my Mongolian seat rug at the hostel in KL 🙁
I looked in my rear view mirror and his bike was almost on the ground. I ran back to help only to find blood flowing from his leg. Not making ourselves understood by the restaurant personnel, I ran to a table and snatched a bottle of mineral water to clean the wound.
Two days before we were taking train number 13 from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong train station to Chiang Mai. That train is an experience in itself. Not unlike Chinese trains, in this train the cabins were not cabins but just a space where 4 beds are together. However there are curtains around each bed, which is very much welcome since they have a really strong air con and it’s freezing. I didn’t want to have to put on my winter pyjamas to sleep on the train, mainly because I don’t have winter pyjamas with me! The train ride to Chiang Mai is a worthy experience by itself with the restaurant coach being a great highlight (other highlights include the amazing landscapes you see in the morning). Cultural shock at the max. I was used to the the French TGV bar coach and didn’t expect anything similar but what I found made me laugh so hard that I ran back to my father’s berth and said to him: « Dad, we HAVE TO go eat there ». Here’s a sample.
The more I poured water on the wound, the more everything became bloodier and bloodier. Now I was really worried and we had to find a pharmacy to dress that wound before it got infected or anything. I jumped on the bike and almost left without paying for the water.
So after a nice Thai dinner and a good sleep, the train made its entry into Chiang Mai 2 hours late. We took a songthaew, which is just a fancy name for a truck with seats at the back, to Tony’s Big Bikes and collected the 2 Honda Phantoms that we were renting for the week, strapped our luggage to the back seat and we were off to the house Pimsai and her family were lending us (Thank you Pimsai!). With the great instructions her and her dad had given me, it wasn’t very hard to find. Aside from riding past the entrance a couple of times of course.
We couldn’t find the hospital they had indicated so we aimed for a pharmacy and tried to ask for antiseptic (should understand, right?) but as soon as they saw his leg, they refused to help us and the only other word we could get out of the person behind the counter was « hospital ».
After we dropped our things in the house and took a shower, we decided to go for a short ride and aimed for Mae Rim to be on our way to Chiang Dao. We rode for a bit but it was clearly past lunch time so after tentatively stopping at a market where it looked like everything was deep fried, we opted for a small eatery right after where we could get some nice noodle soup. There must be a lot of farang (that seems to be what we are called around here) in this area because they had menus in English even though they couldn’t speak it much. We ate, we drank and we jumped back on the bikes. I started and when he was turning around his bike, it stalled. The bike stopped sharply and the steering was turned. The next thing in order is that the bike is on the ground but he made a rookie mistake: he tried to prevent it from falling. Never do that, you’ll get hurt is the consensus among bikers: the sharp foot peg dug deeply into his leg.
Pharmacy after pharmacy turned us down and their English was always so weak that they couldn’t properly explain where the hospital was. Finally, we ended up in a pharmacy that was close enough to a hospital and the English level of the attendant permitted her to explain it and us to understand it. He got 7 stitches and a little paper in Thai explaining what he should do every day (clean the wound at any other hospital).
During the whole search for the hospital my mind wandered along many different lines, imagining what we could do of our stay in Chiang Mai if he couldn’t/wouldn’t ride anymore. None of that happened and we had an excellent week riding around Chiang Mai taking in the beautiful scenery: the mountains, the jungle, the little roads, the roadside temples, the roadside restaurants and even the elephant camp of Mae Sa where I got to ride an elephant. Yay!
PS: I will post the first GoPro videos I made during this week as soon as I get a decent connection. Just a little teaser: since I didn’t have my helmet with me and I didn’t want to waste the sticky mounts that the GoPro comes with, I improvised a wrist mount for the camera using my all-purpose neck roll and a strap. 😀
« 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
I am not a tourist, I am a traveler -I said. And my Russian teacher responded: Я не турист, я путешественник. I keep telling people I am not a tourist. I am not motivated by the monuments, movement is my drive. Change is life.
But when I am in cities, I play tourist a bit. It can be interesting sometimes.
I finished the previous post saying that the next one would find me at Madina & Ilyos guesthouse and there I was. Madina, the Uzbek matron running the house with her husband had put a brick on the floor to reduce the height of the entrance step so that I could get the bike inside the small courtyard. The courtyard was quite small and it was already crowded with an Africa Twin with a humungous fuel tank (43 liters the owner declared later) but I managed to fit the bike in a corner.
Cédric, the French owner of the Africa Twin soon showed up and so did Tarik (FR) and Bruna (FR-BR), Tristan (FR) and Tina (SI). A very friendly bunch that was also checking in that same day. We lazed around in the scorching heat of the morning and around lunch Tristan, a regular patron of Bukhara and Madina’s took me and Cédric for shashlik lunch at the market and to visit Char Minar in the old town. It was so hot that we looked at Char Minar for a very long time. Not because of its beauty or its many interesting and complex features but because there was a bench in the shade in front of it conveniently situated at the entrance of a little shop selling drinks.
Later in the day we visited an old mausoleum and went for dinner all together, the English bunch and the French bunch but we didn’t mingle, as if an invisible channel had been drawn on the table.
Feeling that my tourist duties were not fulfilled, I set off the next day with the intention of doing some sightseeing but as usual, I set off after 10:30. It was already more than 35 degrees in the shade and a lot more in the sun and I found out that I couldn’t even take refuge in the Ark because it’s being restored so I took refuge in the mosque just in front of it, the official mosque of the emirs of old after going around the Ark to try to find another entrance and ignoring an old man who kept shouting Zindan at me and pointing in the general direction of the old prison museum. The mosque had air conditioning and I was alright there, until I tried to approach the Koran and was shooed away by one of the locals who interrupted his own prayer to show me that I couldn’t approach the stand where the Koran was. That was my cue to leave and keep playing tourist.
Next stop was Job’s well and its small water museum where I hadn’t planned to spend much time. I hadn’t even planned to enter and when they asked me to pay for the ticket, I had to go back out and count my money. In the end, I decided to enter and it was a good thing.
I hadn’t spend long looking around the small museum and wetting my lips with the water from Job’s well that the resident English speaker, a charming young woman by the name of Nigina was talking to me:
– Where do you come from?
– I come from France. I came by motorcycle.
– You must be crazy
I had just been called crazy by my museum guide, this was a sign that I had to make the conversation last. Fortunately, she was of the same opinion and after she took care of some other visitors, we went back to the front of the museum and spent the rest of the afternoon talking about my trip, her aspirations, sharing photos and just chatting. When the museum closed, she proposed to show me the other monument I had planned to see that day, the Samani mausoleum but only if I carried her computer. I am a gentleman so I said yes and not only she showed me the mausoleum but plenty of other interesting things I had missed in Bukhara while we slowly made our way to the central pond.
The last place we entered was the carpet museum where her sister works. After the introductions: “Here’s the crazy guy travelling on a motorcycle”, I was admitted into the museum. While her sister explained the carpets in Russian and I struggled to understand, Nigina translated into English for me. She was truly determined to make a good tourist out of me.
So much so that she proposed to pick me up at my hotel the next day and come with me to the Summer Palace. And so she did and we spent the whole day together, sharing stories and laughs but neither drinks nor food because it was the month of Ramadan and she was fasting. Out of respect I tried to refrain from drinking too ostentatiously in front of her but the heat was too much and I wasn’t going to dehydrate (I don’t know how she was resisting it).
Aside from being a very bright woman, Nigina studied to be a guide and knows a lot about her city and her country; it was very instructive to spend the day in such good company. She told me stories about each place we visited and she had a small book telling the legends related to each place. Ah! My favorite kind of history is of course fake history: legends! What more could I ask? But the heat of the mid-afternoon was too much and she had to take a rest, otherwise she would faint before the maghreb hour and so she went to her sister’s museum while I went to the internet café. Internet is quite scarce in Bukhara and the only true option is the café, even in hotels the traffic is limited to emails or charged by the hour.
When the heat of the afternoon died down a bit, I went for her and we spent some more time together. She had promised to tell me about the traditional Uzbek wedding ceremonies and I introduced her to the French bunch (I call it the French bunch but it includes Tina, who is not French, not in the least).
On the way to the taxi she told me about Nasreddin, the guy sitting on a donkey next to the central pond in Bukhara. Uzbekistan’s comedic hero.
Later, I went for dinner with Bruna, Katya (she had arrived later at the guesthouse), Tarik, Cédric and Marion (she just appeared out of nowhere and asked if she could sit with us). It was the end of a very pleasant stay in a very beautiful city where I met plenty of good people.
Another desert is ahead of us and so we ride early today. We have been given by Chris two bits of important information about the road ahead:
There is a 100km stretch that is the worst road I’ve ridden so far
It will take you around 10 hours
We set off early, Neil and I. Although there was 3 of us from the China team in town so far, we knew that Iain would ride earlier than us, he’s an early bird. After a bit of town riding to get out of the Khiva urban area, we saw 2 bikers on the side of the road doing an oil change in front of some random house. Nick and Kevin, I’ve mentioned them before but this was actually the first time we met them. There, changing their oil they told us about the problems they’d been having with their 125cc bikes and they also told us that Iain had been there 5 minutes ago. So, we didn’t leave that much later. We may even catch up with him somewhere on the road, we thought. It is, after all, a 10-hour long road.
Wait, did I say 10 hours? Piece of cake! Worst road so far? Wow, after the road from Beyneu to Uzbekistan, that’s got to be some badass bad road. And it was. After 100km from Khiva and a bridge over an unknown river (can’t remember all the river’s I’ve crossed, can I?) and it turned to dirt. It was pretty bad and then it got worse but Neil had heard that if you go a little bit faster you let your suspension do the work and sort of glide above the potholes, ruts and corrugations. And that’s what he was doing when bam! Punctured tyre. Where were we? Middle of the desert. What time was it? Just before noon. There’s no better time and place to change a tyre than in the middle of the desert under the killer midday sun, they say. No they don’t.
I helped but the bulk of the work was done by Neil. That was a very tiring and dehydrating experience but we managed, with the help of three Russian bikers (Dasha, Denis and Sergei) who had an electric pump and helped us put the tyre back into the rim. Those Heidenaus are so hard it required the force of 3 men to put them back in. I suspect my Shinkos will be the same and I hope I never have to change them myself, pray for a tyre shop within walking distance if it ever happens to me.
Once we had changed the tyre and started riding away, I noticed Neil’s rear wheel looked wobbly. It was the inner tube sticking out through the humungous hole the tyre had. That was around the time we saw a couple more of Mongol Rally cars, including Team Bobby who took a couple of pictures of me while riding that I hope they will share. By the time the Idiots Abroad caught up with us, we had come to realize that Neil’s tyre wouldn’t go far with a hole that size and the tube sticking out. They suggested we use a piece of an old oil bottle to hold the tube in but we had none so I started looking around for an old tyre. There is always tyres and tubes by the side of the road in the desert. By the size of them, it looks like truckers change tyres in the desert quite often, but a truck provides shade and you can hide from the sun while you sweat your life away trying to break the bead. Did anyone say shade? and truck? Our knights in shiny armor were actually two Uzbeks wearing a-shirts and they said in broken Russian (my favorite kind) that they had something better than the piece of rubber I had found on the floor. Soon Neil’s Ténéré was under the shade of the truck and we were all trying to break the bead again to perform the repair. The trucker had a better method than ours: squatting and jumping on the tyre with his full weight. It took us a long time but when we finished, the tyre was road worthy again. Neil would still have to find a new one in town but at least he could ride safely for the rest of the day. I still carry what’s left of the thick rubber in case we need it again.
A couple of ours later when we were out of that hellish road (still in a sort of desert though), we caught up with Nick and Kevin, sort of our companion team for the day. They were having some drinks at a truckers’ stop and rode off leaving us to eat something and rehydrate ourselves. At the speed they were riding, we knew we would catch up again with them. When we finally did (after eating fried eggs and fried sausage at 6PM at an Uzbek truckers’ stop :P), Nick’s bike had stopped working and Kevin had ridden on without noticing. I chased after Kevin while Neil stayed with Nick and we offered to escort them to Bukhara because it was getting dark. It looked like it would be a slow ride into the night when Nick’s bike broke down again. While trying to make a quick fix, Kevin inadvertently emptied the fuel tank and we knew it was time to set up camp for the night.
We had Staffordshire Chicken Tikka that they had brought all the way from England for dinner. It went perfectly with my cashew nuts (always have them on the bike, they are lifesavers).
The next day we escorted them into Bukhara. It took us 2 hours to ride the 80km that separated us from the city. As I write this post, Nick and Kevin are still stuck in Bukhara waiting for parts. At least it’s Bukhara.
While the others chose their hotels, I went straight to the Madina & Ilyos guesthouse and this is where the next installment of this amazing story will find me.
PS: Did I say river? The desert is on a high plain and from the road we could see a fertile valley below and a beautiful river snaking through it. I wonder why they couldn’t build the road there. I think it’s because it’s in another country but I’m not quite sure right now. Check the Desert Rider picture, you can catch a glimpse of the river in it.
PPS: As I write this post, there is already 2 other accounts of this epic day riding in the desert. Nick from Idiots Abroad and Neil have already told this story here and here.
Nasreddin Hodja’s first marriage was an arranged marriage, and in keeping with the custom of the time, he did not see his unveiled bride until the wedding ceremony. Unfortunately, she did not have an attractive face.
The next day when the bride was making preparations to go to market, she asked her husband, as was the custom, « Shall I wear my burqa? I do not wish to show my face to anyone against your wishes. »
Nasreddin answered, « Wear your burqa or leave it at home. It is all the same to me to whom you show your face in public. All I ask is that you keep your face covered when you are at home with me. »
Hodja Nasreddin Afandi is the beloved character of many stories and witty jokes around the Middle East and Turkey and even in Western China. Uzbeks believe he lived in Bukhara, a beautiful city along the silk road where wonderful people who tell his stories live.
3 hours the Russian border took me. My two passports make a lot of things easier but they also make some other things take more time. Usually it’s not a problem. At the Georgian border I explained that I had two of them, one Argentine and one French and that the blue one didn’t need a visa for Russia. I wasn’t even asked to show it. But the Russian border is special, everyone needs a visa. Except the ones who don’t but no one knows exactly who those people are and by the way, where is your Georgian stamp? I have none, I have just parachuted into your border crossing, you ape! No, really, I never understood why border officials care so much about the other country’s decision to stamp you or not. That part actually went smoothly once they called up the guy who knows.
Come the bike declaration part. See, this is Russia, we speak Russian and all our forms are only in Russian, mind you it is a beautiful language so why should we stain our forms with ugly little gibberish in English? There was this (sort of) nice guy in a military uniform who could parrot some English to help foreigners fill the form. The only problems is that he had stubby fingers and every time he pointed at a yes/no question, I got the wrong answer and he would scrap my form and yell « Answer my question » (can you guess what his job would have been were he in the KGB?). I filled it 5 times until I got it right and then had to make a duplicate. He did say sorry when he was making a golf ball with my 4th form and made a face as if to say « it needs to be flawless, sorry ». I managed to hide from him the small mistake I had made on the duplicate and was off to the counter were the lady fill the computer version of the form and stamps the paper version without even looking at it. The truckers were a happy bunch and one of them was trying to sort us out in Russian while allocated order numbers to us in Turkish. I was lucky, he gave me the only number I actually know in Turkish: beş (5).
Once I had crossed the border the landscape started changing fast, from mountains to plains and very soon I was in Vladikavkaz where it took me some time to find a hotel. Didn’t feel like camping in a militarized area :S.
The next day I set off on my way to Astrakhan where my new tyres would be waiting for me while trying to avoid riding into Chechnya so instead of going East, I had to go West through Pyatigorsk. It was around Pyatigorsk that it became completely flat and a vicious crosswind started blowing. I stopped for the night in Budyonnovsk, feeling it had been enough for the day with the wind and the many hours I had been riding.
The next day I left from Buddyonnovsk at my usual « early » hour, 11AM and took the road that Google Maps had suggested as the shortest one to Astrakhan while asking the locals for confirmation. At some point, Google’s road made a sharp right and so did I, into a dirt road. No problems, I kept asking locals for confirmation and it seemed to be the right road and besides, it was a good dirt road, I could almost ride it at 100kph. Until it wasn’t. Potholes, deep ruts and sandy patches started to appear but it wasn’t so bad. At a small bridge (over a dry stream?), I noticed the landscape was becoming more and more bleak and I started thinking I was riding into a desert. I stopped by a Lada whose occupants were waiting for the engine to cool and chatted with the guys in it. One of them was from Astrakhan and they confirmed that it was the right road and that it would become a lot better in 30km, that there was an oasis and a shop and that the road became tarmac. So I rode on but after what seemed like an eternity of sand, I decided to turn back.
While turning back I realized there was a bit of a harder trail and decided to go on but when it became pure sand again, I just had to turn back. I didn’t have actually, but I did. That was a road mistake, there will be others but this was the first big one. It cost me two days and big dent in my pride. When I finally turned back, I dropped the bike. Twice. In the desert that means that you have just « lost » four liters of your water reserve because, I tell you, you are going to sweat them. That said, the rest of the ride out to the little bridge was alright and I didn’t drop the bike again. At the little bridge I ran into the guys in the Lada who couldn’t understand that I was turning back without getting to the beautiful tarmac road or the oasis. I said I was too tired and didn’t care. Later on the road a couple on a Mitsubishi almost insulted me because I was turning back but I repeated that I was too tired and would like to ride on asphalt. They couldn’t understand and so I continued all the way to the tarmac and tried to reach Elista, the road Neil had taken the day before. Everyone was saying that I should go back to Budyonnovsk to get to that road but at a gas station they told me that there was another way and that they would show me, through Arzgir, and we set off. It turned out that the guy guiding me had something else in mind, another road. A dirt road! He was really nice and really wanted to show me the shortest road and so left me on another dirt track and told me to ride by the canal until I saw a farm (I understood silo) and then ask but the tarmac would be really close.
Whilst on the way there, I hit a pothole so hard that my top case flew off the bike. I went back to pick it up and realized why it had flown off, it weighed like 20 kilos. Not only that but the attachments were all broken and I couldn’t put it back in place so I tied it to the bike the best I could and went on my way. The farm was there, the asphalt road was there… but it was barred. There was a farm and I asked the people about and they confirmed that I couldn’t ride it.
After some hesitation (including going back 1km to try to take the other road), I asked them if I could rest there, camp somewhere and sleep. Luckily they said yes and they showed me a room at the back of their house with a mattress and a quilt. They also gave me melon, watermelon and tomato. Yummy! Later, they shared dinner with me and we talked what we could about my trip and their lives. They were a Muslim family from Daguestan who had moved to this farm by a dam 12 years ago. Dinner was pasta with fresh tomato sauce and more watermelon, melon and tomato. While we were finishing dinner they sent me to bed on account of how tired I looked. I didn’t have such a great night because it was very hot but I won’t complain. The next day I woke up with the sun and rode off very early after having some breakfast. Coffee and melon that Ruslan, one of the kids had shared with me.
I doubt they will ever read this but thanks Maria and husband, Ruslan, Jamal and Aya, you were great!
After 20 or so km I finally arrived to the tarmac road, police check on the way by a guy wearing khakis, a knife and a police t-shirt. My road just changed from dirt to tarmac in the middle of (almost) nowhere. From there it was a breeze, albeit a very long one, to get to Astrakhan. I got there around 2 or 3pm and I was just about to relax in my hotel room when I discovered that I should to the tyre change that day or I would have to stay 2 nights in Astrakhan. On the bike again to the bike shop where they were very nice and changed my tyres but took like 3 hours to do it, especially since they were missing the tool to remove my front wheel (and me too btw).
Finally, around 7 or 8 I was free and went to look for some dinner. Two very special days that had left me with very mixed feelings about Russia had just ended happily.
Doesn’t really have to stay in Georgia. So much so that I am writing this from my hotel bed in Astrakhan. These last few days I’ve been really very tired, exhausted even to write anything. Sometimes I even start downloading the pictures or videos to the computer and fall asleep while it happens. I’ve been tired because of the long rides and the bad roads but my Russian adventures are something I’ll tell later, maybe from Kazakhstan. I just want to put into pixels and truetype fonts things that happened in Georgia because I had such a good time there and I don’t want to forget. There won’t be a lot of details, I hope you understand. So here it is, in no particular order.
At the border, I met Neil. As I was getting ready to leave Hopa, I saw a biker zoom past on the main road. White helmet is the only thing I saw. As I arrived to Sarp (the border), I made a point of pulling up right next to the other bike. The other Yamaha Ténéré. Wait, what? Yes, same bike, this has to be Neil. We chatted a bit, had a caffeine soda in a red can and we were off to Batumi. The border was a breeze and buying insurance too. Because none was sold.
I had planned to go to Svaneti but decided against it while I was on the road. There will be other beautiful mountains on the road and right now I feel like going straight to Tbilisi, I thought. There was other beautiful mountains in Kazbegi but little did I know of the Chinese crisis that was brewing (more to come later, not now). On the road I met this other biker on a 650GS. Victor is a Spanish soldier and he’s been to Afghanistan. He had problems with his bike, presumably a Friday afternoon bike at the BMW factory, so I offered to escort him to Tbilisi just in case his bike would die on the way. It did, 300m away from our hostel. The next day he decided to turn back Europe-side to get it repaired under warranty. Too bad, he was planning to go to Azerbaijan, he even had the visa. He was also very generous with me and when he heard I had no mosquito net, he gave me his. That’s going to be useful sooner or later!
On my way to the homestay after Batumi, I left the main road to take a trail because a sign indicated a historical site, a fortress. Tired of the trail I wanted to stop and pulled the brake at the wrong spot, lost my footing and the bike fell. After struggling to lift it for 3 or 5 minutes, the guy at whose doorstep I had dropped the bike took his car to travel the 20 meters that separated him from the gate, helped me lift the bike, gave me cold water and then invited me to come into the house to have lunch. Wait, what? Yes, as soon as he got in, his wife started putting dishes in front of me: ham, salad, mashed potatoes, watermelon, hachapuri and other Georgian specialties I couldn’t recognize (lubia?). When I had finished eating, he took the car and showed me around the sites of the village: an old Ottoman bridge, a fortress and then went off to get some mineral water from a source nearby and sent me on my way to Khulo.
Georgians wave at you when you pass by and if you stop they want to know where you’ve come from. Probably invite you home and give you lunch too.
Kazbegi is a beautiful place
At the hostel in Tbilisi I met more cyclists (2 Finnish women). I’m very fond of cyclists. They remind me of my cycling trips. These two ladies where going to cycle around Georgia and then back to Finland. One of them suffered coeliac disease and had the guys at the hostel write her a sign in Russian and Georgian saying « I’m highly allergic to all wheat and flour products ». I hope she’s alright, with all the bread Georgians eat she could have a difficult time. There was also Andres, Polish guy working at the hostel. Spoke flawless English, no Polish accent whatsoever and gave me good tips about Russian roads and the border. And Eriko, the Japanese girl who used to work at the hostel, who had travelled through Iran on her own and found Georgian hospitality almost rude compared to Iranian hospitality and who now wants to move somewhere else, possibly Ukraine to improve her (non-existent) Russian. Is everything connected in this part of the world or is it me?
While randomly strolling around old Tbilisi I ran into Russian Nina and Swiss Matthieu whom I had met at the Eiffel Tower Hostel 2 days before and spent the rest of the afternoon with them on their free guided tour of the old city. Nice.
All these and many other things happened in Georgia but now I have to go to sleep. Tomorrow, the road to Kazakhstan awaits and she is a hard mistress, the road.
And Georgia is just such a place for travelers that at some corner on a bad road leading to Goderdzi pass where I spent the night (homestay, Gela, Anastasiya and Maxim, remember?) I saw a bike, an Aprilia parked and 4 people and 2 kids around it. You can’t ride an Aprilia 6-up, or any other bike fwiw, unless you are in Vietnam of course. I hadn’t seen it before stopping but there was also a 4WD with a Lithuanian plate on the other side of the road. It turned out that the bike had intercepted the car because the 2 riders were Danish Erik and Lithuanian Marija who just wanted to talk to the Lithuanian drivers, Janka and Dovydas who are going to Bangkok by car and crossing China in August with a different, better tour company than ours. They were all very nice and we had a short chat and exchanged email addresses before getting on the road again. The kids were just Georgian kids interested in the strange meeting.