The rest of Uzbekistan

I am running a bit late, the blog is 2 countries behind me so I will try to summarize Uzbekistan in this post. Pictures will come later. Tomorrow is another long riding day but there will be shorter days later in China.

August 9th, 2012 – Bukhara-Nurata-Samarkand
Leaving
Cedric left the same day I did

I tried to leave Bukhara the next day as planned and after turning around for a long time, I did. I had planned to go to Aidar Kul and camp for a night there so I needed a big 5L bottle of water, then I turned some more looking for the road to Navoiy, my first waypoint and when I finally found it, I left. And came back after 30km because I still hadn’t found decent fuel for the bike. The only gas station that had some, didn’t have electricity to run the pumps.

Around 12:30, I was finally on the road to Nurata in a strange mood. After an hour and a half I overtook an odd looking vehicle, it had “Ambulancia” written on the back and a Spanish licence plate. I honked and the driver turned on the siren. Later, while I was resting in the shade and rehydrating myself, they passed by and turned the siren on again so when I rode off and found them putting some Diesel into their engine, I pulled over and talked to them. Two Basques driving an ambulance to Mongolia, taking part of Charity Rallies, a bit like Mongol Rally but more serious (according to them anyway). They said it was lunch time and that they were going to stop and eat at the next shade they could find. I rarely have lunch when I ride but I accepted their invitation. It was a proper Spanish lunch: it took 2 hours but I enjoyed their company, I don’t have many opportunities of speaking Spanish in this trip. By the time we set off again it was 4pm and when I got to Nurata, I felt it was too late to ride to Aidar Kul so I retraced my way back to the main road and decided to go directly to Samarkand.

Ambulance going to Mongolia
Ambulancia vasca

Bad decision. The main road to Samarkand has many little towns, which makes it very unsuitable for wild camping when it becomes dark so I rode more than 1 hour in the dark to get to Samarkand. When I finally found the hostel I wanted to stay at, the entrance was full of bikes (Neil and Iain were there plus another biker on an XT660R, at first I thought it was Chris but he’d left that morning) and the hostel was full so I was sent to the annex, a bit more expensive but with wi-fi. The SPOT stopped working when I arrived to the Bahodir hostel.

August 10th, 2012 – Lazy day in Samarkand

It was a lazy day, I rested most of the day, had lunch with some Mongol Rally guys and a cyclist, Mark Wright who is going to Hong Kong on his bicycle. Before the end of the day, we did Neil’s oil change. He did most of it because I was late but I helped by producing a makeshift funnel to pour the oil into the bike and getting my hands dirty when the funnel didn’t work quite right. There’s no bike oil in Uzbekistan so we put car oil in it and scheduled my bike’s oil change for the next day at the same hour in the same place. Once finished, we had dinner with Tina (remember her from Bukhara?), the Mongol Rally guys (Andy and Toby) and Mark again. Truly, it was a very lazy day.

August 11th, 2012 – Playing tourist in Samarkand

Today, I did go out to play tourist. At Bukhara, Cédric and others that had already been to Samarkand had told me that all monuments in Samarkand had a secondary entrance where you don’t pay if you are brave enough to take it. Apparently it’s a well-known bit of tourist lore that gets passed on from tourist to tourist at guesthouses around Uzbekistan. I tried to apply it in the Registan but the secondary entrance was being watched so I just went around it, snapped a bunch of pictures and went on my way to the Bibi Khanim mosque where I did use the side entrance, totally worth it :P. After that I went on a 5km walk around a not so interesting part of town just trying to find Shah-i-zinda. It’s not that difficult, I was just lost and too stubborn to turn back. Once I got there, I was so tired that I didn’t feel like trying to find the secondary entrance so I paid my ticked and visited the famed necropolis on my own. Finally, I went back to the Bahodir B&B to do my oil change and enjoy another home made dinner with Tina, Neil and the Mongol Rally guys. Marion (from Bukhara) was there too but she didn’t have dinner with us this time.

Samarkand is very different to Bukhara and Khiva. Although the monuments are all similar: grandiose mosques and madrasas covered in blue tiles, not always respectful of the Islamic ban on imagery of live creatures; the disposition and level of restoration are quite different. In Khiva, all is concentrated in the Ichan-qala citadel, in Bukhara the monuments are a bit further apart but you can still see a sort of coherence and it’s very easy to cross into the new part of town. Finally, in Samarkand old and new mix everywhere, the sights are far apart from each other and the entrance tickets are expensive for foreigners (locals pay 10% of what we pay). I liked the three of them but Bukhara I liked most.

August 12th, 2012 – To Tashkent

On the 12th we (Neil and I) set off not so early on our way to Tashkent. I hadn’t planned to visit Tashkent, the long road to Kyrgyzstan had started and that’s what I did. On the way to Tashkent a couple of unusual things happened. We were overtaken at the speed of light by an Uzbek biker. Yes, a local biker, member of the illustrious Tashkent Steel Scorpions. Two minutes later he was on the side of the road, he had run out of fuel. I pulled over and siphoned 3 liters from my tank (I’m becoming quite good at this) to give him and he gave me some money in exchange. I was going to give them for free but he insisted. Then he started gesticulating about not being able to start his bike so we pushed him around a bit. After a while I got tired of sweating behind a bike that wouldn’t start and grabbed my hammock’s rope from my top case, tied it to the back of my bike, looped the other end around the center of his steering and gave him the loose end to hold against his left grip. I towed him for 30 or 40 meters and his bike started but he didn’t understand that he had to release the rope once it started working so I had to stop. With his bike running, he left at the speed of light again only to turn around 1km down the road into a gas station. Later on the road we saw 2 Italian GSs with their panniers in a sorry shape and the riders nowhere to be seen, police all around and a couple of locals filling declarations. Apparently one of the Italian guys had broken his leg. Poor guy, such a bad ending for his trip.

Nurata fortress
Alexandrian fortress in Nurata

When I got to Tashkent, I took the last bed at the Gulnara guesthouse and discovered that Tarik and Ryo were here too (I had met Ryo in Bukhara and again in Samarkand). While I was lazing at one of the tea beds and eating the last of the pistachios Tzveti had given me when I left Metz, I heard someone ask someone else if he was Nacho. It was Chris talking to a random bearded guy at the guesthouse. I quickly made my presence known and we chatted about the plans for the coming days and his trip so far.

After a Russian cheeseburger dinner I went to bed early, we were riding to Fergana the next day, making our way to Kyrgyzstan via Osh.

August 13th, 2012 – Leaving Uzbekistan

So at 10:30 we met Neil at his hotel and started towards Fergana. Not without first topping up with 80 octane fuel for the first time. The road went on uneventfully except for Chris’ frequent stops to top up his radiator with water (his water pump was leaking) until we reached a mountain section that is very close to the Tajik border. As usual with this kind of places in the region, there was a police checkpoint and all the foreigners had to be registered. But we were not the only foreigners arriving there at the same time, a huge group of Italian bikers (11 bikes?) was there too and we chatted a bit with them while we waited to get registered. The two bikes that we had seen the day before belonged to this group. It has been more than one month since I arrived to Istanbul and it was time the bike got washed so we were splashed by some rain while crossing the valley. One month, two rains, quite a score.

U-lock
Finally ditched my U-lock

At the other end of the checkpoint, I finally ditched my U-lock, it was too heavy and I hadn’t used it since Romania. Just in case I ever come back to this valley, I attached it to a fence and kept the key (quite a silly thing to do but I’m sentimental that way). Also, at some random spot where we had stopped to top up Chris’ radiator, a bottle of water was thrown at my ankle by a passing truck. There was two Uzbeks with a broken down car there and they had been signaling truckers for water, it seems to be a common thing for truckers to throw water at people in need, very nice of them.

Quite late, almost at sunset, we arrived to Fergana and started looking for the guesthouses described in Lonely Planet with little luck, none were there to be found except the last one we tried, Valentina guesthouse, actually an apartment for rent for the night. Not too cheap, not too expensive, not too clean, not too dirty but quite big and comfortable.

My stay in Uzbekistan was coming to an end. I had a great time, met awesome people and rode some tough roads. A new country was ahead of me and I knew very little about it. I had a map though, thanks to a map exchange I had done with Cédric before leaving Bukhara, and some dirt tracks were marked on it as interesting (interesting to Cédric anyway)…

China and Mongolia

I interrupt the continuity of this tale to do a little update on the China situation and the changes on my plan.

It seems that the Chinese government has decided to promote overland tourism in Mongolia. In a convoluted way, as usual with them bureaucrats. The Chinese government has decided that whoever enters China on his own vehicle via Xinjiang cannot transit into the rest of China and has to exit Xinjiang into one of the neighboring countries, that is: Mongolia, Kazakhstan (visa expired), Tajikistan (closed to tourists for now) or Pakistan (I don’t have the right carnet for the bike).

That leaves only Mongolia and that’s what we have decided to do. Enter Xingjiang, exit into Mongolia, ride Mongolia (I’m a bit nervous about this but we are a group and have a support car), try to get a new Chinese visa in Ulan-Bataar and then enter China again via Erenhot into Inner Mongolia. It’s going to cost us a lot more money and time but hopefully we will be in Laos by mid-October.

Now, I am in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan and hopefully will enter China tomorrow. I have just come back to civilization from the most trying days of this trip so far: the worst mountain road I have ever ridden, including many river crossings and camping at 2761m altitude with my summer sleeping bag and my tent being wet from the storm the previous day. I am back safe now and looking back it was a lot of fun. I will tell the full story and post pictures later. Now, I have to go and get ready to ride to China. I hope there is heated rooms near the border because I don’t want to camp at 3500m. See you on the other side of the looking glass… if I have access to the blog of course!

Tyres, truckers and rivers in the desert

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.

Desert rider
Can you see the river at the back?

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.

Sunrise at our camp
Desert sunrise over our camp

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).

Camp sunrise
Wake up, campers, the sun is out!

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.

Desert rides

We got up early to start the desert ride while the weather was still bearable. Fail. At 9am it’s already 30 degrees. And we were off. Bye bye Beyneu, hello desert!

From Beyneu, the last proper town before the Uzbek border there is a 90km stretch of very bad road. Not the worst I would see on this trip but

Peace
Peace camel

pretty bad. Dirt, corrugations, camels, sand patches, all the guest stars were there. And there I was gliding over the sand at 70kph, desperate to regain control of my trajectory and to stay vertical. I am not of the kind that rides the sand fast, I prefer the other riding technique: slow and both feet down, I know it’s not the best but I feel safer. But this particular sand patch, I didn’t see it coming and had to cope with it the best I could. I did quite well actually, I didn’t come off and that’s the most important. Now I would be more on the lookout for sandy patches.

The road was so bad that it took us 3 hours to get to the border. Around the second hour we saw a lone cyclist and stopped for a chat and to check if he needed anything. Leo, English. Here’s a what a cyclist looks like:

An English cyclist
Leo, the English cyclist

He had camped near a small hamlet by the side of the road and was on this way to the border too. With all the time the border took us, we thought we would see him again there but that was the only time we ran into him so far.

We spent two hours at the border and were finally admitted into Uzbekistan where the road turned “better”: instead of being good dirt, it was bad tarmac. A big change and we could ride much faster. It’s such a featureless road that there’s not much to say about it.

We did meet people on the road, other travellers like Jyri, Artur (Finns) and Christian (French). Christian was riding with another French guy, both on Africa Twins but they had split and he was now riding through the desert with the Finns for security. Days later I met his road companion in Bukhara but that’s a story I’ll tell later. We were riding this lone road and after 257km since the last fuel top up, I was starting to wonder if we would find a gas station on the way or just run out of fuel in the middle of the desert when I spotted what looked like one on the left side of the road. I pulled over and when I was getting closer I saw 3 bikes parked a bit further. Not only there was a gas station but also a little shop selling sodas and cold fizzy water. If felt like finding water in the desert. Wait, that’s exactly what it was 😉

KTMs and oasis
Getting ready to leave

We rested, we exchanged tips about the road and the fuel availability each way, we also exchanged some money, mostly to help Christian get rid of all his Uzbek money, we had our drinks. I tried to use the filthy toilet that probably hadn’t been cleaned once since the last century and decided against it. After a while we wished each other good roads and went on our opposite ways.

Africa Twin
Christian leaving on his Africa Twin

The road went on straight, featureless and potholed but the landscape was not completely devoid of a certain beauty. On our way to the end of the day we met some more English cyclists and after some fast riding, I had to convince Neil that we wouldn’t get to civilization that day and that we had to start looking for a camping spot. It wasn’t very hard, he was tired too and the sun was setting, soon it would be dark so we set up camp some 50m away from the road behind a little dune. That night I used my stove for the first time to cook rice with a beef sausage I had been carrying since Sinop in Turkey. The best meal on the menu that evening. The other dishes were stuff only Bear Grylls would eat like sand and insects.

The silence of the desert at night is, quite appropriately, very hard to describe in words. It is just beautiful. And peaceful.

Desert camp
A beautiful sunset on our camp in the desert

You may notice the tent doesn’t have the rain cover, you may also realize there’s no use in explaining why it doesn’t. Plus, that way you can enjoy the beautiful night, take advantage of any wind that could refresh you and wake up at dawn to ride again.

After an instant noodles breakfast (I think I had bought them in Kazakhstan by chance), we set off on our way to civilization.

Bike, stove, tent, breakfast
Noodles and coffee, the breakfast of champions

As the bad tarmac turned into an excellent road as I have never seen on this trip, the desert also turned to green and we had a second breakfast at a trucker’s stop. Soup, bread and tea, the taste of civilization.

Desert turns to green
The desert just ended abruptly
Me and Z
The end of that desert

We were in Kungrad and would soon arrive to Khiva where we expected to spend a couple of days visiting the ancient city of Ichan-qala.

 

 

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!

Camels on the road
Two humps means camel

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.

Atyrau Beach
They brought the sand from the desert to make a beach on the river

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).

Russian plains

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.

Russian road in the plain
The trees didn’t really stop the vicious sidewind

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.

Russian dirt road
The road while it was still good

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.

Sunset at the dam
The sunset view from the farm was amazing

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.

Ruslan with the bike
In the morning, I left very early

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.

Dirt to tarmac
The dirt is behind me, but not forever

Meanings

Some things lose their meaning as you travel East, other radically change their meaning. Take this roadsign for example:

In Western Europe it usually means that there is some kind of roadworks ahead, probably taking one lane of the road you are riding. From Romania tu Turkey it means that you are in for some traffic jam and alternate circulation for probably a hundred km. I don’t really know what it could mean in Georgia because I have never seen it. Up to now, the meaning is about the same but when you get to Russia, it starts getting more difficult to decode. So far, I think it means “some time ago, this road has been worked on and there may be a better bit ahead” whereas in Kazakhstan it gets more philosophical. In Kazakhstan, the presence of this sign just means that there is a red triangular sign with a black worker holding a black shovel drawn on it by the side of the road. It gives absolutely no indication about the future characteristics of the road.

Another sign that completely lost its meaning after the Russian border is this one:

Even when it is accompanied by a “15 km” panel.

Other signs that are usually useless in Western Europe should actually be put at the entrance of the country together with the ones announcing the local top speeds. I’m talking about this one:

It starts in Romania but then in Georgia, they’ve just given up using it.

Cows on the road
Sharing the road in Georgia

By the time you get to Kazakhstan, it’s a whole different thing…

Camels on the road
Kazakh road users

 

What happens in Georgia

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.
Two Teneres
Neil wearing his spare helmet
  • 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!
With Victor
Glad to see I’m not the only one wearing black pants around the Caucasus
  • 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
Kazbegi
Beautiful road in Kazbegi
  • 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.
Oldest church in Tbilisi
Oldest church in Tbilisi

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.

UPDATE:

  • 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.
Road meetings
Met nice people at a random curve on a bad road in Georgia

Staring at the language barrier in the face

Let’s have tea at the gas station.

Tea is big in Turkey. We’ve all heard about Turkish coffee but let me tell you, the real deal here is tea. It is everywhere. The first days it was a bit strange. I stopped close to a gas station to buy a salad to eat with my Bulgarian ham and some guy sitting at a table uttered in my direction: “Chai?”. I didn’t get it and said no. The following time it was easier. I stopped at a gas station, bought my usual Coke shaped caffeine dose and when I was leaving the cashier said “Chai!” and pointed with an open hand at the sort of tea dispenser you see at conferences and hotel breakfasts, a big metal cylinder with two taps at the bottom. One pours water, the other one tea. And it’s not mint tea like the Arabs, it’s plain black tea. So I poured myself some tea and wondered what the other tap was for. Yay! Double dose of caffeine!

Needless to say, I’m not the only tea drinker. Everywhere you look there’s people drinking tea, they have roadside stall serving tea and some bars advertise their tea price to attract customers (it’s usually 1 lira). But the day before yesterday it went a bit further. I had stopped for some gas and a rest at a one of the big brand gas stations here. Rest routine is always similar: get a cola drink (sometimes it’s Pepsi), ask for the wifi password if available and just sit there sipping the drink. Everyone leaves me alone if I’m looking at the phone, everyone tries to talk to me if I’m not. Either way it works for me. This time, there was wifi so I was left alone. Until I stopped looking at the phone and stood up. The eldest of the pump guys came to me and said… He said what? Yes! “Chai?”. I couldn’t say no. It was a special moment, the guy who pumped my fuel was now pouring me tea from the employee office. We couldn’t talk much, some other guy came and I heard them exchange the usual Q&A that is usually addressed to me: “Almanya?”, “Fransa”. I waited for him to finish his tea and left. By now, I was getting used to their tea and starting to like it.

In the evening, after checkin myself in at a hotel in Persembe, I decided to go for dinner. I must be missing something because when I go out for dinner everything is closed and no one is having dinner but I found this little place close to the hotel and Mehmet was happy to serve me some tavuk with pilau (or chicken with rice for those of you who are not as fluent in Turkish as I am).

My dinner buddies
My dinner buddies Mehmet and Ekrem

Did I say his name was Mehmet? Yes, this guy was really determined to have a conversation with me. When someone, probably his wife, mentioned the language barrier he played deaf and just kept talking to me not caring the least in the world that my Turkish vocabulary totals 20 words and most of them are food and roadsigns and that his English vocabulary comprised not more than 5 words. He grabbed my book and started to ask me about China and Henry Kissinger. Who is he? Where is he from? What did he do? Obviously this is what I think he asked me since I have no idea what he was saying but I answered anyway and the conversation was there. I explained my trip to him and called up on his friend Ekrem and soon we were having a lively chat, probably about different subjects but we didn’t care, it was fun. At some point his son came by, he spoke English and we clarified some points that weren’t quite clear on the previous conversation but he couldn’t stay so we went back to baby talk and scribbling stuff in pieces of paper to try to understand each other. They asked me many questions about myself: my age, the trip’s budget, my job, whether I was married. They advised about the beauty of the women from different countries I would find on the road. Really, it’s amazing the things you can talk about when you can’t talk.

And in the jumble of mimicking and scribbling they told me I should absolutely visit the Sümela monastery and the Uzungöl lake. The former for the history and the latter for the nature. This resulted in the most beautiful road I’ve ridden so far and the visit to a beautiful monastery perched on the side of a cliff for the first day and on stunningly beautiful lake with a little mosque on one side for this morning.

All in all, excellent advise.

Sümela Monastery
Sümela Monastery on its cliff-face

PS: There is also a video of the road. This time I have removed the nasty wind sound and replaced it with some Andean music to make it easier to the ears