People oftern ask me which way I came and when I tell the full story, they ask why I couldn’t ride through China the second time. To explain that, I usually have to go back to the first ride through China. I have told this story countless times and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no good way of telling it. This is more or less how I remember it happening.
In this post, I won’t tell about the great roadside food we had in Xinjiang, I won’t tell about the amazing Jiaohe ruins we visited, I won’t tell about the beauties we missed because of the dust storm that enveloped us for three days, I won’t tell about the motocross race departure we watched where the pilots wanted pictures with us, I won’t tell about our guide Benny making us take boring highways and not letting us camp. No, those stories I may tell later or I may even leave their fate to oral tradition. I won’t tell all those stories now because there’s another story I need to tell. Because I let someone ruin my Chinese riding experience. Doubly so. Yes, I am talking about you Robin L. I don’t hold a grudge against you, I’ve learnt from the experience and hopefully I won’t let it happen to me again (not holding a grudge doesn’t mean I don’t blame you for what happened later). I learned I have to screen more thoroughly the people I travel with, I learned to distrust overly enthusiast people, I learned to not feel responsible for other people’s stupidity.
Some people go to China as they go to their city’s Chinatown, feeling that they can impose their rules on the behemoth that is the Chinese bureaucracy and that they can go against the more than 5000 years of uninterrupted unique cultural evolution that China has on its back. So, aside from the great memories I’ll keep of us drinking from the beer penguins in the night market or eating freshly made noodles by the roadside, or the sad ones like Lyn having to abandon us halfway to go back to Australia to take care of her dying father, my most patent memory from China is from this dude wandering off with his wife on a road that we had been told not to take, camping out instead of coming to town, and, the crown jewel of his shameful ignorance and closed-mindedness, insulting our guide and calling him a f*cking liar and a d*ckhead in front of the whole group thus causing him to lose face in front of us and with it the last trace of sympathy he could have had for this group of foreigners. That happened in Turpan, on the 6th or 7th day of our Chinese voyage together. It wasn’t the first incident and it wasn’t the last. Well done, now the guy that has to write a report on us that will probably influence the approval of our second crossing of China is mad at “us”.
With this incident in mind, on our last day, in the quaint little town of Qinghe (or Qinggil), the one thing we hadn’t dared to put into our Big Brother analogy back when we were about to enter China happened: we held a Tribal Council, Survivor-style. During that meeting, Richard stated that he wouldn’t be joining the second part of the trip if the rogue couple (him and wife) was joining, I stated that I needed them to be there in order to reduce the cost of the trip but wouldn’t be enjoying their company, I was also accused of being a mellow person while all the British bunch mellowly told him that he could maybe think about possibly reviewing his attitude before the second part of the trip, if he pleased to join us again. Sorry guys if you don’t remember it this way, I do and this blog’s written from MY memory. There were some more insults from the accused (or is it accursed) and they finally told us that they wouldn’t be joining the second part. Pity, it could have been fun to see him go to prison for whatever other outrage he might still have had in stock for the second part.
Some of you may be thinking that it’s sad that this is my strongest memory from this part of trip. It is. I needed to tell this story because it’s also part of the experience. I felt betrayed in my confidence because when you enter China as a self-driving group, you are bound by the same destiny and you implicitly trust your travel companions to be as respectful, obedient and open-minded as yourself. They weren’t and we all paid the price.
On a happier note, here’s a little video of the noodles we had just before crossing the border at Takeshikenzhen and a photo of some bum we ran into at the border.
Today is a sad day. Today, on my way from El Calafate to the Chilean border, I ran over a sheep. Today I want to tell the story of Miorița. I didn’t kill the sheep, but I must have hurt it pretty badly because it was shaking and tried frantically to limp away from me when I approached her on foot.
The tale of Miorița was related to me in Samarqand, Uzbekistan by a group of shady-looking Romanians who were running the Mongol Rally, their team was called Free Miorița. The views about Romania in this article reflect what they tried to convey with this tale. As far as I remember anyway.
Miorița was a sheep. She was very fond of her shepherd and when she heard that two other shepherds, envious, were plotting to kill him in order to steal his herd, she went straight to him and told him about the danger to his life. Despaired, the shepherd asked Miorița that, should the worst befall him, she should make sure that he gets proper burial and never tell that he was murdered.
The actual poem is much longer and has other nuances but the point is that this tale symbolises the conformism and tragic mood of the Romanian people. Their aim as a team, and in their lives was to fight against this and debunk the myth of Miorița as a foundational story for the Romanians. I wish them good luck.
On my bike I have two stickers that they gave me and the other day I was about to cover one with another sticker. Maybe now I won’t. I have been meaning to write about this story for a very long time but somehow I couldn’t fit it anywhere. Now seems to be as good a moment as any.
Of course the sheep I ran over has nothing to do with Miorița but I felt sorry for it as I felt sorry for the shepherd when I heard the tale for the first time.
The bike didn’t suffer any damage as far as I can tell but I did get a hell of a scare. After hitting it, I lost control of the bike for about 20 meters. I didn’t think at any moment that I would come off, though.
By the way, sheep are not usually that stupid. Most sheep run away from the road when they see you coming. This particular flock was having a cow day and decided to cross the road when they saw me coming at 100kph.
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. 😀
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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)…
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.
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.
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
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:
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 😉
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.