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)…

Into Asia

I heard the muezzin’s call and I knew I was somewhere else. The muezzin was calling for the Maghrib prayer just when I was arriving to María José and Gabriel’s apartment. It was a good sign, I like cities with muezzin calls.

There’s is so much to say about Istanbul and so little words, maybe the stupendous welcome from Gabriel and María José helped me perceive this city as I did (Thank you María José and Gabriel!!!). Maybe the city is just magnificent on its own. For a fan of maps, a city that spans over two continents is already something worthy of attention. You arrive on one side, let’s say Europe and you can leave from the other side into Asia.

The bridge to the other side
Bridge to Asia

The first day I stayed on the European side. No particular reason other than that the most well-known attractions are on that side, in that part of the city that is Istanbul proper. I visited, among other attractions, the blue mosque and Ayasofya. Amazing! In the evening we went to a local restaurant to taste the local specialties and it was very good but the shock was yet to come: we went for a walk after dinner into the crowded Istikal street. On a Thursday! It wasn’t even Friday. On the next day I went on my own only to be confronted with hordes of people walking on the same street. This city has such a vibe, there is parties everywhere, bars everywhere, restaurants, it’s just amazing.

The next day I decided to take the bike because I wanted to buy some Scottoiler oil. After the failure to do so in Bulgaria, I was hoping I had better luck in Istanbul. I did, in a way. The city’s road network is huge and there are urban highways connecting the neighborhoods all around and if you don’t know which to take or where to get out, you can ride for a long time and end up very far from where you intended to be. That’s exactly what happened and it took me at least 45 minutes to do what google says should take 14 minutes at most. I didn’t record it so you won’t see how I got lost and lost and lost all over again. There was also the traffic, manic as Neil accurately describes it on his blog. In the end I found the shop, got the oil, talked to the shop guys about bikes and travel and they sold me one more useful piece of kit. I was sort of looking for a new jacket because the one I have is too hot for this weather and they wanted to show me the cheapest one the had but they also showed me this, an air mattress for the bike seat. For having been already almost three weeks on the bike, I know it’s a much more important piece of kit than a summer jacket.

The third day I went on my own with the bike to the Grand Bazaar and managed to not get lost while getting there and to do get lost after 2 minutes inside. It’s almost a miracle I managed to exit through the same entrance and find the place where I had left the bike. That place is a maze! Whatever landmark you try to remember, you will find it somewhere else and realize it was a useless landmark. On the other hand, the secret to not getting lost while getting there is simple: I didn’t aim for the Grand Bazaar, I aimed for the Grand Bazaar OR Hagia Sophia. That way, when I got to one of them, I could say I didn’t get lost and got to my original destination. One of them at least.

Me and some flags
Me and some flags

This third day was also the extra day, it was July 14th and Gabriel had invited me, as soon as I got to Istanbul to the consulate party for Bastille day and since I am a good citizen, I accepted joyfully. That and the free wine, the free dinner (including pork cold cuts) and the chance to see where my tax money goes. If you are a French taxpayer and wonder where your money goes, now I can tell you: Into big awesome parties!

But I digress, better leave you with the Turkey photo album to see what I’m talking about.

Bye bye Bulgaristan, hello Turtsiya

My day at the beach turned out to be a rainy day. And that’s an overstatement. It rained for 10 minutes, then it was covered for 1 hour, then it rained for 10 more minutes and then it was finally sunny until the end of the day. I read Kissinger’s book on China throughout the day and I’m loving it. Not much to say about a day at the beach so let’s skip to the road.

The next day, I left as shortly after breakfast as I could because I knew it was going to be a long day. And it was! The roads were beautiful mountain roads. The border crossing I had chosen was at the summit so I enjoyed the Bulgarian road to get there and the Turkish road to get into the country. Both were really beautiful, albeit the Turkish one being of much better quality. And that was where I learnt that I had entered the ‘stans much earlier than expected. It seems that in Turkish, many countries are ‘stans and that includes Bulgaria, my first ‘stan. :-D.

Another Turkish quirk is that gas stations don’t sell road maps but even without a map I took the small roads, confident that I would find my way and not counting with the hurricane level winds that slowed me down to 80kph and with my first real rain on the road that slowed me down to 50kph. It doesn’t matter, when you plan 1 full year of travel, you expect rain. It was refreshing but as soon as it stopped I started cooking again.

It was as uneventful as roads can be aside from an interesting form of road toll I experienced when I took the highway for the last bit into Istanbul. It looks like a toll, everybody behaves as if it is a toll but there’s no barrier and the booths don’t even cover the whole width of the road. Also, there are no humans to interact with and no credit card slots, only prepaid Turkish road toll card slots. What to do? Did I mention there was no barrier? And I skipped while hoping this was the usual way for foreigners to treat a road toll in Turkey.

It wasn’t. The next toll was the city entrance one and this one had real barriers and occupied the whole width of the road. Still no humans though. Well, no official humans anyway. Enter the guy selling “used” cards. He wanted to charge me 100TL (50 euro) for a card. In the end he ripped me off only 50TL for a card that had enough charge for a total of 3 road tolls. Not so bad since that is exactly how many times I plan to pay tolls while in Turkey. Let’s see how that works out.

I arrived in Istanbul right on time to the address I was given. I’m staying at a friend of my father’s house and they have welcomed me in their home with open arms. The days in Istanbul are supposed to be  my rest days, I’ll tell more of my great stay in this amazing city in a future post.

No pictures this time, I need to go to sleep. I made a couple of videos of the road though, they will be available when they are available.At the time of posting, one of the is being uploaded to Youtube and will be available here (cut the sound if you don’t care for listening to the wind):

Warnings

I’ve been warned. Don’t sleep there said the hostel lady in Cluj-Napoca when I told her that I planned to go to Sofia by the shortest road and spend the night in Craiova. What about Caracal? No. Slatina? Maybe, why don’t you spend the night in Pitesti? Pitesti is only 140km away from Brasov, that would take me nowhere.

White Church
Cluj-Napoca’s white church behind the abundant aerial cabling

When I got to Brasov I asked a similar question to the hostel guy and he said about the same or worse, it was more like: no, don’t stay in Slatina either, that is the most dangerous part of Romania. If I were you, I would speed through it and get to Sofia, there’s no telling how the adjacent Bulgarian side would be.

Some biker
Strange biker in Cluj

Both times the reason was the same: that’s Rom region. Rom, gipsy, tsingari, egyptians. Who are they and why are they feared that much? I guess I will not find out by going into their region of the country. I have rearranged my route, heading another piece of Romanian advice: “don’t go to the beach in Romania, go in Bulgaria”. Really, what is it with Romanian beaches? I guess I won’t find out this time either. This morning I’ll head to Bucarest and then to Sofia from there. Pity to take such a detour but it will give me the chance to spend the night in Bucarest.

Today was a sort of short riding day but the day before was long. I’m starting to feel the road on my bones and muscles and I will welcome the shorter riding tomorrow and the rest days in Bulgaria and Istanbul. The road was even nicer than the previous days with trees on the side providing some shade but there was a lot of road work that slowed the traffic a lot. The fact that it’s a twisting single-lane road with lots of trucks that you can’t overtake without putting someone’s life in danger (the motorcyclist’s usually) doesn’t make it any faster but I’ve found a solution for taking pictures on the way. Actually, the camera was inside 2 layers of bags up to now and taking it out for picture taking was a drag. Now it’s just in my tank bag without any particular other bag and taking pictures is as easy as stopping by the side of the road, opening the helmet, opening the bag and pushing the shutter button. I don’t even need to open the helmet if I don’t care what’s in the picture and what isn’t :P. Or I could use LiveView. Hum, there’s an idea!

Somewhere along the road to Brasov I saw a sign indicating a fortified evangelical church and I followed the 6km dirt track leading to a small village (Valchid was the name), which must have been enjoying a collective nap to get them through the scorching heat of midday (Seriously, who rides in this heat? Me) because I couldn’t see anyone and of course the fortification was closed, that’s what fortifications are for. Out of the blue came a car with a Netherlands plate and the driver asked me if I was up to what I was up to and said he would ask the keykeeper to come open the church. Not even a minute later I was entering the fortification and the church. That was some sight! The church was not particularly beautiful or anything. It’s just that there was the walls and the church, very close to each other. Inside the fort, there was only the church, nothing else. Strange thing to build, I must remember to read why they did that. I tried to ask in what passes for Romanian in my head (it’s most certainly not Romanian) when was the church built. I didn’t understand the answer. Once at the hostel, I tried numbers in Google Translate and now I think he said XVI or XVII century.

Fortified church
The church’s outside shell

Today, I also chose the roads that were marked “of scenic interest” on the map. The map conveniently omits to say that they are not of asphalt interest, especially the road from Iernut to Medias but it’s alright. At some point the quality of the roads is going to start to fall, it might as well be now :|.

Bike in town
Some biker came to wake the town up