Tonight, I feast on my favorite water! After spending the day under the unforgiving Cambodian sun, I found this beauty at the local mini-mart. Really, I’ve never felt myself dehydrate so fast, not even in the Uzbek deserts and I’ve been drinking a lot of soda water for lack of proper fizzy mineral water (even that abomination called Schweppes Soda water that Schweppes dare only sell in the third world). The last country on my road where there’s been proper sparkling water was Kazakhstan.
« 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.
And after a day’s rest at Bishkek’s Sakura guesthouse, where it’s cozy and warm, I was ready for the Almaty run. Now that we were going to Mongolia, we all needed visas. Neil and Chris had decided that they would try to get into Kazakhstan with their Kyrgyz visas and they left early with a shared taxi but for me it was out of the question to leave my bike behind when I could ride there and so at 8:15am, I was on the road to Almaty. There was no news from Iain or Robin and Keely so I figured they had their own plans for getting a visa.
I didn’t get lost while leaving the city this time. I had carefully studied the way out because I had no time to lose. I knew also that at some point on the way I would run into Richard, another I still hadn’t met of the China group. And I did.
The road was long and mostly straight, which that particular day was a good thing because I could ride fast but I did spend around 20 minutes talking to Richard, changing my Som for his Tenge and accepting the Kazakh SIM card he kindly gave me. It was very nice but it proved to be fatal to my tight schedule.
When I arrived to Almaty the traffic was, of course, hectic. How could I forget to account for that? Well, my Parisian training always proves useful in these situations and I managed to skip most of it despite the big panniers on the back of my bike. Soon I was cruising on the high-speed lane of Sain Street towards the Mongolian consulate but alas, yet another obstacle was on my way. You see, Mongolia has almost no paved roads, it makes sense that the way to the consulate takes you off-road in the middle of the city. Wait, what? Yes, Sain street is in works right north of the street I was looking for so I had to make a big detour, get into some small neighborhood street where I wasn’t even sure which way I was supposed to go (thanks to Richard’s SIM, I had a working Google Maps) until I found it: the off-road track of course. Take it and you’ll get there! And get there I did and at the entrance I found Neil, Chris, and Iain. So much for the mystery of how he was going to get his visa. They were all waiting outside because they had been told that they could get the visa on the same day so I went to the door and begged to be received. When the guy said it was closed, I pointed to my watch and showed him that we still had more than 5 minutes to go before actual closing time and he was nice enough to let me in and apply but of course I wouldn’t get it on the same day (even when I begged). No biggie, I can come tomorrow, pick up the visa, then go to the bikers shop to try to get new riding pants and then leave to Charyn canyon without having to spend 2 nights at the awful but not quite the worst I’ve seen Djetisu hotel where they have cheap shared rooms only if you ask for « hostel ».
So in the evening I went for some Turkish kebab (it’d been a long time since Turkey and I was already missing it), had a walk through town, bought a replacement for my cigar lighter USB charger and had a drink with Iain and his new French friends, the guys from En 4L sur la route de la soie.
The visa was there, so much that the guy came out of the door with my passport ready when I rang the bell. Was I the only customer today? Did they have a camera? I didn’t ask. Next mission, the biker’s shop and my potential new pants. Except for the humongous traffic jam I got into where I was invited to lunch by some random car driver and his friends. I played dumb because I was sort of in a hurry and went my way amazed at the possibility of being invited to lunch by a random group of strangers. They didn’t have my size. How did I know they didn’t have it? Well, I tried ones that looked pretty cool and the sales lady said « Sexy! ». That’s how I knew it wasn’t my size, that and the fact that I had to struggle and remove the internal liner to get them on. Oh well, I would have to get my sewing kit out… On my way to Charyn canyon!
For a preview of Charyn canyon, here’s a video from a couple of guys who’ve been there before. If it doesn’t go automatically, you should advance to the 35m20s mark.
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!
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.
When 10 people are aiming to be in the same place on the same date, they are bound to meet somewhere along the way. In our case, the place is Torugart and the date is August 28th.
I had run into Neil before at the Georgian border but he was going a bit faster than me and he got a 1 day lead on me. Until his top case flew off. He was a bit unluckier than I and didn’t see it fly off. It was lost to him and with it his bike’s papers and Russian import papers, which are necessary for Kazakhstan too, along with a couple more useful things (he kept remembering stuff he’d lost for days). He was staying in a very expensive hotel so I just had a chat with him and went off to search for a cheaper one in the expensive, oil-empowered, expat-inhabited city of Atyrau. He also told me that Iain, another one of the China group, was in town but he didn’t know where (Iain’s not big on email and technology). Nevermind because as soon as I got to one of the hotels mentioned as cheaper in the Lonely Planet, I saw a red Ténéré parked in the garden. It was Iain’s and so I knocked on his door, introduced myself and we were off to Neil’s hotel to have some beers together.
The road into Kazakhstan also brought a surprise to me: Camels!
It was on some email from Chris (yes, another one of the China team) that I had heard of the Southern road to Uzbekistan. Instead of going North to Aqtobe as Google Maps had shown me, I could go South directly to Khiva. The only problem is that I would have to cross a desert and go through uncharted territory. Uncharted to me anyway because these guys were sure there was a road and so was Open Street Map. I had no idea of the towns there would be on the way, the distances between them or where I could sleep but there was a big chance that Neil would finish his paperwork on time to leave with me. That would be a relief, I would feel better knowing that we were 2 on the road. My rest day in Atyrau was quiet and I spent most of the day doing what one does on rest days: resting. I did go for a walk around town and found the nice promenade along the river and THE beach, there is just the one and it’s artificial.
The next day I started to get ready at my usual late hour because Neil still had some paperwork to do and he hoped it would be done by 11AM. Luckily, at 11:30 he was ready and so was I. I hadn’t found a Kazakhstan map but it was alright because he has a GPS with OSM loaded on it. We set off around noon and the road was quiet and good (or maybe not bad) and by 7PM we were in Beyneu, the last town before the desert where we had to stock up on water and rest because he had ahead of us 90km of very bad roads to get to the border and more than 500km of Karakalpaqsa desert before the first town with a hotel. That night we went to strange sort of bar where there were only women. When we got back to the hotel I was informed that the second bed in my room, which I was assured would be empty for the night since the person renting it wasn’t coming for the night was now occupied by a third person. I gave little thought to the possibility of the third person coming back in the middle of the night to dislodge my roommate and went to sleep. I was interrupted by said roommate who absolutely wanted to talk to me (in Russian, of course) at 1AM but he quickly understood that it was not the moment. And that he better not turn on the air con either.
We wanted to ride early the next day because there is a 90k stretch of very bad road ahead and a border to cross for which Neil has « unusual » paperwork (a declaration from the Atyrau police saying that he’s lost all his papers).
Wow! It’s been a week since my last post and that one was about Russia. That’s two countries ago! The internet has been getting scarcer and scarcer ever since Beyneu where only one of the hotels had wifi (and it wasn’t the one I was staying). On the desert camps I don’t really count on the internet but in cities I expect some connectivity. Khiva was alright, slow but available while in Bukhara not only there was very few hotspots but everyone was pretty stingy about them. I figure they pay by the megabyte and want to keep their connection for their own customers. Anyway, Bukhara was great for many other reasons and most of the time I didn’t care about the internet. Now I’m in Samarqand and they have electrical problems, the connection keeps resetting itself every half an hour or so. I almost feel bad asking the hotel guy to get up and go reset the router every time.
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.
By the time you get to Kazakhstan, it’s a whole different thing…