Tomorrow I take the Eyre highway to Adelaide. 2000km of treeless nothingness and of course no cell coverage or internet. It’s going to be the longest communications blackout since I went “into the wild” in Kyrgyzstan.
There is supposed to be gas stations and water/food shops along the way but apparently everything is terribly overpriced so I stocked up on water and food for the crossing. I have probably overstocked since the crossing should take around 3 days/2 nights give or take and I must have food for a week or more. But hey, it’s me! I’ve already been lost and without supplies so this time I won’t be caught unawares. The thing I may be short on is cash, will they take my credit card along the way or does everyone just leave for that highway with a big pile of cash for fuel? I guess I’ll find out in a couple of days.
In the meantime, you can follow my progress thanks to my SPOT, here: Live Tracking.
If you want to know more about the Nullarbor crossing (some call it like that), here’s a couple of links:
Here I am, on the shores of the Mekong again (I love this river) for what could be the last time I see it on this trip and I bring to you the last tale of Central Asia, that fateful day when we all finally met, then split, then met again and finally rode into China.
The day started peacefully in that ghastly place where we were staying. It didn’t feel like a place to stay in bed long so I woke up not too late and went to the cybercafe. No, there was no internet at the hotel, what did you expect? Also, when I tried to buy a SIM card for the remaining day, I was told there was no 3G today and should come back tomorrow. Most of us had finished the work to do on our bikes the day before except for Richard who needed welding after his ordeal on that mountain road the previous day.
Little by little, most of us set off. Lorraine the first as she allegedly was the slowest, then Neil, Chris and I. David and Lyn had camped somewhere outside the city so we didn’t see them in the morning and Robin and Keely (still hadn’t met them) had already announced in one of their barking emails that they wouldn’t be coming to Naryn. We left in no rush but not so late that we wouldn’t be able to visit Tash Rabat, the famed last supply town in the Silk Road. The last place where travelers could stock up on water and food before the high passes and the fierce Taklamakan desert. The road was beautiful. On a high plain, surrounded by absolutely stunning mountain ranges of beautiful colors.
Until we took the little winding road to the left and ended up in another, completely different, beautiful valley and arrived to Tash Rabat where there was a gathering of bikers. Iain was there, Lorraine was there and Robin and Keely. Finally, I had met the last part of the group. It was a weird meeting because for a long time I had really wanted to meet them (Robin had been the one who had steered me away from another group and convinced me to join this merry band of travelers in a very cool email he sent me a long time ago) but for the last month they had been either disappeared or churning out very weird emails bordering on aggressive. While everyone chatted about the next day, Lorraine told me that the little yurt on the prairie behind us made a hell of a soup and so I decided to try it. It was very good.
And then went on to visit that big rock pile that people come to visit here. The caravanserai of old where merchants and other travelers rested before the harsh journey ahead.
I should remember that sometimes it is useful to have humans in the picture for comparison. That thing is huge, to get and idea, the small green thingies by the entrance are trash bins.
After a while we had all visited the caravanserai and decided to set off. There was talk of camping but I must have missed a part of the conversation because even before arriving to the main road, Keely, Robin and Iain had left us without me even noticing. Also, on this road was last time I have shown my finger to anyone on the road (and I have vowed not to do it ever again). This local car overtook us all and for some reason was matching our speed whenever we slowed down or accelerated keeping a constant supply of dirt in our eyes and windpipes. I got tired and overtook him, thinking he would surely understand why I had done it but no, he accelerated and overtook me, throwing again all the dust in my face. It was then that I deployed the deadliest weapon I carry on the bike, my left middle finger. Despite all the dirt he must have seen it because he promptly stopped, got off his car and started gesturing for me to stop and fight him, which I didn’t of course but got very scared that he would chase me all the way to the border and shoot me. It was then that I decided that I will keep the finger to myself in the future.
He didn’t chase after me and pretty soon we arrived to the Kyrgyz checkpoint. It’s the start of the border area, you are not allowed in without a Chinese visa but it’s still about 70km from the actual border. The Lonely Planet said there was very basic accommodation at the border but this only looked like barracks so we pressed on. The road was nice but it was getting late and we still hadn’t found the said “hotels” and camping at that altitude was a big no-no. Just when my hope of finding anything was about to die, we spotted Richard on the road, he hadn’t come to Tash Rabat because he had left later than us but he arrived first. The “very basic” accommodation mentioned by the guidebook is the most basic place I have ever stayed so far. It wasn’t a building or a yurt, it was a wagon. Inside, the wagon was split in two “rooms”, each with a sleeping surface. The one on the left could sleep 4 and the one on the right, 6. On the same sleeping surface. I can’t call that a bed, it was simply a hard surface with a bedcover. We piled up our stuff in the 4 people room, decided that Lorraine would sleep on the floor with my Thermarest and left the other room to the 2 truckers of unclear sexual orientation that were already there.
To be sure, it was really cheap compared to what we had been paying in Kyrgyzstan and they provided a very nice dinner in the other wagon.
The next day, while we were waking up and getting ready, the missing ones arrived and David started trying to start the car. David and Lyn had slept in their car as they usually do when they are given the option. The old diesel Range Rover was having trouble with the cold, the altitude, the glow plugs and whatever else can give trouble. It was very unnerving. We were supposed to be at the border at 9 in order to be on the Chinese side early to avoid any problems and by 9:30 the car still wasn’t starting. After many deliberations, we were about to cross the border without them when it finally started and with it our Chinese adventure.
This story is about what probably is the worst road I’ve ever taken but also one of the days with most riding fun so far on this trip. I’ve already mentioned this day a while ago, right after it happened, on this post.
After that rain, I didn’t want to stay by the lake anymore. The next day was probably going to be sunny but Richard had arranged with Neil, Iain and Chris to take together the dirt track to Naryn, the one I had seen on Cédric‘s map and I was thinking of taking the next day. Meeting was at 8:30 at the junction so we packed all our wet camping gear and went to meet the others. Advantages of traveling with other people there are many but one big disadvantage is that you lose sleep-time flexibility. Had I been alone, I would have slept in until my gear dried. It’s alright, the storm had sent us to bed really early so I got a lot of sleep. Lucky I did for I didn’t know it at the time but I was going to need all my energy that day.
Richard, Neil and Chris had inspected the first couple of kilometers of that road the previous day and they had found it to be appropriate, with some protruding rocks but doable. Or so they thought. Big mistake. If a road looks not too good but doable when it’s close to civilization, it will only get worse as it gets away from towns.
A beginning like this one:
Will never become tarmac or anything close to it once it gets away from civilization. And it didn’t, pretty soon Richard’s bike started falling to the ground of its own accord and just to not make it feel bad, mine too. At a rocky tight corner, the V-Strom’s bash plate touched the ground and the wheels lost adherence. I stopped my bike and tried to park it somewhere safe to help him. I chose the wrong spot and now 2 bikes were on the ground. Still, we kept on. The scenery was beautiful and we were riding as a group so tight spots could be worked out or around together. Richard was having a lot of trouble with the ground clearance of his bike and nearly decided to turn back after a couple of really bad bits of “road”. The road was so bad that I announced that if he did, I would also, not only because it was very hard but also because going down through the places where we had been going up would be very dangerous and no one should be left alone there. But he didn’t turn back.
After a couple of rough spots, we all agreed that the ones that were ahead would stop whenever the road became very bad in order to help Richard’s bike up. Either by holding it on the sides or whatever other means necessary and as a result, whenever we saw everyone stopped somewhere (I was riding behind Richard), it was time to freak out. It was at one of those places where everyone stopped that I was waiting to go up with everyone else strategically deployed on my path to help in case of need when I saw Iain waving at me to go forward and just past him, Richard go down a cliff. He looked puzzled when I refused to move forward and got off my bike until he turned around and saw what I had seen happen.
Priority shift. No more going up, better check what happened. Richard was alright, the bike seemed quite alright too but in a really bad position, you can see his helmet video here. It seemed like the bike wasn’t moving further down so Richard started unloading it while we go the rest of our bikes up through the same spot, carefully trying not to have a similar accident. I think I dropped the bike while going up but really, compared to Richard’s situation, I was alright and the guys helped me pick it up.
Once we had all our bikes up there, it was time to take the V-Strom back up. It took the five of us to bring it back up and once it was up he could assess the damage. Front fender was broken, bash plate was detached and gear lever was shot. Think, think, how to make a new gear lever?
Bush mechanics are a lot of fun (when it works). Most of the time you need to mentally review all your gear to find something that looks like the thing you broke and see if it fits. If you are lucky, it will. As it turns out, I had seen Richard’s spark plug remover recently and it looked like a gear lever so Iain and him set to make him a new gear lever. A couple of cable ties and some duct tape later (and a ratchet strap to hold the bash plate), he was set to go.
It didn’t get easier and soon we were dropping the bikes again. Richard even more since he was getting more and more tired. We were being so slow that not very far from the high pass, a VW Camper Van caught up with us. It was a German couple, Jo and Anika, their camper van all set for long distance travel, with 4WD and independent whatever on the four wheels to go up this terrible road. From then on, they stuck to us, helping us pick up the bikes when necessary and even making tea for us when we got to the high pass!
The other side of the mountain was really something else. It was just as beautiful and probably just as difficult but instead of rocky outcrops (there was still some), it was time for river crossings. The first one was an easy one, the second one was a bit more difficult but Jo and Anika arrived with a portable “bridge” right after we picked up Richard’s bike but right before it was my turn to cross :D.
All in all, it was easier than the other side but our feet were wet. The river crossings were not easy but all together, sometimes holding the bikes on the sides or pushing it when stuck, I managed to cross them all without falling in the water. And then we came to a big one. I have no direct pictures of it but it was a wide, deep, fast river followed by a very steep slope. Two Italian bikers had just crossed it in the opposite direction and we chatted with them about what was ahead each way. Despite our multiple warnings, they decided to go ahead even if it was already past 5PM.
Iain crossed the river. He just went for it, got stuck in the middle but with a bit of pushing he was pretty soon up the hill on the other side and we were all just looking at him wondering if we would be able to do the same safely. It was then that some local yurt-dwellers approached us and told us that we should go around instead of straight. There was another way actually, riding through a bunch of rocks and crossing three smaller streams onto a much less steep ramp.
That was the funny moment. Richard’s bike fell on dry ground but he must have been feeling hot and he went for the water. I did cross without much trouble but the sense of achievement got me in the end and I had to drop the bike right after crossing. In the video you can see Neil proposing me a path, me getting psyched to cross and finally crossing only to drop Z on the other side.
I got up quite alright after that and, as the Italians had said, that was the last of our river crossings… but not the last of our suffering that day. It was getting darker and colder and our feet were wet but it was time to find a campsite. Even if we were at 2761m of altitude. Potluck dinner it was that night and it didn’t turn out so bad. I cooked rice as usual with cashew nuts and dried raisins but this time Richard contributed some herrings in spicy tomato sauce. Best meal ever.
The previous statement might be an exaggeration but we had been riding hard the whole day and we hadn’t had lunch, or a proper breakfast. We went to bed in the cold, dark night and cold it was. I slept inside my sleeping bag with the silk liner and the +11 degrees (NOT) liner and most of my clothes on and even like that I had a very rough night. My feet felt like they were freezing the whole night and I had to get out of the tent to pee many times but we did wake up the next morning. There was frost on our tents! -1 on a +10 sleeping bag is not for the faint of heart.
The second day the road was much easier and as the altitude dropped we got under the tree line and the landscape changed radically. Also, there was bridges to cross the rivers. Not the safest bridges I’ve ever seen but they kept you dry.
Pretty soon (well past midday) we were in that hole they call Naryn and had checked ourselves in that hole that some called a hotel and which name I can’t remember. It would have been better to go to a guest house but we were too tired to search and we wanted a shower. The shower is also a whole other story. Some people got a shower, some people didn’t. In the end, the only ones who did get a working shower in the room were Chris and I so everyone came to our room for shower, even Jo and Anika.
Oh, I also met David and Lyn in Naryn, 2 days before entering China, there was only two other people I hadn’t met, Robin and Keely but that’s another story. We had just been in the most difficult road so far and wanted a shower and internet. We got the shower, internet not so much. Did I say Naryn was a hole. It’s also probably an exaggeration, the hotel I stayed in is probably the one to blame for that.
It was already August 24th, only 5 days before China and I wanted to spend a couple of days by the famed Issyk Kul lake so I headed back on the Eastern road, the same I had taken to come from Song Kul, on my way to Richard’s camp site from the previous days. I had the coordinates so it should be an easy job, if only my GPS and my phone charger hadn’t broken somewhere in Uzbekistan (the GPS maybe before, Astrakhan I think). But there I was, speeding through the Kyrgyz roads, not fearing any policeman. I had already been stopped once and I had been let go with a reprimand and an instruction to go slower. And then I see once more, the orange rod pointing at me and telling me to pull over. Since the police officer spoke a bit of English, the following conversation ensued:
Police: What speed were you going?
P: It’s too fast
M: What’s the maximum speed?
M: Oh, maybe I was going 40
P: No, cars are going 40. You overtake cars, you going faster
M: Oh… (you smart, me not like)
P: You pay shtraf?
M: Because I didn’t know
P: Oh, go slowly then. Where are you going?
M: To Issyk Kul
Police: From here to Issyk Kul, maybe 50 or 60 km/h
Me: Thank you! – I said while I accelereated back to 70 kph
Issyk Kul was still more than 200km away so it was out of the question that I follow his instructions. Somewhere along the way I met Lorraine so a brief stop was mandatory to introduce ourselves, she’s also part of the China group and the 5th I meet, still 4 to go. We had a short chat by the side of the road, she was on the way to Bishkek to get a bigger gas tank for her new bike and I was going the opposite way and still a long way from my destination.
I did get there around 5PM after stopping for some late lunch on shore, only to find the supposed camp site occupied by locals enjoying the lake so I decided there could be no better activity than some exercise and I dropped my bike in the sand. That always implies some sweating and swearing.
Not happy with the result I asked some locals to help me pick it up and started turning it around so that I could get out of the sandy area and wait for Richard and the other on a harder surface but not before bogging down the bike in the sand so deep that I had absolutely no idea of what to do with it.
Not long after, Richard finally appeared and he knew what to do: push it to the side, cover the hole and then put it back upright. The others (Chris and Neil) had stayed at Iain’s camp site not very far from there. We set up camp and were almost ready to start cooking and enjoying an evening by the lake when a huge storm hit the lake and we had to move the tents from the shore to a sheltered spot in between some bushes and go to bed without supper (and with wet clothes).
It’s not the first rain I’ve seen and it’s certainly not the first time it’s rained when I have decided to take a rest at the beach (remember Sunny Beach and Sinop). Maybe I’ll be luckier in South East Asia?
“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.
On the morning of August 16th we had to meet Neil to ride out together. We would only ride a short time together because I was going to take the Jalal-Abad to Kazarman trail and they were taking the highway because their bikes weren’t in great shape. We were late and Neil had left and I still had to top up so I sent Chris away, there was no point in holding him back; he was riding with Neil and I was riding alone. Alone, no one to follow, no one following me. I was confident because the bike was in great shape and happy because I could ride at my own pace and I wasn’t in any hurry to go anywhere.
I had told the guys that I would spend two nights in the wild and then go to Bishkek but as I started riding and taking in the scenery, I told myself that I had no constraints and I may as well take my time. I could even do this trail in 5 days instead of the planned 3 and I would still be on time to go to Torugart.
The first day was pretty quiet, I took my time to weave my way up to the first high pass and enjoy the views and it was amazing. The beautiful roads, the humbling landscapes and the silence. Every time I stopped and cut the engine, there was absolute silence. Nothing. I made some videos of the road until my battery ran out but they are taking a very long time to upload. Around 5 or 6 in the afternoon, I was topping up in Kazarman. The tank was almost full but when you don’t know what the road ahead is like and how many days and kilometers it can still take, it’s better to have a full tank.
It is almost funny how 5km before a town the road becomes tarmac and stays like that for 5km on the other side and when it ended it was getting late and I started thinking that I should find a camp site. The problem was that there was no space at the side of the road to go off-road. On one side the mountain and on the other the valley. And that’s when I wasn’t riding through a canyon. It was getting dark and started to get nervous, looking at the smallest space behind a bush (there weren’t many bushes). Let’s check this one, oh, it’s a dump, can’t camp here. Until I found a big sort of plain where I could follow an old forgotten trail and set up my tent.
As soon as I stopped the bike and turned around I realized that there was a town in the valley and maybe I could be seen from there. It’s not good but it was already getting dark so I had no choice, I pitched my tent, cooked myself some rice and tuna with cashew nuts for dinner and when I was finished I covered the bike and went to bed. It was really comfy in the tent but seeing the town had obviously disturbed me and when during the night I heard the wind play with the bike’s cover, I thought someone was trying to steal from me. When it lasted for half an hour I concluded that it was just the wind and went to sleep again.
Camping alone in the wild is very special. There’s just you and the nature and then when it gets dark there is only one thing left to do: go to bed. And when the sun comes out, you wake up and get ready. At 8AM I was already on the road on my way to Song Kul. Would I get there today? Would I finally see snow? After a noodles breakfast I set off to find out. Not long later I came to another mountain pass that also had a sign indicating the start of the Ak-Tal region.
And then I saw it 😀
Maybe a little zoom on that?
Enough rest and contemplation, I set off and around 11am I had arrived to the town of Ak-Tal. I went into the shop and bought a couple of things. It felt good to have some bread and some Coke while the kids looked at my bike and at me. They shared some Cheetos and I shared some bread until they had to go. And then it happened. There are moments when you see the most unexpected thing and you camera is not with you but they stay in your mind forever. One of the kids picked up a bicycle wheel from where he presumably had left it before, grabbed a piece of wire that was probably his too and went away hoop rolling. I thought that only happened in very old comic books!
But it was time to go, this was my second day in the wild by myself and I was getting closer to my target so I set myself on the road again after a short “chat” with one of the many town drunks and pretty soon I was up on the high mountains again at 3000m of altitude and I saw in the distance a deep blue spot.
From the shore.
Before arriving here I had thought I would be able to swim in the lake and camp there for the night but when I got there it was 2pm and it was quite chilly. My summer sleeping bag was not ready for that so after a piece of bread and a drink I went on my way back towards civilization. At first I thought I could go back to Bishkek that day but when I started trying to get on the trail to Chayek, a local on a 4WD told me not to go that way and asked me for a cigarette (a lot of people in this far away parts of Kyrgyzstan ask foreigners for cigarettes). I turned around and decided to take the standard road that tourist minibuses take to get here. I didn’t.
I ended up on the road Cédric had told me about: 72 hairpin turns on a dirt road wide as a car dropping several hundred meters. Stunning.
After a while I realized that because I got lost so many times before taking that road and that I was now on the long road to Bishkek instead of the short one, I wasn’t going to get there that day and turned back a bit to a very nice spot by a stream that I had spotted on the way. I had started very early anyway and it was already 5pm. I had earned myself the right to an early camp and the spot was simply irresistible.
I hid behind a little mound and set up camp, then I went to wash the dishes, my clothes and myself in the river before making myself some dinner and setting on the side of the little hill I was behind to read. A perfect day was coming to an end. I went to bed early, days are long in the saddle but they don’t feel like it when you are riding the beautiful roads I had been riding.
The next morning I still had another high pass and still some more beautiful roads to ride before getting back to civilization. Here’s the full photo gallery fo my trip to Song Kul. Finally I took only two nights to get to Bishkek through that road but it was very comfortable and relaxing to know that I could have taken four.
Arrived in Bishkek I was very tired and couldn’t find most of the guesthouses mentioned in the Lonely Planet (or any other fwiw) and I met two cyclists (one of them was I think Austrian and the other one was Uzbek from Bukhara) and they recommended an expensive hotel called the Alpinist. I checked in there for the first night because I didn’t want to turn in circles around the city anymore. The next day I went to the Sakura guesthouse where Neil and Chris were and checked in there. It was 8 times cheaper.
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 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!