Tyres, truckers and rivers in the desert

Another desert is ahead of us and so we ride early today. We have been given by Chris two bits of important information about the road ahead:

  • There is a 100km stretch that is the worst road I’ve ridden so far
  • It will take you around 10 hours

We set off early, Neil and I. Although there was 3 of us from the China team in town so far, we knew that Iain would ride earlier than us, he’s an early bird. After a bit of town riding to get out of the Khiva urban area, we saw 2 bikers on the side of the road doing an oil change in front of some random house. Nick and Kevin, I’ve mentioned them before but this was actually the first time we met them. There, changing their oil they told us about the problems they’d been having with their 125cc bikes and they also told us that Iain had been there 5 minutes ago. So, we didn’t leave that much later. We may even catch up with him somewhere on the road, we thought. It is, after all, a 10-hour long road.

Desert rider
Can you see the river at the back?

Wait, did I say 10 hours? Piece of cake! Worst road so far? Wow, after the road from Beyneu to Uzbekistan, that’s got to be some badass bad road. And it was. After 100km from Khiva and a bridge over an unknown river (can’t remember all the river’s I’ve crossed, can I?) and it turned to dirt. It was pretty bad and then it got worse but Neil had heard that if you go a little bit faster you let your suspension do the work and sort of glide above the potholes, ruts and corrugations. And that’s what he was doing when bam! Punctured tyre. Where were we? Middle of the desert. What time was it? Just before noon. There’s no better time and place to change a tyre than in the middle of the desert under the killer midday sun, they say. No they don’t.

I helped but the bulk of the work was done by Neil. That was a very tiring and dehydrating experience but we managed, with the help of three Russian bikers (Dasha, Denis and Sergei) who had an electric pump and helped us put the tyre back into the rim. Those Heidenaus are so hard it required the force of 3 men to put them back in. I suspect my Shinkos will be the same and I hope I never have to change them myself, pray for a tyre shop within walking distance if it ever happens to me.

Once we had changed the tyre and started riding away, I noticed Neil’s rear wheel looked wobbly. It was the inner tube sticking out through the humungous hole the tyre had. That was around the time we saw a couple more of Mongol Rally cars, including Team Bobby who took a couple of pictures of me while riding that I hope they will share. By the time the Idiots Abroad caught up with us, we had come to realize that Neil’s tyre wouldn’t go far with a hole that size and the tube sticking out. They suggested we use a piece of an old oil bottle to hold the tube in but we had none so I started looking around for an old tyre. There is always tyres and tubes by the side of the road in the desert. By the size of them, it looks like truckers change tyres in the desert quite often, but a truck provides shade and you can hide from the sun while you sweat your life away trying to break the bead. Did anyone say shade? and truck? Our knights in shiny armor were actually two Uzbeks wearing a-shirts and they said in broken Russian (my favorite kind) that they had something better than the piece of rubber I had found on the floor. Soon Neil’s Ténéré was under the shade of the truck and we were all trying to break the bead again to perform the repair. The trucker had a better method than ours: squatting and jumping on the tyre with his full weight. It took us a long time but when we finished, the tyre was road worthy again. Neil would still have to find a new one in town but at least he could ride safely for the rest of the day. I still carry what’s left of the thick rubber in case we need it again.

A couple of ours later when we were out of that hellish road (still in a sort of desert though), we caught up with Nick and Kevin, sort of our companion team for the day. They were having some drinks at a truckers’ stop and rode off leaving us to eat something and rehydrate ourselves. At the speed they were riding, we knew we would catch up again with them. When we finally did (after eating fried eggs and fried sausage at 6PM at an Uzbek truckers’ stop :P), Nick’s bike had stopped working and Kevin had ridden on without noticing. I chased after Kevin while Neil stayed with Nick and we offered to escort them to Bukhara because it was getting dark. It looked like it would be a slow ride into the night when Nick’s bike broke down again. While trying to make a quick fix, Kevin inadvertently emptied the fuel tank and we knew it was time to set up camp for the night.

Sunrise at our camp
Desert sunrise over our camp

We had Staffordshire Chicken Tikka that they had brought all the way from England for dinner. It went perfectly with my cashew nuts (always have them on the bike, they are lifesavers).

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

The next day we escorted them into Bukhara. It took us 2 hours to ride the 80km that separated us from the city. As I write this post, Nick and Kevin are still stuck in Bukhara waiting for parts. At least it’s Bukhara.

While the others chose their hotels, I went straight to the Madina & Ilyos guesthouse and this is where the next installment of this amazing story will find me.

PS: Did I say river? The desert is on a high plain and from the road we could see a fertile valley below and a beautiful river snaking through it. I wonder why they couldn’t build the road there. I think it’s because it’s in another country but I’m not quite sure right now. Check the Desert Rider picture, you can catch a glimpse of the river in it.

PPS: As I write this post, there is already 2 other accounts of this epic day riding in the desert. Nick from Idiots Abroad and Neil have already told this story here and here.

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.