Today is a sad day. Today, on my way from El Calafate to the Chilean border, I ran over a sheep. Today I want to tell the story of Miorița. I didn’t kill the sheep, but I must have hurt it pretty badly because it was shaking and tried frantically to limp away from me when I approached her on foot.
The tale of Miorița was related to me in Samarqand, Uzbekistan by a group of shady-looking Romanians who were running the Mongol Rally, their team was called Free Miorița. The views about Romania in this article reflect what they tried to convey with this tale. As far as I remember anyway.
Miorița was a sheep. She was very fond of her shepherd and when she heard that two other shepherds, envious, were plotting to kill him in order to steal his herd, she went straight to him and told him about the danger to his life. Despaired, the shepherd asked Miorița that, should the worst befall him, she should make sure that he gets proper burial and never tell that he was murdered.
The actual poem is much longer and has other nuances but the point is that this tale symbolises the conformism and tragic mood of the Romanian people. Their aim as a team, and in their lives was to fight against this and debunk the myth of Miorița as a foundational story for the Romanians. I wish them good luck.
On my bike I have two stickers that they gave me and the other day I was about to cover one with another sticker. Maybe now I won’t. I have been meaning to write about this story for a very long time but somehow I couldn’t fit it anywhere. Now seems to be as good a moment as any.
Of course the sheep I ran over has nothing to do with Miorița but I felt sorry for it as I felt sorry for the shepherd when I heard the tale for the first time.
The bike didn’t suffer any damage as far as I can tell but I did get a hell of a scare. After hitting it, I lost control of the bike for about 20 meters. I didn’t think at any moment that I would come off, though.
By the way, sheep are not usually that stupid. Most sheep run away from the road when they see you coming. This particular flock was having a cow day and decided to cross the road when they saw me coming at 100kph.
When I was leaving, a friend posted this song on my page. Whenever I think of the road, it often comes to my mind. Where I lay my head is home. Anywhere I roam.
The road is a harsh mistress I said once talking about long hours on the road but it can also give you a lot of pleasant surprises, not
only in the form of gorgeous landscapes. I entered Laos through the South from Cambodia and even before I got to the border, I ran into two bikers in disguise. At first they looked like locals, riding smallish bikes very heavy loaded but their luggage didn’t look like the things you usually see on the road (video post to come on that). It was Denis and Hanes, Dutch and Estonian who had bought their bikes in Vietnam and had come riding all the way from there. Even though I was faster, we crossed the border together and they came with me to Don Khong where we crossed the river together in some scary barges.
We stayed there 2 days, minding our own business. I reading my book, them checking for a mechanic for Hanes’ bike and after two nights I was on my way. Ahead of my I had the road to Pakse and Savannakhet where I didn’t expect to do any sightseeing. I was on the road to Vientiane where I had agreed to meet with Julien, a French biker I had met in Ulan Baatar, like 4 countries ago. He was luckier than me with his China crossing and actually crossed China from North to South. In truth, I was also feeling a bit pressed for time since now I have a date to fly out of New Zealand to Chile and have to somehow manage to get to Auckland on February 18th to catch my flight with the bike sorted out.
I didn’t feel like straining myself though so I left not too late and rode only to Pakse, a couple of hours away and checked my self into a guesthouse with wi-fi. Since it was pretty early, I wandered around town and had a late lunch of pizza. Not really good but did the job.
After wandering around and fiddling with the internet, I decided to share the info on Vietnamese bikes I had got from the other guys with Antoine, a French guy travelling in the region I had met in Bangkok and then randomly run into in Chiang Mai who was interested in maybe buying one. I fired him an email, only to receive a quick response just before going to sleep saying « you are going to laugh but I was just thinking of you, I’m in Pakse tonight too ». Wait, what? Distance from Bangkok to Pakse: 600 km as the crow flies. Time since I had last seen him: around 3 weeks. Emails exchanged in the meantime: zero. And he was in the same town. See, I give all the details and all but these things barely seem strange anymore. We agreed on having breakfast the next day before I left.
And breakfast we had. Soon after I was on my way to Savannakhet. Another short ride and very nice. Here, checking into a guesthouse was a bit more difficult, most of the guesthouses the Lonely Planet mentions had disappeared and the first one I visited had me running away from it for no particular reason but finally I did find a cozy one with wi-fi and a garden to park the bike inside. Again, it was still day and I went for a long walk around town hunting after lunch. On a small side street not far from the Mekong and not far from my guesthouse, I saw a small group of backpackers. Among them, Timo, a Finn I had also met in Bangkok. I remember also saying to him that I was sure we would meet again because the road is just like that.
The road indeed is just like that. You will meet the same people over and over again without even asking for it. Most of the time not even in the same country. I had met these two guys in Thailand. Antoine had come straight to Laos from there, Timo had been in Vietnam in the meantime, I had been to Cambodia. I put Laos in my list of « that sort of places that are just like that ». That list has so far four countries: Georgia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and Laos.
The next day I set off for Vientiane and got there. When I was checking myself into the guesthouse, I met with Julien but that meeting was planned. He told me that the next day he was going to work on the bike at Fuark’s bike shop and when we went back to the street to look at my bike and his, we noticed that my rear tyre was completely worn. Looked like I would be taking my bike to Fuark’s too.
The next day was Thai visa day and Buddha Park day. We also did some pictures together with the bikes. We are in Laos. In the background, the Mekong and beyond, Thailand.
To be sure, that wasn’t the end of it. In Vang Vieng, some random guy said bonjour, I had seen him in Vientiane so when I saw him again in Luang Namtha we shook hands and introduced ourselves, lest we meet again and still don’t know each other’s names. They are Michael and Sandrine and they are also travelling around the world, only by plane and bus.
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 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)…
There was a rich merchant, who after having been out travelling with his caravan for some time, reached the outskirts of a town. The evening was late, but he needed a few things so he sent his best servant to the market. At the market the servant happened to meet Death. It was easy to recognize the sinister face of Death, they were no more than ten meters away from each other. Death saw the servant and raised his hand. The servant instantly became terrified and fled head over heels to his master without having bought anything at all.
Back at the merchant’s tent the terrified servant told his master whom he had met at the market. The merchant immediately gave the servant one of his fastest horses and told him to ride the whole night without stopping and by dawn he would be safe in Samarkand. The servant rode as fast as the horse could carry him. That night it was only him, the horse and the glistening stars.
Early the next morning the merchant went to the market and also he happened to meet Death. The merchant, who was annoyed instead of being afraid, went straight up to Death asking what he ment by threatening his best servant. Death calmly replied « I wasn’t threatening him, I was merely greeting him. But I must say I was very surprised to see him here since I have a meeting with him in Samarkand tonight ».
My mother told me this story when I was a kid and since then the name Samarkand has been in my mind associated to this story. Finally going to Samarkand has for me a great symbolic value because it is related to this story and to my childhood. I know there will be nothing related to this story in the city but just being there is enough. My brothers know what I’m talking about.
With this bit of personal history in my mind, I set off on my way to Samarkand.
I am not a tourist, I am a traveler -I said. And my Russian teacher responded: Я не турист, я путешественник. I keep telling people I am not a tourist. I am not motivated by the monuments, movement is my drive. Change is life.
But when I am in cities, I play tourist a bit. It can be interesting sometimes.
I finished the previous post saying that the next one would find me at Madina & Ilyos guesthouse and there I was. Madina, the Uzbek matron running the house with her husband had put a brick on the floor to reduce the height of the entrance step so that I could get the bike inside the small courtyard. The courtyard was quite small and it was already crowded with an Africa Twin with a humungous fuel tank (43 liters the owner declared later) but I managed to fit the bike in a corner.
Cédric, the French owner of the Africa Twin soon showed up and so did Tarik (FR) and Bruna (FR-BR), Tristan (FR) and Tina (SI). A very friendly bunch that was also checking in that same day. We lazed around in the scorching heat of the morning and around lunch Tristan, a regular patron of Bukhara and Madina’s took me and Cédric for shashlik lunch at the market and to visit Char Minar in the old town. It was so hot that we looked at Char Minar for a very long time. Not because of its beauty or its many interesting and complex features but because there was a bench in the shade in front of it conveniently situated at the entrance of a little shop selling drinks.
Later in the day we visited an old mausoleum and went for dinner all together, the English bunch and the French bunch but we didn’t mingle, as if an invisible channel had been drawn on the table.
Feeling that my tourist duties were not fulfilled, I set off the next day with the intention of doing some sightseeing but as usual, I set off after 10:30. It was already more than 35 degrees in the shade and a lot more in the sun and I found out that I couldn’t even take refuge in the Ark because it’s being restored so I took refuge in the mosque just in front of it, the official mosque of the emirs of old after going around the Ark to try to find another entrance and ignoring an old man who kept shouting Zindan at me and pointing in the general direction of the old prison museum. The mosque had air conditioning and I was alright there, until I tried to approach the Koran and was shooed away by one of the locals who interrupted his own prayer to show me that I couldn’t approach the stand where the Koran was. That was my cue to leave and keep playing tourist.
Next stop was Job’s well and its small water museum where I hadn’t planned to spend much time. I hadn’t even planned to enter and when they asked me to pay for the ticket, I had to go back out and count my money. In the end, I decided to enter and it was a good thing.
I hadn’t spend long looking around the small museum and wetting my lips with the water from Job’s well that the resident English speaker, a charming young woman by the name of Nigina was talking to me:
– Where do you come from?
– I come from France. I came by motorcycle.
– You must be crazy
I had just been called crazy by my museum guide, this was a sign that I had to make the conversation last. Fortunately, she was of the same opinion and after she took care of some other visitors, we went back to the front of the museum and spent the rest of the afternoon talking about my trip, her aspirations, sharing photos and just chatting. When the museum closed, she proposed to show me the other monument I had planned to see that day, the Samani mausoleum but only if I carried her computer. I am a gentleman so I said yes and not only she showed me the mausoleum but plenty of other interesting things I had missed in Bukhara while we slowly made our way to the central pond.
The last place we entered was the carpet museum where her sister works. After the introductions: “Here’s the crazy guy travelling on a motorcycle”, I was admitted into the museum. While her sister explained the carpets in Russian and I struggled to understand, Nigina translated into English for me. She was truly determined to make a good tourist out of me.
So much so that she proposed to pick me up at my hotel the next day and come with me to the Summer Palace. And so she did and we spent the whole day together, sharing stories and laughs but neither drinks nor food because it was the month of Ramadan and she was fasting. Out of respect I tried to refrain from drinking too ostentatiously in front of her but the heat was too much and I wasn’t going to dehydrate (I don’t know how she was resisting it).
Aside from being a very bright woman, Nigina studied to be a guide and knows a lot about her city and her country; it was very instructive to spend the day in such good company. She told me stories about each place we visited and she had a small book telling the legends related to each place. Ah! My favorite kind of history is of course fake history: legends! What more could I ask? But the heat of the mid-afternoon was too much and she had to take a rest, otherwise she would faint before the maghreb hour and so she went to her sister’s museum while I went to the internet café. Internet is quite scarce in Bukhara and the only true option is the café, even in hotels the traffic is limited to emails or charged by the hour.
When the heat of the afternoon died down a bit, I went for her and we spent some more time together. She had promised to tell me about the traditional Uzbek wedding ceremonies and I introduced her to the French bunch (I call it the French bunch but it includes Tina, who is not French, not in the least).
On the way to the taxi she told me about Nasreddin, the guy sitting on a donkey next to the central pond in Bukhara. Uzbekistan’s comedic hero.
Later, I went for dinner with Bruna, Katya (she had arrived later at the guesthouse), Tarik, Cédric and Marion (she just appeared out of nowhere and asked if she could sit with us). It was the end of a very pleasant stay in a very beautiful city where I met plenty of good people.
Another desert is ahead of us and so we ride early today. We have been given by Chris two bits of important information about the road ahead:
There is a 100km stretch that is the worst road I’ve ridden so far
It will take you around 10 hours
We set off early, Neil and I. Although there was 3 of us from the China team in town so far, we knew that Iain would ride earlier than us, he’s an early bird. After a bit of town riding to get out of the Khiva urban area, we saw 2 bikers on the side of the road doing an oil change in front of some random house. Nick and Kevin, I’ve mentioned them before but this was actually the first time we met them. There, changing their oil they told us about the problems they’d been having with their 125cc bikes and they also told us that Iain had been there 5 minutes ago. So, we didn’t leave that much later. We may even catch up with him somewhere on the road, we thought. It is, after all, a 10-hour long road.
Wait, did I say 10 hours? Piece of cake! Worst road so far? Wow, after the road from Beyneu to Uzbekistan, that’s got to be some badass bad road. And it was. After 100km from Khiva and a bridge over an unknown river (can’t remember all the river’s I’ve crossed, can I?) and it turned to dirt. It was pretty bad and then it got worse but Neil had heard that if you go a little bit faster you let your suspension do the work and sort of glide above the potholes, ruts and corrugations. And that’s what he was doing when bam! Punctured tyre. Where were we? Middle of the desert. What time was it? Just before noon. There’s no better time and place to change a tyre than in the middle of the desert under the killer midday sun, they say. No they don’t.
I helped but the bulk of the work was done by Neil. That was a very tiring and dehydrating experience but we managed, with the help of three Russian bikers (Dasha, Denis and Sergei) who had an electric pump and helped us put the tyre back into the rim. Those Heidenaus are so hard it required the force of 3 men to put them back in. I suspect my Shinkos will be the same and I hope I never have to change them myself, pray for a tyre shop within walking distance if it ever happens to me.
Once we had changed the tyre and started riding away, I noticed Neil’s rear wheel looked wobbly. It was the inner tube sticking out through the humungous hole the tyre had. That was around the time we saw a couple more of Mongol Rally cars, including Team Bobby who took a couple of pictures of me while riding that I hope they will share. By the time the Idiots Abroad caught up with us, we had come to realize that Neil’s tyre wouldn’t go far with a hole that size and the tube sticking out. They suggested we use a piece of an old oil bottle to hold the tube in but we had none so I started looking around for an old tyre. There is always tyres and tubes by the side of the road in the desert. By the size of them, it looks like truckers change tyres in the desert quite often, but a truck provides shade and you can hide from the sun while you sweat your life away trying to break the bead. Did anyone say shade? and truck? Our knights in shiny armor were actually two Uzbeks wearing a-shirts and they said in broken Russian (my favorite kind) that they had something better than the piece of rubber I had found on the floor. Soon Neil’s Ténéré was under the shade of the truck and we were all trying to break the bead again to perform the repair. The trucker had a better method than ours: squatting and jumping on the tyre with his full weight. It took us a long time but when we finished, the tyre was road worthy again. Neil would still have to find a new one in town but at least he could ride safely for the rest of the day. I still carry what’s left of the thick rubber in case we need it again.
A couple of ours later when we were out of that hellish road (still in a sort of desert though), we caught up with Nick and Kevin, sort of our companion team for the day. They were having some drinks at a truckers’ stop and rode off leaving us to eat something and rehydrate ourselves. At the speed they were riding, we knew we would catch up again with them. When we finally did (after eating fried eggs and fried sausage at 6PM at an Uzbek truckers’ stop :P), Nick’s bike had stopped working and Kevin had ridden on without noticing. I chased after Kevin while Neil stayed with Nick and we offered to escort them to Bukhara because it was getting dark. It looked like it would be a slow ride into the night when Nick’s bike broke down again. While trying to make a quick fix, Kevin inadvertently emptied the fuel tank and we knew it was time to set up camp for the night.
We had Staffordshire Chicken Tikka that they had brought all the way from England for dinner. It went perfectly with my cashew nuts (always have them on the bike, they are lifesavers).
The next day we escorted them into Bukhara. It took us 2 hours to ride the 80km that separated us from the city. As I write this post, Nick and Kevin are still stuck in Bukhara waiting for parts. At least it’s Bukhara.
While the others chose their hotels, I went straight to the Madina & Ilyos guesthouse and this is where the next installment of this amazing story will find me.
PS: Did I say river? The desert is on a high plain and from the road we could see a fertile valley below and a beautiful river snaking through it. I wonder why they couldn’t build the road there. I think it’s because it’s in another country but I’m not quite sure right now. Check the Desert Rider picture, you can catch a glimpse of the river in it.
PPS: As I write this post, there is already 2 other accounts of this epic day riding in the desert. Nick from Idiots Abroad and Neil have already told this story here and here.
It all started in Atyrau, parked in front of Neil’s hotel there was a strange car with a UK licence plate and plenty of stickers, some of them stating « Travelling is for sissies » and « Mongol rally ». I thought it was just the one car but a couple of days later we started seeing them everywhere. In Khiva, there were 2 more cars parked in front of a hotel.
Pretty soon the city was flooded with little groups of mostly British people (but there was many others too) where one member was always wearing a Mongol Rally t-shirt. Apparently it’s part of the deal, there always has to be one with the t-shirt. At dinner we met Team Booby and talked for some time with them but later they left us to join their brethren: other Mongol rally teams. Oh, and they were not British: one Dutch girl, one Belgian and one guy from the US.
There’s other people in the picture, the leftmost guy in the light blue tee is Iain, another one of the China team, the guy in the black t-shirt is Neil and to his right, Askar, a Kazakh guy who had just started his own journey hitchhiking around the world (or maybe not around the world, he had no plan actually).
By the time we got to Bukhara we had camped with a Mongol rally biker team we had met on the road, Kevin and Nick (Idiots Abroad) who had plenty of problems with their small bikes (Yamaha XT125) and could use being escorted by other bikers just in case.
But what is this Mongol Rally thing?
Every year, hundreds of adventurers set off from London and Prague in a sort or rally to Mongolia, only that it’s not a race, you only have to get there. The objective is to bring a car to Mongolia in reasonable good shape to be sold and the money donated to charity. It all sounds very altruistic and it probably is but above all, they look like they are having loads of fun. They also experience lots of problems with their cars because they are usually very small cars, unprepared for the kind of roads they are taking. Click here to check out their website.
We got up early to start the desert ride while the weather was still bearable. Fail. At 9am it’s already 30 degrees. And we were off. Bye bye Beyneu, hello desert!
From Beyneu, the last proper town before the Uzbek border there is a 90km stretch of very bad road. Not the worst I would see on this trip but
pretty bad. Dirt, corrugations, camels, sand patches, all the guest stars were there. And there I was gliding over the sand at 70kph, desperate to regain control of my trajectory and to stay vertical. I am not of the kind that rides the sand fast, I prefer the other riding technique: slow and both feet down, I know it’s not the best but I feel safer. But this particular sand patch, I didn’t see it coming and had to cope with it the best I could. I did quite well actually, I didn’t come off and that’s the most important. Now I would be more on the lookout for sandy patches.
The road was so bad that it took us 3 hours to get to the border. Around the second hour we saw a lone cyclist and stopped for a chat and to check if he needed anything. Leo, English. Here’s a what a cyclist looks like:
He had camped near a small hamlet by the side of the road and was on this way to the border too. With all the time the border took us, we thought we would see him again there but that was the only time we ran into him so far.
We spent two hours at the border and were finally admitted into Uzbekistan where the road turned “better”: instead of being good dirt, it was bad tarmac. A big change and we could ride much faster. It’s such a featureless road that there’s not much to say about it.
We did meet people on the road, other travellers like Jyri, Artur (Finns) and Christian (French). Christian was riding with another French guy, both on Africa Twins but they had split and he was now riding through the desert with the Finns for security. Days later I met his road companion in Bukhara but that’s a story I’ll tell later. We were riding this lone road and after 257km since the last fuel top up, I was starting to wonder if we would find a gas station on the way or just run out of fuel in the middle of the desert when I spotted what looked like one on the left side of the road. I pulled over and when I was getting closer I saw 3 bikes parked a bit further. Not only there was a gas station but also a little shop selling sodas and cold fizzy water. If felt like finding water in the desert. Wait, that’s exactly what it was 😉
We rested, we exchanged tips about the road and the fuel availability each way, we also exchanged some money, mostly to help Christian get rid of all his Uzbek money, we had our drinks. I tried to use the filthy toilet that probably hadn’t been cleaned once since the last century and decided against it. After a while we wished each other good roads and went on our opposite ways.
The road went on straight, featureless and potholed but the landscape was not completely devoid of a certain beauty. On our way to the end of the day we met some more English cyclists and after some fast riding, I had to convince Neil that we wouldn’t get to civilization that day and that we had to start looking for a camping spot. It wasn’t very hard, he was tired too and the sun was setting, soon it would be dark so we set up camp some 50m away from the road behind a little dune. That night I used my stove for the first time to cook rice with a beef sausage I had been carrying since Sinop in Turkey. The best meal on the menu that evening. The other dishes were stuff only Bear Grylls would eat like sand and insects.
The silence of the desert at night is, quite appropriately, very hard to describe in words. It is just beautiful. And peaceful.
You may notice the tent doesn’t have the rain cover, you may also realize there’s no use in explaining why it doesn’t. Plus, that way you can enjoy the beautiful night, take advantage of any wind that could refresh you and wake up at dawn to ride again.
After an instant noodles breakfast (I think I had bought them in Kazakhstan by chance), we set off on our way to civilization.
As the bad tarmac turned into an excellent road as I have never seen on this trip, the desert also turned to green and we had a second breakfast at a trucker’s stop. Soup, bread and tea, the taste of civilization.
We were in Kungrad and would soon arrive to Khiva where we expected to spend a couple of days visiting the ancient city of Ichan-qala.
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.