Pilot Error

On July 18th, many things happened. Many important things: friends had babies, other friends moved to foreign countries and, by far not the least important, at around 8:30PM, Central European Time, my mom asked my dad if he had any news from me because she was worried.

On July 18th, I woke up tired (1). I hadn’t slept well for no particular reason and the sun woke me up through the windows of my room in the basic but acceptable Hotel Pacífico 2 in Choluteca, Honduras. I went for a local breakfast of “baleadas” on the main street and had a lot of fun when the breakfast lady started telling other customers that I was going to “put a baby in her” so that he would have my blue eyes and blonde hair. She was joking though. Passing by the Wendy’s at the corner, I checked the internet, the hotel didn’t provide any wi-fi. At 9 I was ready to leave on my way to Santa Rosa de Copán and so I did. A bit later on the road, a bee got stuck on the bracelet I was still wearing from the Masaya National Park in Nicaragua and stung me (2).

Drive-thru ATM
They have drive-thru ATMs in Honduras!

At around half-past eleven, I was riding the outskirts of Tegucigalpa and decided to get into town to look for an ATM, I was low on local currency and my stop for the night may or may not be in a small town. While I was at it, I thought of having lunch and I did (3). and I took the chance to use the free internet at the restaurant.

With a full belly, at around 12:30PM Honduran time, I set off again, determined to get to Santa Rosa de Copán, a bit of an ambitious goal but I would cross into El Salvador from there. Just wondering how many hours I would have to ride to get there, I looked down to the GPS screen (4) and when I looked up I realised that the Honduran police had put some cones on the road for people to slow down (5). On a curve!!! I’m not trying to blame them for this but, who puts cones in the middle of a fast bypass on a frickin’ curve! I freaked out and instead of swerving or deciding that fuck the cones and I would ride over (or in between) them, I pulled the break, very hard (6).

The next thing I remember is to be skidding on the ground, with my right leg pressed down against the asphalt by the bike and my right hand rubbing the ground too, both in great pain. Somehow, I was separated from the bike and I stopped, the bike continued for a few more meters. I got up, checked the landscape and sat on the kerb while the police and some soldiers gathered the contents of my map pouch that were scattered on the road. I seemed to be alright, I asked one of the cops to tell me if I was bleeding anywhere around my face and since he said no and I was conscious, I removed my helmet and started checking the rest of my body and bike.

Right after
Right after
I had a big scratch on my leg and a smaller one on my arm, a blister was forming in my hand. I asked them to help me pick up the bike and where was the closest hospital.

They helped me
They helped me
I rode to the Hospital Militar a few blocks away and got my wounds cleaned, an antibiotic and some other stuff injected and was released with instructions on meds to take and things to wear. I followed most of it and stayed in Tegucigalpa for 2 nights to kickstart my recovery. Now I am in Antigua Guatemala, resting and trying to fix the bike.

I read somewhere that for a catastrophe to happen, there has to be concourse of 7 bad or unusual little accidents. Until today, I had only identified 6 of them:

  1. I woke up tired
  2. A bee stung me on my right wrist
  3. I had lunch (I almost never do when I ride)
  4. I was looking down at the GPS screen
  5. The police put cones in a curve on the road
  6. I pulled the brake while my front wheel was not straight

With José, my uncle's friend
With José, my uncle’s friend
I suspected what the 7th cause was but I wasn’t sure. Today I went to a Honda garage where are friend of my uncle Lucas works and had the bike looked at. After finding out that the right fork arm is bent, we ended up changing the front wheel bearings, they were due for a change, the axle being a bit loose and one of the bearings not turning properly.

There you are:

  1. The front wheel bearings needed changing

7 little accidents that got together to cause the big one. 3, 4, and 6, can be considered pilot error. Maybe also 7, since the pilot is also the usual maintainer.

Checking the fork
Checking the fork
Of course, if I am writing this it’s because I am alright, just a bit bruised so you needn’t worry and ask me if I’m alright. I appreciate attention but not repetition.

Oh, and the bike has no windscreen anymore.

Sunset over La Antigua
Sunset over La Antigua
PS: 12:30PM Honduran time is the same time as 8:30PM Central European Time.

Antigua, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala

Roadside meetings and new tyres

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

Scary barge
I was amazed it didn’t crumble

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.

Chiang Mai
Unexpected meeting in Chiang Mai

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.

At Fuark's
Bike work day

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.

Bikers
Bikers by the Mekong

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.

Dokchampa Hotel, Luang Namtha, Namtha District, Laos

The rest of Uzbekistan

I am running a bit late, the blog is 2 countries behind me so I will try to summarize Uzbekistan in this post. Pictures will come later. Tomorrow is another long riding day but there will be shorter days later in China.

August 9th, 2012 – Bukhara-Nurata-Samarkand
Leaving
Cedric left the same day I did

I tried to leave Bukhara the next day as planned and after turning around for a long time, I did. I had planned to go to Aidar Kul and camp for a night there so I needed a big 5L bottle of water, then I turned some more looking for the road to Navoiy, my first waypoint and when I finally found it, I left. And came back after 30km because I still hadn’t found decent fuel for the bike. The only gas station that had some, didn’t have electricity to run the pumps.

Around 12:30, I was finally on the road to Nurata in a strange mood. After an hour and a half I overtook an odd looking vehicle, it had “Ambulancia” written on the back and a Spanish licence plate. I honked and the driver turned on the siren. Later, while I was resting in the shade and rehydrating myself, they passed by and turned the siren on again so when I rode off and found them putting some Diesel into their engine, I pulled over and talked to them. Two Basques driving an ambulance to Mongolia, taking part of Charity Rallies, a bit like Mongol Rally but more serious (according to them anyway). They said it was lunch time and that they were going to stop and eat at the next shade they could find. I rarely have lunch when I ride but I accepted their invitation. It was a proper Spanish lunch: it took 2 hours but I enjoyed their company, I don’t have many opportunities of speaking Spanish in this trip. By the time we set off again it was 4pm and when I got to Nurata, I felt it was too late to ride to Aidar Kul so I retraced my way back to the main road and decided to go directly to Samarkand.

Ambulance going to Mongolia
Ambulancia vasca

Bad decision. The main road to Samarkand has many little towns, which makes it very unsuitable for wild camping when it becomes dark so I rode more than 1 hour in the dark to get to Samarkand. When I finally found the hostel I wanted to stay at, the entrance was full of bikes (Neil and Iain were there plus another biker on an XT660R, at first I thought it was Chris but he’d left that morning) and the hostel was full so I was sent to the annex, a bit more expensive but with wi-fi. The SPOT stopped working when I arrived to the Bahodir hostel.

August 10th, 2012 – Lazy day in Samarkand

It was a lazy day, I rested most of the day, had lunch with some Mongol Rally guys and a cyclist, Mark Wright who is going to Hong Kong on his bicycle. Before the end of the day, we did Neil’s oil change. He did most of it because I was late but I helped by producing a makeshift funnel to pour the oil into the bike and getting my hands dirty when the funnel didn’t work quite right. There’s no bike oil in Uzbekistan so we put car oil in it and scheduled my bike’s oil change for the next day at the same hour in the same place. Once finished, we had dinner with Tina (remember her from Bukhara?), the Mongol Rally guys (Andy and Toby) and Mark again. Truly, it was a very lazy day.

August 11th, 2012 – Playing tourist in Samarkand

Today, I did go out to play tourist. At Bukhara, Cédric and others that had already been to Samarkand had told me that all monuments in Samarkand had a secondary entrance where you don’t pay if you are brave enough to take it. Apparently it’s a well-known bit of tourist lore that gets passed on from tourist to tourist at guesthouses around Uzbekistan. I tried to apply it in the Registan but the secondary entrance was being watched so I just went around it, snapped a bunch of pictures and went on my way to the Bibi Khanim mosque where I did use the side entrance, totally worth it :P. After that I went on a 5km walk around a not so interesting part of town just trying to find Shah-i-zinda. It’s not that difficult, I was just lost and too stubborn to turn back. Once I got there, I was so tired that I didn’t feel like trying to find the secondary entrance so I paid my ticked and visited the famed necropolis on my own. Finally, I went back to the Bahodir B&B to do my oil change and enjoy another home made dinner with Tina, Neil and the Mongol Rally guys. Marion (from Bukhara) was there too but she didn’t have dinner with us this time.

Samarkand is very different to Bukhara and Khiva. Although the monuments are all similar: grandiose mosques and madrasas covered in blue tiles, not always respectful of the Islamic ban on imagery of live creatures; the disposition and level of restoration are quite different. In Khiva, all is concentrated in the Ichan-qala citadel, in Bukhara the monuments are a bit further apart but you can still see a sort of coherence and it’s very easy to cross into the new part of town. Finally, in Samarkand old and new mix everywhere, the sights are far apart from each other and the entrance tickets are expensive for foreigners (locals pay 10% of what we pay). I liked the three of them but Bukhara I liked most.

August 12th, 2012 – To Tashkent

On the 12th we (Neil and I) set off not so early on our way to Tashkent. I hadn’t planned to visit Tashkent, the long road to Kyrgyzstan had started and that’s what I did. On the way to Tashkent a couple of unusual things happened. We were overtaken at the speed of light by an Uzbek biker. Yes, a local biker, member of the illustrious Tashkent Steel Scorpions. Two minutes later he was on the side of the road, he had run out of fuel. I pulled over and siphoned 3 liters from my tank (I’m becoming quite good at this) to give him and he gave me some money in exchange. I was going to give them for free but he insisted. Then he started gesticulating about not being able to start his bike so we pushed him around a bit. After a while I got tired of sweating behind a bike that wouldn’t start and grabbed my hammock’s rope from my top case, tied it to the back of my bike, looped the other end around the center of his steering and gave him the loose end to hold against his left grip. I towed him for 30 or 40 meters and his bike started but he didn’t understand that he had to release the rope once it started working so I had to stop. With his bike running, he left at the speed of light again only to turn around 1km down the road into a gas station. Later on the road we saw 2 Italian GSs with their panniers in a sorry shape and the riders nowhere to be seen, police all around and a couple of locals filling declarations. Apparently one of the Italian guys had broken his leg. Poor guy, such a bad ending for his trip.

Nurata fortress
Alexandrian fortress in Nurata

When I got to Tashkent, I took the last bed at the Gulnara guesthouse and discovered that Tarik and Ryo were here too (I had met Ryo in Bukhara and again in Samarkand). While I was lazing at one of the tea beds and eating the last of the pistachios Tzveti had given me when I left Metz, I heard someone ask someone else if he was Nacho. It was Chris talking to a random bearded guy at the guesthouse. I quickly made my presence known and we chatted about the plans for the coming days and his trip so far.

After a Russian cheeseburger dinner I went to bed early, we were riding to Fergana the next day, making our way to Kyrgyzstan via Osh.

August 13th, 2012 – Leaving Uzbekistan

So at 10:30 we met Neil at his hotel and started towards Fergana. Not without first topping up with 80 octane fuel for the first time. The road went on uneventfully except for Chris’ frequent stops to top up his radiator with water (his water pump was leaking) until we reached a mountain section that is very close to the Tajik border. As usual with this kind of places in the region, there was a police checkpoint and all the foreigners had to be registered. But we were not the only foreigners arriving there at the same time, a huge group of Italian bikers (11 bikes?) was there too and we chatted a bit with them while we waited to get registered. The two bikes that we had seen the day before belonged to this group. It has been more than one month since I arrived to Istanbul and it was time the bike got washed so we were splashed by some rain while crossing the valley. One month, two rains, quite a score.

U-lock
Finally ditched my U-lock

At the other end of the checkpoint, I finally ditched my U-lock, it was too heavy and I hadn’t used it since Romania. Just in case I ever come back to this valley, I attached it to a fence and kept the key (quite a silly thing to do but I’m sentimental that way). Also, at some random spot where we had stopped to top up Chris’ radiator, a bottle of water was thrown at my ankle by a passing truck. There was two Uzbeks with a broken down car there and they had been signaling truckers for water, it seems to be a common thing for truckers to throw water at people in need, very nice of them.

Quite late, almost at sunset, we arrived to Fergana and started looking for the guesthouses described in Lonely Planet with little luck, none were there to be found except the last one we tried, Valentina guesthouse, actually an apartment for rent for the night. Not too cheap, not too expensive, not too clean, not too dirty but quite big and comfortable.

My stay in Uzbekistan was coming to an end. I had a great time, met awesome people and rode some tough roads. A new country was ahead of me and I knew very little about it. I had a map though, thanks to a map exchange I had done with Cédric before leaving Bukhara, and some dirt tracks were marked on it as interesting (interesting to Cédric anyway)…

Aksu/Akesu, Aksu City, PRC

Internet? Noooo, we don’t have that here, sir

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.

ATS 35, Samarkand, Samarqand Tumani, Uzbekistan