Mt. Kailash

Mt. Kailash

Monday, 27 August 2012

Off road in Kyrgystan

Finally back on the bike and it was time to hit the hills. Chris and I headed over the mountains to Lake Issy Kul and the town of Cholpon Ata; "the Cancun of Central Asia" according to Lonely Planet. Well, if Cancun is like Milton keynes on a wet tuesday morning, then Cholpon Ata was it. Bumped into Richard and Lorraine as we pulled in to town. But between us, we failed to find anything exciting in "Cancun".
The next morning, Lorraine headed back to Bishkek to get parts for her bike, while the rest of us headed round the lake to the south side where we bumped into Iain (again!) and camped on the shoreline. A brief storm at sunset made for some dramatic photos.
The following morning, the five of us (Nacho had also reappeared) took the mountain "road" towards Naryn. This was to turn into an epic day. We covered 50 odd miles in 11 hours. The dirt track became worse and worse as we climbed towards a 3900+ metre pass past glaciers. Washouts, landslides, river crossings, high altitude and the inevitable angry dogs made for some serious off road riding. Richard, on his heavy and low V-Strom had a big off over a small cliff. He was a bit shaken, but OK. The bike was a bit chewed up, but still rideable. The "road" continued to worsen as we reached the pass; fortunately, a nice German couple in a heavily modded 4WD van helped us out by carrying some of Richard's luggage (to lighten his load) and making us tea at the summit. As we were much slower than expected, we ended up camping on the far side of the mountains at just short of 3000m. It was a very cold night. The following morning, we thought it was only about 7 miles to tarmac which would continue all the way to naryn. Wrong! The dirt continued for the next 60 miles, but nothing like the previous days trials.

Soundtrack: Yes - Roundabout

The Almaty excursion

After a couple of days kicking my heels and doing a bit of bike maintenance (new headlight bulb and air filter) in Bishkek, it was time to try and re-enter Kazakhstan for a Mongolian visa. This was potentially tricky as I didn't technically have a Kazakh visa. There were several rumours of being allowed to go to Almaty from Bishkek, IF you had a double entry Kyrgyz visa. So, with some trepidation, we approached the customs man: he spent a long time looking at my passport, and specifically my Kyrgyz visa. Then he had a look in his rulebook, stopped to shout at some poor woman who was stood in the wrong place, looked at my visa again and stamped me in! Result!
We headed for the Mongolian embassy in Almaty (still 3 or 4 hours away) where we found Iain sitting outside waiting for his visa. After filling in the forms and paying for the express service, the visa was issued after only an hour or so. Result! Had already booked two nights in Almaty as I hadn't expected it to be this easy. As I had left my bike in Bishkek, I played tourist for a while in the big city.

Soundtrack: Tindersticks - A night in

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Into Kyrgystan, mountain country!

Fergana to Osh was a short ride, made a little longer by going to a border crossing that wasn't actually open. A short detour to the open border and the quickest crossing yet. The Kyrgyz were not really interested in the bike; no import papers to lose. A day spent in Osh (noting the increasing Chinese influence), drinking beer and eating pizza (just like the locals), and then it was into the mountains north to Bishkek. I set off alone, but Chris caught me up later in the day as I managed to take the longer, slower road out of Osh. Once out of the valley, the climb into the mountains was beautiful. Good quality tarmac, 95 octane petrol (!), and light traffic made for a great 2 days of riding. Broke the trip up by overnighting in Toktogul, by a stunning lake. 2 high passes the next day brought us to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgystan.

Soundtrack: Yes - Close To The Edge

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Samarkand, Tashkent, Fergana

Left Bukhara for the next Silk Road City: Samarkand. Needed petrol and was directed to (apparently) the only working petrol station in town. I guessed this was the case as there was a huge queue of waiting cars, and only 80 octane was available. So, I joined the end of the line and prepared for a long wait. All of 3 minutes as it turned out; the guy working the pump saw me and beckoned me to the front. I daren't make eye contact with the waiting motorists, but I got my 80 octane and sputtered off down the road.
The road to Samarkand was unremarkable, but the town itself was impressive. The Registan and various tombs and mosques................more blue tiles than you can shake a stick at, but very picturesque. Managed to find some (car) engine oil to perform the first oil change of the trip. Myself and Nacho muddled through, but it all seems to work OK afterwards.
Then on to Tashkent (where you CAN'T get a Mongolian visa!) to meet Chris. Nacho recued a member of the "Steel Scorpions" who screamed past us at warp 6 only to run out of petrol a few miles later. He was given a litre of petrol and after pushing his bike up and down the road several times to try and bump start him, finally had to tow him to get his bike going.
Tashkent: posh hotel (heavily discounted on the interweb), but they weren't pleased when this dirty, smelly biker rocked up to rub shoulders with the diplomats and Iranian football team (?). My first Chinese restaurant since Tblisi (even though it was staffed entirely by Russians, and the food was only so-so), and an Irish bar (overpriced and NO Guiness!) rounded off the day.
Next morning, the 3 of us headed East for Fergana (I like riding East!). Much prettier road today, mountains, curves, tree lined roads, and at one point, RAIN, the first since Hungary. Didn't last too long and after several police checkpoints we arrived in the Fergana valley itself. Chris' bike was experiencing bike problems (leaking water pump seal?), but he managed to nurse the XTR to our destination. It was dark when we arrived (and my headlight still isn't working; I really must change the bulb at some point), but we eventually managed to find our private apartment for the night.

Soundtrack: Everything But The Girl - Mirrorball

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Bukhara and a bit of luck

Our sorry little convoy of 4 bikes limped the last 50 or so miles to Bukhara the following morning after a fitful nights sleep on the roadside with trucks thundering past.
Found a nice B&B, washed away the sand and dirt from the past few days and went for a wander. The 45 degree heat, meant that I didn't wander far before bumping into Iain and another XT rider (John), so we retired to the shade for a cold beer and a post mortem of the Khiva/Bukhara Road. Spirits were a little down as I was concerned about my tyre. There are no big bikes out here, so the chances of finding a suitable tyre seemed slim. Continuing problems with the China section of the trip didn't lighten the mood. So, a late night and one too many beers left me slightly hungover the next day.
But that is when my luck began to change. As I ventured out of the B&B in the morning, a slighty frazzled looking Romanian biker (on a battered old Transalp), was packing his gear. I said hello and it turned out he was having rear tyre problems as well. He had found a local who spoke passable English and thay were about to head off to a tyre repairers. I grabbed my lid and followed them on a mad dash around Bukhara's backstreets trying to find the tyre shop. Many dead ends and phone calls later, we ended up at a tiny shack of a repair shop. The Romanians' rear tyre was soon inflated and then they looked at my tyre. Suddenly, he produced a somewhat worn, but perfectly serviceable old Michelin Anakee rear tyre of the right size. I was dumbfounded. A previous biker must have discarded them here and we just happened to turn up at the particular place that had them! I was fleeced for it, of course, but as there was no choice, it probably wasn't too bad a deal. So I am good to go! Where is another matter?
The luck continued as in the afternoon, the two missing bikers from our China group re-appeared. Turns out that they got stuck in Tajikistan just as the war broke out there. 3 weeks with no communications; but they are safe and well and back in Kyrgyzstan. Ended the day with food and beers with Iain, Nick, Kev and Brian the Aussie who had rode through Tajikistan before the trouble kicked off.

Soundtrack: Nick Harper - Headless

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Khiva, calamities and the Mongol rally

Khiva is nice, very well preserved and a fascinating place to wander around. Most of the old mosques, madrassas and caravanserais have been converted into museums, restaurants and hotels. Quite what orthodox Islam would make of that, I do not know. But the place still has an atmosphere about it.
I have gradualy been seeing more and more cars taking part in the Mongol Rally (UK to Ulaan Baatar); Khiva is obviously a focal point; they were everywhere. There are few roads in this part of the world, so all the overlanders are funnelled down a few routes.
Rumours of a very bad stretch of road (100km of bad!) from Khiva to Bukhara were piling up. So, with some trepidation, we rolled on after a couple of days in Khiva. Iain (English biker) wasn't far ahead of us (only 5 minutes at one point), but we were to arrive in Bukhara the day after him. The first bad signs came when we pulled over to a pair of English bikers (Kev and Nick) doing the Mongol rally on XT125s. Clutch problems meant some roadside repairs on their bikes. They were on top of the situation, so myself and Nacho pushed on, eventually reaching the bad strerch of road. I was quite enjoying it at first, thinking "this isn't too bad". Next thing I know, there was a sickening crunching sound and my rear tyre was devoid of air. Bugger! Now, this is in the middle of the Kyzylkum desert, 40+ degrees, no shade. We set about removing the rear wheel and taking out the inner tube. There was a big split in the tube, but worse still, my new rear tyre had a split in it. Some passing Russian bikers stopped to help and we got the new inner tube in the tyre and pumped it up, but it was ballooning out the split in the tyre. I very gingerly rode like this for a while, until Kev and Nick appeared and overtook us. They stopped soon after and I showed them my tyre. A passing truck stopped to see if we needed help (that would be a YES!). Their bush mechanic skills saw them put a thick piece of rubber between the inner tube and the split, to stop the tube poking out. Very much a short term solution, but I could ride again, albeit in constant fear of a total rear wheel failure and more than a little dehydrated.
We got to the end of the bad stretch of road and caught up with the XT125s again. It was getting late and daylight was fading. After one of the 125s died for a second time, we were still 50 or 60 miles short of Bukhara, so it was time to wild camp in the desert, again!

Soundtrack: Sex Pistols - Problems

Monday, 6 August 2012

Escape from Kazakhstan

After more than two days sat in Atyrau police stations trying to sort the paperwork issue, I finally managed to acquire the necessary police report that I had lost my documents; something to show the border guards at least. This would have been virtually impossible without the help of Mark (honorary British Consul in Atyrau) and Tatiana, the interpreter he found for me. Big thanks to you both!
So, with document in hand, I fled town heading for the Uzbek border (with Nacho, who had caught me up again). Late-ish start and a long ride brought us to Beyneu, just 50 miles short of Uzbekistan. Stayed the night ready for the crossing the next day.
The final 50 miles was a very bad road, soft sand, corrugations, angry dogs and British cyclists (Leo, hats off to you fella!). We made the border and the crossing was remarkably smooth. My police letter and photocopied V5 did the trick.
Uzbekistan!! The road from the border through the desert was long and hot. Longer than anticipated and by nightfall we were well short of any civilization. We had hoped to get to Khiva, but that was not going to be possible. After meeting some Finnish bikers and more British cyclists, we had no option but to wild camp in the desert.
It was actually a nice peaceful night, but it still took most of the next day to finally arrive in the fabled Khiva.

Soundtrack: Belle & Sebastian - The Rollercoaster Ride

Saturday, 4 August 2012

New shoes, lost boxes, big problems.

The day "off" the bike in Astrakhan saw me ride 20 odd miles trying to find the bike shop where my new tyres were waiting. The GPS coordinates I had been given were wrong. But after a combination of Google maps, guesswork and following a friendly Russian motorist who took pity on me, I eventually found the shop. The wheels were removed and taken (by car, along with myself) to a tyre workshop a couple of miles away. They had all the gear there and made short work of changing the tyres; they even balanced the wheels. So my bike is now wearing a new pair of Heidenau K60 Scouts. More suitable footwear for some of the roads ahead. During this process, it became clear that my cush drive rubbers were shot. I have a spare set though, so I am good to go. This all took the best part of a day, fortunately, I did my sightseeing yesterday. So, leaving Russia tomorrow after a brief visit of a tiny corner of this massive country. I will have to come back and do it properly someday. Spasiba Russia! Once across the border into Kazakhstan, everything changed. Firstly, a khaki clad border guard asked if I was carrying a gun (or maybe he was trying to sell me a gun?.) I bought insurance and a packet of crisps (another gourmet lunch) and hit the road. This stretch was pretty bad; potholes, machine gun toting cops and camels wandering into the road along with the cows and goats. All good so far, until I checked my mirrors. Something wrong? My topbox was gone. Turned round and backtracked for about 40 miles. No sign. I flagged down motorists, no joy. I spoke to a machine gun wielding cop. Incomprehension. The box contained all my bike documents most critically, my temp. import document, without which the bike can't leave Kazakhstan as well as my freshly bought insurance. Not good. Oh well, sort it out in Atyrau. That was the plan anyway. Kazakh officialdom is hard work. Spent virtually the whole of the following day in various police stations trying to explain my predicament to various police through a variety of unofficial translators. The day ended with promises of help tomorrow, IF I can find an interpreter.

Soundtrack: Levellers - Leave this town