Chapter 31 – Silk Roads to Siberia – Pt I

England – Uzbekistan

The long cold winter stretched all the way to Istanbul. The snowline throughout the Alps was still as low as 600m ski resorts normally looking sad and forlorn by mid-April still had plenty of snow and the car parks were full of eager skiers & snowboarders. Even as far south as Serbia I passed through banks of snow on passes only 1500m high. The only respite was the Croatian coast where despite still being chilly the sun was shining.

Along Croatia’s coast road

For a week my heated grips remained on all the time I was riding. During the night when temperature’s fell to 3°C my new, lightweight sleeping bag felt like it prevented me from dying rather than keeping me warm. In fact the only thing warm during that first week was the welcome I received from Mehmet, Apo & Tylan when I arrived at the Kuzgum Moto Adventures clubhouse on the outskirts of Istanbul. Yoshi was there to having flown his bike from Buenos Aires to Frankfurt last summer.

So what was I doing back in Istanbul anyway???

Where…When…Why…

Very few (myself included) had heard of Siberia’s ‘Road of Bones’ prior to the 2005 airing of Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boormans’ documentary travel film ‘Long Way Round’. Danny and I’s preparation was well underway by then but I was gripped by the challenge the road presented. However, it was challenging roads that were to be the undoing of our BMW’s.

Despite riding an unsuitable bike I couldn’t escape the lure of the RoB and with a decent internet connection and long winter evenings in New Zealand I ‘built’ a suitable bike on paper – a Suzuki DRZ400.

2013 Route Planning

Fascinated not only by the challenge of the RoB but by the ‘Great Game’ cities of Central Asia (aka the ‘Stans), the Pamir mountains and of course the legendary ‘Silk Road’ I began researching the region a few years ago.

At first I thought I would ship my bike from West Coast USA/Canada to South Korea then take the ferry to Vladivostock where I would enter Russia. I quickly realized though that the limited riding ‘season’ in Siberia and the onslaught of winter in Central Asia would seriously encroach on my time in the region.  That could all be avoided by a west to east crossing although that left the question what to do when I reach Russia’s Pacific coast?

All of those thoughts and research occurred prior to my involvement with Blazing Trails Tours and so when Damon and Suzie asked me to return in 2013 I needed to plan a route that would enable me to do so. Initially I thought I might be able to plan a route that would get me to India in time for the two Nepal tours in November but I soon realized it wasn’t feasible.

In the end I settled on a compromise and so the plan is to leave my bike in Kyrgyzstan over the winter and fly to India.

So, after much deliberation I finally settled on the following route –

France – Switzerland – Italy – Slovenia – Croatia – Montenegro – Serbia – Bulgaria – Turkey – Georgia – Armenia – Georgia – Russia – Kazakhstan – Uzbekistan – Tajikistan – Kyrgyzstan – Kazakhstan – Russia (Siberia – route details to come) – Mongolia – Russia – Kazakhstan – Kyrgyzstan (store bike) – Kazakhstan (fly India).

Initially I planned to take the ferry from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan but the already problematic route was made more so by the Azerbaijani’s last year.  Riding around the Caspian Sea would be much cheaper, it just meant having both my Russian and Kazakh visa’s start much earlier than I’d have liked.

Visas

My three years riding through the Americas have spoiled me. With the exception of Suriname, every country I visited was visa at the border. Rock up, wait, stamp, ride into the sunset. Not so in Russia and Central Asia…

Kyrgyzstan has recently introduced visa’a at the border in a bid to boost tourism. Many hoped that their neighbours would do likewise but it hasn’t been the case. Every other country requires a visa prior to arrival and in the case of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that means specifying dates. Arrive a day late and that’s a day less you can stay.

Worst of all is Turkmenistan. Unless you hire the services of a guide they’ll only issue a 5-day transit visa (for a specific route and specific dates).

Russian visa – Applied for 12 month multiple-entry business visa through Stantours. A letter of Invitation (LOI) from a Russian orgnisation is required but this letter cannot be applied for more than 45 days prior to the date of commencement of the visa. Once applied for it takes 18 WORKING days to be issued. Completed online application form and printed. Once in possession of the LOI you can submit your visa application (along with supporting documentation), which then takes 7 WORKING days to process plus a day to return it by post. The supporting documentation consists of a letter from your employer (on headed paper) that is based on a template supplied by the visa agency (I had to get creative). Then there’s the proof of funding (because I’m self-employed) which consisted of my last three months bank statements, the latest transaction being no more than two weeks old. Internet/ATM print outs are NOT acceptable unless authorized by your bank. Cost £393

Kazakhstan visa – Applied for 12 month multiple-entry business visa. LOI applied for through Stantours. Also required letter from employer so modified my Russian letter. Completed online application form and printed. Once in possession of the LOI I rode to the Kazakh Embassy in Kensington, London and submitted my application by hand. Cost of LOI – £100. Visa £150

A week later I collected my Kazakh visa and rode straight to Islington to submit my Russian visa application.

Uzbekistan visa – Applied for and collected in Istanbul. I applied for (and paid an extra U$30/£20 for) an ‘urgent’ visa which meant I received it in 6 days. Cost – U$80/£53 + U$30/£20 ‘urgent’ fee.

Tajikistan visa – Applied for and collected in Istanbul. Issued within 1 hour (along with GBAO permit for entry to the restricted Pamir region), eventually – see story later. Cost U$25 Visa, U$25 GBAO Permit.

Rosie’s Replacement

In 2009 when I swapped Lady P for Rosie I bottled it. I ‘ummed’ and ‘aaarrdd’ about the relative pro’s and conns of the 400 (that I’d built on paper back in ’07)) but ultimately I chose the 650 – a decision I have no regrets about.

In fact, I still maintain that the DR650SE is arguably the best platform on which to build an adventure travel bike. Shame they were never imported into the UK, and therein lye my problem.

I would happily have built another 650 in the UK had I been able to find one but I couldn’t.  It was either Nick Jones or Cristian Trefault (see Chapters 24 & 29) that showed me the advert that eventually led to the purchase of ‘Daisy’.

Doing the deal with Dan

Dan and his mate Ed had ridden a route very similar to what I had planned for 2013 in 2011 and wrote about it in their blog Brighton2Siberia. I’ll be covering my preparation of the bike in another post in ‘The Bikes’ tab.

Daisy needed a good overhaul before embarking on another big trip. ‘No problem’ I thought, ‘I’ll have five months in the UK from October to March (’12-’13). Ha! As I mentioned in the last chapter, my plans for work in the UK failed to materialize and I found myself ‘abroad’ until February 1st. My 5 months of preparation had suddenly turned into 6 weeks!

“When’s that ferry booked for!?” – Daisy had a good overhaul before departure

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my friends the Calvert family (Dom, Geraldine, Jamie and Harry) for giving me a home while I prepared Daisy and also to Natalie Digweed who not only gave me the use of her fabulous double garage to work in but also kept me well fed and watered with tea, biscuits, cake etc.  Without there help Chapter 31 would be a very different story. Thanks guys.

Don’t Panic!

My planned departure date of March 25th came round all too quickly and at 0130 on March 28th I was frantically shoving stuff into a big duffle bag thinking ‘I can sort that in Jersey’. I was out of bed again at 0530 the same morning and rode to Wareham in Dorset to have my re-worked rear shock re-worked at Falcon Shock Absorbers (the shortening had made it too short – the joys of short legs!) Robin had kindly agreed to do the job en-route to the ferry as it was the only opportunity I had.  I pulled the rear shock out in the car park, handed it to Robin and headed for the burger van for a breakfast bap. With Robin’s work complete I re-fitted the shock and raced off to Poole where boarding had already commenced. Phew!

March 28th was the day before Good Friday and I was off to spend the Easter holiday and my niece’s 3rd birthday with my sister and family prior to catching the ferry to the continent on April 8th.

An inauspicious start

My duffel bag of ‘I can sort that in Jersey’ along with a few outstanding jobs on the bike meant that the 8th became the 10th…and then the 11th after I casually rode into the ferry terminal 20 minutes before departure only to watch stern of my ferry disappearing through the sea wall…DOH!!!

Tail between my legs, I returned to my sister’s house and phoned her at work. I can only guess at the conversation she had once she’d hung up. “You’ll never believe what my dumb arse ‘world traveller’ brother has managed to do!?

That wasn’t even the inauspicious bit. The following morning I arrived on time but as I waited for a Porsche GT3 to negotiate its way onto the ferry without scraping its belly my engine stopped… and wouldn’t re-start. I ended up pushing my bike onto the ferry and instead of spending the crossing thinking about the road ahead I spent it thinking WTF is wrong with my bike?

A little over an hour later we docked in France. Then when I hit the starter button not only did the engine not start, it wouldn’t even turn over. I pushed it off the ferry and up the ramp to where I could work on it and set about removing the tank. I’d noticed liquid dripping from the airbox breather before leaving the ferry and wondered if the cylinder head was full of fuel. Sure enough, when I removed the spark plug that’s exactly what I found. A discarded plastic carton made an improvised shield as I pumped out the excess fuel and fitted a new spark plug. (NB – I still have no idea why this happened. It hasn’t happened since).

The fun and games were far from over though. An hour after commencing work I rode away only to find myself locked inside the customs area of the port…DOH! It was only when a kind maintenance worker noticed my plight that a gate was opened and I finally made it onto French roads. Barely out of town and the throttle stuck open. Grrrrrrr…… “How far am I planning on riding this f**** bike???” I thought…

In Transit

I didn’t stop to take any photo’s for the first few days. I just rode, bought supplies and camped. That all changed once I hit Croatia’s Adriatic coast.

I returned to Kotor (where Danny and I had stayed with Myscov back in 2006) but only stopped for lunch before turning inland over the mountains and through Serbia and Bulgaria to Turkey.

Kotor: Europe’s most southerly fjord

Turkey

Istanbul is a great place to procure visas en-route and that’s exactly what I did. Having arrived on a Thursday evening I rode straight to the Uzbekistan Consulate the following morning (they’re only open for visa applications Mon, Weds & Fri). I’d read that for an extra fee of U$30 I could apply for an ‘urgent’ visa and have it issued the same day but when I mentioned that the to Consul he just laughed and said “Wednesday….maybe. Phone on Tuesday” That hardly seems like an express service I said. What if I apply for the ‘normal’ service? “Monday. Week after” came the reply. ‘Urgent’ it was.

From there I met up with Yoshi and together we rode to the Tajikistan Consulate where we were told “Sorry, we’re closed until Tuesday, Come back then and we can do everything in one hour”.

Sultanahmet Camii (The Blue Mosque) – Istanbul

And so it was that after a weekend in a hostel in Sultanahmet (the old part of the city) I returned to the Tajik Consul alone (Yoshi was sick).

Upon my arrival I was surprised to find it so busy and even more surprised to find the Consul’s aid serving tea to all those waiting. It wasn’t long before I learned their story…

It turns out that on the Sunday, Tajikistan had implemented a new computer system even though it was unable to issue visas on arrival at Dushanbe (Tajik capital) International airport for another 10 days. However, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the authorities failed to tell any airlines until after passengers had checked in and been issued boarding cards. At the last minute, as passengers were waiting to board, they were told that any foreign nationals not already in possession of a visa would not be allowed to board and would have to attend the consulate on Tuesday (Monday was a national holiday in Tajikistan).

Apparently some kicked off big time and were immediately deported by the Turks! The rest (45 from one plane and 6 from another) had to recover their bags, find accommodation, get to the Consulate and obtain visas before they could re-book flights (of which there are only two per week on Sundays and Wednesdays!)

As you can imagine it was a cluster fuck. Both the Consul and his assistant had been home to Tajikistan for the holiday and knew nothing of what was going on until they arrived at work on Tuesday morning!

I was there from 1030 until 1700 when, with five of us left the Consulate ran out of visa stickers! I finally got to speak to the Consul and agree to return two days later on the Thursday as my plight wasn’t as urgent as the others.

On the Thursday in question Yoshi and I rode to the Consulate and found it once again to be the tranquil and friendly place we had first encountered.  We dealt directly with the Consul himself and within an hour had not only been issued 45-day visas but also GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) permits required for travel in the border region of the Pamir Mountains. We’d also been given tourist maps and a packet of postcards! Best of all was the price. In London a 30-day double entry visa costs £90 and the GBAO permit £50 (Total U$217). In Istanbul they cost U$25 each!!!

I said goodbye to Yoshi and the guys at Kuzgum who’d been such a great help and set off into the dense and aggressive Istanbul traffic. Three days later I entered Georgia.

L-R: Apo, Mehmet, me, Tylan, unknown, and Yoshi (Saburo) at Kuzgum Moto Adventures, Istanbul

Georgia

Having left Jersey four days later than planned and spending more time in Istanbul than planned (due to the Tajik visa delay) I was running behind schedule. Not something that would usually bother me, indeed normally I wouldn’t have a schedule. But Central Asia is different thanks to the Uzbek and Tajik visas start and finish dates. Arrive a day late and your 30-day visa becomes a 29-day visa. Fortunately I was able to procure a 45-day Tajik visa and so I overlapped it with my Uzbek one to give me a little flexibility.

The result was that I only spent five nights in Georgia and ended up skipping Armenia completely.

Batumi

A walk around Batumi showed a town on the up. Many buildings were being renovated and converted into apartment buildings and the dockside already contained several highrise buildings including one with its own miniature ‘Batumi Eye’.

Spot the ‘Batumi Eye’

‘Batumi Eye’

As I walked around I thought ‘someone’s going to make a killing here’ and then I encountered a piece of land cleared for development with a billboard announcing ‘Trump Tower’. I wondered what had happened to him after the Scottish pissed him off!

Gambling is legal in Georgia (unlike Turkey) and so Batumi appears to be developing as something of the Las Vegas of the Black Sea.

Eastbound

From Batumi I rode east through the beautiful Adjaristsqali (Achariskali) Valley and up to the ski resort of Shuakhevi. Somewhere during the dirt road descent I lost the 2ltrs of Motul engine oil I’d picked up in Istanbul for my next change in Uzbekistan where I knew decent oil would be hard to find. I didn’t notice until I returned to my bike after visiting Sapara Monastery, itself 14km along a dead-end track. Bugger.

Next stop was Vardzia where a curious ‘holy city’ was carved into the rock during the 12th Century. Containing a church and a monastery thought to have housed up to two thousand monks it developed from the adjacent 10th Century Ananuri cave village.

Vardzia – Cave City

A few nights in the capital Tibilisi followed before crossing the Caucasus Mountains on the Georgian Military Highway. Along the way I stopped in Kazbegi where I planned to experience a ‘homestay’.

Not knowing where I would first be able to get cash/buy fuel once I crossed the Russian border, I filled up on the way into town. After paying I looked disbelievingly into my wallet to see just 15 LARI (GBP6/U$9) remaining. I would need 25-30 for a homestay. There was no bank in town. Bugger.

I found a place to camp in some woods at the edge of town but I wasn’t really sure about it. After sitting around for a while, making lunch and watching the world go by and slowly getting a feeling for the place so four local guys arrived in their Mitsubishi Delica and unpacked a huge picnic complete with 5 litres of homemade Georgian wine. It wasn’t long before they invited me to join them and over a few(!) glasses of homebrew I learned they were mountain guides from the village just above Kazbegi. Camping there was no problem they assured me.

Later that evening I was approached by an Austrian couple who had left their bicycles in Tibilisi and taken the bus to avoid the 3-day (each way) journey. They asked me if it was ok to camp and so I relayed the story above. A few hours later and two Ukrainian climbers arrived and asked me the same question. Suddenly I felt like the bloody administrator!

[NOTE: Later on, when counting monies for declaring at the Uzbek border, I found I DID have 30 LARI. My quick look in my wallet showed three brown notes but I’d forgotten that the 5 and 20 LARI notes are both the same size and colour! DOH!!!]

Southern Russia

The following morning I got up early and rode down the valley to Russia and a border crossing that only opened to non-Georgian/Russians last summer. I was expecting a cluster fuck like I’d experienced in Central America but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

All proceedings took place inside a ‘compound’ with the numbers of vehicles allowed to enter at any one time strictly controlled. Unsure of the process a Russian guy who spoke a little English showed me to the customs declaration counter where I had to fill out a form in duplicate. It was of course written in Russian and so I stared at it blankly wondering how the hell I was going to complete it when the customs officer told me not to worry as he would help me. I handed over my passport and V5 (UK Vehicle Registration document) and he duly completed the form in duplicate before taking me to the next office! All in it took me 1h50mins to exit Georgia and enter Russia. I was astounded.

There were no insurance agents at the border though (road traffic insurance is compulsory in Russia) and so 30km north I rode into Vladikavkaz to find an ATM (cash machine) and buy insurance. It took me ages to find my way to the insurance company thanks in part to the one-way system and various road closures but once I found it the process was quick and easy. In less than an hour I was 3500 Rubles (£73/U$110) lighter but in possession of a 12-month policy that would cover the duration of my multiple-entry visa. A big thank you to Stephen Stallebrasse  (www.AdventureVagabond.com) for the information that led me to the insurance company.

In the little shop opposite the lady had just locked the door for lunch but opened it again for me. I only wanted a cold drink and a chocolate bar but the ATM had given me 5000 Ruble (£100/U$150) notes. I showed her what I had and she searched her purse to give me change to spend in the shop. It was the kind of extremely friendly, helpful gesture I would come to encounter regularly through Russia.

Heading North East out of town towards Chechnya I passed within 12km of Beslan, scene of the 2004 School siege/massacre. Had I realized that at the time I would have paid a visit. Shame.

I did visit an immaculate, new memorial on the outskirts of Nasran in Ingushetiya which I think is entitled ‘Memorial for the memory of victims of political repressions’.

‘Memorial for the memory of victims of political repressions’. Nazran, Ingushetiya, Russia

I rode on through police/military checkpoint after checkpoint. Some less than 1km apart. Always the same questions – ‘Where are you from?’ – ‘Where are you going?’ – ‘Do you speak Russian?’ and ‘Can you pull a wheelie?’ Not once was I asked for my papers.

Whenever I stopped I was always approached by the locals eager to discover where I was from, where I was going, and have their photo taken with me. I guess there’s been a glut of tourists in recent years!

All morning I rode through ideal bush camping countryside but of course once I started looking for a place to camp in the late afternoon there was nothing to be found. I rode on into Dagestan and a rapidly descending sun, exploring several sandy tracks but all I found were swarms of mosquitoes.

Searching for a bushcamp at sunset has its photographic benefits

Come darkness I resided myself to heading for the next town to find a hotel but the towns were few and far between. At almost 2200 I spotted a sign with a bed that said 24H and pulled off the road into what appeared to be an all but deserted truckstop.

Walking through the door I received the welcome of a long lost brother and was quickly served cup of tea and a huge bowl of Borst before being shown to a bed.

Saying goodbye to the family: Truckstop, Dagestan, southern Russia

Kazakhstan

I said goodbye to the family and set off across the flat landscape for the border. Something here triggered my hayfever (that I haven’t suffered with for years) and at times I was stopping every 10km to blow my nose. There’s only so much snot one can swallow (headwind) or have spread across ones cheeks (sidewind) before needing to stop. It made for slow progress.

It was late afternoon when I left the border east of Astrakhan and rode into Kazakhstan and I rode about half way to Atyrau before finding a place to camp. The following morning I rode into town, got cash from the ATM, filled up with gas and continued east. Soon after I saw two loaded bikes in a gas station and pulled in for a chat.

Michael and Elizabeth (friends) had ridded a KTM950SE and Honda Africa Twin from Austria and were heading for Mongolia. They weren’t alone. Helmut and Geert were driving their €500 support car (a Mitsubishi Lancer 4×4 estate) that they planned on ‘donating’ to someone in Mongolia.

After a long chat we decided to ride for a couple of hours then find a place to camp, and that was when the ‘fun’ started.

All around was sand. No problem for Michael and I but it was to become Liz’s/the Africa Twins undoing. We headed about a kilometre from the road and found a spot that was out of sight but we were alone. We waited and waited but the others didn’t arrive and so we backtracked to find them.

Before making it as far as the deeper sand Liz’s clutch had failed and the bike was going nowhere. All we could do was to wait for it to cool down overnight and see if it worked in the morning.

Michael cooked a very good chicken stew which we washed down with a few beers from the last shop.

In the morning we returned to where we’d left Liz’s bike but there was no sign of life in the clutch. We moved it to a less sandy area and set up a tarpaulin on which to work. Lots had to be removed from the bike in order to access the clutch and when we finally did we were all dismayed to discover a design in which the pressure plate is retained by the centre nut (that retains the basket) and not by the spring bolts as in virtually every other design. All attempts to remove the nut failed; we just didn’t have sufficient leverage to undo it. Had we been able to undo it we may have been able to bodge something up to make it rideable on tarmac; but we couldn’t.

In the shade of my bike my temperature gauge read 33°C but there was no shade big enough to make use of. We were melting and by early afternoon it was decided that the only option would be to find a truck to take Liz and her bike to the Uzbekistan border, then another to take it to Bukhara where they would wait for parts to be flown in from Austria.

Desert Maintenance – Kazakhstan

There was nothing more I could do and so I said goodbye and set off for Beyneu where I filled up with fuel before commencing the horrible pot holed 85km road to the Uzbek border. My visa had started the previous day and so I could have entered that evening but with only 1.5hrs daylight left I opted to camp 20km away.

Kazakh bushcamp

That was where I made this video…

SWR – The Video Diaries – Test Pilot

Uzbekistan

I’d spent the previous evening counting my various currencies to declare at the border and checking my medical kit for banned substances. Codeine is derived from Morphine, an opiate and is classified a class 2 drug in Uzbekistan that commands a prison sentence of up to 10 years and with stories of prisoners being boiled alive it wasn’t something I fancied.

As I approached the border so I rode past a long line of trucks. Many had Latvian and Lithuanian plates and I later learned they were all driven by Russians and were delivering fresh meat to NATO troops in Northern Afghanistan.

Once inside the compound I found the Austrians loading Liz’s bike into the back of a second truck. The first had driven them through the night arriving at 0400 only to find the border closed until 0800. They were understandably tired and eager to get moving.

In the customs hall I was handed a declaration form written in Russian or Uzbek I wasn’t sure which. Either way I had no idea what I was about to declare so I asked if they had them in English and sure enough they did! I had to declare ALL of my electronics, currency and vehicle. If I were later found with anything I hadn’t declared then they had the right to confiscate it so it wasn’t a form I wanted to complete incorrectly.

Once again the process was surprisingly easy and in just 1h50mins I rode out of the compound and into the hoards of waiting money changers. Knowing there was no bank for the next 500km I changed U$50 into local currency (SOM) and was handed SOM133,000. The largest note in Uzbekistan is SOM1000 so it was quite a wad!

U$50 = SOM133,000. Uzbekistan black market

A few kilometre’s down the road I caught up with the Austrians and ate lunch in a roadside truckstop. There plan was for the car to follow Liz and the truck to Bukhara whilst Michael visited Moynaq (site of the original Aral Sea coast) and Khiva. I had the same intentions and so it was that we ended up riding together.

We turned off the main road at Kungrad and rode into town to fill up with fuel – only there was none – anywhere. There was gaz and diesel but no gas/petrol/benzine. We asked around but it wasn’t even available to buy on the black market. We’d ridden something like 450km since the last fuel in Kazakhstan and not knowing where we’d find it next we had to scrap our plans to visit Moynaq. Instead we returned to the main road and found a field to camp in 50km further on.

It wasn’t until we reached Khujayn near Nukus the next morning that we spotted a woman waving a plastic bottle on the end of a stick: We’d finally found black market fuel. U$1/1ltr was the going rate but it was only 80 octane.

Black market fuel vendor

Khiva

There are several theories regarding Khiva’s founding but one of the more popular says that Shem (son of Noah) founded the city after discovering a well. It really prospered though through the 17th-19th centuries when it ran a busy slave market. Today it’s the smallest and least visited of Uzbekistan’s three major historical cities.

Khiva, Uzbekistan

Ladies day out – Khiva, Uzbekistan

Before 0900 and after 1900 we virtually had the old city to ourselves which was great and the local market just outside the city walls ensured we ate at local prices.

After two nights we packed up and headed for Bukhara but not before filling up with fuel arranged by our guesthouse owner. Once back on the main road we left the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan and the first fuel station we came to had gas/petrol/benzine. Nobody could (or would) explain the supply problem to the autonomous region. A while later I spotted two cyclists stopped at the roadside and so I stopped to make sure they had enough water etc. Peter and Alice McNeil (McNeilsOnWheels) had left England in September 2012, were en-route to New Zealand and were on honeymoon!

English honeymooners  Peter & Alice en-route to New Zealand. Uzbekistan

Bukhara

Bukhara wasn’t always tourist friendly…

In 1839 British Intelligence Officer Colonel Charles Stoddart arrived in Bukhara on a mission to reassure Emir Nasrullah Khan about Britain’s invasion of Afghanistan. Unfortunately for Colonel Stoddart his superiors had sent him without gifts and with a letter from the govenor general of India and not Queen Victoria. As if that weren’t bad enough he broke local protocol by riding instead of walking up to the Emir’s palace. Outraged Nasrullah threw him in jail where he spent much of his time in the ‘bug pit’, a 7m deep hole accessed only from above via a 6m long rope.

A visit from the local executioner suggested that conversion to Islam might just allow Stoddart to keep his head. He chose the survival tactic but when the news reached England it scandalised the government who promptly dispatched Captain Arthur Conolly of the Bengal Light Infantry to secure his release and he duly arrived in Bukhara three years after Stoddart. The Emir didn’t take kindly to Conolly’s arrival and believing him to be part of a British plot involving the Khans of Khiva and Kokand promptly threw him in jail with Stoddart.

It was poor timing. The British were massacred in Kabul and Britain’s reputation in Central Asia crumbled. Fed up with his ‘guests’ the Emir had them dig their own graves before beheading them both on crimes of spying for the British Empire.

The story didn’t quite end there though. The British Government decided not to pursue the matter any further and so the outraged friends and family of the deceased raised the funds to send their own man to discover the true fate of the two soldiers. That man was Rev Joseph Wolff who narrowly escaped with his life after the emir found his religious dress hysterically funny!

Kalon Mosque, Bukhara

Liz had found a great place to stay in Bukhara right on the edge of the old city. Complete with a large courtyard, big rooms, sumptuous breakfast and an English speaking host it was the perfect place from which to visit the city during the cooler hours and relax during the hotter ones.

We weren’t the only ones to think that way. First two Dutch cyclists who’d been on the road for 10 months arrived. The soon recommended it to fellow cyclist, Italian Francesco who’d just ridden 600km across the desert of Turkmenistan in 5-days to meet the demands of his transit visa. Then the Brits arrived. First were Griff and Lisa in their Landrover 90 and ex-army trailer who were heading to Australia to start new lives and finally Pete & Alice. With draft beer available for SOM3000 (U$1.10/£0.72) they were sociable times!

Most expensive oil change

Before leaving Bukhara I needed to change my engine oil.  I was already down £20/U$30 after losing the oil I’d bought in Istanbul so really didn’t need what happened next. Finding suitable engine oil in Uzbekistan isn’t easy. There are virtually no motorcycles so nobody stocks motorcycle oil and many car oils have additives unsuitable for wet clutches. I was therefore happy to find a Castrol dealer that had Castrol Power 1 Scooter 10w40 (SAE SJ – JASO MA) and had an immaculate workshop that I could change it in. The oil change went quickly but when I went to leave one of my gloves was missing.

I searched the workshop, outside where I’d parked prior to entering and along the street incase it had blown away. I even searched through the pile of tarmac some workmen were digging up in case it had been shoveled up. Nothing. Who would steal one glove? If I’d dropped it outside who would take one glove?

They were the only pair I had and no motorcycles in the country of course meant no motorcycle shops.

It was Michael the Austrian who came to the rescue. His girlfriend along with Helmut’s wife, were due to fly into Dushanbe, Tajikistan 10 days later and so we found some online in a shop that had a branch near to her work. In the meantime Michael leant me his girlfriends gloves to see me through the next few weeks until we met again.

My oil change ended up costing £20/U$30 + £12/U$18 + £42/U$63 = £74/U$111. AAARRRGGGHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

Samarkand

With Liz’s bike repaired we all rode to Samarkand together. It was another hot days ride across flat farmland although the mountains were a teasing line penciled on the horizon.

Our hotelier in Bukhara had given us a business card for a place to stay in Samarkand and we arrived to find a huge courtyard with ample parking and shade just 10 minutes walk from the main attraction: The Registan. Three medressas (the oldest of which was completed in AD1420) all facing a central square, must rate as Uzbekistan’s, if not Central Asia’s most impressive man-made sight. Instead of trying to describe them I’ll let a photo do the talking (shame about the staging being erected for a festival – in August!)

The Registan: Samarkand, Uzbekistan

I quickly settled into the routine I’d employed in the previous two cities which was; up early and visit a few sights, return for breakfast before going out again for a few hours. Come late morning I’d return to the shade of the hotel to escape the heat of the day (35°C in the shade) before going out again late in the afternoon.

Registran: Ulugbek Medrassa. The Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Call of the Mountains

By the time I left Samarkand I’d had enough of city life and was ready for the mountains. I said ‘Hasta Luego’ to the Austrians and headed off towards Oybek and the border with Tajikistan. As I got closer to the border so the police checkpoints became more frequent. At one point I was stopped and asked to show my documents on one side of a bridge and then again on the other. At the second checkpoint they wanted copies of all my documents. “What? You’re joking right? I’ve just ridden almost 2000km across your country through countless checkpoints and now you want copies!!!???” Baring in mind that I speak neither Uzbek nor Russian and they didn’t speak English there was a lot of gesticulating going on. The more senior of the two officers made a phone call after which he kept pointing at his phone and then to the sky before apologizing. I took it that he was just following orders of the big boss, wherever he may be. Anyway, given that protocol determined that they required copies you’d have thought they’d have a photocopy machine right? Wrong. The more junior officer took all my documents and drove to the next village to copy them whilst I waited with the other.

Finally I got my documents returned and 45 minutes after stopping I was on my way. But the fun wasn’t over yet…

The border to Tajikistan lays 100m east of the main Tashkent – Bekobod road. As I approached from the north so I indicated to turn left into the border only for the policeman at the checkpoint south of the junction (that I didn’t need to pass through) to run out in front of me waving his baton. I was obviously in the same province as the previous checkpoint and he too had orders to take copies of my documents. WTF! “I’m leaving. Well, I’m trying to but you’re preventing me from doing so!” I said. He shrugged and whistled across to the tea stall from where a youth appeared and was handed all of my documents to take to the shop 200m away for copying.

There’s no shortage of leftover Soviet bureaucracy/mentality in in Uzbekistan that’s for sure.

Finally inside the border the first thing I had to do was to make another customs declaration that mirrored the one I completed upon entry but with adjusted cash currency values. Then there was passport control: a simple exit stamp in most countries but not so Uzbekistan. Oh no…remember that bureaucracy I mentioned above? Well in Uzbekistan a hotel/guesthouse/lodgings accepting foreign nationals has to be registered with the government to do so. When you check –in they have to register your passport in a log and fill in a registration slip for the guest. When the guest leaves the date is added to the slip, which then receives the special stamp. An official visits the hotel daily to record arrivals/departures.

When leaving the country the immigration officer compares the number of nights spent in the country with the nights accounted for by registration slips. If you’re lucky they’ll give you a bit of lea-way. I’d bushcamped in the desert on the first night so I had one night unaccounted for but nothing was said. I guess it’s the luck of the draw with the mood of the officer on duty and the number of nights discrepancy. There are fines, or should I say bribes, to be paid for missing nights before an exit stamp can be issued.

Outside a guy in military uniform was bellowing at staff Sergeant Major style. When he’d had his say he turned to me and asked for my passport and bike papers. Great, now I’ve got an angry arsehole to deal with. He disappeared with my papers and reappeared with them ten minutes later. I wrongly presumed he’d just checked my bike out of the country but I was soon put right on that front when I was called back to customs. When I handed over my papers I was asked for ‘the other one’ but I had no ‘other one’. He was referring to a Temporary Import Paper that I hadn’t been issued upon entry. I though it unusual when I entered but then so was the whole customs declaration form that listed my mode of transport, make, year of manufacture, chassis, engine and registration numbers and so I presumed (wrongly) that doubled as my TIP.

After searching for me with both my passport number and bike registration number but drawing a blank they decided to phone the border where I’d entered. I was told to wait for a reply.

Whilst I waited I watched the Turkish truck driver next to me asked for a bribe of U$20 and observed the transaction take place outside the office. I didn’t hear the phone ring, I’m not convinced it did but after putting my head down as if to go to sleep whilst I waited I was suddenly given my papers and told I could leave.

On reflection my experience of Uzbekistan had slowly deteriorated as I rode east. The people of Karakalpakstan had been extremely helpful and friendly. In Samarkand the double pricing, or rather ‘what can I get away with charging’ became more apparent and in Samarkand it was not only blatant the attitude of money, money, money (for poor/no service) was rife.

Finally in the Tajik side of the border things couldn’t have ben more different. “Hello, welcome, where are you from?” U$10 bought me a 15-day TIP for my bike (the maximum available) and I was soon free to leave.

The border marked a change of country, a change of attitude at more importantly at that moment, a change in the weather. But more about that next time…

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18 Responses to Chapter 31 – Silk Roads to Siberia – Pt I

  1. Geoff Hill says:

    Brilliant stuff, Adam. Makes our trip at http://www.adelaideadventures.com seem like a doddle! Keep it up. Photos as inspired as ever. Geoff

  2. Geoff Mason says:

    … and I thought oil changes in Argentina were expensive ! Great to see you back on the road Adam. Your blogs will lighten up our dreary lives back in the first world.

    Geoff & Gus @ Sydney

  3. “and that, my friends, is way I will never travel through there…” is what I was thinking to myself after reading about all your troubles. But boy, what a story … :-)

    I’m currently in Thailand with the bike, so not all that far from you. No idea where next. Laos and Cambodia are obvious, but then I don’t know yet. Maybe I’ll see you in India, who knows.

  4. Mark Hill says:

    Hi Adam,
    was expecting a dinner visit before you left and wondered where you got to ha ha.
    Great blog, thanks as always.

  5. Steve head says:

    Interesting read as always.

  6. linda bick says:

    Green with envy as usual. Am doing a talk for HUB in Qld in September, so I will think of you too. ride Safe, Linda

  7. philippe says:

    hey Adam
    the story continues, very good…….we follow you and wishes you a nice journey….
    Chunny and Philippe….

  8. Adam,
    You are amazing and committed….I come from east to West across Asia but we went way north…I am glad we did not go throught this crossing hassel that much….I would just ruin it for me….I always found the country Russian people to be just great…Watch out in the big towns for for Mafia…Generally they help you as well, but they have the power to make sure not a scrap of you is every found again.
    Good luck.

  9. Robin Jack says:

    Good to hear from you Adam. Stay safe mate.

  10. dunters says:

    Hey Adam,
    Glad to see you back on the road and great to catch up. Sorry you won’t be back at Blazing Trails on time for the Nov. Nepal tour as a friend and I are seriously contemplating taking it.
    cheers and best of luck,
    -duncan

    • adamlewis says:

      Ahhhh….Dunters….but I will be there. For both the Nepal tours and Kerala in January. The question is; will you be?

  11. John says:

    Nice to see you back on the road again.

    Hope you have more great adventures.

  12. Damon says:

    Great one Adam :)

  13. demon says:

    Hey Adam good to have caught up with you for a Ruby back in Feb. Really good to read your adventures…. Look after yourself dude.

    demon

  14. Rod Theobald says:

    Your travels amaze me, and your photos are fantastic. RodT

  15. Tom says:

    Love the Russian checkpoint questions! Good to catch up – your story is as inspiring as ever! Glad to know you’re still going strong!

  16. thewize says:

    Love the Russian checkpoint questions! Your story is as inspiring as ever, glad to see you are still going strong!

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