Lakes and Lexuses

After negotiating the slippery mud track over the mountain pass from the Tajikistan passport control to the Kyrgyz side, the two riders were optimistic about the time likely to be taken to complete the Kyrgyz formalities.  Another traveller who had passed this way recently had reported that it took only 5 minutes to get through and out into Kyrgyzstan.  On arrival, they were faced with the usual closed gate, but an unusually out-of-control dog.  The dogs at border posts are usually well trained, well handled or both.  This one however spotted the bikes coming, or perhaps smelt his Tajik counterpart on the rear wheel of Dan’s DRZ and bounded out onto the track in front of Ed, who was already braking hard to come to a halt at the closed gate.  More brake had the WR crossed-up and sideways and the world slowed down as Ed did his very best not to hit the dog.  Killing or injuring the border guards’ dog is considered a major overlanding faux pas.

After an initial show of passports to the guard at the gate, the gate was opened and the guys were directed to passport control.  The passport stamp was easily obtained, and things only got complicated at the next port of call – the narcotics control officials.  The narcotics officers wanted to do a thorough search of the bikes, demanding that all bags be opened.  This is not unreasonable, most of the western world’s supply of illicit opiates comes through Tajikistan from Afghanistan, and a fair proportion probably makes it’s way through this very border gate.  What was once the Silk Road is now the Heroin Highway.  Whilst not unreasonable, it is however pretty inconvenient, and laying out the contents of the panniers on the dusty yard wasn’t quite how Dan and Ed had planned to spend this particular 40 minutes of their lives.

Ed had to contend with his officer taking a great interest in his water-purification chlorine tablets, asking to keep them, and being placated with an offer of two to try.  Dan’s first challenge was getting his headtorch back off the head of his inspecting officer without causing undue offence, and his second was buried a little deeper.  The officer had spotted the battery box under the rear mudguard of the DRZ and asked what it was.  Dan explained that it was the battery, and then faced the repeated request of, “Battery! Open!”.  Given an hour or so in a nice warm workshop, it’d be perfectly simple to remove the luggage, then unbolt the seat and remove the subframe mounting bolts in order to remove the rear luggage rack, unbolt the bodywork panel to get to the battery, disconnect it, remove the mounting clamp and the battery, and prove that there really wasn’t a stash of narcotics in there.  (As any DRZ owner knows, there’s barely room for enough electricity to start the bike, never mind enough poppy-products to make it worthwhile taking the bike apart to get them in there).  However, it was now starting to snow again and a complete bare-frame strip-down of the bike really wasn’t what Dan had in mind.  Claiming not to have the tools to remove the required parts, Dan continued to offer opened bags for the officers to examine.  Thus distracted, the officer did eventually seem content, though having seemingly developed some kind of electrical Tourette’s, the occasional “Battery! Open!” still escaped his lips as the other officer softened and offered a shelter for the bikes to be parked under before asking the riders to come up and have their documents examined.  By the time enough information about the bikes had been written down in the ledger, a hailstorm was raging outside.

The narcotics/customs officer offered the guys some tea while they waited for the hail to pass.  This was an easy decision and perhaps the officer wasn’t so bad a guy after all.  Once in the hut which seemed to pass for the officers’ mess, the guys were given not just tea, but also a share of their lunch of lagman – a noodle dish with vegetables and meat common in the region.  By the end of the free lunch, the hail storm had abated somewhat, and it was time to get on the bikes and head towards Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan.  Another self-appointed border guard dog however had different ideas for Ed, biting Ed’s ankle as he rode towards the gate.  Sidi clearly design the Crossfire motocross boot to be resistant to aggressive dogs, and Ed’s ankle remained unscathed.  His trouser leg however had not got off quite so lightly, now being neatly perforated at ankle height.  Rather than being the one of the easiest border crossings, the Kyrgyz entry had now qualified as being the most problematic border crossing in Brighton2Expeditions history.

The road away from the border was initially crumbling tarmac and dilapidated washed-out gravel track, but around Sari-Tash it improved into a good (probably chinese-built) tarmac road to Osh.  The weather however decided that as the road surface was no longer providing any challenge, it should get involved and threw first torrential rain, then another hail-storm at the cowering British bikers.  By the time they arrived in Osh, the weather had calmed down and brightened up, and the remaining challenge was just the conventional one of finding somewhere to stay.  This took a while, the first few places being either full, extortionately expensive or both, but eventually Hotel Alay was located and the bikes were motored up the steps into the foyer.

After wandering out to find provisions, the guys were interested to see an unusual vehicle parked outside the hotel – a Belgian registered sidecar outfit, consisting of a soviet sidecar mounted to a Suzuki DR 350 (the ageing air-cooled ancestor of Dan’s DRZ).  The rider turned out to be a friendly guy in his fifties, merrily pottering across Central Asia and about to head back towards Belgium.  He had a lead for a homestay in Toktugul, about halfway to the capital, Bishkek.  On the morning of 18 June, the city residents were treated to the sight of three little trail bikes, one with a hilarious sidecar, pottering through the streets of Osh towards Toktugal.  The band of three didn’t last that long however before a navigational malfunction on the part of Dan and Ed sent them off on a tangent to the correct path.  Having headed west too early and finding themselves at an old, disused Uzbekistan border crossing, the guys re-routed off down what seemed to be a convenient shortcut shown on the Open Street Map maps installed in their GPS units back to the route.

This turned out to be a slightly less obvious road than first thought, but was clearly still a right-of-way in occasional use, only causing a problem when the bikes had to be manhandled over a ditch, ridden down a steep bank, across a vegetable patch and through a small swamp to rejoin the useable track.  After a few miles more, the track eventually emerged into a small village, where more excitement was on its way.  The tradition in these parts is for a wedding to be as dramatic, expensive and loud an affair as possible, and a motorcade appeared with horns and sirens wailing, lights flashing and tyres screeching.  One of the car passengers seemed to be beckoning to the two foreigners, but as they were covered in mud from their recent vegetable patch excursion, they felt a little under-dressed for wedding celebrations and carried on towards the main road.

The road wound its way through the mountains, where the two bikes unencumbered by sidecars found themselves catching up with their Belgian buddy.  The winding road made the outfit look terrifying to a following Dan, and after a few worrying moments of heavy braking in tunnels, Dan also made his way past and joined Ed out front.  The solo machines left the sidecar behind, confident that they’d see it at the homestay later that evening.

Out of the mountains and towards Toktugul reservoir, the road passed a row of small shops and cafes and the like.  Dan was briefly aware of yet another large dog bounding out into the road alongside him from the left, but the next thing to catch his eye was a car coming the other way at high speed.  Looking in his mirror, Dan could only see bits of broken plastic bumper and grille emerging from under the rear of the car as it screeched to a halt.  Dan had no intention of stopping lest he somehow be deemed responsible for encouraging the dog into the road in the first place, the dog probably not being in possession of a third party insurance certificate valid for Kyrgyzstan either.

Arriving in Toktugul, the address of the homestay was located with the aid of a local guy on a bicycle.  The problem was, there was no one home to stay with.  The guy on the bicycle offered to head down the road with a couple of hundred Som to buy the guys a Kyrgyz SIM card.  However, calling the number given with the address resulted only in a message in Russian to the effect of “number temporarily unavailable”.  This was not looking promising.  One of the neighbours noticed the general fuss going on outside, and wandered over speaking excellent English to assist.  The English-speaking cardiologist then offered to lead the guys to the two hotels in town, first to the cheap one (which was undergoing refurbishment or demolition, it wasn’t clear which) and then to the more expensive one, which was still affordable.  With bikes parked out of sight round the back, the guys settled down for a couple of beers and a bite to eat.

The target for Sunday 19 June was to get to Bishkek to apply for Kazakh visas on Monday morning.  The two mountain passes passed through the summer pastures and everywhere around were herds of horses or cattle and traditional yurts and occasional caravans, all with animals outside, but a fair number with modern 4x4s parked outside too.

Repeated stops to deal with Ed’s earplugs were nothing compared to the navigational challenge awaiting the visitors in Bishkek.  The target was a little backpackers’ place by the name of Nomad Home, but as it was effectively just one up from a homestay, none of the local taxi drivers had heard of it.  The guys spent about an hour riding up and down within a few hundred metres of the place before having a closer look at the GPS maps and realising it was on a street that didn’t meet the main road.  A quick ride round the block found them outside the gate of Nomad Home, which was opened to welcome them in.  The place was chosen as unusually for a capital city hostel it offered the opportunity to camp for a reduced fee of a couple of hundred Som (about $4.50 per night).  Already resident at Nomad Home were Min, a Korean lass travelling through Central Asia with a backpack, Oren an Israeli trekking enthusiast who was waiting for an end to his visa bureaucracy issues and Taro, a Japanese cyclist on an impressive mission from Hong Kong to Portugal.  With tents up and laundry drying, there was plenty of time to get to know the other residents over a beer or two in the evening, before settling into the tents as night fell, ready for the Kazakh visa mission the following morning.

A striking feature of the traffic in Kyrgyzstan is the dominance of premium brands.  There are a lot of imported right-hand-drive Japanese home market models as well, but at least fifty percent of the cars around Bishkek are German – Audis, Mercedes and BMWs of all ages, right up to current models.  Lexus and Infiniti also have a real presence around the place.  This is a real contrast with Uzbekistan where practically everything on the road is a locally built Uzbek-Daewoo.  In fact rumour has it that if an Uzbek buys a foreign built car, the local police will pay a visit and ask how he managed to afford the cripplingly high import duties.  Kyrgyzstan apparently went through a period a few years ago without any import duties on cars, and the population responded by gorging itself on the best of the West.  The owner of Nomad Home for example, runs an ageing Merc as a runabout and a late-model Lexus SUV.  With fuel at 50 pence a litre, it’s not surprising that those that are doing well enough to afford the premium motors go for the large engined models, with a clear dominance of V8 and V12 power.

On 20 June, our dynamic duo headed out to the taxi rank to secure transport to where the map on the wall at Nomad Home claimed the Kazakhstan embassy was.  The taxi driver seemed confused, but that is often the way in these parts, where no “knowledge” style exam is required to acquire a taxi licence.  On arriving at the specified junction, it was Dan and Ed’s turn to be confused.  There was no sign of a Kazakh embassy, and of course none of the first three taxi drivers around there knew where a Kazakh embassy could be found, either.  The fourth did however, and for another $3, the guys were speeding across the city towards the actual embassy.  Here the process was every bit as frustrating as they’d hoped it wouldn’t be.  First, queue to receive a form.  Then, fill it in and queue again to show it to the man.  The man hands over a slip of paper detailing a bank 4 miles away at which the fee has to be paid.  As the form also required travel insurance details, an internet cafe was located to find out the name of the provider and the policy number, before getting a cab back to the embassy.  After all of this, the guys could only stand in the queue again and hope to get to hand in the form and the proof of payment before the consular counter was due to close at 12 noon.  The guys were in luck, and were told that the visas would be ready to collect at 6.30pm the following evening, which was significantly quicker than at the other Kazakh embassies tried en route.

With Tuesday 21 June free until the visas were ready to collect, the guys were on a quest to find some oil and give the bikes a service, as they’d covered two and a half thousand miles since Bukhara in Uzbekistan.  The owner of Nomad Home was wandering around clutching a 1 litre bottle of Lexus-branded oil with which he was topping up his Merc, and he confirmed that even good quality oil should cost no more than 500 Som ($11) a litre, and could be bought from a number of shops between there and the container village that serves as a Bishkek Bazaar.  After a very confusing 15 minutes or so during which the proprietor of one shop risked life and limb no less than six times crossing the road to try and procure the correct oil from another business on the other side, Ed and Dan joined him for the final trip and bought the required 3 litres of oil out of the drum there themselves for 1000 Som.  The bikes were then given their fresh oil followed by a thorough check, Dan’s DRZ now having covered eleven and a half thousand miles since leaving the UK for the first time back in April, and Ed’s WR a couple of thousand less.  Both owners had previously noticed points at which their plastic fuel tanks were rubbing on other components and were keen to check that no leaks were likely to develop.  Dan’s chain and sprockets were the only point to note.  The front sprocket had already been changed for the spare in Dushanbe 1500 miles before and the chain now just starting to show some signs of wear which raised concerns about the likelihood of it lasting the rest of the trip.  This was no great problem as a spare set was available at Dan’s parents’ house in the UK and could be sent by DHL to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia (no doubt at great expense).  Tyres had covered the same distance but looked to be fine to cover the 1500 miles to Barnaul in Russia where the guys planned to arrange new tyres to be delivered from a company in Moscow (www.motorezina.ru).  With both bikes receiving a clean bill of health for the moment, they were reassembled before a leisurely pasta lunch communally prepared by the Nomad Home residents and a relaxing afternoon before taking another cab back to the embassy to collect the precious visas.  With visas now in hand, the guys had a choice – head straight to Kazakhstan to continue making progress and apply for Mongolian visas in the capital Almaty, or spend another couple of days on a four-hundred mile round trip in Kyrgyzstan first to visit Son Kul, a pretty mountain lake at 3000 metres above sea level that had been recommended to Dan by a motorcycle travelling friend, Vladimir.

Dan was keen to see Son Kul, Ed was less keen to add unnecessary miles to his bike and eager to start the Mongolian visa process.  So it was that on Wednesday 22 June, the guys headed their separate ways, aiming to meet back up in Kazakhstan a couple of days later.  Dan’s route to Son Kul consisted of 170 miles of reasonable tarmac road followed by a dirt track up to the lake.  The tarmac road however held an unpleasant surprise.  The road cuts through one corner of the Issyk-Kul biosphere reserve.  Issyk-Kul is a truly enormous lake, and quite developed as a tourist destination.  The Kyrgyz authorities have clearly decided that by including a key road junction within the reserve, they have the opportunity to make money out of everyone wishing to visit the east of the country from Bishkek.  Dan approached the barrier with his usual confidence, expecting it to be lifted free of charge for a motorcycle as all other road tolls so far in Central Asia had been free for bikes.  He was due for some disappointment however – the arrangement here was different.  Kyrgyz registered cars pay 50 Som to visit Issyk-Kul, just over a dollar.  Trucks pay 100 Som.  All foreign vehicles, regardless of size or type must pay 500 Som.  Whilst it may be common practice in many countries to charge foreigners higher entry fees to tourist attractions, it seems particularly unfair to charge a solo motorcyclist over $10 to drive one kilometre through the corner of a nature reserve, when the family of five in the V12 Mercedes S-Class behind are getting in and spending the weekend at the lakeside for $1.  This inequality however was rather academic as Dan didn’t actually have 500 Som – carrying only enough money for a bit of food and water for a couple of days and planning to camp by Son Kul.  Explaining this to the officials at the gate initially didn’t get Dan anywhere, them demanding dollars instead.  Dan wasn’t up for that, so maintained that he didn’t have dollars and that he’d have to go back to Bishkek to get more cash, and offering the truck rate of 100 Som to ride his 140kg motorcycle through the corner of the park.  The guards relented and let eventually let him through for free.

A little further down the road, Dan pulled over at a small shop to buy some water and was instantly engaged in stuttering conversation by the shop owner, his son and some other passers by.  The locals seemed to really like the bike, and it only became apparent later that afternoon that one had taken a particular fancy to the perspex headlamp lens protectors, neither of which were present the next time Dan had a look.

The dirt road up to the lake was mostly in pretty good condition, apart from some heavily potholed sections and a few parts where it had become quite washed out by rain water flowing down the mountain side.  One such washed out section had killed a local minibus, but when Dan was flagged down by one of the stricken passengers, he had to try and explain that he couldn’t safely carry the proposed elderly female passenger.  In the UK, Dan wouldn’t carry a pillion passenger without at least a helmet, gloves, stout boots and a proper jacket, and that’s on good tarmac roads on a bike built for two.  Here on a washed out dirt track and on a dirt bike without passenger footrests, Dan wasn’t keen to carry a passenger with no protective gear – it’s difficult to explain that however when there is no shared language and protective motorcycling kit is an alien concept.

For the most part the track provided an entertaining ride through beautiful unspoilt scenery.  Occasionally, a trip as long as this will turn up a pleasing musical coincidence, such as when Dan splashed through a mountain stream on the pass to Dushanbe as Kings of Leon sang “Run baby run like a stream down a mountain-side” into his helmet.  On arriving at the gloriously peaceful environs of Son Kul however, the MP3 player in Dan’s tankbag segwayed alphabetically from the appropriately mellow tones of Beth Orton to the rather less mellow Dizzee Rascal, which only served to add to the surreal feeling as the GPS instructed him to turn right at the next junction – which was merely a meeting of several ruts in the grass.

The road such as it is continues as ruts in the grass across a few little rivers, passing herds of horses, sheep, goats and cattle and the yurts housing their families of herders.  The weather when Dan arrived was sunny with a strong breeze, but the southern side of the lake was obscured by rain so Dan wasted no time in selecting a camping spot by the shore of the lake and pitching his tent.  The windy weather was whipping up the waves on the lake and the sound of them crashing on the shingle shore reminded Dan of his Sussex seaside home.

Across the border in Kazakhstan, Ed had successfully negotiated  a border crossing, teamed up with two Czech bikers he found along the way and stopped for a chat with another British traveller on a bicycle called Sarah Outen, who is  travelling around the world by human power alone. He had spent the late afternoon scouting out the important waypoints he’d selected in Almaty and was settling into a hotel near the centre. On the outskirts, the Czechs had headed off to a place called Charyn Canyon, which Ed added to the mental list of sights to be seen. During his exploration, he had learned a number of key facts: that the Mongolian consulate is closed on Wednesdays so presenting visa documents would have to wait, motorcycles are forbidden from using some of the key arterial routes around the city (adding massively to the confusion of riding in a foreign city) and Almaty accommodation is rather more expensive than the rest of central asia, with the cheapest prices he could find now over $30 a room. The strangest rule he had yet encountered was that motorcycles must not run their engines within 15m of the pumps at petrol stations. After subsequent discussion the conclusion is that the rules were put in place to stop smoky, aging russian bikes from stinking out the customers when they come in to fill up but with a mere 250cc of Japanese 4-stroke technology including a catalytic converter the irony is that Ed’s bike is whisper-quiet and smoke-free compared to the locals’ big-engined cars belching blue smoke past the remains of their piston rings.

As Thursday 23 June dawned calm and bright at Son Kul, Dan got up and started packing up for the return to Bishkek as much smaller waves lapped peacefully at the shore of the lake.  There were clouds on the horizon, so Dan was keen to get back down the mountain before the track got wet and slippery, and was ready to leave at 7am.

On arriving at the southern border of the Issyk-Kul park, Dan was frustrated to find that the entry tariff was the same in both directions – though this time the officials were trying to say that the 500 Som fee on the board referred to “motosikels” even though it clearly said foreign vehicles.  Dan tried the same approach of showing the contents of his wallet and offering double the local car rate, but the response was different this time.  The guard reached into Dan’s wallet, and took the entire contents: 350 Som (about $7), 28 Turkmenistan Manat ($10) and two Romanian Lei (pretty much worthless) before grinning broadly and waving goodbye.  This left Dan with no cash at all until he got back to Bishkek, and he was glad he’d filled up with fuel on the way out to Son Kul and had enough to get back.  In fairness, he’d got away with paying a bit less than the extortionate fees due for a foreign vehicle to pass through the park twice, but the real annoyance was that he’d planned to keep the Turkmenistan Manat and give it to charity on his return to the UK.  Dan was pretty confident that the diligent conservationist at Issyk Kul wouldn’t find anywhere to change Turkmenistan cash and would ultimately throw it away.

Back at Nomad Home that afternoon, Dan did some laundry before heading out for a late lunch with Oren the Israeli trekker and spending a leisurely afternoon with the other residents.  Dan was able to give a copy of the Open Street Map derived GPS maps to a very pleased Taro, the Japanese cyclist who was using a similar Garmin GPS unit but with no detailed maps.  Taro was delighted to have detail of the city streets for everywhere on his onward route as far as Turkey.  His good deed done for the day, Dan settled for an early night before another early start the following morning.

Friday 24 June brought with it a mission for Dan – get out of Bishkek, across the border into Kazakhstan and cover the couple of hundred kilometres to the capital, aiming to arrive at the Mongolian embassy before the consular section closed at 1pm.  This was going to be difficult, particularly as Ed had warned by email the day before that Kazakhstan was bristling with police speed traps.  Dan left Nomad Home at 7am, and by 7.30 was at the border with enough fuel to get to Almaty.  The border seemed to only just be opening for the day, but the passport control guy was already bored enough to have used Microsoft Paint to add a Native-American head-dress to the scan of someone’s passport photo page on his computer screen.  There were no customs controls on the Kyrgyz side, so with his passport stamped, Dan was free to head on to Kazakhstan.

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2 Responses to Lakes and Lexuses

  1. Nacho says:

    Enjoying your funny writing style and anecdotes -my favourite ones being the “Battery. Open!” and the “custom guard painting passsport photos” ones. Bon voyage.

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