A Mini (Baikal) Adventure

It was July 15th and while Dan waited for delivery of the replacement part for his motorcycle, Ed was keen to make use of the time to explore further. First he needed to head north back into Russia and then make his way up the east shore of Lake Baikal.

An idea had come to Ed while looking at GPS tracks of the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) route on his netbook in preparation for the coming month in Russia. In particular, his interest focused around attempting to find an alternative way to reach the BAM using a ziminik or winter road, except this time in the summer. Ziminiks are officially recognised routes that are generally only accessible in winter when frozen ground and rivers allow vehicles to use routes that would otherwise not be possible. Ed was hoping that even if a new summer route to the BAM was not possible he would at least see a ziminik for himself and explore an area he would otherwise not have had the time to.

While most of the guests at the Oasis were still asleep Ed got up, packed his things and paid his tab. He said goodbye to Dan and his new friends and headed north. The going was slow due to the traffic but once outside the city there was very little on the roads and other than a near miss with a stray goat on a blind bend (never let your guard down for even a second) Ed was soon at the border. The effect of a week of public holiday meant that there was very little activity and before the hour was up Ed was dealing with russian formalities on the other side of a short stretch of no-man’s land.

Riding towards Ulan Ude Ed hoped to rough camp on route rather than search the city for a place to stay. The rolling, grassy plains of Mongolia had given way to thick forest and this in turn became a network of reservoirs and rolling country as the area became more populated heading towards the city itself. The evening was drawing in and the chance of finding suitable rough camp locations became less likely. Calling on the GPS for help, Ed dialled-in the option for accomodation and found a hotel in the city called The Buriyat. Arriving to find a conventional hotel with the cost for a room a disappointing 1600 roubles, Ed decided to employ the secret card of the single-travelling overlander (no, not flirt with the lady behind the desk). Plead poverty. This is something that is not hard to do when a 630km day’s ride leaves you looking as tired and dirty as you feel. IMG00885-20110716-0830

The ploy was successful and a short time later Ed was relaxing in the same room for 800 roubles with the bike safely parked in the basement for a further 100. He took advantage of facilities to wash some clothes and hang them on the towel rail to dry. His kit was spread across the spare twin bed and he used the time to undertake some last minute preparation before bedtime.

The bike was liberated from the basement by 8am and looking around for a suitable option for breakfast Ed struck up a conversation with a lady coming to work at the hotel. Concerned that an imaciated looking Ed may not have eaten for many days, she motioned for him to follow her back into the hotel to find some breakfast. Surreal as it sounds, this is not uncommon and from time to time Ed and Dan accepted kind offers of food. This was partly for the convenience but also for the interesting opportunities to meet people that it affords. It became apparent that she worked in the Buddist temple which was part of the hotel complex and Ed was led through the shadows of the sweetly smoky main hall to a room where bags of biscuits and cakes were thrust upon him and a cup of tea shared with the kind lady to a background of mystical chanting and tinkling bells.

Spiritually sated and full of biscuits, Ed hit the road pausing only to buy some more provisions. The 140km to Gremyachinsk were dispatched before he was granted his first view of the lake. Forest lined the sides of the road and Ed noticed that the air temperature had plunged quickly. Against the heat of the Siberian summer it became almost too cold and Ed was forced to close the vents on his jacket as he rode onwards. The lake when it did appear was more akin to a view of a becalmed sea with the rugged coastline tumbling abruptly from thick forest straight into the still waters. The nearest point on the other shore was Olkhon Island, 48km away but due to the haze it was impossible to see anything of island’s rolling hills. IMG00887-20110716-1300Continuing northwards, Ed stopped for lunch 70km further up the coast, pulling off the road to find a clearing in the forest overlooking a tiny beach. Fresh tyre tracks and an already assembled circle of stones for a firepit suggested that it was in fairly regular use but with only space for a single 4×4 it was sheltered and quiet. The main road that Ed had been using ran parallel to the sea no more than 100 yards away for most of it’s length and here Ed sat on the logs that had been arranged for seating and ate his lunch, taking in the beautiful view.

The road north was being improved. Diversions led Ed to and from the coast, all the time struggling to see through the thick dust kicked-up by the lorries and Russian tourists’ 4x4s. A further 57km and Ed reached the ferry mentioned in his GPS. Not having been on a boat since crossing the English Channel back in May, Ed was intrigued to see a flat-topped barge pulled by some sort of powerboat.Ust-Barguzin Ferry The barge was of a robust metal construction on the end of a thick cable with which it was pulled across before being swung alongside the opposite jetty like a pendulum. The was no charge for bikes and no queuing.WR on the Ust-Barguzin Ferry

Road to Alla in East BaikalTen minutes later Ed’s front tyre touched down on the concrete jetty on the far side and he continued onwards but with the condition of the road deteriorating he was forced to pick his lines more carefully to avoid the potholes hidden by dust clouds kicked-up from the passing vehicles. The road became narrower and sandy in places and the rocks protruding from the road were becoming more punishing. Encouragingly there was still regular traffic, perhaps a lorry passing every 30mins even up to 9pm due to the late sunsets this far north. Ed had decided to get as far as the village of Alla, the last town on his map and then complete the 20mi to the ziminik the next morning. Alla in East BaikalDuring the course of the afternoon as Ed had ridden north a range of hills had sprung up between the track and the lake to the west and the GPS showed it as the Barguzin Nature Reserve. The hills were crested with sharp peaks and surrouded with thick forest the effect of which would not have been out of place in a Jurassic Park movie.
He pitched camp early at about 7pm because he was feeling exhausted but with the sun still relatively high and no wind to speak of, the temperature inside the tent began to soar. The sun didn’t lose it’s heat at that time of year until after 9pm and with the local insect population making their presence felt Ed was forced to sit it out inside his tent. Camping near Alla in East Baikal (Barguzin National Park)With sweat pouring off him the best he could manage was to make a fan from a document wallet vowing not to camp until later next time. In fact it was still perfectly light at 10pm which gave little chance of Ed sleeping any time soon and clearly visible through the mesh of Ed’s tiny tent stood the edge of the forest which imposed a psycological barrier between civilisation and a level on ‘nature’ that Ed was not usually accustomed to. Then a chilling sound caught Ed’s attention. At first he was not sure he had heard right but sure enough the noise of a creature’s, possibly a bear’s, calls echoed out from deep inside the forest. It dawned on Ed that firstly he really should have built a fire but secondly, he should probably sleep in his clothes. Just in case a quick exit was required.

The sky outside was already bright and clear when Ed awoke suddenly. It was 6.30am and the long ride of the previous day along with the hardness of the ground beneath him had left Ed feeling tired and sore. The light and increasing temperature outside the tent meant there was little point trying to sleep any further so Ed dressed fully in his riding clothes and mozzy head net and emerged to face the waiting insects whose number always seem to increase dramatically as their bodies are warmed by the early morning sunshine.

The bike was packed and together they headed north towards the start of the winter road. A town emerged on the horizon that wasn’t in Ed’s GPS. After a short detour through the quiet muddy streets that separated the houses constructed in dark, stained wood, Ed crossed a decaying bridge and drove on through the forest towards the target. As he neared the end of the reasonably surfaced track he’d been following he saw a sign ahead on which was printed a topological map of the surrounding area. The track ahead of him led to the edge of a river and his heart sank. WR at the start of the Ziminik in Eastern Baikal

A powerful mass of water slid past the banks and from where he was standing he estimated the depth varied between waist and past-head-height with a bed consisting of large round stones that notoriously rob motorcycle tyres of their grip when submerged. Across the on the other bank he could just make out two 4×4 parked up with their owners enjoying a spot of breakfast. Nearby a couple of tents sheltered beneath the thick forest canopy. The distance and noise of the river meant communication would be impossible but it afforded hope of another way across.

Retracing his steps Ed turned off the road onto a small path that led away from the previous sign. A local was startled by the arrival of the bike but ultimately lacked the patience to decipher the questions that Ed was asking, gesturing that he should continue along the bank further. This he did and was met by a suspension bridge which was too narrow to cross on the bike and protected by steep steps at each end. Winter Road East Baikal

Not to be put off, Ed continued following the bank until he found a more likely crossing point.  The water was calm and shallow most of the way across before dissappearing into a deeper section that the bike was unable to manage. An elderly local, dressed in fishing atire, stood watching Ed test the crossing and watched him return to the bank unsuccessful. East Baikal Ziminik Crossing - Calmer

He asked Ed the usual prerequisite questions about the range of the bike and its top speed before remarking that Ed would need a lorry to make it across the larger river on the other side of the treeline opposite. Ed had no lorry and felt it unlikely that he could afford to pay a lorry drived to drive him the 200miles to Novy Ooyen should he encounter more rivers like these. Despite being midsummer the forest embraced an orange hue throughout its canopy and the warmth of the ground coupled with the cool air from the river only added to the autumnal feeling. In Siberia you often feel as if winter is only just around the corner.

Ed stood outside the grocerie store in the nearest village having retraced his steps from the ziminik. His bag now contained smoked cheese, bread, apples and he was enjoying a chilled softdrink. It’s not unusual in just about any shop in Siberia to find an old fridge stuffed full of chilled beer but not as common to find that anyone has bothered to stock it with soft drinks as well. It was only 9am and already a gaggle of drunks had gathered good-naturedly waiting to see which of their friends would arrive with any money so they could kick-off the day’s activity. With the route to the north now closed off by the river Ed’s only other task for the east side of Lake Baikal was to backtrack halfway down the shore almost back to the ferry of the previous day before turning into the nation park situated on a stubby peninsular. Rumour had it that a number of boats regularly took the trip from Olkhon Island on the west shore across to the park carrying tourists and the occassional vehicle. If he could find a suitable vessel Ed hoped to be able to cut out the long detour back around the south of the lake giving him more time to explore the west Baikal area while he waited for Dan to catch up.

Arriving at the gates of the park Ed found a guard hut and learnt the price was 210 roubles to enter. The guards on duty assured Ed that there was a ferry on the peninsular and that it would take a bike for 3000 roubles, which sounded expensive. Seeing as Ed was running out of options and still had time to kill he reasoned that he might as well go and explore and if he found the boat he could probably negotiate a more reasonable rate. The guard’s parting comment was that Ed should take the left turning once he reached the peninsular and not to follow the coastal route closest to the mainland. Peninsular in the National Park East BaikalA narrow strip of sandy beach joined the peninsular to the mainland and the only way onto the strip was to follow the single track of soft sand just wide enough for a 4×4. Once out of the forest and into the wide open the temperature soared. The slow pace through the sand didn’t help either. Russians are keen campers and the national park was clearly enormously popular with the holiday makers. Clean water and a narrow sandy beach stretched the length of the sand bar with huddles of 4x4s parked back from the beach in the shade of small trees and bushes. Ed decided to stop have some lunch, tucking into the bread and cheese bought that morning while sitting on the beach. In front of him the lake lapped quietly on the beach and the smell of fires and BBQs drifted past on the slightest of breezes.

IMG00911-20110717-1549The sandy track took Ed up to the peninsular where it ended abruptly in dense forest and was replaced by a hardpacked mud road. The forest turned the road into a series of allyways, like a maze and with no view of the lake, Ed was forced to follow the road blindly. Ed ignored the guard’s advice and headed to the first of the small bays to investigate. He found a small daytripper boat but the skipper would not let him bring the bike aboard. The one page map that was included with his ticket into the park showed a series of bays linked by a red line so Ed continued along the track and into the next bay. Daytripper Boat on Lake Baikal East CoastSadly the scale of the map didn’t show that getting into each bay involved negotiating an assault course whereby the track would disappear into the forest, climbing the steep hillside before descending hair-raising tracks back to the water. The little 250 climbing the slopes gallantly and coming back down in a low gear with the back wheel hopping and sliding. This continued many times over the next couple of hours. In places the track had huge gullies cut into it from the rainfall and in others it was necessary to detour into the forest to get past deep stagnant puddles. Even the detours were often partially blocked by holiday makers whose 4x4s were stuck on tree roots or being dug and winched out of the mud by willing friends. The final bay yielded a larger group of huts with lorries and vessels of all sizes lined up along the pebble beach. Sadly the boats were either out of the water or too small to take a motorbike and no one seemed able to help. They were either too busy and disinterested or a combination of poor english and Ed’s poor russian made communication impossible. Resigned to the retracing his steps through the forest Ed asked a local for a better way and was pointed down a track which climbed steeply away from the shore. Whilst as steep as the other routes, this track took Ed across the main hill and down the otherside back to the sandbar where he could retrace his steps out of the park. He had now covered a diversion of about 30miles Arriving back at the ferry, Ed jumped the queue and squeezed his bike into the last remaining space for the short hop to the far bank. It would be far to late to reach Irkutsk all the way back around the lake so remembering the lunch spot from the day before Ed rode the short distance to it and camped there. Having set up his tent and eaten some dinner the stillness was interrupted by a car which pulled up and parked a short distance from the beach. A man climbed out carrying something. Expecting it to be locals bearing bottles of vodka Ed kept an eye on it from inside his tent but it turned out to be a guy with a fishing rod stopping to do a spot of evening fishing by the side of the lake. Ed lay back and was asleep in minutes.

A cold misty morning greeted Ed when he woke. The motivation to get up and pack had abandoned Ed – Dan hadn’t left Mongolia yet and it was over 300miles to Irkutsk around the south western tip of the lake. Still, there was no point waiting around so Ed reluctantly began the task of retracing his steps south towards Ulan Ude. There was a river through Ulan Ude and the GPS was showing that Ed could either head all the way back to the City to use the bridge there or follow the lake further west and cross the main river by ferry. Not keen to go back over old ground if he didn’t need to, Ed opted for the ferry and by lunchtime he was parked behind a short queue of cars waiting under steep cliffs in front of a typical Siberian river – wide and menacingly powerful. They weren’t waiting long before a barge appeared this time pulled and pushed by powerboats at the same time. A family in the queue mentioned that we would have to wait until after lunch and sure enough the crew piled into one of the powerboats and disappeared off down river for an hour or so. It was overcast and quite cold so it was with much relief that when they returned everyone crammed aboard and the barge started across the river to somewhere slightly upstream that Ed couldn’t yet see. Embarking had been a case of driving the bike down a narrow gangway but Ed failed to anticipate that on arrival the bike would have to come backwards up some steps to disembark. With the whole crew to help, the WR was carried out onto the deck of the barge and after thanking them all, Ed was back on terra firma and following a major tarmac road – the Trans-siberian highway, as it happened.

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The developed world embraced Ed again with its traffic, petrols stations and speedlimits. The sky had darkened significantly and it was threatening to rain. Waterproofs out and put the miles in. Ed’s chain oiler was also running low on oil which could become a problem on the fast stretches of highway so Ed pulled off at the next available shack by the road advertising oil and parts and stocked up with a litre of normal engine oil, which experience suggested would work just fine. Back on the road again, the scenery gave way from gently rolling green spaces with scattered forest to much thicker, darker forest and winding roads. Army convoys were using the roads and holding up the traffice with their enormous lorries but Ed was able to squeeze through and escape. It was getting late as Ed approached Irkutsk. He had planned to rough camp but if you don’t start looking early enough you soon find civilisation sprouting around you and options for camping begin to fall away. Riding right into the middle of the city revealed a massive, bustling city with some lovely architecture but too much traffic. GPS to the rescue – Ed found an entry for the Trans-siberia Backpackers so pulled off the busy streets into a quiet courtyard instructed by the GPS. Wondering whether he had made a mistake he immediately noticed someone sitting smoking with ginger hair. It was Alistair, the British biker Ed and Dan had met earlier in the journey. The bike was stripped of luggage and chained to a lamppost in view of the hostel and a short time later the guys were catching up over pasta and shots of vodka in the warmth of the diminutive backpackers’, which was only as large as a two bedroom flat but could house 8-10 backpackers! Anton Kuzmin in IrkutskThe owner Anton was there and when the topic moved on to where Ed had come from he explained that he had been on that winter road but in winter and expressed surprise at Ed’s attempt because at a number of points the road actually uses the frozen river which would be near impossible in summer with the water flowing. The conversation was interesting and informative and provided some much needed intel for the next stage of the journey. Ed was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

The plan discussed the night before was to head north up the west side of Lake Baikal at a leisurely pace to give Dan enough time to catch up before commencing the BAM road. A large island called Olkhon Island which had significant spiritual significance to the local people would be tomorrow’s destination. Alistair was also planning to undertake that route so they decided to ride together. After breakfast the guys packed and headed off. Alistair went off to pick up some oil and retrieve his video camera from the repair shop. The shop had only managed a partial fix but didn’t charge him for the work they had done. He also needed to collect his Carnet de Passage document from the DHL office which had been sent from the RAC in the UK and would allow him to take his motorbike into Japan. Ed needed to change some US dollars so he left Alistair at a carpark on the way out of town, waypointed it in the GPS and set off to look for a bank. Finding a bank is not hard in Russian cities but that morning they all had long queues out of their doors and ticket systems whereby you select the service you want and then wait for your number to come up. Easier said than done when there is no english language option. Ed managed to find a branch of “Moscvuy” which was queue-free, pocketed some roubles and stopping to collect Alistair, they were soon refuelled and heading north out of the city.

Travelling with Alistair proved to be a laid back affair. Regular tea and cigarette breaks relaxed the pace giving time for observing and talking to locals and taking in the landscape. 80 miles after leaving the city they stopped for sweet tea and savoury doughnuts.

Heading out of Irkutsk with Alistair

They had been driving through beautiful rolling grassy plains, more akin to Mongolia but as they turned back towards the lake towards Olkhon Island the forest grew up around them only to completely disappear once again as they neared the island. After 70miles, the road was replaced by piste for a further 15miles to the village that the ferry sails from. There were a number of boats on the shore but they were too small and Ed was sure that there was a much larger ferry servicing this popular tourist route. Sure enough in the next bay was a large tarmac waiting area with small shops selling food and beer and in the distance the island was clearly visible with an identical area and a large ferry collecting its next load of vehicles. IMG00922-20110719-1931

Near to Olkhon Island Lake Baikal

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For whatever reason Alistair wasn’t keen to spend an extra day on the island and thinking they would camp on the mainland that night before continuing north they spotted tracks leading straight up the nearest hill and over into another bay. Alistair went to investigate and disappeared into the distance. A red dot climbing up the hill and over the top before returning a short while later. He gave a big thumbs up when he returned so they grabbed a couple of beers from the shop by the ferry and climbed the hillside on their dirtbikes. Sure enough the view on the otherside was stunning and they had the whole area to themselves. Having selected a suitable spot to camp they used the last of the daylight to change the oil in the bikes and the odd mechanical chore before cooking up noodles on Ed’s stove and drinking the beers. Other than a small huddle of buildings down in the bay there was no sign of life and without the slightest breeze it was still and quiet.

It was already mid morning by the time Ed came ’round. The sky was overcast and this had allowed the campers to sleep longer as it was darker and cooler than usual. Outside Ed’s tent rustled which was odd as there was no wind. He soon realised that someone was trying to get his attention and sure enough a rough, local voice began to query the unseen occupant. Needing a moment to get dressed and telling the voice to wait, he called out to Alistair to see if he was awake. Nothing. Alistair’s parting comment before each retired to their tents the night before was that he was a deep sleeper and Ed now regretted not waking him earlier because it meant he would have to deal with the person shaking the outside of his tent on his own. He needn’t have worried because when the tent was unzipped a short, weathered shepherd stood looking at him. It soon became apparent that the shepherd wasn’t interested in conversation but was looking for roubles to buy his next bottle of beer with. It was 11am. Ed had a couple of hundred rouble notes in his pocket, but at 27 roubles to the dollar he wasn’t about to get that lucky so fishing in his riding jacket pocket he found a handful of coins which he handed over. It’s rare to find Ed or Dan encouraging begging on these trips but every now and again someone gets lucky, if only to get rid of them. Minutes later his tiny form could be seen making good progress up the hilltop that led back over to the ferry terminal and cafes. Whistling to himself probably.

Alistair hadn’t died in the night and with a bit of chivvying, both riders were up and the bikes packed just as it started to rain. They guys headed back up and over shephard’s ridge to rejoin the road. While not as fun as the previous day they were both enjoying being back on the road again. A quick stop for coffee and pirozhkee followed by fuel and some impromptu bike fixing with cableties by Alistair and the pair were on their way again, turning north for the settlement of Zhigalovo. They reached Kachug and decided to continue on a short distance in order to rough camp that night but with the weather looking increasingly ominous they found themselves sheltering at a petrol station as the rain lashed down. A lull in the rain convinced them to make a break for the surrounding countryside so after stocking up on provisions and ignoring a following sidecar outfit (whose slighly tipsy rider insisted, unsuccessfully I might add, that the guys contribute some fuel to help get him home) they rode out of town into the misty drizzle and pulled off the road. A freshly ploughed field curved around out of sight of the road and the bikes followed the edge of it before cutting into the forest and camping on the thick bed of pine needles and foliage between the trees. With a beer each from the shop in town Ed proceeded to demonstrate how to almost burn down a forest with an MSR petrol stove before getting the flames under control and cooking up some more instant noodles. Despite the late start the guys had covered a good distance for a wet day and were completely shattered. From there the road would follow the meandering river Lena toward the next town whose name is given to the Zhigalovo road, a dirt road which is pretty much unknown to most russians, which was to take the guys North and East towards Severobaikalsk and the start of the BAM.

Camping on route to Zhilogovo

Camping on route to Zhilogovo

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Alistair's Dominator

WR250R

The weather was better by the morning of July 21st and still with no indication of where Dan had got to, the guys decided on another late start.The river Lena was on their left for most of the day as they rode towards the town of Zhigalovo. They stopped for fuel and decided to have lunch in a local cafe. An audience with a wide spectrum of ages, from the young waitress to the elderly ladies, gathered to ask questions as the tourists sat eating their tea and pirozhkee. The comfort of just being inside a building and having something dry to sit on was a welcome relief and the guys decided to order a second round of drinks while they relaxed. As usual the plan was to rough camp so after collecting provisions they headed out of town. A provisions stop would not be complete without trying to converse with drunk locals and that day it was the turn of a battered hatchback to pull up. Unsurprisingly, the two guys inside were drunk and as usual began trying to talk to the foreigners. When one suggested that he thought he should take Ed’s bike for a spin the guys took that as a sign to leave and were halfway down the street before the drunks realised they were back on their own again.

The Zhigalovo road was rough in places but it was still possible to make good progress. Above them the skies had darkened again and it began to rain quite hard. One thing to note about Siberia is that there is no natural cover and mostly no buildings or bridges to shelter under. The forest is often thinly spaced with pathetic branches that don’t resist the rain so in this case the guys spied clearer skies in the distance and decided to ride quickly towards it.

Zhigalovo Road having outrun the rain
Slippery mud interspersed with deep puddles provided an unwelcome hazard. The sky above the horizon was grey and the watery mud beneath their wheels mirrored the sky giving the road a tunnel-like effect and the guys hunched down beneath their motorbike screens as they tried to negotiate obstacles along the road. As luck would have it, they reached the clear skies and decided that it made sense to find a campsite in case the rain returned. Old Bobby camping near Zhigalovo road with AlistairSetting up camp in the rain is never fun so they seized a moment of dryness and found an area of cleared forest where truck drivers or construction people had created an impromptu firepit with a couple of treetrunk seats nearby. Once the tents were up the guys got a good fire going and sat contemplating the day’s riding and a repeat dinner of noodles and beer helped re-energise the bikers before turning in for the night.

Camping near Zhigalovo road with Alistair

Sunshine was already warming the air when Ed awoke. A call to Alistair’s tent revealed nothing so a much louder call was employed to get his attention and while he collected his thoughts Ed packed away his tent and remade the fire to pass the time. The road was now only slightly slippery but a patchwork of large, deep puddles remained and slowed their progress when they did finally hit the road. With no settlements to stop at for tea, the guys continued for a couple of hours before stopping to take photos around a partially collapsed bridge. In the distance a motorbike could be heard approach at speed. The guys had scarcely seen another vehicle all day and the distinctive sound of a modern machine immediately got their attention. Around the corner from the direction that they had just come from emerged a white motorcycle travelling briskly towards them. It was Dan and his appearance marked the end of the East Baikal chapter. They guys filled each other in on what had happened since they last met before saddling up and setting off once again. Spirits were high and nothing stood between them and the start of BAM railway less than a day’s ride away.

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Following tracks to the railway

Sure enough when Dan crossed the border back into Russia on Wednesday 20 July, the process was straightforward and problem-free.  The weather was improving all the time, too, and Dan was hopeful that he might have a chance to dry his tent out before having to sleep in it that night.  The road on the Russian side continued as an excellent tar road winding through pleasant scenery of pine-forest-clad hills and the occasional lake or river.  Dan’s target for the day was to get beyond Ulan-Ude towards Irkutsk that evening, so having only left the border at 5pm, it was late in the evening by the time Dan was looking for somewhere to camp.

The first dirt-road turning off the tar road took Dan straight to a small village – not ideal camping.  After heading back to the main road, Dan spotted a small turning near a bridge, and headed down to investigate.  Secluded enough, but sadly still very close to both the road and the railway, this would have to do.  Dan put his tent up, pausing only to curse the tent pole that snapped at exactly the point he’d predicted it might, before a quick snack of some crisps brought from Ulaanbaatar before settling for the night.  It had been a long day’s ride, and there would be more long days to come to catch up with Ed who was already some days ahead on his way to Severobaikalsk and the start of the BAM road.

The Baikal Amur Mainline is the second Trans-Siberian railway, built predominantly for strategic reasons in the 1970s as the existing Trans-Siberian is very close to the Chinese border.  The BAM road is simply a dirt road constructed in parallel to aid construction of the railway, some of which is still regularly used and maintained, other parts of which can nolonger be used by normal traffic due to partially or completely destroyed bridges and a complete lack of maintenance.  It has become quite popular with western overlanders in search of a challenge in the last few years since being pioneered and publicised by Walter Colebatch and his buddies Terry and Tony.  The BAM road had been included in the Brighton2Siberia route in order to provide one of the main challenges of the trip, and neither Dan nor Ed was overly keen to tackle it solo.

On Thursday 21 July, Dan was up and packed by 6am, and back on the road towards Irkutsk.  Around the southern shore of Lake Baikal, the road followed the line of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and riding alongside thundering freight trains was something both of the guys would be getting used to on the BAM.

Dan arrived in Irkutsk before 12 noon, and after finding a bank and negotiating the “take a ticket” queuing system (all banks need more slips of paper, after all…) Dan was able to change the last of his original stash of US dollars into Roubles, and was able to buy some fuel to continue progress northwards up the west side of Lake Baikal.  Ed had sent through a waypoint for somewhere he and Alistair had camped on the shores of Lake Baikal near Olkhon Island.  Dan had originally been keen to visit the island, so was keen to at least head to the shore of the lake and take a look from the side, even if the time spent queuing for the ferry could be better spent making further progress north.  The road out of Irkutsk was good tar road, as indeed was much of the seventy miles or so of the turning to the jetty from which the ferry departs.  The last section was mostly good graded gravel road, with the exception of a few roadworks which had been included to keep things interesting.

Dan arrived at Ed and Alistair’s camping spot at 4pm, and took a few photos, before deciding to turn round, head back to the main road and make more progress north – he also had the waypoint for where the other two had stayed the next night, which was now the target for the day.

Heading west back along the gravel road towards the main tar road, Dan now had the sun in his eyes, making it more difficult to spot areas of deeper dust or gravel on the road surface.  Running through these unseen hazards had the back end of the DRZ sashaying around behind him like 140kg of Suzuki’s finest chiffon, but the lightweight rig was never intimidating.

Back at the main road, Dan stopped at the fuel station to top up the tank again and bought a couple of litres of overpriced Magnatec to do an oil change in a few hundred miles’ time, a can of coke and an emergency twix, before getting back on the bike and heading north again, towards Zhigalovo.  By 8pm the road had changed from tar to gravel, the villages had started to get smaller and the scenery had started to get bigger – the forest and river was starting to take over the view from the saddle.  By 10pm, Dan had reached the point at which Ed and Alistair had stayed after leaving Olkhon, and it made sense to set up camp in the same field.  An exhausted Dan parked his bike out of sight and pitched his tent next to it, before collapsing onto his thermarest for the night and sleeping soundly – Dan and the DRZ had covered 595 miles that day and sleep came easily.

Friday 22 July saw a damp foggy start for Dan, but figuring it was better to be making slow progress than no progress, Dan packed up anyway and the wheels were rolling at 7am. Thankfully the worst of the fog hung around by the river, so where the road deviated from the course of the river here and there, Dan could mostly close his visor and start making decent progress again.

In Zhigalovo, Dan hunted around for a shop to buy some food and water, and with provisions safely stowed headed out of town along the road through the forest.  The forest was an unusual sight – Siberian trees often show evidence of what Dan assumed to be snow damage – trunks curved sometimes right down to the ground presumably by heavy snow fall on the branches.  Here however many of the trees seemed to be suffering from something else to make them lose their leaves or die altogether, allowing much more light than usual down to the forest floor, which had resulted in the place being alive with purple flowers.

In places the wet dirt road showed signs of two motorcycle tracks, which was surprising.  Dan expected Ed and Alistair to be in Severobaikalsk already and whilst the BAM road is increasing in popularity amongst overlanders, it is hardly a busy route just yet.  There are very few local motorcycles to speak of, so the tracks were a mystery.  Dan started to wander if perhaps there were other overlanders heading north to the BAM after all.

As the road continued to weave through the forest, Dan rounded a corner and could see two bikes parked on the other side of a bridge.  At first glance, the bike he could see most clearly looked large, with metal panniers and what was big enough to be a British plate under the film of mud that obscured it.  It was only as Dan rode across the bridge that he realised what he was looking at was Alistair’s Dominator and Ed’s WR – the pair of them having stopped at the side of the road for a break.

After a lengthy chat to catch up with news from both sides, the three bikes continued along the road to Onukaisky, where a right turn onto a dirt track saw them start their progress along the BAM road towards Severobaikalsk.  A commemorative sign for the completion of a section of the BAM railway near a petrol station prompted a stop for photos, all three riders a little excited to now be riding alongside the railway which would accompany them eastwards for the next nine hundred miles or so.

Posted in Eastern Siberia | 6 Comments

Lazy days in the sunshine, frantic activity in the rain

On Wednesday 13 July, Dan had ordered the part he hoped would restore his bike to fully working order, and with that done there was little he could do but wait for it.  Equally, there was little point in Ed hanging around to wait for it too, so once assured that Dan had a repair plan in place, Ed headed off towards the Russian border.  Ed was keen to use this unexpected spare time to go and explore the area to the east of Lake Baikal that was not on the intended route before meeting back up with Dan to tackle the BAM road together once the DRZ was running properly again.

Thankfully for Dan, Oasis in Ulaanbaatar is a pleasant place to spend an otherwise frustrating week in the company of a steady stream of friendly overlanders and assorted travellers.  American Ben (800GS) had already left for the final Russian leg of his Round the World trip, but the unstoppably helpful Allan (1150GS) was still waiting for Maggie (800GS) who had broken her ankle badly whilst the three of them were on their way to Ulaanbaatar.  Maggie made a brief appearance at Oasis on her way home to Holland to have her ankle properly seen to.  Dutch Tijs (Africa Twin) and Italian Enrico (KTM 990Adv-S), two great characters Dan and Ed had first met in Tashkent arrived with another great character – Irish Chris (660-Tenere).  Three Swedish riders also on new XT660Z Teneres had arrived for a night, and interestingly were planning to ride the Old Summer Road (the so-called “Road of Bones”) to Magadan and then return to Sweden via the BAM road – both of the challenging roads that Ed and Dan intended to tackle in Eastern Siberia.  A very friendly German motorcycle-overlanding-journalist couple, Andreas and Claudia, arrived on their BMW F800 and G650 GSs, and another German chap on a hideously overladen BMW X-Challenge was also around for one evening, as well as the rest of the German group that Ed and Dan had met halfway across Mongolia on their heavily laden big BMWs and even heavier Guzzi-sidecar-outfit.  American Travis (1150GS) was headed in the other direction, having ridden through Eastern Russia, he was now headed for Europe.   Portuguese Joao and Paolo on another couple of BMWs were another friendly and entertaining addition to the growing overlanding crowd.

Dan was on his way to the supermarket to buy some Sengur beer and some instant noodles for dinner when a Land Rover ambulance and a Mitsubishi L200 pick-up both on British plates hoved into view.  A team of intrepid students from St Andrews had raised the cash to buy the vehicles and drive them to Mongolia to donate them to charity.  It was interesting to compare notes with other brits on the road – one observation in common was that the people of Mongolia were not quite as friendly as they had been led to expect.  That is not to say that Mongolians are unpleasant or even unfriendly in a UK context – but the flow of stories of heart warming hospitality told by travellers through Mongolia even just a few years ago seems to be running dry.  In some countries of central Asia everyone is interested in communicating with visitors – to the extent that it is sometimes difficult to get on with buying some groceries from a shop or riding a motorcycle along a road.  In Mongolia however, the interest seems less – it can be difficult just to gain the attention of a passer-by to obtain directions.

Dan had hoped to receive his mechanical aid parcel on Saturday 16 July, but a phone call to DHL in the centre of Ulaanbaatar revealed that it had arrived at the airport customs clearance centre which was not open at the weekend – Monday would be the earliest it would leave the airport.  Whilst it was tempting to spend another couple of days just drinking Sengur and eating instant noodles, Dan was able to find at least a few more productive activities, helping Andreas and Claudia change the wheel bearings in Claudia’s bike, fix a puncture in Joao’s front tyre and drain Allan and Chris’s fuel tanks into his own to allow their bikes to be cleared for airfreight home to Holland and on to Thailand respectively.  Allan had already fixed everyone else’s bikes (including helping Dan repair his fuel tank brace a few days before, and donating the starter motor of his bike to Travis to get him back on the road), so once those simple tasks were completed, it was back to the Sengur and noodles…

On Monday 18 July, Dan was hot on the trail of his aid parcel.  The DHL office in the city that had been so helpful over the phone on Saturday was not so useful in person – the shipment had been sent via DHL but not by DHL, so the tracking number Dan had was not valid in the DHL system.  The staff around on the Monday claimed there was no way to track it without the DHL number, despite their colleague having managed this two days before.  An email to the UK carrier company was hastily sent, but the time difference of 8 hours meant that by the time they responded, the DHL office in UB was already closed.  Dan was left with the frustration of knowing that the vital part was so near, but out of reach.  A few more Sengurs and more chat with fellow overlanders would have to suffice until Tuesday morning.

Tuesday dawned dull and drizzly, but Dan was up and on the bike on his way to the airport armed with a DHL tracking number and some interesting information from Andreas and Claudia.  They had previously had tyres sent to them in Mongolia and had got away without paying import duty on  them – arguing that the tyres were going to be fitted to their motorcycles and would leave the country with the bikes, and therefore the same approach taken for the temporary import of the bikes should also apply – no duty payable.  This was worth a try, particularly as the DHL staff had estimated the duty payable on the parcel at 106400 Tugrik (£56, over 50%).

Arriving at the DHL customs clearance centre a little before they were due to open for business, Dan did his best to charm the young lass behind the counter round to his point of view on the payable duty.  He was doing fairly well, the lass in question seeming to agree with the concept and wandering off with the temporary import document for the bike to see the customs official.  Sadly the steely-eyed middle aged man occupying the customs hot seat that morning was less easily swayed.  Duty was to be paid, but less than 40,000 Tugrik, a bit over £20 and not much more than the UK VAT payable had it been delivered within the UK.

Rain delayed play somewhat as Dan was not keen to open up the side of the DRZ’s engine to fit the new stator whilst it was raining.  In a gap between showers Dan was able to get the part installed and the engine buttoned back up before the drizzle started up again.  With the bike built, there was nothing for it but to take it for a test ride – if Dan’s diagnosis had been correct, all would be well and the bike would run perfectly.  If Dan had been mistaken, he’d’ve just wasted the best part of a week waiting for a part he didn’t need to fix a bike that still didn’t work…

With some trepidation, Dan slung on his jacket and lid and headed out onto the cratered Ulaanbaatar streets and out of town to give the bike some stick.  A few miles outside the city a long straight provided Dan with the opportunity to open the throttle and check all was well.  The bike pulled all the way to the rev-limiter, just as Michio Suzuki would have intended.  Eureka – Dan could leave Mongolia in the morning.

With the relief provided by a properly functioning motorcycle, Dan was able to relax with his fellow Oasis residents that evening.  The beer flowed as freely as the overlanding anecdotes and the time to settle for some sleep in order to be able to get up in the morning and make a reasonable start came all too early.

Whilst Tuesday had dawned drizzly, Wednesday had achieved proper wetness.  Big raindrops were hammering on Dan’s tent as he packed up his belongings inside, and when the time came to transfer items to the bike’s panniers, take the tent down and strap the roll bags onto the bike, Dan got absolutely drenched.  With the bike packed, a little time was taken to wring out his t-shirt and try to dry off a bit before putting on waterproofs and heading for the border with Russia.  After a great send off from the remaining Oasis inmates, Dan headed across the city, doing his best with the apocalyptic road surface despite many of the hazards being concealed beneath the numerous flooded sections.  Heading north out of Ulaanbaatar towards the border, the “real Mongolia” doesn’t make a comeback – the road is all tarred – though there are fewer tourist gimmick ger camps advertised at the side of the road and the scenery is still lovely.

Close to the border, Dan saw two large bikes coming the other way – the KTM 640 Adventures of Bernd and Heidi, the honeymooning German overlanding-veterans Dan and Ed had first met in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.  They had been told the fuel shortage in Mongolia was far worse than it really was, and had travelled eastwards through Russia, planning to just enter Mongolia for a short time around Ulaanbaatar to see some of the place before heading back to Russia to continue towards Vladivostok.

It was good to catch up with them, and they brought news of having seen evidence of Alistair, the very likeable chaotic Brit, as he had at some point signed the dashboard of a Lada that had later stopped to say hello to them at the roadside.  They were also able to report that the border staff seemed helpful enough, and Dan headed on, eager to make it through into Russia before the border closed for the evening.

Posted in Mongolia | Comments Off on Lazy days in the sunshine, frantic activity in the rain

Mongolia GPS Track

An interactive map of our route through Mongolia, click on the red magnifying glass icon to view in full screen.

Elevation Profile
Download a GPX file of this track

 

Posted in Mongolia | 4 Comments

Mission Mongolia: Mud and misfires

Sure enough, as the two bikes rolled to the end of the tarmac on the afternoon of Wednesday 6 July, they found they had arrived at the Mongolian border. Ahead of them stretched a dusty track, leading the first few Mongolian kilometres to passport control and customs. After a brief exchange of pleasantries and passport details with the guys manning the gate, they were off onto the dusty track and towards the waiting officials. The officials got to wait in nice clean offices, the travellers got to wait on the dusty track with the other travellers and a swarm of astonishingly aggressive flies, intent on snacking on grubby overlanders.

Once finally allowed into the border control plaza (both the Russian and Mongolian operations seem to operate alternating one-way flow, so you have to wait for everyone to leave before you can enter) the guys were able to complete the Mongolian entry formalities fairly efficiently. One surprise was the customs officer offering to change money for us (it turns out there is a healthy black market in Mongolia so offering a poor rate to travellers at the border can be particularly lucrative) but changing a few bucks here at a slightly worse rate than offered even by the banks at least allowed the guys to buy their Mongolian insurance more cheaply than if they’d had to pay in dollars. The price of the insurance was about $25 US if bought in local Togrug, or $32 in dollars.

Finally escaping the border at 3.30pm, the guys headed down the road (a few miles of which were actually tarmac) to Olgii. Here the original plan had been to obtain some provisions and head out the other side and find somewhere to camp. The plan fell at the first hurdle however, with water being seemingly impossible to find. Tired and hungry, the plan was adapted, and the new plan involved finding somewhere to camp with washing and catering facilities. A ger camp (tourist accomodation in traditional nomad “ger” tents, but transplanted into the city) offered the chance to pitch modern tents at the back where they wouldn’t upset the tourist ger-dwellers and still make use of the hot showers, very reasonably priced cafe and just-about-detectable free WiFi. There were also friendly fellow travellers to talk to, including a Mitsubishi-sponsored Kazakh team on a mission in a large number of Mitsubishi products, intent on giving the vehicles a hard time on the Mongolian roads. There were also French and Swiss couples in 4x4s and there had apparently been a few motorcyclists only a few days before.

Thursday morning saw a slow start, with a sleepy Dan dragging his heels and failing to get up and packed. A more-conscious and conscientious Ed was making use of the intermittent WiFi to buy UK insurance for his bike which was about to lapse. Whilst the insurance was relatively easily sorted, still water was still impossible to find in any of the town’s shops, so the guys settled for a couple of bottles of sparkling and enough food to see them through the day and set off down the track towards the next town.

There is a tradition at an old workplace of Dan’s to return from vehicle climatic testing in far flung places with amusingly named foodstuffs.  Winter testing in Scandinavia is generally the most effective hunting ground for such things, a recent trip to Sweden for testing in extreme cold resulting in a department-wide email inviting the other engine geeks to “eat Plopp” (chocolate biscuits) or “suck on Keks” (fruit flavoured sweets, if Dan recalls correctly).  Here in Mongolia, whilst not quite in the same league, there was a bizarrely, but appropriately-geekily branded product forming part of the day’s provisions – biscuits presumably made with real Cruise and just a dustin’ of Hoffman…

That morning, the road really wasn’t so bad, but it was quite hard work and both riders needed to concentrate on the varying surface and adapt their riding to suit. It had it all – corrugations, dust, sand, hard packed mud, the odd big muddy puddle.

The morning’s labours were rewarded with a beautiful peaceful lunch spot by a river just a stone’s throw from the road. Whilst the guys were eating their improvised sandwich lunch, a local family in a 4×4 stopped on the road and the father and young daughter wandered over to say hello. There was no language in common as neither Dan nor Ed speak any Mongolian, and the locals spoke no English, Russian, French, German or Esperanto. In fairness neither Ed nor Dan spoke any Esperanto either, but they’d’ve been willing to give it a shot.

Shortly after lunch, the road and traffic conditions became a little more challenging. Ed had a near miss on a blind bend with a 4×4 travelling faster than anticipated as he took advantage of both sides of the road to negotiate the narrow tracks. The 4×4 ended up parked on top of a bank and the passengers climbed out slighty shaken but otherwise no harm was done. Ed checked with the driver that all was ok, shaking hands, before both parties went their separate ways a little wiser perhaps. Dan had an argument with some deep soft sand over rocks, which dumped the bike on it’s side and broke the temporary repair to the right hand pannier strap done in Kazakhstan.  This was actually good news as it showed the repair still allowed the joint to fail, preventing damage to the pannier itself in a spill.

IMG00839-20110707-1722What was less welcome was a break appearing in the fuel tank brace. This is an aluminium part that stops the two sides of the plastic fuel tank flexing around too much by bracing them to each other and the bike’s frame. Where it had been rubbing against the exhaust system it had been weakened and bent in previous drops – it was only a matter of time before it finally gave up and this was the moment.  A couple of hose clips and a short length of aluminium tube from Ed’s bodging kit and all was well again – for the moment at least.

It’s often said that Mongolia “has no roads”.  This simply isn’t the case.  Mongolia has loads of roads.  Possibly more roads than anywhere else.  It’s just that they all go the same way and they’re all rubbish…

The route from Olgii to Khovd was 218km and arriving in the late afternoon sunshine the guys found plenty of roadworks underway but no hotels or suitable accomodation in the town. A decision was made to pick up provisions instead and head out of town to find a spot to camp (they were in Mongolia after all). The task of restocking was proving extraordinarily hard to carryout, partly because passers-by would ignore any attempt to get their attention and because many of the shops are hidden behind run-down exteriors which, if you’re lucky, have a large, faded sign of unintelligible words with pictures of western-branded bottles and jars around them. Luckily, a workman who had been digging up the road came over and guided Ed behind a door and into a shop that sold bottled still water rather than the fizzy stuff. Shortly afterwards the bikes headed out of town, paid a dubious toll of 500T in order to use the pristine 2 miles of tarmac that pointed the way out of the town, up a hill and then, predictably, reverted to sandy gravel from then on.

The evening began to draw in and the daylight adopted a deepening shade of pink by time the guys parked up 56km later in the middle of a flat, picturesque plain. The site was selected for its views of the mountains, the incredibly flat plain and just enough distance from any of the parallel tracks which comprise the road to disuade passing vehicles from driving over to disturb the tired overlanders. What it wasn’t selected for was the opportunity for the biggest shock for our overlanders so far.

With the tents erected, photos taken and the usual dinner of bread and cheese consumed, the guys retired to their tents to escape the attention of the mosquitos. By 10pm a whistling had developed from the bikes which woke Dan and this was shortly followed by the rustling of the tents as a stiff breeze picked up. Within 15 minutes this breeze had turned into a gale that began to wreak havoc with the tents, the force bending tent structures into unsustainable shapes under the constant howl. For the next 45 minutes, Ed lay there bracing his tent’s airbeam with his hands to stop it being folded flat on top of him with his sleeping bag over his head to keep the blasts of sandy wind out of his eyes and ears. A waterproof bag that had been tucked under the porch of his tent had been carried away and Ed wondered how many kilometres away it now was and where it would end up by morning. It was a huge relief when a lull in the gale allowed Ed to shine his head torch out from his tent and spot the red material of the bag a short distance away. With no time to spare Ed hopped out barefooted in his underpants to grab the escapee and attach it to his tent by its clip before retreating back into his shelter.  Meanwhile, in Dan Mansions, Dan himself peered out of a window to check that none of the slates had been dislodged and pottered through to the kitchen in his dressing gown to make a cup of cocoa.

WR in Mongolia 1

A peaceful Friday morning on 8 July had replaced the frenzy of the previous night as they arose to survey the damage. Amazingly the bikes were upright, both tents had survived intact and even two empty waterbottles remained lying underneath Dan’s bike where he left them the previous evening. Sadly the mosquitos and biting flies were back again but these didn’t stop breakfast and a spot of maintenance that Ed needed to do to his bike. This involved repositioning a hoseclip which was starting to rub against the underside of his fuel tank and could well have been accelerated by the bumps on the rough roads.

The rest of the morning was spent putting down the miles and scanning the road for potholes big enough to swallow a dirtbike front wheel, or other hazards. In the distance a bridge came into view but on closer inspection neither end of it was attached to the land, rendering it useless for the bikes to cross by. Alongside the bridge a gaggle of lorries and cars had assembled next to a ford in preparation to make the crossing. Ed and Dan drove up to the water’s edge and tried to see how deep and fast the water was moving. A local suggested a depth of one metre which was too deep for bikes to traverse but Dan volunteered to wade out in the direction suggested by the locals who had assembled there. With his boots filling up with water he made good progress across and while the current was strong the river was not too deep and well within the capability of the bikes. Dan returned and one by one the guys rode across and up the opposite bank and back to dry land. Dry was sadly not to be for Dan’s feet which were to remain damp inside his saturated motocross boots for days to come.  By that evening, despite numerous stops during the day to wring out his socks, Dan’s feet were to look a lot like something from an episode of Silent Witness.

The many Mongolian roads were taking their toll on the friends of the German traveller the guys had met on the Russian side of the border who had given up on Mongolia and headed back. Ed and Dan came across them by late morning when Dan stopped and noticed his chainguide had broken and, beyond repair, was discarded.  The other three from that party were on very heavily laden big machines, one on a Guzzi with a sidecar for luggage and a stack of tyres on the pillion seat.  Dan and Ed were having it easy on their small lightweight bikes, and couldn’t help but feel that the rest of this German party were probably having a much slower and more tiring experience so far.

The guys rolled into Darvi, refuelled and looked around for somewhere to grab some lunch. A couple of likely buildings turned up a blank but inside one the guys met a french couple and their small child eating plates of mutton or goat and noodles. Ed and Dan pointed at the cauldron of noodles and after muttering the word “chai” were soon sat eating a meal and drinking a hot watery milk drink that is not quite entirely unlike tea.

Once fed and watered, the guys remounted and headed back out onto the road, and very quickly caught up with the French family in their huge Iveco van – plenty of space to live in (and for all the toys and games demanded by a small child on the road) but not great for making fast progress across Mongolian roads.

By the evening, the guys were approaching Altai City – the approach to the town is across a green plain after crossing through some small mountains, and the guys opted to camp on this relatively lush looking ground, though they had learnt their lesson from the previous night that everything should be thoroughly pegged or weighted down as the weather may not stay calm all night.  A peaceful spot presented itself, which whilst almost within sight of the airport (a small grass airfield with no aircraft, but an airport nonetheless) was sufficiently secluded from the roads into town and offered some shelter should the wind pick up again in the night.  Once the tents were up but before the bread and cheese dinner had been laid out on the seat of Dan’s DRZ, the thunderstorm that had been gathering arrived.  The guys sheltered in their tents for an hour or so until it passed over before enjoying a meal watching the sun go down and then a peaceful night’s sleep.

On arriving in Altai City (a grand name for a place that from a distance looks less permanent than a rally’s overnight bivouac) the guys quickly located the required supplies for the day’s riding, but discovered that they’d lost another hour and were now 8 hours ahead of GMT – so despite the reasonable efficiency of their efforts that morning it was a late start anyway.

On leaving Altai, there was a lot more traffic than expected, some of which was rather unusual – men on horseback wearing traditional robes and hats rather than the usual western style clothing.  Following a stream of traffic, believing it would lead them to the main road out of town, the guys instead found themselves corralled in a parking area for a local festival, involving horse racing, archery and various other traditional activities.  It seemed like an opportunity not to be missed to pause a while and take a look around, and meanwhile the bikes and riders were causing quite a fuss in the car park – even some of those who should have been taking part in the event instead coming over to have a look at the bikes and/or ask to be allowed to get on one of them.

The good progress across the Mongolian countryside continued, the guys starting to wonder whether the expected difficulties would ever materialise – some of the stories from fellow overlanders over the years had implied immense difficulties in crossing the country, even without trying to take in any less well-used routes to visit out of the way places.  A difficulty did then turn up – though not a geographical obstacle, instead a mechanical issue.

Dan’s DRZ, selected for being one of the most reliable small-capacity trail bikes money can buy, had developed a misfire.  It was difficult at first to distinguish whether it really was a misfire, or just the rear wheel spinning on the loose surface at high engine speeds, but after a few experiments in a few different gears, Dan was sure his bike had a problem – the question to be mulled in his helmet in between dodging dirt-road hazards and picking which track to take at each of the million forks in the road was what exactly was wrong with it.

Lunch that day was served in a Ger at the side of the road in a small town not even marked on Open Street Map – the usual fare of goat/noodles/carrots/onions all fried up together and served in a bowl with a separate cup of milky tea.  This was actually the first time either had set foot inside one of the traditional nomadic tents during their time in central Asia so far.  Dan and Ed have been asked by a few excited people whether they’ve stayed in a ger, and the usual response is that it would be broadly equivalent to staying in a traveller’s caravan somewhere in the UK.  To some they may be a romantic icon of some idyllic nomadic existance but sure enough they are left behind as the people gain the opportunity to live in brick-built permanent buildings with decent facilities.  Westerners may think that a ger is an attractive proposition for a week or so, but after that they’d probably want running water, electricity for a fridge and a telly and somewhere the kids could play without running out into the road.  Mongolians are of course no different, and whilst traditional culture and lifestyles are as cherished here as they are anywhere in the world, many modern Mongolians have left those lifestyles behind in favour of city life, with 40% now living in the dirty and crowded capital, Ulaanbaatar.

Shortly after lunch, fate finally offered Dan some relief from his misfire problem.  Dan was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to spend an hour or so at the side of the road getting grit-blasted by the force-8 breeze that was gently caressing the Gobi desert as he coaxed his spare tube into the front tyre.  Meanwhile the DRZ reclined on a handy road-side car-tyre, steadied by an equally handy roadside Edward.  Once Dan’s front tyre had been filled with air and his ears, eyes, nose and wheel bearings had been filled with sand, it was time to refit the front wheel and see what delights the road still had to offer.

The next treat was a water crossing of a fairly large river, encouragingly equipped with locals paddling in parts of it and buzzing backwards and forwards across other bits on little Chinese 125 cc bikes.  One offered to show the guys the way across the first section.  The route involved riding out to a little gravel island, along the river to another little gravel island before hanging a left and crossing a much deeper section to the bank, crossing that to the next, deeper and faster flowing section of the river, (where Dan thought for a moment that he may have taken the wrong route as the water level was much higher than he had been expecting), then back onto dry land for another few metres before dashing across a short, shallow third section.  Dan was resigned to the fact that he’d have damp feet for the remainder of the riding day, but as it was already mid-afternoon, they wouldn’t have to suffer for long.

Unsurprisingly Dan’s misfire had not been cured by bathing the bike in the river, but at least it hadn’t got any worse.  It wasn’t cured by adding more fuel to the tank, diluting what was left of the last batch either, but again, at least it wasn’t any worse.  By the time the guys were within 50 miles or so of Bayankhongor, it was time to call it a day for the night, and a suitably secluded spot was selected where the guys could set up camp, patch Dan’s front tube and get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the following day. Having tied his tent to the sidestand of his motorcycle, just in case, Ed went exploring, returning shortly after slightly paler than he had left with news of a yellow and black scorpion he had seen. Luckily the grass of the camping area was sparsely populated but it focused the guys’ minds when they swop from motocross boots for trainers at the end of the day’s riding.

The guys were treated to a fairly easy Sunday morning run into Bayankhongor on 10 July, though after leaving the town with the day’s provisions, they found the road deteriorated somewhat.  There was however a tarmac road under construction, and where it was possible to get onto the foundation of that, the going was easier than it was on the existing tracks.

New Roads in Mongolia (Southern Route)

The foundations had been provided with some defences however, regular large piles of gravel on the top to hinder progress of marauding motorists, and a deep ditch down each side to protect the unfinished road from rain water run-off and provide further defence against the local drivers.  In several places the defences had been conveniently bypassed by the determined locals however, and it was possible to make quite good progress along what was essentially an excellent gravel road surface.  One or two of the piles of gravel had been less effectively reduced in size than others and one of these got Dan airborne for the second time of the trip, it being both steeper and higher than it had looked from the seat of a 50 mph motorcycle…

Dan was not alone in getting caught out by the defences, Ed chose to negotiate a tricky path through the defensive ditch onto one stretch, and in his excitement managed to overcook it and drop the bike on his leg.  By the time Dan had manoeuvred his bike to a point on the track where he could get his sidestand down however, Ed was already out from under the bike and had it back upright and back on it’s way to the unfinished road.

By the time the bikes were 280 miles from Ulaanbaatar, the road unexpectedly became tarmac.  Both riders assumed that this would be another short lived stretch into and out of a small town, but it became apparent that the dirt road section was now over.  The opportunity to make better progress however was hampered by Dan’s ongoing misfire issues, which effectively limited the pair to a cruising speed of 50 mph.  What the better surface did provide however was the opportunity to investigate the symptoms of the misfire in a bit more detail than is possible whilst dodging puddles, avoiding muddy holes, stuttering through sandy sections or getting airborne over misjudged piles of gravel.  The misfire was definitely engine speed related not load related, which implied an ignition fault rather than a fuelling fault.  It was also clear that it was related to engine temperature – the engine running perfectly fine when not yet up to normal temperature after a break, but the misfire reappearing as the oil temperature climbed up beyond 65°C.  This suggested somewhere sensitive to oil or coolant temperature and made Dan suspect it was likely to be the ignition stator.

Lunch that day came with an unexpected bonus – an impromptu falconry display from the son of the family providing one of the roadside catering options (noodles, goat/mutton, vegetables, this time with added Bisto).

After 140 miles or so on the tarmac, the guys pulled off the road to investigate the possibility of camping in a secluded spot up above the road in the hills.  A suitable spot located, the guys set up their tents before Dan dismantled his bike to check the resistance of the ignition stator windings.  The windings were very close to being in spec, but one was very slightly high (by 0.1 Ohms).  Before fully re-assembling the bike, Dan made an attempt to re-create the misfire whilst stationary, but succeeded only in destroying the peace and quiet of the rural location.

The morning of Monday 11 July saw an easy run along the remainder of the tar road to Ulaanbaatar.  In places, the parallel dirt tracks that used to serve this route surrounded the tar road, scars in the landscape that would take some time to heal and would probably be back in use if the tar road were allowed to deteriorate too far into potholedom.

The target was the Oasis Cafe and Guesthouse on the far side of Ulaanbaatar, picked from the guidebook on grounds that it had a yard in which the bikes could be securely parked.  Plenty of other motorcycle travellers had already had the same idea – the place was sporting a Kudu Expeditions banner after providing accomodation at the end of an organised and supported trip from the UK to UB.  There were independent travellers currently in residence too – American Ben, Dutch Allan, a couple of swiss guys on R1200 GS Adventures, and another couple of swiss guys on 1950s BSAs.  In between chatting to the other inmates, Dan took the opportunity to have another look over his bike, discovering a trapped breather hose on the carburettor – it was a long shot, but there was a small chance that this could be the cause of the misfire after all.  The rest of the afternoon and the evening was spent chatting to the other travellers, eating and drinking, the test ride could wait for the following day.

Tuesday’s test ride was to immediately and unsurprisingly disprove the carb vent hose theory, and no fault was found by stripping the carburettor, or substituting the spark plug for the new one bought in Istanbul.  The search was now on to find a way to get a new stator to meet up with the expedition at some point, either in Russia or here in Ulaanbaatar.  Whilst it was good to be reasonably confident in the root cause of the problem (only one fault had been located, the slightly over-spec resistance of the ignition signal coil) getting the part was likely to be time consuming and expensive – the genuine Suzuki part is £330 + 20% VAT in the UK.  Pattern parts are available in the UK and the US for less than a third of that cost, and as the genuine part had failed after 3 years and 19000 miles, Dan was quite willing to try a different option.

The WiFi access at Oasis was put to great use exchanging emails with suppliers in the US and UK, during Tuesday evening and the early hours of Wednesday morning.  Both Ricky Stator in the US and Electrex World in the UK were willing to accept payment from a UK credit card in Mongolia, and send parts to Ulaanbaatar by courier.  Meanwhile, Andrey the tyre agent in Barnaul, was also having a quick look into options to acquire the part in Russia.  Research showed that sending a part to Russia would be time consuming due to the excessive time taken to clear Russian customs.  Having not heard anything positive from Andrey about availability of new (as opposed to bodge repaired) parts in Russia, the decision was made to order a part in to Ulaanbaatar.

Due to time zone convenience, the offices of UK company Electrex World opened first, so they won the job, and the part was ordered first thing on Wednesday morning, UK time, before Ricky Stator in the US were back in the office.  Now it was just a case of sitting back, opening a beer and waiting for DHL to do their thing.

Posted in Mongolia | 7 Comments

Tajikistan GPS Track

An interactive map of our route through Tajikistan, click on the red magnifying glass icon to view it full screen.

Elevation Profile
Download GPX file of this track

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Into Russia (and out again)

The first entry into the Russian Federation for Dan and Ed on 29 June was every bit as highly organised and efficient as you’d expect. There was one slight hiccup when the guy stamping the passports demanded to see the migration card that the gatekeeper hadn’t given to Dan, but after passport control barked at gatekeeper through his radio, gatekeeper came running out of his hut with a migration card for Dan and a very apologetic face. With passport control formalities out of the way, the next hurdle was customs, who were disconcertingly uninterested in the travellers and their bikes. There were at least no frustrating checks through the bags for contraband, the Russians clearly having slightly less idle curiosity about western tourists. After establishing as best they could that they didn’t need to fill in a customs declaration of some description and overcoming their disbelief, the guys headed on out into Russia for about 150 metres before stopping and buying some third-party insurance. Three months of insurance for the Russian Federation cost each rider about fifty US dollars, and gave peace of mind for police checks, even if the claim procedure in the event of an incident was likely to be inpenetrable.

With insurance in force and pleasant rolling Russian countryside to ride through, the guys headed towards Barnaul, where they hoped their new tyres would be waiting for them.  With road conditions in Mongolia difficult to predict (heavily dependent on the weather) new tyres with fresh tread had been ordered from www.motorezina.ru in Moscow whilst still in Kazakhstan to be delivered to Barnaul, a few hundred miles from the Mongolian border.

On arriving in Barnaul, the first task was to find somewhere to stay, which both guys expected to be more expensive than they were used to. With no guidebook to follow, there was no option but to visit each hotel listed in the GPS maps in turn and check their rates. After taking longer to complete their impromptu evening tour of the city than could be hoped due to yet more motorcycle bans in force on several main streets, the guys settled on the Viktoria guesthouse, and parked their bikes out of sight round the back, locked to some rusting relic. The rate was 1800 Roubles (£40) per night for the room, plus another 200 Roubles in registration fees. Russian visa conditions require visitors to register in a city within three days of arriving. If not staying anywhere for longer than three days then in theory it is not necessary to register at all, but that can result in awkward questions at the border.

On Thursday 30 June, the guys ventured out of Viktoria to go in search of a Russian SIM card and an internet cafe to get in touch with the tyre supplier and find out about the tyres. There was no delivery estimate available, but the name, email and phone number of Motorezina’s agent were waiting in Ed’s inbox, enabling the guys to get in touch and get an update on how long they’d be in Barnaul. Andrey is a very friendly and helpful guy, himself something of an extreme motorcycle traveller – his chosen discipline being long distance rides in the Siberian winter with sidecars. He had been awarded the furthest travelled attendee at a recent Snowdogs rally having arrived on a 20 year old 80cc scooter with a sidecar. Andrey was the bearer of bad news – the tyres had not yet arrived, but may arrive on Friday. He was however keen to show the guys around and gave them a quick tour of the city in his new Lada Priora. Andrey had previously lived in the US for a couple of years and spoke excellent English, so the conversation about the history of the city and his views on motorcycle travel, motorcycles, motorcyclists and Russian cars was free-flowing. The city was founded by the river and the commercial centre is still there, the suburbs having been forced to the north side of the city by the river. Russian planning laws are apparently laughably complicated and time consuming to follow and most building projects in the city are built without prior planning consent, their right to remain being contested in the courts afterwards as this is a quicker, cheaper and relatively low-risk approach. Dan was interested to know how Russians viewed their domestic cars, and given the relatively plush surroundings of the Priora, was somewhat surprised to learn that Russians would generally much prefer to buy foreign, the domestic products (Avtovaz’s Volga, Lada and GM-joint-venture Chevrolet-branded cars) only really being bought due to cripplingly high import tariffs on foreign manufactured vehicles. When it came to trucks however, the pride was strong – Kamaz units being held in as high regard in Russia as they are in the rest of the world by anyone who knows them for their ability and durability in tough Siberian conditions.

Part of the Barnaul city tour was a visit to see Viktor, the local bike mechanic, and his workshop. Here the guys were pleased to see bike-maintenance products, notably proper air-filter oil and bike-specific engine oils.

Everything on offer was the reassuringly expensive French Motul brand, and while the price of the engine oil was a bit salty, the air-filter oil was well worth having. With that and a new front inner tube to replace Ed’s now heavily patched spare, the band of bikers left Viktor’s workshop for a bite to eat and a couple of beers at a local German-brauhaus-style brewery/restaurant. The food and drink were both good and on hearing that Dan was planning to have a chain and sprockets sent to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia Andrey explained that he was going to Novosibirsk the following day and would almost certainly be able to buy suitable parts there. This sounded like a good way to save some cash as the parts would probably cost no more than the cost of sending the spares Dan had in the UK, and those parts would still be there when he got home. After agreeing a plan of action, Andrey dropped Ed and Dan back at Viktoria for the night, where they hoped to hear good news of tyres the following morning before Andrey headed to Novosibirsk.

Friday dawned torrentially wet, and remained that way for most of the day. The tyres were still in a truck on it’s way from Moscow and would now not arrive until after the weekend. The good news was that Andrey had located a shop in Novosibirsk with a good quality chain and sprockets to suit Dan’s DRZ – the price being slightly higher than hoped, but little more than the £150 DHL were asking for to get a chain and sprockets from the UK to UB in 4 days, so Dan agreed that Andrey should pick them up and bring them back. Faced with at least another three nights in Barnaul before the tyres would arrive, the guys followed up Andrey’s recommendation of a cheaper place to stay, just over half the price of Viktoria at 500 Roubles (£11) a night each. Given the weather and the lack of concealed parking at Kolos, the guys cheekily opted to take a cab with their luggage and leave the bikes locked up in the rain at Viktoria. The following day in a break from yet more biblical rain, the guys walked back across the city to Viktoria to explain that they were having “problems with the bikes” (as close to the truth as limited Russian could get them) and ask whether it would be ok to leave them there. After much confusion, the guys left at a point at which they felt they had permission to leave them there until Monday, when they hoped the tyres would finally reach Barnaul.

Sunday was another dismally wet day in Barnaul, with little to relieve the boredom and frustration of not moving on bar the fact that one of the hotel staff at Kolos had inexplicably taken a shine to Dan, referring to him as “Santa Claus” on account of his excessive facial neglect and taking every opportunity to grasp his beard. Turning up at the door of the room in a top sporting a sequinned union jack resulted in little more than bemused looks from the Brits inside and a confirmation that yes they hoped to be leaving the following day so they’d probably not see her again. A chance discovery of a pizza restaurant near to the Kolos had also provided welcome access to the internet for paying customers via Wifi and the guys took full advantage of the service to catch up with news from back home whilst enjoying the novelty of fastfood.

On Monday 4 July, it was independence day for the whole of the US, and also for two Brits who had been holed up in Barnaul for five days. At lunchtime Ed received a call from Andrey to say that the tyres had finally arrived, and shortly after the tyres came a break from the rain with some sunshine. To save some cash the guys had selected Czech-manufactured Mitas tyres which had received good reviews from fellow overlanders. The price for each rider for a pair of tyres delivered from Moscow to Barnaul was 7300 Roubles, £160 – so they were still not cheap, but much less than buying the better known western european brands within Russia.  They were certainly much needed, Dan’s tyres had done 13500 miles since he’d persuaded them onto the DRZ’s rims back in April, those on Ed’s WR a couple of thousand less.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By 2pm, the guys had overstayed their welcome at Kolos and were bundling themselves, their new tyres and their luggage into a cab back to Viktoria to fit their tyres in the car park. By 6pm, both bikes had new shoes and Ed’s bike had been treated to new sprockets to extend the life of his chain and reduce his gearing to unleash his bike for the unpaved roads ahead.  Dan’s new spare chain and sprockets sourced in Novosibirsk by Andrey had also been satidfactorily stowed, the rather unwieldy rear sprocket strapped and clamped to the inside of his pannier rack.

By 7pm, both riders had been fed and watered, and both bikes were loaded up and heading out of town towards the Mongolian border. With a suitable secluded corner of a cornfield selected, the guys set up camp for the night, both thoroughly relieved to finally be back on the road and making progress towards the next leg of the adventure, the unpaved haven that is Mongolia.

On Tuesday morning, the guys packed up early and left the cornfield behind, and headed off into the mountains of the Altai region. The area is genuinely reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, green peaks with rivers and forests, with birds of prey soaring overhead preying on the abundant wildlife of the area. It’s a popular place for Russian tourists, despite being a long way east from Moscow. Consequently the road is in good condition and makes for easy going, and is well equipped with picnic areas with benches and bins – a real novelty for the guys after travelling through central asia, much of which still has a more free-form attitude to waste management.

On the road, the guys met a British couple in a Landcruiser Mick and Chris (http://intrepidfor10minutes.blogspot.com/) and stopped for a cup of tea in one of the local tourist haunts by the river and swap tales of the road. They had travelled out a different route but would be heading back the way Dan and Ed had come from the UK, so were interested to hear what the route had been like, and it was good to have a chat about overland travel over a cuppa.

The guys were keen to do an oil change before heading into Mongolia, while decent quality oil was still relatively easily available. A detour into a village bypassed by the main road yielded a little motor factors selling various recognisable brands of oil – the guys settled on 3 litres of Esso Ultra and lashed it to the bikes to effect a change that evening. Once within striking distance of the border for the following morning, Ed started looking for a place for the guys to camp. There were numerous pleasant spots down by the river with quite established tracks leading to them from the road, but they were mostly already occupied by Russian vehicles and tents, so it was time to look a little further afield. A spot was found which was high above the river and not visible from the road, where the guys could spend an evening without being bothered except perhaps by the occasional curious local bovine. Once the tents were up and both bikes had new oil and filters, the oil was transferred into sealed bottles to be carried by the guys and disposed of properly when the opportunity presented itself.

On Wednesday morning, 6 July, it was time to head to the border. The guys had heard that fuel generally is a bit of a problem in Mongolia due to troubled negotiations with their main supplier: Russia. Diesel is very hard to come by and only at inflated prices, higher grade petrol is also rare, though 80-RON is easy to come by everywhere in Mongolia still. The guys topped up with Russian 92-RON (95+ would have been nicer, but beggars can’t be choosers…) and chatted to some French 4×4 drivers at the petrol station. On hearing that the little bikes were headed towards Mongolia, one lady was quick to warn Dan that the roads in Mongolia “are not asphalt – they’re really not roads at all!”.

“Yep, we know, that’s why we’re on these little things, we’ll be fine…”

A few kilometres down the road, the guys saw another motorcycle overlander coming the other way. This was a guy who perhaps did need the French lady’s warning – a middle-aged German gentleman on a very heavily laden 1980s BMW R80 GS – he’d been travelling with three friends, got 100 km into Mongolia, got tired of the constant bumps, corrugations and dust and turned round and come back to Russia. He was now headed to Lake Baikal through Russia and would meet back up with his friends there after they had got through Mongolia.

At the Russian exit formalities, there was some confusion as the bikes hadn’t been stamped out of Kazakhstan or into Russia – but it turns out that they share a common customs region, and that the Kazakh entry declaration was all that was required. The border process was mostly trouble free but painfully slow, and having arrived at 11.30 am, it was at least an hour and a half before the guys headed out towards the end of the tarmac that marked the start of their journey through Mongolia.

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Crashes, Canyons and Corruption

When Dan arrived at the Kazakh side of the border on Friday 24 June, he was already playing catch up, Ed having crossed the same border two days before on the Wednesday.  Things were going well however as Ed had sent information back to Bishkek about how the process worked, and having arrived at the Kyrgyz side of the border before it opened, Dan was out the other side and legally in Kazakhstan by 8.30 am.  The mission then was to get to the Mongolian embassy a couple of hundred kilometres away in Almaty in time to apply for a visa before the consular section closed at 1pm.  Ed had warned that Kazakhstan was bristling with police radar guns however, so it was important not to break the speed limit on the way.  As a result Dan took it easy, but by 11am was only 25 miles away from Almaty.  As many roads in Almaty have bizarre and annoying motorcycle bans in place, Dan took care to navigate towards the embassy without traversing the city and arrived at 11.45.

The embassy was not busy, there was no queue, no ridiculous process to follow, just a really friendly, helpful guy speaking excellent English and making everything as simple as possible.  A visa applied for on a Friday would not be available until Monday, so Dan asked whether they’d be willing to stamp a photocopy of his passport to show that the original was with them, in case the police wanted to see it over the weekend.  The staff made a copy, but kept it and told Dan he could keep the original over the weekend after all and simply return with it on Monday morning to collect the visa.  By half past twelve, Dan was leaving the embassy in search of some Kazakh Tengi, and a road towards Charyn Canyon to meet up with Ed.  The Tengi were easily found, the road towards the canyon less so.  After a few wrong turns and recalculations, Dan was on a road towards the canyon, but it wasn’t the road he thought it was.

Whilst still 100 miles from his destination, Dan was faced with a toll gate across the road at which he had to pay a fee to gain access to some kind of National Park.  The map displayed at the entrance didn’t seem to show the canyon, but this didn’t dissuade Dan, who knew that this was the way – Garmin was on his side.  With the 400 Tengi (3GBP) entry fee paid, Dan was on his way again, following a little tarmac road along the side of a small river through a gorge.

The scenery was lovely and alarm bells only started ringing when the road became a gravel track with 95 miles still to go to the canyon.  A little further along, another barrier blocked the way, this one manned by a couple of guys who initially said that the road was closed.  Dan pointed out that he wanted to use it to get to Charyn Canyon, and they seemed very surprised, saying amongst other things well beyond Dan’s Russian comprehension that it was a very long way.  Dan knew it was a long way, the GPS said it was still 90 miles or so to the canyon, but he showed them the route on the screen and they incredulously agreed to let him pass, presumably assuming he’d be back with his tail between his legs in an hour or two when he actually saw the road he’d requested access to.  The gravel track the other side of the barrier continued in pretty good condition up the gorge which opened up into a wider valley.  As the good gravel turned to the south and out of the valley, the GPS indicated that Dan should hang a left onto a little track criss-crossing the river as it traversed the plateau.  Dan opted to take the parallel track not shown on Open Street Map as it seemed to be marginally better, and headed off into the unknown.

For Ed, having picked up his Mongolian visa that morning, a couple of hours on the bike saw him arrive at Charyn canyon having followed the main red line on the screen of the GPS all the way from Almaty.  A few miles of tarmac-less road led to the guard house of the canyon and 500T later Ed had the canyon at his disposal along with a couple of small groups of Kazakh tourists who kept themselves mainly to themselves.  Within about an hour Ed had explored the top and bottom of the canyon thoroughly, enjoyed a short period charging around on the WR to relieve the boredom and then sat himself down by the river at the far end of the canyon to await Dan’s arrival.  It wasn’t until the sun started going down and the tourists and guards had left for the night that Ed realised that Dan may have encountered some issue or other so he selected the vantage point with mobile phone reception and the best view of the canyon and access roads and settled himself down for a night with the whole place to himself.

The scenery up in the mountains was idyllc and Dan figured that whilst there was a risk he’d come to an impassable point before reaching the canyon, if that happened there was plenty of space to camp up here for the night and retrace his steps the following morning.  The biggest concern was that with no mobile phone reception up here, he’d be unable to tell Ed what had happened.

Dan saw one other vehicle during his afternoon on this trail, a VW Tuareg, the occupants of which were probably quite surprised to be overtaken on the approach to a river crossing, with Dan splashing across the river and gassing it up a steep rocky incline on the other side to rejoin the main track shown on the GPS map.  The track continued for some miles as wheel tracks across the grass, or gravel sections along or across the river, before starting to climb up the side of the mountains to the side of the valley to continue eastwards.  Here the riding became more challenging, with steep rocky climbs and descents and occasionally quite badly washed-out sections.  Dan was doing well to anticipate which side of the track would have the washed out gully along it as he rounded each corner and crested each rise, but eventually one caught him out.  Cresting a peak in the track with the high ground on his right, he expected the right hand side of the track to be intact for the descent.  Not so: a huge washed-out cravasse opened up on the right of the track and there was no way to get across it further down the track – it would force him off the track completely.

Dan was forced to stop, get off the bike, motor it part way up the steep side of the bank to effect a multi-point-turn, before remounting and riding back up the slope to turn round and come back down the left hand side of the track.  All was going well until he lost momentum crossing the start of the gully during the u-turn and the bike came crashing down to the right.  The right hand mirror and hand guard took the brunt of the impact, the mirror shattering into a useless mosaic, the handguard doing it’s important job of protecting the brake lever so the bike was still perfectly rideable.  Dan’s adrenal gland handled the task of getting the bike back upright admirably, and within a couple of minutes Dan was back on his steed and heading down the left hand side of the track, still on a mission: it was gone five pm and there were still another 50 miles of this to cover to get to the canyon.

A little further along the track, a steep rocky section was a little too long to maintain momentum, with Dan’s 12500-mile heavily-worn rear tyre spinning hopelessly over the rocks and pebbles searching for the traction to propel the bike up the track.  The bike was fishtailing wildly and unable to let off the power without risking coming to a stop, Dan just had to try and hold it together.  Fatigue was setting in however and a clumsy over-correction had the bike back on it’s side.  Thankfully it was the right hand side again, so the one mirror remained unscathed, but this time due to the rather faster forward speed at the moment of impact, the right hand tank pannier had been torn from one of it’s straps.   The other issue this time was that righting the bike was more of a challenge.  The track was hollowed out towards the centre, where the panniers were resting, the wheels on the higher part at the edge of the track.  A couple of months of riding a motorcycle and not eating very much is not very effective muscle maintenance, and Dan had started to notice his loss of muscle mass weeks before.  Whilst medical professionals generally agree that Dan doesn’t strictly need to eat until after the London Olympics, the loss of muscle was suddenly now an issue.

No amount of heaving and pushing on the laden bike, with his feet in the lower central part of the track could get it vertical over it’s wheels on the higher edge of the track.  After numerous frustrating attempts, there was no alternative but to start removing luggage until it could be lifted.  Eventually an exhausted Dan had an upright partially loaded bike, and could start it and motor it a little further up the track to a point where he could get the sidestand down and re-load it.  After another ten minutes and downing a litre or so of water, Dan had the bike re-laden and was back on it continuing along his way.  The thought had crossed his mind that were he to be injured out here, there was no one to provide any assistance and his only way out would be to ride out.  It was therefore of paramount importance to ride cautiously, picking each line carefully.  It was starting to get late now, but the sun was still reasonably high and there should still be light enough to get to the canyon provided two conditions were met: he had to keep the bike rubber side down, and there had to be a bridge over the Chalik river.  The Chalik river was large enough to be clearly shown on the map, whereas the river the track had been entwined with as it crossed the plateau was not shown at all.  If there was no way of getting across, Dan would have to find somewhere to camp and retrace his steps the following day.

The first condition was going well, and whilst another barrier across the track (this time unmanned) did not herald an improvement in the quality of the surface, the track was weaving it’s way out of the mountains towards the lake and the river.  As Dan rounded a corner approaching the lake, he could see a bridge over the Chalik.  At that moment, you could keep your Tower Bridge and your Golden Gate, this was Dan’s favourite bridge in the whole world.

The bridge finally heralded an improvement in the track, which was now much more heavily used and as a result quite heavily corrugated, but wide, open and predictable and so good for upwards of 50 mph. Eventually the track met tarmac at the village of Kokpek, and with it a shop able to sell Dan emergency Coca-Cola.  With coke drunk, and provisions of bread, cheese and water stashed on the bike, Dan continued on along the tar road he should have been on all afternoon, towards the few kilometres of dirt road to Charyn Canyon.

Viewers of The Long Way Round may remember a section in the Kazakhstan episode where the  stars on unreasonably-heavy bikes deeply regret riding down into Charyn Canyon, only to then struggle to get back up the steep track to get out again (cue much falling over, removal of luggage and yet more falling over).  Searching for Ed with the aid of a GPS waypoint in the canyon, a very tired Dan rode down into the canyon to have a look around, and not finding his riding buddy down in it’s depths, picked his way undramatically back up the track and out of the top.  Small lightweight bikes may be cheating, but cheating feels good after a day like Dan had just had.  Riding around the rim of the canyon as the sun set behind him, Dan could see a familiar figure at a viewpoint overlooking the abyss.  There was a lot to chat about, and the sun had well and truly set by the time tents were pitched at the edge of the Canyon and the overlanders turned in for the night under a clear starry sky.

As Saturday 25 June dawned at Charyn, the pair were up and about, eating breakfast and getting packed up.  The target for the day was Kapchugay reservoir, a truly enormous man-made lake that supplies most of Eastern Kazakhstan with drinking water.  On the shallower northern shore of the reservoir is found what is perhaps an embryonic Kazakh equivalent of Brighton – 70 miles from the centre of the capital, a hedonistic resort with a beach of sorts.  In the case of Brighton the complaint is that the sand is enormous, in the case of the Kazakh imitation the sand is really just dust, and a stiff breeze is all that’s required to whip it up into the eyes of the sunbathing weekenders, but the parallel perhaps still stands.  Certainly cheap accommodation is every bit as difficult to find as it is in Brighton, with most places either extortionately expensive, fully booked for the weekend or both.

With the aid of a local shopkeeper and a guy of uncertain employment, a confusing institution probably called Azti was located – a dilapidated shell of a place with next to no facilities.  For $17 a night, one was presented with a shack-like room with a couple of beds in it, a shed housing a row of long-drops and a bizarre warehouse containing a million discarded beer bottles and the bowser of doom – supplying water of who-knew-what provenance to a tap at ground level.  There was no shower.  Idyllic it wasn’t, and the people milling around who Dan and Ed took to be the staff of the place seemed to be concerned about where to park the bikes.  It’s always sensible to take the locals’ lead on these things even if the place at that point seemed almost deserted and likely to remain undisturbed.

After a false start where the padlock on the door of one shack could not be opened, the bikes were allowed to share another shed with an angry dog.  They were certainly unlikely to be stolen from in there, but it wasn’t clear what shape they’d be in by the time they were liberated the following morning.  With the bikes hidden away and no reason to hang around, the guys wandered out into the melee of revellers to find something to eat and perhaps a beer or two.  Selecting the not-too-smart establishment associated with the guy who’d helped them find their salubrious quarters, the guys were seated at a dusty table and ordered some chicken shashlik and a litre and a half of beer.  The beer was cold, but sadly so was the raw chicken when it was first served.  The chicken was duly returned to the grill, and by the time it was back on it’s plate it was more palatable.  The bill when it arrived however was not.  3000 Tengi was over $20 for some slap-dash kebabs and three pints of beer served in a plastic water bottle.  It wasn’t clear whether this really was the going rate, but it seemed very expensive and the guys refused to pay more than 2000 Tengi, at which they still felt they were being had.  The young guy who’d been serving them seemed to accept this lower number quite readily, which only added to the suspicion that the original bill had been subject to foreigner-inflation.  Back at Azti, there were two surprises in store.  The place was buzzing with people too unlucky or too short of cash to get a room elsewhere, with loud music pumping from car stereos outside and teenagers getting increasingly drunk on the verandah.  The second surprise was the arrival of the young waiter from the shashlik bar knocking on the door of their room.  He’d been despatched by the chef, demanding that the foreigners pay the remaining 1000 Tengi of their bill.  The guys stood their ground pointing out that the chicken had initially been served woefully under cooked, and it wasn’t clear whether the kid was getting upset because he didn’t want to be scamming the foreigners, because he’d be in trouble with the chef when he got back empty handed, or both.

The music outside continued well into the early hours, and the guys were a little on edge since the owner of the shashlik bar was clearly unhappy and knew which flimsy door to knock on to get to the rich foreigners.  Despite all this, the guys eventually got some sleep and awoke the following morning to survey the scene of devastation.  Furniture was strewn around, beer and alco-pop bottles were everywhere, but it was a while before the hung-over zombie teenagers started to emerge, blinking and asking for a light.  Two bemused and increasingly frustrated overlanders sat on the steps in their motorcycle kit, unable to liberate their machines without the aid of a staff member with a key and a means of restraining Cerberus.  There were no staff to be seen, themselves probably having not had much sleep courtesy of the teenage revellers that passed for clientèle.

By 10am, the bikes had been released and once Dan had effected a simple cable-tie repair to his damaged pannier strap, the guys couldn’t wait to get away from the place.  Dan was headed back to Almaty to pass some time in expensive but peaceful and secure accommodation until the following morning when his Mongolian visa could be collected.  Ed, already having his Mongolian visa was free to head North towards the Russian border in search of cheaper accommodation further from the capital.  Ed had been able to give Dan a lead on a motel very close to the Mongolian embassy that was 10% cheaper than where he’d stayed, but there were no rooms available there and Dan ended up at Hotel Sauna, where Ed had been a couple of nights before.  There was at least a gated courtyard where the bike could be parked mostly out of sight, whereas the cheaper motel had only had an open car park.

Up ahead Ed had enjoyed a leisurely Sunday’s riding having reached the target of Taldykorgan earlier than expected and found the hotel he’d been aiming for with ease he decided that there was no point stopping too early and he should make full use of the available light and good weather to push on towards the next big town on the route. Supplies were collected and whilst having a brief chat with the girl running the shop Ed noticed the proprietor of the cafe next door hovering. Figuring that a full stomach would come in handy when Ed searched for rough camping spots later, he asked the price of lagman noodles and within ten minutes was seated eating noodles and drinking chai whilst fielding questions from other customers about the trip. Sure enough the road passed easily under the tyres of the WR that day as Ed headed north and the shifting light of early evening signalled that it was time to search for a spot to pitch his tent. Selecting a field set back from the road and hidden by a thick hedge, Ed set up camp and apart from a local UAZ jeep using the track on the far side of the field, he was not disturbed that evening once he’d retired to bed.

Monday 27 June saw Dan up early to pick up some more Kazakh currency on the way to the embassy to fetch his visa before heading out to the North of the city to try and catch up with Ed who was now effectively a couple of days ahead.  Dan presented himself to the ever-helpful Mongolian embassy a little before the appointed time of 9am, and was able to leave with visa in hand by ten past.  Dan had only two reasons to stop – to pick up a few provisions from a supermarket in the city, and occasionally to replace the cable ties that had been pressed into service holding his chain-guard on.  The bolt that had held it in place since 2008 had clearly found that it liked Kazakhstan and had climbed out a couple of days before.  Frustratingly, the team of cable ties Dan was now relying on were willing to hold it for only a few hundred miles at a time.  A better solution was clearly required, but with Ed aiming for a point that evening over 690 miles from where Dan had started in Almaty, there was no time to seek it out right now.

In fact, with the day’s target so far ahead, there was no time to stop for anything.  No photos, no food, no drink, no shelter from the thunderstorms that were plaguing the region and no respite from a shockingly decrepit road surface.  It had been ten-thirty that morning by the time Dan got out of the clutches of Almaty, but by eight-thirty on Monday evening he’d covered 520 miles towards his goal, though was still 170 miles behind Ed.  The thunderstorms had left the ground around the road thoroughly waterlogged, and Dan surveyed the flooded ground through a wet visor with dismay – this was not looking promising for camping.  Some higher ground was needed, and up ahead the road wound its way towards and through some hills.  Bingo.  Dan sped on and was rewarded with a dirt track up into the hills.  The track passed within a hundred metres or so of a house, but there was a good chance he’d not be followed or disturbed.  A few hundred metres from the main road, the level path between the hills was wide enough for Dan to park up and camp without obstructing the track if any traffic did come along during the night.  There was another thunderstorm on its way, so this would have to do.  Dan got the flysheet onto his tent just as huge raindrops started to fall.

Monday morning had started off cold when Ed arose and finding the purchased bread to be stale already Ed hit the road promising himself breakfast once 100km had been dispatched. An early start provides useful hours that Ed didn’t waste and after pausing for a breakfast picnic of bread and cheese beside a rather scenic army base (sensitive military installations are often not advertised as such so it is more common than you’d think to find yourself right next to one when searching for a camping spot or lunch spot, or indeed find one right in the way of that scenic photograph you’ve been hankering after). The miles ticked away with ease and the rain clouds that had been threatening that morning parted to be replaced by clear skies and sunshine. Soon it was apparent that with the good progress Ust-Kaminogorsk might well be achievable that day after all and sure enough Ed rolled into the city in the late afternoon rays to find a confusing city with scarce accommodation options and very little to sell it to the casual tourist. With his taste for rough camping heightened, Ed decided to leave the city behind and with a wallet reloaded with Tenge from a nearby bank he set a course north west for the border and a begin the search for a likely camping spot. Within 30miles the main road cuts through the countryside in a straight line with thick, hedged borders down both sides providing plenty of cover from the road for rough campers. A hilltop of lush green rolling fields was the first option but the sight of a 4WD driving around the nearby area persuaded Ed that he would probably be disturbed so he selected the cover of a nearby cornfield and using the agility of the WR, followed the edge of the field high up another hill where he wouldn’t be disturbed. It also proved to be a useful test of the anti-insect countermeasures that Ed was carrying because no sooner had he had pitched the tent the little blighters arrived from all angles and forced Ed to turn in early for the night to escape their attentions.

Tuesday 28 June was another early start for Dan, packed up under blue skies and ready to leave his impromptu campsite on the dirt track at 6am, he was still at least 3 hours behind Ed even if he could maintain an average of 100 kph over the poor road surface.  The roads were empty at this hour though, so Dan was able to make good progress.  In Kazakhstan, the practical alternative to maintaining the road is to put up signs to warn that the road is uneven, and halve the speed limit to 50 kph.   On one such section, on the approach to the town of Georgievsky, Dan discovered the downside to the early morning empty roads – no one coming the other way flashing their lights to warn Dan of a speed trap up ahead.  On his supple long-suspension dirt bike, it was still perfectly viable to maintain a speed of 100 kph on the GPS despite the dilapidated road, and sure enough, Dan was clocked doing a genuine 100 kph in a 50 limit.  This was not going well.  Documents were dug out of a pannier to prove that Dan owned the bike, that he’d legally brought it into Kazakhstan, and that he held a licence to ride it.

Niceties over, it was time to move onto the fine.  The penalty is calculated based on the amount by which the limit was being exceeded, and in this case the officers indicated that Dan ought to go to a specific bank and pay the fine of 15,120 Tengi, about $105 US.  The expense was every bit as unwelcome as the delay, but it was pointless complaining as Dan knew full well he had been doing double the posted limit, and had been absolutely legitimately caught in the act.  Instead, Dan enquired through gestures and the odd Russian word whether it was possible for him to pay the officer instead.  The policeman smiled, “Da!”.  Dan kicked off unofficial proceedings by fishing out a 20 Euro note.  The officer indicated that there were two policemen to pay off, so Dan produced another crisp 20 Euros from his document wallet.  The officer smiled broadly, and quickly rolled up the notes and stashed them out of sight, returning Dan’s documents, so they could be put back in a somewhat roomier document wallet.  It was difficult for Dan to object to corruption like this while it worked in his favour – the offence was legitimate, and the officer’s agreement to take a back-hander resulted in a cheaper, quicker solution for the offender.  It’s a very, very fine line however, and not so far removed from police encountered on Dan and Ed’s African travels demanding on-the-spot cash fines for fictional offences.

Having paid his bribes, Dan was free to go, and having packed all his documents away again did just that, stopping at the next fuel station to top up.  Dan pre-paid for 20 litres of fuel, which when delivered resulted in a not-quite-full tank.  Pre-payment is a rubbish system common across the region, and is frustrating for a motorcyclist just wanting a full tank.  The customer is faced with either paying for just less than what will fit in the tank, or taking two trips to the Kassa – once to pay for more than enough, and again to get refunded for the excess.  As Dan rejoined the road towards the town, he noticed that he was just behind the police car containing the officers who had stopped him, their lucrative law enforcement clearly done for the day.

Meanwhile, further up the road, Ed had already arrived in Shemenoika after a lazy start and had randomly selected Gastinitsa Zemphera as a breakfast venue.  Brief negotiations over breakfast had yielded a more acceptable room price from the proprietor before Ed set off searching the town unsuccessfully for internet cafes.  He also took a short blast out to the border to satisfy himself that it was one designated for foreigners to use – not all of them are, and having to drive to Semipalantinsk would have meant a delay to the overlanders’ entry into Russia.

Dan’s pace had definitely now been dropped, obeying all posted speed limits and even pausing to eat a little stale bread and chocolate spread at half past ten.  While stopped, Dan found a text message from Ed giving the location of the hotel in Shemenoika, just 20 miles up ahead.

Dan arrived at Gastinitsa Zemphera and was immediately motioned to join Ed and the very friendly Iraqi-Kurdish proprietor Mohammed for a cup of tea and a pancake snack.  This was swiftly followed by a shashlik lunch, free of charge for his British guests.  This was one establishment where recent British foreign policy had evidently been well received.  After lunch and a bit of a rest, there was time in the afternoon to wander out into Shemenoika in search of a replacement mirror of some sort for Dan’s DRZ.  The bemused proprietors of various cosmetics shops were only able to offer tiny compact mirrors too small to be of any use, or enormous plastic-rimmed monstrosities too large to allow any forward vision.  A motor factors branded with Audi logos was spotted down the street and the guys wandered in to see if they had anything suitable.  After explaining that it didn’t matter what model of car the mirror was for as it was going to be lashed to a motorcycle, the guys were shown a variety of door mirror glasses.  A pattern Audi-80 door mirror glass was selected – about the right height and only about 50% too wide, it would do pretty well.  After some half-hearted bartering from the buyers and a lack of change on the part of the vendor, the price was agreed at a little less than ?4 – bargain.  When the guys returned to Zemphera, Dan set about it and the DRZ with a roll of insulating tape, and within minutes the DRZ was sporting an oversized club-foot of a mirror that would make Dan look like a fully paid up member of the caravan club.  The DRZ’s days of looking good in sunset silhouettes were over, until a properly proportioned replacement could be sourced, at least.

On Wednesday 29 June, the guys packed up, and after changing all remaining Kazakh Tengi into Russian Roubles at a local bank and having another cup of tea with Mohammed (whom was impossible to refuse), it was time to head for the border.

At the border, the guys once again had to endure a thorough search of their luggage, and it was hard to understand quite why the officers would be so interested in what was being taken out of Kazakhstan.  With the customs or perhaps narcotics officers pacified, the passport formalities were simple enough and the guys made their way through to the Russian side of the border.

Posted in Kazakhstan | 6 Comments

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.

Posted in Kyrgyzstan | 2 Comments

Tajik Magic

After crossing the border from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan, the entry formalities on the Tajik side had to be completed.  The guys were welcomed by a border guard in combat trousers and a vest who spoke excellent English and directed them through the process.  After completing the passport control process, the guard directed them to customs where the bikes had to have fees paid to be allowed into the country.  Conveniently, the fee was 46 Som, which was exactly $10 for each bike, but a receipt was provided to each rider for this fee.  The customs man said the two travellers were then free to go.

Dan and Ed were about to leave when they were accosted by an un-uniformed gentleman who claimed to be a quarantine doctor.  The guys explained that to their knowledge they were not bringing any animals into the country and therefore did not need anything quarantined.  The man was insistant however and demanded a further ten dollars from each rider for the disinfection the bikes had received as they rode through a trough of manky looking water just before the border gates.  Both bikes had in fact been carefully piloted around said water, but now was not the time to try and point this out.  The doctor pointed to some garden-sprayer type apparatus in a cupboard and insisted “disinfection, disinfection!”.  Dan politely invited the doctor in English to wash his bike with his sprayer, but the doctor seemed to think that a splash of water from underneath was all that would be required to remove any biohazards the rest of the world may have to offer and declined the invitation.  Eventually, hearing the fuss going on down the corridor, the friendly and helpful English speaking border guard appeared to try and translate.  He reluctantly explained that yes, this was a requirement and the guys did have to pay a further fee, but that it was only 32 Som for both bikes.  This was about a third of what had originally been demanded, and under duress the guys agreed to pay ten dollars and receive 14 Som in change.

The doctor duly filled out what certainly looked to be useless paperwork confirming the bikes had definitely been ridden through some water and were therefore deemed to provide no viral or bacterial threat to the children of Tajikistan.  He then went off to fetch the change, and presented Dan with 13 Som.  Dan thrust the 13 Som back into the doctors hand and took back his $10, demanding a further 1 Som from the cheeky doctor.  Getting scammed by officials was one thing, but the officials not then keeping their side of the bargain was quite another.  The doctor smiled and went off to fetch another 15 pence worth of local currency…

Once free to leave the border plaza, the bikes made swift progress towards the city of Kojand, where the accomodation options were limited.  The guide promised a rather odd sounding hotel which had originally been built as an apartment block, but had then proved so unpopular with prospective residents it had been left vacant and eventually operated as a bizarre partially-furnished hotel.  Dan went inside to enquire about a price and was told that a room for two people could be had for 50 Som, about eleven dollars.  However his enquiries about parking for the two “motosikels” fell on deaf ears so Ed, with his rapidly improving and far superior Russian language skills was sent in for round two.  The response was that the bikes should be parked in the foyer, which was fine except there was a six-foot flight of steps to get them up to foyer level.  Dan and Ed were up for the challenge however, so the bikes were wheeled to the foot of the steps and with much revving, pushing and clutch-slipping, both bikes successfully scaled the stairs and were wheeled into the polished-marble-floored foyer and parked in the corner.  By this stage, the price of the room had gone up to 200 Som, as clearly the riders would now want the “luxe” room on the ground floor nearest their bikes.  Or perhaps just because with the bikes installed in the foyer, the riders were now a captive market.  After much discussion, it was agreed that the originally offered room could be had for 75 Som, an increase of only 50% over the originally quoted price.  This relieved Dan of any feeling of guilt regarding the imminent and inevitable drops of oil from his chainguard onto the polished-marble floor.

Luggage was stripped from the bikes and carried in the lift to the tenth floor, before being carried down the stairs to the ninth floor, where the allocated room was to be found.  The lift would not stop on the ninth floor.  As expected the room was a small apartment, with a bedsit, an unfurnished balcony-room, an electrically terrifying bathroom and a completely unfurnished building site where a kitchen may once have been intended.  As in Ashgabat, the bathroom here could have been well described as “not a highlight”.

The bath resembled an art-class sink with evidence of a failed attempt to cover the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat of assorted stains with a further coat of white gloss paint which had sadly failed to adhere.  The water heater above the bath was equipped with a breaker-switch hanging half-out of it’s pattress box nailed to the doorframe, but the terminals were all exposed and the joints in the power cable to and from the breaker-switch were simply twisted, soldered and left un-insulated. The wiring to the bulb holder had been accomplished in a similar fashion, and the hot bulb left to dangle from it’s un-insulated cables against the now-scorched plastic sheeting that had been used to provide a water-resistant cladding to the wall.

Feeling that it was unwise to spend longer than absolutely necessary in an apartment that so closely resembled the warning illustrations from an electrical safety leaflet, the guys headed out to find some food and change some money.

The following morning, after braving the bathroom for showers, carrying their luggage down to the bikes in the lobby (the lift now refusing to work at all) and then riding the bikes back down the steps to street level, the guys pointed the bikes in the direction of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.  Here they hoped they would be able to gain the two visas they had failed to get in Tashkent, Uzbekistan – those of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the next two countries on the itinerary.  The road out of town was excellent tarmac, which boded well for the journey.  Pausing on a dirt track off up to the side of the main road to eat a spot of breakfast, the guys were not surprised when a 4×4 stopped at the end of the track, to perhaps peer at the strange foreigners.  What was not expected was two people springing from the vehicle with a loud call of “G’day!”.  It was the intrepid and energetic Australian pensioners  – they’d spotted the bikes, figured it must be those crazy poms again and got their Tajik driver to pull over so they could come and have a chat.  The guys were really pleased to see the Aussies again, and related the tales of the past few days and compared plans – all four travellers were headed broadly in the direction of Dushanbe for the moment, though the antipodeans were planning to bypass the city itself in favour of some nearby sights.

With bread and chocolate spread breakfast finished, the bikes quickly caught up the 4×4 and headed up into the mountains.  Arriving at a tunnel, the riders presumed this must be the Anzob tunnel – infamous amongst Central-Asian overland travellers. The Anzob tunnel is 4 miles long, unlit, unventilated and mostly flooded.  The road surface inside is fissured and potholed, and due to the flooding each hit takes the rider completely by surprise.  There were originally two tunnels, one for each direction of traffic, but as one is completely flooded, the partially-flooded tunnel takes two-way traffic.  There is the alternative of the original dirt-road pass, and as a chinese contruction worker emerged from the tunnel wearing a respirator and motioning that they should turn round and use the pass, the guys decided this was the best way forward.

The pass was mostly reasonable dirt road, cut into the side of astonishingly steep mountains.  Here and there, the mountains had claimed some of the road back, either by partially blocking it with rock falls, or by collapsing under the outer edge.  There were no barriers of course to keep vehicles from falling into the abyss, and whilst traffic was light, when slow-moving or oncoming traffic narrowed the available path, the guys just had to grit their teeth and get on with getting past.  Arriving at the top of the pass, the guys recognised the 4×4 that had brought the Aussies and paused for another chat before continuing down the other side which provided more of the same involving riding, exceptional views and precipitous drops.

Before long, the guys arrived at the mouth of another tunnel, and this one had lots of traffic outside, the drivers seemingly psyching themselves up to get involved.  After waiting for some of the queue to clear, the guys got on with it as well, and rode on into the blackness.  Aiming to maintain vital momentum over the flooded and very uneven road surface, the bikes were overtaking the other traffic where possible, and Dan had the misfortune to get completely drenched by a sudden blast of water as a vehicle he was overtaking dropped into a deep trough of water.  Momentarily taking a hand off the bars to try to wipe the muddy water from his visor, Dan shortly found his own front wheel dropping with a huge muddy splash into an enormous unseen hole that felt as though it might stop the bike in it’s tracks.  With the throttle held open however, the front of the bike was driven back up out of the hole and the DRZ continued along in the pitch blackness with it’s rider frantically trying to clear the dirty water from a now-opaque visor.  Dan was forced to give up on this quest however and opt instead to open it to squint out into the darkness for some clue of what the road surface was to serve up next.  Ahead of the glut of traffic and aware that Ed’s WR didn’t have much of a headlamp, Dan pulled over.  Ed had been fighting his own battles against the traffic, the foul polluted air, the darkness and the road surface and was also coming out on top.  It wasn’t long before before Dan could see the glimmer of an approaching dirtbike behind, and set off again in the hope that Ed could benefit from seeing some of the road by the light of the DRZ’s upgraded headlamp.  After a further couple of miles of flooded bumpy blackness with more traffic to negotiate in both directions, the riders re-emerged, blinking, muddy but unscathed back into the beautiful mountain landscape.  After more careful inspection of the map that evening, it turned out that this had been the Anzob tunnel after all, the one they’d previously “avoided” being the not-yet completed Shariston tunnel, which will no doubt be open for the business of terrifying passing overlanders in the next year or so.

On arriving in Dushanbe, Ed’s preparation the night before paid off – the waypoint transcribed from Lonely Planet guidebook map to GPS map allowed the bikes to be quickly and easily navigated straight to the gate of a homestay which was to provide accomodation for the next few nights.

The homestay was literally just round the corner from the vital Kyrgyz embassy which the guys visited the following morning, Monday 13 June.  After a lacklustre start to the process (the consul was 30 minutes late for work) things then looked up.  The consul confirmed that the letters of invitation which plague travellers to Central Asia were not required and the bank where the fees were to be paid was just down the road.  For an additional few dollars, a same-day service could be provided, which was a refreshing option.  Within two hours, the forms had been filled, the fees paid, the receipts brought back to the consul and the visas filled out and placed into the waiting passports.  That was the best visa process yet.  The Turkish visa may have actually taken less time and certainly cost less, but the overall experience here was far less frustrating.

Clearly on a roll, the guys hailed a cab and travelled across the city to the Kazakh embassy.  Here the story wasn’t so great.  The process was a fixed duration of four working days, and due to a public holiday somewhere or other, visas could not now be provided until the following Monday.  This was bad news and meant the guys had to choose between spending a week and a chunk of money staying in Dushanbe, or heading off into the stunning scenery of the Pamir mountains – which was the reason for visiting Tajikistan – and trying again for a Kazakh visa in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

No contest.  The following morning the bikes were packed up and pointed out of Dushanbe towards the start of the Pamir Highway.  The road headed first towards the river that forms the border with Afghanistan and followed the valley and river and hence the border.  Owing to the steep topography of the valley, most of the pretty views glimpsed along the road were actually Afghan.  Spotting two cyclists stopped at the side of the road, the guys stopped to chat with the two Brits, Sash and Julian, to find out where they were headed and how they were getting on.

The experience of cycling long distance across unfamiliar countries is not that dissimilar to motorcycling in the same environment, it just takes much longer.  Sash and Julian had been on the road since the previous Autumn.  There are a few notable differences however – the dogs that universally bound out and chase Dan and Ed’s bikes on sight are more of a problem for the cyclists, who don’t have the option of opening the throttle and blasting away from the persuing hounds.  The other issue is the kids – they’re fascinated by the motorcycles and often run out to the roadside to wave at them, but when they see bicycles coming they run out into the road and join hands to force them to stop, which is a fair bit more disruptive to progress.

Cyclists and motorcyclists alike however both felt more like celebrities in Tajikistan than anywhere else so far – not just the kids and young men were shouting and waving but the women and girls too.  In the rest of the world you’d have to be some kind of multi-talented singing-and-dancing-footballer to command the same demographic as a two-wheeled Tajik-tourist.  Further along the road, the guys stopped and spoke to a French cyclist who had been riding with Julian and Sash but had been forced to speed ahead by his shorter visa.

Despite the fact that the river was the border with Afghanistan, the guys opted to camp next to it for the night – given the road was trapped against it by the steep side of the valley, there really wasn’t much option.  The approach was to select a spot, stop and cook some dinner and wait to see if anyone came to disturb them during this time before committing and putting up tents.  No-one had disturbed the guys by the time the sun was down, so the tents were put up and the guys settled for some sleep when it went dark at about nine o’clock.

At nine-thirty, voices were heard outside.  It wasn’t at all clear what the voices were saying, or who to, and in each tent, a tired overlander hoped that what they could hear was just a group of friends walking along the road.  The next sound to pierce the peace was less ambiguous.  Rifles were being cocked outside the tents.  Once again there was a scramble to get dressed and explain that the camping visitors were tourists not terrorists.  The military border patrol who had discovered the apparent expeditionary force were very young – the eldest of them no more than 20 years old.  He maintained that camping here by the border was a problem and the guys would have to move to one of the villages (all of which of course were also right by the border).  After being shown two British passports however, he seemed to soften, and eventually agreed that the tents could stay for one night.  Meanwhile, a young puppy that had been brought along by the patrol had settled on Ed’s tent – finding that a comfortable place to sleep.  Once the patrol had been placated and the puppy evicted, the guys were free to return to their tents, and hope that the patrol they’d seen was the only patrol on this part of the border that night – and that having agreed with them they could stay, they would not be disturbed again.

Sure enough, Dan and Ed were in luck, and awoke the next morning to a peaceful outlook by the river having had no further disturbances.  The usual breakfast of yesterday’s bread with chocolate spread was eagerly despatched and the bikes packed up and pointed towards Khorog.  There was more of the same scenery as the previous day before heading up into the mountains, and more cyclists, too – two Canadian girls, Kate and Mel of www.cyclingsilk.com, a Swiss couple and a lone Swiss cyclist who was the only one to have flown into Dushanbe, the others had all started pedalling in Europe.

The route for 15 June would take the bikes and riders over 4000 metres for the first time. This meant jacket vents were closed for the first time to conserve riders’ heat as the temperature dropped and the wind rose. At around 4100 metres, Ed spotted a European looking couple in a 4×4 waving more vigorously than most passers by and went over to investigate.  Jonni and Steve were a retired British couple who were now exploring the world by 4×4 – it’s personalised plate making it difficult to recognise as British registered.  Steve had worked for BT all his life as an engineer, and it showed in his immaculate preparation of their vehicle.  His wife, Jonni, was talking nineteen to the dozen and instructing him to make tea for Dan and Ed, and sharpish.  After a thoroughly civilised British chat over a cup of tea, it was time for Ed and Dan to make tracks along the dusty dirt road over the pass, leading to a wide plateau at around 4000 metres.  At these altitudes, mild altitude sickness is a concern, and Dan certainly felt that it was hard to stay focussed on the riding – not what you need when the road surface is in need of some repair.  Dan came close to obliging by having a go at lodging his DRZ in a particularly large unseen hole, but it didn’t quite stick and he carried on.  Halfway across the plateau, yet more intrepid cyclists hoved into view, a French couple on a tandem towing a trailer coming the other way on their way home, and keen to know what the road held in store for them.  It’s difficult for riders of short wheelbase motorcycles with a foot of suspension travel at each end to really advise riders of 20-foot long bicycles with maybe 5 millimetres of give in their tyres on road conditions, but they seemed pleased enough with the report that the road was “pretty much OK”.

Descending down into Khorog, the guys had made good progress for the day, and went in search of a cooked lunch and some provisions for the following night in the mountains.  After a lunch of mutton stew and bread, the search for provisions had barely begun when a familiar red motorcycle approached – Alistair, the Brit the guys had met in Bukhara and spent some time with in Tashkent had caught them up.  For two days, every cyclist that Alistair stopped and spoke to told him that there were two British bikers ahead called Dan and Ed and that they were about two hours ahead of him…  After a quick catch up, the search for water was back on.  For some time, it had been impossible to buy anything but sparkling water, there clearly being no local demand for still.  Sparkling water is great when chilled and served in a glass, but when strapped to a motorcycle in the sun for a few hours to warm up, or poured into a rapidly expanding camelbak, the stuff is somewhat less desirable.  Asking at a nearby ice-cream stall for “vada, bez gaz” resulted in the lady proprietor switching off her machine, and walking off down the road with Dan’s water bottles, returning with them fully filled.  This seemed unlikely to cause problems, so Dan was happy with the result.  Ed and Alistair however settled instead for more sealed bottles of fizzy water.

By the time Dan and Ed were leaving Khorog, it was already half past four in the afternoon, and they were keen to make progress through the mountains towards Murghab.  Unusually for Tajikistan, they were stopped at a police check point and ushered up into the office to show their passports.  What followed was not the usual pointless writing down of details in an enormous ledger, but instead a scam.  For visitors to the Pamir mountain region, it is necessary to have a passport containing a “GBAO” permit in addition to the Tajik visa.  The permit costs an additional $40 US and covers the entire region, listing the names of the regions, seemingly corresponding to their major city.  The scam dreamt up by these resourceful police officers was to diligently check the permit, exclaim in surprise, and then point out that the name of their little village on the outskirts of the city of Khorog (which is specified on the permit) is not listed, and therefore an additional fee is required.  The alternative proposed by the wily officers is to re-route through the Wakhan Valley, where the scenery is also excellent but the longer route on much worse road didn’t match up with the guys’ eagerness to make progress towards Kyrgyzstan.  To save time, the “additional fee” was negotiated down to 25 Somon per bike (the equivalent of $5), and the guys were back on their way.  This was an annoying departure from policy for Dan and Ed, who normally spend as much time as necessary to not pay fictional fees, charges, taxes or fines demanded by crooked policemen, but on this occasion, it was too late in the day to waste time arguing over it and the evening was drawing close with no camping spot in sight.

Heading up into the clear colder air of the mountains again, it was obvious that it would be worth finding somewhere to stop and camp before getting much higher or colder.  Stopping at the side of the road at 3100 metres altitude to ask a local woman if there was anywhere they could camp, the response came back that the pair of British bikers could camp “There” in her garden, and park their bikes out of sight up the steep dirt driveway.  After checking out the proposed camping spot and finding it excellent, the bikes were duly ridden up the driveway and the tents put up in the garden.  Within minutes, a bowl of “milk, cow milk” had been produced, evidently fresh from said cow as it was still warm, and had the odd floaty bit in it.

After a while, the men of the family returned from work and were keen to meet their unexpected guests, and offer them tea.  Eventually, Dan and Ed relented and accepted the offer of tea, which the women brought out to the tents for the men and visitors, followed by a full cooked dinner.  The conversation was difficult with the hosts not speaking any English, and only Ed speaking any Russian of any great use, but the atmosphere was relaxed and comfortable, and when Dan gestured that they wanted to get some sleep, the dinner things were packed away swiftly and the guys left to their respective tents to sleep in peace.

On Thursday 16 June, the guys packed up, bade their farewells and were on the road before 8am.  The town on the route was Murghab, but rumour had it there was nothing much to see there and it would be nicer to pass straight through and out the other side.  Murghab was the other side of another 4km high pass, and was itself at 3600 metres above sea level.  Sure enough, the place doesn’t have many merits besides being the last fuel stop before Kyrgyzstan.  Whilst that sounds more dramatic than the relatively short distance actually is, both bikes filled up with the 80-RON fuel offered (it’s not great, but it’s all there is in Murghab and detonation isn’t generally an issue at high altitude).  Whilst at the fuel station, they were approached by a couple of British bikers who had arrived in Murghab the previous day and made the surprising decision to stay an extra day.  They were able to point the newcomers in the direction of the bazaar – a container village along a dusty gravel street – to get the provisions they wanted for the evening and the following morning.  The bazaar provided some bread, some water and some entertainment in the form of the traditional hats.  It seems the men of Murghab have a competition on to see who will break first and burst out laughing.  Everywhere you look, men are wearing hilarious hats with an absolutely dead-pan straight face, like they’re the most normal thing in the world.  Despite the efforts of the Murghab Milliners, it seems likely that no one has laughed in in the town for some time, and the guys were pleased to pack the provisions onto the bikes and leave the place behind.

The pass facing Dan and Ed was the highest of the trip – 4632m recorded on the GPS units at the summit – and came complete with a reasonable dirt surface at the top and and an impressive blizzard.  Both riders are equipped with home-made heated jacket liners that can be plugged into the bikes to provide 50W of warmth just where it’s needed, but neither had his liner installed as the weather so far that day had not justified it.  Faced with the choice of carrying on or stopping to take jackets off to install central heating, both riders battled on through the horizontal snow towards Karakul.  Neither rider wanted to stop up here for anything.  In pleasant weather the views are probably stunning, but with it all hidden behind cloud and falling snow there was nothing to take photographs of.  One sorry-looking feature of the road was yet another cyclist – a seasoned British traveller by the name of Chris who is currently travelling mostly by bicycle, but the previous trips that have taken him all over the world have been in overland trucks and/or using any public transport that comes to hand.  Chris had been told there was a homestay in Karakul which was clearly signposted – and given the village by the lake was still 4km above sea level and therefore likely to be pretty cold, the guys had a new target for the day.  Sure enough, the homestay was easily located, the bikes parked in the courtyard and dinner, bed and breakfast purchased for $12 each.  The evening was spent chatting with a swiss tour group, a couple of french hikers and Chris, the intrepid cyclist who arrived a good 90 minutes behind Dan and Ed but had thankfully missed the worst of the snow on the pass.

17 June saw the guys leave Karakul bound for the border with Kyrgyzstan.  The border is at the top of another high pass, and again it was snowing at the top.  Dan failed to recognise the start of the border formalities as the customs office was in a converted shipping container at the side of the road.  Ed did his best to create drama for the cameras by temporarily misplacing the customs entry slip for his bike, but eventually relented and found it scrunched up into a little ball at the bottom of his document pouch.  Evidence of the $10 paid for each bike at the entry point pacified the exit customs officer and after a tense few minutes the riders were allowed to continue.  The narcotics control stop was similarly difficult to recognise, also being housed in a shipping container.  The officer inside was keen to search Ed’s rucksack, but faced with the sheer amount of luggage on each bike and the increasing snowfall, couldn’t face searching the rest.  The guys waited in the snow outside the passport control hut whilst the officer inside who hadn’t seen them stamped their passports to confirm they had left the country.  Meanwhile, the passport control Alsation marked the rear wheel of Dan’s bike as his territory.

With passports back in hand, it was time to put documents away to protect them from the weather for the few kilometres of slippery muddy mountain track that would deliver them to the entry formalities of Kyrgyzstan.



Posted in Tajikistan | 6 Comments