Into the Wild….Siberia

Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.

-Edward Abbey

I always had a fascination with places that are remote, untouched by man, or at least far away from man. I would hike off-trail in random pockets of wilderness and wonder if the ground below me had ever been trodden by feet before. I know humans have explored just about all the wilderness in the world, but perhaps…just maybe… that one square meter, that one patch of land I was standing on had eluded the touch of man.

In my younger days I would reach such places by foot. Filling a backpack with days worth of food and gear and hoisting it onto my back with youthful exuberance. Nowadays my knees give me problems and I’m limited to 2-3 days at a time with a full pack. So how to get to those ultra-remote places? Where are those ultra remote places?

Well, last year, before the ink had barely dried on the passport stamps which had served to get me from Indonesia all the way back to Barcelona, mostly by train…I had begun planning another adventure. My faithful travel companion Magdalena was back in Zurich and had just started a new job, it might be a while before I could tempt her to quit ūüėČ

As luck would have it though I had befriended a clever and experienced Polish guy named Bartek here in Barcelona whose travel resume closely resembled my own. Long wilderness trips, alpine mountain climbing, extended overland adventures in cars and motorcycles, exploration of countries that make most governments‚Äô State Departments‚Äô lists of ‚ÄúBetter to Avoid‚ÄĚ. So we set to work hashing out a plan to buy some little local motorcycles in Uganda and to ride them to Zimbabwe. During the planning of this we had also begun to discuss the idea of a kayaking trip in Siberia as a ‚ÄúPlan B‚ÄĚ.

And so it was that when the Africa trip fell through for reasons of timing and monsoons, that ‚ÄúPlan B‚ÄĚ had become ‚ÄúPlan A‚ÄĚ. The problem was that ‚ÄúPlan A‚ÄĚ wasn‚Äôt really a plan at all, it was just an imaginative concept. We would have called on our collective experience in wilderness river rafting and kayaking to help this concept become a real plan, unfortunately this collective experience amounted to exactly zero. But, to borrow a literary line, ‚ÄúIgnorance had never stopped me from taking action before‚ÄĚ. And so the research began.

We were not searching for thrills and class V rapids. Afterall we didn’t know anything about that. What we knew was wilderness, what we wanted was remoteness, to stand on that patch of earth that had never been stood upon. To share the open air with the bears, the wolves, and the elk, to share the water with the trout and taimen and pike, to go to sleep a hundred miles from the nearest human under a billion stars, to let memories of our modern world mingle with the ash of our riverside campfire.

We wanted a relatively non-technical river, one that wouldn’t kill us but also one that would not put us to sleep, one that was remote and not full of a bunch of other people who have the same idea as us that we would have to share the river with. You can stare at a map of Siberia all day long and identify tons of rivers, but how the hell do you know which fit this description? It‚Äôs not like you can drag the little google map guy onto the river to see the google street view and get an idea of what the nature looks like, of how dangerous the rapids are, of how many other kayakers we might cross paths with. In-depth searches on google was not turning up anything either, at least not in english.

We finally started to search in Russian using google translate and found what we were looking for in the form a a super detailed blog written by some Ukrainian guy named Valentine who’s amount of experience in long distance river kayaking placed him somewhere between a guru and a god. And the good news was that we could not find online evidence of a single person other that Valentine who had ever done this route. We decided to set off in his footsteps.

The Plan

We fly into a small Siberian city (Irkutsk). From there it is two days travel by train and bus to a small town where we will hire a 4×4 to take us as far as the the road will allow us to go into the Siberia taiga. Depending on how far the car makes it we then might face a 60km (38 miles) walk through the taiga carrying on our backs provisions for 6 days as well as our boat (about 28kg or 63lbs each) to reach the mouth of a small river. From there the plan is to travel 1000km (625 miles) of the river over three weeks to a tiny outpost with 150 inhabitants that is completely inaccessible to the outside world overland except by boat. This tiny outpost gets food and supplies delivered every 6 weeks by a little propeller powered plane when the weather permits. The idea was that we could catch a ride back to civilization on this plane‚Ķ.that is assuming that we remain on schedule to arrive there before the plane takes off ūüė¨.

The river itself is exactly what we were looking for, plenty of easy stretches, but also plenty of small rapids. As for ‚Äúremoteness‚ÄĚ, well the necessity to walk three days to reach our start point sure gets us off to a good start. Then once on the river, in the 3 week time it takes to do the trip we will only pass through one town that is actually connected by road to the outside world and has mobile connection. Other than that we will pass through 2 small outposts each with about 100-150 inhabitants, both of which are only accessible by boat or air. Basically, anything that happens we are pretty much on our own. Remote? Check.

For food we would rely on whatever basic supplies could be bought from the locals along the way, and we hoped to be pulling a lot of fish out of the river. The bigger problem than obtaining food would probably be to keep it out of the mouths of the hungry bears that inhabit the region.

The Planning

If I decided today to begin packing for a motorcycle trip that would take me through 30 countries over the course of a year, I could probably be ready to go in a couple hours. But being completely new to long-distance river kayaking the process of planning and packing became a full time job. Priority number one was choosing our craft. We were able to connect with Valentine, the Ukranian river guru who was gracious enough to answer a bunch of our stupid questions. On the subject of boats he recommended a Russian made inflatable two person kayak weighing about 16.5 kilos (36lbs). The price was great, and it had his stamp of approval. ¬†We were about to buy it when we thought ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs post some questions on some US kayaking enthusiasts forums and see what they think about this choice‚ÄĚ.

So I started a thread on two different websites frequented by river fanatics and explained a bit about our trip, ie no experience, 3 weeks on a Siberian river with class II and III rapids, super remote location. I linked to the boat Valentine recommended and aside from their thoughts on that choice, I asked for any other general tips or ideas to help us in our planning. The replies began to come in…

I think my favorite line was from a guy who when referring to our choice of boat said,

‚ÄúThis is not a trip to do in glorified pool toys.‚ÄĚ

Here are a few other selected quotes from the responses we got:

‚ÄúI have to admit, this sounds like a terrible idea‚Ķ‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúI am not saying don’t do this trip, I am just saying take it seriously. If a few crazy Russians did it on inner tubes 12 years ago that doesn’t mean you should as well‚Ķ‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúDon’t be dumb!‚ÄĚ

Ok, neither our plan nor our boat were being very well received in the American river enthusiast forums. So we sought validation elsewhere. The Russian wilderness rambler and pioneer is a particular sort. I had encountered some of them in my last trip to Siberia. They are well prepared, confident, and probably got married wearing full camouflage fatigues. They would be quick to tell us we were silly little boys for attempting this is if that’s what they truly thought.

And so with the help of Google translate we posted the same message in Russian forums and got very different responses than those from the US forums. The Russians, many of whom had rafted the same river (further downstream) all seemed to think we would be just fine with a precursory warning to be careful and take it easy. They also applauded our choice of boat. Validation…check.

So with confidence slightly bolstered, and after weeks of researching other options and getting all sorts of feedback we decided to trust in our guru and stick with the original plan. Here is a photo of Valentine on the same river we would do and in the same boat he recommended to us:

It was around this time that I got word from my brother that he was interested in joining the trip for the first half (which is the half that no-one does). The addition of a third person to the expedition was a welcome one and so it was we had to find another boat. After tons of research and guidance from forums in several languages we settled on a single person packraft. Which is a very different animal from our 2 person kayak but would help us reduce weight and add some diversity to our fleet.

Countless more hours were spent researching other topics – fishing gear, safety equipment, mosquito (and bear) repellant, paddles, weather averages, emergency evacuation insurance, visas, etc. Some decisions were easy, others involved lots of discussion and research.

In the meantime, our russian boat got held up in Spanish customs, which was a whole drama in and of itself. It was also around this time (2 weeks to departure) that we got an email from a Russian friend of mine (Thanks Dan!) who was helping with some of our planning. The subject line was ‚ÄúMassive Flooding‚ÄĚ and the message included a link to a Russian news article. Apparently the exact region where we would be going was under a state of emergency. Heavy rains had washed out roads and bridges and flooded entire towns. The river we would be rafting, which normally has a water level of about 2 meters, was at 5.3 meters. Super.

Just as the flooding story was dominating our thoughts the customs fiasco¬†was finally resolved and the boat was delivered to my house. We ripped into it and inflated it on my terrace. Our reaction…Holy shit! It‚Äôs huge!

With our new ship in hand we turned our focus to getting a bit of experience. We drove 3.5 hours from Barcelona to do a 2 day white water crash course with an instructor. We learned some basic rules of the river for navigating rapids and received a lot of attention from the local rafting guides who wanted to meet the two guys who were going through with such a plan. They all assured us that we would be just fine, that our plans did not include anything that we couldn’t handle and that the the boat was in fact an excellent choice.

Test run of our kayak during our white water crash course

This blog post does zero justice to explain just how much preparation has gone into this trip, but suffice it to say it was a lot. As usual my parents played an integral role of ‚Äúcommand center‚ÄĚ, assisting in organizing gear that I had ordered to their house in The States and in making sure we had enough beef jerky to survive a Siberian winter.¬†The last days we watched the weather closely and were happy to see less rain on the forecast and water levels dropping.

This morning I landed in Siberia, Irkutsk to be exact. It was strange to be returning to this place I was in just last year with Magdalena when we were taking the Trans-Siberian back to Europe from Asia. I never imagined I would be back again so soon and under such pretenses. The immigration officer checked my visa, stamped my passport, and as she handed it back she said “Good luck”.

Not “Welcome”, or “Goodbye”, but “Good luck”.

I’m OK with that.

If all goes well I will be back in civilization on the 18th of August. 

We are carrying a satellite tracking device, you can use this link to follow our progress in real time: https://share.delorme.com/JordanJones

Hasta luego ūüôā

 

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Mongolia on Two Wheels Video

I had a low-quality little fake GoPro camera with us on this trip and from time to time I mounted it on my helmet to grab some impressions of the scenery that we took in each day.

I put together a little video of some of the scenes. Please excuse the terrible production quality!

Click to view

Also, if you haven’t already, you can scroll down to read the blog post that preceded this video. There you will find a few descriptions from this trip and lots of photos ūüôā

 

Indonesia, China, Mongolia, and the Trans-Siberian

I’ve got a new adventure on the horizon, but before I introduce that I suppose I should try and sum up my last one. I would normally have done this while I was traveling and would have broken it up into 2 or 3 blog posts, but as almost a year has passed I am going to condense it into one post. Which means many details and observations will have to be left out, but suffice it to say, those details made their mark on my mind and soul and as always worked to shape my understanding of our world and my identity as it relates to it

Last year there was the Philippines on Two Wheels (I actually managed to get a post out on that that you can read here), from there I flew to Indonesia, where of course I bought another little motorcycle named Indie that I would use for the next 2.5 months to explore the country. I flew solo for a while but after one month was craving some company. There are not many people I know at my age that I could call on to quit their job and fly halfway around the world to jump on the back of a motorcycle and head off into the unknown. Well, by ‚Äúnot many‚ÄĚ I really mean there is ONE person…and so it was that “Team Bala” was reunited

A throwback to old times…Bala, Magdalena, and me in the Pamir Mountains near the Afghan border, 2014

We hitched rides on fishing boats to uninhabited islands where we camped on beaches, exploring coral reefs, searching for sea stars by day and shooting stars by night.

One of several tiny uninhabited islands we briefly called home

We spent several days diving around the Komodo Islands…then from 40 meters below sea level one week to 3725m (12,225ft) above on the summit of Mt. Rinjani the next week.¬†¬†

Sunrise summit of Mt. Rinjani
New Friends…..some great guys who opened their homes to me and helped me to buy Indie

We reunited with old friends and

made new ones.

We absorbed Indonesian culture and hospitality.

 

Then there was a ‚Äúvisa hunting‚ÄĚ mission that landed us in Hong Kong. The Great Wall of China has many faces, and the one that is known as the Chinese Immigration Department turned out out to be a tough one to scale.

But after one rejected application (based on the fact that our passports showed that we had visited Tajikistan), and after 10 days of zub-zero air conditioning and forced entry into shopping malls, with visas in hand we crossed into China, the country where our paths first crossed 4 years before. But this time we headed to Xinjiang province, also known as East Turkestan, where the muslim Uighur people live. 

Tien-Shen Mountains, Xinjiang

Imagine a country (it was a country, East Turkestan, before China annexed it in 1949) that borders….get ready for it….Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, India, Tibet, and China….imagine the cultural overspill and mix of history, AND…that there is almost zero tourism. A forgotten corner of the world that no-one seems to talk about or know that it exists. We wanted to find out what’s going on there, and to¬†reconnected with our Silk Road roots that had been planted years before when we began our journey through central Asia on our Royal Enfield motorcycle.¬†

Thanks to an amazing couchsurfing host (thanks Steve!) we got our hands on a motorcycle for 5 days to explore the Tien-Shen Mountains

No Idea what that says, but it looks cool ūüôā

We were pleasantly surprised to see many of the same foods in xinjiang as

Lagman with hand pulled noodles

we saw years before in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan…we ate handmade pulled noodles (Lagman), fresh nan flatbread, samsas, dumplings, ‚ÄúBig Plate Chicken‚ÄĚ, and lamb kebab.

We were shocked and appalled at the oppression and stifling security presence in the region, which makes Tibet look like a playground. It’s shameful how the Chinese government is treating the Uighurs.

 

We visited dozens of amazing ruins still standing 1000 years after the glory days of trade along this route

We suffered through oppressive desert temperatures and bundled up in the warmest clothes we had to cross snow covered mountain passes. We rode across massive grassy plains, through lush mountain terrain and climbed up huge sand dunes  Рtaking in an extremely diverse landscape

One of our campsites in the Tien-Shen mountains
Much of Xinjiang is covered in desert landscape

We probably went through an average of 6-10 security checks each day. Want to visit a market? Metal detector and passport. Want to get gas? Facial recognition scan and car search. Want to board a train? Four security checks

Kashgar animal market

each with Xray and a retina scan.

We visited an animal market outside of Kashgar, where animals are bought and traded in the same way they have been doing for centuries

We were whisked around town (Korla) by a father and son who were also part of the team that helped organize a motorcycle for us. Despite not being able to communicate with each other, we were treated to dinner (there was no way they would allow us to pay), shown all the sites of the city, had drinks at a bar, and were dropped back at our hotel (after they helped us arrange our train for the next day). Hospitality ūüôā

We visited lively markets where you can buy anything from old shoes to live scorpions or dried frogs by the kilo.

We watched as Uighur master artisans made beautiful copper cookware and teapots or hand carved bowls.

We shared the shade of mulberry trees with old bearded Uighur men – men under the age of 60 are forbidden to grow facial hair.

From town to town we either arrived just in time to see the an amazing Uighur old town before it was destroyed by the Government, or we arrived too late and the deed had already been done – a systematic ploy to erase Uighur culture and replace it with Han Chinese.

The beautiful Uighur old town building in the town of Korla has most likely already been demolished since we were there

I was surrounded by 8 armed police officers, questioned, and had my camera searched after one of them thought I was taking a picture of them (I wasn’t).

We entered centuries old mosques, considered holy and important to the local Uighurs but that young Uighurs are forbidden to enter by the Chinese government.

We ate dinner at 11pm. There is only one time zone in China, so Kashgar, despite being 5,500km (3,400 miles) from the other side of the country, is on the same time zone.

Noodle maker, East Turkestan (Xinjiang) China

From Xinjiang we made our way to Beijing where we began the journey home. True to our favorite style of travel we decided that flying would be too easy, the best way to arrive is overland, to see that borders mean nothing, that cultures, tradition and history shape who we are, not the passport we hold. So after about 4 weeks in China, we got on a train and headed to the nearest border.

We would travel the entire length of the Trans-Siberian railway and beyond…all the way to Barcelona by train from Beijing. Roughly 250 hours gliding along tracks crossing deserts, steppes, mountains, taiga and border after border. But there were stops along the way.

The most memorable was a one month stopover in Mongolia, where of course we bought a motorcycle. Most overland travelers arrive in Mongolia from Europe riding one-up (no passenger) on their 1200cc state of the art BMW adventure series motorcycles, or their 1300cc badass KTMs to explore the dirt tracks that crisscross the steppe. We on the other hand threw down 450‚ā¨ for a used 150cc Chinese made bike. His name was Khan and together we conquered the Mongolian steppe‚Ķ.our way.

We covered 5,000 kilometers together, much of it offroad, riding two-up loaded with camping gear on our little machine. The most sparsely populated country in the world, it is easy to feel like a speck of dust blowing across an endless grassland with a sky above that looms so expansive it seems like it could swallow you up.

In our previous travels, a big part of the challenge was always to find a safe and comfortable place to camp. In Mongolia that means stopping wherever you are whenever you feel like it and putting up your tent. 95% of the time that means you would be kilometers away from another living soul, aside from perhaps some curious goats or yaks.

We also got a glimpse at Mongolian culture through the fortuitous and coincidental fact that we were there during the most exciting time of year in Mongolia, the Nadan Festival, where nomads from every corner of the steppe flock to the nearest town or outpost to show their skills in archery, horse riding, wrestling, and knuckle-bone throwing. Yes, knuckle bone throwing, but it’s really more of a flick than a throw ūüėČ

We sold Khan, boarded the train again and headed to Siberia. Some days spent walking the shores of the great Baikal lake (which holds ‚Öē of all the world’s fresh water…yes it’s true), camping along the way and keeping our eyes out for fresh water seals.

Train passing by our campsite as the sun sets over Lake Baikal

From there we made several stops, a day here a couple days there, in places like Tomsk, and Kazan where we noticed hints of culture and¬†traditions that¬†we had observed years ago while riding across ‚ÄúThe Stans‚Ä̬†which had obviously spilled across borders, or rather borders had been draw around them. ¬†And of course there were trains trains trains. We did several jaunts that took us 30 or even 35 hours consistently on one train before our next destination.

We finally arrived in Moscow, the end of the Trans-Siberian route, but not for us. As we had decided that it would be too strange to board a plane or a bus after traveling so far by train, we continued on clickety clack clickety clack clickety clack….one station after another, with stops in Warsaw, and Zurich before reaching Barcelona in the middle of August, flooded with tourists and sunshine.

Costa Brava, just North of Barcelona

And that was that. I had departed on that journey in January, expecting to be home in 4 months. Seven months later and a few more stamps in my passport I was back home.

The trip looked something like this:

The blue part was all done by train

Soon the planning would begin for the next adventure. Which has now arrived at my doorstep.

More to come.

Want to see more photos?

Here are links to some albums with lots more photos from the trip (some with commentary)

Indonesia

Hong Kong

China / East Turkestan

Mongolia

Siberia and the home-stretch

Philippines – Island Hopping on Two Wheels.

When the dust cleared, the truck exhaust dissipated, and the sound of bad karaoke had faded into the distance, I had traveled over 5,000k (3100 miles) through the Philippines on Bernie, my little 125 cc friend.  Island after island, beach after beach, I discovered more of what makes the Philippines tick.

My Route

I crossed 5 seas (The Bohol, Sibuyan, Camotes, Sibuyan, Sulu, and Visayan) and boarded 9 ferries to plant my feet on 13 different islands.  Not bad right?  That only leaves 6,994 Philippine islands I have yet to explore (yes, seriously).

Immediately upon arriving in the Philippines, moto hunting commenced and I found myself thrust into an oh-so familiar yet always foreign environment.

‚ÄúThe scenic route‚ÄĚ through life for me has become one of neighborhoods in foreign cities and towns that are even foreign to most locals.¬† Searching for the right sprocket to fit my motorcycle, or a Chinese made part to replace the original that failed in my bike.¬† I saunter through metal marketplaces trying as I may to maintain an aire of disinterest and of belonging.¬† This is the mask any veteran traveler learns to wear.¬† It‚Äôs difficult.¬† Because EVERYTHING is interesting, and you definitely don‚Äôt belong.¬† You want to gauk, to stop, to stare, to point your camera. Sometimes you resist for reasons of security, to be less of a target for pickpockets or whatever other danger hangs in the air.¬† Mostly though you simply and inherently want to avoid looking like you are an observer in a zoo. ¬†The realization often escaping you that it is you who are the zoo animal.

My journey in Philippines started before I landed.¬† The friendliness of the people, I would learn, ranks in the tops of my global experiences, and this began with a conversation I had with a friendly fellow named Bernard who sat next to me on the plane.¬†¬† Bernard was my first introduction to the Philippines and would turn out to be a true friend. ¬†It’s no coincidence that I named my motorcycle “Bernie”.

Bernard to the Left and his buddy Mark to my right on the day I bought the bike. Bernard gets all the credit for making that possible.

My second introduction to the Philippines was Manila.  Most densely populated city in the world.  After I finding my Philippine two wheeled travel partner, I would claw my way in and out of this metropolis several times, each with the same determination that was required of me many years ago to hack my way through the Amazon jungle.  Big trucks unleashing clouds of unimaginably thick exhaust that my lungs absorbed with disapproving resolve.  Traffic was stifling.

Philippine roads overflow with contraptions called ‚Äútricycles‚ÄĚ which transport impossible numbers of people in one fell swoop.¬† They are powered by motorcycles with engines that we would consider fit for lawnmowers, yet in this country they serve as buses.¬† My daily game is to find the tricycle with the biggest burden.¬† How many do you count? (Hint, there are three inside of the little sidecar).


There are other machines that hog the roads, elbowing the three wheeled minibuses out of their way with a blast of a horn, they are called Jeepnies.  The national animal of the road.  A remnant of America and WW2 that integrated itself into the Pinoy life and culture.  Competing for kitsch and color with the tricycles, they are two things that are distinctly Philippine.

Other things Philippine are scarce. ¬†500 years of colonialism has robbed it of much of it’s original identity. ¬†I hunted for culture but came up with a coconut and a handful of beachsand.¬† If you were hoping to find some little souvenir to bring home to your family, you would be hard pressed to find one.¬† There are no wooden shoes, no statues of buddha, no handwoven rugs.¬† What is Philippine?¬† They would proudly show you one of the 14 local malls in their small city, I don‚Äôt think they know those came from America too.

There were many pitstops in towns begot by the average traveler attracting the attention of locals who love to chat.  Most people speak at least some English so chat you may, perhaps with the man who just slashed open the coconut with a few clean swipes of his machete that you now drink out of from a straw.  The best thing about the Philippines?  The people.  If only they sold Philippine smiles at the airport souvenir shop.

Ill keep this brief, and sign off here.  The stories are in the photos (the images themselves but I also added commentary to many of the photos).

TO SEE PICTURES AND READ MORE STORIES JUST CLICK HERE

Prologue:  The Philippines behind me now, I find myself on the Island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.  Digging up some new stories.

Cruising the Caucasus, Georgia & Armenia

Border crossing experience entering Georgia: ¬†“Passports please”…..WHACK! STAMP! “Welcome to Georgia.” ¬†No visa, no questions, no money…Almost felt too good to be true. ¬†We entered Georgia with high¬†expectations. ¬†Most of the overlanders we had crossed paths with while in The Stans who were coming from West to East had passed through Georgia and they all told us we were in for a treat…nice people, amazing scenery, rich culture, and good food. ¬†What did we find in Georgia? ¬†Keep reading to find out.

Our route. From Azerbaijan into Georgia, into Armenia, and back into Georgia. Just shy of 2000k (1250 miles)

 

We entered our first Christian country in 8 months – I ate a ham sandwich and washed it down with a gulp of red wine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
With our Couchsurfing host Zaza eating Kinkali

We spent more than a week in Tbilisi (Capital of Georgia), hogging out on Georgian food, kinkali (meat filled dumplings), lobio (bean soup) Abkhazian (garlic and walnut paste spread onto fried egglplant), and Katchapuri (warm buttery bread stuffed with cheese). We wondered if we liked it all so much because it really was actually good or just because the Central Asian food we left behind was just that bad.

We made friends with a funny Georgian mechanic named Nico in Tibilisi who helped us located some parts for Bala.

We watched couples lined up one after another to get married by long-bearded Orthodox priests in the main cathedral of Tbilisi

Georgia & Armenia BEST1-15

One day I went into a small shop looking for a tool to fix Bala, the man behind the counter seemed gruff. ¬†He seemed to have no patience for my attempts at using Russian. ¬†I had already judged him as unfriendly. ¬†He didn’t have the tool I needed so I left and sat on the curb nearby to wait for Magdalena who was around the corner. ¬†A few minutes later the man from the store passed by, and without a word, he simply flashed a smile that seemed so impossibly unnatural on his rough featured face, and he handed me a loaf of bread still warm from the bakers oven and walked off

We fixed Bala!!!  (Well not entirely running great but at least better than she had been running the last 6,000k)

We made a detour into Armenia.  Impressions/Experiences-

We found there to be an endless supply of half -ruined but beautiful old churches built around 1000 AD (Armenia was actually the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as the official religion in 301 AD)

We saw entire towns that had been completely abandoned.  Factories, shops, churches and homes with smashed windows and trees growing out of them.

We woke up next to a big crystal clear lake
Georgia & Armenia BEST1-45

We woke up to a 100 cows trampling past our “bed”

We woke up on the steps of a old abandoned church surrounded by an abandoned town.

We missed Georgian food

We found the people to be incredibly friendly.  See next line.

We got a flat tire near an old church.¬†First a priest shows up and offered his help holding Bala on her side so I can work off the tire. ¬†Little while later he returns with two cold drinks. ¬†Then another guy shows up and offers us a tire pump. Then the priest returned again with 3 ice creams, I took a break from the bike and the three of us ate them together. He takes off again. ¬†Then another guy comes over with a bag of plumbs from his garden, around the same time the priest returns with two peaches, and the bike pump guy also returns…this time with a few handfuls of mulberries. Somewhere in between all this a couple also showed up in a car and offered to invite us for a beer. Finally the priest returned one more time with soap to wash our greasy hands.

Our tent, parked in front of an abandoned church in an abandoned town.
Our tent, parked in front of an abandoned church in an abandoned town.

Back in Georgia…

In a small town we met a team of archaeologists digging up evidence of animal domestication from 8,000 years ago. ¬†We shared a big Georgian feast with them at the local restaurant. They picked up the tab. ¬†Thanks ūüôā

In front of an 800 year old ruined fortress off a small highway in Southwestern Georgia some 150 kilometers from Tbilisi, by complete coincidence we bumped into Nico, our mechanic friend who we had said goodbye to a week before.  We formed a little motorcycle gang and spent the next few days traveling together and enjoying each others company.

With Nico, camping somewhere in Georgia
With Nico, camping somewhere in Georgia

I learned that archaeologists¬†always throw something into the remains of a dig when they are finished…a handful of coins with current dates on them, a plastic toy, or any other anachronistic item that would alert future scientists¬†that the site has already been examined. ¬†Our new archaeologist friends humored me with a small request…. and now, a part from Bala’s carburetor rests next to what was once an 8,000 year old human dwelling.

We spent two days with a guy who had spent years in prison for murdering another man

We explored a 900 year old monastery that was carved into the side of a mountain overlooking a beautiful valley with a river winding through it.  Imagine a small town consisting solely of hand carved caves, over 400 rooms total that once included a bakery, a pharmacy, 25 wine cellars, and 12 chapels complete with beautiful frescoes painted on the walls.

Vardzia, the cave dwelling monestery
Vardzia, the cave dwelling monastery

We learned that Georgia is where it all began…the earliest archaeological evidence of grapes cultivated for the production of wine that was ever found was in Georgia and dated to around 6000 BC.

We met a guy who recruited the help of several of his friends and drove us all around town to help us fix a part on Bala that had broke, he wanted no money for it.

Once when Bala broke-down, a man invited us into his home, we spent the night at his house, he treated us to lunch and then to dinner, offering to pay was not an option. The next morning we woke up at his home to a huge breakfast that he had prepared and served to us on a tray.

We met a man who closed down his small air-condition repair shop for the day so that he could take us to a nearby thousand old church and monastery and give us a full tour.

We met a man who has dedicated the last 8 years of his life to the church, who has aspirations of becoming a monk.  He believed in being kind to strangers.

We spent some “vacation” days in the resort town of Batumi on the Black sea. ¬†We gambled in a casino and treated ourselves to a fancy dinner. ¬†We started chatting with a man next to us, he was interested in our story. ¬†It later came out that he was the owner of the restaurant and after he excused himself to go back to his table of friends the waiter came over with two glasses of wine on the house.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Driving along one day in the middle of nowhere our carburetor manifold breaks. ¬†End game, no way to fix this…we need an original part from India. ¬†We walk Bala over to a farmhouse we had passed a while back. ¬†There, the old man who runs the farm lets us leave Bala in his garden while we wait for the part to arrive from India in 10 days. Before we leave him he gives us a bag of fruit and a big smile

We got into a shared car to get to a remote mountain region in the north of Georgia. The driver insisted we come first to his home before hitting the road, where we were served food and he served himself a few shots of vodka before we hit the road.

We fell in love with the Georgian alphabet. ¬†ŠÉźŠÉ•ŠÉēŠÉ° ŠÉöŠÉźŠÉõŠÉźŠÉĖŠÉė ŠÉďŠÉ¶ŠÉĒ ŠÉ©ŠÉĒŠÉõŠÉė ŠÉõŠÉĒŠÉíŠÉĚŠÉĎŠÉźŠÉ†ŠÉė ¬†I just wished you a nice day…in Georgian.

Remember the guy we hung out with for a couple days who had spent years in prison for murder?  That is the same guy who helped us fix the part for Bala, who invited us into his home, served us breakfast and treated us with the utmost kindness, the same guy who closed down his shop so that he could give us a tour of the nearby historical churches and monasteries, who has dedicated himself to becoming a monk. His name is Shalva, we will never forget him.

Shalva :)
Shalva ūüôā

We fell in love with Svaneti, an isolated mountainous region in the north of Georgia, one of the last living medieval cultures left in the world.  It is wild, untamed, mysterious, and stunningly beautiful.

We hiked and hitchhiked for several days through Svaneti, from Metzia to Ushguli. We stayed with a family in old stone villages¬†surrounded by 5,000 meter (17,000ft) peaks and dotted with ancient defense towers, ¬†we camped next to glaciers, we camped next to ruined old stone structures, we crossed rivers on horseback, we saw and photographed more than 40 different wildflowers, we made friends with cows and dogs, we drank vodka in our tent as we listened to the sound of a raging glacial river, we hitched rides from policemen, road workers, and polish tourists, we didn’t want to leave.

Ushguli georgia svanteti svan caucus historic photo

Collection of the photos we took of all the different wildflowers we saw along the way
Collection of the photos we took of all the different wildflowers we saw along the way

Ushguli georgia svanteti svan caucus historic photo

Ushguli georgia svanteti svan caucus historic photo

Ushguli georgia svanteti svan caucus historic photo

Ushguli georgia svanteti svan caucus historic photo

Luckily our part finally arrived from India, thanks once more to the guys a Vintage Rides, and so we were able to shove off, towards our next destination, to cross yet another border…to see what adventures await us in Turkey.

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There’s lots more to see!!! ¬†CLICK HERE to be taken¬†to an album where you can see many more photos¬†and also read the captions next to them for some¬†more stories.

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Uzbekistan, Absurdistan, and Azerbaijan

The Silk Road. ¬†People have been traveling this route for over 2,000 years between Asia and Europe. ¬†Bala, our trusty stead, is still struggling with an overheating problem, loss of power, and a new problem with the front suspension. But we continue to move West, along this ancient trading route, through deserts and sandstorms, across borders and seas, and through cities that are older than Moses (literally)….and we continue to collect stories and experiences along the way. ¬†To live a few of them, keep on reading…

This is our route, about 2,250k (1,400miles) closer to the finish line. Click on the pic to be taken to GoogleMaps
This is our route, about 2,250k (1,400miles) closer to the finish line. Click on the pic to be taken to GoogleMaps

Border crossing entering Uzbekistan: Searched for Codine (painkillers) and bibles (both strictly forbidden).  But everyone was friendly enough.

Border crossing entering Turkmenistan (keep in mind we only have 4 days to travel 1300 kilometers across the entire country and were already delayed by a flat tire just 30k before the border, so needless to say we are in quite a rush.): ¬†Arrive at border (after being searched AGAIN for codine and bibles by the Uzbek exit customs), fill out various forms, wait. ¬†Wait. Wait. ¬†Collect various stamps on various forms from one guy, sent to other guys in army fatigues who send us back to the first guy who sends us back to the Army guys who finally tells us that we need to talk to a third guy (we are now one hour into the process), BUT…(He makes hand to mouth motion), we understand through extensive pantomiming that the entire border crossing is closed now for lunch. ¬†Wait on the curb for an hour and a half. ¬†Wait. Wait. Hot. Wait. ¬†After work resumes, we are drawn a map of the route we will take and explained we are not permitted to deviate from this route. ¬†A few more stamps, and some “road tax” payments made and we are on our way.

Imagine what it is like to be standing under a heat lamp…wearing an ALL BLACK astronaut suit (protective motorcycle pants, jacket, and helmet…and then imagine you are standing in front of a gigantic very hot hair dryer. ¬†Then you will have an idea of what it was like to drive through the Karakum desert of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

We were a bit surprised when we payed our bill for lunch just after entering Uzbekistan and it amounted to a stack of notes almost an inch high. ¬†One US dollar is 2,300 Uzbek Som…And the largest bank note I ever got was for 1,000 Som (there are of course for even lesser amounts). ¬†People would walk around in the bazaars doing their shopping with plastic grocery bags full of money!

We walked through the same large entryway of a 1000 year old mosque that Genghis Khan himself had walked through (as he burned and looted the rest of the city)

Uzbekistan Bukhara

Uzbekistan Bukhara

We discovered a country that few people ever visit (because they rarely issue tourist visas), that you might not have ever heard of, but that we thought was fascinating and ridiculous. We call it Absurdistan (AKA Turkmenistan).  Whats the deal with Turkmenistan?

  • The current dictator is only slightly less eccentric than his recent predecessor, Turkmenbashi. Turkmenbashi renamed a large city after himself and another after his mother, because she brought him “The Leader of all Turkmens” into the world. ¬†Also under Turkmenbashi, the Turkmen word for “bread” became illegal. Instead, as a homage to the life-giving powers of both bread and mothers, he made the two synonymous. His mother’s name was now the Turkmen word for bread, officially changed in all dictionaries.
  • Turkmenistan sees almost no tourism. ¬†Tourist visas are almost impossible to get and if you do get one you will pay a hefty price and will have to be accompanied by a government employed “guide” at all times. ¬†Much like in North Korea. ¬†We were granted a 5 day “transit” visa.

    This is one of the many crazy "monuments" in Ashgabat, more on that later. This one is a 40ft (10 meter) tall copy of Turkmenbashi's book The Ruhnama. Every night, for an audience of absolutely nobody, it opens up and a sound and light show begins...passages from the book are projected onto the 40ft. tall "pages" of the book.
    Men doing maintenance on one of the many crazy “monuments” in Ashgabat, more on that later. This one is a 40ft (10 meter) tall copy of Turkmenbashi’s book The Ruhnama. Every night, for an audience of absolutely nobody, it opens up and a sound and light show begins…passages from The Ruhnama are projected onto the 40ft. tall “pages” of the book.
  • Turkmenbashi wrote a book, a “spiritual and moral guide”. ¬†He called it the Ruhnama. Mosques were ordered to teach from the book and treat it as an equal with the Koran. Students must study it in school and are tested on it. ¬†Memorization of parts of the book are required to get a drivers license or government job. ¬†Oh yea, and Turkmenbashi interceded with Allah himself who told him that anyone who reads the Ruhnama three times will be promised a place in paradise after their death.
  • The names of the months of the year and days of the week were renamed after various aspects of himslef, his mother, and other family members.
  • Dogs were banned in the country, as well as gold teeth, recorded music, and lip syncing.
  • Electricity, natural gas, and water are all free in Turkmenistan. ¬†One person said that some Turkmens leave the gas on their stove running 24 hours a day to save the expense of matches. ¬†Until just a few months ago even petrol (120 liters per person per month) was free. ¬†When we filled up at a gas station it cost us a whopping 20 US cents per liter (70 cents per gallon).
  • Women under the age of 35 cannot get a drivers license or leave the country for leisure purposes.
  • A while back the president had heart surgery and had to quit smoking. ¬†So…he banned smoking in all public places throughout the country.
  • The current president, a dentist by trade, decided to build a mega-resort town on the Caspian sea. He spent billions of dollars building 5 star hotels. ¬†He said it would be the “Dubai of Central Asia”. ¬†It has multiple 5 star hotels, fully staffed, and it is pretty much empty…a ghosttown. ¬†He has obviously not made the connection that¬†for tourists to come….you need to issue them visas.
  • Don’t ask anyone in Turkmenistan what they think of all this insanity, they wold rather rot in a dark jail cell then talk about it…because that is where they would end up anyways. ¬† Turkmenistan ranked 178th out of 180 countries by the World Press Freedom Index.

Our guidebook said “Only the insane or deeply unfortunate find themselves in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan capital) in July or August, when temperatures can push 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit)”. ¬† We cruised into Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, on July 17th, feeling as usual, a bit insane, but certainly not unfortunate. ¬†Because we were about to experience what proved to be, by far, the most bizarre place I have ever visited in my life. ¬†Ashgabat observations:

  • The whole city looks like Caesars Palace Casino in Las Vegas grew an ugly tumor in the form of a Central Asian city. ¬†By presidential decree all buildings are built from white marble. ¬†In fact it holds the¬†Guinness Book of World Records as having the most white marble-clad buildings in the world — 543 to be exact. ¬†Oh, and there is no shortage of¬†gold trim and gaudy fountains for that added “class”.
  • There is an 11 kilometer (7 miles) long artificial river running through the city
  • In “residential” areas we drove down broad multi-lane avenues lined on each side by manicured lawns and walkways that are set before large 30 story apartment buildings (white marble of course) one after another for kilometers on either side of the avenue. ¬†In the city center there are massive white marble buildings with lavish fountains in front of each of them. ¬†Universities, ministries of this and that, sports centers, etc. etc. ¬†There are massive parks with fountains and green grass. ¬†The bizarre thing…ALL of these buildings, all the parks… are mostly empty, just there for show, I never saw a single soul walking in or out of a building . ¬†In fact the only people we did see on the streets were police (stationed every 200 meters along the road making sure you dont take photos of any buildings), and hundreds of maintenance people picking up every scrap of paper or leaf that fell on the ground.
Midday traffic jam, Center of Ashgabat
Midday traffic jam, Center of Ashgabat
Residential street (the other side looks identical). Note there is not a single car on the road.
Residential street (the other side looks identical). Note there is not a single car on the road.
  • There are dozens of absurdly bizarre monuments all over the city. ¬†What does an absurdly bizarre monument look like?

2b-2¬†s_a02_hgabat15-2¬†640px-Ashgabat_TV_Tower_Under_construction5¬† ¬† ¬†s_a01_hgabat07-2¬†¬†800px-IndependenceMonumentAshgabat¬† ¬† ¬†¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Turkmenistan AshgabatPerhaps the winner of the absurdly bizarre monument award is the “Arc of Neutrality”, which is adorned with a gold plated statue of former president Turkmenbashi that, we read, rotates during daylight hours so that it always faces the sun (must have been broken when we were there). ¬†This we had to see for ourselves. ¬†We pull onto an EIGHT LANE road that leads to the monument. ¬†On either side are multiple parking lots, probably enough to park a couple hundred cars yet I’m sure none of them have ever seen more than two cars parked in them at one time, EVER. There is no one. ¬†ZERO. Not one car or person. ¬†We pull Bala right up to the front and laugh at the absurdity of the monument as we stare at it. ¬†Then we see what appears to be a ticket booth. ¬†Could it be? ¬†Can we actually go up and inside of this thing? ¬†Surely there is no one inside the ticket booth. ¬†But, low and behold, as we approach we see a woman inside. ¬†“Two tickets please?” I ask with doubtful inflection. ¬†To our surprise we are given two little scraps of printed out paper. ¬†Now our excitement has reached a childlike glee. We cannot believe we can go up into this thing. ¬†We march off towards the monument when an AK47 armed guard stops us saying “Niet!….making it clear we are not allowed any closer”. ¬†We try and show him our tickets, he takes a look and shakes his head…”Niet!” ¬†Confused and disheartened that perhaps the tickets we bought were for something else, we try and explain…”But we just bought them, right over there” pointing to the ticket both just 50 meters away. ¬†He takes the ticket again, holds it closer to his face, scrutinizing it. ¬†Clearly this is the first time he has seen this. ¬†He gets on his radio, a discussion ensues. ¬†Our access seems to be granted and a small elevator starts to move down the side of the monument. The door opens revealing an expressionless young man

Arc of Neutrality, Magdalena, and Cleaning Lady
Arc of Neutrality, Magdalena, and Cleaning Lady

who motions us in. ¬†By now I feel like Charlie entering Wanka’s chocolate factory I am so excited to be part of this absurdity. ¬†The top of the monument reveals amazing views of the capital of Absurdistan and all its absurdity. From the top we can see in the scorched desert that an artificial forest of pine trees has been planted in perfect rows for as far as the eye can see, literally. ¬†(They were planted by Turkenbashi ¬†who believed they would lower the temperature in the city). ¬†Most are dead or dying in the desert heat. ¬†To either side of the monument are symmetrically identical parks with fountains and large restaurants which seem to have been abandoned a long time ago. ¬†Not a soul is to be seen. On the way down the elevator stops at the “museum” where a half dozen women, dressed in bright traditional clothing, are sleeping on all the small plush benches…the cleaning ladies. ¬†They scramble to their feet, amazed to see actual tourists (or anyone for that matter) visiting the museum. ¬†A tour of the small museum reveals ludicrous and gaudy little trinkets which are supposed to¬†honor Turkmenistan’s role as a world power and are made from what was claimed to be solid gold and precious gems. Afterwards one of the cleaning ladies accompanied us down the elevator where, so amazed to have seen us there, she asked me if I would take her picture with Magdalena

Turkmenistan Ashgabat
View from the front of highly necessary 8 laned road to access the monument as well as the four parking lots.
Side view from top of Arc showing dying artificial forest and popular restaurant.
Side view from top of Arc showing dying artificial forest in background and popular restaurant.  this exact scene is replicated on the other side

Delayed by flat tires and an absurd border crossing into Turkmenistan, we realized we had no chance of making it across the country with our 45mph (65kph) top speed on our limited time visas. ¬†So we decided to put Bala and ourselves on a train for half the way. ¬†The process seemed easy enough, and absurdly cheap. ¬†All was well until we got off the train at our stop, went to the back of the train to help unload and claim the bike when, chugga chugga chuga chugga….the train began to move and off it went into the early morning desert light…with Bala on board. ¬†With the help of a friendly stationmaster we arranged a car that raced 30k in the wrong direction (to get gas), then 120 kilometers along the highway dodging stray camels along the way to arrive at the next train station JUST as Bala and our train pulled in

Turkmenistan Ashgabat

After our runaway train/Bala episode, having successfully unloaded Bala from the train I found myself driving her alongside some torn up old train tracks and I had one of those moments that come to even the most experienced travelers from time to time…just a moment when reality hits you “Holy shit, I’m on a motorcycle….. ¬†driving through a trainyard….. ¬†in Turkmenistan”. ¬†They are moments we travelers live for

Need to restore some of your faith in humanity?  Some random acts of kindness bestowed upon us:

  • Driving down the highway in Uzbekistan a man pulls his car up next to us honking his horn, thrusting a white plastic bag out the window and moving dangerously close to us. ¬†I’m a bit confused but understand enough that he wants us to take the bag. ¬†Magdalena grabs it, he gives a big smile and a wave and speeds off past us. ¬†“What the hell was that all about!” ¬†I scream back to Magdalena, who is peering into the bag. ¬†“Apples!” ¬†She yells. ¬†“He just wanted to give us some apples!”Uzbekistan Bukhara
  • Within an hour of the apple incident we stop on the side of the road to eat a lunch we¬†had packed for ourselves. ¬†A man comes out of a nearby farmhouse and asks the compulsory questions in Russian “Where are you from, where are you going, are you married, have kids….???” He returns to his home and emerges 10 minutes later with a HUGE plate of sliced watermelon and cantaloupe, simply places it in front of us, puts his hand over his heart (a Muslim gesture of sincerity and respect) and walks away.
  • In Bukhara our friendly bartender heard we were looking for a motorcycle mechanic. ¬†I would have been happy if he gave me his name and drew me a map to find the guy. ¬†Instead, the next morning he insisted on leading me there (He also had a motorcycle and I followed him.) ¬†He translated my problems to the mechanic, then drove me back to my guesthouse BUT stopped on the way to buy a nice ripe melon, which he then presented to us as a gift.
  • In Turkmenistan I went to a small shop near the train station to buy a samsa (Meat/onion/disgusting fat filled pastry). He asked me as I paid for it where I was from. ¬†Then he quickly took the coin I had given him and put it back in my hand and said “For you, my foreign friend, you do not pay”
  • I wake up from a deep but short sleep on the train. ¬†It is 6am and it is stopped in a scraggly desert outpost. ¬†Still half asleep I stumble to the nearest door where a dozen old women are squatting in the dirt selling their food to people on the train. ¬†They see me and chaos ensues. They all start yelling at me in Turkmen competing for my business. ¬†One of them leaps to her feet and runs towards as if she were going to attack me! ¬†She is yelling in an aggressive unfriendly tone and shoving a bag of food in my chest. ¬†Dazed by the bright morning light and the yelling I say “No thank you” several times in Russian when a young train conductor appears behind me. ¬†She yells something at him in the same abusive tone, he takes the bag of food then hands it to me and says in English, “You take”. ¬†Confused as ever I try and explain that I don’t have money with me and I don’t…He stops me and says “No money. ¬†She gives”. ¬†The train began rolling away before I had had a chance to thank her.

    Hogging out
    Hogging out

To Magdalena’s disgust and the ice-cream man’s delight,I ate 4 ice cream cones to get rid of our last Turkmen Manat (currency) while waiting for our ferry to leave.

The process of exiting Turkmenistan proved to be an extensive bureaucratic circus that cost us two hours of time and several bribes to officials.

We were shocked to arrive in Azerbaijan…shocked at how European it was, shocked to see Mcdonalds and Carrefour (like European Walmart for those who don’t know), shocked that our days of horrible roads seems to be over (for the most part), but happy to find that people were still friendly and interested in us

We often had huge crowds (reminded us of India) gathering around us when we stopped in small towns
We often had huge crowds (reminded us of India) gathering around us when we stopped in small towns

We spent some days cruising around Baku (capital of Azerbaijan), calling it “The Paris of the Caucuses”. ¬†Beautiful avenues, tasteful fountains, Parisian-style newspaper kiosks, a perfect blend of ancient buildings dating back a thousand years, beautiful 19th century classical era architecture and spicy contemporary glass and steel structures.

We swam in the Caspian sea

Karaoke night with our couchsurfing host, Andrei in Baku
Karaoke night with our couchsurfing host, Andrei in Baku

We slept next to the highway

We slept in the home of a Turkish guy in Ashgabat who opened a beer bottle for me with his eye-socket

We slept in the home of a Russian guy in Azerbaijan who used to be a patriot but eventually became a sharp critic of Russia’s government. ¬†We listened, fascinated, to his opinions of the Ukrainian conflict. ¬†Then we all sang Karaoke.

We slept in the middle of the Caspian Sea as two of 6 other passengers on a ferry that took us from Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan to Baku, Azerbaijan.  We cooked our dinner over our little beer can stove, and watched the sun set into the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan-13

I post this from Southern Turkey, just 50k from the border of Syria….yes I am way behind in posts but promise to try and catch up soon. ¬†We are alive and well…more stories on the way. ¬†In the meantime…

…To see more pictures and read more stories in their captions you can CLICK HERE

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Tajikistan & The Pamir Highway, with Guest Appearances by China & Afghanistan

I woke up before the alarm on my phone to the sound of a donkey braying… in Afghanistan. ¬†Unzipping the door to the tent and stepping into the sunlight, the sound of a rushing river brings me into the reality of a new day. ¬†Just across the river, a literal stones throw away, is the donkey and Afghanistan. ¬†A few mud houses peppered the side of a snow capped mountain that rose up into an astonishingly blue sky.¬†At¬†3,400 meters (11,200ft.), the air is fresh and cold. ¬†Our camp is on the Tajik side of the river. ¬†The day before, we rode on atrociously¬†horrible dirt roads over a 4300 meter (14,100ft.) pass for a couple hundred kilometers. ¬†Aside from a military checkpoint that we went through, we saw only three other vehicles in 8 hours on the road. ¬†This is the Pamir Highway. ¬†Desolate, exciting, dusty, freezing cold, unbearably hot, stunningly beautiful, dangerously bumpy….. What stories have I to tell from Tajikistan…to name a few….

We drove 1,325 Kilometers (825 miles) through Tajikistan.  For 600 Kilometers and five full days of riding we followed the Afghan border through the Wakhan Valley.  Our route:

Click on map to be brought to Google Maps
Click on map to be brought to Google Maps
Tajik Border
Tajik Border

We crossed the isolated little border into Tajikistan in the middle of a snowstorm

With a seemingly endless washboard dirt road narrowing into a moonscape horizon we bumped along at a painstaking 25kph (15mph)…then we heard a loud “Whack!”…to find that our luggage rack had broken. ¬†With a little Macguyvering we were back in action with the same endless washboard road ahead of us but with a new top speed of 15kph (10mph)

Tajikistan Pamir Highway Wakhan Enfield
The road that killed our luggage rack
Tajikistan Pamir Highway Wakhan Enfield
Hanging out in China

We made a quick stop for a photo ‘op’ in….China? ¬†Yep. ¬†We followed the China border for a¬†hundred kilometers mesmerized by the huge wire fence in the middle of nowhere that was built to keep out/in…who? ¬†Certainly didn’t keep these kids from collecting some Chinese dirt on the soles of their boots:

We past mountain lakes who competed with mountain skies for true blue.

Tajikistan Pamir Highway Wakhan Enfield

We watched the faces slowly change, the Asiatic almond eyes began to round, skin darkened, eyebrows thickened, and dark brown eyes gave way to clear blue-green.

We past herds of Tajik Yaks and packs of Afghan Camels.

Tajikistan Pamir Highway Wakhan Enfield We past ruins of Buddhist temples, Zoroastrian temples belonging to pre-Islamic fire worshipers, ancient mosques, 1,800 year old forts, and gem mines that were mentioned by Marco Polo

We rode through mud, dirt, on potholed tarmac, through soft sand, across rivers, through snowstorms, through rain, and over the 4655 meter high (15,275ft)¬†Ak-Baital Pass. ¬†Bala, we love you. ¬†Can I¬†get some applause out there my dear readers for Bala! ¬†We crossed paths with motorcyclists on 1000cc BMW’s, Hondas, and KTMs all riding solo. ¬†Bala made it with driver and passenger through the most challenging stretch of highway she or any motorcycle will likely see in their life. ¬†Sorry for gushing… ¬†yes, I’m a proud father

Tajikistan Pamir Highway Wakhan Enfield

Dropping into the Wakhan Valley from the high mountains of the Pamirs we encountered some of the friendliest people I have found in all my travels. ¬†Old weather worn faces flashing smiles full of gold capped teeth, little kids wriggling with excitement like golden retriever puppies, adolescent girls with shy eyes…all waving as you pass.

We sat at one of our campsites in Tajikistan, taking in views of Afghanistan AND Pakistan (for a long time we followed a part of Afghanistan called the Wakhan Corridor, a thin 10 kilometer [6 mile] wide stretch of Afghanistan that separated Tajikistan from Pakistan and the enormous Hindu Kush mountains which are so big its possible to see them from Tajikistan)

We ate lots of apricots, and drank homemade juice made from a wild mountain berries

Driving through small a village a huge black dog comes rushing out of the woodwork in full attack-mode straight for us and Bala.  I quickly hit the throttle to leave him behind just as we come to the top of a hill where, on the other side a huge trench spanning the length of the road awaits us.  Brakes lock, tires screech, WHACK goes the front suspension, CRASH goes the bike.  Our first little spill results in a few broke bits on the bike, a few bruises and a new disdain for motorcycle hungry dogs

We camped at 4,000 meters, We comfortably sipped vodka while while listening to the wind blow flakes of snow and pellets of hail into the side of the tent.  We were at such high altitude that we had to wait 45 minutes for our little beer can stove to cook some rice.

Sunset snowstorm at 4,000 Meters
Sunset snowstorm at 4,000 Meters

As we pass through a small village a little kid no more than 6 years old stands precariously smack in the middle of the road with his hand extended and a sly smile on his face. Rapidly approaching on the motorcycle I’m thinking to myself “What the hell is this this kid doing? Why isn’t he moving out of the way?”. ¬†I move a little to the right so as not to brush up against him as we pass and he moves in the same direction shrinking my gap…what the hell is he up to? ¬†Then, just meters before and just in time, I figure it out…I extend my hand and….Smack! ROLLING HIGH FIVE! (This was later repeated many times in other villages along the way)

I saw Afghan village of mud homes and was shocked to see that they all had satellites on their roofs.  I wondered, are they just as excited for the new season of Game of Thrones as the rest of the world seems to be?

I was not surprised to learn that the monthly wages average in Tajikistan is just $135 and 47% of people live below the poverty line.

I was surprised to learn that, despite being the poorest country in the former USSR, Tajikistan has a literacy rate of 99.7%.  Higher than France, Denmark, Germany, and America.

Rolling High Five
Rolling High Five

Passing through another village we see three boys, maybe 10 years old in the road. ¬†A fight¬†is brewing. ¬†One kid pushes the other who responds in kind with a slap on the face. ¬†They lock in a violent grip, one with the others shirt in his dirty little hands and the other reaching for a tuft of hair as Bala’s engine thump thump thumps closer and closer. ¬†At the exact same moment they both look up, see Bala and HUGE smiles wash away their anger. They release their respective victims so the hands can wave wildly in the air as they turn on their heals to watch us pass. ¬†100 meters after we had passed them I could still see them waving in my rear-view mirror.

We spent over a week in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan hunting for visas.  We visited The Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Uzbekistan embassy, and the Turkmenistan Embassy a total of 12 times.

Tajikistan Pamir Highway Wakhan Enfield
The worlds tallest flagpole in all its glory

We saw the “Worlds Tallest Free-standing Flagpole” in the middle of Dushanbe, proud may they be.

We found an Indian restaurant and re-lived some happy days.

We slept next to rivers and lakes, near areas still riddled with land mines, and in the apartment of a group of foreign NGO workers on the top floor of a huge building

We discovered that Tajiks are completely crazy about watermelon.  It is EVERYWHERE. Just as in France you see people walking around everywhere with baguettes under their arms, In Tajikistan everyone on the street seems to be carrying a watermelon home.

Tajikistan Pamir Highway Wakhan Enfield

Need to restore some of your faith in humanity?  Some random acts of kindness bestowed upon us:

  • In Khorog we bought a CD from a old man in the market. ¬†He insisted on giving us a package of seeds to grow some special flower as a parting gift and spent 10 minutes looking for someone in the market who could explain to us in English what they were¬†
  • We had to go through a half dozen military checkpoints along the Pamir Highway, approaching one rather isolated one the guard comes out of his little hut. ¬†“Passports?” I ask and begin to reach into my jacket. ¬†He shakes his head throws a thumb towards his Tajikistan Pamir Highway Wakhan Enfieldhut and make “hand to mouth” motion. ¬†Confused, we park the bike, get off and follow him into his hut. ¬†He disappears into a back room for a while then emerges with a huge plateful of sliced watermelon and puts it in front of us. ¬†We hang out for a while, exchange some linguistically challenged banter and then we try to explain that we should go. ¬†He tries to make us eat the last of the watermelon….”Full” we say with hands over our bellies to pantomime the adjective. ¬†So, in his army camouflage fatigues, he finds a plastic bag, packages up the leftover watermelon, and with a maternal thoughtfulness he produces a bag of cookies to go with the melon and sends us on our way
  • We got a flat tire and rolled into a petrol station nearby. ¬†I asked if I could use a bit of space in their shade to fix the tire. ¬†The guy instead insisted on spending over an hour with me helping me to take the wheel off, remove the tube, find the leak, patch it and put it all back together. ¬†While we worked in the heat, another local guy came over with….of course, a plate of sliced watermelon¬†

Things that were broken by the Pamir Highway:

  • Luggage rack
  • Front suspension oil seals
  • Headlight
  • Camera
  • Computer
  • One tire tube

That’s all I have to report for now. ¬†This blogpost comes very late (due to busted computer)…we are already in Georgia but I will hopefully get another post out soon to try and get caught up.

To see more pictures and read more stories in their captions you can CLICK HERE

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