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 “not many” I really mean there is ONE person…and so it was that “Team Bala” was reunited
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.
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.
We reunited with old friends and
made new ones.
We absorbed Indonesian culture and hospitality.
Then there was a “visa hunting” 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.
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
We were pleasantly surprised to see many of the same foods in xinjiang as
we saw years before in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan…we ate handmade pulled noodles (Lagman), fresh nan flatbread, samsas, dumplings, “Big Plate Chicken”, 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 – taking in an extremely diverse 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 each with Xray and retina scans.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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€ for a used 150cc Chinese made bike. His name was Khan and together we conquered the Mongolian steppe….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 😉
We sold Khan, boarded the train again and headed to Siberia. Some days spent walking the shores of the great Baikal lake (which holds ⅕ of all the world’s fresh water…yes it’s true), camping along the way and keeping our eyes out for fresh water seals.
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 “The Stans” 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.
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:
Soon the planning would begin for the next adventure. Which has now arrived at my doorstep.
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.
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.
“The scenic route” 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’s difficult. Because EVERYTHING is interesting, and you definitely don’t 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”.
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 “tricycles” 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’t 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).
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.
We entered our first Christian country in 8 months – I ate a ham sandwich and washed it down with a gulp of red wine.
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
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
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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. აქვს ლამაზი დღე ჩემი მეგობარი 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.
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.
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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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…
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)
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.
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.
There are dozens of absurdly bizarre monuments all over the city. What does an absurdly bizarre monument look like?
Perhaps 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 few 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
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
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
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!”
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.
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 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
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.
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
Have a friend’s birthday coming up? Consider donating to a charity in their name. My charity fundraiser makes it easy to do and I will even send a “Thank You” or “Happy Birthday” postcard. To learn more about how it works CLICK HERE