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 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

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.


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


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

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


Kyrgyzstan: Yurts, Lakes, Vodka, Horse Milk, and Mountains (And as always motorcycle mechanics)

Kyrgystan lake issyk kul
Lake Issyk Kul

Arriving in Bishkek from India I experienced the most extreme culture shock in all my traveling years.  A bright and clear late afternoon sun shone across open fields of green agriculture as we drove from the airport into the city.  A pedestrian stepped into a crosswalk and our taxi driver stopped for them!!! Little white puffs of cotton sauntered down through the rays of sunshine from the branches of cottonwood trees creating a fairytale-like atmosphere ….cottonwood trees with green leaves on them….GREEN LEAVES I TELL YOU!  Observing a street corner as our taxi waited at a red light, not a stray dog was to be seen nor a car horn to be heard.  No dust in my eyes, no trash on the sidewalks, no cries of the Chai wallas selling their brew.  India is behind us (and already very much missed), new adventures await.

Our route through Kyrgystan (Bishkek to the Tajik border, 1450k [875 miles]):

You can click on the map to be taken to Google Maps for a closer look

We participated in the circus of getting Bala cleared through customs.  We ran around from one customs office to another collecting a myriad of forms.  We were not free to go until we had acquired the requisite number of bureaucratic stamps to be added to our forms.  The magic number: 15.

We said goodbye to Hinduism and Salaam Alaikum to Islam.

With our Bishkek hosts, Joe and Sena
With our Bishkek hosts, Joe and Sena

For almost a week we stayed with a couple from the UK and Latvia who bought an old Russian Ambulance in Georgia (the country not the state) and struck out for Mongolia.  They ran out of money in Bishkek so for now call it home.  They put a roof over our heads and sent us off with a wealth of advice for the road we had ahead.

We began the task of learning Russian, beginning with “Izvinite, ya ne govoryu po Ruski” and “Piva pajaulsta”.  (“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Russian” and “Beer please”)

I re-learned how to drive on the right side of the street.  Even though strangely enough, half of the cars in Kyrgyzstan have the steering wheel on the right.

While still in Bishkek, after a major mechanical scare, we thought Bala had died.  We had a brief a panic attack, and then when she was resuscitated with the help of a local mechanic we vowed that we would not be so quick in the future to doubt her resilience.

20 days and 1000K (625miles) later our vow was put to the test as we crawled into the city of Osh, practically pushing Bala, she was so sick.  We were saved by some Swiss expats who rent motorcycles to tourists in Kyrgyzstan.  They loaned us tools, mechanics, and a place to work.  Problem solved.  Thanks Muz Too.

With the Osh motorcycle gang

We spent over a week in Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, dealing with mechanical issues.  We met Laura, Chris, & Arjens, veteran overlanders.  They accepted us into their club and we spent a week eating cherries troubleshooting motorcycle problems, and waxing geographical.

We got our first look at the world of “Overlanders”.  Central Asia is full of them.  They are a subculture of travelers apart from the backpacker scene.  These are people who have their own vehicles…motorcycles, buses, bicycles, trucks, and cars and have struck out to cross vast regions of the world.  They are almost invariably older than the average backpacker, most having already done that.   Looking at many of them with their big BMW 800cc motorcycles with metal lockboxes and GPS and a swath of fancy gauges and dials…and then looking at Bala dwarfed by their size, with our backpacks haphazardly strapped to some crappy Indian made luggage rack using some bungee cords, we wondered, “Where do we fit in?”

Our speedometer and odometer broke while the bike was in transit from India.   Time stands still.  We take things slowly as they come….very slowly.  And I can’t figure out how we keep waking up in new places even though we haven’t moved one kilometer in weeks.

About Kyrgyzstan….honorable mentions:

  • You can buy beer in two liter plastic Kyrgystanbottles.
  • The vodka section in a Bishkek supermarket is bigger than the cereal section in a New York supermarket.
  • Not surprisingly we saw a lot of alcoholism in Kyrgyzstan.  Very normal to see guys throwing back tall glasses of vodka at 9am then jumping into their cars and proceeding to swerve between lanes.  Don’t worry Dad, I drove very defensively.
  • Handshakes are very important.  You shake hands with everyone.  Just the other day I shook the guys hand who filled our tank at the petrol pump.
  • The Kyrgyzstan flag has incorporated the shape of a yurt into it.  When someone dies, a yurt is immediately constructed as a place for viewing the deceased’s body on the site where they died.  Even the bus stops in Kyrgyzstan are shaped like yurts
Kyrgystan lake issyk kul
Bus Stop
  • Number of people in Kyrgyzstan: 5 million.  Number of sheep in Kyrgyzstan: 8 million.
  • Bride Kidnapping is a big part of the rural culture here and widely practiced and accepted.  Men kidnap a woman off the street (often in broad daylight) who they wish to marry.  The woman is brought back to the man’s home where his mother, grandmother, aunts, etc. try to force a ceremonial headscarf on the women’s head.  After hours of wearing her down they usually manage to get it on….and that’s as good as a marriage license.
  • Of all the countries in the world, Kyrgyzstan is the furthest away from a sea port.

We camped on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul, the 10th largest lake in the world  and the second largest saline lake in the world (Caspian Sea is the first…yep, it’s a lake)Kyrgystan lake issyk kul

We camped next to hundreds of sheep.  Of course I tried to make friends.

We camped next to rivers.

We camped next to lakes.

We camped surrounded by snowy mountains.

We camped in canyons.

We camped 20 meters from the Kazakhstan border.

That fence on the other side of the river is Kazahkstan
That fence on the other side of the river is Kazahkstan

We ate the local foods… lagman (thick noodle soup), goulash, monte (fatty meat and onion dumplings), dried/aged horse milk cheese balls (which we discovered aren’t half bad if grated over our tent-made pasta), shashlik (grilled skewered meat), lagman, and lagman.


While taking in a sunset next to a lake were approached by a local couple who we gathered were having an affair unbeknown to their wedded counterparts.  We used our bicycle pump to inflate their flat car tire.  Next thing we know they have purchased such necessities as: A bottle of vodka, two liters of beer, a pack of cigarettes, and some ramen noodles…and as the air slowly escaped once again from their newly pumped-up tire, we spent an entire evening until just before midnight eating, drinking, and merrymaking with our new friends (who, by the way, spoke no English).


We spent over a week in Bishkek waiting for Bala to arrive, walking the streets, getting lost in the gigantic bazaar, admiring the backdrop of snowcapped mountains, and adjusting to our new cultural surroundings

We fell in love with Kyrgyz people and their friendly and curious nature.  It was so normal to wake up to some noise, poke my head out of the tent and find some Shepard with his sheep or horses waiting to start the conversation.  And it wouldn’t matter how many times you told them that you spoke no Russian, it did nothing to halt the “conversation”

We drove a couple hundred kilometers on a muddy dirt road to reach Song Kul Lake where we were greeted by absolutely no one.  That’s the beauty of Song Kul.  No electrical lines, no towns, no cars, no roads (you can just drive across the grass wherever you feel)…just a few dozen yurts inhabited by Kyrgyz nomads and THOUSANDS of sheep and horses running wild.  (If you didn’t see my previous post with the link to some video footage of our time in Song Kul you can CLICK HERE to watch it)

Song Kol Lake
Road to Song Kul Lake.  Yes, Bala is a badass.
Lunch break next to the lake
Lunch break next to the lake
Song Kul Lake. Bala resting before crossing that river
Song Kul Lake. Bala resting before crossing that river

Bala’s oil pip began to leak.  We found a Russian refrigerator repairman with a weathered face and friendly vodka whetted smile who did a pro job of welding a piece of refrigerator pipe to replace the broken part of ours.  The next day we blew a fuse.  No auto part store carried what we needed.  Someone suggested a TV repairman.  We found the guy, he had the part, it fit perfectly.  So Bala is now part refrigerator and part Television.  I’m sure that by the time she reaches Spain she will have a bit of toaster and microwave in her as well.

Things lost by Jordan:

  • One hat
  • One pair sunglasses
  • One electric razor
  • One USB charger

We crossed rivers, slopped through mud, drove through snow and hail storms, over mountain passes, and across icy/snowy roads

Everywhere we went, at the sight and sound of the motorcycle roaring down the road, little kids would  run as fast as they could from the doors of their homes and yurts to reach the side of the road where they would great us with huge smiles and little dirty hands waving in the air.

Kyrgystan Kyrgystan lake issyk kul

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

  • In Osh at the Auto Parts Bazaar a local man saw we were a bit out of place.  He spoke decent English and left his shop alone to spend a half hour running around helping us find all the parts that we needed
This was the scene in thie isolated mountain outpost where they gave us food and shelter
This was the scene in thie isolated mountain outpost where they gave us food and shelter
  • Caught driving on a muddy road in the middle of a rain and snow storm we came across an   encampment of mine workers who invited us into their little canteen.  They fed us soup, tea, and fermented horse milk and gave us a warm place to dry our clothes.  As a sidenote: As I drove away from the camp with the pungent taste of fermented horse milk lingering in my mouth…I thought about it….horse milk….I have seen plenty of cow udders so why haven’t I ever seen a horse udder?  Or would it be called a teat?  Have you ever seen a horse teat?
  • After blowing a fuse the Russian TV repairman who came to our rescue would not accept payment…he only said, “Just remember me in your travels” and gave a me what was as close to a smile as one could expect from a Russian TV repairman.
  • A Kyrgyz girl who we had never met before gave us her address and received a package for us.  We later met her and spent some great times cruising around Bishkek.  Thanks Altynai 🙂
  • While filling up at a petrol station we were approached by two gregarious Canadians who have been working for a Canadian gold mine in Kyrgyzstan and living there for years.  With a storm looming on the horizon they took a look at our pathetic preparations and kindly invited us into their home which, to our weary traveler bones was more like a palace.  We spent two evenings with them feasting, drinking and swapping stories.

We got lost again and again wandering around the gigantic Osh Bazaar in Bishkek

Osh Bazaar in Bishkek
Osh Bazaar in Bishkek
Osh Bazaar in Bishkek

We prepared to leave Kyrgyzstan and head for the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan…which would prove to be our most daring and memorable adventures yet.  More on that soon.  Until then, hope all is well on your side of the world.  (This post is a bit late and covers our adventures from May 18th through June 18th….I will get another post out soon to bring it all current)

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

Highway Scenery in Kyrgyzstan
Highway Scenery in Kyrgyzstan


Wild Ride, Las Vegas Weekly Interview

In an effort to boost donations for my charity fundraiser I did an interview with Las Vegas Weekly.  I thought I would share it here if anyone wants to check it out.  And please, if you are feeling philanthropic, consider making a small donation to my charity fundraiser (  Here is a link to the article:

Las Vegas Weekly Article: Wild Ride

Just completed some CRAZY adventures and will post about them soon.  Until then…

Song Kul Lake. Video Short.

Song Kul Lake Kyrgyzstan

We climbed up and up…to 3,500 meters (11,500 feet)…Bala began to suffer, crawling up the hills…a mechanical issue we thought we had taken care of back in India was back.  The destination: Song Kul Lake.  4 days, hundreds of kilometers of muddy and icy dirt roads, 5 river crossings, a few dozen yurts, hundreds of sheep and horses, and almost NO PEOPLE!  there are only a dozen or so families of Kyrgyz nomads that inhabit the lake.  The day we left Song Kul we drove for 5 hours before we saw another car.

I didn’t have time to put together a full blog report yet on our time in Kyrgyzstan before we head off today to cross the Tajikistan border, but I thought I would share this little collections of video from our time around the Song Kul region.

PS: If you are in the charitable mood don’t forget my fundraiser…donate to causes like conservation, worldwide poverty, and cancer research and I will send you a postcard from somewhere along the way as a thank you…more details on how to donate by CLICKING HERE.  See you in Dushanbe.

Ancient Cities, Holy Rivers, Buddhas Birthplace, and Nepal

This morning I woke up in Central Asia.  Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to be exact.  Maybe right now you are saying to yourself “Bishkek?  Kyrgyzstan?  Where the hell is that?  Whats going on there?”  I promise I will answer some of those questions in my next post.  But for now maybe you would like to know what I’ve been up to the last 8 weeks:

We traveled 800 kilometers on train and 2000 kilometers (1,250 miles) on Bala through Northern India and Nepal.  Number of mechanics visited: six.  Here is our route:

Click on map to be brought to GoogleMaps for a better view
Click on map to be brought to GoogleMaps for a better view.  Red line was by train, the rest is by temperamental vintage motorcycle.

I spent weeks living and breathing nothing but motorcycle motorcycle motorcycle while finishing up the engine rebuild on Bala in New Delhi

We did a swan dive into everything that makes India extravagantly mystic, surreal, overbearing, sacred, grimy, and unceasingly captivating in Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world.  It was one of my favorite places I visited in India.

Sadus lounging on the banks of the Ganges
Sadus lounging on the banks of the Ganges

On our train journey from Delhi to Gaya we lost Bala (she was supposed to be on our train).   For 24 scary hours we had no idea where she was.  After some funny interactions with the railway stationmaster we found her….800 kilometers away.

We took the wrong way from Varanasi across the Nepal border to Kathmandu. We spent three exhausting days sucking dust into our lungs and bumping along atrocious cratered dirt roads like these:

Varanasi india gaya bodhgaya ganges ganga  Varanasi india gaya bodhgaya ganges ganga

After months of eating dodgy food in India we decided to do poop tests at a local hospital to see what kind of little animals we were harboring in our stomachs.  One of us walked with a clean bill of health, the other with a virtual zoo of animals….numerous bacterias, giardia, AND amoebas.  Guess who…

Border crossing experience 1:  India to Nepal, Southern border.  A cacophony of chaos.  A blizzard of dust, rumbling trucks, horse-drawn carriages, and disorder.

Border crossing experience 2: Nepal to India, Western Border.  We had to wake up the sleeping Nepalese immigration officers.  There was not a single person, car, or motorcycle crossing the border.  A man literally had to come “unlock the gate to India” for us so we could pass through.

Opening the gates to India for us to pass through
Opening the gates to India for us to pass through

We witnessed true devotion to faith…hundreds of people bathing in and drinking the water of the sacred Ganges river… where the level of coliform (human and animal feces) is TWO THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED TIMES!!! the level which is considered safe by the World Health Organization.  Now that’s devotion.  Thankfully the newly elected prime minister of India is launching a major cleanup mission for the river.

Varanasi india gaya bodhgaya ganges ganga

We traveled to the future.  The day we arrived in Nepal was their New Year eve.  Goodbye 2014, hello 2071.   Despite being the year 2071, we found that Nepal still does not have stable electricity (The entire country, including the capital of Kathmandu only has power about 60% of the time.)

Loading Bala onto a boat to cross the Ganges
Loading Bala onto a boat to cross the Ganges

We crossed the Ganges 4 times on Bala in four different places, once we were rowed across on a boat.

We spent 8 days hiking up the Langtang Valley in the Himalayas near the border of Tibet.

In Kathmandu I applied for my third India visa in 8 months.

We passed through a very inconspicuous dusty city in Bihar, the poorest state in India, called Motihari.  We were shocked to discover that it is the birthplace of author George Orwell.

At the Iranian embassy in New Delhi we had a nice chat with Freddie Mercury’s cousin.

I climbed this 5,000 meter peak (16,400 feet):


I was alone on the summit, with a big blue sky close enough to touch and surrounded by icy peaks that rose even higher (The one right behind me is over 7,000 meters [23,000 feet].   This was the view from the top:

Nepal himalayas langtang bardia bhaktapur

Nepal himalayas langtang bardia bhaktapur

I made friends with Yaks.

Nepal himalayas langtang bardia bhaktapur

And Elephants.

Nepal himalayas langtang bardia bhaktapur

We watched a procession of men carry a body to the banks of the Ganges, place it on a pyre of wood and set it ablaze.  As the sun set into the river we watched the fire burn and the smoke rise for two and a half hours until all that was left was a small pile of hot coals.

The day that we drove into Kathmandu I was scandalized by how the women dressed.  I found adjectives like “Slutty, promiscuous, and scanty” popping into my head.  Until I realized that they were just dressed like any normal woman you would see on the street in America or Europe!  That’s what seven months in ultra-conservative India can do to you.

Memorable menu items from the last months:  Dhal bhat (Nepalese set meal of rice, veg, and a watery lentil broth), momos (Nepalese dumplings), lots of trailmix and porridge, tons of mangoes (just came into season), and the best samosas we ever tried (found at the tiniest little shack on the side of the road in Bihar)

We took a horrendous 10 hour bus ride packed like sardines into the bus with at least 15 additional people on top of the bus…on roads like these:

Nepal himalayas langtang bardia bhaktapurOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We ate dodgy fish at a restaurant on the shores of the lake in Pokhara and I suffered the consequences for days after.

We hiked to an ancient glacier high in the Himalayas.

In in a dusty town in Northern India called Bodhgaya, we mingled with Buddhists pilgrims, soaking in the nirvanic vibes that fall like leaves from the branches of the Bodhi tree where, 2500 years ago Buddha found enlightenment.

This tree is thought to be a direct decendant of the actual Bodhi tree that Buddha was sitting under when he achieved enlightenment.
This tree is thought to be a direct decendant of the actual Bodhi tree that Buddha was sitting under when he achieved enlightenment.

Nepal himalayas langtang bardia bhaktapur

Three weeks and 1000 kilometers (625 miles) later in Nepal, we visited the site where Buddha was born.  It was enclosed in this not no nirvanic building:


We camped for a few days just outside of Bardia National Park.  We saw a couple rhinos and a tiger (I missed it, Magdalena caught a quick glimpse).  It was far away but close enough to be exciting just to know it was

Magdalena, happy to have found some tiger vomit
Magdalena, happy to have found some tiger vomit

near.   For all that we didn’t see of the tiger itself, we DID see some other gifts he left behind…some tracks and some hairball vomit

The day that we cruised back into Delhi, the World Health Organization released a list of the 20 most polluted cities in the world…guess what was number one.


We said goodbye to the team at garage team at Vintage Rides, who were instrumental in making this whole trip a reality.  Right down to the last minute.

Back in Delhi we spent a very hectic week and a half preparing for our final departure from India.  MechanicalVaranasi india gaya bodhgaya ganges ganga work, organizing spare parts for the journey west, catching up with old friends, and getting Bala boxed up for the trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

We said goodbye to India (with a tear in the eye) and boarded a plane to Kyrgyzstan.  It’ll be all overland from there.  14,000 kilometers (8700 miles) to go.  Bala is in good shape.  We are excited for new places, faces, and roads.  The journey west begins.

CLICK HERE for more pictures and stories

Thanks for reading.  Please consider donating some money to my fundraiser (I’ll even send you or someone you know a postcard from somewhere along the way!).  Click here for more info:



From South to North, Spices, Beaches, Tigers and Trains


I woke up this morning  in Delhi…again.  In the last week I have contacted 8 customs brokers in Kyrgystan, visited 4 foreign embassies in person and called several more, met with two shipping companies, completely disassembled Bala (rebuilding the entire engine), and visited more motorcycle parts stores than I can count…the Logistics & Planning Phase  of  THE PLAN  has kicked into high gear, a westward departure anxiously looms on the horizon.  But what have I been up to between Sri Lanka and New Delhi?

I acquired a passenger…and so “I” has become “we”.  One who has proven to be a true intrepid traveler, and who was ready to sign on for the big trip, Central Asia to Central Europe.  You have met her before… Magdalena


Click on map to see it in GoogleMaps

We traveled by moto from Madurai to Arambol almost 1,250 miles (2000k)  This was our route:

We visited 5 mechanics in two weeks time (luckily no major problems)

We drove through spice plantations that never seemed to end.  Beautiful mountain roads draped on each side by rows and rows of cardamom, black pepper, coffee, cinnamon and other fragrant plants and trees.

We passed through little towns and cities that never see westerners.  While suiting up to get back on Bala after stopping for a cup of chai and a samosa we would sometimes be surrounded by 30 pairs of curious eyes.

We visited 1000 year old Hindu temples with carved sexual scenes from the Kama Sutra and wondered how the Hindu culture today has come to be so conservative.

I loved the food up north, then discovered South India food and fell in love all over again.  Dosas, uttapam, parrota, coconut chutney, and “meals” served on banana leaves.


We bought fresh red snapper from a fish market in Goa and made Mexican style ceviche in the bathroom of our guesthouse.

In the state of Karnataka, West Coast of India, we spent several days in a hut with mud floors and no electricity on a beach that could only be reached by hiking through a jungle.


We spent more than a week driving through the Western Ghats, the second largest mountain range in India.  And we survived

We spent a few nights in a small mountain town where 4 miles (7k) away….just two weeks earlier, a man eating tiger that had killed 4 people was shot.

We visited the cashew capital of India, ate lots of cashews and bought some of the local liquor, made from…yep, cashew fruit.

We drank too much rum and suffered the next day.

We took a 41 hour train ride (With Bala as our baggage) from Goa to Delhi.


We visited a sacred temple of the Jain religion.  The Jains do believe in a strict code of not causing unnecessary harm to any animal.  They don’t use leather, are strict vegans, and they don’t even eat potatoes, carrots, or other roots because harvesting them it may harm insects that live in the earth.


We stumbled upon a cattle market in a small town where DEFINITELY no other westerns have stopped before.  We stole the spotlight from the cows for the 15 minutes or so that we walked around the market.   We got some strange looks from a lot of people, but also a few big smiles from guys like this

In Arambol, Goa we met a dear old friend of mine, Safira, who is a recurring character in my cast of travel partners (she was with me for two weeks in the days of Coco back in Brazil and I spent Halloween with her in Amsterdam couple years ago).

Sometimes in a single day we would pass through lush high mountain climate zones with COLD weather covered in greenery and tea plantations, then into dry and rocky mountains, then flat and hot acacia covered desert “à la” Africa, only to end up back in the mountains putting on our sweaters.


We celebrated Holi, the festival of colors.  Anyone who walks outside on that day will end up looking like they got pooped on by a rainbow.  We did.

We saw the second largest waterfall in India, Jog Falls, whose torrents, once attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year, have recently been stifled by the building of a big dam upriver L

We tried relentlessly to spot a GIANT flying squirrel (the image I had created in my mind of what this super-animal might look like was fantastical), native to the mountain area we were in, but we failed L

We did see crocodile though…big ones.


We walked 8 miles (15k) along some railroad tracks to reach some waterfall…to get back we took the advice of the station master in a tiny rural station and jumped onto a moving cargo train.  We ended up chatting with the brakeman at the rear of the train and then jumped off it when it reached the town where Bala was waiting for us.

We spent some days in Panjim the capital of Goa which, until just 60 years ago, was a Portuguese colony.  It was amazing how European it seemed in its architecture, food, and cultural differences.  We celebrated Carnival, drank beer in the streets, and ate beef in public.

What’s next?  Nepal for some weeks, a stopover in Varanasi, then return to Delhi where the journey West will begin.  Unfortunately we could not get access to Pakistan (in February a Spanish cyclist and his armed military escort of 12 people were ambushed by Taliban, 6 of his escort were killed…so the government clamped down on people crossing the country with private transport).  So unfortunately the only other way to do this (aside from paying $6000 in permits to go through Tibet) is to airfreight Bala to Kyrgyzstan and to begin from there.

PLEASE don’t forget about my fundraising mission.  If you like readings about this journey, and seeing the pictures, please consider donating to one of the charities I am supporting.  Here is a link to the fundraiser (Donate in a friend’s name and I’ll send them a postcard from some faraway place!) CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE OR TO DONATE

To see many more photos and read some more commentary from the last 6 weeks CLICK HERE.