Wednesday, September 27, 2006


We have our visas! Yes, this morning we got our Chinese visa. Then we came back to the Pakistan embassy with a letter that the Swiss consul wrote for us. The guy that refused us the visa on Friday was a bit annoyed because we he figures we bypassed him. Nevertheless he took our passports and went off. Half an hour later he came back a bit embarassed because it worked.. the ambassador/consul was okaying our visa. Thank you Swiss passport (and the Swiss consul of course), we are now clear for the Pamir Highway and the Karakoram Highway! We leave tomorrow, so no web update fot the next few days.

Oh, one last thing: Anders just discovered a new nail in his tyre.. now I think we definitely don't skew the statistics anymore!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Mountains and visas

Dushanbe, 15'050 km.

The next day is yucky, pretty cold and light rain. It's also my birthday so Anders wakes up and gets me a snickers bar and some nice chocolate cookies.. Pretty nice of him, though I'm still depressed by the weather conditions.The idea was to get across a first high pass and sleep over in a nice mountain lake resort, before crossing the last pass to Dushanbe. We decide to move anyway and see how it looks, because we'd like to be in Dushanbe soon to apply for our visas. So it's a pretty miserable ride through Khojand and Istaravshan. We stop at the bottom of the pass when we enter the clouds as we can't see 10m in front of us. It's not very safe to continue on this very bad road, in addition we would miss the fantastic scenary.

Back to Istaravshan, called Cyropol by Alexander the Great, where we feel the change from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan: the bazaar is very oriental, some women (a minority) wear a chador, the muezzin is chanting and some people greet us with a "Salaam" instead of the usual "Zdraztvouytye". We're on the silk road! Also the Tajik language sounds very different from the Kazakh/Kyrgyz, as it is in fact a Persian language, not Turkic. On the other hand, the signs are all in cyrillic, wheras in Kyrgyzstan most were also in roman alphabet.

The next morning is just as grey and cloudy (and depressing) as the day before, but we decide to check out the road anyway as there is not much else to do. Hurray, half an hour away the clouds break and the sun starts to shine! Quite a difference it makes, we can now enjoy the fantastic mountains and gorges and by the end of the afternoon we reach Dushanbe. We check in the cheapest hotel in that not-so-cheap but very nice city (yes, you guessed it, another run-down, soviet-style hotel).

In Tajikistan even more than Kyrgyzstan all the kids on the side of the road wave and shout at us, the truck drivers honk as we overtake them and the cars give us a thumb-up as they drive by us in the cities, that keeps us pretty busy waving back at them. As for the cops, they keep pulling us over, not to check our passport or ask for money, they're just curious and want to chat and ask where we come from, etc.. Some cop even insisted that we stop to drink a cup of tea, but it was getting late and we didn't want to ride at night. They're all very friendly and it's nice for a while, but when it's every 10km or so (police is everywhere is Tajikistan) we just look straight and ignore them. Fortunately, the Tajiks don't play with radar guns like Kygryzs.

In Dushambe we start with the Chinese embassy: closed on Thursday, we'll come back on Friday. On Friday we fill up the form but they say that can't do it for Monday, so we might as well come back on Moday and get our visa for Wednesday. Next we check out the Pakistan embassy, but it's not anymore at the address found in the Lonely Planet, so we ask a taxi driver to find out where it is and drive us there. While he waits outside we wait half an hour in the lounge, until some guy comes and explains us that they deliver visas only to Tajik nationals..! we should have gotten ours in Switzerland. We insist and explain him why we hadn't done so, and that the embassy in Almaty does issue visas to any foreigner. He would just say he would call Islamabad for instructions. We call back later and he confirms he wouldn't issue us a visa.
That's a big problem for us, as it is the last capital we cross before the Pakistan border. We try the whole afternoon to call the Pakistan embassy in Bern to see if they can help (wrong number), the embassy in Bishkek, where we could go back and get it (wrong number as well). Finally we ask Chris in Switzerland to make a few phone calls for us as it takes 1/2 hour in the TakijTelecom center to get a phone call, and most of the time it doesn't work.

Next idea is to ask for help from the Swiss embassy, maybe they can make them change their mind. Too late for today, we'll do that after the week-end. Instead of staying in Dushanbe, which is nice but a bit dull, we take the bikes and leave for Iskander Kul lake, back over the pass, and sleep over there. The weather is splendid and we enjoy the ride until a few kilometers from the lake Anders stops with a flat rear tyre. He repairs under the close scrutiny of the village kid, but it doesn't hold and 10 minutes later he stops again and take the inner tube out again. New patch in place we ride the last 10km or so to the lake, barely making it with a half-flat tyre..

Near the lake is a very nice resort with a dozen or so (quite beaten-up) huts. We search a while for the manager to check in, it turns out he had a bit too much vodka and was sleeping in his hut. 10$ for both of us is OK, but there is no hot water, not even light in the shower room. It's almost empty, only a dozen people around: a group of Russians who offer us some Vodka, a group of Italians from an NGO and a couple of Germans who drove there on their landmark old Landcruiser. We chat and share a campfire on the beach, cooking our own food as the power went out in the camp. The next morning Anders uses the river to find the second puncture in his inner tube, so now he can do a proper repair.

I check my tyres as well and pump the rear one a little as it seems a bit low.. without thinking about it, we leave. Just 10 km away, I have to believe it: I do have a puncture in that tyre! Pretty funny, actually after examining the inner tube it seems the nail had been there for a while and had eaten into it until it finally broken in. I just put a new inner tube and fix it back the hotel in Dushanbe. Pretty nice week-end.

On Monday the weather is still nice, 28 degrees or so (but chilly at night). We leave our passport at the Chinese embassy, to be picked up on Wednesday. Then we go to the Swiss consulate and manage to talk to the consul. He told us he would write a letter to the number 2 at the Pakistan embassy who he knows, and that may let us through to him and to our visa. Meanwhile we spend the night with the Italian and German guys and show our pictures at their house.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Crossing Kyrgyzstan

We've had some rain in Bishkek, which is fine as we don't ride. One night as we come back to our hotel we hear some heavy music coming from the nearby stadium; sure enough we head in this direction, and as soon as we approach the gates, a group of cops jump and propose us a ticket-free entry for 5$ each. We negociate at 2$ and enter the nearly-empty stadium, which is understandable after hearing the lousy tunes of the band, and the terrible quality of the sound reinforcement. We leave after half an hour and have dinner in a yurt where I play (and lose) a chess game against a half-drunk Kyrgyz.

We leave on a sunny morning, and of course the mood is up. We ride along the steep mountains range watching the nice snow that now caps those peaks.. knowing that our first pass is at 3500m. At the bottom of the pass we have a bet with Anders: he says the snow starts at 3301m, I say 3000m. We start our climb on a surprisingly excellent tarmac that would give the Gothard a run for its money. We were also looking forward to figuring how the engine would behave at that altitude, knowing that it was not breathing easily along lake Issyk-Kul at only 1600m. But we had cleaned up the air filter (boy, did it need it..) and also removed a piece of the air intake before the air box, put there to muffle the sound. That did the trick because we reached the pass with good power.
The top is actually at 3100m as there is now a tunnel that's not on my map. Which is OK for us because the snow was starting at 2800-2900m and at 3100m there were still some patches of snow thawing on the road. We stop in the cold air (but in the sun) as the tunnel is closed down; we find out 20 minutes later why, as a herd of horses comes out.. no reason they couldn't use the tunnel as well. We don't come down very low as we hit a high valley that we would follow on a very gentle slope to the next pass, 3100m as well. Some horses and sheeps are grazing through the snow, as the winter is not there yet.

The road to Osh then goes around a big lake, and is bordered by numerous people selling fish. We decide to set a camp soon as the sun goes down, so I stop to buy a trout-like fish to cook with tomato sauce and rice. The guy pulls it out of his freezer, which makes me more confident than one of those that the kids are waving in the sun all day long..It turns out to be very tasty.

Next day we have a long ride under a hot sun in the between the crop fields: women picking cotton and men harvesting the cereals. We have our first break in a Chaikhana, a tea house where people sit bare feeted on a raised platform to drink tea or eat lunch. The Fergana valley is actually shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It's probably one of the most absurd border in the world, inherited from some bizarre Soviet Union decision. The main road crosses over to Uzbekistan and back to Kyrgyzstan, which now makes it much more difficult to reach the southern part of the country without a multiple entry Uzbek and Kyrgyz visa (or risk a hefty fine in case you're caught). We gave up on the Uzbek visa so we're faced with a navigational challenge of sneaking around the border and between the Uzbek enclaves to reach Betken, the gateway to Tajikistan, on a road that doesn't exists on the maps.

The next day is much cooler, we lost 10-15 degrees overnight. Soon after leaving our camp that we shared with some horses, we run into a German NGO Landcruiser at a police check point, and as we discussed with the expat we find out he's heading in the same direction and facing the same problem (but with a Kyrgyz driver). He proposes to show us the way until the turn-off where we have to leave the main road. We almost lose him as Anders has to stop for yet another a bathroom break (you thought that traveling without women you would avoid these problems, but hey, everybody's got a feminine side to him, don't they Anders?).

We've been pretty lucky to have this guy showing us the way, because it is utterly impossible to find it.. it's a narrow, very bad gravel track that runs along an irrigation canal, next to the border. So close sometimes that we can see the Uzbek cars on the metalled road just 50 meters away. It's only 120 km but it takes us the good part of the afternoon. We ask for directions from time to time to be sure, until we're stopped by a custom officer who want to take our passport to his office a few km away. We're a bit reluctant, and try to explain that we don't want to go to Uzbekistan, which he answers is no problem. At least he would show us the way. He wants to climb on back of my bike as he has no vehicle, but I show him there's no room with all the baggage. So he flags down a passing car (driven by a drunkard) and we follow him to his office. He just writes down our names in his registry, but then asks for some money. With our best smile we firmly turn down the "offer", and we must have seem friendly enough because he gives up end even gives us some bread before showing us the way, an improbable gravel track in the hills.

Finally we reach Betken and from there the Tajik border, manned by heavily-armed militaries, a reminder that the country has freshly come out of civil war and in a sensitive situation near the Afghan border. The paperwork is promptly done, we pay 20$ for a dubious vehicle entrance fee (no receipt of course), but by that time it's getting cold and dark and we're exhausted, so we stop in Kanibadam, where we find quite possibly our worst soviet-style hotel (no running water at all in the hotel), but also nice people who accept our rubles (we had no Somani yet) and and let us park the bikes in the lobby.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Canyons and Beaches

Leaving Almaty we have an extra day to spend before we can cross the border, so we decide to go for Charyn Canyon, south-east of the country.

Pretty boring roads on very flat country, with people on the side of the road selling various things. Just like in Russia, they seem to all sell the same stuff at the same place. It's 20 booths selling grapes, then in the next village 20 other booths selling just honey, then maybe only red peppers and later watermelons. Weird.

We stop on our way in a small market and eat a shashlyk for lunch. Then we reach for Charyn Canyon, where many Kazakh go for picnic on that warm Sunday afternoon. We were supposed to pay an entrance fee but the guy at the gate just let us in, another case of discrimination in favor of those crazy bikers!

We ride around taking pictures from above and find the way into the canyon: a very steep and very rough trail with deep holes. No big deal coming down, just pretty bumpy, and a very scenery ride down between the cliffs until we reach a river and set up a very comfortable camp. I go back up with an empty bike at sunset to do some video up the trail, and it was a bit tricky but made my way without a hitch.

The next morning the weather was excellent, and we left for the Kyrgyz border. We just had to climb up the canyon, and what was OK with a light bike, was very different with a fully loaded one! After a first missed attempt and I try again with a bit more speed, but with the baggage hanging behind the from wheel doesn't hold ground and I tip it over. Unfortunately it falls down on my foot, and although the boot took the worst of it, my foot will end up pretty bad at the end of the day..

The bike also took its toll, with a broken strap, a broken clutch handle and a dented petrol tank. No big deal, I was carrying a spares and the petrol tank will do just fine like that. The good thing about the human body is that it fixes by itself with time; it's fine when I'm riding the bike, it's the walking that's painful, so it's OK.

After a very easy border crossing (10 min on each side, very friendly border guards), the landscape changes from the dry steppe of Kazakhstan to grassy, tree-bordered fields. The road is in worse shape than in Kazakhstan but mostly sealed. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!

Reaching Karakol, we decide to spend a day here so that I can heal my foot. I just sit in the hotel reading a book while Anders organizes the trip into China with Ali, it seems the paperwork can be done in time, so that's a good thing.

The next day we leave for Bishkek, following the northern shore of Issyk-Kul lake. We stop on the way in one of the many beach resorts, and it turns out to be one of the most expensive one.. We bargain our entry at the gate (first they asked 10$ just to let us in..) and bask in the sun on the very nice sand beach. The water is clear and warm, even at 1600m elevation. We leave barely resisting the temptation to eat lunch at the club house, but 8$ is a bit too much. We end up buying a piece of bread on the street and eat it with cheese and chocolate insted.

Time to leave for Bishkek, and after a getting my first speeding ticket, thanks to the radar-gun maniac in a downhill turn (76 km/h instead of 60, $2.50 "straf"), we land in Bishkek in one of our usual soviet-style hotel with stinky toilet and almost-functioning shower.. Next step is to get our Tajik visa. After a couple phone calls I had the LOI sent to us directly by e-mail, we print it and jump in a cab for the embassy; the next day we have our visa!

It's been a bit cold and rainy here, and we can see the snow has been falling on the mountains surrounding Bishkek.. Not a pretty sight when we think about the 3500-m pass that separates the north from the south of the country! Well, we'll just go and see how it looks. Or another possibility would be to detour to Naryn to meet with some Landy friends of Anders who we just missed in Karakol.

After a bit of planning, we found out we should be able to leave Dushambe for the Pamir Highway at then end of the month (!) and have enough time to be at our rendez-vous on October 10th at the border with China. Weather and embassy paperwork permitting, of course.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Maintenance and wait..

Already 5 days in Almaty.. and 200km riding in the city traffic! We thought we would spend some time for the visas, and we got one for Kyrgyzstan, even paid a fortune for express, double-entry. But after that we suffered a few setbacks in this department:
- the LOI for Tajikistan was expired, we need a new one and Great Game Travel is really slow on that, so I told them to prepare it for Bishkek and we'll hit the embassy there
- the Pakistan embassy wouldn't issue us a visa if we don't have a visa for the previous country; we can't have our Chinese visa now without a LOI, so no Pakistan visa either
- we could get a visa for Uzbekistan (even with an expired LOI), but we also decided to skip it because we're running out of time (and to save a few bucks). It's really too bad because this country has so many historical wonders to visit in Smarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. I do miss the historical/cultural part in our trip.

Since then we've been busy trying to get spare parts for our bikes, new chains. Finally we had a good deal through Serguey at Silk Off Road, the local motorbike club. The guys there are just great people, very niceand helpful. We already have had a few beers with them, and they explained us how the bikers of all countries belong to the same family and that they were happy to see us visiting Almaty. 2 chains for 320$, that's about half-price from what we've been quoted..

We also need a new sprocket; we had 2 spares, but Anders changed his in Mongolia because the one he had was wearing out quickly. Unfortunately, as he didn't change the chain the new sprocket wore out again in 3000 km. So as it is impossible to find one over here, we had to ask for a mechanic to make a new one, and as we had a spare (new) we could give him a model to copy. It was supposed to take 2 days (a bit surprising), but eventually we got it after 4 days. Turns out the mechanic went to a factory making torpedoes for submarines.. Of course Kazakhstan doesn't have much of submarine fleet being landlocked, but the Soviet Union used to test their torpedoes in nearby lake Issyk-Kul in Kygrysztan, away from American ears and spy submarines. So we'll see if the "torpedo sprocket" lasts as well (or better) than the orginal.

Meanwhile we did the usual maintenance: oil and filter change. valve clearance, etc.. We also had to do some servicing of the clothing: we found a snowboard/motorbike gear shop, and got some replacement gloves (after 13'000 km not much was left of it, and we anticipate some cold weather in the mountains), a replacement rain pant for mine that was falling apart, and rain over-boots (for Anders who was starting to have wet feet under the rain).

On the trip planning, Anders received some not-so-encouraging news from Caravan Cafe (Anders got a new quote from his contact that's no so much better..). It will be difficult for them to organize everything for the 10th of October, the date our visa expires. They could do it for the 20th of October, but that's pretty late in the season: at 4700m on Khunjerab pass there's a 50-50 chance of it being to icy for riding, and therefore mandating a truck to haul the bikes over the pass. The other contact says she can do it in 15 days.. ? that's a bit complicated, with too many contradicting stories from multiple sides.

It just feels wrong to spend 2000$ to dash through a (tiny) part of a country without seeing much of it, merely giving away our money to the communist goverment. And still not being sure to be able to ride the pass if the weather is bad. I'm still in favour of the Afghanistan solution, much simpler and straightforward: go straight south off the pamir highway in Tajikistan to Kabul (this part of the country is fairly safe). That would save 2-3 weeks to the schedule (and mucho $) and give us some time to organize the transfer to Pakistan across Khyber Pass. But the security factor cannot be put aside, and of course I won't push for going a trouble area (both on the Afghan and on the Pakistan side; indeed the Pakistanis seems to refuse the crossing to foreigners, even with an armed escort). So we'll try the Chinese way and enjoy the Sunday market in Kashgar and the ride down KKH!

Personally, I also had a bit of maintenance on my hair and beard, so now I look less like a Tajik moudjahdin back from a party with Ben Laden..

So finally we can leave Almaty, city of easy money and sharp contrasts! Serguey proposed us a ride in the mountains on Sunday, but after Saturday night/full moon party at the biker's club, he's not up to anything! So we leave for Charyn Canyon and will cross to Kyrgyzstan on Monday.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Almaty: embassies and petro dollars

12'137 km

After a long detour through Russia, under rain and bitter coldness (7 degrees in Barnaul), we crossed Kazakhstan north to south, 1200 km of mostly good but boring roads. And west to east is even longer, this country is huge (and amazingly empty, just flat steppe). The closer you get to Almaty, the better the roads (and the weather).

Reaching Almaty itself is a shock, instead of the big, dark, dull soviet city I was expecting (as in Russia), we hit a very modern and plush city, on a par with most European capitals. The occasional run-down Lada which accompanied us throughout Russia and the northern country is now as bizarre as if we were in Geneva or Milano. It's solid Mercedes, Audi and BMW, with brand new SUVs all over the place. Amazing. The petro dollars are flowing like it was an Arabic country, and it seems they're looking for ways to spend all this unexpected money. Also quite a change from Semey in the North, where everything is old and dusty, factories are abandoned.. but then it's also near the place where the Russians were testing their nukes (460 detonated, many in open air..), so that's not too sexy.

Now our plan is to stock up on visas for the next leg to India, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan (1 down, 3 up..) and find out how we'll cross these huge mountains to Pakistan and India. There are basically 3 options:

- Tajikistan - Afghanistan - Pakistan. The most straightforward, straight south, and not so dangerous in Afghanistan. But then the rumors are that Khyber pass is closed to foreigners (crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan). So that would rule it out.

- Kyrgyzstan - China - Pakistan. This is the trickiest in term of red tape because of China, but then it is possible. We just have different conflicting stories about whether we need a guide to ride in China, how much it costs, etc..

- Uzbekistan - Turkmenistan - Iran - Pakistan. Quite a long way around Afghanistan, and now Turkmenistan is closing down their border during October, so that's another no-go.

We met 2 Englishmen on BMW 1200GS who already spent 4 weeks here, waiting for new tyres to come in. They're also trying to figure out a way into India, so we met and discussed the options. They want to enter China mid- to end of October but that sounds pretty late to me to cross a 4600m-high pass! for this reason, they also plan a backup plan with a truck to haul the bikes all the way to the Pakistan border, on top of Khunjerab pass. But then of course you'd have to hitch a Pakistan truck down the KKH..

Then Anders wants to challenge his Chinese contact, who already made us a very expensive proposition that we had to turn down. And there is also this Swiss couple who hired yet another Chinese agent to make it through China. So now we have to sort this out and make a plan.

While we're waiting for our visas we don't even go shopping or bask in the sun on a terrasse, we have some mechanics to do: we need to find new chains for our bikes, they wore out really quickly in the last 2000km, so it probably won't make it to India. We already have had 2 propositions, one for 270$ (not sure what kind) and another at 330$ for a brand new nice chain. We're still looking for something cheaper..