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Silk Road Adventure 2011

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Chapter 03 Dispatch from Len Adams

We had a blast in Baku. Perfect weather and a tour of the city. Situated on the Caspian Sea many of the sights overlook stunning scenery. There is a real mix of new modern buildings a growing modern city and the old city with narrow winding streets. Even the old city had many areas under construction to restore buildings and streets. The state museum of carpets allowed us to see how they are made and the different regions and types. Lunch was at a modern shopping center. If you closed your eyes you were in any large city with similar stores to home, even an Apple store. In Baku we also were able to meet a group of local motorcycle riders. There are only one or two shops in the country and large motorcycles are certainly rare. This club is trying to build interest, provide some training to get things going. They followed us to our hotel and were interested to see our bikes as well as get pictures.


The ferry to Turkmenistan is an adventure in every respect. The departure time is certainly a mystery as it is primarily a rail transport ship that takes a few passengers. We were on call to leave for the ferry from 3am. However the call did not come and we had breakfast and checked out early in the morning. We rode the bikes down to the docks and covered them again on call for departure. However in Baku hurry up and wait has its advantages. We were able to enjoy the city again, have a beverage in the fountain square as well as tour the old city. I found it very interesting talking to Inga and Kristina about the local customs for courtship and marriage. Most marriages are arranged and there is certainly a process. Of course this is different and surprising seeing how similar Baku is to any large city. It must be working as everyone we met seemed extra friendly and happy.


We were called to the ferry to load in the late afternoon. It was bitter sweet as we looked forward to crossing the Caspian Sea and entering the heart of Asia. The sad part was saying goodbye to Inga, Kristina who we all became good friends with in a short period of time. On the ferry we loaded the bikes last beside the rail cars and headed up to our luxury suites:) After loading we had the misguided impression that the ferry would actually depart. While we were enjoying our last cocktail we were finally underway. Many of the others have described the ferry from hell so I will leave the details to them. It was interesting to see life onboard a merchant ship, but it is not the life for us. We were very pleased to see the other side arriving in the late afternoon.


Customs in Turkmenistan was very smooth. Our guides had everything and we did much better than previous tours arriving at the hotel in time for dinner. It was very windy and we had a few attempts at trying to keep our bike covers from blowing away. Turkmenbashi is a small port city but our hotel was nice and we were anxious to be on our way the next morning. Turkmenistan is very strict with many checkpoints along the very rough roads. The ride was through the desert and quite warm. We traveled in convoy for the early part of the day to get through the checkpoints and we always had a chase vehicle somewhere in front with one always in the rear. After a long day of teeth rattling we arrived in Ashkhabad. The city is stunning to look at as many of the buildings and palaces are made with white marble. Construction is everywhere with dozens of high rise buildings with cranes on top of each. One really odd thing is that the city appears to have very few people, quite at odds with the huge amount of flowered gardens, beautiful structures, statues etc.


The schedule planned two days for sightseeing to allow a flex day in case the ferry did not arrive on time. The first day we spent visiting the Ashkhabad Sunday Market. Previously it had been in more rustic setting, but now it is a modern set of buildings set around a square with vendors booths in 6 or 7 very large buildings. My goal was to find the camel market and get some pictures. Directed to the far corner there were no camels, but I was able to get pictures of the fabric vendors that my wife Debbie would enjoy as she is a quilter. Walking to each corner took the hour we had so it was back to the bus only to learn the camels were 100 yards away. Jeff and the boys got some great shots and I will see many more as they are every few miles along the road. From the market it was back on the bus to a horse farm where we visited the stable and saw many of the prized horses of Turkmenistan. Having been a rider I enjoyed seeing how revered they are even with their own cemeteries.


For me the highlight of Ashkhabad was the dinner and fashion show. We were greeted with a receiving line of entertainers dressed in traditional dress. We then sat down to for a folklore concert and fashion show. The show had traditional costumes and dance and even a wedding ceremony where John was chosen from our group to be the groom and show us how it is done. The wedding ended with all of us dancing for the bride and groom. Glad these guys can ride bikes because there are not any dancers in our group:) After the wedding we were treated to a fashion show of dresses made of silk inspired by traditional design and embroidery. To my surprise our guide Jahan Yagmurova was the designer of the dresses. I posted some pictures for my wife Debbie and Daughter Samantha to see. You can view the designs by clicking here. Within seconds Samantha sent her measurements and sizes saying how lovely the dresses were. So armed with the details I was able to get two outfits and a lovely silk embroidered shawl for Debbie. Dinner was in a Yurt (tent) with an elegant table and many courses.


The next day was bike maintenance day where we all met at 9am and spent the day setting our suspensions, fixing tires and tightening loose bolts as these roads really shake the bikes. After the day of bike maintenance we were off to the British Pub in town and the group enjoyed a fun night out on our own before heading off towards Uzbekistan.






Chapter 03 Dispatch from Randy McClanahan

Monday, May 16.


Goodby Georgia, hello Ajerbaijan!  It was a perfect riding day.  Crystal blue sky and relatively cool.  As we descended in elevation, we exited a quaint Georgian village and received a magnificent, full frontal view of the Caucasus mountains.  This is a range that essentially runs through Eurasia between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.  It rises dramatically from near sea level to snow capped peaks.  Reminded me a bit of the Grand Tetons in the U,S.

At the border crossing we met Mark Elliott, an English travel writer best known for books on Azerbaijan.  He was coming into the country to update his Azerbaijan travel guide.  He has also written extensively for Lonely Planet.  We had a nice chat and exchanged contact information.


Azerbaijan is a very beautiful country.  The people are pretty and friendly.  Its roads are lined with carefully manicured trees, the bases of which are painted white.  There is little, if any, litter and each township proudly displays sculptures and other art at the entrances and exits.  Unlike Georgia, the children wave.  The gasoline is cheap.  We paid $10 per gallon in Turkey.  Here I filled my tank for that amount!


It is getting hotter.  It has consistently been in the 50's and 60's for the past two weeks.  Today it reached 80.

We spend our first night in Sheki, Azerbaijan.  Our hotel is luxurious.  There are many Mercedes automobiles.  A festival is going on outside my window.  I like this place very much!


Tuesday, May 17


The ride out of Sheki was fabulous.  Another beautiful day, through the foothills of the Caucasus mountains.  High passes with beautiful vistas.  As we descended to the Caspian Sea, the wind picked up and the land abruptly tuned barren and arid.

Baku is like an Asian Houston -- a modern mega metropolis built with oil money.  It has about 4 million people and snarled traffic jams.  Modern skyscrapers are everywhere, and new construction is everywhere.  The Opera is designed after the one in Monte Carlo.

The people in the busses have that glazed look that we see in big cities in America.  The cars are generally expensive and their drivers aggressive.


Motorcycles are not common.  Last night we were joined by a biker gang at an elegant underground restaurant/nightclub.  Although the language was not common, there was a motorcycle-enthusiast congeniality nevertheless.


Our guide informed me that although over 90 percent of the people are Islamic, they do not practice their religion.  There are few (like four) mosques in town.  Religious activity was not encouraged during the USSR years, and with the affluence, one would not expect a return to traditional values by the young people, and especially the women!  They wear high heels and tight clothing.  Head covering is rare.  They do not display cleavage, but otherwise appear typically western.  They enjoy singing and dancing.  There is no evidence of female repression, and the schools appear to teach both genders fully.  I now understand the concept of Eurasia much better than before.


May 18 -- Sightseeing in Baku


Our rest days are sometimes not so restful!  We began our tour at the top of the city, and meandered down through old Baku.  This dates back to medieval times, and is exceptionally well preserved.  A high, rock wall protects a maze of narrow streets. (Photo.)  You can easily imagine a 12th century invading force being stopped at the walls.  I particularly enjoyed the throne room, harem room and courtroom, where the accused was held BELOW the Court and interrogated through a metal grating.


The parks and landscaping surrounding the fortress are breathtaking.  It is a center for young love and community activity.  We then toured the carpet museum.  This part of the world is, of course, Mecca for oriental rugs.


We were also emotionally moved by a "wall" dedicated to local protestators who were massacred by Russian troups on January 20, 1990.  There are photos of the deceased etched into granite, along with their names and ages.  They look modern and young.  There were some married couples killed.  Hundreds more were injured.


We travelled by bus about 1 hour, through the old oilfields, which are shoulder to shoulder with stripper wells, many of which are still pumping oil, which spills into large pools on the ground.  In America we would make it a Superfund site.  Here, it is not even noticed.  We then saw a "mountain of fire!" It is a somewhat exaggerated river bed where methane gas escapes uncaptured from the ground and is allowed to burn.  It has been doing so since ancient times.  Baku is truly a city for the ages.


May 19 -- Time to leave Eurasia


Hurry up and wait!  We wait until 4:00 p.m. to receive the call to go to the ship.  Our guidebook said "cabins on the ferry are rustic!" What an understatement!  Folks, this ain't no luxury liner!  It is a ferry that carries rail cars and trucks.  There are some cabins, but there is virtually no maintenance.  Not a place for our loved ones.  We were, however, able to "ease the pain" with plenty of vodka, which we had purchased at a supermarket in anticipation of our voyage from hell!  We began with a romantic picnic on the inoperable lifeboat (see photo below), and unfortunately, things went downhill from there.  I am sworn to secrecy, however, on the mutual agreement that "what happens on the boat from hell stays on the boat from hell."


24 hours later, we were sober and across the Caspian Sea.  Welcome to Turkmenistan and the real Asia!


May 21


If Wikipedia is correct in describing Turkmenistan as a police state, it is a nice one!  The President's picture is everywhere, but the people seen to love and take great pride in him.  Our required "escort" quickly scatters out, and we are largely on our own as we drive through the Kara-kum Desert, the third largest desert in the world!  Gas now costs us $.80 per gallon!  It was almost 100 degrees.  For some reason, this is the land of BMW automobiles.  They are everywhere.  We arrive at the Capital, Ashkhabad, after a hard day of riding a rutted, potholed, barely paved highway.  Once again, however, the city is amazing.


An earthquake destroyed the place a few decades ago, and it is flush with oil and gas, so new construction is everywhere.  It is like an Asian Abu Dhabi, or Oz's Emerald City.  Shiny, white marbled skyscrapers are everywhere.  On the other hand, at the museum today I saw antiquities dating back to 12,000 B.C.


The women no longer dress as westerners.  Ankle length, silk dresses are the norm, even by school girls.  The people, and their clothing, are stunning.


We attended the Sunday market.  Disappointingly, it has become modernized! While thousands of people still come from far and wide, and camels are still traded, the sand has become concrete, the tents have become pavilions, and the oxcarts have become Japanese cars.  It reminded me of the world's largest factory outlet mall.  I fear that someday soon it will have a Walmart and GAP!


We visited a horse farm, and saw Akhalteke horses that were beautiful.  Smaller than what I see in America, they sell for about $60,000 each, but unless your name is Putin, you will not be able to get one out of the country.  We are only a few miles from Iran!  In the photo, I am pointing at the border.  It is a wall on top of the mountain.  GPS, please don't fail me now!


I'm ready to venture deeper into the real Asia.  We have seen the commercial result of the trading of Marco Polo.  We should soon start learning about the destruction of Ghengis Kahn!








Chapter 03 Dispatch from John Oates

We loaded the bikes at the port in Baku for the ferry to Turkmenbashy, Turkmenistan. Sometime around 4 or 5 pm we were all loaded and aboard. Since it is a freight ferry, it wasn't exactly luxurious but had some of the basics like a dive of a restaurant, bunk beds (no sheets), and a toilet (no seat). All we needed was the captain and we would be on our way. Up to the top deck for some dinner and drinks as the wait continued. Around 10 pm we heard the captain was on his way, around midnight he was leaving his girlfriend's place and would be there any minute- at least he would be in a good mood when he arrived. 2AM the boat finally left. The next morning we had some breakfast wrote our journals etc. We arrived in port around 4pm in Turkmenistan and waited for our health inspection before we could leave the boat. Around 6 pm we were finally on land with the bikes and waited patiently as our guides helped us through the entry requirements and associated bribes.


Turkmenistan is far different than the other countries we had been through- very much a police state- we felt constantly monitored. Ironically, given all of the police two people had stuff stolen from their rooms, and the police saw and knew nothing. The door jambs of all the rooms looked like they had been pried open repeatedly over the years- very shady- especially for a 5 star hotel. We went out for a show and some dinner. The show had a fashion component, dancing and a traditional wedding. Anyone who knows me, understands how much I love a good wedding, so of course I participated as the groom. As much as cultures differ, somethings just seemed oddly familiar. The first part of the ceremony, I (the groom) hold money in my hand. It is the bride's responsibility (along with her bridesmaids) to wrestle the money away from me, after a moment or two I open my hand so she can have it. Then the roles are reversed, and she holds the coin and I am to get it from her, soon as I tried I got yelled at- I am to beg for her to give me the money!


The ride through the deserts of Turkmenistan was cool. I saw a bunch of camels along and on the road. There roads were rough enough to keep things interesting and distract me from the heat. I got stopped by the police for illegal passing- totally bogus. The officer wanted to see my documents and I played dumb as I could (not too much of a stretch). Officer- Documents- Me: I go to China. Officer: problem- Me - No problem I go to china- Officer- documents and then he pulls out his drivers license which has all his info and pictures of different vehicle types across the bottom- Me- acting all excited and pointing to the image of the motorbike- Yes I have motobike!- Officer- $80- Me- Yes, I have motobike!- Officer (getting mad now) -u problem, $80, Me - motobike to china!- Thankfully Helge arrives during our silly exchange, and we decide to just pack up and drive away and see what happens- nothing did.


In Ashkhabad, we went to the famous market, which had been modernized and lost all of it's historic charm, but the animal market was still there and I did get a few good pics. All in all, I am glad I got to see Ashkhabad and Turkmenistan, very movie like but sadly it is real. The leadership of the country continues to isolate it's people from the rest of the world and mandates a worship like reverence for the president. As an example, so much money was spent on statues and memorials for their president that the country had to cut the nation's pensions to cover the debts. This is not a place that I would rush back to, just too hard to relax with the curfews etc. Looking forward to the next stop on the silk road.







Chapter 03 Dispatch from Pawel Chrobok

If you would like to follow along with Pawel's journey please visit his personal weblog by clicking here.



Chapter 03 Dispatch from Nick Gudewill

Day #12- Wed, 18th
Up early for breakfast on 4 hours sleep. I don't really know much more about Azerbaijan beyond what I will learn today in Baku because all of what was seen of the countryside last night was basically black and in the middle of the night.

Gerban our wonderful and exuberant local guide was an archeologist and museum curator by profession but eloped to tour guide work because the money was better to feed his family. He and his van driver met me at the border at 9pm and by 10pm we had the bike loaded and tied down for the 500km very bumpy trip to Baku. My loose panniers at the back bounced around like a Kobe Bryant basketball. Gerban loves to talk and we discussed all manner of things for several hours before he went forward to sing with the driver to keep him awake. They sang (nicely!) all the way to Baku while everything bounced and jolted like crazy including me! Needless to say I was grateful to arrive and get a few short hours of sleep.

The numbers on Azerbaijan are about twice Georgia's in every respect with a population of 8.5 million, gdp per cap of $8800 (mostly a million b/d of oil exports to Turkey and a gpd of $46 billion), and 87000 sq. km. in size. It is a younger country with average age of 28 years versus Georgia at 38 years (Canada about the same).

About half the population lives in Baku which is a world class, cosmopolitan city if I ever saw one- exquisite really and lovely blue, red and green national flags with the crescent moon everywhere so lots of pride and national identity.

Azerbaijan was heavily Russian influenced of course and roughly mirrors the Georgian situation mentioned previously with independence being achieved in 1991 etc. etc. The main difference is the heavy Persian influence from Iran to the south (about 80 million)- they are 70% Shia and 30% Sunni but the don't sweat the small stuff like other country's. Armenians are also influential but everyone seems to get along fairly well. The country is very secular in nature and there is little evidence of overt Muslim religious influence as most are dressed in western type clothing especially the women.

The Shia/Sunni difference goes back to when Mohammed died back in the 6th century sometime. There was a big difference of opinion on succession and who the rightful caliphate(s) were to take over and what their policies were and how they were to be interpreted etc. Sounds familiar re-Christianities evolution too, what an unfortunate waste of human endeavour!

Baku is right on the Caspian Sea which interestingly fluctuates plus/minus 3 metres due to Tectonic shifting (1927-77 went down 3; 1977-2009 went up 3; also one quarter the salt content of a normal sea. While it is the biggest inland sea in the world (bigger than the great lakes) it also has a low valley lock connection system via Volograd to the Black Sea which looks to be a long way away. You have probably heard enough about this sea by now but it averages 184 metres deep by 1200km long by 320km wide and is full of oil as evidenced by the oil rigs sprinkled around.

Azerbaijan is a quasi democratic republic with its president being rotated every 2 terms of 5 years each. It looks to be all pretty controlled with mostly a one party rule for now.

There is no wood here. The whole town is built from limestone and sandstone quarries and the architecture from 19th century onwards (and a lot preserved from before) is stunning, amazing and lots of history to digest for those interested. It is kind of the opposite to Tblisi in terms of its cleanliness, attention to detail and general prosperous nature. Yes oil has been a big part of this but at least they haven't screwed it up.

A highlight of our tour of the city was a visit to the carpet museum. Most would say, what a yawn, but not so! It was unbelievable- up to 1000 year old beautiful carpets, bags and the like to view and learn about; pile vs thread, silk vs wool and combinations of. A good wool carpet has a thread count of 60 knots per square cm while a silk carpet can be up to 120. The sheer work involved is amazing and young women seeking to build a dowry for marriage were often measured by how well and quickly they could sew. An 8 hour day over 30 days could produce 1.5 sq. metres of high wool density carpet. I now appreciate the carpets at home that much more!
Baku has a mediterranean climate with mild winters and hottish summers- May and September are the best months to visit.
That is about it for Baku and no other drama to report thank goodness!


Day #13/14- Thur,19th and Fri, 20th
Thursday was a ferry preparation day. Basically hurry up and wait. We left the hotel at 10am in an armada of motorcycle entourage. In the aggressive traffic we hung close in formation and zigged and zagged through town to the terminal.

This is mainly a freight operation. At about 7pm we boarded along with about 100-150 rail cars. It was a rusty old thing about 50 years old on the outside and even worse on the inside. What a voyage! The good news is that it was calm. It is the smelliest, dirties, rustiest piece of floating carnage I have ever sailed on!

We got upstairs shortly after boarding and proceeded to wait until 2am for departure. The one consoling factor is that we had box lunches and some alcohol to console ourselves and a few were up to 2-3 am nattering with the locals in loud voices with no one being understood!

It turned out to be a 14 hour journey to Turmenbashi as advertised. After another lengthly border experience and lots of paperwork we received our eventual freedom from this tin pot that needs to be moth balled!

So it is friday and we are now at the Soviet era Turkmenbashi Hotel in guess what, Turkmenbashi! He was (now dead) the autocratic dictator of this police state country where small petty rules are in place to make life difficult- like no smoking in public places anywhere and the penalties are too numerous to mention.

We had a good dinner and some Efes beer from Turkey but the place is empty and smells of those old 5 year plans. Tomorrow we are up early for a 500 km day (with escort!) on roads under construction and it will be hot (at the moment we are 42 feet below sea level).


Day #15-Sat, 21st
This was a 500km get from point A to point B day over the third biggest desert in the world (after the Sahara and the Gobi). Basically all sand and a few mangy camels interspersed with dodgy looking villages and very few gas stations. The heavily subsidized fuel here as in Azerbijan is about a tenth of Turkey or Georgia at about 25 cents per litre!

We arrived in the capital Ashkhabad in the later afternoon after a very bumpy ride. Len who has the same BMW model with the electronic suspension system helped me alter the bike to a sport ride and a heavier suspension alternative and it made all the difference in the world comfort wise. You keep an eager eye out for potholes and swales in the road but you sure can't miss all of them and there was a few good sized jarring knocks along the way.

I was grateful for my I-pod and enjoyed some classic rock and roll all the way to our destination. Usually I want to be in total focus to surroundings and conditions but in this case with the relatively little traffic and straight roads an exception was made.


Day #15/16- Sun, 21st, Mon 22nd
Ashkhabad is a very sanitized city of 650,000 in a country of about 5 million with a gdp per cap of $6700 all based on oil. In 1948 the old city was destroyed in an earthquake such that there was nothing left. The new city is a testament to planned living in a very state controlled country. It is full of huge white marble buildings of every shape size and description and is devoid of much charm. There are few people on the streets and little traffic to be seen.

Sunday we took a bus tour around town and headed for the Tolkuchka Oriental Bazaar which is in the book '1000 Places To See before You Die'. This used to be a famous old crowded and vibrant market and has been replaced by this 50-100 acre very modern, very planned, newly constructed series of buildings that holds all the merchandise of a modern department store. The hour we spent there was fine.

The next stop was to see a horse paddock which houses the world famous Akhalteke horse breed which are noted for jumping and racing. We saw some lovely horses being excercised

I bowed out of dinner Sunday evening to relax and collect my thoughts and just enjoy a bit of personal downtime. Monday is a catch up day too because Helge wanted to make sure that we had some flex in the program in case there were some border issues crossing in to Turkmenistan. We did some work on the bikes and some of us got them washed.

Tomorrow we make our way further across the desert to Mary and following that into our next country of exploration, Uzebekistan.




Helge's Photo Gallery


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