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Silk Road Adventure 2011

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Chapter 04 Dispatch from Len Adams

On the evening of our bike maintenance day we decided to go for an ride around Ashgabat to take pictures of the spectacular buildings and monuments.  Most of us gathered our photography gear and was prepared to stop and work through the myriad of settings and composition necessary to get that picture to remember.  Little did we know that the required skills for an evening photo ride with Helge is that you take all pictures while moving.  A key skill is to be able to stand on your pegs take your hands off your bars in order to manually focus your Leica.  Needless to say the rest of us had to settle for point and shoot snaps.  The ride was nice however as we rode close to the Iranian border then turned around back to town.


Ashgabat to Mary was a loose convoy arriving at a Soviet era building converted to a Hotel.  Although isolated we had huge rooms and finished the day with happy hour and paperwork getting ready for the border crossing into Uzbekistan.  The border crossing was well organized.  We were out of Turkmenistan in under 30 minutes.  We loaded all the gear from the chase vehicle onto our bikes and headed to the Uzbekistan side.  The border guards delayed their lunch so we would not be delayed and that was our first indication of the terrific country we were entering.  As soon as we started up to Bukhara we were immediately greeted with waves from everyone we met along the road.


Bukhara is stunning.  We had a short walk past the plaza in the heart of the old town complete with reflection pool, courtyard surrounded with flowers and cafes.  The hotel was a B&B with really nice inner courtyards.  At all three Uzbekistan destinations of Bukhara, Samarqand and Tashkent our schedule allowed for a sightseeing day in each so it was good to catch up on rest, see the sights and enjoy a  leisurely  pace.  After each off day everyone was ready to ride again.  In Bukhara and Samarqand I made a point to get up very early to get the first light and take pictures.  Those that get up early are rewarded with stunning light in spectacular scenery.  In Samarqand I awoke early and was taking pictures.  I wondered in front of the mosque snapping away when a policeman came up and asked where I was from and if I would like to climb the minaret.  Of course I said yes and half way up he asked for the police special of $10.  I only had the local currency and he promptly peeled of all but the equivalent of 50 cents.  However my adventure ended with a picture out a small keyhole at the top after climbing a very steep spiral staircase.


The next day Helge asked if I was going to go again to take pictures and I jumped at the chance.  Helge said great see you at 0430 as sunrise is very early.  Unfortunately it was overcast and the light was not the best but I did pick up some good tips and then we were back to pack the bikes and off to Tashkent.  We arrived in Tashkent last evening and it is a modern city with a luxury hotel.  Most of us rushed to the bar to enjoy a good old-fashioned  hamburger and cold beer.  We topped off the night with an iced cream and coffee.


Tomorrow it is off to Kyrgyzstan via Kazakhstan.  Unfortunately we cannot use the previous border crossing so it will add another 160km to an already long day and two border crossings.  So it will be up early and clutch out a 0600 heading towards Bizkek





Chapter 04 Dispatch from Randy McClanahan

May 24


Closing thoughts on  Turkmenistan:  Very disappointing.  I am happy to be out.


Perhaps it has to do with my having several hundred dollars stolen from my room.  Another of our group had an iPhone stolen from his room.  Our police investigator from Canada said that he found signs that the rooms had been broken into several times before.


Or perhaps it was me feeling that the place is designed to make a great first impression, but then did not follow through.  There appeared to be no activity outside the beautiful marble high rise apartments, as though no one really lived in them.  In Texas they would say "all hat, no cattle."


There were countless bureaucratic hassles.  There were no "working" ATM's.  They looked bright and shiny, but had no money in them.  Credit cards were not accepted, but they loved U.S. Dollars everywhere.  They would not even exchange dollars for local currency at the hotel.   The hotel staffs were not friendly.  Indeed, the people did not seem friendly.  There was an 11:00 curfew.   At many places photos were not allowed.  We were required to stick to a filed route and have an "escort" through the country.  As we rode our bikes around town, the police/military radioed our positions, so that our whereabouts were always monitored.  Perhaps I will have a better impression if I ever visit again.


I did meet three very nice men from Iran.  We agreed that we could be friends even if our governments could not.  They gave us their contact information and invited us to stay with them if we ever visit their country.  We exchanged hugs and photographs.  See below.

The ride today day was much better.  Much less traffic and better roads.  We left the hotel at 7:00 a.m. and were able to ride at high speed to get to the border before the 106 degree heat set in.  Fighting bad roads, slow traffic and heat on an un-air-conditioned motorcycle can be literally exhausting!  As  I contemplated the desert I imagined the difficulty foot travelers (think Marco Polo) had making this journey.


Enter Uzbekistan.  We are now in Bukhara.  The country appears poorer, but the people friendlier.  Children are going crazy with smiles and waves as we pass! We found a lovely wine tasting room in old Bukhara before dinner, and had a lovely time.  Everyone we have seen so far appears jovial!  All I know is that right now I'm glad to be out of Turkmenistan and in Uzbekistan.


May 25 -- Bukhara


This place is awesome.  It may have been here since as early as 3000 BCE.  It is a major location on the Silk Road and has been personally visited by the likes of Alexander the Great and Ghengis Kahn.


The currency has been slightly devalued.  The conversion rate is about 1700 Som to $1.00.  So, for $50, you get a stack of $1000 bills an inch thick.  You feel quite rich until you learn that three postcards will cost 8000!  Still, you can leave a tip of "three grand" here and feel like real high roller!  Of course, that is only U.S. $1.75!


When visiting any major Islamic city, you quickly learn about the "four m's --" mosques, minarets (the towers that are used to call to prayer), medrazzas (Islamic schools) and mosoleums.   Everything in the city was razed by Ghengis except the very tall minaret next to the main mosque.  He kept his horses in the mosque.  When he looked up one day to see the top of the high minaret, his helmet fell off.  His officers saw him bow down to pick it up, and decided not to destroy the structure to which the great Kahn had bowed down.  It is quite inspiring to know that you are standing exactly where the likes of Alexander, Ghengis, Marco and Omar (Khayyam) have stood!


The food here suits my tastes much better than in Turkmenistan.  At lunch a crown from my front tooth broke loose, and I had the pleasure of visiting a Ubekistan Dentist.  We spoke different languages, but with the able assistance of a cab driver, managed to get the messages translated.   For example, when the driver said (at 3:00) "lunch -- 5:00," I thought he meant that he would stay until 5:00, when he would leave for lunch.  When he returned me to my hotel, however, he made sure to follow me in and to have the desk clerk translate -- "do not eat for two hours, or until 5:00."  How nice is that?  A custom that I had never experienced is that the patient holds a  mirror so that he (and the Dentist) can both see what is being done!  My bill?  10,000 Som . . . (U.S. $5.88).


This place is hot!  At the peak of summer, it reaches 131 degrees in the city -- hotter still in the desert.  That is why the roofs are high and domed.  The heat rises, and the large rooms stay remarkably comfortable all day.  Unlike Saudia Arabia, they do not close everything for the hot afternoons, even in summer.


May 26 -- Samarkand!


I like to listen to recorded books from "" when I ride.  One of the many books I have "read" so far on this trip is "The Amulet of Samarkind" (a wonderful Harry Potter type mystery of genies, magicians, evil demons, and a young boy who saves the day). I was also reading a paperback entitled "Samarkand," an Arabian Nights type novel about the "Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam," its disappearance, discovery centuries later and ultimate loss aboard the Titanic.  Samarkand is a wonderful and mysterious city to me, and I am now here!  It is a major stop on the Silk Road, and I'm very excited to get to see it.


Today's ride from Bukhara was through irrigated desert that is now beautiful farmland.  Apparently the irrigation dates back several millennia. I stopped for a coke and cookies at a road side stand in a city, and was immediately surrounded by spectators.  Gypsies begged for money, and one woman tried to cast some sort of spell on the bikes, and our persons, with burning incense!  I began to feel very uncomfortable, and resumed my journey quickly.


A bit later I was stopped by a hidden policeman with a radar gun.  I was, of course, guilty as charged, but was able to get away without a ticket or bribe by feigning ignorance (which was true) and letting him sit on my bike for pictures.  The usual question we get is "how much does the bike cost?". His was "how fast does it go?" He approved eagerly of the 220 kph limit on the speedometer.  Again, I professed ignorance and happily was on my way.


May 27


Samarkand is the second largest city of Uzbekistan and is roughly the same age as Rome, Athens and Babylon- more than 25 centuries old. Ancient Arab manuscripts refer to it as the “Gem of the East”, Europeans called it the “The Land of Scientists”. It was the place that Tamerlane made his capital (of most of the world), and was a favorite of Czar Nicholas II.  A majestic and beautiful city, Samarkand is the city of legends.


 The old square is lined on  three sides by virtually identical madressahs, highly ornamented with glazed tile and marble.  Whereas the madressahs of Bukhara were for Islamic learning, these were known for science.  We visited an observatory built by Tamerlane's grandson.  It used a sextant on a track 11 meters long, and was three stories tall.  60 or 70 astronomers worked there, and they made highly accurate calculations about time, the sun, moon and planets.  Pretty amazing for the 15th century, before telescopes were invented.


We saw the Mausoleum of Tamerlane, and another mausoleum where the cousin of Prophet Mohamed is buried, who was responsible for much of the spread of Islam to this part of the world.  Surprisingly, however, Islam is not strictly practiced here.  Although this country is rich in Islamic history, the Russian experience apparently extinguished the zeal that I expected to see.


Finally, we observed the ancient process of making paper from mulberry bark.  Western books last, what, a few hundred years?  Our guide said that Samarkind paper is "guaranteed to last 2000 years."


As one of the ancient poets said:


"You can travel through the whole world, have a look at the pyramids and admire the smile of the Sphinx;


You can listen to the soft singing of the wind at the Adriatic Sea and kneel down reverently at the ruins of the Acropolis, be dazzled by Rome with its Forum and Coliseum, be charmed by Notre Dame in Paris or by old domes of Milan;


But if you have seen buildings of Samarkanda, you will be enchanted by its magic forever."


I must agree.







Chapter 04 Dispatch from John Oates

Bukhara (UZB) is a really cool town for walking around. You can get your fill of madrassahs, mosques and mausoleums mostly within walking distance of the hotel. And of course there is the dreaded other "m"- as in mutton. Freaking sick of mutton. We stayed at this little B&B call Sasha and Sons, really quaint, other than our bathroom smelling like something out of Sanford and Son it was one of my favorite hotels so far. We took in a fashion show, walked the markets and saw the "Tower of Death"- the Kalobn Minaret. From what I understand, if you survive the 155 ft fall from the tower you are innocent and free to go, if not you were guilty- seems pretty reasonable.


Next we headed off to Samarkand the hub of Tamarlane's world. Beautiful mosques, although I must admit I am starting to struggle to see the difference between any of them. Enroute I got yelled at for making a u-turn though the police checkpoint - of which there are many and then got stopped for speeding as did several others. The radar gun is the pride and joy of law enforcement in many of these countries- just like having a portable cash machine as they all ask for bribes.

Mellow ride over to Tashkent, good day to stop and take pictures and enjoy the weather. We took an extremely detailed tour of the city with literally no brick passed without discussion- is that a muslim brick or a russian brick etc- never really realized bricks have religious affiliations or nationalities. Anyway the word is if you want to be a brick be a muslim one as the russian ones are clearly subpar. There are some beautiful parks and buildings in Tashkent, but more importantly they have pizza. For the low low price of 28000 you can get a beer and a pizza. $50 gets you about 80,000 of the local currency all in 1000 bills- you feel like you're loaded.


I enjoyed Uzbekistan, many nice historic cities, the police checkpoints are definitely a drag though. Next a quick trip through Kazakhstan to get to Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan.







Chapter 04 Dispatch from Nick Gudewill

Day # 18 -Tue, 24th

Today was another A to B dash 370 km in hot weather 38-39 deg C. It was flat riding and I will be glad to see the end of Turkmenistan (got 68.7 mpg on the flat road which was incredible given my usual 50-55 mpg with a trigger happy throttle in more challenging conditions).

The day was made more interesting for 2 reasons. First we skirted within 6 miles of the Iran border and then the same distance from Afganistan so we were close but not too close! Second, the road, another beauty! They spent billions in Ashkhabad yet can't build a half decent road in and out. The road bed was poorly made and there are huge ruts left by tractor trailers over time some as deep as 6" and several hundred feet long. You certainly don't want to be making any lane changes in this stuff! In fact, you have to concentrate carefully just to stay safe in the track!

No sooner had we arrived and had a quick shower than were hurried into our air conditioned van to spend an hour driving to the ancient remains of Marghiana. They date back more than 2000 years and are in a state of disrepair and not that spectacular. One of the challenges with our visit here is that our tour supervisor Jahan has a young man called Batir escorting us around. He is nice and means well but is not that well informed (unlike all our other outstanding guides to date) so it is a bit frustrating.

Another average dinner after another long drive and we are back at our hotel for an early rise to beat the heat and hit the border with all guns blazing. Good bye Turkmenistan!


Day #19- Wed 25th

Up at 5:30 for breakfast and a 7 am departure to Bukhara via another border point. This was the smoothest one of all but it is still unbelievable the numer of passport inspections in the process. No computers.

We said goodbye to Jahan and Batir and the drivers. I have been collecting the tips for the guides and judging by the response most must feel like I do about their service.

As mentioned there is little I will miss about Turkmenistan- mostly dry desert with not very friendly people. The female population however really care for themsleves. They are slim, attractive and dress so elegantly in their long, ankle length, colourful dresses and we all enjoyed this aspect of their country.

The 300 km trip was accomplished and we are now in Uzbekistan and looking forward to the sights, sounds and experiences of Bukhara.

This is a very complicated part of the world. While I am learning a lot we are still driving through as tourists. An example. We spent numerous days in and around Tblisi in Georgia with no hint gathered of the social unrest that is occurring there. A week after our departure there are large riots that attracted worlwide attention. Turkmenistan. A lot lurking behind the scenes there too and with all the language barriers we are out of luck on much of what is going on beyond what we can see and observe which from a motorcyle is admittedly a lot. Like my father used to say, 'the more you know, the more you don't' know!


Day #20- Thur, 26th

Today we were treated to a brilliant city tour of Bukhara by our knowledgeable guide Eura (short form for his real name, Euri!). Eura is the son of a Russian father and a Korean mother and speaks 8 languages including fluency in three dialects of Farsi.

Bukhara  is an old city celebrating its 2500th year anniversary for two reasons, first because of its abundance of underground water close to the surface and second because it was half way along on the silk road journey from east to west. The whole trip was roughly 9 months of travel by camel caravan and this was a central location to sell, trade, barter goods and return back to the homeland without having to make the whole trip.

The Silk Road flourished from the 2nd century BC to the 16th century AD. At this time, sailing ships were able to make the trip around the Cape of Good Hope faster, cheaper and with more efficiency and trade along the Silk Road diminished rapidly.

Religion ebbed and flowed depending on who the conquerors were at the time. When the arabs came they built mosques and fed starving people at the mosques on the condition that they pray. Gradually they became converted to Islam although today many of the mosques are museums and the country is very secular in nature. I was interested to learn that the very tall minarets beside the large domes were often used as fire beacons to help wandering caravans to locate their next destination.

I did not know much about silk but know a bit more now thanks to Eura. Silk and its method of production was a very closely guarded Chinese secret until the 6th century AD (having been first invented in the 2nd century BC) and those in the west badly wanted to know how it was made/produced. Accurate legend has it that a smitten prince from the west in love with a chinese princess wanted as part of her dowry for her to bring the silk secret as a condition of marriage. She smuggled some silk worms hidden in her hair to her new life!

Silk can be yellow thread (wild variety) or white (domesticated) with the white version being the most sought after. Silk is cultivated from the sik worm eating approx. 3 kg of the green mulberry tree leaf over a period of 20 days in a cultivated farming process. The worm grows a protective cocoon around it and then it is boiled in water and dried. Through a complicated and difficult process, 8 various qualities of silk thread are harvested from these remarkable creatures.

Bukhara is a friendly town of 250,000 officially but possibly a lot more in reality. It is trendy, a bit touristy and is full of all sorts of interesting artisans- painters, potters, woodworkers, metalworkers, carpet weavers, you name it. Their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit is very evident in the markets and on the streets and I am glad to be travelling on a motorcycle otherwise my bags would be over flowing.

The town was badly damaged in a 7.3 earthquake in 1973 and others around that time of lesser scale. The buildings built post 1930 of cement construction etc. all fell down while the earlier ones did not for the reasons that wood base foundations absorbed some of the shock and reduced damage- it seems like the older civilizations knew more than we sometimes give them credit for. The mosques, madrasses, and many lovely buildings are here for all to marvel at in their size and construction. Because summer heat can rise to 55 degrees C in the summer shade these often tall buildings were much cooler inside because of the thick walls and high ceilings. They are all post 1220 because Gengis Khan and his mongol hordes came through then and reduced a city of 400,000 to 100,000 in short order. They burned what they could and used a catapault system to bang down the rest. While he was revered elsewhere he was not a friendly guy here.

The history of this place from Alexander the Great in 329 BC to the present can go on like an interesting but broken record- of course the Soviet invasion reked havoc,  much damage was done and religion was completely subverted. There is little of virtue I can think of emanating from this Totalitarian system- even today male life expectancy is only 57 in Russia.

Uzbekistan has a lot of cotton farming and gas reserves as its main economic drivers. It also has a very rich farming area which can be seen in the markets with their vast array of lovely fruits and vegetables. The country is young with an average age of 24 years and has a population of 27 million- this is by far the largest of all of the 'stan' countries and has more population than all of the other three put together. Their per capita gdp is nearly the lowest of all the countries we will visit at $2700 although there is not much evidence of that here. We are all taken by the strong attractive features of the people and the women carry themselves proudly and dress as they like. It is a colorful place and full of life.


Day #21- Fri, 27th

278 km ride to Samarkand, nothing to report.


Day #22- Sat, 28th

Today Samarkand was our focus of study with the help of our middle aged and knowledgeable guide, Larissa. She has lots of ties to mother Russia but chooses to live here because she likes the lifestyle.

Samarkand is a city of approx. 400,000 and is the first place we have been to that has devoted a lot of its downtown area to green space. There is an abundance of trees, grass and wonderful walking areas that is pleasant to the eye and nice for the general population to enjoy. We take these things for granted at home and we shouldn't.

Samarkand was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC and in the 9th century became the capital of the Arab Abbasid dynasty. Their Islamic culture flourished until Genghis Khan showed up in 1220 and laid waste. Eventually outstanding leadership from the remnants of the Mongols prevailed when Tamerlane (1336-1405) made Samarkand the capital of his vast empire stretching from the Bosphorus east to parts of modern day China and south to Índia. Tamerlane built amazing mosques. mausoleums and other structures that still stand in their magnificence today.

A grandson of Tamerlane, Ulugbek (1394-1449) developed a huge interest in astronomy and developed superior knowledge of the stars and basic navigation techniques that were remarkably accurate and well ahead of european developments of that time.
The chinese first invented paper but the need for written communication and the importance of Samarkand as a religious, educational, cultural and trading centre resulted in its development here in the 8th century.

At one time there were 400 water wheels in the area creating the horsepower to make silk paper from the bark of the Mulberry tree (and others). It looks to be a bit of a garbage tree much like our alder trees at home but it has special characteristics lending itself to paper making.

We were treated to a visit to a replica factory on the outskirts of town. The bark from branches was at first softened in water, stripped and treated, boiled in water for 4-5 hours then smashed and pulped over another 8-10 hour process. It was then pressed and dried for another 24 hours before being polished for 30 minutes with heavy smooth stones on each side.

This is a remarkable, labour intensive process and one only has to imagine the time it must have taken to develop and perfect this process with minute adjustments over long periods of time. We take so much for granted in our modern world with our push button access to micro waves, smart phones and the like and often fail to appreciate the toil and efforts of generations preceeding us. You get a real understanding here of how difficult life must have been (no air conditioning!) and how slow and methodical progress actually was.

So our journey to the heart of the Silk Road is nearly over. We have a visit to the much larger city of Tashkent tomorrow and then we push further east into the unknowns of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.







Chapter 04 Dispatch from Pawel Chrobok

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


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