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Silk Road Adventure 2011

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Chapter 05 Dispatch from Len Adams

Week 5 had its ups and downs literally and figuratively. We started the week with a nice easy 589k day including two border crossings leaving Tashkent in Uzbekistan and arriving in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Border crossings are fun for the fist 5 minutes. Leaving a country is almost as difficult as entering. We need to go through several lines on each side filling out declarations and getting passport stamps for both person and bike, insurance, immigration card with each one a little different. We are lucky as we most times get to move to the front of a HUGE lineup at the borders.


Week 5 also contained some great riding. The ride from Bishkek to Lake Issyk-Kul was awesome. Dan led Jeff and I on a short cut out of town that found a new highway out of town heading on a mountain ride with a lot of construction clearing several rock slides that had covered many sections of the road. Dan was in his element as he found several Yurt's to visit along the way. We arrived at lake Issyk-Kul along a small single track road that ended in a new Luxury resort. At the resort we found several hundred Russian athletes who worked for the same oil company having a mini olympics to determine their company champions. There was tons of activities and one evening we were able to watch a televised boxing match live on the beach.


At Lake Issyk-Kul we headed up for a day trip into the mountains to watch the horse games. This was a highlight riding and scenery day for sure. We worked our way up a winding dirt road that turned to rocks, streams fields and ended at a spectacular hilltop overlooking the valley and road we had just come up. A few of the boys decided to avoid potential damage and rode in the chase vehicle. We all made it up the road fine, but my bike Lucy decided to have a nap at the top as when the foot went down and so did poor Lucy. Fortunately Helge is always available to document the occasion on film. We stopped for an hour taking pictures and taking in the scenery. Once we realized the games were held down in the valley we headed down to watch the horse games and then have a spectacular outdoor buffet in the middle of the valley.


After three nights we were ready to head out on the road again to Almaty. This was an extra long day as the intended border crossing was closed to us and we had to backtrack 160k back to Bishkek and then head to Almaty in Kazakhstan. This was our second time crossing into Kazakhstan in a week and it is a bit of a process. Kazakhstan is a beautiful country but we were warned about speeding through police checkpoints and that "These are serious guys". We found they are very serious about taking some of your dollars. We approached the checkpoint doing 41k in a 40k that was quickly followed by a 20k a few feet later. So they took a nice radar picture doing 41 and said we were in the 20k zone at the time. However a $100 handshake turned their frowns upside down and we were back on our way with the tickets torn up. Apparently we were not alone as most of the group were also compelled to donate. Approaching Almaty we were involved in a huge downpour that caused some flooding in the streets sometimes 6 to 8 inches deep. We were there in rush hour and traffic was brutal. Armed with our new lane splitting skills we used every trick in the book to fly through traffic and found our hotel right away.


Our hotel was top of the line and we found with the price of beer that Almaty is the second most expensive city in the former Soviet Union. We enjoyed a day off for sightseeing in Almaty topped off with a visit to a falconry to watch a birds of prey show followed with dinner in a Yurt on top of the mountain complete with live entertainment of traditional songs and instruments.


From Almaty we headed for Zharkent at the Chinese border. Along he way we took a 30k dirt road to view a scenic canyon. The road was pretty straight forward with a few deep gravel patches and we made our way up to the canyon after helping fix one pannier after a small spill. the canyon was a mini grand canyon reminiscent of Bryce or Zion canyon in the USA. We stopped to take some pictures and have a break and then it we were off. Shortly after we were underway there was a fairly steep decent with large loose pebbles. I was a bit too careful controlling the decent and tucked the front and poor Lucy had another nap. However this one was far more scenic on the edge of the canyon wall. Covering her eyes so she did not look down I picked her up with the help of a passerby and we were off. This one did not happen as Helge did not get a picture :) One lesson learned however is the engine guard on the Adventure is a bit light duty and easily bent when abused by rocks. Then I will be replacing them as soon as I get back with the stronger Touratech version.


The ride out of the canyon and up to Zharkent was quite scenic and we are at the Chinese border getting ready for the last leg of our adventure.





Chapter 05 Dispatch from Randy McClanahan

Tashkent is, of course, very old, and recently celebrated its 2200 year anniversary.


Our hotel, the Tashkent Palace, is quite nice. Tashkent, with a population of 2.5 million and the capital of Uzbekistan, is the fourth largest city in the former Soviet Union. (After Moscow, Kiev and St. Petersburg.). Our guide, Zaire, was a member of the Communist Party during the Soviet days, and converted to Islam after the U.S.S.R. dissolved. He was therefore well-able to answer our many questions about life before and after. Even with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, mother Russia still actively supports its former republics, with the notable exception of Georgia.


Uzbekistan is approximately the size of Sweden. It is 60% desert and 40% oasis. Unlike such places as Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is a secular country. The boulevards are wide, in the Soviet fashion, but have beenha filled with trees and parks, and are now stunningly beautiful, in stark contrast to the days of statues of Lenin and parades of Russian missiles. There is even a Victoria's Secret store!


The most interesting thing we saw, however, was an ORIGINAL Koran. The Prophet Mohammed, who was illiterate, dictated it to twelve scribes as he received it from God, and only a few of the originals still exist. This one was written on elk skin, and looked to be about two feet on each side and many inches thick. We were not allowed to take photographs inside the building, but below is a photo of me just outside the front entrance.


I have learned that virtually everyone in central Asia speaks Russian. It is the universal language of communication here. The people continue to be amazingly friendly, and are eager to be photographed. (See the photo of the schoolgirls wearing my hat.). It is hard to believe that when I was young, we were having a "cold war" against these wonderful people, and my grade school classes drilled about what to do when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. started firing their missiles at each other.


May 31 -- Very long day!


We met for breakfast at 5:00 a.m. to get an early start. We have two border crossings and 366 miles to our next destination. We leave Uzbekistan, transit through Kazakhstan, and enter Kyrgystan. The first border crossing alone took 3 hours. I blame Stalin for our arrival in Bishkek after dark and in the rain, as these were all one country before he decided to divide them up and present us with long and unnecessary border hassles.


Kazakstan, the land of Borat, was beautiful, and I look forward to our re-entry in a few days. For now, however, we are in Kyrgystan, and it is hard to imagine a more beautiful land. Big valleys, forested mountains and permanently snow capped peaks. It is much like the best parts of Colorado.


We spend the morning sleeping late to recover from our long day before, and ride to Lake Issyk-Kul that afternoon. On the way we have lunch in a roadside yurt. One of the young boys is practicing to be a future Globerider as he tries on my helmet and bike. Not quite a fit yet, but he will grow into them some day.


The lake is Kyrgyzstan's crown jewel. It is the world's second largest alpine lake, after Lake Titicaca in South America. Despite it's high altitude, it never freezes, and is completely surrounded by snow-capped mountains.


These are horse people who learn to ride before they walk, and we visit the summer pastures of a local village to watch their "horse games." There is nothing childish about these games. To warm up, the men wrestle on horseback. Then a potential suitor demonstrates racing to catch a young maiden to steal a kiss while both are at a full run, only to be later chased by her to be horsewhipped in return. The main event is a team competition, which is like a combination of rugby and polo with a freshly beheaded sheep as the "ball." It results in bruises, broken bones, and sometimes death, to riders and horses alike. We then retired to the banks of a mountain stream for a feast of soup, vegetables, meat and the ever present hot tea, before returning to our resort hotel.

Not bad for roughing it out on the Silk Road!








Chapter 05 Dispatch from Nick Gudewill

Day #23- Sun, 29th

Ah, Tashkent! The name congurs up so much intrigue, so much romance, so much mystery! If walls and buildings could only speak!
Tashkent is the middle of our journey in terms of days and mileage. We have completed nearly 5 country's now with 3 to go.

After a 300 km day we arrived at our modern 4 star hotel smack dab in the middle of this green leafy city of 2.5+ million. It is purported to be the 4th largest city in the former Soviet Union after Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. It is easy to see that it has a lot of access to television and the internet. Disappointingly, the dress has gone from sleek, colourful, traditional garb to sloppy jeans and the grunge look of the west. I so much enjoyed the lovely long traditional garments that the women wore in Bukhara and Samarkand so hope to see it again.

The afternoon was for relaxing and beer drinking before some touring tomorrow. Honestly, if I see one more mosque, madrassa or mausoleum it will be one too many! Like churches in Europe one starts to look like the next no matter how magnificent. As always I go with the flow and ask lots of questions but blue mosques (blue because of the sky and it was thought to be closer to Allah) get a little tiresome after awhile.

Speaking of mosques almost none are being used for traditional purposes anymore. In this very young country (most were babies during the early independence years of the 90's) traditional religious thought is passe much like it is at home and this frankly surprised me in terms of my expectations.


Day #24-Mon, 30th

Today's tour from Zaire was a personal highlight of our trip to date for me. He is a big bear of a man, about my age, extremely well informed and talks a blue (and understandable!) streak- it was even hard to squeeze in questions! At one time he was one of 17 million card carrying Soviet communists (verus he says 37 million in China). He is now quite a devout Muslim by his own choice.

It was seeing one of the 3 remaining of the original 6 Koran texts that was a revelationary moment. Mohammed was born in 570 AD and was illiterate. At the age of 40 in 610 he began to dictate his thoughts to 12 of his personal scribes. This took over 23 years and he died soon after.

Many were involved in the writing including a fellow called Othman (born 575 AD) who was killed from a knife attack in 656 while reading the very book we saw. His dried blood is on the large 2' by 3' 383 page elk skin parchment. Wow, what history surrounds that book! The lovely flow of the arabic (Quriash) script is artistic to look at. Zaire wove such an interesting story around that book that I almost thought I was there!

He says that 80% of the world is Sunni muslim and follows the exact teachings of Mohammed. The shia set ( 60% of Iraq, Iran, S. Arabia and a few others) is a small sect that followed the direction of one of the 4 caliphates (Ali) who thought of himself as the next Mohammed but wasn't. Shias pray standing while Sunnis bow down on their knees.

The book was brought out for public display in 1991 after independence. Uzbekistan (stan means place or land) became one of the 12 Commonwealth of Independent States of Russia. While still having close ties, the country looks to be very free, outward and positive looking, rich in heritage and resources and heading slowly in the right direction towards more of a democratic system of government.
Zaire says it is hard to contemplate the many differences today. The Russians colonized Uzbekistan in 1865 and of course the Soviets took over after 1917. The people were well paid to sit at a desk and do a lot of nothing for their 8 hour job. Religion was abolished. After 70 years of communism they learned absolutely nothing so it was a real shock when reality kicked in in the early 90's.

Now people actually have to earn their keep. While wages are much lower at least productivity is much improved. As a card carrying commie, Zaire's wait for a 3 bedroom middle class home in central Tashkent was not long. When the benevolent dictator who is still in charge from the beginning (Karimov, 72 now) decried that everything had to be privatised his arbitrary home value was placed at $500. Today he says it is well in excess of $100k. Not bad for a tour guide but of course his career has been much more than that.

He said in the old days he was constantly harassed by the KGB and they would follow his tour groups and make copious notes about what he said, did not say and what the interpretation and justification for his comments were. All very tiresome and pointless but that is how they did things and not to be a card carrier was to be a nobody in the system.

For those interested here are a few more kernels of info about this most interesting country:


-it is 78% Uzbek, 8% Russian and the common second language spoken and written is not surprisingly, Russian;


-in 1991 the country moved from the Russian cyrilik to the latin alphabet;


-Uzbekistan has over 4000 historical monuments of importance (2000 are restored) more than any other country (Zaire's words);


-Samarkand in its day had the same importance and was an equal contemporary of Rome;


-it is hot, hot in the summer and very cold, freezing in the winter for 3 months- they have 4 separate and distinct seasons;


-did not see a dog anywhere in Tashkent (or cat) or in most other places for that matter;


-marriage occurs early in late teens early 20's and family size used to be 5.5 kids and is now about 3;


-there are 60 embassies in Tashkent and over 4000 joint venture companies operating here from abroad;


-unemployment is only about 2% but Zaire says that young people especially males don't want to work hard to get ahead, symptomatic of the west;


-compared to normal wages, gas is exorbitant at $1 per litre; other things are subsidized though like the subway is 30 cents vs $2 in Moscow; we have not seen a motorbike since arrival and wonder why;


-the country is 60% desert; the water in low lying regions is abundant and they have become irrigation and canal building experts over many centuries;


-Zaire feels the country has a good future; in the past he has worried about the Iranian influence but not so much anymore especially with their arms length relationship with Russia- U. is the most independent oriented of the 'stans'.


That is about it for today. Tomorrow is an ass kicker- about 700 klics including TWO border crossings (transit Kazakhstan to arrive in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)! We will be up at the first sparrows fart and hitting the road with both cylinders blazing. Helge says clutches out at 5:30am.


Day #25- Tue, 31st

This was a ballbuster day, no other way to describe it, 707.6 km. We were up at the crack of dawn, back tracked about 70 km to an open border and took 3 hours and 10 passport checks and the usual over load of paperwork to get through. Then it was pedal to the metal for about 550 km to the next border crossing. We went from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan and ended up at our destination, Bishkek the capital.

What a day! The roads were often bumpy as hell and to make matters worse I was suffering from some constipation. The constant bumping made nature eventually call and I had to decide between one of the stinky squat toilets or a farmers field and I figured if the animals can do it out there then so can I!

The roads were extremely dusty, almost whiteout conditions in some places due to road construction and I was a busy guy over the course of a 15 hour driving day. Nicolas kindly helped a tired guy on the last 100 km into Bishkek. We drove Parisian style through dense traffic weaving this way and that and I just stuck on his tail and did stuff I had not done before. It was all quite safe but it was just a little hair raising for this little B.C. boy!

We made it safe and sound and I spent the day counting the ubiquitous donkey carts and got to 21. It is still a transportation staple and quite a treat to see the locals moving people and freight on these age old contraptions. The evening is an especially busy time to move animal herds and Nicolas and I were constantly dodging all sorts of cattle, sheep, goat herds etc.

This is a country where the horse is also pre-dominate. We saw thousands mostly grazing but a lot being ridden for working purposes- some of the largest, handsomest, healthiest creatures to be seen anywhere, magnificent really. It is funny but in this part of the world there are almost no dogs (or cats) and I do not know why.

I am now slightly less than halfway home. We made a time change today from 12 hours difference to 11!

My last observation for now is the number of cities we have passed through and stayed in beginning for some reason with the letter "B" as follows: Bursa, Batumi, Baku, Bukhara and now Bishkek for a total of 5.


Day #26- Wed, 1st

Bishkek; Hyatt Regency our nicest hotel yet and after that day we deserved it!
We met our very nice guide Farhad and were given 2 hours to do a walking tour. Mac and I were the only ones because the rest wanted to rest and veg.



-I.2 mln in Bishkek vs 5.5 mln in country- beautiful, green, leafy, lots of park area;


-26, sister married but tradition says brother can't until he does which is a problem because the brother wants to and he is not ready;


-one of 60 of 60000 chosen to study in U.S. for a year; major in poli sci and psychology- this guy can go places given the right opportunity;


-Kyrgyzstan 95% mtn- avg elevation 9000 ft, repeat 9000- only two large valleys winding through the whole country;


-Farming and hydro;


-Snow leopard- 6th to 8th BC tamed (wow) the snow leopard for hunting ibeks, deer etc- now 120 remaining in country;


-Free speech, free press, becoming more democratic;


-Shia much more strict sect of Islam emanates from the caliphate Ali already spoken about, sharia law etc., religion tolerated;


-Soviet influence not all bad for instance country 95% literate- he is in the middle about the good/bad re-influence;

-told story of hiking and camping in mountains with 10 friends, food was taken by wolves or bears, very hungry, found shepherd in middle of nowhere, had cell phone, asked for $10 US and said would get food for them- contrast between the traditional life and availability of modern technology and mostly the shepherds ability to merge the two was astonding to these hungry modern day kids!
In the afternoon, Helge, Mac, Randy and I bringing up the rear stopped at the Buryan Tower which was a key watch tower in this area during Silk Road times. The watch tower (minaret) is 23 metres tall now and was 45 metres (9.0 earthquake end of 14th century)-I went up and the view of the valley 360 deg was breath taking with the mountains all around. It served as a lookout, a lighthouse and a call to prayer function and was the center of an important walled town of about 2000 with good water nearby. The town had an area of 300 by 500 metres and a lot went on outside of it as well in terms of farming and animal grazing.

The key purpose here was as a caravan exchange from horses (100+) to camels. They had special horses that could traverse the 13000 foot mountain range and go to high altitude that camels with their soft hooves could not. It took two horses to carry what a camel could carry and there were up to 600 people supervising each caravan train so try to imagine the organization involved here. Each horse train journey over the mountains took about a month.

As an aside, camels with one hump were easier to ride, more agile and could go without water at 40 days each longer than a 2 humper at 36 days.

Buryan started its life in the 11th century and was spared by Gengis Khan partly because of its importance in the system- also, he was very fair- you play ball with me and I play ball with you- otherwise you are toast and too many unfortunately did not believe him.


Day #27- Thur, 2nd

Not much to report; we are holed up in a 'resort' full of young Russian athletes (over 300) here to holiday and compete- they are well behaved but it is a busy place and the food is pretty marginal. I think it is owned by Gazprom.

Lake Issyk-Kul is a famous and sought after tourist destination for central asian people far and wide. Despite its size and altitude it never freezes and is the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in South America.

Today we headed out into the high alpine where we were treated to some traditional horse games from bygone days and a lovely lunch by a raging stream cooked by the locals- delicious.


Day #28- Fri, 3rd

Today was a reach day and a good day. If you had asked me 6 months ago whether I would voluntarily travel alone 250 klics in a strange 'stan' country I would have said 'you gotta be kidding'! Today I did just that and it was a breeze.

I was tired of the Lake Issyk-Kul area and the hotel in particular. It was at least one night of our three night stay too long. With a bit of planning with our guides, a hotel reso at the Golden Dragon ($155) instead of the Hyatt ($362/night) off I went with some phone/text numbers for backup. I got to the Hyatt, called a cab and followed him to my destination. It felt pretty good to branch out and do something on my own and it will halve a long, long day tomorrow through another border on the way to Almaty in Kazakhstan.
Arriving in Bishkek I showered, did some laundry and took a taxi to the National History museum (tons of Russian influence here- Lenin galore) in the center of the city- a short walk brought me to the Hyatt for a beer and a 5pm cheeseburger and fries which having already sampled one previously is about the BEST burger I have ever had and it is not just because I am deprived either!

The journey here was hot but uneventful except that I got a speeding ticket enroute! There is a lot of road construction going on and in one mountainous area a long wagon train of vehicles was stopped. I sashayed up to the front and for about 20 minutes it was photo op center for the locals. Everyone wanted to sit on the bike (see pic) because they just don't see these types of machines here. Finally we get the go ahead and off I go likety split. There in front of me was a 20 sign and of course I was doing 65. Wammo! The radar trap was set. They were quite nice but it clearly showed my infraction on the gun- they asked for my papers and said they wanted 200. Gulp! 200 what? I wasn't at all sure whether it was local currency (about $4) or the U.S. variety. I gingerly got out the local stuff, that seemed to make them happy and off I went a little wiser and a little slower.

Here are some general comments from the day:

-when I said to the group on departure please don't laugh, I'll see you at the border tomorrow Helge said, which border!

-there is a lot of Mongol influence around here- yurts or gers (round domed living places) galore, also many but not all the people have a distinctly mongol look;

-U.S. Greenbacks are king around here- not euros, not kopecs, not rubles, dollars- maybe they know something we don't!

-cleanliness- ALL these countries are squeaky clean- no litter, a certain tidiness evident everywhere(contrast Turkey and Georgia);


-blue jays are the predominant bird- 5 (flaps of their wings) and fly- graceful, plentiful and colurfully plumed;


-turn signals- I use them as much as possible because it is a courtesy to the vehicle being passed, it is a good safety habit and it just gives something extra to do and keeps me sharp;


-depth perception- the young guys are really good at this; they don't travel speed wise that much faster but their passing capabilities are lightning quick and they make up ground by ruthlessly passing all and sundry vehicles simply because their sharp eye sight gives them a real advantage ;


-road signs- minimal, hard to read, basically useless with all the various dialects and scripts- it is amazing how we utilize good highway signage at home for safer driving- over here you just keep your wits about you and get what you get especially wrong turns on occasion;


-local drivers- while aggressive they are good and they are not nearly as distracted as at home; vehicles are smaller so we stand out more and they love to gawk at these big two wheeled power bikes so driving in traffic is not all that bad;


-reflections while driving- only someone who rides can appreciate the wind in your face and the views on the road, very stimulating; I look around a lot and think about what the lives of these people and places I am seeing must be like; while their lives are tough and there are no over weight people around there is a certain level of spiritual peace I see in how they slowly go about their daily lives; while I am constantly thankful to live where I do and appreciate all the comforts of home (even more now!), I have a great deal of respect for these hard working people trying to make a better life for themselves; I am constantly struck by how normal life looks to be over here- different but the same- they might have less materially but they also might have more spiritually, I just don't know.


Day #29- Sat, 4th
Today was bedlam at the border and the gods were shining down because just as I got there at 11 am there was my group slightly ahead and I was able to nose in and join the last riders. Missing that one opportunity I may have ended up waiting interminably for someone to show up only to realize too late that they were long gone.

We got through in an easy hour and a half but not without a dropped bike. If you must drop your bike which a lot of us have then do so only at a very low speed or when you are stopped. It is easy to do, they are heavy suckers and when they lean too far, best to let them go and step away.

I was in this big traffic jam inching forward and came to a polished metal speed bump about 3" high. The bike was at an angle to the speed bump but being hemmed in there was no other alternative but to forge ahead. When the back tire came in contact, wammo down she went! Fortunately an easy drop, someone helped get the bike up and off we went.

The big problem today was the sad news about my pal Mac from New Jersey. He had his waist pouch bag with ALL his valuables stolen at the Lake Issyk-Kul hotel- passport, money etc. The passport was critical and it happened sometime Friday. He is holed up in Bishkek until next week and who knows the outcome. The Chinese embassy apparently is not open for visas until Wednesday although he can get a replacement U.S. Visa on Monday. With any luck he MAY be able to fly out of Bishkek Wed. am and meet us in Urumqi, China- otherwise he will fly out Fri. and have to play some catch up. A real, real drag.

I am completely, anally, methodical as hell on a trip like this in every respect. Everything has an exact place everywhere. In particular, passport is in the left thigh pocket at all times and my loot is in the same place on the right side. I have never felt the least bit compromised at any time on this trip and everyone we are in contact with could not be friendlier.

A situation like this is where the value of a backup like the MIR Corp comes in- they are well connected and have been superb in looking after us.

They were able to stick handle the biggest obstacle which was to notarize the bike ownership over to Helge and then negotiate (Yura, what a guy!) the bike through customs late last night in the back of the van. No lack of dramas for Helge!


Day #30- Sun, 5th

Most of the guys are hanging out or changing oil this morning. Randy and I went on the tour with our guide Alex who is 65 (he says it is better to see something once than hear about it 100 times!).

Almaty is a city of 2 million in a country of 16 million. It is architecturally boring but it is always interesting to see the sites of any city and learn about things. Almaty is where apples were first harvested and means land of apples- there are 27 different wild species here.

When independence occurred in 1991 the population was 18 million due to forced movements during the Soviet era- 3 million promptly left (a lot came back too). Kazakstan is very much a steppe country (like a prairie with rolling hills-85%) which means that its people have been of a very nomadic nature. Part of the reason why you see so many attractive features in these countries according to Alex is because of the intermingling of the various races, tribes and ethnicities over time.

The country is huge- 2.7 million square km about a quarter the size of Canada or America. It is bigger than all of the rest of the countries we have so far visited combined. In addition, it is by far the wealthiest of all the stans at $11,000 per capita gdp thanks largely to a lot of gas and oil (only slightly behind Turkey and twice China).

Due to the large earthquake hazard here the capital was moved to the north to Astena in 1997. Earthquakes in 1887 and 1911 largely levelled a lot of the city (they had a 'little' 5.6 the other day and were happy as hell about it because they say the little guys negate the big one). It is also in a flood area near huge mountains hence a good decision to move north.

Despite all this Almaty is a cultural, scientific and educational center for the country. There are 29 universities here and over 125,000 students.

I will finish by relating a few points:

- the language of the whole 'stan' area is Turkic in origin- much of it is common between the neighbouring countries with different pronunciations etc.; the alphabet is cyrillac (since Stalin forced it on them in 1930; they were latin before that) and they are now slowly moving back;

-the country is 63% Kazak and 23% Russian with Russian not surprisingly being the dominant language;

-one has to try and grasp just how overwhelmingly overpowering the Soviet influence was and how they idealogically dominated all aspects of local life here including of course the near but not total abolishment of religion;

-the borders between all these countries including those in the area we will not visit are ridiculous and nonsensical. It is rumoured that Stalin took his heavy handed pen one day after too many vodka and sketched out what was to be;

-speaking of Stalin, Alex was 8 when he died in 1953. His recollection was literally that 'god died'. After several days passed and the world did not come to an end they got back to business (Khruschev continued to spoon feed but subsequently negated some of Stalins evil influences);

-Leonid Brezhnev got his start in Moldavia before serving a stint in Kazakhstan and then moving on to the Kremlin;

-in an answer to the politics of the area and any opposition (none) Alex said it's like the dogs are barking (opposition) but the caravan is moving -ie no one is paying any attention! (a benevolent dictatorship and lots of freedoms noted)

-there are amazing war memorials everywhere we go commemorating the war dead-they were forcefully enlisted and told to go and lost lots;

-we get stared at a lot in these countries simply because our presence is so unusual- tourism small; when on our bikes it is even more so and the #1 question by far is how much did it cost!


Time to get this on the wire....







Chapter 05 Dispatch from Mac McCaulley

Turkmenistan.... WHEW!

Interesting country. Feels like it is still under Russian/Communist control.

Several delays at the Border coming into the country from the port on the Caspian Sea. Took almost 4 1/2 hours. Lots of paperwork and multiple signatures. No credit cards accepted at the hotels. No ATM's in the whole country. Cash only. Also no US cell company coverage and very limited intemet service. The only way to make a phone call out was by satellite phone. I also understand from a travel guide book that emails can be monitored by the govemment and many hotels are "bugged". In Turkmenbashi there were only 2 hotels and in Mary there are only 3? western style hotels.

The two main hotels in downtown Mary are booked for a year because they are filled with construction workers. The 'new' hotel we stayed at on the outskirts of town felt like it was an industrial building converted to a hotel. One of the most stark furnishings of any hotel room that I have ever seen. High ceilings with poor air conditioning and marble floors. No bedside table Icmps, just floor lamps in the comers of the room. A window looking out on to a hallway combined with a Chinese shower of sorts. That aftemoon did enjoy a visit to Merv, which are ancient ruins over 2000 years old. It was considered to be one of the most developed cultural centers in the Ancient East Also considered once as one of the most important Islamic capitals. Another city destroyed by Genghas Kahn in the 1200's.

Turkmenistan is number four in the world for Natural gas reserves and also has lots of oil wells in the Caspian Sea. My understanding is that the government owns all of the natural resources. Every year they give all citizens several hundred gallons of petrol for free. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is within 2 years? of completing a 1000 mile natural gas pipeline thru Afghanistan
to Pakistan. Also by the end of this year Turkmenistan will be supplying 70 percent of Afghanistan's electricity needs via power lines.

In Ashkhabad there are something like 40 - 50 new government buildings out of white marble for many Ministries of Trade from Carpet to Finance to Space Agency to Olympics. Almost looks like a Las Vegas - Russian style. We visited the National Museum in which we were the only visitors. We saw there some interesting artifacts including some stones from the stone age from 12000 Be!! In addition there where at least 50 new white marble apartment buildings in tONn which seemed to be mostly empty. Obviously the government is spending their money earned from the sale of natural resources.

One afternoon late we rode approximately 5 miles to the Iranian border but did not cross as we did not have visas. We have met some very nice and friendly Iranians and hearing about visiting Iran from some other tour groups it sounds like an interesting country to visit someday!!

Happily on to the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent in Uzbekistan.


May 31, 2011 Arrived Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan


Our longest day so far. Per Len's good suggestion we left the hotel in Tashkent, Uzbekistan at 530 AM. Good because it was a day with 2 border crossings. One from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan briefly and then another from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan and on to Bishkek. Got to Bishkek around 830 PM. AND 420 miles later over fairly good roads. Some new ones and some old rough asphalt surface and always the stray or many pot holes.

Another great weather day and lots of countryside to see. One interesting area that we rode thru was a hugh coal fired power plant in the middle of nowhere with a hugh coal ash mountain I'm sure 500 feet high near our route. Lot's of power lines from that place. The old Russian way of doing power grids.


We stayed that night at one of the nicest hotels of our trip so far. The Hyatt Regency Bishkek. One of the most up to date hotel rooms I have ever stayed in.


Next day on to visit the Buryan Tower, one of the few existing watchtowers on the Silk Road, Genghis Khan Mongols for some reason spared the area.The story goes that local people at that time made a monetary payment to save their Tower and town. It was a watchtower and a lighthouse for travelers at night on the Silk Road.

This was also a changing point for animal exchange along the road. Going to the East from here Camels had to be exchanged for horses for the difficult trip over the mountains that would take a month to the other side.


That night we stayed at Lake Issyk-Kul in a lakeside resort. The world's second largest lake. At 2100 feet in depth it is the fourth deepest lake in the world.It looks up at the Tien Shan Mountains which go as high as 22,000 feet.


On Thursday June 2 we visited the horse games which included arm wrestling on horseback and a sheep/soccer game on horseback..Need photos...

In the afternoon after a lunch alongside of a stream a few of us went up to approximately 8000 feet for some off road for the rest of the day.Off road consisted of dirt tracks, rock roads,a few stream crossings and grassy fields. I fell twice that day parking my bike on grass,captured on film both times I understand. At most times hard to keep up with Helge, Dan and Jeff and their dirt/track riding experience. Visited 2 different families in the mountains living in Yurts and shepperding sheep, goats and horses. But for Dan, probably his best day of the trip for him. He enjoyed getting that rear tire a little sideways more than a few times.


Friday June 3 Had a day off at the Hotel Caprice. A little R and R and no need "to put a leg" over a m/c. Got some gas, washed the bike and took a slow walk around the property....After a short 20 minute swim in a lap pool came back to my room to realize that my passport, and credit cards were just stolen !! To make the beginning of a long story, I had to leave the group the next day and stay in Bishkek for the next 5 days in order to replace my passport, get an exit visa from Kyrgyzstan, and an entry visa for China. My bike had to continue on with the group because of entry requirements for all of the bikes going into China at one time.. As Helge said to me on leaving me in Bishkek, my bike is more important than me for the continuing of the trip ! I'm now getting a feeling for Helge's priorities. He assured me that I would catch up in Urumqi, China. I wanted to take a shot at passing the border that day with the group with a little salesmanship and a copy of my stolen passport but I was assured that with language and government regulations it really was impossible with out the proper visas.


Anyway on to Bishkek for a few days..


Sunday walked all day into the city center and a couple of musuems, Art and History. Early evening a long swim at the big hotel pool and off to "Obama" Restaurant at night. Not that I was over here looking for Obama but the restaurant was excellent quality and the variety was western/central asia style. With a local sax player a place to go back for lunch sometime.


Monday June 6 Made a visit to the US Embassy in Bishkek, the capitol of Kyrgyzstan. Quite straightforward with a pre appointment made by Kyrgyz Concept the local travel company for the trip. They also worked with Muir Travel. Second step was to get a local police report with official stamp by several people in the police station. This could not be accomplished on the weekend because the lady with the stamp did not work on weekends. On a visit to her on Monday she stated that before a report could be stamped, the incident had to be reported in the news and in newspaper for 3 days. At this point Fahid called the local mortorcyle cop who had stopped to talk to Helge and myself on Saturday when he saw our bikes. He, as it turned out, was a close friend of the Corporal of the station. The Corporal did call back to Fahid and arrainged a meeting with us. After several back and forth's with the previous lady and her boss, a document was made and stamped. This was needed in order to obtain an exit visa from the country. Most countries do not need an exit visa but Kyrgkykzstan does.


Next step was to report back to Kyrgyz Concept Travel and they took my passport to the Ministry in charge of exit visas. Marco, my new guide and I went there on Tuesday afternoon. Their only opening hours were from 5 to 5:30 PM !! Initially this proceedure could have taken 10 days but because Kyrgyz Travel knew some people (greased some wheels) this was accomplished in one day ! After that back to Kyrgyz Travel and they took the passport from me again for a second round on Wednesday with the China Embassy for an entry visa. The China Embassy has been closed for 4 days because of a weekend and a 2 day holiday. Hopefully this process with be quicker with the local agent in charge again. Per the local guide book the Chinese Embassy works slowly. Things do work slowly in 3rd world countries. And this is classified I now understand as 3 rd world country because it is below the 80th spot in ranking of countries. Annual income is somewhere around $2000. to $2500 per capita.


Tuesday June 7. With local guide did a short 3 hour walk in a National Park called Ala-Archa Canyon. Looked up at mountains that were up to 20,000 feet ! Then back to a local zoological museum of local birds and animals from Eagles to Yaks. Then back to town which was 20 degresss warmer and on to a "National" type food restaurant. No English menus here. Then on to the National History Museum for interpertation by Marco as there was basically no English writing or descriptions anywhere. Another swim and ate at a Western style restaurant called Navigator.


It's interesting to hear about this countries recent history. The government put down dissidents a year ago in the Central Square of Bishkek and 63 people were killed and several thousand wounded. At around the same time there was a problem with a Uzbekistan border dispute. A problem is that the President/government had taken over private ownership of many companies and natural resources and people had protested. That President is in exile. A previous Presdient from a similar situation from 2005 is also in exile in Russia I understand. The government has a new temporary female President for 18 months. New elections coming in November 2011.The only kind of Democracy in the region.


One last thing also a little crazy here is that about 20% of all cars have right sided steering. Driving is on the right side of the road but the situation is that used Japanese cars can be purchased here for about a 40 to 50 percent discount over left sided steering. One would think that this would be discouraged somehow but the government has other priortities.


Well tomorrow hope to fly on a Chinese plane to Urumqi, China to catch up with with the group.




Chapter 05 Dispatch from John Oates

Kyrgyzstan is one of my favorite countries on the trip so far. The landscape is stunning, particularly around the Lake Issyk-Kul region. We stopped in Bishkek the first night. Hotel was great meaning they had internet and burgers. The next day we rode out to the lake. Kyrgyzstan police really love their radar guns and stopped me three times in an hour for speeding. They come over shake your hand and beam with pride as they show you the gun's reading- 71 in a 60Km zone. While inconvenient they usually just want to show you they caught you and then let you go without a fine.


Surrounded by snow capped peaks Lake Issyk-Kul is glass like and inviting, until you feel how cold the water is. We went to watch the traditional horse games in Semenov gorge. This was really cool. Some of us rode up to the gorge on the bikes and had the opportunity to ride some more challenging terrain, the others met us via bus. Any game that is played with a decapitated goat as the game ball is worth watching. Essentially two teams on horseback have to try and drop the goat in the goal at the other end of the field. Very physical game with a lot of action. We lunched by a river eating traditional local fare before our ride back to the hotel.


Friday we had a free day, so Jeff an I decided to explore around the lake and shoot some photos. We found a nice gravel road that traced the coast line and enjoyed the terrific weather and the lack of an organized plan. At the hotel a large russian oil company had about 500 employees there for a series of inter-company sporting events. Most interesting were the boxing matches. Literally a fight could be accounting versus Human Resources- very entertaining and an interesting approach to inter-company team building. Unfortunately, Helge was unable to score some gloves for us so we could also "team build"- bummer.


After a few days at the lake we were off to Almaty in Kazakhstan. This was a long day with the border crossing but largely uneventful with one exception. Nicholas and I were riding toward Almaty through the countryside when around the bend there was a police checkpoint. The speed limit went from 90KM/hr to 40 to 20 in about 100 meters. Nicholas and I got shook down for $100. Totally corrupt and and total BS. Three others also got stopped but negotiated a better 3 for $100 deal- next time we'll teach Nicholas to keep his wads of cash in his pockets during negotiations. It seems they would take the radar reading in the 40K zone and argue you were in the 20K zone. Whatever.


We did the normal sightseeing drill in Almaty. Some definite contrast in architecture between the new buildings and the older buildings built in the "soviet style"- style is used very loosely here. For dinner we took in a local folk musical performance in a sauna of a yurt in the Tien Shan Mountains. But the coolest was the trip to the falcon/bird farm where they train falcons as hunting birds. Great time for photography and really impressive creatures. A quick stop in Zharkent before beginning the arduous process of the Chinese border crossing.


Kazakhstan was an interesting place. Yes they are still really pissed about the Borat movie. They are planning a movie showing how great Kazakhstan is, yup it bothers that much.







Chapter 05 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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