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Silk Road Adventure 2019 Chapter Two

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Dispatch from Frank Leonard

It's been weeks since we all started on this ride. A few days ago we celebrated Neil's 75th birthday and it was earlier that day he and I were talking about the morning the two of us were pulled over and I was given a breathalyzer at 10 am. He commented on how that seemed to be an entirely different trip. We tried to recall which town it happened in and it was difficult. This group has seen and experienced so much in the 41 days we've ridden together. The roads have been challenging at times but that is welcome for everyone. The people have all been enchanting to meet. We've been reminded that we are representing our countries and thus the people who live in our countries. Most whom we meet are shy initially but with a quick "Hello" and a broad smile on our part we can open up a halting yet pleasant exchange. Sadly, these are all brief and not deep encounters but they at least give us both the opportunity to connect in a positive way. The most meaningful interactions are with our "in country" guides without whom we would be quite handicapped. They have helped in difficult situations and given us tips to avoid getting ourselves into trouble as well as enlightening us to the culture and history of the areas in which they are the experts. These guides are an essential part of the success of this tour and Helge only deals with the best. His decades of experience and connections in traveling these routes makes the journey much more pleasant and educational for those who travel with him. 



Frank's Gallery






Dispatch from Tom Botz

Due to recently-escalated political tensions, we were denied permission to ride our bikes through Iran. So instead, we flew from Baku to Tehran and spent a few days there. Our hotel was modern and clean and had a great view of the high mountains to the north of the city.


We visited the palace of the Shah, including his impressive car collection. We also toured a powerful museum that was devoted to the Iran-Iraq war. We took a beautiful 6-hour bus tour across the high pass to the shore of the Caspian and spent a night there before returning to Tehran.


After flying back to Baku, we took a truck ferry across the Caspian to Turkmenistan. The ride across that country was beautiful and we spent a couple of days sightseeing in Ashgabat, the capital.


The next country, Uzbekistan, had two of the architectural highlights of the trip. First, Bukhara was spectacular. One of Central Asia’s oldest cities, full of beautiful architecture, including mosques, bazaars, and notably madrassas, Islamic educational institutions from the 1,500’s that taught not only the Koran but also medicine and the sciences. Second, Samarkand had the most beautiful Islamic architecture of the whole trip, especially the Registan, Central Asia’s most spectacular public square.


So far, a lot of the trip had consisted of sightseeing and cultural highlights. Once we entered Tajikistan, the riding itself became the main attraction, as the terrain became mountainous and more challenging. For several days, we rode along the border with Afghanistan and were able to observe life in that country across the river. Then we rode across the famous Pamir Highway into Kyrgyzstan, where we visited a yurt camp and and saw the locals play an age-old game similar to American football, except that it is played on horseback and the football consists of a freshly-killed goat. We even ended up in a snowstorm. Overall, a tremendous time and a lot of excitement before we exited Kyrgyzstan into China.



Tom's Gallery







Dispatch from Bill Whitacre

What happens when you get a call to get on the bikes in the middle of the night so we can get to the port to board a “ferry” to Turkmenistan? I can tell you what get up and get going because this boat only goes when it is fully loaded.


Everything tends to blur for me in the middle of the night so my exact times might be incorrect. What I do remember is getting to the port about 2:00 PM and sleeping in this room until about 6:00 AM and then heading to the loading dock and waiting until 1:30 PM to load the boat.


This was not your typical ferry like we would see in Seattle or Alaska. It was an old Russian freighter that could haul about fifty semi trucks/trailers and a few automobiles. The ship took off at 4:00 PM and we found our bunks that included six of us in one 8X16 foot room. Thank god we had a window!


The arrival in Turkmenistan was pretty amazing twenty four hours later. The port was new and pretty fantastic. We were the only ship at port and about eight hours later, we got through immigration and customs.


We had anticipated riding through Iran instead of taking this “love boat” cruise to Turkmenistan but someone in Iran decided that they didn’t want us running around the country on 1200cc motorcycles. We weren’t deterred so we flew to Iran and toured for three days. With all of this in mind, we also ended up on this unplanned cruise in a very tight place with six other riders and really bad food!



Bill's Gallery






Dispatch from Pablo Valdillo

All of the sudden I discovered that I was riding the border of Afghanistan. We talked about it and I knew it was going to happen but then we did it. It was pretty strange to appreciate and enjoy the country of Tajikistan and then to look across the river and realize how different life is in that 100 yards.


It’s possible that this is one of the most beautiful mountain rides in the world. It is over 150 miles long, a mix of dirt and broken asphalt and much of it is single lane. It is part of the 1100 mile Pamir Highway to China. As far as I’m concerned, the Afghan border section is the most spectacular. I kept thinking that it was going to be over around the next turn, but it wasn’t.


We passed many Afghan villages and people along the way. Even though there is a US Embassy in Kabul, we chose not to go across the border and visit these villages. We were encouraged NOT to go into the country.


With all of this in mind, it was a spectacular experience to ride the border and quite possibly be on the border at times.



Pablo's Gallery






Dispatch from Zoe Garbis

The journey from Tehran to China was a long one, but has convinced me that someday I need to return to Central Asia with my very own motorcycle, and no longer ride pillion on my dad’s.


Due to the newly enforced laws in Iran limiting motorcycles to 250cc, all the other riders were exposed to the “passenger” experience of traveling in the area as we explored Tehran and Chalus by bus. I didn’t mind it much, but I could tell that some of the guys were getting antsy sitting in the bus all day. There was not much we could do about the situation, but Helge and his partners did a wonderful job of making arrangements for the group to still get to enjoy Iran. The highlight for me was visiting the Holy Defence Museum in Tehran, which is without a doubt the best and most interactive museum I have ever seen (it’s almost worth a trip to Tehran just to see the museum again).


After flying back to Baku, we embarked on our “18-hour” ferry trip across the Caspian Sea (which was actually 24+ hours, with an additional half-day spent at the port in Turkmenbashi going through customs). Turkmenistan is a strange and eerie country, and despite studying international affairs at university, I had no idea to expect the level of restriction that people live under. The advantage of riding pillion and not needing to concentrate on the road and traffic (not that there was much of it) is that I get to observe and look around much more than the other riders. Central Asia has been particularly interesting for me to learn about from our local guides as well as our regional guide Farhod, with whom I had multiple conversations about democracy, human rights, and freedom, especially as they relate to the legacy of communist rule in these post-Soviet states. Although Turkmenistan felt odd, too clean, too orderly, and too quiet, it was also notably safe and peaceful. As Farhod pointed out, security and peace in many Central Asian countries comes at the expense of human rights and the sense of liberty that we celebrate back home in the US, but not necessarily at the expense people’s wellbeing. It was very valuable for me to see that the terms “democracy” and “freedom” (how we define them) might not have the same place in traditionally nomadic cultures that rely on strong leadership and prioritize security over other measurements of quality of life.


Whenever I revisit Central Asia with my own bike (which most definitely will happen at some point), I look forward to exploring this further, especially considering that the people we encountered were exceptionally friendly and welcoming. In Tajikistan, it was refreshing to see children outside all the time, smiling and waving to us as we passed by. As we moved into the more remote region along the Pamir Highway and into Kyrgyzstan, I was reminded of both how big and small the world can be at times. Big in the sense that the people who live in the rural mountainous areas have no reason to be concerned with anything on the other side of those mountains like what a certain president has tweeted or which country has signed some agreement with another. But small in the sense that we could share experiences with them, and as foreign as they seemed to us, we came away understanding them and ourselves better.


I began this trip knowing extremely little about Central Asia, and still know relatively little, but I can say that I appreciate seeing the region through its landscapes and roads as well as its cities and tourist attractions, and know with confidence that I would like to return.



Zoe's Gallery






Dispatch from Lisa Fanning

This trip was so rich in images, impressions and experiences, it is hard to corral them into a coherent narrative that truly captures the feel of travelling through Central Asia. How can one explain the exquisite, sophisticated architecture and wonder of a city like Bokahara with words or the tanned, smiling faces of ladies with huge gold fillings in their teeth, decked in shimmering headscarves and boldly patterned outfits or the impossibly rugged majesty of the Pamir Mountains thrusting their icy shoulders against the sky?

Passing through different landscapes allowed the mind to wander, digest and consume. I joined the group in Iran and for a few days, saw a culture very proud of its history and so joyful that foreigners—especially Americans-- would come to learn more about it. Achaemenid artifacts, Persian carpets, sophisticated cuisine, the swirling, milling energy of the grand bazaar, gracious people. I was hooked.

Travelling away from the modern, hyper-constructed city of Ashgabat through the endless miles of desert where ruins, both ancient and relatively recent tiny homesteads failed, brought home the harsh reality of living in this part of the world. In more hospitable areas, countless tiny villages with shady, treelined thoroughfares eked out a living from small scale farming in scenes time immemorial—women in headscarves and threadworn clothing bent 90 degrees at the hip weeding or harvesting, too busy to look up towards the noise of 8 motorbikes zooming by. The only ones not hard at work were the small children, who often rushed to the side of the road to wave at the riders or try to “high five” them at their peril. Oh, and the tired looking dogs who only came to life as they zeroed in on the bikes, teeth bared, barking in hot pursuit.

In a tenderly absurd moment, I found myself laughing at the hilarity of traffic jams in the middle of nowhere, this time not by cars or trucks or even humans, but seething masses of wooly, fat tailed sheep or scrawny necked goats or even some very fine looking horses.

I truly loved the towering monumentality of the Pamir Mountains. I can’t even do them justice. So, I’m not even going to try.

Everywhere, I felt the extreme curiousity and friendliness of the locals, even in a tiny village bazaar where everything could be bought and brought away. From baskets of round flat saucers of bread with pricked designs to heaps of apricots both orange and white to newly purchased sheep which were being popped into the trunk of a beat up sedan. Even people in the spectacular city of Bokhara, known for its stunning Unesco World Heritage architectural wonders and gorgeous metalwork, silk rugs, miniature portraits and many other art forms, displayed this same graciousness which continued to delight and astound me. I believe the sense of hospitality runs very deep in all Central Asian cultures. With this kind of welcome, who wouldn't want to return?



Helge's Photo Gallery



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