Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Tunnel of Death

Waking up in the morning I rode round to the campsite and met up with the French guys, Eva and a first meeting with a Swiss biker who would become my travel companion for the next few months. Herbie had previously met Ollie and Jenny in Tehran while applying for visas.
I spent the day hammering the handlebar bolt straight and doing some running repairs before ollie and Jenny turned up in the evening, once the road re-opened. We then spent 5 days camping and chilling out amoung the beautiful mountain scenery.

The lake

The girls making dinner

Align Left
Me and Ol doing some repairs

Morning Mist

During our time at the lake a Russian film crew turned up making a nature programme about the ex-soviet countries. After an interview, we were invited to an evening of traditional music and dancing. This prompted the inevitable of 4 foreigners being filmed for TV drunk on vodka dancing round a fire. The finale being a rendition from Ollie of an old traditional Cornish drinking song with myself and Jenny on backing vocals.

A Whirling Dervish or a cornish man fuelled with Vodka

The Girls getting Down

With slightly sore heads it was now time to head to Dushanbe and get the rest of the repairs done on the bike.

I’d heard about a tunnel North of Dushanbe infamous in the biking community for it’s difficulty to negoiate. Next stop a date with some crazy riding…….
The 5km long tunnel, built by the Iranians 3 years ago, had been an engineering disaster. The Chinese, known for their road building skills, had been drafted in to correct all the previous mistakes made by the Iranians.

Great Scenery

Chinese workers

Approaching the tunnel we first had to negotiate a couple of big lakes before the tunnel proper. The left tunnel was completely closed due to the fact it had turned into a fast running river. Both directions were now directed through one half of the tunnel.

The start of the tunnel system

The tunnel is a mixture of lakes, huge potholes filled with water, barely any lighting and choked with car fumes.
Diving into a metre deep water filled pothole for the second time I prayed that I wouldn’t go down in such a hostile environment. It was time to let the landrover lead and watch the back axel. It was impossible to tell whether the road was just covered in surface water or huge submerged potholes.
After a few k’s of hellish potholes, the tunnel suddenly turned into a lake with no way to dodge or see the potholes. Fingers crossed I plowed on….
I was finally through the worst and the light at the end of the tunnel was the most welcome sight I’d seen in a long time. I was through and back out into the fresh air!

It was then a mixture of dirt tracks and and perfect tarmac all the way to Dushanbe, time to rest and get the bike fully fixed.

Tajik Traffic Jam


The hostel owner hooked us up with a mechanic to get all the repairs done on the bike. This ended up costing a princely sum of £40 dollars!  Job done it was time to head South towards the Pamirs….

Originally we’d decided to head East from Dushanbe towards the Pamir highway but we’d heard that the road had been closed due to military action. They’d recently had a local election where the winning candidate had been murdered by the loser. The guy had gone to Afganistan and brought back some Mujahideen to shoot the new leader. The military then went in to squash the problems so the road was now completely closed.
We would have to head South to the Afgan boarder and take a minor road running along the boarder to get to the Pamir region.
This was the best thing that could have happened, we ended up having the best 3 days of the entire trip….
With perfect tarmac to the Afgan boarder we made swift progress. The first sighting of the beautiful valley and river separating Tajikistan and Afganistan is an awe-inspiring sight.

Dino heading to the Tajik , Afgan Boarder

The following 3 days to get to Khorog at the start of the Pamir Highway had some of the worst roads on the trip with rough track, river crossings, landslides and even riding under a waterfall. We wild camped everywhere, and I just couldn’t get over the friendliness of the people who were evidentedly not used to seeing tourists.
It had been amazing, and we hadn’t even hit the start of the Pamirs…….

River Crossing

Dynamiting a landslide

Road passes under a waterfall

Stunning green valley

Crazy Roads

After 3 days we trundled in to Khorog a little dirty and smelly, in need of a good bath but in high spirits.
Entering the Pamir we took a side road to the Wakim Corridor running down the Afgan boarder, famed for being the most beautiful place in the whole of the Pamir region. Simply stunning scenery and very welcoming people were everywhere….

We arrived in Ishkashim just in time for the Saturday Afgan market situate in no-man’s-land. Depositing our passports at the Tajik side we walked across the bridge into the outdoor market. The market didn’t have a lot to offer with the most interesting element being the differences in dress between the Afgan people and the more western dressed Tajiks.

Afgan Market


The Beautiful Wakim Corridor

During the next few days we followed the corridor soaking in the scenery, staying in traditional Pamir houses and visiting Bibi Fatima hot springs. Searingly hot water with a raging torrent of a plunge pool in a waterfall down an old rusty ladder.

The hot Springs

The Pamir homestays are the best way to experience the Pamir region and meet some of the locals in their own homes. Generally without furniture, the walls and floors are adorned with carpets with raised plinths for eating and sleeping. Most houses provided 3 meals a day serving great meals and fantastic, rich butter and yogurt made from Yaks milk. Roughly around $10 a night including all meals it’s also a pretty cheap way to travel through the region. The level of hospitality shown had parallels to my experiences in Turkey.

Pamir Homestay

It was then time to leave the corridor via a very sandy, corrugated road back up to Pamir Highway and on to the high altitude of the Pamir plateau and some good tarmac.

This region is different in aspect to the corridor. More desolate but equally as beautiful, it’s a series of dusty windswept isolated towns with stunning backdrops. With temperatures getting down to -60 degrees in winter it’s an extremely harsh place live. Some of the towns are dwindling in size with people moving to Khorog and Dushanbe for work and an easier life. Staying at a homestay of an English teacher I got chatting to her daughter about life in such a harsh place. She was currently on summer holiday during her break from University in Khorag with no plans to come back to the town once graduating. The activity of the city, friends and modern tajik life was too much of a draw.

Pamir Oven

The local Magazine (shop)

With Jenny becoming really sick, and returning from the Yurt doctor with an amusing bandage on her head with Garlic and angelica underneath, the Bridges decided to push on to Osh in Kygyrzstan for some real medicine and a few home comforts.

We said our goodbyes.....
It would be me, Herbie and Joe (a Canadian backpacker we kept bumping into everywhere who’d been hitching the Pamir) to see out the rest of Tajikistan……
Leaving Lake Karakul it was time to head to the boarder over a the highest pass i crossed to date, 4600 metres.
Unfortunately it'd rained the previous day which fell as snow on the pass. It made the trip across no-mans-land into Kyrgyzstan a very slow push through snow and bad mud.

Yak's Milk boiled down and dried to make an edible block for Winter

Crossing the pass at the boarder

The tyres had worked fine on the dirt roads but were really struggling with the sand and mud. I made a decision to get some real knobbly tyres to make the riding a bit safer. It would have to wait until Kazakhstan...

For me Tajikistan has been the best country so far, even surpassing Turkey. The scenery has been amazing and the people ultra friendly with a real interest in meeting foreigners passing through.

On the Kygrz side of the boarder we met the French who’d been stuck there for 3 days as they’d made a mistake on the visa dates. We said hello and then headed for the easiest, quickest boarder we’d experienced so far. No forms, 10 minutes to write our details down and stamp the passports.
We were now in Kyrgzstan! The land of the horse awaits….

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Uzbekistan, nice but a little bit dull

On the road to Khiva we bumped into 3 French guys (Bernard, Jean- Marie and Dominic) and a Russian girl (Eva) travelling in 2 old Citroens. They are writing a book about environmental sustainability in the stans with Eva being their official photographer, we'd previously met them waiting for a boat to Kazakhstan at the ferry port in Bacu. Travelling together, we made our way to Khiva with a brief stop over to wild camp in the desert near an old ruined fort.

Wild Camp in the desert

Ollie forced to use a very public squat toilet


Khiva, formely the centre of the Uzbek slave trade, restored during the soviet era and turned into a city museum, is a beautiful place to spend a few relaxing days with some magnificent architecture. Despite being lovingly restored the old town is very quiet and lacks the life of a living breathing city with most of the original occupants moving to the near by new town.

Khiva City Walls

Khiva old town

After 4 days of recovery we headed off to Bukhara, another town famed for it's architecture.

Upon leaving Khiva I had the first of my crashes...

To get to the main road we needed to cross a floating pontoon bridge, previously crossed to get into Khiva. Half way across I lost the front end making a turn between two sections on the smooth, corrugated metal surface. After going down I ran to check out the state of the bike. No major damaged to me or the bike just a slightly dented right pannier, nothing my trusty hammer couldn't fix.

Crossing the floating bridge for the first time


Bukhara is a lovely town with striking mosques and medrassas. Less sterile than Khiva with a lot more people going about their daily activities.

More blue tiles in Bukhara

Needing to go to Tashkent to pick up a China visa, we decided to take a train rather than make a 1000km round trip in the searing 40 degree Uzbek heat. We went for the overnight sleeper train, with only third class available it turned out to be a noisy uncomfortable night with very little sleep had by all.


On arrival, it was straight to the Chinese Embassy to apply for our visas. We queue for 5 hours and still didn't get through the embassy gate. The system for queuing was unfathomable which seemed to revolve around young pretty dolled up girls getting let in by the Uzbek guard. One Polish guy had been there 3 times from 6.30 and only got in once he'd bribed the guard the night before. I felt very sorry for him when he came out visa-less due to the fact his flight to China was out of Kyrgyzstan rather than Uzbekistan. Bar donning a short skirt, high heels and make-up it wasn't going to happen at the embassy. A new approach was needed┘..

80 Euros of Uzbeks largest note

The change from a curry

We checked into a great hotel with a swimming pool and nice restaurant, a great place to chill out for the next 4 days. The hotel also pointed us in the direction of an agency that could help us with our visa problems. The agency gave us the green light, it would cost us twice the price of applying to the embassy direct┘.. It had to be done so we paid the money and headed back to the hotel to sit by the pool for a couple of days and wait for the phone call.

While at the hotel a couple of groups passed through. A dragoman truck carring 17 backpackers across Central Asia as far as Istanbul and a group of 15 bikers travelling from the UK to Vladivostok and then shipping round to the west coast of the US and finishing in New York, all in the space of 4 months!

The day of reckoning came to go and pick up the visas. We turned up at the office and the lady nipped out to fetch the passports from the embassy, hopefully with a shinny new china visa inside.
Luckily, Ollie checked the visa dates before we left which stated we had to enter China before the 10th August, this was a massive problem as all the Chinese permissions we'd obtained had our entry date as the 25th. After a bit of arguing the agency refused to give us our money back for an essentially worthless visa. Also, we wouldn't be able to apply for a new one until the 10th had passed!

The government in Uzbekistan are very protective of tourists after an incident a few years ago where some corrupt police stopped a van of tourists and extorted a few hundred dollars.
After this incident, all police harassing tourists instantly lose their jobs. Armed with this knowledge, Ollie made a fake phone call to the police and the money was quickly produced.
It was then back to Buhkara and a next day drive out to the boarder and the place I'd been dreaming about for over a year, Tajikistan....

Uzbekistan is all about the cities. Fantastic architecture abounds but you do tend to get a bit bored of similar blue tiled buildings. For me landscapes are the thing I love and with most of Uzbek being flat desert scrub -land, I found the country nice but not particularly inspiring.


The start of the real adventure..

Tajikistan is the poorest of all the counties in the stans with an annual budget less than a major hollywood film, 40% of which goes into the cost of the army primarly to secure the boarder with Afganistan. The country generally exists on credits and loans with Russian having half the shares in the Nurek hydroelectric plant. A Swiss based charity, Aga Khan Foundation, has pumped large amount of money and resources into the Pamir region (the most remote and poorest region) to help rebuild the infrastructure and stave off starvation during and after the civil war.

Tajikistan, originally of Persian identity was invaded by a succession of Turkic invaders who outnumbered the Tajik people to such an extent that the Tajiks adopted the Turkic culture creating a peaceful and balanced society. This was disrupted with conquest by the Mongols and later Tamerlane, known for his mass-murdering ways. Today, you will still see statues of Tamerlane in the cities all over the region.
During the 15 century the Russians pushed South giving them effect control over the North and West of Tajikistan with the East (modern day Pamir region) an effect no-man's-land. With no country making claim to the region it became a strategic duel, known as the 'great game', between Britain and Russia over control of an area that could potentionally open up trade routes to the then British controlled India. Finally, the Russians prevailed and kicked out the British leaving the whole of Tajikistan under Russian control.
During the early 90's Russia pulled out and Tajikistan decended into civil war as clan factions previously kept in line by the soviets exploded. A ceasefire was agreed in 1996 and the country has been slowly getting up from it's knees since then.

With only 180k's to go we thought we carry on to lake Iskander-Kul. The logical assumption was to push on and meet up with friends we met on the way, especially since we'd heard the main road was shut during the day due to road works and only open at nighttime to let the traffic pass from the north to Dushanbe, the capital. The road then desended into a bad dirt track, which was to be come the norm over the coming month in Tajikistan.

The road from Penjikent

Night started to fall so I started to look for a place to camp. Asking at petrol station if it was ok to put up my tent, I was shown the 100's of scorpions infesting the ground, I decided it was probably a good idea to push on.
I'd previously gone ahead of Ollie and Jenny, with bikes monentum is the key. It sometimes more tricky to ride on a dirt road when you're not travelling at a decent pace.

Finally I hit the main, tarmac road. It was only a 30K ride to the lake and with no places to camp it made sense to push on and wake up with a lovely view of a beautiful alpine lake. A decision I would come to regret....

It then happened....
An on-coming lorry pushed me into the side of the road where I hit a pile of sand (used for upgrading the road) at about 60kph. I was flung across the road and the bike and me went down on my left side then high-sided to the right throwing me off the bike landing on my right shoulder about 5 yards from the bike. The lorry driver didn't stop but just carried on going.

After picking myself and the bike up i assessed the damage.

The list of bike damage:
Destroyed windscreen
Broken headlamp glass and main bulb
Both wing mirrors snapped off
Bolt connecting the handle bars to the headstock was bent
Very scratched visor

And me:
Ligament strained in my right shoulder
Bruised forearm
9 friction burns to the hands and wrists

The damage

I'd been pretty lucky not too much damage to myself or the bike.

I had no choice now to carry on to the lake and try and do some running repairs in the morning.
I hit the lake at 12.30 after climbing over a final pass in the dark. I would have to hold up in a hut before rounding the lake to the campsite in the morning. Time to attend to the wounds and get some sleep......