Category Archives: Uzbekistan

The Road to Dushanbe

23.05.09

It was 18 days ago when I last did serious miles on the bike and I woke up early today to recify that. The goal was Dushanbe … 500 km, one border and 2 high passes away.

Vlad came round at 8am to pick me up and take me to his garage where my bike was stored. I spent some time preparing my luggage and bike while Vlad zoomed off to do some errands and pick up a bolt and some hose clamps for me. By the time he returned, Zhenya had joined us and the boys decided they would ride with me to the Tajik border, about 100km south of Tashkent.

Despite best intentions to leave early, it was after 11am by the time we were all on the road and fuelled up. We got to the border about 12:30 and chatted to the Uzbek border police for the best part of half an hour before pushing onto the border itself. They had vague recollections of another motorcyclist coming thru here a few days earlier.  I said fond farewells to Vlad and Zhenya, the two young Tashkent bikers who had helped me totally while I was in Tashkent. The guys had been terrific and I knew I would miss their company and help. I entered the border zone and shut off my engine to hear their two Kawasakis screaming away in the distance, heading back to Tashkent.

Border formalities were simple and relatively quick. The Uzbek side naturally enough needed a ot of paperwork, but the Tajik side was a very simple passport stamp and a 5 day customs importation permit. Unfortunately 5 days is the maximum they can give at the border. He opened his logbook to prove it … sure enough every vehicle had been given only 5 days. I even saw the other motorcycle in there – a Russian called Gleb, on a Honda, 4 days ago.

By 2:45 I was on the road in TJ.
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Back in Tashkent

Back in Tashkent and ready to go, but as is often the case after a delay, a check of my documents revealed a snag. My Kirgiz visa has only 4 days left on it … no problem if I was exclusively going to Kirgizia on my way to Almaty, But I want to go to Tajikistan and the Pamir first … and it will be 7-8 days at least before I am out of Kirgizstan.  So  I spent yesterday running around filling in forms queueing and making exhorbitent payments into banks accounts for the Kirgiz consul.  The upshot of it is I should have a new visa ready to collect by close of business Friday, allowing me to get on the road by Saturday morning.

Today was a chance to play with the bike, and take it out for a ride to Chimgan, high in the mountains, near the Kirgiz border.  I had really missed the bike.  Vlad had arranged for my front fairing to be professionally repainted in my absence.  Its now looking better than all the other panels … but for how long.

Up at Chimgan, I saw a small glacier about 2km off the main road.  I needed a off road goon about on the bike, and a few quad trails in the general direction of the glacier were all it took for me to tell Vlad and his friend Gali to wait for me … i had to get some gooning out of the system.  As it happens the glacier-ette was rideable in its lower stages.  There was a lot of grit and rocks in the ice and that provided enough traction :-)

Just before getting on to the glacier itself

Late Friday update … got the Kirgiz visa late this afternoon. Also killed time today by going to a hairdresser and spicing up my haircut with an uzbek boyband look. The things you do when you have been too long on a motorcycle! For a few moments i even contemplated the mondo enduro look, going surfer bleach blond, but only for a few minutes. I never for a minute considered the ‘Claudio’ look from Ulan Ude. So the Uzbek boy band look it is.

Rock on !!

Route Thoughts

Tashkent:  09.05.09

(note track maps now updated in the Trip Data section)

One of the principles behind choosing the overall route was where possible I was going to try routes that I felt were lesser travelled or untravelled by western motorcycle travellers … in doing that, documenting them will expand the knowledge base on sites like Horizons Unlimited.  I also had the chance to explore some regions that have had a long standing interest to me, like the North Caucasus, Kalmykia et al.  So this is a chance to review some of those routes as alternatives for those planning on heading out on the great trek east, to Mongolia, Vladivostok, Magadan or wherever.

Lets start with the Balkans.

Its a bit out of the way for most people heading east thru Ukraine, but our experience in the Balkans was very good.  Inexpensive food, accomodation, great biking roads, plenty of good fuel and a real sense of adventure going thru places like Albania give the Balkans a real thumbs up from me.  Sure there are a couple of highlights heading thru Czech Republic and Slovakia, but in general its all over very quickly and its all very tame.  The Balkans was better preparation for conditions in the CIS, while still remaining very close to EU countries in case of problems.  Borders were no problems at all … very quick, and the only  point I would make is definately take a green card from your insurance company.

Crimea:

Certainly more interesting that the Ukraine in general.  Ukraine lasks the diversity of Russia and for me is just one of the countries I push thru on my way to Russia, tolerating the overzealous cops and border officials as par for the course.  (in terms of dodgy cops and border officials, recent years has seen a marked improvement on the Russian side, while the Ukraine is still dodgy as you like … such that Russia is notably more transparent, open, efficient and less corrupt than Ukraine)  Perhaps the main areas of interest in Ukraine are the Carpathian mountains in the east and Crimea in the south.  I missed the Ukrainian Carpathians (having seen them in Romania) and the interesting scenery and ethnic history of Crimea definately helped break up the Ukraine.  Travelling that way also allowed me to head pretty much directly into the Caucasus once I entered Russia.  Also found a cracking bike mechanic in Yalta … that alone could be a reason to have Crimea on a route east.  Any teething problems can be nipped in the bud there at Valera’s place.

North Caucasus:

This has largely been avoided by western bikers, partly because of a lack of knowledge about what is there and to a lesser degree a fear about safety.  I hope this blog has shown how much interesting peoples and cultures can be found between Adegeya in the west and Dagestan in the east.  On top of that you have Europe’s highest mountain range.  Considering how dull a long ride across Russia can be if you stick to the main routes I personally thing taking in interesting regions like the North Caucasus should be compulsory.  The last thing you want from Russia is an endless chore of just eating up miles for the sake of getting across the country … one of the most interesting counties in the world in terms of both peoples and geography.  If I could only recommend one thing from this trip so far, its to go to the North Caucasus, with a bit of knowledge about the region and you will get a hell of a lot out of it.

The Beyneu Route:

The two main routes to  central asia for western motorcyclists are to go via Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan or to go down Kazakhstan thru Aktube to Chimkent.  There are plenty of reasons to look for alternatives, such as the Beyneu route I took.  (a) the ferry from Baku to Turkmenistan has no schedule.  Its not unheard of to wait 3-4 days for the ferry, spend a day or more on the ferry and then wait in harbour at Turkmenistan end for another 2 days before unloading.  On top of all that uncertainty, Turkmenistan may give you a 5 day transit visa, and may insist on a tourist visa.  The Tourist visa requires you to be escorted thru the country at great expense.  in any case, the visas are not that easy to get, and the only thing worth seeing in the country is the Darvarza burning crater, I can think of 100 reasons not to travel thru Turkmenistan.

(b) travelling via Aktyubinsk (Aktube) means you miss the highlights of Uzbekistan.  You wont see Khiva, Bukhara or Samarkand.  You wont see Khwarezm or the Karakalpaks.  Of the 5 central asian republics, 3 are countries I reckon you definately want to see … Uzbekistan for the culture and food, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for the mountains and mountain roads.  Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are (in my book) “missable”.

Putting that all together, and the route through Beyneu should be the main route.  The route of first instance !  I would recommend it.  The Kazakh side is pretty dull, but you do get to take in all the interesting bits of Uzbekistan without going out of your way.  And it is a route that is reasonably well used by Russian and Kazakh bikers!

Bukhara and Samarkand

Tashkent, 05.05.09

After the long ride into Bukhara, Andrei, myself and the other 4 Russian bikers from Samara meet up for a late hotel breakfast before heading into downtown Bukhara by Taxi.  The plan was to spend most of the day seeing the sights. Like Khiva the previous day, Bukhara had its heyday when the Moslem world was at its peak.  It was the only conquered city that Genghis Khan bothered entering after capturing it, such was its fabled beauty.  (Usually he just allowed his troops to pillage and plunder the enemy city).  But enter Bukhara he did and was said to be struck with awe upon seeing the Kalyan Minaret.  It still stands today and the square in which is stands is a stunning sight.  We decided that despite motorcycles (nor any other vehicles) not being allowed into the square, we had to chance it, come back with the bikes and try to shoot off a couple of shots before we got chased out of the square.

It was after 5pm when we finally had done our sightseeing, returned to the hotel, showered and continued our ride south east.  I had been heading south-east since Atyrau, over a week ago.  We only got 200 km done before it was getting dark with threatening rain, thunder and lightning.  Rather than get soaking wet in the dark, we decided to pull into a chaikhana, get some food and a room for the night.  The room was free, we just paid for the food (mostly shashlik), but as usual, there was no running water.  6 of us and a lot of riding gear slept on the floor of that dusty room!

We all woke early on the morning of the 5th May, packed up the gear and were moving by 7:30 am. I had hit the end of the long ride south east.  From our overnight camp, we were going to be heading north east, through Shakhrisabz, Samarkand and Tashkent.  As we approached Shakhrisabz there was something else I hadnt seen for a long time … mountains.  Since leaving Elbrus weeks ago I had been riding across flat plains, endlessly, broken only by the short descent down the cliffs that market the end of the Ustyurt Plateau.  Here between Samarkand and Shakhrisabz was the far western end of the Tien Shan.

We stopped in Shakhrisabz to visit an old Mosque from the 13th century which has a tomb which purports to house (or previously housed) the body of Tamerlane.   (see photos section) Samarkand also purports to hold his body so not sure which is which.  More research needed.  Tamerlane (Amir Temur) was an central asian warlord who falsely claimed descent from Genghis in order to legitimise his claims to greatness.  As powerful he became in his realm, he never amassed enough power to threaten Europe or China the way other steppe warlords like Genghis or Attilla did.  Accordingly, he really doesnt add up to a hill of beans in my book!  But the Uzbeks think he was pretty cool, probably since he was one of them.

Andrei and I left the others in Shakrisabz and headed into the hills.  Here poppies grew wild beside the highway and in the fields… it was a subtle reminder that we were less than 2 hours away from Northern Afghanistan – the worlds biggest source of poppies.   We had to cross a pass up at 1660 metres to get to Samarkand.  On the way we passed a number of nice looking chaikhanas.  Since we hadnt had breakfast, we decided to stop off for some food and some tea.  We found a great place halfway up the mountain, ordered some shashlik for breakfast, and waited for the others.  By the time the others arrived, we were sprawled out in the sun and fresh mountain air, eating the best shashlik of the trip, and drinking tea while a waterfall behind us provided the background music.  It was about as idyllic as it gets.

After brunch, we crossed the pass, and headed to Urgut.  It was a town Max (the central asian guru) had recomended to us, but Max was no longer with us, and we were unable to raise him by telephone.  So we headed to Urgut with no idea what Max wanted us to see there.  We took a side road up to 1300 metres high up in the mountains above Urgut, but didnt see anything out of the ordinary so left to head back down the mountain and on to Samarkand.  I did notice that in this region there are a lot of non Uzbek looking faces.  I assumed they were Tajiks and this was confirmed in Samarkand, a city with a large Tajik population.  Pretty much all the nationalities I have run into since the North Caucasus (with the exception of the Russians of course) have been Turkic or Mongolic or a mixture of these two main bloodlines that have dominated central asia since history began recording such things.  But the Tajiks are different.  They are not Turko-Mongolic but are closely related to the Afghans and look less oriental as a consequence.

A brief diversion again … a common error is comfuse Turkic with Turkish.  Turkish refers to people from Turkey.  Turkic refers to a bunch of related peoples that stretches from Yakutsk region in the North and east to Turkey in the west.  Turkic peoples are believed to originate in western Mongolia, and in the Altai region of Russia.  Todays “Turkish” people are the just the western turkic peoples who took over Asia minor, and interbred with the middle eastern and european peoples living there, thus taking on their less Asiatic appearance.  But the Turkic homeland is right next door to the Mongol homeland.

Samarkand is one of those places that looks great in the photos but Max had warned me not to expect too much.  The sights are not located together and there is no “old city” such as there is in Bukhara and Khiva.  I made my mind up that I was just going to see the world famous “Registan” and hit the road to Tashkent.  Max had a number of biking buddies in Tashkent and I had more luggage rack problems.  The location of the problems in the luggage rack makes it crystal clear to me they came from the lifting of the bike by the luggage rack.  The side bags themselves have been no problem at all since Zhenya the Kalmyk Biker sorted them out properly in Elista over a week ago, but now both sides of the rack have broken, in the same sort of place, just days apart.  Considering one side bag is twice as heavy as the other, (the bag that goes on the  fuel tank side is packed lighter) it clearly isnt from the bags.  In any case, I would try and fix the rack properly in Tashkent.

We found the Registan easily enough, but our attempts to gain entry by dodgy means were foiled by a sharp eyed Uzbek Babushka.  Time was running short in any case, and Andrei and I just thought “stuff it”, and hit the road out of Samarkand, north east to Tashkent, arriving on the outskirts of Tashkent just before dusk.  We grabbed a kilogram of freshly picked strawberries from some old uzbek ladies selling them at the side of the road, then telephoned Zhenya, our biking contact in Tashkent (courtesy of Max) and waited for him to come and lead us thru the streets of Tashkent.  Zhenya had a big garage at his place where we could store the 5 extra bikes and had arranged an apartment for us 5 minutes away.

We caught up with Max at Zhenya’s.  Max had arrived 24 hours earlier and had managed to find a metal worker to manufacture an all new rear sprocket which he fitted while we queued to jam the 5 bikes (plus Max’s, plus Zhenya’s 2 bikes) into Zhenya’s garage before taxiing back to the apartment Zhenya had teed up.

Russia and the FSU is great like that.  If you really need a part (like a sprocket) they can just make one within 24 hours, almost anywhere.

Khwarezm

03.05.09, Bukhara

Max had insisted on a strict schedule. Three alarms went off around 5:30 as we prepared for a big day on the road. Our Kungrad host brought us breakfast and bottled water as we prepped the 3 BMWs in his dusty “back yard”. By 7:45 we were on the road. By 9am we had left Karakapakia and entered Khwarezm. Khwarezm is the lush green oversized oasis created by the Amu Darya river splintering into a bunch of different branches that over centuries have acted as irrigation canals. This Oasis in the desert is 300 km long and 100 km wide and is densely populated with several large cities crammed into it. Its also green. I hadnt seen grass or trees since the Ural river and Atyrau 1000 km ago. It made a nice change and a refreshing burst of colour to see rice paddies, poplar trees lining the highway, as they do so often in central asia

Khwarezm also plays a key part in the whole Genghis Khan story, that this trip (and frankly any trip to Central Asia) bumps into again and again. It was the then Shah of Khwarezm that brought Genghis into Central Asia. In those days Khwarezm was an enormous empire, covering most of central asia and much of Iran as well. It was one of the richest Muslim states in a time when the muslims and Chinese were really the only “wealthy” or even “educated”people on earth. The Shah didnt so much as ask Genghis to pop by next time he was in the area; rather he captured a Mongol trade caravan and then executed the 3 ambassadors Genghis had personally selected and sent to investigate the seizure. Genghis responded as only he knew how, and took on an army over twice the size of the Mongols’ 100,000 strong force.

You can guess who won … Genghis Khan is a household name, but the Shah of Khwarezm is not, and he died a hunted man, from exhaustion and cold on a nameless Caspian sea Island, after he had earlier fled to Urgench (now todays Konye-urgench).

Max took us to the best preserved old city in Khwarezm, Khiva, where we stopped for 5 hours for lunch and sightseeing … I will let the pictures tell the story.  Max left early. He needed to get to Tashkent and sort out his sprocket, while Andrei and I enjoyed Khiva.

We hit the road a 5pm and rode for 5 hours to get to Bukhara, where we met up with some of Andrei’s biker friends from Samara, who had started a couple of days before us.  We met up at 11pm at the hotel Max recommended but it was full, so we found another place on the outskirts of town and got 3 rooms for the night.

It was the longest day on the road so far and racked up well over 700 kms. I am now over 64 degrees east, and have racked up almost 11,500 kms.