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Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by joshuwaa, May 9, 2017.
Found your thread today, very engaging, thanks.
I wondered if you were one of the bikers @gperkins came across. Big wide world and yet two separate ride reports I'm following and you meet up. Superb.
So I'm still in Osh! A very long break. The Czech guy in our little Pamir group got very ill on the day we were going to leave so me and Oki stuck around like good parents to babysit him. We have a lot of time spare and needed a break anyway so it's been nice, not for Antonin though....
Here's a blog post for the first couple of days ride of the pamir, it's a long'un. Going to try copy pasta but if it doesn't go well here's a link: https://travellingent.wordpress.com/2017/08/08/day-87-to-90-dushanbe-to-almost-khorog/
Woke up to my body giving me the middle finger, everything ached, the bed was so uncomfortable, springs poked out everywhere. When I arrived at the hostel it was the last bed in the room, I hadn’t thought anything of it, but now I know why it was the last pick. Luckily the girl next to me was packing up her stuff to leave so I shoved all my stuff over, changed the sheets and stole that one instead. I grabbed a little breakfast and headed straight off to the Motorcycle club place, the mechanic said he’d be there about 10am to make start on the front fork, cleaning it up ready for the Pamir. Charlie from NZ joined me on his bike, he needed some work too, we had a great chat while we waited for the mechanic about the bikes and travel, he’s done a hell of a lot of it, on different bikes in cars and on foot (http://russelsenroute.com/dushanbe-tajikistan/).
Missing a tooth, and bozeyed
Anton the mechanic had somehow managed to find some seals in town, or bought his own spares, I wasn’t sure. I could have hugged him when he arrived with them. I got to work removing the fork while he opened up the garage, then handed it to him for the complicated bit of taking it to pieces. I can do the basics but I’m not about to wing it repairing a fork in Tajikistan where there’s no backup if I mess it up. He got the fork cleaned up and even buffed out some chips in it, unfortunately the seals he’d found were 1mm off in height, so they didn’t fit snug and the fork wouldn’t go back together. He did give me a smaller spring to put in though so my seal would be held even tighter, hopefully stopping any leaks. While Anton was hard at work putting my fork back together I’d found a broken indicator identical to mine, except broken in the opposite way, I got to work Frankensteining them together to make one working one, though the plastic is orange unlike the other one.
The complicated bit. I watched closely
Me and Oki were a little apprehensive about the Pamir, we’d both been speaking to people on the road and in the hostel about it. Anytime you meet someone around here, they’ve either done, or are on their way to the Pamir. We’d heard a lot of things, some contradictory, some lining up and it was starting to seem like we’d taken on a big challenge, but it was possible. We were in the right season for it, most of the melts had finished and the water level was dropping, though it was still very hot. The roads sounded difficult but passable with patience. Nobody was quite sure what to make of me doing it on what is a 90% road bike. Most people were too polite to say “it’s the wrong bike” but some people said you’ll make it but it won’t be easy. Fair enough, I can deal with that, I’m not in a rush, I just want to make it in one piece and enjoy it.
We were planning to leave on Day 88 but I spent most of the night on the toilet instead of sleeping. So by the time 8am rolled around I was feeling like death and had only a few hours broken sleep. I was going nowhere. Oki had stayed in a private room and very kindly donated me her bed for the day, leaving me with water, electrolytes and medicine. I got a good few hours sleep and returned to the kitchen in the late afternoon where all the bikers were sat chatting. Everyone backed away from me as I walked in but were all worried how I was doing. Partly because they’re nice people, partly because they wanted to know if it was food poisoning, since we’d all eaten the same thing the night before. I was feeling much better after some food and sleep though so we were ready to crack on in the morning.
The gang! All the bikers with the Mechanic up front. I think he fixed something for everyone
The one day delay meant we were leaving at the same time as Peter (Dutch guy riding an AJP) and Antonin (Czech guy on a BMW GS) and we all wanted to do the same route. The north pass over Tavildara, we’d heard it was going to be the roughest part of our route so we were glad for some company over it. We had no idea what to expect from it. The roads for the first couple of hours were pretty normal, good tarmac winding through towns and villages. We had a quick stop for a bite to eat at a shop, and met a Tajik guy who was almost fluent in 4 languages, very odd out here, working in a little road side shop, we’ve no idea what his story was but we were all sure it wasn’t completely legitimate.
The roads deteriorated quite quickly after that, hitting long sections of unpaved road, I slowed a lot to get comfortable and keep Donkey safe from the biggest holes. We got to a checkpoint and jumped off to let them copy down our passport details into a huge book. Then the road got really interesting, it was off into the mountains following the river, the first section we came to had a bridge that was almost washed away, bent and crooked just staying over the gap but it was still stable.
The crooked bridge. We thought this was a crazy stretch of road. We didn’t by the end of the day
The road wound around the valley following the river, constantly cutting back into the mountains for a hairpin then back out again, these made for our first water crossings, small streams running out of the mountains, straight across the road and off the edge. It’s very easy to see how susceptible the road is to land slides, there’s no protection and they’re mostly just hard packed dirt on rocks, easily disturbed by a rush of water from a days rain.
The simplest of water crossings, flat, clear and wide
We were roasting in our bike gear by this point it was still 40 something degrees with very little wind or shelter, and we weren’t going fast enough to get a breeze through. So at one of the water crossing we decided to just take a bath. It was freezing cold snow melt after all, perfect for cooling down, I had a nice sit down in all my bike gear in the water, the others lay in it or just splash themselves cool. That’s when the Muztoo guys came through, they had a good laugh and a stare at the idiot overlanders sitting in a roadside stream and lying down to cool off.
This was amazing. Though it took my waterproof boots 3 days to dry, they hold water.
These roads carried on for a few hours, not too challenging but still needing 100% concentration on the road instead of the scenery, and not too fast, since I was bouncing around everywhere on Donkey’s road suspension, feeling every bump and sometimes scraping the belly pan if I misjudged a rock or pot hole. Then we hit the section of Bull Dust we’d heard about from a few people usually recalled as “that fucking bull dust that had us off the bike”. It’s insanely fine dust, mixed with rock and gravel, it acts like thick mud to ride in, bashing the front wheel in different directions. Underneath this though was deep holes and a rocky surface you couldn’t see or predict. I was leading at the time and didn’t even notice it was dust until I was in it, it looks just like the rest of the road. I was going way too fast so I try to slow down this just made the front wheel tuck deeper into the dust though and hit a big rock, I got thrown to one side almost out the seat and the back wheel hit a rock, coming the same way, so I was still upright, just 1 foot to the right of where I had been. I opened the throttle to lift the front wheel a little, this helped a lot skipping the front wheel over the dust, the back wheel was still being bounced around but at least I was mostly straight. The problem with lifting the front wheel is you need to be accelerating, and now I was going too fast again. I tried to slow down and had another huge wobble, coming out the seat and nearly off the bike, then it leveled out and I was on hard ground again. I was half way through celebrating when I remembered I was riding with other people and they were behind me. Sure enough I turned around and 50 meters back was a big cloud of dust and I couldn’t see any riders.
Bull Dust surprise
I ran back up the road to check on everyone, 2 of them had come off basically the same way I nearly had, except they also had to contend with the big cloud of dust from my bike too. Everyone was OK though, except they had helmets filled with dust, but no real damage to the bikes. They all tentatively crawled the rest of the way through with only one more little off and we were on our way again.
After that we were knackered, it was coming to the end of the day anyway but none of us expected it to be this hard work. We pulled into to Tavildara for some supplies and set off looking for camp down the road. It was easy enough to find a nice spot, the valley is very wide here from Glaciers but the river is only small so there’s plenty of nice flat ground away from the road. We set up camp, got a little fire going and were all in bed by about 9pm when it got dark.
Beautiful camp for the first days ride
An early start with the sunrise in the morning and we were bouncing along in the dust and crossing a little river by 8am. A quick checkpoint stop for our details again and a couple of little rickety bridges then the road started to rise to the pass, and got much more fun. It softened a little with dust and sand padding out between the rocks, which made them much easier to ride on for me. I could speed up to about 30mph without worrying about destroying anything, and corner with a bit more confidence, knowing if I slipped it would catch again pretty easily.
Much nicer ground to be riding on
At the top of the pass at around 3000m we stopped for a little break, a guy came walking over and asked where we were from, we all thought he was a local just interested but he was a French hitchhiker, which caught us all off guard. He was riding along in a big truck over the field, which we’d also assumed was local, with a German family of 5! It was a huge thing, they’d converted all of the back into a little camper, it had about 2 feet of ground clearance and they could carry 900 litres of fuel apparently. Not a bad way for the kids to spend the summer holiday, touring around Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, they park the truck in a random town here and fly out from Germany to drive it different places every year. We also bumped into the Muztoo tour group again, we had crossed their path a few times yesterday. 12 bikes on a guided tour on rented bikes being followed by a support truck. They could ride much faster than us with no luggage and more suitable bikes but they stopped more often and for longer so we passed each other a lot.
The Muztoo Tour and the German truck in the morning at the top of the pass
The road swept down the pass, back down to around 1500m, over some very dodgy sections, very rocky with sheer drops of at least 500m and switchbacks. We all got down safe with only a few butt pucker moments between us. It was utterly stunning scenery though, sheer rock faces around a little valley, the path was just the least steep way to even descend, cutting back under itself many times in no logical way at all. It was obviously not really maintained and regularly got washed away down the side of the mountain, only to be re-dug out again. It was hard work too, going down hill puts a lot of weight on your arms, which are already working hard keeping control on the bumpy ground, let alone actually working the clutch and throttle. First world problems, it was an incredible part of the ride.
Winding back down again
At the bottom of the valley was yet another checkpoint, this one slightly more exciting though. It was being used as a firing range, pickup trucks with huge guns mounted on the back were being test fired up into the mountain side, every 30 seconds there was an ear splitting boom as they fired. At one end of the line of 4 pickups was a huge armoured vehicle, not quite a tank, but close enough, that thing shook the ground when it fired. Luckily we weren’t stuck there too long with our ears ringing, after processing the Muztoo guys the guard was sick of paperwork and just waved us on with a grunt.
20Km passed the checkpoint was the first big town, Kalai-kum, we searched for fuel and found some at the other end of town with help from some locals. We weren’t sure if someone was taking the piss a bit at first. It was a small petrol tanker at the side of the road, with an awning out of it and 4 kids sat around. When we pulled up they all jumped up and said hello and offered the fuel in the barrel. We all just looked at each other and around at the tanker. There was nobody else around and these kids were offering, we asked the price and it was reasonable so we said sure. The biggest kid ran over to the barrel of fuel and dipped his bucket in, came over with a giant funnel and a stool, got up and with the help of 2 other kids and one of us, filled each bike in turn. Once one of our bikes were filled we’d pay the smallest kid, who couldn’t have been older than 5 or 6, but he counted and checked the cash. It was weird. We half expected to find a man bound and gagged behind the petrol tanker trying to scream about kids stealing his fuel.
After a quick break in some shade outside a little supermarket with plentiful coke and snickers we set off on the new section of road. It promised to be much better here since we were now off the “detour” route, and onto the main M41 Pamir Highway. Wrong. It wasn’t quite as wild but the surface was still very bad, and very slow going, unpaved in places and huge potholes when it was paved. At some point Peter suddenly doubled back on us, he’d just seen his front brake pads fly out of his wheel, not a good sign. He couldn’t find them anywhere or the pin that’s supposed to hold them in. There was no shade so we ended up stopped in the boiling sun for a long break trying to cobble together a road side fix using aluminium wire and spare brake pads so he’d at least have something. No joy though, the pads had got caught up in the spoke on the way out and bent the caliper. He somehow managed to ride for the rest of the day with no front brake on these roads, a mix of his off-road skills, the lower than normal speeds and a ginormous balls.
Emergency brake break
The road we were riding followed the river all the way south, the river was also the border to Afghanistan. It was so surreal knowing when you look across the river it was Afghanistan villages, roads and mountains looking back at you.
We rode for a few more hours, realising we weren’t going to make it to Khorog like we planned, the roads were slower than we expected so we started searching for a camp spot. Not as easy as yesterday since this valley was really steep, no much flat ground at all. We found a lovely spot though, just off the road, by the river, looking out at an Afghan village. We were all a little worried by the odd old traveller report of people firing guns over the river from either side, but there were no worries from the locals hanging around, and no active conflict anywhere. Just as were starting up some food the German family came along the road in their truck, we flagged them down and they joined us in our little spot for the night too. We were a little embarrassed, we laughed when they told us that morning that they average about 18kmh all day, which is very slow. But here they were with us, that’s how slow we’d been.
Another beauty, this time with even more company
Just as we were all dropping off to sleep I heard something outside my tent. I didn’t have the cover on it so I could see straight out and there was a big black dog staring back. A tiny heart attack later and I realised he wasn’t wild, just sniffing around and there were people talking. I got out and it was some armed Military Police checking Antonin’s paperwork with a torch, they checked over us too and wished us goodnight, not a great sign. Apparently they came back in the night poking around the camp, I slept through this one though thankfully.
Looking smooth, and warm
P.S. Hey look at that! Copy Pasta from wordpress looks OK. I'll do that from now on, save you guys clicking through to another site
Today is Day 118, but I just got the write up for the second half of the Pamir done!
Day 91 to 94 – Khorog to Karakul
Waking up looking over to Afghanistan was a very weird experience. A lot of things on this trip are very weird and take some getting used to, but that was a big one. We all got packed away pretty quick, said our goodbyes to the German family in the truck and headed out. The roads for the first few miles were great, very nice for Donkey to stretch his legs after two days of low speed, low rev, rough roads.
Wondering who’s hiding in that cave in Afghanistan…
We had a very slow going morning, lots of long stops for photos, and not rushing on the pot holes. We were searching for bottled water too, without much success. We passed a little cafe with two cyclists sitting outside so we stopped for a chat and to see if the place had water. They didn’t but they had Chai tea and Breakfast so we stuck around for a bit. At some point the Uzbek (I think) music in the cafe got “accidentally” turned up very loud and we ended up having a mini 9am disco, the 2 locals eating their breakfast looked like they’d just dropped into another dimension. 2 Cyclists and 4 motorcyclists in half their gear dancing around the inside of the cafe. The owner quite enjoyed himself though and we were all thoroughly awake afterwards.
“Brake pads still there?”
Leaving the cafe the pace didn’t change much, staying around our usual 25mph average, pot holes and random gravel keeps the speed pretty low for Donkey. The road mostly passed through towns and villages, kids were always playing in the street and always waved as we passed, excited when we waved back. Some stuck out there hand for a high five, not sure they know how much a 25mph high five with a gloved hand would hurt. We were getting pretty hot and bothered by lunch time, the temperatures sat around 40 degrees, and because we were going so slow there was no wind to keep us cool. We passed a little lake on the side of the road, opposite the river, a guy had his van in the shallow end, music blasting out, shirt off, cleaning it, not a bad idea. We stopped, stripped off and jumped in. It was beautiful, cooled us right down to normal levels again, thought we did get lots of funny looks from cars passing on the road.
We rolled into Khorog in the afternoon surprised to see lines on the road and traffic lights again for the first time in a few days. Khorog is a big town right in the middle of the Pamir, a way point for travellers on the Silk Road. We headed for the Pamir Lodge, though we had no idea how to get there. Somehow we ended up winding through back streets, along a tiny road with a meter deep pit in the middle of it, threatening to swallow a bike, then up a very steep incline with another pit of death right at the top. Once we got to the gates we realised there was a real road up to it, we’d taken the back route through someones garden, forcing some adventure on ourselves.
I’m not entirely sure how to describe the “lodge”, it was part hotel, part lodge, part hostel, part camp site, it couldn’t really make up it’s mind. We camped outside, but were under the first floor overhang. There was no indoor social space, just rooms, but most people seemed to just hang around outdoors near the tents anyway. The WiFi was also limited, even though I had a great 4G connection and speed, two toilets and two showers to share between at least 20 people, and it wasn’t full. Very oddly run place. It served OK for a nights sleep though.
We had the rest of the afternoon for some bike maintenance, the first job was an improvised centre stand for Peters bike. A log, some stones and 3 tired guys fixed that. Antonin noticed my other fork was now leaking too, all over the right brake disc, not ideal for, well, stopping. It was really covered too, all down the caliper, it was not fairing well. I took the dust cover off and did my best to clean it up, not a lot else I could do there, it needs new seals, and there aren’t any. It would just have to survive until Osh, it will work fine with no oil in the fork, but there’ll be damage to components on the rough roads.
Where there’s a will
There was more traumatic damage to discover though, after the bike work I sat down to chill out with the guitar only to find frets 4 to 7 all sounded the same. That’s not normal. The fret board had split and separated from the neck, raising at the 7th fret. Balls. The rough roads plus the heat must have rattled it to pieces. I purposely don’t tie the guitar down, it’s wrapped in an elastic net so it can’t escape, but it’s free to move so there’s no pressure on it, but even still, the head must have been bouncing so hard it pulled the fret board apart. Looks like I’m limited to only songs below the 4th fret. I was actually pretty upset, I’d gotten used to being able to just sit and chill out playing guitar again since I’d had it, now it wasn’t really playable. I had a few ideas for a fix but they’d have to wait until I was Osh at least.
Not a great start to the morning, my stomach really wasn’t happy again, it woke me up at about 5am and I didn’t sleep again. A lot like in Dushanbe, so I now had a culprit. I did the math and realised I’d drank the same brand of beer both nights before becoming ill. I don’t hate many beers, but I loath this one now, it literally screwed up my insides, Antonin had the same experience too. Ban that beer.
We left the hostel/lodge/camp site and headed for a shop we’d seen on the map. We needed water and a little stock up on food. The “market” was huge, a ton of stalls in a warehouse, but only two tiny ones at the front were actually open, no matter we got everything we needed, strapped it all in and set off for the south end of town; stopped to fuel up on the way (from a real pump too!) and headed off down the Wakhan. The road turned to crap straight away, big pot holes, thick gravel and small stretches of mud. I had to take it pretty easy, to keep Donkey healthy. About 30 minutes in we stopped for a quick photo and I saw the right fork was still spewing Oil, my cleaning hadn’t done a great deal to help. Peter cleaned it up a little, using a card to get down between the seal and fork and push all the crap out of it. It did help a little, the flow slowed a lot for the rest of the day.
One of the parts of the Wakhan I was really looking forward too when I read about it was the Afghan market. A bridge each side connects both countries to a little island on the river where a market is held. You don’t need a visa to enter so it’s an easy way to get a very quick glimpse of Afghan life. Unfortunately it’s closed up now, but we had a mill around the entrance and spoke to the military guys who came up to see us. We rolled on to the next town, the biggest on the Wakhan, Ishkashim and stopped for some lunch, but it was Sunday and almost everywhere was closed and empty so we ended up buying some little snacks from a 12 year old girl running a tiny shop.
So close but so far
We all sat outside in the shade near the bikes resting and chatting, making a plan for the rest of the day. Peter was getting a little worried about his schedule, we’d all been travelling together for over 3 days now and he could have been going almost twice as fast as the rest of us for most of it, his bike was much better suited to the terrain and he has plenty of off road skills to tackle it. He decided to split with us and go on ahead to make up time, we said our goodbyes and he shot off. We would all miss him, it was only 3 days, but it was all 72 hours together, good and bad, falling off, camping, all the challenges of the heat and terrain, everything. With all that thrown at you get pretty close pretty quickly.
The three of us remaining sat around for a while before getting back on the road, we travelled a lot slower without Peter, since he was the fastest of us, it always pushed us on a little bit; now we were stopping a lot more and for a lot longer. It was in part because the road got a lot worse, but not the fun kind, more corrugations and deep gravel, which I found very difficult to ride on. You have to keep the speed up somewhere between 50 and 70kmh at the point where you skip over the corrugations instead of hitting them, it smooths it out a lot, but then hitting deep gravel at that speed is treacherous. We needed lots of breaks to recover from the constant vibrations. Some small stretches of sand gave us a little trouble but I was very chuffed not to fall at all, though I came very close a few times, squirming almost sideways in the deeper patches.
It’s this stunning all the way on the Wakhan, if you can look up from the road to see it
The scenery was incredible though, the valley had widened out a lot and the river bed was such a deep green against the sandy look of the dry landscape around. Towering snow capped mountains on either side and little villages every 50km or so. Looking up from the road wasn’t easy when riding, it’s too easy to miss a pot hole or lump of gravel, but it was worth a try; looking over at Afghanistan and the villages was still very strange, even after 2 days of it. We were hoping to stay at some hot springs we’d heard about from several people, though we must have ridden straight passed it because we made itT all the way to the last village without seeing them. It was getting late so we found a guesthouse and bargained the price down for us to camp in the garden since they were out of rooms.
Where’s there’s water, there’s green
The road from Langar back up to the M41 was going to be the most remote part so far, but we weren’t very well prepared for it. We were running low on fuel and there was non in Langer, we had food but not a great deal of water. We decided to wing it, it was 10km of corrugations back to a village that might have fuel, and our water would last, as long as nothing went wrong, but with 3 people there’s a little more flexibility if something does. The road got interesting immediately with a bunch of steep uphill very rocky hairpins, luckily it wasn’t that challenging all day. I ended up having a blast, really enjoying the roads like I hadn’t been able too yet. There was a little of everything thrown at us, some sand, gravel, hairpins and dusty corrugations, but they were all tamer than sections we’d already done, so we were used to them. I was really enjoying tackling them, they were challenging but nothing I hadn’t seen before and knew me and the bike were capable of dealing with. It felt like we’d already beaten the worst the Pamir could throw at us and now we were just eating it up.
We stopped for a lot of breaks, the scenery was still incredible, changing all the time and still bordering Afghanistan for a lot of the day. Chatting, snacking and resting made for even easier riding when we got going again. We finally said goodbye to Afghanistan as we started to climb into a mountain pass that lead back to the M41, moving away from the border and back into Tajikistan, through a little military checkpoint in the middle of nowhere.
The road got a lot more interesting too, the ground was harder packed but deeper rutted, so you really had to pay attention not to lose a wheel down one of them, or bottom out on a particularly big bump. Some very fun water crossings too, one of them much deeper than it first looked, I plowed through and my front wheel was almost completely submerged, I got soaked, but that was welcome in the heat. We overtook a party of mountain bikers that had been in the guesthouse that night and gave them a wave, their support trucks overtook a little later when we were having a break and the guides stopped for a chat. We asked about the next available fuel and they said about 150km, not good when I only had about 50km left in the tank. Luckily they had spare fuel they were happy to get rid of at a good price so we took 20 litres between us and poured them in. That would easily get us to the fuel, it was a good idea to take so much too as the next fuel was actually about 250km away, they’d ran out in the next village.
Looking back at the Wakhan route, the tarmac ends
We reached the end of the Wakhan valley road and almost cried when we saw the M41 road: smooth, black, flat tarmac. We stopped for a break and to kiss the ground. We had planned to stay at the lake a little ways back toward Khorog, but we were running low on supplies and energy so headed the other way to Alichur first. We found a little cafe with, and stopped for a lunch with two Danish guys there, they were taking part in the Mongol Rally, in an Ambulance! Driving it from Denmark to Mongolia to donate it. They’d converted the back for sleeping and that was about it, crazy guys.
If this makes it, I’ve got no excuses
After a very long break and food we changed our minds and decided to head for the hotel in Murghab instead. It was getting a little late but the roads here were great so we didn’t think we’d have a problem. Turns out we misjudged quite how slow we ride and we ended up rolling into Murghab 3 hours later in the dark, made even more fun by Oki’s headlight not working, we had to sandwich her between our two bikes so she could even see the road. I also somehow managed to tear my MSR water bag to pieces, it slipped from it’s restraint and got caught under the rear wheel, 4 litres of water flew out the new holes in it and I had to leave it behind, there’s no fixing that.
Being good tourists and taking up as much room as possible
The hotel was packed with people, they were completely full, and mostly with people we already knew. Like a little Pamir reunion, the Danish guys in the Ambulance were there, the Muztoo guys we’d kept running in to, the Bike Club in Dushanbe that helped fix my forks had a tour group there, and even Peter (he got stuck in Langar without fuel after he left us, he wasn’t far ahead of us all day after all). The hotel said they’d somehow find us room and dragged us in to sit down for dinner. After we ate they showed us to our “room” they’d made. They’d taken a Dining room, removed the table and put down some mats for sleeping, the three of us would be shoulder to shoulder but we’d fit, cosily.
The next morning was a very slow one. We planned to camp on the lake that night and it was only around 200km riding, easy in an afternoon on these good roads. We hung around the hotel, finding an empty Yurt outside once everyone had left and chatting in there. There was no electricity until 11am when they switch the diesel generator on, so certainly no internet and not much to do around town. We didn’t want much though, resting after a few hard days riding, reading books and writing would suit. We ate lunch with a couple, Lotte from England and Ryan from Northern Ireland, they were travelling super cheap, on beat up old bikes, perfect for very rough roads as long as they held together. They were heading off to some of the toughest passes in the Pamir and trying to do all the routes through it too.
Reading in Yurt, a weird morning
We set off at around 3pm for the lake, the roads were great and progress pretty easy. They got a little rough climbing the largest pass of the Pamir though, up to 4600m the second highest paved road in the world, though the word “paved” is a bit misleading. Donkey was definitely down on power at this altitude, but it was so worth it. It doesn’t look that high when you’re surrounded by peaks and high valleys but you can feel it, walking around puts you out of breath and we didn’t hang around too long.
4600m is pretty exhausting for celebrating
Some more long stretches of corrugations toward the lake left us vibrating for the rest of the night but they weren’t a problem. We saw the lake well before we got there, over a huge plain with a dead straight road running for miles passed it. We rode along until we found a good spot to veer off the road and to the water side, found a nice flat spot and set up camp. It was pretty cold, up at nearly 4000m with the wind blowing, it was going to be a very cold night. The other 2 really wanted to go for a swim in the lake. I thought this was a terrible idea, and it was. I realised there weren’t many times I’d get to swim in a glacial lake at 4000m though so I stripped off and went in. 2 minutes later we were back out and running across the swampy ground bare foot back to clothing and warmth. Some beer helped warm us back up, but the fire didn’t, at this altitude there’s not much oxygen to burn and I could nearly touch the flames trying to boil water. We ate some very stiff noodles and snacks as it got dark and the wind picked up, it was getting pretty cold so we knew it was going be a very chilly night. I did play some guitar, despite it being quite broken, it is one of the weirdest places I’ve ever played at, and it felt fantastic, watching the lake, surrounded by mountains at 4000m with a beer and good company.
Playing guitar here felt like a dream
So I'm in Pakistan! Finally! I've been dreaming of getting here since I started planning the trip. It's one of the major way points of my trip, logistically and culturally.
I had a little jaunt around Kyrgyzstan toward Song Kul lake for a few days, me and Oki both managed to get a puncture at the same time and had to limp the bikes 60km to a town to get a patch at 7pm. I then shot off toward Bishkek on my own to pick up some fork seals, my plans for having them in Osh had fell through so time was suddenly very tight to pick them up and fit them before crossing china. I did a monstrous day from Bishkek to Osh, almost no breaks all day except for fuel, just 10 hours of solid riding on mountain roads and through towns, I enjoyed the challenge and the ride but god it was tiring.
I ended up fitting the fork seals myself after a bunch of youtube videos, with no idea what I was doing, just some help from Martin and Xenia of http://facebook.com/xtadventures. They're in my China group and were working on their bikes at Muztoo as well. We crossed China a few days later, and it was an utter nightmare for both borders, a couple of days in the middle were nice, exploring Kashgar, but anything regarding officials was just a clusterfuck. Our group fucked up one thing, the guide fucked up another, and the chinese officials fucked up some other things. A literaly cluster fuck. I'll do a proper write up when I have time, but we made it mostly unscathed to Pakistan 2 days ago, riding down the KKH toward sost in pitch darkness.
This place is amazing, the people are more kind and generous then even I expected, after reading and hearing about just that. The food is great and the scenery is breathtaking. The hotels are damn expensive though, I need a solution for that one. I expected central asia prices to continue but struggled to find any hotel even close to that and no hostels in the north, part of the problem is information online is pretty scarce except for the expensive tourist hotels.
I'm heading off to Islamabad to start my Indian visa process ASAP, hopefully I can return to the north and do some exploring while I'm waiting for that.
Brilliant report, really enjoying your writing style. Safe onward travels
Great stuff! Looking forward to more.
Come visit when you get to NZ, I'm just out of Rotorua.
Plenty of time for that if I take a long break in NZ, I hope to cover a lot of ground by bike while I'm there :)
Thanks! Good to know someone likes it, I've never really written like it before, getting the hang of it now
starting to enjoy your RR
Subscribed! Good work so far!
If you could go back in time, would you still take the DL, or would you find something with a little more off road capability?
No! Absolutely loving the bike, it's been perfect for my riding and travelling style so far. It might be a little big and heavy for most people I think, but I'm bigger and heavier than most people (6'5) too so it's OK for me, I can stand flat footed easily over the seat even after raising it. With off road capability, a little more ground clearance would be nice, but I'm still hitting my limits rather than bikes. Slippery stuff still has me paddling along, and big rocky sections are just taken slowly.
I didn't originally intend to do the Pamir when I planned the trip, thinking it would be too rough and not knowing the history of it, so it should be the roughest road I tackle on this trip, and it's already behind me with no significant damage to the bike. My travelling style keeps me on roads most of the time, I'm not much of a back route and wilderness explorer yet, so having a more road oriented bike suits me. I love the nice smooth road sections like through Kyrgyzstan and parts of the KKH because I can really go for it, knowing the bike is capable.
Heading to South Asia might be a different story, on the tighter roads with more traffic a small light bike would be nice, but it's a compromise I knew about, and it switches back in my favor again on the long stretches in Aus then nice roads in NZ.
Also, it's cheap, I think it's got the best price/performance (trip performance, fuel/maintenance etc.) ratio of any bike I've seen travelling so far. Except maybe an old Africa Twin, if you know how to keep it running... Though I'm not starting a bike war, I'm way too novice for that.
I just put up all the photos from the Pamir ride on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/...073741853.763551780485425&type=1&l=d3875bed33
You can see all the other albums for other days here too: https://www.facebook.com/pg/travellingent/photos/?tab=albums
A post to warm the hearts of Vstrom owners everywhere! Good points made about the capabilities of bike and rider and very good logic re road versus off road. Looking forward to seeing it when you get to NZ.
Another write up for a couple of weeks ago getting back to Osh and exploring Kyrgyzstan.
Day 95 to 109 – Karakul to Sary-Tash via Bishkek
Woke up all through the morning from 2am when it really got cold until 6am when I couldn’t get back to sleep any more. I stumbled out the tent for a wizz to an amazing sight, looking over the lake to a clear view of the mountains again. Most mornings when I wake up, it takes a few seconds to remember who the hell I am and where I am, because you know you’re not at home, then your brain has to do a 100 millisecond whirlwind tour of the trip until you get to the latest point; when I’m especially tired it’s like plugging into The Matrix, flashes of the last few days fly by until it all clicks into place. Riding. Trip. Rough Road. Tent. Cold. Tajikistan. Karakul Lake. OK I’m In.
Not a bad wake up
We had a pretty simple days ride ahead of us, but it included a border crossing, which is always a wild card, even for a relatively simple one like Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan. We set off pretty quick, wanting to escape the millions of mosquitoes that had popped into existence overnight, and wanting to beat the 12 person Muztoo tour so we didn’t get stuck behind them at the border. A pretty straight forward ride, broken up by a couple of river crossings, one particularly tricky one that had washed away the road entirely, and a very close call with a huge hole in the road. Me and Oki both nearly got thrown from our bikes when we missed it, bouncing from one side of the road to the other and somehow staying in the seat and up right.
Looking toward Kyrgyzstan
The border was pretty straight forward, just time consuming waiting for each stage of the process. The no-mans-land between exiting Tajikistan and entering Kyrgyzstan takes the title of “Best No Mans Land Road” though. A series of steep unpaved slippery switchbacks with incredible views over some of the highest ranges in the Pamir, thankfully it wasn’t raining, someone told us it was utterly deadly in the wet. It took around 2 hours to enter Kyrgyzstan, waiting “computer problems”, we just chatted with the other guys passing through and badgered the guards until we were eventually free to go.
We stopped in the first town after border for some food and a break before we started the long run to Osh. We were amazed when we rolled into town to an actual petrol station with working pumps, we hadn’t seen those for a while, there was even a market selling more than snickers bars and sparkling water. Amazing. The run to Osh turned out really nice, the road is all paved, pretty smooth and follows a river descending about 2000m. I was loving it, back on smooth stuff again where I could really push and have some fun without worrying too much about a river appearing out of nowhere, or the road turning to sand.
Look a real petrol station!
We headed straight for TES guesthouse, since it was a familiar place and it was getting late. I was much more used to camping now and comfortable in my tent, so I camped on the grass instead of getting a bunk, there’s space to sit and work and socialise in the common areas so it’s great way to sleep for cheap; though waking up right next to people eating breakfast on the terrace is a little odd.
We had planned on having a 2 days rest then heading off to explore Kyrgyzstan, but that evening we all just gave each other a look that said “nope”. We were all still tired from the Pamir, it had taken more of a toll on us than we realised, so we stuck around for another 2 days. All 4 days sort of merged into one, mostly very lazy days, eating good food again and finding a nice place with proper coffee! The day we were going to head off into the wilds, Antonin didn’t turn up for breakfast and finally appeared at lunch looking like death awakened, not leaving today either then. Another 3 days passed of him slowly getting over a very bad virus, he was not at all well, but he had 2 surrogate parents looking after him and telling him off for not drinking enough water.
This was utter heaven after 7 days on the Pamir
7 days is the longest time I’ve been in one place on the trip at all, but it was great, I had a load of stuff I needed to catch up on and I really needed the rest. I managed to fix the guitar with a couple of wood screws through the fret board where it had come away on the 7th fret, do not try this at home, it’s a stupid idea, but it plays great! I met another Brit at the hostel too, she’s on a round the world cycling trip but was currently stranded waiting for the return of her passport from the UK with new visas. A very weird coalesce of conditions meant I could put her in touch with one of our China Group who was flying out in a week. This gave her 2 precious extra days to obtain the visa and still get her passport back in time to not be illegal. Sometimes things work out in the weirdest ways.
Good as new….
Sometimes things don’t work out though, I learned that Muztoo wouldn’t be able to get my seals anymore, I’d have to figure something else out. I’d sat around for 7 days though, and now I was pretty tight on time. I should be able to get some in Bishkek, so I worked that into our little route, it’d mean seeing less of Kyrgyzstan than I’d hoped, but I really needed seals.
On Day 102 we finally set off from the guesthouse, with everyone at decent health again. The roads are a little congested and frustrating up toward Jalal-Abad, especially when it’s so hot, keeping up the speed to keep a breeze flowing over you becomes more important than petty things like traffic laws. We stopped for a break in a town when I saw a fridge with drinks in it. While we stood chatting at the side of the road, with locals staring at us, we spotted two big bikes going in the opposite direction filtering through the traffic, we recognised them as Martin as Xenia, a Swiss couple joining me and Oki in crossing China. We shouted and screamed waving our arms like mad to get their attention, it worked somehow and they swung around and stopped for a chat. A weird place to finally meet them, but so nice after 6 months of chatting and planning online.
Meeting Martin and Xenia on the road
We joined the road to the Kazarman pass out of Jalal-Abad and set off into more remote parts, leaving the bigger towns behind. We ride pretty slowly as a group, and it was made even slower when we noticed Antonin no longer had a license plate, he doubled back to find it and was gone for maybe 30 minutes looking for it. By the time we were moving again it was getting a little late. It only took 5 minutes for us to find a decent camp spot, a small grass verge had a 2 meter drop on the other side down to a nice flat area hidden from the road. We set up camp, got some food in us and went to bed pretty early on, good job we did too, as soon as it was dark all the bugs came out. My tent has a gap between the two layers and it didn’t take long for it to fill with things while I had my light on. Huge stick insect looking things, large spiders, and one dick of a cricket who perched right next to my head and chirped out of nowhere, I nearly pooped, then punched my tent where he was, he shut up after that.
A weird start the next morning, a cow wandered through camp early on, moo-ing us all awake. Very inconsiderate. We got packed up and back on the road, starting the climb up to the pass fairly quick, nice soft ground with a few little stream crossings and switch backs up the mountain. The road was actually great, if it was in France and paved it’d be a tourist destination, long sweeping turns, tight steep hairpins and amazing scenery, cutting into little clefts, and winding along the outside edge of the hill. We stopped for a lot of photos, and then a nice long break at the top of the pass, feeling pretty happy with ourselves. The route down the other side went through a few small settlements, most of them with pretty viscous dogs who do not like big noisy machines disturbing them. Dogs are awkward enough to deal with on a good road, especially in a group, when they get so focused on chasing the first bike, they may not see the second one coming toward them, let alone the third. On an unpaved road with pot holes, deep gravel and a steep drop on one side, dodging a dog becomes quite dangerous. It also doesn’t help when bored kids resort to throwing stones at passing bikers for entertainment.
It wasn’t all that dangerous or nasty though, just a few mars on an amazing ride up and down the Kazarman pass. We stopped in Kazarman itself for some lunch, hoping for more from what we thought was a big town, we at least managed to buy bread, something for dinner and alcohol. The road out of town was flat and unpaved, with a thin layer of gravel, we could really pick up speed and cruised at 50mph, easily the fastest I’d been on this kind of road, but everything was holding together and getting pretty smooth.
Then the rear of the bike suddenly felt like treacle and I recognised the feeling from last time, a puncture. Bugger. I pulled up and we got to searching for the hole in the rubber. It was a pretty big split, luckily when my last puncture repair failed, back in Turkey, I’d gotten hold of some huge plugs, usually used on car tyres, I tried one of them and it seemed to hold OK. 10 minutes of pumping and I had enough pressure to ride on. We all geared back up to ride (in the heat you tend to strip as soon as you stop) and I jokingly said, in the tone of a mother asking “Does anyone need a wee before leave”, “Does anyone else have a puncture before we leave”, the others chuckled a little at my feeble attempt at humor. Then Oki suddenly screamed with laughter, she actually did have a puncture, her rear tyre sad and flattened. We all just stared at each other in disbelief, then started stripping again and getting the tools out. Oki’s puncture was a tiny hole letting a steady, squeaky stream of air out, I didn’t really want to widen it to fit one of the plugs in, since if it didn’t hold, we’d be screwed, at least in this state it would hold enough air to ride on for a while, then we could pump up, I’d have to stop regularly to check on my puncture anyway.
We had to ride a lot slower after that, fearing my plug getting damaged by the gravel or Oki’s puncture widening. The road was still great though, climbing up another pass, over the top and revealing one of the best vistas I have ever seen. A steep drop from the mountain looking out over miles and miles of smaller hills that looked like they’d been sculpted by hand. We stopped for a long break, just staring out over the view and topping up the air in Oki’s tyre.
Somehow we made it the whole 60km in Ak-tal without the punctures getting worse or the tyres falling apart on the rough roads. We rolled into town as it was starting to get dark and we weren’t too hopeful about finding anywhere to get the tyres patched in such a small town but the first place we tried was a dedicated tyre repair shack filled with local guys playing cards. We showed him the damage and he just nodded, so I took off my wheel and gave it to him just hoping he knew what he was doing. An hour later both tyres had been patched and were back to full pressure and fitted to the bikes, all for about £5, score!
Throw the bags on the bars to keep the rear in the air
It was pretty much dark by now so we headed to the edge of town to look for somewhere to camp, I’d usually want to be much further from civilization for camp but trying to find a good spot in the dark is impossible. We spotted a wide shallow river at the edge of town and a field on the other side. Perfect, people obviously don’t cross the river very often, or there would be a road, so nobody would stumble upon us. We waded in to check the river bed, then rode across without much trouble. We set up camp and broke out the alcohol to celebrate making it through a double puncture in the middle of nowhere unscathed.
The downside of the lazy riding and double puncture was that I was now very late on my little schedule. I had to get to Bishkek to buy some fork seals, get back to Osh, fit them and change tyres, which would take about 4 days, and I only had 5, not much room for error. There is no “late” for the China crossing, either we’re all there and we cross, or non of us can cross at all. So I split from the other 2 he next morning, intending to take the fastest route to Bishkek and get there that day, while they had a slow ride around Song Kol lake. Me and Antonin said our goodbyes, he was heading further east to Mongolia so we wouldn’t see each other again. We’d got on amazingly well in the few weeks riding together, mostly because we both have the same stupid sense of humor.
I was only riding alone for 5 minutes though when I bumped into an Australian guy on a touring bike, we stopped for a chat and he was not only heading to Bishkek, he wanted to get there as fast as possible, and he lived there so he knew the route and roads. Perfect! I tagged along and rode at full throttle for a couple of hours straight, we stopped for a very quick lunch, then another few hours on great roads at full speed. It was awesome riding with a fast guy, I’ve never ridden with other people before the trip, and on the trip all the riding tends to be fairly leisurely with lots of breaks. This was not. This was almost the limit of my riding to keep up with him, especially on dirt tyres and with my forks leaking oil over one of my front brakes, very fun though, and the new Chinese built roads were absolutely perfect, they do not mess about with their roads.
Quick lunch break and bumped into this Italian pair for the 3rd time in 2 weeks
We got to Bishkek and he tried to call the guy I’d been in touch with about Fork Seals, he knew a lot of the bikers in Bishkek, having lived and ridden there for 5 years. He took me to a few places in town to try and find somewhere with seals, helped me out speaking Russian to some sellers and then dropped me off at Iron Horse Nomads who should be able to help. He didn’t expect a thing, and it was just natural for him to try and help me out, he didn’t think twice about detouring around the city, offering me his garage to work on my bike, and buying me lunch. I’d only met him that morning and we only actual spoke for about 30 minutes, the rest was riding, incredibly humbling.
Now I needed a plan, in 4 days I have to leave from Osh for Sary-Tash to meet the China group, me and the bike need to be fit and ready for then. I needed to get my seals and either fit them in Bishkek with the help of Paul (Australian guy, he also owned a V-Strom so knew what he was doing) or fit them in Osh myself along with new tyres that were waiting there. It should be a 2 day ride to Osh, but maybe I could make it in one long day. I decided to leave first thing to pick up the seals from Dima at the Bazaar, then ride as long and fast as I could, to make it as close to Osh as possible, then I could work for 2 days on the bike, leaving me 1 day for things to go wrong.
In the morning I wandered, gobsmacked, around the huge Bazaar entirely dedicated to cars and made it to Dima just after he’d opened. There was nothing else for sale in this Bazaar that didn’t go on or in a car, and it was huge, it was made solely of containers but it had street names for god’s sake, I could have spent all day in there, but no time. Dima had my seals for a good price and even spent 30 minutes walking me around the Bazaar to find a new indicator bulb and change some dollars so I could buy bearings while I had the chance, which he also haggled for. He wouldn’t even keep the small change from buying the seals from him as a thank you, he just wanted a photo and to help out a traveller. My traveller Karma is getting a little full now.
I left the Bazaar in such a good mood, but had a very long day ahead. I knew getting out of Bishkek was a nightmare, having done it once. I flicked the switch in my head for “London Mode” riding, and started filtering through the traffic way more aggressively than I usual would, thank god for soft panniers that just bounce of cars instead of damaging them. It’s only a small victory getting passed one car, or slaloming through a queue to the front of the lights, but after an hour of filtering it makes a massive difference compared to just sitting in the traffic. By the time I got out of town I realised I’d already gained about 30 minutes on my previous time, a good start for the day. I shot of as fast as I dared, I knew the road wouldn’t be great, surprise pot holes and gravel patches, so I knew where to take it easy.
I was chuffed when I arrived at Toktogol lake after just 3 hours, that took me the whole day last time, back on Day 81. Riding faster, with no breaks and no photo stops had gained me a ton of time. The road got better after that so I could pick up speed even more, which may have been a mistake. I rolled into another town still doing around 70mph, I let off the throttle to slow toward the 35mph limit when a policeman jumped out at me from the side of the road, waving his baton around. Balls. I pulled up just ahead of him. I took my sweet time stopping the bike, taking my gloves off, sorting out nothing in my tank bag hoping he’d just get bored and leave me. He didn’t though and kept waving me over to his buddies at the car. They spoke to me in Russian when I walked up and I let them talk at me for a few minutes before they expected some sort of response, then I just said “net Russki”, they all laughed, they thought I’d been listening. I said “English?” and they realised I was a tourist and became more interested in the gear I was wearing and the bike. After a couple of minutes laughing at my water bag and pipe they just waved me off. I almost ran to the bike, started it and shot off before they changed their mind.
I was loving the ride after that, the road got much more reliable and much more flowing. Following a big wide river means you can predict the road a lot easier, just watch where the river goes, very fun. At the end of the river road though was the towns, not very fun. Another couple of hours in hot, slow and dusty towns and I was rolling into Osh! My ass back and head ached like hell, but I got to TES again and ordered a pizza before I even booked a bed for the night, 10 hours riding with maybe 30 minutes of breaks total. Very pleased with myself to have made it, it’s nice to have a challenge in the trip that I have full control of for once, get somewhere by a certain time. I started planning the work on the bike the next day when I realised it would be Sunday. Muztoo would be closed. Doh! I’d gained myself a day by riding fast, then lost it by forgetting the days of the week.
I spent the next day resting and watching Youtube videos of how to change fork seals and how to put forks back together. Muztoo wouldn’t have a mechanic available for a few days so I was going to be doing it without any help, and if I got anything seriously wrong, I’d struggle to even get to the Chinese border, not a nice thought.
The fork change went very well though luckily Xenia and Martin were doing the same job at the same time so they could help me out. I took my time with it a lot, checking everything twice, got it all back together and even changed the oil in the other fork too, just for good measure. The next I changed the tyres and cleaned out the air filter but ran into some trouble with them that set me way back.
Missing half his face
On day 109 we were leaving at lunch to head to Sary-Tash to meet the rest of the group ready to cross the Chinese border the next day. I had to rush back to Muztoo for one last job though, changing the oil and filter. I’ve done it myself a few times, but never in a rush and not since I’d screwed up my bash plate which now gets in the way of the drain bolt and filter. There really wasn’t room for anything to go wrong, I had about 3 hours max to get it all done and get on the road. Thankfully, Karma was still on my side, no cross-threaded bolts or awkwardness with the bash plate. I even managed to adjust my clutch that had been annoying me for a couple of days.
Ready to roll at the last minute
Me, Oki, Xenia and Martin headed for some lunch before we left Osh, saying goodbye to the comforts and culture of Central Asia. We’d been out a few times in the last few days and we were all getting on great, we travel very similarly and for similar reasons. We all agreed it felt like this was the end of a trip, getting to the Chinese border had been a goal for all of us for at least 6 months. All the planning and logistics had been to get us to here, because the China crossing is so expensive, complicated and, culturally, a huge step. One leg of our respective trips is over, and the next begins tomorrow.
We had a great fun ride back up the nice Osh to Sary-Tash road and arrived at our little guesthouse. It was at the edge of town closest to China so it really felt like the edge of Kyrgyzstan, there was nothing else between us and China but walls of bureaucracy. It was a very strange feeling arriving. 18 months ago I’d never even heard of Kyrgyzstan, let alone Sary-Tash, now the group I’d been talking to online for 6 months was all assembled for the first time in this tiny town. Two Italians Cristiano and Sabrina on a little Honda Dominator, a Swiss couple Cristoph and Stefani in a converted Iveco van, Martin and Xenia on their two Yamaha XT660s, Oki on her BMW R100 and me on Donkey. We all stood outside chatting and laughing at the craziness of where we were stood and what the hell was going to happen the next day.
Nice RR, enjoying both words and pictures.
I would have thought at least one of your two screws would have hit the steel truss rod in the guitar neck? If you drilled through it then I wouldn't get too attached the that one! Anyways if it makes it to NZ I can help sort that for you.
Hope all is well wherever you now are.
Awesome read before bed, thanks!
I don't think it has one, I put both screws in by hand, through dead centre, no drilling. It cost me around $40 in Uralsk, Kazahkstan so I have no illusions about its quality or life expectancy it's already last far longer and better than I thought it would. As long as I can keep repairing it for cheap and it keeps making sounds I'll keep carrying it If it makes it to NZ I'll be attached to it for life I think.
I'm still waiting around in Islamabad for my Indian visa. It's pretty comfortable here though the price of the room is killing me at around £23 per night! That's more than I've paid in a long time. Never mind, means I can get some writing done! here's the write up for the China crossing
Day 110 to 116 – Sary-Tash to Sost via China
Chilly start to the day but we were all up and excited like it was Christmas in our little house in Sary-Tash. Everyone was ready and packed sharpish, a quick breakfast then we were on the road. A couple of hours easy riding to the Kyrgyzstan border to start the exit process, stunning views of the Pamir mountains all the way along. We got processed fairly quickly for the exit, handed over customs papers and got our passports stamped, then all stood around chatting and spending the last of our Kyrgyz cash in the duty free shop.
Everyone nearly ready to roll for the border
We started to get a little worried though when there was no go ahead from the guard for the Italian bike. Turns out there was some trouble with the paperwork, the bike was imported into the country inside a truck, and the paperwork wasn’t in place to let it leave without being in that same truck. Balls. We waited around for 2 hours, getting more and more worried. The guards were saying we had to return to Osh, a day’s ride away, to sort the paperwork out. We didn’t know what effect this would have on us crossing China, mahbe we could delay by a day, could we enter today without Cristiano and he can catch us up a couple of days later.
We had to leave him to it though, they were shutting the border down for lunch and we had to exit toward China while he had to stay put. We made plans to try and keep in touch, we would go and find our Chinese guide at the border post and see what our options were. That didn’t go very well either though, the Chinese border was closed for lunch too, big black iron gates baring the way, they told us it would open in 2 hours. The Swiss guys got some water boiling in their van and we made some pasta for lunch, too a nap, played some guitar, and just killed time any way we could.
Waiting for the border gates to open, for 2 hours
When they opened up we shot down toward the border compound, about 10 minutes ride down heavily fenced and camera covered road. We found our guide waiting for us, he was expecting us at about 11am, now at 4pm we were surprised he was still there at all. He told us in no uncertain terms that our situation was not good. We had to all cross at the same time or not at all, if the group changed at all, he’d need at least a few days to get all the paperwork changed. We could enter the country without one of the group, but the bikes couldn’t, so if Cristiano didn’t make it back in time, we’d be stuck in China without our bikes.
There was still 90 minutes before the border closed for the day and our last chance to cross without much fuss. We decided to just wait until the last second in case Cristiano managed to fix it. I rode back up to the gates alone to wait for word from him, where my phone could reach some internet from the Kyrgyzstan cell towers. The border guys weren’t happy about me being there at first, you’re either supposed to be crossing the border or not be there at all, and suddenly they had a foreigner just sitting around outside a military building playing on his phone. Eventually I convinced them to let me just sit around for a while, they didn’t speak any English but I think they understood in the end, though they kept asking me aggressively if I’d taken any photos.
An hour passed without hearing anything from Cristiano. I was getting pally with some of the border guys, listening to music and showing them pictures while they tried to use Google Translate to ask me questions. Xenia rode up with about 20 minutes until the border closed, saying they were kicking us for closing and we had to leave. We’d have to ride back and try and re-enter Kyrgyzstan, just camp near the border somewhere. We were pondering how cold it would be camping this high when we heard a bike engine, turned around and there was Cristiano riding up the road. We both squealed a bit. I shot straight back down to the border compound to make sure the guide didn’t leave and they didn’t close.
None of us could quite believe we were actually being processed in to China, the relief was palpable. The farce that is China wore off some of the relief though. We had to get all the bags off the bikes and carry them inside so they could be manually searched. The guards actually did a better job than I was expecting given the stories I’d read. They methodically took everything out of one bag, then put it back in it’s place, or would let me do it, rather than just throwing stuff everywhere like I’d read. Then the bikes had to be parked in a gigantic X-Ray machine for trucks, presumably to check for immigrants in the petrol tank or something…
Then a couple of hours ride to the official border house, making it 9pm by the time we got there, 11pm local time. Thankfully they knew we were coming and had stayed open for us. They stamped us into the country and we all did a tiny tired cheer. We had to ride the bikes around the building and leave them in the customs compound overnight, they wouldn’t be processed until the next day. We all chucked our bodies and our bags into a van to take us to a hotel in the border town. We were all looking forward to a shower and sleep after such a long day, mostly spent standing around waiting and worrying. All the hotels were either closed or full in the town though, so it was another 2 hour drive cramped in a taxi to get to Kashgar.
We were very surprised though when we pulled up to the fanciest looking hotel I’ve ever stayed in, we all did another tired little cheer. We unpacked the van found our rooms and agreed to head out to find some food before bed. We all headed out for a little food, it was pretty awful since it was the only place open at midnight, we were just happy to have made it here at all.
Up bright and early in the morning to pack up and drive 2 hours back to the customs compound to start processing the bikes through. We sat around for 3 hours there, just staring at the bikes waiting, slowly loosing our minds from more waiting. Lunch rolled around and the guide was almost surprised when we said we were hungry. We were basically prisoners in the compound, we couldn’t leave and there was no stores, only one of us even had local currency. We left the bikes and drove out to town. Our spirits were lifted a bit by an amazing lunch, 9 huge dishes of great food between us all and we were stuffed.
The guide decided it’d be a good idea for us to go do something useful for the afternoon while he finished clearing the bikes from customs. So we headed over to Shiptons Arch, one of the sights we’d booked to see on our little tour through. We were all still in bike gear though, not at all ready for a few miles walking. Thankfully we’d bought all our luggage with us, so we all got changed in the car park. Classy. A scrambling 40 minute walk up a river bed, nearly getting killed by goats throwing rocks on our heads from 100 feet up, and a steep stair climb to the top. Worth it though, the view was incredible looking through a ginormous stone archway. Hard to believe it even formed naturally and is still standing.
We got back to the cars to some bad news though, the bikes wouldn’t be released from customs today and we’d be heading straight back to Kashgar, that meant they wouldn’t be ready until Monday. We had to protest quite a bit to get back to the bikes and van. Most of us still had things stored there we needed if we were going to spend all weekend in Kashgar. We were all getting pretty pissed at the guide by this point, multiple times we had no idea what was going on and were just flitting from decision to decision with no planning. We told him we needed to chat properly in the morning, with the whole group and get a plan laid out, and backup plans. We knew things would go wrong, but at least we wouldn’t be left in the lurch again.
Moving hotels is not simple. This is only for 3 people
Since customs was closed over the weekend we would have a couple of days to explore Kashgar ourselves, which hadn’t been in the plan. It was very annoying we were delayed, but it was partly our groups fault for arriving late on the day of the crossing anyway, and I was quite happy to have a couple of free days wandering. The old town is very pretty, some of it looks like a movie set. It has been preserved and rebuilt by the government for tourism, that’s clear in a lot of places, but it sort of doesn’t matter, because people are still living and working there so it doesn’t feel fake.
It does however feel terrifying to me at times. It’s illegal to take photos of anything related to government, military or police, which is the case in a lot of the world, but in Kashgar there were cameras everywhere you couldn’t take a picture of a street that didn’t have a camera in it somewhere. The amount of surveillance is creepy. Couple that with the amount of security too, supermarkets have X-Ray machines and metal detectors with 3 guards on the door. Our hotel had the same treatment, it is a hotel for foreigners but being searched and prodded every time you enter your hotel gets creepy after a while. I can’t imagine what life there would be like, you can almost feel the giant authoritarian thumb pressing down on you the whole time, you have zero power, and we only had freedom because of the protection of our foreign passports.
Wave for the cameras
That doesn’t mean I was terrified of the place though. After a couple of days walking around I really started to love it. The people were friendly when they wanted to be, and totally ignored you if they didn’t, which works perfectly for me. The food was great everywhere, and I usually only judge by what is available as cheap as possible. It got a little boring eating the same thing, noodles, tomato with pepper and kebab, but everything was freshly made when you ordered, noodles, meat everything. Upping the budget a bit would have gotten some good variety.
Walking around Kashgar at night was a crazy experience too. It felt like a movie, through a closed outdoor mall, neon lights blinking around with rain falling and smoke rising from street food sellers and covering the street. Scooters scurrying about in their dedicated lanes next to the pavement, fenced off from the road with lines drawn for pedestrians to cross. So many rules and laws but it still felt like chaos.
Finally got the bikes and Van back. Riding in China for the first time!
We waited around on Day 104, Monday morning, waiting for the call from the guide that the bikes had been cleared. It came at about 11am and we all geared up as fast we could and got to the taxis. It was all in vain though, we sat around with the bikes waiting for another 4 hours at the compound. We all nearly went insane, then finally at 5pm the bikes were cleared and we could leave. The first stop was for petrol, filling up using 8 litre kettles since bikes aren’t allowed inside the station, walking them back and forth from the pumps to our bikes 50m away. We got to back to Kashgar, accidentally using the Highway all the way back, we have no idea if we were supposed to or not, but we had no trouble at either toll booth. We all headed out for a little feast at an Uyghur to celebrate our last night in Kashgar.
Uyghur food and music for our last night
We geared up and got on the road early on Day 105, heading for Tashkurgan, the border town with Pakistan. We said our goodbyes to our guide, he was leaving us in the hands of a colleague. A frustrating start though, a speed limit of 40kph (25mph) for about 3 hours of riding. Stopping for lunch was welcome break for all of us, it’s so boring riding that slowly it’s hard to even stay focused, nothing changes quick enough to even keep your attention. We fueled up from giant kettles again, to more amazement and selfies from the guards and attendants. We are complete aliens to them, not only do they not see many foreigners, they don’t see big bikes at all.
Waiting to fill up from the kettles, my bike nearly got stolen by a brazen local
The afternoon ride got way more interesting though. We had been riding with a new guide in a taxi ahead of us, following him along through the restricted areas and through all the checkpoints. I asked him when the next stop was so we could prepare better. He said around 110km, and he agrees we could ride on ahead and take more photos. I asked him what the speed limit was and he said “No limit really, just be careful”. A huge grin spread over my face. Sweet. Mountain road, stunning scenery, a clear road and no speed limit. The afternoon was much more fun.
Xenia kneeling in the road to get the perfect shot of Martin
We got to Tashkurgen and headed to drop the bikes at a customs compound ready for processing in the morning. A bit of a farce getting them in, they had to be weighed, but for some reason with only one wheel actually on the scales. This baffled us, but we were too tired to try and argue with a stubborn guide and customs guards who didn’t speak English. We headed out for some dinner and then an early night. We knew it was going to be a long day tomorrow, crossing borders always is, let alone one this complicated.
It was an odd feeling knowing I’d be crossing to Pakistan in the morning. I can remember being nervous just before crossing to Turkey, entering a new country and culture, new currency and food. I’ve gotten progressively less apprehensive with each border. Now with a literally, and figuratively, huge border coming up, I didn’t feel nervous at all. In fact, when I started doing my mental “new country checklist” I realised I was probably the least prepared for a new country I’ve ever been on the trip. I had no local currency and no idea where I’d get it. I had enough fuel to get to a decent sized town, but I didn’t know what I’d find there. I didn’t know any of the language, or even have a translator for it, hoping the locals English would get me by. I didn’t even have an onward visa, no way out of the country to India, that would be obtained in Islamabad, I hoped. I think I’m getting used to this travelling lark, knowing that I’ll survive and just become accustomed to whatever it throws at me. Unless it all goes wrong, then I’m just an Idiot who failed to prepare. “Fail to Prepare. Prepare to Fail” that stupid sign still sticks in my head from Mrs Kay’s maths lessons when I was 13. Still annoys me too.
No matter how much I had prepared though, nothing would have prepared me for the mental torture that was Day 106. I’d read a lot of horror stories about Chinese border crossing, but it hadn’t sunk in quite how bad or trying they could be. I’m glad it hadn’t because if I’d known what was in store I might not have bothered getting out of bed. To begin the day, they wouldn’t let the bikes out of the customs compound because the weights didn’t match, likely because they were now weighing them with the other wheel on the scales. Not both wheel, just the other wheel. They solved this by standing on the scales until the numbers matched. Mental.
Then there was a problem with the paperwork, quite a big one by the serious looks and 3 way phone calls. After 2 hours of Oki badgering them every 5 minutes for updates in what little Chinese she knew we were somehow free. We headed over to the border house to get the bikes signed out of the country. But of course, they went to lunch. For 3 hours. We were gobsmacked. We’d heard that we could only exit China before lunch time, since any time after and you wouldn’t have enough time to make it to the Pakistan border in Sost 200km away, and it was illegal to sleep in between, since you weren’t technically in a country at all. This meant their 3 hour lunch put us in jeopardy of not being able to leave China at all. We headed out for some lunch too, since there was nothing else we could do and we were being kicked out of the compound.
After a 90 minutes sitting in a cafe trying to do a crossword with 3 non-native English speakers (very entertaining, can recommend), we told our guide we were going to head back to the compound to see if they would open up. He told us this was a stupid idea but couldn’t think of a reason not to try. Surprise surprise the compound was open and we walked in. The customs border guys were waiting for us, asking where we’d got to. For Fuck’s Sake. Our guide hadn’t listened to them, they were ready and waiting while we sat up the road. We got the papers signed and the bikes were cleared to leave! Oki’s bike celebrated too hard at this news, drained the last of it’s battery and refused to start. Thankfully Martin had some jumper cables and we could shock it back to life, we all got to have a little test ride on it around the compound just to get some charge back in the battery.
I did get to join the exclusive bunny club while waiting though
Our guide then told us to park up and wait for the immigration officers to fetch us to do all the passport stamps. We weren’t buying this though so we started poking around. Oki spoke to the customs guys and they laughed in disbelief, came outside and told us to go around the front of the building and ask for them, nobody was coming for us. The guide was now officially dead to us. He wasn’t just useless, he seemed to be actively working against us. Immigration officers arrived 30 minutes later and got us stamped out of the country. More checking of all our bags and belongings before they’d let us leave though, no idea what they thought we might be smuggling out, since you can’t even buy a chocolate bar without being searched in this part of China.
An army dude hoped in the Swiss Van as our “escort” and we were instructed not to stop on the road to the border, it was illegal. Sure… you try riding a bike for 2 hours without stopping for anything, it can be done, but with 6 riders, it wasn’t likely, someone would need to pee, or change to warmer gloves, or put rain gear on, we were heading up to the highest border crossing in the world after all. About half way to the border, we stopped anyway, everyone shot off to the side of the road for a pee, got some warmer gear on and a little snack. It was about 5pm by now so we were keen to crack on, riding in the dark is not just no fun, it’s dangerous, motorbikes have notoriously bad headlights.
We pulled up at the last China checkpoint, they would check our passports and bike paperwork before allowing us to leave the country. When the guard said “Computer problem. Wait” our collective groan nearly knocked him over. We started to explain our day in broken English and how much we just wanted to leave China. They were a funny bunch of guys up there and trying to be helpful, but it was all out of their hands. I got the guitar out for a little jam session, hoping my terrible playing might persuade them to push it along. Another very strange place to be playing guitar, especially doing a little singalong with Oki and Xenia too.
30 minutes of waiting and they finally let us go, we shot off as fast up the remainder of the pass to the border/friendship monument, marking the highest point of the pass at 4700m (15,000ft). A padlocked gate greeted us, but the border guards were in a van behind with the keys. He jumped out and then struggled with the lock for a couple of minutes. When he turned round to look us and said “broken” we all nearly fell off our bikes laughing. It was the last straw in a ridiculous day. To come through all the bureaucracy of the day and be held up at the final 10 meters of China by a broken padlock was beyond believable, we were all in hysterics. I jumped off the bike to try and help, warm the lock up, jiggle the key, I even got my WD40 out to try and free it up. We found another padlock on a pedestrian gate and it turned out they’d just bought the wrong key entirely. He drove back down to the base to fetch the other, leaving us to take pictures and watch the last light of the day fade over the mountains. It would usually be beautiful, but watching the light fade meant we’d be riding down the Khunjerab pass in the dark, not a nice prospect.
The last hurdle
Another half an hour later and we riding under the monument. A very weird feeling. I’d seen countless photos of people posing in front of this border monument over the last 18 months planning the trip. It’s a marker for a lot of peoples trips and a destination in its own right as the highest in the world. Now I was sitting underneath it. All I wanted to do was ride though, we had to use what little light we had left. The first thing to do was retrain my brain to ride on the left again, not 2 seconds into Pakistan Oki was riding on the right again and I had to undertake her blaring the horn as a reminder. It’s not so easy for the German, Swiss and Italian guys, they’ve almost never ridden on the left.
Me and Oki took off riding as hard as we dared, she easily had the worst headlights of all of us so wanted to make as much ground as possible and I had the best bike for these roads, so I could ride ahead much easier. The first checkpoint was 20 minutes along, a proper greeting, handshake and a welcome from the guy manning it. He seemed so happy to see us and such a genuine guy, it took us by surprise after the relative coldness of Chinese officials. We had no time to chat though and shot off again. An hour later it was pitch black on the road, the mountains don’t let in any twilight at all. A couple more border crossing to break up the ride, which was good, because it was hard. I think the hardest riding I’ve ever done. The road surface was generally good, winding through the mountains following the river, but at some point half the road would just disappear into the river, or a goat would just be stood in the road around in a bend in the pitch dark. At one point people were working on the side of the road with zero lighting, I caught a glimpse of one and flicked my full beam on, illuminating 3 people standing in our lane, minding their own business. Trying to concentrate so hard on spotting things on the road, while still figuring out which way it even turns, after such a long day, takes it toll.
Not a nice view from here
We made it to Sost eventually, and the guy manning the barrier made a phone call. Some guys came and opened up the border compound for us, just an office on the edge of town. After the ridiculousness of China’s borders, this place was utter border heaven. We all got stamped in and customs finished within an hour, including a lot of chatting and laughing with the officers there. They were such nice guys, especially considering they’d had to open the entire place up just for us to come through.
About 100m from the border compound we spotted a hotel and basically fell into it. They had decent prices and could cook us some food so we were sold straight away. We just stared into space while we ate. 15 hours after we started packing our things at the hotel, we were finally in another hotel, and in Pakistan.
I'm not dead. Just very, very still.
I've been in Islamabad for 16 days now! A crazy amount of time to be in one place for me. Most of that was because I was waiting for my Indian Visa, but after that there wasn't much enthusiasm for doubling back on myself up the mountains for a very rushed few days riding on the worst parts of the KKH. So I stayed put, went for a few short rides to keep myself entertained, ate a lot and planned a lot.
I got the Indian Visa 11 days after applying, but they only gave me a Double, I applied and paid for Multiple and even had an interview where I stressed that I wanted to 6 entries (initial entry, From Nepal, a return flight from Vietnam, return flight from Bali, Flight from Sri Lanka, then maybe Nepal again depending how my shipping works out). They said they never issued a Multiple Entry visa from the Islamabad high commission but they'd "see what they could do". Apparently that was to wait 1 hour before just issuing a Double anyway. Bastards.
Had to rejig my plans a bit and make all my flights from Kathmandu at much higher expense and moving people around who I'm meeting up with up. But it's all sorted, I'll head into India, then Nepal, back to India, use an airport E-Visa for Sri Lanka, then organise shipping from either India or Nepal. It's getting very complicated.
My planning is getting pretty crazy now, the trip had one single date in it from the start, 17th August 2017 when we would cross China, it was all worked around that. Now I've crossed, it's all open so I started putting together a plan. It was like planning the trip all over again so many things to consider, climates, seasons, road conditions, people visiting, distances. I think I have a plan now, and it involves arriving in Darwin, Australia around April 2018, which is much later than I originally though, extending the trip by at least 3 months. This does solve one of my earlier worries about arriving in the north in the height of wet season though and means I've got plenty of time to see meet a friend in Nepal, my cousin for a month in Vietnam riding rental bikes, and spend Christmas in Bali with my dad and step mum.
I'm heading to India in a few days with Xenia and Martin of XT Adventures https://facebook.com/xtadventures and we're heading up to Srinagar and then down the Leh-Manali highway. Should be another nice challenge for me and Donkey and I'm happy I'm tackling it with some friends.