Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Not Everything Is As It Seems.

Not everything is as it seems in China.  Take for instance the toaster at the breakfast buffet.  It is a very fine stainless steel 6 or 8 slice machine.  Now in most places one would put the slices of bread into the slots, but not here.  Here the slices of bread are placed on top of the slots like a grill and the heating element cranked up full.  And of course the pieces of toast are flipped with chop sticks .  Sort of effective I suppose but hardly efficient - a bit of an allegory for the  Chinese bureaucracy we had already experienced at the border and would continue to suffer through over the next few days trying to secure our local driver licenses and motorcycle registrations.

First part of the morning was spent out at a garage in the next town.  Other than the Vehicle Identification Numbers being recorded not much else seemed to be accomplished over the few hours we were there.  On the ride over it became immediately obvious that a few of the newer model BMW motorcycles had not come out of the Pamirs unscathed.  Both the front and rear shocks of one bike had lost all fluid due to blown seals.  While it was going to be very bouncy riding down the road on just the springs the bike was ridable.  The same could not be same for the other mechanically challenged motorcycle.  The engine sounded like a single cylinder diesel and looked like one too with the blue smoke coming out the tail pipe.  After some cursory investigation it was decided best that the bike be shipped to Xian instead of ridden the remainder of the trip.  

The afternoon was spent at  the government vehicle inspection station where nothing obvious was accomplished and after a few hours other than confirming that our turn signal worked we all headed back to the hotel.  Before leaving for dinner we were informed that upon our return there would be an official lecture from a government official on driving safely on China.  Our drivers licenses and vehicle registrations were also to be delivered to the hotel that night.  2-hours after drinking heavily in the lobby waiting for our guest a most apologetic lovely young Chinese traffic policewoman showed up with her English speaking brother.  She supplied a copy of all the Chinese traffic laws and made sure we understood that in China they drive on the right and the maximum speed was 120 km/h.  And the driver licenses and vehicle registrations were nowhere to be seen so the new plan was to once again go to the government vehicle inspection station first thing in the morning. 

After spending the morning hanging out in a dirt parking lot nearby the regional police station where supposedly our paperwork was being completed it was decided to proceed without it and just see what happens.  So we did and nothing happened.  The riding over the next few days was hot and boring across the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts on 4-lane divided highway with only gas stops and police check points to break up the monotony.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Pamir Highway

The two days of riding from Khorog Tajikistan to Sary-Tash Kyrgyzstan would be another hard test of both men and machines.  When we left the hotel the first morning the news on the lost riders was that they had been picked up by the chase vehicle at 1AM that morning and would be back sometime before lunch.  On a much improved road surface than most anything ridden on the previous 3-days we made our way up M41 - the Pamir Highway.  The road drifted through the valley bottoms which were riddled with apparently very prosperous farming communities.  The road also continually gained elevation.  At some point the tree line was passed and there was no vegetation at all from then on of any kind.  At about that same place the pavement ended and the twisty gravel road headed towards the sky.   All along the scenery was fantastic.  The first of the big summits (over 4000m) came quickly and we were then on the plateau where we would stay for the rest of the day. A great barren land bordered on both sides by towering mountain ranges.   It gets cold up that high and I stopped a few times to add layers in order to keep warm.  As the second big summit of the day was achieved the road quickly dropped down to our destination.  

On our way out that morning we were informed to avoid the first gas station we came to on the way out of town as it was bad Kazakhstan gas and that the second gas station we would come across had the good Russia gas.  This is the sort of information that would have been handy information for those of us that took the initiative to fill our tanks the night before in order to avoid the inevitable morning rush hour tie ups.  More of the same endless views into the wonderful mountainscapes.  We steadily climbed to our highest point on the trip (4566 m), then down to a homestay by a lake for lunch.   

On the ride down hill I noticed that my brakes were noticeably not as effective as before - no where near as effective it turned out so I slowed my descending speed greatly.  Turns out that I wasn't the only one having this issue as a number of the group reported severely effected rear brake performance.   I quickly bled the rear brakes and was able to restore the correct hydraulic pressure.  A couple of theories were suggested as to the failing brakes with the consensus being that while small amounts of air in the fluid may be unnoticeable at lower altitudes up above 14000 feet that minimal air had expanded enough to be significantly compressible leading to the spongy brakes we had experienced.  My front brake issue was simply an adjuster on the lever being set to its minimum setting by either the jostling from the road or an over enthusiastic local thoroughly looking over the machine.  After an extended exit process from Tajikistan we traversed the spectacular 20km no-mans-land to the Kyrgyzstan border where we suffered through a confused and protracted entry.  

In the darkening light and increasing rain we were directed to the gas station in town where a girl with a sign would be whom we should follow to our accommodations for the night.  Seemed simple enough and it was and soon found ourselves faced with sleeping in a yurt or dorm room inside the warm and dry homestay.   I wimped out and chose a bed in the house.  At dinner that night we learned that the B-Team had run out of diesel for the bulldozer they had hired to help recover their abandoned motorcycles and that they would try again tomorrow after the delivery of more fuel.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

12 Cows

We had a full rest day in Khorog, and after the 2-days of riding it took to get down there we needed it.  There were no official GlobeRiders  activities but 8 of us had Visas into Afghanistan and were determined to use them.  At the Tajikistan exit inspection we were held up for a bit as our local guide talked with his contacts on the other side of the river.  Turns out there had been more than the usual amount of helicopter and troop activity the day before and nobody was all that sure what was going on.   Eventually we were told it would be safe if we stayed by the river and did not head inland, which of course was our intended direction.  We all agreed that staying by the river was the best course and we proceeded to exit Tajikistan and cross over the bridge to Afghanistan.  On the Afghan side dealing with tourists was an unfamiliar process for the border guards (my visa number was 00001635).  Things proceeded slowly but eventually we all got our stamps.  As we were waiting a police pickup (with a machine gun mounted in the back) drove through the compound with what was obviously a dead body under a plastic sheet.  With that we new we weren't in Kansas (or anywhere else familiar) anymore.  A short ride north (along  the river) over very unmaintained roads brought us to a small village where we parked in the middle of the market.   Whereas everywhere else we had been so far on this trip a group of us on motorcycles arriving enmasse into a town usually elicited a great boisterous welcome it was not the case here in Afghanistan.  We were looked on initially with great suspicion and something maybe approaching fear.  A wave or hello more often than not resulted in a turned head or a walking away.   Eventually a few of the more courageous fellows (and there was nothing but men and boys in the village market) started talking to us and the strange vibe mellowed a bit but never went away completely.  Walking around the village you immediately got the sense that this was a very poor place.  For the first time since the gypsies in Georgia we encountered people begging on the street.  

I'd seen enough of the market and wandered back to the bikes to get some water and see if I couldn't give out a Brian medallion.  A few of the younger boys were gathered around the bikes but quickly dispersed as I approached.   As I drank my water I indicated to them that it was OK to swing a leg over the bike and for them to try it on for size.  This only generated some head shakes and maybe an actual smile or some small laughter.  At some point a couple of older boys figured out what was going on and gladly took the opportunity at which point the cell phones came out and a picture taking frenzy ensued. 

And the weird vibe dissipated a little more but not completely.  A few conversations were had and I learned a bit about life today in Afghanistan.  One guy as we were getting ready to leave quietly came up and asked why I wasn't nervous being in his country.  I responded with a query asking if he'd ever been in Detroit... he hadn't, and yes it was a smart ass question from yours truly.  He then informed me that as a foreigner I was worth 12-cows to him if I was turned over to the men up in the mountains.   The weird vibe regained some strength.  Soon enough we got on our bikes and rode back to the border with a quick stop for a group photo of the Afghan Eight.  

Upon our return to the hotel we were soon to learn that a two of the group who had ventured out on their own had become stranded between an impassable river crossing and an impossible up hill ride of snow and mud.  They were close to 4000m above sea level, it was cold and getting dark quick.  Just after 7PM one of the chase vehicles with a local guide set out for the 5-hour ride to bring them off the mountain. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On The Road To Khorog

After spending a couple of nights in Dushanbe and seeing some of the sites it was time to head out on towards the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and the Pamir Highway.

It was the best day of the whole trip so far.  Over a few mountain passes with the last bring us along side Afghanistan with only a raging torrent of a river's separation.  The roads ranged from sublime valley bottom pavement to bone rattling potholed gravel with the odd sandbar and shallow water crossing thrown in.  The scenery left everyone gobsmacked - there really has never been a more appropriate use of that word.  

Our accommodations for the night in Kaliakhum were in shared rooms in a rustic home stay built almost on top of yet another raging torrent of a river.   Tajikistan has a lot of water and it is no wonder a lot of regional and world economies are looking with great interest here.  

 The next day's ride down to Khorog was another tough but great day.  150 hard miles along the river with the road surface varying between dirt and broken pavement and back to dirt.  A noticeable increase in traffic especially of the oncoming heavy truck variety.  Again the scenery  and vistas are incredible. 

Every town we ride through the kids come out in throngs to shout and yell and wave.  They are also sticking their hands out to high five the moving motorcycles... probably not the safest thing and I have rethought my active participation in this activity and decided to just wave and smile.  And of course we continue to attract crowds wherever we go.

For the last day and half we have been riding along the border of Afghanistan with nothing more than a river separating us.  

It is absolutely fascinating to observe the comings and goings of daily life on the other side.  Don't think I have seen any modern conveniences outside a couple of motorcycles with everything seemingly being done through manual labour.  The next day would get us a better look as we cross over for a day trip.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tunnel Of Death

Easy ride out of Samarkand to the border and the crossing formalities all went fairly smoothly.  Think I was through within 2-hours of arriving.  You will notice on the track that we had to go North almost as far as Tashkent before heading South to the Tajikistan border.  This was a last minute change of route as the crossing we were originally planning is only opened to locals.  The border closest to Samarkand on the most direct route to Dushanbe is not open at all.  Hard to believe that this whole area East of the Caspian Sea was not that long ago all part of the same country.  The border fortifications have been substantial throughout the 'stans.

The next day was to be our first full day in Tajikistan and we had been warned that it would start with a bang.  On the day's itinerary was a ride through the 5km long Tunnel Of Death (cue the scary music: Dah-Dah-Dah-Duuuuh).  The instructions were for us all to wait at the mouth of the tunnel and we would follow the chase vehicle through.  We were also told that the Tunnel Of Death was the second tunnel not the first which was built by the Chinese and not so bad.  But before we found any tunnels the road headed up into the mountains and the magnificent views of Tajikistan started to be revealed.

As instructed we started to marshall up at the mouth of the second tunnel on the road - it looked fairly benign and after a bit of waiting most of us decided to just do it.

500 or so yards in we discovered that this was not the entrance to the Tunnel Of Death but instead just a snow shed.  Around the corner we found the actual entrance to The Tunnel Of Death (cue the scary music: Dah-Dah-Dah-Duuuuh).

Here's a video of what the getting through the thing looks like from inside the safe confines of a car.

We all made it the other side safe and sound and mostly dry.  

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Last night I held Aladdin's lamp And so I wished that I could stay

The morning of our departure to Bukhara we had been warned that as we got closer to the center of town the road probably would seem less of a road but that we should keep going.  And sure enough road turned to alley turned to pathway turned to very small space between between two cement barricades opening up to grand central bazaar across the street from our hotel.  It had also been suggested that Bukhara was the place that still most retained the spirit of the old Silk Road and I think we truly did experience what it may have been like way back in the day.

Rest day in Bukhara.  Walking tour of the old city in the morning seeing only a fraction of the internationally recognized architectural wonders that are here.  We lucked out as we found ourselves in the middle of the annual Silk and Spices festival.  There was a parade in the morning right by our hotel (which really was in the middle of it all) and everywhere you went all day was another musical and dancing troupe.  The colors and noise were glorious and the streets were packed well into the night.

I've been buying small things along the way, always conscious that I am on a motorcycle and have a long way to go but in Bukhara I broke open the piggy bank. I walked away with silk scarves, hand forged cutlery and even a 100-year old carpet.  Thank goodness for Federal Express.

And I even managed to catch up on my post card commitments.

A short ride across southern Uzbekistan to Samarkand followed by another rest day - I know hard to believve but this international travel is a lot of hard work.  City tour in the morning as we visited Tourmaline's mosque and mausoleum as well as the 16th century Registan.  All had been significantly rebuild during the Soviet period and even though the refurbishment continues they are still in need of a lot of attention.  

There was a great local market around the corner from the hotel.  Everything from the exotic to the mundane was for sale.

Great lunch at the home of a local family.  Apparently that's a thing in both Bukhara and Samarkand where not only are private homes used as B&B's but also tourist restaurants.  In the afternoon I decided it was time for a haircut and a shave.   And I think it just might have been the best haircut and straight razor shave I have ever had as it came with a full facial and scalp massage.  My exuberant recommendation to the rest of the group saw a line at the door for the rest of the afternoon. 

And the Brian train keeps chugging along.