My apologies for the blog being so far behind, mainly due to my laziness and unsuitable internet, but primarily just my laziness. I am writing this in Bandirma ,Turkey near Istanbul and will try and get the blog up to date before I leave here.
After traversing the Pamir Highway for a week it was time to find a nice place in Dushanbe to rest and regroup for a few days, the Greenhouse Hostel was just the place. After driving around in circles for sometime I stumbled on the Hostel hidden behind two massive steel doors with a large Overland Truck parked out the front the only clue. Alot of the accommodation is hard to find in this region as they tend not to have signs and the maps me App I’m using is hit and miss with its accuracy.
I checked into the hostel and got a good bed in a Dorm with Air Conditioning and Breakfast for around $8 a night, you can’t beat that. The Hostel was full of travellers, some Backpacking, quite a few Cyclists and also a few Motorcycle Travellers, it was a very social place and after a week by myself it was great to talk to other people and swap stories about the road ahead and behind. Till and Lin who I met in Osh arrived a few days later and we were trying to work out how I passed them on the Pamir as they left Osh two days before me.
While I was here in Dushanbe I also needed to sort out my Uzbekistan Visa, I already had my Letter of Invitation but I needed to collect the actual Visa from the Uzbek Embassy here, sounds easy enough…..
I jumped in a Taxi with Till and Lin as they also needed a Visa and headed off down to the Embassy on a warm 37 degree day. I had read about this Embassy and what a circus it was when you needed to apply or collect your Visa. As an Australian to get a Visa for Uzbekistan you first need to obtain a Letter of Invitation, easy enough online through an Uzbek Travel Agent and costs around $70 US but takes up to two weeks. I had applied in Almaty Kazakhstan so my Letter had arrived by email, all I needed to do was pay for the Visa itself and collect it, but first I had to get into the office.
Every day local Tajiks go to the Embassy to get short term Visa’s for Uzbekistan sometimes there can be over a hundred people waiting out the front, today it wasn’t as busy but there was still around 50 people waiting in the baking hot sun. So the only way in was for all three of us to just push our way through the crowd holding up our passports and the Security Guard would let us in, mainly because they make more money from foreigners so we get preferential treatment….fair or not I didn’t really care at that point.
So after getting in without being seriously Injured I handed over my application form and was told to wait for an hour, unfortunately Till and Lin had to wait a week (Germans and some other nationalities don’t need a Letter but they then have to wait a week) only in Uzbekistan……..
Two and a half hours later they called my name and I crowd surfed back into the Embassy and was handed my Visa… after I gave them my hard earned $75 US of course.
Then it was time for a walking tour of Dushanbe starting with the massive Flagpole, Tajikistan apparently has Flagpole Envy as Baku in Azerbaijan has built a taller one…
This just might be my new mode of transport, I think I could fit the bike in the back…
The courtyard of the Hostel and the main hub where everyone gathers and swaps adventure stories usually over Pizza and Beer.
So its time to leave the comforts of Dushanbe and head into the hot wild west of Uzbekistan. I’ll be riding with Michael from Ireland for a while until he turns south and heads through Turkmenistan….if his Visa comes through. Lottie (Hope I’ve spelt that correctly) is from Scotland, her and Ryan are about to embark on the Pamir Highway in a day or two going the opposite way.
Off we go through the tree lined streets of Dushanbe.
North towards the Mountains, we couldn’t cross the most direct Border as it was for locals only so we needed to go a few hundred Kilometres out of our way but the scenery was worth it.
Into the first of a series of Tunnels where I learnt very quickly NOT to wear sunglasses as you can see bugger all and you cant really stop to take them off without getting run over by something bigger than you……
Then into the Infamous Anzob Tunnel, otherwise known as the Tunnel of Death…..
(No I didn’t make that up either)
A large Piece of the Concrete roof has dropped onto the road, luckily in the other lane, not so lucky for them though.
The Tunnel is just over 5 Kilometres long and was the only way from Dushanbe to the Uzbek Border as the Azob Pass (the old Gravel road over the Mountains) was closed due to a Landslide. There has been some works done on the Tunnel over recent years but even with new lighting it was still very difficult to see, the Carbon Monoxide from Cars and Trucks was thick in the air and there were constant large pools of water on the road, I was glad to see the light at the end of the Tunnel…..
Then the ride through the Valley was spectactular.
Except for this guy who looked like he took a short cut down the mountain and wasn’t having a great day…..
No matter where you go in the world you will always get held up by one of these….
Signs of a recent Landslide, they don’t do these in a small way here….
So after a long hot day of riding we found a quiet Campsite not far from the Uzbek Border and had a visitor over for dinner, although he wasn’t keen on my freshly fried Chips.
The next day the hot sun got us out of our tents very early so we packed up and headed for the Border.
On the Tajikistan side we had to sort out a small issue with Michael’s Customs Document, when he entered Tajikistan they had written 15 days for his bike to be in the country when it should have been 45 as they did with mine. As he had been in Tajikistan for 17 days the Customs guy wanted $70 US for each day he was over($140 US). This smelled like a scam to get a Bribe so I politely and calmly explained that it looked like the Customs Officer at the other Border had made a ‘slight error’ in filling out the form as we had both entered via the same Border, also as neither of us had $140 US it was a bit of a stalemate…..that’s until they gave in and waved us through with a “Hope you enjoyed Tajikistan” and big smiles on their faces, patients won the battle yet again…….
Then it was onto the last window to have our Passports checked, where a large crowd of people were huddled around a small window, when the window opened they all pushed and shoved to try and get in first, no queues as usual. We waited for sometime as more locals turned up and just walked around the group and pushed to the front beside the window. One local man turned up and pushed through with a stack of Passports and put them through when the window opened, he then went away and came back with another stack and tried the same until one local women had a brief but loud chat to him and he walked away sulking. After waiting for over two hours I decided to do things their way so I grabbed Michael’s Passport and as soon as the window opened I pushed towards the window and reached over the crowd and threw both Passports in the window just before it closed. As our Foreign Passports have chips in them and are easier to check we had them both back in less than 10 minutes and we were free to have a go at getting into Uzbekistan.
At the Uzbek side it was a little more orderly and after about an hour of going aimlessly backwards and forwards to different people we were through to the waiting arms of two Money Changers…..
The currency in Uzbekistan is rather unique and can be tricky without doing your research. The official rate for $1 US is 4 Uzbek Sum but on the street the rate is at least double ($1 US = 8 Sum) so you would be mad to change your money at the bank, this is all done under the noses of all the officals and it’s just accepted.
So money changed I now had a massive stack of Uzbek notes and we were let loose onto the roads of Uzbekistan where you quickly become the centre of attention. There are very few Motorcycles in Uzbekistan other than travellers so you need to get used of being a moving tourist attraction really quickly, everyone is very friendly which sometimes gets dangerous on the roads when people want to look at the bike or talk to you in traffic.
This eastern side of Uzbekistan is flat and hot and has a lot of Market Gardens growing mostly melons of all types, and did I mention it was hot, over 42 degrees and that would become the norm is Uzbekistan.
The other thing you need to get accustomed to are the numerous Police Checkpoints on the roads as they can become very tricky if you are not careful. They are set up with two stop signs around 30 metres apart so I guess the theory is this slows the traffic and if the Police want to stop you they just point at you with a red wand. The first one we arrived at not long after the border and as we slowed to a stop one of the Police waved us through, then they stopped us at the other side of the checkpoint and told us we didn’t stop at the stop sign fully and we needed to pay a fine. I was getting used to this and knew where it was heading so after taking our passports and licenses they got the fine book out and put the pen to the page but didn’t write, you would think they would change thier methods abit, then they said we pay a fine to them. At first I politely asked them for a warning as this was out first time with one of these checkpoints, they replied no and we needed to pay a fine now. I knew they wouldn’t give in so I replied OK I have no money yet as we only just entered the country (if they had of checked my tank bag they would have seen the stack of cash I had picked up at the border) so please write out the fine and I’ll pay it in Samarkand when I go to the bank, knowing full well I wouldn’t pay it at all. This is not what they wanted to hear so this went back and forth for another 20 minutes until they also gave in handed our passports and Licenses back and told us to go.
The roads are still manic and crazy and the drivers spend most of the time on your side of the road but at least the road conditions are not that bad.
Alright let’s get as much hay on the truck as we can, doesn’t matter if the trucks rolls, it will be OK….
After another long hot ride we arrived in Samarkand where we negotiated the laneways to try and find a Hotel.
We eventually found a decent one for a reasonable price, parked the bikes and got out of the hot motorcycle gear and headed to town to explore.
The following day we ventured into the city again and had a tour of the Registan, which means ‘Sandy Place’ as when it was built the whole area was a sandy trough in the Desert. The Registan has been used over the years for a variety of things including a University and more commonly as a Bazaar and Market. It consists of three separate Medressa’s one finished around 1420, the second around 1636 and the third and baby of the three in around 1660 and due to the Sandy foundations and a number of massive Earthquakes over the years many of the walls and Minarets are still out of plumb (Not vertical) even though they have been through a number of restorations.
And then a trip down the tree lined tourist strip to the Bazaar where Michael organised a SIM card and I picked up some washers to repair a bracket on my Plastic Chain Guard which had broken on the Pamir.
The following day Michael still had not heard if he has been granted a Visa for Turkmenistan so after another day of R&R in Samarkand we headed off west towards Bukhara.
If you think the money situation is strange in Uzbekistan getting Petrol is even weirder. To explain it simply Uzbekistan has excessive supplies of Natural Gas therefore around 83% of the countries vehicles run on LPG and conversions cost around $300, so who needs petrol….well us foreigners who bring our Cars, Trucks and Motorcycles do and unless you know about it you will end up with a bit of a shock when you drop into the Petrol Station to fill up. To get around this problem some of the locals buy up any of the Petrol that gets into the country and store it in 5 litre Vegetable Oil Bottles in there Garages, until a hapless tourist arrives and then is forced to pay an exorbitant cost for it, this is known as Black Market Fuel and is the ONLY way to get Petrol here.
We were told by the Hotel Owner that we could find some around the corner, just look for the empty bottles on the side of the street, a sign that they have Petrol for sale. As we rode into the main street I spotted a couple of bottles on the side of the road next to a Melon stand so we stopped and spoke to a couple of kids who were running the stand. Sure enough they had petrol stooked away at the back of a nearby shop and within 5 minutes we were filling up with petrol from 5 litre Vegetable Oil Bottles on the side of a busy street with the help of a couple of 10 year olds.
I had been warned about the quality of the petrol as most is only 80 octane and most modern vehicles need at least 92 or 95, I had bought a bottle of Octane Booster in Kazakhstan for this very reason, so a little in with the dodgy Petrol and the bike ran perfectly.
So all fuelled up we headed off into the 43 degree Desert, next stop Bukhara.
After a long hot ride we found a Hostel that had been recommended to Michael and settled into an air conditioned room.
Bukhara is a nice small City with a series of narrow laneways and a Central ‘Old City’, its a little touristy but the scenery is good, the restaurants even better and due to the heat during the day the place comes alive at night.
The next day we went on a walking tour of the city with Charles, a French guy staying at our Hostel, even though it was a little warm (Bloody Hot) it was good to be off the bike and walking for a change.
Welcome to sunny Bukhara, guaranteed to bake you if you stand still for too long….
We also caught up with four young Norwegian guys who I had met in Dushanbe and then again at our Hotel in Samarkand, so we all went out for dinner at the local Italian Restaurant and had Pizza, as you do in Uzbekistan, what a mixed up world……
After a few days in Bukhara It was time for me to move on to Khiva. Michael stayed on in Bukhara as he was still waiting to hear about his Turkmenistan Visa and if he got it he would enter there from Bukhara. I later found out that he had to fly overnight to Tashkent and go to the Turkmenistan Embassy only to find that they had approved his Visa but didn’t bother emailing him, that is they way it works they don’t seem to care if tourists come or they don’t, if they only knew how much money they are missing out on….maybe one day things will change.
So the night before I left we took the opportunity to source some Black Market fuel. After a few attempts at Petrol Stations I found a guy who jumped in his car and said follow me…In any other place you would be cautious but as is the daily routine here he led us straight to a guy selling Petrol on the side of the road and with a shake of the hand and a wave he was gone. This was our Petrol Station for today….
It was time to say Goodbye to Michael, its been great riding with you mate, good luck for the rest of your trip and I’ll see you in Australia.
It started off a cool morning but it was soon well over 40 degrees and reached 46 degrees for the 450 odd Kilometre ride to Khiva.
And not a lot to see except for this bridge which seemed important enough to have around 20 Police guarding it.
I got into Khiva only just finding some Petrol at a house along the way, if you see the bottle just go knock on the door and say” Fill her up please”. I stayed at a great little hostel recommended to me by Olga, a Russian girl I met at our Hostel in Bukhara, Charles was also staying here and he and Olga had organised a tour of some Ruins for the following day so I put my hand up for that for something different.
Some of these old Adobe Forts were built in 400 and 500 and some were more intact than others mainly due to their age and the effects of the wind.
This one was a great playground for some of the local kids.
Some more modern Adobe buildings nearby, for those not sure of What Adobe is it is a mix of local Clay and water with Straw or Hay used as a reinforcing agent, good for dry climates like Uzbekistan not so good if it rains a lot as it can wash away the walls of your house.
And this one had a bird living in it.
The last one we visited had been partially restored and showed just how they built these originally with local Clay Bricks and a final coat of Adobe, except this time they used a Concrete Footing instead of rammed Earth, I guess it means this restoration will last longer than the last one.
It was a long and hot day reaching over 46 during the afternoon, every time we got out of the car we would be covered in sweat by the time we got back in, just as you cooled down it was time to tour the next one. At the end of the day we dropped Charles off on the highway so he could get a lift to Nukus further west and then dropped Olga off at the Airport for her flight back to Russia. It was after 7 p.m. by then time I got back to the Hostel, enough time for a quick meal and sleep so I could get moving early in the morning to avoid some of the heat.
The next day I was gone before 7 a.m. It was already over 35 degrees and true to form it was 46 by lunchtime. West of Khiva there is not much but Desert and flat straight roads until you reach the sizable town of Nukus, which I decided to skirt around and keep going west. As Nukus was only around 200 Kilometres from Khiva I had planned on getting Petrol at the next town of Kungrad, I would nearly regret that decision.
As I was riding into a massive headwind my fuel economy was a little worse than normal and as I rolled into Kungrad I had around 100 kilometres before being empty, certainly not enough to make it to the next fuel in Kazakhstan over 400 kilometres away. After trying three Petrol Stations only to be told repeatedly “No Benzine in Kungrad” I started to get a little worried. I didn’t have enough to get back to Nukus and I couldn’t go any further west without fuel, I was considering a Hotel for the night and a taxi back to Nukus to buy fuel but just then I remembered the I Overlander App. This App allows travellers to enter things like Camping Places and also luckily Black Market Fuel. I found only one marked for Kungrad so I set off down a bombed out dirt track full of dried mud to where the marker was. Here I found a group of old men sitting in the street discussing world events but they couldn’t help me find Benzine (Petrol), just then two guys appeared from nearby houses and jumped straight on their phones to hunt for petrol. Thankfully this guy found some at a friends house so he jumped on the back of my bike and within 15 minutes I had a tank full of the dirtiest and most expensive Petrol yet, but beggars cant be choosers……
Back on the road towards the Kazak Border and hopefully some better quality fuel, strangely the bike chugged along like it was nothing even though the fuel must of been causing problems.
West of Kungrad it gets drier and flatter if that is possible and with nothing to look at other than Gas Fields it was head down and on towards the border and out of Uzbekistan as quick as possible. Around 100 Kilometres before the Border I met up with two riders from the Czech Republic and took on the Border formalities with them. After around two hours we were through into Kazakhstan and onto the worst road I had encountered for a long time which ran like a dirt and sand rollercoaster full of potholes all the way to Beyneu.
It had been over 13 hours since I left Khiva and I had ridden around 700 Kilometres, I found the first Hotel in Beyneu, didn’t ask how much it was, had a shower and a meal and fell asleep in seconds.
It turned out that the Hotel was very good and pretty cheap so after a quick breakfast I took on the last 450 Kilometres to Aktau to hopefully catch the Ferry across to Baku Azerbaijan.
On the way I met these four German guys coming the other way, we exchanged information on the respective road conditions and I managed to swap my remaining Uzbek cash with some Kazak and Azeri money which will save me looking for an ATM straight away when I get there, after nearly four months on the road you pick up a few things……
Other than a flat dusty desert this is the only time the scenery really changes as the road drops onto a lower Steppe so there are no photos of this section, just imagine flat boring desert.
The last part of the road into Aktau is being duplicated and as is the way in Kazakhstan there are no signs or barriers to tell you what to do, cars and trucks just end up driving everywhere, where there is a gap just drive in it, it was just like dodgem cars but with serious consequences, I couldn’t wait to get out of Kazakhstan…..again.
It was Saturday when I arrived in Aktau and the Ferry Terminal was like a Ghost Town, I couldn’t get any information so I rode into town and checked into a nice Hotel the Germans had recommended to me and will try again on Monday morning.
At least Aktau had a beach, well sort of, this is where I would wait….and wait….and wait….