3 month later: a blog entry full of photos and memories
We have been back in Europe now for 3 months. I am at Erik’s place in Amsterdam and we are talking about our trip. How is it to be back home again, what do we feel and what are our souvenirs about the trip. While drinking some beers yesterday we tried to remember day by day, the roads, the people, the places we ate and slept.
Since a few days I have felt quite nostalgic about our trip. I am checking Facebook again to see posts of other people travelling in that area, and I regularly look at the pictures of our adventure. Suddenly I remember that 2,5 months ago, I had written a blog that I never posted. Here it is:
At the moment I write this blog I am in the Thalys train, travelling from Paris to Amsterdam to attend Erik’s surprise birthday party. I just talked to him on the phone and he doesn’t suspect a thing apparently.
On the day of his real 50th birthday we were in Kyrgyzstan, in a yurt camp next to a lake on a height of 3000 meters surrounded by cattle, horses and friendly people with Asian faces. It seems ages ago.
I have been back in Paris now for more than 2 weeks and every day I talk to someone for the first time since I returned from our trip. They all ask the same questions: how was your trip and how is it to be back home? I would probably ask the same questions.
Erik and I already thought about how to answer these questions, we knew were coming, when we were still over there. Erik said: the first time we will talk the whole evening about everything, the second time an hour or so, and it will get less and less until it will be summoned up in only 2 sentences. And that will be the real essence of the trip. And it happened exactly like this. Most people are genuinely interested when they ask the question, but what can you say, if it is a work-related call? You cannot talk for hours about the trip. You only have time to mention two things. For me they are the landscapes and the people. The landscapes were amazing, changing all the time from country to country, from empty deserts to amazing mountain ranges. We were on different planets and it is hard to explain. Even the pictures don’t really capture what it does to you to be there yourself.
And the people… You meet so many different people, the locals, who are all waving hello, coming to you to look at the bike, to ask you where you’re from, and to tell their whole life stories in some local dialect that we obviously cannot understand. But what does it matter? They are all so nice, so interested in us, so welcoming. They ask you what country was the best (obviously they want to hear it is theirs), they invite you to have tea, to have lunch, to sleep at their house even and they wish you good travels when you leave again.
Before we left, some friends asked if we weren’t afraid of insecurity, dangerous places or the current Russian situation, but in the end, we are all just normal people, interested in the other and proud of who we are and of our country. Which country did I like best? I really cannot say. Each country had its own special things. A lake, a mountain pass, a beautiful city, an encounter, a fantastic evening, a beautiful sunset, a great dinner, a tough but beautiful track, or a perfect road with smooth tarmac. There are many places where I would like to come back to, visit again, more in depth, having more time.
When I reflect on the trip there are so many images that come before my eyes, it is impossible to describe. It is the whole feeling of an adventure. Being away from home for so long and so far, the tough moments, not knowing what you will find around the corner or where you will sleep that night. Unexpected meetings with other overlanders and hearing their stories. How long are they away for, from where to where, why, how…? We are all so different and yet all the same. Whether it is with a motorbike, a four-wheel drive or a bicycle. We all want to experience something special, and we all did.
It is difficult to know where and how to stop and adventure like that. Do you ride back home, do you stop at the ultimate highlight, or at the farthest point? Whatever you decide, the last days will always be the last days. You realise that the adventure will soon be over. I actually started to look forward going home again and back to work, while riding through Far East Russia (yes, that is a real region, on the other side of Siberia!). I had expected that somewhere along the trip I would think about my life, about what I want to do with the next part, professionally, privately, in general. And I kind of expected to come home with a clear idea. This is what I want to do now: “I want to travel the rest of my life”, or “I have this great idea for my company”, or “I will emigrate to Kazachstan and open a bar”. I don’t care what, anything!
But none of those ideas came. I did not even reflect. I did not think of my work or my life in general. I was just in the trip. Concentrating on the road, looking at the scenery, talking to the people. And then, when I was riding through the furthest parts of Russia, I suddenly thought about home again and going back to the office. And I liked the prospect of it. Luckily!
Vladivostok was actually the end of our adventure. That is where we dismounted our steel horses and signed the export papers for the transport to Europe. We could have flown home from there, but the ending would have been too abrupt for me I guess. So, I am very happy that we added a short city trip to Tokyo at the end. For me it was the perfect thing to do to prepare the return to normal life.
We had a nice hotel in Minato, close to the Tokyo Tower and next to Shiba Park, a very old part of the city. We had a small list of things we wanted to see and discover, and we had arranged for some local people to guide us around as well. Erik and I walked around famous areas like Shinjuku and Shibuya, ate in the Golden Gai, visited the Tsukiji fish market, discovered Electric City in Akihabara and a market in Okachimachi and had ramen in our favourite ramen place near the hotel.
After 3 months of being together 24/7 we both needed some me-time, so we also did some sightseeing each on our own.
I like Tokyo. It was not so crazy as I had expected. I thought I would be falling from one extreme surprise into another, but it was actually quite OK. I like big cities. And this is a big one. Huge. There are many people. Endless crowds. But everything is so well organised. People stand in line, even in the metro waiting for the next train. Everything is written in Japanese and in English. It is very easy to get around. I think I could definitely live here for a few years. But I am sure I would never integrate. The culture is so extremely different. The Japanese are very polite and very friendly, but we would never completely understand their way of thinking. It was very interesting talking to some of them.
After 5 days of getting used to a big modern city again, we took the plane to Paris and Amsterdam. Thanks to our points we were able to fly back in Business Class, which is a real luxury on such a long flight after having spent 3 months on the saddle of your motorbike. I can assure you! We had champagne, gin & tonics, good red wine and 2 meals of better quality than some of the grub we ate in Central Asia. This, together with a few movies and a few naps, made that the trip back was done in the blink of an eye.
Back in Paris I had a few days to get rid of the jetlag and to get used to my own bed again, before going back to the office.
Now, being back in the office, I am already thinking about next year. Will I go on another trip? Europe? Somewhere else, long or short? So many places to go, so many options. And that is why I also want to thank my team at Manta for having made it possible for me to leave the office for such a long time. Especially Ichraf, Paul D and Carolien, who really did an amazing job. I have the feeling now that I can go on more adventures…..!
And I join Erik in thanking all the people who made this trip possible, from off road trainers Bert, Werner, Albert, saddle specialist Remco and Olivier who prepared and repaired our bikes, to all the people we met along the way and who made this such a special adventure. To all our friends, thanks for supporting our stories and reading this blog and commenting so positively, special thanks to Brigitte and last but not least to my buddy Erik of course: there are not many people with whom I can spend so much time together on a journey like this.
This is my last written blog entry about our trip. In the coming months I will try to edit and post some more videos of the countries east of the Caspian Sea, where the adventure has really taken place. Unfortunately, we did not have time during the trip to do this. We were too busy having an amazing time.
We’re in the plane back home while I am writing this, my last update of our trip. We’ve made it to Vladivostok, 20000 kilometers, 15 countries, 76 days. I still can’t believe it if I look at the map, the distance that we covered, kilometer by kilometer.
The last section of our trip took us through Russia. After leaving Ulaanbataar we covered the stretch to Ulan Ude in one day. Shortly before the border we met Sami from Finland, who was on his way from Magadan on the Russian eastcoast, and had driven part of the same stretch we would drive. We exchanged information and money, and we wished each other a safe trip. The border crossing was uneventful, this time the Mongols did not make a mess of it and the Russians were thorough but friendly. So we made it to Ulan-Ude in the early evening. We checked into a hotel that was recommended to us, parked our bikes in the hotel parking lot, had some dinner and went to bed early, it had been a long day.
We planned to stay in Ulan-Ude for the day so we were sleeping in. But in the morning the reception called us, quite early. Since we don’t speak any Russian and the reception just speaks Russian, we listened, did not understand what they were saying and hung up. Then they were at our door, that is hard to ignore. They had a message that one of our motorcycles had been stolen, and the police was there for us. This woke me up real fast. I put on some clothes and ran downstairs. And yes, one motorcycle was gone and it happened to be mine. The policeman who was waiting for me spoke a few words of English and told me that my motorcycle had been found already. We went a few blocks by foot, and there was my motorcycle, in a small yard next to a playground.
At first sight it looked OK, but at closer inspection I could see that the wiring had been damaged. Apparently the thieves had watched too many movies and had tried to hotwire the ignition. But this won’t work, since my motorcycle has chip protection, the key has to be present for the engine to start. Unfortunately I could not start the engine either anymore, since all wires were cut. I also could see that they opened one of my panniers and stole some of my stuff, one of which was the drone.
A bunch of police officers were already at the scene, and there was one officer pulling fingerprints, CSI style. After this had been done we pushed the bike back to the parking lot and I went with the police officers to the station, where they typed up a report. They were friendly and even provided me with a translator. So now I can say that I spent a morning in a Russian police office, which was an experience in itself. From the camera footage from the hotel they had seen that it was a group of teenagers who pushed my bike off the lot. Fortunately for me, anyone more professional would have put the bike in a van and I would never have seen it again.
Paul picked me up from the police station and we drove back to the hotel, picking up some tools on the way. I then spent a few hours trying to repair the wiring myself. I could get the bike back on ignition, but the engine would not start, it complained about the key missing, although it was there. I was afraid that the antenna that senses the key had been damaged.
Meanwhile, the hotel had called a friend of the hotel owner, who had a car service workshop. So a young guy shows up, on a BMW 1150GS – a pleasant surprise. He introduced himself as Konstantin. I explained to him what had happened and what I thought the problem was. We went away and came back with a towtruck, we put the bike on it and went to his garage, This was a huge place, and after a while it dawned on me that he was the owner. We conversed through Google Translate, and he put one of his men to work on the bike, brought me back to the hotel and told me we would go out for beers later that night, so we could see a bit of Ulan-Ude.
And so happened – he came back with his wife Natalya and we went to a nice pub, and had a great evening. They are such a nice couple – and they felt so bad about what happened that they invited us to spend a weekend at Lake Baikal with them, about a 2 hours drive from Ulan-Ude.
And so it went – the next day, which was a Saturday we first went to visit a buddhist monastery. This part of Russia, which is called the Buryatia Republic has strong Kazach and Mongol influences. This particular monastery has the 12th Buryat Lama of Russia on display. This is the mummified body of the Buddhist leader of Russia, who lived about 100 years ago. Some people believe he is still alive, since the body does not decay. He sits in a temple in the lotus position, and people pray to him and ask him for good fortune after donating money. There are also some other temples and stupas, and they reminded me of the temples I’d seen last year in Myanmar.
When we came back to Ulan-Ude, there was a very pleasant suprise. Konstantin’s men had gotten my motorcycle to run again! The problem was not in the antenna as I had suspected, but in the on-board computer itself. By trying to hotwire the bike, they had shortened the battery and that had created a current that was so large, that a connector had melted away.
So after fixing this, the engine started again. I could not believe my eyes – I seriously had considered the scenario that we would put the bike on the train to Vladivostok and we would ride the last stretch in the Trans-Siberia Express.
With this good news we left for Lake Baikal. Konstantin, Natalya, their two sons and we got in the car and with a quad in the trailer arrived after 2 hours, rented a yurt and got the barbecue going. We spent a great evening eating, drinking and singing karaoke songs, and listening to Konstantin playing his guitar.
The next day the weather had turned from rain to sunshine, and the first thing I did was dive into the lake. Lake Baikal is the largest sweetwater body in the world, and it’s quite deep. And cold… very cold. But refreshing. The day was filled with a cycling tour and driving the quad – the youngest son Igor (who is only 6 years old) can drive that thing like no other. So he drove us around, and we could have a go ourselves as well. We also went into the banya – the Russian word for sauna. This is a tent they put up on the beach with a portable oven and hot stones. So you sweat it out in the tent and then you run into the water. A great experience. At the end of the day we drove back to Ulan-Ude and the next morning we set off for the last stretch through Siberia.
I have grown up in Cold War times – the Russians were always the bad guys, and of you watch too much news and Hollywood movies, it seems these times are back. My experience is, however, that I have nowhere encountered such nice, warm, generous and hospitable people as in Russia. Sure, there is the occasional grumpy baboushka but in general Russians are amongst the nicest people I know. We already experienced it at the border from Russia to Mongolia and now again. In Holland we would never do that – invite two strange guys you’ve not even known for 24 hours to go away with your family for a weekend, and refuse to let them pay anything. These are the experiences that make trips like this unforgettable. The sights are great, but it’s the people that matter.
It took us about 9 days to cover the stretch through Siberia. Where I thought it would be boring, I was wrong. The sight of the endless landscape is fascinating and constantly changing, and every now and then we would see the railroad track of the Trans Siberia Express. It looked like something from a miniature railway setup – just perfect. In the evenings we sometimes stayed in large cities like Chita or Khabarovsk, or small towns where you would think you are back in Soviet times. We spent a day in Khabarovsk, a large city at the Amur river. We walked through the city, visited the park, looked at life in Russia. Very pleasant.
A park in Chita
Chita main square
Moskow – Vladivostok monument
Khabarovsk city view at the Amur river
And finally we arrived in Vladivostok. The name alone was by now magical for us, we had told it so many times and now it was reality. Vladivostok reminds me a bit of Hong Kong, rolling green hills, highrises, a lot of traffic and humid heat. But it’s much less polished. There are stunning views, nice boulevards to walk, nice bars and restaurants, it’s a very pleasant city. We spent the evenings strolling along the waterfront, eating seafood and having a beer.
And at last the moment was there where we would say goodbye to our bikes and put them in a container. We arranged to meet with Yuri, who arranges our transport back to Rotterdam. We met Yuri, drove to the warehouse and made the bikes ready for transport. After Yuri dropped us back at the hotel we were normal pedestrians for the first time in three months. It felt a bit weird, but also nice, not having to wear the suit and helmet in the sweltering heat. I felt like a normal person again.
In the warehouse preparing the bikes
Vladivostok bridge and view
As this is the last post for the trip I want to reflect a bit on the trip. For some reason even travelling becomes routine, and the time moves faster every day we’ve been on the road. While there are still many moments that make me marvel at what we’ve done and what we’ve experienced, yet it almost feels normal. And looking at the inflight screen with the map it is hard to believe that we cover the distance home in just 12 hours while it took us almost 12 weeks to drive it.
I’m glad to go home, and to see my family and friends again. I’ve learned that I am not a guy that wants to go on a indefinite round-the-world, but doing this once in a while is something that I definitely want to keep up. There are so many great destinations still left, and for me it is a great way to get completely away from it all.
So what were the highlights? The most beautiful country? The things I liked best? This is very hard to answer, there have been so many fantastic moments.
Georgia as a country – I could have spent much more time there. Uzbekistan – stunning architecture. Tajikistan – probably the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen, along the Pamir Highway. Kyrgystan – Son Kul, a magical place, where I celebrated my 50th birthday. Mongolia, the stunning emptiness and landscapes. All the gravel and unpaved roads we have driven, all the driving skills we have gained. Russia – the people. The people everywhere that we have met, both fellow travellers and local people. The feeling of just me and the road. The nights out in the big cities, Baku, Tbilisi, Almaty, Ulaan Bataar, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok.
Fortunately there were very little bad moments. Even the motorcycle theft led to a positive moment, because we met Konstantin and Natalya. We both had a bit of stomach trouble, but that’s about it. No accidents, no injuries, no sickness, no real damage besides some dented panniers and scratched ego’s because of drops that were unnecessary. I managed to lose some stuff – my favourite driving shirt, my headphones, and some other small things.
So all in all it was fantastic. The bikes held up great, our planning was spot-on. We planned the trip in advance without knowing the circumstances, and it turned out to be accurate to the day. Our tire planning worked out great, both from a distance and a capability perspective. The TKC70 were perfect for asphalt, the Pamirs and all the gravel roads, and the TKC80 were great for Mongolia. We’ve been also lucky with the weather. We missed the scorching heat in Uzbekistan – we had just 38 degrees, and in 3 months time we’ve had rain about 5 times. And there had been hardly any rain before, so there were hardly any muddy sections.
And I want to thank the people that we met over the course of the last three months. To name a few: Rasti, Andy and Alissa, Didier, Max, Tom, Matt, Benjamin, Edouard, Zan and Evelina, Tom and Wafa, Martin, Harry, Chris, Zhan, Bota, Konstantin and Natalya, Alex, Kosta, Nadeshka, Robin, Kim, Dave, Jenny, Anna, Nikos, Nykoss, Andrey, Aigerim, Ekaterina, Sami, Jean and Elena, Johan, Bert and Jin. And then there are the people on Facebook who were in the same region, travelling the same road, with whom we shared tips, experiences and information.
Last but not least I want to thank Paul for making this trip an unforgettable experience – he’s the only one who can stand me 24/7 for three months. On to the next trip.
Both Paul and I felt the need to write about our experience and how Mongolia left us, so instead of writing one piece, here are both our views. And as usual, we are in agreement. Paul kicks off with his bit, and then I follow.
Finally, Mongolia. Ok, so we have ‘done’ Mongolia. We can scratch it off the map, we can brag about it on Facebook and we can participate in cool conversations with other Overlanders. But was it everything I hoped for, or everything I feared? Well, I am not sure if I may say so, but no, actually not.
It is a weird feeling, having left Mongolia now. And the weird feeling already started when we went from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, before even being in Mongolia. I mean, we did not just dipped our toe in the country: we came in from the west, did part of the southern route, crossed over to the northern route, spent some days in Ulan Bator and left the country via the north border to Russia. But can we say we ‘did’ it? Did we get all of the Mongolian experiences? Did we do the difficult river crossings and we’re we blocked in deep sand in the Gobi desert? Well, the correct question is: did we want to do it? Did we look for these challenges? Were we hoping to get blocked at a river that was impossible to pass? The answer is no.
A few months before we left, Erik and I discussed the choice of our motorbikes. What bike should we take for this trip. The good old BMW 1200GSA, the enduro bike for grannies like someone I know called it, or some lightweight bike that could easily take all obstacles? We chose the first. Instead of choosing the bike based on the most difficult stretch, we chose to take a bike that would be best for the longest part of our trip. And the BMW is perfect for almost everything. Tarmac, gravel, stones, you name it. It is just not really made for deep sand, slippery mud and tricky river crossings. So before we left Holland we decided to plan our trip along a doable route, not too much tarmac, not to much risk of sand; just enough unpaved and off road to get the real experience, but not so much that we would regret it.
My folder on my computer about the trip is called Mongolia, when I talked about this adventure I called it my Mongolia trip, yes, for me, in the beginning, Mongolia was THE highlight of the whole journey. Then when I started to research more, I was really looking forward to Georgia, was very curious about Uzbekistan, excited about the Pamir, and I thought Kazakhstan and the Altai mountains would be amazing. And you know what, it all was exactly like that. I have absolute loved all the different aspects of these places and when we were riding through Kazakhstan on our way to Mongolia, I felt like we had already done a great trip. For me the trip could have ended there and then, and it would have been perfect. Maybe a 3 month journey was just a bit too much. Maybe Mongolia was a bridge too far. It felt like we had to do it, whether we liked it or not.
And then there was the fact that it made us nervous. If Mongolia had been a magnificent country with great roads and many highlights and things to see, it might have been different. But actually there is not much to see or do there. It is all about the journey itself. And we had read so many reports and seen so many videos that showed us all these challenges, that we were quite nervous about it. We were more dreading it than looking forward to it. We had already done quite some challenging roads in Tajikistan, mostly unpaved and now, riding in Kazakhstan, I was just getting used to nice and smooth tarmac again. I was not really in the mood for even worse stretches of sand and impassable rivers.
But we did it! We got through! And frankly, it was easier than we expected. Maybe even easier than we hoped for. Only one day was a bit challenging, and that was the most fun day! In the end, I liked Mongolia and I am happy that we did it, but if I would do it again, I would hire a lighter bike in the area, I would not listen to well ment advice and go a little more off the beaten track.
Finally, Mongolia. The country that filled me with a mix of anticipation and apprehension. Anticipation of the vast landscapes and the beautiful emptiness that would await us, and apprehension caused by the question if we could travel on the tracks (you can’t really call it roads) on our heavy motorcycles.
But let’s start at the beginning. We were rushing towards Mongolia because we learned, thanks to Tom and Matt, that the border would close for 6 days as of the 11th of July for the Naadam festival. We already had a deadline of the 13th of July, that was the last date on which we could enter the country, after that our visa would be expired. So sitting out the border closure was not an option. We had to speed up. But like Paul already wrote, we made it to the border in time. We arrived on Sunday the 8th of July, after 2 days enjoying smooth asphalt in a stunning scenery in the Russian Altai Republic, at the border. The border between Russia and Mongolia is always closed on Sundays. I still find that a weird concept, just closing a country, no one could get in our out.
When we arrived in the afternoon, there was already a queue of 10 cars. We decided to join the queue, just to be sure. For motorcycles it’s usually easier than for cars at the border, we almost always just drive past the queue and get preferential treatment, but we did not want to take that chance with the Russian border guards. So just line up.
We found a hotel close by, dumped our bags and locked the motorcycles in the queue. Paul had already made contact with 3 Russian friends – Alex, Nicola and Надежда, (Nadeshda) who where just before us in the queue and had put up their tent next to the line of cars. He asked them if they could keep an eye on our bikes. Sure, they said but only if you eat with us and drink our vodka. This was our first introduction to Russian hospitality, and it is so much more fun if you replace Google translate by vodka and beer. Robin and Kim from the UK joined, added even more vodka, we donated our rations and we were one big family.
The next morning the queue had grown overnight to more than 50 cars, but we still had secured our spot in the front. At 9 there was finally movement at the border, and then a group of motorcycles drove past and jumped the queue. We decided to join them, sine nice guys finish last. It was a mixed group, with riders from Romania, Spain and Turkey, together with Benjamin and Edouard from France and Tom and Matt from the UK, whom we’ve met before. They agreed Paul and I should go first, since we’d been at the border since the day before. The Russian border guard was a bit p*d off at all of us motorcycles, but let us through before the cars.
I will try to be brief about the border crossing itself. I am always impressed by people who will not be wavered by the amount of work there is or the amount of people who are waiting for them. I found another fine specimen. The Russian customs border guard who had to sign me out of the country took his time. And I mean really took his time. He had to check a couple of documents, and the process went like this: 1. Look at document. 2. Look at computer screen. 3. Touch a key 4. Look puzzled. 5. Pauze for 1 minute. 6. Goto step 1.
After what seemed an eternity, I did get my stamp, got my passport and visa checked and could progress out of Russia. Between Russia and Mongolia there is 20km of no man’s land. The Russian side is still asphalt, the Mongolian side is a dirt track until you reach the border post. First you pay 1 US dollar for disinfectant that’s not there, and then the fun starts. The Mongolian entry process is completely randomized. None of us who went through the border went through the same steps. I was refused entry twice because I was missing stamps, I just got random officials to stamp my passport, Paul was let through but then called back and refused entry the second time because he did not have a piece of paper that they took from him the first time he was let through. Kafka was here.
But in the end we managed to enter Mongolia. And yet again the landscape had changed. It’s empty, barren mountains, desert, nothingness. We drove the first 120km in Mongolia over a washboard dirt track, marvelling at the landscape.
We were finally in Mongolia.
Because we had been rushing to the border we decided to spend a few days in the first big town, a place called Ölgii. I’ve heard also people calling it Ugly. Which is a fitting description. But we did not care, we stayed a few days and went to see the Nadaam festivities. These usually consist of three parts: archery, wrestling and horseracing.
We met other overlanders at the Nadaam festival, there was Martin who travelled around Mongolia on his rented Chinese motorcycle, and Tom and Wafa from Belgium in their Suzuki Vitara. And of course Harry, whom we met already on the Pamir Highway on his bicycle. He had been able to catch up with us – very impressive.
We tried to gather information about the state of the roads, especially areas with deep sand and deep river crossings. We decided to follow a mix of the southern and central route to Ulaanbaatar. Tom and Matt, whom we met in Kazachstan went the same route and were a few days ahead of us. From Ölgii (B) we would drive to Khovd (C), then to Altai (D) at the edge of the Gobi desert. From Altai the route goes north to Uliastai (E) and then to the villages of Tosontsengel and Tsertserleg, and finally Ulaanbaatar (H).
While we were in Ölgii we heard about an eagle hunter in a village nearby. So we went to Sagtai to see if we could find him. The information we had was that the hunter was called Arman and lived next to the river. Not much to go on, but we went off. 30 kilometers of dusty washboard road through the mountains. Once we arrived in the village we asked a random guy at a gas station. He made some calls and he pointed us in a direction. We drove through the field towards a yurt, and I don’t know how we did it, but there was an eagle. A little girl came from the yurt and spoke surprisingly good English. She told us that this was the family of the brother of Arman and that Arman was away himself, but his brother was also an eagle hunter.
We were invited into the yurt for tea, and after that the hunter showed his eagle. He had a 5 year old bird, and his daughter explained that eagles hunt in winter only, and in summer they are shown to tourists.
It was an impressive bird weighing 15 kilograms, and we could hold it on our arms.
The next day we set off for Ulaanbaatar. From Ölgii to Khovd it was all unpaved, a gravel track through desert mountains with some sandy patches. It took us the better part of the day to reach Khovd, the landscape was stunning. Western Mongolia is full of barren mountains, which change color all the time. There are no real roads, there are tracks heading in a certain direction and as long as you keep the general direction you will end up at the right spot. But driving these tracks takes a lot of focus, so there is not a lot of time to look at the landscape while driving. So we stopped many times.
From Khovd to Altai was all asphalt. 400k of brand new tarmac. I had been looking forward to asphalt – asphalt means no sand – but I found it really boring really quickly. On the way we met a few guys from Australia who had come from the southern route, and told us horror stories about deep sand in the southern route. Fortunately our route would take us north before we would hit the sand.
We had heard from other travellers on the route we were taking that the next section was really hard, so we both were quite nervous. We have big and heavy motorcycles. They are great for long distance, they handle really well in rough roads, especially gravel and dirt, we’d conquered the Pamir Highway with them but Mongolia was different, we thought. So in the morning we went off from Altai. It was about 250km to Uliastai. The first few hours were great. A green plateau with tracks running in many directions, and the tracks would come together many kilometers further ahead.The tracks were wide and straight, and we could easily get our speed up to 70 kph on these tracks, we were completely alone in the landscape. After a while the scenery changed. The tracks became less wide, more curves, more rocks and more sand. But we had come into the swing of the landscape, and had a great time. At first my heart rate would go in overdrive when I would reach a sandy bit, but after a while I got the hang of it. Eyes up, open gas, get the speed up and let the bike find its way. You have to ignore your instincts to slow down, when your front wheel threatens to go off track you need to accelerate, so it lifts up and finds the right direction again. Scary at first, but after a while it becomes easy. It is such an amazing feeling, riding through these remote areas with nobody in sight.
We were still wondering when the hard parts would start by the time we reached Uliastai. We thought we would take all day to reach Uliastai, but were there early afternoon already. After a lunch we decided to go on to Tosontsengel. We had some unpaved piste, and then 75km of asphalt. Mongolia weather is 4 seasons in a day. We started the day off with a cloudy sky, had some sun, saw thunder and lightning at the horizon and now it was pouring rain. When the asphalt stopped we had still about 1 hour to go to Tosontsengel, through muddy tracks up the hill. We were not alone anymore, there were many cars heading in the same direction. It is a funny sight, seeing all these cars just driving out in the field, each finding their own way. It was the added bonus challenge, driving through the rain on muddy tracks while dusk was setting in. But we managed just fine, and I had a lot of fun.
Sometimes too much information is not good. We had been looking for information, and we found it, but it is really hard to make it objective. What is hard for one person is easy for another. And vice versa. And this was not the first time we had been warned about a road, and we had wondered what we missed by the time we completed the road. Our running gag is “a long descent with a sandy patch”, that someone warned us about on the Pamir Highway. He had driven it many times and each time he struggled, he told us. To this date, we still don’t know where that was.
And I had the same feeling about Mongolia. Maybe we’d listened too much to others and took the easy way, or we are better riders than we think we are. I feel we barely scratched the surface of Mongolia. And we did not have a whole lot of time to go exploring in Mongolia, and I feel that’s the way this country needs to be approached. Just head into a direction, see where you end up, put up your tent when you feel like it, and experience the emptiness.
It is definitely a country to come back to. Probably not on my own bike – it’s a bleeping long drive, and a lighter bike will be easier in any case. And more camping, which we did not do at all in Mongolia.
The rest of the days to Ulaanbaatar were uneventful. A bit of piste and mostly asphalt. I would have loved more of the day we had before. We stopped in Karakorum, the old capital of the Mongol Empire of Ghinggis Khan in the 13th century, and visited his statue (it is officially the biggest equestrian statue in the world). About Ulaanbaatar I can be brief. It’s the opposite of the countryside – chaotic, messy and busy. Not a very special place, but we stayed a few days anyway.
To finish off my post I will leave you with pictures from Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar.
Suddenly I was wide awake. The wind was blowing hard, beating with all its force against my cheap Decathlon tent.
Before turning in I had put our small camping chairs between our bikes so that they would not blow away if there was a little wind. But this was not a little wind. This was a real storm!
I quickly got out of my tent, put my bare feet in my motor boots and ran in my underwear to the bikes. The chairs were still there and I grabbed them. But one of our pans, also next to the bikes, blew away at that moment. I was standing with two chairs in my hand between the bikes and the tents, figuring our what to do. I started folding one chair, while holding on to the other, preventing it to fly away and fighting at the same time to stay standing myself. I finally managed to shove them into my tent, when Erik came out of his, also in his underwear and motor boots. We must have looked very sexy.
He was afraid that the tents might blow away. I hadn’t even thought of that, but looking at them now, I understood this was becoming a real danger.
The evening before had begun idyllically. From Almaty we had done a nice ride to the Kolsai Lakes and arrived in Charyn Canyon in the late afternoon looking for a suitable camp spot.
Kolsai Lake nr 1:
In the beginning we did not find anything nice, just a parking lot on top of the canyon ridge. We were not allowed to ride down into the gorge itself with our bikes. That was only allowed for 4×4 cars, and later we heard that even some of them had a hard time making it.
We rode a bit around and at the end, past a no entry sign, we found the perfect spot to set up out tents. Our tents and bikes were at the edge of the ridge, looking out over the canyon. The view was absolutely stunning. While the sun was setting, some people came by, talked to us, wanted to take a selfie with us, and gave us some beer. Everybody is amazed when we tell them how far we have come on our bikes and where we are still going.
After all the pictures were taken, we sat down and had a Vodka Coke, using the last Vodka that had not yet leaked into my top case. Luckily we had gotten that beer! We cooked our pasta with fish and peas in tomato sauce and ate our dinner. It was actually a great evening.
And now, 4 hours later, we were fighting against the wind.
While I held Erik’s tent, he emptied it, and put his stuff in a small stone shelter that was not far from our bikes. Then we folded his tent and did the same with mine. When we walked to the shelter to sit out the storm, a Polish girl and her Bulgarian boyfriend joined us in the shelter. They had been camping a bit further down, and had been blown away too.
The wind was so strong that it even blew over our bikes. Both of them were laying on the ground. It was a very sorry sight.
The rest of the night we tried to sleep all four in this small structure and were waken up by a beautiful sunrise, as if nothing had happened. Some Koreans came and made pictures of our fallen bikes and our bivouac of fortune. We packed up, drank some coffee and decided to walk down into the canyon.
Here we met 2 couples from Kazachstan who wanted to practice their English, so we invited them for a coffee. it was difficult for them to accept, so we explained that we had already receive so much from everybody we meet, that it is nice for us to do something in return.
When we finally wanted to drive off in the direction of Russia, I noticed that my back tire was flat. I filled it again, but I was losing pressure so we stopped at a tire workshop. Here we found 6 tiny punctures within a 10cm area. My tire was porous, and I still needed to get to Barnaul, roughly 1000km away, where new tires were waiting for us. My windscreen fixings had broken too by the fall during the storm and it was very uncomfortable riding like this. We decided to ride back to Almaty, a small detour, to the only BMW Motorrad dealership in Central Asia, to fix the windscreen and hope to buy a second-hand tire.
BMW could not help us, but sent us to Free Riders, a bikers workshop and guesthouse around the corner. Here they repaired my windscreen and sold me a perfect second-hand tire, all for about 40 dollars. Free Riders, by the way, can also ship bikes from and to Europe, so next time we could even do a 3 weeks ride in the area!
at the BMW dealership in Almaty:
at Free Riders:
The next day we left in the direction of Barnaul. We met Matt and Tom, 2 British guys on their BMW’s and they told us that the Mongolian border would close during the Nadaam Festival. We had planned to enter the first day of that festival, but now we understood that it would be better to be 2 days early to avoid long queues and border closures. We needed to speed up. We decided to get to Barnaul in only 2 more days.
The first day we rode together with Zahn, a Kazach who looked like he stepped right out of the BMW catalog. Everything was BMW, even his cap, and he cleaned his bike at every stop. We communicated with hands and feet and using 3 words of English. But Zahn was very hospitable and invited us for lunch and even diner.
The next day was our longest riding day so far, 14 hours plus a border crossing. At the border we met Edouard and Benjamin, two nice French guys riding their Tenere’s to Mongolia and back. We would meet them again at the Mongolian border and spent 2 more evenings together in Ulgii.
We managed to get to Barnaul where we booked a nice hotel for 2 nights.
The next morning, Friday, we relaxed and, in the afternoon, went to Sergei’s workshop where Andrew changed our tires. Andrew is the go-to-guy in Barnaul, if you need anything fixed for your bike. It was done quickly and efficiently. On Saturday morning Andrew also arranged our oil change and we were off. We rode 2 days through the beautiful Altai mountains direction Mongolia. A great road with nice scenery and on Sunday afternoon we finally arrived at the border. And there started a whole new adventure…..
It’s been too long since I’ve posted an update on our journey. A lot has happened. Since we’ve completed the Pamir Highway, we have crossed the countries with a K. These are Kyrgystan and Kazachstan. Yes, we are fully in the “Stans”. We have travelled through countries that I could not point out on a map half a year ago. Well, except maybe Kazachstan because it’s so large it is hard to miss, even when I try. It’s the 9th largest country on earth, and about 5 times the size of France. But with only 17 million people in it.
Lake Kara-Kul, on our way to the Kyrgystan border
What strikes me every time again is when we cross a border, everything changes. Landscapes, faces, people, roads, money. We crossed from Uzbekistan into Tadjikistan and suddenly there were mountains. It is as if the Uzbeks said to the Tajiks: “We don’t want no stinkin’ mountains, you can have them”. Tajikistan has nothing but mountains, and very little green. In the valleys along the river there are oasis-like places, and that’s where the villages are. The rest is mountains, dry, barren, rock, sand, dust. But stunningly beautiful.
Road to the border crossing
Tadjikistan has the most amazing border crossing I have ever seen. At 4200m altitude, on the top of the Kizil-Art pass there is a shack where 3 border officials live. Two are on duty while you can see the third one lying in his bunk bed behind a curtain. When we were there (at the end of June) it was about 6 degrees Celcius, there was light snow and a very strong, cold wind. But the border officials were very friendly and were making jokes with us. They signed us out of the country without any issues, and we had left Tajikistan. Then a 20 km long descent through no mans land towards Kyrgystan began, and the road continued to be very bad. We were happy it had not rained for a while, because we could tell it had been very muddy before. And mud is not our favourite road surface. We like it about as much as sand.
Once we reached the Kyrgyzstan border control posts, the landscape had changed again. Suddenly it was green, there were still mountains but not as dry and barren as in Tajikistan. Kyrgystan is called the Switzerland of Central Asia. It has green mountains, beautiful forests, lakes, good roads (both paved and gravel) and is about twice the size of Switzerland. It has two major cities, Bishkek (the capital) and Osh. We spent a few days in Osh, relaxing after the Pamir Highway, doing some motorcycle maintenance and overdue laundry, and enjoying walking instead of riding.
The Switzerland of Central Asia
Sunday pastimes in Osh, Kyrgystan
From Osh we went in a north-east direction, through Jalal-Abad to Kazarman, where we crossed the Kaldamo pass. On our way up we met fellow bikers from Russia, one of who had a flat tire and could not get the tire back on the rim. Fortunately I had tools with me and we could help him. On a side note, I do have a lot of tools with me, I have everything I need to disassemble the bike and put it back together. And some more. But it pleases me to say that by now I have been able to help others with them more than I needed the tools myself so far (except for the tire change). Even the jumpstart cables have seen some use, I have helped a biker from France to start his bike.
Russian bikers with a flat tire.
On the way up to the Kaldamo pass we were invited by a Kyrgyz shepherd and his son for lunch. He offered his pan of lagman – pasta with potatoes and onions to us, and we shared his meal. We do not speak Kyrgyz and he does not speak English, so we sat comfortably in silence. It was a great experience.
Shepherd and his son in Kyrgystan
The Kaldamo pass was very beautiful, and at the summit there was still a large snow wall. But fortunately the snowmelt water and the resulting mud had largely dried up, except for a few patches on the north side. Did I mention that we don’t like mud?
The Kaldamo pass summit
After spending the night in Kazarman we left for Son-Kul, a lake at 3200m altitude on a plateau in Kyrgystan. We arrived there in the afternoon, and found a yurt camp where we could stay the night. A yurt is a round tent, made from felt and looks like this:
And since it was my 50th birthday, Paul had arranged a special birthday meal for me. I got a special Kyrgyz hat, which I had to wear of course. They even baked a cake, and there was vodka and beer and the ladies of the camp joined us for dinner. It was a very special night at a magical place. I wish my family and my friends could have been there to share it with me.
From Son-Kul we decided to head into Kazachstan, and spend a few nights in Almaty. Remembering our first Kazachstan border crossing experience, where we spent about 6 hours in customs to get everything arranged before we would be let into the country, we prepared for the worst. How different was it now – crossing from Kyrgystan into Kazachstan took mere 15 minutes. Fill in a form, the border official enters stuff into a computer and you’re done. Go figure….
And again, crossing from Kyrgystan to Kazachstan completely changed everything. Kazachstan is hot, mostly flat, and endless steppe and desert. As soon as you cross the border, you are immersed and the nothingness surrounds you. Until you reach Almaty, or Alma Ata as it used to be called.
Almaty is a city with a square street plan, almost like an American city. It consists of wide, rectangular streets, lots of cars and green, and it is hard to make out a real city center. We went out on Friday night and had a great time. Kazach people are incredibly generous, and we were immediately invited at the table of a birthday party, and food and drinks were shared with us. This is something we noticed all the time while travelling in Kazachstan – Kazach people are very open and forthcoming, want to know everything about you, want to take selfies with you, invite you for drinks, dinner, and they do not take no for an answer easily.
After Almaty, we headed up north, but not before we visited Charyn Canyon.
Paul will tell you about that.
Time to leave Kazachstan – we found out suddenly we had to hurry to make it into Mongolia in time, which ment crossing Kazachstan, getting into Russia, getting our tires changed and head for the Mongolian border. But this is for another post.
As we drive through this beautiful piece of the world, we keep hearing a few phrases over and over again. One of these is Откуда ты? – Where are you from? which is shortened usually to just куда or Kuda? Where? Then we say Голландия! – Gollandia, and we get the brightest smiles and handshakes. We have had many conversations about football, when I say Gollandia! people say Snaider, Robben, Kroif. Sometimes we get even laughed at because the Netherlands did not qualify for the World Cup, which is being played right now in Russia. It always amazes me how football is a universal topic across cultures and languages. At the Uzbek-Tajik border one border guard looked at my passport, and noticed my middle name, which is Jaap. Jaap, he said, Jaap Stam! So we discussed the career of Jaap Stam, PSV, Manchester United, Ajax. Just amazing.
Especially at the border posts the border guards are well informed and always up for some small talk in English. The border crossings are a fun experience, every time again and I could write a whole blog post about it. Maybe I will.
We have driven through Tajikistan in the past week, driving on the Pamir Highway and crossing into the Wakhan Valley. The M41 Pamir Highway is the second-highest altitude highway in the world, as it reaches 4655m at some point. The term highway should be taken literally, and has nothing to do with what we usually consider a highway. The road is largely unpaved, goes over high passes, hundreds of kilometers along the Afghanistan and Chinese border, through rivers, gorges, alongside ravines, lakes, deserts, and through lush valley villages. It is the most stunning landscape I have ever seen and driven through. There is no way of describing it, so again I will try and give an impression through some pictures., and Paul is working on a video.
We started the Pamir Highway in Dushanbe, and we took the northern route over the Tavil Dara pass to Qulai Khumb or Kalaikumb, nobody knows how to spell it. This is a stretch of just 296 km, which took us all day, from 9AM to 6PM at night. We tend to drive all day, stopping now and then to take pictures and have some cookies. No lunch breaks because there is nothing along the way. We both have camelbaks (a water bag with a hose we can drink from) in our jackets so we can drink water while driving. Without these we surely would drink not enough.
View of the northern section between Dushanbe and Qulai Khumb.
The next day we drove from Qulai Khumb to Khorog, the day after that to Langar in the Wakhan Valley. From Langar it took a day to reach Murghab, and from Murghab it was another long day to Osh. We followed the Afghan border for three days. It is strange that you are close enough to see people on the other side, you can wave at them and see them riding their scooters. It is safe though, we had no issues whatsoever.
A bridge to cross a river. We made it safely to the other side.
Each day we were presented with different driving challenges. One day we had very rocky roads with steep hairpins up the mountain, the next day they had “repaired” the road by dumping 20cm of fresh gravel on the road, then we had dozens of kilometers with washboard gravel roads, and one stretch of deep sand. Our favourite road surface.
We have been driving between 3500 and 4000m altitude for a few days, fortunately none of us has had any altitude sickness. But even at this altitude, you are surrounded by enormous mountains with peaks up to 7000m and permanent snow and gletschers. It is an amazing experience, being alone up there. We would typically see one vehicle per hour, sometimes even less. From Murghab to the Kyrgystan border there are hardly any villages, you feel like you’re on a different planet.
We expected to see other motorcyclists, but aside from a very nice couple from Slovenia we did not see any others. We did see many cyclists, however. It turns out that the Pamir Highway is for cyclists what the New York Marathon is for runners. We already found it very challenging to drive this road on our motorcycles, and I cannot imagine what it is to cross this barren stretch on a bicycle. Between Murghab and the Kyrzyg border, you cross a pass of 4600m, and it was snowing when we reached the top. There was a strong cold wind and it was about 6 degrees celsius.
But let me try and give you and impression of the sights we have seen.
A typical stretch up the Tavil Dara pass.
We made it to the top. It was a dusty ride however.
Along the Afghan border from Qulai Khumb to Khorog, into the Wakhan valley.
Local market and fast food in Khorog.
Stunning views along the river.
Our favourite road surface.
A cyclist and local yak shepherds.
We drove along the Chinese border for dozens of kilometers.