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.
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.
Central Asia. I have been looking forward to crossing the Caspian Sea for a long time. Although we already put more than 6000 km behind us, for some reason Turkey, Georgia and even Azerbaijan still felt a bit like Europe, especially Baku. You could already see the Persian influences in the faces, but here, on the right side of the Caspian Sea it is really different. The landscape, the faces, the languages and typography, the roads and the temperature.
We arrived in Aktau, and after our adventures dealing with Kazach customs we did not have high hopes for the rest. But I was wrong, the Kazach people are very friendly, as are all people we have met so far. One thing I have noticed travelling east – people get friendlier and friendlier, everybody waves, they smile, come up to you, talk to you, shake your hand, want to know where you are from. And people look you in the eye, and do not avert their gaze, something we are not used to anymore. It almost makes me feel uncomfortable.
So we picked a hotel in Aktau, and sat down in the garden terrace for some food and drinks. After the long day of being in a Kafka play we wanted to prepare for the days coming up, which we were both looking forward to but also made us a bit nervous. The worst piece of road that we would get (aside for the unpaved roads on the Pamir Highway and in Mongolia) is between Beyneu, Kazachstan and the Uzbekistan border, and after that there is about 500km of absolutely nothing. No towns, no water, no fuel, just desert and road and sun. Aktau to Beyneu was fine, just a full day of regular desert road. With camels. That is very strange, just seeing camels everywhere, strolling through the heat and the empty landscape. There are also wild horses. How these animals survive is beyond me, since there is hardly any green, let alone water.
On the way from Aktau to Beyneu we made a brief excursion off the main road, just to test our off-road skills and to see a rock formation we read about. We found the road more exciting than the rock formation.
We also met up again with Alissa and Andy, a lovely couple from the UK with whom we made the ferry crossing. In Beyneu we also met Jin, a gentleman from Japan who was riding from Japan to Portugal, and we had a great evening exchanging stories and experiences.
The next morning we left early for the Uzbekistan border, and as soon as we left Beyneu, the road turned into something from a nuclear disaster movie. The road used to be paved with asphalt but probably has not been maintained ever since Breznev was Secretary General of the USSR.
We do have video footage but it does not do the road conditions true justice. It started with reinforced concrete slabs of which the top layer was gone, and the iron bars were visible and sticking out at places. After a few kilometers of that it was 50 km of potholes, bumps, dust, sand, and gravel in all combinations. There is other traffic on that road, from cars to huge trucks, everyone crawls slowly forward. At times we had to stop because we could not see anything in the huge dust clouds and we did not want to drive into holes or bump into oncoming traffic. Because sometimes they also use your side of the road, if the road is slightly better. At times it was actually better to drive in the track next to the road.
One of the better stretches of road:
The Uzbek border entry was absolutely painless – the friendliest so far. I had read stories about them checking your laptop and phone for nudity, going through medication etc, and especially since I brought a drone (which is forbidden in Uzbekistan) I prepared to hand it in.
But they were very friendly, they asked Paul to open a bag, went through it a bit and all was fine. I did not even have to open my bags or put it through the X-ray scanner. We were in Uzbekistan in 45 minutes,
We exchanged some money at the border and purchased insurance for our motorcycles (not sure if we need it but that’s the thing with insurance) and drove off. The road was better, but not a lot. Still a tremendous amount of bad asphalt with random surprise potholes, which can be even more dangerous. You think you can get your speed up and suddenly there is this big hole, which can damage your rim and tires if you cannot avoid the hole. So it was a very long day, but in an amazing landscape. Just empty desert, as far as the eye can see.
We felt it was time to bring out the drone. What better place than the one country where drones are illegal.
After another day of hot and bad desert road we arrived in Khiva, one of the first three legendary cities on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan that we would visit. The other ones are Bukhara and Samarkand.
Khiva is fairly small, but exceptionally well preserved. It does not take a lot of imagination to see the bustling, busy place it must have been in the 16th and 17th century, when it was a famous trading place on the Silk Road. It was especially well known for its slave market. Now it is quite deserted, there are people living in the old part but there is not a lot of life. It does feel like a museum. There are a few tourists, and some souvenir stalls.
There are a few large buildings that dominate the old city, each with a large portal, and sometimes a minaret. We would see this type of Islamic architecture also in Bukhara and Samarkand. In Khiva we again met up with Andy and Alissa again, and had a great evening on the roof terrace having dinner and playing cards.
After Khiva we went to Bukhara, where we also stayed a day and explored the city. Bukhara is larger than Khiva, and has much more life in it than Khiva. It has also large Madrassa’s (Islamic schools) and a large fortress called the Ark. Instead of a lot of text, I will just show you pictures.
Next up: Samarkand. The largest of the three Silk Road cities, and we did a nice buildup from small to large. The sites in Samarkand are further apart, and larger than the ones in Bukhara and Khiva. We stayed at a lovely hostel with a great garden, so we spent some time relaxing and reading under the cherry and apricot trees. We were lucky with the temperature, the week before it had been 45 degrees, now it was a pleasant 33.
Amongst other sites, we visited the Ulugh Bek Observatory. Ulugh Bek was one of the greatest astronomers of all time, and he lived in Samarkand in the 12 and 13th century. He built the largest quadrant of the world in his time, used to measure the position of celestial bodies.
Klick the photo to see a 360 view from the inside:
Uzbekistan was very nice, the people are incredibly friendly, beautiful architecture – true Central Asia. But by this time, we felt we had enough Islamic architecture so after visiting the highlights of Samarkand it was time to leave for the mountains.
And again Paul has delivered – please enjoy a new video with some highlights of Turkey. Such as the beautiful roadfrom Amasra to Sinop, the Sumela Monastery and a not so fun way to spend your afternoon.
Time is moving fast. Or we are moving fast. Or both. As I am writing this, we are on the ferry from Alat in Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea to Aktau in Kazachstan. Which means, that since my last update, we have spent some more time in Georgia, spent a few days in Tbilisi, visited the Gergeti Trinity Church near Stepantsminda, traversed Azerbaijan via Shaki to Baku and managed to get onto the ferry. And we’ve only been gone for little over two weeks, but it already feels much longer. But let me tell you what we’ve been up to so far.
After Vardzia, headed towards Borjomi to end up in Gori. In the morning, as we visited the caves of Vardzia, the weather was still fair but it started pouring once we were on the road again. By the time we reached Gori we were both soaked to our underwear. Glad to get out of those wet clothes and into a warm shower.
Gori is the birthplace of Josef Stalin, and they have a proper museum dedicated to one of the most notorious dictators of the 20th century. When you walk up to the museum, you encounter the birthhouse of Stalin (Stalin was his nickname, his real name was Josef Jugashvili). This house has always been at that spot, and they built a marble structure over it, and a large marble building behind it.
We followed the tourguide who told in a very matter of fact way about the various artefacts that were on display. Such as foto’s of Stalin throughout his life, his coat, his desk, cigars, original cabinet furniture and his death mask. It was a bit one-sided, there was no mention of the millions of lives that were lost during the Stalin regime. It was mentioned again and again that Stalin had been proud to be Georgian, and it was weird to notice that such a large part of the history of Stalin was avoided.
A gift from the Netherlands to Stalin:
But it was an interesting visit and morning nonetheless.
Leaving Gori, we visited another cave city, the site of Uplistsikhe. This one was first inhabited in the early Iron Age, and has also been settled and expanded with a monastery by Christians starting from the 4th century, later conquered by Muslims in the 8th and 9th century. This was a huge site, and I must say, after visiting Capadocia and Vardzia, I have seen enough caves and cave dwellings by now. But still, impressive how they built the tunnels and caves.
We then took the back roads to Tbilisi, avoiding the highway and touring through small villages instead. Only the last few kilometers were highway. We were close to the city, and both running low on fuel. But we have these handy range indicators on our motorcycles, and mine told me that I could drive another 60 km’s on the fuel in my tank. We figured we get into the city and then would fill up, in just 2 kms. And then my engine quit. It just stopped. So much for the range indicator.
I parked the bike on the shoulder of the highway, and Paul stopped as well. We dicussed briefly whay to do, and we decided that I would sprint across the highway (it was not very busy) to the petrol station on the other side. We had an empty waterbottle, and so I went. Paul waited with the bikes. I managed to get 3 liters of fuel (apparently this happens more often, because the attendant had enough empty bottles) and sprinted back. On the way back to the motorcycles I encountered a police car, and although it was pretty obvious what I was doing, they did not say or do anything. And Paul had his encounter with the police as well. As he was waiting, another policecar stopped, and asked him if there was a problem and where we were from. Paul said “From Holland, and out of fuel, we’re stupid!”. The police just laughed and said “Welcome to Georgia!”.
In Tbilisi we had booked an appartment in the city center, very close to the Opera building. It had a large bedroom and a good parking spot for the bikes. Time to do some laundry, some relaxing and some sightseeing.
Tbilisi is a nice city, lots of tourists and it has a real capital city feel. It is beautifully situated along the river, with a fortress and an old town overlooking the city. It also has all facilities. Paul had been quite unlucky with his devices in the last few days. First he dropped his iphone, cracking the screen. Secondly his Garmin navigation started acting up, then his Gopro mount broke and I watched his Gopro bounce down the street at 70 km/h. But the most serious issue was with our Cardo intercom sets. His unit would not turn on most of the time and if it did, it had very erratic behaviour. Having no intercom on such a trip is not only very boring, it is also very inconvinient and we were quite worried that we would have to do without communication for the rest of the trip.
So first order of business was to get Paul’s iPhone fixed, and then I was going to have a look at the rest. We found a good shop which fixed Paul’s phone in 40 minutes and replaced his screen. I managed to find a torque 6 miniature screwdriver (the only tool I did not bring) and opened up the Cardo unit. It turned out that the heavy rain we had a few days before had gotten into the unit, and the thing had started corroding already a bit due to moisture. I dried it out and with a toothbrush I removed the corrosion. That did the trick! We have a working intercom unit again. I was also able to fix the Garmin – a bit of sand had gotten into the edge of the touchscreen, and lastly the GoPro: what we thought was a cracked lens was just the cover. We removed it and the GoPro is working as well. So all is good again.
The rest of our time in Tbilisi was spent as real tourists, sightseeing, walking around and looking at the city. At our last night there was a huge demonstration on the main street, the Shota Rustaveli Bulevard. This was very close to our apartment. As we found out later, it was against corruption and nepotism related to a murder trail verdict.
In the evening we met up with Max from Germany, and Didier, a Frenchman living in Melbourne, both driving their motorcycles in the same direction as we do. Didier is an impressive character – he has been driving all over the world on his motorcycle, Africa, Congo, Nigeria, South America, Asia – just amazing. We would end up meeting Didier again in Baku.
After Tbilisi we drove on the Georgian Military Highway close to the Russian border, near Vladikavkaz. There, close to the village of Gergeti lies the Trinity Church, high in the Caucasus mountains. From the village, which is already at a height of 2000 meters, it is 400 meters more up to the little church. The road up leading up there is bad and muddy, but we tried it anyway. We mastered the hard part, only to find the road blocked by construction workers, who are working on paving the road. We had to leave our bikes and hike the rest of the path up a very steep hill. The church is surrounded by mountains of 5000 meters high, unfortunately they were covered in clouds so we did not see the snow-capped peaks. But the view was stunning nonetheless.
You can see the church high up.
The path up the hill:
After the hike:
Georgia is a very nice country – friendly people, beautiful landscapes, good food and wine, I would like to have spent some more time, maybe gone up to Svaneti national park, but this will have to wait for another time. Now it’s on to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is a country that I have not thought a lot of. What did I know of Azerbaijan?
The capital is Baku and they have oil
There is a Formula 1 race in Baku
At some point they won the Eurovision Songcontest. And it’s not even Europe.
So you can’t say that I came well prepared. But that has changed. Some facts that I have learned in the past few days:
Azerbaijan was the first Muslim democracy in the world (already in 1918, 2 years before they were assimilated in the Soviet Union)
The capital Baku was designed and built by oil millionaires who engaged European architects to replicate buildings and styles from all over Europe
The language is close to Turkish, but next to the Ottoman influence they have Russian and Iranian influences as well. But the Azeri’s (as they call themselves) pride themselves on their independence.
Leaving Georgia and entering Azerbaijan was more or less straightforward – by now we have learned not to queue at the border but just drive up to the start of the queue. The local people find it very normal and even encourage us to skip the line. After the formalities of leaving Georgia and entering Azerbaijan, going through border control, customs and purchasing insurance for the motorcycle we drove on in the direction of Shaki.
The first impression I got from driving in Azerbaijan is that it reminds me of a park. The road that we drove on was lined with majestic trees, and well-kept grass that reminded me of a lawn. The bottom parts of the trees were all painted white, and it felt we were driving up a very long driveway up to a castle. Really strange, you could tell that the trees had been planted but why I don’t know. But it is pretty.
Shaki is a town that at first does not look like much. We let our GPS guide us to the city center, checked into the first decent hotel that we saw and settled down for the day. We went for dinner in a closeby restaurant, which had an interesting concept. Instead of just getting a table, this restaurant has lots of wooden cabins inside. So we got our own little cabin, and sampled the local food. Azeri food is very tasty – as everything heavy on the meat, but with enough vegetables.
The next morning we walked through town, looked at the typical Shaki architecture and visited the caravanserai and the Palace of the Shaki Khans. This was the summer residence of the Ottoman rulers and was built in the 16th century. it is famous for it’s stained glass windows.
Click on the next two photos to have 360 degree views of the caravanserai:
The Palace of the Shaki Khan::
After the palace we walked by a nice house and were invited in by a man, who turned out to be the master craftsman for the stained glass windows. He was the 4th generation of craftsmen in his family, and they had all worked on the Palace. The construction of these windows is very intricate, it consists of tiny pieces of carved wood that fit together like one of those wood puzzles. They don’t use glue and it is very sturdy while looking very delicate.
You can see his ancestors on the wall behind him:
After Shaki we went on to Baku.
Baku itself is a grand city. You can tell there is lots of money here – tall, well kept buildings from medieval times, the late 18th, 19th and early 20th century, as well as glass towers with LED lighting at night. Expensive cars, well-dressed men and women, lots of restaurants and bars. We rented another apartment and went on a city walking tour with a private guide, an Azeri English teacher who also gives tours in the city. She was about 35 years old and next to lots of information about the city and the country, she also gave a nice insight into Azeri culture and society. We had some good discussions as well.
We would have liked to spend some more time in Baku, but we did not want to miss the ferry departure, of which we did not know when it would leave. We spent a morning figuring out if we could get information on the departure and tickets in Baku instead of driving to the sea port of Alat (about 70km south of Baku) but we turned up empty handed.
So we decided to pack up and leave for the port. I won’t go into details about the whole process. Let me summarize by saying that it is a weird process, nobody knows when the ship leaves until it suddenly leaves at 3 in the morning, and it involves a lot of waiting (we arrived at 13:00) on a parking lot and a lot of forms and stamps. But the good news is that we are underway to Kazachstan, the ship is OK, we have a cabin (our private steam box, it is 30C without windows) and three meals a day.