Willkommen Daheim – Welcome Home!

in Austria, Border crossings, Germany by on August 27th, 2010

WE DID IT … 12,269KM AND 13 COUNTRIES LATER, WE ARE IN BALINGEN, GERMANY!!

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Our day started early at 7:30am.  We decided to take the route via Tirol home because it was more scenic, and probably also because we were not quite ready to end this wonderful trip and wanted to prolong it for just a little bit more.  We drove through beautiful Alpine landscapes of mountains, pine trees and lush green grass with cows.  One could almost imagine the Von Trapp family singing “the hills are alive…with the sound of music…”

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We took our final stop in the town of St Johann in Tirol.  One last knödel desert for us, one last magnet for Sabby and one pair of lederhosen for MJo later, we left and drove almost non-stop the last 400km towards home.

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4 hours later, the one moment we sometimes thought was almost unimaginably far away, was here, when a very welcome sight greeted our eyes. Home at last, where we were greeted very warmly by our welcome party!

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The reality that this trip has come to an end has not yet quite sunk in for us yet. It will take months to digest everything we were fortunate enough to have experienced. In the meantime, we will drink a toast to having made it through, despite the many challenges along the way. We thank our Lord and guarding angels for having brought us back in one piece, as we for sure know it wasn’t always us getting us safely to the end of the day. We also drink a toast to you, dear readers, for having joined us on our journey by following this blog. Until next time, when we set out for new horizons once more…

Yours truly,

MJo + Sabby

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Good-bye Russia and hello Ukraine

in Border crossings, Russia, Ukraine by on August 19th, 2010

For the next 3 days we will be crossing the Ukraine, this former Soviet republic (gained independence in 1991) is a rather large country in terms of size. It was surprisingly easy leaving Russia after all the schnick-schnack entering. But then the Ukraine customs made us buy some more insurance, interrogated Sabby on her life story due to some confusion over her purpose of travel (“Transit” or “Tourist”?). After 2 hours of back and forth, they finally let us proceed.

There is only one road that leads towards Kiev (some 870km from the border) it seems and it goes on for hours and hours through fields of sunflowers, wheat and corn. Not to mention, the melon trail that started in Tajikistan continues…

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Around 7pm we decided to look for a place along the road to stay for the night and Sabby’s sharp eyes spotted a motel on the other side of the highway.  It turned out that this nondescript motel had some cute little wooden cabins in the garden. So we had our own little log cabin set amidst apple trees.  Interestingly enough, the room rates were based on 1-6, 13 or 24 hours’ stay…guess most guests do not stay long here despite its beautiful surroundings.

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Oh one more update, the landscape became more green and lush about 200km after Atyrau.  Much to MJo’s chagrin, no more camels!!  Instead, he now has a new obsession – road signs. We now have an extensive collection of photos of them in various languages.

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We have officially crossed from Asia into Europe!

in Border crossings, Kazakhstan, Russia by on August 18th, 2010

With its proximity to Kazakhstan’s largest oilfield, Atyrau is a fairly rich city with many expats.  Its hotels cater to the many oil workers, so expect rather steep prices though the prospects of getting a hot shower in Atyrau are definitely much better than in Beyneu!  Another benefit is that you can actually get a decent gin and tonic in Atyrau.  And this we did at the Guns ‘n’ Roses Pub.  In spite of our hotel’s receptionist’s insalubrious description of the place, we found it to be a very cool spot, particularly taking into account that we were in the middle of Western Kazakhstan.

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Cheers at the Guns n Roses Pub in Atyrau!

The next day, we took a little side trip to see the Caspian Sea.  Initially we had visions of swimming in it and maybe even having a nice meal on the beach, a lá the French Riveria.  But those visions quickly disappeared when we realized that the last 10km or so of road leading to the sea was a little-used dirt road.  Hmm, maybe going to the Caspian Sea from Atyrau is not a common tourist activity?  In any case, MJo had some much-missed fun riding off-road.

Afterwards, we rode across the Ural River, which officially marks the line between Asia and Europe.  With that we officially made it to the European continent!
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Asia => Bridge over Ural River => Europe!

It was then a further 290km to the border.  We had to wait a little on the Kazakh side as we arrived at 7pm just as their dinner time started.  It also took us a while on the Russian side as we had to buy insurance for the bike, or at least we think that’s what we paid US$20 for.  Eventually, we entered the “Motherland” en route to the “Fatherland” (apologies for the bad joke).

Riding into larger cities can sometimes be a little tricky for us when we do not have city maps.  In this case, we did not have a map nor a hotel address.  So for a bit, we rode around trying to ask people for a hotel and getting lots of “preyama”, “eta” and “dar” (“straight”, “this” and “there” – the full extent of our Russian fluency). By now it was dark around 9pm which didn’t make since easier but eventually we got to a hotel near the railway station.

But there was one problem – there was no secure parking for our baby.  And even the hotel staff did not advise parking the bike outside.

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MJo sitting outside the hotel waiting for things to get sorted

Phone calls were made, and eventually the owner of the hotel who spoke some English, showed up.  “I have cottage over river. You come with me.”, she said.  Not having any other options by then, we did and 15min later found ourselves in a house in the suburbs of Astrakhan for the night.  It turned out to be a nice place with a large room and a garden. Once again, we have been lucky with finding a place for the night.

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Desert riding: Kungrad=>Beyneu=>Atyrau

in Border crossings, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan by on August 17th, 2010

Since leaving Tajikistan, our riding conditions have changed dramatically.  Much to Sabby’s delight, there are no more mountain passes or gravel roads.  Instead it is all seemingly never-ending tarmac roads through flat terrain now.  From mountains in Tajikistan, we then had desert in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, a very different experience altogether.

We started from Kungrad early at 7am and rode the 300km (the first 50km gravel then mostly tarmac) to the border easily.  After the border, a few of the blogs had mentioned that the road surface was very poor and likened the experience to “driving on the moon”.  For us, that 80km of unpaved road to Beyneu were rather “pleasant” after our previous experiences, we could average about 70km/h.  In retrospect, we were really glad that we started in India with a baptism of fire on an ancient bike through some of the worst roads, rather then the other way around.

The road from the border to Beyneu was not all that bad...

When we got to Beyneu, the first thing that MJo saw was a petrol station, and one which actually had petrol and no queues!!!  He was over the moon and after his “benzin depravation” in Uzbekistan, he instinctively wanted to fill up.  Sabby had to remind him that we did not have any Kazakh tenge (local currency) to pay for petrol to curb his enthusiasm (the only living things we met since crossing the border were camels and they didn’t exchange US$).

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With Lyoxa, a former Soviet Motocross champion, in Beyneu

We had been given directions to a local who was a former Soviet enduro champion, Lyoxa.  His workshop was located near the town entrance so it was easy enough to find.  He was very welcoming – he showed us photos of his former Motocross days and his recent rides and also changed money for us (at it was Sunday no banks were open and we needed fuel!).

With petrol money in his pocket, MJo was excited and raring to ride on.  The morning’s ride up to Beyneu had been easy enough that he felt he had another 430km to go.  So we decided to ride on to Atyrau.

The ride to Atyrau must have been the hottest ride we have had on this trip and this is in spite of the wind we got from riding at 120 km/h and the strong desert winds.  The air was just hot!  Riding through the desert, there is not much along the way to see, other then MJo’s latest obession – camels!  Ocassionally, there are some road signs for turn-off to villages, but then the villages must have been so far off that we couldn’t actually see them from the road.

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Camels!

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From afar, we wondered what historical monuments along the road these could be. They turned out to be very fancy tombstones!

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Random abandoned building in the middle of the desert, wonder what it could have been?

13 hours and 860km later, we made it to Atyrau around 9pm.  We set a new record for distance covered in a day, thanks to a nice road through barren desert land.

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Goodbye Tajikistan!

in Border crossings, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan by on August 8th, 2010

After our grueling 15 hour day, we decided to take it easy and take a rest day in Dushanbe. Rest days are good for catching up on stuff and that is exactly what we did. Uploaded photos, updated website, did laundry, did some bike maintenance and most importantly caught up on sleep!

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Our gloves really needed a wash it seemed

We waited for it to cool down and then went out exploring the city in the afternoon.  Dushanbe is often described as the most charming capital city in Central Asia and we could see why!  Wide boulevards and a beautifully colourfully-lit park in the city centre where many local families came out at night.  The city was very different from the Tajikistan we had experienced so far – paved roads, expensive foreign cars (we saw a couple of Cayennes in contrast to the beat-up Soviet relics we saw elsewhere), actual shops and proper gas stations.  We almost experienced a culture shock to be in Dushanbe.

One thing though: we still did not see any locals riding motorcycles on the road.  In our week or so in Tajikistan, we only saw one motorcycle.  And that belonged to an Italian rider who was taking his Harley 40,000km around the world in one year.  Did the Soviets ban motorcycles?  A Google search turned up no answers to this mystery, so please leave a comment if you have any clues.

The next day, the highlight of our ride out of Dushanbe was the Anzob Tunnel, otherwise nicknamed the “tunnel of death”.  Our prior research
indicated that this was a 5km long tunnel with no ventilation or lighting and large puddles of knee deep water. It was quite a ride indeed, though someone had since put a couple of light bulbs in, so we could see a bit while trying to avoid the biggest water puddles.  Overall we enjoyed the ride but were also happy seeing the literal light at the end of the tunnel.

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The “Tunnel of Death” is 5km long and has no ventilation but a lot of ground water

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The Space Monkey says “A” is for Anzob, hope no truck is coming the other way

When we got to the Tajik border, first we were told that the customs form and the US$10 we paid for it at the border on the way in, were invalid.  We got scammed!  Despite our best efforts to explain this, we ended up having to pay the fee again.  But not without making friends with the supervisor who spoke German and enjoying some watermelon with him.

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Sabby finally found her Tajik melon with the border supervisor

Next up at immigration, we were told that we needed registration documents as we had a private visit visa rather than a tourist visa.  In Tajikistan, foreigners remaining for more than 72 hours have to register at the OVIR (another relic from Soviet days), although foreigners with a tourist visa had up to 30 days before the registration requirement.  Argh, we had spent a lot of time before this trying to figure out if we needed to register as the tourist registration exemption seems to be fairly recent and had just convinced ourselves that we would be OK.  To register, we would have to spend another US$30 each plus 3 more days in Tajikistan.  No way!  With some luck, we managed to get away without having pay a single cent.

Next stop: Samarkhand

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China => Kyrgyzstan => Tajikistan in one day!

in Border crossings, China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan by on August 3rd, 2010

Breakfast in China, lunch in Kyrgyzstan and dinner in Tajikistan.  This is going to be a lengthy post because it was a looooooooooong day.

After some delay in getting our exit customs clearance in China, we finally started our journey out of China with a late afternoon drive from Kashgar to the Chinese side of the border at Irkeshtam Pass.  Our plan was to spend the night there, get a good night’s sleep instead of having to wake up at 4am in the morning to drive there, so that we would have enough energy for the long day ahead.  Plus we had to get A (our fixer) to drive up early because he drove like a snail and was prone to flat tires.  Eventually it took us 3 hours and him 7 hours to travel the same 280km from Kashgar to Irkeshtam.

Staying at a border town catering to truck drivers was an experience in itself.  We will let the pictures do the talking here…

5-star luxury: cup noodles, sleeping bag and iPad movie night in Irkeshtam!

The toilet wasn’t so 5-star though…we are happy to be leaving Chinese toilets behind

The next morning, we got to customs bright and early.  Immigration was a breeze, but customs…  Given all the hassle we had with Customs the last time, no surprise then that we faced a hiccup here again. We only had a fax of the approval with the original on its way from Kashgar in a cab, which would have taken another 3-4 hours to arrive. After waiting about 2 hours for the customs chief (‘ke zhang’) to get out of his meeting, and then another half hour to write a petition letter to get customs clearance with only the faxed copy. Finally, we sped our way out of China just 5 mins before the Chinese border officials took their obligatory 3-hour lunch break.

It was a short crossing to the Kyrgyz side. We decided not to linger too long in Kyrgyzstan with the unstable political situation and also with the time on our Tajik visa fast running out. We had heard reports of knee-deep mud on the road from the border to Sary Tash but good weather plus ever-amazing Chinese road construction made the ride easier than expected.

Amazing views riding from the border to Sary Tash

From Sary Tash, we followed what seemed to be the better road (tarmac hmmm… tarmac) and ended up in the wrong direction. About 30km in, we realised our mistake and had to turn around. In the meantime, the clock was ticking… we still had about 6 hours to make a border crossing and the 233km to Murgab in Tajikistan.

As with before, the Kyrgyz side of the border was easy, if tedious, having to have our passports checked by three different authorities, all in different buildings (more like shacks actually).  After a quick lunch in front of their customs shack, we headed off for our next border crossing of the day.

Power lunching in Kyrgyzstan – coffee and cherry cake at the border

About 5km after the Kyrgyz side, somewhere in the no man’s land between the two countries, the road had been washed away.  The only way across was through a river.  The fast-rising water levels required us to make an immediate decision whether to attempt a crossing or to turn around.  Actually we had no choice – we only had a single-entry Kyrgyz visa, it was Tajikistan or remaining in no man’s land (which wasn’t really an option).

Road destroyed!

Challenges are meant to be met.  After offloading all our bags, MJo took the AT across but got caught at the very end in a deep gravelly section where the rear wheel dug deeper and deeper into the gravel under water.  Luckily, there was a Russian 4WD van passing by which helped us tow the bike out of the river just in time before it would be swept downstream.  (Actually in hindsight, our guardian angels were clearly working overtime, as we later realised that there was no way there would be any more traffic along this stretch for a while.)

But once out of the water, the AT wouldn’t start anymore!  MJo had to take out all his tools to do some serious roadside repairs.  In the meantime, some Kyrgyz soldiers came by and looked on from the other side, but the water had gotten too deep for their jeep to cross over to us, and they drove off.  Eventually, after taking apart the bike, including disconnecting and removing the fuel tank and changing all the spark plugs, the AT came back to life!  Hearing the roar of the engine never felt so good before!

Where is AA’s roadside assistance when you need them?

The naked AT after removing the fuel tank

Abandoned by the Kyrgyz army!

We have some awesome video footage of this which we will edit and post up in the next few days, so look out for it!

We had spent about three hours in no man’s land by then and finally made it to the Tajik side around 7.30pm.  The border was of course closed by then and we faced the prospect of spending a night in no man’s land.  However, after showing the border guards our photos of the washed-away road accompanied by much gestulating to tell our story, they specially opened the border for us.

Chances of us getting to Murgab (180km away) where we’d planned to spend the night, were slim. And they vanished completely when we got to yet another section where the road had been washed away.

No road again!

This time, the AT got across safely though we had to carry our bags across.

Sabby’s “slave”, a.k.a MJo the manual labourer carries our bags across the water in darkness

By then, there was only the light from the stars and the headlights of the AT as we rode towards Karakul Lake.  We couldn’t see what we were riding through, only the near distance illuminated by our headlights.  Although it was only 60km on a tarmac road, this ride seemed especially long in the darkness of the night.  Just as we were losing hope of finding accommodation for the night, our headlights hit upon a sign for a homestay!

Phew! We have a place to stay for the night!

Our host turned out to be the brother of the van driver who had helped us earlier in the day, what serendipity!  We had a simple but delicious dinner of instant noodles and instant soup and collapsed into sleep almost straight after.  It had been a looooooong day – two border crossings and two river crossings – quite a lot of excitement for the mere 12 hours after we first arrived at Chinese customs!

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