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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Moynak The Aral Sea – cemetery of ships

in Uzbekistan by on August 15th, 2010

Sometimes, you just gotta let the boy play with his toys.  So MJo took the AT out alone, with no lugagge, for a solo, 210km, ride from Kungrad to Moynak (after we had already ridden 7 hours earlier in the day), whilst Sabby stayed in to rest her ankle.  The AT uncumbered by luggage, rides like a very different machine.  You can imagine MJo’s joy at riding his “Queen” again, especially on some offroad sections and in the sand dunes.

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As mentioned in our earlier post, Moynak is the site of one of the biggest environmental disasters of our time.  We wanted to share with you some pictures that truly bring home the point.

The photos below show the shrinking of the sea over time: 1st row L-R, 1960, 1970 2nd row L-R, 1990, 2000 3rd row, 2010

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And you can see the abandoned rusting fishing ships which once used to ply these waters.

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MJo also ran into some Spanish guys doing the Mongol Rally.

On a travel tip note, we stayed in Kungrad for the night.  Most people stay at Nukus (100km before)  from where they travel to Beyneu, but we decided to go to Kungrad as it was a good base for MJo to do his half-daytrip to Moynak.  There are not many accommodation options in Kungrad, at least not for foreign tourists.  But we came across this rather cool guesthouse in the parking lot of the train station.  It is also a chaikhana so they serve some pretty tasty grub there.  Like all Uzbek chaikhanas, they had an outdoor daybed-like set-up too, with speakers playing Uzbek music, it felt almost as though we were at a trendy lounge bar somewhere else in the world (KuDeTa anyone?).

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Just to spice things up again

in Uzbekistan by on August 13th, 2010

After reading about all the conventional touristy things we have been doing and charming B&Bs we have been staying in so far in Uzbekistan, are you getting BORED???  Do you think we are getting SOFT???  Well dear reader, do not worry, we now have some Journey2Dakar-style drama specially for you.

We set off for Bukhara a day late as Sabby had been laid low by food poisoning.  Standard traveller’s ailment, we would have to succumb to it at some point along our trip.  Sabby tried her very best to get onto the bike, but she could not maintain an upright position for more than 10 secs.  Everytime MJo tried to prop her up, he would find her back with her head on the bed/couch/chair or whatever horizontal surface was nearby, like clockwork. In the end we unpacked the bike again, moved back into our old room, and stayed another night.

The next morning then at 6 am we started our journey towards Bukhara (check out our photos of the sights) and then headed westwards towards Khiva (the old slave trading center of the Silk Road).  About 80km from Khiva, we found a little roadside stall which sold petrol (or “benzin” as the locals call it), so we stopped to fill up (as there are no gas stations with Benzin the entire day).  Turns out the turnoff from the highway ahead was closed due to bridge repairs (yes, bridge repairs again!) so we had to retrace our steps a little.  Then we got to a bridge right by the Turkmenistan border, both sides of the bridge are actually Turkmen territory but the bridge is Uzbek territory.

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The Uzbek bridge

The railway line also runs on this bridge and as we got onto the bridge, the front tire got caught in the track and the bike fell over, ripping the front tire in the process.  We managed to get the bike upright fairly quickly but Sabby’s foot got pinned under the weight of the bike and luggage for a bit.  At this point, a tourist bus came along and we decided to put Sabby on the bus with them to Khiva where she could get her foot checked out.

MJo had to deal with the flat front tire.  [No photos here unfortunately as Sabby took the camera with her to Khiva]  The Uzbek guards at the bridge helped him wheel the bike to the guardpost where MJo got all his tools out and they removed the front tire.   They first tried using our tire patch spray but the hole was too big for it to work.  So MJo, accompanied by one of the guards, hopped onto a passing minivan and took the tire to the nearest village 2km away.  At the tire repair shop there, they got the inner tube replaced, but there was still a relatively big rip in the tire.  So they hopped onto an army jeep to the village junction where they then got onto a passing bus towards another further village.  The tire repair shop in this village had a bit more sophisticated (‘sophisticated’ being a relative term in these parts of the world) equipment and was able to apply some sealant to the tire.

In the meantime, Sabby got her second experience of the Uzbek healthcare system (the first when she had food poisoning).  She went to the local hospital.  Whilst she was waiting, she could hear a child’s screams of pain ringing from the treatment room.  Hmm, not exactly a comforting sound while you’re waiting for medical attention… Turns out that the child had been bitten by a dog and they were operating on her, apparently without anesthesia(??!!).  Eventually the doctor had a look at Sabby’s ankle and it was nothing serious, just a mild sprain.  Thank goodness!

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Gloomy Soviet-style hospital corridor did not help assuage Sabby’s fear of hospitals
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Sabby’s sprained ankle where the doctor marked ‘X’ for the injury

A full 5 hours later at 7pm MJo finally reappeared, and yes riding into town. He managed to remove the tire, go to two villages for fixing, put the front tire back on and drove the 80 kms, just in time for dinner!  We are now safely in Khiva where we are taking an extra day to rest ankles, carry out bike maintenance/repairs, upload photos, update website and generally enjoy civilisation while we can as our next few days will be through the desert.  More about that in an upcoming post!

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Good morning Uzbekistan!

in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan by on August 12th, 2010

Now we become real tourist…Welcome to Uzbekistan where our journey takes on a more cultural and historical perspective.  Uzbekistan was home to Central Asia’s cradle of culture for more than two millennia and also to old Silk Road cities such as Samarkhand, Bukhara and Khiva.

How to tell you are in Uzbekistan, not Tajikistan

1)    The roads are almost all tarmac and MJo is almost bored riding on the highways at 100km/h

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Flat tarmac roads with nothing but desert on either side

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MJo is so bored on flat Uzbek roads that he drives with only one finger here!

2)    There are no mountains, just flat terrain.

3)    There are many more new buildings built within the last 10 years, including a Rodeo Drive-esque mall in the heart of Samarkhand’s historical centre

4)    There are many more historical monuments, reflecting the Uzbek cities’ relative importance in history (for example, the Tajiks were actually subjects of the emirate of Bukhara from the 15th century onwards)

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The Registan in Samarkhand

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Khiva by night

5)    It is difficult, if nearly impossible, to find petrol in Uzbekistan even though we always managed to find it in Tajikistan.  Most of the petrol stations in Uzbekistan are shut or locked up; the few with any petrol have long queues of cars outside and you are not allowed to hoard petrol by filling jerry cans. A stark reminder of the old Soviet times.

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Queue of cars outside the one gas station we have seen with petrol; other 'dry' gas stations just have abandoned cars parked outside awaiting the day when there will be petrol again

6) There are many more tourists in Uzbekistan and much better tourist infrastructure; about a fifty new hotels must have sprung up across Bukhara since the Lonely Planet was last updated whereas not much has changed in Tajikistan since.

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The courtyard of our charming B&B in Bukhara

7) There are no more propaganda pictures of Imomali Rakhmanov, the Tajik President, everywhere.

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Tajik megastar: President Imomali Rakhmanov

8) There is crazy inflation in Uzbekistan, the difference between the official and black market exchange rate is about 40%!!  And it also means that we have to carry around thick stacks of notes to pay for stuff

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Crazy stacks of money we have to carry around in Uzbekistan; this is the equivalent of 100USD

Reasons why you might still get confused

1)    There are still no motorcycles; what is up with that?!

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We did find one motorcycle in Uzbekistan, except it was in a state of rust and probably had not seen the roads for the last 50 years!

2)    Many of the names of the historical monuments are actually in Tajik and Samarkhand is Tajik-speaking

3)    There are still many fruit sellers along the side of the road, especially melon-sellers

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Roadside melon seller in Tajikistan; not much different from those in Uzbekistan

4)    Tea is still the preferred drink of choice; shaslik and a tomato/cucumber/dill salad appears on the menu all the time too

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MJo takes his beef shaslik apart

5) Famous Persian historical figures such as the ruler Ismail Samani (known in Tajikistan as Ismoili Somani) and the poet Rudaki, appear everywhere in both countries too.

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Rudaki

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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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