A Disappointing Update

Without wishing to cause alarm, I should probably mention that the trip has taken an unexpected twist, and has come to an abrupt end, due to a medical malady.

Dad was hospitalised with a ruptured appendix last week, and has undergone surgery and all that good stuff. He’s fine, but won’t be able to ride for a fair while. What this means is that we’ve elected to fly home so his recovery can be more comfortable. We’re in Izmir, Turkey, and will be here until he’s deemed able to fly, and we can organise getting us and the bikes home.

Obviously it’s a disappointing end to the trip, but we’re grateful that we made it this far, and are looking forward to some homely comforts.

Anyway, we’re both fine, and will be home soon.

I’ll work on filling in the blanks here soon on our doings before Dad’s appendix decided it would rather stay in Turkey.

 

Switzerland, France and Italy

Our next few weeks were to take a change in format from the last few. We’d moved out of the realm of Europe which housed most of my friends, which meant it was back to fending for ourselves on the accommodation front. This meant that almost every night going forward was spent back in our tents, which was no bad thing.

Three things became apparent during our time in the abovetitled countries:

1. Overwhelming (though well-documented) natural beauty

2. Said natural beauty being lavishly appointed with a smorgasbord of perfect roads and;

3. Switzerland’s cost of living being outside our ideal levels.

During Dad’s previous visit to Switzerland, he’d obtained a motorbike-specific map, detailing many of Switzerland’s more bike-suited roads, so we spent our time there trying to tick as many off the list as possible (because obviously travel is just about ticking things off the list).

Still trying to dry off from our time in Bavaria, we spent our final damp night in tents near Muriaux and were finally greeted with a magnificent day, which was a sign of things to come.

A sight for sore eyes and wet clothes.

A sight for sore eyes and wet clothes.

There’s no point in going too deep into our time in the alps, as it will just manifest in me running out of adjectives to attach to descriptions of astounding mountain passes, dramatic backdrops and the general conducive nature of our surroundings to spirited riding. That said, there are a few highlights worthy of mention:

Camping at 2,500 metres, somewhere on the backroads behind Verbier:

photo-7DCIM103GOPRO

Bodies of water strewn about the place:

IMG_0005 DCIM105GOPRO

The mountain passes. Sure, the Stelvio takes a fantastic photo, but its choking levels of traffic and hairpin after hairpin left it playing second fiddle to our favourite: the San Bernadino Pass (Which we didn’t actually manage to capture- we were having too much fun).

IMG_0012 IMG_0010 DCIM105GOPRO IMG_0020

Continuing our ride across Italy, we finally reached the city of Trieste, bringing home the fact that we’d reached the southern coast of the continent, and were about to move out of central Europe. From there, it was onwards to Slovenia and Croatia!

 

 

Holland and Germany

Aside from an afternoon of nice weather in Copenhagen, Denmark elected to treat us with some nice weather for ducks, so we elected to pass through relatively quickly to arrive at our friends’ place in Holland. I’ve got plans to spend more time in Denmark, so don’t worry, I’ll give it plenty more opportunities to rain on me.

The Dolmans are family friends living in Veenendaal, central Holland. It had been a while since we saw them, so we were happy to stop in for a few days and spend the time in their fantastic company. We arrived in the afternoon, and I headed into Amsterdam to catch up with another friend from Sweden. Marcella and I had a great time hanging out in her beautiful apartment, and ruminating over our time in Lund. Happily, I’d arrived on the opening night of Amsterdam’s ‘Parade’ festival, so we headed over to take in the festive vibe, and be rained on a few times.

Whipping up a storm.

Whipping up a storm.

The following morning, I headed back to the Dolmans’ to spend the next couple of days being shown around by them. It was fantastic being shown around a large portion of the country, checking out the canals, some beautifully preserved ancient villages, and Den Haag. We were also treated to Barbara’s excellent cooking, Tenz’s EXCELLENT taste in movies, Bard’s wise quips, and Jill’s presence (via Skype).

IMG_0474

Observing a real-live lock in action, with the accompaniment of another one of Barbara’s culinary delights.

IMG_0459 IMG_0469 IMG_0100 IMG_0045-2 IMG_0480 IMG_0045 IMG_0096 IMG_0147

I had a shot at kitesurfing.

I had a shot at kitesurfing.

With our time at the Dolmans’ drawing to a close, Dad and I actually split up for a week or so. I headed off to Berlin to spend the week with my girlfriend, and I sent Dad down to Switzerland to scope out some good riding roads for our time after Germany.

My next week was spent in Berlin, with Uta playing the role of an excellent tour guide, showing me around her old stomping ground. Highlights included missing out on seeing the Hamburger Bahnhoff gallery (despite physically going there 3 times), spending the afternoon at Tempelhof airport, and taking advantage of Berlin’s array of cheap good food options.

Trying for takeoff.

Approaching takeoff speed.

Happily, Berlin harbours some more friends of mine, and it was great to see Amelie for dinner and drinks, and catch up with Nico for a bike tour of the city. While it was nice to swap petrol for pedals, I managed to make a complete fool of myself on the ride with Nico within the first 5 minutes on the bike, when I managed to crash. Despite this, we soldiered on and ended up covering about 30 k’s around Berlin, through the city, and out to a lake for some beers by the water.

Our whips for the Berlin ride.

Our whips for the Berlin ride.

It was actually quite nice to spend the week off the motorbike and mill around Berlin, having a good time. Despite this, the time came to pack up again, and get back on that iron horse (poor me, I know). This time, the destination was Munich.

Fortunately (again), I had another friend to catch up with in Munich in the form of Julia. She was kind enough to offer me lodgings in her and her sister Lena’s flat. Another fantastic host, Julia showed me around Munich, and we hit some of her regular haunts. Highlights included her Uni’s rooftop cafe, the Englischer Garten (complete with surfable river wave), and some bars that I’m sure she’ll forgive me for forgetting the names of.

IMG_0180

Sisterz

Sisterz

IMG_0019

I was also glad to catch up with Josefine, another Lund friend. We spent a nice afternoon catching up on our time since seeing eachother.

Dad arrived in Munich in time for us drop our bikes in to the BMW bike dealer in Munich for their 30,000 kilometre service (yep, they’re adding up now). It was an interesting feeling, having more or less ridden our bikes all the way back to their birthplace. We also checked out the BMW museum, where the company showcases the history it’s so proud of, with a plethora of rare metal for attendees to pore over.

We also spent some time touring around Bavaria, checking out its well-known castles and sights, as well as riding through its nice bendy roads. While en-route back to Munich from Lake Tegernsee, we were treated to the heaviest rain that we’d encountered on our entire trip. Unprepared, we hadn’t taken any waterproofing precautions, and a complete soaking ensued. We spend the next couple of days in hotels and hostels attempting to dry out, although Germany had other ideas, and managed to keep us in a state of dampness all the way into our first day or so in Switzerland. More on that later.

Finland and Sweden

First: We’re currently in Croatia. The blog is falling woefully behind where it should be. This falls down to one main reason: we’re camping pretty much every night. I haven’t yet been able to hook up mains power to my tent (much less, an internet connection), so I haven’t had to means to write about what we’ve been up to. That said, we’ve still been up to things, and I’ll do my best to keep updating along the way. So, with that out of the way….

Entering Finland was exciting for me for reasons numbering 3. First, Finland lies within the EU, which meant that we’d actually ridden across all of Asia/Russia, and actually ridden our own motorbikes to E.U.R.O.P.E. Secondly, having spent a year living in Sweden, I was pretty excited to get back there and show Dad some of the places that I’d stomped in. Thirdly, arriving in Finland signalled the beginning of catching up with friends I’d been lucky enough to make in Scandinavia and across Europe.

Despite spending more or less 12 months living in Sweden, I never actually made it across to Finland, so crossing the border from Russia into our first Nordic country still had an element of unknown to it. Entering Finland, we were greeted with terrifically good weather (which was set to continue for almost our entire time in Scandinavia), and shortly after crossing the border, we stopped for a roadside lunch on a forest-lined stretch of twisty bitumen. Despite never having visited Finland, elements of it immediately felt familiar (due to their likenesses with Sweden), and the ‘adventure’ aspect of the trip was replaced with a relaxed, ‘at home’ feel. This didn’t help with the Finnish language.

By a result of good timing, we arrived in Finland at the same time as my girlfriend happened to be visiting a friend from Finland, with another friend. At this point, Dad headed for the coastal town of Porvoo, while I made for the capital to catch up with Uta and the girls, and have a look around Helsinki. Uta’s friend Noora (who I’d also met in Sweden) is a local of Helsinki, and was an excellent tour guide, showing us around the city and providing interesting insights along the way. She also took us camping on the edge of an offensively beautiful lake not long from Helsinki, which Dad and I would definitely not have found, had we been left to our own devices.

After a few days hanging out with the girls, Dad made his way to Helsinki, and we took an overnight ferry out of Helsinki, bound for Stockholm. We elected to take the ferry, as riding north would have added a couple of thousand kilometres to the tally, and the time associated with this might throw catch-up plans with friends down the line into jeopardy. Stockholm was one of the places that I’d lived in Sweden, and it was great to be back. I spent time showing dad around, being frustrated that my favourite cafe had moved without informing me, catching up with friends, and managing to catch a concert of my favourite guitarist (tack Jennie och Carro!).

Breaking up the ride from Stockholm to Lund, Dad and I camped for a night on lake Vättern, and I went on alone to Lund (the other city/town/village I lived in) to meet up and stay with Andrea and Robin. I spent a day or so with these guys, going swimming, eating good food, and being treated to excellent hospitality. Dad arrived, and we all had a barbeque in the city park before being treated to a tour of Skåne’s (the province in which Lund resides) sights the following day by Robin. Robin put Sweden’s excellent public transport to the test by making use of an elaborate system of trains and buses to ensure he had a helmet for the day’s ride, and led us through some fantastic landscapes along Skåne’s coastline and through its farmlands to points of interest. Our time in Lund was fantastic, and it was great being treated to the generous hospitality offered by Andrea and Robin.

All too soon, it was time to leave Sweden in order to keep up with arrangements made further on in our route. We headed out over the Öresund Bridge (linking Sweden to Denmark), with my resolve only growing stronger to go back to Sweden to live (at least for a time).

By the lake in Finland

By the lake in Finland

IMG_0059 IMG_0070 IMG_0094 DCIM100GOPRO

By the lake in Sweden

By the lake in Sweden

IMG_0015 IMG_0021

Barbequing in the park. (The potatoes aren't burnt, it's just an illusion...)

Barbequing in the park. (The potatoes aren’t burnt, it’s just an illusion…)

In Malmö with a real life Swede

In Malmö with a real life Swede

Skånehenge (Ok, so they're actually called Ale's Stones, but the former is better)

Skånehenge (Ok, so they’re actually called Ale’s Stones, but the former is better)

IMG_0032photo-5

Russia

Ok, ok, I’m sorry it’s been so long. The last few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind of catching up with friends through Europe, which has meant that the blog has gone onto the backburner a bit. Rest assured though, I’ve run out of friends now, so updates should be a bit more frequent from now on.

Perhaps I’m late to the party here, but riding into Russia was a huge thrill for me, because of the way I held the place in my mind. Despite the dissolution of the USSR happening well over 20 years ago (prior to me even having any memory of the Russia), the combination of media portrayal, hearing snippets of history, and lack of any recent reports of the place from friends left me with a conglomeration of inaccurate ideas and mental pictures ready to be obliterated by spending some (precious little) time there. The Russian embassy in Astana had been kind enough to allow us 9 days in Russia (more than we were technically entitle to), provided that we traveled in a more or less straight line between our entry and exit points. Fine by us.
Within about an hour of entering, it became very clear that Russia has moved on. It was as if we’d crossed the border and entered the EU, rather than simply entering Russia. Where (more rural) Kazakhstan is still resting in some respect on the laurels of Soviet Era Russia (evident in cars, architecture etc.), Russia has changed rapidly from what I imagine it would have been in its scary days. Modern European cars are the rule on the roads, and the standard of  living is noticeably higher. We made for the city of Samara to sate ourselves, and were treated to a modern city embracing its heritage buildings and flaunting its stylish people. It was immediately apparent that the fashion and way of living were much more heavily influenced by Europe than anywhere we’d been so far.

We thought it pertinent for a little celebration, having entered Russia:


We holed up in our tents a few hours out of Samara, and continued on our way towards Moscow, still grappling with the idea that we were actually riding our motorbikes to Moscow. We were doing days of pretty big distances to both allow us a bit of a margin for error, and to afford us a bit more time in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Most of the landscape was dominated by broad-acre farming, which were were interested to learn is predominantly owned by the Chinese.

By this stage, the tires that we’d fitted in Australia were well and truly lunched, and we were starting to get a little nervous about making it to Moscow without incident, and were praying for kind weather. Clearly there is no god, and we were treated to an evening and following morning of horrific rain to put our minds at ease while riding along the shiny wet bitumen on our ailing rubber. This situation was compounded by a relatively common theme in Russia: its horrendous level of road accidents. Russian drivers (although particularly courteous to motorcyclists) seem to have complete and utter disregard for their own and others’ safety whilst driving. This is constantly illustrated in a scenario usually resembling this:

-Long traffic jam (1-10km in length), moving at crawling speed

-Finally reach the cause of jam (usually a horrid head-on collision) and resume road speed

-Be assaulted by cars overtaking you at lightspeed, with very little room given to you, or the oncoming traffic

It seems that drivers don’t draw the connection between the hideous accident they’ve just witnessed, and the obvious cause of it (going too fast on roads that can’t cope). It was easy to feel that Russia’s roads were the most dangerous we’d been on (India’s traffic traffic moves at half the speed) so far, and required our full attention.

We arrived in Moscow having avoided incident, and did touristy things. Cool people, tourists and old buildings abounded. We also re-shod our bikes.

Mindful of our visa constraints, we made for St. Petersburg in one day, and did more touristy things there too. We met some lovely people in a hostel we stayed in, and rode Shank’s Pony around a fair bit to get the lay of the land.

After a fair bit of city-dwelling, it was time to make for the border, and do something that we’d been anticipating for quite a while: enter the EU.

Showing mild signs of wear.

Showing mild signs of wear.

Run-of-the-mill in St. Pete

Run-of-the-mill in St. Pete

IMG_0036 IMG_0033 IMG_0013 IMG_0002-2 IMG_0001 IMG_0026 IMG_0018 IMG_0014 IMG_0012 IMG_0003 IMG_0002 IMG_0031

 

Kazakhstan

Keen to dispel the tone set by a certain movie franchise, we entered Kazakhstan after a mediumly lengthy (but trouble-free) border crossing, and left the starting blocks in a race against the storm that was bearing down upon us. Bound for Almaty, we were immediately subjected to Kazakhstan’s ability to provide us with examples of its sheer size. Where Kyrgyzstan is home to sweeping plains framed by mountainous barriers, Kazakhstan’s plains are generally framed by nothing other than the naked, uninterrupted horizon. From time to time, an outcrop of hills would appear, and as if just to give you something to do, Kazakh road builders send you through them, giving you the opportunity do something other than wear out the centre of your tires.

IMG_0045

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 3.48.48 PM Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 3.50.07 PM

One of our motives for heading to Almaty was to go and attempt to apply for a Russian transit visa. During our planning and organisation phase in Australia, something had to give in terms of our pre-application for visas, and Russia was it. We had decided to apply for it on the road, with Kazakhstan being the place we decided to apply in. With (what we thought was the correct) paperwork in order, we marched ourselves to the Russian consul to be turned away by a brick wall in the form of a woman. Not understanding our application, we were told to return in a week’s time to apply for a different type of visa. Frustrated, we returned to the hostel and attempted to pull some strings. A few false leads and jerks of progress still left us well and truly in square one, with Russian visas looking unlikely. Being relatively deterred at this stage, we kept researching, and found that it was generally believed that the Russian embassy in Astana (Kazakhstan’s capital) was more likely to give us the time of day. We resolved to really get all our paperwork in order, and hit up the embassy in Astana.

Our time in Astana was spent mincing about while we waited for the help from certain avenues, giving us time to pound the pavement, and get an idea of the lay of the land. The place is clearly an area of prosper, being supported by Kazakhstan’s burgeoning wealth (generated from its large natural resource reserves). The place is filthy with top spec European autobahn stormers and palatial mansions nestled in the hills overlooking the modern, edgy CBD. The city also abounds in trees and parks, and while it lacks the final level of polish that might be found in some European cities, it’s definitely not a city to be sniffed at, and is one that I could see myself spending some time in.

Leaving Almaty, we had a few days up our sleeve to get to Astana for our date with the embassy, so we took the scenic route to the nation’s capital. Heading north-east, we spent a few days heading up to Astana, camping our way north. Some challenging conditions were experienced on our final day heading to the city, where our route took us over about 500 k’s on dirt. This was fine, but our tiring tires were put to the test when the way got muddy. We rode through some seriously impressive lightening storms, underlining the fact that our riding gear is rather permeable to water, and that our tires were asking to be swapped for some shorter in the tooth and longer in the tread (emphasized by some impressive fish-tails in the mud). It was during this stint that we discovered some of the left-overs from a certain Soviet state, with signs of old airfields, military installations, and hangars beside the road. It was clear that these were serious installations, with the Russians going to the effort to keep hangars partially buried, with grass on the roofs, presumably to obscure their visibility from the air.

IMG_0001 IMG_0001-2

One night was spent camping amongst these little fellas.

One night was spent camping amongst these little fellas.

Double oops.

Double oops.

Arriving in Astana, I was convinced that our $3 GPS app had mislead us and we’d taken a wrong turn, somehow finding our way to Dubai instead. Astana is a hugely modern city, absolutely teeming with statement buildings, pushing the architectural envelope and beating its chest, demanding to be taken seriously on the world stage. I’m standing in Astana’s corner here, and can see it growing to the scale of any of the world’s great cities. In the 10 or 15 years since it was named Kazakhstan’s capital (the youngest capital in the world), the place has exploded in terms of population growth, with president Nursultan Nazarbayev pouring huge amounts of money into the city’s infrastructure and city-scaping. It’s genuinely a sight to behold.

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 3.51.53 PM IMG_0011-2 IMG_0007 IMG_0037-Edit

Arriving at Russia’s embassy the next morning, we were greeted with a sight that would become a source of frustration for us over the coming days: a massive brick wall, punctuated with an impenetrable iron door, and a throng of frustrated people awaiting entry outside. With absolutely no system for gaining entry, when the door is buzzed open from inside, the throng just pushes as hard as possible in the hope of gaining entry. Our first stint in front of the door was unsuccessful, with us being sent away after an hour or so of standing in the sun. We were told to return in 2 days, when we arrived half an hour earlier than opening time. We were rewarded with a 4-and-a-half hour wait this time, but were finally admitted to plead our case 20 minutes before closing time. The gentleman behind the counter was (as described) quite helpful, and after a nervous few moments spent watching him go over our forms, we were told to come back in 4 days to pick up our Russian transit visas. We were cautiously relieved and optimistic.

Furnished with a few spare days, we headed north from Astana to Kazakhstan’s Holiday district to camp on lake Seletyteniz. Upon finding a nice, secluded place to set up, a group of Kazakhs and Russians came and set-up between our tents and made themselves at home. This turned out to be a real blessing, as they were the most accommodating, welcoming group of people you could hope to meet. We were more-or-less wrestled into their tent, in order to consume their food and drink (there was more vodka than water, and that’s not even including the cognac or beer). The fact that there wasn’t much English spoken by many of them didn’t get in the way, and we spent an entertaining night in their company, before being chauffeured and guided around the local hills and national park the following day. Unfortunately, the weather closed in, and our newfound friends elected to pack it in, but not before bestowing a bottle of spirits upon each of us.

IMG_0056

Lakeside

Lakeside

IMG_0038 IMG_0014 IMG_0046

We headed back to Astana after a restful couple of days off the bikes, where our Russian visas were (thankfully) waiting for us. Armed with these, we struck out West on our 2,000km journey towards the border city of Uralsk. During this journey, we were again reminded of the immense size of the country we were riding through. Hours were consumed, riding from one horizon to the next with barely a change in scenery, save the odd gentle rise or fall in ground level.

IMG_0004-2 IMG_0009-Edit

We did this journey over the space of a couple of days (obviously), and it was all going swimmingly until it wasn’t anymore. Not far outside Rudnyy, I was involved in some car-to-bike contact, when without looking, a car pulled out from a line of traffic we were overtaking. I managed to stay on the bike, and got away un-scathed. This couldn’t quite be said for my bike, however, with the windscreen being broken, one of my foglights snapped off, and my crashbars (doing their job) ending up rather out-of-shape. It turned out that the perpetrator of the incident was actually the (off-duty) chief of police from another city in Kazakhstan, who spoke not a single word of English. Just when we thought that we were going to be royally screwed-over, he realised his wrongdoing, and offered to pay for the damage, and repair what could be repaired. We headed back to Rudnyy in convey, where we were met with a girl who spoke English, and translated for us. We left the bikes in the hands of a panel beater, and were delivered to a (fully paid for) hotel, before also being whisked away for dinner. Dollett (Not sure of spelling) actually turned out to be a genuinely nice guy, and we had an entertaining evening with him and some of his mates from the local police force. It was a rather convincing disguise cloaking this blessing, but we left around midday the following day, with a more-or-less repaired bike, and some money to buy a new screen.

Dad was the next victim of coming un-stuck from his bike that day, when his exhausted tires were introduced to some clay-based mud (a product of roadworks), and both front and back end gave way at once. A pannier was ripped off, but we managed to re-fit it, and arrived in Uralsk later that day, somewhat dirtier than in the morning.

Insert pannier here.

Insert pannier here.

IMG_0023

The date on our Russian visas stipulated that our nine allowed days in the country would begin the following day, so we made for the border after a night in Uralsk hoping that the visas in our passports weren’t just a sick joke, and we wouldn’t be turned away by laughing border guards…

photo

Waiting at the Russian border.

Kazakhstan is a place of immense size, modern cities, accommodating people, and a sense of isolation in much of its landscapes. We were ready to move on by the time we made for Russia, but had a fantastic time and met some absolute characters during our time there. Kazakhstan’s people just served to underline a theme of the trip, that regardless of race or religion, people are good.

 

A quick note

Just a quick note to say thanks a lot for all the interest and comments on the China post. We love getting responses, hearing what you think, and getting news from back at home, so keep them coming!

Since China, we’ve been in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and the Kazakhs have blocked access to wordpress (hence my lack of updates). Russia has less restriction in this respect (go figure), so I’m able to update again.

We arrived in Moscow today, after receiving short transit visas for Russia (more on this in another post), and are going well.

Cheers!

Kyrygzstan

Kyrgyzstan was a country that I’d been looking forward to arriving at for a while. It did not disappoint. We hear very little of Kyrgyzstan at home, which has lead to my ignorance of pretty much every aspect of the country. I had no idea what to expect, which is something that I enjoy when going to place that I haven’t been before. So it was with a blank canvas that we descended the muddy upper reaches of the Torugart Pass towards the Kyrgz side of the border.

Upon arriving, we were greeted with a sweeping vista of an open valley, framed by snowy peaks, brown grass, and the expansive lake Chatyr-Kul- on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. The gates were shut, and there wasn’t really a soul in sight to welcome us with open arms. We were all in high spirits (we were still travelling in our group from China) except me, who was fantasising about a magnificent porcelain facility, with ample supply of soft white paper and- you get the idea.

With nobody coming to meet us after around 15 minutes, despite our gentle shouts and horn beeps, Arran decided to take matters into his own hands by climbing through a gap in the fence. It might not have been what the security staff were after, but it got us action. Almost immediately, a guard was present to chastise us for breaching their secure fence, and demand that we repair the damage that has been present before our arrival.

We were waved into a big shed and led to passport control, which took all of 20 seconds each, and I (having turned green by this stage) was pointed to the outhouse. It was both the worst and best toilet I’d ever used, and I was fighting fit again having utilised its rudimentary appointments (a slot in a concrete floor, no paper).

Upon leaving the border compound, we embarked on our trip along the continuation of the Torugart Pass, and were in for a bit of a rough ride for the next couple of hours. The road sees enough traffic to make it pockmarked and riddled with with potholes, but not enough to earn it the maintenance it deserves. With this in mind, we kept one eye on picking our lines, and the other surveying our magnificent surroundings.

IMG_0037

IMG_0036

There was a real sense of isolation out there, with the temperature helping to underline this feeling. It was down to around 6 degrees, and while this wasn’t deathly cold, the howling wind helped to brisken things.

Arran coming to make sure we hadn't come to grief.

Arran coming to make sure we hadn’t come to grief.

Our progress along the ‘rustic’ road was marked by changes in landscapes, with yurts appearing on the plains, the odd farmer making their way upon a donkey, and the larger mountains slowly making way for smaller ones. Fertile pastures abound in Kyrgyzstan, and with them, herds of horses, goats, donkeys and sheep roam the landscape, flourishing in the presence of summer feed.

Eventually, after a few stops for Ben’s bike to have a ‘rest’, we made it into the not-so-sprawling metropolis of Naryn, the capital of its province. Here, we found a homely night’s accommodation with a deliciously hot shower after a chilly ride. Though bestowed with only a few words of English, the staff here were very helpful, and a pleasant night was had.

Bright and early the next morning, the weather looked like it might be cold for our way to Bishkek. We donned the cold weather gear and made our way out of town. The local hills had received a dusting of snow overnight, and as our way began to climb, it became clear that the snow hadn’t just been confined to the night. Cold weather gear turned out to be a fluke in good judgement as the snow went from being a novelty to relatively heavy. Unbeknownst to us, our route took us over the Dolon Pass, which was in the grips of a once-in-ten-year summer snow shower. The mercury dropped to around 3 degrees below 0, which again, isn’t that cold, but being on the bike in that temperature has the potential to become pretty uncomfortable. Luckily our gear was better in the cold than it was in the wet, and we remained relatively comfortable, and dry.

Chilly

Chilly

Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 4.39.25 PM

Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 4.39.53 PM

As we descended from the range, the temperature climbed, and the bikes shed their layers of ice. Ben’s bike added a rest stop for us, and it was while we were pulling his bike apart that we met a trio of overland cyclists from Belgium and Germany. Raf is the real deal, riding all the way from Brussels to Mongolia! His  googley translateable blog can be found HERE.
Kyrgyzstan seems to be home to a real concentration of overland cyclists and motorcyclists, we saw at least one group pretty much every day we were there. We reckon this phenomenon is down to the fact that it’s so easily accessible (no visa needed), and that it’s the geographic funnel for traffic heading both to and from Europe.
We made it to Bishkek after an otherwise uneventful trip and spent our final night with the rest of the group, parting ways the following day.
Our time in Bishkek was spent applying for our Kazakhstan visas (obtained with no problem), making use of a proper internet connection to update the blog, and haunting a local coffee shop. Bishkek was our first real taste of modernity for a while, where we found a definite western flavour added to the mix. It felt altogether more refined than Kashgar, with some scenes possibly mistakable for areas in Melbourne.

We had an opportune few days to spend out of the city while we waited for the Kazakh consul to make his mark in our passports, so we headed for the hills to camp. After finding a likely spot in a pretty secluded valley, we asked a local group of locals if they would mind awfully if we camped nearby. They didn’t, and we chatted (gestured) over a cup of fermented mare’s milk (smokey,  sour and gritty). It was nice to get the tents up and remove any little doubts that they might have been damaged by the rigours of being strapped down onto the bikes in our packs for the last couple of months.

IMG_0006 IMG_0008 IMG_0012

These guys graciously provided us with some shish kebabs after setting up for a picnic nearby.

These guys graciously provided us with some shish kebabs after setting up for a picnic nearby.

Heading across town the next day for a change of scenery, we ran into one of Kyrgyzstan’s reputed features: its corrupt boys in blue. We were merrily sailing along an inbound city road, when we were overtaken by the Kyrgz rozzers and flagged down. It seemed that the road we’d chosen to accommodate was off-limits to scooter riders. Dad was whisked off in the back of the police cruiser to be shown the sign that we had failed to glimpse, while I was questioned on whether I preferred to drink beer or vodka, and implored to try a particular brand of Kyrgz vodka. All allusions were made to us providing the fellas with a bribe, but we were reluctant to cough up. We countered with the request for a receipt to be produced, so we could verify it with the embassy before paying (we were talking more crap than the cops) the fine. Eventually, they got bored when they realised they weren’t going to get anything out of us, and took off yelling “Australia – Kyrgyzstan peacepeace!”.

We spent our second night out of the city south of Bishkek, by another river, but with mare’s milk in shorter supply, we were forced to make do with water.

IMG_0021

Having finished our jobs in Bishkek, we struck out in an easterly direction, bound for the tenth largest lake in the world by volume, and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian sea. Still haven’t guessed? Ok, it’s Lake Issyk Kul. We spent our final two nights on the lake’s shores in our tents, reading books and wishing we’d brought some form of device for sitting upon.

Shortly before testing our tents' waterproof-ness

Shortly before testing our tents’ waterproof-ness

Lunch on our penultimate day in Kyrgyzstan was a pleasant experience. Stopping in a small village on our way around the lake, we were approached by a friendly Kyrgz bloke by the name of Sam. He lives in Bishkek, but escapes the heat over summer by living by the lake. He invited us back to his place for lunch and a hangout with his wife and daughter. He was extremely accommodating, and insisted upon us staying the night there. Unfortunately we had to move on, as we needed to enter Kazakhstan the following day.

Sam's wife and daughter. In my uselessness, I didn't get a snap of Sam.

Sam’s wife and daughter. In my uselessness, I didn’t get a snap of Sam.

Again with the baby-napping.

Again with the baby-napping.

Parked-up at Sam's.

Parked-up at Sam’s.

Our time in Kyrgyzstan (yes, I’m sick of typing that name) was most enjoyable, and enlightening. It’s an easy place to be, and smothered in natural beauty, with a hugely friendly population. I can definitely see it growing in the future to one of the ‘intrepid traveller well-trodden-backpacker-path’ destinations for all the right reasons. Just make sure you can bullshit the bullshitting cops and you’ll be fine.

 

China

Months before our departure on this trip, one particular country stood up, cleared its throat, puts its shoulders back, looked us straight in the eye and declared that it was not to be taken lightly. The People’s Republic of China wants to be taken seriously, and will demonstrate this in almost every way it can conceive of doing so. Bureaucracy is rife here, and manifests itself in many ways, with several of these impacting on us (and others doing undertaking the same sort of travel as us) and our passage through it.

Travel to China is becoming easier as time passes, but one scenario which still faces heavy restriction surrounds the importation of private motor vehicles. Given that this is what we needed to do in order to cross the country, we were subject to China’s wrath. What it boils down to is a lot of boring regulation, and requirements that mean that crossing China would be impossible without the employment of a guide (which, conveniently, is also a legal requirement…). The travel company supplying the guide also deals with all the red tape (We’re both now licensed to drive in China, have legally imported and exported our Chinese registered bikes, and have obtained permits to ride our bikes in a built up city). As you might imagine, all this red tape untangling doesn’t come cheap. No, it’s more expensive than you’re thinking, especially once you pay for the guide, his car (apparently they won’t get on the back of your bike..), his driver, hotel and food. Given this, a growing trend is to form a group with other travellers, and split the costs of using one guide.

Even with this in place, costs are still high, so we opted for a 5 day transit of China, with costs split between 5 members of the group. Despite implementing these measures, the cost was still well over $1000 each for the 5 day transit. Given all the coordination required to enter China, forward planning is essential, and we had set our entry date for China about 6 months earlier. This was the reason that we had been rushing through the earlier phases of the trip, for this date (the 13th of June). When this date finally arrived, there was a collective sigh of relief from Dad and I, as we could now relax. We’d made the deadline, so we could enter China, and the pressure was now off for the later stages of the trip.

Entering China at via the Khunjerab Pass, we rolled up to the blockade and waited for about 20 minutes to be attended to. Everything was done to the Chinese guards’ pace, and we were truly at their mercy. All of our bags were searched, including the contents of our travel medications and computers. I’m not entirely sure what they were searching for, probably just a suspicious reaction from us. Once satisfied that our possessions didn’t propose a national security threat, the guards snatched our passports, and waved us on. A van containing some officials and a soldier ferried our passports and escorted us to Chinese immigration, about 100k’s from the border.

Upon entering China we were presented with Yaks.

Upon entering China we were presented with Yaks.

Screen Shot 2013-06-22 at 12.54.46 PM

The ride to immigration saw the landscape change slightly, but maintain its splendour. The mountains lost their sheerness, adopting a more hospitable grassy complexion, as opposed to Pakistan’s rockier landscape. We found ourselves riding through flatter country, with the peaks off to our left and right.

Upon reaching Tashkurgan, where immigration was located, we met our guide, and he did his best to help us through more red tape and slow progress. Once cleared, we were allowed to put all our bags back on our bikes, and ride them to vehicle customs, where they were promptly impounded for the night. Given the delays we’d faced leaving Pakistan, and time spent at border crossings that day, we’d arrived too late at customs, and would have our bikes checked the following morning. We were ferried to a comfortable hotel and slept well that night.

The next morning, after a breakfast of cold been sprouts, steamed buns and roasted salty peanuts, we made our way to customs to wait outside the gate until they felt like opening it (again, all on their terms). Our bikes were eyeballed, with engine numbers checked, and cleared to leave. We loaded up, and headed to a petrol station to fill up for the ride to Kashgar. It was here that we found a curious situation which arises in some Chinese petrol stations. Obviously motorbikes are far too dangerous to fill up directly from the bowser, so it’s imperative that you park your bike over in the motorbike parking, grab that dirty old kettle with a tube added to the spout, and purchase fuel by the kettle load to then ferry back to your bike, and tip into the tank. Too bad if your bikes have a 34 litre fuel capacity…

Polly

Polly

With the bikes filled, we made the trip to Kashgar, where we would be staying for 3 nights. With Ben’s bike becoming increasingly recalcitrant along the way, it turned out that the fuel we had bought was also of poor quality. We were surprised. How could the kettle bowser deliver anything less than perfect fuel?

Kashgar bound.

Kashgar bound.

Kashgar itself, we found to be pretty disappointing. The city has been the epicentre of the Silk Trading Route for centuries, but we found a city that was halfway between a modern western and Chinese city, struggling for identity. The Chinese government has been working on diluting the traditional Uigar people in the area, by bulldozing traditional dwellings, and replacing them with housing for the masses and what is left is a place that really doesn’t know what it is. Our trips to the animal market and famed bazaar were also pretty disappointing, with the animal market being no larger than anything you might find in country victoria, and the bazaar being filled with cheap crap, not unlike the Queen Vic Markets in Melbourne.

For a lot of the trip so far, my SLR has remained deep within one of the panniers on my bike, but I made a concerted effort to dig it out for the animal market, which looked looked like this:

Having just brokered a deal.

Having just brokered a deal.

Some inky pinky ponkeys:

IMG_0012 IMG_0013

The family ute.

The family ute.

IMG_0025 IMG_0028 IMG_0029 IMG_0030

We spent the days in Kashgar doing a few jobs and buying a few things we needed, and were well and truly ready to leave by the time we rolled out 3 days later. The ride up to the Torugart Pass to enter Kyrgyzstan was pretty easy, and after some more red tape, we were escorted to the border, farewelled by our guide and ushered through a padlocked gate into no-man’s land. With the gate locked behind us, and the escort having driven away, there was nothing left to do but to descend into Kyrgyzstan.

The gate to Kyrgyzstan

The gate to Kyrgyzstan

 

If all that wasn’t enough, here’s a video summary: