May 30 – Tunnel of Death

Shortly after I wake, make some tea, and get started updating my posts, I’m visited by one of the locals on his way to – somewhere. We swap a couple photos along with a couple of words neither of us understand and he continues on his way singing a little jingle as he walks down the valley. Fifteen minutes goes by and another fellow on a donkey stops by with with 75 head of cattle headed up into the grasslands to feed. He doesn’t have much to say, so I ask the name of his donkey and he quickly moves on; I guess they don’t name their donkeys. Crazy American.

Another few minutes go by and three small boys come into camp with their dog (who has a name, or his name was Dog) and start sniffing around all of the gear, picking things up, asking questions that I didn’t have the answers to (or could understand)– generally acting as small boys. We entertain each other for quite some time as I work on getting my gear packed up and loaded. What a great interaction; they had the helmet on and were dancing to music, crawling all over the bike, drinking tea (which I made to try and keep them busy) – generally having a blast. After several goodbye’s I was headed out to the Anzob Tunnel, more commonly knows as “The Tunnel of death”.

Here’s a post from dangerousroads.org:

With a length of 5km, the tunnel floor is a maze of deep, seriously deep, potholes hidden under a constant stream of water, the tunnel is strewn with abandoned construction machines and filled with the noxious black smoke of clapped out lorries. The poisonous air in the tunnel is barely shifted by one solitary fan somewhere in the middle of the tunnel, which gives some, but not sufficient movement to the air. There are no traffic lights to regulate traffic through this section, nor is there an ordered tidal flow of traffic being allowed to enter the tunnel, instead anarchy prevails in the darkness.

Just before entering the tunnel, I was sitting on my bike, taking a few photos and generally gawking around. I was doing so much gawking, I dropped my bike. Two construction workers had to come over and help pick it up – I’m sure they got quite a laugh out of it. This did nothing for my nerves heading into the tunnel; should I plow into an underwater pothole (which I did) and dump the bike inside the tunnel (thankfully I didn’t), well…it would be ugly for the both of us.

I made it thorough with relatively no problems and I can say with certainty, the post from dangerous roads is spot on. What a crazy experience with the traffic on both sides of the road, the running water making it impossible to see what’s below, the broken down construction equipment, rebar sticking up out of the ground, and general chaos inside the tunnel. Some cars are going incredibly slow, trucks going too fast, double lanes blocked, all the while, its impossible to see very far in front of you with the black haze clogging all light. Driving a car through the tunnel would be one thing, but breathing the fumes for 5km on a motorcycle gave me a headache that lasted be better part of the day – thankfully I don’t have to go back through it.

The drive down to Dushanbe again blew my mind – what a spectacular place. In every direction there are towering mountains looming in the distance with rivers barreling down the canyons generating some of the most wicked whitewater I’ve ever seen. I was in complete awe throughout the drive.

The bike needed a little maintenance, so I decided to overnight in Dushanbe to carry out the repairs and buy some food for the upcoming week. I damaged the kickstand sometime earlier in the trip and have been limping it along until today when it finally broke. A motorcycle without a kickstand is no motorcycle at all, its just a two wheeled machine laying on its side. The repair was a must. I started asking around town and ended up at a machinery yard that had a guy who could weld. His welder was from the 50’s(seriously) and to turn it on, he had to direct connect the bare wires into a live service line (again, seriously). Being a decent hand on the welder, I helped in the process, which I sure made him nervous, but nevertheless we got the job done –for the most part. I’ll need to head back in the morning to make a slight modification, but I think/hope the repair will last the remainder of the trip.

I also had to pull the rear tire again and put the original back on. I chewed up the new rubber in two days and there was no way it was going to make it through the Pamir. Between the missing chunks of tire and a couple of gashes, which I’m sure were from rebar in the tunnel – it was time for it to go. I found a little tire shop, which generally in this part of the world is a small garage in an ally with some rudimentary equipment, where i pulled in and again dumped the bike. Not sure whats with me today – maybe the looming weakness from the virus. I planned on doing all of the work myself again, but the kid in the shop lended a hand and helped accomplish the swap in record time. What a welcomed hand after a long day.

Tomorrow I head out on the M41 Highway / Pamir Highway, working my way down to the Afghanistan border. I’ve hear mixed reports on the passability of the road, the English couple said no go, but a couple of peddle bikers made it through yesterday, but apparently didn’t have fun doing it.  I’ve never heard the road described as fun…maybe they were expecting something different. I’ll check it out tomorrow and see how it looks.

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May 29 – Bare all

The stomach virus continues this morning with a shart, 2 roadside drop my drawers emergencies and navigation to a border crossing that doesn’t allow foreigners through (then you have to ask the question, “What’s the point”), has me on a little detour as I get back on track to the toward the border crossing in Chanok.

I get pulled over for the first time (shocking) today at a roadside checkpoint by Rostov, who spent the next 20 minutes working on his English (he doesn’t speak any) by looking up words and phrases in his translation dictionary. I can appreciate his kindness and desire to communicate, but I was really feeling pretty pour and my mind was fixated on finding the next place to squat. Keeping in mind this is a roadside checkpoint, he has no concern over the countless number of cars driving through, but every intention on finding out what I do for work, my family, age, etc. Fidgeting from my growling stomach and sweat pouring down my face from the fever I’m carrying, I can’t believe I didn’t look like a smuggler (think of Midnight Express, only I was sick).  Regardless of the tale tell signs of what to look for with presumed smugglers that I would assume they teach you in military checkpoint control school, Rostov releases me without a fine, bribe, or gift and I’m on my way again.

All goes well at the crossing, I continue to have good luck with the border officials in both countries and I’m through within an hour or so. I’m SO excited to get into Tajikistan for some great secondary and off road riding.

I find a nice campsite outside Waxpnctoh (try saying that fast 3 times) and meet a traveling couple doing a round the world RTW in their big 4×4 camper. The couple is from England and I would guess in their 70’s.   We swap stories from the road for about an hour while I prepare and eat my dinner. Their headed in the opposite direction and onto Mongolia – I give them some info on the Mongolian roads and routes and they share likewise on the upcoming Pamir Highway.

On the way to camp

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May 27 – Bukhara

Exiting Turkmenistan was almost just as time consuming as entering the locked down country. What an odd place, I get the feeling that just about everywhere is bugged with the Big Brother listening to all (much worse than US).  Seriously, it’s a country with almost no crime rate, overly clean cities and highways and everyone walking around with an almost forced smile. Along the entire stretch of highway from Turkmenbashi to Farop, people (mostly woman and it makes me wonder if they are forced) are out cleaning the highway; from power washing the guardrails, to pulling weeds and trimming grass on the centerline and in the ditches, two sweeping all signs of gravel off the road, the roadways are immaculate.   All in all, it’s a very creepy country and you make sure not to disrespect the government here by speaking out against them or breaking one of the laws – including traffic violations.  I think this is where the North Korea factor comes into play.

I was quite happy to finally walk out of the customs building and into the world of Uzbekistan, where I could again move freely around the country and see what it has to offer. UZ has all of the problems of any normal country; crime, poverty, disease, social issues, etc. The people seem to be very real and undoubtedly very nice. I’m again welcomed with every interaction. Although bordering a desert landscape country, western UZ is a small time agriculture country; not an exporter of ag, but all apparently for local use. There appears to be very little large machinery, with most fields full of people working the land by hand, all planting, cutting, bailing and transporting by hand. I pass anywhere from 30 – 50 donkey’s per day, pulling carts loaded down with grasses and most commonly being driven by small children. The bicycle is also a major part of each community for both work and transportation. Many people use the bicycle and cart for transporting their goods; from building materials to agriculture products.

Fuel is tough to find in UZ, I’m not sure why they have such a deficiency, but I’ll pass 20 – 30 fuel stations per day all closed down – it’s kinda Mad Max ish. Fuel is always my mind as I obsessively stare at my fuel gauge wondering if I’ll be able to find a station – of course I always do. The currency is in the tank in this very developing country, with the dollar being worth about $2,500 Som, so one literally has to carry a wad of cash around that is too large to fit in your pocket. Fueling the bike takes about 80,000 Som and it takes quite some time to count this out; the locals however are quite good at it, looking like professional bankers as they quickly flip through the pile of cash double checking my thumbs for fingers – I must look a bit a fool, laying each 500 Som bill down on the table, slowly working my way up to 80,000. It’s a funny process that makes me chuckle every time.

I’m staying in the old part of Bukhara, which is really great; from the 8’ wide streets to masonry and timber buildings, I get the feeling as I’ve stepped back in time. The name Bukhara just sounds cool; I’m sipping some tea in Bukhara today.  I spend the rest of the day wandering around looking like a typical tourist with a bag of money, sunglasses and sunburn.

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Swapping out the tires for the next leg of the journey.

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May 26 – Turkmenistan

Not much to say as I’ve been sitting on the bumper of a Lada all day long. BORRRING. Not photos, no interactions, just dodging potholes at slow speeds, watching cars pass at a speed I’d rather be traveling. Point A to point B, just making the miles to get through the country. With the exception of Tatooine (Ashgabat), not a lot to see from the highway and unfortunately, this is the only route I can take. Another day, another roach hotel – can’t wait to get out of Turkmenistan at this point.

I’ve been having a hard time finding an Internet connection fast enough to post. I may only get another couple more posts in before I go dark as I get into the north Afghanistan mountains later this week. It’s a long shot the Taliban will share their Internet connection with me – though it never hurts to ask.

Look at this sneaky Russian extorting another $135 from me.  They weren’t going to take me further than Ashgabat unless I paid the “additional fees”.  I’ll blast their company online when I get back.

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The locals call this kid “Billy”…I found him trying to hot-wire my bike one afternoon in front of the roach hotel.

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May 25 – On the Road Again

We set off and I pop in a little Willie Nelson on the headset to get the day started. As I understand, I am limited from taking photos of government buildings, people, cities, general buildings, and or various other historical artifacts (pretty much everything). I’ve read blogs online where the military has taken entire photo cards due to a couple of “restricted” photos. With this in mind, I decide not to risk it and will need to resort to some Internet stock photos.

The road is a long, straight shot through the desert with some areas of dunes, dried up grassland, and small towns or villages. About 5 miles outside of Turkmenbashi, the sky is much darker and the view very limited. It doesn’t take long and we’re in a full-blown sandstorm. The wind is howling, my bike feels like it’s at a 45 deg angle to the ground leaning into the wind – brutal. The road quickly starts drifting over with sand and it’s down to one lane in many areas. I have sand blowing up into my helmet making it hard to see anything; it reminds me of a Montana snow storm, only hot and the sand stings when it hits my face.

Wind can be punishing. It’s not at all like driving a car in the wind. On a bike with high wind conditions, one has to constantly and physically controlling the bike. Let down your guard for a moment and you could be thrown into the ditch, another vehicle, guardrail, etc. It’s the gusts of wind that toss me around; I’ll be leaning into it and a truck passes that adds another 40 mph to the existing and I get flung to one side or the other. Your neck and back muscles start to ache as you head is constantly being pushed over at an odd angle and your helmet is being pulled up, pulled to the side as well as pulled off. I think it can be one of the most challenging and physically draining conditions one can ride through. Today was absolutely punishing with the wind and the stinging sand on top of it.

We stop in a small village where the Sand People live, for a quick bite. I’m served a bowl of boiled sheep meet, bread, and a salad consisting of 1 quartered tomato, a few sticks of cucumber, and a scoop of fresh goats cheese on the top; simple meal, but tastes great. As much as I didn’t want to, I turn down a jug of fresh camel milk as I don’t think my stomach can handle it. I certainly don’t need an accident on the road.

I’ve ready horror stories of Turkmenistan, but so far it’s a typical goat and sheep herding country. As we approach Ashgabat, I’m reminded to pull over so we can wash the car and bike before entering the city. Apparently there are strict vehicle cleanliness laws for the city, and it shows. This place is mind blowing! Fueled by natural gas money, the city is spectacular.   There aren’t any high-rise structures like Dubai, or flashy showpieces as Baku or Vegas, but real solid looking buildings all done in a color-coordinated fashion of off white and gold. The buildings look substantial, well grounded and very well done. I am absolutely blown away at the amount of large white government, business and housing structures; each complimenting the next in a very out of this world look. With such limited access to foreigners, Ashgabat isn’t a name that I’ve ever heard rank with the most amazing cities in the word, but it’s certainly a feast for the eyes. I feel as if I’m in some futuristic government controlled town where everything looks the same – oh wait, I am.

After checking into my hotel, I head down one of the main streets looking for an ATM, food, and Internet. I spend the next couple of hours at the State Department Store, which has everything I need. State Dept. Stores as they’re commonly known in Asia are basically open department stores with a host of items; you can usually get about everything you need at these facilities. Other than this one being extremely nice, it reminds me of the State Building in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. It’s always a great stop for travelers.

I’m sure their here somewhere, but I don’t notice any foreigners and I certainly capture the eye of almost everyone. The people have been very friendly, but expectantly a little standoffish until approached. I’m back to an area of pretty solid Russian dialect, so communicating is again much easier than in the “Russian Slang” countries I’ve just passed through. I get caught up on my business at hand and head back to my roach hotel.

May 24 – Turkmenbashi

A few almonds for breakfast and an apple for lunch has left me a little hungry (and completely out of food), but around noon I hear the anchor being pulled up – we’re headed to port! I’ve only been on the ship for a couple days now, but I feel like Columbus discovering land – I can wait to get off this floating steel coffin and back on my bike.

After another for or five hours of steaming into port, we dock in Turkmenbashi. I wait in the galley for the next 2 hours with my chain-smoking friends, who are still arguing over the best route through Central Asia. We drink tea; they argue; I slowly wither away from all of the second hand smoke.

Off the ship on into the customs/immigration building where I wait for another hour or so. My appointed “guide” arrives and starts working on the documentation; one room for passport control, one room for motorcycle passport, another 4 rooms for what I’m not sure. It appears the tenant of each room is higher up on the food chain as they go through the same info each person before looked at and either stamp it, or send us to another room in disapproval. We go back get a different stamp, back to the previous room and then onto the next. Given the customs and or immigration workers cant read English, I’m fairly certain it doesn’t matter what document I hand them or what info I give as long as I tell them something. Starting in Turkey when customs asked for my motorcycle “technical passport”, which I’ve come to learn may be the title; I’ve handed them the registration. Nobody seems to care, so I continue with each country handing over the registration. Some countries list the VIN # as the license plate, others simply put random words, like “white”, listed on the registration. I’m not sure it matters as long as I give the same info at the entry and exit borders. It could say Mickey Mouse for all they know – as long as it’s the same on entry and exit everyone is happy.

I get through customs and meet my real guide; apparently the other guy just gets me into the country, which is good because he was lacking in personality. My “new” guide has a bit of a Ukrainian boxer look as well as a bit more personality, I’ll hope for the best.

The hotel is typical eastern block era, which appears to be abandoned with the exception of the staff. This is very typical of these type facilities in this part of the world – they have a few glory years but are quickly replaced by newer fancier models as they undoubtedly fall apart from the extremely poor construction.

Land Ho!  Lets concur the natives and take their land!

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May 23 – Engine #1 down

After an amazing night sleep – surprisingly the best of the trip so far, I wake up early and just in time to get out on the deck and watch the sunrise. It’s not everyday one gets to see the sunrise from the middle of the Caspian. I spend a couple of hours taking it all in and decide to head back to my cabin to catch up on the gripping tale of Muhammad (peace be upon him). After a good solid 3 minutes of reading this riveting story, I’m falling back asleep on my 80’s like natural waterbed. I wake up sometime around 8:00 as I subconsciously notice that we’ve stopped moving. I look out back and see that one of the stacks isn’t blowing black smoke anymore. Shortly thereafter I feel the low rumble of the second engine go out. We’re adrift. It doesn’t take long for the captain’s bell to start ringing and several Russians to start yelling – something.

I lay there taking mental note of what the situation may look like and pondering how long it takes to get a rescue ship out to the middle of the sea and start towing our heap of iron back to shore. I check my GPS to see if we were more than halfway, hoping at the very least we’d be towed to Turkmenistan so I can continue my journey. After an hour or so of lying there clearly adrift, I hear one of the steam engines fire up and then the second. I’m not sure what was going on down there; maybe an oil change, maybe the engineer fell asleep – doesn’t matter, we’re steaming again and I check my GPS to make sure we’re still headed to Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan has been described as the North Korea of Central Asia – a very comforting piece of literature I read somewhere.   So the Turkmen’s wont let Americans, or any foreigners, as I understand into their country without a government-approved escort.   So…I am supposed to be met at the Turkmenbashi docks by someone who will meet me on the “other side” of customs and whom I’ll follow through the country for the next few days. Only within the city walls of Ashgabat will I be left to wander around on my own – should be interesting.

Sometime around 8 pm, someone walks into my cabin and says “why no eat?” To no avail, I try to explain I’ve been living on Nutella and honey sandwiches for the last 2 days. He motions to follow him and we head down to the galley – didn’t know they had one, I guess they forgot to tell me when I boarded. The Russian cook burned me up some pasta noodles, 1 chicken leg (with a few feathers still on it) and topped with catsup. It doesn’t sound that appetizing, but it sure hit the spot. While eating, ten or so crewmembers huddled around me (all smoking) and started asking questions in some dialect of Russian. Of course I couldn’t understand them, so they got much closer and talking slower and louder as if it would help – it didn’t. They backed off at some point and we worked on some basic communication, like names and common words (countries) where I’d be going. It became clear as a minor argument broke out, that I was headed in the completely wrong direction if I wanted to end in Kazakhstan; stupid American. The logistics guy I met at Baku port, Mike, told me before I left port these guys don’t travel for fun and couldn’t understand what I was doing and that my motorcycle looked “stupid” with the spare tires, navigation equipment, bags, etc. This became clear when I pulled out the iPad to show them my route. Everyone got all fired up about how I was getting to Kazakhstan. There was a lot of loud talking and hard finger pointing on my iPad showing their “approved” route. Before someone broke my navigation, I decided to give up and showed them I would take their suggested route and approved with a smile, thank you, and thumbs up.

I guess we’re not going to port today.

Half the Russian cargo fleet on port side….

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The other half off starboard…

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and a couple that weren’t so lucky.  The ocean cancer got em

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May 22 – Arabian of The Sea

Hoping today is the day I get to leave this “propped up on oil money” town; I check out of the hotel in the morning and take a paid drive down the coast with Ishamel and his friend.  At some point in the drive, I come to the realization that the “professional” tour I was hiring on for, turns out to be a mini scam by Ishamel.  There is no tour, just him and his buddy driving me out to the mud volcanoes.  No harm done, just a little disappointed Ishamel turns out to be a petty street hustler.

I tell them I’m done with the tour and ask to take me to the shipyard where I’d rather wait for the cargo ship than risk missing my boat with these two rug salesmen.  I arrive, jump out and they speed off with a fresh $70 in their hands.  There is no follow though on “no problem, I’ll get you through the whole process”.  Anyway, I find the customs office and go through the motions of checking myself and bike out of the country.  I’m now officially in no mans land, which means I’ve received a stamp in my passport stating I am no longer in Azerbaijan.  I am now stuck at the shipyard with no way to get back into AZ (single entry visa) should something go wrong.

I go find my ship, which is named Bestekar Gara Garavev, which I’d like to think means “The Arabian of the Sea”…  She may not look like much, but I understand her to be the quickest on the Caspian.  She’s a 35 year old Russian cargo ferry still in operation and having certainly seen her prime quite some time ago.  I set up my camp chair, make a Nutella and honey sandwich and proceed to watch the cargo being loaded.  During a mid day siesta, I was awoken by a fast talking gentlemen who spoke fluent English.  Mike is a logistics contractor from Texas, who has dual citizenship in Turkey, lives in Azerbaijan, and spends his spare time racing around these developing countries in his Audi R8.  Mike appears to control the majority of the importing/exporting as for the military in Afghanistan.  He has 35 trucks on this ship with the majority being frozen beef headed for the military base in Kabul.  We discuss in length his business, look over photos of the equipment he moves, people he deals with, etc.  I learned a lot about the cargo business in the 9 hours we spent together watching the cargo loading process.  I picked up some pointers to help get my bike out of Kazakhstan and to avoid similar circumstances I found myself in Istanbul.  A very helpful meeting to say the least.

I load my bike on last, get it tied to a semi trailer and head upstairs unassisted to find a place to hang out for the 18 hour journey across the Caspian.  One of the shipmates finds me and shows me to a cabin on the upper deck where the crew sleeps.  We haggle a bit about the cost of the cabin and I park it for the night.  I head out exploring the ship and it didn’t take long for someone to start yelling at me in Russian; easy to translate that I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been.

I sit around for a couple of hours, and from what I understand waiting for the Captain to arrive.  He is apparently in town and likes to get a little buzz on before making this journey.  Perfect.

To say this a surreal experience would be an understatement; I’m onboard an old Russian freighter filled only with a rough looking bunch of Russian, Azeri, and Turkish ship hands and a few Turkish truck drivers, headed across the Caspian Sea.  Does it get any cooler than that?

I head up onto the deck and watch the glowing lights of Baku disappear as we start steaming out to sea.  Onto the next leg of the adventure.

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May 21 – Baku III

I’m making progress in Baku. I met Ishamel at the shipyard and after some loud talking between himself and the very large Russian looking man, I was told to leave my bike sitting next to some cars at the shipyard. The ship is currently loading its cargo and once it fills up (hopefully tomorrow, but may be Saturday), I’ll get a call to come down, buy a ticket and load my bike, I’ll then be off. It sounds like no additional documentation will be needed from Customs since I’m leaving the bike behind the customs fence. I certainly hope tomorrow is the day.

I made good use of my time wandering around the city today looking very American in my flip-flops and lightweight sun shirt hoodie. I’m shocked at the amount of stares I get at my feet. I started taking note of others and it appears with the exception of a few women, I’m about the only one wearing sandals.   Now enter in the hoody sun shirt and people are certainly taken back. It could be the hoody is a little too close to the women’s headdress? Being very white and easy to burn, I continue to roll around covered up and hood up regardless of the stares. Maybe people are thinking they’re getting it all wrong, trying to copy the American look with their blue jeans and tight polo/rugby shirts, stamped somewhere on the front or back with large American logos… I could be starting the new dressing trend in Baku.

I had lunch this afternoon at 4:00 with Ishamel and grilled him on government, economics and religion in AZ. All the things one shouldn’t discuss, but definitely a few items I wanted to hear a local’s perspective on. As I suspected, trickle down economics stops with the savvy few who understand how turn a buck on it. Outside the city walls, the poverty continues.

I’ve never had much use for fancy clothing; fancy being described as anything more than a cotton t-shirt and loose fitting pants, typically Carhart. This was quite apparent when I stepped onto the 25th floor of the Hilton with its rotating tower bar. The bar is filled with well-healed locals and tourists drinking cocktails that looked more like fruit juice than liquor. Silk suits, fancy shoes, and watches the size of small wall clocks were everywhere. The entire floor rotates for a 360 deg view, taking somewhere around an hour to make a full rotation. After a Jack (because I’m American), and a Cuban (again because I’m American), I strolled back to my hotel on the seemingly very safe streets of Baku.

With my credit card about melted down, this place has me a long ways from preferred travel, sleeping in the dirt and eating whatever I could find at the local market that day. With any luck I’ll be out of here tomorrow.

A few photos of the old city and palace.

Amazing masonry chisel scroll work

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A very typical scene of old men playing checkers or backgammon.

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