Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Islamabad (Mongolia/Pakistan)

[One of our first views of Mongolia]

Unbelievable, these are actually getting shorter, and we are catching up.
This entry covers our trip from Mongolia to Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China and ending here in Pakistan shortly before we take off to India. Enjoy (or have a nice snooze!!)
From Novosibirsk we headed toward the border of Mongolia at Tashanta in the Altai region of eastern Russia. Shortly after passing Barnaul the country started getting much more interesting than previously. First, it started going along a large river, second, this is where everyone from this part of the country comes on the weekends. There is mountain climbing, river rafting, and plenty of trails for mountain bikes and walking (at least based on all the people with various signs we saw everywhere). As it was Sunday, there was a huge amount of traffic headed in the opposite direction, for which we were thankful. The further we rode into this huge river valley the nicer it became. We rode until dusk and then found a little side road and camped near a small brook, appropriated the campfire which was still smoldering and settled down for the night. The following day turned out to be more of the same. The river got wilder, and we caught an occasional glimpse of a raft floating down the river. At the end, it opens up into a wide plain around 70 km long which ends up at the border to Mongolia. Since it was late we chose to stay in the protected river valley as the wind had picked up and it looked like rain. So another night camping next to this beautiful river, life could be worse.
Finally, the next morning we got to the Russian border checkpoint, and although there were only two other people there we were told to wait. After an hour we were told they were closing for lunch and would resume work in 2 hours. (Note that in that hour no-one had come or gone into our out of the Russian immigration!!!) So we also settled down for lunch. Sure enough two hours later we were let into the compound to start our paperwork (to get out of Russia). The Russian side of the border (Tashanta) would turn out to be the most inefficient border crossing, though not the most complicated, this still belonged to the Turkmenistanis. While doing the paperwork, the heavens opened up and we had a torrential rain storm, luckily for us the Russians were so slow, or we would be getting wet outside. In the end we managed to fulfill all requirements to leave the country and were let go. We now rode 26 km or so to the outer Russian checkpoint, where someone else checked our passports again, before finally allowing out of the country. Next was the Mongolian immigration. The whole place was empty, and in around 15 minutes we were welcomed into Mongolia. Simple easy efficient, a real pleasure.

[Another "average" vista in Mongolia]

Mongolia did not disappoint. We had seen pictures, and they did not compare favorably. The vistas are huge, no roads, no signs, people so friendly it was scary. For example, we stopped a few kilometers inside Mongolia to put our papers away and get a drink, and a local bus (4x4 Russian van) stopped. Everyone got out, everyone shook our hands and welcomed us to Mongolia, thrusting babies in our arms!! The Mongolians like to look at everything with their hands, and this took a while to get used to. Everyone always alternatively smiling and shaking their heads at these huge bikes and riders. Lovely. Similar episodes would punctuate our whole stay in Mongolia.

[The Mongolians are a curious, hand-on bunch.]

Sitting here in Islamabad, trying to think of something about Mongolia which sounds good on paper is difficult. I have to say Mongolia is primarily a visual experience. For people used to cities and confined spaces I recommend they stay home. If Mongolia is anything it is a huge open space, punctuated here and there with small villages and occasional GER camps (Ger's are the Mongolian traditional tents, called Yurts in other places).

[One of the few traffic signs in Mongolia]

[Typical track choice, Mongolia]

There are no signs (almost), and no real roads anywhere outside the major agglomerations (of which there are only a few). So one basically just strikes out in the particular directions one wishes and if this track eventually goes over a pass it will converge with others as there is often only one that goes over the passes. On the other side, the paths will again diverge as everyone chooses a different way of crossing the wide plains separating the various mountains or hills. This goes on for thousands of kilometers! It took us 8 days to get from the border to Ulaan Bataar the capital. In this time the frame broke on Cecilia's bike twice, along with further breaks to the luggage racks of both bikes. All minor repairs by my standard. In the next settlement we would seek out a welder and he would then repair the broken part, the cost usually around 4-5$, and we would continue on our way.

[A Spaniard on a 4x4 quad racing across the Mongolian stepp, what a sight!]

The route we choose to take to Ulaan Bataar is known as the southern route, and basically is long, flat, and empty. There are no trees only huge low valleys, and plains, plenty of sheep, some camels, and horses (by the way we are at around 2000 meters for much of this part of the country). The track is lots of sand, corrugation, dust, and rocks, broken up by a few water crossings, and an occasional low pass or two. Day in day out same, same. Sounds boring, but it was really beautiful. One of the strangest things we came across was a 100 km or so outside of Ulaan Bataar, as we came over a rise, we were greeted by the sight of hundreds of Gers and tents, usually next to piles of rubble. This across the major "path" which went across the valley. Everyone was digging for gold!! They just set up their Gers and started digging, and this for an area of one square kilometer. Really strange. We had to detour around all the activity and continued on our way.
Ulaan Bataar was a very surreal experience, after all the empty spaces. It is a large city, with the accompanying traffic, noise and people. We had come here because we required a visa to re-enter Kazakhstan on our way south, the visa for Russia was multi-entry so that wasn't a problem, but Kazakhstan multi-entry visa was too costly and difficult to obtain. So we choose to do it this way. We also had a contact for a place to stay in Ulaan Bataar, and we were also expecting a packet sent from Switzerland with spare parts to come to that address.
We had a telephone number for our "contact", a certain Sabine, who runs a "biker guesthouse" in the capital. Well, as luck would have it, Cecilia's cell phone couldn't place calls here, so we tried by having a friendly bank teller call the number for us. The result was that the person on the other end said that Sabine was not there and would return in 10 days!! Unfortunately we didn't get to talk to the person on the other end, and the teller only said he didn't speak English anyway. We simply didn't get any further with her so we had to find another way. First we decided to check out some of the other guesthouses, all were full, or we couldn't find them. Then I bought a local SIM card for my mobile and we called the number again. The person really didn't speak very much English, but with a little effort we managed to confirm the address and we then had a taxi driver take us to the address in question.
This is where the fun begins, first near the address, I called again and the taxi driver spoke directly with the other party to get the correct directions. The address was quite a ways out of town, and for a while I was wondering what was going on. In the end we ended up in front of a gate with a little sign which showed it to be Sabine's guesthouse, and Oneway limited (a company name). So it seems we where in the right place (by the way the co-ordinates are "N 47° 52' 32.7", E 106° 49' 54.3", all co-ordinates will be posted on our web page when I do the update). I pay the taxi driver, he takes off. We honk our horns, knock on the gate, wait. Knock some more no answer. Eventually a lady comes walking by, opens the gate and lets us in. I follow her into the house, and there to my great surprise I find a gentleman passed out drunk on the floor, with a toddler in his arms! The woman, picks the baby up, kicks the guy a few times, he just turns over and continues to sleep. I feel like I am in the twilight zone! This can't be the guy I have been talking to (or trying to). So I call the number, sure enough someone else answers, and I explain that I am "Here". He says good, he will come by tomorrow! What? No, come by now, and straighten this mess out. I tried to explain that there is a drunk on the floor, the lady doesn't speak any English. So I hand the phone to the lady, she speaks with the guy for a few minutes and I get the phone back. No problem he says and hangs up. OK. This is getting better by the minute. Cecilia is still outside the gate waiting to see what is what.
The lady who let us in finds some keys and beckons me outside where she opens one of the Gers and shows me inside. OK, so we have a place to stay. I get Cecilia and we get our bikes inside and start unpacking. The lady asks if we want some food, so I said sure, and she runs off into the kitchen and prepares dinner, while Cecilia and I get unpacked and set up.
A half hour later a car pulls up and it is the guy on the phone. It turns out that he is a local fireman, and is on duty which is why he couldn't come before. He is a friend of Sabine's and therefore has her mobile. He says (it is a lot easier to communicate person to person), that she is gone. He doesn't know anything about the package we had sent here. He has to go back to work so he checks that everything is OK with the Ger and the food and then leaves. In the meanwhile the drunk is on his feet (barely), and speaks a few words of German to us, and disappears again. We have a dinner (some rice with meat and tea), and retire for the night.
The next morning there is no lady, no drunk, the baby is still there, but there are two young women taking care of it. They ask if we want breakfast and are promptly served fresh fried bread and butter, jam, eggs and tea on a nice sun terrace from which we have a nice view over the river which runs in front of Ulaan Bataar and the city in the background. The previous night seemed like a dream.
We end up staying nearly a week here, it is a terrible place to be if you have no transport, as it is around 14 km from the city center. But with the bike it is no problem. We get our visa, do some minor work on the bikes and relax for a few days before heading back toward the border to Russia. It has already been two weeks since we came into the country! While in UB we meet a German couple who are waiting for parts (we were able to pick our up at the TNT office in the city, no problem) from Germany. So for a few days we meet them for dinner every evening and swap travel stories.
We decide to take the northern route out of the country and so finally get on the road and head in that direction. The northern route turned out to be delightful. The tracks are better and there is a lot more scenery. Rivers, lakes, trees as well as the usual plains and plenty of empty spaces of course. As we were not in a hurry we spent a few days at a lake in northern Mongolia called Hovsgul Nuur. Absolutely gorgeous. Very difficult to get to, in particular the western side of the lake, but once there very relaxing and scenic. While camped there we were treated to some great Yak yogurt (add some sugar and jam) by a local from a nearby Ger.

[Camping on Lake Uureg Nuur in North West Mongolia]

Uureg Nuur another lake in the north western part of the country was also absolutely gorgeous, we almost couldn't tear ourselves away. But as life would have it, it started to get pretty chilly at night and even during the day the wind was blowing pretty cold from the north. It was time to head south.

[Internet stop in Oelgy, Western Mongolia]

In Olgy we picked up some supplies and did some things on the internet, and also ran into a troupe of Swedes coming from South Korea on their way to Sweden. They were on a Tran-Asia tour and were quite a sight to see. Around 8 bikes and 2 jeeps. We would run into them the following day again at the border, but on this day they were just wandering around Olgy looking for a hot shower. (Which they found in the local bathhouse). We headed toward the border and camped as near as we could, so that we could get an early start the following morning.
This is the same border we crossed previously and so were prepared for the slow pace. Unfortunately, as it was Monday (the border is closed on the weekend), there was more traffic that we anticipated. It took nearly an hour to get into the Mongolian immigration, which as previously was very efficient and quick, in 20 minutes we were on our way to the outer Russian border checkpoint. There things got slow very quick. As we parked, it became clear that the Russians had only let one or two of the vehicles go across that had come today (it was almost 10:30)so the rest were parked here. There was no movement one way or the other. Around 11:00 we were told that they were closing for lunch, so we had to wait until 14:00. At a quarter to 3 there still wasn't anything going on. Then the Swedes arrived, all at once. Together with the Swedes Cecilia managed to get the Russians to let us through, but not before they had turned all the Mongolians and Kazakhstanis away, so 20-30 cars and busses, many full of students going back to school in Kazakhstan all turned around and only the bikes and the two accompanying vehicles were allowed through for that day!! (4 Russian trucks had also been allowed through, but no other vehicles as long as we had been there, and only 2 had come in the opposite direction). The explanation was that there had been too many people coming through from the other side to process everyone!! Something which we were to find out wasn't the case. We all rode through and at the immigration stations (a brand new building, full of functionaries who didn't seem to busy as there was only 3-4 people there!!) we were given the full dose of bureaucracy, from having our vehicles disinfected, and having to purchase new insurance (our old one had lapsed). All of which took nearly two hours, including fighting about the fact that the insurance cost double what I had paid when coming in from Kazakhstan. But we finally got back into Russia, and headed straight for our last campsite here, which was just as pristine as we left it. The Swedes were behind us and as they were a large group it probably took them quite a while longer than us. But in the end it is remarkable how little they manage to get done at this border, whether by design or otherwise it is hard to tell, as the other two Russian borders were speedy by comparison.
Back in Russia, the plan was to go to Novosibirsk to pick up tires we had been able to order from BMW Moscow and were being shipped to the dealer in Novosibirsk. We took care of this, this time staying in a different hotel which was much nicer, but cost around the same. The tires where there and we took them to a local bike shop to get them mounted and continued on our way. As soon as we left the Altai region it had started to rain, and was cold, so we were riding in the rain to and from Novosibirsk, and very glad to be leaving this part of the world for hopefully warmer weather.

Kazakhstan didn't disappoint. As we neared the border, the weather cleared. The Russian and Kazakhstan immigration and customs were both efficient and relatively speedy and we were back in Kazakhstan. Same vistas, flat plains as far as the eye could see, but the weather was getting warmer. By the time we got to Almaty, all the cold weather gear had been stowed and we were back in our summer riding gear.
In Almaty we got a nice little apartment for a few days while I did some maintenance on the bikes. I also had to get some work done at the local bike shop, all of which was taken care of fairly quickly. This in addition to getting the visas we required for Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, was all that we needed to do in Almaty, so we continued as soon as it was done.
As we headed for the Kyrgyzstan border we came across a very nice river valley where we camped for the night. The only time I can recall in Kazakhstan, that the landscape showed any "promise".

[River Canyon, Kazakhstan]

The following day (a Sunday) we crossed from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan across what had to be the easiest least problematic border I have ever seen (barring none). Both sides took a total of 5 minutes, no customs docs, nothing, and there wasn't a soul there. This is the border between Kegen (Kaz) and Karakol (Kyr), so a very small and little used border post. As we approached I thought it might be closed, but a guard on each side took care of everything.
Kyrgyzstan turned out to be a real gem. Beautiful vistas, very friendly people, and some excellent (MC) roads. The first night we spent at the Karakol Tourist camp in a "traditional" (tourist) Kyrgyzstan yurt. Cute, but the camp was really nice. All around the vistas had one mountain higher than the other, all covered with snow. We spent the next couple of days making our way toward the Chinese border with a couple of side trips along Lake Issyk-Kul, and Song Köl, both very scenic areas. Lake Issyk-Kul is a major tourist attraction (at least during the soviet era, now mostly abandoned, but slowly being rediscovered by western tourists who mostly come here for the mountain trekking), not to mention that it was a testing ground for submarines during the cold war. Song Köl is way up, at 3000 meters a very high alpine lake. The northern shore nearly deserted, and perfect for some beautiful lakeside camping. To some extent we almost felt we were back in Mongolia. The vistas not quite as empty or large, but very similar.
We spent our last night in Kyrgyzstan in a real Yurt near the old Caravan fort of Tash Rabat near the border to China. This was also a stop on the silk road, and is situated in a narrow valley which if followed up will end up on a very high plain along the Chinese border. The family we stayed with was extremely hospitable and the yurt very comfortable. One day I hope to come back here and spend more time, but we have to get to the border as there will be a guide waiting for us on the other side.
The following morning we made our way to the border. Before the first checkpoint, my motorcycle celebrated a momentous occasion, it turned over 300,000 km, so I stopped and took a picture.
The border was un-eventful. The Kyrgyzstan side only had a small objection to the fact that we had no Fax as invitation to enter China. They are aware of regulations that foreigners with their own visitors require a guide on the Chinese side, and want to make sure that they don't have to re-process anyone that gets turned back. We showed them our e-mail invitation and they let us pass. At the top of the Torugart we had to wait around 40 minutes for the Chinese guide before being allowed to pass. The road up here (3700 m) was pretty bad as lots of Chinese trucks use this route. The Kyrgyzstan side isn't too scenic, when compared to say, Tash Rabat, but as soon as you get over the pass to the Chinese side, it gets very interesting. The mountains rise up dramatically on both sides, and the road is a lot steeper than on the Kyrgyzstan side. A few km later we stop at the first customs checkpoint on the Chinese side, here all our luggage is x-rayed. We then put the luggage in the guides car and continue along a very long, wide and wild. If the road had been better it would have been a really enjoyable ride, as it was we had to concentrate very hard on the road. Nevertheless it was a lot of fun.
At the bottom we finally hit the Chinese immigration point, where the Chinese were very efficient and friendly and it only took us 20 minutes or so to get through. We received new drivers licenses, and motorcycle papers, as well as license plates, all in Chinese. There were some additional customs formalities which our guide(s) took care of, we just waited outside, a real luxury.
From here we then drove the last 60 km to Kashgar where the guide dropped us off at a nice hotel and left.
We were now in China, OK maybe not quite, this is the Xianjing province, which is actually used to have a minority of Han people, until the central government started importing them en mass. Our guide admitted that he spoke practically no Chinese (Mandarin) and has to take courses. The people on the street are a mix of Kyrgyzstan, Mongolian, Chinese, Russian, a truly interesting mix. All as it should be for one of the greatest trading centers of the old (and new) silk roads. At the core though, it is a large city, with the few interesting things hidden away in the old town, or residential areas, which Cecilia took a quick look at. I simply enjoyed the ambiances of a very large, and varied mix of people.
After three days it was time to move on to Pakistan, with a quick stop at Karakul lake and in Tash Kurgan, where the Chinese immigration is. Compared to the lakes we had enjoyed in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, Karakul was just a tourist trap, not worth the effort or cost. Keep going and just around the corner is a group of Yurts, where you are welcomed to stay and are treated to a real authentic slice of life in this part of the world. The family simply vacates their Yurt and stays with the neighbors while you get to sleep in theirs. They feed you and you get to spend a few hours appreciating how hard and simple their lifestyle is. A real treat.
The following day, we headed to Tash Kurgan, via a little side trip. The Karakorum highway goes over a 4000 meter pass near a glacier, here it is possible to take a jeep track to where the glacier is coming down the side of the mountain. Something we decided to do. We made it up to around 4529 meters, where the jeep couldn't make it over a steep incline, and we decided it wasn't worth trying it on the bikes either. So we parked, and Cecilia and the guides walked the remaining 150 (vertical) meters to the face of the glacier at the bottom of the mountain!! Keep in mind the highest mountain in Europe is Mt. Blanc at around 4800 meters! Here the mountain started at that hight. The mountain in question was around 7700 meters, so it towered above where we were. Really spectacular. The bikes had very little power at this altitude, but they ran, with no modifications whatsoever. Dirty air filters, carburetors out of adjustment, valves not properly set. It is a real testament to German engineering that they didn't have any problems. My attitude was ride them 'till they drop, then I will fix whatever that is wrong. Luckily I didn't have to do anything.
We reached Tash Kurgan and settled in the hotel for the night, with a little side trip to a local welder to weld a broken box frame, a 5 minute job, costing a total of 1.50$. The following morning we went to the Chinese immigration and took care of the exit formalities. The efficiency and thoroughness, meant that it was very slow, but of course nothing compared to Tashanta or Turkmenistan! So after 3 1/2 hours we were on our way. No more Chinese license plates, but we got to keep our licenses and various other documentation as souvenirs. The actual border to Pakistan was another 200 km further on along the Karakorum Highway. The road here absolutely perfect, totally flat, and for the most part pretty straight, as it runs through a very wide valley floor toward the Kunjerab pass. Along the way we got to glimpse the famous K2 mountain just off to our port side (left) as we were climbing up to 4700 meters where the pass is. Luckily for us it was a beautiful day and we got a great look at all the mountains around us. After two more quick checkpoints we were at the top of Kunjerab and in Pakistan. The lone guard here is just for looks, as all the formalities are taken care of many km further down in the valley.
The Pakistan side was even more dramatic than the Chinese side of the Torugart pass, here the carved the road out of the side of the mountain, and it continually tried to reclaim its territory. An unbelievable feat of engineering, and than a couple of hundred kilometers long. Incredible, you could practically touch the other side of the valley. Lucky for us the road went down, down, down, if we had to come up this way, our bikes would have had a much harder time than on the Chinese side, which climbs very gradually.
On the Pakistani side, we were constantly passing Chinese work crews, we were to later find out that they are here to help Pakistan build a new two lane (or was it four lane) KKH. How they plan on doing that I don't know, but it will be interesting to see. Last year the KKH was blocked in more than 100 places, and this year it was blocked for more than a month due to heavy rains. So they really have their work cut out for them.
After clearing immigration and customs we proceeded to Passu where we had a good tip about camping at a place called Glacier Breeze Restaurant and Camp. It turned out to be better than even the most enthusiastic recommendations. We spent the next two days stuffing ourselves and getting a serious pampering from the staff. When we left the bill totaled 78.- Sfr for camping, dinner, breakfast, snacks, etc. over 4 days!! This included some of the best food we have had in a long time, highly recommended.
While here we ran into a group of Germans taking part in a guided overland tour from Germany. They were heading up the Karakorum to the summit, and then back toward Islamabad where they had been previously. The convoy included 4 all terrain trucks and 3 motorcycles, a very strange sight on the roads of Pakistan. We then headed to Karimabad where we spent a day checking out the Balti fort at the top of town, and some of the amazing water channels that have been cut into the side of the mountain to harness the water coming down from the mountain, miles away from the source. We also "discovered" the Hunza Cafe, and the Walnut cake (something which the Germans had told us about back in Passu), which is excellent. It should be it is based a Swiss recipe, namely the Engadiner nüsstorte!! This is not just idle boasting, the proprietor told us so. As part of a local help project, a Swiss development agency taught him how to make the cake, and run a small bookstore, and most important how to make a decent cappuccino! Now that is real development help!!
From Karimabad we continued on the KKH ran into our German friends at the Panorama hotel in Chilas. The following morning one decided to tag along with us to Bescham, the next stop along the KKH. We enjoyed wonderful weather, and the road continued to throw vistas at us, which just left us breathless. Every town we passed seemed more chaotic than the next, and the amount of colorful trucks we passed continued to increase. In Bescham we settled in at the Rana Inn, which filled up with these huge trucks later in the afternoon. The local population seemed to find it also very fascinating, as they camped outside and kept an eye on the happenings, now who was in a cage?
The following morning, we let the trucks and everyone leave while we had a leisurely breakfast and got on the road. More and more traffic, more and more towns, always larger than the previous greeted us as we made our way toward Islamabad. Then 20 km north of Manshera in the hills with some great curvy roads, albeit, very slippery and lots of truck traffic. Cecilia's bike slid out from under her when trying to avoid a truck which was in the wrong lane around a corner, and ended up broadsiding the truck. Luckily they were both going very slow and she didn't get hurt. The bike was another story. The front forks were bent, and bike was un-ridable. Again, as luck would have it, we had just passed the German trucks, and one had a trailer, so when they caught up with us a few minutes later, they offered to take the bike on the truck to Islamabad, which we gladly accepted. I bid farewell to the truck driver, no harm done, there was no point in getting into an argument, or getting the police. These guys have no money and there would have been a lot of hassle involved. We packed everything on the truck and Cecilia rode in one of the trucks and we continued. The rest of the ride was memorable only for the heavy traffic, lack of road rules, and the fact that my clutch cable snapped two kilometers from the campground. After ruining one spare cable, I managed to get the second one to fit, and made it to the campground just after the trucks overtook us again.
We set up and basically went to bed, it had been a pretty bad day all around, but in the end only the bike had gotten hurt and we were all thankful for that.
The following morning we decided to go an apply for our Indian visas first as this would take some time to process, during which I could get to work on the bike. So that is what we did. The procedure in Islamabad is pretty convoluted, but we managed. Basically, you have to go to the Coliseum and take a shuttle bus to the diplomatic compound, as they don't let you in any other way. All security measures are done before boarding the bus, no electronic gadgets, mobiles etc., all in all a pretty thorough check. We applied for our visas and then went to the bank to see about getting money. But by now it was near noon, and the ATM was empty, they advised us to come later or in the morning. We then headed back to the camping.
The following three days I spent taking the bike apart, and getting the parts fixed as well as could be done. I found a machine shop who was able to bend the forks back and in the end they were straight again. Also a number of additional parts had to be straightened. When I finally got everything done, and started to re-assemble the machine it turned out that the upper fork bridge was also damaged, so another day was wasted getting this fixed and installed again. By Sunday everything had been done and the bike was running again. A test ride showed that the handlebar was still a bit bent, but usable. The following day then we did another longer test ride and Cecilia declared that we could continue to Goa this way.
That brings us to the end of this "longish" blog entry. We are now set to continue our trip. We will pick up our visa and the following day head to Lahore, and then the border to India. In India we are planning on heading south as quickly as possible, leaving the sightseeing for after a month long beach vacation. During this "vacation" I will update our web page and add lots of more details of our trips to the journal as well as the usual section of goodies, pictures, tracks etc. Stay tuned.




[Ger Camp just outside Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia]

[Religious Cairn, Mongolia]

[Typical campsite, Mongolia]

[Some more Mongolian "motocycle" fans]

Islamabad (Uzbekistan/Russia)

["I am smiling", Bukhara, Uzbekistan]

This blog entry will cover briefly our trip through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia.
After Turkmenistan, the formalities in Uzbekistan were simple, and even after we were finished (30 min) we kept wondering if there was something else to take care of. The procedure consisted of filling out two customs declaration forms, getting the passport stamped, telling the doctor that there wasn't anything wrong with you. Driving 50 meters to customs and showing the paper to a clerk there who stamps it and you are done. Could hardly be simpler.
We then drove through wonderfully green fields full of melon to Bukhara. Where we were completely lost for a while, until a young man on a bicycle escorted us to the hotel we were looking for. The poor guy wanted to take shortcuts which we on the motorcycles couldn't do, so in the end he ended up going the "long" way around pedaling like furious followed by the two bikes. Pretty funny sight actually. The problem had been we had been very close to the hotel, but the area was a pedestrian zone, with a number of dead end streets all around. When we got to the hotel, the guy on the bicycle just continued pedaling, we didn't even get a chance to say thank you.
As we got off the bikes, a familiar face is staring at us from the rooftop terrace. Massimo was here! He had had an accident in northern Turkmenistan and had slightly hurt his foot, but otherwise had gotten here without incident. He was now headed to Tashkent to pick up his girlfriend who was going to be accompanying him back to Italy.

[Hats, Bukhara, Uzbekistan]

The following day after a leisurely breakfast and saying goodbye to Massimo we proceeded to visit some of the sights of Bukhara. My poor vocabulary can't really do justice to the sights here. They are simply incredible, from the Kalon Minaret, to the bazaars and various city quarters, your mouth is continually dropping with the grandeur and elegance of the various buildings. In particular the tile work here is some of the most beautiful I have seen anywhere. Some of the awe is surely inspired by our visit to Ashgabat, which had none of the charm or "soul" of what we witnessed here. There are justly many tourists here, but it doesn't feel overly touristy (at least outside of the bazaars!!), and as soon as you take a dip into some of the alleys and byways you are living history, as these alleys haven't changed in 400 years.

[Samarkand, Uzbekistan]

The following day we continued to Samarkand, the city build (OK made immortal) by Timur and his grandson Ulughbek. The sights here are even larger and more magnificent in scope than anything in Bukhara. Nevertheless I preferred Bukhara as being more compact and easier to traverse. Samarkand was one the greatest cities on the Silk Road, and the architecture shows this. The most spectacular sight is in the center of the city called The Registan, a collection of Medressas (Muslim schools) around a plaza. Tile work everywhere, on an unbelievable scale. I particularly enjoyed some of sloping walls, wondering when the whole thing would come crashing down. This is one of the single most impressive sights in Central Asia (says so in the Lonely Planet, and we agree). Of course there are a lot more sights all around, and the usual bazaars, markets and mausoleums. If I hadn't seen Bukhara first I would probably would have wanted to spend more time here. As it was sensory overload was already reaching critical.

Onward to Tashkent. Somewhere on the way to Tashkent, we passed Massimo going the opposite direction together with his passenger, unfortunately he didn't see us so we just continued. Tashkent, is a modern city with wide boulevards, very green, and large. We tend to try to avoid cities as a rule, and in Tashkent we only wanted to take care of a few minor errands before continuing. So after two days we moved on to Kazakhstan.

[Just outside Almaty, Kazakhstan]

Leaving Uzbekistan, and entering Kazakhstan were both fairly painless, the usual running around, but absolutely a breeze compared to Turkmenistan!! Something which will continue to be a mantra, "at least it isn't as bad Turkmenistan".
The main thing I noticed coming into Kazakhstan is that as soon as you get into the country the vistas change from the tended green fields in Uzbekistan, to huge flat golden plains something akin to what one sees in the Midwest of America or parts of south Australia. This image of Kazakhstan would remain the main memory of the Kazakhstan countryside. The bread basket of central Asia might be a good way to describe it.

[An Iranian, Motorcycle rider, in Kazakhstan]

We rode from the border to Taraz before settling for the night. As in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia our motorcycle evoked great curiosity and spontaneous gestures of friendship, not to mention some very dangerous traffic situations as cars passing us would suddenly slow down to get their cameras, or mobile phone cameras ready and then take pictures of us as they go by. At this rate maybe we will become famous somewhere! The following day we continued to Almaty.
In Almaty, we rented a small apartment for a few days so that I could do some maintenance on the bikes before heading to Mongolia. Almaty, or Alma Ata as it was called during Soviet times, turned out to be our first real culture shock. All signs were "only" in Cyrillic, so I spent a couple of days crash learning to read Cyrillic, which I managed. This meant we could at least read the signs, not necessarily understand what they meant, but it made things a lot easier. Almaty is also built on the "green" principle, lots of trees everywhere, business and housing behind leafy cover, often in blocks behind the cover of trees and sidewalks, and few signs at street level. Making finding anything a real challenge. A few other things also come to mind to describe Almaty, first, very very expensive. Many roads under construction (I hope), and some very interesting mix of old Soviet and new architecture. Some very unfriendly and unhelpful hotel staff, as in fulfilling every cliche about soviet area management. (I will write more about this when we get to Russia). Almaty is above all a business city, tourists have no reason to be here, for that matter, the whole country fails to achieve anything nearing a tourist destination. That is not to say that there are no tourist attractions here, simply that in my opinion it is not worth the effort or cost to come here to see them. Once here, we only wanted to leave. OK, but now I am starting to write too much already, so on we go. After getting the maintenance done on the bikes and stocking up on supplies (there are plenty of upscale supermarkets where you can get anything that you can anywhere else in the world), we start heading to the border of Russia, which we have to go through to get to Mongolia, as the Mongolian/Kazakhstan border is closed to foreigners.

[Reststop, Kazakhstan]

The route we took went through some of the places that during the soviet times was used to test nuclear weapons. The town of Emmey's major claim to fame is that just southwest of the city, the soviets exploded 467 (Lonely Planet) nuclear bombs. For me the more interesting history is that this is the town where Dostoevsky was exiled to for 5 years of forced military service and where he started the novel "The Brothers Karamazov". Other than the usual plains here, the thing that nearly killed us everyday was the road. These are by far the worst roads I have had the misfortune of having traversed. It was here that Cecilia broke the frame on her bike. The problem is that the road is for a the most part fine, and then suddenly without warning there is a dip, a hole, or just a chunk of road missing. So you are cruising about, nearly falling asleep because of the boring countryside, and suddenly BANG, your suspension just tried going through the seat, and you are hanging on to the handlebars for dear life!! In the end you start riding 40 km/h for a while but of course the road is fine, so then you speed up again and the process repeats. Very, very annoying, and dangerous. Getting the frame on Cecilia's bike fix wasn't too much of a problem. Every little town has a shop which has a welder (we did have to go around 100 km on the broken frame though!). After 10 minutes welding and 10$ later we were on our way again.

[Welding the frame on Cecilias bike, in Kazakhstan]

In due course we made it to the Kazakhstan/Russian border. The exit formalities for Kazakhstan were simple if a bit slow, as they only let a couple of people in at a time into the compound. The Russian side the same. Once inside everyone was friendly and moderately efficient. The procedure itself had some shades of Turkmenistan, but not nearly as bad. In about 1 1/2 hours we were through and into "Mother" Russia.


This was a major milestone for us.
We had decided to go to Novosibirsk to see about tires since we would be needing tires by the time we came back this way, and we were unable to get any in Almaty. So we proceeded with due haste to Novosibirsk. Russia continued the plains of Kazakhstan for the first 100 km or so and then became what we are used to from northern Europe, forest and hills, everything green and wonderfully warm. The roads were also in good condition (thank god).

[Novosibirsk train station, Russia]

In Novosibirsk, we were very frustrated trying to find a hotel. First, there are only a few of them, second they are very expensive. The only cheap place I found after talking to a cab driver wouldn't even talk to me. Which brings me to my diatribe on Russian service centered economy. The Russians for the most part (based on our limited experience) don't understand the concept. I encountered a number of, invariably, older ladies, who simply took one look at me and decided they did not wish to serve me or chose to make it so difficult that it simply wasn't worth the effort. This ranged from being turned away from a hotel, to not being able to get gasoline because my 1000 ruble note was folded!! We have been in enough countries that I can make myself understood everywhere, but these babushkas simply didn't want the hassle of trying to deal with someone whom they could not communicate with. If this happened once or twice no big deal, people have a bad day, etc. etc. But this turned out to be the case in many places and I was very surprised if not a bit vexed occasionally. OK, we move on and give our money to someone else. Market economy prevails!! (Nearly, as there are very few hotels, your choice is not great). This was the first time; that the fact that we did not speak the local language was an issue. Very interesting!!

We eventually got a hotel at the "Hotel Novosibirsk" which is across from the train station. The hotel has two wings, one renovated, and the other in classical intourist standard. Basically a dump. For the cheaper rooms they are still asking for 100$ and getting it, unfortunately. After two days here we moved on, there were no tires to be had, we had chosen a holiday weekend to visit and everything was closed. So onward toward Mongolia.

[Typical campsite in the Altai region, Russia]

[Altai Region, Russia]

More in the next blog......

Islamabad (Turkmenistan pt2)

Hello again. No I we haven't dropped off the end of the earth, we have just been "busy". As these blogs are getting nearly as hopelessly behind as our website, I have decided to expedite things. First, this blog will "finish" our journey through Turkmenistan. The next blogs will then offer a quick (and I really mean it this time) glimpse of our other destinations. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and finally a few words about Pakistan. We are now in Islamabad, waiting for our Indian visa, which we should get by the end of this week. After which we head to India and a short vacation, and of course a complete update and reworking of our website.
So back to the second part of Turkmenistan:
After our quick dip in Kow Ata we got back on the road and headed to the largest mosque in central Asia which is just outside of Ashgabat. An incredible site, the minarets are visible for miles around, and as everything is dripping with gold you are nearly blinded when looking at it in full daylight! It was midday and there were only a couple three people in the whole place!! Nevertheless, it is an impressive sight, if very surreal. After a quick visit here we continued on to Ashgabat. A few kilometers from the city we got on a fantastical 8 lane superhighway leading into town. An 8 lane highway is not all that special, they have them in most major cities in the world, if not larger. Well, what was special here is that there were no or practically no traffic!! A huge highway in the middle of the day leading into the major city of a country with no traffic? Pretty much par for the course in this country. (an Americanisms for "normal"). The highway comes into an area of Ashgabat called Bergenzi where there are a lot of hotels and many fantastic buildings, most of which look and are empty or nearly so. The next thing you notice is that there is a lot of construction going on everywhere you look. OK, lets review, lots of empty buildings, huge highways, and still more constructions going on?? Pretty strange. Apparently Turkmenbashi (actually named Saparmyat Niyazov) has and is in the process of totally reconstructing and modernizing this city. All of the old Soviet style government buildings have disappeared and have been replaced with ever more pompous and grand buildings. Additionally he has added huge monuments (mostly to himself) and parks everywhere you look. If this isn't enough, how about an the slogan seen everywhere, 'Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi' (People, nation, me). Which he adopted at the same time he took the title of Turkmenbashi (leader of the turk-men). All of the construction and design is driven and approved by him, and carried out by a French construction company. It is really the most incredible, unbelievable, and strange city I have ever seen. One thing that I found very interesting is how proud everyone I met is of their city. You also see many local tourist everywhere you turn. In all it is fascinating and just plain weird. We walked around the town in a couple of days and it struck me that just outside the center there is a number of housing areas which are in the process of being replaced with more buildings, and industrial parks. What happens to the people? The same in town, there are a number of apartment blocks which are in the process of being razed to make way for more buildings. The only housing that we saw, were a lot of apartment towers in the process of being built, I doubt they are meant as a replacement for the housing which has been eliminated!!
Our stay in Ashgabat was highlighted by two incidents, the first we went into town one day to do some sightseeing, and after walking around for hours, we finally decided that it was time to go up on the Victory Arch (not really and Arch, more like a tripod, with a statue on top). This is where the statue (golden of course) of Turkmenbashi turns to follow the sun. Unfortunately we showed up pretty late. There were a couple of guys hanging around the elevator which took you to the middle section, but it looked pretty closed. They waved us over and together we waited for an attendant. When he showed up they talked him into opening the place up and letting us up. So together with these local tourists we went up to the middle part, took a second elevator to the top, and enjoyed a beautiful view of the bombastic buildings, and huge parks. Then on the way back they paid the attendant for having let us up, and refused to take any money from us. They were just really proud that they had gotten a chance to show their beautiful city to two tourists. We thought that was really great.
The second was, my mobile was stolen, from my bike. Since I don't carry a plug-in charging device, I charge my mobile phone straight from the bike. I lock the mobile in the tank case and hide the cabling. All to no avail, somewhere between 1:00 and 8:00 in the morning someone broke into the bike and stole the mobile, but left all the cabling!! In the morning I showed it (the broken tank case) to the security guard, he reported it to the front desk, she reported it to the manager. I then went to speak to the manager, who didn't speak any English, German, French, Spanish, or anything else I could make sense of. He then got a hold of a guide who happened to be in the hotel picking up a couple of tourists, and we managed to communicate through him. He was of course very sorry that it had happened, but basically I should not have left it outside! OK, but I had locked it away, and there is a security guard on duty, and the bike was parked right in front of the entrance! So basically we agreed, that he would speak with the guard on duty last night, and I said I would file a police report. He asked me to wait until he had spoken to the guard and I agreed, and that was that. After running some errands I returned to the hotel to find the representative of our travel agency there, she informs me that she and the manager had come to an "arrangement" and if that would be OK with me. The arrangement being, I don't file a police report, and the manager provides me with an identical phone. So in the end I got a new phone. I sent an e-mail to Swisscom and had them cancel my SMS card, and issue me another one, and that was that.
After a couple of days in Ashgabat we continued on to Mary where we spent the night.

[Cecilia outrunning Camels on the silk road in Merv, Turkmenistan]

The following day we got up very early and where met by a local guide who was to show us around Merv, the only UNESCO site in Turkmenistan. Merv is the remains of an ancient very large city of about 1.1 million which had been razed to the ground by one of Genghis Khans sons (Tolui) because they had refused to pay tribute to the great Khan. According to the story, the mayor of the city killed the tax collector the Khan had sent, and three years later a large army of Mongols showed up. Each warrior had been told to behead at least 200 to 300 people, which they then proceeded to do. I neglect to mention that the city had surrendered, not that it actually mattered. The army then leaves after razing the city to the ground. The survivors return to town, and the army returns to kill them also, and so ended one of the greatest cities of its age. There wasn't much left, as the building material is mud, but you easily get a feel for the scale of the city, as well as some of the fascinating architecture, by what remains. A rebuilt Mausoleum, some castle walls, part of the city walls, and a few excavations. One can spend a few days just getting a feel for this place, we unfortunately only had a few hours so we only saw a couple of the more interesting things.

[Merv, Turkmenistan]

After Merv, we continued to the border of Uzbekistan. Where after numerous checkpoints we eventually arrived. As soon as you stop, you are assaulted from all sides by numerous women shoving Uzbekistani banknotes at you. As the Turkmenistan Manat is not convertible it is necessary to get rid of any leftovers here, and there is of course no "official" way of doing it. (The banks are only interested in selling you the local currency for "hard" currency). It is a very chaotic situation, which the women take full advantage of to give you the worst possible rate, if not cheat you outright. The best strategy is to just say no, wait, let the crowd dissipate and then ask one or two separately for the current rate. After getting a few Soms (the Uzbekistan) currency. We said goodbye to our guide, Angela and the driver and headed to the immigration and customs. The exit formalities where thankfully only half as bad as the entry formalities and we were through in around 1 hour. This is pretty bad, but considering that it is Turkmenistan we considered ourselves lucky, and so concluded our stay in this very fascinating and "strange" country. Despite the bureaucratic problems, and costs, we enjoyed our stay. One day it might be interesting to return and see what has become of Turkmenbashi's "legacy".
As a post note, in Kazakhstan we heard that in late August the government of Turkmenistan decided to cancel all tourist visas for the month of October. This unusual step was taken as there is a national holiday and they didn't want to deal with any tourist! So basically the country was closed to foreigners for the month of October!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Ulaanbataar, pt1

[Massimo, Cecilia and the bikes, Baku Customs Terminal]

When we last met we were about to get on the ferry in Baku. Well, as I write this I am sitting in a comfortable Ger (traditional Mongolian tent) just outside of the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbataar.

I can hardly believe that it has only been a couple of (four) weeks or so since my last entry. But first get yourself a cup of coffee or whatever and get comfortable, as this is long very long, so in order to make it more readable, not to mention getting something up on the net for you to read I have had to break it down into various pieces, this covers the Ferry ride, and the first part of Turkmenistan. Enjoy.

We got to the ferry terminal bright and early (ok, 8:00), and were told that it would be open at 8:30. As we were sitting there waiting, another biker shows up, Massimo from Italy. He rides up in a nice clean GS1200 and seems to be very glad to meet someone else on bikes. We chat while waiting for the office to open. He has come overland from Italy, and has been on the road for a little over a month, and is planning a round trip back to Italy via Russia!!

At 9:00 the lady finally showed up. She then proceeded to take us to the other office and the gentlemen there drinking their morning coffee told us to come back in half an hour. While waiting, Matthew shows up. Matthew is our companion for the tour of Turkmenistan, and had sms'd us the previous night that he was in town, and would let us know about the ferry as soon as he found something out. Well, here he was, so now the four of us go over the office and the officer starts checking our papers.

First problem, Massimos visa starts the following day, so they refuse to sell us the ticket until mid-day. This apparently to keep us from getting on a ferry that arrives in Turkmenbashi before his visa starts. It doesn't matter that we aren't even together, he refuses to sell any of us a ticket, at least until 12:00.

At the same time he informs us that the cost will be 170$ per person and bike. When Matthew asked (Matthew spoke Russian, which was very helpful to sort all this out), how much it would be for him, the officer said he didn't know. What? Matthew went back to the other office where the lady was, and discussed the issue with her, she also told him that she didn't know. Apparently, they, the lady from the one office, and the officer from the other, would have to discuss how much to charge poor Matthew, and he would find out in the afternoon, when they would sell us the tickets! So Matthew goes back to the hotel to pack his things, we decide that we want to go to town and have a nice leisurely breakfast. For us this solution is also the right one as the boat ride is supposed to take around 12-13 hours and our guide is supposed to meet us the following day around 9:00 in the morning. So we also don't want to get on a ferry that gets us there too early. It was just that the whole thing was so surreal. Little did I realize it was going to get even worse.

After Matthew left, we re-parked our bikes and I was arranging for someone to watch them while we were gone, when a car with a customs official shows up and speaks to Cecilia. Cecilia then informs us that, that is the customs officer who will prepare our papers and he wanted her to come down to the customs house with our paperwork.

So off she goes. She returns 30 minutes later with the news that we all have to go down there, and that the customs official is pretty mad at Massimo! When we got down there, he greeted us friendly enough, and then got to Massimo, and asked him why he was late? Late; apparently he was supposed to have show up the previous day, as his import permission had run out then. Oh, boy, maybe we should get away from this guy! Anyway, the customs official wasn't happy. Massimo explained that he had gone to the customs office they had told him to go at the border, and there he had explained about the transportation and they had said it was ok. No problem. Yeah, right, here was a problem. The customs official took this pretty hard, and yelled at him about that the bike should have been here etc. etc. He (the customs official) then ran off, with his mobile to his ear, into an adjacent building and didn't re-appear for 20 minutes. When he finally showed up, he gives us all our receipts and various documents for the bikes, and tells us that everything is ok. We should not leave the port are as the bikes are no longer in the country! He even managed a half-smile (at least at Cecilia).

We then decided that we would go ahead and bring the bikes into the customs compound so that there would be no more problems. While we were at it the customs official informs us that the next ferry (at 13:00) would not take passengers as it is loaded with tanker cars (train wagons with airplane fuel). We could get on the next ferry at around 17:00. So, now our bikes were safely packed away in the customs compound, it was almost 12:00, the time we had agreed to meet Matthew so that we could buy our tickets, so it made no sense to go into town anymore. We settled for tea at a snack bar in the port area. By the way for those of you who are really interested the co-ordinates to the Baku ferry port is: N40 22.383 E49 51.890. (The new terminal across from the Abseron hotel was not working yet, and would only be a passenger terminal anyway, so if you have a vehicle you have to find this dock.)

At 12:00 Cecilia went and got Matthew and we all sat around drinking tea, discussing the very strange situation, and the fact that we have yet to find out what the price for Matthew was going to be. As we were sitting there the ticket officer comes by, pointing at his watch and making it clear that he had been expecting us at 12:00, and why were we sitting here having tea? He wasn't happy, and we couldn't really figure out why, what difference did it make if we showed up 30 minutes later? Anyway, we were literally marched up to the ticket office. Once there, he started talking to Matthew in Russian, and Matthew turned to us told us he thought that the officer was saying that the price was now going to be $140.00 and if that was ok with us? To confirm this the officer wrote the figure out on paper, $280 for Cacilia and I and $140 for Massimo, and $50.00 for Matthew, a total of $470.00. We all said that it would be ok with us! Hey, it is $30.00 per person cheaper, than what he had originally quoted us. At the same time, we also found out what it would cost Matthew, so he was happy. We all got our money out and he wrote out a single ticket for the four of us.

The receipt was then written out for 297.80 azm (New Azerbaijan Manat) which is around $280.00!! For those keeping track, we paid $470.00 or around 500.00 azm, we assume the officer pocket the difference (202.20 azm). At this point we weren't really interested and just wanted to get on the ferry. I don't think it would have made any difference anyway. We took our ticket and headed down to the port.The first thing our friend the customs inspector said was that we had to go and pay an additional "service" fee (Bridge tax!!) at a building back toward where we had just come. So off we go. There we were shown into a very shabby office where a gentleman looked at our ticket asked for a passport and went off. When he came back, he said it would be $20.00 for the three of us. He made it clear that it was only for handling of the motorcycles, so only Massimo, Cecilia and I had to pay. How that came out to $20.00 we weren't sure. The receipt was in Cecilia's name since it was the passport he had gotten. The receipt was for 9.03 azm, so, surprise, surprise, he was also cashing in!

Now were were ready to go through customs and immigration. Customs demanded that we unload out bikes and take the luggage through the x-ray machine in their office so we did. Well, almost, we only showed them our large bags. The tank bag and the boxes stayed on the bikes. After that immigration stamped our passports and we were ready to get on the boat. Sounds nice and easy, took 1 1/2 hours, and we weren't on the boat yet!As we were packing and waiting, we noticed that we hadn't seen Matthew in 30 minutes, where was he? Well, it turns out that he had a stamp in his passport for Armenia, and due to the political situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, he was being grilled by the customs. What had he done there, who had he talked to, where had he gone. He was forced to show the officers all the pictures in his digital camera! When he finally came out he was pretty much a wreck. But he had his exit stamp and could get on the ferry. Next was Massimo, he also had visited Armenia. Pretty nervous, he walked in, and in 15 minutes was finished. They had asked the same questions but I guess they were much happier with his answers. Not to mention that since Matthew spoke Russian, they could ask a lot more questions! Anyway, we were now ready, the ferry had loaded the last train cars and we were told to get on. So we rode on, and almost immediately the ferry left the dock (it was 15:00).

[Matthew, still at the dock!! (click to enlarge)]

Pretty cool, we were going to get moving ahead of schedule! As we were leaving the dock, we look back and there is Matthew. We though that he had already gotten on board, but there he was on the dock. Oh, boy. The ferry backs up and re-docks at the jetty across from where we had just been. We though that they had noticed that we had left Matthew behind, but it turns out that another ferry was coming in and needed this particular jetty to unload. So our ferry was just shifting positions! But for a while there we were worried that we were going to Turkmenistan without Matthew!Back at the dock, and Matthew safely aboard, a deckhand fetches us and brings us to the captain who isn't at all very friendly. Through the deckhand who happens to speak a little English, we are offered a "comfortable" cabin for $20.00, which we took, and are promptly shown the worst cabin I have ever had the pleasure of habiting. Not even the run down ferries in Indonesia had cabins this dirty and decrepit. Holes in the walls, door broken, ever single fixture broken or missing, and I don't even want to start on the shower and toilet. The best that could be said is that they did work. Nevertheless it was a place to lay down and sleep, so we took it.

Next, the captain started to talk about that we had to pay a service charge for tying down and parking our bikes in the hold. At the same time he asked for our ticket. Unfortunately we didn't have the ticket. Cecilia was sure that one of the people back at the dock had kept it after examining it. The ticket was checked by at least a half-dozen people before we came on board. Anyway since we didn't have the ticket, and Matthew still wasn't over his scare with the immigration, Cecilia went off to look for it, while I argued with the captain regarding the "service" charge, and Massimo stood by looking very bemused. I simply refused to pay and after a while of cross discussions regarding the lack of "service" and the fact that we had already paid a "service" charge for what we believed was exactly this "service" or lack thereof, the captain stormed away in a huff and we got off not paying any more. I was particularly adamant about not paying, since they had in fact not provided any service at all. If anything they were more un-helpful than helpful, and we did everything ourselves, with our own equipment. The captain couldn't even argue that we were using ships equipment (ropes, tie-downs, etc.) to secure our vehicles! I almost felt sorry for him. It really looks like he is at the end of a chain of officials who all cash in on the tourist or travelers, and he wants his cut also, but of course the more efficient everyone else is the less is left for him to cash in on!! In particular the ticket office guys seem to be able to cash in the best.

After 30 minutes or so, Cecilia comes back and says that she needs her passport, so she gets it from the captain and takes off again! After another 45 minutes she comes back. No-one at the dock had the ticket, so she had to go back to the ticket office to get a copy. The guys at the customs got someone to drive her up to the ticket office and driver her back, since they said it was too far to walk! All thought that I was pretty mean, making poor little Cecilia do all this work, and were therefore much more helpful. She got a copy and gave it to the captain and everyone was happy!

[Cecilia, Ferry to Kazakhstan just leaving]

Ok, so now we are on the ferry, we have our stuff in the cabins, and even managed to lock the door! So we stand outside on the top deck and watch the comings and goings. Across from us the ferry from Kazakhstan pulls up and lets the few passengers off, takes on new passengers, unloads the cargo and re-loads cargo and leaves! It took 4 hours or so, but it was gone, and we are still here! We got bored, and got out some of our supplies and had a nice little picnic. Watched the sunset over Baku and finally at 22:00 (10pm), we leave. This is pretty good for us as it means that we aren't going to be waiting for the guide who was supposed to meet us at 9:00 the next morning in Turkmenbashi.

[Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan]

The trip across the Caspian was un-eventful. You could barely tell that the ferry was moving the water was totally flat. No wind or waves, so we slept very well indeed. We got up in the morning and we were still quite a way out, it would be after lunch time by the time we got there. All good things must come to an end and sure enough, eventually we docked and were asked to vacate our cabin, which we did. We were told to wait upstairs after we got our bikes out of the way and packed, which we then did. In a while a lady comes on-board and we were told to go for a medical check! Ok, so we stand in front of the door while the only other passenger, a local Turkmen goes through the check and then it is our turn. I go first, she asks a couple of questions, where are we from, where have I traveled, and I get my temperature checked, that was it. The rest get the same questions, and she just copies my temperature on their charts and that was that.

Next comes the immigration. They took all our passports, and in 30 minutes or so come back and say that Massimo and Matthew can go off the ship, we have to wait for the consul to come from Turkmenbashi, as we had no visas, and it would be issued here, but only the consul could do it. Ok, no problem, we settle in for a nice wait, while we watch our companions disembark.We wait. We wait some more, and some more. After more than an hour and a half, we are told to go to the immigration building, so we finally get to disembark. We ride the 100 meters to the parking lot and park our bikes next to Massimos which is still here! Not a good sign.

Once inside the building, we are told to first pay the "Entry fee", 12 dollars each, ok, no problem. I stand in front of this window, the lady takes the passports and writes out a receipt in triplicate and then duplicates the work for Cacilia. We both sign our names on each of the three copies of our receipt, pay the $24.00 and go back to the immigration officer. As we were doing this our guide, Dima walks up and introduces himself. He has just finished with Matthew, who is now safely ensconced in the auto in the parking lot. He informs us that the reason we had to wait so long was that the consul had car problems and another car had to be sent to town to pick him up!

The immigration officer takes the receipt and our passports and starts filling out some form. When suddenly he stops and starts to talk to Dima about something, Dima turns to us and tells us that the printer is out of ink, and they have to send someone into town to pick up a new cartridge so we have to wait some more! Ok, no problem. In the meanwhile we do manage to get through customs, with Dimas help. He helps the officer fill out the customs form, and basically offers all the standard answers. We don't even have to show the bikes, or our luggage as Dima tells them that it is all affixed to the bike and can't be taken off.

After about 40 minutes he returns, the process can continue. Now we sign the form that they managed to print with the new cartridge. We are then told to go and pay $51 each for the visa, so back to the bank counter, and wait for the lady to write out a receipt in triplicate and of course twice. Not to mention that we ended up paying $106.00 (51x2=102, plus 2x2 handling charge!) By the way, that also explained the $24 entry fee, the fee is $10 and $2 for the bank charge. Dima also informed me that the exchange rate on the black market is around 23,000.00 manat to the dollar. The official rate, and the rate at which everything was being charge (the receipts were for manat converted from US dollars at the official rate) is 5200 manat to the dollar. Too bad we couldn't pay anything in the local currency!! It would have cost virtually nothing.

Ok, we were now past immigration. All in all not too bad. There was virtually no-one else there, as by now all the passengers leaving had been processed, and we were the only ones arriving. Next was the customs papers for the motorcycle. First though, Dima had to straighten out a problem with the visa. On the visa the areas to be visited had to be entered and apparently they had forgotten two places we were to visit, and it took Dima a half hour with the official and a number of phone calls to sort that out!!

Back to the bikes. First to the official which filled out an official route document. This document is used to calculate the road tax, insurance and various other miscellaneous charges (disinfection for example, which wasn't done but stamped as done on the document!, oh, and charged, $1). With this document we visit various officials which put their stamp on it and passed us on to the next post. After it had all the requisite stamps, we then had to pay said document, after a last stop at the insurance booth, where they also fill out an additional document as proof of insurance. We paid this (yes, another receipt filled out in triplicate, by hand, twice!). The cost was $182 for the two of us, so $91 each. The various charges added up to $89, and of course the $2 bank charge.

By the way, gasoline in Turkmenistan is $0.017 a liter, and the road tax is apparently intended to recover some of this subsidized fuel. In the end Massimo calculated that we paid a total of $0.25 a liter for the gas we used while covering the country, not bad. These calculations are based on the black market exchange rate of course!.

We were then waved to the customs where they entered the bike data in a big book, then they sent me with another document to a different lady who put a stamp on it, no idea what that was. Then I was sent me to the police who also entered the motorcycle data in a book, put another stamp on another piece of paper, and with that we were through. Well, almost.

As soon as we got to the door, before we could walk back out the bike, we were told that we had to pay the port authority a port tax! What a relief, this was almost too easy. Anyway, this is also were we caught up with Massimo, he was almost to his bike, when they also called him back and together we went to the port authority office, where they filled out a paper. Sent us to a cashier who gave us a different piece of paper and then incredibly asked if it was ok, if she put both charges (Ceciilas and mine) on a single invoice! With this invoice, I was sent back inside to pay the port tax at the bank window, yes, you guessed it, another receipt in triplicate, but this time only one copy and therefore only one bank charge. The port tax was $10.00 per bike. So the charge was $22.00, by now we just wanted to get out of here, without killing anyone.

The whole ordeal from the time the ship docked to the time we rode out of the port was a little over 6 hours! Poor Matthew had to wait the better part of 4 hours in the car, well, not too bad actually, the car was running with the air-con going the whole time!!

Once outside we followed Dimas car to the hotel in town, which was only a couple of kilometers away. Here we unloaded our stuff into the car and only took what we need upstairs to our room.The hotel Hazar was our accommodation for the night. This turned out to be our first experience of the "intourist" class of hotels. Basically, huge hotels, with a very unpleasant and penetrating odor, lousy rooms, bad service, just generally nasty, but serviceable. The shower worked, paint peeling and rust everywhere, but to everyones surprise there was water, and even hot water. I am not going to get into the cockroaches and other nasties crawling around, but you get the idea. We stowed the bikes around the corner at some company lot.

We then went down the block to a restaurant where we had our first meal in Turkmenistan. Sturgeon grilled on coal fire. Excellent. Dima and the driver indulged in a bottle of vodka, which apparently is the standard drink around here. All the while regaling us with a propaganda speech of how great the country is, and how well everyone is being taken care of by their great leader. He even mentioned that one of the major worries is what will happen when the great leader is no longer around. Sounded like North Korea. Very interesting and bizarre at the same time. But he seemed to believe it and was very earnest about it so we just listenen intently and asked some polite questions

[Cecilia and Matthew in front of the entrance to Kow Ata, the underground lake]

[The entrance to Kow Ata, it is dark down here!!]

The following day we took of in the direction of Ashgabat, but not before changing some money at the market, for $20 I got 470,000 manat! We then went an filled up our gas tanks. The gas station itself was hard to find, if you didn't know where it was, no sign anywhere, just a couple of pumps, and a little house with huge bars over a little window where you could pass money in. The way it works, is that you have to tell the attendant how many liters you want and and pay. The pump only shows liters. We got 30 liters and paid 12,000 manat!

[Turkmenistan, Pilgrims at a mosque]

[Massimo, Dima, and Cecilia going up the stair to the sacred mosque]

Massimo had joined our party at least for a while as he was also headed the same direction. The western part of Turkmenistan is very barren and we felt right at home after being in North Africa so long. In Parou we stopped at a mosque which was the site of a "miracle", where some persecuted woman put her hands on a rock and prayed for deliverance and suddenly a cave opened which gave her shelter and hid her from her followers? Pilgrims from all over Turkmenistan come here and pray. Dima explained the story and showed us the various religious spots. Pretty interesting.

[Our "cabin", north of Nokhur]

[One of the graves with the typical sacred horns of the mountain goat]

We continued to Nokhur, a mountain village just across the border to Iran. The road was really bad, but the country beautiful, and it was nice and cool up in the mountain. Here we stayed in a nice little resort village, which we were all very surprised to see here. We were in the middle of nowhere! The reason for coming up here was the village which is a home to a group of people descended from Alexander The Greats army, who prefer to marry among themselves and keep many of the traditions of the past alive, such as decorating each grave with the horns of a mountain goat which is sacred to them. Men wear traditional fur hats, and speak in a dialect which is very different to the Turkmen language.

[View over Nokhur]

[Cecilia in the middle of Nokhur]

We had a nice stay at the resort hotel. We were served a traditional dinner of dumplings and a way bread which is very hard an keeps forever (practically). Very interesting.The following day we saw the men, the cemetery, and wandered around the village, in which there isn't much to see. In particular it is a bit strange, as there is absolutely nothing touristy about the place, and if anything you feel really out of place. Nevertheless it was an interesting experience.

[A poster of Turkmenbashi at the tourist village!!]

After that we drove through more of this desolate desert landscape, passing a few dust covered villages in the middle of nowhere. We suddenly turned and went a couple of kilometers from the main road, and stopped at a place called Kow Ata, which turned out to be an underground lake with water around 38°C. So we went swimming. A very surreal experience. First you walk down a 170 or so stairs, as soon as you step onto the first staircase the sulfur and heat hits you. At the bottom there is a platform where they have a change room and snack bar! You walk a few more steps down and there is the water. Everything is pretty dark as there are only a few lights down here. You step into the water and it is wonderful. As you swim back the light disappear and you are in complete darkness, very spooky. You keep wondering what could be below you? Other than the small platform where you stepped in there is no where to stand up so you thread water in the dark and listen to the bats flying around you. Excellent.

Eventually you get out and you are totally drained, you can barely make it to the changing room, and there are still those 170 or so steps to the top! Someone has conveniently placed a number of benches on the way up so you can take a rest, and then when you hit the outside you are freezing. Pretty strange considering it is 40°C in the sun!! A great experience.

[The largest mosque in central asia]

[The great leader, Turkmenbashi (leader of the Turkmen)]

[Statue of Turkmenbashi which follows the sun, Independence arch, Ashgabat]

[Building with a huge portrait of Turkmenbashi]

Before going into Ashgabat, we are going to take a break... More later!! Stay tuned...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Baku, Azerbaijan

We made it to Baku. Which for those Geographically challenged among you is the capital of Azerbaijan (approximately. 1.6 million), and a port city on the Caspian sea. We have come overland from Georgia, which we entered from Turkey, a little over a week and a half a go.
Before we even got out of Turkey the rains came. As we were waiting in line to get out of Turkey it started, and didn't let off until we were a good 200km into Azerbaijan.
Getting out of Turkey turned out to be more difficult than getting in. The customs papers caused a stir. As soon as they tried entering our data in their computers the system crashed. So they tried it on all the different computers they had, still the same result. For some reason their program didn't like our data! In the end they just did it by hand, and we were finally out. Then, the fun started.
First, they weren't quite sure what to do with us at the passport control as he had to make sure that we didn't need a visa, luckily, his data and our matched. So then he stamped it and let us go. Takes only 1 line to write, but 45 minutes to live through! In the meanwhile, a lot of irate, Geogians are trying to get their papers in the window, and pushing, poor Cecilia aside. Finally the guy inside, yells at them to stop it. Oh, and I forgot to mention there was only one guy working.
Well, that taken care of then the customs stuff. The guy asked a couple of cursory questions before filling out a piece of paper per bike and putting a stamp on it. Then it was off to another counter, where again, 1 guy was filling out papers. Cecilia (always send a small, poor, little blond, to do this stuff; read on) goes and stands there, just waiting. People are standing 3 deep and 8 wide at this counter, with one hapless official working. To make it more interesting it took him around 8-10 minutes per vehicle!

Anyway after standing there around 45 minutes, finally, the people behind were starting to reach the counter, and those already there, made sure that they did not push past Cecilia. It almost got into a pushing contest. The guys at the counter then, started to fight to see who could help Cecilia fill out the documentation! One person standing in line spoke some German, so it worked out pretty good. She got the paperwork filled out, got to the counter, and when everything was ready, she came and got me to sign my name. As I walked in everyone parted to let me through to the counter, where I duly signed my name to three documents!
Patients, persistence, and more patience, and a short blond girl, all help.
After this we were in Georgia.

Georgia, turns out to be very "rustic", or more properly, rural. As soon as we got into the country, we passed a small village, with cows lying in the middle of the road. The traffic roaring by as if running a slalom race. It was really fascinating to watch, which car would hit which cow. Luckily, everyone survived, that day at least in Georgia. (Forgot to mention the unlucky cow, in a tunnel just before the border in Turkey. She was hit straight on by a bus!).

There were no towns, only small villages all over Georgia, with decaying building everywhere. It was as if you had taken a time machine and gone back maybe 80 years or so. People selling fruits and vegetables on the side of the road, life unfolding in the middle of the street. The interest that the bikes created was amazing. I though that we were slowly immune to this! Everyone, from little children to the men standing around would beckon to us to stop, or yell and wave. We waved back and rolled on. It isn't a lot of fun to stop while it is pouring down, not to mention riding in a strange country, dodging, potholes, and live animals, and the occasional native.

We rode along a river valley from an hour or so before deciding to find a camping spot for the night, and sure enough one came up. Next to the river was a sawmill and a small house, and further on a nice flat area where the river made a curve. I checked it out, and as soon as I stopped, people came out of the sawmill to have a look. As I was 500 meters a way they send two kids out to check on me. I rode back to where the men where standing and made it clear what I wanted, they gestured that I could stay at the house, which I politely declined. They then made it clear that it was no problem camping in the spot I gestured to. So that is exactly what we did. As we were setting up, the whole posse showed up and stood watching us. Cecilia trying to communicate while I set the tent up. It was a lot of fun.

After getting the tent up we all sat down and tried to communicate. Which, surprisingly enough went very well. Everyone had a great time. We were then left alone for a while to enjoy the wonderful panorama of the river and valley in the distance as it slowly getting dark. It had stopped raining and was only drizzling slightly so it was bearable to be outside.

After 30 minutes the whole posse shows up again, this time bearing food and drink.
Home made wine, accompanied by potato wedges, some green "stuff" (ajapsandali), and some soup (khashi, garlic and tripe soup). I declined the wine, but heartedly ate the potatoes and the green stuff. In short other the matron showed up. It turns out that the gentlemen were all her sons, and the kids her grandsons. They were in charge of the sawmill, which is a family business, apparently, as they all worked there.

While the two gentlemen drank the wine we got our Russian dictionary and our Georgia book out and had grand time trying to explain who we were, and what we were doing.

They were very curios and asked a lot of questions, about us, about where we lived, work, travel etc. Really, really, nice, and they drank the whole 2 liter bottle of wine! Teaching us a few words of Georgian along the way. Gaumarjos! (Cheers).

Eventually as it got dark, everyone left, but only after we promised to come for tea in the morning. Which we did, and met the rest of the crew working in the sawmill.
We then continued on, over a pass at around 2000 meters. Everywhere we traveled, the same response from people, yelling, waving and running out into the street. The towns were all very dreary, although the country side is beautiful. Forest, hills, valleys, mountains. No large cities or industry. The roads, are horrible, and barely passable.
Perfect terrain for our GS, although to be hones, we could do with half the weight. Of course, as bad as the roads were, the other drivers, were still passing us right and left, sometimes two abreast, with on coming traffic. But, for old Africa hands like us this is tame (see our entry on Egypt, Morocco, et al at Now, if that wasn't enough, the rains, set in, in earnest. So now, we have a whole cornucopia of hazards to avoid. Potholes, as in POTHOLES, road waves, rocks, gravel, mud, missing asphalt, cows, dogs, sheep, a river running down the middle of the road. Ah, what fun. But the country is beautiful.

Our next stop was at a tourist attraction at Vardiza, a cave city situated above a river. It was deserted as we got there, other than a car load of aid workers. You know you are off the beaten path when the only other tourist you see are foreign aid workers! It was raining so we set up camp next to the entrance and made dinner rather than climb up to the caves. It had been a long day. The following day we decided to skip the caves, as they wanted to charge us double the posted price, and we declined. So off it was towards Tbilisi. The road went along some beautiful tea growing region, and there were castles and abandoned fortresses everywhere you looked. If I had to pick a nick name for Georgia, it would be "Land of Castles". We did manage to stop and photograph one or two. Did I mention it was raining?

In broad strokes, we rode along the Acharistskali river valley over the pass. Then over to Akhalkalaki and eventually back along the Mtkvari River valley to Mtskheta where we spent another soaking night high in the hills above the river. But not before having to fix a flat tire. After a short rest stop as we pulled away Cecilia's back tire was flat. So we stopped and started getting it off. Of course a couple of gentlemen nearby came over to have a look. Two cars passing also stopped and in the end I had an audience of 8 people watching me change the tire. When they got tired of watching they also lent a hand. The tire had a hole in the carcass and this had punctured the tube, so I decided to mount the new tire we had been carrying around since we left Switzerland. This is a knobby tire which we had planned to use in Africa, but had yet to see action. I had hoped to use the tires we had until Mongolia, as the knobbies don't last all that long. I am hoping for around 7000km. We shall see. One problem while mounting the tire, was that it wouldn't seat properly. We deflated it twice, used soap and water, all to no avail. So, I left it that way, hoping that when it was on the bike and rolling it would seat properly. This is something I had done on a number of times, and had to date always worked with the rear tire, and only once did it not work, but with a front tire. We then continued, lots of green, forests, and fields, and water everywhere to our chosen camping spot.

The following day we continued (in the rain) towards Sighnaghi, which has a great wall fortification and sits up on the hill with a great view of the plains beyond. We had a quick look, a couple of pictures, a round of the town, and then back down to a nice little spot by the river where we camped for the night, still in the rain of course.

By the following day we had had enough of the rain, we had now been soaking wet for the past 4 days, more or less, and it was time to move on. So we headed for the border at Lagodekhi. Which we barely managed due to all the flooding. The road when through kilometers of flooded villages. For long stretches the road was also underwater, sometimes almost half a meter deep. In a couple of places, another centimeter, and we would have to turn around. Cecilia's bike did flood once but made it to the other side, where after checking everything and getting the water out of the air box we continued. In all it was almost 3km of flooded roads that we had managed to pass, with much care, and quite a bit of traffic, creating large waves, which made it even more challenging.

At the border, we got into a protracted discussion with the customs guy. Apparently, all the help Cecilia hat gotten coming in didn't help, the exit point had been wrongly entered in the form. We were in the "wrong" place. Actually, we were in the right place, but the form was wrong. No dice, not even crocodile tears helped! It was pouring down rain, and the guy, even though he professed to wanting to help us, just kept saying that there was nothing he could do. We discussed it for a while longer, until finally admitting defeat and heading out in the rain again. Since we didn't want to go back the same way as we were afraid that we might end up getting stuck somewhere, so we headed north to Kvareli. This decision, at least in the beginning didn't look like a good idea. A few kilometers down the road, we had to go through a town that was completely under water. A river was running through the street, and there wasn't any other way around. A bridge was 3/4 destroyed, but we squeezed through, and luckily it only lasted until we were out of town, where the road turned into the hills. So we breathed a sigh of relief and continued. The ride was great as it wound along the right side of a wide valley, which we then crossed to get to the correct side where we then headed south and the "red bridge" border, which was the one noted on our customs documents.

Nearing Tbilisi I had a flat tire, luckily I ended up stopping just in front of a tire repair place! I got everything off and the guy there fixed all the tubes that I needed fixing (in total, three). The reason for the flat was the same as Cecilia's two days previously, the carcass had a hole in it. I showed it to the guy at the shop, and he cut me a piece of fire hose to use as a patch between the hole and the tube. So I re-mounted the tire and the fixed tube, and we took off again. Four hours later, while going through some small town, I heard a loud bang, and suddenly the bikes back end started dancing around, and I was lucky to keep the bike upright. Sure, enough the tube had blown, and I had another flat tire! So we set to work getting this fixed. Of course everyone within sight was there almost by the time I got the bike stopped.

Everyone was very helpful, and in the end, I ended up almost just directing while they did all the work, and got all dirty in the process. We got the tire on, a new tube and everything mounted, cheered on by everyone who couldn't reach in and give a helping hand. Getting the tire on the bike, gave everyone who had not helped a chance, so they literally lifted the bike so that I could get the tire back on. We also had the same problem with this tire, as I had had with Cecilia's. It wouldn't seat properly, so we just mounted it and continued.

We couldn't find a decent camping, and ended up just driving around, we even toyed with the idea of heading into Tbilisi, but ended up turning around, as we couldn't get motivated enough to look for a hotel, in the dark, in a strange city! As we were debating the best of the bad spots we had noticed a police car stopped, and we both went oooh, no, now what? But the policeman, was just curious, and even spoke some German, so after we explained what we were doing, he suggested going a couple of kilometers up the road where there was a "Turkish camping", whatever that is. Well, that, turned out to be a TIR parking, a place where truckers parked for the night, and it had toilets, a small cafe and lots of watch dogs. We explained to the guy there what we wanted and he said no problem, and showed us a spot at the back of the compound. It turned out to be pretty noisy, but passable, with the plus that we were able to cook in the shower building which no-one used. We were dead, it had been a really long day, with lots of emotional ups and downs. Cecilia nevertheless cooked a wonderful dinner and after a nice warm tea we were almost cheerful as we went to bed.

In the morning, we got up and had a nice breakfast in the shower building and got ready to leave. The camping turned out to be free, as they didn't want any money. Fine with us, and he cheerfully told us to come back on our way home! So we waved goodbye and headed for Azerbaijan. Which we then reached in short order. Red Bridge, was pretty quiet. We drove up, showed our papers, and the other than a momentary scare, due to the date on the Azerbaijani visa, which the Georgian, official assumed to be the validity date, when in actuality it was the date that the visa was issued. As soon as this was cleared up we could leave. Great, only took around 15 minutes.

Now for Azerbaijan. At the control point, we stopped behind the cars and waited. Waited some more. They were letting in a car every 10 minutes or so! Of course, someone in a turbo Mercedes would just drive by and cut in, shutting off traffic until they let him in. As we were sitting there watching the show, a money changer came by and we changed our remaining Georgian Lari to the Azerbaijani Manat, for our 23 lari we got 50,000 manat! He also said to just drive to the front of the gate, and started directing traffic around us so that we could get out and move to the gate. He then proceeded to talk to the military guards at the gate, and presently one came over and asked for our passports. With these in had, he took off and presently came back and and waved us inside.

Great, we were now at customs, and as usual this is where the problems always start. Maybe we should be doing this with a bicycle? To make a long story short, ok, shorter. It took 2.5 hours in total to get out of Georgia and into Azerbaijan. The majority of time, 2 hours was spent at customs in Azerbaijan. Cecilia was shuffled back and forth, and there was a lot of problems with the language. In the end the result was we got into the country with our 15 day visa, no problem. The motorcycles, were only awarded a 3 day transit visa. So the end result is that we have to be out on the 8th of July! The problem is that as a tourist, with your own transportation, customs requires a deposit of 10,000$ per bike, and unfortunately after counting our loose change we just couldn't come up with it. Well, actually it is even more complicated. You can only leave the deposit if you come back out the same way, otherwise you probably won't be allowed to leave, and loose your deposit? As we weren't coming back this way, this was out for us, and we would not have left such a deposit anyway! Leaving the only alternative, a transit visa for three days.

So now we were in Azerbaijan! This makes the 14th country so far this trip. First thing we noticed, it is relative prosperous, and there is much more "color" than in Georgia. This is something, which we later realized is due to the fact that in Georgia, there was nearly no advertisement. As soon as you hit Azerbaijan, there are billboards and signs for all the usual stuff. This had been missing in Georgia, so you only saw the drab buildings, which Azerbaijan also has, but they at least have some "promotional" color! Additionaly the roads are much better, and there is a lot of building and construction going on. So next to the economic basket case which is Georgia, Azerbaijan stands out as a progressive and prosperous country. The people are incredible, again. I am starting to run our of adjectives to describe all the interest and friendliness that all the people show us as we travel around. The Azerbaijanis nearly run us over to talk to us at traffic lights or on the road. Very dangerous, but incredible curious and friendly.

The road towards Baku, goes straight through the center of the country, which is totally flat, flanked by mountain ranges right and left. This is the bread basket of the country, pretty boring, but at least we were making headway. Only when we go into towns, or away from the main roads, are you reminded of the roads in Georgia. If anything in places it is worse here, as they are re-routing some of the main roads while working on them, and you are forced to go through some very adventurous ground. (Have I mentioned lately, that it was still raining!). After a few hours in Azerbaijan, we finally hit some dry weather. The rain stopped, and we could see clear weather in the distance. Great, finally.

We rode as far as we could, and shortly before it got dark, we got lucky and found a hotel. Lucky, while we were actually on the wrong road. This one also heads to Baku, but is slower than the main road, and has less traffic, so why there was a hotel here was not quite clear. Nevertheless, there was one, and I negociated a price of 20manat (new manat = 100,000 old manat). And we moved into a nice large room in an old barrack building, which had been converted to a hotel. Perfectly passable. We spread all our stuff around to try and dry some of it, making a huge mess in the process.

The following day we headed to Baku, now only a 150km away. Baku, turned out to be a busy metropolis, with all the usual amenities, and noise, traffic and confusion. We are starting to be really adverse to going into cities. Something which we always have dreaded. We rode around, trying to make sense of the maps which we had, the most detailed being the city map in the Lonely Planet, Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan. A book, you should avoid like the plague. We have been and continue to be big fans of the series, but this one is horrible. The data is worse than useless and just plain badly written and researched.

As we were trying to find a hotel, a cab driver stopped and asked us if he could help. We explained, and in short order he offered to show us to the hotel, which he then did, for no remuneration. Great. The hotel didn't turn out to be what we had wanted to we headed to another one but, the gesture was wonderful. In the end we settled for a relative expensive but well located hotel near the port, which had great parking for the bikes. This is something which I probably have mentioned before, but I am going to do it again. Whenever we stay in a hotel, I am very, very reluctant to stay anywhere, where the bikes have to be parked on the street. Only on a couple of occasions have I done this, and I try to avoid it. This means that the hotels which we stay in have to accommodate this, and those that can are usually a bit dearer than your run of the mill flop house. Which, would suit us fine, but not my bikes.

So that brings us to the end of this opus. We are going to try and get on the ferry tomorrow morning. Today we checked out the ferry port, so we know now where it is, no thanks to the LP which has it wrong. We weren't able to get tickets in advance as there was no-one at the ticket counter there. The information was that they would be back in an hour, and we didn't feel like waiting. So we will head out early in the morning and hope for the best.

As a last word, we certainly would like to come back to Georgia, and spend much, much more time there exploring the country and its people. The same for Azerbaijan, but only when they change their convoluted customs regulations. I can easily imagine spending a month or two just crusing around the country. Oh, well, next time.

Turkmenistan awaits.