Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kok Buro

Now cast your mind back, think of Rambo, John Rambo, he is in Afghanistan or somewhere around here playing a weird and crazy game, like football yet the players ride horses and the ball is a headless goat! Well this is called Kok Buro and to my luck I got to see it the other day here in Kyrygzstan and boy was it a spectacle.

The Ball, well goat!

The ball(goat) was standing all innocent unknowingly what was its fate, they slashed it throat, off with the head and its hoofs and they game began. Set in a natural stadium like no other, at an altitude of about 3000 meters and mountains towering even higher all around the valley we stood.

Ready awaiting for the game to begin.

Whats going through his mind??
A loan horsemen would gallop away from about 20 riders to place the goat about 200 meters away and then it was on,all the riders would gallop racing toward the goat,the first there leaning right off the horse at full speed and picking up the goat,then before anyone else could get hold of the goat he would try to tuck it under hi leg holding it in place. There are no teams, its every man for himself. It was rough, with horses slamming into each other in attempts to grab the goat from an opponents grasp. These guys could ride, often with no hands whilst at full gallop playing tug of war with a goat against another rider.

Action time, catch me if you can.

The long stretch down for the goat, there goes my hat.
There was no such pitch, just a marked spot where the goat had to be placed by the rider, often the horse mallet would spill in the small crowds direction, we would all turn and run otherwise end up crushed under the pack of horses.

Securing the goat under the leg.

The natural stadium, the players in the background.

The goat has seen better days!

Its mine!
Now of course the locals were interested tin Dirk and I as been the only 'tourists' there all kitted out in our bike gear, gesturing if we could ride a horse, well I stupidly gave the impression I could ride a horse, well I can but not like these mad buggers, so within seconds they had me a horse, what the hell, John Rambo would be proud!! I swung a leg over the grey stead and before I knew it they threw me the goat, it was on, wrestling, with other riders whilst trying to break away with this bloody headless goat hook under my stirrup, hell it was rough, again a thought of what am I doing. Whips flying everywhere, riders geeing their horse into the pack, wow it was mad. After about two minutes I think they let(not think, I know they did) let me break away and place the goat on the spot, which I still missed by a good goat length or so!!

Not exactly Rambo but I tried.

No head locks mate.
Not to be out done Dirk who cant ride a horse thought he needed to come up with something as the crowd focused on him, there stood a donkey with a 5 year old boy on it, the boy got off and Dirk mounted the Donkey, his feet nearly touching the ground, with the goat in hand a horseman whipped the donkeys arse as it shot off randomly around the crowd, everyone hoping he would fall off, well I was anyway, very funny,a cheer went up when Dirk dismounted.

Now here we have John Rambo the second.

Hang on to that might stead Dirk!

The ref of the match.

The end of the day.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway runs from Khorog in Tajikistan all the way to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, now the use of the word highway is a very loose term that's for sure but its basically a road that runs through the Pamir mountains with many high passes, most around and over 4000 meters. Still riding with Dirk we wound our way down along the Afghan border, stopping at tea houses for lunch and breaks, the people were friendly but of course there was some trouble, plenty of rock throwing children in this part of the world. Most are ignored but after about the tenth one gets a little tired of it, we caught one child and kicked his arse, only to look up and some men from the village running at us waving shovels, I said to Dirk, "what you think, you reckon they want trouble?" Dirk replied "well lets not hang about to find out" we rode off leaving them in our dust not feeling any better about the situation wondering weather we make it worse or better for the next guy on a bike passing that particular village??

Many suspension bridges are strung across the raging river below.

Tajik Lady.
Along the border with Afghanistan there were loads of signs waning of landmines, evidence of a troubled past, along with this and the sharp corners and drop offs into the raging river below the concentration levels always had to be high. We continued along an area called the Whakkan Valley, again following he Afghan border for about 2 days, we would toot our horns to the Afghan people walking on the other side of the river, all that separates the two countries, they would wave back with both arms, hard to believe looking across that right there in that country is the Taliban and thousands of troops, this area though is a world away from that, maybe Osama is hiding up here somewhere!
A tank from a troubled past, not a good place to park!

Photo Taken at around 3500 metres, one of many high passes.

Fuel from a bucket, reminds me of back in Africa.

The road climbed in altitude after leaving the Valley to around 3500 meters, it was a dramatic rise and the first night I felt the effects of the altitude with a splitting headache but after 24 hours my body seemed to adjust, lucky as the road continued at this height for the remainder of the time in Tajikistan. High in the mountains also bought another world, the people with big round faces, dark skin from the harsh conditions, Yaks roaming the flat high plains, not a tree in sight, why would people want to live here was my thought, what a place, it was amazing.

Dirk having a closer look at the terrain!

Manpower at the gates to Afghanistan.

It once was the former USSR!

That's Afghanistan in the background.

Dirk at it again!

One of many road blokes encountered on the Pamir Highway.

Lets Go!
Now leaving Tajikistan we had a small problem, well Dirk did not me, his visa for Kyrygzstan wasnot starting for another 8 days but if he wanted to come through Russia and Mongolia with me then I was not about to wait 8 days in Tajikistan, besides the mountains there ain't much else to entertain. So we decided to see if we could get across the border anyway, the border post was at almost 4000 metres so went in with the altitude sickness angle, it was going well until Dirk pulled something from his pannier in front of the guards and his crap paper fell out and started rolling down the mountain, his natural reaction was to set chase, not so sick after all, at least the officials laughed, then inside the little wooden shack getting our passports stamped an official was interested in my bike gloves, he pulled his pistol from his hip and waved it in my face suggesting we swap, hmmm very bizarre scene. Out of Tajik was no worries, they believed he was sick but it was stamping into Kyrygz was the test. We rode of across the 20 kilometers of no mans land and just as we got out of sight of the Tajik border Dirks bike decided to stop so here we were at about 4200 meters, in No mans land, Dirk supposedly sick and the bike would not start, after some fiddling we discovered it to be the fuel pump so by passing it was the quick solution until at least we got of this bloody mountain! The Kyrygz side was a breeze we could not believe our luck, the guy did not even noticed the visa start date as we both stood there nervously waiting for the obvious answer of, "problem". After about 10 minutes we were in, great it meant I did not have to wait a week somewhere and Dirk did not have to Spend a week in Tajikisatan.

Curious on looker.

Tajik men sitting about.

This fence separates Tajikistan China, I hope to be on the other side of it in a few months.

The road between the two countries, most beautiful no mans land I have ever seen.

The Tunnel of Doom

I eventually picked up my Tajikistan visa in Tashkent and headed straight for the border the following day, arriving at the border I was told that it was closed to foriegners and I had to ride 50 k's to the East to the next crossing, when I arrived there I received the same news, shit I was getting frustrated, now my only option was to go back west the 50 k's I had just come and then another 200k's around to the border I knew was open to foreigners. Pissed of and exhausted I made it accross into Tajikistan by 3 in the arvo which should have been more like 11 am!!

Arriving into Tajik saw me leave behind the long hot flat plains and start to climb into the mountains, the futher I ventures the more snow was on the peaks of the high mountains, it was a welcome change, especially the cooler temperature. The road deteriated into a gravel track and determined to make up a little lost time skirting thg the border looking for an entry point I pushed on late into the afternoon, only to be stopped ny a huge row of banked up cars and trucks at a bridge. I soon learnt the bridge was closed til 7pm, so I decided to have dinner there by the roadside in a small cafe, wait for the bridge to open and then ride a bit before finding a camp. Whilst I ate another Africa Twin pulled up next to mine, the first motor bike traveller I had met in a long time, Dirk from Belgium, also headed to Australia, so once the bridge opened we raced off in the mad rush that was between all the other waiting motorist.

The cars waitibg at the closed bidge.

Now up until this point I have yet to come across any challenging adventure besides the peper work problems, which is more of a headache than anything until the next morning, with what I called The Tunnel of Doom. Now I had a Canadian mate come through this area a few months back and he emailed me some points about the road and the area, one point in particular was always in the back of my mind, his advice was this quote "mind the fucking tunnel!" Now to me that was some warning.

It was 630 am and here we sat facing the opening of the tunnel, we had missed the pass about 20 k's back to take the pass over the top of the mountain and could not go back due to lack of fuel. It was cold the sky was bleak and the tunnel looked like something out of a typical horor movie, a huge black hole with water spewing from its mouth. There was a Lada stood at the entrance engadging its 4WD so we thought this is our chance lets follow it and then we can gauge the depth of the water. The Lada lurched forward into the massive pool of water at the entrance, Dirk followed and I went also but not noticing Dirk hit qa rock beneath the surface causing him to stop dead in the water, I had to brake suddenly and put my foot down, instanly my boot filled with freezing cold water, not a good start. Gaining our composer we crawled into the darkness, it was cold, not a light inside only our own. We followed and watched the Lada dip and bounce its way along, the water at times 3 foot deep, what the hell was I doing I thought!!

The Tunnel of Doom!
Now both legs were soaked and the bow wake formed of the front of the bike was causing water to spill over the windscreen, occassionally the front end would dip after hitting a rock that was completely a supprise. At one stage I saw from what light my headlight offered a reo rode sticking out just above the murkiy surface, I swerved but it scrapped along the sides of the wheels, dont fall over in here was my only thought. 1 kilometer then 2 down the Lada negoiating its way through with our bikes rumbling behind it, the mothership seemed in its element up to its tank in the icy water. At times water spilled from the roof from cracks, we passed old broken down trucks and cars, probably destained never to come out, also passing trucks coming the other way splashing water all over us, I was soaked. My eyes burnt and my lungs screamed for some fresh air, to escape the thick cloud of deisel fumes. Just after the 4 kilometer mark the water became shallower and then in the distance the light at the end of the tunnel. 5 k's long it was as we entered the world again, we had made it out, almost felt like an amazing acheivment just to get out unscathed, what a rush of adrenaline that was. Now I understodd what my mate ment by "avoid the fucking tunnel!"
Out the other end, releif!

The cold wet mountains after the tunnel.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan

I eventually got out of Iran, exiting the country with the bike was a breeze compared to three wees early trying to enter, took only 30 minutes not three days!! From the moment I entered into Turkmenistan I was in a new part of the world, seeing plenty of old Russian Ural sidecars, Lada's, men wearing shorts(not in Iran) and to see a women's head uncovered was a shock!!

With 2 days of my 5 day transit visa already passed I simply did what the visa suggested, transited through, across the Gumbarra desert and boy was it hot. One thing I did notice from the very first person I spoke with was two rows of glowing gold teeth in his mouth, seems about two out of three people have a mouth full of gold teeth, maybe trying o keep up with the crazy late president, Turkmenbashi who erected a huge golden statue of himself in the capital, Turkmenistan has a strange past and is a strange place, all the border guard could say to me was Kalashnikov, pointing t my roll bag, suggesting I had a machine gun tucked away in there!

I spent the first night camped in the desert and then the following day saw me enter Uzbekistan, still stifling bloody hot I rode to the town of Bukarra for a wonder around the ancient Mosques before retiring to the Band B before my brain was fried from the heat. With time not really on my side and my Krygyzstan visa starting I have to keep on the move, still have to get to Tajikistan before there and get a visa for it in Tashkent, 4 hours north of where I am here in the holy city of Smarakand. I caught up with my Swiss mates who had an interesting but successful trip through Afghanistan, good to see them in one piece.

I have found out some important info on getting my Russian visa and Chinese visa in Tashkent also so tomorrow been Sunday I will keep on the move to the capital and spend a few days trying for these elusive visas. Two many people are telling me that I will not get into Russia and then I will never get into China, I do realise that China is difficult, it has really shut its doors due to the Olympics, Tibet protests and the earthquake so of course it may well be impossible but to be constantly told by others I will not make it is tiring, time will tell and all will unfold in the coming weeks.

The trusty Honda is proving itself, turning over the K's in the extreme heat, although the other day my fuel pump decided it had had enough but luckily I had a spare so ten minutes later I was on my way again, dare I say this but I was only thinking the other day I have not had a puncture since about Kenya, about bloody time!

Friday, July 04, 2008

What a Nightmare

Well I have spent a week in Tehran now and for any of you have been here you will understand when I scream, 'Get me out of here', seems I have been saying that a lot lately. What you are about to read is not meant to make sense, I cant figure it out anyway, if you can make light of it please let me know.

It goes something like this-the order of countries I am crossing is as follows, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tadjikstan, Krygyzstan, Kazahkstan and then Russia. Right I have my Krygyz and Kazahk visa already, I applied in Mashhad at the Turkmen consulate for my 5 day transit visa across Turkmen, which I was told to wait 10 days, great, so then I caught a bus for 16 hours to Tehran, what a lovely place to be!!! Upon arrival I went straight to the Uzbek embassy for a visa, was told that Australia and Uzbek have no relations therefor need to apply through an agent for this, luckily I knew this and already applied through an agent the day before to get the ball rolling as it takes 4-5 days, I just thought to try my luck to see if they would give me one. So the next day in Tehran I met a German couple who suggested since I have time waiting for my Uzbek LOI(letter of invitation) I should try for my Chinese visa, seems they have stopped issuing them of late due to the Tibet dramas, earth quake and Olympics, so off I go to the Aussie embassy to get a LOR(letter of recommendation) paid 30 bucks for a piece of paper with two lines on it saying that the passport I have is mine, crazy, but needed to apply for a Chinese visa.

So another day passes, all this takes time in this huge polluted city of 14 million people! Next morning I go early to the Chinese embassy to line up, I was told it gets busy, well busy ain't the word, I arrived an hour before it opened and put my name on the list, they see you in order of arrival until 12pm and then they close, I was 99th on the list, one Iranian chap told me I was wasting my time as he had been lining up since 1 am and others, the top ten on the list had been there since the night before, holy shit not for me, I left and scrapped that idea.

Then I get an email from a Swiss traveller, Luc back in Mashhad who is waiting for his Turkmen visa there also saying that he went to the embassy and there is a sign on the door saying, closed for 10 days and there will be no more visas issued, oh crap what does that mean for me. So a trip to the Turkmen embassy here in Tehran, told them I applied and need my visa, the guy was friendly enough and told me to return the following day as he would ring the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat and see if my visa application had been processed. Oh and Luc and his mate Mark are now diverting through Afghanistan due to the Turkmen consulate been shut, good luck lads!

So that brings me to Thursday which is the last working day of the week, Friday and Saturday is the weekend. So still waiting for the Uzbek LOI and now Turkmen visa, of course both embassies are open for 2 hours so the chances of getting both in one day would be slim. Now in Iran us outsiders can't use our ATM cards, visa, nothing at all accept hard currency and since the Port took a small fortune for my bike, the exsorbirent cost of visas and now an extended stay in Iran I am running out fast so I needed both visas on Thursday so I could go back to Mashhad and get the hell out of here. Anyway of to Turkmen, yep visa had come through, come back at 4 pm and collect it, great, I had to leave my passport there so that meant another few days here waiting for Uzbek visa. Then Thursday night I got confirmation that I have received my LOI for Uzbek so that's Sunday I can get there for the visa at the earliest , so once I have that visa its just the Tadj visa to pick up in Uzbeks capital Tashkent. But I need to move as my Krygyz and Kazahk visas are almost running and I only have thirty days on them. Oh and to top it off the latest is that the Ruski's have changed their rules and its a cool $300US for a visa. What a nightmare to travel in this neck of the woods. Is this why I love doing what I am doing, I have reached the point that nothing will work and if it does then its a bonus.

To top it all off I have been propositioned half a dozen times for sex and yes all by blokes, the women here are suppressed to no end, there is no beer and the food keeps me busy if you know what I mean and lack of toilet paper in the squat toilets is wearing thin!!!

Ok its Monday now, second day into the working week, I went to the Uzbek embassey yesterday and of course it was closed due to a national holiday in Uzbekistan so back the hotel for another day in Tehran. And today I got it after lining up and waiting about an hour, so tonight I am on the overnight train to Mashhad to reunite with the bike and tomorrow I have to get moving as my Turkmenistan visa started today and I only have 5 days on it, I dont need any more hold ups else shit will really hit the fan!

I must say though since been here in Iran the people have been amazing, there help, kindness and welcoming nature has made for a better wait than expected, especially here in Tehran, I think I have drank enough tea though to last a Brit's lifetime!

So I have all my visas except Tadjikistan which I will pick up in a week or so when I arrive in Tashkent, Uzbek capital, and most importantly a beer awaits just accross the border, its been a long long time.

Distance in a straight line to home is 12 294 kms.

Out of the Pot and into the fire!

Early Saturday morning on the 21st of June I finally rode to the port in Sharjah, everything went well as I watched them sling my bike by crane up off the dock and down into the hull of the catamaran. As I stepped of the dock and onto the ferry I thought to myself I cant believe this was it I was leaving the UAE after such a long time, I almost felt I needed a well deserved rest but little did I know things would only become more interesting.

It was dark by time we docked in Bandar Abbas, Iran, since unloading was going to be awhile I went off and cleared immigration, no problems there, now all I have to do is collect my bike , clear customs and be off to town for some sleep, tomorrow Iran awaits. After immigration I went back to the ferry and after some time finally got my bike off and then road toward the gate. Of course now it was late and the reply from the man at the gate in Farsi was that the customs officers had gone home for the day and that I would have to leave my bike in the compound for the night. Reluctantly I parked the bike in the compound and got a taxi to town and after the third try at finding a cheap hotel found myself in a little room wondering how the next day would unfold.

The new day bought nothing but misery, straight to the port I went and walked in to collect my bike, I got within about 50 meters of the compound a security guard stopped me and after a few minutes I gathered I was not aloud to my bike and had to follow him, I did and he took to me to the office to collect a pass, ok this was no worries, fare enough, then back my bike to take it to Customs, still I was not aloud to take it out of the compound, the guard told me to wait and then he rode of on his 125cc and came back an age later with Mohammod and thank goodness for him as he spoke reasonable English. Together now we went to clear customs, immediately I was asked for my Carnet(that’s the bikes passport) which I do not have, I will say now I was aware I needed one for Iran and it was my own fault I got into this predicament I did and I do not recommend to any other people wanting to go to Iran without a carnet for their vehicle. I was told I can not enter Iran, shit what to do, we tried every effort we could and even had a meeting with the head of customs, the answer was ‘NO’.

They told me I had two options, transport the bike all the way across Iran by truck or go back to UAE. Neither where appealing but with all the hassle back to UAE was a thought, I was over it and I had only been gone a day. This took all day and Mohammod invited me to stay with him and his wife, very kind so I accepted and returned home with him again leaving my bike at the port. Of course I was not the best guest with my mind working overtime, what the hell to do?

Interesting part was when it was time for bed, Mohammad lay two thin matress's on the floor, stupidly I said 'oh great I will stack them on top of one another for more comfort', no silly me what was I thinking, Mohammad replied that he was sleeping next to me.....hmm I was a little worried....but woke in the morning with everything all ok!!!

The following morning saw me back to my favourite place, the port! This time I went and saw all the same people again and asked surely there is something they can do for me, showed them a world map of my journey and said that 40 other countries had let me come this far and that I hope Iran does not be the one to stop me, I could see there minds working and starting to think in a different direction. And then with a lot of umming and arghing they said to me ‘you will ride your bike across Iran’ bingo the very words I wanted to hear. Then began the biggest and longest paper trail I have ever been involved in, it took about 5 hours, 20 different people and about 15 different stamps to clear customs, by 3 o’clock I was riding, free to go!

It was bloody hot out here in the Iranian desert.

Nice load!

I have made good progress, I crossed the Eastern desert region of Iran straight to Mashhad, it was the hottest I have ever experienced in the entire trip, above 50 degrees. Every 50 kilometers there are little watering points, I would stop dowse myself in water and for the next 10 minutes it was like instant air conditioning until I dried out again.

Its slightly cooler here in Mashhad but in the next few days I have to go down to Tehran to apply for my Uzbekistan visa then back here to pick up my Turkmenistan visa, it’s a logistical nightmare trying to pass through this region but I am sure it will be all worth it once the visas are sorted, and the latest I here is Russia is almost impossible to get and China have stopped issuing visas, fantastic, I have a lot to look forward to.