The Stans Without a Plan – Part I

Posted on July 18, 2015

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We really had very little idea about where we were headed after leaving the Caucuses. The extent of our information was something like this: Kazakhstan is enormous, it’s really hot in Uzbekistan, there is an awesome road called the Pamir Highway. First though, we had to get ourselves across the Caspian Sea.

Days gone by

Day after day we were told the same thing by the company that handles scheduling for the shipping company that crosses the Caspian Sea, “No boat today, but definitely tomorrow”. Each tomorrow came and went with another reason why we weren’t on it. One day it left early in the morning when were told that it would leave in the evening. Another day the boat was only taking rail cars filled with oil and there was no room for motorbikes. The day after that it was too windy to sail. One day when we were told that the boat would sail, we took a taxi all the way to where the bikes had been quarantined in customs, only to learn that the plan had changed and we couldn’t retrieve the bikes at all. Each time that Mike and I headed off to customs or to the ticket office, the girls would pack everything up and be waiting at the ready for the dash 70 km south to Alat.

After a week in Baku, the stars finally aligned and we got our tickets for the boat. The only problem now was that the customs guy noticed that the official at the Georgian border where we crossed into Azerbaijan had mistakenly written an ‘L’ in my license number instead of a 1. It seemed like a simple problem to solve, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Apparently, this was a massive clerical error on the grandest scale of bureaucratic oopsies. The suggestion by the official was that I should ride back across Azerbaijan and Georgia to the same border post. In their assessment, the only way this could be solved was by me riding 5 days the wrong direction to sit down in front of the same guy who made the mistake. This was just idiotic. After much discussion (mostly with our hands) and hours worth of driving around from one office to another, we finally sorted it and out with no time to spare in getting to the boat, we rode for Alat.

Adrift

After  all the madness to get my errant “L” sorted out and rushing to the boat, we were excited to finally be on our way.  We weren’t quite breaking any speed records – toting a hull full of railway cars, our ship moved at the breakneck pace of about 13 miles an hour. But no matter, were finally on the way! Then, lying in our bunks, we felt the deep rumble of the diesel engines cease. We had stopped moving. I got up and looked out off the port side to see the lights of Baku. Eventually the info came down the chain of command that there was a fierce wind brewing and we would be sheltering in the lee of point Baku until it passed. Seven hours of travel and boat logistics had gotten us exactly 10 miles offshore of where we’d just spent a week waiting. Just to be clear, this wasn’t a storm, it was a bit of wind. This must be a seriously tippy boat to warrant such caution. It was a day and a half before we heard those engines rumble to life again, when we all gathered out on the deck watching and we finally slipped by the tip of point Baku.

We’d met some other travelers on the boat. Two English guys on Yamaha Tenere’s, another on a Suzuki DRZ, a German on a DR650, and another Englishman on a bicycle. We swapped all swapped travel stories and shared our plans for routes and ultimate destinations. Everyone else on the boat seemed much better prepared than us. Our bikes and gear were a pretty sorry sight compared to theirs.

Asphalt dreams

By the time we finally arrived in Aktau at 1 AM, we’d been on the boat for 3 days and 3 nights. We began the process to enter Kazakhstan, which turned out to be one of the most difficult customs odysseys of the entire trip. We were sent riding around from one building to another seeking a coveted collection of stamps on our documents that could secure our release from the port. When we thought we’d gotten it all done at about 4 AM, we learned that the clerk that needed to receive a $10 fee wouldn’t be in until 8:30 AM. Everyone was exhausted by that point, except Rebecca who seemed to have an endless supply of Snickers and peanut butter fueled energy. When there was nothing left to do, we all collapsed straight onto the parking lot as the day began to break.

I don’t think that I ever would have thought to use motorcycle boots as part of my bedding before this night. We all slipped into a few minutes or hours of semi-unconsciousness, until we could feel the sun begin to beat down on us in earnest. After we were allowed to pay our fee, we were directed to the same buildings that we’d already visited to acquire another round of stamps. A collection of about 15 or so of the colorful stamps finally seemed to satisfy the guard at the gate so that by 11 AM, we were finally escaped the port. The whole crew, 6 bikes strong was quite the spectacle riding through the streets of Aktau. Ollie, one of the British Tenere riders kept doing wheelies. We motored to a café and then to a cheap guesthouse to collapse for the day.

Broken in Beyneu

We slept most of the afternoon and through the night and then got moving by 5 AM the next morning, trying to beat the heat. We rode a rocky, bumpy road, headed for the town of Beyneu, where we would turn southeast to head towards Uzbekistan. The Tenere luggage setup had worked on the tarmac, but now items were periodically making their escape from the bungee-cord nest as the bike bounced along the bone-shaking road.  Rebecca’s book collection disappeared into the dust her running shoes tried to go on a run without her.

After an hour or so, Team Tenere disappeared from our rear view mirror. We stopped to wait for a spell before turning back to find them fussing with the luggage setup again. The rack had given out again and the rear box of the Tenere, ever-blooming with dry bags, backpacks, and shoes was hanging off the back. We had no idea what was ahead, so our only choice was to turn back and stop at the first settlement to look for a welder. We were in luck and found a guy straight away. The rack wasn’t actually made for this model Tenere, so there was no place to bolt the rack down securely. Our new welder friend set about fabricating some brackets that he welded to the subframe, and within a couple hours she was solid as could be.

We weren’t allowed to leave without trying a dose of fermented camel’s milk and letting our welder friend have a go on the Tenere. He was a short guy and the Tenere is tall, so the only way that he could get on the thing was by climbing up onto the well, which meant he wouldn’t be able to stop the bike until he got back round to that well. We watched in horror as he jerkily let the clutch out and thought that he was surely going to dump it. He ripped up and down the road and we let out a sigh of relief when he managed to return safely return to the well to dismount.

The sun climbed and the temperature rose as we rode on for hours. We ran out of water. We hadn’t ridden in a remote desert like this for a long time and had become complacent about carrying enough water. There was no shade to be found and we took refuge in the occasional culverts beneath the road for some reprieve from the sun. It was a culvert party. Can you feel the heat?

 

We finally reached the town Beyneu where we found water and a place to hide from the sun. We were stoked. After the sun went down, Mike and I rode off to gas up the bikes a few miles away in preparation for an early departure the following morning. Riding back from the gas station the Tenere killed and wouldn’t restart. It had been intermittently shutting down all day and we had no idea why. In the open desert we weren’t going to try to figure it out,  so we applied the tried and true method of ignore it and hope it goes away.   Not so this time. It was dark and we were exhausted from the day, so we decided to get the bike back to the guesthouse and figure it out in the morning.   When I tried to start my bike to go get the tow strap, it wouldn’t start either. Perfect.   Both bikes just happened to give up at the very same moment in the dark and the end of a very long day. I guess they were fed up with the heat as well.

We managed to push start Dyna Rae, so that I could go get the tow strap. The last time I’d towed a bike was in the middle of Abuja, Nigeria and it wasn’t the smoothest affair. I’d since learned that a better way to do it would be to connect the strap to my right foot peg and the Mike’s left foot peg.   It worked pretty well considering that we were riding on a bumpy gravel shoulder in the dark and my headlight wouldn’t even turn on.

The next morning we got into the bikes. My battery had gone flat, so either the battery had died or it wasn’t being charged properly. If it wasn’t being charged properly it could either be the stator, the regulator/rectifier unit, or broken connection/wire. If it was anything but a broken wire or connection I would be out of luck as there was no way to get a replacement part. When I removed the reg/rec unit I hit the jackpot – a wire had pulled right out of it.   I was lucky – it was an easy fix.

The Tenere was getting gas, the air filter was clean enough, but when we pulled the plug and grounded it against the frame to check for spark, we saw nothing.   It could be either something in the wiring loom, the coil, or the CDI unit that handles the ignition control. A local guy who was magic with a multi-meter came over and started checking for continuity down the line and eventually got to the CDI unit. It was toast. This wasn’t good, since the only way that the bike would run was to find a replacement CDI unit. Mike started looking online to find a shop in Europe that would ship something out to us.

In the meantime, the rest of the crew from the boat had caught up to us. It seemed that the desert had been no kinder to them than to us – they arrived with broken racks and torn panniers. The German rider on the DR650, Marcus, got online and to a Yamaha dealership in Germany that he knew to ask about shipping our a CDI for an 89 Tenere. They could send one via DHL, but it would still take about a week to ship. Our schedule was getting super tight, so we devised to put Team Tenere on a train to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, while Jamie and I rode through Uzbekistan. We’d have the CDI unit shipped to a hotel in Dushanbe. It was a lengthy process to figure out whether there was a train to Dushanbe and whether they could bring the bike along, but finally determined that it was possible. Dyna towed the Tenere to the train station and the next morning Jamie and I set off towards the Uzbekistan border.

Kindness in the desert

The track to Uzbekistan from Beyneu is a very rough 60 miles of dirt, after which the road improved to broken tarmac. There was no shade and the temperature was soaring above 40 degrees C (105 F). We met two cyclists hiding in the shadow of a telephone pole, which was the only shade we saw for hundreds of kilometers. Traversing this desert on a bicycle seems like complete madness to me. There was not a building, not a tree, absolutely nothing for a few moments of shelter from the sun. It was difficult to stop for a rest or to drink water when we would just bake in the sun. In the late afternoon I felt the rear tire squirm a bit and stopped to find that it was going flat beneath us. We managed to make it into a truck compound near a railway bridge – they were the first structures we’d seen for ages and we were happy to have the shade of a shade to fix the tire.

Truck dudes came over to help immediately as soon as I had the wheel off of the bike. Rather than my wimpy tube patches they insisted on using one of their burly truck tube patches. Their truck tires run tubes and they seemed to have done this a million times before, so I let them go about it. Everyone got in on the act.

When we got back on the road, we ran into Chris, the Brit from the boat on the DRZ400, who continued the journey south with us. Unfortunately, the burliest truck tube patch in the world only lasted about 50 miles before we found ourselves deflated again just before dark. I didn’t have it in me to start working on the bike for a second time after all day in the sun, so I pushed the bike down a few meters down a side track and we all set up camp right there. To make matters a little more difficult, all day in the sun had left Jamie with a case of heat stroke and she was decorating the desert with her lunch.

It’s quite a thing to wake up in the morning, roll out of bed, and immediately start wrestling a motorcycle tire off of a rim. No breakfast, no coffee, no shower, just some morning knuckle bashing. By the time I’d gotten the spare tube installed and the wheel back on I felt like a chicken that had just given myself a dust bath.

 

We rode off with Chris to get gas and when I crouched down to peer at the oil level window I couldn’t believe what I saw through the frame – the shock spring had broken in half. Shock springs aren’t supposed to break. They are supposed to spring. Sometimes the shock seal blows out, but the spring on a bike rarely breaks. We’re just lucky I suppose. So now we had a bigger problem than flat tires.

It’s noisy as hell and it sounds like we’re riding around on a dodgy motel bed, and we’ve got kind of a raked-out chopper vibe happening, but at least we’re still moving.  Jamie needed a rest and I wanted to get online to find out what options we would have for a shock spring, so we rode a shorter day to the town of Xiva – a beautiful walled city in the Uzbek desert. While Jamie recovered from her UV overdose, Chris and I wandered the colorfully tiled towers in the glow of the sinking sun.

We left Chris behind in Xiva and rode headed toward the town of Bukhara. This time we were more careful about stopping to drink water. Trees once again appeared on the landscape and I’d never been so happy to see them. Like Xiva, Bukhara was another important stop on the ancient Silk Road, but our pace of travel left little time to appreciate the attractions.

We rode on again from morning to night stopping for a break during the hottest hours of the afternoon. Exhausted and hungry, we turned off the road into a grove of trees that we thought we might camp in, but inadvertently rode straight into a village Ramadan feast. While trying to turn around, folks motioned us over to them. We got off the bike and were led straight over to a place at their table as if it had been set and waiting for us. During the Muslim practice of Ramadan, no one eats from sun up to sun down, so the evening meal is a real event. The teacher in the village, named Semile, spoke some English and everyone took turns asking us questions via Semile’s translation. It was all pretty surreal, but wonderful.

The ladies all sat at a separate table and tended the huge cook pots.

Semile invited us to stay at his house for the night. I shared some bowls of beer with the local neighbors and the ladies got some hot water ready for Jamie to bathe. It was amazing – all of our immediate concerns had evaporated simply by taking a wrong turn. In the morning, we bid farewell to our generous hosts. Unfortunately, we had very little to leave them other than a pack of cards for the children that Jamie had packed.

After days of riding through the desert, we finally left the kind folks of Uzbekistan to cross the border into Tajikistan. We were headed south towards the mountain pass that still stood between us and Dushanbe, and looking forward to some cool mountain air on our faces. Near the beginning of the ascent, we passed through a small town called Ayny, where the day took a radical turn in an instant.

Ready for launch

Rolling through a roundabout I only saw the car headed straight towards us for maybe a second before impact. It was long enough for a few thoughts to pass. The first was there is nowhere to go. I got on the brakes and figured that the front tire is the squishiest thing we have, so that’s what we’re going to hit this car with. My second thought was darn, the trip is over.   We hit the car head-on and Jamie and I got launched. We landed hard on the ground and Jamie smacked the tarmac with her helmet. I heard Jamie start screaming and I wasn’t thinking about the bike or the trip anymore. What had I done? My thought was that she was hurt badly. I got up and tried to do all the right things but was completely panicked on the inside. When she got up and moved my alarm decreased somewhat. She was cradling her arm and I was now worried that it was broken. She was in shock and still screaming. A crowd gathered. The bike lay in the middle of the intersection amidst scattered broken orange plastic next to the car that hit us. The guy had decided to save half a second by going the wrong way through the roundabout to make a left turn.

Jamie calmed down and my guess was that her arm wasn’t broken, but she was super shaken up. I pick the bike up and pushed it to the side of the road and when I turned around Jamie was gone. Someone had taken her to the local clinic. I freaked out for a second not knowing where she’d gone and then followed in a different car. At the clinic, the doctor squeezed and moved here arm and confirmed that it was just bruising and soft tissue damage. Apparently I had landed on Jamie’s arm when we met the ground again. My relief was overwhelming. The rest just seemed like details.

We finally made our way back to the scene and the bike it started right up.   All the broken orange plastic I’d seen before was from the car – the mighty Dyna Rae had broken the car’s turn signals and it’s license plate off. The front wheel of the bike may be a bit out of true, and I had to wrench it back into alignment with the bars, the hand guard was jammed into the front brake lever, but the forks weren’t bent, and otherwise, she seemed fine.   I was amazed.  The police who had showed up on the scene seemed to understand that the accident was the other guy’s fault and we were able to get on our way as soon as I freed the brake lever from the hand guard. A man at the scene man who presumed to be very helpful but ended up being a massive pain in the arse really didn’t want us to go. He finally acquiesced to our wish to be on our way, but not before insisting that Jamie take a gift with her. So now we have this funny little red hat as a memento of getting launched from the bike by a very nice local man.

We’ve found lots of wonderful people in Tajikistan, but overall, they are idiotic drivers. We’ve had plenty of close calls in lots of different places and our number finally came up in that village. We were lucky – no one was going all that fast and we were fine. It’s truly maddening that such very nice people can constantly act in a way that put others lives at risk. I’m sure that man was genuinely sorry for hitting us, but I bet he’ll do the same thing again tomorrow.

Thankfully, we didn’t have far to go on the highway before turning off onto a track that led to Lake IskandarKal, where we planned to camp for the night. I rode very slowly trying to make sure that nothing was off with the bike as we rode.  I honestly couldn’t believe that we were back on the bike and riding off to find a camp. Hours ago, all of this was most likely finished in my mind. And now we were both fine and could continue the journey. Pitching our camp that night was the same lots of nights before, but given the events of the day, there was a definite sweetness to getting the camp chores done. We been given a reminder of how fragile all of this truly is.

Mike and Rebecca’s train from Kazakhstan should have already arrived in Dushanbe, but we’d heard nothing from them as of yet. We feared that something may have gone wrong. Jamie and I had found more Central Asian adventure than we could handle in the last week and I never imagined that Team Tenere’s story of getting to Dushanbe would top ours. Turns out we were wrong..

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