IN Dushanbe (Tajikistan capital) for several days as we waited for our visa extensions- a gentle lulling back to the comforts of civilisation such as running water, fridges with chilled drinks and the ultimate gastronomic high of a Lebanese restaurant serving felafel and hummus. Vegetarian food is not easy to find here and my excitement at spotting veggie kebabs at a open air restaurant was somewhat tempered when I also spotted the lumps of mutton fat threaded onto the skewers.
Several other travellers passed through town while we were there- mostly people in search of visas eg for China and Pakistan, we also saw Corinne the Swiss cyclist I had met in Samarkand - she had actually cycled through the tunnel of hell on her bike.
I took Thelma to a mechanic to get the rubber gaiter that Ann had brought out with her fitted. The plastic bottle substitue that Vlad had used as a temporary measure had stood up well to the rough condiitons we had put it through.
I stayed to watch and learn from the mechanic-it's a job I have done before in the heat of Mozambique, and i was perfectly happy to let someoen else do this messy and tricky task. Or at least I was until he split the gaiter - I was speechless when I saw what he had done. There are no BMW parts available in Central Asia and he had broken my only hope.
He didn't seem too concerned and rummaged around his workshop coming up with something similar from a Daewoo which he quickly cut to size and fitted. It looked OK and he assured me it would last all the way to Mongolia and back to England- yes, I thought, it has to. I promised him a return visit if it didn't work.
Looking ahead to our onward route I found conflicting opinions about the roads. There are two routes, one heads due east and is the most direct though high across mountain passes to the Pamirs while the other (heading south) is twice as long; apparently all the public transport takes the southern route.
Nobody could give me a clear answer about the dangers to be faced on the eastern route- poor road conditions was the most common answer, I suspected there was more to it than this. One bloke I spoke to - whilst I was using his office desk to re-inforce my map with sellotape, was a bit more forthcoming, despite the fact that he only spoke two words of English.
He pointed to the eastern road on my map and mimed men wearing long robes with little hats and beards taking potshots at vehicles -
" Mujahadden?" I said.
"Da" he nodded and enquired if we had mujahadden in my homeland.
I thought of some of the more fervent Cornish nationalists and agreed that yes, we have something similar in my country, maybe on a different level though as they tend to wield letters to the editor as their weapon of choice rather than Kalashnikovs.
As we had not remembered to pack our bullet proof vests, Ann and I decided that we had better take the southern route and had a final cold beer to celebrate getting visas and leaving the city.
Korjand to Dushanbe
Annie had thought things couldn't get much worse until she woke up the next morning and I issued her with a thermal balaclava, nearly losing one pillion rider to hypothermia in Armenia I don't want to risk another one.
I'd woken feeling better though weak and felt able to move on - not in any mood to hang around mad man's hotel if we could help it.
As always when we were getting Thelma ready to leave, a small crowd gathered and asked where we were going - an incredulous look when I announced Dushanbe and the crowd said "on that bike over those mountains?" making high mountain gestures in the air - I managed to distract Annie as they did that - it's a need to know situation and I really don't think she needs to know that we have two huge mountain passes ahead of us, and anyway as she has currently mislaid her reading glasses (my now blind navigator) she has not been able to read the route description in the guidebook so is blissfully unaware. I had told her the thermal balaclava was for the dusty conditions.So far it had been almost unbearably hot, like riding in a convection oven set to full heat, but I knew this would change.
The tarmac was good to begin with, scenic mountains, dry, dusty valleys and occasional oasis towns. Roadside hawkers including blokes holding out writhing snakes, not sure what people were buying them for. 100 miles further on, a police checkpoint and they indicated a rock and gravel strewn track leading upwards as the way to Dushanbe. Now I am no hero, this was not an optional side route we were taking but the only road from the north of the country to its capital city; Tajikistan just does not have the infrastructure that many of us take for granted. And to be honest I would never have chosen this as a road for someone's second day on the bike but as I said we had no choice, we had to get to Dushanbe as quickly as possible to get our visas extended.
It got very bumpy and then the snow appeared, small amounts at first until it was banked up at the sides of the road, melting and falling onto the track in front of us. The surface got more slippery as I was faced with the unenviable choice of slippery mud or slippery slabs of ice on a narrow dirt track at 3300 metres altitude. The lack of oxygen was starting to give me a headache and I was desperately conscious of the fact that I had donated my last square meal to the customs sniffer dog yesterday and had eaten only a bit of dry bread since then - I decided to not dwell on my weakened state and just focus on the road as we lurched towards the edge of the precipice. I stopped in time, straightened Thelma and apologised to Annie as I then gunned it up the final straight - we had made it to the top, now all we had to do was get down the other side - and for those who know my feelings about downhill stuff, it was not a pretty sight. I got Annie to walk about 15 yards at one point as there was so much snow across the track, it was downright dangerous.
The only other traffic were a few lorries toiling along and lurching from side to side, they gave us grins and a wave as we passed- I left the social side of things to Annie as I tried to keep our skidding to a minimum as we descended through the slush and ice.
Finally we reached the bottom and stopped at the local equivalent of Frankley Services- with chai (tea) houses on either side of the track. They were full of truckers who stared open-mouthed as we pulled off our helmets and they realised we were women (or at least vaguely recognisable as women under the dust and gime not mention bad helmet hair). A pot of tea served by the friendly propietor who led us into the kitchen, the only choice was soup - bubbling away in a huge cauldron, ignoring the lumps of mutton fat bobbing aorund in it I said it would be fine (just don't tell the vegetarian society).
Refreshed, we set off once more, the cafe owner had refused payment which was very sweet of him. Just one more big mountain and then it will be downhill all the way and maybe we will see tarmac again I told Annie. In fact there were some great startches of tarmac- so fresh they were still hot and sticking to our tyres- as the chinese road workers made space for us to squeeze through along their foot paths whilst cars and lorries had to wait 30 minutes or more at a time. In Ayni we stopped for fuel - a bit hit and miss, no indication of octane level (there is a lot of 80 oct here) and it was served out of a 10 litre glass jar.
The next part of the route headed uphill again, getting more steep and then extremely rough, I had to get Annie to walk a short section that was particularly steep with loose sand and gravel, it was a toss up between her helping to keep the back wheel in contact with the ground and therefore giving more purchase or having Thelma a bit lighter and potentially easier to manoeuvre. We watched open-mouthed as Ladas went trundling down the hill in the opposite direction.
Eventually the tunnel of terror loomed up beofre us, I had been pre-warned about this, it's an Iranian constucted four mile pitch-black flooded tunnel with deep pothles and a delightful carbon-monoxide atmosphere. At least it meant we didn't have to go all the way to the top of the mountain in the snow again.
We paused and a cement mixer lorry came along and beckoned us to follow him through - what a gent. He even put on his light at the back to act as a small spotlight for us, the upside was that we could see the watery surface ahead though the downside was that we had to choke on his fumes all the way through and at times when it would have been safer for us to go a bit faster we were trapped behind him going slowly- Thelma is more stable on uneven ground at faster speeds. Within 50 yards we had lurched into a vary deep pothole that soaked us and I almost dropped Thelma, I think it was only the thought of trying to pick up a 250Kg bike in 2 foot deep filthy water in the inky blackness that spurred me on to a superhuman effort to desperately keep her upright.
After that I watched the truck's wheels intently (a bit hard with my eyes stigning from all the fumes), looking out for that tell-tale lurching. It seemed to take forever, but finally we ere out into fresh air once more and now it was definitely downhill all the way.
We reached Dushanbe at 6pm that evening, it had taken us 10 hours to get there and we were exhausted.
A traumatic start to Annie's journey with me and here is how it unfolded-
Day One - only 30 mins later leaving the hotel than planned - the reception machine bounced back Annie's husband's credit card (nice gesture Terry, but we ended up having to pay cash).
Accompanied to the border by Vlad and Masha in his car - the only Toyota Prius in Uzbekistan apparently- but as I am sooo bad at identifying cars I still had problems trying to spot him and follow his lead- which obviously does not reflect well on my observational skills as most of the vehicles here are Ladas. We also had Jenjy (Eugene) and his girlfriend Anne as outriders on his Suzuki GSXR.
So a speedy trip to the frontier in convoy- as we said farewell and thank you to them at the border - Vlad looking Thelma over, noticed that the rubber boot at the top of the shaft had split - whoops, we had taken a look at it the previous day and it had looked fine.
We didn't have the time on our visas to return to Tashkent to fix the problem and so an emergency roadside repair was required - Vlad used my penknife to create a cover out of a plastic water bottle and then sellotaped and cable-tied it into position - a bit rough and ready looking but it would have to do. We have the spare part with us and will get it put on at the next major city, unfortunately that is 400kms and a couple of high mountain ranges away.
At the border crossing, the Uzbeki guards were very thorough in their search (which as we are leaving the country seemed a bit odd), they x-rayed every bag and started searching through them by hand as well- the sort of treatment I have only seen at an Israeli border several years ago. It was going to take a long time so drastic action was required - I went very pale and vomited copiously at the entrance to their office - not surprisingly they quickly decided that their search was over and they urged us to continue our journey (yes, Annie did take a picture).
Before we copuld leave though, the cleaner came over and stroppily thrust a brush and pan into my weak and clammy hands. I was unable to stand up at this point. Luckily the sniffer dog came to investigate and liking what he saw, proceeded to eat the vomit on the ground which made me feel better as he was looking a bit emaciated and I knew that this was defeintielyone meal that included the five food groups.
The Tajiki border guards were much nicer and quicker (maybe my reputation had preceded me), 30 minutes with them and we were on our way with a cheery wave (and was that a look of relief on their faces I saw?).
The good tarmac road was a welcome start to the country as both of us now had ominous stomach cramps, it was incredibly hot and we were keen to stop - but it was 50 miles before we reached the city of Korjand and the relative sanctuary of the excitingly named Leninabad Hotel - a multi-storey canary yellow masterpiece of crumbling soviet concrete.
Our room was on the second floor and the lift was broken (ah yes this is another fact of life with ex-soviet buildings), I think it was the climb up the stairs that did it but we had only been in the room two minutes when I was once more explosively sick, in my desperate need to stop the vomit hitting the beds it went all over me including down my bra. Annie was speechless and for once did not reach for the camera.
It got worse, the shower didn't work - oh dear I thought as I attempted to wash myself using the water dribbling out of the taps in the sink. We both crashed out asleep for the next 14 hours, we were obviously in a bad way, as neither the raucous wedding party nor the stadium concert with Wembley-sized speakers across the road didn't waken us.
However what did wake us at 10.30pm was the very disagreeable manager pounding at the door and trying to get into the room whilst demanding money and passports. I pulled on some clothes- only slightly damp and sour-smelling (we had left all the luggage on Thelma parked out in the car park) and went out to reception to deal with him- which turned into a drama when he suddenly started demanding almost 50% more for use of the room than we had agreed- he became very aggressive and loud (yes Abi that was him NOT me!).
And because it was now almost 11pm and I felt like I was going to vomit again I just had to pay up - a very horrible man, so anyone going to Korjand, please never use the Leninabad Hotel.
Poor Annie - her first day on the road - I had embarrassed her and poisoned her and now she was having to sleep in a sick-room with a ranting mad man lurking outside the door.
I gave her the option of flying straight home.
I waved goodbye to Leon and his fridge, heading eastwards through Bukara and Samarkand- both as stunning as all the pictures and text suggest.
I manged to arrive in Tashkent 12 hours before Ann's flight was due from London which I thought was pretty good timing having crossed one and a half continents to get here. Ann (or Annie as she is also known) is due to travel with me until Mongolia - or until she gets tired of my singing on the bike.
She's had an intense introduction to life on the road - first a dodgy black market money transaction where the bloke tried to rip us off- money in Kazakhstan is tricky as the largest bank note is 1000 som (about 70 cents) so just doing a bit of shopping involves carrying a huge wad of money and counting out 166 banknotes discreetly in the middle of the street is not easy.
We had a good night out in the Biker's Bar (for those in Tashkent it is the VM Bar opposite the Plaza Hotel, Yuri the owner is very friendly) which led to us not making it to the Internet cafe before it closed to give a rundown on events before we left Tashkent, however we are probably barred now as we left with money owing on our bar tab - whoops.
It was a hectic five days
Five days without running water let alone electricity and internet and here is why...
I collected my Kazakh visa in Baku, Azerbaijan then made a dash for the ferry and my luck was in - straight onto it - the only other European had been waiting eight days...
It was a basic service on the boat - I never did manage to find the shower, but luckily it was only a 24 hour journey (sometimes it stretches to four days) I arrived in Kazakhstan it was 11pm at night we docked, we cleared immigration at 2.00am to then be told that Customs was closed until 8.00am - so I set up my tent in the carpark outside the Customs building- one way of being first in the queue.
Unfortunately the 8.00am start time was optimistic to say the least and it was gone 10.00am by the time anyone was even available to look in our direction, in fact it was 1.00pm in the afternoon before we were allowed to leave the customs compound- my solo travel had now grown to include Leon- an Austrian night club manager driving a VW 4-wheel drive van and Vasily from Moscow driving a big Audi 4 wheel drive something, he had Russian Mafia stamped all over him and we couldn't shake him off, he seemd to feel that we were his pet westerners and that he needed to look after us.
I had the huge expanse of the Kazakh and Kyzylkum Desert stretching away into the distance and had decided on safety in numbers and suggested to Leon that we team up for the desert route - he was happy to as he has little desert experience and so in return for carrying my panniers in his van I rode as his outrider and Vasily well, he insisted on accompanying us but would race on ahead to each roadhouse stop and wait there drinking vodka and beer until we arrived and then would announce "go, go" and charge off once more.
the desert - camels, scorpions, snakes and kamikaze gerbils which insisted ion racing across the road almost under my wheels.
It was a hard, hot, dusty ride but not as bad as I had thought- like the better parts of the route north of Isiolo in Kenya. We lost Vasiliy the first night, he had gone on ahead, so after that is was just me and the van carrying the cold beer - oh yes, I made sure I didn't lose sight of that and when a shower was produced on the second night I was in heaven, I can see now after 12 years of bike travel why people have support vehicles, and have I mentioned the chocolate m&m's in the fridge as well?
As always camping out in the desert is a delight- the starry skies and the peacefulness.
What can I say? The wine is good (a bit of trial and error at first), the beer is very good and the people are very friendly.
I have had my friend April with me - US diplomat who I stayed with in Rio, it's good to be able to return the hospitality favour and host her on an episode of bike travel in Georgia and Armenia.
She has loved it, even the mechanical issues and the coasting towards the border on petrol fumes when we got that crucial travel formula slightly wrong -you know the one- Fuel/Local Currency/Distance to Border.
Although in my defence, I had been given the wrong directions for the border and we ended up in the no-go military zone between Armenia and Azerbaijan -an area known for its minefields.
"Just don't put your feet down" I advised April.
I am now solo again, but not for long as an XT600 rider- Leon has turned up in town and spotted Thelma - he guessed it was me.
I am in Borjomi, a town in the south west surrounded by mountains and home to hot springs, a great place to stay and chill - it's like the Coroico of Georgia.
The news about Turkmenistan is not good - they have closed the borders to foreigners and so I am going to have to re-route via a ferry to Aktau and then the not very nice road across Kazakhstan and into Uzbkistan that way- I've seen the pictures and Thelma and I are not looking forward to it. I will also need to get a Kazakh visa in Azerbaijan (no Embassy here).
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