Thursday, 30 May 2013

Day 33 - To the foot of the Pamirs

We set out at lunchtime for a short hop from Dushanbe to the foot of the Pamirs in Kulyab.

The reason for this will become clear tomorrow as the next stage involves a couple of river crossing and can be a long day. Today's section means we will get into it early.

The road was great. Yes, you heard. Great. Recently built with a new tunnel. Fast smooth curves, little traffic and relatively few cows.

The only problem was the heat. Deefor's bike said 43C but most were reading 39C. The sun was blazing down and some still pockets of air were like furnaces.

We are staying in a small hotel which to everyone's surprise has wifi! The interweb is penetrating even these remote hills.

Interuption in Service

When GB came this way two years ago there was little or no internet in the 'Stans. When there was, you couldn't access social media sites and some other web pages.

Things have moved on and nearly every hotel has had access (except the one still run by the Soviets). They have given what appears to be unfiltered access (except in Turkmenistan where Facebook is banned because it doesn't fit with the decor).

However, as we leave Dushanbe and head into the Pamir Mountains we enter a place that even the mighty interweb has failed to reach.

Il mezzo milione will resume its lies on the other side in Kashgar.

We apologise for any etc. etc.

More from Toni and Iain

Lots of great pictures and comment on the ride from the intrepid duo on

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Reflections in a Rooftop Pool

If you look hard you can see the Pamir Mountains from the rooftop pool on the 9th Floor of our hotel. A good time and place to look back at a month of traveling and the last week in the 'Stans.

Central Asia for all the border hassle and bad roads has been everything you would expect. A crossroads of cultures between Persia and the Steppe and between the edge of Christian Europe and the western border of China. The land of empires and of the Silk Road trade that made the cities such attractive targets for plundering armies.

The patchwork of states created by Stalin and preserved after the break up of the USSR does not quite match the ethnicity of the population. There are Uzbeks in Tajikistan and Turkmen in Uzbekistan. The countries do feel different though. Turkmenistan seems more uniform and less spontaneous (perhaps it's the desert or the regime?). Uzbekistan more free rolling (the influence of the Silk Road?). Dushanbe (which is all we have seen of Turkmenistan so far) more Russian and more Mountainous.

The Silk Road cities were stunning. A riot of blue faience. Monuments to Islam and the emperors who built them. Khiva shone through. Compact and coherent within its walls it captured the imagination in the way the set pieces of Bukhara and Samarkand didn't.

And the trip overall?

It seems a lifetime ago that we left the Ace Cafe. The rhythm of travel blurs towns and roads into a stream of experience. It is starting to be hard to remember every overnight stop, let alone each view, each sight, each encounter.

The overwhelming impression is of roadworks. It is as if all the yellow machines in the world have descended on our route and dug it up.

One day their work will open these countries up to the trade and tourism that they need to develop. Then the Silk Road will flow with the riches of the world once more and everyone will be able to visit the spectacular sites and meet the warm people of the region.

In the meantime, it makes for interesting riding.

As we look to the Pamir Mountains the group is strong and supportive. There is a feeling of excitement and a determination to make it to the other side together. As Kevin says, few motorcyclists have ever ridden across the Pamirs. We are privileged and mean to make the most of it.

Name That Logo

Is it:

A. Tadjikistani mobile company; or

B. International personalised learning schools

Can I phone a friend please Chris ...

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Day 32 - Deefor Does Nothing

After a fantastic curry last night in Dushanbe's #1 Restaurant, today is a rest day. So just 4 hours shopping for a down jacket and Camping Gas and then back to the hotel.

Lunch of Beer, dried fish and a chicken wrap from a wayside stall and then an afternoon by the pool. Who said adventure had to be uncomfortable?

The Labours of Van Man #5


The Labours of Van Man #4

You can fit quicker than a Kwik Fit Fitter.

Day 31 - Deefor Does Mechanics

We have two days off in Dushanbe to rest relax and prepare ourselves for a week in the Pamir Mountains. This is going to be proper Adventure Motorcycling and we and the bikes need to be on top form.

So Deefor unpacked his toolkit and set to work. Oil change, new knobbly tyres for off-road, reattach headlamp that has shaken free, refasten Metal Mules that have worked free due to crashes and vibration.

Tin Tin, Alan, Chris, Iain and Stevie Love all leant hands and advice. Thanks guys and Toni for the water- lifesaver!.

Monday, 27 May 2013

New Regulation from Tajikistan Ministry of Roads

To improve the reputation of Tajik roads, the Ministry has passed an order to change the nomenclature for different types of highway.

From 27th May the following new names will apply:

"A" Roads will be known as Roadworks.

"B" Roads will be called tracks

"C" Roads will be reclassified as streams

In addition, motorcycles will now be called "targets", trucks: "smoke screens" and cars as "randomly steered road blocks"

We are delighted to announce that the new Tajik DVD for teaching you to pass your driving test is now available. It is called: Grand Theft Auto 15: Peril in the Pamirs.

Apologies for inconvenience will not be issued.

Silk #2

Once the caterpillars have grown and formed cocoons, the silk is unwound, washed and dyed ready for use.

Day 30 - Across the Border to Dushanbe

A group ride to the much anticipated border. One hour saw us out check out of Uzbekistan and arrive at the Tajikistan border. Last time GB were here it took 8 hours to get through with riders and bikes being strip searched.

This time it was simple. One form, one stamp, a perfunctory search and we were away. Two hours for 15 bikes and the van. Result!

Then a short ride over some of the worse roads so far to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. If this ride was anything to go by, Tajikistan is going to be more off- than on-road. And Deefor is going to be eating a lot of dust.

Disability Discrimination Act Compliance

Just as in the UK, buildings in Uzbekistan must be accessible to people in wheelchairs.

Implementation is however, inconsistent.

The Labours of Van Man #3

Team photographer...

Day 29 - To the Tajik Border

In the deserts the roads ran from one oasis to the next and, with few natural features, they were straight for kilometre after kilometre.

Samarkand is ringed by mountains. Mountains mean bends. For a motorcyclist a road is a series of bends connected by straight bits. The less of the latter the better.

So there was a spring in our wheels as we set off south. Our route didn't take us all the way to the Afghan border which is a notorious trouble spot. Instead we turned east to a small town of Denav ready for a short hop to what is expected to be the longest border crossing yet. Into Tajikistan.

The proximity of Afghanistan explained he large number of checkpoints. At each one we were stopped. The cry of "passport" was only really an excuse to hold us up long enough to ask us about the bikes.

Our hotel tonight is a reminder of why communism failed. Twenty minutes to get a key for the room which was booked months ago. Apparently the computer said "Nyet".

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Team Photo #1 - Take Two

After admiring the Thompson Twins magnificent beards and flowing locks yesterday, they went to the barbers...

Ulug Beg

Timur's grandson (1394 to 1449) was a patron of science and published values for key astronomical constants (inclination of the ecliptic and tropical year) which were the most accurate of the time. His Zij (star atlas) included 1,018 stars. Over 200 not previously recorded.

Murdered by religious conservatives, his mighty observatory was torn down but has recently been excavated. The enormous quadrant cuts deep into the earth.

Day 28 - Samarkand

We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

(From Hassan by James Flecker, 1913)

The city was old when Alexander visited it in 329BC. Maracanda, the capital of the Sogdian people who were the great merchants of the Silk Road was captured by the Arabs in 712AD and destroyed by (you guessed it) Genghis Khan.

All that remains of that city is a vast expanse of slumped mud walls on the hill top outside the new town.

The new city was built by local boy Timur (Tamerlane) as a trophy cabinet for his conquests from Syria to India. A ruthless warrior it is estimated that he caused the deaths of 17 million people as he built pyramids of skulls outside captured cities.

He and his Timurid successors built some of the finest madrassas and mosques in the world. The blue tiling and soaring minarets have all been restored in recent times and create a stunning if slightly antiseptic scene.

Food Glorious Food

Since entering Turkmenistan we have been in the land of the Sheesha. "Meat on a stick" comes in a variety of forms: Minced, beef, lamb and chicken (though the chicken has surprisingly large bones for a bird and we have not seen many cats around).

The meat comes with bread (delicious when fresh but chewy after an hour or so), a salad, usually tomato and onion but we have had beetroot (called French Salad) and potato and olive (Russian Salad). A plate of raw herbs: basil, fennel, dill, garlic, can be eaten with it.

The whole is washed down with Piwa (Beer) or chay (tea). For a change. in Samarkand Deefor found a small cafe and had a lunch of soup (Noodles, lamb, carrot, chillies) with bread and yoghurt. Delicious!

Friday, 24 May 2013


Bukhara is larger than Khiva. Once the capital of a large empire and a centre for learning, it descended in despotism before falling to the Russians on the 19th Century.

Once it had 250 Madrassas and a mosque for every day of the year. Every time you turn a corner there is another stunning building.

Team Photo #1 - Ian and Peter

Three weeks in. How are the team shaping up?

Ian and Peter have been sharing a room for a while. Ian is teaching Peter to speak English ("Four Ways" = "Hazard Warnings").

They are starting to look alike and are now known, in keeping with our Herge theme, as the Thompson Twins.

Silk #1

Uzbekistan is the second largest producer of silk in the world. Locals farm silk worms in their homes and sell the raw silk.

The silk worm will only eat one thing - mulberry tree leaves. The public roads are lined with lines of mulberries. In the morning locals travel out on their donkey carts, crop the trees and carry the branches home.

They lay them out in their houses to feed the worms which grow from 2mm to 5 in four weeks.

Day 27 - The Road to Samarkand

For a change it was a late start today. Only 270km on a good road from Bukhara to Samarkand.

After a morning's sightseeing in Bukhara, Deefor hit the road at 12:00 and had a leisurely ride.

The land in this stretch is fertile and the fields full of wheat and cotton. The people are friendly and curious. If you stop to take a picture they stop to find out who you are and offer lunch. So kind.

Driving into Samarkand someone had built a concrete barrier across the road. A detour took us through back streets, car ports, sand and loose gravel to emerge on another highway and into the city.

Deefor has arrived in Samarkand. The high point of the trip.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Press Release - Uzbek Department of Roads

The department is pleased to announce its programme for 2013. To allow rapid transit for motorcycles a new road will be built across Uzbekistan.

Instead of tarmac, it will be built in concrete giving a superior surface and better longevity.

Most of the road is finished and speeds of 110km/h can be achieved (fuel supplies permitting).

There are a few gaps still and these provide useful training for riding in deep sand and broken surfaces.

We apologise for an inconvenience this may cause.

Day 26 - Along the Oxus Valley

The ancient Oxus River (now called the Amu Darya) flows from the Pamir Mountains to the Aral Sea. Watering the oases of the Silk Road cities and dividing the Kara Kum (Black Sand) Desert from the Kyzyl Kum (Red Sand) Desert.

These days water extraction for cotton and the resulting shrinking of the Aral Sea means that the once mighty river peters out in the sands.

We crossed the Oxus on a new bridge, part of the new highway being built by the Uzbek government. The river flowed wide and slow leaving great mud banks exposed. The road tracked it's course South East for 460km to our next great city Bukhara.

The challenge today was fuel. There is a shortage in Uzbekistan and we headed out of the city with empty tanks and hope in our hearts. Dusty pumps looked forlorn with their pump handles lying on the ground; the sign for "no benzine" in these parts.

We found fuel after 70km or so and religiously topped up every time we found an open service station. It was not clear when the pumps had last been calibrated as some of the litres seemed a bit light. With no price on display, the further into the desert and the more desperate you looked the higher the price.

There are 3000 Uzbek Som to the Pound at the moment. Filling up was costing 50,000 Som. The only note in circulation seems to be 1000 Som, so that is an impressive wedge of notes.

Travelling on the Silk Road

1357 AD: As the weary traveller stumbles across the threshold of another city he ties his camel to a post and goes in search of the essentials: Water, food, a bed for the night and hay for the camel.

2013AD: As the weary traveller stumbles across the threshold of another city he parks his BMW and goes in search of the essentials: Wifi and a gods cappuccin..

Islamic Architecture #1

This tower covered in patterns of glazed tiles would have been the tallest in the world. The death of the Khan who ordered it put a stop to the project but what was built is still an impressive monument.

It is easy to forget that Islamic scholars developed science and mathematics from the work of the Greeks while Europe struggled through the Dark Ages. The names of key mathematical ideas that come from the Arabic should remind us. Khiva was the birthplace of Al Kwarizmi who gives his name to the idea he invented - algorithms.

Local Dress #4 - Uzbek Hat

The man on the hotel said it suited me!

Day 25 - The Glory of Khiva

For Deefor, one reason to travel this route was to visit the ancient cities of the Silk Road: Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand.

The names ring with the history of empires. Alexander, Genghis Khan, Timurlane and many more unremembered in the West. They also provide the backdrop to the Great Game, the battle for control of the route to India played out between the British and Russian Empires.

Khiva is extraordinary by any standards. The old city (Ichan Qala) date back to the 5th Century BC. They, like the rest of he city, were extensively restored by the Soviets but still have the sense of great age.

The city is a maze of buildings all built of the local clay which is said to be of such quality that Mohammad used it to build the city of Medina. Rising from the wall is the Ark: The great fortress/palace of the Khan of Khiva.

The central section is a jumble of mosques, mausoleums and madrasahs all decorated in vivid blue and white tiles with flowing, geometric shapes.

Towering above everything are the Minarets.. They rise over 50m into the sky. Built of mud brick and wood and banded with blue and green tile work. The view from the top is breath taking. And not just from the climb.

Khiva was always going to be a highlight. It lived up to expectations.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Day 24 - The Uzbek Border

Three hour's ride from the camp brought us to the border with Uzbekistan. We had been warned about this one, so were prepared with a good lunch before attempting entry.

Leaving Turkmenistan was easier than getting in. Only one piece of paper to fill in (two copies), one office for a stamp and we were out. One hour 30 minutes for the group.

Across no mans land between the barbed wire and guard posts to the Uzbek border post.

A much better logistical design. Two offices (immigration and customs) in the same building. One queue, clear signs and even a computer. Not quick but within three hours were all through. Then we had to wait. We were never clear what for.

Eventually our passports appeared and we could go, only to be stopped at the gates to fill in a declaration to say we understood the need for insurance. Bizarrely, we had to complete and sign this (in duplicate) before we could go to the insurance office to buy some.

Total time 5 hours not quite beating the Turkmenistan record.

By the time we left it was getting dark and the 45km to Khiva was an obstacle course in the half light.

As we arrived at our hotel under the walks of Khiva we met the van and understood. the wait. Customs had clearly been working out how to charge us for something. $400 to allow the van through on some trumped up pretext.

The Mouth of Hell

Sometime in the 1960s or 1970s an exploration drill hit a gas pocket under the Turkmen Desert. This was the Soviet era and it was impossible for there to be an accident in a Marxist-Leninist state, so few no precise details are known.

They didn't have blow back preventers in those days and the resulting explosion blew a crater 100m across and 30m deep in the soft rock. To this day the gas escaping from the earth has stayed alight creating a spectacular blazing cauldron that lights up the sky for miles around.

Standing on the rim with the warmth of the fire blowing past you reminds you of the power of nature. And makes you wish for some marshmallows and a very long fork.

Day 23 - Midnight at the Oasis.

A late start today for a short hop north to the Darwaza gas crater.

The morning off meant the bike got a check over and a wash. Apparently it is the law in Ashgabat that if it rains you must wash your car within 12 hours so it doesn't make the place untidy. It rained just as we left the carwash so decided not to go back and do it again. An act of wanton rebellion that may topple the regime.

The road north crosses the Karakum Desert. Nothing to see but sand, scrub and camels. We stopped for fuel in a village with sand covering the roads, camels and cows in thorn brush enclosures and people living in yurts. A far cry from Ashgabat where they were repainting the white lines outside the Presidential Palace because they had got a bit dirty.

The road itself is tough. Parts have been made from soft tarmac that deforms into ruts and ridges. Other parts have poor foundations and potholes 10 or 20cm deep have opened up. You thread a careful line through all this but sometimes there is nowhere to go and the suspension bottoms out as you hit a big one.

Alongside this nightmare is the new road. Mile after mile of graded gravel waiting for tarmac. It is a far better surface than the old road but it isn't finished. That doesn't stop the trucks (and the odd motorcycle) using it when the ruts get bad. This is of course forbidden and there are plenty of police roadblocks and patrols to catch you.

After 270km we turn off and drive across the sand to a wild camp. Our hosts have already started the fire and soon shashlik (kebabs) of chicken and spicy bean soup are served. (Inevitable joke: It's bean soup. Yes, but what is it now).

As the sun sets we get into 4x4s and head for the Mouth of Hell.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Kit-tastic Road Test #2 - Jet Boil Stove

Lovely cup of fresh coffee after a hard night sleeping on deck.

Thanks for the photo Nigel.

Press Release from the Office of President, Turkmenistan.

Glorious 10 year vision of eternal leader today enter new stages.

To connect architectural riches of white marble city to rest of country (where little peoples live), President will build new road.

Road will have 6 lanes. Roses planted down middle. Perfect blacktop. Street lights and all Mod Cons.

In order to keep road perfect. Peoples not allowed to drive on it. Only President and honoured guests.


Day 22 - The Ruins of Nisa

Turkmenbashi's great city looks like you would expect a city to look if you had the following ingredients:

1. An empty canvas (thanks to the earthquake of 1948)
2. A large number of petro-dollars
3. Post-Soviet architectural taste with a touch of regional identity
4. An all powerful President with a strong sense of his own importance but no sense of humour
5. Unlimited amounts of white marble

The economy is 90% state owned so the HQ of a corporation, the Ministry of Truth, the Presidential palace and a shopping mall all share the same architect.

The effect is like Las Vegas without the fun. An icing sugar and gold leaf essay in brutalism. Everywhere you look the president beams down. Here a life size statue covered in gold leaf. There a giant screen showing him inspecting the troops.

The only thing missing is real people. It is empty. Miles upon miles of new housing blocks without a pedestrian or a child playing. The city shuts at 10:30. On every corner a policeman ready to wave a stick and say nyet.

Get out of town though and you find the remains of the cities built last time someone with a vision came this way. Alexander built Nisa in 300BC. Not long after he left, the locals rebelled and created an empire (the Parthians) that lasted 500 years and inflicted one of the worst defeats on the Roman army in battle (Carrhae 53BC -The Parthian Shot)

The city changed hands a few times and was finally sent into terminal decline by Genghis Khan.

The ruins today are peaceful. The mud brick has melted the watch towers into enormous piles like a child's sandcastle on the beach.

Sheltering below the old walls, a small shrine to an ancient Muslim holy man offers good luck, health and love to women who come to pray.

M____ and his extended family offered traditional Muslim hospitality to the stranger (in this case Deefor). A place at the family table under the trees, bread, tea, soup, rice, salad, curdled milk, sweets and pastries.

As the frogs croaked their midday song and the children played in the sun, the true warmth of Turkmenistan was revealed.

Local Dress #3 - Turkmen Hat

Since there is now more room in the pannier, I couldn't resist...

Local Dress #2 - Georgian Hat

Forgot to post this two countries back. Nice heh?

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Day 21 - Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat

560 kilometres today across the deserts of western Turkmenistan. There is little to report. The roads are straight. The weather is hot (35C at times. The only things to look at are camels.

The day was not without incident though. The road was rough. Where there were no potholes there were ruts up to 3" deep made by trucks . When these ran out the surface had deformed into waves which crashed into the bike at regular intervals.

Inevitably there were casualties. One of Deefor's panniers worked open and precious kit was lost. Nothing critical, but annoying anyway.

We are now in Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan. It is impossible to describe this place but I'll try later.

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Dementors of Ashgabat - A Play in Three Acts.

Scene: A large concrete building subdivided into small offices. Each contains an official, a desk and assorted stationary.

Direction: The play has no words. All forms are in Russian. There are no signs, no computers and absolutely no smiling.

Act One. Immigration.

Scene 1. Fill in two forms. Form A is a declaration of the foreign money you are bringing into the country. Form B is a promise (in duplicate) not to sell the bike in Turkmenistan.

2. Go to Office #1. Passport check. Get visa stamped for entry.

3. Go to Office #2. One official fills out insurance papers (one form and one card) another fills out the Entry Permit including a map of the route we are allowed to ride.

4. Go to Office #3. Official stamps and signs Entry Permit and enters all details in a ledger.

5. Follow official from Office #3 (where he has been having tea with his colleague) to Office #4. Two more stamps and initials on Entry Permit.

Act 2. The Police

Scene 6. Go to another building and down an empty corridor to an empty office (#5) where a plainclothes policeman copies details from your passport onto a small square of paper, signs it and waves you away.

7. Leave the building, walk around the corner and back in another door which slams behind you. You find yourself in a large concourse (office #6). A woman sits behind a glass screen with a small brass grille covered (from her side) by a piece of cardboard. She slides the cardboard away to allow you to open the grille and pass the small piece of paper through.

She copies the details onto a smaller piece of paper and adds a sequence number from a printed list. The new paper is pushed back through the grille which is shut and the cardboard is replaced.

You leave. The door slams again.

8. Back to the original building to a cashier (office #7). She takes the smaller paper and copies the details into three duplicate books. You pay $90 for processing, disinfecting the bike, carbon paper surcharge, customer service training etc. plus $14 for parking (Two days. While you have been waiting the clock has ticked over to tomorrow).

You receive three pieces of paper in return. (At this point you start to wonder if this is actually an elaborate ethnic welcome in which the exchange of paper symbolises the bonds of friendship).

9. Return to Office #6. The door slams. The cardboard is removed and you pass two of the pieces of paper through. Receive three in return. One (in duplicate) is the pass that will let you out of the port. Is the end in sight?

As you leave you try to slam the door hard enough to knock over the cardboard, but fail.

Act 3. Customs

Scene 10. Queue up at Office #8 for customs. Hand your passport, vehicle title, copies of both, Entry Permit and the two forms (A and B) you filled in at the start to the man in uniform. He goes for a cigarette break, then to the toilet.

The details of your motorbike are entered into two ledgers. Form B is torn in two and the two sides compared by holding them to the light. Both are stamped and initialed several times so they can't be changed. The Entry Permit is stamped twice on each of three copies and initialled.

All the papers are now carefully aligned by tapping three times on each edge (always three times, no more, no less) and then stapled with the blue stapler. One copy of the promise is stapled to your vehicle title with the red stapler.

11. Take the stapled documents to Office #9. Wake up the woman. She stamps everything.

12. Take them all to office #10. Wake up the smart young man in uniform. He stamps everything again.

13. Return stamped and stapled documents to Office #8.

14. Go out to motorbike with man from office #8, woman from office #9, young man from office #10 and several conscripts with torches.

They search the bikes by looking in one pannier, ignoring the other and the tank bag. They don't bother checking that the bike matches any of the details which they have painstakingly entered on every form and ledger.

15. You leave, handing the exit passes to the guard on the gate as you go.

The End.

The play lasts 6 hours for 15 bikes. There is no intermission, no refreshments and no applause.

Day 20 - On the Turkmen Shore

The boat dropped anchor off Turkmenbashi at 2:30 yesterday. 24 hours later we were still waiting for permission to tie up. As the voyage stretched into its second day, supplies started to run out. First there was no more red wine, then the beer, then the porridge. Luckily the cooks (Olga and Svetlana) have a never ending supply of tea and chicken recipes.

As people got desperate we agreed that we would eat Sam first. He is big enough to last a few days and all the good Italian ham and cheese he eats should make the meat well flavoured. His only request? "Make sure you cook me properly". As he has swallowed a temperature sensor as part of his study, we should be able to get him to Rare or Well Done.

Anchors up at five, a short hop to the dock and three hours to unload. Then the fun began. A process so labyrinthine, inefficient and comical that Kafka himself would have bowed down to the Master who created it.

We arrived at the hotel as the sun rises. Sixty hours from Baku. Eighteen of them actually travelling, the rest waiting. Schengen Agreement anyone?

Welding - An International Guide

Most of us are using Metal Mule panniers as recommended by GB. Deefor has dropped his bike five times so far with out serious damage to the panniers (or himself or the bike)

Brad couldn't get Mules in Oz so went for some made by _______. The frames on these are a weak spot.

Brad and Tin Tin are becoming experts in the welding techniques used in backstreet garages along the route. So far - brazing and Oxy Acetylene. Next stop. TIG?

Reflections in the Caspian Sea

And so gentle reader we reach the end of the second stage of our great adventure. The first stage crossed Europe to the edge of Asia. The second traversed Anatolia and the Caucuses to the very start of Central Asia. The heart of the Silk Road, the 'Stans, lie before us.

Two days stuck on a freighter looking at the shore and the oil rigs gives a chance to relax and reflect.

Turkey was a revelation. Ancient cities, bustling towns, high grassland and mountain passes. Great food: Turkish Pizza (pide), kebab, baklava, stews, salads, beer and wines. The people were friendly and welcoming and the roads wide and fast. Definitely somewhere to come back to.

The contrast between islamic Turkey and christian Georgia was stark. Everything changed in an instant. Tbilisi was strange and magical. Well on the way to becoming a trendy "destination" alongside Barcelona or Amsterdam.

What we saw of Azerbaijan was cool and calm. Apart from Baku which was more like the London rush hour on a hot day in July.

The group has been great and, so far, lucky. The journey has gone smoothly (border crossings, ferry bookings). Mechanical issues have been few and minor (flat battery, minor breakages). Health good (sore bums are toughening up). Relationships genial, relaxed and supportive.

The next weeks across the deserts and then off road into the Pamir mountains will prove more of a challenge.

Day 19 - All At Sea

The Kara Karayev was built in 1983 in Rostov, East Germany. She is named after a Russian composer of the 20th Century. Originally a military transport, she arrived in the Caspian in 2008 and now ferries goods between the five main ports on the sea.

We know all this because after sailing on the Gara all night and arriving outside the port of Turkmenbashi at lunchtime, we are now at anchor waiting for entry clearance. (Note to sailors: Q flag, courtesy flag and Anchor Ball all hoisted). Time is being killed researching the ship, reading, blogging and practicing songs for tonight's concert

Tonight's concert? Yes, we will be on board for a second night as we await the pleasure of the Turkmeni port authorities.

Time has stood still. Quite literally. The clock in the mess room is stuck on 8 O'clock. So breakfast is at 8. Lunch is at 8. Dinner at 8 etc.

Our expected disembarkation time? 8. Let's hope it is AM.

Day 18 - A Sharp Exit in A Sharp

Breaking news last night was that there was a boat leaving Baku for Turkmenbashi the next day. We were expecting to spend a day or so in the capital of Azerbaijan while our local guides found us passage but we had been lucky.

So instead of a leisurely ride and some sightseeing, we were off! An early morning ride through the lush, green, cool forests and down into the smog and traffic of the city which has become the oil capital of the Caspian Sea.

To the hotel for a quick change into seagoing gear. Blazers and deck shoes for Gentlemen. Cocktail gowns for the ladies. Riding gear in the van and off to the docks. It took 2 hours to clear passports and customs (Tip: Do Not Lose The Scrap Of Paper With The Bar Code On It).

Then onto the cargo ferry. Actually not as bad as the previous trip's video showed. Quite habitable if stuffy. The cook made us a decent meal and didn't want any of the supplies the group bought in Baku in preparation. The wine came in handy though.

Soon Steve L had his guitar out and sang his latest hit, "Globebuster Blues". This boy can play and he was soon re-christened - meet Stevie Love.

Sam kept beat on drums (Ortleib bags make good skins) and Tin Tin revealed his talent for sing along songs. Not sure what the local truck drivers made of it but they joined in with some of their own.

The boat sailed at 11:00 on a calm sea and a warm night, so many of us slept on deck rather than in the stuffy cabins.

The GPS shows the bike's current location. Note the altitude.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Day 17 - Welcome to Azerbaijan

The border crossing from Georgia to Azerbaijan has been built up as the first of the difficult ones. A nightmare of kafkaesque paper work, permits, stamps and hanging around. "Hurry up and wait" writ large.

The sign leaving Georgia didn't fill us with confidence (see photo).

The border guards were conscripts doing a year in uniform before getting on with their studies. One lad was more interested in how to get onto an MA programme in England than checking our papers.

We had an interesting discussion about whether Nagorno Karabakh belonged to Azerbaijan or Armenia. The correct answer is Azerbaijan and luckily that is what my map showed.

15 minutes of hanging round and we were allowed through to passport control and customs. The inevitable cry of "Documents. Passport" and we were ushered to the window one at a time. 5 minutes and we were done. The threatened entry tax (known as "insurance") was no longer needed and we were through. It seems that since GB were here two years ago it has all been computerised. "Welcome to Azerbaijan".

After Georgian pine forests we were in the wide valley of western Azerbaijan. The (very uneven) road arrowed eastward between avenues of whitewashed tree trunks. Wide grass verges kept the sheep herders off the carriageway. Their large flocks of sheep and long horned goats were led by a pack donkey and followed by roaming sheepdogs.

We have stopped for the night in the small town of Shaki before a run down the Bakku tomorrow to find a ship that will take us across the Caspian Sea.

Born to Run

Great video from Toni and Iain. Enjoy!

Sunday, 12 May 2013

The Labours of Van Man #2

How does Tin Tin fit it all in you ask. Washing, herding, fettling and guiding us newbies to the best bars in Tbilisi. Where does he get his energy?
Well, Popeye had his spinach, Asterix his magic potion and Tin Tin has tea. A litre vacuum jug of good old Rosie Lee. Here paired with the "Full Georgian Breakfast".

Day 16 - Sunday in Tbilisi

Georgians are a religious people and Sunday is a day for church. The orthodox churches are simple but filled with icons.

The mass seemed very unorganised to western eyes. The priest and other celebrants performed the blessing of the bread and wine in an inner sanctum and then brought them out to the congregation.

There was no sitting in rows waiting though. People came and went, met their friends, lit candles and kissed icons as they wished. Men were dressed in their everyday clothes. The women add a colourful headscarf or wrap a shawl around jeans or shorter skirts.

The atmosphere was of great intensity and devotion. The candles and incense filled the dark space. The press of people to receive the blessing was more like the scene at a celebrity press event. Behind it all, the plain song rose and fell.

Uplifting, simple and magical.

Later in the day at another Monastery I watched a baptism and a wedding going on at the same time. Even the people who were involved in the ceremony were not obviously listening to the priest as he read through the service.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Day 15 - Into Georgia

Border crossing days have a different rhythm. An early start and a group ride to the border. This morning's was a slow procession at first with dense fog at the top of the pass cutting visibility to as low as 10m in places.

Departing Turkey was straight forward:
1. Get a pass into the compound using your V5 to prove your vehicle registration.
2. Passport stamped with çikis (exit) stamp.
3. Customs look at V5 and passport and compare to computer to see that the same person is exporting the bike as imported it.
4. Present V5 to exit compound.

20 minutes and we were at the Georgian border where a young man with very good English typed passport and V5 details into a computer (provided by the US Dept of Homeland Security - go figure) and we were through. Ten minutes.

Crossing the border changed everything. Crosses instead if crescents. High heels not headscarves. Steep sided wooded valleys after high grasslands.

Gone too are the four lane playgrounds. We actually had to overtake lorries by waiting for a gap in the oncoming traffic for the first time in a week. Mind you, Georgian drivers don't always bother to wait for a gap. This is go-for-it driving country and a couple of times vehicles just pulled out, trusting that the bikes would squeeze over to give them space.

Once we were through the narrow valleys we rode the motorway past Stalin's birthplace of Gori to the capital, Tbilisi. Our hotel is in Freedom Square, right in the centre. We are here for two nights so there is a chance to explore the city tomorrow.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Day 14 - Erzerum to Kars

Our last full day in Turkey was a short hop to Kars ready for a quick drive to the Georgian border tomorrow.

It was meant to be a blast down the motorway to give us time to visit the ruins of the ancient town of Ani in the afternoon.

Deefor rode out with Mel and we decided to take a back road to Kars that looked a bit more interesting. What a road! Fantastic curves through mountain passes. Past small farming communities and sunny meadows.

We arrived in the town of Oltu and got pulled over by the Trafic Polis (which is Turkish for Traffic Police apparently).

The very nice young officers were much more interested in the bikes and our adventure than in booking us so we said goodbye and rode on.

As we left the town we were pulled over again. This time the story of the Silk Road cut no ice and Deefor got a speeding ticket.

The road climbed further into high Alpine pastures above 2300m and then down into Kars.

We arrived just in time to join Sam and Steve L on a run out to Ani. Though a GPS assisted detour meant a 30 minute ride became an hour of dirt road fun.

Ani was founded in the 5th Century AD as an Armenian city state. It was known as the city of 1001 churches but was captured by the Seljuk Turks in 1064.

Built on a tongue of land between deep river canyons, the third side is sealed by a massive wall. It was a major city on the Silk Road, housing up to 200,000 people and rivalling Baghdad and Damascus.

Now it is a lonely ruin. Abandoned and vandalised during the conflicts between Turkey and Armenia on whose border it lies.

Shelley's Ozymandius seemed fitting.

The Ruins of Ani

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!" Nothing beside remains.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Tale of Brad and Alan

The most observant among you will have noticed that only 13 bikes made the ferry crossing yesterday. What happened to the other two then?

Brad couldn't get an Azerbaijan visa remotely from Australia. The only option was for him to go to the Azerbaijan Embassy in Georgia to get one in person.

While the rest of us saw the sights of Istanbul, Brad, with Alan riding shotgun, rode across Turkey in two days (collecting two speeding tickets). They then sat around a small border town for 3 days while the visa application was processed.

Last night they rejoined us back in Ezerum. Visa in hand. Good to have you back guys.

Kit-tastic - Road Test

Twelve days in, how is the kit holding up?

The bike, is running well (touches wood and gives offering to Bavarian Motor Gods). It is comfortable to ride all day long burning just a small amount of oil.

The luggage system is working well. Easy to pack and unpack. The Metal Mules look a bit more rugged now following a couple of "incidents" back in Montenegro.

Temperature range so far has been from 8C to 26C. Combinations of down jacket/heated vest/merino T-shirts have kept Deefor warm or cool as required.

Tool kit has been used in anger a couple of times (minor tweaks and to fix Patrick's GPS mount) and has passed the test.

Coffee maker was christened yesterday in a shady spot by the side of the road. Not quite up to Mrs Hutchison or Mrs Atkinson's standards, but good anyway.

The electronics have not done so well. The trusty Pentax camera which has survived every adventure since the Atlantic met its end in Greece (broken LCD viewfinder) and was replaced in Istanbul.

The screen of the Kindle also didn't survive being dropped. A replacement is on its way via Watlington, Chengdu and Kashgar. Thanks Susie.

A couple of things have needed repairing; trouser buttons and sunglasses but nothing major.

So far, so good.

Press Release - Turkish Ministry for Transportation

The Republic of Turkey is pleased to announce its road building programme for May 2013.

Turkey has many good roads linking every major city and even small villages. We don't have many cars and lorries using them though. They are mainly empty. Which is a pity considering how much we have invested in them.

The Ministry has therefore studied the economics of road traffic and, applying Say's Law, has decided that increasing the supply of roads will lead to increased demand.

The Ministry will therefore turn every road in Turkey from a single carriageway into a four lane dual carriageway in one month. This will require new bridges, tunnels and the removal of entire mountainsides.

While this going on, drivers will experience majestic sweeping bends through the mountains punctuated by short sections of loose rock. Since there is no traffic, motorcyclists should feel rfee to ride on both sides of the road.

The massive cost of this work means that potholes on major roads will not be filled unless they are more than 20cm deep.

We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.

Day 13 - Nemrut to Erzurum

Turkey's economy, like Albania's (see blogs passim), seems to be mainly based on the car.

While the government tries to boost economic growth through its road building programme the private sector builds garages in order to sell the most expensive petrol so far.

Ford meanwhile seem to be selling the entire output from Swaythling (Home of the Transit) here. Turkey is white van heaven. So our "Snowy" fits right in.

Today started with a ferry across the lake formed by the Atatürk hydroelectric scheme.

The boats were packed with wedding parties (in white Transit minibuses), goods (white Transit vans) and 13 motorbikes. No one has spent any money on the ferries or the docks since Noah came this way. Not surprising really as a new bridge will soon consign this bit of local colour to history.

What to say about the rest of the day? The best ride since northern Croatia. Fast, sweeping bends with a bit of mild off-road and some hail to keep things interesting.

Tonight we stay in Erzerum, Turkey's top ski resort. Who knew?

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Day 12 - To the Top of Mount Nemrut

A longish run today across Turkey, made longer by a GPS assisted excursion down some minor roads. It is crucial when using a GPS to keep your brain enabled. If a sign says that a road is the way to the city you are aiming for, then it is probably the right road. The locals probably know the right way to go and Mr Garmin probably doesn't.

Anyhow, it was all good fun (Stefan described it as Training...) and an intimate knowledge of the agricultural practices of central Anatolian subsistence farmers is bound to come in handy some day.

We finished up at a remote hotel on the slopes of Mount Nemrut, parked the bikes and trekked to the top.

Antiochus was the local king in the last years BC. He built a rock platform at the top of the mountain (2100m high) and placed huge statues of himself, his wives and the gods facing the sunrise and sunset.

If that wasn't enough, he then had a 50m high pyramid of broken stone built on top of the summit. It is thought his tomb lies within. Some cairn!

Groundhog Days

The trip is settling down into a rhythm now.

Alarm clock goes off at 6:00 and it takes 15 minutes to wash, finish packing and load the bike. Breakfast at 6:30 and the first bike rolls out at just after 7:00.

First break of the day after an hour or so for petrol and tea. Home brew for some or a stop for çay (tea) with the locals. Lunch can be a sandwich made at breakfast time and cuppa soup (Mel) or a stop at a roadside eatery. Some just press on through.

Covering 500+ km a day means 2 or 3 petrol stops. A chance to stretch your legs and buy some su (water) for the ride. We are drinking 2 or more litres every day. It is amazing how 10 hours on the road in 24C dries you out and how your concentration goes if you are not properly hydrated.

We don't travel in convoy. Some of the riders prefer to go ride in a small group, others on their own. Over the course of the day you pass and repass people. There is always a wave and a check that all is OK. And if you are a back marker Tin Tin stops to check all is in order. Happy Days!

We are all in the destination hotel in time for the evening briefing at 7:00 PM. Kevin talks us through the next day's route, lines up stuff for further down the road and answers questions.

Then it is off for dinner. Once a week this is a group event, but most nights people wander off and find what suits.

The Twelve Labours of Van Man

It's not all fun and games on this adventure. Someone has to do all the hard work to keep the show on the road.

Tin Tin (aka Pete) is the Van Man. His job is to keep us all going, pick up the stragglers and manage the supplies.

One of his daily jobs is to clean the van. It can be a long day but Tin Tin can't go to bed 'til its done. Even if it is after dark!

Day 11 - Cappadocia

Cappadocia is one of Turkey's most popular tourist areas. The extraordinary rock formations are a result of layers of softer sandstone with harder layers of volcanic rock. Erosion has created weird shapes (Peter is a geologist and knows the proper word - Geomorphic).

The locals have carved houses, churches and pigeon lofts out of them for centuries. Mel even visited a whole town for 10,000 people underground

The best way to see the area is by balloon. So we were up early (4:30) to catch a sunrise flight. There were 70 other balloons with same idea so air space was a bit saturated.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Reflections in The Bosphorus

The end of the first week and time to take stock.

We always knew that the first seven days would be a blast across Europe to get us to the start of the real adventure.

What we didn't know was that GB had built some great motorbiking roads in the Black Forest and Croatian coast into the route. So it was tough, long days and high speeds, but fun as well.

The state of the roads in the former Yugoslavia left a lot to be desired. Since we left Austria the prize for best maintained highways goes to ..... Turkey.

The quality and location of hotels has been great. The strap line says "It's not a holiday, it's an adventure" but for the first week at least it has been a holiday AND an adventure.

The GB team and the other riders are great. It is a relaxed atmosphere but Kevin keeps us "on task" so that we all achieve more than we thought possible.

In Deefor's case that means getting his bike into and out of the caravanserai down two flights of steps. Thanks Iain, Kevin and Tin Tin for your support and encouragement on that.

Final thank you to you the readers for the many messages of support for the blog. Please do use the comment feature to send me feedback. If there is any aspect of the trip you want more information on I will get my crack reporting team onto it.

Day 10 - Across Central Turkey

8 hours on the bike today from Safranbula to Ürgüp in Cappadocia. The first 2 hours were through woods and pastures. "The Alps with Mosques" as Chris described it.

Then a blast south skirting to the east of Ankara into the rock formations of Cappadocia. The sandstone here has eroded into weird shapes. Locals have inhabited the caves for years and some of them have now been turned into our hotel - the Yunak Evleri.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Bath Time

When in Turkey you really have to sample the culture with all the senses. We have tasted the baklava, seen the Hagia Sofia, smelt the spices in the bazaar, heard the muezzin sing the call to prayer and now it was time to feel the sensuous delights of the Turkish Bath.

A sauna to warm us up, a cold shower, scrub down and then a soapy massage and we felt like new men.

Here Steve L, Patrick, Sam, Nigel and Deefor are sporting the very latest in after hamam wear.

Happy Birthday Peter!

It's Peter's 54th birthday today. GB provided the cake. Guess what the present was...

Day 9 - The Silk Road begins

The Sea of Marmara was bathed in fog with just the tips of minarets, skyscrapers and the suspension towers of the Bosphorus bridge poking through as we rode out of Istanbul. We turned right onto the bridge and it felt as though the Silk Road had begun in earnest.

Early morning traffic was light through the suburbs and out onto the motorway to make 200 quick kilometers to the hills. Then some great twisties on good surfaces and we emerged to ride past one of Turkey's largest steel works belching steam, smoke and dust.

A few more miles and we arrived at our overnight stop. A genuine caravanserai called the Cinci Han. These fortified inns provided secure stops on the Silk Road. A bit like modern motorway services but with thicker walls.

Merchants would bring their camels into the central courtyard, offload their goods into the cellars and stop for a few days to rest or trade.

Today's picture shows Chris and Susie's much maligned but very lovely KTM giving a modern take on the camel.

The town of Safranbula is all Ottoman houses and steep streets with the caravanserai and mosques providing the focus. Atmospheric and wonderful.