Category Archives: 2014 Expedition

The 2014 London to Magadan Expedition covers some 28,500 km and is set to be the best one yet.

Beyond Siberia – Road of Bones Video Teaser

Beyond Siberia – Riding The Road Of Bones – which tells the story of the 2014 105 Day London to Magadan Road of Bones Motorcycle Expedition is now available as a two disc DVD set.

A fantastic group of adventurers joined Compass Expeditions founders Mick McDonald and staff members Justin Sain, Veronica Weisz on the epic adventure across Europe, parts of the silk road, stunning Mongolia and finally Russia and infamous Road of Bones to Magadan in eastern Russia.

Presented and narrated by legendary adventurer Charley Boorman this two part series will whet your appetite for your own “Long Way” adventure.

To purchase your copy visit our online shop

 

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Road of Bones to Magadan

It was with great anticipation that we left Ulaan Baatar bound for Russia one last time, Mongolia was once again an absolute highlight for all riders but we were looking forward to something special, our last border crossing for the entire expedition, we had all grown to hate border crossings!

 

Arriving at the remote Mongol / Russia border I was stunned to meet a relation of mine from Australia crossing into Mongolia, it made our last border less painful, in fact the border was staffed by friendly and efficient guards that had us entering Russia within 3 hours.

 

We stopped off at Ulan Ude to visit the largest statue of Lenin in the world but also, sadly, to say goodbye to Geoff who had broken his leg and was going home and to Scott who had broken his ribs but would see us again in Yakutsk.

 

We rejoined the Trans Siberian Highway and rode onto Chita and caught up with Ron and Dean, a couple of Aussies who had camped with us for a few nights. Departing Chita we were amongst the first few people to arrive at a horrific road accident. The scene was horrendous with 7 people involved and a little girl dying at the scene and another older male near death. The screams of a mother wailing for her dead child will remain with us forever, we rendered what assistance we possibly could and rode off in stunned silence, “stuff the Road of Bones” I thought I just wanted to go home to be with the ones I love, life is simply to short!

 

We continued east on the Trans Siberian Highway before finally reaching the legendary M56 or Lena Highway where we turned north with the sign saying Magadan 3177 kilometers to go and nearly all of it on dirt.

 

The Lena Highway immediately proved a challenge as we broke another set of springs on the trailer, the group rode onto Tynda while Justin flagged down a truck driver who proceeded to spend an hour helping to fit a new set of springs, and wouldn’t take a ruble for his efforts.

 

The ride continued due north through the never- ending forests of the Taiga that were turning the colors of autumn, passing many villages that seemed to be in a permanent state of decline. Tiny wooden shacks slowly sunk into the permafrost while old ladies tendered their small gardens and vegetable patches before the onset of another long cold winter. It is difficult to image the hardships these people face in this extremely remote region of Yakutia.

 

We continued on riding in stunning weather under and endless blue sky on what had become surprisingly good dirt roads, so good in fact that we found ourselves a day ahead of itinerary. We decided to camp on the banks of the mighty Lena River, one of Russia’s largest rivers before crossing, via ferry, the following morning to the western bank where Yakutsk is located. Most of the group wanted to visit the UNESCO listed Lena Pillars, a one-hour bike ride and two- hour boat ride south along the Lena River. Once again the weather cleared and we were treated to a spectacular sight of towering basalt cliffs that rose from the banks of the Lena, it was an awesome sight and worth the considerable effort to get there and back. We eventually arrived at Yakutsk at 9pm!

 

The president of the local chapter of Russia’s biggest biker club, the Night Wolves, met us in the hotel and invited us all out for dinner and a few drinks. The word was put out and many bikers riding every type of bike imaginable turned up for a great night out. It was with some surprise that we discovered that our imminent arrival into Yakutsk had made it in the local newspaper before we arrived!

 

Not to be outdone by the newspapers the local TV station were awaiting Justin in the foyer of the hotel but they couldn’t care less in our “epic ride” they only wanted to interview Justin the Hollywood stuntman in his previous life before working for Compass.

 

We had organized a city guide whom had somehow managed to arrange for the wonderful Permafrost Museum to open exclusively for us on a Sunday.

 

With the epic Road of Bones looming a day was spent preparing bikes, changing tyres and generally coming to terms that in seven days the expedition is over!!!

The day had arrived; we were about to ride the infamous Road of Bones from Yakutsk to Magadan, actually the Road of Bones starts after we cross the Aldan River at a place called Khandyga.

 

Riding out of Yakutsk we were yet again greeted by superb sunny weather, the Lena River ferry took one and a half hours before we reached the eastern bank of the river 14ks down stream from where we started and so began the final push for Magadan.

 

Our first day on the Road of Bones was of course eventful, we broke the 5th set of trailer springs and with no more spares it was decided to hire a Russian version of the Kombi Van, commonly called a “Buhonka”, which literally means “square loaf of bread” as this is what this vehicle looks like. We had to reduce the weight on the trailer or it was not going to make Magadan.

 

We camped at an outdoor museum surrounded by lakes and forests and again we were treated to a spectacular sunset; we were also joined by Alex and Mila who had ridden from the Ukraine and were to camp with us nearly all the way to Magadan. Their fluency in Russian proved invaluable over and over again.

 

Dmitry, our Bohonka driver arrived early next morning and we loaded him up leaving our trailer virtually empty and me vowing to push the heap of %^&!! over a cliff if it gave us anymore trouble. We made the Aldan River Ferry by lunchtime but had to “Hurry up and wait” for a number of hours until the ferry filled with vehicles. The Road of Bones had been reasonable condition thus far however some sections had a lot of gravel on it which some riders hated.

 

We sailed downstream for 2 hours as the endless Taiga silently slipped by under an endless blue sky, it was magical and we all agreed the riding could wait this was great!

 

Back on Terra Firma we rode through more deep gravel to the God forsaken village of Khandyga, winding our way through potholed muddy back streets we found the one and only fuel station and quickly left town. We found a wonderful camp beside the mighty Aldan River; a great camp meal was cooked up, a campfire enjoyed as were a display of the Northern Lights early the following morning.

 

We had heard of a great little museum on the Road of Bones at the tiny village of Teply Klyuch and after some searching we found it located inside the local kindergarten whose teachers happily gave up their teaching duties to give us a private tour of this amazing museum that gave a accurate picture of the tragic history of the Road of Bones. We must have looked an amazing sight to the kids as a group of filthy bikers paraded through there rooms, I am not sure who was more excited the kids or the teachers!!

 

We climbed into the mountains as we rode amongst larch and fir tree covered valleys and ascended and descended pass after pass dissected by wild rivers, it was absolutely stunning riding and not what you would expect of a place with such a tragic history. Our progress was bought to a halt at Kyubume as the only fuel stop, an above ground tank and tiny attendant hut, was unable to pump fuel as their solitary generator had broken down, it was a camp on the old summer road made famous in the Long Way Round series with Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor that evening.

 

Fuelled up next morning we rode through to the legendary Road of Bones town of Ust Nera, a more forlorn desperate looking place would be hard to imagine! Our desperation to escape this place was only exasperated after Walt hit a pedestrian in town bring both Walt and pedestrian crashing to the ground, the pedestrian quickly ran away and Walt limped to the fuel station to repair his bike.

 

The Road of Bones had now become a wonderful track that allowed us to maintain 100kph in sections. The riding continued north east through more epic scenery however another issue continually kept the pace down, flat tyres, we had more flat tyres in 1 day than what we had experienced on the entire expedition thus far.

 

The superb sunny weather continued which meant no mud nothing to wash away the razor sharp rocks and also meant higher speeds were able to be maintained. We reached the incredible abandoned city of Kadychan by lunchtime and 4 flat tyres during the morning. Kadychan is one on many completely abandoned cities that dot this region. These cities housed 1000s of workers during Soviet times and were quickly abandoned post Communism and the cities were deemed “unsustainable” and the power was cut off. Walking amongst these cities is completely surreal not to mention eerie.

 

A flurry of flat tyres during the afternoon meant we stayed at a very basic hotel in Sussaman another town that defies description; it is however home to some of the most generous friendly people we had encountered. As in 2010 we were helped by the locals this time to fix a flat tyre on the support vehicle. The owner of the local school bus company spent 2 hours fitting a tube into our tubeless tyre and refused to accept any money despite having supplied a new tube, valve and 2 staff to help us, all at 6pm on a Saturday night!

 

We had lost so much time it had become obvious that we would be a day late into Magadan. We rode all day again under stunning blue skies and in choking dust, passing semi trailers was a complete leap of faith. Our final nights camp was beside a fast flowing river where we celebrated Scotts birthday, as Scott put it he couldn’t think of a better place to celebrate his birthday than deep in the wilderness of the Kolyma region, Eastern Russia with great friends.

 

Early the following afternoon we hit pavement for the first time in 3000ks, we only had 160ks to Magadan, after a staggering 18 flat tyres in 4 days we rode into Magadan 2.30pm after 105 days since leaving the Ace Café in London.

 

As a lead rider it is a moment I long for each expedition I do, it is a moment of intense relief but also of immense achievement, I am proud of all the riders and I think back of all that has passed in the previous 105 days and I am immediately overwhelmed, it is a surprisingly emotional moment and with that I will say no more, WE MADE IT.

 

Mongolia to Magadan

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Magnificent Mongolia

This weeks update is written by Ryan Heath (business partner of Compass Expeditions who flew over to meet up with the expedition for 10 days in Mongolia).

 

The Mongolian border town of Altanbulag is never going to win any tidy town awards yet it here that I spent a sleepless night in a cheap hotel, which smelt like boiled mutton, waiting for the Compass group to pass into Mongolia from Russia. It was the 3rd August 2014 and the beginning of my Mongolian experience.

 

I had long exhausted all the sights of the aforementioned town when Mick rode through the border gates in the early afternoon. The entire group quickly joined him. Brian was the most pleased to meet me given I had brought with me from Ulaanbaatar a WR250. His BMW R1200 GSA had been left in Istanbul.

 

Jane was also kindly disposed towards me as presented her with medications, creams and most importantly Vegimite. After introductions we turned south travelling beyond Sukhbaatar to our first camp west of Darkhan.

 

The rain cleared the next morning but the conditions had made the dirt track to the Amarbayasgalant Monastry slippery so we continued south camping 20kms west of Bulag. It was a spectacular night. The rain cleared and an amazing double rainbow appeared over the hills. Our camp location could not have been better, nestled at the base of surrounding green hills. The WR250 provided great entertainment as some of the guys rode it atop the slopes Steve McQueen style!

 

Unfortunately Geoff had come down the previous day and had suffered a broken leg. After checking on his condition back in the hotel in Bulag the group continued on riding some challenging tracks amid stunning scenery. The camp that night was alongside a meandering creek, which served to chill the beers, and we were visited by a number of locals who enjoyed taking Bayne’s BMWF800 for joy rides.

 

An early morning storm and strong winds shook our tents but the morning dawned clear. During the night a friendly local who had imbibed much of the local vodka had sought shelter in the ladies toilet tent. Ray ensured he was woken and moved on before the ladies used the facilities.

 

The riding the next day was mostly dirt alongside the ever present road construction. Some of the tracks were slippery and challenging but he scenery remained beautiful. We passed ger tents, goats, yaks, cows and wild horses.

 

After passing through the unfortunately named “Moran” we turned north to Khovsgol Nuur. The aptly named Switzerland of Mongolia. Since Mick’s last trip here the road was paved all the way to Khatgal. The riders enjoyed the smooth road and by late afternoon had arrived at Natures Door Ger Camp alongside the lake.

 

The hospitality of Otgoo and her staff was outstanding. Many enjoyed the meals, warm fires in the Gers, cold beer and red wine. The lakeside location was awesome and although the weather was not the best, it was a great stay and an enjoyable free day.

 

Our journey then turned south, the weather cleared, and as we rode towards our next Ger camp and crossed green fields it became obvious that Mongolia was a bikers dream. Dinner was tasty and the group were entertained by the camp site owner and his granddaughter who sang local songs, the Mongolian national anthem and Adele hits!

 

The next day was simply outstanding. Some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen. A clear blue sky the stretched forever, green peaks, scattered gers, herds of wandering stock, flat plains with wavy grass and swooping eagles. A few creek crossings capped of one of the best riding days ever.

 

The ride to White Lake was second to none and was nominated by a number of the riders as the best riding days of their lives. The crossed yawning valleys, rocky pass and clear running streams. The thin bridges over a number of rivers were both challenging and fantastic photo opportunities. The riders arrived at the Ger camp at White Lake to be greeted by an epic sunset and colourful rainbow.

 

The next day we met a group of French tourists who were riding Mongolia on Royal Enfields(some were two up!). We traversed barren lava fields before overlooking the Chuluut George. From there the track was a mix of dirt, rock, and pavement on our way to the Fairfield Hotel in Tsetserleg.

 

A great hotel with good coffee, cinnamon rolls and the Aussie burger (with beetroot). Our hotel was also hosting a group of skateboarders who were making a documentary about skating in Mongolia. As a number of our group returned to the hotel after an evening beer a perfect full moon rose over the horizon.

 

The next day was warm and clear for the long ride to Ulaanbaatar. A mix of pavement, dirt tracks and rocky paths all the way to the capital. A visit to the monastery in Kharkhorin in the morning allowed the group to stretch their legs. The arrival in UB provided a stark contrast to the solitude and tranquility of the Mongolia we had travelled the past two weeks as we were greeted by crazy traffic, blaring horns and unregulated construction.

 

Mongolia!

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Russia to Mongolia

A welcome break was appreciated by the riders in Irkutsk, the stepping off point for the “jewel in the Siberian crown” Lake Baikal. A day spent servicing the bikes changing tyres, getting our Mongolian visas  and preparing the bikes for the hardships of our next destination, Mongolia.

 

Leaving Irkutsk we rode north on the Western side of Lake Baikal to the little visited and privately owned Krestovka Bay. Jack our guide, and ex Russian Army officer, led us to this spectacular bay but not before virtually all riders came down after the forest tracks turned into an immediate quagmire due to a sudden downpour, good training for Mongolia. The effort was worth it as the sun came out again as we rode out of the forest and down to an amazing bay set between two cliffs. the superlatives for this lake are unbelievable, Lake Baikal holds 1/5th of the worlds unfrozen fresh water supplies, it’s the oldest lake on earth and also the deepest at an amazing 1642mt deep , 80% of all the flora and fauna found in and around the lake exist nowhere else on earth, it really is a very special place

 

The following day was spent off the bikes instead walking to the ancient Shamanic rock art site that has made Krestovka a must see destination on Lake Baikal. A traditional Banya (sauna) was enjoyed by some of the sore riders / walkers.

 

We are constantly amazed with some of the people we meet on this ride and the 25-year-old girl selling forest berries on the side of the Trans Siberian Highway was no exception. Anya speaks three languages perfectly and makes 20,000 Euros every summer selling berries, this funds her and her sisters international travels with India being her next destination when winter returns to Siberia.

 

The miles rolled by as we rode due east skirting Lake Baikal on the legendary Trans Siberian Highway toward Ulan Ude.

 

Departing the Tran Siberian Highway, the forests thinned out and the wide-open plains began to dominate the landscape as we rode toward Mongolia. The night was spent under the stars overlooking a vast lake only 100ks from Mongolia.

 

Crossing into Mongolia is a series of comical events as the border is completely chaotic and no one really seems to know what is going on, darting from window to window to collect a series of stamps on a piece of paper who we needed to give to a disinterested border guard we eventually entered Mongolia 5 hours after arriving at the border.

 

Compass Expeditions co -founder Ryan was more than a little relieved to see us enter Mongolia as he had wasted 24 hours of his life at a god forsaken dump masquerading as a hotel waiting for us to arrive.

 

At last we were in what is always a highlight of the expedition – MONGOLIA!

Russia to Mongolia

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From Russia with Love

We were assured the road to the seldom used and remote border post from Karakol to Kazakhstan was all paved so it was with some surprise when the road virtually disappeared! In its place was a rough dirt track that had us scrambling up and over a steep mountain pass, bringing 2 riders down in the process? The scenery was however spectacular, again.

 

We spent 3 ½ hours getting out of Kyrgyzstan and getting into Kazakhstan, the Kazakh border guards took their jobs very seriously not letting us speak to loudly or move beyond an imaginary line or even sit down!

 

For the 3rd time since I began running the Road of Bones Expedition the hunt was on for the elusive Charyn Canyon, a supposed spectacular canyon hidden in the mountains. Not a sign exists for the canyon anywhere and the waypoint we had created when pouring over satellite maps only took us to a random spot in the desert. It was decided to find a camp and stop for the night as ferocious winds were blowing us across the road and we were surrounded by a looming rain front from the rear and a dust storm from the side, once again it seemed I would not find Charyn Canyon.

 

The following morning we decided to go in search of the canyon one last time. With the help of maps and many GPS units WE FOUND IT and it certainly did not disappoint. A spectacular red rock canyon dissected by the Charyn River was glowing in the early morning sun; we had the canyon to ourselves and enjoyed the views in silence.

 

The heat had returned as we rode into Almaty despite the fact that we could see the snowcapped peaks that towered above the city.

 

Bikes were serviced and new tyres fitted before we rolled out to cross the Kazakh Steppe once again. Riding the Kazakh Steppe was once again epic camping under the stars in complete wilderness and utter silence. Our last day in Kazakhstan greeted us with a stunning sunrise over a beautiful lake; the morning gave us no indication to the weather that lay ahead that day.

 

We rode into a ferocious dust storm and cyclonic winds that threatened to blow us off our bikes. The dust was blinding and the stung any exposed skin as we battled to maintain 80kph. Eventually we reached the Semeypalatinsk, former headquarters of the Soviet nuclear testing program, it wasn’t a town we wished to linger but linger we did as we again broke a spring pack on the trailer and blew a tyre, of course it’s a border crossing day!

 

After only a 1 ½ and a new spring pack fitted and tyre repaired, all for US$10, we rode toward the Russian border. The landscape changed immediately when we left Semeypalatinsk, from a blowing flat landscape to pine forests and massive fields of sunflowers, we can guess who drew up the borders!

 

Incredibly we were riding off into Russian in 2 hours which was just as well as it was 8pm and we needed a camp which we found 5ks from the border.

 

The terrible roads of Kazakhstan were immediately replaced by beautiful high-speed roads the moment we left the Russian border.  The ride continued on through Krasnoyarsk as we reached the legendary Trans Siberian Highway. Days were spent riding through beautiful pine forests, lakes and impossibly large wheat fields, camping out here was beautiful!

 

We entered Siberia and reached Irkutsk 7 days, 3 time zones and 3500ks after leaving Almaty after an epic ride.

From Russia with Love

 

 

 

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Stunning Kyrgyzstan

“Welcome to Kyrgyzstan” these were the first words we heard as we entered to border compound after spending nearly 3 hours trying the “get out” of Uzbekistan! Unbelievably within 15 minutes we were riding off into Kyrgyzstan.

 

We rode into the city of Osh to change some money & have lunch, although quiet these days it was the very city that erupted into violence in 2010 as we approached the border, this violence curtailed our 2010 plans to visit Kyrgyzstan so we were very happy to be back in this stunning country.

 

Our first nights camp saw us camp at a beautiful lake not far off the main road. Before we had set up camp a local riding a donkey visited and gestured his approval for us to camp overnight on what possibly was his property or at least land where he fattens his stock during the summer months. The setting sun leant a magnificent golden glow across the landscape with the shadows of the nearby mountains being cast over our campsite.

 

We rode off next morning and continued on to Jalalabad, not far past Jalalabad we hit our first dirt tracks and started to climb into the mountains.  What was to follow was some of the most extraordinary, awe inspiring and epic scenery we have encountered on the entire expedition. Picture perfect valleys dotted with nomadic families living in yurts dotted the landscape while the at times narrow dirt track barely clung to the mountainsides as we ascended and descended mountain pass after mountain pass.

 

“The greatest riding days on my life”, “we have ridden the Himalayas, Andes, Alaska and more but nothing compares to this”, “this place is equal to if not better than the Himalayas”, these were a few of the comments from elated riders who were exhausted but were in awe as they rode lonely pass after lonely pass through the very back roads of Kyrgyzstan.

 

Coming down out of the mountains we arrived into the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek where a few days of R&R were welcome. The rough tracks had taken its toll on the trailer as we smashed a spring pack but fortunately we were able to track down a suspension guy who completely fabricated a new pack for by cannibalizing a suspension from a small truck.

 

Back out into the country we visited the world’s second largest freshwater lake, Issyk Kul a stunning sight with snowcapped peaks bordering each side of the lake, as one rider put it “you get 3 totally diverse landscapes in one frame, Mountains, desert and lake” another scenic overload.

 

Karakol, was our base for the next 3 nights as we included an excursion into the stunning Alpine Valley known as Altyn Arashan.  After an incredibly rough 2-½ hour ride in the back of a Russian Truck we arrived at or super basic accommodation at Altyn Arashan just before it clouded over and proceeded to rain all afternoon. With no Internet or mobile phone coverage it was really back to basics and we all enjoyed the slower pace at least for an afternoon. A great night was enjoyed as we shared the dining room and huddled around the log fire with hikers from the Czech Republic, a walking club from Russia, a hitchhiker from Holland and various other characters. Valentin the owner of the accommodation was previously a moto-cross champion and trained Russian soldiers moto-cross when Kyrgyzstan was still part of Russia!

 

We were greeted to a beautiful morning that showed Altyn Arashan in all its glory. The overnight rain had left a dusting of fresh snow on the peaks that surrounded us; horses wandered amongst the lush green grass and in the distance the valley seemed to be blocked by a towering 6000mt snowy pass, it was epic stuff.

 

The bikes and riders are all going well with only a few minor falls occasionally; our next destination is again Kazakhstan and its former capital, Almaty.

Stunning Kyrgyzstan

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Riding the Silk Road

The Silk Road is a route of legends dotted with oasis towns and crammed full of ancient antiquities, with Samarkand and Bukhara the most legendary of them all.

We left the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, bound for Samarkand, the city built by Timur the Lame or Tamerlame as he is known in the west. This historic Silk Road city is a must see and is home to one of Central Asia’s most striking antiquities, the Registan. The mighty Registan is one of those “must see before you die” places yet is so far off the beaten tourist track that it is still rare to see another tourist, something that is amazing in this day and age.

A city tour was organized and we visited the Guri Amir Mausoleum, where Tamerlame is buried and the impressive Bibi-Khanym Mosque to name a few places that make up this amazing Silk Road Oasis.

While it must be said that the riding in Uzbekistan is far from inspiring it is the incredible Silk Road history that makes this country more than worthwhile visiting, it adds another element to the expedition.

Leaving Samarkand we were soon in the deserts more renown for the blazing heat than anything else yet we have been immensely lucky as we rode in mild 33 to 35 degree Celsius temperatures. We rode onto the second most renowned Silk Road oasis town of Bukhara, the old town seems to not have changed that much in centuries although signs of progress and tourism is starting to appear and it wont be long before this city too falls victim to mass tourism!

Another city guide was organized and again the day was spent off the bikes exploring the famous Emirs Ark, with a gruesome history, and the Kolon Minaret, declared so beautiful by Genghis Khan, that he spared its destruction as he terrorized Central Asia all those centuries ago.  A few of the riders went in search of the famous Bukharan Rugs and walked away a few dollars poorer while the others spent time, as countless others have over the centuries, eating around the Laubi Hauz, an ancient pool surrounded by 400 year old trees and not so old restaurants.

Things were starting the heat up riding wise as we rode east again toward Tamerlames hometown of Shakrisabz. Riding into “shak” we all wondered if a recent earthquake had hit it such was the destruction of the downtown area. Ignoring my GPS I rode to the hotel that have stayed at many times before, a beautiful hotel with marble floors, restaurants and in- ground pool, to my amazement the hotel was halfway through being demolished. We later found out that the Uzbek government had decided to totally rebuild Shakrisabz from the ruins up; they had actually flattened the entire old town and promise to have it totally rebuilt within 2 years, nothing was spared from the bulldozer!!!!!! We eventually found the hotel an older place that had escaped the bulldozer.

We rode back to Tashkent the following day and experienced our first cool ride in 2 weeks as we crossed a small pass. The following day out of Tashkent saw the bikes stopped by police as we were told that no motorbikes were allowed to ride the main rode out of town past Parliament House! A short detour ensued. This minor delay was nothing compared to the fiasco that awaited riders 10 years ago. We actually had our bikes confiscated back then and put onto a truck and delivered to our hotel. The legend goes that the president of Uzbekistan had an assassination attempt on his life many years ago by gunmen on motorcycles, hence the rule “no motorbikes in Tashkent” thankfully the authorities don’t have a long memory and we could at least ride around most of Tashkent now except past Parliament house.

Uzbekistan is getting better, fuel was available almost everywhere, the roads are improving and the cash shortages are not as bad, within a few years Uzbekistan will have caught up with the rest of the tourism world, all that remains is the utterly disinterested border guards to come to life that may take a LOT longer!

With Heindenau tyres fitted to all bikes now we were ready to take on the mountains and dirt of Kyrgyzstan.

 

Riding the Silk Road

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Across the Kazakh Steppe

Our time in Russia was brief as we visited Samara, the hometown of Russia’s first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin. The following day we battled our way south towards a remote Kazakh border along with hundreds of military vehicles, Armored Personal Carriers, countless trucks towing 150mm Cannons and other assorted military equipment, the dark and misty gloom of the day lent an eerie feeling to this very substantial troop movement and we all wondered out loud if Kazakhstan was about to be invaded?

 

Unlike the 8 hour fiasco getting into Russia getting out was a 30-minute breeze. Kazakhstan took a couple of hours and it wasn’t long before we were riding into the immense Kazakh Steppe. Stopping off at Aralsk we stocked up on Kazakh Tenge, Fuel and beer for our first nights camping on the expedition. We camped out on the Steppe set the cook tent up and had the kitchen underway within 45 minutes, a great effort for our first night. Some riders had never camped before but we could not think of a more spectacular place to spend your first night camping than the awesome Kazakh Steppe. The sun dipped below the horizon and treated us to an amazing sunset that set the entire Steppe alight in a magnificent golden glow, the isolation, silence and emptiness of the Steppe is something to behold and we all agreed it was brilliant.

 

A curios feature of travelling in Kazakhstan is that we MUST register our visas with the Immigration department if we stay for more than 5 days, this time wasting exercise meant that we stayed 2 nights in Aqtobe and took many hours to have all visas registered.

 

Happy to be out on the Steppe again we spent another 3 nights in spectacular wilderness but also HOT. Passing the rocket-launching site of Baikonur it was noticed that our trailer hitch was seriously cracked and the trailer wasn’t that far away from falling off! Camp was quickly set up as the crew travelled back into Baikonur township to find a welder at 8pm on a Saturday night, which we managed to do. After 2 hours of some serious welding and bracing the small army of welders, onlookers and assistants had completed the job. They insisted we share a smoke as a token of Kazakh / Australian brotherhood which we obliged although neither of us smoke. The entire experience once again reinforces the notion that no matter how bad the situation might look people are always willing to go out of their way to help you out.

 

Across the Steppe we continued camping at night beside an amazing river that dissects this barren empty landscape before stopping at surely what must be one of the most forlorn places on earth, Aral, former site of what used to be the Aral Sea, the worlds 4th largest sea, virtually drained dry in 30 years by the Russians in their successful quest to become the worlds largest cotton producers. Continuing south we visited the UNESCO world heritage listed mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, the famous Kazakh poet and religious leader who also happened to be admired by Tamerlane so he ordered a huge mausoleum to be built for him, before reaching a welcome shower at our hotel in Shymkent after 3 of immensely hot days of riding and a number of falls in bull dust holes and loose gravel.

 

Leaving Kazakhstan we crossed into Uzbekistan but not before being ripped off by the Kazakh guards who found a minor error on our Visa Registration forms, this error was committed by the staff at the Immigration department in Aqtobe but there WE were paying US$25 each to let us leave Kazakhstan! More fun was yet to come as we spent a frustrating 6 hours trying to get into Uzbekistan. A more disinterested border crew would be hard to imagine they had absolutely no interest in getting anything done with any sort of efficiency, and we had it good compared to the truck drivers! Once again we didn’t arrive to our hotel in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, until after dark thanks to a border crossing.

 

We felt like millionaires and we were after changing some US$ into the local Uzbek currency the Som. A tank of fuel will cost you 40,000 Som and we generally only received 1000 Som notes, having a group dinner was a payment nightmare as the costs easy reaches 200,000 Som, it takes longer to pay the bill than to eat the meal!

 

Next stop the legendary Silk Road Oasis towns of Samarqand and Bukhara.

Russia to Uzbekistan

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Week 4 – Entering Russia!

With our new plan to enter Abkhazia cemented we submitted our electronic Abkhazian entry permit applications that would take 3 days to be issued, we were all excited to be taking this detour through this unknown territory, that was until were received word that we CANNOT depart Abkhazia using a different border than the one we entered?? so departing Georgia and entering Russia was suddenly not possible!!! Spirits were dashed and plans were in tatters as we scrambled yet again to find an alternative route.

 

After 2 days locked in the Marriot hotel in Tbilisi, furiously planning, it was decided to go back to Europe via Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania & Latvia before crossing into Russia, 9 days behind schedule. We rewrote the entire itinerary and were still able to see everything as per our planned itinerary but any more delays would mean we would have to skip Kyrgyzstan to catch up.

 

We explored every option including getting an Azerbaijani visa, 5 days, crossing into the Ukraine from the Georgian port of Batumi, another visa delay for Australians, crossing the Caspian Sea via notoriously unreliable Baku to Aktrau ferry or getting a transit visa for Azerbaijan then entering Russia and riding through Dagestan, all the dire governmental travel warnings and local advice turned us off that idea, Europe was the only option and a bad one at that.

 

We rode out of Tbilisi the following day bound for Turkey, while crossing the border into Turkey it was the Georgian border guard that first alerted us to the fact the Larsi border between Russian and Georgia was opened again the very day we were leaving Georgia. Reports were sporadic at best and accurate information was impossible to obtain so we continued on to the Black Sea resort town of Giresun. Making numerous calls and sending many emails confirmed that indeed a temporary road had been built and the border was opened again. Once again a new plan was hatched and it was decided to again enter Georgia and give the border a try. This decision meant that Brian is not going to see his bike again for the remainder of this expedition, apparently its too much for his US shipping agents to manage to crate his other bike stick it on a plane and get it to him!! Seriously how hard can it be?

 

We once again departed Tbilisi but this time we turned north and rode the utterly spectacular Georgian Military Highway, a road of legends, a road taken by Gorky, Pushkin & Tolstoy not to mention invading Russian armies! Stunning monasteries clung to mountainsides while others occupied incredibly scenic locations. The riding was truly wonderful as we ascended through a fertile green landscape to barren rocky sheer mountains that towered all around. Hairpin after hairpin greeted us as rode onto Russia.

 

We reached the site of the devastating landslide that claimed 8 lives, the slide had changed the course of the river and a pile of utterly unrecognizable twisted metal that once were semi trailers bore terrifying testament to the ferocity of the landslide, those poor truck drivers never had a chance.

 

We had an amazing ride through the Caucuses however our jubilant mood was soon soured but an amazing 8 hour border crossing and a miserable, but ultimately unsuccessful, scam at the Russian border where one police officer invites us to jump the lengthy que only to be busted by another officer wanting to charge us US$300 for crossing double lines while getting to the front, as instructed to do so by his counterpart!! Welcome to Russia!!

 

We met our “fixer” Stas on the Georgian side and after finally getting through we met Irina the president of the local Vladikavkaz Rotary club who had waited an amazing 12 hours at the border to greet us. We were escorted the 40ks to our hotel in Vladikavkaz arriving at 11.30pm tired but elated to “at last” make it to Russia. The kitchen staff had all stayed back to prepare us a midnight meal.

 

The following morning we found ourselves being interviewed by the local TV station before Irina and Stas wanted to take us to Beslan; the town with a tragic history from 10 years ago when 365 people, 200 of them children, were killed by terrorists with no apparent reason as to why, to this day it remains a mystery WHY? It was a very moving experience.

 

The ride continued on as we rode out of the mountains and into an amazing landscape of endless Wheatfield’s and a vast distant horizon. This was an empty landscape, a huge contrast to what we have experienced thus far on this ride. We reached Elista and stayed at the only hotel in town before reaching Volgograd formerly known as Stalingrad, the renowned site of one of the bloodiest battles during WW2.

 

A city guide was organized and we spent a half day learning about the incredible yet bloody history of this town. The 56mt tall Mother of Russia statue and the eternal flame were particularly poignant. The changing if the guard was a bit weird but classically Russian.

 

It was back to the miserable hovel masquerading as a hotel, (all we could get at such short notice thanks to the landslide), for some bike servicing as it has been 9600ks since we left London a month ago.

 

Tomorrow we ride onto Samara, the home of the MIG jet fighter and formerly a closed city, on the banks of the mighty Volga River, at last we are back on track and have caught up on the itinerary. It has been an amazing adventure thus far and the Road of Bones Expedition is only a month in!!!

 

Week 4 - Into Russia

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Week 3 – Turkey to a major Roadblock

We rolled on the Ottoman city of Safranbolu famed for its Turkish Delights and Saffron tea; it was a real treat to stay in a 265-year-old Ottoman house, now hotel.

 

The legendary Cappadocia was our next port of call; the riding today was certainly some of the most challenging to date but still nothing compared to Mongolia and the Road of Bones that lies ahead! We wound our way up into the high Anatolian Plains crawling our way through tiny villages with cobblestone streets and elderly people chatting on the sidewalks, it was the real Turkey away from the freeways and hustle and bustle.

 

The fairytale chimney landscapes of Cappadocia never fail to amaze and everyone was blown away at this stunning landscape. We stayed at the Shoestring Cave hotel, a series of caves that have been converted into great rooms, Turkish Pide and Efes were thoroughly enjoyed on the terrace overlooking Goreme, tough life but someone has to do it!

 

Something we have all struggled with is the 4am “call to prayer” and we swear all our hotels are located to a minaret, however the “call to prayer” served as an alarm clock for our Hot Air Balloon ride over the area, after 2 hours waiting it was cancelled due to winds, to much or not enough we could never figure out, it hurts’ getting up at that ungodly hour for nada!!! Some brave riders took the chance and tried again next day and were amply rewarded with some epic flying across the remarkable landscapes of Cappadocia, the rest of us stayed in bed, once going back to sleep after the “Call to prayer”.

 

We rode north across the Anatolian Plains again that included some absolutely epic riding across winding twisting narrow passes with gradients of 10% and more. Canyon after canyon appeared as we crossed numerous passes as we rode onto another Ottoman town of Amaysa.

 

Amaysa lies between two sheer walls of rock and is home to some incredible Ottoman buildings that hang over the river as well as some ancient burial chambers that date back to 400BC, a real unknown gem of Turkey.

 

More stunningly beautiful scenery was enjoyed as we crossed the mountains to the Black Sea Coast. Turkey is in the grip of a road building frenzy and the ride along the Black Sea Coast was, although scenic, totally different to what it was four short years ago, now a four lane highway travels every inch of the way to Trabzon, the city where we used to catch the ferry to Russia.

 

We have chosen a new route that deletes the misery of the Black Sea Ferry crossing and adds Georgia since the border between Georgia and Russia has at last opened and I think we have nailed the ride from Trabzon to Kars, it was absolutely brilliant. The road slowly wound its way through numerous narrow valleys with villages and tea plantations clinging to the valley walls. We slowly ascended to a 2600mt pass that offered epic views of snow capped peaks all around. It was second only to the scenery we rode on the Grossglockner! More canyon lands dissected by a turquoise river reminiscent of Monument Valley in the US, but only green, was absolutely loved by all riders, the scenery just didn’t stop all day as we rode into Kars at 6pm, tired but elated.

 

Our last day in Turkey was greeted by our first puncture just before the Georgian border, of course!! We again crossed a 2600mt pass with snow capped peaks again in view, the riding was at times trying as the road went from badly potholed to no road at all as we descended steeply on washed out dirt all the while being hailed on.

 

Crossing into Georgia was like stepping back in time, the roads are terrible the drivers even worse and the buildings are in an incredible state of disrepair but the place is somehow still absolutely beautiful. The road, and I use that term loosely, followed the course of a raging river with the landscape dotted with old castles and fortresses; as we ascended through pine forests we reached the ski resort of Bakuriani our destination for a night.

 

Arriving into the Georgian capital, Tbilisi we were confronted with some news that would change the entire expedition; the border between Georgia & Russia has been closed due to a massive landslide that killed a number or people. This has thrown us into chaos as we struggled to find an alternate route. Retracing to Turkey is pointless, as all Black Sea ferries into Sochi, Russia, have been cancelled due to the port of Sochi being closed since the winter Olympics. We looked at getting an Azerbaijani visa but this would take at least a week and we would be forced to take the Baku ferry across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan and this ferry is notoriously unreliable with no schedule. At the final hour we came up with a solution; we will cross into the disputed territory of Abkhazia that borders Russia near Sochi but first we need a transit visa and this can still take a few days. If all else fails we will be returning to Europe and enter Russia via Poland, only time will tell, its going to be an interesting week.

* Update 16th June – The possibility of crossing into either Azerbaijan or Abkhazia did not work out so the expedition was forced to create a detour all the way back around through Turkey, Romania, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to enter Russia at that point travelling through countries where Visas wouldn’t be such an issue. With hotel reservations lost and new hotels and route planned the team set off back into Turkey and when they had been travelling for a day news reached us that a portion of the landslide had been cleared allowing traffic to again pass through. Currently the team is deciding whether to again double back to the Georgia/Russia border  and attempt the border again via the newly cleared path or continue on the new route via Europe. Stay tuned!

Our gear; We have experienced just about every type of rainy weather condition thus far from blinding thunderstorms to hail and the Touratech Zega 2 panniers have not a let a drop of water ingress, they are really doing the job and that’s important as I have $1000s worth of camera equipment, medical kit and tools in each box, simple as that, and no we aren’t being paid to say this, they work that’s it!!!

 

My BMW Pro 3 riding suit is awesome, it actually doesn’t leak, something I never believed to be possible, it is the ideal suit for the weather we are encountering, generally hot but at the same time some VERY heavy thunderstorms. Whip in the waterproof liners when the storms hit them open up the numerous air vents when its gets hot again, versatility is the word that springs to mind.

 

Week 3 - Turkey to the Roadblock

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