Archive for August, 2010


Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

(Emily) Our impression of the hotel in Kashgar did not improve the following morning when we found that all the breakfast buffet had been decimated  even though we arrived half an hour before it finished. By the time Muza came back to meet us at 9.30 am, we were all a bit disgruntled – remember, the five days in China were costing each person over $700 so we felt entitled to be looked after a little better than this. Muza agreed that the hotel was crap (er, why bring us here in the first place then) and proposed that we change to another. The tastefully named ‘Seman Hotel’ turned out to be much better, thank goodness, but it did mean a whole morning was wasted with the palaver of getting repacked etc. Then we had to go to the Newland Travel office to pay our fees, finally meeting Taher who was the owner and had been our contact via email for the past six months. There had been a bit of confusion over who had paid their deposit or not and it seemed to us that getting money off the rich westerners was the main priority. James and I had been sure that the money had come out of our account when we were asked to transfer it to the Bank of China back in July. As it happens, it turns out that the payment hadn’t gone through and once we’d seen on our internet banking that HSBC had returned the $200 to us just a few days before, of course we were happy to pay again. However, Muza’s flippant comment that it was ‘just a day’s wages’ for us didn’t go down too well…

Several people had issues with their bikes that needed seeing to so that afternoon we followed Muza (on his bicycle!) down to a local garage where we (‘we’) worked on them until the sun went down. Donato’s Harley probably needed the most work having been bumped and shaken to bits on all the bad roads, plus Carl needed a new hinge making for his panier system and Stefano’s rear sub-frame had a big crack which needed welding. The guys at the garage seemed to be able to make and do just about anything and didn’t charge a huge amount so there were lots of satisfied customers that afternoon. (James and I felt almost uneasy that nothing needed sorting on our bikes – what were we missing?! Good little bikes, they’re holding up really well). It was dark by the time we left; cue another interesting ride through the chaotic streets back to the new hotel. Poor Muza was a wreck when we arrived – he’d been pedalling so fast, as you’d have to when leading a group of motorcycles on a push bike, and all on an empty stomach due to Ramadan. However, once he’d finished being ill he perked up and took us down to a local Uyghur (the indigenous people) restaurant that he recommended – it didn’t disappoint. We were really fortunate to have a local with us as he knew what was good and ordered a fantastic selection of food; each plate was a new taste sensation. The pumpkin manty (a bit like large tortellini) was particularly good – my mouth is watering with the recollection! Not only was the food great, but the restaurant itself was in a fantastically grand building with intricate wooden carvings all around, and it was absolutely packed with local families – always a good sign.

On Sunday, with the jobs done, we got to see a bit of Kashgar itself, heading first to the legendary silk road animal market and then the bazaar. The animal market was a similar set-up to the one we’d been to in Karakol but this time on a much larger scale and far more chaotic. It felt more like we were in Pakistan than China as most of the local people were Muslim and not very Chinese looking but of course where we were was so close to the borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We picked our way through the hundreds of goats, sheep, cows and yaks, careful to avoid getting caught hemmed in next to a rear end… There was a particularly comedy breed of sheep with a big bottom, all the more emphasised if the animal was sheared! Bartering was much more in evidence than in calm karakul, with some of the haggling getting quite forceful, and it was fun to be amid all the craziness. It all felt very foreign, which was great! The Sunday bazaar was another good experience; very colourful and selling everything from dried fruit, to fabrics, to musical instruments. A fur seller jumped on Stefano and me, making us don hats made of real fox fur. I have to say, the rabbit fur hat/scarf combo he tied round my head was beautifully soft and warm but there was no way we were going to support somewhere that also had tiger furs hanging up – WRONG! What did get in the market though, was a lovely sheepskin to go on our seats. We’d been keeping an eye out for one since Istanbul but only come across rather ‘raw’ looking untreated skins hanging by the roadside. This one was beautifully done, soft and white – too white really! Bene, James and I clubbed together for one skin that we could cut into three and bartered down to 200 RMB (about twenty quid – same as Ikea!) We also picked up some extra large rubber gloves to go over our rather inadequate summer riding ones when it rained, and some extra bungees – you can never have too many bungees!

The afternoon was spent relaxing in ‘John’s Café’ next to the hotel where people were able to catch up on emails and Bene and I sat down little good little women to sew elastic straps onto our sheepskins. In the evening we walked down to the night market which was thronging with people at the food stalls, able to eat now that the sun had gone down. The sheep heads and trotters didn’t look too appealing but luckily there was some more innocuous fare and we stuffed ourselves on noodles, dumplings, chickpeas and melon, happily ignoring the somewhat dubious hygiene standards. We started to walk back and then spied an empty motorised cart taxi (front bit motorbike, back bit cart)… we couldn’t resist and the six of us piled into the back for a rather hair-raising ride back to the hotel! We could have all done with another day in Kashgar as I’m sure it has more to offer, but the itinerary was set and the following day we were due to continue south, at last putting wheel to tarmac (hopefully) on the famous KKH.

The ‘road’ to Kashgar

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

(James) Given that the day would see us pass over 3,700m at the Torugart Pass, which is the border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China, we were relieved to see clear blue sky when we stepped out of our yurt on Friday morning. It’s fair to say that we were all quite relaxed at breakfast; word was that the roads in China were absolutely fine and we were supposedly only 60km from the border, making for a potentially easy day with an estimated arrival time in Kashgar of early afternoon. We knew the road to the border on the Kyrgyz side would continue to be bad so Donato and Roberta headed off at 8.30 am on the Harley, while we packed up at a more leisurely pace and took a few (more) photos. China required our ‘guide’ (it’s impossible to travel in China on your own transport without a government approved guide/observer) to meet us at the Torugart Pass and we had agreed a time of 1pm, although it was unclear whether this was Beijing or Xinjiang time (China officially has one time zone – Beijing time – but unofficially each region operates a more realistic ‘local time’, in our case Xinjiang time…) We set off with confidence, going as fast as the bad road surface allowed, but progress checks on the map quickly revealed that the border was more than 60km away and time was actually tighter than we had anticipated.

(Emily) We rolled up to the Kyrgyz side of the border, shaken and dusty, at five to one in the end – cutting it fine! Unfortunately, it then took over 45 minutes to ‘process’ us (during which time the border guard seemed to go for lunch) and there was a long stretch of no-man’s-land through the mountains on the other side before we got to the Torugart Pass (at 3750m, our highest pass yet!). Hence we were a little late but Muza, our guide, didn’t seem to mind and he dished out some gratefully received bread (none for him – Ramadan). After a passport inspection, Muza jumped into his car and told us to follow him; apparently it was another 40km to the actual customs post. We happily obliged, eager for some lovely smooth Chinese tarmac after several days on unpaved roads… only to be greeted by miles of churned up crap as far as the eye could see. WTF, this wasn’t right!?! We’d only just got going when, on a stretch of road only one lane wide with piles of gravel lining one side, a lorry decided to plough on through in the on-coming direction straight towards Muza’s car and Fabian, Carl and Bene on their bikes. As they tried to swerve into gaps between the gravel piles, the car was scraped all along one side, as was Fabian’s panniers. Carl managed to pull in just in time, whereas Bene, realising she had no-where to go, simply tipped herself and the bike into one of the dirt piles to avoid being crushed. Welcome to China! James and I were still higher up the pass, bringing up the rear, and watched the chaos as we felt the first flutters of snow. This was not how we had envisaged our entrance into country number 17!

It turned out to be a really, really tough day. The poor road continued on and on, in fact it wasn’t just poor, it was ridiculously bad. There was no tarmac to be seen for the first 70km and numerous Chinese roadwork crews were carving up the already gravelly, rocky surface causing thick trenches of clay that were incredibly hard to ride through. Often the road had been entirely destroyed and we were diverted off into the valley; at one point having to ride along (i.e. in) a stream that had formed from flood water, negotiating wet shingle and muddy bits. This horrendous experience culminated in having to cross the actual river to get back to the road, which was deep, fast flowing and muddy bottomed. No siree! The others had already got ahead and conquered the crossing – James now had quite the audience for his turn, and not only that, he had to do it twice!! Comedy moment as he came back across on foot to get my bike, took a running jump and instead of landing in shallow water on the opposite bank as he anticipated, it came up to his knees causing him to fall and dive commando roll stylee on to the bank! However, on the bikes he traversed the water like a pro, despite it being his first time at a river crossing, and was certainly my hero for the day. As I walked over on foot to get across, Muza joked, ‘You have licence?’ Er, not for long actually so shut your face! I did at least get a lift in the car back up to the road (with Roberta – pillions are not helpful when negotiating water) and although the car made it through the water ok, it then ground out on the rocky slope back up to the road. An unfortunate lorry hadn’t even got that far and was stuck fast in the river bed. See photos for the whole delightful scene.

The whole time we were enjoying this lovely route, we had one watchful eye on the weather which was not looking at all good. Luckily the earlier snow had been a brief flurry and, apart from a short hail shower (yes, hail), the threatening rain miraculously held off. This was a relief of huge proportions as a downpour would have turned what was a tricky road into a downright dangerous one and, now we were in China on a strictly regulated schedule, there was no time to stop and sit it out. After we’d been going for three hours, it was clear that Muza’s ‘40km’ to the checkpoint was a vast exaggeration and soon I had to stop and take my tinted goggles off as I was struggling to see due to the dark clouds and lateness of the hour. It was 90km before we finally felt the sweetness of smooth, smooth tarmac and not long after, arrived at customs. The clouds were finally clearing so even though it was 7pm, it was lighter than it had been for most of the afternoon. However, our hopes of arriving in Kashgar early in the day had become a distant memory and I was starting to get anxious about the all too real possibility of having to ride in the dark. Hopefully customs would be quick… ha, ha, ha, this is China we’re talking about!! We all had to remove any soft baggage to be passed through the scanner and the bike details were carefully checked against Muza’s paperwork. They pulled James’ map out of the tank bag and scrutinised it for quite some time, apparently checking that the region we were in was marked as Xingjiang and not it’s old name of East Turkistan. Very important, obviously! We also had to get our laptop out – quite what they expected to find, I don’t know. They gave the programs bar a cursory look and seemed satisfied, so satisfied in fact that they let us off the bag search and scan. Bonus; it seemed we were on our way… Not so fast, smug tourist biker people, another official had decided that he wanted to see a laptop from each nationality… okaaay. James disappeared into the office with all the computers and five minutes later James came out stifling his laughter; they’d looked at a selection of photos and random scenes from the films we have downloaded and of course, came upon the exact moment in ‘Life of Brian’ when Brian opens the window in a flourish, revealing his full frontal nakedness to hoards of waiting followers!! Whoops!

After an hour and a half of boring officialdom, we were on our way to our final destination; Kashgar. Sure enough, we were soon riding along in the dark negotiating hundreds of 125cc bikes (the first motorcycles we’d seen since Turkey pretty much), lorries, carts and all sorts, many without lights on. Thank goodness we had Muza’s car to follow so we didn’t need to worry about which turns to take, and it was good to be riding as part of a group (I was always somewhere in the middle – everyone looks out for me as the newbie!) It was a bit of a shock to enter Kashgar, a busy city with neon everywhere, after the peasant country we’d been riding through all day. In town, the car reduced speed to about 20kph so none of us got left behind at junctions and on roundabouts, so it was actually quite amusing pootling along in a snails pace convoy while locals looked on in bemusement. Well, it would have been amusing if we weren’t all dog tired from the hellish day we’d had. The relief when we finally pulled into the hotel at 10pm was palpable, and everyone’s spirits were buoyed by the hilarity of a tiny police bike arriving two-up with lights flashing all over the place. At first it seemed they wanted to berate Muza for hanging out of the car window to give directions, but as soon as they saw the bikes they got far too excited and forgot all about it!! There were crowds gathered all around – the Chinese are serious bike enthusiasts! The air of joviality didn’t last long once we saw our rooms… not the best. Carl and Bene’s carpet was tacky underfoot and stained like a recent murder scene. Nice. They even took photos as evidence for when they complained at the desk (this made no difference; we didn’t experience great customer service during our stay, that’s for sure). We were so exhausted, we accepted the crapness and went across the road for our first proper meal of the day. It was 11pm and the restaurant was about to close but they duly re-opened and, with the menu all in Chinese, Fabian went to the kitchen to choose some food first-hand (he literally picked out the live fish and five minutes later it was chopped up on a plate in front of us!) It was a great meal – lots of plates of raw vegetables and noodles which we dropped into a communal hot pot of stock in the middle, fishing them out with chopsticks a few minutes later. And they served much required beer! A good ending to a pretty bad day.

Heading south to our rendez-vous

Friday, August 27th, 2010

(James) We kept an eye on the ever changing weather in Balykcy and used our time wisely picking up some food as our intention was, weather permitting, to head south and camp at Song Kol. When we deemed that the incoming clouds were as good as they were going to get we crossed our fingers and headed off. The combination of wind, dark clouds and our gaining altitude made for pretty chilly riding and this, combined with the time lost while sheltering from the rain, meant that an excursion to Song Kol was starting to look increasingly unlikely. We had a shock rounding one corner when we came across a herd of wild camels – not the single-humped desert variety (dromedary?) that we had encountered before, but big hairy double-humped (bactrian?) beasts. They were right in the middle of the road, drinking from the puddles on the tarmac, and seemed fairly unperturbed by us! While I took a few photos, Emily braved the elements and took her trousers and boots off in the middle of the road in order to add her thermal layer and the decision was made that we would quit while we were ahead and hole up for the night in Kochkor as the weather was showing signs of closing in again. (There was no way we wanted to attempt Song Kol in bad weather and darkness – it would mean 50 extra kilometres on washed out dirt roads.)

Within half an hour, we were riding into the small town of Kochkor where we quickly located the CBT office in the spitting rain. I should probably explain what exactly CBT is – it stands for Community Based Tourism and is a brilliant scheme in which a central office in a village or town acts as an agent for local people who have rooms to spare. This allows travellers to find cheap accommodation and experience authentic local culture, hospitality and food whilst providing a source of income that local people would otherwise be denied. We were given directions to our ‘homestay’ and rode down some dirt tracks until we found the house. The facilities at homestays vary depending on whether it’s a small village, large town, rural home or apartment block and this evening our host was an old lady called Goku who treated us like her own children (literally; she’d come in, give us a kiss and say ‘Ah, my son’!) We had a small room between us, no shower and the loo was a drop toilet in the garden (it was freezing and the smell was gag inducing!) But we were well fed and watered, the highlight for Em being Goku’s home-made jam. We went to bed praying that the weather would improve in the morning (Em: I was very anxious that the dirt roads around the town would turn into a quagmire in heavy rain…)

The weather gods were clearly with us as we woke to crystal clear blue skies. This was bonus for us as it gave us two options; either head to Song Kol but risk being caught there if the weather deteriorated (at over 9000ft/3000m it’s not somewhere you want to be stuck in a storm) or make the most of the sunshine and head south for the Dolon Pass (also over 3000m) and Naryn, bringing us comfortably close to our rendez-vous point of Tash Rabat. By the time we passed the first turning off to Song Kol (predictably a dirt road), the weather to the west was showing signs of turning so we ploughed on towards the Dolon Pass and a good decision it turned out to be; the road soon became broken tarmac followed by rocky dirt tracks slowing us down to mostly first and second gear as all the while we gained altitude. Despite the hard going, we were absolutely loving the days riding; as we climbed, we were able to enjoy amazing views, passing dozens of isolated yurts (indigenous Kyrgyz homes) and their magnificent horses. We couldn’t help but feel that considering this was the warmest month of the year and they were already dressed up in thick coats and hats, theirs was an incredibly tough existence. When we eventually arrived at the peak of the Dolon Pass – at 3033m the highest either of us had ever done – we stopped to take some photographs and were approached by a couple of Kyrgyz children who, as ever, were interested in the bikes. They only took their eyes off the motorcycles when they spotted a bag of apples and plums (a random gift from a market seller in Kochkor) – any fruit or vegetables are clearly a luxury up here as nothing can grow at this altitude (we were well above the tree line). We happily gave them some which they wolfed down in seconds!

10 or 15km after descending the other side of the pass, we were rewarded with the ‘luxury’ of broken tarmac once more and although this surface didn’t last long, our slow progress didn’t matter too much as we were only about 40km from the town of Naryn. Having arrived in Naryn, we eventually found the CBT office having ridden 14 dusty km along it’s only street (the town is very long, but only about 200m wide as it sits in a gorge). Emily was adamant that we get accommodation with a shower (Emily: I wasn’t being a princess, honest, I just knew we’d have several night’s camping coming up and we already hadn’t washed for two nights!) so we were allocated a flat rather than a village house. Our apartment, it turned out, was all ours (the family lived next door)! Having washed and done some laundry, we wandered into town to find some food and flagged down a passing Fabian who we advised to join us in the spare room in our apartment. With two nights until our meeting date of Thursday 26th, we had been umming and ahhing about whether to stay both nights in Naryn or go a day early to our rendez-vous in Tash Rabat. Our hours spent in Naryn made our decision easy… it was a dive!

The following morning after a very tasty breakfast of blini (Russian pancakes) and porridge provided by our hosts and having filled the bikes and all of our jerry cans with fuel, we continued south. The journey to the turn off to Tash Rabat was only 100km but, just as the day before, it was all mountain passes, dirt roads and gravel. It’s a sign of how much we, and particularly Em, have improved as  riders as we both took it in our stride and enjoyed the day nonetheless, stopping frequently for photos, food and drink breaks (the need for water has been increasing with the altitude, with dehydration being a very real problem). I had another near miss with a huge eagle which dropped down onto the road in front of me to get a better grip of its recently caught prey before realising I was there and taking off again right in front of the bike. As it tried to gain height and speed, I drew up alongside it and got to ride for fifty yards with this things just metres away. Cue lots of expletives and exclamations! My heart rate had only just returned to normal when a passing Kyrgyz shepherd on an enormous horse decided to gallop beside for 500m for the second time on this trip. It’s these sorts of experiences that really make the trip, the only frustration being that once again I was unable to capture the moment on film.

With about 50km to go, we bumped into Fabian again and decided to ride together, particularly as it was unclear quite when and where the turning to Tash Rabat was going to appear. As we rode down the centre of a wide valley, with a ridge of mountains to each side, it looked like our luck with the weather was about to change; black clouds were gathering on the mountains and we could see isolated showers falling in several places all around us. However, for the most part the sky above the road remained clear and dry which was fine by us, excepting the vast dust clouds generated by the convoys of Chinese lorries going by which frequently engulfed us, reducing visibility to zero. A navigational debate broke out at one point when Fabian’s satnav claimed we should be turning off to the left but my map indicated we were still 30km short; several locals confirmed this to be the case (satnav nil, paper map one) so we kept going. As my odometer reached exactly 100km for the day, we saw a small wooden sign telling that Tash Rabat was off to the left. Miraculously we had avoided all of the surrounding rain and the way ahead into the valley looked absolutely beautiful. Having taken a couple of group victory photos, we headed down the rocky track to what we thought was the camp but our ‘camp’ turned out to be a Chinese roadwork crew and Tash Rabat itself was another 15km up the dirt track into the mountains. As we rode along the track, we wondered whether it would be worth this extra hassle having had two days and 250km of gravel roads and several mountain passes but we needed have worried; the track ended in a beautiful mountain valley, probably the most picturesque spot of the trip so far. There were four yurts at the end of the valley sitting by a clear mountain stream. Em and I had initially intended to camp but a look inside Fabian’s yurt quickly changed our mind and following some friendly haggling, a price was agreed for two nights with breakfast and dinner included. (Em: I was somewhat excited to be staying in a yurt – they’re awesome!!)

Tash Rabat is one of the few surviving of many hundreds of cavaranserai that were dotted along the Silk Road between Istanbul in the west and the Orient. They would serve as protected shelters for the trading caravans, providing food, accommodation and somewhere for the animals to rest. Tash Rabat was of particular significance as it was located at a major junction, linking up those travelling from Beijing and Mongolia in the east and the subcontinent to the south. One can see the stone structure that formed the original caravanserai, now long out of use, but the natural beauty of the location means that to this day Tash Rabat still serves passing travellers. The temperature dropped sharply as the sun dropped behind the mountains and we were ushered into the main yurt where the family was making fresh bread and chai on a metal dung burning stove (there were no trees up here so dung is the main source of fuel for heat!) After a few long hard days of riding, the bread and chai went down very well and as we sat down to a hearty stew by the stove, we heard the unmistakeable sound of motorbikes. We emerged to see Carl and a very cold looking Bene riding towards us! They too had made it a day early, leaving us just two bikes shy of the full complement. We spent the rest of the evening catching up and warming up before heading to our yurts at the unearthly hour of 9.30pm!

We awoke to another beautiful morning, a relief after the threatening storms the day before (we didn’t want anything to delay the rest of our group’s arrival), and spent the morning carrying out much needed maintenance on the bikes. A discussion over the height of a nearby hill in the shadow of the mountain resulted in us deciding that the only way to prove whose guess was nearest was to climb it! Four of us set off with Carl’s satnav (this which would reveal the crucial data at the top) while Fabian elected to stay and do some washing in the stream (he has vertigo…) The hill, it turned out, was only 220m higher than our camp but the combination of heat, altitude, gradient and our low level of fitness meant that it took us a knackering, wheezing 45 minutes to climb. Having resolved the debate, Em and I decided to head back down to prepare lunch whilst Carl dragged Bene up to the next ridge (they seem to like pain!) We all enjoyed a hearty camp stove meal, using up the last of our vegetables, while we laid bets on the arrival times of the rest of the group. Em then decided that her hair was just too greasy (didn’t look it to me) and it simply had to be washed so towel, shampoo and cup in hand, we walked over to the mountain stream where, having found a suitable rock to kneel on, Em tried to dunk her head in the water. Her attempt, however, was pathetic and far short of actually having any part of her skull submerged (although I’ll happily admit, I wouldn’t have done it!) So I was ‘forced’ to assist by emptying cups of water onto her head and can confirm that the water was bloody freezing – the screams that followed echoed all down the valley!

At 3 o’clock Stefano arrived at the camp, far earlier than any of the sweepstake predictions, and confirmed that the final bike carrying Donato and Roberta was on its way. Having all experienced the ‘road’ to Tash Rabat, our hearts were with them as Donato was doing the trip on a Harley Davidson. Not exactly built for these kind of roads! Sure enough, it was several hours later when we heard the unmistakeable rumble of an approaching Harley and came out to greet an absolutely shattered, cold and jarred Donato and Roberta – the journey from Song Kol 150km away had taken them 10 hours!! We spent the evening chatting and marvelling at the fact that, having agreed to meet nine months earlier and despite each of us having had challenges and obstacles of overcome along the way, we’d all made it to our rendez-vous. As we headed back to our yurts, under a crystal clear sky full of stars, we were all excited at the prospect of a relatively straightforward (Chinese bureaucracy aside) ride across the border into China the following day…

Lake Issyk-Kol

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

(Emily) On Friday we rode from Bishkek to Karakol, on the far eastern tip of Lake Issyk Kol, the main tourist attraction in Kyrgyztsan, for visitors and nationals alike. At 400km, the journey was little further than we’d anticipated so there was a fair bit of numb bum action going on. It was a pleasant ride though, with the lake to our right and huge peaks to our left, passing through towns where people sat selling sheepskins and smoked fish by the road side, and riding open roads through apricot orchards. At one point we got caught in the middle of a herd of cattle being driven along the road to another crossing a couple of hundred metres up. I personally would have stopped and waited for the way to clear, but cars were ploughing through regardless beeping their horns, and the shepherds on their horses were happily waving us through. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the situation, especially as the herd was taking up the whole road and forcing motorists onto the gravelled edges… Things went pear-shaped when Mr Bull got a little frisky and started to mount the nearest cow. Daisy was none too keen and proceeded to career away from her amorous suitor – straight in my direction! A wobble and a swerve and I was off. Not cool! No harm done, but I think James would say I was not amused! (James: that would indeed be a fair statement!) Cow sex was not something I’d ever worried about before, but now it will be added to the list of potential hazards that run through my mind on a regular basis…

Karakol was a bit of a let down, we’d expected more as it was the main town on the lake. One of those places where you go up a road and think ‘This could lead to the centre… oh, this is the centre.’ The whole place seemed tired and dusty with nothing going on, though to be fair, I think the whole of the country is suffering from a lack of tourists after the recent troubles with Uzbekistan. However, we stayed in a cute little homestay recommended by Carl and Bene which had a beautiful alpine garden and the most delicious homemade apple jam. Not all bad! And, as we were there on a Sunday morning, it meant we could visit the animal market – quite an experience! The bus ride out there was amusing enough – 25 people stuffed into a min-bus but at 7 som each (about 10p) we weren’t complaining! The market itself was several open fields in which hundreds of shepherds were gathered with their sheep, goats, cows and horses looking for a buyer. The livestock had been transported there in any which way – truck, trailer, moped or car boot – and prospective buyers wondered around sizing up the goods. The amazing thing was that even with so many people and animals collected in one place, the atmosphere was incredibly calm. There was no shouting and touting, and the cattle were remarkably well behaved (I did think at one point that should it all kick off, we would pretty much get trampled to death…) The horses were a particular highlight (Sal and Meg, you’d have loved it); all amazingly healthy and magnificent, and no less impressive were the skills of the shepherd boys who manoeuvred them effortlessly around the marauding cows, sheep and goats. As we picked a path through the piles of dung on the way out, we were happy we’d got up early to make the trip.

We left Karakol and swung west to make our way back along the south side of the lake. We’d already decided we’d camp that night, so with no town or distance to aim for we adopted a leisurely pace; somewhat a luxury after all the chasing we’ve been doing in recent weeks. It was a beautiful, clear day providing great views of the snow capped mountains and producing a fantastic blue hue from the surface of the lake. This side of the lake was far less developed and the road passed much closer to the water’s edge; all along we could see families enjoying a day out at the beach. We crossed paths with Fabian a few times, and then bumped into Stefano and Marcella going the other way for a day trip from Bishkek (they were still ‘tied’ to the town, waiting for Chinese visas). At one point, a shepherd on his horse broke into a gallop and rode alongside James for a couple of kilometres, which he found very exhilarating (er, I tried to keep the hell out of the way!) It was a real highlight of the trip for James, and frustrating not to be able to capture the moment on camera – that’s where a helmet-cam would be a real bonus. By 5pm we were keeping an eye out for somewhere to camp – originally we had planned to pitch down by the lakeside, but then the road veered away from the water and into the hills and the scenery was so beautiful we couldn’t resist. Even I wasn’t to be deterred by the dirt road that had to be tackled in order to get to a good spot! One sandy track and a ride up the hillside later, and we were in the most stunning camping spot we’ve had yet.; in the shelter of rolling hills and looking across at jagged mountain peaks glowing in the setting sun. Perfecto!

On Monday we awoke to a grey haze which didn’t bode too well for our planned ride to Song Kol, a smaller, and much higher lake, that was said to be completely untouched and unspoilt, a few shepherds’ yurts being the only man-made structures to be seen. I knew already that the road was a ‘four wheel drive only’ jobbie so didn’t fancy it in bad weather. Carl and Bene had already headed that way and were going to give us updates by text (we have a local sim card at the moment) but it appeared that getting a signal was a bit of a challenge once away from the main towns. We pootled along the rest of the southern side of the lake and then just as we were coming to the western tip, the wind picked up. ‘Better stop and put our waterproof linings in, just in case,’ said James through the intercom. Wise decision! After months of riding in the heat, it was a quite a shock to actually feel cold. Looking at the map, it appeared that if we continued south towards Song Kol, there wasn’t another town for about 50km so, thinking we might soon be in some need of shelter, we went north for a few kilometres completing the loop of Issyk Kol and ending up back at Balykcy, the first town on the lake. Frustrating, but as we parked up under the shelter of a petrol station and the rain started coming down, we felt we’d made the right choice! Back where we’d come from seemed quite fair, but the hills ahead in the direction we wanted to go, well, they’d pretty much disappeared!

Finally in Bishkek!

Friday, August 20th, 2010

(Emily) So, our first stop in Kyrgyzstan was Bishkek, the capital. Fresh from our euphoria of finally getting into the country, we rolled into town to find accommodation. A slightly hairy ride down some gravelly back alleys got us to Sakura Guesthouse, a cheap and cheerful hostel-type place run by a Japanese/Kyrg couple with two very adorable little daughters. 800 som (about £10) per night for a double room suited us just fine… so fine in fact, we ended up staying for a week! Don’t get the wrong impression – Bishkek really doesn’t have that much to offer – but with the rest of our China group due to turn up over the next few days and neither of us feeling 100% (still) it was very easy to keep saying ‘just one more day!’ Bishkek is a typical Soviet town – gridded street plan, wide avenues, dusty. Ashamed to say, we went to an ex-pat hangout on our first night as we’d reached that ‘I just need a burger’ stage! (In fact, the ‘Metro Bar’ saw a lot of us over the next few days as it became the easiest place to meet up with everyone as they arrived in town.) However, there was also the excellent Café Faiza just down the road which was full to the brim with locals each night and saw us stuffed on laghman (a tasty noodle broth, pretty much the national dish) and manty (like mini pasties filled with minced mutton) for just $3 all in. I think we ate there three times!

During our week in Bishkek, we didn’t do a whole lot it has to be said. Eating and sleeping just about sums it up! Actually, one day we did go down to the automarket to find the reputed one and only  motorcycle place; I needed a replacement hose-clip as my coolant was leaking, and we wanted to get some specialist product to clean our air filters (I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but I sound like I do, right?!) The ‘shops’ were just rows of storage containers and sure enough, plot 29E was indeed a little haven of motorcycle parts. (Shame they didn’t have tyres – mine are starting to look a little ropey!) That little excursion led to an afternoon tinkering with the bikes, and then that evening Carl and Bene (a couple who we’d met once back in the UK, part of the China group) rocked up at our guesthouse. It was great to catch up with them and compare experiences from the last few months – they had done a detour to Morocco when they first left, and then taken a route through the Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan to get to Kyrgyzstan.

It was a relief when everyone in our China group was finally assembled together – considering we’d all met on the internet about six months before departure, it was no small achievement to have all made it to Kyrgyzstan at the agreed time! (Just to explain – to take your own transport into China costs an absolute fortune as you need to pay for a government ‘guide’ to accompany you and that means forking out for his transport, accommodation, food etc on top of all the usual bureaucratic paperwork. Months back, we’d got in touch with five other bikers on the Horizons Unlimited message board who were all looking to cross China to get to Pakistan in August and agreed to form a group to share the cost, reducing individual expenses from about $1500 to $650. Result.) With two Italians (now complete with pillions flown in from Milan), one Spaniard, a French/English couple and us all taking different routes from Europe and riding different bikes, it was always going to be a concern that not everyone would make it, yet here we were! There were a few problems ahead, however, as Donato and Stefano were experiencing difficulties obtaining their Pakistan and Chinese visas, plus Donato had had some bike trouble resulting in a spare part being flown in from Italy, due to arrive on the 20th: our planned departure date… Not to mention the fact that the road taking us through northern Pakistan, the famous KKH (Karakorum Highway) was reportedly falling apart due to landslides and flooding. Hmmm. However, with James and Carl dishing out much needed optimism and positivity, we all agreed that we had to just go for it and decided to ask the agency for our crossing to be put back a week to combat Donato’s mechanical problems. This in turn would mean a visa extension for James and me as ours were due to run out on the 20th and let’s face it, we didn’t have the best past experience with those… Never mind, it would all be fine, we assured ourselves!

And of course it was – these things always have a way of working out, don’t they?! The Kyrgs could certainly teach the Uzbeks a thing or two about visa extensions – no problem here, they were issued within a few hours much to our pleasant surprise. And Donato and Stefano got their Chinese visas, albeit after over a week of waiting. Taher, our agent for the China leg, seemed quite relieved to push the whole thing back a week to the 27th (could have something to do with the fact that a few weeks earlier Donato had inadvertently cancelled the whole thing – oops, bit of a language barrier, not surprising when it’s an Italian and a Chinese guy trying to arrange things in English – so I guess it gave him more time to get things back on track!) The delay worked out well actually as it meant James and I would get some time to explore the rest of Kyrgyzstan, something we thought we’d miss out on after the Uzbekistan debacle. The problem still remained that the Italians had no Pakistan visas – apparently it’s only possible to apply for one in your home country now, according to a new rule that the Pakistan embassy hasn’t bothered to publicise – but rumour has it that it’s possible to get them at the border so… time to risk it for a biscuit!

We were certainly lucky to have Fabian staying in the same town when we experienced problems with our website – as you see can from one of the previous posts, he saved our skins on that one! Also, we were helped out by an American expat we met at the Metro Bar. He came over to talk to the group having seen Donato’s Harley out front; turns out he was a Harley nut and had several back home in Georgia, including one in his living room!! He, James and Carl spent the evening looking at bike photos on his laptop (boys!) and before he left, he told us to meet him again the following evening to pick up some ration packs he could get hold of. This was music to our ears as we’d recently heard that Gilgit, one of the main towns on the KKH, was currently suffering food and electricity shortages… The next night, he came up trumps and even gave James a pair of spare flip-flops when his broke. What a guy!

After seven nights in Bishkek we were desperate to escape the city and explore the beautiful lakes and verdant valleys that we’d read so much about. We said goodbye to the group, the plan being to meet up the following Thursday (26th) at Tash Rabat, a former caravanserai which is now a yurt camp for climbers. It felt like the most unpredictable part of our trip so far was now beginning…

So long for now…

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

(James) Just a quick update to say that we’re heading off into the mountains in the morning and that we’re not entirely sure when we’re next going to have internet access as our route is going to take us down towards the Torugart Pass and China. We’ve been in Bishkek now for almost a week but haven’t really done much other than sleep, eat and give the bikes some much needed TLC! We have met some lovely people here, not least our team for the China crossing but we now want to get out and see some of the lovely scenery for which Kyrgyzstan is renowned (what do you mean you’ve never heard of it?!) For those of you that get the atlas out, the plan is to ride round Lake Issyk Kul and then perhaps squeeze in a day or so camping at Song Kul (3900m above sea level so we’re keeping our thermals near the top of our bags!) before meeting the group at a caravanserai called Tash Rabat next Thursday. That should put us in spitting distance of the Chinese border for the following morning. Assuming that we can update our blog in Kashgar (China) we’ll be able to say hello and put a Kyrgyzstan entry on. If not, you’ll have to wait for a few weeks or more as we’ll be heading into Pakistan…..

Ps. Happy Birthday Jackson for the 25th! Wammo!

Malicious Virus 1 – Fabian 2 (after extra time)

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

(James) So, the rumours and reports from a few of you, concerning a possible virus on our website turned out to be correct. Although some of you came across it almost a week ago, it only reached us yesterday, but what a malicious little bastard it was!!!

The virus had managed to infiltrate our entire site and our ‘admin’ page effectively rendering us and our site useless and it looked, for all the world, like we’d be having to pay $100 to get the virus removed… But fortunately, one of our group for the China crossing, Fabian, used to run his own IT company so after mentioning our little dilemma to him over a beer when the whole group finally got together for the first time last night (what are the chances that the viral attack would coincide with our group meeting??!), it was agreed that we’d meet this morning to let him have a look at the problem.

We arrived at Fabian’s hotel (it had faster a internet connection than ours) at 11am and he duly got to work. Our virus, it turned out, was not just any virus – it was an absolute sod (not a technical term). Em and I sat, mouths agog, as Fabian scanned and identified the virus on a screen that just seemed to contain random numbers, letters and symbols, and having identified the culprit he began to try to remove it. After an hour the result of is endeavours was….nothing! This virus was going to be a toughy! Undeterred he devised an alternative strategy and began a second attack. This cyber battle went on in the end for 4 hours and required a dozen changes in strategy; countless punches of the air that all too often were followed by curses as the virus would seem to have a counter ready prepared but eventually victory was ours (that’s a royal ‘ours’!). It fair to say that we were mightily relieved as the forecast through the battle was that in all likelihood we’d be losing everything – not a prospect we liked the sound of but one we’d prepared ourselves for!

So now, dear readers our site is not just virus free, but is new and improved with steroid enhanced protection and any spammers (the cause of our woes in the first place) will find themselves swiftly despatched to the virtual gutter from whence they came! As a result we’ve now been able to upload our Kazakhstan blog and photos which you can enjoy in the safety of the cyber fortress that is!

Thanks Fabian!!!

Kazakhstan: a minor detour…

Friday, August 13th, 2010

(Emily) Our night in no-man’s-land passed without incident and we were ushered through to the border at 7.30 am. Didn’t leave ‘til after 9am though… for the life of us, we can’t work out how or why it always takes so long but it just does!! I was getting a bit impatient by the end – stomach medication wearing off by this point – but declined a trip to their ‘toilet’ (a tiny wooden shack off in the far distance!) We were mobbed by curious locals when we stopped to change some money just after the border and for the first time in a while, they were more interested in me than James. Usually, as a woman, I’m pretty much ignored and questions are directed towards James, but this time everyone was keen to try on my helmet, look at my keyring and er, stroke my hair (bit freaked out by the last one!) We managed to extricate ourselves and were soon on the road in Kazakhstan – country number fifteen and one we hadn’t even planned on visiting!

The landscape at first was much like we’d imagined: vast, barren and flat, stretching on for as far as the eye could see, but it did get greener and at times we were flanked by some pretty impressive mountains. There was no shortage of petrol stations, which seemed almost odd after the problems in Uzbekistan, and there were lots of beautiful wild horses to be seen (one of which nearly took James out when it got half way across the road then got spooked by the engine noise, coming back full circle right into his path!) We rode for about 250km (past Symkent, annoyingly where we had been trying to cross the day before) and stopped for a few hours at lunchtime. It was getting pretty hot and I was still struggling a bit with stomach cramps – it was soooo good to take off our boots for a while and put shorts on. I had a little nap and James was engrossed in his book (‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ trilogy – highly recommended) so we had to force ourselves back on the bikes when the time came.

Our aim was to get past the town of Taraz before finding somewhere to camp around 6pm. Somehow things always take longer than you expect (a bit like border crossings…) and it was starting to get dark by the time we’d passed the town. (We were waylaid a bit when we got chatting to a lone cyclist from the Isle of Man – I have upmost respect for these people but also can’t help thinking they’re complete nutbars for doing it!!) Finding a pitch wasn’t looking too likely as we were on a main road with scrubland all around but eagle-eyed James spotted that occasionally a dirt track peeled off to the right underneath the railway track that was running parallel to the road. He went to investigate (I am always a bit more hesitant with the off-roading, especially in the near-dark) and discovered that on the other side it was the perfect place for camping! With the mountain range on one side and the railway on the other, it was completely deserted and seemed unlikely anybody would be passing through. Good work, James!

Too dark to cook, we munched on some rather dubious items we’d picked up in a gas station shop (a deep fried pasty type thing and what turned out to be bread filled with a frankfurter, ketchup and mayonnaise – yum) and settled down under another starry night. I have to say, I didn’t have the best night’s sleep. Our proximity to the road meant that any car that passed, even though safely on the other side of the tracks, sounded as if it was on a collision course straight for the tent and then there were the old Soviet trains that rattled past with surprising regularity – soooo noisy!! (It also didn’t help having a nightmare that an angry mob was gathered round our tent wielding pitchforks!!) Still, there were no shenanigans to speak of and we awoke to a fresh morning (fresher than us after two nights wild camping without any access to a water source…) and the knowledge that we were less than 150km from the Kyrgyzstan border. As long as we weren’t directed to another crossing (by no means out of the realms of possibility based on our recent experience) we would be in Bishkek (capital of Kyrgyzstan) by the afternoon. Hurrah!

The road to the border was pretty good, apart from a few road works with the usual gravelly diversions. It was one long straight road east towards Bishkek (so no need to worry about map reading) and at these times, you find yourself thinking all sorts of inane things to keep your mind occupied. A little insight into my brain for you: Hmmm, James’ yellow ortleib bag is looking really dirty, I guess we should wipe off the remnants of exploded melon one of these days… What shall we do when we get back home, we need a business that involves things we both love. Cats. Motorcycles. Teaching cats to ride motorcycles? Better keep thinking on that one… I wonder if I can go through the whole alphabet and think of a baby name I like for each letter (pure speculation to pass the time, mother!)… I hope Lizzie’s joined a band by now, she’s a damn good singer… How is that mini-van even moving when it’s so loaded up with watermelons…

So, I guess it’s probably lucky for James that his headphones don’t work anymore – I think I would bore him senseless with that rubbish!! We started getting a bit nervous as we approached the border; it would not be cool to be directed to another one for some reason or another. Our luck was in though, and it turned out to be an amazingly quick turnaround on both sides – no bag checking, no customs forms to fill in, and no jobsworth looking for a reason to delay us! In fact, it was so easy to both exit Kazakhstan and enter Kyrgyzstan we were worried that we’d missed something! We couldn’t quite believe it but, finally, after all the hassles, we were in Kyrgyzstan!! Happy days!!

Just let us leave, pleeeease!!

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

(Emily) So, let’s recap. We were unable to exit into Kyrgyzstan on Thursday when we found the borders were unexpectedly closed; we had to re-trace the 350km back to Tashkent on Friday morning; our Uzbek visa ran out on Friday and we had to seek help with the UK embassy; we were told not to leave the city of Tashkent; we spent the weekend holed up at the hotel, me with a very dodgy stomach; we applied for our Kazak visas as soon as we could and picked them up on Tuesday evening….

Wednesday arrived and we thought, yes, finally can get back on the road. First we had to go back to the British embassy to find out from Maksim whether the official letter we’d got would be enough to make up for our expired visa when we came to exit the country. Apparently not. Cue a farcical four hours at the airport in an tiny unmarked office (no way we’d have found it without Maksim’s help) where they deal with visa extensions. Mr Jobsworth, flanked by a pre-teen security guard and someone else whose role we never established, made us sweat it out while he tutted, shook his head, made numerous calls on his four telephones and was generally about as unhelpful as it gets. It was hard to take his official role seriously as he had Russian MTV on in the background and the adolescent gun-toter kept yawning theatrically and laying his head on the table. But of course, we were in a sticky situation and had to kow-tow to his power, as did Maksim, while all we really wanted to do was shake him by the shoulders and say ‘Just let us leave, damnit!!!’ Finally, after having to go off to a bank in town and pay $40 each (grrr) and find somewhere to photocopy our documents (not a facility they have at the airport of course…) we were given a new visa. Not before writing down something to the effect of ‘I acknowledge that I must leave the country by the 12th August (the next day) and will under no circumstances be permitted to apply for another extension.’ (Couldn’t help wondering what would happen should the need arise – mechanical problems for example. Perhaps we’d be thrown in jail…?!)

And so it was that we weren’t packed up and ready to go until 4pm. Lucky the border to Kazakhstan was only about 20km north of Tashkent… James managed to navigate us out of the city (no regretful glances back to this place) and we were on our way. At a police checkpoint we stopped to clarify that we were heading the right way to the border crossing, only to receive the old ‘x with the arms’ response – closed. No worries though, there’s another one about the same distance away at Keles… Okaaay. Slight change in direction and we were off again. Some confusion in actually getting to Keles (as usual, they don’t sign the border from the main road – a simple ‘Kazakhstan this way’ really wouldn’t go amiss) and after a few kilometres of pretty bad road, we were there. It was busy, and definitely open. Phew. The guards stopped to look at our passports, always a good sign, but then told us cheerfully that this border was for pedestrians only – we’d have to go to Chinoz, about 60km south-west of Tashkent, back towards Samarkand. WTF!! All we wanted to do was leave!! James was getting seriously hacked off by this stage (well, so was I but I’m thinking of the stream of expletives coming through my earpiece!) and we were seriously worried that even if we got to Chinoz while it was still light, we’d find that this one was a no-go too; our recent experience had told us that the police/border guards don’t always know what they’re talking about when it comes to other borders.

Anyway, we cursed and moaned our way towards Chinoz, and luckily happened to stop on the main road to ask someone where the border was just as we’d passed the (unmarked) turning – cue a bit of riding the wrong way back up the highway, oops. We were flagged down at what we thought was the border control post. Turns out it was just a police checkpoint where a crooked cop did the old ‘vodka breath’ routine on us, trying to get some dollars. Pretty fed up at this point, we didn’t play ball; ‘We have not been drinking and no we won’t give you any money.’ He got the gist and waved us on with a laugh. Yeah, funny. Another couple of kilometres and we reached the actual border, only to be told by a waiting trucker that it was closed (naturally) and would re-open at seven in the morning. James went up to check with a soldier at the gate that come the morning we would actually be allowed entry at this one and, to our delight, he beckoned us through. (It’s all a bit wrong but foreigners definitely get preferential treatment.) The ironic thing is that after all the palaver of filling in numerous customs forms when we entered Uzbekistan, jumping through hoops to obtain a visa and extension, and riding round half the country to find an exit point, getting back out was a breeze! They didn’t want to check our bags, barely glanced at the passports when stamping us out (we had to show them that there was a second visa) and one of the guards even gave me something to take for my stomach! Result! Goodbye Uzbekistan, and frankly, good riddance!!

Even though once through into no-man’s land we discovered that the Kazakhstan side was already closed, it didn’t dampen our spirits – who cared, we were out of Uzbekistan and that was the main thing! We shared some melon with three Spanish guys in a Kia hatchback who are doing the Mongol Rally and pitched our tent in the road as darkness fell. With both borders either side of us now closed, we were assured perfect security and we settled down to watch ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ (awesome!) while the stars twinkled above us and crickets chirruped in the adjacent field. For the first time in a few days we were very happy bunnies!

Tashkent Take 2… and this time we’re not legal!

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

(Emily) After a hot and sweaty night on the floor, James sat bolt upright at five to five – ‘It’s light!’ – and was stuffing his silk liner into its bag before I’d even got my bearings! We left the petrol station by half five, determined to reach the Kazakhstan embassy in Tashkent for opening time and hoping against hope that there would be a one-day visa application process (not common but we’d heard Tajikistan offered this service). Two things were playing heavily on our minds: the fact that our Uzbekistan visa ran out that very day and our rather serious shortage of fuel. When we’d filled up in Tashkent, it was to get us across the border and into Kyrgyzstan (where petrol is freely available again) but now we were having to turn back and re-do the 350km having already emptied our jerry cans into the tanks. We were all too aware that the return leg would take us once more through the mountain pass… to run out up there would not be funny. We hurtled along at quite a pace and, by not allowing ourselves any drink or toilet stops, made it to the pass in record time. Just as we pulled up to the military checkpoint at the entrance to the pass, the petrol lights came on. (Incidentally, the guards, who recognised us from the day before, seemed very shocked that we’d not been allowed through at the border – they too were under the impression it was open…) Luckily, once through the two tunnels at the top, the majority of the pass was on the other side – all downhill. I think this was the only thing that slowed our fuel consumption enough to get us to the first major town and, thank god as James was up to 77km on his reserve, an open petrol station. Inevitably, the queues were stretching back on the road but everyone insisted that we go straight to the front (wouldn’t see that happening in the UK!!) and we were soon tanked up and doing the last 100km run in to Tashkent.

We approached the city at 9.30am – not bad. However, as we’d feared, trying to find the Kazakhstan embassy was a nightmare. It really is the hardest city to navigate and even James’ usual bloodhound skills were thwarted. Amazingly enough, after half an hour of riding round aimlessly, a guy in a passing car slowed down and waved to us – it was Said, the guy who’d shown us to the B&B on our first evening in the city!!! He must be our guardian angel! Once again, he came to the rescue and led us to the embassy (after a small glitch of first taking us to the Kazakhstan cinema – slight loss in translation there!) It was 10.30 am by this stage and it just remained to be seen whether they would be able to issue us a visa on a same-day basis… But it was closed. Nooooooo! This surely was not happening!!! ‘Come back Monday and you might be able to get a visa for Tuesday’, was all we were told. But our visa runs out today and… oh, you really don’t care do you?

There was only one option left – go to the UK embassy (thankfully round the corner on the map though even then it took 15 minutes to find) and plead for help. Annoyingly, when we got there are half eleven we were told that consul was dealing with foreign visa applications and wouldn’t be in a position to see UK nationals until 2pm. More teeth gritting and we settled down on the grass by the gate to camp it out. The guards tried to tell us we couldn’t sit there but we were in no mood for it. Our luck finally changed, however, and someone came out to get us at about twelve (I think the vigil on the lawn helped!) and, to be fair, we were then helped out a great deal. Maksim (Uzbek but good English) took the details of our plight and started making some calls. Turns out the UK embassy, the Kyrg embassy and the Ministry of Internal Affairs itself all thought the borders were open – it took some convincing that we’d seen it with our own eyes and it was three hours before the MIA actually agreed this was the case. Ludicrous! Evidently, it was quite a problem that our Uzbek visa was about to expire (I’d naively assumed that we could just get a extension no probs…) and Maksim spent the afternoon driving us round to various police stations trying to get someone official to write a letter that would pardon us due to the circumstances of the Kyrg border being closed. It took a while; seems no one wanted to take on the responsibility of letting us off. Maksim said the embassy never usually went out personally to help clients like this so I think our situation must have been pretty serious! It wasn’t until half six that we were shown to a hotel and told to keep the hard-gained official letter with us at all times. We were also expressly told not to leave the city limits. Oooh, under house arrest, exciting!! Taking our boots off that evening was the best feeling ever!!

On the bright side, seeing as we couldn’t apply for our Kazak visa until Monday, we now had a few enforced rest days that would allow us to tinker with the bikes and re-charge our own batteries. On Saturday, James contacted Denis (of Steel Scorpions fame) to see if he knew any bike shops where he could get some bolts and other bits and pieces. Turned out Denis also needed some parts so they went off in the afternoon to what James tells me was basically a tin shack where Denis’ mate was running a workshop (that’s about it in the way of bike mechanics in Tashkent!) However, he got what he needed, and also got an invite to the VM bar that evening –we’d already heard about this place on the HUBB as a recommended place for bikers and it turns out it belongs to Yuri, VP of the Steel Scorpions who we’d met with Denis the other day! We were both still knackered and intended to go for one or two drinks only, but one thing led to another (a few beers, a trip out in Yuri’s car to get kebabs across the other side of town, live music back at the bar…) and it turned into quite a late night! It was a cool place; a very US bar vibe with snowboarding and other adventure sports shown on a big screen and decent music (even Springsteen, Dad!) The band were really pretty awesome and played a mixture of Russian and English songs, the most poignant of which being Beatles’ ‘Back in the USSR’ , a sentiment that Yuri and Denis and the rest of their Russian heritage friends long for; the crowd went wild for that one! We also managed to change a stack load more money on the black market (far better rates!) in order to be able to pay for our hotel in Sum and so when we left, James looked like he was wearing jodhpurs such was the amount of notes stuffed into his pockets!

Other than that, our time in Tashkent has been very quiet. The hotel, a two-star delight, serves its purpose but lacks the genial atmosphere of a hostel and most of the other guests are vulgar Russians who spend the day drinking vodka by the pool in very tight speedos! We haven’t even been in the pool – it’s too hot to go outside before about 7pm (I don’t know how you managed it in Egypt, Joanna!) – so have spent most of the time lounging in the comfort of air-con, doing the diary and reading. We’ve even watched a couple of films on our laptop (‘Australia’ – one of the worst films ever made, and ‘District 9’ – odd but good). I’m recovering from a pretty horrendous bout of ‘Delhi-belly’ or rather, ‘Uzbek belly’; must have been something we ate at the cheapo café up the road on Sunday evening. I was so bad that I couldn’t accompany James to the Kazakhstan embassy yesterday morning. (Turns out this was probably just as well – apparently it was a complete bun fight and it took three hours to be seen and even then only after a significant bit of blagging on his part… and there was no toilet!) On the plus side, the four days rest has seen my ankle return to pretty much normal size for the first time since the accident : )

This afternoon we took a taxi pick up our Kazak visas at the embassy. I say ‘taxi’ but actually in Central Asia it’s customary to just flag down any old passing car and hop in! (The ‘know your killer’ ad campaign clearly hasn’t made it over here – there are never any belts in the back…) We got there in good time – 4.30 for a 5pm opening – but it was gone six before we had the goods. Still, at $20 each at least the enforced detour hasn’t cost too much. That said, tomorrow morning we may well have to go to the airport to get our Uzbek ones officially extended – why it can only be done at the airport, and why we had to wait until now to do it, I really don’t know – and this might prove costly. I think it’s a bit of a cheek to charge us when we made every effort to leave the country but I doubt they’ll see it that way. Suffice to say, we will be mighty relieved when we’re back on the road tomorrow and finally out of Uzbekistan. Touch wood.