Week 10

July 8 to July 14

Paw traces on the outside of my inner tent were proof that I hadn’t been hallucinating in the middle of the night - some kind of animal had tried to enter my tent. However, the size of the traces suggested that it hadn’t been a pack of rabid dogs as I had feared in feverish half-sleep at 03:00am, but probably a single young hedgehog.

I climbed on top of my trusty steed and headed north. Two American couples, one of them on a DR-650, the other one on a Yamaha Ténére from the 80’s, were passing me on the dusty road to Shetpe. The guys were riding at Dakar Rally type speeds, a lot faster than I, even with their pillions.

After refueling the bike and consuming enormous quantities of water in Shetpe to replenish the fluids lost in the heat, I went on towards Beyneu.

Soon, I met the American couples again. The upper frame of the 26 year-old Ténére had not been able to cope with the combination of the road and the riding skills of its owner and they were looking for a welder.

The road from Shetpe to Beyneu was being rebuilt, which meant that 20% were pristine tarmac and the rest was a dusty desert track. Large trucks sprinkled water onto the track in a futile attempt to curb the production of dust. Interestingly, the stretches marked as “DANGEROUS SECTION” had the best roads.

THE “DANGEROUS” SECTION

I reached Beyneu at noon and considered staying there, but it was just too tempting to ride the last 80km to the Uzbek border the infernal heat of the afternoon.

The road to the Uzbek border consisted 50% potholes, 50% dust. Prudence demanded that I left her at home, so I was alone. I stood up on the foot-pegs and pushed the bike to maximum speed in a bid to just let the suspension take care of the potholes. After 20km, both angle brackets of my luggage rack broke, and after ten more, the tubing of the pannier holder resigned from service with a loud screech. The rim of my front wheel also took a peculiar new shape. I changed the strategy, switched to first gear and slowly crawled over the moon-like landscape until the engine overheated.

Luggage Rack vs Kazakh Desert: 0:1

Luggage Rack vs Kazakh Desert: 0:2

10km before the border I met two Russian bikers on street bikes. They were suffering even more than I was. One guy was on a chopper with a ground clearance of 5mm and he had just lost one of his rear shocks. This introduced an interesting lateral mode to the dynamics of his bike.

Culturally sensitive, the Russian bikers were carrying this sticker through former member states of the USSR.

I cheered them up by reminding them that they had completed almost 13% of the difficult stretch and went on to the border.

There, Walter was waiting. Walter is an Argentinian and Spanish passport holder circumnavigating the world on a 2013 Royal Enfield Bullet. We crossed the Kazakh border in record time and were stopped at the Uzbek border. Dehydrated, exhausted and hungry, we started the process of entering the marvelous Republic of Uzbekistan. It began treacherously simple. We had to fill out some forms, naturally twice, since making a copy of two pages is more expensive than half an hour of human labor.

Then we were referred to Window Three. Window Three was a 20cm x 20cm window at a counter on waist height. For some reason, service counters in central Asia seem have been designed for midgets. While the operator comfortably sits in his low-set chair, there is a small step before the counter, causing the “customer” to bend at the waist at an awkward 80° angle and twisting the neck in a painful fashion to be able to talk to the operator.

Our operator clearly did not have a Protestant work morale and told us to wait until the shift change in five minutes. I asked the officer in charge several times when the shift change would occur, until after half an hour and the 6th time harassing him, he figured that it was time to search our luggage. And search our luggage he did. For several hours we had to show every little tool and screw in our panniers and backpacks. I guess they were looking whether we were trying to smuggle democracy, common sense or free speech into the country, but they didn’t find anything except ignorance and a feeling of superiority.

At last, the shift change at Window Three had taken place. Walter got his bike registered, then it was my turn. The new operator wasn’t exactly Stephen Hawking. In terms of brains, that is, because his typing was clearly that of a man with advanced ALS. He switched the keyboard, which had Cyrillic and Latin letters on it, to Latin mode, and then pressed all the keys in a row, starting at “q” in the top left corner and, in the worst case, ending at “m” in the lower right corner, to brute force my name and vehicle data. Every time he hit the right character, he deleted all the wrong characters that he had written before by holding the backspace key. Overly enthusiastic, he sometimes held it for just a little bit too long, accidentally deleting some of the right letters.

A short six hours after arriving at the border, we were good to go. It was almost midnight and we camped near the border station, not without getting ripped off by money changers just after the border.

We cooked some noodle soups in the desert and feasted on Rigas Sprotes, a kind of herring in oil. It was delicious.

Walter and his invincible Enfield Bullet.

The next morning, we left early. The Uzbek roads were much better and I was speeding. After some time, I stopped to wait for Walter. An Uzbek driver slowed down, pointed back over his shoulder with his thumb and made a tumbling motion using both hands. I went back. One of the rear shocks of Walter’s Enfield had broken, catapulting the spring into the desert and sending the bike to a fall. Luckily, Walter was uninjured, but the bike looked pretty desolate. The next fuel station/café was a 130km desert road ahead, so we figured that it was best to go the 30km back to the border. After about 5km, Walter was sure that it was OK to ride back alone with one rear shock, so we said goodbye and I went to Nukus through 300km of desert.

In Uzbekistan, the concept of ATMs is unknown. The official rate from US$ to Som is 1:2500. On the black market, you get 1:4400. For this reason, it is not allowed to take more foreign currency out of the country than you brought in - you could bring 100US$, change it in the black market to 440k Som and then go to an official bank to change it back to 176US$. After n such moves, you will have 1.76^n times as much money as you had in the beginning. If you are starting out with 100$ and want one million, you just have to repeat the process 18 times.

I asked a taxi driver in Nukus to change 200$. He told me to wait and 5 minutes later came back with squealing tires and a bulky short guy holding a bag full of money. I felt like the villain in a Jason Statham movie, counting the wads of cash and finally signing off on the contract.

The next day I went to Khiva. On the road I met Dan again, the British cyclist that I had already met in the Uzbek embassy in Baku. Dan’s mad plan was to cross all 5 inhabited continents using just manpower.

In Khiva I met a Swiss couple, also cyclists, and we stayed at a nice hostel just outside the historical walls of the inner city. In the evening, we got drunk on the city wall, watching the setting sun mirrored on intricately tiled, unfinished minarets from ancient times.

One of the four pillars of Uzbek insanity is the money. Another one is water. It is well known that the ecological catastrophe of the Aral Sea was caused by tapping and draining all the rivers going into the Aral Sea, and yet, in the year of the Lord 2015 and 10 years after the Aral Sea has lost 90% of its area, people still grow rice and cotton, two of the most water intensive crops, in the middle of the desert. Then there’s the driving. A combination of fearlessness, unpredictability and central Asian hot-bloodedness makes driving in Uzbekistan as interesting as Russian Roulette. Last but not least, petrol stations are virtually unknown. If you want to get some of that precious <80 octane gas that almost ignites at atmospheric pressure, you just stop somewhere and ask for it, and soon enough, people will bring dirty, dust covered water canisters and fill up your tank with the contaminated goat piss that they call fuel.

The next day I stayed in Khiva and checked out the sights with Raphael and Petra, the Swiss cyclists. In the evening, I heard the distinct bobbing of a British single cylinder engine assembled in India - Walter was in town! Using Uzbek ingenuity and magic in equal parts, a mechanic had been able to repair his rear shock. He had even replaced the glass of the headlamp - an a used car dealership, he had spotted a Lada Niva sporting similarly sized round headlights and just bought one of those. The Americans also arrived, and soon a veritable biker gang, including Chris from Baku and an Australian veteran that had ridden his Honda Transalp from Vladivostok through Mongolia and the Pamirs to Uzbekistan were enjoying beers together.

Minaret in Khiva.

Next, I went to Bukhara and Samarkand, enjoying impressive architecture and unbearable heat in equal quantities.

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