Change of plans

Day 4 – Saturday 3rd August – Bishkek (0km)

By mid morning it had become clear that there was not much that could be done about Marc’s visa situation – he had contacted the closest Spanish embassy, which was in Astana, Kazakhstan, a whopping 1640km from Bishkek. He was willing to get a flight there and back provided they could issue him a passport in time, but the guy on the other end of the line just lectured him for leaving Spain without checking the expiry date on the passport and told him that a new passport would have to be issued in Spain and sent there, which would take at the very least 12 days and that only immediate thing they did was issue a letter of safe passage in case of emergency but he made it clear that a) this was not an emergency and b) that document was only valid to allow a journey back to Spain.

With all the (legal) options studied, we decided that the only thing to do was to modify the route so that we could spend as much time as possible riding together in Kyrgyzstan and then I would go to the Pamir Highway on my own. The original plan was to see part of Kyrgyzstan first, then ride the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan, go to Uzbekistan to see Samarcand and Bukhara, go back to Tajikistan to do a different route on the Pamir Mountains and visit the rest of Kyrgyzstan.

Instead of that, we would do all of Kyrgyzstan first and then go separate ways – I would go into Tajikistan and, starting from the Karakul lake, ride the Wakhan Valley on the border with Afghanistan heading south, then go north on the Bartang Valley back to Karakul lake and then south again on the proper Pamir Highway, the M41 road. After that , I would ride to Uzbekistan and meet Marc in Samarkand, as it was possible to enter visa-free into Uzbekistan. From there, we would ride back to Kyrgyzstan via the Fergana valley in the north of the country.

I would spend 9 or 10 days without Marc, but that did not necessarily mean that I would be riding alone – we had met a British guy in the hotel who was going to do same kind of spiral route in Tajikistan I was planning to do, but he needed a few more days of rest to recover from a foot injury, which meant that we could possibly meet in Sary-Tash near the Tajik border and ride together from there, which was excellent news.

The problems begin

Day 3 – Friday 2nd August – Istambul to Bishkek (3740km – by plane)

I did not get a wink of sleep in the 5-hour plus overnight flight to the Kyrgyz capital – we were crammed together in a 737 with barely any more room than a low-cost flight and as I stepped down the flight stairs into the scorching heat everything had a dream-like quality. The airport was small, it looked more like a regional airfield than the international airport it was, consisting of only one runway we had to backtaxi on and a single terminal building without any fingers. On the tarmac, a couple 737s from Eastern airlines, a cargo 747 and an Ilyushin Il-76.

We got our passpaports stamped without hassle – the country offers visa-free entry to EU citizens, changed some money and met the guy the hotel had sent to pick us up. There was one thing we needed to do before, though – go to the Tajik embassy to sort our visas for that country. We could have done that online from home, but the e-visa is only single-entry and we wanted to try and get a double-entry one at the embassy so that we could reenter the country after going to Uzbekistan without having to worry for a second online application to be accepted while on the road. Unfortunately, the guy there told us that they only issued double-entry visas for business, so we applied for a regular tourist one. We would have to apply for a second one online while in the country. It was Friday morning and the guy told us that they were closing for holidays on that very same day, but as a special favour he would process the visas and have them ready by that same afternoon.

There are some places scattered around the globe that are little havens for the few crazy ones of us that decide to see the world from a motorbike, and the hotel was one of them. This was the point where AdvFactory sent the motorbikes to from all over Europe and there was an atmosphere of excitement about the coming trips in the air. The courtyard was packed full of motorbikes, some ready to go, others still half assembled, others proudly wearing a layer of dirt waiting to be shipped back home, and there was talk everywhere about places to see. Some people giving advice about the routes they had just completed, others talking excitedly about their destination – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, China, India, Mongolia, with sunburnt faces, and grease under their fingernails. We found our bikes and our luggage, unpacked, had a well-deserved shower and then went out for a meal.

In the afternoon, after a nap to make up for the sleepless night in the plane, we took a cab back to the Tajik embassy to collect or visas. The ride there was an adventure in itself – the car was a crumpling old Lada with an engine that had a habit of cutting off while in the middle of crazy traffic and the driver did not speak a word of English and did not seem sure about where we wanted to go but it did not matter, it was all part of the adventure. The real problems started when we got to the embassy. The guy there told me that there was a problem with my passport, that I had less than six months before its expiry date. I felt the blood drain from my face.

‘That’s not possible’ I told him. ‘It’s November 2020!’. I handed him the passport again and pointed at the date. ‘Ah, yes, yes, sorry, it’s the other one’ he said. We looked at Mark’s passport and sure enough, it expired in less than six months. It was only by a few days, but it was enough for the visa to be denied, even though he had had no problem obtaining an online visa to Turkey or entering Kyrgyzstan, and there was nothing we could do about it there.

We went back to the hotel crestfallen and started evaluating our options. There were a lot of suggestions by the people there – contact a Spanish embassy to renew it, apply for a visa online, doctor the expiry date on the passport, a British guy even offered to photoshop his own e-visa with Marc’s details. Mark had his wife start pulling strings from Spain regarding the Spanish embassy and we tried to apply for an online visa with a different expiry date. The problem was that the system asked for a picture of the passport as well, so if someone checked the picture in person, they would see that the dates did not match. Someone suggested sending a photoshopped version of the passport with a different date, but the first picture had already gone into the system. We tried to cancel the application, but the system is very poorly designed, and it was now stuck awaiting a payment we did not make. There was not a lot more we could to about it, so we went out for dinner with the guys from AdvFactory and got drunk on unfiltered Kyrguiz beer.


Day 2 – Thursday 1st August – Istambul (0 km)

The journey to Istambul was one of the most relaxed affairs I have experienced in years of travelling – the flight was smooth, passport control was a breeze and when we got to the baggage carroussel our bags were already there. The new airport is amazing, clearly designed at a scale for the future in a context where air travel does not seem to show any signs of slowing down. The only negative is that it is much further away from the city than the old one, but fortunately, we had arranged a transfer and a really plush Mercedes van was waiting for us at the exit – so far, this was definitely not adventure travel!The following morning we got up early to make the best of our day in Istambul – we did not have a lot of time, so we decided to see the essentials. We left our hotel on foot, crossed the Galata bridge and walked up to Galata tower, overlooking the Golden Horn, the biggest of the inlets in the strait of the Bosphorus. From its top we had a perfect view of the inlet, the strait and, on the other side, Asia. There are many things I could tell you about the tower, like the fact that the old tower used to house the mechanism to raise a giant chain that, when raised, blocked access to ships to the inlet (now we know where Mr. Martin got the idea for the battle of Blackwater Bay), or that when it was built it was the higest structure in the city, but what impressed me most as I stood there was the thought that a whole other continent lay there, just across the water, and that was where we were going to be heading soon.After the visit to the tower we had an early lunch and went to visit the Blue Mosque. Dissapintingly, part of the interior was under renovation, so that the dome was not visible, and only a section was open to visits, the rest was reserved for prayers, but I did not mind that much, as I had recently visited the Alabaster Mosque in Cairo, which is an exact copy of this one, built by the same architect.Next we headed for my personal highlight, the Sofia mosque/church. I took History of Art in highschool and it has fascinated me ever since, so I was really excited to finally get to see it after more than 20 years.Do not meet your heroes, they say, but in this case I’m glad I did – it absolutely lived up to the expectations. I know I have said this before, but in this case it rings particularly true – it is hard to describe it in words that do justice to its grandeur. Sudddenly, I did not care in the slightest that Turkish Airlines had stolen a day from our trip – that was a small price to pay to have the chance walk through the doors of such a building. Go and see it for yourselves if you have the chance.Our day visit ended with a visit to the Cistern Basilica, an amazing feat of engineering built underground and capable of holding of water, and a meal consisting of a traditional Turkish kebab.Istambul is an amazing city and I felt sorry to leave when we had barely scratched its surface, but it was time to catch the flight to Bishkek and face our first challenge – we had tried to do the online check-in during lunch only to find that the app indicated that we could not choose our seats because the flight was already full. We were afraid that, since the previous flight had been moved or cancelled, this one was overbooked, and as beautiful as Istambul was, we did not want to be any further delayed from our objective. We got to the airport and ran to the counters to try and secure two early seats, as it is usually first come first served in these cases. The woman in the counter did not look happy when we handed her our passports, and spent some time speaking on the phone, which is never a good sign, but in the end we got two seats on the plane. Some other people were not so fortunate, though – while we were waiting to board Marc saw at least three people who, according to their passes, were on standby for a seat.

The Stans 2019

Day 1 – Wednesday 31st August – Barcelona to Bishkek (2240km – by plane)

So here I am, back on the road again. Or, to be accurate, in the air, as this trip did not start on the bike.

For a long time, I wanted to go back and finish my trip to Mongolia, and this time, instead of crossing Kazakhstan, which is mostly a vast expanse of desert, I wanted to go through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan following the Silk Road across the Pamir Mountains. The problem was that a route like that was going to take longer than the first time around, and I could not afford to be away from my job (or my relationship) for such a long time again, which meant somehow planning the trip to fit in a span of five weeks.

The first idea I had was to take the bike to MotoCamp in Bulgaria in Easter, leave it there until the start of my summer holiday then set off via Turkey and Georgia to join my old route in Astrakhan, do the Pamir route, go on to Mongolia and then send the bike from there and take a plane home in time to go back to work. Doable? Yes. Enjoyable? Nope.

It would mean being constantly in a hurry and missing out on some great routes and places, so I looked at plan B.

The more information I found about the Pamir Highway, the more attracted I was to that route, and I also came to the conclussion that Mongolia deserved better than crossing it in a week, so I decided to focus on the Pamir region.

I talked about my plan to some friends and this time it didn’t take much to find a travelling partner – Marc my (now former) neighbour, who I met just before the Route des Grandes Alpes in 2017. We had been on some trips together, including going back to the Alps to do some of the legendary offroad routes (I promise to post about that soon, it’s been a busy year) and he was very excited about the idea.

We had our bikes shipped to Bishkek (the capital of Kyrgyzstan) via Warsaw with AdvFactory, and booked our flights – so that we would have four weeks to do our route.

First stop – Istambul, Turkey. We were supposed to connect flights only here, but the flight for the second leg of our journey was pushed one day later, giving us 24 hours to visit the city.

Two roads diverged in a dusty Kazakh petrol station

and I, I took the less travelled by.

Martin, a Czech guy I had been travelling with since we met in Volgograd, had taken the other road in the dusty Kazakh petrol station and headed into Uzbeksitan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan following the Silk Route across the Pamir Mountains. He asked me to join him, but I did not have the necessary visas for that route, so we went our separate ways. 

The road was so bad that couple of hours later, the vibration had shaken loose the bolts that held my chain guard, windscreen and GPS mount.

A hundred kilometres or so down the road, things got so bad that my rear wheel bent and would no longer hold the air in. I was stuck in the middle of the desert with an unrepairable flat tire.

Eventually, I made it back to the Russian city of Astrakhan, where I could find someone to fix the wheel so that I could continue my trip, but I had lost a week and used the only entry on my Kazah visa, so that was that – my plan to reach Mongolia had failed.

I vowed to go back some day and finish the route via the Pamir Highway, which looked to be a much more interesting road than traversing the endless desert plains in Kazakhstan. 6 years went by and lots of things happened in that time:

I retired my faithful V-Strom and replaced it with a Super Ténéré with which I only had time to visit Normandy before it got stolen

I put the V-Strom back into service until I could save enough money for the new Africa Twin, which I imagined as the perfect machine to conquer the Pamirs. When it finally arrived, it was inmediately put to good use with trips to the Balkas, Morocco and the Alps, and a lot of off road routes that made me realise how unprepared I had been when I set out for Mongolia.

A few other things required my attention besides travelling, like some home DIY,

and the sad demise of my beloved V-Strom.

Now the time has finally come, and in less than a week we (yes, we) will be setting off towards the Pamir mountains!

A lot more posts coming soon!

Action shots

One of the disadvantages of travelling solo is that you get zero pictures of yourself on the motorbike. You know, the cool ones, where you see yourself leaning into a corner against a nice Alpine background.

You can always put the camera on a tripod or on a rock and record a video, and then later obtain some pictures from the best frames, but it will not be as good as a shot taken with a long lens and the right shutter speed.

I had seen professional photographers take pictures and then sell them online at organised events such as the Rider1000, but this was the first time I found them on the open road.

In the Col du Galibier and then in the Strada dell’Assietta I saw photographers crouching in a corner, taking pictures of everybody who passed by. Further on up the road, they had set up a small stall where you could take one of their cards with their website and the instructions to buy and download your picture.

I thought it would be cool to have some pictures, so I took the cards and once back home checked out the results at Griffe Photos and PhotoAssietta.

Here are the photos, what do you think?

Griffe Photos


Overlooking Monaco

Day 8 – Monday 7th August – Moulinet to Barcelona (764km)


I had set my alarm clock for 6:30 to make an early start and avoid the hottest hours of the day as far as possible, but I needn’t have. At 6:00 sharp a rooster woke us all up, and kept singing at the top his lungs for at least half an hour more. I enjoyed breakfast in the company of donkeys and while was taking the tent down I saw that two terraces up from where I was there were some cages with rabbits. This was indeed a farm.

The road down to Sospel was delightful, a series of hairpins built on the rocky sides of the Gorges du Piaon, empty this early in the morning, as was the road to Col de Castillon, which I reached through the old road, as the new one crosses the hills via a tunnel lower in the valley.

While riding out of one of the last hairpins before the coast I saw an old stone viaduct that stuck out away from the road and described a long curve above the valley before turning into the mountain again. It was an impressive sight, and as I rode closer I saw that it had no rails on it and a fence blocked access to it where it met the road. It was part of an old railway line that connected Menton on the coast to the town of Sospel, and the reason that the viaduct stuck out so far from the road at that point was not to allow for a wider radius of the corner, as I had thought, but to be able to easily and effectively destroy it with explosives in case of war, rendering the line useless to the enemy.

A few kilometres down, the road reached Menton, marking the end of my trip along the French Alps. There was only one more col on the map, Col d’Eze, on the coast road between Monaco and Nice – with most traffic on the motorway, the road was quiet and offered me great views of the Mediterranean with Monaco at my feet.

After conquering the last col I filled up, selected a good playlist on the iPod and got ready for the 700-kilometre slog back home on the motorway. The offroad tires do not like high speeds and I wanted to save fuel, so I took things easy and two fuel stops later I was in the outskirts of Barcelona.

The heat had been bearable, never going above 31ºC, and I was looking forward to a shower and a beer when suddenly all traffic came to a complete halt. Even though it was the end of the day rush hour I was not expecting problems, as most people had already gone on holiday, but it was total gridlock at the entrance of the city, and then I remembered that some genius in city planning had decided to green light roadworks on two major ways into the city at the same time, leaving no alternative for the traffic going into Barcelona, one of them a new bus lane that no one had asked for and no one needed. Some lanes were cut, others made narrower, so there was no space for me, carrying the aluminium boxes to filter through the traffic, so I sat in the sweltering heat for almost an hour while all the traffic entered the city through a single lane. When I got home, another surprise was waiting for me – the building owners had decided to replace the lift, and the work was scheduled from just after the day I left until the 23rd of August, leaving me to carry all the luggage up the stairs dressed like Robocop, swearing and sweating.

When I managed to peel myself off the suit I had a shower, opened a cold IPA and went to kiss my much-missed bed.

Col counter:

37. Col de Castillon 706m

38. Col d’Éze 507m

The highest road in Europe

Day 7 – Sunday 6th August – Briançon to Moulinet (241km)


Having done the four famous offroad Alpine routes, it was time to go on with the Route des Grandes Alpes. I only had about 260km to go, so it looked very doable in one day, even taking it easy.

The element I had not factored in was the weather, though. So far I had been very lucky, but as I was finishing packing up and loading the bike under a lead sky, I heard the rumble of thunder coming up the valley. I was going to join Harald for breakfast before setting off, and by the time I parked the bike next to the bar it started raining hard, so we sat patiently sipping our coffees, waiting for the storm to pass. Harald said that, on account of the weather, he was going to stay for an extra day, but I had to ride in the direction the sky was darkest. The weather radar on the France Méteo app (very handy!) showed that the storm was indeed moving in the same direction I had to go, but it was advancing fast, so we guessed that in an hour or so it would have passed completely.

At 10:30 the rain had stopped, the ground was drying and the sky seemed to be clearing, so all the cyclists, hikers and riders who were killing time in the shelter the bar’s covered terrace started to leave. I said goodbye to Harald and thanked him for his company the last two days, and left the campsite.

On these few days, I came to the conclusion that traffic across Briançon is always horrible, and even a Sunday morning like today was no exception. To make things worse, I was riding behind a Dutch campervan that completely blocked my view of the street, so I missed the exit I was supposed to take at a roundabout in the centre and had to double back through an alleyway that was closed to all traffic but residents.

Once out of the city the road started climbing immediately towards Col d’Izoard. It was a very nice road through a forest and the landscape looked much, much more lush and green after the rain. I had to ride carefully, because the road was very wet, and by the time I was halfway up I had to stop to unpack my fleece jumper and put it on, the temperature having gone down to 15 degrees. What a difference from the previous days!

When I reached the top of the col the sky was clearing and it offered beautiful views to both sides, with clouds of various shapes rolling off the high peaks. When I was getting ready to leave I met a Catalan couple who were heading north, and they recommended taking the road through Col de la Bonnette and Col du Raspillon. I was following the map of the Route des Grandes Alpes that I had, and those passes were indicated as an alternative route to the main one, which went across Col de la Cayolle, Col de Valberg, Col de Ste-Anne and Col de la Couillole before joining the diversion. I had thought that four cols versus two looked more interesting, but I decided to change the route on their advice.

The road went from Col d’Isoard down to Guillestre, and from there on I repeated a section I had done the day before to get to the tunnel du Parpillon, from Guillestre to Col de Vars, down to the Ubaye valley and towards La Condamine-Châtelard, where the road up to the tunnel begins. I did not mind at all doing this part again, as it was a very nice road – a fast ascent to Col de Vars where you could have great fun connecting corners on perfectly smoth tarmac and a slower but very scenic descent on the other side. What more can you ask?

The Gorges du Guil and the Col de la Bonette, that’s what. The road through the gorges is one of many balcony roads in the country, narrow, winding, cut into the side of the mountain with very low protection walls and space for only one car. Traffic had to stop each time two cars going in opposite directions met and manoeuvre past each other very carefully. Then I left my originally planned route when I reached Jausiers and turned into the road that leads up to Col de la Bonnette. Immediately, something called my attention – just before the intersection and several more times up the road there were signs announcing the col ‘the highest road in Europe’. Wait a second. Just three days ago I was writing here that Col de l’Iseran was the highest road in Europe, was I wrong? Maybe there was an unpaved section, making the Col de l’Isèran the highest paved road in Europe and this one the highest road in Europe, period? But where did that leave Pointe Sommeiller? That was supposed to be the highest unpaved road in Europe! I was confused.

My questions were soon forgotten as I enjoyed an epic and seemingly never-ending climb up the pass. Jausiers is at 1195m, and the pass at almost 3000m, so you can imagine what a road it was. All kinds of corners, grassy plateaus dotted with cattle, great views, several abandoned forts and bunkers… it had everything.  When I reached the pass, shorn of any vegetation and windswept, I finally understood what the ‘highest road in Europe’ claim was all about. The ‘highest paved mountain pass’ title belongs indeed to Col de l’Isèran, which is 49m higher. There is, however, a loop road that starts at the Col de la Bonnete and goes around the Bonette peak, reaching 2802m, and thus making it the highest paved road in Europe.

I parked next to many other motorbikes on a tiny space at the side of the road, at the spot where it reaches its maximum altitude, and walked the short hike up the Bonette peak.

Dressed in full motorbike gear with heavy jacket, trousers and boots I could feel that the air was thinner up there, but the effort was well worth it – from the top of the peak you get unobstructed 360 views over the Alps as far as the eye can see.

I rode down the other side of the road back to the col and continued the route towards the next pass, Col du Raspillon. Unfortunately, this turned out to be another of those passes that connect the end of a valley with the beginning of a higher one, not a pass high in the mountain between valleys, so I missed it once again.

As the road went down to St-Étienne-de-Tinée the temperature went up mercilessly. It was not even a progressive change, I was riding at a very nice temperature, enjoying the views over the river Tinée when suddenly, out of a corner not far from the village, I felt a wave of hot air hit me in the face as if I had just opened the oven to check on my pizza. By the time I was in St-Étienne I could not take it any longer and I had to stop and open all the vents in the suit.

Things did not get any better further on, and when I turned off the main road to start the climb towards Col de St-Martin I could not even see the road properly, as the heat and the sweat had made my contact lenses greasy. I stopped to clean them and rest for a while, and with much better vision I was able to enjoy the ascent up the pass.

The fun did not last long, however. Back down in the valley towards La Bollène-Vesubie the heat was becoming unbearable, and I was already quite tired. The ride up the last pass of the day, Col de Turini, was interesting, with a more Mediterranean landscape that was a nice contrast to what I had seen in the last few days, but I was not really enjoying it. I felt as if it took me forever to reach the top, and I was worried that I might have to ride for a long time before finding a campsite on the way down the other side, as the area looked very sparsely populated.

When I got to the col I found not one, but three hotels. It seems that it is quite an important crossroads. As I was sitting under an umbrella in one of the hotels terrace drinking a cold coke I was sorely tempted to blow the budget for the day and take a room right there, but then the waiter told me that there were two campsites in Moulinet, the first village down the road, only 12km away.

I was feeling much better after the rest and the coke and the way down was through a thick forest, which helped a lot with the temperature, so I enjoyed these last few kilometres.

I almost missed the entrance to the campsite, as it was a narrow and very steep driveway up to the right of the road and there were no big signs. The place was called La Ferme, at that was exactly what it was – an old farmhouse with four or five terraces where you could put up a tent. I doubt that a campervan, let alone a car towing a caravan, could make it up the driveway to the campsite and even less turn around to leave again, so the only other people there were a German biker a German couple with a car and a tent and a French couple with a small Citroën van. I put up my tent near the German biker, who turned out to be one of the very few people in Germany who did not speak any English.

There was only one more col to go before reaching the coast and, with a few days of holidays still left, I toyed with the idea of taking two days to go back to Barcelona and avoiding the motorway, but today I learnt the hard way that it is much too hot to enjoy a route anywhere but high in the mountains, so I decided to get up very and take the autoroute.

Col counter:

31. Col d’Izoard 2360m

32. Col de Vars 2108m

33. Col de la Bonnette 2715m

34. Col du Raspillon 2513m

35. Col de St-Martin 1500m

36. Col de Turini 1604m

Pointe Sommeiller and Tunnel du Parpillon

Day 6 – Saturday 5th August – Offroad routes and back to Briançon (278km)


Not many reach the summit, since the road is most likely to be covered in snow’.

Some hard parts, which make you wonder whether to continue’.

Difficulty up to 8 out of 10, 10 being impossible’.

The highest you can go on a motor vehicle in Europe’.

These are some of the comments I had found online about the route to Pointe Sommeiller when I was planning the trip. It was a challenging road to face alone, but I was feeling up for it after the previous day’s routes and somehow, I felt I could not leave the area without at least trying to complete one of the legendary mountain routes in the region.

This mountain road was opened in 1962, not as a military road, since it is a dead-end road that does not connect to the French side and there are no fortifications, but as the access to build a ski resort. The project was abandoned in 1980, but the road has remained open.

The route starts at the same point as the Fréjus tunnel, just past the town of Bardonecchia. The first section leading up to the hamlet of Rochemolles is paved, but that does not make it any easier. It is an extremely narrow road through the forest with some of the tightest and steepest hairpins I have ever seen. Past Rochemolles the gravel section starts, and for the most part it is not a difficult road – there are a few tight hairpins, but the surface is good enough for all kinds of cars to be able to drive it. The forest starts clearing by the time the road reaches the Lago di Rochemolles, a dam halfway up the valley. The section of the road that goes to the end valley is the easiest, gaining altitude very gently until it reaches a car park and a small wooden hut that marks the beginning of the complicated part.

A girl in the hut told me that you have to pay a five-euro toll to access the remainder of the route, a measure I found reasonable to keep traffic in check and the road maintained and open as a tourist road. She also made sure that not unsuitable vehicles made it past that point, as this was where things start to get complicated – the first section are a series of very tight hairpins with some loose rocks and the occasional rut right where you don’t want it. After that, there is a long plateau where the road levels off and the surface becomes smoother, and the first patches of snow make their appearance.

At the end of the plateau, things get complicated again. The road climbs the last few hundred metres on very rocky terrain, which made my bike jump around like crazy. I remembered some advice from the German riders I had met the day before at Forte Jafferau and stopped to let some air out of the tires. It made a world of difference – the bike was now a lot more controllable, going exactly where I wanted it to go and not jumping at all.

A couple of hairpins later I reached the end of the road, a flat empty space that a wooden fence separated from the lake at the top of the pass. To my right, Glacier du Sommellier, which supplied the water to the lake.

I walked past the wooden fence and found a guy on a GS by the lake who was packing up his things. I approached him and he told me that he had spent the night up there, an amazing experience!

The only other vehicles at the top were hardcore 4x4s, but there was one that drew my attention. Against all odds, a Dutch family had made it all the way up there in a California campervan! Mind you, it was a 4WD Syncro version and they had fitted it with BF Goodrich offroad tires, but it was still surprising to see that up there.

The way down was easier than I anticipated, or maybe I was just feeling more confident after the white-knuckle descent from Forte Jafferau through the ski slopes the day before. In any case, the only real difficulty was that by the time I was going down there was more traffic coming up, so I had to be careful, as there was not a lot of space on the road. Halfway down the hairpins on the last section I saw a long line of Jeep Wranglers coming up, so I pulled over to have a rest and let them pass while I took some pictures rather than risk running into them in some tight corner.

Once at the bottom of the valley the rest of the descent offered little to no difficulty, the main risk here being the number of people who drive up this easy part of the road to the mountain hut, some of them a bit too fast and taking up all the space on the road.

When I finished, I took out my compressor and inflated the tires back to their road pressures before heading for the second route of the day – the Tunnel du Parpillon.

I had to make it back to Briançon and then south on the main road to the village of Mountdaufin, where a smaller road leads past the village of Guillestre and up the col de Vars, a route that I was also going to take the following day as part of the Route des Grandes Alpes. At the bottom of the valley on the other side of the pass the village of La Condamine-Châtelard marks the beginning of the D29 alpine road, the track that goes all the way up to tunnel du Parpillon, at 2,637m.


The road and the tunnel connect the valley of Ubaye with Embrun and it was built by the French army in 1891, as the pass was considered of strategic importance. It has been closed to traffic several times over the years, but some of the people I had met in forte Jafferau the day before had just ridden through it, so I did not think I would have any problems. The route I was taking, more or less from south to north was the route that most bikers recommended as the ascent from this side was more challenging, meaning that there would be no traffic other than mountain bikers and the odd motorbike or 4×4 – like the last section of the Sommeiller, this was not a route anybody should attempt in a regular car.

When I turned off the main road I saw a sign reading ‘Tunnel du Parpillon FERMÉ’. My French is much better than my Italian, so I got this one without problems, but since I had recent reports that it was open, I just ignored it and went on. There was at least one more sign like that before the road turned to a dirt track, so I stopped when I saw a group of cyclists putting their bikes back into their cars and asked them about the tunnel. It was open, they confirmed, they had just ridden through it. They also told me that it was very wet. Well, well…

The way up was at some points comparable to the Pointe Sommeiller – very rocky, steep, with tight hairpins. Good thing that there were signs at the bottom warning that the road was not suitable for cars.

Halfway up I spotted a vehicle coming down. It has C-shaped DRLs on the bumper, so at first I thought it was a facelifted Renault Captur and thought to myself that it was one brave driver to take a front wheel drive SUV on road tires on a road like that, but when I got closer I realised, to my surprise, that it was a Passat GTE! A sports hybrid with very low ground clearance. If that were my own car, there would be no way on Earth I would put it to such punishment. I guessed they must have come up the other side, which was supposed to be much easier, crossed the tunnel and decided to continue down this valley. Bad idea.

A few corners later I reached the tunnel entrance. It was a narrow tunnel, with some old metal doors to close the entrance covered in old painting that read ‘circulation interdite’. It did not seem to be very ‘interdite’, as in a few minutes several 4x4s and motorbikes came out of it.

One of them, a Dutch guy on a GS1200 Adventure, stopped to take some pictures and I approached him to ask about the state of the tunnel and we started talking. He was travelling with his wife and they were staying in a house in Creveux, the first village down the valley. He left her there and come up to see if the road was easy enough to come up again with her as a passenger. It was the first GS1200 I had seen on the trip shod with proper offroad tires (TKC 80s) and going offroad. The guy was really nice, and since we were going in the same direction, he declared me his ‘friend for the next hour’ and offered to ride down together.

The tunnel was wide enough for just one car, so we waited to make sure nobody was coming the other way and rode into it. It was half a kilometre of very wet and muddy ground and total darkness, but my tires performed admirably and I had no problems.

Once out the other side and on the way down, I understood why the Catalans I had met the day before had insisted on doing the route this way – the views were much nicer on the way down on this side, with some imposing cliffs in front of us.

When we found tarmac again we stopped to exchange contacts so that we could send each other the videos we had shot while riding down, and he called his wife to tell her to get ready to ride up the tunnel with him and to order a couple of cold cokes for us, then invited me to follow him. I couldn’t refuse!

We relaxed and chatted for half an hour in the terrace of their guesthouse in the tiny village of Creveux, and as I was leaving for Briançon, they headed back up the tunnel.

Col counter:

29. Col de l’Echelle 1762m

30. Col du Sommeiller (off) 2993m

31. Col du Parpillon (off) 2637m

Forte Jafferau and Strada dell’Assietta

Day 5 – Friday 4th August – Offroad routes and back to Briançon (259km)


I did not really fancy going offroad today. I was travelling alone, which always entails an extra risk and in less than two weeks I was going on holiday with my girlfriend, a trip she had been planning for a long time and was really looking forward to, so I knew for a fact that if I happened to fall in the middle of nowhere in the Alps and get injured, my biggest problem would not be getting help there, but having to face her wrath when she found out our Asian adventure had to be cancelled. By four in the afternoon, however, I was blasting along the best trail I have ever ridden, breathtaking views to both sides of me, and thinking that going offroad was the absolute best thing you can do on a motorbike.

Most of the offroad routes I had found were located in the same area in Italy just across the border from Briançon, all of them well-known to the offroading community. In fact, a couple of Germans I met on the mountain later confirmed that this is the only area where you can go offroad on a motorbike, the rest of the Alps are choke full of restrictions.

My thorough online research (about half an hour on ADVrider forums while my summer course students were writing their exams) had turned out six interesting routes. I thought I could do three that were close to each other in the morning and then two more in a different area in the afternoon, maybe even the third one if I was inspired.

Once again, as the guys from Top Gear would put it (the good ones, not their replacements) I was ambitious but rubbish.

The first route I picked was the ascent to Forte Jafferau. The fort is an impressive construction perched atop a 2775-high metre mountain, Mont Jafferau, built by the Italians in 1896 and operative until the end of WWII, when it was destroyed by the French as part of the peace treaty conditions. The cable car that brought supplies to it from the valley is long gone, but the military road that leads up to it is still there and still belongs to the Italian army. Open to general traffic, it makes for a compelling offroad ride to one of the highest points you can reach on a motor vehicle.

There are three different ways to get to the fort: two start from the town of Millaures – one through the service roads of a skiing resort and the other one the old military road, the Strada militare n.218. The other one is the other end of the strada militare, starting in the town of Moncellier. I wanted to take the latter because it had an element that made it particularly interesting – shortly before joining the road coming up from Millaures this route burrowed under some cliffs in what was known as Galleria del Siguret, an unpaved tunnel with a steep uphill section that was always wet and slippery and which had a fearsome reputation.

I rode to the town of Moncellier first thing in the morning to try and avoid the heat that seemed to have set all over the Alps, and right at the junction that marked the start of the military road I found this sign:

My Italian is pretty limited, but I understood that the tunnel was closed to all kinds of traffic, including pedestrians, due to risk of collapse. I was not so clear about the ‘divieto di transito’ bit between kilometres 13 and 14. Did that refer to the section that was closed? Did it mean that there was a diversion bypassing the tunnel? I had no phone signal, so I could not Google-translate it nor text my sister, who is fluent in Italian. I thought that, since I was already there, I might just as well ride up and find by myself whether the road was passable or not.

As with any sport, I find that I need quite a while to warm up and be comfortable with offroading. I disconnected the ABS and the traction control and started riding up the track, feeling that it was a bit complicated for my liking. It was narrow, some parts were steep and there were loose stones here and there. But that was just because I was cold and needed some stretching.

After a while I grew more comfortable and started to enjoy it. Most of the road went through the forest, so there were no views to talk about, but from time to time I would catch a glimpse of the valley below and realise what a sheer drop there was to the bottom. Good thing that the forest was thick! My mind was already in full offroad mode when I reached a small col and found a line of rocks blocking the road and yet another sign announcing that the road was cut (this was the third one, in case I had not got the message), so, feeling brave, I decided to ignore the signs and the rocks, risk a fine from the Italian army (the signs said that it was an army decision to close the road), and ride on to see if the tunnel was passable.

I rode past the rocks and immediately found that the road had not been maintained from that point onwards. There were more ruts and rocks and some fallen trees, most likely downed by avalanches, intruded onto the road every now and then. I made my way as far as I could, but a small landslide stopped my progress a few hundred metres before the tunnel entrance. If I had been riding with more people we could have probably helped each other over the pile of rubble blocking the road. I tried on my own, but was too close to the edge for my comfort, a small mistake would see me fall down the side of the mountain, and with no phone signal and not a single soul on this route (people probably paid more mind to the signs than I did) that was a thought I did not relish. So I laboriously turned the bike around and gave up on that route, making my way down to the main road much faster now that I was already confident offroad.

Less than an hour later, I was at a road junction past Millaures looking at the same sign – Galleria del Siguret chiusa, pericolo crollo, blah, blah… but the route on this side reached the fort without having to go through the tunnel, so up I went. A good sign was that there was a lot more activity on this side of the road – mountain bikers, a few 4x4s parked by the road, a road maintenance crew working… The first section was a bit daunting – a series of very steep sharp corners that, while not a problem on the way up, could be difficult to negotiate on the way down, and as far as I knew at that point, with the tunnel closed there was no other way down. Just where the forest started to clear there was a small fort overlooking the valley, and I stopped to take some pictures. While I was busy exploring the place, a guy in a series 1 Africa Twin came down the road, turned into the fort, rode up some impossible path up the hill behind it, down an even more ridiculous rut and off again down the road I had come up by. I felt like a complete noob.

I went on and soon found a group of four guys – two Germans and two Italians – who were stopped at the intersection where the road went down to the tunnel. From there I had a perfect view of the col I had ridden to earlier in the morning, the road cutting across the mountain side to the tunnel and the tunnel entrance, with a big pile of rubble blocking the access. So, even if I had made it past the landslide, I would not have been able to ride through the tunnel. I joined that group for the rest of the way up to the fort, which was easier than the first bit through the forest.

The top of the mountain was busy – several 4x4s, lots of mountain bikers and a herd of sheep whose enormous shepherd dogs tried to bite my leg off as I rode past. The last stretch up the fort had been paved with stones once but was now so broken that it was horrible to ride, the bike shaking so violently that it felt as if something or other was going to fall off. The AT held together like a champ, though, and I made it to the col just below the fort without a hitch.

Being a mountaineer as well as a biker I thought that it was only decent to do the last hundred metres to the top on foot, so I left the bike there at the col and reached the fort and the summit of Mont Jafferau walking.

From the top, it was easy to see why the Italians had built a fort there. It offered a commanding 360 view, and its eight cannons must have reached far into French territory. As I was enjoying the view, a KTM and a new Africa Twin arrived and I overheard the riders speaking Catalan. If there is one thing you can be sure of, is that wherever you go in the world, you are likely to find a Catalan tourist. I was just not expecting to find some up here! It turns out they were from Tarragona, and had been already doing some tracks on the area for a few days. They had also tried to get to the tunnel but from this side, with no more success than I had had.

As I was saying goodbye, a big group arrived on quads from the other side of the fort. They had come up through a skiing resort on that side of the mountain, a route that I was thinking of taking not to repeat the same way down. I asked them about the state of the track, as the Germans I had met earlier had told me that they remembered it steep and rocky from past years, but these guys told me that it had just been redone by excavator, so there was no problem to ride it.

Well, redone it might have been, meaning that there were no big rocks on the way, but that did not make it any less steep. Not only that, the terrain was loose because of the ATVs and 4x4s, so it made for a very, very scary way down. I used first gear, trail braked with the back wheel, went as easy as possible with the front brake, and sweated and swore a lot for most of the way. I am by no means a talented offroad rider, rather the opposite, and I am sure that all credit for me making it safely down that track has to go to the bike and the Mitas tires, both of which performed admirably on those conditions.

I found a picnic table in the shade just outside Millaures and studied the list of offroad routes I had compiled while I was having lunch. My legs, arms, and back were sore from the way down, and for a second I was tempted to call it a day, but I felt that I still had time and it would be a pity not to do at least one more route, so I choose one that was not too far and did not seem too complicated from what I had read: the Strada dell’Assietta, a track along mountain crests between the Val Chisone and Val di Susa, also built by the military. More or less opposite where I had just been, it was supposed to have some of the best views in the area.


I rode to the skiing resort of Sestriere and, right where the road began, I saw another road sign announcing that the road was closed. Damn! I read the small print (only in Italian), and I guessed that what it said was that the road was closed on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Or was it from Wednesday to Saturday? Anyway, there was nothing blocking the access, so I went for it.

The ride reports I had found about this road put it at a similar level of difficuty as the route to Forte Jafferau but it was far from it. Maybe I was already fully into an offroad mindset, but this was a very easy track to ride with some of the best views you can find in the Alps. At just over 30km long, there is also plenty of time to enjoy it, and enjoy it I did. I stopped often to admire the views, had lots of fun riding the faster sections, and by the time it was over, there was no one in the world happier than me.

I joined the road again in Pourrieres, rode back to Sestriere and from there to France through the Col de Monegenèvre again. Riding down to Briançon I was stuck behind a very, very slow driver in an Audi A4 Allroad, and got so bored that I had these idea – I should start a charity that rescues good cars from shitty drivers. It is a shame that so many nice cars end up in the hands of lousy drivers than never drive them as they were meant to, so this organisation would take the cars away from them, find them new houses with keen drivers that would make sure they are driven properly and taken care of, and replace them with something more in line with their level of skill behind the wheel, such as a small Korean hatchback, a Kia Turd or a Daweoo Larvae. What do you think?

Back at the campsite there was one last surprise to round off a perfect day. Just as I sat at the terrace of the bar, ready to order a well-deserved beer, I spotted Harald, the German guy that I had met in Séez and who had recommended this place. He joined me at my table and we had a few beers together and talked about motorbikes and travels.

Col counter:

21.Col de Montegenèvre 1850m

22. Colle Basset (off) 2424m

23. Colle Bourget (off) 2299m

24. Colle Costa Plana (off) 2313m

25. Colle Blegier (off) 2381m

26. Colle Lauson (off) 2497m

27. Colle della Assietta (off) 2474m