Drive-through service at the bazar

Day 18 – 17th August – Osh (0km)

Marc was due to arrive today sometime early afternoon, if the time Katja and I got here was anything to go by, and we were leaving tomorrow so I wanted to get an air compressor replace the one that died in the Ak-Bashy mountains.

The guys at Muztoo had given me the location of a place where they sold bicycle spare parts and the like, but it was about four of five kilometres away, so I decided to get a taxi. I stopped one on the main street outside the hostel and showed him the location on the map. He didn’t seem to understand it, but told me in gestures that I should look at my map and point him left and right, and he’d do the driving.

He set off, and I noticed that he had a strange contraption on top of his steering column – kind of like a paddle shifter. He had welded two metal plates to a bar behind the wheel, and was pushing and pulling on them. The car was a Honda Fit with a CVT, so I was wondering whether he was overriding the automatic transmission somehow, until he saw me looking at it, smiled, and pointed down at the pedals. Then I saw it – he had no legs! We had already been driving for over 15 minutes and I had not noticed it. He had a long metal stick fixed to a bracket under the steering wheel that he slid with his right hand to push the brake pedal, also.

When we were getting close he realised we were going to the bycicle bazar and asked me what I needed, as I had told him earlier that I was travelling by motorbike. I told him the russian word for ‘pump’, and pointed at the 12V socket in the car, enquiring whether I wanted and electric one. I sad yes, and then he started driving in a different direction. I understood that he was taking me to a better place to buy an electric pump and, sure enough, we got to a bazar even further away that sold car parts. Bazars are huge mazes and I had no idea where to go, but he just drove straight into the bazar and right up to a shop he knew. He rolled down the window, talked to the guy, who handed us a compressor, unpacked it, plugged it in the 12V socket to check that it worked and I paid for it, all without getting off the taxi. He then drove me all the way back to the hostel and only charged me about three euros.

I had no news from Marc yet, so I went to visit the main park in the city, which was not far. On the way there I had a chance to appreciate the wonderful soviet architecture and I also saw some kids swimming in the river that crosses the city.

The park itself was beautiful, probably the best taken care part of the city, and there was a memorial to the war in Afghanistan. Not the one in which American drones bomb schools, mind you, but the 1979 one, when the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan against insurgent muslim groups that had revealed against the government and the US decided it was a great idea become best friends with and arm those insurgent groups just to fuck with the Russians (and we all know how well that turned out decades later).

Kyrgyzstan was one more republic in the Soviet Union at that time, so it sent soldiers to the conflict, as it also sent people to work as liquidators in the Chernobyl disaster, for which there was another memorial in the park.

There was also a Lenin statue in the park, believed to be the tallest one in Central Asia, and near it, the only Geocache in the city (and in most of the country, for that matter).

honda

Shortly after getting back to the hotel, Marc arrived. He was completely covered in dust, sweaty and exhausted after the ride from Kazarman, but it was good to see him on his bike again!

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Marc is on the move again

Day 17 – 16th August – Osh (0km)

‘I’m leaving Naryn’ read the message on my phone when I woke up. The day before, Marc had hitched a ride up to Tash Rabat, put the wheel on the bike, taken it down to Naryn and now was heading for Osh.

I went up to Muztoo to see how Romuald, the French guy, was doing. He had finished plugging all the wire harness back, installed the exhaust system and was getting ready to start putting plastics back on. I suggested that, before doing that and while we still had access to everything, we should try and start it.

He put in the key, turned it and pressed the ignition button. We held our breath. The engine spluttered and roared to life. It worked! We checked the dashboard, exp,eting the über complicated electronics of the bike to complain that we had plugged something wrong, but everything seemed fine.

He was very relieved to see that it worked, and we arranged to meet that night for dinner with the rest of the adventure bikers.

I got another text from Marc by midday informing that he had already reached Kazarman and enquiring whether it was a good idea to push on to Osh on the same day. I advised him against it, as it was a long way to go and being tired on these roads is a serious mistake. Katja also wrote, she had not been feeling well, and a visit to the hospital revealed that she had a kidney and bladder infection, which meant that she was also stuck here for a few more days.

I spent the rest of the day catching up with my writing, and at night we had a big dinner and too much beer to celebrate the BMW was alive. Romuald said that he was not risking it any further, he was going to start heading back home via Azerbadjan, where his European insurance cover started, so I wished him the best of luck and told him to come visit Barcelona any time he wanted.

Crash course as BMW technician

Day 16 – 15th August – Osh (0km)

This was my third day in Osh and I was starting to get bored. There was no way I was going to spend the whole day resting, so I got on the bike and went to Muztoo’s workshop.

Two days earlier I had met a French guy there who was taking apart his GS. Apparently, there was a seal somewhere deep at the heart of the bike that had gone and it was leaking oil. You would have thought that maybe it was possible to just keep adding oil, but it would spill onto the dry clutchplate, rendering it useless, so he had to take the bike apart to access that seal and replace it. And I mean literaly take the bike apart. When I was there on Monday he was already halfway through disassembling it, and today (Thursday) he had already received the part he needed, a guy who was flying in from Moscow had taken it with him as a favour, and had fitted it. He now had to put the bike back together, which at this point was split in two halves.

I had nothing better to do, so I helped him. It was not easy, as he was quite stressed out when he took it apart and there were bolts, nuts, clips, parts of the wiring harness and other bits and pieces lying everywhere around the workshop, all unlabelled, and we’re talking about a top-of-the-range BMW 1200 GS Adventure with electronic Touratech suspension front and back.

When we were going to bolt the whole back of the bike – subframe, swingarm, etc. – to the front part, we realised that the shaft had dislodged in the final drive, so we had to remove everything and disassemble that part to fix it.

When we opened it I could not believe what I saw. It was completely full of water and thick mud!

He had told me that he had got stuck in a river crossing going into Tajikistan, about 30 kilometres south of the border. He was wading through with a guy from New Zealand he had just met, and it was already late in the afternoon/evening, so the water level was much higher than in the morning. He went in and the pebbles that the river was washing stuck to his wheels. The other guy helped him get off and hold the bike from one side, but it was too stuck to get it to the other shore, and the river kept washing more rocks against one side of the bike and washing them away from under his feet on the other, so soon he was holding the bike with the water up to his waist. The New Zealand guy told him to let the bike go and save himself, but he refused to do it and told him to ride back to the border crossing and get help. He was there for hours, at 4100 metres, deep in freezing water, holding the bike, until help arrived.

We took the whole swingarm assembly apart and washed it thoroughly. As we were putting it back together, I took a look at the rubber seals and realised they really did nothing more than act as dust seals. I hoped the bearings in the final drive would be better sealed, but I understood that no matter how much marketing bullshit BMW rams down people’s throats, these bikes are NOT made for adventure riding. Literally everyone we met in the workshop going long distance were on Africa Twins, DR650s, Ténérés, XT600s, Transalps and other similar easy-to-fix bikes.

By seven o’clock in the evening the bike was in one piece again, but there was a lot to do before he could find out whether it would run or not. I promised to go back the following day to see what happened.

While I was there I also took the chance to straighten my handlebars and check that all the bolts I needed to undo to change my wheels were not too tight, a leasson I learned the hard way from Marc’s bike.

Rest day

Day 15 – 14th August – Osh (0km)

I did not do much today other than get the second injection and rest my shoulder. In the afternoon I met the owners of the other motorbikes parked in the hostel – a Dutch couple, Klaas and Danielle; a Belgian, Bert; and a guy from Texas, Roberto.

They had all arrived in Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan and had met at different points on the road. Roberto was travelling on his own in a huge KTM 1290 SuperAdventure when he met a german 71-year-old gentleman in Khorog who convinced him to do the Bartang Valley with him. It turned out that he was totally unprepared, without proper camping gear, warm clothes or food, and it took them six days, six! to do the route. Halfway through Bert, doing the Bartang on his own, caught up to them and they completed the route together safely, which was kind of a miracle, taking into account that the German guy had heart problems and he told them with a straight face halfway through the Bartang that if his heart stopped, they should punch him really hard on the chest to revive him (and he was being serious about it).

hey were all doing some due maintenance in Osh, using Muztoo, and getting ready for the next part of their travels – Klaas and Danielle were going to visit Kyrgyzstan, Roberto was storing his bike here and flying back to Texas, with plans to continue travelling in a year, and Bert was waiting to join Katja and other people to cross into China.

e all went out for dinner together and had a great time sharing travel stories. It was great – we were all sharing this fleeting moment far from our homes, with the same passion, becoming great friends for a few hours before going our separate ways and probably never meeting again.

That night I got some great news on the mobile – Marc’s wheel had made it to Naryn!

The hard way to Osh II

Day 13 – 12th August – Kazarman to Osh (268km)

The sun and the heat woke me up before the alarm clock rang – the sun here is already up before 6am – and the first thing I noticed was that I had slept soundly all night desite my back. I turned tentatively in bed, expecting the pain to be much worse now that the painkillers and adrenaline would have worn off and my body had had time to cool dow but, surprinsingly, the pain was about the same as the night before. I found out that, while I could not lift my arm any more than about 10 degrees from its resting postion while standing, if I grabbed it with my hand and moved with my other arm I could do a full rotation without pain, which gave me some hope that it might not be a fracture, otherwise I would be in a lot more pain.

I manage to strap my bag on the bike and put on all the gear without having to ask Katja for help, even though I had a serious distraction making things difficult for me.

We left and headed for what we expected to be a hard second half of the journey to Osh. Well, at least this time we were leaving early. We knew we had about another 160 kilometres of dirt road and a mountain pass before finding tarmac on the main road from Bishkek to Osh.

I was quite comfortable riding on the bike, and most of the time my back did not hurt. The climb up the mountain pass had a few tight turns with sand that I had to take with caution, and from time to time there would be huge trucks coming down the road and kicking so much dust in the narrow road that we just stopped near the edge and let them through, but in general I was able to enjoy the views.

About 40 kilometres before the main road we got to yet another small town and found tarmac. I was not getting my hopes up, as I had learned the hard way that the main stret is tarmac in every village, but it disappears the moment the village ends. However, this time we got lucky, and after ‘only’ 120 kilometres of dirt tracks we were finally on tarmac all the way to Osh.

We got there in good time, at about 4 in the afternoon, with almost 40 degrees of heat and the mad anarchic traffic of any big city in this part of the world. You’d think that I would have gone straight for the hospital, but that was not what I did. Insted, I went to Muztoo, a workshop that caters for the needs of all the adventure riders that pass through Osh on their way to Tajikistan, China, Mongolia, India, far East Asia or travelling around the world.

The workshop was bustling with activity, lots of people toiling on their bikes to do maintenance or repairs, but soon as I explained what I needed to do with Marc’s wheel, the mechanic found me a new Mitas E-07 tire and fitted it. With that first challenge completed, I said goodbye to Katja, who was just reunited with her boyfriend, and rode off to the CBT office in Osh to see if there was any tourist transport leaving for Naryn that could take the wheel to Marc. My original intention had been to go back with the wheel myself, but after seeing the state of the road and then having the crash, there was no way I could do that.

The girl in the CBT office really went out of her way to help me, and even though there was no tourist transport doing that route in the next three days, he put me in touch with a taxi driver who said he’d give the wheel to another driver who would leave the following morning, drive all day to Bishkek and then the following day drive south to Naryn and deliver the wheel, all for 2000 som (about 26 euros). I gave him the money and the wheel, hoping that he would make good on his promise, and finally headed for my hostel.

I rode across the city centre following the directions on my GPS, but when I got to where the hostel was supposed to be, there was only a derelict factory. No worries, these usually happens in soviet countries, there are several levels of buildings off the street, so I probably just had to drive around the block and would find the hostel behind. Only there was no block to drive around, the street was neverending. I made a U-turn and tried in the other direction, but it was the same story. I went back to the factory and realised that in the gates that led into it there was a tiny sign that read ‘hostel’ with a painted arrow pointing through the gates. I rode in and indeed there was the hostel, at the end of a creepy alley at the back of the factory, past a construction site.

Exhausted again, I checked in and crashed in the bed of a tiny single room in the third floor, right under a roof that had been baking under the sun all day.

The hard way to Osh

Day 12 – 11th August – Tash Rabat to Kazarman (262km)

I got up refreshed from a great night sleep in the luxury yurt, but the same could not be said for Marc. He had got up four times over the night to visit the toilet, and things did not seem to be improving.

During breakfast the camp manager kept insisting that we tried the sauna, as he had been doing the night before, but we wanted to leave as soon as possible to do the remaining six kilometres to Tash Rabat and see the caravanserai.

A caravanserai was a sort of inn where caravans could spend the night and rest on the Silk Route. At 3200 metres, Tash Rabat was the last building before reaching the Touragart pass and the border into China and even though it dates from the 15th century as a caravanserai, some studies suggest it might have been built as early as the 10th century as a monastery. It is one of the best preserved examples of this kind of buildings, and it is amazing to think how hard it must have been to build this enormous structure with 31 chambers up here.

After finishing the visit, we had two options for our next route – the main road went back to Naryn to the northeast, and then headed west to Kazarman, our overnight stop before Osh, which was quite a detour, or there was a shortcut straight north through the mountains to meet the Naryn-Osh road in Baetov which we had been told had amazing views but could be challenging if the weather had been bad recently.

In dark red, the route that goes through Naryn. In green, the shortcut through the mountains. The marker on the left is Kazarman. From that point to where the green route joins the red route there are 160km!

Marc delayed making a decision on the routes until he had had another visit to the toilet in the yurt camp on the way down, and the decision was made for him. When he reached the yurt camp he saw that his front tire was damaged from riding witout air and then having it on and off the rim as we tried to get a tube in it, and it had deformed, letting the tube (which, miraculously was undamaged) pop out of the tire on one side.

There was nothing we could do at that point, other than try to get a new tire, but there are no big bikes in this country, so the only place where we could do that was Osh, two days away via two mountain passes.

The decision was made that Marc would leave his bike at the yurt camp and the manager would keep an eye on it, and I would take the wheel and ride to Osh with Katja to have a new tire fitted. Marc would hitch a ride down to Naryn and have at least four days to get better.

By the time we left it was already 2 o’clock in the afternoon, so we took the route across the mountains to Baetov. What a route! It was the most beautiful track I had done so far – 90 kilometres of remote mountain regions and good dirt tracks with some easy river crossings.

As we approached Baetov I undestood why we had been told this was a difficult route in bad weather. The rivers we went across were almost dry, but the riverbeds were very wide, so it must be impossible to cross them it is has been raining, and the last kilometres to Baetov look to be a mud nightmare if it is wet.

Once on the main road, I set my GPS to Kazarman and saw that we still had about 160 kilometres to go. We were optimistic that we would make it in good time before the sun set, but then we realised that all of those 160 kilimetres were off road and we had a mountain pass to cross.

We pushed on nevertheless, and when we were about 40 kilometres from our destination, disaster struck.

I turned a corner and found myself riding uphill with the setting sun directly in front of me, I was blinded for an instant, but it was enough to ride into a deep pile of gravel. The bike slid sideways to the right and before I could correct it, both wheels dug in, it flipped, threw me over and I landed on my back.

I lay on the ground for a few seconds, checking that I could move arms and legs, got up and cut power to the bike. The left side of my ribcage hurt, but it was not too bad, but when I tried to lift my left arm I felt a flash of pain at the base of the shoulderblade. I was afraid something might be broken or at least cracked in that area.

There was no way I could lift the bike in that condition, so I just removed my helmet, collected the cameras, which had both broken off their supports, sat by the side of the road and waited for Katja to realise I was no longer behind her and turn back.

We put the bike back up and checked for damage – it had landed on the upper part of the left front panel and that was scratched and cracked, the windscreen support was also bent to the left, which sucks because it is part of the fairing stay, and there were other bits and pieces of plastic broke around the indicator area. The indicator itself had miraculously survived, as had the handlebar, clutch lever, mirror, gear pedal, and all other important bits. Suspension and front brake were also intact, and at the back the chain had come off, but I could put back on rotating the wheel, so that was fine.

I got on the bike and saw that in the riding position my back did not hurt too much, so I could probably make it to Kazarman, which was the only town near.

We got there just after sunset, found a CBT homestay, I took some painkillers and fell sleep immediately.

Don’t go offroad with tubeless rims

Day 11 – 10th August – Naryn to Tash Rabat (292km)

Just don’t. Do not believe whatever marketing bull***t BMW, KTM, et al. throw at you. Your rim WILL BEND and it will stop holding the air in. Fortunately, we were aware of this possibility and we had planned accordingly, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

We met with Katja at 9am as agreed and went to collect our border area permits before leaving and, oh surprise, there had been a misunderstanding with what permits we wanted: we had applied for both the border area in this oblast to do the offroad route to Touragart pass and also for the Peak Lenin base camp, which is a visit we wanted to do in a few days, after getting to Osh, but the lady in the CBT office understood that we only wanted the first one. Monday being a holiday and us leaving on a two-day trip for Osh the following day meant that it was going to be impossible to get those permits. We were a bit disappointed, but it didn’t matter that much, we had a great day of riding ahead of us!

We left, and shortly after leaving Naryn on the main road to the Touragart pass (which, by the way, had great tarmac) we turned left and took a dirt road. It was in quite good condition, and soon we found a series of hairpins that took us up to a plateu above 3000m.

I thought about stopping at the top of the hairpins to take the drone out and shoot a view of the climb from above, but as soon as that idea crossed my head, I spotted a hut and a gate across the road on the plateau, not far from where we were. It was the checkpoint where we had to show our permits for the border area. Unlike the guy we met on the way up Barskoon pass, these were military and immediately pointed at our GoPro cameras and made sure they were off. They also checked my phone and deleted a video I had just taken of Marc arriving at the checkpoint. They took their time to check passports, permits, write down all our details, the bikes’ registrations, etc. and eventually one of them, AK-47 slung across his shoulder, opened the gate and let us through.

The weather was perfect, the landscape beautiful and we were having a whale of a time riding on the plateua when I heard Marc come in on the intercom: ‘my front tire is losing pressure’ he said. We went on riding for a bit, but soon we had to stop. It was down to 0.9 bar.

He said he had felt the bike hit two big potholes in succession a while back, so we checked this front wheel and, sure enough, here was the culprit:

Before starting to remove the tire to install a tube in the unforgiving sun, we got the compressor out and inflated the tire above normal pressure, around 3.0 bar, to see if that would seal it and hold until we got to the main road, as the dent was rather small. It held for a while, much longer than mine had in Kazakhstan in 2013, and we managed almost 20km before it went flat again. Reluctant to change the tire there, Marc worked out that for the remaining distance to the main road in Touragart pass we would only have to stop to inflate the tire 4 or 5 times, which sounded resonable, and it was better than installing the tube in the middle of nowhere.

We kept on riding, the air holding in quite despite some bumpy river crossings, and we must have been on our third or fourth stop to reinflate the tire, admiring the landscape to the tune of the tiny compressor when suddenly went prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…ghrrrank! and stopped.

I know this things are designed as an emergency resort, but it giving up after using it 4 times seems pretty unacceptable to me. Anyways, I said there was no more postponing fitting the tube, but Marc said we were less than 30 km from the main road and the compressor had managed to get some air in before giving up, so he wanted to ride out as far as it would go and then do it.

 

We went on with the tire losing air until eventually it went completely flat. We stopped, propped the bike up with a handy jack Katja had and set about removing the front wheel. First, we saw that for the rim and tire to clear the brake calipers we had to remove at last one of them. Now, you might criticise us all you want, as it seems pretty obvious from where you are sitting that you do not need to do that, it is enough to rotate a bit the suspension arms to make room to remove the wheel, but bear in mind that we were above 3000m and already quite tired, so we were not thinking that clearly.

Anyway, this would only have meant a few extra minutes of work, as you only need to remove two bolts, but when Marc tried to undo the second one, it would not budge. We did things right here, putting in the torx tool and then knocking on it with a spanner to try and get it loose, but to no avail. I used another tool as a long lever on the torx tool and when I pushed, the whole thing jumped off. I picked up the torx head had slipped out of the bolt, but then I realised it had snapped! I had managed to snap in half a torx head before that bloody bolt moved.

Marc said ‘fuck it’ and said he’d ride at idle in first gear the remaining 20-something kilometres to the main road, where we would surely be able to stop a car or a truck who had tools.

We made it to the border an hour later, only to discover that we could not get to the pass and see the border with China as we were hoping. There was a huge customs compound, surrounded by high fencing with barbed wire on top standing between us and the last few kilometres to the pass. Too worried about Marc’s tire, we were not that disappointed, so we rode around the fencing until we came out onto the main road at a petrol station.

Our hopes of finding help faded quickly. The customs building was closed, there was nobody in the line of lorries parked at the gates (I have no idea where the drivers might have gone, there was nothing else up there) and the two local guys at the petrol station had zero tools.

I figured that if we removed the axel we could still put a tube in the wheel without taking it off the bike, so long as we managed to remove the tire off a rim that was not lying flat on the ground. After a lot of sweating, swearing and bloody fingers, we had managed to remove the tire, put a tube, mount the tire back on the wheel and were ready to inflate. We plugged the compressor in and it came back to life for a while, but the tire did not seem to inflate. Marc had some CO2 bottles, so he used one, and the moment he opened the valve I saw a jet of air come out of the side of the wheel. We had pinched the tube. Ah well, it happens. We set about removing everything and installing a second tube when, with all the wriggilng, the suspension arms rotated a bit on their own and the wheel came clear off the bike. You should have seen the look on our faces. We felt like complete idiots. As I said, experienced riders, feel free to criticise.

We succeded in fitting in a new tube without pinching it and inflate it just enough to be able to ride out of there. The sun was just setting, and the only place we could find accommodation in was the yurt camps in Tash Rabat, 100km down the pass (remember how great distances are here). We put on some extra clothes and, with temperatures dropping fast, headed down the road.

Fortunately, this was the main road back down to Naryn, and it was very good, but there is always an element of risk with riding in the dark in countries like this. For a moment I thought we were going to make it to the dirt road to Tash Rabat with the twilight, but it was not to be. There was another military checkpoint on the way down to leave the border area, and by the time they had finished checking all the paperwork, it was pitch dark.

The last 15 kilometres off the main road and up to Tash Rabat were a dirt track. Not a bad one, admittedly, but there is no such thing as a good dirt track in the dark, so we rode very slowly trying not to make any mistakes.

We were halfway there when I saw some lights shimmering in the distance. It was a luxury yurt camp for organised tourist trips, regular yurt camps don’t have generators, and therefore twice as expensive, but seeing our faces, the guy who ran it agreed to drop the price and include dinner, which was music to our ears. We were not willing to ride a minute longer.