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.

Istambul

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!