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.

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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.