In Moscow without a visa

Day 23 – 22nd August – Bishkek to Moscow to Barcelona (6010km – by plane)

The alarm clock woke me up at one o’clock in the morning. I was deeply asleep and could have gone on for 10 more hours, but I had to get home.

The taxi driver was a young guy that turned out to be a lot more helpful than the two from the day before – he helped me get from the lobby to the car and once we got to the airport he left the car in the drop-off area and took me to through security and up to an information desk where I could ask for assistance. The woman at the desk asked for my ticket and said she would call a Ural Airlines representative.

I had really been looking forward to this. Finally, three days after breaking my foot, I was in the hands of an airline that would take me home. They sat me on a wheelchair, pushed me to the front of the check-in queue, took my suitcase, printed the boarding passes and, most importantly, reassured me that I would have no problems to connect flights in Moscow.

When I was buying the tickets the website kept insisting that it was my responsibility to have a proper transit visa for Russia, the same warnings were written on my ticket, and I had found contradictory information online – most people said that there was an international transit area and that a transit visa was not needed so long as you did not leave that area, but everything I could find was several years old and EU-Russia relations have been deteriorating since the war in Ukraine. Then there was the information on Domodedovo Airport’s website, which said that I needed to take my luggage through security and customs before taking the connecting flight and that required going through customs myself. I had seen several warnings that travellers without a proper visa would be returned to their point of departure. I must confess that I was rather worried about finding myself on a plane back to Bishkek after all the trouble it had taken me to get here.

Fortunately, the staff from Ural Airlines told me that they would take care of my suitcase and there was no need to leave the international transfer area.

I had to wait for two hours in the departures area because the flight had been delayed, and finally, past six in the morning, the boarding started. Instead of going through the regular boarding gates, I was wheeled through some restricted areas, onto the ramp and to the airstairs – Bishkek airport has no fingers. I was hoisted up the stairs and sat in the front row before the rest of passengers started boarding the plane.

I had a four-hour layover in Domodedovo, but because of the delay, that had been reduced to just under an hour. I had to wait for everyone to deplane, then a special truck docked onto the R1 door, which is only used to load the catering or emergencies, and I was put on a wheelchair, transferred to the truck and then driven to the terminal.

There, I went through a security check that seemed to be the one used by airport staff and then through a door right to the gate area where my plane was departing from. It was nine in the morning and the flight was leaving in twenty minutes, so I thought everything was going great until they told me that the flight had been delayed until midday and parked me next to the gate.

I spent my time reading and watching people argue about the delay with the ground staff. I tried to move around and see the terminal, but my back and ribs still hurt, so I could not get any further than a nearby restaurant where I had a sandwich. I hated having to pay airport prices, but I had not eaten anything since the pizza the night before.

At noon, we boarded the plane and headed to Barcelona. I think I have already said this many times, but Barcelona airport has one of the most beautiful approaches in the world. As the airplane lines up for its final approach you are over the sea and can see the whole city to your right, all the landmarks easily recognisable and, this time, I was particularly emotional to see my city.

I went straight to hospital, where they confirmed the three broken bones in my foot and also found that I had two broken ribs. They changed the cast and told me that the foot looked better than they had originally thought seeing the x-ray I brought from Osh hospital – it might not be necessary to operate the foot. They told me the medical team would study the case and tell me something in a few days. In the meantime, I had to keep my foot up and try to rest as much as possible.

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The 600,000-kilometre Mercedes

Day 22 – 21st August – Osh to Bishkek (669km – by car)

669 kilometres between the second biggest city in the country and the capital. Roughly the same distance that separates the second biggest city in Spain, Barcelona, and its capital, Madrid. Back home, you can do that journey by motorbike, car, bus, train and plane. Here, there was no bus and no train, there were no available seats on the next flights and the motorbike was out of the question. Back home, it takes six to seven hours to drive the road that connects the two main cities. Here, it took 12 to 13.

The taxi I had booked via CBT Osh rolled outside my hostel punctually at 8 o’clock in the morning. It was a black second generation E-Class Mercedes, the ones that cover astronomical mileages doing duty as taxis in Stuttgart, and judging by the mileage on this one, it may very well have been shipped to Kyrgyzstan after its driving duties in Germany were done. It received the usual local treatment: lots of blankets over the seats, a wooden bead seat cover for the driver and a poor tinted window job that had become translucent, almost completely blocking the view out of the back windows. The dashboard was lit like a Christmas tree with warning lights and error messages, there were unplugged bits of wiring loom hanging from below the passenger seat, the seatbelt buckles were missing and, needless to say, the aircon was long dead. Somewhere along the trip I caught a glimpse of the total mileage of the car at that moment: 618,739 kilometres.

 

The reason the journey to Bishkek took so long was not the car, though, but the road. Despite being the road that connects the two main cities, it was only better than the dirt tracks I had been riding on in that it was sealed, but it still only had two lanes, went across all towns and villages through the centre, had bumps and potholes everywhere, and tarmac could disappear without notice at any moment.

I had had time for my back, ribcage and shoulder to recover from the first fall a week ago, but hopping everywhere with a cast on my foot and now the constant shaking and violent jolts sent straight up my spine through the car seat every time the we hit a pothole sent my recovery down the drain.

I barely left the car every time the driver stopped for a pause, other than standing next to it and stretching my legs. I didn’t eat anything and only visited the toilet once. The only thing I could think of was the bed in the hotel room in Bishkek, the most comfortable, luxurious accommodation we had seen all trip.

With 40 kilometres to go, we entered the sprawling suburbs of Bishkek, and the tarmac disappeared once again. They were resurfacing the road, and traffic crawled at walking speed amidst a thick cloud of dust. I had got my hopes up that we would arrive in half an hour, but now it was clear it was going to take much, much longer.

The car was overheating again – it had already given signs of trouble climbing some mountain passes on the way – so the driver stopped for one last break with 10 kilometres to go at what looked like a marshrutka depot, where he knew other drivers. After having a cigarette and chatting to his friends while the car cooled down, he got on the driver’s seat again and twisted the key. And nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Not a single noise.

He tried several times, but the car was dead. He was really embarrassed about it and apologised profusely. As a solution to get me to my destination, he walked out onto the main street, hailed a city taxi and paid him to take me to the hotel.

When I crawled into the reception area, the poor girl behind the desk must have thought the zombie apocalypse had started. It was clear that the high traffic season for motorbikes was at the beginning and at the end of the month, the hotel was deserted and there were only a handful of bikes outside, in contrast to the storm of activity that had taken over the courtyard when we arrived at the beginning of our trip. I dumped a lot of information on her –what had happened to me, that I wanted a room but needed a taxi to leave in three hours, that my bike was arriving the following morning but I’d be gone by then, that I had luggage stored somewhere in the hotel and needed it right away, and please could she send some food to my room.

A very nice German couple helped me get to my room and after a painful shower a pizza was delivered to my door. Half an hour later, the manager arrived and sorted everything for my bike to be unloaded and stored in the hotel the following day. Clean, fed, and with the bike transport sorted on this end, I lay in bed to try and get some sleep before the taxi to the airport picked me up in an hour.

The Stans become The Stan

Day 21 – 20th August – Sary-Tash to Osh (179km)

The morning did bring an answer, indeed.

I had slept rather well, but when the time came to get up and start packing, my foot hurt more than the day before. Not only that, it was visibly swollen.

Even so, I managed to pack everything, dress up and put the boots on. It felt better inside the boot, although putting it on had been very painful, but no matter how better it felt with the boots on, it was too much of a risk to ride into the Pamirs – the road would only deteriorate, I could barely hop on and off the bike and I had hundreds of kilometres of emptiness before reaching a town by the end of the day. And the closest hospital in that direction was not in that town, but three days away.

Since Osh was only a three-hour ride away, I decided that the sensible thing to do was to go back there and have my foot checked. If all I needed was a few days rest, I still had time to recover and then head into the Pamirs.

So almost 200km and some mountain passes later, I was back in the same X-ray room I had visited a week before.

They took two X-rays of my foot and half an hour later, sitting in a chair in a room next door, I listened to a doctor speak Russian very fast and point at a developed X-ray that showed that my foot was broken in three different places. The only thing I understood was ‘traumatologist’, so that’s where we went next.

They gave me no cane, no crutches and no wheelchair, so I had to hop my way with Marc’s help through an underground corridor to an adjacent building and find the traumatology wing, which looked even more depressing than the one I came from.

They put me on a stretcher in a tiny room, and by the look of the place I had my doubts whether I was going to be treated or interrogated and sent to a goulag in Siberia. Next, a very slow exchange started using Google translate. The guy who was seeing me said that, because of one of the three fractures, the foot needed an operation. I tried to make him understand that if I had to be operated, I wanted that to be back home, not there, but he seemed reluctant to let me go in that state. After a lot of frustrating exchanges on the mobile, he seemed to conclude that if I agreed to be released as I was, he would immobilise my foot so I could travel on condition that I had it seen by a doctor back home as soon as possible. Then, to my surprise, he said that they had run out of plaster to make a cast and that he had to go get some more to the pharmacy and I would have to pay for it. I ended up paying 30€ for the cast, most of which I suspect went directly into the pocket of the ‘traumatologist’.

After that, they finally had the decency to put me into a wheelchair and push me to the front of the building, where Marc was waiting for me with the smallest taxi in the city, a Nissan kei car recycled from Japan. Once I got to the hotel, however, I was back to hopping around on one leg, as I had no other means of support.

I had an old walking pole attached to the luggage rack on my motorbike that I had intended to use as a telescopic mounting for a GoPro and had turned out to be a failure, as it vibrated too much. Luckily, I had not thrown it away, so I took it off the bike and used it to prop myself.

Next step was to arrange transportation home as soon as possible, so I got on the phone to my travel insurers, who told me to make travel arrangements myself and then claim expenses. After contacting Turkish Airlines and finding out that the cost of changing my flight back home far outweighed the cost of buying a new flight, I found a flight from Bishkek to Barcelona with Ural Airlines that left the following night, giving me 24 hours to get to Bishkek. There are flights from Osh to Bishkek, but they were all booked for the following days, so I had no other option than book a private taxi for the following morning to drive me all the way to Bishkek.

Finally, the only thing left to do was to arrange transport of the motorbike to Bishkek also, where it would be stored at the hotel where we had started our journey until the guys from ADVFactory shipped it back home in September. Muztoo were very helpful and provided a truck that would pick it up the following day at midday.

Having done all this, I crashed in my bed to try and recover some energy for the long trip home. That was that. End of the holidays. I had seen most of what we had planned to see in Kyrgyzstan, but that was the only -stan I had ridden. No Tajikistan, no Uzbekistan and, most frustratingly, no Pamir Highway.

A glimpse of the Pamir mountains and a smashed foot

Day 20 – 19th August – Sary-Tash to Peak Lenin basecamp to Sary-Tash (172km)

Bert, the Belgian guy riding to the Himalayas posted this picture from Peak Lenin basecamp two days ago.

Peak Lenin is 7134 metres high and is considered the most accessible peak over 7000 metres, partly because it is relatively easy to climb, partly because it is not too technical, partly because the basecamp is accessible by motor vehicle, so there is no need to spend days carrying stuff on donkeys to make the approach. It was this last fact that made us decide that we wanted to visit it while we were in Sary-Tash.

As fate would have it, shortly after we got here we discovered that Bert and all the other people who were going to cross into China were staying at a guesthouse next to ours. It seems he survived the snowfall at the basecamp. Not only that, he said that the dirt road up there was quite easy, so we decided to go visit it and come back down to sleep in Sary-Tash, where it was already quite cold as it was.

We got on the bikes, but Marc’s wouldn’t start. It had been a cold night, alright, but not that cold. It turns out that he has a lithium battery and it doesn’t like the cold. Fortunately, it only took a bit of sunbathing for the KTM to start, and we set off.

On the outskirts of the town the road branches in two. To the left, the start of the legendary Pamir highway. To the right the road to a different border with Tajikistan that is only open to locals, and on the way there, the turnoff to the basecamp.

We really did not need to get that far to find spectacular views – as soon as we turned onto that valley we had a view of the full north face of the Pamir mountains to our left. It was such an alluring view that it was hard to keep our concentration on the road.

40 kilometres later, we left the main road, crossed a rickety suspension bridge and rode through a metal arch over the road with big lettering indicating the way to the basecamp. The track itself was fine, narrow and with loose gravel or sand at some points, but nothing too technical. There were also a few river crossings, but contrary to what we feared seeing how much it had snowed on the peaks overnight, the water level was very low.

We rode across brown grassy plains for most of the way, and in the last few kilometres the road started climbing and led onto a wide valley right at the foot of the Pamirs. There was not one, but several camps scattered over the valley. We rode to the middle of it, right up to a river crossing that was a bit too complicated for us to negotiate taking into account that we would have to turn back shortly after, we parked our bikes and walked around for a while, speechless at the beauty of the place. These were by far the highest mountains I had ever seen. As I have said before on this blog, distances in this country are deceiving, and it looked as if the peak was really close at hand, but it takes a minimum of three days to reach the top.

After having something to eat we turned our bikes around and started going down. We got to a small stream we had crossed on the way up, and it already looked as if there was more water flowing through it. I went first, it was not complicated, but just when I was about to exit on the other side, the front tire caught a pebble and it snapped to the left. I opened the throttle to straighten the bike, but instead of getting traction, the back tire spun and the bike slid from under me. I fell backwards into the water and the bike fell onto my left foot. It was not trapped, as I could get up immediately, but I could feel it had been hurt.

We got the bike upright and after checking that I could still ride we went on to our guesthouse in Sary-Tash. I could change gear without problems, but when we stopped for petrol at the end of the ride I could barely walk. It was a combination of the pain in the foot and general pain all over my back from the previous fall, made worse by this one.

I got to the guesthouse, removed the boots and put the foot in cold water. The good news was that I could move it and when I pressed in different points with my hands it did not hurt that much, so there was nothing broken. A Dutch physiotherapist who happened to have stopped by for coffee also examined it and confirmed my impression. However, I still felt as if I had been beaten up by a bunch of crazy skinheads.

I had doubts about continuing into the Pamir Highway like this, but I decided that I would wait until the following morning and see how I felt. If I went into the Pamirs, it was two or three days to Khorog, where there was a good hospital, and I would be sticking to the main road, the M41, no Wakhan and no Bartang. If I went back to Osh, it was only one day ride, but then it was probably the end of my chances to ride the Pamir.

The morning would bring an answer, I thought.

Weather extremes

Day 19 – 18th August – Osh to Sary-Tash (179km)

Today we started riding in near-40 degrees heat and by the time we were in Sary-Tash we had all our clothes on and it was snowing.

It took me a long way today to get the bike ready to go, I had stuff scattered all over the room after almost a week there and didn’t want to forget anything. Once on the move, it felt weird and wonderful at the same time to get back on the motorbike and we were lucky to leave the on a Sunday, as we did in Bishkek, so we avoided the worst traffic.

It only took about half an hour for the road to start climbing and the temperature to start dropping. The day was a bit cloudy and once we reached 2000 metres we had to put some extra layers on, so we stopped near a building that looked empty but turned out to be a roadside café.

From there on the road went through a first mountain pass at 2800 metres and then really started climbing up to Taldik pass, at 3615 metres.

From the top of the pass we could see the amazing valley we had come from and, not far on the other side, Sary-Tash, our destination. Beyond the town, the Pamir mountains rose like snow-covered giants.

Despite being on a main crossroads – both the Chinese and the Tajik borders are just a few kilometres away – Sary-Tash is a wind-blown collection of small buildings scattered between the bottom of the pass and the Pamir mountains. Facilities are limited, and the guesthouse where we were staying reflected that. It was a combination of guesthouse, farm and workshop, with a half-dismanteled truck, hens, cows and our motorbikes sharing the same space in the yard.

We did have electricty and wifi, but no running water nor showers, other than a room where you could throw a few buckets of warmed-up water over yourself, and the toilet was the classic latrine. The best thing was that we had an electric heater in the room, which we immediately turned on.

The weather had been deteriorating quickly since we got here, and by mid-afternoon the Pamir mountains had dissapeared behind thick clouds and snow flakes were dropping on our bikes. It was crazy to think that a few hours ago we had been sweating inside our suits in Osh.

We cooked some soup that went cold almost immediately and retired inside the house to chat with the guests who had arrived during the afternoon – a group of cyclists from New Zealand, a couple of German hikers and three guys from Chicago on a Skoda doing the Mongol rally.

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!

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.