Sunday, August 24, 2014

Day 37+ 38: Off to a Rough Start

Day 37:

The day started off alright. The sun was shining, I slept in late (8:00) and  got a late start. First I headed along the Black Sea coast to Trabzon and then turned south towards Macka and the Meryemana Monastery. The monastery is located in the mountains and built into a cliff face. It was supposed to be very beautiful and I suppose it was but like when I tried to visit the Terra cotta soldiers, the trip to the very crowded touristy site was slow and I quickly got frustrated. So once I had the monastery in view, I took a couple pictures and got out of there and back on the main road as quickly as possible.

The roads out of Macka were perfectly smooth mountain roads with nice wide turns. Most cars were doing 100km or more easily but up to now I didn't have any experience taking turns that quickly. So I experimented with speeds until my rear wheel began to slip a bit. While traveling through a long tunnel though I felt a familiar wobbling and heard a terrible grinding sound. I tried my rear brake and found that it didn't work. Once again, my bearings had broken. I drove and quickly as I dared out of the tunnel and found a vacant parking lot near the small village of Torul. I didn't have any spares so, with the help of some nearby mechanics at a car shop, I propped up the bike, took off the rear wheel and brought the one still whole bearing with me back to Trabzon by bus. I trusted the mechanics to watch my stuff and left my helmet near the bike.

In Trabzon, and hour later, I very quickly found a store right near the bus station that seemed only to sell bearings. What luck! I bought four and found a bus on its way back to Torlu. When I got there, it was about 4:00 now, I quickly replaced the bearings and started getting ready to set off only to find my helmet was missing... The mechanics helped me call the police. There was a security camera across the road but the guy in charge of the cameras had gone home and wouldn't be back until morning. A bit frustrated, I decided to stay at the village hotel that night. The police were very friendly and helped me find a secure place to park the motorcycle, and hotel and then drove me into town for dinner the whole time making sure I wasn't made to pay the foreigner price anywhere.

Day 38:

I woke up and found the police. This wasn't hard. I was in a very small village. They told me that they couldn't see anything. I wondered later if this meant that they couldn't see my motorcycle because it was out of view of the camera or if it meant that they couldn't see anyone approaching my motorcycle. If it was the latter, Probably the mechanics had stolen my helmet. Anyway, before I left that morning I decided to have one last look around the parking lot where my bike was. As luck would have it, at the far end near a big pile of dirt and an old truck I found my helmet! completely destroyed. Whoever had taken it decided to remove every removable piece, probably searching for money, and then it looked like they kicked it around for a while. I gathered all the pieces only missing one screw and surprisingly was able to completely reassemble it. Only a few of the plastic bits were slightly broken! I got a replacement screw from a nearby shop and was ready to go.

I started off down the winding highway roads slowly just in case my bearings decide to break again as they had last time. But about 10km down the road everything seemed fine so I picked up speed and resumed my fast turn tests. I arrived at Gumushane around 11:00 in the afternoon and while putting though town, I heard grinding. The rear brakes didn't work again. The bearings yet again had broken. I kinda expected this to happen so I wasn't too upset. I pulled over and set to work on the now all too familiar task of replacing the rear bearings. Luckily this time I had spares. A quick half hour later (I'm quite good at doing this now) I was back on the road and more confident now. It couldn't possible happen again...

I left the village and traveled about 10km before... once again... the grinding started. This time I was in the middle of the mountains without a building, parking lot, or bit of shade in sight. It was very hot that day. I had no replacements. This was a problem.

I have had incredibly good luck when in trouble on this trip and it didn't fail me here. Almost immediately, a friendly looking man pulled over and asked me if I needed any help. He lived just about 1km back towards town and offered to drive me and my motorcycle back into town on his neighbor's flatbed ford Transit. Perfect! I wondered how much he would charge but decided to leave that for later. I needed this and I guess I'd have to pay whatever he asked. His neighbor was an older man, probably in his 60s, with his typical Turkish mustache, big gut and incredibly low rumbling voice, reminded me of a Turkish Santa. At first he was a bit intimidating but later he turned out to be a very friendly and open minded guy. He had worked in Istanbul for 30 years before retiring. He and his wife bought this plot of land in the mountains, he built the house himself, and now spends his retirement years turning the milk from his cow into yogurt.

We got to the village but couldn't find any spare parts so the old man offered to drive me and the motorcycle to the nearest city, 120km away. Finally I had to ask how much it would cost and me told me that I would only have to pay for gas. On the way, we dropped off the neighbor who had found me and picked up the old man's best friend and the three of us piled into the front of the Transit. On the way we talked about our lives (good chance for me to practice my Turkish) our religious philosophies and political ideas.

When I got to the mechanic's shop in Erzincan, he was just about to close. He discovered a flaw in my motorcycle's wheel system that destroyed bearings if the wheel axle wasn't tightened extremely tightly. With new bearings, spares, a fixed wheel and a renewed confidence in the motorcycle, I said my goodbyes to my new friends and headed off to find a place to camp. It was almost dark so I made it about 50km out of the city before finding a field near a creek just off the main road. Hopefully, that would be the end of my mechanical troubles...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Days 35+36: Through Georgia and back into Turkey!

Day 35:

I woke up and, in what now has become a relaxing routine, drank some coffee while watching the sun rise. Then I was off. The first part of the day took me along the Caucasus through farmland. Here I saw my first medieval style walled monastery castles built up on small steep mountains. Some were still active and sold wine and cheese but they were all closed this early in the morning.

As part of my attempt to forestal my arrival in Istanbul, I decided to continue following the Caucuses along back roads until I was directly north of Tblisi. This turned out to be an adventure as the road I choose soon turned into a narrow loose gravel track and wound through steep forested mountains. This lasted for about an hour. One of the greatest feelings you can get riding a motorcycle is the feeling of perfectly smooth asphalt after an hour of rough gravel and northern Georgia allowed me that just before I turned south towards Tblisi.

In Tblisi, I stopped quickly at a hotel cafe to use their internet and then after a frustrating hour spent lost in the city's narrow streets I speed off south into the high mountains near the border of Armenia. At this point I have grown tired of Cities and touristy places. They are crowded, and waste a lot of time that I would much rather spend on some mountain road or in a village somewhere. So I can't really say I saw Tblisi.

The afternoon's drive reminded me of the Tibetan Plateau portion that I crossed earlier in the Trip. After a couple hours I was in a large cold treeless landscape. The roads which were decent at this point, wound around low rolling hills and past large cold lakes. Soon the sun light started creeping up my wind shield and I started searching for a camp site. I drove off the main road onto the mostly flat grassland and soon found a perfect location behind a small hill next to a river canyon. I watched the sun set, ate some noodles and then set up my tent.

Day 36:

Up at dawn, coffee, sunrise and then I was back on the road by about 6:30. The day started out as it had ended but soon the road turned again to loose gravel. This road, I was told, should have been asphalt but I guess I had been lied too. For those who are curious this road goes from Akhaltsikhi to near Khulo, just unded 100km. Loose gravel isn't so bad but when on narrow mountain roads it can be a bit of a challenge. However soon the road turned to loose gravel with large mellon sized rocks scattered around. The turns became unreasonably tight and the road very steep. First it wound through forested mountains but soon I was back above the tree line and the road passed along steep hillsides and cliffs. One big rock hit too fast and I could fall a good 50ft or more off the side of the narrow road. So I went pretty slow.

On the way down the mountain pass, about three quarters of the way through this road I met a bicyclist going to opposite direction who also had been tricked into taking this road by some Georgians earlier in his trip. I guess this is some kind of Georgian joke. He told me about his trip and I mine and then we discussed the road ahead. It ended up being a pretty interesting conversation. We happened to meet just about where the road changes from bad to VERY bad. I had just come from the worst section and had gotten used to its challenges and he from the much easier part. So when he asked me how it was, I just said its pretty much the same as it is here and it doesn't really get worse. He told me about two VERY bad sections and we both went our separate ways with very wrong ideas in our heads. The road improved dramatically for me and when I got to the difficult sections he'd talked about, they were no where near as bad as the entire road behind me and ahead of him.

The road became very fun when the asphalt returned but it wasn't very smooth so I didn't get to enjoy it as much as before. I arrived in Batumi mid afternoon and headed along the Black Sea to the Turkish Border. The crossing was easy. I was still able to buy a sticker visa. And then there I was, back in Turkey after a year and a half away! It was getting dark so I started looking for a camp site but couldn't find anything good so I stayed in a hotel in Rize.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Days 32-34: Crossing the Caspian and Azerbaijan Too Quickly

Day 32:

I woke up and drove into Aktau arriving at the port around 10:00am. I had expected to wait here for up to a week waiting for a boat but I arrived to find that a boat was leaving that evening. Unfortunately, they had just sold out of passenger tickets. They could take my motorcycle across though so I decided to ship the bike and take a plane to Baku. At first this actually looked like a cheaper option but in the end I think it was about $50 more.

I spent most of that day running around the port collecting stamps from various unmarked offices. Afterwards I headed to the airport and caught a flight leaving at 01:30 the next day.

Day 33:

I arrived in Baku at 3:00 or so in the morning and after trying to stay up all night so I wouldn't have to pay for two nights in a hotel, I gave up and found a nice couch in the airport to sleep on.

In the day, I found a nice cheap hostel in the old city, took a nap, found the port and then wandered around the city for a while. Its a really beautiful place and Azerbaijan has now become my second choice after Turkey for assignment if I'm accepted into the foreign service.

Day 34:

I picked up my motorcycle from the port at 6:30am and found that I had to spend a bunch more money on two tickets (one from the port and one from some ticket guy) and "safe keeping" bribes to the crew of the ship. I should have just driven off after getting my customs papers...

Azerbaijan is a beautiful country. I started off in hot arid hills. Then I reached the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains where I saw large forests for the first time in a long time. I followed the northern road along the Caucasus through Shamakhi, Sheki to the border crossing at Balakan. I had expected to arrive too late to cross that day but they were still open when I arrived in the late afternoon so I crossed into Georgia. Azerbaijan took me one day to drive across. This was way to fast. I needed to slow down or I would arrive in Istanbul too early.

I found a camp site behind some trees in a field just outside of Lagodekhi and thought about how I could extend my trip. I like driving until dusk and can't seem to make myself quit early if the plan is to camp. Turkey will be expensive and while I'm ahead of schedule I'm exactly on budget and traveling for longer will put me behind. So I decided if I can't do fewer kilometers in a day, I'll just have to pick rougher longer routes and camp pretty much every night. (except tonight...)

Day 30 and 31: Bad Roads to Aktau

Day 30:

Nukus had no gas stations so I had to find a guy selling gas from water bottles. I expected this section of desert, the road from Kungrad to the Kazakhstan border, to be really long and difficult. On my map, I had only seen one village along the entire 320km stretch. This however would be just a warm up for the really rough road from Beyneu to Aktau which I would tackle the next day. Much to my surprise though the roads on this day were nearly perfect the whole way with only one small section of construction work. I made great time. Late that afternoon, I crossed the border without any trouble whatsoever. Not even a check of my bags or carefully collected hotel registration slips.. I guess I could have camped once or twice.

Once across the border the roads worsened a bit and it started to get dark. I turned off the main road and into the desert making for some low hills off in the distance to hide my camp site behind.

Day 31:

This was supposed to be the most difficult part of the whole trip: The road through the desert from Beyneu to Aktau particularly the 300km between Beyneu and Shetpe the first city in the caspian sea region of south western Kazakhstan. I'd heard that most of it was unpaved and occasionally sandy. On my maps there were no towns no buildings, nothing along that whole section.

After a quick breakfast and resupply stop in Beyneu, I was pleasantly surprised by the perfectly paved road leading out of the city. Soon there was a section of old road and some dirt and I began to feel confident that maybe it wasn't going to be so bad after all. I was wrong. After a long section of old potholed pavement, the road became gravel and then the dreaded dust started appearing. This is the same dust I fell in back in China. Soon I reached a part where they were repaving the old road and traffic was directed off on to an entirely dust section. Trucks were stopped, perhaps stuck and I took one look at the 6 or more inches of dust covering the entire track and decided to try my luck making my own trail through the desert. This was mostly better but still exhausting. Soon the main road looked better so I made my way back towards it.
For the rest of this first half the road looked the same: Main road (sometimes newly paved, sometimes loose gravel, sometimes inaccessible) surrounded by deep ruts and dirt tracks covered in this deep dust. Beyond this it was desert which was mostly potholed hard dirt ground but occasionally car tracks filled with dust crossed through it.
After a struggle with the dust section surrounding the main road I made it to the main road which turned out to be gravel. Soon though this was blocked and I was forced back into the dust. This pattern continued for most of the morning.

My first fall happened just at the end of this really bad section. The road became good gravel and I picked up speed. Suddenly there was a big section of dust stretching all the way across the road. I couldn't slow down enough (which would be down to about 20kmh) and I fell. Some damage to the panniers.

After the fall the road was good for the next 100km before I reached the mountains. Here the road snaked down through table top mountains along an entirely dirt road. It wouldn't have been so bad but just before I arrived at the one really steep downhill section, a truck had sprayed water all over  one lane of the dirt road. Normally this is good but in this case it just turned the lane into mud. I tried to go down it and quickly fell.

After this section, the road was good all the way to Aktau. I didn't quite make it to the city before dark so I followed the road to the top of a low mountain before driving off into the desert again to find a secluded area.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Days 26-29: Tourism and Gas Problems in Uzbekistan

Day 26:

The plan for the day was to make it to Tashkent crossing the border at Uchkurgan. From others in the Bishkek hostel and elsewhere I'd heard that police in Uzbekistan, especially in the south were exceptionally corrupt and a few people had horror stories to tell. Police check points were everywhere as well as marked, unmarked and fake police road blocks. At any of these stops, an officer may steal your passport and demand a bribe.

I'd also heard that the border control process was long and thorough. Two rules particularly worried me. The first was that you are required to stay in a hotel every night of your stay in Uzbekistan. At the border you have to show the police a registration slip for each night and if you're missing one you could be forced to pay a huge fine or bribe. The second rule was that you have to declare all cash on you and if you have more money on you when you leave, they may take it. Also, I was told to expect a very thorough search of all my belongings at each border crossing.

I woke up early, and made my way to the border. On the Kyrgyzstan side, I nearly missed the border control station. The whole operation consisted of a stop sign, two officers and two trailers. I was the first through so they made me wait out side the gate for a bit then It took maybe 15 minutes and I was in no man's land. The Uzbek border was a bit more official looking complete with real buildings and cement walls. It hadn't opened yet so I waited around in no man's land and made a cup of coffee on my stove. The border control process was definitely more involved but nothing like the stories I'd been told. The officers were friendly and helpful. They did search my bags. At one point a scorpion jumped out of my tank bag at an officer while he searched it. They looked at my books and asked if my journal contained any terrorist writings but that was about it. No searching my phone or camera, no looking for money, no bribes. And it only took an hour or so.

In the east of Uzbekistan, its portion of the Fergana valley, I saw mostly pastoral countryside. I stopped in a village and had some barbecue and here the crowds returned. It was just like China again. The same questions (probably, at least I told them the same things) photos, thorough inspections of the motorcycle. I also noticed other drivers in Uzbekistan wave much more often and I soon I felt like I was on Vinalhaven. Every once and a while a car would flash its lights at me or pull up beside me and shout. It was kinda nice.

Later in the day I came across another motorcyclist on a nice Italian bike. When I stopped he pulled up beside me. He turned out to be an Uzbek investment banker living in Hong Kong. He showed me the way to the city and we had a cup of coffee together while I searched for a place to stay. Then he was nice enough to call and drive me there. He did offer me a place to stay but I was worried about the hotel rule.

All in all a good start. I did notice that a number of gas stations were closed but most were open so I didn't think much of it.

Day 27:

I left my nice hostel in Tashkent early, filled up my tank and jerry can and headed for Samarkand. It was a relaxing day, only about 300km and I got there around 4 in the afternoon. At this point I haven't had cell phone service or reliable internet outside of my hotels for a while so I've been downloading my maps for the next day to my phone and using those. The locator function still works without internet so its usually just as good.

Samarkand was a beautiful city. I walked around the Registan, the most famous building in Uzbekistan but it was too late to go inside. Then had a dinner of kebab and went back to the hostel to sleep.

Day 28:

Today I was headed for Bukhara. The motorcyclist had told me that this was his favorite of the old cities in Uzbekistan. The trip was very short, only 275km, and I arrived early in the afternoon. The morning was when I first really noticed how bad the gas situation was in this country. I tried for an hour or so to find an open station but finally had to settle on a station that was selling gas in plastic 5 liter water bottles kept in their basement. I'm not sure if its always like this but there was definitely a shortage of gas in the country. On the way to Bukhara, despite having plenty of fuel, I stopped at a few decent looking gas station but found they also had nothing to sell.

I arrived early enough in Bukhara to do a bit of city walking. I found the old section of the city, which is still pretty much intact, and got lost for a few hours among the short old buildings and narrow winding roads, not wide enough for a car. Eventually I found the center of the old city: Mosques with turquoise tiled domes and beautiful artwork and arabic writing covering their faces and minarets and markets filled with touristy things, silks, spices and local crafts. There I found a blacksmith and picked out a nice gift for myself.

Day 29:

Today I was to get back into adventure riding. The plan was to make it to Khiva, the last silk road city in Uzbekistan but to get there I had to cross the first bit of the Kyzyl Kum desert. In all my planned route would be over 450km, 350km of which would be through the desert. I found a gas station on the edge of town and loaded up. My tank's range is a pretty decent 430-460km and with the 5 liters of extra fuel in the jerry can, I can easily go about 550-600km without needing a gas station.

Once I got into the desert, the temperature rose above 100 degrees and the wind picked up. I quickly learned that riding with your jacket open to the desert wind is a big mistake so I closed all my jacket's air vents and zipped up. The wind in the desert feels like wind from a furnace even when you're going 80 kmh and it dries your sweat too quickly. I had actually read about this before and bought this jacket instead of a mesh one just for this reason. Zipped up with a bit of water down my shirt I felt perfectly fine.

This desert seemed more beautiful than the Taklimakan. The dirt had a redish color and it was covered in small plants. In this desert as in China, there were a few people living out there in the middle of nowhere. In this part of the desert the people operated cafes or shops which made the ride much easier than I had anticipated.

When I got near Khiva, it was still early so I decided to go on to Nukus. A further 210km but this put me over my gas range. Once again the stations I tried had nothing. The people I asked knew nothing. Eventually, I found one of those plastic bottle gas sellers and bought 5 liters (1.3 gallons) for $6.50, a ridiculous price. Nearly twice what the gas stations charge.

This section was another desolate one. After 100km or so the sun started shining in my face and I started to get anxious. I needed a hotel but with little day light left I'd be forced to stay at the first cheapish one I could find. To make things worse, my phone ran out of batteries so I had no map. I got to the city and eventually found a $70 hotel, the most I've spent on a hotel yet. The internet didn't even work but they did share some of a strange looking melon with me before I went to sleep.

This was one of the longest days. Including all the driving around looking for gas, I totaled 610km.

Day 24+25: The False Start and Driving in Kyrgyzstan

Day 24
The next morning, I said my goodbyes and packed my motorcycle for the first time in a few days. I'd forgotten a few packing tricks but soon I was on my way. The first kilometer felt great. After the long break I was fully rested and ready for a beautiful day of cool mountain driving. During the second, I began to hear a familiar rattling sound. I slowed and checked for loose parts but found nothing. Soon the rattling became a loud grinding and I pulled over in a parking lot in the center of Bishkek. The new bearing that I had just installed the previous day had broken already. This time I had no garage to keep the bike in so the parking lot would have to do.

First I thought I could just get some new bearings from the shop and do the whole fix in the lot. So I locked the bike, took my valuables and caught a cab. I was exhausted and it was a hot day so I didn't pay attention to where I was going. After a few minutes I realized that the cab was not going to where I had asked. This could be bad. Then he pulled over to "take a piss" but just walked around the cab and took out his phone. I grabbed my bags gave the guy some money and left. I'd heard a few stories of tourists getting robbed in this town so I was on my guard for the rest of the day and in this situation, bike unguarded in the city and me obviously carrying valuable things, I was particularly vulnerable.

Eventually I got the parts and made it back to the bike but found I couldn't remove that stupid ring again. I tried pounding it out using my axle and a rock but nothing. So I put my bags in a furniture shop nearby and carried the wheel, AGAIN, to the same garage of Russian mechanics. The same mechanics from the day before were once again successful this time though they charged me a few dollars. Japanese bearings (not chinese like the day before) in hand I headed back to my motorcycle which was now laying on its side in the parking lot waiting for the rear wheel.

With the help of a passing motorcycle enthusiast I replaced the wheel and some brake fluid that had spilled and was ready to go. It was 5:00 in the afternoon. I had started the day 2km away at about 10:00am. My lazy side carried the day and I turned around and went back to the hostel.

Day 25
After saying my goodbyes again I headed off passing the parking lot and finally making it out of the city. Today I would head west out of the city towards the Uzbek border near Urckurgan passing Toktogul lake and two mountain ranges
The roads were beautiful as were the gas station attendants. Kyrgyzstan is an amazing place and it reminded me a lot of the last days in China south of Urumqi. Herds of horses and sheep grazing along the road side in large mostly green fields with tall snow capped mountains in the distance.
 The mountains I passed through were just what I needed. The first was difficult and at one point I came very close to snow covered peaks. It was freezing but after yesterday's adventure in the hot sunny city it felt great. Near the top of the range, my motorcycle struggling a bit from the altitude and my jacket closed as tight as I could make it, I arrived at a very long tunnel. The tunnel was unlit and poorly (if at all) ventilated and only about a lane and a half wide. As I normally do, I raised my black tinted visor at the beginning so I could see but soon my eyes were full of soot and aching badly. So visor down I followed the dim lights of the car in front of me through the rest of the unusually long tunnel.
After the long decent from the snowy peaks, I arrived at yurts and grassland and found a cafe for lunch.

The second mountain crossing was beautiful but uneventful and I began to get excited about camping. The sun started creeping up my wind shield meaning I should start looking for a camp site. Traveling west all the time this can become annoying. I found one shielded from the road by a big pile of gravel and next to a perfectly clear river. I cooked my egg noodle dinner, did a bit of writing and set up the tent. That night I left the rain fly off the tent and slept under the stars.


I've gone back and added the rest of my photos of China up to day 18. My phone is broken and its difficult to upload photos to my computer now so I've been a bit lazy.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Day 20 and the long break

Day 20-23

I left my broom closet at sunrise, said my goodbyes and set off for the Kyrgyzstan border and Bishkek. The road started off urban but soon passed through farmland and eventually a mountain pass over relatively smooth mountains. The roads today were much better and my ass was much happier.

I arrived at the border around the middle of the day. The crossing actually went very smoothly with only one minor problem that I didn't really understand at the time but now realize was actually potentially catastrophic. The border control officers kept asking for a paper that I thought I had already given them. So after trying to argue a bit with them in Turkish and rushing around to the different offices I had visited for a while to try to find this mysterious paper the police at the border just gave up and let me through.

My plan was to stay in Bishkek and get my Uzbek and Azeri visas. I knew I could get the Uzbek visa in about 10 minutes but had planned for the Azeri visa to take a few days. So I found a good hostel and settled in for a nice relaxing break. I found the BEST hostel I have yet stated in. The owners are great and there is a garage and even a pool. I've met quite a few interesting people here, two in particular: The Dutch BMW rider and the American state department intern.

Anyway, the next day I toured the city and found the two embassies I needed. The Azeri embassy was closed until the 11th of August, so the plan has become to apply for that visa in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and if necessary pick it up at the consulate in Aktau. The Uzbek Embassy required an appointment. Later in the day, the Dutch BMW rider and I went in search of a good parts store rumored to be located in a market where all the stores were built of shipping containers. We eventually found it but by the time we arrived the parts store was closed. So that day I found everything, didn't get anything done, but was ready for tomorrow.

The next day, I got my visa and found the store. They had almost everything I needed. So I went back to the hostel to prepare my motorcycle for the second half of the trip: new tires, new chain, new oil etc. The BMW guy helped me out with this but soon we discovered that my rear bearing was nearly destroyed. So I wasn't leaving the next day.

That day I met the American State Dept. Intern. He was a great guy and it was nice to finally hang out with an American again and let my accent return a little. He was stationed in Astana Kazakhstan and when I told him about my border crossing he was shocked. Apparently, foreigners are supposed to register with the police somewhere once they enter the country and I had forgotten to do this. This has become a huge problem at the Embassy as many American tourists don't know about this rule. Once they finish their vacation and try to leave the country they are denied and forced either to pay 400USD or spend 10 days in jail. They form that the border police kept asking me for I in fact never had and could have been stuck in that terrible situation. Maybe it was my Turkish, or maybe they thought they had lost it, either way I was incredibly lucky.

The fourth day including my arrival to Kyrgyzstan (which is actually today! first time I'm actually caught up with this thing) I spent repairing my motorcycle. I took the rear wheel back to the shop to get new bearings. Luckily they had exactly the right size but when we tried to remove the broken one, we discovered that the outer rim of the bearing housing had fused itself to the inside of my wheel. The shop owner and I went from shop to shop in the motorcycle market where he was located to find a way to remove this little ring of metal eventually ending up about two hours later at a shop owned by a very Russian car mechanic. While I waited there, half a dozen other mechanics stopped by to try their hand at smashing the ring out of the wheel. Eventually, another hour later, after the blow torch, electric saw crow bar and various home made tools had failed, a couple of mechanics managed to knock it out with a bit of metal tube. We installed the new bearings and 3 hours and  4 dollars later I was on my way back to the hostel to install the new wheel. They all refused to take any extra money from me. I guess they liked the challenge.

So thats the end of the break. Tomorrow I'll set off to see the rest of Kyrgyzstan and then on to Uzbekistan.

Days 19: Goodbye China

Day 19:

That morning I woke up early, took out my documents and packed my bike. During the 45 minute drive to the border I went over all the border experiences I'd read about online and planned for some difficult situations. I reminded myself not to get angry when dealing with any border control officers, which isn't really a problem for me actually, and I readied myself for a long frustrating day.

From what I'd learned you need to get a special document from your port of entry (I now know it's called an ATA) and pay a large deposit in order to cross the Chinese border with a vehicle. I didn't really want to do that so I figure I'd try to talk my way out of that. Others have done this before and along with the experience of the traffic police in Meichi under my belt I felt confident I could accomplish this.

So I arrived at the border and went straight for the vehicle exit zone. The police there told me I lacked the ATA document, which I figured to be that expensive document that I was trying to avoid, and asked me to go to the main customs office about 5 minutes away from the border. I walked into the large fancy official building and found the nearest group of female officers with multiple stars on their shoulders. I explained my situation and they started asking me questions. I was a bit nervous at this point and felt like the answers I was giving each carried the weight of the whole remainder of the trip. If I answered any incorrectly, I'd be stuck. One question seemed particularly important,

"Will you be coming back to China?"

I thought for a second thinking that maybe if I said I would return, they would care less about the deposit. But a lie might trap me so I joked,

"Well, I'd like to come back but the motorcycle is Chinese so I'm worried it wont make it much further."

This seemed to work. They laughed. Chinese people often joke about the quality of Chinese products.

Soon they left to discuss options. When they came back they told me I could take my bike to the passenger terminal and walk it through as if it were carry on baggage. They called and made all the arrangements but told me I could NOT bring the motorcycle back to China. I guess my answers were not that important.

 So I drove my motorcycle up to the passenger terminal and, still sitting on the saddle, walked it through the lines where people normally wait, past the x-ray machine and to the place where I'd get my passport stamped. Stamped and ready I drove over to the Kazakh border, which was much easier to get through, and soon found myself in a new country!

It was still early in the afternoon and I had a lot of day light left so I set off for Almaty. Immediately I missed the nice smooth Chinese roads and the slow Chinese drivers. The roads were full of giant ruts and potholes and the drivers made the Chinese look almost sane by comparison. The towns were now distinctly Russian. I saw my first cafes and hamburger stands and the cigarettes were brands that I recognized again. There I also started seeing my first naturally blonde people again. Now I was indistinguishable from the locals. The crowds were gone, no more questions, no more photo sessions with people's babies. As long as I didn't speak, I was once again nothing special to the locals. Even when I did speak, most people didn't care. It was actually quite relaxing.

The terrible road to Almaty was pretty boring especially after the unbelievable scenery of the Borohoro mountains near Urumqi. I arrived in the city near dusk and tried to find a hostel. Nothing. While I was searching for yet another place to stay it became dark and the drivers seemed to become even crazier, rushing out of stop lights and driving near highway speeds down the city roads. I decided to leave the city and camp somewhere on the outskirts but before I left I stopped in a gas station in the center of the city. I was getting pretty desperate so I asked in Turkish if there was a cheap hotel nearby. I could speak and be understood pretty well now using my half forgotten Turkish. They even more help than I could have imagined. First they walked me around to a few places but finding them closed they offered me a broom closet at the back of their 24 hour station. It was too late now to start looking for a rough camp site so I accepted.

That night there weren't very many customers so I treated the gas station attendants to burgers and beer in the near by park. I couldn't understand everything they said but the Kazakh language and Turkish were very similar so we could joke and have some basic conversations. After some photo sessions and notes in my journal I crawled into my broom closet still wearing my space suit and boots and had a pretty good nights sleep.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Days 17+18: The last days in China

Day 17

It turned out to be easier than I thought to escape the city and I was out and on the road early in the morning. The first hundred kilometers or so resembled the day before; high winds and arid landscape, but soon I started up into the mountains. After a pretty scary section of high winds racing down a valley  as I wound  my way along the sharp turns, the weather calmed and the temperature dropped. I stopped at a sacred Buddhist mountain site for some pictures and to put on my wind jacket and then proceeded through the most beautiful landscapes I've yet seen.

How can I describe it. I was traveling through a valley between two mountain ranges. All around me was what looked like perfectly manicured lawn covering the nearby hills. This was exactly how I imagined the steppe looked. On the hills the perfect bright green grass was only broken by bike rock outcroppings. On the higher mountains the grass slowly turned yellow and orange towards the top giving them a cartoony look or like someone had painted them. In many places it was hard to believe what I was seeing. In many places beyond the mountains to my right were snow topped peaks or jagged steep rocky mountains.

As I continued it started to get warmer and after a stunning view from a set of switchbacks I arrived at yurt villages with herds of horses and sheep. Here the lawn grass was covered in places by patches of a type of tall thin pine tree. Even under the trees the grass remained pristine with no under brush. The villages were build along a small fast moving brook of perfectly clear water. It was unreal. I stopped in a group of yurts that had a sign in front of them and asked if they were for rent. They were, the price wasn't so bad and I really wanted to stop in this hobbit land so I rented a yurt for the night.

That evening the proprietor prepared a meal of sheep and noodles for me but they gave me way too much. My stomach already small from the previous year had shrunk even more after the illness so I wasn't able to finish all my food. Here they have a much more effective way of convincing people to finish their meal than we do in America. We might say, " there are starving people in China!" but here they just point to the sheep outside and indicate that "his friend died so you could eat." So I stuffed away the remaining mutton and fell quickly asleep a little while later in my giant yurt bed.

Day 18
The next morning I made for the border. I got as close as I could and prepared my documents. After the yurt village the scenery became more urban and wasn't very exciting. So nothing really happened that day.

Day 15+16: Into the Desert

Day 15

I woke up around sunrise at the truckers hostel and after one last clear sighted look around the tiny rest stop village I set off for Ruoqiang and the Taklimakan Desert. I felt a bit better. My strength had mostly returned and my stomach was feeling alright.

The scenery and roads were much like the day before: Arid mountains far to my left and gravel ground everywhere. Sometimes there were little bushes and sometimes absolutely nothing. For most of China, my small 250cc motorcycle was more than enough. I went faster than most other people on the road and the winding or village roads didn't allow me to go much above 90 kmh or so. But now I started wishing I had a bigger motorcycle just so I could pass through these areas a bit quicker. I also hate being passed by other cars and the way most Chinese see motorcycles (as slow obstacles like pedestrians that need to be passed) and treat them its actually a bit safer to go as fast if not faster than others on the road.

I made roughly 600km that day. Mid afternoon I reached the end of the Tibetan Plateau and the long exciting decent into the desert basin. The monotony of the previous few days was finally broken by winding roads through canyons occasionally broken by stunning partial views of the basin below.

I pulled into Ruoqiang late in the afternoon feeling much better with greatly improved spirits.

Day 16

In the morning I took a look at my route and saw that there was a good long section of sand dune desert. Exciting! I've never seen sand dunes before. So I set off hoping to end the day in Bayingol. I reached the end of town and once I was out of the oasis and back into the desert the wind really picked up. It was blowing almost directly from my right side and

the bike naturally leaned over into the wind. I had never experienced this before so I wasn't exactly sure what to do. I pulled over and waited for a bit but soon I saw a chinese guy on a small motorcycle braving the gusts so I decided if he can do it I should be ok.

Soon I got to the bit of sand desert I was so excited about. The wind picked up and my visibility slowly diminished to about 500ft. I couldn't quite decide if this counted as a sand storm. Maybe a mild sand storm? But that was soon answered as my visibility was reduced to less than 100ft and sand. Definitely a moderate sand storm. I still figured they must get at least a little worse. Eventually the road turned so the wind was mostly at my back and then I passed through the sandy section and became more habitable. Once I reached the river and trees, villages started reappearing and it was smooth riding the rest of the way. On the positive side, the sandy wind has sand blasted the right side of my motorcycle perfectly clean. The left side was still covered in mud though.

When I got to the city,  I started looking for a place to stay but s
oon discovered this was one of those strange cities that only allowed foreigners to stay in four or five star hotels costing over 600yuan a night! This was completely impractical so after a few attempts at some cheaper looking hotels I tried to leave the city and find a camp site. BUT I couldn't find a way out of the damn city. My google maps were all wrong and the only way out seemed to be on an expressway which didn't allow motorcycles. It was getting late and I started to get a bit frustrated. Finally, after trying to check in to what looked to be a brothel, I found a decent three star hotel that with the help of a very helpful rich young guy was willing to ignore the "rules" for foreigners.

That night I decided to go look for some western food for my birthday dinner but there were no pizza places. I settled on KFC. As I left the hotel, I ran into my friend and told him my plan. He didn't really speak much english but was enthusiastic and tried hard to understand my signs and very poor chinese. He offered to drive me and when I told him it was my birthday (by singing the international happy birthday song) he paid. Things were turning around. While enjoying our chicken burgers a group of university students joined us and we ended up going out for a birthday beer. So in the end it turned out to be a pretty good birthday.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Day 13+14: Sick and Tired

Day 13:

This day started off alright. The sun was out and I got a nice early start. The landscape looked less muddy than the day before and I was warm enough. Again the roads were long and straight along RT109 so I set my speed high and put on some music. As the day went on I started to see more sand and eventually little sand tornadoes started forming and sweeping across the lunar landscapes.

At one oasis, I ran into those yellow fields and after killing a few bees on my face, I stopped to buy some honey. Lunch was some dumplings and coffee in a small rest stop of only a few buildings in the middle of nowhere.

After 300km of fast driving through increasingly desert like terrain, I arrived at the last city before my goal of a campsite in the deserts just beyond, Geermu. When I slowed down I noticed that the little green N light for neutral was flickering and then soon it stopped working. While taking a break I was only able to start the bike in 1st with the clutch. Strange. Then at a stop light  in the middle of the city at about 4 in the afternoon, the motorcycle's electronics shut off and the engine stopped. Big problem. I pushed it to some shade took out the tools and checked the battery and the fuses. Both were seemingly fine so I figured it was some other electrical fault. I waited around for a few minutes and still couldn't get the electronics to come on. So I asked around for the nearest shop and started pushing. After about 20 minutes of this the electronics magically started working again so I drove to a few repair shops only to have them tell me they couldn't help. Eventually one shop was nice enough to drive me to another guy that was more experienced with complicated motorcycles. It was getting late though and he was about to go home for dinner so he took me to the local motorcycle club's hostel/hotel.

It was great. All the chinese riders going through Tibet on their way to Xining stopped here and I got to see a bunch of different types of motorcycles, the Jialing 600cc and even an old BMW Dakar, and meet a few english speaking motorcyclists.

Day 14

First thing in the morning I went to the mechanic again to have him look over the bike. Unlike most mechanics I've encountered, he believed me when I told him about the ignition switch problem even though it was working fine when he looked at it. It turned out to be a corroded connection in the switch and after some sanding it was good to go but I was not doing so well.

Over the  course of the repairs, I started to feel a bit woozy and by the time I was set to go I was definitely sick. I set off and soon felt too tired to go on. In 40km I had to stop 3 times and run to the bushes. I turned back and barely made it to the edge of the city before I had to throw up in a small park river on the side of the street. Feeling a bit better I changed my mind about taking a rest day and turned back around. It was 2 in the afternoon so it would be a short day anyway.

Frequent stops made the going slower than it could have been with all the stops but I still managed about 350km on the long unbending roads. Near sunset I came to a little rest stop and pulled into a gas station. I was done. Exhausted weak and probably a little dehydrated I asked for a place to sleep. I was directed to a truckers hostel which consisted of two rooms of beds pushed together. 30yuan. Perfect. I got the motorcycle, drove it over to the hostel and dropped the bike in the sand just before their little bit of concrete. The crowd helped me pick it up and I sat myself on a tattered old couch nearby for the next couple hours. I slept for a good 14 hours that night.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Day 11+12: Around Qinghai Lake

Day 11
So things are starting to get interesting now. I left the hostel in Xining in the morning and planned to travel to Qinghai lake, skirt around the north of it joining up with the legendary RT315. I figured I'd end the day on the far side of the lake in a small town or in the mountains.

I put on my rain layers but decided not to wear my thermal layer. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake. Shortly into my ride the rain started and didn't stop all day. As I got closer to the lake the temperature fell as well. I'm not sure how cold it got exactly but it was enough to discover a major weakness in my gear choice. My gloves were not at all warm. I kinda knew this before I left but thought that cold would not be a issue that I would have to deal with on this trip.

The roads were long straight and boring. I cruised along at 90KHM through the rain just determined to end the day where I had planned. The road stretched straight in parts on to the horizon through treeless grassy mountains on either side. Sheep and yaks occasionally crossed the road in herds and yurts were set up throughout the endless grass fields. The Tibetan buddhists had also set up tons of prayer flags in the shape of tepees atop mountains. Occasionally, I ran across big yellow fields with people selling honey near them. The first time I passed one I felt something hit my helmet hard. I thought it was a rock or something and continued on. Soon I passed another yellow field and I saw little black things flying 5 or 10 at a time straight at me They freaked me out and I hid behind my wind screen. When I stopped I found bits of bee covering my helmet and jacket. I had slaughtered about five from that field. At every yellow field from then on it became a sad but slightly entertaining routine and dozens of bees lost their lives on my face shield and jacket by the end of the day


I covered 650km racing along the straight roads but forward progress was probably only about 400km. After a particularly long straight section I arrived at my destination of Tianjun on the far side of the lake. I was soaked and was in no mood to camp that night so I looked for a hotel. The receptionists apparently didn't know what to do with a foreigner or they were warned about us and called the police. Soon an english speaking policeman arrived and explained to me that i was not allowed in the area or anywhere west of Tianjun. This was a disaster as I hadn't explored any other options for getting to Urumqi. He told me to go back to another county to sleep and drove me to the edge of town.

The whole two hours of backtracking to the place where I had a late lunch that day I thought about my options. I could either go north and figure out a new plan or ignore the police officer and continue west anyway along the more desolate-looking southern route 109. I checked into a great cheap hotel in Gangca and through over my options.

Day 12
I woke up and decided to go west over a breakfast of sheep intestine soup. It was raining more heavily than the day before and it seemed a bit colder.

I didn't get on the road until 10:00am and by 12:00 I had only gone about 100km to the south west corner of Qinghai lake. I stopped for lunch and the warm my hands what had become nearly useless from the cold. At the restaurant I met a group from Sichuan provence and after a lengthy photo session, they invited me to join them for lunch. The food was amazing and I stuffed myself at their insistence.

Then with warm hands it was back on the road. I passed over a mountain, rain still falling steadily along with the temperature which by now had reached 5 degrees celsius. On a motorcycle going 80kmh, it's much colder. I was definitely not prepared for this and after pushing through another mountain range complete with short muddy sections of construction and a long flat barren landscape where if it weren't for the other cars would have felt like I was in a dream, I pulled over at a derelict gas station, lit my stove and warmed my now completely useless white hands over a cup of ginger tea. After about 45 minutes of recovery spent sheltered from the now frigid wind, I slipped on my waterlogged boots and soaked gloves and pressed on with renewed spirit.

The next section was again barren and lifeless followed by another mountain pass. Actually, I don't really remember exactly how many long straight roads through barren mud land I passed through or how many mountain ranges I crossed that day. Mostly I was focused on how cold and wet I was and how I was going to to fix that. A couple times I pulled over and warmed my hands on the engine but the second time for some reason it made my hands less resistant to the cold so I stopped doing that. While I was wondering why this had happened, I arrived at yet another section of road work. I waited a bit for the cars ahead of me to slowly crawl through before I started. On a motorcycle a steady speed is more important when passing through mud. I slowly plotted my way through the first section which wasn't so bad but the section of torn up road ended up being much longer than the earlier ones. I soon found a nice relatively smooth section, sped up and shifted to 2nd gear. Big mistake. There was a small mound covered in mud about 5 inches deep. Suddenly distracted by the obstacle and slowed by the line of cars ahead of me, I forgot to down shift and went in too slow in 2nd. I got stuck. I waited there in the middle of the road like an idiot unable even to get my rear wheel to spin while cars drove around me. Finally, a nice man in a Santana stopped and pulled me out with my tow rope (lucky purchase that i intended just to be a luggage strap)

Covered in mud but now nice and warm from the physical activity I soldiered on. The rain slowed and stopped and I arrived at farmland surrounded by what looked like yellow arid desert hills. Finally, Desert! Warmth! I entered town and cautiously found a hotel. I was not going to camp in the mud mountains or mud fields.

After getting stuck all the fields and mountains looked like big piles of mud.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Days 10: The road to Qinghai Lake

It's raining pretty badly now and the owner of my hotel is still sleeping so I have some time to write.

I left Kongjie and the rough roads of the previous day and headed for Xining at 8:00am. The road was much better and soon it started winding up small mountains. I was entering the far eastern extreme of Muslim Culture. Many men were wearing a white hat like a short fez and the women were wearing head scarfs.  There were mosques in every village with a very interesting design. Most had domes like Taj Mahal of different sizes and colorful minarets with that layered roof chinese design or somewhat resembled colorful scaffolding. It was nice to hear the ezan again.

Mid morning it started to rain pretty heavily and it was cold so I pulled over in a village beside a man selling live chickens to put on my thermal layer and rain gear. While I was walking back to my dry spot  from the bike I noticed a curious looking plant growing out of the sidewalk next to a tree. I stopped to examine it and indeed it was a huge, albeit unripe, marijuana plant. I turned to the crowd of older white hatted men and gave the universal smoking weed sign and then the crazy sign and they laughed and signed to me that, "You don't smoke it, you eat it."

I pulled out of the village and drove through fields of yellow flowers and mountain covered in fewer and fewer trees. Then the road climbed steeply over a large mountain with large switchbacks. The rain picked up and the temperature fell as I climbed. Soon fog set in and I could only see 50 feet off the road and the car in front of me. Together me and the blue VW slowly wound our way through the switchbacks for maybe half an hour. I encountered my first flock of sheep in the road on the way up. My VW friend stopped for pictures and I went to the top alone. There I found another long traffic jam caused by two trucks hitting each other on a tight switchback turn so I wound my way through until I found a good place to stop. There I met a group of people who were driving these three wheeled cars in convoy somewhere. They were excited and pointed to their flags and banners written in chinese but I couldn't understand them. Then using my motorcycle advantage, I wound my way through the rest of the traffic jam and had the road to myself. Almost immediately after leaving the peak the weather improved and I got my first views of the Tibetan landscape. Treeless mountains and hills covered in grass as far as you could see.

I pulled into Xining a few hours later and found a nice hostel.