Leaving the 'Stans

The ‘Stans are one of my favourite regions in the world and this felt like an abrupt ending. Though my stint as Coates in Charge was extended as plans had changed; Mark had ended up staying with the van all the way to Sary Tash in Kyrgyzstan. So my role as Head Honcho/Mother Hen was likewise extended. The group took the news well.

We rode away from the bright lights of Murghab, towards what I had described as the worst corrugations (washboard) in the world, only to find that they had gone. In fact the whole road to the border has been upgraded since my previous visit two years ago. This time there was barely 40 miles of gravel, the rest was tarmac, some would say it was debatable that the substance we were riding on was actually tarmac;  and at times it was like a roller coaster with the dips in it causing the bikes to go up and down. Reaching KaraKol, a serene turquoise lake surrounded by snow-topped mountains and screaming out to be photographed. I went down to the lakeshore, where a couple of our riders were getting a closer look. I went along the water’s edge for while, just enjoying the sensation of riding off-road with no trail to follow.

Spotting a couple of kids on a donkey, I headed over to them so that they could get a closer look at Beryl. This is an extremely isolated settlement and I knew they would enjoy seeing a big bike at close quarters. They were fascinated, I got a photo of them on their donkey and then they slid off and invited me to take their place. They then had fun turning the tables on me by taking pictures of me on their donkey. Somehow I’m hoping to get copies of those photos to them as they had so much fun using the camera and basically laughing their heads off at a westerner in full motorbike gear sat on their little donkey.

Further on was a place which gets top billing as the most desolate graveyard in the world. It was as bleak as I remembered it, the only decorations on the grave being yak tails blowing in the wind; it's a haunting image.

The track worsened as it wound upward to the border post, I passed a couple of my riders ( I was still doing the mental arithmetic counting up - 3 Yanks in front, the 3 musketeers ditto, 2 Aussies behind etc). The border post has been extended and there is some major building work going on, we formed a queue at the door to the portakabin that serves as the current immigration post, the guy was demanding $5 "bribes", and everyone was paying up.

I lingered to be the last through, getting a bit concerned that the Aussie riders hadn't yet caught us up and there was no sign of the van either. Eventually I was the last one waiting so I cleared immigration, the police checkpoint and then approached customs. Meanwhile getting distracted by a herd of yak that ambled through the border post, heedless of international boundaries.

A french couple on a tandem approached from the Kyrgyz side of the frontier, she spoke excellent Russian and was able to translate for me in my conversation with the border commander. I was still anxious about the Aussie riders and didn't want to continue wthout them. The rest of the group I directed to continue down the mountain to Kyrgyzstan, to travel in small clusters, "spotting" for one another through the treacherous mud that we'd heard so much about.

But the border commander wasn't keen for me to linger and ordered me off his post, haivng stamped my passport he insisted I was given my marching orders, even though I had tried claiming that one of the missing riders was my sister. This was somewhat improbable as she is very fair, has blue eyes and red hair, but hey, needs must in the international travel world.

Meanwhile Mark had managed to bribe his way back up to our border control from the Kyrgyz side and was ready to assist with our onward travel, I sent the group through then as I slowly put on my gloves etc, time wasting till the last possible minute I heard the reassuring and distinctive sound of the KTM reaching the frontier behind me, they had made it. And beyond I could see the van and so knew that they must be OK.

I set off to catch up with the rest of the riders. We’d been warned to expect treacherous, slippery mud on the route down the other side through the 11 miles of no-man’s land. We were lucky, a run of dry weather meant that the mud had dried out a lot, yes the bikes were sliding at times, and getting perilously close to the precipice, but it wasn’t as bad as we’d feared and we all made it safely down to the smiling Kyrgyz border guards who processed our entry in record time and sent us on our way. Due to the political turmoil that has engulfed Kyrgyzstan in recent times, we were only to have one night in this fantastic country, which is my favourite amongst the 'Stans. We stayed in the small settlement of Sary Tash where accommodation was offered in a homestay or in a yurt. The Aussies tried the yurt and declared it cosy. I opted for the alternative of my tent in the yard, I was still woken in the night by the sound of snoring from the building which housed my erstwhile colleagues.

Our meals were served in a dining yurt, traditionally decorated where we sat cross-legged around a low table.

Yaks and cows roamed through the village, looking at us curiously as we rode by.