The Caspian Riviera 

From Uzbekistan the Caspian Sea lay between us and our route back to Europe. We could either drive around it or take a 30 hour ferry across it. Driving around it would mean getting a Russian transit visit and driving through Chechnya and the Southern Caucuses. The ferry we had heard could involve a lot of waiting, bureaucracy and was a bit of an old rust bucket. After doing a bit of research we decided to go for the adventure of a cruise across the Caspian. We had had enough of going for visas and had heard that the ferry had become much easier. Our adventure was to start though well before we even boarded the ferry.
From Nukus it was a thousand kilometres across the Uzbek and Kazak desert to Aktau, the port where the ferry left, with not a lot in between. We had met Michael and Cate at various stops as we traveled across Uzbekistan and they were going the same way. Michael had been riding a motor bike but the engine had given up and he had left it in Kazakhstan. Cate was still going strong on hers. As they were going the same way we decided to team up. Michael needed a lift and Cate’s bike only had a seven litre tank. Petrol was scarce in Uzbekistan (diesel even scarcer) and there was not available for large parts of the desert crossing so we would carry a jerry can of petrol and refuel her along the way.
As it was still very hot in Nukus, Cate left very early. We had the benefit of air conditioning in the cab so left at a much more civilised time after breakfast. Later that afternoon we met Cate as a small cafe on the dusty windswept desert steppe. She had been there a few hours waiting with the truck drivers and it looked like the sort of place that a few minutes was way too long.
We decided to push on so that we could camp just short of the border with Kazakhstan which we were planning to cross the next day. “You go first” Cate said “I will be faster and catch you up.” We had agreed that we would stop after 100kms to then travel together. So off we set. The scenery was flat and monotonous and whilst the road was quite good there were some bad pot holed sections. We happily drove the 100kms but Cate hadn’t passed us. Maybe the wind had slowed her down? After half an hour waiting we decided she couldn’t be that slow and turned around. After heading back 50kms we saw Cate. She was riding slowly but thankfully alright. The problem was her clutch was slipping. She had tried to adjust it but it was still slipping. What to do? It was 400kms back to Nukus. She decided she would ride slowly on and we would follow her.
We set up camp that night in the desert. It was nice to be back wild camping after the ancient cities of Uzbekistan. The wind brought the temperature down and we were treated to a magnificent sunset.

The next morning was a short drive/ride to the border. We were a bit early and it hadn’t opened so had to queue. Fortunately tourists were given preference and at every step of the process we were told to go to the front of the queue. Exiting Uzbekistan was easy and Kazakhstan was also going well until it came to doing the temporary import for the truck. First I was sent to the commercial trucking desk. I tried to explain I was not a goods vehicle but initially to no avail. I was told to fill some forms in which made no sense so I kept protesting. Eventually surrounded by customs officers and after a few phone calls they agreed I should be treated the same as a car so I was sent to the car importing desk. Here the man first wanted to see the vehicle, on seeing it he said no you are not a car you are a truck and sent me back to where I had been before. Further calls ensued and yes I was a car. The only problem was the car processing guy still refused to process me despite been instructed to do so. One of the customs officers explained he was the longest serving member of the customs post and wouldn’t listen to anyone. Don’t worry he said it will all be sorted shortly. More calls were made and eventually the head of the customs office came over. Five minutes later I was back in front of the car processing desk. The man was now all friendly and happily processing my documents. It had taken over an hour of discussion but we were glad to be on our way.

On entering Kazakhstan the road took a turn for the worse. It was 80kms to the small town of Beynau and that stretch of road was rough and badly potholed. About half way along we heard a big rattling in our front wheel. We knew what this was. The front disc brake cover had broken off yet again. Note to MAN: you need to redesign these as they really should last more than 10 to 20 thousand kilometres. Pulling to the side of the road we had to remove the front wheel and replace the cover with an old one we had had welded in Tajikistan.  

The bad luck didn’t stop there though. As Cate rode back to meet us she went over a nail and got a puncture in her back tyre. Not having the tyre levers it meant we would need to get it fixed in Beyneu. We took off her wheel but we could not carry her bike on the truck so we left her there on the side of the road in the middle of the desert. At least it was cooler. The plan was Michael would get the tyre fixed in town while we did some other jobs. Cate would try and get a lift into town from another vehicle that could take the bike and if all else failed we would drive back out into the desert with the repaired wheel.
Fortunately Cate managed to get a lift and the tyre was quickly fixed so we all met up in Beyneu. Not wanting to spend the night there we drove out into the desert again. It was easy to pull off and drive away from the road. It was a lovely setting for the evening and again we had a magnificent sunset.

There was only 400kms now to Aktau on mostly good roads with only the occasional rough section. After hitting one of these rough sections we heard a hissing coming from one of our rear tyres. We had a puncture and the tyre was going down fast. We were on a steep hill so I slowly guided the truck down to a level section where we could change the tyre. Having Michael and Cate was a big help as we managed to change the wheel in less than an hour. We hoped this was the end of the run of bad luck. At least Cate’s clutch was holding up.

As we approached Aktau the landscape became less impressive. Aktau is an oil town and we started seeing nodding donkeys and an industrial landscape. We decided to head straight to the port, as who knows we could be in luck and a ferry could be leaving that day. They don’t run to any schedule so you can’t plan in advance we were told they just go when they go. If you ask when it is going they say shortly after it arrives.
Arriving at the ferry office we quickly found the “ticket” office. There was no ferry that day and the next one was in two or maybe three days. Fortunately we could register the vehicles on the ferry list but they would call us closer to the time for us to go back to do all the formalities and to buy the passenger tickets.
With a few days to kill and Aktau not looking that attractive a prospect we found a nice little resort hotel on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Looking one way there was a pleasant sandy beach, looking the other way we were right next to the port! The Caspian Riviera. The most important feature though was it had a lovely pool which Alisha and Lucy had been fantasising about since the heat of Uzbekistan.  

It meant we could spend a relaxing few days. On the second night it was Michael’s birthday and he took us all out to a lovely restaurant for a local meal. The only challenge was deciphering the menu with my appalling Russian.

At the end of the second full day we received a call, we had to go to the port immediately. We thought this was just to buy tickets but it was also to do the procedures for the vehicles to get on the ferry. The process was not straight forward and a combination of my bad Russian, unhelpful officials and no one understanding the process it took a while. There were a number of other travellers taking the ferry too. A couple of other motorbikes and some foot passengers so we eventually worked it out and started to amass a large collection of stamps on our forms. 
I had left Gilly and the girls at the hotel as we knew the ferry would not be leaving until the next day so I was a bit concerned when I was told to take the truck into the port and I couldn’t come back out. Eventually I ascertained that the ferry was not due to arrive until 11 the next morning so I could come back at 8am and complete the formalities. This meant we could have one more relaxing night at the hotel and I could pick up Gilly and the girls. Aktau may not be the most glamorous resort but we had quite enjoyed our short stay there.
On waking up we could see from an App that the ferry was approaching Aktau so we duly arrived at the port at 8am as planned and within an hour we had the truck in the port. It turned out I didn’t need to stay with the truck so I walked back out to Gilly and the other foot passengers to wait. The only question was how long was that going to be?

The Golden Road to Samarkand

When travelling we have stayed in some wonderfully picturesque campsites. It’s safe to say that parking on the street in Samarkand did not fall into that category. The authorities in Uzbekistan require that you register your stay in the country every few nights so you are compelled to use the services of a hotel. Not that the one we were parked outside was that bad, it allowed us to sleep in our vehicle and agreed to register us for a small fee it’s just that it did not have that dramatic wilderness feel of our campsites of the last few weeks.
But then we were not in Samarkand for wilderness but instead we were at the heart of the Silk Road and the heart of the empire that Amir Timur built in the fourteenth century. And at the city’s heart was one of the most impressive sights in Central Asia or the Islamic world, The Registan. Our parking spot may have been a bit noisy but you couldn’t fault its location. We could glimpse one side of The Registan from our window and when we went out that evening we were able to admire it lit up in all its glory.

After having had a wonderful week in the Pamirs we had turned away from the Afghan border and headed further into Tajikistan. As the roads improved so did the volume of the traffic and the crazy overtaking. We thought it was going to be a lot harder to find places to camp but on our first evening we turned down a side road, and after asking the nearby locals if it was ok, parked up for the night a short walk from a reservoir.

The next day we decided to bypass the capital Dushanbe and instead headed back up into the mountains, this time the Fan Mountains to spend a couple of nights by the side of beautiful Iskander-Kul. As we wound our way around the lake we came across the President’s summer house situated in a lovely spot with a view over the lake. He didn’t seem to be in residence so we were sure he wouldn’t mind if we parked for the night just down the road from him.

Heading down from the mountains the lowlands of Tajikistan were hot and the land was been intensively farmed. We headed into the second largest city in the country, Khojand and found a place to park by the river. The parking spot wasn’t much but it came with a bonus, a large car wash so we were able to remove the weeks of dust that had accumulated on the truck. That night we headed into town to sample Tajik kebabs.

The next day was an early start as we were crossing the border into Uzbekistan. We had heard a number of horror stories regarding the crossing and how they could spend hours searching your vehicle and were particularly concerned with any medicines you brought in. Leaving Tajikistan was very easy with the biggest concern being whether we had enjoyed ourselves but the guard on the gate to Uzbekistan was surly and made us wait while he decided whether to open the gate or not. Not a good sign. In the end entry into Uzbekistan was costly but straightforward. The guards did search the truck but not extensively and with good humour. They only gave a passing glance to our extensive medical kit. We would have been through the border in an hour except for the fee for a vehicle of over 6 tonnes to enter the country, a whopping $665. We had heard about this possible charge but had hoped it wouldn’t have applied to us. We spent an hour arguing with the customs officials that surely we must be exempt and it only applied to commercial vehicles. They were very helpful making a few calls to see if there was any way around it. We are fairly sure it was a legitimate charge as they showed us the relevant regulations which we could just about understand with our bad Russian and when we did pay it was at a bank and we received very impressive receipts! There was even a list of 27 countries whose vehicles are exempt and we asked the customs officer to read the list to us. I got hopeful when he started reading a list of EU countries, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany etc but when it came to the UK it was not there. No this was not just a Brexit effect, France wasn’t on the list and nor were Italy or Spain. We heard how a Frenchman had spent 2 days at the border arguing before paying so in the end what could we do but pay. We couldn’t go back as we no longer had a valid visa for Tajikistan.
With that behind us it was time to head to Samarkand and the wonderful night view of The Registan.
Samarkand though is not just about The Registan, it’s a large city and we spent most of our time around the historical part. Gilly and I had visited 21 years ago and whilst the sights were the same the roads around them had changed. It had been smartened up and the roads with the traffic had been moved further away from the sights.  
We had a wonderful mornings sightseeing visiting the Shah-i-Zinfandel, an avenue of grand mausoleums followed by the Bib-Khanym Mosque.

From there though it was time for us to take a full tour of The Registan in the daylight. Whilst it was full of souvenir shops they could not detract from the dramatic beauty of the Madrasahs and of the impressive square they made with the three of them together. It must have been quite a site for the caravans when they rolled into town after weeks in the desert all those centuries ago.

Our final stop was to visit the mausoleum of Amur Timur himself. A magnificent blue tiled domed building underneath which is set his tomb and that of his sons, grandsons and teachers.

One other thing we hadn’t expected in Samarkand was to meet some other overlanders in trucks. The hotel we were parked at was full of long distance cyclists and when we arrived there was another overland truck already parked there. They left the next morning but later that afternoon a Belgian/French family pulled in. As they had 4 children this proved to be great company for Alisha and Lucy even if they only knew a few words of each other languages. We fared much better as Nicholas and Johanna spoke English well. After not having met many overlanders in Asia it was great to have some to talk too about the journey ahead, they were heading to Australia so we each had tips to share on the journey in front.
We had two lovely evenings with them going out to enjoy local Uzbek food. And on the last night we all had to come back for one last view of the simply magnificent Registan.

A Stone’s Throw from Afghanistan

This past week we have been literally “a stone’s throw” from Afghanistan, to prove it we stopped the truck and tried it out at the river which represented the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Steve got his stone onto the opposite riverbank but the rest of us didn’t manage so far. We were just across the Pamir River, running into the Panj River, in Tajikistan. The Wakan Corridor is a narrow strip of Afganistan that was designed to separate British India from Imperial Russia during the “Great Game” era. The road continued along the starkly beautiful valley for another 640km with Afghanistan just across the raging river torrent. 

We left Kyrgyzstan earlier in the week at what must be one of the most remote border crossings we have done for a while. The road started off bad and got far worse as we crossed the Kyzyl-Art Pass between the countries. Washed out bridges, mud slides and huge potholes were hard to concentrate on as our eyes were constantly drawn upwards to the lofty peaks still shrouded in snow in the height of summer. We said goodbye to our last mountain sheep statue on a plinth, a frequent roadside attraction in Kyrgyzstan, and gingerly made our way down the other side. With so few people using the border the Tajik soldiers had to be roused from their beds to process the many documents we needed to get into the country. The contrast couldn’t have more different, while the Kyrgyz side was green, it felt like we had transited to the moon with the stark lunar landscape on the Tajik side. 

In a panorama with so few people it wasn’t hard to find a spot to camp in, however an hour or so after we had set up camp an almost impossible-to-break, soviet built, small UAZ truck approached us. They wanted to cross the river, swollen with melt water, to go to their summer camp but were concerned about getting stuck. Could we pull them out them out if it all went wrong? We were pleased to get back to our chicken stew on the fire, when they made it though. We were even more pleased for them, when washing up, to see them crossing back safely over heavily laden with yak dung patties for fuel waving triumphantly. 

The bazaar at Murghab was entirely constructed of old shipping containers, a motley collection in the middle of nowhere but filled with friendly souls many wearing the traditional Kygryz felt hats. The scenery as we drove through the valleys of the Pamir Mountains was otherworldly with screes slopes of every colour of the rainbow, I hadn’t even know that you could get purple rocks. Above these were the constant presence of high peaks cloaked in white. That night we took a detour a few kilometres off the road to sleep the night beside Lake Bulunkul. When we awoke in the morning, Steve and I snuck out while the girls slept on to climb the nearby hill and admire the still, mirror-like lake reflecting the surrounding mountains. 

Although the main road continued through Pamirs, we wanted to take a side route across the Kargush Pass towards the Tajik border overlooking the Wakan Corridor of Afganistan. It was a dramatic drive with just the odd marmot as company. We were hoping our special permit was valid at the rough two man army checkpoint on the other side, there had been some confusion at an earlier checkpoint with our half-forgotten Russian about whether we would be allowed onwards, we didn’t fancy the drive back over the pass. We were allowed to continue on the single lane dirt road which was often cut out of the sheer cliffs walls of the valley. Between the army post and the first village of Langar, there was a 70km section that was completely uninhabited. 

You know you have found a good camp spot when you stop for lunch somewhere and decide to spend the night. With no wind and bathed in sunshine, it was warm enough to sit outside and admire the stark walls of the canyon changing colour as the light shifted. Pulled off on an old section of the road, far above the rushing waters, we saw one other vehicle that whole afternoon. In the mountains the weather is always changeable and after a couple of hours we were snuggled inside listening to the wind howling.

The glimpses we got of Afghanistan, so tantalisingly close, were fascinating. Like the Tajik side, the villages were limited to patches of green clinging perilously to the impossible steep mountainsides. We’d been delighted to learn from the Kygyz herders we met that they use the word “caravan” for a group travelling together. Now here on the Afghan side we saw a caravan, just as how you would imagine it from the Silk Road days, with camels and horses laden with goods packing up at mud brick house. The road was pretty bad on the Tajik side, damaged by spring floods and geological activity, but at least it was continuous. On the Afghani side between a few small hamlets it was still being built, a few men chipping away at the sheer rock face with basic picks, and I assume some dynamite, but thankfully not when we were driving past. Compared with the mental image you get when you think of Afghanistan, it looked very serene and arcadian. 

Where’s the next bit of road!?!

The rest of the week was spent slowly, and very bumpily, making our way along the 640km of the Pamir Valley. To the left of us, the river gradually swelling from a grey gushing stream to a scary looking muddy brown torrent. As normal as it is for this time of year, as more meltwaters join from the mountains every kilometre. It must have been pretty high this year as the swirling waters crashed against the sides of the canyon, flooding the banks and we saw it had even washed away some of the road on the Afghan side. 

One of our favourite spots was in the widest part of the valley, where the river had spread out and slowed to a less alarming flow. We found a spot on the riverbank way off the road, surrounded by purple flowering bushes and a partially separated branch of the river that had warmed in the sun. Time for a family hair wash and a whole body dip for the bravest of us all (Lucy). Our hot water heater tank broke way back in Thailand and these last couple of months in the mountains have been painful at times, so we were thankful for the slightly warmer wash.

In Khorog, the pleasant main town of the Pamirs Steve went off to find a welder for our disc-brake covers, a reoccurring problem every 10,000 km. Asking some workmen demolishing a house, they took him to another building site and welded the 2 covers. They refused any payment at all, even money for cigarettes, with a “Welcome to Khorog. ” The next day Steve replayed the karma by helping a couple of local guys who were subjecting their poor tiny Chevrolet Spark to hundreds of kilometres of roads that were challenging for a hardcore 4×4, with only a screwdriver for a repair kit. Unsurprisingly their steering rods had gone awry. On a road like that, I’m not sure they were going to make their final destination without another roadside stop, hopefully someone else nearby will have more than a screwdriver. 

Driving up the narrow and steep Bartang Valley to the north, hoping to do a short trek, I lost my nerve and made Steve turn round when we were already 16 km in. The river took up the whole width of the valley, flooding any possible place where we might camp, and was lapping the edge of the low track. The fast flowing torrent wouldn’t look out of place in a disaster movie, especially in such a steep-sided, narrow canyon. Only the 3 villages we passed through, tiny pockets of green in the brown bare valley, seemed high enough out of the waters. The villagers were working hard in the short summer, planting and nurturing their crops in every inch of green. However, they didn’t seem at all perturbed by the amount of water, smiling and waving as we passed back through. I stuck with my overlanding mantra, “Always go with your instincts.” Seeing the floods, we decided that the trek didn’t look at all attractive. As it started with a valley crossing in a metal box suspended across the swollen river a bit like cable car, just big enough for 4 – definitely like a start of a disaster movie!

It was almost dark when we eventually found a spot off the road with no rock falls above and away from edge of the cliff dropping off into the river. In the end the only spot we could find was at an steep angle just a few metres off the road. We moved on early the next morning and drove for a couple of hours to find a flat spot for school, it’s hard to concentrate on your sums when your pencil keeps on rolling off the table. The temperature was rising as we finished school and lunch and we were set for the afternoon of bumping along the next few kilometres, when Steve heard the tell tale “hiss” – a slow puncture. The flat meadow away from the dusty road, isn’t a bad place to spend the afternoon getting all sweaty and dirty. It took a couple of hours to get back on the road. Thankfully a carload of friendly guys, happy to show off their masculinity, came along just at the right point. Helping us lift the 120kg tyre in its rack back onto position onto the back of the truck, a less than one minute job but the one thing the two of us can’t do on our own. 

Both the Pamirs and the Wakan Corridor amazed us with their stark natural beauty and sense of remoteness. The constant dichotomy at looking up in awe at the mountains and down in horror at the road and the rushing river below us, was thrilling. We loved being out in the wilds; camping properly again; cooking outside; and the joy of the open road. But suddenly and almost unexpectedly it was over, after hundreds of bone jarring and shock absorber breaking kilometres, we hit Chinese laid smooth tar 50 km before the last pass. We cruised our way through villages, rather than squeezing our way through avenues of mulberry trees, and easily passed the double-length China bound articulated lorries (I kid you not!) we had been praying not to meet on the tightest corners. The river then veered off to the left at the bottom of the pass, as we headed up and onwards to the hot dry hills of central Tajikistan. Pamirs – we will miss you.