Silk Road Adventure

Istanbul Turkey to Xian China

May 4-5

Getting Started in Istanbul

This trip began with two days of hard labor. The Byzantines certainly know their bureaucracy, and provided two days of Customs clearing paperwork and runaround just to get our motorcycles into the city. Have to hand it to them, the bureaucrats have upgraded and automated their processes. The software glitch was finally solved by a high level Byzantine-looking bureaucrat conducting high level bureaucracy for which the Byzantines are known.


May 5-8

Istanbul to Amasya

We left our hotel in Istanbul as a group and maneuvered our way through the old city to the ferry – a high speed double deck catamaran. We cut across a bay in the Sea of Marmara and proceeded through some beautiful switchbacks into the hills south of the Sea of Marmara – beautiful orchards and lakes. My plan was to take a side trip to Pronalkiah – the place where Dad and I landed when we were shipwrecked on the Sea of Marmara. But it turns out that no one has ever heard of the town (no one had ever heard of the shipwreck either). In the 50's my father and I and two others were watching the Mediterranean fleet turn around in the harbor. Dad had built a boat with a reliable US engine on it. The engine block cracked, would not start, and we were swept into the Sea of Marmara and a nasty storm. I wanted to get some pictures, but apparently that will wait for some other day.


May 9

Amasya to Trabzon

This was a glorious day riding over (I believe) the Caucasus Mountains in Turkey running along the Black Sea - approximately 400 miles of beautiful mountain riding curving through switchbacks with long inclines and descents. The roads were carved out of the side of the mountain with rock ledges overhanging the road. Although the roads were well cleared, there was snow, and in one place a 5' snow bank on the side of the road.


May 10-11

Trabzon Turkey to Tblisi Georgia

We left Trabzon in the morning and passed through the bureaucratic border crossing – four different Turkish officials and three different Georgia officials - with 20 motorcycles. There was quite a Byzantine snarl of red tape. No one had to unload, but some suspicious looking young French boys in an old Citron had to unload absolutely everything on to the ground. The border crossing took about 2 hours.


May 12-13

Tbilisi Georgia

I forgot to mention the tour of the Stalin Museum at Gori. Stalin was born in Georgia. The museum traced his life as an early revolutionary, and showed us pictures of his boots and his hat and pictures of him with his various commanders. Omitted from the presentation was that he was the worst mass murderer of modern times, killing 35 million Ukrainians, and one of the most ruthless leaders in history. The Georgians are clearly quite proud of him, and all the bad stuff has been left behind.


May 16-19

Tbilisi Georgia to Baku Azerbaijan

We felt sorry to leave the wonderful people in Tbilisi and fully appreciated the difficult struggle they will have entering a market economy. They have been abandoned by the Russians, and saddled with a heavy hangover from a long period of Russian domination and the lack of a free market. Their education system is substandard, their work attitude is lacking, but they are extraordinary people and worth the effort that the U.S. is putting into the country. They are in a strategic location with respect to getting Central Asian oil into the European market without going through Russia or another currently unfriendly country. The U.S. Agency for International Development has a substantial commitment here in both education and economic development. In addition, there is a military assistance program to bring the Georgian army up to NATO standards, including training a company of Georgians to fight in Iraq.


May 19-23


Turkmenistan borders Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the north and has the difficult neighbors of Iran and Afghanistan to the south. It is eighty percent desert with a population of 5 million, 90% Muslim. The fertility rate is very high – 35% of the population is under 15 years of age and only 4% is over age 65. Economically it has a high per capita gross national product of $8,000 per year (compared to $8,200 for Turkey, $3,300 for Georgia and $4,800 for Azerbaijan) arising from natural gas exports. However, the average annual per capita income is only $1,340, and it is heavily unbalanced. People who work for the government have very high incomes, people who do not work for the government have low incomes, and 60% of the working population is unemployed. A good wage in Turkmenistan is $1,000 per month. The country has the same problem as Azerbaijan and Georgia - it is suffering from a severe Soviet hangover. There is little initiative and very little entrepreneurship in anything other than selling silk and carpets.


May 23-29

More about Turkmenistan

In Turkmenistan, one can fill up their gas tank for about $1.00. I believe gasoline costs a little less than 10 cents per gallon, compared to $8 or $9 a gallon in Turkey. All trucks were filling up at the border before passing into Uzbekistan, and diesel fuel flows all over the road, making it slippery. This is one of the deals that Turkmenbashi (the company's former leader) made with the people – they will essentially have free fuel until about 2030.


May 29-30

Departing Uzbekistan, Transiting Kazakhstan, Arriving in Bishkek Kyrgyzstan and Lake Issyk-Kul Kyrgyzstan

We left early in the morning on the 29th, crossed three borders, and traveled 400 miles. It was a tedious day. Exiting Uzbekistan took four hours; officials searched our duffle bags and panniers. In the United States, the government searches people coming in, not going out. I'm not sure what they had in mind, but they weren't searching other vehicles. Perhaps we looked like a suspicious lot. At the border of Kazakhstan there was a small incident – a money changer short-changed two of our riders by about half. A fight broke out and four people were on the floor wrestling. In the end, some money broke out of a bag and those involved dove for it and got most of their money back. Things are getting rougher as we head further east. The ride through Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan was a little bit like traveling fast through several parts of the United States. The beginning was like Vermont with bright green rolling hills, washed with rain. Later it turned into a Montana landscape, but with more green. Finally it resembled Colorado, with high mountains to the south and to the north. We rode between the mountains on the Great Plains between Chicago and Colorado.


May 30-31


We left the hotel in the Issyk-Kul Kyrgyzstan region and rode into the mountains and foothills that were high summer pastures for shepherds. There was snow high in the mountains. We reached an altitude of about 7,000 feet and then visited a shepherd family. They put on a display of horsemanship that was quite interesting and reminiscent of a book that my father wrote years ago called The Terrible Game. In this book he described a game called "the terrible game of ott (horse)." Among other activities, they slaughtered a goat, cut off its head and hooves and then divided the carcass. Teams tried to get their goat carcass into the other person's goal. There really were no apparent rules, the trick was to pick the carcass up off the ground, tuck the goat under your leg and then gallop away with other people pursuing and grabbing the goat. The leg is stronger than the arm, so possession was the key. There was a lot of pushing and pulling with horses shoving into each other amid shouts of glee. The participants were not like the ones that George Crile witnessed in Afghanistan – grown men with aggressive horses and aggressive ponies. These were younger men, probably the oldest was 30, and the horses were not bred for just this game. When their game was over, three of us took on their winning team and got badly trounced. But it was an absolutely exhilarating exercise, like wrestling in many respects. But it also involved strategy, with the main trick being to separate your attackers from your leader (who is holding your sheep) with your horse, thus driving the defenders away. It was a real workout and I am sore all over with a number of black and blue marks.


June 1-2

Almaty Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan, the land of Borat, is not what the movie depicts. Almaty, formerly called Alma-Ata, is a prospering modern city growing rapidly (approximately 12% in the last three years) with a population of about 1.7 million in a country of perhaps 13 million. It has a gross per capita income of approximately $2,260 (2005 World Bank) compared to Kyrgyzstan of only $400. Although much of its growth has been from oil revenues, the nation also has broader economic underpinnings than some of its central Asian neighbors. The avenues in Almaty are wide; the hotels lavish and western; and there is clearly a lot going on. In Almaty a typical building without walls costs about $500 per square foot – far more than Cleveland, and apparently more expensive than Moscow. The country is run by a strong leader – a former communist in earlier years – but he is progressive, growth oriented and has a reputation of being the best leader of any of the central Asian republics. However, from what I read, there is very little democracy.


June 3-4

Almaty to Zharkent Kazakhstan

On June 3rd we rode through Kazakhstan from Almaty to Zharkent. Part of the ride included a jaunt down into the "Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan", which is small by US Grand Canyon standards, but had an extraordinary number of tourists. (Why would tourists flock to see that canyon when they could see the real Grand Canyon?) We spent the night in a classic old fashioned hotel where the faucet for the shower swung over and doubled as the faucet for the sink. The plumbing was exposed and nothing worked – another Soviet style hotel.


June 5-6

Yining Kuytun and Urumqi China

We left Sasha, our Central Asian guide, when we crossed the border into China. Sasha turned out to be "one of the boys." Sim, our Chinese guide, is more serious, less relaxed, more absolute, and clearly has more pressure working with China than Sasha had with the other republics. We obtained our driver's licenses on June 4th. Unfortunately the licenses expire the day we leave China (but maybe the Ohio State Highway Patrol won't notice).


June 7-9

Ride from Urumqi China

Kentucky Fried Chicken has been a favorite of the group. There are several who are addicted to the fried chicken, the potatoes and just hanging out at the place. Before leaving Urumqi, Dennis and I stopped in to get our grease/fat fix, and we were very amused at a large troop of school children who were being taught how to dance in the middle of the restaurant at 10:00 a.m. – that would be too much for me if I was just getting up and having my morning coffee, but they were cute as hell, and the waitresses were exceptional teachers. The restaurant looked quite similar to the U.S. version, but if there is a rare problem with salmonella in the U.S., I would think it would be epidemic in Urumqi. I ate gingerly with this in mind.


June 10-11

Hami and Dunhuang China

We left our hotel each morning expecting miserably hot Gobi Desert weather, but were pleasantly surprised in both cases. Part of it was due to the high altitude – we reached a height of 6,000 ft. - and the rest was due to uncommonly cool weather. The winds were blowing up from the valleys into the mountains. Except for the second half of the second day, we were on national roads (motorcycles are exempt from paying tolls) with heavy construction improving the conditions. There were thousands of pieces of heavy equipment along the road, and at least 10,000 laborers working on them. China is making an enormous investment into connecting the populous part of China with the lightly populated northwest.


June 13-14

The Ride to Jiayuguan & a Day of Touring

We left in the morning for Jiayuguan, an oasis in the Gobi Desert that originally marked the eastern border of the Chinese Empire. Jiayuguan has a fortress, part of the Great Wall, that stretches between two mountains making it impossible to use the mountain pass without going through the Great Wall entrances. The ride was typical Gobi Desert. We reached over 6,000 ft. The area is barren with little grass and periodic mountains, but literally so much space that the horizon is masked in sand blown by the desert winds.


June 15-19

Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, Wuwei, Lanzhou, Pingliang

My delay in providing this blog has had to do with not being able to get an Internet connection at some of these small hotels. At Dunhuang we stayed at an elaborate hotel shaped like a pagoda with many meetings rooms. Most interesting was the way the dunes of the Gobi Desert rose above the town - Green on one side, blowing sand on the other side. Very dramatic. My sciatica was bothering me so I did not get a chance to see the sights other than to marvel at the height of the dunes rising perhaps 800 ft. above the city. But the group went and saw the Mogao Grottoes, which has the second largest Buda, and is of particular interest because the largest Budas were destroyed by Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan. In the evening they went to ride camels up the sand dunes. After riding the camels to the top of the sand dunes, they sledded down using toboggan contrivances. The next day we rode to Jiayuguan about 300 miles through the Gobi Desert, but through an area sprinkled with oases. Along the way there was a clear line where the oases ended and the Gobi Desert started.