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Windhoek, Namibia; KM 40,120 to KM 43,270 May 27, 2009

Posted by marcusbest in Uncategorized.
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Jesse, reborn

Jesse, reborn

Jesse’s third incarnation is approaching my dream bike. She’s becoming a truly magnificent machine.

a typical Namibian highway

a typical Namibian highway

LED lights and long exposures

LED lights and long exposures

Sossusvlei dunes

Sossusvlei dunes

dune climbing

dune climbing

My younger brother got married in Texas, and I surprised the Best family by showing up a day before the wedding in Abilene. Just seeing the looks on their faces was worth making the trip, and I’m glad I was able to return home for a week. Though it was a bit like a dream seen through jet-lagged eyes, connecting with friends and family after such a long time was priceless.

Cape Cross seal colony

Cape Cross seal colony

Because many of the visas I need for west Africa must be issued before entering the countries, I must spend time in major cities to apply and wait for visas. Otherwise, I would bypass them completely. Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, is clean and orderly, influenced significantly by the German colonial period. But crime in the city has risen significantly in the last few years, and most tourists spend their days confined behind the walls and electric fences that surround their lodges, hotels, and hostels. Having been warned of the serious dangers by locals and fellow travelers, we walk the city streets with a pretended confidence and purpose, carefully sizing up all suspicious pedestrians, prepared to break into a full sprint at any moment. The possibility of violence and crime is ever-present, both here and in the cities of South Africa, and it creates a tense paranoia and unease that I haven’t felt anywhere else in Africa. I’m anxious to get back into the countryside of Namibia and back into central Africa, back on the road.

Namibian sunrise

Namibian sunrise

Cape Town; KM 36,920 to KM 40,120 April 11, 2009

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It seems like such a short time ago that Cape Town seemed so far away. I often judeged distances traveled on the length of continents. I would occasionally unfold my massive map of Africa and compare the distance covered in two weeks to the distance all the way down to Cape Town, which achieved an almost mythical status. “When I reach Cape Town, I’ll be able to buy good tires, arrange visas, eat good fish and chips, swim in the Atlantic, patch my ragged jeans and ripped tent, tour the vineyards. When I reach Cape Town . . . “ Now that I’m here and have done all these things, Cape Town will have to be replaced with another mythical city, a point to look forward to, another dot on another map. Madrid? Munich? Edinburgh? Dublin?

Cape Town sunset

Cape Town sunset

Crossing from Tanzania into Malawi was a significant transition. It felt like I was leaving many difficulties behind. The Tanzanian side of the border was crowded with aggressive money changers, street kids trolling for spare change or the last sips of anyone’s soda. Just a hundred yards further, on the Malawi side, there was no one but a smiling border guard welcoming me to his country. With every Malawian I spoke to, my mood lightened, and I soon discovered the friendly and easy atmosphere for which Malawi is known. Meandering down the quiet shores of Lake Malawi, across into Zambia, and southward to Botswana, I noted the gradual transition to a more stable, modern, and tourist-friendly Africa. Backpacker hostels set up for overland trucks crammed with young tourists cropped up at regular intervals, complete with western bars, swimming pools, ping-pong and pool tables, and internet connections. It seemed that I was approaching a new world, seeing another side of Africa.

There is a walking trail along a cliff just opposite the face of Victoria Falls. At the beginning of this trail, tourists can rent rain ponchos, as they are sure to get soaked to the bone by the spray without some kind of rain gear. The trail comes to a point that juts out into the blinding shower of water. I stood there with my eyes closed for half an hour, feeling the deep surging rumble of the falls and the torrential spray coming from not only above, but from all sides and up from the chasm below.

Finally in South Africa, I headed towards Johannesburg to meet up with old friends. I spent a couple days with Martin, whom I met two years ago in the mountains of central Chile. He has been riding his motorcycle around the world for a total of five years now and will continue up the east coast of Africa to his home in Switzerland. Danny, a friend of mine from back home, happened to be filming a television commercial near Johannesburg, and our trips luckily coincided, so we spent a few days together. Having spent so much time in transit, away from friends and family, reuniting with old friends was a much-needed dose of solidarity.

I continue to be amazed at the generosity of strangers. A little ways south of Johannesburg, I made a U-turn to ask a group of fellow BMW riders for directions and ended up spending the next 24 hours as their honored guest. They fed me, put me up in a historical bed and breakfast, and even provided me with contacts of friends and family along the coast with whom I could stay on the way to Cape Town. These boisterous friends and brothers showed me true Afrikaner hospitality, and that night at the bar, after countless games of pool, a spontaneous arm-wrestling match, and a slightly off-key singing of the national anthem, they suggested that turning around to ask them for directions may have been the worst U-turn I had ever made, but I think it was certainly one of the best.

The Kingdom of Lesotho

The Kingdom of Lesotho

After passing through the breathtaking landscapes of Lesotho and the Drakensburg, I traced the Wild Coast and Garden Route of the southern coast, meeting many fellow travelers along the way with whom I hope to reunite when I reach Europe. And though I’m trying to trim down my load as much as possible, I’ve gained a new companion. A German friend I met on the road leant me his guitar, knowing that he may never see it again. Hopefully, I’ll be able to return it to him in Germany, though most likely with a few new scratches and dings.

I expected that once I reached Cape Agulhas, the southern-most point of Africa, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, I would feel a great burden lifted, a massive sense of accomplishment having achieved one of the major goals of this trip, as I did when Jesse and I reached the southernmost tip of South America. But, in reality, it felt like just another day, another stopping point among so many that deserved taking notice. Maybe it was because the tip of South America truly feels like the end of the world, wild, isolated, cold, truly separated from civilization, whereas Cape Agulhas is just another check mark on the tourist route along the peaceful coast of South Africa. Tourists milled about in khaki sunhats, sat on picnic blankets watching the ocean. I wheeled Jesse up onto the concrete platform that marks the southernmost point and had someone snap a photo of us. Unfortunately, my faithful little camera suddenly chose to quit working for the momentous occasion, and the following photo is the result. Strangely enough, it started working again half an hour later.

Me and Jesse at the southernmost point of Africa

Me and Jesse at the southernmost point of Africa

Right now, Jesse is piled into 5 milk crates; her broken frame lies naked on the floor in the corner of the shop. Over the next two weeks, I’ll meticulously clean each part, repair what is broken, and modify whatever needs improving. The end result will be a completely different motorcycle, a reincarnation better suited for the challenges of West Africa.

taking Jesse apart

taking Jesse apart

It’s comfortable here in South Africa, and the wildness and remote conditions of the trip up until now seem distant and removed in this oasis of “1st world” living. Though I appreciate flush toilets and drinkable tap water, I look forward to returning to the challenges of central Africa.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the updates, and I appreciate your patience with my sporadic posting. I’ll probably be in Cape Town for another two weeks at least, waiting for my Angolan visa to be processed, and I will head northward as soon as I can. This concludes Part I of the journey. Part II, The Return, to follow.

Malawi; KM 31,310 to 36,920 February 27, 2009

Posted by marcusbest in Uncategorized.
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red: where I've been, blue: where I'm going

red: where I've been, blue: where I'm going

I feel the bottom of the continent approaching. I have spent so much time looking at maps, unfolding and refolding to display the relevant section, tracing my way along a seemingly endless route westward, then southward. For the first time when I look at where I am and where I’m going, I can see that my destination is clearly within reach, the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic: Cape Town.

orphans at Nazareth Orphanage. Masaka, Uganda

orphans at Nazareth Orphanage. Masaka, Uganda

Orphan at Nazareth Orphanage; Masaka, Uganda

Orphan at Nazareth Orphanage; Masaka, Uganda

Seven years ago, I spent some time in Rwanda at an orphanage run by one of my heroes, Rosamund Carr. She was an American who lived in Africa for over fifty years. After the genocide in Rwanda, she converted her flower plantation to an orphanage. She had always wanted children of her own, and soon she had over a hundred. I had hoped to return to Rwanda to see Ms. Carr again, but she passed away two summers ago. Even so, walking through the gardens next to her home and spending time with her children was almost like having a conversation with her.

Ms. Carr's home in Mugongo, Rwanda

Ms. Carr's home in Mugongo, Rwanda

From the sketchy information I could gather about Burundi, rebel activity in the north might still be a problem. The Burundian consulate in Kigali said driving the main roads would be safe, as long as I was within a secure town by 4:00 PM. Strangely enough, after all the nervous anticipation of rebel activity, a few days later I found myself having breakfast with a commander of the FLN, the principal rebel force in Burundi, at a hidden camp in the hills outside the capital. I had been staying with a Burundian NGO worker in Bujumbura who seemed to have friends in every corner of the capital, and he arranged the visit to the rebel camp, explaining that there was a ceasefire in effect, and peace negotiations were underway. After breakfast with the commander, a young boy put a plate of bananas and avocadoes on the table between us. I had asked a lot of questions about the FLN, and my Burundian friend translated the answers. The commander had been wearing dark sunglasses since I met him, and he removed them for the first time as he addressed me directly in a serious tone. He only had one eye; the left socket was slightly caved in and covered by a torn flap of skin. He questioned me in Kirundi, the local language, and my mind raced trying to imagine what he was asking: “Why are you so interested in our organization?”, “Were you blindfolded when you were lead to our camp?”, “Who’s government are you working for?”. The translation came after a nervous pause: “The commander wants to know if avocadoes grow where you live.” Needless to say, many of my preconceived notions about rebels were dispelled that day.

FLN rebels

FLN rebels

U.S. Army?

U.S. Army?

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unlikely revolutionary

unlikely revolutionary

The road south from Burundi through Tanzania passes through a thick lowland jungle, roughly following the eastern coast of the massive Lake Tanganyika, on the shores of which Stanley spoke the famous words, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” On a map, the road seems benign: a solid, thick white line, clearly the most direct route to Malawi. One section of this thick white line is crossed through with perpendicular blue stripes, a detail easily gone unnoticed when planning a route in the comfort of a hotel thousands of miles away. But the evening before attempting this route, sitting in a café listening to the drumming of torrential rains pounding on the tin roofs, watching the muddy streets turn into brown rivers, I referred to the map’s legend and noted for the first time that those little blue perpendicular stripes mean: “ impassable during the rainy season,” of which I am in the middle.

the road from Kigoma to Mbeya, Tanzania

the road from Kigoma to Mbeya, Tanzania

The next few days were difficult, but the road wasn’t “impassable”. We made it through wet, caked in mud, and with a failing rear shock and a frame cracked in three places. I welcomed the Malawian asphalt, and with the frame held together with bailing wire, we’ll limp our way south to Cape Town, where I’ll catch my breath and prepare Jesse for the long ride to the north.

Kampala, Uganda; KM 27,420 to KM 31,310 February 3, 2009

Posted by marcusbest in Uncategorized.
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Sudanese girl

Sudanese girl

roadside rest stop in the Sudanese desert

jugs of water at a roadside rest stop in the Sudanese desert

the ceiling of a church in Gonder

Angels: the ceiling of a church in Gonder

Ethiopia is a country of contrasts and extremes. In a quiet garden surrounding an ancient Orthodox Christian church, a gentle elder described the symbolism of the Biblical scenes painted on the walls of the church. The morning spent with him was one of the most tranquil of my entire trip. Later that day, as I drove away from a group of kids that had gathered around my bike, the kids threw rocks at me, hitting the back of my helmet and breaking a rear-view mirror. Even the roads reflect the contrast; in the north, a smooth, curvy, mountain road with incredible views of the countryside was a joy to drive, while in the south, a steep rocky pass turned into the most difficult driving yet, and I spent an hour and a half wrestling the bike through 10 kilometers of slimy black mud.

quagmire

quagmire

I was amazed to see fertile valleys in the north and huge herds of healthy cattle and goats, but the people tending the fields and livestock live in complete poverty and rather than a smile and a wave, I was ofter greeted with a needy open hand and a desperate expression asking me to give anything I could.

mother and child, central Ethiopia

mother and child, central Ethiopia

central Ethiopia

central Ethiopia

We are from opposite worlds. My naive wish is to try and find a connection with the farmer I pass on the road, through common interest, experience, hopes. But I doubt he cares anything about me as an individual; he sees me only as a possibility to improve his miserable situation. He will ask for money to feed his family. Anything will help: my shoes, a bar of soap, even an empty plastic water bottle. Should I give him a dollar, more than a day’s wages? Is this just a cheap way to relieve my badgering conscience while supporting an endless cycle of begging, establishing separation and isolation between the roles of “those who have” and “those who have not”? Will a dollar make any difference? What about the other fifty people who will ask me for money today? On the other hand, how can I be so callous, to be surrounded by such need and give nothing. I am a millionaire in a long, black limousine pushing its way through the masses, through the crowded streets of the slums. I watch the people through darkly tinted windows, but I will never comprehend or be able to relate to their experience.

inside and Ethiopian castle, Gonder

inside an Ethiopian castle, Gonder

my three amigos

my three amigos

Dennis

Dennis

Karl-Heinz

Karl-Heinz

I teamed up with Dennis, Jurgen, and Karl-Heinz, and we traveled through Sudan and northern Ethiopia together. It was good to have others with whom to share the experiences, to choke on the same powdery dust, to drink a cold beer in the evening, a hot macchiato in the morning.

Jurgen

Jurgen

Simien Mountains

Simien Mountains

scouts, Simien Mountains

scouts, Simien Mountains

museum guard, Axum

museum guard, Axum

pilgrim, Lalibela

pilgrim, Lalibela

St. George's Church, carved out of stone, Lalibela

St. George's Church, carved out of stone, Lalibela

After a few days in Adis Ababa, I continued alone to the south of Ethiopia, where many tribes have continued with traditional ways despite exposure to the western world. Normally when I stopped on the side of the road, I was soon completely surrounded by curious onlookers. After a while, this became really annoying: people tugging on loosely packed items, poking at my jacket, passing around my helmet for everyong to try on, flipping the switches on the handlebars, and all the while I am trying to get directions to the next village while keeping an eye on all my belongings. I was relieved to see that most of the people among these primitive tribes were more or less indifferent to my presence. They were curious but were much less intrusive, watching from a distance and rarely asking for anything from me, except occasionally a photo, for which they expected payment. I distinctly remember one Are man, tall and statuesque with incredibly broad shoulders, watching me out of the corner of his eye from the edge of the crowd that had gathered around me and my bike. He wore various bands of copper and beaded straps around muscular arms, a tightly wrapped, short skirt of horizontally striped cloth, and a worn tank top. His hair was tightly braided against his head, and the braids continued and fell down the back of his neck. His nose was wide, and he watched me carefully with keen almond-shaped eyes, giving him an Asian appearance. His calm confidence contrasted sharply with the chaos around me; the towndwellers chattered loudly, gawking open-mouthed. Just before I pulled away I caught his eye and winked. He grinned ever so slightly and winked back, an image that kept me company for the day’s drive southward.

Hamer woman, near Turmi

Hamer woman, near Turmi

journal entry, July 25-

The rains are coming, the Hamer have gathered their things, piled heavy loads onto the backs of the women, and are returning to their villages after a market Monday. The women, draped in intricately beaded goatskins and colorful, broad necklaces and headbands have tapered bowl haircuts, tightly twisted locks coated with rust-colored soil paste. Their girlish hairstyles and timid smiles give them, even the older women, youthful appearances. A heavy leather and metal collar worn around the neck indicates that a woman is a first wife; the solid metal horse-shoe style means she is the second or third. I imagine that an entire life history could be discerned by an oufit by someone who knows. Bracelets, armbands, shelled belts, legbands, hairstyles; they all have meanings. How dull our traditional clothing, how shallow their stories. A ring on a finger, the occasional tattoo that may possess some personal obscure significance but is lost to a communal understanding. I wonder about the scars on the backs of the women. The men lean on thin, strong sticks, a third leg extending from the supporting juncture of the back of the upper thigh and a bent arm. They carry tiny wooden stools to sit on and often wear homemade bandoliers of little pockets around the waist carrying who knows what. After a vicious game of fooseball and a cool beer, I sit and watch the marketplace empty, the smell of rain in the air but no rain. The squeak of a makeshift wheelbarrow, idle conversation from the shopkeeper and his friends next door, the monotonous tone of a plastic whistle blown by a wandering child, the thud from the fooseball table, the rattle of the ball.

Hamer girl, near Turmi, Ethiopia

Hamer girl, near Turmi, Ethiopia

I’m back in familiar territory now. I visited East Africa seven years ago, so I will move quickly, having seen many of the more interesting sites on my previous trip. From Uganda, I plan to head south through Rwanda and possibly Burundi, passing through Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, and Botswana before reaching South Africa.

Till next time-
Marcus

Khartoum, Sudan; KM 22,300 to KM 27,420 January 4, 2009

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In Syria, I met Tim, another America traveling by motorcycle and going in the same direction as I, so we headed to the Mediterranean together. After so much time on the road alone, it was good to have a friend with whom I could share experiences, stories, and the joys and challenges of traveling in the Middle East. Syria continued to surprise me with spectacular castles and ruins and quaint mountain villages.

Crac de Chevalier

Crac de Chevalier

Crac de Chevalier

Crac de Chevalier

The desert in the east seemed to go on and on, and by the time we reached Palmyra, we weren’t too far from Iraq. Tim had a mechanical scare in southern Syria that ended up being a failed rear wheel bearing, which we had fixed in the town of Bosra. My electrical problem would begin a few days later in Jordan, and repairing it would have to wait for Cairo and spare parts from the states.

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Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra, Syria

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After bobbing in the super salty waters of the Dead Sea in Jordan, we weaved our way down the King’s Highway, stopping in spectacular Petra for a couple days. In contrast to the typical, sometimes annoying approach of locals who work among tourists, the Bedouins seemed to actually enjoy spending time with us, rather than just trying to extract our money. Many of the men had long hair, unlike other men I’d seen in the Middle East, and their eyes and faces were dark and handsome, accenting their often beautifully white smiles.

the Dead Sea

the Dead Sea

Petra, Jordan

Petra, Jordan

Petra, Jordan

Petra, Jordan

More Bedouin hospitality welcomed us to the deserts of Wadi Rum, and we camped where the king of Jordan had camped a week before, with a perfect view of both sunrise and sunset.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Baghdad Cafe

Baghdad Cafe

Tim and I parted ways in Aqaba, at the very southern tip of Jordan. I took a ferry across the Red Sea to Egypt and raced across the Sinai to Cairo, where I would finally meet Laura. She had been on her own adventure in southeast Asia for the previous two months and came to spend a couple weeks with me in Egypt. My introduction to Cairo was during Ede, a major Muslim celebration for which many goats are eaten. Hundreds of livestock were held in makeshift pens along the crowded streets while others were being butchered on the sidewalks nearby, and the gutters literally ran with blood.

Laura, her camel, and Mahmoud

Laura, her camel, and Mahmoud

the pyramids of Ghiza

the pyramids of Ghiza

Ghiza pyramid

Ghiza pyramid

Cairo was chaotic and noisy, but the streets weren’t as dirty and the touts weren’t as obnoxious as I had anticipated. Laura and I stayed downtown for a few days, and fell into a pleasant routine; mango juice at one busy street corner, a sandwich from another, and our favorite: melt-in-your-mouth pastries from the shop down the street. My visas to the Sudan and Ethiopia were granted with surprising efficiency, and while waiting for parts for Jesse to arrive, we took a train ride down to Luxor, where we rented a tiny motorbike and explored incredible tombs and temples. After seeing the main sights, we escaped the crowds and were invited into tombs under excavation by the tomb guard. We scrambled through a labyrinth of rubble-lined passageways past fragments of pottery, and the face-down body of an Egyptian noble (legs not included), finally emerging in daylight once again, dusty and wide-eyed. We even got to pick up a surprisingly heavy embalmed lower leg, still intricately wrapped in linen.

Karnak Temple, Luxor

Karnak Temple, Luxor

Noble's tomb, Luxor

Noble's tomb, Luxor

I was lucky enough to meet a group of ex-pats in Cairo, Sammy, Darrel, and his wife Sue. I can’t thank them enough for their generosity. I used their shop and tools, and we stayed with Darrel and Sue, who prepared a remarkable meal every evening. We even had massive sirloins from Australia one night, the steak dinner I had been dreaming about for months. The parts for Jesse arrived from the states (thanks, Robert!), and two days later, she was back together and ready to go. After a tearful goodbye, Laura returned to the U.S. and I drove south for fifteen hours straight, slept for an hour in a banana grove, and drove another two in the morning to arrive in Aswan just in time to buy a ticket for the ferry to the Sudan.

On the ferry, I met up with Carl-Heinz, Dennis, and Jurgen, who had traveled by motorcycle from Europe. After getting our bikes out of Sudanese customs, we drove south, following the Nile, towards Khartoum. I have heard that the Sudanese are the friendliest people on the planet, and I can’t argue the claim. I will always remember the firm handshakes, the smiles, the embraces, and the laughter of Sudanese women.

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My original plan was to drive down one side of Africa and up the other, but the plan has always been a very loose one, and now that I’m in the part of the world I’ve most been looking forward to, I may slow down rather than speed up and visit these people and places rather than simply drive by them. Maybe I’ll take a boat from South Africa to Senegal or Europe to save time and avoid the rains of central West Africa. But I’ll take things one step at a time, and now I am in the Sudan, a long ways from Capetown.

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Happy New Year to all! December 27, 2008

Posted by marcusbest in Uncategorized.
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Just a quick note to let you all know that I’m in Cairo and will be heading south today in hopes of catching a ferry up the Nile to Sudan on Monday. I’ll catch up on the log as soon as I can, and there’s lots to tell, so stay tuned. Hope you all had a wonderful Christmas.

Marcus

Aleppo, Syria; KM 18,200 to KM 22,300 November 22, 2008

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Khiva, Uzbekistan

Khiva, Uzbekistan

Near Khiva, Uzbekistan, one can find the melting earthen structures of acient Khorezm, some standing alone in the bleak landscape, others hidden among present-day villages. Some of the fortresses were built over 2,000 years ago.

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I was surprised to find the ground within the walls of one of the more remote fortresses covered with pottery shards.

 

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Some of the ruins were not easy to get to.

After leaving the impressive architecture of central Uzbekistan, I crossed the barren western landscape to Moynak, which was a fishing village on the banks of the Aral Sea before the Soviets decided to turn the deserts into fields of cotton and needed the lake’s water for irrigation. The lake is now a fraction of its original size and the shoreline has receded out of sight, abandoning the fishing boats in the desert.

 

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My good fortune continues to precede me. Many travelers have waited a week or more for the ferry to arrive in Aktau, Kazakhstan to carry them across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan. There is no schedule, no way of knowing in advance when the ship will come in, and spending a week in Aktau is an expensive proposition, as the cheapest hotel charges $60 for the most basic room. It’s a large and dusty oil and gas town, and the roads weave around, over and underneath a maze of huge pipes, gas lines, and railroad tracks that lead to refineries billowing heavy smoke and steam. As luck would have it, I pulled into the ferry ticket office just a few hours before the ferry arrived, so I had to spend only one night in Aktau. While trying to negotiate a cheaper hotel room, a sympathetic hotel employee offered to let me sleep in the basement of the hotel for free: perfect. While waiting to board the ferry, a guy I met in the parking lot took me to his house nearby, fed me a huge breakfast and let me take the first shower I’d had in many days. I spent hours in the café on the ferry listening to the conversations of moustached Turkish truck drivers sipping tea. A lively stand-up debate broke out after I asked who made the better truck: Volvo or Kamaz, and even those who had quietly sat in the corners joined in. Somehow, an argument started up about whether it was Abraham Lincoln or George Washington who wore a beard, and no one had any dollars to know for sure. I offered my position on the matter, but somehow my opinion didn’t seem to have any effect on the debate. After rolling off the ferry in Baku, I was granted only a three-day temporary import for the motorcycle, so I sped across Azerbaijan, watched closely by the ever-present Azeri police.

a crumbling fortification in southwest Georgia

a crumbling fortification in southwest Georgia

I was in Georgia for only a few days, but it made a huge impression on me, and of the countries I’ve been through on this trip, Georgia is one I would want to revisit. The ancient crumbling neighborhoods of Tbilisi contrast sharply with the modern shops and sassy dress of the young ladies. Tbilisi has attitude; you can sense an independent pride, a sense of cultural identity that is very different from that of Central Asia. The food is particularly unique, carb and calorie loaded, and delicious. But many of the older faces are worn, and the bodies are those of survivors who have struggled for a lifetime. There seems to be discontent just below the surface, and I witnessed two screaming arguments in the streets and heard lots of angry horn honking. I was reminded of Serbia, another part of the world where upheaval and violent change have been a constant throughout history, a geographical point where religions, ethnicities, languages, and cultures mix and collide.

eastern Turkey

eastern Turkey

I spent a few days in the bustling city of Gaziantep, Turkey, and ordered three new Pirellis to replace the balding tires that have carried me from Seattle. I stumbled upon the best baklava I’ve ever tasted, freshly baked in small shops scattered throughout the town, and filled with a delicious pistachio paste. Looking at the rooftops of the city from a high vantage point, the city is uniform in color; most of the multi-storied buildings are tan or grayish, and a stillness blankets the scene. But at ground level, the streets surge with activity. The first floor of every building is divided into small shops that open to the sidewalk, selling trinkets, tools, fabric, appliances, tires, meat, jewelry, and everything else a consumer can consume. The haphazard streets and alleyways converge on ancient marketplaces where spices have been sold and traded for centuries under the towering minarets of nearby mosques. If you step into any of these shops, you’ll be treated to yet another glass of tea and plenty of lively conversation, even if you don’t understand a word of it.

The shops in each neighborhood usually specialize in a certain commodity or service, and the streets around my hotel were lined with automotive repair shops. When I started to do some minor repairs on my motorcycle, mechanics and body repair specialists filtered from their shops, interested in my project, and offered their assistance for free. While I put a new rear tire on the wheel, one guy replaced missing bolts in the frame while others reshaped and riveted my badly damaged aluminum sidecase. I would like to think that Americans would be as helpful and accommodating to a foreigner as the Turkish were to me.

 

Gaziantep, Turkey

Gaziantep, Turkey

 

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Syria is one of the friendliest countries I’ve visited so far. Syrians seem genuinely interested in me and my country, and though many may not agree with the decisions  made by my country’s government, they understand the difference between American people and American policy. In most countries I’ve been to, when locals don’t speak much English, the default phrase is “Where are you from?” Here in Syria, the English word I hear more than any other is “Welcome”, and I truly feel welcome in this country.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and though I may not be gorging on turkey and dressing this Thanksgiving, I will definately be giving thanks.

Marcus

Khiva, Uzbekistan; KM 15,270 to KM 18,200 November 3, 2008

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 I’m finally on the move again. After spending much more time in Kyrgyzstan than planned, I’m nearing the Caspian sea. With Uzbekistan, I’ve begun to see a shift; in the language, in the food, in the architecture, from a soviet-influenced central Asia to a more historically rooted Islamic society. Yesterday, I stood beneath a massive towering minaret, the only structure in Bukhara that Genghis Khan deemed worthy of preserving during his devastating campaign across Asia. I wonder what were his thoughts as he stood beneath it.

 

Kalon Minaret; Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Kalon Minaret; Bukhara, Uzbekistan

 

A change of pace.

Bishkek was the perfect place to pause and take stock of things, to enjoy the autumn in a city of changing leaves. It’s also the place to apply for the rest of the visas I’ll need in central Asia, to vote at the US embassy, and to do repairs and maintenance on Jesse. The visa applications took longer than I expected, giving me time to take a loop through the spectacular mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The dramatic ranges remind me of the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, and they seem to extend in every direction. Again I got lost, but this time even the few local herdsmen I came across were not certain where the twisting mountain roads led. Eventually I found my way and was rewarded with views of fluorescent turquoise rivers surging through steep canyons and magnificent snow-capped mountains.

 

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central Tian Shan mountains, Kyrgyzstan

central Tian Shan mountains, Kyrgyzstan

 

The area around the enormous Lake IssyKol is famous for honey production, and, as in many parts of Russia and central Asia, old Russian box cars sat on the side of the highway, repainted and used to sell honey. They are often brightly painted in green, yellow, or blue, and jars and bottles of honey sit on shelves in front of the boxcars. They have domed roofs and simple rectangular windows and often rest on the rusted springs, wheels, and axles that carried them down the train tracks decades ago. The woman I bought honey from sat on a wooden ladder that led into her boxcar reading a book. She was probably in her fifty’s, but Kyrgyz often look younger than they are. On her head, she wore a long, brightly colored silk scarf, knotted behind with the tails falling down her back, as many Kyrgyz women do. Her gold-rimmed spectacles matched her golden honey and her two golden incisors. She was expressive in explaining her products, all neatly stacked on wooden shelves on the shoulder of the road. This one for a cough and fever, this one from apple blossoms, this one filtered, that one with the comb inside. I chose the apple blossom honey and headed back to Bishkek, where I would settle in for a couple weeks to situate my visas and work on Jesse.

 

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It was a nice change of pace. I even had a daily routine of sorts, buying a handful of strawberries in the morning from the lady on the corner and a glass of fresh keifer from another a block towards the park. Next door to her, a white haired, kind eyed Russian lady baked crispy pastries with smashed potatoes inside, and there was always an empty bench in the park near the old guys in worn sport jackets playing dice for money. I stayed in the hostel of a wonderful family who truly made me feel at home, and thanks to Axel and Christina in Germany, DHL dropped off new parts for Jesse. After a long weekend, she was in her best shape since Grand Junction, Colorado.

 

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Kazhak banya. 

In Japan, after getting over my initial reservations about being in a room full of naked men, I visited a public bathhouse every few days. After camping and driving much of the day, a soak in hot mineral waters and a good scrub was just what I needed. Across Russia, many families, if not most, have a bathhouse and sauna on their property, called a banya, and public banyas can be found in most towns. Supposedly the best banya in central Asia was in Almaty, so I stopped by for a bath. Unfortunately, the price was out of my budget ($16), so I went to the more reasonably priced banya ($4) down the street from my dorm shared with the boxing coaches:

Journal entry-

The changing room was lined with ancient wooden lockers against the walls and wooden slat benches in the middle of the room. Naked men laid on the benches, some not far from asleep. Another naked older man sat in a chair next to the ticket taker, fully clothed, and they talked as if they were at a table in a bar. The square floor tiles, mustard yellow and mayonnaise white, were cracked and missing, replaced with concrete patches or nothing at all. In the main room of the banya, old pipes were coated with enough layers of paint for the joints to loose their original form, like the toes of a Burmese Buddha that no longer look like toes due to the application of hundreds of years of gold leaf. One pipe spewed untouchably hot water and the other cold. Each bather had a large plastic pan filled with pipe water to bathe with and sat on the tile benches lining the wall. Fathers scrubbed sons; friends scrubbed each other; I scrubbed myself. I watched how everyone else went about the business of bathing in public, being careful not to watch too closely, and contemplated this age-old tradition that is absolutely foreign to an American.

 

Wreck number two: 

The pass between Bishkek and Toktogul began benignly enough, a decent asphalt road with plenty of curves and steep, allowing me to blast by the heavy trucks creeping their way to the summit. Whisps of snow blew across the tarmac, and slushy ruts began to form as we gained altitude. Then came the ice, and as I began to feel the rear tire slip and slide, I slowed to a crawl.  I started to notice the crosses sticking up through the snow on either side of the road, often near the carcasses of smashed cars and busses, upside-down, twisted, and mangled. The road leveled and straightened a little, and I had no way of knowing how much longer the ice would continue. My feet, normally happily warm and dry behind the two cylinders of my BMW, were now painfully cold. I was using them as skis to steady the bike, almost standing on the icy road as I rode, and the snow piled up to my shins. Then on a slight curve to the right, very slight, the bike went out from under me, silently, and after a heavy smack onto the ice we skidded thirty feet or so and to a stop. After wrestling the bike out of the way of oncoming traffic, I sat and gathered my thoughts. Again, no damage at all to myself, and Jesse only got a little scuffed up. Though the wreck was of little consequence, it and the experience of driving on ice for 15 kilometers contributed to my decision to bypass Tajikistan, which would include at least five more passes, two of them 1,000 meters higher than the one I was on. The other factor is that my visa timing was a bit off, and I would have to speed through the country in four days, allowing no margin for error, and problems with the weather or the motorcycle could leave me in the middle of Tajikistan with an expired visa.

 

the pass from Bishkek to Uzbekistan

the pass from Bishkek to Uzbekistan

 

I decided to enter Uzbekistan and continue west following the silk road through Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, where I am now, enjoying the blue skies and the warmth of the desert sun. I will continue through western Uzbekistan, back into Kazakhstan and to the Caspian Sea, where I will wait, hopefully not for too long, for a ferry to carry me and Jesse across to Azerbaijan.

 

central Kyrgyzstan

central Kyrgyzstan

 

 

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

 

 

tilework in a medressa; Bukhara, Uzbekistan

tilework in a medressa; Bukhara, Uzbekistan

 

Uzbek honey salesmen

Uzbek honey salesmen

  

. . . and back in Mongolia, here’s the video of Buka’s brother making airak (fermented mare’s milk):

 

 

Till next time-

Marcus

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan KM 9960 to KM 15270 October 5, 2008

Posted by marcusbest in Uncategorized.
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I spent a lot of my time  in Mongolia thinking I knew exactly where I was while actually being completely lost. But being lost in Mongolia is never really a problem, because help is always close by, usually on horseback and knowing where every dirt track and goat trail leads. Sometimes it was a matter of sitting at a fork in the road and waiting for someone to pass by and point me in the right direction. At other times, I would drive down the trail heading west until it turned another direction, split into a web of livestock paths, or simply faded into grassy pastures. One of my wrong turns lead me to Buka and his family, who adopted me for a day that was my most memorable in Mongolia. I got a rare view of a typical day on the Mongolian steppe: the milking of mares, preparation of food and all kinds of dairy products, and even a haircutting ceremony for all three-year-old Mongolian males, in which family members (and the occasional wandering foreigner) snip locks of hair of the youngster, tying them into the knots of a blue satin sash while offering blessings and gifts to the child. It was a magical day, a wrong turn that ended up being a right turn.

Buka (second from left) and family

Buka (second from left) and family

I spent nine days driving westward from Ulan Bataar on a road of dirt, sand, grave, and rock across the beautifully vast expanse of Mongolia. What struck me most was the simplicity of the country. Outside of the few cities and towns, there are few distractions, no government, no agriculture, no electricity; only three things: animals, the land, and the people.

I got my first wreck out of the way. I had spent part of the morning waiting with fifteen other motorcyclists for the gas pump operator to show up with the key to the only fuel pump within 100 miles in any direction. While we waited, some of the guys took turns trying on my gloves and helmet while one seemed serious about trading his Russian clunker of a motorcycle for mine. One talkative nomad spat into my helmet before cramming onto his head which was notably larger and rounder than mine. So after I had filled up with 80 octane gas, I was cruising down a decent gravel road, decent enough that I could allow my mind to wander, and I was thinking: “Why in the world did that guy have to spit into my helmet? Was that a Mongolian thing or just one of his superstitious quirks? Does he spit into his own hat before putting it on? And before I could react, I was headed at 50 mph straight into a pit of silt a foot deep, twenty feet long, and stretching across the width of the road. I was over the handlebars and in the air, an somehow landed on my back in the silt pit. The cloud of dust Jesse and I produced was impressive as it blew across the steppe. The damage to myself and the bike was minimal, just a gentle reminder to keep my eyes on the road, or maybe Jesse telling me to keep that 80 octane fuel out of her tank. Considering the soft landing, I think I can consider it a good wreck.

The high road in the Altai Mountains that leads to Russia was snowy and cold, and my timing was a little off, wo the border was closed when I arrived. Rather than having to backtrack to the nearest town or spend a well-below-freezing night in a tent, I ended up staying with the head Mongolian Immigrations officer and having dinner with him, a customs official, and a security officer. Needless to say, crossing the border the next morning was a breeze. The decent from the border into the Russian Altai was the most beautiful drive so far. The trees were at the peak of their changing colors. The road traced the edge of a clear turquoise river that twisted through a narrow valley dotted with rustic cabins and sealed in with rocky peaks on both sides. On the floor of the valley, horse-drawn rakes gathered freshly cut hay that would be loaded onto a rickety wagon pulled by an ancient tractor almost undoubtedly driven by a rough-handed Russian wearing a camouflage jacket and smoking a cigarette. Rather than take the common route northwest to Barnaul and back down into Kazakhstan, I followed the river in search of a short-cut into Kazakhstan. The most promising road dead-ended in a tiny village, and another attempt ended with a sympathetic but characteristically stubborn Russian soldier planted behind a red and white striped bar across the road. So I backtracked and took the road to the northwest, where I fell in with the freeriders of Barnaul, a motley group of bikers who, armed with cell phones, racing leathers, and Russian determination, made things happen with impressive efficiency.

While Jesse was in their shop having parts rebuilt, welds repaired, lost bolts replaced, filters cleaned, and much more, I was glued to the back of a high-speed Japanese street bike, being transported around town in search of parts. The driver treated cars and pedestrians like cones on an obstacle course, and once he saw even the smallest gap between vehicles, he would accelerate through at insane speeds. I peeked over his shoulder at the speedometer on a straightaway and read 180 km/hr. That’s pretty fast for city driving. After seeing first-hand how bikers look out for each other in Barnaul, I headed south into Kazakhstan, which at first glance seems a lot like Russia. The nomadic Kazakh nomadic culture was almost completely replaced with the sedentary Russian lifestyle during the Soviet era. It took two days to cross the desolate steppe of Kazakhstan; flat, dry, and vacant. I spent a few days  in leafy Almaty in the Southeast of the country, marvelling at it’s cosmopolitan feel, european style, and outrageous prices. On a crisp Saturday morning, I gave in and had a six dollar latte but passed on the fourteen dollar omellete. I shared a 4-bed dorm room with three Krgyz boxing coaches, one of whom filled the room with the smoke of two cigarettes before my head was off the pillow each morning. With my visas in order, I drove into Krgystan, skirting the towering snowy peaks that border Almaty to the south.

I have some video footage that I will add when I find a faster internet connection.

Ulan Bataar, KM 9107 to KM 9960 September 14, 2008

Posted by marcusbest in Uncategorized.
3 comments

As I approached the border to Mongolia, I was in a great mood. Maybe it was because the drive south from Ulan Ude was spectacular, maybe because I had just seen my first bactrian camel, or because I was so close to entering the country I had dreamed about for so long. The Mongolian guard at the customs entrance invited me into his fly-filled office to watch steeplechasing on a fuzzy TV screen while we waited for the insurance lady to come and sell me Mongolian motorcycle insurance that might not be worth the paper it’s written on. In the immigration line, I got jostled around and nudged aside by two boisterous women dragging their luggage who were aparantly in a hurry, because we were the only three people in the line. Soon afterward I discovered that Mongolians don’t mind being physical when an important and slightly irritated customs official armed with a rubber stamp she kept guarded closely on a keychain actually came out from behind her desk, grabbed me by the arm, pulled me across the room and planted me in the line I should’ve been in. So each time I got a required stamp and didn’t know where to go, I returned to her desk so she could drag me to another line. She was as tall as I am but bigger and spoke to me like a scolding mother while we walked, though she knew I couldn’t understand a word. Our arrangement worked out well, and as it turned out, the final stamp I needed was the one on her keychain.

The rolling hills were as I had dreamed, dotted with slowly moving herds of goats, whisps of smoke coming from the chimneys of gehrs along the river, Mongolians on horseback pushing their cattle through the valley, sturdy, wild-eyed horses loping across the highway, not a tree or a fence in sight. And as I hoped, I was greeted in the morning by two Mongolian herdsmen as I packed up my tent. The one in plaid let me ride his horse while he looked curiously at my motorcycle. His friend with clear blue eyes and a tweed jacket was quiet and didn’t seem to want to get off his horse.

After spending more time than I had planned in Ulan Bataar, I’m ready to get back into the country. I was told that 10 years ago, herds of goats roamed downtown and traffic was nonexistent. Since then the population has exploded, and there are no signs of it slowing; enormous apartment buildings are being constructed all over the city. The country is rich in gold, copper, and oil, and the extraction of these natural resources is only just beginning.

As I did regular maintenance on Jesse, I found problems that needed to be fixed before venturing westward where repairs would be very difficult. I’ve spent most of my time wandering through markets looking for things like epoxy, spokes, good transmission oil, a 24mm socket, and a decent rear tire.

shocks for sale

shocks for sale

need an engine?

need an engine?

I thought I had some challenging repairs to make, then I met this guy and knew my mechanical problems were mere trifles. He had pulled his transmission from his massive Russian truck and was repairing it on the side of the busiest road in Ulan Bataar:

I also got my visa to Kazakhstan and have started the process for some of the other “stans”, and I see now that inadequate research relating to visas and permits could lead to major inconveniences and expense in this part of the world. So though I prefer to be out in the country, this time in Ulan Bataar has proved necesarry. I’m feeling quite at home in my cozy gehr at the Oasis guesthouse and have made friends here that I feel certain I’ll see again. Like Kamil, the cyclist I first saw on the ferry to from HokkaidoI ran into him at the main post office in Ulan Bataar (that’s three times we’ve crossed paths so far).

Beat from Switzerland started cycling in Kyrgystan and just broke 10,000 km. (www.betzgi.ch)

Beat from Switzerland started cycling in Kyrgystan and just broke 10,000 km. (www.betzgi.ch)

The Moons and the Cocks have driven their trucks across many continents (www.guidebooks.co.au)

The Moons and the Cocks have driven their trucks across many continents (www.guidebooks.co.au)

Yiri from the Czech Republic has a similar motorcycle, so we had plenty to discuss and tools to share.

Yiri from the Czech Republic has a similar motorcycle, so we had plenty to discuss and tools to share.

I’ll hoping to leave on Monday, across Mongolia, back into Russia for a few days, then south into the steppes of Kazakhstan.