Almaty Kazakhstan to UK on Scooters

15 Nov 2011 by Olga Brighton

Travellers Stories

Entry for competition operated by Globelink International Travel Insurance Consultants.

Several years ago Carmen and I decided we should have an adventure to tell our grandchildren about, so what better than to drive from Delhi to London in an Indian three wheeler. We made contact with the factory in Madras, and began our preparations, but then unaccountably the factory broke off contact. The Pakistan border was then closed. Then we heard a rumour that Iran would not allow a diesel trike into the country, and the idea was placed in the rejected drawer.

So then we thought of Peking to Paris, in aid of Macmillan Cancer Care, but in/on what? We eventually came up with an offer of two new 650 cc Yamaha trail bikes, at half price, and I began the task of sorting visas, travel insurance, freight, vehicle insurance and the like, in the hope of starting the trip in May 2004.

Scooter adventure

Well, I can tell you that persistence is the key factor in getting anything organised these days. We were let down left right and centre by people promising to arrange this or that, promising to "come back" to us. By early 2004, the only people who had not let us down were Yamaha, and we duly took delivery of the bikes in April, only to discover .. and that was entirely my own fault... that they were much too big. My feet just touched the ground, but Carmen's were about 15 inches up in the air. We contacted Yamaha, and apologised profusely, and they kindly agreed that we could sell the bikes and keep the profit for MacmiHan. That is why we ended up with two scooters, 125ccT which we christened Eric and Fanny. I won't tell you the make, as the company would not back us, and even after the trip, having offered lots of lovely photos, and some useful suggestions about modifications, and having received a very positive answer that their publicity department would be in touch, we heard nothing.

At the same time we heard at last from China that we could have visas, but only if we had a guide with us in his own car, which for an anticipated crossing time of China at 30 days- would have cost us 4,000 pounds. Impossible. So we delayed the scooter trip for a year, and decided to fly Eric Fanny, ourselves and my bagpipes to Almary in SE Kazakstan, and start from there. A seven week trip is difficult to condense into short format, so f detail the highlights from our diary:

May 1: Arrive Almaty 5 a.m. and taken to hotel by taxi driver, who crosses every light at red, and smashes into a Lada. So we are nearly dead on arrival! We must wait for Eric and Fanny to clear Custom.

May 2: No news.

May 3: At 5 p.m. we hear that the scooters are ready, and that our guide must get us to the Kyrgyztan frontier that evening. We are away from the airport by 7pm, already getting dark. On the outskirts of Almaty we end up on 150 miles of dirt roads, with choking dust, potholes, rocks, huge grinding lorries. Arrive at border 1 am, and are searched. What are bagpipes? I give a demo, and then we are allowed to depart for the capital Bishkek. Lonely Planet says it's a dangerous town. Do not go there at night! Arrive Bishkek 3am, picked up by a couple who invite us to stay. Arrive at their flat 4am, daughter dressed and has a meal ready for us! 160 miles.

Mountains journey

May 4: Cross mountains via 13000 feet pass into the lonely heart of Kyrgyztan. Not a house, animal, or person. We travel for mile after mile up a wide valley, surrounded by mountains, pass through snowdrifts, and over another pass to descend down to Lake Toktogul, where we spend the night in a hotel. 220 mile.

May 5: Another 150 miles of most appalling road, refused permission to cross at one border post with Uzbekistan, though the guards invite us for lunch. We average 10 miles an hour. By midnight we are soaked, and are in a storm as we enter the drugs town of Osh, where Carmen drives into an open manhole and falls off. Luckily no damage. A student comes up and offers us a bed for the night. 250 miles.

May 6: Pass through Angren, where 7 days later there is a massacre. We are now in the Fergana Valley, but have to cross a pass to get near Tashkent that day. Many military checkpoints, where we spend 15 minutes at a time saying where we have come from, going to, how old we are, whether we are married, number of children, grandchildren, what the scooters cost Everyone so friendly, and treat us like people from outer space. We see no scooters til! western Turkey. At one checkpoint, Fanny springs an oil leak-just a lose clip but I cannot get at it. Bearing in mind that in 700 miles we have not seen a proper garage, we are very lucky to find a mechanic with a little shack just nearby. A crowd gathers, we hand out balloons and bubbles to the kids, get out the bagpipes and have a party. Stay in army barracks that night as cannot find a hotel. 2 pounds for two! 210 miles.

May 7: Arrive Samarkand. The golden road must refer to the gold of honey, which is for sale everywhere, and delicious. Marvellous ancient mosque complex tn central Samarkand, but a lot of modern rubbish around it Shame. We stay 3 nights. 264 mile.

May 10: To Bukhara - a marvellous old city filled with terrific ancient buildings. Really atmospheric. Woken at 7 a.m. next morning by a party of. Tews returning to the town after 15 years exile in USA. They are staying at our hotel, and we watch as they dance in the courtyard to drums, bronze trumpets eight feet long. Stay 2 nights. 185 mile.

Bukhara city

May 12: To Turkmen border. We are misinformed, there is no hotel there and we get stuck in noman's land. Fed by Turkish lorry drivers. Invited to stay in a village nearby, over a river. Don't go there, you will be robbed or have your throat cut, say some locals. We go anyway, pay the guards on the bridge $2 to let us over, and spend a curious night with a family. We are given exclusive use of the lounge, which is lined with bright carpets, but only after we sit with the family for several hours listening to an Iranian pop channel. At Sam next morning, we are woken, as we have to get back across the bridge before new guards come We discover that the family- two daughters, son, granny, and father, plus a Turkish lorry driver, have all slept outside on a large bench under a mosquito net.

May 13: Breakfast with Turkish lorry drivers. Cross border after 4 hour paper session. Cross desert to Mary 205 hot miles.

May 14: To Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, crossing more desert and seeing small children in the middle of nowhere selling huge fish. Not a mirage! 236 mile.

May 15: Go to Ashgabat market on the edge of the desert. It covers many many acres, and is a riot of bright carpets, women in long multi patterned bright dresses, the odd camel, men with long beards, dust, and heat.

May 16: We drive to a small village in the desert, where there is a pilgrimage shrine. Very few foreigners come this way, as we are surrounded all the time by curious children. Climb mountain to shrine. Afterwards, cook dinner in then unfurl our sleeping bags on the concrete floor of an open sided shack, and have a very7 good sleep, woken at 4 a.m. by the calls of the muezzin.

May 17: After several hours of paper filling, we at long last get out of Turkmenistan, board the ferry to cross the Caspian to Baku in Azerbaijan.

May 19: Head for Iranian border. Stopped twice by policemen who allege speeding, and want to fine us $25 on the first occasion and $ 100 on the second A rip off, and I tell them so. We end up friends, and paying nothing. Arrive border only to find it is closed. It is pouring with rain, we are covered with mud from lorries splattering us. Stay in an unbelievably plush hotel in a shanty town, where we dry off. 205 miles.

Iran travel

May 20: Cross border. An Iranian customs officer gets hold of the accelerator on Eric, and revs it. Being automatic, we take off, scattering his 5 colleagues, and end up in a heap on the floor. No injury or damage, but a bit of acting to the contrary ensures a speedy crossing of the customs, only then to have to spend ages going through three police checks within a mile. Stop for petrol. A car pulls to a halt and we are given two pancakes filled with melted cheese. The car drives off. An hour later, climbing a mountain pass, a car slows, and I am handed two oranges. Lovely people, and gorgeous scenery. 256 miles. 2646 to date.

May 21: Lots of paperwork at Turkish border, which we cross beneath towering Mount Ararat, a spectacular snow covered cone, with a smaller cone to one side. We spend several days now going along broad empty valleys, lined with mountains. Stopped by the military crossing a pass..but they just want a chat, and give us a drink. No hotel in the town we aim for, so press on to Erzurum, and find a sweet shop there full of Turkish Delight and other sensational goodies. Go to bed somewhat inflated, and very tired- 346 miles.

May 24: By now we are nearing central Turkey, and have had a lot of rain. Eastern Turkey is medieval, no tourists that we have come across, but now things are beginning to change. We stay in Goreme, visit the rock churches, and see with dismay what damage has been done to the marvellous frescoes, which were unscathed till the Greeks were expelled from Turkey in the early I920*s by Kemal Ataturk. Greece had a lot of Turks, western and central Turkey had lots of Greeks. After WWI, the Greeks were offered the western coast of Turkey as war reparation, but got greedy, attacked as far as Amkara, and were beaten by the Turks. The Greeks were expelled and a tit for tat followed. Many villages in Turkey even now are semi or totally deserted. How quickly harmony becomes enmity- rather like Yugoslavia. Total now 3410 miles Up to Is1 June, we visited many archaeological sites, many hardly known by tourists, and those were marvellous. By the time we had reached Ephesus, ruinitis was beginning to set in, and by the time we reached Troy, after 4800 miles, piles of stones were definitely losing their attraction, not least because of ghastly numbers of tourists.

Istanbul travel

June 1: Arrived Istanbul A truly magical city. Visited all the usual sights, but then found out where the real whirling dervishes met. Knocked on the door of the mosque at 9pm that evening, and invited to watch. Very private and no tourists. We chatted for several hours, then went in to watch the ceremony. In an adjoining room we could see 150 men in lines, facing a leader, beside whom stood a "choir" of four men. The leader began to sing lines of the Koran, with the four chanting an accompaniment. At the same time, the other 150, sitting cross legged on the floor, began to sway from side to side, chanting also, a repetitive chant lasting perhaps ten seconds, rising in pitch and tempo till the whole room seemed to throb. Then the men began to toss their heads from side to side, and exhaled sharply at the end of each repetition. Suddenly they stopped. They stood, parted to one side, and the whirling dervish entered, and began to turn. The leader organised the 150 men in concentric circles round the dervish, and they too began to rotate. Then he came over to Carmen, and said "we want to borrow your husband".

I was joined into the outer circle, and thereupon began a most magical half hour. Each circle held hands as we rotated, chanting, and then we dropped our hands, and put them on the shoulders of the man each side. Then the rotating would stop, we would put our hands on the shoulders of the man in front, jump up and down, and chant, then back to rotating again. It was very hot, sensual, atmospheric, incredible. For the first time in my life, 1 had a beard, and the sweat was pouring down, and dribbling onto the front of my shirt. I was soaked, yet felt absolutely marvellous.

On the point of exhaustion, it stopped. The leader came into the room from which Carmen had been watching, beckoned her to him, and made her sit beside him. The congregation filed in, and sat down, whilst the leader was wiped down with towels, and lit a cigarette. Taking a huge intake of smoke, which enveloped him as he exhaled, he began a sermon whilst we were all treated to bread, tea and Turkish Delight. Then it was all over, and everyone began to leave. We were invited to come again, shown the tombs of the leaders of the sect for the last goodness how many years. These were in an adjoining room, with many niches like little chapels lining the wails in each of which stood a catafalque covered with bright silk cloth and glowing under a light. Then a taxi was summonsed, and we went back to our hotel, arriving at 2 a.m.

June 3: We left Istanbul. We passed into Bulgaria, terrible drivers, beautiful scenery, then into Serbia, where motorways cost a fortune. However, after thousands of miles of avoiding potholes and rocks it was a pleasure to be able to get along quickly and enjoy looking around, rather than mainly at the road ahead. Then into Croatia Very pretty, but the peace and quiet was in conflict with the obvious signs of war- burnt out houses, shell holes in buildings, collapsed roofs. Then into Hungary, arriving on 5 June in Szabas, the home of twin girls who came to stay with us 15 years ago when they were quite little, but now slim, gorgeous, long haired young women. After a night with their family, we crossed into a very cold and wet Austria, where just after the border we fell upon a marvellous and very cheap plate of weiner schnitzel and chips. On to Switzerland, staying with Carmen's sister tor a couple of days, on to Paris to stay with our son and his wife tor a while, and then back to Hereford.

We covered 7,500 miles in 7 weeks, the longest day being 373 miles. We met with nothing but hospitality, and friendship. Being on your own, you see and feel so much more of a country than you do being part of an insulated tourist group. We recommend anyone to have a go. after all, Carmen and I have precious little mechanical knowledge, and in that respect had to "cross fingers". "What if" has to be put to one side! We are so grateful to the members of the club who so generously contributed to Macmillan, who benefited to the tune of about 4,500 pounds.

Read also: Our Trans-Siberian Hangover from Rob

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