The Silk Road, Sand, Seas and Camels

June 26, 2018

Crossing the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan puts us on the trail of the legendary Silk Road to Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains. But we have a few more sandy seas to cross first…

overlanding through Kazakhstan Friendly camels line Kazakhstan’s well paved roads. A stark contrast to Uzbekistan, 80% of it is desert and the roads in the north are some of the worse asphalt we’ve ridden so far

Stinging sweat trickles into my eyes, I squint and miss the huge hole in the middle of the road. The front wheel smashes into it, the bike yelps and something cracks. The number plate is hanging on by a single cable tie. While I search for string to fix it Alissa tops up the petrol tank with our last remaining 2 litre Coke bottle of fuel. We both slump down next to the XT with our last litre of hot water and take in the nothingness. We’ve been riding for 300km through northern Uzbekistan’s boiling and arid Kyzylkum Desert. There’s nothing here but giant craters and tyre popping pot-holes. The last petrol station was in Kazakhstan (300km ago), our bike is currently managing 200km to a tank and we’ve got another 50km to go before we think there may be another.

petrol shortage in Uzbekistan No wonder there’s a fuel shortage in Uzbekistan, we bought it all! … well, at least we hope it’s petrol?

No fuel, no water, caked in sweat and dust - but we’re not worried because we know what’s coming next. Right on cue, a friendly Uzbek truck driver trundles to a stop beside us with a beaming smile and offerings of water and help. It’s the kindness we’ve come to expect in Uzbekistan, everyone beeps, waves and stops to check on us (perhaps because we’re constantly fixing the bike and looking sorry for ourselves with empty bottles). The people are friendly but the terrain isn’t.

road conditions in Uzbekistan The roads are deceptively flat, tricking you to wind on the gas. If you fall for it you’ll meet the rim wrecking hidden holes

The 450km from the border to Moynaq was just emptiness. And once we arrived we found even more emptiness. It was once a thriving and integral fishing port in Uzbekistan – until the Soviets diverted water away from the Aral Sea in the ‘60s, causing it to dry up completely, creating serious health problems due to toxic dust clouds, putting thousands of people out of work, turning the sea into a literal sand desert and Moynaq into a ghost town. All that’s left now are abandoned rusting ships, baking in the hot sun.

the Aral Sea and ghost ships The Aral Sea was once one of the four largest lakes in the world - now it’s called the Aralkum Desert

adventure to the Aral Sea The Aral Sea is considered one of the world’s worst man-made environmental disasters

Ship graveyard at Aral Sea The ship graveyard is all that’s left of a once thriving and bustling fishing port economy

After getting stuck in the sand sea and sleeping in a cricket infested yurt we craved the luxury of a room with four walls and no bugs. And Khiva gave us that and more as we explored the ancient and once most important slave trading city in Central Asia.

travel to Khiva Khiva is stunning yet has an incredibly brutal and sad history

Khiva history adventure travel The notorious Turkmen raiders would pillage and capture anyone they could find and sell them in this market in Khiva, once the most dangerous city in the world - renowned for indescribable torture and death - now a place to buy a nice carpet

Explore Khiva Uzbekistan Despite the fact that 30,000 slaves filled the streets at any one time, Khiva is still home to incredible works of art like the 213 carved wooden pillar mosque

The cities of Bukhara and Samarkand were two more welcome stops on the long road to Tajikistan. Both with jaw dropping ancient structures, once the heart and jewel of the Silk Road, intrinsically built and glistening blue in an otherwise sandy yellow world.

The Registan of Samarkand The Registan was the heart of ancient Samarkand and a major point on the Silk Road - used as a place for public announcements, meetings and executions

travel to Bukhara Bukhara’s famous Ark fortress is humungous with a 789.6 metre perimeter - perhaps to keep all their slaves in

Bukhara adventure travel Bukhara wasn’t far behind Khiva in the slavery and torture trade, but now a beautiful place to stroll the streets

Samarkand motorcycle The Registan is made up of three madrasahs (Islamic schools) and surrounded by pretty parks

For the last month we’ve been crossing seas. But before we could get to the sandy seas of Uzbekistan we had to cross the (actual) Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan.

Click here for a full guide to crossing the Caspian Sea by ferry

Crossing the Caspian Sea with a motorcycle The perfect place to recreate that Titanic moment you’ve been dreaming of

Caspian Sea ferry At least the views are pretty

We headed to the shipping port with no clue as to when the next boat would leave. They depart whenever they’re full. A 12-hour wait for the boat (which was lucky, we’ve met people who have waited, 3,5,7 and 9 days) and we were on.

Luckily for us we crossed with the two coolest Dutch guys we know, Erik and Paul, riding their BMWs from the Netherlands to Vladivostok. And even luckier we met up again in Khiva and Bukhara for hours of card games and evening meals on terraces overlooking beautiful cities. Check out their website here

Caspian Sea ferry We have unfinished business with Erik and Paul … there’s a serious game of Canasta we have to finish in Tokyo

Caspian Sea ferry We were lucky with a 12-hour wait, the norm is three days

Caspian Sea ferry There’s not much to do but wait and sleep

A 24-hour crossing, 5 hours before we were let off the boat, and six hours to get through customs and we were in Kazakhstan. We blasted our way through Kazakhstan’s desert, stopping only to gawk at smiling camels, before finally entering Uzbekistan.

Camels in the desert of Kazakhstan motorcycle adventure travel “Are you sure this is the right way?” ‘Yes, yes follow me, I know where i’m going…’

Kazakhstan camel motorcycle adventure travel ‘Only joking! I have no idea’

But now it’s time for mountains. We’ve been dreaming of Tajikistan’s fabled Pamir Mountains and Afghanistan’s remote Wakhan Corridor for years. Clutching our visas and passports, we slid through the Uzbekistan border and waited patiently as the Tajik guards mulled over our passports. Happy with our paperwork they drew back the curtains, revealing mountains, a tease of the towering Pamirs to come. We were finally out of the flats and into the peaks. With grins so big they poked out the side of our helmets, we clicked into first gear and started our journey to the Pamirs.

Motorcycle adventure travel in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan Entering Tajikistan is an immediate contrast to the flats of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. We’re where we want to be … at the gateway to the Pamirs

The ancient Silk Road connected the East and West via a series of trade routes. It started 200BC from China, where traders would take silk (many other goods were also transported) to India, Arabia, Central Asia, Africa, South East Asia and eventually to Europe. It was crucial for trade between countries, but also for developing civilizations, political and economic relationships and cultural trade.

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