Thousands of years ago the Silk Road became the first link between foreign worlds. Today it’s an adventure rider’s paradise, as Andy Davidson discovers.
The little Yamaha pants and sweats as it climbs a never-ending staircase of mountain passes. Narrow gravel tracks wind their way around crumbling cliff edges, along skinny ridges and beside raging rivers slicing their way through deep valleys. Mountains burst out of the ground, climbing into the sky and there’s nothing to do but chase the roads that wind their way around them.
We pull over, take our sweaty helmets off and slump down by the bike. Our feet dangle over a steep drop as stones roll down into the River Panj – the only thing separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan. We stare at Afghanistan’s beautiful explosion of yellow, green and blue mountains and plot our route.
We’ll cross the border soon and continue chasing the Silk Road into Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, along a route which has lured travellers, merchants and adventurers for over two thousand years. As the XT bakes under the hot Tajik sun, threatening to burst with boiling hot coolant, I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like for those pioneers all that time ago when the legendary Silk Road began. Probably much the same, just with reliable camels instead of motorbikes.
Chasing the Silk Road through its heart in Central Asia has got to be the most fun you can have on a motorcycle. Back then, men traversed these rugged lands to sell silk and spices and make their fortunes in foreign lands, but today it’s an adventure motorcyclist’s paradise.
Life is easy now we’re slap bang in the middle of the Silk Road; we ride epic single-track paths during the day and pitch our tent under a billion stars at night. But it wasn’t easy getting here, and it wasn’t easy getting out…
On 1 January 2018 we sold up and left our lives behind in the UK to ride around the world. By the time we reached the Channel Tunnel we were soaking wet, cold and somehow managed to set fire to our luggage. It got worse… fast. It turns out January isn’t a good time to ride in Europe. We blasted our way through France as Storm Eleanor hit the French coast, we nearly flew off the motorway in 80mph winds, rode for a month through continuous rain and ice, broke down in Slovakia, ran out of fuel, hitchhiked, snapped our exhaust, the chain sliced our remote preload adjuster and we had to wait three weeks for new parts as it snowed heavier every day and ended up riding through -15C just to escape.
But we had our sights firmly set on the legendary Silk Road and no amount of wind, rain or fire was going to stop us. There isn’t a specific road to follow, as the Silk Road is more of a network, linking China to Europe over three main routes through the north, south and southwest.
We chose the northern route through the Stans of Central Asia as it’s the most rugged and wonderous; carving its way through the Tian Shan and Pamir mountains, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. It cuts through everything from desolate deserts to magnificent mountains, vast plains and lush pastures. The nomads in this region were trading goods and linking cities before the official Silk Road even began, making it the birthplace and heart of the Silk Road. There was nothing we wanted more than to escape the cold and chase the road from Azerbaijan to Mongolia – well, other than to stop breaking down and a bit of sun.
YOU ASKED FOR IT
As Brits, we weren’t allowed to ride through Iran without a guide, Turkmenistan wouldn’t give us a visa in time and our Uzbekistan visa was expiring. So, we jumped on the boat from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan and darted north to the tip of Uzbekistan to start our adventure in the Stans.
Only two days after crossing the border we, were sat huddled under the XT for precious shade as vultures circled overhead. We hadn’t seen a petrol station since leaving Kazakhstan. Luckily, we strapped water bottles filled with fuel to our bike ready for Uzbekistan’s notorious fuel shortages. But we were down to our last fuel bottle, out of water and shattered. The north west of Uzbekistan is pure arid desert, desolate, baron and baking hot. The roads are peppered with rim-wrecking pot holes, which shook our bike to pieces and it’s slow going.
No fuel, no water, caked in sweat and dust – but we weren’t worried because we knew what was coming next. Right on cue, a friendly Uzbek truck driver trundled to a stop beside us with a beaming smile and offerings of water and help. It’s the kindness we came to expect in Uzbekistan, everyone beeped, waved and stopped to check on us (perhaps because we were constantly fixing the bike and looking sorry for ourselves with empty bottles). The people were friendly but the terrain wasn’t.
SAND SEAS AND SLAVES
We rode 300 miles from the border to the Aral Sea through emptiness. And once we arrived we found even more emptiness. Moynaq was once a thriving and integral fishing port in Uzbekistan – until the Soviets diverted water away from the 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 was left were abandoned rusting ships, baking in the hot sun and two sun-burnt Brits.
We carried on until we finally reached the oasis of Khiva with its incredible walls circling the city. Although, during the times of the Silk Road, it was the furthest away from an oasis on the planet. Khiva was the most important slave trading city in Central Asia – infamous for some of the most barbaric treatment of humans in history. Notorious Turkmen raiders pillaged and captured anyone they could find to sell in Khiva’s markets. Once the most dangerous city in the world – renowned for indescribable torture and death – now a place to buy a nice carpet.
The cities of Bukhara and Samarkand were two more welcome stops on the long road to Tajikistan. Both with jaw-dropping ancient structures. Samarkand’s Rajasthan was once the heart and jewel of the Silk Road, intrinsically built and glistening blue in an otherwise sandy-yellow world.
PEAKS, KIDS AND POLICE
We dreamed of Tajikistan’s fabled Pamir Mountains and Afghanistan’s remote Wakhan Corridor for years. Clutching our visas and passports, we slid through the Uzbek border and waited patiently as the Tajik guards mulled over our documents. Happy with our paperwork they drew back the curtains, revealing pretty peaks and a tease of the towering Pamirs to come. With grins so big they poked out the side of our helmets, we clicked into first gear and started our journey to the mountains.
Days passed by riding to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and then onto the start of the Pamir Highway. But we didn’t ride all that way to take a tarmacked road, so opted for the rough off-road route heading south along the border with Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. Being so close to Afghanistan we knew there would be plenty of police and military checkpoints and, in our brief research before leaving, we read about bribing and corruption along the way. But the guards only seemed interested in sharing their watermelon.
Kids ran to the road as soon as they heard the bike (and they could hear us coming from miles away thanks to our broken exhaust). They wanted nothing more than a high-five and to practise their English. Families welcomed us into their homes for tea, cake and traditional plov; rice drenched in animal fat (tastier than it sounds). We couldn’t have felt safer.
The only thing we had to be careful of – other than the perilous cliff edges – were wild dogs. They’d also heard our bike coming, but weren’t interested in high-fives. Snarling beasts sprinted across fields, charging at the bike, barking and chomping at our ankles. Friends we had made along the way had bad crashes as dogs jumped in front of their bikes.
FROM BAD TO WORSE
Swerving around giant rocks and dodging dogs is just half the fun. Riding sand traps and hidden paths to secluded lakes and remote villages is the other. It pulled us into a trance, mesmerised by a magical kingdom, hidden from the world by towering mountains. But when our pannier rack snapped and the weight imbalance nearly sent us flying into a huge rock face and down a cliff, we decided it was time to stop day-dreaming and find a town… and a welder.
We ratchet strapped the rack together and headed for the nearest town. While there, we spotted an Afghanistan flag, marking an embassy. Two days later we left with two shiny Afghan visas. Within a week we were riding in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, drinking tea with incredibly friendly military, visiting isloated villages and camping in one of the most remote parts of the world. Locals dub it the ‘Roof of the World’ and it’s easy to see why. One week, a million selfies with border guards, a hundred AK-47s later and we left Afghanistan with some of the best memories of our trip. But the XT didn’t share the sentiment.
Despite leaving most of our luggage in Tajikistan to be as light as possible; the rear shock completely failed, we had a puncture, snapped spokes and a serious fuelling problem (thanks Uzbekistan). We had nearly 400 miles ahead of us before Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on a bike that was literally falling to pieces. Luckily, we’d been riding with two Frenchmen, Didier and Franck. Didier took all of Franck’s luggage so Alissa could jump on the back of his bike. Together, we started the mad ride to Kyrgyzstan.
BEST FOR LAST
The road started to fall apart beneath us. It flitted between valleys, sharp cliff edges and jagged rocks. The mountain passes worsened as Tajikistan threw everything it could at us, refusing to let us leave. A huge sandstorm started to brew in the distance. We pulled over, tucked in, zipped up and braved the stinging sand at 10mph as our bikes swayed in the road. Once the sand finished biting our skin the road started to climb again and we found ourselves in the middle of a snowstorm two hours later. It worsened every second, frosting our visors, obscuring our view and forcing us to stay in a perpetual 10mph slog.
Tired, cold, and with sand and snow in our pockets, we took shelter in a local’s home by the majestic Karakul Lake. We rested and prepared for our final push to the border with Kyrgyzstan. But Tajikistan’s Silk Road stretch wasn’t over, and it wasn’t going to let us go that easily.
I snatched the front brake and headed straight for a cliff edge to avoid a crater in the road, but wasn’t quick enough. The front wheel dived in and I waited for the inevitable crunch from the rear. The frame cracked, the rear tyre smacked into the plastic undertray and the subframe snapped.
The high mountain pass between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is no-man’s land. Neither country took ownership and left it to fester into a muddy, slushy mountain pass – thanks to all the rain the night before. We were so close to the border we could almost taste Kyrgyzstan’s famous horse milk, but with a destroyed frame, a bike that hated us, a slow puncture, clogged jets and no rear suspension, we had a way to go.
Broken or not, none of that stopped it from being the most memorable, fun and visceral rides of our lives, and nothing could take the smiles off our faces. Overloaded, covered in mud and sweat, we gave each other one more nod and wobbled down the mountain in search of the border, civilisation… and a good mechanic.
INTO NOMAD LAND
The sun dipped behind the horizon and the cold set in as we sat in our own little yurt overlooking Song Kol Lake in Kyrgyzstan three weeks later. A nomad with a bucket of manure strolled in, shovelled the dung into an already blazing metal oven, wished us goodnight and rolled the sheepskin door down behind him as he left. As the room filled with heat, we sat back in our bed and watched the orange glow flicker.
The mad month in Tajikistan, all the breaking down, hours fixing the bike on the roadside, non-stop off-roading, arguing with border guards about lost paperwork, the two-week wait in Osh for a new shock absorber to be sent from the UK – all the troubles of the last two months dissolved in the fire and disappeared with the smoke into the Kyrgyz sky.
We were where we wanted to be; in a yurt, in the middle of nowhere with nothing but greenery and horses – and it was spectacular. As soon as the sun woke up we swapped two wheels for four legs, rented a couple of horses (£2.50 per hour) and set off alone into the hills for a real taste of what it must have been like traversing the Silk Road through Kyrgyzstan’s nomad land.
As we crested peaks and gazed down on hidden valleys, it was like we trotted back in time. Yurts were surrounded by livestock, children washed in streams and young boys and girls raced around on horses. There was no electricity and no connection to the outside world – just nomads living off the land.
But while ancient traders had as much time as they needed to traverse the 5000-mile Silk Road, we had visas to think about. So, we made our farewells to our nomadic friends and left (on two wheels) to explore the rest of Kyrgyzstan’s many twists, turns and epic landscapes. It’s a raw, rugged land and feels more remote than Tajikistan. It’s dubbed the ‘Least known about country in Central Asia’, and for good reason. Kyrgyzstan doesn’t rely on tourism; a huge proportion of its people still live an ancient nomadic lifestyle and you can ride for hours without seeing another soul.
END OF THE ROAD
The greenery dried up as we moved through Kazakhstan; replaced by long stretches of yellow and flat lands, canyons and a great vastness. Only as we approached Mongolia – a country we dreamed about for the last 10 years – did the grass return. More excited than four-year-olds at Christmas, we crossed the border and started our journey to Ulaanbaatar over the great Mongolian plains.
It’s like an undiscovered frontier. We crossed hundreds of miles of grassland peppered with wild camels, eagles and horses, along thousands of dusty trails running through the country like beating veins. The tracks switched between thick mud, gravel and rivers that swallowed the road whole. As we reached the glistening Gobi Desert the trails turned to deep sand. Mesmerised by the glistening dunes we stopped, set up our tent and gaped at the desert which spreads into China and marks the start of the Silk Road.
The Silk Road flourished under the Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan encouraged trade between east and west, ensured the protection of traders and travellers and opened the way for an exchange of goods, trade, technology cultures, religion, philosophy and knowledge from China to Europe, Persia, India and Africa. Genghis pretty much owned and fostered the Silk Road. His successors followed suit and only with the collapse of the Mongol Empire did the Silk Road start to crumble along with it.
Despite its eventual collapse, the Silk Road kicked off globalisation, the first link between the far east and west. Curious travellers made the journey thousands of years ago on horse and camel back, and we can still follow in their hoof-steps today – exploring new lands, finding new trails and ever-changing backdrops. Take the Silk Road and it’ll feel like you’re riding through new worlds as you watch the landscapes, people and terrain change every day.
Luckily you don’t need to be a trader to travel the Silk Road anymore, and you don’t have to worry about the Golden Horde or bow and arrow wielding horsemen – although it helps to take a few sweets to trade for high-fives with kids along the way. All you need is a motorcycle and a tent and you can take on the world’s first adventurer’s route – the legendary Silk Road.
Want to ride the Silk Road? Here’s how you can
HAVEN’T GOT TIME TO RIDE THE WHOLE WAY?
It’s about 10,000 miles from the UK to Mongolia through the Stans, so don’t panic if you can’t get the time off work. Just fly out to Kyrgyzstan and head to MuzToo in Osh. You’ll find Oibek Sadykbaev, the manager there.
You can rent a Yamaha XT600E for around £60 a day (prices are negotiable dependent on your rental time), including tools, oil, tubes, panniers, and fully comprehensive insurance. From there you can ride around Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and even to Mongolia if you fancy it!
And if you don’t feel like riding alone then jump on one of their week-long tours for £1,700 per person. It’s the complete package including; bike, servicing, hotels, food, support vehicle, insurance and kit.
Central Asia is incredibly cheap to travel in. Standard accommodation and private rooms are about £10 a night, petrol is cheap and food is even cheaper. If you want to spend next to nothing then camp and cook your own food and you can live on £5 a day.
WHAT ABOUT BRIBES AND THE POLICE?
After months of travelling through the Stans we didn’t pay a single bribe and we weren’t asked for a penny. If you are stopped, play it cool, stand your ground and don’t hand over any cash. If you are in the wrong and were caught speeding don’t fret, the fine will be a lot cheaper than in Europe.
WHAT ABOUT PAPERWORK?
You’re in luck! From Europe, through West Asia, Central Asia, Mongolia and Russia you don’t need an expensive Carnet De Passage (which you will need if you head to Africa, India, Pakistan, South East Asia and Australia). But you will need to buy third party insurance at most of the borders and pay for customs. Insurance is around £10 for the month and customs is much the same. There are plenty of companies willing to drive your bike back to the UK from Mongolia or Russia, or you can always chuck it on the train.
It’s worth getting personal travel insurance from your home country before you leave. Make sure it covers motorcycle travel as your main form of transport and allows you to ride a bike over 125cc. The small print catches a lot of riders out on those two points.
You don’t even need a visa for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have excellent websites where you submit an online form and receive your electronic visas the next day, just print it out and you’re done. You can get your Mongolian visa from the Mongol embassy in Kazakhstan in about 10 minutes or get it from home before you leave. If you’re heading to Russia then definitely get your visa at home unless you’re happy with a 10-day max transit visa.