'Stan And Deliver!
Australian Road Rider|July/August 2018

Brian and Shirley tackle one of the world’s most exotic routes – the Silk Road — and the multitude of countries ending in “Stan”. It’s tough. But so are they…

Brian Rix

The queue of trucks at the border between Russia and Kazakhstan is kilometres long, but they wave us through. We’re now travelling with French Canadian Damien Fauchet and his BMW R1200 GSA fitted with a Ural sidecar. He wanted company crossing the ’Stans. Leaving Western Russia is a simple enough process of passports, stamps and forms, a ride across no man’s land and we’re in Kazakhstan. Again, a simple border process and we’re on the road, well sort of road.

Since the old USSR dissolved in 1991 there’s been no maintenance to speak of. Potholes big enough to swallow Damien and his sidecar mean slow progress. While this is desert country, it does rain sometimes. A downpour brings another road hazard. There are no drains or run-off in the towns so paddling in axle-deep water is an interesting change from the dust and sand. I follow cars and trucks where I can, just in case there’s a hidden hole under water.

The desert landscape is broken up only by cemeteries manufactured out of mud and concrete, camels, goats and the occasional town. I wonder what this country was like when apples were first grown and discovered here by the Silk Road traders. It’s a barren landscape now. Riding into towns do ed across this ancient trading route, it’s easy to see the integration where east meets west in the Eurasian-looking faces.

We dash through the deserts of Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan, another country forged out of the old USSR and now seemingly abandoned by Russia here in the south. It’s getting hotter, hitting 40°C plus, and the roads are worse. It takes three hours to cover 80km and Damien’s sidecar is destroying itself as we head for the Aral Sea and the once thriving fishing village of Moynaq. The inland sea has now shrunk by 120km and abandoned fishing trawlers lie beached in the sand. The abuse of water by the USSR through the growing of rice and other water-hungry crops has destroyed the Aral Sea. Aussie pollies should take note before it’s too late.

We’re in the deserts that Silk Road traders trekked to bring themselves fame and fortune. They drove themselves, their camels and their slaves to near exhaustion and it’s not hard to see how easy that would be if you weren’t prepared out here. Even today, it could be hours before help arrives, very similar to our own outback. After the deserts, riding into the old Silk Road oases towns of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand is a real treat.

The town squares are still where people meet after sunset to share a shish pipe, tea or something stronger. And history is not far away; we find a block where slaves were sold to traders to move their exotic wares westward. Ornate buildings from that era are still here, festooned with the most magnificent turquoise tiles. Life has changed little and sitting in open-air cafes, watching amazing sunsets amid cool desert evenings burns into your soul.

After soaking up the history of Tamerlane, who made Genghis Khan look like a schoolboy, it’s time to head out into the deserts again. We’re heading into Tajikistan while Damien says goodbye and turns north. Some borders to Tajik are closed to foreigners so a 100km or so detour finally gets us into the land that borders Afghanistan.

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