Our Silk Road

When Kerry last left you, we had just exited Iran, our heart still beating, breathing solidly and our humour and spirits intact. There were a couple of moments that all four seemed in jeopardy but not to be. The Whizzers roll on.

By now, I guess some would question our sanity or why we ever departed on the Mongol Rally, termed ‘the greatest motoring event on the planet’.

I suppose, we could say that we were each both born with a healthy dose of inquisitiveness, we are two extreme optimists, that we are just a little bit mad and/or, that we did not fully appreciate the challenges and distances involved in taking two tiny motorcycles 2/3 of the way around the globe’s northern land mass.

There is a little bit of all of those, no doubt. Yet now, having made it into Tajikistan, well past the half way mark, we can bless all of these factors for getting us here. It has been an amazing journey of challenges for sure, but most significantly, it has given us the opportunity to see so many cultures, how they blend (or not, in some cases) from west to east. As well, the way people live and the environments that support them. To glimpse and to attempt to understand so much of human history and how it has been shaped by conflict, by environment and by politics and religion.

For us it has turned out to be more than that. We have been utterly surprised at the interest in ourselves by so many, across so many cultures. And when I say ourselves, I mean people like us. We could be anyone, and are, doing this trip. But the generosity, the openness, the welcome we have received has been amazing. Our Australian ‘passport’ (nationality) has helped us immensely. I should not underestimate that. Everywhere we go we hear, “Where are you from?”. Australia!. “Ohhh”, thumbs up, “kangaroo”. It has helped us a bridge many communication impasses to have kangaroos painted on both sides of our helmets.

Back to why we are here. Speaking for myself, I had long evolved thoughts of doing the silk road on a motorcycle. Well not that long, given my youthfulness, but for some time. I just always thought it would be from the east, heading from Xian in China, west.

After reading and learning about the Mongol Rally, this sounded like a perfect opportunity to combine a silk road adventure into the event. The Mongol Rally is the signature event organsied by The Adventurists, a small collection of ‘poms’ with a sense of adventure, and obviously, a large dose of the much loved and quite special, British eccentricity and self depreciating, ‘take the piss’ humor they do so well.

On this, I will quote a response by the Adventurists, to a question on how, as was claimed to have been spotted on the road somewhere in the northern hemisphere, a late model Toyota Landcruiser sporting Mongol Rally stickers had managed to enter the rally:

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but at least try and do it with some style. As everyone under the sun should know, the entire point of the Mongol Rally is to take the least sensible vehicle you can find and drive it a quarter of the Earth’s surface to the far reaches of Russia.

The adventure you’re welcomed with by driving something completely unreliable, something completely ridiculous and something completely fucking excellent is something to warm your cockles for a lifetime.

A moment of silence then for these poor, pathetic creatures that were recently spotted near the Alat Port. It must be heart-wretchedly sad to have such little enthusiasm for life that they not only have to pretend to be on the Mongol Rally but can’t even bring themselves to pretend to do it in a vehicle that is up to the task.

Imagine their journey. It has zero bumps, zero breakdowns. It probably involves actual AC that isn’t a hole where their windscreen used to be. They have probably booked all their generic and wholly dull accommodation in advance, safe in the knowledge that their terrible choice of vehicle will no doubt make it there completely unscathed. They probably won’t eat anything that hasn’t come out of a packet. It’s unlikely that they’ll even get to speak to any locals, yet alone embrace the culture as one only can when your axle snaps in the middle of a river and you have to use the kindness and resourcefulness of some friendly villagers to patch it back up.

They are the dizzying heights of embarrassment for their own poor, tortured souls.

If you’re the people in this vehicle then do yourselves a favour and remove the Mongol Rally logo from your car, because each time you look at it, a little more of your souls will likely wither and perish as you realise that your entire existence is quite simply a bit of a farce. If you want to do the Mongol Rally properly then please get in touch. We shall warmly welcome you to the bosom of adventurism and can recommend a whole plethora of incredible vehicles that won’t make you look like a bunch of scared children wearing slightly-browned underpants.

That explains the reason for the tiny bikes or tiny cars. Just that, of the 350+ teams on the rally this year, the largest ever Mongol Rally, the Whizzers are on/in easily the tiniest vehicles. And, bar a couple that have gone via Scandinavian countries before heading south on the southern route, also the longest route.

We set off from south of London with a shared sense that we knew western culture, that, in our minds, our trip would start in Turkey. How naïve we were. Neither of us had been to France, Kerry never to Europe at all and, for me, I had spent a little time in Germany and the UK but would not pretend to know these places first hand, only via media and other sources.

We were immediately in for a huge surprise on many fronts. Firstly, France. What an enchanting welcome we had to continental Europe. The farms, the cereal harvest in full swing, the golden fields of wheat and barley, organized operations, neat, tidy and, at least as far as we observed, efficiently run. And Dijon, as Kerry wrote in an earlier post, as French as we could imagine. A sense that here are people living lives with purpose. Passion for their craft, whatever it is, their food, what they produce and what they sell. Specialty shops for example – selling one thing, an expert behind each counter.

Onto the Swiss alps. Like a Swiss watch or Roger Federer, everything was precise, perfect, just worked – the roads, the bridges, the simplicity in doing things. Every road we ascended or descended, the grade constant, the surface unblemished. Organized and clean. The architecture, everything new very much in keeping with tradition blending traditional and modern materials into structures that never looked out of place. And expensive.

From there, through Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, we were surprised they all held so much interest for us both given we had initially looked them over, in our minds, towards countries and cultures we considered more foreign.

Then on to eastern Europe countries of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia and Bulgaria. All three felt very eastern European to us. B&H still recovering from civil war in the 1990’s and many traditional ways of doing things remain.

On into Greece. Immediately crossing the border from Bulgaria, it felt like we were in the west again. More a feeling that can’t really be put into words – merely perception – the roads, the cars, the way they farmed, the manner in which people went about their business.

I wont bore you with a country by country, blow by blow account of all these, but, suffice to say, we have watched, day in day out, faces and body shapes, skin color and body language, change as we have moved east, crossed borders, south, then back north again into the old soviet states of Georgia and Armenia.

We have had immense pleasure engaging with people in an extraordinary manner – far beyond our expectations and each, a mutual interaction, most often initiated by those we have met – unless we are lost. We do get lost a lot.

The constant attention we attract is due to a number contributing factors.

Firstly, we are on tiny bikes, bright, adorned by highly visible packs – we look like the oddest silk road traders of all time.

We have Kerry’s route maps, Whizzers’ logo and stickers adorning our top boxes – mirror imaged on each bike so all the details can be seen on one or the other bike from one side.

We, sorry, I, have a girl, on a motorbike, riding 18,000km to Mongolia and beyond. People look at me, look at Kerry, look back at me, smile, then give me the thumbs up. Very funny!

In a nutshell, people attempting this adventure on scooters is one thing, a women on a motorcycle, another thing, a women, doing 18,000km across 23 countries from London, the full monty southern silk road route via Iran, the Pamir, Mongolia to Siberia – barley comprehensible to many people we have met.

And we are Aussies. That is a brand well worth trumpeting and we never miss out on a smile, a cheer, a high five or a clear demonstration of goodwill, when we do.

As is normal I guess, you find yourself comparing countries with our own, how free they are, or how free you feel them to be, for example, is a recurring comparison. Several things contribute to these feelings – the people you meet, how connected they are to merely surviving, day to day, their political system, the openness of borders, income/affordability for people to travel are all examples.

We found Turkmenistan a little strange and others have commented to us similarly. Most of the workforce works for government – around 90%. All large agricultural enterprises are government owned. Akin to a communist collective. Often menial work and labour intensive. Many countries still retain extremely labour intensive practices throughout their services, construction and farming enterprises but here, it just felt different with little apparent self determination in your house design, your work and others. I may well be disingenuous here – just how it felt to us.

Buildings and cites appear as if designed with a certain naivety, with no sense of freedom or expression. Buildings, all symmetrical, with endless supply of green, white and gold paint. All the sparkling new flats, houses, each the same, symmetrical in them selves and in their layout, green roofs that from a distance look like valleys full of aqua lakes. Statues, statues and more statues. All symmetrical.

Roads swept in the cites by women, manually, yet national roads, between major center’s, deeply potholed that you could lose your posty bike in. The trucking network should be cursing with excessive maintenance and slow movements.

Police everywhere. Road stops every 25km or so. Very friendly, just odd to us. Basically a government run nation. Large agriculture still owned by the state as it often was in the communist days and it shows. Huge amount of water waste and crops, covering massive irrigated areas, all look poorly managed with soils generally appearing to be depleted of just about everything. That much of central Asia has been somewhat unstable politically overtime, no doubt, is part of reason for the close watch and control. What is clear to me, there is no long term future in this form of control for people or economies.

Uzbekistan ‘feels’ a much nicer place to be. Still a great legacy deficit left over from the soviet days. Poor infrastructure, run down. Traditional ways of doing things remain. But people own things – property, farms, they are allowed to travel and many can, be educated elsewhere and have ambitions well beyond the next days struggle. Yet some farming operations, one or two we saw, grapes and apples, looked modern, large scale and well managed, with not a donkey and cart in sight.

As well, they have a favorable Green card lottery program with the US and many 10’s of thousands of Uzbeks have won that lottery.

Many of these former soviet countries lost industries and access to markets in the breakup but clearly those with the most open political system, with market reforms underway, engaging more widely, are doing well.

For centuries, the silk road was about trade, but not only about trade. Culture and technology exchanges, from east to west and back, from a human development perspective is what we ‘live’ today. We have both developed a strong sense, along the way, that we are doing our little bit for this progress. This might be no more than to see a women riding a motorcycle, through Iran. Women are not allowed to ride motorcycles in Iran. It might be a lot more!

So I have bored you long enough. Just two other note worthy observations.

Firstly, we have both been really impressed and heartened with the relaxed and liberal interpretation of Islam in Iran. That members, sisters, of one family could express their religious beliefs in such different ways suggests self determination and not doctrine. That was interesting as we had anticipated a more unwavering religious culture. The media in the west gets so much wrong. Poor dears!

Another surprise, Central Asia, in particular, Iran, but others to a lesser degree (mainly because governments are at least looking to open their economies), the complete disconnect between the rhetoric emanating from government and the will of the people with respect to international relations and goodwill to people the world over. Sadly, we did not feel this so strongly in eastern Europe but, as Dylan wrote, “the times they are a-changin”. Slowly.

3 thoughts on “Our Silk Road

  1. Thank you Peter & Kerrie….. WE are getting great enjoyment from emails & blogs… doing some reminiscing, too with some of your experiences.

    It seems most of the world is keen to meet Aussies, hope it always remains that way.

    Women travelers ( especially those brave enough to ride) are a real event.

    In recent years we have found much interest in our age, “people your age don’t travel independently. “

    Great update , Peter. Keen to hear how travel through the mountains goes… or rather how the mighty machines go.

    We laughed at the ‘modern “ vehicle in the rally. A bigger laugh if they don’t finish.

    Have you got room on your mantelpiece for your bikes when you return ?

    Best wishes.. Love from Mum & Dad


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