Dual Tue 05 March 2019

Motorcycling along the Ancient Silk Road

“For centuries from the abandonment of the Silk Road, the line from the Turkmen Kara Kum desert to the Takla Makan desert in the Chinese Turkestan, has beenone of the least travelled on Earth. Quite suddenly, in the early years of the last century, some of the foremost – and more visionary - explorers of ancient things decided, all together, to unearth the civilizations that were said to be buried, and intact, under the sand.”
Peter Hopkirk - Foreign Devils on the Silk Road

For some years now, I've been organizing and accompanying motorcycle tours here and there around the world, from the USA, to Tunisia, to Morocco to New Zealand and South Africa, Himalayas, North Cape, Albania, Ireland ... in short, anywhere you can go on a bike.

And just by coincidence, one morning (I still remember it as if it were yesterday!) I get a phone call from Dr. Pierpaolo Pozzi of company Riso Principe who announces that he and Dr. Gianluca Pesceof company Riso Scotti would be pleased to meet with me to plan the Transhimalayan tour in Laddack, as a Riso Scotti Spa company tour. We met and got along nicely right from the start!!! It was early April 2016 and I immediately set to work: planning and organizing everything to perfection for such an important trip, where I would accompany 16 motorcyclists including Dr. Dario Scotti in Laddack to conquer the Kardungh La Pass, at 5,700 meters, as part of a company project such as Riso Scotti Feed the planet. In short, not really a joke.

Well, if I think about it now, after finishing and completing the Transasiatica 2017, I smile. I smile remembering that wonderful journey and how concerned I was (and rightly so!!) for what we were up to!!

We hardly got back from this adventure that other ideas were flowing. I received a phone call from Dr. Fish who told me that in June we would be leaving again. We had to plan an even more extraordinary journey than the one we just got back from!! The initial idea was to ride to Samarkand ... "Fantastic" I thought at first....

I started thinking about it ... yes, Samarkand is an unskippable destination for a bike trip but ... there were a few "but" whirling in my mind .... like: "it's not enough". “Already heard of”. “Already done”. I called Gianluca (Dr. Gianluca Pesce) and hit him with my plan: "Gianluca, what do you say if instead of stopping in Samarkand we continued up to Kashgar, in China, along the ancient Silk Road of Marco Polo? "He remained silent for a moment" I'll call you back soon "was the answer. And he called me back soon enough. We were on: we immediately began to plan the Transasiatica 2017, i.e. what would be one of the greatest travel experiences: 6 countries and 6 frontiers among the most bureaucratic in the world: Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and finally China!!!

It took 6 months to prepare the trip during which the organizational effort was huge: applying forall the visas and for permits for the motorcycle for each border, to avoid hitches, or worse, no entry bans!! Can you imagine what having 22 bikes and 22 people stuck in some border would have meant?????

Booking all the flights, overnight stays, transport of motorcycles from Italy to Iran and China, first from Kashgar to Beijing and then from Beijing to Italy. Organizing gas supply for 22 motorcycles for about 2500 km. Consider that in Turkmenistan, and especially in Uzbekistan, it is almost impossible to find gasoline in standard gas stations.

And then the journey: over 4000 km to be covered riding on dirt or poorly maintained "roads". From the Turkmen desert, to the plains of Uzbekistan up to the amazing Pamir Highway, which is Highway only in name: one of the most beautiful roads in the world made of dirt, river fords, rocks!! Absolutely unmissable!!! To be done at least once in your life for those of you who love riding!

Bike chosen: 22 Guzzi V7 III Stone bikes!!! Definitely not the right bike for a trip and for roads like that but, lo and behold, once again another great Italian brand proved to be more than up to the situation. That bike never lost a beat during the whole trip!! It took on all kinds of roadsunflinchingly!! A true gem.

I can deny that I worried and took care of a lot both before and during the trip. I felt totallyresponsible for the success of such an enterprise. The Silk Road can be made. There are many solo bikers travelling on it, maybe only the Pamir Highway. But to do it with 22 bikes and 22 riders is a whole different story.

And so we get together on June 14, 2017 at the Malpensa airport in Milan. Luggage, motorcycle suits, helmets. Ready to leave for Mashad, which is considered the Islamic capital of Iran, located about 70 km from the Turkmen border where our bikes were waiting for us and where the adventure would begin.

Beside the adventure in itself, crossing six countries, two deserts and three mountain passes over 4,000 meters high, the purpose of this 'once in a lifetime' journey is to deliver humanitarian aid to Uzbekistan, one of the poorest countries amongst those born after the USSR split in 1991, whichalso counts the “stone fortress” among its treasures. This is the destination of the 2017 solidarity adventure of the Riso Scotti team, passing through the 15 stages of this itinerary that starts from Mashhad, in Iran, and arrives in Kashgar, in China, crossing Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. As soon as we leave Mashad along the road that leads to the mountains on the border with Turkmenistan, it feels like there is still the echo of the caravans that crossed Central Asia to bring silk and spices to Europe. Faded treasures and magnificence whose light still shines in the present, reflected in the majolica of the necropolis of Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand, capital of the ancient kingdom of Tamerlane. Since 2001 the Uzbek city, one of the oldest in the world, is listed in the Unesco Heritage with the title of Crossroads of cultures. But what strikes most in all these countries is the mix of ethnic groups, languages and roots. It can be seen in the faces of those living in the yurts in the desert of Turkmen Karakum or in that of Taklamakan, in Uighur’s China, an ethnic group with Chinese nationality but Turkish speaking and Islamic. All heirs of buried civilizations, intact under the sand, to be rediscovered along these routes that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, were (re) charted by scholars and adventurers who wanted to retrace the footsteps of the merchants. Since then, the myth of the Silk Road shines again.

The first hurdle presents itself right at the beginning: the Iran-Turkmenistan border. Two barracks located opposite to one another in the middle of nowhere, far away from everything. Certificates, visas, passes for people and motorcycles. All scrupulously drawn up by hand. Infinite inspections ofthe bikes and of our luggage, 11 hours patiently spent waiting for a few nods of approval. Finally, at 7 pm they let us in; a totally unknown country, hidden from mass tourism, welcomes us. And thenAshgabat the capital. The reminds you of a Pyongyang but much more lavish: gold and wealth everywhere against a virtually non-existent population. No cars. No motorcycles. And the next day, off we go crossing the Karakum desert for the whole length of the country. A tongue of asphalt in very poor conditions, and 50°C, to reach the intermediate stage: Darwaza, "The Door of Hell", i.e. an old gas field exploded in 1961 that is still burning generating a beam of light that reaches the sky, in the middle of the desert of sand where we stay overnight.

From Turkmenistan we enter Uzbekistan practically at Khiva (and even in this case customs weren’t a joke) we go to the ancient Bukhara and finally the mirage of Samarkand. We left from Mashhad 8 days ago, but it feels like we’ve been travelling for ages. The infernal heat along streets reduced to a sieve, make Samarkand seem the right final destination, but we didn’t know that the most exciting and spectacular part of the trip had yet to come.

Once we enter Tajikistan, one of the most beautiful roads to ride on awaits us: the M41 Highway, better known as Pamir Highway, and is a "Highway" only in name. It is called Pamir, but its real name is Bam-i-Dunya, which in Persian means "The roof of the world". And once the journey starts you know why. The road winds through the plateau surrounded by majestic peaks over 7000 meters high that are the real attraction of the country. Pamir is a vast plateau, from which the most imposing and majestic mountain ranges of the earth branch out: the Hindukush to the northwest, the Tien Shan to the northeast, the Karakorum and the Himalayas to the southeast. And it’s one of the most extraordinary experiences for a motorcyclist: to travel the Pamir Highway - M41, the second highest road in the world, after Karakorum. It was built by the Russians in the 30s, to facilitate the transport of troops to the remote outposts of the Soviet Empire and is still the most evocative of the region. The road, although at times both rough and badly damaged by erosion and landslides, after flanking the Afghan border for 600 km, climbs through a series of plateaus with extraordinary mountain views, deep turquoise lakes and valleys as far as the eye can see, lunar landscapes, herds of horses and yaks, ancient tombs, thermal springs and remote yurts encampments until it reaches the wonderful Karakul Lake near the border with Kirgizstan, the country of the last nomads. After the last stage we are finally in China, the arrival in Kashgar, one of the first strongholds along the ancient Silk Road.

It was a challenging journey, but we did it. Through the thousand difficulties that make a journeyunique, without them it would be just a trip. Not this one, this was something much bigger. A pure adventure. Concerns yes, of the type that keep you alert and attentive, that keep the adrenaline high. And we did it mainly because of the team spirit built amongst the members of the group. "The determination of people is what makes great feats possible".

Text and photos: Andrea Alessandrelli
Video: Marco Polo TV

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