2017 Transasian

On the tracks of Marco Polo: 4,000 KM along the silk and rice road, from Iran to China.

22 V7 III BIKES THROUGH 6 COUNTRIES, 3 MOUNTAIN PASSES, 2 DESERTS, 1 DREAM

For 18 days, beginning on 14 June, the Riso Scotti company will be on the road with an expedition of motorcyclists, travelling from Iran through 6 countries to China.

 

Approximately 4,000 km taking two historic Italian brands along the legendary Silk (and rice!) Road, for an extraordinary cultural initiative: accompanying Riso Scotti will be a fleet of 22 Moto Guzzi V7 III Stone motorcycles, which will take on three mountain passes at altitudes of more than 4,500 metres, the Karakum desert and the Door to Hell in Turkmenistan, the incredible Pamir Plateau along the Afghan border. Along the way, the expedition will cross six national borders: Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, with final destination Kashgar.

 

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LEG 17 - KASHGAR – GUANGZHOU: Our journey won’t end in Guangzhou

The flight to Guangzhou was very long, with the added inconvenience of air pockets resulting from unstable weather and tornados that, luckily, we could only see in the distance. Guangzhou welcomes us with a tropical climate, it’s like suddenly walking into a greenhouse considering the unbearable humidity levels! The city, with its 12 million inhabitants, appears immediately immense and is swarming with people as we reach the hotel and beg for dinner, at midnight.
 
The morning is dedicated to what is a very important meeting for us, with the General Manager of Piaggio China who joins us to celebrate the success of a trip that will go down in the history books of our two companies: an adventure that often pushed us and the bikes to extreme limits but, as they say, "there’s strength in numbers"! We told him about some of the highlights our journey, sharing our healthy pride in "having done it", us and our faithful Moto Guzzi V7 III Stones.
It was also an honour to have the Deputy Consul General of Guangzhou and his staff with us, as well as management from ICE, an institution that focuses on promoting the presence of Italian entrepreneurship in the area. The warm welcome we receive from them definitely adds to the trip, already extraordinary in itself, underlining the importance of two Italian strengths, food and engines, that come together in China. There’s no hiding the fact that we are very pleased!!
 
An exquisite lunch together, Cantonese-style, brings our morning to a close. Among the many delicacies they have us taste is real Cantonese rice (with no egg or peas, we were so sure!), the unmissable Peking duck and enormous, juicy lychees with a miniscule seed. One of the best things we’ve ever tasted, nothing like the tiny ones we find in Italy. They tell is that lychees of this quality mature in this very period and are only perfect for ten, fifteen days; the ones we’ve tasted are the first harvest.
 
This evening we will take the plane to Istanbul, and from there to Milan but first we throw ourselves into the "sauna" outside the hotel to head towards the medicinal market where they sell traditional Chinese remedies; they have everything, from live scorpions to dried frogs, from fawn hooves to dehydrated jellyfish! We are surrounded by a flood of bodies and vehicles, many of which are electric though less than the number we saw in Kashgar. And yet, in this chaos, the flow of human traffic seems almost orderly, taking a precise path as do we, with our curiosity, cameras and questions.
When it’s almost time to go, we scatter, suddenly realising, almost as one, that we will be back in Italy tomorrow and haven’t bought any gifts for friends or relatives! So, we get back on the bus that will take us to the airport damp with sweat, weary, but each with a souvenir for those who await us at home: pashminas, watches, some toys, a fan.
 
We’re at the airport, the time has come, we’re waiting for the flight to Istanbul. There is now an undeniable feeling of nostalgia. The days spent on the V7 III Stones, serious riders with our Dainese equipment, already seem like a distant memory. Our phones start ringing again and we reply, with talk of meetings, payments, accountants and the like. What can you do? This, in the end, is another thing that makes travelling so great. It’s only right that it comes to an end, otherwise it wouldn’t be a journey. The planning, the excitement of departing, the adventure, the conclusion, the nostalgia and the stories are all part of this "great game" of travelling. Things coming full circle, the only way they can be truly perfect.
We’re happy. Did we expect it to be like this? No. Did we expect it to be so tough? No. And this synergy? Not even this. Above all, we didn’t expect to find such a large portion of the world still so undamaged by the bloating of modern life, an enormous surprise for everyone, an immense gift. Our Moto Guzzi V7 III Stones have been the perfect travel companions, docile, as smooth as they needed to be, but also aggressive and able to dominate much more hostile roads than those for which they were designed. The same goes for Dainese, but in actual fact this is a confirmation. They truly deserve our heartfelt thanks, not least for having been a constant, reassuring presence along the entire 4000km route. 

See you again in Italy! 

LEG 16 - SARY TASH – IRKESHTAM – KASHGAR: We are in China, after 4000 km on the Silk Road!

The early alarm call is a blessing today.
It was really cold last night, after the previous days’ temperatures of almost 40 degrees, alleviated by passes almost 5000 m. high, we were not prepared. Kyrgyzstan welcomed us with its green, rain-soaked fields and temperatures of around 7-8 degrees, and we responded with a walk to Sary-Tash, where we stayed the night at a local family’s home, and then a race to hide away in our meal yurt, snuggled in front of the stove listening to the tales of our guide Beghaim.
 
We knew that today’s border, the one with China, would be a particularly tough one (though we didn’t realise how tough!), so we set our alarms for 5.30am, which would actually have been 4.30am, seeing that compared to Tajikistan, from where we’ve come, the hands of the clock move one hour forward. Anyway, once we emerge from under the covers we realise that during the night, the rain has become snow, leaving the mountainous peaks around us immaculate, with the Lenin Peack towering over them all. The dawn is tinged a touching pink, while the fields, still in shadow, begin to come to life beneath the feet of the Kyrgyz, who bring their cows and horses to the pasture.
 
The seats of our Moto Guzzi V7 III Stones are frozen, so right after breakfast we start to clean them and then we set off. The road towards the border is a black belt twisting through the pure white of the frost and mountain snow, a crazy change of perspective after the red rock of Pamir! Despite being short on time, particularly our friend Paolo who has a plane to catch in China, we cannot resist and stop to admire the view and satisfy the photographers who are trembling in the van behind us. Truly a unique site, the best way Kyrgyzstan could find to make us realise that just one day within its borders was far too little, and that it deserves a closer look. We take this as an invitation, one even our guide Beghaim makes us promise to keep, in the sincere hope that we are able to return.
 
Our adventure is coming to an end, but it’s not yet time for nostalgia. We still have 180 km to cover to reach Kasghar, our Chinese destination. But separating us from our coveted destination is… the border, worse than the sea! Hours and hours of repeating the same things: passports, check-in, luggage control. Each time we hope that it’s the last and each time we are left disappointed. There is, once again, no shortage of inconvenience: we have to cross some sections of “no man’s land”, several kilometres in length, and the photographers and operators must do so on foot… well they should do that but actually, feeling guilty, we go back and pick them up with the bikes, pulling their wheeled bags behind like wobbly, makeshift carts. Not to mention the truck on which we had loaded our heaviest bags, spare bike wheels and various equipment – as it is crossing “no mans’ land”, it completely loses its rear axle while taking an uphill corner! And we’re off, back and forth with the V7 III Stones to retrieve our bags and bring them to the Chinese border, while the poor driver, incredulous and grief-stricken, takes in his crippled vehicle, stuck in the middle of nowhere. It’s not exactly nowhere though, as the landscape is spectacular, with rocks modelled into absurd shapes by the wind that reach to the sky while snow-capped mountains form a distant backdrop.
 
The “style” of this border has nothing in common with the previous ones: it’s an enormous building site, a hive of activity, the asphalt an immaculate pool table, the gestures of the customs offers precise and mechanical.
The controls are much, much more meticulous than any other up until now: we spend hours in front of a machine that measures body temperature using infra-red; we spend another infinite period waiting for an enormous CAT machine to scan our Guzzi V7III Stones, one by one, followed by all our luggage… After an incalculable number of hours we finally enter Chinese territory and, worn out to be honest, we get back in the saddle, which we view as a kind of prize.
 
We enjoy these last kilometres knowing that about 80 km from our destination, Kashgar, we unfortunately have to part ways with our companions on this incredible trip… we really must. It’s time to say farewell to our Guzzi V7 III Stones. They have all reached their destination, proudly leaving the emergency vehicles that took turns accompanying us across the various countries unemployed. In supporting us on every road surface, every arduous route, without giving us problems of any kind, they have completed an epic feat, and they seem to know this. We say goodbye to them as if removing something that was a part of us, and we realise that we too have really arrived: we’re in China!
 

Kashgar is a thousand-year old city that was the gateway to the Silk Road and a commercial crossroads between Pakistan, India, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; silent electric scooters dart all around us, the roads are filled with the smell of spicy food, the illuminated signs with their Chinese ideograms and Arabic writing - owing to the proximity of the border - take the place of the setting sun. Tomorrow Guangzhou awaits us… 

LEG 15 - KARAKUL LAKE – SARY TASH: We are proud travellers, not tourists

Having “argued” with the rationed electricity and the absence of wi-fi, but feeling fresh after resting up in warm and welcoming surroundings despite the suddenly drop in temperature, we finally feel that we are exactly where we wanted to be: in a far-off place, experiencing a different life to the one we’re accustomed to and able to truly travel, rather than simply being tourists.

 
We get back on our Moto Guzzi V7 III Stones, well wrapped up considering that the climate is now significantly colder. Our first destination today is Karakul lake, an immense salt water basin that was created after a meteorite impact, roughly 10 million years ago. The road continues to be a series of incredible paintings created by mother nature herself. Today we have only 150 kilometres ahead of us, but the stretch is so intense as to feel more like 400, or 1000, an infinite distance…
 
How long have we been here? We don’t know any more, the days multiply and overlap, the number of landscapes we cross confuse time itself, which becomes an indistinguishable chain of emotions.
We continue north of Murghab through a “neutral” fenced zone between Tajikistan and China, climbing 4665 m. up the Ak-Baital Pass, the White Horse pass, the highest point on our transasiatic adventure. This region is almost completely uninhabited, every so often we see some vague outlines and ask ourselves whether they are “Marco Polo” sheep, an indigenous and protected species. The lake appears in the distance, at the end of a vertiginous straight, like a cobalt blue blade that slices between the brown line of the stony ground and the blueish profile of the snow-capped peaks in the background.
 
Today we pass two borders, all the while enveloped by breath-taking scenery. The photographers and videographers continue to experience the “pleasure and pain” as we’re calling it. Pleasure because it’s all so stunning, pain because it really seems that they have no chance to put their equipment down: every time they think they’ve taken the “shot of the day”, they turn around to find something even more beautiful, and proceed to take a thousand more pictures and videos!
 
The first border is that of Tajiko, at the Kyryl Art Pass, 63 km from Karakul. An outpost that seems calm, with cylinder-shaped containers for the soldiers who, perhaps in an attempt to ward off the nothingness, have built themselves a rudimentary volleyball court at the side of the road. We all ask to keep our Pamir entry visas, with our names written in Cyrillic, an unmissable souvenir of which we’ll always be proud!
 
Along with our inseparable Moto Guzzi V7 III Stones, we cross the border in one piece and without having lost too much time; the road twists, the ferrous earth blood red as we pass a series of red, brown, green-tinted rock pinnacles. After just 10 km, having crossed an incredibly beautiful glacial valley and a small ford where we find a collapsed bridge, we come to the Kyrgyz border, which is much, much less calm.
It’s not that the military are aggressive towards us, but they scrupulously check us and take our mobile phones to delete any pictures of the valley leading up to the border. For the first time on this trip, we are asked to open our luggage; the SUV driver who accompanies us is questioned about the spare tyre in the boot of his vehicle. The wheel detached as we travelled the Afghan border, after a jerk caused by the countless potholes, but they don’t want to hear the reasons and start with a thousand questions: “What’s inside? Why is it not in its place? What are you hiding? Do you think you can trick us like this?” Then, finally, they let us go, though our Kyrgyz guide has to stay behind with all our passports to deal with the endless formalities.
 
Kyrgyzstan welcomes us with an abrupt change on all fronts; the climate becomes colder, despite the fact we’ve descended by almost 1000 m., and we are forced to put the winter linings into our Dainese jackets, as well as heavy socks inside our boots (we mentally bless the Dainese technicians for their care, having insisted that we were fully equipped prior to departure!).
The landscape features mountains that are less rugged and less imposing, but more luscious and so very green.
 
We are surrounded by immense flocks of sheep with shepherds on horseback, endless pastures, smatterings of yurts; every so often the odd wild donkey; dark-skinned children chase after us with glee. Even the somatic features are very different: almond-shaped eyes, darker skin, thin fingers.
At lunchtime, we sit down in a yurt and, as is tradition, start nibbling at cakes accompanied with boiling tea. It’s not so late when we reach Sary Tash and once again we spend the night at a local home, on a sort of mattress on the floor, a little softer than that of last night. But it little matters, we enjoy this last incredible starry night in Pamir, entranced… Tomorrow we’ll leave here and travel towards China.

LEG 14 - MURGHAB – KARAKUL LAKE: Along with the effort and the pure beauty of nature, we find serenity, friendship and happiness

Immersed in this nature that encircles us, towers over us, we try to get a handle on what Pamir really is… It is something distant, immense, intimate and wonderful. We spend two days in these protective mountains that seem to multiply surfaces and viewpoints. A continuous series of shimmering panoramas; we could never have believed that the words plateau and mountain could appear in such a variety of shapes, colours, equilibriums and emotions.
 
The M41, better known as the Pamir Highway, was built by the Soviets between 1931 and 1934, with the aim of moving military men and vehicles quickly; up until then, troops had moved on foot, at enormous cost in terms of effort and logistical limits. The engineers who constructed it could never have imagined what a great gift they were bestowing on the world!
 
Except for the terrifying Jelandy- Bulunkul stretch, the road is tarmacked, but we almost prefer the dirt sections, as at least there we are not surprised by unexpected potholes and bumps, truly dangerous.
We are travelling at just a little over 20 km/h; some of us, the more fearless, get up to 50 km/h; our arms are tired, though it is our backs that are actually bearing the brunt of the humps and uneven surfaces over which the wheels of our Guzzi V7 III Stones are moving! But we don’t feel anything, thanks to the great stability of the bike; every time we stop, we speak only of our uncontainable, sincere amazement at all this beauty that has been made available to us. Pamir is known to the locals, mainly Kyrgyz shepherds, as the “Bam-i-Dunya”, which literally translates as “Roof of the World”. Never has a definition been so fitting: it’s the first thing that comes to mind as we travel these peaks, slide between the red stone rills, pass around ice-cold, crystal watercourses resulting from the surrounding glaciers.
 
The name Pamir derives from ancient Persian and could be translated as “undulating pastures”. We don’t see many actual pastures, as the land we’re crossing is barren for the most part, although alongside the waterways the land becomes an intense green with flowers and even a few fruit trees in the few villages along the road.
 
Together with our Moto Guzzi V7 III Stones we go from valley to valley, one pass after another, when all of a sudden, the road becomes stony and uneven. The Koi-Teztek pass, 4272 m. high, introduces us to a lunar-type scene, different to what we’ve seen up until now, rugged, desert-like and interspersed with a series of snow-capped peaks. After about forty kilometres of careful riding, almost as tiresome as the potholes themselves, the path starts to descend steeply, offering us an indescribable view, from on high, of the desolate landscape surrounding two salt lakes.
 
It is an expanse that is impossible to take in with just two eyes, let alone with cameras and video cameras… no description, no words can ever aptly sum up that sensation of the immense! The videographers and photographers travelling with us know it too and, after having filmed and snapped away like crazy for hours, they suddenly put down their equipment and simply enjoy the show in silence alongside us.
 
But let’s try and offer up at least a few details. Murghab, at an altitude of 3650 m., is immersed in a vast, grassy plain striped with watercourses and dotted with waterholes; this totally isolated town, in the wild eastern part of Tajikistan seems beautiful, despite the bare, box-like houses and high voltage cables crisscrossing between them.
We take time to visit the Bazaar, a collection of metal containers from which a kaleidoscope of foods and colours are being sold. The life that moves around us appears not to notice us, except for the kids who rush to say “hello, hello”. There are women drawing water from the wells, elderly people with the typical pointed hat strolling calmly, some who eat fruit and traditional fried bread at the roadside.
 
The village where we stop to sleep has a mysterious, almost supernatural air. Located at an altitude of 3914 m., it has a population of 600, most of whom are of Kyrgyz ethnicity. We are warmly welcomed by a local family in their home; basic but extremely clean, with electricity only in the evening and an outside bathroom. In reality, the bathroom is a “hole” in the ground, inside a shed. There are no sewage systems here, no running water. Now, try to imagine a large group of people, two drivers and two guides, many of whom have only known each other for a few days, who are sharing two outdoor latrines and simple beds laid out on the ground, after having ridden for hours on dirt tracks. In our ‘normal’ lives, if you had suddenly suggested this to us, we would probably have reacted very differently; but instead here we are, doing things we never thought possible and realising that we’re actually enjoying it all immensely. And that we are a group of friends.

There are more stars tonight than in any work of fiction… 

LEG 13 - KHOROG – MURGHAB: Magisterial mother nature takes charge

Dear friends, today the connection is poor, only working in fits and starts unfortunately, so we can only send a few hints about our trip. This won’t get us down though and we’ll try to transfer at least some of our emotions, as we use all our “Italian congeniality” to briefly share the hot spot at a welcoming bar where we take solace for a while before continuing to clock up hundreds of kilometres through this surreal landscape.
 
The road is truly fantastic for our Moto Guzzi V7 III Stones and deserves a place among the world’s most beautiful. We ride for an uninterrupted 350 km, across the Pamir Plateau, surrounded by a landscape that continues to change. Imagine the Dolomites, Gran Canaria, Corsica, Switzerland, mix them together, raise them to the nth degree and you’ll still be a long way from the visual impact that these places have.
 
Places in which we meet people of all kinds: children selling fermented horse’s milk, nomadic families, enormous flocks of goats, herds of yak and friendly orange marmots, unconventional travellers with even less conventional means… it’s all a little out of this world!
We have another unscheduled stop during this phase of the trip, a potentially dangerous one that fortunately causes no harm to anyone… Italo and his bike hit a cow! The poor thing falls to the ground, before getting straight back up and running away, unscathed (though a little annoyed by these strange intruders). Italo, incredulous, manages to stay upright, without knowing whether to thank his lucky stars, the stability of the Guzzi V7 III Stone, his riding ability or the agility of the cow… we’ll try to document it over the coming days!
 
We cross the highest point along the 4270-metre high pass, immersed in absolutely nothing. Just silence, the rustle of the wind and, OK, our excited voices, as hyper as children!
We sleep in a hotel in Murghab, at the significant altitude of 3630 metres. With us are many other on the road travellers, with overloaded bikes, tandems, bicycles… they all diligently remove their shoes before entering and enjoy the genuine simplicity of this place. You feel the altitude, and how! As soon as we make even the slightest physical effort or break into a short run while taking picture after picture in the most evocative spot, we realise we’re out of breath and need to regulate our breathing. This too is fantastic!

What is not so fantastic, or rather what is an unusual experience is having dead computers and phones and not being able to charge them: no electricity tonight folks! Only sky, mountains and magisterial nature, none of which requires any technology! 

LEG 12 - KALAI HUMB – KHOROG: Immersed in a dream, Pamir

If we were to choose a word for each day, today’s word would no doubt be “adventure.
 
A nine-hour drive on our Moto Guzzi V7III Stone bikes, practically without breaks, along the rushing waters of the Pyanj River, one of the largest rivers in Asia, which marks the boundary between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. We have 335 km of mainly unpaved road with no protection before us, the path is often exposed to the fierce water that seems eager to eat up the road with its currents and whirlpools. And if that weren’t enough, add the fact that this road, inaccurately dubbed Highway M341, is the only connection to the Pamir plateau and is therefore used by numerous articulated lorries, especially from China, that show up suddenly behind sharp turns. At a certain point near Kharaburabad Pass, it started raining heavily; the tributaries of the Pyanj flooded the unpaved road offering us the thrill of having to wade through the river several times. Fortunately, our Dainese gear, besides being safety gear, also shelters us from soaking up the incessant rain and the splashes of mud from below.  
 
The Bartang valley offers infinite contradictory scenes: bright green villages stand out amid the steep slopes of the valley. The children we meet along the road run up to us for a high five. At several points, the red rocks give way to beautiful scenes of the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush (Killer of the Hindus), which marks the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
 
Afghanistan is right there, in some sections not more than 30-40 metres away, tempting us to try and cross one of the few bridges, but unfortunately it is the final period of Ramadan, the ultimate sacred moment, and we’re told that there’s no way. It’s a pity, we would have loved to share our simple message of peace and unity among peoples, with no conflicts and no borders. But there are borders, and we have no choice but to respect them.
 
The landscape is harsh and primitive, we are in one of the wildest and most spectacular locations in all of west Pamir. The fertile flood plain offers the few splotches of green, decked with purple flowers and set against the rusty red colour of the mountains.
 
We stopped for lunch in village that abuts the turbulent river. The restaurant is dark, but welcoming. It’s owned by a friendly woman who let Gianluca step into the kitchen and prepare an extraordinary omelette with onions, surprising and delightful.
 
Journeys like these invert roles and put everyone on the same basic plain as friends and collaborators. Anyway, the omelette was delicious, or maybe we were just starving! And lunch ended with the traditional watermelon. A few of us seem ready to collapse: read any guidebook, they all say that some bikers are able to cross the valley in a few days; we did it in one day, from dawn to dusk!
 
Forgive our overblown ego, but riding here makes us feel a little more grateful and a little more like heroes. No one is willing to give in to the “humiliation” of having their bike loaded onto the van that’s escorting us, so we all continue riding together on the road of our dreams. Our Guzzi V7III Stone bikes perform wonderfully, despite the extremely damaged roads, with all the potholes and the soil made slippery by the water.
 
Unbelievably, we got to Khorg perfectly on time and, despite being at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters, it’s a comfortable 20 °C, perfect. Unlike Dushambe, just about everybody here seems to speak English well; we drop our stuff off at the hotel and get to know the locals, there’s an air of expectation as people wait for the great feast that closes Ramadan on 26 June.
 

Today was a wonderful day, packed, one of those days that could fill in for a hundred… or for a lifetime!  

Leg 11 - DUSHAMBE – KALAI HUMB: Travelling along the border with Afghanistan

As always, we set out from the Dushambe hotel first thing in the morning. Yesterday Fabrizio, one of our bikers, was left behind at the entrance to the capital for an unexpected personal adventure that ended with a few laughs and his stories of how he managed to get by in an area where hardly anybody speaks English. We would love to spend today touring this strange and colourful city, but it’s just not feasible.
 
We head for the border with Afghanistan, specifically for Kalai Humb, a very hot land in every sense of the word. Our guides warn us to be cautious with camcorders and cameras once we get there, and we’re sure to comply. There’s a mix of (mild) concern and great excitement. Afghanistan has always been central to the fight for hegemony by the world’s great powers, Czarist Russia and Colonial England first, Soviet bloc and United States later, all the way to the difficulties of the current situation.
 
We take Highway M41 with our V7 IIIs and wind up trapped in the litany of straightaways we are all too familiar with. It’s a stuffy day. The air is grey and as humid as a pile of wet clothes. As we move further and further south the number of police checkpoints increases, to the point of exasperation. There are areas where we get stopped up to three times in just one kilometre. We let our local guides do the talking. The procedure is fairly straightforward, police speaking local dialects ask for our names, documents and information about our Guzzi V7 III Stone bikes, which are always a topic for conversation, then we move on. Our guides explain that this was once the Silk Road but has since become a highway for opium coming from Afghanistan (the world’s main producer). We are surrounded by dry plains covered with wheat stubble, some cows here and there and countless goats perched in impossible locations atop the earthworks that mark the highway.
 
As we start moving uphill (after a few kilometres of unpaved road) the fun begins again: curves, sharp bends, uphill and downhill. We’re as giddy as children on Christmas day, surrounded by the rusty red rocks that fill the landscape, our tyres now rolling on a perfect tarmac. That’s right, they’re repaving the highway, and there are several workers along the road. Until… we’re forced to stop. Diggers and steamrollers have blocked the road. We’re going to have to wait at least two hours they say. But the bothersome interruption turns into a pleasant change of pace. Over those two hours we meet, in the following order: a Belgian couple in their 5th year of retirement who have been travelling around on their tandem for a year and a half, real nice folks. John, a Canadian who left home some time ago (we asked “when?” and he answered, “I don’t remember anymore”) with his enduro single cylinder engine: this is his latest trip, having crossed all of the US, South America and Europe, mostly off-road. And Christina, a very young lady from Germany who has been hitchhiking for over a year and a half, only sleeping in homes that take her in. We congratulate her spontaneously for her courage and she, candidly, states that courage isn’t necessary, that travelling this way helps restore faith in humanity. All told, the two hours fly and, once we’re finally allowed to pass, the sight is breathtaking.
 
We knew we were just a stone’s throw away from Afghanistan, 18 km to be precise, but as soon as we get to the edge of the hill the view before us is beautiful to the point of tears.
 
An infinite valley lies before us, the red background is bedecked with green and yellow, lined with a thousand hues of earth tones and white pebbles and divided by the flow of a powerful river. The river is the border, and the imposing mountains that cover the horizon are Afghanistan.
 
We continue along the road (it’s the only road, there’s no going wrong) and end up travelling along the river, to the point where we’re basically touching the water along narrow sections with no asphalt or guard-rail, surrounded by mountains of solid stone, powerful. The landscape is amazing in and of itself, it would be stunning anywhere, but here we have the added value of realizing we are just tens of metres from Afghanistan. We see motorbikes travelling along dirt paths along the banks of the river on the other side, villages with children who smile and wave at us.
 

Borders are undeniably, and perversely, fascinating. You realise that being inside or outside, on this side or the other side, living this life rather than the other one, is a matter of fate, or more blandly, of chance. We should never forget the privileges we have nor those who don’t have access to such privileges, but to be here, right on the line that marks the destiny of this or that person, is truly a powerful sensation. Intimate even. We are (obviously!) significantly behind schedule, but the road continues to inspire, we would gladly stop every hundred metres for a photo but there’s simply no way, and we travel the final kilometres in the dark, riding carefully along the rocks and crossing two rivers. At the hotel, we barely have the strength to eat a bite and crash. We will be setting our alarms even earlier than usual tomorrow, it’s time to climb to the top of the world.  

LEG 10 - KHUJAND – DUSHAMBE – Swallowed up by the unknown, heading towards a dream!

No one told us about the Anzob Tunnel, aka the Gallery of Death, when we left Khujand early in the morning. Khujand, where we spent the night, is the second biggest city in Tajikistan after the capital, Dushambe. Today’s destination is some 300 km away. …another short trip!
 
Unfortunately, the group has to split up, some of us are heading back to Italy for work; after a warm farewell, we head out without any real idea of what awaits us. All told the first part of our trip today wasn’t very different from the previous roads: an unending stretch of asphalt without a single bend surrounded by villages and farmland. Perhaps the first real difference is the farmland, it’s green, lush, abundant; we start to notice the cars, they’re showier and more expensive, with several European brands. It seems the quality of life here is higher, perhaps with the usual divide between the few who are wealthy and the many who are poor, but generally speaking (it seems) life is better here.
 
Tajikistan was once a key pawn in the “Great Game” that foreshadowed the cold war, as Czarist Russia and Colonial England vied for control. When the USSR crumbled in the ‘90s, the nation was shaken by riots and conflicts that escalated into a full out civil war, and Dushambe was subject to curfew. But things have changed completely over the past 15 years. Tajikistan is now a semi-presidential Republic; depictions of president Emomali Rahmon are everywhere. These days tourists decidedly receive a warm welcome here.
Some eighty kilometres from Khujand the landscape changed abruptly. We started moving above sea level, following a line of arid, red mountains, with cliffs of brittle stones converging on a river that flows – miniscule – down below. The road becomes amazing, curve after curve winding up and down over deep valleys carved out of the mountains. We are still very far from Pamir, but the mood of the journey is immediately set: curves, sharp bends and breath-taking heights, a biker’s manna, the authentic wonders of nature.
 
The mountains all around are amazing: barren red heights, with coloured veins marked by millennia; we admire the dreamy landscape and take several stops, no longer just to regain our strength, we’re eager to take in the surroundings, the fresh air. At times while stopping to buy dried fruit from one of the many vendors along the road. The scenery keeps changing, and we suddenly feel like someone beamed us into Switzerland: all that’s missing are the cows!
 
We go through Hissar and the mountain chains of Zerafashan/Fan and of Turkestan; the names are nearly impossible to pronounce! Our Guzzi V7 III Stone bikes finally meet a tarmac worthy of the name, which makes for smooth riding all the way to the Tunnel of Anzob.
The sight before us has the feel of a lair from Middle Earth; thick clouds of dust churn out of a narrow “hole” with zero visibility; the total lack of lighting of any kind makes the crossing exceptionally difficult; it’s basically 5 km in complete darkness, made worse by the clouds of dust created by the lorries on a tarmac filled with potholes.  
 
We enter one at a time… it’s scary but extremely fascinating. We all meet up at the other end, on the Khojand side, satisfied that we made it through this diabolical test with no injury (either for us or for our Moto Guzzi bikes). The view that opens before us is a wonder of wonders, a valley even more spectacular than any of those that came before. We stop for a photo, of course!
 
And we’ve reached our last stop before the final 70 km that lead up to the capital city. Average cruising speed on these roads is never above 60-70 km/h and, unfortunately, it’s already night by the time we get to the city. We barely have time to take in the city and see the glamorous façade of the Opera House, the cultural centre of the Tajik capital, crossing through Victory Park.
 

Being true Italians, we have a spaghetti and head off to sleep. Tomorrow we face the 5,000-metre ascent to Pamir! 

LEG 9 - SAMARKAND – KHUJAND: There, in no man’s land, our songs ring out to pass the time

We woke up early this morning. Not that we slept in the other days, but today is another frontier day and by now we know what moving from one country to another means in this area, especially when you have 22 bikes behind you! It’s dawn and there’s barely enough time left to enjoy one more glimpse of Registan, the heart of the city of Samarkand; it’s particularly fascinating at this time of day, as the first of the sun’s rays light everything up. Now’s the time for a group photo, a symbolic little flag to forever mark Samarkand as one of our personal achievements. It’s likely the first time in the 700-year history of these walls, that 22 Italian double cylinder engines from Mandello parade by: a little flag for Moto Guzzi as well!
 
We’re ready to head out for the only open border crossing in Oybek, to enter Tajikistan. What’s the road like? The whole truth? Straight, full of traffic and full of potholes. Pretty much any biker’s worst enemy. But there’s a time for everything, and this definitely isn’t the time for cruising! We all like to ride bikes, but none of us are crazy about curves, fortunately! The dominant feeling here is group spirit, the desire to experience this epic adventure, and all that comes with it, including a road that puts physical endurance to the test and drains every form of energy, mental energy included.
 
Leaving Samarkand behind isn’t easy; it’s a magical city and has earned a place in our hearts. We would love to enjoy it a little more, but we have a schedule to keep. We’ll look back to these days with nostalgia, no doubt.
Bits of asphalt now coat our equipment, covering the previous layers of desert sand, but who cares: by now we’ve come to view our jackets, pants and full Dainese get out as a coat of armour. It shields us, withstands any insult and after a quick shake in the evening it’s good as new!
 
We’ve already travelled some one hundred kilometres with our Moto Guzzi V7 Stone bikes, of the total 170 km that separate us from Khujand, in Tajik territory. It’s time for a break at a restaurant along the road, where we’re served “plov”, a national dish, with lamb and vegetables drowned in oil; excellent shish kebabs; Samarkand’s typical “non”, donut-shaped bread with no hole; accompanied by the traditional tomato salad with cucumber, onion and fresh coriander. The kitchen is incredible, with large woks above the fireplace and the cook is very talented! It’s a relaxing lunch and a few of us “dozed off” even before the watermelon was served, another fixed part of the menu: the guide explains that this is fruit season, so fruit is always on the menu. Dessert, on the other hand, is only offered during the cold season.
 
No one is particularly eager to get back on our bikes for two reasons: we know we’ll have to deal with the border crossing, and it’s over 40 °C outside! Some look wistfully at the comfortable seats of the air-conditioned bus…
As usual, the border crossing for Tajikistan is endless forms to fill out, showing passports and moving luggage from point A to point B by hand; with temperatures so hot that the asphalt clings to the tyres of our Guzzi V7III Stone bikes… but at least the staff are kind and willing to join the chorus as we sing to pass the time. By the time we set foot in Tajik territory it’s almost 8 pm and, once again, we’ve spent a good 5 hours in no man’s land on the border! As we wait for everyone to make it through the gates we have time to get to know some decidedly bizarre individuals, see a few cows blissfully make their way through the pastureland and meet our new guides.
 
Everyone’s here, let’s go! Our journey along those roads is like a traveling festival: people greet us warmly as we go by, countless children offer us fruit along the road and ask us to slow down for a high five. Several people ask to take a photo with us and want to know the story behind our caravan, which certainly stands out. Who are we? Where are we from and where are we headed? The legendary Casimiro, guardian angel of the bike park, is with us. He’s proud of how his jewels are performing and reassures us constantly: “Excellent engines, no structural defects, despite the hardships of the road. We didn’t even need to replace the air filters, which resisted the sand flawlessly, no build-up”.
 
It's nearly sunset, and the air has taken on a reddish hue by the time our 22 dust-covered bikers finally reach their destination. Andrea, our team leader, deserves a special citation this evening: as soon as we arrived at the hotel, rather than crashing in his room like the rest of us, he grabbed two and a half kilos of spaghetti (that’s right, no rice!), tomatoes, and extra-virgin olive oil straight from Italy and headed over to the restaurant we had booked for dinner. In true Italian fashion, we dined with spaghetti and tomato sauce and quality extra-virgin olive oil, a little taste of home! Tomorrow we’re heading out for another dream: the Pamir highland…

LEG 8 - YA NGIKAZGAN – SAMARCANDA: the magical city of Samarcanda and the unique experience of joyful children!

Uzbekistan is a land of incomparable charm and beauty. Its deserts have been crossed for centuries by nomadic tribes and bandits, merchants and armies: first along the Silk Road that linked the Roman Empire to that of the Chinese, and later across that uninhabited expanse between the Russian world and Persia, where there is a proud, thousand-year old metropolis that unleashes the legendary force of Atlantis: Samarcanda. 

 
Yesterday, along with our Moto Guzzi V7 III Stones, we travelled these same paths, some very panoramic, that link the upland of Nurata (in the region of Navoy) to the mirage of Samarcanda. It was like being in a “join the dots” game, albeit one with a really simply drawing! Straight lines, dozens of kilometres in length, laid out across plateaus and deserts, linked by just a few junctions. In moments like this, you realise just how much travelling by bike adds to the value of the trip, as you can enjoy the landscape, almost at one with your surroundings!
 
Samarcanda takes your breath away… for what it is, for what it represents, for the many events that have unfolded here. The impression you have of reaching a final frontier, of going from the known into the unknown, is stronger than ever. History is everywhere here, in abundant beauty. It’s difficult not to react when faced with the Registan, the ancient city centre surrounded by Koranic schools, with those blue domes and enamelled tiles that have, in themselves, become an icon of the Silk Road. It’s an incredibly imposing complex; it was the precursor (on what we imagine to be a merciless downhill curve) to shopping centres, built in the middle ages with unrivalled splendour: still now it frames an immense square that, in 1400, would have been totally taken up by the bazaar. The three buildings that make up the monumental complex are all schools, the oldest in existence, a symbol of Samarcanda and of Central Asia as a whole; earlier ones were destroyed at the hands of the Mongols.
 
The same amazement is displayed when confronted with the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleums, the 15th century Bibi-Khanym mosque and the Siab market, the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum (in tajik: tomb of the emir), where Tamerlano has an eternal resting place worthy of his empire, and the Ulugbek observatory of 1420, which houses the remains of a large astrolabe used to observe the position of the stars.
We are overwhelmed by this perpetual stream of emotions, but the day is not yet over, in fact the best part is still to come. We know this, we’ve waited days for it, and now here we are: at the Mehribonlik Shelter, managed by an amazing person, the caring and attentive Ms. Mavjuda Farkhadovna Farkhrutdinova. A difficult name for such a simple, sunny, big-hearted woman.
 
With her are many children, of all ages, who have been welcomed to the Shelter, recognised by the Uzbek Ministry for Education, which has initiated a family strengthening programme for more than 150 kids and young people as a way of reducing the risks of abandonment and exploitation. Yes, because unfortunately school, teaching and subsistence itself are not a given here. The critical economic and social conditions mean that child abandonment is one of the most serious issues, with many orphans surviving only thanks to donations. Us coming here is a drop in the ocean, such a small thing, but it makes us feel good to see those smiles, that anticipation painted on their faces… the tiredness we have accumulated over the last days immediately melts away!
 
At first, the children are timid, almost scared of these men in black, all on identical bikes. Thinking about it, perhaps anyone would be a little nervous, seeing 22 dark knights pull up. But then we park up and one little boy, 4 years old at most, moves closer to one of the bikes; the teacher says something to him and lifts him into the saddle, sitting up front. As soon as he touches the horn, it’s chaos as they all start shouting and waving their arms - everyone wants a turn on the bike! And so, as we start to unload gifts from the bus, a sort of fairground ride is created to the sound of the twin-cylinder rumble of the Moto Guzzi V7 III Stones, horns and laughter. Kids should be able to enjoy being kids, wherever they are in the world!
 
The director of the institute wants to thank us, almost privately, with infinite sensitivity, a trait she no doubt displays in her daily work. She also underlines how important communication is, how important a well-documented journey like ours is: “other Italians will want to come to Uzbekistan – she tells us in a hopeful tone – tourism is becoming a flywheel for the country’s economy, on which structures like this orphanage depend”. So, come on, we are here, come and join us!

LEG 7 - BUKHARA – YANGIKAZGAN: And after so much road, a warm welcome at the Yurt camp on the prairie

Bukhara is wonderful to say the least. We’re staying just a few steps – quite literally, as we need only cross the road – from the Lyabi-Hauz, the square constructed in 1620 around a water bath. Up to about a century ago, water in Bukhara was guaranteed by a network of canals and roughly 200 of these stone baths where people would come together to chat, drink and wash. As you can imagine, the water wasn’t exactly well recycled and the city was famous for the plague; consider how, in the 19th century, people apparently only lived to about 32 years of age!
 
The Bolshevik domination proved to be a blessing in that sense: they would completely renew the hydraulic system and drain all the baths, except the main one, the Lyabi-Hauz where we are now, in the shade of mulberry trees as old as the square. We are surrounded by a throng of youngsters in university uniform, all dressed in white and navy. In front of the large bath is the madrassah of Nadir Divan-begi, originally constructed as a caravansary and only transformed into a madrassah in 1622. It stands out for its very lavish tiled facade, which depicts two peacocks and two lambs around a sun with a human face, thus openly flouting the Islamic precept that forbids the representation of living figures. This image gives us an idea of how Islamism is practiced around here, in a very secular way. And, in reality, this historic feature applies to all of central Asia, having developed in a context of commerce and multiculturalism, two conditions that don’t sit well with integralism and extremism. Which doesn’t mean that faith isn’t important here, far from it. It’s just that while they thank god after meals with a quick prayer, with their hands over their hearts (everyone does this), they also drink a good local vodka afterwards!
 
But back to us … in Bukhara, in the city centre, much of which is architecturally protected, there are many other madrassah (the term refers to high school), minarets, an actual fortress and the old covered souk. We would need at least two days to take a proper look around, while we sadly only have two hours; consider how there are 140 protected buildings in the centre of Bukhara alone!
With so much to see, the risk is to lose sight of the place as a whole, in going from one sight to another; we walk, surrounded by an aura of history that the guides outline for us and, in this way, we are able to have a global idea of the city, as we soak up its noisy and industrious atmosphere.
 
It’s particularly interesting to walk through the old covered bazaars, continuously active ever since the Shaybanid age (the Uzbek dynasty of Sunni faith, the forefather of which was a descendant of Genghis Khan). The entire area to the north and west of Lyabi-Hauz was a vast labyrinth of commercial streets, galleries and the melting pots that were the small markets, the roofs of which were designed to channel fresh water inside. The three covered bazaars, still with their domes today, were completely restored in the Soviet era and retain (albeit only in name and, to a small extent, in the type of vendors working there) the identity of specialised bazaars: the Taki-Sarrafin was the money-changing bazaar, the Taki-Telpak Furushon that of the milliners and the Taki-Zargaron the jewellery bazaar.
But the real symbol of the city is the Kalon minaret that, at 48 metres, is the tallest minaret in central Asia. It was built in 1127 by king Karakhanide Arslan Khan and was very probably the tallest building in central Asia for centuries. It definitely makes a visual impact and we can understand why Genghis Khan ordered for it to be spared as his Mongols torched Bukhara. Equally spectacular is the mosque of the same name that rises up opposite. It was constructed in the 16th century on the remains of an even older mosque, destroyed (this one yes) on the orders of Genghis Khan.
 
Far too soon our two hours are up and we have to get back on our Guzzi V7 III Stone bikes, bye Bukhara!
We have 300 km to cover in order to reach Yangikazgan, less of a town and more a handful of houses scattered like stones thrown by a child in the middle of the sand; they seem to rest on top of the wonderful, reddish sand of the desert and northern areas of Uzbekistan, suspended on a glacial plateau framed by mountains.
 
The asphalt is like a very long, thin, undulating tongue, perpetually straight, but despite this it’s impossible to feel bored. Our Guzzi V7 III Stone bikes are perfect on these tough, twisting paths; the low centre of gravity means we can maintain excellent control as we zig-zag between the potholes while the twin-cylinder engine guarantees great stability.  In addition, our irreplaceable Casimiro, the guardian angel of our bike pool, gives us great advice about how best to cross the sandy tracks: “disactivate the automatic anti-slip”. He says, we do; even on the sand, the grip is excellent and we are never forced to slow down. There are some gripes about the fuel, in short supply and of very different quality to ours: “Um, our last refuelling came from the tank of the bus; it has a lot less octane and the engines are noisier. Performance is slightly lower than you’ve got used to with the Guzzi V7 III Stones but it’s all under control”. And we believe him!
 
We are surrounded by prairie and, at times, by a cobalt sky that is starting to take on the colours of evening. When we reach the village, about twenty kilometres after the fork for lake Aydarkul, a van leads us along a sandy path, as far as the Yurt camp, where we will spend the night. After a very well-seasoned dinner, our guide has arranged a surprise for us: a fashion show, with models and music and everything. Perhaps a little out of context, but sincerely appreciated by us all. The day comes to an end with a good fire, a Dutar concert (an instrument similar to the mandolin with just two strings, typical of the nomadic populations that inhabited the area) and chat, as we share our impressions of the trip.
Hayrli Kech, goodnight, the second word we’ve learned.
 

    

LEG 6 - KHIVA – BUKHARA: JUST SAND AND HEAT THAT DISTORTS INTO INVISIBLE MISTS

We woke up early this morning, like every morning in fact, and took a few hours to wander around Itchan Kala, the characteristic part of Khiva, which is located inside the ancient walls. Legend has it that it was founded by Shem, son of Noah; it contains more than 50 historic monuments, 250 old buildings and the Friday Mosque (Juma). All of this has become part of UNESCO patrimony. Our entire journey is a trip back in time and looking around Khiva only confirms this: small, fascinating, almost surreal with its artisan carpenters’ workshops, women with gold teeth, fur hats that look like fake Rasta wigs and all of the history that seeps from the ancient walls.
 
It’s time to get back on our V7 III, knowing that today will involve only one thing - riding. Khiva and Bukhara are in fact separated by 450 km, most of which is across the Khizil Kum, the Red Desert, intersected by a highway completed just 2 years ago, created in very smooth reinforced concrete because asphalt would disintegrate as a result of the day to night temperature range.
300 km like this, uninterrupted, so very hot, with the wheels of the bike that seem to float along as if on an air cushion, surrounded by just red sand and low shrubs as far as the eye can see… it’s an alienating experience. And before you are able to perceive all this space, you feel every single instant of the journey inside, accompanied by a sun that illuminates but does not generate any shadows unless you look hard. No-one passes. For an indefinite period of time there’s nothing but “sand”. And while you ride, you think back to a time when this road didn’t yet exist, when convoys would pass this way, packed with goods to sell in Bukhara, or Khiva, which would then go on to the European markets.
 
The group frays, the technically-minded tuck behind the handlebars to push forward, while the observers ride calmly, taking it all in. The subject of fuel is not even on the table. In reality, our guide explains that petrol is a widespread problem, often the stations don’t have any: some solve it with bottles hidden in their workshop, others shrug their shoulders and smile, showing their gold teeth. We have crammed the boot of the bus that’s following us with jerry cans. The funny thing is that we stop to fill up the bikes at a gas station, closed since who knows when….
 
On our left, the desert, on our right the expanse of the Tudakul lake. At lunchtime (lunch? We make our first food stop at 4 in the afternoon, but this is another reason we like biking!) we eat fried cat fish, from Tudakul.
When the shadows begin to lengthen, it’s like riding on Mars, red stone and sand everywhere, the concrete that radiates the heat of the day distorting the horizon in invisible mists, it’s spectacular.
We are following the exact route of the Ancient Silk Road, on which Bukhara was one of the main junctions. After having suffered the savagery of Genghis Khan and occupation by Tamerlano, it became a commercial hub between East and West, developing both economy and culture.  It is still the most sacred city in Central Asia, with thousand-year old buildings and a historic centre that probably hasn’t changed much over the course of the last two centuries.
 
It’s 9 in the evening, local time (11pm CET) when we reach Bukhara. We’ve ridden for roughly nine hours, we’re all very tired, but still in high spirits. We ham it up, some moan good-naturedly while others show off how well they read their guidebooks before leaving, but the looks we exchange are of shared understanding. As if to say, "what a privilege to be here, on a bike…"

Until tomorrow… 

LEG 5 – DARWAZA - KHIVA: FROM THE GAS CRATER TO UZBEKISTAN

 
We’re exhausted after both the physical effort and the weather, tested by the infinite patience needed to deal with Turkmen bureaucracy, but actually thrilled with what we’ve seen and experienced in the last 36 hours. We can’t wait to tell the story, so let’s get you up to speed.
 
We’d left you yesterday as we were exiting Ashgabat, the city of twinkling white lights, for the Door to Hell, one of the Darwaza gas craters, permanently ignited, in the heart of the Karakum desert. A long bike ride, roughly 5 hours, in 40-degree heat. After 180 km of very tough roads, with misleading slopes, hidden ruts, unexpected hillocks and similarly unexpected holes, we came to within 2 km of the crater. At this point the sand got the better of us as, unfortunately, a recent sandstorm had wiped out all trace of the route, making it impossible for us to continue by bike along the now concealed road. We had to leave our Guzzi V7 III Stone bikes a few hundred metres from the nearest road, and some off-road vehicles shuttled back and forth to get us into the desert, and to the Door to Hell, a crater roughly 50m in diameter and 20m high, where tall flames burn continuously, reminiscent of Dante’s inferno.
 
It’s almost nine in the evening, we see it from far away because it’s like a sort of ring of fire in the total darkness. It is a crater of artificial origin, created as a result of an incident in 1971, when, while looking for petroleum, drilling caused the land to collapse, creating an escape route for the natural gas, which was purposely set alight to prevent any worse environmental consequences. Since then, the crater has burned uninterruptedly. The smell of gas hits us hard and the heat, if you move close to the edge, is bothersome: there are no guardrails and a Russian has fallen in before – or so they say – though he was luckily able to save himself. And we ask ourselves how that would even be possible, with internal walls of rock that bleed with a thousand flames. The image is rather demonic, yet fascinating, hypnotic. We would carry on snapping, filming… but the guides call us back, another sandstorm is on the way.
 
We head quickly towards the tented camp while the sandstorm closes in on us in the total darkness of the desert at night, a completely absorbing experience that swallows you up and disorientates you. With great difficulty, and by taking an almost impassable road, we reach the camp, to find that many of our Canadian single-man tents are unfit for purpose due to the strong wind. We are welcomed inside a yurt, the typical nomadic tent, where, absolutely shattered, we wolf down vegetable soup and marinated chicken, cooked on the fire. We go to bed there, to the sound of the wind and sand that enters and brushes over us. But the tiredness wins out and we fall into a deep sleep. Which is interrupted at 5am, when the dawn light ignites the desert. The view out of the tent is something from a fairy-tale: the colours of the morning blend with the red mark of the crater, creating a rainbow of yellow, ochre, orange and red shades. Indescribable. An experience to enjoy at least once!
We’re a little fuzzy-headed, but having breakfast together soon sorts us out. Some final shots of the crater, which in the light of day appears both fascinating and terrifying at the same time.
 
We head back to the bikes, which Casimiro has been meticulously checking after yesterday’s annoying “sanding”. When he gives us the OK to leave, we get back in the saddle for another tough trip; more uneven, potholed asphalt and torrid heat, though fortunately it’s a dry heat. We come across a few camels in the road, as well as a group of four friendly fishermen, who want to photograph the bikes: this is our first social contact on Turkmen land! We make only two stops, first to refuel (the performance of our Guzzis is excellent) and then for lunch, which is ‘somsa’, hot pastry pockets filled with unidentified meat and onion.
 
Then, in front of us, the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border, at Dasoguz. Exiting is no easier than entering: hours and hours of bureaucratical dealings, in a perpetually unfriendly context, emphasised by the four-metre high railings, guarded corridors, weapons and the usual threatening dogs.
We know our photographer Leonardo awaits us on the other side of the barricade (since three this afternoon, he will tell us!) together with the bus drivers who will follow our convoy across Uzbek territory, a couple of their friends and Mikhail, known as Sasha, president and founder of the first Uzbek bike club, the "Steel Scorpions". They are celebrating their 10-year anniversary this month, which makes them veterans, as the only other Uzbek bike club is just 2 years old! Mikhail is lovely and speaks fluent English, telling us how he was seen as crazy when he bought the Yamaha Drag Star 1100 that he still owns now, the first high-powered bike in all of Uzbekistan.
 
Hours pass, again, they want to disassemble the bikes, they check inside the tank, underneath the engine. On the other side, Leonardo and the others wait patiently for us. “We spot lights beyond the two closed gates that delimit “no man’s land”, but each time it is a false alarm. Or rather, the bikes are there, just a few hundred metres away, but they don’t move, or only by a few metres. Every so often someone gets off, disappears behind a small building and then reappears. Or is it someone else? From down here, you were indistinguishable, all dressed in black” – they would tell us later.
In the meantime, we fortunately regain possession of the drone, that had been taken us from when we entered the country, to the joy of Riccardo who will immediately start to “play”.
 
We finally meet up on Uzbez soil, it’s after 7. Destroyed faces, dry mouths that bite on their passports as they emerge from the border (imagine having to ride with all the bags this kind of trip requires, how do you think you’re supposed to hold on to your most important document?), jackets blowing on saddles and stories, stories, stories. All are shattered, but also excited, pleased to have overcome that Dante’s circle of form-filling and bag-checking and keen to get back on the bikes.
 
“We’re all set, the bags are on the bus, the bikes are switched on again and we’re off. All of us, actually together this time” Leonardo’s thought. Another 160 km before reaching our first Uzbek destination, Khiva; the scenery changes dramatically, becoming rural, with pastoral scenes of wagons pulled by mules, farmers busy in the fields and, above all, the smiling faces of the welcoming and friendly people, who wave enthusiastically as this unusual and noisy convoy of bikes passes by.
A very well-deserved shower on arriving at the hotel (a real bed!) and a group toast to our achievement, accompanied by a typical dinner of raw and cooked vegetables, more somsa, a sort of semolina on the side, and the inevitable watermelon, a permanent fixture on the table.
Tomorrow morning we’ll take a look around Khiva, the beautiful town that we met in the dark and that appears so promising…

LEG 4 – ASHGABAT – DERWAZA: A LAS VEGAS (ALL OF ITS OWN) ON THE EDGE OF THE DESERT

What we’re seeing today is a post-independence Ashgabat conceived by President Niyazov. The profits from gas and petroleum over the last twenty years (Turkmenistan is the world’s third producer of natural gas!) have helped finance a brand-new chapter in the city’s existence. They have an impressive patrimony, particularly considering the country has only 5 million inhabitants. Entire districts are taken up with imposing marble buildings. The whiteness of the public buildings and private residences contrasts with the green of the parks and gardens that, along with the four-lane roads, form the urban environment. The city’s monuments recall the country’s recent history, marked by regained independence and the eccentricity of its president. There are golden statues of him everywhere, overseeing the perfection of this rather surreal place in which squares, museums, parks, futuristic towers, mosques and memorials celebrate a rediscovered identity, somewhere between tradition and future.

As we look around, the impressions we had on arrival yesterday are confirmed: Ashgabat is an incredible city! The effect is really that of a “cathedral in the desert”.
Between the Karakum desert, which our Moto Guzzi V7 III bikes will soon take on, and the peaks of the Kopet Dag mountain range, from where we’ve just come, the city is located in the Akhal Tekin oasis at an altitude of roughly 230 mt. It has an arid, desert climate.
In October 1948, the city was completely destroyed by a devastating earthquake. More than 110,000 people died, equating to two thirds of the population. For five years, accessing the area was forbidden, to allow for the bodies and ruins to be removed and for the city to be rebuilt, redesigned according to a perfect criss-cross design of perpendicular streets. The reconstruction was carried out with a rather unusual approach, respecting some hard and fast rules, such as, for example, the use of white travertine rock – only white! – for all the buildings. This was a real obsession for the president, who wanted his city to break Guinness World Records, even for its lights, with hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights, in all colours. But there are no signs at all, as these are forbidden, meaning that you cannot recognise shops.
We cannot photograph any government buildings; we try our luck anyway, but are “kindly” asked not to do it again! We have another go at the Russian market, a clear sign of past domination. And not the only one. The character and behaviour of the people we meet has been clearly and deeply affected too. No smiles, no confidence. We cannot say that the people are hostile, but they are definitely cold and distant. And then they have their rituals, things that are inconceivable to us - when the president travels down the streets for example, no-one is even allowed to appear at the windows, with very strict penalties applied.
 
A country that is, in its way, unique in the world, hell-bent on defending its neutrality and independence, with a clear obsession when it comes to size, visible in its architecture, its furnishings. Furthermore, we discover that many Italian craftspeople are hired for the reconstruction work and it will be a famous Italian, Marco Balich, who will produce the Asian Games taking place here in September (Balich is the imaginative Venetian producer who was responsible for the Olympic opening ceremony in Rio).
We continue to walk the streets and see that the capital is experiencing an economic boom, with an architectonic profile that is in continuous evolution. One interesting thing is that in his last years, president Niyazov had all the road names replaced with numbers, making orientation in the city even more chaotic, seeing as the road names had already been changed once as the Soviet period gave way to independence in the 90s, so that each road can actually be indicated using three different names.
There are many strange things in this country; these include exorbitant museums alongside free attractions. Another incredible thing is the big wheel, something that the president wanted, but closed inside a sort of shell due to the unbearable temperature: spinning at speed at 50°C would have caused all kinds of problems, so now you can do it, but “under glass” and in an air-conditioned environment!
 
Leaving this surreal world, we experience the more traditional side of Ashgabat, at the spectacular Tolkuchka Bazaar, a huge market on the outskirts of the city where you can buy or haggle for absolutely anything, from jewellery to camels, from fruit to household items, as well as all sorts of clothing. The piece de resistance is always the selling of rugs.
 
Now the desert awaits. We’re ready and a little emotional. We know we will be “incommunicado” for at least one day (we’ll reach the Darvaza gas crater and will sleep in a tented camp in the desert, with no way to communicate). But we’ll collect all the material we can so that we can tell you about every colour, every detail… wait for us, we’ll be back in touch soon!
 
 
As of today, we have an extra voice on board, ready to recount our adventures as we travel the Silk Road: welcome Leonardo!
“For centuries, ever since the Silk Road was gradually abandoned, the strip between the Turkmen Kara Kum desert and the Takla Makan desert in Chinese Turkestan remained one of the planet’s least travelled places. Until the early 1900s when, all of a sudden, some of the best – and most visionary – ancient history scholars decided, all together, to go and discover the civilisations that they believed to be buried, intact, under the sand.” Peter Hopkirk, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road.
The schedule they gave me, when they told me I would be the photographer and storyteller on this new Riso Scotti and Moto Guzzi adventure, opened with this quote from Peter Hopkirk. Well, you won’t believe it, but Hopkirk is one of my favourite authors, I started with “The Great Game” and then read all his books, imagining the feats of those adventurers, Khans, spies, explorers, and armies who lived between the 18th and early 20th century in one of the hottest places on the planet, ancient Industan. Knowing the history of these lands helps us to understand the everyday and the news that we hear each day, to understand why Afghanistan is a crucial joint in terms of global power and why, in Central Asia, there are two things they have done since the dawn of time: sell and fight.
I’m not here to carry out social or political analysis of course, but to tell you about a unique trip, the kind that, as you depart, your friends tell you is “a trip of a lifetime” with a (healthy) dose of envy. But these are truly roads you should travel at least once in a lifetime, because so much of the Italian history and commerce that saw Genoa and Venice become so great had its roots here. Central Asia was, in fact, the needle on the scale of global equilibriums, which saw one of the two plates move under the weight of Russia, tsarist Russia first, then socialist Russia. But enough chat, it’s time to leave!

The unexpected is what makes a journey so memorable. Based on this (sacrosanct) assumption, everything should go very well; my first unexpected thing, in fact, was not being able to leave for Iran with the rest of the group. Unfortunately, while the visas for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are relatively easy to obtain (the Kyrgyzstan visa is simply obtained at the border), the process is more complicated for Turkmenistan. It would seem that photographers and journalists don’t have an easy time getting one. As I am both those things, I am denied entry to the country. The result? A solo flight to Tashkent, where I meet the very amenable Bex, my guide and guardian angel. Together we take another plane to Urgench (capital of the Khorezm province and a classic Soviet city with its grid layout, enormous roads and empty squares, fascinating in its austerity), before travelling to Khiva by car.  And here we await the rest of the guzzisti group that has, in the meantime, left Iran and is crossing the Turkmen Karakum desert (without me, sigh!).
 
It always takes a little time to get up to speed when you’re catapulted into a place so different to those in which you’re used to living. So, I start to take pictures, the thing I do best.
The sky appears to be a recently polished opal flecked with orange, the afternoon draws shadows over the buildings of an almost deserted, surreal Khiva, where only the echoes of children’s footsteps and laughter can be heard as they try to catch grasshoppers with their hands. As I climb the watch tower of the Kuhna Ark, the last rays of sun light up the facades of the splendid west-facing buildings, while low cube-shaped houses in straw and mud fade into the background. This is one of those moments in which everything has the right flavour and the exact colour, I put down my camera and enjoy this rare sense of fulfilment.
I’ve learned my first word in Uzbek, rakhmat. It means “thanks”.” (Leonardo Lucarelli)

LEG 3 – MASHAD – ASHGABAT: STUCK AT THE BORDER!

Stuck at the border, the adventure begins!

We are finally able to ‘make friends’ with our Moto Guzzi bikes today: the first 300 km await us, as we build confidence and start to enjoy ourselves.
We leave Mashhad in a queue, and it’s no easy task with the chaos of the traffic and road systems; we travel in formation to simplify things, one car at the front, one in the middle and one bringing up the rear. We bikers in the middle, concentrating on the engine noise around us. It’s working, we’re in sync!
We leave for the mountains at the border, crossing a landscape that gradually goes from arid, desert plain to a succession of colours that paint the valleys and canyons, where the minerals touched by the water and the air have produced an incredible palette. 200 km of full immersion with nature. We see practically no-one. We climb the Kopet Dag, the mountain range located between Iran and Turkmenistan: it’s immense, running as far as the eye can see for roughly 650 km along the Asian border. The peak is 3191 metres high and the border, incredibly, sits at the top! It might seem strange, but is explained by the ongoing animosity between the two countries, divided by religion (the Iranians Sciites, the Turkmens Sunnis) and by contrasting economic and political interests that have always made for tense relations between the two populations. The continual dispute over the bordering mountains was eventually resolved without giving control to either party, but rather establishing the border at the summit. On the one side Iran, on the other Turkmenistan.

It’s one of the most difficult frontiers in the world, and we realise this, both in terms of the long and tiring bureaucratical processes and the extremely militarised atmosphere. It’s a real border, tough, with a defence system arranged into 5 areas of border control. So, having passed the first control, 4 others await us, through a system of barbed wire, armed towers, and military personnel with attack dogs. We are the only ones wanting to pass through today, and we must look strange, a line of motorcycle riders, but we remain in high spirits and don’t let the cold welcome get us down. They check everything, it appears they might even want to disassemble the bikes, but eventually we pass through, unscathed, with the exception of our film-maker Riccardo’s drone, that is taken somewhat rudely from us to ensure that we cannot use it in Turkmen territory for filming that would never be authorised. Never mind, we won’t be able, and you won’t be able to enjoy the wonderful views from above that we wanted to create in the desert tomorrow.
Five hours and a great deal of patience later, here we are in Turkmenistan. The capital, Ashgabat, is only 50 km away, and this too allows us to understand why they are so careful in handing out entry visas.

We arrive, hot and tired, and an unexpected city awaits us: it’s all white, with spectacular, exaggerated lighting. We cross it, with a sensation of being in Montecarlo at times, due to the neat elegance, or in Dubai, due to the size of the buildings, while the twinkling of a million coloured lights suggests Las Vegas! What an incredible city! Only a few photos today, tomorrow we’ll visit properly and get a better feel for it.
Right now, we’re melting in the 45-degree heat and need to rest a while. The climate is a little draining, though we’re very well equipped: our Dainese jackets and helmets are exceptional, with their ventilation systems that allow for a continual flow of air, so important in helping maintain a feeling of well-being, also when riding. Riding these Guzzi jewels is a pleasure! We all agree, after our first day as bikers, on the lightness, the handling, the balance through the turns, and the ease of riding such a well-designed bike. Casimiro is delighted with “his” V7 III Stone

LEG 2 - Mashhad: after collecting the bikes, we’re ready to get this adventure on the road

Sleeping on the plane is always tough, and we’re too excited about arriving and starting the engines of our Guzzi V7 III Stone bikes. It’s almost 2am when we land in Mashhad, in Iran. We truly feel as if we are “entering into” something unusual: there is absolute silence, no tourists around, an enormous effigy of the Ayatollah Khomeini scrutinises us from the wall.

 
We are soon at customs, armed with a good dose of patience as we know this will be neither easy nor fast. We are there for more than 3 hours in fact, filling out a mountain of paperwork (all by hand) and trying to familiarise ourselves with the almost 40 people who are dealing with us in various ways. We are in one of Iran’s biggest cities and yet we are the only ones keeping the customs staff busy, while our rather unusual load incites great curiosity.
 
Then, inside a warehouse packed with all manner of objects… there they are! We had said farewell to them in Milan and seeing them here is emotional (as well as a relief): our 22 Moto Guzzi V7 III Stone bikes wink at us, ready to rumble! And we’re here to oblige them. They are going to require a little prep and smartening up, a big job for our very own Casimiro Bosis, but we’ll be on hand to help him assemble, check and test. Bring it on!
 
It’s over 35 degrees; we take to the road, crossing Mashhad, and immediately realise that we are “newsworthy”! Many cars stop and honk, they want to know who we are, what the bikes are, even how much they cost. Everyone gives us a smile; it seems like a very welcoming place. Mashhad, capital of the Italian region that borders Turkmenistan, is a holy city of Shiites, home to almost 2,500,000 inhabitants. Its name means “place of the Martyr” or “burial place of a Martyr”, in that the eighth Imam Reza died here in 817 AD. Since then, what was once a small village known as Sanābād has developed to become Iran’s most important destination for pilgrims.
 
We are lucky because we have the chance to witness preparations ahead of the most highly anticipated event of the year: tomorrow the country will celebrate its most important religious festival, more than 200,000 people await it, ready to spend the night in a prayer vigil. We soak up the atmosphere and mysticism of this event, especially on visiting the Sanctuary that is home to the chapel of the Imam Reza: many people, the women wearing veils, a surreal silence. Yet here too the people are welcoming and friendly. We are the only Western tourists, the Imam wants to get to know us, he allows us to tour the site and tells us of the sanctuary’s history. What devotion, what an extraordinary sense of belonging!
 
We continue our city visit. One thing for which Mashhad is known the world over is its carpets, which we stop to admire as we hear about the processing of precious stones. We venture into a bazaar and breathe in the scents, allowing our instincts to guide us as we seek out a stone that might be able to represent such splendour, even once we return home…
Until tomorrow then, when we’ll return with the rumble of our brilliant Moto Guzzi V7 III Stone bikes!
 

LEG 1 – FROM ITALY TO MASHHAD

 

It’s around 12pm on this “Big Wednesday” of ours. We’re all on time (even the habitual latecomers…) as we congregate in the large check-in area at Malpensa airport. We receive some attention due to the biking jackets and boots we’re wearing, despite temperatures outside of over 30°C; none of us takes any notice though, as we’re too focused on the adventure that awaits us, in a state of calm curiosity, albeit with a touch of trepidation at the thought of our long journey into the unknown… Tickets, luggage, security, gate… We move as one along the boarding tunnel to the echo of our steps and travellers chit-chat.
 
The Turkish Airways stewardess smiles at us, she surely can’t imagine the “route” we’re about to embark on with our Moto Guzzis; our faces show a proud awareness – we know we’re undertaking an out of the ordinary, or rather extraordinary trip!
 

 

“Passengers are asked to fasten their seatbelts” _ we’re ready _ a few minutes later and the ground is already several kilometres beneath us; we’ll arrive in Mashhad in the early hours of the morning. There we will find our V7 III Stone bikes, ready and anxiously waiting to begin this adventure.