The Middle East

We catch up with Rene as he spins his wheels in the Middle East, unable to find a way out.

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Story and photos by Rene Cormier. Editing by Adam Hay and Rob Harris

It’s been a while since we’ve posted an update on our worldly traveller, Rene Cormier. Rene’s been spinning his wheels in the middle east, frustrated by the lack of options to get through it and the official roadblocks put in his way.

We left Rene in Yemen, travelling the coastal road to Oman with the hopes of shaking their police escorts and seeing some of the real Yemen before leaving it for good …

ESCAPING YEMEN

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Rene gets used to waiting it out.

The constant confusion created by our arrival at police checkpoints was really tiring us out. Typically, we were questioned, our papers collected, passports perused, and then told to wait while they organized guides to escort us down the road to the next police station.

Here we were at another checkpoint with the sun already tucked behind the mountains, facing a slow, dark ride to the town of Shaqra where we planned to rest for the night. As usual we stood bickering with the police, waiting for our escort to lead us through the ominous, blackening night.

It was pitch dark by the time we made the police checkpoint outside the town of Shaqra. To say the least, morale was low. Then the authorities, as though repeating lines we’d heard before, forbid us from entering the town proper by warning of all the “bad men with guns.”

Terrific. Left with little choice but to set up camp behind their police compound, and in keeping with the modus operandi of the times, we claimed a spot that a) smelled the least of piss and b) kept us out of the wind.

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Lars saw Yemen from the back of a pick-up truck.

The next day was thankfully our last in Yemen. The constant police escorts, the litter, pollution, and our inability to really explore was grating on us.

We’d been travelling with an old friend, Lars, who was in the process of a round-the-world trip by bicycle, but so far in Yemen had only pedalled for 20 kms, spending the rest of his time as a guest in the police escort vehicles.

To cheer him up, we’d planned a last night’s feast, as well as to celebrate our departure from Yemen and his return to pedal-power, opting to make a bush camp down a rocky trail. To get down there Michael had strapped Lars’ bike to the back of his but managed to clip its rear wheel against a rock, effectively destroying it.

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Lars’ bike did not fare well with the Three Stooges.

Lars would be travelling with us for a little while longer.

OPULANT OMAN

The vibe was significantly better in Oman. The police at the border were in uniform, computers at customs abounded, and the whole formality process was expedited, exponentially.

We shared a hotel, finally got laundry done, and did some Internet work. Robbo and Michael would depart shortly for the capital city of Muscat, where Michael had to catch a flight home to Germany and Robbo just plain needed a McDonald’s.

Lars and I tried unsuccessfully to find a new rear wheel, so he jumped on a bus for the 12-hour ride to Muscat to try his luck there. Unfortunately he came up blank there too, and after another long bus ride to the UAE he finally found his wheel. However, with his spirit waned he opted to just board a plane to eastern Europe and continue his trek from there.

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Bedouin women cannot show their face to bass.

I was once again on my own and a few days later set out on my solo four-day drive to Muscat. The route cuts across deserts full of oil fields and little towns consisting of a solitary mosque, a few housing blocks, and a fuel station for the traveller.

The pastoralist Bedouin lifestyle was still largely evident in day-to-day Oman: the women were covered in masks and the men always hovered around camels discussing … well, women and camels.

In times past it was the trade in frankincense that made this country wealthy beyond imagination. These stubby little trees leak sap when the bark is cut, and the hardened resin is collected. Nowadays it’s oil and natural gas that keeps Oman’s economy running.

As a result, Oman isn’t set up for budget travelling. Bush camping, on the other hand, is allowed almost anywhere, which is as easy as driving a few kilometers out of any town and following a dirt path into the scrub.

MAGNIFICENT MUSCAT AND DEPRESSING DUBAI

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Muscat was sparkling!

I was completely taken aback by how clean Muscat was. Scores of city workers from India and Bangladesh were visibly on the job at all hours, sweeping and washing the streets, keeping them free from litter and trash. In fact, there were even fines for driving a dirty car!

Whether or not there were fines for driving a dirty motorcycle I did not know.

The western world was starting to creep into Muscat life, with the occasional unveiled local and European tourist; but this, wonderfully coupled with its relaxing air and busy sidewalk cafés, was how Muscat came to earn its place on my ‘favorite cities’ list.

puncher.jpgRene found the Iranian Embassy staff to be some- what uncooperative.

A mere five hours further to the west and the same could not be said about Dubai. Blond expat wives in monster Hummers jockey for position on crowded seven-lane highways alongside sheiks in Ferraris. Dubai is a spoiled teenager of a city trying not to trip over itself as it quickly becomes the world’s biggest or tallest in as many categories as it can.

It was in Dubai that I was fortunate enough to fall in with Johan and Charmaine Claassens from South Africa, who were ending a three-year work term before continuing their own around-the-world motorcycle trip. They offered me a spare room and good company while I sorted out my Central Asian visa applications.

THE VISA GAME

Unfortunately the validity of my Iranian visa had just expired before I had had chance to even set foot in the country. Growing more frustrated by the week, I hounded the Iranian consulate, asking again and again and being told to “try again this afternoon or maybe tomorrow. Inshallah.”

This went on for five weeks, until I found out that the U.S., Canada, and the UK had imposed additional trade sanctions against Iran in January. I’d been issued my original visa in December and now they were ignoring me …

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The Pamir Highway is legendary amongst travellers.

My inability to take the road north through Iran was throwing a gigantic wrench in my plans. My goal was to ride the Pamir highway in Tajikistan (from there I could then carry on through Russia and Mongolia), and getting there via Iran was the most obvious route. (RED line on map below).

The Pamir Highway, for those who haven’t heard of it, is one of the great motorcycle roads on this side of the world, and the highlight of the driving between Africa and Mongolia. I simply wasn’t going to miss it.

I could bypass Iran by heading west but then I would need to cross Saudi Arabia. Getting a visa to cross the country (with an escort of course) is 99% impossible. 99.9% impossible if you want to do it by motorcycle. Then there’s the mess of Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Israel after that.

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The destination is in red. Various options in blue.

Shipping the bike directly to Turkey would’ve taken over three weeks and meant having to bike through another four countries before reaching the start of the Pamir; also, I’d be left with too little time in Mongolia and Russia.

To the east of Iran was Pakistan. Although there was no ferry directly to Pakistan, I could get a cargo ship to bring the bike over. This solved the most immediate issue but introduced another …

India was a no-go because it was a dead end at either Burma (essentially closed to foreigners) or China – which charges $1100 for a five-day escort to the nearby country of Kazakhstan and requires a guide to do the paperwork, and takes an estimated two months to do.

To the west of Pakistan is another country that would allow great access to the bottom of the Pamir Highway! The only problem is that this country that I need to travel through is Afghanistan.

I decided to contact some friends on the ground who run a travel company just in case …

Rene,

I am definitely envious of your around the world motorcycle trip.

My first response to the idea of crossing Afghanistan on motorbike is
that it is absolutely a bad idea in the current security environment.
In the last two months on the road between Peshawar and Kabul the
Pakistani ambassador was kidnapped and a convoy of 40+ petrol tankers
was all destroyed.

Currently there is ongoing construction along much of this road which
diverts traffic through small villages and towns that are loyal to the
Taliban and would like nothing more than to kidnap a foreigner as
happened a couple of months ago.  The road north out of Kabul is
slightly better, but still risky.

We have canceled all our tours for this spring due to the declining
security situation in central and northern Afghanistan.  Of special
concern is the stretch between Pul-i-Khumri and Sher Khan Bandar where
there is an active armed group attempting to kidnap foreigners.

If you insist on riding in Afghanistan, the only sane plan would be for
you to put the motorcycle on a lorry to Kabul and after it has cleared
customs you can take a flight to Kabul.  Please note that the customs
office is one of the most corrupt offices and not located in a secure
part of the city.  Therefore, you will have to contract the services of
a company that can provide customs clearing services and then bring the
motorcycle to your hotel with the appropriate paperwork before
proceeding on your journey.

Once you have cleared your motorcycle through customs, then you will
want to leave at first light and drive all the way to the Uzbek border
crossing at Termez/Hairaton.  If all goes well you should be able to be
at the border by mid afternoon in time to cross out to Uzbekistan.  I
have crossed this border multiple times, and the Uzbek side is a
hassle.  They will go through absolutely everything in your
possession.

Prior to coming to Afghanistan you will need to get updated security
information to ensure that it is still possible to make the trip.

Regards,

Jonathan Bean
Operations Director
The Great Game Travel Company Afghanistan

 

So that’s Afghanistan out then …

Without the Iranian visa, my options for continuing north were at a standstill. I decided the only viable option left to me was to ship the bike by sea to Pakistan and then drive to the capital of Islamabad and then try to get a cheap airline to take the motorcycle and me across Afghanistan and into Tajikistan.

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It took five weeks and a lot of frustration, but the visa meant that Rene could now ride to Pamir.

I didn’t know if this was at all possible but if I could pull it off, this would let me ride the Pamir highway.

The very day that the motorcycle was to be shipped to Pakistan I received a notice in my e-mail box that my visa to Iran was finally approved and was available to pick up!

It was too late to stop the shipment to Pakistan, and so that section of the trip would proceed as normal, but now I didn’t need to fly over Afghanistan, I could ride to Pamir through Iran, albeit a 5500 km semi circle around Afghanistan.

Ten days later I picked up the bike up in Karachi. From here – thanks to my visa dates – I had only 12 days to get to Tehran. It was going to be tight, but the Pamir Highway was getting closer by the day.

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