The Kazakh entry checkpoint was a well built modern looking affair that loomed up out of the desert in no time. As usual we had to purchase our vehicle insurance, which was probably not worth the paper it was written on and then get into passport control, migration control blah blah blah….the usual routine. Fortunately we got through all this in about an hour and were set free into 9th largest country on the planet. Our goal was to reach Almaty and the Mongolian Embassy within the week so that week could apply for our Mongolian visas. That’s if the roads would let us. You see, the road from the checkpoint just changed our perspective on what we thought a rough road should be. How someone had the audacity to lay asphalt here and call it a road beats me. It was rutted, pot holed and frost heaved all in one shot, but asphalt nonetheless. Surely it would be easier to ride on the desert sand? Anyway, for about 200 kms we played the usual game of Dare as cars weaved toward us in the oncoming lane so as to try and save their tires and suspension. As usual it was hot and dusty too and that just made me irritable, I needed somewhere to sleep and wanted to get off the bike. We found a little truckers “hotel” that evening and were settled in quite quickly. The kitchen looked really shaky so we ordered boiling water and made supper from IchiBan noodles as the proprietors stared in disbelief.
Kazakhstan is a big country. In fact Almaty was some 3000 kms from us and we needed decent roads to get there so That our bikes weren’t destroyed before Mongolia. My brother had sent me an email a few days earlier warning me not to take the road from Atyrau in the south west to Aqtobe in the north. This was confirmed by a local guy we met in a hotel and so we set out for Oral , 500 kms north. The roads for three days were wonderful. In fact they are only two years old and well looked after. It appears that Kazakhstan is completely revamping its infrastructure and there are posters everywhere on the sides of the highways setting goals for 2050 in certain areas. We were on two little motorbikes thumping along in 40 degree heat day by day….just a small speck of insignificance in the grand scheme of things….but we were happy specks. The countryside out in western Kazakhstan is steppe that goes from green to desert the further south you go. The land here is remarkably flat and the roads seem to go on for ever. We camped one night at a rest area. It was so hot at night that I didn’t even use my sleeping bag until about 3am. Occasionally I would spot the odd snake winding its way across the road and my thoughts went back to my friend Dickie in England who a few weeks earlier gave me a hip flask full of Tallisker with the following inscription on it:
“My very good friend Nevil….. Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore, always carry a small snake”
I grinned in my crash helmet and mused upon this for a while. Slowly but surely we were heading south east out of Oralsk and on through Aqtobe, Quandyagash and Kyzlorda. The weather was so hot here….and the roads are still under construction. This was where the fun started. Just when you think you’re doing ok, there’s a giant earth berm across the road and a directional sign that shoots you off onto a dusty, gravel, pot holed, temporary road that can take you up to 40 kms to get rid of. You never know when this is going to happen either. Maybe this is some sort of national intiative to alleviate the boredom of driving in the desert. It certainly works for me anyway. Camels! There are camels dotted around in these parts. It looks like they are losing their winter coats too as they have long strands of useless fur hanging off them in various locations on their cumbersome bodies. I mused to myself, Twiggy, this little motorcycle has taken me to a land where camels roam! It really struck me how far east I was now and I still had a long way to go! This is a BIG continent. I was getting sores on my hands from the combination of heat and prolonged pressure hanging onto the handlebars, but this is only temporary I told myself. I was almost half way around the world from my home and had so many different climates and eco-zones to cross. I’m sure there will be more sores 🙂
Curious….that’s the word. Kazakhs are curious indeed and this was becoming a problem for Ulf and I. Pulling into a gas station can be quite the experience sometimes. Firstly you have to tell the attendant through the little window that you want X amount of litres. They then take your money and you get to fill up……except that sometimes you can’t to the bike because it’s now surrounded by locals, kids and security guards. That’s right security guards. If you want decent gas you go to a shiny new gas station. This gas station always has a security guy, usually armed, standing in the forecourt ready to shoot anyone who doesn’t pay up. He’s usually the guy to approach first with a smile and a handshake and let him know that you know he’s the boss. It’s bad form to get shot just because you don’t understand the etiquette of how a Kazakh gas station operates. The next step is to fill your bike up, put your helmet on and get the hell out of there before the cell phones come out. This has caught us a few times and when someone pulls out a cell phone it means either they want to get a picture of themselves with you or they are calling their buddies to come down and take a look at the two bikes that just blew into town. Sometimes it can take us an hour to gas up. The same applies for cities too. As the traffic gets more congested, people start winding their windows down and asking where you’re from etc. This is an opportune moment to start asking them for a hotel or any other form of accommodation if you’re in need of it. It has worked for Ulf and I quite a few times now. You just have to be patient.
The desert finally gave way to rolling green hills near Tashkent and soon we were riding what seemed to be beautiful lush farm country. Here people were travelling the highways by donkeys and carts, sitting atop their lush grass cargoes. Again, people were working in fields using hand tools like sickles and hoes. Firewood piles and small stacks of hay are littered across the landscape. There is a certain satisfaction seeing irregular plough lines in a field; it’s confirmation that the mechanized efficiency of the big corporate world hasn’t encroached here yet. One small boy tried to impress me atop his donkey by beating it across the back with his crop so that it bucked for him. I wanted so badly to tell him off and felt terrible for that poor animal but also knew that this is the way of life around here and I was the guest. Trees lined the streets in the towns with their lower trunks painted white so that you can see them easier in the dark. Loose dogs lay in the shade of the trees panting, waiting for a noisy motorcycle to come by so they can chase it. The pace of life here is slow, I was jealous. Somewhere in the west we have become consumed with speed and efficiency. A week or two here would be good for the blood pressure I think. There were big mountains in the distance and for an entire day we rode alongside their snowcapped grandeur. It was wonderful, we were now right on the Kazakh/Kyrgyzstan border and these were the Kyrgyz mountains. It made me homesick for Canmore. I am a lucky man to live in such a beautiful place. Suddenly out of nowhere, I saw an orange baton being waved at me, motioning me to pull over to the side of the road. The policeman came over as we were taking our helmets off and was indicating we were doing 80 in a 50 speed zone. He was wrong and I knew it. He grinned at me and showed off a mouthful of gold teeth, stating that if I paid a fine he would let me go. He kept rubbing thumb and forefinger together. I asked him how much.
“Yes, you pay”
“No, I want a receipt” I promptly pulled a random receipt from my pocket and indicated that if I were to give him money, I wanted his receipt. He was reluctant…so I pulled out my iphone and photographed his badge. At this point the conversation went to and fro…with him covering his badge with his left arm. I was about to pretend to make a call when the gentleman suddenly changed his mind and waved us on. I was lucky, I could have had my iphone confiscated. The police in southern Kazakhstan are blighted with fellows like this. They use their position of authority to make a few illegal bucks. It makes me wonder what their annual salary is. Are they really corrupt or is this action justifiable due to poor government wages? Fifteen minutes later we got pulled again. This time the cop had batteries in his radar gun. Ulf had to grease the wheel a bit but he didn’t have to part with much fortunately. I will be on my guard over the next few days.
Rolling into Almaty we experienced the usual heavy traffic queues and people shouting questions from their vehicles. This was a big city and we were looking for a specific hotel. The Sarayshik Hotel is in the north of the city and is a very well constructed, high end hotel. The staff here are all amazingly helpful and this was to be our home base for a few nights as we needed to locate the Mongolian embassy and get some work done to the bikes. It also has internet, although somewhat sporadic and we were able to write and upload blog material when possible.
The Mongolian Embassy is in the south of the city located in a plush neighborhood full of expensive looking homes with security guards on the gates. The Embassy could do with a lick of paint though and unfortunately stands out as quite possibly the shabbiest house for miles. We rang the bell on the gate. Within a minute a very polite well built gentleman let us in and set us about filling in our application forms. He told us to return in 3 hours and hey presto, two Mongolian visas were in our passports. It was a real pleasure dealing with them, they are so polite.
The rain that afternoon was basically a monsoon that lasted for an hour. We were soaked and trying to find a motorcycle shop called Moto Board in the northeast. It took a while but eventually we were there and haggling for tires. They only had one 17 inch tire though. We agreed that my rear tire was the most buggered and that I would purchase this new one. That’s when I found another 17 inch road tire on the rack and Ulf bought this as a spare for himself. Our Knobby tires still remain unused and I’m sure we will be putting them on very close to Mongolia. The next order of the day was to get across the city again to MCC Motorcycles. Again, they were a little hard to find but we knew we were in the right place when they opened the gates up and told us to put the bikes in their workshop. They set about putting my new rear tire on while I negotiated doing my own oil change there. I wanted to see how many bits of steel were stuck to the magnetic drain plug of my engine. This is when I noticed that Twiggy’s oil was low. Hmm….she did get really hot in the city traffic the other day but the engine still sounded good. Mind you, the old girl now has 90,000 kms on the clock and that’s not bad for a single cylinder engine. I will keep my eyes on that oil window. They worked on Ulf’s bike too and before long we were all set to continue north toward Russia again. I did notice on the back of their workshop door a few travelers had written comments. Walter Colebatch, Guzzi Overland and Doug Wothke had all been there. I felt that warm fuzzy feeling, grabbed a pen and headed for the back of that door too. Tomorrow we head out of Almaty and onward north to Omsk and Novosibirsk in Russia. The journey continues….will Twiggy?
Please remember, I’m also raising funds for the heart and stroke foundation in doing this trip. As a stroke survivor myself, I realize how important it is to plough money into this research. If you haven’t donated yet, please find the link on this website and give it a go. If you have donated, you have my deepest thanks…. it makes everything worthwhile. Please spread the word and go tell relatives, friends and neighbours about this site. Maybe they will donate too??