Look out, look out. There's a copper about!
Trip Start Mar 15, 2010
13Trip End May 05, 2011
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We spent slightly longer in Volgograd than planned. Something did'nt want us to leave. Early in the morning on our departure day, I had to visit an ATM to get the dosh to pay for the tyres. Three separate banks said ''NO''.
Cursing in three different languages ('cos I can, is'nt travelling great!) I stomped back to the flat, grabbed Gemma and with her card and tried again.
This time it worked and we only lost an hour, we were still on schedule. All's fine. Went to grab the bikes from the bat cave to park them by Sergey's flat for loading. Gem's started no problems. Mine refused. I could'nt believe it, my steed's been running perfectly for 6000 miles and now the bugger would'nt start!
After an oil change, air filter clean, new tyres and even a wash, this is the thanks I get
So another day in Volgograd it was. We actually spent a really nice day with Sergey and Oleg. The sun was out, life was good.
It came to replacing the filter and it turns out the man was right. Two of my sparkplugs had given up the ghost. Slightly embarassed I replaced them and vowed in future to always listen to the well educated before making rash decisions about what I think is right...
Departure day came around again and this time we were ready. After a photo session in the square with Sergey and Oleg playing the role of Austen Powers in turn, we were off for Kazakhstan. A big day in the saddle saw us camp on the other side of Astrakhan, near the border. The nice river with a bit of grass the night before turned into a nice river with extended floodplane the morning after. We were lucky and woke up just as it reached the tent. Funny thing is, me and Gemma heard frogs plonking into water close by during the course of the night, but neither of us bothered to inspect.
Anyway, hit the border at about 10 o'clock after nogotiating a funky floating toll bridge and yet more phantom signboards
We somehow became part of this Pamir expedition and were shuffled through with the group. They all spoke Russian, most being from Ukraine, and I did'nt really like the feeling of being out of control. We were like little children being bossed about. Big groups always cause more hassle and upto now we've managed to cross borders fairly quickly and without problems.
In the end all it took was time and a mini bribe of 100 rubles to get us through. We almost did have a problem, because we were processed with the group we got the same leaving date on our vehicle import slips. A major headache if we did'nt spot it, but luckily we met a nice border guard (!) who spoke perfect english. We explained the situation to him and without any problem at all he scribbled a new date over the old. Sorted!
He came over for a chat while we were sat on the bikes
We flew down the road in a cloud of dust for about 100 meters before being pulled over by the cops, bugger. Turns out after going through the official procedures of entering a country for the last 5 hours, they needed more info and our passport details were copied into a ledger.
At last we were free to go, Atyrau being the destination. It was the first test for our fuel set up, we had to make it to Atyrau 380 kilometres away 'cos there's no cashpoints on the way and we had no Tenge.
Amazingly, once again everything changed as soon as we crossed that imaginary line on the map. The people looked Asian, the landscape went very barren and it was hot. Blissfully hot. We said goodbye to the GS expedition crew, vaguely promised to see them in Atyrau and hit the long road. Fairly good tarmac took us all the way and it was relatively uneventfull except for some proper camels we came across by the roadside. It was quite exciting being able to ride off of the main road, onto the kazakh steppe, park up the bikes and walk right up to a gang of camels
Into Atyrau for fuel, food and money out in under an hour. Dont like city's they make me nervous. Just as the sun started to go south, we came across a massive sign indicating in no uncertain terms:"CAMPING". We could'nt believe our luck and pulled over. We were looking forward to a shower and other such facilities. Through my helmet I shouted to a boy: "Camping?". He replied "da, da, da" and beconed us into the premesis. We parked up, stripped off our bike clothes and strolled over expecting to be shown where to camp. Instead we were met with blank stares and when we tried to say (in sign language) "Hallo were here to use your services, as advertised on the front of your establishment, for lodging in a canvas shelter on a square of your luxurious earth, maybe have a shower. Naturally we'll pay handsomely for this privelege." We were smurked at, told the cafe is closed and there is no such thing as camping here.
Just to prove a point, we left their premises down a dirt road and set up camp a little way away, but still in view of them (not smurking anymore), on the steppe.
Day 2 in Kazakhstan was to be the start of five days hard riding, taking us from just outside Atyrau in the far west to Aral on the former shore of the Aral sea
All was well 'till we hit a town called Makat where we had to ask for directions. You know something's amiss when directions are followed by laughing/smurking and fingers start to trace alternative routes the other way...
To be fair, we knew this section was slightly rough from spending too much time on the internet, but it was the shortest route to where we were going. Besides, I'd just put a new knobblie tyre on.
As soon as we left Makat it turned to dirt. At first I was a bit hairy. It must have been amazingly wet 'cos the trucks that use this road left huge trenches everywhere that have now dried and could only be ridden carefully at about 10 kmph. We also had a spell of very fine powdery dirt that exploded as soon as you hit it, leaving a massive cloud of dust and a very angry Gemma behind me. Soon though it turned to an amazing hard-pack highway that you can ride at an average of 60 kmph, only slowing down for the odd diversion, unexpected trench or kamakazi Gopher.
For me this was the best day on the bike so far. A whole day of on-the-pegs, elbows out, throttle open, arse sliding schenanigans. The stupidity of doing it on a fully loaded Transalp, thats still got to do a fair few miles, made it even better
It more or less carried on like this for day two, swapping between the actual road and the various off road options, whichever one was better. The thing about roads like these are that you dont really see anybody else. For about two days the road was ours. Not piffly ''ride 'till brunch'' days, but full on get up at 8, ride till 6 days. Which is exactly why we'll do it again if we had to.
We eventually found a river close to Aqtobe and called it a day.
Aqtobe was nuts. Its all shit and sandstorms untill you hit the centre of this city. A massive mall, complete with army helicopter just for show, an icerink and a moat, pops up from nowhere. The scene was nicely rounded off by an enourmous golden mosque.
Shopping done we dodged out swiftly and the first few kilometres were indeed swift. Good roads, good speeds, good times.
After about 250 kilometres though we got dropped in the doo-doo again. This time though it was'nt nice at all. Deep sand for miles and lots of traffic to boot. Just to add that special touch, the wind blew straight across our path sweeping the dust bombs from the hoards of passing trucks directly over us.
It was a miserable two days so here follows a summary:
We fell off one a piece. Gemma in the deep sand (thankfully no injury) and me in the mud.
This cheekily ripped off my pannier, bent my indicator and made me swear infront of the locals, alot.
We slept on a particularly high bit of steppe, just in time to pitch tent in the path of an oncoming thunder storm. Yes, we were the highest things for miles.
We rode on virgin tarmac and passed a man doing what looked like a mad monkey dance. It was naughty to break onto a highway under construction, but so is swearing infront of locals.
Actually we seem to be doing quite a lot of naughty things since we've been in Kazakhstan. This particular bit of highway robbery came about by struggling and getting so fed up of riding in the unrideable "under construction" roads, that I used the girth of my transalp to bulldoze a nice bike sized gap through the dirt mound barriers they put up to stop you from getting to these nice, flat, freshly lain bits of heaven. We knew someone was'nt going to be pleased, but hey we were happy
Same with the police. We were told to avoid them at all costs if possible. So we have. Even when they pointed at us with their red money sticks. One particularly enthusiastic copper left his current victim, to turn around and blow his whistle at us. He blew so hard he looked like his face was going to explode, but we just waved a cheery "hallo!" and carried on. I think if we'd stopped for these police men, we would definitely have had a much grumpier view of Kazakhstan. The story goes that if you are foreign and they pull you over, weather you've done something wrong or not,
the ''fee'' is a standard $20. We've not stopped for about 6 cops so far. You do the maths.
We did make it to Aral. Slightly broken, dirty and fed up, we checked into the only hotel in town. It was too expensive and unfriendly so we left the next day.
After the dirt of the last five days, the next stint to Almaty was relatively dull.
Once again here follows a summary:
Gemma crashed again, this time rather more spectacularly down the side of quite a steep hill.
We had the first rain storm since leaving the Ukraine. I still hate rain.
Bought cheese that turned out to be margarine.
Bought crisps that turned out to be pasta.
Got offered opium by another drunk man who then gave us his kebab.
I crashed in the mud, again.
We rode parallel with the Tian Shan mountain range, which gave us spectacular views for four days on the road.
We've been in almaty for about 4 days now. On a whim I sent an e-mail to a man called Dan just before we left Volgograd. I remembered seeing him offer accomodation to people who might be passing through Almaty on Horizons unlimited. He very quickly replied and said he's got a couch. It was actually nice to have a destination and a reason to go somewhere. You can sometimes find yourself thinking whats the point, why have we just ridden for 10 hours? We dont have to be anywhere.
Dan gave us a reason to push on and an end destination to get to.
So cheers Dan, besides the brilliant hosting and hospitality it has meant much more to us than just a place to crash for a few days.
Ciao for now!