Last night I met up with the other riders. They left a week before me and took a different route. Another 5 riders and 1 pillion so not a big group. One more to join us on the China border. Mixture of bikes and riders. I arranged to meet them at the big bridge over the Volga this morning. Get to the bridge and there are traffic lights, it’s being resurfaced. Tits. I go to the front of the queue of buses. My spider sense is tingling telling me somethings not right. I get a tap on the back from a police baton. “Niet”. Bollocks. They’re only letting buses over. I’ve got to go miles up river to the next bridge. I decide to wait for the others on this side so do a quick detour down and under the bridge then turn right past a no entry sign directly into the path of ….. two policemen that have just left the police station I’m now pointing at. Ummmm. Smile to max brightness, fawn mode on, quickly swallow a portion of humble pie and start sucking. They’re obviously not pleased. Russian is bitch when it comes at you thick and fast … and loud … with spit. I have absolutely no clue what the fuck they’re on about. Do I bend over and pull my pants down? Do I go down on my knees, open my mouth and close my eyes? Do I get the special police gimp mask out? What? I pull on the gimp mask. Niet, that doesn’t work. Ok, ok. I bend over. Niet, not that either. I’m trying to explain that I want to wait for my mates in their ‘naughty area’. That at least gets their attention back. I’m trying to wait where they’re pulling people over and beating them to pass the time of day but they’re not having it. Its all getting out of hand so I just ride off before they can bump start a police car and follow. So, I’m off for another day alone on the road.
It’s lovely and sunny and warm and the countryside is flat in all directions. I didn’t think the roads could get any more shit but they do. Very impressive indeed. 200 miles standing up the whole way today, calfs on fire.
Get out of Russia easy peasy and it’s in to Kazakhstan in a flash.
The visas in this area of the world are becoming a lot more relaxed. Makes life on the road soooo much easier that’s for sure. Kazakhstan now gives you a 15 day visa waiver, nothing to do for the bike, punch the passport and I’m in, excellent. Just past the border is a little shed. In the little shed, there is a little bed. On the little bed is a little bloke called little Ed. He is dressed in red … and he is scratching his head. Ok ok, so I made that last bit up. He was scratching his bum, but anyway, he’s in an insurance salesman. We sit at his little desk, I fill out a little paperwork and pay a little money then I’m away with a little wave. This border is not exactly commutable from anywhere as I soon find out. Off I go, all happy and legal like. What the fuckidy fucking shit has fucking happened here. The ‘road’ has the worst Tarmac I have ever ever seen. It’s like the local birds have been given TNT for tea and have just flown around blowing it all to shit. The potholes can be a foot deep with straight sides and right across the road, and often on the brows of hills. The trucks are absolutely crawling along it. Its like some mad 1,000,000 hole crazy golf course.
It’s 60 miles to Uralsk and it takes 2 hours with mucho swearing and crunching along the way. Hit one bump more and I’ll have bollocks for earrings. Get to Uralsk and all the roads are under construction. Well, under constructed might be more appropriate. They’re at the early ‘sand’ stage. Sand scares the shit out of me. Perhaps that’s a good thing given my pebble poo problem.. Anyway, any diversions are strictly DIY out here. There are trucks pulling twin trailers, picking their way through the sandy tracks out in the surrounding fields. I disappear into the clouds, ears take over from eyes, I can’t see a thing. Work by 3D sound, turning my head like a bat trying to form a picture in my head. Fucking madness really, sitting in a truck sandwich. Afraid to accelerate. Afraid to brake. I know lots of people do this stuff.
I’m nothing special and I know there are people slogging down the most inaccessible places on earth without support or company. Falling off every 10 seconds and being bitten to death. I’m not in that league. This is more than enough for me. The lesser of two evils is to overtake the trucks. Has to be in the fields though. 20 or 30 seconds of adrenaline fueled out of body riding and I’m out in front. I’ve got a GPS point to get to but no maps. The point is about 5 miles off in the city somewhere. I’ve absolutely no idea so it’s straight line time. This city is in an early evolutionary stage. There is stuff along the sides of the roads but behind there is nothing, just rough sandy wasteland, so I just go from one road to another on the rough, then over the road, down the bank and on again. Bit like a Kazakhstan ‘Italian job’. Over tracks and small paths, through a kids playground, across train tracks , through trees then up a very steep bank and nearly into a crowd at a bus stop. Tonights hotel is a beautiful one, owned by an Italian apparantly. They’ve even imported hot air driers for the toilets. Typical Italians, never in a hurry. Spend a lovely night in a crisp comfortable cool cotton cocoon. Bliss.
The Kazakhstan cartographers still have the pencils they started with back at the dawn of time. They’ve not even had to sharpen them yet. One line top to bottom and one across didn’t tax anyone too much. 9th biggest country in the world too. Kazakhstan is like a dot to dot picture. A few of the dots are joined with nice sharp dark lines but a lot are just feint or dotted. The route today is supposed to be a lovely dark line with the ink barely dry. Pity I didn’t use it. Idiot! I mistakenly put my faith in the GPS, gave it my hand and let it lead me blindly into the strong morning sunshine. Someone kindly loaded some maps on yesterday and I just follow follow follow. It guides. I just ride. See a sign for Aktobe, relax, enjoy the view. The road isn’t too bad for a while. Do about 90 miles before the first junction. No signs for places I’m looking for though. Look on the map. My fuckidybuggerometer is starting to flick. I try to speak to a bloke at a bus stop. He appears to have no tongue. He’s waving his arms around and he’s not recognizing anything. He shows me a piece of paper with something scribbled on it. I think his mum gave it to him to give to the bus driver so I’m hoping he’s just illiterate. He gets excited and recognizes his home town on the map. He points to somewhere I certainly don’t want to be. Ohhh shit. I’m a long long way of course. The GPS has gone for the quickest route but that takes me back through Russia and I’m now close to the border. What a complete knobbing twat I am. Anyway, usually this wouldn’t be a problem. 130km, 80 miles, no problem at all. 80 miles out here on anything but the main roads, that’s going to be more difficult. To be fair though, this is where the adventure begins. I’m alone, it’s 100 degrees and there is a gale blowing across the plains. The GS has a big tank and I’ve plenty of fuel, what’s to worry about, lets go. The tarmac ends very quickly, like after 50 meters, and its rough roads all the way. Sand, gravel, chalk, packed mud. Bits of everything for the next couple of hours. It’s the poor old bike I feel sorry for. Fully loaded its still a brilliant bike for doing this. Everything is dry at least. The scenery is flat but magnificent, topped with an endless blue sky. An eagle swoops down and takes a rabbit off the track just in front of me. Horses run in the sun with their tails stuck straight out. All shiny with sweat and attitude. Herds of goats roaming in the gullies with herders somewhere keeping watch. Much much better than the black stuff. Half way along there is a broken down car with some young blokes in. Puncture, no surprise there, I’m sure it’s a daily occurrence. He has no useable spare and he wants me to take him to his house to get one. He’s pointing somewhere towards the horizon. Brilliant. Poor poor old bike. On he gets. Two up off road, it’s not funny. I’ve seen people do it. I’ve done it a few times but I absolutely hate it. I can’t do off road sitting down. It just feels like I’m on ice the whole time and I can’t see far enough ahead because my screen is opaque with grime. Off we go though, to infinity and beyond. Luckily its only a few miles before we head off to a small community scratching an existence in the middle of nowhere. I’m guessing its farming or livestock but i can’t see any animals and very limited infrastructure or machinery. The bloke speaks some English though and he’s hapily smoking a tab on the back. The Kazakhstan people have without exception been the friendliest and most engaging people I’ve met so far. Immediately you cross the border they look completely different too. Almost exclusively Asian and not at all Russian. All polite and smiling. Happy people it seems. Anyway, someone finds a wheel and tyre with about 10psi in and I take him plus the wheel back up to the car. Everyone’s happy, job’s a goodun and away we all go on our separate ways. I’m a keen saver at the bank of karma and I hope I made a decent deposit today. The last 50 miles goes by in a blur. I don’t ever look down at the speedo though as all that will do is calculate an appropriate list of injuries. Ignorance is bliss. Strange how you can force these things from your mind. I guess we all do it every day to some degree or another else we’d never leave the bed. Even the bed can be dangerous though… Once on the main road it’s easy riding all the way. Really really hot and there are wildfires burning off to the sides, just left to their own devices to burn as they please. Occasionally its burning on both sides and thick white smoke obliterates everything.
Get to Aktobe and it’s quite a big sprawling place with an air force base of some description. Lots of drivers are waving and taking pictures or talking to me in traffic. A good friendly atmosphere. I’d have absolutely no hesitation recommending people come out here to this country. The wild areas are impressive just for the scale. The kind of space that just doesn’t exist in Europe. I love it. It’s so nice to be so far out, like an ant walking alone between nests. Nobody about. Absolutely nobody. Personal space that stretches to the horizon in all directions.
Up early and out of Aktobe. Kazakhstan isn’t at all what I expected. I expected a really sparse, backward country with little or no infrastructure, old cars, poverty, guns and bandits. People that have been here even just a few years ago say it’s coming on leaps and bounds. They have huge oil reserves and that’s putting them on a fast track to westernisation. The country is HUGE but only has 17 million people. Some Chinese cities have more than that. Sure, some areas might look relatively poor but the infrastructure is going in thick and fast. Mobile coverage is good, electricity is constant, water, sewerage, all the basics are there even in the outlying areas. The cities are bustling with new, often Chinese vehicles and you don’t see any real poverty. The living conditions for most seem better than their big bother’s next door. Anyway, riding alone again today. Between towns the road is good, with the old ‘road’ running along side. Taking the old road a few years ago would make this trip one hell of a lot harder and slower for sure. It will soon be, if it isn’t already, a really simple journey from UK to China. Really not that far either. Today was quite a short ride then rough camping. Not my favorite activity. Give me some 6 inch nails, a hammer and a bench to put my tummy banana on and I’d rather spend the evening turning my winkle into a sprinkler than camping. People that like it, there is something wrong with them. I think they should be arrested.
Get up, stretch, find the biggest lump of wood I can and twat the tent into as many pieces that will fit conveniently into the panniers and get out. Out across the desert all day. Not an attractive, amber desert with dunes though, just a scrubby scruffy landscape. It’s a shame. Kazakhstan hasn’t been blessed with much of a landscape it seems.It’s all pretty dull and flat and arid, though the country is so huge that I’m sure there must be some diversity somewhere…probably. Makes the riding a bit metronomic outside town.
Fecking hot out here though, and windy. No need for hot air dryers out here, the toilets just have holes in the walls to stick your hands through to dry them. Straight road, 100 odd degrees, 250 miles to Aral, where the sea used to be before the Russians used it for irrigation and reduced the size by half.
It’s a big shanty town in the middle of absolutely nowhere. I really love these places. All a bit rough and ready, a bit up and down with the train tracks running across the little streets. A bit backward looking maybe but all the better for it. People stopped by the roads asking for lifts by the next driver along, all looking after each other like these isolated places do. Lovely low sun bouncing round the wooden houses and off a road shined by years of heat and hard use without attention. Somewhere I would be happy to stay a while I think. No accommodation booked for tonight so I ride in and take a look. Go into a tiny shop and disturb a family eating their tea round a table in the corner. I’m in the fridge, mumbling “milk” to myself. “That’s not milk” in perfect English from behind me. Astounding. I turn round and it’s like I’m watching a dubbed foreign film. The scene is so foreign. The whole family sat round an old table in a shadowy corner, the smell of an unknown meal being eaten in the heat of building warmed by hot sunshine and now shrinking and clicking at the end of the day as it slowly cools down, and the youngest speaking to me in oxford English. He studied abroad for 7 years – God knows how they afforded that – and hopes to work abroad too. Good luck to him. Anyway, there are only 2 hotels in town he tells me. One is a real dive with prostitutes on the room service menu, and the other is still under construction by the train station. Get some directions and off I go. The town has a ‘temporary’ feel if that makes sense. It feels like a town put up years ago to support an activity with the expectation that it would come down quickly after, but it never was. Constructed up with the “that’ll be ok, it’s only temporary” mentality. Lovely place. Get to the hotel by the station. Perhaps this is the one with the hookers though. The owners don’t speak english but it appears that some of the rooms don’t become available until 9 or 10pm. Ummm. Slightly chaotic and basic but what else do you need? Only £12 too. Go out to eat. Again, like a lot of isolated places, one door leads to a place/person that will cook you food, mend your chainsaw, amputate your foot and give you marrage advice. I eat some bits of unidentified mammal and chat to a couple of men drinking. One has 2 mistresses in this town alone and a wife in Shymkent. Naughty boy.
Out of Aral and across the plain on the tarmac treadmill again. 180 miles straight road before fuel, then the roadworks begin. The usual, same the world over. Diverted for miles off on the old rough road and whatever you’d find by digging a foot down. Sand, gravel, hard packed mud and plenty of dust. Lorries crawling through trying not to break anything or get a puncture. Their trailers and loads groaning and creaking like the moaning dead. You can see why they’re replacing the roads though. Through some of the towns it looks like some drugged up local has been joyriding in a tractor and litterally ploughed up the tarmac. Big sections just gouged out and turned over. About 20-30 miles of that then it’s all back to the new stuff again. Perfect for police cars. One comes the other way and flashes it’s lights., he we go. I see it brake and UTurn in the mirrors then sure enough, blue lights on and past it comes. We’re pulled over but he only wants the first two bikes. I get in the car and get comfortable. At least there is air con in here. One cop in the driver seat, the other in the back which is odd.
The car is new, the gadetry is new, the game is the same one played all over for years. There isn’t even the suggestion of anything official. 85 in a 70 on video, 2700 Tenge (£90) each according to a printed sheet he shows me. He writes ‘$100’ on a little piece of paper on his lap and looks at me. I write ‘fuck off you money grabbing bastard’ with my eyes and just sit there. He writes ‘$50’ on his piece of paper and raises his eyebrows. I turn my glare down just a notch but do nothing. He sort of just turns his palms up and looks at me. I could sit here all day but it’s late and I want to eat so I get my wallet out and open it. He pretends not to look but surreptitiously points to the ’till’ slot under at the bottom of the console. There is a camera in the car, probably pointing to the back, which is probably why I’m in the front, and you have to avoid the money being seen on camera. I show him my wallet is nearly empty. More hands and head scratching and negotiation by eyes, eyebrows, smiles and scowls follows before I decide to slip 5000T (£17) in the slot and indicate its for both riders. He smiles, they both shake my hands and they’re away. Ridiculous. It was open road so almost certainly 90 limit anyway. Still, all part and parcel of a road trip and I’ve been very lucky so far. He wasn’t angry, threatening, intimidating or anything, he just fancied a meal out at our expense. Anyway, the good news is that someone has got a paint brush out and started painting the scenery a bit.
Cross a huge river and the atmosphere changes immediately. Horses bathe up to their shoulders eating the weeds along the banks of the pools. Smiling kids fish in the little tributaries and irragation ditches. Colours blossom out of the ground and life your mood. Into Kyzylorda tonight. Another sprawling town, notable for the woman with the bandiest legs I have ever seen in my life. You could easily ride a space hopper through them and not touch the sides.
Wake up with the sound of trains and follow them slowly out of the city. They’re huge utilitarian, brutal looking things, all square and fat but strangely gentle as they slowly and carefully pick their way through the metal maze of tracks and points. I love riding along side them, the low morning sun sparking and glinting off the rails, the clanking and clonking as dense metal parts negotiate with each other for a way through. You can just hear all that weight in every sound. Lovely low horn like a metal whale calling to it’s friends. Maybe when I’m too old to ride on two wheels I’ll move to 200.
Kasakhstan is turning out to be almost certainly the most featureless place I have ever been. Still flat and barren all day again today. The vicious cross wind the only distraction. Who the hell nicked all the scenery, or has this wind blown it all down? My camera is getting really bored now. I go to try and take some pics but it just refuses. Take my advice. If you’re going to ride through Kasakhstan then bring an audio book. War and peace, the extended edition. Apart from the increasing police and occasional errant dog chasing you down the road there is nothing much to see. I think their calendar has only tow months on it because they couldn’t get any more pictures for it. Nearly through now though. Fingers crossed that Kyrgyzstan is the place that nicked all the scenery. Nice hotel in Shymkent tonight.
Rest day today. Some of the others are changing oil and stuff. I’ll leave mine till the end of the trip. Is that bad? When I start these trips I adopt an “if it ain’t broke” attitude. The trip is only about 10k total and the bike will be running at speed most of it so I just keep an eye on it. My personal opinion is that manufacturers pressure people into worrying too much about these things nowadays. Some riders think that at 6001 miles after the last service the bike will just stop, sit in a strop by the side of road and wont speak to you again without it’s dealer present. That’s some of the beauty of an old bike. Mine has dimentia, it has no memory. Every day is a new day. Anyway, I can’t rest. I want to get up and go. I’ll rest when I’m dead. Maybe not even then. I wouldn’t be surprised to be a restless soul destined for ever to wander the highways and byways. Today though there are some mountains out there, definitely. I can smell them. I can feel their gravitational pull and I need to go and see. I put some random point on the satnav to get me out the city and head out. Out past the vast rail yard full of LPG and Diesel freight wagons being fueled by the oil fields burning off the early morning mist in the distance. Out, out and up we go. Climb into the cool air through small villages with people washing stuff in the streams, with small kids rambling up steep hills to school, with goats having breakfast at roadside bramble cafes, with flowers opening for business with the bees. On and on. I’m looking for a national park up here but I can’t find it so I just follow some local road to see where it goes. It gets narrower and narrower, rougher and rougher until it comes to a barrier with a little hut. Hut is empty and the barrier is open so on I go. Proper off road now following a twinkling babbling stream up into the sky. I meet a couple of army 4x4s coming in the opposite direction but I don’t stop, just scoot round and carry on. Eventually get to a sign. It’s got soldiers on it with guns and lots of exclamation marks. Ok, seen enough now thanks. Nice to see some scenery at last anyway. Get the camera out for some exercise and let it off the lead. It runs about for 10 minutes enjoying itself, snapping away at anything and everything. Stretching it’s legs. Turn round, then down and fade slowly back into civilization, nearly getting very intimate with a police car overtaking on a white line over a blind bridge. He must be a Russian. Get back to the hotel and OMG, what’s that smell? The bloke I’m sharing with has the shits, epic styley. The toilet looks like it’s been used to conduct some ‘poo-clear’ tests and the waste paper basket is full of little bundles that would definitely stick to a mirror if you threw them. Poor bugger is bed/toilet bound. I think I might go and sleep in an sewer tonight thought, the air would probably be fresher than in my room. I have to walk around with my helmet on, visor shut and and towels tied round my collar to seal out the arse air that is all pervading. Shymkent is Kazakhstan’s 3rd biggest city. There is a lot of money here. Lots of big Mercs (the hotel owner has an CLS AMG), Range Rovers, Bentleys too. It’s the hottest place in the country too apparently. Not a first world city though. No Starbucks!
Another short day today. Only about 100 miles along the Almaty road to Tiraz. Road is good/shit/fantastic/non-existent/fab/bollocks/European. The usual. Got to see some scenery too. I think the relentless wind has pushed it all down here and piled it up against the mountains. Up to about 3000m and see some snow on the tops. Nice clean air and the cool is a welcome change. Gives my sweat glands a chance to rest at least. Tiraz is very different to where we’ve been before. Lovely and green with plenty of trees and flowers. Luckily get to the hotel before all the roads are closed for some big party. The hotel is like somewhere you might stay on a school trip. Tatty and basic with little rooms covered with faded threadbare blankets and an apple on the bedside table. Tittering tap, whispering walls and worn wooden floors that talk as you walk. I really like it. Walk for miles to find food though. Sit at a pavement restaurant and watch a Mercedes wearing a shiny gold chrome wrap drive past looking like a giant Quality Street. Quite surreal. Really nice place though.Next Page