On the road early, over the Volga, round the roundabout where the train broke down and out of Saratov into the wilderness. Long day ahead and fraught with the potential for problems.
Usually nomansland is just a short distance between border posts but down here it might as well start 200 miles back here at Saratov. There is sweet feck all between here and the Russian border. Just 200 miles of of 50/50 tarmac/hole roads, a few isolated villages and some petrol stations.
We’ve been travelling through Nowhere and we’ve just about reached the middle when Tony pulls over with a flat tyre. These Africa twins have front tyres not much bigger than a pushbike and Tony has gone beyond it’s twatting threshold on a pothole. There are two pinch punctures, just by the valve as luck would have it. No problem, we’ll quickly swap for his spare and fix it later. Tony gets the spare from the panier.. “Are you sure this isn’t the back? ” “Nope, this is the back”… It might not be the back for this bike, but it’s the back for some bike. The Honda garage has given him the wrong size tube. Triffic! We try and patch the splits while Tony spits blood down the mobile at the Honda dealer back in Chelsea. The dealer seems to be a close relation of Lucyfer in Saratov and is basically giving Tony the finger. A finger he may well loose if Tony ever meets him in person, or at least find inserted where he can itch his throat from the inside The splits are quite big and the patches wont hold… The Africa Twin is the only bike here with a 21inch wheel. Fucky wank. “Anyone got a plan B?”
All the 19inch wheels here are tubeless, or rather they should be.. As (bad) luck would have it, a week before I left for the trip I went to get some new tyres fitted on my KTM and the front wouldn’t reseal. The KTMs have some really stupid arse system with a big rubber seal that sits in a groove of the rim along with a tyre pressure sensor. If the tyre isn’t put under aesthetic and changed under full operating theatre conditions by a specially trained Tyreomotrist using sterile levers and surgical pads then there is a 500% chance that the seal will be damaged and that air will piss out through the spokes leaving you stranded. Unfortunately my tyre was fitted in an NHS tyre fitters and they mistakenly let a CarTyremotrist do the work resulting in a bad case of aforementioned spoke air pissingeyetous. I spoke to 2 KTM dealers and said I had an emergency and could they help. Both, to be completely honest, were completely fucking useless and didn’t want to help. Both have now been targeted for localised tactical nuclear missile strikes as soon as I rule the world. The moral of the story is, if you have a Ktm 1190 Adventure, always go private…
So, I am sitting in the middle of Nowhere with a spare 19inch inner tube to match the one currently curing my pissingeyetous. Result! Problem is “My tube is considerably thicker than yours”:) It takes ages to get the tube in the thinner tyre without damaging it and by the time we’re rolling we’ve lost well over an hour. The sun is starting to head west towards bed and we’ve still go a way to go.
Get to the Russia border. It’s all quiet and it shouldn’t take long. Shouldn’t… Russian border guards are supposedly only equipped with button mushrooms for penises and like to take their frustration out on everybody they meet. “Stand here” No sitting. Stand the other side of 1 way glass for 15 minutes when the guard pulls funny faces at you, plays with his mushroom and tries to flick bogies in a bin across the office. When he’s finally finished or his nose runs dry he stamps the passport and throws it back through the hole at you. We’re slowly getting through and heading off across nomansland to the Kazakhstan border on the hill. I chose to go in the middle to advise the others at the other border and get insurance. My bad!
I go through Kazak immigration and customs and the other riders gradually get their insurance and head off towards Uralsk. I wait… and I wait… for hours… for Bob and Carrie to come up from the Russian border. WTF is going on down there, I can’t get hold of them on the phone either. The border is going to close soon, it’s getting dark and Lucyfer looks like she has arranged a bugger off black cloud full of devil piss to rain down at any moment. I decide I’m going to have to go back and see. I go back out through immigration and as I’m about to ride out I see them appear over the horizon. Seems as though Carrie was really unfortunate and had the misfortune to have ‘Nicolai the Nose’ doing her passport. Nicolai is famous for his bogie mining. It has something to do with having a freekishly slim little finger than can mine bogies most mere mortals would have no hope with. He can pay pick and flick for hours on end, and that’s whats held Carrie up. He had her passport for 90 minutes before his finger touched his brain and he had to stop flicking. It had nothing to do with her being American I’m sure. The fact that the same thing happened last time we came through here with some Americans is pure coincidence…
So now it’s dark, and raining, and I know the road from here goes right off the end of the shitter scale. Brilliant. Bob, Carrie, Tony and I head off into the darkness and hope not to be swallowed by the giant holes I know are just waiting for us up the road..
Last time I came through here, the first 20 miles or so the roads were spectacularly bad. Lots of the potholes were proudly displaying awards for their size, depth and the number of ‘kills’ they had notched up. Some still had trucks at the bottom, trapped forever, just ticking over waiting for the world to end. This road is SHIT. Get passed that though and I don’t remember it being too bad.
Memory is a curious thing though… we get through the first 20 mile maze of craters intact and come to a small town. I don’t remember this. It’s now pitch black and getting pretty late. The sat navs say right then left. So we go right… then left. Tarmac turns to gravel turns to thick white solid rutted mud turns to thick scary rutty shot with huge stones in and we have to stop. This can’t be right. This road goes in the right direction towards Uralsk but there is no way the other bikes would have come this way, the Victories would never have made it. It is pitch black in all directions, nobody about at all. We decide to head back to the town, get some fuel and ask. We’re on the gravel and an old Audi appears out the dark from a track. Two drunks fall out and start waving. They’re gabbling away and pointing back where we’ve just come from and crossing their arms to make it clear we definitely shouldn’t go that way. Definitely! Make no mistake about it… They draw us a map in the gravel. Back to town and turn right at the roundabout. Back we go, get some fuel and ask. The first bloke points us back in the direction we just came. I reckon he’s just having a laugh so I ignore him and ask again. Sure enough the second woman points straight over the roundabout but mumbles something incoherent but not encouraging. Down we go, over the roundabout and into the pitch darkness. 500 yards later we meet a 20ft high wall of earth. Brilliant… Back track and find some small track that runs down alongside the road. Sat navs are still having a laugh telling us to turn left, right, round, whatever, but we stick with it and take the track. The next 60 miles is just a stupid fuckfest of a ride along really rough and very dusty roads in the pitch blackness running alongside the roadworks that will eventually sort all this out. We shouldn’t be riding this stuff at night and it’s a bitch. The occasional truck and car come through in a giant dust cloud and you just have to pray there isn’t a giant hole in the mirk. The track bucks and weaves and yomps about forever and ever. It’s getting really late now too. This is difficult shit and I imagine the other riders will be waiting for me with knives and baseball bats should any of them make it to Uralsk alive. Just as I’m considering turning off my lights and riding off the track to bury myself alive so as I can avoid being lynched, the roadworks end and we meet lovely smooth, deep black velvety kissable tarmac. It’s like seeing a toilet when you’re just about to poo your pants.. Like untying a knot in your knob (I should be so lucky).. The relief is almost orgasmic. We all breath a collective sigh of relief and turn up the throttles to blur speed. We hammer through Uralsk at some high multiple of the speed limit and get to the hotel about 10pm, completely wankered and looking like we’ve been sitting inside a hoover bag for 12 hours. All the riders are present and correct though and thats the main thing. We’ve also lost 2 hours on a time change so it’s now gone midnight… Pomi tells me thats the worst days riding he has ever had. “Cool. No extra charge…” I tell him. Midnight pizza and collapse into a coma in the big cool fluffy arms of a clean fresh bed.
WFT… morning already… that can’t be right… Jesus. Well, at least today can’t be as bad as yesterday can it. Easy ride down to Aktobe.. Yep. No problem. Yea right…
The roads aren’t too bad out here. Not much traffic and beautiful and sunny. The hardest thing out here is getting petrol. I think the term ‘multiprocessing’ has yet to make it’s way out to Russia and Kazakhstan. The rule says that “The likelihood of payment chaos and confusion trebles for each and every bike that enters the petrol station simultaneously. Should the rider decide to share a pump with another rider then is an increasingly likely chance of the pressure building in the attendants head to such a level that their ears may bleed and their brain will start dribbling out of their nose. If the riders should approach the till in groups of more than one, then the chance of being charged at least 300% of your actual cost is significantly increased. If you should try and combine the purchase of fuel with any other item available at the station then you should expect to pay all the numbers the attendant can presently see on the screen in front of them. If you should present the attendant with a credit card then be warned that the police may need to be called to the fight you’re just about to start”. It’s the same every time. It’s mental.
The people are starting to look different out here too. Much more asian. We always get mobbed at each stop and end up covered and surrounded by sweet smelling young women in loose fitting clothing. Nightmare..
Petrol issues aside, all we have to contend with is the flat dull scenery, and the police. They’re bastards out here. I’d forgotten just how bad they are. I warned the riders to only keep a few small notes in their wallets… We’re all strung out but Pomi gets pulled in the batmobile and we all wait to see the damage.
The policeman really hit pay dirt this time. He started the usual negotiation, Pomi got out his wallet and there was a €50 note nestling in the folds. The policeman had to turn on the internal windscreen wipers as he involuntarily jizzed himself at the sight of it. Once he had seen that there was no going back. I reckon he can retire on that.
We’re making good time. Cool. Nice meal and an early night… or maybe not..
Tony has another pinch puncture on the Africa twin. Stop… fix.. go.. stop.. fix again.. go.. stop.. swap tubes… stop… run out of patches… retire to the wilderness to blubber like a baby. We’re about 50km out from Aktobe. It’s getting dark and we’re clean out of luck. We can’t fix the original tube, or my spare, and we don’t have any patches left. Tony is understandably reluctant to try a 50km wheelie.. It’s going to be a late one… Everyone heads for the hotel in Aktobe and to try and find a truck to come out and recover the bike. The sun gives up watching the carnage and decides to go to bed and hand over to the man in the moon. Dark, tired, late and stranded. The hotel finds a truck then Bob and Carrie lead it out. We lift the Africa twin in and head into town. We’re all tired and hungry and travelling way to fast through town. We’re coming off a roundabout and we nail it in the pitch dark. I just catch a flicker of a person crossing the road from the left and I miss them by an inch. Close enough to smell their fear/perfume/poo combo. Fuck. This day could have just got a whole lot worse. Get to the hotel about midnight and the lovely evening meal I was so looking forward to turns out to be some warm beer and a pasty thing that must have fallen off the back of a Cornish biker back in 1985.
We’ve got to shuffle the next couple of days to let us sort Tony’s bike out otherwise we’re going nowhere. I texted the riders last night so a few went on a massive bender. One particular rider ended up at a lock-in where he got smashed to such a degree that he could not take advantage of the hooker he was presented ‘as a gift from the people of Kazakhstan to a road weary traveller’. That’ll teach him.
The little woman on this reception desk is Lucyfer’s complete alter ego. A proper angel that you can hardly look at without wearing a welding mask, such is the brightness of her halo. She’s on the case of finding some 21inch tubes in Aktobe. She has sent her finest needle hunter out into the hot city haystack on mission impossible. Yep… good luck with that.
I’m thinking plan A is doomed so I go to a quiet place, light a few candles, get down on my knees and pray long and hard to the God of Google. The desk angel must have shined her light on me for a brief second and amongst all the noise on the pages is a phone number…. get the phone, give it a ring…. “Hello, yes, I can help, OK, I’ll be there in 15 minutes”. It’s a miracle. There is no other way to describe it. 14 minutes later a little bloke in an old SLK rocks up a the hotel. He speaks really good english and has a daughter that studied in London that speaks it ever perfecter. Perfect:) He doesn’t ride a bike even, he just has a really helpful habit and he needs to get a good fix. It’s a cultural thing apparently, He just like to do good. People like him are rarer than tits on a gymnast and I’m still amazed that he’s standing there in front of me.
This is a public information broadcast.. if anyone finds themselves up to their necks in shit in the Aktobe area, please feel free to phone Gennadi on +7 701 3397714
He thinks finding 21inch tubes in Aktobe is as likely as finding moon rock but we go out and try anyway. We scoot all around town in his little Merc, chewing the fat, stopping, asking, trying to find help. He takes me here, there and everywhere trying to find some help. I say to him that I saw someone in a Range Rover yesterday and that he must be loaded. Turns out though that my little helper has a Hummer, a Porche, both an old and a new Beetle and his Merc. He owns an advertising business and he’s obviously doing well for himself. We get a call from someone at the hotel. Turns out the needle hunter has found a big pile of moon rock. Apparently as he was loading the rock into his car, what should there be underneath but 2, 21inch inner tubes, 15 hens teeth and the putrid stink of rocking horse shit. We head back to the hotel and there they are, in the rubber. They’re thicker than an elephant’s condom and hardly bend at all but they’re about the right size. What a bloody result that is! Price. About $10 each… Christ alive, brake out the champagne. The dancing girls are on me…
Gennadi takes me to QuickShits. It’s an old train carrage that’s fallen off a truck and now has tyre menders squatting in it but they seem to know what they’re doing.
The fix the punctures in our buggered tubes then they try to put one of the new tubes into the Africa twin rim… they try… and they fail. The valve of the tubes has a thick rubber sheath a la 1930’s and won’t fit through the hole in the rim. Gennadi translates “Fuck the rim… drill the bastard” but their drills are as blunt as the end of my knob and they’re not having it. We fit the original tube with the proper mend in. We’ll carry the spares and work it out if we need to. You know we’re going to need to right? You haven’t read ahead and seen that we need to. You just know it’s going to happen…
Back into the SLKmobile and round town again in search of puncture patches and glue, then look for some spare fuel tanks. The route south from here is really remote. I talk to Gennadi and tell him we’ve going through Aral. He advises me to sleep in the desert outside town and not to go in. It’s a really depressed place and not particularly friendly. We don’t have the option for camping and there is feck all for 100s of miles all around so he just tells me “Go in late, stay somewhere safe, and get out as soon as possible”. Perhaps I’ll keep that bit of advise to myself…
Anyway, we’re all back on the road and ready to roll, that’s all that matters right now. The next couple of days we’ll cross the most isolated area of the whole journey. With a quick wave and a puff of smoke Gennadi disappears and we’re on our own again. Lovely dinner for a change then I take a wander round Aktobe and try to avoid getting caught in the web spun by the women of the night.
Aral is about 400 miles from Aktobe, and for about 399 miles of that there is absolutely sweet feck all apart from tarmac, sand and camels. Off we all go out into the morning sunshine. One road, no choice. There is nothing for about 150 miles where there is a truck stop and a cafe. Everyone lives on-site at these transitional places and they always seem to have a temporary feel.
Aral is further than I’ve ever gone on a tank of fuel with the Adventure and it probably the same for some of the others too. I’ve got a 6L spare that we’ll have to share. You have to spend the next few hours desperately resisting the urge to open the throttle and pull in the horizon. Slow and steady, constantly working out miles per bar on the fuel gauge, staring at the blur of sand, marvelling at the scale of the place and the huge blue sky above.
I think Tony’s Africa twin has a special little gizmo that can work out precisely when we reach a particular position and then let the front tyre down. Looks like someone has set it to “the absolute middle of fucking nowhere in the blazing sun with the longest possible recovery time available in any direction and no visible traffic to and probably beyond the horizon”. Luckily this set of circumstances seems to have been satisfied and the twin pops it’s patches and slows to a stop again. Wanky tits and arse, please can someone remove this shit magnet from my back. Looks like this tube is screwed completely now. We have my 19 but if that get’s buggered then I’ll be screwed too. We’ve got to try and fit the super thick Russian military grade ones. Buggering knob cock and tits….
Trying to stick the fat valve from these tubes through the rim of the twin is like trying to mate a horse with a hamster. Not a normal hamster either. Nope, we’re talking about the very uncommon ‘minichuff, perpetual virgin’ hamster only found in the road cracks of central Kazakhstan. Try as we might it’s just not happening and we’re not about to create the worlds first horamster any time soon. The squealing is getting just to much to bear and it’s threatening to wake the dead so we have to abort and go to plan… well… another plan… As luck would have it, again, Bob , is randomly carrying a brand spanking new, hard as the hardest of nails, goes through a safe like tongue through chocolate, drill bit. Bob had an issue at the shippers that started with a seat that wouldn’t come off and ended with a fuck off big drill being applied. He donated the drill to a hotelier earlier in the trip but still has the bit so we clamp it in some mole grips and he slowly hones out the hole. I’m carrying a small file too so together we stretch out the hamster to accept the horse. It’s still a tight fit but hey, thats the best for everyone involved, and it gets Tony rolling again thank God.
About 4 of us are not going to make it for sure. Bob follows a truck and drafts it at about 1ft from the tailgate to eek the fuel out and the rest of us wait for the first to run out of petrol. About 20 miles out the High Ball runs out so we all pull over and I share my 6L out, each according to his need, but with me as a priority in case I have to run to get more. Slowly slowly slowly we go and eventually Aral appears in the low sun on the horizon like a magical mirage. Nobody wants to go to Aral. Even the main road bypasses it. It’s a weird ghostly little place with sand rushing across the streets. It looks really tired. Like the place has almost given up. It’s more like an open prison than a town. Where are you going to run to though out here in the middle of the desert. Get to the hotel and try to sort the rooms out. I got the Angel of Aktobe to phone ahead yesterday and book some rooms but she might as well have saved her extremely valuable angle breath as the bloke at the door hasn’t a bloody clue that we were coming. We’re swarmed by kids too and despite their young age, they’re strangely intimidating as they shout and stare. There is a garage under the hotel complete with a 10ft pit down the middle and a 75 degree slippery slope to get in and out. Get the bikes all locked tight and go to look for some dinner. The hotel is right next to the train station and it has a big monument to the Aral sea that used to lap at its door. The monument also doubles as a wedding venue and a short racetrack where pissed up locals can drift their 30 year old BMWs in ever decreasing circles.
Put your hand out and some random will stop and take you somewhere for about 50 pence. We end up at a random building serving food outside and play ‘lucky dip’ with a menu and ‘double dare ‘with our bowels. Walk back trough the dark and broken pavements to the hotel. I’m convinced that John Cleese got the ideas for his silly walks by watching someone walk along a pavement in Aral. It’s like walking through a game of Tetris. Every paving stone is at least 2 feet above or below the one you’re on. There are shadows everywhere and you know you’re being watched. It’s an odd place.
Get up early. Nobody about. I have to pull 2 wires of plug and place them on the night no-watchman’s ears to raise him from his coma. I hope he’s not getting payed for this, lazy bastard. He opens the garage and thankfully the bikes are all present and correct. Last time I came here they did a nice breakfast but the only thing we’re likely to get this morning is warm flem on toast so we skip it and pop sticks out into the cold desert quick styley.
Another 150 miles of nothing. Nothing at all. Sunshine fills the sky and desert fills the land. Catch a wiff of food on the wind and get to a small cafe just outside Baikonur, home of the Russian cosmodrome. “Ham, eggs and coffee 15 times please, and whatever the others are having”. An unexpected treat.
The cosmodrome is officially Russian territory and you have to fly in from Russia at some hideous cost if you want to look around it. You can just see a teaser from the bridge.
South to Kyzylorda and civilisation slowly starts to come back to life as the desert gives up it’s grip to rivers and irrigation canals. Water certainly brings life… including the fecking police. This one just wants a picture though. “Does my hat look big in this?”
Kyzylorda is just a sprawling mess that looks like it’s been built from everybody else’s leftovers.
After dinner I go down the supermarket to buy some milk, but all they have is camel… ummm no thanks… and judging by the woman’s reaction I work out that I’ve left my flies open..
A civilised breakfast for a change and we head out of town towards Shymkent. Get to the edge of town and the wind is there waiting for us. You can see it waiting like a gang of thugs, just itching to rough you up. Wailing and whistling and daring you. “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.” Ride out the lee of the city and it’s on you straight away. Pushing and shoving and trying to tackle you off the bike. It’s really vicious out here and is non-stop all day long. A good excuse to stop for coffee..
By the time we stop for lunch by an airport, the wind is so bad it’s ripping the wings off the planes..
I’m leaving the cafe, pulling away down a dual carriageway. First, second, third, forth, FUCK. Suddenly there’s a big white transit in my face, coming straight at me in the fast lane, and fast. There is a gap in the barriers and he’s jinked through it and decided to drive up the wrong side of the road as a shortcut to his destination/death. I’ve got the same decision staring me right in the face. Braking is pointless as he’s going to fast to stop anyway. I feel the torrent of adrenaline hit my tongue as the brain hits the big red emergency button and turns up all the dials. It could easily turn into one of those situations like on a pavement when you both end up going left and right and end up joined at the nose but thankfully there is traffic in the inside lane so he has no options. I veer right and go down the white line missing him by a distance my brain refuses to compute. “You’re better off not knowing” it whispers to me.
The rest of the day is mostly spent in the company of the bastards in blue. I think we got stopped another 4 or 5 times. I lost count. It was quite thoughtful of them really though. It meant we all got a turn to experience the hot seat. All part of the overland experience. “No extra charge” I tell them:)
Get to Shymkent and end up at a new club where the ladies amongst us award the toilets the very rare 10 out of 10 accolade Several of the men are hypnotised by a young lady using a fast and furious firm bootie shaking technique. They all glaze over and drink shots until they pass out.
I seem immune to it luckily. I can watch this sort of thing for hours…. it’s a gift…Next Page