Monday, 25 June 2012

Mega catchup

Evening everybody.....we've now reached Ulan Ude  but I have no idea what day it is nor what time it might be, but I think the updates are in the right order. We've met up with Will Geordie English and plan to ride down to the Mongo border tomorrow, a distance of about 250kms, then we will detour to see various things on the way to UB. WE reckon on being in UB in about 3 days but are not likely to have wifi before then. Bikes are still limping along and we are still in one piece, albeit with a few dinks en route. So here goes..... the missing bits:

The Aral Sea

Got the train down from Aqtobe as my wrist is bad and I cant ride that well. The road is also apparently crap and its mingingly hot, so the train it is. The queing system was impressive - ticekts just like the UK but staff infiunitely more polite. Cost about 80nquid return for the two of us, two nights on a sleeper train in a cabin on our own.

Also bought a socket set for ours, given that we seem to have lost our handle , then to the hospital to be x-rayed. Came out of there with a heavily strapped wrist and some cold gel. They were very nice and NHS please note -the whole experience took about 30 mins.

So we missed our stop on the way there and had to go to the next one - 2 hours distant and then get a local bus back.That was quite a laugh with us and a whole crowd of bemused Kazakhs plus a trussed up goat bouncing along the road for two hours. I think it cost about 4 quid for the pair of us.

Aral was horrible. Hot, dusty and it stank of fish.A desolate place that is a bit sad.
The sea s nowhere to be seen around the town and contrary to the pictures, there are no stranded boats. These are all in Uzbekishtan, and then there are only about five, apparently no more spectacular or stranded than those in Rye Harbour or on the mudflats of the Thames at low tide. But at least we saw it, and can tick it off the "must do list" of things to see.

The town is very odd though It has an old seaside feel about it but no sea of course, thanks to the Russians and their bid to grow cotton. But all around the town is evidence of its former glory with fishermen's homes a giant boat statue and an impressive tiled mural in the railway station depicting the former life of the place.

It is insanely hot though and the place has  a very indoor culture. Being a continetal climate, it has cold harsh winters and hot hot summers and today was no different. There is little evidenece of much outdoor activity though; no sports arenas or kids playing out. In fact, most peoipke are coverted from head to foot with hats, long sleeves and it is surprising that is in western garb, not local clorthing or cooling garments designed to coipe with the sun. And noboidy wears sunglasses or wide brimmed harts; they just squint.

Return from Aral

Almost another disaster getting the train back last night. The woman in the ticket office wasn’t over helpful, despite us showing her our tickets and asking which platform the train back to Aktobe left from. She eventually softened a bit and said she would tell us nearer the time, which of course she didn’t. We hung around in the booking hall – the coolest and cleanest part of Aral for hours because it was just to0o hot outside, but as the time train neared, she'd didappeared. Asked several people who pointed but then the train arrived and we were told several things eventually had to run for it and just made it. But we did make it – thankfully. That would have been too dreadful to contemplate.
Arrived back in Aktobe at about 11am, sorted out bikes, went to supermarket and left. But what a difficult ride – extremely hot, a hot wind, and as usual, no shade. Very difficult to ride in as it makes you sleepy and forces your eyes shut. Had to stop several times so as not to crash.

Met Herman the Austrian from Aral yesterday and Pavel from Poland on their way north. Herman's travelling mate had had to go back to Austria as his tent had blown into a river in Tajikistan and taken all of his documents with it. Not good. He'd met Pavel on the road; he too was alone so the were riding together.

Found a wild camp in some roadside trees where we could sort the engine. Plenty of cover and we took the gearbox cover off and found a small hole in the gasket which I jammed with card as we don't have a spare. also repaired – reattached my exhaust – so maybe it will run better tomorrow. but the i discovered a flat rear tyre. had to leave it until the morning because the light was fading.

Heard voices in the trees but were,'t discovered till this morning. Turned out to be a broken down bus and they wanted water but we couldn't spare any so that was that. Both of us thought it was raining so stayed in our beds but it turned out to be crickets and flies on the tent walls, so we got up late by accident – again.

My gasket repair didn't work so the problem is elsewhere. Bike is still going well though so have no clue at all now. Will just have to keep topping it up. But only another 10000 kilometres to go.

Puncture fix took ages – hard with one hand but eventually got going and had a much better ride today. Did about 300kms. Stropped at a town to buy water and the whole town was in the shop. They ignored us initially so we stood there politely while they pushed and shoved past us, but then they decided we had waited appropriate amount of time, so served us – 'nine litres of water please'. They couldn't quite get over that and then turned on the whole ' where have you come from , where are you going' charm. A whole crowd of teenager and small boys waved us off when we left.

Almost finished riding for the day when Nadine realised that her gear lever had fallen off. We went back and searched but couldn't find it, so carried on to find a camp which was hard given that either side of the road is cultivated for once. But found a track and went down that, which is where we are now. Nadine went back to have another look for the gear lever – and found it. Hooray. That would have been a difficult one.

Every day is a wild hair day now although Nadine's still looks marginally more respectable than mine. At least she can tie hers back and make it look like its supposed to be where it is.
Got up early this morning – slept very well though. Some of those burrowy womabty things are living just across the grass as they were squeaking to each other when I stuck my head out of my tent this morning. They looked a bit disgruntled when they saw me though – a definite “ 0i, what you doing in our field” moment.

Just cleaned all the oil from under the bike engine to try and see exactly where the leak is although I suspect it ids between the main block and the next bit ( the bit behind the head) If that is the case, there's not much to do as we have no gasket and I have no idea how to remove it.

Got another problem now too. Just moved the bike and caught the handlebar on a concrete post./ Smashed the electronic start which now doesn't work. Really didn't need that to happen but its one of those annoying things. So now I have to butcher the switch for the horn ( which already doesn't work) and see if I can fix the start or it will be kick starting from now on.

Shit day today

Started off well as I fixed my ignition and Nadine sorted her gear lever ok. We even managed to wash our underwear in a stream although I don't think the resident frogs were too impressed.

But then the shit started the first of five punctures and all on my bike of course. And two broken spokes. Fixed the spokes and the tube, got everything back together, rode 10 kms and another puncture. Repaired that one, loaded up, rode 100 metres and it went again. Sorted that one, and it happened again after another 20 kms or so. Finally realised that the rubbish Slime glue was at fault. All tubes had patches so that was a bit of a problem a but fortunately, I had mended one last week with cement from an ordinary bike repair kit and that was OK. So the moral is: don't buy Slime Kits, They are crap. Will be writing go Mr Slime when get home and telling him top sort himself out.

Reached Ruudnay. Grim place but found and ATM OK and got some money. Need a hotel ads we are filthy. Then right in the middle of a junction, turning left, leaning into the turn ,tyre blew again and I nearly came off as it lot pressure instantly and I was on the rim. Turned out to be a nail so had to push it to side of road, and sit there trying to fix it. Crowd gathered as usual, getting dark, really fed up, hungry, filthy and very tired. Nads went to find hotel. Then a lovely man called Nickolai came along and insisted on helping. Took the whole wheel and all tubes to his place for a service, but returned and said all the Chinese tubes we had were shit ( agreed) but he had managed to resurrect one. Replaced it , sorted the wheel for us which was very welcome as we had had enough by then ands were suffering from major sense of humour failures. Turned out to be a former soldier who had spent 3 years in the Soviet Army in Mongolia. Kept laughing and saying “ Womans doing wheels! Very incredible, very good!”.

 Also met two boys – Yarick and Sacha (Alex) Yarick spoke English very well and translated for us. Nice kids.

Got to hotel at 0100. Reception lady bought us pizza as restaurant was closed. So tired.

Next Day.
Managed 5 hours sleep and are now clean. Yarick and Sacha appeared again and translated for us and helped us load bikes'. Rode to Kostonay to try and find inner tubes and found a car repair place that couldn't help but a customer drove us to a motorcross dealer. Not only did he have tubes and headlamp bulbs ( both of ours have blown) but he insisted on giving them to us, giving us coffee and inviting us to his motorcross club which we had to decline as we had no time. Turned out to be a motorcross teacher, and he gave us his contacts in UB. Really nice man and very kind and his friend spoke German so that was great as Nadine was able to converse and translate. Then he and his young son drove us out of the city and pout us on the road for Petropavlosk.

The kindness and help of strangers really is quite humbling, and thankfully, it seems to kick in just when you're lost and really on the point of exasperation. All the preparation in the world just isn't enough in some circumstances, and that is what happened to us today,and had it not been for the people we met yesterday and today we would have been in very big trouble.

Rode all day and made good time Met a man in an isolated shop when we stopped for water who said “ Ah London – say hello Margaret Thatcher for me. We like the Iron Lady in Kazakhstan”.

Now about 200 kms short of Petropavlosk camping in swampy area but no choice. Road is crap again and we are surrounded by mossies but it is very beautiful here. Peaceful and quiet. We think we are now on Astana time – 5 hours ahead of London.

Bikes are Ok. Tatty and noisy but still pottering along in the general direction of Mongolia. Now have 10 days to be out of Russia but still have big miles ahead.


Made it without mishap but it took a while. Long boring roads which were dreadful in places but good in others. A very monotonous ride though.

Scenery has changed. Could now be Aus or England. Meadows and wooded areas, and soil instead of sand. Cows horses and sheep and it is a bit cooler too – 36 degrees only. Air is fresher too and quite pleasant.

We had intended to try and get on a train here but that was knocked on the head. We couldn't find the train station but were then befriended by two bikers who called an English speaking friend.

They very kindly took us there but then it all started to go wrong. Yes it was possible to put our bikes on a train but they had to go to Irkutsk tonight. That was OK but not with the bags on them because they have to go through customs. And then our new friends thought it would be too expensive. They just don’t seem to understand the concept of travel and the whole visa conundrum and why we need to be out of Russia within 9 days. And added to that, the woman at the station didn’t know when the next train would arrive in Petropavlosk.

So the new plan is to ride 300kms to Omsk in Russia tomorrow and get a train to UB direct from there. That should (theoretically) iron out some of the customs .

But it is language is our enemy. Its not a question of being able to converse at a basic level as taught in language classes at home, but to recognise and argue around problems presented by a society that just doesn't get the travel idea. For example, these boys today were very sweet and helpful and generously gave up their time to help us. But they just couldn't understand why we needed to be on a train as soon as possible and couldn’t delay our travels.

Whilst is it very charming in many respects, and people are very welcoming and generous, it is also frustrating in others; urgent and today are clearly not words in the Kazakh lexicon.

So we are currently holed up in a basic but clean hotel, having repacked our bags in the hope that we can get a train tomorrow from Russia. We don't even mind if the bikes and us go separately as the bikes have no visa concerns. But it would be so much easier for customs to arrive together. We shall see.

Last day in Kazakhstan

At last we have Russia in our sights; Petropavlosk is only 150 kms from the Russian border. And we should reach it by early afternoon. Left the hotel at 0930 and Roman insisted on paying the bill for us which was very sweet of him.

Escorted from town to the correct road by him and Ivan but not before we were shouted at by a gun toting guard in a petrol station who refused to allow us to fill our fuel cannisters, insisting they were dangerous and would blow up. These are purpose made cannisters – not coke bottles or anything – but he wouldn't listen and it caused a bit of a tailback. So we went elsewhere.

Landscape changed more and more as we neared the border, getting all verdant and fluffy with tall grasses, Silver Birch and deep dark soil. Lots of wheat and barley in the fields and hay stacked ready for baling.

An uneventful ride to the border except one stop by the police ( first in Kazakhstan) but we were let on our way almost immediately when he realised we were foreign and women. Our new ploy of looking blank and waiting for instruction, whilst smiling sweetly works very well although Nadine is much better at it than I. She can make it look genuine while I just look high and a bit simple.
Sneaky border picture

But at the border, things went a bit pear shaped. Made the first bit Ok and were stamped into the border zone. But in the main building for exit stamps, we were stopped, having contravened our visa regulations by failing to register in Kazakhstan within 5 days of arrival. This is despite nothing on the visa or in the paper work and being old that we only had to register if we stayed in one place for more than 5 days, and non of the hotels where we stayed having registered us which we now know they are supposed to do.. So we were illegals, and were sent to the main boss to explain ourselves; a young bloke is pristine battle fatigues, stylish Italian leather office shoes, and wearing lots of gold braid and badges. But there wasn't very much explaining for us to do other than keep repeating; “ sorry, we didn't know” “But it is in English on the back of your entry card” “Yes but that English doesn't actually make sense” (it didnt) “ Yes it does” No it doesnt -sorry”. “oh”

That seemed to stump them a bit and we waited in the bosses office while nobody made any decisions but the woman officer – who spoke very good English - quizzed us about where we had been and why we were in Kazakhstan, and made an effort to end he impasse. The boss, however, continued playing Backgammon while we watched and after about 2 hours he suddenly got fed up and decided to let us go. A very bizarre James Bond interlude that.

They were really nice though and although we could have done without the hassle, for an arrest it was pretty cool.

As we got on the bikes outside, a guard came over and asked to ride one of them, so I handed mine over . (I couldn't really refuse) and as he moved off, it was apparent that he had never ridden a bike before. He careered out of control towards a post then off in another direction before slowing down and limping back. The other guards had obviously dared him to ride it, and they were crying with laughter while this was going on. But it all ended well and they all waved us off and wished us luck.

Reached Omsk early evening and got stopped by the police. We think it was to give us a ticket for not having headlights ( they've blown) but once they realised we were foreign, the “ too difficult” signs came up again and we went into blank mode, which worked and they let us go, with directions to the station.

Found the station and a very helpful ticket lady who took us to the “ office for difficult passengers who nobody can understand” where a lovely lady told us yes it was possible to get to Ulan Bataar by train and our bikes too – but they would have to go on a separate freight train. Cant buy tickets until the morning though. So we stayed in the hotel above Omsk station – looks good but is terrible. Art Nouveau style but without the design – lots of steps, no lifts, no air conditioning or finesse and fat staff who bark orders. Cost us £30 dollars for a hot room as far away as possible, overlooking the platform so that every sound is magnified a million times to prevent any sleep. Ever. Slept with the fridge and freezer doors jammed open to try and cool the room down.

The Train to UB

Got sufficient roubles to buy tickets and had just begun the ordeal of trying to make ourselves understood when two English language students – Svetlana and her friend Dema a;approached us and translated for us. That was a real stroke of luck and helped us so much – thanks you two. Had a bit of hassle in the queue with a man who barged Nadine out of the way and then shoved me. Needless to say, he was royally shoved back and also reprimanded by other people waiting for tickets. Don’t know what he would have done had we not had the help that we did and thus taken even longer.

One thing I have noticed here is how – to us – people are very rude, and barge and push all the time, let doors swing back and hit you, and try and get through small spaces or into gaps that you are emerging from. I found it quite shocking at first but soon realised it is just what they do and started doing it back, so it all works fine.

And people shout. They get right in your face and shout quite aggressively, which although perhaps they don’t mean it like that, is how it comes across and its is quite intimidating. We have learned to take a deep breath and wait to see if it is aggression or just what they do. For example, the crowd of taxi drivers around our bikes this ,morning; lots of shouting and jabbing gestures but they were just interested in what they were, where we had come from and why we were at Omsk station. But you can see how cultural misunderstanding occurs and how easy it would be to assume a poor inference in respect of Russian manners on this basis.

But then it is all redeemed by people who help, like Svetlana and her friend. And the next lady in the “ difficult passenger department” who went out of her way to get the bikes to UB. She made call after call for us and argued with the chief grump who really wasn't in a happy place, and it turned out that the info we had been given was wrong. The bikes could not be freighted over international border without us being present. But we already had our tickets to UB. So plan B was to get the bikes to Ulan Ude, just 200 or so kms from the Mongolian border and make a local arrangement to collect. Lots of texts to the UK Mongo network, and several hours later, the bikes were wrapped in plastic and in the freight shed waiting to go to UU on Sunday night, and even the chief grump was all smiles. We bought the helpful lady a bunch of flowers as a thank you and she was clearly both taken aback and delighted with our little gesture. Hopefully it will keep her sweet for the next travellers who wander into her office.

We, meanwhile, are happily now on a sleeper train to Ulan Bataar – the Trans Mongolian Sleeper train -, in a nice cabin, catching up on sleep, and deliberating on whether we will go on to UB or get off in UU, recover the bikes and ride over the border. We have two full days to work that one out though, so its on the back burner right now.

The Mongolian man sharing our compartment is very impressed with our bike riding exploits and had a good giggle when he found out. Nice man who helped us drag our heavy bags onto the train and has given us loads of food for the journey.

The train – Day Two

Had a bit of a problem last night. The nice Mongolian man turned into a bit of a beer monster with wandering hand trouble and had to be reprimanded several times, particularly when he brought friends into our compartment. It wasn't too bad until nightfall, when he got really out of order and tried to get into bed with Nadine. So that got knocked on the head and he left. Unfortunately, he reappeared several hours later, even drunker, and with another friend in tow, who also decided to try it on with Nadine. He too was despatched with a swift kick and some terse words.
Spent all day in the cabin, snoozing, chatting and eating. Mongolian man was kicked out ( having snored loudly all night) and we didn't see him all day apart from when I went to the restaurant car in the afternoon to get some drinks. He was drunk again and I told him to find somewhere else to sleep tonight because of his antics last night and his continued drunkenness. I suspect he will take no notice but he has been told and is not coming in.

It was a good choice to get the train, Its given us the opportunity to have a rest and I don't think that either of us – until we stopped – realised how tired we were, both physically and mentally. We have two months now of full on riding over difficult terrain, scorching temperatures, bike breakdowns , scary traffic, as well as the stress of being in foreign places, with no real useful language or cultural knowledge to help us. A few days chilling is good.

It is also a good way to see parts of Siberia that we would otherwise have missed. The distances are so great ad our little bikes are not capable of huge mileage so it would have been impossible for us to have made it out of Russia and complied with our visas, given the bike and snow related hold ups and the difficulty I have riding with a damaged arm.

Siberia is noticeably different from the Russia that we have seen so far. Very few towns but lots of forests and meadows with buttercups and other wild flowers in them. Looks like pine and Silver Birch mostly, and the few houses that there are are made from wood and look like Snow White type jobs. It is almost Alpine is some respects; odd how places thousands of miles apart can look so similar. Its quite quaint really, but the summer weather disguises the harsh life these people must live here – permafrost, snow and dark – lots of it. Each house has piles of wood around it and there is evidence of more being collected. Fuel for heating and cooking I guess.

The railway is surprisingly busy but then again, I suppose its not that much of a surprise as it is the only real way to move people and goods across this massive place. It follows the shore of Lake Baikal for miles - another one to tick of the " must see" list.
And its has spawned a whole industry for people living along it, with women making food to sell on the platform when a train pulls in. Each train stops for about 15 – 20 minutes and passengers get off, stretch their legs , and buy food for the remaining journey. We bought some bread, tomatoes, cucumber, boiled potatoes and a battered roll thing full of vegetables or potatoes. Can't remember what its called but it begins with “ B” and tastes good.

Had a real problem late last night with the Mongolian man and his friend who turned up at our cabin, very drunk, pulling at the door and hammering on it, trying to get in. Both of us were sound asleep so it was a bit of a shock anyway, and we initially tried to ignore them in the hope that they would clear off. But they didn't, so we had to open it and confront them. There was no way they were coming in but they clearly weren't going to leave, and tried to push their way in, shoving and pawing us as they did so. Mongolian man then decided to try some groping – big mistake – and was consequently sent stumbling backwards down the corridor by the hardest shove I could manage. But his friend stayed put and wouldn't let go of the door handle. I couldn't loosen his grip so we had to shout loudly to alert the train guard, who appeared, realised what was happening, and got rid of them. Not a nice experience but to be fair, the only problem we have had so far in a lot of miles.

Day Three

Reached Ulan Ude at 0730 Moscow time but have no idea of what time it actually is here but possibly lunchtime or about two, and we're now eight hours ahead of London.. Currently locked in the baggage office while the office staff have a break, waiting for our bikes which are hopefully on train no 2 , due in a bit later.
It is cool here too, a nice change given the heat we have suffered to date. Its about 18 degrees, so still tee shirt weather but not the energy sapping temperatures of Astrakhan, Omsk, or Kazakhstan. The city looks different too – or at least the little bit we have seen of it so far. A curious mix of asian people and Soviet infrastructure, lots of soldiers and police hanging around. That is very noticeable in Russian towns and cities – the amount of officialdom evident. Guns and uniforms seem to be the thing, even when they are worn or carried by bog standard lowly security guards, but to our eyes it is all very odd and rather ridiculous. Do they really perceive a threat or is it just something they carry it just because they do? And do they ever get used – maybe against somebody jumping a queue.

Bikes have just arrived! Yippee. Now just got to deal with Russian bureaucracy and we should be done. Hope to meet up with Geordie later who is not far away and then we'll ride down to the Mongolian border together – hopefully.

Will has just had an off but is apparently Ok. Went outside to load up bikes and were immediately besieged by people wanting fags or money. Nope, not from us people. Why do they think we're rich and what makes them think we should give them stuff? They're not poor, they are well dressed and well fed, yet they are demanding cigarettes and money for vodka. Why? Because we are from the west ? But we saved our money and worked hard to get here; we're not sponsored or paid a wage like Ewan and Charley, yet they assume that they have the right to ponce of us. No no no. Go away. Fed up with you would be freeloaders.

Stop press. Will appeared tonight, a bit tattered and manic but Ok. He came off on diesel and tar at about 50mph but is ok. His bike is a bit battered but nothing terminal, so we all went out for pizza and beer. That pout him right.

A bit of farkling on our bikes tonight,. Changed Nadine's rear tyre – 8820 kms over very rough ground on a stock Chinese job isn't bad, but as it had no tread left, we thought it was time for a new one. Also replaced her two broken spokes and sorted the headlamp ready for the go in the morning.

Ulan Ude is very grey and a bit grim, its raining and cold. A sort of Sheffield of the east. It also has a giant head of Lenin and by giant, I mean really big. Weird.