Wednesday, 7 November 2012


Well all we knew about this place was that it was Borat's manor, and that it was a long way away. And we were right on both counts. But as we also discovered, it is also very big, very hot, and very full of nothing.  Kazakhstan is the biggest landlocked country in the world and is also the size of Western Europe.

It is also the ninth largest country, as well as the world's biggest producer of uranium. It was also probably the most difficult place that we rode through because of the isolation, the heat and the the relentless flat landscape, but also the roads, which were just something else.

Our original plan was the enter Kaz at its western border with Russia, near Astrakhan, ride round the top of the Caspian Sea and drop down to Aral, then Baikanour, where the Russian space programme is based, before carrying on into Uzbekistan and the rest of the Stans and the Pamir Highway. But because of the delays in Turkey and the bad roads in Kaz, we knew we wouldn't make it. We wouldn't even have made it on bigger bikes in the restricted time that we had.

The problem was always the Russian visa. Although getting a visa is now simple in comparison with what it used to be, it remains a right old performance and is costly. It is also something that you can only get in your home country, or country of residence, and it can't be extended. We'd opted for a month ( 30 day) tourist visa, but in retrospect and had we had more time in general, we might  have gone for a three month job instead to ease some of the pressure, but I don't think either of us realised just how big Russia is.

It is overwhelmingly huge, and we had to get from the Georgian border to the Kazak border, through Kazakhstan, and the other Stans, then back out and across Russia to Siberia and down into Mongolia. All in now just three weeks and on appalling roads,  and without any further problems, something which realistically, wasn't possible.

We each had a particular place that we wanted to see on the trip. For me it was the Aral Sea, for Nadine, Lake Baikal, but it  looked like we would both miss out. So we decided to ride eastwards  anyway, see how far we could get, and then work out what to do. We considered catching a train, or getting the bikes onto a truck, but we really had no idea of either how to do that or or whether it was possible, and of course we couldn't ask people or read up on it because of the language difficulties.

Both of us found Kazakhstan was quite a difficult place, not because of administration, or people but because of how empty the place is and how little people travel about. And because few people go anywhere, there didn't seem to be much of an infrastructure.

But we didn't know this until we got there,  having waited at the Russian/ Kazakh border for several hours in searing heat and at the mercy of swarms of midgey fly things.  The boys in Astrakhan had given us some potion to sort them out though - baby lotion mixed with baking soda. it did work but the swarms were still too much.

They were horrible and they got everywhere - up your nose, in your ears, on your face. Everywhere and the air was thick with them. We had one net hat that somebody had given Nadine in Astrakhan, but it wasn't that good as the netting was too short and ended at chin level so they still got in, although one hat was better than no hat.

There was no shade at the border crossing either and initially we used the tarp for some makeshift shade, attaching it to the bikes and sitting under it. But that was difficult as we had to keep moving, so we gave up and just stood in the shade of nearby vehicles when we could.

It all depended where they were in relation to our bikes though because if you moved too far away and the queue moved, somebody would squeeze in front.

There were also quite a few cars which drove down the side of the line to the front, causing waiting drivers to gesticulate and shout at them. But some still got through. Trying it on seemed to be the done thing, though neither of us wanted to do that here, although for some reason, it seems to be an accepted thing on bikes. Thierry, a French bloke we met a few hours later told us that is exactly what he did - rode to the front of the queue and was waved through without rancour or comment.

There was a gang was a of women selling water and fruit from baskets at the border. It was obviously quite a profitable sideline and these women were well dressed, and clearly in good health; not peasants or anything. They homed in on us several times because as westerners, we were a potentially lucrative source of income, but we had water so didn't need any more, and also had food there which we didn't want to eat because we'd eat midges too.

We were there quite early - about 0900 I think, but there were still cars in front of us, but the queue actually moved quicker than it looked like it would. Nobody tells you what to do or helps you at these crossings so its all a bit hit and miss, and you just have to try and work out what is expected of you, and do it accordingly. They soon yell at you if you don't, but will also chuck you out of the line if you're not careful, so the trick is to try and glean some sort of indication and work from that, and stand your ground without annoying anybody too much while you're trying to do so.

And the border was a bit of a remote outpost, with a big ' no man's land' of dried up desert in between the two sides. There were a few ramshackle huts, a wire fence, and a metal gate, with border police opening and shutting it at will. The huts were really rough and had little shuttered hatches, through which you had to slide your passport, rego papers, and immigration card before the person behind snapped it shut. Presumably they wanted to keep the midges out of the hut but it didn't look like they did it any differently anyway, even in midgeless times. But it was OK and we provided a source of interest for the other waiting drivers, some of whom tried out their English on us, which was amusing. And they liked it when we did a bit of Kazak in return, which we hammed up for the occasion specially. Then of course you have to do it all over again on the other side of no man's land, but by then with half an idea of what is expected.

We bought insurance at the border post, again from a bloke in a hut. Retrospectively, I don't  think we would have bothered had we known how meaningless it was in Kaz but having come from Russia where document checks happen all the time, we played safe, and we thought there might be a chance that the Russian police might ask for the Kazakh insurance when we crossed back into Russia. But as it was, in Kaz we hardly ever saw any police and insurance doesn't mean anything anyway. It's not like in the west where its a 'must have' driving document and nobody pays it anyway.

But we got some, and returned to our bikes to find that our lunch had been nicked by some kids. Little shits. And again, these weren't poor kids but well dressed and well fed - some of them a bit too much as they were porky and sweating profusely in the heat- so they clearly nicked our food because they could rather than because they needed it. So that didn't please us as we had nothing else and no means of getting anything more, and its a real liberty when local people assume that all westerners are rich and can afford to lose things. Not us, and no, it is not alright or excusable. We are not Charley and Ewan, nor do we want to be; we worked hard to save up money for our trip, we weren't sponsored, nobody gave us anything, nor did we want anything.  But somehow, some locals seem to think that all travellers are loaded. Wrong. And many of us travelled long before those two and their entourage appeared, and will continue to do so. So don't nick our stuff; it is not OK.

There was a vast and very noticeable change between the landscapes of Russia and Kazakhstan. Whereas Russia had been very lush and cultivated, Kazakhstan was dry and arid, with buildings made of mud instead of timber.

And the absence of trees meant there was very little natural shade, even along the river that we did eventually come across. It was a large river but oddly, flowed through baked earth steppes.

The animals changed too - out were normal cows and in were camels and big cow things, and the latter had got the heat sussed, standing belly deep in the water to cool down and drink.
Two humps - Bactrian camel

smart cow
And every now and again, there was a huge building, probably something to do with agriculture.

We were a bit peeved at having had our lunch stolen, and although there was no point in getting upset about it, we never left the bikes loaded and unattended after that. However we didn't have any choice on this occasion.  We were also rather rattled and as a consequence, failed to change money at the border post because we knew we would get striped up on the rates, and thought we would do it in the next town. But that was a big mistake as there was no bank, no ATM,  a very unhelpful supermarket which wouldn't take a card although they take local cards which were also visa and master card, and a hotel which refused to change anything (most will usually exchange dollars, but I suspect that it was easier to tell us to bugger off than it was to do some work) That meant we were unable to buy anything food, nor could we get fuel. We had some, but not enough to go many more miles.

So we sat in the shade for a while, wondering what to do, and topped my bike up with oil ( it was losing oil rapidly because of a bodged repair by a mechanic in Turkey.) Then a big KTM  passed, having just come through the borer post. It turned out to be Thierry from France, and he also needed local  money. We bumped into him a few hours later at a petrol station where again, nobody would take a card ( and you have to pay first in these countries, so its not as easy as taking the fuel and force them to take other currencies or end up with nothing) He managed to do a deal on the forecourt with a local driver, swapping some dollars for Tenge ( Kazakh money), and subbed us some for water and fuel.

All this took quite some time, and the afternoon was passing by. We had planned to camp near to the Caspian Sea, and Thierry decided to join us. We found a track down to the shore, and all headed down it. However, it soon became a problem for him on his heavy bike in the fesh fesh and he dropped it several times. It was so heavy and the sand so light that it took all of us plus some passing shepherds to right it. But not the scoots. Nadine fell off once but just picked it up and carried on but our bikes coped really well with the dust and pulled as if nothing had happened.
Nadine downed by the fesh fesh
It did help that we were able to drive across the scrubby vegetation though because the roots knitted the sand together, but Thierry's bike was far too heavy and had it got bogged down up there, there is no way we could have dragged it out. So he had to continue on the track.

We eventually made it to the shore line, which was deserted and so which we had to ourselves.

Deserted shoreline around the Caspian Sea
not much vegetation to hide behind though
We also washed ourselves and our clothes in the Caspian, which was great because it is fresh water. We also combined all the food we had, and ended up with a reasonable meal.

Now clean!
The sunset that evening was stunningly beautiful, and after the day's ordeal and dragging the bikes around, all of us slept  exceptionally well.

Sunrise the next day was pretty good too.

The following day, the fuel, water, money and fuel situation was urgent, so the three of us stuck together and made it to the next town, some 50 kms east. We saw very little en route though and did feel a little vulnerable because of our isolation and lack of supplies.

But when we made it to the town and found the ATM, it had no money in it. However, Nadine found some us dollars in her bag,  and we managed to change them in the bank. It seemed like the whole of the town's population was in there, hiding from the heat, so once again, we became a visiting circus with everybody stopping what they were doing and staring. This could have been intimidating, but not only did we not care, by then we had learnt to smile widely, bow and wave, and say 'hello'  loudly in Kazakh and generally play to the audience which made people laugh and chat to us, not that we could understand what they were saying. And some followed us around and inspected the bikes.
outside the bank
being inspected by locals
The High Street

The above ground piping looks out of place in the heat of summer but it is an indication of the extreme winter they get here, and the need to stop the pipes being covered by deep snow and frozen.

So once we had money and fuel, we found a cafe for food. Nadine and I were the only women inside, and everybody stared again, but were friendly and allowed us to watch Ugly Betty on the TV with them, in English, with Kazakh subtitles.
Thierry and Nadine in the cafe
After that, we parted company with Thierry. His bike was much faster than ours and we would only hold him up. He was a top bloke though.

We wild camped that night, not far from the train tracks.

There was no vegetation to hide behind and no civilisation to even consider a hotel, so we ducked down out of sight behind some piles of earth near to where they were putting some pipe into the ground. But there were no signs of any workmen,  and there was nowhere else to camp, so that had to do.

And I had a mishap earlier in the day...broke my wrist. So Nadine just patched it up. Then we ignored it.

We didn't have any dinner that night either because we had lost our food. Not nice.

But the following day, we made Aytral, a big city in western Kazakhstan and a  centre for the oil industry.

Oil is a big deal in Kazakhstan and the wealth that it generates is obvious all around, with familiar stores, flash buildings and big, new vehicles all over the place.

There are also lots of foreign workers and it was funny to hear English on the streets, albeit with mostly American accents.

We were tired this day so we decided to stop by about 1400hrs and find a hotel. So we got some food in TGI Friday ( yes really) but on the way there, were stopped by two men in a car who asked if they could film us. So we smiled sweetly, were filmed, then had something to eat. We also chatted to the waitress who was most impressed that we were on bikes and had ridden from London. A few days later, as we pulled up outside a hotel further west in Aktobe,  two blokes asked us if we were the Gobi girls. Apparently they had seen a news piece on us in the Aytral newspaper, announcing our arrival, and displaying a picture - the picture that the film blokes had taken. We had been papped and were famous, which was pretty funny.

We serviced the bikes in Aytral too; changed the chains, changed the oil, tightened bolts etc. But again we missed out on dinner, which I found particularly difficult. But when we emerged in the morning, we discovered that the hotel staff had covered our bikes for us to protect them against sand and rain during the night. This chap was the grounds manager and he was very sweet, so we gave him a couple of badges and things, with which he was delighted.

Then we set off towards Aktobe. I can't remember how long it took us but it was a very hard ride. Bad roads, incredible heat, and heat stroke, so we stopped in the only bit of shade we could find - under a railway bridge, over which large goods trains trundled every 15 minutes, shaking everything within a hundred metres. We stayed there for several hours and only covered about 40 miles/70 kms that day. Not good but better than crashing and making things worse.

We took it steady for a few days, camping where we could and getting food in local towns. These were invariably off the main routes though so you have to turn off and ride into them, which was a bit like cowboys riding into a place. People couldn't believe what they were seeing, and we couldn't believe it when we asked directions, expecting the local chap to speak only Kazak, and he spoke to us in English telling us that the supermarket was the building with "not the green roof but the other colour". He meant blue! And there was nowhere within miles of the place, so the chance of him having ever left it were slim. By 'town', I actually mean a simple self contained small settlement, more like a village, so its highly unlikely he had ever been anywhere. Yet here he was speaking English to us.

But I felt ill and so went outside to throw up. However, I didn't get the chance because I was immediately surrounded by locals wanting to chat. So poor old Nadine was left to do the shopping, whilst I concentrated hard not to disgrace myself. But when she reappeared, they quizzed her too and looked at our map of Kazakhstan, although it became apparent that they had no idea of anywhere more than about 10 miles/17kms beyond their town, in any direction. 

The women were quite interested in us too, and the lady above came over to have a chat about what our lives were like as women from 'somewhere far away'. She was cool and probably not as old as she initially appeared.

And the kids were fascinated by our helmets.

We continued to meet people along the way, either in shops or by the side of the road when we had punctures. These kids were really nice kids and they took me to find water whilst Nadine removed her wheel. The village where they lived was very dusty and had nothing there, and they were all playing in the dirt with on bikes and with sticks etc, and all were pristine. They stayed with us for about an hour and one mum came to see who we were and what they were up to, but was perfectly happy and went away again. We gave them a few bits and pieces when we left, and they waved until we were almost out of sight.

By the time we made it to Aktobe, we were filthy. Really filthy. And we couldn't find a hotel. We stopped at a travel agent to ask, just as a gang of youths on bmx came by. They led us to hotel Amsterdam, a 5 star job, and were quite surprised to be given a room. This is where the men came up and told us we'd been in the Aytral newspaper.

We hired a local cabbie to ferry us around - to the hospital where they x-rayed my arm, and produced a very blurry picture, then gave me a bandage and some cooling gel, to the market to buy some spanners, and to the train station to buy tickets. He was a good bloke but played the most awful music in his cab, a clapped out old contraption of dubious origin. But it did the job.

It took us both ages  and lots of scrubbing to get clean but eventually we looked semi decent and had something to eat. My broken wrist was a bit painful and needed a rest so we took a few days off and caught a train down to Aral and the Aral Sea, the place I most wanted to see on the whole trip.

The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest inland sea in the world and Aral was an important fishing port on its shores. But back in Soviet days, they decided that the barren land in the area could grow cotton - white gold - and dammed the two main feeding rivers to irrigate it. This caused a major environmental disaster as the Aral Sea shrunk, the fishing industry collapsed, and the once long established and thriving town and hinterland became an empty dustbowl. And that was only recently - 40 years ago or so.

The train ride was an overnight sleeper job.
But the train is the major travel conduit in Kazakhstan, and that is where most activity is found, far more so that along the roadside. So from the train, we saw quite a bit of local life.

Our biggest worry though was that we would not be able to read the train station stops, and so miss Aral, but the guard said he would wake us.

However, he didn't and we did miss our stop, having to get off two hours down the track in the next town and catching a local bus back. And the guard had the cheek to shout at us! Silly man................

Some women gatecrashed our compartment and took over a bit, but they were OK and when they realised what had happened, wrote us a note to show to a taxi driver to take us to the bus station and put us on the right bus back to Aral. They also told us how much it should cost so that we didn't get ripped off.

the bus station
on the local bus with the locals

The ride back was very bumpy and rather tortuous, particularly for the poor goat that was trussed up in the back. But the bus got us there and cost us hardly anything. The local people seemed nonplussed with our presence and we even got a seat - both of us squeezed onto a small seat with an old lady.

Aral was horrible Really horrible. A scorching dustbowl that reeked of mouldy fish. And there were no beached boats to be seen. But I could at least tick it off my list. Evidence of its former glory was all around though, with statues and murals marking the fishing industry, and fishermen's cottages, now curiously out of place in a dry and dusty town, far from any water.

But we did glipmse what was left of the sea, albeit in the distance, but there was no way for us to get nearer to it. 

We had a good wander around but were over the place after a few hours and fell asleep under a tree near an ATM. One thing that we both noticed was the lack of outside life in Kazakhstan, presumably because it is so hot in the summer ( most days were 42+ celcius ) and very cold in the winter. Nothing much grows in these extremes and people seem to do what they do indoors. But had to wait for the train back which didn't leave until 2336hrs that night, so we hung out in the train station waiting room which was nice and cool.  And we watched people come and go.

Again, the train woman said she would tell us which train was ours but she didn't and we nearly missed it as a result.

Thankfully, our bikes were still where we'd left them in Aktobe the following morning ( covered up in the hotel forecourt) so we retrieved them and set off westwards again.

We spent more days living rough, and got a bit fed up with the relentless emptiness of the place, and met various locals en route, some of whom rode the bikes.

On one really bad day, I had five punctures, which Nadine fixed.

And again we were helped by some really nice people, like a man and his son who fixed my one remaining tube with special compound glue.

And another man, the owner of a motocross shop, who gave us two heavy duty tubes and two headlamp bulbs, and refused payment for either. He also gave us coffee, mare's milk and chocolate.

Eventually made Petropavlosk up near the Russian border, where we were again helped by locals on bikes.

By now, we knew we needed to get a train across the remaining bit of Russia as we would be unlikely to reach the Mongolian border within our remaining visa time, and overstaying would mean huge trouble and arrest. So we decided to get the Trans Siberian to Ulan Ude. This stops at Petropavlosk but then the train line crossses and recrosses the border several times, yet nobody could tell us whether by being on the train, we would be classed as in transit and so not actually entering the country. So in the end, we had to ride to Omsk in Russia, 300kms beyond the border and catch it there. But at the border post we were arrested - for accidentally violating our Kazakh visa. 

According to the guards, we were supposed to reiterate it each time we stopped for the night. They meant revalidate it, but this was something we had been told we no longer needed to do; it was a left over from old soviet admin. But nobody had told the border guards that, and we'd been camping most nights anyway, so would not have been able to. But they wouldn't listen, and kept asking us to explain ourselves. But we hadn't got anything to explain - we had done what we had done, so we settled in for a long wait. Eventually, and after two hours of us watching their chief play backgammon, they cracked first and allowed us to go. We didn't get fined either - which was probably what they were after all along - because as they said to us ' if you had money, you would be on bigger bikes". Really.

But while we had been incarcerated, the word had obviously gone round about us and our bikes, and the younger guards had dared one of their number to ride a scooter when we emerged. We weren't in a position to refuse, so he jumped on my bike and set off - but it was obvious that he had never ridden before and he careered around, out of control before stopping. Luckily he didn't crash it but the other guards, including those who had locked us up, were crying with laughter - real tears - as they all waved us off and into Russia.