Friday, August 14, 2015

Kazakhstan

The enthusiasm of the Kazakhstan people is overwhelming!
Today was going to be it. Kazakhstan and a road which even off-road riders on off-road bikes classified as hard going on seriously bad roads... and I'm on a road bike... with damaged shocks... limited ground clearance and a lot of weight in camping gear. Locals had told us riding next to the road, on dried up muddy tracks, would be better than on whatever had remained from the original road. Today was the day where the Bonneville had to prove it's metal, despite being 'wounded', and it's rider had to prove he was more than the occasional dirt rider... At the same time Mike was ecstatic. The XT had over the last weeks proven to be really in its element when the going got tough. The suspension update had done wonders to it and resulted in Mike riding roads I was struggling on. He couldn't wait for the day to start!

They wish you good luck at the Kazakhstan border...! Not sure if that's good or bad though? 
I took a quick shower as the weather forecast for the next 10 days was no rain and 40 plus degrees C. The shower was hooked up to a macerator... for those of you who don't know what a macerator is: they are usually hooked up to a toilet and chop up whatever you flush through it, liquefies it and pushes it down the pipe. Here at the last stop in Russia they hooked the shower up to it as well. Best not to have my toes to close to the drain hole of the shower then...

This is where you buy insurance for Kazakhstan
Thinking about the day ahead, I was a little apprehensive to say the least. Sure we had known before we got here that this section was going to be hard and difficult. But I hadn't expected to start it with a damaged suspension... and 1,000 km to go before it could be fixed. I mean who will start Kazakhstan with shocks held together with zip ties? It meant I could not afford a mishap, miss a pothole or simply stand on the pegs and thunder on. If the zip ties broke, the springs would collapse and hit the pannier rack... which would then have to carry the full weight of the bike and my gear... and if that couldn't take the hit then... well, I didn't even want to think about that.

We stocked up on food in Astrakhan and were once again caught out by Russia's relaxed opening times. The shops don't open here until 10.00 am! The last fuelstop we knew of before the border turned out to be long closed and we thus ended up low on fuel at the border... I'm not sure what I had expected to find at the actual border between Russia and Kazakhstan but I was somewhat surprised to find a farm size gate...! It was almost like they let us out through the back door. Formalities were simple and in the same style as the gate, i.e. little scraps of paper and very much low tech.

Kazakhstan entry was simple too, although I don't quite understand why a 15 day visa exemption has to be given in two stages? They give you 5 days at the border, while for the other 10 days you have to report somewhere in Aktobe... The most time consuming part of entering Kazakhstan turned out to be the motorcycle insurance. Not that the process is complicated or anything but it all took quite a bit of time. Especially as the guy doing the paperwork wanted to show me that his iPhone could translate Russian perfectly into spoken English... He had a tonne of questions on where we were from and where we were going. I showed him our blog and he gave us a bottle of ice cold Coca Cola! Nice! Meanwhile outside Mike had been spotted by a small army of Kazakhs. He was being photographed, kids had to pose on his bike while dads took photos and he had been donated a bottle of Russian beer too... Not your average border crossing then... :-)

Soon after we rode into the land of the Kazakhs, I heard Mike over the intercom 'We're in Kazakhstan!!! Can you believe it?!?' It gave me a bit of a lump in my throat. This is the country we had talked about, when a couple of months back, it looked like we could not continue... it had almost become the mentally impossible hurdle... and now we where here! Riding into this land which by several had been named as the place where it would become, well.. 'interesting'. The road into Kazakhstan had been described well by a fellow motorcyclist, who had been through Kazakhstan and had said the first 20 km were terrible, followed by a mixture of terrible and poor... It was exactly that!

A gift from the people you see at the top
of this post!
On the plus side, there are so many potholes, heaves and sections of completely mangled road here that you won't get bored. We were on full alert all the time. The first 250 km took us about 6 hours, of which I stood 5,5 hrs on the pegs. The Bonnie was bouncing violently under me, the rear wheel being airborne several times according to Mike, but standing on the pegs meant it could move around a bit and also gave the suspension and my back some much needed relief. I had to replace the zip ties, which hold my shocks together, twice but other than that the Triumph took it all in its stride. Meanwhile behind me, Mike had a much easier time I suppose... still he said the speed I was doing was about the maximum he could ride too... but maybe he was being kind?

Fuel is available just 45 kilometres after the border, at 3 different fuel stations, and turned out to be about the same price or even slightly cheaper than in Russia. Talking about money, Exchanging one 100 USD dollar note translates into a stack of Kazakh notes of 18.200 Tenge! Fuel is 108 a litre, which is 57 US$ cents. Filling up is done the same way as in Russia: pre-pay. 

Kazakhstan graveyards are next to every town
The landscape isn't exactly inspiring here. No mountains, no trees. We did see strange mud houses and quite a few camels. We were also surprised about the sheer volume of traffic. Plenty of Toyota Landcruisers, which is probably one of the few surviving these sort of conditions. At the same time we had expected to find more travellers here... I guess Kazakhstan is not that high on the list of holiday destinations :-) Just before dark we took a track into the desert, pitched the tents and fell asleep... It had been a trying day. Being in the desert meant an early rise tomorrow, alas no shady tree to pitch the tent under. The day after all hell would break loose... which you can read and see in the next post.


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