Saturday, August 15, 2015

The road from hell in Kazakhstan

The size of Kazakhstan is often underestimated. It shares that misconception with Australia, where quite a few visitors have also misunderstood how big it actually is. On the map it all seems quite manageable, Sydney doesn't seem all that far from Brisbane after all... in reality it's 1,000 km. Go from Sydney to Perth and it quickly becomes 4,000... But even though these are big numbers, especially for Europeans, it only tells a small part of the story. A big part of those 4,000 km are through the famous Australian Outback... at temperatures well in excess of 40°C and no shade anywhere. The distances in Kazakhstan are huge too and it also shares the summer temperatures with Australia. Kazakhstan's centre is a hot, arid, desert like landscape. We have been going through the Kazakh deserts for 3,500 km now. Of course we were here in the middle of summer, so temperatures soared into the high 40s as well.

Our ride through the Kazakh deserts came complete with all the trimmings we had expected. Heat, dust, scorching sun, grasshoppers the size of small birds (which really hurt when they hit you!), seriously bad roads, bike problems and problems finding drinking water... to name but a few. Yet despite we had been told the roads were bad, we had underestimated how bad they really are. We had been looking for info on this road when we were planning the current part of our trip, but apart from comments that it was a very bad road, we couldn't find any detailed info on how bad. Most of the info we could find was at least 3 years old too, so things could have changed since then. Just days before we were to ride it we received a comment from an Englishman who had just done that road two months earlier on a dual sport Honda. As we were to find out he described it accurately enough... and it wasn't good! In the Long Way Round video from 12 years ago, Boorman says 'if this road deteriorates any further then you simply can't ride it anymore'. Well, he was wrong, it had become much worse since then and yet people are still driving and riding it... Unlike Boorman, who was on a top of the range GSA BMW, my Triumph Bonneville is not even a dual sport!

Kazakhstan is big. Seriously big. It's hot too and you can ride here for days with hardly any change in the landscape. Familiar stuff to Aussies who have been in the Outback. But there are quite a few differences too, mainly in tradition and history. For starters there are hardly any fences in Kazakhstan and quite a few houses made from mud bricks. People still roam the endless plains on horseback, like their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Anyone living as remote as this has to be a special breed. Quite a few live without any mod cons like electricity, indoor plumbing or glass in the windows. 

The truck drivers deserve a mention too. Driving from Sydney to Perth or Darwin for a living is stuff some truck drivers dream about. Now try to imagine what it would be like on a track as rough as it gets, in a truck made decades ago, without air conditioning or air suspension, no big engine to eat up the miles or the comfort of an air suspended seat... They get jolted through the cab, have to fix their own problems (of which there are many) in the sand or mud and get paid bugger all for their efforts. Oh and forget your dinky little Volvo or Scania in these conditions, Kamaz is the truck that can handle this, day in day out. Most of them are old and have been thundering along here for decades. The tyres used are huge, like the ones seen in the Dakar Rally, and they drive at speeds which are for the conditions simply unbelievable.

So what's the road like from a motorcyclists point of view? We entered Kazakhstan from Astrakhan in Russia. The first 20 km or so is bad, potholed and ripped up tarmac. Mike's suspension coped, I was standing on the pegs the whole way to allow the bike to move under me and compensate for the lack of suspension travel. Remember I'm riding a road bike... After 20 km or so it gradually improves... slowly. It then actually became quite good for a while, we thought. It was eerily quiet on the intercoms though, we knew the seriously bad section was yet come... but when?

The hard bit started at N47.52943° E52.95575°, which is the turnoff towards Aktobe. It was a sand track... deep sand. We decided to continue on the road we were on and found another turnoff a couple of hundred metres further on, which looked somewhat more like a road. Just a kilometre later it even turned into new asphalt... the old road was still visible on the left... could we be so lucky? Had they just finished a new road? A couple of kilometres later we had our answer... when the 'new' road abruptly stopped and we plunged into the biggest maze of potholes we had seen yet. The road deteriorated and deteriorated... and deteriorated, until we got to a stage where it was really unrideable. No matter how we tried this just battered our suspension, our bikes and ourselves. 

We had to get off the road and take one of the sandy tracks next to it. But which one? There were several. We quickly worked out that the track furthest away from the actual road was the newest and damage wise, best one. Which meant that was also the one the trucks used, and thus the sandiest... so we had to settle for one of the tracks deemed too far worn, even by the Kazakhs... nice..! It was seriously hard going and way past the capabilities of my loaded up Bonneville. Bulldust, sand covered holes, dry ruts, deep sand, holes big enough to disappear in, off-camber dried up mud and potholes like it had been bombed. The harder, dried up mud sections in between where so bumpy that it felt like riding with a jack hammer. 

The first bit was quite nice...
Mike's XT was ok in the sand but it's fair to say he is also a much better off-road rider than I am. For a 19 year old, doing this kind of stuff with a bike loaded up with panniers and seriously heavy, is impressive. Having said that, I found my Bonnie harder to ride than it should be... but as my helmet was rattling on my head, causing my neck to hurt like hell, and we were in 40+ temperatures, I needed all my attention just to stay on the damn thing and thus couldn't quite work out what the problem was. We both agreed the new TrailRider worked better in sand than any other dual sport tyre we've had, so that wasn't the problem. The front simply tracked in soft sand deep enough to normally have our front wheel digging holes. They saved my bacon a couple of times when we suddenly found deep sand sections that's for sure! Yet on my bike the rear didn't want to track on the off-camber sections somehow and kept throwing me off balance. 'Must be the weight, the bike is sinking in' I thought. After three near misses, all of which with the potential to end my trip in a Kazakh hospital, I decided to return to the actual road and at least take the deep sand out of the equation. To be honest that wasn't an option either as it had deteriorated even further... Barely 20 minutes later I found blood in my gloves as the calluses on my hands had worn through... This really was the road from hell, or at least is when on a road bike. Battling on like this for hours, I was exhausted. Yet we couldn't stop and pitch the tent where we were as we would be run over at night.

Look at the maze of tracks next to the road on this satellite shot... all there because the actual road itself is too bad to drive on. The problem here is which track to take...

The rest of the day I rattled off my hinges. It is a road bike after all. The handlebars felt like being attached to one of those old fashioned whacker packers, while the rear was frequently air borne and bounced up and down violently in between. The hammering was continuous and it felt like I was deliberately destroying the motorcycle that had taken me around the world and had made it possible for me to see all those beautiful places. The bike that I wanted to keep for many more years and wanted to take to South America was being battered to death on a horrible road in Kazakhstan with nothing much to see. All because some numb-nut in the local government couldn't be bothered to at least run a grader over it every now and again. And before you start, I have no problem with gravel or dirt roads. Non whatsoever. The Bonneville is quite good on them and has seen more than its fare share of gravel and sand roads too. But this could not be classified as a road... To put things in perspective, the Dalton north of Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, the Top Of The World highway in northern Canada or the Coastal one in Belize for instance are a smooth doddle compared to this. To make matters worse, drinking water was hard to find. Petrol stations are far and few between and while most also doubled as the local 'super'market, their water stock was very limited (or at least was when we were there). We carried just over 5 litres each, which was't enough.

At the end of the day we had been battered for 12 hours on this 'road' and barely covered 200 km. We pitched the tents in the desert and under another magnificent sunset talked through what had just happened. Mike felt it an accomplishment that he had ridden well the whole day. While I know what he meant, and agreed that he had indeed handled it very well, I had the feeling I had made a huge mistake taking the Bonneville on this road and subjecting it to this kind of torture. Mike said he had noticed my rear tyre was down a bit on pressure... Normally lower pressure would mean easier in sand but as it had tracking problems... who knows. I raised the pressure to what it should be and hoped it would work! 

Somewhere in this dust is a big rock too... right where Mike's foot is... his Alt-Berg boots saved his foot once again! Avon's TrailRider are more than 90/10 tyres too...
While I was typing this I heard the Kamaz trucks in the distance... the rattling, clanging and banging and stomach turning metallic scraping sounds coming out of those trucks is scary... No matter how you look at this, it is a serious bad section of road, the worst one we've seen ever... Maybe the accomplishment here is that we're still alive and neither of us had come off at all. Another 50 km to go tomorrow before it might improve... 

The next day started on a much more positive note. The increased tyre pressure had made the Bonnie much more stable in sand, which meant I could now ride the tracks next to the road and keep up with Mike. A very welcome improvement. Standing on the pegs we could ride similar speeds and made, relatively speaking, good progress. On average 60 km/hr was about the maximum, but compared to 1st and 2nd gear from yesterday, we were flying! We battled on for another 50-60 km when we found asphalt again. Thinking the worst was over, we filled up the tanks, bought some drinking water and continued. 

Just out of the little village however, the road turned to shit again... and became the same unrideable broken up stuff we had before...! Only then did we realise the recent info we had received on 200 km of sand riding had been given by an Englishman... so it was probably 200 miles... In the end it was about 350 km. By then I had been standing on the pegs for more than 20 hrs, bouncing all over the place. Add to that two short nights of little sleep due to the heat, plus 40+ degrees during the day without any shade and it was little wonder that fatigue was beginning to play a part too. In the distance we could see the asphalt road though... finally. We could hardly stand on our legs anymore by then and Mike had a seriously sore back as well as he found his handlebars too low for standing on the pegs that long. His suspension had handled it beautifully though. He also had been airborne a couple of times but at least he landed smoothly!

With a sigh of relief we took the last hurdle and rode onto the asphalt... only to find it was worse than the sand tracks we had been on before...! It was so bad they had even put a sign up, warning for a bad road, the first sign like that in Kazakhstan! There was another 60 km of ripped up tarmac, holes, ruts and you name it. We were both completely worn out by the time we reached Kandiagash. Of the 800 km long road from the border I had been standing at least 650 km on the pegs as sitting on the seat simply wasn't an option. When we arrived at the petrol station at Kandiagash I had enough and said openly 'I would like to strap the guy in the government who allowed this road to deteriorate to such a state by his balls to a Kamaz truck and drag him down the full length of this so called road.' This is after all supposed to be a public road, not a farm track through the desert or a motocross track, but a road... We just sat there, with fresh cold drinking water, in the shade for the best part of an hour. We must have looked terrible. Our teeth looked terrible, covered in sticky dust and our bikes were beyond recognition. We filled up the tanks once more and headed north for Aktobe... only to find that road was bad too and 95 km long.... Having rattled another 25 km we called it a day, rode into the desert, switched the bikes off and pitched the tents. It was only then that the feeling of accomplishment slowly got a hold of me. We had done it, the road we knew was going to be very hard. We hadn't gone down and the Bonneville had made it...!