Thursday, September 3, 2015

Kazakh heat

Replacing the zip-ties once more to keep the shocks together
As you can read in the previous post, our ride to Aktobe had basically been for nothing. DHL had stuffed up, big time. With shocks that were by now barely hanging on and another 2,300 km to go... we were in for a long ride. At least the roads were supposedly much better... hopefully anyway. As it turned out it was another hard ride too, not so much because of the roads itself... but the incredible and relentless heat!

The road from Aktobe to Shymkent is mostly in good condition, we thought so anyway. A group of Russian truck drivers we met along the way felt differently, 'You ride through Kazakhstan?' they said in disbelief 'but the roads here are shit!' It was the way they expressed the word 'shit' that struck me. When we told them we had come from Astrakhan, via Atyrau they couldn't believe it 'but that is 350 km of sand, holes and... shit! That's not even a road... just shit! Why do you want to ride there?' 

Unknown Romanian traveller
From Aktobe to Shymkent there are a couple of roadwork sections, for which they have made a diversion by running a grader through the desert. The roadworks have been there for a couple of months or more and thousands of trucks have turned it into a huge dusty sandpit. Each roadwork is a couple of kilometres long. They are doable but very dusty and bumpy. The trick is to try and get on the right side of the trucks, i.e. the side the wind is coming from, or you will disappear in dust clouds. Most truck drivers understand what you are doing when you move to their side and move over. Sometimes though it's impossible and there is no alternative but to ride into a wall of dust, hoping there is no-one overtaking the trucks (yes Kazakhs overtake in dust clouds too). The preferable option would be to simply stop and wait but Kazakh car drivers don't understand and smash into you when you do. Apart from that and the occasional holes in the road, we thought it was pretty good (but maybe we have been on too many bad roads to give a proper judgement...) 

We filled up the bikes once more. Fuel stops are roughly 200-240 km (apart from one or two 400km+ sections) and a welcome break to stock up on water and down a cold Coca Cola. Yes, Coca Cola! Sadly enough it's the best and safest water available here... Kazakhs are a friendly and curious lot, always checking out the bikes and asking where we are from... plus all the other details they can squeeze out of us. At times it is tiring, especially when you've just arrived there and simply want some time alone. They mean well though! A cheerful Russian truck driver we met at one of the fuelstops climbed into his refrigerated trailer and got us a huge ice cold rock melon! Cheers mate! Whoever you are it was very much appreciated!

What made our ride hard was the temperatures. At barely 9 in the morning it was already in the forties, by midday we were riding in 48°C... There is no shade here as there are no trees, which meant long days too. We simply had to rise early or the tent would change into an oven, while we could only stop and pitch late at night for the same reason. We feel our bike gear deserves a special mention here too... yes we know some of it is donated but that doesn't change our way of writing. Simply put if the gear doesn't work then we don't need anything else from the company that donated it, so we can write honestly about it. If it's good then we don't need anything else either... as what we have works. The reason we write about it is simple: we have spend a small fortune on gear over the past decades that didn't work as promised and caused all kinds of problems. Now we have stuff that does work, even in these conditions! We could not have hoped our Rukka Cosmic suits could still be worn at 48°C... yes forty-eight (or 118°F), but they can. Sure we were covered in sweat but they didn't stick to us like cling foil and we had full movement. The jacket was absolutely brilliant, we rode with the zipper open and magnetic buckle closed. The pants could use bigger ventilation openings though... mind you it took 48°C before that became an issue! The Alt-Berg boots had a hard life. They were covered in dust and got sprayed with gravel, rocks etc. Our feet were sweaty as... well, you don't want to know! Let's just say the smell was bad! Yet they were still comfortable to wear and have saved our feet plenty of times! The Icon helmet was a blessing too. The ventilation system in it is the first one I've had that actually works better than opening the visor. Being able to wear proper bike gear at all times means added safety of course. But it also protected us from the sun trying to barbecue us... riding in a T-shirt here is a sure way to get skin cancer. Even the UClear helmet comms worked flawlessly, despite being too hot to touch.

All in all it took us 7 days to ride from Astrakhan via Atyrau and Aktobe to Almaty. A distance of 3,500 km. We had 12 hour days of barely 200 km due to difficult sand roads, and 700 km days in 48°C where we had to stop frequently to keep our fluid levels up. The other thing to remember is that it's not just us who was struggling with the conditions. Our poor bikes were too. Hot air doesn't cool an engine much and tyres get very very hot too. We found plenty of shredded tyres and cars stranded with cooling problems. The best way to ensure that it will go bang is to ride at high speed as it puts even more strain on an already stressed engine and drivetrain. To give an idea of the heat, our legs were being cooked, even through the Rukka gear and our boots, by the heat coming from the engine.

When even the camels look for water to cool down, you know it's hot...
One thing we still can't work out, having been here for a while, is the Kazakh people. Take today for example. We had stopped by the side of the road to have something to drink, when a Lada comes to a screeching halt... two men jump out and run to us, shake our hands, run back to the Lada, get two melons out of the car and give them to us... run back to the car again, get two more melons, shake our hands again, jump in the car and drive away...! We just stood there motionless. We get overtaken by cars with 4 thumbs-up coming out of the windows, have been photographed and filmed as we rode along and the moment we stop anywhere people have to know where we are from, where we are going etc. Even the many horsemen in Kazakhstan wave at us. While filling up at a petrol station there are always a few coming up to us, just to shake our hand like we're some sort of celebrity... 

If you find that hard to understand, like we do, then wait until you meet Kazakhs driving on the road! Words fail me to describe it. Take, again, this morning. We had just left from our overnight stop when a van came towards us against the traffic on a two lane motorway... The van in question had been parked on the emergency lane, facing the wrong way, but instead of slowly continuing on the emergency lane they decided to go against the traffic in the fast lane... Why? I have no idea but it sort of paints a picture on what can be expected here. We've found cars simply parked on highways too. There is, unfortunately, aggression in their driving too but it seems much more limited than Georgia for instance. Here it's the absolute madness, especially in towns. They do things with their cars you wouldn't even think of. Take the man with the wardrobe for instance... which he had to transport somewhere. He had put it on the roof rack of his Lada... which had bent so much that it was actually on the roof panel itself... which had bent so much that the roof was caved in somewhat! Instead of laying it down, he had put it on there upright... and across so that a 2 metre tall and 4 metre wide wardrobe was moving down the road... Why move it this way? again, no idea!

Russian space centre in Kazakhstan
As we got closer to Shymkent, the traffic increased and friendliness was partly overshadowed by aggressive driving. The section between Bishkek and Almaty is known world wide as down right dangerous, because of it. We had hoped to avoid all this but due to DHL had to ride it. This section of road is good tarmac but also had the weirdest diversions ever seen in road works where they simply diverted the traffic to use the on-ramp on the other side of the road as an off-ramp... without notifying the traffic coming from the other side... without any signs, markers or anything...!

A special mention and warning here is for the local Police, who have found better things to do than actually ensuring traffic safety. All they do is setup speed cameras... hundreds of them. And they will catch you! I got my first speeding ticket here in Kazakhstan. I was supposedly riding at 68 km/hr in a 50 zone, I wasn't but the camera doesn't lie... or does it? Strangely enough the person who was already there before I arrived had also been booked at 68 km/hr... 5 minutes later an Irishman was stopped for doing... yep: 68 km/hr. The fine would be 29,000 Tenge which I didn't have on me. We settled for 1,700 (which is about 8,5 Euro)... which went straight into the guy's pocket while any record of the supposed offence was being destroyed... Hmmm, it had to happen sooner or later I suppose: corrupt police.

Amazingly everyone booked here was doing 68 km/hr, including me...
When we finally reached the DHL office in Almaty, and found the shock absorbers there... we were happy as can be. All we had to do now is find the hostel, for which we only had a phone number. At times like this the friendly nature of the Kazakhs shines again. People having a drink outside a small restaurant bought us a cold apple juice and sorted it all out. They even showed us which was the best route to take on the GPS map to avoid the worst of the traffic and warned us about the bus-lanes (i.e. do not ride on them as the police will get you with their cameras! For Garmin ready GPS coordinates on fuel stops and other points of interest, click here and download them from our skydrive