19 August 2012

Kazakhstan: Almaty - Astrakhan (Russia)

I stayed in Almaty for 5 nights with my gracious hostess, Gulshat (thanks again Gulshat!).  I needed to a minor tune up on the bike and change the rear tire.  After all complete, it was time to hit the road back to Europe.  In the last 6 days I have covered about 3400km.  It is a huge distance, but then again, Kazakhstan is a huge country, the majority of it seeming to be a desert-steppe landscape.
Thanks Dimas for the Red Bull hook up!  It has come in handy!!

Day 1: Almaty-Zhabagly Nature Reserve:  It was a 700km ride of good road conditions.  Although far, it was not difficult.  I decided to sleep near the nature reserve to give myself something different to see.  Unfortunately motorcycyles are not allowed in the park so I could only see the mountains from outside the gate.
The gate was very ornate
I met an Austrian couple while at MCC Motors in Almaty who told me that they never stop for the police when flagged down.  They said they wave and continue on.  I tried the same during this leg and sure enough, it worked (except I did not wave, just pretended to not see them trying to pull me over :)). At the guesthouse I met two English guys (Tom and Ralph).  They are participating in a charity rally to Mongolia.
Day 2: Zhabagly-Kyzylorda: It was a beautiful ride along the foot of the mountains in the morning.
Morning rides are refreshing
I did manage to get lost before arriving into Shymkent (don't ask because I really don't know...haha) and then leaving Shymkent there are road works.  The detour sign took me out of the city, then back into the city.  It was not until the second time around where I decided to wait for cars to go this route then follow that I learned how to leave.  Once on the road, it was pretty ok.  A quick stop over at Otrar, an archaeological site of an old Silk Road city, then a longer one at Turkestan to see a Mausoleum like in Samarqand.  It was another long ride of about 650km but the roads were still pretty good and I managed to arrive into Kyzylorda and find the hotel before sunset.
The OG
Day 3: Kyzylorda-Aralsk: a 500km+ ride and the distances and time on the bike were starting to wear thin.  Road construction picked up and about 50% of the road was paved.  The other road was not bad, just needed to be careful of the sand pits from time to time.  I did meet 2 guys travelling by bicycle (Brendan and Ben) who are traveling from Shanghai to Dublin).
I happened to take a wrong exit, head over 8km to a town and bumped into them on at a petrol station.  After speaking with them for an hour, my energy was revitalized and the rest of the day went buy much easier. I did manage to go by Baikonur (a Russian space launch area) but could not see anything except some satellites.
Kazakhs are very hospitable people, until they are behind the wheel of the car. At a petrol station, I started pumping my gas.  Within a short time, a car came up and honked at me to move (while I was still pumping).  I pointed at the pump and he honked again.  Another car pulls up in front of me and does the same thing.  So, of course, I take my time.  The guy behind me goes to another pump while the guy in front continues to honk. Once I finally move out of the way, he comes over and wants to chit-chat.  I was pretty amazed.
This guy had some problems
Day 4:  Aralsk-Aktobe: I was told the road for 120km was bad (out of the 620km total).  It was more like 40km bad.  There is nothing around except tumbleweeds and an occasional mining town.  The last 215km of the ride was very windy.
This was once beach front property of the Aral sea - Aralsk
Since the weather was still about 40C, I felt like someone had a blow dryer on me constantly.  I was very happy once I finally arrived at the hotel.  I ended up meeting a guy from Almaty, Arselan, who is working for a drilling company (Australasia Independent Diamond Drilling).
He was very nice and invited me to eat with his crew and then check out the one site in town to see, the Presidential park.
Day 5: Aktobe-Atyrau: This is a 620km ride.  Google says it is about 7 hours...haha, I wish.  I rode 10 hours this day, crashed once and dropped the bike once.  This was the most trying leg I have done, ever.  I was in over my head.  250km of terrible roads.  I was wishing I had more of a 50-50 tire (knobby) for this leg.  The new rear tire held up great given all the pot holes I hit.
Ruts for days, this was not Disneyland
It was the hottest day I had traveled.  I bought water which had fallen off the bike at some point.  I ended up drinking all the 4liters I had on me early on thinking that I could buy more...nope.  The one petrol station in the middle of nowhere had no water.  The  ride was not only physically challenging it was also mentally tiring.  I had to constantly think of the ride and not get too comfortable.  The one time I did get too comfortable, I ended up crashing (at 60km/hr) in soft sand.
You need to pick yourself up after every fall - she stands tall here (but my ego was bruised)
Luckily, I was perfectly ok but my bike has some cosmetic blemishes (broken halogen light, broken right panier, and broken right handguard).  It is not fun to get up and try to pick up a 300kg (660lb) bike after eating it.  It was a humbling experience to feel almost defeated.  I still made it in the end to Atyrau and it felt good to finally arrive.
Day 6: Atyrau-Astrakhan, Russia: I figured the road would be as horrible as the one from the day before but I was wrong.  The road is "perfect", well almost...haha.  I was able to do a steady 80-100km until the border.  I woke up feeling good.
Easiest border crossing ever!
My bruised ego was going away quickly.  After buying more water, I packed up and left.  The landscape is changing a bit.  It is still deserty but not so much as before.  I heard that this border crossing would take between 2-5hours.  I spent 40minutes total at both sides.  This was the easiest crossing I have done yet.  Previously Kyrgyzstan held the title but now Russia took it - simple and organized.
This was a fun bridge to cross - welcome to Russia!
I arrived into Astrakhan, bumped into a wedding party who wanted to take pics on my bike, then headed to the hotel.  It is a really nice-looking city.
Very friendly wedding party - nice way to be welcomed into a city!