Kyrgyzstan, Land of Lakes.

Torsor, Kyrgyzstan.  27th July 2014.

Torsor is a village on the shores of Issyk-Kol, a large lake in the north of Kyrgyzstan. It is famous for being the second largest mountain lake in the world, after Lake Titicaca. It’s over 180kms long, 60kms wide and 670 metres deep. There are over 180 rivers and streams running into it but it has no known outlet. The Russians used it for testing their torpedo systems in Soviet times and still do, leasing the facility from the Kyrgic government, as does India. The lake is slightly saline. It is a big tourist draw, especially along its northern shore. We were on the south side where it is much quieter.

The guest house was small, with basic facilities but had the advantage of being cheap and was only 200 metres from the shore. Which meant, of course, that we had to go for a swim. It was pretty cold in there but refreshing in the hot sun so I didn’t complain. We’d all spent the morning doing some bike maintenance and I had an enlightening conversation with Hera. As mentioned, she’s a hard core cyclist and has some definite views on what works for her. She always uses a hard but correctly adjusted leather saddle. She says that gel saddles pinch the nerves in the backside, causing rather than relieving, numbness. She also says that she won’t have a bike with suspension because some of the pedal effort simply compresses the suspension rather than pushing the bike forward. Food for thought compared to conventional, and probably marketing driven, styles. Hers is a ‘travel bike’, somewhere between a mountain bike and a more conventional tourer. One piece of technology that fascinated me was her geared rear hub. If you can think back to the old Sturmey Archer three speed hub, then this one is probably twice the size of that but contains fourteen gears!! Worthy of those double exclamation marks. It is German made and is guaranteed for life provided the oil is changed regularly. It eliminates all that Derailleur gear mechanism, which can be vulnerable to damage and needs regular maintenance. But at EU900, you’d expect to be getting plenty for your money.

Volvo, former fire truck. Looking pretty good at forty years old.

Volvo, former fire truck. Looking pretty good at forty years old.

Parked up near the lake shore were a couple of old, Dutch registered trucks. They were clearly camping there and I just had to go and find out what these guys were up to. There were four of them, a driver and navigator for each truck, and they were on their own adventure tour, albeit rather slower and more ponderous than my own. All four were around my age and the trucks were almost as old as the drivers. The smaller of the two was a Volvo built, former Norweigan fire service rigid truck. It had a 4.75 litre, 132 BHP turbo charged engine and is from the 1960’s. He removed the fire service body and fitted another one that he just happened to have ‘lying around’ and was the right dimensions to fit the chassis. It was then converted into living accommodation using a design similar to that of a camper van. It was well organised and looked very comfortable. The other truck was a DAF articulated unit with a box trailer that had a caravan stuffed into the back as living accommodation. The rest of the space was used as storage. It was very effective. The Trailer was from 1957. The unit was from 1964 and has a 210BHP Leyland engine, showing just how far back that partnership goes.

Timeless classic.

Timeless classic.

They were on a journey that had taken them from Holland, across Eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China and into Kyrgyzstan. The remainder of their tour would take them on through the other ‘Stans, Iran, Turkey and southern Europe. A five month trip in total. They’re all retired from the road haulage industry and have the blessing of their wives. Top notch touring with a difference. Well done guys.

If you're going to have a route, make it a good one.

If you’re going to have a route, make it a good one.

The village we’re in seems to have several Ger Camps and guest houses that have a spiritual or alternative air to them. As I mentioned, the south shore of the lake is quieter and less developed so I can see the attraction. The Dutch guys had told us of a nearby Ger camp that had wi-fi they might let us use so Hera and I went looking for it. On the way we called in to one of the guest houses. I’d called in there while looking for Hera and Racom the night before and I remembered the people were very helpful and spoke English. We chatted with the woman there, Kareem, who was an Anthropologist and had travelled all over the world. We chatted across a wide range of subjects but her basic view was that we make life too complicated and forget the simple things. She had a view that a woman should show her love for her family by cooking for them, perhaps a concept that the western world could do with more of, she thought. She talked God a bit but in a spiritual way and it was clear that her guest house had that kind of aura to it. She started to make Hera feel a bit uncomfortable as she was telling her she should be having children, something Hera isn’t too keen on.

Kareem philosophises.

Kareem philosophises.

So we left there and found the Ger camp that did have wi-fi. The woman running it was a bit surprised at people walking in off the street seeking to connect, but she was OK about it in the end. This camp also had a similar kind of feel to it as the guest house, so strengthening the impression I had of the area.

If the Devil were to cast his net ....

If the Devil were to cast its net ….

Next day Hera, Racom and Michael were due to leave. Hera and Racom were heading up into the hills and were going to be staying at a Ger camp at Lake Song Kol before heading further south, to Tajikistan and the Pamir Highway. We made plans to meet up there in a few days as it’s a route I can take back to Kazakhstan. Michael was heading to the city of Osh to meet some friends with whom he’d be travelling to China. He will eventually reach Australia and we agreed to meet there if we can.

My plan was to take a ride up into the hills to check out a circular route that went up quite high, over 3,000 metres. I had heard that it was a dead end because it went into a restricted area but it was a good excuse to go exploring without all the luggage on the back. It did indeed end after about 30kms but was a nice ride and I saw plenty of horse herders and the Gers they lived in. Michael had told me of other rides I could take and I was going to move back along the lake to Karakol, a town from where I could explore further into the mountains. Before the others left we had asked a Russian guy who was staying there to take some photos for us. That evening I was in the café and his wife came over to me and introduced herself. She spoke English, albeit slowly, and she was asking about my journey etc. Later on, when I was eating, she brought over some watermelon and we talked some more, her husband joining in too. Vadim and Elena live in Novosibirsk, a city I planned to visit on my way to Mongolia. They gave me their contact details and said to visit them if I can. I was very pleased about that as I love to have opportunities for social contact with people whose countries I pass through. To revisit a previous theme, it’s interesting to note that Elena only spoke to me once I was on my own.

A new friend to visit when I can.

A new friend to visit when I can.

Once in Karakol I looked out for the Turkestan Yurt Camp, which Michael had told me about. As well as Yurts (Gers) they also had rooms so I opted for one of those. Showers, flush toilets and Wi-Fi, none of which had been available at the Saadat Guest House in Torsor. Bed and breakfast, and all for not much more than the previous place. I began to feel almost civilised. The camp is laid out among Apricot trees and some people had set up their tents amongst them. In the entrance yard were parked a couple of 4×4 trekking vehicles and I discovered that some of the people staying there were going hiking or climbing. I seemed to have found the adventure centre of the area. I walked in to town to find a meal and an ATM to finish the day off nicely.

Everything as its price.

Everything has its price.

Michael had told me of a track he’d ridden which led to The Valley of Flowers. It sounded like a good practice run for the longer track I wanted to ride so I went looking for it. Easy enough to find and it wound it’s way up into the hills, asphalted at first until it reached a spa centre of some kind. After that it was a nice ride up alongside a river, which it crossed several times via plank bridges. It was clearly a popular place for visitors as I saw plenty of other vehicles up there.

Steady now!

Steady now!

The best sight was of some very spectacular red sandstone cliffs, known as the Seven Sisters. Very beautiful, especially in the clear sunlight. The track wound on up into the hills. The valley didn’t have any flowers in it, probably too late in the year for that, but was a very nice ride nonetheless, and good practice for the tougher ride I had planned for the next day.

The beautiful sandstone rock formation known as the Seven Sisters.

The beautiful sandstone rock formation known as the Seven Sisters.

When I went to the restaurant that evening I bumped into a Finnish girl called Saila whom I’d chatted to earlier in the day. She was getting ready to go on a hike up into the hills. We chatted over our meal and I learned that she was a UN volunteer, working in Uzbekistan. She was part of a monitoring group and used her skills to measure the effectiveness of work that was funded by the UN. It seems that the volunteers get a low salary and benefits but their main reason for doing this work is that it looks very good on their CV. It seems it is very popular. Her lonely planet guide mentioned a Chinese Mosque in the town so after dinner we went to see it. It is a strange building, Chinese in style and looking pretty good for its age. It had a minaret next to it, built from wood like the mosque, a bit dilapidated and with an angle of lean that would make the tower at Pizza jealous. I took some photos and promised Saila I’d email some to her. I later found out more about this mosque. It was built for a Chinese Muslim sect called Dungans. They struggled to practice their religion in China and some of them came to Kyrgyzstan. The mosque was built for them by a Chinese master in 1910. It is made of wood and doesn’t use a single nail in its construction.

The Dungan Mosque

The Dungan Mosque

The slightly worse for wear minaret.

The slightly worse for wear minaret.

The people at the camp confirmed that the track I wanted to ride led to a restricted area after 140kms, even though the map showed it joined up with the track I’d ridden a couple of days ago, but I decided that was good enough for a day out. This track also went up into some high country so was likely to be a challenge. I set off, following a route I’d worked out from the map on display in the Yurt camp. On the way I passed through a town where there was a police speed trap, the first such activity I’d seen in this country. Their honesty wasn’t tested though as I’d been warned of its presence by oncoming drivers. The road, still good asphalt, started to climb up into the hills giving me some stunning views.

The things that get left on rocks can be very odd indeed.

The things that get left on rocks can be very odd indeed.

This mining town seemed pretty much abandoned now, so why prevent access?

This mining town seemed pretty much abandoned now, so why prevent access?

The hills became a mountains, the asphalt became dirt, and I finally crested the pass at a heady 3,789 metres according to my GPS. Down the other side I enjoyed a rocky, twisty descent along side a busy river which kept me company all the way down. Chilly at the top of the pass, I soon warmed up as I got lower and as the track kept me working too. After 140kms, as promised, I came down into a valley which contained a mining town, mostly disused as far as I could see. I crossed a bridge, came to a barrier and turned round to enjoy the ride back, along with all the views in reverse. A very nice ride out along a sometimes challenging track made for an enjoyable way to see the scenery and get some mountain air.

At breakfast next morning I was chatting to a Czech guy and he’d discovered that the group of campers were Israeli. They weren’t very communicative, he said. Hardly surprising. Given what was happening in Gaza.

My task that day was to ride back along the lake, through Torsor again and on to the other end of the lake before turning up into the hills to find lake Song Kol where I hoped to meet Hera and Racom. While I’d been exploring the hills near Karakol they’d been riding up towards it and the plan was to meet them at a Ger camp to stay the night near the lake. If I’d worked things out right they would have had enough time to get up there and all I had to do was find them. It was a glorious day and the ride back along Issyk Kol was very nice indeed. The lake was a deep, Mediterranean blue, reflecting the cloudless blue sky above it. The sun was warm, the traffic light. A perfect day to be out on a bike.

Issyk Kol on a beautiful, sunny day.

Issyk Kol on a beautiful, sunny day.

Once I’d cleared the lake I stopped for a quick bite at a café then found the track I needed to get me up into the hills. No asphalt now, just graded dirt with some loose gravel to stop me relaxing too much. As I went higher the track going over the pass got tough, with plenty of loose stones and rocks to deal with. My first glimpse of Song Kol was a bit disappointing as it had clouded over but it still looked good, surrounded by grassland with more mountains in the distance. There were several Ger camps around so I headed across the grass to check them out for Dutch cyclists. None to be found but after heading back to the track and riding a bit further I saw another camp near the road and there they were, waving at me. Excellent! They’d booked a Ger and evening meal so I did the same and we settled down for a good chat.

Song Kol lies at just over 3,000 metres and is Kyrgyzstan’s largest fresh water lake (Issyk Kol is slightly saline). It is surrounded by distant mountains but lies pretty much in the middle of grassland, perfect for the herders and their animals.

Anyone seen any Dutch cyclists? Ah, there they are!

Anyone seen any Dutch cyclists? Ah, there they are!

We were called in to eat later and enjoyed chatting to the two sisters who were there with their children. It seems the women spend the summer up in the hills with the animals and their kids. They get three months summer holiday and help with looking after the animals. The men work in the towns and join them when they can. They all spend the winter in the town. This keeps the herding tradition alive in Kyrgyzstan and is a very important part of its economy.

After dinner Hera and Racom, friends who originally met at a performing arts school, sang us all a song and did it very well too. One of the boys sang the Kyrgic national anthem so I felt obliged to sing ours. Hera couldn’t believe that Britain had such an appalling dirge for our national song, all about the monarchy and God rather than our country. I felt ashamed of it although it’s hardly my fault and I hate it anyway. But we all had a laugh and it was good to be able to engage with some local people.

Next morning was frosty, unlike our goodbyes, which were anything but. There’s a chance I might meet Hera in Australia, but it’s very unlikely I’ll see Racom again. But you can never tell.

Our Ger camp hosts.

Our Ger camp hosts.

We headed off in opposite directions, me northwards to head back to Kazakhstan. I was following tracks, using my compass, and when I came to a left or straight ahead choice, I chose straight ahead. That may have been wrong because I came down off the mountain a bit further east than I wanted to be but I wasn’t too bothered as a wrong choice could have looped me back south to an area that had no route north again.

Which way now?

Which way now?

Downwards seemed best.

Downwards seemed best.

The track down had been good fun, not tough but I needed to use some skills to avoid rough sections and keep on course. Plenty of stony sections interspersed with a track that almost disappeared into the grass at times. Just what I enjoy. I’d drawn a map of the route I needed to follow, along with some town names, but it wasn’t much good given that most of the towns I passed through didn’t display what their name was. I happened upon a couple of truckers who confirmed I was on the right road. While I was stopped I put on my coat as it had started to rain and also topped up the tank from with my spare fuel. It wasn’t long after that I saw a very strange sight. Two Ural sidecar outfits were bouncing along the track towards me followed by a van. The outfits bore a French couple and their three children, the van contained a driver, a mechanic and a guide/interpreter. And probably enough spares to rebuild a bike. Urals aren’t renowned for their reliability. This couple owned a pair of similar outfits back in France and had, logically, decided to see some of Kyrgyzstan in like fashion. Their guide told me that the nearest fuel was another 150kms along my route but that there were plenty of roadside Yurts that would be able to sell me some. That was going to have to do as I was running a bit short. She also told me that the turn off I was aiming for was only a few kilometres away and led on to a nice asphalt road. I was pleased to hear that as I was getting a bit tired, it was wet and I was worried about fuel. Once on the main road I stopped at a likely looking place to ask about buying fuel and the guy told me he didn’t have any but there was a petrol station about 5kms down the road. Oh really? Where did that guide get her from information then? Either way, I was pleased to see it hove into view, all bright and shiny new. Despite it being very busy I got my fuel and set off to complete the journey to Talas, a town near the Kazakh border.

Kazakhstan is over there, somewhere.

Kazakhstan is over there, somewhere.

Hera had told me about a hotel they’d used there, supposedly very good and not too expensive. I was looking forward to reaching it as soon as I could. First though, I had a mountain to climb. Immediately after leaving the petrol station I took a right turn, signposted Talas, and couldn’t understand why Doris was so reluctant to pick up speed. I wondered if there was something wrong with the fuel but after a short while I realised I was heading up a very steep hill. She’d already been struggling with the incline on the road I’d turned off but a combination of the weight and a stiff headwind made the climb over the Otmok pass a real struggle. The weather closed in just to ice the cake – and I mean that literally. As I climbed the rain turned to sleet, the temperature dropped, my body was cold and my hands were freezing as my heated handlebar grips weren’t working. I did not enjoy that part of the ride one little bit. Fortunately the road was good and the traffic light. Things never stay bad for long and eventually I was over the pass and on the downward slope. As I got lower the sleet and rain stopped, the sun came out and I began to feel warm and human again. Kazakh road builders had deliberately put in some rough sections of road to slow traffic down as the slope was very steep. Quite a good idea, I thought. I even saw a gradient sign that didn’t say 12%. It actually said %6. Ah, there’s a rebel in the camp! Towns started to appear and eventually Talas arrived. As Hera had said, there was a big sign for the Kerben Place Hotel as I came into the town, although strangely the signs got smaller as I got nearer. But I found it and was glad to do so. By then I’d had enough.

Bee keeping is very common in these areas and will often be for sale at small roadside stalls.

Bee keeping is very common in these areas and will often be for sale at small roadside stalls.

Kyrgyzstan is a former Socialist Soviet Republic, as were most Central Asian countries. Its early history is one of fighting herder tribes, followed by unity under a strong leader. Its name means We Are Forty, a reference to the forty united tribes.

Flag of Kyrgyzstan. The rays of the sun represent the forty tribes and the central part the roof piece of a Ger.

Flag of Kyrgyzstan. The rays of the sun represent the forty tribes and the central part the roof piece of a Ger.

It peacefully joined the Mongol Empire and eventually, in the 18th century, became part of e various rebellions against Tsarist rule but at the same time the Russian population grew and the language was forced upon the native population.

It became a Soviet Republic under Stalin and eventually became independent after the collapse of the USSR. It is a very poor country and its economic growth has been held back by civil unrest between Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks, the other large ethnic group. Agriculture still forms a large part of its economy, mainly herding, but the country also has many valuable mineral resources. Unfortunately it has long been affected by corruption and its human rights leave much to be desired.

I very much enjoyed my brief visit there and look forward to returning when my travels take me back to Central Asia.

Kazakhstan Part 3, with a bit on the side.

Almata, Kazakhstan. 22nd July 2014.

I was up and about quite early on the day I left Almati but still didn’t manage to leave the hostel until after 11am. It must be true about parting being such sweet sorrow or maybe I just struggle to get my backside into gear. Either way, having drawn me a map of how to escape the city Nurlan then got in his car and led me out onto the road I needed. Such kindness.

Leaving Almati and Hostel Athletic.

Leaving Almati and Hostel Athletic.

My journey plan was to visit some of Kazakhstan’s areas of natural beauty as I rode generally northwards to eventually reach the capital city, Astana. The first place on my list was the Charinski Canyon, an area of watery greenness among the barren Kazakh landscape. As I rode away from Almati I was surprised how quickly living standards appeared to drop. The cars became older, the trucks older still and there were many horse and donkey drawn carts. I stopped to buy some fruit and then in a shop I spotted some peach flavoured ice tea in the fridge. I’d been drinking coke as well as water up to that point so I thought I’d give it a try. It was a delicious revelation! This ‘milk but no suger’ tea drinker had always thought iced tea was a bit of a weird drink. No longer. No more coke, iced tea, preferably peach flavoured was definitely The Real Thing.

Another great roadside statue. I've no idea who he is though.

Another great roadside statue. I’ve no idea who he is though.

The terrain was changing once more with barren hills either side of me. Eventually I came to the Kokpek Gorge, a nice, steep, twisty climb which I could enjoy riding. After a few kms of this who should I come across but the two Dutch cyclists I’d met on the way to Almati. We were delighted to see each other again. They’d been in Almati too and were also en route to the Charinski Canyon.

 

Hera and Racom.

Hera and Racom.

This time I made sure I got their names and also Hera’s phone numbers. The plan was for me to go ahead, find the canyon, scout out a good camping place and text Hera the details. Simple really. We were all really looking forward to enjoying an evening together sharing experiences. I didn’t see them again during all the rest of my time in Kazakhstan. So what went wrong? Two things. Firstly there was a junction further along and I went left, guided by the coordinates for the canyon I’d got from the internet and put into my GPS. They had a better map than me and it led them to go, correctly, straight ahead. Secondly, despite having four phones between us, Hera and I couldn’t communicate so no way of checking in with each other. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening trying to find the canyon and them, and eventually, it having got dark, pulled off the road and camped out under the stars just with my sleeping mat and bag. Needless to say it rained. And I was near a steep hill in full hearing of the trucks grinding their way up and down it.

Kazakhs do seem to like a roadside statue. This was were I spent the nigth.

Kazakhs do seem to like a roadside statue. This was were I spent the nigth.

I got up with the sun and got on with my ride as fed up and as tired as it’s possible to be. I was hoping I might be able to contact Hera at a later date, either by phone or through her website. In the meantime I had to get on with my own journey so I carried on northwards towards Altinemil National Park.I’d managed to find a nice café for some Borsch and coffee so was feeling better.

Information board for the Altinemil Nationa Park.

Information board for the Altinemil Nationa Park.

Not for very long though. I was riding through some roadworks, down a twisty hill when I got stopped by the police. I pulled over. No niceties this time, no handshake or comments on the weather. All he said was ‘Sixty five KPH, speed limit fifty KPH’. This was the real thing, the only question being ‘How much was it going to cost me?’ I got my documents and got in the car. He checked everything and then wrote down a figure of $50 on a piece of paper. ‘No dollars’ I said to him. So he wrote down a figure of 10,000 Tienge (about the same amount). I told him that was way too much, I wasn’t going to give him anything and I would suffer the fine. He still had my driving licence and said he would have to sent it off to Astana with the paperwork and the fine would be T18,250. I was stymied now. He was pointing to my wallet so I pulled out T4,000 and gave it to him and he gave me back my licence. At that point my anger welled up and I grabbed one of the two notes I’d given him back out of his hand and told him he was nothing but a thief. I should have grabbed them both. Was I speeding? Probably and I could have asked to see the photo on the camera. But in the end it cost me the equivalent of £6.60. What angered me more than anything is that these speed traps are just there for the police to make money, nothing more. And then the day got worse.

Not much further down the road I heard a clicking noise as if something was knocking against one of the spokes. I stopped to check but couldn’t see anything. The noise was still there and I thought it might be a stone trapped behind the chain guard. So I pulled up, took it off and checked again. While I was doing so a Kazakh guy on a KTM stopped to see if he could help. He told me he owned the KTM dealership that I’d seen in Almati. I said I thought I was OK and went on to tell him the story of the police. He told me that under Kazakh law the police have to produce a photo of the front number plate to get a prosecution. Bikes don’t have one so I should have stood my ground and refused to pay. Well that’s easy to do if you can have that argument in the local language but not so easy otherwise. Still, I thought I’d give it a go if I got stopped again. In fact, at that moment, I decided that if I got waved in I’d just ride on past.

Riding on, the noise was still there and I now suspected a rear wheel bearing to be the problem. I headed to the nearest town and managed, with a bit of help, to find a hotel. This was another leisure complex and was appropriately priced but I was too tired and fed up to care. I ate some food in their café and retired for the night. My last thoughts were that it had been a great ride through the national park; that I was worried about the bike; **** the corrupt police.

At about 2am I had to get up to ask a Russian couple from the next room to please stop holding their loud conversation right outside my window and to turn their music off. Anyone would think I was in a holiday camp!

My decision now was to head back to Almati for repairs especially after checking my stock of spare parts only to discover I’d removed the spare wheel bearings to save weight and room. Bugger! It was just over 100km back to the city. Fortunately I’d taken one of the hostel’s cards so I had an address to head to. All I had to do was find it again. As I was riding the noises from the bike were getting worse, so bad in fact that I was beginning to wonder if it was the gearbox. The speed I rode at seemed to make no difference so I just got there as quickly as I could. Once in the city I just rode around, hoping to see something I recognised. After a while I stopped by the side of the road for a think and a local biker pulled up to see if he could help. I showed him the card and, with a bit of consultation from a friend on the other end of the phone, led me right to the place. Fantastic! Yet more biker/Kazakh friendliness. I couldn’t thank him enough for saving me endless time riding around a busy city on a stinking hot day. Alex gave me his business card In case I might need any more help and, ironically, he works for a bearing supplier!

Another biker saviour, Alex, who led me back to the hostel.

Another biker saviour, Alex, who led me back to the hostel.

The hostel people were surprised to see me, to put it mildly. But I got my gear back into the dorm, had a cup of tea and set off for Freerider Motorcycle Salon once more. It being Friday I wasn’t sure how much they’d be able to do at short notice, but as soon as I got there Yanna, the lady I’d met last time, organised a mechanic to check the bike over. He confirmed my own diagnosis of a rear wheel bearing. They said they should be able to match up the old bearing down at the Bearing Market the next day. Now this was one of those slightly surreal moments. Somewhere in Almati there is a market with stalls that sell all sorts of different bearings. And it’s open on a Saturday. And they were pretty sure they’d be able to get what they needed. Just imagine that happening anywhere in the UK. I was impressed. Is it an open air market or indoor? I don’t know and I didn’t ask. I can assure you I didn’t care.

Doris, bum in the air.

Doris, bum in the air.

So once again they found me some workshop space, lifted Doris’s back end up in the air and I set to removing the wheel. When I got it off all that remained of the bearing was the inner and outer bearing race and three crushed ball bearings. I think I only just made it back. A long, hot walk back to the hostel, in my bike boots and heavy riding trousers, just about finished me off for the day and an early night beckoned. My previous joking partner, French Jimmy, had left so I had to put up with Nurlan telling me wonderful Hondas are and maybe I should have bought one of those. Oh how I laughed!

I went back to the bike shop at about 13.30 next day and found the wheel fully sorted with three new bearings fitted and ready for me to install. What great service and all for T8,000. That was T6,000 for the bearings and T2,000 for fitting them (£20 and £6.60 respectively). I paid more than that for just the bearings back in the UK. I was delighted and was happy to tell Yanna as much when I chatted to her before I left. Having done another few jobs on Doris I headed back to the hostel.

The ever so helpful mechanics at Freerider. Probably pleased to see the back of me at last.

The ever so helpful mechanics at Freerider. Probably pleased to see the back of me at last.

I was pleased to see a reply from Hera. I’d messaged her via her website and she told me they’d got to the canyon and had spent some time trying to find me. They were now in Kyrgyzstan and heading for a Yurt camp at a village called Torsor. That was fantastic news. I immediately changed my plans and said I’d see them there next day. At least this time I had a definite place at which to meet them. All that remained for me to do was to tell Nurlan he could shove his Hondas were the sun doesn’t shine, I had a Suzuki I was delighted with. Oh how we laughed. Seriously, they’re great people and it was good to see them all again.

Up and about early with some serious distance to cover and an important rendezvous to make. I wasn’t going to mess it up this time. My route took me back towards the Charinski Canyon and this time I found it. It is, indeed, a beautiful place and I took some photos just to remind me of what I’d missed. But, by way of consolation, had I found it last time I wouldn’t now be making and impromptu journey to Kyrgyzstan, a country I hadn’t planned to visit for some time. Life’s funny at times.

The Charinski Canyon. Would have been a great place to camp.

The Charinski Canyon. Would have been a great place to camp.

I was headed for the town of Kegan, near the border, and enjoyed a very nice ride through ever more mountainous country. I failed to check my map when I should have and didn’t turn right in Kegan. 30kms later I realised I was heading for the border with China, not Kyrgyzstan. Easy mistake to make really. When I finally reached the right border I almost wished I had gone to China. I got into difficulties there, entirely of my own making I should add.

At the time I applied for my Kazakh visa there were a number of restrictions in place. I had to apply in my country of residence. I had to specify the date of entry, from when the thirty one day visa period would start. When I entered the country I had to register with the immigration police within five days. The first two restrictions were overcome, with massive help from Base Camp. I received my Irish passport while I was in Berlin so I sent my UK passport back to the visa company in London. Base camp then sent it back to me in Riga. All good so far. I just needed to make sure I got there with enough time to see the country before the thirty one days expired. This situation caused me to spend less time in Europe than I might otherwise have done. In particular I had to turn down an invitation to go away for a weekend with my kind hosts in Estonia, Kalle and Janc. As it was I had used up eleven of the thirty one days by the time I entered the country. So when I arrived in Kazakhstan the last thing on my mind was to find an immigration police office and register my presence.

This almost led to me not being able to leave. I arrived at the border post, out at the end of 20kms of dirt road. I got through passport control and customs with no problems but then I came to the final passport check. And there I stayed. The passport control officer wanted to know where my registration document was. I pleaded ignorance. He was insistent. A woman there who spoke some English translated my responses, with me telling him that I wasn’t aware I had to register and that I’d stayed in several hotels who hadn’t mentioned it either (this was a reference to the fact that many hotels in Russia will undertake the similar registration process for you). He showed me the instruction on the back of my entry form, in English, telling me I had to register. I said nothing. Another guy there told me he’d seen people sent back to the nearest town to register before being allowed to leave. The passport officer left me waiting while he dealt with everybody else who came through. He left his office a couple of times for cigarette breaks, completely ignoring me. He made a couple of phone calls, maybe about me, maybe not. Eventually, after an hour and a half, he stamped me out and let me go. I was relieved, to put it mildly. He could have totally ruined my plans by sending me back to Kegan to register so I was grateful, if grudgingly so.

It was 17.30 by the time I got through the thankfully easy process of getting into Kyrgyzstan and I still had over 150kms to cover so I wound it on as much as I dared. The stony track eventually turned to asphalt and I made good time, getting to the village of Torsor just before dark. I found the Yurt camp easily enough but Hera and Racom weren’t there! They’d left me a note though and I found the guesthouse they were at easily enough. As I pulled into the yard they rushed out to greet me like long lost friends. There, along with them was a Danish biker, Michael, who rode a Honda Africa Twin. So I ordered some food and the four of us had a great evening telling travellers’ tales past and present. It had been a long day, but I’d finally made it.

Racom, Hera and Michael.

Racom, Hera and Michael.

A fine pair of steeds.

A fine pair of steeds.

Kazakhstan Part 2

Shalkir, Kazakhstan. 14th July 2014.

Getting to where you want to be in Kazakhstan can be a frustrating business. Signposts are few and far between and a road on the map between two towns doesn’t always translate to a road on the ground, at least not one that can be used.
Arriving in the town of Shalkir from Emba, I stopped to ask the way to a café and a couple of guys led me to a very nice one. I think they were cabbies because one of them suggested I should pay him for taking me there. Nyet! was the simple answer to that idea. They joined me at my table and he also asked if he could have my map. Nyet! Finding my way out of town afterwards wasn’t easy. I was the wrong side of the railway tracks but a couple of young guys in a car showed me to the level crossing. I carried on to the edge of town and filled up then asked the woman there how to get to Aral, the next town on my route. She said to go straight on and then right, but the route she showed me on my map was 125kms north east and then turn south, very much in the wrong direction. My map showed a route that cut across in a diagonal line and I was determined to find it. It was at this garage that I met the two German bikers. One was on a BMW 1200GS and the other was on a KTM 990. They’d ridden south from Germany, through Greece and Turkey then up through the Caucuses and entered Russia from Georgia. It had taken them three hours to cross the border. I felt smug. The KTM had suffered from a blocked oil filter and he was riding without one. Not recommended! I wished them luck.

I headed off in the direction given but was looking for the turn to the right that I knew would cut across the diagonal. After about 50kms I turned round and came back, finally spotting a turning on the right that my compass said should be the one. This road was pretty good, stony but hard packed. That was until, after 20kms, it disappeared into the sand. Now I understood the reason for being told to go the longer route. I’d ridden 400kms that day, 200 of them wasted. Because of difficulties finding the route sometimes it had become the norm to have to do a bit of scouting, but this day broke all records. It was too late to try again so I went back into Shalkir, found a hotel near the station and went back to the same café for another meal. The woman there didn’t seem too surprised to see me again. Seen it all before I suppose.

Typically decorative town gateway, this one to Aral.

Typically decorative town gateway, this one to Aral.

Next day I went the way I was supposed to and eventually joined a really nice, freshly asphalted road which took me all the way South to Aral. The café I stopped at for dinner had some low seats and tables as it seems that some Kazakhs like to half lie down when they eat. Last night’s hotel hadn’t had hot water or a toilet seat. Tonight’s had hot water but no shower. It had a toilet seat, but not actually attached. Things were looking up! When I booked in I saw a price list at reception that included rooms by the hour at T3,000. I thought that was a bit steep and wondered which would cost the most – the room or the reason for needing it. Best of all was that the hotel had Wi-Fi. I was back in touch with the world after four days. It didn’t seem to have missed me much.

The terrain had been slowly changing as I headed south. There was more grass and scrubland and I was seeing cattle, sheep and horses rather than camels. I even saw a few trees. Kazakh truckers are a friendly lot. I was getting waved and tooted at by many of them.

When I stopped for my meal the girl in the café was fascinated by my map, almost as if she’d never seen her own country laid out before her. Quite possible I suppose.

The road had been great up to now but as I neared the town of Kizilorda it turned, literally, to dust. There were endless roadworks, with endless diversions and all of these were dusty, sandy tracks. There were endless trucks coming both ways and I was absolutely covered in dust.

Nice to see something enjoying all that dust.

Nice to see something enjoying all that dust.

Once the asphalt started again I decided to find somewhere to camp. The roadworks had slowed me down and I couldn’t be bothered to chase around a strange town looking for a hotel. The clocks had gone forward an hour as I headed east and it was getting late. So I pulled off the road, out of sight and set up my tent in the pleasant evening sunshine. Ah, the joys of the simple life!
Into Kizilorda next day and I had to stop to ask someone the way out of the town. I was getting used to this by now. The guy I asked very kindly led me through the town to where I needed to be. More Kazakh kindness, which was very much appreciated.

One of the few Mosques I saw while in Kazakhstan.

One of the few Mosques I saw while in Kazakhstan.

The terrain was changing even more now. The land was more fertile and I crossed over several irrigation canals. There were fields of the long grass they store for winter cattle feed, various vegetables and I was seeing larger herds of cattle, horses and flocks of sheep and goats. At one point I saw a guy sitting on a horse, wearing a Stetson hat. He was looking after a flock of sheep. I laughed to myself at that image.It seemed strange this was happening the further south I got, I expected the opposite. The roads were quite busy and the trucks were from several different countries including Russia, Latvia, Uzbekistan and even Belarus. It was clear from the map that the south of the country is the busier part, with plenty of large towns and cities. The road infrastructure was much better and had been in place longer than in the north. I had left the boondocks behind and found civilisation it seemed.

Wagon load of hay up in smoke.

Wagon load of hay up in smoke.

Even so, there was a rather casual air to affairs of the road. Here’s some things I saw (only just in time occasionally) as I rode along the dual carriageway. A lad by the side trying to sort out his flock of sheep. A boy herding his flock of sheep and goats across the carriageway. A guy driving up my outside lane towards me. A police car that was on the hard shoulder which threw a U turn across my path and came charging towards me. Roadworks with no cones and maybe one warning sign about 100 metres before them. Did I mention the roadside stalls on the hard shoulder, selling fruit and veg? One sight that constantly amused me was the Kazakh style lay by. Lay bys are normally pretty mundane places but as well as a toilet and picnic table, every one of them had concrete ramps so that vehicles could drive up onto them and have repairs carried out. It struck me as either a sad comment on the Kazakh authorities inability to maintain their roads or an honest recognition that drivers needed all the help they could get! Just another day on the Kazakh road system.

Kazakh style lay by.

Kazakh style lay by. Feel free to repair your vehicle.

At one point I got pulled into a police check. He basically said ‘Hello; where are you going; hot isn’t it; goodbye.’ Just the kind of police check I like. Later on I was to get to like them a lot less.

Entrance to the Sikim Baba memorial.

Entrance to the Sikim Baba memorial.

The café I stopped at had a nice tree shaded garden with a gazebo to sit under. Much more civilised than the dusty, treeless north. Improvements were all around me.
Soon after I left that café I came to some kind of memorial garden up on the hillside. I pulled in to have a look. It was dedicated to someone called Sikim Baba. I haven’t been able to find out who he was and although there was a young guy and his Father there, tending the gardens etc., the language barrier prevented me from finding out more. It is clearly Islamic in nature, had a big sculpture in the middle with wind chimes dangling from it and an incense burner in the middle.There were what seemed to be memorial plaques to various people around the edge of the garden. Frustrating not to know what it was all for but it was a place of peace and tranquillity. I dropped a few coins in the collection box on the way out.

Part of the memorial garden.

Part of the memorial garden.

The father and son who look after it.

The father and son who look after it.

I arrived in a town called Tulkibas and did my usual trick of heading for the town centre to try for a hotel. Pulling up outside the station I missed my footing and promptly allowed the bike to fall over in front of a crowd of people. How dumb did I feel? A few laughed but nobody rushed over to help me. I had to ask a couple of guys for assistance to pick the bike up. I slunk away from the scene, rode around the corner and stopped by a group of taxi drivers to ask about the hotel someone had told me about earlier. They all seemed to be saying not to go there. One of them pointed at the bike and said something. One particular guy said not to go there and insisted I come with him to his house. I was a little bit reluctant about this, especially after disrupting the sleeping arrangements the last time that happened. There is also the fear about personal safety. But he seemed like a genuine guy and all the others were saying to go so I followed him anyway.He took me down some back streets and we arrived at his house which was one of several that surrounded some kind of courtyard. His name was Kolya and he introduced me to his Mother and two young sons who lived with him, as well as his neighbours. His mother immediately dished up food even though I tried to say that I’d only just eaten. Of course I managed to eat a bit more though.

Kolya's lovely Mother.

Kolya’s lovely mother.

It’s surprising how much conversation you can have when there’s no common language. With his little bit of English, my little bit of Russian and the aid of my dictionary we were able to chat surprisingly well. He has a real talent for pantomime which helped the process along. It seems he has been married twice, his two younger sons live with him and one of the older ones is in the army. He told me he lost both his legs below the knee when he was fifteen. He was run over by a train it seems. Despite this he still rode motorbikes and earns his living as a taxi driver. A remarkable man and a very kind host. I slept in a room of my own, with carpet hung walls and enjoyed a nice breakfast next morning before parting company from this genuinely nice man. He seemed quite taken with the head torch I’d been using so I gave my spare one to him as a thank you gift. I was sorry to leave but was delighted to have met him. We’ll never have contact again as he’s not on the internet but I hope I left him with a good impression of travelling Brits.

Kolya.

Kolya.

Whatever Kazakhstan may be lacking in it certainly isn’t police checks. I was pulled over twice more and the second time the copper pointed to my speedo and indicated I should get off the bike and join his colleague in the car. ‘Shakedown time’ I thought. I walked over to the car, leaned through the window and told him, in my best Russian, that I didn’t speak Russian, that I was English and offered him my passport. He just said ‘Goodbye’ and waved me away. And away I went, pretty sharp-ish, before he changed his mind. Three stops, three let offs. Could it last?

I spent the night in the border town of Korday, where lies the main crossing to Uzbekistan. The hotel was nice but not cheap and the whole town had a very busy, sometimes even aggressive, air to it. The driving was definitely a bit more, shall we say, assertive. Having ridden across this southern part of the country it had become obvious that the area is the busiest and most developed part of the country. The infrastructure is much better, there’s commercial agriculture and some buildings that looked as if they might be military facilities. The towns even had gas, something that didn’t exist in the north. But the downside was that the people were a little less friendly. Not actually unfriendly, but there was a clear difference. Just busier I suppose. Having said that a young guy who worked at the restaurant found me a secure place to leave my bike. He spoke some English and we were able to chat a bit. The hotel is also a leisure complex, with a swimming pool etc., so that accounted for the higher price.
My next destination was Almati, the former capital. The road going there was more hilly than I’d seen up to now and the older Kazakh trucks really struggled to cope with them. They didn’t have enough power to get up and not enough brakes to get down. So it was low gear in both directions with queues of frustrated motorists stuck behind them. Not me though. I smiled as I rode past, leaving the car drivers to choke on the diesel fumes as best they could. Many of these trucks were Russian built Kamaz. Compared to European trucks they look very old and crude but they are well suited to the Kazakh roads as they are also very robust, if much slower. Talking of hills, I noticed that at every hill the gradient sign said 12%, regardless of how steep the hill was. Eventually I evolved the theory that someone in the Kazakh Department of Transport had bought a job lot of these signs from the Russian Mafia and the 12% figure was an in joke – it was the size of the kick back he got. Just my theory.

After a while this enjoyable single carriageway road started to climb and it was here that I came across a couple of cyclists. I stopped to say Hello. They were a Dutch couple, and we chatted for a while. She is a pretty hard core cyclist, having left Holland in April and cycled across Germany, CZ, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine before reaching Uzbekistan. He had flown out and had hired a bike so as to join her for a couple of months on his first cycling holiday. They were heading south to Tajikistan to tackle the beautiful but infamous Pamir Highway. We discussed the Malaysian Airways crash in Ukraine, which had only just happened, and also our respective travel plans. She would be flying out to Indonesia to meet her Mother, then on to Australia. Like I said, a hard core cyclist. We exchanged photos and then I carried on. It was only after a while that I realised I hadn’t got their names, very remiss of me.

Dutch cyclists, en route to Tajikistan.

Dutch cyclists, en route to Tajikistan.

Eventually Almati started creeping up on me. The outlying towns started to blend into one, as did the police speed checks. Long before the sign announced it, I knew I’d arrived in the former capital. I followed the sign for City Centre and eventually went up a slip road beside an underpass. At the top was a scene of chaos. There were cars stopped everywhere and people selling things from stalls on every pavement around the junction. One car had its windscreen caved in as if something had landed on it. A pedestrian or one of those king sized water melons that were on sale everywhere? I rode around it all, feeling welcomed by the typical chaos of an Asian city.

I hadn’t had any chance to book accommodation as I’d had no internet for a day or two so my plan was to head towards the city centre and see what I could find. Not the greatest of plans but it was all I had. I rode up to the top of the main road and stopped, hoping someone would take pity on me and offer some help. No such luck so I went back down the road, turned into a street that looked promising and almost straight away my oasis in the desert presented itself. Just before a set of traffic lights I saw a sign saying HOSTEL, something I hadn’t imagined would exist in a big city like this. The woman at reception didn’t speak any English but one of the resident guests did so i was quickly booked in to a nice dorm which I was sharing with a French guy named Jimmy. Why Jimmy? Not a nick name, surprisingly. His father had wanted an English name for him, his mother an American one, so he was James Laurent. And he was a thoroughly nice and likeable character. He had a great knack of making friends with everyone he met and had all the staff at the hostel lapping up his charms. We hit it off straight away. He’s from Paris and is here to get to know a Kazakh woman he met in an on-line forum for people who were learning French. Romance blossomed and Jimmy was here to take the relationship to the next level.

French Jimmy.

French Jimmy.

All the people who worked at Hostel Athletic were very nice and as soon as I arrived, Adil, the handy man, invited me to put my bike in the small, locked courtyard where it would be safe. We had great fun doing that as it had to go down two steep steps and take a ninety degree turn at the same time. Some muscle power and a length of 4×2 soon had it sorted but I wasn’t sure how we were going to get it out again. Adil then offered me the use of a hose and bucket to wash Doris and that was a job I was happy to do after so many days dealing with sand, mud and dust. She fairly sparkled afterwards. While I was doing this the women were asking me questions about my journey and seemed fascinated with my age as much as anything else. Nurlan, the owner came and introduced himself, as did Dinash, his teenage son, who spoke quite good English. I learned that it was the owners wife, Manara, who I’d met when I arrived. So within an hour of getting there I was feeling like one of the family.

Nurlan, Manara and some old geezer in between them.

Nurlan, Manara and some old geezer in between them.

The hostel specialises in accommodating students who come down to Almati for term time then go home again. They also host sports groups and staying there was a weightlifting team from Kyrgyzstan. One of the guys had competed at three Olympics, including Beijing, and another one had competed in London. Later on I saw Jimmy getting the address of one of them so he could visit him when he went to Kyrgyzstan.

That evening Nurlan suggested we might like to take a trip up the highest point in the city, the Medeu Mountain, from where we’d be able to see the whole of Almati spread out below us. That sounded like a great idea so Jimmy, the wrestlers, a few others and I all piled on to a bus and headed up there. We needed two different buses and I was interested to see that we paid a fixed fare of T80, just under 40p, per trip, the same principle as most other places. The buses got us to the bottom of a cable car lift which, for some strange reason we weren’t able to use to get to the next level up the mountain although we’d be able to come down in it. So we got a couple of taxis up there, which wound their way around severe hairpin bends, often in 1st gear, up a gradient which was definitely greater than the 12% the signs declared it to be! At the top was a very nice leisure area of restaurants, BBQ’s and all sorts of mountain related activities such as skiing, mountain biking, hiking and so on. There was a ski lift which went further up this surprisingly high mountain. After a quick look around we had to get our tickets for the cable car back down. Unfortunately it was too gloomy to take advantage of the view but we did get an opportunity to get great views of the Medeu Stadium. This venue used to be THE place for breaking speed skating records in the 70’s and 80’s. Apparently the purity of the mountain water made the ice the fastest to skate on. Soviet built in the 1950’s, it has been refurbished three times and is now better known as a Bandy Stadium. Bandy? No, I didn’t know either but it is a game based on a mixture of Field Hockey and Association Football. The players use hockey sticks and a ball and team numbers, pitch size, game length and so on are the same as football. The game was first played in London in 1875. Well, you live and learn! On the mountainside was a dam which trapped the water for use in the rink but also protected the city from mudslides. I couldn’t imagine it raining sufficiently to create this problem, given how hot and dry it was, but it clearly existed.

Medeu Stadium from the cable car.

Medeu Stadium from the cable car.

Stadium from the outside.

Stadium from the outside.

Back at the bottom we took a look at the outside of the stadium, which was quite impressive, then caught a bus back down again. This time we went on to the city’s new Metro for the final leg of the journey. It only has seven stations, with two more on the way, and the station design is exactly the same as those in Moscow, including the platform layout and the sculptures and paintings. Very impressive, if limited. The trains were 100 times better though, thankfully.

Some of the artwork at Almati's new Metro.

Some of the artwork at Almati’s new Metro.

Jimmy went out with a couple of guys from the hostel and next morning I heard him come back in the early hours. Later on we went out for a walk and he told me he had been due to meet Yevgenia for a cycle ride at 06.30. It transpired he hadn’t got in from his drinking session until 06.00 so of course he didn’t make that. She rang him up while we were out and I could tell she wasn’t a very happy bunny – no surprise really. We were going to meet her later on and go for something to eat. Jimmy told me that he worked as a station manager for SNCF and there was a culture of very heavy drinking at work. He’d succumbed to this for a number of years but was doing his best to reduce his alcohol consumption drastically. Last night he failed! But he had my sympathy.

Swimming pools and canal side artwork.

Swimming pools and canal side artwork.

We went for our walk and found ourselves down by a waterway which was laid out in a series of concrete pools. They served as swimming areas and had ladders into the water for that purpose. There were plenty of kids there having fun. Along the concrete sides of the walkway was some nice street art, some of it dedicated to a Kazakh poet. Enjoyable to look at even if I didn’t know what the messages were.

Dedicated to an unknown (to me) Kazakh poet.

Dedicated to an unknown (to me) Kazakh poet.

We met up with Yevgenia and after the introductions I retreated a bit while Jimmy explained his absence that morning. The three of us then went for a walk, taking in Panfilov Park and visited a museum of Kazakh folk music. Panfilov Park is dedicated to twenty eight Guardsmen from a Red Army regiment which consisted mostly of men from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. They died during a battle against a German Panzer Tank division just outside Moscow. Their general was named Panfilov, hence the reference. Their deeds were written up in the Red Army newspaper and in 1942 they were awarded the posthumous title Heroes of the Soviet Union. There are memorial statues of each of them in the park along with memorials to those who died in the revolution of 1917 and in WW2, The most fascinating thing about this story is that much of it isn’t true. At least six of the twenty eight survived and the claim that they destroyed eighteen Panzer tanks has never stood up. Despite the Red Army authorities learning these things soon after the war ended it was decided to hide the truth and maintain the glorious myth. The tale of Soviet self deception is, to me, the best part of the story.

Memorial to one of the Panfilove heroes.

Memorial to one of the Panfilove heroes.

Museum of Folk music. A very striking building.

Museum of Folk music. A very striking building.

One of the instruments, definitely looking a bit folksy.

One of the instruments, definitely looking a bit folksy.

Also in the park was a Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The original building was made from wood and had been constructed without using any nails. It fell down during an earthquake. After visiting the folk music museum, full of interesting musical instruments and stories of the musicians who played them, we went off to a restaurant that specialised in Shashlik. This is one of Central Asia’s specialities and is seasoned meat barbecued on a skewer, similar to a kebab. The meat can be lamb, chicken or duck but lamb is the most common. Very nice indeed. Afterwards I was dropped back at the hostel while Jimmy and Yevgenia went off to enjoy their evening.

Another great example of Russian 'right in your face' artwork.

Another great example of Russian ‘right in your face’ artwork.

One of the jobs I needed to get done while in Almati was to service Doris. I had been told that there were Auto Repair Shops in the city where you can take your vehicle and work on it yourself. Just what I needed, if it was true. I engaged the help of one of the English speaking students at the hostel and after a few false starts I got him to understand what I needed. He was kind enough to make some enquiries for me and eventually found a motorcycle dealer that would be happy to help me. He and Nurlan located it on Google maps and drew a map for me. I rode round there and found it, with the help of a local, tucked away behind a large apartment block. Freerider Moto Salon couldn’t have been more welcoming or helpful. I met Yana, her husband Dimitri and her brother Pavel. They had recently left smaller premises to move here and had plans to add a hostel and a bar. Along with their workshop facilities, this will make Freerider a fantastic place for the travelling biker to stay, get serviced and relax before tackling the next stage of their journey. They had had a group of Aussies in the day before, needing new tyres fitting before carrying on to Mongolia. In no time at all I was given a corner of the workshop and all the facilities I needed for draining my oil. I got a few other jobs done too and all this was at no cost. Needless to say I bought my oil from them, so they got something out of the deal, but that was all. Yana even made me a cup of tea. She was about seven months pregnant so her and Dimitri may even be parents by now. I am exceedingly grateful to them and I wish them every success in their business and with their new family.

My time in Almati was drawing to a close. I perhaps hadn’t done the city justice in terms of sightseeing but I’d managed to visit some interesting places and get some essential jobs done. I’d also learned a bit more about Kazakhstan. For instance, out of a population of around 17 million, 4 million are Russian. Most Kazakhs speak at least some Russian but very few Russians speak any Kazakh, or at least not much. A very odd thing to me was that Dorian, the student who tended to get used as an interpreter, was Kazakh but had been brought up to speak only Russian. I thought this was very odd but is not all that unusual. Jimmy’s girlfriend is Russian as are the people who own the bike shop. But on occasions when I went into the local shop to get supplies and said ‘Thank you’ to them in Russian, I got told off and was given the Kazakh word to use instead. It seems that some Kazakhs do prefer their native language after all. Spending time in a big city showed me the more modern and outward looking side of Kazakhstan but the one thing that remained the same was how friendly and helpful the people were.

No problem getting a friendly wave from friendly Kazakhs.

No problem getting a friendly wave from friendly Kazakhs.

I knew I’d be sorry to leave Hostel Athletic. I’d had a great time there and the owners and staff couldn’t be more welcoming. But before I left I had one delicate duty to perform. I sat Jimmy down and explained to him that his English name was, in fact, Scottish. I reassured him that it was now a common name in England too, after three hundred years of familiarity, and that he shouldn’t feel too bad about it. I thought he took the news quite well. I chose not to speculate on how his father might react.

Nicely ornate Almati building.

Nicely ornate Almati building.

Kazakhstan Part 1.

Akkistaw, Kazakhstan. 10th July 2014

Reading other overland travellers’ tales, it seems that a visit to Kazakhstan is often included as part of a kind of ‘Stans collective’. Tales I’ve read tell of journeys north from Iran, through the various Stans to Russia. Because I was crossing Russia west to east, with planned visits into Kazakhstan and Mongolia but not any further south, I did not intend to visit any of the other Stans at this time.

Kazakhstan, in context.

Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country and is bigger than Western Europe. So pretty big then. It is also the world’s largest landlocked country. It is a former Soviet Republic and therefore has a large Russian population. In fact Russian is a second official language – useful to me having managed to learn some. Most Kazakhs speak at least some Russian. The country uses the Cyrillic alphabet although the two languages are completely different.

But the Russian influence long pre-dates Soviet times, the country having been ruled by the Tsars since their expansionist activities in the 18th century. It was part of the territory that was fought over during the ‘Great Game’, played out between the Russian and British Empires. Russian settlers were encouraged to move to the country and the nomadic tribes were forced to adopt Russian languages and customs. This led to a surge of nationalistic resistance in the mid 19th century, with violence against settlers and from settlers towards native Kazakhs. The resistance was an attempt to preserve the ancient nomadic and livestock based lifestyle, language and traditions, as well as being about water and land.

Under Soviet rule the country suffered in the same way as many other Soviet Republics. Large numbers of Kazakh nationalists were sent to Siberia and even more Russians were sent to settle there, as were displaced persons from other parts of the USSR. Starvation was common and the native population dropped by nearly 40%. Kazakhstan has deposits of many different minerals, which were exploited by the USSR particularly during WW2. However, when Kruschev came to power he instigated a programme called Virgin Lands, the aim of which was to turn the northern steppe into a huge grain producing area. It had mixed results but it helped maintain Kazakhstan as a mostly agricultural economy.

Along with the rest of the Soviet Republics, Kazakhstan gained its independence from Russia in the early nineties since when it has had, in theory at least, a freely elected government. Unfortunately it doesn’t have a very good international reputation for freedom of expression, media or elections. It also seems to like paying Tony Blair lots of money to enhance its reputation – a bit like asking the previous Pope to support an anti child abuse programme.

Kazakh/Russian border.

Kazakh/Russian border.

As far as I was concerned though, Kazakhstan was a welcoming place, at least in terms of getting into it. I’d left the hotel without breakfast as there wasn’t anybody around to supply it. Arriving at the border I got through both sets of customs remarkably quickly. The two countries share a common customs regime, making things pretty simple. The border post was very quiet, two trucks, three cars and me. Speedy enough.

Unlike the places I visited in Europe, there aren’t museums and castles to see, or many sites of historical interest. Kazakhstan has some natural beauty to explore but in many ways my thrills were going to be gained from simply being there. My loose plan was to head south to Almaty, the city in the south of the country that used to be the capital. In 1998 it was decided to move the capital northwards, closer to Russia, to the city of Astana. After Almaty my plan was to loop east and then north, to Astana where I had a contact. A friend of Andrey, my Moscow friend, lived there and I planned to visit him. We’d been in touch via Facebook and he was ready to play the host. After that I was heading back to Russia.

Once through border control I found a collection of buildings where various people were ready to supply the essential needs of the traveller. Insurance for the bike – one month for RU1,000. Exchange Roubles for Tienge – one Rouble bought five Tienge. That wasn’t a bad rate considering the official one was 5.4 to 1. Good enough until I could find an ATM. A café for coffee and a snack was next, following which I felt ready to see what this new country was going to throw at me. Wondering which of the two different views of the roads I’d received would prove to be the most accurate, I set off for the nearest big town of Atiraw, over 330kms away.

Well, the Russian biker who said to fit my off road tyres had a valid point. At first the road was OK but not long after leaving the border it turned to potholed, broken tarmac. I was doing my best to dodge them but it’s never possible to avoid them all. It was giving the suspension a real test and in fairness, Doris handled it quite well. Or so I thought. The rough road went on for about 30kms before it got better, then it carried on with rough/smooth/rough/smooth all the way along. At one point there was a sign saying ‘Uneven road for 30kms’. I thought ‘Why now?’ This was followed by one of the smoothest sections of road so far!

Afternoon ladies!

Afternoon ladies!

The landscape was very bare, mostly sandy and dry. I saw herds of Bactrian Camels. There were a number of villages, some consisting almost entirely of mud huts. Towns were small to non existent. The fields had hay piled up, obviously harvested by hand. They reminded of pictures I’d seen of rural life in the fifties. Oh yes, I nearly forgot to say – it was scorchio!

As I neared the point where I was going to have to refuel I noticed that my rev counter was acting up, the needle swinging from one end of the dial to the other. ‘Is a broken rev counter the first casualty of Kazakh roads’ I wondered? When I stopped for petrol an old fella filled it up for me. Not something I normally like but he wouldn’t let me do it. When I’d paid I went to start the bike – no go! The warning lights weren’t coming on so there was clearly an electrical failure. So I pushed the bike into the shade, took off my riding gear, sat down on a piece of wood and ate some lunch while I contemplated.

The obvious thing to do was to check the battery connections and the fuse (these older bikes only have one). So I fought my way through everything that was strapped on to the bike and discovered a blown fuse. I replaced it, it didn’t immediately blow again so I reassembled everything. Easy Peasy! I rode round to the café next door, drank a coffee, ate a Snickers and set off. The bike stalled before I got out of the car park because I’d forgotten to turn the fuel back on and what do you know, the same fault. So I pushed it back and did the same repair again. This time the fuse blew before I’d even put the bits back on. OK, time to approach this properly. There was obviously something shorting out and I needed to apply some proper diagnostic techniques which, to be honest, I should have done in the first place. Long story short it turned out that some extra wiring I’d fitted wasn’t as securely fixed as I’d thought. The rough roads led to extreme suspension movement and the tyre had rubbed through this wiring. A proper repair this time had me on the way again. I’m sure the various people who walked in and out of the café wondered what the old foreign fellah was up to, kneeling beside his bike and muttering. At times, so did I!

The Road Surface Formerly Known as Tarmac.

The Road Surface Formerly Known as Tarmac.

The time the repair cost me meant I wasn’t going to get to Atiraw that night so I stopped in a small town and asked about a hotel. The message I got was ‘not here but there’s a town about 30km further on that has one’. Good enough for me so I kept on until I reached a town called Aqqistaw. I stopped at a shop to ask a guy who was unloading his van and he seemed to be a bit confused about whether there was one 30km away or 1km. Just then a woman came to the shop, heard what was going on and said ’Follow me’. So I did and she led me to a nice hotel where I got a room. After getting out of my sweaty riding gear I went downstairs and enjoyed a nice meal. Afterwards the receptionist relieved me of T8,000, to cover the room, meal and breakfast, smiling sweetly as she took all my remaining money. When I arrived in Kazakhstan I’d had the impression that things would be quite cheap so I was a bit shocked by this but when I worked it out, at an exchange rate of about T310 to the pound, it was £25 for an en suite room and two meals. Not as bad as it seemed at first and when I’d arrived I hadn’t asked about or negotiated the price, so I only had myself to blame. But it did seem like a lot of money in a country that sells petrol at 37p per litre. The owner of the hotel insisted I put my bike in the stairwell that led up to the rooms, even though I thought it would be safe enough around the back of the hotel. It was a bit of a struggle but we did it in the end.

Friendly Kazakh, plus Ural.

Friendly Kazakh, plus Ural.

Local Fauna? A Nodding Donkey.

Local Fauna? A Nodding Donkey.

Reflections on my first day in such a different country were numerous. Although Russia has many differences to Europe, and all the countries in Europe have differences to each other, they are all similar in the appearance and the behaviour of the people and the way they live their lives. Kazakhstan takes you outside of this zone of similarity in a big way. Obviously people look different, with a light brown skin colouring and black hair. Facially they start to look more Eastern, probably closer to Turkish than anything else. There do seem to be some slight, probably tribal, differences between some people. But the whole approach to, and nature of, life changes as soon as you cross the border from Russia.

A run down of my first impressions goes like this. The north of the country is HOT, mostly barren and undeveloped. Facilities are distinctly third world. Toilets are just a hole in the ground surrounded by a shed, except for in large buildings in towns. Most properties in towns don’t have running water. People have to go to a standpipe in the street, the exception being, once more, large buildings. Outside of towns people seem to scratch a living from the land and some do look very poor. Having said that there are plenty of businesses along the roads. Every petrol station had a café next to it and there was often two of each depending on the need. There are some nice cars around, big 4×4’s very often, so there’s clearly money to be had. In the towns it seemed that everybody had a car, very necessary as they tended to be very spread out. I would often see people at the side of the road thumbing a lift and I learned later that they would happily pay the driver if he insisted.

The 'facilities' could be described as 'basic'.

The ‘facilities’ could be described as ‘basic’.

But the biggest impression by far was made by my contact with Kazakh people. They are so friendly and, when needed, helpful too. Drivers would toot and wave at me as they went past, the passenger sometimes leaning out of the car window to take a photo. At petrol stations they would come up to me, shake my hand and ask ‘Atkuda?’ Where from? Then ask ‘Kuda?’. Where to? When I told them they seemed impressed. My story would often elicit the question ‘How old?’ And they would then look at me in amazement when I told them. Occasionally someone would be able to speak a bit of English so the conversation would be a bit deeper. I thoroughly enjoyed these moments of contact, feeling that I was getting under the skin of the country a bit, rather than just passing across it.

So after such an eventful first day, what would the next days bring to me as I headed south? Well plenty as it happens. However, I’m not going to give a day by day, blow by blow account as that would just take too long and probably bore the pants off you. So I propose to tell you about the highs and the lows.

Why bother stating the obvious?

Why bother stating the obvious?

I made my way to Atiraw, a sizeable city rather than a town, where I found the now very much needed ATM. I was impressed by the standard of this big commercial centre. The roads were neatly laid out, with flower tubs along the central reservation, and many of the buildings were large, multi storey affairs. Clearly there was a lot of investment taking place. Quite a change from the dusty towns I’d seen so far. It had traffic lights! Something I’d not seen for a while. Like the ones in Russia, these had countdown displays for both drivers and pedestrians, something that’s very useful but that can also act like Grand Prix starting lights. If you’re crossing the road make sure you get to the other side before you run out of time!

At over 310  Tienge to the pound,drawing out cash now involved big numbers and some ATM’s don’t give out enough. T10,000 is only just over £30, not much in a cash based economy. With my bank charging me withdrawal fees too, it paid me to draw as much money out as I could in one go so I sometimes had to search for ATM’s that would allow me to draw out T50,000 rather than a measly T10,000.

While I was stopped I changed out of my heavy, black riding jacket into a lightweight motocross style jersey, made from mesh but with anti abrasion panels on it. The difference in comfort was incredible and I was much cooler. When I was deciding on what riding gear to use for this trip I decided to buy a special shirt that had body armour built into it and then dispense with the armour in my riding jacket. The idea was that, as now, I could wear an outer layer that suited the temperature and still stay safe. Mid thirties temperatures proved that was a wise decision.

The road out of Atiraw was good but I soon came to some roadworks. The road was blocked, and they wouldn’t let me sneak past the barrier, so I was forced onto the diversion route, down the embankment onto a sandy track. I hate riding in sand and to prove it I fell off. Only at low speed and only my pride was hurt, but I struggled to pick the bike up until a passing motorist stopped to help.

This system, I was to learn, was the norm at roadworks, so plenty more sandy challenges to look forward to.

Typical diversion route.

Typical diversion route.

At a lunchtime coffee break in one of the roadside cafés the young lad there gave me some fermented camel’s milk, telling me it was Kazakhstan’s national drink. I was happy to try it and it wasn’t bad. I don’t think I’d chase after it but it was quite drinkable, with a bit of a buzz to it.

At the next town I came to the road just disappeared into a maze of dusty streets, something that often happened. Eventually I asked a couple of guys where the road out of town was and they pointed in a direction that seemed completely wrong. They insisted the road looped around so I took them at their word and found that at the edge of town the road just disappeared into the scrub land. Well, I came to Kazakhstan to follow the road less travelled and here it was, so I rode out, following the twin wheel tracks which, if nothing else, did at least go in the right direction. After a while the track began to run parallel to a raised embankment where roadworks were taking place, clearly the main road I sought. Soon after the track joined this nice new road and I was away. But not for long. The road deteriorated into the ‘Road Surface Formerly Known as Tarmac’ that I’d become so familiar with. And it stayed that way for the next 150kms. Poor old Doris! She took a real hammering. When Kazakh roads get like this drivers usually create an alternative track alongside of the road, sometimes one on each side. After about 100kms I decided to try one of these. I’d been reluctant up to now because of my ‘off’ earlier. Stopping for a drink I decided to check my luggage straps and found, to my heart sinking horror, that one of my bags and slipped out from the straps and fallen off the rear rack. The straps hadn’t been quite tight enough for this super rough road. When I’d put it on earlier I’d ignored my own rule of making sure the securing straps went through the webbing straps on this bag, which would have left it loose but still attached. My horror was because this bag contained my second passport, a significant amount of cash and all my bike documents. This was a disaster! There was nothing for it but to turn back and ride in my wheel tracks as much as possible, hoping to find it. I rode on the wrong side of the road in case it had fallen down the embankment. After about nine or ten kilometres a car coming towards me stopped and two guys got out and were waving my bag at me. It’s almost impossible to say how pleased I was and how grateful I was to these two young, helpful and honest Kazakhs. They had the sense to check it was actually mine by asking the name in the passport but I’m sure they knew it was anyway. I gave them some money to thank them, which they gladly took and had definitely earned. Kazakhstan is nominally a Muslim country and these guys looked the part, so I wasn’t so surprised at their honesty and anyway, it seemed to fit with my general impression of the people. The milk of human kindness flows deep in Kazakhstan!

My Saviours.

My Saviours.

Now very carefully reattached, my luggage, bike and I carried on along the side track until I half slipped off again in a muddy puddle, but I was able to right the bike and carry on. Until I came to another muddy puddle and dumped it properly this time. Even after removing the luggage I still couldn’t pick it up. I waved at passing vehicles, now all up on the original road, until a trucker stopped and came over to help me, telling me I should be back on the road. ‘But it’s very rough’ I said. ‘This is far worse and you shouldn’t be here’ he gesticulated. Chastened, I reloaded the bike, everything, including me, covered in slimy clay mud and rejoined the main road.

Further on I came to a garage and asked about a hotel and he pointed to a place just down the road. This turned out to be some kind of trucker’s overnight roadhouse, which provided food and very small, very basic rooms. A six foot wide cell with two beds in it, but for a fairly small, basic price. I was happy to indulge, especially after the previous night’s financial shock. T2,000 for the meal and the bed. Good enough for me. The young girl who was helping her mother by serving the food spoke a little English but clammed up when I tried to engage her in conversation.

Small room but equally small price.

Small room but equally small price.

Washing facilities at my truck stop hotel. This was a common sight in all roadside establishments.

Washing facilities at my truck stop hotel. This was a common sight in all roadside establishments.

Two days into my journey through this country I’m starting to form some definite impressions. The north West area is a vast, featureless desert. It’s reckoned to be so flat that you can see the curvature of the earth. All I know is that every time you reach a horizon, there’s another one beyond it. The people are not wealthy and the towns are dusty and very spread out. Many of the roads are appalling although there is clearly a massive road building programme under way and, judging by the signs at the roadworks, there’s Chinese money involved in it. A bend is something to be celebrated, just to relieve the boredom of endless straight roads. A hill is unheard of and, at times, so is asphalt. Some of the main roads between towns are stone and dirt. Some routes, as I discovered, have just disappeared into the desert, necessitating long diversions.

Chinese involvement in the road upgrade schemes.

Chinese involvement in the road upgrade schemes.

Getting petrol can be good fun or a challenge, depending on your point of view. You can get 80, 92 and sometimes 96 octane. 80 is OK for the ancient Ladas and Urals that many drive. 92 is fine for my bike and most modern cars, 96 is reserved for the rich man’s motor, of which there were a surprisingly large number considering how poor the area is. There is clearly a modernisation programme under way as many of the petrol stations are new, often with mini markets attached. The prices appear to be fixed as there was never any difference from one place to another. T115 was the price for 92 grade and diesel, about 37p per litre.

Two Germans I met at one of the petrol stations.

Two Germans I met at one of the petrol stations.

As with Russia, you have to pay before you get fuel. You have to either  specify how many litres you want and which grade, or just hand over some money and state the grade. The cashier will set the pump accordingly. Neither of these methods worked for me because I always wanted to fill up my tank (it only holds 16 litres) but I never knew how much it would take. So I’d developed the method of giving the cashier more then enough money to fill up and then saying, in my best Russian, ‘I don’t know how many litres’. This was invariably good enough to get the pump turned on and all I needed to do was go back for my change after I’d filled up. Sometimes I had to move my bike off the pump first if there was someone waiting to use it because usually a driver would just get in and go once they’d finished. There had only been two occasions when this system almost didn’t work. One was where the old guy at the cash desk thought he was going to keep my change. I soon ‘changed’ his mind on that score. The second one was where the woman got a bit wound up when I gave her money but didn’t specify how many litres I wanted. Another driver put her straight for me but she had a real moan at me when I went back for my change. She obviously hadn’t heard of the Geoff Method. She has now. I also kept my spare can full as the petrol stations were getting further apart.

Typical roadside cafe.

Typical roadside cafe.

But one good thing was the invariable presence of a café near the petrol station so refuelling both bike and rider could be done at one place. These cafés were very basic but were always clean. The menus were limited but there was always a soup, a main dish and sometimes a sweet, although not often. I usually had Borsch or soup, which invariably had lamb (mutton?), noodles and veg in it, followed by Plov, Goulash or, if I was really lucky, Shashlik. Along with some bread to go with the soup, one of these meals was all I needed for the day. One thing was for sure, you got to like lamb! Whenever I could I bought some fruit from the roadside stalls that proliferated in the towns and villages and I always had a pack of biscuits in my bag to nibble on. All the shops and many garages sold these in unbranded bags, cheap and plentiful. The other nice snack I discovered was packets of roasted Sunflower seeds. These are really nice and there’s no need to remove the seed from the pod so it’s unfussy to eat.

One final memorable event before I close this chapter. Arriving in a town called Emba, I asked some guys about a hotel and they pointed to a place down the road. It turned out to be a restaurant and was closed anyway. While I was outside wondering what to do a young guy pulled up in his car and wanted to take me to a Banya (Russian style sauna). This wasn’t a pick up line, he was just being friendly to a foreigner. He then invited me to stay at his ‘apartment’ and rang up an English speaking friend to translate for me. In the end he took me to some kind of truck repair yard where his younger and older brother lived in a small building inside. He had a home somewhere else with his wife. To be honest the place was a dump but I wasn’t about to turn down such friendly generosity and it was getting too late to find anywhere else, assuming there was somewhere else to go anyway. These guys were Chechen, and one of them had a phone with a translator programme in it which allowed him to speak into the phone, then show me the written translation of what he had said. I’d never seen this before and it enabled us to communicate quite effectively. I had a decent enough sleep and was grateful to these brothers for their hospitality, especially as I think my presence forced one of them to sleep in a truck. But I was discovering this was typical of Kazakhstan, confirming the view that the less people had the more they often give.

My Chechen hosts, Zaur and Maganed.

My Chechen hosts, Zaur and Maganed.

More to follow soon with a bit of local culture to finish off this section.

One of the few mosques I saw.

One of the few mosques I saw.

Statue celebrating a couple of national heroes.

Statue celebrating a couple of national heroes.

Roadside sculpture.

Roadside sculpture.

Volgograd. So Good They (Re) Named it Twice.

Lepitsk, Russia. 7th July 2014.

When I was planning this journey (‘There’s a plan’ I hear you ask in astonishment?) there were three of Russia’s major cities I wanted to see. St Petersburg and Moscow for obvious reasons, but also Volgograd, better known to many as Stalingrad. This city has a unique place in Russian history and folklore, being the rock upon which Hitler’s ship of dreams foundered. It is impossible to know what would have happened had he taken the city but he failed to do so because of the heroism, bloody mindedness and sacrifice of the defenders. So my plan was to visit some of the WW2 memorial sites before moving on.

Russia is a BIG country. Soon after crossing the border from Finland I joined the M6 road which then runs all the way south to Volgograd and beyond, taking in St Petersburg and Moscow en route. Almost 2,000 kilometres. I was pleased to be able to ride it in stages with some things to do and places to see on the way. Talking of big, Volgograd must be one of the longest cities there is. It stretches 80 kms along the banks of the Volga River.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, I haven’t even got there yet. It was too far to go in one day so I booked into a hostel in a town called Lepitsk, which had nothing going for it other than its convenient location halfway between where I’d left and where I was going.. The hostel was a converted apartment in a huge housing block but was very nice inside and run by friendly people. In typical Russian fashion, the street number of the address relates to several buildings and it was a case of hunting it down, something I was to become used to as time went by. I’d had an interesting ride down from Moscow, having fun with the traffic and roads. When the traffic snarls up Moscow bikers use the 1 metre wide gap between the outer lane and the central reservation as a personal traffic beating lane, a system I was happy to follow. At one point another biker pulled up alongside me, gave me the thumbs up to check I was OK and after a while pulled into a bus lay by. I assured him I was OK and he took a photo of me before riding off. I’ll be somewhere on Facebook now no doubt.

Lepitsk had served its purpose and once out of the city there were what seemed like endless, although very necessary, roadworks with long stretches of single, alternate lane traffic. I’d leaned how to deal with that already so just got on with it, Russian style. The roads they were replacing were in absolutely appalling condition, really broken up and potholed. As I travelled these roads my respect for Russian truckers grew enormously. Many of their trucks are old and quite crude and the drivers must really take a hammering.
This road surprised me in one respect in that for a distance of about 520kms it didn’t pass through one single town and ran more or less straight as a die. Like I said, Russia is BIG!

I found the hotel I’d booked in Volgograd easily enough and I had a nice room to myself at a very reasonable RU650. I also pre-paid for dinner and breakfast, which were quite cheap. When I ate them I discovered why. They were refectory type meals, served canteen style although still good enough. I got the impression the hotel caters for large groups of youngsters. It seems to be focused on tennis judging by the number of courts there were.

Next morning the receptionist helped me to locate the two places I wanted to visit on the town map and gave me instructions as to which trolleybus to get and from where. Fortunately she spoke English very well so everything went smoothly. On Russian public transport the common system seems to be one price per journey, as was the case on the Moscow Metro. On busses you pay the conductress, RU18 in this case, very reasonable for a journey that took nearly forty minutes.

Steps leading up to the memorials. The slogan says 'For Our Soviet Motherland.'

Steps leading up to the memorials. The slogan says ‘For Our Soviet Motherland.’

My first destination was the memorial site on Mamayev Hill. During the battle for the city this place changed hands eight times. There are a whole variety of memorials, the main one being ‘The Motherland Calls’ statue. It is the figure of a woman calling the sons of the Motherland to fight in its defence. It is eighty metres high, including the sword, and looks pretty spectacular. The other big statue is of a soldier, gun in one hand, grenade in the other. The inscription includes the famous words of the General leading the defence: No Step Backwards, Stand to Death! These words were reckoned to have given extra determination to the defenders. There’s a cylindrical building which contains an eternal flame and on its walls are the names of those who died. There’s a whole host of other artwork around the statues, most of it in typical Soviet style. There’s never any doubt about what any of these displays are trying to say to you. ‘Subtle’ is not an applicable word.

Motherland Statue and a defender.

Motherland Statue and a defender.

 

Eternal flame surrounded by names of the fallen.

Eternal flame surrounded by names of the fallen.

One of the battle scenes on the wall carvings.

One of the battle scenes on the wall carvings.

One of the wall etchings on the outside of the building.

One of the wall etchings on the outside of the building.

More 'Soviet Realism' statuary. It makes its point!

More ‘Soviet Realism’ statuary. It makes its point!

My second destination was the museum, Panorama Stalinngrad Battle. I enjoyed a hot thirty minute walk to this location and on the way was interested to see a football stadium that seemed to be hosting some kind of 2018 World Cup promotion event. ‘Blimey’ I thought, ‘the current one isn’t even finished yet!’

Nothing like being ahead of the game.

Nothing like being ahead of the game.

The museum is at the same location as the infamous factory where German and Russian troops fought a hand to hand battle to win control of the city. The factory was ruined by shelling and has been left in that condition as a memorial. Unfortunately it was closed off for works so I couldn’t visit it. That was a great shame as I remember it vividly from the film Stalingrad and would loved to have seen inside it.

The ruined mill, shelled almost to destruction and left as a permanent memorial.

The ruined mill, shelled almost to destruction and left as a permanent memorial.

The museum, though, was excellent. Once I’d got in past the unhelpful girl at the cash desk, but helped by the guy at the audio guide desk, I was able to walk around the eight halls of exhibits and became fascinated by them, even though none of the descriptions were in English. The audio guide filled that gap for most of them and it was interesting to see the the rifle of, and information about, Vasily Zaytsev, the famous sniper depicted in the film Enemy at the Gate.

Vasiliy Zaytsev. Sniper rifle and citations.

Vasiliy Zaytsev. Sniper rifle and citations.

 The story of the battle was well told and there were plenty of artefacts from it as well as paintings and memorabilia such as weapons, medals, uniforms and so on. There were also some gifts from various countries sent in acknowledgement of the city’s heroic stand including a ceremonial sword from King George VI, the jewelled Sword of Stalingrad.

One of the memorabilia displays.

One of the memorabilia displays.

And another one.

And another one.

There'll always a motorbike in there somewhere, never fear.

There’ll always a motorbike in there somewhere, never fear.

One of the gifts sent to the city. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in conference.

One of the gifts sent to the city. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in conference.

The display continued on an upper floor where there is a famous panoramic painting of various battle scenes. It is quite an amazing piece of artwork, being 120 metres long by 16 metres high. It gives a completely different perspective that of a flat panel and worked very well. There was a guide explaining the different scenes to a group of students and I wished I’d been able to understand what she said.

Part of the Panorama artwork.

Part of the Panorama artwork.

Outside were some period armaments – planes, tanks, even a train. The whole complex was very well organised I thought, and was well worth the visit. I’d wanted to gain a greater understanding of these events from a point of view other than films and I felt I’d succeeded. I heard later that the communist mayor is trying to get the name of the city changed back to Stalingrad and apparently has the support of over 50% of the population. I wonder if he’ll succeed? As it is, the city is entitled to refer to itself as Stalingrad on nine days of the year, all of which relate to WW2 events. The name was changed to Volgograd by Kruschev as part of hi de-Stalinisation programme.

Trains and Tanks and Planes …. on display outside.

P1000523

P1000519

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The battle itself started on 23rd August 1942 and lasted until 2nd February 1943. The Germans bombed the city to rubble before attempting to occupy it. Although they’d managed to take ninety percent of it by early November they failed to overcome two small pockets of resistance. This gave the Soviet army time to launch a huge counter attack which eventually led to the encirclement and defeat of the German 6th Army. General Paulus surrendered on the 31st January. It’s reckoned that this battle caused the greatest number of casualties of any single battle in the history of warfare – around 1.5 million.
Stalin awarded the city the status of Hero City and, as mentioned, honours flowed in from around the world, not only from governments but also from other cities which has suffered badly during the war, Coventry being one of them. The memorials on Mamyev Hill were constructed in the 1960’s. The Panoramic Museum was opened under its present guise in 1981 although it had been a museum since 1937. It was originally opened to celebrate the freeing of the city from White Russian forces in 1923 at which time the city’s name was changed from Tsaritsyn to Stalingrad in honour of Stalin’s role in those events.
Volgograd/Stalingrad/Tsaritsyn has a history dating back to the late 16th century when it was established as a fortress to protect Russia from forces invading from the south. Therefore there are many other historical sites from across the ages I could have visited but unfortunately I didn’t have the time. I had chosen to concentrate just on WW2 events and I felt I had achieved that by visiting two of the main sites out of the many available. Job done!

The next day I set off south again, hoping that it would be my last day in Russia for a while. And it would have been too had it not been for a town called Astrakhan. The day started well and once I’d finally left Volgograd behind the road became straight and flat, although not busy. The trucks and cars were getting older and I noticed peoples faces were changing, getting more Asian/Mongol. Stopping for fuel, I went to use the toilet only to be confronted with a shed whose floor had a hole over a deep hole in the ground. Things were definitely getting more, shall we say, ‘rural’. I noticed that the ground looked a little boggy alongside the road and when I checked my Sat Nav I saw the elevation was 50 metres below sea level. No wonder! It shouldn’t have come as a surprise really as the Volga River spreads its wet tentacles across a wide area south of the city as it forms a huge delta before reaching the Caspian Sea.
So all was going well until I came to bloody Astrakhan. Just another sprawling Russian city with little by way of useful signposts, and roads that all seemed to go nowhere very much. My intention for finding the route to Kazakhstan had been to navigate my way to the nearest town to the border at which point I’d have been on the road I needed. The flaw in that plan was that the Sat Nav mapping didn’t list any of them. You’d think that getting out of a town onto a border road would be easy but it seems that Russian road planners don’t want you to leave the country. There were no signs that helped me and the one road my compass bearings suggested would get me there was closed for repairs. After much more riding round in circles I somehow managed to get the Sat Nav to recognise one of the towns between Astrakhan and the border and was on my way – at long last!

But it was getting late by now and I needed a place to stay. To my surprise the road went via a ferry and there was another biker on it. I managed to get him to understand what I wanted and, after consulting with another guy, he was able to lead me to a local hotel. Fantastic, and once again I was rescued by the great biker family. With some hot food inside me and a bed to sleep in I felt ready for anything Kazakhstan could throw at me.