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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.