Novosibirsk to Mongolia.

Novosibersk, Russia. 31st August 2014.

Getting to Novosibirsk gave me some breathing space and one of the things I needed to do was to service Doris and fit the new front tyre. I needed a place at which to do it so I contacted Stas, a Russian guy whose details I’d got from the Horizons Unlimited website. I wasn’t sure how he’d respond to a text from a crazy foreigner out of the blue but he replied straight away saying to text him again the next day and he’d see what he could do. In the meantime I started working on an itinerary for my visit to Mongolia. There’s a huge amount of information on the internet and I needed to whittle it down to manageable proportions and work out a route. I had a quite decent map too, which had plenty of tourist information on it. It showed places such as hot springs, rock carvings, cave paintings and so on. I didn’t have any GPS maps for the country but it was easy enough to get coordinates for various places off the internet. The GPS would then give me a compass bearing to follow.

I had a couple of stilted conversations with some of the residents at the hostel, via some broken English and Russian, and aided by Google Translator. The main topic concerned the activities of Mr Putin. One older guy was going on and on, talking at me rather than to me, and he mentioned England, Germany and America several times. I answered very diplomatically as I had the impression that the Russian media had been winding up the populace a bit. I didn’t want to fall foul of resentful international relations.

I sent a text to Tanya, whom I’d met in Omsk, but she was too busy with her studies to meet me. I also sent a text to Elena, whom I’d met in Kyrgyzstan. Her son, Dimitry, replied on her behalf and we arranged that he would come to collect me when he’d finished work the next day to take me back to his parents place.

I texted Stas again to try to arrange for getting the work done on my bike but got no reply. That left me in a bit of a quandary as I didn’t know whether to wait for him to get in touch or try to sort something out myself. I had information about a bike shop in the city, NBS Motors, which I would go to if all else failed. I would leave it for a day to give Stas a chance to respond to me. I felt it would be a bit churlish to ask someone for help and then go elsewhere before they’d had a chance to act.

I spent a bit of time walking around the local shops, picking up some supplies and continued to research my route to, and around, Mongolia. It was all coming together well. Dimitry came round soon after 6pm and took me on the forty minute drive back to their apartment. You’ll often hear about the bad standard of driving in Russia but I have to say that I find Russian drivers mostly well disciplined and considerate towards each other although they do tend to ‘go for it’ as soon as a red light changes to green. I suppose the only thing a bike rider has to watch out for is that drivers will sometimes take advantage of your small size by overtaking you on the inside. Occasionally I’d get overtaken on both sides at once! A cross city journey did nothing to change the general good impression though.

I was welcomed into Elana and Vadim’s home with warmth and pleasure. We were very pleased to see each other again. They live in a very nice, large apartment, clearly decorated with Elena’s womanly touch, and very comfortable. I met Masha, their daughter. She’s at university studying engineering, specifically related to bridges and tunnels. Dimitry, who is twenty four, has already completed the same degree. He has travelled widely, building bridges and tunnels all over Russia and nearby countries. He has now moved on from the construction side and is more involved in negotiation and management. Vadim used to be in the military but is now head of personnel for the local authority. Elena was university educated and works in administration.
We ate Palmeni, a Siberian dish and similar to Ravioli. They asked lots of questions about my journey and Dimitry took the details of my blog. I asked Elena if she would have come and spoken to me in Torsor if the others had still been there. She said she had wanted to say hello to me but deliberately waited until I was alone. I rest my case!
Vadim asked me which I liked most, St. Petersburg or Moscow? He was surprised when I said Moscow. I explained that I preferred it because it was more related to the real Russia whereas St. Pete, although very beautiful, only related to the history of the Tsars.

I discovered some other interesting things.
Their pension age is currently 60/55 but they expect that to rise because there are getting to be more old people than young, similar to most of Europe.
Students have to pay for their degrees although some will go free on merit. There is a loan scheme but fees are nowhere near as high as those in England and Wales. It seems that some degrees are very specific to the chosen career, which strikes me as a bit limiting. Masha said she is unlikely to do the work her degree relates to. She said she’s not very good at the maths ‘because I’m a girl’. I told her off a little bit saying it was nothing to do with that, it was just the way it was. She seemed to appreciate that.
Wages are about two thirds of those of the UK and prices of goods are proportionally similar. That’s one of the reasons why cheaper countries such as Kyrgyzstan are so popular as holiday destinations for Russians. They were quite surprised at how high the UK average wage is. I said there were many poor people but the average was disproportionately high because of the number of super rich people.
They are all happy that Putin took over The Crimea. He is far more popular now than he used to be. I pointed out that leaders with internal problems are not averse to taking external actions that will boost their popularity. They understood what I meant but I’m not sure they agreed with me.
Most of the large apartment blocks are heated by District Heating Systems. These tend to be cheaper and more efficient but the downside is they shut them down for maintenance for a week, twice a year.

The Gogolev family. Dimitri, Vadim, Masha, Elena.

The Gogolev family. Dimitri, Vadim, Masha, Elena.

I was very impressed by a piece of technology that Dimitry had on his car. Russian car dealers will install a system that will start the engine automatically at regular intervals to stop it freezing up. Perhaps every two or three hours, depending on conditions. Additionally, the driver can start the engine remotely so the car is warm when he gets out to it. Their apartment is on the 14th floor and the car was parked nearly 100 metres from the main entrance. Before we left Dimitry pressed a button on the remote key fob and when we got to the car it was nice and warm. That’s an amazing range of operation. I imagine similar technology is used in other cold parts of the world too.
One final moment of pleasure to recall was when Elena said they were going on a Volga boat cruise next summer and would I like to go with them? I was stunned! What a fantastic offer but I had to turn it down as I expect to be on the other side of the world. But I promised them I would do my best to return for another visit one day. They are all lovely people and it was a privilege to spend time with them.
I stayed the night there and next morning Dimitry dropped me back at the hostel. I told him I was going out to look for NBS Motors and he said to call him if I needed any help as he had a biker friend he would contact who he was sure would be able to suggest somewhere that would help me.

Later on, armed with an address programmed into my GPS and an English speaking contact at the shop, I went off in search of NBS Motors. As I may have said before, finding Russian addresses is an adventure in itself. Theirs was Dom 27/5, which meant I had to find number 27 on the street and then hunt around for block or unit 5. The first part went well. I located Dom 27 and started the search. And I searched. And searched some more. And then gave up. I’d found some industrial units which were 27/1. Then, nearby I found some huge new apartment blocks, which were 27/2 and 27/3. After that, the trail ran cold. I scouted around everywhere I could think of but to no avail. So I rang Dimitry and asked him to contact his friend for details of the place he had in mind. Dimitry rang me back and gave me details of …….. NBS Motors!
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but while I was deciding which to choose a guy pulled up in a car beside me and asked me if I was looking for NBS Motors. ‘Yes’ said I. ‘Follow me’ said he. And he led me there. To this day I have no idea how he knew where I was or whether he was sent out by the shop. He didn’t come in with me so maybe it was a lucky coincidence that he guessed what my problem was. I just don’t know. Either way, it was very weird.

Sacha, the shop manager, directed me to a small workshop, having first showed me where the jet wash was. Then he left me to it. As before, I bought oil and other necessary items from the shop but that was all they wanted me to do. No payment was required for the use of their workshop. How fantastic. How generously Russian. I was now all set for my journey into the wilds of Mongolia, meaty front tyre fitted and gearing lowered ready to cope with those tough Mongolian trails. I texted Dimitry to let him know that all went well. Apart from the reply to my first text, I never heard from Stas again.

A roadside emeorial of some kind. I've no idea who to though.

A roadside memorial of some kind. I’ve no idea who to though.

Setting off next day, I stopped to fill up and noticed that the garage had a car parts shop next to it. They sold me a five litre petrol can so now I was re-equipped with a means of carrying spare fuel. I was a happy bunny.
It took two days to ride south to the border. It was only a brief journey from the hostel to the main road out of Novosibirsk and then it was a straight road, mostly single carriageway and 1,00kms long from Novosibirsk to the Mongolian border and beyond. This scenario never ceased to amaze me. This city boy just isn’t used to roads that never seem to end. But it certainly makes navigation easy. I stopped for a bite at a very modern, self service café, very much like a motorway service station. It made me think that this must be a tourist route and that was borne out by the place in which I stopped for the night. I’d by-passed the city of Barnaul and south of there was an area of rivers and lakes that was very much a holiday centre. The buildings and businesses were clearly focused on the holiday trade, with bars, restaurants, hotels and holiday complexes everywhere. In the villages there would be large pull-ins at the side of the road with small stalls selling all kinds of supplies and trinkets. It was probably a bit late in the season but there was still plenty of activity.

Souvenir sellers on a lonely hilltop.

Souvenir sellers on a lonely hilltop.

The nature of the road had changed too. It now wound its way around hills and valleys, crossing fast flowing rivers on its way. No more straight-as-a-die boredom. There was bend swinging to be done and fun to be had in the process.
I’d identified, but not booked, a place to stay and I turned off the main road into the village of Aya to search for it. And I had to search too. The address gave a number on the main road but needless to say it was actually along a back road that ran parallel. Why was I not surprised? But it was a very nice, wood constructed house and the fee included a very nice breakfast.

An Alpine flavour to this lakeside house.

An Alpine flavour to this lakeside house.

The road and scenery continued to be very pleasant but after about 200kms things started to change. I could see mountains ahead and the country gradually got drier. Treeless, rocky hills and dry valley floors. As I passed through some of the valleys I was puzzled by the fact that the hills on one side of the road would have a thick covering of trees and those on the opposite side had none, not one. I could only guess that the wind must blow the soil away from one side but not the other.

I wasn't completely alone on the road.

I wasn’t completely alone on the road.

The border is at a place called Tashanta, which is 20kms from a place called Tashanta. Both are shown on my map. I reached Tashanta No.1 at 17.40. There was the border post, even though the map shows it at Tashanta No.2. Strange. I approached the border guard and he sent me back up the street to an unmarked office to get my passport checked. I went back to him and he told me the border closed at 6pm. I’d guessed as much from the way he’d been looking at his watch earlier. I went and found a café and had some food. I asked the woman about a hotel, not really expecting there to be one in this small and very drab border village. She told me to go to the other café back along the street and ask there. I did that and the woman there directed me to a house across the street, painted the same nice blue and white as the café. They were both owned by the same person and she was there to greet me and show me to a building out the back that had a kind of lounge area and another room with five beds in it.

An Alpine flavour to this lakeside house.

An Alpine flavour to this lakeside house.

It was a cold night in a room with no heating although fortunately there were plenty of blankets. A Russian guy of about my age arrived at 10pm. We chatted a little. He was on his way to Mongolia too but didn’t have a car. He seemed to be about to tackle the country by bus and taxi. I got the feeling he was retired too and was doing a bit of travelling.
I went across to the café for a nice, cheap breakfast. No milk for the tea though, the cows had yet to be milked. I smiled at that. I also reflected that the border post being closed may have done me a favour as I’d otherwise have been in Mongolia, looking for a place to stay, possibly with no Mongolian money. At least I was familiar with the ropes on the Russian side.
Things went smoothly at the border but I had a bit of luck to be thankful for. Russian customs asked me for the form relating to my bike and he was very specific about wanting it. When I finally left Kazakhstan I had intended to clear out all the paperwork I didn’t need any more, a kind of ‘Bonfire of the Insanities’ such was my joy at leaving their bureaucracy behind. Luckily I didn’t. As already mentioned, Russia and Kazhakstan share a common customs area so the vehicle customs form for one is valid in the other. When I told him I wasn’t given a Russian one when I entered from Kaz, he asked me for the Kazakh one, the one I almost threw out! Phew, that was a close shave. They also looked inside one of my panniers, which puzzles me considering I was leaving, not entering, the country. They also asked me if I had any drugs or firearms, something that’s happened before. If anyone did, would they own up?
Leaving there I eventually came to the answer to the Tashanta/Tashanta puzzle. It was 20kms further down the road before I came to the final Russian passport check, at which point I entered no-man’s-land. The crafty Russian officials based their activities in a civilised town rather than in the wilds, 20kms outside it. Very sensible.
It didn’t take long to get into Mongolia. A woman stopped me at the entry point and relieved me of RU50 for the dubious privilege of disinfecting my wheels. She also changed some money for me at forty five Togrug to the Ruble. A pretty poor rate but I knew I’d need some.
As soon as I left the border post a guy waved me down, indicating I should pull in to a red STOP area. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, and didn’t look like an official, but you never know so I complied. He was selling insurance and the crafty so-and-so just wanted to be sure I didn’t pass by without buying it. I didn’t mind as a month’s worth cost just over £4. Good to have even though I was confident it would never get asked for.

The other side of the border wasn't any better.

The other side of the border wasn’t any better.

Other bike travellers have used this money changer too.

Other bike travellers have used this money changer too.

I stopped at a café to find it closed and a young guy indicated I should follow him to a different one. This place was actually another ‘border flop house’, albeit a much warmer one. I was presented with chai and then asked if I wanted to change any money. Ah, now we come to the real reason for the attention. Well as it happened I did. He initially offered me the same rate as the disinfectant woman had, 45/1, but I talked him up to 48/1. When I offered him a 5,000 rouble note he was a bit taken aback and had to go and find Big Daddy and get him to open his treasure chest. The chai was free though.

Mongolia, at last.

Mongolia, at last.

And so begins the Mongolian adventure.

Omsk and Astana.

Omsk, Russia. 17th August 2014.

I spent nine days in Omsk waiting for Kazakh post to bother themselves to deliver my package. What a waste of time and money. I had investigated using a courier service to get it delivered but chose the cheaper option, in my ignorance. Well, this time ignorance was not bliss. It was frustrating, expensive and pointless. I probably spent as much in accommodation as I saved on courier fees, maybe more. The bigger cost was in time. Two weeks delay. But there was nothing I could do.
My time there wasn’t totally wasted. I went for a look around Omsk. The city has a bit of history. It was founded in 1716 as a military base and was, for a brief period, the capital of Western Siberia. Now, it’s a bustling city of 1.1 million people. The transport system is good, with buses, trolley buses and mini buses, which seem to swarm all over the place like bees around a hive. Some of the mini buses are quite new, others fit into the ‘on its last legs’ category. I’m guessing many of the drivers are self employed. They’re all licensed though and clearly provide a crucial service.
I caught a trolley bus into the city. The typical layout of Russian cities means that the streets can be very long. The hostel was about two thirds of the way along Karla Marxa Ulitsa, at number 84. Number 2 is about 3kms away, towards the city centre. I was glad I decided not to walk! At RU18 for the fare it would have been daft not to take it anyway.

Something to do with the fire service.

Something to do with the fire service.

 

 

The city centre had a few interesting old buildings to gaze at but nothing particularly inspiring, just pleasant. The Orthodox cathedral had been recently rebuilt, the original one having been ‘Stalinised’, i.e. torn down. I was disappointed to see that on the iconography inside all the faces were white. They’d caught the Catholic disease.

The rebuilt Orthodox cathedral.

The rebuilt Orthodox cathedral.

I went for a walk up one of the city’s long streets looking for some old wooden houses mentioned by Wikipedia, original and rare, from the 18th century. After a long hike, to where the road was lined more by trees than buildings, I gave up.

Park Life.

Park Life.

I’d passed several parks on the way and went into one to sit and eat some lunch. I noticed some people looking at something and realised it was a Red Squirrel. He seemed quite unfazed by the people watching him and ran about quite happily for a while. I was pleased to have got some great photos as I think it’s the first one I’ve ever seen outside of captivity.

Cute little fella ....

Cute little fella ….

.... munching his nuts.

…. munching his nuts.

I walked back towards the hostel, across the river, and found a park with the usual Soviet style war memorials in it, including statues to various people. Some kind of heroes’ square.

Typical Soviet style war memorial.

Typical Soviet style war memorial.

I was just about to catch a bus back when I noticed a side street that seemed to have some interesting buildings in it. The street was pedestrianised and was named after a Kazakh, Chokan Valikhanov, who had become a national hero. He had been sent to a Cossack military training school as a cadet and had risen up through the ranks. He became very prominent in Russian/Kazakh diplomatic relations during the 19th century, as well as being an explorer of some note, but had died of TB at age 29. By then he had become a Kazakh national hero. Not only was the street named after him but it was also the location of the Kazakh consulate. The buildings there were older than most in the area so made good photography subjects.

Old style Siberian building, all wood.

Old style Siberian building, all wood.

A number of interesting people passed through the hostel while I was staying there. Tanya is a student at Novosibirsk university and was in Omsk for medical appointments. She speaks good English and was chatting to me about my travels. She wanted my blog details, which I was pleased to give her. She gave me her phone number, insisting that I contact her when I visit Novosibirsk.
Another one was Gali, a woman in her fifties from Ulan Ude. She was here to help her seventeen year old son settle in to the university, it being his first time away from home. One evening she was berating me for spending so much time inside so I said to her ‘OK, let’s go for a walk – right now!’ So we went for a pleasant evening stroll down by the river, which made a pleasant change from staring at four walls and a computer screen.
Eduard, a guy in his fifties who was in my dorm, made some soup one evening, which we all shared. Another guy came in one evening with a huge watermelon, which, again, we all shared. Typical acts of Russian generosity. I thought I ought to contribute to this virtuous circle so whenever I visited the supermarket I would bring back a big bar of chocolate, break it up and leave it out for people to pick at.
Sacha, the young woman who ran reception, was very helpful to me. She split her time between the hostel and studying tourism at the university. I needed to post a form back to each of the two credit card companies regarding the illegal usage. She brought me in a couple of envelopes, which I addressed in the usual British style, and went across to the post office. I had practised the phrases I thought I’d need, such as ‘Airmail’ and ‘First class’. I was wasting my time. I offered them to the clerk and she made it clear that I’d filled the envelope in wrong. I was supposed to put the address on the small lines provided rather than write it in large letters across the middle. An English speaking woman in the queue behind me explained it all to me and suggested I bring a Russian speaker with me when I came back. So I bought two more envelopes and left with my tail between my legs. Sacha came to the rescue, offering to come back over with me. We filled out the envelopes properly and tried again. The other woman was right when she said I would need a Russian speaker as there were plenty of supplementary questions to be answered. I then learnt that they were likely to take at least a month to get to England, maybe even two. Russia Post is a bit of a standing joke apparently. By way of saying ‘Thanks’ I bought a couple of Lotto tickets and gave them to Sacha. Top prize, one million Roubles. Worth about £20,000 in the unlikely event that she won. She seemed pleased though.
A woman named Inna came to the hostel one day. It transpired she and Sacha are friends and both are from Kazakhstan but of Russian origin. It seems that people who can only speak Russian are finding it much harder to get meaningful work in Kazakhstan since it became independent, so they returned ‘home’. They need to be able to speak Kazakh too, which struck me as being quite fair. Inna now owns three hostels in Omsk, Hostel Millenium being the cheapest. It gets a lot of its business from the station, which is just across the street. There were several occasions when people would arrive late in the evening and leave early in the morning. The station is on a north/south and east/west junction so I assume these people were changing trains. She asked me what I thought of her hostel and I was pleased to tell her how clean and tidy it was, with nice staff who seemed to spend half their time cleaning the floor. She had decorated the whole of the place with tiling, making it very easy to keep clean and fresh looking, and no doubt long lasting too.

Local ladies pose for me.

Local ladies pose for me.

The area of the city where the hostel is located is a bit run down – typical inner city in many ways – but has plenty of shops around. There’s a large 24 hour supermarket just down the road and across the street is a nice cheap café which serves up food canteen style. This was very useful as I could just go to the servery and point at what I thought looked nice and it would be served to me. I never paid more than RU200, usually a lot less, and that would include soup, a meal, a cake and a drink. Very reasonable, especially compared to the KFC I went into the day I arrived where the meal cost twice as much and didn’t even fill me up.

Typically splendid Russian station building.

Typically splendid Russian station building.

Just to make me feel really at home back in Russia, Sacha asked me one day if it’s true that the English drink tea every day at 5pm.
As time went by I had been keeping an eye on the tracking website for the progress of my package. It had arrived in Kazkahstan on the 12th August, I learned, having been posted on the 8th. It was in Almati. All it had to do was get to Astana and then get delivered. And, wonder of wonders, I finally heard from Diaz to say it had arrived. Hooray! This was on the Wednesday of my second week in Omsk. Diaz was going away for the weekend after work on Friday so I made plans to ride back to Astana on Thursday and meet him Friday morning. I asked him to ring the hostel I’d stayed at before to book me in for Thursday and Friday nights. I’d be gone on Saturday. I wasn’t planning to stay too long this time.
When I went down to start the bike before leaving it wouldn’t go. Ten days of inactivity and she didn’t want to start. While I was fiddling about I noticed one of the bolts securing the pannier frame was loose, presumably from when it was repaired. If Doris had started straight away i wouldn’t have noticed that and it would have led to problems, especially on the Kazakh roads.. She was looking after me again. I had to take the pannier frame completely off to sort it out and once I’d done that she started up. Strange, but that’s how these things go sometimes.

Lovely and helpful Sacha.

Lovely and helpful Sacha.

I took photos of, and said goodbye to, Sacha and her colleague and set off, Astana on my mind. The run to the border was quick and easy. Through both sets of border controls easily. The woman at the Kazakh side took the trouble to explain the new fifteen day visa system to me. I asked her if I needed to register. She said ‘Yes, within five days’. So no room for doubt there then. As far as I can work out, if you arrive at an airport they’ll register you at the time so it seems we road travellers lose out. Anyway, I wasn’t planning to be in the country longer than three days so I wasn’t too bothered about it this time.
Crossing the border put the clocks back an hour so I regained what I’d lost in repairing the bike. Very handy.
The roads were clear and I kept a good pace. After a while I noticed that my fuel can had slipped down off the back and when I stopped I realised it had been hanging down by the exhaust outlet which had melted a hole in the can. I sweated a bit seeing that, wondering if it could have burst into flames. I think not, given that three of the five litres had already gone, although had the engine backfired for any reason it might have been a different story. I put the remaining two litres or so into the fuel tank and carried on, annoyed now that I had to buy yet another can just before I was to enter Mongolia, where I would definitely need it.
The rest of the ride went pretty smoothly except that it started raining. That turned those dusty roadwork diversions into a far more exciting mixture of dust and water, or mud as it’s better known, but at least I was riding them in daylight this time and they didn’t seem quite as bad as before. It was dark by the time I reached Astana, 800kms having passed beneath my wheels. I found my way to the hostel easily this time and went up, only to find there was no room at the inn. Diaz hadn’t rung them and they were full. I twisted the young lad’s arm a bit and he said someone was leaving at 3am and I could have his bed once he’d gone. Good enough for me. In the end I slept all night on the couch in the kitchen/diner. Despite the lack of a proper bed he still charged me the same rate as before, T2,000. In theory I was supposed to go to another hostel on the Friday but the lad hadn’t bothered to arrange it so I just stuck around.
Diaz rang me and we arranged to meet outside the hostel at midday. He had rung the hostel earlier in the morning to book a bed for me, which was great except that he was 24 hours too late. He’d thought I was arriving on Friday. At least he tried and I was grateful for that. But at last I had my package, with new credit cards, a new driving licence and a new international SIM card. The SIM card previous company had been pretty useless, taking every opportunity to overcharge me and then having a faulty website, preventing me from topping up anyway. So they got the sack.
I arranged to meet Diaz at his new shop later on to have a look at it. It took a bit of finding as it was typically tucked away under an apartment block. Everyone was busy organising the new stock. Diaz had a couple of partners in the business and it all looked pretty well set out. He had to rush off to catch a train to Almati so we didn’t get long to talk. That was one of the downsides of my visit to Astana. Diaz is very busy and we didn’t get a chance to socialise properly, which was a great shame. There were many things I wanted to ask him about. Maybe another time.

Fantastic road bridge in Astana.

Fantastic road bridge in Astana.

I had spent the afternoon planning my escape, I mean exit, from Kazakhstan and had a route pretty much worked out. That night I twisted the arm of the lad at the hostel once more to let me sleep on the couch in the kitchen again. He agreed, and I settled down there. Shortly after, a guy came in wanting to watch a late football game. He said I could have his bed instead. That was fine by me, much more comfortable and quieter too.
I was up before 7am and away by 8am. I had to wake up the young lad to organise the lift for me and, of course, he remembered to ask me for money. Because I’d actually had a bed after all I felt I was due to pay something but I knew it was going straight in his pocket so I told him I’d split the difference with him and gave him T1,000.
Off I went, an easy run out of town, taking care to avoid the early morning speed traps. The route to the border was on long, straight, empty roads which passed through very few towns apart from the city of Pavlodar. This was my last ride in Kazakhstan, probably the last time I’ll ever be in the country and, needless to say, I got pulled up by the police. I couldn’t ride around this guy, as had been my intention, because he was standing in the middle of the road waving me in along with a car. He asked to see my registration document and when I took it out he unfortunately spotted my Kazakh bike insurance certificate. Double unfortunately he asked to see it and immediately realised it had run out. I’d paid for one month when I crossed the border for the first time, which would have plenty had I stuck to my original plan and not diverted to Kyrgyzstan. I’d actually forgotten all about it. But now I wasn’t dealing with a simple speeding offence which I would have done my best to talk my way out of. Over to the car and the guy in there took great delight in showing me that the No Insurance offence was at the top of his list of motoring crimes and had the largest fine. He wasn’t interested in my Tienge, demanding dollars or rubles. I pulled out two RU1,000 notes and I could tell by the delighted look on his face that was far too much. He indicated I should put it in the storage box under his arm rest and turned away to talk to someone else. I put one of the notes in there and kept the other one. I reckon I could have got away with smaller notes as his attention was distracted but I didn’t have any to hand. He checked I’d put money in there, gave me back my documents and I exited the scene as quickly as I could. The RU1,000 it cost me was the same as I had paid for a months insurance when I first came to Kazakhstan so I suppose you could say it was all even in the end. But what stuck in my craw was that the money went to a thieving policeman instead of a legitimate businessman.
The rest of the journey to the border was straight forward except for getting lost in Pavlodar. I was following signs, which then disappeared. Following my compass wasn’t helping and eventually I stopped to ask a guy for directions. His English speaking son was with him and they told me to follow the car while they led me out of the city and on to the road I needed. The final act of Kazakh kindness, one of many I’d enjoyed. Bad followed by good once more.
At the border I got out of Kazakhstan easily but the Russian customs gave me a bit of a looking over. A guy came out with a sniffer dog and was testing various parts of my bike with some kind of drug tracing equipment. He’d wipe various parts with some kind of tin foil and then test it with a piece of detection equipment. Another guy got me to open various bags for him to look into. Most unusual but I suppose it was to be expected sometime.
As I came in to Russia I was a bit low on fuel, with no spare can now. A guy there told me it was 30kms to the next fuel supply and I didn’t think I had enough for that distance. In the end the border town of Kalunda was only 15kms away and I made it there OK. Petrol for Doris and food at the café for me. All I needed was a place to sleep. A couple of young guys in the café told me there was a hotel in the town and kindly offered to lead me there, which I gratefully accepted. I asked for a safe place to leave the bike. ‘Allah will look after it’ said one of the guys. ‘Allah might look after yours’ I thought, ‘but I prefer gates.’I was happy to pay a few extra rubles for secure parking round the back of the hotel.
The next day I had a really nice, gentle, sunny ride across country to Novosibirsk. GPS was trying to send me via Barnaul but my map new better and I ignored the GPS instructions to turn around and go back. After some time the GPS recalculated the route and promptly reduced the journey by 200kms, far more than I’d actually ridden at that point. How weird is that!

Well organised Sunday market.

Well organised Sunday market.

Before leaving Kalunda I drove around looking for an ATM. While doing so I came across a Sunday market, rather like a boot fair. The site was designed for this activity as it had concrete and steel counters laid out in rows, some of them numbered. Very well organised and I guessed it was another hang over from Soviet times. I stopped in a small town en route to get some supplies and when I came out of the shop an old guy, his son, son’s wife and their son were all looking at the bike. They wanted to take photos so we all posed in various ways before I got back on and left, everyone smiling. I love those little moments.

Friendly people who make the moment.

Friendly people who make the moment.

At various places along the road there would be people selling vegetables or fruit at the side of the road. Sitting on a chair behind a table or on a stool behind a couple of buckets, it seemed that every junction or bus stop was a scene of commercial activity, however small. I had no need for potatoes, onions or leeks so I wasn’t tempted. I stopped at a café for soup, bread and tea. A very nice place where the waitress took the trouble to introduce herself. That was a first.
After a really pleasant day’s ride I eventually reached Novosibirsk, which came upon me in typical Russian style. The outlying areas of the Siberian capital mostly consisted of tin and wooden shacks, supporting typical ‘edge of town’ industries, with the buildings and businesses getting nicer as I went further in. I found the hostel I’d booked easily enough and a quick phone call got me through the locked gates. It was a small but nice place, with comfortable rooms where everyone spoke Russian except me. I felt completely at home. It was good to be back.

Kazakhstan Part Four

Talsa, Kyrgyzstan. 3rd August 2014.

I was sad to leave Kyrgyzstan as it’s a country with stunning scenery and friendly people. The way of life is similar to much of Kazakhstan but there is clearly less money around. Most prices are cheaper, except for petrol, and the way of life seems to have modernised at a slower pace. The area I was in clearly relied on the tourist trade for much of its income. No surprise as it has much to offer in terms of natural beauty and would provide a cheap holiday for people from further north, such as the Russians I met in Torsor.

The ride to the border was easy enough, the border post being, yet again, at the end of a dirt road. There must be a tacit rule about these places – we don’t want you to leave so we wont make it easy. For reasons I didn’t quite understand the Kyrgic customs guard wanted to look in my bags. Did he think I was stealing their rocks or something? Anyway, both borders were straightforward and I was clear in just over an hour.
When I was through I stopped to sort out my gear and an English speaking Kazakh stopped for a chat. He invited me to stay with him but I declined as I’d booked a room at a Hotel in Shymkent and, at 4pm, it was a bit early. But what typical kindness. I enjoyed another example of that when I was passing through the city of Taraz. A guy in a car said ‘Hello’ to me at a set of traffic lights and I asked him for the road to Shymkent. He said ‘Follow me’ and led me through the city to the road I needed. I think that without him I might still be there now.

Go West young man, so I did.

Go West young man, so I did.

The road out of Taraz was a nice, new dual carriageway for about 80kms then, as it crossed into a different Oblast (region) the dreamy condition turned literally to dust. An absolute horror of a road in the worst Kazakh style with an appalling surface and constant roadworks. When I got to Shymkent I got off the bike and kissed the ground. Metaphorically anyway.
With the aid of the compass on my GPS and a few directions from some cab drivers I found the hotel I’d booked and started to unwind a bit. I found a local Pizza restaurant, ordered a takeaway and unwound a bit more. It had been a long, very hot, very dusty day.
I stayed there two days while I tried to organise a replacement SIM card and talked to base Camp about sending out my replacement credit cards. I also got some blog writing done. Hera had told me about a useful free mapping App that I could download to my phone so I spent some time doing that too. That kind of activity is new to me and there was no convenient teenager to do it for me. But I persevered and when it was finally done I found that my phone didn’t have enough memory to operate it. I think I might be in the market for a better phone. Even up loading the blog was proving to be a challenge too far. Some people have bad hair days, something that hasn’t troubled me for a few years now. Instead I just have bad data days. I gave up and had an early night.

Owner of the hotel in Shymkent, and friend.

Owner of the hotel in Shymkent, and friend.

Blog finally sorted and up loaded, I packed my gear and went to leave. While I was loading the bike a guy was chatting to me in English. It turned out he was the hotel owner and he very usefully drew me a map of how to get out of the city. In return I told him how good I thought his hotel was and how nice his staff were. Which was mostly true. When I stopped for fuel on the way out of the city the attendant noticed the two stickers that the cab driver had insisted on putting on my bike after he’d given me directions. I figured they weren’t going to get him much business where I was going so I took them off.
The map took me on to a shiny new dual carriageway which I expected to disappear, in typical Kazakh style, once I’d left town. But no, it carried on for many kilometres until I reached the town of Shyek, where I stopped at a café. I asked about a hotel in the town and a guy in there drew me a map to a truckers’ hotel not far down the road. I couldn’t find it. I scouted around but no luck. While I was stopped at the side of the road a guy in a car stopped and I asked him about the hotel. He said to follow him and led me to his house. Why was I not surprised? Those friendly and generous Kazakhs saved the day once again. He is Rustem and he and his wife Hizat have four kids between the ages of one and eight. He is thirty years old and his father is a famous producer of some kind. Their house is quite large and surrounds a courtyard. It is furnished in traditional style, with cushions and low tables, and also has the traditional outside toilet, albeit tidier and cleaner than many I’d seen. I’ve mentioned before the lack of running water to most houses and theirs was no different.

Rustem and family

Rustem and family

Rustem took me to a sauna where we met his brother, all gold teeth and offers of getting me a woman. I enjoyed the sauna and shower but politely declined everything else. I did ‘enjoy’ a demonstration of Kazakh style driving when we all crammed into his car, Rustem, Hizet, me and one of his friends along with his friend’s son and two of Rustem’s kids. He’s a ‘go for it’ driver and he went for it, in fine style as we headed out to look at the local river, of which he seemed very proud, and then to his mother in law’s house to pick up his other two kids. I don’t know how we all fitted in to this ordinary saloon car. I was in the front and just sat back and enjoyed the ride although I was pleased when we arrived back intact.
The rest of the evening was spent eating and chatting, with the aid of my dictionary. I learned that his background is Saudi Arabian rather than Kazakh and I think he came here with his father. He showed me the words for farmer, land and vacation, so I think he owns some holiday homes somewhere, possibly in Astana, the capital. It’s difficult to be sure. He’s clearly a bit of a lad and seems to know all the local police. At some point there had been a fire somewhere as two of his kids have scars from burns on them, his son’s being a bit more obvious than his daughter’s. She’s a very pretty little girl with curly black hair and a very impish smile.

One of Rustem's kids. Cute.

One of Rustem’s kids. Cute.

After such great hospitality it’s always sad to leave but I had to press on. I had a bit of fun at Kizilorda, the next big town on the route. There was a new dual carriageway under construction and when I stopped for fuel I asked how to get to the road I needed. He directed me up what seemed to be a closed slip road, although cars were going up it anyway. So I followed suit but when I got to a new roundabout at the top all access routes had been closed off with piles of dirt. The cars were buzzing around trying to find a way through. I just rode up the kerb, across the roundabout and on into town, yelling behind me ‘Get a bike Guys!’
The road was good now, single carriageway through open desert. Nothing to be seen but sand and scrub. During the afternoon I came to a café and it seemed wise to stop as it was the first one I’d seen all day. I ordered some food and was sitting outside waiting for it. I’d taken my boots off so going inside was out of the question for a while. Three middle aged guys pulled up in two 4×4’s, sat down with me and shared their melon and water melon with me. Very nice and very refreshing. Inside they invited me to join them at their

table and they insisted on paying for my food too. All I could do in return was to describe my journey to them and, as is often the case, they expressed amazement I was on my own and also at my age. I’d had this reaction many times and it puzzles me. Does life finish at fifty in these parts? Is it a cultural issue, where leaving home and hearth to travel to far flung places just isn’t done? It certainly isn’t a lack of courage as life in these countries can be very harsh and difficult. It remains a puzzle.

Roadide statue. I don't know what it is but I liked it.

Roadide statue. I don’t know what it is but I liked it.

Although this road had started well I had come to a stretch of dirt road, announced by signs stating for how long it would last. I was now in the middle of the second such stretch, 38kms long with about 10kms left to cover if the sign was to be believed. Once again the Kazakh road system decided to have a laugh at my expense as it was actually another 100kms of broken, pot holed road surface before I was to see the beautiful asphalt once more. And there was a price to pay too. I’d had to empty my spare can in to the tank and a while later I knew I wasn’t going to get to the next town before running out. Locals understand the need for fuel and there’s always someone who has some for sale out of a drum, ‘round the back’. I found such a place, a dingy looking café, where I bought five litres at a very inflated price. It was then that I noticed that my spare can had fallen off the back, it’s retaining strap having somehow burnt through on the exhaust. I knew I was going to need that can again so I went back to find it, feeling sure it wouldn’t be too far away. I was right, and was lucky to be so. When I re-attached the can to the bike I realised that my very expensive and very necessary riding jacket had also fallen off. If I had decided to abandon the fuel can I would have lost the jacket too. I found it not far away, thankful I was on a road that wasn’t too busy.

How to make a roundabout more interesting.

How to make a roundabout more interesting.

Things continued to improve as the tarmac returned and I reached my target town of Jezkazghan. They improved still further when a helpful guy stopped to assist me and found me, at the second attempt, a nice hotel at a reasonable price, with breakfast included and the all important wi-fi. I took a walk up to the town square where I found families enjoying the evening. There were little electric cars for hire which a toddler could sit in while a parent directed it with a remote control. For older kids a parent could hire a tandem and take them for a ride around the square too. There was a nice fountain, a professional football ground for the local club and an Orthodox church. I could see this town had a high proportion of Russians in it. Near the square were some monuments, clearly from Soviet times, that included a MiG fighter jet and a missile.

Soviet era, without a doubt.

Soviet era, without a doubt.

I find myself quite liking this Soviet art.

I find myself quite liking this Soviet art.

Base Camp had sent all my documents to Diaz, my contact in Astana, Royal Mail having quoted a delivery time of 3-5 working days. Good news and all I had to do was hope they got there with no problems.
My route since re-entering the country had taken me north and east, covering some old ground, but I had now turned north west and was heading for Astana. The rate of progress had varied according to what time I stopped, what time I left and the road conditions. Anything from 250 to 450kms per day. I had plenty of time left on my new visa. A recent change by the Kazakh immigration service meant that citizens from certain countries, including the UK, could obtain a fifteen day visa at the border. My original visa was a thirty day, single entry type so without this new facility I wouldn’t have been able to go to Kyrgyzstan, there being no route back to Russia except via Kazakhstan. I was conscious now of the need to register with the immigration authorities so I was keen to get to Astana where I knew there was a big immigration office. With about 700kms still to cover I knew it would take a couple of days.
I camped out again that night. I’d stopped at a café which advertised itself as being a hotel as well. Not any more. Something to do with lack of showers as far as I could tell. I didn’t care but the authorities did.
It’s been said that the road to true love never runs smoothly and the same goes for the road to Astana. The asphalt surface was smooth enough, no problem there. This time the problem turned out to be a split in the rear tyre. It was pointed out to me by someone in a garage when I stopped for fuel. Fix it or forget it? I chose forget, hoping it would last at least until Astana where I could make a decision as to what to do about it. It goes without saying that about 20kms further on it went flat. So now there was no choice but to fix. I limped the bike up the road until I saw another garage where there was a nice, shady tree I could work under. No centre stand, no jack, so I laid Doris over on her side and set to replacing the tyre and tube. It was a bit of a struggle to break the bead but once that was done, all went smoothly. What the woman running the petrol station made of it all remains a mystery but I refuelled while I was there as a way of saying ‘Thanks’.
I had hoped the tyre that split would have lasted me until the planned fitting of both front and rear tyres ahead of going to Mongolia but the Kazakh road system, or my refusal to slow down sufficiently while riding it, finished the tyre off. In fairness it had lasted amazingly well. It was on the bike when I bought it, although it looked quite new. I’d covered over 3,000kms on it before leaving and had then ridden over 19,000kms. I had fitted a spare, part worn front tyre before I left and that was still in good condition. On the positive side, having removed the tyre from its storage place on the pannier frame and put it on the rear wheel, I was now carrying a bit less weight and had a bit more room. The downside was that I could now see that the pannier frame had broken and would need welding.
Nothing to do but carry on and it wasn’t too long long before I was in Astana. A couple of phone calls resulted in one of Diaz’s friends coming to meet me on her bike and leading me to his apartment. Diaz wasn’t at home but I met Sappie, his girlfriend, who made me welcome with some food. Diaz came back after a while accompanied by a another young guy. As well as motorcycling, Diaz gets involved in mountain biking, snowboarding and writing and playing music. He and some friends are opening a shop which will sell mountain bikes, skateboards and snowboarding gear and he spends most evenings kitting it out ready for a big opening in a couple of weeks time. The young lad with him was a student from somewhere in the south of the country whose education he sponsors. Earlier in the year he, Sappie and some friends had completed a special forty five day Euro tour, with some government sponsorship, and had made a TV programme out of it. And to add to it all he’s a very nice guy too. He said I could stay at his place as long as I needed to but he only has a relatively small, one bedroom apartment and I knew that wasn’t going to be possible. The student sleeps in the living room and he got relegated to the kitchen floor when I arrived and stole the settee.
Diaz’s main job is at the university where he works in the technical centre, although I’m not sure exactly what he does. But most importantly, the Tech department has a workshop and in that workshop there is a welder and a man who is very good at using it. Diaz introduced me to Azamat who, once I’d removed the pannier frame, set to and welded it up. While he was at it he also welded up some small holes that had appeared in my silencer. Then he and Diaz decided part of the reason my pannier frame had broken was because it didn’t have a support across the back between the pannier frame on each side. So between them they found some suitable tubing and altered it to fit my bike. I got on with some other minor repairs, including making a better job of the repairs to the wiring that had got damaged on my way through Kazakhstan. A very productive morning indeed and I felt very humble when Azamat refused to take the money I offered him ‘Because you’re a traveller’. Wow!

Wonderful welder - Azamat.

Wonderful welder – Azamat.

The least I could do was buy everyone lunch so we headed off to a café before Diaz led me to a hostel where I could stay while I waited for my important package to arrive. It turned out that Royal Mail’s estimate of 3-5 days was wildly optimistic. Diaz, and others, said they’d waited four weeks in the past for post from the UK. My euphoria dropped a little at that news. I only had just over a week left on my visa.
The next task was to go to immigration and register. Diaz had kindly arranged for a friend to meet me there. This guy often sorted out registration issues for visitors as part of his job so he knew the system. Clutching my paperwork we headed into the heaving mass of humanity and queued up, at the wrong window it turned out. At the right window everything went wrong. It seems I was two days past the deadline so the woman there wouldn’t put the stamp I needed on my form. My interpreter/helper went off to speak to some people and after a while he came back and we went into the office of the uniformed chief. He said, in so many words, you’ve broken the rules, that will cost you $100 dollars in fines and when you come back for your interview you have to bring an official interpreter, likely to cost another $100. Then you’ll get your registration. Well that knocked me for six., that’s for sure. Diaz’s friend explained that I had to have an officially registered interpreter because when I was interviewed the interpreter would be legally responsible for the answers I gave because he was translating them.
With plenty to think about I headed back to the hostel, mentally following the map that Diaz’s friend had shown me on his phone and hoping I would recognize the area when I got to it. Isn’t it strange how ups and downs can follow one another in such quick succession? Here’s a couple more.
I got lost and despite knowing I was somewhere near the hostel, and asking a few people the way, I couldn’t find it. I stopped by an apartment block and was studying the useless little map the hostel had given me when a guy pulled up in his car and asked if he could help. I told him my problem and he invited me in for a coffee. I nearly said No but when Jas told me he owned the nearby coffee bar I changed my mind. The Praline Coffee bar was just across from where we were so I parked up and followed Jas inside. The coffee was followed by pizza then by tea while Jas and I chatted for over two hours. He was fascinated by my journey so far and my future plans and said I was crazy, which is why he likes me.

Jas and his crazy friend.

Jas and his crazy friend.

His story I found fascinating too. He’s from a small town in the south of Kazakhstan but went to university in Almati, which he said really widened his experience. His parents moved to Astana and he came with them, getting a job making Hookah pipes. He got fed up working for someone else and decided to open his own Hookah café. Now he has people making the pipes for him. Pipe smoking is very popular in Kazakhstan and his business is growing. He told me the water removes most of the nicotine from the tobacco then different flavours are added, such as fruit, to the smoker’s taste. His customers include the chief of the President’s security section, so he’s well connected too. He explained that doing business in Kazakhstan is all about who you know and how much you’re prepared to pay. I could understand exactly what he meant. He’s only 27 and is married, with a young daughter. A real success story.
He was pretty sure he could help me with my registration problem too and I was very happy to take him up on that offer. He said he knew people in the right places and would see what he could do. He led me to the hostel, where I was happy to settle in and get to know the people I was sharing a room with. There were a couple of Polish students, Pawel and Kris, enjoying a Euro tour after completing their degrees, and a South African, Peter, from Cape Town, who had a position as a teacher here. The hostel was good, with great wi-fi, and it was good to have people to chat to.

Hostel folk.

Hostel folk.

I stayed there the rest of the week waiting for my package and trying to resolve the registration problem. Jas did what he could. His contact only got me in to the office where I’d seen the Chief last time, with exactly the same result from the same person. Jas found me an interpreter after a couple of tries but in the end I cancelled the planned visit. As the week went by I’d been stewing on the situation and had decided to head for the border without registering. I’d managed to get through last time, eventually, and the worse that could happen was that they’d send me back to the nearest town to register, leaving me no worse off than I already was. I was fed up with playing their stupid, pointless, bureaucratic games. Probably the wrong attitude for a visitor to a foreign country but there really is no rhyme or reason to it except to make jobs for people. Registering to work or to extend a visa makes sense but doing so just to breathe their air doesn’t. So to hell with them. My visa expired on the Tuesday so my decision was to head for the border on Sunday, unless my package arrived earlier. This looked unlikely, based on the experiences of others and also that there was nothing on the tracking website except that it was somewhere ‘in transit’. Peter had contacted a lawyer friend who said to ring him if I didn’t get across the border and had to come back. He would act as interpreter for me if needed. That was good of him and gave me extra confidence in my back up plan.
Peter told me some interesting things about the education system here. He’s an economics teacher and is employed to work in one of the regional ‘hot house’ schools that the government has set up for bright children. They are sponsored by the government throughout their school career, having been through a tough selection process. They stay away from home and will study six days a week and sometimes on Sundays too. A typical Asian approach, Peter said. He is waiting for the authorities who employ him to get their act together and move him from Astana to his new school near the Caspian sea. He has married a Russian woman and they hope to settle down together there. He told me some stories about the large gap between what’s promised in the contract and what gets delivered. I didn’t find myself very surprised.

Baiterek Tower, modelled on a local legend about the Tree of Life, with some of the city's great architecture in the background.

Baiterek Tower, modelled on a local legend about the Tree of Life, with some of the city’s great architecture in the background.

I took a couple of walks in and around Astana, mostly to look at the amazing architecture. This city became the capital in 1997 and since ten has enjoyed a population, trade and building explosion. Much of the architecture is stunning, with some very interestingly designed skyscrapers, bridges, shopping malls and entertainment centres. There are a number of vanity projects connected to the president, but they look pretty good too. There’s always something interesting to look at and some of the more notable buildings make great landmarks too. I didn’t get lost any more.

The buildings mirror the country's ambition.

The buildings mirror the country’s ambition.

Presidential palce, home to.Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Presidential paalce, home to.Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The apartment block the hostel is in reflects what I perceive to be a Kazakh obsession with security, mostly unnecessary in my opinion. Given how open, friendly and helpful everyone is, this approach seems rather over the top and, at times, very inconvenient. An example is the lift system in the block. Every resident has a tag which operates the lift. That tag relates to the floor their apartment is on and the lift will not go to any other floor. Likewise going down. The lift will only take you to the ground floor. So what does a resident do if they want to visit a friend who lives say, ten floors above them? Too far to use the stairs. I suppose they both have to meet on the ground floor and travel back up together. Crazy!
The effect of this on hostel residents was that a member of staff had to come out and use their tag to make the lift go down when you wanted to leave and had to come down to the ground floor to meet you when you returned. That caused fun and games because there wasn’t always anyone available to do this. I was sometimes able to hitch a ride to a nearby floor and walk down or up to my floor. I met some nice people this way, albeit briefly.

Part of the President's Walk.

Part of the President’s Walk.

Quirky design is Astana's hallmark.

Quirky design is Astana’s hallmark.

Something on a slightly more human scale.

Something on a slightly more human scale.

Sunday came round and I was heading out of town. I’d be back, one way or the other, and I was hoping it wouldn’t be to register. I’d told the young lad who managed the hostel that I’d be leaving at 9am, mostly to prepare him for being woken up to get me into the lift. I was heading for the Russian town of Omsk where I planned to await news of my package, at which point I’d head back to collect it. I’d discussed routes with Diaz and he had told me the best one to take, based on the best roads, very important in Kazakhstan. There was a shorter cross country route but Diaz said the road wasn’t too good. OK then, longer but quicker was the decision. Nearly 800kms but I expected to do it in one day. I’d identified, but not booked, a hostel in Omsk that I was going to head to. The first major town on the route was Kokshetaw, then Petropavlovsk and finally the Russian city of Omsk, with the border being 150kms before it.
I set off at 9am and got out of Astana easily using the route I’d worked out from Google maps. I took care with my speed as there were police ready to pull vehicles in at every junction. Good dual carriageway all the way and as I approached Kokshetaw I saw a sign off to the right for Omsk. I knew this would form a nice diagonal across the square my original route formed and I took it. Whether or not it was the route I had seen on the map that Diaz said to avoid, I don’t know. But the road was asphalt all the way except for the last 20kms, and had been mostly good. It was a small border crossing with just a few cars waiting so I went up to the first gate and offered my passport to the guard there. He examined it and said something to me. I didn’t know what he meant and he got on the phone. Someone else came across and explained to me that this crossing was for Kazakhs and Russians only. On a previous occasion I metaphorically got down and kissed the ground. This time I metaphorically got down and beat my head on it. He explained that I would have to go back to Kokshetaw to regain the road to the correct border crossing. I could see from my map there was no choice. 600kms, two tanks of fuel and eight hours wasted. It was now 6pm, it was starting to rain. I got back on the bike and rode away.
Eventually I got back to the main road at Koketshaw and considered finding a hotel as it was now dark. There’s an unwritten rule that you don’t ride a bike in the dark in countries whose infrastructure is to less than European standards. Too many risks from the road, drivers and animals. I think Kazakhstan fits into that category. I ignored the rule and rode. I needed to get to that border to see whether I could get across. I knew I couldn’t rest until that situation had been resolved.

A very strange building whose function is a complete mystery to me.

A very strange building whose function is a complete mystery to me.

Kazakh roads are mostly straight and they do have quite good warning signage, even if the direction signs aren’t what they could be. So I headed up the dual carriageway, which then became single carriageway, but still good. Too good to last of course as the inevitable roadworks loomed. Down the embankment and into the dust and ruts. Riding off road is good fun. Riding off road by headlight is not to be recommended but it had to be done. Fear makes you careful and I got through it in the end and made it to Petropavlovsk. A stop for fuel and to buy a couple of Snickers, then follow the signs to Omsk, the border now only 100kms away. I had a bit of a nodding off period, but managed to get through it without mishap. After that all was well and the border hove into view at 03.30. Whether or not it would have been different if I’d arrived ten hours earlier I’ll never know, but passport control didn’t even mention the registration document and I was through in ten minutes.
A Kazakh who was passing through from Russia asked me what I thought of the country and I told him about how much I loved the people. The border guard had come out to chat with us so I thought it best not to mention how much I hated the bureaucracy. I wasn’t through the exit gate yet!
Twenty minutes later I was officially in Russia. It was just as dark and I got back on Doris to set off into the night, 100kms to go to Omsk. It got light around 7am and I found a bus shelter where I could put the bike out of sight behind it. I ate another Snickers, lay down on the bench and slept for an hour and a half. It wasn’t until two days later that I discovered I’d been thoroughly nourished on by midges while I dozed. I took a slow ride into the city, found Hostel Millenium after a bit of a search, and was delighted that they had a bed for me, and at a very reasonable price. I’d covered over 1450kms in 24 hours and couldn’t have ridden another kilometre or walked another step. I’d eaten Snickers but I’d completed a Marathon.