Border and Song
I broke my own rule and got to the Russian/Kazakhstan border check point late; 10 am. I’d woken up early enough, but somehow got distracted doing another task on the laptop (after a big breakfast), and before I knew it, it was gone 9; you know how it is.
Because I was late there was already a queue of around 20 cars. Several times before at other border crossings I have ignored the cars and trucks and ridden to the front of the queue, but here the process looked orderly and I got the feeling I should wait in line. At least the process was as orderly as it looked and they were letting 5 vehicles through at a time for processing. It took 2 hours to get through the Russian side and an hour to get into Kazakhstan, so not too bad after all. The entry process was faster into Kazakhstan because they accept and use the same motorcycle temporary import paper as the one I received entering Russia.
The first thing I noticed in Kazakhstan was that the weather was rainy, dark and miserable, but I’m not sure that was all Kazakhstan’s fault. I covered my leaky dry-bags with garbage bags as it poured down, relentlessly.
Then I got pulled over by the police in the first village I passed.
I was about to employ my flawless tactic of pretending to not understand anything the police said at all, when I heard the well-spoken English accent of a police sergeant sitting in the cop car a few meters away calling me over.
Nice Mr Policeman was, in fact, very nice indeed, and politely explained to me that I had been photographed speeding at 102km/h in a 60km/h zone. This was hard for me to dispute as he showed me the nice photo taken by the hidden camera. I smiled lots and politely explained that I had no idea I was in a 60km/h zone as there were no speed limit signs, and indeed, few signs of a village, like houses.
This didn’t work at all, and I was shown a pile of driving licenses he was holding until the hapless drivers returned with the fine payment in cash (there had been a queue of several other drivers waiting to be fined when I was pulled over). I could have been cynical and thought this was all just an underhand money-making scheme, but decided not to.
Just when I thought all was lost and prepared myself to pay a fine, the policeman started asking about my trip and seemed very interested. I stressed the fact, several times, that I was riding for WaterAid Charity, providing life-saving fresh water to poor villages throughout the world, and luckily I was even wearing my ‘WaterAid’ T-Shirt at the time.
Then he asked me if I could dance, or sing.
“Excuse me?” I asked
“Can you dance for me, or sing me a song?”
Granted, I hadn’t been in Kazakhstan long, but I was pretty sure this wasn’t the usual line of questioning employed by the Kazakh Police Force. Or maybe it was.
“Well, I can’t dance very well…” (without alcohol…); “what kind of song would you like? Do you know The Beatles?”
“Sing me your National Anthem” he said.
“OK” I shrugged, stood to attention, and belted out a loud and proud rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’ on the side of the road, together with a customary Naval salute at the end.
The police sergeant and his mate both stared for a while, stern faced. Then he handed me back my passport and license.
“Have a good trip, and welcome to Kazakhstan!” he said joyfully.
Despite the dark clouds and the rain, that’s when I knew I was going to like it there.
After an hour or so I reached the first city, Semey, on a good road. Between 1949 and 1989 the Soviet military exploded some 460 nuclear bombs in the expansive steppe just west of the city, and radiation has taken a severe toll on the health of thousands of people in the area over the years.
I pulled off the main highway running through the city to search for an ATM to get some local money. Once again the amazing ‘Maps with Me’ App led me straight to one. Of my 5 credit cards, one of them thankfully worked (never leave home without them!)
I’d discovered 2 days before that Barclaycard had cancelled my MasterCard without notifying me due to a mistake they’d made. I called them later on ‘Viber’ (super cheap international calls) and eventually got through to the right person (after the usual ‘ping-pong’ session) who arranged to send me out another card by emergency post. I gave them the address of the hotel I planned to stay in in Almaty and hoped for the best.
On the way out of town I stopped for lunch at a great little grocery that sold delicious radioactive hamburgers and pizzas, so I got a stack for dinner as well – it was Saturday night, after all.
Mud and Guts
A large section of the road to Ayagoz via Georiyevka was being resurfaced and all traffic was diverted onto a muddy track running alongside. The rain was not helping things, and the track had turned into a deep, horrible, muddy quagmire. In one particularly horrendous patch one lorry had become stuck, sunk deep in mud down to the axels. Behind it was a backlog of at least a dozen more trucks/lorries, and it didn’t look like they were moving anywhere soon. I took a wide berth though the muddy road works and managed to pass them, but I almost slipped over several times in the process. My new Heidenau rear tyre continued slipping and sliding through the mud for another couple of miles until the road slowly began to improve. It wasn’t fun, and afterwards the bike looked like it had been dunked into a huge chocolate fondue.
Pannier Road Skating
On top of battling through the mud, I was wondering if I’d been wise to ride my now ridiculously loose chain another 1,600km. I had adjusted it to almost the very end of the adjustment scale and still it was so loose it was almost falling off in places. However, a tight spot stopped me from adjusting it further. I wasn’t sure if the chain was a faulty one, or if it was usual for this to happen on a very worn chain. It had done around 30,000km and so it hadn’t done too badly, but my original Triumph chain had managed over 36,000km and had little signs of wear and no tight spot.
Thankfully, in the afternoon, the surfaced road returned. However, it was proving not to be the Tiger’s day…
I was riding around 100km/h, enjoying the solid road, when I heard a horrible, loud scraping sound behind me. This turned out to be my left pannier enjoying a spot of road-skating. Yes, it had fallen off and was now dragging along the road behind me, miraculously caught by a single stand of my (now very stretched) bungee cargo net.
It turned out another bolt had sheared off the pannier bracket (the second one to have broken) and the cable ties in place of the other bracket had snapped under the weight. The Triumph pannier system was not really holding up too well on this world tour, but to be fair to them I had dropped the bike on them several times each side over the past 22 months.
I replaced the broken bolt with yet another 3M cable tie (the same as I’d done to the right pannier, which was still holding) and used more cable ties to secure the pannier back on the bike. Sorted!
A couple of miles down the road I saw my left pannier overtake me in one of those comedy moments, although it wasn’t very funny at the time. It slid across the road and down a steep embankment, finally coming to rest in a field. A startled truck driver coming the other way managed to slow down in time to miss it. It appeared things were not quite as ‘sorted’ as I thought.
Several more cable ties later the pannier was back on, and this time I emptied most of the weight from the pannier and placed it in one of my dry bags. I was down to my last 3 cable ties, and so I thought I’d better slow down a lot if I wanted them to get to Almaty in one piece.
Kazakhstan is a big, empty country to ride slowly, and I was chomping at the bit to speed up whenever a piece of smooth, flat road appeared. However, there weren’t many of them, and instead I cringed at every lump and bump I hit. It’s amazing how much you notice every single bump in the road when your pannier is being held on by 3 cable ties. Normally, of course, the Tiger would be in her element, sailing over the potholes at speed, as though they weren’t even there.
So with my chain about to fall off and my pannier hanging on by a thread, I tried to get as far as I could towards the sanctuary of Almaty before sunset. At least the sun started to make a late appearance in the afternoon, which put a brighter tint on things; just.
I suddenly realized I hadn’t taken many photos, mainly because I didn’t feel like stopping in the rain and the mud, so I stopped to take a photo of one of the many conspicuous Kazakh cemeteries I’d been passing. It seems they are all located on hill tops, I assume to cut down on travel time (or increase it, if they were going the other way).
In the end I got about 50km past Ayagoz and found a nice place to camp out of sight of the road behind a hill. I watched the full moon rise as I ate delicious, cold pizza. It could have been romantic but the grasshoppers were playing hard to get, except for the one that jumped into my sleeping bag.
Up at the crack of dawn, I started early and took it easy, considering my bike’s delicate condition.
At that point, my good friend, Mr Sod, and his fine Law interjected once again and laid before me the road to Armageddon. OK, so the road wasn’t quite that bad, but it only took about an hour for it to be one bump too many, and the left pannier smashed onto the road for a third and final time.
The 3M cable ties had been great, but I suppose they’re not really designed to hold heavy panniers to a motorbike over very bumpy Kazakh roads.
Now out of cable ties, the only choice I had left was to secure the pannier to the pillion seat, which my amazing ‘Master Lock’ adjustable bungee cords sorted out in no time.
It was certainly secure, but it didn’t leave much room for my butt, and my Albert Halls’ quite often received a battering against the tank, which wasn’t fun (or healthy).
Having been working on my bike by the side of the road several times during the past 2 days (re-attaching panniers and adjusting chains), one obvious difference I noticed between Kazakhstan and Mongolia was that nobody stopped to help/chat/nose in Kazakhstan, whereas EVERYBODY did so in Mongolia. Is this what happens as a country becomes more ‘developed’? Instead, many of the Kazakh drivers who passed me let out long blasts on their horns. I wasn’t sure if they were honking in commiseration, saying ‘hello’, or trying to usefully tell me ‘don’t break down by the side of the road!’ Either way, it was annoying at the time, although I tried hard to not let it be.
At least the sun was out and the day was much nicer than the previous day. At last the landscape started showing its beauty; parched, open steppe running off into the horizon on the left, and low rolling hills on the right.
I stopped for lunch at a Russian café by a monument of a (I supposed) Kazakh warrior on a horse, and shortly after got pulled over by the police for the second time in 2 days. Admittedly it was my fault, as I had (unwittingly) taken a short cut across a huge, unmarked roundabout. This time my tactic of ‘pretending not to understand a word the policeman was saying’ worked, and his attempts to extort some money from me (in broken English/Kazakh) failed. Eventually he got bored and wondered off for lunch with his mate.
The last part of the journey to Almaty dragged a lot as I passed Kapchagay Reservoir. Again there were major road works jamming the roads with single file traffic in both directions. It had been a long day and I had run out of patience, so I took no prisoners as I sped along in between the slow moving lines, up banks and verges and past police checkpoints. One advantage of having my left pannier on the back seat was I was now much thinner and able to squeeze through smaller gaps I would otherwise been stuck in.
Eventually I entered Almaty late afternoon, a large city of 1.5 million people and previous country capital. I had booked a cheap hotel in the centre of town and after riding around in circles for a while, eventually found it with the help of passersby.
I planned to stay in Almaty a week or so to: 1) fix my bike up and 2) apply for my Tajikistan and Uzbekistan Visas, so I was lucky it turned out to be such a great city with great, friendly people.
From the minute I met Anton he was nothing short of very friendly, generous & hospitable (and he told me to say handsome 😉 ). I spent most of the time there wondering how I could ever pay him back. Not only had he already ordered me a new chain and sprockets (which would be delivered in the next day or two) and given me his spare front and rear brake pads, but he also offered me a room to stay in his house, which turned out to be his lounge.
Anton’s a big guy and, owning the only other Triumph Tiger in Central Asia, he had jacked up the suspension and raised the handlebars. My Tiger looked like a baby Tiger cub next to his.
While I was waiting for my chain to be delivered, Anton showed me around his city and introduced me to more great, friendly bikers, including Turgan and Klik (sorry or the spelling!). Almaty certainly has a welcoming and social biker’s scene!
Turgan owned a double garage where Anton stored his bike, and he let me keep mine in there too. It’s one of the coolest garages I’ve ever seen, with a basement turned into a chill-out lounge with fully stocked beer fridge – exactly the kind of garage I like. And he was generous with the beers too, and one could very easily turn up and forget to leave for several hours (or even days). I’m sure next time I visit it will be the centre of Almaty’s biking community – ‘Turgan’s Angels’.
Almaty is a lovely, clean, modern city, full of posh bars, shops and restaurants, and lots to see and do. Over the next week I was taken to several great restaurants and bars to sample delicious traditional dishes and the odd beer or two. I must admit I loved the food, and I will never get sick of eating juicy, succulent kebabs, fresh salad, spicy soup and mouth-watering cheesy-potato bread.
If you could ever have two extremes regarding country visa applications, the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan embassies are it. I arrived at the Tajikistan Embassy at 9am on a Tuesday to find the office virtually empty and nobody else in line. I walked straight up to the counter, handed over my application, and the nice Consul asked me to come back the next day to collect it.
Later, at 2pm, when the Uzbekistan Embassy opened for applications, I was confronted with a surging, desperate crowd of dozens of people trying to gain entry into the Embassy, held back by 2 armed policemen and an iron gate. I tried to make some sense of it all, and most of the crowd appeared to be Uzbeks – perhaps trying to hand in some kind of work permit application?
I managed to get near the front and ask a policeman when they opened for visas, and he said “3 o’clock”.
I waited for an hour and 40 minutes before the Consul finally made an appearance at the gate, collected all the visa applications, and told me to come back in one week. He actually said it may be ready on Friday (4 days) if I selected the ‘expedited’ option (for more money), so I did.
On the way back to Anton’s I wondered through Panfilov Park – a nice, big, green park in the middle of the city, housing the Ascension Cathedral (Zenkov Cathedral), a Russian Orthodox cathedral completed in 1907 and second tallest wooden building in the world.
It also houses another impressive old wooden building – The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, but it was closed when I arrived, to my disappointment.
Panfilov Park also looks after the ‘eternal flame’ memorial for fallen soldiers of WWII and other wars, and various pieces of old artillery which the kids love clambering over.
It seems every street you turn down in Almaty is lined with green trees under the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, and sprinkled with fountains and monuments of some kind, and I even found a mini-Eiffel Tower for any homesick French.
Back on the tour of Almaty’s fine-dining establishments, Anton and Turgan took me to a traditional Uighur restaurant with delicious soup and noodles. I found it interesting when Turgan explained the background of how his ethnic Uighurs are presently involved in a battle for equal rights (and some for an independent state) in China’s ‘autonomous’ Xinjiang region just over the border, which has resulted in many of them being labeled ‘terrorists’ by the Chinese.
The Tiger Gets a Make-over
After a couple of days my chain and sprockets arrived – phew! – and I spent the next 2 days fitting them and servicing the Tiger with the help of Andrey and (another) Anton at ‘Silk Off Road Tours’, who owned a friendly and helpful workshop next to the Almaty’s Central Stadium. It was long overdue!
Complete list of works included:
- New chain and sprockets
- New front and rear brake pads
- Oil change
- Coolant change (after I had had to top it up with drinking water)
- New spark plugs
- Clean and re-oil air-filter
- Repair broken fairing
- Design and fix new pannier rack
Hardly surprising, but after the work was done she rode like a brand new bike! Smooth as a whistle – it was a great relief to have her back in business to full capacity.
It turned out the tachometer ‘surging’ was a mixture of damaged ceramic on a spark plug and the alternating loose/tight spot chain.
To celebrate my new bike, Anton took me for a spin up to ‘Big Almaty Lake’ just south of the city, with its fun, twisty mountain roads and idyllic setting against snow-capped peaks.
One day when Anton had some work to do, Turgan, Klik and another friend of theirs called Alec, took me for a drive up to another beautiful lake 50km east of Almaty in the large Central Asian Tian-Shan Mountain Range.
On the way we stopped off at Issyk Village to see the famous Golden Man exhibition at the local museum (and to get some beer). I was lucky enough to have my own ‘English-speaking’ guide who took great delight in showing me around the small museum (we were the only ones there).
The ‘Golden Man’ was an 18-year-old Saka (Scythian) prince (or princess, as the skeleton sex is uncertain) recently found buried in an ancient ‘kurgan’ (burial mound) over 2,200 years old. The grave contained a skeleton, warrior’s equipment, and 4,000 gold ornaments, and the reconstructed golden suit has now been adopted as one of the symbols of modern Kazakhstan.
The area is famous for its kurgans, and back in the car I could see the tell-tale hills alongside the road as we passed.
Issyk Lake was formed around 10,000 years ago by a landslide which created a natural dam, capturing the water from the Issyk river. Unfortunately in the 1960’s another landslide destroyed the dam and a large tourist resort that had built around it, emptying most of the lake. Many died in the tragedy and the lake, not surprisingly, lost its popularity. Unfortunately for the people still living there, the whole area is on the massive Tian Shan – Baikal Fault system, and large earthquakes are bound to occur in the future creating more havoc (as they have in the recent Geological past).
The day we visited, the lake thankfully sat peacefully amongst some of most beautiful surroundings I have ever seen.
It was a hot day, so I wasted little time stripping off and jumping in for a cooling swim – and it was pretty cool; almost freezing, in fact, with the water fresh from the glaciers in the mountains above.
The whole day was fantastic, and to top it off the lads took me to a trout farm where I could show off my expert fishing skills, single-handedly landing 2 beautiful specimens after long, hard-fought battles of several seconds.
No sooner had we caught our dinner (we caught 6 in all), they were fried up and brought to our picnic in the farm grounds, complete with chips, salad, fresh bread and beer, of course. Needless to say, it was delicious!
As much as I didn’t want to leave Almaty after receiving such a warm and friendly reception from Anton, Turgan and friends, I was conscious time was running on and started to make plans to move. However, it was the World Cup Final Weekend, and so I had to stay on another few days and force myself to sample more generous hospitality at its best. This included visits to more fine, local drinking establishments such as ‘Gunz and Roses Pub’, ‘Soho Pub’ and ‘Shakespeare’s Pub’.
I’d met a guy called Johnny, an Indian expat, a few days earlier at Silk Off Road’s workshop, and turned out he not only rode a Royal Enfield, but was also the lead singer & guitarist of a local Rock’n’Roll band that played at ‘Gunz and Roses’ – a man after my own heart! I had a great night there listening to great music with Turgan, and was more than happy when Johnny belted out a superb performance of AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ for me.
After a boozy weekend I was almost glad of a rest when Monday came, and I revisited the Uzbekistan Embassy on the off-chance my visa would be ready (I’d been again Friday just to hear it wasn’t ready, after a 2 hour wait!). As luck would have it, it was, and after the added palaver of having to go to the bank to pay the visa fee and fight my way back through the surging crowds and wait around for a 4th time, I was finally handed my 30 day visa with a friendly ‘have a nice stay!’
This meant I was free to continue on my peace crusade and made plans for extraction the next day. I also took a spin on the Tiger up to the highest Ice Skating Rink in the world at 1,691m – Almaty’s Medeu. Sadly, after the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, the upkeep costs to maintain its world-class standing were too high for a newly independent Kazakhstan. However, the future may be bright if Almaty wins its bid for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
The view from above the Medeu was well worth the ride, especially when the sun started setting – despite being an overcast day.
Further on up the road past the Medeu is a winter ski resort, supplied by cable-cars from the Medeu. Here the road quickly turned to rocks and suddenly became very steep, so I thought it best to turn back as light was fading quickly.
That night I took Anton out for another meal in an attempt to repay some of his generosity, but somehow we both felt we’d see each other again at some point, so I’m sure I’ll have other opportunities.
Note to bikers: Anton said he was happy for me to post his email address on this blog in case any of you are in need of help or cold beer in Almaty: firstname.lastname@example.org