20.07.2006 - 28.07.2006 & 01.09.2006 - 10.09.2006
20.07.2006 - 28.07.2006
Leaving Uzbekistan, and entering Kazakhstan were both fairly painless, the usual running around, but absolutely a breeze compared to Turkmenistan!! Something which will continue to be a mantra, "at least it isn't as bad Turkmenistan".
For the overview, check out Formalities: Kazakhstan
The main thing I noticed coming into Kazakhstan is that as soon as you get into the country the vistas change from the tended green fields in Uzbekistan, to huge flat golden plains something akin to what one sees in the Midwest of America or parts of south Australia. This image of Kazakhstan would remain the main memory of the Kazakhstan countryside. The bread basket of central Asia might be a good way to describe it. Along the way, we ran into an Iranian motorcycle rider on a ridiculously small Honda. We stopped and chatted, he had been on the road for a month an a half apparently and was on his way back to Iran. This is the first time we had seen a rider Iran.
We rode from the border to Taraz before settling for the night. The hotel turned out to be interesting in that I offered half of the price asked and she accepted, on the condition that we be out of the room by 9:00am which was fine with us. After that we headed to a local park where there seemed to be a fair in progress, and ate in one of the stalls. We had Shashlyk (something found everywhere in central Asia), meat cooked over charcoal fire, lots of it, very reasonable and good.
As in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia our motorcycle evoked great curiosity and spontaneous gestures of friendship, not to mention some very dangerous traffic situations as cars passing us would suddenly slow down to get their cameras, or mobile phone cameras ready and then take pictures of us as they go by. At this rate maybe we will become famous somewhere! The following day we continued to Almaty.
In Almaty, we rented a small apartment for a few days so that I could do some maintenance on the bikes before heading to Mongolia. Almaty, or Alma Ata as it was called during Soviet times, turned out to be our first real culture shock. All signs were "only" in Cyrillic, so I spent a couple of days crash learning to read Cyrillic, which I managed. This meant we could at least read the signs, not necessarily understand what they meant, but it made things a lot easier.
Almaty is also built on the "green" principle, lots of trees everywhere, business and housing behind leafy cover, often in blocks behind the cover of trees and sidewalks, and few signs at street level. Making finding anything a real challenge. A few other things also come to mind to describe Almaty, first, very very expensive. Many roads under construction (I hope), and some very interesting mix of old Soviet and new architecture. Some very unfriendly and unhelpful hotel staff, as in fulfilling every cliche about soviet area management. (I will write more about this when we get to Russia). Almaty is above all a business city, tourists have no reason to be here, for that matter, the whole country fails to achieve anything nearing a tourist destination. That is not to say that there are no tourist attractions here, simply that in my opinion it is not worth the effort or cost to come here to see them. Once here, we only wanted to leave. OK, but now I am starting to write too much already, so on we go.
After getting the maintenance done on the bikes and stocking up on supplies (there are plenty of upscale supermarkets where you can get anything that you can anywhere else in the world), we start heading to the border of Russia, which we have to go through to get to Mongolia, as the Mongolian/Kazakhstan border is closed to foreigners. The route we took went through some of the places that during the soviet times was used to test nuclear weapons.
The town of Semey's major claim to fame is that just southwest of the city, the soviets exploded 467 (Lonely Planet) nuclear bombs. For me the more interesting history is that this is the town where Dostoevsky was exiled to for 5 years of forced military service and where he started the novel "The Brothers Karamazov". Other than the usual plains here, the thing that nearly killed us everyday was the road. These are by far the worst roads I have had the misfortune of having traversed. It was here that Cecilia broke the frame on her bike. The problem is that the road is for a the most part fine, and then suddenly without warning there is a dip, a hole, or just a chunk of road missing. So you are cruising about, nearly falling asleep because of the boring countryside, and suddenly BANG, your suspension just tried going through the seat, and you are hanging on to the handlebars for dear life!! In the end you start riding 40 km/h for a while but of course the road is fine, so then you speed up again and the process repeats. Very, very annoying, and dangerous.
Getting the frame on Cecilia's bike fix wasn't too much of a problem. Every little town has a shop which has a welder (we did have to go around 100 km on the broken frame though!). After 10 minutes welding, and 10$ later, we were on our way again. In due course we made it to the Kazakhstan/Russian border. The exit formalities for Kazakhstan were simple if a bit slow, as they only let a couple of people in at a time into the compound. The Russian side the same. Once inside everyone was friendly and moderately efficient. The procedure itself had some shades of Turkmenistan, but not nearly as bad. In about 1 1/2 hours we were through and into "Mother" Russia. For the overview, check out Formalities: Russia
01.09.2006 - 10.09.2006
As we neared the border, the weather cleared, and the rain which had followed us after leaving the Altai was finally dissipating. The Russian and Kazakhstan immigration and customs were both efficient and relatively speedy and we were back in Kazakhstan. Same vistas, flat plains as far as the eye could see, but the weather was getting warmer.
This time instead of braving the horrible roads we had taken previously, we took a different route, hoping that we would get luckier with the roads. It was longer but turned out to be much better maintained, although it did have a few spots that reminded us of the eastern route.
The traveling was pretty monotonous, with the exception of an meeting a group of bike enthusiasts in Karaganda. While waiting for Cecilia to do some shopping in a nice supermarket, the motorcycles were surrounded by the curious in the parking lot. I got into a conversation with one of them, a gentleman who worked at, or managed the Magic Club, a sports bar nearby. He gave me a VIP card to the club, so next time I am in town, I know where to go. As we got to talking I asked him about an internet cafe in the neighborhood. He discussed it with his two friends and they pointed down the road, so I said I would look for it later. After some more animated conversation it turns out that this cafe was closed, so he offered to show me where another one was. When Cecilia turned up, we followed them and sure enough a km later we stopped at an internet cafe and photo shop. Cecilia went and took care of some urgent mails, while I chitchatted with our new friends. The conversation mostly centered around speed versus comfort (of motorcycles). Not surprisingly they were all interested in going as fast as humanly possible, his dream bike being a Kawasaki racing bike, of which he has a huge poster at home. He said that unfortunately that is all he can afford at the moment, "first the poster, then the bike".
The owner of the internet cafe turns up, and it turns out that he is a good friend of our companions. He runs inside, and comes back with an employee and a camera. So we all pose around the bikes, while the employee snaps a couple of pictures. Nothing unusual about that. 15 minutes later the employee comes out with a huge poster. They had printed and blowup the picture he had just taken. He asks me to sign it, and everyone else in the picture also, which we all did (all 3 copies). I got one as a souvenir. Additionally he also made sure that Cecilia didn't have to pay for her internet session, which really confused her, as she had no idea what was going on. When she came out, we are all standing around exchanging business cards. As we were leaving, the owner of the shop runs inside and returns with a huge roll of maps, very detailed military maps of the area around the town and central Kazakhstan. Very friendly and generous lot. We were then escorted out of town, after turning down numerous offers of food and drink.
By the time we got to Almaty a couple of days later, all the cold weather gear had been stowed and we were back in our summer riding gear. In Almaty we got a nice little apartment for a few days while I did some maintenance on the bikes. I also had to get some work done at the local bike shop, all of which was taken care of fairly quickly. This in addition to getting the visas we required for Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, was all that we needed to do in Almaty, so we continued as soon as it was done.
As we headed for the Kyrgyzstan border we came across a very nice river valley (Charyn Canyon) where we camped for the night. The only time I can recall in Kazakhstan, that the landscape showed any "promise". Of course if you want large open spaces, then this will be heaven for you. But on a motorcycle day in and day out, it is seriously boring.
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