Central Asia

China 1 China 2 Mongolia Siberia Central Asia Europe

Lenin Square, Novosibirsk

Turning south at Novosibirsk, we left the Trans-Siberian Highway and were heading for the deserts. Even before Novosibirsk, the highway moved south of the great taiga belt and began to make its way across farmlands. Now, the farmlands had given way first to grasslands and then semi-desert.

On last taste of Russian hospitality took by pleasant surprise before we hit Kazakhstan and the less hospitable. It was our second last night in Russia (16th Oct) and we were fueling up in late afternoon in a town called Cherepanovo, near Barnaul. The manager of the fuel depot did what most others did and asked were we were from and what we were doing. The guy looked scary. He was huge and his face was covered in burn scars. After explaining our story, he smiled and insisted we come back to his home. He closed up the fuel depo before we could say no thanks and told us to follow his car. He took us to a "garazh" which was a series of steel sheds where people locked up their possessions and gave us the use of his for the purposes of locking up the bikes. We then joined him in his car while he did the rounds of every alcohol seller in town and loaded up with beer, wine, vodka and anything else he could get his hands on. On arriving back at his apartment, he told the wife who we were and she was to prepare a banquet. That night we feasted and drank with this guy who we just met until we couldn't remember anything. The following morning we woke up an a bed, with no recollection of how we got there. On the living room floor was our friend and his wife. They had slept on the floor so that we could have a bed. We were both deeply touched. Despite that heavy night of drinking we woke early and the advantage of a cooked breakfast and a warm shower (long overdue by this stage) had us in excellent spirits. We powered through Barnaul [see Russia map 6] by mid morning and were headed for Rubtsovsk, the last Russian town of any note prior to Kazakhstan. What was beginning to concern us were increasingly long queues at the petrol stations. Closer inspection revealed that many of the fuel stations were sporting signs that made it clear they were out of various grades. No 80 octane here, no 76 there, no 90 octane at another place.

After the first 275km, James' reserve fuel light came on. This was a little earlier than expected but we managed to find out that 92 octane was available 70 klms down the road. His 4 litre reserve should get us there. 65 kms down the road and James came to a spluttering halt by the side of the road. For some reason his fuel consumption was off today, not the ever dependable 22 klms per litre. This was our first fuel incident of the trip and while I was about to ride on up ahead in search of fuel and leave James with his bike, a passing motorist in a Lada stopped and wanted to know if we needed help. When we told him it was no problem and we were just going to go up the road and buy some fuel, he stopped, opened up his boot and pulled out the obligatory 20 litre jerry can of spare fuel. It seems along with the obligatory loaf of bread, every Russian vehicle also carried 20 litres of spare fuel. James refused to take more than 5 litres of his supplies before we thanked him and were on our way. This was great news. Not because we got 5 litres of fuel for free (fuel in Russia was so cheap it was for all intents and purposes free anyway), but because we knew that if we ran out of fuel again, we could virtually stop any car and top up. While we didn't plan to use information like that, it put our minds at ease considering we were less than day's ride away from the vastness of Kazakhstan. While looking for the 92 octane fuel stop, a policeman approached us and enquired of us what were we looking for. Within a second of me saying "benzin", his arm shot out and flagged down a passing truck and he practically ordered the truck (most Russian trucks are petrol powered, not diesel powered) to hand over enough petrol for us. We were too flabbergasted to protest and before we knew it, we were both full of fuel and ready to rock on. Russian hospitality was very easy to get used to. We had been warned that the Russian traffic police (known as the GAI) were ruthless bastards and would write us fake tickets, extract bribes and so on, but we had nothing but the best of relations with all the GAI we met. Since leaving Irkutsk, almost every GAI guy we met stopped us. The opening gambit was always some mumble about documents, and then before we managed to even get the documents out he would suddenly say "Hey, is that 2 cylinder bike?" "What's its called?" "Oh wow, it has a radiator?" ... and rather than a document check, it turned into a pat on the back session. So the final night in Russia was camped by the highway about 60 kms before Rubtsovsk. The countryside was considerably drier to that in Siberia proper and we had no trouble stocking up on nice dry wood for our roaring fire, and washed down with a couple of Czech beers. We had a half a British army ration pack and half a a Russian army ration pack each for dinner, warmed nicely on our fire. The last day and a half of heading south had resulted in notable warmer weather. It was a good 5 degrees warmer in a the day and in the evenings than it had been above the 56th parallel.

We woke on the 18 October, rebuilt our fire and while the boots warmed up we discussed how to handle the Kazakh border. So far the borders had been a major drama and with the exception of the bearing failure in Sheragul, the border crossings were responsible for all of our delays on the trip. Getting off the boat in Shanghai had delayed us 10 days, then there were 21 days in Hohhot to get across the Mongolian border, followed by a further 10 wasted days in Sukhbaatar to get into Russia. All up, 6 weeks had been wiped off our calendar due to border hassles. 100 kilometres into our day and we saw the border. From a distance it looked a grand affair. Big new buildings and a long line of trucks, and we braced for the worst. We needn't have worried. The border itself was non-existent. Only the Russian customs office that wasn't in the least bit interested in what two motorcyclists were taking out of Russia - they were busy inspecting all the trucks coming into Russia. There was nothing at all on the Kazakh side, no customs or passport control, until over 20 kilometres down the road at the first village of Krasnyy Aul. There a traffic cop asked us if were carrying any guns, before waving us on into Kazakhstan. In the town of Dmitriyovka, 50 klms before Semipalatinsk, we stopped about 11:00 to fuel up and if we were lucky, find some decent food. At the fuel station, we asked on of the other customers where we might find some lunch and he immediately invited us round to his place to eat. This guy was Chechen, but was born in Kazakhstan. His parents had been sent there soon after they got married. It turns out this guy was pretty much the friendliest guy we had met so far with the worlds most obedient wife. She happily brought out course after course of what was utterly delicious food. We gorged ourselves on chicken, salad and some delicious apricot conserve thing. Fruit juice, milk ... whatever we mentioned was attended to. It was bizarre, but extremely welcome. In the end we stayed well into the afternoon chatting with our new friend before deciding we had better put some miles on.

The first Kazakh city on the road from Siberia is Semipalatinsk; infamous in Soviet times as a nuclear test site, and until recently strictly off limits to foreigners. This city was the subject of much international criticism in relation to the extraordinarily high incidence of radiation poisoning amongst its citizens. Given that the city is also an ugly concrete hellhole we were rather keen to keep our stay as brief as possible.

We needed to get some Kazakh currency and arrived in Semipalatinsk about 2:30 pm in search of a bank. The bank of course closed at 1pm for the day, but the security guard directed us to the bazaar. That's when things began to turn ugly. You always expect a place that was on the edge of a nuclear test site to be a little odd, but at the bazaar were were pretty seriously creeped out. All manner of creepy sleazy types were hassling us, just wanting to get a taste of our hard earned dollars. We quit the bazaar and found a traffic cop who said we should try the Aeroflot office, finally we got what we needed as the Aeroflot office had a money change booth and we got ourselves some Kazakh tenge.As soon as we'd changed our rubles into Kazakh tenge, it was straight back onto the highway [see Central Asia map 1]. It had started raining as we left town but staying in a crap hole like Semipalatinsk just wasn't an option. The rain itself was probably radioactive... it was a hard rain a fallin'. It would be a brutal afternoon but it had to be done. Unfortunately petrol here is considerably more expensive than it was in Russia and we ripped through the tenge we had so much trouble laying our hands on in the first place as soon as we topped up the fuel tanks.

The rain really is a problem. Even if we stopped and camped, the next morning would need to be spent drying out all the gear, assuming it wasn't then raining, and assuming you were able to light a sufficient fire. It got dark very quickly that afternoon and we soon decided that we would stop at the next village and see if we could scrounge around for some accommodation. Anywhere that was inside and heated would mean we would not only be warm, but all our wet gear would be warm and dry by the morning. The dri-rider clothing was a study in contrasts. The jackets worked well, keeping the wind off us and keeping us dry. The pants however seemed to have a design flaw. Inevitably if it began raining, within 30 minutes you would have a wet butt, at 100 km/h, wet underwear in 3 degree temperatures is really unpleasant ... especially as you feel the cold damp wetness creeping forward from your butt to your family jewels. 3 degrees, wet underwear and 100 km/h is a pretty grim combination.

The Vastness of Kazakhstan

The village we found was strangely reminiscent of Saynshand, back in Mongolia. Little was stirring but a few buildings had lights on in them. As we headed for one of the buildings with lights, a bunch of kids, about 10 years old stopped us outside and we asked them where we might find a place to lay our weary heads. They led us to a radio tower on the outskirts of town, where a quietly spoken guy about 40 years old, welcomed us in to the building at the base of the tower, allowed us to park the bikes in a disused room, and cooked us up some food. It seemed that building was like a de-facto social club for the kids. Over the course of the evening no fewer that 20 different kids of assorted ages wandered in and asked us questions. We however were not so keen to chat, and went to bed as soon as we could.

One thing that was quickly learned about Kazakhstan, is that over half its people aren't Kazakhs. It was Stalin's favourite place for sending ethnic minorities in order to prevent them causing trouble. By the end of our first day in Kazakhstan, we'd had lunch with a Chechen couple whose parents had been sent to Kazakhstan by Stalin, and were staying the night with a Tartar gentleman who parents had also been sent there during World War Two. As our time in Kazakhstan went on, we met Jews, ethnic Germans, ethnic Koreans; all in the same position: all friends of big Joe Stalin.

Soon after leaving Semipalatinsk the semi-desert had become fully fledged desert. The towns were once again spaced several hundred kilometres apart.

We left our village accommodation about 9:00 on the 19th (it was always easier starting from a warm lace, and with cooked food in our bellies) and headed off southwards into the Kazakh desert. Fortunately, the road across this desert was sealed and in good condition. Petrol was everywhere it was needed (though the grades of fuel available left much to be desired) and contrary to some earlier advice, required no coupons for purchase.

We did a record 500 km on this day, and despite a cold morning, the weather was definitely warming up, so much so that we no longer needed to be grabbing the front cylinder as we rode to keep the fingers warm. On the map front, we covered over 4 degrees of latitude today, going from above 50 degrees north to below 46 degrees. James has his fuel economy back to 22 km/litre. This all added up to a considerable improvement in the pace of our travel. Though we were in desert the whole way, it was unlike what we had seen before. We travelled over rolling hills, on twisting roads and for most of the way snow capped mountains were visible in the distance. Several mountain ranges near the Chinese-Kazakh border had peaks over 4,000 metres. With sunshine, blue skies and mild temperatures during the day it all made for very pleasant riding conditions in eastern Kazakhstan.

Following the grim city of Semipalatinsk (now known as Semey) the next downer in Kazakhstan was the fuel. This was the first time that we really needed to use our octane booster. All of the fuel stops offered only 76 octane. Hard acceleration and putting load on the engine was out of the question. The engines began to ping with even mild use of the throttle. It was going to have to be "easy does it" in Kazakhstan if we wanted to get through without major engine damage. While the fuel was more expensive in Kazakhstan than in Russia, everything else seemed less expensive. Roadside shashlik was considerably cheaper, and that was a boon to us as we were increasingly fond of roadside shashlik. For one thing, it was cooked in front of your face. in contrast, many of the roadside cafeterias had the basic Kazakh dish of laghman, which is a mutton and noodle soup / stew, and as there was typically just a huge vat of it which was reheated when you ordered some. You had no idea how old it was, nor how long it had been sitting there waiting for an unsuspecting traveller to order some. When in doubt, stick to shashlik and beer we figured.

One of the other serious issues we had to contend with in Kazakhstan was security. On our first night in Kazakhstan, while staying at a village house, the local kids had entered during the night and pilfered small items from our bags. Why they took cassettes of Andrew Lloyd Webber I will never know, and they were certainly not missed by us, but the very fact it happened put us on guard. These security issues added nervous tension to any stops we made and made it difficult to relax and enjoy the company of the Kazakhs.

The evening of the 19th was spent camped behind some dunes barely 50 yards from the side of the main highway. The dunes covered the campsite well and we soon had our standard evening fire going, all totally unseen from the highway. We began on the 20th putting in a good 45 minutes ride before pulling in to the surprisingly pleasant town of Sarkand [see Central Asia map 2]. Broad street and green watered public spaces made it by far the nicest town we had seen so far in Kazakhstan. We got a bang up cooked breakfast each and teas for the grand total of 1 US dollar before going in search of tenge. As we had each previous day, we had run out of tenge. You would think we would learn that fuel was more expensive here and would stock up on tenge, but alas we were far too stupid for that. Anyway, the bank had no change booth but they directed us to the bazaar. After the Semipalatinsk bazaar, we were a little uncomfortable about this approach, but the Sarkand bazaar gave us faith again in Kazakhstan. Everyone was friendly, and without one sleazy weasel in sight. We changed $20 each, stocking us up with over 1000 tenge each (the rate was 56 tenge to the dollar). The weather was now relatively warm. James changed back from the winter gloves into his "spring gloves". Incredibly due to assorted accumulations he now was carrying 4 different sets of motorcycle gloves. I only had the two and was not quite convinced I should be changing back to my "summer gloves". " Around lunchtime we passed a turkic family running a shashlik stand and we stopped to check it out. They wanted 20 tenge (40 US cents) per shashlik, which we thought was a bit expensive. We were getting whole meals for 20 tenge each. Admittedly these shashlik did look pretty large and the meat looked tasty, but we decided to continue on. As soon as we donned the helmets and started up the bikes again the family stopped us, and insisted we join them for lunch. "bez dengi, bez dengi" ... they were going to shashlik us up and told us to forget about the money. And so we joined the family for lunch and had some laghman and shashlik washed down with tea, gratis. The scenery here was impressive. The vastness of Kazakhstan was apparent as we rode over the foothills of the Tien Shan. The height giving us great views over the steppe. A look at the map shows we were also constantly in sight of the 4000 + metre (13000 + feet) snow capped Alatau range, a branch of the Tien Shan. We put in a relaxing day's ride ending up within a few hours ride of Almaty. On Friday the 21st we left our campsite and prepared to drive into the city. It was our first capital city since UB, and the first city of over 1.5 million people since Beijing. It was a surprisingly warm day and we dispensed with the windproof gear and rode off in Jeans and leather jackets - the Tokyo to London Projects riding gear of choice. The first western staffed establishment we passed was the US embassy. Anyone who has ever has anything to do with US embassies will know that they are the most hostile unfriendly places you will ever encounter. While British, Canadian, Australian embassies go out of their way to assist their citizens abroad, US embassies tend not to care at all about their travelling citizens, unless they are working on multi billion dollar deals. If they ignore their own citizens, we expected they wouldn't be too helpful to us. But we just wanted to talk to them and at least find out what embassies were in Almaty. Was there an Australian one? Canadian one? British one? and if so, where. It was Friday, so at least one of the commonwealth embassies would have some sort of drinks on. Maybe we could even score somewhere to stay. Embassy staff were great like that!

So we pulled into the American Embassy and stop not too far from the entrance (but out of the way) and a jarhead marches straight up to us as we dismount and starts barking "you can not leave your motorcycles there". "Don't worry buddy" James replies. "We are only going to be a minute, just want to pop in and ask about other embassies in town." "Listen pal, its a god damn security hazard. Move your motorcycles, NOW!" With a shrug of the shoulders we parked the bikes across the street and had a brief chat with a Kazakh security guard by the US embassy's front gate. He told us about the British Embassy and where it was located so we decided to skip the intensely hostile American embassy and try our luck elsewhere. So next stop was the British embassy, which actually was a joint British - German - French embassy; a sign of EC co-operation. But they gave the coldest of cold shoulders and wouldn't even advise us of a cheap hotel. Next stop the Canadian Consul, and we were in more luck. He had a room in an office block. The Canadian mission in Kazakhstan was just one guy in one room, him, but he was helpful. He put us in touch with a group of Australian Telecoms engineers helping to rebuild the Kazakh phone infrastructure and providing satellite based telecoms services (like the one we used in Irkutsk) to the local business community.

David Waterhouse and the Telstra Almaty crew gave us a good insight to the expat life. Their mansions on the outskirts of town were the scene of regular parties attended by literally dozens of stunning women. It was jealousy at first sight. Why was I struggling to ride a motorcycle across the world when I could be living like a king in Almaty? The other benefit of hanging with the Telstra crew was being able to use their phones to contact home. There was no public internet to speak of in 1994, and contact was incredibly difficult and expensive. It was the first time I had spoken to my mother in months.

We did a interview for a motoring journal here in Almaty and were later sent a copy of the publication. We were on the first page, and the second page and the third page. They obviously didn't get a lot of motoring news around here. Almaty had a good energetic feel about it though. With the exception of Shanghai right at the beginning of the trip, this place was more pumping that anywhere else we had seen. It was buzzing with foreign corporations setting up shop. The Almaty economy had a real energy to it, and we really liked the place. This Saturday was the first day we had off the bikes in about 2 weeks. A chance to enjoy the things in life that don't involve motorcycles, and do some admin and some desperately overdue laundry.

The news from Almaty (on expat cable TV) was that the weather in Moscow was already near freezing during the day. We still had 4,500 kilometres to cover before we reached that part of the world, meaning that we could only afford one days rest in Almaty. Fortunately we were able to find not only 93 octane fuel here, but 95 octane. Not surprising with all the government and "biznismen" Mercedes over town. I also found a bank to give me cash out of my Mastercard account. James and I had diversified before the trip with one of us taking a Visa card and the other a Mastercard. When we passed through this area of the world, there was no competition, Visa worked at every main bank branch, but Mastercard only worked in the big cities.Just as we planning to leave Almaty on Sunday morning (October 23rd), a cold front moved in and the snow was falling in Almaty. Two days earlier we had ridden into town in balmy 13 degree sunshine. Now, as had so often been the case during our travels, our imminent departure was a signal to the weather gods to turn on the miserable stuff. The weather didn't improve through the Sunday and so we sat tight, watched cable TV and drank beers in the company of Bob, from the Telstra operation. On Monday the 24th we departed Almaty in less than ideal conditions. With snow falling all around the Kazakh capital we headed for the Kirghiz border [see Central Asia map 3]. As we were becoming increasingly concerned about the onset of winter in Western Russia we felt compelled to try and cover as much ground as possible despite the conditions. As we persevered, the road climbed toward a pass. Visibility deteriorated quickly as we climbed to the point where we could only see a few feet ahead and the road became increasingly icy.

Local drivers, driving with no lights or other courtesies seemed oblivious to the danger. When a series of overturned semi-trailers came into view through the fog we started to seriously reconsider the soundness of our policy. However at this stage in the pass our safety would have been further compromised if we had attempted to turn around, so we crawled cautiously towards the summit. We were astounded and overcome by intense relief at the summit on finding a complete reversal of our fortunes. The conditions on the other side of the pass were clear and sunny. We crossed the Kirghiz border in sunshine.

This border also marks the outskirts of the Kirghiz capital city, Bishkek. Our route from Almaty through Bishkek and Dzhambul to Chimkent followed a branch of the ancient trade route, the silk road, linking Europe to eastern China. Ancient trading villages along the route now make a 75 kilometre corridor of markets stretching from the western edge of Bishkek to the next Kazakh border. Fuel stations in Kirghizstan are rare. The few that are there never work. All the fuel is dispensed from the back of fuel trucks, specially modified with a pump and meter. Fuel costs in Central Asia varied, depending on the remoteness of the location, from 20c to 40c per litre. With the exception of 93 octane in Almaty, the only fuel available anywhere in Kirghizstan and Kazakhstan was 76 octane. That night we rode until it was dark, and then by the light of our headlights, made our way into the bushes by the side of the road. When we awoke the next morning we realised that we had stopped by the base of the very impressive Kirghiz Mountains, hidden to us the previous evening in the dark.

We awoke on October 25th in freezing cold conditions to the scene below; Ice on tent and the magnificent Kirghiz mountains in the background. Oh - the sacrifices a man makes for photography. I woke up around 6:30am and had to take a early morning slash so I left the relative warmth of the tent for the freezing outside. As I turned around, almost splashing my feet, I was amazed at the mountains right next to us. We had been aware of the presence of the mountains last night but couldn't really see them at all, and we had ridden for a good hour after dark to escape the endless chain of villages that line the highway in Kirghizstan. So this morning was our first view close up and in clear weather of the mountains. It was impressive. I had to take a photo. So I grabbed the tripod off the bike. It was aluminium and of course about -10 degrees so it stuck to my fingers. Doh ! I put a glove on one hand and grabbed the tripod again. I reached into the warmish tent and grabbed my camera bag and trudged out into the tilled frozen field. It was freezing cold out there and once set up, I quickly ripped off a couple of shots. As I began packing up the tripod, the first rays of sun hit the mountain and the yellow tinted sun adding contrast the the purplish sky and white snow was irresistible. Damn it I was freezing but I would have to stay and rip off a few more shots. Over the next 30 minutes I was about to leave at least 6 times, but each time when I though I had the shots I needed, more angles and more contrast was provided by the sun, so I stayed and shot a few more shots. By the time I got back to the tent it was almost 7:15. I was frozen. My fingers could not move. The batteries in the camera had died from the cold. But James was snug as a bug in a rug and sleeping soundly. One of these days, he was going to have to be the one to get the miserable photos.

The 4,500m Kirghiz Mountains

That morning was freezing cold as we pushed on through Dzhambul [see Central Asia map 4]. It was too cold to stop, so we pushed on hoping to make Chimkent, where we would have a late lunch / early dinner. Midway between Dzhambul and Chimkent was another mountain pass, and again it was icy, foggy and no-one, even in thick fog, drove with their lights on. People were overtaking trucks in cars, with no lights on, and with visibility barely 20 metres. It was frightening stuff. Vehicles coming the other way just materialised out of the fog and were gone in seconds. As with yesterdays pass, the weather on the south west side of the pass was a huge contrast to that on the north east side and as we crossed the pass the temperature must have risen 7 or 8 degrees. It was well above freezing here, and without the fog, the sunshine added further warmth.

By the time we got to Chimkent it was 2pm. We needed to get more tenge, but it was a public holiday so the banks were shut. We did what we always did and headed for the bazaar. It was rocking. Thousands of well natured people and warm sunshine lent a very positive atmosphere to the bazaar and we got out money changed. We bought some lunch and stocked up on flat bread for the ride across the desert. Here we were at the base of the Tien Shan about to cross a desert. By the time we got across it, we would be in the Volga basin, in European Russia. That made it a damn big ride with very little comfort or civilisation until we got to Russia. A final temptation before the big desert ride was a beergarden, sitting right across the road from the bazaar. We had little choice but to wander over and sample the local wares. A nice half litre glass of tasty beer cost us all of 12 tenge a piece, a bargain price for freshly poured beer, straight from the tap. We had barely drank the first mouthful of beer when the local police, who had be "guarding" our bikes while were in the bazaar, warned us that alcohol and driving were not permitted in Kazakhstan. We looked up with puppy dog eyes at the head cop, then down at the barely touched beers, then back at the cop. We were heartbroken and he knew it. " Oh ok" her muttered "I will let you ride off AFTER your beer". Saved by the police !! We found out later in Russia that the whole former USSR has a strict zero alcohol allowance regarding driving.Travelling Northwest from Chimkent, we rapidly left the thin green belt at the base of the Kirghiz Mountains, and for the third time in our journey, we prepared to cross a desert. From here it was to be a week of riding, eating at roadside stalls, no showers, sleeping in the tent and putting up with long stretches of unsealed highway. Seventy kilometres out of Chimkent we pulled off the road, and set up our tent and evening fire.

Turkestan, Kazakhstan

The following morning, October 26th we did our daily maintenance routine and had our morning fire before heading off into the vastness of the Kazakh steppe [see Central Asia map 5]. Since Almaty we had got back into a rhythm, and the only thing that broke that rhythm for a few hours was yesterday afternoon in Chimkent. We were back in the saddle now determined to put as many miles behind us as we could, as fast as we could. With that in mind we put in 500 kms today. The morning was broken with a stop off in Turkestan. We saw from the highway a huge construction which on closer inspection turned out to be a 14th century mausoleum being restored by the Kazakh authorities. We loitered around there taking a few posed shots for the sponsors before looking around for a cafe. There was nothing appealing to be found so we fueled up and pushed on. Fuel prices were increasingly based on how far away from civilisation we were. In Chimkent we had filled up at 12 tenge a litre. This morning we paid 15 tenge, and in the afternoon we had passed stations with fuel at 18 tenge per litre. We went through the city of Kyzyl Orda, the largest city marked on the map between Chimkent and Russia. The idea had been to top up on supplies and take a break, but the city was without a doubt most unappealing looking. We decided to skip it and just push on in search or more mileage. Again the campsite was out of sight of the highway, behind a bunch of dunes.

Thursday the 27th was again going to be a robotic day. The scenery was uninspiring bland and again the point of the day was simply to get as far as we could by nightfall. There was only one point of interest in mind for the day and that was the city of Aralsk.

Soon after heading off we crossed the big river we had been following since soon after Turkestan. Twice now we had crossed the legendary Jaxartes, now the Syr Daria River, as it flowed through the desert to the Aral Sea. This legendary river was the northerly limit of Alexander the Great's side trip to subdue the Scythians threatening his Northern flank, and was crossed some 1500 years later with considerable skill and deception by Genghis Khan in his most impressive victory over the Khwarazm Empire. Two of history's greatest generals staged key victories using this river as a prop. Curiously there are no trees along the banks of the Syr Daria. It makes an interesting scene: simply a river flowing through an ocean of sand. As we drove further into the desert, a cluster of satellite dishes appeared on the horizon. The closer we rode, the more appeared. The desert became criss-crossed with a huge power grid, and a modern, high-tech city emerged on our left. None of this, of course, was marked on any of our maps, nor had been signposted, but was clearly the Soviet cosmodrome and space centre, Leninsk (a.k.a. Baikonyr). On the right side of the road were two enormous satellite dishes (obviously mission control) and away in the distance the rocket launchpad could be made out in the desert . Ironic how two foreigners can ride past on motorcycles a facility which jet airliners were not permitted to overfly.

Shortly before arriving in Aralsk [see Central Asia map 6], our planned lunch stop, we passed a group of elderly Kazakh women selling clothes by the highway. We stopped, turned around, and discovered it was camel hair goods they were selling. We spent our last Kazakh tenge on a camel hair vest each and James added a pair of camel hair socks to his collection.

Strange as it may seem for a town in the heart of the desert, Aralsk, was once a prosperous, seaside fishing town on the shores of the Aral Sea. As a result of a failed Soviet irrigation project the Aral Sea, is now barely 30% of its former size, and is shrinking daily. We needed to get more tenge, get some fuel, get some lunch and then get some photos. The town was just wrong for us from the moment we got there. First the fuel depot manager (there is only one fuel depot in Aralsk) refused to take USD or rubles for payment. Eventually he said he would but he wanted a ridiculous rate of 40 tenge to the dollar. We weren't having any of it and eventually decided to find the bazaar, get some tenge there and then return. It took us 30 minutes to find the bazaar, pretty incredible since Aralsk is hardly a big town. We just kept getting incorrect directions from the stoned out, unemployed locals. In the end we found the bazaar, and bought some tenge at the rate of 53 to the dollar. This still wasn't great. We had got at least 55 - 56 everywhere else in Kazakhstan. As we were leaving the bazaar, our bikes had attracted the attention of someone else. A plainly dressed man demanded to see our documents. We fobbed him off repeatedly but increasingly it became apparent that he possibly held some sort of official position, even if he was not in a uniform. We asked to go back to the station with him so he could show us he had some official role and back at the station he and the uniformed officers leaved through our passports and papers. After 5 minutes of this, there was some muttering in a language other than Russian and then our plain clothed "friend" said to us "You break our law". Its amazing how people who have no command of the English language can utter some key phrases. And regardless of the native tongue "you break our law" in accented English is a sure sign of trouble. "You have no Kazakh visa" he said.

James, sensing the potential financial danger ahead, jumped back aggressively and confidently with some made up rubbish. "We saw the foreign office in Almaty and they said we didn't need one as we had the Russian visa". We hadn't seen the foreign office of course, we just made that up, but this guy would have no idea about it, no idea who to contact to verify it or anything. These guys were clearly trying to raise some funds from foreigners passing through but were not confident and experienced enough to be good at it yet. After James' blag, they backed down, muttering under their breath, and gave us the passports back. "Thanks very much", we responded, "Now then, be a good man and tell us where is a restaurant?"

We had lunch in the Aral Hotel, which once sat by the shore. Now the hotel's jetty is nothing more than a wooden walkway to the desert, the shore now being 60km away. An empty swimming pool was dug into the front lawn of the hotel, in a position that would previously have been mere yards from the sea's edge. We sat down to a bland lunch and emerged taking photos of the rusting hulks of fishing boats surrounded by sand, a hundred yards or so in the distance. Soon after, our plain clothed friend, a state security officer it turned out, hastily shuffled us out of town, saying that we had no permission to take photographs. We fuelled up at the depot and got back underway. Aralsk had been an ugly experience all round. We saw further evidence of the ecological disaster as we left Aralsk. Monuments to fish, the staff of life for the local Kazakhs for centuries, could be seen in the desert from the highway. Aralsk itself had been a major fish processing centre. When the sea became too salty to support its fish, the soviets flew fish in from Murmansk in the Russian arctic, to be canned and processed in the factories of Aralsk.

Highway to Hell, KazakhstanNow that the Soviet Union was no more the fish industry in Aralsk died completely, and the subsequent unemployment and drug use was blatantly obvious from just our brief little stay there. We pushed on for an hour and a half out of Aralsk, the last half hour in the dark before pulling off the highway and setting up camp.

It was to be the last section of unpaved road for the entire journey, and it was truly notorious. People from as far away as Almaty had told us they'd rather drive an extra 800 kilometres and travel to Moscow via Siberia than face the 85 kilometre dirt hell in the middle of the desert. Most of the traffic preferred to struggle through the deep sand off to the side, rather than risk damage to their suspension by driving on the road. The road itself was occasionally mud, but now was rock hard. Still wearing the deformations from the last rains, sharp ruts of concrete like earth were the track. In this awkward mess were potholes, and potholes within potholes. This was the worst stretch of road we had encountered the whole journey. It was on this stretch of road that we realised standing up when riding was far better for shifting the eight around and we rode much of the stretch of two feet. By the end we were riding like imaginary Paris - Dakar riders, using our newly found standing up skills, charging forward, getting air over the bumps and feeling the soft TransAlp suspension bottom out as it landed.We were relieved to get this stretch of rough road (the Highway to Hell) out of our way in a couple of hours, but for most cars, travelling at 15 km/h, this stretch would have taken most of the day. Petrol at the end of the dirt road (near Irgiz) was the most expensive of the trip so far - 20 tenge per litre - and had to be pumped by hand. We arrived at the fuel depot right after a truck. The truck bought over 300 litres. It was all pumped by hand and we were there waiting over 30 minutes for our top up. Once back on sealed road (north of Irgiz) we sped back up to 100 km/h slowing down only for the herds of camels that wandered across the roads. Our lunch stop was a chance to warm up and fill up with laghman. This provided yet another opportunity to see how amateurish the Kazakhs were in trying to rip of Johnny Foreigner. These people need to talk to the Chinese. The Chinese are masterful at being able to hold a straight face and work themselves into a frenzy in order to back up their attempts to rip you off. The Kazakhs were mere beginners. After an average lunch, before which we forgot to ask the prices, the lady of the house told us it was 400 tenge. We laughed in her face. A similar meal for two had typically cost 50-80 tenge thoughout Kazakhstan, and never more than 100. We just left 100 on the table and walked out. If that happened in China, she would have growled herself into a vicious frenzy, yelling and screaming, being forceful and intimidating. But this Kazakh attempt was weak. She just shrugged her shoulders and pocketed the 100 tenge.

Late in the afternoon we stopped for fuel [see Central Asia map 7]. James checked with the lady behind the glass how much the fuel was and she said 7. James assumed she meant 17 (tenge per litre) as that was roughly what we had been paying in the deserty regions of Kazakhkstan. He checked how much would be 5 litres. But she was more interested in James than in petrol. She wanted to know his name, where he was from, how old he was. I suspect she wanted James to join her in the office for a quicky. Eventually he batted away her advances and she said 34. Must be something to do with rubles he thought, as the Russian border was not far away. In the end she charged him 34 tenge for 5 litres. James slightly miscalculated his need and by the end, petrol was spewing all over his bike. In Russia and Kazakhstan its normal that you estimate how much fuel you need, then pay for it, then the pump dispenses the fuel. You have no way to stop it. If 4.5 litres would fill you up but you bought 5 litres, then it means half a litre ends up all over you, your bike and the pavement. I then went to fill up with 5 litres while James chatted away to his new admirer and tried to get the petrol off himself, and she was so smitten that she refused to take any more payment and we ended up with 10 litres for 34 tenge ... about 60 US cents - all up. Soon after, we passed a stream near a roadside village, where trucks had stopped. We pulled in to wash ourselves and grab some of our bread to eat (we carried a decent supply of flat bread with us thought Kazakhstan as it was cheap and it kept well). A group of local Kazakh kids appeared and started loitering around the bikes so James and I decided to go down to the stream one at a time, while the other stood by the bikes fending off the kids. The kids were deliberately annoying and it was just more of the same from Kazakhstan. We never felt threatened in China, Mongolia or Russia, but here in Kazakhstan, the people were markedly less friendly and often saw you as a target. The kids began to pick stuff off the bikes while others asked distracting questions and I felt it was clear they were up to something. By the times James returned the kids had wandered off to talk to truck drivers 50 yards away, and James realised his gloves were missing - his $60 Rossignol ski gloves.

Wheatfield Campsite

I hit the roof. I was supposed to be guarding the bikes and the little kids had got the better of me. I grabbed an ivory hunting knife I had bought in Mongolia and marched over to the kids and truck drivers demanding the gloves back. The kids played dumb. I held the knife up against the trucks front tyre and managed to make it plain and obvious to the truck drivers that either I get the gloves back or I slash their tyres. They didn't have anything to do with it of course, but they were the only way I could get to the Kazakh kids. The truck drivers obviously saw I had flipped and tried to calm me down. Two of them yelled out at the kids in a language I didn't understand and a bit of an argument ensued between the truck drivers and the kids before one of the kids handed the gloves to one of the truckers. I put the knife down and thanked the truck drivers as they gave me back James gloves.

I am almost never prone to flipping out, but Kazakhstan gave me the creeps and the glove theft was the final straw. It was a pity as it was the first time in the whole journey that we needed to put our foot down and get aggressive about getting taken for a ride. After than we drove 30 klms further on before again camping by the side of the road. That episode annoyed the both of us. We just wanted to get out of Kazakhstan and back into Russia where people were friendly. We had only done 400 km that day as we had been slowed down by the few hours it took to cover the 85 km Hoghway to Hell earlier in the day. While the temperature was still cold, the days were sunny, and the roads were OK. We camped behind a group haystacks, out of sight from the road, and burnt hay throughout the night to keep ourselves warm and to warm up the Russian army rations we had scored back in Kansk. October 29 began like all days did, with a fire. We were surrounded by a giant haystack of combustible material and the temperature of the fire could be closely controlled by adding more or less chaff to the fire. The scenery had move on from the deserts, back to steppe. It was still mostly treeless, but grass was abundant. Today would be a day of heading west. We did 500 kms on this day, all of it westward.

The only one incident to break our rhythm, was being stopped at gunpoint by what could only be described as bandits 50 klms out of Khobda. Half a dozen heavily armed men appeared out of nowhere, and pulled us over. After realising that we weren't locals, their attention soon turned to the motorcycles, as was so often the case throughout our travels. Whenever we were stopped, whether by traffic police or the military, demands for our documents would quickly give way to questions relating to the motorcycles. On this occasion the bandits were highly impressed with simple things like the starter motors and radiators. They made jokes about the bikes being more like cars than motorcycles, and after a few plays with the throttle, they patted us on our backs, told us we could ride off and warned us to be careful as these were dangerous parts. Ever since entering Siberia we had been warned about the existence of this sort of "toll-collection". Remembering this, we rode off most relieved to have avoided serious problems. Out in the nothingness of the Kazakh steppe, with not another soul in sight, it would have been incredibly easy to knock off a couple of foreign motorcyclists and just take the lot - bikes, cameras, clothes, cash. We got out of that tricky situation very well indeed.

It was yet another security scare in Kazakhstan, and we could not wait to see the back of the it. The bikes hadn't tasted fuel above 80 octane since Almaty and we had long ago run out of octane booster. Russia would mean 92-93 octane fuel now and again, maybe even 95. Moscow, we had been told by truckers, even had 98! Heavens above. Get me to Moscow.

The weather was increasingly overcast, but at least that meant it would be a warmer night. The roads were increasingly better, but were not without horror stretches of a few hundred metres that you would bundle into at 100km/h before applying both brakes on full and bracing for the inevitable impact. On the other hand, fuel and food were becoming harder and harder to find, were often unavailable and the bandit nature of Kazakhstan was very apparent up here in the North-West. Southern Kazakhstan had been friendly and well populated, with good food and relatively abundant fuel (76 and 80 octane). The North was sparsely populated and had a very unfriendly feel about it. We were a bit shaken by our bandit encounter and pulled over an hour or so down the road behind the row of low trees lining the road and set up camp [see Central Asia map 8]. Sunday October 30th was to be our last day in Kazakhstan. We had two borders to cross today. First up at Uralsk was the Europe - Asia border, demarcated by the Ural river, and marked with a typical soviet obelisk. 110 km further on was the Russian border. The Russian border was actually a complete anti-climax. The only indication was a small sign saying "Welcome to Russia", and a building site - presumably for future customs facilities. Predictably, as we entered Europe, the weather began to close in.

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Additional Images of Central Asia

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