The young man who seemed to be interested in using my head as a baseball was actually not quite as bad as I first had thought. He actually just tried to get my attention and sell me an insurance for the bike. That is mandatory in many countries so I didn’t have much choice but to follow him.
There was one gravel road which stretched through the small border village and it looked like all other border towns I had passed during my travels, depressing, worn down and very temporary. The insurance business was located inside a tiny old camping trailer and it was quite obvious that the small space was not only used as an office but also as a home for at least two people. Anyhow, it all went well, they took a bit of my money and gave me a nice looking insurance policy with lots of colourful chops on it. The coverage of the policy would require significantly better skills in the Kazakh language for me to understand so I just tucked it away, smiled and got back on my bike.
It was really hot, around 37 degrees and all time spent off the bike, in all my gear, was rather tormenting and I was actually sweating in a way that was almost comical. My pores were pumping out sweat like a punctured garden hose and getting the bike up to speed was the only way to cool myself off. Having stops to handle paperwork or passports or checkpoints or whatever was usually extremely painful and the only thing that kept me sane during these times was my camel back which I filled up with 2.5 litres of fresh water every morning. Without it I would have been in serious trouble.
My expectations of Kazakhstan as opposed to many of the other countries I had been driving through were not very high actually. I expected a lot of flat land driving without much scenery. I actually expected Kazakhstan to be quite tough. Was I wrong on that one. Kazakhstan was far from that, Kazakhstan wasn’t tough it was super tough, but it started out nicely.
I stopped at the first open gas station to fill up. The owner was extremely excited to have me fill up at his station and called all his relatives over so that each and every one of them could have their photo taken sitting on my bike. They were happy, they laughed, smiled, pretended they drove my bike, it was a party! A very enjoyable one except for the fact that I was, again, sweating badly. I seriously needed to get back on the road to cool down. Eventually all photos were taken and I must admit that after all it was worth the loss of around 1 litre of body fluid to see the excitement in their faces.
Anyhow, I got back on the road, which actually was a very good road. Excellent tarmac so I could keep a good speed but it was getting late and I needed to start looking for a decent camping spot. It would be my first night in the tent and I wanted to make sure I had enough time to put the tent up before it got dark, especially since I hadn’t really practiced putting it up and didn’t know how long it would take. I was driving on the highway along the border to Kyrgyzstan and eventually found a field worth investigating for camping. After 30 minutes of off road driving I found a good spot for my tent and started to get my camp up and running.
It didn’t take long until I had a group of maybe 10 horses surrounding my camp spot. Hmm, I must admit there was a bit of a moment there with the horses, us being out there roaming the wild. I know, it was silly but it was truly nice. 15 minutes later their owner, a really cool looking cowboy or more like a chapas, came riding up to me. He was obviously extremely amused by this motorcycle dude and his gear which was maybe not quite as much “one with nature and the horses” as he thought. He asked who I was and what on earth I was doing there, in the middle of the field, in the middle of nowhere. Not in an unfriendly or hostile way, no he was just very curious and even though he spoke no English he managed to invite me to spend the night in his tent, which was a much bigger one of a more permanent kind not too far away. He thought it was a better idea for me to stay with him but I had been looking forward to camping after all these weeks in hotels so I said thanks but no thanks. He still wanted to show his generosity and gave me a melon he had in his saddle bag and then he rode off with his herd. I was starstruck. I was so impressed with this guy who felt so genuine.
I sat in my camping chair, watched the sunset, and ate some freezedried rations, macaroni bolognaise I believe it was, tasted divine. The melon i saved for breakfast. I actually don’t like melons but this one was absolutely wonderful. It tasted like concentrated sunshine. I bought many melons after that but none even came close, It was a very special melon. That night I slept like a baby.
Morning came and time to break camp and get going. I hoped the cowboy would come back with his horses but I only saw them far off in a distance. I got up on my bike and started driving back across the fields towards the highway. When I was getting close to the highway a police car suddenly comes driving towards me on the field. It was a bumpy ride for them so I wondered what serious business they might have out here with me. It turned out they only wanted one thing and that was to take a bunch of photos and selfies with me. They are to this day the biggest smiling police men I have ever met.
After my encounter with the Kazak police I went back up on the highway. Good highway but extremely uneventful and the further north I got the more uneventful it became. It became a desert. Old sea bed from what once was the worlds fourth largest lake, Aral. Drained by the former Soviet union and now just a never ending flatland of sand. It was even actually very difficult to find good spots to camp at. I do not like to put my tent up where it is easily spotted from the main road. Not that there was much traffic on it but anyway. It was all to flat and I did not want to travel too far off from the main road since if something happened to the bike or me I would be in serious trouble. There was nothing out there except an occasional camel. Also, finding petrol was hard. There were gas stations alright but hardly any of them had any petrol. Most of them had closed their pumps. I had to be really attentive and visit every single petrol station no matter if I needed it or not. When I could I filled up everything I had including an extra five litre water bottle I tied to the bike.
Kazaksthan was hard, hot and hard. The open desert, no people and a straight road that was just going on and on was tough mentally. Its like the infinity openness somehow becomes claustrophobic. It also made the riding rather tedious. Without the music in my helmet I would probably have gone nuts.
But then the monotony broke and the shit hit the fan.
I had been looking for a good camping spot for many miles and I had eventually found one. Not good but OK. Only problem was that the riding over there was through really deep loose sand so when I got there I was sweating like a pig. Getting the tent up was also a bit of a challenge since its hard to make the tent poles stick in loose sand. Well, after a while it was up and I was sitting in my camping chair watching the sunset and texting my wife, telling her Im OK. It was something I had promised my wife I would do every day to keep her from not worrying.
I got up early at 06.00 and packed the bike since I knew I had a long ride ahead of me. I was literally in the middle of nowhere and with the conditions that had gotten much worse lately I knew it would be a tough day to reach the next town. I also knew there was supposed to be a gas station just 20km ahead that I needed badly. I also needed to keep going since I had a fixed entry date into Russia.
I got on the bike and headed for the road when I realised something wasn’t right. The wheel did not spin in the loose sand. I just kept giving gas and nothing happened. My first thought was that it was the anti spin that was playing up so I turned it off but no change. However, with a lot of effort I managed to get the bike back on the road but once there it would only do 40 km an hour. Damn. I really had a problem, the clutch was giving up. In 40km an hour I drove to the petrol station. There was no town, no nothing, just a petrol station placed on top a big sand dune. The last outpost for the next 450km. There would be 350 km to go back so that was not an option. I decided I would do the 450 km in 40 km an hour but it was a bit scary and It was 37 degrees hot. I filled up every canister I had with petrol and was just about to leave when I realised, what if the issue with the bike gets worse and Im stuck out there. Thinking twice isn’t always so bad and I made a decision when I entered my first real difficulty on the trip to always chose the safe alternative. Now I was about to do the exact opposite. So, I took three breaths and went back into the gas station and talked to one of the guys there who spoke a few words of English. He could arrange a towtruck to take me the 450km, no problem. The cost was equivalent to Euro 200 in Kazak currency or Euro 2.000 equivalent in USD. I only had US dollars so I suggested to him that maybe he calculated the cost a bit wrong. He responded I should take it or leave it and eventually I agreed. Paid him, but only equivalent to the 200 Euros and he was happy and then told me the towtruck would come at nine o’clock tonight. It was 08.00 in the morning. I had to wait for 13 hours. But if that’s what I got to do then that’s what I got to do. I sat down on the ground next to my bike and started feeling sorry for myself.
Everyone who came to the petrol station to fill up of course came over to me. I didn’t mind the occasional company but all I could say to make them understand was to point at the bike and say kaput. Some gave me food, some gave me drinks and one family even drank some vodka with me and gave me a bottle. I think they thought I needed it. I definitely agreed and happily accepted the gift. What else can one do at a petrol station, in the desert in 37 degrees heat, 450 km from the nearest town, a broken motorcycle and nobody who speaks English, but to drink a bit of vodka.
At 22.00 the tow truck, or actually what used to be a tow truck, arrives. After some engine maintenance and filling of oil, which the truck seems to crave more than diesel, we hauled the bike up and started our 450km long journey. The tow truck, which was in size like a small pick up truck, had absolutely no suspension and could only do maximum 55km/h before it starts jumping around on the road like a tennisball. A reasonably scary all night ride through the desert. The driver, who of course didnt speak English had a recipe for staying awake all night which wasnt too successful but it included nonstop smoking, drinking coca cola and nonstop listening to his USB stick with ten Kazak songs over and over again. I didnt know the Kazak songs to be honest but there was an 11th song which I knew and every time I heard it I understood we were about to listen to yet another round of repeat. The song was Daddy Cool by Boney M. I never want to hear that song again, ever. Do you hear me, never!
Unfortunately his recipe for staying awake wasnt too good and he fell asleep many times at the wheel during the trip and I needed to wake him up. I made him stop so we both can get a bit of sleep before riding the last four hours into our destination. 10.00 in the morning we arrived to Aktobe and I needed to find a motorcycle maintenance shop. Internet is a blessing and relatively quickly we found a place. A repairman was there and after some work on the clutch for about 45 minutes the bike was as good as new.
I was so so happy, so so relieved. I booked an hotel and as soon as I got there I had a shower and went right to sleep. In the evening I went to a really nice steakhouse and had some good food and a beer. Might have had a whiskey as well coming to think of it. Slept like a baby that night and woke up ready as ever to go back and conquer the roads.
I had two more stops in Kazakhstan before entering Russia, Uralsk and lastly Atyrau. Uralsk was a nice city so coming to think of it I must admit that even if Kazakhstan was really hard and most of the time not so exiting and when it was it wasn’t the kind of excitement I was interested in, it did actually end on a positive note. My memory of Kazakhstan is not all dark. People were most of the time as everywhere else exceptionally nice and actually they seemed grateful I took the time to visit their country. It actually reminds of when I one day, while driving in the desert, had a car pulling up next to me and asked me to pull over. I did, and so did the car and a whole family, with 3 children jumps out of the car. The family came up to me with big smiles on their faces and wanted to shake my hand and take some pictures. They gave me some home baked bread and a bag of grapes. They were worried I didn’t get enough to eat in the desert since there is not many places to get food. It was a good moment, a very good moment. We laughed, took pictures and spoke to each other in languages we didn’t understand but it was fine. We kind of understood anyway.
It’s a tough land to cross but a great people to get to know.