The diaries - 11  

19 June

Semipalatinsk - Kazakhstan


Just a quick update from Semipalatinsk, Khazakhstan.


Spent an hour trying to get out of  the town this morning, but a record time through the Russian/Kazakhstan border controls at one hour five minutes!


Torrential rain this afternoon, but we're safely ensconsed in the only hotel in town with hot water. As it happens... the same hotel that Ewan and Charlie stayed at.

26 June

Alma-Ata - Russia


There is one thing about the scenery in this part of the world - it goes on for a long time without a change. I rode the other day down the longest, straightest stretch of road I have ever seen. 110 miles of road to nowhere, no cafes, no fuel stations, no bend in the road, no traffic, no nothing! No wonder the Russians used to detonate atom bombs here!

What a place to break down..... No I didn't, honest, but with 60,000 miles on the clock of my F650GS, and having it coughing and spluttering on the 80 octane petrol it occasionally had to endure - the thought did cross my mind that it just could!

We are here in Almaty, and what a beautiful city it is. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, lush green valleys, trees and flowers everywhere, the contrast with Siberia and Mongolia is
enormous. But it is a city that could be anywhere in the world. There are cars, shops, designer clothes, supermarkets selling the same goods as at home, even internet cafes, in fact ....civilization.

The most fun has been out in the country, where tourism is unheard of and  where finding accommodation is a real challenge. We were warned by the police in Kazakhstan not to camp - it is too dangerous. Now we have heard that before, in fact in every country we have been through we have been warned that the neighbouring country is 'dangerous', so we still don't know whether it's the bears and wolves we have to be wary of or the indigenous population.

One homo-sapiens Mick came up against frightened the life out of him. A big-boned lady running the military-style hotel in Ayagoz. When we arrived she spoke only to me, choosing to ignore Mick. I found her charming and helpful, she was sympathetic about my beetroot-red sweating face, showed me to the shower - which was a wooden pen next to the hen hut - and made sure I knew how this solar-powered device worked (tongue firmly in cheek here). (She fancied you - Mick) With only steamed dumplings on offer at the hotel's cafe, she went out and fetched a roast chicken for us - a takeaway Kazakh style!

When she informed the police we had arrived in town she brought extra chairs for the two women police officers to sit on while they interviewed us. Ah - sisterhood - it's a wonderful thing!  Funny how different is the male perspective, as no doubt Mick will have told you! There is a slight shift in personal attitudes here in southern Kazakhstan. Here the men shake hands with men and the women are ignored. I expect as we get deeper into Muslim territory I may even have to walk six steps behind!

The bird life in North East Kazakhstan is truly amazing: eagles, eagles and more eagles. The Kazakh eagle-hunters are legendary. They capture and train eagles and then, after a w
orking life of perhaps 10 years, they release them into the wild again. There are eagles literally everywhere, soaring and swooping. They have a wing span of about 6 feet and a dollop of poo that covers the visor entirely when a direct hit is scored (it drips down the chin too in an open-faced helmet). is plenty of food here for them, little marmot things, running like rats.


In Siberia the only bear we actually saw was one recently skinned and pinned on the wall. It was so big I just hoped its daddy wasn't coming looking for it. In the Gobi there were wild horses and camels, and both black and white-tailed antelope. So far in Kazakhstan we have seen nothing running wild, but then the plains are so vast - anything there would certainly be away from the tarmac.


We are spending a few days exploring this area and shall certainly go up into the mountains, so perhaps we will see some of the rare creatures whose statues appear on the hillsides all over Kazakhstan, part-animal, part-mythical creature, I would love to capture one of those in my camera sights!

Alma-Ata   (Almaty)



We had a bet.... Sue said that we would get through the border from Russia and into Kazakhstan in less than two hours!  I went 'over'.... and lost.  One hour five minutes, a record!  As ever the border-guards and officials were pleasant, smiling, and helpful.  Nothing to pay, no $ (US dollars), no insurance forms.... no insurance!  We had pulled another hour back as we crossed the border... slowly but inexorably westwards we ride.


By chance we were directed to the Hotel Binar in Semeypalatinsk... where Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor ("Long Way Round") stayed.  Seeking out an internet cafe, and sheltering from a torrential downpour, we spoke to an Indian lady who was a medical (surgical) student.  She was 'gobsmacked' that we could come through so many countries, not speak the language, and yet eat!  How on earth could we order food if we couldn't speak the lingo!  She was educated, and yet spoke poorly of the Pakistan students and uneducated people back home.  I was dismayed!


The best GPS in the world, with no street-mapping, helps you find your way out of these towns.  I work on logic and instinct... I get lost.  Sue works on female logic and not much else, and she gets us out of town eventually.  Took us longer than through the border I might add!


Heading south we
can see the mountains bordering Mongolia and China, they are soft and gentle though they have been made out of papier maché for a model railway, then sprinkled with glue and green baize.  We find a small (read the only) hotel in Kokpekty but there is no parking for the 'bikes. I pretend to make to leave, and all of a sudden we can put the motorcycles in the passage at the back of the hotel.  Up a couple of steps, through two doors, across the marble floor, up two more steps (crack a bit of marble flooring-tile!) and through into the passage.  The bikes are safe, and in a hotel... all in, at five quid a night!


As ever, whenever we stop, we are surrounded by people asking questions, wanting to shake hands, talk, look at the bikes.  Sue has a tremendous throng of people around her, especially the guys, who want to help her, make sure she doesn't drop the bike etc. Always willing, always helpful.  The hotel staff want our photographs taken with them.


We ride past titanium mines and to Lake (Ozero) Zajsah, guessing there will be a ferry across because the road on the map, and GPS World Map, finishes at the lake and then starts at t'other side. Clever assumption eh?!  As we climb a mountain pass, before the lake comes into view, about fifteen cars in a convoy coming towards us tell me the boat's just in!  Sure enough, we crest the hill and a large ferry boat is alongside the jetty.  We ride on but the lady giving out the tickets has no idea what to do with us... no motorcycles on board before, no tourists inthese parts. She waves us on board and we park up.... free of charge!   The mountains, the scenery, is like nothing we've seen before.


We ride into Kurchum, the hotel is four quid a night, and we've had an easy day. Cafe/bar next to the hotel... all is well.  The next morning we ride through Buran to Zaysan and to Aksuat but -  typical of one of 'Sue's Loops' -there's nowhere to stay, so we end up heading back u
p to for the night (285 miles in the day) The staff welcome us back with warm smiles and point to the passage for the bikes! Kokpekty... Frank Sinatra sings... "My kind of town"!


Memory for today...beautiful scenery, yet more friendly folk, but to cap everything was the long straight road between the mountains where eagles perched at the side of the road looking for their supper.  Every second post would have an enormous eagle giving you the errr ... mmmm well the errr ... mmmm 'eagle eye'  as we rode past.  When one took off as we approached, from about fifteen feet away it was a truly magnificent sight.  After this I never want to see an eagle in captivity again, this beauty must have been six foot across the wing span... a sight I shall never forget.


Ayagoz... well OK, the hotel was only eight quid, and the bikes were parked round the back safe and secure, and no doubt Sue will tell a different tale -she did after all warm to the lady -but I can't help thinking that the manageress was a left-over from a very different regime!  She barked orders, jibbered and jabbered away, pointing and directing, repeatedly knocked on the door to tell us when to eat, what to eat, where to eat it and maybe possibly even how to eat it.  Just when I thought she'd done, another knock at the door... the secret police!  I joke - maybe, maybe not - but it was the police (two nice ladies) who came to check our passports, our reason for visiting Kazakhstan, when and where etc. They took down details and left with a smile... shaking Sue's hand but not mine!  Our 'lady' must have 'phoned the police and told them of our presence.  I joked about wondering what time the morning trumpet (can't spell Revally) would be sounded!


7.10am -knock knock... guess who?  She wanted to give me the receipt for the money paid on arrival, didn't just stand at the door and hand it to me, just jabbered away clutching it tightly. The penny dropped, I took hold of it, and showed her how to pass it under the door, and smiled.... she didn't!  That day we rode 250 miles, through more police checks, through Taskesken and Ucharal to a new hotel in Sarkand.  They even covered the bikes up for us.  A warm and friendly welcome, good food and a bier.


We would probably have  found somewhere to stop earlier than we did, but Sue thinks that 3pm is a little too early!  Well that's fine if there's somewhere to stop at 5pm or 6pm. but there wasn't, so we continued on and rode a total 270 miles into Almaty, arriving early evening.  A few forays down one-way streets the wrong way, the odd 'no entry' sign disregarded, and we found a small hotel in Almaty half the price of one just half a mile away. Again a warm welcome, genuine interest in us and our bikes, so we're going to have two or three days here.  It's fresh city, plenty of green, parks, wide roads, fountains... but within minutes of our walk to this internet cafe we are accosted by a young child two or three years old, sent by his mother sitting nearby, to beg off us.  Nothing changes!


Kazakhstan: a land of differences, of changes, of old and new.  Out in the country the people are poor and yet friendly.  They smile and welcome us.  Toilets are wooden huts with a hole in the floor and a rather large hole beneath.... don't drop your keys! We can fill both bikes up from empty for four quid, a meal and coffee for the pair of us is a pound, maybe two. Almaty is alive with large cars, large hotels, lots of money, rich people, beggars and tourists!


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