After crossing into Kazakhstan in the record time of 1.5 hours for both border sides, we have an easy 120kms to our next overnight stop in Semipalatinsk. Or so we thought… We have had it far too easy for far too long someone decided, time to change that today…!! Storm clouds have been building fast, we dodge some then the lightening gets progressively closer. Time to find shelter somewhere as we know there are no towns ahead for quite a while. A bus stop appears just in time. Time to snack and watch the light show. Once the thunder moves away from us, we decide to carry on. We didn’t make it far before a very bright vertical lightning strike right ahead of us makes us turn back to our now favourite bus shelter. Good timing: we now get hail. We have been given quite a show. We enjoy our time waiting, watching. There is something special about being out in the elements. Cars and trucks passing by all acknowledge us and hoot and wave. We love being back in Kazakhstan already.
It is not long after we move on again that we realise what a good decision it was to stop. Swerving to avoid potholes and oncoming vehicles is one thing on a dry tar road, it is something else on a wet muddy potholed one.
It is not long though before we have to seek shelter a third time: more lightning and now strong gusts of wind. Luckily, we are in a tiny village and we spot a convenience store with overhanging roof. The 2 drowned muddy rats shelter there until the shop owner kindly invites us in. Oh dear, she will have to mop the floor! But she is very gracious about our mess. I make the most of our time there to buy some of her mini ‘palmiers’ – a delicious flaky sweet pastry – perfect when you are wet and freezing – yes, the temperature has dropped from low 30’s to 14 degrees. 30 minutes later and we are off again. 4 hours after entering Kazakhstan to cover 120kms, we finally arrive at Semipalatinsk as it is referred to on maps and road signs, or Semey as it is officially known today. It has been a 12 hour day on the road. Time for a hot shower and dinner downstairs in the hotel restaurant. It is wonderful to have fish and veggies for a change!!
After a good night’s sleep, it’s time for an early morning walk. As usual, I have done a little research on the area and I have a walking tour organised to take Anthony on, a mystery tour for him if you will. It is a 6km round trip walk to get us here:
This memorial to the victims of Semipalatinsk nuclear tests called “Stronger than Death” was unveiled on 29 August 2001, 20 years after Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a decree closing Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, known as Polygon, in August 29, 1991. Above the marble centrepiece of a mother covering her child billows a Polygon mushroom cloud etched into a 30m-high black tombstone. Crouched at the base of the 30m black nuclear cloud silhouette is a mother trying to shield her child. It is such a powerful, sombre, monument.
Semipalatinsk Test Site or simply “The Polygon” is an 18,000-square-kilometre area on the Kazakh Steppe where the Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests from 1949 until 1989, a site selected due to its uninhabited status, despite the fact that 700,000 people lived there. The full impact on its inhabitants coming to light when the site was officially closed for testing in 1991. The site has been described as “One of the world’s 10 worst radiation hotspots”, Semipalatinsk’y and its neighboring villages suffering high rates of cancers and birth defects. In 2007 the Semipalatinsk City Council voted unanimously in favour of changing the name of the city to Semey as the existing name had negative associations with the atomic test-site.
In same year as this moving memorial was unveiled, the Parliament of Kazakhstan approved a constitutional amendment stating that the first president (Nazarbayev, who has been president since 1991) will have no limits on how many times he can run for office, but subsequent presidents will be held to a five-year term…
This is the extent of my planned tour today. Our minds are full, it does not seem necessary to visit more sights here today. We leave Semey just before lunch, with heavy hearts for the area… until I am stopped at traffic lights with this gorgeous man beside me, beaming, happy for us, happy for himself seeing us, giving me a thumbs up. So altruistic. I love the Kazakhs.
To get from Semey to Ayogoz, we have 350kms to cover and it ends up taking us 7 hours. The scenery is relatively flat and boring, the road at times missing, but the ever changing sky keeps us entertained.
Thanks to helpful customers and staff at the petrol station we fuelled up outside Ayagoz, we are given the directions to a gostinitsa nearby. We are greeted by a jolly fellow who speaks more English than I speak Russian, he tells us he works there but I suspect he owns the place. He directs us to his house around the corner to park our motorbikes securely in his own garage. It seems people are a lot more concerned about the safety of Streak and Storm than we are! His wife later puts us onto their daughter who is currently in Moscow to help us with ordering dinner. Once again, so many people putting themselves out to help us, just passing through…
We have a long day ahead of us today, with 512kms to cover from Ayagoz to Taldykorgan, so we are on the road by 7am, leaving under stunning blue skies.
Within an hour, we are dodging storms, occasionally getting drenched. For the next 4 hours though, it is the endless potholes we desperately try to dodge, occasionally getting it wrong and apoligising to either Streak or Storm for the brutal treatment. And of course the oncoming traffic is trying to do the same! So we don’t only look out for our potholes, but it is important to be aware of what the oncoming traffic is faced with so that we can move over to let them weave out towards us. It is a lot harder for trucks to avoid all those potholes, so they travel pretty slowly. Like in Russia, truck drivers are fantastic and always aware of us behind them. When they can see an opportunity for us to overtake, they will stay well over onto their side, in Russia they also indicate, to let us pass before they continue to weave. Occasionally we feel the oncoming traffic has come a bit too close for comfort to us, but the vast majority of the time, it all works out very well. This part of the world has such a bad reputation for bad drivers, but it is a matter of understanding the driving style.
And what we both love is that most truck drivers and many cars here hoot at us and wave as we go by.
We meet a couple of brits at one of our snack stops, chat about this awful road and our trips, see them along the way a couple of times later that day and see them again at our hotel in Taldykorgan!
Luckily the scenery was nothing special to look most of the day as we had to concentrate on the potholes so much. The second part of the journey was in better condition and scenery more interesting, with hills appearing. It wasn’t until we arrived at Taldykorgan airport that the road suddenly changed. Ridiculously so!! With painted metal fences in the middle of the dual carriage way, with the occasional deer sculpture.
We get to our hotel 10 hours after leaving Ayogoz, we are hot, filthy and exhausted. It feels good though – it was a good day’s ride.
We have an easy 280kms to cover from Taldykorgan to Almaty. We suspect the road will be good and it was, dual carriage way most of the way. We are in Almaty in 4.5 hours. It might seem long for such a short distance but Kazakhstan police have a certain reputation and every driver is very aware and wary of them. Any and every speed limit is carefully adhered to, especially the occasional ridiculous reduction for no apparent reason – those sections can go on for kilometers and are designed to catch impatient drivers. Pedestrian crossings appear anywhere, on dual carriage ways too and the pedestrian here is king. You have to slow down for every pedestrian crossing, whether there is someone there or not.
Once in Almaty centre, it takes us another hour to get to our hotel. Not because of city traffic, but because all roads leading to our hotel has a no entry sign!! It was thanks to someone opening his gate to let us drive through his property that we finally got there!!
We are planning on being here for at least a week as we have 3 visas to get: Uzbekistan, Iran and Turkmenistan. I wonder how long that will take and whether we manage to get the Turkmenistan one… Suite au prochain numéro…
We arrived back in Russia with mixed emotions, we were ecstatic to have beaten the Naadam holiday 6 day border closure but disappointed to have left Mongolia earlier than planned. This is however the nature of this type of travel, one has to adjust and adapt on the road. We now had eight days in Russia before we must enter Kazakhstan so a more leisurely approach can be implemented. If you have seen the previous blog video, you will know the spectacular wilderness that lay ahead of us. For now, a place to sleep for the night was our next priority.
While looking at the snowcapped peaks on our left we see a couple of log cabins surrounded by a wooden fence, looking like something out of the US or Canada. Here we meet a young couple who are developing the place for tourists, mostly Russians. We do notice cabins being developed as we travel towards civilisation over the next couple of days: I wonder if this a result of the imposition of sanctions by the west in 2014 for the annexation of Crimea which caused the Rouble to fall dramatically against the western currencies reducing holiday options for Russians, thus increasing domestic tourism, reflected in the increase of accommodation being built?
We are loathe to leave the beautiful vista of the snow capped peaks as we breakfast, but know that the road beckons with its twists and turns northwards. We are not disappointed as we ride open traffic-free roads, no stop signs, towns or traffic lights for 400km /250ml. We rise and fall as we transition from valley to valley via peaks that open up new and changing vistas. It is dream like riding for us.
Each time we stop, we are approached by friendly Russians interested to know where we are from, what we think of the area. Some were surprised when we told them how friendly we had found people, they thought we were just being polite, but no, it’s a world wide phenomenon we said. While communication in Russian was difficult, we found a number of people, as we did, get out their phone and call up the language app and away we go. The improvement in the language apps will aid communication which is a good thing.
As we head north and reach Ust-Sema, the tentacles of civilisation start to reach out, more cabins, tourist resorts and increased traffic as we are at the start of the summer holiday season, families packed into cars with the roof loaded with holiday baggage. At one point a head pops out of a large inflatable raft strapped to the roof of a rafting adventure van travelling in the opposite direction – would have made a great picture but it appeared too suddenly for Anne to photograph. We also find we are really riding the bikes, on the open sections with no traffic, it is easy to move along, we now face streams of oncoming holiday traffic, no overtaking lanes and the lead laden smokescreen belching out of the old Russian truck lumbering along in front of you encourages a more active riding style. Judicious use of throttle and brakes is required to skip past the four or five trucks travelling together. Drivers are very courteous and the creation of the third lane happens often. We feel most drivers are more aware in these traffic conditions and act accordingly.
We have found the cause of Anne’s rattle as we headed over dirt roads while leaving Mongolia: we have lost a crashbar expansion nut & bolt. While we have spare bolts, the expansion nut is more problematic. I contacted the retailer who informed me that the manufacturer was out of stock and did not expect parts for three months. Humm… not the best customer service. That and a sticky front wheel, brake related we think, has us head for Russia’s third largest city, which I did not know was Novosibirsk, so used to just hearing of Moscow and St Petersburg.
Vassily at the BMW Motorrad dealership in Novosibirsk, comes up with a solution for both problems, thanks Vassily. A couple of relaxing days in Novosibirsk allows us to recharge our batteries after travelling every day since Ulan Baatar. Novosibirsk is the most northern point on our journey at 55.01 degrees North, the most southerly point was Payton in Arizona USA at 34:14 degrees North. We will cover 360 degrees Longitude but only range in a 20 degree Latitude window.
Our departure on a Sunday morning gives us an easy ride out of the city, progress is slow but steady with a long country section of road limited to 70kph instead of the usual 90kph, possibly a potential revenue raising section except people here stick to the limits, as we do. No fines please.
We dodge a few thunderstorms with well timed fuel and food stops, retrace our route back to Barnayl and onwards to the Kazakhstan border. Our hotel en-route in Aleysk turns out to be the re- purposed offices of a factory. The top floor is the hotel, with other levels housing a restaurant, supermarket and pharmacy. Clever thinking, but had no idea what the factory manufactured.
Got our Kazakhstan travel insurance from two very nice ladies just before the border and we were set to go. 30 days for Russia and Mongolia, we did it but really would have liked more time…