Up to the Caspian Sea

The magnificent buildings in Samarkand and Bukhara visited for the second time in three years will now be added to our store of memories’ record in this blog as we head west again. From Bukhara we have a long haul to reach Aktau some 1,500 km or almost 1,000 ml away. Luckily the temperature is not expected to rise above the mid 30’s celsius. Last time we were here in 2014 it was the mid 40’s celsius, so we are lucky again. An early start from Bukhara, after loading another 28 litres of fuel onto Streak and Storm, sees us wrestle with avoiding potholes close to the city which does not always work as bottoming out the suspension on numerous occasions will testify. Anne has a theory on where the potholes come from, and we now have photographic evidence, they are stolen!

How pot-holes are formed, someone steals the road in pieces

Drivers hoot, flash lights and wave as we slowly make our way slowly westwards of all the ‘Stans’, the people of Uzbekistan are the most enthusiastic towards motorbikes. We also pass a bad accident, one car wrecked on the road, another in the field nearby, probably a front-on looking at the damage, lots of people already stopped so as we move on we are reminded to stay alert.

Waving locals

Beautiful cloud patterns

While we have 14 litres of fuel each extra, headwinds and the fact we are using 80 octane fuel, albeit with a booster additive, means we cannot be too complacent about how fast we travel on the good stretches of road – some fuel we have purchased has sediment which looks like that found in old wine bottles, so do not decant it all into the tank. We do have enough to reach Nukus some 550 km away which we reach after a long day’s riding.

Nukus was once one of the most prosperous cities in Uzbekistan based on agricultural produce but over time diversions of water resources to other regions has reduced agricultural output, and wealth significantly. To the north lies the shrinking remains of the Aral Sea. This was caused by the diversion of water from the Syr Darya River and the Amu Darya River in the 1960’s to support the growth of Soviet cotton production. Work is being undertaken to reverse the damage but it will take decades to achieve. Nukus is a good jumping off point for tours up to the Aral sea bed. Our hotel reception procures more petrol/gasoline, “do you want 91 octane?”. I think they have done this before.

State Museum of Art named after I.V.Savitsky in Nukus

Soviet era art by A N Volkov in the I.V.Savitsky museum

Early morning departure from Nukus

Off to work in Nukus

Extra fuel along for the ride

Time to adjust the extra fuel straps

This may be where the pot-hole pieces came from.

Our crossing back into Kazakhstan from Uzbekistan is relatively painless as borders go, paperwork at a minimum and only a couple of hours’ time. Makes one realise how good the systems we have in place are and the benefits of the EU Customs Union. If Brexit does not come up with an efficient Customs alternative the tailback will reach long past the M20 in Kent.

We had heard that the road on the Kazakhstan side was difficult and this proved to be true, it is mostly dirt, which in many ways is easier than pot-holed tar. We tend to be quicker than the cars across this surface, but we are always listening for a telltale rattle that something has come loose. We only have about 45 miles / 70 kilometres of this surface before we return to tar. It just confirms I am not a dirt rider, I will do it, but it gives me no pleasure.

Glad not to be doing this in the rainly season

Fellow travellers

Out and about in NW Kazakhstan

Hard to see the road markings here

Go for the gap in the middle

Oil and gas fields that feed Aktau port

We are some 20 ml/32 km from our final destination in Kazakhstan, the port of Aktau, where we will board a ship to take us across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan. I glance down at the GPS and see that it has turned into a depth gauge, we are already some 70 meters below sea level! I quickly hold by breath, check for oncoming water from the Caspian Sea that towers above us somewhere ahead at only 27 meters below sea level and try to remember any anecdotal diving information from a friend over long dinners and good red wine back in Manly. Reality returns to my befuddled brain and I I realise I do not need to add a snorkel or oxygen tanks to the fuel and water containers that festoon Streak and Storm, Phew! We are in or close to the Karagie Depression which reaches 132m / 433 ft. below sea level and is one of the lowest points in the world. The name translated from Kazakh is “black hollow”, although the landscape is white and yellow. There are also many reported UFO sightings in the area, although today I think we are the only aliens around.

About to go down below sea level near the Karagie Depression.

We arrive in Aktau, the Caspian Sea now bars our way and we will need to seek passage on a ship to travel further westwards, but that’s for another blog entry.


A week in Almaty

Once we have checked into our hotel in Almaty, we have a quick late lunch and decide to head to the Uzbek embassy: it is late in the day so we are not expecting to achieve much but at least find out the local process for applying for a visa tomorrow. I quickly pack paperwork and passport photos just in case and off we go. It is 4pm by the time we get to the consulate and there is a throng of people milling around a small wooden shack, some with papers in their hands, some without. Hmmm, wonder what the process here is. I walk up to a young lady and ask her if she knows. She speaks English! Fantastic. I explain we want to get a visa to visit Uzbekistan. She goes to the guard to explain what we are after and he opens a metal gate and waves us through. I will not go through the details of the next steps here as they are numerous and all are listed in our Borders and Visas section. Suffice to say here that on day 1 in Almaty, after a 2 hour process, we leave the consulate with our Uzbekistan visa in our passports! What a fantastic start.

With the first visa in the bag, next on our agenda is the Iranian visa. We are grateful they are open on a Friday. While it is close to our hotel, it is a strenuous 3km walk due to the steep terrain and streams here. It makes for an interesting walk!

Stream running through Almaty

Walking to the Iranian Consulate in Almaty

No masses of people here, we are let in through the massive metal door and walk right up to a lovely office with leather couches, coffee table and picture books, water fountain. No one else is there so we walk right up to a little window, hand over all the appropriate paperwork and are told to go to the Pakistani bank to pay for the visa and come right back. (There is a little more to this but again, all detailed in our visas section). Surprise surprise, the bank is not next door but 3kms away! We walk all the way back down the hill to town but to a taxi rank outside a fancy plaza to take us to the bank then back to the Iranian consulate where they eventually tell us to come back Tuesday morning to collect the visas and back to the plaza. Time for some lunch in this amazing ‘bubble’ that this plaza is here: shiny, airy, modern, air conditioned, all sorts of stores we recognise, and Costa Coffee!!! It also has an amazing food store with all sorts of prepared salads and dishes.

Enjoying yet another Costa coffee in Almaty

While having lunch, we decide we should visit BMW to check them out and maybe ask about a service. Another cab takes us there. My pathetic Russian does not cut the mustard and someone is quickly called to help us. We are introduced to Alikhan, the BMW Autocentre Bavaria Regional Manager, and Eva Antimonova, Business Development Director at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Almaty. They both speak perfect English. As we chat about our trip and our service requirement, Alikhan is amazed that we have no problem with the bikes, nothing is broken and we have all the spares we need for the standard service. They can do the service for us now if we like and we are welcome to wait the 2 hours. We quickly return to the hotel, change into our riding gear and ride back to BMW. For the next couple of hours, we chat to Alikhan and Eva about the car market in Kazakhstan while having drinks, cakes, and watching Streak and Storm being worked on the large tv monitor! As we’re chatting, we find out the BMW general manager had got his driver to find us Kazakhstan stickers, as we had earlier explained how we had looked for Russian and Kazakh stickers for our topboxes without success, and has been successful!!

2 hours later, Streak and Storm are ready for us with a clean bill of health and they are gleaming!!!!

Alikhan and the BMW Almaty service manager

Before we leave Alikhan invites to take us up the mountain tomorrow Saturday. What a lovely offer. It is always great to meet locals especially when we can converse easily in English. It is a great day out with Alikhan, going to places we would not have known about and learning more about him and his country.

Alikhan, our wonderful guide for the day

On the cable car, going up Shymbulak, Almaty

Alikhan and us on Shymbulak mountain, Almaty

We are at 32000m altitude, view of Ile-Alatau Nat’l Park with glacier, Almaty

As Alikhan leaves us at our hotel after lunch, he took this photo of us which I love:

A private moment caught by Alikhan

Thank you Alikhan for a fabulous day!!

We have walked so much in Almaty – an average of 8kms a day minimum – in this heat, it feels like much more! The second half of each walk always harder as it is a slow walk up the hill to get back to our hotel. It has been so hot, it feels like my skin is sizzling, even in the shade, as it is dry heat. Thank goodness for all the trees, shade and running water everywhere. It is fantastic that Almaty city council have made the most of their natural resources – the mountains and therefore glacial melts so close to the city. Sunday, we must have walked at least 10kms:

One of many fountains in Almaty

Glacial water runs through channels that criss-cross Almaty city centre

Typical Almaty centre street

Typical Almaty centre street

Almaty centre, restaurants, apartments, bowling alley

Panfilov war memorial, Almaty

Ascension Cathedral, Almaty

Almaty Independence Square

Step onto a pedestrian crossing and traffic will stop for you!

Walking back to our hotel in Almaty

Monday is spent washing our panniers and riding gear. I was very lucky as I did a ‘boy look’ emptying my pockets and only realised a couple of hours later that I had left 2 camera batteries in one of my inside pockets. I quickly get a cup of uncooked rice and place the batteries in a couple of zip lock bags. A couple of days later, they seem fine. That was lucky!

Washing day in Almaty

Tuesday is a big day for us: it is Iran and Turkmenistan visas day. We turn up at the Iranian consulate as requested at 10am to collect our visas to be greeted with 45′ of confusion – our paperwork is nowhere to be found. Luckily we have the tiny paper slip that shows we paid for our visas last week. We are not sure if they found it or if they were too embarassed and just printed the visas to get us out of their hair!! Anyway, visas in hand, first stop is the photocopying store to get colour copies of this latest visa to add to the paperwork we need for the Turkmen visa.

The Turkmen consulate in Almaty cannot be a prime job: the offices are located at the back of an apartment block… There are not masses of people, just one being processed and 2 in front of us. As it is only 11am, we have a comfortable 2 hours before closing time at 1pm. Haha, you guessed it!! That was not plenty of time. It was a re-run of the sloth part in Zootopia. Watching the guy, who was obviously not having a good day, checking applications and comparing passport photocopies with the actual passport, was comical he was so slow. Then having spent over 30 minutes checking their paperwork, it took him 45′ minutes to get a tiny pre-printed piece of paper with bank address and fee to the couple in front of us. Maybe he disappeared to have lunch we wondered at the time. Anyway, our turn next. He looks at my paperwork: no no. Blue pen. Not black pen. I have to redo my form in blue pen. So now someone else slips in front of us… aarrgghh, and he is obviously a tour operator with many applications. But he is helpful and he stays behind a few minutes to translate for us: we had to write a letter asking the consulate to grant us a visa. We managed to hand all our paperwork just before 1pm. It is finally all good, we get that tiny piece of paper and are told to come back today. No one else is processed today and he closes his little window. We rush off, 2kms walk each way to get to the nominated bank and get back and find his window open: he was waiting for us. That could be promising we think…. but his parting words are: call this number or come back in a week and I will let you know my decision…. We have no idea if we will get our transit visa… I have to add that we have found no report of a transit visa being granted from this consulate for the past couple of years but the other two visas having been processed so quickly, we felt a duty to try in order to report back to the travelling community. We can go for a tour of Kyrgyzstan for a week and come back. Will see what happens next and what we decide to do…

We have enjoyed our time in Almaty so far, the leafy streets, numerous parks and fountains, constant sound of running water, well maintained pavements and streets, the choice of foods, the fresh fruit juices, the ‘bubble’ that Almaty seems to be with modern, glassy, flashy highrises inter-mixed with Soviet era apartment blocks – such a contrast with the rest of the country.

While we travel, we still often think of home and all the work that awaits us there, yes, those renovations we put off to come on this trip, and Anthony’s fountain.

Could this fountain work in our back garden?!

– Anne

Loving being back in Kazakhstan

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.

We’ve made it out of Russia and into Kazakhstan just in time!

Streak and Storm being pelted by hail

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.

Dodging storms and cattle

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!!

Fish and veggies in Semey

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:

‘Stronger than Death’ monument, Semey

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.

Friend Kazakh in Semey

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.

Powerlines in Semey city centre

Another fabulous sky

Time for lunch, packet fish and crackers, while the storm passes

Glad the traffic is light to work around the puddles

One of many sad sights – abandoned buildings…

That will take some cleaning!

Lovely to see mountains again, on our way to Ayogoz

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…

Our Gostinitsa Alikhan in Ayogoz

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.

More storms within an hour of leaving Ayogoz

Back to blue skies

Fish sellers line road

Hours of potholes between Ayogoz and Taldykorgan

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.

Arriving into Taldykorgan

Lady sweeping the road in Taldykorgan

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.

Immaculate road from Taldykorgan to Almaty and some stunning scenery

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!!

All roads leading to our hotel has a no entry sign!

View from our hotel, Almaty

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…

– Anne