28 June, 2008

Kazakhstan - not the country I imagined.

Hi all, I'm finally waking up here in Oral (Ural, Uralysk, Oralysk - take your pick of names). Right now, I really am exhausted. The time on the road in Kazakhstan has been very difficult and the bike and me are both getting worn out. It is sad that as a result of my short visa, and the difficult travelling conditions, I cannot see as much of Kazakhstan as I originally hoped. In addition, the sheer heat of the desert has been exhausting - temperatures are in the mid to high 30s and I am consuming copious quantities of the local, very delicious, mineral water.

Over the last few days my travels have been as follows.

Day 1
Semey (yes, it's the old nuclear testing grounds and I visited the nuclear memorial (which typical of shoddy Russian /Kazakh construction techniques is already falling down although it is only 5 years old, and you are not allowed to stand near it in case of being hit by a falling brick)) to Pavlodar -
The morning was spent having the radiator mount alloy welded after I discovered the bottom mount had snapped clean off. I also asked the repairer to check out the fan which had been operating intermittently. They claimed to have done this but obviously hadn’t as I tested it and had to find the broken wire myself to get it going consistently.

I spent the afternoon exploring Semey, including a visit to the Dostoyevsky museum which was actually the old house he lived in whilst exiled to the then Russian town of Semipalitinsk in the mid 19th century.

I left Semey at 4pm in the afternoon for the easy 500km ride to Pavlodar on reasonable bitumen (which I now call bitch you men!, because the non-bitumen is a real bitch of a road!).
After stopping to replenish vital motorcycle fluids it was a very pleasant ride into the sunset from which wild horses couldn't drag me away - although they tried.

Around 50km from Pavlodar at 10.00pmish, I went over a bump and the back end of the bike felt strange, as though I had a flat tyre - it also made clunking noises.
I checked the bike, realised a wheel bearing had gone and had to decide whether to ride on to Pavlodar or not. I reluctantly kept riding as I knew I could do damage to the wheel and the final drive spines, but I had no choice, other than to sleep next to the bike on the side of the road and try to flag down a truck the following day (which really wasn’t an option).

As I rode on very slowly, the crunching noises got worse and I finally got to the edge of the city around 11pm. Now the interesting thing about Russian and Kazakh) cities is that the distance on the signs is the distance to the edge of the town – NOT the centre of the town – so I was still really in whoop whoop when I got there. Interestingly I was right outside the road to the airport and I stopped at the ubiquitous police checkpoint to be confronted with a policeman all in black, wearing a black balaclava and carrying an AK47! (just the way you would imagine a terrorist to be dressed). I explained that I was in need of remont (Russian for repairs) and a gastinitza (hotel) He indicated to me that, quite fortuitously, there was a motel 100 metres from where I was, so I checked in.

The motel was fine and as with all Russian/Kazakh hotels they ask you to pay extra for secure parking to avoid vandalism/. I paid 200 Tenghe (about $1.65) to a female security guard, who was clearly not up top the job, and went off for a meal.

I noticed at this stage that I had the usual crowd of youths surrounding the bike, which happens wherever I go, and I indicated to the security guard that she should use her baton if necessary.

Whilst having a meal one of the locals had found a baby hedgehog near the road and brought it in to the restaurant (which caused all women to scream and children to go bananas). I decided to go back to my room for my camera and whilst doing so was confronted by the security guard who told me to move the Burgie into a locked garage. I said ok and on seeing the Burgie noticed that the front wheel was pointing almost straight ahead. I thought this a little strange as I always use the steering lock (which locks the wheel facing left). I tried to unlock the ignition and couldn’t. I immediately realised that someone had been sitting on the bike and pretending to ride it, so they (or they and their friends) had pushed the bars (with great force)to the straight ahead position, such that the steering lock was bent out of shape. I have to admit I was a little stunned by this as a huge amount of force and effort would have been required (possibly requiring 4 people at one time) , and I couldn’t believe that someone would apply this much force to someone else’s property. The only explanation I can give is that they were probably intoxicated and acting with a pack mentality – disappointing but c’est la vie. Postscript: In retrospect, I now suspect that this was actually an aborted attempt to steal the Burgie.

Day 2
Pavlodar to Qaraghandy.
I started the day by removing the bike bodywork to extract the ignition and steering lock. Upon removal I could see just how bad the lock was damaged. I then rode the 5km into Pavlodar with bodywork bungy cord strapped to the back of the bike and found the nearest repairer.

I got him to cut off the bent section of the steering lock rod which means I now now longer have a steering lock – maybe better in the long run for future joy riding youths!

It was then time to tackle the wheel bearing. After removing the rear wheel I found I had an almost repeat scenario of my front wheel bearing failure in January. The RHS (brake side) bearing had totally collapsed, the outer shell split in half and the peened balls had worn a groove into the wheel hub.
Fortunately, other damage to the splines seemed minimal. After extricating the remains of the bearing shell, two new bearings and an oil seal (not the correct one unfortunately) were obtained for a total cost of $40 (interestingly I am carrying 3 spare front wheel bearings with me but no rear ones) and a further $25 was extracted from me for the repairers efforts (even though I did most of the work myself). I am concerned about how well this repair will work though, as the bearing is no longer a tight fit in the hub and is definitely not a long term repair job. I will wait till I get to Sweden before seeing if I can get the wheel hub lathed and possibly a larger external diameter bearing fitted. As for the reason for the failure, I am not sure, but there was definitely water in the hub. Even so, with sealed bearings, a little water should not do any harm.

Around 3pm it t was time to leave Pavlodar and ride the 400 odd km South to Qaraghandy through dry semi-desert conditions.
Once again, the roads are fairly poor, with around 100km of dirt off-roading.
I arrived at Qaraghandy late in the evening (10pmish). Now another interesting thing about Russian/Kazakh towns is that once you arrive at the outskirts, it is very difficult to find the centre of town (which is where the hotels are). It took me a further two hours to finally find it (with the help of a friendly taxi driver) and I checked in to the Luxe Hotel Gioto at midnight.

Day 3.
Qaraghandy to Esil.

After visiting the Ecology museum on Qaraghandy it was time to hit the road, and get as far West as I could, as I knew my visa was rapidly running out and I could not afford any further problems on the road.
I travelled through the centre of Astana - the new capital which replaces Almaty - and stopped just outside of town for my mid-day meal at a roadside yurt cafe cum service station.
This was a long day – I ended up riding from 1pm to 1am on a mix of very good and very poor roads to cover around 650kms before I camped in a bus shelter for the night.

Day 4.
Esil - South (via Qostanay) to Qaratabe. Another long day of 600km+.
These roads are basically long straight stretches of nothingness with nothing but the occasional rough section of tarmac thrown in to relieve the tedium.

Clearly, the boredom gets to the locals too and the side of the road was often littered with wrecks such as the one below.
I realised early in the day that the back end of the Burgie was starting to sag and my Givi top box had a definite droop to it.
I opted to take it easy on the poorer sections of road only to find that the weather was becoming decidedly inclement.
Around 8pm the rain hit and I was right I the middle of a dirt section. Fortunately I was able to make it to the only town for miles before it became too damp (the other reason for wanting to get under cover is that all Kazakh storms seem to be electrical storms and on the flat plains I am the highest point and logical target for any errant bolts, which incidentally were striking at the rate of around one every 2 minutes).

Upon setting off I then entered the quagmire of wet mud which the dirt road had turned into. 1 hour later I had covered 13km and made it to the bitch you men. This was particularly tricky as not only was I slipping and sliding everywhere but the mud was also clogging the front guard and effectively locking up the front wheel – this is the ONE situation where having an off-road bike really would have helped.

I cleaned as much mud off the bike as I could and headed off down the magnificent new bitumen road (or asphalt as it is known in Russian) and covered around 150km before it was time to fill up with fuel.

The petrol station was 100 metres off the bitumen though – on a dirt track! 10 minutes later I had slithered my way to the pumps and filled up. Another 10 minutes and the attendant had helped push me back on to the bitumen. Another 10 minutes and I had cleaned the front wheel such that it would turn, and I then headed off to cover a further 100km before pulling over into a wayside stop to camp for the night around midnight (the only spot available that had a bitumen surface, as the ground was too wet muddy to pitch my tent upon). As you can imagine, with all this mud and rain, I was particularly concerned about dirt getting into my new wheel bearings and drastically shortening their lives.

Day 5
Qaratabe to 150kms from Oral
My final long day (700kms) and final night of camping. Essentially a repeat of the previous day - mix of very good and very bad roads, long day in the saddle and inclement weather in the evening.

At lunchtime I stopped at another yurt cafe alongside a lake (it is surprising how many lakes there are in Kazakhstan, given the desert conditions) and had to perform a makeshift repair to arrest the droop of the Givi (ended up adding a few washers to the rearmost mounts to keep it level but this only addressed the symptoms NOT the cause).

Around midnight I pulled into town for a meal (yep, cafes are 24*7 over here) and fuel fill up – I could only get 76 octane fuel and Burgie owners will be pleased to know that the Burgie runs fine on 76 octane (at 65c per litre) albeit with a consistent deterioration in fuel consumption. An hour later and I was parked behind a bus shelter 20km out of town for an evening’s rest) or should have been, but the strong wind kept the tent flapping all the night.

Day 6.
The final 150km into Oral. After packing up my tent I had a good ride on a good road.
It took me 1 and a half hours to find the city centre after arrival and a further half an hour to find my hotel. Last night I slept for 14 hours, I planned to go out and imbibe a few of the local beverages but frankly I was just too exhausted.

Oral seems like a nice enough town - I'm nicely scrubbed up, even had my first haircut since leaving Melbourne (cost $2.50) and washed all my clothes. However, I have to spend my energies repairing the bike for the rest of the journey rather than sightseeing. The focus will be on stripping down the back end to find what is the true problem (I suspect the rear subframe is bending or cracking) and then applying the appropriate fix.

I now have 3 more days left in Kazakhstan before I leave. Tomorrow I will ride the 450km down to Atyrau on the Caspian Sea, before heading west across the border to Astrakhan in Russia and then maybe to Sochi on the Black Sea for a few days rest and recuperation before heading North to Moscow.

My thoughts on the Kazakhs:
1. A proud people - nothing like that silly film suggests.

2. A tough people - living in harsh conditions and struggling to survive. Geographically, Kazakhstan is very much like outback Australia.
3. Like everywhere, a mix of good and bad. Very poor and helpful individuals who would give their right arm for you. Drunken youths and thieving women who would (and do) take every opportunity to relieve you of your assets. What I have learnt in all my travels is that it is always those who have least to give, who give the most, and vice-virsa.
4. A handsome people. Physically, the Kazakhs are an interesting blend of oriental, south Asian and middle eastern - close to Mongols in many ways.

22 June, 2008

A midsummer night's dream.

There I was in one of the more remote and off the track areas of Russia, in a tiny village, 100km south of Bijsk - in the middle of nowhere. Cows, goats and sheep wandered down the street and gently nudged the Burgie.

It was a warm evening, around 10pm and the sky had a golden glow as the sun was setting on the summer solstice.

I pulled off the road to stock up with supplies at a local shop (magasin), entered and it was like stepping back in to a time warp.

The shop manager, a plumpish lady probably in her mid to late 30s, not unattractive but no beauty either, helped me to a selection of biscuits, canned fish, water, chips and beer for tonight's meal. She weighed each biscuit individually and recorded them all in a ledger - what I had bought - and how many were left (this is traditional in Russia where there is more emphasis on recording the transaction than provision of the sale/service).

As I wandered back to the bike and loaded the goods onto the bike I looked back and she stood in the doorframe of the magasin watching me.

I could see a far away dreamy look in her eyes, wondering who I was, where I had come from and thinking that she too should have an adventure like this some day, but never would.

I realised at that point just how fortunate I was, not just on this journey but for everything in my life - travelling so far from home in such a magic country. I camped that night in the middle of a wheat field and waited until midnight for the midnight sun.

I went to sleep that night feeling all was good with the world.

From Russia (to Kazakhstan) with love.

Hi all, I'm now here in beautiful downtown Semey in Northern Kazakhstan.

From Krasnoyarsk to here I've had a couple more interesting experiences including more offroading (bad roads again) and an amazing trip into Kemerov where I was hailed on, and soaked through on a 500km journey that went for around 8 hours.

At first it looked like I would be in Kemerovo well before nightfall, however, I had neglected to take into account Russian bureaucracy and the fact that the local railway maintenance crew decided to repair the lone railway crossing on the highway I was taking. This resulted in my having to go back and take an alternative route adding around 100km to my journey.

Riding windy mountain roads, at night, with zero visibility, driving wind/hail/rain, freezing cold and crazy drivers, was no fun, and quite frankly, extremely dangerous. On top of all this, I was also riding through a lightning storm of epic proportions, petrified that a bolt from the blue would greet me around the next corner.

For those readers unfamiliar with motorcycling, I'll try and add a little perspective regarding riding in rain. Compared with driving a car, you are:
1. wet and cold, shivering and struggling with the controls - not warm and toasty with your heater on.
2. driving blind without any windscreen wipers - bikes don't have wipers, just lots of raindrops all over your windscreen and helmet visor. Oncoming headlights just make you totally blind!
3. slipping and sliding around, ready to fall over whenever there is a bump, large puddle, tight corner or wind gust - unlike a car, you don't just skid a little, you go down!

I arrived in Kemerov shivering and found the first hotel I could. Whilst dripping all over the floor in the foyer I agreed to their exorbitant rate of $90 for the night (highest I have paid previously in Russia was $45 in the very nice Hotel Primorskaya in Vladivostok) and that didn't even include breakfast!

Next day was warmer and I found a couple of local bikers in town who escorted me to what they, and I, thought was the correct road.

They were all heading off to a local bikerfest and invited me along, but I think I'm a little old for these things!

I ended up a long way off track on my route to the Kazakhstan border but it was worthwhile as the weather was fantastic, the roads great (well for Russia anyway!) and there were few vehicles - just the occasional local rider on his trusty Ural.

The Altai region is one of the Russian granaries and is very pretty. There was also a certain tranquility about this area of Russia which is sandwiched between Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Away from the main highways the rush of traffic eased and one could travel at a much more relaxed pace.

I camped the night before heading down south to the border which I reached yesterday. There are also many domestic animals which either graze by the side of the road, or wander down the road blocking your path.

I had a relatively easy border crossing - all the border guards are always aghast at the fact that I am travelling alone and seem to take pity on me (I don't know why!) - and crossed in to Kazakhstan to spend the night in Semey.

The roads have deteriorated again and I have been told horror stories of the southern roads in Kazakhstan. I am currently researching options as my visa only allows me to stay 10 days in Kazakhstan - with a minimum of 4-5,000kms of roads to cover I need to ensure the route is not too strenuous, and is achievable as I have been told on some sections that 200km a day is the maximum I will be able to cover.

In the meantime, of course, I have a few more bike problems. On inspecting the bike this morning one of the radiator mounts has snapped from the pounding on the Russian roads. As the radiator is aluminium I have taken it to an Argon welder for repair, and it should be ready in 2 hours.
I also am still having intermittent overheating issues as the fan is not always cutting in - hopefully they can work out what the problem is there too (I discovered for myself that it was just a broken wire from all the pounding).
The monument to victims of nuclear testing in Semey.

19 June, 2008

Russian hospitality.

Today, I am in beautiful downtown Krasnoyarsk enjoying the hospitality of Dmitri, Marina, family and friends.

After the two day ride from Irkutsk, where I met a second black Russian (on a Yamaha 600)

.... and two Germans on BMWs (poor bastards!) outside a roadside shashlik restaurant .

I arrived at 9.30pm in Krasnoyarsk and immediately called Dmitri who arrived shortly thereafter with a group of fellow Krasnoyarsk bikers in tow.

After a tour of town we settled back at Marina's parents home around 2am for an evening of Vodka and local delicacies.

Little sleep was had but I woke to meet Marina's parents and friend who treated me as if I was a long lost family member.

Now it's time to prepare for the next step - the journey to Kazakhstan - I have a tight deadline to meet and need to be on the road to get through Kazakhstan before my visa expires at the end of June.