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.