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.