04 July, 2008

From Kazakhstan (to Russia) with hope!

Hi all, I am now here in beautiful downtown Pyatigorsk in the Southern Caucasus (between the Caspian and Black Seas). Around 100km away from the trouble spots of Chechnya (which really is a tiny country) and Northern Ossetia (which is even tinier).

Pyatigorsk is in the mineral springs area of the Caucasus and has many sanatoria - it is where the Soviet Union used to send all its workers who became ill from working in toxic industries for rest and recuperation. Just down the road is the Chrome Workers Sanatorium - I can imagine what their lungs must look like!

So what have I been up to over the last few days.

Well first up I had to resolve the problems with the drooping Burgie back end and then basically its been 6 days on the road as follows.

29 June - Oral to Aqtirau - 500km.

On Saturday I disassembled the Burgie to discover that indeed, as I expected, the sub frame now consisted of twice as many components as the Suzuki design engineers had originally intended.


I spent 3 hours riding around on Sunday morning on a NAKED exposed Burgie (with all the plastic panels removed from its rear end) attempting to find a repair shop that was open, and finally found an old Russian welder who was quickly able to insert a couple of reinforcing rods and arc weld the frame back together.

It seems to be holding up fine but because the frame is now slightly longer by around 5mm the panels are a bit of rough fit with a gap between the top and side panels.

After that it was time to head back to the hotel, check out and spend approx 2 hours reassembling the bodywork before hitting the road.

Before I left town I had my usual mid day meal of borsch i chiteri kleb i coffee chernai and then went to fuel up. Well, I had heard stories of fuel hoses with a mind of their own but never experienced one up until this point. In Russia/Kazakhstan the rule is that you pay for your fuel before pumping. You pay your money to a disembodied individual behind a mesh grille and state the number of litres you require. They then turn on the pump for you, this time, however, the attendant said I should first put the nozzle into my tank. Now due to the shape of the fuel filler orifice on the Burgman this is not possible, so I paid and waved off the attendant's concerns.

I walked back to the pump and as soon as I removed the nozzle a jet stream of pressurised fuel erupted and started spraying everything in sight. I got the shock of my life! Fortunately I had the nozzle pointed upwards and away from me so I didn't get any in my eyes but I certainly gave the Burgie and the forecourt a good dousing before the attendant got his wits about him and remotely shut off the fuel.

I then marched back to the attendant fully expecting him to charge me for who knows how many litres of wasted fuel, I was lucky though and he rather embarrassedly gave me my back my tenghe.

I managed to find another service station but found that none of the service stations between Oral and the Russian border had anything other than 76 octane fuel available, so it was on a steady diet of Lada juice that I made my way South West.

This was truly a welcome change and one of my best rides yet - utterly smooth bitumen the whole way South and took me only 5 hours in the saddle, averaging 100kmh. The ride started out with a little rain (I have had rain every day for the last week and a half) before becoming warm and dry as I travelled further South. The landscape is basically semi desert and one of the things i have to say, disappointingly for me, is how similar it is to outback Australia - not that there is anything wrong with outback Australia but I have seen it all before if you know what I mean. However, one of the things you don't get to see that often in Australia (although they do exist) is the herds of camels!, which added an exotic element to an otherwise fairly mundane trip.

Arriving in Aqtirau it is clear why the town exists - the whole city smells like an oil refinery (it is the base for the HUGE Kazakh oil drilling operation in the Caspian Sea, and it is quite western (with western prices too!).

I ended up staying in a hotel 100 metres away from the Halliburton office on the banks of the Ural river.

I spent a fair bit of a time taking photos of the office and fully expected to be questioned and detained but I'm obviously not the sort of security threat they have in mind.

30th June Aqtirau to Astrakhan - 450km.

I originally intended to spend a couple of days in Aqtirau but quickly realised there was little point so I headed for the Russian border in search of the Capsian Sea, which turned out to be a fruitless search. The sea itself does not have a defined edge - there is a lot of swamp and mangroves and lakes and you can't actually stand on the edge and look at it (unlike in 1977 when I stood on the Southern edge of the sea in Iran).


The road West from Aqtirau was a return to the rough and uneven Kazakh roads I had learned to love (not!) and after a few more offroad adventures looking for the Sea,

I eventually reached the border and decided, what the heck, I may as well cross anyway.

This would have to be my worst border crossing experience yet. The Kazakh customs officers were like big children and insisted not only in fiddling with every control on the bike but also demanding that they be allowed to ride it. After my prior experiences with the steering lock episode, I was clearly most reluctant and had to literally pull their hands off the bars whilst shouting "nyet!" loudly. I felt really bad about losing my temper but this bunch of buffoons was acting like a pack of baboons and I was more than happy to risk arrest (which they threatened), rather than let them take the Burgie for a ride and inflict more damage.

One and a half hours later I had cleared Kazakh customs and immigration and was riding the 8km west to the Russian border post, where the officers acted refreshingly mature and facilitated my re-entry post haste.

The remaining 70km to Astrakhan was completed quickly and included a "bailey" bridge (literally a floating pontoon steel bridge) crossing of the Volga delta into Astrakhan.

I settled myself in to the hotel Lotus and enjoyed a fantastic view of the Volga only to have it further enhanced by fireworks and rockets at midnight.

1st July Astrakhan to down south in the Caucasus (approx 200km)

Now I was back in Russia I wanted to relax a little bit before heading North to Moscow and easing myself back into a European pace of life.

I spent the morning and afternoon exploring Astrakhan and was ready to leave when the daily thunderstorm hit. This lasted around 2 hours and as usually happens in Russian cities, the drainage system becomes totally overloaded and there is massive flooding on many roads. The Burgie was great here as you keep your feet up on the floorboards and the fairing would just plough through - as long as you didn't have to stop and put your feet down! - so a fair bit of planning went into tackling each 100 metre long section of water to ensure cars wouldn't be stopping in the middle of it.

I headed south out of town only to get 30km and discover that there were no bridges at the end of the "island" I was on (there are thousands of islands in the Volga delta) and I had to double back. I eventually found my way back on to a major road and headed South to where I thought I would actually get to the Caspian Sea (yes, I was still elusively searching) and instead discovered that the road I was on did indeed reach the Caspian (in Chechnya) but was dirt for the last 200km.

By this time it was getting dark and I became a little desperate looking for shortcuts to take me West instead of South without having to double back all the way to Astrakhan. I followed my trusty (Ha!) Garmin GPS and needless to say I ended up getting myself totally lost on sandy desert tracks around 10pm. I did find a railway line though and decided to follow that North instead at a walking pace. Even worse though, all the dirty water in Astrakhan had clogged my radiator so I was now riding at approx 10-15kmh on sand and with the radiator temperature well into the red. At this point I had to give up and decided to pull 10 metres off the track and put up my tent. As I did I heard the radiator hiss and gurgle and watched in the light of my torch as it disgorged its contents all over the desert floor.

Ah well, what else can you do but sleep and enjoy the wilderness and the creatures of the desert ( I had a tortoise visit at one point during the night).

2nd July Down South to Stavropol (approx 400km)
Next morning was spent removing the radiator shroud (to allow more air cooling), removing as much debris from the radiator core as I could using a toothbrush, and then finding a lake where I could fill a plastic bottle and squirt water onto the radiator fins in an attempt to clean them.

This worked and 20km later I found my way back on to the bitumen and eventually after backtracking a considerable way to Astrakhan, on to the road to Elitsa and Stavropol.

Whilst travelling through a small town I passed by a school (above). What I found incongruous was the contrast between the children's cartoons on the walls and the razor wire above.

I am still not certain whether this was a security measure to prevent robbers stealing from the school or whether it was recognition of the terrorist attack on the school in Beslan (which was only around 200km from this town). I certainly didn't notice it on other schools.

Well, if nothing else, I cannot say my days are dull. Just outside Elitsa the road takes a detour around the city centre and goes into a deep gorge. The road is straight, there is minimal traffic, vision is good and there was a truck in front of me and I prepared to cross the single white line to overtake. As I pulled out the truck driver waved at me to go back in, I figured I would soon be past him anyway so continued my overtaking manoeuvre. At the top of the hill, of course, Ilya and Yuri Plod, eager to throw the book at me (little did I realise that this road was a set up - quite safe to overtake and tempting for most drivers). They took my passport, licence and vehicle rego papers and offered to return them in exchange for Russian roubles. I was not going to play this game and instead I insisted they issue me a ticket which had to be paid by deposit at the nearest Sberbank (government bank). Now your average Russian just pays up as it is easier and cheaper to pay Mr Plod directly (which is exactly what Mr Plod wants as the cash goes into his own pocket). After 45 minutes of stalemate and Mr Plod getting increasingly frustrated, he uttered some loud words in Russian (probably to the effect that I was stupid), gave me back my documents and told me never to darken his doorstep again.

Amazing! - except I went through a repeat exercise not one hour later! This time I had been video-cameraed leaving the next town at 78kmh in what was still a 60kmh zone (the police had set up a camera 50 metres before the end of city limits marker in an unmarked Lada parked at the side of the road). I went through a repeat procedure only this time with the head of the traffic squad who took me into his office, locked the door, demanded 3 times as much as the previous Mr Plod and threatened to lock me up and confiscate the Burgie. I told him to either issue me a ticket or let me go - 45 minutes later I was on my way, muttering under my breath that I'd love to play poker with Russian police one day - I'd make a fortune! :-)

A short ride later through wheatfields

and sunflower crops

I was on the outskirts of Stavropol and ready to find a cheap room for the night.

3rd July Stavropol to Pyatigorsk (approx 200km)

My original plan was to head down to Sochi, on the Black Sea and right on the Georgian / Azerbaijan border) but the road to Sochi is quite a bit longer than it seems on a map and I figured an extra day up in the hills would be quite pleasant, so here I am staying int he Hotel Pyatigorsk.

There is a cable car up to the top of Mt Murmar and plenty of springs to explore so that will be how I spend my day of relaxation.

Being so far South in the Caucasus you start to notice the differences between what I call the Soviet Russians and the true Caucasians. The photo below of the Pyatigorsk market shows a local lady dressed in her traditional gypsy style clothes. There many of these swarthier individuals doing a brisk trade with their own stalls in the market.