The Almaty run

Richard
This V-Strom flagged me and stopped
And after a day’s rest at Bishkek’s Sakura guesthouse, where it’s cozy and warm, I was ready for the Almaty run. Now that we were going to Mongolia, we all needed visas. Neil and Chris had decided that they would try to get into Kazakhstan with their Kyrgyz visas and they left early with a shared taxi but for me it was out of the question to leave my bike behind when I could ride there and so at 8:15am, I was on the road to Almaty. There was no news from Iain or Robin and Keely so I figured they had their own plans for getting a visa.

I didn’t get lost while leaving the city this time. I had carefully studied the way out because I had no time to lose. I knew also that at some point on the way I would run into Richard, another I still hadn’t met of the China group. And I did.

The road was long and mostly straight, which that particular day was a good thing because I could ride fast but I did spend around 20 minutes talking to Richard, changing my Som for his Tenge and accepting the Kazakh SIM card he kindly gave me. It was very nice but it proved to be fatal to my tight schedule.

Off-road to Mongolia(n consulate)
The “track” to the consulate
When I arrived to Almaty the traffic was, of course, hectic. How could I forget to account for that? Well, my Parisian training always proves useful in these situations and I managed to skip most of it despite the big panniers on the back of my bike. Soon I was cruising on the high-speed lane of Sain Street towards the Mongolian consulate but alas, yet another obstacle was on my way. You see, Mongolia has almost no paved roads, it makes sense that the way to the consulate takes you off-road in the middle of the city. Wait, what? Yes, Sain street is in works right north of the street I was looking for so I had to make a big detour, get into some small neighborhood street where I wasn’t even sure which way I was supposed to go (thanks to Richard’s SIM, I had a working Google Maps) until I found it: the off-road track of course. Take it and you’ll get there! And get there I did and at the entrance I found Neil, Chris, and Iain. So much for the mystery of how he was going to get his visa. They were all waiting outside because they had been told that they could get the visa on the same day so I went to the door and begged to be received. When the guy said it was closed, I pointed to my watch and showed him that we still had more than 5 minutes to go before actual closing time and he was nice enough to let me in and apply but of course I wouldn’t get it on the same day (even when I begged). No biggie, I can come tomorrow, pick up the visa, then go to the bikers shop to try to get new riding pants and then leave to Charyn canyon without having to spend 2 nights at the awful but not quite the worst I’ve seen Djetisu hotel where they have cheap shared rooms only if you ask for “hostel”.

En 4L
En 4L sur la route de la soie

So in the evening I went for some Turkish kebab (it’d been a long time since Turkey and I was already missing it), had a walk through town, bought a replacement for my cigar lighter USB charger and had a drink with Iain and his new French friends, the guys from En 4L sur la route de la soie.

The visa was there, so much that the guy came out of the door with my passport ready when I rang the bell. Was I the only customer today? Did they have a camera? I didn’t ask. Next mission, the biker’s shop and my potential new pants. Except for the humongous traffic jam I got into where I was invited to lunch by some random car driver and his friends. I played dumb because I was sort of in a hurry and went my way amazed at the possibility of being invited to lunch by a random group of strangers. They didn’t have my size. How did I know they didn’t have it? Well, I tried ones that looked pretty cool and the sales lady said “Sexy!”. That’s how I knew it wasn’t my size, that and the fact that I had to struggle and remove the internal liner to get them on. Oh well, I would have to get my sewing kit out… On my way to Charyn canyon!

For a preview of Charyn canyon, here’s a video from a couple of guys who’ve been there before. If it doesn’t go automatically, you should advance to the 35m20s mark.

Russian plains

3 hours the Russian border took me. My two passports make a lot of things easier but they also make some other things take more time. Usually it’s not a problem. At the Georgian border I explained that I had two of them, one Argentine and one French and that the blue one didn’t need a visa for Russia. I wasn’t even asked to show it. But the Russian border is special, everyone needs a visa. Except the ones who don’t but no one knows exactly who those people are and by the way, where is your Georgian stamp? I have none, I have just parachuted into your border crossing, you ape! No, really, I never understood why border officials care so much about the other country’s decision to stamp you or not. That part actually went smoothly once they called up the guy who knows.
Come the bike declaration part. See, this is Russia, we speak Russian and all our forms are only in Russian, mind you it is a beautiful language so why should we stain our forms with ugly little gibberish in English? There was this (sort of) nice guy in a military uniform who could parrot some English to help foreigners fill the form. The only problems is that he had stubby fingers and every time he pointed at a yes/no question, I got the wrong answer and he would scrap my form and yell “Answer my question” (can you guess what his job would have been were he in the KGB?). I filled it 5 times until I got it right and then had to make a duplicate. He did say sorry when he was making a golf ball with my 4th form and made a face as if to say “it needs to be flawless, sorry”. I managed to hide from him the small mistake I had made on the duplicate and was off to the counter were the lady fill the computer version of the form and stamps the paper version without even looking at it. The truckers were a happy bunch and one of them was trying to sort us out in Russian while allocated order numbers to us in Turkish. I was lucky, he gave me the only number I actually know in Turkish: beş (5).
Once I had crossed the border the landscape started changing fast, from mountains to plains and very soon I was in Vladikavkaz where it took me some time to find a hotel. Didn’t feel like camping in a militarized area :S.
The next day I set off on my way to Astrakhan where my new tyres would be waiting for me while trying to avoid riding into Chechnya so instead of going East, I had to go West through Pyatigorsk. It was around Pyatigorsk that it became completely flat and a vicious crosswind started blowing. I stopped for the night in Budyonnovsk, feeling it had been enough for the day with the wind and the many hours I had been riding.

Russian road in the plain
The trees didn’t really stop the vicious sidewind

The next day I left from Buddyonnovsk at my usual “early” hour, 11AM and took the road that Google Maps had suggested as the shortest one to Astrakhan while asking the locals for confirmation. At some point, Google’s road made a sharp right and so did I, into a dirt road. No problems, I kept asking locals for confirmation and it seemed to be the right road and besides, it was a good dirt road, I could almost ride it at 100kph. Until it wasn’t. Potholes, deep ruts and sandy patches started to appear but it wasn’t so bad. At a small bridge (over a dry stream?), I noticed the landscape was becoming more and more bleak and I started thinking I was riding into a desert. I stopped by a Lada whose occupants were waiting for the engine to cool and chatted with the guys in it. One of them was from Astrakhan and they confirmed that it was the right road and that it would become a lot better in 30km, that there was an oasis and a shop and that the road became tarmac. So I rode on but after what seemed like an eternity of sand, I decided to turn back.

Russian dirt road
The road while it was still good

While turning back I realized there was a bit of a harder trail and decided to go on but when it became pure sand again, I just had to turn back. I didn’t have actually, but I did. That was a road mistake, there will be others but this was the first big one. It cost me two days and big dent in my pride. When I finally turned back, I dropped the bike. Twice. In the desert that means that you have just “lost” four liters of your water reserve because, I tell you, you are going to sweat them. That said, the rest of the ride out to the little bridge was alright and I didn’t drop the bike again. At the little bridge I ran into the guys in the Lada who couldn’t understand that I was turning back without getting to the beautiful tarmac road or the oasis. I said I was too tired and didn’t care. Later on the road a couple on a Mitsubishi almost insulted me because I was turning back but I repeated that I was too tired and would like to ride on asphalt. They couldn’t understand and so I continued all the way to the tarmac and tried to reach Elista, the road Neil had taken the day before. Everyone was saying that I should go back to Budyonnovsk to get to that road but at a gas station they told me that there was another way and that they would show me, through Arzgir, and we set off. It turned out that the guy guiding me had something else in mind, another road. A dirt road! He was really nice and really wanted to show me the shortest road and so left me on another dirt track and told me to ride by the canal until I saw a farm (I understood silo) and then ask but the tarmac would be really close.

Whilst on the way there, I hit a pothole so hard that my top case flew off the bike. I went back to pick it up and realized why it had flown off, it weighed like 20 kilos. Not only that but the attachments were all broken and I couldn’t put it back in place so I tied it to the bike the best I could and went on my way. The farm was there, the asphalt road was there… but it was barred. There was a farm and I asked the people about and they confirmed that I couldn’t ride it.

Sunset at the dam
The sunset view from the farm was amazing

After some hesitation (including going back 1km to try to take the other road), I asked them if I could rest there, camp somewhere and sleep. Luckily they said yes and they showed me a room at the back of their house with a mattress and a quilt. They also gave me melon, watermelon and tomato. Yummy! Later, they shared dinner with me and we talked what we could about my trip and their lives. They were a Muslim family from Daguestan who had moved to this farm by a dam 12 years ago. Dinner was pasta with fresh tomato sauce and more watermelon, melon and tomato. While we were finishing dinner they sent me to bed on account of how tired I looked. I didn’t have such a great night because it was very hot but I won’t complain. The next day I woke up with the sun and rode off very early after having some breakfast. Coffee and melon that Ruslan, one of the kids had shared with me.

Ruslan with the bike
In the morning, I left very early

I doubt they will ever read this but thanks Maria and husband, Ruslan, Jamal and Aya, you were great!

After 20 or so km I finally arrived to the tarmac road, police check on the way by a guy wearing khakis, a knife and a police t-shirt. My road just changed from dirt to tarmac in the middle of (almost) nowhere. From there it was a breeze, albeit a very long one, to get to Astrakhan. I got there around 2 or 3pm and I was just about to relax in my hotel room when I discovered that I should to the tyre change that day or I would have to stay 2 nights in Astrakhan. On the bike again to the bike shop where they were very nice and changed my tyres but took like 3 hours to do it, especially since they were missing the tool to remove my front wheel (and me too btw).

Finally, around 7 or 8 I was free and went to look for some dinner. Two very special days that had left me with very mixed feelings about Russia had just ended happily.

Dirt to tarmac
The dirt is behind me, but not forever