All the roads to China

When 10 people are aiming to be in the same place on the same date, they are bound to meet somewhere along the way. In our case, the place is Torugart and the date is August 28th.

I had run into Neil before at the Georgian border but he was going a bit faster than me and he got a 1 day lead on me. Until his top case flew off. He was a bit unluckier than I and didn’t see it fly off. It was lost to him and with it his bike’s papers and Russian import papers, which are necessary for Kazakhstan too, along with a couple more useful things (he kept remembering stuff he’d lost for days). He was staying in a very expensive hotel so I just had a chat with him and went off to search for a cheaper one in the expensive, oil-empowered, expat-inhabited city of Atyrau. He also told me that Iain, another one of the China group, was in town but he didn’t know where (Iain’s not big on email and technology). Nevermind because as soon as I got to one of the hotels mentioned as cheaper in the Lonely Planet, I saw a red Ténéré parked in the garden. It was Iain’s and so I knocked on his door, introduced myself and we were off to Neil’s hotel to have some beers together.

The road into Kazakhstan also brought a surprise to me: Camels!

Camels on the road
Two humps means camel

It was on some email from Chris (yes, another one of the China team) that I had heard of the Southern road to Uzbekistan. Instead of going North to Aqtobe as Google Maps had shown me, I could go South directly to Khiva. The only problem is that I would have to cross a desert and go through uncharted territory. Uncharted to me anyway because these guys were sure there was a road and so was Open Street Map. I had no idea of the towns there would be on the way, the distances between them or where I could sleep but there was a big chance that Neil would finish his paperwork on time to leave with me. That would be a relief, I would feel better knowing that we were 2 on the road. My rest day in Atyrau was quiet and I spent most of the day doing what one does on rest days: resting. I did go for a walk around town and found the nice promenade along the river and THE beach, there is just the one and it’s artificial.

Atyrau Beach
They brought the sand from the desert to make a beach on the river

The next day I started to get ready at my usual late hour because Neil still had some paperwork to do and he hoped it would be done by 11AM. Luckily, at 11:30 he was ready and so was I. I hadn’t found a Kazakhstan map but it was alright because he has a GPS with OSM loaded on it. We set off around noon and the road was quiet and good (or maybe not bad) and by 7PM we were in Beyneu, the last town before the desert where we had to stock up on water and rest because he had ahead of us 90km of very bad roads to get to the border and more than 500km of Karakalpaqsa desert before the first town with a hotel. That night we went to strange sort of bar where there were only women. When we got back to the hotel I was informed that the second bed in my room, which I was assured would be empty for the night since the person renting it wasn’t coming for the night was now occupied by a third person. I gave little thought to the possibility of the third person coming back in the middle of the night to dislodge my roommate and went to sleep. I was interrupted by said roommate who absolutely wanted to talk to me (in Russian, of course) at 1AM but he quickly understood that it was not the moment. And that he better not turn on the air con either.

We wanted to ride early the next day because there is a 90k stretch of very bad road ahead and a border to cross for which Neil has “unusual” paperwork (a declaration from the Atyrau police saying that he’s lost all his papers).

Bye bye Bulgaristan, hello Turtsiya

My day at the beach turned out to be a rainy day. And that’s an overstatement. It rained for 10 minutes, then it was covered for 1 hour, then it rained for 10 more minutes and then it was finally sunny until the end of the day. I read Kissinger’s book on China throughout the day and I’m loving it. Not much to say about a day at the beach so let’s skip to the road.

The next day, I left as shortly after breakfast as I could because I knew it was going to be a long day. And it was! The roads were beautiful mountain roads. The border crossing I had chosen was at the summit so I enjoyed the Bulgarian road to get there and the Turkish road to get into the country. Both were really beautiful, albeit the Turkish one being of much better quality. And that was where I learnt that I had entered the ‘stans much earlier than expected. It seems that in Turkish, many countries are ‘stans and that includes Bulgaria, my first ‘stan. :-D.

Another Turkish quirk is that gas stations don’t sell road maps but even without a map I took the small roads, confident that I would find my way and not counting with the hurricane level winds that slowed me down to 80kph and with my first real rain on the road that slowed me down to 50kph. It doesn’t matter, when you plan 1 full year of travel, you expect rain. It was refreshing but as soon as it stopped I started cooking again.

It was as uneventful as roads can be aside from an interesting form of road toll I experienced when I took the highway for the last bit into Istanbul. It looks like a toll, everybody behaves as if it is a toll but there’s no barrier and the booths don’t even cover the whole width of the road. Also, there are no humans to interact with and no credit card slots, only prepaid Turkish road toll card slots. What to do? Did I mention there was no barrier? And I skipped while hoping this was the usual way for foreigners to treat a road toll in Turkey.

It wasn’t. The next toll was the city entrance one and this one had real barriers and occupied the whole width of the road. Still no humans though. Well, no official humans anyway. Enter the guy selling “used” cards. He wanted to charge me 100TL (50 euro) for a card. In the end he ripped me off only 50TL for a card that had enough charge for a total of 3 road tolls. Not so bad since that is exactly how many times I plan to pay tolls while in Turkey. Let’s see how that works out.

I arrived in Istanbul right on time to the address I was given. I’m staying at a friend of my father’s house and they have welcomed me in their home with open arms. The days in Istanbul are supposed to be  my rest days, I’ll tell more of my great stay in this amazing city in a future post.

No pictures this time, I need to go to sleep. I made a couple of videos of the road though, they will be available when they are available.At the time of posting, one of the is being uploaded to Youtube and will be available here (cut the sound if you don’t care for listening to the wind):