A Travellerspoint blog

Aral - Someplace 85km

sunny

It was a little hard to leave my beautifully air-conditioned room this morning but like I’ve said before these kilometres aren’t going to ride themselves.

I said goodbye to Mirko and wished him luck as he headed south to more civilization but I fear worse roads. As we said our goodbyes we joked as to which way the wind would favour today. I’m not sure how it worked out for him but it blew and blew hard in my face all day long from the moment I got onto the main road.

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On the plus side the road wasn’t too bad but the wind certainly hampered my progress. I’m also carrying significantly more water now, about 12 litres. I’m very conscious of the fact that I need to as I’d hate to run out of water in a place like this. Mirko told me to expect cafes every 80-100 kilometres but I’m certainly not taking any chances.

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The landscape was flat, barren and totally without people. It was so remote in fact that there is also no mobile phone coverage out here which compounded the sense of isolation.

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Nice road but where is everyone?

Due to my late start I found that after 85km today I’d had enough. Luckily I found a couple of houses just off the road. The family who lived there ran two businesses; a farm and also a station for changing oil.

Right from the outset they were very kind and the presence of a young daughter and grandmother convinced me that this would be a good place to sleep for the night. I put up the tent beside the house as they went about their business.

The grandmother came out from the house later with perhaps the largest watermelon I have ever seen and began slicing it up. I was invited over to join in as the sun went down behind us.

As the evening went on the trucks stopped pulling in but the noise they created was replaced by all the animals who returned back to the farm. It was a little hard to sleep throughout the night, it was almost like a symphony of different animal noises, in particular the bulls who seemed to be settling issues amongst themselves as I tried to sleep. The owners also had a number of dogs who roamed around the area occasionally getting into some kind of scuffle. As you can imagine I didn’t have the best nights sleep.

Posted by Ontheroadagain 21:25 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Aral

sunny

You can see I already wrote an entry about my arrival in Aral.

I was so pleased to see foreigners again and in particular a fellow cyclist that I decided to take another, yes another rest day in Aral.

Mirko and I had decided that on the first night in Aral we should go out and drink and few beers and swap stories of our trip so far. I think one beer might have turned into about five but the next day both of us agreed wholeheartedly that our bodies aren’t really cut out for consuming that amount of beer these days.

Aral was insanely hot and I spent the morning going around the small village near the old port picking up food and some delicious watermelon.

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There isn’t much to see in Aral now and it makes for particularly sad reading what happened to this once booming fishing port. The overly ambitious plans of the Soviet administration meant that in the 1960s planned to divert the rivers flowing into the see for irrigation, mainly to increase cotton production has meant that Aral now finds itself landlocked and without a sea.

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I’m no expert on this matter but you can Google it yourself and read about one of modern time’s most saddening and ultimately preventable ecological disasters.

It means that Aral now has somewhat of a ‘ghost town’ feel. I believe plans are in place to try to divert the water back but it’s plain to see that the prosperity of the city has suffered.

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Later that evening we went over to the square nearby the hotel where it seemed the whole population of Aral had gathered to watch a performance showcasing the best of Kazakhstan both old and new. Judging by the number of people and in particular young people who turned out it does look like Aral has a future.

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Perhaps the best thing about Aral was the hotel I stayed in. It wasn’t in anyway luxurious, far from it but it pumped out air-conditioning twenty-four seven and it was so nice to just go and lie on the bed and not have to worry about sweating.

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Tomorrow I’m back on the bike and will head into Aktobe province. If you look on the map this looks far and away the most remote part of my journey through the steppe and Mirko has also warned me that it’s a long hard slow push through to the next major city in the north Aktobe. So 600km in front of me, supplies bought, I’m ready for the next challenge.

Posted by Ontheroadagain 04:34 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Jangaqazali – Lake Qamistibas 50km

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One of the best things about travel is being able to share with others the experiences you’ve had. The Swiss couple I met on the road a few days back now had told me about this Lake some 100km south of Aral. If they hadn’t I might have simply passed it by and continued along my way therefore missing out on this wonderful and relaxing spot.

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It was great to only have to ride 50km today and I arrived at the lake just after lunchtime. It was an incredible feeling to just strip off down to my shorts and dive into this beautiful clear lake. It was the first time in a long while that I’ve been able to submerge my whole body in water and what a feeling.

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There was a group of people who’d set their cars up a little further down and were obviously having a picnic. In true Kazak fashion they extended their hospitality to me and insisted that I go and join them a little further down for beer and Shashlyk (barbecued sticks of meat) They were all in fine spirits by the time I joined them and one or two of them had obviously been at the beer for quite sometime earlier in the day.

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One of the women, a middle aged lady seemed to be particularly tipsy and took a real shine to me grabbing my arms and trying to hug me at every opportunity she had much to the amusement of her friends and much to my obvious embarrassment.

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Once again they couldn’t quite fathom the idea of riding a bike from China to Kazakhstan and then onwards to England. Similarly they looked on in slight bemusement as I took out a number of items of clothing from my panniers and started to wash them in the lake.

They were as I previously mentioned extremely hospitable and I was invited under the canopy they’d erected over their cars and onto the carpet laid out to feast on salad, Naan bread, Shashlyk and a delicious soup they’d made using fresh fish which they had caught earlier in the day. It more than made up for the rather substandard bowl of noodles I’d cooked the night before myself.

I was planning to camp by the side of the lake for the night but they told me it was extremely dangerous. It was very open and perhaps worse very secluded. Perfect in the one sense but perhaps not the kind of place you want to be by yourself at night. One of the guys indicated that people came down here at night on their motorbikes and might perhaps fancy the idea of alleviating some naive foreigner of their possessions.

From where we ate lunch I could see a small collection of white yurts in the distance also by the side of the lake and they explained that I’d be better off sleeping over there.

They packed up their goods and headed off leaving me with one final gift, a whole bag of candy. I decided to follow their advice and made my way over to the ‘settlement’ in the distance. It wasn’t so easy getting there mainly due to the presence of sand tracks which my wheels just sink into but I was pleased by the time that I got there that I’d made the effort.

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There was a caravan there where a family ran a small business of hiring out yurts to day trippers who came for a picnic and a yurt. There was a small group of young guys and girls who had come for precisely that reason and in no time I was inside their yurt and being fed once again.

One of the guys was a young engineer from the Cosmodrome and I eagerly quizzed him about his work. He spoke good English and I got him to ask the boss if it would be possible to put my tent down there for the night. He agreed and obviously no money changed hands.

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I spent the rest of the day swimming in the lake it was so relaxing and actually felt like I was on a beach holiday. Because I’m slightly ahead of schedule I also decided to take another rest day here and head off back onto the road the following day.

Anyone travelling by this region should certainly make the detour to here you won’t be disappointed.

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Posted by Ontheroadagain 03:56 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Bayqonir – Jangagazali 95km

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Bayqonir – Jangagazali 95km

I really wasn’t at the races with today’s ride, I have no idea why but as anyone who is cycle touring will testify there are simply days when you just look at the bike and think ‘I don’t want to ride today’

I waved goodbye to the young girl and her mother in the morning. It turned out that they were from Kyzlorda and that this was how the girl was spending her summer holiday exiled as it were in this barren land, separated from her friends and working it seemed extremely long hours. I felt a real sense of sorrow for her. Was this anyway for a 15 year old to be spending their vacation? She had still been hard at it serving people in the restaurant when I went to bed last night at around twelve yet here she was again at eight in the morning and still working. I don’t know anything about her life but I know for certain that there are plenty of fifteen year olds back at home who wouldn’t fancy the idea of such a life.

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Once again it made me think long and hard about what I’m doing and how unbelievably lucky I am to be doing it. What were the chances I wondered of this girl or anyone else in this region for that matter being able to do what I’m doing? Very slim I would suggest. Not for the first time it made me feel a certain sense of guilt. What must they think of people like myself who can just do this and travel in all these other amazing countries. I think this was a contributing factor to my solemn mood on the bike.

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I couldn’t shake this mood all day. I thought about all the things that we have back at home or in the Western world and simply take for granted, running water, electricity, 24 hour Internet connection. I don’t want to come across as all ‘worldly’ now just because I’ve crossed some countries but the truth of the matter is that we have it so good. I know this isn’t the case for some people in the West who also have tough upbringings but for most of you reading this and I include myself I think we do alright I think the key word I keep going back to is ‘opportunity’ and this is something that I’ve seen through this trip that just simply isn’t available to everyone in this world.

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I remember speaking to an American guy in Urumqi China about his experiences of travelling in Africa and he said that he would find it extremely hard to go back there to travel simply because of the abject poverty that he witnessed people living in each and every day. He said that at times it would literally bring him to tears. For this reason alone I don’t think I’d be able to cope with seeing such things. Kazakhstan as a country is still in relative infancy and of course there are people living in poverty here but I hope and pray that their future is brighter. From what I have read about the current administration is that they are making efforts to develop these more rural areas. The question it leaves me with is ‘what can I do?’ ‘how can I make a difference?’ It’s something that I’ve unfortunately not found the answer to, I hope I will.

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The days scorching hot weather did little to lift me and after about 80km on the bike all I could think about was finding a place to find an ice cold drink. I experienced dehydration once on the bike in China on a previous short trip and it wasn’t a pleasant experience at all. Today I had water with me but the fact that it had been heated all day long by the sun meant it did little to quench my thirst.

I often find myself talking to myself throughout the day but I will often take the opportunity to pray to God while I’m on the bike. Some of you out there will be unaware of the fact that I became a born again Christian last year. I won’t give you all the details now but perhaps will post up something in the future in how my faith has helped me on this trip. Praying is obviously an important aspect of worship and I know that praying is not simply about asking God to give us things to make our lives better; however on this day I couldn’t help but pray to God that he might make a small shop appear so that I could get that cold drink that my body so badly needed at that time.

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A couple of minutes after this I didn’t as you might expect find a shop but a white Toyota land cruiser passed me and then pulled over. I was in half a mind to speed on past and didn’t fancy the prospect of another broken conversation of ‘where are you from?’ A well built man walked towards me on the road and much to my disappointment he wasn’t holding a nice cool refreshing drink for me. As he got closer though I could see that he was holding something in his hand. It turned out to be a 2000T note (about 9 pounds) I was, as you might imagine slightly dumbstruck by this unexpected turn of events. He said nothing except for the usual greeting of ‘Salem’, nodded, turned around and went back to his car leaving me open jawed at what had just happened.

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Now for those of a more cynical nature might just say that this was a random act of kindness by a passing motorist who took pity on a rather bedraggled looking cyclist insanely trying to ride in furnace like conditions. For me however I choose to see it as the workings of God, he couldn’t provide me with that drink that I so badly needed but perhaps just perhaps he sent this man who then provided me with the means not only to buy one bottle of cold drink but at least fifteen bottles of cold drink! I decided that I needed to keep a little of that money back in order to also share it with others I might also meet along the way who are in need.

Eventually another ten kilometres or so down the road I came across a restaurant on the outskirts of another non-descript small town, Jangagazali. I handed over 150T of my new found wealth and gulped down the contents of an entire bottle of ice cold Pepsi in no time at all. I cannot even begin to describe just how good that drink tasted.

The owners agreed for me to put my tent up around the back of their restaurant. What had started as a tough day out on the road with some rather dark thoughts had ended with two acts of kindness from complete strangers and that once again confirmed to me that human beings despite what we read on a daily basis in the media are for the most part good. Praise be to God.

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Posted by Ontheroadagain 03:06 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (1)

III Internatsional – Bayqongir (Baikonur) 135km

One small step for man, 5000 miles for me

sunny

III Internatsional – Bayqongir (Baikonur) 135km

I said to one person I met the other day that the problem with the Steppe is that you can take a photo first thing in the morning and last thing at the end of your ride and then when you compare the two there is hardly any difference.

I knew this was going to be the case and it’s really just a case of putting the kilometres in now. There is very little to describe about the actual act of riding the bike through this vast area.

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I found a nice little café at Durmentobe some twenty five kilometres from Bayqongir. You really learn to savour these stops in this environment. The battery on my itouch had also run out the night before so I didn’t even have the luxury of listening to some music or podcasts during the day. I don’t listen to music all the time but I find that it’s good and for me sometimes and essential at other times to have something else to take my mind off the road; it can really lift your spirits.

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Mr. Nursultan Nazarbayev......President of Kazakhstan

The lower part of my body is obviously getting a tremendous workout and I’m shifting some serious weight now. I have no idea how much I weigh but I can tell just by the waistline on my shorts that I’ve lost a lot. The top part of the body however really just stays in one position.

I’ve found in Kazakhstan that when I’ve had the luxury of the whole unopened new road to myself I will from time to time engage in a spot of ‘bike bopping’ a kind of dance I’ve developed in which I get to work the shoulders and the arms. It may look strange to passing drivers but it’s all a bit of good fun and keeps the top half nice and loose!

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The final ten kilometres of road into Bayqongir were very nice, smooth clean tarmac all to myself. I knew that it was impossible for me to actually enter the city. For those who don’t know it’s the home of the Cosmodrome and was the base for Soviet and Russian space shuttle launches. Kazakhstan actually leases the land to Russia and as such entry is only allowed if you have the correct permit which for foreigners are not easy to get by all accounts and must be done months ahead of your arrival. Nevertheless I approached the gate on my bike with a picture of Yuri Gagarin proudly displayed on it and thought it was still worth a shot at getting in. I knew that Bayqongir had hotels and the prospect of that elusive warm shower spurred me on.

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You're not kidding!

The guards at the gate took one look at my passport and immediately sent me packing back to the same village of Toretam. The guard was friendly enough and spoke fairly good English and said that I’d have no problem in finding a hotel there. I must have ridden around for a good half an hour but despite my pleas for a hotel it soon became apparent that in fact Toretam doesn’t have hotels. It’s a very small place with a train station, lots of small shops (called Magazines in Kazakhstan) and some housing all based around small dusty track roads.

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I initially thought this was part of the Cosmodrome but alas it wasn't.

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Things weren’t looking good and for the first time in a long time I really didn’t know where I was going to sleep. I’d heard that wild camping around this area is not such a good idea due to its close proximity to such a secretive place as the cosmodrome.

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8000km's

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5000 miles

I was hoping that someone might take pity on me as I rode around and invite me into their house but this wasn’t the case. I even went to the police station where I met a giant of an officer who was again extremely friendly but my request to put the tent up in the station was again immediately rejected.

My only option it seemed was to perhaps find a bench at the train station and try and grab a little shut eye on the platform. I was beginning to give up all hope when I eventually found a stall selling melons. I explained as best I could the predicament that I found myself in and they told me about a hotel just outside of Toretam back on the main road. They even illustrated it by drawing a map for me in the sand.

With the sun now almost down I headed away from civilization and back out to the main road. I was a little skeptical I have to say but true to their word some five kilometres down the road was the welcome sight of a hotel.

A group of local guys stood around their cars at front of the hotel drinking beers, unfortunately drink driving seems to be all too common here. They were excited when the saw the British flag and waved me over. We chatted about football and they asked me for a predication for the game. I told them I thought Italy would spring a surprise and beat Spain 2-1. One of the guys horridly got out his phone and started to call someone as I chatted with the others trying to explain to them the details of my trip. The next thing I knew I had a phone thrust into the palm my hand. One of the guys had obviously called his bookmaker and I was now being asked how many dollars I wanted to put on the game! I then tried very quickly to retract my statement about an Italy win insisting that I really knew very little about football. Thankfully laughs were exchanged and I could breathe a sigh of relief, the last thing I need is to be in debt to a Kazakhstan bookie.

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The family who run the hotel were very nice and their daughter actually spoke a little English. The mother had initially tried to charge me an extra 1000 for the room but once again I was grateful for the piece of paper at the reception which listed the prices for the different rooms. Mine, number three was clearly listed as 3000T and not the 4000T she was trying to charge me.

The room was as I’ve come to expect very simple but it did have the added bonus of air conditioning. The last shower I had was in Turkistan five days ago so you can imagine my delight when I was shown to it. Finding hotels is rare in this part of the world but finding hotels with running water is incredibly rare. I knew that the water supply would be limited and didn’t want to use it all myself and I really had to fight the desire to simply stay under the hot water for as long as possible. I gave myself a good scrub down and also my clothes which I’d been wearing for the last few days. I held off on having a shave as I thought I’d do that the next morning.

It was here that I also met a group of Polish scientists from Warsaw university who are travelling across the country in 4x4’s doing research. They had arrived just after me and we chatted a bit over a couple of beers that evening. They were transporting lots of water upstairs in big plastic bottles and I asked one of the guys why they needed so much water. He replied that they weren’t so happy with the hotel because there was no running water in the bathroom. It was at this point that I slunk down rather guiltily in my chair. I hadn’t the heart to tell them that I had in fact enjoyed a rather nice warm shower. In my defence though I couldn’t have taken a shorter wash, it was short enough as it was. The result though was no more water and none also for the morning.

I watched most of the final with two of the Poles Mirek and Marcin. I just hoped that none of the Kazak guys I’d met outside the hotel earlier decided the put their hard earned Tenge on an Italian win as we watched the Spanish take the Italians apart.

Posted by Ontheroadagain 11:27 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

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