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