A Travellerspoint blog

June 2012

Mobile update from the Steppe

Bringing you the latest roadside action

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Well this is my first mobile update as it were coming straight from the heart of the boiling hot Kazak steppe.

I just thought I'd check in as some people tend to worry when they haven't seen an entry up for a while.

I'll put more detailed blogs up when I can find an Internet cafe but that is easier said than done in this neck of the woods.

I've ridden some 430km since my last blog in Turkistan. The roads are a real mixed bag. The whole of the M32 road is under construction which means huge trucks, dust and more unbuilt roads than built.

I'm actually ahead of schedule as I now have about 1459km to Ural near the Russian border and 1700km to Samara in Russia. As my Russian visa doesn't start until the 20th July I need to slow down. To be fair I've been doing so for a while now but I'm rationing myself to about 100km a day and plan some rest days in and around Aral, Aktobe and Ural itself.

I'm now a little short of Josali (Dzhusaly) and will perhaps be in Bayqongir (Baikonur) site of the former Soviet cosmodrome tomoorow.

Qizilorda was supposed to be a rest stop but turned out to be a major let down, just another large town with overpriced hotels. So I passed on the chance to stay there last night and headed back out to camp in the steppe. I don't mind this at all, as I've previously mentioned I tend to sleep better outside.

Well that is all for now but I've a an interesting story about wolves and storms to tell you all about but that will have to wait until I have a proper keyboard to write on.

Most importantly I'm safe and well.

Alas no photos........ See you next time.

Posted by Ontheroadagain 06:01 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Past Tortkol - Turkistan 65km

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I woke up pretty early this morning by the noise of some shepherds passing on the road above where I was camping last night. I’ve found that the best sleep I get on this trip is actually inside the tent. Last night I was so exhausted that I passed out in the tent and slept like a baby.

One thing I’m learning more and more as my journey goes on is that I’ve learned to slow down. I’m not just talking in terms of riding but in everything I do. When I first started out I’d often start the day by looking at the map and pinpointing a place I wanted to reach by the end of the day. Now I’m quite happy just riding along without any such constraints, if I see a nice roadside restaurant I’ll more often than not pull over and have a cup of tea. I still have over 2000km until I reach Russia in about 25 days but I’ve no worries about making that distance.

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As I only had a short distance to ride today I rolled into Turkistan just before lunch today. It’s a small town which was recommended to me by other people who’ve passed through.

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The main attraction here is the Mausoleum of Khawaja Ahmed Yasaw and it’s an important site for Kazakhstan’s large Muslim population. I visited it today and it’s a very impressive building as you can see from the pictures.

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The rest of the day I just spent pottering around, eating and bit and obviously catching up with my blog. I’m in a small guesthouse that was recommended by the Lonely Planet but unfortunately the room is without air conditioning. Given that the average high July temperature for Turkistan is 36.5 degrees Celsius the room has more of a sauna feel to it.

I also took the opportunity to just look back on some random blogs from earlier in my trip. It's only when you do so that you really just how far and how lucky I've been so far. I've been on the road nearly four months now although it seems much longer. I have such a lot to be thankful for.

Well not much else to report. The next major place on this road is Kyzylorda (Qizilorda) some 290km away so I figure I will be there by Friday, we shall see, after all what is the hurry? After that it really does start to get very remote so I’m saving up all my empty plastic water bottles to make sure I have plenty for the long lonely ride across this section of steppe.

Posted by Ontheroadagain 06:01 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Shymkent - Past Tortkol 100km

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I stayed in Shymkent for two nights which coincided with England’s game in the European Championships with Italy. I prepared everything I needed to in readiness for setting off early on Monday morning and was quite looking forward to the prospect of watching a game from the relative comfort of my hotel bed.

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Free wi-fi hotspot outside Miras Travel

The problem is as always the time difference which meant that the game kicked off here at 12:45 a.m. Monday morning. It’s a struggle for me at the best of times to stay awake after 11 these days but as I haven’t had the opportunity to see many games I wasn’t going to miss this one.

I can’t say I was surprised by the result, nor for that matter even disappointed. I think anyone who has watched England over the years will know that our expectations are very low these days. I wasn’t even the least bit nervous when it come down to penalties and it was simply of case of merely switching off the light and turning over to go to sleep once the final Italian kick went in.

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The problem this did leave me with was a real lack of sleep. Nevertheless I was up bright and early, eager to get to the police station to register my visa again. I found the police station without any difficulty and even the office where they handle this procedure; however it was here that my early morning enthusiasm was sapped. The process had taken less than 20 minutes in Almaty but here my passport was put onto a pile. It was about 9:30 and as I waited patiently behind the glass counter the man continued to take passports and place them on top of mine. After about five minutes the officer looked up at me with a rather blank stare, jotted something down on a piece of paper and slipped it back under the glass to me., 12:30. I had hoped to be out of the city and on the road by 10:30 but those plans were well and truly scuppered by the wheels of bureaucracy. You can take the Soviet out of Kazakhstan but you can’t take its bureaucratic ways.

I returned to the station two hours later at 12:30 on the dot and surprise, surprise it still wasn’t ready. At about five to one a guard game in, said something in Russian and motioned to me that it was now time for lunch. Lunch in government organizations is frequently long affairs and there was no way I was going to come back in another two hours.

I leaned forward to the poor girl with a mountain of passports in front of her and pleaded with her to do mine right now. She managed to find it in amongst all the others but the frustrating thing was that she would do a small part filling in the form and then switch to another. If only I knew the Russian for ‘do it all!’ But the worse thing you can do in any of these places is to lose your temper, smile and wait patiently is your best bet.

Passport back in hand it was time to leave. I checked the weather in the morning and was surprised to see a break in the intense heat I’ve been experiencing ever since arriving in Kazakhstan. The grey almost ‘British’ like weather was much more conducive to riding.

I finally left Shymkent around one thirty and as it was 170km to my next destination of Turkistan I decided that a short ride of about 80km would suffice for the afternoon.

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It’s funny with the blog there are certain things you miss out but now that I’m leaving Shymkent I can say that I’ve left behind what many Kazaks have informed me is one of Kazakhstan’s most dangerous cities. We’ve been down this road before and apart from the occasional brute of a guy I saw whilst in the centre of the city I witnessed little to see any evidence for such a weighty claim.

The pollution on the other hand as I left the city was far more dangerous than any human threat I’d felt while being there. This combined with the fact that they are attempting to relay the existing road out of the city to the north meant my lungs were treated to the double whammy of lead and dust!

I’ve gone on about the state of roads a fair bit I know but this road was truly horrific. I know efforts are being made and they have to be but it was still no help to me. As one local guy put it so succinctly; “Kazakhstan, beautiful women, terrible roads!”

I managed to find some sections of road which were brand new and yet to be opened to cars and had the joy of riding all by myself on these but these sections only last for about 500m before you are forced back on the rubble and mess that double as highways.

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Thankfully a nice tailwind propelled me along for much of the day and I also ran into a couple of Dutch cyclists Paul and Wouter heading in the opposite direction. They have pretty much the same route that I’m following however they took a slightly different route through Kazakhstan. Instead of following the M32 which I’m now on they choose to go west.

According to the map I have there are 3 types of roads in Kazakhstan:

1) Main roads – shown as a thick red line, such as the M32 I’m now on
2) Connecting roads – or yellow lines on the map
3) Track – broken red lines.

Paul and Wouter choose to take one of the yellow roads just after Aral which runs through a place called Shalqar and which takes you to Aqtobe one of the cities will visit. They warned me that under no circumstances should I even consider taking this road as there is no road just a series of mud and sand tracks which you apparently have to guess blindly which to be the correct one. I think they ended up by taking a bus as the conditions were so bad. So we have to bear in mind that these are Kazakhstan’s second classification of roads!

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A whole lot of fun

It was good to compare notes with them on what they’ve experienced and vice-versa. I think we all agreed that you don’t come to Central Asia to eat the food. I’ve been in the country now for over a month and am beginning to tire of the sight of another plate full of meat. I’m even beginning to grow tired of one dish I previously enjoyed, that of ‘lagman’, noodles with vegetables and meat.

Perhaps it also has something to do with the weather which isn’t, I would say exactly suited to stuffing ones face full of large hunks of meat. I know some meat is important but I’m mostly trying to stay on salads, pasta and large quantities of Naan bread.

The roads may be rough but the drivers hospitality here is anything but. I’m constantly being handed bottles of drink by friendly passing drivers.

I ended up putting about 100km on the clock yesterday before I found a suitable place to put the tent down for the night. I was pretty tired when I finally got into the tent; my lack of sleep from the previous night was really beginning to tell. It was always my plan to stop and look around the small city of Turkistan about 60km away and where I will arrive tomorrow.

Posted by Ontheroadagain 04:38 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Tashkent – Shymkent 120km

Back in Kazakhstan via an overnight stop in Qazighurt

As you can see I’m now back in Kazakhstan.
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I’m going to keep this one short and simple as there isn’t too much to say. I’m in a city called Shymkent about 100km north of the Uzbekistan border and I’ll start to make my way north now to Russia. I have to wait here until Monday as I need to register my visa with the police again and this is something I can’t do until Monday.

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Being here does have its advantage in that I will get the chance to watch England take on Italy tonight in the quarter finals of the European Championships. I’ve hardly watched any of the games due to the time difference; they kick off here at 12:45 a.m. I’m also not sure if it’s such a good idea that I watch the games, I’ve not watched either of the last two and I’m worried I might jinx the team.

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As I mentioned in my previous blog, despite the fact I’m in a hotel it has no Internet so I’m writing this from my room and then have to go out onto the street to find an Internet café to update this and upload pictures which takes a long long time believe you me.

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After this I’m going to be in some fairly remote areas where finding Internet access would be akin to finding water in a desert, so my blogs are going to become less and less frequent. It may just be sometimes a few short lines sent from my phone, I shall have to wait and see.

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So if you don’t hear from me, don’t worry I’m sure all will be well.

Thanks for all the support once again, 7325km and counting.

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Shymkent, Kazakhstan home for the next day

Posted by Ontheroadagain 01:26 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Qazighurt – Tashkent, Uzbekistan 75km

Border crossing hell!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! No pictures but lots of writing.

I arrived in Uzbekistan and I’m ashamed to say was largely ignorant of the country as a whole. I’d read and heard bits about the politics of the country whilst travelling in Kazakhstan but I haven’t read enough myself to be able to comment on that so I won’t.

It’s a very popular destination with many travelers more so it seems than that of its neighbour Kazakhstan and many people I met seemed surprised that I was just making a fleeting visit to this country.

My reasons as I explained to them are clear; my Kazakhstan visa is only valid for 60 days. You have to leave the country after 30 days before you can re-enter it to activate the second 30 days on your visa. I have some large distances to cover in my second thirty days in Kazakhstan across some very inhospitable terrain of which I know very little so it’s important that I give myself enough time to make it across in the thirty day period that I have.

Uzbekistan or to be more specific Tashkent was where I met up with some incredibly interesting and lovely people who are also making their way around this part of the world.

Many of them were in the same position I found myself dealing with in both Urumqi and Almaty, waiting for visas to travel onto other countries in this region such as Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China. Central Asia really is a visa nightmare zone and each person has their own experiences in dealing with the various consulates here. It’s always good to meet other people and be able to share not only our experiences but also frustrations in going through these processes.

Before I talk about the people I met in Tashkent I should mention the border crossing. For most of us crossing a border simply involves going through the process at an airport and while it can be a time consuming event for the most part it’s fairly straightforward. The land crossing from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan was far from so in fact I think the best word to describe it would be utter chaos.

I got up early in the morning in order to get to the border at a reasonable time to cross in the morning. Unlike the previous border I crossed in China this one was open throughout the day bar a couple of hours here and there for meal breaks.

As I approached the border I was bombarded by people running up to me waving bundles of cash offering money changing services. This was the last thing I needed and all I wanted was a quite place to rest my bike up against and get everything I needed in order.

I found this by the side of the road next to a money changing booth. The lady there was extremely persuasive and before I knew it I was inside her booth sitting on a sofa while she counted out 100 dollars behind a heavily padlocked door and bars. I’d been caught unaware; it was also my own fault in not doing my research. I’d checked very quickly the night before on my phone the exchange rate from dollar to Uzbek ‘Som’ I found out that the official exchange rate was 1900 Som to the dollar. I was however blissfully unaware that there also exists a black market exchange rate of 2800 Som to the dollar. Flummoxed and unaware of this but knowing I needed some money for when I got into Uzbekistan I changed up my remaining 100 dollar bill and was presented with a huge stack of bills at the ‘official’ exchange rate.. It was only later that I found out about the other rate available. It wasn’t too bad, I hadn’t lost a great deal of money but I was a little frustrated I’d been outfoxed by the lady in question.

On the Kazakhstan side inside the building separating the borders I was ushered into a line, I say line in the loosest possible sense. There were three lines which people seemed to jump from one to another depending on the speed of each. There was also a part where those small enough could crawl under a barrier out of sight of the guards patrolling it. Women with children and elderly women seemed to have the right to go straight to the front which is fair enough I suppose.

I waited very patiently with my bike in what one might describe as a very “British way” after all us Brits are very good at queuing up. Anyone suffering from a fear of enclosed spaces here or a lack of personal space would certainly not have enjoyed this experience. Sweaty bodies pressed up against each other as people pushed their way impatiently forward and there was a distinct smell of body odor and vodka filling the air.

One of the guys nearby was carrying a large plastic bag, the type that you take to the laundry to do your washing in. He was playing around with the bag, moving things about and then I saw him pull out a small pistol! Yes a pistol, which he proceeded to stuff further down inside the bag. I was shocked obviously and tried to avoid all eye contact with the guy. Now I suppose there is always the chance that it was a fake pistol, one of those novelty lighters one kind find but it certainly looked real enough to me. How on earth was he going to get that through the security check? Not my problem I thought.

The officials were very abrasive and it seemed very much that they enjoyed the small amount of power they had in letting people through to the next stage.

Once through the first section I made it into a line where one has to present their passport and visa registration cards to exit the country. I negotiated this fairly easily as the lines became a little more organized. I thought I’d passed the worst of it to be honest.

However I next found myself outside in the boiling hot sun and faced we a sea of people all trying to get through what was now ONE gate. On this gate was one guard who would occasionally open it up to allow a few people through and ease the swelling of the sea of people pushing forward.

My efforts to indicate I was travelling with a bike seemed to fall on deaf ears and I was forced just like everyone else to get in amongst it, jostle, push and gradually try to work my way forward. It was a total nightmare and total chaos. People were shouting, small arguments broke out among small sections and individuals as they tried to force their way through. In fact I’d go as far as to say it seemed that some people were angry at me for having the audacity to try and take my bike with me.

People were leaning on the bike and the panniers attached to it kept getting caught. I tried my best to stay calm but at one point had to turn around swiftly to one lady and in a polite yet very forceful manner tell her to stop and wait! It’s just not what Brits are accustomed too all this pushing!

I finally made it through and was now in the no mans land section but still had to pass through the Uzbekistan side. Needless to say I made it through after yet more waiting, filling in of forms and for the first time having to remove every bag off the bike to put it through the x-ray machine.

All in all it was an experience that I certainly don’t want to have to repeat again but I was in Uzbekistan and so too I noticed was the man with the laundry bag!

I managed to locate the Gulnara Guesthouse which I’d read about in the lonely planet and was pleased when I managed to find it just after lunch. It’s a family run guesthouse with a huge open courtyard with trees and tables scattered around it.

It was here that I met amongst others three other cyclists:

Peter – A half German half British guy living in Belgium who was making his way towards China.
Eric – A Swedish guy who funnily enough Kenta had told me he’d met in Portland USA many years ago…..small world.
And finally Jacques – A Frenchman who has been travelling the world for the past 18 years on his bike and who was not only full of amazing stories concerning his travels but also loved to talk football.

In addition to the cyclists there was also Andreas, a German filmmaker, Rex and Judy an older couple from New Zealand who’d spent time in England. Jordi and Christina and lovely couple from Barcelona who travelled with a glorious air of freedom that I really admired and Jullen a young German guy who I spent the day sightseeing around Tashkent with for one of my days in the city.

The whole set up of the guesthouse made it have a real sense of community and it was easy to see why it is such a popular spot with many passing travelers.

I was only in Tashkent for what really only amounted to two days and like I mentioned one of those was spent taking in the sights of the city.

It’s hard to form a picture of what a country is like by just visiting its capital city but my impression of Tashkent was good on the whole. For me it lacked the charm of Almaty and had a much more ‘state’ like feel. Anyone who is familiar with the politics of this country will know that this is essentially a ‘police state’ and I’d been warned to expect plenty of attention from the local police.

In fact I wasn’t stopped once the whole time I was there but was told by a security guard that I couldn’t take photos of one of the bazaars I visited. The Government are extremely sensitive to photos being taken. It’s all out there in the virtual world if you want to read about it, I’ll let you all form your own opinions or better still take a visit to this part of the world, you won’t be disappointed.

Well as you can see this blog entry has gone on for a very long time. I could go into detail about what I did and saw in Tashkent but you can see from the photos I posted up the other day basically all I saw and did.

I hope I’m able to upload more photos but as I’m leaving bigger cities it’s becoming harder and harder to get online. Thus my blog entries may have to become less and less

Posted by Ontheroadagain 00:51 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

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