"China, Kazakhstan and Russia"


Friday, 20th of July. The path of the rigtheous biker is beset on all sides by the inequities of the car and the tyranny of traffic laws. We´re in Helsinki, Finland. Roads, traffic signs and regulations a) are existing and b) are understandeable. You may guess that the above was not always true in Russia and Kazakhstan. But more of that later.

As planned, we took a plane from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Urumchi, China, heading on to two of the main sights of Xinjiang Province, Kashgar and Turfan. After ten months as motorcycle travellers, it felt quite strange to suddenly be back on the old-fashioned tourist track, with all its advantages and disadvantages. Kashgar was spectacular : Its sunday market had been described in our guide as one of the most spectacular in Asia, and we were not disappointed. A teeming mass of people from all over Central Asia selling exotic fabrics (much to Ellen's delight), yummy dumplings and piles of noodles and other funky foods, viciously haggling knife sellers, strange hats, it was a great day.

After some sightseeing in Kashgar, we flew back to Urumchi, spent the night and headed on to Turfan by bus. It was very, very hot (45 C), the Turfan depression being the lowest spot in China and the second lowest in the world. Nevertheless, around three o clock in the afternoon the locals head for the "beach", a sand dune just outside of town to bury themselves in sand so hot it can cook an egg in 20 minutes. We were told this practice was medicinal.

The area is teeming with sights most of which we saw, rounding off the days with cold drinks and alternating Chinese and Uyghur food. Xinjiang Province has a population of about 50% Uyghur, a Turkic people, and 50% Han Chinese, which makes for a lot of diversity. However, the Uyghurs don't seem to feel very attached to China, as our guides and acquaintances would whisper to us. We were constantly reminded that we were once more in a country where freedom of speech is at the very least limited and a certain measure of caution is appropriate when asking locals questions about their culture.

Back in Almaty, we spent a few more days mostly lazing around Matt's house, having some work done on the bikes and surfing the net, before heading out again. We had been warned that the roads in central Kazakhstan would be bad and the landscapes flat and uninspiring. They were. There should be some improvements soon however as half of the road network seemed to be under construction, which seemed like a small consolation at the time. Perfectly acceptable stretches of asphalt would be interrupted by construction sites miles long, traffic having to pass along miserably dusty and bumpy gravel roads, where oncoming trucks would shower you with stones and dust. But worse was to come.

After repeated assurances by different people that "nyet problem, there's only about 4 km of good gravel", we took what looked like a good option on the map, soon finding ourselves on a muddy track through endless fields. Of course, it also started raining, in confirmation of Murphy's law. The road got increasingly worse, eventually forcing us to get off it altogether and ride through the fields. At least there weren't any landmines (see Mauritania chapter), and after a couple of crashes, we finally got back on asphalt.

Accomodations in Kazakhstan were another surprise : At Lake Balkash, we stayed at a place that could best be described as a postapocalyptic seaside town, although we didn't manage to find out what exactly its function was. We don't remember the name either which doesn't matter since it's not on the map anyway. The lake is lined with similar places, mostly decrepit but quite busy with Kazakh and Russian tourists seemingly spending most of their day drinking impressive amounts of vodka. In one town, Choubar Tyubek, while Ellen was busy negotiating a room, I walked down to the beach and was immediately grabbed (literally!!) by a very loud group who seemed to like my boots. They offered me vodka, serenaded me on a balalaika, and seemed scandalized at the thought that I would not immediately finish the bottle. I had a hard time getting away from their rather aggressive brand of hospitality.

Luckily, much more relaxing welcomes were offered shortly afterwards. As I went to buy some supplies, I was invited for a drink by a friendly Russian who proposed to meet us for dinner that evening along with his family. We were unfortunately a bit late for dinner because in the meantime we had yet again been invited by a Kazakh policemen to celebrate with his family and friends on the beach, eating smoked fish and drinking, guess what? Dinner proceeded along the same general lines, accounting for the fact that we left rather late the following day. Great people.

Shortly before Karaganda, Ellen's motor died and would not be revived. As it was getting late and we had no idea what the problem was, we once again requisitioned a truck to get the bike the last 30 km into town. As some of our tools had been stolen shortly before and no mechanic was to be found, we called Sergei, a casual acquaintance in Almaty, asking if he could help. 20 minutes later, two Ladas driven by what looked suspiciously like bodyguards shrieked to a halt, 5 people jumped out and analyzed the situation. One of the tough guys and an interpreter were delegated to stay with us until the problem was solved. A shop was identified, the bike delivered to the attention of about 10 people displaying varying degrees of productivity, the problem was solved (turned out to be bad gas) and we were on the road again the same day.

After resting for a day in Kazakhstan's brand new capital, Astana, we reached its most northern city, Petropavlosk. From there, we crossed the border into Russia, passing through Kurgan and Chelyabinsk, rode over the Ural mountains and headed on through Ufa, Naberezniye Celny, Kazan, Niznij Novgorod and Suzdal, before reaching Moscow. Before planning for this trip, we had never heard of most of these cities, so it came as a bit of a surprise to discover that most of them had well over a million inhabitants. Unfortunately, that was about the only interesting thing about the first four cities we passed. Grey concrete, high pollution and a population visibly suffering from Russia's current economic troubles more or less sums up our impressions. One more impression does stand out : The absolutely spectacular unpleasantness of some of the hotel personnel we encountered. Even if it's a well known fact that Soviet Russia did not exactly encourage customer service, we were dumbfounded at the way some of these characters seem to hate their customers. It's not limited to tourists either, there's enough of it for everybody.

Among other things, it was the various floorladies' way of knocking (especially early in the morning) , a loud, vicious, impatient hammering on the door that would send us up the walls. One particularly unpleasant and completely drunk specimen managed to wake us up three times between 6.00 and 7.00 a.m., asking us when we were leaving, forgetting the answer, and coming back to ask again. I was ready to do something drastic but Ellen wouldn't let me.

Generally speaking, Russians, as well as people in Central Asia seem to have a very different notion of personal space than we do and after almost two months spent in what used to be the Soviet Union, it finally started getting to us.

As we drove further west, the cities became more interesting. Especially Kazan, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Tatarstan, as well as Suzdal have a rich history and the monuments to prove it. We were back into sightseeing mode and spent some time wandering around, admiring the sights. The roads became increasingly choked with traffic, streetsigns were notably absent, and speed limitations were not posted but heavily enforced by speedtraps. We collected three speeding tickets in as many days, doubling our total for the trip. Luckily, the rates are reasonable for our standards, 100 roubly, about three dollars. The policemen were quite a pleasant surprise, since none tried to squeeze us for a bribe. Same thing at checkpoints, we would usually get waved through.

We rode on to Moscow, where we had a contact received by friends in Luxembourg. Sergei Krivogonov, a motocross racer, gave us a quite unusual but fabulous tour of some sights, including his training ground (where he did a few jumps on his bike, fully dressed up in a business suit), a bikerclub's den with a very large motorcycle, as well as the nightly gathering place of Muscovite bikers. Moscow is a rather funky place, totally unlike anything we had seen in Russia so far. It's very expensive, with plenty of trendy restaurants and night clubs filled with well dressed people dancing their hearts out. We only stayed for a couple of days, visiting some of the more traditional sights as well, before heading north again, towards St. Petersburg which is certainly the most touristy town in Russia, and justifiably so. While Moscow is the political and economic heart of the country, Piter (as we heard some Russians affectionately call it) is its cultural centre. A fascinating history, spectacular architecture and the famous St.Petersburg white nights (it was only dark about four hours a day) combined to make it a place to come back to. A careful estimate of the time needed to visit all the places we would like to visit or revisit yields a total of about four reincarnations, and that's not counting the time we will spend as warthogs for sins committed in this life. We'll see.

Stay tuned
Ellen & Manou