Crashes, Canyons and Corruption

When Dan arrived at the Kazakh side of the border on Friday 24 June, he was already playing catch up, Ed having crossed the same border two days before on the Wednesday.  Things were going well however as Ed had sent information back to Bishkek about how the process worked, and having arrived at the Kyrgyz side of the border before it opened, Dan was out the other side and legally in Kazakhstan by 8.30 am.  The mission then was to get to the Mongolian embassy a couple of hundred kilometres away in Almaty in time to apply for a visa before the consular section closed at 1pm.  Ed had warned that Kazakhstan was bristling with police radar guns however, so it was important not to break the speed limit on the way.  As a result Dan took it easy, but by 11am was only 25 miles away from Almaty.  As many roads in Almaty have bizarre and annoying motorcycle bans in place, Dan took care to navigate towards the embassy without traversing the city and arrived at 11.45.

The embassy was not busy, there was no queue, no ridiculous process to follow, just a really friendly, helpful guy speaking excellent English and making everything as simple as possible.  A visa applied for on a Friday would not be available until Monday, so Dan asked whether they’d be willing to stamp a photocopy of his passport to show that the original was with them, in case the police wanted to see it over the weekend.  The staff made a copy, but kept it and told Dan he could keep the original over the weekend after all and simply return with it on Monday morning to collect the visa.  By half past twelve, Dan was leaving the embassy in search of some Kazakh Tengi, and a road towards Charyn Canyon to meet up with Ed.  The Tengi were easily found, the road towards the canyon less so.  After a few wrong turns and recalculations, Dan was on a road towards the canyon, but it wasn’t the road he thought it was.

Whilst still 100 miles from his destination, Dan was faced with a toll gate across the road at which he had to pay a fee to gain access to some kind of National Park.  The map displayed at the entrance didn’t seem to show the canyon, but this didn’t dissuade Dan, who knew that this was the way – Garmin was on his side.  With the 400 Tengi (3GBP) entry fee paid, Dan was on his way again, following a little tarmac road along the side of a small river through a gorge.

The scenery was lovely and alarm bells only started ringing when the road became a gravel track with 95 miles still to go to the canyon.  A little further along, another barrier blocked the way, this one manned by a couple of guys who initially said that the road was closed.  Dan pointed out that he wanted to use it to get to Charyn Canyon, and they seemed very surprised, saying amongst other things well beyond Dan’s Russian comprehension that it was a very long way.  Dan knew it was a long way, the GPS said it was still 90 miles or so to the canyon, but he showed them the route on the screen and they incredulously agreed to let him pass, presumably assuming he’d be back with his tail between his legs in an hour or two when he actually saw the road he’d requested access to.  The gravel track the other side of the barrier continued in pretty good condition up the gorge which opened up into a wider valley.  As the good gravel turned to the south and out of the valley, the GPS indicated that Dan should hang a left onto a little track criss-crossing the river as it traversed the plateau.  Dan opted to take the parallel track not shown on Open Street Map as it seemed to be marginally better, and headed off into the unknown.

For Ed, having picked up his Mongolian visa that morning, a couple of hours on the bike saw him arrive at Charyn canyon having followed the main red line on the screen of the GPS all the way from Almaty.  A few miles of tarmac-less road led to the guard house of the canyon and 500T later Ed had the canyon at his disposal along with a couple of small groups of Kazakh tourists who kept themselves mainly to themselves.  Within about an hour Ed had explored the top and bottom of the canyon thoroughly, enjoyed a short period charging around on the WR to relieve the boredom and then sat himself down by the river at the far end of the canyon to await Dan’s arrival.  It wasn’t until the sun started going down and the tourists and guards had left for the night that Ed realised that Dan may have encountered some issue or other so he selected the vantage point with mobile phone reception and the best view of the canyon and access roads and settled himself down for a night with the whole place to himself.

The scenery up in the mountains was idyllc and Dan figured that whilst there was a risk he’d come to an impassable point before reaching the canyon, if that happened there was plenty of space to camp up here for the night and retrace his steps the following morning.  The biggest concern was that with no mobile phone reception up here, he’d be unable to tell Ed what had happened.

Dan saw one other vehicle during his afternoon on this trail, a VW Tuareg, the occupants of which were probably quite surprised to be overtaken on the approach to a river crossing, with Dan splashing across the river and gassing it up a steep rocky incline on the other side to rejoin the main track shown on the GPS map.  The track continued for some miles as wheel tracks across the grass, or gravel sections along or across the river, before starting to climb up the side of the mountains to the side of the valley to continue eastwards.  Here the riding became more challenging, with steep rocky climbs and descents and occasionally quite badly washed-out sections.  Dan was doing well to anticipate which side of the track would have the washed out gully along it as he rounded each corner and crested each rise, but eventually one caught him out.  Cresting a peak in the track with the high ground on his right, he expected the right hand side of the track to be intact for the descent.  Not so: a huge washed-out cravasse opened up on the right of the track and there was no way to get across it further down the track – it would force him off the track completely.

Dan was forced to stop, get off the bike, motor it part way up the steep side of the bank to effect a multi-point-turn, before remounting and riding back up the slope to turn round and come back down the left hand side of the track.  All was going well until he lost momentum crossing the start of the gully during the u-turn and the bike came crashing down to the right.  The right hand mirror and hand guard took the brunt of the impact, the mirror shattering into a useless mosaic, the handguard doing it’s important job of protecting the brake lever so the bike was still perfectly rideable.  Dan’s adrenal gland handled the task of getting the bike back upright admirably, and within a couple of minutes Dan was back on his steed and heading down the left hand side of the track, still on a mission: it was gone five pm and there were still another 50 miles of this to cover to get to the canyon.

A little further along the track, a steep rocky section was a little too long to maintain momentum, with Dan’s 12500-mile heavily-worn rear tyre spinning hopelessly over the rocks and pebbles searching for the traction to propel the bike up the track.  The bike was fishtailing wildly and unable to let off the power without risking coming to a stop, Dan just had to try and hold it together.  Fatigue was setting in however and a clumsy over-correction had the bike back on it’s side.  Thankfully it was the right hand side again, so the one mirror remained unscathed, but this time due to the rather faster forward speed at the moment of impact, the right hand tank pannier had been torn from one of it’s straps.   The other issue this time was that righting the bike was more of a challenge.  The track was hollowed out towards the centre, where the panniers were resting, the wheels on the higher part at the edge of the track.  A couple of months of riding a motorcycle and not eating very much is not very effective muscle maintenance, and Dan had started to notice his loss of muscle mass weeks before.  Whilst medical professionals generally agree that Dan doesn’t strictly need to eat until after the London Olympics, the loss of muscle was suddenly now an issue.

No amount of heaving and pushing on the laden bike, with his feet in the lower central part of the track could get it vertical over it’s wheels on the higher edge of the track.  After numerous frustrating attempts, there was no alternative but to start removing luggage until it could be lifted.  Eventually an exhausted Dan had an upright partially loaded bike, and could start it and motor it a little further up the track to a point where he could get the sidestand down and re-load it.  After another ten minutes and downing a litre or so of water, Dan had the bike re-laden and was back on it continuing along his way.  The thought had crossed his mind that were he to be injured out here, there was no one to provide any assistance and his only way out would be to ride out.  It was therefore of paramount importance to ride cautiously, picking each line carefully.  It was starting to get late now, but the sun was still reasonably high and there should still be light enough to get to the canyon provided two conditions were met: he had to keep the bike rubber side down, and there had to be a bridge over the Chalik river.  The Chalik river was large enough to be clearly shown on the map, whereas the river the track had been entwined with as it crossed the plateau was not shown at all.  If there was no way of getting across, Dan would have to find somewhere to camp and retrace his steps the following day.

The first condition was going well, and whilst another barrier across the track (this time unmanned) did not herald an improvement in the quality of the surface, the track was weaving it’s way out of the mountains towards the lake and the river.  As Dan rounded a corner approaching the lake, he could see a bridge over the Chalik.  At that moment, you could keep your Tower Bridge and your Golden Gate, this was Dan’s favourite bridge in the whole world.

The bridge finally heralded an improvement in the track, which was now much more heavily used and as a result quite heavily corrugated, but wide, open and predictable and so good for upwards of 50 mph. Eventually the track met tarmac at the village of Kokpek, and with it a shop able to sell Dan emergency Coca-Cola.  With coke drunk, and provisions of bread, cheese and water stashed on the bike, Dan continued on along the tar road he should have been on all afternoon, towards the few kilometres of dirt road to Charyn Canyon.

Viewers of The Long Way Round may remember a section in the Kazakhstan episode where the  stars on unreasonably-heavy bikes deeply regret riding down into Charyn Canyon, only to then struggle to get back up the steep track to get out again (cue much falling over, removal of luggage and yet more falling over).  Searching for Ed with the aid of a GPS waypoint in the canyon, a very tired Dan rode down into the canyon to have a look around, and not finding his riding buddy down in it’s depths, picked his way undramatically back up the track and out of the top.  Small lightweight bikes may be cheating, but cheating feels good after a day like Dan had just had.  Riding around the rim of the canyon as the sun set behind him, Dan could see a familiar figure at a viewpoint overlooking the abyss.  There was a lot to chat about, and the sun had well and truly set by the time tents were pitched at the edge of the Canyon and the overlanders turned in for the night under a clear starry sky.

As Saturday 25 June dawned at Charyn, the pair were up and about, eating breakfast and getting packed up.  The target for the day was Kapchugay reservoir, a truly enormous man-made lake that supplies most of Eastern Kazakhstan with drinking water.  On the shallower northern shore of the reservoir is found what is perhaps an embryonic Kazakh equivalent of Brighton – 70 miles from the centre of the capital, a hedonistic resort with a beach of sorts.  In the case of Brighton the complaint is that the sand is enormous, in the case of the Kazakh imitation the sand is really just dust, and a stiff breeze is all that’s required to whip it up into the eyes of the sunbathing weekenders, but the parallel perhaps still stands.  Certainly cheap accommodation is every bit as difficult to find as it is in Brighton, with most places either extortionately expensive, fully booked for the weekend or both.

With the aid of a local shopkeeper and a guy of uncertain employment, a confusing institution probably called Azti was located – a dilapidated shell of a place with next to no facilities.  For $17 a night, one was presented with a shack-like room with a couple of beds in it, a shed housing a row of long-drops and a bizarre warehouse containing a million discarded beer bottles and the bowser of doom – supplying water of who-knew-what provenance to a tap at ground level.  There was no shower.  Idyllic it wasn’t, and the people milling around who Dan and Ed took to be the staff of the place seemed to be concerned about where to park the bikes.  It’s always sensible to take the locals’ lead on these things even if the place at that point seemed almost deserted and likely to remain undisturbed.

After a false start where the padlock on the door of one shack could not be opened, the bikes were allowed to share another shed with an angry dog.  They were certainly unlikely to be stolen from in there, but it wasn’t clear what shape they’d be in by the time they were liberated the following morning.  With the bikes hidden away and no reason to hang around, the guys wandered out into the melee of revellers to find something to eat and perhaps a beer or two.  Selecting the not-too-smart establishment associated with the guy who’d helped them find their salubrious quarters, the guys were seated at a dusty table and ordered some chicken shashlik and a litre and a half of beer.  The beer was cold, but sadly so was the raw chicken when it was first served.  The chicken was duly returned to the grill, and by the time it was back on it’s plate it was more palatable.  The bill when it arrived however was not.  3000 Tengi was over $20 for some slap-dash kebabs and three pints of beer served in a plastic water bottle.  It wasn’t clear whether this really was the going rate, but it seemed very expensive and the guys refused to pay more than 2000 Tengi, at which they still felt they were being had.  The young guy who’d been serving them seemed to accept this lower number quite readily, which only added to the suspicion that the original bill had been subject to foreigner-inflation.  Back at Azti, there were two surprises in store.  The place was buzzing with people too unlucky or too short of cash to get a room elsewhere, with loud music pumping from car stereos outside and teenagers getting increasingly drunk on the verandah.  The second surprise was the arrival of the young waiter from the shashlik bar knocking on the door of their room.  He’d been despatched by the chef, demanding that the foreigners pay the remaining 1000 Tengi of their bill.  The guys stood their ground pointing out that the chicken had initially been served woefully under cooked, and it wasn’t clear whether the kid was getting upset because he didn’t want to be scamming the foreigners, because he’d be in trouble with the chef when he got back empty handed, or both.

The music outside continued well into the early hours, and the guys were a little on edge since the owner of the shashlik bar was clearly unhappy and knew which flimsy door to knock on to get to the rich foreigners.  Despite all this, the guys eventually got some sleep and awoke the following morning to survey the scene of devastation.  Furniture was strewn around, beer and alco-pop bottles were everywhere, but it was a while before the hung-over zombie teenagers started to emerge, blinking and asking for a light.  Two bemused and increasingly frustrated overlanders sat on the steps in their motorcycle kit, unable to liberate their machines without the aid of a staff member with a key and a means of restraining Cerberus.  There were no staff to be seen, themselves probably having not had much sleep courtesy of the teenage revellers that passed for clientèle.

By 10am, the bikes had been released and once Dan had effected a simple cable-tie repair to his damaged pannier strap, the guys couldn’t wait to get away from the place.  Dan was headed back to Almaty to pass some time in expensive but peaceful and secure accommodation until the following morning when his Mongolian visa could be collected.  Ed, already having his Mongolian visa was free to head North towards the Russian border in search of cheaper accommodation further from the capital.  Ed had been able to give Dan a lead on a motel very close to the Mongolian embassy that was 10% cheaper than where he’d stayed, but there were no rooms available there and Dan ended up at Hotel Sauna, where Ed had been a couple of nights before.  There was at least a gated courtyard where the bike could be parked mostly out of sight, whereas the cheaper motel had only had an open car park.

Up ahead Ed had enjoyed a leisurely Sunday’s riding having reached the target of Taldykorgan earlier than expected and found the hotel he’d been aiming for with ease he decided that there was no point stopping too early and he should make full use of the available light and good weather to push on towards the next big town on the route. Supplies were collected and whilst having a brief chat with the girl running the shop Ed noticed the proprietor of the cafe next door hovering. Figuring that a full stomach would come in handy when Ed searched for rough camping spots later, he asked the price of lagman noodles and within ten minutes was seated eating noodles and drinking chai whilst fielding questions from other customers about the trip. Sure enough the road passed easily under the tyres of the WR that day as Ed headed north and the shifting light of early evening signalled that it was time to search for a spot to pitch his tent. Selecting a field set back from the road and hidden by a thick hedge, Ed set up camp and apart from a local UAZ jeep using the track on the far side of the field, he was not disturbed that evening once he’d retired to bed.

Monday 27 June saw Dan up early to pick up some more Kazakh currency on the way to the embassy to fetch his visa before heading out to the North of the city to try and catch up with Ed who was now effectively a couple of days ahead.  Dan presented himself to the ever-helpful Mongolian embassy a little before the appointed time of 9am, and was able to leave with visa in hand by ten past.  Dan had only two reasons to stop – to pick up a few provisions from a supermarket in the city, and occasionally to replace the cable ties that had been pressed into service holding his chain-guard on.  The bolt that had held it in place since 2008 had clearly found that it liked Kazakhstan and had climbed out a couple of days before.  Frustratingly, the team of cable ties Dan was now relying on were willing to hold it for only a few hundred miles at a time.  A better solution was clearly required, but with Ed aiming for a point that evening over 690 miles from where Dan had started in Almaty, there was no time to seek it out right now.

In fact, with the day’s target so far ahead, there was no time to stop for anything.  No photos, no food, no drink, no shelter from the thunderstorms that were plaguing the region and no respite from a shockingly decrepit road surface.  It had been ten-thirty that morning by the time Dan got out of the clutches of Almaty, but by eight-thirty on Monday evening he’d covered 520 miles towards his goal, though was still 170 miles behind Ed.  The thunderstorms had left the ground around the road thoroughly waterlogged, and Dan surveyed the flooded ground through a wet visor with dismay – this was not looking promising for camping.  Some higher ground was needed, and up ahead the road wound its way towards and through some hills.  Bingo.  Dan sped on and was rewarded with a dirt track up into the hills.  The track passed within a hundred metres or so of a house, but there was a good chance he’d not be followed or disturbed.  A few hundred metres from the main road, the level path between the hills was wide enough for Dan to park up and camp without obstructing the track if any traffic did come along during the night.  There was another thunderstorm on its way, so this would have to do.  Dan got the flysheet onto his tent just as huge raindrops started to fall.

Monday morning had started off cold when Ed arose and finding the purchased bread to be stale already Ed hit the road promising himself breakfast once 100km had been dispatched. An early start provides useful hours that Ed didn’t waste and after pausing for a breakfast picnic of bread and cheese beside a rather scenic army base (sensitive military installations are often not advertised as such so it is more common than you’d think to find yourself right next to one when searching for a camping spot or lunch spot, or indeed find one right in the way of that scenic photograph you’ve been hankering after). The miles ticked away with ease and the rain clouds that had been threatening that morning parted to be replaced by clear skies and sunshine. Soon it was apparent that with the good progress Ust-Kaminogorsk might well be achievable that day after all and sure enough Ed rolled into the city in the late afternoon rays to find a confusing city with scarce accommodation options and very little to sell it to the casual tourist. With his taste for rough camping heightened, Ed decided to leave the city behind and with a wallet reloaded with Tenge from a nearby bank he set a course north west for the border and a begin the search for a likely camping spot. Within 30miles the main road cuts through the countryside in a straight line with thick, hedged borders down both sides providing plenty of cover from the road for rough campers. A hilltop of lush green rolling fields was the first option but the sight of a 4WD driving around the nearby area persuaded Ed that he would probably be disturbed so he selected the cover of a nearby cornfield and using the agility of the WR, followed the edge of the field high up another hill where he wouldn’t be disturbed. It also proved to be a useful test of the anti-insect countermeasures that Ed was carrying because no sooner had he had pitched the tent the little blighters arrived from all angles and forced Ed to turn in early for the night to escape their attentions.

Tuesday 28 June was another early start for Dan, packed up under blue skies and ready to leave his impromptu campsite on the dirt track at 6am, he was still at least 3 hours behind Ed even if he could maintain an average of 100 kph over the poor road surface.  The roads were empty at this hour though, so Dan was able to make good progress.  In Kazakhstan, the practical alternative to maintaining the road is to put up signs to warn that the road is uneven, and halve the speed limit to 50 kph.   On one such section, on the approach to the town of Georgievsky, Dan discovered the downside to the early morning empty roads – no one coming the other way flashing their lights to warn Dan of a speed trap up ahead.  On his supple long-suspension dirt bike, it was still perfectly viable to maintain a speed of 100 kph on the GPS despite the dilapidated road, and sure enough, Dan was clocked doing a genuine 100 kph in a 50 limit.  This was not going well.  Documents were dug out of a pannier to prove that Dan owned the bike, that he’d legally brought it into Kazakhstan, and that he held a licence to ride it.

Niceties over, it was time to move onto the fine.  The penalty is calculated based on the amount by which the limit was being exceeded, and in this case the officers indicated that Dan ought to go to a specific bank and pay the fine of 15,120 Tengi, about $105 US.  The expense was every bit as unwelcome as the delay, but it was pointless complaining as Dan knew full well he had been doing double the posted limit, and had been absolutely legitimately caught in the act.  Instead, Dan enquired through gestures and the odd Russian word whether it was possible for him to pay the officer instead.  The policeman smiled, “Da!”.  Dan kicked off unofficial proceedings by fishing out a 20 Euro note.  The officer indicated that there were two policemen to pay off, so Dan produced another crisp 20 Euros from his document wallet.  The officer smiled broadly, and quickly rolled up the notes and stashed them out of sight, returning Dan’s documents, so they could be put back in a somewhat roomier document wallet.  It was difficult for Dan to object to corruption like this while it worked in his favour – the offence was legitimate, and the officer’s agreement to take a back-hander resulted in a cheaper, quicker solution for the offender.  It’s a very, very fine line however, and not so far removed from police encountered on Dan and Ed’s African travels demanding on-the-spot cash fines for fictional offences.

Having paid his bribes, Dan was free to go, and having packed all his documents away again did just that, stopping at the next fuel station to top up.  Dan pre-paid for 20 litres of fuel, which when delivered resulted in a not-quite-full tank.  Pre-payment is a rubbish system common across the region, and is frustrating for a motorcyclist just wanting a full tank.  The customer is faced with either paying for just less than what will fit in the tank, or taking two trips to the Kassa – once to pay for more than enough, and again to get refunded for the excess.  As Dan rejoined the road towards the town, he noticed that he was just behind the police car containing the officers who had stopped him, their lucrative law enforcement clearly done for the day.

Meanwhile, further up the road, Ed had already arrived in Shemenoika after a lazy start and had randomly selected Gastinitsa Zemphera as a breakfast venue.  Brief negotiations over breakfast had yielded a more acceptable room price from the proprietor before Ed set off searching the town unsuccessfully for internet cafes.  He also took a short blast out to the border to satisfy himself that it was one designated for foreigners to use – not all of them are, and having to drive to Semipalantinsk would have meant a delay to the overlanders’ entry into Russia.

Dan’s pace had definitely now been dropped, obeying all posted speed limits and even pausing to eat a little stale bread and chocolate spread at half past ten.  While stopped, Dan found a text message from Ed giving the location of the hotel in Shemenoika, just 20 miles up ahead.

Dan arrived at Gastinitsa Zemphera and was immediately motioned to join Ed and the very friendly Iraqi-Kurdish proprietor Mohammed for a cup of tea and a pancake snack.  This was swiftly followed by a shashlik lunch, free of charge for his British guests.  This was one establishment where recent British foreign policy had evidently been well received.  After lunch and a bit of a rest, there was time in the afternoon to wander out into Shemenoika in search of a replacement mirror of some sort for Dan’s DRZ.  The bemused proprietors of various cosmetics shops were only able to offer tiny compact mirrors too small to be of any use, or enormous plastic-rimmed monstrosities too large to allow any forward vision.  A motor factors branded with Audi logos was spotted down the street and the guys wandered in to see if they had anything suitable.  After explaining that it didn’t matter what model of car the mirror was for as it was going to be lashed to a motorcycle, the guys were shown a variety of door mirror glasses.  A pattern Audi-80 door mirror glass was selected – about the right height and only about 50% too wide, it would do pretty well.  After some half-hearted bartering from the buyers and a lack of change on the part of the vendor, the price was agreed at a little less than ?4 – bargain.  When the guys returned to Zemphera, Dan set about it and the DRZ with a roll of insulating tape, and within minutes the DRZ was sporting an oversized club-foot of a mirror that would make Dan look like a fully paid up member of the caravan club.  The DRZ’s days of looking good in sunset silhouettes were over, until a properly proportioned replacement could be sourced, at least.

On Wednesday 29 June, the guys packed up, and after changing all remaining Kazakh Tengi into Russian Roubles at a local bank and having another cup of tea with Mohammed (whom was impossible to refuse), it was time to head for the border.

At the border, the guys once again had to endure a thorough search of their luggage, and it was hard to understand quite why the officers would be so interested in what was being taken out of Kazakhstan.  With the customs or perhaps narcotics officers pacified, the passport formalities were simple enough and the guys made their way through to the Russian side of the border.

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6 Responses to Crashes, Canyons and Corruption

  1. Bill Sillery says:

    Gents,

    I’ve finally caught up with your travels. Even the tube journey to work on the Metropolitan line is less epic (despite some pretty serious over-running engineering works and an inferred shortage of deoderant in NW London).

    Keep up the good work. Keep your powder dry and your hand on your ha’penny.

    • dan says:

      Dude, good to hear from you. I bet that Met-line trek can make the southern route through Mongolia look like a walk in the park.
      Keep your armpits dry and your hand on your oyster card…

  2. JT says:

    I can’t believe you went to Ust-Kaminogorsk and didn’t stay for a night of clubbing. We could only conclude that either a war of somesort had claimed all their men-folk or the local uranium mine resulted in only female children. One of the guys I went with is now married to a girl from the town. We were due to take the route via Semey, but as this was the site of the soviet nuclear weapons test program, we concluded the uranium mine in Ust was preferable…

    • dan says:

      I guess Alpinestars Tech-3 enduro boots could be an interesting way to get round a “no trainers” rule, but clubbing in camping gear not really that high on our priorities :)

  3. Burnsy says:

    Scenery looks incredible! Keep going boys….its a damn site more interesting than working!!

    • ed says:

      I believe you. I try to work sparingly :) Cheers for the message; central asia is brilliant and Mongolia is living up to its reputation – you can drive in any direction and camp where ever you fancy. The bikes are ace for the conditions here – if you want to drive up a mountain and have a look about, you just do it. Dirtbikes rule.

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