Day 61, 62 & 63 – Volgograd to Saratov & Uralsk, Kazakhstan

Day 61 started with a lovely (not lovely) surprise, after about 10 minutes the speedometer stopped moving. I stayed calm and rational though (read: panicked, imagining doomsday scenarios of being jailed in Russia) and considered my options. If it was broken I would need a new one and Russia would be the best place for a long time to get one, without it I couldn’t even keep track of miles completed which is very important in Kazakhstan to make sure I don’t run out of fuel. I only have a single day spare on my visa though and overstaying it is not recommended. Either push on to Kazakhstan and try and fix it with my spare time there, or stop in Russia and try to replace it within 24 hours. Then I remembered that I took the dashboard and speedometer off the day before to get to the headlights, so I pulled over to take a look. I took some panels off, slid my hand behind and plugged the dashboard cable back in, since it was loose. Problem solved. That was easy.

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Ready to go

The plan is to ride to Saratov, about 250 miles away, with basically nothing in between, Stephen will get me through. The Harry Potter audio books are narrated by Stephen Fry, who I already love, so having him reading me one of my favourite book series is bliss. The hours flew by, until I got to another police checkpoint, they flagged me down as always, mostly because I look out of place I think. He approached speaking serious Russian, with a face on. I tried to explain I only spoke English, which he eventually understood, but he kept gesturing something and speaking Russian. I just kept smiling and trying to answer as best I could. I didn’t want to hand over any documents until he asked for them. He started trying to get across something about cameras and my license plate, I assume trying to make me think he’d caught me doing something. I just feigned ignorance for as long as I could, he got irritated and gestured for me to come inside his hut. Out of the way of the cameras and other traffic, he basically just said “money money”. Right, now we’re getting somewhere, you want some cash. I asked how much for this “checkpoint fee” and he wrote 5000 on a piece of paper (about £60). Fuck off. I made a face that said “ain’t gonna happen” and showed him empty hands, he scrubbed a zero off, much better. Then I realised the only notes I had were 1000s, bugger, I can’t exactly ask for change. I put it on the desk and he waved for me to leave, there was a little puff of smoke in my chair where I’d been sat. I didn’t even bother putting the helmet on, just jumped on the bike, started and gunned it. I had no intentions of hanging around.

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Audio books required

The last couple of hours sailed by too, so I rolled in to town with a little time to spare, I had a look around online for a hostel, found one and aimed for it. I had a lot of trouble actually spotting it though, it was in amongst residential tower blocks again and the address didn’t give a building, floor or apartment number. I rode around the little alleys separating them looking for any sign and asked a couple of people coming out of the buildings but they’d never heard of it. I circled back to the main road and stopped at a shop nearby. I walked in and realised I’d accidentally found a board game shop! I love these places and would spend hours walking around them in London, I spoke to the guy in there and nearly forgot to ask him for directions because I was too busy talking to him about the games. He hadn’t heard of the place, but looked online for the phone number. He tracked them down and told me where it was, I’d been right outside it earlier on but just not known. I intended to go back for a chat later on but he was closed by the time I got there.

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Heaven. Except they’re all in Russian

I had a quick wander around the town, some food and a beer then back to the hostel for some more Kazakh border planning. The town was really nice, I kind of wish I’d stayed there instead of Volgograd, it had a lot going on, plenty of bars and restaurants and a board game shop to boot.

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Saratov square

I woke up for an early start on Day 62, crossing a border can add hours and it was 200 miles just to reach it, then another 100 to the next city where I still had to find a hotel. Best to get going as early as possible. Stephen once again got me through the first leg up to the border, the roads were badly pothole’d but still OK for 50mph. I got waved through the various initial military points that were searching cars and trucks, up to the Russian border compound, I was pretty much the only person in there so there were 4 or 5 officers looking around the bike, but they were chatting and laughing amongst themselves which is a good sign. If they’re bored they’re likely to find something to do, likely with my paperwork. The exit process was pretty straight forward and the guy seemed to be joking when he asked if I was carrying any guns by holding an invisible machine gun, but when I said no he asked me to open up the panniers. He was satisfied with my tent and tools though and waved me off. Goodbye Russia! You’ve been a strange place, interesting mostly because of your history and danger rather than anything particular attraction.

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Running for the border

Between the two compounds the road turned to dust, a big difference in road maintenance immediately, and I wasn’t even in the country yet. The Kazakh compound had a long queue of cars waiting around with people out of their cars and chatting, they’d obviously been waiting some time. I jumped off the bike and headed to the front, not wanting to push to the front straight away. I tried to get the attention of a guard but it seemed there was only one guy, guarding the single gate for entry and exit and he seemed to be wandering around doing 10 different things. I eventually got his attention and he handed me a migration card to fill out but it was all in Russian. A guy in the car at the front of the queue jumped out and came to help, translating some of the form, without me even asking, such a big help. I got the majority filled out and showed the guard, who then realised I wasn’t Russian and was on a motorcycle and suddenly became interested. He gestured for me to come to the front and in to the compound. Once I parked up he grabbed me and took me to the long queue of people at Passport Control, pushed them all out the way and stood me at the front. He walked over to the window, shouted something about “Britania” in Russian at the officer and walked off with a smile.

Passport control was simple enough, EU citizens don’t even need a visa for Kazakhstan and it’s part of a customs union with Russia, so it was mostly just checking the paperwork matched up. Though I thought they were grilling me at one point trying to catch me out, with questions about where I’d been and where I was going too, then I realised the officer at the other window was leaning over listening too and that they were just interested in the trip. They wished me good luck and handed everything back. That was it, I rolled up to the exit gate, flashed my passport and I was in Kazakhstan!

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Celebrate! Then his potholes.

It felt so weird. I was riding down the road contemplating where I was, it was pretty overwhelming for a few minutes. Kazakhstan feels so far away. Turkey and Georgia felt like easy holiday destinations, amazing to ride through but just that, a riding holiday. Russia felt different, but mostly because of the tension, visa trouble and language, it still felt close to home; more importantly, recoverable. Now I was in Kazakhstan I couldn’t turn around, for the first time in the trip, I can’t easily turn around and go home if I wanted too. Kazakhstan feels different, alien and distant. I contemplated for too long though and there was a BANG as I hit a massive pot hole, the front forks made a loud clang as they took the force forward rather than upward. Going to have to pay more attention for now.

The road got a lot worse from there, eventually slowing me to about a 15mph average, having to slam the brakes on for pot holes that covered the entire road about a meter deep. This went on for about an hour until the road started to level out, though it was still slow going. Along the road though people were waving from cafes when they saw me coming, or truck drivers were giving a thumbs up out the window as I overtook them, everyone just seemed automatically welcoming. I pulled in to a petrol station when I suddenly remembered I’d forgot to ask about insurance when at the border. I knew I was supposed to buy it but I hadn’t seen anywhere and got distracted by the pot holes straight away. I asked the woman at the counter and she pointed to a guy that was just paying for his fuel. I assumed she didn’t understand what I meant so I approached the guy she pointed to and asked him. He pointed to himself, which was odd. Eventually I figured out I’d found the guy that sold insurance and asked him where to buy insurance, very confusing for everyone involved. He took me over the road to his little hut and started filling out the paperwork. He was such a happy guy, even when I made him do it all again because I needed 30 days not 15.

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More audio books

It was only another 60km to Uralsk but I asked him how long it would take and he said about 2 hours. Bugger, it was already late. The roads got pretty bad, but mostly because of roadworks, they had just dug out the field next to the road and diverted all traffic there, so it was some more stand up riding over unpaved holes and mud, better than killer pot holes in tarmac though.

It did take about 2 hours and it was just getting dark as I got to Uralsk, I had an idea for a hostel but couldn’t find it. A couple of teenagers came over to say hi and look at the bike and they tried to help find it too, with no luck. They suggested I ask a taxi driver, damn good idea, why didn’t I think of that. So I did, and the guy led me round the estate to it, nowhere near where it was marked on the map. He didn’t expect any cash for it either but I gave him a few Rubles, probably an insult given it’s not the right currency, but it was all I had. I couldn’t even find anyone that worked in the hostel though, I walked in, wandered around, into the bedrooms and kitchen without seeing anyone, great security. I tried to ask the guy painting the fence but he just acted dumb and didn’t know anything about the hostel. So I set off in search of a hotel, which all turned out to be expensive, so I just settled for the cheapest, but still one of the most expensive of the trip at about £25.

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Rolling into Uralsk, and the start of the Kazakh Steppe proper

I’d planned for Day 63 to be a day off, maybe for another 3 or 4 days too but given I couldn’t find a nice hostel and the cheap Airbnbs weren’t open for business I decided I’d move on in the afternoon. I headed out and got a local SIM card, which took an age, when I finally got to the counter the guy next to me heard I spoke English and stepped in to translate! A huge help again. I saw him when I left the shop and we walked for a little ways down the high street having a chat, although he was insistent he should help me get a “madame” by translating for me, he was gobsmacked when I wasn’t interested.

Some lunch then I came across another music shop, I couldn’t resist going in and having a play. I found a really nice 3/4 acoustic at a decent price, I had a nice play and tried to chat to the shop owner, he seemed a nice guy but he never wrapped his head around the fact that I didn’t know Russian, just kept talking louder, like Basil Faulty. I eventually caved and bought it at about £40 for something that plays really nice it’s a bargain. I walked back to the hotel but couldn’t resist stopping for a play on the way. I just need a hat and the ability to sing and I can busk to fund the trip. It’s so weird to be travelling with a guitar, I’ve missed playing so much. It’s odd enough living on a motorcycle, riding through new places everyday, let alone with a guitar in tow. If you’d have told me 5 years ago this is what I would be doing I’d have though we were both crazy.

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So shiny

I got geared up again and found a nice way of attaching the guitar to the bike, I like this look a lot more. I planned to do a few hours riding across pretty empty land and finding a hotel or a space to camp along the way. The next days ride to Aktobe was going to be a long stretch without fuel so I was keen to get prepared and find a fuel station as far along as I could. I saw a sign for a motel as I got to Zhympity so I stopped to see. It was the most dire motel you could imagine. If it had a appeared in a comedy about road trips I would have considered over the top. The entrance was all the way around the back through a yard filled with construction vehicles and dog crap, the trees around the entrance were swarming with bugs, it was all upstairs and creaked like hell. The room was falling to bits and it was essentially a stained mattress held up by 4 bits of wood. There were neon signs out front and a “toilet” in the corner out the back, just a hut with a hole in the floor. It was dirt cheap though and I didn’t fancy trying to find a camp, having ridden for 3 hours across the Steppe to get there, I knew there was almost nowhere to camp discreetly, it’s just so flat and empty, OK if I get stuck, but I’d rather be under a roof with the bike secure.

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This was the best shot I could take of the motel

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