Waking up in the awful motel wasn’t exactly a nice way to start the day but it did get me moving nice and early. It was going to be a long run today with sparse fuel from what I could find out, maybe even all 200 miles to Aktobe, my tank can around 220 maximum, but the fuel quality and wind here can drop that a lot some days. I went first to the petrol station and filled up 3 litres of extra fuel in water bottles, that would buy me another 40 miles or so.
It was a very long run, around 5 hours of nothing but flat grasslands, occasionally passing trucks or being passed by cars. Most of them waved or gave a thumbs up when they saw me coming. It felt like if I did end up running out of fuel it wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes to find some help on the road. I listened to an audio book and occasionally stopped to fill from the fuel bottles, then stopped again just short of Aktobe at a fuel station that appeared.
I got to the hostel I was aiming for in the late afternoon and settled in. I was planning to hang around for a couple of days here and it seemed nice enough. Not very cosy, but plenty of room and good facilities, good enough for a few days.
I spent another 2 days off in Aktobe, not doing much really, it’d been 4 very long days of riding, which doesn’t leave much room for rest. The evenings are usually filled with finding a hostel, getting my bearings, finding dinner and organising for the following day; the mornings with packing, finding breakfast and stocking up with food and water. I love it, but I need a “weekend” now again to catch my breath. I did some writing, watching TV, playing my shiny new guitar and meeting some of the guys in the hostel. There were a lot of Kazakhs travelling for work in the hostel, they were all super friendly and loved to chat over a beer. They wanted to know what the hell a British guy on a bike was doing playing guitar in Aktobe, and they wanted to improve their English too. A lot of them watched the football in the evening while I was sitting on my laptop, they were bewildered when I said I wasn’t that interested in football. One of them said “But you’re British!?” which gave me a good laugh.
I spent a little time in Aktobe planning my next route. I hadn’t thought much about my route through Kazakhstan yet, more thinking about how I was going to get in. This was my first rest stop so I could do my research now. Another couple of travellers recommended going directly south, it was a long boring couple of days down there, but it would take me passed the Aral sea and Turkestan which are some of the sights of Kazakhstan to see. The other route was a little further north then toward the east of the country. This would take me through a lot more of the Steppe, take twice as long but lead me through Astana, the country’s relatively new capital. I was keen to see both which would be very difficult given the distances involved. I settled on the eastern route, opting for the capital over the Aral sea and for more time in the Steppe.
The run to Astana was around 1000 miles, which I figured would be 3 long days, or 4 OK ones, depending on what the roads were like, reports online were fairly mixed about them. Given the spacing of the towns, I’d likely be camping every day but passing through a big town on Day 2 so I made sure all the camp gear was OK, it’d been around 3 weeks since it was used last.
I set off on the morning of Day 67 and headed to the shops first to stock up water and some food for the night camping. A guy pulled up next to me in the car park and got out looking at the bike, like most people do, it sticks out a bit. He said hello and asked where I was from in decent English, he asked me if I was going to the “Expo” in Astana and I said yes, because it’s easier than explaining that I don’t really know what it is. He disappeared into the shop and came out a few minutes later when I was still packing things away on and checking my route out of the city. He walked passed and handed me a big bar of “Kazakhstan” Chocolate and said “Welcome to Kazakhstan” gave me a smile, got in his beaten up old car and drove off. I managed to get out a “Thank you!” before he got away but I was pretty gobsmacked. He obviously wasn’t expecting anything in return and didn’t look very well off, but he wanted to welcome a foreigner to his country.
I hit the road in pretty high spirits after that and got out of the city without much incident. I laughed slightly manically seeing a sign on the way though, it said “Astana – 1460km” Good god. That would get me from Lands End to John o’Groats…and back. I was looking forward to the long day though, it promised some challenges and a long time with my book. It did feel like a proper “Trip” day, the kind of typical day I think of when imagining a round the world trip, even though 99% of them aren’t. Long endless road some very sections through fields around roadworks, passing through swarms of locusts so thick they ended up wedged into every crevice of my jacket and bike; flocks of birds that seemed to congregate around the road, presumably for all the insects, not knowing which way to fly when I came tearing through.
I stopped for some lunch at a truck stop and had something fairly forgettable and spent more time trying to order in Russian than I did eating it. I was distracted the entire time though, looking for the rider of the lovely and clean Africa Twin parked outside covered in stickers and luggage. It was set up for riding with a passenger, presumably a couple and had an Irish number plate (weirdly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Irish number plate). I was keen to speak to them, having not seen another biker since splitting with Gleb over a week ago let alone an English speaking one. They didn’t appear though so I fawned over their bike for a bit and got back on the road.
I made far better progress than I expected, I realised at about 5pm that I’d already reached the point I thought I’d be camping at, expecting to arrive around 8 or 9pm, in time to set up the tent and have dinner before dark at 10. There’s no point setting up camp in the Steppe at 5pm, there’s nothing there to hide behind, it was still baking hot and it wouldn’t cool until at least 10pm. There’s nothing to kill the time so I might as well just keep riding. The last 100 miles took a lot longer than I expected though with long off road stretches avoiding the road works. Passing trucks on these stretches can be difficult, whenever the opposite lane is clear they speed up, weaving all over the road avoiding the bigger holes, they also kick up huge amounts of dust which makes it hard to see. It becomes a fun game of dodging holes, predicting the truck driver and spotting on coming trucks through the dust. It does become much more fun after a while but still slow going, so I arrived in Kostanay at about 10pm, still great considering I’d expected to arrive the next day.
I found a hostel and settled in, there was no restaurants open by the time I’d gotten sorted at 11pm so I had some of my food I’d bought for camp and the chocolate the nice guy had bought me that morning, though it was basically liquid after being in the hot bag all day. A power cut in the area sent me to bed early ready for a nice early start in the morning. At about 2am though one of the staff members came in a prodded me awake saying something about the bike and the bags, fearing it had fallen over or something been stolen somehow I jumped up and followed her out. She was only worried because the wind had really picked up and the cover had half blown off, acting like a sail and the bags were exposed to the rain. I packed the cover away so it didn’t pull Donkey over and left the bags, they’re all waterproof anyway, to the protests of the staff worried that they’d be stolen; the panniers were locked with steel cable and the free bag only had my dirty clothes in, they’re welcome to them.
I got going early in the morning but when I started Donkey up, he had a rattle to it that hadn’t been there the day before. It was pretty worrying for it to develop so quickly so I jumped off and started inspecting things. It sounded like a loose bolt or something but it was coming from inside the front cylinder head. Not a good thing. I let it run a little and it started to fade, only audible at higher revs, then it was gone entirely. Something to keep an eye on, it was a long hot day the day before, with a lot of rough stretches for things to come loose so maybe I’d find it eventually. I stopped off at a garage to find some tape, my indicator had torn itself apart in the winds the previous day so there was now a hole in the front, which would only widen with more wind. I chatted to the mechanics there while I wrapped and questioned them about the route to Astana and the road condition. With the good progress of the previous day I was hopeful of making it all the way there too, rather than splitting into two days.
I did indeed make it all the way, 500 miles in 11 hours. It was a little more punishing than the previous day, partly because I knew what was coming, my ass was still sore and very little happened to break it up. There wasn’t many off road stretches and nothing particularly interesting going on. I listened to my audio book, chatted to locals at petrol stations stopped for some lunch in a dive of a cafe.
I rolled in to town at about 10pm and started looking for a hostel, a bit easier when you’ve got mobile data to look them up. I found a couple that really weren’t very nice, basically crappy apartments in a tall tower block that had bunk beds in a giant living room with open kitchen. That kind of thing would be fine just for a nights sleep and move on, but I was hoping to find somewhere nice to settle in for a few days break. I ended up giving in a staying in a crappy place and deciding to move to a nice one the following day, I was too hot and tired to look further.
I found another hostel first thing on Day 69, a lovely cosy place in a nice area that I’d rode passed the day before thinking “that looks like a nice area”. I’d tried another 3 hostels I’d found online, one I couldn’t find at all, another that was awful inside, and another that was in a terrible area, with nothing around but a giant Mosque.
I ended up staying for 4 whole days off, the longest since back in Spain. I got nicely settled in, going to the supermarket for cooking in the hostel, going to a couple of bars the locals used, rather than tourists. I had a couple of walks around the shiny new part of town that billions of dollars have been poured into, sky scrapers everywhere, lovely squares and parks, everything feels brand spanking new, as if it’s all just been put together for an event in a single day. It felt really odd walking around, like everything was at arms length, nothing felt all that real. It will probably change in time, as the apartments fall in price and start to fill up, the cafes will be busier and the parks useful, I hope so anyway, because unless you’re into architecture, it’s not worth tourists time.
I ended up meeting a German guy at the hostel, after cooking myself some pasta and doing way too much (just like every. single. time I cook pasta) so offered him some and he came and ate with me. We decided to head to the pub after since drinking wasn’t allowed in the hostel. We had a great night, and did the same the next night, chatting about travel and anything else. He’d travelled a lot, but in a totally different way to me, usually for business or study and by plane, so we had entirely different perspectives. I caught up with writing, calling family on Skype, checking over Donkey and doing a lot of nothing, it was lovely.