After the long break in Astana it was a little weird to get going again, but it all comes back pretty quick. I got loaded up and set off, running a few errands on the way out of town, changing some cash and stocking up a few things. The road was in great condition leading out of town and the miles rolled by to Karagandy, I stopped for some late lunch and decided to keep riding. I was tempted to stay the night there, but after 5 days off already I didn’t fancy an stop. There was nothing on the road ahead so it would be a camp somewhere so I grabbed something for dinner later and headed off. I was a little worried about finding a camp, since the Steppe is so flat and empty, there’s nothing to hide behind off the road, so you’re easily spotted unless you go at least 10 miles into the middle of nowhere, not something that appealed to me. As I got further south though the hills began to rise again, only small but it was something.
I pulled off the road at about 7pm onto a dirt track and followed it for about a mile, it wound over some hills and seemed to be heading toward a town. I set up camp there, having only seen a single motorbike using the track it should be fine. It was insanely quiet, there was nothing around at all, except me playing the guitar for a bit. After the sunset it got very dark, a little cloud hid the small moon and I couldn’t see a thing, so it was early to bed. Then a car came down the track and I heard him pull up right outside the tent, headlights facing in. I panicked a little at first, pulling my trousers on and grabbing my boots. When I got out the tent though the guy was just staring out his window at the bike and tent, a little gobsmacked. I explained what the hell I was doing there, and where I was from, he shook my hand and headed off away from the road. I had a quick look at iOverlander, for any spots to camp the next day down by the lake and saw one place mention seeing wolves on the way there. Great. I have no idea if Kazakhstan has wolves, and I wasn’t keen to find out tonight, suddenly every rustle of the grass was definitely a wolf.
I managed to not be eaten by wolves or even see any, so I woke up with the sun nice and early; not that I wanted to but the heat hits the tent straight away and there’s no staying in it. An early start meant I’d made very good miles by lunch time and by 2pm had got the point I was planning on camping at. I figured I’d just put in the extra miles and get to Almaty. The roads got a little bumpier in the afternoon and I noticed the speedo wobbling a little more than I remember, but they were big bumps. I tried wobbling the windscreen with my hand and realised it was definitely loose. Fearing a cracked sub-frame and needing welding in Almaty I jumped off and started inspecting. It was fairly easy to spot. One of the two bolts that hold the front sub-frame on (Headlights, speedo, basically Donkey’s face) was missing, the other was about half way out. Seems the vibrations from the roads the last 12,000 miles had took their toll. Luckily I could screw the other back in by hand and carry on, though I had to stop every 30 minutes and tighten it up to make sure I didn’t lose it.
After about 11 hours riding, Almaty started appearing in dribs and drabs, more houses, more shops, train tracks, thicker traffic. In the distance though, mountains started appearing, glorious, tall and cold mountains. I thought I was getting close to the centre but the SatNav still said 45 minutes and that doesn’t count traffic. I started weaving my way through where I could and eventually got on to a major road through town, though it was constantly blocked up with taxis, buses and people just stopping wherever it was convenient. It took about 90 minutes to finally reach the hostel I aimed for. It seemed an OK place for a couple of days off, though there wasn’t much around it.
The next day was mostly sitting around doing nothing, playing guitar and writing. Two 12 hour days covering 500 miles back to back takes it tole on the mind and the arse. A little planning for the next few weeks ride then chatting to some other travellers, including a guy from Leicester (about 30 miles away from my home town) which was a little odd. Then out for some dinner and too many drinks with a Finish guy who was on a short city break seeing some of Central Asia.
Day 76 was a little more full, I woke up feeling very rough, half from the beer, half from the food I think. I was booked in at the KTM bike shop across town for some work, they had new tyres that fit and I needed to fit the spare chain and sprocket I’d been carrying the whole way from the UK. I got there around lunch time to some weird news, they could only work on KTMs, since they’re an official dealer, the guy I’d emailed had got it wrong. He called his friend who works on non-KTMs to warn him I was coming over with some tyres and other bits, but he said “no can do” his power had gone out in his garage. He said he’d make his way to the KTM garage and we could do the work there, in the car park. It took him quite a while to get over so I got down to some simple stuff, replacing the missing sub-frame bolt for a start, and one missing from the belly pan too, then checking over others to make sure non were about to rattle free. The KTM guys were super helpful, one spoke really good English and they were pretty experienced dealing with Overlanders like me.
Once the guy arrived he made pretty quick work of the rear tyre, then got the rear sprocket fitted and the chain wound round. The front sprocket proved a bit more difficult, as I expected, this was the reason I was doing it at a garage and not myself. It ended up requiring the air compressor, me standing on the rear brake and a large amount of brute force and leverage, but it eventually loosened at we could get the new one fitted. Then it was just the front tyre, and a quick oil change. All done, and a decent price too, for the guys help and for the tyres and oil. Score, nicely refreshed.
Back to the hostel for some food before doing some more work on Donkey. A girl who was staying there loved Donkey, and wanted to take some photos of him and on him. I had to go back out to pick up some spark plugs from a store I’d found, and she was keen to ride but terrified, we took a quick roll round the block and I assured her it was safe enough, I’d had no problems yet and she weighed almost nothing, so she wasn’t going to make a difference. She jumped on and we rode the 20 minutes to where she was heading, she was screaming every time we banked over even a little and nearly crushed me when we squeezed between some cars. She enjoyed it by the time she got off, another biker may have been born. It took a long time to get to the opposite side of town in awful traffic, I was sweaty and frustrated by the time I got there. It was Freerider Hostel, they have a bike garage, loads of spare parts, the hostel and even their own pub they run. How had I not managed to find this place before!? It looked amazing, lots of bikers passing through and plenty to do around it; never mind, I’d had a good time at the other hostel.
Another long sweaty ride through traffic back to the hostel with my new spark plugs, then another couple of hours working on Donkey. New spark plugs, re-gluing the grips that were loose, and putting locktite on EVERYTHING so nothing would rattle loose on me again. Donkey got his photo shoot in the evening, a girl that works at the hostel is a very good photographer and they were snapping away for about an hour.
Day 77 and I was gunning it for the border, back through the Almaty traffic and then into a boring couple of hours through nowhere. A very long wait to get in to the border compound, even though I filtered through to the front then a pretty simple exit from Kazakhstan. The border guard didn’t understand what I was giving him at first, he spoke no English so couldn’t ask for what he wanted, but he was in such a rush he didn’t bother to indicate what he wanted. He just took what was in my hand then got irritated it wasn’t correct and told me to wait. I kept badgering him every time he opened his window and luckily someone else waiting beside me spoke English and they told me he wanted the “machine passport” (the V5C) which I’d given him 10 minutes before. I had to reach through the window and point to the registration number for him to realise and he slammed the window for 10 minutes. Opened it again and threw the documents at me, AI went to leave and he shouted back. More waiting for nothing. I passed everything back through again he just got frustrated and stamped my passport with something else. I went to the exit gate and the guard was confused why it was in my passport and not on the slip. He let me out anyway. It was pretty funny, watching the guy be so in a rush and so irritated he was making his own job twice as hard.
A very quick entry on the Kyrgyz side was a nice change, easy customs and empty passport control and I was on my way. 400m down the road was a random stop sign, so I slowed down to a crawl and checked around, no junction, no crossing and no police check. I rolled on and 20m further on was a little police checkpoint with a guy waving his baton at me. Fuck. That was the stop sign trap I read about a few days ago, just set up to trap people coming in. I took my time and made no attempt to communicate properly, hoping they’d just get bored and let me go, but they were persistent. 10 minutes of copying down details and he told me the fine was about £10, so I stopped arguing with me and just got my card out. To be fair, I could pay by card and even got a receipt, so it wasn’t just going in corrupt pockets. After that was just a straight run to Bishkek.
The first couple of hostels I tried were full, which wasn’t a good sign, then I spotted one online that was new, so I headed over. It was pretty empty and everything was spanking new. I tried to talk them down on price for multiple days but they weren’t budging. It was pretty expensive for a hostel at £10 a night for a shared room but good enough for one night at least. I ended up liking it and the area and staying for 4 nights.
Once I was showered and ready I headed out to meet another friend I’m crossing China with in 4 weeks. We both happened to be in Bishkek at the same time, him on a short break and me passing through. We got in touch and met up for some dinner and beers, ending up at a biker bar just out of town we had to get a taxi too, expecting some raving biker place packed with locals, but it was pretty dead. We had a nice night though with good food and a chat, and we meet again in 4 weeks to cross China.
I woke on Day 78 feeling pretty awful, it turned out to not just be a hangover, since we didn’t even drink that much, and it continued for 2 days. I just rested for 2 days, not doing much except venturing out for nice food from the “expensive” cafes and restaurants, and sorting out my money and SIM card. A lot of the places in Bishkek felt like they were trying very hard to be “western” and attract tourists but the food in them was actually good, and reasonably priced and not just token attempts. I really enjoyed my little break, I only really stayed in my bubble of about 1km circle of the hostel for 3 days but it was nice. Lots of planning for the next few weeks too. It feels like a new chapter of the trip starts from here, I’m heading back to mountains and not really coming out for a long time. Heading for Osh, then Tajikistan on the Pamir Highway, then we cross into China and head for Pakistan and the Himalayas; all very different from the Steppe I’ve been on for 3 weeks and I cannot wait.