I have to admit that I was a little scared. First, the little incident in Kyrgyzstan that served as a prelude, then the story of a cyclist I met on the road – poor guy had been attacked by four men, who stole everything except his passport and bicycle then left him in the middle of the desert tied up with the cover of his sleeping bag around his head – and Jehan’s SMS message – stating that he had been attacked, fleed a home at night and spent another one in jail… It seemed almost impossible that I would make it through without any unpleasant occurances. At least that’s what I thought when leaving Bishkek and crossing the border to Almaty.
I know by now that travel stories do not reflect their land of origin precisely. If a place is nice, you hear amazing descriptions. If something is gone wrong, it’s usually terrifying. When asked to admit the truth about his voyage to the east, Marco Polo said: “If only I could tell you, half of what I saw…”
I don’t think Marco was lying. But I think we always make the assumption that the individual experience we hear about equals the general truth about the place. The same person can visit the same place 10 times and have completely different things to tell about it. A traveller is only a moving point in an infinite combination of time and space. It’s all about encounter and chance.
So, when I tell you that my journey through Kazakhstan was safe and beautiful, don’t take it for real. That’s just what “I” experienced.
Strong winds and rain welcomed me 30 kms shy of Almaty. I pulled over to wear some waterproof liners. This could just as well be the point where that cyclist got attacked. There was the smell of wet earth in the wind. Mountains, birds, trees… It looked just like any other piece of land on earth. I felt unusually comfortable. After all, I’m a man, and this is my home…
Kazakh people are not “bad”! They just have a significantly different understanding of personal space, property, and land. If a Kazakh stands too close to you, handles your property without permission, spits on your feet, and asks you too many personal questions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a thief, a rapist or a murderer… It’s just the way they are! Usually the encounter fades away without incidents. If it doesn’t, and if you get raped, beaten, or stolen from, that may still not fall in the same western category of crime. It is probably very spontaneous and influenced by your appeareance and behaviour just as much as their motivation. I don’t mean to underestimate the element of crime here. I’m just saying that it works in a different way.
Cengiz Khan is known to be one of the most brutal and violent invaders in known history. All the stories about him involve mass killings, burning down cities, demolishing buildings etc… I’m beginning to think that maybe he didn’t like the idea of civilization. Maybe he saw it as an obstacle in the way of nomadic life. Maybe he just liked riding his horse in the steppe and didn’t want people settling and claiming ownership of land. It’s probably a silly way of looking at it, but on the other hand, it takes a lot to spend your life demolishing things. He can’t just be an angry guy. There must be a cultural element in it.
Almaty is huge. My GPS says 15 kms to the center and I’m stuck in traffic. There are really expensive cars around me. Beggers are looking for pitying eyes behind dark shaded windows. Somehow they don’t seem to be interested in me. Maybe I don’t look rich enough.
The wind is stronger now and the rain is about to fall. It’s been almost an hour and I haven’t moved 5 kms. I need to get there before it’s dark. There is a motorcycle club called “Silk Off-Road” somewhere near the stadium. I hope to find some attention and maybe even a place to sleep there. But first I need to get out of this traffic jam and find the place. There are some cars driving on the side of the road so I join them. It works good until a huge decayed branch from a long tree falls right in front of me. It cracks and shatters into pieces. That would probably break my neck if I was a few seconds ahead. I go back to the road and find my spot between the cars. It feels like finding an empty seat in the theater after the movie starts.
It took me an hour to finally arrive at the club which is literally in the middle of the city inside the stadium complex. There are no signs of motorcycles except the logo on the flag. It looks more like a hard rock cafe than a motorcycle spot. A Russian girl opens the door and welcomes me. She doesn’t say much but asks me if I will be sleeping there. Apparently they are used to “my kind”. It looks like I get a place to sleep but not the attention. That’s even better.
I spent three nights camping in their front yard. The place was surrounded by high metal fencing and the seating area had a roof. I prefered sleeping outside instead of the office. Andrei, who works and guards the place was with me at all times. He took me around the city in his car and helped me with the immigration registration process. He even took the time to teach me Cyrill alphabet so that I could read the road signs.
Born in Almaty, but claiming not to be Kazakh, Andrei is an interesting character. He left university to come back to this city and take care of his mother and younger brother upon his father’s death. He started a carreer in rugby and married the daughter of his coach. They had a son. Things didn’t work too well and they got divorced. He still calls her “my wife” and takes care of all his family working as a bodyguard and trainer. He may have chosen to leave it all behind and start a new life somewhere else, but he didn’t. He took full responsibility. Andrei says there are only three real jobs in the world. Teacher, doctor and protector… He is a protector. A protector with strong values independent of the culture he’s surrounded by. He also likes sleeping outside.
After receiving my passport back from the immigration police, and doing an oil change on the bike, I started moving north, away from the convenience of the city, into the steppe. The roads were much better than the ones I had seen in the west side of the country, earlier. I could move much faster and longer than I thought.
There are lots of birds around. Eagles, falcons, crows and some other blue colored ones I hadn’t seen before. Sometimes, hundreds of crows sit at the side of the road, feeding on roadkills and garbage scattered by the cars passing by. It’s a lot of fun to watch them take off one by one as I approach. They look beautiful.
The blue ones are not very clever though. One of them noticed me too late and tried to fly across the road. Unfortunately, it got stuck somewhere between my oil cooler and crash guard. It was an instant death. Poor thing looked so beautiful with all the shades of blue on its wings. I made a small ceremony for it and left the body to the crows to feast on.
I checked into a hotel in Sarkand. Nurlan, a Kazakh tobacco seller decided to give me a tour of the area in his car. First, he took me out to eat, then up on the hills to watch the sunset drinking Kımız (Mare’s Milk). He insisted that we met at 4:00 AM to watch the sunrise at the same spot. I couldn’t say no. Apparently, he wanted me to see how beautiful Kazakhstan is.
In the morning, we went up again. But this time much further towards the river canyon below the mountains. It was around 8:00 AM when we were back for breakfast.
The following day, I met two cars from the 2009 Mongol Rally. Apparently, I’ll be coming across these teams quite often on the road to Ulanbataar. There are 500 vehicles in the rally and some of them are still behind me. They take used cars below 1200 cc’s and drive to Mogolia to donate them. Mostly young European guys who want to have an interesting summer vacation. It’s fun to share the road with them. We camped on a beautiful lakeside drinking beer and watching the stars.
We did the border crossing to Russia the next day. It was the longest crossing I’ve done so far. The roads conditions improved dramatically in Russia. We spent the night camping once again. But this time it was a parking lot in the city. I had to wear earplugs to sleep properly.
I’m now in Barnaul. It’s Monday morning. I’ll be getting my second shot of TBE vaccination here. Yesterday I found a motorcycle shop. Apparently the owner is the “Road Captain” of the club called “Charriot Riders”. He helped me change the clutch plates on the bike. My riding gloves are worn out beyond recognition. I’ll get new ones here. This seems to be the last point of civilization before I head into Mongolia. It’s going to be a very long ride to Ulanbataar. Around 2400kms… 1500 of it is unpaved dirt roads with river crossings. I hope the bike will be OK. Suspension is what I worry about most. Some say that the northern route in Mongolia is tricky because of the rains. It sometimes rains very heavily in Mongolia and when that happens, the small streams become big rivers impossible to cross. This will be a real challange to do on a loaded DL-1000.
I guess my next post will be in Ulanbataar. It may take anywhere between 10 to 15 days. Wish me luck…