Today’s the day. The day I enter Central Asia – crossing the border from Astrakhan in Russia into Atyrau in Kazakhstan. I understand from someone who did the same thing only a few days ago that the border crossing is painless, and “only takes an hour and a half. But the roads are BAD!” Hmmm, how bad can they be? First you have to find the right road…… Bloody Garmin!
Brigid and I have been planning this trip for around 4 years or so, off and on. One of the first things I did was to plan a route. Ok, it kept changing, but at no point had I planned to ride down to Astrakhan from Moscow … and then ride back again to Moscow to get to Atyrau – which is only 360 kms from Astrakhan!
Garmin, however, had made her mind up that that was exactly what I must do. On starting her up – sorry, but in my mind all technology is female, just like cars and boats etc. are – she decided that it was almost 2100 kms to Atyrau. WTF?! I fairly quickly realised that this was not right a kilometre or so after leaving the motel. I knew that I had to change my route out of the city and eventually she would re-program herself to the correct route. Fortunately, I saw a sign-post for Atyrau; I cottoned on immediately and took that route. At times the sign-posts disappeared and I had to stop and re-assess the route, but we eventually escaped the maze called Astrakhan and I saw a sign indicating that indeed Atyrau was only now 350 kms away. Garmin, however, insisted it was now over 2100 kms. This continued even up to no-man’s land between the Russian and Kazak border posts where she wanted me to do a U-turn. Bloody thing. Half way to Atyrau she was shaken into sense and decided that the short distance between two points was a straight line, Halleluia!
A nice interlude at the Russian side of the border, just after I stopped in the line of traffic came when a number of Kazak’s approached the bike, obviously impressed or intrigued by it. I immediately got off and by gesture invited them to get on and try it. I obviously broke the ice and the whole family got on, one at a time, and there was much laughing and photographs taken. That was immediately forgotten in a mad scramble to the cars, reminiscent of the old style Le Mans start, as the barrier was raised. They knew what I didn’t, that once the other side you leave your vehicle to go into a building to go through Passport Control, so having been second in the queue as we stopped, I was last into the building. Hey ho, my quick assessment of the speed of the queue meant I wasn’t the last one through. Ha! That’ll learn ’em!
Did I mention the Russian roads were bad? Well forget all that, unless, of course, their leaving present to Kazakhstan was the road from the border post on the road from Astrakhan to Atyrau! Even the big lorries were travelling at a snail’s pace. They didn’t want to join their colleagues who were missing in Russia – at least they were missing in their home land. Who the hell wants to go missing abroad, when you can’t even speak the bloody language?!
These holes weren’t holes, they were mine shafts! I swear I heard the sound of a Didgeridoo echoing up from one of them. There were times when it was impossible to avoid them and on a number of occasions my front suspension bottomed out. So, having already adjusted it a bit, I now have to stiffen it up a bit more. Fortunately, it’s only turning a screw near the to of the handlebars so it’s a 10 second job. So, back to the teeth shattering jaw breaking road, which went on most of the 280 kms to Atyrau.
Having, finally, got to the end of the dangerous road surface, the cars in front of me slowed down to a stop at a stop sign in the road, as you do. A quick look around revealed it to be a Police check point and most vehicles were waved through, apart from Jo Muggins here.
The flat-capped officer strolled up slowly and gestured for me to pull in to the side of the road. I wasn’t worried, I had my newly purchased insurance costing 1300 roubles (€24, £17) for 10 days. He saluted me! Then spoke very politely in what may just as well have been Klingon, as I understood absolutely nothing. “Ya nePonimyoo po-Russ” said I hoping it may have been close enough to be understood. “Ah”, he tapped the headlight and spoke more Klingon. “Oh”, said I, getting off the bike to look at the dipped beam, which automatically comes on when the ignition is switched on. It wasn’t on, and it was a fairly new bulb, so the evasion techniques on the road were insufficient to avoid the cunning enemy, and the shock blew the bulb. Just to show him that I still had lights, I turned on the main beam and the new auxiliary lights installed in Moscow with Maxim’s help. (Thanks again Maxim!) Another short Klingon phrase was uttered which sounded like something to the effect of, “That’ll do!” and he walked contentedly back to his car.
Once in Astrakhan, I was poodling around looking for the Apartment I had booked online, carefully selecting the option to pay on arrival. This was a wise precaution as despite being in the right area from the map on the website and knocking on the door of the right block, the owner didn’t understand me and seemed to know nothing about it. Having done some homework the night before I knew there was a Guns and Roses bar nearby so made for that, well it seemed like a good plan to me! In looking for it I found a nice looking hotel and asked for a room. Fortunately they spoke English and priced the room at 10,000 Kazak Tenge per night … HOW MUCH, I thought, hang on let’s think about this … err 17k tenge for 100 US$, um this 170 per Dollar, right, 10k divided by 170 is err about just under $60 or just under £40. “OK, that will do!”
Turned out that the Guns and Roses bar was in the hotel, “That will do nicely!”