Atyrau

Atyrau is a sprawling town whose economy seems to be based on the oil industry. Apart from that, there is little to commend it. I saw nothing worth the effort of sight-seeing, so I spent the morning sorting out my erratic Garmin – the little darling! However, I also thought it wise to check with the hotel receptionists about registering my visa, as I had just seen comments about it on the internet. They didn’t seem to know much but said they would find out.

As it happens, I went on the internet and found out for myself. OH BU**ER!

If I am in the country for 5 days or more, I have to register my visa and if I don’t I get fined when I leave the country. That means getting to the border (about 520 kms away) and out of Kazakhstan by Friday evening –  on roads of an unknown quality. All of the information I had read said it was partly tarmac and partly sandy gravel, the latter part being BAD.

Lads from the Riverside InnNow I have been messaging David Pickering, on a similar route but a few days ahead of me, picking his brains about how he was doing. For Atyrau, he recommended the Riverside Inn, frequented by ex-pats, so in the evening I had a pleasant stroll down the river to try and find it. As it turned out, there was a group of three Brits walking in the same direction and one of them was going there, so I joined him. On entering, there was quite a gathering as, apparently, one of them had “been let go”. Sadly, the falling price of oil is taking its toll of oil workers and, as is the norm, they get a month’s pay in lieu of notice and have to leave immediately as their visa is invariably cancelled.

Malcolm and JohnA number of the oil workers were bikers, and mentioned talking to David last Saturday. Unfortunately, no-one knew what the road was like as their bikes were at home, not in Kazakhstan. Never mind, they were a very friendly bunch. I had a very nice curry and a very pleasant evening, with great craic, was had by all. Thanks for recommending it guys!

It also turned out that the Riverside Inn, far from being full (according to Booking.com), was nearly empty. It has two buildings with just over a 100 rooms in each and only a dozen or so were taken, so there was plenty of room! Note to self don’t trust booking.com, just find the hotel through them, Google it and contact them direct.

I got a taxi back to the hotel, worrying about tomorrow’s ride and, being the skinflint that I am, concerned about being fined for overstaying.

Bloody Garmin

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!

U-turn if you want toGarmin, 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!

Kazak Kodak momentA 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!”

“Big Tig” has new boots!

New bootsOK, it might be a bit early in the day to be writing today’s blog, but I don’t care! The whole purpose of stopping in Astrakhan was to put new tyres on my bike. Despite lots of help searching on the ‘net, the barman couldn’t find anywhere to fit them, but “the Owner will know!”. Enter, stage right, Sergey, the Owner.

After one phone call, he says, “You follow me”. So off we went to a car tyre fitters, who didn’t have the right tools to take the wheels off, but I do. So Sergey drove me back to the hotel to pick up the tools, then stayed while I took the wheels off, bought me a new 27mm spanner when I forgot the socket, and would take nothing Balancing the wheelsfor it. He waited while the tyres were changed and balanced by the fitters, who took great care to put the tyres on the right way around, prompted, no doubt, by Sergey. And, yes, it does make a difference!

He then helped me to put the wheels on again, getting his hands very greasy in the process. It turns out he is a biker and showed me pictures of him riding his BMW G650GS Sertao on sand! That was exactly the bike Brigid and I were thinking of getting for this ride, by coincidence.

Sergey just checkingOn getting back to his hotel, Sergey asked for my Facebook page, so I gave it to him and told him about the ride page. He wasn’t aware that to get the login for the internet here you need a Russian mobile phone, and consequently I can’t get on. There are no guarantees that he will change that, but I don’t think it will be for the want of trying, after all, he doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty!

Thanks Sergey!

A leap of faith

Leap of Faith DinnerOh come on! You really didn’t think you’d get away that lightly did you? Really?!

So, you will recall I mentioned the Russian roads being bad. I went out this evening for a bite to eat in a local coffee/cafe shop – this is a bit of a misnomer because it was really a restaurant come bar. Now, although I had my phone, with my friend “Google Translate”, it had an off day and couldn’t make a decision. The waitress’ app was likewise misfiring – a recipe for disaster. I picked out one dish, which looked interesting (or at least didn’t have some of the ingredients which would have spelled certain disaster, if you get my drift) and, using my misfiring friend, I asked the waitress for her advice as to what she though I should have with it. Bearing in mind I had no idea what I had ordered in the first place, this was either a real leap of faith or just plain blind stupidity, I just prefer the sound of the former, personally!

The meal was delicious, very tender pieces of pork in fried potatoes and onions, sprinkled with a mix of fresh herbs. It was accompanied by wraps containing a mix of mince beef and what looked like very small pieces of potato, but my friend had, at times, suggested there pieces of apple in it. Hey ho, whatever it was, it was excellent.

AstrakabLakeNow you may be wondering where the Russian roads comes into this. Well, as it turned out while I was in the restaurant, sorry coffee shop or …. whatever, it rained. A lot. So I had to walk back to the hotel in the dark accompanied by another friend, the torch app for my phone. It was ok until we got to about 40 yards from the door. At this point the famous, or maybe infamous Russian roads came into play. Earlier on today I took a photo of the bit of road in question, bearing in mind they haven’t any rain here for decades ….. OK days … ish, there was still a huge lake, big enough to hold a sailing regatta.

Getting back in the dark with my rapidly failing torch app, and having to play stepping stones was another leap of faith – the risk being that I could have drowned never to be seen again; well, not for another thousand years or so when I floated up in some far flung remote island, transported through a hidden vortex through the Earth’s crust.

At this point, kidding aside, I have to thank Brigid for encouraging me to take a leap of faith by continuing with the trip. I really would have preferred her to be with me. However, it has been an opportunity for me to do something new, something I really didn’t fancy at all. To travel alone. I am not, by nature, a loner, but this is a chance to try something different, something we should all do from time to time. Plans might not always work out for us, but if we never tried anything new we would still be struggling with square wheels wouldn’t we?

Gusty winds may occur!

OK, so yesterday’s blog was a bit serious, but for me there is no more serious subject than war. That said, I will try and lighten the mood a little. As Brigid and I have found out to our cost, booking hotel rooms over the internet can be a hazardous operation. To date, the only issues I have had was yesterday’s, where they didn’t take credit cards and, as it has turned out, the hotel in Tambov.

I was aware there there were three mosquitos in the room there and thought I have dealt with them efficiently, if a little messily in one case! Sadly, as it turned out, they had got in first and I now have a few nice red lumps on my arms and neck to show for the encounter. And they itch, a lot, bastards!

So I went to pay the bill at the hotel, only to find out they don’t take credit cards and the bill came to 10 roubles less than I had in my wallet, and it was Sunday so the banks were closed and I don’t read Russian well enough to use the ATMs. Oh ******! Looks like I might get hungry today then, mind you I could still do with losing a little weight.

On leaving the hotel I thought I would give the bullet cam another go, and kept it on whilst I visited Pavlov’s House again and rode out of the city. I was pleasantly surprised to find out later on that it worked, the only problem is that I didn’t quite set it into the mount straight, so the video looks as if it was shot by Quasimodo!

countrychurchThe roads for first 50 kms or so going south from Volgograd are really bad, for the most part. After that they are fine and so I then made good progress. The area bewteen Volgograd and my destination, Astrakhan, is very flat as far as you can see. The few trees seem to be a short stubby variety that offer little shelter from what seemed to be a constant, strong wind, although there was the occasional strong gust that did blow me across my lane. Fortunatly there is little traffic on the road. The whole region could easily be swopped with that part of Route 66 west of Amarillo and the only give away would be the amount of wooden telegraph poles holding upcitychurch the electricity cables and the single carriageway road – those, and some of the very ornate churches which stood in great contrast to the ramshackle, wooden or bare concrete block houses some of which must have been put up by the Church, as the fact that they remain upright is a miracle.

I made good progress and was saved the agony of not having any lunch when I filled up the bike for my second tank. I took the opportunity to have a bottle of water and a large picnic – healthy eating or what!

Tonight’s hotel is again nice and smart and boasts free WiFi, which was one of the reasons for selecting it.  That and it was put on the Horizons Unlimited board by someone who has, presumably, stayed there. Unfortunately, the Service Provider has taken a leaf out of the German MacDonalds franchise’s book, and they insist on sending an access code to a Russian phone. I though I had got round it by mentioning it to the receptionist who said I could use her phone number and she would let me know the code. Great stuff I thought. Sadly, the Russian ISP must have smelt a rat because try though everyone did, no-one could get me on to the internet. ******!

I did go for a walk to what passes for a high street and successfully managed to get enough cash to buy a couple of beers before exchanging some cash tomorrow. Just in time for beer o’clock, nice.

 

“Stalingrad”

I had a number of things I wanted to do today: sort out my missing bolt (on the bike, not in my neck!), laundry, and to see Pavlov’s House. The import of the first two items pale into insignificance, having seen the third, and I really want to thank my son Dave, for suggesting I see it.

Pavlov's House memorial

The inscription on the memorial reads: “In this building fused together heroic feats of warfare and of labor. We will defend / rebuild you, dear Stalingrad!”

I make no apologies for pointing out what may be obvious to some, but just for the benefit of those who were not aware, Volgograd used to be called Stalingrad, and World War 2 saw what is arguably the bloodiest battle in human history. Russian “total casualties” amounted to 1,129,619, whilst the German “total casualties” amounted to 850,000. A significant event during the battle was the seige at “Pavlov’s House”.

During the battle Sergeant Pavlov, in charge of his platoon, withstood a siege for two months before being relieved by Russian forces. The monument is the much photographed corner wall, which Dave sent me. When I went to see it I was not prepared to see the actual building preserved exactly as it was, and was seen in photographs taken at the time. The atmosphere near it is tangible, to the point that, while I was there, many coach loads arrived and went, but very few actually approached the building. Again, while I was near the building, I heard no one speak, they only stood, paid their respects, took their photographs and left, all in total silence. The memory of that building, and the atmosphere will stay with me forever.

Pavlov's House preservedIt helped me understand maybe some of the Russian psyche when it comes to politics. The Russians have long memories. They remember Napoleon – indeed, many Russian words have their origins in France, e.g. the Russian word for a shop is the French word magazin, just spelt differently – and they also have the visible reminder of Hitler.  No wonder then, that the present Russian leader worries about the West encroaching on what has been a traditional area of strategic interest, or “buffer zone”, between Russia and the West.

Politicians start the wars, they don’t fight them, if they did there would surely be far fewer of them.

I got a temporary replacement for my bolt but, as for my laundry, it won’t have to wait for two months for relief, and another day or two will make no difference.

Excuse me, you have a screw loose …

BarEndWeightSo, there I was sitting in front of a set of traffic lights at yet more roadworks and getting hot, when the car behind me tooted his horn. I looked at the lights and they were red. What was his problem, I thought, and looked back to see him shaking his fist at me! I gave him the Gallic shrug of the shoulders and raised my hands, palms upwards as if to say “What?”. He then got out of his car and started shouting at me and waving his fist ….. Oh, hang on a minute; he is actually pointing down at the ground. I looked down and saw a familiar chunk of metal. It was my handlebar end weight, which attaches the handguards to the handlebar and stops everything falling off the end of the bar. Oh ****** !

Somehow the retaining bolt had come lose and dropped off back down the road. I was lucky the driver behind saw the weight fall off or I would have had a problem. Fortunately, it was the left side and the grips are secure, so I now just have to find somewhere to get the bolt.

On I rode, into Volgograd, following Garmin to my chosen hotel – forgetting that I had not programmed in a specific point on the map for Volgograd… Now, anyone who uses GPS’s, knows that the problem with setting a random point in town as your destination is that, while you often end up in the middle of it, sometimes you end up in the middle of no-where. And this was such an occasion. It took me down a very bumpy road with potholes that you could have lost a lorry in and never seen it again. They were BIG! So, Garmin reprogrammed for my hotel, I carried on – only to find that the building was being rebuilt. Literally! I could see the main concrete structure, with no walls and no roof. Back to my Garmin it was, and quickly set off for the next nearest hotel.

The Astoriya is a smart hotel, nicely tiled staircase, very smart rooms and friendly staff. In most big towns it would have cost a fortune to stay there, but this is Volgograd, the home of thousands of missing lorries and thousands of people looking into huge holes in the road, wondering how to retrieve the wreckage …..  Ok, maybe it’s not quite that bad, but the roads are really dreadful. The room was very reasonably priced at about £35 per night, you wouldn’t find a Premier Inn for that in most of western Europe. They even let me bring my spare tyres up to the room for safe keeping, so now my room looks like a motorcycle wreck!

Google is your friend …

Well it was back on the road today; after a bit of a slow start I eventually left the motel at about 11.30am. It had been raining earlier in the morning, but it had cleared up and promised to be yet another nice dry warm day’s riding. Oh, how wrong could I have been!

All was fine and dandy until mid afternoon when a huge black cloud loomed large ahead of me. A quick look at the route on my Garmin showed that I was indeed going to go right underneath it. It was going to be a real test of my Klim jacket and trousers, not to mention my tank bag, for which I have no cover. Most tank bags have a cover provided with them, but not it seems my tank bag. Thanks, Wolfman!

When it started raining, it very quickly more than made up for the dry ride to date. Added to the dry dusty conditions anyway, I was riding through yet another set of roadworks. The rain was brown – such was the amount of dust and dirt being washed down the front of my visor. Even with the vehicles all displaying their lights, it was hard to see and I was virtually riding with my left hand contanstly trying to clear my visor. For all the good it did, I needn’t have bothered!

TambovMotelI lost track of the time I was riding under the deluge but, as always, it eventually stopped. I finally reached my goal for the day: Tambov. I should have stayed on the main road and not bothered going through town, whose wooden houses would have fitted nicely in an American Wild West town back in the 1800’s! I was beginning to think I was going to have a problem, and ended up asking at a fuel station for a motel on the route to Volgograd. Before you start wondering how I achieved this, just remember Google Translate is your friend! “Yes”, they said, “7 kms down the road on the left.” Sure enough, 7kms down the road was … another fuel station and a small coffee shop. Oh bugger! Oh well, thought I, I’ll have a coffee and ask in there. The only two people sitting at tables, a couple, showed an immediate interest in where I was from and where I was going – Google Maps is your friend (….. anyone detect a theme here?) – and, when I asked if there was a motel nearby, they just said yes and pointed at the ceiling!

It was a new building, very clean with tiles everywhere and, yet again, very friendly people. It turned out that the man was a director of the establishment, and yet again demonstrated the naturally warm, generous disposition that Russians are justifiably famous for, to the extent that when I left I was not allowed to pay for anything, not the room, not dinner the night before and not the breakfast. All I had been able to pay for was a bottle of water!

Another bonus for the day was the discovery that my Roadhawk Bullet camera does actually work. Well, I say “mine”; it was Brigid’s, but on discovering that mine had a lose connection we swapped them and I tested it out today. All I need to do now is to check when it is recording and when it it off. Sadly, my good intentions of showing how heavy the Moscow traffic is came to naught, as iot turned out that when I thought I was turning it on, it was already on … so I had turned it off. More profanities followed. You will just have to do with another … “Oh, bugger!”

Two adventures for the price of one?

So I bade a rather sad farewell to John and to Russia this morning. I would have given anything to be riding on to China with John. In fact, GlobeBusters’ Director, Kevin Sanders, warned me not to cancel my trip if there was any possibility that my leg would heal in time to meet their group in Kyrgyzstan. But it simply wasn’t to be. As I responded to him, even if I was out of plaster in time, my leg would still be fragile from the break and weak from being immobilised for 5 weeks. It wouldn’t withstand weeks of rough roads, standing on the pegs, and if I had another fall, I would be a liability to the group.  Whatever regrets I might have had, the decision was made and my focus was now to get myself and my bike home.

Ever since we arrived in Moscow, we have been debating what to do about my motorcycle. Strictly speaking, I temporarily imported a motorcycle into Russia, and Customs regulations would normally dictate that it should leave with me. Certainly, that seems to be a commonly-held understanding. However, a quick phone call by Maxim to an ex-Customs Officer friend, was more encouraging. There should be no problem, she said, as long as I declared the bike as “Unaccompanied Baggage”. We then looked at our options for getting it home – possibly shipping to an EU country, or possibly getting one of Maxim’s friends to ride it to the UK. However, as opinions still seemed to be divided about the legalities and – in the current political climate – practicalities of either option, no concrete decision could be made until I spoke to the Customs Officers at the airport.

I arrived, wheelchair-bound and slightly panic-stricken, at the Goods to Declare desk, expecting … Well, to be honest, I’m not sure quite what I was expecting. The patient EasyJet clerk explained my predicament to a bemused Customs Officer, who took my Declaration form and flipped it over. Maxim had taken a quick photo of the front of the form, where the bike’s details were printed. The back of the form was, to all intents and purposes, blank, except for my signature … and an all-important hand-written note, validated with an official Customs stamp, permitting me to keep the bike in Russia until the 8th August! The Customs Officer gave me an almost Gallic shrug and half a smile and handed the form back, gesticulating towards the Green (Nothing to Declare) Channel.

LegRoomThe mistake we had made was to assume that the date of departure that we had put on our Entry forms at Russian Border Control, had anything to do with the Customs Declaration that we made after our visas had been checked and validated by Passport Control. So, while all along we had assumed that the bikes had to leave Russia with us on 20th May, the reality is that, having 6-month Business visas, we can come and go as we please – at least until August.

I now have the consolation of knowing that, once my leg is out of plaster, I will be able to return to Moscow, solo, and collect the motorcycle myself and ride it back to Ireland – a little adventure of my own to look forward to.

In the meantime, a few words of praise for EasyJet. I don’t have a problem with budget airlines. You get what you pay for and, by and large, the staff are pretty good humoured and efficient. Even so, my previous experiences with EasyJet have tended to be short flights to and from France, where it’s hard to avoid comparing the departure lounge to a crowded cattle market. EasyJet’s staff today have been exemplary. They have done everything possible to make my journey as comfortable as possible. From the Russian member of the Ground Crew who offered translation services at the Customs Desk, to Billy, and his Cabin Crew who offered me an empty row of seats, so that I could keep my leg elevated during the flight, they have been kindness personified. Thank you all.

And then there was one!

Well Brigid took off today from one of Moscow’s 4 airports about 1 hours drive south of the city. After much discussion about how we were going to get Brigid’s bike home, the answer was remarkable simple.

HomewardBoundIt turns out that when we completed the customs form on entering Russia, the official who dealt with us marked the form to the effect that we had to have the bikes out by 4th August. That means that rather than paying for shipping or someone to ride the bikes out of Russia, and risking them refused entry to the EU, Brigid can fly back to Moscow in July when, hopefully, her leg should be better, and she can ride it our herself. As the Easyjet flights are low cost, it is the cheapest option and has the added benefit that Brigid will get some sort of ride this summer after all!

That did help alleviate the sadness at seeing Brigid being wheeled through customs toward the departure gate, knowing that she was going to miss out on what should be a truly fantastic adventure.

The rest of the day was spent re-packing the remaining items that Brigid had not taken home. It turned out that she gave me just as much as I gave her t take home, with the upshot that I was still struggling to get a quart into a pint pot, hey ho!

It was back to the Honky Tonk Roadhouse, opposite the Night Train for dinner, and I managed to present a couple of small Irish flags to a group of bikers who were sporting “Irish Bros” on the back of their leather jackets. It seems that they are big fans of Ireland, and they were genuinely pleased to receive the token presents. Needless to say, in the spirit of true Russian hospitality, they had to present me with two specially selected wallets. Let me say at this point that the Russians and the Americans have much in common. They are warm, friendly, very hospitable, and generous to a fault, and they do a great job of selling their country as a place to visit.