The Shawshank Experience!
No I’m not in jail and Kazakhstan is really growing on me but I did have a Shawshank experience earlier today. It’s now my third day in Kazakhstan and it looks as though the previous two posts didn’t get to you due to really bad wifi. In any case, I’m really enjoying it here. The people are incredibly friendly and interested in what Im doing. Almost every car or truck which passes me beeps in salute when they see my Kazak flag. I’ve also discovered an unlikely ally, -Conor Mc Gregor, no less! The Kazakhs are crazy about boxing and all forms of martial arts. Mc Gregor is God here. My opinions on the man, his ‘sport ” and everything it represents differ considerably from theirs but I don’t want to offend and I’m happy to do Mc Gregor impressions to win favour. Motorists stop constantly to offer lifts and any help they can give. I’ve been invited to a wedding in Astana and to be the mascot at some important football match there next week. I love the way the people here greet and salute you. There are very few foreigners and everyone shows huge respect for the very few who come here. To ask for money or favours of any kind is a serious misdemeanour and although hardly anyone speaks English, they are patient in trying to communicate. Despite the awful roads, I feel that I’m going to enjoy Kazakhstan! Yesterday I was praising the merits of Karolina, my trusty Dawes Karakhum bicycle. In particular I commented on the fact that Id pedalled 8,000 km across Europe and 2,000 km around Ireland without getting a puncture. Why I was in Astrachkan, I spent a whole morning visiting bike shops so that she could get a full service and a tyre charge. This morning, after only 150k on my brand new tyre, I had my first puncture. I was really angry when I examined the wheel to see that a sliver old wire from the inside had caused the puncture. And then to my horror, I saw that the rear wheel had been fitted with a ‘Presta’ type tube and U had only standard tubes as replacements. My options were to get a lift to the nearest town which was 30 k away in the vain hope that I’d get a Presta tube there or to did a way to get a standard tube to fit into my wheel. If I had an electric drill, there wouldn’t be a problem but without one I was faced with the problem of expanding the hole into which the nozzle of the tube fits with nothing more than a camping knife. I was really determined to sort out the problem myself and spent nearly 3 hours labouring away in the intense heat as there was no shade available. Then eventually, -Morgan Freeman Voiceover “After sweatin’ for hours and with hands blisterin’ from scrapin’ away with that old knife, he managed to carve a hole big enough for the new tube…..
Then after mountin’ Karolina and headin’ on eastward, he stopped at the first bar he saw and breakin” the promise of a lifetime, he guzzled a beer under the shade of an old fig tree. Man, there’s nothin” in the world that could beat the feelin’ of sinking a cold beer after working your way to freedom” So I’ll never be the first person to cycle around the world without getting a puncture! In any case I’m now heading north eastwards towards the capital Astana. At this point I’ve a difficult decision to make. The recommended route involves a dogleg of over 500km. There’s a shorter route to the east but many locals tell me that the road conditions are worse than anything I’ve seen so far and that there are bandits everywhere. I think I’ll sleep on it!
The Road Less Followed
“I took a fork in a road today…..” Yes, it was decision time this morning. After breaking camp early determined to put in a good days cycling, I reached the town of Atraou and had to decide which route to take from there. Opinion from locals and from Google was divided, The best road was to the north but the most direct was to the east. There was much dramatic warming about the road directly eastwards, bandits, no asphalt, wild horny camels and all sorts of other scenarios. I had lunch in a sort of workmans cafeteria and the general consensus was that as an adventurer. I should take the risk. If successful, I’ll save myself 500k of cycling. If I fail…We’ll that’s not even a consideration. So far the road eastwards has been great and I managed to cover 160k despite a strong headwind. For the last 30k I cycled on the best road Since Slovenia. Can my good fortune continue? The plan was to cycle 200k to the city of Mekat but the headwind was too strong so I had to be satisfied with 160k. As I entered the appropriately named town of Dossar, where everyone was on the doss, I was met with several hotel owners offering me a room. As I really need a wash after 4 days wild camping, I accepted the offer and have a basic but clean room for the night.
Silver Linings? Silver linings?
When I woke up early this morning, I had a gut feeling that this wasn’t going to be a good day. I didn’t sleep well as it was really hot and stuffy in my tiny hotel room. During the night I wished that I’d found a good camp site instead. In the hotel, there wasn’t even coffee or chai- the sweet milky tea that everyone drinks here available so I set off early, on a reasonably good road into a slight headwind. I stopped for breakfast at the first village I passed and was soon heading east again hoping to get in a good days cycling. The road surface soon deteriorated and I ended up cycling on a sandy path which was running parallel to the pot holed gravelly track. I was still making good progress but found it difficult to focus on avoiding soft sandy patches which became more and more frequent. I also noticed a lot of debris on the track, -mostly glass and bits of wire, all adding to making this a very difficult spin. It was also really warm, -42 degrees and I wasn’t going fast enough to create any wind to cool myself down. And then, at about noon,-Disaster! I couldn’t avoid cycling over a lump of wire on the path. I felt it getting tangled in the chain and then something solid jammed into the rear wheel, bringing me to a sudden stop and almost over the handlebars. I was hoping that it was only the wire jamming the wheel but when I examined it, I realised that the problem was much more serious. The rear derailleur had broken clean off its fitting and was stuck between the spokes. Fortunately it didn’t seem to have damaged the wheel but I knew immediately that I was going to need a new derailleur. I managed to extricate the broken derailleur, now hanging on only by the chain. I was still 12k from the nearest town, but at least, there at I could get some shade, some food and water, so I trudged through the sand for about 2 hours until I reached what was only a little village in the middle of an oil field. The locals were helpful and insisted on attempting to repair the damage but I knew better and after sinking a few beers and finding wifi, I discovered that the nearest bicycle shop which stocked derailleurs was Akoubi nearly 400k to the northeast. By some really good fortune there was a railway station in this village and a night train to Altoubi was stopping at 8.00pm. For the next few hours I just chilled and read at the railway station. This village rarely has foreign visitors and as word spread that there was a stranger in town, there was a constant stream of curious kids and adults coming to me all afternoon. This eventually became tiresome and I really wanted to be alone. Then a group of gentle, well spoken guys arrived. There were different from the others and spoke good English. They were part of an extended family group which had come together to celebrate an important Muslin festival. Asiet, his beautiful wife Lisa and their cousins insisted on bringing me home so I could wash and have some food before the train journey. At their lovely traditional home I had a good wash in a simple solar shower and was then treated to a feast with the whole family, all seated cross legged around a huge, low table, laden with delicacies of every sort. There was no alcohol but plenty of gorgeous fruit drinks. By now it was close to 8.00pm so a few of the men helped me to load Karolina onto the train- never a simple task and I was on my way. One guy, called Borden even stayed with me until the train got to the next stop, helping me to find my couchette and stow Karolina out of the way. It looks like I’ve got a first class ticket, although it only cost €15. It’s very plush and there’s only 2 people to each compartment, there were 6 people crammed into a compartment on the night train I took in Ukraine. I’m sharing with a cheerful old baboushka who’s farting and snoring at the same time! The cloud, of course did have lots of silver linings. By giving to Aktoubi, I’m skipping the really bad road section. This is allowed in the Guinness rules but obviously I can’t include the train miles in my total distance. The ‘disaster ‘ today also facilitated my feast this evening with a beautiful Kazakh family. Let’s see what tomorrow will bring.
A decent road at last!
Having arrived in Aktobe fairly early on Saturday morning I didn’t have much difficulty finding the only hostel in town, the very imaginatively named Nice Hostel. Unlike all the other hostels I’ve stayed in on this trip , the Nice Hostel is modern and a bit sterile for my liking. I had a shower, washed my clothes and set off to have Karolina repaired. As usual this involved visiting several sports shops which didn’t stock the part I needed until eventually I tracked down a backstreet bicycle dealer who was very helpful. I ended up replacing the derailleur, chain and cassette, all of which had been damaged by the wire. It was expensive and took several hours but I was mightily relieved to have Karolina back on the road. I decided to buy a spare tyre and some tubes also and on my way back to the hostel, went into a huge European style shopping mall where it was cool and clean and where I tucked into BigMacs and fries. Back at the hostel Int Sebastian and Julia, a German couple doing a motorcycle tour of Asia. We went out for drinks and stayed out till very late, overindulging a bit on the vodka. I was a bit slow to get going on Sunday morning and found it hard to get out of Aktobe onto the Astana highway. When eventually I reached it, I was thrilled with the quality of the road surface and with a strong crosswind, I had no problem covering 150k before darkness prevented me going any further. I’m camped in the open prairie watching owls hunt overhead and enjoying a good meal of fried chicken and vegetables. As the Astana highway continues on for nearly 1500k, I hope to make good progress over the next few days. A tailwind would be the icing on the cake!
Another great days cycling on the Astana Highway. I broke camp early and as I was out of gas, had to cycle 20k to the nearest town to have breakfast. The road surface was excellent for the whole day, there was very little traffic and there was a strong crosswind which occasionally assisted me when the road veered northwards. The temperature has dropped to about 30 degrees, which makes cycling really pleasant. My intention was to push on hard all day and finish early but at lunchtime, I passed an interesting building which turned out to be a restaurant. The interior was beautifully decorated in traditional style and there was an enormous map of Kazakhstan on the wall. Everyone sat at the traditional low tables with lovely blankets and cushions on the benches. My afternoon break normally lasts for only half an hour but I spent more than 2 hours in this little oasis of calm and beauty in what is really a very bleak place. After a really relaxing lunch (I had a huge meal with drinks for a fiver) I was on my way again with only 80k until my destination. After about 20k, I noticed a huge black cloud ahead of me and assumed that it was a rain cloud but as I got closer it became clear that it was smoke. The prairie to the east of the highway was on fire. For the first few km the fire had burned itself out close to the road but on three occasions the flames were blazing across the road right in my path and once I really got a fright when the hair on my left arm and leg began to singe. Worst of all were the thick palls of smoke blowing into my face. I stretched a sock over my head so I wouldn’t choke and this also prevented my hair and beard from getting burnt. The scorched earth experience continued for nearly 40 k and I was mightily relieved to see blue skies ahead after nearly two hours of torture! The fire also slowed me down and I decided to call it a day when I spotted a village with a small river running through it a few km from the road. There I washed the days smoke and grime from my clothes and body in the river and enjoyed a good meal at my campsite on the riverbank. Several groups of lovely children came to visit me bringing gifts of tomatoes, plums and a little bottle of what I thought was water but turned out to be vodka!
Stampede, storm and stubbornness!
Just before I went to sleep last night a group of children came to the tent pointing excitedly at the many cow pats surrounding us. I assured them that cow pats didn’t bother me and went to sleep. It wasn’t until early this morning when I realised what they meant. I was awoken by the sound of thundering hooves. When I peeked through the tent flap, I saw a herd of cattle stampeding towards me driven by youngsters on horseback. I’d no wish to end this trip trampled to death by cattle so instinctively, I jumped out of the tent, stark naked and waved my sleeping mat in the air. It obviously worked and amused the cowboys. When I realised that I wasn’t going to die, I managed to take some photos of the cowboys as they rode past. After all that drama, the mornings cycle was uneventful. I knew that the towns on the highway were very far apart so I had a good breakfast and set off early. I managed to cover nearly 100k and noticed that the temperature had dropped suddenly. There were big black clouds gathering in the north and I sensed trouble. Soon the thunder rumbled and lightning flashed illuminating the prairie for miles. Then came huge hailstones followed by buckets of rain. I decided to bolt for shelter when I saw a sign for a village, called Apacolo a few km from the road. It didn’t sound inviting and very soon I was regretting my decision when the mudguards on Karolina’s wheels became jammed with mud and she couldn’t be pushed. I abandoned her in a ditch and dashed in the pouring rain to the leaky hovel which served as a shop, the only one in the place. It really was very grim, think of the grimmest scene from a post apocalyptic movie and you could picture this place. It had once been a mining town and rivers of oily sludge were running from spoil heaps all over town. The logical thing for me to do was to bunker down here but the place depressed me, there was no beer and I still thought it was possible to complete 160k as planned. The rain had eased so I trudged through the mud back onto the highway and soon realised that after the storm, the wind had intensified and was now blowing in my face. My destination, another charmingly named placed called Punishka was about 50k away and I still had a few hours of daylight. I struggled against the horrendous headwind until it got really dark and too dangerous to continue. Once I thought I’d reached the town but the twinkling lights which lured me were only the headlights of a fleet of combine harvesters working through the night in the enormous cornfields. I camped on the edge of a cornfield and had to dig deep in my provisions bag to find a tin of sardines and a stale loaf of bread. It certainly wasn’t the most memorable day to date!
Stalin’s Revenge! Im beginning to think that Stalin has put a curse on me because I denounced the USSR as being grim almost a month ago. The reality is that I’ve had nothing but headwind for my entire time in Ukraine, Russia and now Kazakhstan. This morning when I crawled from the tent after a night of disturbed sleep- the combine harvesters continued working until dawn! I was dismayed to see that the wind had changed directions again. It was now blowing directly from the north, exactly the direction where I’m heading for the next two days. This wind comes from Siberia, where winter must have come early became it’s a cold biting wind gusting relentlessly all day. It’s quite incredible to think that on Tuesday I was sweltering in 30 degrees and this morning it was only 12 degrees but felt much colder in the bitter wind. I had absolutely nothing but black coffee for breakfast so I broke camp early and struggled against the wind to Punishka which was supposed to be my destination last night. Inside the little cafe, which was packed with truckers,it was nice and warm and I enjoyed a good breakfast of borscht and pancakes. It was really difficult to motivate myself to get back on the bike but the truckers assured me that this wind would continue all week and I had to get to Astana before next weekend for my visa. My destination was Ordzhonikidze still 150 k to the north and the trip there today was one of the most difficult I’ve ever done. At times I struggled to do 10k per hour and a few times I was stopped dead by the gusts. I stopped for lunch at a truckers canteen and joined some friendly guys who raided my spirits with their good humour. The dish of legman , a sort of noodle stew and shubat, camels milk also helped and eventually I found the energy to resume. It was incredibly difficult and the last 20 k was the worst part as the road surface deteriorated due to road works. Just as the sun was setting, I pulled into the town and saw a sign for a hotel. I didn’t have to think twice about it and thought it’s basic and I’m sharing a room with two business men, I’m really glad to get a shower and a good night’s rest.