Decisions, decisions… 80m off the ground

Day 26 – Saturday 20th of July – Astrakhan to Volgograd (450km)

On the road again! It felt so good to be back on the road this morning… The sun was shinning, the bike seemed to work fine and I had found a couch in Volgograd with a guy named Ivan. But before getting to his home, I wanted to make a quick stop at Bike City 34, the workshop where I had had my bike serviced the first last time I was in the city, to see if they could fit a couple of screws to my windshield and GPS support, which was still attached with two pieces of cable.

There were menacing clouds ahead, but I made it to the city just after it had rained. Good, but it meant that it was now hot AND damp, not the best conditions to face the city traffic, and even less so with the streets full of puddles hiding the potholes.

I met Kate again, who had read about my problems and was very happy to see me again. They had no screws in the workshop, but one of the mechanics took a scooter and went to find some somewhere else, and in the meantime, I bought a couple of summer gloves. Mine had been blown away by a sand storm in Kazakhstan and I had tried to ride from Astrakhan in my winter ones, but it was just too hot and I just rode bare-handed.

The mechanic was back soon and they fitted not two, but four screws, using the extra mounting points to change the height of the windshield, so now it was rock solid. I thanked them all and went to meet my host for the night, who lived only a couple of streets away.

Ivan was a really nice guy, and we hit it off immediately. I dropped my things at his apartment, had a shower and we quickly discovered that he liked climbing. I told him about vias ferratas and showed him some pictures, and he was really interested in trying it someday. He then called Sasha, a friend of his and said he would take us to see an abandoned factory near his home, another hobby we shared.

It turned out to be one of this plants that heated the water for the whole city. Nowadays there are many small ones all over Volgograd, but he told me that in Soviet times they build everthing bigger, and this was supposed to be one of the biggest ones, but it was half completed when the Soviet Union dismembered and it was never finished. All that was left today was an enormous empty building and a 120-metre tall chimney.

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This being Russia, the place was wide open and they had only cut the first 6 meters of metal ladder in the chimney to stop people from climbing it, but someone had put a wooden one to reach the first steps, and it was easy to access. Ivan said that he had been to the top many times and that it was safe to climb, so we got on the wooden ladder and started climbing.

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I was only wearing shorts and flip flops, and when I got to the metal ladder I saw that it was all bent and rusty, so I had to climb carefully to avoid a nasty cut. As we climbed to the first level of the chimney, the ladder moved and pieces of rust fell, so I started to wonder if it was as safe as Ivan said it was.

We made it to the first level, which was about 30 or 40 meters high, and had a walkway all around the chimney. We were already higher than the building around us, and someone had built a wooden structure on the walkway, on the opposite side of the ladder. Ivan told us that some people attached a rope to it and jumped from there.

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He convinced us to walk to the next level with a complete walkway, which was three levels up from where we were, the intermediate ones having only small balconies. I was not very sure about it, the ladder looked even worse from there on, but he said that he had done it plenty of times and there was no problem, and I thought that you do not get the chance to do something like that very often, so I decided to keep going.

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We stopped for a rest a the next two levels, the views getting more and more spectacular, and then proceeded to the next one. When we get there we were about 80m high, and the sun was setting. We sat down on the walkway and enjoyed the view.

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It was a good moment to think about the rest of my trip. I could not go back to Kazakhstan because my tourist visa only allowed me one entry, and I had lost a week waiting for the rim to be repaired. On top of that, I had been told to avoid bad roads if I did not want more trouble with the bike. I had realized that despite having changed the springs, the suspension was still too low and it did not have enough travel to handle the worst roads with the bike fully loaded, so if I wanted to go to Ulaanbaatar I would have to do it on good roads. That meant riding through Russia all the way to Irkutsk and then down to Ulaanbaatar. It was a long and possibly boring way, doing 600-800km a day to keep on schedule. When I was planning the trip, Ulaanbaator was not the final destination, it was just the point I had chosen to turn back. The real trip was all that I wanted to see and experience between my home and there, and I thought there was little point in pushing to get there just to say I had been there. Moreover, the first three weeks I had been travelling quite fast, stopping only for one night at most places, and after meeting so many great people I felt I was missing the most important thing in this trip – the trip itself and the people, that is what was important, not the final destination. I had two months to travel, and it did not really matter which way I went. I wanted variety, I did not want to follow a schedule. So I decided that I would head north, take it easier and spend some more time at each place I liked.

We headed down again, and I noticed that some of the screws that held the ladder against the chimney were missing. Nice… We made it back on the ground in one piece, and then Ivan and I bought a pizza and he took me to the center, where he and his wife had just opened a hostel, and we had dinner there with a couple from Astrakhan who were going on a hiking tour for a couple of weeks.

The following morning I started my new route, destination: Moscow. It was about 1000km, so I had to split that in two.

The rim and a gun

Day 25 – Friday 19th of July – Astrakhan (0km)

Parental advisory – This post might content strong language and references to sex and drugs.

This morning at about ten I got great news – Arkan called and said that the rim was already fixed and that he would come over in ten minutes to pick me up and take me to the workshop. Valentin, my host, had been acting as an interpreter all this time, as Arkan did not speak any English at all, but today he had work to do and could not come with us, so he told me to call him if I needed anything. While I was waiting for him, Dasha wrote to me on Facebook and told me that she and her friends were going to go for a swim on the river later in the day, and invited me along. We arranged to meet at half past seven near in the same bus stop as last time. It seemed that after a few really boring days I had some things to do again.

I went down to the street and five minutes later Arkan turned up in his black car. We drove to the rough part of town again and he parked in front of a place that looked more like a junk yard than a place that could repair and balance an alloy rim. I was a bit skeptical about the whole thing and how the result would turn out to be, but I had not been able to ask many questions about it due to the language barrier and not wanting to bother my host for translation too much, as I felt I was already abusing his hospitality, having been at his place for a whole week. By now I had learnt that the best thing to do in Russia is just to go with the flow, trust people and let them do their thing, and sure enough, despite the looks of the place, the rim was repaired and it looked very professional.

We took it to a tire workshop that did not look much better to have the tire fitted again. The rim problem was finally solved, but I was a bit worried that the tire might be damaged, as I had ridden for long stretches with no air in it and on really bad roads to get back to Astrakhan. Sourcing a new tire might prove to be difficult and I was not looking forward to spending more time stuck here. Fortunately, once the tire was fitted and inflated, the guy in the workshop checked it with water and soap and it did not seem to leak anywhere. He fitted it for free, which was really nice.

We took the wheel back to the car park where my bike had been for a week. Having the bike in a car park with 24-hour surveillance might sound as a bit of a luxury for a traveler on a tight budget like me, but it only cost 20 rubles a day, which is less than what you would pay for a bottle of water. Arkan helped me fit the wheel back on the bike and when he saw that the air valve cap was missing, he took one off his own car and gave it to me. He also noticed that my chain protector was not fitted, and I explained that I had lost one of the screws due to the vibrations in Kazakhstan. While I was cleaning and greasing the chain he got Valentin on the the phone, who told me that Arkan had told him to tell me that he would take me to a shop where I could get spare screws to fix it.

We got back in the car and he took me not to a shop, but to his own place, where he found a couple of screws that fit and showed me his bike, a Yamaha Fazer 1000. He explained to me that he had had a Honda Fireblade, but had crashed it into the back of a car. I noticed that he had no numberplate on the bike and he told me that it was so that the police could not fine him. Well, rather than explain that, he just made a gesture with his right hand, as if twisting the throttle wide open and said “fuck police”.

With the screw in my pocket, we got back into his car, and he got back on the phone. I thought he was taking me back to my host’s, but then he handed me the phone again. It was Valentin, who told me that Arkan wanted to take me with him and his kids for a swim. I said I was OK with it, as long as I was back in time to meet Dasha and her friends later.

We were driving to the outskirts when we hit a long queue of stopped cars. Without thinking twice, he drove down the street the wrong way and cut to the front of the queue. It turned out it was a level crossing, they are everywhere in Russia and sometimes it takes very long for trains to pass, thus the long queues. We had been waiting for a while, but no trains turned up. Arkan, probably bored of the wait, decided to show me something. He lifted the armrest and took out… a gun. With the two kids in the back seat, who did not seem to be at all surprised. I guess it was not the first time they had seen it. He removed the gun magazine, which was charged with real bullets, removed the bullet from the chamber and gave it to me. It was the first time I had ever held a gun, and I thought that for a first time, it was quite cool that it was an outlaw Russian biker’s gun. I just hoped he did not kill anybody with it before I leave the country, as it now has my prints on it.

We finally made it through the crossing and stopped at a small shop to pick up some friends of his – a skinny guy with big tattoos that looked as badass as Arkan, his girlfriend Natasha, in very skimpy clothes and another guy with a stutter and half rotten teeth that made me think of those “Meth? Not even once” memes.

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We went to a beach between a railroad bridge and a dry dock with a rotting ship in it, which might not sound great, but it was much quieter, nicer and cleaner than the beach in the city center. While we were there we talked about the trip and bikes, and compared prices between bikes in Spain, Russia and Georgia, as it turned out that Arkan was not Russian, but from Georgia. Then, best as he could using gestures and drawing in the sand, he explained that he travelled to Germany quite often, apparently on some kind drug-related business, I gathered. The conversation then turned a bit, let’s say uncomfortable. Using gestures and a few English words, they told that Natasha gave great blowjobs – they all seemed to have had a go at that – and then said “tonight, drugs, -Russian word for sex- Natasha” I laughed and played along for a while, but when we were leaving I told them that I was already meeting other people that night, which was true.

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We dropped Arkan’s friends back in the shop and on the way back to the center he told me that he was a boxer and also practiced several other martial arts, and pointed at his nose, which had obviously been broken several times. Pointing at his kids and his wedding ring, he indicated that it was a good way to let out steam. He also told me that he used to be into illegal street racing in the past, he had owned an Impreza and an M5, but had given it up when he got married.

Back at Valentin’s I thanked him for everything, he had been a really nice guy and had gone out of his way to help me.

I packed my things to get ready for departure the following morning and then took one of the Russian microbuses with crazy drivers to the center to meet Dasha, I did not feel like walking almost 7km again. We bought some beer and she took me to a smaller beach on the other side of the island where we had been last time. It was already late, and the sun was setting, it was a beautiful sight, a huge red ball of fire behind the factories on the other side of the river while I was swimming in the cool water.

After the sun had set, we got back on the bridge and I discovered that the buses stop running at 9 pm, which meant a long walk back home… But then the guys said that there was no way I was leaving so early, we got a taxi and headed for the place where one of them lived, a really old wooden building dating from before the Russian Revolution. It had veranda overlooking the inner court, and we just sat there in the cool night air having a drink and playing the guitar. It made me think what an amazing experience this trip had been so far, there I was sitting with people I had just met, all of them really nice, offering me their drinks, telling me about the Russian songs they were singing.

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I left at midnight, as I wanted to get up early the following day for the ride back to Volgograd. It was not especially long and the roads were quite good, but I still did not know how the rim repair would hold, so I wanted to have plenty of time just in case. Dasha walked me home, we exchanged contacts and she wished me good luck with the rest of the trip.

Slow news day

Day 24 – Thursday 18th of July – Astrakhan (0km)

We called Arakan today, who gave us the number to the workshop so that we could ask them directly and they said that the rim would be ready on Friday “on the second half of the day”. That meant that I would not be able to leave for Volgograd until Saturday. Apart from that, nothing else happened today… I was about to not write an entry, but since I have got used to writing every day, I decided to do so, even if it was a short one.

First news from the wheel

Day 23 – Wednesday 17th of July – Astrakhan (0km)

Today we called Arkan, he said that the wheel is already in the repair shop and it will be ready tomorrow afternoon or Friday morning. As it was quite badly bent not just because of the road in Kazakhstan, but because the mechanic in the oil plant tried to bang it back into shape with a hammer, the result might not be perfect. Let’s see if at least it holds the air well enough to allow me to continue travelling.

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On the positive side, I discovered why my 12V plug was not working. It is rated at a maximum of 20A, but the guy who installed it had fitted a 10A fuse, which had blown, as the compressor uses 15A.

I got news from Martin, from Uzbekistan. Hit a rock on his GS Adventure and bent the front rim as well. A trucker stopped and helped him bang it back into shape. He said it is holding the air, let’s hope he has better luck than me!

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Kustodiev Art Gallery

Day 22 – Tuesday 16th of July – Astrakhan (0km)

Not much to report today, just waiting for news about the rim. To kill some time, I went to visit the Kustodiev Art Gallery, which was quite nice, and then strolled to the city center, read a bit in the park and then found myself a nice café with air conditioning in which to spend the rest of the afternoon reading and enjoying ice tea.

Good and bad news

Day 21 – Monday 15th of July – Astrakhan (0km)

First of all, the bad news – Today my parents found out that it is not possible to send parcels into Russia, only documents. Fed Ex does send parcels, but with severe weight and value restrictions, and at astronomical prices. So it seemed that it was not possible to get a replacement rim sent from Spain. Plan B it was then.

On Saturday, me and Lex had been looking for bikers in the center, as they are always good help, and had found a contact. A guy named Arkan, a real badass by the looks of it, the kind of big Russian guy that never smiled. We got his number and this morning I got Valentin, my host, to call him. He said he would come and have a look, and at lunchtime he turned up in his big black car. He drove us over to the car park where the bike was, barked at the guard to let him drive in and examined the wheel. He said that it could be fixed, and that he would come back the following days with the tools to remove it from the bike. I said I had the tools and could get it out in five minutes, so I did it. Later Valentin told me that they were a bit impressed, as they had thought I was some kind of amateur who had no idea what to do. He put the wheel into the boot and we went off to a really dodgy part of town to find a tire workshop to remove the tire from the rim. After a couple of stops we got it done and then we went to an even rougher part of town in search of a shop were they could repair it, as the one he knew was apparently not able to do it until Wednesday. We eventually found one, but he was not happy about the price they asked nor about the fact that they did not have the equipment to have the wheel balanced once the job was done. I said that I did not mind waiting a bit longer as long as it was done properly, so he took the wheel with him and said that in a couple of days he would have it fixed. So there is the good news. I hope.

Another swim in the Volga and a tattoo

Day 20 – Sunday  14th of July –Astrakán (0km)

Today I spent the morning updating the blog, counting days and kilometers to see what I can do once the bike is fixed, and I sent an email to Stephen Stallebrass, who did the same route as I am now considering.

In the afternoon, Dasha, one of the CouchSurfers from the city took me for a swim in the Volga. We had arranged to meet at a bus stop by the big bridge that crosses the river through an island, which is where the beaches are, and I walked more than 6km in 40ºC heat to get there because I wanted to walk through the center rather than take a bus.

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The river beach would have been a nice place if it had not been for the fact that there were empty bottles and plastic wrappings everywhere, the Russians can not seem to be able to keep a place other than their own home clean, which is a pity, as it was quite a beautiful place. I went for a swim and then Dasha took out a henna pen and started to practice drawing a tattoo on her leg. She told me that she wanted to make some extra money that summer painting tattoos on people on the beach, and when she was done she asked if she could practice on my arm too, so I got a nice souvenir from Astrakhan.

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Back at the apartment I checked my mail and saw that Stephen had replied, with some advice about the route he took. I also tried to find information online to see if I can unlock my phone myself, which might be easier than trying to get some Russians at a phone shop to understand what I need. More news on that tomorrow.

Insurance and SIM cards

Day 19 – Saturday  13th of July –Astrakhan (0km)

Today I spent most of the morning on the phone to my insurer back in Spain, trying to see what options I had and what would be the cheapest solution. In the end they said they could either arrange for the bike to be taken back to Spain or repaired here, but if I chose the second option, I would have to find a place and a replacement part myself.

I had been studying my options, and decided that I could not risk another big breakdown like this, but I did not want to cancel the trip, it would be such a pity. I happen to have another rear rim in Barcelona, and the insurance company said they would reimburse the expense of having it shipped to Astrakhan, so I decided to go for that option. After a lot more phone calls and whatsapss, I arranged for my parents to send the rim via UPS or DHL, as both companies have offices in Astrakhan. The problem is that it was Saturday, so everything was closed. We have to wait until Monday get an estimate time of shipping. In the meantime I found a couple of workshops that will replace the rim and when it arrives I just have to call my insurer and they will transport the bike to the workshop I tell them.

So I am stuck in Astrakhan, but at least there are very nice CouchSurfers here who will make my time in the city more enjoyable. Once the rim is here, I will be able to see how much time and money I have left and decide how to continue the trip.

While I wait, I am trying to find a place to unlock my phone to accept other SIM cards and get a Russian one, since I am now going to be spending most of the reminder of the trip in this country, and roaming calls have cost a fortune so far, but there is nothing to be done until Monday again.

In the meantime, I went for a walk and a few beers near the river, and tomorrow I will go for a swim.

Trouble in the desert

Day 18 – Friday  12th of July – Dossor to somewhere in the desert to Astrakhan (655km)

We woke up at sunrise, shortly after 5 in the morning, and by the time we had got the dust off all our stuff and packed the tents, it was already hot. As we were getting ready to leave, we asked the guy at the petrol station about the state of the roads, and he pointed at my route and said “problem, problem”. It seems that the road was in very bad condition, and people went around for 1,500km to avoid the 600km to Aktobe. I had talked to some bikers on the HUBB who had ridden it, and I thought I would take two days and try to make it.

I felt quite sad saying goodbye to Martin, it had been three great days riding together, and I would have liked to continue having company. Maybe I should have taken the same route as him through the Stans, I would have had the chance to do the Pamir Highway and the landscape would definitely have been more varied than in Kazakhstan. In any case, it was too late now, I had no visas, so Kazakh desert it was.

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The road was still good for about 10km north of Dossor, and then it went back to the kind of very potholed asphalt I had found after the border. The bike was shaking so much that I could not see anything on the GPS, so I reached to hold with my left hand for a second to be able to check the distance, when to my horror the whole assembly, GPS and mount came loose and fell. I stopped to see what had happened and after removing the windscreen I discovered the problem. The windscreen is held in place by four screws, and I had replaced the two at the top for longer ones because that was where the GPS mount attached. It seemed that the vibration had made the weight of the whole assembly act as a lever and the screws had loosened and fallen. I put everything back in place, held it with some electrical wire and hoped it would hold.

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I rode on and after a while the road became the nightmare I had been warned about. It is relatively easy to ride on dirt or gravel roads, but the problem here is that there had been an asphalted road at some point and now it was gone, leaving just some patches here and there, then disappearing, then reappearing, and it was very hard to try and avoid hitting the rough edges. I made very slow progress, and at one point took one of the paths that trucks had made on the side of the road to avoid it. It was soft sand and in ten minutes, the bike slid at the front and I fell.

I was OK, so I removed the tank bag and tried to lift it without removing the rest of luggage. It turned out it is easier on the sand than on asphalt, and I was able to do it on my own. Good thing, because there was nobody else around. I went on, on and off the main road, and about 100km from Dossor I thought I was making decent progress and I would make it to my destination for the day in decent time despite the bad road, when suddenly the bike started handling funny and I had to stop, thinking that I had got a flat tire.

I checked, and I was right, the back tire was flat, so I got the compressor out, plugged it and inflated it. Once it was done I started turning it, checking for damage, but I could not see anything despite turning the tire several times. I was starting to wonder how it had gone flat when I saw it – the rim was dented.

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I had changed the springs on the bike in preparation for the trip, trying to make it a bit more usable off road, but this was still mostly an asphalt and dirt road bike, not a true hardcore endure machine, and the suspension lacked travel compared to a KTM or a BMW and it had bottomed out several times on the harder sections, the rim must have got damaged on one of those occasions. The tire seemed to hold the air, so I weighted my options. I could try and go on to Aktobe, but that was a two day trip on the same kind of roads or worse, and the rim clearly needed repairing or replacing, and that might be hard in Kazakhstan. It seemed that the best option was to head back to Russia, where I had a place to stay and access the internet to arrange for a replacement to be found. I thought about it under the sun for a good while, as that would mean that I could not go back and try this route again, since my Kazak visa only allowed one entry.

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In the end, I decided to turn back. I started making my way back slowly and carefully, and after ten minutes riding I felt that the tire was flat again. I had not panicked yet, since I had been able to inflate the tire and I thought I could make it back to Russia without much trouble, but when I got the compressor out, plugged it in, flicked the switched and realized to my horror that the thing would not start, I felt panic starting to build up. I was in the middle of nowhere, a hundred kilometers away from the closest city, and I had no way to inflate that tire again. Things were starting to get bad.

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I thought that I needed to arrange some kind of transport to get the bike to a repair shop, so I stopped a passing van to try and get some help. They were workers from an oil rig, and one of them spoke a little English. He told me that there was no recovery truck anywhere nearby, so there was nothing they could do. He then draw a rudimentary map on my notebook indicating that there was an oil rig or refinery or something like that five or six kilometers down the road and that I should try to make it there and ask for help. I got on the bike and slowly rode in first gear, trying to avoid the roughest parts of the road, but it was impossible not to hit some bad patches from time to time, event riding in first gear. Sweaty and miserable, I made it to the gates of the plant almost an hour later. I called the security guy at the door and tried to explain my problem. We spent at least half an hour with me trying to explain that I needed to get back to Astrakhan and him trying to make me understand that there was no transport to be arranged. The only thing travelling on those roads were oil tankers coming and going from the wells, and it was not possible to put the bike on one of them. Then he asked me if I had dollars, and seemed to indicate that he could fix the wheel. He made some phone calls and then gestured me to take the wheel off the bike, so I took out the tools and got down to it in the scorching heat at the entrance of the plant.

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Another guy came, apparently a mechanic who worked there, and took the wheel into the plant. He came half an hour later, with the tire inflated but some chunks of lip missing where he had tried to bang it back into shape. I checked it and it seemed to hold the air, so I put it back on the bike, paid them and got back on the road as soon as possible.

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I thought that the botch job would not hold for long, and I was already regretting having paid them when I saw a bike approaching o the road. We stopped and it turned out to be a guy called Wesley, from the UK, who was following the same route as me before I broke the rim. He complained about the state of the road (and he was riding a better bike than mine for that kind of stuff) we discovered that we both knew Stephen Stallebrass  and we exchanged details. He wished me luck and we parted ways.

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The botch job got me all the way back to Dossor, where I got some petrol and checked the pressure. I asked several people again, but I got the same answer, no recovery truck, no way to take the bike back into Russia. Seeing that the tire was holding, I decided to try and make it there myself, especially because it was getting darker and the wind was blowing very strong, there was a sandstorm forming. I zigzagged my way out of the petrol station through the queue of huge tankers that were waiting to fill up with diesel in the last town before heading into the desert and into the storm, and started making my way back. The tire held the air well all the way to Atyrau, where I stopped to check the air pressure. It was still OK, so I pushed to the border, hoping to make it to Astrakhan before nighttime.

I had avoided the sand storm in Dossor, but the sky was getting dark and there seemed to be heavy rain to my right. It was still very hot, and I did not want to waste time stopping and taking out the waterproof layer for the suit, so I decided to take the risk. About half an hour later the rain started, big drops that soaked me up quickly. Fortunately, it did not last very long, and before getting close to the border I was starting to dry up. I was starting to feel confident that I was going to make it, but then I got to the bad section before the border and hit a couple of potholes; sure enough, the tire went flat again instantly. I limped to a small group of huts by the side of the road, but they did not have a pump. Back on the road, I stopped a couple of Ukrainian tractor heads who connected a hose to the truck’s air system and pumped my tire. I made it to about 10km from the border before it went flat again, and things were getting bad. The sun had set, I was exhausted and the tire did not seem to hold for more than 10km at a time. I limped the last 10 km to the border with a flat tire, and while waiting for the passport and bike papers to be checked, talked to another truck driver who pumped my tire. I was only about 30km from my host’s apartment in Astrakhan, but the tire let go again when I arrived at the pontoon bridge on the river. Crossing it with the bike in perfect conditions was scary, doing it again with a flat tire was absolutely terrifiying. The bike slid all over the place, and more than once I was very close to losing it. Sweaty and shaking, I made it to the other side. I had only 20km to go, and I tried to stop a car to try and plug my compressor into their 12V socket, maybe it was only the socket on my bike that was not working and the compressor itself was ok, but nobody stopped. After a while I saw a petrol station and a girl who had stopped there for petrol let me try in her car. It worked, and that last charge was enough to get me to the apartment, where Lex and and Valentin were waiting for me. It was almost midnight, and never in my life had I been so happy to see somebody. They gave me some dinner, I had a quick shower and just crashed into bed.

Camels and oil wells

Day 17 – Thursday 11th of July – Astrakhan to Dossor (455km)

Martin and I set off early this time, and by 8 am we were already on the road, after having stopped to get some juice and pastries for breakfast. We rode out of the city and shortly after came to a big river crossing. I had read on the HUBB that there was no bridge and we would need to keep some rubles before crossing into Kazakhstan to pay for the ferry to cross it. It turned out that there was a bridge, it was one of these pontoon bridges floating on the river and we had to pay 50 rubles to cross it. The surface of the bridge was made of big planks of metal, bent and dented, so it was unbelievably slippery, but we made it to the other side without dropping the bike.

From there, it was a short ride to the border, which was surprisingly easy to cross. There was a queue, but we just cut to the front and the guard let us through. We cleared the Russian side without any problem, even though we had not registered with the authorities in the country, and we were not asked for the temporary import papers for the bikes that we had been given when we entered the country from Ukraine. On the Kazak side the borders were friendly and very curious about our trip, it was a shame that we could not take pictures. Using some hand sign language, they told me we could exchange money right there at the customs building, and just across the border there were lots of people also offering to exchange money and sell vehicle insurance. Since my European insurance only covered up until the European part of Russia, I got one which covered me for 20 days for about 27€.

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The road turned immediately nasty, with lots of potholes that made us ride on the footpegs and we had to be careful not to hit them, as they were deep and with rough edges. An hour or so into the country we stopped for petrol at a small village and from then on the road turned quite better, allowing us to travel at about 80km/h, but still being careful to avoid the occasional deep pothole. We were planning to make it to a town called Dossor, which was about 100km further than I had originally planned to go, but the day had been good and the road was not as bad as we had feared, so we thought we could make it. Shortly before Atyrau we stopped for petrol one last time, as that would be enough to get us there.

The landscape in Kazakhstan was quite boring, miles and miles of nothing, just desert, camels and horses and from time to time a village or oil wells.

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The road after Atyrau was surprisingly good, and we were able to ride fast all the way to Dossor. We stopped for one last time to buy some water and Martin also got a pair of sunglasses he could wear under his goggles, as it was very sunny. As we were getting ready to get back on the bikes, a Belgian guy on a weird bicycle pulled into the petrol station. He was taking part on a race that were riding solar powered bikes from France to Astana, and at that moment he was the leader.

 

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He was into the solar energy business and had designed the bike himself, the told us two of his prototypes were taking part in the race. We wished him luck and warned him about the roads, but he seemed to be confident that the bad roads would not be a problem on his bike.

We got to Dossor at about 7 in the evening, and stopped for petrol at a station at the crossroads where we would part ways the following morning, Martin going south to Uzbekistan and me north to Aktobe. We asked the guy at the petrol station where we could camp, and he told us that it would be better to do it behind the building, saying that it would not be safe to camp further outside the town.

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Putting up the tents in the wind was quite difficult, and it was unbelievably dusty. In only half an hour the tents were full of desert dust on the inside, and our stuff covered in it. I cooked some risotto on my stove and sat down against the petrol station building to eat it watching the sun set on the desert.

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