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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.