Category Archives: Russia

Omsk to Lake Burabay 18 – 26 August 2012

Da Svedanya Russia!  After seven wonderful weeks it was time to say goodbye to Russia.  We left Tanya’s house laden with fruit and veg from her garden, and our trailer was so packed with tins of meat and condensed milk we could hardly close it.  Although we were vaguely familiar with condensed milk in the UK, it was never a product we used at home.  Russia, however, has totally changed our attitude to this little tin of sticky, sweet, milky joy.  Spread on bread, dunked with biscuits or slices of apple, drizzled onto cake, stirred into coffee or tea, or licked greedily from a spoon; it’s the ultimate panacea to a long day on the bike.  Initially introduced to it by Ilya, our couchsurfing host in Perm, we at first vetoed it as a pannier addition as we didn’t think we could use a whole tin in one sitting and the messy transportation of a half-eaten open tin didn’t bear consideration….but happily we’ve found we can gobble a whole tin quite easily for our dessert of an evening so it’s now a trailer staple.

From this….

Another Russian favourite introduced to us by Marina is knotted cheese.  Smoked and salted it comes packaged in a tidy knot, which you unravel into strings and eat accompanied by cold beer.  Mmm, we’re going to miss it!

Keith was particularly sad about leaving Russia as he’s worked really hard at the language, expanding his vocabulary every day, and has enjoyed being able to hold something approximating a short conversation with people we meet (provided they want to hear about our journey, don’t speak too quickly, and phrase their questions in ways we’re familiar with).  Thankfully though, we’ve found that although Kazakh is the official language of Kazakhstan, Russian is still widely spoken so Keith can continue his linguistic adventure.

….to this.

Entering Kazakhstan

Keith’s language skills came in handy at the border.  Our research on visa registration in Kazakhstan suggested that at some border points they will register your visa automatically so you don’t need to worry about doing it whilst in the country, but at other crossings they don’t and you then have just five calendar days in which to register – usually in Astana or Almaty.   Our crossing point was one which doesn’t register you, so Keith asked the border guard where we could go, as to get to Astana in five days was going to be tough going.  We were told we could register in Petropavlovsk, 150km west of the border crossing, so off we went.  Two windy days later we rolled into Petropavlovsk and started asking policemen where the visa registration office was.  We ended up outside an official looking building and saw two uniformed men coming across the street towards the building, so we waylaid them and asked if we were at the right place.  They confirmed that they were migration police (written on their shiny badges) and asked to see our passports.  We were feeling quite pleased as we’d only been in Petropavlovsk for about 20 minutes and I’d had visions of it taking hours simply to find the right building, but our good mood was soon spoiled when they announced that we couldn’t register in Petropavlovsk after all and would have to go to Kokshetau, 200km (two days ride) to the south.  They helpfully pointed us to the road out of town and watched us pedal off glumly.

Out of sight we stopped for a re-think, and decided to find a supermarket, have some lunch, and then try again (hoping not to meet the two we spoke to earlier).  We lunched on a bench near the migration police building and noticed there was a side door that a lot of people were going in and out of, so Keith tried there.  Inside was a dark corridor full of numbered doors and a queue of people outside one of the doors at the far end.  At first there were no officials in sight, but in due course a uniformed man appeared and sat at a desk part way along the corridor.  Keith explained our situation, but the man couldn’t help, and eventually a more senior man appeared, talked to the first guy for a bit, and then told Keith to wait whilst he went off upstairs.  The first guy started asking about the bike, so Keith brought him outside to where I was waiting with the Pino so that he could admire it.  Another policeman was coming into the building at that point and also stopped to look at the bike.  He spoke a little English (about the same as Keith’s Russian) so Keith asked him if we could register our visas.  “Yes, no problem” he said.  So we locked the bike and followed him indoors.  He took us to a counter with a window and his colleague inside took our passports and migration cards, and after some scrutiny told us we couldn’t register after all, and would have to go to Astana (nearly 500km away!) or maybe Kokshetau.  As the guy who spoke English had seemed friendly we prevailed upon him to explain to us why this was as we had already spent two days detouring to Petropavlovsk and to now travel somewhere else was going to make it very tight to register in the five days allowed.  He ended up phoning a friend of his who spoke English and Keith then spent several minutes explaining why we didn’t have an address in Petropavlovsk, (we were planning on leaving as soon as we’d sorted out registration and would then be camping on our way to Astana) and just how difficult it would be for us to get to Astana in three days.  Eventually they decided they could register us for five days in Petropavlovsk, thus giving us a little extra time to get to Astana.  This was looking a bit better for us, but was still not ideal as we’d wanted to detour to the picturesque Lake Burabay on our way to Astana.  And then after a little more probing, they asked if it would be helpful to us is they registered us for ten days.  Excellent!  We said thank you very much, paid 500 Tenge (about two quid) to a lady in one of the rooms along the corridor to fill out the correct forms for us, and another 10,000 Tenge (£45ish) back at the first counter for our actual visa registration.  We’ll need to register again before the ten days are up, but should easily be in Astana or Almaty by then, where we hopefully won’t get sent on wild goose-chases to other cities.  Whilst waiting for all the form-filling to occur, the official who’d been friendly had waited with us and we’d asked him as best we could about whether people prefer to speak Russian or Kazakh, and before we left Keith asked him to write down a few Kazakh phrases for us.  But to be honest, we’re hoping we’ll keep on meeting Russian speakers.

Registration complete we headed south out of Petropavlovsk and within a couple of kilometres saw some traffic police in their roadside kiosk.  Last year in Russia, the DPS (traffic cops) stopped us three times in the three weeks we were there.  This year we’ve done seven whole weeks without being stopped once (although one policeman did come over to say hello and take a photo of us whilst we were at a supermarket) and to be honest we were a little disappointed.  But the Kazakh police haven’t let us down.  We had to show our passports and freshly stamped migration cards and answer a load of questions about where we were from, where we were going, where we slept at night, what we ate, and then asked us if they could take a photo of the bike.

The roads in Kazakhstan aren’t as busy as in Russia, but it’s still nicest to avoid main roads with fewer large lorries, as the roads really aren’t wide enough for us and them, and the tarmac usually suffers under the wheels of HGVs and is not a pleasant experience for our poor Pino.  As soon as we could, we detoured off the main Petropavlovsk to Astana road and enjoyed some surprisingly good tarmac with hardly any traffic.  In fact the only dampener on a really nice day was the wind.  Kazakhstan is predominantly flat, arid and grassy.  Our days are dominated by vast skies, distant horizons and an ever-present wind.  If the wind is on your back it’s an absolute pleasure and we’ve had some great days rolling along at an easy 25+kph.  But sometimes the wind turns to greet you in its dusty embrace and things are not so easy.  If the wind is not too strong it is simply a minor irritation, like trying to escape the persistent caress of an elderly auntie and your speed drops to 17kph.  At other times it becomes the playground bully, pushing and shoving and hissing loudly in your ear and you drop to 14-15kph.  And sometimes it hurls itself unfettered across the grassy expanse of steppe and body-slams you like an unruly but affectionate Great Dane.  The days feel very long when you’re struggling to maintain 12kph.  All we need to do to cheer ourselves though is to remember we’re pedalling through Central Asia: how cool is that?

You’ll have to imagine the headwind for yourselves

The sense of isolation in this huge and sparsely populated country has made us feel like we’re being properly adventurous.  We camped one night sheltered in the middle of an unusual ring of raised ground in the otherwise flat terrain, and at least 20km from tarmac in any direction.

At least 15km from the nearest tarmac in any direction.

Unsurprisingly, the tarmac has been of varying quality on the minor roads.  In happy contrast to Ukrainian and Russian roads though, in Kazakhstan there has invariably been a choice of dirt roads immediately beside the knackered tarmac, and we’ve found the compacted dirt far smoother to pedal on than the rubble and broken tarmac that’s passed for the road in places.  We’ve so far spent around 60km on the dirt trails that criss-cross the steppe alongside the designated roads.

Navigationally it can be a bit worrying and you have to keep a constant check on any divergence from your intended course in the flat and often featureless surroundings, but we’ve been lucky in that the two main dirt stretches that we’ve done to date have been firstly alongside a railway line, with the overhead cables clearly visible to indicate our direction of travel, and secondly, heading towards what appear to be the only mountains in Northern Kazakhstan.

Head for the hills

Rising incongruously from the steppe about 200km north of Astana is a series of jagged peaks that are a popular holiday resort and tourist attraction.  Lake Burabay is the most spectacular of the several lakes contained within the rocky walls and is famous for its gnarled stone pillars and outcrops.  The bulbous, weather- worn formations look a bit like the gritstone towers of Derbyshire’s Peak District, but the scale, location and surrounding foliage are a world away.

Lake Burabay

There’s a camping area on a rocky isthmus extending into Lake Bolshoe Chebachye (adjacent to Lake Burabay) and we’ve spent a couple of nights here to rest our legs, address some creaks and groans from the Pino, do some laundry and improve our personal hygiene as, to be quite frank, we didn’t smell too pleasant upon arrival.  The only facilities at the campsite are two pit toilets, but the lake is clean and despite the chill breeze blowing when we arrived it was a relief to slip into the cool water and scrub away the stench of six days.

Homage to Tanya (whose house we stayed in in Omsk and who showed us photos of her own holiday at Burabay)

Keith wants to drive a combine harvester when he grows up (judging from the number of photos he’s taken of them!)

Camping by a lake on our way from Omsk to the Kazakh border

We stopped to use the loo at a garage and were invited in for tea and biscuits by the nice men working there

Horseback sherpherd in Kazakhstan

Crisscrossing the Kazakh steppe the little Uaz van seemed to know where it was heading

The loneliest bus stop

Yekaterinburg to Omsk 12 – 17 August 2012

Another train ride, a trip to the circus, some wonderful Siberian hosts and applications for Kazakh visas.

Once again, we have let the train cover some kilometres for us and 10+ days worth of pedalling disappeared in a 12 hour overnight train ride from Yekaterinburg to Omsk.

Oh it sounds so simple doesn’t it?  We had cleverly (or so we thought) booked our tickets in advance online whilst in Perm, but when we got to Yekaterinburg there was an email waiting for us saying the transaction had not been processed as there wasn’t enough space on the train, so the first thing we did the next morning was to hot-foot it to the train station to see what our options were.  We started at the information desk and had a pretty good conversation (in Russian) to establish that there was a train slightly later in the day than the one we’d initially tried to book on.  So far so good.  The helpful lady wrote the train number and time down on a piece of paper and we headed to the ticket desks.  Keith went down the lines looking for the youngest ticket-seller on the assumption that a younger person might speak some English.  No such luck. And not only did we get someone who spoke no English, we got someone who had clearly not been employed for her people skills.  She refused to make eye contact, ignored our questions (apart from the one about the bike which resulted in a definitely negative response), barked demands at us and basically did nothing to hide her disgust at having had the misfortune to have such pig-stupid foreigners at the front of her queue.   As a result, despite having clearly asked for a ticket for ZAVTRA (tomorrow) we ended up with two tickets for CEVODNIA (today).  We discovered this just a minute or two after leaving her charming presence and had to go back and queue again and then get the ticket changed – you can imagine how delighted she was about that, especially when it took us quite a lot of gesticulating and dictionary-flicking to satisfy ourselves that the first tickets were being refunded onto our credit card and we were not being charged twice.  At last it was all over and we had our tickets in our sticky mitts, although not one for the tandem as we’d had on our Nizhny-Kazan train.

Our couchsurfing hosts in Yekaterinburg had left to visit friends in the country by the time we got back to their home so we spent the day doing some washing and catching up with things on the internet.  After five fairly hard days riding it was nice to relax and go nowhere for a day.

The next day we decided to do something touristy….but what?  On our travels through Russia, one thing that’s struck us has been that every city has a permanent circus venue.  Other artists may use the stage from time to time, but the circus is the predominant show.  We couldn’t think of a single similar venue in the UK.  To our mind a circus is a travelling affair that is housed in a big top or occasionally in a concert hall like the Albert Hall.  But in Russia, it seems a matter of civic pride for a city to have a dedicated circus venue.  And so, to the circus we went.

Yekaterinburg Circus Tigers

Even parrots can pedal!

Admittedly, apart from a couple of trips to Cirque du Soleil, neither of us have been to a circus in years, so perhaps we’re not really best placed to compare Russian with UK acts, but there definitely seemed to be more animal acts in the Russian circus.  We have mixed feelings about these.  The animals looked to be in excellent health, and some of them seemed quite content to be performing, but others….I don’t know….it just felt wrong.  There were horseback acts (mostly very good), dancing dogs (so bad it was ridiculous), cats that span fiery poles with their feet whilst strapped onto their backs, and hitched their way along between two poles, rumps dangling and poles under their armpits, (wrong, wrong, wrong), bicycling parrots (pretty cool) and thirteen tigers which were poked and prodded into jumping through a fiery hoop by the same man who’d conducted the appallingly bad dog act.  We were willing the tigers to have their revenge on him.

Don’t try this at home kids

The human acts, on the other hand, were without exception excellent: jugglers, clowns, acrobats, trampolinists and dancers with a variety of acts that inspired, amused, terrified and entertained.

After the show, we treated ourselves to a meal out  and then pedalled round Yekaterinburg, which had a relatively clean and tidy feel to it (for Russia that is).  Then it was back to our hosts’ apartment to pick up our luggage and head to the train station.

Keyboard Monument in Yekaterinburg

After the rush to get the Pino packaged and onto the train back in Nizhny we made sure we arrived at Yekaterinburg station in good time: two hours ahead of departure.  Our train was a through train, travelling from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk – a journey of over 4200kms – and we would be hopping on board for only 1000kms of its journey.  It would stop in Yekaterinburg, but we couldn’t tell where as unfortunately the platform number was not being displayed and no-one could tell us which platform it might go from as, unlike at Nizhny, the trains at Yekaterinburg did not have regular platforms.  We dismantled as much of the bike as we could (brakes, pedals, handles from the front seat) but needed to keep it mostly intact so that when the call came we’d be able to push it to the appointed platform.

The train was due to arrive 29 minutes ahead of its departure time so although it would be tight we should still just have time to get to the platform, split the bike, dismantle the trailer, and wrap everything in ‘plonka-stretch’.  But to tighten timings further, the only way to the platforms was along an underpass and up some steps….not ideal.

Keith went exploring and at the very far end of the very long platforms, discovered some level crossings, separated from the main street by a gate that was chained shut, but the padlock through the chains was not fully closed.  He went to the nearby guardhouse, explained about our bike and asked if the gate could be opened.  Once the guard realised Keith knew that the padlock was not actually locked he gave in and said it’d be OK to push through, so we did, and I then returned to the station to await information about our train.

With about 40 minutes to go there was an announcement.  Our train was delayed and would not arrive until about 12 minutes before it was due to depart.  Noooooo!

With 14 minutes to go until departure time, the platform number for our train finally flickered up on the information board and I sprang into life to sprint up the steps and all the way back along the platform to gasp ‘platform two’ at Keith….at which point we realised that platform number two was the only one of the seven platforms that was inaccessible from the level crossings.  Things were not going to plan at all.

We had to haul the bike down the tracks and over some points, and had just got it up onto the platform when the train arrived, along the tracks we’d just been walking on.  Of course, our carriage was then down at the far end of the platform so we had to hurry along as best we could, with Keith weaving the Pino between the throng of other passengers all trying to find their own carriages, until finally we were in the right place and could start dismantling and wrapping the bike.  There was no way we were going to get it all done before the train left, so with seconds to spare we chucked everything through the doorway in a semi-wrapped state and hopped on board.  Thankfully our carriage attendant was really friendly and quite happy for us to do this.  We finished wrapping everything and then went down to claim our bunks….which turned out to be ones against the long side of the carriage, which are the ones with the least storage space.  We couldn’t even fit the trailer on the shelf above the top bunk, let alone the bike.

Our friendly fellow passengers came to our rescue though and those travelling with less luggage quickly offered their shelves for our use so in the end our kit was spread around three other shelves as well as our own, and at last we could relax.

Trust us, travelling by train is not the easy option.

We arrived in Omsk the next morning and, with a 40 minute stop on the platform, unloading our belongings was a much less fraught affair, especially as our couchsurfing host, Marina, met us on the platform and immediately set to work guarding our belongs as we jogged up and down the carriage fetching our many and varied packages.  We had unloaded and got the bike unwrapped and reassembled by the time the train continued on its way to Krasnoyarsk, more than a thousand kilometres further east .  Russia is so mind-bogglingly vast: even our own modest train ride had taken us into in another time zone from the one we’d left in Yekaterinburg and we had to move our watches on an hour.

Marina had bought us some maps of Omsk, and explained that her apartment was too small for our bike, but that her friend Tanya had kindly said we could stay at her house, a few kilometres north of the city.  Marina hopped in a taxi and we pedalled, and met her an hour later in the rural little village of Pushkina.  She prepared us a delicious lunch of potatoes and salad (fresh from Tanya’s garden) and we spent the afternoon chatting and filling in our Kazakhstan visa application forms.

Siberia (where Omsk is) has proved to be surprisingly warm and we sat out in the garden until late into the evening waiting for Tanya to get home from work.  Unfortunately we had arrived during a busy period so she did not get home until long after 10pm, and would be leaving the house early the following day too, but she still found the energy to sit up with us and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

The next day, we were all up early (although not as early as Tanya who was long-gone) and Marina caught the bus with us up into Omsk and accompanied us to the Kazakh consulate….for which we will be eternally grateful to her.  We had a number of questions we needed to ask before we could complete the forms, as things like a temporary address in Kazakhstan are not easy to provide if you’re an itinerant cyclist.  Luckily, the man at the consulate said we should just put down the name and address of any hotel and that we didn’t even need to have a booking confirmation, so that was a relief.  However, he wasn’t so happy that we only had a Moscow-registered Russian mobile phone number so Marina gave him her number as our contact number in Omsk.

Keith and Marina looking lovely in Omsk

We then went on a guided tour of Omsk with Marina showing us the sights and sounds and selecting, for our lunch, the most perfect little eatery.  We were in the local administrative district, and a door into one of the buildings had the sign ‘cafe’ on it.  Upon entering, we found a plain but tidy little room of tables with a screened off area at the far end.  Marina led us down to the screen and behind it was a small canteen.  We grabbed our trays and ordered soup, meat, vegetables, salads and a drink, and to our astonishment, our three meals (OK, Marina wasn’t as greedy as us and just had salad, but even so…) came to just 300 roubles, about £6, ie the kind of price we’d struggle to find just one person’s meal for at any of the other cafes we’ve been in.

The reason for the excellent price was the location.  Ministers and government officials enjoy cheap meals.  So now you know, if you’re in a Russian city and want a cheap lunch, keep your eyes peeled for cafe signs in the government areas.

Feasting with Tanya and Marina

That evening, Tanya was able to escape from work a little earlier and we had a sumptuous feast out in the back garden of pasta, vegetables, salads and shashlik, followed for dessert by Keith’s summer pudding.  We’ve enjoyed every minute of our time with Marina and Tanya, and enjoyed some really interesting conversations with them about all manner of things, particularly their first-hand recollections of life in Soviet times which we found fascinating.

Sharing the Pino experience

Our visas would take a few days to process so we headed off the next day and Marina said she’d call us when the visas were ready.  We’d read about a monastery 55km from Omsk in the village of Achair, on the Irtysh river, and so we headed in that direction.  On the way we stopped to buy some wine and a few extra provisions, and whilst Keith was shopping I was befriended by local inebriates, Tatiana and Olga, who insisted on generously sharing what remained of their morning vodka with me.  Olga then went into the shop and dragged Keith out to ply him with vodka too.  To facilitate a friendly exit from the slightly surreal and increasingly nerve-jangling circumstances Keith gave Tatiana a spin on the Pino by way of a thank-you, and we were able to get on our way with smiles all round.  It’s always hard to know how situations will pan out when people have a morning’s worth of vodka in them, but thankfully Olga and Tatiana were decent enough behind their raucous demeanours.

We found a lovely spot to camp on the banks of the Irtysh about 10km before Achair, sharing it from time to time with some fishermen, who paid no mind to us, and we liked the site so much we stayed there for the whole of the next day, just relaxing, reading, labelling photos, writing the blog and tweaking a few bits and pieces on the Pino.

Marina texted to say our visas were ready and we arranged to go back to Omsk to collect them the next day (Friday) and to spend one last evening with her at Tanya’s before setting to the Kazakh border.

On the Friday morning (today) we rose early to take a quick spin up to the Achair Monastery that was mentioned in our guide book.  To be honest it was only really worth the trip to meet the little old nun who looked after the Pino for us (by hiding it under some rugs and an old coat) and who gave us some bread and cakes as we left.  We then put a bit of a spurt on and covered the 53km into Omsk in 2hrs20 to get our visas.  The Kazakh consulate is open 9.30-12.30 and 16.00 -17.00 Mon, Tue, Thu and Fri.  We arrived at 11.30 and handed our passports over.  We were then given two forms and directions to the bank where we were to pay our $40 each for our visas.  Off we trotted.  In the bank, the first person we saw asked us things we didn’t understand and then moved us over another desk to be dealt with by of her colleagues, who didn’t ask us anything, but spent a lot of time entering our details into her computer and preparing a further 6 forms.  We then had to take these to another desk and hand over our money, and then return to the first desk to get yet more forms which took back to the Kazakh consulate.  We were back at the consulate by midday, but there was no-one at the counter.  At 12.25 the man finally appeared, took our forms, handed part of them back to us and told us to return at 4pm for our visas.

So…we’re not quite there yet, but are feeling quietly confident that we’ll soon be on the road to Astana.

Update:  We’ve got our Kazakhstan visas.  Happy faces all round!