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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.