Kazakhstan - a country full of opposites




Once again we arrive at a border – it would just be nice to find it as well.

Several times we ask for the granitza to Kazakhstan and every time we get sent in a different direction. Quite obviously they had no budget for road signs.

We arrive at a floating bridge and Kev thinks it’s the border but the little hut on the side is for collecting tolls. Another two kms and we are at the border and I am really antsy because we have not properly signed up with the immigration police in Russia and fear we will get in trouble. I surmised wrong – they stamp our forms without any problems and we wait in a long line of cars and trucks and stand in the scorching heat waiting to get forwarded to Customs control. They only let two vehicles through a barrier at any one time but eventually we get there and the Russian customs quickly wave us through. Next is the Kazakh border and we have to find out which is the proper procedure here. We try to copy everybody’s behavior. The drivers have to go to the customs and show their papers there and the passengers have to go into a building and show their passports in there – then go out on the other end where they wait for the driver again.

Customs are passed quickly again and they are more interested on the technical detail of our bike then on the contents of our boxes.

After crossing the border I change some money at the roadside – which is not really the done thing but I remember vividly the time in Ukraine when we did not find a bank and do not fancy to be without currency again. I get an exchange rate of 185 tenge per € which is not really bad as I find out later ( it should be 197 tenge per €) but the street dealer has to make a living from this so I don’t feel ripped off so badly.

There are also some women at the border in the money exchange business. They look like walking mummies. Kev says that this is because they are here all day in the scorching sun - funny that the men are not as disguised  as the women - maybe the sun is not shining on them so strong?
Soon we are on the road to Atirau and it is as bad as foretold. We get into a thunderstorm and soon the many holes are full of water which makes it hard to see how deep they are. We ride a slalom course but still manage to hit some deep ones.

There are almost no road signs again and we choose our way with intuition which works mostly well but not always

The road to Atirau however is the only paved one (if you can call it that).

The land is flatter than the last German virgin. Again and again we see in the distance clusters of buildings, which turn out to be Muslim cemeteries, they are more common than villages. We are constantly being overtaken by honking cars and trucks and often someone waves at us or sticks up their thumbs.

I have just wondered why the road is marked with camels instead of numbers on the map when I find it out: our first traffic jam here is caused by a herd of camels crossing the road in front of us.

We drive until it is almost dark and set up camp behind a pile of sand just far enough from the road so we will not be hit by one of these mad drivers here who sometimes get catapulted off the road when hitting a pot hole at full speed.

The mossies have soon a field day with us so we get in the tent quickly. I am being woken up in the middle of the night because our tent is shaking – it’s a herd of cows which is moving around us but thank god we parked the bike right in front of the tent so it protects us from being trampled down by the beasts – they just pull out the ropes which is no problem.

In the morning we are attacked by a load of mossies again – they seem to be a special heat resistant variety and we quickly get the tent down and packed on the bike.

A few miles down the road we get overtaken by a truck with a wildly blowing horn. At first we wave back friendly but the driver gesticulates wildly and poits to our back.

I had been listening to some strange noises for a while and feared the shocks were on their way out so I take a look behind us to find out the straps of the tent have come undone and now the tent, fishing bag and our leathers are being dragged behind us.

The tent and it’s bag look like a Swiss cheese, my leather pants lie 30 meters behind us on the road but thanks to the Bavarian quality work its only slightly scuffed around the waist, the fishing bag is torn open but not badly damaged and the only real problem is that we have lost our tent bags – but this we only discover at night when we are actually putting up our tent.

Finally we reach Atirau - what a contrast to the villages  we passed. The city is modern and despite Mosque and Kazakh equestrian statue it has a western flair and it seems not just the city but also it’s inhabitants appear to be much wealthier than we have experienced so far.

. This applies to all Kazakh cities that we have seen in the 10 days. The difference from the rest of the country is really extreme.

We are looking for an internet cafe to be able to finally once again communicate with the rest of the world and end up in a burger bar with free wifi. We make a discovery which is proving to not  be the exception ... eat, drink and sleep away is very expensive in this country: in this case it’s 11 € for 1 cheeseburger 1 sandwich, 3 water and 2 coffees (a road worker earnes the equivalent of 300 USD per month).
After our correspondence is up to date  we want to get to the Kaspian sea - I already did not get to see to the Black Sea,so we want to spend at least one night on the beach here. As soon as we are bent over our map on the bike we are already surrounded by people who want to help but do not speak a word of English. We show the sea and Iphones and Navis are whipped out with the success that everyone points in a different direction.
One man rings his son and gets him to come because he speaks a little English but can not at the least understand why we want to go to the sea side.

. At some point, he's gives up to argue and, offers us, to lead us out of the city and bring them to the right road. The signage is non-existent here and we would not have found my way alone.
The road towards the sea is great and we quickly get to marsh land which is overgrown with tall reeds and then suddenly the road  stops and we have to use a track crossed by deep furrows. Liza is, after all off-road capable and we continue to fight on.. Kevin is so focused on finding the best line, he forgets he has a side car next and suddenly head-high reeds are looming in front of  me, I just yell Stooopp! And then the sidecar already hangs in an approx 1 meter deep moat and the bike leans over threateningly.
We are actually quite lucky as a few yards down the road there sits a man on a tower, below him vehicles are parked and there is a trailer and a ger thent. I run to the man, waving wildly and call out to him, Can You help? Making  pushing arm movements (when I'm not trying to wave off  or kill bloodsuckers).
He climbs out of his tower and looks at the matter, brings his car and thankfully we get our Liza actually pulled out of the ditch.
The man makes it clear that we do not really should be  here and there is nothing to be found  apart from brackish water and mosquitoes  ...... no bathing in the sea. Now we know why no one in town did understand that we wantedto go to the sea.
We head back and decide to stop on the other side of Atirau where according to our map are lot of fresh water lakes and this way we will be on our way towards Astana.

We find many lakes, but they are all completely dried out but since the road is well here we keep going another  100 km until we decide that we had enough  and buy 3 liters of water and a few bottles of beer -which we need today. We drive a few more miles and just as Kev says, if the road stays like this we should be in Astana, it transforms again into the familiar “holy” piste and so we decide to leave it be for now and look for good a place on the roadside, where we are somewhat protected and build the remains of our tent.
First problem we  notice is that we have lost the bag with the pegs (thank goodness our ax is still there, which we had also stored in the tent bag) The inner tent has gotten some holes - the worst battering has taken the ground sheet. The outer tent looks worse, but can possibly be patched somehow. A rod we need to straighten with force, but it does not break. The four corners we fasten down with screwdrivers, until we find something else.
Since there is hardly any water here there are at least barely any mosquitoes around.
As we enjoy our coffee in the morning and slowly get into the spirit of moving on we don’t even imagine of what awaits us. We come to Makat and suddenly there are no signs again and so we go by feel. At a junction we stop to orientate as a number of little boys come running up and  five of them climb in yelling covering every vacancy of the sidecar, so we do them a favor and take them a little way down the road. When we stop again they get off really well behaved and gratefully thank us with a handshake. Time and again we have to stop because we do not know where to go and each time someone beckons us in the right direction. And so we reach the end of the town and with it the end of the road, it is blocked by a barrier behind which are loads of diggers and other machines. All streets end in dead ends and finally an elderly man comes to us who takes a pity at our helplessness. We show him the card and he waves in the direction of the road that is blocked to indicate that  in this direction is Aktobe. With his hand he makes a moving gesture and paints a lolloping km amount on the tank, which I hope means the distance to Aktobe. Reluctantly we drive on the dirt road and after less than 1 km we stop before  a branch of the sandy tracks in all directions. Again, good advice is dire and not a soul in sight to ask. So Kev climbs up mound of stones to get a better view and finds the remains of a road - where here and there is a scrap of tar is left, but otherwise only the
grit of the grounding is left and that too is riddled with holes. We decide to hobble along here and finally arrive at something like a sign. I'll get my Russian book out and compare the painted letters with the alphabet of the textbook and we decide that one word might the place  that place is marked on our map - you have to know that the Kazakh don’t use exactly the same characters and our map shows the place names sometimes European Font and then again in Russian one. We just want to continue, as we see 2 trucks approaching. So we wave one down and he confirms our lucky guess . So we continue and suddenly both trucks turn off the road and continue on the dirt road. First, we think we are on the wrong path, but realize after a while that it’s even better to run on the dirt than on the bumpy road, so we go onto the sand as well.

The sun is extremely hot,  all traffic is flowing  around us in all directions and it is not long until we and every cranny of our vehicle are full of sand and dust. Quite often I am reminded of the Paris Dakar and Kevin has earned my eternal admiration, for he masters all situations, be it gravel track, deep holes, steep driveways or loose sand, which brings the vehicle to sway and slide.

We  have half a liter of water left which is peewarm and no idea how far we have to go to the next water hole. Afternoon about 4pm finally we come to a God-forsaken place and one of the building looks like it could host a shop or cafe. We go in and first get into a loud argument between the hostess and one guest, slamming doors and then the guest is accompanied out by several men. We are being ignored at first for a while and then we have trouble to make our wishes understood - a large bottle of water and a meal. When the son of the landlady finally confronts us with the bill: at least € 10 for a bottle of water and two minute portions of goulash with bread I am astounded and his mother sais something to him, that sounds to us as if she, too, is amazed by the amount of the bill. I pay with clenched teeth and wish for the cutthroat, that his own meals may get stuck on it’s way down  (which it does not) and we go on with our water back on track.cWe continue through dust plumes and swarms of locusts. Yes - the critters are 2 ½ inches long and have the self-preservation instinct of lemmings. You see them coming like projectiles and Splatt!! you have thick lumps of yellow mucus on the visor which you can not even wipe off, because the sun is so hot that you would end up with the whole visor full of dry yellow mucus. In the evening we ask a few truckers how long the dirt road will still  be and get the positive response: 45 Km. This is sweet sound to our ears and really the road passable again after an hour. We come to a fork in the track and there is a beautiful new tarmac road – but unfortunately it goes in the wrong direction. With a longing look up that beautiful road we turn on our route and after a short time of broken up tarmac we are back on the sand pistes. We set up camp for the and are absolutely done in as we hit the sack.

The next day brings more of the same and Kevin turns out to be the champion of the sandy pistes. It is evening when we reach a town which is quite bleak. We ask at the gas station, where we are and get Aktobe as a response. Now this is exactly the place we wanted and we are glad to be here – we still need to register with the immigration office and get a stamp. So we ask our way to the police office using hand and foot and when we finally get there we have to find out that we are not in Aktöbe yet and will have to get there – another 45 km down the road.

We get back on the bike and it is already very late when we arrive and Aktobe turns out to be huge (and also without traffic signs) We make our way to the center and are at a bit of a loss now. We find an ultr modern shopping center and decide that inside there might be fee wifi where I can ask Mr Google where we can sleep here – but I have no luck and instead I find a nice man who speaks pretty good English. He accompanies me to Kevin, who has stayed with our Lizzie and, as usual is surrounded by admirers for our vehicle. Among them are local motorcyclists and together with Dimitri as a translator it is clarified that the bikers take us to a hotel and then pick us up again in the morning when they take us to  the immigration office.

At the hotel we meet Adelbert, a 73-year old guy from Munich, who is traveling alone on his GS and has been stuck here for a week because he has a flat tire and in this country can not get a suitable tube or tire. He needs help from ADAC and is also pleased to be able to speak German again. We park our loyal Liza, taking only the essentials with us and look forward to a shower, a beer and natter with Adelbert and access to the Internet -  in exactly this order.
Although the hotel is one of the cheapest in town it is still well above our budget (45$ for a night) - even in Kiev, we only had to pay half as much - We come to the conclusion that Kazakhstan is rather expensive.

After breakfast the next morning and another chat with Adelbert, who proves to be a true world traveler and narrator of interesting travel stories our escort to the migration office arrives on a Repsol Honda. Timyr and Vlad help us with the officials and then even escort us out of the city and onto the road to Astana.

From Aktobe  to Astana it is  about 1421 km- so again we have to drive quite some kilometres - so here we go. It is not very warm and it's raining again. Also everywhere  is flat, but up here in the north of the country is green, humid and we have our loved ones back - the mosquitoes. In the evening we build our tent not far from the road behind some bushes. The next morning when we have our breakfast we get a visit by a police patrol. We make it clear to them that we only slept there and will be off in a few minutes again. So they only have a look at our moped and then leave again.

Half an hour later we have stowed everything and continue our journey when the police patrol car comes towards us on the other side of the road again. They turn on the speakers and greet us with: "Good day bye bye"


The weather is pretty lousy and cold -  again. We eventually come to a village full of mud holes and decide to take a break to buy some bread and other foods and to refuel. Although it is difficult here to find a store we manage the part of purchasing - the refueling does not work - there are 2 gas stations and both are out of service. We meet some guys from Munich on 2 big BMWs and chat a while with them - they let us know that we can look forward to an area full of our beloved locusts  waiting to throw themselves at us on the next stretch and the nearest gas station is 125 km away - both true! The bastards bullet at us in clouds and in a short time, we and our outfit are covered with yellow lumps of their corpses. The next 2 days there is not much to report In the evenings we find more or less nice corners for the tent, and at the 22nd  we finally come to the famous capital of Kazakhstan.

It's quite a culture shock. We have already learned that the difference between big city and all other parts of the country is striking, but here opens up a new class again. Astana is a completely planned prestige object with which a president has built himself a monument.

The former capital was Almaty (some know it as Alma-Ata) – this president was apparently not liked there so he decided to just  build himself a new capital which then received a very original name: capital (that is what the Kazakh word astana translates as).
Astana is as big as expected. The street names we can not read, but our directions for finding the hostel are good and after we have stopped two people we find one that is willing to drive in front and take us there and in next to no time we arehave found it..
There are single sex rooms, but a shower, washing machine and internet - what a luxury.
In the girls room I meet Sadaf, a young American from New York traveling on her own.

We both have a shower and and feel like a new person afterwards.

Then I set off to find a supermarket - we need a few cigarettes, a beer (or two) and something to eat. But somehow I can’t make out where I can buy something. So I wander about for quite a while until I get past a bank, so I decide spontaneously to try to exchange money.
It is not quite so simple. A customer of the bank speaks some English and shows me how I should proceed.: First one gets at a ticket with a number out of a machine (you have to type in what you want to do at the bank, then you get a number). Then you sit on a chair and wait until your number appears on a panel (the chairs are set out in four rows and your positioned in front of that screen  as if you’re in the movies). When it’s finally your turn you go to the specified counter and say what you want. In my case, of course one does not understand me, so I just get the euro notes out and wave them about,  repeatedly shouting: "change, change!"   The woman at the counter shrugs and points to the next counter- where, of course, someone is just being served. So I sit back and wait. Finally it’s my turn and I give 200 ,- €  in small notes over, and make it clear again, that I want the money changed. All the different notes are being counted three times by a machine – the whole thing has taken 45 mins but then I’ve got it!!

Now it’s time to find a supermarket and after another in the end successful search someone trys to tell me that I can’t walk in with my handbag and should leave it in a locker. I pretend not to understand and finally get waved in with a shrug.

Now I have the next problem - what's what? I'm buying shrimps, mussels, tomato sauce, milk, bread and cheese, beer, cigarettes and a bottle of J & B because I want to cook something nice and have a little birthday celebration at least.
When I get back to the hostel almost 2 hours have passed and everyone has been worried.
In the evening Chris arrives in the hostel, a native Canadian who lives and works in Beijing and has traveling as a hobby. He also has lots of interesting anecdotes to tell and we 4 foreigners decide to explore the city together on the next day. Kev and I greatly benefit from the local knowledge and the language skills of the other two.
We take the bus to the city center and find it just amazing. Sometimes it seems as if the city planners had only one projective : Every building has to be ultramodern and unusual and this is what they did.

We are really impressed - Astana actually accomplished what it was built for.
We are constantly being addressed in English and welcomed to the country. Everyone seems to be happy to meet real tourists.


The next morning we have to continue our journey. There are still about 500 km to cover before we can enter back to Russia and we have to do this with quite quickly, our 30 days Russia visa are already half expired, we do not have enough time for the Altai Mountains, but at least lake Baikal we want see.
Kazakhstan was an interesting experience and we enjoyed our time in the desert and semi-desert. Driving in this environment has demanded a lot from both of us  but it was also very satisfying to have passed this test.
But the best were the smells in the desert - all is full of juniper, which is only the dwarf variety but covers the ground like a carpet and every step or even turning over night in the tent brings the fragrance of juniper.
The people are poor in most areas (despite oil and gas wealth but this  flows mostly into the capital and big cities) but extremely friendly, everywhere they blew theyr horns at us and waved, often someone has spontaneously offered to show us the way, or drove  in front of us because there were no signs. Those who could not speak with us, tried to find someone who could.

What surprised us most in this country was how expensive everything is in comparison and I wonder how the majority of the people survive. But then again we see the ingenuity of people. They save fuel by towing each other - once we even saw a threesome - a truck pulling a van pulling a passenger car ......
Maybe we'll eventually come back to the few mountains there are to see ….