After crossing Mongolia where both the Bike and I took a slight hammering it was time to rest for a few days until my Russian Transit Visa kicks in. This is the Visa I had to organise back in Ulaanbaatar so I could travel through the Altai Region of Russian to get into Kazakhstan and it only gives me 5 days, this should be plenty providing nothing goes wrong.
Spending 3 days in Ulgii was just about enough the food is good once you know where to look but you quickly run out of things to do. Every town needs a square…
Every day in the mid thirties and a few Thunder Storms made it interesting.
First Curtain Walled Building I’ve seen other than in the Capital Ulaabaatar, watch out Mongolia progress is coming…..
Getting some paperwork done, when the Internet cooperated…..
Saturday morning came and I was on the road early hoping to get to the Russian Border before it opened at 9 a.m. Goodbye Ulgii its been a pleasure….
A little bit or gravel for the morning commute.
And this all the way to the Mongolian side of the Border Crossing, Mongolia has to get its last bit from you.
I arrived at the Border a little late and there were already quite a few cars and trucks lined up. I was approached by two guys asking for a ‘Road Tax’ payment, no uniforms or anything but this is how its done in Mongolia, 6000 Tugrik, a little over $3.00 AUD, hopefully this goes to fixing some of the roads, if they fix them all Mongolia won’t be the same. These guys gave me a receipt so I guess its not a scam and they changed my remaining Tugrik to Roubles so I had some money when I arrived in Russia, they told me to go to the front of the line….so I did and around 45 minutes later I was riding through no mans land towards Russia. That was easy and no searches this time.
When I arrived at the Russian gate it was closed and the same cars and trucks were lined up waiting. The Russians don’t like to be rushed so they will only let a few vehicles through at a time, while you wait you sit in the baking sun. Eventually I got through the gate and after relatively quick process presenting my passport I had to sort out the Temporary Import of the bike. This is where the whole process ground to a halt, also coming through the Border were a large number of Kazak’s all in mini buses loaded with families and goods from Mongolia and they all needed searches and vehicle imports. The Russians had one guy in a small office handling all of the import applications, he typed with one finger and was tediously slow and to add to that the Kazak’s like the Mongolians seem to have no concept of a queue so its pretty much a free for all, so when in Rome…. this process alone took over 3 and a half hours which made this a 5 hour Border Crossing, I’ve just about used up the first day of my 5 day Transit Visa sitting at this Border.
Late in the afternoon I was finally let into Russia…where they have roads…
And the scenery all through the Altai Valley was stunning.
It had been very humid all day and finally the Thunder Storms came, it was that hot five minutes after the rain had stopped I was dry again, until the next storm.
The cows here have a serious attitude problem, in Mongolia they are herded by Motorcycle so they normally run away but here they just stand in the middle of the road and make you go around them.
I found a quite little place to camp beside a River, it had been a long day and it was hot again so it was an early night.
Now this is a Bridge.
The Altai Region doesn’t mess around and does Rivers properly….
Being a Sunday and the start of Summer this entire area was packed with holiday makers and tourists making it very slow going through the traffic.
But for every negative there is always a couple of positives……
The main Highway leads to Barnaul and then you need to come back south towards the Kazak Border so I turned off the highway and found what I thought was a short cut….had I mistakenly crossed back into Mongolia?
No they have proper Bridges here…..
On second thoughts…..this is one of the main streets of Rubtsovsk, the last Russian town before Kazakhstan and it is like a Motocross Track.
Another impressive Russian River.
My last camp in Russia, a lot of bugs at this one so another early night, I didn’t fancy swapping my blood for Malaria on my last night in Russia.
When I arrived at the Russian / Kazak Border there was no one else there, after a few minutes the Russians let me in and after a 10 minute Passport check, a cursory glance in my Tank Bag and a joke about smuggling a semi Automatic Glock (from the Russian Guard, I wouldn’t dare joke at any Border for fear of being locked up) I was through and on the way to meet the Kazaks. Again a very quick Passport check where the single Official had to check with his boss if Australians needed a Visa, to his credit it did only start earlier this year. Then a Guard who only wanted to know where I was from and where I was going rushed me through the gate with a massive smile and no search whatsoever. So far the quickest Border crossing at around 45 minutes.
I was now in Borat country. (Looking back at the Border Post).
I rode a few metres down the road and woke this guy up to get my compulsory Third Party Insurance.
First impressions of Kazakhstan is that it was flat, hot and humid but the roads were Ok.
Out of the main towns I noticed these Cemeteries where the Graves or ‘Tombs’ are like small Mansions, this puts the Italians to shame.
The road was excellent all the way out of Semipalatinsk, this area reminded me a lot of Central Australia, flat and dry with reasonable roads, it should be easy to make the Kilometres up.
I stopped for a delicious chicken lunch at a Café on the Highway and luckily the nice lady took Russian Roubles because I hadn’t been able to find an ATM anywhere. Then further down the Highway this guy pulled me over and offered me some Soup, so far the people in the North of Kazakhstan have been very friendly and always wave or sound their horns when you go past.
After the Town of Qalbatau my love affair with the roads was seriously over.
This is the main Highway between the north and south of the country and its like this if not worse for hundreds of Kilometres.
To make things worse the oncoming traffic would nearly always be on your side of the road, I guess they are trying to dodge the pot holes too but when they see you are just a Motorcycle they just stay on your side of the road, In the end I got sick of it so I would drive straight towards them until they moved over, yelling at a few in the process.
It was now getting late, it was still over 30 degrees and I was totally fed up with the roads and the drivers so I decided to find a Campsite for the night.
There were no trees in this area of Northern Kazakhstan but I found this place and set up camp. It was still hot and humid and without shade the tent heated up quickly and was like a sauna. The other problem is the area was full of insects, Horse Flies, regular Flies, Mosquitos and small swarming insects like midges that bite like hell. After sweating it out in the tent for a little while I braved the insects with a thorough coating of Aerogard (Insect Repellent) and a t shirt to wave them off, this worked for a while but at this stage I wasn’t enjoying my first taste of Kazakhstan.
The next morning I was awake at 5 a.m. when the hot sun came up and blasted its way through the Tent. The insects were either back or they never left so I got mostly dressed inside the Tent, packed up in record time and rode away leaving the blood sucking freaks behind.
Then it was back to the crappy roads which in a lot of ways were worse than Mongolia or Russia at least in Mongolia you don’t expect good roads as they are mostly Gravel and in Russia you get a break from the bad roads with good roads, here it was constant and if you missed a Pot Hole you could easily end up with a buckled rim or worse losing control of the Motorcycle.
Not sure this shack was built in the correct location……
After a morning of hell trying to deal with the shocking roads I came across this at Taldykorgan where the roads and Landscaping were immaculate, I think it has something to do with the signs advertising Expo 2017 in Kazakhstan, no doubt some events will take place in this town so they have tidied it up abit, its a shame they couldn’t spare some for the northern part of the Highway.
Then further south a four lane Freeway…
At first I thought the mountains in the back ground were clouds, this is the Mountain Range which Separates Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, I was getting closer to Almaty which would be my home for around 8 days.
I had ridden over 850 Kilometres and I wasn’t in a good mood, my GPS didn’t have Kazakhstan Maps (mainly because I didn’t have Internet to download them) so I was flying blind. The traffic was horrendous and the drivers were the worst I had come across so far on the whole trip, aggressive, fast but with bad skills and then it started to rain again. Because it was so hot and humid and the traffic wasn’t moving the overheating warning light came on on the bike so I borrowed the footpath next to a Bus Stop to let the bike cool down and figure out how to get to the Hostel I had booked.
I eventually found the Hostel Nomad which I had booked but I was 2 days early, no problem they had a bunk in a dorm for the extra 2 days, the remaining days I would have a single room which I got for a bargain.
Well I think I initially gave Almaty and Kazakhstan the thumbs down mainly because of the condition of the roads and the fact I was very tired when I arrived and I was covered in Insect bites from my one night camping. Now I’ve had time to rest and get out and see the City it is actually a very nice place to be. I even managed to shave and get a great haircut at a local Barber Shop after bumming around Mongolia for a month, although I can’t remember when…actually if I’ve ever had a side part but I might keep it…..
I’ve also had the bike serviced at the local BMW Dealer, They don’t get many bikes here and I was a little worried when they asked me what they needed to do for the 20,000 Kilometre Service, luckily I had it written out for them. The Customer Service was excellent and they ‘assigned’ an English speaking girl to look after me, she arranged everything including a free Cappuccino and a Taxi back to the Hostel. In the end they did a great job and the cost was around the same as what I would have paid in Australia, just like most things here they are around the same so not really cheap. They even gave it a free wash and turned it into a Scrambler…….
Ok this is my Bike…..
Almaty has a little of a Melbourne feel to it with its leafy Streets, Parks and Gardens and maybe the fact it has rained for 5 out of the 8 days I’ve been here.
And this is certainly not Borat Country, more like BMW Country, Almaty is a very modern and trendy City and with the Mountains as a Backdrop it would be stunning with a snow covering in winter.
There are many local Parks some with memorials to the Great Patriotic War (WWII)
The Hostel Nomad (White Building) where I stayed has a Pub next to it (Green Building).
And one of the best Steak Houses across the road, complete with Heart Attack Ambulance on stand by.
Kebabs on the other corner.
And with these two a short walk away I’ve had the five major food groups covered…
And they even have their own Soft Drink, something looks familiar here but I can’t quite put my finger on it?
So Almaty, Kazakhstan sorry for getting off on the wrong foot you are a pretty cool place to stay and I might come back one day. After 9 days here tomorrow morning (Thursday) I set off to explore South Eastern Kazakhstan before crossing the Border into Kyrgyzstan then slowly make my way south into Tajikistan and the (In) Famous Pamir Highway, I hope it is half as good as Mongolia.
Thoughts on Mongolia;
In a few words Mongolia was the best country I have visited (I know I haven’t been to many yet), it was exactly what I expected, remote, rugged and spectacular. Ulaanbaatar was a challenge to get around but I used Taxi’s and walked as riding the bike was just too hard. Once you are out of the City the scenery is just stunning with something new to gasp at around every turn, towards the end it kept throwing beautiful scenery at me and I couldn’t keep my camera batteries charged long enough or have enough space on my Memory Cards and it was “ok give it a rest, give me something boring for a while”.
The thing I liked most about Mongolia was the easy and simple nature of travelling, out of the Towns and Cities the Government owns the land and you can just set up camp almost anywhere and I mean anywhere you feel like it, I don’t think there is anywhere else like it in the world. Unfortunately you can sense a change as Mongolia’s GDP skyrockets and the Mining Companies are here doing Exploratory Mining, tourism is getting bigger and bigger and I think some of the natural attractions may become either closed off unless you pay or rules will be put in place to ‘protect the Environment’ and camping may be restricted, I really hope this doesn’t happen because Mongolia is unique in the world in this way. There appears to be a growing gap between the people who have and those who don’t, people with very nice expensive cars and houses living next to a Ger with just the basics, not sure what industry they are in?
Being in the Home Design and Building game I was disappointed to see western style houses popping up in a lot of places sometimes in clusters like our Suburbs and this is just not characteristic of Mongolia, I hope the people here can enjoy some of the western lifestyle withoput letting it completely take over and ruin their iconic Architecture and way of life.
The people here were very friendly more so out of towns and in the remote areas, they would always approach you for a chat or to offer help or a smile whether you asked for it or not and I never felt unsafe even though I travelled and camped in some very remote locations.
Riding a Motorcycle in Mongolia is equal parts challenging and substantially rewarding, you need to be well prepared and give in to the roads and environment, I ran into a few Motorcycle Riders who raced across Mongolia and hated it. If you are reading this in preparation to ride in or across Mongolia the one thing you need the most is not money or the latest equipment, it is time, yes it helps having a reliable bike and good gear but even if you do have the best and try to race across the country you will be disappointed. I know not everyone has a month to do this but if you can put more time into Mongolia you won’t regret it, this has been by far the most challenging and yet fulfilling riding I’ve ever done and its’ a place that will take something special to beat.