Our time in Russia was brief as we visited Samara, the hometown of Russia’s first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin. The following day we battled our way south towards a remote Kazakh border along with hundreds of military vehicles, armored personal carriers, countless trucks towing 150mm cannons and other assorted military equipment. The dark and misty gloom of the day lent an eerie feeling to this very substantial troop movement and we all wondered out loud if Kazakhstan was about to be invaded?
Unlike the eight-hour fiasco getting into Russia, getting out was a 30-minute breeze. Kazakhstan took a couple of hours and it wasn’t long before we were riding into the immense Kazakh Steppe. Stopping off at Aralsk we stocked up on Kazakh Tenge, fuel and beer for our first nights camping on the expedition. We camped out on the Steppe, set the cook tent up and had the kitchen underway within 45 minutes, a great effort for our first night. Some riders had never camped before but we could not think of a more spectacular place to spend your first night camping than the awesome Kazakh Steppe. The sun dipped below the horizon and treated us to an amazing sunset that set the entire Steppe alight in a magnificent golden glow; the isolation, silence and emptiness of the Steppe is something to behold and we all agreed it was brilliant.
A curious feature of travelling in Kazakhstan is that we MUST register our visas with the Immigration department if we stay for more than five days. This time wasting exercise meant that we stayed two nights in Aqtobe and took many hours to have all visas registered.
Happy to be out on the Steppe again, we spent another three nights in spectacular wilderness but it was hot. Passing the rocket-launching site of Baikonur it was noticed that our trailer hitch was seriously cracked and the trailer wasn’t that far away from falling off. Camp was quickly set up as the crew travelled back into Baikonur township to find a welder at 8 pm on a Saturday night, which we managed to do. After two hours of some serious welding and bracing, the small army of welders, onlookers and assistants had completed the job. They insisted we share a smoke as a token of Kazakh/Australian brotherhood, which we obliged although neither of us smoke. The entire experience once again reinforces the notion that no matter how bad the situation might look, people are always willing to go out of their way to help you out.
Across the Steppe we continued camping at night beside an amazing river that dissects this barren empty landscape before stopping at surely what must be one of the most forlorn places on earth. Aral, former site of what used to be the Aral Sea, the world’s fourth-largest sea, virtually drained dry in 30 years by the Russians in their successful quest to become the worlds largest cotton producers. Continuing south we visited the UNESCO world heritage listed mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, the famous Kazakh poet and religious leader who also happened to be admired by Tamerlane, who ordered a huge mausoleum to be built for him. We then reached a welcome shower at our hotel in Shymkent after three immensely hot days of riding and a number of falls in bull dust holes and loose gravel.
Leaving Kazakhstan we crossed into Uzbekistan but not before being ripped off by the Kazakh guards who found a minor error on our Visa Registration forms. This error was committed by the staff at the Immigration department in Aqtobe, but there WE were paying US$25 each to leave Kazakhstan. More fun was yet to come as we spent a frustrating six hours trying to get into Uzbekistan. A more disinterested border crew would be hard to imagine they had absolutely no interest in getting anything done with any sort of efficiency, and we had it good compared to the truck drivers! Once again we didn’t arrive to our hotel in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, until after dark thanks to a border crossing.
We felt like millionaires and we were after changing some US dollars into the local Uzbek currency, the Som. A tank of fuel will cost you 40,000 Som and we generally only received 1000 Som notes. Having a group dinner was a payment nightmare as the costs easy reaches 200,000 Som, it takes longer to pay the bill than to eat the meal!
Next stop the legendary Silk Road Oasis towns of Samarqand and Bukhara.