Entering the land of Kazakhstan: July 11th ~Michael
We woke up and began working. Graham and James needed to finish their blog posts and I needed to get the updated information to the guide who will be taking us through Myanmar. We had the goal of being out of the hotel by 10 and on our way to the Kazakhstan border at that time. Apparently those were lofty goals.
Working on the blog in the Russian Billiard room
The wifi in the hotel pooped out for a couple hours and we weren't able to get everything together and ready to go until 4:30. We finally left the hotel, stopped at a gas station, filled up our tanks, replaced our oil and headed towards the Kazakhstan border. The drive to the border was one of the best we'd had through Russia, there was green grass, trees, and fairly large bodies of water that fed into the Caspian. It was beautiful. We made it to the border without a problem and were greeted by a friendly border officer who spoke surprisingly good English. He directed us to our first stop where we dismounted our bikes and handed the border office all of our documents. There wasn't a hitch. After a quick search of the bikes and luggage, we were allowed to exit Russia. We rode 10 minutes or so before we came across the first border post of Kazakhstan.
The guards were around our age and were unbelievably friendly and smiley. They filled out our custom cards for us, taking pleasure in working to pronounce our names and other information. It was awesome, they were the nicest border officers we'd encountered thus far. After getting our paperwork filled out, we headed towards the final border station.
After waiting a couple minutes in line, listening to the music of the truck in front of us, we made it to the customs desk. I was unbelievably nervous. Kazakhstan implemented a temporary 2 week permit for US citizens, meaning we didn't need a visa to enter if we were in the country for less than 2 weeks. However, this permit is in a "trial" stage and the trial periods ends on July 15th, and we didn't know if it would continue past that date. We were unsure if we'd be allowed in because we'd overstay the trial period end date. If we weren't allowed in, our options for traveling the Middle East would be nearly non-existent. We had to get in. All the worrying was worthless, they stared at our registrations for awhile, asked a couple questions then let us in. Kazakhstan was one of the easiest countries we've entered.
Kazakhstan border (I got yelled at immediately after taking this photo, "no photos allowed!")
We were stoked by how friendly the border officers were, how easy it was to get in and that we were in Kazakhstan. We'd talked about and discussed Kazakhstan for the last 2 years, and we were finally there. We were ecstatic. Until we were bombarded by currency exchangers, insurance agents, and other street peddlers. They were more intense than anything we've encountered. At least 10 people swarmed my motorcycle, started yelling exchange rates, pushed each other out of the way and worked to sell us things we didn't want or need.
The one thing we knew we needed was motorcycle insurance, something we'd heard was mandatory in Kazakhstan. However the prices they were offering were ~$50 (about 5 times what we'd been told we should pay). We were so flustered and taken aback that we just rode away from the whole situation. As we were riding away, one man, who genuinely seemed interested in helping us, said we would be fined 36,000 Tenge ($200) if we got pulled over by the police. That was an expense we could not afford.
We rode for about 5 minutes before we realized we didn't have any Kazakhstan currency (Tenge). We turned back to exchange the 1200 Russian Rubles ($21) we had for Tenge. Again, we were bombarded by people trying to get our business. An elderly woman with one tooth chased my motorcycle until I pulled over. I started discussing exchange rates with her and came to an agreement (3.2 Tenge for 1 Russian Ruble). Graham had all our money and cautiously counted out our 1200 Rubles in front of her. She typed in 1200*3.2 in her calculator and showed us how much Tenge we would get in return (3,840). We agreed, handed her the rubles and got 3,300 Tenge. What the hell! That amount did not add up. We showed her the 3,840 we originally discussed and she said the exchange rate was 3. We were upset. We told her to give us our money back but she wouldn't let it go. During that time she must have slipped 100 Rubles into her sleeve because when she pulled it back out she only had 1,100 Rubles. Now we were pissed. Not only did she jip us on the exchange rate, she flat out stole 100 rubles. It was only $0.60 cents, but the fact that we'd been swindled hurt our pride. We had been so careful, but she still got the better of us. It didn't help that we immediately knew she cheated us and despite our angered complaints, other people came to defend her. We didn't want to make too much of scene, especially because we didn't have insurance, so we decided to leave. The one toothed woman laughed at us and grinned evilly as we rode away. I did not like her.
We rode ~20 miles into Kazakhstan on surprisingly good roads before we pulled off in search of a campsite. We rode up and over a sand dune and made camp. We were exhausted. After cooking some rice and beans, we went to bed.
First campsite in Kazakhstan
Off the beaten path: July 12th
We all woke up sweating underneath the rain fly of the tent. It hardly ever rains in Kazakhstan, but our first night in the country it had rained softly for most of the night. The sun was baking the rain fly and the three of us stuffed into the tent made it a pretty warm chamber. We got up and made some coffee and oatmeal that were both pretty delicious before heading off for Atyrau. The road was littered with pot holes for awhile, but eventually turned into decent asphalt and we cruised into Atyrau. At the border we had been warned that getting pulled over without the Kazakh insurance resulted in a $200 fine/bribe to the cops so we were very wary of getting pulled over, and looking forward to obtaining the insurance in Atyrau. We also only had about $20 in Kazakh Tenge (Kazakh currency) so we had no idea what they would do if we didn’t have enough money for a bribe. The city was decently sized and is the center of the oil industry for Kazakhstan so it is very modern looking and all the buildings seem new. We picked up some more Tenge, fueled up, and then looked for the insurance. Unfortunately it was Sunday so the insurance companies were closed. It seems anytime we need to get something we arrive on a weekend and the stores are closed.
We continued on without the insurance and headed towards Aktobe. The roads were good and we were wondering if all the hype about bad roads was a thing of the past, however it did not take long past Atyrau to get onto a deeply rutted dried mud road. About 100 feet up the road Michael’s bike died. All I heard was “uh oh” in the headset and Michael come to a stop worriedly looking his bike over. It turned out to be a minor fix as the fuel mixture screw had wiggled out to far and choked the engine. We screwed it back in and continued on the “highway” that was now the remnants of a asphalt road that must have been paved a few decades before. It was chocked with potholes and there were dirt roads next to the main road that were in much better shape. We switched between the main road and the dirt road dodging pot holes and rattling over washboard.
Cruising along the dirt road next to the "highway"
Not long after being on the crappy road we saw three other enduro bikes pulled over on the main road so we rode up to meet them. Michael and James made it up the little hill fine, and as I followed suit I ran straight into a massive boulder and stopped instantly. It almost tossed me over the handlebars and my pride was hurt as I tried to back down the steep embankment without falling over. With a little help I backed it out and rode around a safer route to make it up to our new friends. They ended up being 3 Austrian guys who were on their way back to Austria after riding through Siberia to Mongolia and now back through Kazakhstan. They were very enthusiastic about their trip, and their excitement was infectious. They showed us pictures of Mongolia and then the damage they had done to their bikes. 2 of the 3 bikes had something broken with the suspension and they had started with 4 people, but one guy totaled his bike and broke several ribs so had to fly back to Austria. They did not seem too worried about the damage to their bikes and had some sketchy looking fixes that they hoped would hold until Austria. They warned us to be careful of bandits on the roads after dark. They drive along and will rob you in the middle of the desert. Taking their advice we figured we should head off and find a camp before dark.
One of our stoked Austrian friends in the middle of nowhere
About 15 minutes later we decided to take a left off of the main road and just ride across the plain for a ways until we couldn’t be seen from the road. It was awesome to feel like we could ride wherever we wanted. Our bikes could handle the small shrubs and grass, and other than that it was just flat land for as far as you could see in every direction. We found a slight depression in the land and setup camp there. The sun was going down slowly and it was an incredible sunset. James pulled out the Frisbee that he had brought along and we tossed it around while listening to some music and waiting for the rice to cook on the camping stove. This is what we had been looking forward to for so long. The desolate and vast landscape of Kazakhstan where we can camp easily and ride wherever we wanted! We didn’t want to be constricted by the tent so we all slept on the tarp underneath the stars. As expected the stars were pretty incredible without any cities around and in the middle of the steppe. We fell asleep watching shooting stars and tracing the satellites through the sky.
Frisby tossing and relaxing after a long day
Old Hansy can't keep it up: July 13th
The sun was already above the horizon and peering down on our sleeping bags by the time the alarm went off. After hitting snooze once or twice I finally managed to wrench my eyes open and scrub the dust and sleep out. It was surprisingly chilly out and the sun felt good as it warmed my sleeping bag from the inside out. I exited the comfort of my sleeping bag just long enough to take a pee and get the stove and coffee ingredients close to my sleeping bag. Crawling back into my sleeping bag I started the stove and began boiling water for coffee while the other two pulled out books and began to read. Once the coffee was done we took our time enjoying the cup of strong, sour instant coffee and doing a bit of reading. When the sun began to make the sleeping bags uncomfortable we began packing up and making a breakfast of delicious oatmeal with honey. By the time we finished breakfast were all packed up the sun had made it far enough up in the sky to make it uncomfortable. As we began to ride the air felt great against our now sweaty skin. We made our way back across the field toward the road, stopping for the occasional giant rut cut into the flatness. One such rut was disguised below some brush and caught Michael by surprise. The large bump collapsed his rear suspension, leaving Hans sagging significantly. This bump once again revealed that there was a significant problem with Michael's suspension and while it would work for the time being it would need to be addressed soon. We reached the road and began putting some miles under our belt.
The roads were some of the worst we had seen so far. Hard-to-distinguish pot holes dotted the road, sometimes bridging the entire road making avoiding them almost impossible. The road between the pot holes was hardly better as it was very rough and made my hands and wrists ache. So we made our way to dirt roads that lined the paved road. These roads, while dirt, were smoother apart from the occasional wash board and lacked the potholes. Reaching speeds of up to 60 km/hr (40 mph) we wound our way along, following the ruts and slamming on the breaks to avoid the occasional sand trap or track crossing our own. The broken suspension on Hans made this even slower and caused lots of concern and frustration on Michaels part. Apart from the occasional small town just off the road the scenery consisted of flat plains and power lines stretching as far as the eye could see. As we approached a town where we expected to fill up on gas and hopefully get some breakfast, Michael found one of the few muddy section of the dirt roads. In a blink of an eye his rear wheel skidded out and he was down. We quickly circled back around to make sure he was unhurt (which he was) and help him get the bike upright in the slippery mud.
It wasn't soon after that we found a gas station and a bland looking building in front of a landfill that, according to the gas station attendant, was a cafe. Ducking under the blanket that blocked the door we entered to be confronted by a disgruntled women watching a bollywood soap opera. She did not seem very enthused to leave her show to feed us and was not very friendly or helpful in ordering food. Regardless we soon had a small plate of beef and onion in some sort of broth and some bread to help it down. Upon finishing we paid, which went about as smoothly as ordering had. We left with half-full stomachs, a bitter taste in our mouth and less money in our pocket than we had agreed upon with the lady upon ordering. We quickly mounted up and hit the road again, drowning our frustrations in music and audio books.
Our not so favorite cafe
The pothole filled road eventually began to improve and towards the afternoon we were making much better progress than we had before. On the faster roads it didn't feel like long before the 150 mile mark where we begin looking for gas was upon us. We arrived in a slightly larger town and stopped to fill up on gas and check our bikes. Michael found that his left foot peg had loosened and would need some sort of work soon. As we headed back into town to find a grocery store to re-supply on breakfast food, snacks and water Michael spotted a car repair shop and parted from us to attempt to fix his foot peg while we resupplied. Graham and I continued into town where we pulled up in front of a large grocery store (relatively large). As we dismounted we were soon surrounded by a dozen or so men and children trying to figure out what exactly we were doing there. Graham stayed with the bikes to watch them while I got the groceries. Somehow I managed to find a box of baby formula (or something similar) that was cleverly disguised as some sort of oatmeal. Saying our goodbyes to our crowd of admirers we headed back to the car repair shop to find Michael very successful. According to Michael the mechanics were very helpful and maybe a bit too friendly. They were very touchy and interested in his things and a kid made off with his helmet for a good 10 minutes (Michael thinks to look at himself in a mirror with the helmet). When we arrived one of the Mechanics was attempting to share an erotic video with Michael while saying "America" and pointing towards the video. Declining to watch the video, we took some pictures with the mechanics and hit the road with a successfully welded foot peg.
As the sun began descending towards the horizon we were making our way into a greener area with a number of small forests. We began looking for our camp spot for the night and were soon pulling off the main road onto a dirt path leading up to a lake. The road took us around the lake then abruptly ending in a web of animal paths. We found a promising path and continued heading south crossing a small marshy stream. We found camp just over the top of a small hill that allowed us to be hidden from the road. Our camp was slightly raised and looked out upon a giant plain (surprise, surprise) dotted with cows and horses that seemed to belong to a small camper where a plume of smoke was rising. We went about setting up camp and making dinner and were soon feasting on rice, beans and corn. With the remaining sunlight, Michael set to work removing his rear suspension in an attempt to diagnose the problem that was causing his bike to sag so significantly. After a careful diagnostic he found that the shock seemed to be in perfect shape. Baffled and frustrated at not even knowing what the problem was he gave up for the night as the light disappeared. While Michael busied himself with this I broke out out the satellite phone to give the family and friends a call. Eventually I made myself comfortable outside while the other two snuggled up inside the tent. The stars were absolutely amazing and it only took two shooting stars before I was fast asleep.
Calling the family and friends
Another beautiful sunset on the steppe
We're Famous: July 14th
We woke up to a familiar noise and realized there were horses crossing next to our tent. Animals always seem to be the best alarm, we can't put them on snooze and they seem to stick around making noise until we get out of bed. We boiled water for coffee and were greeted by the owner of all the horses.
Good view to wake up to
He rode up majestically, with the sun rising behind him and a strong horse below him. I felt trepidation as he approached us that immediately disappeared once he smiled at us. He had a strong confident voice and a perfect set of teeth (something that has been rare throughout our travels outside of Europe). According to an audiobook Graham is listening to, before the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was primarily nomadic and took pride in their horses, camels and cattle. Since the USSR, the nomadic culture has been disrupted and nearly abolished. This man must have been highly successful and well respected. He was proud. Despite us not speaking any Russian or Kazak, and him not speaking any English we offered him some coffee and had a conversation with sign language and smiles. When he left, he galloped away and rejoined his ~20 horses and hundreds of cattle. He was the best example of a cowboy I have ever met.
A truly impressive man. When he came over to our camp he made a single noise towards his cattle and horses. They did not move until he returned to them 20 minutes later.
We cooked up what we thought was oatmeal, but turned out to be baby food. It took a lot of water to get the pasty meal down but it tasted alright. I put my shock back on my bike and was upset but not surprised to find that it sunk back to the lower level and nothing was fixed.
We got back on the road around 8 and started driving for the day. After an hour, we filled up on gas, ate a snickers each and started riding again. We road 100 miles in the next 5 hours. It was exhausting. The "paved" road had potholes so big that I couldn't see Graham or James if they went into one and the dirt side roads were so washboarded that it felt like our teeth would rattle out if we drove for too long on them. The heat was unbearable (~110 Fahrenheit according to our thermometer) and we started to dehydrate fast.
Endless dirt road and bullet scarred signs
Around 3 we rolled into the town of Shalkar and found a small grocery store. As we were looking at the aisle of food we were surprised to hear "Yo, what's up man" in near perfect English. We looked up and saw a Kazakhstani man (about our age) smiling at us. His name was Arthur. He showed us which food was best and helped us pay for everything. As we were eating our meal of canned meat and potatoes (a god send that he recommended) Arthur sat and talked with us. He brought us 3 more cans of meat and two bottles of fresh horse milk from his own horses. The milk was sour and slightly watery. It was good, but we could only drink so much.
Arthur on the right and the owners of the store on the left and in the middle
As we were finishing up our meal, he asked to wait for 10-15 minutes, he needed to get something (we didn't completely understand his English). About 2 minutes later he returned with the staff of the Shalkar local newspaper. They wanted to write an article about us. We got our photos taken and were interviewed with a few basic questions (why are we riding around the world, what do we think of Shalkar, what's our names, etc). It was awesome. Everyone was so excited to talk to us and try to understand our trip. If you ever come across a newspaper from Shalkar, Kazakhstan, look for a picture of Graham, James and I in it!
Arthur wanted to ride on our motorcycles, so after hopping on the back of Graham's bike and riding down the street, we made our way out of Shalkar. We rode another 50 miles or so (the roads improved greatly) when we decided to ride off the road and make camp. The feeling of pulling off the side of a road, riding across dried grass and sand until the road is out of site and making camp is awesome. It's so easy and the scenery is beautiful.
Enjoying the scenery and airing everything out
We were still full from our meal in Shalkar so we had a few pieces of candy, some crackers and a can of meat while we watched the sunset. We played some music on our Enerplex speakers, watched the stars become brighter and more numerous then went to bed.
Although riding through Kazakhstan is hot and in some cases highly difficult, it's the closest thing to a routine we've had and I love it. We wake up, eat breakfast, ride all day, sweat a lot, drink a lot of water and then relax and enjoy the beauty of the steppe as we eat dinner and watch the sunset. When I wake up in the middle of the night and see the stars, I fall back asleep with a giant smile on my face. Something tells me that in months and even years to come, I will miss these awesome days of riding through the steppe of Kazakhstan.
Making our own roads across Kazakhstan
Where is the Aral Sea? July 15
We slept in a bit this morning and woke up at 7. By this point we had a routine of coffee and oatmeal in the morning before packing up and riding all day. We were off quickly and back on the crappy road of the previous few days. After about 40 miles though the crappy road became a beautifully paved highway and we were excited to cruise through some miles. To make the miles go by quicker we tried unsuccessfully to catch the birds that flew across the highway.
One of the birds flying across the highway and a camel in the distance
We made it to Aralsk without any major events and had lunch underneath a rest stop gazebo. The sun was out in full force and from the gazebo we could see the main town of Aralsk which used to be the biggest port on the Aral Sea. Unfortunately during the Soviet Era the two main rivers that sustain the Aral Sea were redirected to Uzbekistan to try and aid in the cotton production there. The redirection was largely unsuccessful with over 75% of the water evaporating in the desert before it reached its intended destination and now the Aral Sea has all but dried up. What used to be the 4th largest sea in the world is now a desert wasteland covered in sand dunes and camels. The past still lingers in Aralsk through the rusting ships stranded in the desert and the cranes for loading ships looming over the now desolate city.
These little cans are suprisingly delicious
After we finished eating our canned food and drinking as much water as possible we continued on through the now extremely hot desert. The landscape was flat with little sand dunes and the occasional herd of camels chewing shrubs. We also were bombarded with giant grasshoppers that made the place seem even more inhospitable. To us though the grasshoppers were fun to try and catch and provided some entertainment as we blasted through hundreds of them at a time. We followed what used to be the coast of the Aral Sea until we reached the remnants of the river that used to feed it. This area became green and swampy and it was interesting to see how much water can change the landscape.
We pulled off at one point to try and get gas, but the gas station was closed. A car pulled off behind us when we did and then continued on behind us as we pulled out again. When we found another gas station that was open the same car pulled off again and a man came out to talk to us for a bit. We figured he must have just been curious as many people have been, but after he left he came back again and seemed to be working on his car. We thought this was a bit suspicious and he might be following us so we peeled out of the gas station and kept an eye out for him as we drove along. We didn’t see him for the rest of the day though so it all turned out alright.
As the sun began to set we pulled off the road and drove through some reeds until we found a little clearing that was covered in cow and horse foot prints (hooveprints?). We set up camp, cooked our dinner and then piled into the tent just as the mosquito’s began to swarm. As we lay there reading before going to sleep we could hear some horses curiously checking out our camp before getting nervous and running away.
The distant, annoying sound of the alarm was greeted by moans and a half asleep agreement to hit snooze. This was becoming the morning routine and after two or three snoozes we finally rubbed the sleep from our eyes. Little black dots dotted the tent and before rising we made a game of flicking each dot, sending the pill bug flying into the unknown. We packed up the tent and sleeping stuff and set about the morning routine of making coffee followed by a breakfast of oats and honey. As we went about our routine the occasional cow or horse would stumble upon our camp and stare at us in confusion. After breakfast we broke camp, packed up and headed down the road to find gas at the nearest town. Every gas station we stop at has a different feel. This one had a great feel to it with friendly and inquisitive gas station attendants and a smiley office lady. The gas station attendant asked us where we were from and pulled a handful of chocolates from his pocket to share with us. How the chocolates were not completely melted will forever be a mystery to me. As two guys who had been looking at our bikes pulled away from the gas station they stopped and beckoned us over. Smiling and saying something in Russian they handed us what looked like credit cards. The credit cards turned out to be cleverly disguised knifes. We shook their hands and thanked them for their generosity. Everywhere we go people want to help and give us something to show their hospitality. It has been an awesome experience and has really motivated me to be a better host once I am back in the US.
We left the shade of the gas station into the unbearable heat of the desolate plains. As the sun rose it only got worse and was soon hotter than it had been any other day. It was impossible to ride with the visor up as the hot wind felt like it would burn you. The scenery turned especially barren and any greens seemed to dissipate leaving only reds and browns. We all turned to audio books and music to make the ride go more quickly and we were soon eating up the miles. At around the 150 mile mark we were all hungry and tired and looking for a break so the gas station was a welcome sight. We pulled up to a more run down looking gas station with 10 or so people lounging about on beds pulled up against the wall of the station. A few of them came up to help us pump gas and ask us some questions. It wasn't long until they were offering us some green tobacco like product from a small pouch. They were insistently pushing it towards Graham and Michaels nose and after ascertaining that it was not some sketchy drug they gave in to the peer pressure and gave it a big snort. Everyone on the beds erupted in laughter at Michael and Grahams surprised faces. After a bit of sniffing and clearing of their noses the guy showed the correct place for the small green pellets which was on the inside of the lower gum. They insisted that we put a dip in so Michael and I took a small amount and put it in our lip. It didn't take long before we were washing our mouths out though and shaking off the small nicotine buzz. We talked with the group a bit longer and purchased some deliciously cold water from the small store in the station.
Our gas station homies
We were all getting hungry and didn't want to get back on the bikes just to dismount a bit down the road so we asked one of the gas station attendants for food and he led us around the side of the gas station to a small building with a kitchen and a small table. They turned on a hose outside the building and motioned for us to clean up and splash the water on our faces. We then entered the tiny cafe to get some lunch. After being presented with a bottle of vodka and declining we were given a bowl of slightly congealed horse milk. We passed the bowl around taking small sips. It was similar to yogurt but much less viscous and had a more sour taste. After passing it around they gave us a spoon and motioned to eat some of the small lumps that were sitting on the bottom of the bowl. The chunks were not unpleasant and we passed it around a few times before setting it to the side for the meal. A man who was eating there had some delicious looking noodles with beef so we ordered what had. The fried noodles soon arrived with tea and bread and we dug in. While we ate a number of visitors from the gas station came in to talk and observe. They asked to see my phone and were soon browsing all of my pictures. They returned the phone with a few selfies and a lot more knowledge of our trip and my personal life. Eventually a guy brought in a bottle with a number of holes poked in the bottle and spilling little bits of white powder. There was a long dark shape inside that when opened and placed very close to my face I recognized as a snake. It seemed as though they wanted us to eat it. A girl came up and began attempting to translate at first saying that the snake had a disease and then saying that it would heal cancer. They offered us the snake for $10 dollars and after seriously considering we declined the offer. While cancer was one of our primary concerns on the trip we were not sure where we would keep a possibly diseased snake.
Our gracious hosts taking a selfy while we ate
We finished eating paid and made our way outside to splash more deliciously cold water on our heads and faces. I took it a bit further this time knowing we would soon be returning to the brutal heat of the road and splashed water over my thighs and chest as well as my face and head. As we readied the bikes and said our goodbyes, the young lady who had offered us the snake approached me. She made as if to whisper in my ear but instead held up her iphone which romantically whispered "your handsome" in my ear. Not knowing exactly how to respond I said thank you, which was luckily one of the only words I knew in Russian, and mounted my bike. We said our goodbyes amidst a bit of joking and laughing from the other onlookers about the girl coming with us. We turned around and got back on the road to put more miles between us and Almaty. Again the riding was extremely hot and sucked the moisture right out of us. At a short stop we checked a thermometer and found that it was almost maxed out at 120 degrees F.
Little bit toasty outside
After a few more hours on the bike some distance shapes began emerging from the haze that seemed to constantly line the horizon. It soon became apparent that the shapes were snow capped peaks and we all let out a cheer. We were at least within sight of the end of the endless plains. After a quick stop for water and stretching at a fork in the road we continued on riding parallel to the mountains and entering a much more populated area. Police became increasingly more common and the traffic more heavy. We wound our way through construction zones and around large trucks spewing dark smoke. At one construction zone the highway ended in a massive pile of dirt and we were directed onto a more urban road. The road was lined with smiling kids, large trees, cows, goats and lots of welcoming, happy people. I was leading and soon realized that I could not see Michael in my review and pulled over. Graham soon joined but it took a few minutes before Michael appeared carrying Grahams camel back. We had pulled in front of a store and decided to get some food. As we pulled closer a nice woman who appeared to be the store manager approached us and asked if a young boy who had been watching us could have a ride. I made some room for him on the back and took him for a spin trying to open up the throttle on the small section of road to give him the biggest thrill. He dismounted with a giant grin on his face and the lady invited us in for food. A large Russian speaking man helped us order and we were soon drinking tea and eating a delicious chicken stew while a dubbed nickelodeon show played in the background.
We finished up and paid just as a few busloads of people came driving up. A few of the men came over wanting to know where we were from and some pictures. They seemed to find Michael's name very entertaining and kept repeating it. As we suited up to continue riding and took pictures a generous onlooker came over and gave me a bottle of Ayran which is a yogurt like drink. Thanking him we said our goodbyes and continued on to look for a camp spot before the sun set. Passing numerous herds of cows and sheep we finally exited the urban area and found a dirt road that led us down next to a beautiful creek. It wasn't long before we were running naked into the river for our first wash in a week. The cold river water felt amazing after the hot wind and sands of the past few days. We air dried while trying to avoid inhaling swarms of nats and setting up camp. The bugs soon drove us into the tent for an evening of reading and relaxing while munching on animal crackers and chugging water in an attempt to rehydrate our bodies. Even though we had exited the hottest part of the ride and were no longer on the plains, it seemed to be the hottest of the nights. I fell asleep coverless and sprawled out in an attempt to dissipate the heat and prevent my sweaty limbs from sticking to each other.
And it's my Birthday! July 17th ~Michael
I remember a lot of my birthdays; turning 5 at a Mariners game with my parents, going to Wild Waves for my 10th birthday, getting my license the day I turned 16, drinking my first "legal" beer at 21, and I'll most likely remember turning 24 in Kazakhstan.
The stream in the background was unbelievably refreshing
We set the alarm for 6 in order to try and get some miles in before the afternoon heat kicked in. However, per our usual we hit the snooze button 3-4 times and didn't wake up until 7. The small flies that had been bugging us the night before were still around and weren't any better. We ran out of oatmeal so we cooked beans and rice for breakfast. With a bouillon cube, it was just as delicious as ever. We filtered water from the stream, took a quick dunk in the creek and were ready to go. Except we couldn't go anywhere because my motorcycle battery was dead. After a moment of being bummed, James and Graham gave me a push and I roll started the bike with little problem. Now we were ready to go.
The day before we had been ecstatic to be up next to the mountains, with cool creeks, trees and even some shade from the blistering heat. However, as we road closer to Almaty, Kazakhstan turned back into Kazakhstan; blisteringly hot, no trees, no green, and flat for as far as I could see. After a couple hours of riding, we were just as dehydrated as we had been the days before. The moisture wicks away from our skin almost immediately, making it nearly impossible to take in as much water as we sweat. However, after 300 miles of riding we were only 80 miles away from Almaty.
We stopped for gas, ate a snickers each, I got a "Kazakhstan Cola" designed to look just like coke and we hung out in the first air conditioned gas station we'd been to in Kazakhstan. It was great up until I tried to use their bathroom. I got yelled at in Russian and had to hold my pee until the next stop. I got my motorcycle started on the second attempt at roll starting (my battery has not been charging while riding which is slighty concerning) and we were off. We were only 80 miles away from a good meal, a shower and a bed.
A quick step back in time: when I was 6 I was bit by a wasp below my eye. It swelled up slightly but didn't have a major affect. When I was 9 I got bit by a yellow jacket on my calf. My whole calf swelled and stayed swelled for ~2 weeks. When I was 12 I got bit by a wasp behind my right ear. I broke out in hives and my airways started to shut. After that I got tested for bee allergies and was told by Swedish Hospital in Seattle that I was one of the most allergic people they'd ever tested for wasp, yellow jacket, and hornet bites. I also learned that each time I have an allergic reaction, it's worse than the last. Which means, according to the doctor, if I were stung again and did not have the necessary medication (epipens and benadryl), my airways would clog and I would suffocate. Therefore, in preparation for the trip, I got 6 epipens and a couple packs of benadryl.
~60 miles away from Almaty I felt a sharp pain on my arm. I wasn't sure if it was a wasp bite but it felt fairly familiar. I pulled over, took off my jacket and sure enough a wasp flew out of it. Within 90 seconds I had stabbed myself with an Epipen taken 100 mg of Benadryl and put hydrocortisone cream on the bite. It had to be the most prepared/efficient pre-allergic reaction treatment ever. Everyone kept level headed, we knew exactly where all the medication was on our bikes and it was easily treated.
First time I've ever used an epipen
The scariest part of the whole experience was the Camel spider that popped out of a bush and ran right next to our feet. Not to get too reflective, but I think how that situation was handled sums up how the 3 of us work together. We are light hearted easy going guys that like to give each other a lot of shit, but when the time comes we take situations seriously, work together and get whatever needs to be done done. Then scream like little girls when we see a spider…
Graham and James each had a Peppod to try and match their energy levels to the major adrenaline rush I was having from the Epipen and we continued our ride into Almaty. By the time we made it into the city, my adrenaline was completely gone and I was drained. I couldn't think and riding a motorcycle through the congested city started to feel stupid. We pulled over at a "Pizza Joint" and ordered a hamburger each. They were fairly awful. However the place did have WIFI and we managed to book a hostel on Air B&B, it was 7 pm when we left the restaurant.
We road to where the hostel said it was on Air B&B. Turned out the hostel wasn't there and nobody knew the place or what we were talking about. Yet, Graham managed to woo some girls into allowing him to use their WIFI to find another hostel. He found one and we road across the city to the new hostel. The location of that hostel was wrong. We asked a concierge where the hostel was and she told us it was ~1 mile down the street. We went down the road and finally found the hostel. It was closed. We went back to the concierge where Graham wooed her into letting him use the WIFI. With the WIFI, he found that the original hostel, that we booked on Air B&B had sent us a message containing their phone number. We used the Satellite phone from Globalstar to call the hostel. We got a hold of them and were told to meet them at the mosque. We road back across town, right next to the first place we checked and met Almas, the owner of the hostel. He was on his scooter and he escorted us to the hostel. When we finally made it their, it was 11:30.
The hostel was totally worth the goose chase it took to find it. We were greeted by 5 or so friendly faces all sitting in a large family room. Their smiles slightly faltered and showed signs of disgust as they got whiffs of our stench (we were wearing the same clothes the entire time through Kazakhstan). They said we were welcome to join them, but first we had to shower. We didn't complain with that.
After cleaning up and getting unpacked, we joined everyone in the family room for beer. It was exactly what I wanted from my birthday in Kazakhstan. Good people, good friends, a nice shower, a few cold beers and a wasp bite to prove that they can't kill me. We didn't go to bed until 4 am, the people at Loco Hostel are unbelievable and I think we'll be here for a couple more days.
Getting Down with the Sickness: July 18th
I woke up 2 hours after going to sleep and the room was hot as hell. I was sweating profusely and the sun seemed to be perfectly beaming all of its rays directly through the window. I got up to pee and almost immediately afterward was overwhelmed with an urge to vomit. I sprinted back to the bathroom, but didn’t make it in time and in a fashion I have become famous for I puked through my hand to try and hold it back only to spray it all over myself and the floor. I continued to the toilet and puked a few more times before finally emptying all the contents of my stomach. I then had to clean up my fresh puke on the floor with the few napkins I found and a hand towel from the room. I showered off the puke which also cooled me off a bit, and then crawled back into bed where I would stay for the majority of the day. I got up a few hours later to puke again….and then a few hours after that to relieve my bowels. This was going to be a long miserable day.
I faded in and out of sleep and pounding headaches for most of the day while Michael and James worked on updating the blog and taking Michael’s motorcycle to a shop to be looked over. Almas knew the guys at the garage and they said they would fix whatever they could and only charge him for the parts. Their service was free because they wanted to help out a fellow motorcyclist. People’s generosity is still overwhelmingly surprising.
By the end of the day I felt well enough to get out of bed and walk to the doner shop with Michael and James. The kebab was good, but I still couldn’t finish the whole thing and layed down to read and fall asleep soon after. We were all close to passing out when Almas came in and asked us about our day. He had been told we hadn’t really moved that much and wondered if we were alright. Our other friend Gally who is helping us organize the shipping of our bikes came in as well and asked if he could interview us for his blog. We all rallied a bit and got up to be social for the first time that day.
Almas works for a film company so he pulled out his fancy camera and translated as Gally asked us questions. There were some really great questions that made us think for a bit and we realized that everything has happened so fast it’s hard to recall a specific event that sticks out from the rest. Everything has been so varied and interesting in its own way that trying to tell the “best” thing or the “worst” thing that has happened to us was hard to do. After the interview we talked for a bit before going passing out pretty exhausted even though nothing particular had happened.