We started off on what would be a long journey towards Aqtöbe, but I never thought that it would be so hard! When we left Uralsk, we saw a sign to Shymkent (a place somewhere in the south of Kazakhstan) saying : 2005 km…fancy seeing that in Belgium! But a bit to our surprise, we saw another sign to Shymkent (only 1 km further down the road) saying : 1978… I wonder if there are guys on the road who have to make these roadsigns that say to each other : “hey Yüri: what year is your son born? Oh, ok 2005 to Shymkent. So, what year is your wife born? 1978 to Shymkent…ok sounds about right!” You see these funky roadsigns all over Kazachstan, so you best rely on your map even if it is 1/3.000.000 (by the way: no relying on the GPS because it only gives one huge blank page with no roads).
What else you see everywhere in Kazakhstan are huge gravesites next to the road. They are all beautifully maintained and you can see immediately who had a lot of money when they were still alive! They have a muslim believe here but woman are still free to wear what they want, although a lot of men will not speak to me directly and wait for Seb. Some don’t even want to give me a hand. I just wait and see how they react so that I know when and if I have to give a hand to someone. Others just want to take pictures with me and the bike and hold me so tight that I am always glad I am wearing my body armour. I can hear myself saying now: “oh no, I didn’t wear my armour to prevent me from getting hurt when I crash with the bike. I wore it against the Kazakh paparazzi….”.
At one point on our way to Aqtöbe there was a roadblock across the road and you had to go around because they were working on it. The muddy path next to the road was however horrifying! We drove a few meters and saw truckdrivers frantically waving at us to turn back! They were sliding from one part of the mud track to the other trying to avoid each other while driving at snail speeds! Afraid of being crushed by one of these huge trucks, we drove back to the blockade and asked if we could drive through and continue on the road under construction instead. It was no problem, so off we went, driving on an immaculate road for a few kilometers until the road started getting worse and worse and in the end there was only mud left. We saw that the speed at the side road had gone up a bit by watching the other cars, so we tested our luck and headed back on the side road to continue our trip. Here we did a fair bit of off road driving (Seb doesn’t consider it to be off road because it is a hard mud track, but hey we are not driving on the normal road, so for me it is ‘off’ road).
Every single time we stopped, we were the local attraction for the Kazakhs. They are such a friendly nation. A lot of them would stop and ask us our story and they would also ask us if they could take a picture of themselves with the bikes. Of course we would always tell them they could sit on it and that made them even more over the moon! They all say we are stupidly crazy to go all the way to Mongolia even though it is a neighbouring country… Ok, I have to admit that Kazakhstan is the 9th biggest country in the world, so saying that it is a neighbour to Mongolia is saying that Belgium is a neighbour of Russia…
Continuing our trip, we passed a lot of wild horses and it is an amazing sight to see them running across the steppes!
In order to prevent ourselves (well Seb actually) to run out of fuel, we stop at every gas station we pass to fill up the bikes. Seb always asks them if he can pay with his credit card so we can save the cash money for food and drinks. It is needles to say that in the fuel station in the next picture they didn’t have a credit card machine…. and this would be the same for more than a thousand km!
When we were halfway through the day, I noticed that there was a cloud of some kind hovering above the fields next to the road, when all of a sudden it felt like someone was throwing small stones at me. When I looked in front of me I saw millions of locusts hovering above the road! (locusts are the grasshoppers that are in their travelling stage, a bit like us, and they are a lot bigger than the normal grasshoppers) Trying to drive in between them was not even an option, they were everywhere and they were big! When they hit my screen of my helmet they would make huge stains and it would sound as if someone threw something really hard at you. The sight of seeing them splat open in front of your eyes at only a few centimeters distance makes you close your eyes every time! It went on for hours on end and when they hit your hands, it would feel as if you got hit by a pebble at a very hard speed (especially when they hit the nail of your pink). Later when we stopped at a local café to have some food we say on the Kazakh news that they were saying they had an invasion of these animals at the moment… yes we noticed!
Imagine yourself driving along in the steppes, for miles and miles on end with nothing but fields on your left and right and no water for I don’t even know how far, and all of a sudden, you see a boat! No, not just a small dingy, but a real nice looking boat, standing there next to the road. We asked they guy that had a bar next to the boat what had happened and he said something like : “the captain was drunk one night…”.
We went camping that night at only 50 km’s outside Aqtöbe so that we could be there early on Monday morning to go to the immigration place to get our paper stamped.
Luck has turned our way I think, because when we got to Aqtöbe, we stopped somewhere here we thought the immigration office was. You need to know that even if you have a valid visa for Kazakhstan, you still need to register in a migration office within 5 days or you are considered illegal in the country from day 6 onwards. Since we will stay longer than 5 days and don’t really fancy a prison or huge fines, better to register. A nice local guy told us that we were in the wrong place, but we just had to follow him and he would take us to the immigration office. There it was packed with a bunch of people all trying to get one or other stamp. We looked at it and though it would take us hours to get that paper in order. Seb saw a policeman sitting at a desk somewhere and went to ask him where we had to be for our stamp, luckily at that exact same time, the lady who handles the papers was also there, so we were in and out in under half an hour! Later we met another couple and they spent 5 hours to get the same stamp…
We did a bit of sight seeing in Aqtöbe to see the statue of Ghengis Khan and a cool looking temple/mosque and off we went.
We saw a funny sign with even higher distances, but this time it was towards China, and off course we left a souvenir of Belgium on the sign! Needless to say that this messes with your brain to see a sign like this:
At one point on the road I saw something lurking near the trees and it turned out to be a camel. Not just a silly dromedary like we have seen in Morocco, but a real camel this time. Seb could get as close at one meter to take some pictures of them, because there turned out to be two of them.
I always thought that we were crazy for undergoing this adventure, but it turn out that there are even crazier people on the road. At first we met this Japanese guy who was travelling with his bicycle from Japan, across Kazakhstan, Russia, Europe and America, back to Japan in one year, solo! A few hours later we saw a couple, also on bikes, travelling from the Czech Republic, east wherever the wind would take them for at least 6 months! Only going 80 km/h didn’t seem so slow after meeting them and my butt seemed also to hurt less…
We camped in a very nice field in the steppes that evening, but we didn’t sleep very good because of course there was a lot of wind and it made our tent make a lot of noise! The field was actually right next to a resting area next to the road, so when we saw a police car stop, I said to Seb: “prepare to pack everything up and run!” It turned out that they just stopped to do a traffic control and when they drove off they honked at us and waved! Talking about friendly people!
Like we had the locust plague a few days earlier, we had a grasshopper plague a bit later on our trip. I stopped by the side of the road because I thought that there were hundreds of dead grasshoppers on the road, but when I saw the asphalt moving I was a bit stunned. I turned out that it was hundreds of grasshoppers trying to get from one side of the road to the other. If you know Seb, you would know that he is not to fond of grasshoppers, so knowing that he crossed the road, feeling them jumping on his legs and hearing them crunch under your shoes, you know that that was a milestone for him!
You could be driving for hours in the middle of nowhere and all of a sudden you would see a busstop. There wouldn’t even be a town for the next 50 km’s so we would wonder if it was meant for the future or if it was just a joke! We have never seen anyone waiting for the bus at one of these stops by the way!
After some long brutal kilometers on the “highway”, it was time for us to go off road again, and this time for real according to Seb. I was still riding a bit more carefully that in the beginning, trying to avoid to fall down flat on my face again! You have to know that Seb planned this route on his 1/3.000.000 map and with no GPS. There would sometimes be 5 different dirt tracks but in the end he would always manage to take the right one!
On our way down one of these tracks, we saw a plane standing all alone, in the middle of the field. When we stopped to take a picture, we saw a Lada Niva coming towards us at a crazy speed, bouncing all over the place, so we thought the worse. It turned out to be the owner of the plane, who told us it was to put fertilizer on his crops. We asked him if we could put our sticker on his plane for good luck and because it is funny to have a sticker of us flying over the Kazakh fields.
We passed a small town at the side of one of our dirt tracks where I think they were expecting tourists soon, because they had some colourful painted statues of animals and a globe with the outlining of Kazakhstan on it. If you believe what is on the globe, in 2030 there will be busloads of tourist swarming across the place…
At one part we stopped to ask for directions when they told us where to go and that we first had to get out of the way of the cows…. Huh, cows? When we looked further down the road we saw this guy on his horse, gathering all his cows together to lead them back to where they had to be at night. It is cool to see how easy these guys drive the cows in the direction they want.
Did you ever wonder where our old Belgian Gendarmerie vehicles go when they are of no use to us anymore…we now know! They go to Kazakhstan and live a long and prosperous life as a family vehicle! Of course we had to put our wanderingsouls sticker on it, just because we could!
We met two Russians who were travelling for one month across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They were jealous at us because we still had 4 months left on our travel and we were jealous of them because they could do 140 km/h on their bikes!
The last day was totally brutal because we did 600 km’s on one day to go straight away to Astana to have a resting day. The weather was ok, it was cloudy but not raining the whole time, but the winds were killing us! We had headwinds and side winds all the time, slowing us down immensely! In the end we made it to Astana at 22:00 local time! We had the luck to pass a local guy on a motorcycle who showed us to a cheap hotel where we could have our well deserves rest. Astana in the middle of the steppe 20km further:
When we stopped at the hotel, we saw that there was a wedding taking place in the building across the street. One of the guests, a local girl named Bota, invited us to come to the wedding. She could speak fluent English even though she was only 15 (almost 16!). She and her family were so very nice to us, they made us part of the ceremony and gave us heaps of food and drinks. We also had to give our wishes and in the end we think they took more pictures of us than of the bride and groom… It goes to show just how warm and friendly Kazakh people are! Kazakhstan, we love you!