One last thing we had to do in Russia before going to Kazakhstan was to change tires. We have brought two sets of our favorite Australian MotoZ Tractionator GPS tires with us from Canada, but as the idea of carrying them all the way through Russia didn’t seem attractive at all (changing them in Vladivostok wasn’t an option too as the current ones were still pretty good and we had only planned to ride paved roads in Russia, so there was no need for new 50/50 tires at that moment), we decided to ship them over to Novosibirsk. A local company charged us about 15 euros for such service and we were more than happy to pay them for sparing us from riding 6000 kilometers with two heavy tires on the back of each of our bikes.
So on the 20th of September, a day before our Russian visas expired, we entered the 9th biggest country in the world – Kazakhstan. The most of it is plain flat steppe with not much going on. However it’s not uncommon to see a herd of horses, cows, sheep or even camels grazing in the neverending fields there. It also has a Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site where more than 450 nuclear explosions were made during Soviet times. It’s close to the town called Semey (until 2007 it was known as Semipalatinsk) and people joke that it is a nuclear town. We spent our first night there before turning west towards the capital city Astana.
The first thing that happened to us in Semey was the fact that the local gas station will not sell us fuel without some kind of a ticket. So we spent some time riding around town looking for a gas station which would have fuel to sell. Luckily we did find one and later we found another which asked for a ticket again, but we managed to convince them to sell us a few liters without it… Apparently there are two state-owned oil refineries in Kazakhstan which make about 70% of fuel which is throughout the country and one of them was recently stopped for a planned maintenance, so as there was no reserve or it wasn’t big enough, now the state meets only 35% of the demand, while other 30% are imported from Russia or China. But the biggest state-owned network of gas stations suffers from lack of fuel and only sells it with special tickets which are mostly issued to business customers or employees of state-owned companies…
The road from Semey to Astana was not only very long, but all under construction. And when Kazakhs close their roads for reconstruction it doesn’t mean that they will close one lane or make short detours around the closed parts of the road, no, not at all. When they close the road, they close 50 kilometers of it and direct traffic onto a gravel through dusty steppe. Therefore we decided to stop for one night in Pavlodar, halfway to Astana.
My friend Povilas, who owns a logistics company working between Lithuania and Kazakhstan connected us with Sergey who hosted us in Pavlodar. We only planned to stay for one night, but ended up staying there for 4 nights as Sergey had a program for us and at the same time it started snowing so the road covered in dirty slush wasn’t inviting at all. And our time in Pavlodar thanks to Sergey was amazing.
First thing he did, he invited us to a local traditional restaurant to try our first Kazakh dish. It was Beshparmak – a sort of homemade noodles with horsemeat and onions. The most valuable meat in Kazakhstan is horsemeat. Having in mind that many years ago wild horses were first domesticated in the current territory of Kazakhstan, it’s no surprise that this animal is very important in every Kazakh’s life. They ride horses for work and for sports, they picture horses almost everywhere – we haven’t seen a public place which has some pictures hanging on the walls, which wouldn’t have at least one with a horse, and they eat horse meat not only in their simple dishes, but as well on all important occasions as wedding, funeral and so on…
Sergey took us to the steppe where his own horses are being kept.
Horses here live freely in the vast steppe. They live and breed in their natural families and even survive winter which can get as cold as minus 40 C degrees outside by digging grass from under a fat layer of snow. Sergey took us to the steppe so we could see these horses from up close. On one hand it was strange to look at them and realize that they are raised for meat as it’s so unusual for us in Lithuania, but on the other hand I realized these are happy animals, their lives may be shorter than those of the sport horses in Lithuania or any other European country, but they get to live so much more peacefully and naturally.
Eventually we packed and left for Astana – the capital of Kazakhstan. The city became a capital only in 1997 (before the capital was Almaty). At that time it was called Acmola which in Kazakh means “white grave”. Such a name did not seem suitable for a capital city at all, so it was given a new one – Astana, which in Kazakh means “capital city”. It’s a fancy city in the middle of flat steppe. There are lots of golden elements in all the modern architecture there, but to us it reminded Las Vegas a bit – all the fancy buildings which have not much of enduring value, build around wide perfectly designed streets which eventually lead to the brown steppe (desert in case of Las Vegas) which surrounds this place. One day was enough to explore the city and next morning we left to Karaganda.
Karaganda is a coal mining city which in Soviet times was even moved South from its original location so the coal could be extracted from underground in the places where old-town of Karaganda was initially built. There are over 2000 Lithuanians living in the region, there is “Lithuanian house” there and even a Lithuanian restaurant was open in the area at the time when we were visiting. It was great to participate in the final preparations :)
The road from Karanganda to Almaty was long and cold. The only “exciting things” along the way were these:
1. Balkhash lake, which has half salty, half fresh water.
2. The camels which seemed really unusual for us. Somehow Kazakh steppe doesn’t associate with camels for us, but here they are, completely real, peacefully grazing in the horizon, or… running around on the road!
3. The 200 kilometers stretch of the road in appalling condition. It was quite a challenge for us not to jump off of the road on the curves and it’s hard to imagine how truck drivers feel while driving on it…
Finally in Almaty we experienced local hospitality again and had a great chance to service the bikes and arrange some visas and some shipments to and from Lithuania since Povilas who I’ve mentioned before had trucks leaving both directions every day.
As usually, we brought Linas’ F800GSA to the dealership for the regular 50 000 kilometers service as warranty requires and worked on my F650GS on ourselves in the workshop of the mentioned logistics company. We changed engine oil and filter, as well as oil in front suspension, then installed new steering column bearings and a new chain with sprockets which we received from RK takasago chain, our great sponsors, straight from Japan! For the chain we borrowed a great rivet tool from a local rider we knew from Instagram, but the bearings was the most interesting part as we did it for the first time (before that we had it changed in Colombia by the amazing mechanics of BMW Motorrad dealership “Ruta 40” in Medellin) and without the proper tools removing the original bearing got tricky, but with the help of local mechanics and some tools, the job was successfully done :)
We were invited to dinner with the Lithuanian community in Almaty in a restaurant which belongs to Lithuanian businessmen. A lot of Lithuanians have their own businesses in Kazakhstan or run local departments of international companies here since they speak Russian and understand both the mentality of local people as well as the western European way of doing business. It was a great evening – for a long time we haven’t had the pleasure of attending a small party with Lithuanian people :)
Then, on the 6th of October, my friend Valerija flew in from London for a week to visit us. Since she refused to bring her riding gear to be able to ride with us as a pillon, we decided to rent a car and do some exploring on four wheels. We made a 4 day itinerary which involved most beautiful places in the mountains in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but then realized that it’s not that easy to rent a car in Almaty and take it abroad to Kyrgyzstan. Local companies simply won’t allow that. So we shortened our itinerary to 3 days in Kyrgyzstan and caught a taxi to the bus station in Almaty. From there for the price of about 3.5 euro we got tickets for a 300 kilometers trip in a minibus from Almaty to Bishkek. All was fine except for the fact that on the border we were told by the driver that we have to get off, pick up our luggage and go through the border crossing procedure as pedestrians and then hop on another (Kyrgyz) minibus which will take us to Bishkek. So we did as we told, crossed the border and came to the place where that new minibus should wait for us. Except there was no minibus. And after half an hour of waiting the locals, which travel this route often were convinced that this time there won’t be any minibus which will take us to Bishkek. So we had to catch a taxi or a local minibus to get to our destination. That wasn’t a difficult task since everyone in Kyrgyzstan speak Russian and all three of us do too and there are plenty of drivers keen on having you as a passenger. So by the time it got dark, we managed to get to Bishkek, find an ATM to get cash, buy a local SIM card to get online and find a cozy hostel to stay. After a short walk through the center of Bishkek, we went to sleep to wake up early tomorrow.
Next day we got into the rental Land Rover and drove east towards the huge lake Issyk-kul. For the following two days we went on exploring the beautiful Kyrgyz nature on this tiny road-trip in an old 4x4. The sky was perfectly blue, the mountain tops were decorated with snow and the local people everywhere greeted us exceptionally friendly.
On Wednesday, the 11th of October we packed up and casually showed up at the bus station in Bishkek to go back to Almaty. At first it was strange that no local drivers “attacked” us with numerous offers for a lift to Almaty (or any other place) at the entrance of the terminal as they would usually do in Almaty, then we were told by the lady at the ticket counter that they don’t sell tickets for minibus rides – we had to buy our tickets directly from the driver and finally it took us a while to actually find the minibus which had Bishkek-Almaty sign on it. Imagine how our faces looked like when we were told by the driver that the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan was closed as of yesterday and no public transport would go to Almaty. The reason for the border “closure” was apparently the conflict between the presidents of these two countries which was related to the upcoming presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan which were planned to happen on Sunday, the 15th of October. Valerija had a flight out of Almaty tomorrow, therefore it was very important for us to come back to Kazakhstan without any delays. After hearing as many opinions as we could gather from locals, we decided to take a taxi to the border and see if we could get to the other side since we are foreigners and obviously we are completely unrelated to the issues caused by the poor relationship between the neighboring countries.
A long line of cars was the first thing we saw when getting out of the taxi at the border, but strangely there was no fuss when exiting Kyrgyzstan – just a stamp into our passports and we can continue into the no-man’s-land. Without knowing what to expect, we exit the building and suddenly realize – this is where the “fun” begins. A few hundreds of people were standing in line to get through the gates to the Kazakh side. It looked hopeless at first, but then we understood that the soldiers do let few people in every 3-5 minutes. So after standing in line for almost 3 hours (and when it comes to standing in lines with Kyrgyz and Kazakh people, you shouldn’t expect a polite wait, the process is more like fight for survival where you have to physically protect your position with your elbows and shoulders or otherwise you will be walked around…) and literally pushing through the final meters to the gates, we finally made it to the passport check and were let back in to Kazakhstan where those typical local drivers immediately “attacked” us with proposals for a lift to Almaty. Eventually we ended the day in a 5 series BMW from early 90’s which had no license plate on the rear – the driver took us to the center of Almaty in just a couple of hours.
On the last day of Valerija’s visit, we went to see the Big Almaty lake before taking her to the airport. The lake is truly picturesque, but you are not allowed to get too close to it, not to mention swim in it because it is actually supposed to be more a reservoir of water for the city than a tourist attraction.
Due to the long waiting time for the letter of invitation to Uzbekistan which is required in order to get a visa, we thought that we will stay another week in Almaty, but to our surprise, we got it much sooner than we were promised and on Friday the same week we already had visas in our passports.
One more thing we were expecting while in Almaty was an envelope from Germany – we ordered Carnet De Passages for our motorcycles – a document required to enter Iran and many African countries with a foreign vehicle. It was also delivered on Friday.
Since we had sorted out all the business in Almaty sooner than we expected, we decided to leave on Saturday. A few last things to do was to meet with the General Consul of Lithuania as we promised to visit the Consulate before leaving Almaty and visit a Lithuanian family with lives in Almaty as they invited us for lunch. Both visits were very pleasant: we got a private excursion through the little piece of “Lithuanian territory” in Kazakhstan – the consulate building and had a chance to meet all the family of the General Consul of Lithuanian in Kazakhstan Valdas Buneika and then rode to a very fancy part of Almaty where in a beautiful golf course with amazing mountain view lives this lovely Lithuanian family Narauskai. After lunch with them we had one last thing to do – find the local motorcycle rider who lent us the chain rivet tool to return it to him. We agreed to meet Vladimir in a small town 30 minutes away from Almaty where a motocross race has just finished. He was very kind to take us back to Almaty and on to the highway outside the city so we could continue our planned ride for the day.
Already in the dark we reached a small town called Shelek where we stopped for the night and the next day we got our tanks full and headed to the remote place in the mountains to see the famous lakes there. The lakes Kolsai and Kaindy are based in a protected territory which should be something similar to a National Park in North America. But the unpaved roads in the mountain in Kazakhstan are nothing like the North American ones! We spent a few hours to get to Kolsai lake riding bumpy dusty tracks in the mountains, but the view to the lake was definitely worth it!
Then as told by one of the Lithuanians living in Almaty, we were supposed to ride up the mountain to reach the hotel on the top. There was indeed a nice white building up in the mountain, visible from the lake, we asked some local people if the place is open and after they assured us that it does, we took a turn where the sign said “to the guesthouse”. The road at first seemed like it is of better condition than others in the area, but when Linas accidentally stalled his bike on a steep rocky incline and started sliding backwards, we understood that the ride up is going to be interesting… It was indeed interesting – in some places the road was extremely steep and it had serpentines covered in loose rocks or deep ridges washed out by rain, in some places there was snow on the road or slippery wet mud, but we made it to the top. Well, I dropped my bike twice on the way, but we made it :)
However it didn’t take us long to realize that the place is closed. There was no one around and it was a bit too cold up in the mountain for us to camp. So we went back down and into the closest village where were found a family which offers homestay for tourists.
Next day we had to return to the main road and cross into Kyrgyzstan (hoping that the border would not be “closed” any more since the election was over), but before that there was one more mountain lake to visit – Kaindy. Again, through steep and rocky mountain road we ascended the hill and reached a river crossing. It was a beautiful crystal clear river with big round rocks on the bottom of it. We both easily crossed it and continued. As we got closer to the lake, roads got much more wet and in one place we had to cross knee-deep mud puddle of about 10 meters long. Thankfully Linas enjoyed the experience on his bike and was happy to take my bike over the puddle for me :)
The lake itself is pretty amazing as it was formed after an earthquake which moved some rock and mud structures that flooded a mountain creek and it formed a lake in a place which was a forest before and so there are dead tree trunks sticking out of the water which make the atmosphere around the lake somewhat mystical…
Coming back from that lake seemed easy until we reached the river crossing. Linas did it successfully while I chose a slightly wrong place to enter the water and hit a big rock with the front wheel. The bike jumped to the side, I lost control of it and… we both fell on the side into the crystal clear water of the mountain river. At that moment I realized, I have not used the kill-switch for so long, I couldn’t even remember which side should I turn it to. Luckily the engine did not catch any water until I switched it off with a key and the side pannier which got full of water was “equipped” with a waterproof inner-bag which I just received from home, so all my stuff was saved from getting soaked and we could soon continue.
One last challenge before leaving Kazakhstan was fuel. After all the off-road adventures with the lakes I had little fuel left in my tank, so we decided to buy a few liters of the questionable quality fuel that is available in the remote villages in the mountains. The first gas station was closed and had a phone number written on the piece of paper stuck on the door. I called the number and was told that “there is no operator, you should go to the next village to fill in”. My bike estimated that I could ride another 40 kilometers with the current fuel level and the next village was about 28 kilometers away. Looks good at first sight, but having in mind that last time my engine “died” because of empty fuel tank when the number on the dashboard showed that I could still ride another 20 kilometers, this was a bit of a lottery… However, we got lucky – managed to reach the next village and we found the gas station there… which was closed too… After we remembered seeing another gas station down the road while coming here yesterday, we decided to ride there. And… that one was closed too! And it even had a note in the window saying “no fuel” in Kazak. After a few moments of feeling lost, we stopped a local man who was passing in a car and asked him what we should do to get fuel since the nearest gas station of the big local network which should definitely have fuel, is about 70 kilometers away… The man took us to yet another closed gas station, but assured us that it must have fuel. I called the number written in the window and was told by the man who picked up the phone that he is at home having lunch and will be back at work in about 15 minutes. So we waited as we had no choice and eventually we got 5 liters of 92 octane (the highest available) fuel into my tank!
Finally, we reached the mentioned gas station 70 kilometers away which belongs to the state-owned network of gas stations called KazMunayGas. And here just like a month ago in Semey, we were told that we can only get fuel if we have the so-called ticket… After two rough days and this small adventure with the lack of fuel and all the closed gas stations I got a little irritated and started loudly expressing my dissatisfaction with the situation – we cannot get a ticket, we are travelers, I said, we are guests of your country and we only need a little, is this how you treat your guests?! - I shouted. Knowing that hospitality for Kazakhs is a very important thing I was hoping that the gas station worker would offer me some kind of solution, but the solution came from a young man who was standing in line behind me – he had a wholesale card, with a few tons of prepaid fuel so the gas station was obliged to fill him up even at the time of deficit and he offered to help us out. So we paid this man for 10 liters of 95 octane fuel and got enough of it to be able to reach the nearest town in Kyrgyzstan. At this point our adventures in Kazakhstan were over for some time…