Jun 18 2008

Atyrau, the door to Asia

Published by at 6:02 pm under World Tour 2008

After 2 months and 5000km, Asia at last
After 2 months and 5000km, Asia at last

After 300km of headwinds and intense heat I finally arrive in Atyrau, a small city on the Ural river which is the official border between Europe and Asia. The only business in Atyrau is petrol and you can even smell it in the air when the wind blows from the South where all the large Caspian oil fields are being exploited. Next to the road from Astrakhan I’ve seen many trains pulling dozens of petrol tanks, a stark contrast with the poverty I saw in the villages they cross. People on the road and in small villages are very friendly, this is the first country where locals haven’t warned me against “bandits”; wolves, on the other hand…

Erzan and his family, only 60km from the Russian border
Erzan and his family, only 60km from the Russian border

I have been invited for tea a few times and as most people understand Russian, basic communication is still possible. The Kazakh language uses the cyrillic alphabet but has 10 more letters and is closer to Turkish than Russian. Like in Western Ukraine I have the impression that some people do not like to be addressed in Russian at first. My guidebook even recommends to make sure people understand you are not Russian: the old Soviet times have left a sour taste!

People in villages seem to have a distorted view of the West. Since Ukraine people often ask me how much my bicycle costs and how I can afford to take a year off work but I had never been asked before if there were a lot of Ferraris in France!

Camels in the steppe
Camels in the steppe

So far I’ve only cycled 300km in the Kazakh steppe but it has already been a very different experience from the Russian steppe West of Astrakhan: I have seen many horses and camels, and a few snakes with bright “leave me alone” colours. Not any wolves yet, I think they stay away from the road as much as they can. The land is much drier, the road surface is much worse (not as bad yet as in the West of Ukraine though) and I have had a constant strong headwind. I think in this region the prevailing winds are Easterlies so I don’t expect things to improve much for the next 2000km. The intense heat, especially from noon to 5pm, is becoming a problem too: at 45C, frozen water becomes hot in less than 30 minutes and eating chocolate bars (fuel!) becomes a very messy affair. I drink about 10 to 15L of water a day. There isn’t any shadow in the steppe and sometimes not a village or cafe for 50km or more, so stopping for long isn’t an option. In the evening the nuisance of the strong headwind is replaced by fierce tiny mosquitoes that can even sting through clothes. I think in the future I will try to stop in villages for the afternoon and cycle later, maybe until night time.

I have been in Hotel Kair (£25/night) in Atyrau for a couple of days where I am waiting for the two Oliviers to catch up with me (they crossed the border two days ago) and also for my Thermarest replacement. At the moment it is stuck with customs in Almaty so my hopes to see it arriving in time are quite low. The red tape in all these ex-Soviet countries is insanely heavy and inefficient, I suppose it still exists to support the millions of jobs that come with it. Yesterday I tried to register my 3 months business visa (tourist visas are only valid for two months maximum) and ended up spending 4 hours at the OVIR (registration office) and only got out with a 10 days registration because the inviting business is supposed to register me 3000km away in Almaty, not myself. I am not sure if I’ll try to register again in 10 days if I happen to be in a large town, or wait to see what happens when I want to get out of the country.

Xav and Gege leaving Atyrau
Xav and Gege leaving Atyrau

Finding a good map of the region in Atyrau seems impossible, I can only find very large scale maps of the country or city maps. I think I’ll be stuck with my 1:2M map for a while, it doesn’t matter for navigation as there is only one road to Almaty but I like to have smaller scale maps to look at during the day on these long empty stretches in the steppe.

I also bumped into Xavier and Geraldine yesterday as they were about to leave after staying in Atyrau for two days to fix mechanical problems with their electric scooters: the bad road surface is very harsh on their equipment designed for Western cities. I hope I won’t see them again in Kazakhstan as this would mean they ran into more problems! Good luck to you Xav and Gege!

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