Jun 27 2008

Steppe by steppe

Published by under World Tour 2008

The road beyond Makat turns into a rough piste and we progress slowly on gravel, mud or sand. We all fell at least once. Sometimes the road is perfectly smooth for 10 or 20km and we think the worst is over, but there are always more bad roads ahead. Olivier ‘rouk’ has had a few mechanical problems with his recumbent, one day his chain breaks and as soon as he’s finished fixing it he finds a puncture in his front tyre. Not easy to fix in the middle of a sandstorm! Olivier ‘petit jedi’ also had a very bad day due to some dodgy milk. We moslty buy bottled water but sometimes we have to take water from village wells, if the locals drink it it’s usually ok!

The weather has been a bit cooler since last week and most days end with enormous storms. At least we have had a great tailwind since Atyrau!

We are now 400km from Atyrau, in Shubarqudyq (Show on Google Maps) .

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Jun 29 2008

Decision in Qandiagash

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In Qandiagash (Show on Google Maps) we have a choice to get to Aralsk: take the road North to Aqtobe to rejoin a supposedly excellent road, or take the shorter (500km instead of 700) road/piste South which we have been told is in very poor condition.

Our choice is made, we’ll take the piste, hoping that it won’t be too sandy and that it won’t rain!

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Jul 05 2008

Stuck in the mud

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Free meal for us. The man in white on the left started fighting with the man opposite a few minutes later
Free meal for us. The man in white on the left started fighting with the man opposite a few minutes later

In Qandiagash we stop for a couple of nights to get some rest. We are invited at some sort of wedding anniversary meal on the first evening. There are about 15 guests and everyone is already very drunk. An hour into the meal the bride is clearly very unhappy and two guests start to fight. The husband wants us to stay but some guests make us understand that we should leave quickly. This is great timing for us as we were fed for nothing and started wondering how to get out of this without offending anyone!

Looking for the piste to Aral
Looking for the piste to Aral

Cycling on the first 100km to Embi is a pleasure, excellent tailwind on very good asphalt. The next 200km to Shelkar are a different story: the corrugated gravel road is a torture for the bikes and riders. For some reason everyone told us that Shelkar is a very dangerous city and when we arrive there a policeman escorts us to a food shop and then out of the city. This is the first time that we have a police escort in Kazakhstan. Outside Shelkar the policeman insists that we take the asphalt road to rejoin the M32 to Aral, a 150km detour! We try to find the shorter road instead but we can only find a few pistes that end in the sand. Eventually someone tells us that the start of the piste to Aral is 18km up the asphalt road. At this point we are exhausted and decide to camp just outside Shelkar. It rains all night and through the next day, and we eventually give up on the piste. Cycling through wet sand wouldn’t be fun.

The M32 Highway
The M32 Highway

We cycle 130km on an empty asphalt/gravel road to Irgiz. We only see one house on this stretch and they refuse to give us even a cup of tea. We start to be concerned about our food and water reserves. Eventually we make it to the crossing with the M32. The M32 is the “highway” between Moscow and Almaty. In my mind I had envisaged smooth asphalt, maybe even a dual carriageway. Instead we find a construction site. The road is still being built (or rebuilt?) and it doesn’t look like it will be finished anytime soon. From this crossing we still have 200km to Aral but half of it is on dry mud.

Stuck in the mud
Stuck in the mud

The first day we manage 5km before a storm turns the piste into a complete quagmire. The bikes are stuck in the middle of the piste and we need to camp there, just 10m from the road. The piste dries up during the night but the next day we only manage 30km before the same thing happens again. After a few days of this we start running out of food and money. There are cafe stops every 50km or so on this road but the prices are insane: £1 for a Mars bar! Eventually when a lorry driver offers us a lift for the last 130km to Aral we don’t hesitate for long!

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Jul 09 2008

Mishap in Aral

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Rusting ship in Aral's port
Rusting ship in Aral’s port

40 years ago Aral used to be a port on the Aral sea but the Soviet irrigitation plans further North have left the sea to dry up. It is now less than half the size of what it used to be and split into a large and small sea. The large sea in the South (most of it in Uzbekistan) is doomed but there is a new dam that should preserve the North sea and even maybe bring the shore closer to Aral. At the moment it is still 30km away and the Aral port has turned into a dump.

Aral Hotel
Aral Hotel

Aral is an ecological and economical disaster. The fishermen are unemployed and there isn’t much else to do in this town lost in the steppe. The locals are used to see foreigners: journalists often come here as well as some tourists like us. We meet a lot of European motorcyclists at the hotel as well as a British couple in a land rover who have been on the road for more than two years. They come from China and tell us that there are a lot of police control points on the way. They don’t even stop anymore when the police flags them because they’ve had enough of paying bribes.

Police checkpoint where I fell off
Police checkpoint where I fell off

When we leave Aral we decide to do the same thing at the control checkpoint a few kilometres outside the city. I am cycling at 40km/h behind Olivier (recumbent bike) when a policeman flags him just before a speedbump. I didn’t see the policeman and the speedbump and when Olivier suddenly brakes I can’t avoid him. I fall off at high speed on my left side and my arm takes most of the impact. I feel a sharp pain and quickly realise that something is very wrong: I have dislocated my left shoulder. The last time it happened was a few years ago and I know that if I don’t relocate the bone quickly my muscles will tense up and the procedure will be extremely painful. Olivier fell off too but without any injury and our bikes are ok. I ask both Oliviers to try to pull my arm as much as they can but it doesn’t work. The policemen at the control checkpoint look at us without offering any help and instead start tinkering with our bikes like the children we meet in villages. Eventually I ask them to call an ambulance.

In the ambulance, a wooden spoon for the pain
In the ambulance, a wooden spoon for the pain

The ambulance quickly arrives but has minimal equipment. Inside it there is a spare wheel, a wooden stretcher dating from the first World War, and a basic first aid kit. There are also two nurses but they don’t even give me a sling or help me climbing into the ambulance. I take a wooden spoon to bite, in the expectation of the pain that is to come. Olivier (rouk) comes with me in the ambulance whilst the other Olivier stays with our bikes at the police checkpoint. It takes 30 minutes to drive back to town and the driver doesn’t seem to care much for potholes. I’m glad I have the wooden spoon whilst my arm swings like a broken doll. We first drive to a local doctor who fails to reduce the dislocation and after 5 or 6 painful attemps we drive to the hospital (more potholes) where I hope they’ll quickly sort this out.

Hospital bed in Aral
Hospital bed in Aral

The hospital is also very basic and some of its dark corridors would have made a great set for a horror film. I wait a few hours and get an x-ray with an old Russian machine which confirms the dislocation. During that time a policeman in civilian clothes asks me annoying questions and behaves like a bored teenager: he plays with my phone, asks me to write his name in latin script (good thing that I’m right-handed!), points at the anatomy chart on the wall and asks me how to say penis in English… I wonder what use is the police in all these ex-Soviet states besides harassing people.

After more waiting a beefy doctor tries to relocate my shoulder again without anesthetics but it (painfully) doesn’t work. A few years ago when I dislocated my shoulder in France it took 5 people to do it so I know he doesn’t have much of a chance. At last they decide to put me to sleep and when I look at the ceiling in the reanimation room I wonder briefly if this is the last thing I’ll ever see. I have weird nightmares and wake up with a massive hangover a couple of hours later. My shoulder is still painful but at least in the right place and I am very happy to see both Oliviers shortly afterwards! Whilst I was asleep they ferried the bikes back to the hotel and I can’t thank them enough for their support, it would have been very tough if I had been on my own all along!

Escape from hell
Escape from hell

It’s 1am and the doctors want me to stay at the hospital for the night. I ask my friends to help me to escape as I’d rather sleep in the hotel room rather than in this place. The doctor catches up with us outside the hospital and tells me that I should come back tomorrow morning.

The next morning I wake up still a bit weak when we hear a knock on the door. The doctor who gave me the x-ray is there along with the beefy one. The briefly ask me if I’m ok and ask me how much money I have. I tell them 5000 Tenge (£20) and they’re happy to take that. They deserved the bribe but I wish it had been asked in a more official way. Now I was expecting the policeman to come and ask for a bribe too, and unsurprisingly he came later to ask me to see him in the police station the next day.

We managed to avoid him for one more day and leave Aral without any more police encounter. The same police checkpoint flagged us again but this time we slowly cycled front of them without stopping. They are so lazy that they couldn’t even be bothered to chase us anyway.

The muscles in my shoulder are still very weak but I can cycle and both Oliviers give me a hand when I need to push the bike or set up camp.

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Jul 12 2008

Dehydrated in the steppe

Published by under World Tour 2008

From Aral the road is asphalted again and of relatively good quality and cycling with my recovering shoulder is relatively painless when my hand rests on the handlebar. I only have to be careful when mounting or dismounting the bike because of its weight.

Waiting for the bus
Waiting for the bus

Our first day back in the steppe is very difficult. The heat is intense and we are cycling straight into a strong headwind. There aren’t many cafes between towns and 50km from Baikonur, Olivier (‘petit jedi’, with the trailer) starts to suffer badly from dehydratation. He has a high fever and his muscles go into spasms. We’re stuck in the middle of the steppe with only 1L of warm water between ourselves. We manage to cycle back to a bus stop we saw earlier and start flagging down passing lorries. We are given water but we haven’t seen an empty lorry yet that could take our bikes. After waiting a couple of hours we manage to catch the local bus to Toretam (the city next to the Baikonur space centre which is closed to foreigners). In Toretam we all decide that we’ve had enough of the boring steppe road, and combined with Olivier’s and my own poor health, we choose to take the overnight bus to Shimkent, 700km away.

In Shimkent we begin to think seriously about what to do next. Olivier ‘petit jedi’ must fly back to France in September (work commitments) whereas Olivier ‘rouk’ and myself still have 6 months of freedom left, although limited in this part of the world. From what we heard it is still impossible to obtain a Chinese visa in Central Asia so we are a bit in a dead end. We will probably apply for a one month Kyrgyz visa in Almaty to sample the mountains of this small country that borders China. Afterwards we could fly to a different part of the world or try to cycle back through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. I will try the latter option first, which means running after complicated visas in Almaty and Bishkek. If this fails, the only option will be to take an expensive flight from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. I’d rather cycle!

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Jul 12 2008

Photos – Atyrau to Toretam

Published by under World Tour 2008

Kazakhstan - Astrakhan to Atyrau

First steppe in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan - Atyrau to Qandiagash

Atyrau to Qandiagash: Makat and the start of rough roads

Kazakhstan - Qandiagash to Toretam

Qandiagash to Toretam via Embi, Shelkar, Aral. Accident in Aral.

Kazakhstan - Shimkent to Almaty

Shimkent to Almaty, a hillier Kazakhstan and a very expensive city

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Jul 28 2008

The Great Administrative Wall of China

Published by under World Tour 2008

It takes us just over a week to cover the busy 700km between Shimkent and Almaty (Show on Google Maps) . There is a lot of traffic but the road surface gradually becomes excellent, the last 200km being as smooth as a French motorway.

A more varied scenery
A more varied scenery

The scenery is also much more varied than in the middle of the country: the road slowly climbs to 1200m and follows the Kyrgyz border delimited by a mountain range made of 4000m high peaks. Unfortunately I can’t enjoy the views as much as my two companions because of a stomach bug. For five days I don’t eat anything and I have to buy a lot of “bumaga” (toilet paper in Russian). I blame a dodgy burger I ate in Shimkent’s posh shopping centre, expensive food doesn’t rhyme with quality here. Eventually Olivier ‘recumbent’ finds something in his first aid kit which fixes the problem in a single day. Next time I’ll remember to take some French ‘Nifuroxide’ with me!

Many French imported lorries in the South of Kazakhstan
Many French imported lorries in the South of Kazakhstan

On the road we see many French and German imported lorries and coaches. They don’t bother to remove their logos and ads, and sometimes we have the feeling we’re back in Europe.

Arnaud 'frogonabike', Olivier 'rouk/recumbent' & Olivier 'petit Jedi/trailer' at Valentina's Guesthouse
Arnaud ‘frogonabike’, Olivier ‘rouk/recumbent’ & Olivier ‘petit Jedi/trailer’ at Valentina’s Guesthouse

Arriving near Almaty we head towards Valentina’s Guesthouse, a place recommended in the Lonely Planet’s online forums. This was a mistake as the guesthouse is located in a dodgy area 15km from the centre and only offers a few bunk beds for 25 euros per person. We stayed there only one night and found a much cheaper accomodation in the city centre the next day (“Third Dormitory” for 5 euros/person, as listed in the Lonely Planet guide). The city is built on a grid pattern with ultra-wide Soviet-style streets filled with 4x4s; cyclists and pedestrians are clearly at the bottom of the food chain here.

Paris? No, Almaty
Paris? No, Almaty

Almaty is the end of our Eastward journey. The Chinese consulate here doesn’t issue visas for non-residents. We visited the French consulate for some advice and the consul told us that even his wife who holds a diplomatic passport had her request for a Chinese visa denied. The easiest option for us now is to go to Kyrgyzstan, the smallest and most mountainous country of Central Asia, and then head back slowly Westwards.

Proudly showing our Kyrgyz visas front of the embassy
Proudly showing our Kyrgyz visas front of the embassy

We apply for a one month Kyrgyz visa and get it on the same day after paying $90 each. Olivier ‘recumbent’ and myself also apply for a one month Uzbek visa here because we read that it’s much harder to get one in Kyrgyzstan. I still have some hopes of obtaining a Chinese visa in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, after the Olympic Games in September. Unfortunately we need to wait a week for the Uzbek visa, this is not great news for us as Almaty is a very expensive city. Prices are on a par with those found in Western Europe and each day we spend twice as much here than in Shimkent.
To spend the time we do a bit of shopping: new tyres at last for Olivier’s recumbent bike, some nice Soviet topographic maps of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan dating from the seventies, a can opener for me (had enough of my Swiss Army knife), some bike cleaning, ….

Nice day out to Big Almaty Lake
Nice day out to Big Almaty Lake

We meet Sandrine at the dormitory, a French girl who teaches English in China and confusingly dreams to live in Bresil, and the four of us spend a day hiking to Big Almaty Lake at 2500m, on the edge of the city.

I left France only three months ago but it feels like a year already. Cycling has become a routine and each day I am quite happy with a leisury ride of 70 to 100km. The mountains of Kyrgyzstan will certainly be harder work and mark the beginning of a dramatic change of scenery. So far the highest “pass” I climbed was barely 1300m high (in Slovakia) and the 4000km since Odessa have been virtually flat as a pancake.

The same food since Ukraine - Guliash
The same food since Ukraine – Guliash

One thing that won’t change in Kyrgyzstan will be food and I am a bit fed up with the same meals since Ukraine, always served in tiny plates: Shashlik (kebab), simple salads, guliash (pasta and meat), plov (rice and meat), Manti (sort of big raviolis stuffed with meat) or Pelmeni (same but smaller raviolis). At least we’ve been told that food is cheaper there!

Olivier setting off alone to Kyrgyzstan
Olivier setting off alone to Kyrgyzstan

Olivier ‘trailer’ will end his trip in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and doesn’t need to wait for an Uzbek visa. He decides to leave a few days before us to enjoy the Kyrgyz mountains as much as possible. After two months cycling and camping together we are sad to split but we all knew that this would have happened in a few weeks anyway. Maybe we’ll meet again in Kyrgyzstan as he’s chosen a challenging road over some high passes whereas Olivier ‘recumbent’ and myself will probably stick on the main road South of the big Issyk-Kul Lake, the second largest mountain lake in the world after Lake Titicaca.

I’ve added some pictures of Shimkent to Almaty in the Kazakhstan album.

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Jul 31 2008

Premature end of the trip in Almaty

Published by under World Tour 2008

The trip is over: I got hit two days ago by a car on our way out of Almaty. The car was going too fast and didn’t see me in time as I was turning left.

Diagnostic: Multiple cuts requiring stitches, right shoulder dislocation, broken arm (humerus tubercle), broken bike and I lost my hat.

before reduction
before reduction

after reduction, broken humerus tubercle (top left)
after reduction, broken humerus tubercle (top left)

I need an operation on my arm. I am still in Almaty and just booked a fly back to France tomorrow morning as everyone (including the French embassy) in Almaty told me the hospitals here are rather dire compared to the West. From what I have seen so far I definitely don’t want to get an operation followed by weeks of recovery alone in a Kazakh hospital especially when I can’t understand what the doctors tell me. Unfortunately after two days spent calling my travel insurance (American Express UK), telling my story 15 times and being told they’d call me back each time (they never did), the insurance refuses to cover expenses for a flight and operation back home. I shouldn’t have waited for their useless input and booked a flight earlier.

Minutes after the accident
Minutes after the accident

My girlfriend in the UK and my parents in France have spent the last 48 hours on the phone trying to find the best options for me. Olivier (recumbent) is still with me in Almaty and also provides me with fantastic help and support. The French embassy has also been very supportive and helped me to sort things out with the police. The driver is at fault but wasn’t insured, or maybe he was, but in Kazakhstan it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I am leaving the bike in Almaty as the police need it for their inquiry, the embassy will take care

No more cycling for now
No more cycling for now

of it afterwards and I’ll try to get it sent back to Europe later if it can be fixed.

Thank you to everyone who e-mailed me during my trip. Each message was a great morale booster!

I had three fantastic months on the road. I hope to recover quickly for other adventures!

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Nov 02 2008

Back in the UK

Published by under World Tour 2008

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