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The Russians And The Romanians Are Brothers

Back To Kazakhstan

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It’s a wonderful feeling to have your helmet drenched in riding sweat after almost a week off the bike. Rahmat! I say to the police officer who is raffling my passports. He directs us around the warehouse, to the customs control proper. I happen to park into some dog shit, so immediately I feel lucky. But the poo fails to work its magic: I am left hanging for dozens of minutes while plenty of cars (with the wheel on either side) are driven past. While I am dealing with this, Ana fetches a hose and starts washing my tyre. The Kazakhs are laughing their asses off. We are apologising for being unable to hold a dialogue in Russian and promise to learn, and soon we are off.

Just like a country ago, the downpours have stopped only as long as we did. Now that we are rolling again, I see them assembling shoulder to shoulder, dark, menacing. The clouds, damn it. We brace for the worst, as if we had a choice. Today it’s the 19th, and on the 30th we M.U.S.T. be over 2000 Ks from this place, or else niet Mongolia.

The marathon will last for four days, actually less than we have expected. This time we crash no wedding and no booze is shoved down our throats. Day in and day out we work hard to do our riding shifts. The landscape is an monotonous as they come. Except for Almaty, the former capital, where we briefly stop for lunch and to search for a moto dealer. I was told I could find here a pair of mirrors for my bike, something cheap, sturdy, Made in China. Indeed I do, but the fellow would not take my money for it.

By night we bump into a Moldovan trucker. Cheerful, in the mood for a chat, but also a bit to weary. He warns us that the roads ahead are rubbish and that we should never sleep alone. Well, we tell him  we will pitch on that hill over there.

Everytime we take a tea break in some remote joint, the topic of conversation is what keeps these people tied to these places. Cause there seem to be little to justify a life: the land yields no crops, no industry has been developed, the public transport is sketchy at most, the climate pays no favours to anybody and the lanscape is nothing to write home about. Why stay? But we know, for those who do, it’s not a choice.

Kazakhstan rises many question marks. We pass few towns which are invariably just as many examples of a failed philosophy: the Bolshevik  doctrine never managed to replace a millennia of nomadism. In these urban settlements a narrow strip of asphalt separates the last remaining individual houses from the muddy field where the luckier citizens were awarded 50 square meteres of collective habitat. The strip is populated with women carrying plastic bags of groceries. In their matchbox apartments their kitchens smell of cheap cooking oil and the most prized item is the satellite dish. For them, Astana is the city of gods. Between these provincial towns we pass the odd skeleton of a kolkhoz, rotten train rails and mind boggling governmental propaganda: posters showing the futuristic Astana and the many achievements of the president, a self-proclaimed leader for a new Kazakhstan. And here and there, a medieval-looking gas station. The only details reminding of a different country are the cyrillic alphabet and the slanted eyes of people. Otherwise I’d think that I’ve accidentally stumbled into a time machine that took me back to a desolate communist Romania of the late 70s.

Two days later we reclaim a green horizon. We roll into a forest and many signs warn about the presence of deer and bear. But the only wildlife we see are the bloody mosquitoes and some fungus.

It rains overnight and we wake up to a misty morning. Looking for a breakfast we notice that even if the map would suggest otherwise, this looks less and less like Kazakhstan. The villagers eyes aren’t slanted, the houses are made of wood and have the same intricately carved windows and doors like the in the Volga Delta, the lands are fenced and most cars are Ladas. We must be back into Russia. As we exit the forest we finally see a log cabin whe the windows are lit. Ins floral wallpaper with greasy stains,table with benches, a samovar, and above the TV a cuckoo clock. The door is covered in fur. Everything is so old-fashioned, as if we accidentally stepped into a time travel machine. In a corner there are two women fiddling with a kitchenette. Masha is the size of a fridge and her lips are frozen in a discouraging rictus. Do you have tea? asks Ana. чай есть, пирожки есть (we have tea and we have piroshki). Can we have a teapot? You can have a teapot, or a tea cup, comes the answer. A teapot, please. What about food? Can’t you read, says Masha, who seems to have lost her patience, and she points to a menu. 15 minutes later we have become better friends, as Masha’s colleague brings us eggs sunnyside-up and fried baloney. Ana pushes the baloney aside with a smirk and blends some oats into a cup of tea. It’s a risky move. “Bringing edible items from the outside will increase your bill by 20%” would be the approximate translation of a warning placed in the footer of the menu. But we stay un-fined. We joke about the entire scene – more like a theatre play than something real.
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Back To Rusia
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If it wasn’t raining cats and dogs I’d say that crossing again into Russia was a breeze. We are feeling optimistic about our chances to make it to the border of Mongolia before our visas will expire. We can treat ourselves to a proper bed and a place to service the bikes.

Barnaul. We are relived to roll into it. A hefty, if little known Siberian city, with many bikers roaming its wide boulevards, lovely traditional wooden buildings and a nice beach along the river, where the locals are grilling meat and downing beers.


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The Russians And The Romanians Are Brothers

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In Russia we say: “If not me, then who?”, explains Tolea, and his eyes sparkle a metallic blue behind his thick glasses. It means that if a Russian happens to run into a situation where they could intervene, it is assumed that it’s their duty to do so. And there can be no better example than Tolea’s behaviour towards us. Tolea is the short for Anatoly, because the Russians also love to make their names more user friendly. We met Tolea at a red light: he was riding a white Goldwing sporting some damn fine subwoofers that blasted Russian rock. Tolea’s leather vest was adorned with metallic logos that look like they could weigh at least 5 kilos. A good sign, we thought. We said hi, then Tolea suggested we should pull over for a proper talk.

His English is superb, which is so rare for Russia. How can I help you? he asks. We tell Tolea that we are looking for a cheap accommodation and for a replacement chain a sprocket for my KTM. No problem, he says, I can show you some wooden cabins for 500 rubbles, and we’ll see about a moto garage later. Soon we arrive at the place: it’s a beach club managed in partnership by a few members of the local bikers’ club.

This is the beach, in the background there is a a proper concert stage. On weekends they party hard over here, but as we arrived on a weekday we will miss the striptease…

I and Tolea

I’m sorry, it’s not possible, says Tolea after he goes to take a look at the cabins. Why? I ask. Well, we talked, and we cannot let you pay. Bikers are brother, we must all help each other, so you will accept staying here for free. What can I say? The nest day Tolea took a day off to help us around. As the bar of the local bike club  is in town, we also paid a visit.

In our cozy cabin we pitched the mosquito net. Because the beasts are hungry.

As we cannot find a replacement sprocket here, Tolea organizes for someone to bring it in from Novosibirsk. They will pay in cash for my part, then scooter down here with the package. All I have to do is wait for one day – isn’t this amazing? In the meantime the weather is gentle: it still rains everyday, but sun always returns in the afternoon, so we can enjoy the delicious icecreams given to us by Tolea’s friends. We just feel like home. We are almost regretful to leave for Mongolia. Anyway, what are you people looking for in there? say the Russians. Our country is big and beautiful, there is nothing on the other side. Well, I guess we’ll have to go investigate for ourselves, and then perhaps we’ll have our answer.

After my impromptu courier arrives I mount the new chain and sprocket:

We are ready to explore the lovely  Altai krai, one of the Russian republics. We discover its many shades of green.

We pitch in one of the most charming spots: by a gentle stream, in a field carpeted in alpine blossom.

Even if it rains a bit, the Altai is magical: a smooth road winds around the misty mountain.

A hundred Ks before Mongolia we switch back to knobblies. While I get to work, a pack of police officers have parked an unmarked car in the bush and are waiting for the odd driver to make a faux-pas. Just like they do in our country.

In the next town we restock on cans and dried foods. A huge overlander truck drives by.

Mongolia, here we come!

 

Russia, Altai, Kazahstan, Silk Road, Central Asia, Motorbike, Adventure, KTM 690 Enduro, Suzuki DRZ 400, Wild-camping, Food, Friends

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