Australia and Kazakhstan should be good buddies. Perhaps they already are. They certainly seem to share a number of things in common. Firstly, they are both huge countries. Kazakhstan actually shares the world’s longest single land border with Russia. Next, they both hit sweltering temperatures during the summer. Thirdly they both have vast natural resources and are sparsely populated. Last but clearly not least, they both contain massive semi-arid flatlands. In Australia, you’d call this the Nullarbor plain. In Kazakhstan you call this the Eurasian steppe.
Some of these factors imply that neither country is particularly welcoming to motorcycle transport, and I’d agree. Due to the extreme weather and low population, the distances between fuel, food and water stops can be daunting. But, when your only alternatives are driving the length of Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan seems a good choice. Being welcoming in nature, the Kazakhs don’t even worry about you having a visa. You just get 30 days in which to do what you like.
As we had entered roughly in the middle of the country at the bottom, 30 days seemed like plenty of time. But it just wasn’t. To leave the country on the western edge, we would have to brush the Russian border and travel over 3,400km in our allotted time. This would be like driving back and forth across the Nullarbor six times in the summer. But that wasn’t all. Once we got to the west, we would have to wait for the ever-unpredictable “ferries” across the Caspian Sea. So, without further deliberation, we launched ourselves onto the steppe and began.
Our first real impression of Kazakhstan was Shymkent. Compared to our other two ‘stans, suddenly everything was easy and mostly stress-free. It felt a little like being back in a large Thai city, with clean, organised malls and relaxing environments in which to take a pause during your day. This was a dastardly trick. We knew the more civilised Kazakhstan was further north and east. But we were heading west. We would hit the backwaters pretty quickly.
And we did. Turkistan was probably at the top of this slippery slope. It is, however, home to Kazakhstan’s most important architectural monument, the Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi mausoleum. After that, in searing heat we found ourselves staying in smaller and smaller towns. Scruffy children at the road edge would howl like wolves as we rode past. Hotel owners would stare through us impassively. Soviet-style customer service ruled with an iron hammer in these parts.
It was on this cauldron-hot section of the steppe that we had our first proper mishap. Like all days on the steppe, the wind was driving us sideways and backwards and was making our withered eyes ache. At about 85km/h we suddenly lost control of bike’s rear end. As we slewed across both lanes of the road, I tried to regain some kind of directional stability. But I just had to follow the rear by steering the front. I couldn’t brake so I came off the throttle then stood up instinctively. Like a pendulum we teetered left then right then back again, glad of no other traffic. Nickiy knew we were probably going to crash so tried to relax and brace at the same time. But eventually we rolled safely onto the shoulder and began our investigation: Now we know what a rear blowout feels like!
When we had prepared for the trip we’d planned for punctures. We had all the gear to fix punctures and spare tubes in case we couldn’t. But we’d never actually done it. Under the midday rays and with the oven-like gale blowing horizontally, this was our first day at puncture school. After 32,000km and three sets of tyres, amazingly this was our first tyre problem. So we opened up the tyre and found our culprit. Nickiy quickly identified from the damage that we didn’t need to worry about tube patches. A hand-length steel rod had ripped the inner tube apart, instantaneously. Luckily all our tools, spares and fingers worked efficiently in the desiccating heat. Within about 90 minutes we were back on the road. Dirty, drenched in sweat and dehydrated we motored forth.
This time our destination was the Aral sea, or what was left of it. Thanks to the Soviet irrigation projects, this huge, bountiful sea had shrunk to a dry dust bowl over 50 years. Now plagued with illnesses and syndromes, the locals were trying to revive some of the lake, but the lower half lake bed was now being exploited for oil and gas by the Uzbeks. To add insult to injury, the Soviets had also set up a biological weapons testing facility there, and this was still contaminated with anthrax and other delights.
After Aral we began our tour of extravagant oil and gas cities; Aktobe with its ostentatious churches and mosques, then later Atyrau with its rich-poor divide and oppressive heat haze. As light relief from this we spent a couple of days in Uralsk near the Russians. This was the furthest north and west we had ever been. Finally we’d found a town with old buildings and a rich history. Better still, we had our own washing machine!
It was only another 1,000km to our port destination of Aktau and the roads just went on and on and on. The scenery didn’t change, the wind only changed in direction and blew harder and hotter. It really just lasted for eternity. Finally, we entered the big geological depression to drop 116m below sea level on the last day of this journey. At 46 degrees Celcius, we seared ourselves and arrived, like parched grapes into Aktau port to begin a white knuckle waltz with the devil…