After crossing the border we took the road in the direction of Almaty, aiming at arriving there the same day. We would have liked to split them distance in two and camp somewhere along the way, but we simply did not want to risk the bike not starting again in the morning. So we could only briefly visit one of the few sights that Kazakhstan has to offer - the Sharyn Canyon. Just a short detour away from the main road, it definitely is impressive, and quite possibly gets more and more impressive the deeper one delves into it. Unfortunately, we were a bit pressed for time, or rather just not in the right mood, being preoccupied with Suzuki’s technical issues, so we only got a glimpse.
As we arrived in Almaty we soon realised why they say it is not a biker friendly city - one of the main thoroughfares, the Al-Farabi Avenue, is officially off-limits to motorcycles, and there are signs prohibiting to ride motorcycles on that road at every junction. But our GPS figured it was the straightest way to the hostel we were looking for, so we decided to ignore the signs. Luckily, no cops were around so we made it to the hostel all right.
We ended up staying a whole week in Almaty. For a change, it was great to spend some time in a city proper, not an oversized village. Had some sushi and proper coffee, and got to stock up in decent supermarkets. We were delighted to meet up with locals whom Karin befriended at the university that she works for when they spent some months in Estonia as exchange students. They took us to the highest ice rink in the world, located in the mountains just outside Almaty in Medeu, and treated us to horse meat. The world has indeed become so small that no matter how far the people are from, you might just get to meet them more than once!
As you might have guessed, it wasn’t just about having a good time in Almaty, but we had to get visas for Mongolia (in fact, probably the easiest visa on this trip - we just went to the embassy, filled in the applications, paid USD 58 each and got the visas ten minutes later), and of course, sort out the problems with Suzuki. After some phone calls we were directed to a well-equipped workshop, where we left it for the night. Next day, we went back to the workshop and were told that they had measured the compression and that it was some 30% less than minimum factory recommended specifications. But without taking the bike apart it was not possible to pinpoint the cause of the problem. It would have taken time and money, so we decided to try and push on in this condition, even though the words of the mechanic, “You will not get far like this”, really resonated in our minds. Anyway, how far is far? Ten, hundred, thousand kilometres? As you already know, our plan was to go to Mongolia, but the trip might just have ended somewhere in the middle of Kazakhstan.
We rolled out of the workshop, me on the GS, and Kariina following on the Suzuki, reporting that it didn’t have the same power it used to. A few kilometres later, the engine just cut out on a busy roundabout. Somehow, we managed to start it again, and we rushed down the Al-Farabi back to the hostel, Kariina being totally devastated.
The end of our trip might have been far closer than we had expected, but we decided not to think about it too much and head towards Mongolia. There wasn’t much we could have done (and being worried wasn’t going to help anyway), so we figured we should just try and ride as far as Suzuki wants to. So we headed out of Almaty, towards the Russian border far, far north.
One could tell by the bike’s behaviour that it wasn’t quite alright, but it kept moving, and by the end on the day we’d ridden some 200 kilometres. We’d expected some more of that delightful emptiness that we’d encountered in the far southeast of the country when we’d entered Kazakhstan the first time, but soon realised what the border guards had meant by saying that there’s nothing to see in Kazakhstan. Back then we’d been surprised by that bold statement, but as we rolled away from Almaty, we never even got the idea of stopping and taking a picture of something. Perhaps it was our state of mind - too much distraction in view of the problem with Suzuki - but the landscapes really seemed boring. What made it even worse was the fact that there wasn’t going to be much change for the next one thousand kilometres.
When we started scanning the surroundings for a place to pitch our tent for the night, we figured that it would be best not to go too far from the road, so that in case Suzuki wouldn’t start in the morning, we would not have to evacuate it from some place that is impossible to access. So we took some dirt track running off the main road and pitched our tent only a few hundred meters away from it, next to some pastureland. In the morning, while we were having breakfast, a tractor went by.
...:: Click to listen our radio playing Kazakh music in the same spot (at AM 9630 kHz) :::...
It took us another day and a half to get to the Russian border. It wasn’t the quickest border crossing we’d had. Even though it was not really a busy border post, the immigration official was extremely thorough, examining our passports with a loupe, and going through each and every page of them. The Ukrainian stamps in the passports landed me in the office of FSB, where I was interrogated about what we did and where we went to in Ukraine. The interrogator himself was truly surprised when I told him that we’d encountered no problems at all while in Ukraine. Obviously it is not quite what they are being told.
Eventually, we were in Russia, and it was somewhat a relief - if Suzuki would have broken down in Kazakhstan, it would have been a bit more difficult to arrange shipping for it back home that it would be from Russia, which is really our neighbouring country after all. But we were not going to stay on the safe side. Our intention had been to go to Mongolia, and this is where we headed.
We didn’t want to take the main highway which does quite a detour - instead, we trusted our GPS, which cut our route right through some fields - and quite literally so. At some point we got lost in some village (the GPS itself got somewhat confused), and as we asked the locals for directions, they seemed surprised to see us there, but showed us the way that took us into the fields. The track was pretty rough, as it is probably mostly used by tractors, but it made for some enjoyable riding.
That's the "tertiary" road in Russia. Local people have to ride this 50 km mud road every day to go to work. Imagine this in autumn or spring with lots of rainfall! Good thing they have the easily repairable UAZ.
As we got closer to Mongolia, the landscapes changed dramatically. The burnt yellow was soon replaced by lush green, and the landscape turned much more mountainous. Eventually, some snow covered mountains appeared in the distance. It might just be true what they say - the Altai is probably the most beautiful region in Russia, or at least it offers the most versatile views. As our shortcut took us to back to the tarmac, it was a smooth ride all the way to Kosh-Agach (meaning “last tree”, even though there weren’t any), the last settlement before the Mongolian border.
Village in Altai.
Snowy white peaks started to peek.
Getting closer to Mongolia.
Autumn in Altai.
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