DAY 24: Camping to Shymkent
Some days start well and die and others never really ignite. Today exploded with sorts of intense moments. First the agreed passage across the two border controls south of Tashkent failed to be operational. Gagarin whilst written up as a going concern did not look as if it had been open for years. Grass was growing through cracks in the concrete blocks. There was quietness in the air and I wanted to stay. It had in the air the sound of an album I enjoyed as a kid, Edgar Froese's Malaysia in Epsilon Pale. It was the sound of an empty station, somewhere almost where very few go visit. Two guards appeared but the barrier had rusted and was locked. So I turned round and headed further north trying to find a way out of Uzbekistan.
I then received a text from Andy saying he was going to another border at Yallayama and had no reason not to go north beyond Tashkent, when suddenly Steve les a group past us but in the opposite direction. Paul Walsh was already ahead and he texted that the Tashkent border was for entry only so we turned to chase Steve’s group. The day was looking a touch bedraggled and it wasn't yet ten.
After more interminable form filling we finally fell foul of the customs paperwork, which took three attempts to complete on account of a particularly aspergic custom official arguing over whether we resided in a Great Britain or the United Kingdom. We then crossed into Kazakhstan.
Because the border crossings took so long - some countries close at their edges for lunch - we rode hard towards Shymkent 110 miles away. I reckoned it safer to ride quickly with daylight than more sedately in the dark. I asked Shayne to locate a hotel at the near side of the city and he found an excellently appointed ex Soviet concrete block with flushing toilets. For $10 a night it was miraculous.
Having missed the small dilapidated wooden booth selling insurance we left the border not quite within the letter of the law but this had to be remedied and quickly. Not having insurance could become a major headache. Andy S. and a couple of others got nicked $40 for speeding and Peter, our support driver was given a $569 fine reduced to a €200. Peter wouldn't continue unless he was legal and even though I said I'd take over the driving we hadn't resolved the problem when by chance a guy at the reception spoke English and when I asked if he could help he suddenly produced a business card, "it ees insurance...ze agent can be 'ere tomorrow."Super!
DAY 27: Camping nr Tapaz to Kapshashag
Yet another day trying to make sense if what why we are here. The geography whilst impressive is not actually magnificent. From the roadside the near view comprises of imperfect separation of the road - the Silk Route - and the rest of the landscape.
Just by the lake there were several casinos, approximating the architecture of Las Vegas, badly. Kazakhstan has the surface area of Western Europe with the population of Paris. The Pyramid Hotel has two epoxy resin pyramids bolted onto the stonework above the entrance and was as dissimilar to the Luxor Hotel in Vegas as is, well, the Vegas hotel is to the real thing. I suppose realness is on a sliding scale of
Meanwhile, the childish squabbling at lunch had abated. My job as tour guide / school master was having minimal effect but nature knocked their heads together and Andy the Brummie once again bought a local hotel room.
Inside my Hildeberg tent, the sailcloth flapped and rustled as the wind whipped up small vortexes which threw themselves at our sides. The head torch I'd tied to a line on the roof of the inside of the tent swung like a ships lantern at sea.
DAY 28: Kapshashag to nr Lake somewhere (?)
Jim White, our Kiwi rider who lives in the US is a pretty eminent strategist. Management logistics is one of his many specialties and when we spoke at the end if the day he said that team work went through four stages, Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing – more about this at some later date. Maybe each day can be broken down so. The morning briefing advocated certain actions some of which would not happen. But enough was ingested by the riders to contribute to their own free thinking about how the day’s run should evolve. If I suggested they free ride but regroup precisely at the end of each 100km period of riding, this would be ignored and instead the grouping would be at a gas station. With 16 bikes to fill often using a single pump, there method made more sense. If in the evening prior to searching for a wild camping location, my suggestion to the chosen camp scouts assigned to find a suitable place to pitch our tents was also open to interpretation. I said to Jeff and Steve not to go beyond where we thought the lake jutted close to the road. The distance measured on the map was a maximum 50 kms but when I chased after them and stood there, the lake had receded to the point where it could not be seen leaving behind acres of bull rushes amidst a plain of scrub that in all directions stretched to the end of the earth. But at 62.5 km they had found a flat patch in a hollow sheltered from the wind: a result that had nothing to do with me. If that fitted into Jim's idea of storming, things going wrong until the team collective knew how to make it right.
DAY 30: Semy to nr Barnaul
At the Kazak border. Three guards wish us well pleasantly. Large flat fields edged with the perimetre of a forest are either side of a cabin made of boxed plastic and a passport office made of the kind of bricks you'd use when building a toilet. The red and white marked barrier remains shut so we sit for a while looking over at Russia where large flat fields stretch out to the edge of the same forest. For all the bustle of Semy and the promise of the new capital Astana, this border remains resolutely rural and unhurried.
At the migration office Jim was sitting, in a slumped fashion on a seat in a corner by the door. "No Russian visa," he said. The company handling this part of the business had omitted this rather important issue. So we hatched a plan. He takes the minibus to Semy which just arrived to the airport. He takes a flight to Almaty then another to Ulan Bator and finally an internal flight to a village near where we travel to after entering the country. Off he goes. Entering Russia was extraordinarily easy. One signed piece of paper, 10 minutes to complete, and in. Insurance purchased at a garage on the right.