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Old 07-06-2012, 08:11 AM   #31
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This is great, thank you. We did Moscow to St. Pete last year, and it was but a small taste of an incredible place. I loved every second of being there, and am really excited to follow you along! Thank you for the pictures and the background. Just awesome.
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Old 07-09-2012, 02:13 AM   #32
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Day 26 – Stalingrad
June 16, 2012
Solzenitsyn wrote, “He had trusted one person, one person only, in a life filled with mistrust, a person as decisive in friendship as in enmity. Alone among Stalin’s enemies, while the whole world watched, he had turned around and offered Stalin his friendship. And Stalin had trusted him. That man was Adolf Hitler.”

Crikey what a battle, and what a result.

We saw that Mother Russia statue … it is a miracle of engineering, the biggest non-religious statue in the world and surpassed only by statues of the Buddha, always in formal poses. (The Japanese make big ones from cremated human ashes – 10-14,000 people per statue). The Mother Russia figure is pointing away from the Volga towards the western Russian landmass. The formwork must have been extraordinarily hard to construct; the body is SOLID concrete except for the raised arm (hollow) and the sword (steel).

Its name “Rodina-mat zovyet” – “rodina” is a word for “motherland” but it does not translate into English, we do not have a word intense enough. “mat” is mother. Something like “the motherland which gave birth to you now requires you to take action”.

The outstretched arm is held by steel cables, a technique already used in Soviet statuary. It was like 40*C yesterday when we visited the site, but in winter it goes down to -40*C therefore the cables should alter in length and the arm would go up and down slightly.

You can’t really see the statue from a long way away, there is another hill behind it. As you approach it from the street well below and in front, it just keeps getting bigger. There are more statues, notably this one of a grieving mother – another BIG statue:





and this one of a Soviet toiler/soldier which obscures the Motherland statue from your point of view as you approach, thus being said to protect it.



This is a rare good picture of our ENTIRE group, at the memorial pond:




We also visited the memorial hall, with impressive context for the sacred flame, and saw the changing of the guard.





I laid a flower at the shrine and stood in respectful contemplation. Then I took this photo, that’s my flower among those laid there. I will never forget, and I wish I could do more to appreciate the sacrifice of the great Soviet people, our brothers in the struggle against fascism.



Everyone in our party looked pretty stunned after visiting this site, and the nearby museum which has a good diorama of the battle … if “good” is an appropriate word … and relics and life stories, etc and some tanks and military hardware.

The bakery was about the only building left standing after the battle (well – other than the tank factory, which kept churning out the T-34′s – they drove from the assembly line into battle) but as you can see it is in poor condition:



I walked from here down to the river, where there is a fun fair and pleasure boats. I could do that, because I am not a fascist. It’s only about 100 yards, quite a near thing really, fancy coming all the way from Berlin except for the last 100 yards. They shall not pass!
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Old 07-09-2012, 03:04 AM   #33
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Day 27 – Ryazan
June 17, 2012
Day 27 was the first part of a two-day ride from Volgograd to Moscow, a distance of 1000km. I will get the bike serviced in Moscow, despite its having just been serviced when I left London 4 weeks ago. With the ambient temperature down south being like 40*C (although Moscow is much further north and thus cooler), and a rather average motel being the target accommodation for the night, John and I decided to leave early and hit it hard. We left at 5am and rode 780 km over 14 hours, reaching Ryazan, 200 km short of Moscow.

It was nice to ride through Volgograd at 5am, the streets deserted, the temp still bloody hot at about 28*C, but we passed through several valleys with a little town down the bottom, where the temp dropped to 23*C and then 20*C. On a motorbike you can feel every single degree change in temperature!

On and on we rode, just the two of us, each looking out for the other, ticking over at 80-110 kph. The road was generally good but where there were roadworks, they dig up half the width of the road and the heavy trucks then make a mess of the other half, leaving deep ruts and deep depressions, almost potholes, in the surface. At the red light, you can see the trucks lumbering from side to side as they crawl toward you at walking pace. We rode for 3 hours and covered 250km before breakfast – which was 3 fried eggs, with raw tomato and onions, at this little cafe, run by an Azerbaijani couple:



The scenery began very flat, with beautiful green fields. One of the younger persons on the trip had remarked on the green-ness of the fields … cute to be able to view it like that, given that the locals here endured not only World War 2 but before that, the Soviets’ extermination of the kulak classes and similar crimes. Anyway after an hour or two of battle-suitable flat country, we saw gentle hills and now some tall thin trees, poplar and fir. Later in the day, we saw some birch trees for the first time – there will be more of these.

There are Police Posts every 50km or so, we drive through slowly but they can phone ahead to the next post, and John got stopped at one so the police could admire his motorcycle. One was in the uniform of Spetsnaz, a very big, confident-looking bloke. While waiting for John to catch up I photographed this church:



We reached a town called Tambov at lunchtime and saw the ‘motel’ where the rest of the group will spend the night. Basically two huts in the woods, and it’s a major truck stop but the reports were that the rooms were comfortable and soundproof, the food was very good home-cooking but the facilities were a little primitive.

John and I drove on and moved across from one highway to another (they all go radially into Moscow) at a town called Ryazhsk … amazing place, road like the surface of the Moon, shops everywhere but not arranged along the streets in rows, graveyard packed very tight and every grave had bright (plastic) flowers on it. Chickens were out on the verges of the road. It is hard to stop the bike and get the camera out, I really must try harder. We had lunch at 4pm in a local cafe, also very good – here’s a bowl of bortshch -



At 7pm after 14 hours on the road we reached Ryazan, a very historic old town but not well endowed with hotels (or wide roads). We found the only nice hotel but the receptionist spoke no English whatsoever, and my Russian is obviously pretty defective, but after 45 minutes of explaining (like: this is a hotel, you have rooms, I want one, I will pay for it) we got a room each, and went out for a feed. Tomorrow – into Moscow!
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Old 07-09-2012, 03:12 AM   #34
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Day 28 – Moscow
June 17, 2012
Well what a day … at least for my personal spirit, if not for anyone else – bear with me. My son has walked under the Brandenberg Gate, my daughter went hiking in Skye, the trip is going well and I saw that statue of the Motherland Calls …. but that was yesterday. It’s late at night now but I want to catch up the slipped day on this blog.

Today John and I woke up in Ryazan having ridden 780/1000 km of the way to Moscow yesterday. It was pouring with rain … did I mention that we’ve had rain on this trip? By eating breakfast slowly I managed to delay our departure until the rain stopped, nevertheless I put on the rainproof clothing, in case there is a bit of spray from the road surface, but my wishes were granted “in spades” when a truck shot through on my nearside just where the road had a puddle about a foot deep and the entire width of its lane. About 100 litres of the finest Russian gutter-water, complete with mud and other road detritus, shot all over me and the bike. I ended up wishing for some rain, which would clean the bike, but it never came.

Just out of Ryazan there are some stalls by the roadside, they go on for more than a kilometre and every one of them sells – garden gnomes. Everbody in Russia must own half a tribe of gnomes by now …



Moscow sprawls out over the plain, one of the world’s biggest cities at 20 million people, we saw huge blocks of flats quite well spaced out, everyything in Moscow is well spaced out so you can’t really walk about. It has 4 or 5 ring roads at various distances, and they are building another one; the traffic moves at 110 kph on these. We only had to ride about 200km from Ryazan, and even after a late start we arrived at 1pm.

So I was able to go out in the afternoon into the city centre, to visit the Tretyakov Art Gallery. For 28 roubles (about $0.95) you can get a train ride to anywhere, I was also solemnly given a receipt, which I had to wait for:



The Moscow subway system is amazingly good and it is a long way between stations. The stations are all marble but it is nearly impossible to read the station names when you’re on the train. But never mind if you miss your station, all the lines are doubled (to and from the city; the trains go around a loop at the far end of the line) and there is a train every 2 minutes.



So I got into the centre – we get a full-day guided tour tomrrow – they have cheered up the area around the river by putting fountains in it, but IMHO “further progress is needed” .

[

Went into a bookshop. Now in 2006 in formerly-communist Mongolia I was amazed to see Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” – the seminal work on free-enterprise capitalism – proudly displayed for sale. Well, instead of Marx and Lenin, guess what books are they proudly displaying for sale here now … Margaret Thatcher. And Hitler.



I found the art gallery, actually I first found the new site for it and had trouble finding the real gallery, and then trouble paying to get in:



My poor family know I am obsessed with all the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, notably “Andrei Rublev” the best film ever made. And there in the gallery, as I suspected, is not just the famous Trinity icon, but A WHOLE ROOM of icons painted by Andrei Rublev himself, circa 1411. Saint Andrei Rublev, actually. And I thought these would be icon-sized, but no, they are huge, like 4′ x 5′. I’m not even religious, but I am pretty berserk about these. You can keep your statue of the Motherland Calling



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Old 07-09-2012, 03:23 AM   #35
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Day 29 – Red Square
June 19, 2012
A free day in Moscow, and boy did we see a lot of stuff – I will have to number the things we saw. I was here in 1970, as a student I could only afford B&W film for my camera (and I had to develop that myself, in a home studio) so all my recollections are also in black and white. Now the post-Communist Red Square and the centre of Moscow is full of colourful people, although the buildings are still a bit drab and certain facilities are lacking (like, anywhere to buy a bottle of drink).

(1) We saw some ornate subway stations, with statues, mosaics, chandeliers, bronze signs but the suburban stations although they are marble halls with pillars, do lack these things. They also lack visible signs telling you which station it is, which makes travel interesting. A couple of examples, and Lenin still with us:







(2) We visited a Gulag Museum which has some fairly awful stories to tell, but its main exhibits were rooms of how Stalin edited pictures as people were removed from favour – 5,4,3,2,1:



. . . and to glorify himself; note the changes in stance of Stalin over Lenin, who actually could not bear Stalin and considered him “rather rude” – that naughty, naughty Stalin:



(3) Went to Red Square:



. . . and most of us saw Lenin’s body and the graves in the Kremlin Wall. I saw Lenin in 1970, he was equally dead then but today I wanted quality time at the Kremlin wall, as I’d know many of the names. They confiscate your camera, but I preferred to keep mine so I ended up seeing neither Lenin nor the Kremlin wall graves, however I did get a long-range shot of Stalin’s grave:



(4) GUM is the big shopping complex on Red Sq, we had a very nice lunch in there. All very silly shops.



(5) After lunch we went into St Basil’s cathedral, that is the one with the different colour/shape onion domes at the downhill end of Red Square. It is all little rooms inside. It was closed in 1970 and being used as a book depository (come to think of it, not a good idea as there were parades of VIP politicians through Red Sq and schoolbook depositories should not be installed in such places). Nice old icons, but none by Andrei Rublev. View of Basil’s, and from within it out to Red Square:




(6) Changing of the Guard at the War Memorial (used to be at Lenin’s tomb). Not as snappy as it used to be, but still quite a sight. Those poor guards stand at attention for an hour in 35* heat, but there are probably worse jobs in the Russian Army.

(7) Got into the Kremlin (which is a kilometre-square walled area; “kremlin” just means “castle” and every town has one) and saw more cathedrals than we really wanted. There are FOUR in just one place – I know, I’ve seen them all. One full of dead Tsars, another with amazing icons, etc. You can’t take photos (and I found out that you get told off if you do; and possibly also sent to Siberia – I could not confirm that, as I’m going there anyway)

(8) The silly Tsar Pushka cannon, the balls are 1 ton. It cannot be fired, the back would fall off.



(9) Slightly less silly Tsar Bell, with a fragment that cracked off during a fire. The Bell and the Cannon were both made in 1836 and each weigh about 15 tons … the tsar at the time probably had nothing better to do. What a big one. Here is the whole tour group, photo taken by the tour guide – I am second from right



(10) Got thrown out of the Kremlin at 5pm and went for a beer, which turned into a full meal, at a natty pub with motorbikes outside & inside.



(11) We wanted to see the Lubyanka (ex KGB HQ) but there are 3 similar buildings at the spot marked on the map. Stopped a passing peasant who pointed out the left-hand one for us – like most people he would prefer NOT to see the Lubyanka, not ever. The train station at Lubyanka is devoid of ornamentation.





(12) I got people onto the wrong train, but wherever it was that we got out, there was a coffee stop there, so we hung out in that, then we found the right station and got home to the hotel just before midnight.
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Old 07-09-2012, 03:24 AM   #36
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Day 30 – Moscow BMW
June 19, 2012



Not much of a day – 5 of us got our motorbikes serviced at the Moscow BMW agent. This will be the last chance to visit a proper BMW agent on the trip, we are 30 days in (of 105) and have ridden 8,000 km (expected total distance 28,000 km).

We arrived at 9 but the mechanics did not start work till 10 and then took it pretty easy, we had to wait till 2:30 and then find the boss who had gone out to lunch. I came back to the hotel and took it easy. Went out with John to buy a laptop computer, but we could not get one that worked in English.

Tomorrow we go to Suzdal as the first of 12 days with no free day, but I reckon we can ride more on some days and get free days more often.
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Old 07-09-2012, 03:33 AM   #37
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Day 31 – Vladimir and Suzdal
June 20, 2012
A short and easy day with more wonderful motorcycling, if you ignore the traffic-jam bits . . . we went east from Moscow to Vladimir and then north to Suzdal. And, this has been a wonderful day for me . . . Please bear with me as I have experienced not one, but TWO things beyond my wildest dreams today. It was even better than yesterday, which in turn was more amazing than the day before. (My horoscope once said “Today your wildest dreams will come true. You will not like it at all”) There will be less Tarkovskian stuff after this day, there has to be less.



At 8am we came down to the bikes and I couldn’t find mine, the garage cleaned it yesterday and I did not recognise it. After checking the number plate I rode off with John and we went separately from the others again. We got onto the MKAD ring road, the second ring road out of 4 or 5 around Moscow, where traffic runs at 100-110 kph and keeps going. Then 200 km of quite nice riding eastwards, and we blew into Vladimir, one of the towns of the “Golden Ring” that surround Moscow and are very historic.

Eastwards is significant because we are now travelling from Moscow to Magadan. It is said that the Road of Bones begins in Moscow, in that case we are now on it (but we will divert south to visit Kazakhstan and other places). But essentially, today is the start of the REAL part of the ride. We navigate with lat/long coordinates and today we go from 37*E to 40*E, clearly starting a trend that will in 70 more days take us to 150*E where Magadan lies, gleaming on the north shore of the Sea of Okhotsk, at the same longitude as Fiji and Auckland (wherever that is).

In the traffic jam at the start of the Vladimir bypass, we had a (shouted) conversation and John said he wanted to resume his Turpentine Hunt. Now I know what there is in Vladimir, and even though it’s not turpentine, so I was keen to go into the town anyway. We had lunch in a cafe in a shopping mall (honestly, 1000 years of history, and it used to be the capital of Russia, and they build a bloody shopping mall) and I said to the cafe staff in my best Russian “Я люблю филмы Андреего Тарковского” complete with the name correctly in the Genitive Case, and they all lit up with delight. Yes, I could live in this town. The official newspaper of the town is called Зеркало (mirror), after the second-best film ever made.



So John went hunting for his turpentine, and I saw the Golden Gate of Vladimir, and the Uspensky Cathedral …




… with its 15th-century ceilings and frescoes painted by – St Andrey Rublev himself. My soul soared with the angels. There was a statue of Andrei Rublev outside, which I impertinently posed in front of.



Nearby is the Vladimir Downpipes Design Institute



Oh what a day. What a glorious day, even without any turpentine. I was walking in Vladimir! The holy city where Tarkovsky himself lived, at 1 Shchipkaya Street (now demolished). He would have walked the same street as me whenever he went out to buy a packet of smokes. And yet, there is more to come today . . .

Leaving Vladimir I flew along – I am not sure if I rode a motorcycle at this point – and we came to Suzdal, famous for having a lot of old churches (in the normal world) – here are some:



. . . and to me, famous for being the location of certain scenes of the film of Andrej Rublev, which was filmed all over the place in this area. The scenes of the casting of the bell . . . I have spent hundreds of hours with Google Earth, looking all over this area, trying without success to find the peculiar location where the right clay was found and the bell was succesfully cast.

And, as the angels gazed down upon me, today I have found the place. I have walked there and suddenly I felt that I was in a film.

The place was at the northern edge of the car park of the hotel that I am staying at. My room has a view over it.
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Old 07-09-2012, 03:37 AM   #38
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Day 32 – Nizhnyy Novgorod
June 22, 2012
Well some days are more dull than others. After seeing that statue and those icons and a whole cathedral full of Rublev ceilings and standing where the bell was cast … it is mostly downhill from here. This is Day 32, we are nearly 1/3 through the trip and there are lots of things yet to come, but nothing quite like these last few days. I have seen so many amazing places I’ll have to compile a list, as I am already forgetting the earlier ones. And, we are going east from Moscow – things are degrading rapidly. Garages with no petrol – garages with petrol but no shop – cafes with no menu, as the choice is so limited – and the roads are starting to degrade.

Today we left Suzdal, went back to the main M7 highway at Vladimir, hung a left and hit the road towards Siberia. Well actually we will go only 2 days before we turn south to visit Uzbekistan, Samarkand, Tashkent, the Charyn Canyon, etc etc (I told you there were lots of things to come). And we rode 400 km on a road with heavy traffic, most of it lorries (USA: trucks). Sometimes the road is 3 lanes wide and you can go tearing down the empty middle lane, overtaking 20 trucks in one go, other times the road is only two lanes and you have to wait for a gap in the oncoming traffic. The drivers are generally polite and concerned for safety, despite all the legends out there – oncoming truck drivers often hoot and wave when they see all the motorbikes, and we wave back. Here’s a scenic traffic jam:



The road surface can be perfect, like the European freeways (or better – twice as wide and no white lines) but there are often roadworks, which hold the traffic up. On a motorbike you can go vooming up the inside on the dirt – and some cars do it too! – as the queues can be 2-3km long and stationary. Other roadworks in progress entail a sort of scratching of the surface of the road, removing the top 5 cm of tar and leaving grooves ALONG the road which are distressing for motorbikes, and only for motorbikes as they try to take over your steering. And today I got into a spoon drain, whereupon I recalled the very good advice from the dirt-bike course we did on Day 0 – “If you get into a rut, stay in it, and look at the horizon”. Anyway after they have removed the tar and left the grooves along the road, this leaves a rectangular hole in the road for weeks before they eventually come back and fill it with new tar. If you can’t safely swerve to avoid these holes, it’s always possible to go right through them, testing the suspension on the bike a little.

As we go east out of Moscow, through Vladimir, Nizhnyy Novgorod, and Kazan the road has degraded somewhat in this way, but it IS still easily navigable and I have thoroughly enjoyed the riding. There should be a lot less traffic after this. The scenery began flat but is now rolling hills like the English countryside. We passed by Nizhnyy Novgorod (which means “Lower New Town”), which used to be called Gorky (after the writer) and has intense defence industries, they make all sorts of stuff here including, of all things, submarines. Just to the south, a town called Arzamas is where they used to make atomic bombs. For these reasons and similar, this area used to be closed to foreigners and for THAT reason, some dissidents were exiled to here – Sakharov lived in Gorky (and Solzhenitsyn lived in Ryazan). Also for that reason, these towns have limited facilities for visitors.

So not much happened today. I’ve only got one more picture, at Nizhnyy Novgorod where the road was closed off:



But if you look on Google Earth at the river Volga as it flows slowly through N/N and Kazan, the most amazing shapes of water are formed as the land is so flat.

What with the intense heat and the jerking around the potholes, the litre of Coca-Cola that I carried in the top-box today was sort of not quite still in the bottle when I arrived at the hotel (which was about 100 km west of Nizhnyy Novgorod). And, the hotel that I had to stay in (as overflow from the real hotel, which was quite nice) had no water at all, so I had to shower and wash clothes in someone else’s room. I know there will be days like this! The town we stayed at was called Vorotinets, and they can keep it.
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Old 07-10-2012, 03:19 AM   #39
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Day 33 – Kazan
June 22, 2012
A much nicer day than yesterday. Due to an early start from my skungy hotel – 6am, and I wish it could have been earlier – and a short ride, we arrived at Kazan about 1pm. This left the afternoon for hoofing it around the city and buying coffees etc.

Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, quite a different country and culture from Russia. A horde of Mongols settled here, and so many other enemies have fought the Tatars and sacked Kazan that there is little left to see of old buildings, but the culture is very much present “in the hearts and minds of those who live here” and the difference is very evident. A typical Tatar family looks like this, well, they would if they were stuffed and placed outside a tourist shop:



The views of the rivers (Volga and two more whoppers that flow into it) are wonderful, here’s the view from the incoming road, and my photo of an aerial photo of part of Kazan:






Near our hotel is a canal which they have tried to beautify by installing fountains, but “further progress is necessary”:



Kazan and the Tatar culture are Islamic, and also modern, so here’s a replica of the Ka’aba that you can walk around, with 2-D barcode so you can dig it up on an iPhone:



Tatar hats of 1,000 different variations, for sale:



Apricots in the fruit market:



These are old soda-water machines, similar to ones I saw in Moscow in 1970. For a small coin, you get a glass of fizzy water . . . the glass sits all day on the little shelf, and is used by everybody. Bleuughhh:



The Tatars are very proud indeed of their new mosque, it’s on all the fridge magnets in the souvenir shops. When I went inside (the mosque) it was very bright and clean – indeed I believe that it is also like that when I am not inside it – but devoid of historical content, as it is only 8 years old!



Official (there was a competition?) graffiti of Gandhi. The slogan means something like “One man alone can change everything”



And today I see the Dalai Lama has met Aung Sung Suu Kyi, in London. God bless those British! Tomorrow: Samara.
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Old 07-10-2012, 03:23 AM   #40
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Day 34 – Samara
June 23, 2012
From Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, southwards to Samara. Tatarstan is oil-rich and when the USSR collapsed in 1991, declared itself to be an independent country and was brought back into the Russian fold only with difficulty.

Samara is the “second capital” of USSR/Russia; the government would have fled to here if Moscow had been lost. It is a mess of 3 million people with much heavy industry for defence, notably, military aircraft are made here. A nearby town in the conurbation is called Togliatti, after the leading Italian Communist. Fiat built a car factory here, where Lada cars are made.

The 340-km ride here was another longish day, the road sometimes in excellent condition, but other stretches were very badly potholed. And there was no traffic! – because we have left the main eastwards road (M7) and are heading south. John and me rode as a pair again, wuith frequent stops. We stopped to look at a decayed church ….



…. in a decayed village, where even the only “shop” was in ruins. Men loafed about, doing nothing. But in contrast, in the next town the service station attendant was really cheerful and positive, and we went into an obscure cafe for breakfast:



- which consisted of a huge shashlik, a Cornish pasty, salad, and of course Plob. Really cheerful guy running it. We could not finish it. “Plob” is fried rice with bits of meat in it, or possibly it is whatever is lying around surplus in the kitchen at the time you order it, and “plob” is the sound it makes when they dump it onto the plate. Locals came out to admire our motorbikes, and photograph themselves sitting on the seats.

We crossed the vast River Kama on a long bridge that spanned two islands in the middle of river, it took us 10 minutes to drive across it. The Kama flows into the Volga, but it is bigger than the Volga at their meeting point, nobody can work out what happened with the naming but anyway it is a huge river and I bet you’ve never heard of it.

Due to collectivisation of the farms in the 1930s (with attendant massacres) the Russian fields are really huge, often stretching over the horizon. So when the wheat is harvested, there is a lot of it and the silos are enormous; here’s a complex of 20 silos in a field:



Russian Orthodox cross, to mark a burial site:



When you buy petrol, you rock up to the pump and put the hose in your tank, like this (yes the tank is under the seat; I am sitting on the petrol):



Nothing will happen yet. Then you go in the booth, tell them which pump you’re at, and pay money. The girl will release the fuel so when you get back to the bike, the fuel is already flowing and often the tank is already full. Now I see how this works: you pay TOO MUCH money and then you can fill your tank and the girl will give you change. Everyone is rigorously honest and accurate with money.

Now to today’s surprise. It rained! And how!! Several thunderstorms, actually, and I can tell you, after the rains of all the other countries that have fallen on my head, Russian rain takes the cake. It is as intense as the Swiss or Austrian rain, but the roads are so wide, flat, and potholed and the rain comes down so hard that it pools on the road and you cop it from beneath as well as above. My trousers got soaked by water coming up from the ankles!

After 2 or 3 heavy storms we came into Samara, only to find to our horror that the city roads are in very bad condition, with raised metal tram lines and deep ruts in the tarmac (which, of course, fill with dirty water) and the city is shaped like a sausage and we had to travel along its entire length, about 25 km, adding 90 minutes to our journey.

So all my ride clothing is soaking wet – and tomorrow, we enter Kazakhstan and will be camping in the bush, and maybe the next night too, so there will be a break of 2-3 days in the blog now.
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Old 07-10-2012, 03:30 AM   #41
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Day 35 – into Kazakhstan
June 29, 2012
Ah Samara, with its raised tramlines, potholes and traffic jams. Fortunately we left by another route, avoiding these things to a great extent, however one bike had a puncture (fixed in 15 mins by the trip leader) and mine, well mine had a semi-detached top box.

The top box sits on a rack behind and level with the seat of the bike. Now this item is not a BMW part, it is made by GIVI, Italians who specialise in these things . . . And it is very cute, it holds the crash helmet and you can put your shopping in it, etc. but the way the rack attaches to the bike is not really designed for Russian roads. It is held by four bolts that each press down on the plastic (through a washer) but the roads into and inside Samara were the last straw, and two bolts came out through the plastic. Today, with more Samara-sized potholes, the other two bolts would surely follow. So I dug out one of the tie-down straps that I keep hidden under the bike’s seat for just such an eventuality, and lo and behold, I fixed it! And this is a much firmer attachment than the bolts could ever have been. I have another strap for if, or when, the other end breaks.

Anyway, we took off and we never did see the huge statue (53 m high) to the workers of Samara, where a lot of items are manufactured, and guess what for (in the old USSR 31% of the national resources were spent on defence; in the USA it is something like 3% but of course their budget was 10 times the size). Here’s a view of Samara pedestrian mall in the rain:



And part of the menu from a dumpling cafe. The food is cheap, there are 30 roubles to the US dollar.



Moving along through huge fields of crops, there were no more towns or villages and then the landscape suddenly changed – to the flat Kazakh Steppe, which began about 10 km from the border. So just as I was marvelling at the vast, nearly flat, fertile Kazakh Steppe we came over a rise into a beautiful valley, which I considered photographing. A beautiful valley, spoilt only by the two border stations at the bottom, so no photo.

This border crossing was quite easy, one hour to get out of Russia, one hour to get into Kazakhstan, one hour to get insurance and change money. The road through all this is one lane each way and some cars try to skip the queue by driving up in the wrong lane, where they get stuck at the top of the queue and find themselves facing a huge truck head-on with nowhere to go. Much honking of horns, shouting, speculation and comments on people’s ancestry and personal attributes, in all it was a great free show and we were quite disappointed to have to move on. The trucks are forced to drive out through a huge pothole which makes them lean over at an alarming angle, especially as each truck digs the hole a little deeper.

Then on into the vast country of Kazakhstan. We are going through it essentially southwards to Shymkent, that is 2,000 km . . . The capital Almaty is 4,000 km from where we entered at Ural’sk.



So the country is about the size of Australia, and equally empty in the middle. This night we made our first bush camp, there will be about 25 of these, partly because they are cheap and great fun, but mostly because where we will be, there are just no hotels (or anything else). We drove off the road at 50* 59′ 39″N, 51* 40′ 40″E – I am going to have to use lat/long from Google Earth instead of place names – if we had left the road 3 or 4 exits sooner, at 51 02 06N 51 35 52E there are the ruins of a fighter or missile base, this area used to bristle with Soviet armour – oblivious to this we camped behind the trees by the roadside.



Here is a picture of my tent (I pitched mine 50 metres from all the others so I could snore in peace) among the weeds and flowers, many of which were of a certain five-leaved plant which grows copiously in this area. We had a camp fire and cooked a basic meal with petrol-fired stoves. Tents, mattresses and pillows were provided, we have our own sleeping bags. Breakfast consisted of leftovers and some additions and a mug of tea. We had to work out how to put up the tents and organise our stuff, but taking them down in the morning was easy and we look forward to many more bush camps. It was much better than staying in a skungy hotel!
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Old 07-10-2012, 03:35 AM   #42
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Day 36 – to Aktobe
June 30, 2012
After Bush Camp 1 (‘Camp Cannabis”) we broke camp early, on thru vast flat scenery with just the road to look at. We filled up and scored a coffee in Zimpity – a town named of course after the song: Zimpity Doo-dah, Zimpity day, my oh my what a wonderful day. Day 36 and all the days are bloody marvellous. Even the bad bits are good on this trip. Marvellous how camping lifts the spirit. Especially if there is no rain. The Glastonbury Festival today got rained on so much, it was on the TV news here in Kazakhstan.

The scenery is so compelling, even though it is completely absent! I tried to get photos but they just come out as a line of stuff between a blank field and blank sky . . . We came to a road junction and realised how nice the main road is, compared to the side roads (er, there isn’t a road to the side). Here’s the never-ending main road, very like an Australian outback highway:



And the side “road”



Stopped at a cafe for lunch 110 km short of Aktobe, until here the road was new and in very good condition, but in these last 110 km they have not done the bridges yet, so at 4 or 5 places the road was blocked by a bank of earth (with tyre tracks up it, as some drivers choose to have a go anyway) and the traffic is diverted to the old road, running in parallel. And the old road is well, old . . . Here’s John and his bike, admiring the absence of a bridge on the new road:







We arrived in Aktobe just before it rained and checked into the hotel. One of us did a U-turn which is apparently forbidden ate that place and was told off by police. In a very kind and friendly fashion, given that he could really have been fined, with a valid reason and everything. I’m going to like Kazakhstan, even though I know nothing about its culture.

Here’s our hotel:



The hotel is quadruple-glazed – the windows have two sets of double glazing:



I got a haircut:



Some days ago, one of our riders tripped and fell, stubbing his toe and a few other minor scratches. Well, actually, being a keen motorcyclist he chose to do his tripping and falling at 60 kph on a bad Russian road, with uneven surface and potholes. We took him in the 4WD and drove his bike to our overnight stop, which was only 12 km further on from that point, where he was checked over by a doctor and took a couple of days off riding (the support vehicles can carry several motorbikes if necessary) but now he’s back on the bike again.)

More about Aktobe later, we had a free day here. I am now 3 nights camping then we get to Shymkent.
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Old 07-10-2012, 03:40 AM   #43
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Day 37 – in Aktobe
July 3, 2012
I am having the same technical problem again with this blog (and my other blog) – WordPress will just not display it. Others have experienced the same problem with it, but, if you are reading this then you do not have the problem right now. I still CAN put up posts, like this one, but the pictures will be at the end and in random order … until I can get in and edit it. I also need to make a new category, when I can. By the way, if you want to email me, write to steve@steveroberts.com.au

And I’m sorry to have dropped 6 days behind, but I’ll get on with it now, even with blind posting. DAY 37 (JUNE 25) was spent in Aktobe, a free non-riding day. Some people and the tour leaders worked on their bikes, I could see this activity from my hotel room. I went down and sprayed my chain with chain oil, from one of the 16 or 17 aerosol tins we now have of this rare commodity.

Work fascinates me and I could watch it all day, but out into the town we go to post our souvenirs home. We got good service from the counter staff, but the procedure still took an hour or two. Kazakh Post wrap the boxes in a particular way, stick them down with official sticky-tape and then tie them up with string, then they stick 6 post-office-stamped paper slips over the box edges, and put sealing wax on the string and stamp it. This is John’s artwork, wrapped in posters “Festival of Shashliks from Suizdal!!” and I suppose it’s a pity it’s not in the box, now it’s all sealed up so nicely.

I wandered around the town and there are statues and busts of Kazakh heroes and historical figures – but I know nothing about any of them. In the Soviet culture I know all the leaders, heroes, and historical people to whom statues are raised but the Kazakhs have now torn these down, consulted their own history books and put up their own people – so here’s a dude with a guitar, I have no idea who he is, or rather was, or what he did, or even what the music was like:


But he is evidently a big deal now, because here’s a quote from him, with dignified artwork to fill out the panel. /baig-quote

My ignorance is complete. It is a weird experience to walk about and have no idea what is going on around you. Beautiful mural outside a shopping centre, but who on earth were they?

Here’s a row of figures, and I could get this one – these are astrological figures, Cancer, Sagittarius, etc

Ah, and I know this one. Grown men kicking a ball around a field, and when the ball happens to pass between two posts this is significant. Aktobe vs Almaty was on, this evening, a home win for Aktobe, rah rah rah, Oi! Oi! Aktobe!

And I got the hang of this one. This is the guy who took over as President after the Communists went away, and he is still in place 20 years later, there are posters of him everywhere:

We went to a shopping centre (new but pretty average) and I saw the #26 Bus which goes past our hotel, so for 30c we got a bus ride back to the hotel, well actually the bus went the wrong way so we got a free tour of the suburbs first, which was quite interesting. This figure is on a pillar near our hotel and is an important symbol of Kazakhstan, look, he’s got an eagle on his wrist, a hat with a pelican on it, a curved thing possibly for surprising camels from the rear and he’s standing, perilously, on a flying tiger. No, I don’t understand this, but it was reproduced on the side on a block of flats far into the suburbs:

The captions and signs are all in Kazakh, which I can read out loud but I cannot translater a single word of it. Oh dear, and there are more countries like this to come. PICTURES BELOW HERE, UNTIL I CAN EDIT THIS








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Old 07-11-2012, 05:17 AM   #44
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Day 38 – Bush Camp 2
July 3, 2012
Day 38 – June 26 – we left Aktobe eastwards, then south towards Aral’sk, to spent the night in bush camp 2, well short of Aral’sk. Kazakhstan is a huge country, it is the grey area to the west of China on the map below, note that it is about the same size as Australia:

We drove along a very good new road most of the way, then there were 10 km of roadworks (rough sandy road) on which one of the bikes fell at low speed. (Several bikes are falling over at low speed each day on the bad sandy roads; this is NOT remarkable). We fill at every fuel station, they are about 100km apart, and today the first was at Khromtau, a mining town (chromium ore). Here, huge spoil heaps the size of mountains litter the landscape:

At its single fuel station, there was a shop – but it had nothing at all on the shelves, not even water (desperately needed in the 38* heat, but the 4WDs carry a supply) – just like in the Communist days!

Apart from the manmade heaps at Khromtau, the landscape is very flat, with rows of power lines on composite wooden poles exactly like in Mongolia. Infrequent towns with simple houses and graveyards with elaborate beehive-like tombs, some individual graves out along the road miles from anywhere, Islamic style with crescent moon on top; this one was miles from anywhere:

There are two roads south from Aktobe, each two sides of a square; we took the eastern roads, which had a better surface, but if we’d taken the western roads we would have passed through the once highly-secret missile testing facility at Emba, now defunct. Although access would almost certainly be denied, I really wanted to visit the missile graveyard at Emba-5, and urinate on the rusting rocketry. Anyway, even on the better eastern roads, there were detours for 5-20 kms at a time to the parallel old road; often though, you can drive on the brand-new unopened road if you can physically get the bike onto it (usually possible, but over sand). This will be a major highway from Western Europe to Western China, however it will go to Urumqi, where the Chinese are having problems with the Uighurs so they probably don’t want the road to be finished. But when finished, in March 2013, it will open up the middle of Kazakhstan for trade and tourism. The detours are to a service road which is in bad condition, so the riding can be quite hard but the new road is perfect and you could do 200 kph on it with ease.

Herds of sheep, goats and cattle roam freely across the roads. Most men carry guns and even the fuel stations are guarded by armed guards (some very young – teenagers). Most trucks flash and the drivers wave at us. The landscape is often absolutely flat with no trees, it becomes obsessive in its beauty and one’s mind opens up to take in the smallest details, especially as the new road is very good and my bike has cruise control so it almost drives itself. However when we hit roadworks the road is unmade and dusty and can have sandy patches (making steering the bike difficult).

We made camp at the end of the worst roadworks, we came off the road by 500 m along a track, and found a flat bit for camping. Here’s the cooks for the night toiling away in the Cook Tent:

Even here, there is broken glass and some litter! You’d hope that if you come to Kazakhstan and then go 500 km into the Kazakh bush and then you drive 500 m off the road, that the environment would be pristine, but no, litter is everywhere. Tomorrow on to Aral’sk and a view of what was the Aral Sea, where litter will be the least of the problems.

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Old 07-11-2012, 05:27 AM   #45
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Day 39 – Aral Sea
July 4, 2012
Day 39 – from one bush camp to another, with a few hours at the ghastly, wretched, blighted town of Aral’sk. Off we go along the new highway, with detours to the construction road now occurring every 5 km. Oh look, here comes one now, a familiar sight:

Yes, there are two ways you can go by, but in the long run, it doesn’t matter which road you’re on:

On the construction road it is dusty, and of course very hot – 38*C. And the bikes are not alone on the road. A stone whacked my foot with great force, despite the protection from my heavy boots it was like being hit with a sledgehammer and I might lose the big toenail later. At one point the bikes were low on petrol and we topped them up from the four 20-litre jerrycans carried on the 4WD’s. Before overtaking it, I managed to stop and get this photo of a truck whose shadow cuts across its own dust plume:

Of course one is tempted to cut across to the new road, it is only 50 m away but the gap is sandy and there can be ditches and other hazards. On sand, the bikes do get through at walking pace (with dry, meaty tyres) but if the bike stops, the rear tyre proceeds to dig a hole, and then it can only dig the hole deeper and deeper:

But a good hard push from a couple of blokes and the bike comes out, or, if necessary, four blokes can just lift the whole bike aside. However, this process is liable to be observed, with amusement, by camels:

So we came to Aral’sk, once a thriving fishing port on the Aral Sea, but what follows now will make you howl with despair. On the map below, we went south along the red road and Aral’sk is just below the thumb, where the yellow road goes off to the right:

Now, the dedicated enthusiast of cartography will have noted that the Aral Sea is nowhere near Aral’sk, in fact, it is almost nowhere at all, 10% of its former size. Another town (Kazali, formerly Novokazalinsk) at the sharp bend on the red road is equally stranded; we rode around its streets and we could see that this town once kicked ass, but no longer. In the 1960s the Soviets diverted so much water to grow new crops of cotton that the once mighty Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers failed to reach the Aral Sea, which basically evaporated. What little water remains, in isolated ponds, is heavily saline and polluted with the chemicals spread over the cotton crops that are using up the water that doesn’t remain. The Aral Sea, once the 5th biggest sea in the world, cannot be restored without sending both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan bankrupt. Now sand and dust blows all over Aral’sk, the micro-climate has changed (it doesn’t rain anymore, so even the existing land-based crops have now failed), the newly exposed land is useless for anything and of course there are no fish and no industry. There is some prosperity, from government grants and possibly from the hosting of scientists who come to view the carnage; it is said that if every visiting scientist brought a bucket of water they could put the sea back. To cap it all, in the Cold War the Soviets were messing about with weapons that released plague and anthrax toxins on an island in the former Aral Sea, which is now no longer an island and these diseases have begun to start spreading across the area. You who read this, consider these follies of humankind, whose problems have no possible solution, and know that there are people worse off than you.

In the main square, Communist statues of heroes have3 evidently been removed and replaced by Khazak ones, but there are still plenty of vestiges. One statue of a fisherman has the same theme as this mural inside the railway station – in 1921 when people were starving in the Russian Civil War, Lenin ordered 14 wagons of fish to be brought from Aral’sk:

Presumably these were to feed the starving Red Army, or perhaps Lenin just liked fish, but one wonder why he waited until 1921. Anyway it must have been a brillinat excuse for everyone in town to go fishing.

Some of our riders broke off and went 50 km in search of water or stranded ships, but these latter are actually quite rare because if you can visit a stranded ship, you can also bring oxy-acetylene cutters and salvage it for scrap metal, so there are no traces of these left. We made Bush Camp 3 (named “Asbestos” after the material we found scattered over the ground) in a cute valley over a hill from the road. Well, cute if you like asbestos. This land turned out to be owned by a local family, who came and welcomed us to stay and gave a few blokes tea in their house over in the next valley. Like everyone does, they posed their children on the motorbikes, whipped out their mobile phones and took snaps, and posed for us, so here they are – and for all I know, a picture of us may be on this lovely Khazak family’s blog page.

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